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Series: Unlikely Duchesses #2
Also in this series: The Duke I Once Knew
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: December 31, 2019
Genres: Historical Romance
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“I find Miss Fanshawe to be quite charming—for an American.”—The Prince Regent
Hadrian Ames, the Duke of Clayton, needs a bride. He even has the perfect one picked out. That is, until he meets the lovely, free-spirited Natalie Fanshawe. She’s the opposite of what a man of his high rank should desire in a wife—an outspoken American who has never even set foot in a London ballroom.
But Natalie doesn’t have time to be swept off her feet by a handsome duke who must be a spoiled scoundrel like every other British lord. And she couldn’t care less about Hadrian’s title. After all, it’s not as if he actually worked to attain his wealth and status. He surely can’t understand what it’s like to be a busy woman, planning to open a school while trying to reunite a six-year-old orphan with his English relatives. Nevertheless, Hadrian launches his campaign to win her heart. Can the utterly delightful American beauty ever find a way to love him…despite his being a duke?
Excerpt from Forever My Duke by Olivia Drake
Reaching up, the boy tugged the tablecloth back down to conceal himself. Hadrian was tempted to haul him out by his ear and frog-march him out of the room. But it was too late, for the door was already opening. A woman stepped into the parlor.
His heart rocked in his chest. The world faded as he stared at the vision standing before him.
Pretty seemed too tame a word to describe her. Appearing to be in her mid-twenties, she had a frank gaze and an aura of distinction that set her apart from the ladies of his acquaintance. She was tall and willowy, her chin held high, as if to take pride in her height. In the glow of the firelight, several curls of dark sable hair had escaped her chignon to frame her face with its pert nose and rosy lips. Her skin had a healthy glow as if she’d spent a good deal of time outdoors without a parasol. The cinnamon-hued gown with its long sleeves and plain scoop neckline would be considered pitifully drab by London standards, yet it skimmed her feminine curves in a way that lent her a natural flair.
Hadrian tried to put his finger on precisely why she fascinated him. He had seen plenty of other lovely women over the years, but none of those others had affected him on quite such a visceral level. Perhaps it was her eyes. They were a deep, vibrant green that lit up like sunlight on emeralds when she smiled.
As she did now. “Pardon me for intruding, sir. I’m looking for a little boy.”
Her melodious voice held a faintly foreign flavor which he tried to place. Not Welsh or Irish or Scottish or even Cornish. It was as mysterious and appealing as the woman herself.
As she gazed inquiringly at him, Hadrian realized he was still sitting and gawking like a dolt. He shot to his feet. If that scruffy imp belonged to her, he could not imagine she was one of the upper ten thousand, yet he felt compelled to show her the respect afforded a lady.
He bowed. “Ma’am.”
She gave him a distracted look and then ventured closer, gazing around the small parlor. “Leo? I know you’re in here. I saw you go through this door when I was coming down the stairs.”
Hadrian held an inward debate. As much as he admired this splendid creature, he had a gentleman’s distaste for tattling. It was an unwritten rule that males did not betray one another’s secrets. Especially not to the female of the species.
Or did that honor exclude disobedient cubs like Leo? Fortunately the dilemma was resolved without any duplicity on his part. With a small cry, she sprang forward and lifted the edge of the tablecloth to peer underneath it.
“There you are, you naughty child!” she said on a trill of laughter. “That’s quite the clever hiding spot.”
“It wasn’t very clever since you found me,” Leo griped. “Well, come out of there at once,” she said, watching as he scrambled to his feet. “And next time, mind that your toes don’t stick out.
Now, pray make your apologies to the gentleman for disturbing his dinner.”
“There’s no harm done,” Hadrian said, forgetting that he’d chastised the lad for that very thing only moments ago.
“Sometimes Leo doesn’t stop to think about his actions,” the woman said ruefully. “It is a trait we are working on modifying. In the meantime, I must thank you, sir, for being so understanding.”
Her mouth curved in that appealing smile, she leaned over the table and extended her hand to Hadrian.
Startled, he realized that she meant for him to shake it as a gentleman would do to his equal. Not even the grandest grande dame of society would commit such a faux pas with a man of his rank. A lady might offer the back of a gloved hand to be kissed, but only after having curtsied to him. Nevertheless, he found himself clasping her hand, keenly conscious of the warmth of her slim fingers.
“It was my pleasure,” he murmured.
The feel of her bare silken skin heightened the intensity of her effect on him. He felt as giddy as a school- boy meeting his first pretty girl. It made no sense, for he prided himself on being a man in firm control of his emotions and somewhat jaded by the allures of the fairer sex.
She must have sensed his reaction, for her gaze widened slightly and a rosy blush tinted her cheeks. Her expression held a frank curiosity about him, as if she, too, were puzzled by the unseen energy of attraction. As they stared at each other for timeless moments, Hadrian felt as if he were drowning in those gorgeous eyes. He had the strongest urge to reach out and unpin her hair, to see those sable tresses tumble around her shoulders and bosom.
It was only when she gave a tug that he realized he was still gripping her hand. He loosened his hold, and she stepped back, the sparkle of warmth on her features dimming to a mask of politeness. She lowered her gaze to the boy, who had wandered to the hearth and picked up a stick of kindling to poke at the fire.
“Put that away, Leo, and come along. Your bath is growing cold.”
He abandoned the stick, but dug in his heels. “Don’t want no bath.”
“Proper grammar, please. And the bath is necessary, for tomorrow you are to meet your grandfather.” She took hold of Leo’s hand and guided him away, pausing only to toss a quick, heart-stopping smile over her shoulder. “Good evening, sir. Do pardon us again for the intrusion.” A moment later, they disappeared out into the corridor and shut the door. The muffled grumble of Leo’s protests gradually died away.
It took a moment for Hadrian to feel like himself again. A trace of her alluring feminine scent lingered in the air. Now that she was gone, it seemed ludicrous that a stranger could affect his equilibrium to such a degree. Her poised manner did not fit the lower orders, so he had been wrong about the boy being the offspring of servants. Rather, she must be an overnight lodger here, another traveler stranded by the freezing rain. He hadn’t noticed a wedding ring, yet it seemed reasonable to assume that a husband awaited her upstairs.
Logic dispelled the remainder of Hadrian’s undue reaction. She was the very opposite of his preferences, for he liked women who were dainty and sophisticated. Her appeal perhaps could be explained away by the fact that he’d discharged his latest mistress a fortnight ago and had been on the lookout for another to catch his interest. But he strictly confined his liaisons to willing widows and discreet courtesans.
Not mothers with young children.
He resumed his seat at the table and took up his newspaper, though the printed words failed to hold his attention. Instead, he frowned into the dying flames of the fire while his mind continued to mull over the intriguing encounter. Despite the faint accent, she had a refined mode of speech, possessed a natural grace, and displayed a charming blush.
Yet the handshake was curious behavior, indeed. She was clearly a rustic who was unfamiliar with the protocol of curtsying to a gentleman. Even if she was unaware that he was the Duke of Clayton, she ought to have recognized him as a man of consequence. He wasn’t offended, only baffled as to what it might reveal about her background.
Devil take it. She would have to remain a mystery. Tomorrow, they’d each set forth to different destinations, never to cross paths again. He wouldn’t waste another thought on a fleeting encounter with a nameless beauty.
Especially not when he was on his way to acquire the perfect bride.
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