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Sandra Masters: Once Upon a Duke

OnceUponaDuke_w9429_100 copy

Interview with His Grace, the Duke of Sutton

Sandra: What is your main fear, Your Grace?

His Grace the Duke: Getting leg shackled by a woman. I fear commitment and what love can do to a man. My interaction with Lady Serena started out as just another notch on my bedpost, but somehow it grew into something profound when she kissed my scar with tenderness and genuine concern. Even as I now speak, I can feel her nurturing lips.

Sandra: What is the main conflict?

His Grace the Duke: Serena wants a commitment of marriage. As a child, I did not see love from my mother to my father. I have offered the position of mistress. She refused. I left without saying goodbye. Interviewer:

Sandra: What has messed up your life?

His Grace the Duke: When I arrived in London, my thoughts were consumed with Serena. I did return and visited her surreptitiously one night at the lakeside manor and it was…comfortable. I wondered how along the way I had acquired a family: a woman, a maid and a puppy.

Sandra: If everything was so good, why didn’t you propose?

His Grace the Duke: I thought I had time to consider everything. Ours was a tempestuous relationship. The concept of a future relationship intrigued me. I returned to visit her, but she was gone. Her brother informed me she was engaged to wed another man in three weeks, and that she ordered the puppy drowned and my portrait burned.

Sandra: How did you react?

His Grace the Duke: Unfortunately, I believed him. Enraged, I did not care about the portrait she burned, but to order the dog, Adonis, killed—how could I have misjudged her? I drank myself into a stupor with a good friend.

Sandra: Then what happened?

His Grace the Duke: And just when I thought there was no other choice than to forget her, visitors came to my London townhouse who informed me of Serena’s brother’s lies. They returned the pup to me unharmed. She reaffirmed her love for me in letters.

Sandra: Were you now convinced of her love for you?

His Grace the Duke: It was then I realized her brother’s duplicity—about everything. Serena’s letter ended with the words that she would love me forever, in this world or the next. What else could I do but have the maid tell her I loved her with all my heart, that she would either attend our wedding—or my funeral. I leave your readers to draw their conclusion as to how my author, you, charted the ending of the novel.

Sandra: Your Grace, I have created you out of the figment of my imagination. Did I do you justice?

His Grace the Duke: It is a difficult question and I can only say that you and I have been in each other’s heart and soul for a long time. I do believe readers should enjoy our fairy tale romance. After all, you showed me what love can do to redeem a man.

About Once Upon a Duke

Serena, an artist and widow, has no desire for another husband. When she meets Geoffrey Austen, attraction sizzles to a scorch. Stolen days and nights ignite forbidden passion. Geoffrey asks Serena to be his mistress, but she wants commitment, love and marriage, not an affair with a notorious rake.

Geoffrey realizes Serena might be the one woman who can care for his tortured soul, and maybe release his demons. The magic they shared is shattered when he learns she has been forced into an engagement with another. He vows to save her even at the cost of his own life.

Will Geoffrey’s gallantry prove he truly loves Serena?

If he survives, will Serena surrender all to him?

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Excerpt

London 1817

If Lady Serena could be granted one wish, she would ride off into the morning mist and vanish. That, of course was not possible, but here in her favorite lakeside retreat, she could relax in safety.

With her mare nearby, she bent her head over her sketchbook and inhaled the scent of sweet honeysuckle. She paused her charcoal, leaned her head against the tree at her back, and envisioned how her sketch would be completed.

Hoof beats disturbed her contemplation. In the distance, a vision of man and steed, moved as one, and rode toward her.

The vision spoke as he drew his horse to a halt. “Good day, my lady.” He dismounted, and tethered his stallion to a tree away from the mare. “It is a beautiful day, and to have my path cross with a lovely woman makes it more so.”

“Yes, it is a welcomed morning, sir, but your flattery does not turn my head.”

Alarmed, she thought to reach for her riding crop, but checked the impulse. Serena raised her hand to shield the sun and eyed the well-dressed handsome stranger. She assumed him to be of noble birth if on Henry’s property. Her snobbish brother would never allow an outsider to encroach. Something about the man demanded her rapt attention. Curiosity compelled. What harm could come of it?

Allow me to introduce myself, Lord Geoffrey Austen, at your service.” He swept off his hat and bowed. “I am Henry Worthington’s hunting guest for the week.”

“I am Lady Serena Worthington, sister of your host. I would rise and curtsy to you, but I am far too comfortable. You may, however, consider I have proffered the appropriate respect, if you would indulge me.” She meant her smile to charm, and to distract him from her breach in etiquette.

