Lady Alice Latham daydreams about escaping a world that has not been kind to her. When she accepts a marriage proposal from the Duke of Desford, her life changes forever. She has secretly loved the duke since childhood, never believing he would propose to her.
The duke wants a suitable wife, well-bred and conformable. He has always planned on Alice becoming his, and has kept his eye on her throughout her childhood. Installing Alice in his nursery seems the perfect way to keep his new wife safe and under his control. But there’s a problem. Knox has been the duke’s friend and valet for most of his life. They’ve shared many things, including women. It only makes sense for Knox to help train and discipline Alice. But when his valet falls in love with his duchess, what’s a duke to do?
Can Alice accept her new husband’s desires and needs? Will the duke have the marriage and wife he’s always wanted and needed?
Publisher’s Note: This romance is intended for adults only. It includes explicit scenes, strict discipline and adult content. If any of these elements offend you, please do not purchase.
Bath, England, May 1855
The Honorable Alice Latham stared dreamily out the window, though her wide green gaze didn’t register the quiet Bath street below. Instead, she witnessed a heaving, storm-tossed sea as it battered the foundering ship bravely flying the Jolly Roger.
“You must get below, my lady, lest you be lost to the waves.”
Alice tossed her mass of blond hair, her bosom heaving against the torn silk of her bodice. “Better a watery grave than suffering your vile embrace.”
The pirate captain flashed her a dazzling smile as he stalked across the heaving deck. “You’ll learn to love me, my pretty.” He pulled her into a rough embrace, as his lips burned a trail of fire over her porcelain skin…
Alice looked up, blinking, as her fantasy receded.
Jane Goring, her roommate and best friend, stood glaring down at her. “Alice, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. The headmistress sent me to find you. You have a visitor.” Jane looked back over her shoulder as she left the room. “Oh, and she said to wash the ink stains off your fingers and to brush your hair. And be sure to take off your spectacles.”
Alice obediently removed the offending articles and crossed over to the washstand. Her hands were indeed blue with ink, the marks extending to her cuffs. She washed her hands and changed her cuffs, brushing her hair smooth so that it fell over her shoulders. She had quite given up trying to curl it. The straight, heavy mass seemed to have a mind of its own.
She walked down the stairs from the third floor of the boarding school, wondering who had come to see her. Papa couldn’t be bothered to leave London at the height of the Season. Her brother, Gavin, was most likely sleeping off a sore head after a night of debauchery. That left only Mama, and Alice sighed. Mama was a handsome, ambitious woman who thrived in the heart of society. She had never understood the solace that Alice derived from her imagination.
A tall man stood by the window in the visitor’s parlor, looking out over the pavement. Alice halted in the doorway, confused. Why would the headmistress permit her to receive a male visitor, let alone one without a chaperon? The gentleman was fashionably attired in a form-fitting frock coat of blue wool, fastened high on the chest. His flaxen hair fell in a wave over one eyebrow in a way that was very familiar. Alice’s heart beat faster. It couldn’t be. Why would he be here? It must be another of her fantasies, for the very idea that the man whose stern, beautiful face had graced so many of her daydreams would be here in the flesh was impossible.
The man turned his head, storm-gray eyes lightened by his flashing smile. “Good afternoon, Alice.”
Alice’s eyes widened. “Your Grace, what are you doing here?” She stopped, aghast at her unruly tongue, and murmured an apology as she curtsied deeply.
“Sweet, little Alice,” murmured the duke as he strolled across the room. He tipped up her chin. “I vow that you are even prettier than the last time I saw you.”
Alice’s cheeks grew hot. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she said, dropping an awkward curtsy. It really was him—the Duke of Desford in the flesh—and what fine flesh it was.
“How are you enjoying Bath?” he asked her.
Was this a social call? Alice willed her pulse to stop racing. She forced a polite smile. “It’s a pretty town, and I like my studies.”
