The Surprise of Her Life
Sophisticated. Scandalous. In fact, Miss Sarah Hamilton, a proper Philadelphian, finds London society altogether shocking. How can it be that she has awakened from her innocent slumber to find herself in bed next to a handsome—and exceedingly naked—man? The laughing onlookers standing in the doorway are no help whatsoever and surely this amorous lunatic cannot be a duke, as he claims. She is compromised—though she most certainly will not marry him!
The Sweetest Moment of His
James, the Duke of Alvord, is enchanted by his unexpected bedmate—and not at all afraid of her pink-cheeked fury. True, the circumstances and place of their meeting are most unusual, but the spirited American who's pummeling him with a pillow is an incomparable beauty. If Sarah will only listen to his perfectly reasonable explanation, James is sure that he can capture her heart...forever.
2004 Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart finalist, Best Regency Romance Manuscript
Nominated for RT Book Reviews 2005 Reviewers’ Choice Award for First Historical Romance
Winner New Jersey Romance Writers 2005 Golden Leaf Award for Best First Book
"Delightful Regency Story of Love and Danger"
~Linda Hurst, The Best Reviews
"MacKenzie sets a merry dance in motion in this enjoyable Regency romp."
~Maria Hatton, ALA Booklist
"This is a funny, delightful debut by a talented writer who knows how to blend passion, humor and the essence of the Regency period into a satisfying tale."
~Kathe Robin, Romantic Times BOOKclub Magazine
"...a well-written and enjoyable first novel. Ms. MacKenzie has a wonderful voice..."
~Debora Hosey, The Romance Readers Connection
“Debut author Sally MacKenzie has penned a marvelously witty novel....Readers who enjoy a large dose of humor will love The Naked Duke. The characters are charming, and the pace is quick. It is the perfect book for a cozy winter retreat.”
~Paula, A Romance Review
“If you like Regency-set romances that offer both humor and excitement, you should enjoy reading The Naked Duke. MacKenzie's voice is fresh and intriguing, her characterization is sound, she knows the period—and her villain is extremely nasty.”
~Barbara R. Hume, Rakehell
"Author Sally MacKenzie combines humor and suspense in her debut-novel..."
"Sally MacKenzie's first novel, The Naked Duke, runs a range of emotions that will have you laughing out loud and then biting your nails in anticipation....The characters were realistic, the story was fast paced and the love story of an American girl returning to her father's homeland to find love and happiness is straight out of a fairy tale...."
~Missy, Fallen Angel Reviews
The devil was still asleep.
Sarah Hamilton squeezed closer to the stagecoach window. The farmer next to her grunted, shifting his considerable weight to take over the small space she’d made between them. The movement sent yet another fetid blast of yesterday’s fish and sweat her way.
She glanced again at the man seated across from her. Even in sleep, his long, pale face and high-bridged nose were arrogant. She shivered, remembering his icy blue eyes when he’d climbed aboard the stagecoach in London. He looked just like the picture of Satan in her father’s copy of Paradise Lost. This, she felt certain, was her first specimen of the British ton--a lazy, useless, drunken, conceited, womanizing, degenerate product of years of inbreeding.
She swallowed. Her uncle was an earl, for God’s sake. What if he were as cold as this fellow?
The coach lurched around a corner and clattered into an inn yard. Sarah bounced off her neighbor’s ample thigh and cracked her elbow sharply on the wooden panel beneath the stagecoach window.
“Ow-mmmp!” She shut her lips tightly, but it was too late. She’d woken the sleeping man.
Anger flickered in his cold blue eyes. He glared at her, his hard gaze traveling slowly from the wisp of red hair she felt straggling across her forehead down to her dowdy, colorless dress. His upper lip crooked into a sneer. She wanted to vanish into the upholstery. Even the fat farmer held his breath.
Fortunately, the coach door swung open at that moment.
“Green Man!” the coachman shouted. “Best get out and stretch yer legs.”
