A 2018 Daphne du Maurier finalist
First comes love, then comes marriage. Unless it’s the other way around. . .
General Mark Grimaldi has sacrificed everything for his military career, working his way through the ranks without the benefit of a nobleman’s title. Now, his years of dedication are about to pay offwith an offer for a prestigious promotion to Home Secretary. There’s only one condition: Mark must be married. Aside from the small matter of not actually wanting to be wed, Mark faces another troubling problem: he already has a wife.
Nicole Huntington Grimaldi has spent ten contented years in France without her husbandand without regret. When Mark asks her to return to London and play the part of his beloved wife, she sees her chance. But neither of them is prepared for news that will throw Mark’s future into chaos…nor the undeniable desire they’ve rekindled. Maybe happily-ever-after can happen the second time around in A Duke Like No Other, the next Regency romance from Valerie Bowman.
Valerie Bowman’s Playful Brides novels are:
“Wholly satisfying.”USA Today
“Smart and sensual…readers will be captivated.”RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Valerie Bowman grew up in Illinois with six sisters (she’s number seven) and a huge supply of historical romance novels. After a cold and snowy stint earning a degree in English with a minor in history at Smith College, she moved to Florida the first chance she got. Valerie now lives in Jacksonville with her family including her mini-schnauzers, Huckleberry and Violet. When she’s not writing, she keeps busy reading, traveling, or vacillating between watching crazy reality TV and PBS.
Valerie is the author of the Playful Brides series, including The Untamed Earl and Never Trust a Pirate.
Read an Excerpt
London, July 1818
"You may have your promotion, Grim, on one condition, and I'm afraid it's a condition you're not going to like."
His booted foot propped over the opposite knee, General Mark Grimaldi sat across the desk from Lord Allen, the minister of the Home Office. The older, bald man was Mark's superior and one of the most influential politicians in the country.
Mark had been waiting for this day for what felt like his entire life. The adult part of his life, at any rate.
His breeches were smartly pressed. His shirt was perfectly starched. His cravat was expertly tied. His boots were shined to a glow, and he had a smile on his face. He was four-and-thirty years old. He'd worked his arse off, risked his life on numerous occasions, and given up nearly everything, all in the name of service to His Majesty. For the love of God. He'd nearly died for this promotion.
Condition? Who cared about a blasted condition? There was nothing the minister could say that would stop Mark. He would become the Home Secretary, the head of the Home Office, or die trying.
Mark tugged impatiently at his cuff. "Out with it. There's no condition I won't accept."
The minister stood. He folded his hands behind his back and walked slowly around to the other side of the desk where he towered over Mark, who remained seated. The minister cleared his throat. "Lord Tottenham doesn't want a secretary who is a bachelor. He wants someone settled."
Tottenham ran the Home Office. He was Lord Allen's superior. Tottenham would be the one who made the final decision as to who the new secretary would be.
Grimaldi narrowed his eyes on the minister. "What do you mean, settled?" But he already knew. The pit in his stomach told him.
"A family man," the minister intoned. "You must take a wife."
A wife? The word hit Mark like a bullet to the chest. He was entirely self-made. By choice. By highly calculated choice. Now he'd set his sights on becoming the Secretary of the Home Office. Failure wasn't possible. A wife wasn't about to keep him from it.
He clenched and unclenched his fist by his side. By God, the irony. The unmitigated irony. He'd given his life to his work. No ties. No regrets. He'd given up everything including a social life and now, now they were asking for him to take a wife? Politics could be both brutal and cruel. Today it was downright laughable.
"There is only one problem with my taking a wife," Mark intoned.
"What's that?" the minister asked, moving back around the desk to resume his seat.
This was it. The moment of truth. The time to admit to something he hadn't admitted to in years. A humorless smile twitched his lips. "I'm already married."CHAPTER 2
Somme, France, Late July 1818
Nicole raced across the lavender field atop her horse, Atalanta. Her head was down, the wind whipped her hair, and she had a smile of pure, exhilarated triumph on her face. There was nothing like racing a man and winning. The Comte de Roussel rode at her side. Or more correctly, he rode a few lengths behind her, trying to keep up. Henri was a kind man and a dear friend, but she had no hesitation whatsoever in beating him soundly at a race. Races were meant to be won, after all.
The fields were in full bloom and the fragrance of lavender filled the air. Nicole breathed in deeply, enjoying the sunshine on her face. It would probably cause more freckles, but so be it. She loved days like this. The sun high, the fields dry, the wind blowing her red hair. She never restrained the unruly locks when she rode. This was what freedom felt like.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nicole spied Rochard, her servant, running across the field, flagging her down with his hat. "Madame, madame, you have a visitor," he called in country French as she neared him.
Nicole slowed Atalanta to a halt and shielded her eyes to look across the field. A visitor? She wasn't expecting a visitor today.
Then she spotted him. Her heart dropped into her boots. Her pulse stuttered, then raced. She would recognize that form anywhere. Tall, broad- shouldered, dark-haired, impeccably dressed. She didn't need to be close enough to see what he was wearing to know that. There was only one man who looked like that, who stood like that, who was even now watching her with a mixture of curiosity and ill-concealed distaste. Again, she didn't need to be close enough to know that.
