Read Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart Online
Authors: Sarah Maclean
Tags: #Historical romance, #Fiction
Eleven Scandals to Start
to Win a Duke’s Heart
with love and gratitude.
Thanks for getting me
back to Base Camp.
Un momento con una donna capricciosa
vale undici anni di vita noiosa.
A single moment with a fiery female
is worth eleven years of a boring life.
Trees are nothing but a canopy for scandal.
Elegant ladies remain indoors after dark.
—A Treatise on the Most Exquisite of Ladies
We hear that leaves are not the only things falling in gardens . . .
—The Scandal Sheet, October 1823
n retrospect, there were four actions Miss Juliana Fiori should have reconsidered that evening.
First, she likely should have ignored the impulse to leave her sister-in-law’s autumn ball in favor of the less-cloying, better-smelling, and far more poorly lit gardens of Ralston House.
Second, she very likely should have hesitated when that same impulse propelled her deeper along the darkened paths that marked the exterior of her brother’s home.
Third, she almost certainly should have returned to the house the moment she stumbled upon Lord Grabeham, deep in his cups, half–falling down, and spouting entirely ungentlemanly things.
But, she definitely should not have hit him.
It didn’t matter that he had pulled her close and breathed his hot, whiskey-laden breath upon her, or that his cold, moist lips had clumsily found their way to the high arch of one cheek, or that he suggested that she might
just as her mother had.
Ladies did not hit people.
At least, English ladies didn’t.
She watched as the not-so-much a gentleman howled in pain and yanked a handkerchief from his pocket, covering his nose and flooding the pristine white linen with scarlet. She froze, absentmindedly shaking the sting from her hand, dread consuming her.
This was bound to get out. It was bound to become an “issue.”
It didn’t matter that he deserved it.
What was she to have done? Allowed him to maul her while she waited for a savior to come crashing through the trees? Any man out in the gardens at this hour was certain to be less of a savior and more of the same.
But she had just proven the gossips right.
She’d never be one of them.
Juliana looked up into the dark canopy of trees. The rustle of leaves far overhead had only moments ago promised her respite from the unpleasantness of the ball. Now the sound taunted her—an echo of the whispers inside ballrooms throughout London whenever she passed.
“You hit me!” The fat man’s cry was all too loud, nasal, and outraged.
She lifted her throbbing hand and pushed a loose strand of hair back from her cheek. “Come near me again, and you’ll get more of the same.”
His eyes did not leave her as he mopped the blood from his nose. The anger in his gaze was unmistakable.
She knew that anger. Knew what it meant.
Braced herself for what was coming.
It stung nonetheless.
“You shall regret this.” He took a menacing step toward her. “I’ll have everyone believing that you begged me for it. Here in your brother’s gardens like the tart you are.”
An ache began at her temple. She took one step back, shaking her head. “No,” she said, flinching at the thickness of her Italian accent—the one she had been working so hard to tame. “They will not believe you.”
The words sounded hollow even to her.
Of course they would believe him.
He read the thought and gave a bark of angry laughter. “You can’t imagine they’d believe
Barely legitimate. Tolerated only because your brother is a marquess. You can’t believe
believe you. You are, after all, your mother’s daughter.”
Your mother’s daughter.
The words were a blow she could never escape. No matter how hard she tried.
She lifted her chin, squaring her shoulders. “They will not believe you,” she repeated, willing her voice to remain steady, “because they will not believe I could possibly have wanted
It took a moment for him to translate the Italian into English, to hear the insult. But when he did, the word
hanging between them in both languages, Grabeham reached for her, his fleshy hand grasping, fingers like sausages.
He was shorter than she was, but he made up for it in brute strength. He grabbed one wrist, fingers digging deep, promising to bruise, and Juliana attempted to wrench herself from his grip, her skin twisting and burning. She hissed her pain and acted on instinct, thanking her maker that she’d learned to fight from the boys on the Veronese riverfront.
Her knee came up. Made precise, vicious contact.
Grabeham howled, his grip loosening just enough for escape.
And Juliana did the only thing she could think of.
Lifting the skirts of her shimmering green gown, she tore through the gardens, steering clear of the light pouring out of the enormous ballroom, knowing that being seen running from the darkness would have been just as damaging as being caught by the odious Grabeham . . . who had recovered with alarming speed. She could hear him lumbering behind her through a particularly prickly hedge, panting in great, heaving breaths.
The sound spurred her on, and she burst through the side gate of the garden into the mews that abutted Ralston House, where a collection of carriages waited in a long line for their lords and ladies to call for transport home. She stepped on something sharp and stumbled, catching herself on the cobblestones, scoring the palms of her bare hands as she struggled to right herself. She cursed her decision to remove the gloves that she had been wearing inside the ballroom—cloying or not, kidskin would have saved her a few drops of blood that evening. The iron gate swung shut behind her, and she hesitated for a fraction of a second, sure the noise would attract attention. A quick glance found a collection of coachmen engrossed in a game of dice at the far end of the alleyway, unaware of or uninterested in her. Looking back, she saw the great bulk of Grabeham making for the gate.
He was a bull charging a red cape; she had mere seconds before she was gored.
