Say No to the Duke

Book 4 in the Wildes of Lindow Castle series

One little wager will determine their fate—a daring escape or falling into temptation with a rakish lord.

Lady Betsy Wilde’s first season was triumphant by any measure, and a duke has proposed—but before marriage, she longs for one last adventure.

No gentleman would agree to her scandalous plan—but Lord Jeremy Roden is no gentleman. He offers a wager. If she wins a billiards game, he’ll provide the breeches.

If he wins…she is his, for one wild night.

But what happens when Jeremy realizes that one night will never be enough? In the most important battle of his life, he’ll have to convince Betsy to say no to the duke.

 

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“a beautifully written Georgian romp that builds another chapter to this outstanding series.”

~ Library Journal, Starred Review

“this book has a perfectly summery feel to it, with its slow burn and searing passion.”

~ Culturess

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Chapter One

September 14, 1776
Miss Stevenson’s Seminary
“The Girls’ Eton”
Queen Square, London

By her fourteenth birthday, Lady Boadicea Wilde had wished for a best friend on weeks of first stars. She had created a wishing stone by dunking it in milk under a midnight moon. She had written down her wish and burned the paper in the nursery hearth so it flew up to heaven.

The ensuing fire had burned all the evening’s logs, and she had been punished by being confined to bed, where she watched her younger sister Joan and stepsister Violet cuddle on the nursery sofa and whisper secrets to each other.

It was all her father’s fault.

Duke’s daughters, especially those who lived in huge castles, had no chance to meet prospective friends. They were kept in the country like potted violets, waiting for the moment when they would be paraded in front of the world and promptly married off.

From what Betsy could see, her father was her stepmother’s best friend. Only a girl with eight brothers could sympathize with the revulsion that swept over Betsy at that thought.

Friends with a boy.

Never.

Boys smelled and shouted. They thought nothing of tossing water over one’s head, pulling hair, and passing wind deliberately.

How could a boy possibly understand how she felt about life? She longed for a kindred soul, a girl who would sympathize with the unfairness of having to sit side-saddle, and not being allowed to shoot a bow and arrow from horseback.

A few years ago, when her brothers Alaric and Parth had announced they wanted to visit China, her father’s eyes had lit up, and a whole meal flew by talking of three-masted schooners and mountains of tea. True, the duke had forbidden the voyage until the boys were older, but he’d laughed when he discovered they’d sailed off anyway.

If she ran away to sea? The idea was unthinkable.

If her wishing stone had worked, she’d be living in a place where girls were allowed to wear breeches and travel wherever they wished.

Lying in bed after her fourteenth birthday party—attended by five brothers, since Violet and Joan were recovering from the chicken pox—Betsy realized that if she wanted a girlfriend, she had to take matters into her own hands. She had wished for a friend before blowing out the candle on her birthday cake, but inside, she no longer had faith.

Magic had proved ineffective, if not irrelevant.

Yet there is more than one way to skin a goat, as the family coachman had it. It took three months of coaxing, pleading, and downright tantrums, but finally Betsy, Joan, and Violet were taken to the very best boarding school in England, an establishment run by Miss Stevenson, who had the distinction of being the daughter of a baron.

As they walked into the imposing building, Betsy struggled to portray an image of ladylike comportment. She couldn’t stop the giddy smile that curled her lips. When a maid arrived to escort her to the wing for older girls, she hugged her father and stepmother goodbye and danced out the door, leaving them to comfort her stepsister Violet’s tears.

Violet was shy, and afraid to live away from home, but as Betsy heard girls’ laughter from behind a closed door, her heart swelled with pure joy. She was finally—finally!—where she was meant to be.

“You will share a parlor suite with Lady Octavia Taymor and Miss Clementine Clarke,” the maid informed her. “Each of you has your own chamber, of course, and your maid will attend you morning and evening. You may become acquainted with Lady Octavia and Miss Clarke over tea.”

Betsy’s heart was beating so quickly that she felt slightly dizzy. Clementine was such a beautiful name, and hadn’t Octavius been a general? Octavia was named after a warrior, just as she was!

