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She Tempts the Duke by Lorraine Heath (1)

London

July, 1856

If curiosity killed the cat, then Lady Mary Wynne-Jones expected that she’d be dead before the night was done. After all, it was curiosity that had lured her to Lady Lucretia Easton’s ball. Mary knew very little of the woman except that she had married Lord David Easton in the spring. Hence the niggling seed that had sprouted Mary’s curiosity and resulted in her presently occupying a corner in the ballroom with her cousin Alicia and two other young ladies. It was the perfect spot for observing the comings and goings—to see and be seen.

Lord and Lady Wickam!

Mary barely paid attention as the arriving guests were announced. She was far more interested in her host and hostess, in deciphering what they were up to, how they were received by Society. She’d not seen Lord David in years. Shortly after his nephews disappeared, he’d abandoned Pembrook. She supposed he had taken up residence at one of the other estates. Although perhaps he lived in London year-round. This residence had certainly not been neglected. It glittered and sparkled, as though well cared for.

Tonight the many guests glittered and sparkled as well. One would not expect the second son of a duke to garner such interest, but then Lord David had a wretched past that he touted for all it was worth. His older brother’s devastating accident. His three nephews’ unexplained disappearance. Did they run off? Were they abducted for ransom, only to have been killed? Or were they kidnapped for some nefarious purpose? Put on a ship perhaps? Sold into slavery somewhere? No one knew.

They had become the stuff of legends—the lost lords of Pembrook.

“Have you ever known a more dull or tedious ball?” Lady Alicia bemoaned in her usual dramatic fashion as though she’d just declared that the world as they knew it would soon come to a dreadful end.

Mary gave her cousin a wry smile. Her hair was a burnished copper, more tame than Mary’s fiery red. Her eyes, however, were the same green. But then their mothers were sisters, and it seemed no female on that side of the family had escaped green eyes. “I can’t imagine that Lord David is known for being entertaining. After all, how much fun can a man with his misfortunes be?”

Her sarcasm earned a sharp look from her cousin, but was hardly noticed by the other two ladies who had joined them a few moments earlier. They were too busy searching the crowd for masculine prey.

“He’s never entertained before,” Lady Hermione said distractedly, patting the few blond curls that dangled from her upswept hair and lay lightly against her neck. This was her second Season and she was well acquainted with much that went on, while Mary and her cousin were at a disadvantage, for this summer was their first in London since they’d reached an age to be included in such festivities.

“But then he’s never been married before,” Lady Victoria mused, her arched brow as black as a raven’s wing. “I heard from my mother who heard it from her cousin that Lady Lucretia married him because he expects to be duke before Season’s end, and she rather fancies the title of duchess. The possibility has garnered everyone’s attention. No one wants to be out of favor with a duke. Hence, the absurd number of guests.”

Mary’s father had told her that Lord David had petitioned the Court of Chancery, pressing his claim to the title since his nephews had yet to be found. It had been a little over a year since the youngest had reached his majority. The failure of even one to appear and claim the title could only mean one thing: they were all well and truly dead.

It was an argument Mary could hardly fault, no matter how much it pained her to accept the harsh reality. During all the passing years, she’d received not a single word from any of them. Although it was quite possible that if she had, her father might have destroyed it.

She’d broken her promise to Sebastian. That night she’d run straightaway to her father and explained what she witnessed and how she helped the boys escape. She’d expected him to take the matter in hand and confront his neighbor. Instead, she’d been disappointed to learn that her father feared even his own shadow. He sent her to a convent where she could contemplate the merits of causing mischief. He didn’t believe that in this day and time, someone would seek to gain a title by illicit means. “It simply isn’t done,” her father declared.

When she was finally allowed to return to Willow Hall this spring, she had gone to the old abbey ruins and, with the winds howling, wept. She knew why Sebastian chose it as the spot where they would reunite. It was a special, magical place. She had boldly kissed him there, then worried that her father would discover what she had done and banish her from her home for her brazen behavior. She’d been all of twelve, but she knew she’d never forget the press of his lips against hers—how sweet and terrifying it had been.

