There are two things everyone knows about Alexander Ridgeley. One, he's the Duke of Ashbourne. And two, he has no plans to marry anytime soon...
That is until a redheaded American throws herself in front of a carriage to save his young nephew's life. She's everything Alex never thought a woman could be—smart and funny, principled and brave. But she's a servant, completely unsuitable for a highborn duke—unless, perhaps, she's not quite what she seems...
American heiress Emma Dunster might be surrounded by Englishmen, but that doesn't mean she intends to marry one—even if she has agreed to participate in one London Season. When she slipped out of her cousins' home, dressed as a kitchen maid, all she wanted was one last taste of anonymity before her debut. She never dreamed she'd find herself in the arms of a dangerously handsome duke... or that he'd be quite so upset when he discovered her true identity. But true love tends to blossom just when one least expects it, and passion can melt even the most stubborn of hearts.
Inside the Story
Westonbirt (Alex's ancestral home), is actually the name of the boarding school I attended in England.
Splendid received a facelift in 2003. But while the cover changed, the words did not. The story is exactly the same as when it was originally released in 1995. (Original cover is below, at left.)
Start Reading This Book
You're sending me away?"
Emma Dunster's violet eyes were wide open with shock and dismay.
"Don't be so dramatic," her father replied. "Of course I'm not sending you away. You're just going to spend a year in London with your cousins."
Emma's mouth fell open. "But. . . why?"
John Dunster shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I just think that you ought to see a little more of the world, that's all."
"But I've been to London. Twice."
"Yes, well, you're older now." He cleared his throat a few times and sat back.
"I don't see why this is such a hardship. Henry and Caroline love you like their own, and you told me yourself that you like Belle and Ned better than any of your friends in Boston."
"But they've been visiting for two months. It's not as if I haven't seen them recently."
John crossed his arms. "You're sailing back with them tomorrow, and that's final. Go to London, Emma. Have some fun."
She narrowed her eyes. "Are you trying to marry me off?"
"Of course not! I just think that a change of scenery will do you good."
"I disagree. There are a thousand reasons why I cannot leave Boston at the present time."
"Yes. There is this household, for example. Who will manage it while I'm gone?"
John smiled indulgently at his daughter. "Emma, we live in a twelve-room house. It doesn't require much managing. And I'm sure that the little that is necessary can be most ably performed by Mrs. Mullins."
"What about all of my friends? I shall miss them all dreadfully. And Stephen Ramsay will be most disappointed if I leave so suddenly. I think he's on the verge of proposing."
"For God's sake, Emma! You don't care two figs for young Ramsay. You shouldn't raise the poor boy's hopes just because you don't want to go to London."
"But I thought you wanted us to marry. His father is your best friend."
John sighed. "When you were ten I might have entertained thoughts of a future match between the two of you. But it was obvious even then that you would never suit. You would drive him crazy within a week."
"Your concern for your only child is touching," Emma muttered.
"And he would bore you senseless," John finished gently. "I only wish Stephen would realize the fruitlessness of it. It's all the more reason for you to leave town. If you're an ocean away, he might finally look elsewhere for a bride."
"But I really prefer Boston."
"You adore England," John countered, his voice bordering on exasperation. "You couldn't stop talking about how much you loved it last time we went."
Emma swallowed and caught her lower lip nervously between her teeth. "What about the company?" she said softly.
John sighed and sat back. At last, the real reason why Emma didn't want to leave Boston. "Emma, Dunster Shipping will still be here when you return."
"But there is still so much more for me to know! How am I going to take over eventually if I don't learn all I can now?"
"Emma, you and I both know that there is no one I would rather leave the company to than you. I built Dunster Shipping up from nothing, and Lord knows I want to pass it on to my own flesh and blood. But we have to face facts. Most of our clients will be reluctant to do business with a woman. And the workers aren't going to want to take orders from you. Even if your last name is Dunster."
Emma closed her eyes, knowing it was true and nearly ready to cry over the unfairness of it all.
"I know that there is no one better suited to run Dunster Shipping," her father said gently. "But that doesn't mean that anyone else will agree with me. Much as it angers me, I have to accept the fact that the company will falter with you at its helm. We'd lose all of our contracts."
