Never Marry a Scandalous Duke
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A thoroughly roguish nobleman and a devoted lady entomologist have absolutely nothing in common—or do they? Love is far from scientific when it truly blooms . . .
In the eyes of the ton, Lady Sara Elsmere is so firmly on the shelf, she might as well be nailed in place. Not that Sara minds. She is far more concerned about her study of butterflies than society’s gossip. Of course, it’s also true that the nervous laughter that ruined Sara’s debut—and every social event thereafter—is a bit embarrassing. She can hardly help it—men are quite nerve-wracking. Except for one: the rake who pulls her into a dark room during a costume ball and kisses her senseless. He doesn’t make her titter, he makes her burn . . .
Ian McAllister, the Duke of Dorchester, is perfectly satisfied to remain a rogue for the rest of his days. But when he finds he has kissed the wrong shepherdess, albeit a decidedly luscious one, he’s faced with a dilemma. His indiscretion with an innocent may cost him a lucrative business arrangement—and his two scapegrace wards need a maternal influence they can’t scare away. Promising Sara the use of her dowry to fund her studies seals the pair’s businesslike deal. But as they embark on their life together, they discover that their mutual attraction has sparked a desire not easily tamed—and certain feelings each of them are surprised to own.
Can their matrimonial experiment possibly end in real love?
“A delightful romance filled with period ambiance . . . and a charming supporting cast.”
—Publishers Weekly on Never Deceive a Viscount
Release date: June 28, 2022
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 320
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Never Marry a Scandalous Duke
Renee Ann Miller
Father’s words replayed in her head. The gown gives you a youthful glow.
That statement was utterly absurd. Plain old poppycock.
In truth, the ball gown made her look foolish. Yet, no amount of arguing had changed Father’s mind. So here she was, trying to disappear into the gold-flocked wallpaper and failing miserably.
She desperately wished Father would stop forcing her to attend such gatherings in hopes someone would make her an offer. The gentleman at these social events had little interest in a twenty-seven-year-old entomologist who collected butterflies and laughed nervously whenever a man asked her to dance.
As she glanced at the women dressed in their finest gowns and the men in their evening attire, the memory of her first Season replayed in her mind. She’d been older than the other girls, having attended Bedford College. Father had thought educating a woman a waste of time and money, but it had been one of her mother’s dying wishes. During most of the evening, no one asked her to dance, and she’d come to realize that her age and the fact she was a bluestocking who studied insects made her less appealing to most marriage-minded gentleman of the ton.
Then Sir Harry approached, and her dance instructor’s words replayed in her head. No. No. No. Your right foot first. Not your left. You are the most blundering dancer I have ever had the misfortune to teach.
By the time Sir Harry asked her to dance, her fear that she might fall, or cause him to fall, had gotten the better of her, and she’d begun to laugh. Not a girlish giggle that a man might find cute or endearing, but a high-pitched, nervous laugh. Heads had turned toward her, and the more everyone gawked, the more she’d laughed. Her second ball during that same Season had been another utter disaster. The same thing had happened when Lord Gilbert asked to partner with her.
Being a bluestocking had made her less appealing. Laughing uncontrollably when asked to dance had sealed her fate as a wallflower.
Shoving her memories aside, Sara scanned those waltzing and caught sight of her sister being twirled around the dance floor by some young buck. A bright smile wreathed Louisa’s face, and her partner had the look of a man who thought everyone envied him. Sara was sure many did envy the fellow. At eighteen, Louisa had made her debut in society this year and instantly become the Season’s incomparable. Every man wished to dance with her, and Sara could not blame them. Her sister was not only beautiful, she also sparkled and thrived under the spotlight.
While Sara collected butterflies, Louisa acted the social butterfly, flittering around with her grace and beauty, drawing everyone’s regard. How two sisters could be such opposites befuddled Sara’s mind. Yet, she was relieved that her sister did not suffer from the same quirk that rattled Sara when asked to dance.
