How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days
From USA Today bestselling author Laura Lee Guhrke comes the story of a bargain, a marriage of convenience…and the chance for love to last a lifetime
They had a deal…
From the moment she met the devil-may-care Duke of Margrave, Edie knew he could change her life. And when he agreed to her outrageous proposal of a marriage of convenience, she was transformed from ruined American heiress to English duchess. Five years later, she’s delighted with their arrangement, especially since her husband is living on another continent.
But deals are made to be broken…
By marrying an heiress, Stuart was able to pay his family’s enormous debts, and Edie’s terms that he leave England forever seemed a small price to pay. But when a brush with death impels him home, he decides it’s time for a real marriage with his luscious American bride, and he proposes a bold new bargain: ten days to win her willing kiss. But is ten days enough to win her heart?
The library was so different from the room he remembered that Stuart stopped in the doorway, uncertain for a moment if he was in the right place. Shelves of books still lined three walls of the long, rectangular room, but the fourth wall, the one that ran alongside the south terrace, had been stripped of bookshelves altogether. In their place were tall French doors that opened onto the terrace, framed by silk draperies of soft green. The room’s walnut paneling had been removed and the walls painted a pale, buttery yellow. The once-gilded woodwork was now white, and the worn velvet upholstery of the furnishings had been replaced with a delicately patterned green-and-white chintz. The room was now airy and full of light, a vast improvement over the oppressiveness of the previous décor.
The library wasn’t the only thing about the house Edie had transformed. He’d already noticed that the north façade had been replaced, but a step outside verified that the south one had received the same treatment. The knot gardens were no longer a gnarled mass of overgrown boxwood, wild rose canes, and weed-infested turf. The Italianate potagers put in by the third duke during the reign of Queen Anne were now back to their original, intricate splendor, their roses blooming with controlled abandon and their low boxwood edges precisely trimmed. The once-rusty wrought-iron table and chairs on the terrace had been painted white, potted geraniums lined the balustrade, and beneath his feet, the cracked, crumbling flagstones of the past were gone. In the distance, the home farm looked tidy and the fields well tended. He hadn’t had any doubt that Edie would capably manage Highclyffe and his other estates, not only because he trusted his instincts but also because annual reports from stewards and land agents over the years had confirmed it.
Despite that, he found it reassuring to see for himself that everything was in order. And yet, looking out over the immaculately groomed lands spread out before him, he wondered suddenly what there would be for him to do here. Edie had managed everything so well, what could he contribute?
It’s time to go home.
The insistent need that had pounded through his head on that fateful night six months ago echoed back to him again, reminding him that he could have chosen to die. But instead, he’d chosen to live, to come home and accept at last the role he’d been born to. But then, he’d always known he would return one day. He just hadn’t expected it to be this way. He’d rather fancied coming home to all the celebratory fanfare due to a famous traveler and explorer. He certainly hadn’t envisioned himself limping in like a wounded animal.
Still, he was here, and he had responsibilities to assume. Patching things up with Edie was his first, his primary goal, for nothing else would matter without that. Not that there had ever really been anything to patch up. They hadn’t been the happily married couple who had drifted apart, separated, and now had to reconcile. No, they’d been two strangers brought together by mutual need. They had certainly never been in love.
At least, he amended, she hadn’t been. He thought of the first time he’d ever seen her in that ballroom, and how it had felt. Like the hand of Fate grabbing hold of him, forcing him to stand still and look hard because in front of him was something worth noticing. He might have fallen, and fallen hard, if she hadn’t so ruthlessly cut the ground from beneath his feet before he’d even known her name. Ah, well.
This was a new beginning, and a second chance. Not that the task ahead of him would be an easy one. He’d known then, and he knew now, that Edie had a wall around her it would not be easy to breach.
The sound of her voice had him turning around to find her in the doorway to the corridor, watching him through the open French doors.
“A man’s bound to change in five years, I suppose.” He started back toward the library, but after only a few steps, he wished he’d remained where he was. With her watching, he felt acutely self-conscious as he came across the terrace and into the library, especially when he paused in the center of the room and noted that she had not come forward to meet him halfway. He hoped that was not a metaphor for their future.
“Stuart?” She hesitated a moment, then she said simply, “I’m sorry about Jones. Was that lions, too?”
“Yes. How do you think I’ve changed?” he asked, rushing on, feeling a desperate need to veer off the subject of his valet. “Aside from the obvious, of course,” he added with a forced laugh, shifting his weight to his good leg and holding up his walking stick.
