Authors: Sharon Cullen
The Reluctant Duchess
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Sharon Cullen
by Sharon Cullen copyright Â© 2016 by Sharon Cullen
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
by Sharon Cullen. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Seductive Designs
Cover photographs: Svyatoslava
(woman), Igor Terekhov/Depositphotos.com (chaise), Veronika Galkina/Depositphotos.com (background)
“Lady Sara Emerson to see you, Your Grace.”
Gabriel Ferguson, the Duke of Rossmoyne, cracked an eye open and quickly slammed it shut. “What the devil time is it?” he croaked.
“Half past eleven, Your Grace.”
Half past eleven. He hadn't fallen into bed until half past four in the morning, with the dirt and smell of the last ship he'd sailed on still clinging to him. He'd tumbled into a deep sleep until Hector, his butler, had awakened him at this ungodly hour of half past eleven.
He rolled over, moaning at his sore muscles, and rubbed a hand down cheeks covered with several weeks' worth of beard. He needed a bath, a shave, and a slow return to civilization. He wasn't ready for London just yet. Especially not at this hellish hour.
“What should I tell your visitor, Your Grace?”
Ross wrinkled his brow and scratched at his arm. “What visitor?”
Though Hector tried to repress his sigh, Ross heard it anyway. “Lady Sara Emerson. She is waiting in the drawing room.”
Ross stilled. “What, may I ask, is Lady Sara Emerson doing in my drawing room?”
“I'm certain I don't know. What I do know is that this is her fifth visit in as many days.”
Lady Sara Emerson had called five days in a row? What in the everloving hell for?
“If I may, Your Grace?”
“If I say no, Hector, will you go away?”
“No, Your Grace.”
Ross sighed. Damned insolent man. “Say your piece, then.”
“If I send her away today, she will only return tomorrow.” Hector produced a pile of calling cards resting innocently on a silver platter. Surely they weren't
from Lady Sara. Hector held the tray out to Ross, who waved it away.
“So you're saying I should meet with her now? Looking like this?” He indicated his unshaved visage and the fact he hadn't had a bath in more days than he liked to remember.
“I can tell her to return this afternoon if you wish.”
“No. I will see her now.” While he wasn't pleased to receive a visitor so soon after arriving home, he was curious as to why Lady Sara had come calling. He hadn't seen her in two years, and even then he'd barely known her. There was no earthly reason he could think of that would bring her to his doorstep five days in a row.
Sara sat with her hands folded in her lap, her knees pressed together, and her derriere nearly sliding off the edge of the settee. She looked around the Duke of Rossmoyne's drawing room in a sad attempt to control the urge to flee. Her heart was pounding, her breath kept getting stuck in her lungs, and her hands were sweating beneath her gloves. She knew the anxiety was only in her headâher mind playing tricks on her. And she knew her reaction was silly, but that didn't calm her hammering heart or her erratic breathing.
Something thudded above her, making her jump and press a hand to her heart. She looked up at the ceiling, half expecting something to come crashing through.
She wiped her moist palms on her skirts, rocking forward and then back as she took a deep breath.
This was what she wantedâto speak to the duke. She'd told herself that over and over, but it hadn't calmed her like she'd hoped it would. She'd spent five days waiting for him, and now all she wanted to do was run back to the safety of her home in Hadley Springs.
You will not run, Sara Emerson. You will stay right here until you speak to the duke.
The butler had not indicated in any way that His Grace was finally in residence, but the past five times she'd come calling she hadn't made it past the front door. That she was now sitting in the drawing room had to mean he was finally here.
Or it could mean they are sending for the bobby to bodily take you away for being a pest.
Well, yes, there was that, too. But no, she had to believe that he had returned from wherever it was he'd been and was accepting callers.
She wriggled her bottom to bring some feeling back to it.
The door burst open and the Duke of Rossmoyne strode through, his boots clomping across the floor, a fierce scowl on his face.
Sara jumped up as if she'd been caught doing something she shouldn't.
He stopped before her, all six feet plus of broad shoulders and overwhelming personality. She'd always quailed in his presence, intimidated by his strong personality and exceptional good looks, and today was no exception. She shot a nervous glance at the door with the half-formed thought of escaping. Instead she turned back and lifted her chin.
His face was almost completely hidden behind a thick russet beard. And that wasn't the worst of it. As if his heathen appearance weren't enough, he was wearing only a shirt and trousers. No necktie. The shirt was untucked, and the top button wasn't buttoned. His throat was
Not to mention the lack of a frock coat. It was simply unheard of for a man to be seen without his frock coat.
The last time she'd seen him, his gorgeous reddish-brown hair had been neatly trimmed. Now it hung to his shoulders in uncontrolled waves that he hadn't attempted to pull back. Worse still, it was wet, as if he'd just emerged from the tub. He didn't appear embarrassed by his appearance. In fact, he looked utterly comfortable.
