Blame It on the Duke(4)

By: Lenora Bell


Nick was the last man standing of their disreputable band of ruffians and rogues.

Speaking of ruffians and rogues, where were his so-called servants? Not a one to be found when he needed them.

The duke roused slightly as Nick helped him remove his coat and cravat. “What time is it?”

“Bedtime.”

The duke held out his hand to Nick with a befuddled expression. “I think I have a splinter.”

Nick plucked a small painted slice of boat from his father’s palm. “Good as new. Into bed with you.”

Obediently, the duke snuggled under the coverlet. “Nicolas?”

“Yes?”

“I gambled you away.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Oh.” His father was silent for a moment. “Well, marriage might do you good.” He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “You need someone . . . to love. But find someone strong. Not delicate, nor easily crushed.”

“Go to sleep now.” Nick tucked the covers tighter around his father.

As soon as the duke’s breathing grew slow and steady, he left to go find Stubbs. The man had many questions to answer.

You need someone to love.

He tried to shake his father’s words away but they stuck like a splinter in his mind.

It wasn’t that Nick didn’t believe in love. He just didn’t believe in tomorrow—or in any kind of permanence.

He kept his amatory liaisons on a surface level, protecting his heart as stringently as he protected against unwanted progeny.

He had no intention of marrying or passing on the suffering of the curse that lurked in his direct line. His sanctimonious curate of a cousin would be delighted to inherit the dukedom and restore the family’s reputation when Nick’s dark days were done.

“Bargained away like a harem girl,” he muttered as he descended the stairs. “I’ll never live this down.”

It must be one of his father’s outlandish imaginings, but the rumor would spread across London like an outbreak of plague and slosh its way across the channel to his mother in her extravagantly expensive apartments in Switzerland.

He’d unravel the tangle in the morning. Right now he had to find Stubbs, before returning to the ballroom and attempting to control the damage.

Give the gentlemen he’d invited enough brandy and actresses and they might forget the duke’s announcement.

And even if it did turn out to be true, there was no chance Nick would allow anyone to coerce him into marriage, least of all a grasping merchant and his pretty but decidedly odd daughter.

Nick gripped the smooth wooden staircase balustrade.

They had no idea whom they were dealing with.



Obviously, the Earl of White had no idea whom he was dealing with.

He clearly thought Alice should be overwhelmed with gratitude at the honor he was bestowing by wooing her this fine late spring morning in the small inner courtyard of her father’s town house.

They were sitting on a bench next to a flowering hawthorn shrub and Lord White was gazing at her devotedly.

“Miss Tombs, you are a goddess sent from heaven above.” He flung a hand heavenward, to make his point. “I adore you most ardently. Your dimples are divine.”

Any other young lady of the ton would be thrilled. They pined for his pale yellow hair and pale blue eyes, and his languishing, poetic pronouncements.

Silly things.

Fortunately, Alice had always had an uncanny ability for languages. Along with Latin, Greek, French, and the three other foreign tongues she’d mastered, Alice was fluent in Impoverished Rake.

She knew precisely what White’s words translated to: Miss Tombs, my ancestral coffers are running precariously low. Marry me so I may squander your father’s vast fortune on gold-embroidered waistcoats and costly courtesans.

Gracious, how Alice loathed the idle nobility.

Take away their titles and they’d have not one skill with which to earn a living. And if she were poor they would never pay the slightest attention to her dimples.

“Dimples, Lord White, are naught but muscular deformities,” Alice said briskly. “Occurring in approximately twenty percent of the population, from my observations.”

The earl trailed an elegant, unlined hand through the air. “Pray, do not belittle yourself, Miss Tombs. You are hardly deformed. Your features are fetching beyond compare.”

And will fetch forgiveness of my tailor bills, Alice translated.

Lord White must have outrageous tailor bills.

She stared with morbid fascination at his waistcoat. She’d never seen such a shade of chartreuse. And what was embroidered upon the garment? Could those be hounds and . . . rodents? The plump creatures had red, beady eyes but the ears were rather long . . .

“I see you are admiring my fox and hare waistcoat.” The earl smiled indulgently. “I hope you may have the pleasure of watching me ride to hounds someday at Whitehaven. I’m a crack shot.”

Hares? Alice squinted at the waistcoat. The shapes could be construed as rabbitlike, she supposed. Appropriate, really. She felt rather like a hapless woodland creature trapped in the sight of the earl’s rifle.

Boldly, Lord White stroked her cheek with one knuckle. “Your skin is as soft as these lily petals.” He lifted one of the early-blooming Asiatic lilies he’d plucked from her mother’s flowerbeds.