She considered for a moment. “You’re much graver than I remember. Not quite so glib and debonair as you used to be.”
“Yes, my carefree youth has passed on, I daresay.”
Her lips curved upward a bit. “Still undoing your ties at every opportunity, though, I see.”
“It’s not the tie, Edie,” he said with a grin, hoping here was the beginning of a rapprochement. “It’s the collar. One of the things Africa taught me was just how uncomfortable the damn things are. You’ve changed, too, by the way,” he added.
“Have I?” She seemed surprised by that. “In what way?”
He studied her for a long moment, considering. It was the same face he remembered, with its angled auburn brows, spring green eyes, and dusting of freckles. It had the same stubborn square jaw, pointed chin, and pale pink mouth, and he presumed her straight white teeth still had that slight overbite that showed when she smiled, though as he recalled, she’d never been one to smile much. Hers had never been a pretty face, he supposed, not by society’s standards, but it was so vibrantly alive that its lack of symmetrical beauty didn’t seem to matter. So what was it about her that was different? He tried to pin it down.
“You’re not so thin now as you were then. And not so fierce. Not so driven. You seem… … I don’t know quite how to put it, Edie. You’re softer, somehow.”
She shifted her weight and looked away as if uncomfortable with his description. “Yes, well…” She gave a cough. “That’s good.”
Silence fell between them, a silence that banished any hope of immediate rapport and underscored the brutal fact that despite being married, they were two strangers alone in a room, grasping for something to say. Not that there was nothing for them to talk about—quite the contrary. Their future as husband and wife stretched before them, and if he’d survived for anything at all, it was for another chance with her, a chance to make with her a marriage that was real. He could hardly jump right into that topic, however, and he glanced around, striving for something neutral to say.
“I like what you’ve done with this room,” he remarked at last. “The French doors to the terrace are a splendid idea.”
“I did the same thing in the music room, the billiard room, room and the ballroom. Since these rooms all flank the terrace, it was a simple improvement to make.”
“Well, the ballroom will certainly benefit from the additional fresh air. That room was always beastly hot when it was full of people, even with all the windows open. And here in the library, the French doors bring in a lot more light. One can see well enough to read in here now. Before, I remember, one always had to light a lamp, even in the afternoon. Such a silly thing, I always thought, not to have adequate light in a library. But now, a lamp would only be necessary after dark.”
“Not even then, really,” she said, and pointed to one of several gold sconces that adorned the walls. “I installed gaslights in all the rooms ages ago.”
He smiled. “How American of you. A most sensible thing to do.”
Edie made a face. “Your mother wouldn’t agree. She hates them. She breathes disapproval of them every time she visits.”
He looked at her with sympathy. “Has she been very awful?”
Edie waved a hand. “Nothing I can’t handle. Your mother’s rather like a house cat. She wants to be pampered and catered to, and she’s inclined to hiss a bit when she doesn’t get her way.”
“That sounds like an apt description of my entire family.”
“It does, rather,” she agreed. “Do they know you’re here?”
“Mama and Nadine know. I came through Rome on my way home, and I called on them there. You knew they were in Rome, didn’t you? Of course you did,” he went on before she could answer. “Mama would never go anywhere without telling you where to send the quarterly allowance.”
She did not dispute that rather cynical contention. “Will they be following you, then? Should I have more rooms prepared?”
He shook his head. “They’re staying in Italy through the autumn as planned.” He felt a twinge of stupid boyhood pain, but he shoved it aside, for he’d accepted long ago the indifference and utter lack of love in his family. “Nadine,” he went on, “has an Italian prince on the hook at present, and if she came home now, why, he might slip free. Priorities, Edie. Priorities.”
She nodded with understanding, for she knew by now just what his sister and mother were like. “Of course. What about Cecil?”
“Oh, I’ve plenty of time to inform him. The fly fishing’s deuced good in Scotland just now, and the stalking begins next week. Even if I wrote today, I doubt my brother would be able to drag himself away from Stuart Lodge to come down and welcome me.”
“If you really want to see him while you’re here, I could cut off his allowance,” she suggested with a touch of humor.
Stuart gave a shout of laughter and surprise. It wasn’t like the Edie he remembered to make a joke. “He’d be down like a shot, wouldn’t he? Still, it’s not necessary to put him through that sort of shock yet a while.”
She wrinkled up her freckled nose in a rueful way. “When you first told me what spongers they were, I didn’t quite believe you.”
“I did my best to warn you what they were like.”
“True, but until I met them, I don’t think I quite believed you.”
“Yet, after you met them, you married me anyway,” he murmured. “I have often wondered why.”
