After the death of his older brother, 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 in shipping—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 the duties of 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.
In order to win over his uncle, Leo offers her a fortune to pretend an engagement with him. It seems the ideal solution, especially when Leo and Poppy rediscover love and passion. The one flaw? If their ruse succeeds, they’re ensuring that they’ll be parted forever…
Theresa Romain is the bestselling author of historical romances, including the Matchmaker trilogy, the Holiday Pleasures series, the Royal Rewards series, and the Romance of the Turf trilogy. Praised as “one of the rising stars of Regency historical romance” (Booklist), she has received a starred review from Booklist and was a 2016 RITA® finalist. A member of Romance Writers of America® and its Regency specialty chapter The Beau Monde, Theresa is hard at work on her next novel from her home in the Midwest.
THE PRODIGAL DUKE
From Chapter 1
Sixty feet was a long way to fall.
But here on her wire sixty feet above the ground—here and nowhere else on earth—Poppy feared nothing. Here, she ruled a world of her own.
When she looked down, her eyes dazzled from the thick scatter of lamps brightening the twilight-dark sky. But Poppy didn’t need sharp sight to keep her footing. Though the rope was little more than a shadow before her, she knew it by feel. Her white and gold balance pole served as an extra set of arms, fully eight yards long, and flexible and strong as sinew. It drooped gently, grounding her to earth, even as she walked high above. Above the owners of Vauxhall, who tinkered with her show almost on a weekly basis. Make the rope longer. Make the mast taller. Shorten your skirts. Run as quickly as you can. Pause at the middle of the rope to dance.
Sixty feet in the air, she could forget all of that—except for the payment. A week on the wire paid the same wages a housemaid received in a year. And one season at Vauxhall? Why, it would pay almost enough for a new beginning. Because the war had ended in June, she could escape to the south of France and live in a cottage among lavender and olive trees.
The orchestra played at a distance, the lilting beat of a comic song floating through the air. Poppy let it carry her forward, one step, another and another, in time with the faint music. Beneath her knee-length skirts, long pantalettes protected her modesty and left her legs wonderfully unencumbered. Letting her balance pole hold her steady, she stepped back, a quick dancing beat, then took a hop forward that made the people far below her gasp. A crowd loved nothing so much as thinking she was about to fall.
But Penelope Hayworth—known here as Madame Haut and everywhere else as Poppy—never set a foot wrong anymore. Not in her daily life, and certainly not on a tightrope.
She stepped forward again, a quick shift of her weight, then darted forward—racing, as she’d so often done along the fences and rails of the Duke of Westfair’s lands. Applause followed her, a ripple of sound that swelled until she reached the end of the long rope. Here a pair of posts tilted together to clasp the rope tight, leaving a vee at the top and a rope end that trailed to the ground below.
She notched her balancing pole into the vee. Lord Bexley—the run-ragged viscount overseeing the coming celebrations in honor of Waterloo and the Prince Regent’s birthday—would see it hooked safely down and stored for her next performance. For tonight, she was done. She slid down the trailing rope to the small cordoned-off area at its base, gritting her teeth against the familiar collision of feet with earth.
It didn’t come. Instead, hands caught her about the waist from behind, gentling her landing.
Her panicked reflex was instant: Poppy flung out an elbow and stomped backward, seeking the arch of the assailant’s foot. “Do not touch me! My contract states quite clearly that I am not to be touched.”
The hands lifted. “My apologies. I haven’t read your contract.”
That voice. Nothing else could have stilled her attack at once. She knew that voice, though she had not heard it for six years. She would have recognized it if sixty years had passed.
Her voice quavered as she spoke through shallow breaths. “You are not the guard who is supposed to keep the crowd away.”
“I am not, no.” A flicker of laughter brightened the words.
Tottering, she put a steadying hand on the rope she’d just slid down, then ventured a slow, cautious turn. “Leo.”
It was him. It was really him.
“Hullo, Poppy.” He lifted his hands, that sweet, saucy grin on his face. “Thank the Lord you’re on solid ground again. I was all in knots watching you.”
“You never did like climbing anything higher than the staircase in your family’s town house.” She hardly knew what she was saying. Here was Leonidas Billingsley, tall and handsome as ever. Her old friend Leo, who’d had her heart in his pocket along with half the Westfair money when he left England six years before. Now, with the death of his older brother Richard, he had become the Duke of Westfair.
And now he was home.
And he was laughing. “Do you have to remember that about me? Couldn’t you remember something more heroic?”
“Who says I don’t?”
Wait. That wasn’t right, was it? Ought she to be pleased to see him or not? At some point in the last six years she had retrieved her heart from his keeping. She knew, because it was pounding heartily in her chest.
She shook her head. Tried again. “What are you doing here, Leo?”
“I came to see you, obviously. I arrived in London yesterday and am staying at the Westfair town house. My uncle told me you were performing at Vauxhall tonight. As a ropedancer! It was truly impressive, at least what I could bear to watch of it.”
Poppy smiled. “I called on Ubie last week. I suppose he couldn’t help but share all my gossip.” Uncle Bernard, Leo’s mother’s brother, had lived in the Westfair household since the death of the old duke. When Leo and Poppy had run tame across their families’ adjoining lands, Poppy had grown fond of Ubie and had given him the nickname he grudgingly tolerated.
Poppy’s call on Ubie at the Westfair town house had been an ordinary visit, with ordinary tea and biscuits and chat. They hadn’t spoken of Leo. What would have been the point? Though he had been summoned from abroad after his elder brother’s death months before, no one knew when—or whether—he would return.
