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Evie Harlow runs a quaint little bookshop in London, which is the biggest adventure an unmarried woman with no prospects could hope for. Until Maximillian Shaw, Duke of Westbourne, saunters into her shop with a proposition: to win a bet with his friends, he’ll turn her into the diamond of the season. The duke might be devilishly attractive, but Evie has no intention of accepting his ludicrous offer. When disaster strikes her shop, however, she’s left with little choice but to let herself be whisked into his high-society world.
Always happy to help a lady in distress, Max thinks he’s saving Evie from her dull spinster’s life. He’ll help her find a husband and congratulate himself on a job well done. But as shy Evie becomes the shining star he always knew she could be, she somehow steals his heart. And when her reputation is threatened, can Max convince her to choose a glittering, aristocratic life with him over the cozy comfort of her bookshop?
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Darling Max, just the man I need!"
Maximillian Shaw didn't have to turn his head to recognize the owner of the feminine voice murmuring so persuasively in his ear. "Delia? What a delightful surprise."
He set aside the newspaper he'd been reading and turned, smiling into the piquant face of his favorite cousin. "Even though it's clear you're about to cage a favor."
Unrepentant, Delia bestowed a dazzling smile on him. "I've gotten myself into a terrible pickle, Max, and I need your help. I realize that asking favors of a duke is the height of impertinence—"
"As if that's ever stopped you before," he cut in wryly.
Still smiling, she leaned closer, the wide brim of her hat raking over the crown of his head and ruffling his dark hair. "It's nothing difficult," she promised and gave his cheek an affectionate pat, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in the foyer of the Savoy, London's most luxurious hotel. "A mere trifle."
Max knew well the dangers of participating in Delia's so-called trifles. A year younger than him, she'd been embroiling him in her schemes almost from the moment she learned to walk. "The last time you said something like that," he said, standing up as she came around to the front of his chair, "I ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye."
She waved away his discomfort over the occasion in question with an airy gesture of her hand. "All part of our misspent youth. May I join you?" she added before he could reply, nodding to the empty chair to his right.
It would never have occurred to Max to object. Doing favors for Delia did tend to land a chap in trouble, but he liked a bit of trouble now and again; and besides, he'd never been able to turn his back on a beauty in distress.
"I'd be delighted to help, of course. Shall we have tea and talk about it?" he added, gesturing to the Savoy's famous dining room nearby. "Or would you prefer the American Bar? Frank is probably on duty by now. We could have him mix us some delectable new libations."
"Women aren't allowed in the American Bar," Delia reminded him, making a face that clearly conveyed her opinion of that particular rule.
"The bar isn't open yet, so Frank won't mind."
"Do stop tempting me with these delights. I've no time for cocktails or tea. Not today. I've only half an hour to get to Charing Cross station or I shall miss my train for Dover." Despite those words, she sank into the empty chair beside his. "I'm just waiting for my maid and the bellman to bring my luggage down," she went on, casting a glance past him down the length of the Savoy's opulent foyer. "Then I'm off to the Continent."
"The Continent, eh?" he echoed as he resumed his own seat. "Pleasure or business?"
"Both, of course. If work didn't amuse me, I'd never do it."
That, Max reflected, was undoubtedly true. After all, it wasn't as if Delia needed an income. Her third husband had left her an absolute packet when he died. No, she chose to work for her own amusement, though Max was rather at sea as to just what her job entailed. Something for the hotel, reporting to César Ritz himself, with duties that involved parties, shopping, and the exercise of considerable charm—a post tailor-made for his cousin, in other words. "So, what is this favor?" he asked. "And why can't you do it yourself, if it's so trifling?"
"But I've just told you! I haven't the time. César called me in an hour ago and ordered me at once to Rome—some sort of disaster at his new hotel there. Only César would think it a perfectly simple thing to manage four hotels in four countries simultaneously. Anyway, I warned him he was stretching himself too thin and offered to help with the other hotels as well as this one, and he's finally decided to give me a chance, so I'm off to Rome. But I was in such a flutter to pack that it was only as I was coming down in the lift that I remembered I'd also made a promise to help Auguste. It's a promise I've now no time to fulfill, and when I spied you sitting here in the lobby, it was like the answer to all my prayers."
"Auguste Escoffier?" Max shook his head, bewildered by the mention of the Savoy's famous head chef. "Delia, we both know I enjoy an excellent meal, but I know nothing about how such meals are prepared. In a pinch, I might be able to boil an egg," he offered dubiously. "Though I doubt anyone would want to eat it."
