The Untamed Earl
Playful Brides, Book 5
AN INDECENT PROPOSAL
Lady Alexandra Hobbs, the daughter of the Duke of Huntley, has intended to marry Lord Owen Monroe since she first glimpsed him from the window of her bedchamber, back when she was just a girl. But the duke has already chosen Alex’s infamously spoiled elder sister, Lavinia, for Owen. And now there’s no turning back.
Owen has spent most of his bachelor years drinking, gambling, and skirt-chasing. He won’t see another pound from his parents, however, until he’s engaged to Lavinia. Desperate, he accepts an offer from her innocent and spirited—and absolutely beautiful—sister Alex: She will turn him into a perfectly tamed suitor, and show him how to woo the shrew. But when Alex’s true motives come to light, will their bargain lead to recriminations—or to a romance that defies everyone’s expectations?
Read an Excerpt
Surrey, the country estate of the Duke of Huntley, July 1813
Being fifteen years of age and a bit plump and unconventional when one’s elder sister was eighteen years of age and willowy and ethereal—if waspish—was decidedly unpleasant. Being sent to bed early and told in no uncertain terms to stop lurking at the top of the staircase leading down to the ballroom was also unpleasant. But if Alexandra Hobbs strained her ear, she could just make out the soft chords of a waltz floating up from below. It was a curse to be so young when one’s elder sister was already having her come-out ball. Alexandra spun slowly, holding out the skirt of her dressing gown, pretending to curtsy to a handsome gentleman who had just asked her to dance.
The door to her room flew open and cracked against the wall. Alexandra whirled toward the sound. Not this again. Her thirteen-year-old brother came trotting in. His shirt was mussed, as was his dark hair, and he had a large streak of dirt across his jaw.
“Thomas.” Alexandra dropped her skirts and plunked her hands on her hips. “I thought I asked you to knock.”
“It’s just me, Al. Why would I want to do that?” He sauntered past her toward the window. Alexandra knew exactly what her brother was about. Her bedchamber just so happened to have much better access to the roofline and a shorter jump to the terrace below than his did. Thomas faced the window, wrenched open the sash, and leaned out. He braced his hands on the wooden sill and stuck out his head and shoulders.
“You there, Will?” he called in a half whisper, half shout.
A soft whistle was the only response. Will, the stable boy, was meeting Thomas below. This was their nightly ritual while Thomas was home from Eton.
“I’m off.” Thomas stretched one leg out the window.
“Be careful.” Alexandra turned her face away for a moment. “You know I cannot bear to see you climb onto the roof that way. I live in fear that you’ll break your neck.”
Thomas looked back at her through the window and grinned. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Al?”
Alexandra sighed. “You’ve always had more sense of adventure in your smallest toe than I do in my entire body.”
“Being adventurous is an acquired skill. Give it a try sometime. You just might find you like it. At any rate, I cannot stay in my bedchamber all evening and listen to that awful racket,” Thomas added, then nodded toward the door.
“Racket? You mean the music?” Alexandra spun around again, a dreamy smile on her face. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Thomas scrunched up his nose. “I’ll never understand girls as long as I live.”
Alexandra perched her hands on her hips again. “I don’t see why not. We’re quite simple to understand. We appreciate music, and laughter, and beautiful clothing, and flowers, and—”
“You do, Al,” Thomas interrupted. “Lavinia enjoys cutting people to shreds with her tongue and throwing fits when she doesn’t get her way. That’s why I like you so well. You’d never tell Mother and Father that I use your window to sneak out. Lavinia would set the guard on me.”
Alexandra bit her lip. It was true; their elder sister was decidedly . . . difficult. “Be back before midnight, won’t you? I dread it when Miss Hartley comes around, asking questions.”
Thomas rolled his eyes at the mention of the governess. “Just pretend you’re asleep.”
Alexandra wrapped her dressing gown tighter around her waist. “I’m rubbish at pretending.”
“I know,” replied Thomas with a laugh.
Alexandra sighed and spun around again. “I want to sneak downstairs and watch all the lovely ladies in their gowns and handsome gentlemen in their formal evening attire. Instead I’m stuck up here, dancing alone.”
Again, Thomas nodded toward the door. “Sneak down there, Al. You can do it.”
