How to School Your Scoundrel (A Princess in Hiding Romance)

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9780425265680: How to School Your Scoundrel (A Princess in Hiding Romance)

Three intrepid princesses find themselves targets in a deadly plot against the crown—until their uncle devises a brilliant plan to keep them safe...

Princess Luisa has devoted her life to duty, quietly preparing to succeed her father as ruler. Nothing, however, primed her to live on the run, disguised as a personal secretary to a notorious English scoundrel. The earl is just the man to help her reclaim her throne, but Luisa is drawn to her powerful employer in ways she never imagined...

Philip, Earl of Somerton, has spent six years married to a woman in love with another man—he refuses to become a fool due to imprudent emotions ever again. Only, as his carefully laid plans for vengeance falter, fate hands him hope for redemption in the form of a beautiful and determined young princess who draws him into a risky game of secrets, seduction, and betrayal. And while his cunning may be enough to save her life, nothing can save him from losing his heart...

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About the Author:

Juliana Gray began writing as a child to relieve the tedium of being sentenced to her room, and later turned to romance to relieve the tedium of unsatisfactory suitors. Sadly, despite five years’ residence in the most exclusive areas of London, she never met a single duke, though she once shared a taxi with a future baron.

Juliana’s debut romance trilogy, A Lady Never Lies, A Gentleman Never Tells, and A Duke Never Yields, won widespread acclaim, including the RT Book Review’s Seal of Excellence for August 2012. She followed up that trilogy with her Princess in Hiding series, including How to Train Your DukeHow to Master Your Marquis, and How to School Your Scoundrel. As Beatriz Williams, she is also the author of Overseas and A Hundred Summers. She enjoys dark chocolate, champagne, and dinner parties, and adores hearing from readers.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

London

November 1889

The Earl of Somerton leaned back in his chair, steepled his fingers into an imaginary cathedral before his nose, and considered the white-faced man standing at the extreme edge of the antique kilim rug before the desk.

Standing, of course. One never made one’s underlings too comfortable.

He allowed the silence to take on a life of its own, a third presence in the room, a roiling thundercloud of anticipation.

The man shifted his weight from one large booted foot to the other. A droplet of sweat trickled its lazy way along the thick vertical scar at the side of his face.

“Are you warm, Mr. Norton? I confess, I find the room a trifle chilly, but you’re welcome to open a window if you like.”

“No, thank you, sir.” Norton’s voice tilted queasily.

“A glass of sherry, perhaps? To calm the nerves?”

“The nerves, sir?”

“Yes, Mr. Norton. The nerves.” Somerton smiled. “Your nerves, to be precise, for I can’t imagine that any man could walk into this study to report a failure so colossal as yours, without feeling just the slightest bit”—he sharpened his voice to a dagger point—“nervous.”

The Adam’s apple jumped and fell in Mr. Norton’s throat. “Sir.”

“Sir . . . yes? As in: Sir, you are correct, I am shaking in my incompetent boots? Or perhaps you mean: Sir, no, I am quite improbably ignorant of the fatal consequences of failure in this particular matter.” Another smile. “Enlighten me, if you will, Mr. Norton.”

“Sir. Yes. I am . . . I am most abjectly sorry that I . . . that in the course of . . .”

“That you allowed my wife, a woman, unschooled in the technical aspects of subterfuge—my wife, Mr. Norton, the Countess of Somerton—to somehow elude your diligent surveillance last night?” He leaned forward and placed his steepled fingers on the desk before him. “To escape you, Mr. Norton?”

Norton snatched his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his temples. His narrow and unremarkable face—so useful in his choice of profession—shone along every plane surface, like a plank of wood left out in the rain. “Sir, I . . . I . . . I most humbly suggest that Lady Somerton is . . . she has more wits in her possession than . . .”

Somerton’s fist crashed into the blotter. “She is my wife, Mr. Norton. And she slipped through your grasp.”

“Sir, in all the weeks I’ve kept watch on Lady Somerton, she’s traveled nowhere more suspicious than the home of her cousin, Lady Morley . . .”

“Who is undoubtedly complicit in her affairs.”

“Oh, but sir . . .”

“And she has followed me,on occasion, has she not?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Which means she has neither the good sense nor the propriety of a common shopwife.”

Norton’s massive jaw worked and worked. His gaze fell to the rug. “Sir, I feel . . .”

“You feel?” Somerton barked. “You feel,Mr. Norton? Allow me to observe that your feelings have nothing to do with the matter at hand. My wife, the Countess of Somerton, is engaged in an adulterous liaison with another man. It is my belief that she has carried on this sordid correspondence throughout the entire duration of our marriage. Your object—the task, the sole task for which I hired you, Mr. Norton, as the best man in London for clandestine work—your task was to obtain proof of this affair and bring it to me. You are not paid to have feelings on the matter.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Look at me, Mr. Norton.”

