A Duchess in the Dark

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Miss Daphne Hayward is on the hunt for a safe, honorable husband and she has set her sights on the perfect target. He's kind, titled, and miraculously single. She plans a full-scale seduction that will bring him to his knees, begging for her hand in marriage. But when she mistakenly climbs into another man's bed, sparks ignite, threatening to send all her plans up in smoke.

Ashton Fitzgerald, Duke of Claymore, is surprised by the powerful desire that surges through him when he sees Daphne for the first time. So when he unveils her as his mysterious midnight visitor, he is determined to make her his…forever.

 

Read an excerpt of A Duchess in the Dark


CHAPTER ONE

Yorkshire, England, 1813

Daphne Hayward slipped into the room silently, shutting and bolting the door behind her. Edward's room was pitch-black, the curtains pulled tight against the moonlight, the air around her still and quiet—the only sound came from the far side of the room, where Edward lay in his bed. His loud, measured breaths assured her he was fast asleep. Her sweet, pliable Edward.

Tonight he would finally be hers.

With trembling fingers, Daphne untied the sash at her waist and let the pale-pink robe slip from her shoulders and pool onto the floor. Her chemise and slippers quickly followed. Cold air nipped at her naked skin as she hurried to the bed—from instinct rather than sight—quickly sliding beneath the coverlet.

For several minutes, she lay there, frozen, too afraid to move. Her heart hammered against her ribs and the crisp air caught in her lungs. Before she lost her nerve, she reached over and trailed one tentative finger down Edward's muscled arm. He felt smooth like granite, but warm to the touch.

When he didn't stir, her touch grew bolder. Moving closer, she drew the coverlet back and skimmed her hand up his naked torso. In the darkness, she could feel every ridge and muscle that lined his stomach. She'd never realized how deliciously strong he was. In daylight, he looked every bit the respectable gentleman—tall with wavy blond hair, pale-blue eyes, and a frame that leaned toward boyish. She was delighted to discover it was just an illusion—no doubt created by his very talented tailor. It was a wonder what miles of fabric and fine tailoring could conceal.

Licking her lips, she let her hand trail downward to the crisp hairs that peeked just above…He moaned a little, waking, and she snatched her hand back. He was completely naked. A split second before she'd pulled her hand away, she'd brushed against the hot ridge of his erection.

Suddenly, she felt out of her depth. What was she doing? Despite her sister, Margaret's, frank discussions about sex, Daphne hadn't the faintest idea how to seduce a man—but she must. Their future happiness with Edward depended on it.

He groaned. The sound of his voice was richer, heavier in sleep than she'd imagined. But before she could contemplate that too deeply, he rolled over and dragged her beneath him with a low growl.

"I hoped you'd come," he said, his voice roughened from sleep.

Daphne let out a startled gasp, excited, as the weight of his body pressed her into the mattress. Her sister was right. Men really did abandon all civility and surrender to their animal natures in bed. Again, she had no time to contemplate this wondrous transformation as he swiftly caught her lips in a deep, passionate kiss, obliterating any further thought. All she was left with was the wicked sensation of his tongue sweeping into her mouth, stroking her senseless, melting her fears. He tasted rich, like brandy, mixed with cigar and wood smoke—wholly male, and so unlike the man she knew in daylight.

It was clear by the way he took control that he wanted this. She had long suspected it to be true, but his gentle and honorable nature had always been an obstacle. Now, in the darkness, the world, society, melted away and there was only the two of them. And it felt right, so very right.

Deliriously right.

He released her mouth and trailed wet kisses down her neck, biting as his hand found the patch of curls between her thighs. A thrill of excitement rushed through her as he toyed with her there, running his finger along the seam of her sex, while his lips lowered to play havoc with her left nipple. His tongue swirled and licked, sending ripples of heat spreading through her veins. His mouth felt so good against her skin, wet and hot, and she lost herself to the sensation.

"Mmmmm." With one hand, he spread her thighs wide and settled himself between them, his lower half hovering just inches above her. Instinctively, she arched her hips upward, grinding into his pelvis, searching for more of that delicious friction. She wanted more. So much more. Everything he had to give.

