Dukes by the Dozen
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How to Ditch a Duke
DUKE IN WINTER by Alyssa Alexander
Impeded by a blinding snowstorm, the Duke of Highrow is determined to find his way home. But when the highwayman demanded he stand and deliver, he didn’t know she would steal his heart.
Hunching his shoulders against the bitter wind, Wulf guided his stallion onto the narrow track between the trees. With luck, he would be standing before his own fire before the storm worsened.
“Stand and deliver!” The shout was sharp beneath the swirling snow, echoing between the silent, naked trees.
Cursing, Wulf lifted his forearm to block the white flakes and studied the shadows dancing between the wind-tossed snow.
The highwayman was not ten feet away, sitting atop a horse in the center of the path. His greatcoat swirled in the wind as he raised his arm, the double-barreled pistol he held appearing small and light.
Though size was not indicative of deadliness. The thief held the weapon as straight and steady as any spymaster Wulf had encountered during the Reign of Terror.
“What shall I deliver?” Wulf pitched his voice above the wind and narrowed his eyes, evaluating risk. He kept a pistol in his saddlebags, but he would never be fast enough to beat his opponent.
Still, he took one hand from the reins and slid it onto his thigh. Easily, he hoped, so it would seem natural and not calculated to move closer to the saddlebags.
“You may deliver whatever valuables you have on your person.” Through the eerie, dim, snow-light and thickening flakes, Wulf could distinguish a cap pulled low and a scarf wrapped around the thief’s face that was substantial enough to fight the wind. “Beginning with the winnings in your pockets, sir.”
“Now, how is it you know about the blunt in my pockets?” Wulf leaned casually on the pommel. Considered his adversary.
“A rich nabob like you, coming from a house party? Of course you have blunt.” The man’s jacket was big enough he might swim in it. A local lad, perhaps, fallen on difficult times.
Or the Honorable Highwayman.
Wulf had yet to make the acquaintance of the local legend, though he had heard a great deal about the highwayman’s ill-gained generosity.
“I don’t particularly care to give up my blunt, even for widows and orphans.” Though he was actually quite willing to forgo his winnings for such a cause. “At least not at the end of a pistol,” he continued, attempting to stall.
Another few inches and Wulf would be able to reach his weapon. He shifted again, setting his hand a little closer to the saddlebag.
Wind rattled the branches above them, so they clacked and creaked like brittle bones. Wulf’s stallion sidestepped, pranced a few paces. Using both hands—unfortunately—Wulf brought the animal under control again.
“Very well, Your Grace.” The pistol notched higher, its barrels seeming to stare at Wulf with two dark, round eyes. “Then I shall wound you with the first shot. Perhaps you shall change your mind.”
“Unlikely.” Still, Wulf had lost the precious inches he’d gained reaching for his own weapon. His stallion was edgy, and the storm swirled around them—and the coins and pound notes in his pocket were not worth the effort.
But by God, it was the principle. He’d not spent years dodging the guillotine in France only to be bested by a highwayman a few miles from his home.
The wind sharpened, howled, and in the momentary silence as it died again, Wulf clearly heard a long-suffering sigh.
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
The report was deafening, slicing through the silence of snow and night. The already-spooked stallion reared, pawed the air. Even as Wulf recognized the searing pain in his shoulder for what it was, he understood he would not keep his seat.
“Bloody hell!” he cursed, tumbling through flying snow.
When the ground slammed into the back of his head, everything went black.
* * *
She’d shot him. Actually shot him.
“Damnation.” As the sound of panicked horse hooves faded into the night, Bea looked down at her pistol and let out an irritated huff. “Why did you have to pick now to be slippery?”
Her aim was nearly perfect, and she’d never yet wounded any of her intended prey.
Only frightened them.
Bea contemplated the man sprawled on the ground as snow began to blanket his greatcoat. She couldn’t leave him here. Unconscious, wounded, and without a horse, since his had gone running off into the trees.
He was also the Duke of Highrow—a boy she’d known. A man she didn’t.
“Damnation,” she said again, as she saw the stains on the snow. Blood. She didn’t need sunlight to recognize the dark drops dotting the ground.
The Difference One Duke Makes By Elizabeth Essex
The last thing Commander Marcus Beecham ever wanted was his late brother’s dukedom. But after ten years of dodging French cannonballs, he now faces a tougher enemy‚ the Ton’s matchmaking mamas. So he hides himself away in a library where he hopes to find some peace and quiet, but instead of solitude, he finds his fate.
Across the room, a tiny, dark-haired young woman in claret-colored velvet was attempting to shove a large chest of drawers across the door.
Marcus had to ask, even though he could plainly see the answer. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The young lady in question let out an oath so old, so Anglo-Saxon and so familiar that Marcus feared he must have misheard her, for he had never heard it uttered anywhere but between the decks of a ship. But then she added, “Oh, good Lord. Beech? Is that you behind that beard?”
Everything within him eased. “It is.” Only one female of his acquaintance had ever called him Beech—Miss Penelope Pease. And Marcus, in his oh-so-tedious and unimaginative youth, had called her, “Pease Porridge?”
“Dear Beech!” She came forward with her hand extended, all astonished happiness. “What an unexpected pleasure! If you aren’t a welcome sight for sore eyes.”
And here he had been thinking that he was a sore sight for her welcome blue eyes. Devil take him, but she had grown into a beautiful young woman, whose hand he gladly took. He felt the warmth of her grasp all the way from his fingertips to places better left unmentioned. “Why Pease Porridge Hot—how is it possible you are no longer ten and three years old?”
Her mischievous smile lit up her heart-shaped face. “More like Pease Porridge Cold these days, my friend. And you are no longer the gangly lad of our gloriously mis-spent youth, either. Gracious, but you’re a long drink of water.”
