Reclusive Viscount Kirk, horribly scarred by a tragic accident that stole the life of his beloved first wife, is a man defined by fury. For years he’s eschewed society, growing abrupt and curmudgeonly. But now, when he’d given up on life, he’s fallen madly in love with the refreshingly naive daughter of his neighbor, dainty and charming Dahlia Balfour. Desperate to win her attention, Kirk calls in a favor from the Duchess of Roxburghe and asks that she transform him into a fashionable suitor for Dahlia’s hand. But what’s easy to change on the outside, isn’t as easy to change on the inside…
Dahlia’s always dreamed of a fairytale romance. Although Viscount Kirk is only seven years her senior, because of his cantankerous ways and lack of social graces she thinks of him as her “older neighbor,” and is blissfully unaware that he sees her as anything other than an acquaintance. She is shocked to see him at the duchess’s grand house party, trying to fit with the very societal rules he so frequently mocks. Surprised by his attention, irritated at his bald honesty, and intrigued that he finds her worth the effort, Dahlia regards Kirk as the opposite of Prince Charming. Without the pretty words and grand gestures she yearns for, can true love find its way into her unwilling heart?
"This fairy tale gone awry is just different enough, just quirky enough and just wonderful enough to have readers sighing with pleasure."
~ RT Book Reviews
"This is such a fun read, as were the first two books in the series, but Hawkins writes outstanding characters with remarkable pasts, who you think might be so wrong for each other, but end up being more than right!"
~ Charming Chelsey’s
"It was a quick, funny, and light read and I would recommend it to those who love this genre."
~ Literati Literature Lovers
From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe
It took all of two months, but Lord Alasdair Kirk has returned from what, in private, Charlotte and I call ‘beast taming,’ and in public call ‘gentleman training.’ I shall not sully the pages of this diary with the title bequeathed upon this time by Lord Kirk himself.
Be that as it may, both Charlotte and I are pleased at his improvements, which are many and noticeable. While not perfect, his overall appearance and manner have enthused us both. My secret weapon is a most worthy valet named MacCreedy who was once in the employ of the Duke of Wellington himself and is thus used to dealing with rough and ready men possessing an irascible master.
MacCreedy did his work much better than even I had hoped. Our Beast, if not tamed, is at least better mannered and far better dressed.
Now to see if Beauty notices . . .
Coaches lined the ancient cobbled courtyard of Floors Castle as the guests arrived, one by one. Angus the footman, momentarily relieved of pug duty in order to assist with the mass confusion caused by the arrival of the guests for the duchess's house party, waited impatiently on the Roxburghe coach. After what seemed an indescribable delay, during which the duchess leaned out the salon window no less than four times to ask if the coach carrying Miss Balfour had yet arrived, the blasted thing finally lumbered into the courtyard.
Angus gave a sigh of relief and grabbed up the heavy wooden steps he'd been sitting upon and hurried to meet the coach. The famed Roxburghe crest, a bold unicorn flanked by a muscular arm holding a scimitar in a very audacious manner, was emblazoned upon a side panel and made the coach hard to miss even in the busy courtyard. Angus wished his family had a crest, something equally intimidating. Perhaps a golden dragon carrying arrows or a large snake eating a baby; something to give his neighbors pause when they thought about fishing from his Da's pond.
Angus reached the coach and nodded a greeting to the coachman before placing the carpeted steps upon the cobblestones. Then, just as MacDougal had taught him, he smoothed his hair and made certain his uniform was in place before he opened the door and stood at attention.
He remained still, straining his ears.
Still no guest stirred within the coach.
Angus frowned and wished Miss Balfour would hurry as the chilled November wind was seeping right through his woolen breeches, but no matter the cold, the interior of the coach remained shrouded in silence.
Other coaches jarred into movement, their occupants already walking toward the front door, their trunks being carried to the back entrance. Frowning, Angus shifted from one foot to the other, wondering what he should do. MacDougal's thorough instruction hadn't covered how to assist an absent passenger from an empty coach.
