Octavius and the Perfect Governess

A novel

about the book | excerpt

A governess in jeopardy . . . and the marquis’s son who goes undercover as a housemaid to protect her.

Lord Octavius Pryor leads a carefree and untroubled life, until the night he visits Vauxhall Gardens in the guise of a woman.

At Vauxhall, Octavius discovers that being a female is very different from being a man. Annoyingly different, unpleasantly different, and—when he encounters the lecherous Baron Rumpole—dangerously different.

Determined to teach the baron a lesson, Octavius infiltrates Rumpole’s household, where he meets the woman of his dreams: Miss Toogood, governess to the baron’s daughters.

Suddenly Octavius has three pressing tasks. 1) To teach the baron to keep his yardstick in his breeches. 2) To keep Miss Toogood safe. 3) To convince her to marry him.

A word of caution: This novel is a bodice ripper, and I mean that quite literally. Bodices are ripped in this book—and not in a playful or sexy way. However, I promise you that all rippers of bodices receive their just desserts.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Octavius Pryor should have won the race. It wasn’t difficult. The empty ballroom at his grandfather-the-duke’s house was eighty yards long, he’d lined one hundred and twenty chairs up in a row across the polished wooden floorboards, and making his way from one side of the room to the other without touching the floor was easy. His cousin Nonus Pryor—Ned—also had one hundred and twenty chairs to scramble over, but Ned was as clumsy as an ox and Octavius knew he could make it across the ballroom first, which was exactly what he was doing—until his foot went right through the seat of one of the delicate giltwood chairs. He was going too fast to catch his balance. Both he and the chair crashed to the floor. And that was him out of the race.

His cousin Dex—Decimus Pryor—hooted loudly.

Octavius ignored the hooting and sat up. The good news was that he didn’t appear to have broken anything except the chair. The bad news was that Ned, who’d been at least twenty chairs behind him, was now almost guaranteed to win.

Ned slowed to a swagger—as best as a man could swagger while clambering along a row of giltwood chairs.

Octavius gritted his teeth and watched his cousin navigate the last few dozen chairs. Ned glanced back at Octavius, smirked, and then slowly reached out and touched the wall with one fingertip.

Dex hooted again.

Octavius bent his attention to extracting his leg from the chair. Fortunately, he hadn’t ruined his stockings. He climbed to his feet and watched warily as Ned stepped down from the final chair and sauntered towards him.

“Well?” Dex said. “What’s Otto’s forfeit to be?”

Ned’s smirk widened. “His forfeit is that he goes to Vauxhall Gardens tomorrow night . . . as a woman.”

There was a moment’s silence. The game they had of creating embarrassing forfeits for each other was long-established, but this forfeit was unprecedented.

Dex gave a loud whoop. “Excellent!” he said, his face alight with glee. “I can’t wait to see this.”

* * *

When Ned said that Octavius was going to Vauxhall Gardens as a woman, he meant it quite literally. Not as a man dressed in woman’s clothing, but as a woman dressed in woman’s clothing. Because Octavius could change his shape. That was the gift he’d chosen when his Faerie godmother had visited him on his twenty-fifth birthday.

Ned had chosen invisibility when it was his turn, which was the stupidest use of a wish that Octavius could think of. Ned was the loudest, clumsiest brute in all England. He walked with the stealth of a rampaging elephant. He was terrible at being invisible. So terrible, in fact, that their grandfather-the-duke had placed strict conditions on Ned’s use of his gift.

Ned had grumbled, but he’d obeyed. He might be a blockhead, but he wasn’t such a blockhead as to risk revealing the family secret. No one wanted to find out what would happen if it became common knowledge that one of England’s most aristocratic families actually had a Faerie godmother.

