A Good Duke Is Hard to Find
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Get swept away by a Regency romance of broken engagements, second chances, and stolen kisses from the author whom Publishers Weekly calls "irresistible". After her third fiancé leaves her at the altar, Lenora Hartley is beginning to think she's cursed. One thing's for certain: she needs to escape London and her father's tyrannical attempts to find her yet another suitor. The Isle of Synne, an isolated and idyllic retreat off Britain's northern coast, is blessedly far from society's gossip, but it also carries haunting reminders of her first fiancé. Letting go of the past to find happiness seems impossible -- until Lenora is thrown in the path of a gruff, mysterious blue-eyed man who makes her pulse race. Next in line for a dukedom he doesn't want to inherit, Peter Ashford is only on the isle to exact revenge on the man who is responsible for his mother's death. Once he's completed the task, he'll return to America where his life can finally be his own. Yet when he meets the beautiful and kind Miss Hartley, he can't help but be drawn to her. Can Peter put aside his plans for vengeance for the woman who has come to mean everything to him?
Release date: June 30, 2020
Print pages: 385
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A Good Duke Is Hard to Find
At first it was a whisper, a breath of sound that crept through St. George’s like a mist.
As the gathered guests grew aware of Miss Lenora Hartley’s arrival, it became a tidal wave of voices that slammed into her where she stood at the back of the church.
She eyed the churning sea of faces that turned in her direction, dread snaking under her skin. For it was not smiles or curiosity or politeness in their eyes, but pity and an almost horrified glee.
Lenora’s gaze snapped to the altar. Lord Landon was not there. A sweep of the area confirmed it. The dread that simmered under the surface transformed to a boiling panic, the ground beneath her feet as unsteady as sand in an outgoing tide. With effort, she kept her serene smile fixed firmly in place, yet her fingers convulsed in the wool of her father’s sleeve.
Just then there was a burst of movement from the congregation. A woman in pale violet darted into the center aisle and hurried toward her. Margery. Lenora nearly sagged in relief to see her friend. The look in the young widow’s eyes, however, had Lenora’s panic returning tenfold.
“My dear,” Margery said with forced joviality. She leaned forward to kiss Lenora on the cheek. Her next words, whispered hurriedly in her ear, turned Lenora’s blood to ice. “Go back to the carriage. Now.”
Cheeks trembling to hold her smile, Lenora turned to her father. “Papa, I do believe I’ve forgotten something in the carriage.”
Her father, quite against character, held his tongue. Without acknowledging their guests, he turned and guided Lenora and Margery out. Hold your head high, Lenora told herself as they stepped into the light of the bright morning sun. Down the steps—walk, don’t run—to the waiting carriage. Once safely ensconced within, Margery rapped sharply on the trap door.
“Back to Sir Alfred’s house, and hurry,” she barked to the startled driver. As the carriage lurched into motion, she grasped Lenora’s hands tight, her velvet brown eyes sober in her pale face. “I cannot believe he has done this to you. What a horrid mess.”
“Enough of the dramatics, Margery,” Lenora’s father broke in, his voice like gravel crushed beneath a wheel. “What the devil is going on? Where is Lord Landon?”
Margery’s eyes hardened. “Would that I knew, for I’m of a mind to teach him a valuable lesson in being a conniving, despicable snake in the grass.”
Lenora’s breath left her. Lord Landon must have done something horrendous to induce such wrath from her normally even-tempered friend.
“Damn it, Margery, if you don’t tell us what the boy has done this instant, I will turn this carriage around and find someone who can.”
Margery looked at Lenora. “I’m sorry, dear heart. There is no easy way to say this, but he’s gone and got himself into a duel.”
Silence descended at that thoroughly unexpected pronouncement. Suddenly a wild laugh echoed about the interior. Lenora looked at her father and Margery in turn, only to see they were staring at her in shock. She had made that sound, had she? She flushed hot.