The man gave Sarah one last glare, then shrugged and turned to push past the coachman. Sarah’s seatmate exhaled a long breath that echoed her own. They watched the man saunter across the inn yard and disappear inside the building.
“Thank Gawd,” the farmer muttered. He squeezed his bulk through the coach door.
Sarah inched across the bench after him. She’d been sitting all the way from Liverpool, and her hips and knees felt as if they would never straighten again. When the coachman offered his hand, she took it gladly. She staggered as her feet touched the cobblestones.
“Ye all right, miss?” Small brown eyes, warm with concern, peered at her from under thick graying brows.
“Yes, thank you. I’m fine.” She released her grip on his hand and reached into her reticule, bringing out two coins. They vanished between his beefy fingers.
“I ‘spect someone’s coming to meet ye?” he asked, pocketing the money.
Sarah looked down and fiddled with the strings on her reticule. “I have relatives nearby.”
“That’s good.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Well then, good night, miss.” He leaned closer, saying in a low voice, “I’d steer clear of that cove ye was riding with--the swell, that is.”
Sarah nodded. “I certainly intend to.”
“The fat bloke, he stinks of fish. But the swell....” The man shook his head. “He stinks of....”
“Evil. I quite agree. I do hope I never see the man again.”
She smiled at the coachman and turned toward the inn. It was a sturdy, welcoming building. Light and sound spilled out from its windows. She heard the clatter of mugs and silverware, the raucous laughter of men in the common room. The scent of ale and roasting meat drifted past her, but her stomach rebelled. She was too tired to eat. All she wanted was a room with a bed.
The innkeeper pushed back his greasy hair as she approached the front desk. His lips squeezed together as he examined her wrinkled dress and crushed bonnet. He could not have looked sourer if he had chewed a barrelful of lemons.
Sarah sighed and straightened her shoulders. “I need a room for the night, please.”
“Got no rooms.”
“You must have something!” She swallowed and took a deep breath. She could not appear on her uncle’s doorstep at night, exhausted and filthy. “I’ll be gone in the morning. I’m visiting my uncle, the Earl of Westbrooke.”
The man snorted. “Yer uncle’s the earl? And mine’s Prinny hisself. Get on, girl. I know what yer trade is and ye’ll ply it somewhere else.”
Sarah blinked. “You can’t think I’m ...,” she squeaked. She swallowed and tired again. “That I’m....” No, she couldn’t say it.
The innkeeper could. “A whore, a doxy, a tart,” he sneered. “I’ll thank ye to get out of my inn.”
Just as he spat out his last words, a tall man with reddish hair stepped into the hall.
The troll behind the desk bowed immediately. “Yes, my lord? Did ye be needing something?”
“Sounds like you’re needing a little milk of human kindness, Jakes,” the man said, his words slurring slightly. He barely glanced at the innkeeper; his attention was all on Sarah. “You wouldn’t really throw this poor damsel in distress out into the night, would you, old man?”
“Ye know this woman, my lord?” The innkeeper shot Sarah a worried glance. She smiled vaguely. She certainly didn’t know her potential savior.
“Well, we haven’t met, but I’ve been expecting her.” The man stepped closer, bracing himself against the wall with his hand. Sarah could smell his words. This redheaded lord had found the bottom of a brandy bottle.
She should have been terrified, but there was something oddly familiar about him. She studied his slightly glazed hazel eyes and lopsided grin. Perhaps he reminded her of the fervent young men who’d gathered in her father’s study to argue politics and drain tankards of rum punch.
“Come on,” he said. “The room’s this way.” He lurched toward the stairs and grabbed the railing.
He must have confused her with another traveler. She followed him as he stumbled up the narrow steps and weaved along the corridor. Her conscience urged her to speak up, but her exhausted body told her conscience to shush. She could not go another step tonight. Surely the woman her redheaded escort was expecting would not arrive tonight, and if she did, she would understand. Any woman would be willing to share accommodations in such a situation.
