Excerpt: Duchess By Design!
Manhattan’s dollar princesses ought to pinch their cheeks and don their finest: the Duke of Kingston is enroute to New York City in search of his future duchess.
—The New York World
New York City, 1895
The Fifth Avenue Hotel
A chance encounter with the duke was only the second most interesting thing to happen to Miss Adeline Black that afternoon, but that was life in New York City for you. One never knew whom one might meet, what good fortune or disaster might befall you, or when you will crash into the town’s most eligible bachelor in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Tuesday. That’s when.
Tuesday, precisely seven minutes before two o’clock in the afternoon.
This meant that she had precisely seven minutes to make her way through the vast hall of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on her way to the suite of rooms of Miss Harriet Burnett. Adeline didn’t know her from Adam, but she knew an opportunity to change her life and make her dreams come true when it requested a two-o’clock appointment.
She could not be late.
But this lobby was an absolute crush. The great hall was full of everything a hotel guest could want—from tickets to tea—and it was packed with the city’s wealthiest and most prestigious guests. They strutted their stuff, showed off their finery, made deals, and traded gossip in the luscious surroundings of the city’s most exclusive and opulent hotel.
And they got in her way.
These out-of-towners walked slowly in front of her, delaying her progress to the elevator, to Miss Burnett’s rooms on the top floor, to her future.
For the occasion, Adeline wore her best ensemble: a plum-colored walking dress paired with a crisp white shirtwaist bearing a cascade of delicate little ruffles from her throat to her waist. The cropped jacket was darling, edged in gold cord and tailored to show off her narrow waist. A simple matching hat was perched perfectly on her dark hair. On her feet were French-style heels like ladies wore, though hers were purchased from a pushcart downtown for the astronomical sum of a week’s wages. But they were worth it.
They pinched her toes, but they were so worth it.
Adeline darted to the left to avoid a trio of Wall Street types in three-piece suits lumbering toward her with no regard for the people in their path. She spun to the right to dodge a pair of ladies, deep in conversation as they walked. She had too much momentum going to stop herself when a man stepped into her path and turned toward her.
And so she crashed into his firm, muscled chest. Firm, muscled, arms enveloped her. She took a deep breath of evergreen-scented soap and clean linen and man. She noted the feel of exceptionally fine cashmere wool against her cheek.
Adeline stilled. And, in all honesty, she savored the moment. It was not every day that a seamstress found herself in a gentleman’s arms, at least in such a respectable fashion.
Well, on Tuesdays.
Except, apparently, on Tuesdays.
Adeline took a step and tilted her head back to look at the gentleman with whom she collided.
He felt like he’d be handsome and the truth did not disappoint. He had the kind of good looks a woman just wanted to stare at all day, all night, and then again at the breakfast table. Forever.
There was something about that well-groomed dark brown hair. Something about those deep blue eyes and the faint lines at the corners. Something about that firm, sensuous mouth cocked into a seductive half smile.
“Well, hello.” His voice was low, his accent distinctly British. Her heart fluttered. “Are you all right, miss?”
She was more than all right.
“Besides being left breathless, I think I am just fine.” She flashed him a flirtatious smile because he was a handsome fellow and she was in the mood to seize opportunities today. “And yourself? Have you recovered from your display of heroics?”
“Oh, I don’t know that I would call catching you heroic. Any decent gentleman would try to catch a pretty girl when she was falling.”
Adeline smiled at him the unfeigned way of a girl just complimented by a handsome man and leaned in close to say, “Don’t look now, but everyone is watching us. You’ll be the talk of the town by supper.”
“You’re assuming I’m not the talk of the town already.”
“Ah, you’re a confident one. You’ll fit right in. Welcome to New York.”
As a dedicated reader of The New York World, particularly the gossip columns in said paper, Adeline had a hunch about just who this handsome stranger was.
He would more than fit in; this man was poised to conquer the Four Hundred and the rest of New York society. It wasn’t just his good looks or his fine suit of clothes, either. He wore his wealth and power effortlessly. It simply radiated from him. All these New York new moneymen dressed the part in fancy wool coats and satin waistcoats; they built veritable palaces along Fifth Avenue, they dropped cash and coin on diamond-studded trinkets and every imaginable, outlandish entertainment. But none of them managed to radiate power and authority as this man did, dressed plainly but excellently.
She had an eye for fashion; she knew these things.
She wanted to breathe it in. Bottle it. Sell it at the counters at Goodwin’s Emporium on the Ladies’ Mile. She’d make a fortune. That was the New Yorker in her. Everything was for sale.
Adeline glanced at the large clock towering over the lobby hall and saw the time was five minutes before two o’clock. If she kept her wits together and remembered her priorities, if she didn’t allow herself to get distracted from her one true purpose by a man, there would be just enough time for her to get there without rushing and arriving gasping for breath.
“Thank you for the heroics. Lovely to make the acquaintance with your chest, if not the rest of you. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”
She gave him another wide smile and continued on her way toward the elevator. To the top floor. To the chamber of Miss Harriet Burnett. To her best shot at the future she’d always dreamed of.
