Nearing thirty, the Duke of Rathburne is finally ready to make amends for the wager that caused him and his best friends such scandalbut taking on a ward who needs a husband is a feat he’s not sure he can manage. The last he saw of Miss Marlena Fast, she was a spirited little ruffian, not the sort of bride most bachelors on the marriage mart sought. But one glance at the lovely lady she has become is enough to convince him otherwise…
Orphaned young and shuffled from family to family, Marlena counts on her fierce independence and quick wits to keep herself content. Being the responsibility of a notoriously wicked duke who upended so many lives is an unexpected challenge when she realizes he arouses her decidedly feminine desires. Marlena must be careful. She has her own scandalous secret to protect. If he finds out, will it shatter her chances of a happily-ever-after with the notorious rake?
It's All About the Duke is the next Regency romance in The Rakes of St. James series from Amelia Grey.
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About the Author
Amelia is the author of The Heirs' Club series, including The Duke In My Bed, It's All About the Duke, and Wedding Night With the Earl.
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He could be a rake if he appears at your door unannounced and expects you to receive him.
Miss Honora Truth's Words of Wisdom and Warning About Rakes, Scoundrels, Rogues, and Libertines
Any man who boasted he had no regrets was a liar as far as Rath was concerned. If anyone should know, it would be him. He'd had plenty before and since he became the Duke of Rathburne more than five years ago. Though, like most of his ilk, he'd long denied having such a weak trait. Yet it was impossible not to when a man had lived as recklessly as Rath had.
Coming to that confounding conclusion hadn't been easy, but it was why he now found himself standing in the frosty air in front of a modest house in St. James, oddly enough, not far from his own town home, watching a maid digging about in what was probably a recently planted kitchen garden.
A month ago, after no short amount of drink, Rath, who'd never sought redemption for his wicked ways, had experienced a change of heart. Of sorts. He'd penned a letter accepting the role of guardian for the young lady who lived beyond the door not thirty paces away. At the time of his sudden epiphany, his muddled, jug-bitten brain had thought a little penitence might be justified. After all, he'd been carrying around a fair amount of guilt for a man who hadn't yet made it to his thirtieth birthday.
It was Rath who'd suggested the unforgettable secret admirer wager that years later still haunted him and his two friends, Griffin and Hawk. At the time, he'd considered himself a lucky man not to have a sister to marry off, as was his friends' misfortune. That situation had changed overnight when his father's boyhood friend, who'd recently become extremely ill, asked Rath to take over the guardianship of his longtime ward and see her suitably wed. His first reaction had been no.
But then he thought maybe he owed it to his father to say yes to the old man. Rath had never done much his father approved of during his lifetime — well, except learn how to properly care for the dukedom and keep it prosperous. Perhaps doing this favor for his father's dearest friend would rectify some of Rath's misspent youth.
He remembered Miss Marlena Fast, and the memory wasn't an altogether pleasant one. The only time Rath had seen her, she'd had unruly golden-red hair and scuffed elbows as she'd glanced up at him with big green eyes, mesmerized by him — he'd thought at that moment — only to then have her thrust a frog in his face. That had been when she was twelve.
Ruffian girls rarely, if ever, became decorous young ladies. Unless Miss Fast had changed — for the better — since he'd last seen her, there was little hope any of the eligible peers would offer for her hand. Rath might have to pad her dowry quite handsomely. Which he would do. That was preferable to remaining responsible for her welfare past the upcoming Season.
He'd had no interest in taking on the task of being her guardian and seeing to her future, until the night he'd found himself alone and blurry-minded when he came to the bottom of a brandy bottle. He'd reasoned that Griffin and Hawk had paid a price for what they'd done years ago and it could have been much higher than it was. Now it was time for Rath to do something. But there was no use going over that night again. The deed was done, and he had to carry through. While he couldn't make amends to the young ladies he'd embarrassed with the secret admirer letters that went wrong, he could help Miss Fast make a suitable marriage. And perhaps in some small way atone for them, and make up to his father for never being the proper gentleman he'd always expected his son to be.
Rath turned his attention to the front door again. He might as well get this over with. He'd always succeeded in everything he set his mind to, and he intended to triumph in this challenge as well.
After expelling an audible sigh, he strode toward the house trying to convince himself that no matter how deep in his cups he'd been at the time, he'd actually done the right thing in agreeing to this outrageous, if noble, obligation. Lifting the knocker, he rapped the door a time or two. That sound set off a yappy bark. Seconds later a small short-haired, golden-brown dog came careening around the corner acting as if he wanted to have Rath for his dinner. The dog stopped a few feet from him and took an attack stance while he continued to alternate among barks, snarls, and growls. His thin, pointy tail quivered.
"Easy there," Rath said after taking off his gloves and bending down to offer his hand for the mongrel to sniff. But the little fellow wasn't interested in making friends just yet. He only wanted to continue his alarm and make sure everyone in the neighborhood knew someone was at his master's door.
A few moments later a stout-looking woman wearing a ruffled mobcap and clean apron opened the door, smiled generously at him, and said, "Good afternoon, sir. How may I be of service to you?"