“That cannot be right,” she blurted out. “Lord Landon. In a duel.” An image of her intended rose up in her mind, cool and calm and not dashing in the least. Again that wild laugh sounded. She clamped a hand over her mouth.
Her father gave her a long look, as if assessing her sanity, before turning back to Margery. “Tell us everything you know, in as concise a way as possible.”
It was an order, plain and simple, and not at all gently said. Blessedly Margery was more than familiar with his sharp manners and launched on. “Lord Landon met with Sir Francis Denby in Hyde Park at dawn this morning. Sir Francis was hit in the arm and an artery was severed. He may not survive. Lord Landon ran; no doubt he’s halfway to the continent as we speak.”
“The blasted idiot,” Lenora’s father growled.
Confusion and horror warred in Lenora’s breast. “What in the world could Lord Landon and Sir Francis have fought over to warrant a duel, of all things?”
The pain in her friend’s eyes was acute. “It seems they fought over Sir Francis’s sister, Katrina.”
Lenora blinked. “But why?”
“Come now, girl,” her father snapped. “Even someone as dim as you should be able to figure it out.”
His words hung heavy and cruel in the air. As Lenora’s stunned brain caught up with the rest of her, a horrified realization hit.
“Do you mean to tell me that Lord Landon and Katrina…?”
Margery nodded miserably. “It appears so. I’m sorry, Lenora.”
Lenora fell back against the plush squabs. Was this some type of divine retribution? Three fiancés in as many years had left her. Granted, the first had not wanted to leave.
Pain and guilt flared as she thought of Hillram, before she quickly shut him back into the fathomless box her heart had become.
Even so, a memory had escaped, a creeping tendril that wound about her and would not be ignored. Hillram’s face, still and pale as death had claimed him. A sight that would haunt her the rest of her days.
She had been given a year to mourn him before she had been paraded before the single aristocrats of London, a berry ripe for the picking in exchange for their support of her father’s political aspirations. An engagement had been made, with Lord Fig. When that man had run off to Gretna Green with his housekeeper, her father had matched her with Lord Landon. Who was now on the run for attempted murder.
Again that mad laugh threatened. She clamped her lips closed and gripped her gloved fingers tight in the silver netting of her gown. Perhaps her father was right, that there was something wrong with her. Why else could she not see an engagement through?
Her father grew alarmingly red and drew himself up, leveling an accusatory stare on Margery. “And you didn’t think to warn us before we walked into that nest of vipers at St. George’s?”
“The news reached me as you arrived,” Margery countered. “You know I would never knowingly put Lenora in such a position.”
He turned furious eyes on Lenora then. “Just as well you’re packed. Though it won’t be a wedding trip you’ll be taking.”
“You’re sending me away?” He couldn’t mean it. They were all each other had for family.
“Of course I’m sending you away.” He looked out the carriage window at the passing scenery. “Think of the scandal. Your third failed attempt at marriage? You’ll be a laughingstock.”
Lenora pressed a fist into her roiling midsection, trying and failing to tamp down on the hurt that surged at her father’s words. It was only logical that he would want her far away from London at a time like this, she reasoned. And mayhap there was a silver lining to it all, in that she would finally be free of the unending social whirl her life had become.
She took a deep breath, nodding firmly. “Perhaps it’s for the best. I can access my trust in a few years and quietly retire after that.”
“You fool,” her father spat, turning blazing eyes on her. “If you think this is the end of it, you are mistaken. While you’re in the country, I’ll be clearing your name as best I can. With luck, I may secure you a husband by the winter. Perhaps,” he muttered, “Lord Gregson’s heir will be willing to overlook the stain on your name. Or even Viscount Burgess. They both owe me a great deal, after all.”
Lenora’s mouth fell open in disbelief. “You cannot mean to bring about yet another engagement.”
