In Need of a Knight

 The prequel story in the >Heart of a Duke Series

Over the years, I received many emails asking where one might find In Need of a Duke, the prequel story for my Heart of a Duke series. Originally featured as part of a limited edition collection, when the collection was unpublished, so too was In Need of a Duke

More than two years ago, when I received all my rights back, I put Aldora and Michael’s story through a rewrite, adding a new prologue, epilogue, characters, and expanded scenes. However, I still did not publish the book, since retitled In Need of a Knight…until now. Why?  You see, when I met Aldora’s friends in the prologue and the book, I was intrigued. Here were new ladies sitting and plotting and dreaming of love. I could not simply forget those characters, and yet neither, given the timeline of the “Heart of a Duke” series, could I tell their stories, either. Then, one of Aldora’s friends ‘spoke to me’, and spurred the creation of Schooling the Duke, Book 1 in the Heart of a Scandal series, the first ever Heart of a Duke spin-off series. 

The Heart of a Scandal will feature beloved primary and secondary characters you’ve met in my Heart of a Duke world, as well as new heroes and heroines you haven’t. As such, this new edition, In Need of a Knight is a prequel story to two series: the Heart of a Duke and the Heart of a Scandal, which is coming April 7th.  

Thank you so much for reading, and for all your emails. Your letters are the reason this book found its way back to publication! I hope you enjoy Aldora and Michael’s story! 

Tremendous Hugs,
Christi 


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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Three years later
London, England

1811

Lady Aldora Adamson wasn’t exactly sneaking. No, the rather brisk pace she’d set for herself would hardly be conducive to a clandestine meeting. Nor for that matter did well-bred daughters of late earls sneak. Why, she was merely—

Aldora frowned and drew to a stop, glancing down the long row of hedges. She was sneaking. There was no way around it. Her heel sank into a particularly moist patch of soil and she wrenched her foot free.

If she weren’t so out of breath from chasing after her quarry, she would have groaned aloud at the reward for her efforts. With the precarious financial state she and her sisters found themselves in, it didn’t do to go about ruining anything—especially a costly pair of slippers. She studied her muddied soles and bit back a curse. The ivory silk would be destroyed beyond repair.

The sound of morning birds’ chirping replaced the normal cacophony in Hyde Park, the sweet song providing the soothing balm she needed. Aldora swiped the back of her hand across her brow and giggled as she imagined the horror in her mother, the Countess of Wakefield’s eyes if she saw her eldest daughter. She could all but hear the high-pitched squawk in her mind.

Aldora, ladies do not run…

And they most certainly did not dash around until moisture marred their skin. For the better part of her life, the rules of proper decorum had been drilled into her ladylike head. But in the span of a moment, her life had changed and other things had begun to matter more.

Survival.

She had run out of time. Or rather, they had run out of time…her entire family: one mother, two younger sisters, and one brother whose security rested on her rather diminutive shoulders. It hadn’t been until her father died three years ago that she’d learned of his penchant for mistresses and gaming tables…or more specifically, his tendency to lose at the gaming tables.

And since his passing, she and Mother had done an admirable job of holding off the unknown man who possessed Father’s vowels while also keeping at bay the many creditors her wastrel father had left them indebted to. Thankfully, the truth of their circumstances was not known by the ton.

Not yet. It was only a matter of time before their carefully constructed world fell down around them.

Aldora pulled out the slip of paper and strained to read it. Fortunately, she’d committed the words to memory.

The Marquess of St. James. Black hair, dark eyes, two inches past six feet. You can find him riding in Hyde Park at dawn.

She sighed and slipped the note into her cloak pocket. It was hard to say which was more humiliating: pursuing one’s future husband or receiving information about said future husband from his chambermaids.

She’d risen at an ungodly hour, dressed in her finest gown, and then sought to run in to the mighty lord. Where her dearest friends had their hearts and minds set on a duke, Aldora had altogether different, more realistic goals in her quest for a husband; goals that included the Marquess of St. James. She had done extensive research.

Fact: St. James was obscenely wealthy.

Fact: The bulk of eligible ladies had set their gazes on the bachelor dukes still on the market.

