Too Wilde to Wed
The handsome, rakish heir to a dukedom, Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde—known to his friends as North—left England two years ago, after being jilted by Miss Diana Belgrave. He returns from war to find that he’s notorious: polite society has ruled him “too wild to wed.”
Diana never meant to tarnish North’s reputation, or his heart, but in her rush to save a helpless child, there was no time to consider the consequences of working as a governess in Lindow Castle. Now everyone has drawn the worst conclusions about the child’s father, and Diana is left with bittersweet regret.
When North makes it clear that he still wants her for his own, scandal or no, Diana has to fight to keep from losing her heart to the man whom she still has no intention of marrying.
Yet North is returning a hardened warrior—and this is one battle he’s determined to win.
He wants Diana, and he’ll risk everything to call her his own.
“potent sensuality [and] a deliciously dry sense of humor”
~ Booklist, starred
Too Wilde to Wed was named a 2018 Best Book by AppleBooks.
Too Wilde to Wed was named a 2018 Best Book by the Library Journal.
Too Wilde to Wed changed this The Mary Sue contributor’s mind about the romance genre!
First for Women magazine called Too Wilde to Wed, a “fiery romance novel!”
The Amazon Book Review named Too Wilde to Wed One of the Best Romances of June!
Too Wilde to Wed debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list!
Learn who's who in the Wilde Family.
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
People sometimes ask why all my characters are rich: it’s because I grew up the daughter of a poet, and I do not find lack of money romantic in any way. At the same time, as part of that stripping away of fashionable accoutrement, I brought Diana close to penury so that she could teach North just how precious a pair of shoes can be, even an ugly black pair that didn’t fit particularly well.
This Audio Excerpt for Too Wilde to Wed, narrated by Susan Duerden, begins with Chapter One. Enjoy!
See North and Diana brought to life!
Beatrix's Babble has all the scintillating gossip on the Wildes!
“But this fiery romance novel kept me very entertained!”
~ First for Women
“The supporting characters give this delightful romp its humor and charm.”
~ AppleBooks, Best of 2018
Enjoy an Excerpt
Lindow Castle, Cheshire
County Seat of the Duke of Lindow
July 6, 1778
Betrothal party for Lord Roland Wilde and Miss Diana Belgrave
Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde—known to his friends and family as North—had been taught at his governess’s knee that a gentleman defines himself by his respectful and decorous manner toward the fair sex. He did not ask indelicate questions, nor engage in boorish behavior.
Even, or perhaps especially, if the lady was his fiancée.
It never occurred to North that he might be tempted to behave otherwise. As a future duke, he considered it beneath his dignity to kneel while asking Miss Diana Belgrave for the honor of her hand in marriage, but he donned a coat that had been praised by the king himself. The ring he slid on her finger had belonged to his grandmother, the late Duchess of Lindow.
He bent to kiss her cheek, registering how much he admired light gray eyes ringed with dark blue. She misunderstood, turned her head, and soft lips touched his.
That was the moment he grasped that civilized manners are no more than a thin veneer over the inner man. He found himself in the grip of a ferocious wish to engage in ungentlemanly behavior.
In the next weeks, he told himself over and over that an honorable man does not tempt his bride. Lord knew his older brother Horatius—who should have been standing in his shoes—wouldn’t have succumbed to an undignified impulse.
Horatius had probably never had them.
Perhaps it was a good thing that North kept finding himself on the other side of the room from his fiancée. His father’s house party at Lindow Castle—in honor of their betrothal—offered all too many opportunities to kiss in corners, or worse. He had the impression that his brother Alaric had abandoned all propriety in his pursuit of Miss Willa Ffynche.
Yet Diana never approached him, or sought him out. She often made excuses and fled the room. Alaric had asked North outright whether his fiancée liked him.
North didn’t think about whether people liked him. He was going to be a duke. It was irrelevant.
Now the question nagged at him.
He couldn’t remember when he last heard Diana laugh, even though her joyful laughter was what first caught his attention. She didn’t look like a young lady celebrating a betrothal. She didn’t look as if she had captured the best prospect on the marriage mart.
She looked miserable.
At the moment his fiancée was staring out the window of the drawing room, her arms tightly wound about her middle. As he watched, she raised her hand and—whisked away a tear?
