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Excerpt: The Duke of Deception

Excerpt: The Duke of Deception

The Untouchables, Book 3

Chapter One

London, May 1816

“I haven’t heard a word about your sudden misfortune regarding your shipping venture.”

Edward Bishop, ninth Earl of Sutton, peered at his aunt, Mrs. Susannah Greville, who stood behind him near the partially open door of the ballroom. Outside, rain pattered against the veranda, and a cool breeze rustled his hair.

“Excellent,” he said. The report was an utter fabrication, its point to discern whether certain people—namely the young woman he was contemplating marrying—would share the information after being told in confidence. Apparently, she hadn’t, which was to her credit. “You’ve made sure?”

Aunt Susannah nodded primly. “Of course. I’m nothing if not well connected, my boy. That is entirely the point of this enterprise, is it not? If I can’t ascertain whether you’re being gossiped about, I’m of absolutely no use to you.”

Ned turned his head, a smile tugging at his lips. “You are of infinite use to me, but regardless of that, you’re my beloved aunt.”

The pale skin around her eyes formed deep creases as she smiled in return and patted his arm. “Of course. You’ll continue to the next phase, then?”

“Yes.” He felt a modicum of relief. Wife hunting was a tedious business, particularly after seven years of abysmal failure.

“I will see Mrs. Forth-Hodges at the meeting for the Asylum for the Reception of Orphaned Girls on Monday. I shall deepen our acquaintance and learn as much as I can about their family.”

“Very good, and please confirm that they will attend Lady Durant’s dinner party that evening.”

“Certainly. Imagine, if Miss Forth-Hodges passes this next phase, she’ll be only the second young woman to progress to the final stage.” Aunt Susannah’s eyes sparkled. No one wanted to see him married more than she.

Ned exhaled. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. I must be absolutely certain of her discretion and trustworthiness, as well as her kindheartedness.”

Aunt Susannah’s blue eyes narrowed at him, but only for a moment. “Yes, which is why we go to all this trouble. Sometimes I wonder if this process is a tad excessive, but then I think about why you do it.” Her voice softened, and she touched his arm again. “You are the best of men, Ned.”

Ned didn’t agree with that sentiment, but he wouldn’t quibble with her, not when he knew he’d lose the argument. Aunt Susannah was a force of nature, particularly when it came to defending her family.

“Are you headed to your club, or have you yet to dance with Miss Forth-Hodges?” Aunt Susannah asked.

Ned had already done his duty by dancing with the young woman he was considering as his future wife. “I’ll be leaving for the club shortly. I’ll have the coach sent back here to take you home later.”

“Thank you, my boy. Have a pleasant evening.” She gave him one last endearing smile before leaving his side.

Ned’s gaze found Miss Forth-Hodges on the dance floor. She was an elegant figure with a long, graceful neck and pale blonde hair, curls of which framed her porcelain face. She moved with fluid precision, the skirt of her rose-colored gown grazing her shoes as she danced. Her partner was not quite so skilled as he missed a step and nearly caused a collision.

Miss Forth-Hodges smiled at her partner, but Ned detected irritation in the tight lines around her mouth. She was quiet and deferential in conversation, but Ned had begun to sense a streak of impatience in her. He wasn’t sure if it was directed solely at him, which it very well could be. He hadn’t asked to formally court her but knew she hoped he would. Just two more hurdles, and she could be the next Countess of Sutton.

“Ahem.”

The soft utterance came from the door behind Ned. He pivoted and listened, wondering if he’d imagined the sound amidst the steady pit-pat of rain.

“Ahem.” The sound came more loudly. “Pardon me, but might I ask a favor?”

Ned turned fully toward the feminine voice coming from the dim veranda. He pulled the door wider. “Come in.”

“No.” She stood just outside. Ned could only make out her vague shape. “I can’t come into the ballroom. I need to enter another way and get to the retiring room. I’m afraid I was caught in this rain, and…” Her voice trailed off.

Ned strained his eyes to try to see her features, but it was dark and she was standing too far away from the light of the ballroom. “I believe there’s another door along the terrace.” He gestured behind her. He’d visited Middlegrove House a few times and had been outside before.

“Yes, but it’s locked. That is why I need a favor. I don’t suppose you could find Lady Satterfield and ask her to unlock that door for me?”

Lady Satterfield and not Lady Middlegrove? He glanced back at the crowded ballroom and doubted he could find either of them, especially quickly. “Are you out there unprotected in the rain?” She had to be freezing. It was a cool night amidst a particularly cold spring.

“Er…yes.” She sounded resigned. “It was not my best idea.” Her calm tone carried an edge of humor that Ned found intriguing. He would’ve expected most women to be far more agitated by such a predicament.

Clearly she was alone, and he wondered what she was doing out there by herself. However, that hardly mattered while she was standing there, likely shivering. “Go to the door, and I’ll ensure it’s unlocked posthaste.”

She exhaled sharply, and the sound carried a thrum of relief. “Thank y-you.”

Yes, she was shivering.

He considered handing her his coat through the open doorway, but that would invite unwanted attention and scandal—something Ned was always careful to avoid.

