Wed
Jun 14 2017 12:05pm

Manda Collins Excerpt: Duke with Benefits

Manda Collins

Duke with Benefits (Studies in Scandal Series #2) by Manda Collins

Lady Daphne Forsyth is a brilliant mathematician with a burning passion for puzzles. When she learns that the library belonging to her benefactress houses the legendary Cameron Cipher—an encrypted message that, once solved, holds the key to great riches—Daphne is on the case. Unfortunately, her race to unlock the cipher’s code is continually thwarted by a deliciously handsome distraction she hadn’t counted on. . .and cannot resist.

Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, is curious as to why Daphne is spending so much time snooping around his aunt’s bookshelves. He’s even more intrigued by her bold yet calculating manner: She is unapologetic about her secret quest. . .and the fiery attraction that develops between them both. But how can they concentrate on solving a perplexing enigma once the prospect of true love enters the equation?

Get a sneak peek at Manda Collins's Duke with Benefits (available June 27, 2017) with an exclusive excerpt of a selected scene.

Chapter 1

THREE MONTHS LATER

Lady Daphne Forsyth would rather listen to a thousand lectures on decorum from her chaperone than listen to another word from the Marchioness of Kerr about her husband’s thoughtfulness. Or his loyalty. Or his humor.

Or any of a myriad of qualities about which the former Miss Ivy Wareham—once a quite sensible classics scholar, capable of conversation on any number of interesting subjects—now extolled morning, noon, and night to anyone who would listen.

At this point, even young Jeremy Fanning, the six-year-old son of the aforementioned chaperone would be a more intriguing conversationalist.

She kept her own counsel, however, as she, Ivy, the Hastings sisters, the Marquess of Kerr, and the Duke of Maitland walked along the cliffside path running from Beauchamp House inland toward the village of Little Seaford.

It had been several months now since she’d received the news that the celebrated bluestocking leader, Lady Celeste Beauchamp had left her beautifully appointed manor house—complete with one of the most impressive libraries in the country—to a quartet of young ladies with their own artistic and academic bona fides, the mathematics prodigy, Lady Daphne, among them.

The letter from Lady Celeste, forwarded by her solicitor, had been effusive in its praise, but that hadn’t been what convinced Daphne to pack her bags and travel from London to Beauchamp House. If praise was all she wished for she could sit down for a hand of cards in any drawing room or gaming hell in Mayfair—though admittedly the praise would be peppered with envy and anger over lost fortunes. No, it had been the promise in the carefully worded letter that the library at Beauchamp House contained more than first editions and scholarly tomes.

You will find Romance and enough intrigue to Riddle even the most unschooled of ladies with envy among the Treasure of my collections.

Any other reader would have supposed Lady Celeste merely had an odd habit of capitalizing random words in her writing—it was common enough among the ladies of the ton, who were hardly the most educated of creatures. But to Daphne, who was able to see beyond the set order of letters to the pattern beneath, her benefactress’s words had been a message intended just for her. Without needing a pencil, her mind rearranged the letters of Romance into Cameron. And the rest of the clue was hidden in plain sight.

Cameron Riddle Treasure

It had been the promise that the library at Beauchamp House contained the famous Cameron Riddle, which legend said would lead the one able to decode it to a treasure hidden away by the leader of Clan Cameron in the days of the last Jacobite rebellion, that led Daphne to travel south to take her place among the four Beauchamp Heiresses. That and the hope that she could separate herself at last from her father’s clutches and would never have to play cards for money again.

But in the time since she came to the coast, she’d found no trace of the promised puzzle, and she’d searched nearly half the contents of the admittedly impressive book room’s collection. She’d told the rest of the household that she wished to familiarize herself with the collections before she began any in-depth research on the maths books, but the other ladies knew she found other subjects tedious at best and she’d begun to catch them exchanging amused glances when she started her methodical searches each morning.

