Anything But a Duke

The Duke's Den, Book 2

Self-made man Aidan Iverson has seen more closed doors in his thirty years than he’s ever cared to count. As a member of the elite Duke’s Den, he has all the money he could possibly need but the one thing he can’t purchase is true power. If roguish Aidan can’t buy his way into society’s hallowed halls, he’ll resort to a more extreme measure: marriage.

Brought up to be a proper lady, the only thing Diana Ashby desires is to be left alone to the creation of her own devices. But when her dreams are crushed, she must find another way to secure the future of her invention. Knowing his desire to enter her world, Diana strikes a deal to arrange Aidan’s marriage to the perfect lady—as long as that lady isn’t her. She doesn’t need any distractions from her work, particularly of the sinfully handsome variety.

As Diana and Aidan set out to find him an aristocratic match, neither are prepared for the passion that ignites between them or the love they can’t ignore.

In the Duke’s Den, can happiness ever be a winning prospect?

Praise

“Christy Carlyle is a historical romance lover’s dream!” —Tessa Dare, New York Times bestselling author

“Carlyle inventively incorporates a Victorian riff on the concept of Shark Tank as well as the hero’s hunt for his own past into the engaging plot of the second quirkily different and splendidly sexy addition to her Duke’s Den series.” —Booklist

“In Carlyle’s memorable second Duke’s Den Victorian romance, a budding scientist and a wealthy businessman discover they are a perfect match. Fans of historical romance with strong, intelligent heroines will adore this novel, in which emotionally vulnerable, highly motivated characters complete the sensuous story.” —Publishers Weekly

Mature, interesting, and romantic protagonists elevate a familiar story.” —Kirkus Reviews

“I absolutely adore Christy Carlyle!” —Lorraine Heath, New York Times bestselling author

Other Books in the The Duke's Den series

A Duke Changes Everything

Book 1

Nothing Compares to the Duke

Book 3

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

March 1845
London, Belgrave Square

She absolutely could not be late.

Diana Ashby approached the looking glass in her dressing room and tightened the ribbon she’d gathered around her dark, unruly hair. She’d gotten distracted in her laboratory and now the clock ticked dangerously close to the top of the hour.

An exception had been made for her and she couldn’t squander it. One of her former tutors from Bexley Finishing School had arranged a private scientific lecture at his home for a few colleagues and had extended her an invitation.

Diana rushed toward the door, scooping up a notebook and pencil on the way, and reached the top of the stairs at the precise moment her mother called her name.

“Diana. Come down and greet our visitor.”

She gritted her teeth and prayed this wasn’t some machination to thwart her evening plans. Mama didn’t approve of her pursuits or of ladies stepping out unaccompanied, but the Woodsons lived a short cab ride away, and her tutor and his wife were more than sufficient chaperones.

She descended the stairs warily, hoping whoever had come could be put off quickly. Relief washed over her when she spotted Samuel, Lord Egerton, a friend of her brother’s.

Though her father had been the second son of a baronet, he’d inherited enough of a living to provide Diana and her brother with an excellent education alongside the children of England’s noble families.

“I’m afraid Dominick isn’t at home. Most likely getting into some mischief. I’m surprised you’re not with him.”

“I wish to speak to you, Diana.”

Di scanned the hallway, but her mother was nowhere in sight. It was unusual to be left alone with a visitor, but Lord Egerton and his family were longtime friends.

Still, she sensed something wasn’t right. A prickle of hesitation raised goose bumps on her skin.

She studied her brother’s friend. Half-moon shadows darkened the undersides of his eyes and there was an odd tremor at the edge of his jaw. For a normally jovial young buck, he looked decidedly fretful as he gripped his gloves with a white-knuckled hold and twisted them nervously in his hands.

“Is something amiss with Dominick?” Her twin brother was a reckless sort. She lived in fear that one day he’d stumble into the kind of trouble one couldn’t get out of with charm alone.

When Egerton shook his head, Diana breathed easier.

