For all the latest news about Madeline's books, join her newsletter mailing list.
The Accidental Duchess
When Lady Lydia Thornton is blackmailed over the shocking contents of a manuscript she once wrote, she must go to the most desperate of measures to raise the money to buy back the ill-considered prose: agreeing to an old wager posed by the arrogant, dangerous Duke of Penthurst. At least Penthurst is a man she wouldn’t mind fleecing—and she’s confident she’ll win.
Penthurst long ago concluded Lydia was a woman in search of ruinous adventure, but even he is surprised when she arrives at his house ready to bet her innocence against his ten thousand pounds—a wager he only proposed to warn her off gambling.
When she loses to a simple draw of the cards, Lydia is shocked. Now, her problems are twofold: a blackmailer determined to see her pay and a duke determined to tame her rebellious ways. One misstep and Lydia could find herself ruined—or bound to the seductive man who would make her his duchess.
He was every inch a duke and a gentleman, and yet. . . . She always thought he would look more at home in a dark castle than a Grosvenor Square mansion. She could picture him in the castle’s great hall with his hounds, tall and disheveled from riding, the fires of the hearth roaring behind him.
She wondered if he could see himself that way too. He had cut his queue, one of the last of his age to do so, but did not favor some Roman style for his hair. Rather it remained longer than most, its fullness skimming his back collar and the sides of his face.
He did not move, which left her no choice except to walk toward him. The way he watched her approach unnerved her to the point of breathlessness.
“Did you come to apologize?”
That stopped her, a good twenty feet away. “Apologize? For what? Getting you wet today?”
“That was my choice. No, apologize to my aunt for the rudeness in the coach the other evening.”
“The rudeness started with her.”
“You provoked her, deliberately. As for her words, she is an older woman who sought to issue a warning and advice, and thus spare a younger woman much grief. She is also a duke’s daughter.”
Any misgivings she harbored about the fleecing she was about to visit on this man disappeared. “She could be the queen, and I would not tolerate such insults. So, in answer to your question, I did not come here to apologize to her.”
“Then I assume you came to see me.” His gaze took her in from head to toe, then shifted to the door. “Are you alone?”
“Sarah is with me.”
“No, she is not.”
“She is waiting in the reception hall, I meant. I did not think she should hear the conversation I need to have with you.”
Interested now, and vaguely amused too, he beckoned her to come closer and gestured to the chairs. “Be seated, and tell me what you need of me.”
She sat in another chair much like the one he had been using. His manner had turned tolerant and patient. She realized he assumed she wanted a favor, or a boon of some kind. As a duke, he probably had a lot of people come here to tell him what they needed of him.
He did not sit, but stood beside his chair with one arm crooked on its high back. She again noted his dress, and wondered if her visit had interfered with his departure for a dinner or some other invitation. Perhaps he intended to visit a woman. Something about him inclined her to think so. Then again, maybe he expected a woman to visit him. Not her, of course.
That would be awkward. She trusted the servants knew to keep his mistress somewhere else if she came while he had other visitors. Best to make this conversation a fast one.
“Do you remember the first time I visited Mrs. Burton’s?” she asked. “You saw me there.”
“I remember the first time I saw you at Mrs. Burton’s. Approximately a year ago, wasn't it? If you say it was your first time there, I have no reason not to believe you.”
“I was winning at vingt-et-un. Again and again, I won. You sat down at the table beside me after I had been there an hour. Ambury wanted me to leave, and so did Cassandra. Do you remember?”
Silence. It stretched until she wondered if he would claim his memory had failed him.
“I do. You were drunk on the excitement of the risk, as I recall.”
Drunk did not describe that incredible excitement. She had felt alive, and vital, and alert to her entire person. She had spent months sleeping. That night she had awakened.
She won eight hundred pounds that night. A small fortune. Then, she had given it away to those desperately in need. In one night she had experienced resurrection and thrills, and also found a purpose.
“You proposed a wager, Penthurst. I think your goal was to shock me, and ruin my fun. It worked.”
“Not for long.”
“I gambled no more that night, or for a fortnight after.”
“Then you began again. Better if you had taken me up on that wager. It was one loss that might have ended the fascination.”
“I think I would have won, and should have been brave enough to play your game, rather than letting you interfere and ruin my evening.”
