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Tiffany Clare

The Scandalous Duke Takes a Bride

Scandalous Duke

February 25, 2014 from St. Martin’s Press
ISBN-10: 1250008042 | ISBN: 978-1250008046

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In this dazzling Dangerous Rogues novel, a daring and dangerously handsome duke will do anything for the woman he loves—even if it sparks a scandal.

FRIENDS AND LOVERS

As a wealthy young widow, Lady Jessica Heyer must endure the closest of scrutiny and most wicked of rumors from society gossips. Their whispers would be utterly unbearable if it weren’t for her oldest friend, the Duke of Alsborough. Jessica knows she can always count on Hayden. What she never could have expected, however, is that he is deeply, madly in love with her…

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD

For years, Hayden has kept his longing for his beautiful friend Jessica a secret. But now that she’s finally free to remarry, will she be willing to take their relationship to a more intimate level? He’ll get his answer soon—at a glittering masquerade, where identities are hidden, hearts are open, and true love is unmasked…in a single, shameless act of passion.

Praise for The Scandalous Duke Takes a Bride:

With her emotionally intense and poignant storytelling, Clare brings to light one woman’s ability to deal with the trauma of abuse. Readers will be moved by the charming, compassionate hero and the inclusion of characters from the previous novels. This is a thoughtful and lovingly crafted romance.

-RT Book Reviews, 4 Star Review

Chapters One & Two

Chapter One

The rumors this writer has heard about the most sought after bachelor in all of England. And what wicked things this particular man has committed . . . Could you suspend belief if I accused a certain duke of engaging in acts only a commoner would participate in?

The Mayfair Chronicles, May 1846

“Hold, Miller.” When the valet dodged around a tall stack of crates on the dock, Hayden, the Duke of Alsborough, had no choice but to punch out the blunt end of his cane to knock the man to the ground. Hayden roughly pulled Miller up the rest of the way.

Dazed but still determined to escape, Miller stood on wobbly legs and threw out a fist that glanced off Hayden’s left shoulder. The feeble hit was ineffective and only angered Hayden further.

He returned the blow, striking the valet square in the face and knocking him back another step. The man teetered to the right before falling like a sack laden with rocks to the cobbled road. He tried to scramble backward on his hands and feet, but his shoulders came up against a wall.

For two days Hayden had searched for this man. There was no way in hell he would give Miller the opportunity to run now that he had finally caught up to him. He unsheathed the blade from his cane and pointed it at the valet’s neck, a mere inch from piercing his pale skin. It took everything in him to hold back and not bury it deep into Miller’s throat.

“We’ve been over this,” Hayden reminded him, the sharp edge of his temper spilling out in his words. “You came here willingly not an hour ago on the presumption that you would be leaving London. Tonight.”

He exacted enough pressure to the valet’s throat, just above his rumpled cravat—it would only take the flick of Hayden’s wrist to end the other man’s life should he run again.

Miller laughed, the sound gurgled and broken as he spat out a wad of blood next to Hayden’s boot. When Miller grinned, a gaping hole at the front of his mouth oozed more blood where his tooth had been knocked out. “You’re no better than me, Duke.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Hayden said.

Hayden stared at the one man who threatened the only person who mattered to him, the only woman he’d ever truly loved. Though he’d only been tossed out of his master’s house a week past, Miller’s dark hair stood on end greasy with dirt, and stubble covered his jaw and neck. He also sported a black eye that Hayden had not been the one to deliver.

“You’ll leave or the outcome will look like child’s play compared to what I’ve already done to you.”

Miller shook his head, a sinister smile curling his lips. “You’re mistaken to think you have any hold over me.”

“Oh, I assure you I do. Should you choose to stay in England, you will live to regret that decision before the day is through.” Slowly, Hayden removed the blade from the man’s jugular.

The valet wiped his dirty sleeve across his mouth as he stood on unsteady feet, following the tip of Hayden’s blade as though they were in the midst of some macabre dance of death.