“A sad thing, his nephews being devoured by wolves,” Lady Alicia said. Their partial remains found near the abbey ruins was one of the rumors regarding their demise that floated about, and Alicia always chose the dramatic over the ordinary. That story of their ghastly deaths became the seed for cautionary tales—to keep wayward lads from desiring midnight adventures. Another report asserted that they died of fever. But in both cases no bodies were ever produced. From time to time over the years, someone alleged a sighting—in London, at the seaside, in a forest—but no proof was forthcoming. Their true fate remained a mystery.

Mary was certain, however, that they had indeed perished somewhere along the way during the long years of their absence. Otherwise, they would have returned as promised. Sebastian would have come to her. Nothing would have stopped him from keeping his vow. Nothing except death. She’d lost track of how many nights she mourned their passing, only to awaken the next morning convinced that somewhere they still lived. Any number of reasons could have delayed their arrival. But with each passing year, it seemed less likely that they would return, that any of them had survived to manhood.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Lord David heading down a distant hallway. The toad cut a fine figure, dressed in his finery, and that grated terribly on her nerves. He should be bloated and hideous. Hunchbacked even. Like Richard III who, in order to gain the throne, had locked his nephews in the Tower of London. The two were not so very different.

It had taken everything within her not to cast up her accounts when earlier in the evening, he smiled at her in passing. His eyes possessed a cunning that only she seemed capable of recognizing. Everyone else fawned over him, enamored of his charm. At least he possessed the good sense not to take her gloved hand and press a kiss to it, as he’d done to her aunt upon their arrival. If he had, Mary surely would have had no control over her foot and he’d have found it connecting with his shin.

Lord and Lady Westcliffe!

Mary wondered if perhaps she and Alicia should take their leave. She was no longer certain what she’d thought to accomplish by coming here. So far, all she’d managed was to upset her digestion whenever she thought of how Lord David had come to have this residence and that very soon, if his petition was granted, he would acquire so much more. He would acquire everything.

She couldn’t let that happen. She would write a letter to the Court of Chancery and explain what he’d done, what she heard, what had happened that night when the lads had disappeared. Would her words be believed or would they be considered simply another fanciful tale to add to the many that surrounded the mystery of the Pembrook lords?

Her musings were interrupted when two gentlemen came to claim dances with Ladies Hermione and Victoria. Once the couples had wandered onto the dance floor, Alicia said, “I can’t believe you’ll be married at the end of the month.”

Nor could Mary. During the first ball she had caught the fancy of Viscount Fitzwilliam. A devoted courtship involving an abundance of flowers, promenades in the park, and long afternoons in the parlor had followed. They shared the same interests in music, literature, and art. Conversation was always pleasant, and she wasn’t certain why she sometimes felt that it should hold a bit more fire. Apparently she’d left her hellion days behind.

“I feel a tad guilty about it. It was supposed to be your Season,” Mary reminded her cousin. Her own father had denied her a Season, left her languishing at the convent. It was only when her aunt—Alicia’s mother—had taken matters in hand and insisted that she “be released from exile” and share the Season with Alicia that Mary had been given her first taste of the glitz and glamour that could be London. She fell in love with it.

Mr. Charles Godwin!

“It’s not yet over. I could still find my true love,” Alicia told her with an air of confidence that indicated she truly hadn’t given up hope.

Mary felt another prickle of guilt because she wasn’t certain she could claim that Fitzwilliam was her true love. Certainly she held a fondness for him. His manners and dress were impeccable. She suspected that if Sebastian had lived, he’d have very much resembled him: respectful, charming, occasionally witty. She also rather liked his parents—the Marquess and Marchioness of Glenchester. They appeared to think well of her. They even approved of her time in the convent—thought it had taught her mercy and grace. What it had taught her was to never trust her father with a secret.

“Any gentleman would be fortunate to have you,” Mary assured Alicia.

“You’re much too generous with your praise. And speaking of fortunate men, there’s yours now.”

Turning her attention in the direction Alicia indicated, Mary watched her betrothed make his way toward her. Viscount Fitzwilliam was a few years her senior, which gave him an air of maturity and sophistication that some of the younger lords lacked. Tall and slender, fair of complexion and quick to smile, he graced her with one of his winning smiles now. Her father heartily approved of the match, even if the estate Fitzwilliam would eventually inherit was in Cornwall, far from her home in Yorkshire.