Desford’s eyes dropped, shielded by the dark lashes that accentuated their allure. She had always been drawn to him, a silent worshiper at his oblivious altar. “Yes, you always did have your head in a book,” he said.
Alice drew in a breath, surprised he had noticed. He was ten years older than she, the same age as Gavin. They had both been at school when Alice was born, the result of a late pregnancy that had surprised her parents. Perhaps that was why they had barely paid any attention to her existence.
Desford clasped his hands behind his back. “You must be wondering why I am here. In fact, your father has given me permission to address you. As you know, our families have been friends and neighbors for more than a century. I have reached the time in my life when I must look ahead, to securing the future of my title and estate. To do this, I must find a suitable bride.” He paused for a moment and Alice’s heart skipped a beat. What was he saying?
“We have been acquainted since childhood and I know that you are a young woman of sterling character from a fine family.” The duke took her limp hand and smiled down at her beguilingly. “Alice, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Alice stared at the duke, the embodiment of all her girlish dreams, as he offered her heart’s desire. Her knees shook beneath her uniform. It was too much. She tore her hand away, bolting from the room and along the corridor to the front door. She flung it open and ran down the steps. Tears blinded her as she dashed into the street. Alice didn’t see the carriage until the horses screamed as they were pulled brutally to one side to avoid her. She fell to her knees.
“Damn you, Alice,” the duke said furiously as he scooped her from the street and into his arms. He strode back to the school, climbing the stairs to her room on the third floor. Desford dumped her on the bed and crossed to the washstand, where he wet a cloth and returned to kneel at Alice’s feet, removing her shoes and pulling her ruined stockings down her legs. He gently pressed the washcloth to her scraped knees, cleaning away the grit and dirt as she shivered beneath his touch.
“What were you thinking, Alice?”
“I don’t know.”
“I was proposing marriage, not murder. Why would you run away?”
Alice shook her head.
He sighed and fetched another cloth to wipe her tear-stained face. “I mean you no harm. In fact, it is just the opposite. I offered my hand and the protection of my name. Do you hate me so much?”
Alice’s lips trembled. “I don’t hate you.”
The duke frowned and sat back on his heels. “I don’t understand.”
“I am… overwhelmed by your proposal. I never dreamed that you would consider me in that way…” her voice faltered to a stop, her face hot with embarrassment.
“I know that I am good deal older,” Desford said slowly, in that deep, soft voice that always made her heart flutter. “Am I too old for you?”
“Oh, no. It’s not that.” She searched for the right words to explain her feelings. “I… I am quite unworthy of your regard.”
“Alice.” The duke lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his storm-gray gaze. “What nonsense is this? You are more than worthy, as you term it. I have the highest regard for you. I always have.”
Her smile was wistful. “Even when I was a grubby brat forever trailing after you and Gavin?”
“Did I say that?”
“You both did.”
“Alice, that was years ago.” The duke took her hand. “You must pardon me for a boy’s thoughtless tongue.”
Her fingers curled around his. “Of course, I forgive you. But you never gave me any reason to believe you saw me as anything else.”
Desford raised her hand to his lips. They were surprisingly soft against her skin. “I thought you knew.”
Alice’s heart beat a little faster. “Knew what?”
“You are my best friend’s sister and your family estate adjoins mine. Our families have lived side-by-side for generations. You were bred for an aristocratic marriage, sheltered as a young girl should be, until she is ready for her husband to claim her, in name and in body.” The duke frowned. “I should, perhaps, have been more forthcoming. Perhaps I have shown arrogance in my assumptions. I told Gavin years ago that I meant to marry you one day.”
“Gavin! He never said a word to me.”
The duke’s lip curled. “I’ll break his neck. Maybe he didn’t want his friend marrying his sister.”
Alice sniffed. “I can’t imagine him caring, one way or another. Our family doesn’t function in that way.”
His smile was rueful. “Nor mine. Our own family could be different.”
Alice pressed her hands to her hot cheeks. “I need time to consider your proposal.”
