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Project Duchess

Project Duchess

Duke Dynasty, Book 1
Coming June 25, 2019

From New York Times bestselling author Sabrina Jeffries comes a sparkling new series about an oft-widowed mother’s grown children, who blaze through society in their quest for the truth about their fathers . . . and in the process find that love just might conquer all . . .

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A series of stepfathers and a difficult childhood have left Fletcher “Grey” Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, with a guarded heart, enviable wealth, and the undeserved reputation of a rogue. Grey’s focus on expanding his dukedom allows him little time to find a wife. But when his mother is widowed yet again and he meets the charmingly unconventional woman managing his stepfather’s funeral, he’s shocked to discover how much they have in common. Still, Grey isn’t interested in love, no matter how pretty, or delightfully outspoken, the lady…

Beatrice Wolfe gave up on romance long ago, and the arrogant Duke of Greycourt with his rakish reputation isn’t exactly changing her mind. Then Grey agrees to assist his grief-stricken mother with her latest “project”: schooling spirited, unfashionable Beatrice for her debut. Now that Beatrice is seeing through Grey’s charms to his wounded heart, she’s having trouble keeping him at arm’s length. But once Grey starts digging into her family’s secrets, she must decide whether her loyalties lie with her family . . . or with the man whose lessons capture her heart . . .

Excerpt

Beatrice Wolfe stalked down the path, all too aware of His Grace, the Duke of Greycourt coming along behind her with the pointers. He was probably laughing at his clever bon mots and what he surely saw as his winning ways. Not to mention his ability to get on the good side of her dogs.

The blasted traitorous curs. Of course they would like him. He was as bad as they. “Turn a lady up sweet,” indeed. He thought he could wrap her about his finger just by charming her pointers, did he? It wouldn’t work.

But she grudgingly admitted that few dukes would accept a tongue-lashing from a dog without blinking an eye. Well, other than Sheridan, who was newly minted and unfamiliar with the rules of being a duke.

Why, she doubted even Thornstock would carry treats for the lads in his greatcoat pocket. Or, for that matter, take the time to help his mother with her “latest project,” even if he were inclined to do so, which, Thornstock had made clear last night, he was not.

Greycourt’s interest in her as a “project” didn’t make any sense, although she finally began to understand why people gossiped about him in London. His seductive glances alone could start rumors swirling.

Suddenly, she realized there was silence behind her. She turned to see the duke some distance back, waiting patiently as Hero relieved himself in the leaves.

Speaking of luring a woman, now she had Greycourt’s bargain to entice her. The very idea of always saying what she thought without apology was invigorating. No rules when she was around him. No chiding looks. It sent a thrill down her spine to think of just . . . being herself with such a man. She wasn’t even herself with his mother or Sheridan.

He caught her looking at him and smiled. Lord, he was handsome in his many-caped greatcoat left casually open to reveal a stark black mourning suit, white shirt, and black cravat. Not to mention his hat trimmed with grosgrain ribbon and his shiny black hessians that showed him to be the height of fashion, especially for Sanforth. Why must he be so very attractive? It simply wasn’t fair.

“Where do these woods lead?” he asked.

“Down to the river that skirts the property.”

“Ah yes.” He shifted his gaze to the dogs. “The river where Maurice drowned.”

There it was again: the odd way he had of addressing his stepfather by his Christian name.

“Why don’t you call him ‘Father’ like the others do?” she asked.

His jaw tautened. “Because he’s not my father.”

“He’s not the twins’ father, either, but they call him ‘Father.’”

“They weren’t sent away by him at the age of ten.” He ground out a curse. “Forgive me, I didn’t intend to malign the memory of—”

“I thought we weren’t going to apologize for saying what we meant.”

He smiled thinly. “Right. I forgot.”

“And your rule was that we wouldn’t reveal to anyone else what was said in these conversations. So feel free to malign his memory if it makes you feel better.” Especially if it helped her to understand the undercurrents that eddied between him and his half siblings.

“That would never make me feel better. I admired my stepfather.” He returned his gaze to the dogs. “But I only knew him as that for a few years. I was five when he married my mother, and ten when I left home.”

“I thought boys didn’t go to Eton until thirteen.”

“I . . . er . . . didn’t go to Eton right away. I went to live with my aunt and uncle in Hampshire.”

