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THE DEVILISH DUKE
If you dance with the devil, you’re going to get burned…
Devlin Markham, the notorious “Devil Duke” of Huntington, needs a woman. And not just any woman. If he can’t woo one of the most eccentric bluestockings of the Ton within the month, he can kiss his hard-earned fortune goodbye. But he’s always thought love a wasted emotion and marriage an inconvenience at best. And oddly enough, Lady Sophie Wolcott seems unmoved by his charm…
When Sophie learns her beloved orphanage is in imminent danger, she will do anything to save it. Even marry a ruthless rake who takes what he wants in business and pleasure. A man who’s everything she’s always feared most—but whom she reluctantly begins yearning for.
Then Sophie becomes the target of a killer lurking from the dark shadows of Devlin’s past. And they find not only their lives in jeopardy but their very hearts.
Chapter One Excerpt:
The night was turning into an utter disaster.
Lady Sophie Wolcott strode down the gas-lit path edging the gardens of the Duke of Huntington’s palatial townhouse, the soft strains of music emanating from the nearby ballroom a constant reminder that this particular ball was not going as expected.
Instead of dancing with the man of her dreams, she was forced to spy upon him. Really, what else could she do after he disappeared into the library with another woman?
And the library was on the second floor. That could pose a problem.
Disregarding her new ball gown snagging on the twigs and branches lining the path, Sophie spotted an old oak tree directly below the library window. That would do.
Her mind set, she trudged over to the stone bench positioned next to the trunk. She glanced in both directions…not a soul around. Luckily, most of the guests were occupied by the notorious Duke of Huntington’s lavish affair—at least she prayed they were.
Steeling her resolve before all of the ways in which her plan could go horribly wrong overcame her, she deftly lifted the skirts of her gown and untied the string of her crinoline, letting it drop to the ground. She kicked it under the bench and gathered the petticoats and material of her dress in her hands.
Before she could change her mind, she stepped up onto the bench and grabbed hold of the branch hanging above with her free hand. Putting her foot into the small groove of the trunk, she rather awkwardly swung herself up until she was comfortably straddling the branch. Thankfully, she had not lost her knack for climbing trees, though it certainly hadn’t been as cumbersome when she had been a girl wearing a pinafore instead of a ball gown.
She glanced around the gardens. Still deserted. Not that anyone would be all that surprised to find her up a tree, given her reputation as a bluestocking and a bit of an eccentric. Though she’d prefer not to give the gossips any further morsels for their ravenous tongues, if she could avoid it.
“You can do this, Sophie,” she murmured to herself, forcing her eyes forward instead of straying down to the shrubs below. “It’s not that high.” She could hear the lack of conviction in her own words, but she was on a mission and would not be deterred. Deftly, she pressed her body flat onto the bark and began carefully edging her way across to the window until she could see through the glass.
She pushed away some wayward golden curls from her forehead and looked into the room until she saw Richard, the Earl of Abelard, standing near the hearth. He was so handsome with his light brown hair and those vivid green eyes. He’d always struck her as heaven sent, looking rather like an angel.
An angel she’d always thought she was destined to marry.
A sigh escaped her lips. He had been ever so kind to her at her mother’s funeral all those years ago, when she was only eight, that she had known since then that he would eventually make her the perfect husband. He liked books, he always asked about her charity work at the orphanage and listened attentively when she talked, and…those eyes.
Now all she had to do was convince him of that, too. A rather difficult endeavor, considering that for the past fifteen years, he’d only seen her as his younger sister’s best friend.
Sophie scowled when she saw Miss Grace Davies with him—a woman all of the gossiping old biddies of the Ton claimed had captured his heart. The old biddies had to be wrong. The Earl was far too sensible to be taken in by such a superficial female. Why, the only time Sophie had ever conversed with Miss Davies, the woman had spent the entire conversation discussing her latest reticule and pointing out all of the bachelors vying for her attention.
Gripping the branch harder, she leaned slightly forward when he got down on one knee and pulled out a small box from his pocket. Surely he was not proposing? No. Fate could not be so cruel.
