One week later,
Hanwell Estate, Bedfordshire
“Good God, you did not tell us you had invited him to join us for the week!”
Bea, Lady Beatrix Hanwell, gave the lady who had spoken a quizzical glance. “Sorry?” As far as she was aware, all the guests invited to spend the week at Hanwell Manor had arrived yesterday.
“Wolferton.” The other woman breathed the name as if it were sacred. Or the devil himself.
“Surely you are mistaken…?” Bea’s voice trailed off, and her own eyes widened as she saw it was indeed Darius Strong, the Duke of Wolferton, striding arrogantly across the manicured lawn backing onto her small country house. He was making his way determinedly toward the terrace where many of her guests were assembled for afternoon tea.
The man was known to his inner circle of friends as Wolf, and to the rest of Society, the ladies especially, as the coldest and most heartless gentleman as ever lived. Of course, the latter could be attributed to sour grapes on their part, because the duke had so far eluded any efforts by those ladies to entrap or seduce him into marriage.
Wolferton was exceedingly tall, at least a foot taller than Bea’s own diminutive height of three inches above five feet. His face was harshly aristocratic: dark brows over icy-gray eyes, a sharp blade of a nose, high cheekbones, a firm and stern mouth which rarely smiled, above a square and determined jaw.
A man reputed to always do exactly as he pleased, Wolferton was currently without the formality of a top hat, and he kept his dark hair unfashionably long. Nor had he secured it at his nape, but left the silky dark tresses in disarray on his wide shoulders. His muscular chest and tapered waist were emphasized by the cut of his dark gray superfine and one of the black shirts and neck cloths he always wore, despite the fashionable white worn by other gentlemen in Society. His pale gray pantaloons were also close-fitting to his powerful thighs, and his brown-topped Hessians gleamed brightly in the afternoon sunshine.
His cold and critical gaze swept over Bea’s guests as they sat on the terrace enjoying their tea and watching some of the gentlemen engaging in a game of pall-mall on the lawn.
At least, their attention had been on the gentlemen playing pall-mall, but they quickly became aware of Wolferton’s presence the closer he approached, causing the conversation to stutter and then cease altogether as all sharp-eyed attention turned in his direction.
Bea was as struck dumb and unmoving as her guests, but she quickly recovered in the knowledge she was the hostess and so must be the one to greet him. It was one of the very few things, perhaps the only thing, she missed about no longer having a male relative who might take on this role. Although if Charles were still alive, the weekend would not be happening at all. He had been far too close-pursed to extend a week-long invitation to a houseful of guests.
Bea stepped down from the terrace before Wolferton reached it, preferring her guests did not overhear their conversation.
She and Wolferton did not, and had never, mingled in the same social circles. Indeed, Bea was not acquainted with the gentleman beyond a nod of acknowledgment at one Society event or another.
As a widow of seven and twenty, Bea deliberately maintained a quiet presence in Society, whereas Wolferton, a single gentleman of possibly five and thirty, was recognized as part of the small group of gentlemen notoriously known as The Sinners. Some said they were so named in honor of the leader of their group, Dominik Sinclair, the Duke of Stonewell. Others were less charitable and claimed it referred to the scandalous behavior of those eight gentlemen.
As scandalous as turning up uninvited at the home of a woman to whom Wolferton had barely spoken half a dozen words in the past ten years?
Bea’s thoughts raced, her heart pounding as she waited for the duke to reach her. It must be obvious she was entertaining a house party. Would Wolferton expect to be invited to become a member of that party and stay for the remainder of the week? If so, where was Bea to put him?
Her most prestigious guest, the Earl of Landbourne, currently occupied the bedchamber next to her own, which had once belonged to her husband, Charles. But a duke certainly outranked an earl, and Wolferton was not a gentleman ever to accept second best. Which meant either Bea or the earl would have to relocate to another bedchamber—
This was ridiculous. Whatever Wolferton was doing in Bedfordshire, it could not be with the intention of becoming one of her guests for the rest of the week. This arrogant duke was used to much more sophisticated entertainment than Bea had to offer. Indeed, she cringed at the very idea of his scornful reaction to being told he would be expected to wear fancy dress for dinner this evening. Or of the outing to attend church tomorrow morning, followed by a picnic lunch in the garden, and then the treasure hunt Bea had organized for her guests to enjoy in the afternoon.
