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Excerpt for Devil Take the Duke (Lords of the Night Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Devil Take the Duke



Lords of the Night

Book two







Sandra Sookoo

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information retrieval and storage system without permission of the author.



Ebooks are not transferrable, either in whole or in part. As the purchaser or otherwise lawful recipient of this ebook, you have the right to enjoy the novel on your own computer or other device. Further distribution, copying, sharing, gifting or uploading is illegal and violates United States Copyright laws.



Pirating of ebooks is illegal. Criminal Copyright Infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, may be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.



DEVIL TAKE THE DUKE © 2019

by Sandra Sookoo

sandrasookoo@yahoo.com

Visit me at www.sandrasookoo.com



Published by Blue Tulip Publishing

http://www.bluetulippublishing.com/



ISBN-



Edited by: Angie Eads and Heather Garcia



Book Cover Design by David Sookoo



Couple:– Hot Damn Stock

Background images: Deposit Photos



First Digital Edition: 2019

Dedication



To my husband David. Thank you for your unwavering support and encouragement, on the high days and the low ones. You are now, and always will be, my hero.

Acknowledgements



There is much work that goes into putting out a book, and while the author spends the bulk of that time alone, locked away with their computer and their characters, there are times when it’s essential that friends and readers have a bit of input. I’d like to thank the following people and Facebook friends for all their help and input on various topics while this book was in the writing stage:



For help in choosing what sort of paranormals will inhabit my Lords of the Night series:



Gwen Phifer, Resa Haile, JJ Nite, Alexa Dare, Cate Peace, Beth Caudill, Tammie King, Penny Elliott, Evita Perez, Lindsay Downs





For help in picking a title:



Cindy Bartolotta. Lucinda Poette, Michele Miller, Anna McLain, Kay Springsteen Tate, Gail Hart, Beverly Ross, Heather Garcia, Colleen Thompson, Talina Perkins, Mary Dieterich, Penny Elliott, Christine Warner, Amy Valentini,

Jennifer Gryner Coleman, Lori Farner Dykes, Donna Antonio, Mary Anne Landers, Angie Eads, Michele Jensen, Jessica Coulter Smith



And finally, to all the staff at Blue Tulip Publishing. You have taken my career to the next level and have opened another avenue for me so I can continue my writing journey, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Thank you.

Blurb



He accepts her but doesn’t love her... Donovan James Arthur Sinclair, 8th duke of Manchester, is cursed to roam the Earth as a wolf-shifter. He doesn’t mind the beast most days, for the life of a duke is quite splendid, but it is trying if he’s honest with himself. When he saves a country miss from an out-of-control carriage in a rural village, it occurs to him that he might be wrong.



She loves him but cannot accept what he truly is... Miss Alice Morrowe, is blind and firmly on the shelf, unloved and unwanted by nearly everyone she’s ever met. While she’s happy with her life, she wants acceptance for who she is. When she is thrown to the ground in a tangle of limbs by a very naked man amidst a thunder of hooves, she cannot help but wonder if her life is about to change.



A marriage of convenience that’s anything but... In her, Donovan sees a way to break his curse if he can seduce her into love. In him, Alice finds solace and the thrill of romance. She’s only too happy to wed him and grasp a life she’s always wanted, but is her love what he needs to banish the beast within? Emotions run high when things don’t turn out the way they’ve each planned. Only discovering truth and genuine love can bring clarity, hope… and happily ever after.





The Legend of the Cursed Lords





At least a hundred years ago, a handful of irreverent, spoiled lords had their way with female gypsy travelers in the countryside of England. In a fit of spoiled, drunken revelry, they set fire to a wagon and laughed as it burned while the remainder of the caravan fled in terror. That vehicle was owned by an ancient witch, existing through the years from the magic flowing through her veins. She took high exception to the destruction, as well as the uncaring attitudes of those English lords, and under the light of a full moon, the gypsy witch brought forth a powerful curse onto those unfortunate men.



From here to eternity, you will never know peace, never live the life of a full human man. You will always be a slave to the shifter, the beast, or anomaly within. All women who look upon your face will turn away in disgust, for in moments of high emotion, they will see the truth; there is no hiding from that. You will be held in terror once your secret is revealed—for tell them you must. And though you might marry, you are destined for the coldness of a joyless union, unless you find the very heart and secret of life. You will carry the burden alone, for this curse will only belong to you and cannot be transferred or shared with a mate.



But I am benevolent, men with no hearts, no morals, and less feelings. Every five years, during one full moon each quarter, the curse might be broken, if you are wise enough to come out of the shadows and see the error of your ways. Beneath the light of that one full moon when the kiss of unselfish, pure love crosses your lips, and pride, fear, and ego falls, then you might know the freedom of living as a full human with your affliction broken and your offspring unhindered. For yes, unless the curse lifts, any male children you might have will suffer too.



Tread carefully, accursed ones, else you will forever go through life cold, unloved, feared, and isolated.



To this day, those men are referred to as the Cursed Lords of England—the Lords of the Night—and until they find themselves hopelessly and helplessly in love so deep that they cannot survive without winning the heart of their lady, they are doomed to walk the earth hand in hand with their beastly halves, alone.











CHAPTER ONE





September 11, 1815

Shalford, near Guildford, Surrey, England



The chill of the early autumn ground seeped into his paws while the crisp air ruffled through the thick fur on his back as he ran.

Donovan James Arthur Sinclair, 8th duke of Manchester, crested a small hill and loped to a halt. Illumination from a half moon filtered through the tree leaves, frosting everything on the ground faintly with silver. Each blade of grass, each leaf, each groove in tree trunks was thrown into sharp relief. He threw back his wolf head, filled his canine lungs with air, and then let out a wild howl that echoed throughout the countryside.

