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Sins of a Duke

Scandalous House of Calydon Series

She would be his perfect revenge…

All of the young ladies whispered about the Duke of Mondvale in hushed tones, their eyes following his tall, dark figure with barely disguised lust. For the newly-ostracized Lady Constance Thornton, he is magnetic and altogether desirable. Irresistibly so. Since her reputation is already ruined in London society, why shouldn’t she be impudent and dance with the scandalous “Lord of Sin”?

Little does she know of his plans. The beautiful and innocent Lady Constance is no mere plaything for Lucan Wynwood. She will be his revenge. By ruining her, he will have his vengeance against her brother. Except that the Lady Constance is full of surprises… and now she could well be the ruin of him.

Chapter One

London, April 1883

Lady Constance Thornton stood apart from the swirl and buzz of the midnight ball she was attending, watching Lucan Devlin Wynwood, Duke of Mondvale, with the utmost discretion. The haute monde found him deliciously dangerous and unpredictable. Constance thought he might easily have been her prince charming…except, of course, he was a degenerate, a dangerous libertine a young lady of virtue should stay away from.

But then, that was one of the things that drew her—Mondvale was even more notorious than she.

She watched his dark head dip as he whispered in Lady Shrewsbury’s ear, and suspected he was arranging a clandestine meeting. As if he felt Constance’s eyes on him, he glanced up. Her breath seized. Cold silver eyes captured hers before insolently caressing the length of her body. He seemed terrifyingly exotic with his strong jaw, sensual mouth, savagely high cheekbones, and thick raven-black hair.

Heat flushed her body, but she could not look away. Why was he looking at her? She prayed Lady Shrewsbury was not gossiping about her. Constance glanced at the widow and noted she clung to his dark jacket sleeve as if enraptured by whatever he murmured in her ear.

Mondvale had the most unsavory reputation, yet he intrigued Constance. Unlike her, he was uncaring of what society thought about him. He appalled them all by owning the famous gambling club, Decadence. He titillated some, repulsed others, yet they were all too fascinated to banish him from their circles. Mondvale was fawned over, revered even, and Constance wanted to know how he did it. It could not be by virtue of him being a duke alone. Her brother, Sebastian, ruled one on the most powerful dukedoms in England; her family’s wealth was unmatched. Yet all that had faded in the disdain society currently showed her. The only testament to her family’s wealth and power were the few invitations to the Season’s social events.

Constance lowered her lashes and turned away from the cold, magnetic, and penetrating gaze that stared at her.

“She is indeed a bastard! Look at her, the very image of Viscount Radcliffe himself. How did we not notice the likeness? They have the same blond hair and vivid green eyes.” The loud whisper of Lady Daphne, the Earl of Wakefield’s daughter, clearly designed to reach Constance’s ears, had the desired impact.

A sharp tremor of bitterness quivered through her. She refused to show any emotion, trying to draw upon the coldness she had seen her brother display on numerous occasions. She feared she failed abysmally when tears pricked behind her eyelids. She swallowed, but the lump that formed in her throat seemed to lodge itself, immovable despite her several gulps.

God, why am I here? Why did I not tell Mother no?

Constance had been in town for the past several weeks, and after a number of miserable social events, it had taken tremendous courage to attend the ball tonight, knowing the condemnation that awaited her. She felt so branded, cut off, and isolated from the very people who had fawned over and loved her last season.

Only a year ago, she had been one of them, the belle of the ball, her presence sought after by both young men and ladies. She had been so thrilled when she made her debut into society, so excited to go about securing a well-made match. Sebastian had been overly indulgent, declining all offers for her last season. It was a decision she had no doubt he now regretted. Then the rumors of her illegitimacy had surfaced, and overnight she had become a pariah—the Beautiful Bastard. The haute monde had deemed her imperfect, and had moved with swift and brutal efficiency to cut off the one who offended their sensibilities. Friends had turned cold, and her laughter and joy had withered.

Even though the rumors also hinted at her brother Anthony’s illegitimacy, it seemed that being a female bastard was more unforgivable. Yet her mother was still determined she be displayed on the marriage mart. Constance did not delude herself by thinking she was being seriously considered by any suitors. What lord would want to marry a lady with such inferior circumstances? Not even the misters seemed interested in winning her favor.

She had believed after rusticating in Dorset for almost five months, away from the prying eyes of society, the gossip would have moved onto greater scandals. But she had been in London now for almost three weeks, and not one of her many former friends had presented themselves at the townhouse in Grosvenor Square. Even her dearest friend from last season, Lady Annabelle, had been notably absent. Constance had written to Lady Annabelle while in the country, but after her reply demanding to know the truth of the rumors, no further correspondence had followed.

