He never thought he’d become a duke,
or that the secrets of his past will cost him his greatest love…
Raphe Matthews hasn’t stepped foot in polite circles since a tragedy left his once-noble family impoverished and in debt. The bare-knuckle boxer has spent the last fifteen years eking out an existence for himself and his two sisters. But when a stunning reversal of fortunes lands Raphe the title of Duke of Huntley, he’s determined to make a go of becoming a proper lord, but he’ll need a little help and his captivating neighbor might be just the woman for the job…
After her sister’s scandalous match, Lady Gabriella knows the ton’s eyes are on her. Agreeing to tutor the brutish new duke can only lead to ruin. Although she tries to control her irresistible attraction to Raphe, every day she spends with him only deepens her realization that this may be the one man she cannot do without. And as scandal threatens to envelope them both, she must decide if she can risk everything for love with a most unlikely duke.
Thick clouds darkened to shades of gray as they rolled across the London sky. Beneath them, standing in the middle of the Black Swan courtyard, Raphe Matthews drew back his fist, his muscles bunching tightly together—just long enough for him to assess the angle and speed with which to release all that power. Instinct made it a brief calculation. Less than a second, and then he sent his fist flying. The punch snapped his opponent’s face sideways, producing a spray of spit and blood that painted the air with specks of crimson. A cheer erupted from those who’d come to witness the fight—a motley selection of hardened individuals. This place was not for the weak or the wealthy. It reeked of filth and the daily struggle to survive. This was St. Giles, but it might as well have been the bowels of hell for all the difference it made.
“Come on!” someone shouted.
Raphe’s other fist met a hard chest with a crunch. His knuckles ached, the force of the punch vibrating through him.
“Matthews, Matthews, Matthews . . .” The chant shook the air while Raphe shifted his footing, regaining his balance just in time to accept the blows that followed. He didn’t mind, for it only revealed his opponent’s sudden desperation.
Raising his fists to block the attack, Raphe bobbed to the side, turning away, just out of reach. And yet, he was close—so close he could smell the sweat on the other man’s skin, see the fear that shone in his eyes, the beads of moisture clinging to his hair that dripped onto his brow.
More shouts flooded the air, drowning him in a cacophony of unintelligible noise. The wave of encouragement shifted, alerting him that support had changed—no longer in his favor.
Forcing it into the background, Raphe focused on the man he was meant to beat. Today his name was Calvin Butler. Raphe launched himself forward, surrendering to the rage, and let the punches fly, beating back pain and anger until Calvin Butler lay stretched out on the ground, hands covering his face in surrender. A fleeting second of silence passed, just long enough to be sure of the outcome, and then the spectators sent up a roar in response to Raphe’s victory.
Exhausted, he stumbled back, a light drizzle dampening his skin. A coat was draped over his shoulders while Butler was helped to his feet—a sorry sight, with his blackened eye and swollen lip distorting an otherwise handsome face.
Turning away, Raphe pushed his way in the direction of the taproom. All he wanted right now was a drink. Fast.
“Butler ain’t lookin’ too good,” Raphe’s friend, Benjamin Thompson, said as he came up beside him. A couple of inches shorter than Raphe, his green eyes were a handsome complement to his ginger hair and freckles. He was without a doubt the kindest and most dependable person Raphe knew, besides his own sisters. Together, they made their way to the bar, where Ben promptly called for a server. “Give us a couple o’ pints.”Resting his elbows on the counter, Raphe grunted his response to Ben’s question. “He knew what ‘e was in fer.”
Ben nodded. The beer arrived, and both men took a healthy swig. “Ye could ‘ave been gentler, though. The man was done. No need to keep beatin’ at him like that.” Stilling, Raphe slid his gaze toward his friend. “I couldn’t ‘elp it.” The rage had burned its way through him, driving him forward and filling his mind with one singular purpose: The need to win. “I don’t know ‘ow to fight any other way.”
“I know,” Ben said softly. No, you don’t. You have no bloody idea.
In this, he’d never been completely honest, not even with Ben. “In any case, the blunt’s pretty good—lets me keep a roof over me sisters’ heads.”
“Aye, an’ a decent one at that.”
Raphe couldn’t argue. He’d visited Ben’s home once—an overcrowded single room that he shared with his parents and five siblings. By comparison, Raphe and his sisters lived like royalty. “Have ye ever thought of gettin’ out of this place? Out of St. Giles?”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “An’ go where?”
“Somewhere better. Christ, Ben, anywhere’s betterthan this. Ye’re a likeable man. Ye could probably snatch up a job at one of ’em fancy ‘ouses in Mayfair.”
His friend snorted. “An’ ‘ave some nob lookin’ down on me, demandin’ I polish ‘is boots—or worse, empty ‘is chamber pot? I’d rather stay by the docks, thank ye very much. At least there I can take some pride in me work.”
“Understood. But the pay there’s never goin’ to afford ye with yer own home. Don’t ye wish to marry one day?”
“Sure. But there’s a limit to what I’m willing to do for a bit of blunt, Raphe.” He took another sip of his beer. “I’ll not lose me dignity by workin’ for a class o’ people I can’t abide, nor by lowerin’ meself to doin’ demeanin’ work.”
The words speared Raphe to his soul, filling him with shame. “I know,” he muttered with admiration. If only he could be more like him, not wanting anything beyond what life had tossed his way. Perhaps, if he didn’t have his sisters to consider, he wouldn’t care so much.
Born in Denmark, Sophie Barnes spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She’s lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish, and Romanian. But, most impressive of all, she’s been married to the same man three times—in three different countries and in three different dresses.
When she’s not busy dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading.