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The Duchess Hunt
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Format:ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD
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Simon Hawkins, duke of Trent, is no stranger to scandal. Rumors and innuendo have darkened the House of Trent for decades, and it has fallen to Simon to restore his tattered family name. He lives by a strict code of honor, but when he is called home to investigate his mother’s disappearance, the distinguished duke will tangle with temptation. For there waits the only woman he has ever loved-and the last woman he should desire . . .
Sarah Osborne has spent her life dreaming of Simon’s touch. But dukes do not long for lady’s maids-or so Sarah believes, until a stolen kiss sparks a passion that could be her ultimate undoing. As the couple begins a forbidden romance, a cunning enemy plots to destroy the duke and everything he loves. Now, caught in a blackmailer’s web, Simon faces an agonizing choice: sacrifice his family’s future or break Sarah’s heart.
To Selina McLemore, my editor, and Barbara Poelle, my agent: thank you for believing in me and in my work. To all the people who helped me with this story, especially Kate McKinley, Tessa Dare, and Cindy Benser: thanks for your support and for taking the time out of your busy schedules to help me create a better book. And to all my readers: thank you so much for your support. Without all of you, I wouldn't be able to do what I love. You have my heartfelt thanks.
Sarah Osborne had only lived at Ironwood Park for a few days, but she already loved it. Birds serenaded her every morning, their trilling songs greeting her through the little window in the cottage she shared with her father. Each afternoon, the sun shone brightly over the Park, spreading gentle warmth to her shoulders through the muslin of her dress as she ran across the grounds. And in the evenings, lanterns spilled golden light over the façade of the great house, which sat on a low, gentle-sloped hill and reigned like a king over the vast lands of the Duke of Trent.
If Sarah looked out the diamond-paned window of the cottage she shared with her father, she could see the house in the distance, framed by the graceful, curving white branches of two birch trees outside the cottage. She gazed at the house often throughout the day, always giving it an extra glance at night before Papa tucked her in. It stared back at her, a somber, massive sentry, and she felt safe with it watching over her. Someday, she dreamed, she might be able to draw close to it. To weave through those tall, elegant columns that lined its front. Someday, she might even be able to go inside.
But Sarah wasn't thinking of Ironwood Park right now—she was thinking about a butterfly. She dashed down the path in pursuit of the beautiful black-and-white speckled creature flitting from leaf to leaf of the box hedge that marked the outer boundary of the garden. She hiked up her skirt and chased it through the wrought-iron gate that divided the garden from the outer grounds.
Finally, the butterfly landed, seemingly spent, on a spindly branch. Sarah slowed and approached it cautiously, reaching her hand out. She let out a long breath as her finger brushed over one of the wings. The butterfly stared at her. So delicate and gentle. It seemed to nod at her, then in a soft flutter of wings, it flew away again, leaving Sarah gazing at the bush.
"Oooh," she murmured in delight. It wasn't just any bush—it was a blackberry bush. Last summer, when Mama had been so ill, Sarah had picked blackberries nearly every day. Blackberry root tea had soothed Mama's cough-weary stomach, but Sarah loved the berries' bumpy texture and burst of sweetness when she bit into one.
It was early in the season for blackberries, but among the ripening berries that loaded the bush, Sarah found a small handful that were ripe enough to eat. She gazed at her surroundings as she ate them one at a time, savoring the sweet taste edged with the slightest tinge of sour.
Not only one blackberry bush grew here—there were many. They sprawled from the ground in no orderly fashion along the bank of a trickling stream.
Sarah turned to glance in the direction she'd come from to make sure she wasn't lost. The domes of the roof of the great house peeked through the elms, a reassuring beacon.
Her handful finished, she went back to searching for ripe berries, picking through the thorn-covered branches. She searched and picked and ate until her belly was full, light scratches from the thorns crisscrossed her arms, and the dark juice stained her hands. Looking dolefully down at her skirt, she realized blackberry juice had stained her dress as well. Papa would be displeased if he saw, but she'd scrub out the stains before he came home.
Her braid was being unruly again—strands had fallen out of it, and her dark hair wisped across her cheeks. She blew upward, trying to get them out of the way, but that didn't work, so she pushed them away and tucked them behind her ears with her dirty hands.
And then she saw the butterfly again.