“I would be happy to humor you in any manner you prefer.” His voice murmured low and husky. He removed his gloves and walked to sit next to her on a log fashioned into a bench. Serena noticed the large ring on his finger as it caught the sunlight’s glint.

“I have seen you twice before from a distance when I have come to visit Sir Henry, but never approached you. Some things are best appreciated from afar, but today I was compelled to ride over and speak with you.”

Serena smoothed her skirt, her palms damp.

“Your brother is well aware of my notorious reputation. He would prefer I did not seduce his sister and has made his wishes known to me. However, I feel the Fates demanded we meet.”

“Seduce or merely tempt?”

He grinned. “Dear Lady Serena, a beautiful woman is always a challenge. A wonderful circumstance caused me to come upon you this glorious morning, but I see I have interrupted your sketching. Shall I depart? Or will you show me your wares?”

“They are not my wares, Lord Austen. They are representations of my artistic imagination. There is a difference.”

“I offer my apology. Allow me to rephrase the question. May I see your work?” His eyes sparked with blatant flirtation.

“You may.” She handed him the sketch pad.

He flipped through a few pages. “God’s blood, you are talented. You could sell these.”

“I considered the notion, but Henry would think it crass.”

“I disagree entirely with his perception.” Lord Geoffrey turned to face her. “I wonder, my lady, why your brother has hidden you? Rumor has it you are unattached.”

“I have chosen solitude. It is my personal preference, I assure you. Why do men think every woman in England wants to leg-shackle a man?” She cocked her head in appraisal and met his inquisitive gaze. “I cannot abide the need to display myself on the marriage auction block. I would rather remain a liberated widow or enter a convent before I’d suffer nuptials to some old goat, or a young wastrel who looks for a generous inheritance.” She rose to pace, both hands akimbo on her hips. “If I shock you, it is intentional.”

His lips lifted, the cleft in his chin apparent. “I have a fondness for women who provoke.”

Her heartbeat skyrocketed. He had a maddening hint of arrogance that beguiled her. She lowered her lashes, and then focused her gaze.

“Lord Austen, I know my brother’s horses and your animal is not familiar.” She hoped to steer the conversation in another direction. Her stomach quivered, uneasy.

“Solomon is mine. He is an Arabian and strong-willed, like his master. It takes a firm hand to control him, but he flies like the wind.”

“Your pride is evident.” Serena gestured toward her horse. “My mare is Sheba. She is also high-spirited. We are a good match as well. Perhaps we should consider mating?”

Had she actually said that? Nerve endings tingled, warmth flooded her.

Lord Austen arched a brow. “Were you referring to our mounts, or do I dare hope you meant their owners?” His suggestion wicked.

Serena stopped pacing long enough to meet his direct gaze. “My lord, you disappoint with your practiced words.” She wanted to look away, but curious, dared to ask, “Are you available?” How had the brazen words escaped her lips?

“I could be, for the right woman.”

“Do you have criteria?” There she was, egging him on again. Why was the man so hypnotic?

“Perhaps one could say my only requirement is the effect she would have on my sensibilities.” His smile held a salacious bent.

“How are your sensibilities today?” She continued to play the game and resumed her restless pacing.

He walked to his horse and ran his hand over the silky flesh of its neck. “I would demand to sample the offerings. Do you agree?” Lord Austen turned to her and continued to stroke the stallion in a slow deliberate manner.

Serena took a deep breath and tried to quell her rapid heartbeat. She shivered as if he caressed her skin, his fingers working their magic.

His eyes refused to leave hers. His lips curved sensuously. “Are you about to offer me something?”

She returned to her seat. “I am not familiar with breeding rights. Do we still speak of the horses?” Serena eyed the man and his steed. “How magnificent, a fine specimen.”

“Yes, I agree, or are you a woman who desires to dabble in double entendres? I would say you contemplate the splendid creature before you.” Lord Austen’s stance was presumptive with his feet wide apart, one hand held his riding crop at his hip. “I do not know which of us you mean.”

“Perhaps you will figure it out, Lord Austen,” she flirted back.

Serena noted the twinkle in his blue eyes, as his full dimpled smile emerged. She had a sudden desire to touch that arrogant face. What was it about this man? Her gaze centered on a straight scar down his right cheek. It intrigued her.

“Allow me to explain,” Lord Austen postured. “You see, I am considered quite unsuitable for marriage to most respectable ladies. My reputation precedes me, in part because I allow it. The rest is a fabrication of gossip I refuse to dispel.”

“You are a true rogue? Should I be worried? Are you good at your craft? I am told that a man with a rake’s soul can be a dangerous excitement.”

“So many questions, my lady, which require a thoughtful response. Let me say I have had no complaints.”

