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The Heiress Bride
A sparkling new love story with a touch of mystery, from bestselling historical romance legend Madeline Hunter. Will appeal to fans of Bridgerton and readers of Lisa Kleypas and Eloisa James.
Now the new Duke of Hollinburgh, Nicholas Radnor has two duties to fulfill: locate the mysterious woman mentioned in his late uncle's will and acquire a suitable bride. When bedazzling, unconventional Iris Barrington shows up at the estate, Nicholas believes he may have found the missing beneficiary—unless she is a charlatan, or worse. But as for his second duty—he is finding it difficult to think of any other woman while tantalizing thoughts of Iris occupy his mind. He agrees to fulfill the late duke's promise to her, even as he grows suspicious of both her motives and the danger that seems to surround her. All of which keeps her temptingly close at hand...
Iris will do anything to restore honor to her beloved grandfather's name. Even tangle with the likes of Nicholas, a man whose formidable intellect and good looks lure her like no other. But all her years on the continent have not prepared her for the sensual onslaught she discovers in his embrace—or the devastation of almost losing him to malicious intentions. Now Iris's desire to unearth the scandal behind the dukedom burns ever brighter: for doing so might also protect the man who has stolen her heart . . .
Iris didn't really expect the duke to see her, but it was worth a try. Should she fail today, she had several other plans for gaining an audience with him. Those would require a lot of time and a good deal of subterfuge, so it was worthwhile to start with the direct approach.
Having made it to the drawing room gave her heart. With luck, the duke would at least be intrigued. If he was a bibliophile like his grandfather, her calling card might nudge him. She had commissioned cards that included little images of books below her name, so recipients would see at once what she was about.
One could say she had come here about books, too, if one wanted to stretch matters. Not to sell them, although she wouldn't mind making a few sales to the duke, or anyone else. It was what she did, after all. How she fed her- self and financed her travels and everything else. Her visit to this massive town home today was not about trade, however. It was much more important than that.
The question was, would she find this duke almost human like the last one or a lying scoundrel like his grandfather? The strong possibility of the latter had her straightening her spine and gathering her courage.
The door opened and she turned, expecting to see the butler had returned to her. Instead a dark-haired man—a quite handsome one—stuck his head in. His remarkably blue eyes swept the chamber, then came to rest on her. She could not ignore how his gaze sharpened, and how he took her in most thoroughly.
Not the duke, she was sure. A duke did not greet visitors like this. Someone else, then, who had some interest in His Grace's visitors. A secretary, perhaps, although he did not look like one.
He apologized for intruding. His head disappeared. The door closed.
A few minutes later, the butler did return. He bid her follow him. When they did not go down the stairs, she realized she would have her audience after all. Excitement built with each footfall.
The butler escorted her to an expansive study. It had been decorated in extreme Chinoiserie, with big urns and heavily carved furniture. Only the desk appeared normal for a duke. Broad and deep, it could hold numerous papers and books on its surface, which at the moment it did not.
Very few items rested there. An inkwell, a pen, a newspaper, two letters, and an odd little woven box. The desk gave the impression of either someone having not yet moved into the space, or of someone so neat that nothing personal was al- lowed to sully the clear surface.
The man standing next to the desk was far more interesting. She realized that the other man, the one who intruded on the drawing room, was a relative. The two looked enough alike, and both bore some resemblance to the last duke. Dark haired and this one had dark eyes as well.
The current duke was a very handsome man, with regular features and the kind of countenance that women can't ignore. Dressed as impeccably as one would expect, with a blinding cravat and collar and a dark suite of garments, he presented a tower of correctness and, she feared, dullness. He stood taller than most, at least a head taller than herself, and his manner upon greeting her bore all of the formality that one expected of an important person who had agreed to accept the call of a total stranger.