She eyed him closely. No, he wasn’t the same Leo who had left, after all. At twenty-one, he’d been wiry and quicksilver. Now twenty-seven, he seemed more solid. His shoulders were broader, with a confident set to them.
“So you came to see me,” Poppy said. “That’s all you wanted? To avert your eyes and greet me?” She sank to the worn grass to unlace her slippers.
“By no means. I’m not averting my eyes now. What are you doing?” Leo was instantly crouching before her, curious as ever.
“I always change my shoes after a performance.” Might as well cling to this shred of normalcy. She wiggled one foot free, her bare toes chilled despite the sultriness of the evening, then held up the slipper. “See? I can’t go walking around in these.”
Her laced performance shoes fitted to her feet, tight as second skins. Their thin leather soles were waxy with the same resin that heavily coated the high wire.
As she removed the second shoe, Leo regarded the first with fascination. “Special shoes for walking on a rope. I’d never have thought of it. Didn’t you used to walk every rail barefoot?”
“I did.” She turned away to retrieve the small case she kept at the end of the rope, then exchanged her slippers for a pair of half boots she stored in there. “But the owners of Vauxhall, the Barrett brothers, informed me that my bare feet were too provocative. So I had to fashion something else.”
Leo’s eyes fastened on her feet, pale against the dark earth and worn grass. Her toes curled shyly, as if trying to hide their nakedness.
“Very provocative,” he agreed with mock graveness. “As opposed to the skirts that show off your knees, which are sedate as a nun’s.”
“Ah, well, those are just good business sense,” she replied. “Or so the Barretts explained to me. If I wore a long dress and tripped over the train, the performance would be over far too quickly.”
“I imagine ropedancers toppling to earth would lead to poor ticket sales.”
“Indeed. Which is why I shall probably have to have a net next time I perform.” She eased on one half-boot, then the next, acutely aware of the crowd around them. Not that a woman changing her shoes was the most scandalous sight at Vauxhall by far—but still, Poppy was used to the shield of her guard.
Whom, she now saw, was holding a tankard in one hand and a plump woman’s derriere in the other. Leo must have given the guard a coin to leave his post. Nice to know he was so easily bribed.
“Why a net?” Leo rose to his feet, then extended a hand to her.
She placed hers in his, glad for his gloves that kept her bare hands from touching his skin. “The Prince Regent,” she explained, hopping to her feet, “has arranged for a series of celebrations in his own honor. Oh, and also in the honor of the victory at Waterloo this past June. Lord Bexley is trying to make sense of the budget and keep dramatics to a minimum. Which means if I am so foolish as to fall from the wire, it must be into a net. Once a net can be procured, that is.”
She released his hand, brushing dry blades of grass off her skirts. “Are you planning to stay at the gardens for a while? Or do you want to accompany me home?”
Leo smirked. “Why, Poppy, we’ve only just got reacquainted.”
Her cheeks heated. “I didn’t mean like that,” she blurted. “I just wondered if you wanted to walk with me. Since you came here to see me. I live in a very proper room, not far from here. I rent from a widow who defines respectability, so you couldn’t try…anything. Even if you wanted to.”
“I am gratified to hear that your landlady is watching out for men who try to exercise their base instincts. They are, no doubt, the sort of men who would be given to frothing with desire at the sight of bare toes.”
Some of them didn’t even need that much. Poppy was acutely aware of the shortness of her skirts, the bareness of her arms. She folded her arms across her chest. “There is a reason why I have a guard and why my contract specifies that I am not to be touched.”
Too late by far to do any good, unfortunately. A woman couldn’t live her life protected by a contract.
“I’ll accompany you home, if you’d like to depart. I do need to talk to you.” Leo’s dark brows knit. “But you’ll be cold walking around in your costume. Here.”
Before she could protest, he shrugged out of his coat, draping the heavy wool around her shoulders. This left him in shirt-sleeves and a waistcoat, which state of undress seemed to bother him not at all. And indeed, if one were to strip off random articles of clothing without censure, Vauxhall would be the place.
The look suited him: tousled dark hair beneath a high-crowned hat; a perfectly tied neckcloth and no coat whatsoever. The lines of his arms and shoulders were hard and strong. He was unmistakably a gentleman, but every inch a rogue.
“Thank you,” she said cautiously, clutching the lapels of the coat together. It was soft and fine and dark, cloth woven and dyed and tailored with the greatest care. The faint, spicy scent of bergamot tickled her nose. Once wrapped in this dark coat, she would look like a floating head with her light hair. The notion made her smile. “I ought to tell you, though, I have a cloak. It’s in the same case where I kept my spare shoes.”
“Ah! Perfect.” Leo snapped up the case and withdrew the black cloak, shaking out its folds. With a jaunty gesture, he twirled it around his shoulders and tied it about his neck. “Now I don’t have to be cold either.”
Poppy had to laugh. “It’s much too short.”
“Nonsense. It’s my costume. You’re wearing a costume, I’m wearing a costume. It’s perfect.”
She laughed again, and he smiled. “There, that’s what I really wanted.” He removed the cloak, draping it over one forearm. “It’s good to hear you laugh, Poppy. I always did feel happy when I heard you laugh.”
You could have heard my laugh many times over the past six years, if you’d stayed in England.
But she knew why he’d left. He had only done what his family had forced him to do.
* * *
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