If I Only Had a Duke
Disgraceful Dukes Book 2
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About the Book
After four failed seasons and a disastrous jilting, Lady Dorothea Beaumont has had more than enough of her family’s scheming. She won’t domesticate a duke, entangle an earl, or vie for a viscount. She will quietly exit to her aunt’s Irish estate for a life of blissful freedom. Until an arrogant, sinfully handsome duke singles her out for a waltz, making Thea the most popular belle of the season.
The duke ruined her plans and he’ll just have to fix them.
Dalton, Duke of Osborne, is far too heartless for debutantes or marriage—he uses dalliances and public spectacle to distract from his real purpose: finding the man who destroyed his family. When his search leads to Ireland, the last thing he needs is the determined, achingly innocent Thea, who arrives in the dead of night demanding he escort her to her aunt. His foolish agreement may prove his undoing. The road to the Emerald Isle is faught with unforeseen dangers, but the greatest peril of all might just be discovering that he has a heart…and he’s losing it to Thea.
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“Bell has captured readers’ attention with her Disgraceful Dukes series, and now she cements her place as a fresh, vibrant voice in the genre with this emotionally powerful, highly romantic story. Well-crafted characters, tight plotting and plenty of passion are enhanced by witty dialogue, delightful letters and the perfect pace. It is the emotional power of the story and the characters that uplift readers and take Bell to new heights as an author.” — RT Book Reviews (Top Pick)
A debut that reads like an instant classic. Message to my readers: You’ll love Lenora Bell! — Eloisa James, New York Times bestselling author
“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
“Praise for How the Duke Was Won: “Fresh, flirty, and fabulous! Lenora Bell is the new Belle of Historical Romance!” — Kerrelyn Sparks, New York Times bestselling author
“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 Today bestselling 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
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Excerpt from If I Only Had a Duke
London, Spring 1819
Thea had made an error of epic proportions.
A tall, broad-shouldered, duke-sized error.
From the safe distance of her quill and foolscap her courage had been indomitable.
She’d planned to approach the Duke of Osborne at the first ball of the season, scatter his entourage of fluttering females with a quelling stare, and say something brilliantly persuasive and businesslike.
Something along the lines of Your Grace, hiding Artemisia’s lost paintings in your attic is akin to General Hutchinson abandoning the Rosetta Stone to Napoleon’s forces in Egypt.
Well, maybe that was a trifle dramatic, but it would deliver her point.
Knock over that first ivory domino piece and the rest in the formation always followed. And before she knew it she’d be back in Ireland, free to be imperfect at last.
But that first piece . . .
Of course she’d observed Osborne during her first two seasons, when he was still the Marquess of Dalton.
But tonight was different.
Tonight she needed something from him.
And he was so large. So very powerful and male.
A lady could feel all that maleness across a cavernous ballroom.
He didn’t walk—he strode. He didn’t ride—he galloped.
And when he wanted something—it was his for the taking.
He would not be easily toppled.
Even his cravat had a defiant air of carelessness that made the other gentlemen seem garroted by starched linen, while he roamed free.
Candles hissed overhead.
The sugary almond smell of ratafia punch triggered a sloshing of the old familiar panic in her belly, and the weight of the pearls her maid had threaded through her upswept curls sat heavy with the promise of a headache.
“Lady Dorothea, if you please.” Lady Desmond snapped her fan shut in front of Thea’s nose.
Thea blinked. “Yes, Mother?”
“This constant woolgathering simply won’t do. You must at least try to appear sufficiently transformed. Must I remind you that this is your final chance to make a good impression?”
No chance of that. She was too thoroughly ensconced in the collective mind of the ton as Disastrous Dorothea. Which was quite convenient when one wished to remain a wallflower veering into spinster territory.
“Are you listening to me?” Lady Desmond asked, narrowing her pale blue eyes.
“Now I’m going to leave you on your own soon so the gentlemen won’t be . . . dissuaded from asking you to dance.”
Terrified away from it, more like.
Thea had a bad reputation, but her mother’s was atrocious, since half of society suspected the deception to which she’d stooped in her ill-fated attempt to secure a duke for a son-in-law. Although it had never been proven.
