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Always Be My Duchess
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Pretty Woman meets the Bridgertons in this witty, vivacious historical take on 90s romcoms by USA Today bestselling author Amalie Howard.
Lord Lysander Blackstone, the stern Duke of Montcroix, has only one interest: increasing his considerable fortune. After a series of betrayals, he keeps his emotions buried deep. Money, after all, can't break a man's heart—or make promises it can’t keep. But when his reputation for being heartless jeopardizes a new business deal, he finds himself seeking a most unusual—and alluring—solution . . .
Once an up-and-coming ballerina, Miss Geneviève Valery is now hopelessly out of work. After refusing to become a wealthy patron's mistress, Nève was promptly shown the door to the streets. When she accidentally saves the life of a handsome duke, she doubts the encounter will go any better than her last brush with nobility. But instead of propositioning her, Montcroix makes Nève an offer she would be a fool to refuse: act as his fake fiancée in exchange for fortune enough to start over.
Only neither is prepared when very real feelings begin to grow between them. They both stand to win . . . but only if they’re willing to risk their hearts.
This book makes reference to sex work and sex workers in the Victorian era, which ranged from prostitution in the streets to highly paid companions. In keeping with the conventions of this period, words such as courtesan and light-skirt are used as descriptors, and I have tried my best to keep these both authentic and sex-positive within context. Some derogatory inference and language are used in conversation. The duke has a mental and behavioral disorder, which might not have been diagnosed at the time but was certainly in existence, and there is also some ableist bias in the way he views himself as well as some ill-treatment by his father. There are also scenes that may be violent to some readers, in which the heroine defends herself against potential assault as well as reference to her sister’s injury at the hands of a theater patron.
Lord Lysander Blackstone, the very pragmatic and always sensible Duke of Montcroix, was well and truly lost. On the outskirts of St. Giles. Well past the hour most sensible people would be abed. One could argue that was neither pragmatic nor sensible.
It could be worse… he could be passed out in a dark alley somewhere, fleeced of his clothing, buttons, handkerchiefs, boots, hat, and coin. Perhaps worse, if any flash-men were out for blood. Thus far, he’d been fortunate, though he could feel eyes upon him from windows and shadowy passages.
A duke in the rookeries! Sound the bullhorn!
He upped his pace, peering at the nearest grubby street name etched into the building stone—Great White Lion Street. He couldn’t be completely certain, but that was not the correct direction. Mayfair was west, was it not?
Why the hell are there no hackneys?
Stumbling slightly, he shook his head to clear it of the terrible fog brought on by equally terrible liquor and cursed his friend who had dragged him from a perfectly acceptable night in, tracking his investments and poring over local railway ledgers, to the opening of a new ballet at the Lyceum. He’d nearly pummeled the persistent Earl of Lushing, aptly named, before giving in. A foolish idea, clearly.
“Come on, mate,” Lushing had cajoled. “All you do is work. What kind of duke worth his salt works? Don’t you have people to add the sums for you?”
“I like numbers,” he’d replied. “It keeps my mind calm. I also like money. The estate is profitable, and yes, I have enough stewards, but I want my own eyes on it.”
Lushing had scoffed, “I have the perfect solution for calmness, and it involves a pair of long legs, a perfect arabesque, and a face to die for.”
“Are women all you think about?”
“You wound me, Stone. It’s the theater with the usual stiff-lipped crowd.” A melodramatic hand had found his chest. “I’ll have you back at the stroke of midnight, pet, I promise.”
Lysander had wavered, despite his passion for the theater. The last time he attended the opera, he’d been positively swarmed by every matchmaking mother with an available daughter seeking an introduction… and a coronet.
These days, even his business acquaintances had expectations.
Do you intend to settle down? Family is important to the peerage. When will you do your duty and wed?
The Earl of Bolden, a man Lysander was soliciting for a piece of property imperative to his new railway venture, had been especially vocal at White’s last week.
“This bachelor lifestyle of yours must be exhausting,” Bolden had remarked, and Lysander’s collar had felt hot at the unspoken judgment. “Perhaps you should pick one.”