At least, it looked like the same butterfly. Beautiful and enormous, its wings speckled like a sparrow's egg, it had settled on a twig deep and high inside one of the blackberry bushes.
Sarah stepped onto a fallen branch. On her tiptoes, she leaned forward, peering at it. "Don't fly away," she murmured. "Don't be afraid."
She reached out—this time not to touch it, but to catch it. She wanted to hold it, feel its delicate, spindly legs on her palm.
Just a little farther…Crack! The branch snapped under her feet, and she lurched forward, her hands wheeling against the air as she tried to regain her balance. But it was no use. With a crash, she tumbled headfirst into the blackberry bush, gasping as thorns grabbed at her dress and tore at her skin.
She came to a stop on her knees inside the bush, her hands clutching the thorny undergrowth.
Panting against the smart of pain, she squeezed her eyes shut as she freed one hand and used her fingers to pick the thorns from the other. Blood welled on her arms, a hot stream of it sliding down around her forearm. Each breath she released came out in a little moan of pain. Her knees hurt horribly, but she couldn't regain her balance without something to hold onto, and there was nothing to grab except painfully thorny branches.
"Can I help you, miss?"
She tried to look over her shoulder toward the voice, but a thorn scraped over her cheek, and she sucked in a breath.
It was a man's voice, she thought. A kind voice. "Yes, please, sir."
"All right. Stay still."
It seemed to take forever, but slowly, using a small dagger, he cut away the thorny branches that twisted around her. Holding her by the waist, he gently extracted her, pausing to cut away any branch that might scrape her on the way out.
Finally, he settled her onto her feet on solid, thorn-free earth. Taking a deep breath, she turned around and looked up at him.
He was a boy. A big boy—far older than she was. Freckles splashed across his nose, and dark blond hair touched his shoulders. He gazed at her, concern denting his forehead between his crystal-green eyes.
"Are you all right?"
Sarah wasn't accustomed to talking to boys. Especially handsome boys wearing breeches and fine dark wool coats. And boys whose voices were deepening with the imminent arrival of manhood.
Speechless and wide-eyed, she nodded up at him. His expression softened.
"Here." He crouched down and withdrew a handkerchief from his coat pocket. Ever so gently, he swiped the cloth over her cheek, dabbing up the blood that had welled when she'd tried to turn to him. Then he folded it and tried to clean her hands. Then he looked at her knees. Following his frowning gaze, she looked down, too.
"Oh no," she whispered.
Her skirt was rent from her knees to her feet, and her stockings, also ruined, showed through. Worse, caked blood stuck her dress to her torn stockings.
Papa would be furious.
She must have made a sound, because the boy's brow furrowed. "Does it hurt terribly?" he asked, his voice grave.
Sarah swallowed hard. "N-n-no."
The edges of his lips tilted up in a smile. "You're very brave, aren't you?"
At those words, her fear melted away. She squared her shoulders, and, standing tall, she looked directly into his green eyes. "Yes, I am."
"Where do you live?" he asked.
She pointed toward the grand domes of the roof of Ironwood Park. "There."
"Well, isn't that something? I live there, too. Can you walk?"
"Of course I can."
Side by side, they walked down the path that led toward the house. Sarah's knees hurt, and she couldn't help it—she hobbled just a little. Without a word, the boy put a firm arm around her waist, steadying her.
They passed the gardener's cottage where Sarah lived with her father and headed toward the back side of the great house itself. Sarah didn't speak, and neither did the boy. She bit her lower lip and glanced at him from the corner of her eye, watching him walk. He was tall and strong, and she liked the way the sun glinted on his hair.
But as they drew closer to the house, and it looked more and more like he actually intended to enter it, her body grew stiff. She didn't know where Papa was, but he'd be very angry if he discovered she'd ventured too close to the house. Above all, he'd stressed the importance of her staying out of the family's way. If she bothered anyone, he might lose his position.
The boy slowed as they walked beneath the shadow of the enormous house, and then he looked down at her. "Are you all right?"
"Mm hm." Her voice wasn't much more than a squeak.
He stopped altogether and pulled away from her, watching her carefully to make sure she was steady.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"I'm Simon." He glanced at the back of the house, which now loomed over them, so massive and heavy she could hardly breathe, and then back to her. "Come inside and I'll make sure you're taken care of."
