Even a fortune forged in railroads and steel can't buy entrance into the upper echelons of Victorian high society--for that you need a marriage of convenience.
American heiress August Crenshaw has aspirations. But unlike her peers, it isn't some stuffy British Lord she wants wrapped around her finger--it's Crenshaw Iron Works, the family business. When it's clear that August's outrageously progressive ways render her unsuitable for a respectable match, her parents offer up her younger sister to the highest entitled bidder instead. This simply will not do. August refuses to leave her sister to the mercy of a loveless marriage.
Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild, has no intention of walking away from the marriage. He's recently inherited the title only to find his coffers empty, and with countless lives depending on him, he can't walk away from the fortune a Crenshaw heiress would bring him. But after meeting her fiery sister, he realizes Violet isn't the heiress he wants. He wants August, and he always gets what he wants.
But August won't go peacefully to her fate. She decides to show Rothschild that she's no typical London wallflower. Little does she realize that every stunt she pulls to make him call off the wedding only makes him like her even more.
Release date: January 26, 2021
Print pages: 320
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The Heiress Gets a Duke
Harper St. George
Independence is happiness.
Susan B. Anthony
Sneaking out for a late-night assignation had not been on August's London itinerary. Yet here she was in a hired carriage being whisked through the dark streets of the city at midnight.
"Don't look so vexed . . . please?" Camille managed to appear contrite from her side of the hansom cab. Her wide brown eyes took on a faintly desperate glow that went a long way toward soothing August's temper.
But, really, how could Camille expect her not to be irritated? She had arrived unannounced at the Crenshaws' rented townhome off Grosvenor Square not a quarter hour ago, looking fairly pitiful as she'd pleaded with August to come with her. The entire time she had refused to say where they were going, only that August must come this instant. August had only agreed to put away the financial reports she had been poring over because the girl had appeared so wretched and dispirited. Now she found herself traveling at a breakneck speed through the streets of a city she barely knew while hoping for the best.
"That's asking a lot," August said.
The brightness of Camille's smile shone through the murky darkness. "But you'll do it because you're such a good friend."
August rolled her eyes and settled against the lumpy seat. The streets were growing noticeably darker. The cheerful and dependable gas lamps that lined the lanes of Mayfair had long since disappeared. Streetlamps here were spaced farther apart, and most of them didn't work anyway. The buildings appeared to be actively crumbling before her eyes as they passed. Worse, down the alleyways she caught glimpses of open fires with shadows huddled around them. Wherever they were going, it did not appear to be in a safe area. She'd been naive to assume that Camille wouldn't take them off to somewhere dangerous.
"Very well." August sighed. "But please tell me where we're going. And why am I wearing this?" Camille had presented August with a black cloak identical to her own as she'd ushered her out the servants' entrance. She had assumed it was to hide them as they made their escape; now she wasn't so sure that was the only reason.
"Never." Her friend's mischievous smile returned, reminding August of the child that she still was in many ways. Despite her misgivings, August was relieved to see it.
When the invitation had come from Camille, Duchess of Hereford, requesting the Crenshaws join her for a few weeks in London, August and Violet had seen it for the plea for help that it had been. Camille had been lonely since her wedding in November and needed her friends around her for the Season. They had arrived to find her thinner and paler than she had been in New York. It was plain to see that marriage had not agreed with her. She was friendless in a foreign country with a husband who seemed to spend all of his time elsewhere, though possibly that was for the best. He had not seemed very pleasant company the few times August had met him. Thankfully, Camille's disposition had slowly improved in the fortnight since they had arrived. Tonight was the first time she had shown a spark of her former mischievous self, so August resolved to try to humor her and her adventure.
"You'll have to tell me at some point." A grin tugged at her lips. "Where are we now?"
"We're near Whitechapel." Camille made the declaration with all the enthusiasm of a child who saw only an adventure with none of the danger.
"Trust me, August, you won't be disappointed."
"It's not my disappointment I'm concerned about." Thank God she had come along. Someone had to keep Camille from her own self-destruction.
"I brought a footman along for protection."