The notion had left him cold. He’d proposed to one woman… and she’d jilted him for greener pastures that were much too close for comfort. As such, he hadn’t thought much past his reply, articulated if only to placate the earl. “Indeed, Lord Bolden.”
Lysander stumbled on an uneven patch in the street and caught himself from crashing headfirst into the dirt and losing a few front teeth in the bargain. Hobbling, he recalculated his bearings. Right, there was the opera house. He frowned. Didn’t he just come from the opera? No, that was the Lyceum. Then Lushing’s public house slash social club, Lethe.
Yes, yes, his current misfortune was all Lushing’s fault. The rotter.
The earl was a profligate who could not be trusted, since the very excellent ballet he’d convinced Lysander to attend had been followed by a debauched demimonde party at Lethe that would make a sybarite blush. Bored and in no mood for empty flirtation, he’d left on foot… and now found himself on the wrong end of yet another poor decision.
Lost, sir, you are lost.
Christ, even his bloody conscience was caustic.
Squinting at the street name again, he hunched down into his coat and turned back the way he’d come. He’d lost his hat at some point as well. Hearing raucous laughter from a nearby tavern, he debated venturing inside to ask for directions, though he might as well be asking to be robbed at this hour. He shifted course, recognizing the Royal Opera House—huzzah!—when his attention was caught by a slight figure pacing back and forth with angry, mincing steps.
A woman, if his eyes could be trusted. He squinted. His gaze fell upon the shapely bosom visible beneath the rise of the cape as she stalked toward him and then whirled in the other direction. Definitely female. Why was a woman alone outside a closed theater? Unless she was a light-skirt. Prostitution, like crime, was rife in these parts. Then again, it would be much safer asking her for directions than entering a public house full of drunks and ne’er-do-wells.
He hesitated, his notice caught by a delicately boned hand lifting to swipe furiously at her cheeks. The movement was so elegant and graceful that Lysander froze midstep, and then he blinked as his brain registered what she was doing.
Good God, was she crying?
Scowling, he turned on his bootheel when a whimper reached him, followed by a shriek of agony or rage. Or perhaps both.
Nothing to do with you. Mind your business. Don’t do it, you fool.
But of course he did. The well-bred gentleman in him could not ignore a woman in distress, even if it were a ruse to rob him blind or seduce him with erotic offerings. Not that he was interested in the latter at the moment. Or at all—women were much too unpredictable, and he liked his life the precise, organized way it was.
On cautious feet, Lysander approached the woman, attempting not to fall face-first into the street covered in God knew what filth. No need to advertise his sotted wits and give the chit, should she be one without scruples, any advantage.
As he neared, she was back to pacing, hands curled in her skirts, her mouth muttering what sounded like filthy obscenities in both English and French that made his own foxed brain stutter. Did such words actually exist? Perhaps she was simply repeating things she’d heard. But when she spewed out a particularly colorful oath involving men’s organs and dark spaces, his brows slammed into his hairline. Now that was creative.
His mouth twitched with reluctant amusement.
“Miss? Are you well?” He almost didn’t recognize the harsh croak that emerged as his own voice.
She came to an abrupt halt and stared at him before snatching a flintlock pistol from her pockets. “Stop! That’s far enough.”
Lysander’s eyes widened as he lifted his hands in view of the lethal weapon pointed at him. Did she even know how to wield the thing? His dubious expression must have been evident because a cocking noise filled the street, and his ballocks tightened. Why yes, of course she did. This was the seedy west end, after all, and here he was approaching a potential cutpurse like a naive imbecile. Bloody hell, he was going to get shot, murdered, and robbed.
By a chit half his size.
All because he couldn’t have minded his own damned business.
“Please don’t shoot, I won’t come any closer,” he said, his woolly brain clearing somewhat at the sight of the pistol. Good to see his self-preservation instincts hadn’t hightailed it with the rest of his common sense.