“It grieves me to wound you, but since I have not heard about you or your notoriety, could it be possible we do not travel in the same social circles? Should I swoon and fall at your feet? Perhaps I do not find you irresistible?”

Her stomach tightened when he strode toward her in lightning-fast motion. Her breath quickened. His arms uprooted her from the seat, his finger rested under her chin with just enough pressure to tilt it upward.

“Have you not been unattached long enough? Do you desire a man in your bed? If so, I could be persuaded.”

“Perhaps I am the one who needs persuasion.” Against the warning bell in her head, she opened to him when his lips claimed hers. Their tongues teased and the kiss lingered, laced with intimacy. Her body swayed, and made Serena aware of her heartbeat against his chest.

She traced the scar at his cheek, curious how he’d sustained such an injury. Perhaps her heated fingertips would erase the memory of pain to fade away. Serena knew too much about such marks. Her uncharacteristic response, in spite of her fear, confused her. His allure difficult to resist.

She embraced him, pressed her breasts against his chest and experienced a pleasurable frisson which warmed her, his spice and clove cologne an additional attraction. Serena again enjoyed how his mouth plundered and tasted her lips. His skillful tongue flicked in erotic foreplay, something she had heard of, but never experienced. She quivered when he pulled his mouth from hers.

“My reckless lady, your kisses are the sweetest I have tasted. I must have more.”

He again crushed her against him. Seeking. Tasting. Wanting. Taking. Demanding.

Lord Austen set her body afire as he explored, tantalized. An odd sensation stirred within her and caused a warm tingle in her lower body. Strange, to her it had no name, but it delighted.

He untied her hair ribbon, released the untamed dark curls that fell free against her shoulders. The red band lay unheeded on the pine-needled ground.

“I like you this way,” he whispered, his breath warm against her ear. “Do my lips satisfy your desire, my lady? You look wild and wanton, an eager beauty I must possess.”

“I am no man’s possession.”

She reeled from Lord Austen’s sensual assault. His blatant arousal pressed against her and rather than desire, filled her with fear. His nearness too intimate. His touch too hot. His desire too obvious.

A sinful leer crossed his face. He took her hand and placed her palm against his hardened manhood. “This is the kind of rake I am.”

She yanked away from him, and sent a hard slap to his face. “You assume too much. I do not play this game.”

“I think you are well-practiced in such games, dear lady.”

“How dare you tarnish me so? You go too far.” She chastised herself for her role in fanning the flames, but she’d never admit it to him. Serena raised her chin in defiance, looked away, and pointed an accusing finger toward the fall of his breeches. “A mild flirtation does not cause that. I suggest you swim in the cool lake water to ease your discomfort.”

She reached for her large canvas bag of art supplies, marched straight to her horse, and attached the bag to the special custom-made leather strap on her saddle. She mounted Sheba and reined her horse to face the man who stood with his mouth agape. “Do not visit this place again if I am here. This is not a request, Lord Austen. If you do not abide my wishes, I will report your transgression to my brother. Do I make myself clear?”

Lady Serena lightly touched her horse’s rump with her whip and cantered off without a backward glance.

Lord Austen rubbed his cheek, ran his finger down the welt that would soon bruise.

He spoke to Solomon. “I will survive this assault, but the damage done begs retribution. His laughter echoed through the sunlit trees as he recaptured his esteem. Geoffrey found Serena a refreshing change from the ladies who paraded in front of him with marriage on their minds. Still, a decadent thought invaded his head. He wished the yards of fabric which separated him from the softness of her body had dissolved when she was pressed against his hardness. The wanton lady had halted his seduction before it had barely started. “I think I have a coquette on my hands.” How he loved the chase.

The ribbon he pulled from her hair lay on the ground. Geoffrey picked it up and inhaled its lemony fragrance. He pressed it to his lips, and then placed the pretty scarlet band in a pocket. It would be a remembrance until next they met. Perhaps he would tie one of her hands to the bed post? No. He wanted those beautiful fingers free to stroke his body, while he explored hers.

He recalled the pleasure when her generous breasts pressed against his chest and he’d envisioned his body above hers. In his mind, he saw her writhe in ecstasy beneath him. She would beg him to make her his own.

Lord Austen closed his eyes and imagined the pleasure of touching her most intimately, inch by inch, and time and time again, until they were both exhausted and sated. He would wager she would not slap him then.

He mounted his stallion and gave another hearty laugh. “Solomon, I am tempted to place a bet in the White’s Club books that she will be mine by week’s end, perhaps even sooner. He guided his horse along the well-worn path to the large manor house of his host and whistled a bawdy tune.

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