Not comforted in the least, August reached up to rap on the trapdoor to direct the driver to take them back home but the vehicle came to an abrupt halt before she could. They were in the middle of a dark, nondescript street surrounded by deserted buildings. A huge warehouse loomed across the road. One of its large doors had been thrown open to reveal a crowd of rough-looking people mingling beneath a swirling cloud of cigarette smoke. Some of the men had their shirtsleeves rolled up as if they had come in from a day of labor, while the few women she could see were wearing gowns that were less than respectable. She had the sneaking suspicion that they had arrived at their destination. "Are you mad? We could be killed in that crowd."
Camille shook her head. "We'll be fine. You've been sheltered too long. Besides, I said near Whitechapel." August knew she looked stunned when Camille laughed and continued, "On this side of town I am not a duchess and you are not one of the Crenshaw heiresses. We are no one. Make up any name you'd like. I'm partial to Delilah. Only, please, pick something that's not boring. No Annes, Marys, or Sarahs."
August had no intention of assuming any identity. If it were found out that she had traipsed across town in the middle of the night, her reputation would be ruined. Not that she cared much for that-marriage was not in her immediate future-but Crenshaw Iron Works could suffer. However, before she could respond, the carriage door was opened by Camille's footman. He cut a lithe figure in a dark suit with strong shoulders, a kind face, and light brown hair. He'd helped them into the carriage back in Mayfair before taking his post. His gaze gentled when it settled on Camille, whose face lit up when she saw him, her eyes lingering on his as she gave him her hand. He looked at her as if no one else existed, and in that moment, August was certain that no one else did exist for him. He was obviously smitten. Despite how inappropriate it was, August felt a twinge of longing in the pit of her stomach. No one had ever looked at her that way. No one probably ever would.
Once he helped Camille out of the carriage, he managed to pull himself away long enough to offer his hand to August. The pungent odors of fish, damp earth, and decay indicated they were near the river. This was a terrible idea, but they were here, and Camille wouldn't be dissuaded. Sighing, she took his offered hand and disembarked. "Have you been here before?"
Camille shook her head and stood on the tips of her toes as if to get a better look into the large brick building across the crumbling road. "No, but doesn't it look exciting?"
It didn't look exciting at all. In her work with her family's company, she was often charged with evaluating the possible rewards of taking on a particular new investment. She was very good at identifying risk, and this had danger written all over it. If this were a business proposal that had crossed her desk, she would have written R-E-J-E-C-T in block lettering across the top and underlined it twice.
The footman turned and pulled out a small drawstring purse from inside his coat to pay the driver. August took the opportunity to lean in to Camille. "Are you and he . . . involved?" The idea seemed far-fetched, but that look had been full of things August shouldn't have witnessed.
Camille laughed, but it lacked humor. Her hungry gaze roved over his athletic form in admiration as she spoke, "Henry? Not like you mean. Hereford made it quite clear that I must give him a child before he'll tolerate anything like that."
August gaped. "You spoke with the duke about this?"
"On the contrary. He spoke to me about it on our first day home when he informed me that he planned to carry on with his mistress regardless of my feelings on the matter. He said that I was free to do the same discreetly, but only after he had his child." At the blank look August gave her, she shrugged. "It is how things are done here."
August drew back in shock, not so much at the words but at the bitterness in Camille's eyes. It had been clear from the beginning that theirs would not be a love match, but to have her feelings so callously disregarded by her husband had to smart. August understood then what this outing was all about. It was Camille's way of rebelling against the unfairness of her fate. It was irresponsible and dangerous, but it was all she had. At least she'd had the foresight to bring her footman for protection.
In many ways, this reinforced August's own views toward marriage. It wasn't worth the loss of independence. She worked with her brother and father running Crenshaw Iron Works, and she wasn't yet willing to give that up for what Camille described. No husband on earth would be willing to allow her to keep working like she wanted.
"I am so sorry, Camille. How horrid that sounds."
"It's not that terrible." Her friend waved away her concern and glanced back toward the warehouse. "So far he's only been able to complete the act a handful of times. It was over quickly."
