Bestselling author Valerie Bowman sets the stage in Regency England for her Playful Brides series, where couples' misadventures on the way to the altar are witty, romantic romps based on some of the world's most beloved plays. The eleventh book in the series, No Other Duke But You, is inspired by William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
SINGLE LADY SEEKS DUKE
Lady Delilah Montebank has her marital sights set on the Duke of Branville. There’s just one problem: he barely knows she exists. But no matter, she’s got a plan to win him over with her charm, her witand perhaps the love potion she has in her possession wouldn’t hurt her cause...
Lord Thomas Hobbs, Duke of Huntley, thinks his best friend Delilah’s quest to become a duchess is ridiculous. He’s always said he’d rather give up all the brandy in London than commit to one person for life. Besides, he knows that Delilah’s love potion can’t possibly win over Branville...since she accidentally gave it to him instead. But perhaps this is the excuse he needs to show her he’s always loved her...
Delilah can’t believe she gave the potion to the wrong duke. Then again, Delilah could do a lot worse than win the hand of her handsome best friend. Could it be that the right duke has been before her eyes all along?
The Playful Brides novels are:
“Wholly satisfying.”USA Today
“Smart and sensual.”RT Book Reviews
“Delicious.” Kirkus 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.
Read an Excerpt
London, June 1827
Twenty-two-year-old Lady Delilah Montebank peered around the corner of the servants' staircase while her friends smuggled a small potted tree, an armload of paper moss, and a set of fake donkey ears down the back steps of her mother's town house.
"J'adore the donkey ears," she whispered, glancing over her shoulder to check for witnesses. Her chin brushed against the ruffles of her pink gown. "Shh. We cannot let Mother hear."
Her friends, Owen Monroe, the Earl of Moreland, Christian Forester, Viscount Berkeley, and Derek Hunt, the Duke of Claringdon, all dutifully slipped out the back door, their arms full, without making a sound.
"Merci beaucoup," she whispered to Derek, as his boots crunched the gravel on the way to his coach. "Please tell Lucy I'll see her tomorrow." She waved at the duke.
Derek inclined his head by way of reply.
Delilah turned and let out a deep breath. She'd been skittish all morning, hoping her mother wouldn't find her friends smuggling the decorations for the play out of her bedchamber. But Mother hadn't discovered them. Job well done.
Delilah was about to close the door behind her when a small red squirrel dashed inside. The squirrel sprinted down the corridor toward the front of the house.
Delilah winced. She may have met this squirrel before. She may have fed it, which meant she may be responsible for its entrance into her home. And if Mother or Cook saw it first, the poor little animal would be doomed.
Delilah hiked up her skirts and took off after the squirrel. The rodent dashed back and forth down the corridor, leaping left and right, heading directly for the front of the house as if he knew the layout. Mother was in the front drawing room receiving visitors. The door to the gold salon was open. She might see the squirrel dash past. Of course, Delilah knew this because she'd thoroughly researched her mother's whereabouts before telling her friends to proceed with smuggling things out the back door.
The squirrel was already in the foyer by the time Delilah caught up to it. It paused and looked about. Delilah paused too, holding her breath. She stood panting and waiting, her skirts still hiked above her stockinged ankles. Mother's voice drifted from the salon. Delilah swallowed, her eyes darting to the side.
The squirrel dashed across the marble floor and ran under a rosewood table, the same rosewood table that housed the expensive crystal bowl in which visitors left their calling cards. The same crystal bowl Mother was excessively proud of.
Mother's voiced drifted from the salon again. She was saying good-bye to someone, which meant she was about to emerge from the room. Delilah didn't have much time. She expelled a breath and eyed the squirrel warily. It sat under the table, sniffing the air and swishing its bushy tail. Delilah had no choice. Time was of the essence. She dove for the squirrel, catching her slipper in the hem of her skirt and ripping it, upending the table, and smashing the crystal bowl. She landed in an ignominious heap amid the jumble, her hands closed around the squirrel's tiny, furry body.
