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A Whisper of Desire

Whisper of Desire by Bronwen Evans

 Chapter One

“Come, my love, don’t play coy with me. You have teased me mercilessly all evening,” a youthful tenor voice from the other side of the rosebushes spoke with undisguised eagerness.

Maitland Spencer, the fifth Duke of Lyttleton, sighed and stubbed his cheroot under his expertly polished shoes, counting out the twists—one, two, three—before staring into the dark night.

Was it too much to ask for a quiet moment away from the noise and heat of a crowded ballroom? Lord Dunmire did have an exceedingly beautiful garden. Instead, his peaceful moment was broken by what appeared to be an illicit liaison. He should know; he’d seen his fair share as a member of the Libertine Scholars.

The six Lords known as the Libertine Scholars, met at school, and were renowned for their scholarly brilliance as well as their popularity with the ladies. Four of them were in attendance at the ball tonight.

The event, held in the large Governor Square town house behind him, was enough to send a man mad. Mothers throwing their daughters in his path had driven him to hide in the garden. He was on guard duty tonight, helping his fellow Libertine Scholar, Sebastian, look out for his sister, Marisa.

An unknown mad woman, intent on destroying the six Libertine Scholars, was still at large. They knew very little about her, only that it looked as if the men were paying for the sins of their fathers.

Some heinous crime, orchestrated by the Libertine Scholars fathers, occurred ten years ago. Something terrible was done to this woman and now she was out for revenge. Since the fathers were now dead, the sons had become the targets.

She’d managed to almost destroy Christian, Grayson, Sebastian, and their wives. Sebastian was determined they would not hurt his two younger sisters, Helen or Marisa.

Five minutes ago, Sebastian had given Maitland a respite, and he’d wanted a peaceful moment to clear his head from all the twittering nonsense and malicious gossip. The constant drivel meant he often had to bite his tongue to stop from issuing very rude and uncivilized responses. He never knew what to say in these social situations. The ton never wanted to discuss the truth of anything, and he couldn’t seem to muster the art of lying. For instance, this evening, Lady Arielle had asked him if he liked her new broach. It was a large gold figurine with a central emerald. Apparently he was supposed to say something, like the emerald matched her lovely eyes. His response of, “No, it looks like a gargoyle with one eye” wasn’t the done thing, yet it was the truth.

Now he’d have to return to the overheated rooms or announce his presence. Perhaps he’d just go home, but he’d promised his friend Sebastian Hawkestone, the Marquis of Coldhurst, that he’d stand as an extra guard for his sister, Marisa.

A woman’s voice on the other side of the rosebushes brought him back to his predicament. Should he stay and hope they left soon, or creep away unnoticed?

“My Lord Rutherford, I’m not sure your intentions are honorable,” and then she giggled. “I’m a tad angry with you. The rumor is you’re going to propose to the Coldhurst chit.” Maitland halted. Rutherford was expected to make an offer for Marisa’s hand.

A rustle of silk followed as if she was pressing herself into his arms. “You’ll find I’m much more woman than that virginal miss will ever be.”

“Charlotte, my love, men do prefer virgins for wives,” Rutherford offered cruelly in response. “Besides, my father told me that one never marries one’s mistress.”

“I prefer the term lover. Respectable widows with large estates make even better wives. They know what a man wants in the bedroom, while bringing riches that enhance their husband’s standing, and I know how you need riches.”

Maitland almost found himself nodding in agreement with her practical advice.

“I’m certainly standing to attention at the moment,” Rutherford answered. When no reply was offered from Charlotte, he continued, “The Coldhurst girl brings a very large dowry. The damnation of it all is I only need money until Father turns up his toes. It would appear marriage is the only way to get immediate funds.”

More kissing followed. When they next stopped to grab a breath, Rutherford continued.