"For no other reason besides my gender," she said sullenly.
"I'm afraid so."
"I'm going to run this company some day." Emma's violet eyes were clear and deadly serious.
"Good Lord, girl. You don't give up, do you?"
Emma caught her lower lip between her teeth and stood her ground.
John sighed. "Did I ever tell you about the time you had influenza?"
"It was right after the disease took your mother. You were four, I think. Such a tiny little thing." He looked up at his only child, warmly regarding her bright auburn hair and earnest expression. "You were very small as a child -- you're still small as an adult, but when you were young -- oh, you were so, so tiny I didn't think it possible that you'd have the strength to fight the illness."
Emma sat down, deeply moved by her father's choked words.
"But you pulled through," he said suddenly. "And then I realized what saved you. You were simply too stubborn to die."
Emma wasn't able to suppress a tiny smile.
"And I--" her father continued, "I was too stubborn to let you." He straightened his shoulders as if banishing the sentimentality of the moment. "In fact, I may be the only person on this earth who is more stubborn than you are, daughter, so you may as well accept your fate."
Emma slumped. There was no way she was going to avoid going to England. Not that a trip abroad could be considered punishment. She adored her cousins. Belle and Ned were the sister and brother she'd never had. But still, one had to think of the serious things, and Emma didn't want to neglect her self-imposed commitment to Dunster Shipping. She glanced back over at her father. He was sitting behind his desk, arms crossed, looking implacable. She sighed, resigning herself to a temporary setback. "Oh, all right." She got up to leave -- to pack, she supposed, since she'd be leaving the very next day. "But I'll be back."
"I'm sure you will. Oh, and Emma?"
She turned around. "Don't forget to have a little fun while you're there, all right?"
Emma flashed her father her most mischievous smile. "Really, Papa, you don't think I would deny myself a good time in London just because I didn't want to be there?"
"Of course not. How silly of me."
Emma put her hand on the doorknob and opened the door a few inches. "A girl only gets a London season once in her lifetime, I suppose. She might as well enjoy herself, even if she's not the society type."
"Oh marvelous! Then you got her to agree?" Lady Caroline, John's sister, suddenly barged into the room.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you that eavesdropping is impolite?" John asked mildly.
"Nonsense. I was walking down the hall and I heard Emma speaking. She had the door slightly open, you know." She turned to Emma. "Now that we have this settled, however, what is all this I hear about you punching a thief in the nose today?"
"Oh, that," Emma said, pinkening.
"Oh what?" John demanded.
"I saw someone trying to take Ned's wallet. He and Belle were bickering about something or other, like they always do, and he didn't notice that he was being robbed."
"So you punched him? Couldn't you have just screamed?"
"Oh, for goodness sake, Papa. What would that have accomplished?"
"Well, then, did you at least throw a good punch?"
Emma bit her lower lip in a sheepish gesture. "Actually, I think I broke his nose."
Caroline groaned audibly. "Emma," she said softly. "You do know that I am very much looking forward to having you in London for the season?"
"I know." Caroline was the closest thing Emma had to a mother. She was always trying to get her to spend more time in England.
"And you know that I love you dearly and would not want to change a thing about you."
"Then I hope you won't take offense when I say that proper young ladies really don't go about punching unsavory characters in the nose in London."
"Oh, Aunt Caroline, proper young ladies really don't do that sort of thing in Boston, either."
John chuckled. "Did you by chance get Ned's wallet back?"
Emma tried to throw him a haughty look, but she couldn't stop her lips from turning up at the corners. "Of course."
John beamed. "That's my girl!"
"You realize, of course, that there will be hell to pay if my mother catches us." Arabella Blydon looked over her costume with a skeptical eye. She and Emma had borrowed frocks from their maids -- much to their maids' dismay -- and were presently creeping down the back stairs of Belle's London house.
"There will be a lot more hell to pay if she catches you swearing," Emma commented wryly.
"Quite frankly, I don't care. If I have to supervise one more flower arrangement for your party, I'm going to scream."
"I hardly think a scream would be appropriate when we're meant to be sneaking down the stairs."
