Indiscretion is just the beginning...
One night of slight overindulgence—oh, all right, he was drunk—and Stephen Parker-Roth finds he must betroth himself to prevent yet another scandal. But his "intended" is lovely, a redheaded beauty under her horrendous, unfashionable bonnet, and before long, he's congratulating himself on compromising such an excellent candidate—and anticipating what other naughtiness they'll get caught at before the wedding...
Lady Anne Marston has long since given up any thought of marriage. That is the price she pays for the mistakes of her past. But one little conversation with a handsome rogue should never have led to a sham engagement. Even if it did end in a rather shocking kiss...in broad daylight...on the front step of London's premier gossip. Now, trapped between a secret and a lie, Anne must somehow disentangle herself from this charming, maddening man before the truth comes out—or her heart gives in....
Named one of ALA Booklist’s top ten romances for 2011
Finalist New Jersey Romance Writers 2011 Golden Leaf Award for Best Historical
Finalist 2012 Booksellers Best Award, Long Historical
*Starred review* "A wonderful array of characters fills the pages of this romance, including the slimiest of villains.”
~Shelley Mosley, ALA Booklist
"Fans will delight in this return to MacKenzie's series, where deep passion and realistic relationship obstacles are frosted with light-hearted banter and intricate period details."
~Jaclyn Fulwood, graduate assistant, University of Oklahoma Libraries in Shelf Awareness for Readers
"MacKenzie's Naked finale hits a high note with sexy, mischievous characters...Naughtiness peppers the poignant story as humor adds the right touch."
~Emily Black, RT Book Reviews
"...the enjoyable blend of passion and humor will please MacKenzie's fans."
Top Pick! "Lighthearted, genuine funny and touchingly sincere..."
~Bridget, The Romance Reviews
"Using her wonderful ability to combine humor with the serious, and her ability to write all those witty and delightful interchanges...Sally MacKenzie has penned another winner with The Naked King.”
~Debby, Single Titles
"Giggling from the very first chapter is always a good sign, but laughing out loud? Well, that certainly promises a fantastic journey for the reader."
~Kimberly, Coffee Time Romance & More
"Lovers of light historical romances I think will enjoy The Naked King enormously."
~Ellen Micheletti, All About Romance
A "funny and fabulous Regency romp... Recommended."
~Monica E. Spence, Historical Novels Review
Stephen Parker-Roth landed in a large puddle. Mud and water splashed into the air, soaking his breeches, spattering his coat, and decorating his face with flecks of dirt. He wiped a blob off his right cheek with a clean corner of his cravat and frowned at the perpetrator of this sartorial disaster. “You have deplorable manners, sir.”
The miscreant blinked at him, tongue lolling. He looked not the slightest bit abashed, damn it.
“This wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t very, very drunk, you know.”
The fellow tilted his head to one side.
“You doubt me?” Stephen leaned forward and poked his finger at the large beast to emphasize his point. “I warn you, I’m an exceedingly dangerous man. I’ve won brawls from Borneo to Buenos Aires to Boston. More than one blackguard has rued the day his path crossed mine.”
The dog barked, a rather surprisingly deep, ringing sound, and put his head down on his front paws. His hindquarters remained in the air, tail waving like a flag in a stiff gale.
Stephen unbent enough to scratch the creature’s ears. “Ah, well, I won’t hold your ignorance against you. You’re just a...” He frowned. “No, you can’t be a homeless cur--you’re far too clean. How is it you’re roaming Hyde Park by yourself?” His fingers found a collar in the dog’s deep fur--and then he noticed the leash dragging in the grass. “Oh ho, you’re not alone. What have you done with your master, sir?”
The dog’s ears pricked up. A woman’s voice, rich and incredibly alluring, called out. “Harry!”
“Or mistress...” Stephen found himself addressing empty air. Harry was already bounding across the grass to a figure about a hundred yards distant. Stephen squinted in the sun. The female wore an enormous bonnet and a dress that looked like an oversized flour sack.
Pity. A voice that evoked twisted sheets and tangled limbs should not belong to an antidote.
The woman stooped to reclaim the leash, and Harry promptly began towing her back toward him. He’d best stand, then, like a gentleman should.
He struggled to his feet. The mud didn’t want to let him go. MacInnes was going to have an apoplexy when he saw him. Why his valet, who didn’t blink at tending his gear in the Amazon or the wilds of Africa, got as priggish as a damned dandy when they reached England’s shores was beyond him.
Eh. The change in altitude was not felicitous. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees, and swallowed several times until the landscape stopped whirling and his last meal agreed to remain in his stomach. It would be shockingly bad form to greet the lady by casting up his accounts all over her slippers.
“Harry! Slow down!”
Even sharp and breathless, her voice sent a jolt of pleasure through him. He leaned forward a bit more to shield any obvious evidence of his interest.
Rein up, you cawker. She might have buck teeth and garlic breath; she might be toothless and eighty years old.
He glanced up. Well, not eighty. She was moving too quickly to be that ancient.
The dreadful bonnet slid back off her head as he watched. Ah! Now he saw the purpose of that hideous headgear--it hid her riot of bright red curls. They glinted in the sunlight like dew-kissed roses.
She had spectacles, too, that looked to be in danger of falling off her rather prominent nose, and delightfully full lips, currently twisted into a grimace. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was definitely attractive.
Who was she? A maid assigned to walk the family dog? No sane butler or housekeeper would give this girl that task--the dog was walking her, not she the dog. A lady of the night? Unlikely. It was now an awful hour in the morning, and he’d never heard of a dasher with a large obstreperous dog, the voice of a siren, red curls, and spectacles. A fallen female with those striking attributes would be the talk of the male ton. Perhaps she was a widow.
Or married. Damn, he hoped she wasn’t married. He didn’t dally with married ladies.
He shook his head. Was he insane? How the hell had dalliance crept into his thoughts?
He was drunk. That was it. Very, very drunk.
And she was very flushed and very annoyed. She was glaring at him.
He was covered in mud--his shoes squelched with the stuff--but that wasn’t his fault. Her dog was to blame.
Harry dragged her the last few yards and plopped down at his feet. The girl’s brows were the same shade as her hair. She looked more like a flame than a rose, actually. Was she as fiery in bed?
He closed his eyes briefly. If he could remember how many glasses of brandy he’d had, he’d vow never to have so many again.
He regarded her glowering countenance. “Er, good morning.” He sounded perfectly sober, if he said so himself. “It’s, ah, a lovely morning, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not.” She blew out a short, sharp breath and pushed her hair back out of her face. Her green eyes were as stormy as a wind-tossed ocean, full of passion...
Perhaps he should swear off brandy entirely, though drink had never made him so lustful before.
“I mean...” She swallowed, obviously trying to get her spleen under control. “That is, yes, it is a lovely morning. How nice of you to say so after Harry caused you to fall into the mud. I apologize for his behavior.”
Mmm, that voice. He’d so like to hear it threaded with need and desire, panting his name--
Definitely no more brandy.
“He’s a sheep dog,” the woman said. “I imagine he was trying to herd you away from the puddle, not into it.” She reached back to reclaim her bonnet.
Oh, no. He couldn’t let her cover her beautiful curls again with that monstrosity. He plucked the millinery mistake from her fingers and dropped it into the mud, mashing it down with his foot for good measure.
* * * * *
“My bonnet!” Lady Anne Marston gaped down at her poor bonnet, flattened under this rude person’s shoe. What sort of gentleman attacked a woman’s hat?
No sort of gentleman. The man might be handsome as sin with his startlingly clear blue eyes and shaggy, sun-streaked hair, but handsome is as handsome does--she had learned that lesson beyond hope of forgetting--and destroying a woman’s bonnet was not handsomely done.
She drew in a breath to tell him exactly what she thought of such behavior--and stopped. Was that brandy she smelled? Certainly the man wasn’t foxed at 10 o’clock in the morning!
“Your bonnet is an abomination,” he said.
“It is not!” And now he was insulting her as well. That was her favorite bonnet under his foot. It might not be stylish--she wasn’t stylish--but she liked it. She’d had it for years.
“You didn’t buy it in London, did you?”
“Of course not. London bonnets are frilly, silly dabs of straw and feathers and gewgaws. I need something serviceable.”
