She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(48) by Lorraine Heath
“They hurt you so badly,” she whispered.
He was close to becoming unmanned. He would if he saw a single tear, but what he saw was far worse. Anger in her lovely green eyes. Perhaps even hatred. She pressed her lips tightly together, lowered her hand to just below his ribs. Her touch contained such tenderness that it made him want to weep, made him want to wrap his arm around her, draw her in against his good side, hold her near. Never let her go.
But he couldn’t risk even a moment of softness, couldn’t risk revealing a hint of weakness. He could not take what he could never keep. She was not his. It was a litany he’d repeated in his laudanum-induced haze when the pain kept him conscious. She was not his.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
Tearing his gaze from her, he looked down and saw the bright red marring the bandage wrapped around his waist.
“He did this to you, didn’t he? Your uncle.”
“I do not think he would be this brazen.”
She lifted her gaze to his, held it, and for a heartbeat he was back at Pembrook, young and innocent, believing that the world would one day be handed to him on a silver platter. Life would be fox hunts and pheasant shooting. Not rifles aimed at men. Life would be riding horses for sport not survival. Pleasures would involve beautiful women who wanted to be with him, instead of women who gasped and feared approaching him, as though his scars were contagious, as though they would somehow find a way to make the ladies ugly as well.
He had kissed Mary in the darkness when all that he was had been hidden from her. Now the harsh sunlight was revealing the marbling of puckered flesh that marred so much of him. Yet she didn’t step back, she didn’t turn away. He wondered if he lowered his mouth to hers now without the kindness of shadows, if she would close her eyes on a sigh or grimace as the creature he was grew too near.
“What have we here?” Tristan asked, his deep voice breaking the spell, sending Sebastian’s thoughts careening back to the reality of where they were, what they were. “My brother with three lovely ladies in his bedchamber? I could very well become jealous.”
“We’re not in his bedchamber,” Lady Alicia protested.
“Close enough, dear lady,” Tristan said as he strode into the room, his speculative gleam running over both Sebastian and Mary.
Mary stepped away, her hand leaving Sebastian’s skin, taking the warmth with her, sending a chill through him.
“Your brother is bleeding. If you’ll bring bandages, I’ll see to it.” Mary began tugging off her gloves and only then did Sebastian realize that she’d been wearing them the entire time. Her touch had been so gentle, so warm that he could have sworn it was skin upon skin.
“My valet can see to it,” Sebastian said. “Thomas, escort the ladies to their carriage.”
Mary spun around and glared at him. “I’m not leaving until I know what happened last night.”
Stubborn wench! “How did you even hear of it?” They hadn’t told anyone, had planned to keep it quiet. No sense in having rumors bandied about until they knew the truth of what had transpired.
“Unfortunately, it’s all over London,” Tristan said before Mary could answer. “That’s why I’m here. I thought you should know.”
“Yes, I heard of it at the dressmaker’s,” Mary confirmed.
“The dressmaker’s?” Sebastian repeated.
“Mary was being fitted for her wedding gown,” Lady Alicia explained.
He hadn’t been questioning why she was at the dressmaker’s, only that the gossip was being spouted in the corner of small shops. But now to know what she was doing, to be reminded that she would be married soon—
“We may have a problem there,” she said quietly.
“I should say,” her aunt suddenly announced. “Apparently you kissed her in the garden, Your Grace, and that bit of news shall no doubt be known throughout all of London by nightfall.”
Mary slammed her eyes closed and her cheeks burned red. “Oh, I have mucked things up.”
“Well,” Tristan drawled, “life in London just got more interesting. And here I was thinking of setting sail, but how can I leave this behind?”
“The rumors are that you were attacked by a soldier from your regiment who says men died because you were a coward.”
Standing in front of the cheval glass, Sebastian could see his brother’s reflection as he lounged in a nearby chair. Even when Tristan was sprawled over furniture there was an alertness to him that suggested he could enter into the thick of a battle before he drew his next breath.
Sebastian was hoping for at least a day’s reprieve from the business of securing his title. He wanted to take a large dose of laudanum and return to his bed. His side ached unbearably. His valet had changed the bandages and was now helping him to dress so he could visit with his guests in the parlor.
“Why are there rumors at all when we said nothing, and no one saw us?” he asked.
“I suspect Uncle had a hand in that. He’s striving to discredit you. He wants the lords to back the petition he’s preparing that urges the queen to grant the title to him because you are undeserving.”
“If being deserving were a criteria, a good many lords would find themselves without titles.” With a grimace, he moved as best he could to assist his valet in putting on his jacket. It was a dark blue, very conservative. Still he looked to be a man who was not at his best.
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