He made his way between his father’s guests, thinking hard. It was too late to dissolve the betrothal. Besides, his gut-deep feeling that he wanted her had not eased.
Still, they had to talk.
Two minutes later, he ushered her into the library. When she looked up at him inquiringly, he registered that violet smudges lay under her eyes.
“Shall we sit?” he asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
Diana sat, hands folded in her lap, and regarded him mutely. She was an extraordinarily well-behaved young lady.
As a future duchess should be, he told himself.
His uneasiness growing stronger, he chose his words carefully. “Are you entirely happy with our upcoming wedding, Diana?” He almost said, “Miss Belgrave.”
She returned his gaze for a moment before she looked down at her hands. “Certainly,” she murmured.
Bloody hell. Alaric was right; she didn’t like him. This match was a mistake.
But he still wanted her. And he was all too used to getting what he wanted. Perhaps she was merely shy. Perhaps . . .
Discarding the question of gentlemanly conduct, he tilted up her chin and lowered his mouth to hers.
For a second, they were frozen in place, like lovers in a painting. Her lips parted in surprise, and he couldn’t help himself, coaxing her lips wider as he tasted her.
Her tongue met his, curious . . . innocent. He deepened the kiss, and her arms rose and curled around his neck. She made an inarticulate, sweet sound that hit him like a blow.
If he didn’t stop now, he would ease her backward and kiss her until she moaned again and again, until she abandoned all propriety. Cried into his mouth, begged him for more.
Making an iron effort, he pulled back before he could lose control. Diana was staring at him, beautiful eyes wide, mouth open.
“You will be a marvelous duchess,” North whispered, his voice deep and low.
For a moment he saw pleasure in her eyes, a surprised delight. But another emotion—sorrow? guilt?—followed just as quickly. She pulled away and jumped to her feet.
Before he could stand, Diana bobbed a curtsy and said that she needed to visit the ladies’ retiring room to pin up her hem.
That was the last time he saw her.
She jilted him without a note, his ring left carelessly on her dressing table, along with her other jewelry. She took only a hatbox with her on the public stagecoach.
North traveled to London, but discovered Diana’s mother knew nothing of her flight. He searched for months, and finally, on the eve of his regiment’s leaving for America, he found her. Diana answered the door of a small cottage, far from London.
Sunlight loved her, he thought numbly. It lit the perfect cream of her cheek, the shadow cast by her fringe of eyelashes. Diana stared up at him in shock, a simple bonnet framing her face. Deluded fool that he was, he found himself memorizing every detail so that he could take it with him into war.
He could have sworn that she was happy to see him, if astounded to see him in uniform. Perhaps they could make this work. He could find out what made her flee, and fix it.
Then a cry sounded from behind her, high and young, full of tears. A baby, on the verge of wailing.
A child who couldn’t be his.
Diana’s eyes met his. “I’m sorry, North,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Frost settled deep in his bones, though perhaps he should have felt the chill in his chest. His world shifted.
Without another word, he turned and strode away, swung himself up onto his horse, and spurred it to a gallop.
The dust rose up to meet him and he welcomed it. An officer—and a gentleman—blinked his eyes to rid them of grit.
Never a tear.
By Subscription Only
March 12, 1780
Young ladies swooning over the infamous adventurer and author, Lord Wilde, may not realize that his older brother, Lord Roland, now rivals him in infamy. Beatrix has learned that the future duke’s exploits on the American continent were many and of the sort that would make a proper woman faint dead away!
Matrons among us will remember that Lord Roland’s engagement was abruptly broken off nearly two years ago . . . when the lady in question fled her own betrothal party. In a truly shocking turn of events, Beatrix has heard on the best authority that the lady has returned to Lindow Castle with a child in tow, and is now working as a governess! It is not a leap of intellect to assume that Lord Roland is in for quite a surprise when he returns from quelling the rebellion in the colonies.
Generally speaking, Beatrix prefers to not sully the ears of young ladies with stories such as these, but she feels it is important to note that mothers should take care: This particular Wilde is, by any estimation, Too Wilde to Wed!
May 15, 1780
Diana Belgrave rarely thought about the days when she’d been the pampered heiress who had taken London by storm and stolen the heart of a future duke. When she did, she found herself shaking her head.
