Cailin Audley doesn’t fit in with Polite Society. A life spent among the working class taught her to value her independence in a way no newfound fortune or glittering ballroom could ever erase. When a major misstep sees the new heiress whisked away to the English countryside, Cailin soon realizes the vexing lengths her family will go to see her settled. But having risked her heart once before, Cailin has no interest in the men of the ton—especially not the frustratingly charming Duke of St. James.
Courtland Balfour, the Duke of St. James, devoted brother and notorious rogue, despises what he must become—a fortune hunter. But with the ducal coffers drained by his late, spendthrift of a father, Courtland knows his duty lies at the altar and he will do anything to ensure a future for his siblings. Just his luck that the one lady who could make this new fate bearable, who enflames him like no other, is the one woman who wants nothing to do with him or his title.
But when an act of desperation inadvertently lands he and Cailin at the heart of another scandal, Courtland knows better than to waste his chance. Surely he can convince Cailin to love him?
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Just outside the Cheadle mines
Courtland Balfour, the seventh Duke of St. James, had long appreciated the irony of the word "saint" being affixed to his name.
A notorious rogue, with a reputation for being able to charm any woman from age eighteen to eighty-eight, no one would dare dispute Courtland belonged firmly in the column of sinner rather than saint.
And yet, on this particularly warm spring day, visiting the far-flung corners of Staffordshire, Courtland thought, for the first time, perhaps he might be deserving of that title.
After all, it wasn't just any brother who'd take on the unenviable task of passing himself off as his twin and playing at man of affairs to the Duke of Bentley.
His twin's arrangement had shocked all of Polite Society. For even the second son of a duke didn't take on employment. And he certainly didn't take on work for his late father's friend. But Keir, Courtland's twin, had craved a sense of purpose, and was denied that ability while their father lived.
Only when that miserable, heartless scoundrel had kicked off-in the bed of a courtesan, no less-had Keir pursued that opportunity. His bluntly spoken, socially awkward brother, who'd landed a role as man of affairs to the Duke of Bentley, was paid handsomely.
The part his brother did not fully know, however, was that Courtland's visit this day wasn't entirely altruistic.
Neither Courtland's twin nor their three sisters nor any other member of Polite Society was aware of the full truth: that the previous Duke of St. James had left Courtland staring down a sea of debt collectors and a nearly bankrupt title.
Given the state of their family's finances, the Balfours weren't in a position to lose the monies that funded their sister's Season . . . or that important connection.
As such, whereas Courtland and Keir had swapped identities quite often as young boys, today's deception was no child's play. This time Courtland had volunteered to be the one to convince Bentley's by-blows to journey to London so they might assume their rightful place among Polite Society.
It was curious, that. Most any other-nearly every other-illegitimate child of a duke would have surely leaped at the prospect of trading life in a mining village for a comfortable existence in London. And, to boot, a father who wished to have something to do with them. Certainly, as the son of a late duke himself, Courtland had never known a thing about paternal affection.
Apparently, however, Bentley had sired three curious and contrary children.
Courtland guided his black mount down the dusty path, armed with directions he'd managed to ply from the mouths of stonily stubborn patrons at the tavern, who'd proven more amenable when Courtland had urged the innkeeper to let the ale flow freely that day.
There'd been several ribald songs he'd joined in on.
And then, at last . . . directions.
Nudging his horse, Ace, up over a slight rise, Courtland drew on the reins, and halting his mount, he scanned the green countryside below.
So much greenery; more in fact than he'd ever believed possible in any part of England. Even his estates were peppered with ponds and stone structures; lands that had been tamed long ago. Courtland squinted, the sun's glare blinding, and he lifted a palm to his brow to blot out the brightness.
There it was.
A speck upon the horizon.
Clucking his tongue, he squeezed his knees slightly and urged Ace on to the small, narrow drive.
Dismounting, Courtland looked about, and locating a block, he looped his horse's reins to it, then turned all his attention to the house ahead, and the task at hand.
Upon close inspection, the distance and light hadn't been playing tricks with his vision. The cottage truly was as small as he'd taken it for in the distance, dwarfed all the more by grounds and gardens long overdue in terms of tending.
Courtland patted Ace one more time, and then, collecting his satchel from his saddle, he headed down the overgrown pathway, filled with so many blooms; the neglect had all but created a veritable buffet that invited insects.