Marcus felt his mouth curve into his first real smile in days. “Well, the passing decade has clearly not dimmed your hoydenish tendencies one bit.”
“It’s not as if I haven’t tried, but—” Behind her, the door latch rattled, and she sprang into action, lowering her voice to an urgent whisper. “Help me!” She motioned for him to join her as she laid a determined shoulder to the chest of drawers.
“I don’t think I should.” Even he knew barricading them in alone was definitely not the done thing.
“I’ll explain if you’ll only help,” she promised. “You’re supposed to be a bloody hero, Beech. Come act like one.”
“My dear Pease Porridge,” he murmured. “Whatever have you been doing with yourself these many years?” His question went unanswered while he snugged in beside her—minful not to spill his drink—to shove the heavy piece of furniture the necessary remaining inches to bar the door.
“Thank you.” She smiled up at him and patted his lapel in an absent gesture of casual intimacy that nearly rocked him back on his heels. “Good Lord, Beech, you smell divine. What are you drinking?” She swiped the snifter of brandy from his hand and took a hearty sip. “Mmm. Thanks.” She kept possession of the glass as she all but flung herself into the other armchair opposite the hearth. “I’m meant to be good and stay well clear of trouble, but to do so I’m in need of some fortification. You?”
“As you see.” Marcus decided he rather liked the offhand, ordinary way she treated him, much like his brother officers had—as if there were nothing wrong with him.
He fetched himself another drink. “Well clear of trouble? But wasn’t there some stupid talk of you marrying my late, unlamented brother?”
She nearly choked on the brandy, but when she recovered her aplomb, she shot him what he could only describe as a sharp, cutty-eyed glance. “Dear Beech, you have been away.”
“Aye.” He distinctly remembered his mother had written about an engagement between Pease Porridge and his older brother Caius, if only because the news had given him such an awful, riveting pang that had stayed with him, lodged deep in his chest like a broken rib.
“There was talk, but it was quickly dismissed.”
And just like that, the pain was healed, and he could breathe again. “Glad to hear it.”
“Ha!” she scoffed. “You’d be the first of your family to feel so.”
Something in her tone told Marcus he was clearly not in possession of all the facts. “Enlighten me, Pease Porridge.”
She laughed, but by the time she answered, the twinkling warmth in her eyes had hardened into studied nonchalance. “Did no one write to tell you all the gory details? That I made the unforgivable mistake of daring to decline the engagement that was so thoughtfully and hastily arranged for the Duke of Warwick and me? That I refused to marry your brother, and was that instant and forevermore declared entirely unsuitable?”
The flush of satisfaction—she had refused Caius!—quickly burned itself out. Such childish triumph was beneath him with his brother cold in his grave. Still. “Unsuitable for being smart enough to say no to my blaggard of a brother?” Such a choice only raised her up in his estimation. “Hardly.”
“Kind Beech. You have been away a very long time, haven’t you?” Penelope Pease took another deep drink, before she met his eye. “It’s like this, Beech. I’m ruined, you see. Utterly and completely ruined.”
Discovering the Duke By Madeline Martin
Reunited at a house party after a lackluster start to their marriage, the Duke of Stedton attempts to win his Duchess’ heart. Will a sizzling wager be enough to melt the frost between them, or will it truly remain the coldest winter in London?
His hands went to the placket of his breeches. “Are you ready?”
She gave a vigorous nod and darted under the covers, bulky robe and all. Her eyes remained averted as he unbuttoned his pants and pushed them off. She did not look at him again, not even after he’d donned his nightshirt.
He put out the candles and slid into the large bed beside her. She stiffened. He settled himself on his back and closed his eyes.
It took only a few moments before Julia began to wriggle about. A slight shifting at first, then turning and tossing about like a fish flopping on the dock.
“William?” she said finally.
“Aren’t you…?” she left the question hanging unsaid.
“Going to sleep?” he finished. “Why, yes, that is precisely what I’m doing. Or rather what I would be doing if you weren’t squirming around.”
“What I mean to say is, aren’t you…going to…have relations with me?” She asked the question in barely a whisper.
And William smiled into the darkness.
Julia’s cheeks were hot with embarrassment. How awful to have had to voice such a question aloud. No wife should be forced to ask if her husband meant to have relations with her.
“No,” William replied.
“Oh.” She lay awkwardly, unable to sleep and trying not to fidget. The bed had been quite a decent size the prior three nights, fluffy and comfortable and wonderfully large. Now, it appeared to be too small, every movement making her fearful she might bump or brush against him.
Well, maybe that was what she needed to do. If she was going to get with child quickly and be free of this whole marital mess, she had to be brazen enough to take action on her own.
She rolled toward him and put her fingertips to his arm. His nightshirt was thin, and the heat of his solid flesh was a welcome reprieve from the chilled night air. “William?”
“You’re very warm,” she ventured.
“You may press against me.” His voice was gravelly, suggesting he had already fallen asleep. A ridiculous notion. No one fell asleep that quickly.
She accepted his invitation and rested the length of her body against him. The simple act of putting herself against him immediately heated her icy fingers and toes. A sigh escaped her lips. He was more than warm; he was hot. And strong.
She recalled him without his shirt, the powerful cut of muscle across his broad chest. Emboldened by her goal, she trailed her fingers over his shoulder, below his neck where his skin was uncovered by the shirt, naked. His heartbeat thundered under her touch.
Still he did not react. And he was very clearly not asleep. Of that she was certain.
“Would you like to undress me?” she asked.
“We should play a game,” he said abruptly.
She froze in the exploration of his body. “A game?”