A shadow fell across her, and she hoisted herself up on one elbow to turn and look at the straight-backed figure looming behind her.
"Um, bon jour, Mère. I mean, Mother." Her mother disliked it when she called her Mère. Delilah's use of French — specifically, her poor use of French — drove her mother to distraction.
Her mother's dark, imperial eyebrow lifted. The frown on her face was both unmistakable and omnipresent. The Earl of Hilton stood to her right, an irritated smile on his smug face.
"She takes after her father, doesn't she?" He eyed Delilah down his haughty, straight nose. "Clumsy."
Lord Hilton had supposedly been Papa's closest friend. Ever since Papa died over ten years ago, the man had been hovering about Mother. Delilah had suspected for a while now that they were courting. He and his hideous son, Clarence, had begun coming around more and more of late. Delilah guessed they were interested in money, and unfortunately, her mother had a great deal of it. Her uncle was the earl now, but Papa had provided generously for both her and her mother's future.
Mother lifted her chin, her lips pursed. It was never good when her lips pursed. "This creature looks like my daughter, but I'm not certain I wish to claim her at the moment."
Delilah scrambled to her feet. Her hair had come out of the topknot and a large swath of it covered one eye and half of her mouth. Her grip still tight on the squirming squirrel, she tried to blow the hair away from her face, but the swath simply lifted momentarily and fell back into place.
Mary and Rose, the housemaids, had already begun cleaning up the mess she'd made. "I'm awfully sorry," Delilah said to them. They glanced at her, both offering sympathetic smiles. She'd been friends with them for an age, and they knew she was about to get a tongue lashing from her mother.
Mother's gaze fell to the squirrel, and she gave a long-suffering sigh. "What in heaven's name have you got there?" The countess's nostrils flared slightly as she glared at the squirrel as if it were a rabid rat.
Delilah clutched the little animal to her chest. "L'écureuil," she announced, hoping the word for squirrel sounded more acceptable in French. Most things sounded more acceptable in French.
Her mother turned sharply toward the front door. "I am going to see Lord Hilton out. I'll give you five minutes to dispose of that thing and meet me in the salon. I need to speak with you." She whisked her burgundy skirts in the direction of the front door.
Delilah glanced about. The front door was the closest exit. She rushed past Mother and Lord Hilton to reach the door before they did as Goodfellow, the butler, opened it. She hurried out into the spring air and glanced around. The park was across the street. It would be the best place for the squirrel. She watched for carriages and then dashed across the muddy roadway and into the park, where she found a spot in the grass to carefully release the animal. "Take care, Monsieur Écureuil," she said, as she leaned down and gently opened her palms against the soft, green grass.
She watched the squirrel scramble away to safety before she turned and rushed back across the road, further muddying her skirts in the process. Mon Dieu. Just another thing for Mother to disapprove of.
By the time Delilah reached the foyer again with a ripped, stained hem, she was breathing heavily and her coiffure had become even more unwieldy. At least the Earl of Hilton was gone. She quickly flipped the unruly swath of hair over her shoulder. Best to pretend as if she couldn't see it. She rushed into the salon and stopped short to stand at attention in front of her mother, who was seated, stiff-backed and imperious, like a queen upon a throne.
Mother eyed her up and down before shaking her head disapprovingly. "Take a seat."
Delilah lowered herself to the chair that faced her mother's. She'd learned long ago that if she kept her eyes downcast and nodded obediently, these sorts of talks were over much more quickly. Too bad she didn't have it in her to do either. "About the squirrel, I —"
"I do not wish to speak about the squirrel." Her mother's lips were tight.
"About the vase and the table, I —"
Mother's eyes were shards of blue ice. "I do not wish to speak about the vase or the table."
Poor Mère. She would have been beautiful if she weren't always so angry. Usually with Delilah. Her mother's blond hair held subtle streaks of white, her eyes so blue they would have been heavenly if they weren't so hard. She had a perfect, patrician nose and lines around her mouth no doubt caused by years of frowning at her only child.