“Why did you do it?” That was the one question Hayden wanted answered most.

“She’s got no right to the fortune. I told my lordship I’d do anything he saw fit done.” Miller spat and wiped his sleeve across his mouth again, smearing blood across his cheek. “You’re too late to change the outcome. His Lordship would have divorced her were he still alive.”

Hayden glared at the valet and took a threatening step forward. Jessica had every right to the fortune she’d married into. Hell, Hayden didn’t know a person more deserving of a decent life, one that she’d been deprived of since the ill-fated day her father gave her to Fallon. Divorce seemed drastic, even for the old earl—and on what grounds?

Divorce was risky. The valet was lying. He had to be.

“Why are you here, Duke? Hushing up a bit of dirty work? Protecting that whore’s reputation, or at least what’s left of it?” The valet sneered. “You aristocrats are all the same, thinking your secrets are so precious. Especially Lady Jessica’s. We both know she’s no better than a trollop.”

Hayden looked at the glint of steel in his hand. He could end all of Jessica’s problems right now. But what kind of man would that make him? He lowered his blade long enough to sock Miller in the face again. The valet shook his head, dazed.

Hayden pulled away, cracking his knuckles, satisfied in knowing that Miller’s face hurt a hell of a lot more than his fist.

“I’m willing to let her secrets die at the cost of your life,” Hayden said bluntly.

“Then get on with it.” The valet took a brazen step forward, letting the tip of Hayden’s blade pierce his dirty vest and shirt and press just above his heart. “Go ahead; slide the blade in the rest of the way. It’s only a matter of time before Lady Jessica’s reputation is well and truly destroyed.”

The man had a death wish, but Hayden would not grant him that wish tonight. “Who else has been privy to her secrets?”

“That’s for me to know. But it’s not me you should fear. She’s garnered enemies far and wide. That’s what happens when a woman leads a disgraceful life, without thought to her reputation.”

All Hayden had to do was buy Jessica a few months by ridding London of the pathetic weasel of a man standing before him. Who else knew about Jessica’s situation, aside from him? Hayden needed the valet gone, before he could sell his secrets to the highest bidder. The last thing Hayden wanted to see printed in the gossip columns was Jessica’s current predicament.

Wiping his bloodied knuckles on a handkerchief, Hayden reached into his breast pocket to retrieve the papers for the valet’s voyage. He watched Miller in case he tried to run again, but there was a defeated look in the man’s eyes that hadn’t been there the last time he’d taken flight. Had he honestly thought he’d escape Hayden?

The valet snatched the papers from Hayden’s grasp. “I wouldn’t have minded tossing Her Ladyship down a flight of stairs, you know. It might have done the trick sooner.”

Hayden grasped the man’s throat tightly. He wanted to squeeze the last breath from his lungs and forever silence him. He watched as Miller struggled to breathe, his face flushing red.

In slow increments Hayden relaxed his grip, though he left the sword’s sharp edge resting over the man’s heart as he took a step back.

“I’ll tell you this once because the repercussions for any disobedience will be the forfeiture of your life.”

“I’m a dead man either way,” the valet challenged him.

“You’ll find no compassion from me,” Hayden said. “You’re a bigger fool than I imagined if you think I’ll end your life swiftly. Board the ship set for Australia. The debt holders after you will be far kinder than me.”

The valet pushed himself off the wall to stand on shaky legs; his height was nearly even with Hayden’s. Miller really did have a death wish, but Hayden could not fulfill the man’s wish to die so easily. In reality—and with no irony lost on him—Hayden had bought the man a second chance at life, since he probably would have been dead inside a week had he stayed in London. But the damage that could be accomplished in even a few days wasn’t a chance Hayden was willing to take with Jessica’s future.

Hayden motioned his sword in the direction of the ship that was leaving that evening. The valet straightened out his jacket, and held his head high as he stared back at Hayden.