No, Wolferton could not—Bea thanked God—have come here with any intention of staying.
An assortment of the local gentry and some of the lower members of Society comprised Darius’s first impression of the guests of Lady Beatrix Hanwell. Not least being the hostess herself.
That lady had not been a great beauty when she appeared at her first Season ten years ago. Five years of marriage to a gentleman many years older than herself, followed by another two years as that gentleman’s widow, had not improved her looks in the slightest.
She was short, with no tits to speak of, nor was the dull brown gown she wore in the least flattering to that slenderness or the pallor of her complexion. She also chose to wear her fair hair in far too severe a style. Darius was not an expert in how women styled their hair, nor did he wish to be, but he believed a few loose curls at Lady Hanwell’s temple and nape might have softened that severity of style somewhat. Her deep brown eyes were rather fine, he allowed, and as far as he could see, the only claim to beauty in an otherwise nondescript and forgettable face.
And this, Darius recognized with a contemptuous curl of his top lip, was the woman whose name he had picked out of Stonewell’s top hat a week ago. Darius had tried, as Stonewell had advised they could, to exchange that name with one of his close friends, but as might be expected, there had been no takers.
Nor had it pleased him, after making inquiries, to learn that the lady had already left London for the summer months and now resided at her country estate in Bedfordshire.
He had spoken to Stonewell on the matter, suggesting that as the lady had left the gossip and salons of London, she could not be the spy. His friend had disagreed with him, counter suggesting that perhaps the lady had left London for the very reason of meeting up with the person to whom she wished to pass further information. That her week-long summer party could be merely a shield to hide that meeting.
Much as Darius would have liked to disagree with Stonewell, he unfortunately found some merit in the other man’s argument. That left him no choice, if this matter was to be settled as quickly as Stonewell wished, but to follow Lady Hanwell to Bedfordshire, which had not pleased Darius in the least. He had never followed any woman anywhere before, not even one he genuinely desired. Which he certainly did not in Beatrix Hanwell’s case.
“Your Grace.” That lady made a polite curtsey as he reached her side.
He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Lady Hanwell.”
She seemed at a loss to know what to say next, pausing for several seconds before speaking again. “Is there some way in which I might assist you, Your Grace? Are you perhaps visiting someone in the area and have lost your way?”
Now came the tricky part, Darius acknowledged derisively, of announcing he was in the area to visit her. Not that he had any intention of being forestalled in that intent; he had not earned his reputation for ruthless arrogance by asking rather than taking. But convincing this lady of his interest in her was surely going to take all of his considerable ability.
“I am not in the least lost, Lady Beatrix,” he assured her lightly. “I have arrived exactly where I wish to be. In fact, my coaches are currently at the front of the house, and my valet is overseeing having my luggage brought into the house.”
She appeared startled. “He is?”
“Yes.” He made an effort to soften his austere features into something he hoped resembled a smile—although he could not guarantee this was the case, considering the expression did not come naturally to him—as he reached out to clasp one of her lace-gloved hands in both of his. He ignored the audible gasps from several women on the terrace and instead concentrated all his considerable attention on the obviously disconcerted Lady Beatrix. “I was most unhappy when I called at Hanwell House and learned you had already quit London for the summer.”
She lowered a quizzical brow. “You were…?”
“But of course,” he answered smoothly. “I thought I had made it clear at Lady Cooper’s picnic earlier this week that I returned your interest.”
Bea stared at him blankly. Having already been unnerved when Wolferton took her hand in his much warmer ones and maintained that hold, she now found his conversation puzzling to say the least. Even more disturbing was his announcement he was here to stay. “Did we actually speak whilst at Lady Cooper’s?” If they had, Bea must have slept through it, because— “Ah, I remember now. You returned my handkerchief to me when I accidentally dropped it along the path beside the lake, and I thanked you for doing so.” “Thank you, Your Grace,” having been four of the half-dozen words the two of them had exchanged in ten years.
“I am sorry, Your Grace. I am afraid I do not understand…?”
“Really,” he chided softly. “Let us not play games. You dropped your handkerchief, and I returned it.”
He raised those imperious brows. “It is a well-practiced ploy by the ladies.”
“It is?” Bea was completely at a loss as to why it was.