She had been so impossibly young, willing to do anything to satisfy her ambitious mother—a feat that, with the benefit of hindsight, Diana knew to be impossible. Perhaps that was the definition of maturity: recognizing that pleasing everyone was not possible.
In the long run, she wouldn’t have pleased her fiancé, Lord Roland either, or so she told herself when she was feeling guilty. After all, he hadn’t actually proposed to her, to Diana. He had offered his hand to a quiet and biddable young lady, a role her mother forced her to play.
The flicker of desire she used to catch in his eyes? It wasn’t for her, but for her mother’s creation, that docile creature in towering, bejeweled wigs.
She had a distinct feeling that North had never liked the way he felt about her; his desire for her made him irritable, as if it diminished his power. As if it meant she possessed some part of him, and the future Duke of Lindow was used to being the absolute monarch of his world.
Just imagine how angry he would have become on learning that the woman he’d chosen as his consort wasn’t really that woman at all.
With a sigh, Diana pulled herself back into the present. Once upon a time, she had been a future mistress of Lindow Castle; now she was a servant in it. More importantly, she’d been an unhappy young lady, but she was a very happy governess. Perhaps not a good governess, but she liked the work.
Most of the time.
Bending over, she scooped up her two-year-old charge, Lady Artemisia Wilde, and propped her on one hip. Then she turned to the three-year-old seated on the floor, drawing designs in mashed turnip. “Godfrey, do you need to use the chamber pot?”
Her nephew, Godfrey Belgrave, shook his head, which was lucky because at that moment Diana saw the chamber pot was lying on its side on the hearth rather than neatly hidden behind its screen.
Hopefully, it had been empty.
She smelled of turnip, and she was desperate for a cup of strong milky tea. But the tea was cold, and the last of the milk was dripping off the nursery table, joining the mash.
The housekeeper would shriek if she saw the children’s dining room before Diana had a chance to clean it. Mrs. Mousekin never ceased to be stunned by the disarray that seemed to follow Diana and the children everywhere, but at this point, the housekeeper’s outrage was mostly a habit.
Or so Diana liked to tell herself.
She couldn’t seem to combine basic hygiene with a happy day for two toddlers.
“DeeDee.” Artie sighed, pushing her fat little fingers into Diana’s bun and pulling out a lock of hair, which made the entire coil fall down Diana’s neck. It took a lot of energy to hurl food around the room, and Artie had woken well before dawn, so it was time for a nap. The child stuck the hair in her mouth and drowsily put her head on Diana’s shoulder.
Diana took a deep, steadying breath as a wave of exhaustion bore down on her. It wasn’t merely the long day, but the unnerving sense of doom hanging over her head.
North was home.
Those three words kept echoing in her ears. Her former fiancé had returned from the war in the colonies.
She had known he was on the way; she had sobbed with pure relief half the night after the duke announced his son was selling out. It meant she wasn’t responsible for killing a future duke. As far as she could tell, their broken engagement had precipitated his decision to buy a commission. If he had died . . .
Well, he hadn’t died.
She could move on from terror to guilt for all the other things she’d done to his life, most of which he didn’t even know about yet.
In the last few minutes, two footmen had made excuses to run up to the nursery and warn Diana of the arrival of North—or Lord Roland, as she ought to call him now. Everyone in the household knew that the duke had ordered that no letters mention Diana; he hadn’t wanted his son distracted by domestic matters in time of war.
To put it another way, everyone knew that North’s supposed bastard was in the household—except North.
Perhaps no one would tell him she was here. After all, Artie’s parents, the duke and duchess, were in London, and Lady Knowe, the duke’s twin sister, rarely visited the nursery . . .
If no one else, Boodle, his valet, would reveal the news. Boodle viewed North as an extension of his own consequence, so any slur on his master’s reputation—and a bastard definitely qualified— was a personal insult.
Boodle must be in transports at His Lordship’s return. After North left for the war, Boodle had served the duke, North’s father, but he had found His Grace’s complete lack of interest in his own appearance galling. Now that the duke’s wildly fashionable heir had returned, Boodle would once again reign supreme over all other gentlemen’s gentlemen—at least, after the knotty problem of North’s by-blow was resolved.
During their betrothal, North had been starchily respectful. He had never laughed, belched, nor told a joke. He didn’t get angry either. He kept a tight rein on his emotions. Perhaps laughter was too spontaneous for a duke’s heir. Or perhaps he had no sense of humor.
