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Charles de Lacey, Lord Gresham, is running out of time, running from his responsibilities, and running from love.
Destined to be a duke, Charles de Lacey has led a life of decadent pleasure, free of any care for propriety or responsibility. It comes as a terrible shock to learn that he might be stripped of everything, thanks to his father’s scandalous past. He has no choice but to find the blackmailer who would ruin him—and his only link to the villain is a woman who may be part of the plot…
To save his fortune and title, he vows he’ll stop at nothing—in fact, he’s all too eager to unravel the beautiful, tart-tongued Tessa Neville. She intrigues him and tempts him like no other lady ever has. With only his heart to guide him, and keenly aware that his entire future is at stake, Charles must decide: is she the woman of his dreams, or an enemy in disguise?
Why do you need to read this book? I loved the characters in this story – mainly Tessa. She was totally delightful and worth the price of the book! Pick up a copy and let me know what you think.
The Way to a Duke’s Heart is available on Amazon
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Excerpt from author’s website:
He was born to be a great man.
At birth he was swaddled in the finest linens embroidered with the crest of the Earldom of Gresham—his father’s second-highest title and therefore his, by courtesy of being the heir. The great estates of Durham and all his father’s lesser properties, extensive and wealthy enough to be a small kingdom, would be his one day. His line could be traced back to the first Earl of Durham, ennobled by Richard the Lionheart himself, and on his mother’s side he was descended from Edward IV. The blood of not just dukes, but kings, flowed in his veins.
He was expected to live up to it. One of his first memories was of his nurse scolding him for some misdeed and telling him how great he would be. “You’ll be a duke one day, a great man like your father, and it doesn’t become you to hit your brother,” she’d told him as she spanked his hand with her wooden spoon. He squirmed in agony through the punishment, but there was nothing he could say in reply. His brother Edward wasn’t the heir; he was not born to be great. Charles Cedric Spencer Fitzhenry de Lacey, eldest son of the Duke of Durham, felt the burden of his heritage from an early date.
When he was eight he was sent off to school. His mother cried, but Charlie was eager to go. Being the heir meant he was closely supervised, and school promised freedom. And first Eton, then Oxford, suited him; in their demanding halls and fields, where a boy’s character as well as his body and mind endured trial by fire, he thrived. He made friends easily, and was big enough to hold his own against those he didn’t befriend. His family’s standing was among the highest in England, and he was usually elected head of any group of boys. He acquitted himself reasonably well in his lessons, and learned the trick of winning his tutors’ favor to raise his standing even more. And his title made him irresistible to girls of all ages and shapes, which was just bloody brilliant in Charlie’s opinion. Away from home, he felt quite up to the lordly destiny imposed on him at birth.
At home, though, was a different story. His father had always been a demanding parent, but his mother leavened the atmosphere at Lastings Park with laughter and love, teasing Durham out of his darker moods. When she died, the summer Charlie was eleven, it cast a shadow over the whole household but most especially over the duke. Durham grew stern and critical of everything his sons did. He constantly pushed them all to excel, but Charlie was held to a higher standard—impossibly high, it seemed. When he finished in the upper half of the form, Durham excoriated him for not being at the top. When he was reprimanded at school for some harebrained caper, Durham himself came to deliver a brutal lecture and suspend his pocket money for a full term, forcing Charlie to live like a pauper and borrow what he could from friends. Whatever he did, his father found fault with, citing his future position and duty as the bar he fell woefully short of. Charlie privately thought he wasn’t quite as bad as all that, but he dutifully bore up under the lectures and thrashings. He was the heir, after all, and great men bore up under adversity.
He came home from school at age sixteen to discover his father had begun talking about estate business with Edward—Edward, who was only thirteen. “The boy’s uncommonly bright,” the duke boasted to a neighbor, in hearing of all his sons. “Excellent sense in his head. Quite the brightest of my lads.” Charlie shot an unhappily surprised look at his brother, who only gave a sheepish shrug. Edward couldn’t help being clever with numbers. Charlie, who managed well enough at mathematics but didn’t really care for it, knew he was beaten before he’d even realized there was a competition.