“Shall we talk in the parlor?” Without waiting for an answer, she led him to the room.

He shocked her by slipping the door shut behind them.

“What’s troubling you?” Gentleness was hard to muster when the hands of the clock on the wall edged ever later, but she tried. They’d never been confidants, but as an acquaintance of many years, she was willing to hear whatever ailed the young man. For some reason, he’d come to her with his burdens.

“I’m not certain how to begin,” he whispered, a quivery wobble in his tone. “There is an endeavor I should like to undertake and need your guidance.”

“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll do well. You always do.”

He was an ambitious young man. Far more so than her brother. While Dominick had been happy to return from university with nothing but memories of frivolity and mischief, Lord Egerton had taken top marks in mathematics and philosophy and won trophies in several athletic endeavors. Di knew whatever competition he entered, Lord Egerton strove to win.

He stared at her, his mouth curved in a warm smile. The expression struck her as odd. Friendliness, she expected. But there was something more in his grin.

“You’ve always been kind, Diana.”

The way he said her name, the care he took with each syllable, filled her with unease.

“I do try to be kind.”

He stepped closer, and one hand hovered between them as if he was considering whether to reach for her. “You’re also quite the prettiest girl I have ever known.”

Diana took a step back. Then another. Fear of what was to come set her heart fluttering like a bird that’s just noticed the bars of its cage.

“Samuel,” she started, desperate to forestall what he intended to say or do. But it was too late.

In one swift move, he lowered himself onto one knee and reached for her hand.

Diana froze, her muscles tightening and her tongue thickening. His touch felt heavy and yet oddly distant, as if her skin had gone numb.

“Marry me, Miss Ashby.”

Oh no. Panic sped her pulse. A single insistent hammer pounded behind her eyes. She knew what she wished to say. There was no question of her answer, but she couldn’t get the words out.

“May I take your silence as an acknowledgment of what I’ve long known?”

“I . . .” she forced out on a gasp.

He squeezed her fingers and inched closer, as if fearful of missing a single word.

“I regret . . .” The words were almost impossible to get out. Not because they weren’t true, but because panic always caused her to freeze.

But the two words sufficed.

Egerton began to crumble, the eagerness in his pale gaze turning to disappointment and then anger.

“I cannot marry you.” She shook her head to make sure he could not mistake her meaning. She had no wish to cause him embarrassment or misery, but she had no desire to marry him. Or anyone. Not yet. “My inventions—”

“Good God, no.” He burst up to his full height, turned his back on her, and paced the edges of the rug in the center of the room. “Tell me anything but that you’re refusing me for your pastimes.”

“My work is not a pastime.”

“Work? You’re a baronet’s granddaughter. You needn’t work, my dear girl.”

“I am not your anything, Lord Egerton.” Everything in her bristled and her blood fizzed with irritation. “I refer to my research. My designs.”

“Your hobby?” he sputtered, closing his eyes, as if attempting to calm himself, before continuing. “The unladylike way you insist on spending your spare hours is something I’m willing to overlook, as long as you cease such foolishness once we wed.” He came back to stand in front of her. Too close. Nearly toe to toe. “Why can’t you simply paint watercolors or play the pianoforte like other ladies?”

“Because they don’t interest me at all.”

“You waste your time with such nonsense.”

A waste of time. It’s what her mother called all the hours she spent in her workshop rather than attending to the social calendar. But just because she couldn’t study at university like her brother and would never be asked to speak at the Royal Society as her father had, that didn’t mean her inventions weren’t worthwhile.

They mattered, if only to her. One day, she hoped they’d matter to others. She just needed funding and someone to believe in her potential. If her ideas could come to fruition, her inventions could be put to good use.

“I am offering you more than anyone else will. A title, a position in society far higher than that to which you were born.” Egerton spoke the words with a coldness she’d never heard from him. He leaned closer, near enough for her to smell liquor on his breath. “Your mother will not approve of your refusal.”