She should leave. Yes, the man had landed in the mud, but it was probably more his fault than Harry’s. Drunkards were notoriously unsteady. She tugged on Harry’s leash, but the idiotic animal stayed where he was, at this human animal’s feet.
“Serviceable?” He ground her poor hat deeper into the muck. “How could this atrocity be the least bit serviceable?”
“It protected me from the sun”--and kept critical eyes off my disreputable hair.
She would admit that last only to herself, certainly not to him. What did this fellow know of the matter anyway? He didn’t have red hair--though, being a man, he probably wouldn’t care if he did.
He snorted. “It protected you from the sun and every male who saw you in it, I’ll wager.”
Oh, she’d like to kick the cod’s-head exactly where it would hurt him most. He didn’t think she was some silly miss on the catch for a husband, did he? “I’d hoped it would protect me from annoying men”--she sniffed, giving him her best pretention-depressing look--“such as yourself.”
He chuckled. “Now that’s put me in my place, hasn’t it? And here I just rescued you from the ugliest bonnet in Britain.” He leaned forward slightly, sending another whiff of brandy her way. “When you go looking for a replacement, try Madam le Fleur’s in Bond Street. Fleur’s hats are far more attractive.”
Of course this fribble would be an expert in female fashion. She jerked on Harry’s leash again; Harry merely yawned. “You are drunk, sir.”
He nodded, looking not the least bit repentant. “I’m very much afraid I am.”
“Did you rise early, then, to begin your debauchery?” It was a shame--in an academic, aesthetic sense only, of course--that such a handsome man was so dissipated.
“No. I haven’t yet been to bed.”
“You haven’t?” She looked at his clothes more closely. Under all the mud they were indeed eveningwear.
And under the clothes were exceptionally broad shoulders, a flat stomach, narrow hips...She flushed. Damn her coloring. She squeezed her eyes shut and drew in a deep breath--still tainted with the scent of brandy. What was the matter with her? Yes, even drunk this fellow was terribly attractive, but he was a man, and men were only trouble. She’d sworn off the breed years ago.
“But while I haven’t engaged in any debauchery yet this morning...”
He paused suggestively, and, damn it, she couldn’t keep her eyes shut. She looked at him.
“...I’d be willing to attempt some now, if you’d like.” He waggled his eyebrows.
Much to her surprise, she had to swallow a laugh instead of a gasp.
His eyes gleamed and his lips slid slowly into a smile--with dimples, blast it all. “Care to tuck me into bed?”
“No!” He was the very worst sort of London coxcomb, just the kind of male she’d worried about encountering on this unfortunate trip. So why was she finding him so amusing? The horrifying truth was part of her did wish to tuck the handsome rascal in.“Behave yourself.”
She would not let herself be taken in again. This man might not seem at all like Lord Brentwood on the surface, but his heart was likely as black. His heart and another, specifically male organ.
“Oh, well.” He shrugged. “I’ll be off to bed straightaway then once I’ve seen you home.” He raised his brows, looking ridiculously hopeful. “If you’re certain you’d not like to read me a bedtime story at least?”
She turned another laugh into a cough. He was indeed an accomplished seducer if he could charm her well-armored heart. She must be sure to keep her half sister away from him. At eighteen, Evie was too young to have learned to be suspicious of handsome scoundrels. “Quite certain. And there is no need for you to escort me.”
“Oh, but there is. You know I wouldn’t be a gentleman if I didn’t see you safely home.”
She turned her nose up at him. “You are not a gentleman--and I am quite all right by myself.”
“No, you’re not. A gently bred woman needs a male to protect her.”
She glared. “I have Harry--he is both male and protective.”
“And you have no control over him.”
“Oh, and I have more control over you?”
The moment the last word left her lips, she froze, as if she’d shocked herself, and then flushed. Her eyes dropped in apparent embarrassment--and focused on his crotch.
Damn. He wasn’t about to hide behind his hands like a bashful virgin, but if she stared at him much longer, she would get quite an education in male anatomy.
“I assure you, I can find my way home by myself.” Her eyes moved on to her dog, thank God. “Forgive me for not apologizing earlier for the state of your clothing. I intended to immediately”--her eyes came back up to scowl at him--“and would have if you hadn’t accosted my bonnet.”