Octavius, who could walk stealthily when he wanted to, hadn’t chosen invisibility; he’d chosen metamorphosis, which meant that he could become any creature he wished. In the two years he’d had this ability, he’d been pretty much every animal he could think of. He’d even taken the shape of another person a few times. Once, he’d pretended to be his cousin, Dex. There he’d sat, drinking brandy and discussing horseflesh with his brother and his cousins, all of them thinking he was Dex—and then Dex had walked into the room. The expressions on everyone’s faces had been priceless. Lord, the expression on Dex’s face . . .

Octavius had laughed so hard that he’d cried.

But one shape he’d never been tempted to try was that of a woman.

Why would he want to?

He was a man. And not just any man, but a good-looking, wealthy, and extremely well-born man. Why, when he had all those advantages, would he want to see what it was like to be a woman?

But that was the forfeit Ned had chosen and so here Octavius was, in his bedchamber, eyeing a pile of women’s clothing, while far too many people clustered around him—not just Ned and Dex, but his own brother, Quintus, and Ned’s brother, Sextus.

Quintus and Sextus usually held themselves distant from high jinks and tomfoolery, Quintus because he was an earl and he took his responsibilities extremely seriously and Sextus because he was an aloof sort of fellow—and yet here they both were in Octavius’s bedchamber.

Octavius didn’t mind making a fool of himself in front of a muttonhead like Ned and a rattle like Dex, but in front of his oh-so-sober brother and his stand-offish older cousin? He felt more self-conscious than he had in years, even a little embarrassed.

“Whose clothes are they?” he asked.

“Lydia’s,” Ned said.

Octavius tried to look as if it didn’t bother him that he was going to be wearing Ned’s mistress’s clothes, but it did. Lydia was extremely buxom, which meant that he was going to have to be extremely buxom or the gown would fall right off him.

He almost balked, but he’d never backed down from a forfeit before, so he gritted his teeth and unwound his neckcloth.

Octavius stripped to his drawers, made them all turn their backs, then removed the drawers, too. He pictured what he wanted to look like: Lydia’s figure, but not Lydia’s face—brown ringlets instead of blonde, and brown eyes, too—and with a silent God damn it, he changed shape. Magic tickled across his skin and itched inside his bones. He gave an involuntary shiver—and then it was done. He was a woman.

Octavius didn’t examine his new body. He hastily dragged on the chemise, keeping his gaze averted from the mirror. “All right,” he said, in a voice that was light and feminine and sounded utterly wrong coming from his mouth. “You can turn around.”

His brother and cousins turned around and stared at him. It was oddly unsettling to be standing in front of them in the shape of a woman, wearing only a thin chemise. In fact, it was almost intimidating. Octavius crossed his arms defensively over his ample bosom, then uncrossed them and put his hands on his hips, another defensive stance, made himself stop doing that, too, and gestured at the pile of women’s clothing on the bed. “Well, who’s going to help me with the stays?”

No one volunteered. No one cracked any jokes, either. It appeared that he wasn’t the only one who was unsettled. His brother, Quintus, had a particularly stuffed expression on his face, Sextus looked faintly pained, and Ned and Dex, both of whom he expected to be smirking, weren’t.

“The stays,” Octavius said again. “Come on, you clods. Help me to dress.” And then, because he was damned if he was going to let them see how uncomfortable he felt, he fluttered his eyelashes coquettishly.

Quintus winced, and turned his back. “Curse it, Otto, don’t do that.”

Octavius laughed. The feeling of being almost intimidated disappeared. In its place was the realization that if he played this right, he could make them all so uncomfortable that none of them would ever repeat this forfeit. He picked up the stays and dangled the garment in front of Ned. “You chose this forfeit; you help me dress.”

* * *

It took quite a while to dress, because Ned was the world’s worst lady’s maid. He wrestled with the stays for almost a quarter of an hour, then put the petticoat on back to front. The gown consisted of a long sarcenet slip with a shorter lace robe on top of that. Ned flatly refused to arrange the decorative ribbons at Octavius’s bosom or to help him fasten the silk stockings above his knees. Octavius hid his amusement. Oh, yes, Ned was never going to repeat this forfeit.