Shame burned in Constance’s veins, because despite her elder brother’s efforts, even a duke’s influence could not coerce people to actually speak with her. The only people at tonight’s ball who had conversed with her, apart from her sister-in-law, Lady Phillipa, were the host and hostess. And their reluctance had been clearly evident.

A deep ache burgeoned inside her. Her life had become so tedious. For enjoyment, she had been reduced to watching others enjoy themselves.

“What was Lady Lawrence thinking, inviting her?”

“Her brother is the Duke of Calydon. Lady Lawrence may have had little choice,” another voice muttered.

Constance wanted to turn around to identify the speakers, but she focused instead on the dancing couples.

“Don’t you mean half-brother?”

Her breath hitched. The mocking laughter and twittering grated on her nerves. She wanted to lash out and hurt them as they had hurt her. But she knew a lady did not behave in such a manner. And while her mother had failed to inform her of her true parentage, the viscountess had raised a lady.

With deliberate movements, Constance walked away, heading toward the refreshment table. She did not have much of an appetite, but she needed something to do. She selected a plate and put a few bite-sized morsels on it. She stiffened as she heard another cackle of whispers from a group lounging idly by. Her shoulders relaxed when she realized for once they were not discussing her.

“He is so devilishly handsome,” an unknown voice gushed.

“Shhh!” Lady Felicity giggled. “Not so loud.” Then she imparted her own juicy titbit. “They say he killed a man in the Orient.”

The gossiping ladies gasped in unison, then went silent as if they could hardly breathe.

“I do not believe it,” the unknown voice proclaimed, as if declaring it to be so would make it a fact. “My brother says he is very wealthy and a good catch.”

They gasped again, scandalized.

“Oh Maryann, only you would dare admit such a thing! They call him the Lord of Sin for good reason.”

Someone giggled. “The moniker suits him. He is sinfully tempting.”

Constance gritted her teeth, for while they whispered about them both, the haute monde hated her, yet reluctantly loved him. She who had done nothing to deserve their disdain, while Mondvale actively flouted the dictates of polite society. It was so unfair.

Lady Felicity continued caustically, “Mother says he is a degenerate, and if any young lady were to dance with him she would certainly be ruined. He is nothing but a common gambler. He is not fit for the title. But look at him, one would think he had inherited the title at birth rather than by accident.”

Constance’s disgust threatened to choke her. An accident? Mondvale had been the next in line to inherit, whether he had been several times removed or not. It was the rule of primogeniture, but apparently that did not matter. She knew what they saw—the self-assurance and the arrogance that was normally only inbred from birth—and they resented him for it. He cut quite a commanding figure, generations of aristocratic breeding evident in every inch of his bearing despite not being an entitled eldest son. She realized it was the mantle of power that sat so easily on his broad shoulders. Not breeding, as far as society was concerned.

“He’s absolutely beautiful.” This voice had a dreamy undertone of need. “Mother says I must positively stay away from him, and I must refuse him if he asks me to dance. But to be his duchess!”

Constance’s lips curled in distaste, for she knew all the mothers were secretly hoping he would single their charges out for attention.

“Father says he’s been out of the country for years, mingling with savages and all sorts of inferiors.”

“Almost ten years, I am told. He returned to our shores only for the title. They say—”

Unable to listen to any more of their vileness, Constance left her plate on the table and slipped through the French doors that opened onto a wide terrace overlooking the ornate glass conservatory and the stunning garden below. There, she breathed soft sighs of freedom. A slight chill bit into her bones, but she found she did not mind it. It was a welcome relief to feel something other than dread and crushing disappointment.

“Constance?”

She shifted and smiled when she espied Lady Phillipa, Anthony’s wife. Clad in a lime green gown that accentuated her lovely coloring and fiery red hair, she looked stunning. Phillipa held out her hands, drawing Constance closer,
hugging her briefly. Constance could see the glow of concern in her sister-in-law’s golden brown eyes.

“Are you doing well? I did not mean to leave you for so long,” Phillipa said softly.

“I…” Constance forced a smile. She knew she failed in hiding her feelings when Phillipa winced. “It is more difficult than I had imagined.” Constance glanced through the French doors at Lady Annabelle, who had made a dedicated effort to ignore her since her arrival. “I am regretful I came.”

She wondered when it would all end. This was just the last of many attempts to attend a social function since her circumstances were revealed, and it was proving as painful and lonely as her first outing. A musicale yesterday and a picnic last week had been disastrous. She would have much preferred to remain in the country, away from prying eyes, wagging tongues, and the scorn of society. But she kept trying, for her family, especially her mother.

“Anthony should make an appearance soon,” Phillipa assured. “And Jocelyn has sent a note. She refuses to be confined at Sherring Cross while you face this damnable ostracism. She and Sebastian will be traveling to town in a few weeks.”

