Some Dukes Have All the Luck
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Ash Hawkins, Duke of Buckley, no more wants to marry than he wants a stick in his eye. As the owner of a gaming hell, he is all too aware the odds of a happy marriage are against him. But raising his three rebellious wards alone is proving more than he can handle. He needs to find someone who stands to benefit from a marriage of convenience as much as he does. Someone logical, clinical, and rational. And in a stroke of luck, he quite literally stumbles over just such a woman.
After years of ridicule for being more interested in bugs than boys, Bronwyn has accepted that she’ll never marry for love. Her parents, however, are threatening to find her a husband. Bronwyn doesn’t need any scientific research to show her Ash has secrets. But his proposal would give her the freedom to continue her entomology research and perhaps finally get published. Just as long as she can keep her mind on her work and off his piercing eyes, broad shoulders, and wicked, wicked tongue.
Release date: November 8, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 352
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Some Dukes Have All the Luck
London, June 1820
What the hell is she doing here?”
Ash Hawkins, Duke of Buckley, cast a glance in his partner’s direction before returning his attention to the deed in his hand, another nobleman’s family treasure sacrificed to the gambling gods. Hope was a fickle mistress, and Ash had benefited from misplaced optimism on more occasions than he could count. This time was no exception, if the property laid out in the deed was any indication.
“I’m certain whatever female has entered these sin-filled halls has every right to be here,” he murmured, though it was more from habit now than anything else. Augustus Beecher was not known for his charm, after all, and no amount of correction was going to stop him from having his say. His passionate, abrasive nature, so different from Ash’s own cold control, had worked to their benefit, and so Ash could not begrudge him his constant state of pique. Ash himself was just as tenacious and determined as his partner was, but where he had developed rudimentary social skills to infiltrate the ranks of nobles, Beecher was the brawn behind the scenes, using his intense ruthlessness to their advantage. With one owner from the highest echelons of society and the other from the deepest bowels of Seven Dials, the partnership was ideal, having turned their faltering gaming hell into one of the premiere gambling clubs in London.
That was not to say Ash didn’t think Beecher wasn’t a blustering blowhard most of the time. Especially in moments like these when the man, not one to couch his words on a good day, refused to be ignored.
“This particular female is an exception,” he said darkly. “Even you with your progressive thinking will agree.” He turned away from the wall of windows to glare at Ash. “I thought we agreed your wards were not to set foot in Brimstone.”
Ash’s head snapped up. “My wards?” he barked, lurching to his feet and striding to where Beecher stood looking down on the gaming floor. “They’re here?”
“One is,” his partner replied in his deep rasp, pointing his lit cheroot toward the long line of tables that stretched across the floor. “The serious one.”
But even without Beecher pointing her out, Ash would have seen Regina. The girl stood out from the ostentatiously dressed lords and ladies who clambered for places at his tables, her simple gray gown at odds with the garish riches about her. Frustration mounted in him. Damnation, he had told her, he had told all of them, that Brimstone was no place for them. Not only were they much too young, but this place was too dangerous, too immoral. And he had vowed to protect his wards, a promise he had made to the woman who had for all intents and purposes been their grandmother, and it was a vow he would not break.
Yet there was Regina, the eldest of the lot at just sixteen, striding through the throng as if she were doing something as innocuous as walking the halls of her beloved British Museum. Just then an inebriated gentleman grabbed her arm, swinging her about. Before Ash could react, Regina lifted one dainty foot and slammed her heel down on the man’s instep.
Beecher’s rough laugh, so little used, rumbled through the spacious wood-paneled office as the man who had dared to lay a hand on Regina, hopping about on one foot, howled in pain below. “I don’t like your wards being here one bit,” Beecher said. “But damn if that isn’t the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while.”
Ash shot him an acidic glare. “I’m so glad a young girl being accosted brings you amusement,” he bit out before striding from the room, slamming the door behind him. With each step he took down the narrow stairs, his agitation grew. Regina had better have a damn good reason for disobeying him.
He threw open the door to the gaming floor, and there stood a flushed but furious Regina. Before he could drag her away from prying eyes, however, she spoke, proving to him that she actually did have a good reason for being at Brimstone. A very good reason indeed.
