Loved by a Dangerous Duke
Seductive Scoundrels Book 13
Is she desperate enough to marry a man she loathes? Sadly, yes…
He always has his way…
Stanford is aware of his nickname, The Dangerous Duke—and it suits him just fine. Inheriting a bankrupt dukedom and rebuilding it taught him just how useless niceties were. Except now, he’s ready to choose a duchess, and the only one he deems suitable (and enticing) enough despises him. Perhaps he should reconsider the value of niceties…
She’s a most reluctant bride…
Ophelia Breckensole knows what she wants, and it is not Stanford. But fate plays into his hand when she finds herself unwittingly compromised. Now, she must wed or face ruination—and Stanford is only too pleased to help. So, she’ll marry him, but she won’t love him. Or so she keeps telling herself…
But Stanford and Ophelia have much more to overcome on their path to happily ever after than his austere nature and her vow to never love her husband. Stanford’s enemies are determined to make him pay for his past, and they’re willing to use Ophelia to do it. Can this fragile union survive such an onslaught?
See what readers are saying!
“…very well written, well-paced book with delightful characters.” ~Janet
“A lovely romance filled with charm! 5 stars.” ~Nicole Book & Benches Reviews
“…characters are always delightful, the writing is excellent, well-paced, and well-delivered, and the witty banter always leaves you wanting more. ” ~Barbara
“This was full of romance with some action and suspense added in. The characters were wonderfully written with warmth and love.” ~Roslyn
Chapter One Excerpt
Bedford Square, London
17 June 1810
One rotted, moody duke should not be permitted to ruin such a much-anticipated event as the Gravenstones’ annual masked ball. Especially as Ophelia had commissioned the cleverest of costumes. She’d never seen anything quite like her ensemble before and was rather proud of her ingenuity.
Festooned in shimmering black and swathed in jet and silver beads and sequins, she’d come as midnight: mysterious, mystical, and exotic. She hoped. Except, she’d spent the better part of an hour hiding from him. Stanford Bancroft, Duke of Asherford, the most deplorable, insulting, arrogant, cold-blooded, mulish peer she’d ever met.
And that was after spending the past three weeks since his proposal peering around corners and skulking around at assemblies, always with the fear of running into him. Why, of late, he’d even intruded upon Ophelia’s outings to Hyde Park. She’d taken to glancing behind her or asking one of her friends to enter a room before her all because of his unwanted interest.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Breckensole,” Neville Hornbrook mumbled as he missed another step and trod upon her protesting toes. Again.
Sweet Jesus on Sunday.
Despite her throbbing foot, Ophelia fashioned what she hoped was a believable smile as he ineptly partnered her through the steps of a minuet. Perspiring profusely, the bashful banker moved his lips as he counted the dance steps with laborious concentration.
No doubt behind his rooster’s mask, his forehead scrunched in concentration as well. His flamboyant tail of red, green, yellow, and blue feathers bobbed and thrashed with his stilted movements, reminding Ophelia of an inebriated cockerel.
Remorse quickened in her for forcing the awkward man onto the dance floor.
What choice had she?
Accept Asherford’s impending request to dance?
Not that she’d given the pompous bounder the opportunity.
She would’ve declined, and then propriety dictated she sit out the rest of the dances this evening. By juniper, Ophelia wasn’t moldering away, perched on a chair, when she adored dancing simply because the single man she detested in all of the earth had set his sights on her.
What was more, the dull-witted, obstinate codpate wouldn’t take no for an answer.
What kind of man continued to press his suit when the woman of interest made it clear she’d rather wed a toad?
A boorish, clod. That was what kind.
Thinking swiftly to avoid cutting the Duke of Asherford—even Ophelia wasn’t such a pea goose as to directly insult The Dangerous Duke—she’d practically hauled Mr. Hornbrook onto the dance floor. In truth, she had towed the stunned chap along.
The poor man possessed two left feet, and she winced anew as he bumped into her dear friend Rayne Wellbrook.
Rayne smiled graciously, and the tips of Mr. Hornbrook’s ears took on a purplish hue above his mask. Neville Hornbrook was, if nothing else, an astute man. He knew full well dancing was not his forte.
Le beau monde balls were heaven or hell, depending on whether one was well received, enjoyed dancing and Society, and whether one spent the evening avoiding a particular jackanape. A buffoon who’d unromantically suggested a union between Ophelia and himself at the Wickerfields’ soirée three weeks ago.
Suggested was far too gracious to describe what Asherford had done.
His grace had casually announced in the manner of a general accustomed to immediate and unfettered obedience that he’d chosen Ophelia to be his duchess. He’d been as unemotional as if he’d been selecting which food to bite into next and not picking a wife.
Many empty-headed ninnies and husband-hunting misses might have been ecstatic about his uninspiring proposition.
