How to Fool a Duke - The Husband Dilemma, Book 1
Or get it free from Kindle Unlimited
The Husband Dilemma - by USA Today Bestselling Authors Mary Lancaster and Violetta Rand!
Young women in need of second chances find sympathy and assistance with the enigmatic Lady Whitmore in her seaside castle and village. The ultimate goal, to find husbands for these rejected ladies of the ton.
Yet, not every young woman is motivated by the same emotions, for some of these ladies possess rakish hearts that can only be tamed by true love.
Her voice is pure, her motives wicked.
Lady Sarah Merrington will never forget being spurned by the duke she was supposed to marry. After all, that is the very reason she finds herself as a personal guest to the enigmatic Lady Whitmore in her village on the coast, a place of sanctuary where a lady might learn new accomplishments and, perhaps, the necessary skills to charm the elites of society. And Sarah is determined to reinvent herself so she can seek satisfaction, if not a bit of feminine revenge against the Duke of Vexen.
Leonard Blackmore, the Duke of Vexen, is invited to host a charitable event in a place he's never heard of before and by a lady he's never met. Pleased by the opportunity, he accepts the invitation only to find his gracious hostess, Lady Whitmore, is not only a fellow patron to the arts but provides second chances to young ladies who simply need a helping hand. Unexpectedly, the duke meets a beautiful woman who sings like an angel. He swears he's seen her before but can't quite remember where or when. It doesn't matter, for she's captured his deep interest, and he always gets what he wants.
Sarah can't believe her duke has arrived, giving her the chance to fulfill her dream for revenge. But the more she's around him, the more she admires and likes him. And it's only a matter of time before he realizes who she is.
Will Sarah take advantage of the perfect opportunity to fool her duke, or will she forgive and forget in order to give love a second chance?
Sarah reached for the final note. She sang it with all the clarity she had been taught and all the emotion of which she was capable. And she held it perfectly before letting it fade into silence.
Exhilarated, she glanced toward Signor Arcadi. To her delight, he did not merely nod his grudging approval. He beamed. And then the applause broke out. Her audience rose en masse in spontaneous acclaim, rather than merely polite appreciation.
At last, she thought with anticipation. At last, I am ready…
She curtseyed deeply in gratitude, first to her audience and then to Signor Arcadi, who had trained her voice beyond a mere ladylike accomplishment to this level of skill and power. To have reached the stage of capturing this audience of cultured and talented people almost overwhelmed her.
“Better. Much better.” Signor Arcadi murmured and placed her hand on his arm with gratifying pride. Together, they stepped forward to meet the adulation.
Sarah could almost imagine she had just sung at Covent Garden, instead of a tea-time recital in a small assembly room in the backwater town of Whitmore. Yet in many ways, these people congratulating her were her peers, and their opinion mattered almost as much as Signor Arcadi’s.
She was smiling so much, she thought her face would split. Hammy, more properly Miss Hammond, once her governess and now her companion, held her hands clasped under her chin in almost motherly pride.
The crowd parted, and she saw that her performance had been honored indeed. Lady Whitmore stood before her – a tiny lady, white haired and yet not quite elderly, supremely elegant in her simple silk gown and diamonds. As Sarah curtsied, Lady Whitmore extended her hand. Another accolade.
“You have always had one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard,” Lady Whitmore said kindly. “And now you are a credit to Signor Arcadi. A moving and utterly charming performance, my dear.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sarah said gratefully, taking her hand. “You are all kindness.”
“And I am all pride,” Signor Arcadi beamed. “My favorite pupil. Until tomorrow, at least, when we will go over your mistakes.”
Sarah laughed. “Couldn’t you leave it until then to take the wind out of my sails?”
“He is a hard taskmaster,” Lady Whitmore agreed. “Which is why we so appreciate him here! Now my dear, I have an invitation for you. Would you care to dine with me this evening? Bringing Miss Hammy, of course.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said, dazed by this fresh honor. “I would love to.”