The thought of her grace's impatience in awaiting Miss Balfour made Angus sweat under his woolen uniform despite the chilly afternoon air. What if Miss Balfour hadn't come? Surely the coachman would have said something had that been the case . . . wouldn't he?
Finally, unable to stand the silence a moment more, he stole a quick glance over his shoulder.
The coach was not empty. The duchess's guest was, as he'd expected, a fashionably dressed young woman who, under normal circumstance, would probably look much like the other fashionably dressed young women now strolling toward the castle doors, holding their bonnets in place in the face of the wind. But apparently Miss Balfour had taken advantage of having the entire coach to herself, for she was stretched out upon one cushioned seat, her head propped upon a bunched up cloak, an open book under one hand, a carriage blanket on the floor where it had been across her legs. Her arm was thrown across her face and, as he stared, the softest of snores drifted from her lips.
Angus rubbed his jaw. What was he to do now? He couldn't just leave her sleeping in the coach. Nor could he stand here for hours on end and hold the door while she slept away the day. He would have to wake her, but what was the proper way to awaken a snoozing lady-guest? MacDougal had never mentioned such a potential hazard.
Well, something had to be done. Angus glanced around the courtyard and, seeing no one was within earshot, he leaned forward and cleared his throat as loudly as he could.
Miss Balfour stirred, but didn't awaken. Angus frowned. Nothing. Not a bloomin' thing. He peered around again, and then rapped hard upon the door before stiffening to attention, his hands back at his sides.
The young lady stirred again, more boldly this time. As she did so, the book slipped off her lap. Instantly, as if yanked from her sleep by an invisible connection to the book, Miss Balfour lunged for it, catching it by the back cover just before it hit the coach floor.
Angus, who had jumped at her sudden movement, stared. The young lady was bent at the waist, her sudden movement leaving her hair partially undone and falling in odd loops about her face. Angus gulped as the young lady stared at him, her dark brown eyes wide.
Angus managed a smile. "Miss Balfour?"
She blinked, her long lashes shadowing her eyes. “Yes?”
“Pardon me fer wakin' ye, but I'm to help ye fra' the coach.”
“Coach?” She blinked again, sleep still heavy in her eyes and looked about as if she'd never seen a coach before.
“Aye, miss. Ye were travelin',” he added helpfully. “Ye're comin' to visit her grace, the Duchess of Roxburghe.”
"Oh. Oh yes." Miss Balfour slowly straightened. "For the Christmas Ball."
"Och, tha' be the thing, miss! Ye were sleepin'. I daresay ye dinna remember tha' ye were on yer way here, to Floors Castle, but ye've arrived and, ah . . ." He kindly pointed to the steps.
"Of course." She surprised him with a smile that warmed him despite the wind. “I cannot believe I fell asleep during the best scene in this book, too. There was a fight, you know, between the hero and the villain, and it was most thrilling, but apparently not thrilling enough to keep me awake.”
She shook her head as if to clear the cobwebs and then tried to smooth her riotous brown curls. As she patted them, she glanced around. “Oh dear. I'm missing some pins. I'm always missing some pins.”
Angus wisely kept quiet, though secretly he thought she looked rather nice, friendly even.
She flashed a rueful smile. “I suppose I shall just put my bonnet over the whole mess and refuse to take it off until I've reached the safety of my bed chamber.”
“Tha' should work, miss.”
“I hope so, although what shall I do if someone asks for my bonnet?”
“MacDougal – he's the butler, ye know – he will ask ye fer it, but jus' tell him no and he'll leave off. He dinna tease the guests as he does the footmen.”
Miss Balfour sent Angus an amused glance that made his stomach do an odd flip. Though she was every bit as encased in lace and silks and the other whatnot as the other ladies who graced the halls of Floors Castle like so many butterflies, Angus couldn't remember a one who'd spoken to him directly except to give him an order. And certainly none had sent him that particular laughing look through what he was only now realizing were amazingly pretty brown eyes.
Miss Balfour finished tying her bonnet, making a large bow under one dainty ear before she pulled a pair of gloves from her pelisse pocket and donned them. She then retrieved a large reticule from the tangled blanket on the floor of the coach, and tucked her book inside. “There. I'm ready. I daresay you thought to never hear me utter those words.” She tilted her head to one side. “I know I kept you waiting and-I'm sorry, but did you tell me your name?”