Delilah looked nothing like her. Lord Hilton was correct. Delilah took after her father. She had Papa's dark brown hair and matching eyes. A butter stamp, they'd called her, meaning she looked exactly like him. Delilah was of medium height while her mother was petite. Delilah was exuberant and talked far too loudly and far too much, while her mother was always calm and reserved. Delilah was a failure on the marriage mart, while her mother (even at her advanced age of three and forty) had a score of suitors. Hilton was the most aggressive, and her mother's obvious favorite.
Delilah's mind raced. If Mother didn't want to chastise her about the vase, the table, or the squirrel, what could she possibly — Delilah winced. "Is it about the donkey ears?"
Mother's eyes widened slightly with alarm. "Donkey ears?"
Oh, dear. Now was probably not the best time to tell Mother she'd been rehearsing a play for charity. The woman rarely approved of anything Delilah did, and joining the outrageous Duchess of Claringdon, Lucy Hunt, in a production of a play was certain to be another in a long list of things Mother disapproved of, even if they were performing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Never mind," Delilah said in as nonchalant a voice as she could muster.
Mother delivered another long-suffering sigh. She touched one fingertip to each of her temples. "I don't even want to know what you meant by that. But no, it's not about any of those things." Her mother's hands returned to settle motionless in her lap.
Delilah watched with awe. She'd never been able to master the art of sitting perfectly still. She also hadn't mastered the arts of speaking fluent French, being patient, pouring tea without spilling it, keeping her clothing clean and rip-free, or any of a number of other things she'd tried. All of her shortcomings were a source of unending shame to her mother.
Delilah pressed her lips together, but she couldn't keep her slipper from tapping the floor. When would she learn it was always better to allow Mother to speak first? The conversation tended to be less incriminating that way. "What would you like to speak to me about, Mother?" she forced herself to ask in the primmest voice she could muster. Mother had always valued primness.
Mother straightened her shoulders and pursed her lips. "It's about your marriage."
A sinking feeling started in Delilah's chest and made its way to the bottom of her belly, where it sat, making her feel as if she'd swallowed a tiny anvil. She'd known this day would come, known it for years, but she had merely hoped it wouldn't arrive quite so ... soon.
"You'll be three and twenty next month," Mother continued.
A fact. "Yes, Mother."
"That is far beyond the age a respectable young woman should take a husband."
That depended upon what one considered respectable, didn't it? It also depended on whether one's goal was respectability. "Yes, Mother."
"You've spent the last five Seasons running about with the Duchess of Claringdon, playing matchmaker for other young ladies."
True. "Yes, Mother." Delilah managed to stop her foot from tapping, but her toes continued to wiggle in her slipper.
"You don't seem to have given so much as a thought to your own match."
Also true. "Yes, Mother." Was it her fault if it was much more diverting to find matches for other people than to worry about a courtship for herself? When she was a girl, she'd looked forward to being courted by handsome gentlemen. But that had been years ago, before she'd grown up to be entirely unmatchable. She'd always known she would have to try to make her own match eventually, however. Someday. Apparently Mother's patience was at an end.
"I daresay your friendship with Huntley hasn't been a good influence. He also refuses to make a match. And he's a duke, for heaven's sake. He'll need an heir someday."
Delilah winced. It was never good when Mother mentioned Thomas. The two could barely stand each other. "Thomas doesn't exactly believe in marriage."
"Yes, well, you'd better start believing in it." Mother's highly judgmental eyebrow arched again. "This is your sixth Season, and it's nearly over."
Yes, but who was counting? And why did Mother have to pronounce the word sixth as if it were blasphemy? She sounded like a snake hissing.
"I insist you secure an engagement this year," Mother continued. "If you do not, I shall be forced to ensure one is made for you."
Delilah shot from her chair. "No! Mother!" Her fists clenched at her sides.