“I can and I will,” he said, his voice as icy as she had ever heard it. He leveled a hard stare on her. “I’ll give you the rest of the summer, Lenora, to lick your wounds. At the end of that time you’d best be ready to do your duty and marry where I say you shall. And you’d best do all in your power to keep it from falling through this time around. Or you shall be cut off without a cent to your name.”
That devastating proclamation was still ringing through the air when the coach arrived at the townhouse. The servants were ready and waiting, their faces wreathed in smiles. Those cheery expressions were quickly wiped, however, as her father stormed through the front door. “Lock up the house,” he ordered, “and don’t let a damn person through the door. Unless it’s Lord Landon. Then I will be happy to see him so I might wring his damned neck.”
He headed for the stairs. Lenora, stunned, watched him go. She willed him to turn back to her, to say one kind thing after the devastation of the day. At the top he finally looked back. Lenora held her breath, hope filling her.
His eyes swept past her to settle on the garlands of roses that decorated the front hall. “And have these damn flowers taken down at once. The smell is making me sick.”
As he stalked out of sight, a roaring filled Lenora’s ears. He had never been one to indulge in softer emotions. Yet after the upheaval of the morning, his refusal to offer even one kind word made her feel as if she’d been punched. It was several long seconds before that miasma of shock was broken by Margery.
“Please send some of the wedding breakfast up to Miss Hartley’s sitting room, Mrs. Clark,” she murmured to the housekeeper. “And some champagne as well. We could use something to fortify us.”
“Of course, Mrs. Kitteridge,” the housekeeper said, rushing off.
Lenora felt a hand beneath her arm, and then she was being guided up the gleaming staircase. She shook her head sharply, trying to regain control of her thoughts.
“You should not have ordered up the champagne,” she managed through the fog of shock. “What will the servants think?”
“I think, dear heart, the servants are the very last thing you should worry about.”
Of course Margery was right. Lenora’s whole world was imploding. In the grand scheme of things, a little champagne in the morning was not of concern.
They made it to her suite of rooms in short order. As Lenora collapsed into an overstuffed chair, she became aware of how quiet it was. This house should be ringing with voices and laughter, the rooms bursting with people, the wedding cake in all its frosted decadence gushed over.
Instead she was locked away in her sitting room, dressed in a creased silver wedding gown and surrounded by trunks full of belongings that now had no set destination, while the food went to waste down below.
As if reading her thoughts, Margery came close and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Shall I help you into something else?”
Lenora looked down at the beautiful dress, created so carefully to her father’s specifications. “Yes.”
Margery glanced at the bronze traveling gown that hung ready for the wedding trip that would never come. Frowning, she ducked into the bedroom. From behind the door there came the sounds of shifting trunks, lids being opened, then slammed shut. When she reappeared, she held in her hands a well-worn pale green gown with twining green leaves embroidered at the hem. One of my favorites. Of course Margery would know it was. Her friend knew everything about her, from what books she read to how she hated tea with a passion.
Well, she knew nearly everything.
Without warning, Lenora burst into tears.
“Oh, darling,” Margery cried, rushing forward. Plump arms went around Lenora’s shaking form, holding her close. A gentle hand drifted over the intricate braids in her hair. “This is not about Lord Landon at all, or even about your father. This is about Hillram, isn’t it?”
Which only served to make Lenora cry harder. If Margery only knew…
Her friend rubbed her back, mistaking her reaction for an admission. “I know you don’t like to talk of him. But Hillram wouldn’t have wanted you to pine for him all your life. As good as my cousin was, as much as I loved him, your life did not end with his death. Nor did it end with Lord Fig’s cowardly elopement. And it will not end with this, either. Lord Landon was simply not the right man. After all,” she said, her lips quirking at the corner, “no one in their right mind should have the name you would have, had you married him. Lenora Ludlow, Lady Landon? Really? It would have been a travesty.”
For a single blessed moment, Lenora’s chest lightened. That mood, however, was brittle as finely spun sugar. The rustle of her wedding dress as she moved, the faint scent of ham and pastries wafting through the house, the muffled clink of glass as the servants went about dismantling the carefully planned breakfast buffet, was enough to bring her crashing back to earth. “I cannot do this again, Margery,” she whispered.