But evidently it was.
Sophie gasped in stunned horror as Richard placed the ring onto the woman’s finger before standing and softly kissing her.
That hurt. Quite badly.
She could only gape as they both gently parted and smiled at one another before walking to the door and leaving the room. As the door closed behind them, Sophie could literally feel her dreams crumbling into a pile of dust.
She laid her cheek against the rough bark of the branch and let herself dangle in misery. Perhaps she would join a nunnery? Though waking up at dawn and practicing devout obedience were not duties she was all that keen to embrace.
No, it would be best she remain a dedicated scholar, helping the children at the orphanage learn to read and write, as her mother had done before her. After all, keeping her mother’s vision for Grey Street Orphanage alive was what was important and what Sophie had to focus on. And if she could not marry the man she’d had her heart set on, since childhood, she would prefer to not marry any man.
The sound of a wholly different man and woman’s laughter flittering across the gentle night breeze interrupted her thoughts. Twisting her head, she peered out into the darkness, but the dim light from the gas lamps cast a soft glow on the path, and she could only see vague shadows in the distance. But those shadows were clearly heading in her direction and getting closer.
She sighed. Fate was surely having a grand old time at her expense. Here she was up an oak tree, her longtime beloved engaged to another, and a couple had obviously decided to cavort with each other in the gardens before she could get down.
Edging her body backward, she gritted her teeth at the coarse bark grating roughly under her gloves. She stopped and gripped the branch hard as it began to wobble. Perhaps her wretched luck this evening would change, and the couple would keep walking by without even realizing she was above them.
The couple strolled closer, murmuring in the darkness. She held her breath, disbelieving as the man sat down on the stone bench below. She could see them quite clearly now, in the circle of light from a nearby lamp, and prayed that she was not equally visible to them.
What more could go wrong?
Instead of sitting down next to the gentleman, the lady sat upon his lap.
She felt her jaw drop open. That was definitely not proper behavior.
She blinked when the man claimed the woman’s mouth in what was the most carnal kiss Sophie had ever witnessed. A kiss at complete odds with the chaste one Richard had bestowed on Miss Davies but a moment ago.
Sophie started to feel uncomfortably hot and bothered as an unfamiliar warmth curled in her belly.
“Devlin,” the woman moaned, “we must hurry before my husband realizes I am gone.”
A small gasp of surprise escaped Sophie’s lips, and she immediately held her breath, hoping they hadn’t heard her. Devlin, as in the Duke of Huntington? And he had a married lady sitting astride him? Did the man have no morals whatsoever?
Obviously, the rumors circulating about him being an out and out rake were indeed true. No wonder everyone called him the Devil Duke, if this was the sort of shenanigans he took part in.
Her moral outrage aside, she couldn’t help but admire the way the light hit the hard angles of his face, the full mouth that he obviously used to his advantage in more ways than one. She craned her neck to get a better look.
Her body began to slip.
She hugged the branch as hard as she could, but her satin gloves were slowly losing their grip, and she began tilting precariously to the side. “Oh dear!” she yelped, a second before gravity took over, and she tumbled from the branch.
“What the hell…” the Duke growled as Sophie landed in the shrubbery below.
She lay there, too dazed to feel embarrassed, her head thrown back and her back arched across a particularly uncomfortable azalea. Then slowly, she blinked. Someone’s feet began crunching through the knee-high plants, so she pulled herself out of her stupor and turned toward the noise. She saw some black boots, followed by a pair of perfectly tailored trousers, covering some very long and muscular legs.
Of course he would have excellent legs as well…
“Are you hurt?” the Duke asked, crouching down.
Considering his question, she adopted what she hoped was a blasé expression, as if ladies tumbled out of trees on a regular basis. It did not feel as if anything was broken. “No, just dazed, I think…” She rolled into a slightly more dignified position and lifted a hand to rub her temple, finding her gaze held captive by the most wickedly handsome man she’d ever seen. From this angle, all of the shadows were cast from his face. Gleaming white teeth flashed sinfully against bronzed skin, and dark stubble covered his jawline in a manner that was frowned upon by the majority of Society but gave him an air of dashing danger.
