The Reluctant Duchess

By: Sharon Cullen

Chapter 1

“Lady Sara Emerson to see you, Your Grace.”

Gabriel Ferguson, the Duke of Rossmoyne, cracked an eye open and quickly slammed it shut. “What the devil time is it?” he croaked.

“Half past eleven, Your Grace.”

Half past eleven. He hadn’t fallen into bed until half past four in the morning, with the dirt and smell of the last ship he’d sailed on still clinging to him. He’d tumbled into a deep sleep until Hector, his butler, had awakened him at this ungodly hour of half past eleven.

He rolled over, moaning at his sore muscles, and rubbed a hand down cheeks covered with several weeks’ worth of beard. He needed a bath, a shave, and a slow return to civilization. He wasn’t ready for London just yet. Especially not at this hellish hour.

“What should I tell your visitor, Your Grace?”

Ross wrinkled his brow and scratched at his arm. “What visitor?”

Though Hector tried to repress his sigh, Ross heard it anyway. “Lady Sara Emerson. She is waiting in the drawing room.”

Ross stilled. “What, may I ask, is Lady Sara Emerson doing in my drawing room?”

“I’m certain I don’t know. What I do know is that this is her fifth visit in as many days.”

Lady Sara Emerson had called five days in a row? What in the everloving hell for?

“If I may, Your Grace?”

“If I say no, Hector, will you go away?”

“No, Your Grace.”

Ross sighed. Damned insolent man. “Say your piece, then.”

“If I send her away today, she will only return tomorrow.” Hector produced a pile of calling cards resting innocently on a silver platter. Surely they weren’t all from Lady Sara. Hector held the tray out to Ross, who waved it away.

“So you’re saying I should meet with her now? Looking like this?” He indicated his unshaved visage and the fact he hadn’t had a bath in more days than he liked to remember.

“I can tell her to return this afternoon if you wish.”

“No. I will see her now.” While he wasn’t pleased to receive a visitor so soon after arriving home, he was curious as to why Lady Sara had come calling. He hadn’t seen her in two years, and even then he’d barely known her. There was no earthly reason he could think of that would bring her to his doorstep five days in a row.

Sara sat with her hands folded in her lap, her knees pressed together, and her derriere nearly sliding off the edge of the settee. She looked around the Duke of Rossmoyne’s drawing room in a sad attempt to control the urge to flee. Her heart was pounding, her breath kept getting stuck in her lungs, and her hands were sweating beneath her gloves. She knew the anxiety was only in her head—her mind playing tricks on her. And she knew her reaction was silly, but that didn’t calm her hammering heart or her erratic breathing.

Something thudded above her, making her jump and press a hand to her heart. She looked up at the ceiling, half expecting something to come crashing through.

He’s here.

She wiped her moist palms on her skirts, rocking forward and then back as she took a deep breath.

This was what she wanted—to speak to the duke. She’d told herself that over and over, but it hadn’t calmed her like she’d hoped it would. She’d spent five days waiting for him, and now all she wanted to do was run back to the safety of her home in Hadley Springs.

You will not run, Sara Emerson. You will stay right here until you speak to the duke.

The butler had not indicated in any way that His Grace was finally in residence, but the past five times she’d come calling she hadn’t made it past the front door. That she was now sitting in the drawing room had to mean he was finally here.

Or it could mean they are sending for the bobby to bodily take you away for being a pest.

Well, yes, there was that, too. But no, she had to believe that he had returned from wherever it was he’d been and was accepting callers.

She wriggled her bottom to bring some feeling back to it.

The door burst open and the Duke of Rossmoyne strode through, his boots clomping across the floor, a fierce scowl on his face.

Sara jumped up as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t.

He stopped before her, all six feet plus of broad shoulders and overwhelming personality. She’d always quailed in his presence, intimidated by his strong personality and exceptional good looks, and today was no exception. She shot a nervous glance at the door with the half-formed thought of escaping. Instead she turned back and lifted her chin.