Merde. Her husband was here.
The comte slowed his horse to a halt nearby. His gaze followed hers. "A visitor?" he asked in flawless aristocratic French.
"Oui." Then she swore under her breath.
"Who is it?" the comte continued. "An Englishman from the looks of him."
She curled her lip slightly. "Oh, he's English all right."
He was decidedly English and even more decidedly a complete ass. One she'd never thought she'd see again. At least not alive. It was so like Mark to arrive unannounced after all these years and expect not to be thrown off the premises. The element of surprise had likely been his tactic. If he'd informed her he'd be paying her a visit, she would have come up with some convenient excuse not to see him.
She sighed, pulled off one riding glove, and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. She didn't question how he'd found her. The man was a master spy. Hunting her down had no doubt been easy for him. She straightened her spine and took a deep breath. Very well. Today was the day. The day she'd looked forward to and dreaded for the last ten years. Her day of reckoning with Mark Grimaldi.
She turned Atalanta, kicked her heels against the horse's sides, and raced to a stop at the gate near where Mark stood. Nicole dismounted, tossing her red locks over her shoulder, and strode purposefully toward him. She refused to take her eyes from him. He was not a man who responded well to any sign of weakness, which was why she'd gone straight to him instead of heading to the stables first.
Nicole removed her gloves as she approached. He would simply have to get over the fact that she was wearing riding breeches and a man's shirt. That was how she preferred to ride.
"Mark Grimaldi, to what do I owe the pleasure?" Her voice was carefully devoid of any emotion, save perhaps for the smallest bit of sarcastic emphasis, particularly on the word "pleasure."
Mark's dark gaze swept over her in that bold, possessive way of his, making her feel vulnerable, almost naked. He was the only man who'd ever seen her in flagrante delicto, after all. She was suddenly quite aware of how tight and revealing her riding breeches were. And how low cut the man's shirt was on her, the first button falling just above her breasts. It revealed a bit too much of her décolletage. Hmm. Too bad.
"Pleasure?" Mark intoned with the same sarcastic emphasis. "That remains to be seen." His voice was just as deep and rough and arrogant as she remembered it.
"Came to torture me, did you?" She gave him a tight smile and put one fist on her hip. The other hand squeezed the soft leather riding gloves together so tightly her knuckles ached.
"Perhaps." He nodded toward the comte. "But first, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"
The comte had just pulled his horse to a halt behind her. Nicole bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying something truly inappropriate and turned her head to the side while the comte dismounted. "Comte de Roussel, this is Mark Grimaldi." A note of dry contempt crept into her voice. "The last I knew, he was a corporal. Knowing him, he's probably the prime minister by now. Monsieur Grimaldi, this is the Comte de Roussel."
Henri, who didn't appear to have a blond hair out of place after his ride, nodded and bowed to Mark, tipping his hat.
"General Mark Grimaldi." Mark held out his hand for a proper shake.
Nicole's eyes flared slightly. She couldn't help a dig, though. "Not a field marshal?" More sarcastic emphasis.
Mark's obsidian gaze never left the comte. "I intend to skip that rank entirely. The wars are over now, or haven't you heard out here, rusticating in the country?" He waved his hand in a circle.
She didn't miss the snideness in his tone.
The comte glanced back and forth between the two of them, an apprehensive look on his face.
Mark tapped his boot on the ground impatiently. "I'm also her husband, or weren't you going to tell your friend that, Madame Grimaldi?"
The comte's eyes widened. He turned his head sharply toward Nicole. "Mari?"
"Yes, her mari." With the tip of one finger, Mark pushed his hat back on his head the slightest bit.
Damn him and his smug tone. "It's true," Nicole said, tossing her hair again. She reached up and stroked her horse's mane. "Come. I must get Atalanta to the stables for the groom to rub her down." She turned on her booted heel and began walking toward the stables, leading Atalanta by the reins.
Mark's deep laughter followed her. "Atalanta? Of course you would name your horse after a warrior woman who did nothing but cause her husband trouble."
Nicole's nostrils flared, but she didn't turn her head to look at him. Instead, she lifted her chin high in the air and continued her march toward the stables. "What trouble? She merely did what she liked and was scorned for it." Nicole quickened her pace, her stride purposeful. The two men followed her. Their boots crunched along the path behind her.
"Seems like Aphrodite would have been a more apt name. The steed of a woman who cuckolded her husband," came Mark's next taunt, sure and strong from behind her.
Nicole stopped and whirled around, her hair whipping over one shoulder. "Is your horse named Zeus, after a man who ruined the lives of most of the people around him?"
Mark's lips quirked. "No, I still have Jupiter. He's served me well all these years. And Zeus was a god, not a man." His lips spread open into an unrepentant grin. "Are you comparing me to a god?"
"We're speaking about your horse, not you," she replied before snapping shut her mouth. She might as well stop her barbs. He was clearly enjoying them, and she refused to let him march back into her life and make her angry so quickly. She'd spent too many years getting over him, and she intended to remain over him, no matter how he taunted her.
"Madame, would you like me to go?" the comte offered, clearing his throat.