“As you wish. Take all the time you need. There is one thing, however.”
Alice looked at him. There was a note of authority in his voice that she had never heard before.
“As your friend—and your future husband—I cannot allow such reckless disregard for your own safety to go unpunished.” The duke took her arm and marched her over to the chaise. He sat down and pulled Alice right over his knee. His thighs were hard muscle against the softness of her belly. “I’m going to spank you, Alice, so that the next time you contemplate such a foolish act, you will remember my hand on you and make a better choice.”
Alice hung over his lap, frozen with shock. He was going to spank her? A wave of heat, unbidden, traveled through her body. She squirmed, trying to get away, and he caught her hands behind her back, holding her wrists together.
“Stay still and take your punishment, my dear.” The duke smacked her bottom. “I’m beginning to get the feeling it won’t be the first time.”
The impact of the blow was muffled by the skirt of her school uniform, but it still stung. “Stop it.” Was that her voice, so small and uncertain?
“I don’t believe I shall. Not until you’ve learned your lesson,” the duke responded cheerfully. He spanked her plump cheeks again. “This damned uniform is taking all the punishment.” The duke pulled her skirt up and around her waist. Her bottom was covered by only the thin cotton of her drawers.
“Much better,” he said and smacked her plump cheeks. He spanked her steadily for some minutes, ignoring her cries and struggles. Alice felt her bottom jiggle with the impact of each stroke, which drew an unwilling response from the secret place between her legs. Her skin bloomed with heat and sensation and pain. He didn’t stop, and Alice finally surrendered, lying limply across his lap. The duke was a large, strong man. She wasn’t going anywhere without his permission.
“Are you going to eat that pudding?”
Alice focused on Jane’s face, as her roommate sat across from her in the dining hall, staring hungrily at Alice’s plate. She had been imagining herself traveling through the jungles of India on an elephant, a handsome rajah at her side. Alice looked down at her dish of vanilla custard with distaste and shoved it across the table.
“Thank you.” Jane dug in with her spoon. An expression of pleasure crossed her face. “It’s so lovely and creamy.” There was something unsettling about Jane sometimes. She derived so much pleasure from the world around her, a world that Alice fled from in her daydreams. “Have you made a decision yet?”
Alice stared at her blankly.
“Alice! For goodness sake, I’m speaking of the duke’s proposal. Surely you haven’t forgotten it?”
Jane’s voice held a familiar note of exasperation, but Alice also heard the undercurrent of affection.
“Not yet. It’s rather overwhelming.”
Jane set down her spoon. “I’d jump at the chance if I were you. He is handsome, wealthy, and titled. What more could any girl ask for?”
Alice folded her hands. “Love.”
“You expect to find love in your marriage? Alice, have you no common sense?” Jane was so much worldlier than Alice. “Our sort doesn’t marry out of affection. It’s all about dowries and settlements and our parents’ wishes. Haven’t you learned that by now?”
“I suppose I should have.” Alice sighed. “I just… I want something more.”
Jane’s look was full of compassion. “Poor Alice. Once your mother gets wind of things, the choice won’t be up to you anymore.”
That was true. Alice felt a presence behind her, and a shiver ran down her spine. One of the school mistresses was waiting to speak with her.
“Miss Alice, your mother awaits you in the visitor’s parlor.”
“Speak the devil’s name and you conjure him,” Jane said under her breath.
Her friend always did have a way with words. Alice stood and followed her teacher down the corridor to the visitor’s parlor. She took a moment to school her expression. This was going to be just as ghastly as it always was, once Mama’s attention focused on her. Alice pushed the door open.
Mama awaited her in the middle of the room, her perfect posture emphasized by a traveling ensemble of green twill in the latest fashion. Her mother frowned at her. “I understand that Desford paid you a visit last week.”
Alice swallowed, her throat tight with anxiety. “Yes, he did.”