Lord and Lady Raybourne!

Lord Fitzwilliam stopped before her, his brown-eyed gaze wandering over her, filling with appreciation. “Don’t you look lovely, Lady Mary.”

While she had been here most of the evening, he arrived only a short while ago and she’d noticed one person after another capturing his attention as he made his way around the ballroom. She smiled softly. “Thank you, my lord.”

He turned his head slightly. “And you as well, Lady Alicia.”

“You’re too kind, my lord.”

“Hardly, I merely speak the truth.” He gave his attention back to Mary. “Did you save the requisite dance for me?”

The seventh. He was a suspicious sort, but it only endeared him to her all the more. Seven was his lucky number. He had danced the seventh dance with her during the first ball of the Season when he had become—as he was fond of reminding her—entranced by her beauty and spirit.

“I have indeed.”

“Splendid. If you’ll excuse us, Lady Alicia?”

“Of course, my lord.”

Mary disliked leaving her cousin standing alone, wasn’t certain why gentlemen weren’t flocking to her side. Fitzwilliam placed his hand on the small of Mary’s back and guided her toward the dance floor. “Will you dance with her next?” she asked him.

“Who?”

“Lady Alicia, my cousin.”

“If it would please you.”

“It would immensely.”

“Perhaps it would even make you a bit jealous?” he asked, a teasing glint in his brown eyes.

“It would, but mostly it would make me happy. I don’t understand why more gentlemen aren’t giving her attention.”

“Because she pales when compared with you.”

A blush warmed her cheeks. She felt a bit selfish for hoping the ease with which he gave compliments would continue after they were married. The lilting chords of a waltz wafted through the room as he took her into his arms. His touch was both gentle and kind. It held no promise of passion or adventure, but then she’d left those childish things behind. Many considered her on the shelf, yet here she was with an admirer when she’d never thought to have one after her years of isolation in the nunnery.

It had not helped that she lived her younger days in fear that Lord David would come for her as he’d come for his nephews. She knew his secrets, his sins. She knew she was prone to rash decisions, not always giving proper thought to things, but if she hadn’t trusted her instincts that night—

His Grace, the Duke of Keswick!

The odd, unexpected words startled her.

“Good God!” Fitzwilliam exclaimed, slowing their momentum. “Is that what this affair is about? Has his petition already been granted? Trust Lord David to surprise us all and make quite the show of it.”

She couldn’t stand the thought of what Fitzwilliam was intimating. If Lord David now held the titles, then the brothers had been declared dead. She craned her neck—

Lord Tristan Easton!

Her knees weakened.

Lord Rafe Easton!

Her world narrowed, blackened at the edges, threatened to consume her. With her heart thundering, she spun around to gaze at the stairs that led down to the ballroom. The music was drifting into silence. Couples stopped dancing. Low murmurings began, only to increase in volume as people rudely whispered and pointed. Several ladies gasped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one swoon into her husband’s arms.

Three towering men with unfashionably long hair as black as midnight stood on the landing. Their well-tailored clothing did little to disguise the savagery in their faces as their icy blue gazes roamed over the crowd, alighting briefly on one person after another before quickly moving on. With an obvious disdain, they implied that all were beneath them. One held a pistol toward the steward—no doubt the very reason that the man had announced the name that his employer soon hoped to possess.

She realized Rafe was the one wielding the weapon. While he was tall, he had not achieved his brothers’ height. On the far side stood Tristan. She never had any trouble distinguishing him from his twin, because his cocky smile—in evidence now—was slightly crooked, always tipped up a bit more on the right.

Sebastian’s always went up higher on the left. Or at least it used to. Presently he was not smiling. Based on the hideous scars marring that side of his face, she wasn’t certain he could smile. A black patch covered his eye. Dear God in heaven, whatever had happened to him?

Mary took a step forward, only to have Fitzwilliam place a restraining hand on her arm. “Easy there, dear girl,” he whispered. “You don’t know what dangers await.”

She suspected a good many. The lords of Pembrook had arisen from the dead.

And she could not help but believe that tonight’s boring ball was about to become the most memorable of the Season.

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