“Do try to smile when a gentleman draws near,” Lady Desmond urged. “You look as though you’re at a funeral.”
In a way, she was. The final wake for her mother’s dreams . . . and Thea’s marital prospects.
To hasten her mother’s departure, Thea fastened a bright smile across her face. If she grinned any wider her head would split in half.
“And not one sliver of a giggle tonight, do you hear me? Not one little snort.”
“Yes, Mother.” Frustration simmered, but Thea refrained from a sharp retort. She needed her mother to leave so that she could find a way to corner the duke. “Of course I hear you. You’re standing right next to me.”
“Humph,” Lady Desmond responded. “And stop staring at the Duke of Osborne. It’s most unbecoming.”
Thea started guiltily. “I’m not staring at him.”
“You’re practically salivating, girl.” Lady Desmond tapped her fan against her palm. “I’ll grant you he’s a fine sight, but he’s not our target. Foxford will do nicely, I should say.” She glanced around the room. “Hasn’t arrived yet.”
Thea suppressed a shudder. Foxford would not do.
Not in a million years.
She’d been dutiful and obedient her entire life. Except for that one time. In the church.
But she had absolutely no intention of marrying a gentleman of her mother’s choosing.
The Duke of Osborne now commanded the exact center of Lady Thistlethwaite’s ballroom, his long limbs anchored to the marble floor, as if he were a ship’s masthead.
Widows in daringly low-cut satin eddied around him like frothing waves, and debutantes glowing with youth and optimism cast blushing glances, while their mamas plotted to entice the duke away from his aversion to marriage.
What had she been thinking? She couldn’t march right up to such a notorious rake. Every gaze in the room was fastened upon him.
She’d just have to write him another letter. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d do. A nice, safe letter from her desk.
Let’s see . . . Dear Monumental Duke, tonight I didn’t speak with you because—
“Oh, there’s Lady Gloucester.” The countess peered across the length of her narrow nose.
“I must hear the tale of Lady Augusta’s marriage. A mere officer. Poor as a church mouse. Can you imagine? I always knew she’d marry beneath her.”
Her mother sailed away in search of gossip.
A group of young, beribboned debutantes stared at Thea, giggling and whispering behind their ivory fans. She could just imagine their whispers.
Do you see her? That’s Disastrous Dorothea. Back from exile.
Really? Let me have a look at her. Why is she so disastrous?
You mean you haven’t heard about the jilting?
Thea unclenched her hands and stared up at a copy of Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda in its gilt frame, awash with stormy gray and flowing scarlet.
If only a fierce demigod would swoop down to rescue Thea from the sea monster of polite society.
Polite? Hardly. Only a thin veneer of civility masked the snide whispers and scrutinizing glances.
Ten years in Ireland wouldn’t have been sufficient to make them forget.
She caught sight of the duke disappearing through the glass doors leading to the balcony with Mrs. Renwick on his arm, no doubt headed for an intimate tête-à- tête.
Now was her chance to approach him with as few observers as possible.
What’s the worst that could happen? He could laugh in her face. Someone could witness her latest humiliation.
They’ve laughed before. Called you names.
Thea’s white slippers tapped across the rose-and-gray patterned marble before she had time to change her mind.
Conversation ebbed and flowed around her.
She kept her head lowered, concentrating on swirling white satin.
When it was absolutely unavoidable, when she could see the heels of the duke’s black dress shoes, Thea lifted her eyes.
His back was turned to her. He leaned down to whisper in Mrs. Renwick’s perfectly shell-shaped ear.
Dear heavens. From across the ballroom he’d appeared slightly more . . . manageable.
He was much, much larger up close.
This was never going to work. But it was too late to turn back now.
His shoulders stretched far above her head, as wide and tall as an executioner’s scaffold.
“Ahem.” She cleared her throat in a thoroughly unladylike manner.
He paid her no notice.
She reached up, and then up some more, and tapped his shoulder.
She could have been a fly buzzing around a bull for all the attention she generated.