The parlor looked like a smaller version of parlors at Lindow Castle, tastefully furnished with a silk rug and rosy velvet drapes. A table before the fireplace was set with a silver tea service.

Betsy’s eyes flew to the two girls who rose and came to meet them. Clementine had yellow ringlets and a pursed mouth like a rosebud; Octavia had low, dark eyebrows and a thin face.

“Your name is so pretty,” Betsy told Clementine, after the nursemaid left.

“I wish I could say the same for yours,” Clementine said, sitting down with a little smile, as if she were merely jesting.

Betsy blinked. “Boadicea is certainly unusual,” she said hastily. “I prefer Betsy.”

Clementine’s nose wrinkled. “We have a second housemaid who used to be called Betsy. My mother changed her name to Perkins.”

Betsy couldn’t think what to say. “I see,” she managed, her voice coming out flat and strange.

“Please, won’t you sit down, Lady Betsy?” Octavia asked, gesturing toward a chair.

Betsy sat. “Have you been at the seminary for some time, Lady Octavia?” she asked.

“Clementine and I have been the only parlor boarders since—” Octavia began.

“I have every expectation that my mother will fetch me away within the week,” Clementine said, interrupting.

“I see,” Betsy repeated, fighting to make her tone cordial. It was ridiculous to feel a shaky and a little frightened. This wasn’t the way she had imagined her first encounter with possible friends, but Clementine was only one person, and there was a whole school of girls to meet.

Do you?” Clementine demanded.

“Are you very good at maths?” Octavia put in, her voice rather desperate.

“No, I am not,” Betsy said. “I am sorry to hear that you are departing, Miss Clarke. Is the parlor too small for three of us?”

Clementine snorted.

“The meals are frightfully good here,” Octavia said, her voice rising.

“My mother will travel from the country to fetch me as soon as she learns of your arrival,” Clementine said, ignoring Octavia. “I sent a messenger yesterday.”

Betsy had the horrible sense that she’d somehow strayed into a nightmare. She took a deep breath. “Why are you so impolite, Miss Clarke?”

Clementine pursed her lips tighter than nature had made them, and then opened them just wide enough to speak. “No one can blame a child for its mother’s lascivious nature, but it would have been more agreeable if His Grace had thought how unpleasant it was for young ladies of stature to share a chamber with someone who…”

“Who?” Betsy prompted.

“Is bound to have inherited her mother’s sinful inclinations,” Clementine said, her eyes shining like greased blueberries.

Betsy stared back in horror. Of course she knew that the duke’s second duchess—her mother—had run away with a Prussian count when she was a baby. But no one had ever spoken of her mother so demeaningly—or implied that she, Betsy, would inherit an penchant for debauchery.

“Clementine!” Octavia protested, adding, “You are being frightfully ill-bred!”

Clementine turned toward her. “I’m merely repeating what scientists have proven, Octavia. Strong attributes are always inherited; it’s just precisely the same as when a racehorse was bred for speed. You could call it destiny, but it’s really science.”

“I don’t believe it,” Octavia said stoutly.

But Betsy’s brother North was fascinated by horse breeding and gave near-nightly disquisitions on which traits were making themselves known in the ducal stables. Betsy knew, better than most ladies, that traits were indeed inherited.

A strange tingle punched through her body, as if a wall had opened, revealing something frightful behind it, something she’d never imagined. Her Aunt Knowe had never allowed the duchess’s children become embittered about their mother’s absence.

“Your mother didn’t belong in a marriage to your father,” she often said. “Thank goodness, she recognized it, because it allowed the duke to find Ophelia.”

Family lore had it that the ink on the divorce decree wasn’t dry before Lady Knowe ordered her brother off to London to find a third duchess. Since Betsy couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than Lindow Castle with her dearest papa, her darling stepmother, and even those annoying brothers, she had never given the matter much thought.

Yet it seemed that other people—all of polite society, or so Clementine Clarke was shrilly declaiming—had given her mother’s circumstances a great deal of thought.

“There is no need to be rude,” Octavia said.

“Everyone thinks it,” Clementine said, her eyes sliding over Betsy, nose still slightly wrinkled, as if Betsy were a piece of spoiled mutton.