Oh, but she could not resist a glance over her shoulder; there stood the most eligible bachelor in town in the middle of the Fifth Avenue Hotel lobby, smiling, with his gaze fixed on her bustle as she walked away.
Brandon Alexander Fiennes, the duke of Kingston, was definitely not in London anymore. In fact, New York City was something else entirely. The crowds of people pulsed and surged around him; everyone in this town seemed to be in a mad dash to get someplace, to meet someone, to do something. Right now, no, yesterday! It was exhilarating and exhausting all at once.
The pace was nothing like that of England, where one had a sense of centuries stretching into the past and presumably forward, too.
Though Kingston hadn’t time to waste in finding his bride, he had expected to spend a month or two in the city enduring rounds of soirees and introductions before finding someone suitable, which is to say someone rich, respectable, and keen to trade her fortune for his prestigious title. To say nothing of a girl who felt like perfection in his arms, who had a sparkle in her eye that enchanted him and who had a sway of her hips that captivated him.
He’d only just arrived and already he’d met a girl, quite possibly the girl.
How very New York.
He watched the sway of her hips, mesmerized.
She was headed in the direction of the elevator banks. As luck would have it, so was he.
“So we meet again,” he said, coming to stand beside her as she waited for the elevator carriage to arrive. “What a small world.”
“Well hello again.” She smiled. “You’re not following me, are you?”
Kingston would feel like the worst sort of rogue were it not for the sparkle in her dark eyes and the amused upturn of her lips. She was flirting with him. There was something between them and she felt it, too.
“No, of course not. That would be unseemly. I’m returning to my rooms to lie down. Such a display of heroics takes a lot out of a man. I fear I might need some tender ministrations to help me regain my strength.”
“I hope you’re not propositioning me,” she said in a way that made him very much think about propositioning her. She shook her head and lamented, “Here I thought you had potential.”
“I’m afraid I’m too much of a gentleman to proposition a woman. Especially when we’ve only just met.”
“Too much of a gentleman?” She raised her eyebrow and gave a little laugh. “I haven’t heard that one before. As it happens, I’m quite busy.”
And not that kind of woman. She didn’t need to say the words for them to be understood. And in truth, he never thought she was. Her attire and manners were as fine as any society woman of the Haute Ton or Four Hundred. That she was waiting for the elevators to her rooms in the Fifth Avenue hotel indicated that she was a woman of a certain wealth. She had the potential to be suitable.
Those lips, though. He wanted to kiss them. Here. Now.
“I must confess that I find you enchanting.”
“Of course you do.” She rolled her eyes heavenward, but her lips reluctantly curved up in a small quirk of an indulgent smile that made his heart stop for a moment. Then it struck him: they were flirting but she wasn’t falling for him. She was politely flirting with him.
Well, that was a first.
He was a duke. One easy on the eyes, if empty in the pockets. And women fell for him, hard and fast. It took nothing more than his seductive smile, a wink, a charming quip, a hint of a kiss, a promise of pleasure. But that was with English girls.
Perhaps this girl didn’t know who he was. Perhaps she was well aware and not impressed. Not for the first time since arriving in New York did Kingston feel his entire equilibrium rocked.
“I’ve only just arrived and already I can see that New York City girls are different than the ones in London.”
“Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
With a ping of the bell, the elevator arrived and the uniformed attendant silently rolled the doors open. Kingston and the girl stepped into the plush, velvet-tufted carriage. They were, alas, not alone; the attendant was there to do his job of operating the elevator while doing his best to be invisible in the small, confined space. He performed spectacularly.
The doors had been shut but a moment when she asked, “Well, I suppose I should ask, what brings you to New York?”
Kingston gave her the honest answer. “I’m here to get married.”
“Congratulations!” But her smiled quickly faded. “Well, I suppose congratulations are in order. Does your bride know that you are ensconced in elevators with a woman you find enchanting?”
“Oh, it’s too soon for felicitations,” Kingston replied.
“Have you not yet proposed?”
“Not exactly. I have only just arrived in New York City. My ship docked just last night.”
“Ah, I suppose it’s too soon for you have to have met the right woman.”
“I don’t know that I’d say that . . .”
Their eyes met. His heart pounded. Actually pounded in his chest.
“You’ll have to stay a few more days in the city, at least, to meet someone,” she told him matter-of-factly and apparently oblivious to his inner turmoil. Because he found her enchanting and she was merely flirting with him as something to do on a Tuesday afternoon. This was not a situation with which he had ever been confronted; a woman who didn’t let it be known that he would only have to say the word and she would be his.
“And what if I have met her already?”
She smiled and replied, “Something tells me that I don’t think you’ll have much trouble finding a wife.”
“Because you’ll say yes if I ask?” He gave her his most winning smile. The one that made all the girls swoon. That was the moment that the elevator bell chimed, indicating they had arrived at their floor. The attendant opened the door and she stepped out into the corridor.
“It was lovely to meet you,” she said.
And then she said, “Goodbye.”
And then she was gone.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he murmured as he watched her hips sway as she bustled down the hall and knocked on the door to the suite adjoining his. Fancy that: less than four and twenty hours in America and he was already half in love with the girl next door.