He felt the press of her eyes as she scanned him from head to toe, no doubt taking his measure to determine whether he was a threat or not, and the marginal dissipation of his whiskey-fueled fog allowed him to take in the details of the small but fierce female in front of him as well. Her clothing appeared to be well-made and sturdy. She was of average height and slender build. He couldn’t get an idea of her coloring, her hair hidden under a plain bonnet and her eyes in shadow beneath the brim, but her confident, fluid movements fascinated him. There was veiled poetry in them. Could she be an actress or a dancer then?
As a longstanding patron of the arts in London, he was familiar with most of the popular leading faces. Lysander narrowed his gaze on her bow-shaped pink lips—the only feature he could see clearly—and felt his own mouth tingle at the plump fullness of it. He suddenly wanted to kiss those lips. Run his tongue over them.
By God, he truly was drunk.
Reining in the sharp eerie jolt of whatever the hell that nonsense had been, he cleared his throat. “You’re not safe here.”
“I’m safer than you, I’d wager, monsieur,” she shot back, a hint of a musical French accent dancing over her words. She spoke English as though she were well educated, but then again, if she was an actress, they were professionally trained to mimic their roles. “Considering you’re at the business end of my faithful friend here.”
The business end that was currently trained on him with faultless aim. Should she pull that trigger, he would not be able to escape it. He should go. A smart man would leave. And yet, he remained where he was.
“You seemed upset before,” he said instead. “It’s why I stopped. You were crying.”
Those plush lips went tight. “I wasn’t crying. I was angry. Those were angry tears. Completely different thing.”
She glared, fire sparking from shadowed eyes, her lips slamming together at first and then parting as if they could not help themselves. “Because I cannot get a job in this cursed town.”
“You’re an actress.”
“Ballerina, if you must know.” She blew out a frustrated hiss through her teeth. “At least until recently.”
Lysander’s eyes skimmed down her form again, noting the precise stance and the turned-out soles, her weight evenly distributed on the balls of her feet even as she wielded a pistol at him with unflinching aplomb. So beautiful and so fierce! What would she look like onstage in full costume in the glow of gaslights, passion imbued in every line of her body? He felt that strange otherworldly jolt again.
“An out-of-work dancer,” she added with a feminine growl, “with no chance of being hired anywhere, thanks to that rotting, rodent-souled roué…” She trailed off in a vicious slew of muttered French insults. Her chin lifted toward him after her diatribe as if daring him to remark upon it, and then she sighed. “Apologies, sir, I am… not myself. May I assist you with something? Are you lost?”
He gave a sheepish nod. “I was at the Lyceum—”
She grimaced. “I know it. They turned me away there, too.”
“I seem to have veered in the wrong direction.”
The lady slowly lowered the pocket pistol to her side, but not before glowering at him. “I’m as excellent a shot as I am a dancer, so don’t make me ruin that pretty face of yours. What is your name?”
Lysander’s mouth curled. He wasn’t a man whom any would call pretty… and hope to get away with it. He had the harsh kind of face that made people feel wary rather than swoon.
He inclined his head with a slight frown. “Call me Montcroix, or Stone, if you prefer.”
“Stone? What kind of a name is that? A nickname?”
Her full lips pursed. “Suits you. Cold and menacing like a gargoyle.”
The blunt assessment stung, for no reason at all. That had to be the effect of the whiskey again. He was not a man who cared what anyone thought of him, particularly foulmouthed, feisty, and impertinent out-of-work ballerinas. Then why was he so bloody insulted?
Because gargoyles are hideous.
At least she hadn’t called him pretty again. Once was quite enough.
“You’ve deduced that from a few minutes of idle conversation?” he asked in a patronizing tone. “How original.”
She pointed between her own brows and then the sides of her mouth, which drew his attention there again. Lysander scowled. “Yes. Exactly. You have deep grooves here and here, which suggests you rarely smile but glower much like you are doing right now.” She grinned when he instantly tried to relax his tight expression and failed. “You hold yourself upright as though your skin and bones are made of marble and steel instead of flesh and blood. And your tongue is as thick as any mallet, as though you mean to cut, crush, and pound with your words.”
“I do not pound,” he muttered.