Mrs. Renwick giggled and swatted the lapel of his black tailcoat with her red silk fan. “You’re incorrigible,” Thea heard her say.
Thea cleared her throat more loudly this time.
“Your Grace.” To Thea’s mortification the words emerged as a high-pitched squeak.
Good heavens, his eyes were blue. And not a faded blue gray like hers. A ruthless, take-no-prisoners midnight blue.
His forceful gaze held her transfixed. Pinioned to the balcony floor.
Waves of nausea sloshed through her belly.
Had his jaw always been so prominently carved? And that cleft directly in the center of his chin. Had it always been so pronounced?
Dark eyebrows arched.
Thea’s palms dampened and her heart raced. “Ah, there you are, Scheherazade,” the duke said with the hint of a smile. “I was wondering when you would make good on your threat.”
Not one sliver of a giggle, Thea heard her mother say.
She surreptitiously wiped her palms on her skirts. “Here I am, Your Grace,” she said brightly. “And there you are. I’m here . . . and you’re . . . well, you’re . . . there . . . ”
She was dithering. Of course she was dithering. She hadn’t once spoken to a gentleman without turning into a complete and utter ninny.
Mrs. Renwick’s violet eyes narrowed. “What sort of threat?”
“Lady Dorothea wishes to rummage about in one of my attics.” He didn’t sound pleased about it.
Mrs. Renwick closed her fan with a disapproving snap. “Whatever for?”
“To uncover lost paintings,” the duke replied.
Right, then. She could do this.
“I never meant to pry into your affairs, Your Grace,” she said in a rush, attempting to explain before her nerves got the better of her. “But when I discovered the Sleeping Venus in your attic, of all places, I couldn’t remain silent. The layers of lapis lazuli Artemisia used to create that particular shade of turquoise must have been very expensive. It was most probably created for a royal patron and is truly a rare example of—”
“Goddesses.” A slow, lazy grin quirked up one side of the duke’s sensuously molded upper lip. “I’m an admirer of goddesses.”
Mrs. Renwick pouted. The duke wasn’t paying enough attention to her celestial attributes. She swatted him again with her fan. “La, you do say the most outrageous things, Osborne.”
The emphasis she placed on the familiar use of the duke’s title was clearly meant to serve as a warning to Thea about poaching on other women’s territory.
She needn’t worry. Thea was no threat.
The duke held out his gloved hand. “Why don’t you tell me all about this Venus while we waltz, Lady Dorothea.”
What? She hadn’t said anything about waltzing.
Mrs. Renwick’s gaze turned positively poisonous.
And Thea’s hand did a very strange thing. It nestled into the duke’s palm.
Because those midnight eyes mesmerized her.
Because that seductive smile was a formidable weapon and she’d been asked to defend Rome against the Visigoths with only a toy sword.
Because the feeling of his large hand cradling hers was more powerful than nerves.
And then, quite suddenly, they were on the dance floor.
He captured her waist, fingers splaying wide, his other hand still engulfing hers.
One swift nod to the orchestra and the first strains of a waltz march spiraled into existence. He swung her in circles until they careened into the center of the floor and the other couples faded into blurs at the edges of her vision like flickering stars in a Michelangelo sky.
It was like waltzing with a windstorm.
The violins sawed faster, forced to skip directly to the Pirouette and then rush straight into the energetic Sauteuse in an attempt to match the duke’s punishing tempo.
Orchestras did his bidding.
The entire world danced to his direction. How supremely annoying.
“You’re not easily dissuaded, are you, Lady Dorothea?”
“I can’t . . . speak . . . if you spin me so fast,” she huffed. Which was true, but Thea also needed time to marshal her thoughts to order.
She hadn’t expected to make her petition while held in his strong arms.
He slowed his pace, and the violinists breathed sighs of relief.
Thea filled her lungs with air. She wasn’t drowned yet. “About those paintings, Your Grace—”
“Yes, tell me more. This Venus . . . is she”—eyelids lowered over dark eyes—“nude?”
Thea blinked. “Uh . . . she has a diaphanous drapery.”
“Diaphanous.” His hooded gaze flicked down her body, lingering on her bodice. “I like diaphanous.”
