Authors: Karen Lingefelt
Wagered to the Duke
En route to a dreary governess position, Katherine Baxter meets a frightened young woman whose brother wagered and lost her to a Scottish duke traveling to London, where Kate longs to go and be reunited with her own brother. Craving the adventure she’s never had, Kate brazenly takes the girl’s place but must hide her growing attraction to the dashing duke she can never hope to have.
Nathan Fraser, Duke of Loring, has no need for the plain, bespectacled woman he won at cards, for he plans to choose his bride from a bevy of beauties at a London ball. But when an enemy from his past threatens to claim the prize, Nathan’s honor forces him to keep this headstrong lass under his protection. As they travel incognito on a rollicking odyssey as husband and wife, the high-spirited Kate proves to be more trouble than he gambled for, yet Nathan risks all to win her heart while losing his own.
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A SIREN-BOOKSTRAND TITLE
WAGERED TO THE DUKE
First E-book Publication: March 2013
Cover design by Harris Channing
All cover art and logo copyright © 2013 by Siren Publishing, Inc.
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To Cynthia Sherrick and Ginny Czaja, both of whom stayed on the island with me every day while I wrote this book from start to finish. Let’s do it again!
WAGERED TO THE DUKE
Copyright © 2013
Yorkshire, England, April 1817
Katherine Baxter felt like an intruder, even though she was here first.
For the past half hour she’d been sitting next to the fireplace in the parlor of the Blue Rooster Inn on the outskirts of York, trying to enjoy her last few moments of peace before she went to her new post as governess to Mr. Throckmorton’s dozen children. Or maybe he only had half a dozen. After four or five, it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Those peaceful moments were shattered when a dandy crept in with a nervous air, a tearful lady companion, and a buxom maid who toted a portmanteau that must have weighed as much as she did. The dandy and his lady claimed the settle opposite Kate, while the maid dropped the portmanteau in the far corner and then sat on it as if to keep it from running away, for they all looked as if they wanted to be somewhere else.
Embarrassment swept through Kate as the young woman across from her sobbed into a hopelessly soggy handkerchief and wailed, “Why, Freddy? Why?”
He fidgeted and squirmed next to her. “Meg, I’ve told you a hundred times already. I simply don’t have enough money to pay that debt.”
“But why did you have to play cards with him, Freddy? Why?”
A gambling debt? Kate took an instant dislike to Freddy.
“Keep it down, Meg!” he said in a furious whisper.
She must not have heard, for she only cried louder. “Why, Freddy?”
He cast a very uneasy, decidedly unapologetic, and unmistakably pleading glance at Kate.
She couldn’t resist. “Do you want
to explain it to her? My dear Meg, it’s simple. Freddy is an irresponsible lout.”
His look of entreaty turned to one of indignation. “I beg your pardon, but I had no wish for you to explain anything to her. I was hoping perhaps you would give us some privacy.”
“And go where? I can scarcely venture into the taproom.”
He rose from the settle and made a beeline for the parlor door. “In that case, why don’t you
sit with my sister for a while, and I’ll go to the taproom.” He fled as if the demons of hell, along with his creditors, were hard on his heels.
Meg blew her nose into the sodden handkerchief and gazed just as imploringly at Kate, as if she hoped to enlist her aid. “My brother staked me in a card game and lost me to a duke. He said it was either me or the house, but I have a mother and three sisters who would’ve been left without a roof over their heads. The duke is to take me to London!”
Kate thought she saw a bright ray of light beaming into the parlor from the heavens above and heard a choir of angels singing something by Handel.
How she longed to go back to London, where her brother lived with his wife and twin newborns. She’d much rather look after her niece and nephew than Mr. Throckmorton’s three dozen children.
Meg held up her handkerchief. It was wet, limp, and useless. “Oh, where is Mr. Swingle?” She began weeping anew.
“There, there, Miss Meg,” said the maid from her corner, as if those words would stop Meg’s tears and make her feel better.
Kate leaned forward on the settle. “Who is Mr. Swingle?”
“He’s supposed to be on his way from Bath to marry me. He sent a letter just last week.”
“And he doesn’t know what Freddy has done?” If only he did, he might wish to take a horsewhip to Freddy before taking Meg to wife.