“You can get through this,” her friend insisted, taking up her hand and pressing it. “You needn’t be lonely the rest of your days. You’ll make some man a fine wife and find happiness in it, you’ll see.”
“You’ve accepted loneliness rather than remarry,” Lenora snapped, impotence over her lack of control for the future causing the angry words to spill out.
Pain flashed in Margery’s eyes, her fingers releasing Lenora’s and going to the gold band cradling her fourth finger. Regret, bitter as gall, filled Lenora that she had unintentionally hurt her friend. “I’m so sorry, Margery,” she said. “That was inexcusable.”
Margery tried for a smile, though grief dulled her eyes. “I should be the one to apologize. We’ve both lost the irreplaceable. You loved Hillram as well as I loved my Aaron. I shouldn’t have pushed you as I did.”
Lenora could only stare dumbly at her friend, trying in vain to formulate a reply. Letting her friend believe she had loved Hillram was one of the greatest betrayals she had ever committed. But her friend would despise her if she knew the truth. And she could not lose Margery.
A soft scratching at the door interrupted them. The housekeeper was there with two maids bearing trays of food and drink. Once the small feast was placed to Mrs. Clark’s exacting standards, she turned to Lenora.
“Miss Hartley, please let us know if there is anything else you need.”
The pity in the woman’s eyes nearly did her in again. “Thank you,” Lenora whispered, hugging her arms about her middle as the servants left.
Margery wasted no time now that they were once more alone. Soon the silver gown was sailing through the air to fall in an inelegant heap on the floor, the simple but preferable green dress in its place. Lenora was made as comfortable as possible, surrounded by pillows, her feet propped on a small stool. It was only then her friend went to work on the food, heaping their plates with all manner of decadent dishes, from hot rolls to ham to fruitcake.
“Eat,” Margery ordered, pushing an overflowing plate closer to Lenora on the low table between them. “And drink.” She pressed a delicate flute of champagne into Lenora’s hands. “Drink as much as you can and I shall do the same, for I cannot think of a better way to finish off this horrid morning.”
To Lenora’s surprise, she did. She drank, and ate, and drank some more. The champagne was sweet and light, tickling her nose, relaxing her muscles. And if she couldn’t forget what Lord Landon had done, she at least didn’t care quite so much about it.
At the end of an hour, she heaved a sigh and slumped back. “Margery, have I ever told you that you are brilliant? Absolutely brilliant?”
Margery gave her a lopsided smile as she studied Lenora over the rim of her own glass. “I am, aren’t I? Either that,” she said with a bleary frown, peering at the now empty bottle, “or we have had entirely too much champagne.”
“No one can have too much champagne,” Lenora declared.
Lenora threw the remains of her drink back and smacked her lips in appreciation. “Why does this champagne taste so much better than any I’ve had before?”
“It’s the company,” Margery said, motioning to Lenora with her glass. “No stuffy society matrons, no drunken lords.”
In an instant, Lenora’s mood darkened. “Society,” she spat. “I abhor society.” She glowered at the silver dress, still crumpled in the corner, seeing not the fine netting and shimmering silk but an unending line of faces judging every move she made. She lurched upright again. “Do you know, I think my father had the right of it. Leaving this city is a genius idea.”
Margery made a face. “This city is horrid.”
“You’re so right,” Lenora exclaimed. “It is horrid, and I’m determined to be off now.”
Margery smiled in delight. “Then I shall leave as well. It’s no fun without you anyway.” Then she frowned. Blinking uncomprehendingly, she upended the empty bottle over her glass, trying to force the last drop out by sheer will. “Where shall we go off to?”
Lenora frowned. “He will want me to return to our country seat. And you know I hate it there even more than I hate this city.” The wind taken out of her sails, she slumped back again. If London was exhausting in its never-ending social obligations, her father’s house in Kent was the opposite. Cold and austere and removed from any polite society, it was a place of exile more than anything.
