Never Romance a Rogue, Book 3 in Fortune's Brides: The Wedding Vow Series
June 13, 2022 (Edwards and Williams)
He was supposed to marry her best friend, but he couldn't say no to her.
No one has ever refused a request from Lady Belle Dryden. Her pretty face and winsome nature almost guarantee it, and the fact that she's the youngest daughter of the Duke of Wey doesn't hurt. So she's certain when she plays matchmaker between her dearest friend, Miss Petunia Bateman, and the charming, mysterious Owen Canady, both will be only too happy to fall in love. After all, Belle feels herself falling for Owen already. A shame a duke's daughter must marry someone more impressive.
Owen Canady is a gentleman by birth, a pauper by circumstance, and a con man by necessity. Life has taught him he can rely only on his wits and a fast horse to get by. But when he is blackmailed into ferreting out the secrets of the Duke of Wey at a house party at the duke's lavish estate, he finds his resolve crumbling. Belle is everything that is right and good in the world. He cannot betray her.
As her father's enemies grow more daring, Belle and Owen must work together to protect all they hold dear. When his own secrets are revealed, can Owen convince the lady who's never heard no to say yes to him?
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Reviews and Endorsements
A+! "Wow!! I loved Never Romance a Rogue. I can't wait until the next one!" -- Hott Book Reviews
"Great characters here, friends from previous books make great appearances. I loved it!" -- Simply Susan Review Blog
"If you enjoy romance, tough choices with high stakes, and clever personalities, then this will be a novel you don't want to miss." -- Author Susan Marlene
"Suspense heightens as the story progresses, and the ending left me feeling wonderful." -- Huntress Reviews
"A delightful tale, blending mystery, adventure, and romance with the right amount of humor. Readers who enjoy historical fiction will enjoy this wonderful story!" -- Among the Reads
Wey Castle, Surrey, England, Late July 1825
Lady Abelona Dryden, youngest daughter of the Duke of Wey, had never heard the word no.
Oh, it had been uttered occasionally in her presence, but her sunny disposition, winning smile, and engaging manner generally banished it fairly quickly. If those didn't work, the application of impeccable logic, a few blinks of her jade-colored eyes, and the toss of her golden curls usually did the trick. So it was peculiar that she was having such a difficult time convincing her dearest friend, Petunia Bateman, to settle on a gentleman to marry.
That it was Belle's responsibility to see Tuny happy, no one questioned. It often fell to Belle to right wrongs, and it was surely a very great wrong that the right fellow hadn't proposed. Tuny had been out for three Seasons to Belle's one. Her own family had sent her to live with Belle and the duke's family this Season in hopes a more suitable gentleman might present himself. Tuny was smart and kind, with a dry wit and a loyal heart. It was only right and just that she find a match.
It wasn't as if she had no choices. Several gentlemen had shown interest this Season, but, one by one, seeing no encouragement from Belle's friend, they had succumbed to the blandishments of other ladies. Belle had held out hope for the quiet Lord Ashforde, even though Tuny insisted they were incompatible in spirit. And then Owen Canady had joined their circle. Surely, he was the one for Tuny.
Belle paused in the act of placing the last lily in the arrangement on the walnut credenza in the withdrawing room overlooking the castle courtyard. How many times had she imagined meeting the one for her? She knew exactly what would happen. Her pulse would stutter, then hammer against her chest. Fortune, her aunt's cat, who had matched every lady in the family since Belle's mother and father, would approve of him with a purr. He would be, all in all, perfection.
She sighed as she slipped the lily into place in the Chinese porcelain vase.
"That's a contented sound," her mother mused as she came to join her by the window. "Ready for this house party to begin?"
"Very," Belle assured her. "Thank you for agreeing to host it, Mother."
Her mother's face widened in a grin. Some said to this day that she did not resemble a proper duchess, having first been governess to Belle and her sisters. Rubbish. Anyone looking at that thick, dark hair wound in a coronet braid around her head, the warmth in those brown eyes, and the confident way she held her sturdy figure would know they were meeting quality.
"It was my pleasure," her mother said. "Though I was a bit surprised by your guest list. There seems to be more married or engaged couples than bachelors and ladies."