“I’ll hurry.” He left the doorway and cut around the edge of the ballroom, making his way to the cardroom next door. He wasn’t exactly sure which room the locked terrace door opened into but suspected it was just on the other side of this one.

He ought to find Lady Middlegrove or a retainer or even Lady Satterfield, since the young woman had asked for her, but he was too concerned with getting her inside as quickly as possible. And since he didn’t see any of those people, he decided to help her himself.

He left the cardroom and looked around to discern if anyone was about to pay him any mind. Satisfied that he was alone and unobserved, he went into the next room, which appeared to be Lord Middlegrove’s office, and closed the door firmly behind him. A low fire burned in the grate as he walked swiftly toward the exterior door. After unbolting it, he opened it wide.

Standing at the threshold looking little better than a drowned cat was a young woman, her face pale and her eyes wide. She hugged her arms around her waist and stepped inside.

He took her gently by the arm and pulled her farther into the room before closing the door sharply behind her. “Come to the fire.”

Her peach-colored dress was sodden and dark. Wet curls stuck to her temples and cheeks. A droplet of rain slid from her nose.

“Th-thank y-y-you.” The words trembled from her mouth like a newborn foal as she moved to stand in front of the fire. She stuck her hands out, warming her palms.

“Give me those.” He took her left hand and pulled off the damp glove, then repeated the action with the right. Uncertain of what to do with them, he set them on the mantel.

She looked at him, then scanned the room. “Wh-where is L-lady Satterfield?”

“I didn’t see her. I thought it prudent to get you inside as quickly as possible.”

Her eyes widened briefly before narrowing to scrutinize him. “W-we’re in here alone?”

“Regrettably, but no one saw me, and no one will learn we are here.” He crossed back to the door he’d used to enter and locked it. “Better?” he asked when he returned to her side.

“N-no, I’m not at all certain that’s better. N-now we’re l-locked in a room together.” She cast him an ambivalent glance before turning her attention to the fire. She edged closer and turned her hands to warm the backs.

“Just what were you doing on the terrace?”

She closed her eyes briefly before cocking her head to glance at him. “T-trying to be discreet? My gown has a tear, and I wanted to find the retiring room without having to cross the ballroom. I thought I could take a shortcut via the terrace. Unfortunately, it was raining—softly at first, so I hurried. B-but the door was locked, and the heavens decided to punish my foolishness by making it rain harder.”

“You weren’t being foolish.”

She cast him a glance heavy with doubt. “I appreciate your d-defense of my character, but I was.”

“You didn’t know the door would be locked or that it was going to rain like that. You were trying to be sensible.”

She laughed softly, but it quickly turned into a shiver. Her shoulders hunched.

Ned shrugged out of his coat and draped it about her shoulders. She turned her head sharply and gave him another wide-eyed look. “As long as we’re ignoring propriety…” he said. “Just wear my coat for a few minutes while I determine how to get you out of the house and on your way home.”

“Y-yes, that would be lovely.” She didn’t sound disappointed in the slightest. In fact, Ned would’ve said she sounded pleased. Enthusiastic even, particularly given the smile tugging at her mouth. Perhaps her attitude was simply due to her predicament. What young woman was happy to leave Lady Middlegrove’s ball? And wasn’t completely overcome when caught in a rainstorm in a ball gown?

The kind that piqued his interest.

She pivoted and looked up at him. “My lord, just how do you propose to secret me from the house?” It seemed as though her shivering had lessened. He was glad.

“You know who I am.” It was mostly a statement, but held a slight question.

“Of course.”

He, on the other hand, didn’t know who she was. He studied her intently for any feature he might recognize. Her skin was pale, almost translucent in its current chilled state, and the planes of her face were smooth and sculpted. Her nose turned up pertly at the end just the slightest bit, and her lips were lush and full. But it was her eyes that demanded investigation—they were such a vivid blue as to sparkle like jewels, and their lashes were thick and nearly black, veritable curtains cloaking the windows to her soul. It seemed the poetry he often read to George was overtaking his mind.

He brought himself back to the present and the fact that he didn’t know who she was. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

She turned back to the hearth. “We have not been introduced, nor do I think we shall ever be.”

A surprising sense of disappointment wound through him. “Why is that?”

She pulled his coat more tightly around her frame. “You’re you and I’m me.” She tipped another brief glance his way. “You’re an Untouchable.”

“What the bloody hell is that?” It sounded rather repugnant.

“Someone so far above my station that it’s unlikely we shall ever be introduced.” Her tone was laden with irony.

He frowned, not at all certain he cared for the way she characterized the divide between them, nor was he convinced it existed to the degree she stated. However, since she knew him and he didn’t know her, he had to allow there was at least a modicum of truth to it. “So I am never to know your name?”

She edged her chin up. “Miss Aquilla Knox.”

The firelight danced over her features, casting her in a golden glow and making her eyes look even more like lapis. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Knox.”

She stared at him a moment before another shiver shook her frame. He silently cursed himself for dawdling, but something about her had put him quite at ease. Or enticed him. Or, alarmingly, both.

“I’m still waiting for you to share your plan,” she said.

He didn’t have a plan. He turned from her and paced a few steps before circling back.