Mercy. It was hard enough asking for his help, but must he look as if he'd just rolled out of bed and donned the first thing that came to hand?
His remarkable appearance threw Sara, and she lost the carefully rehearsed speech she'd prepared.
He stared down at her, and she couldn't discern the expression in his eyes.
Falling back on ingrained manners, Sara dipped into a deep curtsy and hid her trembling hands in the folds of her skirt. “Your Grace. I appreciate that you were willing to see me.”
He didn't blink, didn't take his eyes off her, didn't speak. She swallowed, intimidated by what he had becomeâwell, more intimidated than she normally was.
“My lady.” His deep voice rumbled through the room and settled around her, causing her nerves to make such a terrible racket that she felt he surely could hear it. He sauntered to the other side of the room, turned around, crossed his arms, and stared at her in that unblinking way. “My butler tells me you've called five times.”
She blinked, taken aback by his brusque manner. “After Meredith's funeral, you told my family to contact you if we ever needed anything.”
He raised a brow. Sara's knees were knocking together so hard that she feared she would fall down, but she dared not sit. Rossmoyne was a large man and she was a small woman. If she sat, that difference would be magnified tenfold and put her at an even greater disadvantage. Then again, if she didn't sit, he would be forced to stand as well. Goodness, but she had far more important things to worry about than whether she should sit.
“I need your help.” She fumbled with her reticule and pulled out the papers she'd been carrying for the past week. “I've, um, received a few letters that are a bit concerning. You're the only one I could think of who might be able to help me determine what to do about them.”
She placed them on a small table standing between them, then folded her hands in front of her. He picked up the papers and began reading. There wasn't much to them. Each letter was succinct.
He read through them once, then again. When he looked up at her, his expression was full of disbelief. “What is this?”
She licked her suddenly dry lips. “There was one more, but I threw it in the fire.”
“You threw it in the
?” His voice bounced off the walls, causing her to flinch.
She took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. This wasn't going as she'd planned or hoped, and her need to flee intensified, but she held her ground because Rossmoyne was her last hope.
“I understand it was a mistake to toss the first letter in the fire, but I just wanted it out of the house. I never imagined it would be the first of many.” She was babbling, but she couldn't seem to stop herself until Rossmoyne motioned to the settee behind her. She sank into it, relieved to finally take the weight off her shaking knees. He moved around a chair and sat heavily to stare at the letters again.
“What did the first one say?” he asked.
“It said, âI will never forget Lady Meredith.'â”
He pierced her with a dark look from those amber-colored eyes. “And you burned it?” He appeared incredulous. “You didn't think it was important enough to keep and, oh, I don't know, maybe show someone of authority?”
Her hands fluttered in the air before she clasped them together and pressed them into her lap. She leaned over them, realized what she was doing, and leaned back. “I didn't want my father to see it, nor did I perceive it as threatening. Not like the others.” Her gaze strayed to the other letters.
“You didn't feel it was important enough to tell him that someone was sending you letters about your dead cousin?”
Sara looked away and tried to still her trembling chin. She wasn't much of a crier, preferring to hide rather than show her true emotions, but everything she'd been through was catching up to her and she didn't know how to handle it anymore.
He riffled through the letters. “Whoever wrote these knows quite a bit about your cousin's death.”
She had thought the same.
Rossmoyne tapped the papers against his knee while he stared into the distance and rubbed a finger along his bearded upper lip. “When did you receive the latest letter?” he asked.
“A fortnight ago.”
He grunted. “None since then?”
“I made arrangements to travel to London to show you the letters. If more arrived, I haven't been home to receive them.” She prayed no more had arrived. They had all been addressed to her, and the housekeeper she'd left in charge had been tasked with putting all of Sara's mail in her room. Her father never ventured into her room, but she didn't want to take that chance.
Rossmoyne pierced her with a long stare. “You are residing in your father's townhouse, correct?”
“Uh.” She licked her lips.
He raised a russet brow. “It's a simple answer.”
He settled back and contemplated her. “Why not?”
She fiddled with the pleat of her gown, then smoothed her hand over the silk fabric of the settee. “My father doesn't know I'm in London. I told him I was with my good friend Grace Ashworth, the Countess of Blackbourne. My plan had been to show you the letters and return to Hadley Springs all in one day.”
“All in one day?” He laughed incredulously.
Yes, well. She now knew the error of her ways. “I could have accomplished that easily, but I had to wait five days to see you.”
Rossmoyne's lips twitched, but it seemed to Sara he was less angry and more amused. “And since you didn't return home in one day, where does your father think you are?”
“I told him I was with the Blackbournes at their estate in Scotland.”
“Good God.” He rubbed his eyes with the pads of his fingers, then ran a hand down his beard.