How to Trap the Duke – Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

“All we need to do is pretend to be betrothed whilst the scandal runs its course.”

 

Julia has sworn to remain unmarried. So, when her parents try to marry her off to a man that disgusts her, she does the unthinkable: she intentionally ruins her reputation with a known rake, one she is certain will leave her alone after.

 

Edward is a rake through and through. Ever since his first love died in a carriage accident, he has completely given up on love, preferring to drown his feelings instead. However, his family cannot handle another scandal. And he would do anything for his family. Even force a spinster to enter a pretend engagement with him..

 

As Edward and Julia reluctantly enter this fake engagement, they set some ground rules: they have to be seen out in public together, he has to send her all sorts of flowers, there will be no more kisses, and more importantly, they will not fall in love…And then get to breaking every single one.

Prologue

“Is that Julia? Call her in.”

Julia froze in the doorway as she removed her spencer jacket. The butler kindly took the jacket and hurried off, long before Julia even had chance to blush out of embarrassment, hearing her father’s voice echo throughout the house. When the door the butler had escaped through closed, another opened. This one revealed her mother, standing in the doorway to the sitting room.

“Julia,” her mother said, evidently trying to summon a smile. “May we speak with you?”

Julia considered refusing and escaping to her chamber. It had been a long day and the children at the orphanage had been particularly excitable. She was tired and needed the rest, but the way her mother wrung her hands together repeatedly stopped Julia from considering her escape.

“Yes, of course, Mama.” Julia stepped toward the sitting room, lifting her chin higher so that the curly locks of her brown hair that had escaped her updo fell away from her face. When she reached her mother’s side, she briefly took her hand, wanting Susannah to be reassured, even if it was a reassurance that could not last long.

“Do not stand in the way all the time, Susannah, let her in.” The Earl of Finch’s voice made Julia stand taller, her spine twitching, as Susannah stepped away.

Rather than argue back or stand her ground, Susannah moved across the room, releasing Julia’s hand and tilting her chin downward.

“Mama was not in the way.” Julia spoke up in her mother’s defense, but the words seemed to do little. Her father barely took note of the words as he stood and leaned on the mantelpiece over the fire. As he kicked the loose coals into the grate, sparks cascaded around the hearth, a sure sign of danger. “You wished to speak to me, Father?” Julia crossed her hands together, meeting her father’s gaze.

Just like her own, her father’s eyes were a bright brown, almost amber. Those eyes turned on her now in a piercing way, contrasting the whiteness of his hair.

“Look at your gown, Julia. Is that truly how you think the daughter of an earl should appear?” He gestured flippantly at her.

Julia glanced down at the dress. She could see the creases where the children at the orphanage had pulled at her, longing for attention. There were a few stains too, from where she had picked up Lucy, the youngest at the orphanage, who had fallen in a particularly large pile of mud that morning. Julia smiled at the sight and lifted her gaze once more.

“What you see are the marks of happy children, Father. I have no shame in my gown.” Julia crossed the room, moving toward where her mother sat and perched beside her. Susannah smiled, looking up from the embroidery.

“How were the children?” she asked excitedly.

“Well, very well.”

“How is young Lucy? And what of the twins –”

“No more blithering on, for God’s sake, Susannah.” The Earl’s voice put an end to the matter. He lifted a hand and pinched the bridge of his nose as he spoke, despairing of her.

Julie frowned, looking between her mother and father as Susannah returned her focus to her embroidery.

How often have I seen this in my life? My mother cowing to my father’s orders so as not to hurt his ego.

Julia could not stand it. Time and time again had she stood up for her mother, but Susannah would not do it for herself.

“I have learned from that mistake, Julia. It will not be an error I make again.”

Those words uttered by Susannah years ago, still echoed in Julia’s mind. Susannah may have given up on being able to use her own voice and speak her mind, but Julia hadn’t yet.

“What is so wrong in speaking of the orphanage, Father?” Julia asked, refusing to cower back on the settee, even when her father lifted an angry glare toward her.

“The daughter of an earl should be at assemblies and balls, not frittering away her time in an orphanage with penniless children.”

“I would have thought it would be plain to see by now that I do not act like other young ladies of the ton.” Julia shrugged with the words. It was not something that bothered her, even if it was making her father turn so red at this moment that his skin resembled the rather bright red rug that was beneath his feet.

“Ha! You think I have not noticed that?”

“Father, I rather hoped you had not.” Julia’s wry words had not been heard though, for her father quickly spoke over her, striding forward.