“We both know why we married.”
“Yes, yes, quite so. You came to me and proposed a very sensible arrangement, and I…” He paused long enough to take a deep breath. “I jumped at it. But what I meant was that I’ve often wondered why you chose me.”
“Oh, I doubt you’ve thought about me enough to wonder about that,” she said with a deprecating shrug and a laugh.
“And if you ever thought that, Edie, you were wrong.”
Her humor faded at once. Her tongue darted out to lick her lips, as if they were dry or she was suddenly nervous. “Stuart, why are you here?” she asked in a low voice.
“I believe you already know the answer to that question.”
She came into the library, crossing to where he stood in the center of the room. “I suppose…” She paused for a moment, halting in front of him. “I suppose your injuries are what brought you home?”
“Partly.” At least, he amended to himself, they had provided the perfect excuse. “In a way.”
His enigmatic reply caused a puzzled frown to crease her brow. “So you’re home to consult a doctor?”
“I’ve already seen two doctors. One in Nairobi and one in Mombasa.”
“I was referring to an English doctor.”
“Both of them were English.”
She shook her head. “No, I meant a specialist, someone who might have more experience treating injuries such as yours than a colonial doctor.”
“It wouldn’t matter.”
“It might. Some of the doctors in Harley Street are quite clever,” she added, and he could hear a hint of desperation creeping into her voice. “One of them might be able to offer a course of treatment, something that would put you right again. And then…” She paused again, and this time, it was a pause so palpably awkward, it made him grimace.
“Go on,” he prompted. “And then?”
“And then you could go back.”
He decided there was no point in sugarcoating the truth. “I’m not going back, Edie. I’m home for good.”
She displayed no surprise. Instead, she nodded, but if he thought it was a nod of acceptance, he was mistaken. “You promised me you would never come back. Remember?”
He didn’t tell her it was a promise he’d always known he might break. “My circumstances have changed, as you’ve no doubt observed. I can’t lead the life I led lead before. No more hunting, no more safari work.” He paused, for though all that was true, it wasn’t what had brought him home. “Edie, I nearly died.”
She bit her lip and looked away. “I’m sorry, Stuart. Truly, I am.”
She looked at him again, and he saw the girl he knew, the girl who wanted no husband except in name. “Do you intend to break our agreement?”
If their marriage was to have a prayer of succeeding, he had to make her understand what had happened to him and why that mattered. “I saw men digging my grave, Edie. I watched them do it. I knew I was dying, and I can’t begin to describe what that was like, except to say that that changes a man. It makes him instantly, keenly aware that everything he thought was important isn’t important at all. It forces him to look at his life in a new light, reconsider his choices, perhaps make new ones—”
“And just which of your choices,” she interrupted, “are you reconsidering?”
“I realized it was time for me to come home, take care of my estates, and you.”
“I don’t need taking care of.”
He could see her expression hardening as she said it, but he persevered, for it had to be said. “I want to do my duty to my estates and my family and my marriage. I want to be a real husband.” He paused, then added, “With a real wife.”
Those words were scarcely out of his mouth before she was shaking her head. “No. We agreed—”
“I know what we agreed, but that was five years ago. Things are different now.”
“Not for me.”
He ignored that painfully obvious fact because his only hope for a future with her was in finding a way to overcome it. “But they are different for me, Edie. I don’t just want what’s over the next hill or across the next river. I want to be part of something that endures.”
Her lips parted, but she said nothing. She stared at him, wordless, and he took advantage of the moment to finish what he needed to say. “Next time I look death in the face, I want to know that I’ll have left something behind me that isn’t just my bones and ashes. Edie…” He paused and took a deep breath. “I want children.”
She staggered back a step, almost as if he’d slapped her. “You gave me your word,” she choked out. “Damn you. You gave me your word.”
She turned, and for the second time in two hours, she began walking away faster than he could follow.
“We can’t avoid each other forever,” he called after her.
“I don’t see why not,” she shot back over her shoulder. “We’ve been doing a splendid job of it for the past five years.”
With that, she vanished into the corridor.
Stuart let out his breath in a slow sigh. This, he appreciated as he stared at the empty doorway, was going to be even harder than he thought.
“Of all the idiotic things to do!”
A disgusted feminine voice interrupted his thoughts, and he turned around to find Joanna standing in the frame of one of the open French doors, frowning at him. “Really, Margrave, if you’re not going to take my advice, how am I going to help you?”
“I see that in addition to being impertinent and disobeying your sister, you also have no compunction about eavesdropping.”