Lydia had provided several pretty ribbons, but after Ned had failed three times to thread them through Octavius’s ringlets, Dex stepped forward. His attempt at styling hair wasn’t sophisticated, but it was passable.

Finally, Octavius was fully dressed—and the oddest thing was that he actually felt undressed. His throat was bare. He had no high shirt-points, no snug, starched neckcloth. His upper chest was bare, too, as were his upper arms. But worst of all, he was wearing no drawers, and that made him feel uncomfortably naked. True, most women didn’t wear drawers and he was a woman tonight, but if his own drawers had fitted him he would have insisted on wearing them.

Octavius smoothed the gloves over his wrists and stared at himself in the mirror. He didn’t like what he saw. It didn’t just feel a little bit wrong, it felt a lot wrong. He wasn’t a woman. This wasn’t him. He didn’t have those soft, pouting lips or those rounded hips and that slender waist, and he most definitely did not have those full, ripe breasts.

Octavius smoothed the gloves again, trying not to let the others see how uncomfortable he was.

Ned nudged his older brother, Sextus. “He’s even prettier than you, Narcissus.”

Everybody laughed, and Sextus gave that reserved, coolly amused smile that he always gave when his brother called him Narcissus.

Octavius looked at them in the mirror, himself and Sextus, and it was true: he was prettier than Sextus.

Funny, Sextus’s smile no longer looked coolly amused. In fact, his expression, seen in the mirror, was the exact opposite of amused.

“Here.” Dex draped a silk shawl around Octavius’s shoulders. “And a fan. Ready?”

Octavius looked at himself in the mirror and felt the wrongness of the shape he was inhabiting. He took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”

* * *

They went to Vauxhall by carriage rather than crossing the Thames in a scull, to Octavius’s relief. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to get into and out of a boat wearing a gown. As it was, even climbing into the carriage was a challenge. He nearly tripped on his hem.

The drive across town, over Westminster Bridge and down Kennington Lane, gave him ample time to torment his brother and cousins. If there was one lesson he wanted them to learn tonight—even Quintus and Sextus, who rarely played the forfeit game—it was to never choose this forfeit for him again.

Although, to tell the truth, he was rather enjoying himself now. It was wonderful to watch Ned squirm whenever Octavius fluttered his eyelashes and flirted at him with the pretty brisé fan. Even more wonderful was that when he uttered a coquettish laugh and said, “Oh, Nonny, you are so droll,” Ned didn’t thump him, as he ordinarily would have done, but instead went red and glowered at him.

It had been years since Octavius had dared to call Nonus anything other than Ned, so he basked in the triumph of the moment and resolved to call his cousin “Nonny” as many times as he possibly could that evening.

Next, he turned his attention to his brother, simpering and saying, “Quinnie, darling, you look so handsome tonight.”

It wasn’t often one saw an earl cringe.

Dex, prick that he was, didn’t squirm or cringe or go red when Octavius tried the same trick on him; he just cackled with laughter.

Octavius gave up on Dex for the time being and turned his attention to Sextus. He wasn’t squirming or cringing, but neither was he cackling. He lounged in the far corner of the carriage, an expression of mild amusement on his face. When Octavius fluttered the fan at him and cooed, “You look so delicious, darling. I could swoon from just looking at you,” Sextus merely raised his eyebrows fractionally and gave Octavius a look that told him he knew exactly what Octavius was trying to do. But Sextus had always been the smartest of them all.

They reached Vauxhall, and Octavius managed to descend from the carriage without tripping over his dress. “Who’s going to pay my three shillings and sixpence?” he asked, with a flutter of both the fan and his eyelashes. His heart was beating rather fast now that they’d arrived and his hands were sweating inside the evening gloves. It was one thing to play this game with his brother and cousins, another thing entirely to act the lady in public. Especially when he wasn’t wearing drawers.

