If the Duke of Robinsworth had known it would be so difficult to raise a daughter alone, he never would have killed his wife. He would have coddled her, wrapped her in lace and taffeta, and put her on a shelf so the whole world could view her beauty.
Even though he’d never admitted it, everyone knew he’d killed her. And though he refused to share the details, they were all correct.
His daughter broke him from his reverie when she stomped her foot and demanded that he purchase not one, but two, sweets from the vendor.
Ashley was quite used to the antics of his daughter, and although they were annoying, they never bothered him overmuch. When she became too unruly, he simply left her with a nurse. If it happened at home, he left the manor. He’d even left the country once. But she was always there when he returned, always just as petulant as she had been the day he left. He’d resigned himself to the fact that she would never change.
Anne was a perfect re-creation of his late wife. Her long blond curls danced around her face. Her porcelain skin and blue eyes reminded him of a doll he’d seen once in a shop window. The only difference: the doll didn’t have a temper like Anne. Yes, she had inherited that from her mother, too.
When Anne was younger, she would drop to the ground and kick and scream when she didn’t get her way, flopping about like a fish out of water. Now she simply scrunched up her pert little nose and screeched.
Ashley winced as she shrieked out the words, “I want it!”
He took a step toward the child, fully prepared to throw her over his shoulder and drag her back to her nurse, who waited on a park bench nearby, when a woman stepped forward. His breath caught in his throat as she entered his line of sight. She was the opposite of his late wife, who’d been blond and thin and fragile.
His gaze traveled over the woman’s rounded hips to her ample breasts, nearly hidden among the frills and folds of her light-blue gown. He lingered there, imagining how she would look in a gown that didn’t have quite so many trimmings hiding her curves. When his eyes finally rose to meet hers, her flashing hazel orbs held censure. Ashley coughed into his hand in a horrible attempt to hide the smile that wanted to erupt. It had been years since he’d been so well scolded. And she’d yet to even speak to him.
Before he could say a word to her, the auburn-haired nymph looked down her nose at his daughter and said, “Ladies do not shriek.”
His own little termagant rolled her eyes in a horrid display of social ineptitude.
The woman raised her eyebrows at Anne and said, her voice a bit crisper, “Ladies do not roll their eyes.”
“But I want another,” Anne snarled, stomping her foot.
The beautiful woman smiled at his daughter, a dimple appearing in her left cheek. People very rarely smiled at Anne because she was so obnoxious that most gentlewomen turned from her in disgust.
“May I tell you a secret?” she asked of Anne. Then she looked at Ashley, who nearly fell over trying to avoid leaning toward her so he could hear her soft voice as she spoke to Anne. “Do you mind?” she asked, smiling as she asked him for permission to speak to the girl.
“No,” Ashley said, waving his hand negligently. “You may disclose all the secrets you wish.” He wanted to add that she could whisper a few in his ear as well, but he assumed she’d take that as an insult.
She knelt down to Anne’s level and whispered in her ear. Anne’s nose turned down slightly until she suddenly smiled. She covered her mouth with her fingertips and giggled.
“Go on.” She nudged Anne forward. “Try it.” She shot Ashley a quick look that encouraged him to play along.
Anne tugged gently on his sleeve. “Yes, Anne?” he said quickly, finding it painful to tear his gaze away from the stranger long enough to look down at his own daughter. But when he did, he was surprised to see the pleasant smile that curled her lips.
“Papa, may I please have another treat? I regret to inform you that they are pitifully small.”
Ashley glanced up at the lady, who smiled at what must have been his perplexed look. He stared at her for a moment, unable to draw his eyes away, until Anne tugged at his sleeve and whispered, “I should like to grow up to be as sweet as the lady someday.”
Ashley turned to the street vendor and asked for two more treats. He promptly gave one to his daughter, who was delighted by her newfound ability to win her father’s favor. Then he looked over at the lady who’d transformed his daughter and winked.
Sophia felt certain she turned ten shades of red when the man turned and winked at her. It was such a masculine gesture, and not one that was commonly tossed in her direction. Of course, considering that he was the Duke of Robinsworth, Ashley Trimble, to be more exact, it was completely fitting.
