Undone by the Billionaire Duke
Can she tame the shameless duke?
The brazen antics of Hugo, Duke of Grovesmoor, and the string of women to grace his bed are tabloid gold. But Eleanor Andrews, newly hired to care for the duke’s young ward, refuses to see him as anything but her boss. She desperately needs this job. No matter how gorgeous Hugo is, the stakes are simply too high…
Well acquainted with lies and betrayal, Hugo is jaded and cynical, unconcerned with dispelling the salacious rumors about him. But there’s something about Eleanor that fires his blood, and he can’t turn down the challenge to unbutton his uptight employee!
Undone by the Billionaire Duke
His Grace the Duke of Grovesmoor, known to what few friends he had left and the overly familiar press as Hugo, found fewer and fewer things cleared his head these days. Drink made his skull hurt. Extreme sports had lost their thrill now that his death would mean the end of the Grovesmoor line of succession after untold centuries, tossing the whole dukedom into the hands of grasping, far-removed cousins who’d been salivating over the ducal properties and attendant income for perhaps the entire sweep of its history.
Even indiscriminate sex, once his favorite go-to for obliteration on a grand scale, had lost its charm now that his every so-called “indiscretion” went rabbiting off to the papers before the sheets had gone cold to tell further tales in the nation’s favorite narrative. Evil, soulless Hugo, despoiler of saints and heroes, etc. He was either glutting himself in excess to hide from his dark regrets or he was so extraordinarily shallow that a shag or two was all he was capable of. The stories were all the same and always so damned boring.
It galled him to admit it, but the tabloids might actually have won.
The particular horse he rode today — the pride of his stables, he’d been informed, as if he gave a toss — liked him as little as he liked it, which meant he found himself rampaging across the moors very much as if he’d sprung forth from a bloody eighteenth century novel.
All he needed was a billowing cloak.
But no matter how far he rode, there was no escaping himself. Or his head and all his attendant regrets.
The vicious creature he rode clearly knew it. They’d been playing a little domination game for weeks now, raging across the whole of Hugo’s Yorkshire estate.
So when Hugo saw the figure slinking along in the shadows up the drive to Groves House, all he could think was that it was something different in the middle of an otherwise indistinguishably gray afternoon.
God knew Hugo was desperate for anything different.
A different past. A different reputation — because who could have foreseen what his shrugging off of all those early tabloid stories would lead to?
He wanted a different him, really, but that had never been on offer.
Hugo was the Twelfth Duke of Grovesmoor whether he liked it or did not, and the title was the important thing about him. The only important thing, his father had been at pains to impress upon him all his life. Unless he bankrupted his estates and rid himself of the title altogether, or died while engaged in some or other irresponsible pursuit, Hugo would simply be another notation in the endless long line of dukes bearing the same title and a healthy dollop of the same blood. His father had always claimed that knowledge had brought him solace. Peace.
Hugo was unfamiliar with either.
“If you’re a poacher, you’re doing a remarkably sad job of it,” he said when he drew close to the stranger on his property. “You really should at least try to sneak about, surely. Instead of marching up the front drive without the slightest attempt at subterfuge.”
He reined in the stroppy horse and enjoyed the dramatic way he then reared a bit right in front of the person creeping up his drive.
It was then that he realized his intruder was a woman.
And not just any woman.
Hugo was renowned for his women. Bloody Isobel, of course, like a stain across his life—but all the other ones, too. Before Isobel and after. But they all had the same things in common: they were considered beautiful by all and sundry and wanted, usually quite badly, to be photographed next to him. That meant fake breasts, whitened teeth, extensions to thicken their silky hair, varnished nails and careful lipstick and fake lashes and all the rest of it. So years had passed since he’d seen a real woman at all, unless she worked for him. His crotchety old housekeeper, for example, who he kept on because Mrs. Redding was always as deeply disappointed when he appeared in the tabloids as his father had been. It felt so comfortable, Hugo often thought. Like a lovely, well-worn hair shirt tucked up next to his skin.
The woman who stared up at him now, looking nowhere near as shocked or outright terrified as Hugo imagined he would be if he’d found himself on the underside of a rearing horse, was not in the least bit beautiful.