“Twenty-five and still unmarried. Imagine that! How absurd an idea it is?” He turned away in his anger, tripping on the corner of the rug for he was so distracted. He had to catch himself quickly on the mantelpiece.

Susannah hid her smile by bending over her embroidery even more, but Julia didn’t bother to hide her small laugh. As far as she was concerned, her father behaved worse than some of the more spoiled children at the orphanage. His ego could do with being embarrassed every now and then.

“I see you smiling.”

“I was not hiding it, Father,” Julia said coolly as he stepped back and leaned on the mantelpiece once again.

“They talk of you. Did you know that? The ton. You should hear what they have to say!”

“I hardly care for their poor opinion.”

“I will not hear you talk in such a way.”

“I control my words, Father. Not you.” Julia knew how far she was taking her resistance today, for even Susannah at her side was waving her embroidery, pleading with her to yield.

“Then you need someone who will check your conversation. Someone with a stronger hand than I, clearly.” The Earl turned away once more and stared into the fire, leaning on the mantelpiece. “I didn’t want it to come to this, Julia, but you have left me no choice.”

“I beg your pardon?” Julia asked distractedly, aware that Susannah had lifted her embroidery so close to her face now that she seemed to want to hide from Julia too.

“If you cannot sort a marriage for yourself, and the ton are already calling you a spinster, then it is my job to find one for you.” The Earl spun round once more, his arms folded across his dark waistcoat, as he spoke with finality. “I have found you a husband.”

“A husband?” Julia couldn’t help laughing. “You seek to arrange my life for me?”

“You are my daughter.”

“That does not mean you are my ruler.”

“Julia, that is enough!” the Earl’s voice rang out across the room. Julia moved to the edge of her seat, ready to argue again, but her mother reached out and took her wrist. It was a gentle touch, but one that was pleading. One look at her mother’s eyes and Julia could read her thoughts.

She wishes me not to push him further. She is afraid.

“The matter is sorted, and there is nothing you can do about it now,” the Earl kept speaking. “The Viscount Gillet has agreed to the match, and we have already discussed your dowry. The wedding will be arranged soon enough.”

Julia froze, her mouth turning dry as she stared up at her father.

“You mean to say… it is all arranged already? You have promised me to a man without even asking my opinion on it?”

“If I left you to your own devices, you would die old, penniless, and unmarried, with nothing but your books and your orphanage to keep you company.”

“That sounds a content life to me!” Julia moved to her feet, unable to listen to any more of it, even as her mother pulled at the back of her gown, begging her to be quiet. “I will not be sold to any man –”

“It is sorted, Julia.” Her father moved toward her once more, towering over her so far that Julia backed up a little, feeling the same fear that her mother felt. When the Earl was truly angry, one shout could be enough to shake Julia’s bones. “I will hear no more complaints, and no more refusals, for there is nothing you can do. Lord Gillet has agreed to marry you –”

“That man? He is a philanderer, and a narcissist.”

“He is a viscount and can afford a wife. That is the only point that truly matters. Find a way to accept your new life, Julia, for it is the one you have.” With these final words, the Earl strode from the room, leaving Julia stumbling forward out of her mother’s grasp, moving toward the fire.

“No, no…” Julia kept murmuring, repeatedly, unable to understand what had just happened. She had always vowed never to marry. She did not want to be beholden to a man the way her mother was to her father. But what could she do? Her father had arranged her future so that she had no say in the matter at all.

“Sweetheart, all will be well.” Susannah tossed away her embroidery and came to Julia’s side, offering comfort.

“How will it be well? He has condemned me to a future I never wanted, with a man that…” Julia thought of all that she knew about Lord Gillet. Not only did he have a reputation for an inconstant heart, but he was cruel too. If the last lady he had flattered was to be believed, then he had the propensity to hurt.

I will not accept this future. Come what may, it must be stopped.

Julia fell limp as her mother embraced her, trying to offer comfort where words could offer none. Julia held back to her mother numbly, finding her fears quickly morphing into determination.

It will not be my future, and the Viscount Gillet will never be my husband.

She needed to find a way out of this match. Somehow, she would have to make Lord Gillet change his mind.

“All will be well, I promise,” Susannah said, though when she stepped back, she revealed her eyes were full of tears.

“Mama.” Julia reached for her mother and dried the tears on her cheeks with her thumbs. “Do not ache for me.”