"Oh, hush," Belle muttered ungraciously, tiptoeing her way down another step.
Emma surveyed her surroundings as she followed her cousin. The back staircase was certainly a change from the one she and Belle usually used in the main hall, which curved gracefully and was cushioned with luxurious carpets from Persia. In contrast, the polished wooden steps of the back stairs were narrow, and the walls were whitewashed and unadorned. The quiet simplicity of the stairwell reminded Emma of her home in Boston which was not decorated in the opulent London style. The Blydon mansion, located in fashionable Grosvenor Square, had been in their family for over a century and was filled with both priceless heirlooms and exceedingly bad portraits of Blydons of yesteryear. Emma glanced back up at the plain walls and sighed softy as she fought back a pang of homesickness for her father.
"I cannot believe I'm creeping around my home like a burglar to avoid my mother," Belle grumbled as she reached the bottom of the first flight of stairs and rounded the corner to begin the second. "Frankly, I'd rather curl up in my room with a good book, but she's sure to find me there and make me go over the menu again."
"A fate worse than death," Emma murmured.
Belle looked at her sharply. "I'll have you know that I've gone over that blasted menu with her countless times. If she corners me one more time with questions about salmon mousse or roast duck a l'orange, I really don't think I can be held responsible for my actions."
Belle shot her a wry look but didn't reply as she daintily moved down the stairs. "Watch out for this step, Emma," she whispered, hugging the wall. "It creaks in the middle."
Emma swiftly followed her cousin's advice. "I take it you sneak down these stairs often?"
"Well, it wouldn't do to wear silks if we're going to help Cook get all the food prepared for tonight."
Belle looked dubious. "Frankly, I don't think she's going to appreciate our help. She's quite traditional and doesn't think it's proper for the family to be belowstairs." With that, she flung open the door to the kitchen. "Hello, everyone. We're here to help!"
Everyone looked absolutely horrified.
Emma quickly tried to remedy the situation. "You could use two extra pairs of hands, couldn't you?" She turned to Cook and flashed her a wide smile.
Cook threw up her arms and shrieked, sending clouds of flour billowing through the air. "What in God's name are you two doing down here?"
One of the kitchen maids stopped kneading dough for a moment and ventured a question. "Pardon me, miladies, but why are you dressed like that?"
"I don't think the two of you ought to be in my kitchen," Cook continued, placing her hands on her formidable hips. "You'll get in the way." When neither of the two young ladies showed any inclination of leaving, Cook clenched her teeth and started waving a wooden spoon at them. "In case you hadn't noticed, we have a lot of extra work to do down here. Now off with you before I call the countess."
Belle quaked at the mention of her mother. "Please let us stay, Cook." She was fairly sure that Cook had a proper name, but everyone had called her that for so long that nobody actually remembered what it was. "We promise not to get in the way. We'll be a great help to you, I'm sure. And we'll be quiet, too."
"It just isn't right having you down here. Don't you two have anything better to do than play at being kitchen maids?"
"Not really," Belle answered truthfully.
Emma smiled to herself, silently agreeing with her cousin. She and Belle had gotten into nonstop mischief since they had arrived three weeks earlier. It wasn't that she'd meant to get into trouble. It was just that there seemed so little to do in London. Back home she kept busy with her work for Dunster Shipping. But in London, bookkeeping was not deemed an appropriate pastime for women, and it seemed that proper young English ladies had no other duties besides getting fitted for gowns and learning how to dance.
Emma was bored beyond belief.
Not that she was unhappy. As much as she missed her father, she rather liked being a part of a larger family. It was just that she didn't feel useful. She and Belle had started to go to great lengths to entertain themselves. Emma smiled guiltily at their exploits. It had certainly never occurred to them that the stray cat they'd taken in only two weeks earlier might be infested with fleas. There was really no way they could they have guessed that the entire first floor of the Blydon mansion would have to be aired out. And Emma hadn't really intended to give the entire household such a good look at her undergarments when she'd shimmied up a tree to save that same cat.
Her relatives really ought to have thanked her. During the week they were getting rid of the fleas, the entire family quit London and had a marvelous holiday in the country, riding, fishing, and staying up all night playing cards. Emma taught her relatives how to play poker, a game she had bribed her neighbor into teaching her back in Boston.