But he wouldn’t let them see his nervousness. He turned to his brother and simpered up at him. “Quinnie, darling, you’ll pay for li’l old me, won’t you?”

Quintus cringed with his whole body again. “God damn it, Otto, stop that,” he hissed under his breath.

“No?” Octavius pouted, and turned his gaze to Ned. “Say you’ll be my beau tonight, Nonny.”

Ned looked daggers at him for that “Nonny” so Octavius blew him a kiss—then nearly laughed aloud at Ned’s expression of appalled revulsion.

Dex did laugh out loud. “Your idea, Ned; you pay,” he said, grinning.

Ned paid for them all, and they entered the famous pleasure gardens. Octavius took Dex’s arm once they were through the gate, because Dex was enjoying this far too much and if Octavius couldn’t find a way to make his cousin squirm then he might find himself repeating this forfeit in the future—and heaven forbid that that should ever happen.

Octavius had been to Vauxhall Gardens more times than he could remember. Nothing had changed—the pavilion, the musicians, the supper boxes, the groves of trees and the walkways—and yet it had changed, because visiting Vauxhall Gardens as a woman was a vastly different experience from visiting Vauxhall Gardens as a man. The gown undoubtedly had something to do with it. It was no demure débutante’s gown; Lydia was a courtesan—a very expensive courtesan—and the gown was cut to display her charms to best advantage. Octavius was uncomfortably aware of men ogling him—looking at his mouth, his breasts, his hips, and imagining him naked in their beds. That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that he knew some of those men. They were his friends—and now they were undressing him with their eyes.

Octavius simpered and fluttered his fan and tried to hide his discomfit, while Ned went to see about procuring a box and supper. Quintus paused to speak with a friend, and two minutes later so did Sextus. Dex and Octavius were alone—or rather, as alone as one could be in such a public setting as Vauxhall.

Octavius nudged Dex away from the busy walkway, towards a quieter path. Vauxhall Gardens sprawled over several acres, and for every wide and well-lit path there was a shadowy one with windings and turnings and secluded nooks.

A trio of drunken young bucks swaggered past, clearly on the prowl for amatory adventures. One of them gave a low whistle of appreciation and pinched Octavius on his derrière.

Octavius swiped at him with the fan.

The man laughed. So did his companions. So did Dex.

“He pinched me,” Octavius said, indignantly.

Dex, son of a bitch that he was, laughed again and made no move to reprimand the buck; he merely kept strolling.

Octavius, perforce, kept strolling, too. Outrage seethed in his bosom. “You wouldn’t laugh if someone pinched Phoebe,” he said tartly. “You’d knock him down.”

“You’re not my sister,” Dex said. “And besides, if you’re going to wear a gown like that one, you should expect to be pinched.”

Octavius almost hit Dex with the fan. He gritted his teeth and resolved to make his cousin regret making that comment before the night was over. He racked his brain as they turned down an even more shadowy path, the lamps casting golden pools of light in the gloom. When was the last time he’d seen Dex embarrassed? Not faintly embarrassed, but truly, deeply embarrassed.

A memory stirred in the recesses of his brain and he remembered, with a little jolt of recollection, that Dex had a middle name—Stallyon—and he also remembered what had happened when the other boys at school had found out.

Dex Stallyon had become . . . Sex Stallion.

It had taken Dex a week to shut that nickname down—Pryors were built large and they never lost a schoolyard battle—but what Octavius most remembered about that week wasn’t the fighting, it was Dex’s red-faced mortification and fuming rage.

Of course, Dex was a sex stallion now, so maybe the nickname wouldn’t bother him?

They turned onto a slightly more populated path. Octavius waited for a suitable audience to approach, which it soon did: Misters Feltham and Wardell, both of whom had been to school with Dex.