Ophelia wasn’t among them.
It wasn’t that she was opposed to marriage, per se, but a marriage of convenience?
Not for her, thank you very much.
Such a union was nothing more than a business arrangement for expediency’s sake. Impersonal and mercenary. Unlike most women, marriage wasn’t the end-all desire for Ophelia. She wanted more out of life, despite the limited opportunities afforded women in 1810.
She dared a swift perusal of the ballroom as the minuet’s steps took her in a wide circle.
Her heart gave an unpleasant leap of surprise when her gaze collided with the Duke of Asherford’s vivid blue eyes from across the room. All masculine grace and confidence, arms folded, he leaned a muscled shoulder nonchalantly against one of the doorframes leading onto the terrace. Likely to catch a hint of what meager breeze there might be out of doors.
The overcrowded ballroom was stifling. The air reeked of perfume, sweat, and wax from hundreds of beeswax candles. For the first time, Ophelia rued her choice of costume. Her gown was sweltering, and a trickle of sweat meandered down her spine.
Asherford’s mouth moved up into a lazy, roguish smile before she finished her rotation, and their eye contact was broken. A few stanzas later, Ophelia gave a silent thanks that the painstaking dance had finally come to an end. Her grateful toes tingled in appreciation as well.
“Thank you, Mr. Hornbrook.”
Ophelia curtsied and, declining to look in Asherford’s direction, made straight for the ladies’ retiring room. Her nerves were taut as bowstrings, and it peeved her that the duke had any effect on her.
I refuse to let him upset me further.
The retiring room boasted a balcony that overlooked the gardens. Since Ophelia couldn’t wander the grounds unchaperoned, she intended to cool off on the quaint gallery. She might even remove her gown and run a damp cloth over her skin. Once she’d regained her equanimity, she’d seek out her twin sister Gabriella, the Duchess of Pennington, or one of her many friends in attendance.
Sophronie Slater and Rayne Wellbrook knew why Ophelia was so vexed with the duke, and they would act as buffers should he continue to seek her out this evening. He would not steal her fun tonight. If the duke became too bothersome, she’d ask her brother-in-law, Maxwell Bronson, Duke of Pennington, to intervene on her behalf. Things weren’t so dire that she needed Maxwell’s intervention yet, however.
Asherford might be troublesome, but he was a gentleman. Ophelia had no concerns for her safety.
As she wended her way swiftly through the milling crowd, she fought the urge to look behind her. Her nape prickled, and a shiver scuttled across her shoulders and down her arms. Positive that the Duke of Asherford watched her progress, she quickened her pace. Above all, Asherford must not catch her alone again as he had at the Wickerfields’.
She’d vow he’d orchestrated that chance rendezvous.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Of its own accord, her upper lip tilted up slightly into a sneer before she schooled her mouth into a pleasant line. Ladies did not sneer or scowl. She was well-practiced in tempering tart retorts and painting a benign mien upon her features when turmoil cavorted about inside her head.
Thank goodness no one knew what went on in her mind. They’d be shocked and appalled. Gabriella was the high-spirited, outspoken sister. Ophelia was the well-mannered, docile twin.
Or so everyone mistakenly believed.
Her rancor toward the Duke of Asherford hadn’t eased these past weeks. How could it when he continually showed up at events she attended? Much like rubbing salt into a wound, he pursued her with a doggedness that might have been admirable if his attentions weren’t so unwelcome.
The duke hadn’t even bothered to cushion his insulting proposal with compliments or a degree of finesse. His words rang in her ears just as loudly and offensively as if he’d spoken them but minutes before and not three weeks ago.
“Miss Breckensole, I have decided we should wed. You are of satisfactory lineage, and from my observation of you these past weeks, I have concluded your temperament and decorum are adequate. I require a wife and heir. I am confident we would suit sufficiently.”
Satisfactory lineage. Temperament and decorum are adequate. Suit sufficiently.
I require an heir? An heir?
Oh, of all the unmitigated gall.
Her reply had been concise.
“No, Your Grace.”
Her comportment had been polite and reserved, revealing nothing of the dervish spinning inside her.
Until he persisted in listing how qualified she was for such an honor.
Dumping her glass of lemonade on his suit had quite squelched his protestations.
Now waving her black lace fan rapidly to cool her heated face, Ophelia tucked her chin and indulged in a gleeful chuckle as she reached the last riser and turned to the left toward the retiring room.
Her prompt response had taken the starch right out of his ducal self. No doubt The Dangerous Duke, as Asherford was called behind his back—none dared speak the moniker to his face—hadn’t considered she’d refuse, much less fail to thank him for the privilege.
She hadn’t even offered an excuse. Just a firm “No.”
Oh, and the lemonade, of course.
Regardless, Ophelia had been silently hurling insults at him in her mind.
