The Duke HeistWild Wynchesters #1: THE DUKE HEIST!
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Lawrence Gosling, eighth Duke of Faircliffe, was on the verge of achieving what had once seemed impossible: replenishing the dukedom’s empty coffers and restoring its tattered reputation.

His father had lived a charmed life on credit he had been unable to repay. And now, with the failure of their country estate’s crops, the situation was becoming dire. If Lawrence did not secure a bride with a significant dowry before the end of the season, he would have to send the last of his loyal servants to the streets.

He would not repay them so shabbily.

Lawrence leaned forward in his rented coach and opened the curtain to be able to address his driver. As with all of his father’s grievous missteps, each of Lawrence’s attempts to restore respect and prosperity had been won at great personal cost.

The sacrifice was worth it.

Lawrence’s reputation was spotless, his performance in Parliament impeccable. This season, marriage-minded mamas would have him at the top of their lists. For as long as Lawrence lived, the Gosling name and Faircliffe title would never again be spoken with derision. No heir of his would be dismissed, forced to shoulder ridicule and isolation.

Of course, that was because no one realized his shiny reputation hid a very empty pocketbook. The dukedom didn’t need a dowry. The dukedom needed the dowry to end all dowries. A sum so staggering, Lawrence could restore the half-abandoned entailed country estate, repay the last of his father’s debts, and have a respectable chunk left over to invest in a stable future.

The dukedom needed Miss Philippa York.

“The terrace house at the corner,” Lawrence instructed the driver. “The one with yellow rosebushes.”

“As you please, Your Grace.”

Using a coach to travel from one end of Grosvenor Square to the other was a shameless display of pretension and excess…and the reason Miss York’s parents looked favorably on a courtship between Lawrence and their daughter.

Although he’d sold his last remaining carriage that morning—right down to his prized greys—Lawrence had rented this hack to keep up appearances.

Mr. York was one of the most powerful MPs in the House of Commons. Mrs. York was bosom friends with a patroness of Almack’s. They had wealth, status, everything they could ever want—except a title.

After the wedding, the Yorks’ daughter would be a duchess, their grandson a future duke. To them, such a jaw-dropping coup would be more than worth any dowry required.

For him it meant a new leaf. The Earl of Southerby was seeking partners for an investment opportunity with very attractive interest rates—if Lawrence came up with his portion before the earl quit London at the end of the season. It was not a flashy wager, like the sort his father had made at his gentlemen’s clubs, but the steady interest and future profit would provide a strong foundation for years to come.

To Lawrence, marriage to respectable Miss York meant far more than financial stability. His children could be children, without fear of mockery or poverty. It would give his sons and daughters the chance—no, the right—to be happy.

Everyone deserved as much, including his new bride. Lawrence could not afford to woo Miss York for an entire season, but he could give her a week or two to get to know him before the betrothal.

He reached for the framed canvas on the seat opposite. “Once the traffic clears, I’ll alight at the last house. I shan’t be more than half an hour.”

But the carriages crowding the Yorks’ side of the square did not move. The queue appeared to be idly awaiting passengers. One of the Yorks’ neighbors must be hosting a tea. He grimaced.

Lawrence hated tea. He would rather drink water from the Thames.

“Stop here.” He reached for the door. “Find your way to the front of the queue so I know where to find you when I return.”

The driver nodded and allowed the curtain to fall closed.

The Duke Heist

Despite residing on opposite sides of Grosvenor Square, this was Lawrence’s first call at the York residence. The warm red brick and painted white columns of the impeccable terrace house were bright and clean. Every window glistened in the sunlight, reflecting the azure spring sky or the trim green grass in the square.

Jaw clenched, he strode down the pavement toward their front walk as elegantly as one could with a heavy, brown-paper-wrapped, framed painting clutched beneath one’s arm.

Lawrence could have brought his last remaining footman along to carry the painting, but he hoped a show of personal effort would add an extra touch of romance to his unusual gift. It was not what he would have picked, but the important thing was giving his future betrothed something she liked.

The finality of marriage prickled his skin with equal parts nervousness and excitement. A fortnight from now, when the contract was signed, he and Miss York would be saddled with each other. His palms felt clammy. Was it foolish to hope their union might be a pleasant one? He drew himself taller.

As with all duties, one did as one must.

The door was answered as soon as he touched the knocker. Lawrence presented his card at once.