In one swift thrust, he entered her. The sharp sting was so painful it took her breath away. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. Edward had always been gentle toward her. If he knew he'd hurt her, he'd pull away, and she simply couldn't let that happen. She needed this. They needed this.

He moved with deep, sure thrusts, each more forceful than the last, and slowly the pain began to ease. Deep-seated satisfaction bloomed within her chest. This man was hers. Nothing could part them now.

A little moan escaped her lips as something swirled inside her, spiraling, faster and faster, like an unraveling spool of thread. This one moment was like everything she'd ever dared hope for, and more. The connection between them was powerful and soul-gripping. It threatened to consume her whole. At any moment, she was going to shatter. Then, with one final thrust, he pushed impossibly deeper and stilled.

His breathing was labored, and it took him a full minute to gather himself before he finally rolled off of her. This was the moment, she thought, that regret would start to sink in. The moment that he'd shower her with apologies and beg forgiveness. She'd promised herself that if she went through with this, she wouldn't remain long enough for him to pollute the moment with shame. What was done was done, and she was happy for it.

Without a word, she kissed his forehead and pulled away, just as she felt him reach for her.

"Stay," he said.

She hesitated, drawn by his warmth and by the rough, erotic rumble of his voice. How desperately she wanted to curl up within the shelter of his arms and drift off to sleep…but she couldn't. She'd already risked too much by coming here.

"I can't," she whispered, disentangling herself from his arms. "Someone will discover us."

Quickly, she scrambled off the bed. She stumbled around in the darkness and retrieved her robe, sliding the silky material over her shoulders. She blew a kiss into the air, smiling to herself. Edward was hers. Surely now, after their passionate encounter, he wouldn't hesitate to propose. It was the next logical step.

She slipped out the door and into the passageway, tiptoeing her way back to her bedroom. He was hers now. And no one, not even her brother-in-law, could possibly object to the marriage. Smiling to herself, she ran her fingers along the cool surface of the wall when someone rounded the corner from the opposite end of the passageway, candle held high.

Daphne stopped abruptly and looked up, into the face illuminated by the orange glow of the candle flame. "Edward?"

"Daphne," he said, surprised.

Her heart stopped, then leapt into her throat. "My God," she gasped. "What have I done?"

***

The next morning, Ashton Lewis Fitzgerald, Duke of Claymore, rolled onto his back and drew in a deep, satisfied breath. The smell of sex still lingered in the air, permeated the crisp white sheets. Gwendolyn had found her way into his bed. She always did, one way or another. And he always welcomed her with fervor. And last night had been unparalleled. His blood still buzzed from the feel of her skin, from the taste of her sweet honeyed lips. Perhaps it was just the brandy, but last night had been different, powerful. The way she'd moved, the way she'd arched into him, giving herself completely, had taken him to new heights. Their couplings had always been pleasant and passionate. But until last night, he'd never truly felt connected to her.

Already he craved more.

Even her scent had changed. New soap, perhaps. Lavender with just a touch of mint. He'd drawn it into his lungs and inexplicably felt a sense of rightness.

Owens, his valet, pushed the curtains open to let in the blinding midmorning sun. Ashton rolled onto his stomach and pulled the pillow over his head to block out the light. On his next visit, he must remember to request a westward-facing room. He lifted the pillow just enough to speak and be heard. "Is James awake?"

"He is, Your Grace."

With a heavy groan, Ashton threw the pillow aside and lifted himself up onto his elbows. The white sheets were tangled around his legs and a flash of color in his periphery drew his attention. A dark-red substance was smeared across the mattress. He squinted and drew his brows together. It looked curiously like dried blood. A quick assessment of his person revealed no open wounds, thank heaven. "What in the devil happened…?"

"I couldn't begin to guess," Owens replied in his usual monotone.

Ashton stared down at his ruined sheets. Perhaps it was Gwen's time, and she'd been too overcome with lust to wait until her courses subsided. That must be it. Ashton smiled to himself. What other reason could there be?

The breakfast room was filled to the brim with guests, all mingling politely, taking their breakfast and talking about the tour around the lake that was planned for later that morning. As he moved to the buffet, a familiar voice rang out from across the room.

"There you are, old man. I was wondering when you'd finally show your face." James Leventhorpe, his friend and host, was sitting at the breakfast table, a newspaper spread out in front of him.