And from the highly thorough onceover he was giving her, she could tell the man had earned every bit of his notorious reputation as a rake.
“Well, no wonder. What the devil were you doing up a tree?” he asked.
“Surely that is obvious,” the lady screeched as she stood by the edge of the garden bed, some wayward flaming red curls, which had escaped her chignon, bobbing wildly around her. “She is spying on us, at the behest of my husband no doubt.”
“Felicity, enough with the theatrics.”
“She was spying on us, I tell you,” Felicity insisted.
“I was not.” Sophie struggled to sit up, rolling in what she hoped was at least a somewhat graceful manner onto the soft green plants surrounding the azalea.
“Of course you were,” Felicity continued, circling Sophie like a cat about to pounce. “I would not be surprised—”
“Enough!” the Duke commanded, his tone brooking no argument. He looked down at Sophie. “Stay still while I check if you have any broken bones.”
“No, that would be completely inappropriate!” Sophie knocked his hands away from near her ankles. “Besides, I am fine.” Pushing her body up, she felt a sharp pain slice up the small of her back, and she winced.
“Perhaps now you will stay still?” the Duke asked as he placed his hands upon her shoulders and held her in place. “It may be inappropriate, but it is necessary. I promise not to hurt you, all right?”
Finding her gaze trapped by his ridiculously blue eyes, she saw the truth mirrored back in them. Slowly, she nodded.
“For goodness sakes, Devlin,” Felicity rasped, “the girl said she is fine. We must leave before we are discovered.” She picked up the skirts of her ruby dress, which, even though it covered her from shoulder to ankle, still had an air of scandal about it.
“Stop being so heartless for once in your life, Felicity,” the Duke admonished as he quickly patted his hands over the material of Sophie’s deep blue gown, checking for any injuries to her legs. Deep down, she knew she should swat him away, but she just sat, mesmerized by the conversation and by his touch.
Felicity put her hands on her hips. “You, of all people, call me heartless? How can you speak—”
“If you are going to be of no assistance,” Devlin interrupted, “leave.”
The other woman bared her teeth. “Well, if you think you shall ever have another opportunity with me, you are highly mistaken.” She whirled around toward the direction of the ballroom.
“A tragedy to be sure, but Felicity”—the Duke’s voice became deadly soft—“this incident tonight is not to be discussed with anyone, or I shall call your husband’s markers in. Do I make myself clear?”
Felicity slowly swiveled around and faced him. It appeared the lady’s complexion had become even paler. “I assure you that no matter how much of a cad you may be, it would be beneath me to gossip about us or some idiotic girl who fell out of a tree.”
Sophie opened her mouth to reply but then closed it again. Truthfully, her behavior could arguably be called idiotic. What had she been thinking? Actually, that was the problem. She hadn’t been thinking at all. It was her heart that had led her astray. Well, no more.
“Good. See that it remains so,” Huntington said.
Felicity’s eyes glittered with malice before she turned and strode off down the path.
“Do not pay her any mind,” the Duke said, continuing to gently examine Sophie’s legs with his hands. “She will not disobey me.”
A small shiver ran through her from his touch. She did her best to mentally brush it aside. “I shall not worry overly,” she muttered. “My future plans are already ruined. Though I do suppose my aunt would care. If she ever found out, I am certain she would have a permanent fit of the vapors. And then my life would truly be a nightmare.”
He ignored her dramatics completely. “What is your name?”
She sighed, supposing she would have to tell him. “Lady Sophie Wolcott, Your Grace.”
“Ah, Lady Sophie, and it appears as though you know who I am. Perhaps then you should call me Devlin.”
The man’s lack of proprietary knew no bounds. Though she couldn’t say she was particularly surprised. He had obviously earned his reputation. If he thought issuing such an untoward invitation would have any effect on her, he was sorely mistaken. “That would be highly improper,” she said. “As well you know, Your Grace.”
“Your decision,” he said, sitting back on his haunches. “Now it seems as though nothing is broken.”