“Eliza and Nelly have run away.”
* * *
A week later and that simple sentence still had the ability to rock the very foundation of Ash’s world.
He paced his office at Brimstone, a path he had walked almost constantly since hearing of his two younger wards’ flights from home. It was a wonder that he hadn’t worn a rut straight down to the floor beneath.
“Dammit, Beecher,” he growled. “What good are your connections if you cannot utilize them to locate two young girls?”
“My informants are used to tracking people, not spawns of Satan,” his partner grumbled, the leather of his chair creaking as he shifted.
“If I wasn’t in complete agreement,” Ash drawled, stopping in his tracks and shooting the other man a glare, “I would punch you in your blasted mouth for that insult.”
Beecher snorted. “As if you could get a punch in.”
Despite himself, a bark of laughter broke free from Ash’s lips. But he quickly sobered. Beecher knew all too well that Ash had not raised his hand to another soul since shortly after his mother’s death, when he’d nearly killed his father in his rage.
He made his way to the seat across from his partner, sinking heavily into it. “Plenty have before me, if the shape of your face is any indication,” he shot back, determined to forget the constant burden of being his father’s son, holding on to the moment of levity so he might get his head back on straight. Or as straight as possible under the circumstances. Which was not very straight at all.
“Touché,” Beecher murmured, his mouth crooking up at one corner as he rubbed the bridge of his nose, which had seen more than one punishing break in its day.
All too soon, however, the lighter mood passed. Beecher took a deep draught of his whiskey, scrubbing his blunt fingernails over his closely shorn hair. For the first time Ash noticed just how ragged and unkempt the man looked—or, rather, more unkempt than usual. And no wonder, for he’d put in an incredible amount of effort over the past sennight in attempting to help Ash locate his wards. Ash felt a pang of guilt for snapping at his friend; as much as Beecher swore that the girls were the bane of his existence, he had been nearly as frantic to locate them as Ash himself had been. He pressed his lips tight. Guilt was nothing new to him; he may as well add this particular remorse to the ever-present—and ever-growing—pile that he was constantly buried under.
Even so, he could not let his unfeeling rudeness slide. “I’m sorry, Beecher,” he said gruffly. Suddenly weary beyond belief, he leaned his head back and ran a hand over his eyes. “I shouldn’t have taken my anger out on you.”
Beecher grunted. “You’ve a reason, I daresay. And don’t think I’m not beating myself up over it as well. I’ve never come across anything like this before. I’ve got every one of my informants searching, and they haven’t come up with a damn thing. I don’t understand it. How do two slips of girls disappear without a single trace?”
The panic that had clung to Ash since he’d first learned of the girls’ disappearance wrapped its tentacles around his neck, squeezing hard. It had kept him up every night since, with horrible visions of his wards hurt, frightened, or worse. He had tried so damn hard to give them good lives, to protect them. And he was failing them.
Which only made him remember his previous failings. Memories surfaced, of when he’d returned home that final time to find his mother bruised and ill. And the same torturous question that always accompanied it rose up as well: How many times had she suffered through such things without him knowing? It was a question that branded him with guilt, damning him.
The years had passed, his father finally in his grave, and Ash had begun to hope that maybe, just maybe, he might put that nightmarish time behind him and claw his way free of the pit of despair that had constantly tried to suck him down. But the specter of that man was never far, the memory of his cruelties painting Ash with broad, vicious strokes. And then the girls had come under his care, and he realized he would never be able to break free of the past.
He had done what he could, giving them the best of everything: nurses and maids and nannies, tutors and governesses, an opulent home to live in and plenty of food to fill their bellies. And each year that passed saw them testing boundaries and rebelling until he was hard-pressed to know what to do to keep his vow to protect them.
As if to mock him, the door to his office was suddenly thrown wide, and there stood Regina. Once more in Brimstone, the place he had forbidden her from entering.
“Your Grace. Mr. Beecher,” she said in her cold way, looking from him to his partner before striding into the room. Today she wore breeches and a loose white shirt with a jacket, her rich sable hair tucked up under a hat. No doubt an outfit she had wheedled from one of the stable lads if the roughness of the material was any indication.