She searched the crush for her brother. Ned was probably in the cardroom with their host. She didn’t care for Ian McAllister, the Duke of Dorchester. He was one of the last remaining members of a set referred to in the scandal sheets as the Infamous Lords—a group of rakish noblemen. Though most had married and given up their wicked ways, Dorchester, who looked to be in his early thirties, appeared quite determined not to change. And the ton seemed more than willing to forgive the coldhearted womanizer, especially when he was serving them an abundance of champagne and French cuisine.
She wondered what women saw in him. Yes, he was handsome. Yes, he was lean with broad shoulders. But surely there had to be more to a gentleman for a woman to fall at his feet. Yet, only last year, it was said that a young debutante swooned and collapsed to the floor when he’d done nothing more than say hello.
Turning her mind away from the scandalous duke, Sara peered at her father who stood across the ballroom engaged in conversation with another gentleman. Perhaps it was not as much a conversation as it was an argument, since Father’s face had turned the same shade of red when she’d balked at wearing the atrocious pink gown.
Sara bit her lower lip and eyed the wide doorway several feet from where she stood. With Father, Ned, and Louisa preoccupied, a better opportunity to slip out of the ballroom might not present itself. She edged toward the opening. She’d heard that the Duke of Dorchester’s Richmond estate possessed an exemplary library, and she was on a mission to hide away in it for the remainder of the evening. Surely, afterward, she would garner Father’s wrath when they returned home, but she would rather absorb one of his verbal tirades than remain in the ballroom a minute longer.
As fast as she could move, while dragging twenty pounds of silk, tulle, and oversized faux peonies, she slipped through the archway. A sense of elation drifted through her as she made her way down the wide corridor with its red Turkish runner.
A male servant, dressed in a tailored black suit, stepped out of a room and nearly collided with her.
“Forgive me, madam. Are you looking for the retiring room?”
She shifted from one foot to the other, while deciding how much of the truth to reveal. “Actually, I’m looking for the library.”
The man’s eyes widened, and he averted his gaze. “Of course, madam. It is the next door to your left.”
“Thank you.” As Sara moved down the wide corridor, she glanced over her shoulder. There was something unsettling about the way the footman had looked at her—as if she’d startled him—as if she was not what he’d expected.
Well, she had gotten that look enough times in her life. She shoved her thoughts away. Perhaps the guilt of sneaking off was causing her to overanalyze the man’s expression. Most likely, he thought her brazen for leaving the other guests to indulge in a book.
She opened the door he’d indicated and softly closed it behind her. Gas wall sconces set low illuminated the library, which was one of the largest she’d seen, and she’d seen more than her fair share since they were her solace during these gatherings.
The scent of the leather bindings filled her nose as she scanned the tall mahogany bookcases that lined three of the walls. Each of them had a sliding ladder so the uppermost books could be reached, and in the corner of the room a metal spiraling staircase soared to a second-story balcony with even more bookshelves.
With such an extensive collection, she felt almost positive she would find something to read that would be more stimulating than the ballroom, possibly something on entomology.
As she made her way to the bookcases to her right, she peered up at the ceiling’s lovely mural. Puffy white clouds dotted a blue sky, while winged cherubs, wearing crowns of flowers, fluttered about. The angels held flutes and harps. Such a whimsical scene almost tempted her to lie on her back and stare at it. She tamped down such a foolish inclination and continued toward the bookcases.
She squinted at the small writing on the bindings and removed her spectacles from the side pocket sewn into the skirt of her gown. As she scanned the books, she saw titles by George Eliot, Daniel Defoe, and even spotted a book of poetry by Robert Burns. She could not envision the present duke reading the latter. From what she’d heard, he was more likely to engage in reading something more scandalous than poetry, such as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor, along with a man’s voice.
She spun around to see the door handle being turned.
Had Father or her brother tracked her down? She didn’t wish to return to the ballroom, not when there were so many books to be explored. Shoving her glasses into her pocket, she made a mad dash for a narrow alcove between two of the bookcases and flattened her body into the space.
The young, widowed Lady Cleary, wearing a bright yellow gown, stepped into the library with the Duke of Dorchester. He closed the door behind them.
Sara swallowed. Why wasn’t the scandalous man with his guests?
That answer came to her as soon as the widow skimmed her palms up the duke’s chest and leaned into him.
In response, Dorchester curled his large hand around the back of the woman’s neck and brought his mouth down on hers.