Belle wiggled her eyebrows. "Which leaves the bachelors with little to do but find the proper lady."
Her mother chuckled. "Clever girl. And which bachelor holds your interest?"
Owen Canady's face came to mind, all firm lines and planes, sparkling blue eyes whispering of untold depths. Tuny found him charming. Truth be told, most everyone Belle knew found him charming. She herself was not immune to the tousled raven hair, the neat mustache and beard, that endearing smile, and the faint lilt of an Irish accent.
"No gentleman in particular," Belle said. "This party is for Tuny."
Her mother slipped an arm about her waist as they headed toward the door. "Good for you for helping a friend. So, which bachelor is for Tuny?"
"All of them," Belle said merrily. "But I have the highest hopes for Mr. Canady."
From downstairs came the sound of carriage wheels on the courtyard outside. Belle broke away from her mother to give her hand a squeeze. "They're here!"
Her mother laughed as Belle picked up her green plaid skirts and dashed to the landing. Oh, how carefully Belle had selected to attend a house party at her family's country estate, Wey Castle. The games, activities, and outings she had planned were designed to bring Tuny and Mr. Canady together. Frequently. Surely, under such congenial circumstances, love would blossom.
It had already blossomed for her two older sisters. Larissa and Callie were engaged to twin brothers, Prince Otto Leopold and Count Frederick Montalban of Batavaria. And it was because Belle had convinced them and Tuny to agree to a vow: all four of them would be happily wed by harvest. Once she had Tuny betrothed, it would be Belle's turn. Surely, the perfect gentleman was only days away.
She clung to the polished wood railing and leaned over to gaze down at the entry hall below. Mrs. Winters, their white-haired housekeeper, was already at the door, with their footmen, Davis and Wills, flanking her.
"Sir Matthew, Lady Bateman, welcome back to Wey Castle," she said as Tuny's brother and sister-in-law came through the wide double doors. Sir Matthew nodded his thanks, his broad shoulders taking up considerable space. He bent his dark head closer to his wife's russet hair and murmured something. Charlotte smiled up at him.
Tuny came through the door next, one hand clutching that of her older niece, Rose, and the other her younger niece, Daphne. Rose had the same reddish hair as her mother, while Daphne favored their father's sable hair. Both were squirming in their cape-fronted pelisses.
"That's our cue," Belle's mother said to her, and the two of them sailed down the stairs to greet their guests. From other parts of the castle, Belle's sisters Larissa and Callie, her younger brothers Thalston and Peter, and their father came to join them, until the flag-stoned entry hall was quite crowded indeed, and laughter rang up to the painted ceiling three stories above them.
"I'm so glad you came," Belle told her friend as Miss Winchester, the young governess they'd hired for the party, arrived to take charge of Rose and Daphne.
Tuny waved to her nieces before turning her attention to Belle. Her friend's dark blond hair was sleeked up under a feathered hat, and her warm brown eyes glowed with excitement. "Is he here yet?"
"He?" Belle teased. "There were so many presentable gentlemen on the guest list."
"Only one that I saw when Larissa and I looked," Tuny said. "Leastwise, only one who wasn't married."
She hadn't seen the name Belle had added later. "Mr. Canady has yet to arrive, but I promise you I will be watching and will bring him to you at first opportunity. I want to see you happy."
Tuny's smile blossomed. "How can I not be happy surrounded by my good friends? Don't go to any trouble for me, Belle. I've survived three Seasons. I can survive another if need be."
Not if Belle could help it. Because Tuny and her family came from trade, there were those who looked down on her, and that, in Belle's mind, was simply unacceptable. Tuny deserved a husband who would love and value her, and this party was just the place to find him.
Mrs. Winters had barely sorted everyone-the children up to the schoolroom with Peter, and Sir Matthew, Charlotte, and Tuny to change from their trip out from London-when the next guests arrived.
The green and gold of the royal carriage of Batavaria gleamed as it stopped in the castle courtyard. Larissa and Callie remained in the doorway just long enough for their loves to step down before going to greet them. The prince, who was known as Leo to friends and family, held Larissa's hand and gazed down into her eyes. Belle sighed.