No matter how calm his nature, any man would be explosively furious to learn that he—or perhaps even worse, his father—had been housing a child under false pretenses.
Diana straightened her shoulders, steeling herself. She was no longer the compliant girl she’d been. She was a strong and independent woman, who received a wage that she herself had earned.
She had many things she longed to say to North, and no matter how enraged he was—rightfully enraged—she meant to get them out. She refused to waste all the nights she’d been unable to sleep, anguishing over what she had done to him. Even if he kicked her out of the house tonight, she was going to apologize first.
“Gird your loins and do it properly,” her grandfather would have told her.
Godfrey made his way over and grabbed her skirts with a sticky hand. He was not an attractive boy, being possessed of knobby knees, angular cheekbones, and rust-colored hair.
But he was hers, no matter what he looked like. Diana was still trying to understand how she could take one glance at a scrawny, wailing baby and know instantly that she would do anything— sacrifice anything—to keep him safe.
“Time for baths,” she told the children. Halfway down the corridor, she paused to adjust Artie’s weight on her hip. “Sweetheart, please don’t drool on my neck. Godfrey, could you walk faster?”
She could have groaned at her own foolishness, because one only had to ask Godfrey to do something to incite him to its opposite. Sure enough, the little boy fell to his knees and scuttled back down the corridor toward the dining room.
“Godfrey!” she called, struggling to keep her tone even. He became naughtier if people shouted at him.
“I’ll go,” Artemisia said, spitting out Diana’s hair and wriggling. “I’ll get Free,” which was what she called Godfrey. Godfrey didn’t call his playmate anything because—at well over three years old—he still hadn’t said a word.
As Diana put Artie on the floor, she heard footsteps creaking on the bare wooden stairs leading to the nursery wing. Panic raced through her veins.
Her former fiancé wore high heels, she reminded herself. High heels. Striped stockings with clocks. Tawny silk coats. The type of wig that obliged its wearer to mince across the floor or risk it falling from a great height. He was dandified, proper, and boring.
North had been as much Boodle’s creation as she had been her mother’s.
A man rounded the corner; her heart thumped once and settled. It wasn’t North, but the castle butler, Prism.
To her chagrin, Diana discovered that she had flattened herself against the wall, as if expecting the sheriff. She dropped into a jerky curtsy. “Good afternoon, Prism—” She coughed. “Mr. Prism.”
The first few weeks she was in the nursery, she had made mistakes like that all the time—the result of having been raised a lady and hired as a servant. But she hadn’t made one in well over a year.
Mr. Prism was tall and distinguished. To Diana, he appeared to be a gentleman, but Prism wouldn’t agree. Hierarchy and blood were all-important to him; it didn’t matter a whit that he had better manners than most lords. It had offended his sensibilities when a lady who had visited the castle as the guest of honor returned as a servant.
“Miss Belgrave.” He didn’t bow, but an invisible bow hovered around his waist.
“May I be of service?” Diana inquired. As a pampered young heiress, she’d always felt uncomfortable around servants, who never overlooked the fortune her grandfather made as a grocer. Now that she was a servant, she found most of them endlessly kind. Prism, for one, regularly ignored her mishaps in the nursery.
At that moment, she heard the tinkling clash of a handful of cutlery bouncing—or so she guessed— off the fire screen in the dining room.
Prism flinched. Everyone in the castle was familiar with Godfrey’s naughty temperament. The servants loved comparing North’s childhood pranks to Godfrey’s.
That always made Diana feel guilty, since the two had nothing in common except childish misbehavior. She was so tired of the fib that had brought her to the nursery that it would almost be a relief to leave the castle—if only the idea of leaving Artie wasn’t so agonizing.
Diana had seen Artie’s first tooth and her first step. She’d stayed awake for three nights when Artie fell ill with a lung complaint; the duchess arrived from London to find her youngest daughter sitting up and asking for cake.
Another handful of cutlery clashed into the iron fireplace screen. In a powerful display of butlerian nerves, Prism managed to ignore it.
“Miss Belgrave, I wish to inform you that Lord Roland has arrived home and is currently with his valet, changing from his traveling costume. One would hope that Mr. Boodle will allow Lady Knowe to impart important information concerning the family.”
From his disdainful air, Prism had no more faith in Boodle’s discretion than Diana had.