She licked her lips, unsure. Then she whispered, "My papa said I mustn't disturb the family."
"You won't be disturbing the family." He said it like a promise.
She gazed up at him. She didn't know why, but she trusted him completely. He could have told her he took daily walks on the surface of the moon, and she would have believed him.
He continued, "I've been a rather poor doctor, so I'd like Mrs. Hope to take a look at those cuts. She has a salve that cures scratches like those in a trice."
Sarah had no idea who Mrs. Hope was, but the scratches still hurt—they stung and ached and itched. A salve that could cure them fast worked as sure as a lure into the forbidden.
She gave a little nod.
He took her least-affected hand, gentle with her scratches. "Come, then."
He led her up the stairs and into a vast room that made her hesitant steps grind to a halt. It was the largest room she'd ever seen. Open and cold and vast, lacking furniture except for a few benches and tables lining the walls. But those were too ornate to even be called benches. Metal legs shaped into vines held enormous slabs of marble. The tables held beautiful vases and busts of important-looking men. The room was almost overwhelmingly pale—the giant stones that made the walls were of an off-white color, and the plasterwork that adorned the walls and ceiling pure white. The only color was provided by the black checks on the tiled floor, the metalwork of the benches, and the enormous gilded chandelier that hung down in the center of the room.
Sarah tilted her head up, looking past the chandelier and gallery rails at the elaborately carved ceiling—it seemed as high as heaven itself.
Simon stood beside her, and he looked up as well. She stole a glance at him, watched the considering look passing over his face—as if he were seeing the room for the first time, too.
She gripped his hand tighter. "Are you sure it's all right?" Her whisper seemed to echo in the cavernous space.
Simon shook off whatever he'd been thinking and smiled down at her. "Of course. This is the Stone Room. We don't spend much time in here. Come."
Holding her hand, he tugged her along. It seemed to take forever just to cross the vast area and reach one of the two doors that flanked a magnificent metal sculpture of a bearded, naked man and two naked boys. An enormous snake twined around their bodies. From the expressions of agony on their faces, she was sure the snake was crushing them.
He paused just in front of the door, no doubt seeing that her jaw had dropped as she stared at the statues. "Do you know the story of the Laocoön?"
She shook her head, unable to speak. She'd never heard of "Laocoön." She'd never seen a naked man or naked boys before. She'd never seen anything quite so vicious, either.
"Have you heard of the Trojan War?" He hesitated while she shook her head again. "Well, there was a war between Troy and the Greeks. Laocoön was the son of the Trojan King. When the Greeks tried to trick the Trojans by bringing them a gift of a giant wooden horse, Laocoön didn't trust them at all. He warned them to 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts.' But the gods were on the side of the Greeks, and Laocoön's warning made them angry. Poseidon, the god of the sea—"
"I've heard of him!" Sarah exclaimed, seizing on the one element of the story that was familiar to her. Mama had told her nighttime stories of Poseidon and the other gods.
"Well, Poseidon sent a giant serpent from the sea to kill Laocoön and his two sons. And that's what this statue represents."
Sarah stared at the statue. She had seen real death. Recently. Real death was bad enough, so why on earth would people choose to remind themselves of it on a daily basis?
Simon turned from her to gaze at the statue again. "I don't like it either," he said in a low voice.
After another minute during which they both frowned at the gruesome thing, Simon opened the door and led her into another room, this one smaller but equally magnificent. In contrast to the echoing cavernous feel of the previous room, this one was warm and colorful and full of laughter. Children's toys covered a carpet containing a design of reds and golds and browns, and a large fire crackled heartily in the enormous hearth.
The room seemed to be brimming with people, and Sarah came to a dead stop at the threshold, her heart surging to her chest. For as soon as she and Simon entered, all eyes turned to them.
Oh no, she thought with a sinking heart. Except for the woman standing in the middle of the room and the toddler she held in her arms, the room was filled with children ranging from about her age to one who looked older than Simon—all of them boys.
This was the family. It must be. Servants didn't wear satin frocks or the fine wools and linens that these boys wore. Servants never played in spaces with silk hangings and Persian carpets. Servants' toys weren't carved of ivory and adorned with gilt.
Papa was going to be so angry.