“Yes.” The rich timbre of his voice rumbled under her fingertips. “Tomorrow is the last day of the house party. For every game you win, you will decide what it is we do together. For every game I win, I will decide.”
“That seems fair,” she replied slowly into the dark. She withdrew her hand but did not turn away from the delicious heat of his large frame.
“Best of luck in the morning.” With that, the infuriating man immediately fell asleep.
Julia, however, did not sleep. Not right away at least. Not with William lying beside her, hot and powerful.
A game, indeed.
She’d always been good at them and seemed to possess a considerable amount of luck. It would be simple. She merely needed to win at least once and claim her prize, which would be intercourse. She would become pregnant, deliver a boy, and be done.
It was the perfect plan.
Or so she thought.
The Duke and the April Flowers By Grace Burrowes
Henning, Duke of Clonmere is bound by a promise made by his late father. He must marry one of the Earl of Falmouth’s daughters, though only the oldest, Lady Iris, who considers herself on the shelf, interests Clonmere… In fact, she fascinates him.
“The waltz will start soon,” Iris said. “We should be going inside.”
His Grace of Clonmere remained on the bench beside her. “Might I confide a secret? I’m all waltzed out. I have no more waltzes, minuets, quadrilles, gavottes or Roger de Coverley’s in me. Not tonight. Your sisters have worn me to flinders.”
I want my waltz. And yet, Iris was also relieved. To twirl around in Clonmere’s arms, pretending to be merely amused, pretending to merely enjoy what Iris would instead be savoring and resenting and treasuring…. Clonmere’s demurral was in truth a reprieve.
“My sisters thrive on society’s entertainments. You will have a waltzing duchess, Your Grace. Best accommodate yourself to that reality now, even if it’s not precisely what you wish for.”
Clonmere plucked a flower from the urn beside the bench. “What do you wish for? If you had a fairy godmother, and she granted you a wish-come-true, what would it be, Lady Iris?”
Just as the duke was out of waltzes, Iris was out of witty rejoinders. The plain, honest truth begged to be spoken, if only this once, if only to a man making conversation to avoid the ballroom.
“A wish? My deepest, most secret wish?”
“The wish your heart whispers as you drift into dreams, that wish.”
To not end up with cat hair all over my life. To not be a burden on my family. To never… but those wishes were all in the negative. What did Iris wish for affirmatively? She had the sense Clonmere would wait for her answer until Michaelmas, though by then he’d be married to some sister or other.
“I wish that a worthy man would regard me, the true me, as the fulfillment of some of his dreams, Your Grace. Not all, of course, just as I wouldn’t expect him to be the sum total of my life either. I was raised to anticipate that I’d find a partner though, and I’m not ashamed to long for it. I wish that man would find me, and kiss me as if all the love in his heart had finally found a home, and as if all the love in my heart was his dearest treasure. Just once, I’d like to experience such a kiss.”
The admission surprised her, but also came as something of a relief. Twenty-six was not ancient, and longing for somebody to love was purely human.
“You are very brave,” Clonmere said, rising. “Very fierce.”
Now he was ready to return to the ballroom? “I am neither.”
He offered his hand—not his arm—and Iris rose. She’d confided much more than she’d intended, but the recitation had given her courage. She would not slink off to Surrey, she would not consign herself to the company of dyspeptic cats and literary spinsters.
“Where are we going?” she asked, for the duke was not taking her in the direction of the ballroom.
“What matters one more waltz, when I can make a lady’s wish come true?” He came to a halt toward the back of the garden. The sound of the ballroom faded to a distant roar, moonlight glinted on a trickle of water splashing from a fountain sculpted into the shape of a blooming rose.
“I must make my own wish come true,” Iris said.
Clonmere shifted his grip on Iris’s hand, linking their fingers. “On Saturday, I will choose which of Falmouth’s daughters to court. From that day forward, I will be devoted to her and only to her, if she’ll have me. I must make my choice in a manner that offers none of your sisters insult, or the woman I choose for my duchess will forever regret that she caused her siblings to suffer. Jealousy among siblings is the very devil, and I won’t be the cause of it in my wife’s family.”
He was trying to make some point, but Iris grasped only the first part of his declaration. “You have not yet made your choice. You aren’t devoted to anybody yet.”
“Precisely.” He took off his gloves, a curious thing to do when the supper was still a set of dances away. “I am free to behave as I please, and I please to make your one, honest wish come true—if I may?”
A peculiar sensation welled from Iris’s middle, part glee, part terror. “You’d like to kiss me?”
“That was your wish.”
Her wish had involved a particular kind of kiss, which Clonmere couldn’t possibly deliver.
He framed her face in the warmth of his hands. “Then… as you wish, my lady.”
Love Letters from a Duke by Gina Conkle
Plagued by a leg injury, the Duke of Richland must dance. With his “bride-choice” ball mere hours away, a drastic healing measure is suggested which involves Mrs. Charlotte Chatham, a rustic widow who stirs him heart and soul.
When the widow’s gaze met his, knowledge reflected in their depths. Tonight marked a separation of the wheat from the chaff. He would dance with three young ladies of style, comportment, and estimable status. His choices for the final selection. After the ball, quiet invitations for a longer stay would be extended to those three women and their families. The rest would return home tomorrow.
But he’d have to dance in the first place.
The dowager turned to her friend. “Charlotte, that remedy you mentioned last week. Would you consider administering it to the duke?”
Mrs. Chatham’s eyes went saucer big. “Me? I rather thought Simms might.”
The dowager huffed, a sign she’d not be thwarted. “His valet would show him all the tender care of a plow horse. It must be you. Who else would know the exact dosage? Or have the right touch?”