“Your Grace,” said the butler. “Do come in. Shall I ring for someone to take your package?”

“I’ll deliver it.” Lawrence stepped over the threshold to wait for his hosts.

He and Mr. York had met in the House of Commons and enjoyed spirited debates for most of a decade. Last year, after the premature death of Lawrence’s father, he had moved from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. A partnership with Mr. York would ensure vital allies across the two Houses.

All he had to do was remain sparklingly unobjectionable until the banns were read. Once Miss York married him, her dowry would save the dukedom and secure a better future for his family and his tenants.

The plan had to work. It was Lawrence’s only shot.

Mrs. York bounded up to him, her hands clasped to her chest as if physically restraining a squeal of excitement. “Your Grace, such a pleasure, I do say!”

The unmistakable sound of female voices trickled from an open door halfway down the corridor straight ahead.

Lawrence’s skin went cold. This was supposed to be a private meeting. He hated surprises and was inept at impromptu conversations. He excelled in Parliament because he prepared his speeches in advance—just as he had done for today’s visit with Miss York and her parents.

Interacting with an unexpected crowd would ensure he made a hash out of his well-rehearsed lines. He stepped no farther.

“Did I mistake the date?” he inquired carefully.

“No, no. Right on time, as always.” Mr. York strode up to join his wife. “You’re a man who cleaves to duty. A fine trait, I daresay. Very little in common with your father.”

“Er…thank you. I should hope I’m nothing like him.”

“Quite right, quite right. Your parliamentary speeches could rival Fox and Pitt. Your father, on the other hand, rarely left his club—or his cups. Indeed, there are many who say—” Mr. York coughed and gave Lawrence a jovial clap on the shoulder. “’Tis no time for gossip, is it, my boy?”

Lawrence affected an affable smile. At least, he hoped that was what his face was doing. He was conscious every day that the Gosling name teetered on the edge of respectability. Mr. York’s unfinished intimation had been clear: there were still those who said Faircliffe dukes were a blight on society.

Duke or not, nothing was certain until the contract was signed.

“It is our honor, Your Grace,” Mrs. York gushed as she fluttered her hands in excitement and impatience. “Is that the special gift for Philippa? Come, you must present it to her at once.”

“I admit I can’t fathom what beauty she sees in that painting,” Mr. York murmured.

Lawrence held the frame a little tighter. Dancing hobgoblins were an unusual subject. He did not understand why anyone would want it.

What if, upon second inspection, the young lady realized her error in having expressed admiration for such questionable “art” and laughed in his face when he presented it as a gift? Being able to give an item he already possessed had seemed like serendipity. Now he feared the omen might not be positive. His veins hummed with panic.

“It sounds as though Miss York is entertaining guests.” He gripped the frame. “I should return when I’m not interrupting.”

“Stuff and nonsense.” Mrs. York looped her hand about the crook of Lawrence’s elbow and all but dragged him down the corridor. “It’s just a few of her bluestocking friends. I’m certain they’ll all find it amusing to see what you’ve brought Philippa.”

Yes. Exactly what he was afraid of.

But there was no backing out now. His father’s word wasn’t worth the breath it floated on, but Lawrence had kept every vow for two and thirty years. Miss York liked the painting; he’d promised to give it to her. On this day. At this time. Nowhere to go but forward.

Besides, “a few bluestockings” was hardly a lion’s den…was it?

“Philippa, my dear, look who’s arrived!” Mrs. York sang out as they entered a grand parlor.

The room was enormous, with seats for over two dozen guests, and every chair was full.

Lawrence could feel the weight of too many gazes landing on him at once.

Half of them, he did not recognize—perhaps those were the “bluestockings”—but the other half were familiar faces from polite society. He swallowed hard. He didn’t merely need to impress Miss York and her parents; he needed to charm an entire room.

If only influencing a parlor full of women were as easy as debating customs and excise reform at Westminster with a few hundred of his peers. Quoting the latest committee findings was unlikely to gain him any points here.

He wouldn’t acknowledge any of them, Lawrence decided. The situation was too fraught and the chance for error too high. Missteps like smiling at or snubbing the wrong young lady. He would place all of his attention on Miss York. That could be interpreted as romantic, could it not? Here he was with a courting gift, a knight bearing a tapestry of dancing demons for his fair maiden.