“I’m afraid it will not be a dinner party, merely a cozy supper with just the three of us.”
“I look forward to it,” Sarah murmured. And she did. If only to tell Lady Whitmore that it was time for her to leave this sanctuary of art and culture, for it was time to take all her talents to the real world.
Lady Whitmore was the undoubted queen of her domain. Her castle sat on top of the cliff overlooking the sea on one side and the town of Whitmore on the other. On a fine spring evening, it was a pleasant walk up the hill from Sarah’s cottage. As she and Hammy drew closer, the castle seemed to lose its fairy-tale quality and become instead the defensive stronghold it was designed to be.
“It is as if she defends us all from up here,” Sarah mused as they walked under the arch of the outer, thirteenth-century walls.
“Only instead of violent raiders, she repels prying eyes and unwanted family.”
“Yes, well, you must not speculate,” Hammy warned her. “It was always part of the agreement when we took the cottage.”
“We promised not to speculate about our neighbors,” Sarah argued, “not about her ladyship.”
“She is a neighbor, too,” Hammy said firmly.
“Yes, but don’t you wonder about her just a little? One would think she must be lonely up here by herself and that is why she has made her village a sanctuary of the arts and learning for those others who care to hide from the world for whatever reasons. But she only moves among us occasionally, and even more rarely invites anyone to dine.”
“You do not know how many people dine here,” Hammy pointed out. “Or how often.”
“Well, we have been here more than a year,” Sarah pointed out, “and this is our first invitation. Do you suppose she knows we are leaving?”
The conversation had taken them across the wide courtyard which had been covered in lawns and gardens, to the front door, where Hammy frowned her to silence. There had been a time when Sarah would have sung at the top of her voice just for the fun of defying her, and she was still tempted. But she had learned good manners among everything else, so she merely smiled wryly and inclined her head while her old governess raised the large, iron knocker.
Almost at once, the great door swung open. A liveried, middle-aged footman bowed them inside, and Sarah looked about her in wonder. The entrance hall was a seamless blend of ancient carved stone and modern luxury. An indecipherable coat of arms carved above doorways, carpets on the stone floors, and even leading up the massive, curving staircase. Wall sconces looked as if they were made for flaming torches but contained candles.
An elderly, dignified butler materialized before them and asked them with a bow to follow him. He led them up the staircase and along a picture-lined gallery to a set of double-doors, which he pushed open.
He bowed into the room. “Your Grace. Miss Sarah and Miss Hammy.”
Your Grace. Sarah’s curiosity burgeoned. Their hostess, the sole occupant of the room before they walked in, was Lady Whitmore. Why would her servant address her as Your Grace? A title once reserved for queens, and now only for duchesses - among the female sex at least.
“Ah, thank you, Saunders,” Lady Whitmore said. Smiling, she stood up from a massive desk at which she had been writing, and replaced her pen in the elegant stand. “Ladies, please join me in a glass of sherry. Or would you prefer ratafia?”
Sarah, dragging her gaze from the massive leather-bound books and what looked like parchment scrolls that lined the cabinets around the walls, curtseyed and asked for sherry.
Lady Whitmore served them herself from a Venetian glass decanter into matching glasses. “This is the center of my world,” she said, presenting the glasses, and waving her hand around the room. “My library.”
Sarah sat on the comfortable, velvet-covered sofa. “It is a beautiful room. Are you engaged upon a great work here?”
“Many minor works,” Lady Whitmore replied.
“You have a wonderful view,” Hammy said, gazing in awe toward the window that overlooked the sea.
“My inspiration and my reminder of a mere human’s limitations,” Lady Whitmore said, choosing a chair close to them.
“What are the subjects of your works?” asked Sarah, who had once believed women had no need of learning and that bluestockings were to be pitied.
