HOW TO LOSE A DUKE IN TEN DAYS releases in less than a week (April 21!). Squuueeee! And to celebrate, I’m sharing Chapter One!
If Miss Pippa Welby had learned anything in her short twenty years, it was that one must be prepared for anything.
But this was quite beyond the pale.
She stood paralyzed at the threshold of her father’s study, eyes fixed on the gentleman standing just a few feet away.
“You asked to see me, Father?” she said finally, turning her gaze away from the austere gentleman who stood by the mantel.
Her father turned, but the gentleman didn’t acknowledge her presence. He merely stared into the flickering amber flames, one polished Hessian boot perched arrogantly on the lip of the hearth.
She had recognized him instantly. Indeed, his tall, imposing frame, dark hair, and dashing good looks weren’t easily forgotten. He was Lucas Victor Alexander, ninth Duke of Arlington, and quite possibly the most sought-after bachelor in London.
His presence in her father’s house was startling, if not puzzling. She’d met Arlington only once, last year in Yorkshire at the Tisdale ball. Indeed, the disastrous meeting had been branded into her memory forever. Even now, it often crept into her thoughts with little provocation. Someone might comment on the weather, for instance, and the flurry of unpleasant memories would come rushing back—a figurative tidal wave of mortification. It galled her that he’d gotten under her skin so completely, but there was no helping it. And she should know. She’d dedicated the last six months to expunging him from her thoughts, only to be met with his image every time she closed her eyes.
“Come, sit down, Pippa.” Her father gestured to the blue-striped chair nearest Arlington. “His Grace has something he wishes to discuss with you.”
Narrowing her eyes, she had the sudden, inescapable feeling her father had led her into a trap. She’d been summoned to the study without the barest hint that Arlington had come to call. She shouldn’t be surprised. Her father was no fool, and he likely realized she’d have no interest in visiting with the gentleman who’d slighted her in front of everyone.
“Oh?” she said in a coolly unaffected tone. “Will it take long? I’m absolutely famished and breakfast will be laid out soon.”
Mortification swept over her father’s plump face. He was a proud, self-made man, and quite willing to pour money into his daughter’s upbringing, especially if that meant entrapping a titled husband. It didn’t matter how successful his investments were, or how much wealth he amassed; noble blood would never pulse through his veins. Certain members of the haute ton had made that painfully clear. Admission into their ranks could not be purchased. His only glimmer of hope was in Pippa—his only child—marrying into the crème of society, which would elevate him, at last, to the upper echelons.
She hadn’t the heart to tell him that his dream was all but impossible.
“I hope you will forgive my daughter’s lack of manners,” her father said after an awkward moment, eyeing her sternly. “I’m afraid your visit may have caught her off guard.”
Arlington remained leaning against the mantel but turned his head to look at her. For the first time since entering the room, she saw his face. His straight, aristocratic nose and the firm line of his jaw, one dark eyebrow arched at her father’s words . . . and his eyes. They were the most uncommon shade of blue, like a cloudless sky, and they stared at her with such intensity, she thought she might wilt under his penetrating gaze. Instead, she lifted her chin a degree.
“Miss Welby’s priorities are perfectly understandable,” he said lazily, as though her blunt dismissal hadn’t offended him in the least. He flicked his gaze in her father’s direction. “Leave us, Welby. I’d like to speak with your daughter alone.”
Her father didn’t hesitate to do as bidden, coming around his massive mahogany desk to lay a kiss on her cheek. Then he was out the door, leaving her completely, helplessly alone with the duke.
She glared as she lowered herself into a nearby chair, perching on the edge, poised to escape at the first opportunity. The way he ordered her father around like a servant in his own home was positively reprehensible. He might intimidate all of London, but Pippa refused to yield to such arrogance. He had no right to barge into her home and start making demands.
“Well, since I have breakfast waiting and you have”—whatever scoundrels do first thing in the morning— “whatever it is you have to do, why don’t we cut straight to the matter, Your Grace? What is your purpose in coming here?”
His lips twisted into a faint smile. “Playing games, are we, Miss Welby? You must know why I’m here.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said. “Nor do I care, particularly.”
That nonchalant comment nettled him, as she had suspected it would. She could see it in the way he glared as he moved to the sideboard and poured himself a generous helping of her father’s finest brandy. His posture was rigid, every move stiff and deliberate. Women didn’t speak to men of his ilk with such indifference, especially women of her “tainted” breeding.
“You haven’t the slightest idea why a man might prevail upon you and your father at this early hour?” He took a healthy sip of brandy, then set his glass on the small, circular table beside her. “Perhaps I misjudged you, Miss Welby. What I perceived as intelligence is clearly no more than artfully concealed ignorance.”
She narrowed her eyes at the insult. “You slighted me at the Tisdale ball last year. Why would I have any reason to believe you would call upon me, of all people?”
He raised one elegant brow. “Slighted you, did I?”
Now that nettled her. Good heavens, she wasn’t even worth remembering! To this day, she relived that horrid moment, agonizing over every humiliating detail. His blank, slightly horrified expression as Mr. Tisdale had introduced them. His subsequent silence. Then finally, his curt dismissal as he turned and walked away, in front of everyone.