Count Montalban, Fritz to all who cared about him, went one farther. He gathered Callie close and kissed her so soundly Belle blushed. So did her sister, but her eyes were sparkling as she led him back toward the castle. Behind him loped a massive hound, mostly black but with touches of white and gold around his face and chest. Fritz had recently adopted the Sennenhund, who had proven to be more polite at times in company than his master.
Three more men climbed down, flexing broad shoulders and gazing about at the castle appraisingly. Because of the attempts made previously on the prince and count's lives and reputation, some of the Imperial Guards had come with them to protect them. Callie introduced the blonde as Mr. Keller, the brunette as Mr. Huber, and fellow with the midnight black hair as Mr. Roth. They would be taking their meals with the staff but would join the rest of the party for activities where they might need to safeguard Leo and Fritz.
"And what of Mr. Canady?" Belle's mother asked as Mrs. Winters led the royal delegation to their rooms, and Belle's father and Thal departed for more interesting pursuits. "His trunk arrived from London yesterday. He's the last on the list except for Meredith, Julian, and Fortune, and they'll be joining us later for the welcome dinner."
Her Aunt Meredith, Uncle Julian, and their pet Fortune would be staying at Rose Hill, their estate farther along the Thames. Belle's aunt had promised they would come over for key activities.
"I had hoped he would be here by now," Belle said, craning her neck to see through the front doors to the wide gate in the wall that encircled her home. Castle Wey was built around a central courtyard, with an archway opening to the drive down to the island proper. While they had a small stables on one side of the courtyard, the main stables lay at the base of the hill, away from the house. Surely Mr. Canady hadn't stopped there. She had been very specific in her instructions.
"You told me Lord Ashforde might be a few days yet," her mother said.
Belle turned to put her finger to her lips. "Shh! Tuny doesn't know he's coming."
Her mother raised eloquent brows.
"She has convinced herself he isn't the man for her, but I'm not so sure," Belle explained. "However, if Mr. Canady is half the man I suspect, he and Tuny will be betrothed before Lord Ashforde arrives, and it will serve his lordship right for waiting."
Her mother patted her shoulder before turning for the door. "Wait for him if you like, then, but don't stay out too long. It's perishing hot."
Not as warm as it had been in London, but Belle felt it too. An almost ominous heat lingered in the air, as if something was drawing closer. With the moisture off the Thames, which flowed past on either side of the island on which the castle sat, even her clothes felt tight against her body.
If only Mr. Canady would arrive!
She had been cultivating his friendship by standing up with him at balls, chatting at soirees, receiving him when he called, and looking for him in Hyde Park ever since they had met in London a few weeks ago. He had distinguished himself by attempting to out-bid Lord Ashforde over a painting at a benefit auction Tuny and Callie had arranged to support the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The two men had clearly been trying to impress Tuny. Surely her friend would find one of them suitable. If Mr. Canady did not come up to scratch, Lord Ashforde might ride in to save the day. It was all very logical.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Mr. Canady rode through the gate, moving easily with his mount, carriage noble and smile pleased. As he drew up before the stables, her pulse stuttered then hammered against her chest as if desperate to reach him.
Belle blinked. Why that reaction? If he was THE ONE, he was the one for Tuny. She didn't even know a great deal about him as yet. Surely her breathless anticipation had everything to do with her plans for this party, and Tuny's future, not him.
Owen Canady considered himself a gentleman by birth, a pauper by circumstance, and a cozener by necessity. When all one had was a horse and a desire for more, one did what one must. He had been carefully cultivating a friendship with the Duke of Wey's family since first meeting their good friend, Miss Bateman, at a ball during the Season. Being able to claim an association with a duke would stand him in good stead.
And he sincerely enjoyed Miss Bateman's company. Like him, she must look to her own future, for she had neither family connections nor fortune to recommend her. His family connections were distant, his fortune nonexistent. But that had never stopped him from making his way. All he needed was the entre.
Normally, Jasper was his voucher to social circles above him. A Thoroughbred through and through, the stallion did not appear to be much, being of average build and so pale a grey as to be almost white, but he could outrun any other horse alive. So long as Owen kept to the smaller meets and moved from one part of England to the other, so no one could sing Jasper's praises, he could take part in friendly races and walk away with a tidy sum each time. If he was careful and frugal, one day he might even be able to afford a small estate of his own.