Sickness welled in Sarah's gut. Simon had led her right where her father had told her never to go. And nothing weighed on her more heavily than the idea of disappointing her father. Now that Mama was gone, he was all she had.
She tried to tug her hand from Simon's grip, but he held firm, keeping her standing beside him.
The woman who stood in the center of the room had mahogany hair speckled with gray coiled elaborately on her head, but a few curls bounced down at the sides of her face. All that lovely blue satin she wore accentuated her voluminous bosom and narrow waist. The toddler was darker-haired than his—or her, Sarah couldn't be sure—mother, with soft ringlets brushing his—or her—nape and a round, pink-cheeked face.
Sarah blinked hard. The lady of the house was a duchess. One day, she'd dreamed about meeting a duchess.
There was no doubt in Sarah's mind. Though children surrounded this woman, and she even carried one on her hip, she was no nursemaid. She was far too elegant, far too regal. She had to be the Duchess of Trent.
And here Sarah was, finally face to face with a real duchess. But Sarah was bleeding and dirty, with torn stockings and a ripped dress, and her traitorous fingers itched to stroke that blue satin that clung to this beautiful lady's body.
If it were possible to die of mortification, Sarah would have dropped dead right then and there.
The duchess looked at her hand holding Simon's—her grip had tightened as she'd realized exactly who she was facing—then smiled. "What sort of creature have you brought us this time, darling? A forest nymph?"
Sarah's brows crept toward her hairline. Darling?
Simon shrugged, a little chagrin seeping into his expression. "Not sure. I found her under attack from a blackberry bush by the stream."
"Come closer, child." Hitching the toddler higher on her hip, the duchess approached them. What a contradiction—such a fine lady doing something so common as adjusting a babe on her hip. Weren't such actions reserved for more lowly people, like Sarah herself?
Simon stepped forward to meet the duchess, pulling Sarah along with him.
"What's your name? Where do you come from?"
Sarah opened her mouth but no words would emerge.
"She said her name is Sarah, and she's from here," Simon supplied.
The duchess cocked a dark brow. "Is that so?"
"Down, Mama!" the toddler complained, squirming. "Down, down, down."
With a sigh, the duchess lowered the child, never taking her gaze from Sarah. The toddler stared at Sarah curiously for a moment, then ran toward the cluster of boys, but Sarah couldn't drag her eyes away from the duchess long enough to see what was happening on the other side of the room.
"I don't recall having any little girls in residence at Ironwood House," the duchess mused. "Do you, Trent?"
"No, ma'am. But I've not been home. There have been no new arrivals this summer?"
"No, only the…" The duchess's brown eyes brightened. "The new gardener. Fredericks hired him. I had naught to do with it. I'd wager she belongs to him."
Simon looked down at Sarah. "Are you the gardener's daughter?"
Biting her lip and looking down at the beautiful carpet her dirty feet had trod upon, Sarah knew she'd made a horrible mistake. She should have stopped Simon when they'd passed the gardener's cottage. She should never have come into the house. What on earth had she been thinking?
She hadn't been thinking.
"Yes," she whispered.
Firm fingers grasped her chin, forcing her to look up into the stern face of the duchess. Tears sprang to Sarah's eyes. Now was her only chance.
"Please," she whispered. Her throat opened just enough for her to speak in a croaking voice. "Please don't dismiss my papa."
The woman's eyes narrowed, and Sarah's heart sank so low, she could feel it beating in her toes.
"What has your Papa done?"
Sarah stiffened. "Nothing!"
"Then why should I dismiss him?"
Sarah's eyes darted toward Simon, pleading for help.
"Mother," he said quietly, "you're scaring her."
The duchess dropped her chin, leaving Sarah with blazing cheeks. Mother? Simon was one of the family, too, then. Oh, she was a royal idiot.
"I brought her here because she needs medical attention." A touch of irritability had seeped into Simon's smooth voice. "Where is Mrs. Hope?"
"I've no idea." The duchess turned away toward the group of boys. "Mark, my love, will you go find Mrs. Hope? Tell her to bring some of the salve she uses on you ragamuffins when you get a cut. Sam—run and fetch the new gardener, will you? Explain that his daughter has been injured, but do let him know it's not serious. Bring him back to the house if he wishes it."
Sarah flinched. Her father had never beaten her before, but she had committed a severe enough infraction that she was entirely deserving of a whipping. Hopefully he would wait until they had some privacy. Nothing would be more disgraceful than being beaten in front of Simon.
