<My Once and Future Duke>

My Once and Future Duke
The Wagers of Sin

What happens at the infamous Vega Club …

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can't afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that's too extravagant to refuse, she can't resist. If she wins, she'll get five thousand pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club …

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he's at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it's a lie. He can't keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. It he wins, he wants her—for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what's left of Sophie's reputation. It might even break her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off …

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Read Chapter One


Inside the Story

Bonus Epilogue

When the duchess met Sophie …

<My Once and Future Duke>Elizabeth Lindeville, Duchess of Ware, had always known her duty.

When she was a girl, only daughter of the Earl of Mansfield, she had known it was her duty to become the perfect lady. To that end, she was trained and drilled by one governess after another in French, the harpsichord, dancing, deportment, and how to smile without making her eyes wrinkle. When she was a young woman, she had known it was her duty to marry well, using her unwrinkled smile and flawless curtsey to attract the eyes of eligible gentlemen. And she’d done exceedingly well, catching the interest and then the hand of the Duke of Ware.

There, duty and happiness converged happily. Charles was tall and handsome, with sharp blue eyes and dark gold hair, and Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat the first time he bowed over her hand. They had little in common—she preferred the society and gaiety of town, while Charles would rather be on the North Sea racing his yacht. The drawing rooms of London bored him.

Again, Elizabeth knew her duty. She entertained as best she could in the wilds of Lincolnshire. Charles was a good husband, generous and decent. Still, when their first son was born, Elizabeth knew it was her duty to let him go. There was no question but that John Charles—called Jack—would be reared as the future duke. He was not hers to raise, but Charles’s. Their younger son, Philip, was left more to her care, which Elizabeth always thought fortunate for everyone. Philip was like her, dark and gregarious. He would have been stifled in Charles’s care. In her care, he grew up charming and adventurous, the favorite of all who knew him. Philip was her consolation when Charles insisted Jack must have yet another tutor, or be sent away early to school.

As for Jack… Elizabeth sighed. Perhaps he’d been stifled, too. As a lad he’d been just as high-spirited at Philip, but then Charles died when Jack was only twenty-four, hardly old enough to be pressed into the rigid, exacting mold of a duke. On his deathbed, in and out of delirium, Charles had gripped her arm almost to the point of injury, alternately commanding and imploring her to support Jack in his new role. Remind him, he’d raved at her, remind him of his duty. He’s too young to do this alone, Elizabeth. Cowed and frightened, she promised.

In the years since, she had tried. She had tried to impress upon him that he must be worthy of his father’s title. She did her best to steer him away from inappropriate friends and loose women. Charles had always spoken hopefully of his son wedding the daughter of his dear friend, the Earl of Stowe, and Elizabeth clung to that hope as Jack took his place in London with the ducal crown fresh upon his head. Stowe’s daughter, Lucinda, was a darling girl, with the promise of beauty and charm, and Jack had always been fond of her. They would be perfect for each other, in a few years. Lucinda would know, as Elizabeth had known in her youth, what was expected of her as a duchess.

And in the meantime, Elizabeth knew exactly what every society mother in town was thinking: an unmarried duke, let alone one as handsome, youthful, and wealthy as Jack, must be pursued and lured and tempted into marriage by any means necessary, the greatest prize on the marriage mart in decades. Once, Elizabeth had been one of those young ladies making the same calculations; the plotting of ambitious mothers and daughters was not a mystery to her. She felt it was her duty to spread hints around that Jack was practically engaged, certainly spoken for, and most definitely not in search of a wife. Elizabeth had not been permitted to raise him, but in this matter she was far more prepared than Charles could have been to protect her son from any scheming woman.

<My Once and Future Duke>Alas, she had failed. Miserably.

Today—this very morning—he had invited a woman to Ware House. Not Lucinda, nor any decent, respectable girl like her. Not any woman of their society, who would be capable of assuming her proper place and learning what was required of a duchess.

No, Jack had declared he was going to marry a woman he met in a gaming hell.

Elizabeth paced her drawing room, heartsick and furious. She had no doubt this woman, Mrs. Sophie Campbell, was the worst sort of adventuress. Mrs. Campbell was no one—Jack blithely admitted she had no family, no fortune, no status. What could she know of a duchess’s duty? She was also a member of that vulgar gambling club, Vega’s—a woman, wagering with men like a common strumpet! Elizabeth foresaw Ware House, or even Kirkwood itself, turned into a den of iniquity and vice, with all manner of scandal and licentiousness encouraged.

Her son Philip was also a member of Vega’s, and it had nearly been the ruin of him. More than once Elizabeth had had to beg Jack to save his brother from some unfortunate debt there. Philip was always so apologetic and remorseful, but he seemed incapable of keeping his promises to stay away from the club. It was like a poison in his blood, weakening his will to reform his ways. The Vega Club might have been invented by Satan himself, in Elizabeth’s opinion.

