Never Desire a Duke (One Scandalous Season)

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For my husband, Eric, the other half
of my romantic heart.

 

For my family—all of you—because
you mean the world to me.

 

And for Cindy, who always believes.

Like all authors, I’ve attended my fair share of writing workshops. I remember one speaker in particular who said writers should never look at their books like their “babies.” That we shouldn’t be so emotionally wrapped up in them that we forget the book is business. While I see the value of such an understanding, I can’t help it—each book I write is my baby. I think all good books scare the life out of the author at one point or another. Like a parent, I’ve fretted over the choices my characters made and lain awake at night worrying over how the story as a whole will turn out once it is grown. Now that the book is leaving the nest, I can’t help but feel it’s taking a piece of my heart along with it. Needless to say, I need to thank a few people for putting up with me while I go through this wonderful and awful process.

Enormous thanks to Kim Lionetti, my agent, for always believing in my writing, steering me right, and having the same taste in dark and tormented heroes as I do.

And working with an editor for the first time is sort of like sending them naked pictures of yourself and hoping they don’t call the police on you. I’m so grateful Michele Bidelspach didn’t call the cops. Not only does she understand the workings of a woman’s heart, she has the good sense to pull my characters back from the edge when they want to go to Crazy Town. Michele, I’m so lucky to be working with you. Thank you also to editorial assistant Megha Parekh and the rest of the Forever team, including cover designer Diane Luger and copyeditor Kathleen Scheiner, for giving this author a wonderful debut.

All writers have a supportive network of writer friends and readers. They are the most generous people on earth, and I could list pages of those who have inspired and cheered me. You know who you are, and I hope I let you know every time I see you (or Twitter or FB you!) how thankful I am for you.

T
ell me now, what has happened?” demanded Vane Barwick, fourth Duke of Claxton, tenth Earl of Renclere, as he swept through the front doors of his London residence, the frigid chill of the winter’s day clinging to his greatcoat.

“Your Grace.” The grim-faced butler gave a hurried bow and led him toward the grand marble staircase at the center of the house. “The Duchess of Claxton has taken a fall. The physician is with her now.”

“Oh my God,” he uttered, not waiting for details. Panic cut through his veins, and he took the stairs two at a time.
Sophia. Our baby.

Having received the urgent summons while in sessions, he knew something terrible had happened. His feet couldn’t carry him fast enough. His heart beat so hard and fast he thought it might explode. He had to get to her.

Several maids stood outside the duchess’s door, wearing expressions of concern. Upon seeing him, they started and rushed away. He heard voices inside and entered straightaway.

“Sophia?”

In one shattering instant, he took in the scene before him. His beautiful, dark-haired wife lay curled on her bed, her face stricken and tearstained. Her lady’s maid, also in tears, held her hand. The surgeon approached him, softly speaking regrets.

“No,” he whispered, stunned by such a magnitude of grief, his legs nearly failed him.

“My love,” he murmured, crossing the room toward her.

“Stay away,” she cried. His feet staggered to a stop.

Turning from him, she collapsed again into the pillows and gave the most heartrending sob.

Certainly he misunderstood. He took several more steps, but her maid threw him a sharp glare and raised a warding hand before rushing round to the far side of the bed to soothe the duchess there.

The unexpected rejection stung, like a slap to the face. Why did Sophia turn him away when certainly she needed comfort? Not
their
comfort, but
his
.

Their baby. The reality of the moment still crashed over him in waves. Everything had been so perfect. They’d been so happy. How could this have happened? Grief cut through him, scoring his heart into shreds. Didn’t she know? He needed her comfort too.

Suddenly the housekeeper was there, attempting with all discretion to lead him away.

“How did this happen?” His voice sounded as hollow as he felt.

In a quiet voice, the woman answered. “All I know, your Grace, is that after the duchess read the letter—”

“What letter?” he asked dazedly.

The housekeeper’s cheeks flushed as she indicated the duchess’s escritoire. An envelope and a letter lay there, beside the pearl-handled letter opener he’d given Sophia for Christmas. “After that, she was inconsolable.”

Inconsolable? Because of a letter? Heartsick, he raised a hand to his head, wanting more than anything to wish the moment away, to wake up from this nightmare. “Who wrote the letter, and what does it say?”

Her eyes widened. “I don’t know, sir. Needless to say, I did not read it.”

Yet strangely, in the next moment, she averted her gaze.

“Tell me the rest. Where did she fall? Here in her room or the stairs—?”

He had to see the letter. To understand why this had transpired.