“However, never fear, even when I wed I intend to carry on my life as usual. The girl’s completely besotted with me, and I give her every reason to think I reciprocate those feelings. She’d never for one moment believe I have a mistress. Her brother thinks I love and respect her.” Rutherford’s next words made Maitland’s temper, which was usually difficult to rouse, flare to life. “The only reason I’ve agreed to the marriage is to get my father to stop hounding me about producing a future heir, given I’m his only son, and to gain access to my funds. I receive ten thousand pounds upon my wedding day, plus any dowry my wife brings. Father thinks marriage will settle me down.”

“If Lord Coldhurst ever finds out you don’t . . . Aren’t you scared of a duel, especially with a man like the Marquis? He killed young Baron Larkwell in the last one.” She pressed closer. “Besides, I have more money than we’ll ever need. Why not marry me.”

He chuckled. “I do want an heir, my dear. You were married to Lord Marshall for almost seven years and you produced no issue. Plus, you are five years older than I.”

“Age is irrelevant when you’re lying down,” she replied seductively.

“But not when children are required. You don’t have another seven years.”

“You are such a bastard.”

His voice held a smile. “But that’s why you love me.”

Soon there were no more words, simply moans and breathless entreats.

Maitland wanted to slip quietly away, but he now had a dilemma. Lord Coldhurst was his friend, his good friend. He remained where he was, his hands clenched at his sides. Bloody Rutherford. His best friend’s sister, Lady Marisa Hawkestone, was in love with this rogue, and was expecting a proposal. What she saw in this cad he didn’t understand. The lad was only two and twenty and still sowing his wild oats. He didn’t blame the lad for that, but what he did find utterly contemptible was professing to a love that he did not feel in order to trick Marisa into marriage. A marriage of convenience was perfectly acceptable, it’s what Maitland required, an emotionless arrangement, as long as both parties understood where they stood.

To profess love in order to trap a person into marriage was . . . well, he’d say it again, contemptible. Rutherford was, in essence, playing with Marisa’s feelings. No one deserved that.

How had this young whippet fooled her? Maitland had always thought Marisa an intelligent girl. Worse still, how had Rutherford fooled Sebastian?

What hurt his pride and honor more was that Sebastian, just a month ago, had thrown scorn on Maitland’s suggestion that they align their two houses and that he should offer for Marisa’s hand. Maitland knew he was called “the Cold Duke” within the ton. He was the first to admit that he struggled with social niceties, but he would give Marisa a good life. She’d want for nothing. She’d be a duchess, for God’s sake, married to an extremely wealthy man in his prime.

It was time he married. Maitland was conscious he was the last of his line and, with an unknown madwoman hunting him and the other five Libertine Scholars, it was more than time he took a wife and beget the heir and the spare.

He’d put off the task of finding a wife, knowing how dangerous having a woman living in his home could be. She’d be available to slate his needs whenever he wanted and God knows where that would lead. His father’s decent into debauched madness started not long after his marriage.

He’d thought a marriage to Sebastian’s sister, Marisa, a fine plan. She was a sensible, no nonsense young lady who would more than likely lie back and think of England in his bed, hardly the type of response to cause his self-control to shake.

Yet, Sebastian, his supposed friend, saw a marriage to him, a duke, as not appropriate for Marisa. Most likely because Sebastian had fallen in love, and perhaps he wanted love for Marisa. If Lord Rutherford was the answer then it proved Maitland’s view that nothing good came from love.

The sound of coupling coming from the other side of the bushes faded as he thought about the woman from his father’s past who was targeting him and his friends. They still had no idea who she was or exactly why she wanted revenge.

His father had always been a cold, cruel bastard and Maitland could well believe the previous Duke of Lyttleton had been party to some heinous act. His father had committed the heinous of acts against his own son, his only love paying the price, so why not another young girl.

But why was the villainess taking her revenge out on him, the son who had tried to live a respectable, honest life? It just didn’t make sense.

The cries of a woman in the throes of ecstasy brought him back to the present. Logically he should walk away and simply inform Sebastian as to what he had learned this night. Once Sebastian knew what Rutherford was up to, he’d never let him marry Marisa. A marriage to this utter cad would see Marisa in misery. She thought Rutherford loved her.