Or if she was, she’d gone to significant lengths to disguise it. Her hair was scraped back into a tight brown bun that made his own head ache just looking at it, without a single flyaway to suggest she was actually human. Even her fringe was ruthlessly cut across her forehead to military precision. She wore a bulky, puffy sort of jacket that covered her from chin to calf and made her look roughly the size of one of the grand, gnarled old oaks dotting the property. She clutched a large black bag over her shoulder and tugged a rolling case along behind her, and she had death grips on both. Her cheeks looked flushed with the cold and there was no denying she had a delicate nose a great many of his own ancestors would have envied, given the curse of what was known as The Grovesmoor Beak that seemed to afflict the females in the line unfairly.
But most of what struck him was the expression on her face.
Because it looked a great deal like a scowl.
Which was, of course, impossible, because he was Hugo Grovesmoor and the women who usually crept onto his various properties without invitation found the very idea of him — or to be more precise, of his net worth — so marvelously attractive that they never stopped smiling. Ever.
This woman looked as if she’d crack in half if she attempted the smallest grin.
“I’m not poaching, I’m a governess.” Her voice was cool, and something else that Hugo couldn’t identify. “My ride from the train station didn’t materialize or I assure you, I wouldn’t be marching anywhere, much less up this very long drive. Uphill.”
It dawned on him then. That “something else” in her voice he hadn’t been able to place. It was annoyance.
Hugo found it delightful. No one was annoyed with him. They might hate him and call him Satan and other such tedious things, but they were never annoyed.
“I should have introduced myself, I think,” he said merrily, as the bastard horse danced murderously beneath him. The woman did not appear to know her own danger, so close to sharp hooves and the thoroughbred’s temper tantrums. Or, more likely, she didn’t care, as she was too busy trying to win a staring contest with Hugo. “Since you’re lurking about the property.”
“It is not lurking to walk up the front drive,” she replied crisply. “By definition.”
“I am Hugo Grovesmoor,” he told her. “No need to curtsey. After all, I’m, widely held to be a great and terrible villain.”
“I had no intention of curtseying.”
“I prefer to think of myself as an anti-hero, of course. Surely that merits a bow. Or perhaps a small nod?”
“My name is Eleanor Andrews and I’m the latest in what I’ve been told is a long line of governesses,” the woman told him from the depths of that quilted monstrosity she wore. “I intend to be the last, and if I’m not very much mistaken, the way to ensure that happens is to keep my distance.”
Hugo was used to women making similar announcements. You’re terrible, they’d coo, lashes batting furiously. I’m keeping my distance from you. This usually led directly to the sort of indiscriminate evenings from which he was now abstaining.
He had the lowering realization that this woman — wrapped up in a hideous puffy coat with her chin jutting forth and a scowl across her face — might actually mean it.
“Your Grace,” he murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You should address me as Your Grace, particularly when you imagine you are taking me to task. It adds that extra little touch of pointed disrespect which I find I cannot live without.”
If Eleanor Andrews was appropriately mortified by the fact she’d addressed a peer of the realm — who happened to also be her new boss — so inappropriately, she gave no sign. If anything she seemed to pull herself up straighter in her vast, quilted shroud, and made no attempt to wipe off that scowl.
“A thousand apologies, Your Grace,” she said crisply, as if she wasn’t in the least bit intimidated by him. It made something in Hugo…shift. “I was expecting a ride from the train station. Not a walk in the chilly countryside.”
“Exercise improves the mind as well as the body, I’m told,” he replied, merrily enough. “I myself was blessed with a high metabolism and a keen intelligence, so I’ve never had to put such things to the test. But we can’t all be so lucky.”
There was enough light that he could tell that there was a remarkable sort of honey in the brown of this woman’s eyes as they glittered furiously at him. He couldn’t imagine why that shocked him, but it did. That there should be anything soft about such a bristling, black-clad, evidently humorless female.
That he should notice it.
“Are you suggesting that I am not as lucky as you?” she asked, with exactly the sort of repressed fury Hugo would expect to hear from a woman he’d just obliquely called fat.
“That depends on whether or not you imagine that the storied life of a pampered duke is a matter of luck and circumstance. Rather than fate.”
“Which do you think it is?”
Hugo nearly smiled at that. He couldn’t have said why. It was something to do with the way her eyes gleamed and her surprisingly intriguing mouth was set, flashing more of that annoyance straight at him.
“I appreciate you thinking of my well-being,” she said with what he was forced to concede was admirable calm, all that flashing annoyance notwithstanding. “Your Grace.”
Hugo grinned down at her, hoping she found having to look so far up at him as irritating as he would have.