"No, monsieur, please stay," she said, more to bother Mark than anything else. He clearly wanted Henri to leave. A momentary pang of guilt shot through her. It was wrong of her to put poor blameless Henri in the middle of her barb trading with Mark. Henri didn't deserve such treatment. She again resolved to stop responding to Mark's taunts.
The small party reached the stables and Nicole handed Atalanta's reins to one of the grooms. She turned to face the two men, her arms crossed over her chest, one knee jutted out, her boot tapping the ground in agitation.
"We'll go in the house and have refreshments, but first ..." She forced her gaze to fix on Mark's hatefully handsome face. "Are you going to tell me why you came? I'm quite certain it's not for the tea."
"Of course I am, but I was hoping I could speak with you" — Mark eyed the comte up and down with obvious distaste — "privately."
* * *
Not half an hour later, the comte was on his way home and Nicole had twisted her hair into a bun and stuck it to the back of her head with some pins she'd fetched from her pocket. She refused to go upstairs and dress in a gown and pretend to be the perfect little quiet English wife Mark wanted. If he had something to say to her, he could say it to her breech-covered backside.
She did, however, have enough of a hostess in her that she led him to the front drawing room of the château and rang for tea.
"You look ... well," Mark began, as she took a seat on the rose-colored settee in the center of the room.
She crossed her arms over her chest and arched a brow at him. "Spare me. We both know you need something from me or you wouldn't be here. You might as well save us both time. What do you want?"CHAPTER 3
Mark quirked his mouth into a half smile. Nicole had always been direct. It was one of the things that had first drawn him to her. She wasn't about to let him get away with arriving unannounced without admitting that he wanted something. Good, because he liked to be direct too. "You're right. I do want something from you."
"Say it." She crossed one leg over the other and for the life of him he couldn't stop staring at how those breeches hugged her long legs. Outside, he'd been slightly obsessed with how they hugged another part of her anatomy. And that shirt ... the one that was exposing her chest in a way that made the back of his neck sweat. Leave it to Nicole to have her hair down and to be wearing breeches while riding around a French château on a horse named Atalanta. She'd been besting the comte in the race they'd been engaged in. That was also like her. She adored competition and hated to lose at anything. If he had any hope of her saying yes to his proposal, he needed to make certain he didn't become her adversary ... again.
He glanced around the drawing room. Outfitted in rose and cream silks with the occasional hint of green, the room was tastefully decorated. The château itself was large and well appointed without being ostentatious. She had access to his money but had never spent a shilling of it. No, this was all a result of her own money or her family's.
He spread his arms wide along the back of the settee. "No reminiscing? No catching up? No discussing the good times?"
Her dark red eyebrow inched even higher. "Were there good times? I seem to recall those being few and far between."
"There were a few." In bed. He tugged at his collar.
She poked at the chignon on the back of her head. Only she could make a quickly put-together hair arrangement look effortlessly gorgeous. Several tendrils of the long red locks fell to frame her face, which wore a decidedly disgruntled look. "Out with it. I'm quite busy. I'm attending a dinner party this evening and I must dress."
Mark bit the inside of his cheek but ultimately he couldn't keep the comment that had sprung to his lips to himself. "A cleaner pair of breeches?" Damn, she looked good in those breeches. She looked good altogether. Better than good. The years had been kind to her. The fresh-faced plumpness of her cheeks had given way to a slenderness that made her cheekbones prominent. Her lips were still full and pink and inviting. Her hair luxurious, soft and smooth. Her eyes looked more world-weary, to be sure, but their sea- foam-green depths were still astute and intelligent. Her body was still trim and fit. Her thighs looked even fitter, probably from riding astride. Ahem. What he wouldn't give to see those thighs once more, to have them wrapped tightly around his —
"Despite my present appearance, I do own a gown or two." Her words snapped him out of his indecent line of thought. She gave him another tight smile.
He stood, crossed to the nearby sideboard, and poured himself a brandy. "Going to meet the comte again?"
"Careful," came her throaty voice from the settee. "It's nearly sounding as if you're jealous."
Still facing the sideboard, he cocked his head to the side. "Jealous? Whatever does that word mean?"
"The comte is a friend, nothing more." Her voice sounded dismissive. He didn't believe her, however.
Mark splashed more brandy into his glass. "I'm certain you'd tell me if he weren't."
"I'm certain you'd care."
Mark turned back toward her and took a healthy swig of his drink. "A man doesn't like to think of his wife in the bed of another."
She actually rolled her eyes at that comment. "Oh, you've been celibate all these years then?" she countered, her voice dripping with skepticism.
He had been, but he'd die a slow death back in the French prison camp before he told her that. However, he wasn't so unrealistic as to think Nicole would have remained untouched. They had agreed to part ways, hadn't seen each other in ten years. She was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life. Still, the notion of punching the comte dead in the face held a great deal of appeal at the moment. "I've never been one to kiss and tell, love."
She gave him a tight smile, which clearly indicated she didn't believe him, either. "You're a general now?" she asked abruptly, clearly ready to change the subject.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Duke Like No Other"
Copyright © 2018 June Third Enterprises, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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