Maitland shook his head. She didn’t understand that love was simply a chemical imbalance within the brain. It wore off, and then what were you left with?

Lust.

And lust, if not controlled could destroy everything.

This fleeting, irrational feeling people referred to as love, was nothing to base something as important as marriage upon. A good marriage should further both family’s positions within society while building a strong alliance. Friendship and similar goals was all that was required.

Lady Marisa would have been, and still could be, a fine match for him. There’s a thought.

He decided to return to the ball and find Sebastian. Perhaps his friend would think more favorably upon a match with him now. But before he could slip away, the amorous couple walked round the rosebush and straight into him.

“Your Grace,” Rutherford stammered as he dropped the arm of the woman Maitland now knew was Lady Charlotte Marshall. “How are you, sir?”

“I would have been a lot better if I hadn’t had to listen to you two coupling behind this bush. The very bush I’d chosen to stand next to for a quiet smoke.”

The woman gasped at his outspokenness, and Rutherford’s eyes widened with horror. “It’s not what you think, Your Grace.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is. I suggest you work out a way to extradite yourself from Marisa’s affections before I have to tell her brother.” With that he turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way, do it gently. Sebastian, Lord Coldhurst to you, is an expert marksman, and you wouldn’t stand a chance in a duel with him.”

 

Marisa was enjoying Lord Dunmire’s ball. Tonight she hoped Rutherford would propose to her. She still couldn’t believe she’d let herself fall in love.

Her parents’ marriage was supposedly a love match. Society had thought they had been passionately in love with each other, only to destroy themselves with jealousy. Marisa, having grown up with their arguments and violent fights, had distained love until her brother met and married Beatrice. The happy couple had shown her what true love was, and it wasn’t hurting the one you professed to love with petty jealousy and rivalry.

She knew in her heart that Rutherford loved her. He’d made his feelings very clear from the day they had met. He’d called her his heart’s desire, his everything, and he treated her with respect and honor as if she were the most precious person in the world. The ton was expecting an announcement any day. She could not work out what was holding him back. He said he was waiting for his mother to arrive in town, but it was almost the end of the season.

She was getting a little put out by his casual assumption that she had no other choice but to wait for him. In fact, she had decided to treat him a tad cool tonight.

Maitland Spencer, Duke of Lyttleton was one of her brother’s assigned escorts, more like a guard. Her brother and his friends were being targeted by an unknown enemy, and Sebastian was taking her safety, and that of her sister Helen, seriously.

She’d considered flirting with His Grace tonight in order to make her point with Rutherford, but something about Maitland unsettled her. She’d danced with him earlier and in his arms her stomach flipped, her body came alive in a way she thought entirely inappropriate. She had no idea why. He was always so proper.

To her annoyance Rutherford didn’t seem to notice her flirtation. In fact, as her eyes scanned the crowded room, she couldn’t see him anywhere. He’d paid her little attention other than to dance the first waltz with her.

Upon her arrival Lord Rutherford had been waiting at the bottom of the stairs, as she, her brother, and sister-in-law were announced. He’d looked so handsome she’d almost forgotten to breathe. His fair hair had glinted gold in the glow from the candles flanking the edge of the ballroom. He was tall enough to stand a head above most of the guests. He looked like a Roman emperor with his strong nose and chiseled jaw, with cheekbones that gave his face a masculine beauty that could make a woman weep. When she’d drawn level with him, he’d taken her hand and kissed it. His caramel-colored eyes were filled with warmth and love.

That had been over three hours ago. She’d slipped free of Beatrice’s constant presence and drifted through the crowd looking for Rutherford without any luck. Her feet were beginning to hurt so she looked around for a place she could sit without being observed and spied a private alcove. She moved toward it while dreaming of becoming his wife and finally learning about passion. Her untutored woman’s body warmed with desire just thinking about what it would be like to share a man’s bed. To be naked with him. To let him . . . To her horror Maitland’s face flickered in her head.