“Of course.” Impatience underlined the duke’s tone now. “The lady drops her handkerchief to see if any of the gentlemen are interested in a…flirtation. If they are, then the handkerchief is picked up and returned to the lady.”
Bea moistened the dryness of her lips. “And if my dropping the handkerchief really was merely an accident?”
“Of course,” she confirmed evenly.
Although Bea admitted it was somewhat intriguing to learn Wolferton had not thought that to be the case. As was his response in coming here to fulfill what he had considered to be an invitation of intimacy with her.
Again, an utterly ridiculous notion. Bea had not reached her late twenties without being completely aware of her own attributes. Or lack of them.
Her mother had died during Bea’s birth, and her father had joined his wife seven years ago. Bea’s own husband, Charles, was also dead, and she had no other family now but a few distant cousins with whom she kept in touch but rarely saw. Nevertheless, she made a point of being a loyal and good friend to several of the ladies she had met during her first Season. A fair and considerate mistress to her household staff. She also treated with respect and kindness those older and younger than herself.
Loyalty and kindness were all well and good, but Bea had no illusions about her looks. She knew she was not a beauty and never had been. Nor did she possess any of the other feminine wiles a sophisticated and experienced gentleman such as Wolferton was reputed to find attractive.
It was a pity, but that was the truth of it—
Bea became very conscious of the fact her much smaller hand was still held in both of Wolferton’s. As she was also aware of the pleasant smell of his cologne: citrus and sandalwood, with an underlying male musk she believed to be all him, and which was having the strangest effect upon her.
For one thing, she was breathing in that enticing combination of aromas, and she could not seem to look away from those compelling gray eyes. Nor did she think the heat now suffusing her body to be due solely to the warmth of the day. The temperature was, at best, pleasantly warm. The bodice of her gown also felt a little tighter than it had earlier, as if her breasts had become plumper, causing the rosy tips to chafe against the cotton of her chemise. Those buds certainly felt uncomfortably swollen and sensitive.
Bea was once again struck dumb, this time by her unexpected physical response to Wolferton. Her marriage to Charles had not been a happy or passionate one, the latter partly due to his being over thirty years her senior, the former because, after only one year of marriage, Bea had decided she was not a sensual woman. Indeed, Charles had needed…further incentive during the last two years of their marriage to be able to have sexual relations with her at all. Even then, he had still complained she was like a stick of unresponsive wood lying beneath him, and the only reason he persisted was because he wanted an heir. An heir Bea had failed to give him.
So it came as something of a shock to Bea to realize she was physically responding more strongly to having Wolferton hold her hand than she had to sexual relations with Charles during the whole of their five-year marriage.
Darius waited for the conclusion to whatever thoughts were currently preoccupying Lady Beatrix. Although he hoped it would not take too long. His reputation for possessing absolutely no patience was not an exaggeration.
In the meantime, it gave him time to consider the blush now warming Lady Beatrix’s cheeks, and the way in which it gave her an unexpected beauty. No, perhaps beauty was too strong a word, but the added color certainly gave a sparkle to those huge brown eyes and caused a rosy flush to the fullness of her lips. The top lip was intriguingly plumper than the bottom, something Darius had heard was indicative of a passionate nature.
Perhaps seducing this lady into revealing whether or not she had been and still was a spy for Napoleon would not be so much of a chore after all?
She drew in a deep breath, as if she had forgotten to breathe these past few minutes. “I am afraid you were utterly mistaken in drawing that conclusion, Your Grace—”
“Darius,” he corrected huskily. “Or Wolf, if you prefer it,” he added as another frown creased her brow.
She gave a shake of her head. “Addressing you with the familiarity of either of those names would be inappropriate. As I said”—she pointedly withdrew her hand from his grasp before putting both her hands behind her back for good measure—“you were mistaken in thinking that I was encouraging your interest during the picnic we both attended earlier this week.”
He arched an autocratic brow. “But I am not mistaken in sensing your interest today.”
A deeper color bloomed in her cheeks. “I am merely…taken aback by your unexpected arrival and the reason for it.”
His mouth quirked in the semblance of another smile. “Then I shall continue to keep you in a state of suspense, because I have every intention of joining your other guests and remaining by your side for the remainder of the week.”
Her frown was pained. “Is this some sort of dare or bet on your part?”
He raised those arrogant brows. “I beg your pardon?”