“Do you now?”
“Yes. For reasons unknown, fortune smiles on me. I think I would win now too. I am sure of it. So sure that I have come here to pick up the gauntlet you threw that night.”
He could not hide his surprise. It passed quickly, however. “Perhaps you have forgotten the details of that proposed wager.”
“Not at all. You suggested your ten thousand against my innocence, the winner to be determined by a simple draw of the cards.” She tried to sound worldly, as if she discussed such things all the time. She wanted him to know she was no longer the little fool who had been rendered speechless at that vingt-et-untable.
His goal had been to dumbfound her. It had worked too well. She could not remember if the mere proposal had stunned her to where she lost all interest in gaming, or that such a proposal had come from him. Well, she had more self-possession now. She knew a thing to two about the world.
“The wager was posed knowing you would never accept it.”
“I know. However, it was never withdrawn either. How careless of you.”
“You cannot want to do this.”
“What I want is your ten thousand. This is merely the easiest way to make you part with it.”
No response. Just a long, dark look. Her self-confidence started to fray. An excitement akin to the thrill she knew at the tables quickened in her core. He appeared a bit vexed, enough that his jaw firmed and his mouth’s line hardened. He appeared even more handsome like that, but she worried his expression reflected a growing stubbornness born of duty and friendship to Southwaite and all those other reasons he might dredge up in order to refuse. He did not know he would lose, after all. The scandalous nature of the wager might be giving him serious pause.
If so, he should have never made it.
“Should you want to beg off, I cannot force you to follow through,” she said. “Although I doubt you want to be known as a man who proposes wagers he has no intention of completing.”
He glared at her as if she had threatened to tell the world just that. She hadn’t, although it may have sounded as though she might. Oh, dear. How careless of her.
“I can see that you are determined to court ruin, Lydia. So be it.” He walked to a small, round table, lifted it, and set it down between the two chairs. He strode to one of the bookcases and took something out of a small drawer. Returning, he set a deck of cards on the table. “One simple draw of the cards, you said. No trump or wild cards, aces high. Is that agreeable to you?”
“Very agreeable.” She pulled off her gloves, since she never wore them at the tables. On second thought she also untied her bonnet, removed it, and set it aside, since she never wore hats or bonnets at the tables either. It might be best to mimic her appearance and state of mind as closely to what she brought to wagers as a matter of course. She was not superstitious as such, but if one has evidence of a force as irrational as luck, one tends to allow for other irrationalities.
Penthurst sat in his chair. He mixed the cards, stacked them neatly, and pushed the stack toward her. He lounged back comfortably. “You can go first, Lydia.”
She sat forward so her body almost touched the table. She tried to ignore him because she never paid attention to others at the tables. Unfortunately she could not remove him from her mind completely. Even without looking at him she felt him there, his eyes on her, his presence pressing on her as if he gave off a measurable energy. He made her nervous, and imbued this risk with more danger than she wanted to acknowledge.
What a goose she was being. There was no danger. Not from the cards, at least. She would draw, win, collect, pay off Mr. Trilby, and burn her manuscript once she had it back.
She spread the cards into a fan. Her fingers shook when she reached forward. Hand hovering, she made her choice. She plucked out a card and turned it over.
The queen of spades.
She raised her arms in triumphant excitement while a little cry of delight escaped her. She looked down on her queen, admiring it, enjoying the thrill of the win.
A hand came into view over the cards. A very male hand, but quite beautiful in its own way, long-fingered and leanly strong. Those fingers plucked out a card. It disappeared. She looked up to see Penthurst studying it. From his expression she knew she had won.
He appeared disinclined to throw it down with her queen. Laughing, she stood, leaned over the table, and grabbed it out of his fingers. She dropped it on the table, ready to gloat.
Her laughter caught in her throat. Her mind emptied. Looking up at her, side by side with her queen, lay the king of spades.
No. impossible. What were the chances he would pull one of very few cards that could beat her? She stared at it.
Stunned, she sank back into her chair. “Did you fix it somehow?”
“Since you are distressed, I will pretend I did not hear that insult.”
Distressed hardly covered it. His voice caused a pang of terror to sound through her. She forced herself to look at him. He watched her in turn.
“I do not understand,” she mumbled. “I never lose on big wagers.”
