Excerpt: The Duke's Christmas List
The hot pool suddenly seemed so much smaller than before. Blade’s head lay perched on the edge, but his eyes followed her every movement. In her wildest fantasies, she wondered what it would be like to be in his arms. To have him make love to her. But unless he could give her his heart, she didn’t want to become one of his many conquests—or even to become his duchess.
Willing her traitorous body to calm her racing heart, Harriet focused on her predicament. How did she get out of the pool? She wished she’d not decided to ‘take the waters’ au natural.
He must have sensed her need to flee, for suddenly he stood. Water traced over his rippling muscles and her mouth dried. The light accentuated every hard muscle in his wide shoulders, his powerful chest, which tapered to narrow hips where the water blocked her view of the rest of his delights. The steam curled around him like a lover.
His casual nudity spoke of his confidence and experience with the opposite sex. He knew damn well what the sight of him was doing to her.
Oh, she was in trouble. If she gave in to his seduction here, he would demand her hand in marriage. If her father learned of this, he would send for the bishop.
She longed to make the choice of a husband for herself. She needed more time. She needed to learn what was in his heart.
Courage invaded and gave her wings, so to speak. She heaved herself up on the edge of the pool and finding her feet she fled around the rock to where her clothes lay. She could hear him cursing and also laughing behind her. She heard him fall back into the water.
“Not so brave after all, Lady Harriet. Another time perhaps?”
She could barely answer him as her teeth chattered. She rubbed vigorously with the drying cloths she’d brought with her. Once dressed she approached the bathing pool once more.
“I’ll leave a drying cloth for you,” and she placed it on the rock next to his discarded shirt. Before she could turn to leave the words slipped out of her mouth. “What would you have done if it had been Diane in the pool and not me?” Diane was her younger sister.
His smiled dimmed. “How could you even ask me that?”
“Given your reputation, I’d be silly not too.”
“And I thought you knew me.”
She shrugged. His hurt sounded legitimate. “You might think you know me, but I’m not sure I know you. Society doesn’t make it easy for women to know anything except what a father or brother will tell them.”
“Nonsense. You’ve known me all your life.”
“Long ago. From a distance. You are an older male and as such I mainly know of your good points from my father.”
“That is what your guardian is there for. To guide you. To ensure you are not taken advantage of.”
“Like you’re doing now?”
“Only because I thought we had an understanding.”
That made her spine straighten. “You’ve never addressed me about an understanding. You’ve never even courted me. Is this why you are here?”
“Your brother and I”—
She only just stopped a laugh at his expected answer. —“What? He’ll guide me too? Dictate more like it. I like to decide about a person, wouldn’t you?”
His frown deepened. “As a man I make my own decisions, that’s true, but I take advice when needed.”
She nodded, attempting to keep her eyes from drifting down to sneak a peek at what was hidden under the water. “I think the words ‘own decision’ are key. I will make my own decisions on what happens with my life.”
“I’m not sure what you are trying to tell me, and standing in the frigid air is not the place to find out,” he suggested. “You’ll catch cold.”
“Then I look forward to continuing our discussion. Just us. No one else.” She rose and sneaked one more peek at his glorious naked body before turning to leave.
“As do I. I very much look forward to that.” His smile was back in his words.
“Perfect. We are in accord.” Her legs were shaking and not from the cold. She was now very sure the reason he was here was to offer for her, and she had no idea what she wanted to say.
He lay back in the warm water, floating, and her eyes almost widened at the sight. “How did you get here?” he asked.
She looked at him and smiled. “I walked. The brisk walk home always warms me.”
“My greatcoat is on Ghost. Take it. I won’t need it because it will take me only a few minutes to reach the stables on my horse.” He gave one of his renown seductive smiles. “Besides the memory of you arising from the pool will warm me.”
She hated that she blushed and hoped the cold had made her face rosy red anyway. But his chuckle told her he’d noticed. Just before he dunked completely under the water he uttered, “I’m really looking forward to having a private conversation with you, Lady Harriet. My little mermaid.”
With that, she turned and fled. She rounded the rocks and was about to run past Ghost when she saw a parchment flutter to the ground. It had fallen out of Blade’s greatcoat when Ghost shied at her approach.
She grabbed it before the light breeze could blow it away. It was crumbled and she was about to shove it back into the pocket it had fallen out of, when the devil on her shoulder made her glance at it.
It looked like a list and the heading was ‘Must Haves’. She would have left it at that, but the first item on the list grabbed her attention—Must be of good breeding.
Instead of putting the scrap of parchment back, she kept walking swiftly towards Hearthstone House, the cold forgotten as she scanned the list.
It was headed, the Duke’s Must haves…
- She must be of good breeding
- She should not be too tall, or too short
- She should be obedient
- She must be intelligent
- She must have an even temperament
The longer she read, the more furious she got. What was this list for? Had he ticked her failings off against these requirements? Was she to be delivered to him like an ordered Christmas present? It couldn’t be so. Could it?
She reread the note. It certainly seemed he’d made a list of attributes he found agreeable in a wife. Was his visit here to engage with her, to see if he could tick each of these qualities off?
She screwed up the note in her palm and almost threw it into the wind, but she could not let it go.
The items sounded like an attribute list for a duke searching for a wife. And it was written in his hand.
Even temperament indeed!
She’d give him an even temperament.
Blade couldn’t possibly think she’d fit that requirement. If he did, he was in for a rude shock.
A very rude shock.