Still, Diana felt a wash of relief, because now she had time to drink a cup of tea and rehearse what to say to North. It would take Boodle three hours at a minimum to wrestle his master into the luxurious garments of a future duke.
Boodle couldn’t wait to dazzle the household once again with his valeting skills; he wouldn’t allow his master to leave the bedchamber until North shone like a prize pig.
In Diana’s humble opinion.
Whether in London or the castle, her former fiancé had always been impeccably attired—and that wasn’t to mention the times she’d been almost certain he was wearing lip paint. No man’s lips were that deep rose color.
She folded her hands at her waist, the way her own governess used to. “Thank you very much for the warning, Mr. Prism.”
“Inasmuch as Lord Roland does not know that you and Master Godfrey are in the household, he may be surprised,” the butler said, in a powerful understatement. “I wish to reassure you that His Lordship is a consummate gentleman, who will receive the news with equanimity.”
Diana could attest to that, since at times she had felt as if she were engaged to a pasteboard version of an English nobleman . . . if pasteboard could bend at the waist and mimic all the airs and graces of a courtier. North was a gentleman through and through, and his emotions would be as muted as his clothing was extravagant.
They both turned their heads at the sound of someone quickly mounting the stairs to the nursery suite. Diana’s heart jolted into a sickening rhythm against her ribs.
No three hours’ respite.
Prism was not a butler who would welcome being a witness to an uncomfortable encounter. “I shall speak to Mabel about her absence at morning prayers,” he said, heading for the nursery dining room.
He was about to discover that the nursemaid had missed more than prayers, but Diana didn’t say a word. The butler’s horried, “Miss Belgrave!” overlapped with North’s arrival at the top of the stairs. Diana didn’t respond to Prism, or allow herself to step back against the comforting wall. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed on her former fiancé.
North had changed. His face was leaner and more angular, with weary crinkles at the corners of his eyes, making him look older than his twenty-nine years.
Surprising enough, he didn’t appear to be angry. But he always had a face that expressed little emotion, thanks to a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and the effortless nobility that made him look as if he were posing for a portrait.
A portrait of a duke, naturally.
As he strode toward her, his boots clipped the floor. Boodle hadn’t had time to transform his master into a future duke; North was still dressed for travel, his black riding frock splashed with mud.
He stopped in front of her. If anything, he seemed faintly amused.
“The last time we saw each other here, you were headed for the ladies’ retiring room,” he observed. “That must have been one of the longest visits in the history of the castle.”
“I should never have left without breaking our betrothal in person, or at least writing you a letter,” Diana said, words she had longed to say for almost two years tumbling out of her mouth. “I’m so sorry, North. I’m just so sorry. I behaved terribly, and—”
She broke off as Prism reemerged from the dining room, his cheeks drawn as tight as those of a boy sucking lemons. “Lord Roland,” he said, bowing. Turning to Diana, “Where is Mabel?”
“In the dairy,” Diana said. “She’ll return soon, Mr. Prism.”
“Mister Prism?” North repeated. His eyebrows locked together.
Boodle must have told him she was employed as a servant; did he think that Diana could continue to address the butler the way a lady might? What was proper for a guest was insolence in a servant.
“I shall send Mabel back to her post,” Prism said, ignoring North and fading toward the stairs as only a butler could do.
Diana turned back to North, trying to decide if she should move on to the subject of Godfrey, or repeat how apologetic she was to have jilted him in such a public fashion.
“Who is Mabel?” North asked.
“She’s the nursery maid. I’m the governess,” Diana explained. “I’m really more of a nanny, but Lady Knowe was kind enough to give me the title. Mabel has fallen in love and is often absent her post.” She hesitated, and added, “I apologize again for the graceless way I ended our betrothal.”
He didn’t shrug, but his expression made it clear that he couldn’t have been more uninterested. It was ancient history to him; she was the one who couldn’t forget her bad behavior.
“Diana,” North said, “what are you doing in my home?” A hint of ironic humor lurked in his eyes, but mostly, he just seemed tired.
That look he used to give her? The one that promised secret delights?
Gone without a trace.
Of course, it was gone. She wanted it to be gone.
“I might add that my valet is under the impression that I fathered your child,” he said, his voice even.