Goodness! She had thought Lady Cleary wiser than this. Didn’t the woman realize she was the affair of the year? Hopefully, the woman wouldn’t fall too deeply in love with Dorchester before the scoundrel moved on to his next conquest.
Sara thought of the servant she’d almost bumped into in the corridor and how he’d looked at her. Had he believed she’d been heading to the library for an assignation with His Grace? That would explain his odd expression, since Sara didn’t resemble the seductive Lady Cleary, especially in this outlandish gown.
She opened her mouth to say something, but the sight of Dorchester lowering the shoulder of Lady Cleary’s ball gown and kissing the pale skin caused her to clamp her mouth tight.
Now what should I do?
She could close her eyes.
Yes, that would work. She pinched them shut.
Lady Cleary started panting and making mewling sounds. “Mmm. Oh yes, Ian. That feels so . . . Yes, there.”
Though Sara fought the urge to open her eyes, curiosity got the better of her and one eyelid slowly lifted.
Dorchester was pressing his thigh between the woman’s gowned legs, while kissing her.
Sara opened her other eye and tilted her head to the side. Why was Lady Cleary arching and purring like a cat? What Dorchester was doing to the woman looked rather uncomfortable.
Suddenly the gentleman stilled.
Feeling a shiver of apprehension, Sara clapped a hand over her mouth. Had she made a noise? The possibility caused her heart to pound wildly. So loud, she feared they would hear the intense thump, thump, thump in her chest.
The duke glanced over his shoulder. Though handsome and in possession of striking features, including dark hair, a firm mouth, and a square jaw, she’d always thought the man possessed an aura of danger. Perhaps it was his piercing blue eyes that looked as if they could scour one’s soul to find their weakness.
Trying to make herself invisible to his gaze, she pressed her back more firmly against the wall. As she did, one of the blasted round peonies fell off her gown and rolled out of the alcove.
Dorchester’s menacing glare settled on the faux flower before narrowing in on her like a periscope. He peered at her with the same contemptuous arrogance most of the men at the London Society of Entomologists offered her when she handed in one of her articles for publication.
“Ian, you tease, don’t stop. I’m almost there,” Lady Cleary snapped, clearly agitated.
He turned back to the woman. “I think it best you return to the ballroom, darling.”
“Ian, what is the matter?”
“I believe I heard a rat.”
The widow let out a squeak and inched up the skirt of her gown.
He opened the door.
“It’s not fair of you to leave me in such a state. Why don’t we go into another room?” she suggested, sounding hopeful.
“Sorry, darling. I need to deal with this.”
“Yourself? Don’t you have legions of servants to tend to such a detestable task?”
“I prefer to catch this one myself.”
That statement made Sara’s heart pound even harder. She normally only laughed when a man asked her to dance, but she tightened the hand over her mouth, suddenly fearful a nervous giggle would bubble up her throat.
Lady Cleary blinked and appeared ready to question him further, but something in the duke’s expression must have halted the action. The widow’s skirts swished as she exited the room.
With a heavy hand, Dorchester closed the door, leaned back against the surface, and folded his arms over his ample chest. “I’m not particularly fond of Peeping Toms who get their jollies from watching others.”
Peeping Tom? How ridiculous. She’d not set out to watch his sexual escapade. She’d stepped into the library to escape the ball.
Infuriating, arrogant man! Sara’s nervousness turned to agitation. She wiped her damp palms on her gown and stepped out from her hiding spot. “It was not my intention to spy on you, and I’m deeply offended that you would suggest such a thing. Your unfavorable comment leaves me demanding an apology.”
Ian drew in a deep breath. “You think I owe you an apology, Miss . . . ?”
“Miss Elsmere. Lady Sara Elsmere.”
Yes, that was her name. He’d seen her before. The Earl of Hampton’s daughter. The bluestocking who laughed uncontrollably whenever a man asked her to dance, causing men to avoid her at these gatherings as if she were a leper.
“I only stepped into the room so I might read.”
“Really?” He cocked a brow at her.