"I was up late." Ashton poured himself a cup of coffee. He sat in the empty chair beside James and lowered his voice to a conspiring whisper. "She came to me last night, and she was quite extraordinary." Ashton winked and sat back in his chair, awaiting James's gentlemanly praise.

"You couldn't mean your pretty little widow."

"The very one," Ashton said.

James threw his head back and laughed.

"I fail to see what is so damn funny."

"Gwendolyn isn't here, old man. You're getting your women mixed up, you fortunate bastard."

Ashton lifted a questioning brow, which prompted James to elaborate. "Margaret received a letter from her this morning. She's been delayed—her mother's health or some such nonsense. She isn't due to arrive until early this afternoon."

No, that wasn't possible. He'd ravaged the woman, for God's sake. Clearly it was a misunderstanding. "Well, whatever that letter said, I'm certain it was her. She must have arrived earlier than expected."

James shook his head. "Afraid not, ol' chap. That one isn't likely to escape anyone's notice."

Ashton had to concede to that fact. She wasn't likely to slip past the servants or the other guests. But if she wasn't here, then who had climbed into his bed?

Ashton narrowed his gaze on James. "Someone climbed into my bed last night, and when I awoke this morning there was blood on the sheets. If you've orchestrated this as a joke…"

James raised his hands in surrender, looking far too amused by all this. "I wouldn't dream of risking my wife's anger by causing discord among her guests. I swear it."

And Ashton believed him, damn it. And besides James, there wasn't anyone else present who'd play such a cruel joke. He could only conclude that the woman had purposefully placed herself in his bed.

Ashton reflected on the woman herself. Even in his brandy-induced haze, he remembered the heat of her breath on his skin, the sweet taste of her as he licked and savored those pert little breasts. He paused. Pert little breasts.

"Christ."

"What is it?" James asked, taking a sip of his coffee.

How much should one reveal of one's own stupidity? Ashton let out a sharp, aggravated breath.

"I've only just realized that the woman in my room last night had rather small breasts." He remembered how perfectly her breasts fit in his palm, how splendid they felt brushing against his chest as he slid into her.

"Then we can safely rule out your widow. Aside from the fact that she isn't present, her breasts aren't exactly small." James buttered a piece of toast. "Any idea who your mystery lady could be? We have a houseful, you know. My wife insisted on inviting half of London. It could be anyone."

Ashton's gaze swept the room critically, taking in all the young women present in a different light. All he knew for certain was that the woman had a sweet little moan, delicious breasts, and… "She was a virgin."

Astonishment and a liberal amount of sympathy crossed his friend's face. "Well, we hardly need to guess, then. She'll be making herself known soon enough. No doubt it's a proposal she's after, whoever she is." He slapped Ashton on the shoulder. "You'd best pack up and run while you still can."

Ashton cursed under his breath. What had he gotten himself into? He'd been too damned foxed to realize another woman had crawled into his bed. Had he seen the woman's face and known she wasn't his mistress, he would never have taken liberties.

But, God, how she'd heated his blood, her lithe body sending him over the edge, into oblivion. He hadn't even seen her face and already he was entranced. He had to find her, whoever she was, if only to satisfy his curiosity and uncover her motives.

"I will not run." He sat back in his chair. "I have no other option than to seek the woman out and make amends." He stirred his coffee distractedly. "How does one detect a newly deflowered virgin?"

"Quite simple," James said. "They almost always twitch for days afterward. Nothing dramatic, mind you, just a subtle twitch of the eye or lips."

Ashton stared at him. He was quite serious. "That's preposterous, James. You really are addled."

James raised a brow. "How many virgins have you deflowered?"

"Only one, it would seem." He'd only ever bedded widows. They were plentiful enough in London, and in the country. Why would one purposely set out to dally with a troublesome virgin? James, on the other hand, had no such objection. He'd deflowered at least two women during their years together at Eton.

"Precisely," James said confidently, taking a bite of his toast. "Find yourself a twitchy eye, and you've found your mystery woman. Mark my words."


Excerpt from A DUCHESS IN THE DARK by Kate McKinley, Copyright ©2013 by Kate McKinley. All rights reserved. Reprint only with permission from author.