“Regina,” he growled, lurching to his feet. “I told you to never come here. And what the devil are you wearing?”
“Whatever I please,” she shot back. “And I would not have to come here if you visited the town house on occasion.”
Again that guilt, so bitter he thought he’d choke on it. As Beecher, mumbling something incoherent, fled the room as if the hounds of hell were on his heels—the traitor—Ash faced the girl. “If you had sent a note, I would have come to you immediately,” he replied, even as his heart fractured for her. Behind the constant chill that she wore like armor was a pain so deep he feared he would never be able to heal it.
“Well, I am here, and so we may as well discuss what I came for.” With that she held a slim leather-bound journal out to him.
Shock tore through his body at the sight of the book, at once so familiar and so painful. He stared at it, unable to tear his eyes away. “Where did you get that?” he rasped.
“In Eliza’s room.”
His eyes snapped to meet hers. “But we searched every damn inch of her room.”
Regina’s lips twisted, at once faintly mocking and agonized. “Eliza is much cleverer than most people give her credit for. I located this hidden behind a loose baseboard beneath her bed.”
Which was much more telling than Regina probably meant for it to be. It revealed that she had been searching, possibly nonstop, since her sisters’ disappearance a week ago. He saw then the fear in her eyes, desperately concealed. She was worried for the two girls.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. They were sisters, after all, and had suffered through the same heartaches and upheavals. Yet Regina had never been as close to the younger girls as they were with each other. It was a distance that had only grown more pronounced over the past years, most notably as Regina matured into a young woman. If one were to look in from the outside, they might assume there was no love between Regina and her siblings, which he saw now was not the least bit true.
But that did not explain why she had come all this way, disobeying his explicit instructions, to bring him this when a note would have sufficed.
She must have seen the confusion and frustration in his eyes, for she moved closer to him, thrusting the journal at his chest, forcing him to grab hold of it. “I think this book is the clue to where Eliza and Nelly have run off to.”
He frowned, looking down at the worn green cover and the gilt letters embossed in the corner, tarnished now with age. M. Caulnedy. Mary Caulnedy, his mother’s maiden name. How many times had she read to him from her journal, stories of her childhood, a time in her life when she had been happy. Before she had married the duke and become a duchess, and suffered more heartache and degradation than any one person should.
Later, after his father’s last cruel beating—God knew how many there had been before that fateful day—he had spirited his mother away and taken her back to the home of her youth, a property that had been left to her and that had, a short time later upon her own death mere days after their arrival, been passed on to Ash. He could still hear the faint sounds of the ocean and seabirds, the smell of brine and life on the breeze, the sun warm on his face as he’d carried his mother, thin and frail and a shadow of the woman she had been, out onto the terrace to see that last sunset before her eyes closed forever.
“Caulnedy Manor,” he whispered.
“They must have gone there,” Regina said. “Why else would she have stolen your mother’s journal and hidden it in her room?”
“But how did she even know about it? I told none of you.”
“Like I said,” she replied quietly, “Eliza is clever, as well as very curious.”
Which was an understatement if there ever was one. He could very well picture his ward digging through his things, locating the journal, reading from it as if it were a book of fairy tales and not one of his most private, precious possessions. For a moment he berated himself for leaving it where she could have access to it. It had been years since he had lived at the Mayfair town house with the girls, preferring to stay in his apartments at Brimstone, a place where constant work allowed him to forget for a short time the sins staining his soul, as well as to protect his wards from being polluted by them. But he had left most of his things at the town house as a way somehow to stay connected to those girls, even if he couldn’t reach them emotionally.
Spinning about, he quickly deposited the journal in a drawer in his desk, locking it tight before turning back to Regina. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said, his mind already whirling with what he had to do to prepare for the journey ahead. “I’ll leave for the Isle of Synne at first light and bring the girls back home.”
He thought that would be the end of it; Regina had done what she’d come to do; surely she would leave now.
But she didn’t. Instead, she planted her feet wide, as if preparing for a blow, and said, her chin set mutinously, “If you think you’re going without me, you’re deluded.”