“Apart from my heart,” she mumbled.
“A useless muscle.” His startling blue eyes bored into her own. “However, you did have a rather decent fall. How do you feel?”
“Sore and somewhat mortified. However, I shall recover.” She pushed Abelard and his fiancée firmly out of her mind before she could consider whether she’d ever recover from the scene she’d recently witnessed. Carefully, she started to rise. The Duke offered her his hands, and when she took them, he pulled her to her feet.
“So you think yourself in love then?”
“That is none of your concern.” A flutter of awareness shot down to her toes. His hands were strong. My goodness. What on earth was wrong with her? The fall had to have unsettled her more than she realized to make her react in such a manner from his touch.
When she was steady on her feet, he released her. “Love is a wasted emotion that only brings with it heartache and loneliness. It is an utter waste of time to dwell on. The sooner you realize that, the better you shall be.”
“You have a very cynical attitude about the matter.” She dusted her palms off and focused on calming her suddenly erratic heartbeat. Instinctively, she knew this was a man who would take advantage of any sign of weakness, much like a predator.
“Perhaps.” He agreed, though he sounded unfazed by the notion. “But I rather think of it as being pragmatic. I myself have never been caught falling out of a tree.”
Folding her arms across her chest, she narrowed her eyes. “I shall have you know that my future happiness was torn apart tonight, and only the direst of circumstances compelled me to climb a tree!” Though, oddly enough, she wasn’t feeling nearly as heartbroken as she would have expected to. It seemed her verbal sparring with the Devil Duke was enough to cheer her spirits considerably.
The Duke said nothing; he merely continued to watch her. Sophie had the bizarre sensation that he was cataloguing her soul. She shivered in spite of herself.
“Are you cold?” he enquired, scanning her wrists as if to check for goosebumps.
“No,” she was quick to reply. For some strange reason, even though she was standing in the shrubs outside in the middle of the night and having a conversation with the Devil Duke, she felt oddly safe.
Although, if anyone happened upon them, she was sure to be ruined. Not that she was particularly worried over such an occurrence; she had no intention of marrying now, after all, but her aunt would be devastated.
“Come, let us get you out of the garden,” his deep voice drawled. “Then you can amuse me with your explanation about what you were doing up one of my trees.” He strode back through the shrubs toward the path.
She rather thought his words sounded like an imperial command. She brushed off the small bits of bark and twigs clinging to her gown and then took a step forward. Blast! Looking down, she saw the hem of her dress was happily entangled in the shrubs. “Darn!” Her luck just kept getting worse and worse.
“First, you fall from a tree, and now you are cursing,” he murmured. “I did not think young ladies were taught such interesting etiquette.”
She felt like displaying to him just what sort of unusual etiquette she’d been taught as she tugged harder on her gown. It still refused to budge. She couldn’t believe she was going to have to ask this bounder for his help. How mortifying. “My dress appears to be caught.”
“Stuck, are you?”
“How very astute.” She smiled through gritted teeth. “Now would you please be so kind as to help me?”
“I thought I had already done so. What are you willing to offer for my further assistance?”
Sophie paused, wholly unsure of the Duke’s intentions. “What do you mean?”
He smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “I have already lost Lady Astley’s company tonight to assist you. Why should I help you once again without suitable reward for my services?”
Was he really suggesting what she thought he was? Surely not. And if he was, she certainly wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of revealing her awareness to what he was alluding to. “Because it is the right thing to do, of course.”
His eyes held hers, and she suddenly felt pinned down by his intense blue gaze. Even in the semi-darkness, they were striking. Then, he ruefully chuckled, and the trance was broken. “Doing the right thing. How novel.” A grin danced across his insanely sensual lips. Walking back through the shrubs, he reached around her and pulled on her dress. “You have snagged yourself well.”
“Trust me, I shall not be wearing one of these silly lace gowns again.” She watched as he bent down toward his boots. “What are you doing?”
“Helping you.” He pulled out a dagger from his boot.