His hand tightened around hers, pushing her shoulders back until her bosom was almost touching his chest. That almost contact sent awareness tingling through her body.
His wolfish smile told her he knew exactly what effect he had on her.
He danced so well, with such authority. She didn’t have to worry about doing anything disastrous. He’d never let her trip over her skirts.
She shivered, feeling out of her depth.
Obviously he wanted her to know he was in control.
And everything inside her wanted to surrender.
Suddenly she wished desperately for the distance of a letter. She wished she had hours to compose the perfect clever response to his scandalous innuendoes.
And she wished most of all that he wouldn’t look at her like that. As if she was the only girl in the room.
She mustn’t let him distract her. “Will you be serious for one moment, Your Grace? I believe there may be a lost painting in your attic of great importance.”
“Oh, come now, you don’t care about the art. Let’s be honest, shall we?”
“I’m being completely honest. Why else would I have approached you?”
“Why indeed?” The sarcastic edge to the question drew her full attention.
What did he mean by that?
And then it dawned on her. Of course. How stupid. He thought this was yet another marriage maneuver.
Thea drew herself up with displeasure. “I assure you, Your Grace, trapping you into marriage is the very last thing on my mind.”
Burnished hair glinted in candlelight. His head dipped closer and his nose brushed her cheek. For one mad moment she thought he was going to kiss her, until he changed course and his lips brushed her ear.
“Is that so,” he said in a husky whisper.
“Absolutely.” She nodded in a businesslike fashion. “I truly believe that if you visit Balfry House and see the paintings for yourself you will realize the significance of your collection.”
A shadow stole across his face, leeching the light from his eyes and the curve from his lips. “I’ll never see Balfry again, so you can banish that notion from your pretty head.”
He thought she had a pretty head? Heat rushed to Thea’s cheeks.
“And so you truly have a fixation with the ancient masters? I noticed you staring at that Titian earlier.” The duke raised his eyes to the wall. “I never thought it was very good. The kraken’s not frightening enough. Snout’s too rodentlike.”
Thea tried not to smile. “It’s not his best work. But I was thinking about the coral Andromeda is standing on. Its significance.”
At his quizzical look, she continued. “Medusa’s severed head still had the ability to petrify living plants into coral. Poor Medusa. I’ve always felt a little sorry for her. She had such a terrible reputation.”
“Turning men to stone does tend to make a lady unpopular,” he teased. “Of course, acknowledging you’ve read Ovid might have a similar effect.”
“Ha! There’s nothing wrong with reading Ovid.”
“I didn’t say there was. Some gentlemen find intelligent ladies quite . . . stimulating. ”
The way he held her gaze made her heat from the core and melt around the edges like a candle.
His thumb traced circles on the small of her back.
She forgot her mission for one moment.
Forgot every other ball she’d ever attended.
The humiliation. The disasters.
She could have this one waltz.
One perfect waltz.
In the arms of the most handsome man in the room.
And that’s when Thea made her second monumental error of the evening.
She closed her eyes . . . and surrendered to the moment.
Such an innocent-looking little lamb.
Only Dalton knew better.
He knew she’d tried to lure his best friend James, the Duke of Harland, into marriage using her half sister Charlene as bait.
It was truly uncanny how much Lady Dorothea resembled Charlene, her father’s love child, the one who’d married James and transformed him from an unshaven brute into a nearly respectable member of Parliament, and a doting husband and father.
They had the same roses-and-clotted-cream complexion and golden hair.
Although Lady Dorothea’s abundant curls had a bit more copper when one was close enough to see the difference. Orange marmalade on hot buttered scones.
Her eyes were slightly more blue than gray, yet just as wide-set in the same oval face with the same arrow’s point of a chin.
She was a tiny thing, the top of her head only reaching Dalton’s chin. She made him feel gargantuan and ungainly, as if he might crush the delicate bones of her fingers in his huge paws.
He stroked his thumb across smooth satin over supple flesh, and a deep blush spread from her neck to her face, coalescing into two round, rosy patches high on her cheekbones.
