She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(9) by Lorraine Heath
They had grown to manhood, obviously, but it had not been a pleasant journey. With wintry eyes that had sent a chill through her bones, they had each looked so harsh, unforgiving. Not that she blamed them. They’d suffered the worst sort of betrayal. Their own blood had wished them harm, had sought to murder them.
“I thought they were dead,” Lord David was blubbering now as one of the lords questioned him regarding how all this could have happened. “I’ve not had a word from them in all these years. I’ve served as steward to the duke’s holdings, because my brother would have wanted it. Their distrust and accusations are uncalled for.”
No, they’re not, she had an urge to shout. You locked them in the tower. Why do that if your purpose was not to kill them?
Lord David was sweating profusely, fighting for breath, the whites of his eyes clearly visible as he searched frantically around him at those who had once expected him to rise in their ranks.
“I’m telling you,” he ranted on as though questions had been asked when in truth people were only staring at him. “I’d have not petitioned to gain the title if I’d known they were alive. I did all in my power to find them. They did not wish to be found. Even you all thought they were dead. You’ve heard the rumors. Wolves, disease, murder. How was I to know the truth? Did you know? Did any of you know?”
Then his wild gaze fell on Mary, and she saw hatred there, directed at her as though he suspected, as though he knew what she’d done. A shiver of dread coursed through her, but she angled her chin defiantly and met his gaze with a challenging one of her own.
Then he was shoving people aside as though they were all beneath him and did not warrant his regard. “The revelry is over! Go home! Leave me be!”
He broke through the crowd and barreled down the hallway, his wife of a few months traipsing after him, wringing her gloved hands, squeaking like a cornered dormouse. She stopped, turned to her guests, moved her lips, flapped her arms, and released a distressing moan before turning to chase after her husband once again. Mary’s heart went out to her. She’d certainly not warranted this upheaval to her life.
She was startled when someone gripped her arm. “What is he to you?” Fitzwilliam asked.
“The man claiming to be the Duke of Keswick. You looked . . . enthralled.”
“Joyous,” she admitted, clutching his hand. “They’re alive. Until this moment, I feared they were truly dead. And it is more than a claim. It is the truth. They are who they say they are. We all grew up together, until they disappeared, but I would recognize them anywhere.”
At least when they were together. She wasn’t quite certain that she could make the same claim if she saw them separately. They possessed little refinement. There was nothing genteel about them. Their character exuded a roughness, their presence spoke of hardships endured, possibly not all conquered. She had long dreamed of seeing them again, but what she had imagined was not what appeared before her.
People were shoving past them, making their way up the stairs as the drama seemed to have ended. For now, anyway. She ignored the whisperings and murmurings, giving her attention to the man before her even though she dearly wanted to know what people were saying, what they were thinking. “You do believe them, don’t you?”
He suddenly appeared uncomfortable. “It matters little what I believe. My title is simply a courtesy. It carries no weight.”
“Among your friends it does.” And she knew that some of his friends held their true titles. They could be powerful allies, should the brothers need them.
“Come along,” Fitzwilliam said. “It would be best if we left as quickly as possible. I don’t trust the ruffians not to return and inflict chaos. I’d heard of bloodlust, but dear Lord until tonight, I’d never seen it.”
“They’re not ruffians and they have a right to be angry. Lord David wished them harm. He was the reason they ran away.” She squeezed his hand, wondering how to make him understand, only she glanced around and saw that people were slowing their step, lingering to hear their conversation. She’d not have the recently returned lords serve as fodder for gossip. Although that ship had sailed, she’d not add to its cargo. So instead she said, “I came with Alicia and Aunt Sophie.”
“You shall all travel in my carriage.”
“We have our own.”
“I don’t like the way that man looked at you. He could be lurking about. Considering tonight’s turn of events, it would be unconscionable for me to allow three ladies to travel without a male escort to see after them.”
They had the driver and footman but she supposed he didn’t consider servants protection enough. Nor could she deny that she rather enjoyed his concern. “We shall need to find my cousin and aunt,” she told him.
“I shall see to it posthaste,” he assured her. “Do not leave this spot.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
She watched with fondness as he marched off to find them. He would excel as a husband, always seeing after her needs and wants. Caring for her, protecting her. She could not ask for a more attentive man in her life.
She pressed herself up against the banister to allow more room for others to leave. There was such a din, everyone talking at once. The ladies’ eyes were bright, and while they tried not to show it, it was apparent they were all tantalized by the delicious events that had interrupted the dancing. And she suspected, by the three brothers who had made their appearance tonight.
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