After five years on the Marriage Mart, Miss Aquilla Knox is ready for spinsterhood until a benefactress steps in to help her secure a husband. Only Aquilla doesn’t actually want to marry—her failure is entirely on purpose. When the earl she’s nicknamed the Duke of Deception sets his sights on her, she refuses to be drawn in by her attraction to him. If there’s one thing she knows it’s that a gentleman is never what he seems.
Edward Bishop, Earl of Sutton, has a reputation for courting young misses and dropping them without a second thought. This has earned him a reputation for deceit, a description he can’t refute because he does in fact, harbor secrets and will do anything—deceive anyone—to ensure they don’t come to light. As he comes to know the charming Miss Knox, his resolve is tested. However, trust comes at a price and Ned won’t pay with his heart.
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 statement 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 card room 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 card room 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 ballgown?
The kind that piqued his interest.
About the Author
Darcy Burke is the USA Today Bestselling Author of hot, action-packed historical and sexy, emotional contemporary romance. A native Oregonian, Darcy lives on the edge of wine country with her guitar-strumming husband, their two hilarious kids who seem to have inherited the writing gene, and three Bengal cats.