“You’re my favorite of all my beaus,” Octavius confided loudly as they passed. “Dex Stallyon, my sex stallion. You let me ride you all night long.” He uttered a beatific sigh, and watched with satisfaction as Dex flushed bright red.

Feltham and Wardell laughed. Dex laughed, too, uncomfortably, and hustled Octavius away, and then pinched him hard on his plump, dimpled arm.

“Ouch,” Octavius said, rubbing his arm. “That hurt.”

“Serves you bloody right,” Dex hissed. “I can’t believe you said I let you ride me!”

Now that was interesting: it was the reference to being ridden that Dex objected to, not the nickname.

Octavius resolved to make good use of that little fact.

He talked loudly about riding Dex when they passed Lord Belchamber and his cronies, and again when they encountered the Hogarth brothers.

Both times, Dex dished out more of those sharp, admonitory pinches, but Octavius was undeterred; he was enjoying himself again. It was fun ribbing Dex within earshot of men they both knew and watching his cousin go red at the gills.

He held his silence as two courting couples strolled past, and then swallowed a grin when he spied a trio of fellows sauntering towards them. All three of them were members of the same gentleman’s club that Dex frequented.

Dex spied them, too, and changed direction abruptly, hauling Octavius into a dimly lit walkway to avoid them.

Octavius tried to turn his laugh into a cough, and failed.

“You’re a damned swine,” Dex said. It sounded as if he was gritting his teeth.

“I think you mean bitch,” Octavius said.

Dex made a noise remarkably like a growl. He set off at a fast pace, his hand clamped around Octavius’s wrist.

Ordinarily, Octavius would have had no difficulty keeping up with Dex—he was an inch taller than his cousin—but right now he was a whole foot shorter, plus he was hampered by his dress. He couldn’t stride unless he hiked the wretched thing up to his knees, which he wasn’t going to do; he was already showing far too much of his person. “Slow down,” he said. “I’ve got short legs.”

Dex made the growling sound again, but he did slow down and ease his grip on Octavius’s wrist.

Along came a gentleman whom Octavius didn’t recognize, one of the nouveau riche judging from his brashly expensive garb. The man ogled Octavius overtly and even went so far as to blow him a kiss. Instead of ignoring that overture, Octavius fluttered his eyelashes and gave a little giggle. “Another time, dear sir. I have my favorite beau with me tonight.” He patted Dex’s arm. “I call him my sex stallion because he lets me ride him all night long.”

Dex pinched him again, hard, and dragged him away from the admiring gentleman so fast that Octavius almost tripped over his hem.

Stop telling everyone that you ride me!” Dex said, once they were out of earshot.

“Don’t you like it?” Octavius asked ingenuously. “Why not? Does it not sound virile enough?”

Dex ignored those questions. He made the growling sound again. “I swear to God, Otto, if you say that one more time, I’m abandoning you.”

Which meant that Octavius had won. He opened the brisé fan and hid a triumphant smile behind it.

Dex released his wrist. Octavius refrained from rubbing it; he didn’t want to give Dex the satisfaction of knowing that it hurt. Instead, he walked in demure silence alongside his cousin, savoring his victory . . . and then lo, who should he see coming towards them but that old lecher, Baron Rumpole.

“I warn you, Otto,” Dex said, as Rumpole approached. “Don’t you dare.

Rumpole all but stripped Octavius with his gaze, and then he had the vulgarity to say aloud to Dex, “I see someone’s getting lucky tonight.”

The opening was too perfect to resist. Warning or not, Octavius didn’t hesitate. “That would be me getting lucky,” he said, with a coy giggle. “He’s my favorite beau because he lets me ride—”

“You want her? She’s yours.” Dex shoved Octavius at the baron and strode off.

Octavius almost laughed out loud—it wasn’t often that he managed to get the better of Dex—but then Rumpole stepped towards him and the urge to laugh snuffed out.

