It's curious how one woman can haunt a man…
Ten years as a high-stakes jewel thief should have helped me forget Sophie Huntington Ramsey. But no matter how far I traveled, she was never far from my thoughts. Her earthy sensuality. Her wild passion. For ten long years, my memory of our one forbidden night together burned as hot as the encounter itself. The thought of her betrayal with my oldest, dearest friend blazed even hotter.
Imagine my surprise when I heard of Sophie's widowhood—and that her husband the Duke of Mulford, named me guardian of her young son! Imagine my shock when I learned that Sophie might have had a hand in her husband's untimely death.
It seems that fate has brought Sophie and me together once again. When I return to England to claim my role as guardian, I also vow to win back Sophie's heart. I will slowly seduce her until she is weak with wanting. And when I've had my fill of her, I will expose her as a murderess.
Sophie Huntington Ramsey, the Duchess of Mulford, is about to get something she never bargained for…
—From the Memoirs of Grant Chandler
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About the Author
BARBARA DAWSON SMITH is the bestselling author of twenty-two novels. Her books have received consistently high reviews and have won numerous awards including the Golden Heart and Rita Awards.
Barbara Dawson Smith is the New York Times author of Seducing the Heiress, Tempt Me Twice, and Scandal of the Year. She has been a member of Romance Writers of America since 1981, and her novels have won the Golden Heart Award, Best Historical Romantic Suspense and Best Regency Historical from Romantic Times, and the prestigious RITA award. She lives in Houston, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
The Duchess Diaries
3 October 1701
My life lies in utter Ruin. When Papa summoned me to his chambers this Morn, I hopedI prayed!'twas to give me the glad Tidings that be would bless the courtship of my dearest William. But Papa's announcement struck me near senseless. He proclaimed to have made a brilliant match for me. I am betrothed to the Duke of Mulford. Sold to the highest bidder!
Many a lady would rejoice at the notion of becoming a Duchess. But I was stricken with horror. How could I wed a stranger when I love another? Alas, neither tears nor beseeching softened Papa's stern countenance. The deed is done, the papers signed.
O, William! All our fondest dreams are lost. Lost!
the diaries of Annabelle Chatham Ramsey, 3rd Duchess of Mulford
London, April 1816
As Sophie Huntington Ramsey, the eighth duchess of Mulford, stalked down the long, chilly corridor at Mulford House, a blaze of anger lent fire to her footsteps. Her heels rang on the floor of checkered marble. Her fingers clenched the edges of the black merino shawl that draped her shoulders. Seldom did she abandon the restraint that had guided her life for nearly ten years. But by heavens, she would allow no one to meddle with her son's future.
She had just come from the nursery, and her throat clenched at the memory of Lucien's fearful hazel eyes, the small hands gripping hers, the quaver in his voice as he'd asked when he would be sent away. Though hislower lip had trembled, he had put up a brave face, for he had tried to be the man of the house ever since Robert's death the previous summer. But no child of nine should be forced to leave home. Especially not a boy who still grieved for his father.
Blast Helena! She had gone too far this time. Much too far.
Reaching the end of the passageway, Sophie flung open a door half-hidden in the gilt and white paneling. She descended a narrow stone staircase that led to the basement. The distant clattering of breakfast dishes came from the scullery. The air held the mingled scents of starch from the laundry and baking bread from the kitchen.
On this lower level, out of sight of the sumptuous receiving rooms abovestairs, the servants toiled at the myriad tasks necessary to the smooth running of the ducal household. A duchess had no place down here, Robert had insisted. He had appointed his elder sister Helena to supervise the housekeeping, and Sophie had complied with his decree, partly because she had other interests to keep her busy and partly because she had owed so very much to Robert.
A dim corridor lit by oil lamps stretched out in both directions. At the far end, a pair of gossiping maids spied her and stared, then scuttled back into the steamy laundry room. At the same instant, Phelps stepped out of another doorway across the corridor.