Erasmus Norton, the most stealthy and deadly assassin inside these British Isles, known to have killed at least one mark with a single silent tap to the skull, lifted his dark eyes carefully upward until he met Somerton’s gaze. For an instant, a flutter of pity brushed the inside wall of the earl’s thick chest.

And then, like the butterfly snatched by the net, it was gone.

“Believe me, Mr. Norton,” said Somerton, in his silkiest voice, “I understand your little predicament. She is a beautiful woman, isn’t she? Beautiful and full of grace. You wouldn’t think, as you watched her smile in that gentle little way of hers, as you watched her float about her daily business, that she would be capable of dishonoring a pet mouse, let alone her husband. I can see how you’ve fallen under her spell. I can hardly blame you. I fell myself, didn’t I, in the most catastrophic manner possible. I married her.” The word married came out in a growl.

“If I may say, sir . . .”

Somerton rose to his feet. “But you are paid to set aside these tender notions, Mr. Norton, these misguided ideas of yours, and see to your business. Otherwise, I shall be forced to consider, one by one, the various means by which your feelings may be forcibly exhumed from your incompetent breast.” He leaned forward and spoke in a low voice, just above a whisper. “Do you understand me, Mr. Norton?”

Norton hopped backward from his perch like a startled brown-haired parakeet. “Oh, but sir! She’s innocent, I’ll stake my life on it . . .”

“Innocent?” The low simmer of fury in Somerton’s brain, the fury he had battled all his life to control, flared upward in a roar of heat. “Innocent? By God, Norton. Do I hear you correctly? Are you actually saying I’m mistaken about my own wife?”

Norton’s white mouth opened and closed. “Not mistaken exactly, sir, that’s the wrong word, I . . .”

Somerton walked around the side of his desk. Norton’s eyes followed his progress, while his words drifted into a wary silence.

Somerton came to a stop next to the edge of the rug, mere inches away from Norton’s blunt and unlovely figure. They were of about the same height, he and Norton. In fact, taken both together, they made a pair of brothers: tall, dark-haired, brute-boned, thick with muscle, crowned by faces only a particularly adoring mother could admire.

Not that the woman who had given birth to Somerton was that sort of mother.

“Mr. Norton,” he said, “I find this conversation has dragged on long enough. Either do your duty, or I shall exact the usual forfeit. There are no other choices. We’ve done business together before, and you know this fact as well as any man on earth.”

Norton’s dark eyes blinked twice. “Yes, sir.”

“You may go.”

Norton turned and dashed for the door. Somerton waited, without moving, until his black-coated figure had stepped off the rug and reached gratefully for the handle.

“Oh! There is one more thing, Mr. Norton.”

The man froze with his hand on the knob.

“As I observed, you have allowed Lady Somerton to follow me about my business in the evening, from time to time. A dangerous occupation, that.”

“I have kept the closest watch on her, sir. As close as possible without revealing myself,” Norton said to the door.

“Let me be clear. If a single hair on Lady Somerton’s head, a single eyelash belonging to her ladyship’s face, is harmed, you will die, Mr. Norton. I shall perform the deed myself. Do you understand me?”

Norton’s hand clutched around the knob, as if struck by the actual cold-blooded wind of Somerton’s voice.

“I understand, sir,” he whispered.

“Very good.”

Lord Somerton returned to his seat without another look. The door creaked slightly as it opened and closed, and then there was silence, profound and merciful silence, except for the rhythmic scratch of Somerton’s pen as he finished the letter that Norton’s entrance had interrupted.

A double knock struck the study door.

He signed his name, considered it carefully, and blotted the ink on the page before he answered.

“Come in,” he said.

The footman stepped cautiously through the doorway. “Mr. Markham is here to see you, sir.”

“Mr. Markham?”

“For the position of secretary, sir.” The footman’s voice lifted just a single nervous trifle at the word sir, turning the statement into a question. Servants and peers alike performed a similar vocal trick when engaging Lord Somerton in conversation. He couldn’t imagine why.

“Send him in.”

Somerton folded the letter, slipped it inside an envelope, and addressed it himself in bold strokes of black ink. A wretched and time-consuming chore, that. He did hope this current secretarial prospect would prove capable of the position, but the hope was a faint one. For some reason, he had the most appalling luck with secretaries.

The footman dissolved into the darkness of the hallway. Somerton consulted the list he had prepared an hour ago—another damned chore he was eager to relinquish—and made a small check next to the word Ireland. Two more words remained: Secretary and Wife.

He was about to take care of the first, anyway. He preferred not to think about the second.

A coal popped in the fireplace nearby. The London air had taken a turn for the chillier this week, and the usual miasma of yellow fog had thickened like an evil enchantment about the streets and buildings of the capital, as millions of chimneys put out millions of columns of coal smoke into the damp English atmosphere. In another week, the household would retire to Somerton Hall for the Christmas season. Hunting every day, drinking every night. His wife’s uncomplaining mask at dinnertime; his son’s brave Yes, sir and No, sir to the few questions Somerton could stretch his adult imagination to ask.

In short, the usual jolly old Yule.