He took a step back, away from the baron, but Rumpole crowded closer. He might be in his late fifties, but he was a bull-like man, thickset and bulky—and considerably larger and stronger than Octavius currently was.

Octavius tried to go around him to the left, but Rumpole blocked him.

He tried to go around him to the right. Rumpole blocked him again.

Dex was long gone, swallowed up by the shadows.

“Let me past,” Octavius demanded.

“I will, for a kiss.”

Octavius didn’t deign to reply to this. He picked up his skirts and tried to push past Rumpole, but the man’s hand shot out, catching his upper arm, and if he’d thought Dex’s grip was punishingly tight, then the baron’s was twice as bad. Octavius uttered a grunt of pain and tried to jerk free.

Rumpole’s fingers dug in, almost to the bone. “No, you don’t. I want my kiss first.” He hauled Octavius towards him and bent his head.

Octavius punched him.

If he’d been in his own shape, the punch would have laid Rumpole out on the ground. As it was, the baron rocked slightly on his feet and released Octavius’s arm.

Octavius shoved the man aside. He marched down the path, his steps fast and angry. How dare Rumpole try to force a kiss on him!

Behind him, Rumpole uttered an oath. Footsteps crunched in the gravel. The baron was giving chase.

Octavius was tempted to stand his ground and fight, but common sense asserted itself. If he were a man right now he’d crush Rumpole, but he wasn’t a man and Rumpole outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds. Retreat was called for.

Octavius picked up his skirts and ran, even though what he really wanted to do was pummel the baron to the ground. Fury gave his feet wings. He rounded a bend in the path. The shadows drew back and he saw a glowing lamp and two people.

The baron stopped running. Octavius didn’t, not until he reached the lamp casting its safe, golden luminescence.

He’d lost his fan somewhere. He was panting. And while rage was his predominant emotion, underneath the rage was a prickle of uneasiness—and that made him even angrier. Was he, Octavius Pryor, afraid of Baron Rumpole?

“The devil I am,” he muttered under his breath.

He glanced over his shoulder. Rumpole had halted a dozen yards back, glowering. He looked even more bull-like, head lowered and nostrils flaring.

The prickle of unease became a little stronger. Discretion is the better part of valor, Octavius reminded himself. He picked up his skirts again and strode towards the people he’d spied, whose dark shapes resolved into two young sprigs with the nipped-in waists, padded shoulders, and high shirt-points of dandies. “Could you escort me to the pavilion, kind sirs? I’m afraid I’ve lost my way.”

The sprigs looked him up and down, their gazes lingering on the lush expanse of his breasts.

Octavius gritted his teeth and smiled at them. “Please? I’m all alone and this darkness makes me a little nervous.”

“Of course, darling,” one of the sprigs said, and then he had the audacity to put his arm around Octavius’s waist and give him a squeeze.

Octavius managed not to utter an indignant squawk. He ground his teeth together and submitted to that squeeze, because a squeeze from a sprig was a thousand times better than a kiss from Baron Rumpole. “The pavilion,” he said again. “Please?”

The man released his waist. “Impatient little thing, aren’t you?” he said with a laugh. He offered Octavius his arm and began walking in the direction of the pavilion. The second sprig stepped close on Octavius’s other side, too close, but Octavius set his jaw and endured it. The pavilion was only five minutes’ walk. He could suffer these men for five minutes. They were, after all, rescuing him.

Except that the first sprig was now turning left, drawing Octavius down one of the darker paths . . .

Octavius balked, but the second sprig had an arm around his waist and was urging him along that shadowy path. “I don’t like the dark,” Octavius protested.

Both men laughed. “We’ll be with you, my dear,” one of them said, and now, in addition to an arm around Octavius’s waist, there was a sly hand sidling towards his breasts.

Octavius wrenched himself free. Outrage heated his face. His hands were clenched into fists. He wanted nothing more than to mill both men down, but he was outweighed and outnumbered and the chances of him winning this fight were slim. “I shall walk by myself,” he declared haughtily, turning his back on the sprigs and heading for the lamplight.