She put her hands to her heated face and turned, promptly colliding with what felt like a wall of rock. She looked up and her pleasant thoughts vanished. Maitland Spencer, the Cold Duke, gripped her waist to stop her sliding to the floor. Her hands lay against his chest, granite beneath her fingertips.

“My apologies, Lady Marisa. You should look where you are going.”

She’d known His Grace since childhood and still he referred to her as Lady Marisa, always so formal. She disliked the deep voice void of any emotion, but it still sent shivers down her spine. Why, after her improper thoughts, did it have to be Maitland of all men? Anger spiked at the implication she was at fault.

She looked up into features too cold to be thought handsome yet there was something compelling about him. She studied the strands of dark copper hair cut slightly longer than acceptable—the man did not conform to any of society’s dictates. The hint of silver at his temples added to his air of remoteness, not making him look old, merely distinguished. She knew he was the same age as her brother, thirty. He was not smiling. His face in its severity was a conundrum of hard cheekbones and strong jaw, yet his eyes were almost feminine, with long dark eyelashes highlighting eyes the color of newly cultivated grass after the snow melts. She almost lost herself in their glare.

Suddenly conscious of her hands still resting upon his chest, she pulled back as if burned.

His mouth tightened into a thin line, but his bottom lip hinted at a devastating smile that could change his demeanor if only he had an ounce of fun and flirtation in him. She wondered if he ever smiled. In all the years he’d been coming to see her brother, she’d never seen any joy on his features. There were certainly no “laughter lines” around his eyes.

“Your Grace, always a pleasure,” Marisa smiled sweetly at him while wanting to kick him in the shins. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sneak up on a lady if you don’t wish to have her fall into your arms.”

He looked at her thoughtfully as if assessing her person. She ran a hand over her hair checking to see if anything was out of place. He continued to gaze down at her with a peculiar look upon his face. “If a woman is as beautiful as you, I don’t mind her falling into my arms.”

Marisa only just stopped her mouth from gaping open. Never had Maitland ever openly flirted with her; the other Libertine Scholars, her brother’s friends, of course had playfully bantered with her, but never Maitland. They were all exceedingly handsome men, and all that attention could go to a girl’s head.

Maitland Spencer, the Duke of Lyttleton, had always simply been her older brother’s somewhat handsome yet standoffish friend. He’d never shown an ounce of interest in her, or her in him. She looked him over. “Are you ill?”

Perfectly arched eyebrows lowered into a frown. “I’m very well, and you?”

“I’m stunned actually. You’re flirting with me.”

“I wasn’t flirting. I was merely stating a fact.”

Of course he was. Literal was his middle name. “Then perhaps you can unhand me, sir,” she said, looking pointedly at his large hands still firmly holding her waist, “unless, you do have intentions of flirting with me,” she cajoled.

To her dismay he did not take his hands from her; instead they tightened and pulled her close, and he gently moved her into an alcove away from prying eyes.

“What if I decided I did want to flirt with you? Perhaps even declare my suit? Don’t look surprised, you are one of the most sought after debutantes this season.”

“Has Sebastian put you up to this? There is no need for him to pester me. I know who I will marry, I’m simply waiting for him to ask.”

Maitland’s eyes roamed her face, stopping at her lips. “A beauty such as you should not have to wait. I would decline him on principle. What would you do if I got down on bended knee here and now?”

Heat flared over her skin. Flustered she didn’t know how to reply. What had come over His Grace tonight?

“I suspect I would think you in your cups, Your Grace. In all the years I have known you, you’ve never looked at me twice.”

He pressed closer. “That’s not true, little one. It would have been inappropriate for me to notice you until I knew my mind. I find that tonight I know exactly what I want.”

His eyes flared with something she’d swear was heat. Perhaps their dance earlier had affected him as much as it had affected her.