“How could I not?” Susannah sniffed. “I know it is not the future you wanted, but he would not…”

“I know.” Julia nodded, knowing what her mother was attempting to say, even as her words were stifled by gasping tears. “He would not listen to you.”

Father never does.

This time, Julia was the one to embrace her mother. She held tightly onto her, patting her back as the tears came.

It made Julia’s resolve build all the more. She would not live her life as her mother had done, afraid of her husband and fearful of speaking her mind. No, Julia had to find a way to live a new life, one where she would be free of her father’s rule and Lord Gillet’s power.

There was just one obstacle. If the Viscount had already agreed to the match, then a marriage license could already be in the process of being obtained. If Julia was going to find a way out of this marriage, then she had to find a way to make that license null and void.

I must make Lord Gillet tear it up.

Quickly, an idea began to form, one so devious and unlike Julia, that she was quite horrified at herself.

 

It is necessary. To save myself, I must ruin my reputation. After all, what Viscount would marry me once I had been caught in the arms of another man?

Chapter One

“Charles? Is that you?” Edward called to his friend, scarcely able to recognize him through the hubbub of the ballroom. “I can barely believe it. Since when do you hide behind drinks tables nursing brandies in your hand?”

“I do these days.” Charles stepped forward, revealing a face that had a particularly wan complexion, with lips pressed together and no hint of a smile.

Edward faltered, staring at his friend in wonder. There had been a time when Charles was the jester of any group. Edward had loved his company, at every event of the ton that he attended, Charles was always at his side, ready with a joke and a jest to lighten the mood.

Not these days, it would seem.

Edward sighed and looked away, feeling the disappointment grow. Charles was not the only reason Edward did not enjoy balls as much as he used to. There was another reason, but that one was something he kept firmly at the rear of his mind, and back home, hidden away.

Do not think of it tonight.

Seeking distraction, Edward looked around the ballroom. It was a busy place tonight. Between the standing candelabras draped with the autumnal bows of rust-like leaves and golden flowers, people wandered back and forth. Ivory gowns mingled with sharp black suits, the whole monochrome atmosphere contrasting the russet colors of the décor. Fans fluttered in front of eyes and chests, as the bearer of those fans tried to draw attention to their assets, whilst gentlemen’s eyes lingered in an ungentlemanly like fashion.

“You seem lost in thought.” Charles’ words made Edward look back round.

“I’m surprised you noticed,” Edward laughed, showing he was in jest. “You are much in your own world these days.”

“I know.” When Charles offered no more explanation, simply taking another hearty gulp of his brandy so that his auburn hair tipped back from his forehead, Edward felt he had to push the point.

“You have not been yourself for a few months now in fact. Charles, will you not tell me what is wrong?”

“A ball is hardly the place for morose conversation, is it?” Charles forced a smile. “Here, let me get you a drink, and you can be happy for the both of us.”

“That may be some effort tonight,” Edward whispered low, so that his friend could not hear him. As Charles poured a glass of wine and passed it to Edward, he fidgeted, pushing back his curly brown hair that was hanging loose over his forehead. Once the sparkling wine was within his grasp, he joined Charles in taking hearty swigs. “Come, let us play a game.” Edward latched a hand over his friend’s shoulder, determined to raise his spirits.

“A game?” Charles asked, looking a little afeard at the idea.

“Ha! No need to shake. You used to like this game.” Edward gestured at the crowds in the ballroom with his glass. “What ladies do you recognize tonight?”

“Ah, I remember this game,” Charles said, revealing his first proper smile. “If I am to help you choose what lady to pursue next, then I fear I will have to have another drink to steel myself for it.” Charles laughed and downed what was in his glass, before pouring himself another. “I see Lady de Winter is here again tonight. Was she not one of yours?”

Edward let his eyes dance on Lady de Winter. It had been some time since he and the lady had kept each other company. When he had first earned his reputation as a rake, this lady was the one at his side, happy to spread the rumors of him, not that he had minded. He was very content for ladies to think him an ill possibility for a husband.

“She was once,” Edward acknowledged with a nod. “Until she found herself a new husband to be. They are to be married come Michaelmas.”

“Very well, how about Lady Rowena Myers?” Charles gestured across the room once more to a young lady that was dancing.

Edward smiled when his eyes landed on her. Lady Myers was a recent newlywed, who had clearly discovered that her husband, who was over twice her age, had little appetite for anything to do with the marriage bed. She had barely returned from her honeymoon before she started dropping hints at Edward, asking him to dance and if he could spare the time to join her on a promenade or two.