As his hackles rose with anticipation, he bounded into movement once more. Every muscle in his body bunched and released as he ran. His claws dug into the soft earth with each footfall. Snout to the ground, he snuffled for the scent of prey through a few dry, fallen leaves and rotting vegetation.

On nights like this he felt at one with his beastly half, and when the freedom of running overtook him, he could ignore the curse that sent him shifting into the wolf every night.

As his tongue lolled out of his slightly gaping jaws, the sharp metallic taste of blood hit his palate. He’d recently killed a deer to assuage his hunger, and though his belly was full, the urge to hunt still raged, for it also amused him, and he hadn’t run all the way to Surrey from London for nothing. No doubt there were still a few animals for him to bedevil. A trip that would take a few hours by carriage, he accomplished in nearly sixty minutes.

There’s something to be said for becoming the beast within.

His wolf half howled into his mind with a sound he interpreted as laughter. Let me always be like this. Running free as the beast.

Donovan uttered a snort. I beg to differ with you. I rather enjoy my human form.

As a duke, he was afforded certain privileges that other men of the ton didn’t possess. At a position just beneath royalty, he maintained a lofty title, had accumulated two fortunes of his own in his lifetime through clever investments and the sweat of hard work, and he had only to arch an eyebrow or crook a finger if he desired a woman’s company in his bed. He wanted for nothing; his existence unfettered by demands of a spouse or children.

A twinge moved through his innards. Children that he’d been careful not to father for fear that males would be cursed as well and further besmirch his name through society. If the line stopped with him, so be it, but he refused to have anyone else trapped by shifter blood for something they—or he, or hell, even his grandfather—didn’t do.

I’m not that selfish.

He snickered. But he was selfish enough to live only for his pleasure. He was a duke, after all, and it was his God-given right. Life was perfect, or it would be if not for the damn curse he’d struggled with every day of his five and thirty years, fought against the whims of the beast within. He narrowed his wolfish eyes. Just like seven dukes of the same title before him, he’d had no choice except to submit to the demands of his beast when the desire to shift came upon him.

But he made damn certain to keep tight control on that aspect of his life. He refused to kill people, and in that, at least the shift remained civilized, for he’d learned much about himself during his stint in fighting Napoleon. In those years, he’d allowed the beast free reign. The wolf had killed many French; it was war after all. Afterward he’d despised himself even more for what he’d done, and he’d vowed to never again let the wolf override his human logic and thinking.

Being cursed was his lot, and he attempted to make the best of it, even if he hated it at times, but he didn’t need to reduce himself to a beastly mentality. If he didn’t have his wolf, he’d never know the joy of running through the English countryside or the freedom found with escaping the confines of London and the responsibilities that came with the title.

Those that were still valid in the places where he was accepted and not black-listed. Another “benefit” that came with the curse.

He pushed such thoughts from his head. Almost dawn, light had begun to break at the horizon, and those gold and lavender glimmers reminded him that he’d need to turn about soon and return to London if he didn’t wish to be seen as the beast, or worse, naked as he reclaimed his human form.

Stay longer. It is good here, nice for me. Quiet. There is the scent of goodness, of nature.

Donovan quelled the urge to roll his eyes. And London is nice for me. We’re going home. He might be bound to the animal, but that didn’t mean he had to live like one. London could be loud, dirty at times, and crowded, but it was his home.

His wolf remained silent, no doubt in high dudgeon. Amused, he continued his run, intent on cutting through the sleepy village of Shalford before turning back toward the capital. Following the River Tillingbourne, he snuffled along the shallow banks as he came into the small village proper. As he trotted past a grain mill with its water wheel, he had to admit the setting was quaint, if one liked that sort of thing, but he couldn’t imagine cooling his heels in such rustication. Hell, he rarely visited his own country estate, Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. What was the point?

Much room to run there.

Yet there is little entertainment, he silently reminded his canine counterpart.

His wolf whined. There is more to life than that.

If there was, Donovan didn’t wish to know.

Minutes later, he hit a dirt road that led into what would be a bustling area later in the morning. The tiny commerce section left much to be desired and featured a handful of businesses, namely a bakery, a butcher, a sundry shop, a musty-looking bookseller, and a few more he couldn’t bring himself to take an interest in. What amusement could such a village offer him that London couldn’t top?

Tiring of the pedestrian place, Donovan made his way off the path in favor of following the tree line, and just as he ducked into the foliage, a woman appeared from the direction of the water mill. Bored, but having nothing else to occupy his time, he sat on his haunches while the shrubbery obscured him, and settled in to observe, for a woman was a woman regardless of location.

And he wouldn’t be a red-blooded male if he didn’t appreciate her form.

Her simple day dress of unappealing lightweight gray wool neither hid nor showcased a figure. The fabric rippled in the breeze and occasionally would outline the length of a leg as she walked. A knitted shawl of ivory concealed her upper half, and for that he uttered a soft whine of annoyance. Such a disappointment, hiding one’s bosom with modesty. Those charms were but one asset that made women delightfully delicious. Plus, the rather ugly bonnet trimmed in faded navy ribbons obscured her hair and face.

Damnation. There’d be no fanaticizing this morning. No woolgathering either, for he did adore imagining the slow undress of a woman in his mind. Bedding members of the opposite sex provided entertainment in a world of ennui he’d sunk into, and who was he to turn away the opportunity to slake his desires if the female was willing?

Inside his head, his wolf snorted. Tiresome females. Bed you out of curiosity, desire your coin, wish the fame of being with you, for you are forbidden.

The words had the same effect as having a bucket of icy water thrown in the face. Do shut up. Yes, his title as well as a handful of other “accursed lords” had been black-listed throughout the ton even though they were titles of long-standing. He and his contemporaries were not granted admission to Almack’s nor were they given invitations to the most popular events during the Season, for if there was anything the lauded patronesses and sponsors in society liked more than exuding power it was indulging in gossip and rumors.