"You don't have to cook anything," she assured him, laughing. "Now, listen. Auguste has this banquet for the Epicurean Club coming up in three weeks—enormous affair, over a hundred people—members, their wives, even the Prince of Wales."
"I know. I'm a member of that club, and I've already received my invitation."
"Yes, exactly." Delia beamed at him with all the delight of a child who'd just been handed a present. "Which is why you're the perfect person to aid Auguste in my stead. As you know, the Epicurean Club always presents an array of exciting new dishes at these affairs, which is why they hold them here at the Savoy. Auguste has been racking his brain about what to serve, but he's just as overworked as César these days, poor pet, and his ingenuity is sapped."
Not a surprising bit of news when one considered that the Savoy's dining room had become the most popular and fashionable restaurant for every aristocrat within a thousand miles, and the culinary brilliance of its head chef had been in continual high demand for over five years now. Still, if Escoffier was suffering a bout of creative drought, Max didn't see what he could do to assist in alleviating it. "The price of success for both of them, I fear."
"Just so. Auguste has asked for my help to create the menu. And he wants me to plan the decorations, order the flowers, that sort of thing. So, of course, I set Evie Harlow onto it at once."
This mention of someone entirely unfamiliar sparked Max's curiosity. "Evie who?"
"Evie Harlow. She owns a bookshop near here and does research for me when I'm planning one of these affairs. She's a marvel. Do you remember that banquet a few years ago for the Edelweiss Club? The one that was such a sensation because of the flowers?"
"Not really, since I'm not a member of that club. And I can't imagine how mere flowers could cause a sensation, but I'm sure you'll enlighten me."
"Not just any flowers," she corrected. "Edelweiss. It only grows in the highest mountain regions. I wanted it for the table decorations, and how on earth was I to find it, I ask you? Climb the Alps and pick it myself?"
The picture made him want to smile, for Delia's notions of athletic endeavor were limited to walking (in fashionable clothes along fashionable thoroughfares), driving (with a chauffeur), and waltzing (usually with the best-looking, richest men in the room). "That would be ridiculous," he agreed.
If Delia perceived the amusement beneath his grave reply, she didn't show it. "But Evie managed to procure some for me. How she did it, I still don't know."
"I begin to see why you have such a reputation as a canny shopper."
"Oh, dear, I've given myself away now, haven't I? But Evie really is a marvel. What I'd do without her, I can't imagine. Anyway, for the Epicurean Club, she and I have dreamed up a theme of the Far East, and she's promised to find me some exotic recipes from that part of the world. She mentioned a dish of chicken feet, if you can believe it."
Max stared, not certain he'd heard correctly. "Chicken feet?"
"We discussed various soups as well—one made from birds' nests and another from shark fins."
Max had always considered himself an adventurous sort of chap, always willing to try new things, which was why he was a member of the Epicurean Club, but the food she was describing might be a bridge too far, even for him. "How...ahem...exotic."
Delia smiled, showing the fetching dimples in her cheeks. "It's not to my taste, but Evie assures me these are prized delicacies in Peking."
Max wasn't sure he found that particularly reassuring.
"In addition to the recipes," Delia continued, "she's also promised me a list of merchants who can provide the ingredients, and ideas for the table decorations and flowers. But she's late with the information, which isn't at all like her, and I'm growing concerned. I had thought to pop by and see her this afternoon, but now that I'm off to Rome, I can't manage it. So, I'm hoping I can persuade you to call on her, pick up the information she's compiled, and take it to Auguste."
Max felt a bit let down. Delia's requests weren't usually so mundane. "I'm a duke, Delia, not a footman."
"A good thing, since a footman would be of no use at all. I don't need someone merely to fetch and carry. I need someone who can work with a great chef like Escoffier, who can take the information Evie's compiled and use it to help him craft the perfect menu. That requires someone with a vast knowledge and appreciation of fine cuisine, someone of taste and discernment—"
"Stop trying to butter me up, Cousin," he interrupted. "It never works."
"It always works," she corrected, laughing. "But in this case, I'm not buttering you up. You truly are the perfect person to act in my stead. You're a member of that club, and you've attended many affairs of this kind."
Despite his membership, Max didn't see how he was the least bit suited to judge the epicurean quality of chicken feet, birds' nests, and shark fins, but he had no chance to say so.