Margery’s voice suddenly burst into the quiet of the room.
“Let’s visit my grandmother instead,” she announced as Lenora jumped and tipped sideways. “She was your mother’s godmother. Your father cannot say no.”
Even in her mind-numbed state, an image of sharp brown eyes and a mountain of snow-white hair flashed through Lenora’s head. Along with that came the sound of water lapping at the shore, of pale sand between her toes, of impromptu picnics with Margery and the call of gulls as their companions.
And Hillram. For it was on the Isle of Synne during her visits to Margery’s grandmother that Lenora and Hillram had become such close friends, that he had courted her, had asked her to marry him. And that her life had begun to unravel.
She peered into her empty glass. She had refused to face Hillram’s death and the devastation that had surrounded it for so long. And ever since, she had known nothing but misfortune. She lived daily with the disappointment on her father’s face, with his angry declarations that she was to blame.
Was it possible that, in closing herself off from remembering Hillram, she had locked something important of herself away as well? Was it the lack of that something that had the following two fiancés running from her as fast as they could manage?
Twirling her glass, she watched as the facets grabbed the light, splitting it into a riot of colors. She could go to the Isle, could revisit those glorious places of her youth, could find again that missing piece of herself. And maybe in doing so, she could forgive herself and finally be free of the guilt that had taken hold of her, trapping her like a fish in a tide pool.
Lenora sat forward. A new energy filled her that had nothing at all to do with the champagne. “Let’s do it,” she said, reaching for Margery’s hand. “Let’s go to the Isle.”
Finally, after thirteen long years, the last of his debts was about to be repaid.
Peter Ashford paused before the massive carved oak door, listening to the waves as they battered some unseen beach far below the cliffs behind him. The wind kicked up, the air heavy and electric, signaling an oncoming storm. A perfect accompaniment to the churning emotions within his chest, the burn of anticipation deep in his gut. He had waited so long for this moment, could almost taste freedom.
And after he was released from this burden, he could go and collect the pound of flesh that was owed him.
He raised his hand, rapping his scarred, work-roughened knuckles on the polished wood. Almost immediately the door swung open. A dour-looking butler stood in the entrance.
“May I help you?”
“Is Lady Tesh at home?”
The servant’s eyes tripped from Peter’s too-long hair to his scuffed boots, no doubt cataloguing every crease in his travel-stained clothing. The man’s expression became even more shuttered, his lip curling ever so slightly. “And may I ask who is inquiring, sir?”
Peter clenched his teeth tight. No one did haughty like the English, that was certain. Reaching into his coat pocket, he extracted a creamy card, one he’d had made up in Boston at Quincy’s insistence. He’d thought it a complete waste of money at the time. He was not the face of their real estate empire, after all—he was more often than not the one to roll up his sleeves and deal with the everyday running of things. What reason did Peter have to carry bits of engraved paper?
As he handed it over, however, he came to see how useful they could be. The butler took the card, glancing down to read the name. He did a double take, his eyes widening almost comically.
“Mr. Ashford?” The man peered at him closely, no doubt looking for some familiarity in the arrangement of his features. “You are the heir, come from America?” When Peter continued to glower at him, the butler flushed a deep red and straightened. “Forgive me, sir, for my impertinence. I’ll show you to her ladyship.”
As he followed the man, Peter took in his surroundings with a sneer. The place screamed old wealth. From the wood banister stained dark from generations of gliding hands, to the portraits of ancestors from centuries past, there was not an inch of space that did not proclaim this was the home of one of the blessed few. Peter’s eyes tightened at the corners. He had no place in this world. And despite his impending title, no desire to be a part of it.
The butler opened a door at the end of the hall. “Mr. Peter Ashford here to see you, my lady,” he announced.