No matter how she tried, August could not stop her mouth from dropping open. No one had ever so openly discussed sexual activity with her before. Was that too little? It seemed to be-the couple had been married for over five months-but she honestly didn't know. Her brother, Max, had dinner with his mistress every Thursday, though what happened during those dinners, she did not want to know. "I . . . Only a handful?"
Camille grinned and leaned closer to whisper, "He's tried more than that, but he has issues . . . staying upright." She giggled. "I am told that happens with age, but I think it's due to the amount of scotch he drinks."
August had no reply to that. To have a marriage forced on you was bad enough, but to have it come in the form of an aged groom, she could not countenance. She struggled to put voice to another meaningless, benign word of comfort when Camille nodded toward the warehouse. "Say you'll come inside with me. Please?"
Knowing how badly her friend needed this small rebellion, August found it impossible to deny the request. They should be able to hide their identities easily enough-she couldn't imagine any of the aristocrats she had met frequenting a place such as this-so no one would be the wiser. Her parents and Violet weren't due to be home from their party for hours yet. The irony of the fact that she had begged off to enjoy a quiet evening alone was not lost on her.
"Fine. We will stay for a quarter hour."
"But that's no time at all," Camille complained. "The brawl won't have started yet. I daresay it'll last longer than that."
"Brawl? Where on earth have you taken us?" But Camille didn't answer, because Henry came over and offered her his arm. The two of them walked toward the crowded building as if they were a couple, leaving August to follow as she would. The driver called out to his horse, and the vehicle pulled off. Left wondering how she, a woman who was capable enough to assist her father and brother in the daily operations of Crenshaw Iron Works, had come to this unlikely pass, August had no choice but to follow them across the damp cobblestone road and through the entrance.
The place was a mass of sweating bodies as the crowd of men and women pushed closer to some unseen space farther into the open ground floor of the building. The sharp scents of gin, sweat, and cheap cigarette smoke tinged the air. People yelled to be heard over the cacophony of a hundred different conversations. Brick pillars trisected the space, while wooden crates stacked to the high ceiling lined the massive room, indicating that it was a working warehouse-at least during the daytime hours.
"Ho there, Henry, didn't think you were going to make it." A burly man who spoke in a distinct East End accent stopped them inside the door. He wore a wool coat that had seen better days and scuffed boots. The rough skin on his face was lined in a permanent scowl, only emphasized by the countless scars thickening his brows.
"Evening, Jim, had to make another stop." Henry's words were spoken in an accent tinged with a hardscrabble inflection that wasn't present when he wore the Hereford livery.
The older man's gaze drifted past Camille to August. Apparently, she was the extra and potentially unexpected stop in the scenario. "Good evening," she said, giving him a smile.
His colorless eyes lit with amusement as he tipped a hand to the brim of his flat cap. "An American." His assessing gaze roamed over her, as if trying to figure out who she was. August felt a moment of panic that perhaps it wouldn't be as easy to hide her identity as she'd thought, so she gripped the cloak's hood closed under her chin. Finally, he said, "Come on, then. Room for you lot on the riser."
August followed the group around the edge of the room. Without even looking at him, the crowd seemed to be aware of the mysterious Jim and made way for their small group. The few times they were too slow to move, he didn't mind shoving the men out of his path. Soon they stopped at a wooden platform raised knee-high off the ground. There was already a score of people milling about on top of it. Unlike the crowd on the packed-dirt floor, these people wore dress coats, and a few colorful evening gowns could be seen among the black. This set had much finer attire than the rest of the crowd, which was obviously made up of laborers and factory workers. Henry stepped up and helped first Camille and then August up.
"A word of warning, miss." She turned back and found herself eye to eye with Jim.
"'Tis tempting to stand close to get a better view, but best to keep your distance." He seemed to be putting effort into enunciating so that she wouldn't mistake him. "That is if you're concerned about blood spattering on your pretty silk dress."
August gasped as she saw that the cloak had parted and the rich navy of her skirt had shown through. Jim chuckled and left her there to arrange her clothing while wondering if that had been a genuine warning or if he was toying with her. A brawl couldn't be as gruesome as that. Could it? She hurried to catch up to Camille and Henry, who had moved farther onto the platform. Where the hell had Camille brought her?
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