Read an Excerpt
Duke Most Wanted
By Celeste Bradley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Celeste Bradley
All rights reserved.
If someone had told Sophie Blake one year ago that tonight she would find herself sprawled on the rug before the fire with one of the handsomest, most desirable men in London, she would have laughed outright in disbelief.
Yet here she was, stretching lazily in the warmth, gazing fondly at Lord Graham Cavendish, tall of form and dashing of countenance, as he stroked long capable fingers over her bare, sensitive palm —
"Ouch!" Sophie snatched her hand back.
"Got it!" Graham held his pinched fingers up high in triumph. Then he brought his hand down close to his face and peered at his quarry with his striking green eyes. "Blue glass? How in the world did you manage to get a sliver of blue glass in your hand?"
For Sophie, the question wasn't so much how it happened as why she didn't glow like a stained glass window after twenty-seven years of shattering delicate valuables with her clumsiness. She simply shrugged innocently at Graham. "Haven't the foggiest. But thank you. That has bothered me greatly."
He bowed his head facetiously. "All in a day's good works." Then he moved away from the fire, where he had towed her to get the benefit of better light.
They were in the front parlor of a rented house on Primrose Street, near the fashionable district of Mayfair but not quite in it. Sophie had no choice in the house, but she would have liked it well enough had her chaperone, Lady Tessa, not been in residence.
Not that the snide and insulting Tessa spent much time properly chaperoning Sophie — thank Heaven! — for she became easily bored and turned to her lovers for attention for weeks at a time.
Tessa believed that Sophie had come to London to find a husband — more precisely, to compete with her prettier cousins for the few unwed dukes in Society and win the Pickering fortune — so it might have a subtle form of strategy to abandon Sophie to a solitary life without benefit of a chaperone to accompany her to the many events and balls she had every right to attend.
What Tessa didn't know — nor did anyone else — was that Sophie had never intended to make a play for the fortune, nor even, in truth, to look for a man to make her own. This opportunity to escape the drudgery of her life in Acton had been seized and perpetrated almost before Sophie herself had been aware of what she was doing.
When the letter from Tessa had arrived, announcing the plan to take all three cousins to London to try their hand at winning the Pickering pounds, Sophie had packed within the hour and left within the day — without a word to anyone.
Here in London without permission or purpose, free for the first time in her life to please herself and not merely be the unappreciated handmaiden of a fretful and demanding woman who held her in no particular regard, Sophie told no one her true mission.
Sophie wanted to have fun. Unsurprisingly, Sophie's fun was not everyone's cup of tea, but she relished being free at last to pursue her own interests and her own pleasures — to read for hours, uninterrupted! Heaven! — and to speak to new and interesting people.
To be truthful, she wasn't very accomplished at that yet, but she had every intention of improving, someday, when there was nothing breakable in sight — and to see something of the world before she must return to a life of dreary servitude. Tessa's petty vengeance suited Sophie perfectly well.
When Sophie's cousins, Phoebe and Deirdre, had yet been unmarried, the three of them had spent many enjoyable hours avoiding Tessa's poisonous company, but now with her cousins away from London with their new husbands, Sophie had no one.
Of course, Graham had his own house in London, or at least, his father, the Duke of Edencourt, did. It was surely much larger and grander than this simple house. Yet Graham avoided his home as much as possible. The stories Graham told of his three elder brothers made Sophie much happier about her own lack of siblings.
And the time that Graham spent with her made her much happier about her chosen solitude. He never made her feel odd about her extreme height — for his own quite surpassed hers — nor did he twit her about her lack of fashion or her penchant for scholarly pursuits. At least, he did so only in a fond and lazy way that made her feel as though he actually approved.
He was very intelligent himself, though he rarely exerted himself to show it, and his breezy insouciance was a welcome antidote to her own more thoughtful bent.
He was also extremely enjoyable to look at. He was tall and lean, but solid with muscle and more than enough shoulder to fill out his dandy's coat most appealingly. His fair hair curled back from a high brow, and sea green eyes gleamed over sculpted cheekbones and jaw. Most decorative indeed.
Sophie only wished she could return the favor. She was too aware of her not-quite-blond ginger hair and her spectacles and the nose that Tessa had pronounced "the Pickering Curse," with a decided bump where no bump should be.
She watched Graham as he stood brushing industriously at his trouser knees. As well he should, for Lady Tessa was not inclined to treat her servants well, either in manner or in pay, and therefore was picked up after accordingly. Sophie had given up on trying to keep tidy any but her own chamber and this parlor — where she spent these precious rare hours with Graham.
