The perfect blend of romance, intrigue, and humour, The Duke Undone is the story of Lucy Coover, an aspiring artist who after stumbling upon a naked man passed out drunk in an alley, is compelled to immortalise his perfect form on canvas. Little does she know that she is painting the one and only Duke of Weston, a man whose family legacy has cornered him into a situation of powerlessness and dependency. Desperate to avoid scandal by gaining possession of the scandalous painting, he makes a deal with Lucy. But as they begin to work towards their respective goals, their lives become more and more intertwined, ultimately revealing an enemy that threatens them both. Flawlessly written, with characters that are intriguing and complex from the start, Joanna Lowell’s riveting new Historical Romance comes out next week, and I have a sneak peek for you.
A man filled the doorway, tall and broad and dark. He didn’t notice her flush. He didn’t pay her any mind at all. He was glancing around the room, already shifting his weight to move on down the hall.
With a start, she recognized the ratio of shoulders to hips, the staggering breadth of the former accentuating the leanness of the latter. He was somehow taller even than she’d imagined. Although his height made perfect sense given his length when sprawled upon the ground, his verticality astounded her.
There could be no doubt.
“My corpse!” The words burst from her. Hysterical laughter threatened to follow and she clapped a hand over her mouth. The man whose body she’d spent months daydreaming, drawing, realizing in every detail in oil and pigment, until she’d breathed life into the form and had begun to think of it, of him, as her own creation. He was suddenly scant yards away.
His dark brows arched as he turned back toward her.
“My corpse.” His voice had the unmistakable drawl of the best society. “I am unfamiliar with that expression.”
He was looking at her as though she had sprouted two heads, with a mix of curiosity and revulsion. She saw herself, suddenly, as he would see her, short and scrawny, frizzy-haired, in a vivid dress of purple silk and black brocade. To make it, she’d wedded components of gowns her aunt had sewn for two very different productions, a music-hall melodrama and a Shakespearean tragedy. She felt her flush deepen.
Her attire was interesting but not outrageous, not by art-world standards. Kate wore trousers, and Redcliffe Davis wore an earring!
This man did not hail from the art world. His suit was plain; the wools and linens were of the highest quality. His jacket and trousers were expertly tailored. If this was his typical attire, no wonder he’d been stripped to the skin. A family could dine off the buttons alone
She swallowed hard. She remembered the heat emanating from his body, the smell of sweat and spirits. This man was clean-shaven. He wore his hair combed back. She knew already how he would smell: perfumed. Wealthy.
Nights, when she lay down at last but couldn’t sleep due to her racing mind, she’d imagined meeting her corpse again. Silly fantasies. He was always wearing rough clothes, and he always recognized her, as though from a dream. He was a farmer. A blacksmith. A gamekeeper. She’d conjured all sorts of country professions.
He was never this, never the gentleman. Imperious and disdaining. The sort of man who would always be a stranger.
She shared nothing with him. Her sense of connection had been exposed in a heartbeat as an absurd presumption. It was ridiculous, but she felt betrayed.
“Only students are allowed in the Schools,” she said, too sharply. “Perhaps . . . you are lost?”
He brushed this suggestion away. Dismissing it. Dismissing her.
“I’m looking for someone.” And although there was no one in the room to find except for her, he stepped across the threshold and began to prowl the room’s perimeter. His stride was athletic. Lazy and sure.
She stood rooted to the spot, staring.
In her picture, she’d styled him classically, as the shepherd king Endymion, but here, in the flesh, his fluid grace made him seem predatory, a poor fit as a protector of small, defenseless creatures. He moved like a panther.
“The Visitor in Painting.” He closed in on her, eyes sweeping over the uneven ring of easels, the model’s chair in the center of the floor. “Do you know him?”
They were green, those eyes, green as moss, but without any of the softness. They were hard, clear. Startling. She’d never have guessed that exact shade. How to convey its brilliancy? Pale green lights added to darkest emerald.
She had looked too long. Suddenly, his gaze grew piercing.
He was staring back.
“Of course I know him,” she said. Her mouth was dry. She could look at this man for a year, for a hundred years, and never grow weary. He did not feel the same way about her. His eyes slid away again easily, turning to more interesting sights. He circled an easel, Susan’s, and leaned over it, peering closely at its contents, then returned his eyes to Lucy with a sniff.
“I don’t see the likeness.” He folded his arms at his chest. She knew how his biceps curved, how the muscle swelled. She could make a map of his veins. Likeness? Her comprehension had lagged behind his words, but now she snapped to attention. Likeness to whom? Her? Ha! She tried to access her reservoir of scorn, which she could usually rely on to resource her lavishly when she interacted with arrogant men.
He would be the type who took a woman for an artist’s model rather than an artist proper. Did he even know this was a female class? That women painted at all?
