A delightful Regency romance from the New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn hails as "terrific."
"I have come to ask you to kill me, my lord."
Miss Abigail Abbott desperately needs to disappear -- permanently -- and the only person she trusts to help her do that is Lord Stephen Wentworth, heir to the Duke of Walden. Stephen is brilliant, charming, and -- when he needs to be -- absolutely ruthless. So ruthless that he proposes marriage instead of "murder" to keep Abigail safe.
Stephen was smitten the instant his sister introduced him to Abigail, a woman with the dignity and determination of a duchess and the courage of a lioness. When she accepts his courtship of convenience, he also discovers she kisses like his most intimate wish come true. For Abigail, their arrangement is a sham to escape her dangerous enemies. For Stephen, it's his one chance to share a lifetime with the lady of his dreams -- if only he can convince her his love is real.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
Reader says this book is...: happily ever after (1)
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How to Catch a Duke
“I have come to ask you to murder me, my lord.” Miss Abigail Abbott made that announcement as calmly as if she were remarking on the pleasing composition of a still life with apples.
“Miss Abbott, good day.” Stephen Wentworth struggled to his feet so that he might offer his visitor a bow. “While it is my greatest joy to accommodate a lady’s pleasure wherever that quest may lead, in this instance, I fear I must disappoint.”
Miss Abbott had earned Stephen’s notice from the moment he’d met her several months ago. May she ever bask in heaven’s benevolent light, her unexpected call at his London abode renewed his delight simply to be in her presence.
“You are the logical party to execute this errand,” she went on, pacing before the library’s hearth as if he hadn’t spoken. “You’ll see the thing done properly, and you are in line for a dukedom. A man so highly placed will face few repercussions should he be charged criminally.”
That the butler had shown Stephen’s guest into the library was a breach of etiquette. Miss Abbott should have been received in the formal parlor, which faced the street and thus afforded a lady’s reputation greater protection.
Bless all conniving butlers. “Might we sit, Miss Abbott? My knee is—as it were—killing me.”
She glowered at him down the length of her magnificent nose. “I importune you to commit homicide, and you jest.”
In actuality, she’d demanded that he commit femicide. Rather than refine on vocabulary, Stephen used his cane to gesture at a comfortable wing chair set before the blazing fire. He waited until Miss Abbott had seated herself before he settled onto the sofa.
“Your faith in my criminal abilities is flattering, Miss Abbott, but my family takes a dim view of violence toward women—as do I. I cannot, alas, accommodate your request.”
She popped out of her chair and stalked across his new Axminster carpet, gray skirts swishing. “And if I were a footpad trying to snatch your purse, a brigand menacing your person? Then would you send me to my reward?”
She moved with all the confidence of a seasoned general preparing to fight for a righteous cause, though her attire made for very odd battle finery. Stephen had never seen her dressed in anything but gray frocks or dark cloaks, and the severity of her bun would have done credit to a particularly dour order of nuns.
Everything about Abigail Abbott was intended to disguise the fact that she was a stunningly well-built female with lovely features. Such attributes made her merely desirable, and Stephen had come to terms with desire years ago—for the most part.
What fascinated him about Miss Abbott was her wonderfully devious mind, and how her penchant for guile waged constant warfare with her unbending morals.
“Why would a professional inquiry agent with very few unhappy clients need to die?” Stephen asked. “From what my sister has said, your business thrives because you excel at what you do.”
Miss Abbott had been a very great help to Constance up in Yorkshire. To see Miss Abbott in London was both a lovely surprise—to see her anywhere would be lovely—and worrisome. If the Creator had ever fashioned a woman who did not need or want any man’s assistance, for anything, Miss Abbott was that formidable lady.
“My situation has nothing to do with my profession,” Miss Abbott replied, resuming her seat. “Might you ring for a tray?”
“Is that how you go on with your lovers? Issue commands couched as questions? Sir, might you apply your hand to my—”
“My lord, you are attempting to shock me.” Her expression was so severe, Stephen was certain she was suppressing amusement. “As a dilatory tactic, this is doomed to fail. I am nearly impossible to shock, and also quite hungry. A tray, if you please. In more genteel circles, this is called offering a guest sustenance. Hospitality, manners. Need I explain further?”
“Tug the bell pull twice,” Stephen said, gesturing again with his cane. “I have been taken captive by the sofa. You are being dilatory, madam, evading a simple question: Why must you die? I would be desolated to think of a world without you in it.”
He offered her the God’s honest truth, at which she sniffed.
