Hi friends!! I’m very happy to welcome back Manda Collins, who is absolutely delightful. It also pleases me because Manda thinks I’m more sweet than tart. I’ve got her hoodwinked. 😉 Her newest release Duke with Benefits will be out next week! June 27th! The day before by birthday. So we’ve got an exclusive excerpt to whet your appetites. 😀 AND a giveaway from Manda too! See? I told you she’s wonderful! 😀
Lady Daphne Forsyth is a brilliant mathematician with a burning passion for puzzles. When she learns that the library belonging to her benefactress houses the legendary Cameron Cipher—an encrypted message that, once solved, holds the key to great riches—Daphne is on the case. Unfortunately, her race to unlock the cipher’s code is continually thwarted by a deliciously handsome distraction she hadn’t counted on. . .and cannot resist.
Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, is curious as to why Daphne is spending so much time snooping around his aunt’s bookshelves. He’s even more intrigued by her bold yet calculating manner: She is unapologetic about her secret quest. . .and the fiery attraction that develops between them both. But how can they concentrate on solving a perplexing enigma once the prospect of true love enters the equation?
After dinner that evening—the ladies, clearly eager to discuss matters they did not wish to share with male ears, headed upstairs to bed, while Kerr and Maitland retired to the room they still thought of as Aunt Celeste’s study, though she’d been gone for months now.
“What did you make of him?” the duke asked his cousin as he settled his large frame into one of the oversize chairs his aunt had purchased expressly for her nephews. “I didn’t believe his story a bit.”
Kerr, who had been pouring them both generous snifters of brandy, looked up, his brow furrowed. “Who?”
If Daphne was frustrated with her friend Ivy’s recent lapse into absent-mindedness, then Maitland was equally put out with Kerr, who spent most of his time away from his wife gazing off into space with a vague smile on his face. “That Sommersby fellow, of course. He looked at Daphne like she was a prize calf at the cattle show.”
His cousin nearly dropped the glass in his extended hand. “You’d better not let her hear you describe her thus. Or any of the ladies, actually. They would flay you alive.”
“You know what I mean,” Maitland said pettishly as he took the brandy. “That chap is up to something, make no mistake about it. And he has designs upon Lady Daphne as sure as the sun rises in the west.”
“It rises in the east,” Kerr corrected absently, “but I suppose I agree about your point. He did seem a bit . . . calculating.”
“East, west? What does it matter when there is a wolf on the doorstep?” Maitland had never been particularly interested in such things. But he was interested in Daphne, who had clearly not been pleased to hear of her old friend’s reasons for being here. Whether the man wanted her for romantic reasons, or strictly because he knew her agile mind would far more easily unravel the Cameron Cipher once it was found, Maitland was unsure. Hell, it might be both.
“You really are enjoying the animal metaphors this evening, aren’t you?” Kerr quirked a brow at him. “Though the wolf one does seem apt.”
“Well, this is one wolf who will not catch his prey.” Maitland would allow the fellow near Daphne again over his dead body.
“You can hardly bar the door to him when he arrives for dinner tomorrow,” Kerr said reasonably, crossing one booted foot over his knee. “Aside from the fact that the house doesn’t belong to you, you really have no claim on Daphne aside from friendship.” He narrowed his eyes at his cousin. “Unless of course, you’ve changed your mind recently and allowed her to have her wicked way with you. You haven’t, have you?”
“Of course, I haven’t.” Maitland scowled. “Not that it’s any of your business. But, no, my mind is made up on the subject. I will not besmirch her honor. Even if she is willing to let me do so.”
“You’re a stronger man than I am,” Kerr said, shaking his head. “If Ivy had approached me with such an invitation…”
“She’d have to have done so at your first meeting in order to precede your own overtures to her, cuz.”.” It was no secret that Kerr had compromised his now wife only a few days after their arrival at Beauchamp House. “I think you’ve proven your inability to control your baser urges around your wife, else you’d not now be married. Though I will admit to a certain amount of envy at your situation. It’s certainly no easy feat to get through every day around her knowing that she’d be mine for the taking if I only agreed to her terms.”. But I am not in the habit of seducing innocents. And bold though Daphne might be, she is no wanton. I won’t bed her without at least the promise of marriage. It’s as simple as that.”
“I’m not saying it’s not noble of you,” the other man said. “It’s just that not many men would be able to resist temptation like that.”
“Not many men were raised by my father,” Maitland said, his mouth tight. “I will not repeat his sins, no matter how strong the urge. He was a rake and a scoundrel and is likely somewhere in hell beside himself with laughter over my priggishness. But I will not relent. I saw what havoc his dishonor did to not only my mother, but also to the women who were unlucky enough to fall prey to his charms.”
Kerr nodded solemnly. “I know, old fellow. I shouldn’t have teased you on the matter.” Maitland only nodded in response.
“It was rather a shock to hear Sommersby mention the Cameron Cipher,” Kerr said, changing the subject. “I haven’t thought of it since we were boys. And I certainly had no idea that Aunt Celeste knew anything about it other than the legend.”
