In this Gilded Age–romance series opener by a New York Times–bestselling author, a wealthy Duke must marry by his thirtieth birthday or lose his title.
Derek Eagan, the dashing Duke of Westwood, is well aware of his looming deadline. But weary of tiresome debutantes, he seeks a respite at his country home in Essex—and encounters a man digging on his property. Except he’s not a man. He’s a very lovely woman. Who suddenly faints at his feet.
Catherine McCabe’s disdain for the aristocracy has already led her to flee an arranged marriage with a boorish Viscount. The last thing she wants is to be waylaid in a Duke’s home. Yet, she is compelled to stay by the handsome, thoughtful man who introduces himself as the Duke’s estate manager.
Derek realizes two things immediately: he is captivated by her delicate beauty, and to figure out what she was up to, Catherine must not know he is the Duke. But as they fall passionately in love, Derek’s lie spins out of control. Will their bond survive his deception, not to mention the scorned Viscount’s pursuit? Most important, can Catherine fall in love all over again—this time with the Duke?
“Despite the dramatic title of Force’s magnificent Regency, she keeps the focus squarely on the romance as a suspenseful story unfolds. . . . With a meet-cute that’s as creative as the work itself, Force has crafted a masterpiece with the perfect amount of romance.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A vividly described, deeply erotic romance.” —BooklistAn Official Military Spouse Book Club Pick
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London, May 5, 1902
"I cannot bear another minute of this charade," Derek Eagan, the seventh Duke of Westwood, declared to his cohorts as they watched a simpering group of debutantes work the gilded ballroom. He tugged impatiently at his starched attachable collar and wished he could remove it and the tie that choked him without sending yet another tedious scandal rippling through the ton.
"What charade?" asked Lord Justin Enderly, his smile dripping with the charm that had endeared him to many a mother. "Watching nubile young things flit about with love and marriage on their minds?" As the second son of an earl, Enderly was much less desirable to the simpering debs than Derek, once again considered the Season's top prize — and Enderly knew it, of course.
"All of it." Derek gestured to the glittering scene before them in the Earl of Chadwick's enormous ballroom. Surely half the aristocracy was in attendance at one of the Season's most anticipated balls. Women in frothy gowns made of the finest silks and satins, dripping in exquisite gems. Men in their most dashing evening wear. "The balls, the gowns, the dance cards, the ludicrous conversations, the desperate mothers. I've grown so weary of it, I could spit."
Aubrey Nelson, the American-born industrialist who'd humored his English-born mother with a second Season, nodded in agreement. "The pomp, the ceremony, the rules." He shook his head. "I'll be back in New York — or banished from polite society — long before I master them all."
Unlike Nelson, Derek had been raised for the charade, but many of the rules escaped him, as well. "Utter drivel," Derek murmured. "I've half a mind to compromise a willing young maiden and be done with the whole nightmare."
"What's stopping you?" Enderly asked, crooking a wicked eyebrow.
"I'd have to attempt to converse with her for the rest of my days," Derek grumbled. His friends and the hangers-on surrounding them howled with laughter. "I've talked to every one of them and haven't found one who interests me enough to pursue anything further."
"Same as last year," Enderly said.
"And the year before, and the year before that," Derek said, the despair creeping in once again. It wasn't that he didn't want to find a wife. He would love nothing more than to have one person in the world who belonged only to him and vice versa. Not to mention he needed a wife, albeit for altogether different reasons. Yet he wasn't willing to settle.
Each year he approached the Season with a new sense of hope, and each year, as the young women got younger and he got older, the disappointment afterward became more intense and longer lasting. This year, however, the bloody deadline loomed large, coloring his view of the Season's limited options.
"This year's group seems particularly young," Enderly noted.
"Or perhaps we're just getting particularly old," Derek said morosely.
"No doubt," Enderly said. As a second son he was under much less pressure to marry than Derek and enjoyed his bachelor life far too much to give it up before he absolutely had to. For that matter, everyone was under less pressure to marry than Derek, thanks to the damned deadline.
"Is there one among them who cares about something other than her hair or her gown or her slippers?" Derek asked. Was there one among them, he wanted to ask, who looked at him and saw anything other than his title, his rank, his wealth or the looming deadline that had filled the betting books all over town?
"They all care about their dance cards," Nelson said dryly.
"Too true," Derek concurred. "Speaking only for myself, I've had enough. I'm returning to Westwood Hall in the morning."
"But the Season still has weeks left to go," Enderly said in obvious distress. "You can't go yet, Your Grace. What of your deadline? What will Lord Anthony say?" "He would hardly care. He's practically salivating, hoping I fail to marry in time."
"Whatever could your ancestor have been thinking, putting such an utterly daft provision in his will?" Nelson asked. "Enter into a 'suitable state of matrimony' — whatever that is — by thirty or abdicate your title? I've never heard of such a thing."
Of course, he hadn't, Derek mused. The colonists had left such barbaric practices behind in England. "I suppose he was out to ensure the bloodline. Instead, he placed a matrimonial pox upon each succeeding generation."
