Home > The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)
Author: Tessa Dare

Chapter One

Emma Gladstone had learned a few hard lessons by the age of two-and-twenty.

Charming princes weren’t always what they seemed. Shining armor went out of fashion with the Crusades. And if fairy godmothers existed, hers was running several years late.

Most of the time, a girl needed to rescue herself.

This afternoon was one of those times.

Ashbury House loomed before her, taking up one full side of the fashionable Mayfair square. Elegant. Enormous.

Terrifying.

She swallowed hard. She could do this. Once, she’d walked to London alone in the bitter heart of winter. She’d refused to succumb to despair or starvation. She’d found work and made a new life for herself in Town. Now, six years later, she’d swallow every needle in Madame Bissette’s dressmaking shop before she’d go crawling back to her father.

Compared to all that, what was knocking on the door of a duke?

Why, nothing. Nothing at all. All she had to do was square her shoulders, charge through the wrought-iron gates, march up those granite steps—really, there were only a hundred or so—and ring the bell on that immense, richly carved door.

Good afternoon. I’m Miss Emma Gladstone. I’m here to see the mysterious, reclusive Duke of Ashbury. No, we aren’t acquainted. No, I don’t have a calling card. I don’t have anything, really. I may not even have a home tomorrow if you don’t let me in.

Oh, good heavens. This would never work.

With a whimper, she turned away from the gate and circled the square for the tenth time, shaking out her bare arms under her cloak.

She had to try.

Emma stopped her pacing, faced the gate, and drew a deep breath. She closed her ears to the frantic pounding of her heart.

The hour was growing late. No one was coming to her aid. There could be no further hesitation, no turning back.

Ready. Steady.

Go.

From his library desk, Ashbury heard an unfamiliar ringing sound. Could it be a doorbell?

There it came again.

It was a doorbell.

Worse, it was his doorbell.

Damned gossips. He hadn’t even been in Town but a few weeks. He’d forgotten how London rumors traveled faster than bullets. He didn’t have the time or patience for busybodies. Whoever it was, Khan would send them away.

He dipped his quill and continued the letter to his feckless solicitors.

I don’t know what the devil you’ve been doing for the past year, but the state of my affairs is deplorable. Sack the Yorkshire land steward directly. Tell the architect I wish to see the plans for the new mill, and I wish to see them yesterday. And there’s one other thing that requires immediate attention.

Ash hesitated, quill poised in midair. He couldn’t believe he was actually going to commit the words to paper. But much as he dreaded it, it must be done. He wrote:

I need a wife.

He supposed he ought to state his requirements: a woman of childbearing age and respectable lineage, in urgent need of money, willing to share a bed with a scarred horror of a man.

In short, someone desperate.

God, how depressing. Better to leave it at that one line.

I need a wife.

Khan appeared in the doorway. “Your Grace, I regret the interruption, but there’s a young woman to see you. She’s wearing a wedding gown.”

Ash looked at the butler. He looked down at the words he’d just written. Then he looked at the butler again.

“Well, that’s uncanny.” Perhaps his solicitors weren’t as useless as he thought. He dropped his pen and propped one boot on the desk, reclining into the shadows. “By all means, show her in.”

A young woman in white strode into the room.

His boot slipped from the desk. He reeled backward and collided with the wall, nearly falling off his chair. A folio of papers tumbled from a nearby shelf, drifting to the floor like snowflakes.

He was blinded.

Not by her beauty—though he supposed she might be beautiful. It wasn’t possible to judge. Her gown was an eye-stabbing monstrosity of pearls, lace, brilliants, and beads.

Good Lord. He wasn’t accustomed to being in the same room with something even more repulsive than his own appearance.

He propped his right elbow on the arm of his chair and raised his fingertips to his brow, concealing the scars on his face. For once, he wasn’t protecting a servant’s sensibilities or even his own pride. He was shielding himself from . . . from that.

“I’m sorry to impose on you this way, Your Grace,” the young woman said, keeping her gaze fixed on some chevron of the Persian carpet.

“I should hope you are.”

“But you see, I am quite desperate.”

“So I gather.”

“I need to be paid for my labor, and I need to be paid at once.”

Ash paused. “Your . . . your labor.”

“I’m a seamstress. I stitched this”—she swept her hands down the silk eyesore—“for Miss Worthing.”

For Miss Worthing.

Ah, this began to make sense. The white satin atrocity had been meant for Ash’s formerly intended bride. That, he could believe. Annabelle Worthing had always had dreadful taste—both in gowns and in prospective husbands.

“When your engagement ended, she never sent for the gown. She’d purchased the silk and lace and such, but she never paid for the labor. And that meant I went unpaid. I tried calling at her home, with no success. My letters to you both went unanswered. I thought that if I appeared like this”—she spread the skirts of the white gown—“I would be impossible to ignore.”

“You were correct on that score.” Even the good side of his face twisted. “Good Lord, it’s as though a draper’s shop exploded and you were the first casualty.”

“Miss Worthing wanted something fit for a duchess.”

“That gown,” he said, “is fit for a bawdy-house chandelier.”

“Well, your intended had . . . extravagant preferences.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “I can’t even take the whole thing in. It looks like unicorn vomit. Or the pelt of some snow beast rumored to menace the Himalayas.”

She tilted her gaze to the ceiling and gave a despairing sigh.

“What?” he said. “Don’t tell me you like it.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it suits my tastes, Your Grace. I take pride in my handiwork regardless, and this gown occupied months of it.”

Now that the shock of her revolting attire had worn off, Ash turned his attention to the young woman who’d been devoured by it.

She was a great improvement on the gown.

Complexion: cream. Lips: rose petals. Lashes: sable.

Backbone: steel.

“This embroidery alone . . . I worked for a week to make it perfect.” She skimmed a touch along the gown’s neckline.

Ash followed the path her fingertips traced. He couldn’t see embroidery. He was a man; he saw breasts. Slight, enticing breasts squeezed by that tortured bodice. He enjoyed them almost as much as he enjoyed the air of determination pushing them high.

He pulled his gaze upward, taking in her slender neck and upswept bounty of chestnut-brown hair. She wore it in the sort of prim, restrained coiffure that made a man’s fingers itch to pull the pins loose, one by one.

Take hold of yourself, Ashbury.

She couldn’t possibly be as pretty as she seemed. No doubt she benefited by contrast with the revolting gown. And he’d been living in solitude for some time. There was that, as well.

“Your Grace,” she said, “my coal bin is empty, the larder’s down to a few moldy potatoes, and my quarterly rent comes due today. The landlord has threatened to turn me out if I don’t pay the full amount. I need to collect my wages. Most urgently.” She held out her hand. “Two pounds, three shillings, if you please.”

Ash crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her. “Miss . . . ?”

“Gladstone. Emma Gladstone.”

“Miss Gladstone, you don’t seem to understand how this whole intruding-on-a-duke’s-solitude business works. You should be intimidated, if not terrified. Yet there’s an appalling lack of hand-wringing in your demeanor, and no trembling whatsoever. Are you certain you’re merely a seamstress?”

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