None of the ton or lower orders denied Stanford Bancroft, Duke of Asherford, anything, as his unflattering nickname alluded to.
“Until now,” she muttered to herself.
“Until now, what?”
Mouth parting on a strangled screech, Ophelia jerked her head up. She barely succeeded in stumbling to a stop before plowing straight into the too wide chest of the very man she’d been musing about.
Bother and blast.
Asherford grasped her elbows, steadying her, his touch surprisingly gentle for such a large man—a man known for his emotionlessness and lack of empathy.
Heat zipped up her arms, and she stepped backward, snapping her fan shut. She’d much rather whack him with the accessory for giving her such a start. Even now, her pulse ticked in her throat as frantically as a netted bird beating its wings.
“You may release me. I assure you, I am in no danger of falling, Your Grace.”
At once, he released her but not before his mouth twitched in amusement.
His humor raised Ophelia’s hackles, and the urge to hit him again rose within her like a wave crashing to the shore.
Why did he have to be the single man who brought out the worst in her?
Usually, she was good-natured, patient, and genial. And assuredly not moved to violence.
How in the blazes had Asherford managed to get upstairs before her anyway? What was more, how had he known she’d seek the retiring room and not return to her friends or family after the dance?
“I knew you’d retreat,” he said dryly as if reading her mind.
Ophelia did not like that in the least. That he anticipated her actions unnerved her in a manner she couldn’t describe. Tilting her head to meet his piercing blue eyes rimmed in violet peering at her from behind his peacock feather mask, she straightened her spine.
Must he be so dashed tall?
He stood at least a head above every other man she knew. Even when she wasn’t looking for him, he was easily spotted because of his height and hair so raven black, it looked blue in some light.
“You err. I am not running away, Your Grace.”
Ophelia was fleeing in a manner of speaking. Nonetheless, she would gargle nails before admitting anything of the sort to him. Instead, she raised what she hoped was an imperious eyebrow, then she realized her mask hid her calculated move.
Just as well. Ophelia was utter rot at such machinations.
“I am merely overly warm and wish to apply a damp towel to my face.” Assuredly, she wasn’t going to mention the other activities that took place in the ladies’ retiring room.
“I have just the solution then,” Asherford offered with a smile that was designed to melt iron.
Ophelia was well on her way to wilting from the heat already.
“Your costume is quite extraordinary and most becoming.” His voice dipped a seductive octave. “But I’m afraid I’m at a loss to know what you represent.”
“I’m midnight.” How she wished it was midnight, and she might excuse herself for supper.
“Ah. Yes, I see it now. Brilliant.” He raked his appreciative gaze over her.
Despite her dislike of the man, Ophelia couldn’t prevent the swell of feminine pride that sent another wave of heat over her body. She snapped her fan open and waved it energetically.
“There’s a small widow’s walk accessible through the turret,” he said.
How did he know that?
Did Asherford make a point of prowling about peoples’ houses without their knowledge?
“The Gravenstones are cousins of mine on my mother’s side,” he offered in explanation as if reading her thoughts once more. “I know the house well.”
Well, that explained that.
“The breeze will be unobstructed at that height,” he said unnecessarily.
Asherford tipped his firm mouth into an inviting smile and extended his elbow. Several of the dukes had coordinated their costumes and dressed as peacocks. His purple cloak shimmered and sparkled as if it had a life of its own. The sequins adorning the garment made it appear as if the color changed with his movements.
Ophelia refused to acknowledge how the purple of his cloak made his eyes appear nearly lavender. Men should not have pretty eyes—particularly men with a reputation for being merciless and without a sense of humor.
“No, thank you. Please excuse me.” She made to move around him, and he politely stepped to the side.
“You will say yes, one day, Ophelia.”
The timbre of his voice caused another shiver to scamper from her waist, up her spine, and spread over her shoulders like a woolen mantle.
Halting, she glanced behind her. “Don’t be so sure of that, Your Grace. Even you cannot always have your way.”
He didn’t even try to hide his superior grin. He flashed his straight white teeth and chuckled low and dangerous.
“I always have my way, Ophelia. Always.”
Unnerving conviction echoed in the Duke of Asherford’s tenor.
“Not this time.” Ophelia glared at him, past caring about politesse. Perhaps if she acted the shrew, he’d leave off pursuing her. “Look elsewhere for a bride. I’m not interested, nor will I ever be.”
To be married to such a domineering man would smother her. Her heart beating a syncopated staccato, Ophelia proceeded toward the retiring room at a measured pace.
You’re running away.
Yes, yes, she was.
There was a time to confront the enemy.
This was not it. Prudence was the better part of valor.
“We shall see, my frightened little rabbit.”
Ophelia gritted her teeth as she gripped the door handle. “Indeed, we shall,” she muttered to herself. “I shall not be manipulated into a marriage I do not want.”