It did gratify Sophia a bit to see that the child took her advice and approached her father in a gracious and respectful way. She smiled softly when he placed the treat in the girl’s hands and bent to kiss her forehead.
Sophia turned to walk away but heard quick footsteps behind her. “Miss?” The child called for her. Sophia looked down at her smiling face. She held up a second treat and said, “My papa said this one is for you.”
Sophia hesitated for a moment before she took the wrapped square from the child. “Thank you very much.”
“Wait.” When the girl’s father’s voice reached her, it hit her like a runaway horse, making the hair on her neck stand up and her belly drop toward her toes. His quick footsteps hurried across the cobblestone walk toward her. He stopped, his blue eyes darting to and fro in the nearly empty park. “If your chaperone sees me speak to you, I fear she’ll steal you away almost as quickly as you appeared.” He let the last trail off as he waited for her to fill the empty space.
Quite the opposite. Her grandmother had contrived the scheme so they could meet in the first place. “I appreciate the flattery, but I have not required a chaperone for a number of years. We do things differently where I’m from, you see.”
“And where might that be?” His blue eyes danced at her.
Unpardonable Error Number Three: Never share the existence of the fae. “I’m certain you’ve never heard of it.”
His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Should she extend her hand to him? Try as she might, she was unable to remember all the social proprieties this world was based upon. Her grandmother had repeatedly tried to drill them into her throughout the years. And failed. “My name is Sophia Thorne, Your Grace,” she finally provided.
His gaze grew shuttered at the words “Your Grace,” almost as though a heavy curtain dropped between them that was difficult to see through. She wished she could bite the words back as soon as they left her lips.
“My reputation must precede me,” he said as he looked away. Sadness suddenly overwhelmed his features. “I’ll let you be on your way.” He bowed slightly and turned from her.
“Your Grace?” Sophia called. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, no hint of the playfulness she’d seen earlier present in his gaze.
“I’ve never rested much faith upon the opinions of others, Your Grace,” she said slowly. “I prefer to draw my own conclusions.”
A sardonic smile broke across his face. “You could very well ruin your reputation by being seen in my company, Miss Thorne.”
She shrugged. “One must have a reputation in order to ruin it, Your Grace. And to be more succinct, one must care.”
A smile that might be genuine slowly lifted the corners of his lips. “I thank you for the help with my daughter. How did you do it?”
She shrugged again. She’d simply treated the child with respect and firmness, both of which the girl was surely lacking. But that was neither here nor there. “Most women learn to manage men at an early age,” she laughed. “It appears as though your daughter has not.”
“Not until today.”
“I was happy to help.” Sophia held up the wrapped square of candy. “And these are my favorite,” she admitted, unable to keep from smiling at him.
The little girl tugged at her father’s sleeve. “Can we go home now, Papa?”
The duke pulled his watch fob from his pocket and flipped it open. “Actually, I do have some things to attend to,” he said apologetically as he touched the top of his daughter’s head. “Tell Miss Thorne good-bye and thank you,” he instructed her.
Instead of dropping into a curtsy, the girl locked her arms around Sophia’s waist and squeezed. Sophia was almost too surprised to return the embrace.
“Perhaps I’ll see you again another day,” she said to the little blonde.
“I can only hope,” the duke said quietly, his gaze meeting hers only briefly before he turned away, took his daughter’s hand, and started down the lane that led to the entrance of the park.
Sophia took a moment to catch her breath. It wouldn’t do for her to swoon in the middle of the park. Not at a mere suggestion from the dangerous Duke of Robinsworth. The man was a walking scandal. A walking scandal that made her pulse pound so loudly she could hear it.
“Well, that went better than I expected, dear,” her grandmother said as she stepped into her line of sight.
“Better than I thought,” Sophia lamented.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to feign the mannerisms of the British ton. But you did fairly well.”
She certainly still had a lot to learn about this world. The land of the fae might look similar, but none of its magic was present in this world. Here, people wore full clothing, and not a single one of them had wings or pointy ears the way she did. Just willing her own wings away was difficult and not something she usually had to concentrate so hard to do.
“He seemed discontent about my lack of a chaperone,” Sophia said. “Do you think I need one, to look like one of them?”
“Perhaps we should have Margaret shadow you a little more,” her grandmother sug…