“And why is that?”

He shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him. But his hand gripping the leash said otherwise.

“So it’s to be a guessing game, is it?” she teased, remembering their first meeting.

His baleful gaze shot to her. “It’s a boring tale.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that? You did say you wanted us to get to know each other.”

Calculation flashed in his eyes. “Fine. I’ll tell you. If you show me the bridge where my stepfather died.”

She ventured a soft smile. “I understand. Gravesites themselves mean nothing to me, either. I wanted to be at the last place my father was on earth. I couldn’t, of course, since no one would tell me where the duel occurred, but I used to imagine that if I could go there, I might find his spirit lurking about, waiting to impart some last profound message.” She looked down at her hands. “It’s silly, I know.”

“Not the least silly.” He came toward her, the dogs finally having finished their business. “‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”

She fell into step beside him. “You’re a lover of Shakespeare?”

“More of a connoisseur. I like the major works and, within those, the best lines.” He smiled faintly at her. “Not that I had a choice. The whole playwright thing, remember? Mother does love her plays. We often acted out scenes in my youth.” His gaze turned searching. “And speaking of mothers, you never mention yours. Dare I ask why?”

“My mother died bearing me, I’m afraid.”

Pity flashed in his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I never knew her, so I never realized what I was missing. And I had my grandmother to look after me until Joshua returned from the war.”

“Then you started looking after him.

“Yes, I . . .” It suddenly dawned on her what Grey was doing. She stared him down. “You’re very adept, sir, at shifting the conversation away from yourself. We were supposed to be talking about you and why you returned to England at ten.”

He shot her a rueful glance. “You noticed that maneuver, did you?”

“My brother used to be a master at it. Now he doesn’t even bother to use a strategy—he just grunts and growls and expects me to leave him be. You’re more polite at it while essentially doing the same thing. So let’s return to the subject of how you ended up back in England so young.”

Reining Hector in before the pointer could dart after a hare, Grey released a long breath. “My father died when I was a babe. He left behind a will that named his only brother, Eustace, as my guardian. Fortunately for me, my uncle preferred to leave me with my mother. For a while, anyway.”

“Oh? What changed all that?”

His mood darkened so dramatically that even the dogs noticed and came up to nuzzle his hand. He rubbed their heads idly to reassure them before going on.

“After my cousin Vanessa was born, my aunt was told she could have no more children. Which meant that my uncle had no heir to his estate or even to mine,  if something happened to me. So he exercised his guardianship rights, went to Berlin to fetch me, and brought me back to England to be taught by him to run the dukedom.”

The hard tone of his voice whenever he mentioned his uncle told her there was more to the story. She tested out that theory. “How selfless of your uncle to take that on when he wouldn’t benefit from it.”

“Selfless,” he said in an acid tone. “Right.”

“Did you not think him selfless?”

He shot her a cold glance. “I answered your question, Beatrice. That should suffice.”

Hardly. But she let it go, and instead focused on another aspect of his tale. “Did you ever go back to Berlin to visit your family?”

“No. Either I was too young or the Revolution prevented me from traveling through France to get there or I was in school or . . . There was always some reason I couldn’t go, some reason they couldn’t come here.”

Oh, the poor boy. “So essentially you were orphaned at ten, as surely as if they’d died.”

His gaze sharpened on her. “You’re the first person to see it like that. Everyone else outside my family considers me lucky to have been allowed to return to almighty England before Napoleon came to power.”

Her heart ached for him. She couldn’t imagine being uprooted from her home and forced to live with people she barely knew. “When you came here, did you have memories of your uncle and aunt to reassure you? Or of being in England before?”

“Not really.” He mused a moment. “I barely remember my mother’s second husband, who was Thorn’s father. I do recall making a fuss about my naptime the day of Mother’s wedding to Maurice. And I remember my grandmother a bit, since she took charge of me at the wedding reception. I have a few vague memories of playing in the garden at Thornstock Castle. I fell and split my chin open on a paving stone.” He lifted his chin to show her. “There’s a scar that’s too faint to see. But you can feel it. Here, I’ll show you.”

He halted so he could tuck the leashes under his arm and take her hand to draw off her glove. Then he pressed her fingers to his chin in an act so intimate that she caught her breath.

