Excerpt: The Duke's Match Girl

                    

           Chapter ONE

“Once in a while, right in the middle of an ordinary life, love gives us a fairy tale.”
~ Anonymous

December, 1685
France

LEO, YOU ARE up to something. Out with it.” Daniel sported his usual smile, his arm draped casually over the back of the damask chair he occupied.

Chuckling softly, Bernard sauntered over to the ebony side table and poured himself a fresh brandy from the decanter. The sound of the amber liquid draining into his crystal goblet mingled with the crackling fire in the hearth. “It’s a new mistress, isn’t it, Leo? Come now. Give us the details. Dieu. Do you ever give that prick of yours a rest?”

Leopold Charles Nicolas d’Ermart, Duc de Mont-Marly, ignored the comment.

As well as the burst of mirth it inspired from his two younger brothers.

Bracing his shoulder against the window frame, he crossed his arms and gazed outside at the vast grounds of Montbrison, lightly dusted with snow.

If only it were merely a new conquest.

The urge to glance at the clock on the mantel seized hold of him.

Again.

The ticking had started to grate on him, its incessant sound far more difficult to ignore than the needling from his siblings.

Where the bloody hell is Gilles? His man should have returned with a response to Leo’s offer by now.

The anticipation was driving him utterly mad.

He wasn’t accustomed to waiting for things, yet he’d waited for this opportunity—this moment—hell, this one woman for years.

This was one female he was pursuing with slow, methodical steps.

If things went as planned, Leo wasn’t going to be able to hide what he was truly up to from his brothers. Nor did he care to.

His plan was centered on Suzanne Matchet. So unlike any woman he’d ever known—and he’d known her forever.

Full of adorable little quirks and oddities. With big, alluring brown eyes. A brilliant mind for science. And the only woman in the realm who preferred he fall off a cliff.

And for a damned good reason, too.

“Now, Bernard,” Daniel said. “I’m sure there’s a woman or two left whom our brother hasn’t sampled.” He grinned.

Leo frowned and grappled with his patience. Normally, he was unfazed by his brothers’ baiting and ribbing. But today he was on edge. “Are you both quite done?”

“Not until you tell us who she is,” Bernard said.

Daniel was quick to add, “And how delicious she is.”

They were now both sporting the same idiotic grin.

It took everything inside him not to punch the wall. Something, anything to vent the frustration mountaining inside him as he waited.

And waited.

And, Jésus-Christ, waited some more.

What was taking Gilles so fucking long? He should have been engaged in a private meeting with Gilles right at this very moment, rather than this grating conversation with Daniel and Bernard.

Though Leo and his brothers kept little from each other, Suzanne was not a subject he’d ever discussed with them. That wasn’t because he didn’t know how delicious she was.

In truth, he did. He knew every last mouthwatering inch of her.

He knew more than just her body and the sweet spots that made her melt and moan for him. He knew her deepest secrets. Her hopes and dreams. The sweet way she’d tug on her ear whenever she was nervous or deep in thought. And the way she’d tangle a finger in one of her silky curls and absently play with the strand when she was engrossed in a book. Though he hadn’t laid eyes on her in years, he could effortlessly recall that little crinkle that would form on her brow whenever a pensive expression shaped her comely features.

Christ, he could effortlessly recall countless memories of her.

And he was sick and tired of battling them back.

She was ten years of age when first she came to live at Château Montbrison with her father, then the newly appointed official physician of the d’Ermart family.

Leo was twelve.

He’d been immediately taken aback by the pretty, spirited girl who had marched straight up to him upon their first introduction, flouting convention and forgetting her place, despite her father’s gentle admonishment. She had a habit of speaking to Leo with a bluntness no one else ever dared use. She’d never placated him simply because he was the heir to a duchy. Or to win favor, as others did. And she could climb a tree—all while in skirts—as fast as he and his brothers. Always eager to prove she was just as clever and brave as any boy.

They became instant allies, and friends.

A smile tugged hard at the corners of Leo’s mouth as their childhood mischief flitted through his mind. He and Suzanne were constantly aggravating the servants. Peeping over countertops, they’d snatch food off the trays, food meant for his parents or guests—just for the fun of it—then race off into the extensive gardens at Montbrison for private picnics. He’d spent hours lying beside her on the grass staring up at the sky, utterly charmed and entertained as he listened to the random scientific facts she’d relay—whatever happen to manifest at that moment in her bright mind. She had devoured the books in her father’s personal library voraciously. And those in the large library at Montbrison.

Normally, prattle about science would have bored him beyond measure.

But there was absolutely nothing boring about the very unique Suzanne Matchet.

And on one Christmas Eve—eight years after they first met—their relationship progressed from the best of friends…

To lovers.

“Will you look at him, Daniel?” Bernard said, motioning to Leo with a jerk of his chin. “He’s practically smiling. The sex must be excellent.”

Daniel strolled over to Bernard and propped his elbow on Bernard’s shoulder. “Yes, and he still has not shared the tantalizing tidbits.”

Oh, there were definitely tantalizing tidbits.

And excellent wasn’t a strong enough word to accurately describe what had transpired between them that extraordinary night.