Constance contained her grimace. Her other sister-in-law, the Duchess of Calydon, had decided to stay at Sherring Cross, the family’s ducal home, for the Season, due to her pregnancy. Jocelyn had claimed to have no interest in residing in the foul London air. Constance knew the bigger reason was to lend her support when Constance had refused to reenter society after her illegitimacy had been revealed, and she loved Jocelyn more for it. Constance had no doubt Phillipa must have written to Jocelyn about her abysmal reception when her mother finally dragged her back to London.

“It will not make a difference,” she said wearily. “Over five months have gone by, but the rumor mill is still churning. Jocelyn traveling in her state is not necessary.”

Constance’s throat tightened in pain. The rumors really had not abated. It was almost as if they were being stoked, deliberately kept alive.

“I understand how you feel, Constance.”

“Do you?” She instantly regretted her waspish tone. “Oh, Phillipa, please forgive me. I know you also battle with the stigma, being married to Anthony.”

Phillipa had defied convention a few months ago and married Anthony—much to her parents’ and society’s objection.

She had not escaped unscathed, but it did not seem to matter to her. Constance wished she had such a temperament, so she could also disregard society’s opinion.

Phillipa brushed a lock of Constance’s hair behind her ear. “You have every right to feel angry and frustrated. Please do not apologize to me. I am very aware that Anthony and I are invited to many more social events than you are.” Phillipa seemed to gather her composure before she pressed on. “I am beginning to realize ignoring the rumors will not quash them. They seem to grow stronger every day instead of fading. I am of a mind to think your mother might be right, that marriage may be the only way for you to be accepted.”

Constance flinched and stepped away. She and Phillipa had become very close over the past few months, and she was the only one in the family who had not seemed intent on pressing the idea of marriage. In fact, Phillipa herself had been firmly against marriage until Anthony charmed her into changing her tune. Whenever Constance listened to her sister-in-law talk about his courtship, a deep pain traveled through her. She wanted that same kind of passion and intensity in her own life.

A few months ago, her prince charming had been Lord Andrew Bellamy, the Viscount of Litchfield. He had been amiable, witty, a beautiful dancer, and seemed to hang on every word she uttered. His family had adored her, and she’d been delighted when he made an offer for her hand…at least at first. Then, a few days after the gossip surfaced, he had cried off. Sebastian had been coldly furious, but she had refused to let him insist Lord Litchfield honor his obviously empty words. She was only grateful there had not been a public announcement of their engagement.

She was illegitimate, the by-blow of an illicit liaison. And the heir to the Earldom of Berwick could do far better.

As soon as that bitter thought occurred to her, she buried it, for she had vowed never again to label herself as society had done.

“Lord Litchfield—” Phillipa began, but Constance waved her off.

“Litchfield does not possess any tender affections for me, Phillipa. I asked him, and he just stammered.” Since crying off, Lord Litchfield had remade his offer twice. Constance knew Sebastian had something to do with it, but she was no longer interested. “I have told mother I will not marry him if he does not love me. Even if he did…I would not agree, because I know I do not love him.”

Constance watched Phillipa keenly and saw the discomfort in her gaze. “But—”

“I know Anthony and Mother asked you to speak with me. I have told them both I will not marry someone I do not love. Don’t you see? I want what you and Anthony, and Jocelyn and Sebastian have. The coldness in Sebastian flees whenever Jocelyn smiles at him. Anthony adores you, and it’s almost painful to see how you look at each other. Even Mother—” She took a deep breath. “The reason I am a bastard was because of how much she loved Lord Radcliffe. Why, then, do you all not understand that I do not want to marry unless it is for love?”

“Oh, sweeting, we do. It’s just—”

Constance’s throat burned and she fought back the tears. “I should feel something for my husband shouldn’t I? Or should I just feel grateful he was willing to marry me, despite my illegitimacy?”

Phillipa walked toward the tables and chairs on the terrace and sank into one. Constance followed suit, and gave Phillipa a small smile when she gripped one of Constance’s hands. She wanted only to hide how shattered she was.

“I do understand, Connie, more than you know. And I do not beseech you to marry Lord Litchfield to save your reputation.” Phillipa smiled gently as if to remove the sting of what she was about to say. “But when he asked for you last year, you did say yes. I ask you to remember that you must have had some feelings for him and to give him a chance to court you again. And if those feelings resurrect, you could marry him.” She squeezed Constance’s hand.

Constance sighed. “He is no longer interested in me, Phillipa. I have rejected him twice now.”

Phillipa frowned delicately. “I am certain he will offer for you again soon.”

“I do not wish to marry him.”

“It is unlikely you are going to receive a better offer.” Philippa flushed as she realized what she had said.