He didn’t remember her half sister blushing, but Dalton recognized that maidenly flush and those artfully mussed curls as a carefully constructed façade.
She and her scheming mother had obviously decided Dalton was to be the consolation prize for losing James.
All those letters about his father’s paintings. Did she really think he’d fall for that?
She conspired to capture and tame a duke of her own.
Not going to happen.
He never danced with well-bred, unmarried ladies because it gave their mamas hope, and he was a lost cause.
Marriage wasn’t in the cards.
What he had to do tonight . . . he’d built his own façade just as carefully, to deflect attention away from his true purpose.
But he couldn’t have troublesome wallflowers pursuing him around London, digging up his buried past, so, for this single occasion, he’d been willing to make an exception. Preempt the attack by striking first.
Dance with her.
Make her popular.
And then sit back and enjoy the fireworks, achieving two goals at once.
She’d have no more time to plague him when she was mobbed with suitors.
And the ton would be far too busy gossiping about the waltz and its consequences to concern themselves with his exact whereabouts this evening.
She nestled closer and silken curls tickled his chin.
That’s right, little lamb, sway into my arms.
She smelled of wild rose petals, feminine and sensual.
If he licked her neck she’d taste creamy, like Madagascar vanilla.
She released a small, breathy sigh that navigated straight to his groin.
Oh, she was good.
But he was better.
“Our dance is nearly over, one and only Lady Dorothea,” he whispered.
Thick, black lashes rippled over wide ocean eyes. “So soon?”
“Alas, all good things must end.”
The hint of a smile played over her sweetly curved lips. “Must they?”
“I’m afraid so.” He kept his voice low and a provocative smile on his lips. He wanted their audience to wonder what endearments he whispered in her ear. “Let me make one thing clear before our waltz ends, my lady.”
Watchfulness in her eyes now. A slight tensing of her fine-boned shoulders. “What’s that, Your Grace?”
“There will be no more visiting of properties or excavating of attics. I see through your act and I know you’re not searching for ancient goddesses. It’s a modern-day duke you’re after.”
She drew a swift breath. “You’re entirely mistak—”
“It won’t be me,” he said abruptly, cutting her protests short. “It won’t be me . . . but you’ll have your pick of every other eligible peer.”
“What . . . what do you mean?” She searched his face with something close to panic in her eyes.
“Look around us. Everyone’s watching. The first waltz of the season and I chose you.”
Her gaze darted around the room. “No, no. This isn’t what I wanted at all.” She shook her head and silken curls brushed his jaw.
The music ended. He stepped away.
She hugged her arms against her chest, her eyes flat as etched glass.
He experienced a tiny qualm of something close to guilt. She was a very gifted actress.
“I made you popular.” He bowed. “You’re welcome.”
Cold alertness froze her face. “Nothing can make me popular, Your Grace. Not even you. ”
“Care to place a wager on that?” Dalton was known for his outrageous wagers. The diversion of Lady Dorothea’s instant popularity would make excellent fodder for the betting books at White’s. Keep all those idle noblemen entertained.
Keep them from suspecting him of being anything other than one of their tribe—a rakehell with too much leisure time and a taste for scandal.
Dalton steered Lady Dorothea back to her mother, Lady Desmond, whom he’d had the distinct displeasure of spending several days with during Harland’s bride hunt the previous summer. The countess was as cool and calculating as they came.
“Truly, I’m not after suitors, Your Grace,” Lady Dorothea whispered urgently, attempting to slow his progress. “I only wanted to convince you to let me study Artemisia’s paintings.”
Matrons whispered in huddled knots, gentlemen circled like sharks scenting fresh blood, and young ladies shot envious glances.
“This will ruin everything. ” Her fingers tightened around his arm. “This is . . . this is my idea of hell. You must do something to show them you were only toying with me. You can tell your friends you only danced with me because of a wager.”
Lady Desmond’s light blue eyes blazed with triumph. “Your Grace.” She inclined her head regally.
Dalton made a peremptory bow.
He leaned close to Lady Dorothea, steeling himself against the seductive sharp-sweet scent of wild roses.
“Welcome to hell,” he whispered.
* ** END OF EXCERPT **