Word of her humiliation had spread rapidly, of course. They’d called her presumptuous for wrangling an introduction to a duke, and though it was Mr. Tisdale’s oh-so-brilliant idea, not hers, she was still somehow at fault. She was arrogant, pompous, assuming, pretentious—the list of vicious names multiplied for weeks until the story grew tiresome and the gossips found another poor soul to torment.
“What would a duke want with a tradesman’s daughter?”
He chuckled then, a dangerously seductive tone that Pippa struggled—unsuccessfully—to ignore. His voice was deep, masculine, and it rumbled through her like a gathering winter storm.
“You astonish me, Miss Welby. I would have thought the reason was quite clear.” He leaned down and placed a hand on each armrest, caging her in. For a brief moment, it felt as though all the air had been sucked from the room. She could scarcely draw in a breath. Her heart fluttered at his nearness, but she didn’t lean back. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “I want you in my bed, of course.”
Bewilderment struck her first, followed swiftly by disbelief, then pure, unfettered outrage. He wanted her for his mistress! Perhaps she hadn’t been born a true lady, but she was certainly a lady now, in spirit if not by blood, and she would not be used for the singular purpose of warming a man’s bed, duke or not.
With one hard shove, she pushed him out of the way, stood, and snatched a carved ivory letter opener off her father’s desk. The ivory was a beautiful piece, made by the master carvers in the seaport village in Dieppe, France, where her father had often traveled before the war. It’d be a pity to get blood on it. She wondered briefly if it’d stain. The surface of the ivory blade was smooth, unblemished. She was fairly certain Arlington’s blood would just wipe off with nary a sign she’d plunged it into his cold, unfeeling heart.
“Just six months ago you gave me the cut direct.” Pippa leveled the blunt letter opener at Arlington’s chest. “Now, you dare saunter into my house and propose I be your mistress?”
Arlington curled his long fingers around her wrist and pulled it aside, effectively thwarting any attempt on his life. “Much as you’d like to stab me, that wouldn’t be wise, Miss Welby. People will ask questions, and I’m not entirely sure you are ready to hang for a simple misunderstanding. I don’t want you for my mistress,” he said. “I want you for my wife.”
All of her anger drained away instantly. She blinked several times; certain she’d heard him wrong. “Your wife?”
With his free hand, he plucked the letter opener from her grasp and let it fall with a heavy thud on the desk.
He was too close, hand still curled around her wrist, his tall, powerful body just inches away. The heat of his skin, the smell of brandy on his breath, coiled around her senses. If she were any other woman, she might tilt her head up and taste those wicked, wicked lips, perhaps trace their outline with the tip of her tongue. For the flicker of a second, she wondered if he would taste as delicious as she imagined. But the moment the thought formed, she pushed it away. She would not be seduced, and certainly not by him. A woman had her dignity, after all.
More than that, he couldn’t possibly be in earnest. He was a duke of the realm, and would naturally be expected to marry high. What in heaven’s name did he want with her?
She pushed at Arlington’s chest. He released her wrist, but he didn’t retreat. Her heart skipped, then galloped. “What game is this, Your Grace? Tell me, so that I may at least know the rules.”
“No game, Miss Welby.” He straightened and took a step back. “I’m a practical man. I see something I want and I take it. It’s quite simple.”
“I’m a woman, not property. I will not be taken, as you so eloquently put it.”
“You have a duty to accept me.”
Yes, society would see it that way, and her father certainly would as well. But none of that really mattered—she would never marry him. Her mother had been a member of the aristocracy—the granddaughter of a baron—and when she’d married Pippa’s father, society had treated her with such contempt, she’d refused to venture out of the house for fear of the scorn and ridicule she would have inevitably faced—if only in her own head. During the last years of her life, she only left the house to attend church on Sundays, or to visit very close friends—but even that was a rarity.
Pippa had sworn to herself, long ago, that she would never run in such circles. Never in a million lifetimes.
“Be that as it may, I’m afraid I cannot accept you.”
There was a fierce, slightly dangerous look in his eyes. “Yes, you can,” he said. “And you will, or it shall be my singular purpose to convince you otherwise.”
The rough, erotic way he said the last sent tingles sweeping through her body. She had little doubt how he intended to convince her, and despite herself, she wondered just how far he would take his threat.
She lifted a brow. “I should like to see you try.”
As soon as the words slipped past her lips, she wished she could call them back. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to challenge a well-seasoned rake on his ability to seduce, especially considering the disturbing swiftness with which her body responded to his nearness.
He lowered his head until his lips hovered dangerously close to hers. Just an inch or two more, and they would be touching. A thrill of anticipation skipped up her spine and spread through her limbs. Her heart thudded frantically against her ribs.
His eyes darkened, and for a moment she thought he might kiss her. Instead, he stepped back. “I accept your challenge.” His smile was slow, wicked. “Good day, Miss Welby.”
With that, he was gone.
For one wild, impossible moment, she thought she might have dreamed the whole dreadful conversation. Had she really just refused a duke of the realm? Now, in the cold aftermath, it hardly seemed possible.
Moments later, her father rushed back into the room, his features drawn tight. He held a folded piece of sealed parchment in his hand, and Pippa wondered idly what it was. An order of execution? Death by hanging might be preferable to her father’s anger once he discovered she’d thrown the duke’s proposal back in his face.
Her father handed her the parchment. With numb fingers, she unsealed it and read the contents. “It’s an invitation to an engagement ball,” she said.
“Mine.” She swallowed. “And it’s in ten days.”
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