The man finally found the room he was seeking. He opened the door and stood aside to let Sarah pass through. She paused on the threshold. There was one point she should clarify.
“This is not your room, is it, sir?”
The man propped a broad shoulder against the doorjamb and grinned. It was impossible not to respond to the twinkle in his eye, even if it was a drunken twinkle, and the deep dimple in his right cheek. Sarah smiled back. He leaned closer.
“Oh, no, mine’s farther down the hall.”
“Ah.” Sarah tried not to choke on the brandy fumes that enveloped her. “Well, then, thank you.” She stepped into the room. The man remained on her doorjamb. She could not close the door without catching his fingers. She looked at him uncertainly. “I do appreciate your help.”
He nodded. “Water,” he said. “I bet you’d appreciate water to wash with as well.”
“Thank you, that would be wonderful.” Washing off her travel dirt sounded almost as heavenly as sleeping. “But I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No bother.” The dimple deepened. “James will thank me, too. I’ll have some water sent up directly.”
“Who’s James?” she asked, but her new friend had already vanished down the stairs.
Sarah shrugged and closed the door. The mysterious James was a puzzle to be solved in the morning, when her poor brain was up to the task.
In a moment, a young girl appeared with a large pitcher and a towel. Sarah waited for her to leave, then stripped off all her clothing. The fire warmed her skin as she rinsed the sea salt off her body and out of her hair. While she toweled herself dry, she eyed her discarded clothes. She had lived in them for three very long days--she could not bear to put them right back on. She shook each garment vigorously and hung them all up to air. With luck, they would be acceptable by morning. She did not want to reek of the sea when she met her uncle.
Her stomach clenched. Why had her father insisted that she come to England? She couldn’t begin to count the number of times he had railed against the aristocracy, calling it a cesspool of idiots, the fatal infection of England. Yet when he was dying, he had insisted that she go to his brother, the earl.
“Go home, Sarah,” he’d said, his voice thin and whispery, “to England.” He’d gasped and struggled to sit up. “Promise me....”
Sarah swallowed sudden tears. She would never forget her father’s smile at her promise. When his last breath had whistled out moments later, she truly believed he had found peace.
She sighed, pulling her comb through her wet mass of hair. If only the promise had given her peace. The Abington sisters had badgered her to change her mind from the time she’d told them she was leaving to the moment she’d finally stepped onto the Roseanna bound for England.
“How could David ask you to go so far way?” Clarissa, the short, stout sister, had said yet again as Sarah had closed the door to her father’s house for the last time.
“It was the fever talking.” Abigail, the tall, thin sister, patted Sarah’s hand. “It’s not too late to change your mind, dear. We’ll just send word to the docks.”
Clarissa nodded so sharply that her gray ringlets bounced over her ears. “Your father is dead, Sarah. Now you need to do what’s right for you.”
“What will happen if you go to England and the earl repudiates you? You’ll be alone, at the mercy of all those unscrupulous men.” Abigail shuddered, her hands clasped so tightly their knuckles showed white.
“It’s true, Sarah.” Clarissa’s pudgy fingers dug into Sarah’s arm. “You’ve lived a very quiet life here in Philadelphia. You have no idea! Why, you’ve hardly spoken to any American men--and American men are leagues different from those corrupt Englishmen. As different as house cats from man-eating lions.”
“Woman-eating,” Abigail whispered.
“Too true. Those dukes and earls and whatnots--they think women are theirs for the taking--and discarding.”
Sarah shook her head, banishing the uncomfortable memory. It was too late for regrets. She was here. She hoped her uncle would welcome her. If he didn’t.... No, she wouldn’t think of that. She wouldn’t let worry spoil her first chance in two months to sleep in a real bed on terra firma. No matter what happened with the earl, she did not intend to cross the Atlantic again.
With that vow, she snuffed the candles and climbed into bed.
