The daughter of an infamous art forger, Chloe Somerton grew up poor. Desperate to aid her sisters, she’d picked a pocket…or two. Now circumstances have changed, and Chloe has a chance to marry a young, wealthy lord. Only his mentor—a dark, dangerous duke—stands in her way. The duke knows about her past, and she’ll do anything to keep him from telling.
The moment Michael Keswick, the Duke of Cameron, sees Chloe Somerton, he recognizes her as a fraud. The stunning beauty with sapphire eyes and golden hair now appears to be a proper lady, but he knows better. What begins as a battle of wills soon escalates into a fierce attraction. In Chloe, Michael finds peace from the memories of war, but he refuses to marry…and she won’t settle for anything less.
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The Duke of Cameron’s piercing gaze raked Chloe’s form before returning to her face. “Well…well,” he drawled. “Miss Somerton. What a pleasant surprise.” His tone suggested it wasn’t a surprise at all and that he’d been expecting her to arrive late at night on his doorstep.
Chloe’s heart pounded in her chest as she was held captive by his dark gaze. “May we speak in private, Your Grace?”
“You are alone? No chaperone?”
She swallowed. “I thought it best this way.”
His lips quirked. “Yes. I believe we have something important to discuss that requires the utmost privacy.” He motioned toward the hallway leading from the vestibule. “We can talk in my library. Shall we?”
For a brief moment, her nerves almost faltered, and she clutched her reticule before her.
One dark brow shot upward. “Come now, Miss Somerton. You haven’t sneaked out of your home unchaperoned to visit a bachelor’s residence only to lose your nerve now, have you?”
“Of course not,” she snapped.
She stepped forward and followed as he led her down the hall. She stole a sidelong glance at the clear-cut lines of his profile.
He stopped outside a door, held it open for her, and motioned for her to enter. She swept inside the duke’s private library and halted. The room was paneled in rich mahogany, and row after row of bookshelves lined the walls. Supple leather spines of different colors occupied every inch of the shelves. Chloe knew how costly books were, and she suspected one of the leather-bound volumes could have paid their rent at the print shop for a month. A pair of matching leather chairs was situated beside a large fireplace with a coal brazier and a marble mantle. She could picture herself sitting in one of the chairs, her legs curled beneath her, as she read for hours.
As she walked farther into the room, her eye was drawn to a large rack of rolled parchments in the corner. One was unrolled across a six-foot-long desk to reveal an extensive map of Europe with markings. It looked like a battle plan, and she remembered that the Duke of Cameron had been a military man.
She recalled what little she’d learned about him from her sister on the carriage ride home from Bullock’s Museum. Eliza tended to chatter about people and events, and she had been excited that a duke had accompanied them during the museum tour. Chloe had wanted to unearth as much information as she could, but at the same time, she’d been careful not to question Eliza and arouse her suspicions. The duke was a second son. Chloe thought it ironic that he’d returned from war alive and physically uninjured while his father and older brother had died in a carriage accident in the London streets. He’d unexpectedly and tragically inherited the dukedom.
“May I take your cloak?” His fingers brushed her shoulders, sending a shiver of awareness through her at the slight contact as he removed her cloak and placed it on a settee tucked in the corner of the library.
He motioned to the leather chairs before the fireplace. “Please sit.” It was a command more than a request. She suspected he was used to issuing orders and others obeying. She didn’t see any reason to ignore him, so she settled in the chair and smoothed her skirts.
“Would you like a drink? I was about to pour myself one before you arrived.”
Strong spirits could only help her nerves. “Yes, thank you.”
He walked to a cabinet and withdrew a crystal decanter of amber-colored alcohol. He poured a finger’s worth in one crystal glass, offering it to her, then filled the second glass halfway. He sat in the leather chair across from her and stretched out his long legs. Lamplight glinted off his polished hessians, and his trousers hugged his muscular legs. Her gaze was drawn to the V at his throat where the top two buttons of his shirt were undone. A sprinkling of hair and tanned skin drew her eye.
Did he ride without a jacket and cravat? The image sent her pulse racing.
Chloe lifted the drink to her lips. The first gulp burned her throat and every inch of her esophagus on the way down to her stomach, and she coughed. “What is this?” she rasped.
His perfect mouth curved in a smile as he raised his glass. “Fine scotch whisky. The second sip will go down easier.” He leaned forward and rested his hand on his knee. “Now, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
She took a breath and met his gaze. “I’m here to discuss what happened at the museum this afternoon.”
“Ah, I see.”
He sipped his drink. Not wanting to appear cowardly, she followed suit. He was right. The second taste went a bit easier. The alcohol warmed her blood, eased her nerves, and increased her courage a notch. “I prefer to handle difficulties directly,” she said.
“Of course, you do. You handled things quite directly the first time I saw you. If my memory is accurate, you were filching embroidered handkerchiefs from men’s coats.”
She sat still, afraid to breathe.
This was what she’d feared. How did he know, dammit?
She mentally debated lying or bursting into female hysterics, but she instinctively knew those tricks wouldn’t work on him.
She raised her chin and pushed her shoulders back, bold as brass. “I have no idea what you are talking about. I would never bother with simple handkerchiefs when I could lift a fat purse just as easily.”
A moment of frigid silence passed, then he threw his head back and laughed richly. She was taken aback by his reaction, and her eyes were riveted to the corded muscles of his throat.
“Bravo! I expected a simpering miss and an adamant denial.” He leaned forward, his broad shoulders straining against the fabric of his shirt. Her gaze snapped back to his face and her unease returned in earnest. His humor didn’t quite reach those icy dark eyes.
“I know about your past,” he said. “Your father was Jonathan Miller, the infamous art forger of the ton, who fleeced many, then abandoned his three daughters rather than face imprisonment. Thereafter, you opened the Peacock Print Shop to survive. You were all shopkeepers.”