A frisson feathered his groin. Mrs. Chatham touching me? No! No! No! “What the devil are you planning?”
His mother gave him the gimlet eye and waved over a footman. “We’re in a desperate state, Richland. I’m willing to try anything.”
Alarm bells careened through his head. He should stop this. He was the duke after all, but the dowager was equally determined. It was in the line of her mouth and angle of her chin. His mother was indomitable, well-acquainted with years of directing her sons. One had better luck stemming the tides than stopping her once her mind was set.
Hands clamped behind his back, he’d tolerate this madcap remedy for the moment. The past year, he and the dowager had tactfully juggled their new positions in life’s hierarchy because she understood change was coming. She wanted it. For her happiness and the future of Richland Hall, he’d allow some leeway.
Thomas strode to their circle, a flurry of scarlet and gold livery. There under the sprawling oak tree, the dowager beckoned the trusted servant to bend his bewigged head to hear her softly issued commands.
“Deliver a heated tea kettle, several buckets of water, and our largest, empty butter churn to the duke’s sitting room. When you’re done, have a chambermaid go to Mrs. Chatham’s room and retrieve an amber vial.”
“You will find it on the escritoire by the window,” the widow put in.
“And Thomas…” The dowager’s tone was serious.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“You understand this requires the utmost discretion. I don’t want the duke and Mrs. Chatham disturbed for the rest of the afternoon.”
The footman didn’t bat an eye. “Very good, Your Grace.”
He was speechless, watching Thomas speed toward the sprawling Dutch-Palladian structure that was Richland Hall. His mother whispered like a conspirator in Mrs. Chatham’s ear, but the widow had eyes for him alone. Lively, seductive, experienced eyes. Her earthy stare sent exciting currents between them. Hair on his arms stood on end. A similar sensation had happened once when he’d stood too close to a demonstration of von Guericke’s frictional electrical machine. Agitation had sparked his skin.
But this? This was a thrilling jolt. A prudent man would quash the madness now, but wisdom wasn’t foremost on his mind. Anticipation was.
“What are they up to?” George asked in low tones.
“I don’t know, but it involves hot water, a butter churn, and an afternoon alone with Mrs. Chatham.”
“Sounds like torture.”
Or a new circle of Heaven.
Her Perfect Duke By Ella Quinn
Lincolnshire, June 1819
Giles, Duke of Kendal, strolled around the Midsummer’s fair in Wintering, a small market town in Lincolnshire. His friend, mentor, and one-time guardian, the Duke of Berwick-upon-Tweed, had suggested Kendal take advantage of being a guest of the Duke and Duchess of Hull. The town was famous, at least in this small area of England, for its Midsummer’s night fair. Berwick had even gone so far as to suggest that Kendal might find something that would interest him, or perhaps it was someone that would interest him. If it was a someone, he hoped it was a soothsayer or fortune teller. Thus far in his life, he had not made the best of decisions. Or rather, he had accepted the decisions that had been made for him.
Except for Lillian. She had been the light of his life.
He gave himself an inner shake. There was no point in continually asking if he could have done anything differently. She was gone, and that was that. Or so Berwick had told Kendal more than once.
Determinedly, he turned his focus on the fair. The purpose this year—aside from local craftsmen and women making a bit more money and celebrating the longest day of the year—was to raise the funds necessary to provide a new roof for the church. Why did churches always require new roofs?
He had almost strolled past a booth with two elderly women selling lace and ribbons when the sound of light, musical laughter stopped him. Two females, one with silvery blonde hair and dressed like a lady, although not in the latest fashion. The other looked like every lady’s maid he’d ever seen, dressed primly in a dark gown. The women were inspecting the lace.
“This is extremely fine work,” the lady said. “Mannering, I think it would look lovely on my blue gown.”
“I agree, my lady.” Mannering held the piece of lace up, inspecting it. “It’s just what we need to make it special.”
“How much do you think we require?” the lady asked.
Mannering measured the lace with her arms as a guide. “If you like, you could also get some for your mother.”
“What a wonderful idea!” The lady smiled. “I can give it to her for”—a faint line appeared between her brows—“Her birthday and Christmas are too far away.” Then she smiled, a smile with no artifice, no calculation. Very much like Lillian had smiled, although different, too. It was the smile of an unaffected lady, not the child Lillian had been. “I shall just give it to her. Those are the best gifts.”
“That is a lovely idea, my lady,” one of the old women said.
Was the lady from here? She turned just enough for him to see that her brows and eyelashes were darker than her hair. One did not see that often in England. It was more common in Germany and Holland. Yet she was obviously English.
The lady and her maid concluded the purchase and went to another booth, where the lady found something else she needed and something else she could give to another. This time, as if she knew he was watching her, she glanced in his direction. Their eyes met for a mere second. It was long enough for him to see they were almost turquoise, the color of the sea in the Greek Islands. Then she blushed and dropped her gaze.
Kendal was entranced.
HOW TO DITCH A DUKE by May McGoldrick
Lady Taylor Fleming is an heiress with a penniless duke on her tail. Her step-by-step plan to ditch him is simple. But even with the best laid plans, things can go awry…
How to Ditch A Duke
– Step 1 –
Neglect Your Appearance in Important Situations
Angus, the Scottish Highlands
Taylor pushed herself onto all fours. Her hands were deep in the mud, her knees sunk in it, and filthy brown water dripped from her chin.
Shame and embarrassment washed through her, more painful than any physical distress. Here she was, an earl’s daughter. One of the richest women in Scotland. While her mother was alive, Taylor had been doted on, loved, cherished. But those days were gone. Today was proof of it. Here, in the presence of a stranger on a storm-soaked Highland road, she was on her hands and knees, chilled and wet and bedraggled—an object of derision in the eyes of everyone. And to what end? Simply to prove a point to her selfish family about character.
