An Undesirable Duke (Desperate and Daring Book 9)
An Undesirable Duke (Desperate and Daring Book 9)
She's been waiting five years to see him again.
After a fateful meeting in Hyde Park, Violet fears she's lost her heart to a man who's disappeared from society. But now he's returned, and the rumors are he's grossly disfigured and fit for Bedlam. The papers have dubbed him The Undesirable Duke, but Violet will not be persuaded to forget him until she sees the man he's become for herself. As destiny would have it, she is one of the few debutants invited to Selbourne Castle to be considered for the role of Duchess of Selbourne.
A bride for the beast?
Rumor abounds, but it isn't Weirick who needs a wife. If he means to leave England once and for all, he must see his brother married and settled beforehand. Not just any bride will do. Only a few are invited to Selbourne Castle for his brother to choose from, wallflowers all of them, except one. She's haunted his dreams for five years, but Weirick never thought he'd set eyes on Violet Everly again.
He will not see her wed to his brother, but he dare not keep her for himself.
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May 2, 1825
The knot in Violet’s stomach tightened as the carriage rolled steadily closer to the castle on the hill. Her nails dug into the plush leather, and her back was rigid against the seat as they climbed the gentle incline. Selbourne Castle was not romantic or whimsical, the way castles usually sounded in books and fantasies.
In reality, they were often drafty and ill-tempered. Violet knew this from personal experience.
A little more than five years ago, her sister Heather had married the Duke of Alberhill. He had welcomed their little family—which consisted of their mother and her three daughters—with open arms and had swept them all away to his Scottish castle.
It was old and full of scratchy stone walls, but it was home now. Violet had grown fond of it, and of her new brother-in-law. There was no finer man, in her opinion. Castle Selbourne, however, had none of the charm her current home had. Not from this vantage point, anyhow. But nothing would stop her from entering it, not until she set eyes on its owner, and not until she knew without out a doubt that his heart was forever out of her reach.
She inhaled slowly, holding her breath until her chest ached, and then she let it out in slow huffs. Her heart raced with the wheels of the carriage. She lost view of the castle as the vehicle turned, so she tore her gaze from the window. There was not much to see, besides swaying grass, hills, and sky.
She met her mother’s stare. A book lay open on her lap, neglected, by the looks of it.
Violet plastered a confident smile on her face. “Finished reading?”
“I’ve been reading you, actually.”
Violet repressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Oh? I didn’t realize that I’m an open book.”
Her mother sighed. It was the sort of sigh that meant a prolonged discussion on her daughter’s behavior was forthcoming.
“This is your fourth season.”
“I’m aware,” Violet muttered.
She glanced out the window again. If she was going to lie through her teeth, she couldn’t do it meeting her mother’s gaze. The woman was shrewd and knew all of Violet’s deceptive tricks.
“I’d like you to give Lord Roderick Andrews a significant amount of your attention, and truly consider him as a prospective husband.”
“I will. I always do.”
“And yet, so far, you’ve turned down four proposals.”
Violet’s head snapped back to her mother. “I am aware.”
Lady Everly slammed the book closed and set it aside. “Don’t think for a moment I don’t remember that day at the park. I recall the Marquis of Denton quite well, and I studied his family lineage at the time. He is the duke now, but rumor has it he plans for his brother to inherit in the near future. It leads one to believe the duke is ill. I fear you won’t let go of this romanticized version of him you have in your heart until you face him again. That is the only reason I accepted such a ridiculous invite to this house party.”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
Her mother put her hand up to silence her. Then she took a deep breath. “Heaven knows if the rumors about the duke are true, but we were invited here for Lord Roderick Andrews, not the duke, and Lord Andrews is who we will seek to impress. A younger brother who may one day inherit is not a bad bargain.”
Lady Everly sighed and brushed an errant silvery curl from her temple. Then her gray-blue eyes sharpened. “I won’t force you to marry anyone, but this will be your last season. This traveling back and forth wears on me. I’m not as spry as I used to be, and I want to remain close to Heather and my grandbabies. I would do no less for you and Prim. You’ve had every chance to find a husband in London, and yet you chose not to try. This house party is your last chance, and then we will return to Alberhill.”
“But you said—”
Her mother cut her off with a pointed glare and turned back to the window.
It was no use defending herself, Violet thought. She’d figured she’d hid her emotions quite well, but apparently, she had not. Her mind returned to that day in the park. She could picture that stupid red kite as it danced in the air, higher and higher, and then how it had barreled down onto his head.
Had it been kismet? Destiny?
She remembered the exact moment her gaze had met his. She’d felt as light as the kite, as if the wind could carry her away at any moment. She couldn’t remember breathing or speaking. The world had just quieted, and her sisters and the chaos of Hyde Park at peak capacity had simply faded away.
* * *
He flamboyantly removed his glove and threw it to the ground. “I changed my mind. I challenge you to a duel. And, I demand to know the name of my opponent.”
Her heart exploded into a gallop, and her gaze never strayed from his. “Miss Violet Everly.”
His eyes were blue-green, like the ocean on a lovely day, shimmering in the sunlight like whitecap waves. She sucked in a breath, lest she forget herself and be carried away by the promise in those eyes. They transported her to a sandy beach, a salty wind whipping at her hair and skirts.
She shook her head, her knees knocking together. This wouldn’t do. She’d never swooned in her life, and she certainly wasn’t going to do it over a man—no matter how lovely his eyes. She lowered her gaze to his nose, instead. It was a bit large, but still acceptable.
Then her focus dropped down to his mouth, and her heart stopped beating.
His lips. Dear God, his lips. They were plump, and curved wickedly when he smiled. Had those lips graced the face of a woman, Violet would have been green with envy, but on him, they elicited a startlingly different response.
His smile twitched. “Name your second, Miss Everly.”
“Miss Primrose Everly.”
Violet waved to her younger sister. Primrose swallowed and straightened her shoulders.
He briefly glanced in Heather’s direction, who was clearly older than Prim. “You surprise me.”
“She will wed the Duke of Alberhill in two weeks. Dueling is beneath a duchess.”
He laughed, the sound light and boyish, but there was nothing boyish about him. He was all man. His curly brown hair and full lips did nothing to detract from his aura of masculinity.
And for the first time in her life, Violet felt like a woman. Her body tingled with an awareness of his manliness, responding to his nearness with an internal shiver.
He nodded to Heather. “My congratulations.”
“And may I know the name of my opponent?” Violet boldly asked, if only to hear his voice again.
She never wanted this interlude to end.
He bowed. “Lord Weirick Andrews, Marquis of Denton, at your service.”
“Thank you for your gracious understanding, but we must be going.”
Heather’s curt tone shattered the spell over Violet.
Then she blinked, becoming aware of the crowd gathered around them.
He handed the kite to her. “Pity that. I look forward to our formal introduction.”
She nodded her thanks, afraid to speak to him in front of so many strangers, but she hated to leave, even though Heather tugged on her arm firmly.
When she turned away, her feet heavy, she couldn’t stop herself from stealing peeks back at him as they traversed the open grass toward their mother, who waited in the landau. Violet climbed in after her sisters, a spot between her shoulder blades tickling, as if she could feel him watching her. She bit her lip and glanced back again.
Her heart pounded, and as she sat beside Prim, she couldn’t help but feel as if she were floating, her head pleasantly light, and her limbs tingly.
“Well done, Violet. Now all of London will know you are a coquette,” Heather said.
“I am not!” she answered, automatically denying it, but she had to smother a giggle. She wasn’t exactly sure what a coquette was, but it sounded intriguing, and mischievous.
“What’s this about coquettes?” Lady Everly asked with a frown.
“I’m dreading Violet’s come out,” Heather replied. “You should have seen how she just encouraged him! He challenged her to a duel, just so he could learn her name!”
Their mother pinned Violet with a stern glare. “Just what was this gentleman’s name?”
“Lord Weirick Andrews, Marquis of Denton,” Violet answered cheerfully.
Lady Everly raised a brow. “Well, I’m not familiar with that name. We shall look him up, and see if he is worth dueling with.”
“He’s still watching us,” Prim said, and then giggled behind her hand.
Her mother smiled as she turned her back to him, urging Prim, and especially Violet, to do the same. “Ignore him. Clever gentlemen love a challenge.”
Violet obediently turned her back, but though he was out of sight now, she knew he would not leave her mind for some time. Just thinking about him caused a warm flush to race throughout her body, and her nerves began to stretch, as if she needed to move—to dance—or at the very least, twist in her seat and gaze longingly at the most handsome man she’d ever set her eyes upon.
* * *
If only she’d known that it would be five long years before she would see him again.
Now, at last, the time had come. No amount of scandal, rumor, or illness would keep her away. She might have to pretend an interest in his brother—she’d been doing that for years, pretending to be interested in other gentlemen—but all along, she had been waiting for him, and longing for him. She’d also kept clippings of every mention of him in the paper, though she didn’t believe a word of what was written about him.
She didn’t yet know why he’d left England, or where he’d been, but she was determined to find out. More importantly, she was resolved to see if he still had the ability to make her feel the way she had in that park five years ago. If he did, nothing was going to prevent her from winning his affection—for good.
When the carriage finally rolled to a stop. Violet’s heart beat like a drum, the percussion of it loud and nauseating. The door opened, and a footman assisted them out. Peering up at the castle, her stomach dropped to her feet. The papers said he was a monster, scarred and mad with exotic diseases. The building before her certainly appeared capable of housing a monster.
She climbed the steps beside her mother, her feet tingling in her slippers. One side of a large wooden door suddenly opened, and a butler waved them through.
Mother handed him their invitation.
His face was stoic as he read their names. “Welcome to Selbourne Castle, Lady Everly, Miss Everly. If you would please follow me. I am Mr. Greyson, should you have need of anything.”
“Thank you,” Lady Everly replied.
Violet hoped her smile was adequate. She wanted to hide behind her mother as the butler led them across the large hall, but voices pulled her attention to the end of the hall, where the steps led up to a small room. Two gentlemen and a lady stood in front of the sofas before the fire. She tried not to stare, so instead, she lifted her focus to the ceiling.
Then a gasp escaped her.
Her mother screeched to a halt and also looked up. Her gasp closely followed her daughter’s.
The magnificent, intricately carved wood arches glowed like honey, bathed in the afternoon sun from the large stone windows above high, wood-paneled walls. Everything about this place was large, and a bit overwhelming, but it left Violet in awe.
It was beautiful in its own way, steeped in its history like a strong tea.
She moved her gaze to the smaller room at the end of the hall. The occupants now stood on the steps. The woman must be the Duchess of Selbourne. On her left, Lord Andrews. She’d seen him in passing during her three seasons. He wasn’t the type that lingered in ballrooms. He was a blade and a rake, as Violet understood it.
She steeled herself as they reached the bottom of the steps, and then darted a glance to the right of the duchess. The duke was partially cast in shadow by the heavy velvet drapes adorning the archway, which led to this cozier room off the grand hall, but she could still see him quite clearly.
His eyes caught hers, just as before. He seemed startled, but then he blinked, and his expression changed to something unreadable.
Violet had only a second to take him in, or she would appear rude for gawking. The single moment of eye contact left her reeling, however. Her pulse thundered, and heat washed all over her body. He was entirely different than the man she’d met before: larger, broader, more intense—and not the least bit sick, in any way.
His eyes still had the ability to devastate her nerves. So did his head.
It was bald.
Other than a minor scar to his right eyebrow and upper lip, he appeared normal—if normal was devastatingly handsome and intimidatingly large. The papers had lied, fabricating his appearance no doubt to make money off his tragedy. There was no monster here. Unless the scars are someplace I can’t see, perhaps under his clothing? Or perhaps it isn’t a physical deformity at all that fueled the rumors, but his behavior?
Only time in his presence would determine if that was the case, something she was eager to have.
The duchess stepped down the three steps to meet them, and introductions were exchanged. Lord Andrews brushed a kiss over Violet’s knuckles with practiced charm. He was handsome, a watered-down version of his brother, the duke, from years ago, but he had fashionable hair. He was everything that a woman would want in a prospective husband upon first appearance, but to Violet, he was a mere shadow of the man she truly wanted.
She turned in the duke’s direction, determined to snare his attention, but he was gone.
“You’ll have to forgive my brother. He’s been away from civilized company for quite some time,” Lord Andrews said.
Violet had no choice but to accept Lord Andrew’s offered arm and his assistance up the steps into the smaller room. It was equally as lovely but far more comfortable than the grand hall.
Her grace offered tea, or the option of retiring to their rooms to freshen up. Violet was grateful her mother chose the latter. Their journey hadn’t been long, coming from Scotland, rather than farther south, like all the other guests, but they could still do with some time to themselves.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Kemp, was summoned at once to guide them to their rooms. Violet was eager to escape Lord Andrew’s presence—not that she had any ill feelings toward the man, but she was not here for him, no matter what she told her mother.
They were shown to adjoining rooms, decorated in pleasing shades of creams and blues. Their luggage had already arrived.
“I’m going to rest my eyes, Violet,” Lady Everly informed her. “Our journey was short, but my head is aching.”
“Yes, I will rest, as well. Shall I wake you for tea?”
“Yes, my dear. More guests will have arrived by then.”
She nodded as her mother entered the adjacent room and closed the door, but not fully. There was a small crack of light that warned Violet she would not be completely alone. She could also hear their shared lady’s maid, Janice, in her mother’s room, helping her undress.
Violet did the same, but instead of crawling under the counterpane, she opened her trunk and pulled out a simple, hunter green walking dress. She tossed it over her head as the door creaked. Poking her head out the top, she saw Janice standing there, with her arms folded.
“Close the door,” she whispered, as she tugged her dress down.
“I won’t ask what you’re doing,” the maid said, in her lilting Scottish accent.
“Just as well.” Violet turned, so Janice could do up the back. “I’ll be back before my mother wakes for tea.”
“And if she wakes before?”
Violet looked over her shoulder. “I’m going for a walk. It’s the truth.”
The other woman rolled her eyes. “I’ll bet it is.”
Janice fixed Violet’s falling curls and then left her mistress to her own devices.
Violet dug through her trunk and pulled out the tattered red kite. She wasn’t going to bother creating an elaborate excuse when a simple walk was enough reason to do a little exploring outside. It was a lovely day, and her stiff muscles could use the exercise after spending hours in a carriage.
Kite in hand, she whispered a prayer, hoping it would work its magic again.
A maid directed her to the rear of the castle, which thankfully, wasn’t built like a maze. Violet exited a side door and stepped out onto a gravel path that led to the back gardens. She wouldn’t have known this castle had gardens. From the front drive, the landscape appeared barren and lonely.
There wasn’t much greenery, but she was swept away by the view. The gardens sloped down in tiers, with neatly boxed flower beds edging each row. The garden overlooked the sea, the blue-green water sparkling under an afternoon sun. The color matched the duke’s eyes.
Was he born here? Was he shaped by the sea and the soil, and birthed from the earth?
She shivered and hugged the kite. Wherever he was, he wasn’t in this immaculate garden. Something told her he preferred more untamed beauty.
She followed the top garden tier to a path that led away from the formal gardens, and down a slope to what looked like a stable, surrounded by paddocks and open fields. She could see a lone rider approaching the stable. He wore a top hat, but her gut clenched at the sight of him, and Violet somehow knew it was the duke.
The wind coming from the sea plastered her skirts to her legs, and she shivered, her hands shaking as she unwound the kite. It was difficult to run and hold the kite steady, but she managed to keep her stride, and soon it took flight, the spool of string jerking in her hands as the wind caught it.
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