“A good possibility for this evening.” Edward chewed over the idea. Tonight, it could indeed by the night where he and Lady Myers became something more to each other. She clearly knew what the situation would be, that he offered no more than a night, but she desired it anyway.

When her eyes found his across the room and she smiled, Edward smiled too.

Yes, this is what I need. This constant distraction. It makes the world a bearable place.

“Or how about a challenge instead?” Charles asked.

“Challenge? Who?” Edward spun round, returning his eyes to his friend.

“I have just seen an old sparring partner of yours. Now, that would be an impressive thing, if you could win over a lady who wants nothing to do with you.” Charles topped up his glass as he nodded his head across the room toward the door. “The Earl of Finch’s daughter.”

“Lady Julia Clarke,” Edward said her name aloud as she stepped into the room.

Either side of her were the Earl and Countess of Finch. Lady Finch was on her arm, gripping rather tightly to her daughter and shaking the dance card at her wrist. Lord Finch seemed much more eager to look anywhere else in the room other than at his wife and daughter.

“You think I could ever win that challenge?” Edward laughed with his friend. “Then I’m flattered, for you think me a better charmer than I do, which is saying a lot. I have been told I am a vain man.”

“I know you, Edward. That is simply a front you like to wear, not the truth.” The surprisingly honest words from his friend made Edward fidget and take another sip of his wine, turning his gaze back to Lady Julia.

She was a particularly beautiful lady. He had thought the same the first night he had seen her at her debut some years ago. Tall and striking, with such curves that were barely hidden by the Pomona green gown she wore that she made Edward pull at his cravat, needing a sudden looseness there after heat had crept up his spine and his neck. The eyes in particular were something that he had always admired. Brown, almost amber, they could pierce a man across the room to the spot.

“A beauty, is she not?” Charles whispered at his side, elbowing him in the rib.

“She is. The problem is at some point those fine lips start talking,” Edward jested, relieved when his friend gave way to firm laughter. “No, Charles, she is too great a challenge for me, and I would not dishonor her so regardless. Lady Julia does not wish for any man to join her in life, least of all does she want a rake to join her for a night or two and no more. I would not sully her.”

“I knew you had honor in you somewhere, even if you like to hide it.” Charles teased him some more as he took the wine glass from Edward’s hand, topping it up for him.

Edward moved his eyes away from Lady Julia, rather reluctantly. He had been honest in his refusal of considering Lady Julia, for the two had spoken a few times before, and that conversation had never ended in anything but arguments. She clearly thought him a wastrel and a pointless use of space. He could not exactly find a good argument to counter her.

I know exactly what I am.

“Speaking of ladies, there is another that is missing here tonight,” Charles said as he returned Edward’s glass to him.

“Oh? Who’s that?” Edward asked as the champagned tickled his tongue.

“Your sister. Where is Lady Esther Thorne?”

Edward had to work hard not to choke on the champagne as he lowered the glass once again, coughing it clear of his lungs.

“Is something wrong?” Charles murmured, stepping forward.

“Not at all.” Edward forced a smile to his face. “My sister simply has no enjoyment for events such as these at present.”

“Edward, you have said that for the last two months at least.”

“Because it is true.” Edward nodded his head. “She has no wish to join such events, and I will not be one of those elder brothers that forces their sister to such events for the sake of seeing her marry someday. Let her decide to return in her own time, I will not pressure her to do so.”

“That is a kind thing.” Charles nodded, showing no inclination to renew the subject, but Edward was irked all the same.

Ah, Esther, what are we going to do?

He could not speak of her freely at this moment. Not without fear.

“If you would excuse me, my friend, I am in need of some air. I will return shortly.” Edward bowed his head to Charles and turned away, aware that Charles’ lips parted to say something more, but Edward gave him no more time to do so.

A minute alone with my thoughts. That is what I need.

***

“Julia, it is time we take you to Lord Gillet.” The Earl of Finch’s words made Julia freeze, feeling her hand tighten around the dance card at her wrist.

She could remember all too well the last time she had danced with the man that was to be her future husband. He’d had wandering hands, and she’d had to subtly slap one of those hands away to stop him from touching her any further. No one else on the dancefloor had noticed, but it had angered him, that was plain in the tightening of his jaw and how firmly his hand had taken hers.

“Are you so eager to be rid of me, Father, that you wish to place me in the Viscount’s hands tonight?” Julia asked tartly, aware that her mother beside her was smiling sweetly at passersby. Susannah was rather good at keeping up appearances, even when it was the last thing that she felt like doing.

