She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(49) by Lorraine Heath
“You think Uncle is responsible for the attack?” Sebastian asked.
“Were you a coward on the battlefield?”
“Do you have to ask?”
Tristan arched a brow. “Others will. While I can’t see you being a coward, I must admit that I don’t know you as well as I might have otherwise.”
“No, I was not a coward.”
“Then yes. I think Uncle is responsible, and having failed, he is striving to make the best of a poor situation, perhaps to reflect suspicions from him. He either hired an incompetent or did it himself. Could it have been him, do you think?”
Sebastian cursed. “I did not see him at all. I struck him, but I couldn’t judge his height.”
“I’d wager it was him.”
“Even if he were to have success convincing Queen Victoria that the title should not be mine, you are next in line. Discrediting me does not make him the next logical choice.”
“I suspect he plans to cross that bridge when he gets to it. Quite honestly, I doubt Victoria would be pleased to have as one of her noblemen a man who was once a pirate. And Rafe is also of questionable character. I suspect Uncle sees you as the only one who needs to fall. The rest of us will follow.”
Sebastian dismissed his valet. Once he’d left the room, he turned to face his brother. “How involved were you in pirating?”
Tristan laughed darkly. “You are either a pirate or you are not. There are not degrees. Just as a lady’s reputation is neither slightly ruined nor terribly ruined. It is simply ruined. The question is: what are you going to do about it?”
He knew Tristan was referring to Mary and the kiss in the garden. He could overlook it when it was a secret, but now if others knew . . .
Measures would have to be taken to protect her.
The only sounds in the parlor were the clinking of teacups on saucers and the ticking of the clock on the black marble mantel. A young female servant had brought in the tea, and Aunt Sophie had seen to preparing and serving it. She’d not spoken a single word since they left the duke’s bedchamber. Mary assumed she was at a loss for words regarding her niece’s uncharacteristic brazen behavior.
Mary knew that a proper lady did not barge her way into a gentleman’s bedchamber unannounced and uninvited—or even invited for that matter. But the butler had been unwilling to provide any information regarding the duke’s condition. And a lady certainly didn’t approach a man who wore no clothing save his trousers. And she never, ever touched her fingers to his bare chest. Even though she wore kidskin gloves, she still managed to feel the fire radiating from his flesh warming hers, the rapid thudding of his heart against her palm, the subtle vibrations coming from his throat whenever he spoke.
For the first time no shadows had played over his features. He’d been too stunned to turn the marred side of his face away from her. Not that she would have let him. In the confines of his bedchamber, she’d imprisoned him in that corner and had been truly able to see all the damage that had been done to him on a faraway battlefield. She’d wanted to press her lips to every scar in order to ease the hurt. If they’d not had an audience, she wasn’t certain even he would have had the power to stop her, although she could well imagine the one word he would have spoken in a raw voice: Don’t.
He’d have not welcomed her pity, sympathy, or empathy. He’d have assumed she detected weakness when all she saw was strength. She wasn’t certain she’d truly realized how much courage it took each time he made an appearance in Society. Now she understood that his scars went far deeper than the surface.
Her reputation would soon be as scarred as his flesh, and yet his wounds reflected a noble tapestry because he had suffered them in defense of country.
“Something seems different here,” Alicia finally said, drawing Mary from her musings. “It’s changed since the ball, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.”
“The rightful duke is at long last in residence,” Mary said.
“You were quite bold in your actions regarding him in the bedchamber,” her aunt said, clear censure in her voice.
“He was in need of assistance.” He would hate her saying that. He was so proud, so determined to make his own way.
“It was not your place to provide it.”
“I could not stand by and watch as he struggled to regain his dignity.”
Her aunt shook her head. “He’d have never lost it if you’d not charged into his bedchamber without thought or proper regard.” She heaved a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, your boldness apparently did not begin there. By nightfall, I fear everyone will know about your scandalous kiss in the garden, and your father shall be put out with me for not keeping a closer watch over you.”
“Perhaps Ladies Hermione and Victoria will keep that news to themselves,” Alicia said.
“Yes, I’m quite sure that’s a possibility,” her aunt snapped, “and I shall awake twenty years younger in the morning.”
Mary hid her amusement. Under the circumstances, her world on the verge of calamity, she knew she shouldn’t find a moment of relief in her aunt’s acerbic tone, but she did. As long as she could still smile, perhaps all was not lost.
The brothers walked into the room, Sebastian moving more gingerly than Tristan. She didn’t know why so many others always had such a difficult time telling one from the other. Even though that was no longer an issue, the brothers had never looked exactly the same to her. Sebastian had always been the more serious, now even more so.
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