“He asked your father for your hand in marriage. It is a singular honor, especially for a little mouse of a girl like you.” Alice shivered. Her mother’s voice held a knife’s edge. “Imagine my concern,” Lady Latham continued, “in fact my incredulity, when you did not accept him immediately.”
“I-I merely asked for time to consider his proposal, Mama.”
“Time?” Lady Latham’s voice rose several decibels. “Time for what? He is a duke, Alice! He could have any woman he wanted, yet, for some inscrutable reason, he selected you. When you are chosen by a duke, you accept. You don’t take time to consider.”
Alice clasped her hands tightly together. “I barely know him.”
“He has been our neighbor all your life. He is wealthy and titled. What else is there to know?”
“I mean that I know nothing of his likes and dislikes, if we share any interests…”
“Enough.” Lady Latham flung out a hand. “This is mere girlish posturing. You will inform the duke that you accept his proposal with becoming gratitude. You will do this today.”
When her mother put her foot down, there was no hope of resisting. Alice’s nails scored her skin. “Yes, Mama.”
Lady Latham nodded. “Good girl.” She crossed to the small mirror above the fireplace to adjust her bonnet. “I have had to travel all the way from London just to deal with you.” That was the extent of her mother’s interest in Alice’s happiness. “Now, I must sample the waters while I am here. You will be ready to leave for London tomorrow. I’ve already made arrangements with the headmistress.”
Mama stalked out of the room, and Alice tottered over to the writing desk, collapsing into the chair. This was the end then, of her schooldays and the small modicum of freedom she had enjoyed being away from home. She drew a fresh sheet of paper from the drawer and picked up her pen.
I hope this letter finds you in good health. Mama has given her permission to…
Alice paused, nibbling on the end of her pen. Permission to what? Beg the duke to marry her? Crawl on her belly like a dog? She sighed and dipped her pen into the ink again.
…to inform you that I would be…
Alice frowned. Happy? Excited? Terrified.
Pleased to accept your offer of marriage.
There, short and to the point. Hardly a love letter, but then the duke’s proposal hadn’t been laden with sentiment either. Alice folded the letter and placed it an envelope before she could change her mind. She sealed it with wax and hunted for a stamp. There, her future was decided—for better or worse.
The Duke of Desford frowned down at the letter from his estate agent, informing him that the dowager duchess had requested extensive renovations to the dower house at Desford Abbey. The fact that she visited the place for two weeks but once a year didn’t seem to affect her lavish spending. He read over the list with a growing sense of disbelief: one hundred rolls of silk wallpaper, fifty yards of lavender velvet and fifty yards of rose toile, four chandeliers, three new suites of mahogany furniture, and a new marble bathtub. He been indulgent for too long. The duke scrawled a large ‘NO’ across the whole damned list and shoved it back in the envelope. The dowager would have a fit, but Desford was past caring about his mother’s feelings.
A soft knock preceded the entrance of his valet, Knox. “A letter came for you, Your Grace.” He offered a silver salver, which held a plain, cream envelope with his name addressed in a neat, girlish hand. The duke picked up the letter. No perfume. Not from one of his mistresses, then. He slit the wax seal and pulled out a single sheet of paper.
Mama has given her permission to write to you. I wish to inform you that I would be pleased to accept your offer of marriage.
The duke snorted and held out the note. “An enthusiastic response to my proposal.”
Knox took the letter and read it, a small smile crossing his face. “No doubt your romantic addresses swept Miss Latham off her feet.”
Desford snatched the letter back. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Knox fixed him with a stern stare. “When was the last time you spoke with the girl?”
“I don’t know.” The duke crossed his arms and stared up at the ceiling. “I think I saw her at Christmas.”
“Have you ever shown her any sign of your regard? Flowers, candy, letters?”
“No,” the duke said shortly, “I didn’t think it was necessary.” He crushed the letter and threw it on the desk. “And it appears that I was correct.”
“If you mean that you correctly assumed that Miss Latham’s parents would make her accept you, then, yes.”