“I wouldn’t have accosted your bonnet,” he said, stepping on it once more and twisting his foot to grind it farther into the grime, “if it hadn’t so vilely accosted my eyes and my male sensibilities.”
She pressed her lips into a tight line, obviously wishing to brangle with him, but equally obviously restraining herself. Too bad. He found sparring with her surprisingly stimulating.
She took a deep breath, causing her formless bodice to swell in a rather interesting fashion. “In any event,” she said, “Harry was at fault.” She dropped her eyes to his muddied cravat. “Your clothing is likely irreparably damaged; my father will wish to make it right. Please have your bills sent to Lord Crane.”
“Ah.” That was why he didn’t know her. Crane spent even less time in London than he did. “So you’re Crazy Crane’s daughter.”
He was sober enough to notice her flinch, but she must be used to hearing that nickname. Everyone called Crane crazy. His passion for finding antiquities was even greater than Stephen’s for discovering new plant species. The word at White’s was the earl had come to Town--briefly, as it turned out--to fire off his daughter on the Marriage Mart. Stephen frowned. He was drunk, but he wasn’t completely disguised. Wasn’t this girl too old to be a debutante?
“So you’re here to find a husband?” he asked.
Her brows snapped down as her eyes snapped back to his face. “Of course not.” She curled her delightful upper lip slightly. “Were you quaking in your boots?”
“Don’t have boots.” He lifted his foot to show her and almost left his shoe in the quagmire. “And you don’t scare me. I’ve been dodging debutantes for years--though you do seem a little long in the tooth to be just making your bows.”
“I am twenty-seven”--it sounded as if she were gritting her teeth--“not that it is any of your business. It is my half sister who is being introduced to the ton.”
“Ah!” He nodded. Now he remembered. “You’re Crane’s older daughter, the one by his first wife. The bluestocking as opposed to the--”
A sliver of sobriety wormed its way into his sodden brain. He coughed.
“As opposed to the beauty.” She sounded indifferent, but he saw the hurt in her eyes before she turned abruptly and started walking briskly toward Grosvenor Gate. Even Harry gave him a reproachful look as he left.
Damn. That hadn’t been well done of him. He should let her go. She would not want to spend another moment in his presence.
He couldn’t let her go. He did not break hearts, nor offend anyone, at least unintentionally. He had to apologize. He took off after her.
Crane’s daughter--what was her name? Damned if he could remember. No one at White’s had talked much about the bluestocking--had a long stride, but she was hampered by her skirts, and Stephen was used to walking long distances.He caught up to her quickly.
As he feared, she was crying.
“Go away.” She wouldn’t look at him.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that quite the way it sounded.”
She snorted--and then had to sniff repeatedly. He offered her his handkerchief.
“Thank you.” She glared at him briefly, her eyes quite red behind her spectacles.
He took Harry’s leash so she could blow her nose, which she did rather defiantly. She stared straight ahead, refusing to meet his gaze.
“And I was not affected in the slightest by your words. Of course not. I merely had a speck in my eye. It is true my sister is a beauty; I have hopes she will have a wonderful Season.” She sent him a pointed look then. “She is much too young for you, however.”
She looked like an angry kitten, trying to be fierce with its tiny claws and teeth. And he had hurt her feelings; he had sisters; he knew when girls felt wounded.
He felt an odd warmth in his chest. A bout of indigestion, most likely. He’d certainly had too much to drink. Once he saw Lady...Lady...
“You never did tell me your name.”
She shrugged. “And you never told me yours.”
“So I didn’t.” He inclined his head. “Stephen Parker-Roth, at your service.”
“What?” She stumbled on a crack in the pavement. He reached to grab her, but she avoided his hand. “The King of Hearts?”
“Well, yes, some people call me that.” He cleared his throat. “I’m rather good--or lucky--with cards.”
Cards? Anne sniffed. “It’s not cards you’re good with.”
Damn it, the rogue looked like a blasted choir boy, as sinless as a cherub, but she knew through long association with her half brothers not to trust that mask of innocence. “Oh?” She allowed her skepticism to show in her voice.
He had the grace to laugh. “I grant you my skill with cards is not the only reason I got that dam--er, unfortunate nickname.” He raised his brows. “How do you know it, Lady--” He frowned. “Devil a bit, I still don’t know your name.”