But it wasn’t a trick or a sneaky way to catch a look down her gown or press against her chest. Grey was a gentleman. Nothing like her sly uncle.

She could tell because he kept his eyes, now green in the muted forest light, on her. “I do . . . feel a bit of a scar.” She also felt the faint roughness of his shaved whiskers and the tautening of his jaw at her touch.

Oh, Lord. This was unwise.

Hastily she dropped her hand, retrieved her glove, and donned it once more. Then she walked on, her pulse doing a mad dance.

When he followed her and began to speak again, his voice sounded ragged. “Anyway, I guess my nursemaid was woolgathering that day.”

“She must have been, to allow the little duke to hurt himself.”

He continued beside her a few moments in a silence only punctured by the crackle of leaves beneath their feet and the snuffling of the dogs as they examined every inch of the trail.

“It’s odd, but I don’t remember the nursemaid at all.” Then he lightened his tone. “Though I do remember our nanny in Berlin. She was a stout German widow who enjoyed sweets . . . and loved sharing them with us. We adored her.”

She matched his light tone. “Who wouldn’t adore a steady supply of sweets?”

He snorted. “When Mother found out, she was apoplectic and made Father admonish Nanny to not give us so many.”

She pounced on that. “So you do call your stepfather ‘Father’ sometimes.”

“I suppose I do,” he said ruefully. “I always did when I was a boy. I just . . . After they sent me away, I . . .”

“Resented them for doing so. I can only imagine. Berlin was your home.”

A soft smile crossed his lips. “Exactly.”

“And I take it you didn’t like your aunt and uncle here very much?”

The smile faded. “No.”

When he offered nothing else, she took pity on him and picked up the thread of conversation. “I understand. As I’m sure you deduced from the other night, I was the same age as you when my father died. It’s a difficult age to lose a parent. Or both parents, in your case.”

Still, he said nothing. Apparently, his tales of being a child in Berlin were over.

“But I did have my grandparents,” she went on, “whom I adored every bit as much as you did your nanny. Although sadly they weren’t as generous with the sweets.”

That seemed to crack his reserve. “A grievous fault in any guardian of children, to be sure.” He slanted a glance at her. “What about your brother? How did he feel about your grandparents?”

She shrugged. “He liked them well enough, I suppose. But he never really lived with them. Joshua is five years older than I, so Grandfather bought him a commission in the Royal Marines after he turned sixteen, then packed him off to the Continent.”

“You lost your brother and father in one fell swoop?” he asked, sympathy in his voice.

“Pretty much.” She searched his face. “Rather like your losing your entire family in one fell swoop, only to have them supplanted by strangers.”

He merely nodded, then quickened his pace. “So, how far is this bridge, anyway?”

The man could be decidedly uncommunicative. Perhaps it was a characteristic of dukes.

They’d walked a few more steps in silence when she felt something give way in her half-boot. One of her laces had broken.

“Blast it all!” she cried. Recently she’d noticed it was fraying and had been meaning to replace it, but not soon enough.

Then she realized she’d cursed aloud. In front of the duke.

But instead of disapproving, he burst into laughter. “You have a very colorful vocabulary, madam.”

She blushed to the roots of her hair. “That’s what happens when one spends all one’s time around men who don’t govern their language.”

“Not my stepfather, I hope.”

“No. Just Joshua and Uncle Armie.” She sighed. “When I said bad words as a child, Grandmama used to frown and say I was as naughty a saucebox as Papa had been. I do try to watch my language. I just don’t always succeed.”

He chuckled. “What made you fail this time?”

She pointed to her boot. “I’ve broken a lace.”

“Ah.” He followed the direction of her finger. “So you have.”

She gazed up at him hopefully. “I don’t suppose you have any extra laces or even string in those capacious pockets of yours?”

“Sadly, no. But I do have a cravat.”

“What good will that do?”

“I’ll show you.”

He led her to a fallen oak trunk, tugging the dogs along with him. Handing her the leashes, he removed his greatcoat and spread it over the massive log with the outside down. Then he began to unknot his cravat. “Sit here and remove your shoe with the broken lace.”

“I can walk with it like this. I’ll merely have to go more slowly.”

“Nonsense. You could easily turn your ankle if your boot is ill-laced, especially on this uneven ground.”