"César, darling!" Delia exclaimed, looking past him, and when Max turned in his seat, he saw Ritz himself coming toward them.
A dapper little man with an enormous mustache, a receding hairline, and a bit of a limp due to his habit of wearing shoes a half size too small, Ritz also had deep lines of exhaustion in his face that bore out Delia's assessment. Running four large hotels in four different countries was clearly wearing the man to a nub.
"You've met my cousin, of course?" Delia went on as Ritz paused beside where they sat. "The Duke of Westbourne?"
"I have had that honor, yes." Ritz bowed. "Your Grace, we are delighted you have come to stay with us for the London season."
Max almost groaned aloud as this bit of information slipped from Ritz's lips. Given that Delia worked for the hotel, it was inevitable that she would learn of his plans, but he'd hoped to at least have the chance to unpack before she pounced on him with questions. Still, the damage was done, and as Ritz bid his farewells and departed, he faced the avid gleam of curiosity in his cousin's eyes with a resigned sigh.
"You're in town for the entire season?" she asked. "This isn't just a quick trip to vote on something important in the Lords, attend the banquet, and see a few old friends? Goodness," she added as he shook his head, "I believe the planets have just stilled in their courses."
"Really, Delia," he said with good-humored exasperation, "you needn't sound so shocked. I have been known to attend the season once or twice."
"Not since your youngest sister came out, and that was half a dozen years ago, at least. Still, it makes sense now, I suppose, since you just had a birthday. Your...thirty-second, isn't it?" She leaned closer, studying him with disconcerting thoroughness. "I do believe I see a tiny hint of gray in your hair."
Instinctively, Max touched a hand to the few—very few—silvery strands at his temple. "Oh, don't be ridiculous."
"A good thing, if it's made you see sense after so long," she said, blithely ignoring his reply. "But why stay at the Savoy? You've a splendid London residence. Why not reside there for the season?"
"Rattle around in that enormous house on my own? How absurd."
"Is it absurd, given why you're here?"
Though it was probably a futile exercise, Max donned an air of bewilderment. "I've no idea what you mean."
"Don't be coy. It's clear you've decided to remarry at last. The family will be relieved not to see the dukedom go back to the crown. And what better place than London in May to choose the perfect duchess?"
Max didn't tell her his choice had already been made. Instead, he attempted to dissemble. "You really do adore jumping to conclusions, dear Cousin."
If he'd hoped this tactic would veer Delia off the topic, he was disappointed. "Well, it's the same conclusion your sisters will jump to, if you stay more than a few weeks. And once they figure out what you're really up to, they'll be down like a shot."
His four sisters descending upon London to assist him with his matrimonial goals was a prospect he would prefer to avoid. And it wasn't necessary, in any case, since he had already found a young lady who perfectly fit his requirements. Still, he intended to keep mum about that for as long as possible.
Winning the hand of the beautiful and beguiling Lady Helen Maybridge would not be easy, even for a man of his position and wealth, and he didn't want to jinx his chances. Helen had taken London by storm during her debut last year, captivating every person who met her, and she was well on her way to repeating that honor again this year. Barely May, and she already had suitors lined up outside her door, including—if the rumors were true—Crown Prince Olaf of some obscure Balkan realm. As a mere duke, Max knew he'd have his work cut out for him, and the last thing he needed was the interference of four well-meaning but nosy sisters. He could just imagine them remarking to Helen at every turn how handsome their brother was and dropping hint after hint as to his intentions.
"That," he said with a shudder, "is exactly what I'm afraid of."
"So, you don't want your sisters to know anything about your plans?"
"Can you blame me?" he grumbled. "The last time I was here for the season, my sisters spent half their time searching for husbands—and enlisting my help to do it, much to the dismay and irritation of my unmarried friends. And when they weren't occupied with their own matrimonial ambitions, they were shoving their friends at me as suitable duchess prospects. All to make sure," he added with a slight touch of bitterness, "I didn't make the same mistake twice."
"They only want what's best for you and to see you happy."
"I'm aware of that, and I love them for it. Nonetheless, I prefer to make my marital arrangements without assistance. And," he added before she could reply, "this time around, I don't intend passion to be my guide."
