on November 14th 2017
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo
Previously published in the anthology THE DUKES OF VAUXHALL
When the prodigal duke returns…
After his older brother’s death, Leo Billingsley returns to London to assume the duties of Duke of Westfair. He has spent years abroad, traveling the world and building a fortune—but to his uncle and only remaining relative, Leo is still the impulsive black sheep who doesn’t deserve a chance to make good.
Tied to England and an impoverished dukedom, there’s only one person Leo trusts: his old friend and first love, Poppy Hayworth. But Poppy’s life has taken surprising turns since Leo left, and now she carries a crushing secret. Desperate to save enough money to flee the country, she earns a temporary living as a Vauxhall Gardens tightrope walker.
To win over his uncle, Leo offers Poppy a fortune to pretend an engagement with him. It seems the ideal solution, especially when they rediscover love and passion. The one flaw? If their ruse succeeds, they’ll be parted forever…
“So.” Poppy took a deep breath. “Welcome back to England, Leo. What is it you need to talk about?”
This sort of question had the potential to change a woman’s life. Of course, it could also do no more than give her a few dull minutes. Which answer she hoped it was, she could not say.
“Let me buy you a sweet first. Honey cakes? You used to love those.”
“I still do. Though you’ll be shocked at the price here.”
“Did you think the prodigal son would return with empty pockets? Well, I suppose you might have, since he did in the old story, but I have not.”
With her wearing his coat and him dignified in shirtsleeves, they made an odd pair as they set off through the milling crowd toward the park’s exit. Here the candelabra stretched as slim and tall as saplings; lamps flanked every path. The garden was ablaze, as light as noon, but with strong, sharp shadows from the night that encroached at every gap. Clothing was lit; faces were hidden. Strolling bands sang songs from different countries, mixing in quiet chaos with the faraway orchestra and the chatter of visitors. And always, people slipped away to the dark edges and corners and nooks of the park. Despite Lord Bexley’s efforts to tidy Vauxhall, it was—it would always be—a wanton place.
She unwrapped the thick slice of honey cake Leo bought her, eager for a bite. She seemed always to be hungry these days.
“Out with it,” she said through a mouthful of sticky sweetness. “What do you need to talk about?”
He cleared his throat. “Truth is, I need your help.”
“My help?” She could have laughed. “I don’t have anything to give.” If she were to be strictly truthful, she had less than nothing. Ever since that ill-fated house party three months before.
“Oh, no, it’s not like that. All I need is you.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t have stayed away for six years.”
She hadn’t meant to say it, but once the words were out, she was glad. She took another bite of honey cake, snapping her teeth together.
His smile fell. “You are angry with me?”
“Not angry. I know you left because of your brother.” She frowned. “I am only…disenchanted.”
His green eyes searched hers. “Right,” he said quietly. “You’re not the only one to feel that way, as I have been informed. I should have been more clear: It’s not help for me. It’s for Uncle Bernard. I need him to sign some financial papers, and he doesn’t trust me. He never has. But he does trust you.”
She struggled to swallow; the cake seemed dry in her throat. “I don’t understand,” she finally managed, shouldering past a stilt walker and a woman dressed like a French courtesan. “You want me to trick your uncle for you? That’s not right, Leo.”
“Not at all, not at all. I want…” He tipped his head back, as though searching the velvety evening sky for words. “I want him to associate you with the dukedom, so he will think as well of it as he does of you.”
She and Ubie had always got along rather well. She reminded him, he had once told her, of the daughter he had lost at a young age.
But. Wait. “Why would he associate me with the dukedom? I never return to the lands in Sussex. I’m a ropedancer, at least for now. I’ve nothing to do with the gentry or the nobility anymore.” And never would again, if she could help the matter.
“I was thinking”—he was still carefully not looking at her—“that we could pretend to be engaged.”
She dropped the honey cake.
He evidently took this as a sign that she needed only to be persuaded, for he halted in his tracks. “Do you see? It makes perfect sense. We can say that we just worked it out. He knows I was coming to see you tonight.” Leo tipped his head. “Is that right? ‘He knows’? ‘He knew I was’? The verb tenses are confounding.”