She was used to always having to look after her own needs, to manage under difficult circumstances. It felt odd to have a gentleman being so solicitous of her. “Truly, there’s no need for you to sully your—”

“Sit!” he said firmly.

All three dogs dropped onto their haunches. The startled look on the duke’s face tickled her so much that she burst into laughter. After a second, Grey joined in, while the dogs sat patiently, waiting for the next command.

“As I said,” Grey remarked once he stopped laughing, “the hounds are very well trained.”

“They ought to be. I trained them.” When he blinked, she said, “Don’t look so astonished. We don’t have the luxury of hiring a man to do it. As it is, MacTilly’s hands are full with the feeding and breeding, and Joshua’s hands are full with managing the rest of the gamekeeper’s duties. So I help where I can.” She scratched Hector’s head. “I trained these three fellows myself.”

“I see.” Grey waved his hand at the log. “If you would please take a seat . . .”

“What, have you given up on commanding me like the dogs?” she quipped.

“Beatrice, I beg of you to sit down,” he said, his tone a bit testy.

That only made her want to tease him more, though she did at least perch on his coat before saying, “Whatever Your Grace wishes.”

“Watch it, minx, or I will hold you to that one day. And given your recalcitrant nature, that won’t end well.”

“Me! I’m no more recalcitrant than you.”

“True.” He knelt on one knee to remove her boot, then took her stockinged foot and set it on his other knee.

His hand lingered on her ankle, the warmth of his fingers practically searing her through the stockinet. Yet it could not have been more than a second before he moved his hand away to focus on unlacing the half-boot he now held in both hands.

By propping her foot up, he was merely behaving as a gentleman who didn’t wish her to ruin her stockings on the leaf-littered ground. She was certain of that. Still, there was something very intimate about having her heel resting on his thigh. His very muscular thigh.

But he didn’t seem to notice the impropriety of it, even when the dogs began whining, as if to chide him. He merely knelt there and worked on her boot without appearing to be remotely concerned that his cravat hung loose, exposing part of his neck and throat.

Both of which fascinated her. She wished she could reach out and touch his prominent Adam’s apple. Or perhaps the hollow below it, which seemed wonderfully formed for placing one’s lips—

She dragged her gaze away. Lord, but it was suddenly warm in the woods. She forced herself to focus on how he was now re-lacing her boot with the shortened lace.

“That’s not going to work,” she said. “The lace broke too low.”

“I know.”

He pulled his cravat from about his neck, drawing her attention back to that lovely expanse of bared male flesh. Then he slid her boot on and began to wrap his cravat tightly—but not too tightly—about her ankle, starting at the bottom near her foot and working his way up to beneath the leather cuff, where he tied it off.

Dear Lord. Lifting her gaze to his face, she colored as she saw him watching her.

“See something you like?” he asked in a low rumble.

And as usual when she was taken off guard, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. “Why? Do you?”

She’d intended it to come out as cold and sarcastic, but instead it sounded like a throaty invitation, even to her ears.

And she knew he’d heard it when his eyes darkened, then dropped to fix on her lips. “Yes. Definitely yes.”

Devil take it, she should never have said such a thing. What must he think of her? What would he—

Her thoughts shattered as he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.

Lord save her, he was kissing her. The Duke of blasted Greycourt himself was kissing her! And it wasn’t like anything she’d have expected. His kiss was light, tentative, as if he waited for her to push him away.

But she was incapable of that. Oh, heavens, the feel of his mouth covering hers, tasting and testing as if to determine how soft were her lips, was a heady sensation unlike any other.

And who could have known that a kiss one actually desired could be so . . . intoxicating? That smelling his spicy cologne would make her heart flip over? That feeling his hand slide behind her neck to hold her still would not only not alarm her but spur a wild need to rise through her body and clamor for more?

Half in a trance, she let the dogs’ leashes slip from her fingers so she could place her hand on Grey’s shoulder, accidentally knocking off his hat. He didn’t seem to notice. With a guttural moan, he pulled her forward a little, forcing her foot to fall off his knee. Then his lips were coaxing hers open, and his tongue was sliding into her mouth.

This joining of lips and mouths and tongues was amazing—unfamiliar and a bit unusual, but enjoyable nonetheless. Her hand slipped down to his chest, and the feel of his heart pounding through the fabric beneath her fingers incited her to be bold, to twirl her tongue with his and throw herself into the conflagration he’d ignited in her body.