Bees buzzed. Butterflies danced around them. Beetles. Ladybugs. Each insect vied for a place, all the while their brains too tiny to register that there was enough food and space contained within this ill-tended area to keep them for several summers.
Courtland gave his head a wistful shake, as for the first time since he'd arrived, he felt a frisson of . . . guilt, about asking anyone to give up the comfort of obscurity here for the garish opulence that was the Town.
Ace whinnied noisily, and Courtland absently stroked the loyal creature between the eyes. His nostrils flaring, Ace arched his head back into that favorite-of-his touch.
From the corner of his eye, Courtland caught a faint flutter, and he swung his attention to find a person watching him.
The less-than-furtive figure in the cottage pressed her forehead against the glass.
"It appears we have company," he murmured, patting Ace once more. "Which isn't terrible, as it means the sooner I finish, the sooner we're free to return to London."
Ace gave an a toss of his head in clear equine disapproval.
"It appears we are of like opinions then, on that score," Courtland said, winking at his horse.
Once again, those curtains parted slightly, and a young woman peeked through the crack in the fabric.
Enormous, saucer-sized blue eyes, filled with mistrust, met Courtland's gaze.
The sister, then.
He grinned. "Good afternoon," he called, and sketched a bow. "I'm here to speak with Mr. Audley."
Judging by the stretch of silence to follow, the young woman was anything but impressed. Alas, while he was on the other side of a doorway, without a line of sight to his quarry, she was afforded an unhindered view that put Courtland at a distinct disadvantage.
Giving Ace another pat, Courtland started down the walkway.
"Stop there!" she shouted, a healthy dose of anger and suspicion freezing him halfway down the path.
Anger and suspicion, both of which, as a duke, he was unaccustomed to being greeted with.
"What do you want?" she called, her voice muffled by the oak panel.
What did he want? Or what did he need?
His siblings settled.
All of which indirectly accounted for his being here.
Bringing himself back to the matter at hand, Courtland offered another smile and held his empty palms up. "I want nothing more than to speak with your brothers . . . or you," he cajoled, using soothing tones meant to bring her outside.
At last, the wood panel swung wide, affording him his first full, unobstructed view. And Courtland went absolutely motionless.
The young woman, with her full, ivory-hued cheeks and golden blond hair, had the height of a child, but the hardened stare of a woman some three decades her elder. Unfortunately for Courtland, that flinty stare was leveled at him.
Along with her ancient-looking firearm.
Reflexively, Courtland's palms went flying up in surrender.
The late summer sun glinted off the end of the barrel. That enormous weapon looked all the more enormous when held as it was by one of her spritely size.
He swallowed hard and cursed long and harder inside his head.
The young woman flicked a derisive glance over Courtland's person, before settling it upon his face, her gaze bored; and his ears went hot, as for the first time in his life he knew what it was to have a woman find him lacking.
"Why does it not surprise me at all that a fancy London fellow like you would come here issuing orders to me?" she drawled, the lyrical, lilting quality of her voice in almost farcical juxtaposition to the threat hanging on her words, and the very real threat of murder she directed his way.
Courtland kept his smile firmly affixed, and when he spoke, did so in the careful, placating tones he used with his easily riled younger sisters. "Perhaps had you taken a moment to hear me out and discuss the business that brought me here, then I wouldn't have had to issue them, Miss Audley."
Her flaxen eyebrows went shooting up. "Are you . . . challenging me?" The rifle wavered on her arm.
Oh, bloody hell. He was usually better at speaking to the fairer sex. Much better. It should so happen that the one time he failed to charm would likely land him a bullet in the chest-and a swift end to his miserable existence.
"Well?" she demanded, dipping slightly and adjusting the weapon on her arm.
He winced. "I believe you've already determined that I was challenging you, and as such, it hardly seems necessary to confirm with a verbal statement, Miss Audley." He bit out each syllable, giving up on the gentle warmth he'd previously attempted.
She lowered the rifle slowly, and he took heart. "Now," he said, taking a step forward. "If you would be so good as to lower your weapon all the-"
A loud report thundered in the afternoon quiet, cutting off the remainder of his words, and he flew back, hitting the ground so hard the air was sucked from his lungs.
Bloody hell. This was how he would end his short reign as duke-by taking a bullet straight to the chest.