"I'm here to see Miss Marlena Fast," he offered while removing his hat and stuffing his gloves inside before tucking it under his arm.
With the words barely out of his mouth, he heard in the distance what sounded like a young lady's voice saying, "Tut, what has you so upset?"
"Seeing her won't be a problem for you, sir," the servant said. "Sounds as if she'll be walking around that corner any second now to see what has her dog carrying on like a hound after the moon."
When Rath turned in the direction the housekeeper had nodded, he caught sight of a young lady. She was tall, of slender build, and with an easy glide to her unhurried steps. The strong afternoon breeze spread open the bottom skirt of her woolen pelisse and fluttered and flattened her aproned dress against her silhouette. He couldn't see much of her face because she was wearing a straw bonnet with a wide brim pulled low over her eyes, though there hadn't been a hint of sunshine all day.
"Quiet, Tut!" she called softly to the dog. "You're making a nuisance of yourself."
The animal looked back at her and made a quarreling sound in his throat, then barked again.
"That's quite enough," she told him with no real reprimand in her tone, while removing one of her gardening gloves. "I'm here now and can see for myself we have a guest." The dog wasn't giving up. He barked at her again. "No, I can't pick you up, my hands are full. Now quiet. You'll have this gentleman thinking you're a naughty boy and you're going to bite him if you keep that up."
Rath smiled that she might actually think he'd be intimidated by a pup who probably couldn't jump high enough to reach Rath's knees. But if it made her feel better to reassure him of Tut's temperament, Rath would stay quiet.
As she walked closer to him, she lifted her chin and he saw her face. An unexpected throb of interest simmered through him. She was downright fetching, with big, round eyes, small nose, and lips beautifully sculpted. Not even the smudge of dirt that swept across one of her delicate-looking cheeks could take away from her natural loveliness.
A narrow lavender ribbon, meant to hold on her hat, had been perfectly tied into a little bow under her chin. A small basket of trimmings from the garden dangled from one of her wrists. Unlike the housekeeper's pristine apron, hers had grass and mud stains scattered down the front of it.
It didn't surprise Rath that it was Miss Fast who had been cutting the sprigs in the garden instead of a servant or gardener. Judging from his remembrance of her, he should have known it was too much to hope that she'd gained some refinement since he'd last seen her. However, it might not be as difficult to find her a husband as he'd assumed. There was no doubt she'd grown into her beauty.
Gorgeous, green eyes filled with pleasant curiosity and the right amount of sparkle stared at him when she stopped a few feet away, smiled, and laid both her gloves into her basket. There was a wholesome, innocent flush to her cheeks that drew him immediately.
"Miss Fast," he said as Tut sniffed around the heels and soles of his recently polished boots, "I am the Duke of Rathburne."
Her slightly arched brows lifted quickly, and her beautifully shaped mouth opened slightly. She sucked in a short, startled gasp. He watched her swallow hard before making a stiff but hasty curtsy and then whispered softly, "Your Grace, what are you doing here?"
Rath took note of her intense reaction to him. With wary, searching eyes, her gaze darted from him to the front door to each side of the house as if she were looking for somewhere to hide, a way to escape, or maybe someone to come rescue her. And was she trembling, too? He was almost certain it was fear he sensed in her.
The devil take it! He hadn't meant to frighten her by his sudden and unannounced appearance.
He knew the peerage caused alarm in the hearts of some people. Many, in fact. Rath had met a few young ladies who were visibly shaken by his title, his presence, but he'd never seen one who looked as if she thought he might physically harm her. Even her rosy lips had paled.
That puzzled him. She hadn't been frightened of him until he said his name. He was sure of that. Miss Truth's Scandal Sheet had recently called him a notorious rake. Perhaps Miss Fast had read that.
He was so busy assessing her surprising reaction to him that he failed to respond to her, so she spoke up and asked him again, "Why are you here?" She glanced behind him to the street where his carriage was parked while moving her basket from her wrist to grasp the handle tightly with both hands in front of her. Rath had the oddest feeling that she held it as a knight would hold a shield in battle.
"Is anyone with you?" she asked anxiously.
The directness of her questions was understandable, he supposed, so the first thing he needed to do was put her at ease. Perhaps the best way to do that was to remind her that they had met so she would know he wasn't a complete stranger to her.
"I'm alone," he assured her, having no idea why it mattered. "Do you remember meeting me? Six or eight years ago?"
"Vaguely," she answered cautiously, her expression still vigilant.
From her hesitation, he had the feeling she wasn't being totally honest with him, but he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt since she looked so anguished. He certainly didn't want to add to her disconcerting attitude toward him.
Rath went on to add, "My father was good friends with your guardian, Mr. Olingworth, when they were at Eton, Oxford, and for the rest of my father's life. We were visiting Mr. Olingworth at his estate in the Cotswolds and you were there."
"Yes, but I don't remember why you were visiting."
That he could believe without doubt. "I don't, either. It could have been a business matter between them or just a visit. At the time my father was teaching me about our properties and holdings."