Of course, their amusement might have been because many of these sessions included the “assistance” of the Duke of Maitland, who was inexplicably still on an extended stay at Beauchamp House. He claimed it was to spend time with his sister, their chaperone Lady Serena Fanning, and her son Jeremy. But Daphne was no fool. She saw the way he looked at her from beneath his criminally long eyelashes.

“A penny for them,” said the object of her thoughts as they reached the signpost that marked the outskirts of the village.

This was what came of woolgathering, Daphne thought wryly, unable to stop herself from giving her companion a sidelong glance as the rest of their party walked along ahead of them.

With his sun-burnished hair, tall athletic frame, and dimpled grin, Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, was certainly no hardship to look at. And yet, after a few weeks of enjoyable flirtation just after he arrived, he’d begun treating her more like a sister than a potential lover. She’d made the mistake—only once, mind you—of suggesting that they conduct an affair, such as she’d seen were commonplace among the London ton, and he’d acted like a scandalized maiden. Given his reputation as a bit of a rogue in London, she had been disappointed at his response. She had hoped he would be less conventional, but his rebuff had been plain. If he was holding out for marriage, however, he wouldn’t get it from her. She would never, after being used as a means of gathering income by her father for so many years, willingly enter the institution that would give another man control over her. She found Maitland attractive, and so far as she could tell, he found her intriguing as well. Why did they need to bring marriage into the equation at all?

Since he insisted on remaining in residence at Beauchamp House, she was forced to interact with him. And if she was honest, she enjoyed some of his nonsense. He was no scholar, but he was amusing and kind. And he hadn’t chosen to shun her, as she knew many men in his situation would have done.

“If you must know,” she said, knowing her confidence was safe with Maitland, “I was debating whether a gag or a muzzle would be a more appropriate means of silencing Ivy on the subject of her husband’s every waking thought.”

This startled a bark of laughter from the duke, who quickly turned it into a cough when the others turned to see what had caused it.

“Carry on,” he said with a wave at them. “Nothing to see here.”

“I know it is churlish of me,” Daphne admitted once they were relatively private again, “but even a paragon among men would not measure up to Ivy’s praise. Certainly not the Marquess of Kerr.”

“Still haven’t forgiven him for the way he arrived on the scene calling for the lot of you to be tossed out on your collective ear, eh?”

Maitland hadn’t been there for Kerr’s first meeting with the heiresses, but he’d no doubt heard about the ugly encounter from his sister.

“It’s not just that,” Daphne said, though admittedly it was a large portion of it. She’d learned to judge people based on first impressions from an early age, and with a few exceptions she’d come to find that more often than not they held true. “It’s Ivy. She’s turned into just the sort of besotted fool I learned to avoid like the plague in London. You can hardly get two words of sense from her these days without the other three being about her darling husband or some other nonsensical tale. A line from Catullus the other day sent her into peals of laughter and all she would say was that it reminded her of something Kerr had said. I want my sensible friend back.”

Even as she spoke, Daphne knew she was exaggerating the degree to which Ivy had changed since her marriage. But even if there was a bit of envy in her assessment of the pair, she’d hardly admit as much to Maitland. He’d never let her hear the end of it.

When he remained silent, she looked up to see that he was biting his lip.

“What?” she demanded. Really, it was as if everyone in the house had gone mad.

Looking rueful, Maitland said with a grin, “It’s just that Catullus is known for being a bit…” He paused, clearly searching for the right word. “Ribald,” he finally settled on.

Which meant that Kerr had likely said whatever had so amused Ivy in bed.

Daphne felt her cheeks redden. This was what came of neglecting one’s classical education in favor of a diet of only maths.

She wasn’t accustomed to embarrassment over such things. She’d been privy to conversations unfit for most adult ears before she reached her thirteenth birthday, and could swear in three languages thanks to the card rooms of the ton. She’d long ago schooled herself to ignore such things as just another coded language. One that she herself had no desire to partake in.

That had been before she lay eyes on the superior physical specimen who walked beside her now.

Of course, he’d rejected her one and only attempt at seduction almost before the words were out of her mouth. Which was just as well, Daphne thought wryly, since she’d not long afterward discovered that Maitland wasn’t quite the most bookish of men.

The idea that Ivy was now sharing libertine jokes, and more, with her new husband, though? That gave Daphne a pang of loneliness she’d not experienced since she’d first met the three ladies with whom she’d share Beauchamp House for at least the next year.

It was perhaps silly of her, but in the other bluestockings she’d thought she’d found kindred spirits. They might not understand much of her conversation about the finer points of trigonometry, but they understood what it was to be the best in a field dominated by men. And Ivy, it would seem, had traded in her bluestocking hat for a matron’s cap.

“If it’s any consolation,” Maitland said, breaking into her thoughts once more, “Kerr is just as besotted. Serena and I have taken to adding a penny to a jar every time he extols one of Ivy’s virtues. We’ve not counted yet, but I suspect there’s at least ten pounds in it by now.”

“But he was never a man of sense. He’s like you in that reg—” Daphne stopped because she’d learned from her friends that speaking her mind as truthfully as she would like sometimes led to hurt feelings. And she had no wish to insult Maitland. Tardy though her judgment was.

If the duke was insulted, however, he didn’t show it.

“Oh, I’m well aware of the gulf that exists between you ladies and the rest of us,” he said with a staying gesture. “At least when it comes to intellect. We’re not simpletons, mind you, but neither are we great minds. My old nanny told me that you’ve got to know your good points. I’m a likable fellow. I can sweet talk a spooked horse like nobody’s business. And I’m not too awful to look at. But you and the other bluestockings can think rings around us.”

At his tone of understanding, Daphne heaved a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s it precisely. I’m so glad you understand, Maitland, because I wouldn’t like to think I’d said something hurtful. The others have taught me, I think, finally, that my plain-speaking sometimes makes others unhappy.”

What was he thinking? she wondered, as the duke gave her a long look. She’d always had trouble guessing what feelings lay behind a person’s words. When she said something, it was exactly what she meant.

But before she could ask for his thoughts, she heard the others greeting a pair of gentlemen as they entered the village.

“No harm done,” was all Maitland said as they caught up with the others.

The two newcomers were dressed in what Daphne assumed was the current country fashion. She had little use for such things, but she’d grown accustomed to seeing Maitland and Kerr and the gentlemen of the neighborhood at large dressed in boots and breeches and more casual neck cloths than were required in town. The taller of the two men looked up as she and the duke approached, and Daphne felt a constriction in her chest.

“Lady Daphne Forsyth, as I live and breathe! Is it really you?”

*   *   *

Through narrowed eyes, Dalton examined the man who greeted Daphne, only just resisting the urge to remove his quizzing glass and subject the fellow to his most ducal glare. He might have a reputation for being affable to a fault, but even Merry Maitland had his limits. And, he thought wryly as Daphne greeted the newcomer with a cry of recognition, it seemed that seeing another man look at Daphne like an oasis in the desert was his.

*   *   *

Daphne, on the other hand, did not seem quite so pleased. “Mr. Sommersby,” she said, her expression unreadable as she stopped in her tracks.

*   *   *

Maitland would be the first to admit she wasn’t the most effusive of women, but something about her reaction to this fellow put him on alert. Perhaps it was the way she didn’t advance to take his outstretched hand. Or maybe it was the slight pallor that overtook her when she recognized him.

Daphne wasn’t overly emotional, it was true, but neither was she devoid of emotion.

Maitland knew very well that she felt some things strongly. One only had to hear her wax rhapsodic on one of her mathematical bits to know she was capable of great joy. It was just that she wasn’t demonstrative with people. Perhaps because she had difficulty gauging what response they would have to her unpolished conversation. He had only been in her company for a short while before he recognized that she deeply regretted the fact that much of her plain-speaking led to hurt feelings, but she knew of no way to curb her errant tongue.

She was feeling some strong emotion now, however. If only he could read her well enough to know what it was.

“Why on earth are you in Little Seaford?” Daphne asked Sommersby, her eyes narrow with suspicion. “The last letter I had from your father said that you were in Egypt.” It was almost an accusation. As if he’d broken some oath by leaving the land of the Pharaohs for England.

At the mention of Egypt, however, Maitland bit back a groan. Of course, this fellow had just returned from Egypt. He looked exactly the type. Right down to the tanned skin and slightly rumpled coat.

“Mr. Sommersby and Mr. Foster were just telling us why they’re in the area, Lady Daphne,” said Lord Kerr. He had a possessive arm around his wife’s waist.

Maitland’s cousin was no fool. He saw that these fellows were not to be trusted just as well as he did.

“They’re on the hunt for lost treasure, if you can believe it,” the marquess continued before quirking a brow in Maitland’s direction.

Treasure hunters? Really? his cousin seemed to ask.

Maitland gave a slight shrug. It was as likely a scheme as any, he supposed. He might also have guessed that the two men were riverboat gamblers, if they’d happened to be in the Louisiana territory of the Americas. They just had that look about them.

Up to no good.

“You always were one to dream of riches and treasure, Nigel,” Daphne said tartly. “Your father would be attempting to teach us both some new mathematical principal and you would be attempting to read a penny dreadful about some lost jewel or the like under the table.”

“And I always got caught,” Sommersby said with a laugh. “Because you always told my father.”

“So this is the son of your tutor, Lady Daphne?” asked Ivy with a raised brow.

“Indeed,” Daphne said with nod. She seemed less than pleased at meeting him here. At first Maitland had thought she was just surprised, but there was something else at play here.

Something darker.

But that was likely his imagination, he chided himself. He had no reason to think badly of a man he’d only just met.

Still, when Sommersby said, “We grew up together, you might say. Though not as brother and sister,” he saw Daphne’s spine stiffen. There was definitely something about the fellow she didn’t like.

If Daphne didn’t trust him, then neither did Maitland.

She didn’t say as much however, instead turning the conversation to Sommersby’s reason for being here. “What lost treasure are you searching for hereabouts?” Her tone implied that there could not possibly be treasure or anything like it within five hundred miles of Little Seaford.

Foster, who up until now had been silent, chose that moment to speak up. “We’ve actually heard a rumor that the lost Cameron Cipher is in a library collection in the vicinity.”

Some niggle of memory from his childhood fired in Maitland’s mind, but he could not recall any specifics. But the cipher was better known to Daphne if her sharp intake of breath was any indication.

Her next words only confirmed his assumption. “That is impossible. There is no Cameron Cipher. It is just a myth.”

Poor Daphne. She didn’t have a dissembling bone in her body. And it was evident that whatever she thought about the Cameron Cipher, it wasn’t that there was no validity to Foster’s claim. Rather the opposite. Though she was trying in her way to convince him otherwise.

“You weren’t so skeptical when we first heard the legend, Daphne,” said Sommersby with a grin. “You were the first one to get out the map and trace the likely route Cameron took on the way to Dover with the chest of gold in tow.”

Before Daphne could retort, Miss Sophia Hastings broke in. “But what is this Cameron Cipher? I must confess I’ve never heard of it. I am woefully ignorant about such things.”

“I’m sure that’s not true, Miss Sophia,” Foster assured her. “The Cameron Cipher is a coded message that holds the secret of where the leader of clan Cameron hid the Jacobite gold meant for the Pretender in ’forty-five. He was on the way to France to deliver the gold when his party was set upon by the English army, and he took safety somewhere along the coast. He hid the gold nearby and trusted the coded message telling where it was hidden with someone hereabouts. Or, as the alternate theory goes, hid it somewhere nearby where it was subsequently found, but proved too difficult to decrypt. A letter was found among the papers of Cameron’s wife that said it was somewhere safe, but it was no more specific than that. And thus, a legend was born.”