One eyebrow lifted in an amused quirk, and heat shot through him. “I mean, I pound. I can absolutely, categorically pound.” He blinked at her mirthful expression and shook his head hard. Oh the idiocy. “No, that’s not what I meant. Never mind.”
Stifled giggles burst through the air. God above, the irreverent chit was laughing at him and not even sorry about it!
Lysander sputtered, his mouth opening and closing in irritation, more at her current reaction instead of her unflattering, cool assessment of him. He was not a man led by his emotions or his temper. Or his stirring nether regions. Wait, why were they stirring? He needed to take the situation in hand.
“Look here, Miss—”
“Valery,” she supplied, a residual smirk tugging at that full pout.
Lysander stared at that sinfully curved mouth, and suddenly, his vexation shifted into something else, something deeper and a thousand times more dangerous because it wanted. It craved. It yearned. A wave of lust engulfed him so violently that his knees nearly buckled.
What the ever-loving hell had been in that whiskey?
Alarmed at the tide of desire dragging him under, Lysander stumbled back but was halted by the sound of footsteps. Many footsteps and drunken singing as men lurched out of a nearby alley across the square from the tavern he’d seen earlier. The slovenly group’s attention flocked to the two of them like moths to light.
“Oy, what ’ave we ’ere, lads?” one yelled out. “A sweet little dolly-mop for the takin’ and a fine nob with a purse full o’ coin.”
His companion’s entire body went rigid, the pistol in her palm lifting. “Merde. If you want to survive tonight, you’ll follow me. I won’t have your death on my conscience, even if you are as arrogant as you are senseless for being here on your own.”
Lysander blinked. “You’re alone in the streets as well.”
“I live here,” she shot back, her gaze spearing his expensive coat and shiny boots. “You, monsieur, I am assuming, do not. Now come! Or stay, if you choose, I don’t care.”
He didn’t have much choice. It was either follow her or face the five rough-looking men currently strutting across the square with greed on their faces. He was capable in a fight, but not five against one, and certainly not in his inebriated state. Catching sight of the flare of the ballerina’s dark cape rounding the corner, he took a deep breath and chased after her.
Curses followed and footsteps mimicked his pace. “Oy! Come ’ere, little rabbits!”
He’d barely caught up to her when she whirled down a filthy alley, nearly disappearing around another tight corner. He’d been lost before, but now, he hardly knew which end was up. All the narrow streets looked the same and not even the light of a lamppost or a sliver of moon showing the way. Lysander came to a panting halt, his eyes searching the darkness, his heart threatening to burst out of his chest. Devil take it, he’d lost her!
He heard the thudding sounds of the men behind him, their laughs and catcalls echoing between the buildings. There were healthier-than-good odds that they knew this area much better than he did. He had to keep moving or risk getting trapped like a hare in a snare. Perhaps he would come to a street he knew… or keep going in circles. Either way, standing still was a sure way to get caught or killed.
Suddenly, a hand curled into his lapel and yanked him into a narrow lane. It couldn’t even be called an alley—more like a dank drainage passage between two buildings—and he was smashed up against a slender and very warm female shape. His physical reaction was instant and unavoidable. Lysander shifted away as best he could in the confined space.
“Shush,” she told him in a whisper, gloved fingers reaching up to cover his parted lips. “Quiet, or so help me Dieu, I shall shove you out there.”
Nève Valery had been in close quarters with men before, even intimately so with the male dancers who partnered her. It was to be expected, and part and parcel of being a ballerina, especially at the Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris. But none of those men—not a single one—had ever made her disciplined body react as it did now. Here in this dark alleyway with this man.
This complete stranger.
Gracious, she was a woman of the world—a ballerina who had danced on the most celebrated stage in Europe. She could seduce with a glance, lure with a subtle sweep of an arm or a gracefully pointed leg. Wealthy and handsome gentlemen toppled at her feet for a smile from her, all vying for a blown kiss from the rise of the stage beyond the gaslights.
