How to Capture a Countess

The Duchess Diaries, Book 1

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Bestselling Author Karen Hawkins once more sets Scottish hearts afire with a scintillating new series featuring the unconventional Balfour family.

Urged by her favorite nephew, the intimidating Duchess of Roxburghe agrees to transform a thorny Scottish rose into a lovely bloom. But even she isn’t prepared for fiery Rose Balfour.

At seventeen, Rose fell wildly in love with Lord Alton Sinclair, known as Lord Sin for his wicked ways. Stung by his indifference, the starry-eyed girl tried to win an illicit kiss, but then panicked and pushed the notorious rakehell into a fountain. Leaving Lord Sin floating among the lily pads to the mocking laughter of his peers, Rose escaped back to the obscurity of the Scottish countryside.

Six years later, Sin convinces his aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, to invite Rose to her annual house party, where he plans to get revenge by making Rose the laughingstock of polite society. To his astonishment, he finds she has become an alluring woman who threatens to turn the tables on his nefarious plans. Thus Sin and Rose begin an epic battle of the sexes that becomes more passionate at every turn. Eventually, one will have to surrender . . . but to vengeance? Or to love’s deepest passion?

"Hawkins delivers a fast paced, robust historical novel filled with wit and romance!"

~ Night Owl Reviews

"Fast-paced, readers will enjoy this jocular tale as a Rose and a Sin fight, fuss and fall in love!"

~ Genre Go Round

"A delightful, spritely romp!"

~ NRomantic Times Book Club

Sin burst out laughing. She looked so incongruous, this innocent-looking chit, with her freckled nose and black curls and wide blue eyes, as she snapped back flutes of champagne with a calm disdain for society’s dull concept of propriety. Sin didn’t know when he’d been so charmed.

When he’d first seen her, he’d thought her a youngster, sixteen at most. But now as he met her gaze and caught a decided twinkle in her blue eyes, he realized he’d misjudged her because of her minute size. She was obviously older – and far more interesting - than she’d first appeared. “Tell me, Miss-?”

“Balfour. Miss Rose Balfour.”

“Ah, Rose. That’s a lovely name.” He boldly looked her up and down. He wasn’t usually a fan of woman without curves, but there was something appealing about Miss Rose Balfour. Suddenly, the ball didn’t seem so boring. “Your name suits you.”

“It’s not my real name. My mother was a great lover of ancient mythology so she named me Euphrosyne.”

“Ah. One of the three graces.” At her surprised look, he shrugged. “I read, though I’ve forgotten which grace is Euphrosyne. Joy? Splendor? Mirth?”

“Mirth.” She made a droll face. “I’m afraid I have a very unruly sense of humor.”

A naughty one? he wondered, his interest quickening even more.

As if she could read his mind, she laughed. The deliciously husky sound held a shimmery excitement that he could almost taste. He leaned closer. “Rose, who brought you to this ball? The company doesn’t seem to suit you any better than it suits me.”

Rose couldn’t have disagreed with him more; the company was perfect. He was perfect. And given another few moments, and another glass of the forbidden champagne – Aunt Lettice was fortunately busy in the card room – Rose was certain she could drown in Sin’s beautiful sherry-brown eyes.

She couldn’t believe that those very eyes were now focused on her. She’d dreamed for months about this moment when the handsome, dashing Earl of Sinclair would finally see her – really see her – and realize that they were meant for one another.

His smile faded a bit and her heart thudded sickly as she realized she hadn’t answered his question about who had brought her to the ball. I can’t allow him to get bored or he’ll leave and my chance – it’ll be gone. But what can I say that will interest him? From months of watching him, she knew that he enjoyed horses, and wagers, and boxing. And whiskey, too, and lobster in cream sauce, and that most of his waistcoats were blue, so that must be his favorite color.

She also knew that he’d dance the waltz, but never the country dances, and never with anyone who wasn’t either married or a good bit older. She knew, too, that every time he was in a room, her sixteen-year-old heart thudded like a bird newly caught in a cage.

It was beating like that now, but she knew better than to let him see her nervousness. Lord Sin didn’t usually speak to young women such as herself, but to older, more worldly women. Women who moved with a self-possession and outspokenness that earned them the scowls of other women, but the admiration of men like this one.

And suddenly, that was the exact sort of woman Rose desperately wanted to be. What would a worldly woman say? Rose gestured with her empty champagne glass to encompass the entire room and said with what she hoped was a certain amount of disdain. “It’s very boring party.” She looked back at him. “Or it was until now.”