Not that it mattered, for he and his friends had created a rather tight social network of their own, including an exclusive risqué gentleman’s club. The proper circles of the ton could go hang for all he cared. I prefer my women on the scandalous side, and the more experienced with bedsport, the better.

His wolf chuffed in his mind. The female is in peril. It was said in a matter-of-fact tone. We must help.

The devil you say. Donovan snapped his full attention back to the ordinary woman on the country lane. From the opposite direction, a curricle raced down the road at breakneck speed. Its driver, still dressed in dark evening clothes that were rather rumpled, held the reins in lax hands, his expression somewhat green about the gills. No doubt a hungover lord driving without care. Bastard. Yet, there had been many times he, himself, had acted the same when he’d escaped a married woman’s bed minutes ahead of her husband returning home.

No matter that the curricle’s wheels crunched and rattled against the ruts and stones in the road, the woman didn’t glance up. She kept her gaze on the ground.

Damn it all. Donovan loped from his hiding spot. He headed in her direction at a run, his heart pounding. Why didn’t she pay attention?

Inside his head, the wolf whined. You aren’t the hero type. A certain amount of sarcasm dripped from the comment.

Don’t remind me of my shortcomings, and I’m not playing the hero. Even you can agree we cannot stand idly by and let the woman be trampled. Rarely did he concern himself with the affairs of anyone else, and philanthropy or charity wasn’t his style. Why should he care when no one showed the same consideration for him? In fact, he’d made rather a habit of remaining aloof and out of the public, for if society didn’t accept him, he didn’t need them.

When the driver of the curricle shouted as his vehicle quickly raced toward her, she finally lifted her head, but though she looked in the direction of the out-of-control equipage, she still didn’t alter her course.

Why won’t she bloody move? Regardless that the curricle’s driver pulled hard at the reins, his forward momentum wouldn’t enable him to stop in time. Donovan pushed himself into a determined sprint. As the carriage bore down upon her location, he jumped, catching her in the midsection with his body. They both tumbled to the side of the road in a blur and tangle of limbs just as the curricle thundered past. The driver flung a string of vulgarities her way but continued his path. Neither did he attempt to inquire as to the woman’s health.

What an arse. Even in his capacity as a duke gripped by boredom and apathy, he would have checked on a person he’d nearly run down on a public road. There were manners, after all.

Regardless, such carelessness deserved a sharp dressing down and a severe warning. He grabbed her skirts in his jaw and pulled her into a thicket that lined the side of the lane, and then down a slight embankment. Shrubberies there more or less hid them both from the road and any curious passerby, not that there was such at this early hour. He loosened his jaws, releasing her, but he remained close, waiting to see if she appeared injured.

She lay, apparently stunned, on the grass, her skirts twisted about her legs, hitched up to show the length of her slender calves encased in ivory stockings. “What in the world happened?” The bewilderment in her soft voice betrayed culture and breeding. Despite her plain clothing, this was no country miss.

Intrigued, but no less annoyed, Donovan called forth the shift, and his body contorted. Pain shot through his limbs, ricocheted through each nerve ending as his bones and organs knitted themselves into his normal form. Claws and snout retracted, replaced by nails and human teeth. Fur vanished in favor of his skin and hair, and when the metamorphosis completed its cycle, he collapsed on the ground beside her while she struggled into a sitting position.

Damnation, but that agony sapped at his strength. Never did he grow used to the trauma. As he shook his head to chase away the last vestiges of the transformation, he regarded his unlikely companion. Her bonnet had been knocked askew and hung at an awkward angle to one side of her head. Rich brown hair met his perusal, and in the rays of the dawn, burnished mahogany highlights glimmered. Though she’d landed her gray gaze, wide and confused, upon him, she didn’t react to his heroic act nor to the undeniable fact of his naked state. There were no words of gratitude or thanks. Neither did she look upon him with any sort of fascination. His ego twinged slightly, for he wasn’t accustomed to being so summarily dismissed.

“Why the deuce didn’t you move away from danger? You must be blind to not have seen such a path of destruction meant for you.” Every inch of the duke rang in his rebuke as he glared at her.

She put a gloved hand to her forehead. Her eyes narrowed. Anger flashed in those gray depths. “For your information, I am blind, but I’m not a simpleton. Though you may be to treat me like you’ve done.” The woman quickly set her bonnet to rights. “I heard commotion but didn’t know where it came from.”

Rendered speechless, Donovan opened and closed his mouth. What did one say to such an answer? He had no experience with sight impairment. So he took refuge in the annoyance that still swirled hot through his chest. “At least I have enough sense not to let a curricle trample me.” He straightened his spine but remained sitting on the grass beside her. How dare this woman think to argue with him.

“I possess manners enough not to shove a lady from the roadway and then proceed to drag her into the brush.” Then her eyes rounded and emotions clouded the stormy depths: confusion, terror… and curiosity. She sucked in a breath. “Do you mean to ravish me, then? You saw what you hoped was a vulnerable target and you pounced?” Before he could contradict the statement, she moved her head from side to side, searching with her gaze that didn’t hold the typical vacancy or blankness of one without sight. “Yet I was certain what knocked me down wasn’t a man at all.” One of her hands flexed. “I thought, for a brief moment, I’d felt fur, like that of a dog…”

Dear Lord. Had she seen or suspected he’d shifted from the beast? He yanked himself from his stupor. “Rest assured, it was me who pulled you from the road. After that, I brought you through the thicket and down here.” He forced a hard swallow. What kind of woman was she? Any other lady, upon being handled with such rough care and presented with a nude man, would scream the village awake and then succumb to a fainting spell. Yet his companion, though wary, did none of those things. She kept her gaze trained upon his face. “You and I are not finished having words, for I mean to dress you down for such ill-advised—”

“You smell differently from other men,” she interrupted as she leaned closer to him.