This had always been Leo’s way: a quick, darting sort of energy, three sentences ahead in the conversation and more vivid than anyone else.
To a man of rules and order like Ubie, it was intolerable. Poppy had always enjoyed his Leo-ishness. Right now, though…
“I follow your meaning,” she said shortly. She picked up the honey cake, glared at it for being covered with dirt, and let it fall again with a sigh.
“I am sure the ruse would work,” Leo added. “I informed him that I was prepared to be slain at the sight of you.” He eyed her up and down. “Which wasn’t a good figure of speech, was it? Because to look at you—why, Poppy, I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive.”
I can. It was six years ago, and you had given me a kiss I would never forget.
She pressed her legs together, the pantalettes strangely intimate, and retreated behind humor and the expensive folds of his coat.
“Oh, Leo. You say such pretty things,” she said lightly. “I will go home and write this one down. ‘Dear Diary, today I saw Leo for the first time since I was eighteen years old, and he asked me to pretend to be engaged to him because he expected to die when he saw me.’ Have I got the essence of it?”
He snorted. “You have. But you must take this seriously, Poppy. It’s for his good. It’s not just an impulsive idea, like—”
“When you brought a pig indoors for a bath?”
“This is definitely not like that, and not only because we don’t keep a pig at the town house.”
“What about when you pulled me into the pond so we could count trout, but we almost drowned?”
“Not a single pond will be involved. I swear it.”
She eyed him narrowly. “You sound serious. What are these papers? You must want them signed very badly.”
Thanks for reading the excerpt from THE PRODIGAL DUKE! We hope you enjoyed this taste of Leo and Poppy’s love story. For the first scene, visit Theresa’s website.
To one commenter on this post, Theresa would like to give a copy of her historical romance TO CHARM A NAUGHTY COUNTESS (print or Kindle copy, winner’s choice)—which also has a duke hero.
Theresa would love to know, did you ever read about anything in a book—a food or an activity or even another author—that inspired you to try it?
Theresa said that in her romance debut, her characters ate ginger biscuits, and she just had to find a recipe that would let her try the sweets they kept enjoying. (Find it here in a 2011 post on her blog.) What about you?
~~Reviewed by Monique~~
Leo Billingsley comes from trade, the black sheep of the family, is now the Duke of Westfair, courtesy of his elder brother who had the bad taste to die. Leo sees his long-time friend and his first love, Poppy Hayworth, at Vauxhall Gardens; she is now a tightrope walker. Even after not having spoken to Poppy for six years – Leo was abroad – he still trusts her, and he asks her to agree to a pretend engagement. He needs to convince his uncle to listen to him, but the cantankerous Uncle Bernard, Ubie, likes Poppy better. Poppy had planned one season at Vauxhall to earn enough money to start anew in France, and when Leo offers her money for his crazy idea, she accepts. It can’t be so bad, as long as her secret remains so.
Theresa Romain certainly did her homework on ropewalking, something I knew nothing about, and the author made it quite exciting, even if I felt a bit like Leo! Leo is a charming rogue, he is so nice that Poppy doesn’t even bear a grudge for what he did six years before, and it was for a good cause. Poppy’s backstory is heartbreaking, but she has a backbone of steel, and they do make a most wonderful couple. The ever delightful Theresa Romain spins a tale so touching, and characters so endearing that I was hurting for them, and I embraced Leo and Poppy with open arms. Apart from the marvellous romance, Ms. Romain peppers her tale with some very witty dialogue, and some of the exchanges had me laughing out loud; Leo has quite a sense of humour.
Ms. Romain paints such a vivid picture of the masquerade and the Vauxhall Gardens that it made me wonder if the author was a time-traveller! All kidding aside, THE PRODIGAL DUKE is a concentrated novel, it never felt like a novella: the characters display unusual depth; there’s the precarious relationship between Leo and Ubie as well as lovely moments, scary moments, a revolting villain, and OH my, the romance! What a perfectly wonderful romance it is!
I voluntarily reviewed an advanced reader copy of this book.