Abandoned at the altar, Penelope Jones is relieved to escape an unwanted marriage, then outraged when her newfound freedom is curbed by a powerful duke who decrees the wedding is only postponed until his scapegrace cousin, the bridegroom, is brought to ducal justice. How can Penelope move on with her life and find her heart’s desire with this arrogant duke always in her way, hindering, provoking, and even tempting her into wicked thoughts about him seducing her?
Adam Lovell, Duke of Lanchester, takes seriously the responsibility to protect his troubled family from scandal and gossip. But iron-willed Penelope is determined to enjoy the London season as if she can’t wait to find a more worthy husband—which he concedes she deserves.
With no sign of the fugitive bridegroom and the bride blithely leading Adam on a merry chase across England, the Duke becomes increasingly hard-pressed to keep Miss Jones out of ballrooms, out of mischief—and maybe out of his heart.
“And before you ask how long I’ve been standing outside this room listening,” Adam said, “I’ll have you know—”
“You were eavesdropping!” Penelope remained in her chair, but she continued to wield the honey dipper in what might be construed as a threatening manner, assuming one felt threatened by the prospect of flying globs of honey.
“I was not eavesdropping. This is my house, and one does not eavesdrop in one’s own house. I consider myself privy to any and all conversations I happen to hear under this roof.”
She thrust the dipper back into the honey. “Very well, Your Grace. Do I still get to ask how long you’ve been listening to me without my knowledge?”
Adam arched his brows at Dawson, the butler, who promptly made himself scarce. Only then did he finally cross the threshold into the dining room, his boots thumping on the hardwood floor with every step. He halted directly across the table from her, the better to see a drop of honey clinging for dear life to one of her chestnut curls, specifically the one hanging closest to her left eyebrow.
“Only since the clock struck about five,” he replied. “Right before Dawson asked if you meant to carry out your nefarious plans all by yourself.”
“Why didn’t I hear you coming in those boots? And what do you mean, nefarious?”
“Penelope, Penelope.” Adam shook his head and gifted her with a playful smile. “Did you not learn at an early age how to take advantage of a striking clock to cover your footsteps?”
“Oh, so that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. No wonder I’m always caught eavesdropping.” A pause before she added, with a hint of reluctance mingling with guilt, “Well, maybe not always, but usually.”
Adam recalled the noise he’d heard on the staircase over his head last night, as he emerged from the dining room. He’d assumed it was a mouse, or maybe even a servant not wishing to be seen by the duke.
Could it have been Penelope? How much of his supper conversation with Owen could she have heard all the way from the staircase? He started clawing his memory for what he might have said in reference to her. He could only recollect that Owen had said something about her that would be quite damning had she overheard—except it wasn’t really damning, strictly speaking, so much as it was—well, useful to her if it suited her to take advantage of it.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, but am I boring you with my diatribe about eavesdropping versus listening without the speakers’ knowledge?”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“For a moment there, you looked as if you were far away, and you had left me here. I was saying I can only eavesdrop, not possessing a house to call my own. If I did have my own house, then I could listen to the conversations of others without their knowledge, which is the same thing, but doesn’t sound as bad as eavesdropping, which conjures an image of someone hanging upside-down like a bat from the roof outside that window.”
“Or even over a staircase,” Adam said with a smile.
Dismay flashed in her green eyes before she flicked them to the small pitcher of chocolate and seized it like a lifeline.
You’re right, my dear minx, he thought gleefully. No wonder you’re always getting caught.
And how he enjoyed always catching her.
She busied herself with pouring thick brown chocolate into her cup. “But you’ve raised an interesting question. If this is your house, in which case you may consider yourself privy to any and all conversations within, then why must you use the chiming of the clock to cover your footsteps?”
“Now why would I do that, when you would’ve fallen mute as soon as you heard me approach? I wanted to hear what you fancied doing all by yourself.”
“And pray, what is so nefarious about what I proposed? You’ve known from the moment you spotted me with Mrs. Frey that I meant to go to Bath.” She finally took a big, almost defiant bite of her toast.
“And I thought I made it clear from that same moment that I intend to take you there. For you to even consider going on your own, without my escort or worse, my knowledge—that, my scheming schemer, is nefarious. Are you deliberately going out of your way to permanently ruin yourself?”
For one harrowing moment, he feared she might choke on her toast, then realized she was gasping on the verge of laughter as she said, “Permanently! Do you know of any young ladies who were ever only temporarily ruined?”
Adam had to admit he hadn’t.