"What happens if you don't marry in time?" Nelson asked.
"The title and all accompanying holdings transfer to my uncle and then later to Simon, who, as the heir, would also be required to marry post haste. That would truly be a travesty." If anyone was less suited to a life of marriage, responsibility and duty, it was Derek's happy-go-lucky first cousin and dear friend.
"Have any of your ancestors missed the deadline?" Nelson asked, seeming genuinely intrigued by the drama of it all whereas Derek was just weary — from thinking about it, dreading it and from imagining being married to a nameless, faceless woman just to preserve his title. He shuddered at the thought of shackles and chains.
"Not so far, and I have no desire to be the first. However, I refuse to pick just anyone in order to keep my title." His ancestor's efforts to ensure the dukedom had put Derek in a serious quandary. His thirtieth birthday was now mere days away without a female prospect in sight who sparked anything in him other than utter apathy, not to mention despair at the idea of having to actually talk to her for the rest of his life.
Naturally, the entire haute ton was captivated by Derek's plight, but not a one of them gave a fig about his happiness or well-being. He would almost prefer to surrender the title than be shackled for life to a "suitable" woman who did nothing else for him but ensure his place in the aristocracy.
With his deadline the talk of the Season, every available young maiden had been marched before him — more than once. Judging his prospects by what he'd seen of the Season's available crop, he was in no danger of imminent betrothal. "What's the point of hanging around when I already know that none of them suit me?"
"They don't have to suit you, Your Grace," Enderly reminded him. "You only need one with the proper equipment to provide an heir — and a spare if you're feeling particularly randy."
"And you need her to say, 'I do,' by the sixteenth of May," Nelson added with a wry grin.
"Don't remind me," Derek grumbled. Was it just him, or was it exceedingly warm tonight? Or was it the reminder of his coming birthday that had him sweating? Perhaps it was the rampant wagering that had him on edge. He'd lost track of whom among his so-called peers and "friends" was betting for or against the likelihood of his securing a suitable marriage before his birthday.
Derek never would've chosen the title he'd inherited at the tender age of six when his parents were killed in a carriage accident. Over the years since his majority, however, he'd grown into his role as one of the most powerful and influential men in England. He didn't relish the idea of turning over his title and holdings to an arrogant, greedy, overly ambitious uncle who would care far more about how he was judged in polite society than he ever would about ensuring that their tenants had adequate roofs over their heads. Nor did Derek wish to see his cousin constrained by a life he had no interest in. Too many people depended on the dukedom to see it end up in the hands of someone who couldn't care less about it.
A vexing debate for sure, especially since Derek often dreamed of shedding his responsibilities and taking off to see the world as he'd always wanted to do. But then he thought, as he often did, of his late parents. Since their deaths, he'd aimed to live his life in a manner and fashion that would've made them proud. Losing his title, especially to an uncle his father had despised, would not make them proud, so Derek would do what was expected of him because that was what he'd always done — no matter what it might've cost him.
"What of all your meetings?" Enderly asked.
"I had the last of them today with the Newcastle upon Tyne Electric Supply Company to pump some capital into their Neptune Bank Power Station. They're doing some intriguing work with three-phase electrical power distribution." The blank looks on the faces of his friends tampered his enthusiasm. Where he would absorb such information with obsessive attention to detail, he'd come to realize that others were less interested in the how of electrical lighting and other innovations. They were, however, more than content to fully luxuriate in modern conveniences without bothering themselves with the details. Electricity was making its way into wealthy homes and public buildings in town, but it would be a while yet before it reached the country.
"Wasn't there another one?" Justin asked. "Something with brothers?"
Derek nodded. "I'll be providing emergency financing to the brothers from America who believe they've found the secret to manned flight."
"You can't be serious," Nelson said. "The Wright brothers?"
Derek nodded, used to his peers finding his investment decisions questionable at best. They couldn't, however, argue with his results.
"Has everyone in America finally said no to them?" Nelson asked.
"I didn't ask that. I simply wish to be a part of what they're doing. I believe they will attain success, perhaps before the end of the decade."
Nelson rolled his eyes. "It's your money to throw away."
"What's next?" Enderly asked, his tone tinged with sarcasm. "Motorcars?"
"As a matter of fact, due to my involvement in Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company, I was asked to back a venture with Lord Austin and his brother that will bring production of motorcars to England in the foreseeable future."
"Why am I not surprised?" Enderly asked with a smile.
One of the most annoying of that year's debutantes, Lady Charlotte something or other, flashed Derek a suggestive smile full of invitation. As he'd learned early in his first Season, he didn't make eye contact unless he wished to encourage attention, which he most assuredly did not.
"All you'd have to do is snap your fingers, and Lady Charlotte would say 'I do,'" Enderly said.
Derek could have been mistaken, but it seemed as if his friend was enjoying baiting him. "If I'm going to shackle myself to a woman for life, she's got to have more than the proper plumbing." Derek tugged again on the collar that poked at his neck and the strangling tie. His valet Gregory had been rather rigid in his knot tying that night, as if he too were out to constrain Derek to his husbandly fate.
