Family scandal drove Declan Sinclair into exile years ago. Now he’s called home, devastated to discover his brother has been murdered, making Declan the new Duke of Darington. As he tries to unravel what happened to his brother, the clues point to the man he blames for his exile. Declan resolves to ruin the culprit. If only the daughter of the man’s business partner, lovely Lady Alethea Swinton, didn’t tempt his resolve.
Lady Alethea Swinton has cultivated her pristine reputation in the hopes of winning her father’s praise. When her childhood friend returns, Alethea finds she’s willing to court scandal and defy her father to help the handsome Declan uncover the truth behind his brother’s death.
But Declan’s redemption would mean her family’s ruin…
Each book in the Once Upon A Scandal series is STANDALONE:
* To Love a Scandalous Duke
* To Resist a Scandalous Rogue
* To Tame a Scandalous Lady
About the Author
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And so it begins. That which I've dreaded.
-The Diary of Lady Margaret Gordon
There are times when the roar of a hundred voices can cause its own peculiar brand of silence.
Lady Alethea Swinton supposed she had encountered one such time when she turned to discover the weight of the audience's stare had fallen on her like an anvil. Despite the din filling the theater, she heard no sound aside from the blood thundering through her veins. She wondered briefly if this was how the performers felt when they stepped onto the stage.
Except she sat ensconced in her father's plush box, the glow of chandeliers overhead casting light on the finely dressed guests around her and rendering them opulent witnesses to the drama.
She called upon every ounce of experience she had being paraded before the ton and mentally scraped together the ragged pieces of her composure. Squaring her shoulders, Alethea pasted what she hoped was a serene smile on her face and blithely flipped open her fan.
"Whatever has happened?" Her lips barely moved around the question as she struggled to keep her smile in place. "Why is everyone suddenly watching us like we're the entertainment?"
Her brother Finlay inclined his head in her direction, his handsome face revealing no emotion. "Declan has returned."
A jolt of surprise drew a gasp from her lips, and she willed herself not to search for him. "And it's definitely him?" She inwardly cringed when she heard the note of fervent interest in her tone.
"See for yourself." Finlay discreetly slid his gaze to the box across the theater.
As a girl, she had been fascinated by Declan's inky-black curls. His merry obsidian eyes. His burnished gold skin. She'd likened him in her adolescent mind to a heroic Greek warrior like Achilles or Odysseus.
The darkly handsome stranger sitting in the box across the theater was more imposing, more intense, more attractive, more everything than she remembered. Lud, she thought, her mouth dry, had his shoulders always been so broad? The rich gold brocade of his tailcoat seemed to fit him like a second skin, stretching snugly around the muscles and sinews that flexed with his every movement. His hair, which he wore loose so the strands scandalously brushed the top of his shoulders, appeared like black silk, and she curled her hands into fists as the urge to run her fingers through them overcame her. He smiled suddenly, his teeth white against the smooth luster of his warm tawny skin, and her breath stuttered in her lungs.
He cast everyone around him in shadows, as if his very presence attracted all the light from the room and commanded it to shine only on him.
She wondered fleetingly if Penelope felt this way when Odysseus had finally returned: disconcerted, overwhelmed. Relieved.
"He hasn't changed much." Finlay's voice drew Alethea's gaze with a jerk from their one-time friend.
"I couldn't say. My memories of him are dim." She fanned her face in an idle manner, hoping the action chased away the telltale signs of her lie. Declan Sinclair, the new Duke of Darington, was not the sort of man one easily forgot. Even if it had been a dozen years since she'd last seen him.
Finlay drummed his fingers against his leg. "I've wondered when he would return. It's been almost a year since his brother died."
"Do you suppose he knew?" The thought that Declan hadn't learned of his older brother's death until he disembarked from his ship made her clench her eyes shut.
"Lud, I hope so." Her brother rubbed a hand against his brow. "What an awful homecoming that would make."
She nodded and allowed her gaze to drift over the audience and was relieved to see most people had turned their attention to the stage once presented with Alethea's and Finlay's indifferent response to Declan's entrance.
But there would be talk.
She was used to being the center of attention, though, sometimes for no other reason than the florid color of her hair. As the only daughter of a powerful earl, she elicited gossip by simply stepping out her front door. Her return to London after a three-year absence had created a rush of talk and speculation. Most gossipers wondered if she'd continue to reject marriage offers with the same frequency she did during her first three Seasons. Surely the return of her childhood friend, now a newly titled duke, would only add a few additional whispers to the clamor.
The talk. The innuendo. All of it was like poisonous darts thrown at her hastily donned armor. Despite the years that had passed since the scandal that sent Declan from England and his father into an early grave, the ton remembered the details the way the devout remembered their Bible verses.
And they would delight in reminding him of it.
Two women in the next box were already recalling the tawdry details.
"How long has he been gone, Cecilia? Ten years?"
Twelve, Alethea thought. It had been twelve long years since Declan had stepped onto a ship and sailed out of her life. He'd always seemed too bright, too singular for life in drab England. Knowing he would see exciting sights and visit exotic locations had seemed fitting.