When he next came home on holiday from university, he discovered his youngest brother Gerard had shot up in height and now topped him by two inches. Charlie, accustomed to seeing Gerard’s eager face turned up to him in admiration, found this unsettling. Gerard had inherited the de Lacey streak of fearlessness, and when he rode the unbroken colts, Durham roared with approval. Charlie, who had been forbidden since birth to touch those raw colts, watched in grim silence. While not precisely longing to risk his neck on Durham’s wildest horseflesh, he rather resented his father’s obvious approval of his youngest brother’s abilities and daring.
But all this, too, one might endure. As infuriating as it was to suffer in comparison to younger brothers, Charlie still had the consolation of knowing he was the heir. Edward might be cleverer at managing the estates, but they would be his estates. Gerard might cover himself in glory on the battlefield, but he would have the seat in Parliament, where the direction of the nation was decided. He might never be renowned for his brilliance or lauded for his courage, but he would matter. He told himself the rest was immaterial; he didn’t hate his brothers for their talents, even if his father clearly preferred them. Lord knew he wasn’t the only heir to chafe under a strict and demanding father’s hand.
But then he met Maria.
He had gone to the local assembly rooms on a lark with Rance and Longhurst, two mates from university. All three were whiling away a few weeks of freedom before departing on the Grand Tour; Durham had finally decided he might travel abroad, so long as he stayed clear of any lingering madness in France. In a room filled with gentleman farmers and a handful of gentry, Charlie and his titled friends stood out like candles in the darkness. Every female in the room sighed in rapture at their entrance, from the blushing young ladies to their suddenly alert grandmamas. So many females were presented to him that night, Charlie lost count. He danced until his feet were sore, and was in search of liquid refreshments when he caught sight of the ravishing creature who would turn his world upside down.
She was almost ethereally beautiful, with sky blue eyes in a perfect pale oval face. Her dark curls were tied with a simple white ribbon, and her pink dress displayed a plump, luscious figure. Even so, it was the toe of her slipper, peeking from beneath her skirt and tapping in time with the music, that really caught his eye. Why was such a lovely girl not dancing? And who the devil was she?
A few discreet questions supplied the answers. “Maria Gronow,” Rance reported. “Family’s a bit dodgy, if you believe the gossip. Still—by gad, Gresham, she’s a sweet piece.”
“Yes,” said Charlie, staring at her openly. “Find someone to introduce me.”
It was nearly love at first sight. She blushed very prettily when he bowed to her, but her smile was almost coy. She agreed to one dance, which sadly turned out to be an old-fashioned pavane that prevented any significant conversation, and then refused to grant him another.
“A lady must be so careful of her reputation, my lord,” she murmured, looking up at him through her eyelashes and flashing an enigmatic smile. “And a gentleman must mind his intentions.”
“Of course, Miss Gronow.” He returned her smile, already anticipating the pursuit.
When he called to pay his compliments, she smiled in her coquettish way and said she hoped he would come again. He did, with flowers, and was rewarded with her agreement to go riding with him. Mrs. Gronow, her mother, granted permission with a smile, but it was nothing to the smile Maria gave him later, after he stole his first kiss on that first ride together. From that moment, he was lost.
It was an intoxicating month. Charlie called on her every day, taking her riding and driving and even just walking. He grew drunk on the taste of her, the scent of her, the touch of her lips. She understood him; for hours they talked, and she never failed to take his side and roundly malign anyone who slighted him. She looked at him as if no one else in the world existed, and he didn’t know how he could survive without her. He couldn’t sleep for thinking of her. He could barely carry on conversations for thinking of when he would see her next. Every kiss drove him mad, every touch made him burn, and her tempting little smile only fueled the inferno of desire inside him. Quite rapidly his world divided in two, where there was only the bright heaven containing Maria and the cold dark hinterland containing everyone else.