Tall boots, caked in mud, and muscular legs encased in buckskin came into her view. The man crouched and held out his hand. The palm was callused. Another cold wave of humiliation washed through her.
“Thank you. I can do this by myself.”
“I know you can. But please allow me to help. You’d do the same for me.”
Somehow, she couldn’t picture him groveling on all fours in the muck.
He produced a handkerchief from his waistcoat.
She shook her head. “It would be ruined.”
“It’s only a bit of cloth, made for this purpose.”
She reluctantly accepted it and wiped her eyes. A dark blot of mud covered the fine fabric.
“I’m sorry; it’s stained already.” Embarrassment thickened her voice.
“That was clearly its destiny, fulfilled in the hand of the worthiest of women.”
His kindness tugged at her heart. Hearing his subtle accent and gentle words, she envisaged him as a prince on a fine horse in some far-off land, rescuing damsels in distress like herself. Beginning to think she might simply be imagining this man, Taylor tried to claw her way up the low bank, only to slip back down.
“Please, will you deny this fellow traveler the same happy fate as his handkerchief?”
“I’m covered with mud.”
“What’s a smudge here or a smudge there?”
Taylor shook her head, unable to stop a smile from forming on her lips. He was definitely trying to make light of the situation. Still, she wasn’t ready to face him—or face anyone.
“If you had not taken the plunge, then the task would have fallen to me. In every rescue, one person must be sacrificed. And you bravely took on that role yourself. Allow me to show my gratitude.”
He wasn’t giving up. With a resigned sigh, she took his hand, and he began to pull her up.
“I think I can manage from…” Her words were lost as her feet flew out from beneath her and she collapsed against him.
“I’m certain you can.”
One cheek lay on his chest. Dirt smeared his waistcoat. She took the time to inhale his enthralling scent and appreciated the powerful muscles supporting her before slowly trying to push herself away. “That was unexpected.”
“I must confess, such unexpected outcomes are far more enjoyable than the….”
He slipped, and suddenly she was holding him up. His face was pressed against her breasts. His arms wrapped around her hips. She tried to help him to straighten up, but instead, he held on tighter. The ridiculousness of the moment was colossal. She wanted to laugh. And from the little that Taylor could see of his face, he was amused, too.
When he got his feet under him, she let go at the same time that he did.
“I think I’ll be fine now,” she murmured. “If you’d be so kind as to…”
Suddenly, she was on her way down again, one leg heading for Aberdeen and the other toward Edinburgh. Somehow, she’d turned in his arms, and he was holding her up, his hands just beneath her breasts, squeezing her against him.
“Perfectly fine,” she managed to chirp. “Your intention was quite chivalrous.”
For the first time in her life, a man was touching her breasts, her bottom, every inch of her—front and back—but none of it was in the cause of romance.
She finally stood, and he released her. Taylor turned. Both of them now having regained their footing, she hazarded a glance. His shirt and waistcoat and trousers were as filthy as hers.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “That was my fault.”
“Hardly. The pleasure was entirely mine, liebling.”
To Tempt a Highland Duke By Browen Evans
Dougray Firth, Viscount Crew, enjoyed the quiet of the late hour, or early morning, whichever way you chose to look at it. He took another swig from the near empty bottle of whisky in his hand and looked up at the night sky.
Fate was a bastard. He’d known that for years, but tonight it stabbed him hard.
On this warm summer night he sat on the terrace of Fenworth House, the Earl of Fenworth’s countryseat, cursing his father the Duke of Monreith. His best friend’s little sister, Flora, the woman he thought he would marry, was to be wed in the morning but not to him.
And whose fault was that?
Dougray’s closed his eyes and sighed, letting the whisky he drank wash away the terrible memories of six years ago. He’d been eighteen and his father’s meddling had destroyed his world.
He wanted the whisky to give him courage. To give him the courage to give his father exactly what he wanted—Dougray’s agreement to wed Flora instead. Doing so the day of her wedding would be a scandal, but they would live that down.
He also knew Flora would eagerly forego Lord Grafton if he asked her to marry him instead.
But he couldn’t marry her.
He loved her. She was his best friend. The only woman who’d got him through Connie’s death and the one person who had not let him give up on his search for his son, the son the Duke had taken from him.
Because Dougray loved her he would let her go.
For to marry her could sign her death warrant.
He took another long slug from the bottle still in his hand. The fiery liquid burned his throat; that is what brought tears to his eyes.
He wiped his face with the sleeve of his linen shirt.
He sat consumed by misery, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a ghostly figure slip through the front entrance and walk into the rose garden that led down to the small pond at the front of the estate.
He knew who it was and where she was going.
Dougray knew this house better than his own. He’d spent more time here than at his father country estate. Angus Mackenzie, the Earl of Fenworth’s son was his best friend and Flora’s older brother.
He told himself not to follow, but his feet did not want to listen. The almost empty bottle fell to the terrace as he set off in pursuit.
He didn’t catch up to her until she had reached the summerhouse. This is where they’d come to be alone. To share their hopes, fears, and dreams. It was where six months ago he had stolen his first kiss from her.
She was sitting on the bench in her nightgown, her knees drawn up to her chest with her head resting on them. He heard a sniff and realized she was crying. The sound made him almost double over with pain.
“Don’t cry, sweeting.”
Flora jumped at the sound of his voice. She had not heard him enter, so lost in her own misery.
“Go away, Dougray. I want to be alone.”
He reached her side but could not bear to touch her. “Iain is a nice man. Will becoming his wife be so terrible?”
She looked up, her eyes awash with pain. “He’s not you.”