“I wasn’t aware that the last governess left, though I can’t say I’m surprised. She was a fragile little thing. All anime eyes and protracted spells of weeping in the east wing, or so I’m told. I’m allergic to female tears, you understand. I’ve developed a sixth sense. When a woman cries in my vicinity, I am instantly and automatically transported to the other side of the planet.”
Eleanor only gazed back at him. “I’m not much of a crier.”
“Your Grace,” he prodded her again when it was clear she had no intention of saying it. “I wouldn’t insist upon such formality but it does seem to chafe, doesn’t it? How republican of you. And really, Eleanor, you can’t expect to mold a young mind to your will and provide fodder for the therapy bills I’ll be expected to pay out from her trust if you can’t remember the courtesy of a simple form of address. It’s as if you’ve never met a duke before.”
She blinked. “I haven’t.”
“I’m not a particularly good representative. I’m far too scandalous, as mentioned. Perhaps you’ve heard.” He laughed when she did a terrible job of keeping her face blank. “I see you have. No doubt you’re an avid fan of the tabloids and their daily regurgitations of my many sins. I can only hope to be even half as colorful in person.”
“And it’s Miss Andrews.”
It was Hugo’s turn to blink. “Sorry?”
“I would prefer it if you call me Miss Andrews.” She nodded then, a faint inclination of her head, which he supposed was as close to any kind of recognition as he’d get. “Your Grace.”
Something moved in him then, far worse than a mere shift. It felt raw. Dangerous.
“Let me clear something up from the start, Miss Andrews,” he said, while his terrible horse tried to trick him into easing his hold on the reins. “I’m exactly as bad as they say. Worse. I ruin lives with a mere crook of my finger. Yours. The child’s. Random pedestrians minding their own business in the village square. I have so many victims it’s a bit of luck, really, that the country still stands. I’m my own blitzkrieg. If you have a problem with that, Mrs. Redding will be happy to replace you. You need only say the word.”
If that affected this maddening woman in any way, she hid it behind her mountainous coat and that equally dour gray scarf.
“I told you, I have no intention of being replaced.” He couldn’t say he liked the exaggerated note of patience in her voice then. “Certainly not of my own volition. Whether you wish to replace me or not is, of course, entirely up to you.”
“I might.” He arched a brow. “I do detest poachers.”
She eyed him as if he was her charge, not his ward. His ward. He hated even thinking those words. He hated even more the fact that Isobel had done exactly what she’d spitefully promised she’d do, time and again: kept her hooks in him even from beyond the grave.
“You should do as you please, Your Grace, and something tells me you will—”
“It is my gift. My expression of my best self.”
“— but I might suggest you see how I handle the child before you send me packing.”
The child. His ward.
Hugo hated that he was required to think about anyone’s welfare at all when he cared so little for his own. He had extensive staff in place, paid handsomely to think about the health and happiness of all his many tenants and other staff members and various employees, leaving him free to lounge about being as useless as he liked.
Which — he’d read in the papers and heard from a chorus of people who would know, like his own dearly departed father — was all he was good for.
The girl, however, was a different sort of responsibility than real estate in Central London or a selection of islands in the Pacific or a coffee plantation in Africa or whatever else was in his holdings.
To say Hugo bitterly resented this was putting it mildly.
“What an excellent idea,” he murmured. “I’ll see she’s waiting for you in the great hall when you finally make it to the house. It shouldn’t be long. Five minutes’ walk if you keep a good pace.”
“You must be joking.”
“Fair enough. Ten minutes’ walk if your legs are shorter than mine, I suppose. I’m afraid I can’t tell, as you appear to be wearing enough goosedown to leave the entire goose population of the United Kingdom shivering and bare. Assuming that’s what’s making you so…” He nodded at her voluminous black tent. “Puffy.”
“Your hospitality is truly inspiring, Your Grace,” she said after a moment, and the fact she managed to keep her face and voice smooth…poked at him.
He didn’t like it.
Just as he really, really didn’t like the fact that he couldn’t remember the last time anyone or anything had managed to get beneath his skin.
“That is, as ever, my only goal,” he replied.
And then, because he could—because he’d dedicated himself to being every bit as awful as he was expected to be, if not worse—Hugo spun the horse around, galloped off, and left the problematic Miss Eleanor Andrews there to find her own damned way to his house.
And his ward.
And this life of his that he’d never wanted, but had inherited anyway. Some would claim he’d earned it. That he deserved it and more.
That it really was fate, not luck, after all.
Hugo knew it didn’t matter. He was trapped in it all the same.