Diana hated that he was right. She’d been given a fine education, but her family had always been on the edge of society. Marriage to a nobleman was what her mother wanted for her most of all, and she’d never imagined she could forestall wedlock forever. Just until she could make a name for herself and achieve some small measure of recognition for her inventions.

Diana could imagine marriage and motherhood. One day. But not yet.

“Do you have nothing to say for yourself? Does it not bother you to be an aberration among your sex?” He reached out to grip her wrist. “You should be honored by my interest. No other man will want a lady who cannot behave like one.”

Diana yanked out of his grasp, then shoved at his chest with her forearm. Watching him stumble was terribly satisfying, but there was no use provoking him.

“There’s nothing more to say, Lord Egerton. Just go.”

He shot her a malicious glare. Diana glanced toward the closed drawing room door and considered shouting for a servant or her mother.

“Don’t worry. I shan’t waste my time with you any longer. I’d hoped you knew your duty, but you’ve only doomed yourself to spinsterhood.”

Egerton started out of the room and she pressed the heel of her palm to her breastbone, struggling to steady her nerves.

At the threshold, he paused. “You’ve made a dreadful mistake today. Perhaps you don’t know it yet, but you will when you’re old and alone.” After shooting her one last sneer, he slammed the parlor door on his way out.

Di sank onto the nearest chair, trembling, struggling to blot out his words. Part of her wanted to shout at the closed door that insults would not change her. Instead, she took a deep breath and savored the relief of having him gone.

His horrible curses echoed in her head, tangling with guilt about shirking her duty to her family. Then other thoughts swelled in, as they always did. Her mind never settled. Ideas, calculations, images of what she wished to build filled her mind.

At times like these, the whirring chaos of images and impulses was a comfort. A soothing distraction.

She could almost pretend she didn’t hear Egerton’s cruel words ringing in the back of her mind.

Spinster. Alone. Aberration.

The clock struck six. Diana stood and headed for the door. The young man’s condemnations might be true. Perhaps she was all those things. Maybe she would end her days alone.

But there was more. Deeper, she felt an ever-present hunger. An ambition that she knew most thought improper for a lady. Yet it was a compulsion she couldn’t deny. Her ideas were good and she longed to prove herself to those who would scoff at a woman inventor.

She heard movement upstairs and feared facing her mother. Later, there would be time for recriminations and explanations of why she’d turned down the first marriage offer she’d ever received.

Diana headed quickly for the door. Tonight’s lecture was an opportunity to meet other scientists and speak to them of her inventions or hear of theirs. She wouldn’t let Egerton’s cruel words stop her. She wouldn’t let anything stop her.

 

Aidan Iverson jumped down from the rented carriage and ducked his head as he strode into the torrent. Rain pelted his skin at a vicious slant, ice-cold drops soaking his hair and sneaking inside the collar of his coat.

His disdain for finery didn’t serve him well on nights like this. Beaver hats and kid leather gloves would have proven useful against the elements, but they weren’t his taste. A youth spent without luxuries meant such adornments never crossed his mind. Even now, when he owned shopping emporiums full.

Tonight he was willing to bear any discomfort.

After months of searching, he’d been given a tantalizing clue that had led him to Belgravia. With two former Bow Street Runners and one private inquiry agent on his payroll, he’d finally found an indication of where his mother had once lived. He hoped Lord Talmudge of 29 Belgrave Square might have more answers.

Mary Iverson’s history was as much a mystery to Aidan as his own. He wasn’t even sure she’d been called Mary, but the name lingered in his mind.

Every memory of the woman was blurred and indistinct. He recalled her as tall and thin, with hair redder than his own. But he couldn’t remember the sound of her voice or if she’d said anything the day she’d abandoned him and his infant sister at a workhouse in Lambeth.

Thinking of the place brought a flood of images. Flashes of memory clouded in smoke and tears. Bits and fragments. Nothing he could hold on to.