Behind him, he heard the sprigs laughing.

Octavius gritted his teeth. A plague on all men!

He reached the slightly wider walkway, with its lamp, and glanced around. Fortunately, he didn’t see Baron Rumpole. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see anyone. He wished he’d not steered Dex towards these out-of-the-way paths, wished they’d kept to the busier promenades, wished there were people around. He picked up his skirts and headed briskly for the pavilion, but the path didn’t feel as safe as it once had. The lamplight didn’t extend far and soon he was in shadows again. He heard the distant sound of music, and closer, the soft crunch of footsteps.

They weren’t his footsteps.

He glanced around. Baron Rumpole was following him.

Octavius began to walk more rapidly.

The footsteps crunched faster behind him.

Octavius abandoned any pretense of walking and began to run, but his skirts restricted his strides and the baron caught him within half a dozen paces, grabbing his arm and hauling him into the dark mouth of yet another pathway.

“Let go of me!” Octavius punched and kicked, but he was only five foot two and the blows had little effect.

“Think too highly of yourself, don’t you?” Rumpole said, dragging Octavius deeper into the dark shrubbery. Rough fingers groped his breasts. There was a ripping sound as his bodice gave way. Octavius opened his mouth to shout, but the baron clapped a hand over it.

Octavius bit that hand, punched Rumpole on the nose as hard as he could, and tried to knee the man in the groin. He was only partly successful, but Rumpole gave a grunt and released him.

Octavius ran back the way he’d come. There were wings on his feet again, but this time he wasn’t fueled solely by rage, there was a sting of fear in the mix, and damn it, he refused to be afraid of Rumpole.

The path was still too dark—but it wasn’t empty anymore. There, in the distance, was Sextus.

Sextus was frowning and looking about, as if searching for someone, then his head turned and he saw Octavius and came striding towards him.

Octavius headed for him, clutching the ripped bodice with one hand, holding up his skirts with the other. He heard fast, angry footsteps behind him and knew it was Rumpole.

The baron reached him first. He grabbed Octavius’s arm and tried to pull him towards a dark and shadowy nook.

Octavius dug his heels in. “No.”

“Stupid bitch,” Rumpole snarled, but Octavius was no longer paying him any attention. He was watching Sextus approach.

His cousin’s stride slowed to an arrogant, aristocratic stroll. His expression, as he covered the last few yards, was one that Sextus had perfected years ago: haughty, aloof, looking down his nose at the world. “Rumpole,” he drawled.

The baron swung to face him, his grip tight on Octavius’s arm. “Pryor.”

Sextus glanced at Octavius. He saw the torn bodice, but his expression didn’t alter by so much as a flicker of a muscle. “I must ask you to unhand the lady.”

Rumpole snorted. “She’s no lady. She’s a piece of mutton.”

“Always so crass, Rumpole. You never disappoint.” There was no heat in Sextus’s voice, just boredom. His tone, his words, were so perfectly insulting that Octavius almost crowed with laughter.

Beneath that instinctive laughter was an equally instinctive sense of shock. Had Sextus actually said that to a baron?

Rumpole flushed brick red. “She’s mine.”

“No,” Sextus corrected him coolly. “The lady is a guest of my brother tonight.”

“Lady?” The baron gave an ugly laugh. “This thing? She has no breeding at all.”

“Neither, it appears, do you.” Again, Sextus’s tone was perfect: the boredom, the hint of dismissive disdain.

Octavius’s admiration for his cousin rose. Damn, but Sextus had balls.

Rumpole’s flush deepened. He released Octavius. His hands clenched into fists.

“I believe that’s Miss Smith’s shawl you’re holding,” Sextus said, and indeed, Octavius’s shawl was dangling from one meaty fist, trailing in the dirt.

