My Dearest Duke | COLLETTE CAMERON

My Dearest Duke

Seductive Scoundrels Book 13

Formerly titled Loved by the Lyon.

Why would a future duke need a professional matchmaker?

When future duke Kingston Barclay finds himself in dire financial straits, he’s left with little choice but to seek a marriage of convenience. Nearly bankrupt, and with siblings to support, he must act fast and seeks out a notorious matchmaker and social club owner. His determination wavers when Kingston unexpectedly encounters Vanessa there. Despite her beauty, his immediate attraction, and the undeniable temptation to make her his, she’s the last person he should marry. Vanessa doesn’t know it, but Kingston caused her brother’s untimely death.

Fiercely independent heiress Vanessa Becket has had her fill of men and their machinations. Fortune hunters and a scheming stepbrother have made her wary. However, with her reputation and well-being in jeopardy, she sees an irresistible opportunity when her path collides with Kingston Barclay, her brother’s brooding, but devilishly handsome best friend. A temporary marriage would provide a beneficial solution for them both if Vanessa manages not to fall in love with the future duke, that is.

Though Kingston and Vanessa entered the union with reservations, with each passing day, their bond deepens. As secrets unfold and true feelings emerge, they must decide: is their marriage just one of convenience? Or could it be the road to their own happy ever after?

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See What Readers are Saying 

★★★★★ “This is a powerful story of love, loss, and forgiveness. It’s heartfelt and moving, earning it an easy five stars.~ K. Hudecek

★★★★★ “ I enjoyed the story line. The plot moves at a good pace and there were a few twists in the story that I didn’t expect.” ~ iread

★★★★★ “‘The heart had a will of its own when it came to whom is chose to love.’ Oh yes it did. So sit back and enjoy.” ~ Lori Dykes

★★★★★ “The interactions and chemistry between the two were interesting and the secondary characters added another element to the story. This is a fun, entertaining novella.” ~ MT

★★★★★ “I highly recommend this fun, family endearing, romantic story with a wonderful HEA.Lana Birky

★★★★★ “These two are so much fun to read about and who will win in the end. This is a fast-paced story, and you will not be able to put it down.” Nanna

★★★★★ “Witty dialogue, strong characters, sweet vulnerability, and romantic interactions make this quick read delightful.” ~ Nancy H

★★★★★ “The characters were absolutely fabulous.” ~Annglez

★★★★★ “A delightful story that keeps you turning the pages.” ~Kindle Customer

★★★★★ “5 STARS…entertaining and wonderful” ~Kindle Customer

★★★★★ “You can’t help falling love with it” ~Linda

Flourish

Chapter One Excerpt

 

London, England
Late evening, March 1816

Sitting in the finely appointed carriage, Vanessa Becket nervously bit her thumbnail—a bad habit she’d long-since eschewed. Or so she’d believed until she’d set herself on this daring—utterly- madI-must-be-out-of-my-mind—course.

Wiggling her feet to ease a bit of her tension, she surveyed the distinctive building poised at the end of Montpelier Row. Flanked on either side by ordinary structures, nothing in its exterior hinted at the wicked nature of what transpired inside.

As she gathered her courage to exit her conveyance and enter said building, several riders and a variety of vehicles passed the structure. To her heightened senses, their horses’ hooves clacked inordinately loud on the rain dampened pavement.

Her heartbeat—an irregular staccato behind her ribcage—whooshed inordinately loud in her ears. A shiver skittered up her spine despite the unseasonably warm spring evening. She swallowed hard against the lump that had formed in her throat.

I can do this. I must.

For who else would if she didn’t?

She had no one to defend her, to act as her champion, to demand recompense from the man who had wronged her.

Not anymore.

She was a woman alone in an unkind and often unforgiving world.

A pair of skinny cats slinked across the street, mangy ears pointed backward and raggedy tails downward. Leery and alert, they disappeared between two sturdy brick structures.

Vanessa rather knew how they felt.

Wary and watchful.

She gravitated her attention back to the structure that commandeered her interest. The front entrance swung open, admitting two approaching gentlemen attired in the first stare of fashion. At almost that precise moment, a pair of women, heads down and covered from top to toe with dark cloaks, glided toward what Vanessa had learned was the infamous establishment’s ladies’ side entrance.

So bloody typical and gallingly hypocritical.

Of its own accord, her upper lip curled a jot. Not quite a scornful sneer but a sign of her marked contempt, nonetheless.

Men needn’t hide their vices the way women must. Males could parade their immoralities and depravities about proudly, but if a woman’s indiscretions became known, she was utterly ruined.

Just as you’ll be, Vanessa Euphemia Samantha Becket, if you’re caught this night.

True, but her rapscallion stepbrother, Owen Elligon, was in there—the swine.

With my jewelry.

Just as he’d been the past fortnight.

Mayhap longer.