* * * * *
James Runyon, Duke of Alvord, looked up from his contemplation of the fire as Major Charles Draysmith stepped into the private sitting room, leaving the door ajar.
“I believe I saw your black-hearted cousin Richard in the common room, James,” Charles said, running his broad hands through his curly brown hair. “He must have come in on the stage. God, how I’d love to smash that beak of his back into his brain box!”
“Richard is here?” James lifted one golden eyebrow. “I wonder what the devil he means by showing his face in the neighborhood.”
“Devil is right.” Charles joined James by the fire. “I expect to see horns and a pitchfork every time I look at the man. You really should do something about him.”
James poured Charles a glass of brandy, then stretched his booted feet toward the hearth and watched the firelight glow through his own glass. “What do you suggest? Murder, even if justified, is still generally frowned upon in England.”
“Call it extermination.” Charles took a sip of his brandy. “You’d be ridding the country of vermin.”
“I wish everyone shared your opinion.” James’s voice was bitter. “No one will believe Richard poses a threat to my existence until he drops my corpse on Bow Street’s doorstep.”
“I can’t believe it’s as bad as that.”
“Believe it.” James ticked the events off on his fingers. “My horse’s girth suddenly goes loose and I fall going over a jump. An incompetent groom? The man swears the girth was tight when the horse left his care, and frankly, I believe him. A stone falls from Alvord’s tower and misses me by inches. The place is hundreds of years old. Mortar doesn’t last forever. I get bumped on a London street and almost fall into the path of an oncoming carriage. An unfortunate accident. The walkways are so crowded, don’t you know?” James swallowed a mouthful of brandy.
“Too damn many accidents if you ask me,” Charles said.
“And no one suspects Richard’s hand in this?”
“Richard is never nearby. There’s nothing pointing to him as the villain. I’ve made what inquiries I can, but no one can connect him with any of my ‘accidents.’ There are some people in London who think I belong in Bedlam. The last time I tried to hire a Bow Street Runner to help investigate the matter, I was reminded that the war was over and I should relax and get used to civilian life.”
“Precisely.” James leaned back in his chair. “So I confess, now that you’ve spotted Richard in the environs, I’m more amenable to Robbie’s notion we spend the night here at the Green Man. I’ve concluded nighttime travel is not good for my health--it gives Richard too many attractive opportunities to send me to the hereafter.” James shifted to look directly at Charles. “Speaking of Robbie, I don’t suppose you met him in the hallway, did you?”
“Regrettable. He is much too drunk to be left unattended.”
“Who’s too d-drunk?”
James turned to survey the redheaded man snickering in the doorway. “Ah, Robbie. We were wondering where you had got to. Come in, if you don’t need that doorjamb to keep you upright.”
“Course I don’t, James.” Robbie walked carefully across the room and lowered himself into a chair. “Have you been discussing the luscious Charlotte while I’ve been gone?”
“Please don’t refer to my future wife as ‘luscious,’” James said.
“Well, you’re right there. Charlotte is about as luscious as a frozen prune.”
“Robbie....” James’s brows snapped into a frown and he started to rise. Charles put a hand on his arm.
“I hate to say it, James, but Robbie’s right this time. Good God, man, why do you think the wags call her the ‘Marble Queen’? She’s as cold as stone.”
Robbie drunkenly patted James’s shoulder. “Listen to Charles, James. He’s smart. War hero like yourself. If he says steer clear of Charlotte, do it. It ain’t as if she’s the only female who’ll have you. All the unmarried girls--and half the married ones--would leap at the chance to be the next Duchess of Alvord.”
“I doubt that.” James raised his hand as Robbie and Charles both protested. “No, I’ve seen all the girls on the Marriage Mart. God, I’ve been hunted by them since my father died. I’m sick of it. Charlotte will do. She’s been out a few years--she’s not some young girl in her first Season. She’s a duke’s daughter, so she’ll know how to run my household.” He looked pointedly at Robbie. “And I’m sure she’s quite capable of carrying out her other wifely duties.”