The housekeeper accompanied him toward the desk. “After she read the letter, the duchess packed a valise and insisted the carriage be summoned to take her to her family’s home. But she was in a state, your Grace. A terrible emotional state. In her haste to quit the house, she pushed past the footman, heedless of all warnings of ice and efforts to assist her and—and I regret to inform you, she fell on the steps outside, mere feet from the front door.” Her gaze fell to the carpet. “I’m so sorry, sir.”

At the desk, she fell away, giving him privacy as he lifted the letter. He stared down at the words…and understanding washed over him in a sickening wave.
No, God, no.
The letter had clearly been intended for him.

Written in a former lover’s hand—someone he’d known before they were married—the letter extended a salacious invitation and described various proposed intimacies in shocking detail. Sophia wasn’t nosy. She would have opened the letter by accident. It sometimes happened and never bothered him because things were so good and happy between them. He could only imagine the moment she’d innocently begun to read.

He crumpled the page in his fist. His stomach twisted, and he thought he might retch.

While he’d been out, his past had come for a reckoning. Regret and shame thundered through him. Because of him, they’d lost their baby.

Please, let him not have lost Sophia too.

T
he scent of gingerbread in the air!” exclaimed Sir Keyes, his aged blue eyes sparkling with mischief. Winter wind swept through open doors behind him, carrying the sound of carriages from the street. “And there’s mistletoe to be had from the peddler’s stall on the corner.”

Though his pantaloons drooped off his slight frame to an almost comical degree, the military orders and decorations emblazoned across his chest attested to a life of valor years before. Leaning heavily on his cane, the old man produced a knotty green cluster from behind his back, strung from a red ribbon, and held it aloft between himself and Sophia.

“Such happy delights can mean only one thing.” He grinned roguishly—or as roguishly as a man of his advanced years could manage. “It is once again the most magical time of year.”

He tapped his gloved finger against his rosy cheek with expectant delight.

“Indeed!” The diminutive Dowager Countess of Dundalk stepped between them, smiling up from beneath a fur-trimmed turban. She swatted the mistletoe, sending the sphere swinging to and fro. “The time of year when old men resort to silly provincial traditions to coax kisses from ladies young enough to be their granddaughters.”

At the side of her turban a diamond aigrette held several large purple feathers. The plumes bobbed wildly as she spoke. “Well, it
is
almost Christmastide.” Sophia winked at Sir Keyes, and with a gentle hand to his shoulder, she warmly bussed his cheek. “I’m so glad you’ve come.”

A widower of two years, he had recently begun accompanying Lady Dundalk about town, something that made Sophia exceedingly happy, since both had long been dear to her heart.

Sir Keyes plucked a white berry from the cluster, glowing with satisfaction at having claimed his holiday kiss.

“I see that only a handful remain,” Sophia observed. “Best use them wisely.”

His eyebrows rose up on his forehead, as white and unruly as uncombed wool. “I shall have to find your sisters, then, and posthaste.”

“Libertine!” muttered the dowager countess, with a fond roll of her eyes.

Behind them, two footmen with holly sprigs adorning their coat buttonholes secured the doors. Another presented a silver tray to Sir Keyes, upon which he deposited the price of Sophia’s kiss and proceeded toward the ballroom, the mistletoe cluster swinging from the lions’ head handle of his cane. Together, Sophia and the dowager countess followed arm in arm, through columns entwined in greenery, toward the sounds of music and voices raised in jollity.

With Parliament having recessed mid-December for Christmas, the districts of St. James’s, Mayfair, and Piccadilly were largely deserted by that fashionable portion of London’s population oft defined as the
ton
. Like most of their peers, Sophia’s family’s Christmases were usually spent in the country, but her grandfather’s recent frailties had precluded any travel. So his immediate family, consisting of a devoted daughter-in-law and three granddaughters, had resolved to spend the season in London.

But today was Lord Wolverton’s eighty-seventh birthday, and by Sophia’s tally, no fewer than two hundred of the elusive
ton
had crept out from the proverbial winter woodwork to wish her grandfather well. By all accounts, the party was a success.

In the ballroom, candlelight reflected off the crystal teardrops of chandeliers high above their heads, as well as the numerous candelabras and lusters positioned about the room, creating beauty in everything its golden glow touched. The fragrance of fresh-cut laurel and fir, brought in from the country just that afternoon, mingled pleasantly with the perfume of the hothouse gardenias, tuberose, and stephanotis arranged in Chinese vases about the room.

Though there would be no dancing tonight, a piano quintet provided an elegant musical accompaniment to the hum of laughter and conversation.

“Lovely!” declared Lady Dundalk. “Your mother told me you planned everything, to the last detail.”

“I’m pleased by how splendidly everything has turned out.”

The dowager countess slipped an arm around Sophia’s shoulders and squeezed with affection. “The only thing missing, of course, is the Duke of Claxton.”

The warm smile on Sophia’s lips froze like ice, and it felt as if the walls of the room suddenly converged at the mere mention of her husband. It didn’t seem to matter how long he had been away; her emotions were still so raw.

Lady Dundalk peered up at her, concern in her eyes. “I know you wish the duke could be here tonight, and certainly for Christmas. No word on when our esteemed diplomat will return to England?”

Sophia shook her head, hoping the woman would perceive none of the heartache she feared was written all over her face. “Perhaps in the spring.”

A vague response at best, but the truth was she did not know when Claxton would return. His infrequent, impersonal correspondence made no such predictions, and she had not lowered herself to ask.

They came to stand near the fire, where a delicious heat warmed the air.

“Eighty-seven years old?” bellowed Sir Keyes. “Upon my word, Wolverton, you can’t be a day over seventy, else that would make me—” Lifting a hand, he counted through its knobby fingers, grinning. “Older than dirt!”

“We
are
older than dirt, and thankful to be so.” Her grandfather beamed up from where he sat in his bath chair, his cheeks pink from excitement. His party had been a surprise for the most part, with him believing until just an hour ago the event would be only a small family affair. He appeared truly astounded and deeply touched. “Thank you all for coming.”

Small, gaily beribboned parcels of Virginian tobacco, chocolate, and his favorite souchong tea lay upon his lap. Sophia gathered them and placed them beneath the lowest boughs of the potted tabletop yew behind them, one that would remain unadorned until Christmas Eve, when the family would gather to decorate the tree in the custom of her late grandmother’s German forebears.

Her family.
Their worried glances and gentle questions let her know they were aware that her marriage had become strained. But she loved them so much! Which was why she’d shielded them from the full magnitude of the truth—the truth being that when Claxton had accepted his foreign appointment in May, he had all but abandoned her and their marriage. The man she’d once loved to distraction had become nothing more than a cold and distant stranger.

But for Sophia, Christmas had always been a time of self-contemplation, and the New Year, a time for renewal. Like so many others, she made a habit of making resolutions. By nature, she craved happiness, and if she could not have happiness with Claxton, she would have it some other way.

She had given herself until the New Year to suitably resolve her marital difficulties. The day after Christmas she would go to Camellia House, located just across the Thames in the small village of Lacenfleet, and sequester herself away from curious eyes and the opinions of her family, so that she alone could pen the necessary letter.

She was going to ask Claxton for a legal separation. Then he could go on living his life just as he pleased, with all the freedoms and indulgences he clearly desired. But she wanted something in return—a baby—and even if that meant joining him for a time in Vienna, she intended to have her way.

Just the thought of seeing Claxton again sent her spiraling into an exquisitely painful sort of misery. She had no wish to see him—and yet he never left her thoughts.

No doubt her presence would throw the private life his Grace had been living into chaos, and she would find herself an unwanted outsider. No doubt he had a mistress—or two—as so many husbands abroad did. Even now, the merest fleeting thought of him in the arms of another woman made her stomach clench. He had betrayed her so appallingly that she could hardly imagine allowing him to touch her again. But a temporary return to intimacies with her estranged husband was the only way she could have the child she so desperately wanted.

Sophia bent to adjust the green tartan blanket over Wolverton’s legs, ensuring that his lordship would be protected not only from any chill but also the bump and jostle of the throng gathered about him.

“May I bring you something, Grandfather? Perhaps some punch?”

His blue eyes brightened.

“Yes, dear.” He winked and gestured for her to come closer. When she complied, he lowered his voice. “With a dash of my favorite maraschino added, if you please, in honor of the occasion. Only don’t tell your mother. You know just as well as I that she and my physician are in collusion to deprive me of all the joys of life.”

Sophia knew he didn’t believe any such thing, but still, it was great fun to continue the conspiratorial banter between them. Each moment with him, she knew, was precious. His joy this evening would be a memory she would always treasure.

“I’d be honored to keep your secret, my lord,” Sophia said, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

“What secret?” Lady Harwick, Sophia’s dark-haired mother, approached from behind.

A picture of well-bred elegance, Margaretta conveyed warmth and good humor in every glance and gesture. Tonight she wore violet silk, one of the few colors she had allowed into her wardrobe since the tragic loss of her son, Vinson, at sea four years ago—followed all too soon by the death of Sophia’s father, the direct heir to the Wolverton title.

“If we told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret,” Sophia answered jovially, sidestepping her. “His lordship has requested a glass of punch, and since I’m his undisputed favorite, at least for this evening, I will fetch it for him.”

Wolverton winked at Sophia.

“I shall have the secret pried out of him before you return.” With that, Margaretta bent to straighten the same portion of Lord Wolverton’s blanket her daughter had straightened only moments before.

Still a beautiful, vibrant woman, Margaretta drew the gazes of a number of the more mature gentlemen in the room. Not for the first time, Sophia wondered if her mother might entertain the idea of marrying again.

Sophia crossed the floor to the punch bowl, pausing several times to speak to friends and acquaintances along the way. Though most of the guests were older friends of Lord Wolverton, the presence of Sophia’s pretty younger sisters, Daphne and Clarissa, had assured the attendance of numerous ladies and gentlemen from the younger set. Her fair-haired siblings, born just a year apart and assumed by many to be twins, would make their debut in the upcoming season. That is, if favored suitors did not snatch them off the market before Easter.

At the punch bowl, Sophia dipped the ladle and filled a crystal cup. With the ladle’s return to the bowl, another hand retrieved it—a gloved hand upon which glimmered an enormous sapphire ring.

“Your Grace?” a woman’s voice inquired.

Sophia looked up into a beautiful, heart-shaped face, framed by stylish blonde curls, one she instantly recognized but did not recall greeting in the reception line. The gown worn by the young woman, fashioned of luxurious peacock-blue silk and trimmed with gold and scarlet cording, displayed her generous décolletage to a degree one would not normally choose for the occasion of an off-season birthday party for an eighty-seven-year-old lord.

“Good evening, Lady…”

“Meltenbourne,” the young woman supplied, with a delicate laugh. “You might recall me as Annabelle Ellesmere? We debuted the same season.”

Yes, of course. Annabelle, Lady Meltenbourne, née Ellesmere. Voluptuous, lush, and ambitious, she had once carried quite the flaming torch for Claxton, and upon learning of the duke’s betrothal to Sophia, she had not been shy about expressing her displeasure to the entire
ton
over not being chosen as his duchess. Not long after, Annabelle had married a very rich but very old earl.

“Such a lovely party.” The countess sidled around the table to stand beside her, so close Sophia could smell her exotic perfume, a distinctive fragrance of ripe fruit and oriental spice. “Your grandfather must be a wonderful man to be so resoundingly adored.”

“Thank you, Lady Meltenbourne. Indeed, he is.”

Good breeding prevented Sophia from asking Annabelle why she was present at the party at all. She had addressed each invitation herself, and without a doubt, Lord and Lady Meltenbourne had not been on the guest list.

“I don’t believe I’ve been introduced to Lord Meltenbourne.” Sophia perused the room, but saw no more unfamiliar faces.

“Perhaps another time,” the countess answered vaguely, offering nothing more but a shrug. Plucking a red sugar drop from a candy dish, she gazed adoringly upon the confection and giggled. “I shouldn’t give in to such temptations, but I admit to being a shamefully impulsive woman.” She pushed the sweet into her mouth and reacted with an almost sensual ecstasy, closing her eyes and smiling. “Mmmmm.”

Meanwhile, a gentleman had approached to refill his punch glass and gaped at the countess as she savored the sugar drop, and in doing so, he missed his cup altogether. Punch splashed over his hand and onto the table. Lady Meltenbourne selected another sweet from the dish, oblivious to his response. Or perhaps not. Within moments, servants appeared to tidy the mess and the red-faced fellow rushed away.

Sophia let out a slow, calming breath and smothered her first instinct, which was to order the countess to
spit out the sugar drop
and immediately quit the party. After all, time had passed. They had all matured. Christmas was a time for forgiveness. For bygones to be bygones.

Besides, London in winter could be rather dreary. This one in particular had been uncommonly foggy and cold. Perhaps Annabelle simply sought human companionship and had come along with another guest. Sophia certainly understood loneliness. Whatever the reason for the woman’s attendance, her presence was of no real concern. Lady Meltenbourne and her now candy-sugared lips were just as welcome tonight as anyone else. The party would be over soon, and Sophia wished to spend the remainder with her grandfather.

“Well, it was lovely seeing you again, but I’ve promised this glass of punch to our guest of honor. Enjoy your evening.”

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