“I’m not for the wanting so you can stop this silly flirtation.”

“I have no need to flirt, little one. When I want a woman she is left in no doubt as to my intentions,” and his mouth trailed up her neck until he reached her ear. He softly added, “And they rarely deny me.”

This wasn’t the Maitland she knew and usually ignored. Normally they traded—actually nothing—he was not one to engage in banter, nor tender touches and breathless entreaties. However, this Maitland, this man who held her captive with his presence was all fire and ice and had her undivided attention.

His seductive words, coupled by the hard body she found herself pressed against twisted something in her stomach. Her body heated and her pulse raced like a feather tossed by a hurricane. She licked her lips. For one crazy second she wanted to press closer, wanted those velvet lips on hers.

Then sanity returned. She hated how he referred to her as the “little one.” He’d called her that since her fifteenth birthday. She’d grown tall, taller than most men. She hated her height, and that was why Rutherford was so perfect, he was taller by several inches. She noted His Grace was taller still. Why did that thought enter her head?

Goodness, if Rutherford found her like this, if anyone found her like this . . .

“Maitland”—she must be flustered, she never referred to His Grace by his first name—“Maitland,” she repeated more firmly, “stop this game at once. You are toying with me and I won’t have it. What would Sebastian think?”

He drew back and she looked into his eyes, and another shiver passed over her at what she saw there. Heat and fire flared, nothing like the iceberg she thought him to be.

“That’s what I am trying to tell you. I’m not toying.” He stroked the upper swell of her breasts with his finger and she gasped. “You are very beautiful. You are a woman fit to become my duchess.”

She slapped his hand away while her body betrayed her—her nipples hardened against the silk of her chemise. His touch ignited a yearning she knew well. A yearning she normally associated with Rutherford. What was wrong with her? Why was the stuffy Maitland having this affect on her tonight of all nights? “I cannot believe you just did that. My brother would skin alive any man who touched me so inappropriately.” She leaned forward to smell his breath. “If I didn’t know better, as I said before, I’d say you were in your cups yet I cannot smell any liquor on your breath.”

One of his long, elegant fingers touched her peaked nipple through her dress. “The woman does protest too much. Your body recognizes how it could be between us.” He pressed her against the pillar at her back. One hand stroked down her neck while the other continued to hold her waist. “Have you ever been kissed to the point you lose all sense of right and wrong and you can barely stand?”

What a question! Rutherford had kissed her but she suspected his kisses were tame in comparison to what Maitland was suggesting. Her knees had never buckled from Rutherford’s kisses. He respected her too much to push for more, unfortunately.

“Of course I have been kissed,” she brazened.

He leaned his inviting lips so close they were almost upon hers. “Liar.”

“That’s the second time you’ve called me that. If I were a man I’d call you out.”

“But you’re not a man, Marisa. You are very much a woman.”

With that he ran the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip. She drew in a deep breath, surprised at her body’s sudden, feminine reaction to his words. Her stomach clenched into a tight, silken fist. Never before had the sound of her name from Maitland’s lips evoked such overwhelming sensations. Her body hummed with desire. Maybe it was just the way his voice seemed to caress, deepening to a low, dark pitch that was almost dangerous. Maybe it was the sudden glint of need she caught in his eyes that made her wonder how a man with obvious fire in his soul could let the world think he was cold and aloof. How had his upbringing shaped this powerful man’s life, and why did she suddenly care?

It was as if a strong ocean tide was pulling at her—she knew she wanted to swim, but she was scared she’d drown in the undertow.

Her mistake was to look into his clear green eyes, for they trapped her with pure heat. Unable to resist, she leaned in and her tongue slipped out to touch his. At the small sigh that unintentionally escaped from her, the normally cool and contained duke disappeared, and with a groan so filled with longing he pulled her deep into an embrace, and his lips firmly, but gently, took hers in a kiss that was, oh goodness, so much more than anything she’d ever experienced in her life. It thrilled and frightened her. Frightened her because she was consumed with want and need and hunger . . . and this was Maitland Spencer, the Cold Duke.