"Can I go with Sam, Mama?"
"Yes, Luke, but stay with him and come straight back here. Understand?"
"Me too?" said the smallest of the boys. "I want to go with Sam, too, Mama."
"All right, Theo, but do stay with your brothers."
As the door swung silently shut behind the four boys, the toddler wandered back to the duchess—a girl, Sarah thought, deducing from the child's features rather than her dress. Taking her plump little hand, the duchess turned back to Sarah. "Really, child, there's no reason to be afraid. You've done nothing wrong." A hint of a smile touched her lips. "The duke said the bush attacked you, after all. You probably didn't even encourage it."
Slowly, as if through a bucket of thick syrup, Sarah turned to Simon. "The duke?" she whispered.
Not quite meeting her eyes, Simon gave a one-shouldered shrug, and Sarah's heart began to kick its way back up her body.
"I see he didn't introduce himself properly." The duchess turned on her son. "Really, darling, must you always ignore the fact that you're the duke now? It has been almost three years."
"We didn't exactly have a proper introduction. Trust me, Mother," he added dryly, "whenever I am involved in a proper introduction, the title is never forgotten."
The duchess stared at her son for a moment, then smiled. "Of course it is not." She held her free hand out to Sarah. "Now, come, child, and sit down. Your leg is still bleeding. It must pain you to stand upon it."
Sarah glanced at the pristine silk sofa that the duchess was gesturing to and shook her head. It was so beautiful, the deepest color of purple she had ever seen, and shining in the sunlight streaming in from the window. "Oh, no, ma'am. I can't. I'm too dirty."
"If I was afraid of a bit of dirt and blood, I'd have never been able to countenance raising one child. But I am raising six, and I assure you, you are not too dirty to sit upon my sofa."
Simon gave her an encouraging look. "I think you should sit."
So she took the duchess's hand and allowed the great lady to guide her to the sofa. Simon helped Sarah to settle on the sleek silk upholstery before he sat beside her, and the duchess took an elegant armchair across from them while the toddler wandered toward a pile of shiny toys in the corner of the room. Sarah studied the duchess. She looked like a beautiful fairy tale ice queen regally sitting upon her throne. That was, until she gave Sarah a smile that rivaled her son's in its kindness. "Do you like tea, Sarah? I'll ring for some."
"Um…?" She glanced at Simon for guidance.
He nodded, then winked, making her feel like she'd just exchanged some communication with him that she hadn't yet deciphered, before turning to his mother. "Some warm milk?"
Sarah looked into her lap, smiling. That did sound nice.
"Of course." The duchess rang a bell, and a dainty maid came in to take the order for a bit of warm milk from the kitchen. The maid didn't even slide a disparaging look toward Sarah, just hurried to do the duchess's bidding without comment.
When the door closed behind her, the duke and his mother looked at Sarah expectantly, and the absurdity of the situation washed over her.
She was lounging in the parlor of a duke. She'd just been offered tea, and now a duke and a duchess were gazing at her as if expecting her to begin some sort of important conversation. And here she sat, torn and bleeding, her legs dangling from the adult-sized sofa, smearing dirt and blood onto the fine silk.
Feeling a little desperate for a completely different kind of saving, Sarah glanced at the door.
"She's charming, isn't she, Simon? And lovely, too, I imagine, underneath all that grime. The best thing that's happened to us all day." The duchess made a face as if reconsidering. "Well, aside from those wretched abrasions."
Just then, the door opened, and an older woman with fluffy white hair bustled in. Simon rose to his feet. "Mrs. Hope. Thank you for coming so quickly."
The woman curtsied. "Your Grace."
Sarah should have curtsied and said, "Your Grace," too, to both the duke and duchess, but it was too late now. She would have at least risen from the sofa, but the older lady came bustling toward her brandishing a bottle, and she shrank back against the cushions.
"Here now, little one, let's have a look at all those cuts." Mrs. Hope crouched in front of the sofa, first taking each of Sarah's arms in her gentle hands, then carefully peeling her stocking away from the worst of the scratches on her knees. "We'll have to wash them first. Binnie, hand me a towel."
- On Sale
- Jun 25, 2013
- Page Count
- 368 pages