“No, miss. It's Angus.”
“Very well, Angus, I'm finally ready.” Miss Balfour then climbed down from the coach, graciously taking Angus's gloved hand to steady herself.
She was shorter than he'd imagined, barely reaching his shoulder, and he was far from a tall man. She was generously fashioned, too, unlike so many of other ladies, some of which were precariously close to having flat, stick-like figures. Miss Balfour, meanwhile, was rounded and pleasingly plump, rather like a certain round-cheeked milkmaid he'd once been enamored of.
Miss Balfour stepped away from the carriage, tightening her pelisse about her throat. “Goodness, it's cold here!”
“Aye, miss. We've ha' odd weather this year, warm one day and chilled the next. I ne'er know whether to wear me wool coat or the lighter one!”
Dahlia decided she liked the freckled-faced footman. “I faced the same dilemma while packing – do I bring warm clothes or cooler ones. I finally just brought them all, which is why I have so much luggage.”
“I'll see tha' it is unloaded and taken to yer bedchamber.” Angus motioned to some groomsmen who hurried over, and together they set about taking down Dahlia's rather battered trunks and her precious bandboxes.
With nothing left to do, Dahlia looked up at the castle she'd been staying in for the next month. Instantly, her breath caught in the throat. By Diana, I've stepped from a coach and into a fairytale! She could only stare and try to absorb it in . . . try and fail miserably. In all of her twenty years, she'd never seen such a grand castle as the one her godmother, the renowned Duchess of Roxburghe, deigned to call ‘home.’
“Home,” Dahlia whispered to herself. Floors Castle was beyond beautiful. Large mullioned windows shone silver, reflecting the late afternoon sun as proud banners of the Roxburghe blue and gold flapped gently from the ramparts, while overhead puffy ivory clouds lazed in a crystal blue sky.
This was it; what she'd dreamed about since the duchess's invitation had arrived six long months ago. Both of her sisters had attended one of the duchess's much-acclaimed house parties and balls, and both had fallen in love while under this very roof. Dahlia was ready for her chance at that precious thing she'd thus far only read about – true love.
Her heart thudded with excitement. This was what she'd been waiting on her entire life, the culmination of all of her dreams, the-
She turned to find Angus nearby. “Yes?”
He offered a tentative smile that showed a missing front tooth. “Shall I escort ye to the door, miss?”
“Not now, if you don't mind. I've a wish to look about a bit before I go inside. I'm still half asleep and I need to wake up before I meet the duchess.”
“As ye wish, miss. Jus' be careful ye dinna walk in front of a coach.” He glanced about him and then leaned forward to say in a low voice, “Some of the grooms, they do like their drink.”
“Ah. I shall be cautious, then. Thank you for your assistance, Angus. You've been most kind.”
He beamed. “Och, ‘twas naught. Good day, miss.” He gave her an obviously much-practiced bow. “Ha’ a lovely stay, miss, and if ye e'er need anythin', jus' say the word.”
“Thank you, Angus. I shall.”
He bowed and then hurried off, pausing to pick up the carpeted steps as he went.
A coach started up and rolled past. Dahlia moved out of the way, glancing about the bustling courtyard. She didn't any of the dozens of guests who were now walking toward the huge oak doors held open by livered footmen. Not that she'd expected to know any of them, for until now she'd never traveled farther than the villages around her home, Caith Manor, which was buried deep in the Scottish countryside near Aberdeenshire.
A peel of laughter caught Dahlia's attention and she caught sight of a young lady surrounded by a bevy of handsome gentlemen, all vying for her attention. The lady was about the same age as Dahlia, and dressed in a pelisse of green velvet trimmed with brown braid. As lovely as she was gowned, she was no more fashionably dressed than Dahlia, but somehow the young lady managed to look . . . better. More fashionable. Prettier.
