She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(4) by Lorraine Heath
“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.
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