Miss Emma Harlow hasn’t earned the reputation as a hoyden for nothing, so when the Duke of Trent discovers her in his conservatory stealing one of his orchids, he’s isn’t surprised—charmed, delighted and puzzled, yes, but not surprised. It is Emma who is amazed. She has naturally concluded that the man reading in the conservatory must be the country cousin (who else in London would actually read?) and is quite vexed to discover that he is the Duke of Trent himself—imagine, stealing the duke’s prize Rhyncholaelia digbyana under his very nose!
But her vexation doesn’t last long. For Emma is a practical young lady with a mission: to end her dear sister Lavinia’s engagement to the villainous (and dreadfully dull!) Sir Waldo Windbourne, and she thinks that the famous libertine is just the man for the job. If he would only seduce her sister away from Sir Waldo…. Well, not seduce exactly, but flirt mercilessly and engage her interest. Perhaps then Lavinia would jilt the baron. The Duke of Trent is resistant, of course. Despite his reputation, he does not toy with the affections of innocents. And besides, it’s not her sister he longs to seduce.
Miss Emma Harlow was so intent on her task that she did not notice the gentleman in the leather armchair. She didn’t see him lower his book, cock his head to the side and examine her with interest.
“I say, is that the best way to do that?” the gentleman asked after a moment.
Emma, whose feathers were never the sort to ruffle easily, even when she was behaving improperly in a place she didn’t belong—in this case, with her fingers around the stem of a prize Rhyncholaelia digbyana in the Duke of Trent’s conservatory—calmly turned around. Her blue-eyed gaze, steady and sometimes intimidating, met with an amused brown one. “Excuse me?”
The gentleman closed the leather-bound edition, taking care to mark the page, and stood up. “Snapping the stem will ill serve your purpose,” he said, approaching.
Emma watched him stride across the room, taking in his handsome features—the long, straight nose, the chiseled jawline, the full lips—and neat appearance. The unknown gentleman was tall, lean and given to easy grace. She liked the way he was dressed, simply and without affectation in buckskin breeches, shiny Hessians and white lawn. His shirt points were without starch and his shoulders without padding. Of course, she readily noted, his broad shoulders precluded the necessity of such foppish enhancements. His hair, a deep rich brown color that well suited his dark complexion, was cut short in the fashionable mode. “My purpose?” she asked when he was within a few inches of her.
“Given the situation, I can only assume that you were overcome with admiration for this lovely and rare flower and sought to take it home with you to show off to all your friends in the horticultural society.” He didn’t wait for her to confirm or deny his theory but continued in the same conversational tone. “Surely as a member of that esteemed institution, you know that the only way to ensure that the flower lives is to cut it at the bulb through the rhizome.”
At these words, Emma dissolved into delighted, unguarded laugher, and several seconds passed before she could respond intelligibly. “You must be the visiting country cousin the duchess spoke of!”
A faint curve touched the gentleman’s lips. “I must?”
“Yes, of course,” she insisted. “Who else in town would bandy about the word rhizome?”
“Your logic is irrefutable. Indeed I must be the visiting country cousin. And who are you?”
“Come! You are standing here in the conservatory with me, as corporeal as I am. You’re hardly a ghost. Surely you wouldn’t have me believe such a whisker.”
“No, not that sort of nobody,” she explained. “I’m nobody of importance. You needn’t bother asking my name because you will only forget it in a minute or so and then I will have to remind you, which will be a dreadful embarrassment for the both of us. Now do show me where the rhizome is so I can return to the party. I told Mama I would be gone only a minute and now it has stretched into five. Mama brought me here as a favor—she and I rarely socialize together—and I’d hate to do anything that would distress her.”
Unaccustomed to orders and amused by the novelty, the gentleman complied. “The rhizome, my dear, is the stem usually under the—”
“Sir, you are very kind to try to edify me on the topic of rhizomes, but I assure you I have little interest in learning about plants.”
Feigning a look of disappointment, he said, “Very well. We will need a knife for the operation. I don’t suppose you brought one with you?”
Emma laughed, a pleasant trilling sound that made the gentleman smile in appreciation. “Sir, I did consider smuggling a knife out of the kitchens, but a gently bred lady cannot wander the streets of London with a knife in her reticule. It’s just as well, of course, since my sister-in-law keeps very close watch over the family silver and I couldn’t bear it if a scullery maid was turned off because of my lack of resourcefulness.” Emma examined the room, considering the situation. Her gaze settled on the desk. “Perhaps you should search the drawers for a letter opener. Yes, that would be just the thing!”