“I begin to think there was a great deal that Aunt Celeste knew but didn’t share with us,” Maitland said wryly. “The identity of her heirs, the secrets of her youth, and now the fact that she knew the location of the infamous Cameron Cipher. I wonder if we knew her at all.”
“It’s no secret that she disliked mysteries,” Kerr said with a shrug. “And it would appear that she’s left two at least as part of her legacy to the four heiresses. I wonder what the Misses Hastings are keeping back from us.”
“For now, let’s concentrate on the Cameron Cipher,” Maitland said, more concerned with Daphne than the Misses Hastings, fond though he had grown of them. “Daphne has been searching the library for it since her arrival, it would seem. And has thus far had no luck finding it. Which, given her intellectual abilities, leads me to believe that it isn’t there.”
“Or it’s somewhere she hasn’t looked yet,” Kerr retorted. “It’s one of the largest libraries in England. One lady searching for three months is hardly going to find it quickly. No matter how brilliant she is.”
“You have a point, I suppose,” Maitland said with nod. “What I want to know is how Sommersby learned that it was hidden in Beauchamp House. Or that there was a connection at all.”
“Someone must have told,” Kerr said reasonably. “Perhaps we can learn from him at dinner tomorrow. Aunt certainly had innumerable friends and acquaintances. She might have hinted at the cipher’s presence at Beauchamp House to any one of them.”
“She clearly chose Daphne as one of her heirs because of it,” Maitland said. “I wonder if she feels any discomfort over that. That she was picked because of her ciphering abilities.”
“I can’t imagine Lady Daphne is the sort to dwell too much on such things. She seemed eager enough to find the thing. It’s Sommersby’s arrival on the scene that’s set the cat among the pigeons. For all that they’re old friends she didn’t seem particularly happy to see him.”
Maitland thought back to her response earlier when he’d brought up Sommersby’s name. There was definitely something from the past between them. And on Daphne’s side at least, it was an uncomfortable memory. If he judges Sommersby aright, he thought Sommersby had some sort of an in with Daphne. There had been no mistaking the proprietary way the man’s eyes had roamed over her.
He’d proposed tonight because he thought perhaps Daphne would turn to her old friend in the face of his own rejection of her advances, but the way her hands had trembled at the mention of the man told him she’d sooner proposition a snake.
He looked down to see his hand clenched tight around the brandy glass. When he glanced up, he saw Kerr was watching him knowingly.
“I don’t think there’s anything particular between them, you know,” his cousin said. “If there were, Sommersby would have looked far more smug than he did. He was trying to win back her trust, I think. Ingratiating himself with her.”
“Perhaps,” Maitland said, not wanting to speak of his suspicions regarding the newcomer just yet—at least not with any specificity. “Regardless, I will continue to keep an eye on him. Until he proves otherwise, I don’t trust the man.”
“What did you make of his friend? Foster?”
“Most of my attention was on Sommersby,” Maitland admitted. “But Foster seemed a nice enough chap. He didn’t strike me as anything but what he seemed. Certainly not like Sommersby did. There’s just something about the fellow I cannot like.”
“Foster didn’t look familiar to you at all?” Kerr asked, his eyes troubled. “I could have sworn I knew him from somewhere, but I cannot think of where for the life of me.”
Maitland thought back to the scene on the path to Little Seaford. Sommersby, he could recall with exact detail. His companion, however, was less clear. He had an impression of reddish hair and a medium build. But he’d not lied when he said he wasn’t focused on the fellow. Kerr was usually good at recognizing faces, however, so he didn’t dismiss the other man’s words.
“Perhaps you saw him somewhere in town? Or at university?”
“Maybe,” his cousin replied. “Doubtless it will come to me as soon as I stop trying to remember.”
“If you’d stop mooning over that wife of yours, you’d probably remember quickly enough,” Maitland said, setting down his now empty brandy glass and stretching. “You were a rather clever fellow before Ivy came into your life.”
“I was a rather lonely fellow before Ivy came into my life,” Kerr corrected him with a wink. “And you cannot blame me for being a besotted fool when I have such a prize.”
Despite his jest, Maitland could see that his cousin was happier than he’d ever been. It was as if Kerr had become lighter somehow. As if the cares of the world had lifted from his shoulders and been replaced with a mantle of joy. Or something. He was no poet. He only knew his cousin was a different man since he’d married Ivy. And the duke couldn’t help but be a wee bit envious.
Aloud he said, “I won’t agree too heartily, because I do not wish to be called out.”
“Now, who’s the clever fellow?” Kerr asked with a wink.
And on that note, the cousins made their way upstairs. Kerr to his own room where he would likely share every syllable of their conversation with his wife, and Maitland to his bachelor bedchamber, where he would lie awake for some time mulling over the events of the afternoon.
I also talked about a giveaway, right? WELL. Tell us what you thought – Manda will be giving one lucky commenter an ARC of Duke with Benefits. Yay!