My Daring Duchess Excerpt

Book 4 > Once Upon A Rogue Series

Anne Adair swept her gaze over the three chattering wallflowers sitting in her grandfather, the Duke of Rowan’s, parlor and grinned. Splendid resolve expanded her chest and heart. She could not recall ever feeling as if she had much of a purpose, but now she did. These ruined ladies—as the coldhearted rakes of the ton had ensured the debutantes were considered—were about to engage in tactical warfare to take back their pride and to gain the respect they deserved. And Anne, as the newly elected president of the Sisterhood for the Ruination of Rogues, was their general.

Currently, the group consisted of five members, but she was certain their numbers would grow. She cleared her throat loudly in an attempt to get the women to cease talking, but no one besides Lady Mary Archbee, who sat beside Anne at the front of the room, took notice.

Mary gave Anne an unnerving smirk and said, “If I had been made president of our Sisterhood, the meeting would now be started.” Anne barely resisted rolling her eyes at Mary once again mentioning her grievance over not being voted to lead the group. Mary had been her grandfather’s ward until she had come of age, and now the woman—unfortunately considered a spinster at eight and twenty—was an unpleasant sort.

“My offer for you to lead the Sisterhood with me still stands,” Anne said, forcing a pleasant tone.

Mary’s lips pressed together in a grim line. Anne wanted to sigh, but she refrained, knowing it would likely only worsen Mary’s sour mood. She’d had no choice but to ask Mary to join the group, as they were in Grandfather’s parlor and Mary lived in this house as well as Anne. It was doubtful that Mary would be willing to keep the Sisterhood a secret unless she was part of it.

“I do not need your pity, Anne,” Mary snipped. “I’m certain that by our next weekly meeting the ladies will have come to realize they made a grievous mistake by not electing me as president.”

Well, that was simply all Anne was willing to take. “Hear ye, hear ye!” she boomed, enthusiastically breaking one of the ton’s tiresome and tedious rules of etiquette that she knew Mary, who often talked in a suffocated whisper, prized.

Mary clucked her tongue and said, “It isn’t ladylike to speak so loudly.”

“I’m well aware,” Anne said pleasantly while grinning and enjoying the sense of euphoric freedom that hit her. She’d been living in London for a year and a half after leaving her home in America, and she officially could not bear being told how to behave any longer. In fact, she could hardly recall why she’d striven most of her life to follow tenets she didn’t believe in. Only fools followed rules!

Since her grandfather had made her an heiress, her tutor, the ubiquitous Mrs. Young, as well as Mary and every stern-faced dowager from Lancaster to London, had constantly reminded Anne in reprimanding tones about all the dictates she was expected to live by.

Thank the Lord she’d almost been ruined. Well, technically she had been ruined—as she had lost her innocence—but she had been able to hide that knowledge from the rest of the ton. If not for the rogue, whose name she refused to even think, and the duplicitous deeds he’d carried out, she would not have learned the two invaluable lessons that had changed her and eventually led to the idea for the Sisterhood. First and foremost, a lady should never give her heart nor her body to a rogue, regardless of if she thought she was in love or not. It still vexed her that she’d been so reckless. Secondly, her reputation was intact only because her secret still hadn’t been made public. But it hardly mattered since she was an heiress. She’d seen enough in her time in London to understand that because she was immensely wealthy, even if her secret did somehow come to light, many rogues and gentlemen alike would continue to beat down her door for her soiled hand.

The knowledge did not please her. She didn’t want a husband as she once had. She was now prudent enough to know that she would never have the sort of husband she had once dreamed of. Somewhere between heartbreak and recovery, she’d concluded that love—the kind in the romances she read, or in the tales passed down by giggling girls under covers, or even the kind her twin sister, Jemma, had found with her husband, Philip, or her friend Sophia had found with her husband, the Duke of Scarsdale—was never going to be hers. Men simply did not fall deeply, hopelessly, foolishly in love with women who had one leg shorter than the other, even if the woman was an heiress.

She’d conceded that she’d never have a love for the ages, but she could have a life of purpose, and the best purpose she could think of at the moment was for her and other wronged women to warn unsuspecting ladies against unscrupulous rakes. It just so happened that particular purpose gave her a sense of justice, which seemed only fitting to her.

“Anne!” Mary snapped. “Presidents do not dally, and you are most assuredly doing so. I daresay you appear to be daydreaming.”

It was nearly insufferable that Mary happened to be correct. Anne schooled her features into what she hoped was a congenial expression.

“I’m starting now,” she said, eyeing the desk in front of her for something she could use to gain the attention of the gathered women. Picking up one of her grandfather’s books, she brought it down upon the wood with a loud thwack. “Ladies!” Anne practically yelled. “Our meeting is now officially brought to order, so please do quit chattering!”

