Ready for a sneak peek at The Duke's Deceitful Governess?
Love is a luxury he can’t afford…
For years, he was known only as Blackrose’s Blade, an elite assassin in the employ of the Crown. But after a mission cost him the use of his leg, Rourke Lindsay has unexpectedly inherited a dukedom…and along with it, the headache of a pair of hellion twins. His niece and nephew have been kicked out of every school he’s sent them to and scared off every governess he’s hired. Now, he’s in dire need of a miracle. He just didn’t expect her to be quite so tempting.
Needing a safe place to hide, Miss Sophia Cuny has forged her references and settled into the Duke of Exingham’s employ, unwilling to admit she knows next to nothing about children. (How hard can child-rearing be, after all? Perhaps there’s a book on the subject she could send off for.) She does, however, know all about the Duke’s painful past and why the cynical warrior refuses to allow himself close to a pair of rapscallion troublemakers, no matter how desperately they need his love.
The longer she tries to avoid the new duke, the more she sees the man beneath the scars—the man who needs love as well—even if he’s unwilling to admit it. Too bad she can’t afford to allow him into her heart as the danger she’s running from closes in. Because Sophia possesses secrets about his past even Rourke doesn’t know, and revealing the truth will ruin them all.
Warning: There are a lot of spicy bits and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments! If you like broodingly stoic heroes, determinedly adorkable heroines, and mischievously meddling kids, then grab this first book in a brand-new, laugh-out-loud (and super steamy) Caroline Lee RomCom!
There was a goat in the Duke’s foyer.
Miss Sophia Cuny eyed the animal, which was placidly munching on the fringe of a huge oriental rug spread at the base of the stairs. The colors matched the curtains—reds and blues and golds—and she wondered if she ought to stop the nibbling before the rug and the whole decorating scheme was ruined.
No, do not interfere. Perhaps the goat is supposed to be here.
She shifted her grip on her small valise—she’d been uncertain where to place the damn thing, so it was still clutched in her hand—and snorted softly to herself. Why would a goat belong in the foyer of such an impressively ducal estate as Exingham?
Sheep and cows are used to maintain the lawns and vistas of grand estates, yes?
Sophia was no farmer, but she was ninety percent certain rugs didn’t need regular munching to stay looking good. But as always, she was willing to admit when she was out of her element, which seemed to be pretty much constantly.
The goat lifted its head at a noise from behind the double doors where the staid butler had disappeared, then bleated softly and picked its way toward Sophia.
Who backed up.
The animal kept coming until it butted its head against her valise. Remembering the goats in her small village, who would eat anything, Sophia hastily clutched her bag to her chest, hopefully out of the animal’s reach. The contents were too valuable to be left in her small trunk, much less consigned to masturbation.
Nay, that wasn’t the word. Mastodon? Mastication! Too valuable to be chewed up.
“Shoo!” she hissed.
The goat butted her hip, and she took another step backward.
“Shoo! I don’t have time for an ear-scratch right now!”
A throat-clearing jerked her attention away from the determined animal, and she saw the silver-haired butler maintaining a perfectly neutral expression. So neutral, it passed through neutrality and out the other side, coming full circle, and he might as well be outright laughing at her.
“His Grace will see you now, Miss Cuny,” the man intoned—neutrally, of course—with a small bow.
She took a hesitant step forward, and when the goat didn’t butt her again, repeated it more confidently. Glaring at the butler, daring him to comment on the fact she’d been talking to a goat, she reminded herself to keep her chin up and try to act like a governess. Which was difficult, considering she’d never actually met a governess.
You’ve been to school—quite a few of them, actually. How different can it be? Just act like Miss Twittingham, and everything ought to go well.
As the butler swung the door open for her, she belatedly remembered Miss Twittingham was now a countess and also a complete nincompoop. So perhaps she wasn’t the best role model…
There was a man standing in front of—rather leaning against—a large desk. A giant desk. A completely tremendous, imposing, perfectly clean desk, which would’ve absolutely been the center of the room’s focus…were it not for the aforementioned man.
Sophia had the impression of dark hair, an icy glare, and broad shoulders, but beyond that, she couldn’t be certain why the air had suddenly been sucked from her lungs toward him. Perhaps he was terribly handsome, and she was experiencing some sort of fit? Or maybe it was the aura of power, of confidence, which had her stumbling forward, drawn toward him as a moth to a flame.
Oh, really? You’re comparing yourself to an insect now?