In any case, those he could spare from his busy calendar of gaming, carousing, wenching and generally living up to his reputation as the layabout youngest son of the Duke of Edencourt. As Graham himself said, with three elder brothers to stand between him and the title, such activities were practically his required duty to perform!
"After all, someone has to wear the wool of the black sheep." He'd sighed melodramatically, then grinned. "And I look very fine in black."
Now Sophie, still seated on the carpet with her outrageously and unfairly long legs tucked beneath her, rubbed absently at the sore spot on her palm and gazed up at the most intelligent, difficult, contradictory man she had ever had the pleasure to know.
Not that she'd known many men at all. Until she'd come to London, she'd managed to go years without speaking to anyone but the mistress and all-female servants at Acton Manor.
She'd come to be fairly comfortable with the two men the other cousins had married. At least she didn't break things when they were in the room. Yet it wasn't until she'd met Graham that she'd ever really come to know a man at all.
It was Graham himself who'd set her at ease. "I am not in the market for a wife — ever!" he'd told her. "Furthermore, I, handsome bloke that I am, am entirely out of your reach. So you see, we might as well be friends, for there isn't a chance in hell that we will ever be anything else."
Comforted by that, and won over by a mind that finally equaled her own, Sophie was quite satisfied with the friendship.
Graham was great company — when he remembered to call at all. He was too handsome for his own good with that chiseled jaw and, most detrimental to his character, a rakish smile that made any woman he met forgive him for everything. In advance.
It seemed she was no different. At the moment, he'd not made a move to return to his previous seat on the sofa. Sophie knew the signs.
He was becoming restless. It was always so. He'd tire of the games and petty machinations of Society and he'd seek her out. She'd watch the tension ease from his shoulders and his smile go from smooth to sincere.
Then would follow golden glowing evenings of conversation and cards — he cheated, but then, so did she, only better — and scandalous gossip — his, not hers, for she didn't know any, except about Lady Tessa, who was Graham's cousin so it wouldn't do to repeat it.
Then, usually just when she'd begun to hope it wouldn't happen again, he'd become twitchy with the need for action and diversion. Of course, she made no sign that she was sorry to see him go. The slightest hint that she was becoming too attached would send him fleeing, possibly forever.
And she wasn't attached. Not seriously, anyway. How could she be, when he was so very far out of her reach? Who was she but a woman here on false pretenses? When she'd left Acton in the middle of the night, without a word, taking the money Lady Tessa had sent according to the Pickering will, the only thing she was sure of was that she would die if she stayed any longer.
She was no one, a woman too unattractive to marry, too unskilled to work. Only an idiot would allow herself to become too fond of a man she could never have.
Sophie was no idiot. Plain, poor "Sophie the Stick" knew that this time in London was stolen magic, that dreams ended on waking and that some girls had better learn never to dream at all.
So she sent Graham a glare of friendly contempt. "You're off to that slavering mistress of yours again, aren't you?" Very good. It sounded as if you couldn't care less.
He slanted her a reproving look as he tugged his weskit smooth. "You ought not to speak of such things. Furthermore, Lady Lilah Christie hardly drools at all — and then only in private."
Sophie narrowed her eyes. Lady Lilah Christie, social she-wolf, reportedly avid student of all things erotic and sensual, stunning beauty and recent widow, had been married to the only man in London rich enough to support her and enslaved enough to turn a blind eye to her extramarital adventures.
He could not have been actually ignorant of them, for Lilah's every move — and now Graham's as well, as her current paramour — was observed and ruthlessly masticated in print by the daily scribblings of that omnipresent tale-bearer, the Voice of Society.
Every night Sophie swore to herself that she would ignore the gossip sheet and every day she rushed to get her hands on it before it disappeared on Tessa's afternoon breakfast tray.
It was tawdry and inconsequential and beneath her ... but it was the only way for her to take part in the life Graham led outside the walls of this house.
Oh, she could attend all the same balls and events herself — for as the cousin of the new Marchioness of Brookhaven she would certainly be tolerated — and she sometimes did when forced to by Tessa's belated and half-hearted sense of duty to her charge.
Yet as the properly virginal lady appearing in her first (and last! God, how was she to ever go back to Acton now?) Season in London Society, Sophie was not privy to the other side of city life. It seemed there was another world, the world of gaming hells and sultry mistresses and whatever else it was that Graham did all the hours he was not with her.