She figured she had at most three minutes to garner his attention before he politely had her thrown out. She made a curtsy, then stood upright and looked him right in the eyes. “My name is Iris Barrington, and I have come to request—no, to demand—that you fulfill a promise that your uncle made to me.”
At first she received no reaction at all. Just a long consideration. For a moment he reminded her of Count D'Ilio, a friend whose reserve could be either intriguing and mysterious or annoying and boring. It all depended on her mood. She tended to attract men like that. They enjoyed her lack of reserve and lived a vicariously vivacious life through her.
This particular man did not truly fit that mold. For one thing, she doubted he was all that reserved in a normal situation. The duke in him might be, but the man in him probably wasn't. Her reason for thinking that was the sparks in his eyes. The duke was taking her measure, but the man liked what he saw.
How interesting. Perhaps a different tactic was in order. She flashed her brightest smile and stepped a few paces closer so the expensive scent she wore would waft toward him. “Forgive me. I did not intend to be rude and just blurt that out. However, I am at a disadvantage. I am grateful that you received me at all. It was very kind of you to do so.”
“You could have written first.”
“I assumed my letter would never make it past the desk of your secretary. I have no references. No family here. I am not an ordinary petitioner.”
A half smile formed. He gestured to a settee and chair against the far wall. “Perhaps you will sit and explain about this promise you claim my uncle made.”
She sat, leaving enough space for the duke to sit beside her. Which he did not do. So much for a few feminine wiles gaining her all that she sought.
“You say 'claim.' You probably have had a long line of people approach you and say the late duke promised them this and such,” she said.
“A fair number.”
“Were they all liars?”
He smiled. Goodness, what a nice smile it was too. The kind that could warm a woman all the way down to—
“A fair number were,” he said.
“I am not lying. I met with your uncle not long before his passing. He promised to help me find something that I believed he owned. A manuscript. A very fine one from the early 1400s. A Psalter, full of superb illuminations. I had heard that it was bought by his father—your grandfather—and wanted to know if it was still in the ducal library.”
Curiosity joined male appreciation in his eyes. “Why would you care if it were in the library?”
“I have a buyer for it. It is worth a small fortune. I trade in rare books and manuscripts, you see. In such a sale I would act as a go-between.” Lies, most of it. It would not do to explain the real reason she wanted to find that manuscript. He would never help her then.
“Did he tell you that his father's library was divided upon his death? Each son received a portion of it.”
“He did tell me, and he promised to look into which son had received the Psalter. When word reached me that he had died—I had not heard from him in so long, but I never guessed that was why. I thought perhaps he had not found it, or changed his mind, or that his letters had not found me yet. I realized then that perhaps he had not even had the time to look into this for me.”
More curiosity. Too much.
“When did you have this visit with him, when you asked about the Psalter?” “In February, or early March. I can't remember the exact day.” “Was it here in London?” “He wrote and told me to come to his estate in Sussex. Melton Park.”
The duke seemed to ponder that. He stood and walked to one of the windows and gazed out. Then he looked back over his shoulder and examined her from hat to shoes. “Is this the only reason you have called today, Miss Barrington? Is there anything else that you want to address with me?”
Her mind, which had begun dallying on inappropriate musings while she observed his tall, lean form and perfect profile at that window, scrambled to right itself and guess what else she was supposed to want from him.
“There is nothing else,” she finally said, stupidly.
He looked out the window again. “This house has an extensive garden. The day is fair. Would you like to take a turn with me? As it happens, I have something other than old books I want to talk about.”
She could hardly refuse, since he had bothered to see her at all. However, while he escorted her out and down to the garden, it crossed her mind that this could be a very decisive man, and that she was about to hear a proposition that indeed had nothing to do with old books.
# # #
“Where do you live?” Nicholas asked the question after they had strolled about fifteen feet down a garden path. He tried to make it sound barely curious but suspected it came out more like an interrogation.
