Girl Meets Duke Series, Book 1
When girl meets Duke, their marriage breaks all the rules…
Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.
His terms are simple:
But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
“Now that’s romance.” New York Times
A “breathtaking historical fairy tale…”
“Sexy, tender, and wickedly funny…”
“Dare perfectly crafts an ever-present romantic tension that propels the novel swiftly forward to its breathless conclusion.”
Emma Gladstone had learned a few hard lessons by the age of two-and-twenty.
Charming princes weren’t always what they seemed. Shining armor went out of fashion with the Crusades. And if fairy godmothers existed, hers was running several years late.
Most of the time, a girl needed to rescue herself.
This afternoon was one of those times.
Ashbury House loomed before her, taking up one full side of the fashionable Mayfair square. Elegant. Enormous.
She swallowed hard. She could do this. Once, she’d walked to London alone in the bitter heart of winter. She’d refused to succumb to despair or starvation. She’d found work and made a new life for herself in Town. Now, six years later, she’d swallow every needle in Madame Bissette’s dressmaking shop before she’d go crawling back to her father.
Compared to all that, what was knocking on the door of a duke?
Why, nothing. Nothing at all. All she had to do was square her shoulders, charge through the wrought-iron gates, march up those granite steps—really, there were only a hundred or so—and ring the bell on that immense, richly carved door.
Good afternoon. I’m Miss Emma Gladstone. I’m here to see the mysterious, reclusive Duke of Ashbury. No, we aren’t acquainted. No, I don’t have a calling card. I don’t have anything, really. I may not even have a home tomorrow if you don’t let me in.
Oh, good heavens. This would never work.
With a whimper, she turned away from the gate and circled the square for the tenth time, shaking out her bare arms under her cloak.
She had to try.
Emma stopped her pacing, faced the gate, and drew a deep breath. She closed her ears to the frantic pounding of her heart.
The hour was growing late. No one was coming to her aid. There could be no further hesitation, no turning back.
From his library desk, Ashbury heard an unfamiliar ringing sound. Could it be a doorbell?
There it came again.
It was a doorbell.
Worse, it was his doorbell.
Damned gossips. He hadn’t even been in Town but a few weeks. He’d forgotten how London rumors traveled faster than bullets. He didn’t have the time or patience for busybodies. Whoever it was, Khan would send them away.
He dipped his quill and continued the letter to his feckless solicitors.
I don’t know what the devil you’ve been doing for the past year, but the state of my affairs is deplorable. Sack the Yorkshire land steward directly. Tell the architect I wish to see the plans for the new mill, and I wish to see them yesterday. And there’s one other thing that requires immediate attention.
Ash hesitated, quill poised in midair. He couldn’t believe he was actually going to commit the words to paper. But much as he dreaded it, it must be done. He wrote:
I need a wife.
He supposed he ought to state his requirements: a woman of childbearing age and respectable lineage, in urgent need of money, willing to share a bed with a scarred horror of a man.
In short, someone desperate.
God, how depressing. Better to leave it at that one line:
I need a wife.
Khan appeared in the doorway. “Your Grace, I regret the interruption, but there’s a young woman to see you. She’s wearing a wedding gown.”
Ash looked at the butler. He looked down at the words he’d just written. Then he looked at the butler again.
“Well, that’s uncanny.” Perhaps his solicitors weren’t as useless as he thought. He dropped his pen and propped one boot on the desk, reclining into the shadows. “By all means, show her in.”
A young woman in white strode into the room.
His boot slipped from the desk. He reeled backward and collided with the wall, nearly falling off his chair. A folio of papers tumbled from a nearby shelf, drifting to the floor like snowflakes.
He was blinded.
Not by her beauty—though he supposed she might be beautiful. It wasn’t possible to judge. Her gown was an eye-stabbing monstrosity of pearls, lace, brilliants, and beads.
Good Lord. He wasn’t accustomed to being in the same room with something even more repulsive than his own appearance.
He propped his right elbow on the arm of his chair and raised his fingertips to his brow, concealing the scars on his face. For once, he wasn’t protecting a servant’s sensibilities or even his own pride. He was shielding himself from . . . from that.
“I’m sorry to impose on you this way, Your Grace,” the young woman said, keeping her gaze fixed on some chevron of the Persian carpet.