“Genealogy,” Lady Whitmore replied unexpectedly. “Largely. Also, I study human nature, which I suppose makes me a philosopher. We shall talk more of that over dinner, if you wish. But I would like to hear about you, Miss Sarah. Your little recital this afternoon was…dazzling.”
“Thank you,” Sarah said, blushing with gratitude. “I have worked hard over the last year.”
“So Signor Archadi tells me. Of course, he is delighted to have such a naturally sweet voice to train. But I understand you have not limited yourself to his training. You also attend lectures in art and the classic texts, poetry readings and even the political salons. Your interests are wide.”
“They are,” Sarah agreed.
“And you, Miss. Hammy? I believe you were Miss Sarah’s governess? Are you responsible for her voracious love of learning?”
“I would like to claim so,” Hammy said ruefully, “but in truth, it occurred in spite of me rather than because of me. I taught only the basic education and accomplishments thought to be necessary in a young lady of quality. And from the age of eleven, I’m afraid Sarah despised those things.”
“I was, alas, selfish and opinionated,” Sarah admitted. “And wild to a fault. I led poor Hammy a terrible dance for the next five years.”
“Oh, it was not as bad as that,” Hammy insisted. “Although it must be said, you did worry your dear parents.”
Lady Whitmore’s perceptive gaze flickered from one to the other, although she kept her interested smile throughout. “Then what on earth led you to Whitmore? A positive hotbed of learning and accomplishments?”
“I grew up,” Sarah said lightly and sipped her sherry.
“At the ripe old age of, what?” Lady Whitmore wondered. “Are you even nineteen years old yet?”
“Almost,” Sarah admitted.
“Then you were just seventeen when you came to us, were you not? An age when most young ladies of your class are enjoying their first London Season and trying to catch a husband.”
Sarah couldn’t quite prevent the curl of her lip or the echo of the old hurt. “My parents did not feel I would compete well on the marriage mart. They sent me abroad with my aunt and uncle in the hope the experience would give me a little…polish.”
“Did it?” Lady Whitmore asked innocently.
Sarah laughed. “In all honesty, no. But it did open my eyes to many things, mainly my own ignorance. I realized there was more to the world than climbing trees and doing exactly what I wished. I learned what I liked to do and what I was good at – singing. And I realized I needed to broaden my mind as well as my accomplishments. Somewhere along the way, I heard of Whitmore, and when we came home, I asked Hammy to investigate for me. I am here with my parents’ permission, although I suspect they tell their friends I am still abroad.”
“Interesting,” Lady Whitmore murmured.
Saunders, the dignified butler, opened the doors once more. “Dinner is served, Your Grace.”
Again, Sarah had to swallow back her curiosity as they rose and accompanied Lady Whitmore to a dining room that was not the huge banqueting hall Sarah expected, but a pleasant, comfortable room with another charming view of the sea under the darkening sky.
“I prefer to dine here with my guests,” Lady Whitmore said. “Since comfort is so much more important than formality.”
The servants withdrew after serving each course, which added further to the sense of intimacy. At first, Lady Whitmore’s conversation was impersonal and pleasantly humorous. Only when the fish course had been cleared away and a game pie set before them, did their hostess ask Sarah, “So, have you found what you wanted to at Whitmore?”
“Yes, I believe I have. And I fear we shall be leaving quite soon.”
“We shall miss you. Might I ask what you intend to do?”
“Go back to the real world,” Sarah said wryly, “and implement my new…knowledge.”
Lady Whitmore raised one intrigued eyebrow. “In what way?”
“In the way I always meant to.”
Lady Whitmore, who ate sparingly, laid down her knife and fork. “I would be honored to know what that is. As you may have guessed, I like to help my guests when I can, even when they leave us. Of course, you are under no obligation to reveal anything, but I have watched you grow and blossom here, and I hope I may be of some use to you. I know who you are, of course, but not the true motivation behind your long stay with us.”