Fact: St. James served on the board of several hospitals and orphanages, which spoke to his commitment to the less fortunate.

Fact: She and her siblings were very close to being amongst those less fortunate.

Fact: The Marquess of St. James’ family had skeletons of their own.

Which made him the perfect match.

All of Society knew the tale of St. James’ scapegrace brother who’d killed young Lord Everworth in a duel and then been banished to some far-flung region of England. If the rumors were true, and they oftentimes were, the marquess’ brother had then immersed himself in trade, a scandal in itself, which had set the ton abuzz with gossip.

Aldora pushed her thoughts aside and focused on the task at hand. It had all been so cleverly orchestrated. She’d waited patiently for one hour before she spied his magnificent, black mare. Except, she’d gone and lost him. And her maid, Isabella. She’d lost poor Isabella, too.

It hardly seemed right, considering all the effort Isabella had put in to finding out information from staff members in the Marquess of St. James’ household. With the exception of the butler, Ollie, and Cook, Isabella had been in their employ longer than any other servant and thus retained her position. Advanced in years, the poor, graying woman was hardly of a state to be racing through Hyde Park while Aldora tried to secure a husband. If it hadn’t been for Isabella, there would have been no clandestine meeting.

She looked around. Then again, it would appear there would be no “meeting” after all. Aldora fought an overwhelming urge to stamp her foot. This wasn’t for her. She was no coquette or flirting miss who could gracefully stumble upon a gentleman, swoon in his arms, and gain his notice and attention. At nineteen, she was the eldest of her siblings. But even Katherine and Anne, the troublesome twin girls nearly five years younger, could still do a far more convincing job of landing one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors.

Alas, she was in the market for a husband. Not a suitor. Not even a flirtation with a dashing gentleman as she’d once upon a lifetime ago yearned for, back when she’d been a whimsical girl. But a husband. Time had forced her into a practical existence. Nay, rather, her late father had done so. Aldora firmed her jaw, as an unholy hatred for the man who’d given her life surged through her once again. Thrusting aside useless sentiments that would never solve her family’s struggles, she focused on the matter at hand.

The Marquess of St. James and his whereabouts.

If the scandal sheets were to be believed, the elusive marquess, who’d gone out of his way to avoid every marriage-minded miss, had finally entered the market for a wife. And Aldora was determined to secure that spot.

It didn’t matter that she’d never set eyes on the marquess and today would be only their first exchange.

The steady staccato of a horse’s hooves thundered in the distance and drew her attention. Like a practiced hunter, which she was not nor ever would be, her ears perked. The steadily increasing rumble indicated a rider’s swift approach. “Oh, please let it be him,” she whispered, wanting to set this whole desperate plan into motion, at long last.

With a determined huff, she picked up her pace, a pace that would have appalled any lord or lady out for an unfashionably early morning stroll. She didn’t have the luxury of propriety and decorum. Not when her family was on the brink of calamity. Aldora stepped in the middle of the riding path and squinted. Black hair. Black horse. Tall man. That’s about all she could make out, but it was enough. After all, the majority of peers could still be found in their beds sleeping off their prior evening’s festivities. Her heart kicked up an extra beat in a kind of dreaded anticipation as the somewhat vague form of the Marquess of St. James materialized. She rather suspected there was nothing more humbling than pursuing one’s husband but desperate times, and all that.

A dark blur pulled into focus. Blast her mother for insisting ladies did not wear spectacles, and most especially not in public. Though, if she were to be wholly honest with herself, it was her own ego that had her heeding Mother’s advice this time. Aldora had learned from the scandal sheets that the marquess’ one weakness was his high fashion sense and, well, she imagined a bespectacled wife didn’t fit with his imaginings for a prospective bride.

But, if she had them on, mayhap, she’d not be in this very predicament of trying to find her future husband. Literally find him.

The shape continued to descend upon her, far more quickly than Aldora anticipated. Until the dark eyes of a wild, black beast leveled on her. Her eyes widened. She was going to die here on an empty riding trail, trampled by the thundering hooves of her future husband’s massive, black stallion.