“Open, little one,” he commanded in a voice laden with desire, and she did. His tongue swept into her mouth and each relentless stroke was like heaven. She’d never tasted a man before. He tasted of brandy and cheroots, everything addictive to a woman who craved more.

His hands were wrapped tightly in her hair, holding her head exactly right for his invasion. His body pressed her back against the pillar, and she welcomed the cold marble to combat the heat he generated. She felt something hard and long pressing against her stomach; she knew she should be appalled, but his mouth was creating such amazing sensations that she simply pressed closer, wrapping her arms around his neck and whimpering for more.

He gave her more. His tongue thrust deep into her mouth in a dance that demanded she follow. She dueled for dominance, her tongue entering his mouth like a queen at the head of her army. He welcomed the invasion, and another groan echoed deep in his throat as he ground his hardness against her.

This was heaven. She never wanted the kiss to end and blast it all to Hades he was right, for when his clever fingers found her hardened nipple, her knees gave out and she sagged in his arms.

Only then did he break the kiss. However, there was no gloating in his gaze or upon his features, merely heat, want, and need, surely matching her own.

They stood close together in the alcove, forehead to forehead, breathing heavily.

She was stunned. Never in all the times he’d come to her brother’s house had he shown the remotest interest in her. Last year she’d briefly considered Maitland as a possible prospect. He was handsome in his way, a duke with considerable wealth, and for some reason her senses seemed to stir when he was present. She had no idea why because he seldom seemed to notice her at all.

She liked his more staid demeanor. He was not considered in her brother’s league as far as a man’s rakish ways, which she considered to be highly desirable in a husband. He was kind, considerate, and a true gentleman.

However, she’d crossed him off her list of potential husbands thinking him too cold to rouse her passions. Plus, when she decided she’d only marry for love like her brother, it was likely a man so contained would not be easy to love. She needed passion, desire, and a man willing to open his heart. She’s wondered if he had a warm heart under his cold exterior. Apparently he did.

It would appear she’d read Maitland wrong. He simply kept his passions well in check. She would never have guessed at the roaring fire banked inside the formal peer.

Yet here she stood, ready to dissolve in a puddle of delicious desire. One kiss had changed her world and she stood staring at Maitland. The mask of indifference he usually wore was back in place. If she couldn’t still feel his erection hard against her belly she would never have thought he desired her at all.

The Cold Duke was like a volcano covered in ice, he had a molten core he kept hidden from the world.

She needed air, needed to clear her head of his scent and taste. More than anything she needed to think of Rutherford. Rutherford!

She made to move around him, saying, “This is ridiculous. I am almost engaged.” She walked quickly out of the alcove, her fingers flying to repair the damage to her hair.

He took one large stride and was by her side. “Almost means you are still free. I think you should consider my suit seriously.”

She grounded her teeth and kept smiling given the number of people looking their way. “Suit? You have not once called on me this season.”

“In all fairness, I have been busy hunting a madwoman.”

She remained silent. That was, in fact, true, and one of the reasons why she felt Rutherford had not proposed. She was almost being kept under lock and key and had had little opportunity to progress her relationship with Lord Rutherford. Sebastian, as always, was being overprotective.

A servant approached with a tray of glasses filled with champagne. He stopped and offered her a glass, and she took the opportunity to turn from His Grace and take one for something to do with her hands, which she noticed were fidgeting with her gown. She never fidgeted. Maitland took a glass, drank it down, and reached for another. Once the servant left she glared up at him. “I realize my brother asked you to see to my safety tonight”—she searched the room for Sebastian—“but I hardly think he required you to pursue me in such a scandalously romantic fashion.”

Maitland’s face went from severe to breathtaking, as the first smile she’d ever seen on him suddenly broke over his features. “I may be pursuing you as you say, but certainly not in a romantic way. I merely find you a very attractive woman from a good family. You would make an exceptional duchess. You’re intelligent, strong, kind, and did I mention beautiful—oh, I believe I have.”