Sarah shifted uncomfortably and reached for her wine. Without lifting the glass, she said, “I believe I am afraid to lose your good opinion. You will think me petty, and perhaps you are right, but I came to prove something to myself and to my family. And to…a certain high-ranking gentleman.”
“Perhaps you should begin at the beginning,” Lady Whitmore said calmly. “Which is that you were born Lady Sarah Merrington, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Drimmen.”
Sarah inclined her head with mock pride. “I shall not bore you with the story of my life! It will bring back too many horrible memories for poor Hammy here. I was something of a wild child. My brothers and sisters were much older, and so I played with local children at Merrin Park – the family estate where I was largely brought up. Most of my friends were village boys and farmers’ sons. One day, when I was about sixteen, my parents noticed me and were appalled. They decided I should learn to be a lady, and poor Hammy tried again to drum some manners and etiquette into me.”
“She could behave very well when she chose,” Hammy put in.
Sarah cast her a quick, apologetic smile. “Well, it made Hammy unhappy when I behaved badly, so I tried not to. Then, before I was even out, my parents arranged a possible – and brilliant – match for me. With the high-ranking gentleman I mentioned before.” She sipped the wine thoughtfully and set down the glass. “I should probably say that I had seen my older sisters make advantageous matches that made them neither happy nor interesting people, so I resolved that if I was to marry the duke, he would have to like me as I am.”
“Which is to say a wild, self-willed bur caring child?” Lady Whitmore suggested.
Sarah blinked in surprise at the last epithet, though Hammy said warmly, “Exactly.”
Sarah shrugged. “So, the day he came to Merrin Park, I hid up a tree and watched for his arrival. I threw crab apples at his carriage as it drove through the grounds. The coachman was furious with me and stopped especially to tell me off.”
“Did you throw an apple at him, too?” Lady Whitmore inquired.
“No, I was running short of apples and was saving them for the duke, who eventually stepped down himself. Surprisingly, he seemed more amused than anything else.” Sarah paused, remembering her first sight of Leonard Blackmore, the young Duke of Vexen. The world had tilted with only half-understood excitement, for he was not staid and self-important at all. He was tall and handsome with laughing eyes and a mouth very ready to smile.
“Did you throw the apple at him?” Lady Whitmore asked.
Sarah smiled. “I did. Knocked his hat off, too. But he just picked it up, and the next two apples I threw, he caught in the hat. Then he sent the carriage on and climbed up the tree. For a moment, I thought he’d come to punish the impudent village girl, but he didn’t. I told him who I was, and he laughed and sat on the branch beside me.”
“He sounds…fun,” Lady Whitmore said as Sarah stopped talking to eat.
“He was,” Sarah replied, when she had swallowed. “In fact, we got on so well that I resolved to be on my best behavior for the rest of his visit. I dressed in my finest gown for dinner, even let the maid curl my hair, and then went to my parents and told them I would do it. I would marry the duke.”
She paused again, trying not to feel the hurt and humiliation she had known two years ago. The hard, little shell of anger and vengeance saved her once more. “He had already left Merrin Park. He told my father he could not consider marriage with me because I was a hoyden, that he needed a well-bred and cultured wife fit for the best drawing rooms in Europe.”
Lady Whitmore blinked. “That seems a shocking turnaround from the man who climbed a tree to laugh and joke with you.”
Sarah shrugged carelessly. “Apparently, I was amusing enough for outdoor entertainment but not fit for his drawing room.”
Lady Whitmore sat back in her chair, while the servants came in and cleared the game pie away. They brought in deserts and again departed.
“And so, you decided to become what he wanted?” Lady Whitmore guessed. “What your family wanted. A young lady of culture and accomplishment who outshines all others?”
“More or less.”
“Just so that he will marry you?” Lady Whitmore said with a hint of pity.
Sarah laughed. “Oh, dear me, no. So that he will beg me on bended knee to marry him. And fully appreciate the humiliation of rejection.”