Vanessa had only taken to following him these past two weeks, and this was the eighth time he’d visited Fortuna—a notorious gaming and social club—in that interval. Most convenient that every time a piece of her jewelry had gone missing, he toddled into this gaming hell at the end of Montpelier Row.

Rotten bugger.

Vanessa clamped her teeth together as a wave of renewed wrath gripped her. She lowered her hand to her lap and grasped a handful of her cloak’s black satin. Squeezing. Squeezing.

Owen had gone too deuced far this time, however.

Entering her house—her bedchamber!—and stealing her jewels right out from under her nose was bad enough. She itched to slap his face or box his ears. Or punch him straight in his bulbous nose. If she’d been a man, she’d have called him out long ago. The very first time he’d touched her inappropriately and made his vulgar suggestions.

She shivered again, earning her a concerned look from her stern-faced maid.

The sapphire brooch Owen had absconded with while she’d been out this morning was the final straw. Curse the spawn of Satan’s black soul.

Foolish, foolish, naive girl, she berated herself. Believing Owen wouldn’t discover her new hiding place—a faux book in the library.

It was as if he’d known precisely where to look.

That suspicion troubled her no small amount.

The brooch had been her first-and-twentieth birthday gift from Mama and was her most treasured possession. The unique piece of jewelry had been handed down from mother to eldest daughter for over a century. Each mother had shared the legend of the sapphire brooch with her daughter, too. And each woman had worn the treasured piece on their wedding day.

Vanessa allowed her eyelids to drift close as she recalled Mama’s kind, lyrical voice.

“Nessa, my darling. If an unwed man shows the brooch to a single woman and she asks to try it on at once, she’s a foolish choice for a bride. But, if she permits him to offer to let her try it on, then she’s a wise choice, and he should marry her.”

Vanessa scrunched her nose as she opened her eyes.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around since the women of the family had possession of the brooch?

It made no difference.

Vanessa didn’t believe in such stuff and nonsense.

Still, the brooch was a priceless family heirloom, and without a morsel of remorse, Owen had stolen her heritage. Truth be told, the dishonest cur had been stealing, first from his father and then from her family, for as long as she could recall. The blighter acted as if it was his due to help himself to whatever he wished whenever he wished.

She’d already contacted the constable and reported the other jewels stolen. Without compunction, she’d named Owen the suspected thief. The dratted, spindly investigator she’d met with had dared to chuckle at Vanessa, pooh-poohing her complaint. Treating her like an overwrought female in the midst of histrionics.

As if she’d ever resort to such theatrics.

All superfluous condescension, Mr. Wesley Dobkin had even ventured to inquire if she was positive she hadn’t misplaced the pretty baubles.

Baubles worth several hundred pounds.

Nonetheless, at Vanessa’s insistence, Mr. Dobkin had withdrawn a smallish, worn, black leather book from the pocket of his badly wrinkled coat, along with a stubby pencil in need of sharpening and had begun jotting down notes.

That had been three weeks ago. And not a confounded word yet as to his progress. In truth, Vanessa doubted Dobkin was even investigating Owen. Or perchance, Owen had bribed the man not to. It wasn’t above her stepbrother, and she’d learned very few people turned away a generous bribe.

Right and wrong, decency and corruption, integrity and immorality, seemed melded, transient things when one might gain a coin or two.

Vanessa was reasonably confident the twig of a man assigned to her case had only been humoring her, for he claimed she had no proof that Owen was the thief.

Proof!

Who else would have trespassed so brazenly?

A servant?

Until now, she’d have sworn her well-paid staff was loyal and devoted to her.

Of course they were.

Vanessa was positive.

Well, she had been until today.

No, Owen was the culprit. Some inner instinct shouted that truth. His past behavior all but condemned him.

He’d likely sold everything of value in the townhouse he’d inherited when his father had died five years ago. In all probability, if the whispers she’d heard were true, the scapegrace had also mortgaged the place to the hilt, which was why he wanted to take up residence with her, no doubt. Not only to avoid the debt collectors but because his property might very well be sold out from under him.

Resolve engulfed Vanessa, and she notched her chin up an inch. She might be alone in the world, but she wasn’t a helpless, hapless female in need of rescuing. Nor a bird-wit to be taken advantage of or exploited.

By God, she meant to see the brooch returned to her. When she once more had the jewel in her possession, she’d have Owen arrested for thievery. She mightn’t have aristocratic blood running through her veins as he did, but she was acquainted with and had found favor with several titled ladies and lords.

Combined with her status as an heiress, she wasn’t without influence.

Upon her arrival on Montpelier Row several minutes ago, Vanessa had discreetly pulled the royal blue velvet window covering aside—just enough to afford her an unobstructed view of the building she meant to enter this night. A deceptively benign façade that hid every manner of vice and sin.

Squinting the merest bit, she confessed to a sense of disappointment. She’d expected such a disreputable gaming hell would sport a bright ruby door at the very least—something to pronounce the place as the devil’s playground.