Ash, in the process of seating himself behind the desk to write the necessary notes before his departure, scowled at her. “You are not going with me. Your place is here, with your new governess.” Who had been difficult enough to secure, considering his wards’ propensity for terrorizing everyone he hired on.
“The governess is gone,” Regina pronounced bluntly.
Ash stood slowly, raising himself to his full, formidable height. “What do you mean, she is gone?”
She didn’t answer. But Ash could very well guess what had happened. The girls had made it a kind of game to see how quickly they could run off each person hired on to watch over them. He’d had to search far and wide for this last one; there were not many willing to take on the monumental task of teaching the Duke of Buckley’s wild wards. Damnation, where the hell was he going to find another governess?
But that was neither here nor there. He tamped down on his frustration, leveling a furious glare on Regina. “Regardless, you will remain here, in London.”
But Regina wasn’t the least bit fazed. She raised her head higher and narrowed her eyes. “You will take me with you, or when you return to London you shall not find me.”
He was still trying to figure how to respond to that blatant attempt at emotional blackmail when she did the one thing that would sway him.
Her voice dropped to the smallest whisper, showing a vulnerability he had never witnessed in her before. “They are my sisters.”
His heart wrenched in his chest, his every argument decimated in the face of her pain. There was no doubt in his mind that Regina would do exactly as she threatened if he did not comply with her demand. And even if he took the chance that she would not, he could not possibly leave her here alone, anxious over her sisters’ fates. He had to take her with him.
“Very well,” he replied softly. “Be ready at first light.”
The pathetic relief that flashed through her dark eyes was so brief he very nearly didn’t see it. But it was powerful enough to bring tears to his eyes as, with a firm nod, she spun about and raced from the room.
The Isle of Synne. He had not thought of that place in longer than he could remember. He’d been a different person then, not even a man, afraid and uncertain but with a raw determination that had driven him to flee home, to try to save the one person he could. And even in that he had failed.
So many years trying to make up for his failings, atoning for his father’s sins. Sins that stained Ash’s soul as surely as those horrible crimson stains on his mother’s snowy white handkerchiefs. He clenched his back teeth together, the force of it making his jaw ache, shooting pain into his temples. A question clung to him then, a ghoul grasping onto his back, digging in its claws: Once he found Eliza and Nelly, how could he hope to protect them if they were determined to run again? How could he keep them safe and see to his business at the same time? And how could he protect them from the same shame that polluted him?
As he wrote a quick letter to his solicitor, hurriedly sprinkling it with sand to dry the ink before grabbing up a blank sheet to start on the next, he determined to focus on one problem at a time. Mayhap, by the time he located them, he might find the answers he needed.
Isle of Synne
She was late.
Miss Bronwyn Pickering pushed open the door to the Quayside Circulating Library and hurried to the rich blue curtain that graced the back wall, her sturdy boot heels clicking sharply on the gleaming wood floor. It had taken every bit of her talents for persuasion—which were regrettably lacking as it was—to convince her parents to allow her to come to today’s meeting. She pressed her lips tight, waving distractedly to the two younger Athwart girls as they saw to several of their patrons. She did not know what she would do without her weekly visits to the Quayside to meet with her friends, the one thing she looked forward to most in this world beside her studies of the local arthropods. Something which her parents had already forbid her from doing in their attempts for force her to find a husband.
A husband. She shuddered involuntarily as she pushed the curtain aside and hurried down the narrow hall beyond. The one time she had actually wanted a man to propose, he had merely been playing with her affections in order to teach her social-climbing parents a lesson. A lesson Bronwyn had been paying for ever since.
She paused for a moment just outside the small back office, absently rubbing her fist over the dull ache in her chest at the thought of that man and that time and the heartache it had caused before. Taking a deep breath and rearranging her features to a calm she did not feel, she put her hand on the latch. “I’m so sorry,” she said as she opened the door, ducking inside. She cast an apologetic look about the circle of women as she hastily removed her bonnet and deposited it on a side table. “I came as quickly as I was able.”
“Oh, Bronwyn,” Miss Honoria Gadfeld, the vicar’s eldest daughter, murmured, her brows drawn together in worry. “Are they threatening to forbid you coming to our meetings as well?”