“It’s no longer a secret.” Their father’s crimes had left them destitute and desperate. If it were not for Eliza’s business sense and for Amelia’s talent with a paintbrush, they would still be in a St. Giles rookery. Both the Earls of Huntingdon and Vale knew, and neither had cared, when they married her sisters. Their pasts were forgotten. At least her sisters’ pasts.
Chloe’s past was a bit different.
“You are the youngest, correct? I assume you tired of working the long hours of a shopkeeper and thought to supplement your income by thievery.”
Clenching her teeth, her temper flared. “You know nothing, Your Grace,” she snapped. Of course, he would think the worst of her. A man in his position had never known hardship.
“I know enough,” he said, his voice low but dangerous.
“Henry…I mean, Lord Sefton looks up to you. He idolizes you.”
The duke’s expression was grim. “I owe his father my life. I won’t let him be fooled by a fortune-scheming miss.”
The barb hurt, like salt on an open wound. Why did the duke have to be Henry’s self-appointed ‘guardian’? Why couldn’t it have been anyone else?
She buried the bitterness his accusation stirred in her heart and tried to reason with him. “How can I assure you that my past is long forgotten? We have all started a new life.
I have no intention of hurting Henry. I truly like him.”
“You like him?” His expression was mocking.
Her stomach fluttered at the coldness in the duke’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Then send him away. Discourage his interest. Set your feminine trap for another unsuspecting man.”
Another surge of anger made her breath burn in her throat. Who was he to pass such quick judgment? A man born in luxury, an aristocrat whose place in the ton was guaranteed from the day of his birth, a duke who was one step below royalty.
He’d never known hunger or cold or prolonged illness because he couldn’t afford medicine from the apothecary or care from a physician.
She pushed a wayward tendril of hair away from her cheek. His eyes followed her movements, making her uneasy. “I won’t be bullied. Both Huntingdon and Vale will protect me.”
She was bluffing. Her sisters didn’t know of her past exploits to get the money they’d so desperately needed, and she had no intention of telling them. Her brothers-in-law had no idea, either. It was a secret she planned to take to her grave.
The duke’s knowledge of her past was her weakness. A chink in her armor.
Sipping his drink, he leaned back in his chair, a confident expression on his handsome face. “Then you will force me to reveal the truth about your past. The entire truth. Would you put your family through such a trial when all you have to do to protect them is discourage one suitor?”
She met his hard eyes without flinching. She refused to be bullied by him. She was a fighter. A survivor. “I won’t do it. And you shall keep my secret.”
His eyes flashed. “Oh? Why is that?”
“Because Henry has already suffered from the death of his father. Telling him my past will only cause him further undue distress.” She might be uncertain about how far the Duke of Cameron would go to ruin her, but she knew he’d promised Henry’s father that he would look after his son. If she were lucky, that responsibility would extend to Henry’s emotional well-being.
The duke’s eyes narrowed, and he lowered his glass. “A worthy opponent. You fascinate me, Chloe Somerton.”
“You make it sound as if you are never challenged.”
“Challenged, yes. Defeated, never.” He took her empty glass from her and set it aside on an end table, then brushed the backs of his fingers over her cheek. “Still, I admire your spirit. You must know you’re a beautiful woman, and I suspect you are accustomed to using everything to your advantage.”
She gasped at his touch, and her awareness of him heightened. Her thoughts spun at his smoldering gaze. He thought her beautiful? She knew her fair looks and blue eyes attracted men, but to hear it from him made her shiver.
“You’re blushing, Miss Somerton.”
She touched her heated cheek, and her lips parted with a scathing retort, but he raised his hand before she could speak.
“But it’s not your looks that draw my attention,” he said. “It’s rare to find someone who isn’t intimidated by me, either as a duke or as a military man. You are a rare exception.”
Trapped by the intensity of his stare as much as by his words, her heart stuttered in her chest. “Forgive me if I find your words not as complimentary as you think they should be.”
His lips twisted in a cynical smile. “Exactly my point. You have spirit, and I like a challenge.”
What on earth was he saying? She nervously nibbled her bottom lip, and his eyes dropped to her mouth. She felt an undeniable tug of attraction.
Ridiculous. She hated the man.
“How much will it take, then?” he said.
Her brow furrowed. “Pardon?”
“How much? Five hundred pounds…a thousand? I’m a wealthy man. Name your price.”
She sucked in a breath as realization struck. “You think to pay me to stay away from Henry?”
“You are an astute woman,” he drawled.
“I never jest.”
She rose to her feet and smoothed her skirts. He immediately stood. “I shall see myself out,” she said.
She turned, but his hand snaked out to grasp her wrist. “Not yet.”
Her eyes widened at the contact. His hands were calloused, his tapered fingers firm. A warrior’s hands. She experienced a shiver of apprehension and, heaven help her, excitement, from the leashed strength in him, the mysterious depth of his eyes, and the warmth of his skin.
“Sit,” he said. “We have not finished our business.”
Bestselling author TINA GABRIELLE is an attorney and former mechanical engineer whose love of reading for pleasure helped her get through years of academia. She often picked up a romance and let her fantasies of knights in shining armor and lords and ladies carry her away. She is the author of adventurous Regency historical romances for Entangled and Kensington Publishing.
Publisher’s Weekly calls her Regency Barrister’s series, “Well-matched lovers…witty comradely repartee.” Tina’s books have been Barnes & Noble top picks, and her first book, Lady Of Scandal, was nominated as best first historical by Romantic Times Book Reviews. Tina lives in New Jersey and is married to her own hero and is blessed with two daughters. She loves to hear from readers. Visit her website to learn about upcoming releases, join her newsletter, and enter free monthly contests!