Her mouth dropped open. She struggled to find the words.

“Don’t be so surprised. With a madwoman out to do me harm, it is expedient I find a wife and have a son. You, little one, would be perfect in the role.”

Marisa realized she had been insulted and praised simultaneously. “Let me understand your intentions. Just because you need a child, you think I should be flattered by a proposal that is simply you wanting a brood mare.” She swept her hand indicating the full ballroom behind her. “Do you realize I could have my pick of unattached men here?” She poked him in his admittedly very hard and muscular chest, her finger lingering longer than it needed to deliver her derisive reply. “Why would I accept a proposal from a man so arrogant he feels he doesn’t have to court me? It’s as if I’m supposed to fall at your feet in gratitude. Let me tell you, sir, that will never happen.”

“Never is a long time, my lady.” He didn’t even apologize for his behavior. “If I went to Sebastian he would look favorably on my suit.”

She almost choked on her drink, with bubbles going up her nose. The behavior so unladylike it drew several of the tons gossip-filled eyes their way. “You are deluded. You may be his friend, one of his best friends, but my brother would never force me into a marriage I did not want.”

He leaned closer regardless of the audience that was gathering. “Then I shall have to ensure you want to marry me.” What the crowd could not see was the fingers of his right hand trailing down the curves of her side and over her hip. She couldn’t squirm or slap his hand away without alerting everyone to his disgraceful behavior.

She simply smiled sweetly and gritted her teeth. “I doubt you will achieve that goal, Your Grace. I’m expecting a proposal from a man who loves me and I shall be accepting.”

She watched his jaw go taut, and his hand dropped from where it stroked her side. “We shall see, little one.” With that he bowed low and lifted her hand to his lips. Ignoring their audience he pressed his lips to her fingers and lingered longer than appropriate.

She wanted to rip her hand from his possessive hold but knew they were already a topic of speculation and she didn’t wish for others to get the wrong impression. If Rutherford thought His Grace was a suitor he might bow out thinking he could not compete.

“There you are. I have been looking for you everywhere.” Beatrice, her sister-in-law, slipped her arm through hers and smiled up at His Grace. “Maitland, thank you for keeping an eye on Marisa. I hope she hasn’t been a nuisance.”

Marisa wanted to scream. If anyone was being a nuisance it was he.

“It has been my pleasure,” he said with not a hint of irony. “If you’ll excuse me, I shall retire to the card room.”

He placed a kiss on Beatrice’s cheek and left without another word to Marisa.

“Ooh, that man. He’s so, he’s so, so infuriating.”

Beatrice laughed at her outburst. “His Grace is a nice man, even though he sometimes makes me wonder if he knows how to be happy.”

Marisa looked at his departing back, trying to ignore the curve of his buttocks and his long powerful legs. “He’s a duke, very wealthy and handsome, why would he not be happy.”

Beatrice sighed and looped her arm with hers, leading them back to the refreshment table. Marisa drank the rest of her champagne before accepting another glass.

“His upbringing was not a happy one. His mother died in childbirth, and his father—I’m not sure if it was his wife’s death or if he was always that way—but he turned into a drunken, debauched, bitter man. I doubt Maitland ever received a kind word let alone a hug. I’m sure it’s affected him. Maitland is just not demonstrative.”

Marisa’s face heated. He’d been plenty demonstrative earlier. Suddenly she felt a tad light-headed. “Excuse me, Beatrice, I need the retiring room.” Beatrice was about to say she’d come too, when Sebastian arrived, wishing to dance with his wife. She watched Beatrice and her brother move in the waltz and wondered where Lord Rutherford was. She frowned and steadied herself against the table. She put down her glass and decided she needed to sit for a moment. She’d hardly drunk anything this evening, but for some reason the champagne she’d sipped had gone straight to her head.


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