Dahlia bit her lip. Was it the woman's perfectly coiffed blonde hair? Dahlia liked her hair, though it was far from fashionably cut. Instead of being neatly trimmed so it required few pins to attain the latest styles, her hair was long, thick, and curly, rather in the manner of the heroines in the novels she loved. She wasn't as fond of the color, which was a mundane light brown, but fortunately, because of her propensity to go for long walks through the fields around Caith Manor for hours on end, the sun had streaked the brown with gold until even she was satisfied with the bread crust and honey colors.
So perhaps it wasn't the woman's hair, but her creamy complexion. Sadly for Dahlia, the sun had been just as encouraging to her freckles, which now dotted her nose. She'd powdered her face before leaving the house, but the powder would be gone by now and she was certain several of her freckles had only become more prominent over the last few days for, excited about her coming visit, she'd walked even more often than usual.
Dahlia's sister Lily used to warn about the brutal effects of the sun, but a walk was so much less fun when one had to pin on a bothersome hat and wear ridiculously long-sleeved gowns as if preparing for a snowstorm.
But now, watching the pretty lady disappear through the castle doors with her admirers, Dahlia wished she'd heeded her sister's advice a bit more. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. Freckled, tanned, and curly-mopped she might be, but she was also the duchess's goddaughter and her grace had promised to assist Dahlia in meeting the most eligible men society had to offer. Surely that would be enough. Dahlia wanted to find true love, the kind that wasn't frightened away by a few freckles. The kind of love my sisters have found.
The thought made her smile as she reached the marble steps. As sad as it was, in all of her twenty years, she'd never once been in love. At one time, when she'd been much younger and hadn't understood the nature of true love, she'd thought she might be, but that had turned out to be a mere infatuation. The man had proven to be must unworthy of her burgeoning affections, for he had no manners and no true heart, either, for he'd ridiculed anything romantic, mocked anything tender-hearted, and eschewed anything that smacked of – as he called it – ‘silly feelings.’
She almost scowled at thought, but quickly schooled her face back into a smile. There was no sense in thinking about that now. With the encouragement of her family, her short infatuation had ended. Now, if someone wished to woo her, she wished it to be done correctly, passionately, with soft words and whispered compliments, flowers and soulful glances, romantic notes and – oh, this time she wanted it all.
So here she was, walking into a real castle, ready to begin her own life fairytale, ready to be blessed by a godmother who, better than a mythical fairy godmother, was a well-placed and wealthy duchess who threw fabulous balls and was known for her matchmaking skills – Dahlia almost chuckled to herself. Such good fortune!
Hurrying her steps, she walked into the castle behind two young ladies who'd arrived in separate coaches. Upon seeing each other, they'd fallen upon one another like life long friends and were now excitedly chattering about a variety of people Dahlia had never heard of. They walked into the castle foyer, Dahlia close behind.
The second she stepped into the foyer, all thoughts fled. Never had she seen a more beautiful room in all of her life. Her amazed gaze followed walls covered in blue Chinese silk painted with gilt and green flowers to the high ceiling where a mural of a flowered paradise featuring vignettes featuring plump angels and a benevolently smiling God. Even the parquet floor had not been spared adornment as the center had been fashioned into a trompe l'oeil pattern. Dahlia scarcely knew where to look next and her dazed attempt to absorb all of these beauties at once stole her breath. It was an ostentatious display, and yet it was artistically done so that the words ‘garish’ or ‘vulgar’ never entered one's mind. It was simply beautiful beyond-
A giggle made Dahlia turn and she realized she'd been slowly spinning in a circle, her head tilted back to take in as much of the foyer as possible, one hand plopped upon her bonnet holding it firmly in place. Face heated, she lowered her gaze, released her bonnet.
The two women continued to smirk. Dahlia didn't suppose she could blame them. She tried for a friendly smile. “I'm sorry. I daresay I look the bumpkin staring in such a way, but-” She waved at the ceiling. “It's simply beautiful.”
They glanced indifferently at the mural. The taller of them smirked. “I daresay you haven't yet seen the pavilion in Brighton. It's far more opulent and-Ah, MacDougal. There you are.”
A very proper butler, tall and angular, seemed to appear from nowhere. He bowed and spoke in a deep tone that was surprisingly thick with a brogue. “Lady Mary, wha' a pleasure to ha' ye back. How's yer father, the Earl of Buchan?”