Caroline had shaken her head and sighed that Emma was a bad influence. Before Emma's arrival Belle had only been a bluestocking. Now she was a bluestocking and a hoyden.
"Goodness," Emma had replied. "That's better than being just a hoyden, isn't it?" But she knew she could tease Caroline. Her aunt's love for her was apparent in both her endearments and her scoldings, and they usually acted much more like mother and daughter than aunt and niece. That was why Caroline was so excited about Emma's debut into London society. Even though she knew that Emma ought to return to her father in Boston, she secretly hoped Emma would fall in love with an Englishman and settle down in London. Perhaps then Emma's father, who had been raised in England and lived there until he married an American woman, might also return to London to be near his sister and daughter.
So Caroline had arranged a huge ball to introduce Emma to London society. It was to be held that night, and Emma and Belle had fled belowstairs, not wanting to get trapped into taking care of all the last minute arrangements for the party. Cook was having none of it, however, telling the young women over and over again that they would only get in her way.
"Please, can't we assist you down here? It's a ghastly scene upstairs," Emma sighed. "Nobody speaks of anything besides this party tonight."
"Well, you'll find that's all we're talking of down here, little missy," Cook replied, wagging her finger. "Your auntie is having four hundred guests tonight, and we've got to cook for the lot of them."
"Which is exactly why you need our help. What would you like us to do first?"
"What I'd like for you to do is get out of my kitchen before your mama finds you down here!" Cook exclaimed. Those two had come down to the kitchen before, but this was the first time they'd been so audacious as to actually dress up in plain clothes and offer to help. "I can't wait until the season gets started so you two scamps have something to do with yourselves."
"Well, it starts tonight," Belle stated, "with Mama's ball to introduce Emma to the ton. So maybe you'll get lucky, and we'll have so many suitors that we won't have time to bother you."
"God willing," Cook muttered.
"Now, Cook," Emma put in, "have mercy on us. If you don't let us help out down here, Aunt Caroline will have us arranging flowers again."
"Please," Belle cajoled. "You know how much you love ordering us about."
"Oh, all right," Cook grumbled. It was true. Belle and Emma did cheer up the kitchen staff with their crazy antics. They also lifted Cook's spirits; she just didn't want them knowing it. "I s'pose you two devils will annoy me all morning 'til I give in. Goes against my good judgment, this does. You need to be getting ready abovestairs, not dancing around my kitchen."
"Charming company, my foot," Cook muttered as she hauled a sack of sugar out of the pantry. "You see those mixing bowls out on the counter? I'll want six cups of flour in each. And two cups of sugar. Now be careful with that and stay out of everyone's way."
"Where's the flour?" Emma asked, looking about.
Cook sighed and started to head back to the pantry. "Wait a minute. If you're so eager to have my job, you lift those big sacks."
Emma chuckled as she easily carried the sack of flour back over to where Belle was measuring out sugar.
Belle laughed, too. "Thank goodness we escaped Mama. She'd probably want us to start getting dressed already, and the ball is more than eight hours away."
Emma nodded. In all honesty, she was quite excited about her first London ball. She was eager to put all those fitting sessions and dancing lessons to use. But Lady Caroline was nothing if not a perfectionist, and she was issuing orders like an army general. After weeks of gowns, flowers, and music selections, neither Emma nor Belle wanted to be found anywhere near the ballroom while Lady Caroline was getting everything ready. The kitchen was the last place Caroline would look for them.
Once they started their measuring, Belle turned to Emma, her blue eyes serious. "Are you nervous?"
"A little. You English can be a little daunting, you know, with all of your rules and etiquette."
Belle smiled sympathetically, pushing a lock of her wavy blond hair out of her eyes. "You'll do fine. You've got self-confidence. It has been my experience that if you act like you know what you're doing, people will believe you."
"Such a sage," Emma said affectionately. "You read too much."
"I know. It will be the death of me. I will never--" Belle rolled her eyes in mock horror. "--find a husband when I've got my nose in a book."
"Did your mother say that?"
