The Duke and the Lady by Jessie Clever
She knew what her sisters would say.
They would say how it was just like her to be brought down by a litter of puppies.
To be fair, she wouldn’t have fallen for it if it weren’t coming from Jonathan Devlin, the second son of the Earl of Westrick. Devlin was a watery chap who whimpered about flat champagne and wrinkled cravats. He hadn’t committed any sin greater than wearing the wrong color waistcoat to a fox hunt, so why shouldn’t she have believed him when he said the Marquess of Lumberton’s prized Ridgeback had just birthed an extraordinary litter of puppies?
It seemed like such an innocuous thing, and something Devlin would have been interested in as it involved absolutely no effort on his part to enjoy it.
So she’d followed him.
The musicale was not overly stimulating. The Marquess of Lumberton had three daughters, all of whom possessed less talent than a tarnished teapot, and the evening drew on insufferably. It was probably this which had her accepting Devlin’s story so quickly for in it she saw her way out.
The setting where the marquess’s daughters performed was an assembly of drawing rooms with their doors opened to permit the gathering of all the guests for it was quite a turnout. While the marquess’s daughters lacked talent, they did not lack in dowry, and all three were on the market that season.
Johanna, Louisa’s younger sister, had jumped at the chance to attend for it fulfilled Viv’s, their eldest sister’s, quest to find them both husbands while also ensuring no such thing would occur that evening as all attention was on the Lumberton sisters. Johanna, ever reluctant to find a match, enjoyed the idea of being passed over very much.
Louisa did not.
While she was happy to do anything Jo wished, she was not so happy to endure the endless rendition of songs Louisa could not even decipher as the Lumberton sisters continuously mutilated the lyrics.
So if Jo were to gain something out of this, so would Louisa.
She was going to see some adorable puppies.
Devlin had easily slipped both of them from the crowd during a pause in the music as fortune hunters posing as eligible gentlemen surged forward to praise the sisters for their aptitude. Louisa and Devlin simply stepped from the room and into the empty corridor.
She should have known by how easy it was to escape that only bad things lay ahead.
The Marquess of Lumberton’s townhome was much like the other homes of the peerage, and it was easy to navigate through the endless corridors toward the back of the house.
“Do you know where you’re going?” She’d meant the question playfully as anyone who was familiar with dogs—and she was, thanks to her sister Eliza’s love of collies—would know the pups were likely being weaned near the kitchens. They would simply need to find the servants’ stairs at the back of the house.
That’s why she startled when Devlin whipped about, his jaw firm, his eyes wide with indignation.
“Do you not think I know what I’m doing?”
The light was dim here as the guests weren’t meant to be in this part of the house, and only a few sconces were lit along the corridor. The slanted light marked his face with valleys of shadows and spikes of light turning him suddenly ghostly before her. It was unsettling, but she shook it off. He was just being a spoiled child.
She picked up her skirts. “I didn’t say that. Perhaps you misheard.”
She didn’t wait for a reply and moved forward. She could find the puppies on her own.
She’d only gone a few steps when Devlin came up behind her. His footsteps were so solid and swift the mere sound of them startled her. It was this that would be her first mistake. She pivoted to see just what his rush was about and in doing so, she was slightly off balance. She was certain this was why he was able to grab her arm so quickly and sweep her into a room off the main corridor.
They plunged into almost complete darkness, and her senses were left rattled and useless. Her first thought was the puppies couldn’t possibly be in there. Who would leave a poor, defenseless pack of puppies alone in a dark room?
As soon as the question formed, however, she realized her mistake.
It was the same tragic tale of any number of debutantes in any number of seasons.
She straightened her shoulders, forced her ears to open, and willed her eyes to adjust.
She needed to get out of there.
“Devlin, whatever are you playing at?” She made her voice sound light and flirty.
The horrid look on his face moments earlier in the corridor danced all too clearly through her mind, and she knew she had to keep him calm. It appeared the dandy had a mean streak, and it was best not to rile him. Not until she could get safely away.
And then she would turn Viv on him.
She would turn all her sisters on him for that matter. Even Eliza’s collie, Henry, would enjoy getting in on the fight, she was sure of it.
