About the Author
Karen Hawkins is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of many wickedly funny historical romane novels set in Regency Scotland, including the wildly popular MacLean Curse series, the enchanting Hurst Amulet series, the funny and charming Duchess Diaries series, and now the romantic Oxenburg Princes series. Karen is also the author of two sassy contemporary romances set in the little town of Glory, North Carolina. Find out more at Facebook.com/AuthorKarenHawkins and KarenHawkins.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
How to Capture a Countess One
September 12, 1812
From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe
For the last six years, my great-nephew, the Earl of Sinclair, has done naught but drive his grandmother to distraction with his antics. Oh, we thought him a wild one before The Incident, but we were wrong. Since then, he has shown us what “wild” truly means, and it seems that every day brings a new report of his lascivious lifestyle.
The fault, of course, is with my sister. At the tender age of seventeen, after his parents were killed in a carriage accident, Sin was left with titles and estates and the care of his younger brothers. Though several of us advised otherwise, my sister pushed to give the boy all of the weight of those responsibilities instead of appointing an executor until he was of a more appropriate age. My sister meant no harm, and thought that the boy would mature as he assumed the mantle of responsibility. He did so, of course, but at a very high cost.
Without parents to guide him, or a partner to share his burdens, and left solely responsible for the care of his younger brothers, he became arrogantly conceited with his own independence. Though he now possesses what all women desire in a husband—excellent birth, a handsome visage, a charming manner (when he wishes), a respected title, and a growing fortune—he torments my adored sister by refusing to fix his attentions upon a woman of genteel breeding and instead openly cavorts with Notorious Undesirables.
The time has come for me to take matters into my own hands; my poor sister now regrets her lack of trust in my earlier judgment, and has made a desperate plea for help.
And desperate times call for desperate measures . . .
The butler’s sedate knock was met by a cacophony of barking. Over the yips and yaps, a feminine voice called for him to enter. MacDougal sighed regretfully for his polished shoes and well-ironed breeches, then opened the large oak doors to the sitting room.
A small herd of yapping pugs met him, a mixture of brown and silver fur, flat wet noses, and curly pig tails. The dogs jumped upon him, their little nails ruining his careful creases and marring his well-tended shoe leathers.
Even so, he couldn’t resist the charms of the large brown eyes now fixed upon him. “There, there, ye wee bairns. Stop yer yappin’; ’tis naught but me. Did I no’ feed ye bacon jus’ this mornin’? ’Tis fine treatment ye’re givin’ me now.”
Six curly tails wagged in unison. The Roxburghe pugs were as famous throughout Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside as their mistress, the notorious Duchess of Roxburghe, a woman well into her sixtieth year (though none were certain how far) and the icy-eyed mistress of Floors Castle for the past ten years.
The dogs sniffed MacDougal’s breeches and shoes as he edged through the pack and then crossed the many rugs to the two women seated before the fireplace at the far end of the cavernous room. Unable to maul his legs while he walked, the pugs had to be content with trotting and tumbling after him, puffing and wheezing as they pretended to herd him along.
As he reached the small circle of settees, Lady Charlotte looked up from her knitting. After a quick motion for silence, she pointed to the duchess, who was reclining upon the settee opposite, a kerchief soaked in lavender water covering her eyes.
Ah, yes. Her grace had played whist last night and, as usually happened when the vicar came to visit, she’d enjoyed her evening libations a wee bit too much. It showed not only in the fact that the duchess was hiding her eyes from the sunlight, but also in the way her fashionable gown of blue muslin was crinkled and her red wig was slightly askew.
Lady Charlotte leaned forward to whisper, “Her grace isn’t feeling well this morning.”
“Aye, me lady,” he whispered back with a kind smile. The youngest daughter of the late Earl of Argyll and a distant cousin of the duke’s, Lady Charlotte Montrose was a short, rather mousy woman sadly given to wearing lace mobcaps in the French manner, a fashion that did not suit her plump face. MacDougal had been made aware of this fact only this morning by that secret fashionmonger Mrs. Cairness, the housekeeper, who—when not wearing the starched black gowns as befitted her station—often dressed better than the duchess herself.
“Perhaps you should return in an hour,” Lady Charlotte whispered. “Once her grace is through with her nap.”
MacDougal nodded. Lady Charlotte knew her grace better than most, as she’d made her home at Floors Castle for the last eight years. It was widely held that she’d come to stay with her cousin Roxburghe after an arranged marriage to some wild hobnob of society had fallen through. Whatever the reason, she’d never left and was now as much a part of Floors Castle as the duchess herself.
