Blame It on the Duke
Disgraceful Dukes Book 3
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About the Book
Have you heard?
The future Duke of Barrington has just been gambled away by his father. To an heiress!
The delicious details thus far…
Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.
A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.
Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.
It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.
This ought to be fun . . .
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“Compassion beautifully merges with heated passion in Bell’s third Disgraceful Dukes novel. Readers know to expect the unexpected from the talented Bell, and she delivers with a unique cast of characters, surprising plot twists and sizzling sexual tension all designed to keep the reader glued to the pages.” (RT Book Reviews (4 1/2 stars))
A debut that reads like an instant classic. Message to my readers: You’ll love Lenora Bell! (Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author)
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Excerpt from Blame It on the Duke
Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The Kama Sutra of Vātsyāyana
Ballroom of the Duke of Barrington’s House
Venus rose from the undulating green waves, naked save for her long red-gold hair and a serene smile.
Ethereal harp music rippled through the air.
The small audience of titled gentlemen burst into applause.
“Who is she, Hatherly?” Captain Lear asked.
“She’s mine.” Nick’s gaze caressed the classical lines of his soon-to-be mistress’s lavishly curved form.
Lear grinned roguishly. “Does she have a twin sister?”
“How about the handmaiden?” Nick glanced at the pretty actress with long, flowing brown hair, threaded with white roses, waiting to garb Venus in a robe of sheer pink silk.
“You make off with a goddess and I rate a mere handmaid?”
“What can I say, old friend?” Nick poured Lear more French Armagnac from a glass decanter on the round table in front of them. “It’s my party.”
Nick was infamous throughout society for his hedonistic entertainments. For tonight’s festivities he’d recreated Botticelli’s exquisite painting, The Birth of Venus, searching the opera houses of London for the perfect muse. No matter that her name was Sally and she hailed from Liverpool.
Tonight she was Botticelli’s Venus.
Art made flesh.
And tomorrow she’d be transformed back into the reigning goddess of the demimonde.
Lear chuckled, his gaze sweeping over the gentlemen seated around the stage Nick had constructed in the ballroom at Sunderland House, his father’s palatial London mansion. “Just look at ’em. Rapt as babes with their mother’s teat. You’ll have trouble besting this one, Hatherly.”
Nick nodded ruefully. “It’s getting harder to devise new amusements. I’ve seen everything. Done everything.”
“What you need is a change of scenery. Wide open skies, bracing sea air . . .” Lear winked. “Buxom barmaids at every port. Flexible flamenco dancers.”
In polite parlance Lear was known as an adventurer; a ship for hire.
Others called him a pirate.
He certainly wasn’t a true captain in the Royal Navy with his tanned skin, long black hair, and small gold hoop pierced through one ear, but he kept Nick supplied with this oak-aged brandy from France and spiced Portuguese wine, so Nick didn’t ask too many questions.
Lear clapped a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Come with me on my next voyage. No, I’m serious,” he said as Nick began to protest. “When was the last time you left London? You’re suffocating here in this soot-stained city when there’s a whole world to explore.”
His friend’s words conjured a long-buried memory. Salt spray crusted on his cheeks. Staring over a bleak, gray ocean. In the cabin below, his father, the Duke of Barrington and celebrated orchid collector, feverishly scribbling in his journal, pausing only to fill his inkwell. Endless cramped lines of gibberish, his mind gone murky and as unfathomable as the ocean they crossed.
Nick suppressed a shudder and swallowed the rest of the brandy in his glass, savoring the tart, sweet apple and caramel flavor.
“I’ll never set foot on a ship again,” he said, his voice low and even, but the words ripped from his soul. “Hate the ocean. Hate the boredom. Pacing the deck for months on end. I’d go mad. Only did it for my father.”
Lear searched his face with a puzzled expression.
With an effort, Nick restored his customary expression of amused carelessness. “Only ships I want to see are theatrical props, old friend,” he said heartily, gesturing at the stage where the prow of a ghostly ship, stark against the blue backdrop, was rolling into view, signaling it was nearly time for Venus to sing.
Her talents had been completely wasted in the chorus of that halfpenny opera.
She had a smoky swirl to her voice that quickened a man’s pulse.