Alexandra put her hands back to her hips for the third time, a common pose when speaking to her brother. “You are a horrible influence, Thomas Marcus Devon Peabody Hobbs.”
His grin widened. “I know.”
Another faint whistle indicated that Will was getting impatient below. Thomas inserted two fingers on either side of his mouth, and let out a soft whistle of his own.
“What are you two planning to do?” Alexandra asked, though half of her didn’t want to know the answer. No doubt it was some boyish bit of trouble that would cause her anxiety should she be privy to the details.
“We’re going to the stables to play cards,” her brother said. “Will’s uncle used to work in a gaming hell in London. He taught him all the tricks.”
Alexandra pressed her hand to her cheek. “Don’t cheat, Thomas!”
“I would never cheat,” Thomas a chagrined look on his boyishly handsome face. “But I must learn how to cheat, Al; otherwise, how’ll I ever know if I’m being cheated?”
Alexandra contemplated that for a moment with a frown wrinkling her brow. “I suppose you have a point.”
“I’d better go,” Thomas said, “before Will’s whistling attracts attention.”
It was true. The terrace below could be accessed by French doors that led directly from her father’s study. An enterprising guest in search of air might very well happen outside.
Alexandra watched, wincing, as her brother climbed through the window, scaled the roofline, and then jumped like a silent cat to the terrace below. She tiptoed over to the window to close it but stopped to watch her brother greet his friend. She shook her head and sighed again. Thomas, at the age of thirteen, was self-confident and carefree. Alexandra longed to be like him, daring and adventurous. She couldn’t help it if she became nervous at the prospect of breaking rules and doing things she ought not. She spun around again in time to the music, but a thought struck her and she stopped abruptly. Thomas had said that being adventurous was an acquired skill. Was he right? If she tried it, would she enjoy it? Leaving the window open, she trailed over to her writing desk nearby, where she sat and opened her new leather-bound journal. At her age, it was high time to list the principal things she hoped to accomplish in life.
- Become brave and daring like Thomas.
- Become beautiful, willowy, and poised like Lavinia. Never stain my gowns with food, et cetera.
- Have a come-out during which an exceedingly eligible gentleman asks me to dance, thereby making the affair a smashing success.
- Marry my true love. Must be handsome, dashing, witty, kind, true, and honorable. Name to be determined later.
Alexandra sat back and surveyed her list. Becoming brave and daring would take a great deal of work, and she had little idea how she would accomplish such a thing. She tapped the end of the quill against her cheek. She must be on the alert for opportunities. Yes. That was the way to go about it.
As for becoming beautiful, willowy, and poised, it seemed more difficult than the first task. She was pretty at best, if dull brown hair and dull brown eyes could even be considered pretty. “Poised” was not a word that would ever be used to describe her. In fact, “clumsy” was probably more apt. And “willowy” was beyond an impossibility for her body. She’d already begun to develop hips and breasts and a little belly that her mother despaired of when they went to the modiste. Alexandra sighed yet again. Unless she became beautiful and poised and willowy, she had little chance of accomplishing a smashing success of a come-out in three years. Let alone one during which an exceedingly handsome and eligible gentleman asked her to dance. And if that didn’t happen, how on earth would she have other gentlemen interested enough to find her true love out of the lot of them? It was a conundrum, no question about it.
Raised voices coming from behind the house caught her attention. Dropping the quill, Alexandra hurried back over to the window, where she pushed aside the curtains and blinked out into the dark night sky. A few scattered candles resting on a table on the terrace below illuminated the space. Two young bucks stood there, speaking to someone who was hidden under the eaves.
“Say that again!” one of the bucks shouted.
“I s-said I d-don’t have no qu-quarrel with you two gents.”
Alexandra froze. She recognized the stutter of Will, the stable boy.
“You d-d-don’t?” the second buck teased.
Alexandra scowled and clenched her hands into fists. How dare those young men make sport of Will? The poor boy was barely thirteen, whereas these two had to be in their early twenties at least.
“N-n-no. I d-don’t,” Will replied. His stutter always worsened when he was anxious.
“Leave him alone!” This clearly came from her brother, who moved into her view. Thomas’s fists were raised, obviously willing to defend his friend from males who were far older and taller than he.