MacDougal bent closer to Lady Charlotte. “Perhaps ’twould be best if I left the post fer her grace to read when she awakens? There’s a missive I think she moight wish to—”
“Oh, for the love of—” The duchess moaned as if her own words caused her pain. She pressed a hand to her covered eyes, an assortment of rings flashing with the movement. “Pray stop your infernal whispering. You sound like a pack of nuns planning a murder.”
MacDougal hid a smile. “I’m sorry, yer grace, but I thought ye might wish to see a certain missive tha’ just arrived.”
The duchess peeked out from under a corner of the lavender-water-soaked kerchief, revealing a large hooked nose and one brilliant blue eye. “He answered?”
“Aye, yer grace, much to the surprise of us all.” If there was one benefit to serving as part of the duchess’s household since one was a mere lad (well before she’d married Roxburghe and become a duchess), it was the privilege of occasionally speaking one’s mind. MacDougal was careful not to overuse the privilege, though. He was far too fond of both the duchess and his position to do so.
The duchess tossed off the cloth and sat up gingerly, pushing her wig back in place with a well-practiced shove.
MacDougal held out the silver salver, where a small note had been set aside from the stack of cards and letters. “From Lord Sinclair, yer grace.”
“Thank you.” She opened the note.
Lady Charlotte watched with a bright gaze, distracted only when a small silver pug attacked a skein of yarn in her basket. “Stop that, Meenie,” Lady Charlotte admonished. “Don’t touch my yar—”
“Demme!” The duchess crumpled the note into a ball.
Lady Charlotte looked up, disappointment on her round face. “He’s not coming.”
“No, blast it all.” The duchess tossed the note into the fire. “My great-nephew will attend neither my house party nor my Winter Ball. As a sop to his weak conscience—if one can call it that—he’s offered to visit me on his return from his sojourn, almost a month after the scheduled festivities.”
“How rude! To offer to visit on his way back from some low amusement, I have no doubt. Balderdash!” She threw herself back onto the settee, her eyes ablaze. “I won’t receive him. That will teach him to refuse my invitations.”
Knowing a little something about the Earl of Sinclair, MacDougal rather doubted that.
Apparently Lady Charlotte felt the same, for she said in her soft voice, “Chances are, he will merely shrug and go on his way. I don’t mean to say anything ill about Lord Sinclair, but he’s not the sort of male one would call accommodating.”
“No, he’s not. He’s a fool is what he is, demme him.” The duchess tossed her kerchief back over her face and slumped down like a limp rag doll.
While it was very poor of Lord Sinclair not to accept his great-aunt’s invitation, MacDougal felt that someone had to make the peace. He cleared his throat. “Yer grace, I’m sorry aboot the inconvenience of Lord Sinclair’s answer, but perhaps he is busy. He must have a mountain of dooties takin’ care o’ his estates and such—”
“Ha!” her grace said, the puff of air sending the corner of her kerchief aflutter before she snatched it off and threw it to the floor, where four of her pugs pounced upon it and began a mad tussle. Ignoring their growls, the duchess said, “My great-nephew is very busy indeed—busy trying to sleep with every married woman in England. I daresay he’d attend my party if I invited some scantily clad opera singers, or a house full of painted harlo—”
“Margaret, my dear,” Lady Charlotte said in a breathless tone, sending a quick glance at MacDougal, which he wisely pretended not to notice. “Perhaps our passions would be better served if, rather than lamenting Lord Sinclair’s failings, vast though they are—”
“Like the bloody ocean,” the duchess muttered.
“Like the vast ocean,” Lady Charlotte agreed. “But perhaps rather than focusing on Sinclair’s shortcomings, we would be better served by finding a way to get him to attend your ball, especially as you’ve invited every eligible woman of standing within miles.”
“He’s so stubborn.” The duchess tapped her fingers on the arm of the settee, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I wish I could believe that Sin was merely too busy to attend my ball, but he’s been in sole charge of his estates for over fifteen years now and he finds the daily administration no more taxing than selecting a waistcoat, especially now that his brothers are grown and married. Sadly, he values his freedom far too much.”
“Too many cares as a youth, perhaps?”
“And so I warned my sister, when she decided to place the full weight of— But I’m not going to rehash old decisions; it will serve no purpose. The truth is that Sin’s not coming to my ball because he’s realized my purpose in bringing him here: to encourage him to find a suitable wife and settle down.”
Lady Charlotte tsked. “It is a dreadful coil. Perhaps a little afternoon tea would help us think our way through this situation to a solution.”
“Perhaps,” the duchess said absently, reaching down to scoop up a very roly-poly pug and plop it into her lap, where it snuggled into a ball. “MacDougal, please bring a tea tray.”
