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A Duke in Shining Armor (Difficult Dukes #1)
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0062457381 (ISBN13: 9780062457387)
Not all dukes are created equal. Most are upstanding members of Society. And then there’s the trio known as Their Dis-Graces.
Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, will never win prizes for virtue. But even he draws the line at running off with his best friend’s bride. All he’s trying to do is recapture the slightly inebriated Lady Olympia Hightower and return her to her intended bridegroom.
For reasons that elude her, bookish, bespectacled Olympia is supposed to marry a gorgeous rake of a duke. The ton is flabbergasted. Her family’s ecstatic. And Olympia? She’s climbing out of a window, bent on a getaway. But tall, dark, and exasperating Ripley is hot on her trail, determined to bring her back to his friend. For once, the world-famous hellion is trying to do the honorable thing.
So why does Olympia have to make it so deliciously difficult for him . . . ?
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Early morning of 11 June 1833
The Duke of Ashmont was not a very good duke—rather an awful one, actually. And so nobody could be in the least surprised to see him, drunk as an emperor—that was to say, ten times as drunk as a lord—staggering down the steps of Crockford’s Club on the arm of one of his two best friends.
This one was Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley. Where Ashmont was fair-haired, blue-eyed, and angelic-looking, Ripley was dark. Unlike Ashmont, he did not appear to be spun of dreams and gossamer, and women did not follow his movements with the moonstruck expressions they accorded His Grace with the Angel Face.
On a good day, someone had said once, Ripley’s face resembled that of a wolf who’d been in too many fights.
Furthermore, though his slightly older title ranked him a notch or two higher in precedence than Ashmont, Ripley was merely as drunk as a lord. He could still distinguish up from down. When, therefore, His Grace of Ashmont showed an inclination to stumble in the downhill direction, toward St. James’s Palace, Ripley hauled him about.
“This way,” he said. “Hackney stand up ahead.”
“Right,” Ashmont said. “Can’t miss the wedding. Not this one. It’s me doing it. Me and Olympia. Have to be there. Promised.”
“You will be,” Ripley said as he led his friend across the street. The wedding had been news to him, the choice of bride a shock: Lady Olympia Hightower, of all women. She was the last girl on earth he’d thought would marry Ashmont—or any of them, for that matter.
Not that Ripley knew her very well. Or at all. They’d been introduced, yes, years ago. That was in the days when respectable persons still introduced Ripley and his two friends to innocent girls. But those were not the kinds of girls the ducal trio wanted. Gently bred maidens were for marrying, and marriage was supposed to be years away, sometime in the dim, distant future.
Apparently, the future had arrived while Ripley wasn’t looking.
First the Duke of Blackwood, the other of his two boon companions, had married Ripley’s sister over a year ago, a few days before Ripley left for the Continent. Now Ashmont was doing it. Ripley had heard the happy news mere hours after his return to London yesterday.
No, he’d returned the day before, because today was yesterday now. He’d come to Crockford’s because he wanted a decent meal, and Crockford’s Ude was the next best thing to Ripley’s own chef, Chardot, who’d come down with a foul cold sometime during the Channel crossing.
Chardot went with him everywhere because he was amply paid to do so, and Ripley liked his comfort. Having been forced, for no sane reason, to live like a pauper during his boyhood, he lived like a king now.
Ripley was debating with himself whether, on the whole, he’d better have stayed abroad, when four men spilled out of a narrow court, one crashing into Ashmont with force enough to dislodge him from Ripley’s light grasp and push him into a shop front.
Ashmont bounced back with surprising energy. “You clumsy, bleeding, half-wit! I have to get married, you bloody arsehole!” At the same moment, he drove his fist at the fellow’s face.
One of the man’s friends tried to butt in. With a sigh, Ripley grabbed him by the back of the collar. The fellow swung at him, obliging Ripley to knock him into the gutter.
What happened after that was what often happened when Ashmont was about: a lot of filthy language and filthy fighting, and men rushing out of the clubs, shouting bets, and a female or two screaming somewhere.
Then it was over. Their foes lay strewn about the pavement. Ripley didn’t wait to count or identify them. He collected Ashmont from the railing he’d slumped against and trudged to the corner with him. He signaled, and the first in line of the hackneys plodded their way. He threw Ashmont into the decrepit coach and directed the driver to Ashmont House.
Servants waited up, as they were accustomed to do, for Ashmont. They bore him up the stairs to his bedroom and undressed and washed him without fuss. They were old hands at dealing with their master’s little foibles.
After he’d seen His Grace safely tucked into bed, Ripley left.
He needed a bath, a nap, and a change of clothes.
He had a wedding to attend in a few hours.
Newland House, Kensington
Late forenoon of 11 June 1833
If the bride was drunk—which she wasn’t—it was on account of celebrating.
In a very little while, Lady Olympia Hightower was going to make all of her family’s dreams come true. Hers, too, most of them.
She would become the Duchess of Ashmont.
Teetering on the brink of six and twenty, she ought to thank her lucky stars she’d won the heart . . . admiration . . . something . . .