In her heart she knew Charles never would have tolerated Philip’s gambling. He would have ordered the boy out of London or cut his allowance, but Elizabeth didn’t have that power over him. Another failure of hers, she supposed. And because she’d had to plead with Jack to intervene once more, he’d met That Woman, the very night he went to save his brother.

It was an unparalleled disaster, for her as a mother, as a wife, as the Duchess of Ware.

Today she must have Sophie Campbell to tea, or lose her oldest son. He’d told her she ought to move out of Ware House if she couldn’t accept his wife, and Elizabeth had seen her husband in him when he said it. Jack meant it.

She couldn’t bear that. She had given him up as a child, tried to steer him through the shoals of society when destiny thrust him into deep waters, and risked her relationship with him for Philip’s sake. She would not lose him over an ambitious, conniving schemer. She would serve That Woman tea, may God have pity upon her for it

<My Once and Future Duke>Jack had gone to fetch Mrs. Campbell. Elizabeth stood poised and composed as the clock struck the hour. She would not cede an inch of her domain. She could not stop her son from marrying That Woman, but she could make it perfectly clear that she did not approve. If Mrs. Campbell thought to march into Ware House and dazzle Jack into making a terrible mistake, she would be swiftly disabused.

The door opened. Jack came in with a dark-haired woman on his arm, his head bent toward hers. Mrs. Campbell was looking up at him, her eye glowing. Jack was smiling back at her, and his face…

Elizabeth hadn’t seen that look in her son’s face in years—perhaps never. He looked younger, happier, more alive somehow. For a moment she forgot to breathe, shocked by what she saw.

Charles used to look at her that way. And in that moment, Jack looked so much like his father, it brought a physical twinge of pain to her heart.

He looked at her, still smiling. “Mother, may I present Mrs. Sophie Campbell.”

The woman beside him dipped into the most graceful curtsey Elizabeth had ever seen. “Your Grace. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth managed to speak. “How good of you to come, Mrs. Campbell.” She seated herself, and Jack and his guest did the same.

<My Once and Future Duke>The visitor’s cheeks were pink as she settled her skirt. “I am actually Miss Graham, Your Grace.”

Elizabeth arched one brow as she prepared tea. An assumed name. How predictable. “Are you, indeed?”

“Yes, ma’am. My parents died when I was a child, and my grandfather withdrew all support when I came of age. I thought it would be more discreet to use another name while I supported myself.” Mrs. Campbell—Miss Graham—spoke confidently but respectfully.

Elizabeth glanced at her son to see if he’d known this, and realized with some shock that he had. “What great difficulties you must have endured,” she said to the visitor, her tone as dry as dust. One could imagine how this woman had supported herself. She was undeniably handsome, and possessed of more boldness than most society ladies. How on earth had Jack—reserved, logical, cautious Jack—fallen for someone of such dubious character?

“Some,” replied Miss Graham evenly. “It isn’t easy for a woman to make her way alone. With no family to fall back upon, I needed every advantage, including that of appearing to be a widow.” She glanced at Jack, who gave a tiny nod, as if encouraging her. “Now that I have reconciled with my uncle, Lord Makepeace, I have begun using my own name again.”

Makepeace. It was an old family, a bit provincial, but wealthy and certainly respectable. Elizabeth vaguely remembered hearing gossip about the new viscount, a genial fellow without wife or children. He would be eligible, which would lend him status in town. Unwillingly she gave a thin smile. “How fortunate the breach was mended.”

“I agree,” said Miss Graham. She glanced at Jack again. Elizabeth felt an unexpected surge of jealousy at the realization that they shared some silent communication. “Family is so important to me. I am pleased beyond words that my uncle and I are reunited.”

“He will attend our wedding, I hope,” said Jack.

<My Once and Future Duke>The smile Miss Graham gave him was glorious, even to Elizabeth’s eyes. “He will. He even inquired if he might escort me.”

Elizabeth didn’t know whether to be relieved or to gnash her teeth. “But you’ve been on your own these last several years.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Miss Graham raised her chin now. “After I left Mrs. Upton’s Academy for Young Ladies, I took a position as companion to the late Viscountess Fox. She was wonderfully inspiring.”

Elizabeth exhaled slowly, avoiding her son’s gaze. She had the feeling he’d deliberately let her believe his intended bride was a scheming nobody. Instead, Miss Graham had been educated by Mrs. Upton, whose reputation was impeccable, and then she’d been taken under Anna Fox’s wing. Of course she’d got extravagant ideas there; Anna had been headstrong and independent since she was a girl, and famously won Lord Fox’s heart by beating him in a horse race.

She sensed Jack was enjoying watching her misconceptions get smashed.

