The Debutante and the Duke
Seductive Scoundrels Book 11
💖All she wants is her freedom. All he wants is her…💖
Rayne Wellbrook shouldn’t be living in a luxurious London manor. She shouldn’t be the step-niece to a powerful duke, either. And she most certainly shouldn’t be sneaking into the neighbor’s gardens—even if the house is unoccupied. Or so she thinks until a rakishly handsome Scot startles her one morning. 😲Though she’s wary of men and even leerier of nobles, this man with his too-long hair and piercing blue-green eyes sends her heart 💓to frolicking. When he insists on an introduction, Rayne flees but can’t get the enigmatic new neighbor out of her thoughts.
Fletcher McQuinton, Duke of Kincade, is only in London long enough to put the finishing touches on his new business ventures, and then he intends to head straight back to Scotland. 🏴His meddling English mother has other plans, however—namely finding him an appropriate blue-blooded wife to become the next duchess. 👑Fletcher has vowed to never take an English aristocrat as a wife, but when he comes upon a delightfully intriguing woman climbing his garden wall, he begins to reconsider his reluctance.
Can two polar opposites who are so perfectly wrong for each other overcome all that stands between them? Only one thing is certain. The road to happily ever after is about to get very bumpy…
💕Secrets, scandals, and sweet romance.💕
This Historical Regency Romance by a USA Today bestselling author proves that opposites do attract. You’ll sigh and giggle as you watch Fletcher and Rayne fumble along until they admit their love for each other.
If you enjoy reading lovable rogue or duke romances with a pinch of mystery, a dash of humor, and soul-searing emotion, then you’ll adore Collette Cameron’s enthralling SEDUCTIVE SCOUNDRELS SERIES. Settle into your favorite reading nook with a warm beverage☕ and your copy of THE DEBUTANTE AND THE DUKE 📘for a page-turning, entertaining Regency world adventure you can’t put down.
Chapter One Excerpt
17 Bedford Square
2 June 1810
Singing softly, Rayne Wellbrook gently swung the heavy wicker basket she held. She skirted the fountain burbling in the center of the paved circle bordered by a quartet of stone benches in her aunt and uncle’s elaborate gardens.
Between each ornate bench, marble statues of Greek goddesses and gods stood as majestic, silent guardians. Ribbons of morning sunlight cast them in luminous golden hues and gave each an ethereal appearance.
“I sow’d the seeds of love,” Rayne sang a little louder.
“And I sow’d them in the spring,
“I gather’d them up in the morning so soon…”
Mama had been an opera singer until she married Papa and had instilled a love for singing in Rayne from the time she was able to speak. Mama and Grandmama had been gone for nine years now—Papa far longer. Rayne couldn’t even remember her soldier father.
Closing her eyes for a long blink, she filled her lungs with the sweet fragrances of jasmine, peonies, roses, and other vibrant summer blossoms festooning the zealously maintained pathways. Patches of lush green grass complemented the fastidious flower beds—each diligently attended by the cheerful gardeners the duke employed.
Mostly cheerful, that was.
All except for the fussy, meticulous head gardener.
Heaven forbid that Fitzroy—the surly curmudgeon—should find a single insolent weed or impertinent spent blossom amongst his beloved lower beds. The wizened, stoop-shouldered man even groused when the “damned impudent birds”—his words, not Rayne’s— used his fountains as birdbaths.
In point of fact, he objected when they used the birdbaths as birdbaths.
At present, a pair of bluish-black feathers floated in the middle layer of the fount’s rippling water. Those avian offenders bespoke an early morning dip by a cheeky crow or raven, as the otherwise pristine water was too deep for smaller birds.
Chuckling, Rayne imagined the forthcoming scene.
Assuredly, Fitzroy would get his feathers ruffled as soon as he spied the evidence the trespassing birds had left behind. A string of colorful expletives would fill the fragrant air. Especially when he noticed the disrespectful droppings currently marring Zeus’s noble head and impressive shoulders.
Fitzroy would gripe and scold while suggesting several inspired ways in which to dispose of the feathered interlopers. Then he’d promptly send a younger, more agile gardener up a ladder to restore Zeus’s tattered dignity.
Rayne plucked the feathers from the fountain—a small act of kindness. She’d dispose of them near the garden’s back border.
For all of Fitzroy’s crotchetiness, he allowed Rayne to snip yellow roses—her favorite—and other blossoms for her bedchamber bouquets as he stood by beaming and nodding like a proud papa. On numerous occasions, he’d even pointed out which blooms were at their peak.
Grinning, Rayne clasped her dark green and peacock-blue skirts and sank into a mock curtsy before Athena, the goddess of flowers. The translucent sunbeams flickering through the branches almost made it seem as if the statue winked at her.
As Rayne had absolutely no idea about the manner in which one should address a marble deity, she simply said, “Good morning, Athena.”
A grating cry rent the air, and she glanced upward.
“And good morning to you too, Theopolis,” Rayne quipped to the cheeky jay that had landed upon Apollo’s head and expectantly stared at her with his tiny black eyes. Shading her own eyes, she tilted her bonnetless head, her unbound hair swinging across her back and shoulders. “Isn’t it a lovely day?”
The bird made a soft but shrill sound.
In truth, she didn’t know if the bird were male or female. Or, in fact, if it was the same flirtatious bird that greeted her nearly every morning. The pinkish-brown jay with its distinctive blue-and-black striped wing markings dipped its little head as if in agreement, waiting for the bread scraps she often brought with her.
She reasoned it must be the same bird since it made a habit of greeting her. And she decided, basing her assumption on the human species, only a male would flirt so brazenly in hopes of getting a reward.
Reaching into her basket, Rayne located the stale bread and cinnamon bun she’d found in the kitchens when she’d pilfered a bite to eat for herself this morning. Nothing fancy, but enough to keep her stomach from growling as she read and sketched the morning away: a couple of rolls, a piece of yellow cheese, grapes, an apple, a jar of lemonade, and ginger biscuits.
Her purloined stash might very well last her until tea this afternoon.
“Here you are, Theopolis.”
She tossed a piece of dried crust onto the ground.
With a strident cry, the jay swooped down, snatched the treat with his beak, and flew away. In his wake, a clouded yellow butterfly drifted toward the periwinkle colored scabious, no doubt to enjoy sweet nectar for breakfast.
Rayne made a mental note to try to sketch the next clouded yellow she saw feeding. Doing so would test her artistic abilities, but she enjoyed challenging herself. Shouldn’t one want to continually improve in some small way?
Spinning in a small circle, she sighed contentedly.
This was simply lovely.
Summer was her favorite season and morning her preferred time of day.
She’d awoken early, as was her custom, despite not having sought her bed until well past midnight. The ball hosted by her Aunt Everleigh and her husband, Griffin Dalton, Duke of Sheffield, last night had been a veritable crush and, therefore, a roaring haut ton success.
At least three hundred of le beau monde’s finest had attended, ensuring write-ups in all of the gossip rags and newssheets that were of any account. Yes, the ball had been a rousing triumph.
And made more so because her dear friend, Nicolette Twistleton, had received a very romantic, very sigh-worthy public marriage proposal from Mathias Pembroke, Duke of Westfall. To Rayne’s utter delight, Nicolette, who’d been previously jilted and had sworn off all men, had said yes.
Now Rayne and their other closest mutual friends were excited to congratulate Nicolette again and to hear all of the delicious details over several cups of steaming tea while nibbling decadent dainties, cakes, pastries, and biscuits.
Rayne was a debutante this Season—albeit a rather older debutante. She had danced several times and enjoyed a few splendid hours with her friends. Though in general, large gatherings inevitably strained her nerves.
A long-ago, disquieting memory tried to impose itself upon her current happiness. Rayne wasn’t having any of that today. Purposefully tamping down the unpleasant recollection, she unceremoniously shoved the unsolicited remembrance into a distant corner as she’d learned to do over the years.
Nothing would ruin this delightful morning.
Today no heavy haze of coal dust layered the city, and the air was fairly fresh for London. The sky shone vivid blue for a change, with only a few wispy clouds feathered across the far horizon. Several birds’ calls echoed from the trees and shrubberies in Griffin’s illustrious grounds and also the less formal gardens next door.
Resuming her song, Rayne continued on the meandering footpath, each footfall a satisfyingly crisp crunch on the gravel.
“In June there was a yellow rosebud…”
Headed toward the farthest corner of the garden, she touched a fingertip to a velvety sun-colored rose as she passed by. On that side of the grounds, a stone wall, inlaid with small, projecting steps on both sides, separated the Sheffields’ gardens from their neighbors’.
Neighbors who hadn’t been in residence in a very long while, according to Griffin. Since before he’d purchased this stately house, in fact. And neighbors who, at one time, must’ve been close friends with whoever had owned the manor before Griffin.
For why else would the stairs permit easy access across the wall if that were not the case? Perchance the residents of the two households had been relatives. She would have to remember to ask Griffin about that.
Mayhap he knew the history of the empty house and its owners. Or perhaps he knew if and when they were expected to return to London. In the meanwhile, Rayne fully intended to continue enjoying the cozy fairy-like garden with its utterly delightful stacked-stone folly.
Did Griffin or Everleigh know about the steps in the wall?
Probably not, and she wasn’t positive that she wanted to share her secret. After all, Rayne was the one who enjoyed exploring every enchanting nook and cranny, just as she had at Fittledale Park.
A small stab of nostalgia speared her, and she tightened her mouth for a pace.
She missed Fittledale Park, the quiet country estate near Colchester that Everleigh had purchased after her first husband’s death. In point of fact, Rayne found nearly everything about London overwhelming: the routs, balls, soirees, musicals, the theater…the men.
Mostly the men.
She’d never completely outgrown her fear of males and, truth be told, doubted she ever would.
Although outings to Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’ Park were enjoyable, one never knew how many acquaintances one might encounter. And worse, be forced to discuss trivial drivel with them. Unless she were atop a horse. On those occasions, Rayne could gallop Rotten Row and not have to partake in the usual boring twaddle.
And then there were the never-ending assemblies…
Well, honestly. They were nothing short of a perpetual competition to see who was the first tulip of fashion; who would dance with whom; who might make a brilliant match this Season; whom might give someone the cut; and what succulent gossip might be spread about with the ease of whipped butter on a fresh-from-the-oven hot cross bun.
Rayne peered ahead to where the path ended near a pink tea rose-smothered arbor set before a stunning octagon cobalt-blue, sea-green, lavender, and white tile mosaic. An ostentatious sundial in the mosaic’s center commanded one’s attention, much like a grand dame entering a salon or prima donna upon the stage.
Impressive and impossible to ignore.
Her musings returned to the mysterious stairs. Surely Fitzroy, if no one else, must be aware of the unusual wall separating the properties. If Griffin didn’t know the wall’s history, mayhap the gardener did.
Fitzroy had come with the manor. Griffin had often said, “I don’t think there is any question of him retiring to the country.”
The charming rock expanse ran parallel to a tall, well-maintained hedgerow. So conceivably, the gardener hadn’t given it much thought. There wasn’t much reason to because no one occupied 19 Belford Square—the house next door.
That was rather unfortunate since the place was quite charming, in a lonely sort of way. As if it pined for its owners to return and fill it with life and love once more.
Nevertheless, the slightly overgrown gardens were something to behold. Whoever had designed them had possessed quite the artistic eye.
As meticulous and attractive as Fitzroy kept the Sheffields’ grounds, the unkempt, natural beauty of the property next door beckoned Rayne as it had since she’d accidentally discovered it when she’d come to live in London after Aunt Everleigh had married Griffin.
In truth, Everleigh wasn’t really Rayne’s aunt.
Well, she was her step-aunt by marriage, but they shared no blood.
Such trivialities didn’t matter to either of them. The women had grown as close as sisters while Everleigh had been married to Rayne’s grand-uncle, Arnold Chatterton. Arnold had been estranged from his sister for many years and was a stranger to Rayne. Nevertheless, Grandmother’s brother had been appointed her guardian when Mama and Grandma had died from influenza within a week of one another.
Now there had been an evil, evil man, as had been his equally depraved son, Frederick. Both spawns of Satan now likely—and deservedly—warmed hell’s deepest bowels.
A shiver scuttled down Rayne’s spine and lifted the flesh along her arms. Her earlier joy evaporated with the alacrity of a water droplet sprinkled upon a roaring fire, taking her cheerful smile with it.
How very different Griffin was from Arnold and Frederick, thank God.
Even so, Rayne didn’t doubt memories yet haunted Everleigh as much as they did her from the time they’d spent under Arnold and Frederick Chatterton’s cruel thumbs. At thirteen, Rayne had gone to live at Keighsdon Hall and had endured their vindictiveness several years longer than Everleigh.
It had been a tumultuous, terrifying existence.
With a determined shake of her head, Rayne pushed those morose musings away and focused on the present.
Everleigh and Griffin intended to visit his lace and textile manufacturing plants today, which meant she had hours to enjoy herself in the wild tangle next door. If all went well, she’d be home—her hair properly piled atop her head in the manner of every respectable young miss on the Marriage Mart—and possessing sketches that she might later create watercolors from, well before they returned.
As she reached the stone barrier, she took up her song once more.
“In June there was a yellow rosebud…”
Singing beneath her breath, she balanced her basket atop the wall’s slightly rounded top. Once she’d gathered her skirts in one hand, she ascended the narrow steps, using the wall for balance. After carefully turning around, she descended the other side.
“And that is the flow’r for me.”
“And that is…hmm, hmm, hmm.”
Still humming, she’d hopped onto the slightly damp, shaded ground. Angling her face upward, she shook her hair so that it tumbled down her back.
I should’ve at least tied it back with a ribbon.
Oh well. Too late now.
Her mind already moving to the pleasant mission she’d set herself, Rayne collected her basket. Today she meant to draw the glorious wisteria—a task that would strain her humble artistic talents. She didn’t draw for praise or recognition. No, she sketched because she enjoyed trying to capture moments in time.
Everything she knew about drawing and painting had been self-taught, mostly while living at Keighsdon Hall. She had to do something with her time. Lonely, neglected, and an obvious inconvenience—Uncle Arnold hadn’t even bothered with a governess after she’d turned fifteen—Rayne had learned to entertain herself.
The wisteria vine had escaped its staid arbor’s confines and had twisted and entwined itself up a plane tree, creating an enchanting, fairly-like effect. The usually unremarkable tree appeared to be festooned with streaming purple flowers.
The result was quite stunning. Almost magical.
No properly attended garden would ever be permitted something so unrestrained and beautiful. A shame, really.
Why must everything be constrained by someone else’s strictures and dictates of appropriateness, acceptability, or propriety?
Wasn’t there any room for originality and uniqueness?
No. That was the unfortunate, undeniable if somewhat unpleasant truth.
With a slight shrug for what she was powerless to change, Rayne took up singing where’d she left off.
“I oftentimes have pluck’d that yellow rosebud…”
“Wasna it a red rosebud?” an amused male inquired in a deep, melodious brogue.