“He's well, thank you. He'll be joining us before the ball.”
“Tha' will please her grace. I'll make certain his favorite bed chamber is readied.”
“Thank you.” Lady Mary threw a hand toward her companion. “I'm sure you remember Miss Alayne Stewart. The Stewarts are neighbors of ours. She was a guest here last year, too.”
“O' course I know Miss Stewart.” The butler bowed. “If'n ye're ready to be escorted to yer bed chambers, I'll take yer pelisses and bonnets and ha' them brushed and returned to ye.”
Lady Mary inclined her head, and removed her pelisse and bonnet, revealing a beautiful traveling gown of blue with gold trim. The color set off her deep auburn hair to perfection.
Dahlia had to admit that Lady Mary was attractive, although her blond-haired companion was less so. Miss Stewart's face was longer, her nose pointed and her teeth protruding the slightest bit, so that she looked like an angry rabbit. Despite this unfortunate tendency, her traveling gown of pale pink adorned with green satin bows proclaimed her a woman of fashion.
Lady Mary peeled off her gloves. “MacDougal, where is her grace? I'd like to say good afternoon before I retire to rest before dinner.”
“She's welcomin' other guests at the moment, but will be glad to hear tha' ye asked fer her.”
Lady Mary didn't look too happy about the butler's answer, but he didn't seem to notice, turning away to assign a footman to escort her and Miss Stewart upstairs. As the two walked toward the grand staircase, he mentioned that – if the two ladies were so inclined – a light repast had been laid out in the dining room along with ratafia and sherry. That seemed to go a long way to soothing Lady Mary's ruffled feelings.
When the other women had disappeared, the butler turned to Dahlia. To her surprise, as soon as he looked her full in the face, his visage softened. “Och, ye mus' be Miss Balfour, if I'm no' mistaken.”
“Why yes. How did you know?”
“Och, I know yer sisters and ye've the look o' them to ye.” He smiled gently. “They be true ladies, the both of them.”
“Indeed, they are.” She hesitated and then confided, “I miss them very much.”
“I canno' wonder at tha', fer we miss them here and we hardly had them wit' us fer a month at a settin'. We've been lookin' forward to yer visit fer months now.”
Dahlia smiled. “Thank you.”
“'Tis naught but the truth, miss. Shall I take yer coat and bonnet?”
“I believe I'll wear my bonnet up to my room. My hair-” She curled her nose. “It's not fit for human eyes.”
He chuckled. “As ye wish, miss.”
She'd just handed her pelisse and gloves to him when a feminine voice tinged with the faintest hint of a Scottish accent rang across the hallway. “MacDougal, has she come yet?”
Dahlia turned to see a slender, older woman wearing a beautiful morning gown of yellow silk hurrying through a pair wide doors toward her, a number of roly-poly pugs panting to keep up with her. As she came closer, Dahlia realized that the woman was far older than the style of her gown suggested, her beaked nose and bright blue eyes making her as memorable as the red wig pinned upon her head. The woman's gaze was still locked upon the butler. “You must tell me the second she arrives! I've been waiting in salon for-Ah!” The lady stopped in front of Dahlia. “Why, you are already here! My dear Miss Balfour, finally, you have come!”
MacDougal, beaming fondly at the fiery-haired lady, now announced in an impressively stentorian voice, “Her grace, the Duchess of Roxburghe.”
This is the duchess? But she looks so lively! Dahlia had always imagined that the duchess would be stately and reserved. Aware of the bright blue eyes now examining her from head to toe, Dahlia sank into a quick curtsey. As she did so, one of the pugs ran up to sniff her skirt. Dahlia chuckled when it sneezed so hard that it jumped back several inches.
“Feenie, stop snuffing Miss Balfour's skirt!” The duchess frowned at the dog before turning back to Dahlia. “I'm sorry, but they are sadly unruly. I don't know why, for I keep a firm hand on them all.”