Wait, were moths insects? In any case, this man—surely he was the Duke—would absolutely be the flame. The way those topaz eyes burned across the space between them, was it any wonder her pulse was pounding in her temples?
Beneath his unfashionably attractive beard, his expression was blank. Not the butler’s careful neutrality, but a blankness he’d learned from Blackrose, a blankness which perfectly hid his thoughts. Was he studying her as fiercely as she studied him? Was he even now struggling to breathe in her presence?
His gaze flicked away, and she was able to suck in a breath.
You complete ninny, of course not. Yes, he’s attractive. Is he the most attractive man you’ve ever seen? Absolutely not. He’s moderately attractive. Five out of ten. Perhaps a six. A seven and a half in good lighting.
Besides, he was Blackrose’s Blade.
That would explain the aura of danger surrounding him…and why she felt slightly breathless in his presence.
That and the beard.
Stop thinking about the beard!
The butler cleared his throat again, and she pointedly refused to look at him.
“Your Grace, Miss Sophia Cuny, here to apply for the position of the children’s governess.”
The Blade turned his attention to her once more, and she belatedly remembered to curtsey.
Turned out it was difficult to curtsey while clutching a valise full of documents, but she wouldn’t release them, so she managed.
“Your Grace,” she murmured, staring at his boots. They were quite nice boots. Perhaps she should focus on those instead of the beard.
“Miss Cuny, ye’re hired.”
Forget the boots.
Her gaze jerked back to those topaz eyes, which burned with something she couldn’t identify as he glanced at the two children standing in front of one of the windows.
“Is that no’ correct?” he asked coldly.
The pair of youngsters were also staring at the Duke’s feet—perhaps his boots really were that interesting—but one of them mumbled something.
His voice was…well, not exactly melodious. More of a growl mixed with a bark, which made him sound like an animal, really. He was every inch the Duke, and the inches that weren’t ducal were busy being Blackrose’s Blade.
Her palms were sweating.
When she’d conceived this plan, the Duke had been just that: a duke. No name, just an employer, just an excuse to stay at Exingham while she rifled through his files. Which were likely in that unnecessarily gargantuan desk upon which he now rested his firm posterior.
Now you’re looking at his arse?
Oh, dear. She couldn’t do this. She didn’t belong here.
Her pulse was pounding behind her eyes, and she could feel her breath quickening. She needed to leave, to turn and run from here. The papers in her valise were damning enough. She didn’t need Exingham’s evidence. She could turn the papers over to…to… Well, hell, she didn’t know who to turn them over to, but someone would surely be interested in the traitorous activities she’d been a part of for so long. She could hand over the papers, then run far away from London.
A small part of her mind reminded her that Exingham, in the middle of Scotland, was pretty damn far from London, and she could hide here.
As a governess?
“Did ye say something?” the Duke asked mildly.
She swallowed as she jerked her gaze back to him, but he wasn’t looking at her. She tried to get her breathing under control as one of the children—the blonde lass—straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin.
“Aye, Your Grace,” she said, meeting the Blade’s eyes.
He didn’t do anything as crass as glower, but it was obvious the pretty little girl had managed to anger him.
“Aye, what?” he growled.
“Aye, I said something.” She swallowed. “I…we said Miss Cuny will make an excellent governess. Isn’t that so, Hunter?”
Sophia could see where the children—she remembered they were twins—were clutching each other. The lass must’ve squeezed her brother’s hand because he swallowed and lifted his gaze as well.
“Aye, Uncle,” he mumbled before looking away. “We’ll be good for Miss Cuny.”
To Sophia’s surprise, the Duke muttered something which sounded like “I verra much doubt that,” as he scrubbed one hand down his face and through his beard.
The twins glanced at one another, and Sophia couldn’t miss the fear on their faces. Were they afraid of their uncle?
Blackrose’s Blade, remember?
Yes, of course, she remembered, but…surely, he wouldn’t hurt his own kin?
The children were illegitimate, as she recalled, his older brother’s offspring. Perhaps the Duke resented their presence in his life? Perhaps he considered them a nuisance.
Two years ago, they’d stolen their headmaster’s false teeth and soaked them in pepper juice. Last year, they were dismissed from a school for setting someone’s wig on fire. Sophia had done her research—writing letters was one of her few real skills—and had to admit most people would consider the Duke’s niece and nephew to be nuisances.
But would he hurt them?
As the man exhaled and straightened, pushing away from the desk, she saw him smile.
