What happens when an impoverished duke with a reputation for being a rogue collides with a strong-willed heiress who wants to explore the world? An unlikely friendship . . . and unexpected passion.
Cailin Audley does not fit in with Polite Society. A life spent among the working class taught her to value her independence in a way no newfound fortune or glittering ballroom could ever erase. When a major misstep sees the new heiress whisked away to the English countryside, Cailin soon realizes the vexing lengths her family will go to see her settled. But having risked her heart once before, Cailin has no interest in the men of the ton—especially not the frustratingly charming Duke of St. James.
Courtland Balfour, the Duke of St. James, devoted brother and notorious rogue, despises what he must become—a fortune hunter. With the ducal coffers drained by his late spendthrift of a father, Courtland knows his duty lies at the altar, and he will do anything to ensure a future for his siblings. Just his luck that the one lady who could make this new fate bearable, who enflames him like no other, is the one woman who wants nothing to do with him or his title.
When an act of desperation inadvertently lands him and Cailin at the heart of another scandal, Courtland knows better than to waste his chance. Surely he can convince Cailin to love him?
Courtland gave his head a wistful shake, as for the first time since he’d arrived, he felt a frisson of . . . guilt, about asking anyone to give up the comfort of obscurity here for the garish opulence that was the Town.
Ace whinnied noisily, and Courtland absently stroked the loyal creature between the eyes. His nostrils flaring, Ace arched his head back into that favorite-of-his touch.
From the corner of his eye, Courtland caught a faint flutter, and he swung his attention to find a person watching him.
The less-than-furtive figure in the cottage pressed her forehead against the glass.
“It appears we have company,” he murmured, patting Ace once more. “Which isn’t terrible, as it means the sooner I finish, the sooner we’re free to return to London.”
Ace gave a toss of his head in clear equine disapproval.
“It appears we are of like opinions then, on that score,” Courtland said, winking at his horse.
Once again, those curtains parted slightly, and a young woman peeked through the crack in the fabric.
Enormous, saucer-sized blue eyes, filled with mistrust, met Courtland’s gaze.
The sister, then.
He grinned. “Good afternoon,” he called, and sketched a bow. “I’m here to speak with Mr. Audley.”
Judging by the stretch of silence to follow, the young woman was anything but impressed. Alas, while he was on the other side of a doorway, without a line of sight to his quarry, she was afforded an unhindered view that put Courtland at a distinct disadvantage.
Giving Ace another pat, Courtland started down the walkway.
“Stop there!” she shouted, a healthy dose of anger and suspicion freezing him halfway down the path.
Anger and suspicion, both of which, as a duke, he was unaccustomed to being greeted with.
“What do you want?” she called, her voice muffled by the oak panel.
What did he want? Or what did he need?
His siblings settled.
All of which indirectly accounted for his being here.
Bringing himself back to the matter at hand, Courtland offered another smile and held his empty palms up. “I want nothing more than to speak with your brothers . . . or you,” he cajoled, using soothing tones meant to bring her outside.
At last, the wood panel swung wide, affording him his first full, unobstructed view. And Courtland went absolutely motionless.
The young woman, with her full, ivory-hued cheeks and golden blond hair, had the height of a child, but the hardened stare of a woman some three decades her elder. Unfortunately for Courtland, that flinty stare was leveled at him.
Along with her ancient-looking firearm.
Reflexively, Courtland’s palms went flying up in surrender.
The late summer sun glinted off the end of the barrel. That enormous weapon looked all the more enormous when held as it was by one of her spritely size.
He swallowed hard and cursed long and harder inside his head.
The young woman flicked a derisive glance over Courtland’s person, before settling it upon his face, her gaze bored; and his ears went hot, as for the first time in his life he knew what it was to have a woman find him lacking.
“Why does it not surprise me at all that a fancy London fellow like you would come here issuing orders to me?” she drawled, the lyrical, lilting quality of her voice in almost farcical juxtaposition to the threat hanging on her words, and the very real threat of murder she directed his way.
Courtland kept his smile firmly affixed, and when he spoke, did so in the careful, placating tones he used with his easily riled younger sisters. “Perhaps had you taken a moment to hear me out and discuss the business that brought me here, then I wouldn’t have had to issue them, Miss Audley.”
Her flaxen eyebrows went shooting up. “Are you . . . challenging me?” The rifle wavered on her arm.
Oh, bloody hell. He was usually better at speaking to the fairer sex. Much better. It should so happen that the one time he failed to charm would likely land him a bullet in the chest-and a swift end to his miserable existence.
“Well?” she demanded, dipping slightly and adjusting the weapon on her arm.
He winced. “I believe you’ve already determined that I was challenging you, and as such, it hardly seems necessary to confirm with a verbal statement, Miss Audley.” He bit out each syllable, giving up on the gentle warmth he’d previously attempted.
She lowered the rifle slowly, and he took heart. “Now,” he said, taking a step forward. “If you would be so good as to lower your weapon all the-“
A loud report thundered in the afternoon quiet, cutting off the remainder of his words, and he flew back, hitting the ground so hard the air was sucked from his lungs.
Bloody hell. This was how he would end his short reign as duke-by taking a bullet straight to the chest.
Excerpted from Desperately Seeking a Duchess by Christi Caldwell Copyright © 2022 by Christi Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christi Caldwell is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sinful Brides series and the Heart of a Duke series. She blames novelist Judith McNaught for luring her into the world of historical romance. Christi lives in Charlotte, North Carolina where she spends her time writing and being a mommy to the most inspiring little boy and empathetic, spirited girls who, with their mischievous twin antics, offer an endless source of story ideas. Learn more online at christicaldwell.com.
Photo Credit to Kimberly Rocha