Her champagne-fueled confidence shocked Rose as much as it seemed to delight her companion for his gaze narrowed and he moved closer still, so close that his chest brushed her arm and sent an odd heat flickering through her. Rose suddenly realized that her fingers were so tightly clutched about the champagne flute that it was a surprise that the glass hadn’t shattered. She pulled her gaze from Sin’s and uncurled her fingers from the flute, well aware that she wanted nothing more than to toss away both the glass and her inhibitions and throw her arms about the man standing beside her, a feeling made stronger by the two tart glasses of champagne she’d just drunk. “It’s too bad we’re at this ball now. There are other things we could be doing instead.” Like riding through the park, for she loved horses as much as he did, or – if they could escape her aunt’s usually vigilante eye – walking through the gardens where they might slip away and share a kiss. Oh, a kiss . . . Her heart fluttered at the thought.

Other things, Miss Rose?” He returned her smile, an odd glint in his eye. “I can see that we’re very similar, you and I, for I would like that, too.”

She could only smile as she gazed into his eyes, lost. She knew that he didn’t recall her at all, but she remembered each time they’d ever met. She remembered every smile he’d ever made, how his dark blonde hair fell over his brow and the way his sherry-brown eyes crinkled when he laughed. She knew far too well how his deep voice could rumble over one and leave one’s heart thudding like a hummingbird caught in a gossamer net and how he—

“Miss Balfour, you are out of champagne. Shall I fetch you more?”

”Oh no, my aun—“ She clamped her lips over the rest of her sentence. Worldly women don’t answer to their aunts. “I mean, yes, I would love another glass of champagne.”

He looked over her head and scanned the room. “Where is a footman with a tray? There were two hovering near just a second ago.”

Rose took the opportunity to stare openly at him, admiring the strong cut of his jaw, the decidedly patrician line of nose and the sensual way his mouth curved just so—

His gaze dropped to hers and for a second, their glances clung.

Rose hid her gulp behind a dismissive wave at the room. “Th-there’s quite a lot of people here tonight, isn’t there?”

He shrugged, a flicker of disappointment in his face that she felt as keenly as the cut of a knife. “It’s a ball,” he said shortly. “There are always a lot of people at a ball.”

A sense of urgency arose in her. Blast it, if I bore him, he will leave. She looked around, searching for inspiration. “I hate these events. Everyone dresses up, and there are ribbons and bows and –“ She scrunched her nose. “When all is said and done and everything is buttoned and beribboned and we all look like trussed up codfish.”

He laughed, the deep sound roiling over her and melding with her champagne-fueled emotions to send her heart singing. “Codfish, eh?”

She practically glowed that she’d made him laugh. “How do you entertain yourself at these sorts of events, Lord Sin?”

His smile disappeared. “Lord Sin?”

She blinked. “That’s what people call you.”

“People who know me, perhaps.”

Rose peeped at him through her lashes as she’d seen a widow do to him not a month hence. “If you don’t wish me to call you Lord Sin, I won’t, but few words trip off the tongue like Sin.”

She had to fight to keep from gawking at her own temerity. Goodness! Where did that come from?

Wherever it had, he apparently found it worth noticing, for his gaze was once again warm and intense. “Do you enjoy sin, my dear Miss Balfour?”

“Who doesn’t?” she retorted, getting drunk off her own bravery. She then borrowed a line from the church service she and Aunt Lettice had attended just last Sunday. “We’re all sinners in one way or another, aren’t we?”

“So we are, my lovely Rose.” His smile became as wickedly inviting as ever her dreams had made it. “By the way, my name is Alton, although if you prefer Sin—“ He offered a small bow, and his closeness brought his eyes level with hers. “You may call me Sin, if you wish.”

“Sin it is, then.” Whoever had named him ‘Alton’ hadn’t felt the effect of his warm brown eyes as they traveled across her as if he could see through her silks and laces. An odd shiver traveled over her, prickling her skin and making her more tipsy that the champagne.

His gaze found her empty glass. “I almost forgot your champagne.” He glanced around. “Ah, there’s a footman now.” He raised his hand.

“Oh, that’s quite all ri—“

He gave a low whistle, which drew gazes, including that of the footman, who instantly veered toward them.

He grinned down at Rose. “That was rude, but effective.”

“It was brilliant,” she said breathlessly.

He chuckled just as the footman brought the tray. “Finally!” Sin took a glass and pressed it into her empty hand.

