She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(7) by Lorraine Heath
He knew what she saw. What they all saw. Mutilated flesh, thick scars that trailed down his cheek, over his jaw, along his neck, until they disappeared beneath his collar.
And just as she saw him more clearly, so he saw her.
Her hair was a familiar crimson. A memory washed over him, of riding over the land, chasing after a girl who could never elude him because her hair prevented her from blending in with the countryside. Her presence had given all that surrounded them a vibrancy that matched her spirit, a richness that rivaled the sun.
But this woman standing before him could not be who he thought. Where the deuce were her freckles? The girl he’d known had been covered in a constellation that he mapped out whenever she was still enough for him to study her. He knew them as well as he knew the stars in the night sky. And she’d been as flat as a plank of wood. This woman had curves that invited a man to touch and linger. Her throat and shoulders were bared, and he imagined the silky smoothness of them. He spied one freckle just above the swell of a breast and he wondered how the sun had come to kiss her there. His mouth went dry. She could not possibly be—
“Mary?” he croaked.
She smiled in answer, just a soft tilting up of her lips. Familiarity fed a ridiculous notion to speak with her first, to ask how she was, then go in search of his uncle.
But then he saw the pity in her lovely green eyes, the tears welling. His gut clenched. He had both dreaded and anticipated this moment of seeing her again. And a pain far worse than anything he’d endured on the battlefield pierced his heart.
He knew what he’d become. Had smashed the mirror that had first revealed it to him. He would have spared her the horror of it, but to expose his uncle he had to expose himself. Just this once, and then he would be done with it.
“Don’t,” he commanded, barely moving his lips, the force of the word not carrying beyond her ears.
Blinking back her tears, setting her jaw in a familiar determined manner, she gave a quick nod and squared those distracting bared shoulders. “Your uncle knew only that you disappeared. No one knew where you’d gone, what your fates had been. Speculation abounded that you’d died. Wolves, illness, murder. So many stories. No one knew which was true. But after all this time, the certainty was that you were dead.”
It was Tristan who laughed darkly, without humor. “Well, then it seems that word of our demise was a bit premature, doesn’t it?”
Mary nodded. “For which we’re all grateful.”
Sebastian doubted that his uncle would be as pleased. He slid his gaze over to the party’s hostess. She, too, was gripping the banister now, reminding him of a baby bird that had suddenly found itself shoved out of the nest before it was ready to test its wings. He couldn’t risk taking pity on her, of showing even a hint of weakness. She was the devil’s plaything, and while she might be innocent, she could still prove very dangerous. “Where is he, madam? Where is your husband?”
She appeared dazed, her brow deeply furrowed. “Playing cards most likely.”
“Send someone to fetch him.”
From a well of indignation deep inside her, she regained her equilibrium, drew herself up to her full height, and matched him stare for stare. “See here! I am not to be ordered about in my own house.”
“It is mine,” he ground out, descending two steps. She released an ear-splitting screech and, with hands fluttering, raced down the stairs. “Lord David! Lord David!”
Sebastian went down two more steps, heard the echo of his brothers’ boots hitting the marble after his. “I am the true Duke of Keswick. My brothers and I are reclaiming what was stolen from us.”
“You look like your father,” a gentleman announced.
Sebastian almost laughed. “I no longer do, but Tristan does. Remarkably so. As my twin, he will serve as proof enough that we are who we claim to be. And I wear our father’s signet ring.”
He thought the ballroom had been quiet, but if at all possible a heavier silence descended, with the solemnity of a funeral. He had not expected jubilant rejoicing but he’d hoped for a bit more acceptance. He could feel the stares, sense the speculation. He did not like airing dirty laundry before strangers, had considered confronting his uncle in the privacy of his library, but the man had earned a public flogging. This was as close to one as Sebastian could deliver.
“What the devil is going on here?”
And at long last, there he was: the usurper. Blustering and lumbering his way through the crowd. By Sebastian’s estimation at least three hundred people were in attendance. When his uncle reached the stairs and looked up, he came to a staggering stop. Sebastian knew he shouldn’t have been, but he was surprised by the man’s appearance. He didn’t know why he had expected him to remain the same when no one else had. His uncle had never been particularly tall, but he was stockier than he’d been in his youth. Obviously he enjoyed the fruits he’d stolen. Rings adorned thick well-manicured fingers. His hair was awash in white. His nose was pointing too high in the air, a man who thought he was owed things he was not.
Lord David shook his head in obvious disbelief before glancing around with wide eyes, perhaps searching for a hole in the floor through which he could conveniently drop. “My nephews are dead.”
Sebastian did laugh then, although it more closely resembled a bark. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d truly laughed, but he knew it had been before his father died. “Believing your own lies?”
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