The creature reared. Aldora threw herself out of the path, landing hard against a small boxwood. The air left her on a whoosh. The sharp branches scraped her skin.

“Whoa!” A deep baritone slashed through the otherwise quiet morn as the marquess brought his stallion under control. The giant beast pawed agitatedly at the earth, sending pebbles and rocks spraying, before eventually settling into place.

Aldora dusted back the layer of dirt that hit her cheeks and lay there, staring up at the traces of orange splashing across the sky and tried to calm her racing heart.

St. James swung a broad-muscled leg over his horse and leapt down with the kind of graceful elegance more befitting the demi-god, Perseus. She squinted. Two inches past six feet. It was him.

Her breath caught as she prayed the marquess would beg forgiveness, help her to her feet, swear undying devotion and save her any further humiliation. Aldora nearly snorted at the horrific drivel swirling around her brain and she shoved the hopeful thoughts aside. The unenviable task she’d laid out for herself, earning this very eligible bachelor’s attention and subsequent hand, was foolhardy. Desperate.

And yet, she couldn’t have crafted a more romantic introduction. Hope breathed to life inside her breast.

“Are you mad?”

His growl brought her firmly back to reality. She bristled at his insolent tone. Romantic, indeed.

The gentleman cursed. “You could have been killed. What are you doing walking in the middle of a riding path? Are you blind, woman?”

She craned her head back and stared up inch after inch of his sinewy, muscled length. Aldora blinked, trying to bring him into focus. A startled squeak escaped her as he plucked her out of the bushes. He proceeded to do a methodical search of her upper arms, wandering his hands over her. A jolt of awareness raced down Aldora’s spine, heating her from the inside out. His high-handed touch was at the same time possessive and gentle. It made her go all warm and wish for him to continue his search. She gave her head a shake. What am I thinking?

He fell to a knee and lifted up the edge of her skirts to inspect an ankle. Well, that was quite enough! Future husband or not, it would not do to be discovered with the Marquess of St. James lifting her skirts in the middle of Hyde Park. A gasp exploded from her lips. “Unhand me, my lord,” she said in an outraged whisper.

As he continued his methodical search, she swatted at his hand. The unmitigated gall. Placing her hands on his shoulders, Aldora made to give him a mighty shove—and froze. His garments did little to conceal the corded strength of the muscles there. Her breath quickened. She’d never before given a person’s shoulders much thought. One’s head sat atop them and, well, that was the barest consideration she’d paid them for it. Only to find they also were capable of great power and—he stroked her ankle with an aching tenderness that yanked her back to the moment. Using all her might, Aldora shoved at him.

With a grunt, he shot his arms out to steady himself, but toppled backward. She flinched at the colorful curse that slipped past his lips. Knocking a gentleman upon his buttocks was hardly the way to go about winning the man’s affections.

His eyes lit with a glint of indignation that would have sent any other lady into a paroxysm of terror. Aldora wasn’t most women, however. She’d a family with twin sisters. Little else could compare to that. “What the devil was that for?” he thundered.

It hardly mattered that his touch had elicited this wild fluttering in her belly or whether their fates would, one day, be tied as man and wife. It mattered that he’d defied her wishes. Liar. The power of his touch terrified you as much as your family’s finances. “Hush.” Aldora peeked around, expecting a bevy of passersby to descend and witness her ruination. A nervous giggle bubbled up from her throat. Perhaps that would be best. If the marquess compromised her, then that would settle all manner of difficulties, but would then create all kinds of other strife—namely her sisters’ good names would be tarnished. “Surely you know it isn’t proper to touch a lady who is not your wife, my lord.”

A harsh laugh escaped him. “I assure you that is not entirely true.”

It took a moment for his words to register. Her eyes widened. “You, sir, are no gentleman!” And she didn’t care to call the accusation back, even if she did need to wed the titled young lord.

He surged to his feet and took a step toward her. “I’m fairly certain that is the first thing you’ve gotten right all morning, love.”

Love. He’d called her…

Then his words registered.