"What is it exactly that you seek, Your Grace?" Nelson asked with a kind smile.
"Damned if I know. I just hope I'll recognize it when I see it, and I hope I'll see it soon." She was out there somewhere. He had no doubt of that. If only he knew where to look.
"You're holding out for a love match then?" Enderly asked.
"I don't necessarily yearn for the mess that accompanies a love match, but is it too much to hope for some intelligent conversation with my after-dinner port?" The utter despair of his situation came crashing down as he viewed the gay scene before him. "What in the world would I talk about to any of them?" Apparently, neither of his friends could supply a satisfactory answer.
Enderly shifted with discomfort from one foot to the other. "What are your plans, Westy?" he asked softly, reverting to Derek's nickname from their years together at Eton.
"I need to spend some time riding Hercules and thinking. I can't think here. Just a few days, and then I'll come back and bite the proverbial bullet." He'd have no other option but to choose one of the young women flitting before him unless he wanted everything he had to slip through his fingers to an uncle who didn't deserve it. But the thought of being stuck with a wife who didn't suit him made him ill.
"You'll be the talk of the ton," Enderly declared, scandalized.
"Let them talk. I won't hear it in Essex."
"But it won't be any fun without you, Your Grace," Nelson said mournfully.
Enderly nodded in agreement. "Nor will the ladies flock about us with quite the same ..."
"Desperation?" Derek asked with a grin. His friends laughed. As usual, they had kept this dreadful experience from being a total loss.
"Lady Patience will wish to visit," Enderly said with an evil grin. "She's apt to follow you to the country."
"She won't gain an audience with me even if she does give chase," Derek said of the Duke of Devonshire's daughter, who had pursued him with relentless determination. "She holds even less appeal than the others."
"Why is that?" Nelson asked.
"She brays like a donkey when she laughs."
"Ouch," Enderly said, chuckling.
"I quite fear that no woman will meet the discriminating requirements of our dear, distinguished friend," Nelson said to Enderly.
"That's just fine with me," Derek said, happier than he'd been in weeks now that a decision had been made. "I'd rather be a lonely commoner than be shackled for life to a 'suitable' braying donkey."
* * *
Lord Anthony Eagan, son of a duke, brother of a duke and uncle to the current duke, reclined on a red velvet chaise and took a sip from his glass of port. Always on the outside looking in, just barely on the fringes of tremendous wealth and power. Thankfully, all three dukes had provided handsomely for him, allowing him the freedom to pursue his own interests.
But what interested Anthony, what seduced him more than anything else ever could, was the power of the title. When the Duke of Westwood entered a room, people noticed. Society noticed. No one paid much heed, on the other hand, to the duke's second son, his brother, or his uncle. In the fifteen years he'd served as his nephew's guardian, he had sampled a generous helping of power. Having to cede it to a boy just barely out of leading strings had been demoralizing, to say the least. The subsequent years had reduced Anthony once again to the fringes. He didn't much care for the fringes, and he never had.
While Derek had stepped nobly and with infuriating independence into the position he'd been born to, Anthony had been relegated to watching and seething and planning. Now, on the eve of Derek's thirtieth birthday, came opportunity. If Derek failed to marry by the sixteenth of May, the title would revert to Anthony, and he would finally be the Duke of Westwood. The way it always should have been.
And while he had come to grudgingly respect his nephew's acumen with finance and his bearing among the haute ton, he disdained the boy's inner softness. That softness, Anthony mused, would be his downfall, just as it had been his father's. Perhaps it was because Derek had lost his parents at such a tender age or maybe it was the guilt that came from being the twin who'd survived the journey into this world. Regardless of the cause, Derek lacked the inner fortitude that Anthony possessed in spades.
Anthony wasn't afraid to use that fortitude to gain what should've been his all along. Derek was supposed to have been in that carriage the night his parents had been killed. They had planned to dine as a family at a neighboring estate. No one had bothered to tell Anthony that the boy had been left behind in the nursery when he showed signs of fever.
No one had told him until it was far too late, until he'd been saddled with an orphaned young nephew and vast holdings to "oversee" until that nephew gained his majority.
The holdings were supposed to have been his. Instead, he became the steward rather than the duke. Instead, it was left to him to nurse his grief-stricken nephew through those dreadful months after "the accident." Since another "accident" so soon after the first would've raised suspicions, he had nursed when he'd wanted to strangle. He'd mentored when he wanted to stab. If only the boy had been where he was supposed to be, Anthony would've had what was rightfully his for all this time.
Soon, Anthony mused. That softness within Derek wouldn't permit him to marry for the sake of his title. Like the fool he was, Derek wanted more. The softness would be his downfall. Anthony was betting on it and breathing a bit easier after realizing that none of the Season's debutantes had caught his discerning nephew's eye.
Lucy Dexter, one of London's most accomplished courtesans, crawled from the foot of the chaise to envelop him in soft curves and sweet scent. Silky dark hair cascaded invitingly over his chest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Duchess by Deception"
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