“You are doubtless desolated eleven times a day.” She gave the bell pull a double yank and sat back down. “I am not asking you to rid the world of my presence in truth, though I must convincingly appear to die. I have some means, and I can make my way from England easily enough once I’ve been officially expunged from the race.”
“My dear Miss Abbott, had you wished to terminate your existence in truth, you would have done so by now. Never for a moment did I think you expected me to actually take your life.”
A scintilla of the starch suffusing her spine eased. “I should have been more clear. I know you are not a killer.”
“I am, as it happens, though that’s old business.” Old business she should at least be warned about before she awarded Stephen any points for gentlemanly conduct. “I generally avoid violence if I can do so without compromising my honor.”
“And when you cannot?”
What an odd question, and an excellent example of why Stephen delighted in this woman’s company.
“I keep my affairs in order and make sure my family remains untroubled by my actions. If your work has not forced you to flee for your life, then who has inspired you to take the grave step of asking for my help?”
Miss Abbott stared at her gloved hands, then consulted her pocket watch, which looked to be a man’s article, heavy and old-fashioned. As stage business went, the watch was badly done, because the ormolu clock on the mantel was in plain sight and kept perfect time.
Stephen let the silence stretch, unwilling to trick Miss Abbott into any admissions. She’d resent the manipulation, and besides, she was tired, hungry, and unnerved. To take advantage of her in a low moment would be unsporting. Far more interesting to put her back on her mettle, and engage her when she could bring her usual trebuchet of logic and the boiling oil of her asperity to the battle of wits.
The tray arrived, and without Stephen having to ask, Miss Abbott poured out. She apparently recalled that he liked his tea with a mere drop of honey. She used far more than a drop in her own cup, and made short work of two toasted cheese sandwiches and an entire sliced apple.
“Don’t neglect the shortbread,” Stephen said, sipping his tea.
“You’re not eating, and the food is delicious.”
“Not much appetite.” Stephen had an enormous appetite, but a man with an unreliable leg ought not to push his luck by carrying unneeded weight. He was nowhere near as well disciplined when it came to his mental appetite for solving puzzles.
Still, he had learned some manners, thanks to the ceaseless efforts of his family. He waited until a mere half sandwich remained on the tray before he resumed his interrogation.
“Have you committed a crime?” he asked, starting with the usual reason people shed an identity.
“I have committed several crimes, as do most people in the course of a week. You, for example, are likely behind on the longbow practice required by the Unlawful Games Act of 1541. Very bad of you, my lord, considering how much interest you take in weaponry.”
A footman came for the tray, and Miss Abbott’s look of longing as he departed made Stephen jealous of an uneaten half sandwich.
“We will not be disturbed again,” Stephen said. “For you to resort to sixteenth-century legislation for your obfuscations means, my dear, that you are very rattled indeed. Miss Abbott—Abigail—you are safe with me, as you knew you would be. I cannot help you if you refuse to apprise me of the nature of the challenge before you. Who has presumed to menace you?”
She had taken off her gloves to eat. She smoothed them against her skirts now, one glove atop the other, matching the right and left, finger to finger.
Why was the one glove resting atop the other vaguely erotic?
“I have apparently angered a peer,” she said. “Infuriated him, though I haven’t wronged him that I know of.”
Why come to the brother of a duke for aid unless…? “A marquess is after you?” They were few in number, particularly if the Irish and Scottish titles were eliminated from consideration. “An English marquess?”
“I think so.”
“You know so, but how do you know?”
She tucked the gloves away into one of those invisible, capacious pockets sewn into women’s skirts.
“Do you promise not to repeat what I tell you, my lord?”
“You are exhausted and afraid, so I will overlook the insult you imply.”
Her head came up, like a dominant mare sensing an intruder in her paddock. “I am not afraid. I am vexed past all bearing.”
She was terrified, and that was such a rare prospect that Stephen himself became uneasy. “Give me a name, Miss Abbott. I cannot scheme effectively on your behalf unless you give me a name.”
She had the prettiest gray eyes. All serious and searching, and those eyes were worried. That some fool had given her cause to fret vexed Stephen past all bearing. He’d not enjoyed a rousing fit of temper for ages, and the pleasure of putting a marquess in his place appealed strongly.
“You won’t believe me, my lord.”
“If somebody told me a mere marquess had blighted the confidence of Miss Abigail Abbott, that I would find hard to credit. The ranking imps of hell could provoke you to brandishing your sword cane, and for the massed armies of Britain you might slow your stride a bit. St. Michael the Archangel flanked by the seraphic host could inspire you to a respectful pause. But a marquess? A lowly, human marquess?”