“Well, it’s not my fault if you and Edie have a set-to where the doors are wide open! And anyway, I have a serious stake in this.”
“If I find you eavesdropping on any more of my private conversations with your sister, or with anyone else, else for that matter, I’ll haul you off to Willowbank myself, tied and gagged if necessary. Is that understood?”
Her expression turned sulky, but she was forced to knuckle under. “Oh, very well,” she mumbled, “I won’t listen in anymore. But now that the damage is done,” she added irrepressibly, “I have to ask what you were thinking. The part about children was all right, I suppose. Edie does like babies. But doing your duty to your marriage? And all that mush about being part of something that endures?” She made a sound of derision. “You think that’s going to win her over?”
In hindsight, he supposed it did sound like an utter load of tosh, but it nettled him nonetheless that he was being given advice on romance by a schoolgirl. “And by playing on her sympathy, you think I’d have done better, do you?”
“Well, you couldn’t have done any worse!” Having made that irrefutable point, Joanna turned away with a huff of aggravation and vanished from view, but her last muttered words floated back to him from across the terrace. “The way you’re going, I’ll never stay out of boarding school.”
Stuart was in no position to dispute that prediction just now. And though he was no more inclined to play on Edie’s sympathy now than he’d been before, he also knew that Joanna had a point. All the things he’d said to Edie were true, but they weren’t what he’d need to say in order to win her. Unfortunately, he had no idea what were the right things to say. He’d always been rather adept at charming the fair sex, but his charms, as he was well aware, had never impressed Edie.
He knew a love affair gone wrong had broken her heart and ruined her reputation. He also knew she hadn’t offered him marriage because she desired him, though discovering that had been rather a blow to his vanity at the time.
I’m offering you everything you want from life. Don’t allow masculine pride to get in your way.
Well, he hadn’t, and the result had been something akin to an Arabian Nights tale. Like a genie out of a bottle, she’d appeared and solved all his problems, absolved him of all his irksome duties, and handed him everything in life he could have asked for. Everything except her.
That night in the maze, he hadn’t considered what effect their bargain would have on him, and during the frantic days before their wedding, surrounded by relatives and chaperones and an entourage of fawning journalists eager to report the details of the latest transatlantic marriage, he’d had little chance to ponder the topic. Beyond the understandable sting to his pride, her lack of attraction to him and her aversion to bedding him had taken second place to other considerations, like securing his estates. But afterward, alone together here at Highclyffe, it had begun to matter a great deal, and for reasons that had nothing to do with pride.
He’d begun to want her, more and more with each day that passed, and by a fortnight after the wedding, the bargain they’d made had begun to seem like Faust’s deal.
He’d left early for Africa, a month earlier than they’d arranged, unable to tolerate the impossibility of wanting her and not having her. He even remembered the exact day he reached his limit.
He turned, staring through the open French door to the terrace, and his mind went back five years, to a warm July afternoon and tea laid out for them on that wrought-iron.
They’d been touring the estate, a long day on horseback when he’d shown her some of the remotest acreage at Highclyffe. Gone all day, with no refreshment other than a few sandwiches at the home farm, they’d decided to have tea on the terrace before going upstairs to change, and Edie’s voice, clear and filled with her American common sense came floating to him out of the past.
“Such a shame those acres to the south couldn’t be made useful in some way,” she said, handing off her black top hat and riding crop to a footman, then taking the chair Stuart had pulled out for her. “For crops, or pasture, or… or something. As it is, they’re just a swamp.”
“It is rather a bog,” he agreed, moving to take his own seat across from her. “It’s a problem with the slope of the land, you see.”
“Can nothing be done about it?”
“We’ve done what we can.” He explained the grading that had been done, the Henry French drains that had been dug, and various other attempts to deal with the problem as she poured tea for them.
“And yet, it’s still a swamp,” she pointed out as she handed him his cup.
“True,” he agreed. “Any further measures would need to be taken by Lord Seaforth, and he won’t make any improvements to his land that would also improve mine. He hates me, you see.”
“Hates you? But why?”
He shrugged, took a swallow of tea, and leaned back in his chair. “Hating Margraves is a Seaforth family tradition. Back in 1788, the third Duke of Margrave, desperate for money, eloped with one of the Seaforth daughters to Gretna Green. The Seaforth version is that she was kidnapped, and it caused an enormous scandal. The relations between our families have been hostile ever since.”
“But that’s silly!”
“Possibly, but that’s how things are. I tried several times to heal the breach while Seaforth and I were at Cambridge, but Seaforth wasn’t having any. So, the feud, and the bog, remain.”
