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THE MONSTROUS DUKE AND I
The Monsters Ball
BY DEE ST. HOLM
Dear Miss Penelope Essex, on account of your unforgivably bookish ways and abysmal attempts at conversation, Her Majesty has deemed your Season a failure. With no marriage proposals, no dowry and no prospects, you are hereby ordered to attend The Monsters Ball.
Confirmed wallflower Penelope Essex has every intention of tending her brother’s library for the rest of her days. But first, she must survive the Monsters Ball.
Held at a remote gothic estate, the three-day ball is rife with monstrous nobles all determined to claim a mate. They’ll do whatever it takes to seduce her into hidden corners, to tempt her into signing a marriage contract. Escaping with her spinsterhood intact seems impossible, until she spots her childhood crush: the now monstrous Duke of Roth.
Lord William Warwick is normally as cool as the cold fire covering his body. When he became a frost-flame demon, he swore he’d never take a mate. Yet when he sees Penny Essex struggling to resist three monstrous nobles, he rushes to her side and pretends to be her fiancé.
A fake betrothal is the perfect cover. Except the longer they’re together, the more she wants his fire to claim her. But will her duke treasure her heart and her beloved books, or will their passion send them both up in flames?
*The Monstrous Duke And I is a standalone novel in the shared world of The Monsters Ball.
She swallowed her instinctive retort and forced a smile. “I will behave.”
He lifted a skeptical brow. “I’m sure.”
“I will, I promise.” And she meant it.
She might not wish to attend the Ball, but she had no desire to offend any of the monsters present. Her brother’s friend—and the source of her earliest fantasies—had fallen ill with the so-called Queen’s Curse when he and Theo had been at Eaton. They’d all grown up together in Derbyshire, and though she and her brother had sought to revive the connection, they’d never seen him again.
She didn’t even know what he’d become.
It bothered her, and she considered the way monsters were kept on the fringes of society as a strange parallel to the way ladies such as herself were treated: with a benign, if chilly, condescension.
“Penelope.” Her brother’s voice cut through her thoughts.
With a jolt, she realized the carriage had stopped before the entrance to the Hall. A pair of massive footmen with green skin and tusks jutting above their lower lip stood to attention at either side of the carved wooden door. Orcs, she thought. These were the monsters called orcs.
She did her best to smile at them as she took her brother’s offered hand and allowed him to assist her out of the carriage. The moment her boots touched the gravel of the drive, it felt as if she’d crossed over a threshold between safety and danger beyond comprehension.
“Oh my,” she whispered.
“Courage, Pen,” Theo whispered back.
Trying to put on a brave face, she stood quietly while the footmen descended. Their green skin and yellow eyes were exactly as her books had described, and they were dressed in finely tailored black uniforms with silver buttons emblazoned with the Broadstone crest.
How fascinating to encounter an orc in real life.
Only now her first introduction to a monster of any sort would be to watch them wrestling with her trunks. She winced. Her father had been adamant about her manner of dress; he’d even sent an entire carriage-full of scandalous gowns for the events. While Penelope had retaliated by cramming books into every possible pocket of space.
“I…” She cleared her throat. “Thank you for your assistance. I apologize for the, er, weight of the trunks.”
“It’s no bother, Miss,” one said, his voice surprisingly gentle.
They were impressively broad-shouldered, their muscles bulging beneath the crispness of their clothing with every move they made as they unloaded Penelope’s trunks from the carriage. Despite their enormous size and formidable stature, there was something remarkably friendly about their manner—they’d smiled warmly at Penelope as they’d reached the vehicle, and offered a polite bow before removing her trunks with remarkable ease.
Yet those same trunks made a heavy thud when placed on the steps.
“Good grief.” Her brother tried to lift the corner of one. “What did you pack, cannonballs and bricks? There are supposed to be dresses.”
She winced and squinted at her brother through one eye. “There are dresses.”
He gave her a look.
“And also some more books,” Pen added. And what else was she to do when her father insisted she take those awful dresses? At least the books made something in those two trunks hers.
“This way, Miss,” one of the footmen rumbled.
She nodded and, taking Theo’s arm, followed the orc to the doorway. “Soon we will—”
A massive forearm blocked their passage. “Just you, Miss.”
She and her brother jerked to a stop, and she stared upward at the massive footman. The orc was so large as to fill half the large, arched doorway. “What… what do you mean?”
“Only those who are invited may enter,” the second footman said.
“I’m here for my sister,” Theo said. “I’ll stay out of the way.”
Both orcs grunted, standing shoulder to shoulder with their arms crossed. The message was clear: Theo would not be allowed to join her. The closest orc glanced at Penny’s brother, and she feared these footmen had been given leave to remove him by force if necessary.
Eyes wide, she glanced at Theo.
Her slender, bookish brother probably weighed as much as the footman’s leg—she could not allow him to try and force the issue. Tugging on his hand, she pulled him a couple steps back and whispered urgently, “I will be fine, Theo. The countess is beyond reproach and will ensure I’m kept safe inside.”
His mouth formed a flat line. “I don’t like it, Pen.”
“Do not worry about me,” she said, though she wasn’t certain if she believed it herself. “I’ll be perfectly well, and will see you in London in three days’ time, when the Ball is over.”
Dear God, she hoped so—for all their sakes.
He cupped her hands between his and squeezed them. “If you need me, send word by courier. I’ll come and take you home, Queen and terrifying footmen be damned.”
“I love you, too.” She kissed his cheek. “Now go.”
“All right.” He gave her hands a final squeeze and then hurried down the steps to the carriage. He lifted a hand, and she waved him off with the best appearance of cheer that she could muster. She remained on the steps until his carriage rolled through the gates.
Penny turned back to the entrance once again and forced a smile for the footmen.
They moved aside with a respectful nod, and motioned for her to enter the Hall.
Taking a deep breath, she returned the nod and squared her shoulders. She’d manage the Ball just as easily by herself—perhaps easier, as she wouldn’t have to worry about her brother taking offense to any of the monsters’ behavior. And it would give her more time to pursue her study of the letter. She was determined to find something useful, maybe she’d even unearth something that would help their cause back home.
She stepped through massive oak doors carved with twisting shapes of monsters—the likes of which Penny had never seen before—and into a shadowed entrance.
Dee St. Holm is a pen name for USA Today Bestselling Author Dee J. Holmes. A Canadian author obsessed with monsters and their love lives, Dee enjoys creating rich fantasy worlds—and always likes to play with monsters. The characters she enjoys don’t sit in some narrow box and do what they’re told. Whether battling supernatural forces or facing fantastical terrain on distant planets, her characters are defying expectations and finding true love.
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