Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she’s demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it’s not the duke she fears. It’s his merciless man of business—the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke’s dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn’t stand a chance. But she can’t stop trying—not with her entire future at stake.
Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition—a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner’s son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it’s just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don’t work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can’t bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He’ll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love…
“It’ll easily be the best dollar you spend this month, and among the best hours you’ll spend reading in a while.”
“I loved their story.”
“The Governess Affair is another keeper and Courtney Milan is quickly becoming my gold standard against which I judge other romances.”
“Serena and Hugo’s romance was delicious, and their love scene was so full of trust and acceptance that it was utterly romantic… a damn good read with intelligent characters and writing that leaves you wanting more.”
“Not only an excellent set-up for the forthcoming trilogy but a spectacular story in its own right.”
“A wonderful story of two stubborn people who fall in love under unfortunate circumstances but finally prevail to find the happiness they have both been missing!”
All of my books get code names as I write them. The hero of this book is called (by some) the Wolf of Clermont. The heroine, of course, has a lovely, sunny disposition, but let’s just say you don’t want to cross her. Or leave her hungry.
Which is probably why I called this book “Wolf Meets Bear.”
London. October, 1835.
The door to the upstairs library slammed viciously, rattling in its frame. Heavy steps marched across the room, bearing down on Hugo’s desk. Fists slammed against the wood surface. “Damn it, Marshall,” a man snarled. “I need you to fix this.”
Despite that dramatic production, Hugo Marshall did not look up from the books. Instead he waited, silently, listening to boots marking a path upon the carpet. He wasn’t a servant; he refused to be treated as one.
After a moment, his patience was rewarded. “Fix it, please,” the Duke of Clermont muttered.
Hugo raised his head. An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command, resplendent in a waistcoat so shot with gold thread that it almost hurt the eyes. This observer would dismiss Hugo Marshall, arrayed as he was in clothing spanning the spectrum from brown to browner. The comparison wouldn’t stop at clothing. The duke was respectably bulky without running to fat; his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. He had mobile, ice-blue eyes that seemed to take in everything. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.
The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot.
Hugo set his pen down. “I wasn’t aware there was anything in need of fixing.” Except the matter of Her Grace. “Anything within my purview, that is.”
Clermont positively bristled with an edgy nervousness. He rubbed his patrician nose in a manner that was decidedly unmannered. “There’s something else. It’s come up just this morning.” Inexplicably, he glanced out the window, and his frown grew.
The library in Clermont’s London home was two floors off the ground, and claimed an uninspiring view. There was nothing to see out the window but a Mayfair square. Autumn had turned green leaves to brown and yellow. A small bit of fading grass and a few dingy shrubberies ringed a wrought iron bench, upon which a woman was seated. Her face was occluded by a wide-brimmed bonnet made of some pink fabric.
Clermont clenched his hands. Hugo could almost hear the grinding of his teeth.
But his words were casual. “So, if I refuse to pander to the duchess’s ridiculous demands, you’d still work everything out, wouldn’t you?”
Hugo gave him a stern look. “Don’t even consider it, Your Grace. You know what’s at stake.”
The other man folded his arms in denial. His Grace really didn’t understand the situation; that was the problem. He was a duke, and dukes had no notion of economization. Were it not for Hugo, Clermont’s vast estates would have collapsed years before under the weight of his debt. As it was, the estate was scarcely solvent—and that, only because of the man’s marriage.
“But she’s so unamusing,” Clermont protested.
“Yes, and a fine joke it will be to have your unentailed property repossessed. Convince your duchess she well and truly wishes you back in your life. After that, you may laugh all you wish, Your Grace.” There had been money upfront in the marriage settlement. But that had disappeared quickly, paying off lingering mortgages and troubling debts. The remainder of the duchess’s substantial dowry had been tied up in trust by the girl’s father—the funds to be released on a regular schedule, so long as the duke kept his wife happy.
Alas. The duchess had decamped four months ago.
Clermont pouted. There was no other word for it; his shoulders slumped and he kicked at the edge of the carpet like a petulant child. “And here I thought all my money worries were over. What do I hire you for, if not to—”
“All your money worries were over, Your Grace.” Hugo drummed his fingers on the table. “And how many times must I remind you? You don’t hire me. If you hired me, you’d pay me wages.”
Hugo knew too much about the duke’s prospects to accept anything so futile as a promise of salary. Salaries could be delayed; wagers, on the other hand, sanctified by the betting book at White’s, were inviolable.
“Yes,” the duke groused, “and about that. You said that all I had to do was find an heiress and say whatever it took to make her happy.” He scowled at the carpet underfoot. “I did. Now look where it’s got me—every shrewish bitch in the world thinks it her right to harp at me, over and over. When will it end?”
Hugo raised his head and looked Clermont in the eyes. It didn’t take long—just a few seconds of an intent stare, and the man dropped his chin and looked away, as if he were the employee and Hugo his master.
It was embarrassing. A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he’d never learned to command by force of personality.
“There appears to have been a miscommunication.” Hugo steepled his fingers. “I never told you to say whatever it took to make her happy.”
“You did! You said—”
“I told you to do whatever it took to make her happy.”
Sometimes, Clermont was like a little child—as if nobody had ever taught him right from wrong. At this, he wrinkled up his nose. “What’s the difference?”
