Disgraced by His Grace!
Frederick, Duke of Falconwood, has vowed never to marry, instead dedicating himself to protecting his country. But when he's caught in a very compromising position with a coquettish debutante, Freddy does the only thing that will salvage her reputation—he proposes marriage!
Even though Minette Rideau craves the stoic duke's touch, she knows she can't become his wife. For giving in to her desires will reveal a shameful secret, putting much more than her virtue in jeopardy…
"If you are a fan of historical romance I highly recommend you pick this one up. I'm looking forward to many more offerings by this talented author." ~ Night Owl Reviews
An excerpt from The Duke's Daring Debutante:
The foul stench coated Minette Rideau’s throat. With her skirts held high in one hand and the other clutching Granby’s arm, she focussed on taking only tiny sips of air as she picked her way over Bridge Alley’s slimy cobbles. One of many narrow passages in the reviled district of St Giles, it led to London’s most infamous hell. The only one owned by a duke. Falconwood. The man she now risked her reputation to track down in his lair.
Ancient tenements crowded in on both sides, the glimmer of lanterns behind oilpaper giving them menacing aspects. All around, noises of a seething mass of humanity pierced the darkness. Shouts and curses, music from the tavern on the corner. A child crying. A woman coughing.
So very different from the elegance of Mayfair, but not the worst she’d seen.
Granby halted before a low wooden door bound with iron and set with studs. The lantern above the door cast an oily gleam in the slime oozing along the alley’s central runnel.
‘This is it?’ she asked. ‘The Fools’ Paradise?’
‘It is,’ Granby croaked as if his throat was parched.
It had required all of Minette’s powers of persuasion to convince Lieutenant, the Honourable Laurence Granby, to be her escort when she’d named her destination. Now he was peering over his shoulder with the expression of one who had regained his sense of self-preservation and feared for his life. Finally he had realised that if this little adventure ever came to light, he was destined for a wagonload of trouble.
He cleared his throat. ‘You can’t want me to take you in there.’ Begging her to change her mind.
An unpleasant sensation squirmed behind her breastbone. A guilty conscience was an uncomfortable companion, but not unfamiliar. Guilt lay behind this expedition to London’s worst slums. Even as the idea had germinated, she’d known her escort hadn’t deserved to be placed in such an awkward position. Honour balanced against gentlemanly conduct and no way to reconcile either. He was a nice young man. Open. Honest. And too terribly susceptible to female manipulation. For all that her conscience pricked her, in the end she’d been unable to come up with a better alternative.
Worse, it might all be for naught. The man she’d come to for help had been going out of his way to avoid her for years, hence this charade. For all her careful scheming, he could easily turn her away and report her to Gabe, her sister’s husband.
If so, she’d have to think of another way to achieve her ends and avert disaster.
A disaster she’d set in motion years before. When she’d been young and exceedingly reckless. Not to mention in love.
She patted Granby’s arm. ‘Surely you aren’t going back on your word?’ She put a full measure of disappointment at his lack of courage into her voice.
The young man straightened his shoulders. ‘Certainly not. Gentleman, you know. But really—’
‘Courage, mon ami. Knock. It will be très amusant, n’est-ce pas? No one will ever know.’ She cast him a blinding smile.
Predictably dazzled, Granby rapped on the door with the head of his walking cane.
A square peephole opened. A glimmer of light quickly blocked by an eye peering out. Pah. Men and their dramatics.
‘Ah, ’tis you, sir,’ a gruff voice said from behind the door. The peephole snapped shut and the door swung inwards. The porter’s glance slid over her without interest. Unlike proper gentlemen’s clubs, here there was no ban on admitting females. It was part of the hell’s attraction, along with wickedly deep play. Hopefully there would be others of her gender present tonight. Creating a stir was not her aim. A simple word with the club’s owner, His Grace, the Duke of Falconwood, was all she wanted.
Granby tucked her arm under his in a rather sweet gesture of protection and escorted her along a short, dimly lit passage to a red velvet curtain drawn to cover a wide doorway. A liveried lad of about fifteen pulled the curtain aside and they entered the low-ceilinged subscription room. The smell and haze of cigar smoke hung so thick in the air that Minette struggled not to cough as she gazed at men of every age and social class seated at green baize tables. Games of chance occupied their full attention. Pharo, deep basset, dice, to name but a few. Sovereigns and scraps of paper littered the tabletops. The bowstring-taut atmosphere reeked of both triumph and despair.
No sign of her quarry. The elusive Duke of Falconwood, Freddy to his friends, though she did not rank among their number. Anticipation tensed her shoulders, her stomach fluttering with the hope he wouldn’t turn her away mingled with the expectation he would. The unpleasant churning brought bile rising in her throat.
A stocky, pugnacious-looking young man in his thirties, neatly dressed in the style of a butler, his light brown hair fashionably dressed, stepped forward to greet them. ‘Lieutenant Granby. What is your pleasure tonight?’ The maître d’hotel, then. His gaze focussed on Minette and she read surprise in his narrowed blue gaze.