"Yes, but she means well, you know. She would never make me get married just for the sake of getting married. She let me refuse an offer from the Earl of Stockton last year, and he was considered the season's biggest catch."
"He was a bit concerned by the fact that I like to read."
Emma smiled as she scooped some more flour into bowls.
"He told me that reading wasn't appropriate for the female brain," Belle continued. "He said it gave women 'ideas.'"
"Heaven forbid we have ideas."
"I know, I know. He told me not to worry, however, that he was certain he could break me of the habit once we were married."
Emma shot her a sideways glance. "You should have asked him if he thought you'd be able to break him of his pompous attitude."
"I wanted to, but I didn't."
"I would have."
"I know." Belle smiled and looked up at her cousin. "You do have a talent for speaking your mind."
"Is that a compliment?"
Belle pondered the question for a few moments before answering. "I rather think it is. Redheads aren't really in fashion just now, but I predict that you -- and your outrageous mouth -- will be such a success that by next month I will be informed -- by Those Who Inform -- that red hair is positively the latest thing and isn't that lucky for my poor cousin who has the misfortune of being American."
"Somehow I doubt that, but it's very kind of you to say so." Emma knew she wasn't as lovely as Belle, but she was satisfied with her looks, having long ago decided that if she couldn't be a beauty, at least she was unusual. Ned had once called her a chameleon, pointing out that her hair seemed to change color with each shake of her head. One glimmer of light set her locks aflame. And her eyes, normally a clear violet, smoldered and darkened to dangerous black when she was in a temper.
Emma scooped some flour into the last bowl and wiped her hands on her apron. "Cook!" she called out. "What next? We've measured out all the flour and sugar."
"Eggs. I want three in each bowl. And no shells, you hear me? If I find any shells in my cakes, I'll keep them in the kitchen and serve up your heads instead."
"I heard that, missy! Don't you think I didn't. I'll have none of that. Now, if you're going to be in my kitchen, get to work!"
"Where did you put the eggs, Cook?" Emma rummaged through the box where perishable food was stored. "I don't see them anywhere."
"Well, you can't be looking hard enough, then. I knew you two would have no cooking sense." Cook stomped over to the box and flung it open. Her search, however, proved as fruitless as Emma's. "Well, I'll be. We're out of eggs," Her scowl returned with a vengeance and she bellowed, "Who was the fool that forgot to get eggs from the market?"
Not surprisingly, no one raised her hand.
Cook scanned the room, her gaze finally resting on a young maid who was hunched over a pile of berries. "Mary," she called out. "Are you done washing those yet?"
Mary wiped her wet hands on her apron. "No, ma'am, I've still got pints and pints to go. I've never seen so many berries."
Susie was up to her elbows in soapy water as she hurriedly washed dishes.
Emma looked around. There were at least a dozen people in the kitchen, and all of them looked terribly busy.
"Well, this is just dandy," Cook grumbled. "Four hundred to cook for, and I've got no eggs. And no spare hands to go fetch more."
"I'll go," Emma volunteered.
Both Belle and Cook looked at her with expressions that were somewhere between shock and horror.
"Are you crazy?" Cook demanded.
"Emma, it simply isn't done," Belle said at the exact same moment.
Emma rolled her eyes. "No, I'm not crazy, and why can't I go to the store? I'm perfectly able to fetch some eggs. Besides, I could use a little fresh air. I've been cooped up inside all morning."
"But someone might see you," Belle protested. "You're covered with flour, for goodness sake!"
"Belle, I haven't met anybody yet. How could I be recognized?"
"This frock is exactly why I can go out," Emma explained patiently. "If I wore one of my morning dresses, everyone would wonder why a gentle lady was out without an escort, not to mention on her way to the market for eggs. No one will look twice at me if I'm dressed as a maid. Although you certainly cannot accompany me. You'd be spotted in a second."
Belle sighed. "Mama would kill me."
"So you see. . . if Cook needs all her help in the kitchen, I am the only solution." Emma smiled. She smelled victory.
Belle wasn't convinced. "I don't know, Emma. This is highly irregular, letting you go out by yourself."
Emma let out an exasperated sigh. "Here, I'll pull my hair back tightly just like our maids do." Emma hastily rearranged her hair into a bun. "And I'll spill some more flour on my frock. And maybe smear a little on my cheek."