She shook her head, eyeing him with sadness. "Max, we all know Rebecca wasn't right for you, but that doesn't mean—"
He cut off that line of reasoning with an exasperated groan. "Must we revisit the ghastly business of my first marriage? Yes, I fell in love with someone completely unsuitable when I was young and stupid, and we both paid the price. But when she left me and ran back to America, it all worked out splendidly, didn't it? How convenient for us all," he added, his voice hard, his chest suddenly tight, "that she stepped in front of a carriage a few days before my arrival in New York, saving me from the scandalous choice between using force to drag her home or using her desertion to gain a divorce."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Wasn't it? I was so mad with passion that I ignored my own judgment, her reluctance, and all warnings of my family and friends, and married a girl completely alien to our way of life, never once considering if she could handle the job. If I am not to blame, who is?"
"In cases such as this, I'm not sure blame is a particularly useful concept, darling. You and Rebecca fell in love. We can't always help who we fall in love with. It certainly doesn't mean you can't fall in love with the right girl this time around."
"If love happens after the wedding, all very well and I'll be grateful for it."
"And if it doesn't?"
He gave a shrug. "As long as we are well-suited, fond of each other, and aware of our duty, I hardly think it matters."
"What a sensible approach," she said so heartily that Max gave her a sharp, searching glance. "I cannot help but wonder, though...if love isn't part of your criteria, what is?"
"I intend that my wife shall be well prepared to assume her position as Duchess of Westbourne. She will be someone already born and bred for this life, with a full awareness of the responsibilities involved. And if I choose someone who has the same background I do, enjoys the same interests I do, and who possesses an outlook on life compatible with mine, I think our union will be most satisfactory."
"Well, then, everything is simple, isn't it?" she said with cheer. "So, why don't you just save yourself the trouble of a season, and let me arrange your marriage? I'd pick someone perfect for you, I promise."
He straightened in his chair, feeling a prick of alarm, and he feared he might have to tell her about Helen, but then she grinned, and he relaxed again.
"Darling Max," she said with affection, "I do love ragging you, and I hope by the time I return you'll have fallen madly in love with just the right girl. But as busy as you'll be, you will find the time to do that other little favor for me, won't you?"
"You know I will, though I don't see why this Harlow woman can't sort out which of these exotic Eastern recipes she's uncovered would be best and discuss them with Escoffier herself."
Delia was shaking her head before he'd even finished speaking. "That won't do, I'm afraid. Evie's a darling, and brainy, too—which is what makes her so wonderful at digging up information. But there's a language barrier, you see. Auguste doesn't speak English."
"And she doesn't speak French?" That surprised him, rather.
"I thought all girls were required to learn French," he said. "Isn't it mandatory to a girl's education?"
She frowned a little. "It's mandatory in our set, darling. Not in everyone's."
He held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "I didn't mean to sound like a snob. But you've told me nothing about her background except that she owns a bookshop, which, to me, implies a certain level of literary education. I took it for granted that knowing French would be part of that."
"Oh, Evie knows French well enough. Reading it, writing it...but speaking it?" Delia broke off, making a face. "Listening to her stumble her way through the menus for a French banquet we planned last year was absolutely painful to my ears. As to her background, it's quite respectable—upper-middle-class family once upon a time, but gone to seed during the last few generations. Her mother died when she was a child, and her father raised her alone in a dingy little flat over the shop, which seems to be the only asset left in the family. And he's passed on as well, leaving her nothing else. She's determined to keep the place going, though. I don't know whether to deem her foolish or admire her pluck."
"Not much profit in it, I gather?"
"Sadly, no. The building is a valuable piece of property, of course, for it's right here in the heart of London. If she sold it, she could gain a nice little dowry out of it, but the shop itself earns next to nothing. It's the sort of place that caters mostly to musty old men who want equally musty first editions no one else has ever heard of. Such a dreary life for a young woman; heaps of hard work, and no time for amusements."
"She has no family?"
"A cousin or two." Delia's brows drew together in an effort of memory. "Her aunt's second husband is a baron—Lord Merrivale, if I've got it right. But there's some animosity there. He demanded she sell the shop and she refused, and he rather washed his hands of her—something like that. And Evie's proud as the devil, so I doubt she'd ask him for help even if she were destitute."
"Either way, she sounds like a capable enough young woman. You don't think she can manage Escoffier on her own, despite the language barrier?"
"Auguste? He wouldn't have the patience to hear her say bonjour before he tossed her out."
"My French isn't much better, I daresay."