Constance looked away. Phillipa was right, Constance was unlikely to ever receive any other offer. It didn’t matter.

Viscount Litchfield was charming when he wanted to be, but it was all surface. The gentle way he had treated her, the laughter, the dancing, and the carriage rides had meant nothing to him. He was shallow, and his supercilious manner of late had certainly not endeared him to her. He had actually hinted that she should be thankful he was willing to marry her despite her inferior circumstances. It upset her to know that she had not seen through Litchfield’s superficial charm and accepted his first offer at all. Was her judgment so impaired?

She stood abruptly. She needed to be alone with her thoughts for a few moments. “I have been meaning to visit Lady Lawrence’s conservatory. I heard that it is one of the most beautiful in London.”

Phillipa blinked at her sudden change of topic. “I will come with you.”

“No!” Constance hastily amended her tone. “You are needed elsewhere. I spotted your sister in the ball, and Payton looked utterly forlorn. It is a shame the Honorable St. John broke their engagement. Please spend some time with her instead. I assure you I will be quite safe in the conservatory on my own.”

Phillipa hesitated, then nodded and departed.

Constance heaved a sigh. Emotions rioted within her. She hated that everyone felt she should accept Lord Litchfield again simply because she had said yes before. He had cried off, for heaven’s sake! And truth be told, a part of her had been relieved when he had withdrawn his offer. She knew now, the feelings she’d had for him had been warm at best, but at the time she’d had nothing to compare them with. She’d thought those modest feelings were perfectly right and acceptable.

Until she’d seen Mondvale for the first time. He had stolen her breath away.

He’d been present at a ball she was attending. They hadn’t even been introduced. It had appalled her to know she could possess such a raging desire for a perfect stranger. It had also instantly made her doubt her feelings for Lord Litchfield. He must have sensed something different in her that night as they danced, for he had drawn her into the gardens and kissed her for the first time. She had felt nothing as he pressed his lips to hers, other than a vague annoyance. Which had flummoxed her. She had been so sure passion for one’s betrothed was a real thing. How could the poets have gotten it so wrong? She had pulled away, giving him a puzzled smile, then turned to flee.

And ran smack into Mondvale.

Unfathomable eyes had looked down at her, and a sardonic twitch had appeared at the corner of Mondvale’s mouth. A primal thrill had surged through her, as it had continued to do each of the four times she had glimpsed him since that fateful night.

Constance had known then, without a doubt, that Lord Litchfield was not the man for her. The one positive thing about her fall from society’s grace was not having to explain her change of heart to him or her family. He’d saved her the trouble. Even now with her reputation in tatters, she could never marry him.

See? There was a silver lining to every storm cloud.

She danced down the stairs leading out into the vibrant, shrubberied gardens and took the path heading toward the conservatory. She rounded the bend and paused. A tingle caressed her lips and neck, and she held her breath. There was no one in sight, but she felt as if someone was watching her.

After several moments with no movement about, she expelled the breath, feeling ridiculous.

With hurried steps, she slipped inside the conservatory where it was much warmer. She halted. There it was again, that strange, tingly feeling. Her pulse quickened. She knew exactly what it was—Mondvale’s gaze upon her. For a timeless moment she was still, hardly daring to breathe. Every instinct she possessed told her he was somewhere in the dark, watching her. The sensation that coursed through her at the thought bordered on fear…combined with a dash of excitement. It took enormous willpower to not flee back inside to the ball.

Where was he?

Close. She could feel him.

She had never known such awareness of another.

But to remain here, alone with him, would be courting further disaster. She turned to leave. The din of laughter and music spilled into the night, but instead of filling her with excitement, dread curled through her. There was nothing for her in the ballroom but hurt.

But the idea of possibly facing Mondvale was nerve-racking. It had been different when she’d only discreetly observed the Lord of Sin from afar, spinning girlish fantasies about her wicked prince charming. Everything about him had seemed exciting, and tempting, and mysterious. Now, he just seemed…dangerous.

She took a few steps back toward the ball and again hesitated. For all she knew, he was watching her from the terrace or the gardens, and not from inside the conservatory itself. She hadn’t actually seen him, and the thought of returning to the ball to face the sly whispers and innuendos was unbearable. She squared her shoulders, turned back, and walked deeper into the conservatory.

“Even more curious,” his voice drawled ever so softly, prickling the hairs at the nape of her neck. She spun toward the voice, nerves and excitement surging to life inside her.

Instinctively, she knew she had been hoping for just such an encounter the whole time she had watched Mondvale tonight. Now that the occasion was upon her, she doubted her sanity, and wondered dizzily if this daring encounter would lead her into the arms of her prince charming…or only into further ruination?

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Copyright © 2015 by Stacy Reid. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

 

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