“Do not be churlish, child,” her father said, shaking his head in dismay.

“Child? If I am a child, then surely, I am not old enough to marry?”

“No more, Julia. No more.” The Earl stepped toward her and darkened his tone. “Wait here a minute whilst I find him.” He flounced off so quickly, that the flap of his tailcoat whipped against Julia’s arm.

“Mama, this is madness,” she said as she turned to her mother.

“I know, but there is nothing we can do.”

You mean, there is nothing you can do.

Julia had her plan, she now just had to put it into action. She looked away from her mother and glanced across the room, seeking out the perfect man for the role she needed someone to play tonight.

One kiss, it is all that is needed. One kiss and a few seconds will be enough to destroy my reputation and leave any chance of a marriage in tatters. I will be free!

Julia couldn’t help thinking of where she would rather be spending her evening. She thought of the orphanage and the children there. She could have been reading to them at this very moment, with Lucy on her lap and the twins sitting at her feet, listening attentively. Robinson Crusoe was their favorite at the moment, and she would have happily spent an evening reliving that story, rather than having to stand in this ballroom.

“Mama, you must acknowledge that Father has done an ill job of choosing a husband for me. I did not ask him to choose one at all, but he could at least have done a better job of it, do you not think?” Julia’s wit made her mother smile a little, before that smile fell flat.

“I understand Lord Gillet is fond of… money.” Susannah hissed the word in a whisper, as if it were a great sin to gossip in such a way. “Your dowry is a healthy one, and clearly one that he wanted.”

“Wonderful, so as well as philanderer, narcissist and cruel, I need to add money-grabbing to his list of vices.” Julia sighed and lifted her eyes to the ceiling, ready to plead with the heavens for help. When she lowered her eyes to peer through the candles and the other guests’ faces that were glittering orange in that candlelight, she saw the answer to her prayers. “If you would excuse me, Mama, I wish to greet Lady Beatrice.”

“Lady Beatrice?” Susannah said, her dark eyebrows lifting in alarm. “You always say she talks nonsensical gossip.”

“Indeed, she does.” Julia nodded, trying to hide her mischievous smile. “Yet it is the right thing to do to greet an acquaintance, is it not? I will return shortly.”

She stepped away before her mother could make another attempt to stop her. Susannah was clearly uncomfortable, looking back and forth, ready for the return of her husband with Lord Gillet, but Julia turned her focus away from her mother. If her plan was to succeed, then she could not afford to dally.

I must take action now!

“Lady Beatrice, how lovely to see you.” Julia curtsied when she reached the lady.

“Oh, Lady Julia,” she said, giggling already, in such a way that her pudgy cheeks shook. Lady Beatrice was a woman with a fast smile, ready to laugh when no joke had even been made. Not only was she good company, but her habits suited Julia well tonight.

“I trust you have been up to your usual games,” Julia said good-naturedly in jest. “Any scandals to share with me tonight?”

“Oh, you do me credit, my friend. I will admit, I am rather good at pulling out one or two secrets,” Lady Beatrice said, fluttering her fan in front of her face, “but I do hope there are more yet to be unearthed, otherwise where would be the fun in coming at all tonight?”

Julia forced herself to laugh with Lady Beatrice, wanting the lady to trust her in this moment.

“Here, I have a few tales to share.” Lady Beatrice linked arms with Julia and turned her to face the crowds, pointing out to individuals as though they were at the theatre, watching acts on the stage. “They say old Mr. Thomas has a new friend. Do you see that remarkably young lady next to him?”

“I do.” Julia nodded, watching two individuals together.

“They are extremely close. Imagine my surprise when I discovered his wife is sick at home, and he is escorting a young lady this evening? Unattached! What a scandal indeed.” Lady Beatrice giggled all the more.

“Once again, your skills have exceeded expectation,” Julia said, gritting her teeth. In truth, she had no love for gossip, and the way those such as Lady Beatrice fed off others’ misfortune and unhappiness made Julia burn to say something sharp in retort, but tonight, Lady Beatrice could prove useful. “Tell me, do you know anything of rakes here tonight? My mother tells me volumes could be written on some of the gentlemen in attendance.”

“Oh, your mother is not wrong.” Lady Beatrice turned Julia once more, looking in a different direction across the room. “There is Lord Davenport, of course, quite a rake indeed, though his latest lady has lasted longer than they usually do.”

He will not do.

