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Home > Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart (Love By Numbers #3)

Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart (Love By Numbers #3)
Author: Sarah MacLean

Chapter One

Trees are nothing but a canopy for scandal.

Elegant ladies remain indoors after dark.

—A Treatise on the Most Exquisite of Ladies

We hear that leaves are not the only things falling in gardens . . .

—The Scandal Sheet, October 1823

In retrospect, there were four actions Miss Juliana Fiori should have reconsidered that evening.

First, she likely should have ignored the impulse to leave her sister-in-law’s autumn ball in favor of the less-cloying, better-smelling, and far more poorly lit gardens of Ralston House.

Second, she very likely should have hesitated when that same impulse propelled her deeper along the darkened paths that marked the exterior of her brother’s home.

Third, she almost certainly should have returned to the house the moment she stumbled upon Lord Grabeham, deep in his cups, half–falling down, and spouting entirely ungentlemanly things.

But, she definitely should not have hit him.

It didn’t matter that he had pulled her close and breathed his hot, whiskey-laden breath upon her, or that his cold, moist lips had clumsily found their way to the high arch of one cheek, or that he suggested that she might like it just as her mother had.

Ladies did not hit people.

At least, English ladies didn’t.

She watched as the not-so-much a gentleman howled in pain and yanked a handkerchief from his pocket, covering his nose and flooding the pristine white linen with scarlet. She froze, absentmindedly shaking the sting from her hand, dread consuming her.

This was bound to get out. It was bound to become an “issue.”

It didn’t matter that he deserved it.

What was she to have done? Allowed him to maul her while she waited for a savior to come crashing through the trees? Any man out in the gardens at this hour was certain to be less of a savior and more of the same.

But she had just proven the gossips right.

She’d never be one of them.

Juliana looked up into the dark canopy of trees. The rustle of leaves far overhead had only moments ago promised her respite from the unpleasantness of the ball. Now the sound taunted her—an echo of the whispers inside ballrooms throughout London whenever she passed.

“You hit me!” The fat man’s cry was all too loud, nasal, and outraged.

She lifted her throbbing hand and pushed a loose strand of hair back from her cheek. “Come near me again, and you’ll get more of the same.”

His eyes did not leave her as he mopped the blood from his nose. The anger in his gaze was unmistakable.

She knew that anger. Knew what it meant.

Braced herself for what was coming.

It stung nonetheless.

“You shall regret this.” He took a menacing step toward her. “I’ll have everyone believing that you begged me for it. Here in your brother’s gardens like the tart you are.”

An ache began at her temple. She took one step back, shaking her head. “No,” she said, flinching at the thickness of her Italian accent—the one she had been working so hard to tame. “They will not believe you.”

The words sounded hollow even to her.

Of course they would believe him.

He read the thought and gave a bark of angry laughter. “You can’t imagine they’d believe you. Barely legitimate. Tolerated only because your brother is a marquess. You can’t believe he’d believe you. You are, after all, your mother’s daughter.”

Your mother’s daughter. The words were a blow she could never escape. No matter how hard she tried.

She lifted her chin, squaring her shoulders. “They will not believe you,” she repeated, willing her voice to remain steady, “because they will not believe I could possibly have wanted you, porco.”

It took a moment for him to translate the Italian into English, to hear the insult. But when he did, the word pig hanging between them in both languages, Grabeham reached for her, his fleshy hand grasping, fingers like sausages.

He was shorter than she was, but he made up for it in brute strength. He grabbed one wrist, fingers digging deep, promising to bruise, and Juliana attempted to wrench herself from his grip, her skin twisting and burning. She hissed her pain and acted on instinct, thanking her maker that she’d learned to fight from the boys on the Veronese riverfront.

Her knee came up. Made precise, vicious contact.

Grabeham howled, his grip loosening just enough for escape.

And Juliana did the only thing she could think of.

She ran.

Lifting the skirts of her shimmering green gown, she tore through the gardens, steering clear of the light pouring out of the enormous ballroom, knowing that being seen running from the darkness would have been just as damaging as being caught by the odious Grabeham . . . who had recovered with alarming speed. She could hear him lumbering behind her through a particularly prickly hedge, panting in great, heaving breaths.

The sound spurred her on, and she burst through the side gate of the garden into the mews that abutted Ralston House, where a collection of carriages waited in a long line for their lords and ladies to call for transport home. She stepped on something sharp and stumbled, catching herself on the cobblestones, scoring the palms of her bare hands as she struggled to right herself. She cursed her decision to remove the gloves that she had been wearing inside the ballroom—cloying or not, kidskin would have saved her a few drops of blood that evening. The iron gate swung shut behind her, and she hesitated for a fraction of a second, sure the noise would attract attention. A quick glance found a collection of coachmen engrossed in a game of dice at the far end of the alleyway, unaware of or uninterested in her. Looking back, she saw the great bulk of Grabeham making for the gate.

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