The name Iverson was the only legacy he possessed, and he wasn’t even certain if it was his mother’s surname or his father’s. But he’d made his name matter. After the workhouse, he’d scavenged to survive. And once he’d earned enough to gamble, he’d multiplied a pittance into a fortune.

The highest of London society knew his name, even if they didn’t accept him into their circles. His wealth and instinct for profitable investments had earned him infamy.

But he needed more.

He could earn himself a million pounds and there would still be a hole where his family should have been.

Rounding the corner, he stopped and squinted through the fog-dimmed glow of a streetlamp. Several men loitered on the pavement ahead, crowded under umbrellas, forming the end of a queue waiting to enter a town house.

Drawing closer, Aidan made out a few distinct voices. One he recognized. The low rumbling tone belonged to an earl who’d sought his advice regarding an investment opportunity.

Aidan slowed and lowered his head.

He had no wish to be seen or to spark speculation among fashionable society about his meeting with Talmudge. Turning around, he searched for a side lane and found one leading to the mews behind the row of elegant, whitewashed town houses.

Footsteps echoed at his back as he entered the dim alleyway. He glanced behind but could see nothing clearly in the rain-shrouded darkness. He continued on, counting houses until he came to Talmudge’s.

A fence lined the back garden. He reached to twist the latch, and the footsteps behind him hastened. Two men emerged from the shadows, one with an arm aimed toward Aidan’s chest. A hard point of metal slammed against his ribs.

Footpads armed with pistols were unexpected in Belgravia, but Aidan was no stranger to a brawl. He’d fought for his supper before, even fought for his life a time or two.

“No coin to be had, gentlemen.”

“We’ll see,” the large one barked.

The smaller man stepped closer. The glow of moonlight revealed his youthfulness. Gaunt face, huge, nervous eyes, and not a hair on his chin. “Turn ’em out.”

“Your pockets,” the bulky pistol wielder clarified in a smoke-roughened voice.

Aidan sensed the young man’s nervousness. If he took down the large one without getting a hole through the chest, he suspected the boy would scarper.

“Afraid you didn’t hear me, gents. I’ve no money.”

His response took the behemoth by surprise, and Aidan seized the moment, lifting his arm and coming down hard on the beast’s forearm, forcing the pistol away.

The man grunted, recovered quickly, and wound his own massive arm back to strike.

Aidan moved quicker. With a balled fist, he caught the edge of the brawny man’s jaw. The brute faltered, stumbling back, before his pistol clattered to the pavement. Rather than retrieve the weapon, the man bent at the waist and leaned forward as if he meant to use his body as a battering ram.

A foolish move.

Aidan swiped the man’s smokestack hat away, gripped his bald head, and jerked a knee up to smash his nose. A guttural yawp told him he’d found his mark, and the large man dropped onto the slick cobblestones with a thud.

Unfortunately, the younger man didn’t retreat as expected.

An object came at Aidan, a flash of movement in the dark. Shooting pain lanced through his temple and he faltered, dropping to one knee. Shadows swelled in his periphery.

The youth gripped a handful of hair and wrenched Aidan’s head back.

“Fool. Why’d you have to go and fight?” The lad’s accent was sharper than that of his bulky compatriot, almost polished.

“I’m not fond of thieves.” Aidan struggled to see and speak clearly.

“What kind of toff doesn’t have a farthing to pinch? You’ll forget you ever seen us if you know what’s good for you.”

Aidan sensed the man’s movement and saw the object he’d been struck with raised up high for another blow.

“Stop!” A shout echoed off the row of town houses.

Dizziness made his vision swim, but moon glow revealed a woman. An angry woman, rushing toward his attacker, wielding a closed umbrella raised like a sword.

Hands braced on wet cobblestones, Aidan tried to force his body up. How could one blow turn his legs to jelly?

He had to stand. He had to fight. There’d been more brawls in his life than breakfasts. Now there was a woman to protect. To hell with being caught off guard by some young scalawag.

He had to protect her.

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