Julia’s eyes rested on Lord Davenport who was dancing with a particularly beautiful young lady. To her mind, Lord Davenport was quite smitten, and he might not be known as a rake for much longer judging by the way he was gazing at his dance partner.

“There is Mr. Harrison too.” Lady Beatrice gestured across the room to where an older man was sat, nearly falling out of his chair. He was so in his cups that he couldn’t sit straight.

Good Lord, no one would believe I had any inclination to kiss such a man!

“But ah, I think I have just seen the finest rake of them all,” Lady Beatrice giggled with the words. “This man in particular has certainly given me much amusement over the last few years. He keeps me guessing.”

“Who?”

“Do you see him there, Lady Julia? The Duke of Stapleton!”

Julia followed Lady Beatrice’s motioning hand to where the Duke was crossing the room. He seemed to be making an effort to get somewhere, but young ladies kept stopping him, moving in his way, eager to speak.

Julia had met the man before.

An egotistical, vain and insufferable man!

He had a habit of thinking his opinion was always the right one, and she could not stand him for it. It led to her trying to avoid his company at events such as these as much as possible. Yet here was a real possibility for her plan. The Duke of Stapleton was not only an incredibly handsome man, with curly brown hair and midnight blue eyes, so much so that it would be believable for Julia to lose sense of her decorum and fall prey to a kiss, but he was also a man who had no inclination to marry. She had once overheard him speak of marriage with a friend of his.

“You think I should marry someday? Ha! Then you are quite wrong. I’d sooner vow myself to a spider than to a lady.”

“He could be perfect,” Julia whispered.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing. Do go on, Lady Beatrice,” Julia encouraged, but her eyes never left the Duke of Stapleton, not once. He was perfect for the role she needed him to play. She could steal a kiss, destroy her own reputation, and nothing would come of it.

 

Now all I must do is wait for my opportunity.

Chapter Two

“At last,” Edward murmured to himself as he found the door that led outside, “freedom.” He stepped out into the cool autumnal air and took a deep breath. At once, he felt renewed, away from the heat of the ballroom and the clamoring attentions of strangers in the crowd.

They all want one thing.

Edward strode forward, away from the house and out into the garden. He didn’t care that he was stepping off the terrace and delving deeper into the garden, all he knew was that he had to escape that ballroom. There were too many demons haunting him in that room to be able to think clearly.

Ambling through the greenery, he passed yew bushes and fig trees, their bark bathed in the last light of the sun before it dropped beneath the horizon, casting the world grey. Edward leaned against one of the fig trees, finding his hand clutching to a single branch, clinging onto it for dear life.

Why does everyone have to be so miserable these days?

He thought not only of himself, but of Charles too, and of course, Esther. In the past, he had been able to distract himself from his own sadness with his friend, and then his sister, but now, it seemed wherever Edward looked, he was condemned to find another sadness staring back at him.

“Your Grace? Your Grace!” a voice was calling after him.

Edward sighed as he stepped off the tree, straightening his tailcoat and turning round to greet the stranger. He fully expected it to be another eager mother, wanting to present their daughter to him as a prospect for a future duchess.

They do not seem to understand that I have no intention to marry. None whatsoever.

“Your Grace?” the voice called again, before the bearer of that voice appeared behind the yew bushes.

Edward stopped abruptly, his boots falling still in the dewy grass as he took in the view of the young lady before him, who was unchaperoned.

“Lady Julia?” he said in surprise, struggling to hide his laugh. “Pray, for what reason do I owe to you running out of a ball after me? You ought to be careful, you’ll make me think you rather wished to see me.”

“Your vanity at work again I see.” She folded her arms across her body as she stopped in front of him.

“It has been so long since we have had one of these arguments,” he said, still chuckling.

At last! The chance to laugh.

“It was certainly a period of time that could have gone on for longer, and I would have been happy,” Lady Julia declared with a smile.

“So you say, but that does not explain why you have come running out here after me?” He gestured to her position, rather bemused by it. When she said nothing, her own amused smile faltering a little, he found himself eager to fill the silence. “Perhaps I dropped something, and you are returning it to me?” He checked his pockets, but they were all full. “Or perhaps I offered a few kind words to a friend of yours, and now you wish to frighten me off, so that I will not charm this friend?”

“You believe quite whole heartedly that I cannot have followed you with merely the intention to talk, then?”

“I think that as unlikely a possibility as a star falling out of this sky and dropping into my hands. Wait a minute… let’s put it to the test…” He held out his hands cupped in front of him and turned his eyes to the increasingly darkening sky.