“You haven’t gotten the better of me.”

“But I have, Miller.”

Hayden nodded toward the ship again. He did not want to stand and talk to a man he reviled for threatening the woman he loved. Though he had every intention of waiting here till the ship had truly sailed from the dock.

This man leaving London would be the first right in a long list of wrongs, not wrongs done by him but wrongs committed toward Jessica. Hayden would do everything in his power to ensure her life from here on out started on the right foot.

Miller didn’t grumble a moment longer and slowly ambled toward the ship, holding out his papers as he approached. Hayden sheathed his sword inside his cane and leaned on the stylized eagle handle as he waited.

How had everything turned into such a bloody mess?

With a heavy sigh, he left the docks when the ship was but a dot on the dusky horizon.

It was time to pay Jessica a visit and let her know the good news. Though he doubted the valet’s removal from London would lighten her spirits; she’d been out of sorts since her husband’s death, but Hayden hoped this would cheer her some.

Chapter Two

I would bet my finest pen that you are curious to know what I meant when I said that Mr. W— might take his seat sooner in the House of Lords. There are few reasons for someone like the Dowager F— to go into seclusion, so I leave the guessing game with my dear readers as to why she’s been absent from society after her boldly inappropriate appearance at her husband’s funeral. Or perhaps I should spill every last one of her secrets on these pages and have society wash their hands of her once and for all. In due course, dearest readers. In due course.

Mayfair Chronicles, June 1846

“You’ll have a year in your house, Jez, as Fallon’s widow. Though I have my doubts that Warren will let you stay that long.”

Hayden leaned back in his chair and scrutinized his friend carefully. The bruise on her left cheek had faded to a buttery yellow. The mar on her flesh was a final token of how her husband had treated her, and it had Hayden’s jaw clenching in anger to see it still there.

Jez perched forward, her elbows on the edge of his desk as she stared back at him. Her complexion was wan, and her once lustrous red curls looked limp and dull where they were piled atop her head. The constant spark of mischief usually lurking in her light blue eyes had been smothered for too many weeks to count.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that Fallon has reduced me to a pauper. If ever I needed proof that my husband despised me, he’s managed to prove so even after his death.”

Jez was more candid than usual about her late husband. She never discussed her tumultuous marriage with Hayden, or anyone else for that matter. It was a fine line she wouldn’t cross, or she’d have to face too many ugly truths, he suspected. Hayden wished he could have changed the course of her life sooner.

How he would have changed it was anyone’s guess. And really, there wasn’t much he could have done to help her. When he’d finally discovered just what type of man Fallon was—a mere two years ago compared to the eight years that Jessica had been married—the law, he found, was not in favor of a friend protecting a married woman. They didn’t seem to care how barbarous that husband was behind closed doors.

The one occasion that Hayden had witnessed the brute nature of Fallon he’d been escorted to Jessica’s drawing room and heard the smashing of glass in the parlor next door. He’d been well and ready to ignore it until Jez’s pained voice had begged for mercy.

The scene he’d witnessed upon sliding the door open …

Any man would have charged Fallon as he’d done.

After the first fall of his fist to Fallon’s face and his attempt to strangle the man, Jez had pulled him off and had refused to budge from the path that blocked her scoundrel husband from further injury. Her dress had been torn at the shoulder; blood had smeared her upper lip where she’d been hit hard across the face. Hayden had never understood why she had dragged him off her husband or why she had protected the bastard all the years they’d been married.

While they’d never mentioned that day again, the knowledge of it had always stood between them. He had never witnessed a repeat of Fallon’s high-handed abuse, and while he hoped that Fallon had never raised another hand against his wife after their confrontation, the evidence stared him baldly in the face right now.

He and Jez had known each other for nearly a decade, and looking at her now, he didn’t see one ounce of the vibrant woman she once was. What he saw in her gaze was eight years of a miserable marriage weighing down on her soul.