His friends noticed. They teased him about his luck in securing the prettiest piece of muslin in Sussex, and Charlie just smiled. His love for Maria, he knew, was a tricky thing. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her for several months to take a Grand Tour. Not because he feared falling in love with someone else, as she sometimes teased him, but because he was mad for her. If anything, she would find another fellow while he was gone, someone polished and older and independent. He was sure Maria could tempt a royal prince himself, if she happened across His Highness’s path. The more Rance and Longhurst talked of the Tour looming before them, the more resistant Charlie grew. Italy and Greece would always be there; Maria, young and beautiful and almost his, would not. By the time his friends departed for their family homes to prepare for the journey, he had made up his mind. He was not going. He was going to stay in Sussex and marry Maria.
He just had to tell his father.
“I don’t think I shall leave for Italy next month after all.” He fired his opening shot at dinner one night. Opportunely, he was dining alone with the duke; Gerard was at university and Edward was in Wales, studying sheep farming with their uncle, the Earl of Dowling.
Durham didn’t say anything. He looked at Charlie for a long moment over the rim of his glass, then waved one hand, sending the footmen from the room. “Why not?”
“I haven’t been home much. I ought to learn the estate.”
Durham just focused a hawklike stare on him.
“I thought you’d be pleased,” Charlie forged onward. “Shouldering my duty, and all that.”
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with that girl, would it?”
The question caught him off guard. He hadn’t said a word about Maria to his father, and Rance and Longhurst were too cowed by His Grace to betray him. “She’s not just any girl,” he snapped back before he could think better of it.
His father grunted. “No, indeed. She’s the very worst sort of adventuress, trying to entrap a boy barely out of short coats.”
“I’m twenty-two years old,” he replied, flushing with humiliation. “I’m not a boy, Father, I’m a man.”
“Then act like one.” Durham turned his attention back to his plate. “Don’t be led by your prick, lad.”
“I’m in love with her.” He was trying to be calm and firm about this, but his father knew just how to provoke him.
“No, you’re not,” said Durham, unmoved. “You want to bed her.”
That was true—desperately, painfully true—but Charlie bristled in the face of such bald accusation. “I haven’t! I wish to behave honorably toward her.”
His father raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Then you’re giving her far better coin than she gives you. The Gronows are unparalleled leeches.”
“She’s as decent and modest as any young lady in England!”
Durham put down his knife and fork and leveled a stern finger at him. “I don’t care how badly she teases you or how desperately you want her. You’re not going to marry her. Talk your way under her skirts if you will, but no son of mine is going to marry into a scheming family of charlatans. She may have some finer qualities, but mark my words: she wants to be a duchess, with ready access to Durham’s funds to support her worthless father. Don’t fall for her pretense of affection, Charles.”
He took a deep breath, his hands in fists. “I’m bringing her to call,” he announced. “You’ll reconsider when you meet her.”
Durham stared at him. “Very well,” he said at last. He reached for his wine as if peace had been restored. “Invite her parents if you like.”
The Gronows were delighted to accept the invitation. Charlie suffered a pang of hesitation when Mrs. Gronow almost crowed in triumph as she stepped into the house, and he didn’t miss the way Mr. Gronow eyed the furnishings and paintings with a calculating, hungry look. His father was wrong, damned wrong, about Maria, but perhaps Durham knew something about her parents Charlie did not. His fears evaporated when Maria caught his eye and gave him a rueful smile as her parents exclaimed a little too loudly about Lastings Park. He managed to take her hand as they followed the butler to the drawing room, and she squeezed his fingers back, setting his heart at peace again.
Durham made his appearance half an hour later. At first he was the very model of an aristocrat, polite but chilly. Charlie began to relax, despite the gleeful glances Mrs. Gronow kept giving Maria; he hoped his father couldn’t see those. To himself, Charlie admitted the Gronows were rather grasping and avaricious, but he wasn’t marrying them, he was marrying Maria, and she was enduring this endless visit with the same serene assurance she always had.
“So,” said Durham abruptly, fastening his dark gaze on Maria. “I understand there is talk of an alliance.”
“Indeed, sir.” Mrs. Gronow sat up a little straighter and beamed at her daughter. “We hear nothing at home except of Lord Gresham—and I daresay my daughter is too modest in her praise of him!”