“I should hope you are.”
“But you see, I am quite desperate.”
“So I gather.”
“I need to be paid for my labor, and I need to be paid at once.”
Ash paused. “Your . . . your labor.”
“I’m a seamstress. I stitched this”—she swept her hands down the silk eyesore—“for Miss Worthing.”
For Miss Worthing.
Ah, this began to make sense. The white satin atrocity had been meant for Ash’s formerly intended bride. That, he could believe. Annabelle Worthing had always had dreadful taste—both in gowns and in prospective husbands.
“When your engagement ended, she never sent for the gown. She’d purchased the silk and lace and such, but she never paid for the labor. And that meant I went unpaid. I tried calling at her home, with no success. My letters to you both went unanswered. I thought that if I appeared like this”—she spread the skirts of the white gown—“I would be impossible to ignore.”
“You were correct on that score.” Even the good side of his face twisted. “Good Lord, it’s as though a draper’s shop exploded and you were the first casualty.”
“Miss Worthing wanted something fit for a duchess.”
“That gown,” he said, “is fit for a bawdy-house chandelier.”
“Well, your intended had . . . extravagant preferences.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “I can’t even take the whole thing in. It looks like unicorn vomit. Or the pelt of some snow beast rumored to menace the Himalayas.”
She tilted her gaze to the ceiling and gave a despairing sigh.
“What?” he said. “Don’t tell me you like it.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it suits my tastes, Your Grace. I take pride in my handiwork regardless, and this gown occupied months of it.”
Now that the shock of her revolting attire had worn off, Ash turned his attention to the young woman who’d been devoured by it.
She was a great improvement on the gown.
Complexion: cream. Lips: rose petals. Lashes: sable.
“This embroidery alone . . . I worked for a week to make it perfect.” She skimmed a touch along the gown’s neckline.
Ash followed the path her fingertips traced. He couldn’t see embroidery. He was a man; he saw breasts. Slight, enticing breasts squeezed by that tortured bodice. He enjoyed them almost as much as he enjoyed the air of determination pushing them high.
He pulled his gaze upward, taking in her slender neck and upswept bounty of chestnut-brown hair. She wore it in the sort of prim, restrained coiffure that made a man’s fingers itch to pull the pins loose, one by one.
Take hold of yourself, Ashbury.
She couldn’t possibly be as pretty as she seemed. No doubt she benefited by contrast with the revolting gown. And he’d been living in solitude for some time. There was that, as well.
“Your Grace,” she said, “my coal bin is empty, the larder’s down to a few moldy potatoes, and my quarterly rent comes due today. The landlord has threatened to turn me out if I don’t pay the full amount. I need to collect my wages. Most urgently.” She held out her hand. “Two pounds, three shillings, if you please.”
Ash crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her. “Miss . . . ?”
“Gladstone. Emma Gladstone.”
“Miss Gladstone, you don’t seem to understand how this whole intruding-on-a-duke’s-solitude business works. You should be intimidated, if not terrified. Yet there’s an appalling lack of hand-wringing in your demeanor, and no trembling whatsoever. Are you certain you’re merely a seamstress?”
She lifted her hands, palms facing out for his view. Healed cuts and calluses showed on her fingertips. Persuasive evidence, Ash had to admit. Yet he remained unconvinced.
“Well, you can’t have been born to poverty. You’re far too self-possessed, and you appear to have all your teeth. I suppose you were orphaned at a tender age, in some particularly gruesome way.”
“No, Your Grace.”
“Are you being blackmailed?”
“No.” She drew out the word.
“Supporting a passel of abandoned children, whilst being blackmailed?”
He snapped his fingers. “I have it. Your father is a scapegrace. In debtor’s prison. Or spending the rent money on gin and whores.”
“My father is a vicar. In Hertfordshire.”
Ash frowned. That was nonsensical. Vicars were gentlemen. “How does a gentleman’s daughter find herself working her fingers to nubs as a seamstress?”
At last, he saw a flash of uncertainty in her demeanor. She touched the spot behind her earlobe. “Sometimes life takes an unexpected turn.”
“Now that is a grave understatement.”
Fortune was a heartless witch in perpetual anticipation of her monthly courses. And didn’t Ash know it.
