on May 9th 2017
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Four dukes. Two balls. One prizefight.
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens will never be the same.
After England’s victory in the Battle of Waterloo, the Prince Regent arranges a series of lavish celebrations at London’s notorious Vauxhall Gardens. The royal festivities bring together the rich and the desperate, the criminal and the lordly…and allow four very different dukes to find the love of a lifetime.
A proper viscount is kidnapped by a duke of the criminal underworld, only to encounter a mysterious woman from his past. A retired prizefighter, once known as the Duke of the Ring, stakes his reputation on a scrappy young boxer for the sake of a long-lost love. A traveler who inherited a dukedom needs a tightrope dancer’s help with a fake engagement that just might turn real. And the buccaneer son of a royal duke goes hunting for a respectable, highborn wife to salvage his scandalous reputation.
Let the pleasures begin...
The Buccaneer Duke–Vanessa Kelly
Vauxhall was utterly mobbed, as the official celebrations of the Regent’s birthday had kicked off with a masked ball. The supper boxes were full to bursting, and thousands of costumed festival goers strolled along the walks and through the groves. It was a splendid opportunity for pickpockets, thieves, and prostitutes, and Roman had little doubt London’s criminal class was hard at work. Too bad he hadn’t thought to stow a pistol inside the sash of his costume, just to be on the safe side.
Propping a shoulder against a tree near the Prince Regent’s special supper box, Roman settled in to watch his royal relatives comport themselves with their usual absence of dignity. His uncle, the future King of England, looked particularly ridiculous, swathed in an expansive gold toga with a wreath of laurels circling his head. Meanwhile, Cumberland was clomping around in bits of old armor, and York had costumed himself as a gladiator. Roman was happy to see that his father had garbed himself with a bit more dignity than his three brothers, sporting the costume of a British sailor.
He snatched a wineglass from one of the purple-coated waiters, forestalling the man’s objection by flipping him a crown. The food served in the Gardens was generally an abomination, but at least the wine was topnotch. Not that he had any intention of joining his family for supper in the Regent’s box, despite his father’s pointed suggestion that he do so. Clarence would simply start nagging again about his son’s failure to secure a suitable bride, and Roman needed no more reminders of that.
Even Antonia Barnett, who was not exactly the belle of the ball, wanted nothing to do with him.
When a finger jabbed his bicep, he almost spilled his drink.
“What the devil?” he growled.
Roman turned to face what appeared to be a fairy. She wore a pair of spangled wings, a gauzy silver dress, and carried a beribboned wand. Behind a glittering mask, Antonia Barnett waited for him to acknowledge her.
“Miss Barnett, do you enjoy poking defenseless men?” he asked.
“Only when necessary. And you are hardly defenseless.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m attending the masked ball, just like you.” Her tone suggested he was an imbecile.
“I mean, what are you doing accosting me?”
“I wished to speak with you.” Her mouth tilted down. “And how did you know it was me in this silly outfit?”
Roman would have known her anywhere. She might be rather a little thing, easily passed over at first glance, but she carried herself with unconscious grace. Add in those amazing eyes and hair that glowed like moonlight, and Antonia Barnett was unforgettable.
“I’m so observant that I also instantly deduced you’re wandering about by yourself again. Does your father know you’re here?”
“I’m with my friend, Mr. Keane, and his parents.”
Roman made a show of looking around. “And did they garb themselves in cloaks of invisibility as their disguise?”
“Don’t be so silly. Richard is just over there by that pillar, speaking with some friends. He’s the Egyptian pharaoh.”
“He looks ridiculous.” Roman wasn’t sure if he disapproved because of the idiot’s historically absurd headdress, or the fact that Keane and Antonia were on a first-name basis.
“I said the same thing. Richard was quite offended by my assessment,” she said dryly.
“That’s no way to treat a devoted swain, Miss Barnett,” he said, trying not to laugh.
“Sadly, I do not have any swains. At least not at the moment,” she added hastily.
“Hardly surprising. Your father makes a habit of tossing them into the nearest body of water.”
“I suppose everyone’s heard about that little incident by now.”
“I’m afraid so. And knowing your father, I shouldn’t be surprised if a bevy of your suitors is currently reposing at the bottom of the Thames.”
She starched up. “That is certainly not true.”
Roman was about to apologize when she held up an imperious hand. “Never the Thames. Papa only tosses my suitors into the very best bodies of water. Nothing is too good for his darling daughter.”
She was absurd—and charming.
“So the pharaonic Mr. Keane is not a suitor.”
“No. He’s my best friend, actually.”
“If he’s such a good friend, why isn’t he taking better care of you?”
Her fairy wings all but quivered with indignation. “I do not need anyone looking after me, Captain Cantrell.”
“I suspect your father would not agree.”
“Papa tends to be a bit over-protective, as you may have noticed.”
Roman couldn’t blame her father at all. When he took in her delicate figure, garbed in a costume that was too enticing, he couldn’t believe any man in his right mind would let her wander around on her own—especially not at a place like Vauxhall, where any number of dangers lurked.
“Does your father even know you’re here tonight?”
“Of course he does.”
“I’m surprised he approved of that outfit. Who are you supposed to be, anyway?”
“Titania, queen of the fairies.” She flapped her wand. “I know I look almost as ridiculous as Richard. But it was Mamma’s idea, so I couldn’t really say no.”
In fact, the outfit suited her perfectly. Creamy-colored silk crisscrossed her bodice, highlighting the swell of her small but prettily shaped breasts. The fabric nipped in at her narrow waist, and then belled out in gauzy skirts covered in spangles. Puffy sleeves, delicate wings, and a mask of silver lace completed the picture. Under the soft lights of the Grove it would be easy to mistake her for one of the fey folk, a shimmering creature too ethereal for the mundane world of men.