“Aye, yer grace. I shall place the rest of the post upon yer secretary.” MacDougal crossed to the small rosewood desk and placed the letters in a neat stack on one corner. He paused to straighten them, taking his time in doing so.
The duchess leaned back, patting the pug with one hand while she absently tapped her long fingers on the arm of the settee. “Maybe I should hire some men to abduct him and have him shackled in the pantry until my ball?”
MacDougal wondered if there was anything strong enough in the pantry that the earl could not overturn. The man was several inches over six feet tall and was a fine physical specimen, made so by his many sporting pursuits.
“Yes,” Lady Charlotte agreed blithely. “That would be so much easier than trying to reason with him, though I fear someone could get hurt.”
“He wouldn’t come quietly, would he?” The duchess’s voice was heavy with regret. “And Sinclair is the devil of a good boxer.”
“He’s good with his pistols, too. He’s never lost a duel.”
“Very true, demme it.” The duchess’s fingers never stopped tapping as the two subsided into silence.
Lady Charlotte, her knitting needles clicking softly, said, “A pity he’s not a woman. If he were, one could just invite him over for tea and have a nice cozy talk and resolve everything.”
“Well, he’s not a woman, so that thinking is of no use. The boy is as stubborn as his father, who was a fool.” Her grace scratched the ear of the fortunate pug that occupied her lap. It stretched under her ministrations before curling into a ball again for a snooze. “The late earl was a pompous ass and a rakehell, and he passed those unholy traits to his son.”
“But Lord Sin hasn’t always been such a ne’er-do-weel.”
Her grace’s expression darkened, a flicker of sadness on her expressive face. “No, he hasn’t been the same since The Incident, which—”
Lady Charlotte cleared her throat and flicked a glance at MacDougal, who hurried to knock the stack of letters off the secretary so that he had to bend down to collect them once again. Lady Charlotte lowered her voice, though MacDougal heard her plainly enough when she said, “Sinclair has changed.”
“Yes, six years ago . . . ” The duchess’s voice trailed off, an intent expression coming into her eyes as she slowly sat up in her seat, her eyes fastened on some vision mortal eyes could not see.
MacDougal held his breath and leaned forward. He knew that look. Poor Lord Sinclair.
Lady Charlotte stopped knitting, her eyes widening. “You’ve thought of something!” Her voice was almost breathless.
“I might know a way to get Sinclair to attend my Winter Ball and the house party for the preceding three weeks.”
“Yes, and if we do this right, he’ll think it was all his own idea, too.” The duchess rubbed her hands together in apparent glee. “Charlotte, this might just do the trick!”
MacDougal wondered if there was Borgia blood somewhere in her grace’s family. He’d wager an entire month’s wages that there was.
“I’m all ears,” Lady Charlotte said, leaning forward.
The duchess smiled as she patted the pug sleeping in her lap. “Sin changed six years ago. Before that he was a known Corinthian, a sporting man. He had already made it clear to the family that he would not accept a tame marriage, but he was not a scoundrel.”
“Until The Incident.”
“Since then, he’s been rakehelling his way across England, as if bound and determined to prove the naysayers right.”
“People did talk.”
“And why wouldn’t they? He’d been lording it over everyone, the most eligible bachelor in all of England, too busy with his races and prizefights to exchange pleasantries or attend social events. When he did bother to come to someone’s ball, he barely danced, spoke only to a few people, and usually left long before anyone else.”
“Yes. So when he was made to look a fool by a mere nobody, people were pleased. So they talked more than they might have had it been someone else. It changed Sin in some ways. I thought it was because of the gossip, but now I wonder . . . ”
The duchess looked at MacDougal, who quickly whipped out his kerchief and pretended he’d found some dust on the desk.
Her grace leaned toward Charlotte. “After The Incident, Sin moved heaven and earth trying to find that gel who embarrassed him. I suspect he wished for vengeance, but he never managed to find her. Her family had tucked her away somewhere and after a while, he stopped trying.” The duchess pursed her lips and then said in a thoughtful tone, “She’s the only woman who’s ever eluded Sin. And for a sporting man . . . ”
Lady Charlotte’s eyes widened with a dawning respect. “Margaret, you may be on to something with that.”
“If Sin thought she’d be at my house party, he’d reconsider coming. I’m sure of it. All we have to do is find out who she is and invite her here.” The duchess’s smile faded. “If she’s respectable.”
“She is,” Lady Charlotte said. “Quite respectable, in fact.”
The duchess sent an irritated glance at her companion. “Have you become a seer?”
“Of course not. But I—that is—you have been in correspondence with her for years. Since the year she was born, in fact.”
The duchess blinked. “I have?”
“Of course. You send her a present every Michaelmas, and a nice letter on her birthday.” Charlotte’s knitt...
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