Well. Perhaps she had been a trifle harsh in condemning the woman, but Jack ought to have told her.

“No doubt,” she said aloud. “Lady Fox was quite … daring.”

“She understood what it meant to be independent,” said Miss Graham, clearly choosing her words with care. “She made me a modest bequest, knowing I had nothing, and encouraged me to make the most of my talents.”

Right. There was the largest objection to her. “Gambling, I believe,” said Elizabeth coolly. “At that dreadful club.”

Miss Graham blinked, then drew a breath as if for courage. “Yes, ma’am. I’m rather good at cards, and it was the most respectable and most profitable way for me to support myself.”

<My Once and Future Duke>The door clicked open and Philip strolled in before Elizabeth could respond. “Have I missed tea?” He came around the room and smiled widely at the sight of the guest. “Sophie! How brilliant to see you again.” He caught her hand and raised it to his lips before throwing himself on the sofa beside Elizabeth and studying the tray. “Excellent—currant cakes.”

“Mother is quizzing Sophie,” said Jack. “Examining her for the position of duchess.”

Elizabeth glanced at him in reproach as she prepared a cup for Philip. “Ware.”

“Of course she is,” said Philip with a laugh. Elizabeth tried to send him a warning look, but he wasn’t even looking at her. “Have you been frightened off, Sophie?”

Jack grinned. “It would take more than that, I hope.”

Again Miss Graham gave Jack that glowing smile. “Far more.”

Philip reached for another currant cake. “Now you’re rubbing it in. Stop beaming at him, Sophie.” He finally turned to her, his shocked mother. “Have you decided to give your blessing, Mother?”

She stared stonily at her youngest son. What could she possibly say? “Ware has every right to choose his own bride.”

Miss Graham leaned forward and put down her teacup. “Your Grace, I know I am not the wife you wanted for Jack. I can only promise that I love him desperately and will do everything in my power to be worthy of his affections. I would like your blessing, but I will settle for your understanding, in the hope that one day it may become more.”

<My Once and Future Duke>“I have faith it will,” added Jack, meeting Elizabeth’s eyes for the first time since he entered the room. “Don't you, Mother?”

She did not like being told what to do, but he looked so like his father then. Charles had been the same way: generous and indulgent … to a point. Once he reached that point, his will turned to iron and would not be swayed. And now Philip was on his side as well, which put her at odds with both sons, a strange and uncomfortable position for her.

She focused on the woman opposite her. Sophie Graham’s gaze was clear and direct; she recognized Elizabeth’s antipathy and was not deterred. “I also hope we may become better acquainted,” she said stiffly. “Since you are to be”—she had to take a quick breath to say the word—“family.”

Miss Graham smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Jack left with her, saying he would see her home. Elizabeth supposed he wouldn’t return for hours. He’d spent far more time out of the house than in it lately, and she had no doubt it was because of that woman—his fiancée, she corrected herself.

“Don’t try to frighten her off, Mother.” Philip, having consumed most of the cakes on the tea tray, wiped his hands and got to his feet. “Not only will it not work, Sophie is up to the job.”

Jolted, she stared at him. “Up to the job? What on earth do you mean?”

He grinned. “ I know what you’re thinking about her, and you’re all wrong. She didn’t chase him, you know. He caused a scene at Vega’s, begging her to marry him. She’ll be a far better match for him than Lucinda.”

<My Once and Future Duke>She stiffened. “Lucinda is a lovely girl—”

Philip laughed. “She is! Capital girl, really. And if you and Lady Stowe had succeeded in causing that marriage, both she and Jack would have hated you for it.”

“Philip,” she said sternly.

“You’ll see,” he said. “But until then, know that Sophie’s just as capital, in a different way.” He paused. “She’s persuaded me to give up Vega’s.”

Elizabeth reviled that club, but all of her pleas and admonitions had done nothing to keep her son from its grip. She wasn’t sure anything would draw him out of it. “Has she?” she murmured skeptically.

“She has.” He paused again, looking uncomfortable. “She challenged me to a game of piquet, with my membership token at stake, and she won. She says she won’t give it back until I reform my ways, or learn how to play the odds better.” He gave a crooked grin, the same grin that had melted her heart for years. “I can’t decide which would be more difficult.” He bent down and kissed her cheek. “I think she’s your natural ally, if you only extend your hand.”

<My Once and Future Duke>She sat in silence for a while after he left. Sophie Graham was not what she had expected. She was a Makepeace, educated at Mrs. Upton’s. She had presence and backbone, standing up to Elizabeth’s coolest stare without flinching.

She also made Jack smile as he hadn’t done in years, and she outmaneuvered Philip, cutting him off from the tables that threatened to ruin him.

Perhaps it was a start.

In spite of herself, Elizabeth felt her lips turn upward. That didn’t mean she approved, not at all, not yet—but the girl had promise.