“This is no game.” His tone was riddled with the moist sound of spit, and she wondered if he’d meant to sound menacing when, in fact, it only sounded as if he were too overcome to properly form words.
Carefully, she slipped a foot backward, testing the floor behind her. Judging by the softness beneath her feet, she stood on a carpet, but when Devlin had swept her into the room, she’d lost her sense of direction. It was likely the door was behind her, but she didn’t know for certain if she was even near the door any longer. Was the carpet just inside the room? Should she try to find its edge and follow it to the door? She just couldn’t be sure.
Achingly slowly, her eyes began to adjust. At the far side of the room was a bank of windows, their drapes not quite closed against the cold night. Moonlight spilled through the smallest crack, illuminating the outlines of the furniture that littered the room. There was a sitting arrangement, sofa and chairs, a dormant fireplace, and near-empty walls. It was likely an unused drawing room. The Marquess of Lumberton’s townhome had so many, he probably didn’t know what to do with this one.
For the first time, she felt a lick of fear.
If the room were unused, it would mean no one would find her because no one would have reason to come here.
She flexed her fingers, closing her hands into fists.
“Oh, Devlin, whatever do you mean?” She deepened her voice, hoping it would soothe him.
She heard him more than she saw him, shuffling somewhere in the corner across from her. There was the screech of wood against wood, and she realized he must have opened a drawer.
He was looking for something.
She slid her other foot back, thinking to widen the space between them. Quickly, she glanced behind her, but the darkness was too thick, the paneled walls too similar. She couldn’t make out which was the door.
There was another screech of wood and a snap. He’d shut the drawer.
Suddenly there was a flash of light, and she closed her eyes against it. When she opened them again, her throat closed.
Devlin had found a candle and lit it, its wavering light striking those shadowy valleys across his face once more. The watery boy she knew from countless social obligations suddenly didn’t appear so watery any longer.
The lick of fear grew stronger, and for the first time, she realized that noise she heard was her heart pounding in her head.
“Devlin, what is this?” The playfulness had gone from her voice, and her fingers fell from their fists to grip nervously at her skirts.
The candlelight caught the spittle that had gathered at the corner of his lips. “My father thinks I’m not a man. He called me weak. He called me a pansy. He called me—”
Whatever the last insult was, it was too great for Devlin could not speak it. Instead his face twisted into an unknown pain.
She slid another foot back.
“Devlin, I’m sure whatever—”
“Shut up, you whore!”
The words more than their volume startled her into stillness. She’d never even heard someone utter such a base word, let alone hurtle it at her. It left her empty, shocked into nothingness. How could a single word have such power to completely undo her?
Several moments elapsed as she tried to regain her breath, to will the feeling back into her limbs, to realize that while Devlin held the candle aloft with one hand, his other hand was busy at the front of his jacket.
No, not his jacket. His trousers.
He was undoing the lacings of his trousers.
She didn’t speak again, nor did she think. She threw herself backwards, her hands scrambling over the paneling to find the door. Her fingernails scratched at useless wood, slivers cutting through the fine silk of her gloves, but her hands found nothing.
He grabbed her before she thought he would, and the scream she had meant to scream got lost somewhere in her throat. He didn’t hold onto her but instead threw her back into the room. She stumbled and fell against the back of the sofa. She gripped it, allowing it to hold her upright as she tried to slide around it, put it between her and Devlin.
He’d put down the candle. Vaguely, she was aware of it sitting somewhere to her right, the single point of light piercing the darkness. Shadows lurched at her, pantomiming until they became a sick chorus to Devlin’s advance on her.
This was it.
This was her ruination.
She closed her eyes, her past swimming up to her in a single surge.
She deserved this.
The thought came from nowhere, like a swallow swooping down from the sky in a beautiful, pristine arc.
She deserved this because she had killed her mother.
When she opened her eyes again, she found Devlin had come closer but had stopped several feet in front of her. She became aware of pulsing along her arm where he’d grabbed her, and she knew there would be a bruise there.
Did it matter?
She waited for him to pounce on her, braced herself for what was to come, but it didn’t happen. Instead, he stood in front of her, studying her with an icy glare that was far more violating than any touch. She blinked, but she refused to move her gaze away from his.