“I beg your pardon?” His pulse pounded hard in his temples. Surely this odd woman didn’t suspect his true nature.

“Your scent, it’s wild. Primal.” She wrenched off her gloves of worn ivory kid and dropped them to the ground next to her. “May I?” She reached for him. “It’s but one of the ways I can see you.”

“I… You have my leave.” The intrigue deepened, and since he was currently perplexed by her, as well as her lack of taking responsibility for her part in the debacle, he nodded, and then berated himself. If she’d been truthful regarding her blindness, she couldn’t see the gesture.

“The way you speak tells me you must be someone of some importance.” The woman glanced her fingertips along the planes of his face, his cheekbones, his forehead. Her touch was gentle as she traced his eyebrows, the slope of his nose, the cut of his jaw, his chin.

Awareness rippled over his skin the longer she stayed connected to him. “I’d like to think so,” he managed to say, albeit in a whisper. Such closeness, or rather intimacy, demanded matching vocal tones.

“Men always do.” She chuckled. The throaty sound skated over him and gathered in his groin, tightening his length. “It is a dangerous way to think.” Then she smoothed her palms down the sides of his neck, over his shoulders and sucked in a breath. “You’re naked.”

“I…” How the devil could he explain away that fact?

“Why are you without clothes?” She scooted closer to him. Their legs touched, her skirts bunched around her knees. Her shawl had slipped revealing a mere hint of the tops of creamy breasts, and still she explored. “However did you manage to go about the village dressed in naught but scandal?”

What an… interesting way of putting it. Some of his acumen returned from the fog that had wrapped about his brain. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And there was no way he’d offer the information to her upon this unorthodox meeting. Chances were he’d never see her again.

“Nothing is impossible.” Her fingers slipped over his chest, rasping through the heavy mat of hair there. When she gently tugged on a few strands, he gasped. Unbridled lust streaked through his body, building as she smoothed her hands along his torso and then dipped questing fingers lower still, brushing those digits across the flat skin of his abdomen. “Regardless of your improper state, I’m glad. It is a refreshing change and adds a bit of mystery to the meeting.” His muscles clenched. When she pushed onward, her palm skating over the wide head of his erect member, he grabbed her hand and held it away from his person.

Donovan sucked in great gulps of air as he willed his body to stop its reaction to her innocent exploration. How gauche it was that he’d grown hard for a woman he didn’t know. Desperate for something to take his mind off his baser instincts, he asked, “Are you in the habit of introducing yourself to men like this? For if you are, my next question is why are you allowed out of the house unaccompanied?”

A delighted smile curved her rosy lips, lips he couldn’t tear his gaze from with the bottom being slightly fuller than the top, lips he wanted to claim with a kiss, which was the fastest way to Bedlam aside from conversing here while he remained naked. “No, I am not.” Then the smile faded and he felt the disappointment deep down in his chest. “In all honesty, men do not seek me out for any sort of meeting.”

It was the height of folly to linger here. The longer he did, the greater the chance of being discovered, and no matter who this woman was, he refused to compromise her or have his own life thrust into a situation he didn’t want. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Her hand in his was soft. She didn’t back away and was much too close for his comfort.

“I’ve learned over the years to accept that my affliction is isolating.” The words sounded tired, as if she’d said them time out of hand already.

In this, she and he were in complete agreement. “I understand all too well the sentiment.” He peered into her eyes, struck again by how alert she appeared yet didn’t see him. In the rapidly lighting dawn, a few silver flecks glinted deep in those depths. The gentleman in him finally rose to the surface. “Forgive me for the rough handling, but it was the only way to prevent disaster and injury.”

“Don’t trouble yourself. Aside from some aches and what will no doubt be bruises, I am well.” Again, a smile curved her lips, and his member renewed its appreciation for her.

“I’m glad.” It was absurd, sitting here like this, clinging to her hand, while inside his head, his wolf encouraged him to give into primal instincts. “By the by, I’m Donovan Sinclair, the Duke of Manchester.”

And I desperately need to leave before… well before I can do anything that will give away my secret or show her I’m the degenerate rogue I fear I am.









CHAPTER TWO





Miss Alice Morrowe’s mind spun from the situation she currently found herself in.

Her chest and ribcage smarted from the impact, and her backside stung, but what held her captive was the completely bizarre fact she sat close to a naked man—and a duke at that. With her skirts in a tangle and her legs on display from the knees down, if someone in the village came upon them, there’d be no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what had occurred, even if it was far from the truth.

A naked man who, from all accounts, was interested in her—or at least a specific part of him was—in a base way that he’d no doubt feel for any living, breathing female. Her brief encounter with the tip of his rampant member still tickled her palm. She marveled that she’d been so bold as to touch him there; never had she touched a man, and not that part of a man at all. It had been an accident, so caught up in “seeing” him with her fingertips as she was. And yet, she allowed him to keep hold of her hand, and she didn’t move away from such sure scandal.

“You’re a duke.” It wasn’t a question. She enjoyed having him so near. In her experience, men, once they were appraised of her incurable eye condition, steered clear of any interaction. Rarely was she sought out. Yes, it was a lonely life, but she’d had no choice except to make the best of it and carve out happiness for herself where she could. Somewhere in the jumbled memories of the events that whisked her from the roadside, she recalled the roughness of animal fur, the strong clench of toothy jaws in the skirt of her dress, the soft snuffle of breath. What had become of the dog? “Why are you here?” Perhaps he’d been on a hunting mission and had gotten separated from his hound.

Yet, the way that animal had slammed into her indicated its weight was significantly larger than a hunting dog.