Her gaze restlessly searched the street behind him again. "Why are you here now?"
That same question. What was he to do? He didn't want to simply blurt out his reason while standing outside her front door or while she was still so jittery. He wasn't the most patient of men, but he wasn't an ogre, either. Though there were some who might disagree with that assertion.
As his father would have expected of him, he gave her a gentle smile, hoping to reassure her he wasn't up to mischief, and put her mind at ease about him since nothing he'd said so far had. That in itself was unusual for him. He didn't try to pacify anyone. Concerning anything. But then, he couldn't remember having ever frightened a young lady to the point of trembling before, either. Apparently he hadn't made as memorable an impact on her as she had on him that brief time when their paths crossed all those years ago.
Rath was the last person to mollycoddle anyone but, going against his nature, he said, "I'd rather not talk out here, if you don't mind. May we go inside where we'll have more privacy?" She hesitated.
"That is," he added, "unless you are alone."
"No. My cousin is inside."
Rath had only managed to get a little information about Miss Fast from Mr. Olingworth when he visited the man last week. Thin and elderly, he'd been propped against a mountain of pillows on his bed. His voice had been raspy, feeble, and full of fondness for his longtime ward. His hands had suffered from a constant tremble as he'd fiddled with his bedcovers.
It had taken a bit of effort, but Rath had managed to learn that Olingworth had sent Miss Fast to live with her cousin in St. James almost three years ago to start preparations for her debut, which had never happened. Olingworth's declining health had kept him from joining her in London and presenting her to Society. Hence the reason Rath stood before her now.
"Then you realize you don't have to be frightened of me."
Miss Fast gave him a quizzical stare at first, and then suddenly her shoulders squared. Her chin lifted defiantly. He hadn't understood until now that she hadn't known her fear of him showed.
"Frightened?" she asked indignantly. "Me?"
"I thought it must be so," he answered honestly.
"I have no memory of the first two or three years of my life, Your Grace, but I do remember the next few quite vividly. I lived with an aunt and uncle who had five sons — all older than me. I often followed those boys' romps through muddy swamps, dark woods, and old cemeteries at night when they slipped out of the house. If losing sight of them in those places didn't frighten me, I doubt you are capable of doing so."
If that was true — and Rath had no reason to doubt her word — it was impressive for a girl so young and explained why she wasn't afraid to hold a frog when he'd first met her.
"My apologies. I didn't know you lived with a family of boys before Mr. Olingworth."
"Though I am not frightened or desperate, I think disturbed would be an appropriate word for how I'm feeling right now."
Maybe she was upset at first that he'd caught her in the garden? Certainly not a place a proper lady should be with a pair of clippers and cuttings in her basket. Frustrated by his failure to ease the tension between them, Rath rubbed the back of his neck once before saying, "All right. Why does my visit disturb you?"
"I've asked several times why you are here and you've ignored me each time."
"Three times I think, but wait." He paused as an idea came to him. It was completely unacceptable, not to mention risky, but he'd never let anything such as unacceptable consequences stop him. "Shh," he said softly, putting his forefinger to his lips to quiet her when she started to speak. "Be very still. You brought something from the garden with you and it's on your cheek."
Her fan-shaped brows flew up again. Uncertainty filled her eyes before she quickly lowered her lashes and tried to look down her nose at her face.
"What is it? I don't see anything. I don't feel it crawling on me."
She took one hand off the basket and started to lift her arm, but he said, "No, don't move." He stepped closer to her.
"Is it a bee or ladybug?" she asked quietly as her hand settled near the other on the basket handle once more. "A spider then? Please tell me it's not. They are creepy and I hope it's not one. Is it still there? I don't feel it moving around."
"Shh," he said again and moved still closer.
"Or even a wasp," she continued, ignoring his soft command for her to be silent. "There are many different kinds, you know. They won't hurt you if you don't try to hurt them. Though it is much too early in the year for a bee or a wasp to be out. Not any of the insects that fly and crawl about in the garden, but I'm not afraid of them."
He believed her. A young girl who would hold a frog or follow boys into a cemetery wouldn't be worried about a bug. Though she kept talking, she remained still.
"They land on me from time to time when I'm outside. Especially on hot, dry days in midsummer. Wasps sting sometimes, but the pain doesn't last long. I've learned that a cloth dipped in vinegar helps keep down the swelling."
It usually irritated the devil out of Rath when anyone kept up a nervous chatter, but Miss Fast was entertaining him with her brave assertion that insects didn't worry her.
He pulled a neatly folded handkerchief out of his coat pocket. Without considering what the miss, or the housekeeper who stood just inside the doorway, might think, he lightly wiped across her cheek.
Her head snapped up. Her long, dark, and velvety lashes fluttered.
"There," he said in a satisfied tone.
"Is it gone?" she asked anxiously.
"What was it? A ladybug? Did it fly away?"
He held the bit of white cloth up and showed her the soil from her cheek.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "It's All About the Duke"
Copyright © 2018 Amelia Grey.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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