“Are you saying that every girl in this school will think that I am lascivious because my mother was unfaithful?” Betsy asked, just to be very clear.

Octavia turned a hot pink and closed her lips tightly.

Will think?” Clementine retorted. “They do think, and so does everyone else important.”

Betsy tried not to hear her harsh breath echoing in her ears. Her father was important, but he must not know, because he never would have left her in a den of lions.

She almost jerked up from her chair and ran for the door. Perhaps the ducal coach was nearby. Or Miss Stevenson could send a groom to the townhouse and they would come back and take she and her sisters away.

“Everyone says that the second duchess was never, shall we say, unsullied,” Clementine said. “Your mother gave the duke a son—though my mother says one has to question his parentage—and she was dallying with the Prussian well before you were born.”

“My brother Leo is not illegitimate,” Betsy said, her voice thick with disbelief and horror.

Adulterous mother or no, Betsy stemmed from a long line of dukes, and she was named after a great female warrior. She listened to Clementine until she didn’t care to listen any longer.

Then she rose to her feet. “You are quite despicable,” she said, controlling her temper as Lady Knowe had taught her. “Petty and small-minded. I shall not share a parlor with you.”

Clementine laughed shrilly. “You should be grateful to sleep in the attic! You’re no more than a by-blow, who will be lucky to marry into the gentry. It would take a miracle for you to attract a spouse from the aristocracy.”

Betsy snatched up a glass of water from the tea tray and dashed it into her face. “I am a duke’s daughter,” she stated, enjoying the way Clementine’s starched curls wilted onto her shoulders like yellow seaweed. “I have never heard of your family. Clarke?” She curled her lip and said the first consciously nasty thing that she’d said in her life. “I gather you had an ancestor who was a clerk? How amusing to meet you.”

Sobbing loudly, Clementine flung herself out of the door.

“Are you going to throw water at me as well?” Octavia asked, her eyes rounded.

“If you say anything unkind about my mother, I shall throw that pitcher of water over your head,” Betsy said. “In the middle of the night. My brothers trained me quite well in the art of war.”

“I shan’t say a word,” Octavia said hastily. “I don’t like cold water.”

Betsy stared at her. Octavia’s face wasn’t piggish like Clementine’s.

“I apologize for Clementine’s rudeness,” Octavia said. She glanced at her fingers twisting in her lap and then looked back at Betsy. “She’s frightfully bad-tempered and considers everyone beneath her. She only allowed me to share the parlor because Miss Stephenson said that she would have to leave the school otherwise. I like your name.”

“Boadicea is the name of a warrior,” Betsy said. She was trembling a little.

Octavia bit her lip. “You’ll need that here,” she said slowly. “The girls aren’t always terribly nice.”

Betsy sat down.

“We’re supposed to be learning history and the like,” Octavia explained. “But in reality, it’s all about marriage. Sometimes the only conversation at supper is about how many proposals one should get during one’s debut. Clementine’s parents have three houses, but that’s not enough, of course.”

“She’s afraid she won’t have any suitors.”

Octavia nodded.

“All the girls here believe that I won’t have any suitors either,” Betsy said. The horrid sick feeling in her stomach was replaced by a red-hot bolt of fury. “I shall prove them wrong. I shall have more marriage proposals than any one.”

“I have no doubt,” Olivia said, looking rather awed.

Boadicea came surprisingly close to winning her rebellion against the Roman invaders, according to the expert on military history the duke had hired to teach all his children, girls included.

Three years later, when the time came for Betsy to debut, she won.

She came, she saw, she conquered.

Veni, vidi, vici, or so said Caesar on reaching England.

By June of 1779, she had received—and refused—proposals chaperoned and unchaperoned, in her father’s study, in a gazebo, in an alcove at Westminster Cathedral.

She had turned down four titled men and fourteen untitled gentlemen, which said something about the paucity of English titles, or the relatively lenient standards of the gentry compared to the aristocracy.

The biggest fish of all—a future duke—had so far eluded her, but she had the feeling that the deficit would soon be mended.

She was standing in the midst of a costume ball being thrown at Lindow Castle for the wedding of her brother North when her Aunt Knowe loomed up at her shoulder.