So she waited for him to tire of the fast-paced underbelly and kept the parlor as inviting as possible. When allowed, she treasured these evenings when Graham would sprawl in the chair before the fire and tease her and make her laugh with outrageous stories of his hairy-chested brothers and their obsession with hunting, or play the pianoforte with absent-minded skill, ignorant of the way her heart soared on the music.
He smoked the tobacco she purchased with money she'd intended for more books and drank the brandy that she'd stolen from her cousin Deirdre's house while Deirdre and the Marquis of Brookhaven were on their honeymoon.
If someone had remarked upon the impropriety of a young lady spending such long hours unchaperoned with the likes of the notorious Lord Graham Cavendish, Sophie would have tartly retorted — if the speaker were female, of course; if it were a man, she would probably freeze in terror, then spasmodically break something! — that Graham, being Lady Tessa's own cousin, was practically family. Therefore such a thought was ridiculous and the thinker ought to be ashamed, etc.
It was a well-rehearsed speech and went on at length, but since no one in the world gave a fig about the virtue of one tall, plain girl with no expectations other than scholarly spinsterhood, Sophie had never had the opportunity to use it.
After all, she had no real future to lose and Graham, who took nothing and no one seriously, including Lilah, thank the gods, risked nothing by it either. Their clandestine friendship harmed no one and benefited them both greatly.
For one brief Season Sophie was determined to do precisely as she pleased — and she pleased to explore museums and libraries and play with Graham.
Matters might be different if she were serious in her search for a husband or if Graham would ever wish to marry and have an heir.
Fortunately, there was no reason why he should when his brothers intended to procreate often and well, as soon as they had slain one last elephant, bagged one final rhinoceros, taken down one more tiger — well, anyway, there was simply no reason why things could not go on forever precisely as they were.
AFTER LEAVING SOPHIE to her early bedtime in the house on Primrose Street, Lord Graham Cavendish strode whistling into Eden House, the London home of the Duke of Edencourt.
The Edencourt name was old and venerable and its estate vast and once beautiful, but the past few generations had failed to hold up their end of good taste and self-restraint. Now the name of Edencourt was equated with loud, boorish behavior and a predisposition for dying at the hands of liquor or firearms — sometimes both.
The house itself never changed, unless it was to gain a few more unfortunate trophies on its already cluttered walls, so Graham had long since stopped noticing the shabby conditions and the furnishings that had been elegant generations ago but now suffered mightily from the rough usage of its current residents.
The marble floors were scuffed beyond polishing and the dark wood panels and trim were gouged by things thrown or dragged against their damaged finish. The carpets were worn thin by heavy boots and the sofas were sprung by years of supporting great lounging louts who rarely bothered to sit up straight.
Graham, blinded by years of familiarity, merely came and went from the house and tried not to run into his brothers. Tonight, if he changed quickly enough, he could be at the tables within an hour. Still, as was his habit, he stopped in the entrance hall and listened for a long moment.
He heard no roaring laughter. He smelled no foul clouds of tobacco. He felt no thudding of wrestling bodies breaking the remaining furnishings into kindling.
No, the house was entirely empty except for the skeletal staff of servants still employed. Ah yes, his family was still far, far away.
His father's butler came to take Graham's hat and gloves. Graham grinned at him. "The chest beaters are still absent, eh, Nichols?"
After forty years of service, Nichols was the duke's man, always and forever. His usual haughty expression soured further at Graham's impious words.
"Good evening, Lord Graham. His Grace and your elder brothers have not sent word as to their return from their hunt in Africa. However, there is a Mr. Abbott awaiting you in His Grace's study."
Graham blinked. "For me? Whatever for?"
"Indeed, my lord." Nichols looked as though he could not begin to imagine why anyone would want to speak to Graham. Ever. Graham didn't blame him for it, for the servant was only aping the attitude of the master. His own father hadn't said more than a dozen words to him this year.
Graham reluctantly made his way to his father's magnificently masculine study. It was a dismal place at any time, for every wall housed a menagerie of glassy-eyed, stuffed and mounted death.
During the day the room was depressing. At night Graham harkened back to his boyhood, when nothing but the threat of his father's heavy hand could make him step foot into the darkened, fire-lit hall of gleaming, vengeful gazes reflecting the flames of the hatred he'd imagined in their eyes.
Even now, a man grown, he hesitated outside the door, then took a deep breath and pushed it open, smiling at the young, rather exhausted- looking man waiting within. After all, the duke was not there. There was no need to brace himself.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Excerpted from Duke Most Wanted by Celeste Bradley. Copyright © 2008 Celeste Bradley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.