“There wouldn’t have been time for that,” she blurted out. “Not between all those lectures you gave me about the duties of a duchess.”
With an inward groan, she added that sentence to the list of stupid things she had instantly regretted saying. Some days the list grew hardly at all. Others . . . Well, other days she embarrassed herself fifty times before bedtime.
Genuine surprise crossed North’s face. Of course, he believed she was the meek creature whom her mother had tailored to a nobleman’s specifications.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she added quickly. “I seem to have forgotten the rules of being a lady, let alone a future duchess. Servants tend to be much more direct. More to the point, I didn’t bring it up as a defense for my behavior.”
“I was trying to ease your entry into the peerage,” North said. He didn’t raise an eyebrow, but somehow he managed to give his words a sardonic air without moving a muscle. “I apologize if I made you uncomfortable, or bored you.”
“Imagine, you almost married a woman whose heart belongs in the servants’ hall,” Diana said, offering him a tentative smile. “You should be on your knees thanking me for running away.”
“As I recall, I didn’t kneel when I proposed to you,” North remarked. “I think we both agree that we are better unmarried, at least to each other.”
He was right, so it was absurd that his comment stung. It wasn’t what he said as much as the indifferent look in his eye. Whatever affection he had felt for her was gone.
She had behaved appallingly. Not worth his . . . his affection, if that’s what it had been.
His earlier sentence sank in, and she said with a little gasp, “You didn’t tell Boodle the truth?”
“I am a gentleman, Diana. I judged it best to inquire about your intentions as regards my supposed son.”
As she stared at him, a crash sounded from the dining room—and this time, it wasn’t knives and forks, but china. Experience told her that Godfrey had managed to crawl onto the table and was now throwing plates over the side.
She turned and raced down the corridor. Artie might be in the path of shattered dishes, and the housekeeper had been threatening to deduct breakage from her wages.
Behind her, North barked, “Diana!”
Skidding into the room, she found Godfrey sitting in the middle of the table, Artie beside him, wrestling over a plate. Diana felt another stab of panic at the idea of separating them. Artie was Godfrey’s tie to the world, the only person who really understood him.
“DeeDee,” Artie shouted, dropping her side of the plate and waving her hands in the air. “Free is throwing things again.”
Godfrey threw the plate into the wall at the precise moment North arrived at her shoulder.
Diana swept Godfrey off the table and put him on the floor, crouching before him. It was hard to ignore North’s presence behind her, but she had learned that Godfrey only listened to her directly after he was disobedient. A delayed reprimand was the same as approval.
“Darling,” she said, holding his eyes, “you must not break plates. It is very naughty, and it makes Mrs. Mousekin angry at both of us.”
North had stepped up to the table. “You must be Artemisia,” she heard. “I’m your oldest brother. We haven’t met since you were a newborn.”
“My name’s Artie,” his sister informed him.
Diana focused on Godfrey’s face. He never spoke, but she was certain that he thought deeply. She had the idea that he might be smarter than the average child.
“Please promise me that you won’t throw any more plates off the table or at a wall?” She had to be very specific when reprimanding her nephew.
Godfrey’s limpid blue eyes were as sweet as an angel’s as he planted a squishy kiss on her cheek. Her arms wrapped around him for a moment, and she set him free.
Artie swung her legs over the edge of the table. “Down.” She lifted her arms to North.
The courtier Diana remembered, the man who wore violet-colored silk embroidered with silver thread, would have avoided a sticky child.
“She’s a Wilde, all right,” North muttered. He picked up Artie with no sign of distaste.
As he put her down, Mabel ran through the door. “You needn’t have tattled on me to Prism—” Her voice choked. “Forgive me, my lord. I didn’t know you were here.” She curtsied, head bent.
“Are you responsible for the condition of this room?” North asked her.
Diana followed his gaze and saw that yellow liquid had soaked into the hearth rug from the overturned chamber pot. No wonder Prism had been so anguished. “No,” she said quickly. “Mabel is not in charge of the children’s manners; I am. So if you are going to scold, you should address me.”
“Take the children elsewhere,” he said to Mabel. Diana had forgotten his utter assurance. North ruled his world and every person in it, except his father and stepmother.
Another reason to be happy their marriage hadn’t taken place, she reminded herself. She had always dreaded the moment when her fiancé discovered that subservience didn’t come naturally to her.