“What you said was that you’d love her forever. What you actually did was marry her and take up with an opera singer three weeks later. You knew you had to keep that girl happy. What the devil were you thinking?”
“I bought her a bracelet when she complained! How was I supposed to know she wanted fidelity from me?”
Hugo focused on the papers on his desk. Even his own late, unlamented father had managed fidelity: sixteen children worth of it, to be precise. But this was no time to remind the duke of his wedding vows. He sighed.
“Win her back,” he said softly. It was his future at stake, too. After all, he wasn’t an employee, receiving a salary for his hard work. He operated on a form of commission—on wagers, to be exact, in the language of the financially-challenged duke. If he brought the duke through the end of this year in one piece, he’d win five hundred pounds. Not just money; those five hundred pounds would be the means to begin his own empire.
He’d worked three years on that hope. When he considered, briefly, the possibility that he might lose… He could almost see the shadowy figure of his father standing over him. You bloody useless git. You’ll never be anybody.
He shook his head, sending those darker thoughts scattering. He wasn’t going to be just anybody. He was going to be the wealthiest coal miner’s son in all of England.
But Clermont wasn’t meeting his eyes. Instead, he frowned and looked out the window. “It’s not quite so simple.”
That woman was still sitting on the bench. She’d turned her head to the side, and Hugo caught a glimpse of profile—snub nose, a smudge of pink for her lips.
“You see,” Clermont muttered, “there was this governess.”
Hugo rolled his eyes. Any confession that started thus could not end well.
Clermont gestured. “It happened over the summer, when I was seeing to business at Wolverton Hall.”
Hugo translated this mentally: the duke had been drinking himself silly with his useless friends after his wife had flounced off and his father-in-law had tied off the once-generous purse strings. But no point in insisting on honesty from the man. He’d never get it.
“In any event,” Clermont said, pointing to the bench outside, “that’s her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me.”
“Your pardon?” Hugo shook his head in confusion.
The duke huffed. “Must I spell it out? She wants things from me.”
Had he thought the duke a child? An infant, more like. Hugo kept his voice calm. “Between seeing to business at Wolverton Hall and a governess waiting outside your home demanding compensation, there seem to be a great many events missing. For what is she demanding compensation? And how did you hear of this?”
“She caught me just now, returning from…well, never mind where I was,” the duke said. “She was on the street, waiting for the carriage arrive.”
“And what does she want?” Hugo persisted.
Clermont gave an unconvincing laugh. “Nothing! Nothing, really. I, uh, at Wolverton Hall, I saw that she was good with the younger children. So I offered her a position taking care of my son.”
“Your as-yet unborn child.”
“Yes,” Clermont mumbled. “Exactly. And so she quit her position at Wolverton. And then I had no work to offer her because the duchess had left. Now she’s angry, too.”
The story didn’t sound remotely plausible. Hugo considered, briefly, calling His Grace a liar. But it wouldn’t do any good; long experience had taught him that once the duke made up a story, he’d hold to it doggedly, no matter how many holes one poked in it.
“She says she’ll sit there until she receives compensation,” Clermont said. “I do believe she means it. You see my dilemma. If everything works out well, I’ll be bringing back the duchess in a matter of weeks. This is devilishly awkward timing. The old girl will think…”
“…That you seduced and ruined a servant?” Hugo asked dryly. That was where he would place his money.
But Clermont didn’t even blush. “Right,” he said. “You can see the very idea is absurd. And of course I did no such thing—you know that, Marshall. But matters being what they are, she needs to be gone by the time I return.”
“Did you force her?” Hugo asked.
Clermont did flush at that. “Gad, Marshall. I’m a duke. I have no need to force women.” He frowned. “What do you care anyway? They don’t call you the Wolf of Clermont for your conscience.”
No. They didn’t. It didn’t mean Hugo didn’t have one. He just tried not to remember it.
Hugo looked out the window. “Easy enough. I’ll have the constables take her in for vagrancy or disturbing the peace.”
“Ah…no.” Clermont coughed lightly.
“I wouldn’t precisely say it was a good idea to put her into a courtroom. You know how they have those reporters there, writing a few lines for the papers. Someone might ask questions. She might invent stories. And while I could certainly quash any legal inquiry, what if word of this got back to Helen? You know how touchy she is on the subject of other women.”
No, he wasn’t getting anything useful from the man. Hugo sighed. “You talked to her. What kind of compensation does she want?”
“Is that all? We can—”
But Clermont shook his head. “She doesn’t just want the money. At least, she doesn’t just want money. I can’t give her what she wants. You’ll have to persuade her to go. And keep my name out of the gossip papers, will you?”
Hugo pressed his lips together in annoyance.
“After all,” Clermont said, striding to the door, “it’s my entire future that’s at stake. When I return, I expect that you’ll have sorted out this entire unfortunate affair with the governess.”
It wasn’t as if Hugo had any choice in the matter. His future was at stake, too, every bit as much as Clermont’s. “Consider her gone.”
Clermont simply shrugged and exited the room, leaving him to contemplate the bench in the square below.
The governess sat, turning her head to watch people passing on the pavement. She did not look about to burst into hysterics. Perhaps Clermont hadn’t wronged her all that much, and he could solve this all over the course of one conversation. He hoped so, for her sake.
Because if talk didn’t work, he was going to have to make her life hell.
He hated having to do that.