Aldora retreated a step and pressed her palm to her chest. Her heart thumped wildly. Goodness, she’d read about the Marquess of St. James in the papers. But they’d failed to mention anything about his tall, commanding presence. His raw, masculine vitality. She held up a hand. “Stop, my lord.”

Surprisingly, he did.

And more surprisingly—she didn’t want him to. Aldora drew in a breath. She supposed she could have handled this vastly better than she had. She might have feigned a sprained ankle or maidenly gratitude that he’d rescued her from her own foolishness. Then again, she’d never polished the ladylike awe perfected by most of the other young ladies. “Thank you,” she finally blurted.

He folded his arms across a broad expanse of chest. Aldora frowned. Funny, she’d never imagined he’d be so muscular, with biceps and thighs that strained the expertly tailored, black, riding attire. Noblemen were not tall, imposing figures. They were often short, mostly bald, and nearly always round in the waist.

Suddenly, she longed for her spectacles for altogether different reasons. She cleared her throat. “You are supposed to say you’re welcome.” It hardly helped her cause, chastising her future husband, but she couldn’t help it.

“Am I now?” A thread of humor laced his question.

Aldora gave a brief nod. “Absolutely.” Surely the man had received countless lessons on appropriate behavior expected of a gentleman.

“What else am I supposed to do?”

His question cut across her silent musings. She tapped a finger along her chin. She suspected he was making light of her. But she’d not rise to the subtle bait. If he wanted a lesson on deportment, she’d be more than glad to deliver it to him on a polished silver plate. “Well, you should never go tearing through a park filled with people on your—”

“It is hardly filled with people,” he pointed out.

She continued as though he’d not interrupted. “—horse. And you most certainly shouldn’t berate the young lady you nearly trampled.”

“A young, unchaperoned lady.”

Aldora clamped her lips shut. Well, he had her there.

“Nor, I assume, is it proper for us to remain standing here alone, talking. Unchaperoned.”

There it was again. The reminder of her bold plans for the day, which brought her back full circle to the reason for her plan that morning. She sighed. She had made an absolute bramble of the whole thing.

Hard, frowning lips and now, more than ever, she yearned for her glasses so that she might bring the marquess’ visage into proper focus. She took a step closer and squinted. Alas, her gaze, at best, detected only the sharp, chiseled planes of his features and not much more.

“Why, you are blind.”

At his exclamation, an accusation more than anything, Aldora frowned. “I’m not.” She just didn’t happen to have her spectacles, which made it impossible to view anything with absolute clarity—or any clarity at all. Nor did she want to admit to this man whose heart she was going to win that she wore glasses. Eligible bachelor lords did not wed bespectacled misses with sharp tongues and bold spirits.

“You are,” he challenged.

In a world where lords and ladies prevaricated, who would have expected that one of the most powerful marquess’ in the realm would be this forthright. Perhaps later, she’d admire him for that. Now, she took umbrage with his annoyed tones. What had he to be annoyed over? She was the one who bloody well couldn’t see. “I’m not, you know. Blind, that is,” she clarified when his brow furrowed in apparent confusion.

At his protracted silence, Aldora folded her arms across her chest. It wouldn’t do to confess that she was, in fact, quite blind when she didn’t have her spectacles. She’d save that information for a later date. After a much warmer exchange.

“Hmph,” he said.

Hmph? What was that supposed to mean?

He turned on his heel.

“Where are you going?” In all her dreams of how this meeting would play out, it had never involved the marquess nearly trampling her under the hooves of his horse and her arguing with the man, only to watch him take his leave without any further words of explanation.

“I’m leaving.”

“But you don’t even know if I’m injured.” The dastard. What manner of gentleman was he? And for that matter, if he left, she would have to go through all the trouble of arranging another chance meeting with him.

Did she imagine the ghost of a smile on his lips? Yes, it was surely her faulty vision. “If you remember, I tried, and you scolded me.”

Yes, he had her there. She touched her fingers to the chain at her neck, seeking strength from the heart-shaped talisman. Aldora’s stomach lurched and she frantically felt around her neck. A bare neck. No.

The marquess took a step toward her. “Is everything all right?” he asked, with a surprising concern and gentleness laced together.