Dahlia thought she detected a flash of disbelief on MacDougal's face, although the butler quickly hid it. “What lovely dogs!” she said. To hide her smile, Dahlia bent to pat some of the less bouncy pugs. One of the dogs seemed to be considerably older, his eyes milky, his tail wagging calmly. She smiled at him and rubbed his ear before straightening. “What delightful dogs! I've always wished to have one, but my father does not believe they belong in the house.”
“I'll remind you of that when they steal one of your good ribbons and run madly though the hallways, streaming it after them like a comet.” The duchess's blue eyes gleamed with humor. “Now come. Lady Charlotte has been impatiently awaiting your arrival since we sent the coach for you and I-Oh. You still have on your bonnet.”
“I can't remove it as my hair was sadly mussed on the way here.” As the duchess looked uncertain, Dahlia added, "I look like a scarecrow, your graceno two strands are pointing in the same direction. I fear that I slept upon it and only a damp brush will set it to rights."
The duchess nodded in understanding. “Then by all means, leave your bonnet on.”
“Thank you, your grace. I assure you that it will make us both more comfortable.”
“If you say so, my dear. My hair used to give me just such fits, but I've since tamed it.”
Dahlia glanced at the duchess's red wig and wondered it that was how the duchess had tamed her unruly hair or if there were other secrets under the wig.
Her grace slipped an arm through Dahlia's and led her toward the salon, as inexorable as the ocean. “I'm so glad you've arrived! We've such delights planned. It seemed to take the coach forever to bring you to us. Charlotte was certain you'd forgotten.”
"Forgotten? To come here? I've been holding my breath thinking the day would never come. To be honest, it feels as if I've been looking forward to this event for most of my life."
The duchess looked pleased. "We feel the same, I assure you. I think you'll enjoy our Christmas Ball. It's much larger than our annual Winter Ball, which used to be our most festive occasion until Charlotte and I decided to expand our social calendar. It's so expanded now that Roxburhge swears he cannot come home without finding the house full of people. He's right, you know. We've fairly packed the months with house parties and balls, but then, what's a castle for, if not to entertain?"
“All year long? That must be taxing.”
“Not for Charlotte and I; we find it quite worthwhile. All of our balls have been huge successes-well, all of them expect our Butterfly Ball, which we held last year but will not be doing so again.”
“Why not? Lily said it was lovely.”
They reached the huge double doors and the duchess led the way through. “Your sister was merely being kind. For reasons I dare not explain for fear of making you shudder, Lady Charlotte and I've decided to never again-Ah! Charlotte, look who I found in the foyer.”
A kindly looking woman hurried forward. Her fashionable gown of dove gray accented with heavy cream lace rustled as she walked, while the lace-trimmed mobcap perched upon her curls flapped with each step. Short and plump and beaming, she looked like a small, good-natured fairy. “Miss Balfour, what a pleasure!”
“Lady Charlotte.” Dahlia dipped a curtsey. Just as she was rising, she caught sight of a tall figure behind Lady Charlotte near the fireplace. The man stirred the fire with a brass-knobbed poker but, to her faint surprise, didn't look around at her arrival.
His lack of interest piqued hers and she examined as much as him as she could see. He was fashionably dressed, his broad shoulders and narrow waist were well displayed by his fitted coat and breeches. Dahlia wondered why he was here, waiting in the room the duchess had practically dragged her to. Her grace must think this gentleman could be a good suitor. At the thought, Dahlia's pulse quickened.
Her grace's gaze followed Dahlia's to the strangers. The duchess frowned and, apparently impatient with the gentleman's lack of attention, she cleared her throat.
The man finished banking the fire, apparently in no hurry to heed the duchess's hints. Dahlia had the oddest impression that he was hesitant to turn around. Perhaps he doesn't wish to be presented as suitor. Has the duchess forced him into this meeting? Her uncertainty grew until, just as he bent to replace the poker, she caught a glimpse of his profile.
Her heart gave an odd leap. Before he turned to face her, she already knew what she'd see – the deep red slash of a jagged scar that sliced brow to chin, marring a face of such masculine beauty that at one time she'd been certain his was a face worthy of the best Greek tragedies.
Dahlia glared and said through clenched teeth, "Lord Kirk, who invited you?"