Her hands bunched into fists. “He has tried to harm me, twice. Before he tries again, I will simplify matters by having you commit an arranged murder.”
Like an arranged marriage? “Who is this pestilence of a marquess?” Stephen mentally began sorting through Debrett’s. This one was too old, that one too young. Several were on the Continent, a few were simply too decent or too arrogant to resort to intriguing against a female of common origins.
Women were easy to ruin, and a female inquiry agent with a tarnished reputation would be ruined indeed.
“Lord Stapleton,” he said. “He’s an idiot. Arrogant, wealthy, nearly ran off his own son, God rest the earl’s randy soul. Stapleton has made his widowed daughter-in-law’s life hell. You needn’t die. I’ll kill Stapleton for you and the world will be a better place all around. Shall I ring for another tray? You’re still looking a bit peaky.”
Lord Stephen Wentworth displayed a strange blend of chilling dispassion and surprising graciousness. Abigail hadn’t spent much time with him, but her observations suggested his intellect worked like the mechanism of an automaton—ruthless logic turned mental gears unimpeded by sentiment. If a marquess was attempting to murder somebody who hadn’t committed any particular crime, then murdering the marquess was both just and advisable.
That taking a life was illegal, immoral, and contrary to Abigail’s values did not seem to occur to his lordship, or trouble him if it did. Then too, Stapleton hadn’t precisely attempted murder—yet.
“You cannot kill a peer of the realm, my lord, though I am touched by the offer.” Abigail was also unnerved that Lord Stephen would so easily guess the identity of her nemesis.
“You are appalled at the very notion, even as you tell me this man has twice attempted to do you harm. His bloodthirsty behavior is merely vexing while my gallantry appalls you. Female logic at its unfathomable finest. I need details, Miss Abbott, and I suspect you need another tea tray.”
And there was the odd flash of consideration, at which Lord Stephen also excelled. “You attempt to confuse me. Spouting offers of murder one instant and proffering more sandwiches the next.” Abigail could eat more than most farmhands and still be hungry. Trust Lord Stephen to sense that unladylike trait and remark upon it.
“Can you be confused by sandwiches? Good to know. The bell pull, Miss Abbott. Thrice.”
She rose to comply, because with Lord Stephen one chose one’s battles—and she was hungry. The inn fare on the Great North Road had been unfit for feral dogs, and stagecoach passengers seldom had time to finish a meal, in any case.
“Do you promise you won’t kill Lord Stapleton?” Abigail remained on her feet to ask that question, which was petty of her. Lord Stephen was cursed with an unreliable leg. To stand for any length of time pained him, according to his sister, and walking a distance took a heavy toll. With this man, though, Abigail would use every means available to gain and keep the upper hand.
Bad enough she needed his help. Worse yet if she could be befuddled by a plate of warm, toasted cheese sandwiches that had cheddar dripping over the crusts and smelled of butter with a hint of oregano and chives.
“If I did finish the old boy off,” Lord Stephen asked, “would you spank me for it?” He batted his eyelashes at Abigail, such an absurdity she nearly burst out laughing.
“I suspect Bow Street would see you punished were you to murder the marquess, and I don’t want their inconvenience on my conscience. I simply need to be left in peace and allowed to go safely on my way.”
The discussion paused again as two footmen wheeled in an entire trolley of comestibles. One fellow lifted the lid of a tureen, and the scent of a hearty beef barley soup wafted to Abigail’s nose. The other footman set a second tea tray on the low table, except that the offerings also included a pot of chocolate, a carafe of claret, and a mug of cider.
“Would miss care for anything else?” the footman asked.
“What else could I possibly…?” She left off speaking as the footman ladled a steaming serving of soup into a delftware bowl.
“Lemonade?” Lord Stephen suggested. “A syllabub, a posset, orgeat? Three tugs on the bell pull means the kitchen is put on full alert. Battle stations, present arms, forced marches to the pantries and wine cellars. Tell Thomas your inmost culinary desire and he’ll convey it directly to Cook.”
Only a very wealthy man had the resources to put a kitchen on full alert at a moment’s notice. Abigail had made discreet queries into the extent and sources of Lord Stephen’s fortune, and the sums he was said to possess were nearly as staggering as those attributed to his ducal brother.
“The available offerings are more than sufficient,” Abigail said, as the footman set out cutlery on a tray and added the bowl of soup, thick slices of buttered toast, and a spicy mug of hot mulled cider.
“That will be all, gentlemen,” Lord Stephen said. “Though please have the fires lit in the blue suite.”