"That's enough, now," Cook interjected. "We don't need to be wasting any of my good flour."
"Well, Belle?" Emma asked. "What do you think?"
"I don't know. Mama wouldn't like this one bit."
Emma put her face very close to Belle's. "She isn't going to hear about it, is she?"
"Oh, all right." Belle turned to all of the kitchen maids and wagged her finger. "Not one word of this to my mama. Does everyone understand?"
"I don't like this at all," Cook said. "Not at all."
"Well, we haven't much choice, have we?" Emma put in. "Not if you want cakes at the ball. Now why don't you put Belle to work squeezing those lemons, and I promise I'll be back before you even notice I'm gone." And with that, Emma grabbed some coins out of Cook's hands and slipped out the door.
Emma took a deep breath of the crisp spring air when she reached the street. Freedom! It was so nice to escape the confines of her cousins' home every now and then. Dressed as a maid, she could walk along unnoticed. After tonight, she'd never again be able to leave the Blydon mansion unchaperoned.
Emma turned the final corner on the way to the market. She took her time as she ambled down the sidewalk, stopping to glance in every store window. Just as she'd expected, none of the ladies and gentlemen out strolling gave more than a passing glance to the small, red-haired maid covered with flour.
Emma hummed cheerfully as she entered the bustling market and purchased several dozen eggs. They were a little awkward to carry, but she was careful not to grimace. A kitchen maid would be used to carrying such burdens, and Emma did not want to spoil her disguise. Besides, she was fairly strong, and it was only five short blocks home.
"Thank you very much, sir." She smiled at the grocer, nodding her head. He returned her grin. "Aye, you new around here? You sound as if you hail from the Colonies."
"Aye, I've always wanted to see America," he pondered. Emma groaned inwardly. The grocer seemed ready for a long, engaging conversation, and she really needed to get back home before Belle started worrying about her.She started backing out the door, smiling all the way.
"Now you come back sometime, little missy. Who did you say you worked for?"
But Emma had already scurried out the door, pretending that she hadn't heard his question. By the time she was halfway home, she was in high spirits, whistling happily, quite certain that she'd pulled off her charade without a hitch. She walked slowly, eager to prolong her little adventure. Besides, she enjoyed watching all the Londoners go about their daily business. In her maid's costume, no one paid her any mind, and she could stare quite shamelessly as long as she looked away whenever anybody glanced back at her.
Emma craned her neck to watch an adorable little boy of about five or six years scamper out of an elegant carriage drawn by a pair of matched bays. He clutched a small cocker spaniel puppy, scratching it between its ears. The black and white puppy returned his affection by licking the boy across the face, and he squealed with laughter, prompting his mother to poke her head out of the carriage to check up on him. She was a beautiful woman with dark hair and green eyes that shone with obvious love for her son. "Don't you move from that spot, Charlie," she called to the boy. "I'll be with you in one moment."
The woman turned back toward the interior of the carriage, presumably to speak to someone. The little dark-haired boy rolled his eyes and shifted his weight from foot to foot as he waited for his mother. "Mama," he implored, "hurry up." Emma smiled at his obvious impatience. From what her father had told her, she'd been exactly the same way when she was small.
"Just one minute, scamp. I'll be right down."
But right then, a calico cat streaked across the street. The puppy suddenly let out a loud bark and jumped out of Charlie's arms, chasing the feline into the street.
"Wellington!" Charlie shrieked. The little boy broke into a run, following the dog.
Emma gasped in horror. A hired hack was barreling down the street, and the driver was completely engrossed in conversation with the man sitting next to him, not paying the least bit of attention to the road. Charlie would be trampled underneath the horses' hooves.
Emma screamed. She didn't stop to think as she dropped the eggs and raced into the street. When she was but a few feet away from the boy, she made a headfirst dive through the air. If she had enough momentum, she prayed, she'd knock them both out of the way before they were run over by the hack.
Charlie yelped, not understanding why a strange woman had jumped at him, slamming herself into his side.
Just before Emma hit the ground, she heard more screams.
And then there was only darkness.