“Ah, Betsy! I must ask my dear niece to escort his lordship to see the billiards table that my brother ordered from Paris.”

Betsy looked up—and up. The future Duke of Eversley stared down at her.

Did she say that she’d won the battle?

Battles are only won when the biggest fish of all is in one’s net.

She smiled.

Chapter Two

October 31, 1780
Lindow Castle
A Costume Ball in honor of the marriage of
Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde to Miss Diana Belgrave

Only one gentleman had found his way to the billiard room from the ballroom at Lindow Castle; most revelers were too busy flaunting their charms or their costumes to search out a chamber containing little more than a walnut gaming table and a few armchairs.

Since the castle was larger than most garrisons, no music could be heard in the corner where Lord Jeremy Roden—late of His Majesty’s Royal Artillery—sat with his legs sprawled before him, one hand clenched around a glass of whisky.

Which left the other free to irritably prod his halo back in place.

It was composed of stiffened wire supposedly holding up a circlet covered with spangles and brilliants. In his case, the wire wasn’t doing its job, and the damned thing listed to the side like a sailor whose pecker wasn’t up to shore leave.

Lady Knowe had decreed that all uncostumed guests, which included most of her own nephews, would accept a halo or suffer the consequences. In the resulting plethora of noisy angels thronging the ballroom, no one’s curious eyes had noticed that his halo was attached to a bandage wound around his head.

If he were the grateful type, he’d be grateful.

Hell, he was grateful.

He hadn’t been looking forward to explaining that the bandage hid a nearly healed bullet wound—fired by the bride’s mother, no less. The poor woman had been dispatched to a sanitarium, and the wound was almost healed.

Unfortunately, the bandage was doing a rotten job of hoisting his halo over his head: Dancing turned from tiresome to mortifying with a limp circlet bobbing next to his ear.

What’s more, merely being in a ballroom thronged with angels made a man think hard about war and its damned inconveniences. If he’d died in the American colonies, would an angel have swooped low over the battlefield and caught up his sorry soul?

Not damned likely.

He took another swig of whisky, telling himself that he wasn’t the only man in that ballroom who didn’t deserve his sanctified millinery.

The Wilde men had been blessed with beauty, wits, and brilliance—but angelic they were not.

Any more than he was.

Guilt echoed in the void where his soul used to be, and he upended the glass, pushing away the stab of remorse that had become his hourly companion. The whisky scorched down his throat, though (alas) his mind was clear, and his fingers didn’t have the slightest tremble.

Liquor stopped doing its job long ago, but it turned out to be an excellent shield against polite society. He plucked up the glass again, relishing the way the last few drops burned his tongue. Perhaps he should try—

The door swung open and he heard a man say, “Before you, my lady.”

Jeremy shoved his chair farther into the shadowy corner. No one would find his way to this room to play billiards; chances were good he was about to have a front row seat on a visit to Cock Alley, played out on the duke’s precious billiard table. Who was he to deny them an audience?

His glass empty, Jeremy was reaching for the bottle when the lady in question replied, “My skirts are caught on the hinge, my lord; would you be so kind as to disentangle me?”

Jeremy slammed back in his chair, eyes narrowing.

Lady Boadicea Wilde.

The wildest of the Wildes, the duke’s eldest daughter—who strangely enough demanded that everyone call her Betsy.

A ridiculous name for a woman who could shoot the cork out of a bottle from a galloping horse . . . according to her brothers, at least.

Outside the door, a rustle of silk indicated that her escort was doing his best to free her. She must have forgotten to turn sideways. Betsy’s skirts were wider than most doors, and her wigs were always lofty. Tonight her wig was adorned with a halo, which made her taller than most men.

The last was intentional, to Jeremy’s mind. She liked being taller than her feckless suitors.

Betsy was the only Wilde whom Jeremy couldn’t tolerate. Unfortunately, given that she had an unhealthy obsession with billiards and this room had become his refuge, he had seen all too much of her during his two-month stay at Lindow Castle.

She was damned rash, coming here, a distance from the ballroom, with a man. Just like a Wilde, actually: arrogant to a fault, but in an effortless way that simply expected that lesser mortals would bow to their status.