“Obviously, to rescue you,” came his glib reply.

Alice looked directly at him, but she only saw wavy white space. If she glanced over his shoulder, she could make out the general shape of his person, his head, but the image wasn’t clear. It was almost as if a thick film had fallen permanently over her eyes, but at least she discerned he possessed light brown hair and that it stuck up in places. The only way to fully see a person was to intimately press herself against them, and that wasn’t something she could do at the moment, for he was a stranger.

And a duke.

And naked.

Even though she’d already forgotten herself and hand run her hands over the bulk of him. “Yes, well, there is that.” A trace of heat infused her cheeks as her thoughts dwelled on his scandalous state of undress. Each time she went out of the house it was a risk, a gamble she never knew if she’d win. Being blind didn’t exactly lend itself to full self-efficiency, though Lord knew she tried her hardest. But the world was also full of people who wished harm to befall its most vulnerable residents. “I meant, why are you here in Shalford?”

Besides upending my world.

“Ah… business. I’d been on my way out of the village, returning to London in fact, when I came upon you.” His deep, tenor-pitched voice rumbled in her own chest, and she shivered as gooseflesh sprang on her skin.

“I see. Hunting?”

After a slight pause, he said, “You could say that.”

“Where is your hound?”

“I don’t have one.”

Very curious indeed. Not only did he not have a dog, but there were no hunting weapons, tools or any other accessories nearby. And why was he naked? “Were you successful?”

“More or less.” Was that amusement hanging on his voice?

As a member of the gentry, even as a poor relation, she wasn’t given much value, and being with a man here and now, one who’d gone out of his way to push her from being run over by a carriage, was interesting and intriguing. He didn’t have to concern himself, yet he had. What did he wish for in return? A chill swept up her spine. Cold disappointment coiled in her belly. Was he like all the rest? She wasn’t a woman of loose morals, wouldn’t lie with him out of desperate loneliness, his boredom, or her own curiosity. Merciful heavens, did that explain his state of undress? He was already prepared to ravage her? “Perhaps you should be on your way now that you’ve ascertained I’m well. You no doubt have prey to hunt.” She pushed at him with her free hand, but instead of shoving him from her, she swept her fingertips over the expanse of his bare chest—his strong, muscled, and hairy chest. The warmth of his torso called to her as did the crispness of the mat of hair she’d currently buried her fingers into.

He is quite manly.

“Excellent suggestion, unless…” he pitched his voice lower until it was a mere caress of sound that flowed over her like honey. The duke tugged on her hand, bringing her closer, so that his features swam into some semblance of view.

“Unless what?” she asked, her own voice a breathless affair. Alice anchored her free hand to his shoulder while peering into his eyes that were the color of brandy. His hair, light brown and longer than current fashion, falling in disarray about his head to curl at his neck, tempted her and she slipped her hand to his nape, where she reveled in its softness as it rasped over her fingers. Stubble shadowed his lower cheeks and jawline. What would that feel like if she rubbed her palm over it?

He chuckled, which sent butterflies waking through her insides. “Unless you were of a mind to tryst here in this sheltered place before I make my exit. Perhaps you shall be my prey.” Still holding onto her, he slipped his free hand down her back. Heated tingles followed in his wake, and when he dared to cup her buttock, a gasp escaped her. “After all, I’m dressed—or undressed as the case may be—for such an activity, and on second glance, you’re quite pleasing to the eye.”

A haze of untested desire mixed with confusion and inquisitiveness enveloped her. It had long been a dream to catch the attention of a gentleman, one who would look past her blindness and see her for who she truly was, yet… Alice shook her head, scattering the cloud of sensation he’d invoked. His words sank into her addled brain. “…on second glance, you’re quite pleasing to the eye.” Did that mean when he first spied her, he thought her ugly or unattractive? A trace of hot anger speared through her. “How lovely to know you wouldn’t dare bed a woman who didn’t possess the requisite look you desire.”

The duke removed his hand from her backside, only to cup her cheek. He ran the pad of this thumb along her lower lip. Renewed awareness zipped along her spine. “It wouldn’t stop me, for women are women, but I do enjoy slipping a blindfold over their eyes before the deed is done.” The warmth of his breath skated over her cheek, and again she caught the wild, primal scent of him she had earlier.

“Why…” She moistened her lips. “Why would you do that? Do you not wish bed partners to look upon you during something so intimate?” He was much different than anyone she’d ever met, and it both frightened and exhilarated her. Obviously, there was so much she didn’t know about relations between men and women.

“Ah, such innocence.” His voice tickled her ear as he put his lips to the shell of that organ. “The bit of the unknown heightens the act and adds mystery. And I ask again, my sweet country flower, are you of a mind for a tryst?”

She might be rejected by society, but she needn’t act the wanton because of it or when a strange man paid the slightest mind to her. “That is rather an improper offer.” And one she’d do well to steer clear of unless she wished to pay the consequences, for since he was so high on the instep, it was unlikely he’d do right by her or a child that might result. Yet the need for more information regarding his wont to blindfold mistresses warred with self-preservation.

“So it is.” But he didn’t release her and neither did she move. “Tempting, all the same, is it not?”

“Perhaps, if it was given to a different woman on a different day in a different life.” Oh, Alice, don’t be a widgeon. Don’t be what the village expects. Proper might be boring, but it kept her safe. Too many young girls fell for the charm of men like him and found themselves in situations that left them ostracized. This time when she pushed at his chest, she didn’t allow herself the distraction of exploring his hard body. Then she scuttled away, putting much needed distance between them. “I should go. This is highly irregular.”

And slightly maddening. No matter how much she longed for romance, she refused to go down this road where love didn’t dwell. Still, her heart squeezed from knowing that she wasn’t enough for a man of his caliber. He wanted to bed her, not court her.