Plying the audience was just one tool in a dancer’s arsenal, but through it all, Nève had remained resistant to the men who viewed her only as a lovely object. As much as charm was a weapon, cynicism was her armor. Those men had coveted her as a thing of beauty, not as a person of individual worth. She’d learned that lesson firsthand.
The tiniest exhale left her compacted lungs. Nève felt his hot breath shudder against the fingers that were still foolishly clasped over his mouth, and prudently, she withdrew her palm, pressing as hard as she could to the wall behind her to put a sliver of space between them. It was no use. The more she shifted and squirmed, the more she felt every impressive inch of him.
And he was impressive.
Nève could feel his wickedly rigid arousal prodding into her stomach, and though she knew it couldn’t be helped given their cramped situation, her own body couldn’t help its primal reply. Her lower half was flooded with liquid heat, and her nipples were attempting to cut their way out of her bodice to profess their fidelity.
Why was he so hard? Not just at his hips, but everywhere! Weren’t gentlemen supposed to love padding in their clothing? This man had none. Even his face was hewn from marble. He gave the smallest groan, the only sign of his discomfort, and Nève licked dry lips, not daring to look up. Once more, she blessed the bonnet that kept her face hidden from his.
He was a gentleman of means, she guessed, if only by the exquisite cut of his clothing. Even in the dim light of the square, she’d been struck by his uncommon looks. He was not pretty as she’d mocked earlier, because nothing about the man was pretty, except perhaps his golden hair, and even that had been groomed to within an inch of its life as if not even the wind would dare dally with it. This man was attractive in a way that came from confidence and power.
He was tall and hatless, those dark blond waves touching his collar, but the length had softened the brutal cut of his cheekbones, that heavy brow and strongly drawn nose, and the severe, unforgiving mouth that for some inexplicable reason had made her blood thicken in her veins. Everything about him was too austere, too controlled, and too hard to be appealing, and yet, her throat had dried in explicit, instant want.
He wasn’t pretty, no, but he made her heart kick all the same.
Tiens but she was a romantic dolt. The man was no one to her. A sotted brick of a gentleman who was lost, being chased by cutpurses, and she had stupidly decided to rescue him. Her sorry condition over a few nonpadded muscles was her own fault.
Nève licked her dry lips and took in another small sip of air. He twitched again, an infinitesimal movement that she felt nonetheless… because that part of him was jammed up against her abdomen and currently the cause of the indecently damp condition of her drawers wedged over his stone-hard thigh. Stifling a moan, she inched her legs apart to provide some much-needed relief from the unrelenting pressure, and heard a pained indrawn hiss from above.
“Do. Not. Move.” The command was raw, his voice pure gravel.
She exhaled raggedly. “I can’t help it, Stone, my muscles are burning.”
“Miss Valery,” he bit out, “unless you wish to have your ladylike sensibilities thoroughly and wickedly debauched in this filthy hole of an alley, you will not move.”
His words turned her core to liquid.
Oh, la vache, this would not do!
Think of the movement from the first act of the last ballet, she ordered herself.
Pirouette, glissade, pas de deux. A split in midair, twirl, rond de jambe. Run and a grand jeté on the other side of the stage, followed by a leap and fall into her partner’s waiting arms. Her breathing stuttered but settled as the sequence took precedence in her brain.
And once more for good measure before she felt marginally composed.
Which wasn’t much considering she was scandalously squeezed into an alley in Covent Garden with a strange man, her body no longer under her own command. The minutes bled by while the flames between them built into an inferno. Her blood was running so hot, Nève was sure she’d have blistered, reddened skin. Her reaction to the man was as absurd as it was unwelcome.
Every breath in that restricted, bricked-in space began and ended with Stone. She’d never been so in tune with a man in her life… not even the talented and handsome dancer from the corps de ballet whom she’d danced with for an entire production. She’d kissed him at a party once, and though he’d wanted more, she hadn’t.
What would it be like to kiss Stone?
To feel that stern slash of a mouth molded to hers.
Would it be as hard as it looked or soft to the touch? Overheating once more, Nève forced herself to run through her ballet sequence again, but the scintillating fantasy of Stone’s lips on hers refused to be erased. Piroutte, lick. Jeté, suck. Plié, bite.