“Rifling through my host’s drawers is a very sad sack way of repaying his hospitality,” he observed.
Emma stared at him for a moment before saying, “You make an excellent point, sir, and far be it for me to corrupt the newly arrived country cousin. Since I’m the one lacking in any sense of propriety, it’s best that I do my own dirty work.” The drawer was unlocked and glided easily open. “There,” she said, taking the long silver object in hand, “now we shall cut the rhizome and return to our separate occupations. No doubt Mama is wondering what happened to me.”
The gentleman accepted the letter opener and was about to apply it to the plant when his hand halted in midair. “You know, Miss Nobody, I am suddenly struck with a vulgar bout of curiosity. What do you plan to do with this lovely flower after I finish cutting it?”
“I will stick it in my reticule and return to the party,” she answered.
The gentleman smiled. “And then?”
Emma stared at the gentleman’s hand and tried to think of a convincing fiction. However, even as she closed her eyes and told herself to concentrate, nothing came to mind. “Then I will hand it over to my sister, who’s a great cultivator of orchids.”
“If your sister is so great a cultivator of orchids, I wonder why she sent her sister to steal one of the Duke of Trent’s Rhyncholaelia digbyana.”
Emma laughed at the thought of Lavinia sending anyone to do her evil bidding. It was almost too ridiculous. “You misunderstand the situation, sir. My sister has no idea I’m here. Indeed, if she did, I imagine she’d be quite horrified.”
“Then why are you here?”
“It is a sordid tale of malice and spite, which I think I best keep to myself. We are new acquaintances, and I would loath to earn your disgust so quickly. It usually takes me a day or two to offend a man of your stature.”
“Now you must tell me. I’m a curious fellow, and your speech has whet my appetite for the truth. We will not leave this room until I know the whole of it.”
Miss Harlow sighed deeply and said, “The truth of it is that my sister is engaged to marry a man who does not approve of her pastime of raising orchids. Why not, I cannot fathom, since it is a genteel hobby and not at all down in the dirt like raising horses or chickens. If that were the case, then perhaps I could sympathize with his aversion. However, the wretched man is trying to make her withdraw from the Horticultural Society’s annual orchid show. My sister earned honorable mention in last year’s show, and she’s sure to win the blue ribbon this year. Alas, I fear her resolve is slipping under Sir—” Emma broke off her speech abruptly. It would not do to muddy the waters with names. “Under her betrothed’s constant disapproval. I merely wished to supply her with such an excellent example of an orchid that she won’t be able to resist participating. Everyone knows that the Duke of Trent grows the finest orchids in all of England.”
“I suspect the duke would be much gratified by the compliment.”
“I do not know. I’ve never met the duke. I know only his mother, the lovely and good-hearted dowager duchess. She was at school with my mother and was kind enough not to mind my coming today.” She looked toward the doorway, where the sound of chattering ladies could be heard drifting in. “Now, sir, can we please get on with it? It would be an awful embarrassment if anyone else were to find me in the conservatory with an ill-gotten letter opener in my hand. Mama would no doubt ring a peal over my head and send me to bed without supper. Then I would be tossed back to Derbyshire in disgrace.”
“We can’t have that,” he said, before applying the sharp instrument to the root. It took him only a moment to slice cleanly through. “There, do be careful not to get soil on your dress. It would be a waste to ruin such a lovely picture.”
“Bah, lovely pictures are the least of my concern. I will take caution because a patch of dirt would rather give up the game and reveal my true nature to the ladies at the tea party.” Emma opened her reticule and let the dowager duchess of Trent’s country cousin help her place the orchid within. It was a delicate procedure, and she was relieved that he handled the flower tenderly and with skilled fingers. If left to her own devices, she would’ve no doubt crushed it thoroughly. “I am reminded of my nephew Richard, who claimed with frightful vigor that he didn’t finish the last chocolate tart while incriminating evidence spotted his cheeks.”
“No reason to worry, my dear. We’ve covered up your profligacy nicely. You look as though butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth and not at all the degenerate you have proven yourself to be.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, pleased to have succeeded with her plan despite the unexpected hitch of discovery. “I’m in your debt for not calling the Runners on me.”