Miss York, for her part, was enshrouded in her usual yards of voluminous lace. Only her pink cheeks and dimpled hands protruded from the delicate froth, lending her the appearance of a life-sized doll.

Her eternally blank expression made the resemblance uncanny.

“Miss York,” Lawrence began, then paused. He could not kiss her hand with a painting in his arms, and setting it on the ground risked damage. Bowing would be just as unwieldy. He would have to skip the niceties and rush straight to the romance. “I’ve brought you a humble token of my admiration.”

The Duke Heist

“Ohhh,” gasped one of her friends. “What could it be?”

“A painting my mother informed him I might enjoy.” Miss York gestured toward a blank spot on the wall. “She intends to put it there.”

So. She was not impressed with his courtship gift. Lawrence forced himself to smile anyway.

Miss York didn’t smile back.

The rest of the room was alive with whispers.

“Is it a love match?”

“Why else would he wed beneath him? My father is a marquess.”

“What, did you think he was bringing the gift to you?”

“Do you think she loves him?”

“Who can ever tell what she’s thinking? I cannot wait to see the artwork he brought her.”

The back of Lawrence’s neck flushed with heat.

Yes, Miss York was marrying him for his title. Yes, he needed her dowry. But that didn’t have to be all they shared. Even a marriage of convenience could work with a modicum of effort.

But first he had to get rid of this bloody painting.

“Could someone ring for a pair of shears?” he asked politely.

“Here!” Mrs. York trilled.

Two wigged footmen, identical in height and elegant livery, glided into the room and relieved Lawrence of the canvas.

Now was his chance to kiss Miss York’s hand. Before he could do so, a maid handed her a sharp pair of metal shears.

Miss York rose to her feet in a rustle of lace.

A wave of whispers once again rushed through the parlor. Lawrence risked a subtle glance over his shoulder.

Every gaze was transfixed on Miss York…except for one. One woman’s dark brown eyes arrested him.

She did not seem curious about the gift. Her disconcertingly intense expression was shrewd, as if she could see through the brown paper package, see through his meticulously tailored layers of fashionable apparel, see through him to the nervousness and desperation beneath. But she did not look away. Her gaze only sharpened, as if she had stripped him bare and still wanted more.

His throat grew dry. He tried to swallow. An odd prickling sensation traveled up his spine as though the tips of her fingers had brushed against his skin.

He quickly turned back to Miss York. The delivery of the gift had stretched on long enough. If she didn’t cut through the paper soon, Lawrence would rip it apart with his bare hands, make his bow, and escape to his waiting carriage before he was forced to follow this performance with tea and small talk.

“If you’d be so kind?” he murmured.

Miss York sliced through the brown paper as though she had little interest in safekeeping the art beneath.

The paper fell away. The painting was exposed. A gasp rippled through the crowd. Whether at the romance of the gesture or because the subject featured a family of mischievous sprites, Lawrence could not say.

“Thank you,” Miss York said. “You are most kind.”

Was she smitten? Bored? She did not appear to be upset or in any danger of swooning. He gave a gift. She received the gift. Fin.

The back of his neck heated anew. He appreciated her extreme lack of drama, Lawrence told himself. After her dowry, her predictability was his favorite trait. A woman like Miss York would never muddy the Faircliffe title with scandal. She was exactly what he needed: no scrapes, no surprises.

Mrs. York burst into loud applause. “Huzzah!”

Everyone in the room followed suit. Everyone, that was, except Miss York and the oddly intense young woman with the mocking half smile.

Her gaze continued to track him, as though she could hear each overloud heartbeat and sense each shallow breath from across the room. He did not like the sensation at all. Despite the roomful of strangers, her regard felt strangely intimate and far too perceptive.

“As soon as the painting is hung,” Mrs. York chirped, “we shall all remove to the dining room for a nice, leisurely tea.”

Good God, anything but that. Besides his distaste for tea, Lawrence could not court anyone properly while dodging the unsettling gaze of the woman with the pretty brown eyes. Even now, he was thinking of her instead of concentrating on Miss York. It would not do. Once the painting was hung, Lawrence would bolt out the door and into the sanctity of his carriage.

His driver had better be ready to fly.

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“I want to be a Wynchester!”
— Eloisa James

“Erica Ridley is a delight!”
— Julia Quinn, author of BRIDGERTON

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Erica Ridley