“If you had asked your brother, he would have told you that I do not either.”
It did not seem fair that his luck should be better than hers, tonight of all nights. How was she supposed to predict such a thing? Now she had lost and he had won and— Oh, dear.
He stretched out his legs and crossed his boots. Eyes bright with devilish lights, he tapped the table, drawing attention once more to the cards. “How should we handle this, Lydia?”
“I assume we both want absolute discretion. I would rather Southwaite not call me out, and I am sure you would rather the world not know you gambled away your innocence.”
She could not find her voice to respond. Not that she had any intelligent response to give.
“Not in London, I think,” he went on, giving the matter deliberation. “It is easy for you to visit your family’s estate on the coast, isn’t it? You should make plans to go there in the next week. Take only that aunt of yours who never watches you properly.”
“How do you know whether she watches me properly or not?”
“You are here, aren’t you?”
“My aunt Hortense is not my gaoler. I can move about town without her. I am a grown woman.”
“Indeed you are. I would never be planning how to bed you if you were not.”
Bed you. That shocked her mind straight. She stared at Penthurst, trying not to imagine what that involved. Little flashes of pictures came to her anyway, of his handsome face rising above shoulders and chest that wore no clothes, and of that hand that rested on the table instead resting on her.
A new panic flushed through her, leaving her warm and confused and too aware of their current isolation. She felt terribly vulnerable to the masculinity he all but beamed like a lighthouse in her direction. She kept noticing peculiar things, like that hand, and his mouth, and the tiny golden lights in his eyes, and the scandalous way he managed to observe her. That gaze appeared discreet enough, but she almost squirmed from how his attention communicated the implications of what would happen.
“. . . I will arrange the rest,” he continued. “I expect it might be an inn, but I promise it will be a good one, and the proprietors very discreet. Although letting a house might be better. I will have to see what is available.”
“Surely there is no rush.” She wanted to sound sophisticated. Instead her voice rang with desperation to her own ears.
He cocked his head. The slightest smile formed, and it hardly reassured her. “I am not accustomed to taking markers.”
“I am not suggesting a marker as such, only—”
“Did you wager that which you do not have in your possession? Is that the problem?”
It took a moment to puzzle through what he meant. When she did, it only shocked her anew. “I am completely in possession of that which I wagered. However, a week—there is something else I must be doing this week.”
That vague smile again. “Ah. You only wish a delay. A small one, I trust.”
She nodded, dumbly.
“A fortnight hence, then, but I expect consideration for my patience.” He stood, and offered his hand to help her to rise.
She gathered her gloves and bonnet. She accepted his hand, too alert to the warm, dry sensation of his skin on hers. She turned to leave at once.
He did not release her hand. Even when she gave a little yank, he held firm. She looked back at him with curiosity. His eyes narrowed and he yanked in response. She spun back until she bumped right into him.
His other hand pressed the back of her waist. “You forgot the consideration. I meant it in the legal sense. I do something for you, and you do something for me.”
His voice, low and soft, sent a chill up her spine. She stared up at him, feeling even more a fool than before, trying to swallow her astonishment at being pressed against him in a most improper way.
“Something . . . ?”
“A small something. A gesture of goodwill, to promise you will not welsh on your debt.”
“You have my word that—” The rest caught in her throat as she realized what he meant.
His head lowered. Her eyes widened. Surely he could not think to—
He could. He did. The Duke of Penthurst had decided that a kiss was the consideration he wanted for delaying her deflowering by a week.
She saw it as if she sat in one of the paintings on the wall. She saw her own amazement even as she experienced it. Saw his dark head angling to claim her mouth. Watched while she helplessly allowed it, too shocked to move. A new shock claimed her, one of deep stirring within the confusion. More surprise then. The kiss moved her, when it was the last kiss that ever should.
It horrified her. Some presence of mind returned. She pressed back against his hand while she turned her head away.
He permitted it. She snuck one look at him while she walked away. That was a mistake. He watched her like a hawk might watch a scurrying mouse, with the same confidence that there would be no contest should he determine the mouse would make a good meal.
She almost stumbled in her hasty retreat. He did not laugh at her. At least not before she had left the room.
The Accidental Duchess, copyright © 2014 Madeline Hunter