“Thank you,” she said, eyeing the glass with trepidation, the bubbles snapping over the edge of the crystal.

“You’re welcome.” He removed her empty glass and placed it on the tray, nodding his thanks to the footman, who quickly moved off. “Now drink. I shall be disappointed if you don’t after all of the effort I expended getting the notice of that damned footman.”

The last thing she needed was more champagne; she was already tipsy from her own temerity and the other two glasses she’d had. But she caught Sin’s gaze and she realized that he expected her to drink it just as she’d drunk the first two. And right now, she’d do anything to keep his attention – and admiration – on herself. She lifted the glass in a toast, and then tossed it back.

He looked so pleased that her misgivings instantly disappeared.

Indeed, as the champagne coursed through her, the last, silly worry about her actions flew away like an irritating bee before a brisk wind. And in its place was the sudden realization that this was her one and only chance to fix her interest with the earl. He was here, he was paying attention to her, and – more astonishing - Aunt Lettice was nowhere to ruin the moment.

Rose knew it wouldn’t last. All too soon, her champagne confidence would be gone, Sin would be bored, and Aunt Lettice would arrive to ‘save’ her. Rose didn’t want to be saved. This was her last chance at garnering Lord Sin’s attention and, before he left and the magic of the moment was lost, she wanted him to kiss her. Not a polite one on the back of her gloved hand, but a real kiss, one that she would never forget. One that she could treasure once the world settled back into place and the dashing and handsome Earl of Sinclair once again forgot she existed.

But not here, she told herself. If I kiss him in the middle of the ballroom, it would cause a hue and cry and Aunt Lettice would come and- Rose glanced around the crowded room and the answer to her predicament came in a bubble of champagne clarity. The terrace doors lead to the garden. A worldly woman would entice Lord Sinclair into the gardens and, once there, she’d boldly kiss him. I’m a worldly woman, at least for the moment.

Rose fixed a seductive smile on her lips. “Lord Sin, when you arrived, I was just going to repair a tear in my gown.”

He looked at her perfect hem. “Your gown is torn?”

“In the back. Where you can’t see. Quite badly, too. I may trip if I don’t fix it soon. I thought I might find a seat in the garden and pin it.” She boldly met his gaze. “If you’d care to escort me?”

His gaze locked with hers and something passed between them. Rose didn’t know what it was, but suddenly, her skin tingled and she couldn’t breathe. As she always did when very nervous, she laughed softly.

Sin gave a muffled curse, removed her empty glass from her hand and placed it with his on a nearby table, tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, and instantly bore her toward the terrace doors. That was certainly easy. I’m quite good at this! Feeling as if she were in charge of the world, she allowed him to sweep her along. Within seconds, they were through the terrace doors, and out into the cool night air of Lady MacAllister’s garden, the noise of the ball – and the threat of Aunt Lettice’s dampening presence – left behind.

Sin never paused. He led her down the stone steps and to a path dimly lit by an array of colorful paper lanterns. They passed quiet couples here and there, but Sin was careful to stay far out of direct sight of anyone.

He turned down a broader path until he finally led her into a wide copse where a large, low fountain bubbled. In the center of the fountain, pouring water from a jug was Aphrodite, a small Cupid playing at her feet. Green lily pads floated all around, the glowing paper lanterns reflected in the water like colorful stars. “This is beautiful,” Rose said. It’s the perfect place for my first kiss.

As if he read her thoughts, he led her to beside the fountain. A red paper lantern hung overhead and cast a seductive light across Sin’s face. Rose couldn’t believe she was here, alone with Sin, his warm hands now sliding about her waist as he tugged her close.

It’s exactly the way it’s been in my dreams. Heart pounding, she placed her hands on his chest and lifted her face to his. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly from the champagne, and offered her lips.

Sin tightened his hold on her slender waist. And to think he’d been about to leave the ball. His body was aflame with desire for this little fancy piece and he was bound and determined to have her. He bent and captured her lips with his, teasing her soft lips until they parted, and then flicking his tongue over her teeth. She gasped against his mouth and wiggled against him.

He almost groaned with relief at her wanton signal. That was all he needed. He slipped his hands to her ass and cupped her against him, rubbing his hard cock against her, showing her how she’d affected him, how she—

Her eyes flew open. For a frozen second, they looked at one another. In that tiny second, Sin realized his error. But before he could release her, she gave a small cry and shoved him as hard as she could.

Sin reeled backward, the back of his leg hitting the low lip of the fountain as he fell and - Splash! - into the fountain he went . . .