Duke Most Wanted

Celeste Bradley

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Prologue

Once upon a time, on a lovely spring day in the English countryside, three tiny girls played side by side by side— cousins and future competitors.

The eldest, Sophie, watched an insect crawling across the path, squatting awkwardly so that her hem dragged in the dirt. The middle, Phoebe, sweet and unrestrained, chased a butterfly. The youngest, Deirdre, even then a stunningly beautiful infant, grabbed Sophie’s bug and ate it, ignoring Sophie’s howl of protest.

Their mothers, Sophie’s a frustrated and resentful widow, Phoebe’s a kindly but overworked vicar’s wife and Deirdre’s, an ethereal and unwell beauty, sat watching them from the shady blanket left over from their picnic.

Sophie’s mother, who was cousin to the other two, not sisters as they were, slapped irritably at something with too many legs that encroached upon her skirts. "Disgusting idea," she muttered. "I abhor eating outside."

Phoebe’s mother, the only woman whose hands showed the wear of actual toil, gently removed the offending creature and set it free in the grass. She smiled to see her daughter playing so joyously. "Insects or no, I think it’s delightful to sit at all."

Deirdre’s mother fanned her pale cheeks and smiled as well. "I don’t get out enough these days. And it’s lovely to see the girls play together."

Sophie’s mother eyed her own daughter for a long moment, then let her eyes rest on the very pretty daughters of her cousins. No one had said a word so far, but it was obvious that Sophie wasn’t going to be the beauty of the three.

No one had mentioned the Pickering trust, either. Yet how could they not be thinking, even now, that their daughters had a chance where they themselves had failed so miserably?

Oh, one sister had found a wealthy enough man, though not a duke by any means. The other had settled for a vicar! She herself had not done much better, for though her late husband had left her settled fairly if she pinched her coppers, she was no higher in life than she’d started!

No, it was up to the next generation. Sophie’s mother frowned, gazing at her child’s knobby knees and awkward movements. She’d even inherited the Pickering nose!

Was that the sort of girl a duke most wanted?

I, Sir Hamish Pickering, being of sound mind but ailing body, do make my last will and testament.

I’ve climbed as high as a man can, despite having twice the brains, wisdom and fortitude of the layabout aristocracy. Yet, a woman can wed as high as her looks will let her, up to a duchess if she may.

There, my own daughters failed me miserably. Morag and Finella, I spent money on you so that you could marry higher but you weren’t up to snuff. You expected the world to be handed it to you. If any female of this family wants another farthing of my money she’d best set herself to earn it.

Therefore, I declare that the entirety of my fortune be kept back from my useless daughters and be held in trust for the granddaughter or great-granddaughter who weds a duke of England or weds a man who then becomes a duke through inheritance, at which time the trust will be released to her and only her.

If she has any sisters or female cousins who fail, they may each have a lifetime income of fifteen

pounds a year. If she has any brothers or male cousins, though the family does tend to run to daughters, more’s the pity, they will receive five pounds apiece, for that’s all I had in my pocket when I came to London. Any Scotsman worth his haggis can turn five pounds into five hundred in a few years’ time.

A set amount will be given each girl as she makes her debut in Society, for gowns and whatnot.

Should three generations of Pickering girls fail, I wash me hands of the lot of you. The entire fifteen thousand pounds will go to pay the fines and hardships of those who defy the excise man to export that fine Scots whisky which has been my only solace in this family of dolts. If your poor sainted mother could only see you now.

Signed,

Sir Hamish Pickering

Witnesses,

B. R. Stickley, A. M. Wolfe

Solicitors’ of Stickley & Wolfe

Nearly twenty years passed before three young ladies, chaperoned by Deirdre’s stepmother, took up residence in London for their debut season.

At first, it seemed that pretty, openhearted Phoebe would be the one to land an almost-duke. When she ran away with his rakish half-brother instead, beautiful, willful Deirdre snatched him up, wedding him within weeks.

Deirdre may have loved her new husband desperately, but he wasn’t nearly so pleased with her. Luckily, when she refused to mother his wildly out-of-control child, Meggie, sparks flew—and grew to white-hot flames.

With Deirdre’s handsome lord about to inherit the title of Duke of Brookmoor, everyone assumed it was only a matter of time until Deirdre was handed an enormous amount of money she didn’t especially need.

Sophie, tall, plain and socially awkward, had never nurtured any hope of winning the inheritance herself. After all, scholarly, reserved Sophie had never even met a duke!

Excerpted from Duke Most Wanted by Celeste Bradley

Copyright 2008 by Celeste Bradley

Published in 2008 by St. Martin's Paperbacks

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.