“Certainly, my lord,” Mabel murmured, adding in a dulcet tone that Artie and Godfrey rarely heard, “Come along, my dears.”
North watched them leave the room before turning back to Diana. “My sister is sucking her thumb,” he stated, clearly appalled. “She did not greet me properly. I’m not sure she knew how to greet me. Are you really her governess?”
Diana choked back a wayward giggle. It made odd sense that she saw strong emotion on his face only when it came to deficient etiquette. “Didn’t Boodle inform you of my position?”
“My valet told me you were living in the castle along with a son of mine, and I could find you in the nursery. It did not occur to me that a woman who was to be my duchess might be employed among the domestics,” he said, adding dryly, “I was preoccupied by the miracle of my fatherhood.”
Diana’s heart started thudding so hard that her chest hurt, but it would be too revealing if she rubbed it. “There is nothing shameful about having employment,” she managed. “It’s a good deal more respectable than spending one’s life drifting around a parlor.”
At the same moment she realized that military service to His Majesty’s army was scarcely drifting around a parlor, he apparently decided that her remark was beneath his notice.
“You are the castle governess? Where are my other siblings?” North asked, glancing around as if his brothers and sisters might jump out of a corner at any moment.
“Viola, Betsy, and Joan are in London with Her Grace, as the Season is in full swing. Before you say anything, I have been an excellent governess to the girls, on those occasions when they were home from their seminary.”
“What about the boys? Are you telling me that you are fit to tutor them in Latin?”
Diana certainly was not, since her mother had actively avoided teaching her anything other than ladylike skills; Mrs. Belgrave had been certain that lords preferred ignorance so they could tutor their wives. Frankly, North’s repeated efforts to instruct her on the strictures of polite society had proved her mother’s point, though it wouldn’t be politic to point it out.
“Spartacus and Erik are at Eton and in no need of tutoring,” she said, leaving it at that.
“Diana, allow me to ask you once again: What are you doing here? You left me, which was certainly your prerogative. Whether owing to my sermonizing on the duties of a duchess or not, we have had no child together.”
Diana swallowed hard. Her second impulsive decision had come home to roost. “Lady Knowe came to see me shortly after you left for war.”
His frown deepened. “She neglected to mention that visit in her letters.”
“She found me desperate,” Diana said, clutching her hands together so hard that her knuckles turned white. “My mother had thrown us out, and I had almost no money. Lady Knowe assumed the child was yours and shamefully, I allowed her to believe it. I am deeply sorry for that.”
She searched his face. He still showed no signs of rage, but he didn’t appear forgiving either. Forgiveness was not something one could ask for, she reminded herself. She had learned that lesson from her mother.
“I have taken no support from your family,” she said, a hint of pride entering her voice—because she was proud of being employed. It was about the only thing she was proud of. “The castle was in need of a nanny, so I took the position. It was your aunt’s idea to hire me as a governess.”
“A governess is one of the upper servants,” Diana explained. “Lady Knowe thought it would be easier for the household to accept my presence, as governesses are often ladies. She was also being generous, as a governess earns a larger wage.”
There was a moment’s silence. Then, “Does the world to believe that I forced my fiancée into a menial position so she could support my bastard?” North asked.
“Something like that, I’m afraid, but it never occurred to me, nor to Lady Knowe,” Diana said, with complete sincerity. Her hands were visibly shaking so she wound her fingers together. “I have regretted that rash decision so many times since then. I would have left and found another position, but Artie . . .” Her voice trailed off. “I love your sister. I didn’t want to leave her.”
Not leaving the castle had been a grotesquely selfish decision, in retrospect. “I didn’t do anything with malice,” she added, with a little gasp. “I promise you that.”
She’d underestimated him when they were betrothed. North lived by an ethical code of conduct—a gentleman’s, if you will—that meant he would never be unkind. He weighed every decision for good or ill before making it. She threw herself into hot water and hurt people along the way.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again.
“You’ve made that point.”
“I feel like a condemned prisoner desperate to express remorse.”
“Do I feature as the executioner, or the judge? Will your head be chopped off with a sword, like one of King Henry VIII’s wives, or will you be sent to the gallows, like a thieving servant?”
He seemed genuinely curious. “I suppose I’m both. But you . . . you have every right to play the executioner, North. I’ve treated you reprehensibly. Horribly.”