“Yes, really. If you think I wanted to watch you . . .” She waved her hand toward him as she appeared to struggle with what to call what she’d witnessed. Her already-rosy cheeks deepened in color, settling on a shade nearly as pink as her full sensual mouth. A mouth incongruous with everything else about the woman who styled her brown hair in a taut bun, and wore a frilly, overly embellished gown, which hid all her curves and made her look rather silly.
As if he’d said the comment out loud or she’d gleaned what he’d been thinking, she stuck out her chin. “My father chose this abomination. So don’t judge me.”
“Aren’t you rather old to be having your father dictate your clothing?”
“I am. But if I want my father’s benevolence, I must wear such an atrocity. Now if you will excuse me, I fear this conversation has grown tiresome.” And with that said, she marched toward the door. Her gaze seemed to settle on the large faux flower on the rug. For a minute, Ian thought she intended to retrieve it.
“You may keep the peony, Your Grace. Perhaps your haberdasher could add it to one of your hats, or you could gift it to Lady Cleary for not finishing what you set out to do.”
Few people talked to him without deference. The prickly Lady Sara was an anomaly. Oddly, he found her intriguing, especially her tart, sensual mouth. For a split second, he thought about asking her if she wished to be tutored in what she’d seen.
Where the deuce had that foolish thought come from? Ian gave a slight, imperceivable shake of his head to scatter such a renegade idea. He had no interest in a prim, hoity-toity wallflower.
She’d nearly reached the door when a man’s panicked voice calling out her name echoed in the hallway. “Sara, where are you? Damnation.”
Bloody hell. It wouldn’t be wise to be found alone with the woman. Ian stepped into the shadows.
Lady Sara opened the door and her brother rushed over the threshold. The man was breathing heavily. His face was ghostly pale.
“Ned, what is the matter?” Lady Sara gripped his sleeve.
Her brother’s Adam’s apple moved but nothing came out.
“Ned, you’re frightening me.” She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Tell me.”
“It is Father. He collapsed.”
“Collapsed?” Her voice trembled.
“Yes,” her brother replied. “Dr. Trimble said he suffered apoplexy. H-he’s dead.”
Normally, anyone bursting into the Duke of Dorchester’s office without knocking would have received a withering scowl, along with a severe dressing-down. In fact, at the age of thirty-two, Ian could not recall a servant ever having the temerity to do so until a moment ago.
Yet, the sight of Gertrude Winterbottom, his wards’ nanny, halted his rebuke. The middle-aged woman looked as if she’d fallen into a puddle of muck and, knowing the two mischievous boys he was guardian to, she probably had.
The woman swiped at the dirt splatters on her face, smearing them across her cheeks, making her look like a rugby player on a wet and foot-trampled field. “Those boys are demons. The devil’s spawns!”
Sadly, he was sure the two lads had been called worse.
“Look what they have done to me. They pushed me into a puddle of muddy water.” Winterbottom fisted her hands into her dirty gray skirt and shook the garment as if to add more potency to her declaration.
Ian knew nothing about children. He’d been shocked after his cousin’s death, three months ago, to learn he was the boys’ guardian. If he’d agreed to that, Finley must have plowed him with too much drink beforehand.
“I resign my position, effective immediately,” the nanny proclaimed, drawing him from his thoughts. She exhaled a gusty breath as if blessedly free from an anchor tethered to her waist.
Resign? That wouldn’t do. Instead of railing at the woman for barging into his office, Ian decided to haggle with her. Something he excelled at since learning that money was the supreme bargaining weapon in any negotiation. That, and the threat of ruining a person. But he was sure the pious Gertrude Winterbottom had no skeletons in her closet that he could use against her.
So the money it was. “I’ll increase your pay.”
“No. I have had it, Your Grace. Yesterday I found worms in my bed and today this.” The nanny’s voice grew an octave higher with every word she spoke. “My sanity is worth more than the very generous salary you pay me. Though such an exorbitant amount should have forewarned of what would besiege me in this house. Might I suggest you hire a zookeeper to tend to those boys?” With rivulets of filthy water running off her straggling hair, the woman stormed out of the room, leaving a trail of dirty shoe prints in her wake.