Her eyes widened as the lamp light glinted off the sharp steel of the most vicious-looking blade she had ever seen. And he was carrying it around in his boot? “No. You are not to use that anywhere near me.”
“I am afraid I must, my lady.” He had an air of amusement about him that made her feel decidedly annoyed.
“And I am afraid you must not.” Goodness, his reputation for danger was clearly warranted. No other gentleman she knew would have a need, let alone dare, to carry around a knife on his person.
“Very well.” He re-sheathed his dagger. “I shall simply have to unlace your dress and then you can slip free of it.” He looked rather happy at the prospect.
“Excuse me?” Sophie was dumbfounded. The man’s suggestion was outrageous. “I am not taking my dress off in front of you! Have you lost your mind entirely?”
“No.” He stopped for a moment, however, as if to consider whether that actually was the case. “But either the gown comes off, or I use the knife to cut it free. They are the only two options available. I’d prefer the first, obviously.” The cad winked at her.
“The knife shall be perfectly fine.”
Huntington laughed and retrieved his dagger. “I rather thought it would.” He bent down, and with a quick flick of his wrist, he cut the trapped piece of lace free from the rest of her skirt. “There you are.”
Never one to worry overly much about her clothing, she shook out her dress and followed him through the shrubs to the path.
“I must say that your gown is looking oddly deflated. I think I may have seen the edge of your crinoline peeking out from under the stone bench.” His lips twitched at the corner.
Rushing over to the bench, she leaned down and picked the hoop up.
“Do you intend on putting it back on?” he drawled.
“Certainly not with you here, Your Grace.” Goodness, the man was incorrigible!
He grinned. “I can look away if you prefer, or assist? I must say, though, that my experience with such things relates more to getting the contraption off.”
“Why does that not surprise me at all?” Sophie tried to banish the sudden image of him standing behind her, his breath whispering across her ear as his fingers brushed across her waist while he laced it up.
“But you are an odd duck, are you not?” He leaned against a lamppost, as if making himself comfortable so he could take in the spectacle that she was about to create. “Most ladies would not dare to be caught without their crinoline safely shaping their dresses.”
She put her free hand on her hip. The fabric of her gown concealed all it covered, crinoline or no, but she still felt exposed under his gaze. “I could not very well climb a tree with it on, now could I?”
“True,” he said, “it would have made the endeavor practically impossible. Which does beg the question, what were you doing up a tree in the first place?”
“I was… Actually, that is not your concern.” She placed the crinoline on the bench just so she could cross her hands forbiddingly over her chest. “Besides, you should be ashamed of yourself, sir, carrying on with a married lady. Falling from the tree when I did was probably divine intervention.”
His laughter once again echoed through the night. “I am sure tonight has been highly instructive for you.”
She had the grace to blush as the memories of what he had recently been doing not five minutes before assailed her.
“From the heat stealing across your cheeks, Lady Sophie, I shall assume it was.”
The urge to throw something at his arrogant smirk nearly overwhelmed her. She had half a mind not to respond, though that would be childish. “Watching you and your mistress is not something I would ever care to ever see again, Your Grace.”
His lips twitched. “So you think Lady Astley is my mistress?”
“The fact that she was straddling your lap and moaning your name aloud might have given me an inkling,” she scoffed. “I see that the gossip concerning you has turned out to be remarkably correct. You, sir, are an out and out libertine.”
“I do try,” he said, his face completely serious. “I must say that the gossip circulating about yourself has also proved extremely accurate.”
“Gossip?” Who was making up stories about her? “There is no gossip about me. Is there?”
“Eccentricity is always gossiped about in the Ton.” He grinned. “Though, apart from your unusual charity work at orphanages, I must say that your little midnight rendezvous are not common knowledge.”
“Midnight rendezvous… Why, it was nothing of the sort.” Trust a libertine such as he to assume such a thing, when it could not be further from the truth. Involuntarily, she looked up at the library window.
Huntington’s eyes followed. “My, my… You are a little spy. Though I assume you got slightly more of a show than you had bargained for when Lady Astley and I interrupted.”
