She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(18) by Lorraine Heath
He saw the hurt wash over her expression. Was he doomed to always wound her—keeping secrets, withholding his trust, talking only of superficial things, offering gifts for dangers confronted?
“You do not owe me. My actions that night were done with no expectation of reward.”
He didn’t know how to respond to her heartfelt declaration. He should have waited until Tristan returned from the docks so he could accompany him when delivering the gift. He doubted his brother would be tongue-tied. He’d make light of it. But Sebastian had not wanted to wait. The truth was he’d wanted a few moments with Mary alone, although for the life of him, he didn’t understand why the yearning had been so strong. Perhaps because she’d been a friend more to him than to the others. Now that she was grown, he didn’t appreciate that they’d noticed the beauty she’d become, or that they’d noticed her before he had.
“It is only a small token of our appreciation,” he finally said.
“So, it’s from all of you then?” Now she appeared disappointed.
He didn’t understand her mercurial moods. He’d known women over the years—many women—but he’d been only interested in determining how best to quickly divest them of their clothes. He’d certainly had no interest in figuring out anything beyond that. He felt as though he were lost at sea, drowning in tidal waves of uncertainty. What did she want him to say? He would say it if it would please her, would bring the smile back to her face.
“Yes. From all of us. I selected it.”
He must have gotten it right because the disappointment retreated. Thank God. That was troublesome. That he cared about disappointing her. When they were children, he had simply accepted that she’d always be there. He’d never weighed his words or his actions. Now he measured each one and found them sadly lacking.
His inadequate conversational skills didn’t bode well for his success in finding a woman to marry him. If he wished to place blame elsewhere, he could blame it on his throbbing face or the lingering results from the trauma of his wounds, but he feared the fault rested with something more, some deficiency in him that was doomed to unravel the friendship they’d possessed as children.
She lowered her gaze, hesitated. “A lady should not accept gifts from a gentleman.”
“It is from three friends. And we are hardly gentlemen.”
She lifted her gaze to his. The clover green in her eyes reminded him of the verdant hills of home. He could look forever, and never tire of them. On the top of one rounded cheek, he spotted a bold freckle. He wanted to remove his glove and trace his finger over it. But he feared his errant hand wouldn’t stop there. He would want to touch the whole of her cheek, trail his thumb over her plump lips, especially the lower one that appeared as welcoming as a pillow. He’d had little enough softness in his life, and the temptation to revel in it here was almost beyond enduring. He’d been on the verge of explaining that based on the idle banter Rafe had overheard at his club from those who were at the ball before seeking more wicked pleasures, the brothers were seen as little more than barbarians. But his thoughts toward her exemplified his point. If not for the maid standing nearby, he wasn’t certain he’d have been able to restrain himself. She was such a temptation—sweet, innocent, a beauty beyond measure.
And she belonged to another man, but that truth seemed to hold him in place rather than cause him to depart as it should.
“So many of your freckles disappeared,” he said quietly, knowing he was veering from one tawdry subject into another—one that had the potential to be far more dangerous.
“With you gone, I had little occasion to play in the sun. And then, of course, a lady should never be without her bonnet or parasol.”
“I rather liked the freckles.”
She smiled, a ravishing smile that transformed her lovely features into an exquisiteness that was breathtaking. “I abhorred them. And you are a gentleman. You may have come across as somewhat brutal last night, but I believe the situation regarding your uncle warranted it.”
Her words sent his thoughts careening back onto the path they never should have left. If only his menacing, harsh outlook were limited to last night, but a part of him embraced the brutality as a means of protecting himself. He wasn’t proud of it, but he knew he needed it to survive, to do what had to be done in order to reclaim Pembrook. “Because you’re our friend.” He nudged the box against her hand.
He could not have been more pleased when she took it, removed the paper, opened it, and gasped. It was a simple necklace that sported nothing more than a small oval emerald that matched the shade of her eyes.
“Oh, it’s so lovely.” Smiling brightly, she held out the box. “Will you place it on me?”
He would have to remove his gloves in order to grasp and work the delicate clasp. He was shaken by the immediacy with which his fingers trembled. The thought of them being so near to her skin, of his knuckles touching the silkiness at the nape of her neck—
He shot to his feet while he was still able to stand without his lower body revealing the errant direction of his thoughts. This was Mary. God, she deserved more than a rutting bull or a man with lascivious thoughts who would like nothing better than to take her behind the rose bushes for a leisurely sojourn into pleasure. She was a lady. Betrothed. Hardly deserving of the beast he’d become. “I’m sure that is a task more suited to your maid. It was a pleasure to see you again, Mary. I wish you well in your marriage.”
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