“Bugger it,” Ian grumbled. Not another one. That made three nannies since the boys had come to live with him. And Gertrude Winterbottom had been the only one to apply for the position from the Governess and Nanny Association in London—a place that housed women of those occupations, while they awaited positions. Word of the two hellions and their recent pranks appeared to have scared away everyone with even a modicum of sense.
He stood, strode from the room, and retraced Winterbottom’s muddy shoe prints down the corridor, then through the morning room, and to the terrace outside into the bright May sun.
Not seeing the hellions, he made his way down the steps and into the gardens. “Edward! Jacob! Where are you?”
The leaves on one of the oaks shook ever so slightly.
Ian glanced up to see his eight- and seven-year-old wards sitting on one of the branches, peering down at him. With their round faces and rosy cheeks, they looked like Raphael’s two cherubic angels in the Madonna di San Sisto, but they were anything but. They were more like the bow-and-arrow-carrying cherubim in the master’s Triumph of Galatea.
Brushing his coat back, Ian set his hands firmly on his hips. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, Cousin Ian,” Edward, the elder of the two, said.
“Nothing,” Jacob echoed.
The two little terrors stared down at him with no sign of contrition on their faces. In fact, their expressions remained as deceptively innocent as that of two newborn babes.
Ian thought of Edward and Jacob’s father who’d acted a hellion when younger. Yet, Finley had always possessed the ability to deflect attention from himself with the same guiltless expression, leaving Ian to be solely blamed for whatever prank they’d conjured up. But even so, he had cared for Finley, until Ian’s father had commanded that they refrain from seeing each other. For a lad already lonely in his father’s dictatorial house, it had felt like a severed appendage.
Shoving his thoughts aside, Ian released a slow breath. “So Miss Winterbottom falling into a muddy puddle was an accident?”
The two boys looked at each other as if silently communicating an answer. Their regard returned to him. “She tripped on her skirt,” they said in unison.
Ian presumed with a fair amount of help. “Well, you have sent another one packing.”
Both of their mouths turned up into broad smiles.
“Pleased with yourselves, are you?” He infused a hard edge of steal into his voice. The same tone he used when he wished to place a modicum of fear into others.
Neither child seemed to notice, for their smiles didn’t waver in the least.
How was it nearly everyone who dealt with him appeared either in awe or terrified, yet he couldn’t handle two tiny boys? “Before leaving, Miss Winterbottom suggested I might hire a zookeeper instead of a nanny.”
“Does that mean we can get a lion or an elephant?” Exuberance sparkled in Jacob’s eyes and an even broader smile stretched across his full cheeks.
“No, it does not,” Ian replied.
Edward shoved an elbow into his younger brother’s ribs. “No, silly. He means to take care of us.”
The excitement disappeared from Jacob’s countenance. He blinked. “Are you going to hire one, Cousin?”
Ian hesitated before responding, letting them ponder that possibility. “Of course not. Now get down from there and go into your room to contemplate the gravity of what you have done.”
Looking less guilty than they should, both boys climbed down from the tree and marched toward the house.
Ian watched them playfully pushing and shoving each other as they made their way up the terrace steps, then into the house. He rubbed at the back of his neck. He might be a force to be reckoned with in the House of Lords, and a savvy businessman, but he freely admitted he didn’t know how to raise these two boys. His own father had only taught him how not to raise a child, believing that a leather strap or birch rod was the answer to everything. Ian would cut off his own arm before he struck them.
Perhaps he should hire two nannies. One for each boy. No, he would not separate them. They’d already had to contend with the deaths of their parents, and he clearly remembered what it was like to be isolated and kept away from others.
Footsteps tapped against the flagstone.
Ian glanced over his shoulder to see his closest friend and business partner, Julien Caruthers, the Earl of Dartmore, strolling toward him. He and Julien had attended university together.
“Lost another nanny, did you, old boy?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Just saw old Freezerbottom mumbling to herself as she carried her suitcases down the stairs.”
“Winterbottom,” Ian corrected. “Yes, they did everything they could think of to traumatize the woman and send her packing. I’m at a loss what to do. For a moment, I contemplated doing as she suggested.”
“And what was that?”
“Hire a zookeeper instead of another nanny.”
Julien laughed. “Maybe you need to get married, old chum. Perhaps if the boys knew they. . .
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