Stars were beginning to appear, glinting and gleaming, with a few peering out from behind the covers of clouds, as if awakening from beds. Yet all those stars stayed in their position.

“No,” Edward declared and dropped his hands. “No star has fallen yet.” Edward went to turn away. He knew no good could come from being outside with Lady Julia alone. She was not a lady who was willing to risk her reputation for the sake of being with him. He glanced behind her, noting once again the absence of a chaperone before he turned away, intending to make his escape.

“Then prepare to be shocked, for I have come here to talk to you.” Lady Julia’s words made Edward slip in the dewy grass in his surprise. He reached out and held onto the fig tree beside him, using it to turn back to face her. “Why are you so surprised, Your Grace?” she whispered, taking a step forward. She lifted the shawl that was slung gently around her elbows and brought it up to her shoulders, hiding herself from the chill. Edward found the action drew his gaze to lingering on her figure, before he snapped it away again.

Yes, she is beautiful, but she is out of bounds.

“Are you shocked because when you are with ladies, it is not talking that concerns you?” Lady Julia asked with a smirk.

“Ha!” Edward laughed heartily, relieved for the chance of it.

This is what I wanted from this evening. The chance to feel something else!

“I will admit, most ladies who seek out my company are not doing so for my sparkling conversation,” he said, waggling his eyebrows in mockery of himself.

“Do you find it sparkling?”

“Well, maybe I just wish it was.” His words made her smile a little more, though she appeared to chew her lip the next second, to stop herself from doing so. “Come now, Lady Julia, I know I will never make you my greatest admirer, but do not begrudge yourself one smile. I’m usually rather good at making ladies smile, I might have a knack for making you smile too.”

“I have not come to smile in your presence.”

“Then why have you come?” Edward asked again, looking back to the empty space behind her.

“Why do you keep looking behind me?” she asked, gesturing with the end of her shawl to the empty lawn.

“As it has escaped your notice, allow me to point it out to you.” Edward stepped away from the tree, coming closer to her, in order to point to that empty space. He had not realized how close he had come until her scent reached his nostrils. It caught him by surprise.

He had always thought a bluestocking like Lady Julia would smell of books, but she did not. There was something intoxicatingly sweet to the scent, with a hint of bergamot, making him hover in this forwarded position.

“Point what out to me?” she asked, raising her eyebrows at his sudden silence. Edward shook off his stupor, gesturing to the grass once again.

“Lady Julia, there is an empty space where there should be a chaperone.” His words made her look down. She did not turn to that empty space, neither did she turn and flee from him, as he fully expected her to do so. Instead, she pressed her full lips together, saying nothing at all as she stared down between them. “Shall I make a jest on why a lady alone in a gentleman’s company is a poor thing? Or will you run now before it can be alluded to?”

To his amazement, she didn’t go anywhere.

“God’s wounds, whatever you have to say to me must be very important for you to not leave at those words.” He laughed and folded his arms. “Let me try this another way.” He leaned toward her a little, hoping to frighten her off with his proximity, so that she could run and save herself from his reputation. “Alone with a rake, Lady Julia? What will the ladies say we have been doing together?”

She flinched and jerked her chin upward, revealing such a defiant expression that Edward wondered what it could be like to kiss her.

One taste, one kiss. Just the chance to lower her guard a little. Maybe then she would like me.

“I do not listen to gossip,” Lady Julia said firmly. “Not usually.”

He couldn’t quite understand these words, but a sound somewhere in the distance of the garden made him step away and spin his ear toward the sound. It may have been an owl flitting between the trees, or it could have been another young lady escaping the ballroom, either way, he could not take this risk any longer.

“If you would excuse me, Lady Julia,” he said, turning back to face her. “Whatever you have to say to me I am sure can be said in public in that ballroom, no good can come from you being out here with me. Alone.” With these final words, he stepped away from her and moved away.

I will not be the reason for the downfall of a lady like her.

***

Julia stared after the Duke in amazement, so shocked that her jaw ached from how far it had dropped. She glanced around herself, before looking ahead again at the retreating figure of the Duke.

He is a surprise indeed!

She had half thought if she merely presented herself to the Duke alone, without a chaperone, that a rake such as he would take advantage of the situation. Yet it seemed she was wrong. Not only was he not even attempting to charm her, but he was actually walking away from her.

Is he trying to protect me from his reputation…?