“As should I.” The duke blew out a heavy breath as if finally remembering himself. The flesh-colored blob that represented his form stood. “I’ve held out a hand for you, should you require assistance up.”

At least it was more respect than his last offer. Alice felt around and when her fingers came into contact with his hand, she grasped it, only squealing a little when he hauled her into a standing position without effort. “Thank you, Your Grace.” How bizarre it was to converse with one so lofty in society while they were in such a situation. Thank goodness she’d learned the proper manners and deportment as a young lady before being abandoned. Her heart twinged for an entirely different reason. Her only family, distant though they were, didn’t want her when it had become apparent she wouldn’t “grow out” of the vision affliction. When they’d turned her from their home, the luxury of certain things attached to a barony went with them.

“It has truly been my pleasure.” He released her hand with alacrity, yanking her from her tortured musings. “However, despite my duty to escort you to wherever it is you were going, my lack of clothing prevents me from parading through the village.” His self-deprecating laugh was a sad affair. What was his life like? “I fear I shall have to leave you here.”

Her heart fluttered at the heroic implication, much better than the slight he’d given with a request for a tryst. “Indeed, and you’ve yet to explain why you’re naked to begin with.” Then she gasped. Her eyes widened. “You didn’t flee from a lady’s bed, did you?” Perhaps the woman, or even an angered husband, had tossed him and his clothing from a window. She bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. Was there a draw for noblemen to seek out liaisons in sleepy English villages?

“I did not.” A trace of humor lingered in his voice.

“That is good to know.” With haste, she removed her shawl and held it out to him. “Cover yourself, my lord. You’re in no danger of my seeing you in the altogether, but others might.” Though she’d touched the most shocking part him, and that was scandalous enough.

Oh, dear. Does this mean I’ve been compromised? Not that it mattered. She had no one in her life to impress or woo with a sterling reputation.

“You’re too kind,” he murmured, but when he took the garment, their fingers brushed. Pleasant tingles flowed up her arm from the point of contact. He retreated, presumably to wrap the shawl about his waist, but then he scooped up her hand and brought it to his lips. A certain thrill moved down her spine when he kissed the back. “Thank you for the loan. How should I return it? I don’t know your name, let alone your address.”

And neither shall you.

“It’s best that I remain a stranger.” Gently, she slipped her hand from his. Never had she been left at sixes and sevens in the presence of a man. It was odd, and every moment she spent in his company left her heartbeat tripping out an excited rhythm.

He snorted. “I’d rather know the identity of the woman I rescued, the woman who makes certain I don’t embarrass myself any further than I already have.”

Did that mean he felt sorry he’d asked for a tryst or that he’d appeared in the village sans clothes? Confliction bounced through her brain. It was unlikely they’d ever meet again, so what did withholding her name matter? “Miss Alice Morrowe. I’m nobody, and by tomorrow, you’ll have forgotten all about me. People always do.” The muscles of her stomach clenched. What a sad commentary of her life, that she couldn’t make a singular impression on anyone. “I’ve become used to it, so you needn’t do the pretty or lie to me.” Heat infused her cheeks at the admission. That she’d say such a thing to a relative stranger horrified her.

“That’s where you are wrong.” Once more he availed himself of her hand. “Today, you are someone, for I don’t concern myself with people who don’t matter.”

So says the ego of a duke. Before Alice could form a response, he applied the veriest pressure and tugged her to him. His face came vaguely into view. He had the dearest dimple in his left cheek, and then he brushed his lips against hers in an oh too brief kiss—her first kiss. Finally, she—Alice Minerva Morrowe, firmly on the shelf at the age of thirty—experienced the pleasing press of a man’s lips to hers.

The duke pulled away. He released her hand and left the area so quickly she barely noticed he’d departed. Perhaps that was due to standing so still with shock. She cocked her head and listened, but there was no hiss of grass blades bending beneath the soles of his feet, no crunch of dirt or gravel when he gained the road. There was nothing left of him except the lingering warmth on her lips.

Well, this is no longer an ordinary day.

Bemused and somewhat mystified, Alice made her way out of the embankment, skirted around the hedgerow, and then gained the main road. Dawn had broken while she’d tarried with the duke. The growing brightness prickled at her eyes; the heightened sensitivity caused them to narrow and water. Another side effect of her particular form of blindness, and one reason she tried to walk to the shop where she apprenticed before the sun came fully up.

Did her affliction matter to one such as the duke?

She snorted as she hurried along the road. Stop being a ninny, Alice. He is not for you. You had a chance meeting. That man will never return to Shalford, and you’ll not see him again. Be grateful you had an adventure.

The tiny shop, with its wooden sign hanging from two iron hooks proclaiming, “Shalford Millinery” glimmered, for the rising sun reflected off its plate glass window. The owner, John Sparkes—who also owned the water mill—agree to let her reside in a cozy, cramped room at the back of his mill if she’d assist his wife, Mary, in her hat shop. No coin was exchanged, for she received room and board, and after all he’d said on more than one occasion, what else could one such as herself wish for in life? No doubt the man assumed he was doing a charitable work in giving her a kindness, but every once in a while, Alice resented being treated by everyone she knew as either a poor relation, an obligation, or a servant. Though she detested on relying on charity, her options were limited, for her only family had tossed her out.

I am none of those things yet I cannot make people see me differently.

Her thoughts caused her to laugh. Funny, that. They refused to see her and she literally couldn’t see them. At least I’ve kept my sense of humor through life’s pitfalls.

“Alice, there you are!” A brown-colored blob separated itself from the door to the shop. Her only friend in the village grabbed her hand. “I’d wondered what happened to you. You’re never late.”

“Hello, Fanny.” Alice smiled and squeezed the other woman’s fingers. “I was run off the road by a fast-moving carriage and only gathered myself enough to come here.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either.