Meg sniffled. “I was so hoping Mr. Swingle would arrive before the duke.”
“You must think positively, Meg—that is, may I call you Meg? I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Katherine Baxter from Bellingham Hall, but you can call me Kate. People don’t usually call me Katherine unless they’re angry or exasperated with me about something, which is usually at least once a day.”
Meg sniffled again, not even bothering with the handkerchief anymore. “I’m Margaret Hathaway from Leeds. What do you do at Bellingham Hall?”
“Absolutely nothing, which is why I left and am now going to work as governess to Mr. Throckmorton’s children.”
“Oh, I think I’d much rather do that than be carried off by a strange duke. Why were you at Bellingham Hall, if you didn’t do anything?”
“My stepfather happens to be the Earl of Bellingham.” Kate saw no need to add that the earl, like Meg’s brother, was also a gambler with a mountain of debt, though he had yet to wager his stepdaughter. Or if he had, he must not have lost, for no duke or lesser mortal had ever come to claim her.
Meg straightened up on the settle, peering at Kate with bloodshot eyes. “Then you would probably rather be carried off by a duke than be a governess to someone else’s children.”
“Probably.” Especially if it meant being carried off to London.
“Freddy was told to meet the duke here at this hour.”
The same hour Kate was told to expect Mrs. Peck, Mr. Throckmorton’s housekeeper, who would take her to her new post in York.
Meg twisted her handkerchief as if to wring out the tears. “Oh, Kate, I would do anything to trade places with you!”
Kate might seriously consider doing so, if only—oh, who did she think she was fooling, besides herself? She’d already been seriously considering it! Meg simply voiced the unthinkable first.
Only was it truly unthinkable?
So she said, “Then let us switch places.”
“Oh, I couldn’t let you do that!” Meg said in a tone that clearly conveyed she could quite easily and happily let Kate do such a thing.
“Mr. Throckmorton and his children live in York. You could still be reunited with Mr. Swingle.”
“How would he find me?” asked Meg in a tone that further signaled to Kate that under no circumstances should she take this question as evidence that anything, even Mr. Swingle’s inability to track her down, could talk Meg out of doing this. “He thinks I’m waiting for him in Leeds. If only there was a way I could tell him that he can find me at Mr. Throckmorton’s house. I don’t even know Mr. Throckmorton’s direction.”
“You’ll know once you get there,” Kate assured her. “As to how you might get word to Mr. Swingle, why can’t you write to your family?”
Now Meg frowned, and Kate feared she was about to start crying again. “I dare not do that. You see, my mother wants me to go to the duke. She thinks he’ll marry me.”
Great day! What sort of people—Kate refused to dignify them with the term “family”—were these Hathaways? She couldn’t help thinking this duke was actually doing poor Meg a favor.
But Meg’s heart already belonged to Mr. Swingle, while Kate’s heart had yet to be captured by anyone.
It wasn’t as if she was hiding it. It was out in plain sight for any man who wanted it. Even Mr. Throckmorton, but she swiftly reminded herself that was her mother’s harebrained idea—and another reason she was willing to make this switch, though at the age of eight and twenty, Kate was almost resigned to the belief that she’d never do better than a much older widower with six dozen children.
Meg washed into her reverie with another wave of tears. “How will Mr. Swingle ever know where to find me?”
Kate reached over to place her hand over Meg’s own. “You must have faith in his love. If he truly loves you, then believe that he won’t stop looking for you until he finds you. He won’t give up searching, just as you mustn’t give up hope. Love must triumph.”
The parlor door swung open, and in bustled a stout, cloaked matron. She looked first at Meg—probably because she was the fairest—and then at Kate, probably because she was seated closest to Meg, and then at the trembling maid in the far corner, who’d been listening with fearfully bulging eyes to the scheme brewing between the two ladies.
Without preamble, the newest arrival said, “I’m looking for a Miss Baxter.”
Kate shot a glance at Meg. “That’s you.”
Meg gaped back. “Is it?” she barely hissed.
“Unless you want to go to the duke,” Kate whispered back.
The stout matron lumbered to the very center of the parlor and did a complete turn, as if visually sweeping every nook and cranny for Miss Baxter. “Are none of you Miss Baxter?” Her beady eyes narrowed at Kate. “Would you be Miss Baxter?”