“I daresay,” murmured the duke. “Has an offer been made?”
“Yes, sir.” Charlie met his father’s eyes evenly and confidently. Despite his father’s warning the other night, he had asked for Maria’s hand in marriage. He couldn’t resist a fond glance at his betrothed. “Happily she has consented, and Mr. Gronow has given his blessing.” Maria blushed a pretty shade of pink and modestly lowered her eyes.
“With great pleasure,” declared Mr. Gronow. “I couldn’t hope for a better match for my child. We are all honored by the connection.”
Durham shot an unreadable look at him. “No doubt.” He turned back to Maria, his eyes narrowed almost as if he were studying her for flaws. Charlie was sure even his father, demanding and particular, could find nothing false in her. She was so beautiful, perfectly at home in the elegant drawing room. He flashed her another confident glance, and was rewarded with her little smile, the intimate look she reserved just for him.
“I do not approve,” said Durham quietly. “He is too young to marry.”
Mrs. Gronow made a shocked gasp. Her husband’s chin dropped. Charlie could barely see for the haze of humiliation that sprang up before him. “I am old enough, sir—” he began, but his father wasn’t finished.
“He is much too young,” repeated the duke. “I cannot consent to this, and I will not bless it. He has not reached his majority, and if he were to contravene my wishes, he would be cut off without a farthing for the rest of my life.”
There was a frozen silence in the room. Maria’s blush faded to stark pallor as she stared at the duke with burning eyes. Mrs. Gronow looked fearfully at her husband, who seemed to be struggling for speech. Charlie could hardly breathe. How humiliating, to be treated like—and called!—a child, in front of his beloved and her parents. It was bad enough to hear his father praise Edward’s intelligence over his, or applaud Gerard’s bravery, but this… All he asked of his father was permission to marry the girl he loved, and Durham had cut him down in the cruelest way possible.
Unruffled by the tension in the room, the duke got to his feet. “Good day.” He was out the door before anyone else moved.
“Well!” Mrs. Gronow sucked in a deep breath, and then another. “Well!”
“I’m very sorry,” said Charlie in a low, tight voice. “I never dreamt—”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Maria said woodenly.
“Of course not,” added Mr. Gronow. He gave Charlie a distracted pat on the shoulder. “Maria, Mrs. Gronow, let us go.”
Charlie followed them through the house. “Don’t despair, darling,” he whispered to Maria as the footmen fetched their things. “It’s not the end.”
She looked at him with skeptical hope. “How can it not be? He refused to give his consent—he appeared quite implacable!”
“I don’t need his bloody consent,” growled Charlie. He touched one finger to the corner of her mouth, desperate to see her smile again. “I won’t be bound by his arbitrary pronouncements.”
Maria shook her head. The hopeful light in her face faded. “How? How can you persuade him?”
He couldn’t, and he knew it, but Charlie didn’t give a damn right now. “Can you get away tomorrow?” Her parents were ready to go; he had only a moment left with her. “Meet me at the bridge, tomorrow morning. Please, Maria,” he begged as she glanced uncertainly toward her father. “For just a few minutes.”
“The day after,” he urged. “Three days from now. Any time. Please, darling.”
She bit her lip, but nodded. “Ten o’clock, Friday.”
Four days from now. An eternity, but he was desperately grateful for the chance. “Until then.” He pressed her fingertips to his lips, disregarding their companions.
“Good-bye,” she whispered, and then the Gronows were gone, Maria hurrying in her mother’s wake, her head down. Charlie watched until their carriage was gone, but she never looked back at him.
A sharp ache speared his chest. How dare his father do that to him? He knew Durham didn’t approve, but to denigrate his heir that way, in front of others, was intolerable. He stormed off to vent his humiliation and hurt at his father, but it was unsatisfying. Durham absorbed his fury without responding to it. He listened and said nothing when Charlie wanted him to erupt in fury. He wanted his father to feel the same pain he felt now, the same panic. Maria was doubting him. Mr. Gronow might withdraw his consent. And still his father refused to engage, merely repeating that Charlie was too young to know his own mind and the decision was irrevocable.