What devastating setdown could she deliver?
He strolled to the next easel.
“Ah,” he said. “This one, too, has nothing of your face or expression. Mr. Coover is a poor teacher.”
She choked on the phrase she’d been preparing. What had he said?
Her heart seemed to stop completely; then it sped up, not beating, but whirring, like the mechanism in a sewing machine.
“The Visitor in Painting,” she said slowly. “Mr. Coover.”
The letter to Mrs. Forbes.
In the missive, she had created the perfect persona, one calculated to appeal to the young woman’s particular desires.
L. Coover was unknown in England. This point was, of course, a necessity, but also a boon. Mrs. Forbes didn’t want to follow the herd.
Yet L. Coover was feted in France, the darling of the Paris salons, and had lately returned to England as a Visitor. Mrs. Forbes didn’t want to appear common and needed her venturesome taste affirmed.
Lucy had felt a queer elation as she wrote. To present such a version of herself—iconoclastic, accomplished, confident—it made her shiver.
The moment Kate had introduced her to Mrs. Forbes, at the Winter Exhibition, she’d recognized the opportunity.
I adore art, but my husband knows nothing about it. Nothing. Mrs. Forbes had tossed her head as she spoke so her jeweled earrings twinkled and her throat extended. Tell me . . . do you think one of these men would agree to paint me nude?
She’d looked triumphantly at the knot of Academicians clustered beneath a massive eighteenth-century oil and then at Lucy and Kate, so transparently eager to shock them both that Lucy had felt a wave of tenderness. It was almost sweet, this round-cheeked, well-heeled young woman’s determination to prove herself naughty.
Kate had grinned her irresistible grin.
I’d paint you nude, she’d said, and Mrs. Forbes’s mouth had dropped open before she’d thrown her head back spontaneously to let out a peal of laughter.
Perhaps next year, she’d said. Truly, what I want for my own chambers is a male nude, but only if he’s a god. No suffering saints or martyrs. Pure masculine perfection. Something to restore the eyes and the ideals after watching one’s husband gnaw a drumstick. I’m like a Frenchwoman in that respect. Life is more stimulating in France, n’est- ce pas?
Kate had laughed about Mrs. Forbes all the following week. I’ve seen her at a dozen parties. She’s always like that. I’ve met Mr. Forbes, too, and let me tell you, he is not remotely French. How could such a wild little creature end up tethered to a weak- chinned dullard?
Kate had laughed again, more bitterly, answering her own question. She’s very pretty; he’s very rich. That’s what marriage is all about, n’est-ce pas?
Lucy hadn’t written to Mrs. Forbes then. Even when she finally finished her picture, in February, she’d waited a week before she could bring herself to write.
The picture was the best—and largest—she’d ever painted. She’d used the pattern of embroidered leaves on her favorite gown to create a botanical pattern that replaced the mud of the alley. The pattern curved, so that the figure appeared to lie on a hill, with a cave behind him and the moon hanging overhead, a shade less than full.
She was waxing as she fell in love.
In myth, Endymion the shepherd king was a man of such beauty the moon herself longed to shine upon him always, to keep him for her very own. She bid Zeus, her father, put him in eternal sleep. As Lucy had studied her sketches and planned her composition, she’d realized that the story was the perfect fit. The moody, romantic symbolism represented the deeper truth.
The picture turned out bright, expressive . . . charged. Maybe even indecent. The light seemed to come from all sides, showing the precise details of the sleeper.
There was a frankness to it that frightened her. The picture, evenly lit by the moon, glorying in the male form, seemed a testament to feminine desire. She’d painted it for herself alone. But she couldn’t roll the canvas and keep it in the corner of her bedroom, not when it could be converted into the money she so desperately needed. A private sale had been the only answer. She’d started a dozen letters—Dear Mrs. Forbes—but lay down her pen without finishing.
And then the sewing machine broke. And the rent came due.
If her corpse was asking for Mr. Coover, Visitor in Painting, that meant he had talked to Mrs. Forbes. He had seen the picture. Understandably, he wanted to confront the artist. He wanted a word with Mr. Coover.
Cold sweat was breaking out across her brow.
“Mr. Coover,” Lucy said again, groping for what came next. “It is he you hope to find?”
That green gaze fixed her again, scrambling her thoughts. Her corpse gave her an ironic smile.
“It is not a hope, but an inevitability,” he said slowly, as though doubting her wit. “We have important matters to discuss.”
Her panic mounted. She focused on a point above his left shoulder.
“Then I hate to bring such tragic news.” What was she saying? She listened to the words issuing from her mouth, as much a spectator as the man she addressed.
“Mr. Coover is dead. Has died. Just the other day.”
Another corpse. Dammit.
Copyright © 2021 by Joanna Lowell. Reprinted with permission of Berkley, Penguin Random House, Inc.