But he knew there was an abundance of liveliness hidden beneath all the sorrow. If he could just find a way to unlock it again …

“You have a portion of your dowry that was protected from the estate. That hardly makes you a pauper,” he pointed out. “What you do over the next year with that money will be what defines your financial stability in the future. I will make the investments on your behalf.”

He was merely repeating the advice given to him by his solicitor. He did not tell her that he’d already allocated some of his money to bonds in her name.

She raised a hand to stall his speech. “Fallon invested a few hundred thousand pounds of my inheritance into the estate and ensured that it was tied firmly into the entailment. Ten thousand pounds is hardly enough to keep me in a decent life for long.” She paused for a long moment, tapping her fingers along the arm of the chair. “I’ll not leave London behind, Hayden. I can’t live anywhere but here. This is my home.”

He removed his reading glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Now would not be the best of times to tell her that he’d saved well for her future. She’d refuse him. That he knew without doubt.

“And I’ll keep reminding you that it’s in your best interest to escape the city for a while”—he held up his hand when she tried to interrupt him—“at least until the gossip settles down about your lack of widow’s weeds. We can arrange to have a summer house party at my estate. Or Leo’s if you prefer, since his is closer to Town.”

Jez shook her head. “And let Warren move in like a hawk on wounded prey? I will not expose my back to that man. He’ll turn me out in a fortnight if I give him an open opportunity.”

The only reason she had a year was to ensure that the next heir to the house of Fallon wasn’t in her womb. While she’d revealed to Hayden that that wasn’t a possibility, that didn’t mean the rest of the ton needed to know that fact.

“Then I’ll speak to him, Jez. Make it very clear what his moral obligation is under the law and in the eyes of society.”

Jez closed her eyes for a brief moment before pulling herself to her feet to pace the study floor. The room doubled as his library, with heavily lined mahogany bookshelves on three of the walls and paned windows with stained glass decorating the tops on every other wall of the hexagonal room. A burgundy Persian rug covered the center of the room, stopping well before the molding to reveal the zigzag design of the hardwood inlay that bordered the room.

“You’ll do no such thing,” she said. “I will deal with Warren directly.”

“He hasn’t listened to your pleas thus far; why do you think he’ll listen to you now?”

Her periwinkle silk day dress swished over her legs as she walked to and fro. She wrung her hands together in agitation. “He’s my problem.”

Hayden didn’t agree—and he’d pay the man a visit to let him know that he should leave Jez alone for the foreseeable future.

“I cannot believe my life has been reduced to this,” Jez said.

“There are investments you can make.…”

“I’ll not wager away the last of my money on speculation.”

Hayden gave her a droll look. The irony was that the first half of her marriage had been spent in and out of gaming houses. It was baffling that she wouldn’t make one small gamble now.

She plopped herself down on the sofa with a heavy sigh, half a room away from him. He pushed his chair out from his desk and walked over to her, his hands in his vest pockets as he studied her.

“It wouldn’t be a risk,” he assured her.

Jez threw her right arm over her brow dramatically. “I don’t want to think about this at the moment.”

“This is your reality, Jez.” He didn’t finish his diatribe, as he didn’t want to lecture her any more than she wanted to be lectured. Another time perhaps, but not now. “We’ll discuss this when you’re in better spirits, then.”

She peeked at him from under her arm. “I doubt that’ll be any time soon. The only thing I care about right now is what our plans are for this evening.”

“Cards. Here, of course.”

She needed to stay out of sight for a while, let the gossip surrounding her appearance at her husband’s funeral die down; by wearing scarlet to the funeral of her late husband she’d dared society to censure her. Hayden wondered if society would ever look at Jez in a kinder light than the one that currently shone upon her. Only time would tell.

“It’s dreadful being a widow. I haven’t received one invitation since Fallon kicked the bucket.”

“A week is hardly a long time. And just because you don’t care for society’s rules, you know most others play by the book.”