“Well, she is female, I’ll grant you that, so she must be capable of giving you your heir,” Robbie said, “but don’t you want to enjoy the process?”
James felt himself flush. “I’m sure Charlotte and I can rub along quite well.”
“But what’s the rush?” Charles asked. “Blast it, man, you’re only twenty-eight! I’m thirty and I’m not scrambling to get myself leg-shackled.” He leaned closer. “You made it through the war. What’s the hurry to get an heir now?”
“We’ve just been discussing the hurry, Charles--my ambitious cousin, Richard. He’s just a shade too anxious to become the next Duke of Alvord.”
* * * * *
Later, James deposited his drunken friends in their rooms and turned to his own door. Unfortunately he was still much too sober. No amount of brandy was capable of drowning the thoughts churning in his mind.
The room was dark, the only light coming from the embers in the fireplace. He yanked off his boots and stockings, and then shrugged out of his shirt, dropping it on the floor. He wasn’t exactly looking forward to asking the Duke of Rothingham for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not that Rothingham would be surprised or displeased. The man had certainly dropped enough hints the last time they’d run into each other at White’s. James was confident he’d get a positive response.
He shed his breeches and drawers. Wedding Charlotte wouldn’t be the tragedy Charles and Robbie made it out to be--he’d never expected to find love at Almack’s. He had to marry sometime. Charlotte would do. He just hoped Richard would concede defeat once the knot was tied.
He padded naked over to the wash basin. The water was tepid, but he was used to few comforts after the Peninsula. He closed his eyes, picturing Charlotte Wickford. Blond hair, blue eyes--or were they green? Brown? He wasn’t sure. Petite. Her head came about to his mid-chest. He had a lovely view of her coiffure when they waltzed. Her lips--well, she never said much of interest. He had not quite gotten around to seeing how they tasted.
He swiped at his face with a towel. He didn’t want to marry Charlotte. He’d rather marry a girl he liked, but he hadn’t found one yet and he couldn’t see that he would anytime soon. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. God, he felt trapped. Time was definitely running out. That carriage wheel in Richard’s last attempt on his life had come within a hairsbreadth of splitting his skull.
James spun around. Bloody hell! There was someone in the room with him. How could he have been so damn careless? He hadn’t expected trouble at the Green Man, so of course that made it the perfect place to lay a trap. He lunged to grab the iron poker by the fire, and saw the laundry spread out there. He paused. Stockings, shift, dress. A woman’s laundry? Now he knew why Robbie had been sniggering. He’d smuggled a whore into his room.
He left the poker by the fire and cautiously approached the bed. The girl was asleep, a blanket pulled up to her chin. James lit a candle. She muttered and moved, the blanket slipping slightly to uncover her neck and shoulders.
She was beautiful. Her long hair was unbound, spread across the pillow in a fiery ribbon. Her features were as fine as her clothing was coarse. James studied the high cheekbones, long eyelashes, elegant neck. In the gentle glow of the candle she looked young and innocent.
“Come on, love, time to get up.” He touched her shoulder. Her skin was smooth and warm. His eyes followed the line of her collarbone to the hollow at the base of her throat. He imagined tracing that line with his lips.
He hoped the girl didn’t awaken now. Whore as she undoubtedly was, she still might be taken aback by the unmistakable evidence of his interest in her. Standing there naked, he had no way of hiding his admiration.
The girl twitched her shoulder and burrowed deeper into the pillows. Who was she? Could Robbie have imported her from London? James didn’t think so, but she obviously was wasted at a backwater inn like the Green Man. She looked fine enough to be some rich man’s mistress. His mistress? He tested the idea and was surprised to find that he was tempted.
He would decide in the morning. It was clear that the girl was exhausted. He’d never really thought about it, but he supposed simple whores didn’t get a lot of sleep. They had to work on their feet during the day and on their backs at night. He’d let her sleep and see how things stood in the morning.