Peter stepped past the butler into the room, his eyes immediately searching for and finding its lone inhabitant. At the sight of her, memories assailed him, so vivid and vicious that for a moment he could not breathe.
The acrid stench of a peat fire, the embers low, their glow barely reaching to where his mother writhed on the bed. Tears drying stiff on his cheeks. His mother’s low moans. Then a knock, the door swinging open, an elderly woman standing in the narrow, dank hall.
He blinked, shook his head sharply, and focused again on the woman who sat before him. She was the same as she had been thirteen years ago, if a bit older. Yet now instead of careful pity on her face, there was a shock so profound, he feared for a moment she would keel over on the spot.
Which wouldn’t do, for he had a debt to repay.
She was the first to speak. “Peter? Dear God, is it you, Peter?”
His nostrils flared as he gave a shallow bow. “Lady Tesh.”
In a move he suspected was as foreign to her as dancing a jig in her stockinged feet, she slumped back against the settee, her embroidery falling to the floor in a colorful heap. “It is you,” she breathed, staring at him with wide brown eyes. Her gaze swept his face, disbelief and wonder and a strange relief flashing and tangling like threads in her eyes. Beside her a pile of cream-colored fur stirred, two small black eyes peering suspiciously at him.
Unnerved by her lengthy perusal—and by the strangely human glare the ridiculously small dog was giving him—Peter cleared his throat. “You may wonder why I’m here.”
At the sound of his voice, her spine snapped straighter, her confusion clearing. “Oh, but what you must think of me.” She motioned with one gnarled hand to the seat before her. “Please sit.”
He eyed the dainty piece of furniture with trepidation. He was taller than most, and his years of fighting and clawing his way up in life had lent a bulk to his frame that made the chair seem as if it were fashioned from mere twigs. But Lady Tesh was looking at him in expectation, apparently not at all concerned that her furniture might be reduced to kindling. Slowly, carefully, he lowered himself to the embroidered cushion. The chair gave a low moan of protest under his weight but held firm. He exhaled and turned to the woman.
She stared at him as if seeing a ghost. “I did not think to ever see you again. When I learned that you had gone to America and made your fortune there in real estate, I was so very pleased for you.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. She made it sound so simple, as if it had been the natural progression of events. When in reality it had been years of fear and determination and fighting for every cent. He supposed he and Quincy could have abandoned Captain Adams and his family when the Embargo Act had destroyed their livelihood. But he had owed them his very life. And he did not turn away from a debt to be paid.
Thus his reason for being here, in the last place he ever wished to be.
“You’ve made so much of yourself,” the viscountess continued. “As I always knew you would. I did try to write, once we located you. But my letters came back unopened, and I thought for certain you would never return.”
“I had always planned to return.”
“Had you?” Her gnarled fingers wove about themselves, an agitated tell. “I looked high and low for you after your mother’s death, tracked you as far as London. But you disappeared without a trace. I worried so, Peter.”
There was a faint note of rebuke in her voice. It dug at him, loosening the guilt he’d buried deep, bringing it to the surface again. Without her, his mother would have spent her last days in unimaginable pain. Instead she had been made as comfortable as possible. For that, Peter owed the woman before him much more than the paltry sum she had paid to ensure a dying woman’s peace.
“There was nothing for me here after she died,” he explained gruffly.
Lady Tesh’s eyes filled with a deep sadness. “You had me, Peter. I would have cared for you, had you let me.”
His heart lurched, letting him know it was not as dead as he had thought it. But no, he wouldn’t allow her to get under his skin. He had learned long ago how disposable family was. And that caring only led to misery and heartache.
Even so, it took considerable effort to keep his hard-earned defenses in place. “I did not come here to reminisce, or to think of what might have been. I came today because there is something I had to know.”
Her brows drew together, further deepening the lines of her face. “What might that be?”
“All those years ago, when I went to the Duke of Dane for help and he turned me away, why did you come find me?”
Understanding dawned, her expression softening.. . .
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