Then, he'd herald Jasper's prowess and put the old boy out to stud. He'd been well on the way toward achieving that dream when his entire world had been shaken to its foundations.
Now, he must steal the duke's secrets or lose the only being who had ever cared about him.
He patted the horse as he drew up before the stables on one side of the courtyard.
"It won't come to that," he murmured against the closest upright ear. "I won't let them take you."
Jasper tossed his head, black mane flying, as if Owen's loyalty had never been in doubt.
The stable hand pulled up short as Owen dismounted. A younger man with sandy hair and the beginnings of a beard, he eyed Jasper as if he had never seen a horse of his sort before. Likely he hadn't. White horses had fallen out of favor some years ago now. No gentleman rode one.
No gentleman had ever been blessed with a horse like Jasper either.
Owen patted the Thoroughbred again before offering the reins to the stable hand. "What is your name?"
"Walters, sir," he said, bobbing his head respectfully.
"Walters," Owen said, "this is Jasper. He's rather particular about his care. He prefers to graze rather than be fed hay, so be sure to take him out at least three times a day onto pasture, and look to see that there's no ragwort about. Treat him with a carrot, but no apples. They make him flatulent. Allow no one to ride him except me. He won't tolerate it, and I would hate for anyone to be thrown or trampled on his account."
The stable hand's head kept bobbing throughout Owen's instructions, but his eyes were widening.
"Did you get all that?" Owen asked. "I can repeat it or put it in writing."
He knuckled his forehead. "I'll remember, sir. I promise."
Owen took a step back, hand on Jasper's withers. "See that you keep that promise. I'll be out to check on him regularly."
Once more the lad's head was bobbing.
Owen leaned closer to the horse. "Be a good fellow for Mr. Walters, Jasper. I'm sure he'll do his best."
Jasper snorted as if he questioned that.
Holding the reins gingerly, the young stable hand led the horse into the stables.
Owen nearly called the fellow back. Jasper was all he had in the world, his only true friend, his only opportunity to make something of himself. Letting the horse out of his sight for long was never easy.
Yet surely the duke's stables were as fine as everything else His Grace had owned in London, which had been very fine indeed. No one would harm Jasper. Not if Owen did as he had sworn and laid bare the duke's plans to help Batavaria regain its sovereignty. He still wasn't sure why an English duke would care what happened to a tiny country on the Continent, or why those who were blackmailing him thought it critical to stop him.
He turned at the sweet voice and put on his best smile. The lady standing at the edge of the stable yard was the nicest part of this bargain. Golden curls offset a pleasing face above a figure with plenty of curves, and all wrapped up in a charming personality guaranteed to draw a man closer.
"Lady Belle." He swept her a bow. "Thank you for inviting me."
"You are very welcome," she said. "Everyone else has already arrived. Mother will be happy to welcome you too. And so will Miss Bateman."
She was careful to stress the last name. That had been a given since he'd become acquainted with the duke's family. It was perfectly acceptable for him to court the lovely Miss Bateman, but the duke's daughters were beyond his reach.
"I am honored," he said. He thought about offering her his arm, but his coat was a bit the worse for wear after the ride from London. Jasper took a perverse delight in stamping in every mud puddle, like a child let out of the schoolroom on a rainy day. After the hot weather they'd been having this summer, there had been relatively few puddles, but Owen's coat was dusty, nonetheless.
She had no such concerns. She latched onto his arm and steered him across the courtyard toward the double doors of the house. Castle, they called it. Stone walls encircled the courtyard, with windows looking down like narrowed eyes, suspicious of his every movement.
He could only hope the occupants were less observant.
"I hope you had a pleasant ride," she said.
"Not nearly as pleasant as my welcome at the end," he assured her.
She beamed. That was something about Lady Belle. When she smiled, her entire face lit. It was impossible not to smile along with her.
He shook off the feeling. He wasn't here to bask in the warmth of her smile. He had a mission, and growing attached to her or any other lady would jeopardize it. Jasper had been the one bright spot in his life since the day he'd first ridden the horse seven years ago. Owen would play the game and trade her family's secrets for Jasper's safety, then be gone on the wind.
Doing his best not to leave a trace on her heart, Miss Bateman's, or his own.
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