The moment went on, and she didn’t know why he didn’t move, why he didn’t take his chance. She sucked in a breath, willed herself to calm, and tried to take in the rest of it. She was so certain of attack she hadn’t bothered to look down.
His hand was inside his trousers, pumping furiously as he watched her, pinned against the sofa where he’d put her.
Bile rose in her throat as the last of her self-pity drained away.
She roared up, powered by a sudden rage, and flung herself at him. Her fist struck bone, but he was already moving to pin her, and the blow glanced off harmlessly. He snatched both of her wrists in his steely grip and tipped her backwards. Once more the hard ridge of the sofa pressed into her back, but now he was atop her.
“Be a good girl, and it won’t hurt so much,” he whispered against her ear.
She tried to turn her head to bite him, but he was careful now, staying tucked under her chin so she couldn’t move. He captured her hands between her back and the sofa and pressed harder against her, effectively making her powerless.
When his free hand began to lift her skirts, she remembered she should scream. It was the only thing left to her.
“No.” The word came out as hardly more than a whisper, but behind it, a fire grew. Something wet and slimy pressed against her neck. His tongue. He was…licking her.
“No.” This word came out firmer, louder, and she was ready to scream the next one as his cold fingers touched the sensitive skin of her inner thigh.
But the scream never came.
Because just at that moment, Devlin was bodily lifted away from her and thrown across the room as if he were no more than a dirty rug being tossed out for a beating.
She stared at Devlin’s crumpled body on the floor for a second, but the man who’d saved her captured her attention for eternity.
“The lady told you no,” said Sebastian Fielding, the Duke of Waverly.
* * *
He feltnothing as he stared down at the miscreant and tugged the cuffs of his shirt back into place.
Very little drew any emotion from him whatsoever now.
Very little except her.
He had no interest in complicating his life by taking a wife. That was why he found it so terribly inconvenient that he thought about her quite so much. He couldn’t look at her now, even to see if she was all right. Every time he saw her he felt his control slip a little, and that would never do.
The sniveling fool he’d pulled off her crawled across the floor, losing his balance more than once and crashing into the carpet only to scrape his chin against the wool of the rug.
“I shan’t assault you further if you do not give me reason to. Perhaps you should take your time and gain your feet. You’re sure to draw attention to your person when you leave here if you keep on like that.”
He knew the young man was a son of the Earl of Westrick, but which one, Sebastian couldn’t tell. They were all weak dandies as far as he could surmise. He’d been to Eton with the eldest, and Sebastian could tell the lot of them were no different. The sons of the Earl of Westrick couldn’t help themselves out of a hand basket without a squadron of Her Majesty’s finest men showing them the way.
He drew up his shoulders and turned only his head, steeling to look at her.
Louisa perched against the back of the sofa, her chest still heaving, her hair a mess about her face, her dress wrinkled and torn along the sash.
Rage surged unexpectedly through him, the feeling so rare it almost drowned him. He drew a careful breath to calm himself.
When he’d seen her slip away, he hadn’t hesitated to follow. Last season Louisa’s sister Eliza had married the Duke of Ashbourne, Sebastian’s oldest and dearest friend, and now Sebastian’s life had become inexplicably tangled with the young Darby sister. Since then, Lady Louisa Darby had been a pain in his arse.
She was all of those nonsensical things that inspired bards to write sonnets. She lit up the room by simply walking into it. She filled the space about her with laughter and warmth. She made him feel warm on a cold, rainy day.
All of that dribble, God damn her.
He couldn’t be blamed for avoiding her.
He’d seen her at Christmas, of course. He wasn’t capable of refusing an invitation from Ashbourne, but he’d done his best to stay away from Louisa and most certainly was never left alone with her. He didn’t like how easily she affected him. A simple smile from her had his insides melting, and it was objectivity that kept his world ordered. He couldn’t have her…changing him like that.
He swallowed now as the rage that simmered just beneath the surface receded. He’d seen her slip out with the bastard Devlin, and for a foolish moment, he’d thought her smarter than to sneak off alone with a wanker like Devlin. But when they’d disappeared from the corridor, he’d methodically opened each door along the way until he’d found them. With each doorknob he’d grasped, he’d felt a surge of ghostly fear, the kind seated in one’s belly from an old and faded trauma.