“Excellent. I trust you’ll be at the Bennington ball?” At her nod, he continued. “You can pay me back then with a set. Save a place for me on your dance card.”
Emma laughed. “That would be just the thing, sir. I don’t often have the opportunity to dance with anyone other than my brother and shall relish the opportunity. Perhaps it will be a waltz? I love the waltz, but one simply cannot do it with one’s brother.”
“Fustian!” the gentleman said.
“Really, I assure you, sir, I have danced the waltz with Roger and it’s awful. He’s light on his feet, of course, and is well familiar with the steps, but even I, who am not a romantical silly miss, knows the waltz should be performed with a beau.”
“I meant, my dear girl, that I cannot credit your lack of dancing partners. I might be from the country, where we do things differently, but even in London, the hands of beautiful ladies are always sought. It’s the way of things.”
Emma laughed, pleased with the comment. “That’s such a lovely compliment and so prettily done that I begin to doubt your rural origins. Despite the way you toss around words like rhizome, you have town bronze. But you will soon learn that here in London beauty aligned with too much personality isn’t very attractive at all,” she explained. “I’m afraid I am very much a quiz as far as society is concerned. I chatter too much and I’m too free in my manners, and I have all of society turning their heads away in disgust. Fortunately, I don’t have a large enough portion to whet the interest of men like your cousin the duke. If I did, I’m afraid I would be forced to behave, which would be dreadful dull.”
“Come, you’re a gently bred woman and a rather young one at that. What can you have possibly done to set society on its ear?”
Emma looked around the room just to make sure they were alone before leaning in and saying very quietly in his ear, “I raced from London to Newmarket in my curricle and broke Sir Leopold’s record.”
The gentleman’s brow furrowed and then cleared. “I know of you. You’re the Harlow Hoyden.”
“C’est moi,” she said.
“You are notorious.” An interested smile hovered over his lips.
She shrugged. “Only a little and I do not mind much. It keeps the serious suitors away and leaves me to my freedom.”
“The Harlow Hoyden,” he said under his breath. “Sir Leopold’s record stood untouched for three years and you broke it by two minutes.”
“Two minutes and seven seconds,” she said, identical dimples revealing themselves in both her cheeks. “I’m an excellent whipster and would have done better if Roger hadn’t been with me. I had to take him along for propriety’s sake. Sometimes propriety is the very devil, is it not, sir?”
He nodded. “Speaking of propriety, you should return to the party. Surely your absence has been remarked on.”
Emma knew it was true—she herself had said the same thing several times—but now that the moment had arrived, she was reluctant to end this delightful interlude. “You are right. Thank you for your help, sir.” She turned and walked away.
She was almost at the door when he called her name. “Miss Harlow, I believe you said a waltz.” She nodded. “Until tomorrow then, my dear.”
A few moments later, Emma returned to her mother’s side, very pleased with that afternoon’s work.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Regency romance novels and I rarely indulge in them anymore, but every now and then there is nothing better than getting whisked away (and back) to the Regency era!The Harlow Hoyden starts off with Emma up to one of her shenanigans and really takes off with an interesting angle. I instantly craved more after the end of the first chapter and found I couldn't stop reading!
Emma and Trent have a great chemistry and their banter was truly enjoyable to read. I really enjoyed Emma's character, she was non-traditional and proud of it, she was comfortable in her skin and made no apologies for her beliefs. The Duke of Trent was intriguing and patient, he didn't react like a typical aristocrat of the ton and I was instantly enamored with him. The whole cast of secondary characters really entertained and I can't wait to see if there are going to be more from them in the future.
This was my first book by Lynn Messina and I would love to get more! If you are looking for a Regency that has an original female lead, then you are going to fall in love with Emma. The Harlow Hoyden is definitely a different take on your traditional Regency romance novels!
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MEET THE AUTHOR:
Lynn Messina grew up on Long Island and studied English at Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked at The Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media), TV Guide, In Style, Rolling Stone, Fitness, Self and a bunch of wonderful magazines that have long since disappeared. She mourns the death of print journalism in New York City, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is author of five novels, including the best-selling Fashionistas, which has been translated into 15 languages and is in development as a feature film. She loves traveling and watching TV.
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Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/42550.Lynn_Messina
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