He crouched down in front of her. “I cannot marry you. I just can’t.”
She studied his face and he did not hide the tear that slipped from his eye.
“This past year I really thought you had finally gotten over Connie’s death. I thought you’d opened your heart to me. We shared our hopes for the future. You let me fall in love with Connor as if he were my own wee boy. Just tell me why?”
He had no words. Instead he leaned forward and pressed a soft, chaste kiss to her lips.
“Do you hate your father so much that you’d use me as a pawn to hurt him. Is it because he is desirous of our match that you purposely opposed it?” Her sorrow was now replaced with anger. “I hate you Dougray Firth. I hate you for making me fall in love with you. For giving me a dream and then taking it away. Just go away before you break my heart completely.” Her head lowered to her knees and she began sobbing.
He couldn’t stand it. He reached down and scooped her into his arms and took her place on the bench, placing her in his lap. She did not stop crying. She merely buried her face against his chest and sobbed.
He sat there gently rocking her and wished things could be different. He wished he didn’t love her so much. But it was because he loved her he would let her go. Seeing her married to another would be his living hell, but at least she would be alive and he would be able to see her occasionally.
He didn’t know how long they sat there. Eventually her sobbing stopped and she fell asleep in his arms.
He pressed a kiss to her head and imprinted the feel of her into his memory and heart.
Duke in Search of a Duchess By Jennifer Ashley
The widowed Duke of Ashford is nonplussed when his children hand him a paper specifying what sort of woman he needs to marry. When Ash’s best friend Guy finds the letter, Guy is most amused:
“Item one: She must be tall so she does not have to stand on her tiptoes to kiss you.What the devil, Ash?”
“I told you, a bit of nonsense.” Ash stopped himself trying to snatch away the paper. He pretended indifference. “Lewis has decided I need a wife.”
“Has he indeed?” Guy’s dark eyes glittered. “Wise lad. Item two: She must not be too thin or too wide. Hmm, very specific. Item three: She must like children, even when they are loud and less than punctual.”
Ash folded his arms, something punching him in the gut.
“Item four: She must know how to sew so she can mend tears in your shirts and spare Edwards, who is tired of you throwing them at him.” Guy broke off in admiration. “That boy is destined for greatness.”
Ash was torn between pride and annoyance. “Leave it, my friend.”
Guy ignored him. “Item five: She must not adhere to timetables, and must teach you to leave off them. Ah, now we come to the crux of the matter.”
Ash cleared his throat. “It is possible I’ve grown too fond of my routine.”
Guy burst out laughing. “Too fond of your routine? Give me strength. All in London set their watches by it. Those who don’t know you believe you mad, or at least eccentric. I defend you every night to ignorant fools.” Not noticing Ash’s firming mouth, Guy returned to the paper.
“Because we know, dear Papa, how little time you have to pursue the matter, we will ask a person to assist you.”
“What? Who on earth would they ask?” Ash tried to hide his unease. “You? A recipe for disaster. I’ve met your volatile mistresses, and you’ve never been inclined to matrimony.”
“No, they have someone entirely different in mind. Lewis says, We have written to Mrs. Courtland and asked her to help find a suitable woman to marry you, which will be handy as she lives next door.” Guy looked up, smile wide. “Oh dear.”
Anything amusing about the situation rapidly dropped away. Ash, blood cold, advanced on Guy and ripped the paper from him. He turned it around to see the words in plain black ink, scrawled in Lewis’s young penmanship.
Helena Courtland. The widow next door, an unmistakable busybody. Talkative, gossipy, and absolutely the last person in the world who should be involved in Ash’s private life.
Mrs. Courtland was a fairly young woman, not yet thirty, having buried a husband nine years ago. She had no children of her own and had taken to Ash’s offspring rather too well. They enjoyed regaling Ash with her many and bizarre opinions on everything from the latest in clothing to the governing of the British Empire.
“Dear God, not Mrs. Courtland.” The paper crumpled under Ash’s big hand. “I forbid it,” he said hotly, with a sinking sense of futility. “I absolutely forbid it.”
His words were drowned by Guy’s loud and prolonged laughter.
Dear Duke by Anna Harrington
John, Duke of Monmouth, has no idea that the anonymous pen pal who has stolen his heart is the same woman standing between him and his new canal…
Good God, he was nervous! Surrounded by a sea of masked guests inside Bishopswood’s ballroom, John tugged once more at the sleeves of his black kerseymere jacket.
He nearly laughed at himself. When had he ever been nervous about a woman before in his life? In his younger days, he’d bedded more women than he could remember, sharing in all kinds of pleasures with down-to-earth women from the markets, inns, and villages. In more recent years, he’d been too busy with his business to spend much time in pursuit of the women of the gentility that his new money brought him into contact with. Since he’d inherited, though, it was society ladies who vied to capture his attention, those women who were more than eager to raise their skirts for a wealthy duke. He rejected those ladies outright, knowing he’d find no pleasure in them, because they wanted to be with the title and not with the man.
But the woman who pinned those notes to the tree knew nothing about his title or his status as one of England’s most powerful men. He suspected that she wouldn’t care even if she did. At least he hoped she wouldn’t, preferring the true man he was. God knew how much he liked her.
If she were half as beautiful in person as she was in her letters, he feared that she might also capture his heart.
He snatched a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing footman, more so he could continue to take glances toward the top of the stairs over the rim than for the drink itself. His eyes hadn’t strayed far from the landing all night, although how he would know her when she arrived, costumed and hidden behind her mask, he had no idea. He only prayed that he would. And that she would come at all. When he’d returned to the tree to seek her response, the invitation was gone, but she’d left no reply. Nor did she write even once during the past week.