"Ah, but it's different for you," she purred. "You're a duke. You're also a member of the Epicurean Club. And you know the prince and have dined with him countless times. Who better than you to help Auguste plan this party? Ah," she added, glancing past him, "there's my maid, at last. I must be off."
She stood up, and when he followed suit, she rose on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Thank you, Max. I should be back in about a month. In the meantime, do write to me in Rome and let me know how the banquet pans out. And if I read about your engagement in some Italian paper before you've told me, I shall be quite put out."
"But where do I find this Harlow woman?" he asked as Delia turned away and started across the foyer toward the dour-faced woman in black and the Savoy bellman who were waiting for her by the exit doors with a pile of trunks and suitcases. "Where am I to go?"
"Harlow's Bookshop," she called back over her shoulder without pausing. "Straight across the Strand and two blocks down Wellington Street. Tiny little place, but I expect you'll find it without too much trouble. Ta-ra."
Max stared after her in bemusement as she sauntered through the plate glass exit door held open for her by the liveried doorman, and he could only hope that doing this favor for Delia wouldn't have the same result as the last one. A bloody nose and a black eye were not a stellar way for any man to start the season, especially not when his goal was to win the most desired woman in London.
Anyone who knew Evangeline Harlow would probably have used the words hardworking and sensible to describe her. Evie, after all, had managed to pay off her father's many debts and keep the little bookshop she'd inherited from him out of the hands of creditors, something that no woman without a willingness to work and plenty of good sense could ever have accomplished.
Harlow's had never been much patronized, particularly by the smart set, but left with few options after her father's death, Evie had known it was her only way to earn a living, and she'd spent many hours working to gain it a favorable reputation among collectors. The financial rewards during the seven years of her stewardship had been meager—as Cousin Margery insisted upon reminding her at every opportunity—but Evie was proud of the fact that anyone who wanted an obscure title or a rare first edition knew Harlow's was the place they were most likely to find it.
Lately, however, Evie's innate good sense and staunch work ethic had developed the unfortunate tendency to desert her, at least on certain very specific occasions.
"Evie," her young assistant, Clarence, whispered beside her. "You've already put heaps of sugar in that cup."
"Yes," Evie agreed absently as she dropped another crystalline chunk into the teacup before her. Setting aside the sugar tongs, she reached for a spoon and began to stir the tea as she leaned back from the counter to peer through the open doorway of the shop's pantry, a move that gave her a clear view of the young man perusing the bookshelves along the center aisle of the shop.
Rory Callahan. Who would have thought the gangly boy she'd known all her life would transform into such a devastatingly attractive man during his years abroad? Was there something magical in the waters of Europe?
Born a few months apart in side-by-side houses, she and Rory had become close friends in childhood. She'd loaned him books, and he'd shared with her the violet creams he pinched from his father's confectionery shop when the old man wasn't looking. Evie had helped him with his schoolwork, and in return, he had confided to her his secret dreams to change the world. They'd had affection and camaraderie, but despite the matchmaking efforts of their fathers, there had never been anything remotely romantic between them.
Both of them had gone away to school, and upon graduating, Evie had returned to assist her father in the bookshop, and Rory had gone to Munich to study politics at the university there. Upon his father's death two years later, he'd come home only long enough to sell the confectionery shop to Clarence's widowed mother before returning to Germany. He hadn't remained at university very long, however, before deciding it wasn't for him, and he'd taken off to see the world.
During the next seven years, they'd kept up a steady and affectionate correspondence, but though she'd thoroughly enjoyed his descriptions of Viennese palaces, Swiss mountains, and the villas of the French Riviera, if anyone had ever asked Evie to describe her feelings for Rory, she'd have said he was like a brother.
And then, two weeks ago, he'd come home.
- “The best in historical romance!”—Julia Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of the Bridgerton series
- "Laura Lee Guhrke has a lively style that sizzles."—Jane Feather, New York Times bestselling author
- "Packed with chemistry and fun, this is a fairy tale treat.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
- "It has been a while since Guhrke’s last superbly written historical romance, but her latest artfully constructed literary confection is well worth the wait. George Bernard Shaw himself would appreciate Guhrke’s clever riff on his classic, Pygmalion, not to mention her sprightly prose and sparkling, champagne-fizzy wit."—Booklist, Starred Review
- "A promising start to a cheery new Victorian romance series."—Kirkus
- "A great mix of wit and attraction as opposites clash and romance blooms."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jun 20, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages