Dukes of Distinction

As Phoebe stood, the stranger caught her hand. A rip­ple of warmth ran through her.

I thought I should intro­duce myself to you.”

I’m not sure you should,” she blurt­ed out, try­ing to remove her hand from his and failing.

Why not?” he asked, puzzled.

Because I know you are a criminal.”

The man frowned. “And how did you come to that con­clu­sion, Madam?”

We are in Corn­wall, Sir. Home to smug­glers too numer­ous to count. You’ve been shot. It had to be a dis­pute over what­ev­er you brought back from France. Frankly, I don’t want to know what goods you smug­gled or who might want you dead. The fact that you are in my home is bad enough. If I don’t know your name and learn noth­ing about you, then when you leave I won’t be able to tell any­one in author­i­ty about you.”

You think who­ev­er shot me will come look­ing for me?” he asked.

She jerked hard and freed her hand. “I don’t care. I am a sim­ple wid­ow who was only try­ing to help a stranger in dis­tress. I will do my best to see you healed and then I want you gone, Sir. Is that understood?”

He gave her a bril­liant smile. “I see. Well, you’re going to have to call me some­thing while I’m here.” The man thought a moment. “Why not … Andrew?”

She was appalled. “I can­not call you by your first name!”

The smug­gler gave her a lazy smile. “Who said it was my first name?”

Oh. Mr. Andrew. I’m sor­ry. I’m a bit flustered.”

He grinned. “It must a lit­tle bit dis­con­cert­ing, hav­ing a naked smug­gler in your bed.”

Phoebe’s jaw dropped. So, he was a smug­gler. Admit­ting it to her. She shook her head, try­ing to rein in her wild emotions.

I shall be back, Mr. Andrew. Then I’ll see to your shoulder.”

She grabbed the tray and left the room, irri­tat­ed at the chuck­ling she heard.

I’m tired of the emp­ty exis­tence I’ve led for so many years. Days that blend into nights. Weeks that become months and then years. I’m ready for a change. I’ve spent too long liv­ing a lie,” George said.

Sam snort­ed. “Does this mean you’ll stop bed­ding any woman who catch­es your fancy?”

Yes. I’m ready to set­tle down and act like a duke and a prop­er gentleman.”

She laughed harsh­ly.  “A leop­ard can­not change his spots.”

I will prove to you that I am a changed man.”

Her brows knit­ted togeth­er. “And how­ev­er will you do that, George?”

By being loy­al and faith­ful to one woman.”

He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her fin­gers. Sam flushed an entic­ing shade of pink and jerked her hand away.

Ris­ing, she said, “You are dis­gust­ing. All of this talk of want­i­ng to be a dif­fer­ent man. Is this how the Duke of Charm fina­gles his way into a woman’s bed—through sweet lies?”

George stood and clasped her shoul­ders. “I’m not lying to you, Sam.”

Saman­tha,” she ground out.

Saman­tha,” he said soft­ly. “From the moment I decid­ed to become the man I should have been all along, I thought of you. You were here all along and I was too igno­rant to see you.”

His fin­gers tight­ened. “I don’t want to charm every woman in Polite Soci­ety, Saman­tha. I only want to impress you.”

She stared at him in con­fu­sion. He took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to press his mouth to hers.

Elise couldn’t believe what she had just agreed to, strik­ing a bar­gain with the Duke of Dis­re­pute to find him a bride.

Do you have any par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics in mind, Your Grace?”

I’ll be very choosy. I need a woman with keen intel­li­gence. I become bored eas­i­ly. If I’m to spend the next fifty years with her, she must be clever and inter­est­ed in a vari­ety of topics.”

She frowned. “That doesn’t sound like many women of the ton. What about her fam­i­ly name and dowry?”

Pish-posh on that, Lady Ruthers­by. My name and title are plen­ty old and I couldn’t care one whit about a dowry—or lack of one. I have estates too numer­ous to count and untold wealth. No, I want oth­er things.”

His words intrigued her. “Such as?”

Besides intel­li­gence, I need a woman who can make deci­sions quick­ly and with­out ques­tion­ing her­self. I have a large house­hold for her to run. My duchess will need to be firm with ser­vants but not to the point where they don’t like her or their jobs. She must be an excel­lent host­ess, able to plan soirees and din­ner par­ties with ease.”

The duke’s list was cer­tain­ly grow­ing. “Any­thing else?” she asked, wor­ried that there would be.

I want her to enjoy activ­i­ties I enjoy since we’ll be spend­ing so much time together.”

What might that involve?”

Rid­ing, for one. I’m nev­er hap­pi­er than when on a horse. Unless it’s walk­ing. I can walk for hours and do so fre­quent­ly in Lon­don. I enjoy the the­atre. Play­ing chess. Of course, I also spend a good deal of my time at Gen­tle­man Jack’s. My duchess won’t have to box, however.”

She snort­ed. “Well, that’s cer­tain­ly a relief.”

She will also need to be kind. Com­pas­sion­ate toward oth­ers. A sense of humor would be nice. And nat­u­ral­ly, she’ll need to adore children.”

Your Grace, your list is grow­ing by leaps and bounds. I’m not cer­tain any of the young women mak­ing their come-outs would—”

Oh, it doesn’t have to be some young miss straight from the school­room, Lady Ruthers­by. In fact, I doubt any of them will do. I don’t mind if my future bride has a few Sea­sons in her past.”

You want that Town polish.”

I do.” His eyes gleamed. “Debu­tantes don’t have that.”

I beg to dif­fer. I’ll dare­say there are half a dozen girls mak­ing their come-outs who have been raised by their mamas to become a duchess should such an oppor­tu­ni­ty arise.”

Still, I am almost thir­ty. Ancient to those new­com­ers. I require a lady of sophis­ti­ca­tion and matu­ri­ty. She’ll need to not only be my friend and companion—but an eager, will­ing part­ner in the bedroom.”

Elise felt her­self go hot all over. “Sure­ly, you don’t think I can assess such a thing, Your Grace.” Her face felt on fire.

No,” he said, a wicked grin touch­ing his lips. “You can leave that to me.

A very beau­ti­ful blond sat curled up in a chair on the far side of the room, engrossed in the book in her lap. Jon couldn’t remem­ber ever hav­ing seen her. Her gown was dowdy. Most like­ly, she was a poor rela­tion and com­pan­ion to some­one attend­ing tonight’s ball, a woman of no means or social stand­ing. No won­der she’d retreat­ed to the library to hide in a qui­et world of books, where she prob­a­bly felt most com­fort­able. He should leave her to her soli­tude and find some­where else to go.

Then she smiled at some­thing she read on the page, her face light­ing up. Jon could have left—except for that radi­ant smile. It intrigued him. The book she held was mon­strous­ly fat. He ascer­tained that she must be edu­cat­ed. Well-read since a book of that size didn’t put her off.

Sud­den­ly, he want­ed to know what she was read­ing. Dis­cuss it with her. He was a great lover of books and could talk about them all day long, hav­ing read every­thing he could get his hands on as a boy. His love of read­ing and gain­ing knowl­edge had fol­lowed him into man­hood. Wouldn’t it be won­der­ful if he could talk to this woman about what she was read­ing and not have the usu­al, dull con­ver­sa­tions that sur­round­ed a ball? It would be nov­el to find a woman with not just out­stand­ing looks but brains to accom­pa­ny them.

That would be not only an intrigu­ing woman, but a dan­ger­ous one.

Her smile widened and he knew what she read amused her. A deep laugh fol­lowed, much deep­er than any woman’s he’d heard before. It was rich and vibrant and drew him in. He want­ed to hear that laugh again.

And he want­ed to know the woman behind the laugh.

You don’t want me. You nev­er did,” Hadley said dul­ly, push­ing hard against his chest, try­ing to get away from him.

Sebas­t­ian refused to let her go. “I will always want you. I will go to my grave want­i­ng you.” His chest tight­ened as he spoke. “But I have been scarred by the war. I will not bind you to me when so much is wrong inside of me.”

Her gaze grew fierce. “Shouldn’t I have a choice in the mat­ter?” she demanded.

No.” He cap­tured her hands in his. Bring­ing them to his lips, he pressed a fer­vent kiss upon her knuck­les. “You need to choose hap­pi­ness. I could nev­er give you that.”

I love you, Sebas­t­ian,” she said.

Her words were like a kick in the gut—because he knew in this moment that he loved her, too.

And always would.

You can­not save me, Hadley. Love isn’t enough to—”

It is!” she insist­ed. “Even if you think you have no love in your heart. I have enough love for both of us, Sebas­t­ian. Let me prove it to you.”

She jerked her hands from his and grabbed his face, pulling it swift­ly to her and slam­ming her lips against his in des­per­a­tion. He took her by the shoul­ders and pushed her away.

No. You are to find a man who can return your love. I will nev­er be that man, Hadley. Find some­one wor­thy of you.”

Her eyes nar­rowed and she shrugged away. “You will change your mind,” she said, her mouth set­ting stubbornly.

I won’t,” he promised. “Go and live your life, Hadley. Make it a great one.”

With that, he left the stall and found his way to the front of the stables—leaving behind his heart—with the woman he would always love.