In Regency London, Georgiana Hathaway has no intention of falling into the conventional trap of marriage and motherhood. She has so much more to do with her life, and a few tortuous years at 'The Particular Establishment for the Advantage of Respectable Ladies' has done nothing to change her mind. In fact, she's already taken the first steps to carve out a career, by anonymously crafting a scandalous, satirical column, called His Lordship's Trousers, for her father's newspaper.
But as the misadventures of her comical rake become the most talked-about story in London, and the naughty column earns greater popularity, it is also bound to gain critics. How much trouble can "His Lordship's Trousers" get her into? She's about to find out.
Meanwhile, "Dead Harry" Thrasher eagerly reads that wicked column every week. It is one of the few things— other than the obituaries— that make him laugh out loud these days. He lives vicariously through that fictional rake's antics, because his own life is suspended in time and he sees no reason to move forward. After all, when a man's obituary has been printed in the newspaper, not once but twice, he has a tendency to believe it. What's the point of a life over which man has no control? What, exactly, has he been saved so many times for? He's about to find out.
When Dead Harry meets Miss Hathaway, they will both find their worlds, and their long-ingrained opinions, at risk. She does not want to fall in love with a man when everybody knows the male animal only gets in the way of a girl's ambitions. And Harry may have survived a "mortal" wound, and eight hundred and fifty days stranded alone on an uncharted island, but can the very private life of this semi-recluse survive the reckless curiosity and impertinent sauce of Miss Georgiana Hathaway?
He's a naval war hero— even if he does have an aversion to decent clothing and polite behavior— so if this young woman thinks to conquer him and put his life in order, she'd better have a battle strategy. It's been a while since he enjoyed a skirmish at sea, but Harry has a feeling he'll love every moment of this one.
Finally locating Lady Bramley's chamber, she looked around for the stuffed owl and found it staring out at her through a large glass dome, which was — to her relief and surprise—easily lifted. With her prize tucked under one arm, our adventuress was poised to make her merry escape, when a factor previously not considered suddenly appeared. Lady Bramley's ill-tempered spaniel, busily chewing a shoe under the bed, spied the intruder's ankles and scrambled out to attack them with tremendous spirit. Clutching the owl under one arm, Georgiana made a run for it, the angry little dog lusting after her heels as if they were pork chops, its scrabbling paws gaining ground for the length of the portrait gallery.
And then the sweeping staircase loomed into view. She knew of only one way to descend speedily and with her ankles out of the spaniel's reach. Murmuring a hasty prayer, she turned and launched herself tail first, down the shiny, polished banister. Fortunately, she had some experience of riding banisters, although she had rather more weight to her at nineteen than she once had at thirteen and, thanks to the laws of gravity, she hurtled to the ground much faster than anticipated. Indeed, the slick speed with which she slid down this polished rail could have earned applause, if there was anyone to see it.
Anyone, that is, other than the unsuspecting gentleman standing at the foot of the stairs, apparently avoiding the party on the lawn and studying a large landscape painting. Alarmed by the barking dog, he turned and suddenly encountered Georgiana's backside in a fast trajectory heading directly at him. Before he could protect himself from the indignity, the fellow was struck forcefully by her muslin-wrapped posterior as it shot forth from the end of the banister, hit him square in the chest, and sent him into a backward sprawl across her ladyship's Italian marble hall tiles.
Georgiana lost her grip on the stuffed bird and her earnest, four-footed pursuer seized upon it without delay. The little dog jauntily dragged his prize out of the house, down the terrace and proudly onto the lawn to show his mistress.
"Well, that was invigorating," said the man, picking himself up off the floor and offering his hand to help her do the same.
Her instinctive response, of course, was to accept his assistance, but in doing so she immediately felt her heart trip over its own thumping pace. Staring in alarm at their joined hands, she realized she had just committed yet another impropriety, and quite unintentionally this time.
Because their hands were naked.
He wore no gloves, and Georgiana had removed her own earlier after accidentally staining them with lemonade. She had planned to put them back on before anybody important noticed their absence, but for now they were drying in the sun outside and she had no choice but to accept his indecently bare hand with her own, equally undressed fingers.
Rough skin to soft. Large to small. Man to woman.
It took her breath away so that she felt lightheaded.
His grip crushed her fingers, not at all hesitant. As if he was unaware of his own strength, and cared naught for propriety. Even less than she did.