“I shall have you know, Your Grace, that I was not spying upon your dalliance. Rather, I was looking for my beloved.” It felt good to tell him her heart belonged to another. All the better to keep up the pretense that his nearness had no effect on her.
“Up a tree?” He chuckled. “This night continues to get more amusing by the moment. But tell me, are you not a tad young to have a beloved?”
“I’m not that young. Regardless, love cares naught for age; it is pure,” she insisted. “Though after what I have witnessed this evening, I was most recently considering joining a convent.”
His rich laughter again ricocheted through the night. “Made that much of an impression on you, did I?”
She lifted her chin high into the air. “Do not give yourself unwarranted praise, Your Grace.”
“It is never unwarranted. Of that you can be sure.” There was a heated and determined promise in his gaze that sent a fluttering through her belly, unsettling her greatly.
That he could have such an effect on her already was particularly disturbing. Taking in a deep breath, she continued on. “Truth be told, it was the very sight of the man of my dreams, a most wonderful earl, embracing his new fiancée that put the thought in my head.”
“You do not mean that nauseating do-gooder, the Earl of Abelard, do you?”
“How dare you call him that? He is the most honest, most selfless, most wonderful man in all of England.” Apart from the minor issue of his proposing to the wrong woman, of course.
“Yes, well…England is rather small.” Huntington once again sounded bored, and he pulled a cheroot from his pocket and examined it, as if weighing whether it would be worth smoking in front of a lady.
“The world then!” she said. “The Earl is infinitely more of a gentleman than you, and he would never kiss a married woman such as you did.”
“True. I doubt he has the aptitude for it.”
“Stop mocking him.”
The man simply grinned. “But you take the bait so well. Now surely your chaperone must be frantic as to your whereabouts by this stage?”
Sophie cringed slightly as a flutter of guilt assailed her. “Actually, I think my aunt Mabel may be under the mistaken impression that I had a headache and borrowed the carriage to go home.”
“An impression given to her by you, no doubt?”
Reluctantly, she bobbed her head in agreement.
“I pity the poor sap that gets saddled with you.” He sighed. “Very well, I shall send my carriage around to take you home to bed. There you can dream of your beloved and of his new fiancée’s early demise.”
“That is a terrible thing to suggest.” Sophie smoothed down the skirts of her gown. “No one could be horrid enough to wish someone dead.”
Huntington’s expression flattened. “In that, my dear lady, you are wrong. Very wrong.”
She shivered; his eyes were now a wintry blue, all humor having fled. “Why do you say that?”
His bleak look seemed to vanish, only to be replaced by an enigmatic lack of expression. “Do you know the grand occasion this ball is in honor of?”
“I believe it is being held in your late grandfather’s honor,” she whispered.
“Yes, it is. It’s a celebration, you see. Though not to celebrate his life, Lady Sophie, but rather to celebrate his death.”
“His death?” she asked. Surely, the Duke didn’t mean he had wanted his grandfather to die?
“Indeed,” he confirmed. “As far as I’m concerned, the old codger can burn in hell.”
Goodness. It seemed there was no end to the man’s penchant for being shocking. “But saying such a thing is…blasphemous.”
The corners of his mouth stretched into a tight smile as he brought the cheroot to his lips, and then he clamped down on it with his teeth so he could light it. The end of the cigar glowed red in the lamplight, and smoke curled around his head. “Hadn’t you heard, my dear? I am the Devil Duke. My very existence is blasphemous. Now run along, or else I will assume you wish me to show you just how much of a devil I can be.”
The expression on his face was dark and heated. And suddenly, Sophie felt alarmed— not of him, but rather of her own response. Because rather than scare her, as she was sure had been his intention, his words had instead inflamed her body, sending a thrum of desire through her.
Then just as suddenly, the thought that she could actually be attracted to a rake felt like someone had thrown a bucket of ice over her head. She would not allow a man of his ilk to charm and beguile her, as her mother had allowed Sophie’s father to. She’d vowed that a long time ago, and not even the Devil Duke, with his sinfully handsome face and equally seductive body, would sway her.
She spun around and fled into the night.