So this was what it was like to be kissed, truly kissed.

Suddenly, she felt something tugging her arm away. At first, she thought it was Grey, but when she then felt another something snuffling her hand, she realized what it was.

The dogs. They were jealous or bored or wanted attention.

Whatever the case, it meant this delicious interval was over. And judging from how the duke pulled away and muttered a curse under his breath, it was over for good.

He rose and took a step back, raking his fingers through his hair. “Forgive me, Miss Wolfe. That was most rude of me, and I swear it will never happen again.”

The way he loomed over her made her self-conscious—that, and the fact that he was calling her Miss Wolfe again and behaving as if the kiss was a mistake. It hadn’t felt like a mistake. Perhaps if she’d thought of it as a prelude to something else, she would realize how unwise it had been, but she’d been thinking of it more as a delightful experiment. One she wouldn’t mind repeating.

Which apparently was never going to happen.

With a word to the dogs to stop their grousing, she grabbed their leashes and stood, smoothing her skirts as she struggled to keep her thoughts to herself. “I thought you and I agreed never to apologize to each other, Your Grace.”

“For what we say, not what we do,” he bit out. “I’m not the sort of man to kiss a woman I’ve only known for two days.”

“I understand,” she said, desperate to halt the insulting flow of his words before the wounds he was casually inflicting succeeded in reaching her heart.

“No, I don’t think you do. I’d never intentionally take advantage of—”

“Was it that awful?” she snapped, unable to contain herself any longer. “Am I that incapable of pleasing a man like you?”

He blinked at her, then swore under his breath. “It wasn’t remotely awful. You far exceeded my expectations in that respect, trust me.”

Well. That eased the pressure in her chest. A little.

“Then why are you apologizing?” she asked, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “I don’t regret it. Why should you?”

He blew out a breath. “Because I had no right.”

A sudden thought came into her head that was so awful she of course blurted it right out. “You’re engaged to another.”

“No! No, I’m not betrothed to anyone.”

She stared at him, trying to make sense of his behavior. Then she forced a light smile to her lips. “It was merely a kiss, not a profession of undying love. Rest assured I would never expect a man of your wealth and rank to consider marrying the orphaned daughter of a scandalous scapegrace—the impoverished sister of a gamekeeper—merely because we have relations in common.”

“We are not remotely related,” he growled.

He would point that out, if only to torment her further. “Not by blood, no. But we have mutual connections who might wish . . . who would prefer . . .” Lord, she was babbling. “My point is, I’m not that much of a fool. It’s as I told you at dinner two nights ago: I’m not looking to make a splash in society. I merely hope to find some vicar or physician in need of a circumspect wife.”

His features darkened. “Because you are nothing if not ‘circumspect,’” he said acidly.

Her blood ran cold. How dared the man get angry at her? He was the one who’d just fallen all over himself trying to explain why he hadn’t meant anything by their kiss.

She was gearing up to give him a piece of her mind when the dogs fortunately began tugging on the leashes.

“You’re welcome to think what you want,” she said, tossing off the words with what she thought was admirable nonchalance, “but do it while we walk. The rascals are growing restless, and I assume you still wish to see the bridge. So unless you want Mr. MacTilly wondering what the devil has happened to me, we should go on.”

He caught her by the arm before she could leave. “Beatrice, I didn’t mean to insult you.”

Oh, Lord, if he kept talking one more minute she was going to cry, and she never cried. “There was no insult, Grey. Honestly, you’re placing far more significance on one kiss than is warranted.”

He searched her face as if trying to ascertain her true feelings. And that would not do. Pasting a falsely pleasant smile to her lips, she tugged her arm from his grip so she could gesture toward the path. “Shall we?”

After picking up his hat and dusting it off, he murmured, “Ladies—and dogs—first.”

Great. Now, he wanted to play the gentleman.

Holding her head high, she stalked up the trail ahead of him. Let him play the gentleman if he pleased. But next time he gave her his melting look and lowered his mouth to hers, she wouldn’t be so complacent. Clearly, he wasn’t a gentleman, but another version of her uncle, or for that matter, her dogs. Grey might be more polite and his attentions might be more subtle and inviting, but in the end, she was still just the object of his illicit desires and naught else.

She’d had enough of that to last her a lifetime.