No. Incapable of words, Aldora caught her lower lip between her teeth and managed a quick nod. Wanting him gone. Wanting to search and give in to her restless panic. She fell to her knees and searched for the childhood pendant that had been passed between friend to dearest friend. The faded gold heart had been purchased by her and her only friends in the world when they’d been younger. The gypsy woman who’d given them the magical piece had insisted that whoever wore the pendant would win the heart of a duke and if it weren’t treated with proper care would bring about great tragedy. She’d also insisted the piece be returned if ever there were a non-believer in the pendant’s power. Aldora had scoffed at that pledge before. Only time had proven it true. Her friend Emilia who’d first worn it had found happiness. She cursed and crawled on her knees back toward the shrubs she’d stumbled into. A marquess would have to do.

“What are you doing?” There was a curiosity in his query that replaced all of his earlier gruff annoyance.

“Please just go,” she pleaded. Cursing this day. Cursing her father who’d left her and her siblings in dire financial straits, thereby requiring that she humble herself to find a husband who could overlook her spectacles and her unabashed honesty, all to save her family. Aldora felt around in the grass and gasped when a thorn pierced her kidskin glove and lanced her finger. She sank back on her heels. Ripping off her glove, she tossed it aside, and popped the wounded digit into her mouth. Propriety had ceased to exist in this exchange, if it ever had.

The marquess dropped to a knee beside her and she gasped. With surprising gentleness, he tugged her hand forward and raised it to his eyes. She looked up at him and her breath caught. The cerulean blue of his gaze made her think of warm summer days and the lake she’d splashed through as a young girl at their country seat. And suddenly, she wanted to lose herself in those clear depths. “Just a scratch,” he murmured.

She tried to force words out but her tongue, heavy in her mouth, made words impossible. The sandalwood scent that clung to him danced about her until she was nearly intoxicated with the power of it.

His lips tilted at the corners in a roguish grin that indicated he knew exactly the path her thoughts had meandered. His male arrogance killed all hint of foolish yearning and reminded her…

Aldora returned to her search, effectively dismissing him. Finding and bringing a man up to scratch was much different in real life than it was in dreams.

“Did you lose something?”

Other than her pride? Of course she’d lost something. What, did he think she made it a habit of crawling around on her hands and knees through Hyde Park? She bit back the question. “Yes.” She took satisfaction in the exceedingly gracious response. Aldora made her way back over to the infernal shrub that had ruined her day…well, that and the Marquess of St. James’ mount.

“Here, let me.”

She glanced over in surprise as he dropped to his haunches and proceeded to shove back the shrubs. Head bent, he peered around the earth. Her heart quickened. What manner of nobleman bent a knee to help a stranger so? Certainly her father would have sooner stalked past a dying one in the street than offer his help.

The gentleman briefly looked up. “It would help if I knew precisely what I’m looking for,” he pointed out dryly, quashing her momentarily distracting romantic illusions of him.

“It’s a pendant,” she blurted, her cheeks warming. “It is in the shape of a heart.”

“A heart, you say?” His muffled response came from within the greenery.

She nodded, before remembering that he was not looking at her. “It’s very important.”

“Oh, I imagine it is.”

Given he freely offered his help, Aldora chose to ignore his sardonic tone. She resumed her search, crawling along the earth. I have to find it. She simply couldn’t lose that cherished piece that held so much hope for her and her friends. It had become not only the talisman for their finding love…but also their friendship.

“Ahh, I believe this is what you’re looking for.”

She spun fast on her knees to face him. That awkward movement nearly unsettled her. Quickly catching herself, she went still.

The marquess sat back on his heels and dangled the glimmering gold directly in front of her eyes.

A cry escaped her. She plucked the gleaming object from his hands and clasped it close to her chest. All her early annoyance with the marquess’ high-handedness dissipated. Here she was, these many years, believing the necklace was a foolish talisman. Her dear friend Lady Emilia had recently found love with the Duke of Renaud; and with her wedding date set, she’d gifted Aldora the gypsy’s bauble. It gave Aldora hope. Of course, too logical and sensible to believe in such drivel, she had accepted the pendant, anyway. She feared the curse more than the promise of love. The idea that she’d nearly been the one to lose forever that piece from their childhood sent her heart thudding with panic.