She’d tasted so good. She’d felt incredible; he couldn’t get enough of the delectable clench of her hot, silky sex squeezing around his thrusting prick. And those exquisite little spasms of her vaginal walls rippling down his length as she came on his cock were nothing short of mind-melting.

But that wasn’t all.

The physical ecstasy wasn’t the only thing that had made the sexual experience so significant.

It was the emotions that he hadn’t felt before—or since—during sex. Emotions he’d tried to deny for so long.

At a time when he’d normally be reveling in pure lust, he’d been inundated with soft emotions, intensifying the encounter in ways he’d never anticipated. Heightening the hunger. And spiking each and every sensation that swamped his body.

It was the most unforgettable experience of his life.

And Lord knew he’d done everything in his power to forget it—and her.

He’d spent the last seven years drowning himself in every vice just to purge her from his system.

And failed miserably.

He didn’t know when the exact moment was, when precisely it happened. But somewhere along the way, she’d stolen his heart.

Years later, he was still reeling.

He’d had no right to be in love with her when he knew he had familial obligations he couldn’t forsake. He’d had no right to make promises he couldn’t keep just to have her. He’d been young and a damned desperate fool. And he’d fought the sexual pull that had been mounting fiercely over time as hard as he could. Merde, he’d even left Montbrison for several months, staying at his family’s hôtel in Paris hoping to snap the allure.

It didn’t work.

The moment he returned, the attraction between them ignited into an inferno once more. The air practically crackled with the fire that burned between them. It was so deliciously hot. So completely untamable. He found himself having to control his breathing and his gaze around her so he wasn’t gawking at her. Or panting like a bloody dog. It didn’t help that he’d stolen a kiss before he left for Paris. The memory of that kiss burned in his mind and body the entire time he’d been away.

He returned famished for another taste.

Worse, he was still just as ravenous today.

Leo cast a sidelong glance at his brothers. “Don’t the two of you have something better to do today than annoy me? Have another brandy. Play some Basset. Perhaps take a walk off a cliff?”

They burst into good-natured laughter, not in the least bit offended.

Daniel shook his head. “I cannot believe our brother isn’t sharing with us, Bernard.”

“Yes, and I’m quite wounded by it.” Bernard placed a hand over his chest as if pained.

Bernard had no idea what wounded felt like. Neither had he, until the morning after their night together, that Christmas Day, when everything imploded. The look of devastation on her lovely face still tormented him. The very next day, Suzanne’s father, Richard Matchet, respectfully resigned his post and left with his brokenhearted daughter.

She was gone from Leo’s life. For good. In an instant. And his world had never felt more empty, his heart just as gored as hers.

For months he walked around feeling winded, as though someone had slammed him in the chest.

Two months later, Leo learned Suzanne’s father had become the town doctor in Maillard, attending to those less fortunate. Barely scraping by. He’d traded the opulence of his private apartments in Château Montbrison, with a personal staff to attend to him and his daughter, for a humble hovel.

And that tormented Leo, too.

After all this time, she still lingered on the fringes of his mind and made appearances in more erotic dreams than he could comfortably count.

There were too many things left unsaid.

There were too many unresolved emotions and desires that ran so deep, they’d become imprinted on his very marrow.

He’d no idea if the connection they’d once shared still existed. Or if it would even be possible to recapture even a fraction of what had slipped through his fingers. But he had to try.

Or he’d never have a moment of mental peace.

Nor vanquish the ache in his heart that hadn’t abated since the day she left.

Dieu, was she going to accept his offer? Leo glanced at the clock, unable to help himself. Only five minutes had passed since the last time he looked.

And still no Gilles. Fuck.

“You’ll survive, Bernard.” He managed to keep his tone bland, belying the tension inside him.

“Can you at least tell us why in the world there is such a flurry of activity among the servants?” Bernard pressed. “And they are all quite tight-lipped about it, too.”

“They have been attending to your needs during your visit, and they are preparing for the arrivals of Elisabeth and Aurore.” Not exactly the whole truth. But that was all Bernard was going to get for now. It was a believable partial truth. Christmas was in a mere ten days. The balance of Leo’s siblings would be arriving soon.

But none of that was going to be a hindrance to his objective—getting Suzanne back under his roof.

He never expected to see his brown-eyed beauty again.

He certainly never expected his life to take the shocking turn it had four months ago.

His disastrous marriage to Constance had come to an abrupt end. Her sensational death brought to light her affair with the Marquis de Chermont and set the gossipmongers’ tongues wagging in every salon in Paris.

He didn’t care a whit what people had to say.

He’d known of Constance’s extramarital indulgence with Chermont for a long time—or at least suspected as much. Leo hadn’t lived under the same roof as his wife for years.

Not since the night they’d consummated the marriage. He’d been gentle with his bride, even while he had a heavy heart and could still taste Suzanne’s lips. Still remember the feel of her skin. All the while plagued by the fact that Suzanne had been the last woman he’d kissed. Touched. Had. And the only woman he’d hungered for then…and ever since.

After the deed was done, he’d found himself with a weeping wife on his hands.

Not exactly the sort of reaction he’d ever experienced after sex.