For three days he brooded about it, avoiding his father. On the day he was to meet Maria, Charlie rose with his mind made up: he would make one last effort to persuade his father, and failing that, he would elope. He would be cut off from his allowance, true; but what was money when weighed against losing the love of his life? Durham couldn’t disinherit him. Sooner or later Charlie would ascend to the dukedom and its trappings, and probably sooner than later. His father was nearing seventy, albeit without any real sign of infirmity. His heart hardened with resolution, he went into the breakfast room and bowed.
“Sir,” he said. “I implore you one last time to reconsider.”
Durham didn’t ask about what. His face set, he slowly shook his head. “No.”
As he had expected. Charlie bowed again. “Good day, then.”
Maria was waiting by the time he reached the bridge in the woods, her blue cloak a bright spot amid the greenery. His heart jumped as always at the sight of her; he was off his horse and rushing toward her before she even turned to face him. But her expression stopped him in his tracks.
Her eyes were grave. Her porcelain skin was frighteningly pale, and her mouth trembled at the sight of him. Renewed fury bloomed inside him, that his father had done this to her—to them. He clasped her in his arms, and she clung to him as if her life depended on it, soft and fragile in his embrace.
“Run away with me,” he whispered. “I can’t bear to lose you. Elope with me.”
She raised her face to him. “We can’t. Your father—”
“Damn him,” Charlie growled. “I love you.”
“We’d be poor,” she cried in anguish. “Cut off. Cast out.”
“Only until he dies.” It was cold and heartless to say it that way, but Charlie thought those words described the duke’s action perfectly. “Maria, darling, we can manage.”
“How? Do you really mean to be destitute for years and years?” She stepped back out of his hold. “Did you know he called on my father?”
Charlie stared, thunderstruck. “No.”
“He said you wouldn’t have a farthing from him if we married against his wishes. Papa was quite indignant on your behalf—how could a father cast out his eldest son?—but His Grace was adamant. He declared the previous Duke of Durham lived past age ninety, and he meant to do the same. Don’t you see, we can’t run off!”
“I’ll take care of you,” he promised recklessly. “Somehow.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “No,” she whispered. “I wish I could, but I can’t. My parents told me this morning I’m not to see you again, because His Grace threatened them if they did not separate us. Mama wants me to go to her cousin in Bath—a change of scene, she says. My heart is breaking. I love you. I always will. But I cannot marry you, not like this.”
She went up on her toes to kiss him. In agony, Charlie seized her and held her close, trying to persuade her with his kiss if not with his words. She wound her arms around his neck and kissed him back, but in the end she pulled away from him. “Good-bye, my love,” she said, her voice quaking. “Good-bye.” She turned and hurried off, leaving him alone.
She hadn’t exaggerated. He heard through neighborhood gossip Maria left the day after their farewell; in fact, all the Gronows went to Bath. But if Charlie thought that was the harshest blow to bear, he was mistaken: barely a fortnight later news reached his ears that she was being courted by an older, more sophisticated man. By the time he heard whispers that Maria Gronow had snared herself an earl—a proper earl, in full possession of his estates and income—Charlie was past the point of feeling the pain.
His father found him in the garden the night he heard the heartbreaking news, staring off in the direction of the bridge where they had parted that last time—forever. For several minutes Durham just sat silently beside him on the cold stone bench.
“She fooled you,” the duke said at last. “It hurts, but better now than later, when you would be irrevocably tied to her.”
“She loves me.” Charlie’s voice sounded flat and dead to his own ears. “And I love her.”
“She wanted to be a duchess,” countered his father. “And her family schemed to make her one. Did you never wonder why a mother would allow her sixteen-year-old daughter so much freedom with a young man?”
He had wondered, briefly, but Maria told him her mother suffered headaches and was often confined to bed, not noticing where her daughter went. Because it suited his wishes so perfectly, he accepted it. Had she lied to him? He shook his head slightly; it didn’t matter now.
“Gronow made no effort to hide it. He hinted you had compromised the girl, thinking to force my hand.” Durham glanced at him. “I know my son. You’re too honorable.” Charlie just sat, stony-faced, remembering every little liberty Maria had allowed him, and every one she had denied him. He had been too honorable. If he’d taken advantage of her innocence, just once, to make love to her and get his child on her, Durham would have had no choice but to agree.
“But I’m not a fool, and I didn’t let him mistake me for one,” his father went on. “Gronow was born a viscount’s son, but he’s a scoundrel and a liar, looking to twist everything to his advantage.” Durham paused, shooting a contemplative glance at him. “He had the temerity to suggest my opinion of the match counted for little, when I said you would never marry his daughter, and to point out I could not disinherit you. He asked if I would allow my grandchildren to be raised in penury.”
“I would marry his daughter,” replied Charlie.
“I told him I would not be blackmailed into supporting his family,” went on his father, as ruthless as ever. “He wanted money, Charles. As soon as I called his bluff about the girl’s virtue, he asked for recompense for her broken heart, first ten thousand pounds, then five, then one. He’s awash in debts. His pretty daughter is the only asset he’s got.”
“She’s not like that.”
“Perhaps not, but I see she wouldn’t elope with you. And now she’s engaged to marry another man, barely three weeks after professing her love for you.”
“She got what she wanted, and it wasn’t you; it was a title and a fortune.” The duke’s tone grew a shade softer. “Surely you see that now.”
“What choice did she have, after being humiliated here? You’re not the only one with pride, Father, although not everyone exercises it so cruelly.”
Durham stiffened and looked away. “You’ll understand some day,” he said at last, his face grim and shadowed. “And you’ll thank me for it.”
Slowly, Charlie turned to stare at his father, feeling hollow and numb. He could endure being the least favorite son; he could endure being criticized on every point, made to feel inferior and useless. In some corner of his mind, he had known his father wouldn’t approve of his match with Maria, but never had he guessed the old man would go to such lengths to prevent it, to drive her away so she would be forever beyond his reach. And to say he would some day thank him for ruining his every hope of happiness, without even a word of sympathy or regret…
“No, sir.” He could almost see the wall between him and his father now, invisible but impenetrable all the same. “I will never thank you for it. I can barely look at you.”
Durham’s jaw twitched. “I am saving you from a fate far worse than you can imagine.”
Rage poured through him, so sharp he was suddenly trembling with it. “What is that? The fate of being married to the woman I love?” He lurched to his feet and flung his arms out wide. “What’s so terrible about that?”
His father hesitated. He started to speak, then closed his mouth into a firm line.
“I’m leaving,” said Charlie, his voice taut with fury. “I’m not coming back. I’ve disappointed you for years, so I expect it will be a relief for you as well as for me. Good-bye, Father.” He swept a mocking bow and turned to go.
“Charles,” said the duke behind him as he walked away. Charlie paused, waiting, but his father didn’t say another word, so he walked on. He packed his things that night and left at dawn the next morning. He didn’t see his father again. No one tried to stop him; in fact, the stable boy had his horse ready and waiting in the morning. He took the road north, toward London, not certain what he would do there but absolutely determined not to be controlled and manipulated like a puppet on a string.
His father thought he was reckless and foolish; so be it. His father thought him a boy, thinking only of pleasures and nothing at all of responsibility; very well. His father thought he wasn’t quite good enough, no matter what he did, so Charlie had had enough of trying. Perhaps the duke deserved to see how very, very right he was. What was the point in striving for something if one was doomed to fall short forever? He might not be a great man, but he could certainly be the greatest libertine in England.
When Charlie reached London, it didn’t take long to lose himself in myriad pleasures and vices. He spent wildly, drank copiously, gambled to excess, and carried on with women of every rank. Within a few years he was established as the most scandalous of rakes, the wildest of rogues, the very embodiment of a scoundrel.
His father disapproved, vehemently—but his excoriating letters never contained a single hint of apology or regret.
And Charlie kept his word never to return.