Julia could not allow herself to think of such a thing anymore, for she did not have a lot of time left. She glanced back to the house, knowing soon enough her father would grow impatient with her absence, and would demand a search was made for her. She had to ruin her reputation before she was presented to Lord Gillet.

“Your Grace!” Julia ran after the Duke, catching up with him as quickly as she could. Her shoes slipped once or twice on the wet grass, leading her to reach out to stabilize herself on a tall marble statue, as the two of them stepped out into an avenue of rhododendron bushes.

Julia stepped away from the statue, watching as it glistened in the moonlight, before turning her focus on the Duke who had come to a stop with his eyes wide. Those midnight eyes could have been black in this darkness.

“What are you doing?” he hissed in a whisper. “Are you not aware how this will look if you are seen out here alone with me?”

“I still must speak to you.” Julia was struggling with what to say at all, for she hadn’t come to speak to him, she had come to kiss him. Yet she lacked the courage at this moment to do such a thing.

“Then say it quick and return to the ballroom.” The Duke gestured away, but she did not move. She held her ground and lifted her chin higher, to the point that the Duke laughed, tipping his chin back to the sky. “This is absurd. I have never thought you of all ladies would take such a risk.”

“Me? What do you mean by that?” Julia asked, following him as he stepped away again.

“The lady that argued with me the first night we met at her debut, simply because she had read of my name in a scandal sheet.” He put upon a dramatic voice as he spoke. “Do you remember that night, My Lady?” he asked as she walked alongside him, down the avenue of bushes that seemed to be growing narrower.

“I do.”

“You declared when I asked you to dance that you would sooner dance with any other man there than I.”

“Did I say that?” Julia balked, not quite remembering the words.

“You did. I found it rather amusing, especially as there were gentlemen there far worse than I.”

Julia winced as the memory came back to her. She remembered exactly why she was so defiant and refused the dance with the Duke of Stapleton. It was because when she had read of him in the scandal sheets, she had vowed never to fall prey to a man like him, then the night they had met, she had been shocked by how handsome she found him.

It was sudden and striking, so much so that she had fiddled with her dance card and worn the thread around her wrist through until it broke. She had been quite cruel in her refusal, merely as an attempt to desist her attraction to him.

“You have a good memory. I had not the slightest idea that my words would be so remembered.”

“Well, they were.” The Duke came to a stop at the end of the avenue. The clearing between the shrubs had narrowed so far that as Julia stopped at his side, she realized how close they were, with her chin tipped upward to face him.

She was tall herself, but the Duke was taller, with broad shoulders. He was a commanding presence, one that made the idea of kissing him not so horrific.

He is a rake, remember that!

“What is it you had to say, My Lady?” the Duke asked with a sigh, as if giving up on all his attempts at jests and lightheartedness.

“I wanted to…” Julia faded away, watching as his brows lifted, clearly startled at her silence.

“Would you like to act it out instead of saying it?” he asked, teasing her once more.

Yes! I very much would.

That was when Julia heard it in the distance. She could hear someone else had escaped the ball, possibly more than one person. There were the sounds of boots in the grass and distant laughter of someone in conversation. There was no guarantee these people would come anywhere near them in the garden, especially as she and the Duke were so hidden in the rhododendron avenue, but she had to take this chance.

“Lady Julia, I beg of you, return to the ball.” The Duke pleaded one more time and gestured away, down the avenue before them.

“No.”

He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face, blocking out the view of her for a second.

Time to be bold, Julia!

She couldn’t wait any longer. She stepped forward and reached up, taking hold of that hand in front of his face and pulling it down.

“What the –” he began, startled by her touch.

Julia lifted herself onto the balls of her feet and reached toward him, not choosing to think, hesitate, or wonder even how she was supposed to kiss, for she had no experience. She pressed her lips to the Duke of Stapleton’s, preying he would not jump away from her.

 

One more minute like this, Your Grace, and I will be free.

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14 comments

  1. I will purchase it. These few chapters reveal engaging, witty repartee and charming characters. I am intrigued. Keep writing, Sally.

  2. Thouroughly enjoyed the preview .Lady Julia has the spunk .Would love to read more.Was she able to escape the viscount and succeeded In seducing the Duke
    Eagerly waiting for this book.I have read 1 book from sally vixen and had really enjoyed her write up

  3. I really wanted to carry on reading this book. Will look forward to being able to read it come Saturday.

  4. Beautiful Cover!
    Julia and Edward play a fine game!
    Intresting plot.
    Waiting for the book!
    Reads like 5 stars so far!

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