The sharpness, he admitted, had a lot to do with forcing himself to train his mind on the conversation to come rather than the erotic speculations to which it had wanted to veer since this woman walked into his study. To desire a woman so immediately, so thoroughly, so specifically—it had been a long time since he experienced that kind of attraction, and it was all he could do not to turn into the worst lecher in London.
“I spend most of my time on the Continent. I was raised there, and of course the best libraries can be found among the aristocracy of those countries. As for a home, I do have a family home in Florence. I am often traveling, however.”
“Do you come to England often?”
“Not often. Perhaps once a year. My travels take me to other capitals.”
“Looking for old books?”
“It is my trade.”
Their stroll had taken them far into the garden, near the wall that surrounded it. Few of the houses in London had grounds like this. The northern section was wilderness, even more rare. Situated as it was at the upper end of Park Lane and across from the park, it formed a little bit of country in a teeming town. Of all the properties that Nicholas had inherited, he preferred this one.
Beside him, Miss Barrington trod resolutely. Her expression remained passive, but her dark eyes glinted. Those eyes could be mesmerizing if he allowed himself to look into them for long. The glints became stars in the night sky then. That, and her dark hair and very fair skin gave her a distinctive appearance that was somewhat foreign. A taste for flamboyant details in her dress, in this case a long Venetian shawl of ochres and grays, such as most women wore to the theater, not for a morning call, drew further attention to her person. And her manner—not many women would make demands of a duke upon first meeting him.
She was fascinating. A gloss of sensuality covered her much like a veil might cause hazy features. It came off her like an air or a scent. Her actual scent only increased the effect.
He knew that he wanted her as soon as he saw her, which made the meeting all the harder. It was difficult to remain aloof when in reality you wanted to devour your guest.
“Miss Barrington, there is something I must tell you. It will make little sense, I suspect. If that is your reaction, you will not be alone. I would agree, totally.”
He sensed her tense beside him. She stopped walking and faced him. Her expression indicated she was not going to be all that surprised after all. She raised one eyebrow, waiting.
“My uncle's will had some unusual provisions,” Nicholas continued. “A large portion of his personal wealth was left to people who are not family, friends, or retainers. Three women unknown to the family received most of it. Iris Barrington is one of those women.”
She blinked, hard. She frowned. Then she burst out laughing. “You are joking, surely. This is a peculiar amusement of yours.”
“Not at all. We have been looking for you for months. Here in England, and for some time now on the Continent. Perhaps all that traveling interfered with our finding you there.”
She smiled broadly with a luscious mouth. “And this is what you wanted to tell me? This is the reason for this stroll in the garden?”
“Yes.” He reached into his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a card. “This is the name of the family solicitor. He is also the will's executor. I recommend that you see him at once.”
She took the card and stared at it. Then she laughed again. “Well, I'll be damned.” She looked up into his eyes. Those starry glints began beckoning him to join her in the night sky. “I just assumed you brought me here to proposition me.”
He laughed, too, as if such an idea was ridiculous.
They headed back to the house. Of course, he had to know.
“Does that happen often? Being propositioned?” he asked ever so casually.
She kept looking at the card. “All the time. A woman on her own—well, you can imagine. But I have never been, and never will be, some man's mistress. I make my own way. Being supported like that carries obligations that I refuse to accept.”
“That is understandable.”
She aimed for the front garden portal, indicating she intended to leave that way. At the gate she stopped and faced him again. Her smile was sly, but her expression matter-of-fact. “Then again, I am not opposed to taking lovers if they appeal to me. That is different.”
Very different. He reacted as if it had been an invitation of sorts, but he also knew it might only be a taunt.
That sensual air seemed to blanket him. In a few moments he would be completely aroused if she did not leave at once.
“I need to ask you something,” she said. “Do a duke's promises die with him?”
“Not the important ones.”
“I would very much like to find that Psalter.”
Hell, he'd give her his eye teeth if she wanted them right now.
The Heiress Bride, copyright © 2023 Madeline Hunter