He swiveled in his chair and reached for a lockbox behind the desk.
“I am sorry.” Her voice softened. “The broken engagement must have been a blow. Miss Worthing seemed a lovely young woman.”
He counted money into his hand. “If you spent any time with her, you know that isn’t the case.”
“Perhaps it’s for the best that you didn’t marry her, then.”
“Yes, it was excellent foresight that I destroyed my face before the wedding. What bad luck it would have been if I’d waited until afterward.”
“Destroyed? If Your Grace will forgive me saying it, it can’t be that bad.”
He snapped the lockbox closed. “Annabelle Worthing was desperate to marry a man with a title and a fortune. I am a duke and ungodly wealthy. She still left me. It’s that bad.”
He stood and turned his ruined side to her, offering her a full, unobstructed view. His desk was in the most shadowy corner of the room—and purposely so. The room’s heavy velvet drapes kept out much of the sunlight. But scars as dramatic as the ones he wore? Nothing but complete darkness could obscure them. What bits of flesh had escaped the flames had only been ravaged further—first, by the surgeon’s knife and then, for hellish weeks afterward, by fever and suppuration. From his temple to his hip, the right side of his body was a raging battle of cicatrices and powder burns.
Miss Gladstone went quiet. To her credit, she didn’t swoon or vomit or run screaming from the room—a pleasant change from his usual reception.
“How did it happen?” she asked.
“War. Next question.”
After a moment, she said quietly, “May I have my money, please?”
He extended a hand, offering her the money.
She reached for it.
He closed his hand around the coins. “Once you give me the gown.”
“If I pay you for your work, it’s only fair that I get the gown.”
“For what purpose?”
He shrugged. “I haven’t decided. I could donate it to a home for pensioned opera dancers. Sink it to the bottom of the Thames for the eels to enjoy. Hang it over the front door to ward off evil spirits. There are so many choices.”
“I . . . Your Grace, I can have it delivered tomorrow. But I must have the money today.”
He tsked. “That would be a loan, Miss Gladstone. I’m not in the money-lending business.”
“You want the gown now?”
“Only if you want the money now.”
Her dark eyes fixed on him, accusing him of sheer villainy.
He shrugged. Guilty as charged.
This was the peculiar hell of being disfigured by sheer chance on the battlefield. There was no one to blame, no revenge to be taken. Only a lingering bitterness that tempted him to lash out at anything near. Oh, he wasn’t violent—not unless someone really, truly deserved it. With most, he merely took perverse pleasure in being a pain in the arse.
If he was going to look like a monster, he might as well enjoy the role.
Unfortunately, this seamstress refused to play the trembling mouse. Nothing he said rattled her in the least, and if she hadn’t fled in terror yet, she likely never would.
Good for her.
He prepared to hand over the money, bidding her—and that gown—a grateful adieu.
Before he could do so, she exhaled decisively. “Fine.”
Her hands went to the side of the gown. She began to release a row of hooks hidden in the bodice seam. One by one by one. As the bodice went slack, her squeezed breasts relaxed to their natural fullness. The sleeve fell off her shoulder, revealing the tissue-thin fabric of her shift.
A wisp of dark hair tumbled free, kissing her collarbone.
She froze and looked up. “Stop?”
He cursed silently. Don’t ask me twice. “Stop.”
Ash could scarcely believe he’d managed the decency to say it once. He’d been on the verge of a private show for the price of two pounds, three. Significantly higher than the going rate, but a bargain when the girl was this pretty.
Not to mention, she was a vicar’s daughter. He’d always dreamed of debauching a vicar’s daughter. Really, what man hadn’t? However, he was not quite so diabolical as to accomplish it through extortion.
A thought occurred to him. Maybe—just maybe—he could still manage that fantasy, through different, somewhat less fiendish, means. He regarded Emma Gladstone from a fresh angle, thinking of that list of requirements in his interrupted letter.
She was young and healthy. She was educated. She came from gentry, and she was willing to disrobe in front of him.
Most importantly, she was desperate.
In fact, she’d do very well indeed.
“Here is your choice, Miss Gladstone. I can pay you the two pounds, three shillings.”
He placed the stack of coins on the desk. She stared at them hungrily.
“Or,” he said, “I can make you a duchess.”