Rumpole cast the shawl aside, a violent movement, and took a step towards Sextus.

Sextus was the shortest of the Pryors, but that didn’t mean he was short. He stood six feet tall, eye to eye with Rumpole, but whereas the baron was beefy, Sextus was lean. He looked slender compared to Rumpole.

Octavius found himself holding his breath, but Sextus gave no hint of fear. He returned the baron’s stare with all the slightly bored arrogance of a duke’s grandson.

For a moment the threat of violence hung in the air, then the baron muttered something under his breath that sounded like “Fucking Pryor,” turned on his heel, and stalked off.

Sextus picked up the shawl, shook it out, and put it around Octavius’s shoulders. “You all right, Otto?”

Octavius wrapped the shawl more tightly around himself, hiding the ripped bodice. “You were just like grandfather, then. All you needed was a quizzing glass to wither him through.”

Sextus ignored this comment. “Did he hurt you?”

Octavius shook his head, even though his arm ached as if a horse had kicked it. Damn Rumpole and his giant-like hands. “It’s a shame you’re not the heir. You’d make a damned good duke.”

“Heaven forbid,” Sextus said, which was exactly how Octavius felt about his own ducal prospects: heaven forbid that he should ever become a duke. It was little wonder Quintus was so stuffy, with that multitude of responsibilities hanging over him.

“Come on,” Sextus said. “Let’s get you home.” He took Octavius by the elbow, matching his stride to Octavius’s shorter legs.

They were almost at the Kennington gate when someone called out: “Sextus!” It was Dex. He reached them, out of breath. “You found him! He all right?”

“Rumpole practically ripped his dress off,” Sextus told him. “What the devil were you doing, leaving him like that?”

Dex looked shamefaced. “Sorry, I didn’t think.”

“That is patently clear,” Sextus said, a bite in his voice. “Tell the others I’m taking him home.”

Dex obeyed without argument, heading back towards the pavilion.

“It was my fault,” Octavius confessed, once they were through the gate and out in Kennington Lane. “I pushed Dex too far.”

Sextus glanced at him, but said nothing. He still looked angry, or rather, as angry as Sextus ever looked. He was damned good at hiding his emotions.

Several hackneys waited in the lane. Sextus handed Octavius up into one and gave the jarvey instructions.

“It was my fault,” Octavius said again, settling onto the squab seat.

“What? It’s your fault that Rumpole almost raped you?” A shaft of lamplight entered the carriage, illuminating Sextus’s face for an instant. Octavius was surprised by the anger he saw there.

“He didn’t almost rape me,” he said, as the carriage turned out of Kennington Lane and headed towards Westminster Bridge. “And honestly, it was as much my fault as Dex’s. Neither of us thought Rumpole was dangerous. I didn’t realize until too late just how puny I am.” He remembered the baron forcing him into the dark shrubbery and gave an involuntary shiver. And then he remembered Sextus facing Rumpole down. “I can’t believe you spoke to him like that. He’d have been within his rights to call you out.”

Sextus just shrugged.

The carriage rattled over Westminster Bridge. When they reached the other side, Octavius said, “When I was fourteen, Father and Grandfather had a talk with me about sex. Did your father . . . ?”

“We all had that lecture,” Sextus said.

Octavius was silent for several minutes, remembering that long-ago conversation. He’d given his word of honor to never force any woman into bestowing sexual favors, regardless of her station in life. “I’d wager Rumpole didn’t have a talk like that with his father.”

“No wager there,” Sextus said dryly.

They sat in silence while the carriage trundled through the streets. Octavius had given his word all those years ago—and kept it. He’d never forced women into his bed, but he had ogled the ladybirds, snatched kisses, playfully pinched a time or two. It had seemed harmless, flirtatious fun.

Harmless to him. But perhaps those women had disliked it as much as he’d disliked it tonight?

Octavius chewed on that thought while the carriage rattled its way towards Mayfair.