The two bucks laughed. “Or what? You’ll take a swing at us, lad?”
“Yes!” came Thomas’s sure voice. She admired him for his bravery, but that didn’t make her less worried. What should she do? Fetch Father?
“Try it, and we’ll lay you flat in the span of two seconds,” the first buck answered.
Alexandra held her breath. Thomas could easily tell these two fools that he was the future Duke of Huntley, but that was something else she admired about her brother: Even at his young age, Thomas never acted entitled to anything, nor desired special treatment.
“If you don’t stop harassing my mate, here, I’ll lay you flat in one,” Thomas retorted, his fists still held at the ready in front of him. He bounced around anxiously, brandishing his knuckles.
“I daresay you’ll regret that, lad.” The second buck stepped forward and raised his fist to Thomas.
That was it. Alexandra couldn’t stand the injustice of the thing. How dare these two young men try to fight her brother and his friend? She’d been looking for an opportunity to be brave. Perhaps this was it.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Alexandra called out, heedless of the fact that she was standing in her bedchamber, wearing her night rail and dressing gown. She did her best to remain hidden behind the curtains.
The two bucks immediately stopped and looked up, squinting at her.
“What? Lo? A fair maiden speaks from above,” the first buck said. The other laughed.
“You heard me,” Alexandra replied, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “Why don’t you go instigate a brawl with someone who could actually give you sport?”
“Al!” her brother cried indignantly, stamping his booted foot.
“Al?” the first buck said. “Is that your name? Are you certain you’re a female?”
Anger spread through her limbs like quicksilver. She squeezed the curtain so hard, her fingers ached. “If I were a boy, I’d climb out this window and pummel you both!” she called. “And another thing—”
“What in the devil’s name is going on here?” A deep male voice sounded from somewhere below, but Alexandra couldn’t see its owner.
“My lord,” they said in unison, quickly backing up toward the shadows.
“Did I hear you say that you intend to fight these two young lads?” the deep voice continued.
“They were giving us lip, my lord,” one of the bucks offered in an obviously shaky voice.
The owner of the deep voice stepped into the light then. He looked like Adonis. Blond hair, wide shoulders, perfect black evening attire. She couldn’t make out the color of his eyes, but whoever he was, the man was handsome in spades. Exactly the type of suitor she’d expect Lavinia to have. No doubt the man had just come from inside, where he’d danced with her sister to one of the lilting waltzes. Alexandra leaned forward to see better.
“I believe you are one-and-twenty, are you not, Yardnell?” Lord Handsome said.
The first buck hung his head and nodded.
“And you, Antony. You’re two-and-twenty if you’re a day.”
The second buck kicked at the stones with his boot and also nodded reluctantly.
“Then I must not be hearing you correctly,” Lord Handsome continued. “You cannot possibly be meaning to fight two children who aren’t more than a dozen years old. Why, that would be not only unsporting, but also quite embarrassing for you, especially if the boys win.”
The first buck opened his mouth to speak, but Adonis stopped him.
“Ah, ah, ah. I sincerely hope you aren’t about to argue with me. I think we can both agree that a young man, a supposed gentleman, has no reason to fight a boy, does he?”
The second buck jerked his head in the semblance of a nod.
“That’s what I thought,” Adonis continued. “Now, run along before I decide that even at my advanced age of eight-and-twenty, I have no compunction striking either of you.”
“Yes, Lord Owen,” one of them said before the two bucks left nearly as quickly as they’d come, leaving Adonis with Thomas and the stable boy. Alexandra continued to watch with wide eyes from her perch at the window.
“Thank you, my lord,” Thomas said, bowing formally to the older man. “I’m certain I could have handled it, but I do appreciate your assistance.”
“Oh, no doubt, Huntley,” Adonis replied. “As you say, I was merely lending my assistance.”
Alexandra’s heart cartwheeled in her chest. He’d called Thomas by his title. How terribly endearing.
“Th-thank you, m-my lord,” Will muttered.
“It is my pleasure, Mr. . . .”
“Atkins. W-Will Atkins.”
And he’d called a mere stable boy “mister.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Atkins. And should you have further trouble with those two chaps, I do hope you would not hesitate to inform me.”
“We certainly sh-shall,” Will said.