Lord St. James held his palm out. “May I?”

Aldora studied the heart-shaped pendant in her fingers and then studied his hand a moment. Long fingers. A broad palm. It was a capable one that inspired confidence in his strength. With a faint tremble to her own hand, she relinquished it to his hold. He reached around her. His fingers grazed her skin and sent little excited shivers rolling along her spine. Her lashes fluttered at the tender intimacy of his fleeting caress.

“There,” he said quietly, as the pendant fell around her neck, with the thin chain settled reassuringly into place. It was not the heat of the pendant that captivated her…but rather the scent of him. His breath, tinged of brandy and cinnamon, fanned her cheeks. It was a dangerous, quixotic blend of masculinity and sweetness that sent her lashes fluttering.

She touched her fingertips to the heart pendant at her neck. Did she merely imagine the heat of that metal? “You cannot fail with this necklace. Look how happy Connell and I are. Love will find you, too. Just have faith.”

The Marquess of St. James continued to study her with a fiercely impenetrable expression. That heated intensity sucked at her breath and sent heat spiraling through her. Aldora drew her fingers back from the heart. “Now, I suppose you’ve learned your lesson for wandering down riding paths unchaperoned in the middle of the day.”

At that more than faintly condescending reproach, fanciful thoughts of love left as quickly as they’d arrived. Oh, if she weren’t so obscenely grateful to the man, she’d have slammed her heel atop his immaculate, gleaming, black, Hessian boot. She smiled, holding back the retort on her lips. It wouldn’t do to point out that it was a good way off from the “middle of the day”. “Thank you very much, my lord. I daresay, I’ll take care to bring along my nursemaid next time.”

As soon as the tart reply escaped her lips, she winced. Her mouth and spirit had always had a tendency to get away from her. Even without her spectacles, she did not fail to miss the way his eyes went first round, before narrowing into small slits. It was, perhaps, best that her future bridegroom realize as much now.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked crisply.

Oh, splendid. So he’d not been affronted. She inclined her head. “You are forgiven, my lord.”

He had the look of one who’d wandered through a hedge maze in Kensington Gardens and couldn’t find his way out. “Forgiven?”

“For your slightly,” more than slightly, “condescending nursemaid comment.”

The marquess opened and closed his mouth several times. “I certainly was not apologizing.”

What? “You weren’t?”

“Indeed not, and certainly not for taking you to task about carelessly wandering along riding trails.”

Well. He narrowed his eyes and unnerved her under that sharp scrutiny. She shifted back and forth on her feet. Aldora may have limited—as in no—experience in matters of love and courtship, but she still knew the way to a gentleman’s heart wasn’t to go about issuing dry retorts. And now, she’d unintentionally insulted him a second time. Even if the lummox, with his arrogance, deserved a dressing down, it was hardly the way to go about securing his affections and title. At his silence, she fiddled with the chain about her throat and attempted her most appreciative tones. “Well, I certainly did not intend to insult you.” She paused. “As you deliberately insulted me.” Aldora searched his face for a hint of remorse. His angular features remained a stoic mask. Swallow your pride, Aldora. For your sisters and brother and, even if she’s shown barely an ounce of affection in your life, mother… Aldora spoke on a rush. “I am indebted to you.” Dropping a quick curtsy, she bolted off.

“A moment, if you will?” That quiet command could have quelled the whole of Boney’s army without even a shot fired.

She staggered to a quick stop. Reluctantly, she turned back and stared.

A grin curved one corner of the marquess’ lips. He sketched an immaculate bow. “I must at least know the name of the young lady whose debt I’ve earned.”

Aldora blinked slowly. He wanted to know…? She sank into another curtsy. “Lady Aldora Arlette Adamson.” Mayhap she’d not insulted the gentleman enough to deter his affections.

Then, knowing it was the stuff of intrigue she’d read about in the pages of many a Gothic novel, she turned on her heel without another word and left her future husband staring after her.

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