“They are.” She tried for a brave smile as she hung her bag on a hook, being careful not to disturb the glass jar within. But her lip, the traitorous thing, decided in that moment to wobble tellingly.
As one, the women jumped to their feet and rushed her. In an instant Bronwyn was enveloped in hugs, exclamations of shock and frustration ringing in her ears. This was why she needed the Oddments, she thought as she allowed herself, for just a moment, to lean on these people she had come to love so very much.
It hadn’t always been like this, of course. She’d not always had this support, this unfailing enthusiasm bolstering her up on even her darkest days. Having grown up without a single friend, she had been cast like an unsuspecting lure into London society in advance of her debut. But instead of earning her a place in the ton as her parents had hoped, it had only managed to invite devastation and near ruin—as well as a heartbreak that even now sent lurching pain through her chest. That horrible event had forced her parents to flee with her and take up residence in the seaside resort off the northeast coast of England, the Isle of Synne. And through it all, Bronwyn had struggled mightily. Her uniqueness, as her mother was wont to say in an attempt to justify why her unfashionable, strange daughter was such a failure at anything remotely social, had made finding friends a difficulty, if not an utter impossibility.
Until the Oddments. The self-labeled group of women had come to her rescue when she had been at her lowest and desperate for someone who understood her. She would be forever grateful to them.
And now she was in danger of losing even them.
“I cannot believe they could be so cruel,” Miss Katrina Denby exclaimed a bit breathlessly as she wrestled her massive dog, incongruously christened Mouse, out of the center of the throng—a ridiculous sight, indeed. She could have easily ridden the creature, as diminutive and delicate as she was. But the beast would not be denied his greeting. Bronwyn, for the sake of her skirts, and because she adored the creature despite—or mayhap because of—his determination to like anyone and everyone who came into his orbit, scratched Mouse behind his ear. He groaned in ecstasy before allowing himself to be dragged away, what appeared to be a grin spread across his massive black-and-white spotted face.
“Surely there is something we can do to help.” Miss Seraphina Athwart, oldest Athwart sister and the proprietress of the Quayside, pushed a lock of fiery red hair out of her face and guided Bronwyn to the low brocade settee that held place of honor on one side of the small but welcoming office that doubled as a parlor of sorts. She quickly went to work, rearranging cushions, filling a teacup just as Bronwyn liked it, her manners brisk and capable, just like the woman herself. “Your parents cannot be completely unreasonable.”
“You know as well as I that they most certainly can,” Bronwyn replied quietly as she settled into her seat. “And besides, you’ve already done all you can do. My parents will not listen to reason, I’m afraid. Each day that passes and I am not married to a title, they grow more difficult. There is no amount of persuasion that will make them change their minds now.” She reached into the pocket in her skirts, extracting a nut and passing it to Phineas, Seraphina’s parrot, who perched on the back of the settee.
“We’re a’ Jock Taimson’s bairns,” the creature squawked in its thick brogue before it took to breaking through the hard shell with its wickedly sharp beak.
Miss Adelaide Peacham, owner of the Beakhead Tea Room, kind and busy and constantly smelling of all things sweet, passed Bronwyn a plate piled high with biscuits. “What shall you do?” she asked, concern puckering her dark brows.
Bronwyn shrugged as she took a biscuit, an indifferent action that in no way reflected the turmoil within her. “There is nothing much I can do,” she replied, fighting panic and the feeling of being buried alive that had overtaken her since the confrontation with her parents that morning. “I have no money of my own, nothing at my disposal to claim independence.” She did not even have privacy in her own home any longer. But she could not inform her friends of that particular wound, not yet. It was still too raw, too frightening.
She glanced quickly at her bag hanging on the wall, as if to make certain the items ensconced safely within were still secure. She had been forced to pack up the beetles, what she was certain was a new species she had discovered here on Synne, as well as the research she had compiled over the past years, to bring with her for the short trip to the Quayside. There was no doubt in her mind that her parents would search her rooms while she was gone and would dispose of anything they thought improper for a lady to possess, namely the insects that she had made her life’s work. Already all of the mounted specimens she had collected, as well as the great majority of her scientific equipment and supplies, had been consigned to the rubbish heap. . .
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