The two boys ran off and Alexandra held her breath, waiting for Adonis to blend back into the shadows. Instead he remained there, under her window, a hint of light from the inside of the house caressing his fine cheekbone. Lord Owen? Lord Owen? She searched her memory for such a name.
His hand stole into his inside coat pocket, and Alexandra soon realized that he was lighting a cheroot. She glanced away. Oh, she should really shut the window. This was not the type of behavior a young lady should witness. She placed her fingertips on the sash and began to pull.
“I admire your method,” Adonis called.
Alexandra’s hands froze. Was he speaking to her? She jumped behind the curtain again and peeked out.
He turned then, the cheroot falling to his side, and looked up at her. “I admire it quite a lot. Threatening to climb out the window and pummel them was truly inspired.”
Alexandra’s cheeks heated. So, he’d heard that, had he? Not particularly ladylike of her, but then again, he didn’t seem to mind.
She drew a shaky breath and projected her voice enough for him to hear. “I, er, those two had no business picking fights with children.”
“Agreed,” Adonis replied, inclining his head and smiling at her.
Alexandra’s breath was stolen from her throat. The man had a dimple in his cheek that could make a saint swoon.
“I, uh, I thank you for helping my brother, my lord. Er, Lord . . . Owen . . .”
She let the last word hang, obviously waiting for him to provide his surname.
“Monroe,” he replied smoothly, bowing at the waist. “At your service, my lady.”
Alexandra sucked in her breath again, but for an entirely different reason this time. Yes, of course. She knew that name. Why, Lord Owen Monroe was one of the most famous rakehells in London. The man was known for his drinking, his gambling, his loose behavior with ladies of questionable morals, and his exceedingly high taste in fashion. The only son of the Earl of Moreland, he stood to inherit the title, but regardless, he was a scoundrel of the first order. Alexandra knew all this from the gossip she loved to listen in on when Mother and Lavinia were talking.
Alexandra shook herself and forced herself to reply to him. “My thanks, Lord Owen,” she said, still peeping out from behind the curtains. “My family is in your debt.”
“Absolutely not,” he replied with another knee-weakening smile that revealed his dimple. No wonder so many ladies of ill repute fell victim to his charm. Who wouldn’t fall victim to that smile? That dimple? “In fact,” he continued. “I must insist you tell no one of this incident tonight.”
Alexandra blinked. “Why not?”
“It would absolutely ruin my blackened reputation.” He winked at her, and Alexandra was completely lost. She had to pinch herself to keep from sighing.
“Very well, if you insist,” she replied.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying that one as lovely and spirited as you shouldn’t be cooped upstairs with such a delightful party going on.”
Alexandra bit her lip and rubbed her bare feet together. “I’d love to dance, but I’ve not yet had my come-out, my lord.”
“That is a pity.” He tossed her a sly grin. “Come down here and I’ll dance with you.”
Alexandra’s cheeks heated. She gulped. Oh, but she was sorely tempted. “I couldn’t possibly do that, my lord. It would be far too scandalous.”
“I happen to have a fondness for scandalous things,” he replied with a second slight inclination of his handsome head. “Perhaps another time, then.”
Her breathing hitched. Yes, another time. Please.
“I wish you well, my lady. Until your come-out.” He bowed again and with that, was gone into the night.
Alexandra held her breath now, watching the space Adonis had just occupied, hoping against hope that he might materialize again and say something equally as wonderful as what he’d just said. He thought she was lovely? A god like him? He thought she was spirited? A man who threatened antagonistic bucks and smoked cheroots under windows? Unimaginable. She wasn’t spirited at all; she was just . . . well, injustice had made her furious. That’s all there was to it.
After a few moments, Alexandra realized he wasn’t coming back. She blinked into the darkness and finally forced herself to turn away from the window. The smell of smoke still lingered in the air, teasing her nostrils. He had been there, hadn’t he? It hadn’t been a dream, a figment of her imagination. He was handsome, he was kindhearted, he was witty. In short, he was everything she wanted in a husband one day. His reputation might be a bit tarnished at present, but there would be years to change it.
Alexandra hurried back over to the writing desk and pulled out the journal with her list written in it. She crossed through “Name to be determined later.” Next to it, in large scrolling letters, she wrote: Lord Owen Monroe.