Besides, she didn’t look as though she could endure an evening of fanfare despite her insistence. She looked frail, and as the week had progressed she seemed more unlike herself—“distant” and “less vibrant” were the only descriptions he could come up with. He wasn’t foolish enough to bring that to her attention, or the fact that she could feel better from a week of self-imposed rest.

It didn’t matter what anyone else thought of her; he knew exactly what was going on in that pretty head of hers—she was hiding from the truth of her circumstances. She constantly pushed herself too hard, and while he understood her need to distance herself from reality, it was time to put the reins back on her life and figure out her future.

After living under the reign of her husband for so long, it must be odd to finally be free, to do as she pleased without any repercussions from Fallon.

There were so many things Hayden wanted to show her that would make her smile. He wanted to be the one to give her that second view on life. And he would. But now wasn’t quite the time for that.

“What are you thinking so intensely about?” she asked.

He shrugged. “This and that. Nothing of import, unless you want to discuss a few of the ventures I’ve been lucky to invest in.”

“I’d tell you how insufferable you are, but you already know that about yourself.”

“Do I?” He smiled a little with her assessment of him.

“Oh, stop being so cavalier. Please sit with me. You’re liable to start pacing and I have a megrim coming on. I don’t want to grow dizzy watching you think out my problems.” She rubbed fitfully at her temple. “I think I should remind you again: my situation is my problem to sort out.”

He sat heavily on the sofa and put his feet up on the ottoman next to her ivory-slippered ones.

“What a pair we are,” he observed aloud.

He turned his head and stared at her with her arm flung over her eyes. She didn’t see him, which he was fine with, since it gave him an opportunity to scrutinize her carefully. The sleeves of her dress were loose around her shoulders and upper arms, her skin had an almost translucent quality, and the light dusting of freckles on her nose and cheeks seemed faded—if such a thing was possible.

“What am I going to do with you?”

She lowered her arm and turned to look at him. “There’s nothing to be done, Hayden.” She took his hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. The cool press of her fingers could not keep the desires within him banked for long. “Trust that I’ll work out my problems on my own. You can’t always save the day when one of us makes a mess of our lives.”

She referred to their other friends, Leo and Tristan, not just herself. And it was true; he usually had all the answers … except, it seemed, when it came to Jez. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to fix what was currently wrong in her life.

“It’s something I have to do. I’ll always want the best for you.”

“I know.” She smiled, the contentment reaching her blue eyes this time. “You’re the best friend anyone could ever ask for.”

And there was the crux of it: in her eyes he would always be just a friend. She really did make him believe that opposites attracted, for there was nothing similar in their characters, yet he wanted her to himself. She’d always been brazen and daring, him steadfast and cautious. Yet he still wanted to protect and cherish her as his own. And he would. There was nothing to stop him now that Fallon was dead.

“Are you sure you’re up for a hand of cards tonight?” he asked cautiously. Jez hated to be told she shouldn’t do something.

“I haven’t anything better to do, so yes. I’ll send Tristan a note to stop at my townhouse; we can walk over together.”

“I really think we should escape to the countryside for the remainder of the summer. It’ll be too hot to stay in the confines of the city for much longer and I can only bear the smell of the Thames for so long.”

“You know I love London too much to move away for any length of time. Besides, I need to work out a few arrangements with Warren tomorrow.”

Hayden snapped to attention and sat up straighter on the sofa. “What business does he have with you? You should have told me, Jez.”

She sighed more loudly than she needed to. “I knew you would react exactly this way; that’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“What’s the purpose of the meeting?” he asked. “Warren treated you with contempt at the reading of the will. There is no reason for you to have to endure his company alone.”

“Give me some credit in dealing with him. I can be charming if the occasion warrants it. I want to ask him for the dower house, to live there at least until he’s married.”