If her sister Maria were there to witness the faux pas, she probably would have fainted, only to recover swiftly and give Georgiana a severe chastising, for naturally it would all, somehow, be her fault.
Recovering her tongue, she quickly began to apologize, but he cut her off. "Don't worry about me, madam. I always say it's not a party unless somebody ends up on the floor." His eyes darkened until she, looking up into them, felt quite overheated. Blood raced up and down her body, not knowing where it was most needed. And then he added in his deep, gruff voice, "Or a wig goes up in flames."
Thus, Georgiana learned that she had reintroduced herself to Commander Sir Henry Thrasher. How odd that he had recognized her, she thought. Unfortunate too, for she, feeling wretchedly small and stupid in his presence, had caused yet another ruckus. Here before her was a legend— a man knighted for bravery, and much admired for his valor and steel-spine fortitude. She had eagerly devoured the Commander's heroic Naval exploits in her father's paper, where it was written that even bloodthirsty, lawless pirates held "Dead Harry" in high regard.
The man was a national institution, and she had just felled him with her inconsequential and shamefully airborne buttocks.
For once in her life Georgiana genuinely wished she might have been behaving with decorum, standing in cool, unruffled elegance amid the chaos that somebody else had caused. If this was a Grand Romance, she would be wearing scarlet silk under black lace and with a string of pearls around her neck. That is how they should have met. Then she would have extended her hand in a long white glove to let him kiss her languid, discretely-covered fingers, leaving him with a memory of her perfume and a strong urge to write poems about her shoulders.
Instead she had cemented herself in his opinion as a complete and utter ninny.
He had just glanced at her chewed fingernails— exposed in all their guilty awfulness for his perusal. Now his eyes were laughing at her, even if he held his lips in better control.
Her first attempt at tugging her hand free was fruitless, but on the second he relented and his grip released her, but only slowly. The pad of his thumb slid reluctantly over her index finger as she withdrew it.
"Sir..." She pointed with that same finger. "Is that...is that marmalade...in your hair?"
"I believe it's quince jam," he replied, seemingly neither surprised nor concerned about it.
"Shall I help you get it out?" It was the least she could do, she thought.
His lips bent in a sly smile that was quickly curbed, perhaps prevented from progressing further into a full-blown chuckle. "No, that's quite all right. You seem rather busy." He bowed and gestured with the sweep of one arm toward the door through which the dog had scampered. "I would not want to get in your way a second time."
With her heart pounding like muffled hammers against taut piano strings, she slipped out onto the lawn just as Lady Bramley saw the diminutive beast approaching her with something feathery in its jaws. The astonished hostess promptly tripped over her own feet and tumbled to a wicker chaise, taking with her one corner of a tablecloth, a strawberry tart and a jelly molded in the shape of the Roman goddess Britannia.
"All in all, a Good Afternoon's Work," Melinda exclaimed with her usual dry wit, casually resting a racquet over one shoulder as Georgiana arrived, breathless, to stand beside her. Together they watched as Lady Bramley's usually-stoic butler attempted to separate that stuffed owl from the mighty little dog's jaws, cursing like a dock hand throughout. Even Georgiana blushed at the words coloring the air, as did Lady Bramley, who began beating the poor butler around the shoulders with a closed parasol.
Meanwhile, Emma Chance emerged from the nodding sunflowers and joined the other two. "Oh, no!" cried she. "What have we done?"
"Never mind," Georgiana replied. "At least they shan't know it was us."
But of course they would and, really, she did not know why she said otherwise, except perhaps to bolster her own hopes. Or because her mind was still as unsettled as her pulse after recognizing Dead Harry again and feeling that strange rush of warm familiarity. It was, she mused, like being caught in the surprise treat of a sudden summer shower, with an old friend who shared one's delight in the rain.
The Commander had a rather distant, contemplative look in his eyes. As if he was still lost at sea and had yet to get his land legs back. No doubt being knocked off his feet just now had not helped, she thought, chagrinned.
At that moment, the gentleman himself came out of the house and, while exchanging words with their bedraggled hostess, glanced over at Georgiana.
"That must be her nephew, the mysterious Dead Harry," Melinda exclaimed. "He is rarely seen in public these days. They say those years alone on a deserted island quite altered his mind."
"No doubt it would," said Emma, adding pensively, "But he is strangely handsome."
Georgiana, for once, said nothing, although there was a great deal going on inside her head. She was afraid of what might come out if she opened her mouth, and although that gamble did not often bother her— she was a firm believer in "better out than in"— today it did.