She sighed her impatience. “I have heard it said that gentlemen indulge in such wagers as to who will be first to seduce this or that woman. That these wagers are even written down in a book at gentlemen’s clubs such as White’s.”
Darius’s mouth thinned. “By callow youths who do not know better. I am far too old for such nonsense as that.” He scowled his displeasure. “Nor is your conclusion that this must be one of those occasions in the least flattering, to either yourself or to me.”
“That is possibly because I have no illusions in regard to my own appearance, Your Grace.”
He looked down the length of his nose at her. “Then it is as well I have enough interest for both of us.”
“You are wasting your time on me,” she stated firmly.
The duke shrugged. “It is my time to waste.”
“You will not succeed in seducing me,” she insisted impatiently.
“Now who is the one extending a dare?”
“I assure you it was not meant as such, but merely as a statement of fact.”
“Are you actually denying me an invitation of remaining here as your guest?”
Bea doubted that anyone had ever denied this man anything he set his mind on. Except this time, he stated he had set his sights on her. “The entertainments I intend to provide for my guests are far too unsophisticated for your tastes.”
“On the contrary, the potential entertainment you offer is endless,” he drawled softly as he looked at her beneath hooded lids.
Bea winced at the realization he had deliberately misunderstood her words. This was a conversation she had absolutely no intention of encouraging or continuing. “I would not want to keep you from your family.”
His expression hardened. “I do not have any family.”
Bea instantly realized her mistake. It was well known this man’s parents, the previous Duke and Duchess of Wolferton, had both died when he was young. Being an only child, he had been left to the guardianship of his father’s younger brother. Gossip intimated it had been a stormy relationship, although Bea had no idea in what way. She only knew that Wolferton, once that guardianship came to an end on his twenty-first birthday, had never publicly spoken to or acknowledged his uncle again.
All eight of the gentlemen who called themselves The Sinners had been orphaned at a young age, and no doubt this was part of the reason those gentlemen had been drawn to each other and formed such a close bond during their school years. A friendship that continued to this day. “Your friends, then.”
The duke gave a dismissive shake of his head. “They are all currently busy doing other things.”
“But I do not have a bedchamber prepared for your use.” Bea was unhappy to hear a note of desperation entering her voice.
He eyed her mockingly. “In that case, I have no objection to sharing your own bedchamber.”
Bea’s eyes widened in shock. She frowned her displeasure as Wolferton chuckled at her reaction. “I do not appreciate being toyed with in this way,” she snapped.
“Then let me assure you that in future I will be happy to toy with you in whatever way brings you the greatest pleasure, my dear Bea.” He stepped closer. “That is what your close friends call you, is it not? Bea?”
This whole conversation had passed completely beyond Bea’s control. If it had ever been within it, which she seriously doubted. She was no match for a gentleman as arrogant and forceful as Wolferton.
“Which you are not,” she stated politely but firmly.
“I am going to be,” he assured her huskily. “It is my intention to be very close to you before this week has ended.”
“You are welcome to join my other guests for a week of pleasant activities, Your Grace.” She pointedly added the formality so there would be no mistaking the invitation for anything other than what it was. “But you do so in the understanding I harbor no interest whatsoever in becoming your mistress,” she added for good measure.
A slow and—yes, positively wolfish smile now curved those sculpted lips. “A week of sharing my bed would not make you my mistress, Bea.”
“I have no interest in the two of us sharing a bed for so much as a single hour.” She frowned her frustration with his single-minded pursuit.
“Liar,” he taunted softly.
Was she lying?
There was no doubting she felt flattered by Wolferton having stated an interest in seducing her. Her insides were also aflutter with an unfamiliar excitement. Her nipples felt hot and fully engorged, and between her thighs was swollen and damp with a wetness which had not been present during any of her sexual relations with Charles. Indeed, he had complained often when her lack of a response necessitated him having to provide that lubrication by applying an ointment to his cock before attempting to breach and enter her.
Wolferton, it seemed, not only caused that natural lubrication without any effort, but was also experienced enough to know that he did.
Bea stepped away from him. “Please feel free to join my other guests on the terrace for afternoon tea while I go and talk to my butler and arrange a bedchamber be made ready for your use.” She turned on her heel and lightly ascended the terrace steps before hurrying inside the house.
All the time aware of a narrowed gray gaze watching her every step.