"My, he looks quite different from his brother." Alethea noted the woman's voice contained more interest than disdain. "I'd heard the late duke sent him away because he was embarrassed by his mulatto blood."
She locked her jaw so tight she feared she'd shatter her teeth. She vividly remembered the quiet, reserved Albert looking at his rambunctious younger brother fondly, laughing at his antics. Even though their families had fallen out of favor with one another by the time Declan departed, embarrassment at his mixed blood played no part in that tale.
"That whole family was, and no doubt still is, a walking scandal. First, the old duke went and married that island woman, giving her a duchess coronet when any self-respecting nobleman would have set her up as a mistress."
Rolling her eyes at their mean-spiritedness, Alethea leaned closer to the partition separating the boxes.
"It's not surprising, then, the old duke swindled all those investors with that counterfeit shipping venture. My Gerald almost invested funds in it, but thankfully thought something seemed fishy with the details."
"Too bad the king hadn't been so circumspect." The ladies tittered, and Alethea discreetly stuck a finger in her ear to muffle the sound.
Declan's father had remained steadfast in his claim he was not responsible for the venture which saw all of its investors lose their funds. Ledgers in his study, however, detailed how he'd funneled the money into other accounts, but none of it was recovered before his death. Alethea would have been more inclined to believe the man, whom she had viewed as a kind uncle, had he not cast the blame on her own father and his longtime business associate, the Vicomte de Viguerie.
"Is it any wonder the duke put a pistol in his mouth?"
The gasp was out of her mouth before she could stifle it. She jumped up, discreetly glancing at the box across the way where Declan was in conversation with an older gentleman. She longed to study him, to catalog all the ways he'd changed since the last night she saw him. Time had not scrubbed from her memory the night when he'd said horrible things.
Swallowing uncomfortably, she grabbed her reticule. "I need some fresh air."
"Good luck finding it in London," Finlay quipped before taking a sip of champagne.
"You know what I mean." She glanced over her shoulder and found the Earl of Rockhaven conversing softly with a member of Parliament. Seeming to feel her gaze, he flashed her a warm smile. "If Father asks, please tell him I stepped out to say hello to a friend."
Finlay narrowed his eyes. "Must you leave? Gossip like this should be old practice for you."
She looked down at her lap. "Aren't you weary of always acting like life is perfect?"
"Life is deuced perfect most of the time, especially now that you're back."
She suppressed an exhausted sigh even as a flood of warmth filled her chest. "If only we were all so lucky."
He grabbed her hand, squeezing her fingers tightly. "I don't remember you being this ..." His eyes scanned her face, concern evident in his gaze. "Melancholy. You used to love the theater. Balls. Soirees. What's changed?"
She pulled her hand free of his. "They've lost their allure." When he opened his mouth, she waved him silent. "Please don't. I just want some time to think." Her gaze held his. "And sharpen my sword."
"Preparing for battle, are you?" The corner of his mouth lifted.
"The whole Season is a battlefield, but the enemy now has a trebuchet."
"A trifle dramatic, don't you think?"
"Perhaps." Alethea angled her chin in Declan's direction. "But considering how he was forced to leave after" — she stopped and cleared her throat — "that dreadful scandal, we may be the last people he wants to see."
She stood and walked around their chairs to the door before she paused. Bending down, she whispered into Finlay's ear, "And I don't blame him."
After navigating through the theater, she pushed the heavy wooden door open with her shoulder and stepped out onto the narrow rooftop. She walked carefully forward, uncertain of the stability of the framework. She came to a stop at the small wall that skirted the edge and looked out over the dark city. At this time of night, gas lamps illuminated the streets in Covent Garden and figures hustled to one entertainment or another. The moon could be seen through the haze of coal dust and smoke, and she fancied she could make out the faint glimmer of a star or two.
She dragged a breath into her lungs and blew it out slowly. The overwhelming pressure to behave just so, to maintain her pristine reputation, to act as if the resurrection of her once dear friend was nothing more than a passing occurrence, made her want to scream. Or catch the nearest carriage heading north.
With a deep exhale, Alethea dropped her head to her chest.
"Did it help?"
The rich masculine voice behind her made her jump, and a large hand gripped her arm. With her heart beating a staccato in her throat, she looked up into a pair of fathomless black eyes.
Few things had made Declan feel more at home than hearing his nickname fall like sweetmeats from the lips of Lady Alethea Swinton. With the moonlight filtered by the clouds, her features were obscured, but he'd know her husky voice anywhere.
He'd returned less than a sennight before, and he'd lost track of the number of times he'd thought of boarding his ship and sailing away. To where, he didn't care. Somewhere he could be simply Declan Sinclair. Explorer. Businessman. Erstwhile second son of a disgraced duke.
For in England, he was Declan Sinclair no more. Here, he was the Duke of Darington, no matter how ill the title fit him. No matter that his father and brother had both filled the position more adroitly than he ever could.