Mother's brow lifted yet again, and she eyed her daughter scornfully until Delilah lowered herself back into her seat. She managed to unclench her fists, but her foot resumed the tapping.
Mother pursed her lips. "You fancy yourself the ton's matchmaker, my dear. It's high time you made your own match."
Delilah took a deep breath and blew it out. Then she took another one for good measure. Aunt Willie had taught her that little trick when dealing with her mother. How Aunt Willie and Aunt Lenore, her cousin Daphne's mother, had grown up with Mother and been so different, so happy and nice and pleasant, Delilah would never know. The three sisters couldn't have been more dissimilar.
After the third steadying breath, Delilah forced herself to think. Marriage. Very well. This was actually happening. She would have to make a match by the end of the Season. She gulped. Next month.
"Of course, you'll have to find someone who is willing to put up with your ..." Her mother eyed her up and down again. "Eccentricities. But there are plenty of young men of the Quality who are in need of a hefty dowry. I suggest you set your sights on one of them."
Delilah blinked back tears. She refused to let her mother see her cry. She hadn't allowed it since she'd been a girl. When Papa died. That was when Mother had informed her that crying was for people who had no control over their emotions, something Delilah had always struggled with. Her emotions tended to immediately register on her face. That was one of the many reasons she had always been a terrible disappointment to her mother.
But Delilah had always intended to make a good match. She had. She'd merely been ... distracted. Why, together, she and Lucy had made splendid matches for all of Delilah's friends. Lady Eleanor Rothschild, Lady Clara Pennington, and Lady Anna Maxwell. Those young ladies had made their debuts with Delilah, and one by one they'd been married off to charming, handsome, titled gentlemen of the aristocracy ... in love matches, no less.
"Don't misunderstand me," Mother continued, passing a hand over her perfectly pressed skirts. "I don't expect you to make the match of the Season."
Delilah blinked. "The match of the Season?" Surely, her mother didn't mean —
"I've heard the Duke of Branville is looking for a bride this year."
Drat. That's exactly who her mother meant. And it was true. The Duke of Branville had long been the most coveted bachelor on the marriage mart. Until this year, he hadn't shown an interest in finding a bride. She and Lucy had already spent the better part of the Season avidly discussing his prospects. It was one of their favorite pastimes actually. "Yes," she murmured in response to her mother. "The Duke of Branville is certainly eligible."
Her mother's lip curled. "As I said, I've no expectation that you could secure an offer from the likes of Branville, for heaven's sake. No. I think someone a bit more, ahem, reasonable would be best." She sat up even straighter if that were possible. "To that end, I already have chosen someone for you."
Delilah's stomach performed a somersault. "Who?" Cold dread clutched at her middle.
"Clarence, of course."
Delilah's jaw dropped and her brows snapped together. "Clarence ... Hilton?"
Her mother directed her gaze skyward for a moment. "Of course, Clarence Hilton, who else?"
"Oh, Mother, no!" Delilah couldn't help the disdain in her voice. "I'm certain I can do better than Clarence Hilton."
"Oh, really?" Mother drawled, crossing her arms over her chest and regarding Delilah down the length of her nose.
"Yes, really." Delilah nodded vigorously. She'd rather marry a good-natured goat than Clarence Hilton. The man was portly, smelly, and rarely spoke, and when he did, he had nothing interesting to say.
"Very well." Mother stood from her seat and made her way toward the door. "I'll give you until your birthday to secure a better offer."
Delilah clenched her jaw. Her mother didn't think much of her. She certainly didn't think Delilah was capable of attracting a worthwhile suitor, and she obviously didn't think Delilah could attract anyone better than Clarence Hilton.
Anger bubbled in Delilah's chest. Normally, she did her best to keep it at bay. Anger was an emotion, after all. But sometimes, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't stop such thoughts from throbbing in her brain. She was a butter stamp of her father in more ways than one, and the current way involved being madly stubborn and ridiculously determined once she set her sights upon something.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Other Duke But You"
Copyright © 2019 June Third Enterprises, LLC..
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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