Abigail noted his lordship’s presumption, but she wasn’t about to take issue with his high-handedness until she’d done justice to the soup, a baked potato stuffed with bacon and brie, and an apple tart drizzled with some sort of raspberry-flavored cream.
As she finally, finally ate her fill for the first time in days, Lord Stephen arranged his booted foot on a hassock and leaned his head back against the sofa cushions as if—harmless old thing that he was—he’d doze off in the presence of a lady.
“I am being rude,” Abigail said. “I know I ought not to eat so much, and that I’m supposed to make polite conversation while I clean my plate—my plates—but I don’t take you for a high stickler.”
“I can be a high stickler,” his lordship replied, slouching lower against the cushions without opening his eyes. “I take very firm exception to marquesses who threaten my favorite inquiry agent, for example. Such fellows could end up facing me over pistols on the field of honor, whereupon their odds of survival are abysmal. Have another tart.”
She should decline, but the tarts were magnificent. Warm, sweet, rich, and spiced with cinnamon in addition to the raspberry drizzle.
“Will you share one with me?”
He opened his eyes. “You are trying to cozen me. Pretending we’re friendly enough to share a tart before you toss my hospitality back in my face without giving me a scintilla of the information I request. Then you will make your way through the dangerous streets of London to some poky little lodging house run by a grouchy widow. She will overcharge you for a thin mattress on a short cot and demand your attendance at morning prayers. Have the second tart, Miss Abbott.”
On principle, Abigail could not capitulate. “Only if you share it with me.”
“Then serve me one quarter, and pour me half a glass of cider.”
He sat up, pain flitting across his features. Lord Stephen spent so much effort being naughty and disagreeable that his looks probably went unnoticed, but they were interesting looks. Like his siblings, he had dark hair and blue eyes. His build was leaner than that of the other Wentworths, though his shoulders were powerful and his air more self-possessed.
The Wentworth siblings had been born to direst poverty, with an abusive gin-drunk for a father. That much was common knowledge. The oldest sibling—Quinton, now His Grace of Walden—had finagled and scrapped his way into the banking business, where he’d made a fortune.
And that was before an ancient title had meandered and staggered down familial lines of inheritance to add old consequence to new wealth.
Lord Stephen, the duke’s only brother, was heir to the title and to at least some of the wealth. Their Graces had four daughters, and Lady Constance maintained that the duke and duchess were unwilling to add to the nursery population when Her Grace’s last two confinements had been difficult.
Lord Stephen limped badly, often using two canes to get about. The limp ought not to slow the matchmakers down at all—in fact, it made their quarry easier to stalk—but the naughtiness and sour humor were doubtless more difficult to overlook even in a ducal heir.
All of which made Lord Stephen the perfect accomplice to a murder of convenience. Nobody would trifle with him, if indeed anybody ever suspected him of the crime.
Abigail served him a quarter of the second tart—a largish quarter—which seemed to amuse him.
“You will accept my hospitality for the night,” he said, “and I will brook no argument. The staff seldom has an opportunity to spoil anybody but me, and they have grown bored with my crotchets. The laundry is heating your bathwater, the kitchen will make you up a posset, and before I go out I will select a few lurid novels to entertain you as you rest from your travels.”
“And if I’d rather stay with the grouchy widow at the poky lodging house?” She would not. Self-indulgence was Abigail’s besetting sin.
Lord Stephen took a bite of tart, which drew her attention to his mouth. Had she ever seen him smile? She’d seen him happy. He’d taken the time to explain to her the mechanism in his sword cane, conveying a child’s delight with a new toy over an elegant spring lock set into a sturdy mahogany fashion accessory.
Not the cane he was using now.
“If you’d rather stay with the grouchy widow, then London’s footpads could well render your death a truth rather than a fiction. Times are hard for John Bull, Miss Abbott, and thanks to the Corsican menace, an unprecedented number of humbly born Englishmen have grown comfortable with deadly weapons. Such a pity for the civilian populace who can offer no employment to the former soldier.”
Abigail had occasionally spent time in London, but she was nowhere as familiar with the capital as she was with the cities of the Midlands and the north. Besides, London was growing so quickly that even somebody who’d known the metropolis well five years ago would be confused by its rapid expansion.
“I will stay one night, my lord, because I am too tired to argue with you.” And because she longed for a hot bath, clean sheets, and a comfy bed rather than a thin mattress in a chilly garret.