She might as well tell him. He would learn it soon enough once the Season got underway. “My name is Lady Anne Marston.”
“Lady Anne,” he said.
Her name sounded like someone else’s when he said it--someone beautiful, or at least someone interesting. Someone he was interested in.
Idiot! Only a complete noddy would think the King of Hearts could have the slightest interest in a red-headed, bespectacled bluestocking. She wasn’t the beauty of the family; she was very ordinary-looking, except for her lamentable hair.
She was glad he wasn’t interested in her. She wasn’t interested in him.
She was a terrible liar.
“So how is it, Lady Anne, that you know my nickname when you have so recently arrived in Town? If gossip is correct, the earl dumped you--” He coughed. “I mean deposited you at Crane House just yesterday.”
Dumped was the correct description. Papa could barely stand to pause the coach long enough to let her, Evie, and the boys out. He certainly hadn’t waited for their baggage to arrive; he and Georgiana were far too anxious to get to the docks and board their ship for Greece. Fortunately Cousin Clorinda, being in London already, had moved in the day before, but things were still very much at sixes and sevens.
“The London papers come even to the country, you know.”
He raised one eyebrow and looked annoyingly superior. “So you can peruse the gossip columns?”
She raised her eyebrow back at him. “So I can read the entire paper.”
And, yes, perhaps she had paid particular attention to gossip concerning the K-- of H--. She’d taken an interest--a scholarly interest--in him. She’d come across an article in Papa’s The Gentleman’s Magazine a year or two ago, an account Mr. Parker-Roth had written describing one of his plant hunting expeditions. He’d sounded exceptionally intelligent and rather intrepid--obviously he’d learned how to be as cozening in print as in person.
She flushed. She’d dreamt about him once or twice, too. She was lonely on occasion--well, most of the time. She may have sworn off men, but somehow he’d caught her fancy. What harm was there in a little romantic woolgathering? She was never going to meet him.
Except she just had.
One would think a twenty-seven year old spinster would have more sense, especially a woman with her experience.
Traffic was beginning to pick up. The streets and walks had been deserted when she’d left Crane House earlier--a very good thing as she’d had to run to keep up with Harry. Of course now the stupid dog was walking sedately at Mr. Parker-Roth’s side.
“The ton is always making up nicknames for people,” he was saying. “They’ll probably christen you and your sister as soon as you attend your first social event.”
“I sincerely hope not.” Blast it, how was she going to navigate these treacherous social waters with only Cousin Clorinda to help her? She bit her lip. It was just like Papa and Georgiana to go off to dig in the dirt, leaving her in charge of the children. Not that Evie was a child any longer. Of course not. They wouldn’t be in this mess if she were.
She swallowed a sigh. Thankfully, Evie was a sensible girl--but Anne had considered herself sensible once, too. All it had taken was one experienced, London rake paying her a little attention--
Dear God, what if Brentwood was here in Town?
No, she couldn’t be that unlucky. She’d been reading the gossip columns very carefully for weeks and had not seen his name.
But if he were in London--
“A penny for your thoughts, Lady Anne.”
Her heart thudded into her throat. “I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
“No? You looked--”
“Oh, yes, look, here we are at Crane House.” Thank God! “What a surprise. I don’t know how we got here so quickly.” She was blathering, but if she kept talking, he couldn’t ask her questions she didn’t want to answer. “Thank you for escorting me and for taking charge of Harry. If you will just give me his leash, you can get”--She hadn’t been about to say he could get to bed, had she?--“that is, you can be about your business.” She smiled, or at least tried to, and held out her hand. If she was lucky, she would never see him again.
Ha! She might hope she wouldn’t see him, but she was here for the whole cursed Season. She couldn’t hide in her room and send Evie to the parties and balls with only odd, elderly Cousin Clorinda as chaperone.
Perhaps Mr. Parker-Roth would leave London tomorrow to hunt for greenery in some exotic--and very distant--location. She would add that thought to her prayers tonight.
“Lady Anne,” he said, looking far too serious all of a sudden.
“Mr. Parker-Roth, I should go. Cousin Clorinda and my sister must be wondering where I am.”