She held her breath, waiting for him to turn her away. Instead, he gave her escort a look of enquiry and she let her breath out.
‘Vingt-et-un, if you don’t mind, Barker,’ Granby said, as agreed earlier in the evening.
The maître d’ settled them at a table and snapped his fingers for a waiter to take their orders while Minette casually glanced around, trying to spot her man. The back of her neck prickled. Awareness. Someone watching.
The suave-looking gentleman seated at the next table leaned back in his seat. His heated gaze took in her face and the low cut of her gown. ‘Welcome, lovely lady,’ he said, eyeing her escort in the way of a male prepared to compete.
She merely inclined her head and leaned closer to Granby. The gentleman shrugged and turned back to his game.
After an hour of play in which Granby lost a great deal of money to her and there was still no sign of the Duke, she decided her quest was hopeless. So disappointing. And irritating. She’d been certain she would find him here tonight after trying for days to catch him at his lodgings. Now she’d have to think of a different way to meet him. She was running out of ideas.
‘Why am I not surprised?’ The familiar deep male voice struck a chord low in her stomach. He’d always had that effect on her, though she’d tried to ignore it. As she did now. Slowly, she put her cards face down and glanced up to meet a pair of dark insolent eyes set in a lean, saturnine face.
A face of pure male beauty, his eyes of the darkest blue ringed by grey. He’d changed since she’d last seen him. His expression had grown colder, harder, more remote. More darkly fascinating. And while his form remained elegantly slender, he’d broadened across the shoulders to match his six-foot frame, which he now used with great effect to loom over her with all the menace of a greater physical force.
Not that she was surprised by the anger smouldering in his dark eyes. She’d invaded his very masculine sanctum.
‘Good evening, Your Grace,’ she said coolly, the daringly low cut of her gown seeming far more outrageous than when she’d left home. Nom d’un nom, she would not give him the satisfaction of feeling embarrassed. She lifted her chin. ‘Quelle surprise.’
His intense dark gaze shifted to her companion. The cold, hard scrutiny of an offended aristocrat.
‘Your servant, Your Grace,’ Granby said, rising to bow, colour flooding his face.
A dark eyebrow lifted in question. ‘Hardly the place to bring a lady, Lieutenant.’
Granby tugged at his neckcloth. Perspiration popped out on his brow. ‘A wager,’ he choked out. ‘Lady wanted to see the inside of a hell. Debt of honour and all that.’
‘Naturally you are not one to argue with a lady.’ The Duke’s narrowed gaze flicked down to the cards and the guineas on her side of the table. ‘Your companion has the devil’s own luck, I see.’
He was being careful not to use her name. She couldn’t help but be grateful for the courtesy. She offered him a sweet smile. ‘Don’t you mean skill, Your Grace?’
‘A newly won skill, then.’
As she had hoped beyond hope, he hadn’t forgotten her or their card games aboard ship some two years before. While she had played off her feminine wiles to get his attention, he’d treated her as little more than an annoying child. Brat, he had called her on the last occasion he had visited Meak, or any other of her brother-in-law’s residences.
‘Unfair, sir,’ she said, keeping her expression flirtatious. ‘I learned from the best.’
His lips quirked at the corners, his eyes glinted, the brief smile making him appear less austere. And more devastatingly handsome. An unwelcome pang pierced her heart. As if she had missed his smiles, which back then had been wickedly teasing. Oh, of a certainty she had missed him. The way one missed a stone in one’s shoe.
The maitre d’, standing at a little behind him, gave an impatient cough.
The flash of amusement on Freddy’s face vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He turned his chilly gaze on her escort. ‘Lieutenant, may I offer you a parlour where you can continue your game in private?’
The commanding tone of his voice was something she certainly didn’t miss. His attempts to act like her older brother. To take charge, as if he had some authority over her actions. She damped down the instant raising of her hackles. After all, this was the reaction she had set out to achieve. His wanting to protect her from her own folly. Not that she would let him know the full extent of her error.
Granby’s expression collapsed into something like relief. He gulped. ‘Very civil, Your Grace. Perhaps…’ He gave Minette a pleading look. ‘Perhaps we should leave?’
Several nearby patrons, including the man who had inspected her when she’d first arrived, had paused in their game to watch the unfolding drama.
‘Oh, no,’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘We should accept His Grace’s kind offer.’
Granby’s face crumpled. ‘Really?’
Freddy bowed, his expression mocking. ‘Be so good as to follow me.’
He led them through a door in the back wall of the subscription room. As she passed him in the doorway, Freddy leaned close and murmured in her ear, ‘I wonder what Gabe is going to think of this piece of mischief?’
She cast him a glance from beneath her lashes. ‘I didn’t take you for a tattle-tale, Your Grace.’
His Grace glowered.
Minette gave him her brightest, most innocent smile and breezed past him. Her gamble had paid off. She had his full attention.
Now came the most difficult part of her plan.