Miss Jane Matthews feels completely out of place amongst the finery of the ton. She’s the daughter of a country vicar, for goodness sake, and nearly a spinster to boot. Frankly, she would prefer to stay that way. How can a lady of Quality start up her own modiste shop, after all? But when her distant cousin—the Dowager Duchess of Somerton, of all people—offers to sponsor her for a Season in London, she agrees, but only so she can take the opportunity to search for a storefront for her business. Perhaps, in that regard, the Season won’t all be in vain.
The widower of a loveless marriage, Peter Hardwicke, the Duke of Somerton, has already done his duty and provided an heir for his dukedom, so he sees no reason whatsoever to remarry. Even if, heaven forbid, something should happen to his son, he still has three younger brothers who are each quite capable of inheriting. Taking a wife would only mean adding a new responsibility to his already too-full schedule. He’s more than busy enough keeping his mother, siblings, and children in line—not to mention sorting out the myriad problems plaguing one of his estates.
But when Lord Utley, one of Peter’s childhood friends and a man who has been on the wrong side of Peter’s ire for many years now, takes an unlikely interest in Jane, he has to intervene. Peter will be damned if he’ll allow Utley to ruin yet another life. But will rescuing Jane from Utley’s clutches land Peter with another loveless marriage?
“And you call that scoundrel a gentleman, do you?” A raging fire was building in his chest, boiling like a kettle over a fire, and he fought to tamp it back down. Miss Matthews was becoming a devilish nuisance, causing reactions within him that no one had ever done before, damn it all. “Do you know who he is, ma’am? Do you know anything about Lord Utley at all? Or any of the myriad gentlemen present at the ball this evening, for that matter?”
She started to pipe in with a response, but he cut her off.
“No. You don’t. And since you are so dreadfully unaware of anything related to these gentlemen’s reputations, you have been relegated to my mother’s chaperonage. For your own protection, ma’am.” Peter’s voice had risen so loud, surely someone within the ballroom would hear him soon. He deliberately lowered it again, taking a deep breath to regain control. “You’re to do as she says in order that you don’t make an unwarranted mistake. If left to your own devices, you’d likely ensure your own ruin if this jaunt into the gardens is any indication. You’re most certainly not to take it upon yourself to accept a dance with one of the most notorious rakehells in Town, nor are you to then proceed to situate yourself entirely alone with said ‘gentleman’ without the knowledge of your chaperone, or anyone else. Yet you thoroughly ignored her on this matter—”
“I most certainly did not ignore Cousin Henrietta on any matter,” Miss Matthews spat out at him with sparks in her eyes. “She introduced me to Lord Utley, and she saw no harm in my dancing with him since you had sent him over for an introduction. We both complied with your guidance, Your Grace.” Miss Matthews took the tiniest step forward until she stood only a hair’s breadth away from him, wagging a finger in his face. “If anyone here is to blame for anything, it is you. You’re the one who set this all in motion.”
“You and my mother were both terribly mistaken if you think I’d have sent anyone like Utley for an introduction. How she could possibly think I would approve of such a thing, I’ll never be able to fathom. But I’ll deal with her later. You, on the other hand, must be dealt with immediately.”
“Dealt with. Dealt with? Why, you arrogant popinjay!” She took another step toward him, stepping on his toes in the process and shoving him backward with no small amount of force—a fact that surprised him—and matching him step for step as he backed away. “I am not some green chit barely out of the schoolroom. Nor am I one of your siblings. You have no right to order me about in any way. You will kindly remember that in future.”
Never in his life had he struck a woman before, not even one of his sisters when they were children, yet he found it difficult to restrain himself from that very atrocity at this moment. Her impudence stung.
“And you would do well to remember, Miss Matthews, that as long as you live beneath my roof you are under my protection and therefore must abide by my decisions.”
“Well, perhaps I should not live beneath your roof any longer, then.” She crossed her arms over her chest, which only served to plump up her already breathtaking bosom before his eyes.
“Perhaps not. Nevertheless, you currently do, so my word is law.”
Her fury shone through in a great huff and a flash of her eyes. Dear Lord, she was beautiful when she was angry. Almost like a siren.
Peter shook his head, as though to rid it of such thoughts. Thinking along those lines would get him nowhere. “And my word is that you are to avoid all contact with Lord Utley from this moment on. For that matter, you’d better reject any attentions from Mr. Aldous Forster or Lord Tansley, should they attempt to pay you court. Maybe a few others as well. I’ll let you know as I think of them. But I might never secure you a husband if some nefarious scoundrel ruins your reputation before you have a chance to make a decent match.”
And the sooner she was married, the sooner he could set aside the way her ire bewitched him and move on with his life—without the chaotic wake that seemed to follow her everywhere that currently had his head in a twist.
“I see,” Miss Matthews murmured with narrowed eyes. Thank heavens. “So I should avoid and blatantly ignore Lords Utley and Tansley and Mr. Forster. Would you like to add anyone else to that list, Your Grace?” Her heated glare could fell an entire army. But instead of sounding a retreat, Peter’s only thought was to advance.
His eyes slid to her lips, which were darkened from the furious pinch she had kept them in for several moments. He wanted nothing more than to kiss them, to press his own lips against their angry pout until the heat in them turned to passion and promise instead of anger.
“Well?” Miss Matthews placed her hands on her hips in a posture much like an overbearing governess—which he found disturbingly alluring.
Christ, he ought to walk away now. But for some confounding reason, he couldn’t. “Yes. There is one more.”
“And? Who might this dreaded gentleman be?”
Peter advanced toward her, closing the small gap between them. “Me.”
Catherine Gayle has been an avid reader of romance novels (and almost anything else she can legally get her hands on) for as long as she can remember. Her mother might say it started in the womb. When she is not writing or reading, she can often be found buried beneath her sleeping cat or chasing the Nephew Monster. She’s a reality TV junkie, a hockey addict, and experimental cook.
Catherine Gayle’s books are available from: Second Wind Publishing, LLC