Desford scowled. “What of it? It is their duty to arrange their daughter’s marriage.”
“Ah, duty.” Knox straightened the inkwell on the desk. “I believe that duty makes a cold bedfellow.”
“You’ve lived in a duke’s household since you were a child,” Desford said coolly, “you should know by now how these things are arranged.”
Knox’s voice softened. “I wish only for your happiness, Tristan.”
“I know.” The duke rubbed his jaw. “What makes you think that Alice won’t make me happy? She is a sweet, biddable girl—and her mother is a dragon. She would probably agree to marry me just to get away from the old harridan.”
Knox raised a skeptical brow. “So, you will base your happiness and hers on that?”
Tristan laughed shortly. “Marriage and happiness are two different things altogether.”
Knox picked up the salver and left the room without another word, though Tristan could tell from the valet’s stiff posture that the argument wasn’t over. Knox was wrong. Alice was the perfect bride for him. She was only eighteen, a quiet girl, who would give him no trouble. She would be amenable to his training. Tristan had no intention of allowing a woman to influence him. He was not his father. Alice would learn to please—on her knees, if necessary. That painted a delightful picture. Alice had grown into a very pretty woman, even dressed in a dowdy school uniform.
Alice’s family would plan the wedding, and all the duke had to do was to wind up the rest of his bachelor life. He had better visit Emmeline, before she got wind of the news. She had been his mistress for several months, but Tristan was already tired of her temper and greediness. The chase was always the most exciting part of finding a new lover. Once captured, the duke quickly lost interest in the object of his desire. And not one of them had ever touched his heart.
Tristan decided to pay a visit to Garrard’s to purchase an amethyst bracelet, which would serve as a farewell gift. The thought lifted his spirits. He would not have to deal with Emmeline again after this. She would probably throw the damn thing at him anyway.
Lady Emmeline Dowe lived in an expensive set of rooms on Piccadilly Street, for which he had assumed the payments. Tristan was shown into Emmeline’s parlor. He wouldn’t sit down, he decided. He would deliver his news and leave.
“Desford! How charming of you to call, without even a note!” Emmeline swept into the room, clad in a clinging robe of lilac satin. He supposed he had paid for that too. She wasn’t pleased with an impromptu call. Not his problem, Tristan realized with relief—not anymore.
“Please forgive me. I wanted to deliver my news in person.” Tristan crossed the room to kiss her extended hand. The scent of her violet perfume was nearly overwhelming.
Emmeline withdrew her hand and sank onto a chaise, arranging her skirt, her head bowed. She was wondering what kind of news had brought him here.
“I have just become engaged. The notice will appear in the papers shortly.”
Emmeline’s eyes narrowed. “And you wanted to spare me from hearing of it somewhere else. How kind,” she said flatly.
“Unfortunately, our arrangement must necessarily come to an end. I wish you nothing but the best, Emmeline.” Tristan placed the small velvet box on the table in front of her. “Please accept this parting gift as a token of my appreciation and regard.”
Emmeline picked up the box and opened it. He saw the flash of disappointment on her face. Was she expecting diamonds?
“It’s lovely,” she said, “but must we indeed part? We have been together such a short time.”
“I’m afraid I must bow to custom, my dear. My attention must be wholly for my bride.”
“Until she is with child, anyway,” Emmeline said spitefully. “A duke must have an heir.”
Tristan felt a spark of anger, but he remained silent.
“I see. You will not discuss your marriage with me.” Emmeline stood, the satin clinging to her lush figure. She was a handsome woman, but she tempted him no longer. Perhaps she saw that in his expression, for a flush covered her cheeks. “I wish you every happiness, of course.”
There was nothing left to say. Tristan bowed and crossed to the door, closing it behind him with a sense of reprieve. He was a free man, ready to claim his little Alice as his bride. He had enjoyed spanking that round little bottom, and she was sure to need more discipline as she began her new role as his duchess. He quite looked forward to it.