She exhaled. “Do you know Lord Satterfield? I’d venture to guess he’s in the cardroom. You could tell him to inform Lady Satterfield that I am here and need to leave…secretly. That is of the utmost importance, I think.”

Ned stopped in his tracks and blinked at her. She was good. Very good. If Ned went directly to Lady Satterfield, it might be noted, but an exchange of words amongst gentlemen in the cardroom would not draw attention. “You had your own plan all along.”

She shrugged. “Not all along. If you recall, my plan was to sneak into the retiring room and repair my gown.”

“Well, this is an excellent plan.”

Her lips lifted into a winsome smile. “At least I’m improving.”

He chuckled softly, appreciating her self-deprecation. This was a woman who knew herself and didn’t hide behind what was expected of her.

Now that he had a plan, he supposed he ought to go posthaste. Her shivering had lessened, but she still needed to be on her way. “I’m afraid I’ll need my coat.”

She winced as she pulled it from her shoulders. “It’s a bit damp in the interior now. My apologies.”

He took the garment. “Unnecessary. I would give you my coat again if you needed it.”

“How chivalrous and yet scandalous at the same time,” she murmured.

Her words inexplicably heated his flesh. Perhaps it was the fire. “Unintentionally. I do not appreciate scandal or notoriety, Miss Knox.”

She laughed, and it held a rich, robust quality that nestled into his chest. “Who does?”

He slid the coat on and suppressed his own shiver at the chill that had settled into the garment. “There are some who enjoy celebrity.”

She angled herself back toward the fire, and he could no longer feast on her magnificent gaze. “Yes, I suppose so, but your reputation isn’t of that nature.”

“And what nature is that?” Was she going to spout more nonsense about him being untouchable?

She looked at him again, and the intensity of her gaze put him under a spell. “Do you really want to know?”

More than anything. “Yes.”

“My friends and I call you the Duke of Deception.”

The intimacy of their situation and the ease of their conversation had lulled him into a sense of comfort. That sentiment completely snapped. Anxiety tinged with fear raced through him. “The what?”

“Oh, we realize you aren’t a duke, but you may as well be to us.” She waved her hand, completely unaware of the apprehension tightening his frame. “That whole Untouchable thing. As for the deception…well…” Now she averted her gaze as she blushed, which brought some much-needed color to her face.

“Yes, do tell me how I deceive.” His words came out clipped, and he didn’t bother trying to soften them or his expression.

“You did say you wanted to know.” She straightened her shoulders. “Very well. It’s your courting practices—the fact that you lead young women on a merry chase, and just as they expect an offer of matrimony, you abandon them entirely.”

Relief seeped through him, slowing his heartbeat and wiping away the fear. He should have expected that to be the basis of their silly nickname. No one knew the nature of his true deception—and by the grace of God, no one ever would. “I don’t deceive them. I make no promises.” Ever. “It’s not my fault they expect something that hasn’t been offered and never would have been.”

She blinked at him as her jaw dipped. “You’re saying you never intended to marry any of them? You weren’t at least trying to determine if you would suit?”

“Yes, I was, but we didn’t. Suit, that is.” He understood he had a reputation for disappointing young women, but so did many other men in Society. “Why not call me the Earl of Lies?”

“Well, that’s not nearly as alliterative or refined as the Duke of Deception now, is it?”

“It’s all nonsense.” Except it wasn’t—the title actually fit and for reasons Miss Knox and the rest of Society would never understand. If they wanted to focus their attention on his “courting practices,” he was only grateful they didn’t look further into his life.

“I meant no offense, truly,” she said. “You should go find Lord Satterfield.”

Yes, he should. He straightened, and the damp lining of his coat stuck to his shirtsleeves and waistcoat. “Why the Satterfields?”

“Lady Satterfield is my sponsor. I am residing with her for the Season.”

Ned knew the Satterfields and their stepson, the Duke of Kendal. That Lady Satterfield was sponsoring Miss Knox gave the young woman in front of him a greater status than she apparently realized. “Miss Knox, there is no reason we wouldn’t be introduced at some point. By way of your connection to the Satterfields, I am not nearly as ‘untouchable’ as you say. Is there a chance you have an underdeveloped opinion of yourself?” He would be surprised given her frankness and overall comportment—she had an undeniable air of confidence, even in the face of adversity.

“I’m afraid I don’t. It is true that I am a wallflower, but I am the antithesis of shy and retiring. I suppose I could be outgoing and still have poor self-esteem, but that is not the case. I think.” She tipped her head to the side. “That might bear contemplation.”

She was going to reflect upon what she thought of herself? Ned shook his head. “I think I’m confused.”

“I’m not surprised. It’s a hazard of spending too much time in my company. Now, I really must insist you find Lord Satterfield. I’m quite cold.”

Hell. He’d gotten completely wrapped up in talking to her. “I’m going now. Lock the door when I’m gone. I’ll tell Lord Satterfield to have the countess knock three times.”

She smiled broadly. “How clandestine. I must thank you for giving me a small adventure this evening, my lord.”

He bowed. “It was my pleasure.” Because, really, she’d given him one as well.