Fanny Smith was two years younger than she, and the eldest of twelve children. Forced to help provide for an ever-growing family, she’d begun working in the village at the age of fourteen. Now she was one of the most trusted members of Shalford. The only difference between them: Fanny was engaged to be married to the son of the butcher, who had a shop in the street behind this one. Alice couldn’t begrudge her the happiness; she deserved everything life held.

“I’d wondered why you look different today,” her friend continued.

“Don’t be silly. I’m not different, except for a few grass stains and perhaps bruises,” Alice said, brushing off the comment with a shrug. Did one have a certain look who’d just been kissed?

“What a bammer you’re telling.” Fanny squeezed her hand. “Why are you blushing then? What else happened other than a runaway carriage?” When Alice remained silent, hoping the ground would open up and swallow her whole, her friend pressed onward. “Did you indulge in a midnight tryst with the blacksmith?”

Alice recoiled. “Joe?” She screwed up her face. For the better part of a year, that bear of a man had bothered her, badgered her about taking a walk with him, coming to dinner, or horror of horrors, meeting with him at the back of his smithy for a little slap and tickle. “Absolutely not. I’d rather die than let that man touch me in any way.” It was troubling he wouldn’t understand that her polite declines of his offers would never change. At this point in her life, her next refusal would be forceful and she didn’t care if he was humiliated in a public setting. She was blind, not beholden.

“You could do worse.” Fanny huffed, and the brief breeze ruffled a tendril of escaped hair at Alice’s temple.

“True, but I could also do better. There is no need to settle for crude.” At the last second she stopped herself from pressing the fingers of her free hand to her lips where the fleeting brush of the duke’s kiss lingered. For one insane second, she allowed herself a silly fancy. What if the duke was so taken with her that he returned to the village merely to see her? Yes, a duke was infinitely better than a sweaty, hulking blacksmith, but it was such an impossibility, she laughed. “Dearest Fanny. You know I’ll forever remain an old maid. You also know that I’ve resigned myself to that fate.” Yet her heart constricted. Why couldn’t she have her dreams even though her reality was so much different?

“I suppose someone has to be. We all can’t marry,” was Fanny’s practical reply. “But once I do, I shall share with you every detail of what occurs in the marriage bed.”

Heat shot through Alice’s cheeks. “I…”

Her friend laughed. “You must learn of it some time.” Another trill of laughter erupted in the quiet morning. “After work, we shall call upon Mrs. Kelley. You know she’s rumored to be.”

The heat furiously clung to her cheeks. “A lady of the night.” That woman’s reputation was legendary through rumors and whispers in the village. It didn’t help that she lived above a tavern at the end of the village.

“Yes, and you can ask her all the questions you’d like. I can too. I’m sure I can use that information in a few days.” When she was married. She squeezed Alice’s hand again. “Don’t worry. You will forever be my children’s favorite aunt. My little brothers and sisters already love you as such.”

Alice rolled her eyes. It was better than nothing. Gratitude filled her that she had a friend in Fanny. “I would be honored.”

“Good.” Fanny pushed open the shop’s door. No doubt Mrs. Sparkes had already arrived before them. “We’d best start our day before the missus grouses.”

“Agreed.” But she didn’t know how she’d be able to concentrate on checking the handiwork on countless hats when all she wanted to do was woolgather about the duke. There were so many questions about him she’d never see answered. Clipping loose threads or gluing down errant bits of lace wasn’t as exciting as it once was now that she’d been offered a glimpse of life beyond what she’d previously known.







CHAPTER THREE





September 14

London



Donovan ordered a bottle of brandy at his club—the exclusive place he and the other Accursed Lords had created as a safe haven of sorts. Bête Noire was what they’d christened the place nigh twenty years ago—rather fitting for the beasts they were—and if a gentleman wished it, he could obtain any sort of scandal, for no one in London knew who the founding members were let alone the owners.

And they worked hard to keep it that way. The club offered sanctuary from the slings and arrows of ton society; it was also a way for the Lords of the Night to partake of that same society without needing to immerse themselves in it.

Barely had he settled at his customary table at the rear of the main room, his back to the wall so that he could monitor the comings and goings of guests, when two of his friends and fellow Lords of the Night entered. Upon seeing him, they made their way toward him.

“Fancy seeing you two here tonight,” Donovan drawled as the two men took seats at the table.

Rafe Astley, twelfth Earl of Devon, rolled his eyes that flashed briefly red in the low candlelight. He was cursed as a vampire, a true denizen of the night, and if anyone questioned why he was rarely seen abroad in the daylight, they had the good sense not to ask it boldly of him in person. “I could say the same of you, Manchester.” His blond hair, waved in a popular style, gleamed. He had the look of a Greek Adonis… except for the fangs that lengthened when the need to feed came upon him and the tendency for his skin to burn if left in the sun too long. “I’d wager you were out running through the countryside, terrorizing all manner of innocents.”

“I’m not of a mind for all of that at the moment.” As if to enhance the statement, his wolf whined into his mind.

We haven’t run for days.

Donovan ignored his canine companion in favor of taking a deep swallow of the smuggled-in brandy.

“I know that look. Have seen it too many times.” The other man at the table, Valentine Butler, the Viscount Mountgarret, pointed an elegant finger at him. “You’re bedeviled by a woman.” The man’s red hair tended toward curling despite the cut or the pomade he used to bind it, though when he returned to the sea, he let it grow long. He also maintained a lean, muscular build that had ladies angling after him, but his beastly half didn’t walk the land. Instead, he was a slave to the waters as a merman, and a fierce fighter at that. As such, his properties always needed to support a body of water, and his country estate wasn’t far from the sea. When he lingered in London, he haunted the docks.