“That’s right,” Maitland spoke up as the memories flooded back to him. “Don’t you remember we used to search for it in the caves when we were boys, Kerr?” He and his cousin had spent countless summers hunting for the cipher without success. “I haven’t thought about it in years.”

“Nor I,” the marquess said with a grin. “Those were fun days.”

“Why wasn’t I included in these searches?” Serena asked crossly. “I should have enjoyed treasure hunting.”

“Because you were a girl, Serena,” Kerr said with a roll of his eyes. “It was just us lads.”

“I want to hunt for treasure,” young Jem piped up from beside his mother. “Will you take me, cousins?”

But Daphne it seemed, was still determined to dissuade the men from their quest. Over the sound of Quill assuring Jem that they would indeed go search the caves for treasure soon, she spoke up. “I am sorry you both came all this way for nothing. But it is highly improbable that the cipher exists in any of the libraries hereabouts.”

“I had heard that the library at Beauchamp House is quite impressive,” Sommersby said with what to Maitland’s eye looked like calculation. “You wouldn’t care to allow us to examine it, would you, Kerr? Just for our own amusement if nothing else. You are no doubt right about the cipher not being there.”

“You’ll need to ask all four of these ladies,” Lord Kerr said amiably. “My wife, Lady Daphne, and the Misses Hastings inherited Beauchamp House from our aunt. But you likely know that already.”

“Indeed, I do,” Sommersby said with a grin, making no attempt to hide the fact that he’d just dissembled. “It was the talk of town for weeks. The four bluestocking heiresses of Beauchamp House. Congratulations to all of you.”

“I’m afraid it will be quite impossible for us to allow you to search the library,” Daphne said before any of the others could speak up. “We are all quite busy with our respective studies. I’m sure you understand.”

A hard expression flitted across Sommersby’s face before he masked it with one of affability. “We understand perfectly, of course. Perhaps one evening after you’ve finished your studies for the day, then?”

Something about this fellow was putting Maitland’s back up. And it wasn’t his ingratiating manner with Daphne. At least, that wasn’t all of it. Aloud he said, “Perhaps you both can come by tomorrow evening for dinner, gentlemen? I, for one, would enjoy hearing about your travels. And I know Kerr will wish to question you about them.”

At his words, Daphne gave him a glare. But the duke wanted to know more about Sommersby, which he would prefer to do when the man was on familiar territory. Besides, he was curious about the man’s relationship with Daphne. And he could hardly seek him out at the local inn and demand to know what he’d done to make her distrust him so.

Of course, he could just ask Daphne outright, but they weren’t exactly on the easiest of terms at the moment. He thought back to that moment in his aunt’s bedchamber with a pang of regret. He couldn’t have handled it worse if he’d tried.

“Capital,” said Sommersby, his triumphant grin, showing he was unaware of the direction of Maitland’s thoughts. “We’ll see you all tomorrow then.”

And after making their farewells, the two continued on their journey to the beach.

“Why were you so rude to him, Daphne?” Sophia asked with a frown as they began walking again. “He seemed quite friendly. And I should think you of all people would be intrigued by this Cameron Cipher. You’re just the person to unravel its code, I’d think.”

Daphne looked as if she would simply refuse to respond for a moment, but finally she said with a sigh, “Because I do not wish him to find the Cameron Cipher.”

“That much was obvious, I think,” Gemma said wryly.

“But why, Daphne?” Ivy asked, her expression concerned but not angrily so.

Maitland watched as Daphne blinked several times. Were those tears? His own chest constricted at the very idea.

“Because it’s mine,” she whispered. “Lady Celeste promised the Cameron Cipher to me.”

***
Copyright © 2017 by Manda Collins.
***
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Manda Collins is the author of several books, including Ready Set Rogue and The Lords of Anarchy series. She spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. When she’s not writing, she’s helping other people use books, as an academic librarian.

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1 comment
Kareni
1. Kareni
Thanks for the excerpt! This looks like a fun read.
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