Since then, he’d kicked himself repeatedly that he’d pressed her to meet, fearing he’d gone too far. Would he ever hear from her again?
Quashing his worry, he watched as the parade of new arrivals appeared on the landing and handed their invitations to the Master of Ceremonies, who announced them based upon their costume. Tonight was a true masquerade, with all identities hidden until the midnight unmasking. He’d insisted on it. For a few precious hours he wanted to be nothing more than one of the crowd, so that he could enjoy the party himself before they set upon him like locusts in their rush to curry his favor. Most of all, he wanted time to enjoy the company of the woman who had written all those letters.
He had no idea what his secret authoress would look like or what costume she’d wear. If she’d appear at all. But he knew he’d feel her presence when she arrived, the way old sailors felt oncoming storms.
White flashed at the top of the stairs. His gaze darted to the landing—
A low tingle rose inside him as he watched her give her invitation to the Master of Ceremonies. His breath hitched with nervous anticipation despite a soft chuckle to himself as her name was announced. Lady Swan. A graceful, gliding vision in white silk and feathers, one in perfect opposition to the black clothes of his panther, of her softness and elegance to his hardness.
Meeting her gaze across the room, he held out his hand toward her in invitation, as if she were only a few feet from him rather than across the grand ballroom. The party faded away around them until it was only the two of them. No one else in the room mattered.
She drew in a nervous breath, her slender shoulders stiff. Then a smile spread beneath her white satin half-mask, and she moved on, gliding down the remaining stairs and into the crowd which parted around her as she came to him.
Wordlessly, she slipped her trembling hand into his. He raised it to his lips, unable to resist this small kiss, then led her forward to the dance floor, to take her into his arms and twirl her into the waltz.
MUST LOVE DUKE by Heather Snow
Lady Emmaline Paulson is destined to land a duke—at least that has been the expectation since she was a cherub faced babe. But she has no wish to live her life in a gilded cage, always on display. Besides, she already has her Duke—an adorable Cavalier King Charles spaniel pup she rescued from the Serpentine with the help of a handsome stranger.
Maxwell Granville, heir to the Duke of Albemarle, wasn’t fishing for love—or fair maidens trying to save drowning puppies—that November afternoon. But that’s precisely what he found, IF he can convince Emmaline that her Duke isn’t the only duke she wants in her life…
November 1835, London
Sharp honking squawks, followed by the angry flapping of wings, broke through the early morning stillness of Hyde Park.
Lady Emmaline Paulson ignored the blustering geese. The large birds often haunted the banks of the Serpentine, as much a part of the park as the multi-arched bridge that separated the lake from the long water. She was much too caught up in her own pressing worries to pay them mind anyway.
Until a peal of panicked barking joined the cacophony, only to end in an abrupt splash.
Emmaline’s head jerked toward the sound, but from her position on the bridge, all she could see was the shimmer of the water between the stone balusturs on the other side. She rushed to the railing and peered over the edge.
An enormous white goose stood agitatedly soothing her ruffled feathers, as her partner strode along the high bank, posturing in satisfaction at having defended his lady.
Emmaline scanned the surface of the water, searching for the dog she suspected the gander had chased into the lake.
And indeed, a small white and chestnut head bobbed precariously, the pup’s fur plastered to its skin. Its long ears disappeared beneath the blue-brown water as it tried to paddle toward the bank.
“Poor thing,” Emmaline murmured as she watched its progress. Though many common Londoners actually bathed in the Serpentine on hot summer days, this was November. The unfortunate pup was going to be quite cold when it pulled itself from the water.
If it got the chance to pull itself from the water, that was.
For as the dog got close to the bank, the gander kicked up a veritable fuss, extending its wings and snapping its beak in a fit of feathery aggression.
The pup whimpered and changed course, trying to find another spot farther down where it might escape the chilly lake. But the goose gave it no quarter, running the shore line and threatening the poor dog any time it got near.
“There now, you great bully!” Emmaline shouted, hoping her voice carried across the water and startled the gander enough to give the pup a fighting chance. But the goose ignored her.
She pushed away from the stone railing and ran the rest of the way across the bridge. Emmaline’s cloak billowed behind her as her long legs ate up the distance, leaving her shorter, slower maid to follow in her wake.
Making the turn at the end of the bridge, Emmaline picked her way down to the shore. A quick check told her that the geese and the pup were farther down the lake now, moving to an even higher bank where the dog would have no chance of pulling itself out. “Vicious birds,” she grumbled as she hurried faster.
As she drew near, Emmaline waved her arms wildly. “Leave him be!” she commanded the gander in her sharpest tones. She hoped to goodness the damp weather and earliness of the hour had kept everyone else away from the park this morning, or she’d have some explaining to do as to why the Earl of Montgomery’s youngest daughter was charging geese along the Serpentine, all whilst yelling like a fishwife.
Finally, the birds noticed her, honking in alarm and scattering in a flurry of flaps and feathers. Satisfaction flared, but only for a moment because as she tried to stop, her boots skidded on the dewy grass (and something she quite feared was goose dung) and she was sent flailing toward the land’s edge.
“No, no, no, no!” she cried as she neared the drop. A dousing in the lake wouldn’t make this already rotten morning any better. Her hands flew out in front of her, as if they could shove against air to keep her upright, but Emmaline knew it was no use as her momentum tipped her forward. She scrunched up her face against the inevitable shock of frigid water.
And was yanked from behind with a sudden jerk.
“I’ve got you.”
The Mistletoe Duke By Sabrina York
When Jonathan Pembroke’s mother implores him to create a list of potential suitors for her beloved companion, Meg Chalmers, he does his best. Ah. How soon he regrets his largesse when he realizes he wants Meg for himself.