As gaunt and tall as a lamppost, the butler paced toward her with measured steps. His white gloves and sober black frock coat appeared as meticulous as ever. Sophie had never seen him with so much as a single gray hair out of place. Phelps was a bachelor, in service to the dukes of Mulford for nearly half a century, and he bore the weight of his position with haughty dignitya dignity in contrast to her own state of high turmoil.
Phelps bowed. His cold gray eyes seemed to pinpoint her agitation at once. "Your Grace. May I be of assistance?"
"I'm seeking Lady Helena. Have you seen her?"
"She is presently consulting with Mrs. Jenks on the weekly menus. Shall I ask her to join you in the library?"
"No, thank you. I'll fetch her myself."
"With all due respect," he went on, "you would be more comfortable upstairs"
"And I said I would attend to the matter myself."
On that cold statement, Sophie proceeded past the steward's room and the pantry. Insolent man! She drew a deep, calming breath. She mustn't let trivialities distract her. Giving vent to passionate emotion only brought disaster, a lesson she had learned at the tender age of eighteen.
For Lucien's sake, she must keep an unruffled facade in dealing with her sister-in-law, too. Lucien needed her so much. Sophie had coached her son on his studies, taken him on long walks to the park, gently encouraged him to emerge from his cocoon of grief over Robert's death.
But if Helena had her way, all that would change. Nothing would change, Sophie vowed. Because this time she intended to put a stop to Helena's maneuvering.
Stepping through an open doorway at the end of the corridor, she entered a small, cozy parlor with dark, striped wallpaper and embroidered pillows arranged on the chaise. An orange tabby cat slept near the hearth, where a coal fire burned on the grate. Across the room, her sister-in-law sat at a desk. She dipped her quill pen into the inkpot, then marked a change to the menu lying on the blotter.
The plump, middle-aged housekeeper stood at attention beside her. Mrs. Jenks spied Sophie and bobbed a swift curtsy. "Your Grace. This is a most unexpected honor!"
Lady Helena glanced over, then replaced the pen in the inkstand. A striking woman in her middle thirties, she looked slim and elegant in black crepe, with a dainty spinster's cap perched on her upswept blond curls. In profile, she appeared to be the epitome of perfectionuntil she turned her face toward Sophie.
A disfiguring birthmark the color of port wine covered her left cheek, disappearing into the fichu of black lace around her throat. Although Sophie scarcely noticed the blemish anymore, Helena seemed always conscious of it, wearing high necklines and a discreet application of concealing powder. Over the years, a number of gentlemen had been willing to accept the flaw for a chance to wed the sister of a duke. But Helena had summarily refused their courtship, preferring spinsterhood to an arranged marriage.
"Ah, Sophie," she said without rising from her chair. "Have you come to review the week's menus?"
"No. I should like a word with you, though."
"As you wish. I shall be finished here shortly."
Sophie clenched her teeth. Nearly ten years her senior, Helena had a habit of treating Sophie like a child. "I would speak with you now," she said pleasantly. "Mrs. Jenks, would you mind leaving us for a few moments?"
The housekeeper scurried out, closing the door.
Helena tilted her head inquiringly. Her blue eyes intent, she held the pen poised over the paper. "What is it? Have you found the missing journal?"
For the past year, Sophie had been engaged in compiling the family history. While poking through boxes of bric-a-brac in the attic, she had come across a diary written by the third duchess, Lady Annabelle, who had been a reluctant bride. But the pages had run out at a critical moment and Sophie had been searching for a second volume ever since.
"This is about Lucien. He told me what you said to him. That he is to go away to boarding school come autumn."
Helena calmly made a notation on the menu. "It's for his own good," she said. "The boy should be prepared for the inevitable."
Sophie stalked to the desk, itching to snatch the pen out of her sister-in-law's fingers. But she matched Helena's coolness. "It is not inevitable," she stated. "I forbid it. Lucien is far too young to be sent away from home."
"The dukes of Mulford have always attended a private boarding school at the age of nine. It will prepare him for the rigors of Eton. You wouldn't break a family tradition, would you?"
"It can be postponed until a time that I deem appropriate."