Dieu, have mercy.
Lysander was acutely aware of the entirety of the supple female form currently plastered to him—from the chin pressed to his chest, to the firm breasts mashed against his torso, to their intertwined limbs wedged in between each other’s in the most intimate of positions. It was certainly never a circumstance in which he’d ever found himself before. Not that he was complaining, considering survival was at stake, but he was still a duke.
“This is highly impro—” he muttered.
“Hush, espèce d’idiot!” Her hand went up to his mouth again in a panic.
“Did you just call me an idiot?” he muttered against her quelling fingers, resisting the wicked urge to clamp them between his teeth.
“I can’t help it if you’re a babbling blockhead.”
He blinked. No one had ever accused him of being such a ridiculous thing. “I am not. I assure you—”
Her fingers pressed down, one settling between his lips and grazing his teeth. “Dieu, you prattle on like a chatterbox. Don’t make me regret saving you. Now, hush.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong.
His rescuer wriggled against him, inching them farther back into the shadows, her pliant body doing intolerable things to his. They stilled as they heard the violent oaths of hunters who’d lost their prey from only a few feet away. Neither of them dared to breathe.
An inconvenient erection was vastly preferable over a slit throat.
Lysander hadn’t responded to a woman like this in, well… forever. Not that he’d searched out female company—his interests and work had kept him busy, and his annoyingly adventurous friends like Lushing kept him entertained. He was simply not willing to offer what the women in his circles craved—declarations of undying devotion, proposals of marriage—all for the grand title of duchess. Even during intermission at the theater earlier this evening, they had watched his every move, ambushed him for introductions outside his private box, and one young lady had even pretended to confuse him for someone else in a not-so-veiled attempt at an introduction.
Though now, Lysander’s extraordinary reaction to this woman made the wheels turn in his head, and he saw a chance meeting become opportunity. Even while on the brink of discovery by footpads and still half-sotted, his brain was in constant motion.
- “Always Be My Duchess is a dreamy summer romance designed to sweep you up into a world of ballerinas, hunky dukes, cheeky girl gangs, and delicious sex scenes. Light on angst and heavy on charm, it's a feel-good read of the highest order.”—Entertainment Weekly
- “The story slayed me from page one.”—Paste Magazine
- "Howard’s lyrical writing enlivens her bright, empathetic characters and her sharp eye on their class and cultural disparities only enhances their romance. Readers will be riveted."—Publishers Weekly
- “Howard creates great characters and dialogue . . . A real treat.”—Library Journal
- "Refreshing, steamy, and stocked with characters you don’t normally get to see in the genre—a must-read author."—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "Amalie Howard tells a story with self-assured style, wit, and energy . . . her writing sparkles!"—Lisa Kleypas, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Fabulous writing . . . such a delicious escape. Utterly delightful!”—Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author
- "Amalie Howard is the fresh voice historical romance needs right now. . . . I will read every word she writes."—Kerrigan Byrne, USA Today bestselling author
- "Intellectual, heartfelt romance[s]."—Entertainment Weekly on The Rakehell of Roth and The Beast of Beswick
- "[The Rakehell of Roth is] a unique spin on the marriage of convenience trope, and Howard pulls it off in spectacular fashion by focusing on her characters’ complex emotional journeys. Howard’s fans and newcomers alike will be charmed."—Publishers Weekly on The Rakehell of Roth
- "For those who like brooding and moody heroes, heroines who stand up to them and modern romances with an old school flair."—Maya Rodale, NPR on The Beast of Beswick
- "Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but [The Beast of Beswick is] a refreshing update."—O, The Oprah Magazine on The Beast of Beswick
- "Readers will fall in love with this fresh twist on the fairy tale."—Publishers Weekly on The Beast of Beswick
- "A smart, sexy, deliciously feminist romance that I couldn't put down. I loved every word!"—Sarah MacLean, New York Times bestselling author, on The Beast of Beswick
- On Sale
- Jul 12, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages