How the Duke Was Won
Disgraceful Dukes Book 1
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About the Book
The pleasure of your company is requested at Warbury Park. Four lovely ladies will arrive… but only one can become a duchess.
James, the scandalously uncivilized Duke of Harland, requires a bride with a spotless reputation for a strictly business arrangement. Lust is prohibited and love is out of the question.
Four ladies. Three days. What could go wrong?
She is not like the others…
Charlene Beckett, the unacknowledged daughter of an earl and a courtesan, has just been offered a life-altering fortune to pose as her half-sister, Lady Dorothea, and win the duke’s proposal. All she must do is:
* Be the perfect English rose [Ha!]
* Breathe, smile, and curtsy in impossibly tight gowns [blast Lady Dorothea’s sylph-like figure]
* Charm and seduce a wild duke [without appearing to try]
* Keep said duke far, far from her heart [no matter how tempting]
When secrets are revealed and passion overwhelms, James must decide if the last lady he should want is really everything he needs. And Charlene must decide if the promise of a new life is worth risking everything . . . including her heart.
“How the Duke was Won is exciting and emotional–evocative of the best of the genre. If you’ve been looking for a bold, new voice in historical romance, the search ends here. Lenora Bell is it.” (Sarah MacLean, New York Times bestselling author)
“Fresh, flirty, and fabulous! Lenora Bell is the new Belle of Historical Romance!” (Kerrelyn Sparks, New York Times bestselling author)
“Bell has found a new avenue to the happily-ever-after of the Regency era, and it’s one that fans will enjoy exploring. Bold and sweet as good chocolate, this debut romance will give Regency fans a new author for their must-read list.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“Debut author Bell begins the Disgraceful Dukes Regency series with a winning tale in which disreputable but charming protagonists bond over a shared passion for righting social injustices….Colorful supporting characters, plentiful plot twists, and the trials of star-crossed lovers make for a sizzling and heartwarming page-turner.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“HOW THE DUKE WAS WON hooked me from page one with its humor, emotion, and captivating characters. Lenora Bell is a true delight to read.” (Lorraine Heath, USA Todaybestselling author)
“HOW THE DUKE WAS WON is everything that made me first fall in love with historical romances while still being new and different. Trust me…you’ve been waiting for Lenora Bell.” (Sophie Jordan, New York Times bestselling author)
“RWA Golden Heart winner Bell’s debut romance, the first in her Disgraceful Dukes series, is a knockout with its seductive combination of breathtakingly sexy romance, a refreshingly unconventional hero and heroine, and clever writing infused with droll wit.” (Booklist (starred review))
A debut that reads like an instant classic. Message to my readers: You’ll love Lenora Bell! (Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author)
“Bell’s talented debut is full of characters whose antics, from the clever to the ridiculous, will have readers laughing out loud. Charlene is smart and tough and easily steals the show with her gutsy nonconformity. Regency romance fans will delight in this expert start to a fun new series.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Combine The Princess and the Pea with a dollop of Cinderella and you have Bell’s fresh, lively romance! Along with its carefully crafted plot, rapid-fire repartee, quick pace and delightful characters, this sensual tale is a delectable romance made to charm.” (RT Book Reviews)
Awards & Honors for How the Duke Was Won
Winner of the 2014 Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® Award for unpublished Historical Romance (working title CHARLENE AND THE DUCHESS FACTORY).
Winner of the 2016 RT Book Reviews Award for Best First Historical Romance
Listed in Best Romance of 2016:
Excerpt from How the Duke Was Won
James aimed at her gold-kissed curls and serene smile and launched his dagger. Right on target. Dead center between her placid blue eyes.
“An excellent choice, Your Grace.” Cumberford pushed his spectacles up his narrow nose and consulted a ledger. “Lady Dorothea Beaumont, eldest daughter of the Earl of Desmond.”
Lady Dorothea. A thoroughbred groomed to bear champions. “What do you think of her, Dalton?”
The only answer was an inebriated snore. James’s friend Garrett, Marquess of Dalton, was stretched out on a sofa, arm dangling off the edge, still clutching an empty brandy glass.
James selected another dagger from the leather case and perused the pastel sketches he’d commissioned anonymously from a newspaper illustrator.
Thwack. His blade pierced a delicate swan neck. Thwack. He skewered an aristocratic nose.
Cumberford recited pedigrees, edging as far from the knives as possible.
James downed more brandy.
How had it come to this? He was the family disgrace, the exiled devil-may-care spare. He should be hacking a path through a West Indies jungle, not choosing duchess candidates.
Marriage had never been in the plan.
His next throw wobbled east, narrowly missing Cumberford’s nose, and stuck in the burgundy leather spine of The Life and Times of his venerable forebear, the first Duke of Harland.
If Cumberford disapproved of James scarring the mahogany-paneled library walls, he didn’t let on. He’d been the Harlands’ man of business far too long to betray emotion.
“Damn!” said James.
“Wassat?” Dalton finally lifted his head off the sofa cushions.
“Almost chose Cumberford.”
“Quite all right, Your Grace,” said Cumberford.
“Almost what? Why have you got a knife in your hand?” Dalton groaned and threw his elbow over his eyes. “Where am I?”
James inclined his head, and a footman poured Dalton another drink.
Dalton closed his bloodshot blue eyes. “I’m going to be sick.”
“None of that.” James hauled his friend off the sofa and curled Dalton’s fingers around a knife handle. “Make yourself useful.”
Dalton stared at the dagger. “You’re right. Once you’re caught in the matrimonial trap, I’ll be one of the Last and Final Hopes. It’ll be hideous. I should end it all now.”
“Not you, idiot.” James spun him to face the lineup of paper lovelies. “One of them.”
Three knife-riddled ladies glared back. They didn’t much like being pincushions. James swore Lady Dorothea’s wide eyes had narrowed.
“You haven’t thought this through,” Dalton said. “They’ll be on you like a pack of wolves. Warbury Park will be swarming with conniving females. I have to leave. Now.” He took an unsteady step.
James propped him up. “Since you arrived unannounced, you could at least stay to help evaluate the candidates.”
“If you must audition a wife, why not wait until the season, like a civilized fellow?” Dalton smacked his forehead with his free hand. “Oh, wait. I forgot. You’re never civilized. You do know what they’re calling you in London? ‘His Disgrace.’”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“At least consider cropping that barbaric beard. Makes you look like a pirate.”
“Just throw the knife.”
Dalton squinted at the row of drawings fixed to the library walls. “All the same anyway,” he slurred. “Soft lips and fluttery lashes. Until they snare you. Then it’s harpy tongue and Medusa stare. Turn a man to stone for glancing at another girl. No fun, I tell you. None at all.”
James shrugged. “It’s the fathers I’m really wooing. Cumberford assures me these are the most influential men with eligible and refined daughters.”
“Ah ha!” Dalton clutched James’s cravat. “If it’s the fathers you want, invite them here. We’ll ply ’em with your excellent brandy and negotiate like gentlemen. You won’t even have to meet the daughter until the wedding.”
James shook his head. “I want to choose my bride. I need a sensible business partner. Someone gracious, genteel, irreproachable…all that I’m damn well not.”
“Best of luck with that, then.”
“When did you become so cynical? You were always waxing eloquent about Beauty and Aesthetics at school.”
“Life.” Dalton brandished the knife. “Life happened, old friend. Disappointments too numerous to name. Certain you won’t reconsider?”
“Impossible. You know the score.”
“I know, I know.” Dalton made a wry face. “Must produce heir. Preserve the Harland legacy. Open your precious manufactory. All that nonsense. Bloody rotten business if you ask me.”
“I don’t like it any more than you do. Marriage is the last thing I want. I don’t need more complications.” James drummed his fingers on his thigh.
He didn’t want any of this. The dukedom or the society bride.
He’d spent the last ten years roaming the world, living by his own rules, and he wasn’t about to move back to cold, restrictive England and become a narrow-minded tyrant like his father. Instead, James would find a blameless virgin to sacrifice to the gods of Reputation and Respectability, one with a father of ample means and solid political connections, and leave as soon as possible.
He swept a hand toward the pastel sketches. “One of these lovely ladies is sure to be duchess material. A demure, mannerly—”
“Medusa!” Remarkably, Dalton managed to sink his blade into the edge of one of the drawings.
Cumberford permitted himself a small sigh of relief. “Another superb choice. Miss Alice Tombs, daughter of Sir Alfred Tombs, rumored to have amassed a fortune of over—”
“That’s four now,” said James. “Deliver the invitations, Cumberford. I want this bride business concluded as swiftly as possible.”
It was already August. The mourning period for his father and brother had kept him in England too long. He must set sail for the West Indies before the hurricane season made ocean crossings more dangerous. He would stay here in England only long enough to sire an heir and ensure the success of his new cocoa manufactory.
“Very good, Your Grace.” Cumberford bowed. “I shall personally deliver the invitations to the fortunate ladies tomorrow morning.”
James nodded his dismissal, and his man of business practically sprinted for the door, eager to distance himself from the drunken target practice.
“It’s not too late.” Dalton raised a fist. “Call off the hounds! Stop the hunt!”
“Four ladies. Three days. How bad can it be?”
Dalton sighed. “You’ve no idea. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Duke.”
The duke was dead.
James helped Dalton back to the sofa and poured himself more brandy.
He could still see the silver-handled coffin disappearing into the dark crypt beneath the black-draped family chapel. Could still smell death and sickly sweet lilies. The English rain had soaked through wool and linen, turning his skin to ice.
James jammed a blade deep into the smooth mahogany of his father’s desk.
I’m the last of my line. I never wanted this. I never wanted to be the duke.
His brother, William, had been the consummate family scion. Steady, sober, obedient…law abiding. But he’d died in the same carriage accident that had left their father mortally wounded and claimed his life six months later.
James tugged at the noose society called a cravat, craving air. He’d never been any good at following rules or treading a prescribed path. But there were so many people depending on him now.
Not only tenants and workers. He thought of the little girl upstairs in the nursery. Her dark, sad eyes and rebellious screaming fits. Such an unexpected responsibility.
But she would be safe in England with an elegant, blameless duchess to protect her from society’s inevitable scorn and oversee her development. He knew it was a lot to ask of a debutante.
He took a sip of brandy and contemplated the sketches.
He wasn’t cut out to be a duke, but he could choose the perfect duchess.
Cumberford had gathered a predictable batch of English roses. No doubt they had the blinkered eyes and fettered souls of a respectable aristocratic upbringing.
James had been uncharacteristically celibate since arriving in England, but he was certain that society debutantes would be too timid to tempt him, which was for the best. He couldn’t afford any distractions. This was a business arrangement, not a love match.
He emptied the brandy bottle and raised a glass to Lady Dorothea’s innocent eyes and beatific smile.
She’d have to be a bloody saint to marry the likes of him.
Some nights Charlene Beckett didn’t feel like being a saint.
When her back ached and her fingers were red and raw from the washing. When her head pounded from staring at figures that never seemed to add up to what they needed.
Some nights it was difficult to smile, give comfort, be strong.
Tonight was one of those nights.
Every footfall dragged heavier than the last as she climbed the stairs to her room. All she wanted was to crawl into bed and pull the counterpane over her head. Shut out the sounds drifting down from overhead.
Soft giggles. Blustery male voices. A tinkling pianoforte.
Trussed up in rose-colored velvet and plumes, floating on laudanum to suppress the cough that grew worse every day, Mama was holding court upstairs in her discreet bawdy house known as the Pink Feather.
Charlene rested against the wall for a moment. The sound of her mother coughing made her wince. Tomorrow she’d find a way to convince her mother to stop working. Tonight Charlene needed to sleep.
The door to her room was ajar.
“Lulu?” she asked as she opened the door, thinking her younger sister might be waiting for her.
An aquiline nose above a gleaming white cravat emerged from the gloom.
Charlene’s heart clenched. The moment she’d been dreading for more than a year was finally here.
Not tonight. Please, not tonight.
“I’ve been waiting for you, pretty bird.” Lord Grant rose from where he sat near the window.
“Lord Grant.” She managed to keep her voice steady despite the panic clawing at her throat. “We didn’t expect you for several months yet.”
“I couldn’t leave my flock alone so long, now, could I?”
He stepped into the light of the oil lamp, and Charlene swallowed back revulsion. He peeled off gray kid gloves and set them on the table. Ran a hand through wavy brown hair, thick with orange-scented pomade. He might have been handsome if she hadn’t known the deep streak of cruelty beneath the polished façade.
Grant’s assessing gaze swept her body. “Still beautiful, I see, even in that drab gown.”
Charlene opened the door wider, searching the hall for movement. They were alone.
She stopped herself from flinching as he approached.
His finger brushed her cheek. “I’ve dreamt of this moment.”
So had Charlene. Only in her dreams, it was bright daylight and she burned with enough keen-edged hatred to slice through this suffocating fear.
“We need more time,” she said.
“More time?” He cupped her chin in his palm. “I don’t understand.”
“To raise the funds. We need more time.”
Charlene’s mother, known as Madame Swan, had opened the exclusive bawdy house with gifts from a grateful benefactor, but she was too softhearted for this business. Most of the profit went to her employees. She’d accepted a loan from Lord Grant, a frequent patron, and now he was here to collect.
He laughed and framed Charlene’s cheeks with his hands. She twisted her head away, but he jerked it back into place.
His fingernails were half crescents of white, buffed to a shine. He wasn’t one to get his hands dirty. She was surprised he hadn’t brought one of his guards tonight to subdue her if she proved troublesome. Which she would.
“You never learn, do you,” he said. “Life doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s very simple.” He rested his forehead against hers. “I want you, nothing else. You’re all the payment I require.”
He nipped at her earlobe, the heavy, bitter-orange scent of his hair clogging her senses. “I’m willing to forgive and forget.”
Charlene stilled. He was willing to forgive. She fought a swell of anger that threatened to swamp her control. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been wielding a blazing brand, preparing to mark her with his family crest. Induct her into his private harem.
He dipped his head to nuzzle her cheek. “Don’t make this unnecessarily difficult.”
She would never forget the moment when he’d held the glowing brand above her shoulder. Her world had been separated, like the whites of an egg from the yolk. Before, she’d believed that life held promise, maybe even the possibility of love. Afterward, she’d known that wealthy, titled gentlemen had a core of evil. She would never fall in love. Never give anyone even a modicum of power over her
The timely arrival of Kyuzo, the bawdy house guard, had helped her escape before Grant had branded her, and the baron had left for Scotland the next day. In the intervening year, she’d practiced defending herself, preparing for Grant’s return.
Remember your training, Charlene.
No anger. No fear. Only a gentle, flowing river.
He has no idea that you’re ready this time.
An arm snaked around her waist. He pulled her against his unyielding length. “Don’t fight me, pretty bird,” he whispered in her ear.
He kissed her neck.
“Let me go.”
“Don’t you want the things I can give you?” He sounded genuinely puzzled. “Aren’t you tired of wearing sackcloth and smelling of lye? I’ll bring you to live in luxury. You’ll have silks and French perfume.”
And she would be owned, kept for a man’s pleasure. She would never let that happen.
“Let me go,” she repeated, staring him straight in the eye.
“No. I’ve waited too long for this.”
Wait until his energy is full. Kyuzo’s words echoed in her mind. Use his energy against him. In that way you have the strength of two.
She turned her face to avoid his kiss. He clamped one large hand around her throat and forced her back to face him.
Swiftly, she stepped back, following Kyuzo’s instructions. Place both hands around the hand that holds your throat. Bend backward, away from harm. Twist his wrist. Lock your elbow above his elbow. Right foot to left foot. Force him down.
“What the devil?” Grant’s right knee hit the floor. He grunted in surprised pain, his arm bent at an awkward angle.
She could snap his elbow from this position.
Breathe. No anger.
She applied more pressure to his weak, extended elbow, forcing his other knee down to the floor. “I’m not yours for the taking.”
“You don’t decide that,” he gasped, struggling against the arm lock.
“Charlene.” Kyuzo burst into the room. “I heard a noise.”
Charlene released the baron.
Grant stumbled to his feet, cradling his elbow and wrist against his chest. He glared at Kyuzo. “I see you still have your mongrel protector.”
Kyuzo’s arms crossed over the formidable chest that had convinced her mother to hire him as a guard. “Miss Beckett said you were leaving.”
Charlene gathered the baron’s top hat, gloves, and overcoat, and thrust them into Grant’s arms.
Kyuzo took the baron’s elbow, but Grant wrenched free. “Don’t touch me.” His brown eyes turned nearly black. “I’ll be back to collect my due.”
“I’d think twice about coming back if I were you,” Kyuzo growled. “Go on with you then.” He steered the baron out the door ahead of him.
Charlene’s spine remained rigid until she heard them descending the stairs. She staggered against the wall, her knees buckling.
Grant would be back.
Even with taking in washing and selling Lulu’s paintings, they hadn’t saved nearly enough to repay the loan and the exorbitant interest he’d charged.
As her breathing returned to normal, Charlene searched her mind for a solution. She must find a way to settle their debt, close the house, protect Lulu from Grant.
She’d find a way.
She had to.
* ** END OF EXCERPT **