Helena placed the pen on the blotter and cast her an unexpectedly sympathetic look. "My dear, please understand that I have his best interests at heart. Lucien has been distraught over Robert's deathas we all have been. It would do him well to escape this house and the constant reminder of his loss."
"It will do him ill to be separated from those he loves."
Rising to her feet, Helena took Sophie's hand in a gentle grip. "Pray, hear me out. Lucien has been overly attached to you of late. It cannot be wise to encourage such dependence in a boy, especially one who must someday wield the power of his elevated position. Without a father's guidance, his maturation must be fostered by other means."
Nothing could have been more calculated to strike at Sophie's heart. Was she overprotective? But she couldn't shrug off the sight of Lucien's fearful face. Drawing back her hands, she said firmly, "Any decisions about Lucien's schooling will be made by me. He shall remain here atMulford House at least until the following school year. Is that clear?"
Helena thinned her lips. "I would not gainsay the word of his mother, of course. However, I feel it my duty to mention that Elliot is in agreement with me on the matter."
Sophie tensed from that blow. So, Helena had enlisted the support of Robert's cousin and Lucien's temporary guardian. "Elliot is too absorbed in his Roman ruins to care about Lucien's schooling. He would agree simply to keep you from bothering him about it."
"I prefer to think he's looking out for Lucien's future."
Clearly, there was no reasoning with Helena. "I shall speak to Elliot, then," Sophie said coldly. "If you'll excuse me."
Fuming, she took her leave and marched back upstairs. Elliot! The man blew in and out of Lucien's life like a fickle wind, showering him with expensive gifts one day and then vanishing for weeks on end. He spent the majority of his time excavating the ruins of an ancient villa in Surrey. She would have to postpone talking to him until the next time he came to town.
Unfortunately, patience had never been her best trait.
Sophie stalked through a gilt-framed doorway and into the library. The dim light of a gray afternoon drizzled through the tall windows and shone dully on the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books that had been collected for centuries by the dukes of Mulford. The musty aroma of leather bindings scented the air, along with the tang of smoke from the fire.
Despite the comfortable surroundings, Sophie could find no peace. She felt restive and angry and frustrated as she paced back and forth by a long oak table. Elliot favored shards of pottery over the company of a fatherless boy. A more indifferent guardian could not be foundexcept for Lucien's other guardian. His permanent guardian.
Her heart lurched, and that involuntary reaction fed the furor of her emotions. The knave made Elliot look like an attentive saint. Oh, why had Robert not seen fit to warn her that he'd put Lucien's care in the hands of that disreputable rogue? The man who had once broken Sophie's heart.
She could remember vividly the sense of horror and betrayal she'd felt after Robert's will had been read. She had wasted no time in writing to Grant, absolving him of all duty toward her son. She had sent the letter in care of his favorite aunt, requesting that it be forwarded to him, wherever he might be. There had been no reply from Grant, nor had Sophie really expected one.
Men! A woman could seldom rely upon them, and yet they directed the workings of the world. Why should two ne'er-do-wells be appointed guardians of a boy instead of his own mother? She should be in charge of her son. She, and no other!
The dam around her emotions broke, releasing a flood of fury. She seized a crystal goblet from the sideboard and pitched it at the hearth.
The glass shattered against the marble with a satisfying crash. Shards rained over the gold and blue patterned carpet.
Sophie stood unmoving. Not since she'd been an unmarried girl had she lost her temper. She had believed the wild hellion in her long tamed. A shaky sigh eddied from her. If truth be told, she felt better for the impetuous release of emotion.
But only for a moment.
Someone rose from the overstuffed wing chair that faced the fireplace. A man who turned to regard her with amused brown eyes. A man whose tall physique and handsome features were a jolt from the past.
Now, his presence struck Sophie like a tidal wave. It was as if she had conjured him by the intensity of her thoughts.
She spoke his name through dry lips. "Grant?"
"Sophie," he said with a nod of ironic enjoyment. He glanced meaningfully at the broken glass. "It seems nothing has changed. You still have the very devil of a temper."
Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Dawson Smith.