His lordship set down his fork, most of his sweet uneaten. “You will stay with me, because I can keep you safe. What I cannot do is keep you company.” He shifted to the front of the couch cushion and, using the arm of the sofa and his cane, pushed to his feet. “I will see you at breakfast, Miss Abbott, when you will present a recitation of all the facts relevant to the marquess’s attempts to discommode you. The house is festooned with bell pulls owing to my limited locomotion. One tug summons a footman, two a tea tray, and you’ve seen the results of a triple bell.”
He moved away from the couch carefully. Cane, good foot, bad foot. Cane, good foot, bad foot.
“Is there nothing to be done?” Abigail asked, gesturing with her cider toward his leg.
He didn’t answer her until he was at the door. “I’ve consulted surgeons, who are loath to amputate what they claim is a healthy limb. The problem is the knee itself, which was both dislocated and broken, apparently. I was young, the bones knit quickly, but they weren’t properly set first. I fall on my face regularly and resort to a Bath chair often.”
Hence, the bell pulls hung a good two feet lower in his house than in any other Abigail had seen.
“And yet, you say you must go out. It’s raining, my lord. Please be careful.” She wanted to rise and assist him with the door, but didn’t dare.
“Enjoy your evening, Miss Abbott, for surely there are no greater pleasures known to the flesh than a soaking bath, a rousing novel, and a good night’s sleep.” He bowed slightly and made his way through the door. Before he pulled the door closed behind him, he poked his head back into the room. “Finish my tart. You know you want to.”
Then he was gone, and Abigail was free to finish his tart—and to smile.
Babette de Souvigny slurped her tea. “You know how it is with most of the fancy gents, Marie. On your back, poppet, there’s a love. Heigh-ho, righty-o! Three minutes later he’s buttoning up and leaving a few coins on the vanity.”
“What that approach lacks in charm, it makes up for in brevity,” Marie Montpelier replied. “This is wonderful tea.”
“Lord Stephen gave it to me.”
To Stephen, dozing in the bedroom adjacent to this conversation, Babette—given name Betty Smithers—sounded a little perplexed by his latest gift.
“What’s he like?” Marie asked. “His lordship, that is.”
An interesting pause followed, during which Stephen told himself to get the hell out of bed and take himself home. Abigail Abbott expected him to be awake and sentient at breakfast, and only a fool would cross swords with that woman on less than three hours’ sleep.
“Lord Stephen is different,” Babette said. “Take this tea, for example. What lordling brings his light-skirts a tin of excellent tea? How did he know I’d appreciate that more than all the earbobs in Ludgate? The tea merchants don’t trot out the fine blends for the likes of us.”
“The earbobs are mostly paste,” Marie replied. “Did he bring you these biscuits too?”
“Aye. Had his footman deliver me a basket. I never had such glorious pears, Mare. I’m saving the last one to have with the chocolates he sent me. If you’d told me a pear could make right everything ever wrong in an opera dancer’s life, I’d have said you were daft.”
“A man with glorious pears must be making up for a lack of glory in other regards, Bets.”
Marie had been with the opera five seasons. Stephen had steered away from her practiced smiles and knowing glances. Babette was new to the stage and had retained some generosity of spirit on her recent trek down from the Yorkshire dales.
Stephen had endured the usual round of cards at the Aurora Club, then caught the last act of the evening’s opera. Escorting Babette home had led to an interlude, and now—at three in the morning—Babette was having tea with her neighbor. Very likely, Marie had just bid good night to some wool nabob or beer baron.
“If you mean in bed,” Babette replied, “Lord Stephen is a handful.”
“A mere handful?” Laughter followed, the sort of laughter women shared only with one another. Stephen liked that variety of mirth and was happy to be its inspiration, though he really should be getting dressed.
“Not that sort of handful,” Babette replied. “He’s demanding, inventive, and relentless, is the only way I can describe it. You know how we sometimes flatter the menfolk?”
“Feign pleasure, you mean?”
Stephen felt a twinge of pity for Marie, who mentioned her subterfuge with no rancor whatsoever.
“He doesn’t put up with that, Mare. He has a way of insisting that there be no faking, no pretending, and that’s unnerving, it is. Goes along with the scrumptious pears and the rich chocolates. Lord Stephen deals in a kind of blunt honesty that wears me out as much as his swiving does.”
Women spoke a dialect Stephen didn’t entirely understand, though he sensed Babette was not offering a compliment to his sexual prowess. She wasn’t insulting him either, but she was blundering perilously close to an insight.
Should have left fifteen minutes ago.
“I hate it when a man lacks consideration,” Marie said. Porcelain clinked, suggesting she was serving herself more . . .
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