This was where Nick belonged.
Here, in the depraved heart of the decadent kingdom he’d built for himself.
If the future held madness, he’d damned well drain every last drop of pleasure out of each moment left.
He’d go insane in grand style, the most envied man in London, with a voluptuous goddess in his bed, and a cellar full of expensive brandy.
“Besides,” Nick said, “you know I can’t leave the duke here alone. His mental derangement waxes and wanes. Today he’s fine. Tomorrow he could be manic like poor old George. Rest his soul.” Mad King George had gone to his troubled grave in the end of January, only four months previous.
“Where is Barrington?” Lear craned his neck, searching the room. “I haven’t paid my respects.”
“Left him slumbering in his chambers with his attendant, Stubbs, watching outside the door. No doubt the old man’s dreaming of searching for elusive ghost orchids in tropical climes.”
“I brought him some rare bulbs from Spain this time,” Lear said. He brought the duke orchids every time he returned to London. “Packed them in bark and kept them warm and cozy so they should have survived. There’s money in orchid collecting these days. May have to find a wealthy investor and hunt some myself on my next—”
A deep voice sounded from the stage, drowning his words. “Ho, there! Comely Venus! Have you seen my son?”
Nick glanced up sharply, sloshing brandy over his cuff.
His father balanced on the prow of the ship, swaying in time with the lengths of billowing silk waves. For some reason he was wearing evening dress, though his cravat had come undone and his white hair was standing on end.
Lear snorted. “Slumbering in his bed, eh?”
“How the devil did he climb up there? And where’s his caretaker?” Nick scanned the room for Mr. Stubbs, whom he’d hired from an agency after too many nurses quit because of the duke’s amorous advances. His father’s mind may have weakened, but his predilection for buxom older ladies remained firm.
“Young lady, you ought to put some clothing on,” the duke called to Venus.
Venus made surreptitious silencing motions, striving to maintain her beatific smile as the audience laughed.
“You’ll catch your death on that clamshell in your altogether,” the duke scolded loudly.
Her moment of triumph was quickly evaporating.
“He’s liable to break his neck,” Nick said. “The ship’s not meant for anyone to stand on.”
It was only a shell made from rotting old timber and mounted on wheels. Nick had rented the ship, as well as an entire theatrical troupe, for the evening from a theater on King Street.
“Help me fetch him down.” Motioning for Lear to follow, Nick headed toward the stage.
“Thar he be!” the duke thundered, pointing at Nick.
“Come down from there,” Nick called.
“Come and fetch me,” the duke crowed.
More laughter from the onlookers.
Venus pouted and stamped a dainty foot on her plaster clamshell.
Which made the audience laugh even harder.
That’s when the harpist seated to the left of the stage decided this had become a comedy and began improvising a rollicking sea shanty. The violins joined in, to the spectators’ vast amusement.
Hearing the change in the music, the duke glanced up with a gleam in his faded gray eyes and began to dance what looked like it was meant to be a hornpipe.
Nick’s blood froze as his father tottered precariously on the rolling deck.
He vaulted onto the stage with Lear close behind.
“Distract him,” Nick said urgently. “Keep him talking. If he’s talking, he’s not dancing. If he’s not dancing, the ship might hold.”
“Aye.” Lear nodded. “What are you doing up there, Your Grace?” he called. “Why don’t you climb down?”
“Hullo, Cap’n,” the duke said in a jovial, booming tone of voice. “I needed a platform. I’ve an announcement to make. Where’s my son? Wasn’t he with you?”
Nick’s boot became tangled in the green silk stretched across the stage. He wrenched free and raced for the ship.
“Speech! Speech!” called someone from the audience.
The inside of the ship smelled like piss. An actor or two must have mistaken it for the privy. The smell made Nick’s eyes water as he climbed the rickety ladder that the duke must have used to reach the deck.
“I played a game of cards tonight,” Nick heard the duke proclaim. “Not supposed to gamble. ’Tis a sin, I know.”
“Had a lucky night?” someone shouted.
“I lost.” Nick heard the familiar sound of confusion in his father’s voice. “Rather badly, I’m afraid.”
The sound of the spectators’ hilarity was muted from inside the hollow hull of the ship.
“How much did you lose?” Lear kept the conversation flowing, stalling for time as Nick had instructed.
“Not how much . . . whom,” the duke replied.
Nick gripped the ladder’s wooden slats. He’d have his father down within seconds.
“Fine then, whom did you lose?” Lear asked.
“My son,” boomed Nick’s father. “Gambled him clean away.”
What in hell was that supposed to mean?
Nick took a deep breath. It couldn’t possibly be true. The duke suffered from delusions and this was merely a new one.
Nick grabbed hold of the duke’s boot, and his father stuck his head down the opening. “That you, Nicolas?”
“It’s me,” Nick said grimly. “Now clasp my hand and I’ll help you down.”
“No,” his father said stubbornly. “I’m making an announcement.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Hush. My audience awaits.” His father popped his head back up the opening.
Nick sighed. Bodily force it was, then.
“As I was saying, I lost the marquess at cards,” the duke proclaimed. “To a wealthy baronet. So you see, fair Venus, he won’t be yours much longer. He’s to be married to Miss Alice—”
The end of his announcement grew garbled as, with one swift tug, Nick grabbed his father’s boots and pulled him into his arms.
Not a moment too soon.
The rotting deck splintered as Nick carried his father down the ladder.
Nick shielded the duke as a wooden beam jarred across his back.
Safely away from the collapsing ship and off the stage, Nick placed an arm around his father’s shoulders.
“You’re all right,” he soothed, as his father stared wildly about him, frightened by the sound of splintering wood and the shouting from the gentlemen in the audience.
Captain Lear helped Venus off her shell and draped his evening coat about her shoulders.
She glared at Nick. Her expression did not bode well for the night of debauchery he’d planned.
Lear made a chivalrous bow and kissed her hand. “Captain Lear, at your service, Miss Venus.”
“Sally’s the name,” she cooed in her smoky, sensual voice. “Though you may call me anything you like, Captain.” She tossed her long gold curls and narrowed her eyes at Nick. “If you take me away from here.”
“I believe that could be arranged.” Lear glanced at Nick.
Nick gave his friend a brief nod. Who could blame the lovely opera singer for wanting to leave? They hadn’t even become lovers yet. Nick had promised her sensational success and the adulation of every gentleman in the room, and delivered only farce. She’d no doubt be happier with Lear tonight.
Lear flashed Nick a triumphant grin as he led his prize away. Goddess, he mouthed. Mine.
Nick groaned. This evening was plummeting to hell faster than a bishop in a bawdy house.
Members of the acting troupe had already cleared away the ship’s wreckage. Nick caught the manager’s eye and gestured for the next act to begin.
The show must go on.
Nick placed an arm around his father’s shoulders and helped him across the room, shielding him from the swarm of inebriated gentlemen who all seemed to be speaking at the same time.
“Did you truly wager the marquess, Your Grace?”
“Who’s the lucky lady?”
The Earl of Camden’s heavy jowls wobbled into Nick’s peripheral vision. “Not to worry, Hatherly.” He laughed. “I’m sure the girl will be gentle with you on your wedding night.”
Elbow jabs to the ribs.
Everyone howling with merriment.
Nick laughed along, pretending this was all a huge joke.
With such an unpredictable father, he’d learned to hide his emotions and appear cavalier no matter what happened.
“Back to your seats, gents,” he called. “You won’t want to miss what comes next.”
When they were safely away from the ballroom, Nick relaxed his grip on his father’s shoulders. “That was a fine show, Barrington. You could have injured yourself.”
His father grinned sheepishly. “I’ve always loved a good climb. Haven’t I?” His voice wobbled as he asked the question, filling with uncertainty.
He’d been an adventurer before the madness claimed him, scaling mountains the world over, finding rare orchids for his collections.
“Always.” Nick smoothed his father’s wiry white hair down but it sprang right back up. “Let’s find your bed, shall we? Where’s Stubbs?”
“Don’t know. Maybe still at the Crimson?”
The Crimson? Had his father truly visited such a notorious gaming hell? Didn’t seem probable. His many vices had never included gambling, and Nick trusted that Stubbs would never have allowed the duke to enter such a place.
“You didn’t really gamble, did you?” asked Nick.
His father cast his gaze to the carpet. “I did.” He clutched Nick’s hand. “It was you or Sunderland. Had to make a choice, you see?”
The aging duke loved Sunderland House with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a scrap of driftwood—the house was his last, tenuous link to sanity. Here, in the familiar surroundings of his childhood, with his orchid conservatory and his son to care for him, the duke remained relatively tranquil and his malady harmed no one.
“Easy now.” Nick unclenched the duke’s gnarled fingers. “We’ll speak of it in the morning,” he said lightly, steering his father up the stairs.
The duke leaned heavily on Nick’s arm as they climbed the stairs. “Lost you to Sir Alfred Tombs. Had the devil’s own luck . . .” He yawned. “Daughter’s name is Alice. Hear she’s . . . pretty at least . . .”
His chin nodded near his chest and Nick propped him up, half carrying him to his chambers.
Sir Alfred—wealthy shipping merchant. Reputation for ruthlessness. Nick had even met the daughter once at an art exhibition. He remembered her perfectly.
Miss Tombs was pretty, Nick would give her that. On the tall side for a female, with a fine complexion, deep dimples, and sparkling turquoise eyes.
Nick had been contemplating a seductive portrait of a gauze-draped woman when Miss Tombs had suddenly appeared, a vision of virginal white lace and rosy cheeks. Very sweet and wholesome . . . until she opened her mouth.
For some reason, she’d decided to beguile him with a gory description of how the portrait artist had died of a putrid fever. She’d described the entire course of the putrefaction in lurid and gleeful detail, with no agonizing or malodorous aspect spared.
Good God. The ghoulish Miss Tombs was as far from a prospective bride as Nick could imagine.
Not that he ever imagined marriage.
That venerable institution was the snare waiting to trap unsuspecting gentlemen into allowing one lady to ruin them for all others, as it had done to his friends the Duke of Harland and the Duke of Osborne, who were foolishly, irretrievably in love with their wives.
Nick was the last man standing of their disreputable band of ruffians and rogues.
Speaking of ruffians and rogues, where were his so-called servants? Not a one to be found when he needed them.
The duke roused slightly as Nick helped him remove his coat and cravat. “What time is it?”
The duke held out his hand to Nick with a befuddled expression. “I think I have a splinter.”
Nick plucked a small painted slice of boat from his father’s palm. “Good as new. Into bed with you.”
Obediently, the duke snuggled under the coverlet. “Nicolas?”
“I gambled you away.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Oh.” His father was silent for a moment. “Well, marriage might do you good.” He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “You need someone . . . to love. But find someone strong. Not delicate, nor easily crushed.”
“Go to sleep now.” Nick tucked the covers tighter around his father.
As soon as the duke’s breathing grew slow and steady, he left to go find Stubbs. The man had many questions to answer.
You need someone to love.
He tried to shake his father’s words away but they stuck like a splinter in his mind.
It wasn’t that Nick didn’t believe in love. He just didn’t believe in tomorrow—or in any kind of permanence.
He kept his amatory liaisons on a surface level, protecting his heart as stringently as he protected against unwanted progeny.
He had no intention of marrying or passing on the suffering of the curse that lurked in his direct line. His sanctimonious curate of a cousin would be delighted to inherit the dukedom and restore the family’s reputation when Nick’s dark days were done.
“Bargained away like a harem girl,” he muttered as he descended the stairs. “I’ll never live this down.”
It must be one of his father’s outlandish imaginings, but the rumor would spread across London like an outbreak of plague and slosh its way across the channel to his mother in her extravagantly expensive apartments in Switzerland.
He’d unravel the tangle in the morning. Right now he had to find Stubbs, before returning to the ballroom and attempting to control the damage.
Give the gentlemen he’d invited enough brandy and actresses and they might forget the duke’s announcement.
And even if it did turn out to be true, there was no chance Nick would allow anyone to coerce him into marriage, least of all a grasping merchant and his pretty but decidedly odd daughter.
Nick gripped the smooth wooden staircase balustrade.
They had no idea whom they were dealing with.