Then Mattingly went and said something that completely ruined Jonathan’s mood.
“So tell us about this girl.”
A simple question. Surely not one that should cause such an uprising of bile from his gut.
Jonathan sipped his brandy. It tasted bitter. “Girl?”
“You know.” St. Clare slapped him on the shoulder. “The one you mentioned in the invitation.”
Mattingly fixed him with a somber gaze. “We’re both dying to know more about her. Especially if she comes recommended by you.”
“Indeed,” St. Clare said. “I’ve been looking for a wife for months now, and cannot bear any of those flibberty-gibbets the mamas are proffering this season.”
Mattingly grunted. “Mindless twits. Tell me she’s not mindless.”
“No. No, she’s not mindless,” he said, but it was through tight lips.
“Good.” Both of his friends grinned.
“Is she pretty?” St. Clare asked hopefully.
Jonathan shrugged. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel like talking Meg up. Not to these two. “She’s not bad.”
“Not bad?” Christian blurted. “She’s gorgeous. Beautiful, intelligent eyes, lovely brown hair, and a face like a cameo—”
“Surely not like a cameo,” Jonathan muttered, but no one was listening to him. His friends had turned all their attention to Christian, who continued on, for far too long, singing the praises of Meg Chalmers. Over and over and over again until Jonathan wanted to scream at him to be quiet.
He couldn’t though. Couldn’t say anything.
And the damned irony of the situation was that he was the one who had welcomed these wolves to his door.
Judging from their expressions, they were going to eat Meg alive.
In a good way, of course. In a matrimonial way.
But Jonathan couldn’t still the unease in his belly or silence the howling of his soul at the thought of Meg choosing one of them. Marrying one of them.
Because then he’d have to pretend to be happy for them.
And that was a terrible prospect.
Dueling with the Duke by Eileen Dreyer
She had a face that was completely forgettable. At least that was the way Jamie had described her. A girl you might overlook if you weren’t careful, which Jamie had said would be a shame.
Jamie had been correct. If Adam had simply seen Jamie’s wife sitting at a desk, he would have walked right by. It was when she moved that she began to make an impression. She had a compelling grace, especially for a small woman. He would have expected her to, well, bounce like a small bird on a fence. She glided as if books rested on her head.
Of course, he thought almost smiling. A marquess’s daughter. She had undoubtedly balanced a goodly number of books on her head.
“How can I help you, Your Grace?” she asked, setting her glasses down on a table and rising to her feet. “I don’t believe we’ve met?”
“To my eternal regret,” he said, “we have not met before now. I should have begun at the beginning. I am Adam Marrick, Mrs. Grace. Jamie’s cousin.”
And there it was, he thought. The reason Jamie had fallen in love with Georgina Wyndham in the first place. That smile. Wide, bright, warm, all-encompassing, as if she embraced not just him but the world. Before he knew it, Adam was smiling back.
“He loved you very much,” he said.
Her eyes glittered with welling tears, but that smile held. “I know,” she whispered. “I loved him dearly. I am so very glad to finally meet you. He spoke of you as well, of course. You were quite his hero. Hussars, wasn’t it?”
She invited him to sit, where they enjoyed a bit of society over tea.
“Lully,” he blurted out, appalled at his own clumsiness. “I’m really here for her.”
His words were met with a rather stark silence. “Pardon?”
He nodded, setting down his saucer. “I am actually here to bring her some news.”
Again Georgie tilted her head. “Lully is four, Your Grace. What news could you have to give her?”
This wasn’t going the way he’d planned. He should have believed Jamie from the start. Maybe his reaction to Georgie wouldn’t have knocked him so off-center.
“I need to take her to Scotland.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He tried briefly closing his eyes. “She is needed there.”
She was staring at him as if he’d begun to bark like a dog. “In Scotland.” Suddenly she was getting to her feet. “Are you feeling perfectly well, Your Grace?” she asked. “I can call for the local physician. He is old, but….”
He should have known this would be her reaction. “No,” he said, There was no avoiding it. He had to get to his feet as well. “No,” he said, grabbing his cane and hoisting himself up, his knee protesting like an unoiled hinge. “I am not ill. I was coming to see you anyway. I promise. Not only because I wanted to meet the woman who had stolen Jamie’s heart, but because I made a promise to him.”
“That is lovely.” Her voice didn’t sound like it. “But not to the point.”
He nodded and took another breath. “There is news,” he repeated. “Jamie’s mother has died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She neither sounded nor looked like she meant it. Having known Jamie’s mother well, he couldn’t really blame her. “If we could sit…”
Giving him a chagrined nod, she sat after him. “How can that concern us?” she asked. “Jamie’s family made certain we knew we were not welcome.”
“Well, since Jamie is…gone, it means that Lully has inherited. I need to take her with me to accept.”
Adam didn’t think you could see fire in the color green. He certainly could now.
“Inherited? Inherited what? Jamie was disowned.”
“You cannot disown a title, Mrs. Grace.”
“She is no longer simply a little girl,” he said as gently as he could. “She’s a duchess.”
She seemed to glide up to her feet, rising to her full height, which suddenly seemed not so insignificant. Following to his own feet, Adam wondered suddenly how anyone could possibly think she was forgettable. She was Boedica, Titania, Maeve. He had the oddest feeling she was looking down at him, instead of standing at his shoulder.
And then she closed the conversation.
Without another word she turned away and stalked out of the room, slamming the doors behind her with a force that made the walls shake. Ten minutes later Adam was standing out under the front portico waiting for his phaeton to be brought around after a much older man wearing livery ushered him out the front door and slammed it behind him.
Well, he thought, struggling into his driving coat. That went well. Wait until he told her it was about to get even worse.
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