She glanced up. What if someone looked out a window and saw her conversing with Mr. Parker-Roth? She and he would be quite recognizable--neither was wearing a hat. Their faces were evident for any curious spectator to see.
Whom was she kidding? It wasn’t only her face she had to hide--her unfortunate hair was a blazing beacon, proclaiming her identity to anyone not color-blind.
Perhaps no one would look. It was early for most of the ton...but Lady Dunlee lived next door and she had a nose for even the faintest whiff of scandal. Cousin Clorinda had warned Anne about the woman the moment Anne had crossed Crane House’s threshold--and Lady Dunlee herself had already stopped Anne to let her know the boys had been teasing her nasty gray cat.
“But I never properly apologized,” Mr. Parker-Roth said. Harry sat calmly at his feet. Why wouldn’t that dog behave for her?
“No apology is necessary. Now, please--”
He touched her lips with his gloveless fingers. She froze.
His skin was slightly rough--he clearly used his hands for more than raising a quizzing glass or shuffling cards--and warm.
All of a sudden, she didn’t care about the windows overlooking the square.
“I don’t want you to think you aren’t beautiful.”His fingers slipped sideways to cradle her jaw; his thumb moved back and forth over her bottom lip. “You are.”
He was an enchanter, that was it, weaving a spell around her. Faintly, very faintly, she heard the voice of reason warning her about gossip and Lady Dunlee, about boorish and unprincipled villains, about the complete idiocy of believing her fantasies lived in the real world, but for the first time in a decade, she ignored it. Her hands crept up to rest on the King of Hearts’ broad, solid chest.
In her dreams, he had not only been handsome, he’d been kind and honorable.
She wanted a taste of what this man could give her. Just this once. Just for academic purposes. To impress upon herself that dreams were not real and men were indeed best avoided.
She smelled the brandy on his breath again. “You’re drunk.” She spoke to him, but she was reminding herself.
“Yes.” His words whispered past her cheek. “But I’m not blind.”
His mouth brushed hers. Her lips tingled, feeling suddenly swollen. This kiss--if you could call it a kiss--was nothing like the hot, wet, slobbery affairs she’d endured from Brentwood. Being kissed by Brentwood had been an attack--this was something else entirely.
Comfort, not lust. An invitation, not a command.
Beguiling, seductive, making sin seem like a divine gift...
She loved the sound of her name in his voice. A little shiver slithered through her and she sighed, tilting her head more, like a sunflower seeking the sun.
He made a small, satisfied noise and nibbled on her bottom lip while his free hand, the one not grasping Harry’s leash, slid to the back of her head.
An odd warmth gathered in her belly. Something hard and frozen began to melt. She leaned into Mr. Parker-Roth’s strong body, wanting--needing--more of his heat.
And then she heard the hiss of an angry cat and Harry’s answering bark. Mr. Parker-Roth jerked backward. She felt herself wobble and grabbed his coat.
“Hold tight,” he muttered. His arm locked around her waist as they lost their battle with gravity and tumbled toward the pavement.
“Oof!” He flinched as he took the brunt of the impact.
She was not a featherweight. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll live.” His voice had an edge of pain.
“I’m so sorry!” She relaxed against him for a moment. His body was so hard under hers. Pleasantly hard. And something else of his was getting hard as well...
Her face burned. What had she been thinking? Here she was, sprawled across a man’s body in a public square and from the feel of the sun on the back of her legs her skirt was up around her knees. And from the feel of the man below her, he was having the expected reaction. How mortifying. And if anyone saw them...
She started to scramble off him. He held her still.
“Let me go.” She tried to twist free. “Think of the scandal if we are observed.”
He flinched again and tightened his hold on her back...well, a bit lower than her back.
“Mind your knee, love.”
“Oh.” Her leg was now between his. Her knee was indeed very close to-- “I’m so sorry.”
“That’s all right. No permanent harm done.” He smiled a little tightly. “I hope. Now, we’ll just have--”
That’s when she heard the sharp intake of breath.
“Trouble,” Mr. Parker-Roth muttered.
Anne looked up. Lady Dunlee stood not ten feet from them, a look of delighted horror on her face.
“Lady Anne--and Mr. Parker-Roth! What in the world are you doing?”
Copyright © 2011 by Sally MacKenzie