Cailin Audley, bastard daughter of the Duke of Bentley, had grown accustomed to the men sent to Staffordshire to try and retrieve her and her brothers from their cozy mining village.
Never before, however, had he sent a tall, well-built messenger with loose golden curls, a cleft in his chin, and a dimple in his right cheek.
Cailin's heart thundered against her ribcage.
And she'd gone and killed him.
Absolutely motionless, Cailin stood frozen on the stoop; unblinking, afraid to move.
Sprawled on his back, with one strong arm bent slightly above his head and the other stretched out sideways, he may as well have been a man casually slumbering and not prone on her walkway.
With every fiber of her being she despised the duke and the men he sent 'round to try and manipulate her and her siblings . . . but still, she'd not wish any of them dead. And certainly not by her own hand.
Cailin remained stock-still; her pulse pounded away in her ears, mingling with the report of that gunshot. Her gunshot.
Then she heard it.
Her ears pricked up.
Low and faint at first.
". . . I'm dead . . ."
There'd never been a sweeter sound than those two words.
Letting the rifle fall, Cailin went sprinting down the drive, kicking up gravel and dust and rocks as she went.
She skidded to a quick stop before the felled gentleman; the speed with which she stopped sent gravel flying into the latest messenger's face.
Sputtering, he lifted a glove-encased hand and swiped at his eyes and mouth, brushing the remnants of tiny stones from his face. "Good God, it isn't worth it," he moaned.
A wave of guilt swept through her, but also another healthy swell of relief. "What isn't worth it?"
"Any of it," he muttered, his response vague enough to leave her with questions.
Making quick work of the small ivory buttons of his fine wool jacket, Cailin loosened the garment and slipped her fingers inside.
He was all sculpted muscle, rock-hard and solid. Each contour of his belly and chest chiseled of stone, more suited to the miners who often went bare-chested during their shifts at the mines and whom Cailin had always had to steal surreptitious glances of, lest any of her brothers catch her gawking. Except there was nothing soft about this London gent. In fact, but for a change of garments, he may as well have been any man who worked for her brother.
Her mouth went dry and her search slowed, and Cailin drifted her fingers higher as she looked for the shot, praying it had gone clean through. She should be properly ashamed for appreciating his male form as she now did.
Stop it. He is just a man. You've seen any number of men. Certainly just as broad and tall and powerful, and . . . why, she'd had a sweetheart. One who'd broken it off altogether too easily with her, but also one whose form she'd seen when she visited the Cheadle mines.
No, she was decidedly not one to lose her head.
Refocusing on the task at hand, Cailin purposefully shoved the gentleman's jacket off, past a broad pair of shoulders, and she continued her quest. As she ran her hands, seeking the sticky warm heat of his blood, she scanned her gaze over him, searching out the injury. The crisp white lawn of his garments revealed not a hint of crimson staining, and she focused on that far more important detail rather than the fact that he was chiseled in all the places a man should be.
This time, her heart knocked a beat faster and her mouth went dry, for altogether different reasons.
Lord help her for being wicked and shameless, she
"Perhaps I was wrong," he said in silkily amused tones, slightly roughened with a note of pain threading through them. "Perhaps it was worth it, after all."
It took a moment for his words to penetrate . . . and Cailin glanced up.
Her gaze collided with his, a smoky gray stare that fairly spilled over with a heavy dose of amusement, some pain . . . and also . . . desire.
With a gasp, Cailin yanked her stare away from his and focused it on his prone form. "Well, you're the first scoundrel sent by the duke," she mumbled, keeping her head bent on her task in a bid to hide the guilty blush on her cheeks. Driving one knee into the earth and the other against his hip, she used all her weight to propel him over.
Or she tried to.
She was slightly out of breath from her efforts, and several curls escaped her plait and fell over her brow.
She blew them back and this time slipped one hand onto his narrow waist and anchored her other on his shoulder.
"What are you-?"
Leaning forward, she put all her energy into it, and turned him over, face forward.
A muffled groan filtered from his lips, the ground muting but not blotting out his complete misery.
"You're a strong thing, aren't you," he spoke facedown in a patch of grass, his words buried in that bit of earth.
"I'm not a 'thing,' Lord Fancy," she said, this time making herself focus completely on searching for the area she'd hit.