The talking immediately stopped, and Lady Fanny Simpell’s hand popped into the air. Anne held a groan in, but just barely. Fanny had asked so many questions at last week’s meeting that they’d failed to get through the agenda, which basically only had one task on it: make a list of all rakes that the Sisterhood needed to warn other ladies about. Anne could only imagine how many questions Fanny would have today. The woman had been the only other member of the Sisterhood besides Anne who had not been publicly ruined, but that had changed at the ball three nights prior when Fanny had been found in a torrid embrace with Lord Rutledge. The scoundrel had flatly and loudly refused to wed her.

Fanny waved her hand in the air. “Yes, Fanny?” Anne asked.

“Are we going to decide which rake we are pursuing first?”

“I honestly think Lord Rutledge should be our first target after what he did to Fanny,” Mary said.

Poor Fanny paled, and Anne felt for the woman.

“Fanny, how did you come to be in the library with Lord Rutledge?” Lady Honora Swinton asked, her brown eyes narrowing behind her thick-rimmed glasses.

Anne felt horrid when Fanny blanched even further, but they did need to know the specifics to ensure they did not destroy an innocent man. Honora had a sharp mind to pose such a question now. Anne was glad she had created the role of Case Inspector at their first meeting and asked Honora to fill the position.

Fanny opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, Mary shoved her chair back and stood, indignation setting on her face and glowing in her green eyes. “I cannot fathom what it matters how Fanny came to be in the library with Lord Rutledge! Asking her such a question is rather like accusing her of wrongdoing!” Mary smacked her open palm against the table.

“Honora was not accusing Fanny of any wrongdoing,” Anne said, striving for a calm tone in hopes that Mary’s outburst would not lead to an argument between the two women. “Honora was simply trying to ascertain the facts of the supposed ruination.”

“Supposed!” Mary snipped.

Anne winced at the foolish choice of words. “I—”

“Supposed?” Fanny gasped, tears welling in her eyes.

Guilt blanketed Anne. “Oh, Fanny, I did not mean—”

“My goodness, Anne,” Mary said, clucking her tongue as before. “You seem so knowledgeable about rogues that I’m quite certain you can imagine how a man with a propensity for seduction would have convinced poor, naive Fanny to enter the library with him! If you cannot imagine it, then perhaps you should not be president of the Sisterhood.”

Anne ground her teeth. She had to take control before she lost it completely. “Fanny, you shall be our first case, or rather, Lord Rutledge shall be the first rogue who we teach a lesson!”

Fanny glanced at Mary in what seemed an almost fearful way. Anne frowned. Had Mary placed doubt in Fanny’s mind so that she no longer thought Anne capable of leading? Anne clenched her jaw with the frustration that seared a path through her. “I promise you,” she said, catching and holding Mary’s gaze, “when we are done with Lord Rutledge, he will wish he’d never been so callously coldhearted as to lead you into that library, try to steal a kiss, and then refuse to marry you!”

Lady Augusta Lightholder jumped up, her freckled face bright with excitement. “He needs to be devastated!” said the petite, strawberry-blond lady. Augusta had been ruined and left brokenhearted when the lord she was supposed to marry eloped with an heiress from America.

“That would be perfect!” the normally unexcitable Honora said, shaking her head so vigorously that her black curls bounced against her shoulders.

A sense of panic filled Anne. “It’s not possible to ensure Lord Rutledge is left with a broken heart. Our goal—”

“I’m quite certain I could do it,” Mary boasted, spearing Anne with a frosty look.

“Our stated goal for this group,” Anne ground out, “is simply to ruin the rakes by enlightening other ladies about their duplicitous ways.”

“We cannot just twitter about announcing that Lord Rutledge is a rogue because he seduced Fanny into kissing him,” Mary snapped, making Anne twitch with frustration. “If we do that, nary a soul would believe us! Just look at Fanny!”

Anne found her gaze drawn back to Fanny once more, despite the fact that she ought simply to tell Mary to cease her prattling. Fanny was rather plain, had a small dowry, and was inept at conversation with men, which had not helped her status as a wallflower. Mary was correct. None of the insipid fools of the ton who judged the worth of a person by wealth and comely appearance would believe the dashing, well-funded Lord Rutledge had deemed Fanny worthy of seduction. The truth made Anne hot. It was so unfair.

Mary’s mouth twisted into a knowing smile, as if she could read Anne’s thoughts. “Perhaps, dear Anne,” she said, “you finally have a firm grasp on how London Society functions.”

Anne forced a smile to her lips and prayed it didn’t look as brittle as it felt. “I believe I do,” she said. “I will ascertain what social engagement Lord Rutledge will next attend and ensure that the eligible ladies there understand just how dangerous he is. When I am through, there will not be a debutante in England that will deign to even speak with the man.”

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