“You know he won’t allow it. Hell, I’d be surprised if the man actually took the Ponsley chit as his wife.” In fact, Tristan and Leo were both trying to win the favor of the woman set to be engaged to Warren—which had started at Jez’s insistence. “Warren is above reproach, and you know that he can’t possibly entertain the idea of keeping you on.”

“I know I’ve been a dreadful role model of how a proper lady should act since I married, but it will hurt his reputation to throw me out too soon. Surely there are enough men who hated my husband that they’ll side with me in this. I know Warren has it in him to show some compassion.”

“This doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.” In fact, this was an outright bad idea. He didn’t want her near another Fallon for the rest of her days. Hayden decided then and there that if Warren so much as raised his hand to her his life would be forfeit. “If you want to negotiate the dower house as part of your marriage settlement, let me do it with my solicitor.”

“I wasn’t asking for your permission, Hayden.”

“If he mistreats you in any way, you’re to come to me immediately.”

“You sound like an overbearing father.”

That was not a character he wanted to be equated to in Jez’s life.

“You’ll have to live with that,” he said, brushing his hand through his hair. Perhaps he should pay a visit to Warren, tell him that should anything happen to Jez then Warren would be held personally responsible.

Even knowing that he was stepping out of bounds by seeing the man behind Jez’s back, he resolved to have it done first thing in the morning.

He changed the subject to a more pressing issue. “How have you been feeling?”

“Why do you ask?” she said cautiously.

He raised one eyebrow sardonically. She knew exactly what he meant.

“I’m starting to find the happiness I had before I married.”

“Truly?” He had known her long enough to smell a lie when she fed him one. He didn’t for one second believe her.

She nodded. “It’ll be a long process.”

“And what of your health?”

She sat up a little straighter, chin jutted out and full of pride. “Fit as a fiddle.”

“Don’t lie to me, Jez. I can see the weariness in your face. And it’s more than evident that you’ve shed a good stone in the last couple of weeks.”

She slumped back against the couch with a frustrated air. “It’s not polite for you to say so. And you know I’ve been under more pressure than the average person might have to face in all their life. Don’t worry about me. I promise I’ll fill out my clothes again in no time.”

“Consider it my duty to worry about you.”

Her smile faded from her lips as she pushed herself off the sofa to stand. “If I’m to be ready for this evening, I should head home.”

As Hayden stood he reached for her hand to ask her to stay longer. She shook him off before he even had a chance to touch her.

“I can have a carriage brought around for you,” he offered, even though it was only a few blocks to the Fallon residence.

“I think I’ll walk since it’s such a beautiful day.”

He pulled his hat from the hook near the door, intent on walking with her since he wasn’t ready to part ways.

Jez placed her hand over his chest to stall him. “I wanted to take in the fresh air and think for a while before I’m home. You needn’t walk with me. I’ll be fine on my own.”

Her head was bowed where she stood, her finger fiddling with a button on his shirt—so he couldn’t pull on his jacket, he thought.

“Jez…”

When she looked up at him he was struck speechless by the sadness clouding her vision. “I promise you I’ll be fine, Hayden. And if I’m not, you’ve always been my rock when I’ve needed you, haven’t you?”

He gave one succinct nod, but wondered whether she would really come to him if she needed his support. Their friendship seemed strained … maybe strained was an incorrect assumption, but she’d certainly been avoiding spending any great length of time with him alone since her husband’s funeral—ever since confiding exactly what length her husband had gone to in order to cut her out of the Fallon fortune.

“I know I’ve been out of sorts from all the changes in my life. I promise you that I’m working on being my old self again.”

He didn’t say anything, just let Jez take the hat from his hand and put it back on the peg next to the door.

When she stepped away from him, the footman opened the door at his nod. Hayden stood at the threshold, thinking he should follow her home, knowing that would anger her.

He would do it regardless.

A lady on her own was unacceptable to him. Especially when that lady was Jez.

Want to read more? You can read the third chapter over on Heroes & Heartbreakers (log in required.)