“Do shut up, Mountgarret. Is not Coventry with you?” He glanced past them but the fourth of their set didn’t appear.

“The earl is currently playing puppet to his sister. He has taken her to Bath for a week’s holiday.” Rogue shrugged. “He spoils her.”

“So he should. Sisters are interesting creatures and have a tendency toward overprotectiveness.” Lord knew his own was, and she was quite protective of him as well. And they lived with the uncursed. A novelty, to be certain. “In any event, I’m hardly bedeviled.” Donovan glared at his friends. “Is there anything else you’d say to me? You’re both fairly bursting.”

The earl exchanged a speaking glance with the viscount. Then a teasing grin curved his lips as he lifted an eyebrow. “Ah, but you are thinking about a woman.”

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the two of you,” Donovan groused. He didn’t wish to talk about Miss Alice Morrowe with his friends, for they’d only make matters worse and she was different enough that he didn’t want for her name bandied about a gentleman’s club.

“No, but your usual meetings are with the usual sort of women, and you brag about the conquests every chance you have,” Mountgarret was quick to remind him. “Now, your very reticence is telling.” His brilliant blue eyes, bordering on turquoise, twinkled with mirth. “Have you gone two sheets to the wind over her then?”

“Bastard.” Donovan glared. “No. But if you must know—”

“—we must,” the Earl of Devon interrupted with a grin of his own.

“—then I’ll tell you that I did, in fact, have a run in with a woman. Literally. I was forced to plow into her while in wolf form and save her from being trampled by an out-of-control curricle. That was three days ago.”

“Here in Town?” the viscount asked with a healthy dose of skepticism in his voice.

“I was in Surrey at the time. Village of Shalford, actually.” Donovan shrugged. “My wolf prefers to exercise in the country. There’s more excitement there—for him.”

Nowhere to run in the city, his wolf chimed in.

Again, his friends exchanged a glance. The earl frowned. He poured a measure of brandy into his own glass. “Why is this news? Unless she isn’t your usual type of skirt.”

He refused to tug at his cravat that he swore grew tighter as the conversation went on. “She is, in fact, not. Besides, I assumed the two of you would find the tale interesting. Perhaps I was wrong and you’ve become too jaded.”

Mountgarret snorted. He nodded when the earl offered him a portion of the smuggled spirits. Crystal clinked against crystal to blend with the soft rise and fall of conversation throughout the room. “The question remains: did you bed her?”

Heat rose up the back of Donovan’s neck. “No… but I kissed her.”

His friends hooted with laughter.

The earl stared, his tumbler paused midway to his mouth. “And?” He made a gesture that meant get on with it.

“And… nothing.” Being certain to keep the tale brief, Donovan related more events of the encounter.

“Interesting.” Mountgarret stared into the contents of his glass before pinning Donovan with his intense gaze. “Another full moon arrives on the second of next month. It might be the one spoken of in the curse. Perhaps you could make her fall in love with you and thereby break the curse.”

“Not this again.” Donovan rolled his eyes. All his life—and theirs—breaking the ancient curse had been a topic of conversation. Especially since this year put them in the five-year window where one full moon a quarter could conceivably usher in the events to break or reverse the curse.

And the year was growing short.

“Yes, of course this.” The earl, Rafe—or as he preferred contemporaries to call him, Rogue—chuckled. “Isn’t it what we’re all hoping for?”

“Perhaps.” Donovan conceded the point. “What makes you think this woman will be any different than the others I’ve had into my bed?”

Inside his head, his wolf snorted in annoyance. She’s different.

Mountgarret grinned. “None of them were in love with you.”

“Neither is this particular woman,” he returned, his voice taking on a particularly grouchy tone. He shook his head, not convinced breaking the curse was even possible. “She isn’t in my usual style, as you both have said.”

“Yet, you’ve set the stage,” Rogue pressed as he leaned forward. Faint red rimmed his pupils. “I mean, how often can a story of courtship say it started with a collision and a man sans clothing?”

And from your own admission, you let her put her hands on you,” Mountgarret inserted. “She felt various portions of your anatomy, old boy, and she didn’t run away screaming or rave about a wolf. That must count for something.” He pinned Donovan with a knowing look. “Did she set your prick to dancing?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t indulge in a bit of slap and tickle,” the earl said with a laugh. “It’s taken far more drink and less effort for you in the past.”

“This meeting didn’t have that end in mind.” Donovan shook his head. “And—”

“And nothing,” Rogue interrupted with a grin that matched the viscount’s in cunning. “What’s the harm of pursuing her to see if there’s a spark?”

“Oh, any number of things, actually.” He slammed his empty brandy tumbler onto the polished wooden table top with more force than necessary. Lingering amber droplets sprayed onto his hand and the piece of furniture. “Take your pick.”

His wolf snorted. These men are foolish romantics. Love doesn’t happen on the spur of the moment.

And it certainly doesn’t happen to any of us who suffer the curse.

The earl sobered. He dropped his voice. “Fear that you’ll fall for her without her returning the sentiment?”

There was always that danger, but as of yet, he’d never thought deeply enough of a woman that he risked losing his heart. “No. I fear it’s false hope, this breaking the curse business, and even if it was possible, what happens to her? I’ve made my peace with what I am—mostly. I’m comfortable with my circumstances and have worked hard not to let trading lives with the beast embitter me.” Liar. “Why should I ruin hers with a courtship she neither wants nor welcomes?” For the fact remained, he’d had but a chance meeting with Miss Alice Morrowe and that was all.

“Ah, so that’s the extent of your reach, saving the girl from certain death or injury? You’ve done your duty, did a good deed and now you don’t care that you could possibly come close to breaking the curse?” Rogue’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. “Impressive, Manchester. I never thought you’d willingly toss away the chance for a normal existence.”


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