He’d bet a mountain of ha’pennies that no chaperone had accompanied them.

She didn’t understand the way men thought about women. The “gentleman” she was with could be planning to compromise her reputation.

Or worse.

Blood roared through his body, a flood of pure anger chasing away the guilt that was his usual companion. It wasn’t the first time Betsy had inspired that reaction. Around her, he tended to be too irritated to think about the fate of his platoon.

He might not actually be a Wilde, but her older brother North was his closest friend in the world. He would protect her reputation and person in North’s stead.

He flexed his fingers, looking down at fabric straining over the unfashionable muscle that bulged in his forearm. North’s primitive solution for Jeremy’s malaise—to give a fine-sounding title to his sorry existence—was to force him on horseback every day. No matter how much he drank the night before, North shoved him up on an unruly steed. Consequently, he had twice the muscle that he’d had three years ago, when he’d cut an elegant figure as an officer.

“That’s it,” Betsy exclaimed. “Oh, thank you so much!” She never bothered with such gushing charm around him; they had silently agreed, soon after meeting, that they were oil and water and she would extract no proposal from him, no matter how brilliantly she smiled.

She murmured something else, and it struck him that Betsy might have planned an assignation. Perhaps she had a lover, who had arrived from London in the mass of guests invited to the ball.

His jaw clenched.

Hell, no.

Boadicea Wilde was not going to throw away her virtue on his watch.

“Your skirts are free, Lady Boadicea.”

Whoever he was—and his voice sounded vaguely familiar—the man was not her lover. He didn’t know his proposed bride well enough to realize how much Betsy loathed her given name.

Wait.

He did know that voice. They’d been at school together, a lifetime ago.

Betsy walked into the room. From Jeremy’s shadowy corner, she seemed to glow under the light of the lamp hanging directly over the billiard table.

She was outrageously beautiful, like all the Wildes: wide eyes, white teeth, thick hair. Beautiful girls were everywhere, but Betsy’s unconscious sensuality? That was matchless. She relished life, and it showed.

The other day some fool described her as prim and proper. Jeremy had had trouble not curling his lip.

Did they not see who she really was?

She turned up the lamp that hung over the table until it illuminated a pool of spotless green wool walled by gleaming wood. Then she turned about, leaning against the table.

Jeremy couldn’t see her suitor, who still stood in the doorway.

With an impish smile, Betsy spread her arms. “Here you see my father’s billiard table, newly arrived from Paris. A walnut body and bronze motifs in the shape of the Lindow shield, repeated eight times. My stepmother chided our father for extravagant trimming, but His Grace is fond of decoration.”

The gentleman chuckled and stepped into the light. “The table is exquisite, but not as beautiful as the woman standing beside it.”

Jeremy sighed. His old school friend should be ashamed of that lame compliment.

Likely agreeing with him, Betsy ignored it. “I was very fond of our old billiard table, but this is more fitting for a castle.”

“You play billiards yourself?”

He sounded surprised rather than critical, which boded well for his courtship.

“My whole life,” Betsy said. “My brothers spent a great deal of their time here. I used to stand on a box to see the play; the table looked like a green ocean.”

“I spoke to your father, Lady Boadicea, and he agreed that I might ask you for the honor of your hand in marriage.”

This was fantastic. Jeremy had a front row seat on a proposal, and he could mock Betsy about it for weeks.

Her suitor didn’t kneel.

Thaddeus would never kneel.

The man currently asking Betsy to marry him was Thaddeus Erskine Shaw, Viscount Greywick.

Duke of some damned place, someday.

Something pinched deep in Jeremy’s chest, and he narrowed his eyes. Oh, hell no. Whatever that emotion was, he didn’t like it.

Wouldn’t accept it.

Her Grace, Betsy the Duchess.

Sounded good.

End of Excerpt

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Say No to the Duke is available in the following formats:

Georgian Romance

ISBN: 978-0062877826
June 25, 2019

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Say No to the Duke is Book 4 in the Wildes of Lindow Castle series.

The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: Wilde in Love
Book 2: Too Wilde to Wed
Book 3: Born to be Wilde
Book 4: Say No to the Duke
Georgian Romance