It had taken some coaxing, but he finally learned the truth behind Constance’s tears. She had been in love with Chermont since girlhood. Her father had refused to consider the match, opting for a future duc for his daughter. Instead of a marquis.

Constance’s words had turned the lingering ache in his chest to a sharp stab.

Her circumstance was far too familiar and resonated deep inside him.

He’d done what was required of him. He’d married the woman he’d been expected to wed to increase his family’s already vast wealth and further advance their political power.

But he’d be damned if he was going to force a woman into his bed who longed for another.

The entire situation was nothing but a stinging reminder of his own deplorable predicament. And what—or rather whom—he’d personally given up in the name of duty.

Leo left for Paris that night, much to Constance’s relief, no doubt, and never lived under the same roof with her again.

Though he’d never wished her dead, the plain fact was that he was a widower.

And now he was free.

Free to pursue what had been left unfinished. Since learning from Gilles of Richard Matchet’s passing, knowing Suzanne was alone in the world and surviving on the coins she made as an apothecary, he was even more eager to bring her back to Montbrison.

The timing was finally right. And he was going after this—after her—with a vengeance.

All he needed now was favorable news from Gilles.

“Your Grace?” His servant’s voice grabbed Leo’s attention. At the doorway of the room stood somber-faced Isaac. An elderly, tall, thin man, Isaac had been in service to his family since Leo could remember. “My lords.” Isaac bowed to Bernard and Daniel before promptly returning his attention to Leo. “Monsieur Gilles awaits you in your private apartments, Your Grace.”

Leo was already stalking out of the room before Isaac had finished his sentence. At a brisk pace, he exited the study, crossed the large vestibule, and climbed the stairs two at a time, arriving on the second floor in the east wing in no time.

Throwing open the door to his private rooms, he found Gilles seated in one of the upholstered chairs near the hearth in the antechamber.

Gilles came to his feet in a quick, fluid motion, despite his stocky build.

Upon seeing his man standing there, knowing he had news at last, Leo was hit with a sudden uncharacteristic pang of uncertainty. What if this is a mistake? Perhaps he should have left well enough alone.

Seven years was a long time. People changed.

Suzanne might not be the same person he’d once known. She might be nothing like the woman he craved.

Shoving aside his doubts, he said, “It’s about time. What news have you? Did the lady respond to the offer?”

Gilles’s full cheeks reddened slightly, and he adjusted the cravat around his thick neck. “Yes, Your Grace, she did.”

Leo placed his hands on his hips, wrestling with his patience. “Well? Dieu. Was he going to have to drag each word out of him? Last night, his dream of Suzanne had been so vivid, he could actually taste her soft mouth, and feel the luscious texture of her skin.

He woke up with his cock as stiff as a spike. Longing for her even more fiercely.

“What did she say? I want to know—word for word,” he demanded.

Gilles cleared his throat. A small bead of sweat appeared on his forehead. “Of course, Your Grace.” He couldn’t have looked more uneasy. Leo had never seen his loyal, ever-competent man so discomposed. “I know how important it is to provide you with an accurate account of her response. And, well, she… You see… She…”

“Yes? Out with it!” Jésus-Christ. How bloody difficult is this?

“Your Grace, I-I don’t think that… What I mean to say is, I don’t believe I can put it to you, sir, quite the way she did.”

“Why the hell not?”

Gilles quickly reached inside his dark green justacorps and pulled out a note from the pocket of the knee-length coat. “Upon hearing her response, I thought it best that she impart her message to you in a note. She wholeheartedly agreed. This is what she said, word for word, just as you requested.” He held out the note to him.

Leo snatched it from his hand and unfolded it in an instant.

For the first time in a long time, he was staring at Suzanne Matchet’s distinct handwriting. His eyes quickly scanned her words.

 

     Your Grace,

     Your man has informed me of your offer. He was quite uncomfortable about relaying my response. It is for his ease that I put it to you here in writing. As to your offer—and I say this with the utmost sincerity—you may take it, and insert it into your exalted posterior.

    Sincerely,

    Suzanne

 

Leo’s gaze shot from the note to Gilles. His man was now blushing profusely, his discomfort coming off him in palpable waves. Glancing back down at the words scribed before him, Leo felt the beginnings of a smile pulling hard at the corners of his mouth. He burst into laughter, the sudden jovial sound making poor Gilles jump.

Leo clamped a hand on Gilles’s shoulder. “You’ve done well.” He couldn’t contain his grin.

Gilles looked utterly stunned. “I have?”

“Indeed. I’ll take it from here.”

Leo walked out still grinning, the note still in hand.

Gilles’s visit to Suzanne had garnered for Leo all the information he wished to know. Suzanne hadn’t changed. Not one bit. She was still the same feisty, beautiful girl he’d let slip through his fingers.

He wanted her back in his life. And in his bed. Having mastered the art of seduction long ago, he’d seduced her once, claiming her innocence and ultimately breaking her heart in the process. But he was the one who was different now.

And this time, things were going to be different.

This time, he was going to show her the depth of his desire. And what she meant to him.

This time, he wasn’t about to let her get away.

 

 


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