The door opened. Somerton flexed his fingers.

“Your lordship: Mr. Markham,” said the footman.

A young man stepped through the doorway.

“Good morning, Mr. Markham.” Somerton glanced at the clock on the mantel. “I hope the hour is not too early for you.”

“Not at all, your lordship. I thank you for taking the trouble to see me.” Mr. Markham moved into the lamplight, and something stirred in the pit of Somerton’s belly.

Indigestion, no doubt.

They were all young men who came to interview for the position of personal secretary to the Earl of Somerton, but this young man seemed younger than all of them. He could not have been more than eighteen. A suit of plain black wool covered his coltish limbs a little too loosely. His face was smooth and unlined, without a single whisker; his dark ginger hair was slicked back from his head with a stiff layer of pomade. In the symmetrical architecture of his face, there was a trace of almost delicate beauty, a lingering evidence of boyhood.

But there was nothing childlike about the way he moved. He squared his thin shoulders, propelled his lanky figure to the center of the rug, and went on, in a firm, rich alto, “I have come to interview for the position of secretary.”

Somerton set aside his pen in an exact perpendicular relationship to the edge of the desk. “So I am informed, Mr. Markham. I read over your references last night. Astonishingly fulsome, for a man so young.”

“I hope I have given satisfaction, sir.” In a voice that knew full well he had.

Cocky little bastard.

Not that cockiness was necessarily a fault. A secretary should approach his work with confidence. That cockiness could shove open more than a few doors in his employer’s service; it could accomplish what timid self-effacement could not.

Just so long as the two of them were quite clear: That cockiness should never, ever, direct itself toward the Earl of Somerton himself.

Somerton raised his most devastating eyebrow. “No doubt, Mr. Markham, you gave the—er—the attaché of this beleaguered ambassador of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof the very utmost satisfaction. I presume you left his employ because of the political revolution there?”

A slight hesitation. “Yes.”

Somerton shook his head. “A shocking state of affairs. The ruler murdered, the heir snatched away from the funeral itself. Is there any news of the missing princesses?”

“None, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Markham. “One hears they escaped to relatives in England with their governess, but it’s only a rumor. Likely a false hope.”

“My sympathies. Regardless, I should warn you that my standards are perhaps a trifle more exacting than those of a backward, corrupt, and regicidal Germanic principality.”

Ah. Was that a flare of indignation in Mr. Markham’s warm brown eyes? But the lad smothered it instantly, returning his face to the same pale symmetry as before. Another point in his favor: the ability to control emotion.

“That unfortunate state,” he said icily, “is nonetheless most exact in its notions of ceremony and diplomatic procedure. I assure you, I am well versed in every aspect of a secretary’s duties.”

“And I assure you, Mr. Markham, that the duties required of my secretary will soon prove unlike any you have encountered before.”

Markham’s eyelids made a startled blink.

“We will, however, begin at the beginning, so as not to shock your tender sensibilities. I start work directly after breakfast, which you will enjoy on a tray in your bedroom. I dislike company in the morning, and my personal secretary does not take meals with the household staff.”

“I see.”

“You will report to this room at half eight. We will work through until ten o’clock, when coffee is brought in and I receive visitors. Your desk is there”—he waved to the small mahogany escritoire set at a right angle to the desk, a few feet away—“and you will remain in the room, taking notes of the meeting, unless I direct otherwise. You can write quickly, can you not, Mr. Markham?”

“I have recently learned the essentials of shorthand notation,” Mr. Markham said, without the slightest hesitation.

“We will take lunch here in the study, after which your time is your own, provided you complete your assignments by the time I return at six o’clock. We will work for another two hours, after which I dress for dinner. I invariably dine out. You may take your evening meal in the dining room, though you will likely find yourself alone. Her ladyship dines in the nursery with my son.” Somerton congratulated himself on the absence of expression in his voice.

“Very good, sir. Do I understand you to mean that I have met with your approval?” Mr. Markham said. His face tilted slightly against the lamplight, exposing the curve of his cheekbone, prominent and graceful, in perfect balance with the rest of his face. His arms remained crossed behind his back, his posture straight. Almost . . . regal.

What an extraordinary chap. The thought slipped without warning between the steel columns of Somerton’s mind.

He rose to his feet. “Approval, Mr. Markham? Nothing of the kind. I am in want of a secretary. You, it seems, are the only man daring enough to apply for the position.”

“Rather a tight position for you, then, sir.”

The words were said so effortlessly, so expressionlessly, that it took a moment for Somerton to process their meaning.

What the devil? Had the fellow actually just said that?

Rather a tight position for you. The cheek!

Somerton’s shoulders flexed in an arc of counterattack. “You have one week, Mr. Markham, to prove yourself capable of the position. A position, I hardly need add, that no man has held for longer than two months together. If you succeed in winning my—what was your word, Mr. Markham?”

The young man smiled. “Approval, Lord Somerton.”

“Approval.” He sneered. “You will be compensated with the handsome sum of two hundred poun...

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