It wasn’t a particularly nice smile. Rather the smile of a man who’d forgotten how to smile in his quest to hide his thoughts and emotions and was now learning a duke needed to Set People At Ease, and so had tried to re-adopt the smile, only to discover it didn’t quite work.
She’d read the file. Hell, she’d written the file.
“Miss Cuny,” he nodded curtly as he stepped toward her, one hand outstretched. “Welcome to Exingham.”
She stared at that hand. Did dukes shake hands? Did dukes shake governesses’ hands?
All she knew was this duke didn’t shake this governess’s hand.
She knew what those hands had done.
Flustered now, she dropped into another curtsey, her attention once more on his very nice boots.
“I’m flattered, Your Grace.”
From her curtsey, she frowned and peeked up at him from beneath lowered lashes. His rudeness shouldn’t have been surprising.
Perhaps all dukes were cold? He was studying her, his hand still outstretched.
When he saw her watching him, he shrugged one shoulder.
“I told Hunter and Ga…Gertrude I would hire the next applicant, and that is ye, Miss Cuny. They are under strict orders no’ to scare ye away.”
You can’t stay down here forever, you know. You’re going to have to straighten before your knees give out, and you get to examine this rug for signs of goat munching.
Dammit, her subconscious was right.
As she rose from her curtsey, she glanced at the children. They were watching her with uncertainty in their eyes—not the uncertainty which meant they would be testing her, but uncertainty which stemmed from fear.
The Duke was still standing there, hand outstretched, and because she could only pretend to misunderstand his offer so many times, Sophia swallowed her own worries and accepted his hand.
Despite her gloves, a jolt of warmth shot up her arm, a vague tingling which made her want to tug her fingers back and shove them behind her back. Rather than lifting her hand to his lips, Exingham engulfed it, his large fingers cradling hers. It wasn’t the way a man shook the hand of another man, but rather…
Cradling? Was he cradling her hand?
Why was it so warm in here?
If the fingers of Sophia’s other hand hadn’t been wrapped around the handle of her valise, she would’ve fanned herself. Good gracious, it was suddenly rather hard to breathe, wasn’t it?
This close, she could see the Duke’s eyes weren’t topaz at all, but a light brown with flecks of gold throughout, which lent them their interesting glow.
She wasn’t certain she liked it.
Well, yes, obviously, certain parts of her liked it, based on how her damned veins and arteries—despite Papa’s teaching, she never could seem to recall which was which—were working overtime pounding in her ears. And the way her hand and arm and pretty much every inch of her skin felt all tingly, but also warm.
And the liquid heat pooling between her thighs.
She yanked her hand from his.
“Yes, Your Grace.” She stepped briskly backward, her gaze locked squarely on his chin. “I’m certain the children and I will get along smashingly.”
“Aye, that’s what I’m afraid of,” he muttered as he turned away.
She didn’t think she was supposed to have heard that admission, so she ignored it, glad—now she was no longer pinned under his gaze—she could breathe again. Tilting her head slightly, she offered the children a commiserating smile.
The lad, Hunter, flushed and dropped his gaze to his shoes, but the girl—her uncle had called her Gertrude—cocked her head and studied Sophia thoughtfully.
Sophia would be the first to admit—well, not to the Duke of Exingham—she had no experience with children, other than the occasional sticky pat on the head when she’d been helping in her father’s surgery. They’d always seemed rather smelly and loud, which was fine for some, but these two…
These two just looked sad. Or rather, not sad per se but trapped, stifled, and afraid, which should make them look sad. Sophia, who knew them not at all, wanted to help them.
Remember why you’re here.
She was here because she’d been hired as their governess, wasn’t she?
No, remember why you’re really here.
The Duke cleared his throat, which jerked her gaze back to him. He had bent to lift a piece of paper from the continental desk, then turned. When he shifted his weight to one leg, a subtle wince pulled at the skin around his eyes, and her gaze dropped to the unused cane leaning against the desk, then to his leg.
Which one had he wounded in that disastrous last mission? The left? He’d been caught in the destruction of that failed firebombing, and one doctor’s report she’d found said the leg would never again bear full weight. Of course, that was back when the Duke had been merely Rourke Lindsay, Blackrose’s Blade.
Back when she’d believed everything as well.
“Miss Cuny, Lord Blackrose speaks highly of yer qualifications. Any woman who’s met his high standards is certain to be able to handle these two hellions.”
Before she had a chance to object to his words, he moved toward her.