He climbed into the other side of the bed. He could feel the heat from her body and hear the steady tempo of her breathing. He smiled as he closed his eyes and tried to find a comfortable position. He was definitely looking forward to the morning.
* * * * *
James noticed the sweet scent first. Delicate, clean, feminine. He drew a deeper breath--and felt a soft weight on his chest. And a delicious warmth along his side. And something round and smooth on his upper arm. The warmth nestled closer and a slight exhalation tickled across his neck.
The girl. She was still in bed with him. He swallowed, trying to tame the blood surging through his head and another part of his anatomy. Don’t jump on her like a hungry animal, he told himself. Savor the moment.
He opened his eyes slowly. The covers had blessedly slipped down to his waist during the night. The girl’s slender arm rested across his chest. He followed the delicate curve of her wrist and forearm, the tender angle of her elbow. A curtain of long, reddish hair hid her face and the small breast he felt resting against his side and arm. He wanted to see them, too. He wanted to see all of her.
He raised his free hand carefully--he didn’t want to waken her just yet--and touched her hair. It was soft, shot through with threads of gold. He tangled his fingers in the silky strands, lifting them so he could study the girl’s face. Her skin was peach-tinted, not freckled as the skin of some redheads. Her nose was a little blunt and her lips a little thin. Perhaps once she opened her eyes--and her mouth--the illusion would be broken, but now she looked like a fairy tale princess. Certainly the most beautiful whore he had ever seen.
He let his eyes wander down to the soft, pale weight resting on his arm with its slightly darker tip just peeking out against his side. Exquisite.
He didn’t know where Robbie had found the girl, but at the moment, he didn’t care. He had much more interesting subjects to occupy his mind.
He smiled as he put his lips against the girl’s mouth.
* * * * *
Sarah was caught up in the most amazing dream she had ever had. She was in a large, soft bed and somehow her warm flannel nightgown had vanished. But she wasn’t cold. No, she was actually warm. Very warm. There was something large and hot next to her. She was pressed up against it. It felt sinfully wonderful. She breathed in the warm scent of brandy and linen.
She felt a delicious pressure on her lips. Firm, yet soft. Like velvet. Seductive. Her mouth moved to explore the new sensation, and was rewarded with a moist heat.
Wake up, a small voice said. Something this good cannot be right.
Sarah silenced the voice.
She heard a funny little growl and the pressure left her lips. She whimpered, wanting it to come back, and it did, but on her neck this time, just under her ear. She raised her chin to give the lovely pressure more room. It moved down her neck in small nips and licks, stopping just short of her aching breasts.
Something warm and strong kneaded the back of her neck, then followed her spine down to her hips, skirting the parts that most burned for its touch. Her body was on fire. She twisted, panting.
“God, you’re good, sweetheart.”
A male voice.
Her eyes flew open. She looked up into warm amber eyes, golden hair, and sculpted lips...now heading down to sample the tip of her breast.
She screamed and shoved against a very naked chest. She screamed again, pulling back her hands as if burned.
The man sat up, frowning. Sarah took the opportunity to grab the pillow under her head and swing it at him.
“Get back, you, you--lecher!”
The man ducked. Sarah swung again and hit him solidly on the ear.
“That’s what I said. Get out of my bed. Get out of my room or I’ll scream the place down.”
“You’re already screaming, sweetheart.”
“Well, I’ll scream louder.” She sat up, lifting the pillow high in both hands, ready to knock him onto the floor if he wouldn’t climb out on his own.
His eyes got an odd, intent expression. He was not looking at her face. She dropped her eyes to see where he was looking.
“Ack!” She slammed her pillow down to cover her chest.
That was when the door banged open and another woman screamed.
“Damn,” the man muttered. “Aunt Gladys. Why the hell is she here?”
Copyright © 2006 by Sally MacKenzie