She Tempts the Duke(Lost Lords of Pembrook,Book 1)(65) by Lorraine Heath
When she strolled into her father’s study, she realized the same couldn’t be said of Sebastian as he turned from the window to greet her. He wore a dark blue jacket over a striking red waistcoat. She was so accustomed to him striving not to draw attention to himself that it seemed slightly out of character, but it was the perfect foil to his pristine white cravat. He was freshly shaven with no shadow across his jaw. His once unfashionably long hair had been expertly trimmed. He bowed his head slightly. “Lady Mary.”
“Your Grace. I’m glad to see you so recovered.”
“I still have a way to go I think, but at least I’m well on the right path, thanks in large part to your tender and generous ministrations.”
Blushing, she turned to her father who stood near the fireplace, an amber-filled glass in hand. No fire burned, and yet his forehead was coated in dew. He took a quick swipe at it with his handkerchief before downing the liquid courage in his glass, and she wondered why he felt a need to shore himself up.
“His Grace has asked for your hand in marriage,” her father said as though she’d spoken her musings aloud.
She jerked her gaze to Sebastian. He met her regard with a steady one of his own, although he looked far from happy.
“I’ll leave you two to discuss things,” her father said, setting his glass aside before striding toward her. He stopped just shy of her. “Under the circumstances I encourage you to accept.”
He was offering her the illusion of choice, for she saw in his eyes that he would take the matter out of her hands if need be. He was worried about her future. And who would have her now?
The snick of the door closing vibrated through her almost like the ringing of a death knell. She thought back to the night she and Sebastian had kissed. When he had blanketed his mouth over hers, he’d caused her to lose all sense of propriety. She couldn’t deny that she became lost in the sensations he elicited, but that was hardly enough to indicate that they were well suited to marriage.
“Your marriage at the end of the month can go on as planned, with just a different groom at the altar,” he said quietly.
“You consider that a proposal?”
“I’m attempting to make right a wrong that was done to you.”
“A wrong I brought upon myself.”
“I kissed you in the garden.”
“Which Fitzwilliam forgave. He forbade me to see you and I went to see you because of the awful rumors that you forced yourself on me.”
“And stayed to nurse me back to health.”
“My choice. You should not suffer because of it.”
“How in God’s name do you think I would suffer if you were my wife?”
“I bring with me scandal.”
“You are no more notorious than I.”
She bit her lip, gave a curt laugh. “I suppose our notoriety is tied together, isn’t it?”
“Very much so.”
“Do you love me, Sebastian?”
He sounded truly baffled as though the thought of someone being madly in love with her was beyond the pale. It irritated.
“He had a care for me.” She strolled to the window and gazed out. “What are your plans?”
“To marry you.”
His tone yielded no doubt. She might have laughed, relaxed, welcomed the notion of marriage to him if she heard even a hint of teasing. “I meant beyond that.”
“Return to Pembrook with as much haste as possible.” He removed something from his pocket, unfurled his fingers to reveal a disgustingly filthy bit of rag.
She wrinkled her nose, but then she paused in wonder at the frayed and faded ribbon that held everything together. It was nearly white but once it had been a bright yellow. “My ribbon.”
“It holds the soil from Pembrook, soil I took that night. It is all that kept me alive, all that kept me going through the interminable years when I fought to find my way back. I could smell the richness of the dirt, the centuries that my ancestors had fought and died there.” He closed his fist around it, clutching it tightly. “It’s everything to me, Mary. It’s all that mattered.”
The daughter of an earl, she appreciated the value of land and titles, but for Sebastian, it almost seemed to be an obsession. Family, flesh, blood, his brothers. Surely they mattered more.
As though reading her thoughts, he said, “All that my brothers and I endured was so that I would one day again have Pembrook in my hands. It is now mine, and I will let nothing—no one—deprive me of it. As my wife, you will share this with me.”
“I don’t know that I can love it as you do. It is a harsh foreboding place, and with your uncle’s dealings, it has such a sordid history.”
“It is my home.”
Those few words, succinctly spoken, said it all.
“And what of us?” She shifted her gaze and found his on her. As always. But there was no warmth there, no yearning. He had erected a wall to his soul that she doubted she had the power to break through. “What do you envision for us?”
He looked away then. She watched as he tightened his jaw. “I know I am not your first choice for husband, and I rue the circumstances that forced you to have to choose me at all. But I will do all in my power to see that you never regret it.”
Choice. Choose. Words that had no meaning. She was already considered on the shelf, and it would no doubt take years to put this incident behind her, for another gentleman to gaze on her and think her worthy. She would be far older, and perhaps wiser. Perhaps not.
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