The limp was subtle, and she remembered the report that he’d been healing. But he must still be in pain. Perhaps that accounted for his cold disposition?
He’s waiting for your response. Basic Conversation 101, Sophia. She cleared her throat.
“Oh, yes. He…um…” Dammit, why had she not considered she’d need to make up a believable lie before she’d forged Blackrose’s letter? “Lord Blackrose is a friend of…my father’s.”
There. That sounded believable.
“Yes? I mean, yes, of course, they met in London, but Papa believed in traveling about.” Her voice rose in pitch as the lies compounded. “I was raised hither and yon, rather like a traveling bard of old.” Why wouldn’t her mouth stop running? “Doctor Cuny and his traveling surgery. That’s what they called us.”
This subterfuge business is harder than it looks.
One of his perfect brows rose. “Traveling surgery,” he repeated in a murmur. “Of course.” His gaze dropped to the letter in his hands. “Yer timing was perfect. I’m no’ surprised Blackrose heard of my difficulty and knew just when to send ye.”
Part of her duties for the last eighteen months had been keeping tabs on Exingham and his family. The letter had been her first time forging Blackrose’s handwriting—another of her skills, to go with her letter-writing—and signature.
Still, she managed a weak smile. “I sent my references.”
Forged as well.
He stood before her, his weight on one leg, tapping the paper against his open palm, studying her. Her smile passed through weak and into feeble, and then decrepit.
Then, in one burst of movement, he nodded and spun about on his good leg. “Ye’ll do, Miss Cuny. Dinner is at eight, and ye will join us.”
Was it common for governesses to dine with their charges? And their…duke?
Unbidden, her gaze slid to the children. Hunter was staring wide-eyed at her, while his sister frowned at their uncle. Was this unexpected news to them as well?
She licked her lips, wondering how to refuse. Wondering if she could.
“Thank you for the invitation, Your Grace, but—”
“It wasnae an invitation, Miss Cuny. A duke issues commands.” His attention was on the papers on his desk, his tone dismissive. “Ye have a few hours to rest and recover from yer journey. The children will show ye to yer room without incident.”
The words were emphasized without looking up, and Sophia had no doubt they were intended for the children. Good heavens, he really had the poor things cowed, did he not?
Suddenly, she could just imagine a dinner here at Exingham—the Duke silent and cold, the children silent and intimidated, and the whole thing just…miserable. And silent.
She might not know much about children, but she knew they weren’t meant to be this quiet and frightened. Perhaps if she were there, dinner might be less…well, it would still be frightening, frankly, since she had no idea how to dine with a duke, but at least it wouldn’t be silent.
Try not to muck this up, Sophia. You’re terrible at lying.
Yes. That was why she hadn’t become one of Blackrose’s operatives, wasn’t it?
You brought a gown. It would be suitable for dinner.
She’d brought one gown. Oh, she owned more, but when she’d been planning this disappearing mission, she’d packed only her most governessy dresses, like the plain ensemble she wore now. But she had one she might wear to dinner.
So, she forced a smile for the children’s benefit and tried for a cheery tone.
“Very well. I’m honored by your command, Your Grace.”
He didn’t turn but made a sound which might’ve been a snort.
“Come along, Hunter and Gertrude. You can tell me all about yourselves.”
Both children sent their uncle an apprehensive glance before they accepted her summons. She stepped between them and took Gertrude’s hand.
“Here, Hunter, you can be a gentleman and carry my valise for me. Do be careful with it.”
The lad fumbled with the weight, and her stomach clenched, but he settled the bag against his chest.
“She means don’t drop it in the well,” Gertrude instructed primly.
Dear heavens, was that an option? Wide-eyed, Sophia glanced at the lad, who was scowling at his sister.
“She also means I can’t feed this bag to Buttercup.”
Who was Buttercup? Sophia’s gaze swung back to Gertrude, who smiled sweetly up at her.
“Don’t fret, Miss Cuny. My brother and I are under threat—I mean orders to be on our best behavior.” With that, the lass tugged her toward the door.
The file of Blackrose’s Blade had been a terrifying thing to read—it seemed he was even more terrifying in real life.
She was here for a reason, and if he was as dangerous as she feared, the Duke of Exingham could cock the whole thing up.
And she would be the next death.
As the door swung closed behind them, she turned for one last glimpse of the alarmingly attractive man who had no right to be so intriguing…and found him staring back at their strange little trio. With a look in his eyes which seemed very much like sadness.