Another man boldly strode up and rapped his cane’s silver handle upon the unpretentious entry. He was promptly admitted by a giant of a man, who looked up and down the street before shutting the door.

The notorious Fortuna gaming hell and social club.

Owned and operated by the equally notorious Mrs. Jessie Dorrian-Lane—The Wicked Widow of Whitechapel.

A little shudder raised Vanessa’s nape hairs.

Surely she didn’t honestly wish to know how the Widow of Whitechapel had earned her unflattering title.

Mrs. Dorrian-Lane was a matchmaker extraordinaire, providing services to only the most elite clients–according to the twitchy cook’s helper, whom Vanessa had bribed information from these past weeks. Or rather, her footman had bribed the girl on Vanessa’s behalf.

Eyeing her dubiously from across the carriage, that same footman, Leroy Gaines, sat beside his betrothed, who was also Vanessa’s lady’s maid and chaperone, Daisy Struthers.

“This is the height of folly, Miss,” the large, well-muscled man grumbled for at least the sixth time. Serving the family for ten years, he leaned forward a fraction as if to impart the urgency of his words. “Once you’re inside, I cannot keep you safe. Should I try to enter Fortuna, I’ll be tossed out on my backside. They only cater to rich nobs, gentry, and aristocrats.”

He made the pronouncement with such authority and conviction that Vanessa couldn’t help but wonder if he’d previously tried to gain admittance and been turned away. Or had he actually been tossed on his backside, as he had so eloquently put it?

Gaines was right, of course.

All manner of things might go wrong, and if she were of a more timorous nature, she’d order the coach home. But Vanessa wasn’t a timid mouse. Never mind that her knees practically knocked together in apprehension, and her pulse fluttered so fast, it felt like a thousand winged insects zipped along her veins.

“Douse the carriage lights,” Vanessa murmured, determinedly turning her attention back to the multi-story building. Having no wish to be identified, she’d walk from here—Gaines and Daisy trailing her at a discreet distance, of course.

Her midnight blue coach was sure to draw attention if she were to alight directly in front of the gaming hell. In point of fact, though parked almost a full street away and under cover of darkness, someone might recognize the unique conveyance.

Vanessa really ought to have listened to Gaines and hired a hackney. But previous experience had taught her hackney drivers couldn’t always be relied upon to remain and wait as directed. That first night she’d followed Owen, she and Daisy had disembarked the hackney to peek inside the club’s windows. Their bounder of a driver had taken another fare and disappeared into the night, despite her promise of a generous tip if he waited for her.

Besides, what if Vanessa needed to make a swift escape? Yes, having her coach nearby was the wisest course of action.

Leroy snuffed the lamps, and at once, the inside of the vehicle grew dark. However, Vanessa experienced no fear. She’d never been afraid of the dark. Fine, she was a trifle uneasy, but not from the shadows gyrating against the buildings or flitting eerily across the lane.

Gas lamps cast luminous halos along the street, though the farthest reaches remained dark and slightly ominous.

Her heart pulsed a frantic rhythm at her intention to brazenly enter an establishment of such ill-repute and retrieve her priceless heirloom.

Pray God, she wasn’t too late.

Every female ancestor for over one hundred years had worn the brooch on her wedding day. If Vanessa couldn’t retrieve it…

But wasn’t that the point?

To date, she’d found every suitor, beau, and gentleman unsuitable.

She veered her attention to the jewelry store. Even now, were her jewels on display there? Her brooch, glittering blue and white beneath a glass countertop?

Or did the club dispose of contraband in another manner?

Greedy blackguards.

She’d asked Mr. Dobkin to visit the jewelry store for that very purpose after she’d provided him with detailed descriptions and even sketches of her missing gems. She very much suspected he had ignored that request, too. Had she taken it upon herself to make inquiries about the jewelry, the proprietor might’ve alerted Owen when next he attempted to sell his stolen bounty.

She couldn’t take the risk of alerting Owen that she was on to his schemes.

He was up to something more than just helping himself to her valuables. Vanessa was convinced of it. Without a doubt, his machinations somehow involved her.

Mouth pulled into a grim line, Vanessa scarcely checked the unladylike curse balanced on the tip of her tongue. She felt nothing but contempt for those who frittered away their inheritances or for the people who owned or worked in such despicable establishments as Fortuna.

They were the dregs of humanity, preying on other’s weaknesses and faults.

And those women who retained The Wicked Widow of Whitechapel to find husbands for them, through fair means or foul?

Weren’t they also worthy of contempt?

Indeed. Why shouldn’t they be?

According to the Fortuna servant Gaines had obtained information from, not all the grooms had been willing partners in the arranged unions.

Blackmail, extortion, and rigging the games had been used to garner their cooperation.

Vanessa shuddered.

Just what was she walking into?

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