“But that bog is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Not to mention disease. Why, he has a pasture full of sheep just there. He’s risking an outbreak of typhoid, or cholera, or any number of other contagions!”
“I agree, but what will you? As I said, it’s how things are.”
She made an exclamation of impatience at his repetition of that statement. “What if I just bought the useless land on his side? Then it could all be graded properly on that side, couldn’t it?”
He laughed, making her pause to look at him over her teacup, tea cup, a frown of puzzlement crinkling between her brows. “Why are you laughing?”
“’What if I just bought it,’ she says with all the confidence of the wealthy American.”
Her frown deepened slightly. “Are you making fun of me?”
“Perhaps a little.” He smiled and set aside his tea. Leaning forward, he went on, “Many Margraves have offered to buy that acreage—at least when our family’s in funds. But no Seaforth will ever sell them to us.”
“You could try.”
“I already did. A week before we were married. Seaforth refused.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, this is absurd.” She fell silent, and he could see her practical mind turning to find a solution. “What if someone else bought that land?” she asked after a moment.
“Seaforth might be persuaded to sell it to someone else, but who’d buy it? Land’s a dismal investment these days, especially a sliver like that. Shoehorned between two estates, it’s no use to anyone.”
“Hmm… I believe Madison & Moore could be persuaded to buy it.” Her lips curved in a tiny smile at his blank look. “Seaforth would never have to know that Madison & Moore, Incorporated, is one of my father’s many companies.”
“By God, that might actually work.” He laughed. “You assured me you had brains, Edie, but you didn’t tell me you were brilliant.”
She laughed, too, at the outrageous compliment, giving him a wide, radiant smile across the table, and all of a sudden, he couldn’t move. It was every bit as riveting as the feeling he’d experienced the first time he’d ever seen her, but for a different reason. The first night, he’d been riveted by the sense that he was looking at something out of the common way. But this time, something else pinned him in place. When Edie smiled and laughed, it lit up her whole countenance, showed the gold sparks in her green eyes, and shattered the touch-me-not shield that usually enveloped her. Like a light illuminating the dark, a plain girl was suddenly beautiful.
His throat went dry, his pulses quickened, and then, like a dam breaking, desire flooded through him. Until now, he’d been able to suppress it, ignore it, keep it at bay, but this time, it was so sudden and so overwhelming that it refused to be suppressed. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but stare helplessly at the woman across the table as lust spread unchecked through every part of his body.
This is my wife, he thought, and at that moment, he’d have given anything to see her laughing like that, naked, amid a snowy pile of bedsheets.
“What a beautiful smile you’ve got,” he said without thinking. “That’s a sight I wouldn’t mind waking up to first thing in the morning.”
Her smile faded slowly away, and as he watched it go, he wondered if right now, her heart was pounding as hard as his, if her body had the same burning ache as his and her mind the same torrid thoughts.
Her eyes, such a clear, pretty green, were wide with shock, but there was no jeweled hardness in their depths. Her hand lifted to touch the side of her neck, a hint of color washed into her pale cheeks, and he knew she felt, at least a little, what he was feeling. “Shall we, Edie?” he asked softly, rolling the dice. “We are married, after all.”
She sucked in a sharp breath, her body stiffened, and he saw a wall come up between them like a physical barrier. “You gave me your word,” she said, her voice low, cold, and withering, and any hope he’d persuade her to a tumble in the sheets went utterly out the window.
He’d left the next day without seeing her smile again. Sometimes, at night, sitting outside his tent in Africa, he’d thought of her face across the tea table, soft with desire for just that one fleeting moment, and he’d wondered what his life might have been like if he’d negotiated a different sort of deal, if he hadn’t been so desperate to accept the one she’d offered.
Now, as he stared at the wrought-iron table and remembered that day, he reminded himself that he had the chance now he hadn’t taken then. He’d changed over the years, and so had she. However devastated she might have been as a girl of eighteen, six years was surely long enough to get over a broken heart.
There was passion inside of his wife. He’d sensed it the night they met, and he’d seen it that day on the terrace. Brief glimpses, perhaps, but he knew enough about women to know he hadn’t imagined it. He just had to figure out how to ignite that passion so it burned for him.
Time was his ally. Despite her defiant declaration, it would be impossible for Edie to avoid him every hour of every day for the rest of their lives. They would be living in the same house, eating at the same table, reading in the same library, having tea at that same wrought-iron table. Bit by bit, if he was patient, he would capture her attention, break down her resistance, and light her fire.
It was just, he told himself, a matter of time.