The carriages were her only hope.
With a low, soothing whisper of Italian, she slipped beneath the massive heads of two great black horses and crept quickly along the line of carriages. She heard the gate screech open and bang shut, and she froze, listening for the telltale sound of predator approaching prey.
It was impossible to hear anything over the pounding of her heart.
Quietly, she opened the door to one of the great hulking vehicles and levered herself up and into the carriage without the aid of a stepping block. She heard a tear as the fabric of her dress caught on a sharp edge and ignored the pang of disappointment as she yanked her skirts into the coach and reached for the door, closing it behind her as quietly as she could.
The willow green satin had been a gift from her brother—a nod to her hatred of the pale, prim frocks worn by the rest of the unmarried ladies of the
And now it was ruined.
She sat stiffly on the floor just inside the carriage, knees pulled up to her chest, and let the blackness embrace her. Willing her panicked breath to calm, she strained to hear something,
through the muffled silence. She resisted the urge to move, afraid to draw attention to her hiding place.
Tego, tegis, tegit,
” she barely whispered, the soothing cadence of the Latin focusing her thoughts. “
Tegimus, tegitis, tegunt.
A faint shadow passed above, hiding the dim light that mottled the wall of the lushly upholstered carriage. Juliana froze briefly before pressing back into the corner of the coach, making herself as small as possible—a challenge considering her uncommon height. She waited, desperate, and when the barely there light returned, she swallowed and closed her eyes tightly, letting out a long, slow breath.
In English, now.
“I hide. You hide. She hides—”
She held her breath as several masculine shouts broke through the silence, praying for them to move past her hiding place and leave her, for once, in peace. When the vehicle rocked under the movement of a coachman scrambling into his seat, she knew her prayers would go unanswered.
So much for hiding.
She swore once, the epithet one of the more colorful of her native tongue, and considered her options. Grabeham could be just outside, but even the daughter of an Italian merchant who had been in London for only a few months knew that she could not arrive at the main entrance of her brother’s home in a carriage belonging to God knew whom without causing a scandal of epic proportions.
Her decision made, she reached for the handle on the door and shifted her weight, building up the courage to escape—to launch herself out of the vehicle, onto the cobblestones and into the nearest patch of darkness.
And then the carriage began to move.
And escape was no longer an option.
For a brief moment, she considered opening the door and leaping from the carriage anyway. But even she was not so reckless. She did not want to die. She just wanted the ground to open up and swallow her, and the carriage, whole. Was that so much to ask?
Taking in the interior of the vehicle, she realized that her best bet was to return to the floor and wait for the carriage to stop. Once it did, she would exit via the door farthest from the house and hope, desperately, that no one was there to see her.
had to go right for her tonight. Surely she had a few moments to escape before the aristocrats beyond descended.
She took a deep breath as the coach came to a stop. Levering herself up . . . reaching for the handle . . . ready to spring.
Before she could exit, however, the door on the opposite side of the carriage burst open, taking the air inside with it in a violent rush. Her eyes flew to the enormous man standing just beyond the coach door.
The lights at the front of Ralston House blazed behind him, casting his face into shadow, but it was impossible to miss the way the warm, yellow light illuminated his mass of golden curls, turning him into a dark angel—cast from Paradise, refusing to return his halo.
She felt a subtle shift in him, a quiet, almost imperceptible tensing of his broad shoulders and knew that she had been discovered. Juliana knew that she should be thankful for his discretion when he pulled the door to him, eliminating any space through which others might see her, but when he ascended into the carriage easily, with the aid of neither servant nor step, gratitude was far from what she was feeling.
Panic was a more accurate emotion.
She swallowed, a single thought screaming though her mind.
She should have taken her chances with Grabeham.
For there was certainly no one in the world she would like to face less at this particular moment than the unbearable, immovable Duke of Leighton.
Surely, the universe was conspiring against her.
The door closed behind him with a soft click, and they were alone.
Desperation surged, propelling her into movement, and she scrambled for the near door, eager for escape. Her fingers fumbled for the handle.
“I would not if I were you.”
The calm, cool words rankled as they cut through the darkness.
There had been a time when he had not been at all aloof with her.
Before she had vowed never to speak to him again.
She took a quick, stabilizing breath, refusing to allow him the upper hand. “While I thank you for the suggestion, Your Grace. You will forgive me if I do not follow it.”
She clasped the handle, ignoring the sting in her hand at the pressure of the wood, and shifted her weight to release the latch. He moved like lightning, leaning across the coach and holding the door shut with little effort.
“It was not advice.”
He rapped the ceiling of the carriage twice, firmly and without hesitation. The vehicle moved instantly, as though his will alone steered its course, and Juliana cursed all well-trained coachmen as she fell backward, her foot catching in the skirt of her gown, further tearing the satin. She winced at the sound, all too loud in the heavy quiet, and ran one dirty palm wistfully down the lovely fabric.
“My dress is ruined.” She took pleasure in implying that he’d had something to do with it. He need not know the gown had been ruined long before she’d landed herself in his carriage.
“Yes. Well, I can think of any number of ways you could have avoided such a tragedy this evening.” The words were void of contrition.