No matter that no one expected the title to be his. To be sure, he probably would have been treated with the respect and deference his title deserved — and not barely concealed disdain — had others known he'd one day be addressed as Your Grace.
Looking down at Alethea, he abruptly wondered what she thought of his new title. Would her curtsy be deep because he was now a duke, but to his back, would her tongue be sharp with criticism because she considered him undeserving?
He hadn't intended to be in London long enough to visit with old friends, and truth be told, he was unsure if he wanted to. He was far different from the boy who had been sent into exile a dozen years before. He'd traveled across the globe, succeeded at building a sugarcane empire, and done business with some of the most powerful men in the world. What could he possibly have in common with the young girl who used to fret if her pinafores became the slightest bit wrinkled?
Even after his lengthy absence, it appeared his resolve toward Lady Alethea was still as unshakeable as dandelion fluff.
"Did the sigh help?" he repeated, squinting to make out her expression.
"Err ... it did." She looked down at his hand, which still gripped her upper arm. "You can let me go now."
"My apologies." He released her and took a step back. "I wanted to ensure I didn't send you toppling over the rooftop."
She smothered a snort, and the sound caused a grin to stretch across his lips. "How did you know I was up here?"
"I didn't, actually." He walked a few steps away and perched himself on the low wall that surrounded the perimeter. "I knew you were here at the theater, of course. People delighted in telling me your family was present." He paused as he considered how idiotic it was to share that. Surely she'd experienced the same thing. "I merely needed a moment to myself."
"You need a break from your new ducal responsibilities already? Has it been a challenging transition?" Her tone was inquisitive, not reproachful, as he had expected.
"Very," he said simply.
"It takes some time to adjust to being a butterfly on the display board."
He cocked his head to the side. "I've always been a butterfly on the board."
A quick nod was her only response.
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them, and Declan debated if he should say something or allow her privacy. Surely she hadn't escaped to the rooftop for titillating conversation. No doubt she'd prefer the company of someone who didn't generate rumors and suspicion merely by drawing breath.
"I'm sorry about Albert."
Her soft, tender words caught him unawares and slipped through his guard to stab him directly in the heart. His throat went dry. "Thank you."
"Did you know?"
"No." He stiffened. "I found out when I arrived at Darington Terrace."
"Oh. I was afraid of that." He couldn't make out her face, but sorrow tinged every word. Her concern, on his behalf, surprised him and tightened his chest. "If you didn't know about his death, why did you return?"
"He'd asked me to."
He didn't see the need to divulge how startled he'd been to receive his brother's summons. They had remained in close contact through the years, and Albert had often traveled to visit Declan in various locales, where they renewed their bond over foreign food, accompanied by foreign liquor, and to the tune of foreign music.
Never had Albert invited him home before that last letter.
"Do you know why?" Alethea asked.
Declan shook his head. "No. And I suppose I might never learn."
She nodded in the dim light, and turned her face toward the skyline. The muted light illuminated her profile, and Declan was struck by the grace of her face. He suddenly ached for the moon to break through the clouds so he could examine her and learn the new contours and curves that time and age had given her.
It occurred to him that he knew very little about how she'd spent the last twelve years. While he'd thought of her and Finlay whenever his mind wandered to his birthplace, he'd never written. And Albert had never spoken of the friends he'd been forced to leave behind.
He shifted, guilt settling heavy on his shoulders. After the venomous accusations he'd leveled at Lord Rockhaven before he left, he knew he owed his son and daughter an apology. And yet, a part of him still believed every word he'd uttered that day so long ago.
Wary of broaching that uncomfortable subject, he instead asked, "Do you live in London year-round, or are you merely in town with your husband for the Season?"
She looked over her shoulder. "I returned to London a few months ago after living in Scotland." She angled her head. "And I'm not married."
How was it possible she was unmarried? Even as a young girl, she'd been lovely. Whenever he'd seen or met a redhead throughout his travels, he always compared her hair to Alethea's vivid locks. None had ever made him think of fiery sunsets that threatened to set the world ablaze, like hers had.
He blinked at his fanciful thoughts and gave his head a shake. "Why were you in Scotland?"
"My mother and I sojourned to her family's home in the Highlands when she became ill, and I stayed after she died." Her voice was monotone, as it often had been whenever she'd discussed her mother.
"I'm sorry to hear of her death." Despite Lady Rockhaven's tendency to ignore him, he empathized with Alethea. He remembered how hard she'd sought to win her mother's approval.
In silhouette, her shoulders twitched as if she sighed. "Thank you."
"Did you like Scotland?"
Alethea pivoted and sat on the edge of the wall. He could make out her slippered feet under the scalloped hem of her gown as she swung them to and fro.
"I did. Eventually." Her voice was laced with nostalgia. He held his tongue, unsure if she'd continue. She braced her hands on her legs. "Once I began teaching the village children, I enjoyed it immensely."
Excerpted from "To Love a Scandalous Duke"
Copyright © 2017 Liana De la Rosa.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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