He didn’t like closed doors. He knew only too well what could be hidden behind them.
“Are you all right?” He spoke the words clearly and calmly so as not to frighten her further.
It seemed to do little good as she only nodded her head quickly after several moments of silence, as if she had trouble interpreting his words. He didn’t press her and turned back to the weasel still crawling across the floor in the direction of the door.
The chap had turned over now and at least faced Sebastian. The boy had little respect for others, but apparently, he had spades of arrogant pride.
“You bastard,” he seethed. “How dare you lay a hand on me. Do you know who my father is?”
There was only the light from a single candle cutting a swath through the darkness. Sebastian knew the boy couldn’t see him at the angle that separated them, so he stepped forward and picking up the candle, held it aloft. The moment the light struck his face the boy sucked in a breath, and Sebastian could have sworn he whimpered.
“Do you know who I am?”
“The Beastly Duke.”
Had the room not been so still, Sebastian wouldn’t have heard the words muttered like an oath.
“Then I believe you will not utter a word of what has happened here tonight as I’m sure you know what might happen to you if you do.”
Even in the weak light, Sebastian saw the blood drain from the boy’s face.
Devlin shook his head so hard spittle flew from his pudgy, wet lips. He said nothing else but suddenly scrambled to his feet, tripping his way to the door. He was out of the room, slamming the door behind him, before Sebastian drew his next breath.
He still didn’t turn to face Louisa.
There was a tightness in his chest he feared, and he needed a minute to let it dissipate.
He held the candle aloft until he found the sconces on the wall. One by one he lit them until the room was no longer fraught with darkness. Only then would he allow himself to look at her.
She hadn’t moved. She half leaned, half sat on the back of the sofa. In the light, he could see her dress hadn’t torn. The sash had merely come undone from Devlin’s assault on her person, but it could be fixed. He wasn’t so sure he could help with her hair, but perhaps he could get her to a retiring room and fetch one of her sisters to help her set herself to rights.
He knew very well what might happen if any member of the ton suspected she was ruined this night, and he couldn’t let that happen. The thing about living in a society like theirs was to control what was said about you. It wasn’t an act of valor that had him thinking of how to prevent the fatal gossip. It was simply a matter of pragmatism. At least, that’s what he told himself.
“Please tell me you didn’t follow him out of some misplaced notion of love.” He struggled to speak that last word, and even then, he swallowed hard against it.
She blinked, and her lips flattened.
In their shared history, he had learned she didn’t balk from his succinct way of speaking. Others told him he was rude or more, crass, but not Louisa. Louisa had had the audacity to compare him to her sister Eliza. It was rather an awkward thing of which to accuse the Beastly Duke.
“Lady Louisa,” he prompted when she didn’t speak.
She closed her eyes and spoke a single word. “Puppies.”
“I beg your pardon.”
The rage that simmered just beneath the surface roiled again, and he wondered at its appearance. It wasn’t usually a female over whom he would grow upset, but he wasn’t surprised it was Louisa.
She opened her eyes. “He told me Lumberton’s Ridgeback had had a litter of puppies.”
“You went off alone with that tosser because he told you there was a litter of puppies?” He didn’t raise his voice. Raising one’s voice was only an admission of weakness, and it did nothing to further one’s attempt to handle a situation, so what was the point in employing such a tactic?
“Yes.” She didn’t cower at the profession. She held his gaze, and he thought she almost dared him to question her.
“Puppies.” He said the word again as though he hadn’t ascertained its meaning.
“Yes.” Louisa straightened so suddenly he took a step back, but she advanced. “Yes, I followed him because I wanted to see puppies.” She pointed at herself. “I should be able to see puppies without thinking that some bastard might—”
Two things happened then.
Louisa dissolved into a fit of sobs, her words lost to tears. Judging by the redness in her face, he thought it was rage more than fear that drove her to crying. It was something he could understand all too easily.
But then for some odd reason, upon seeing her distress, he pulled her unexpectedly into his arms. He cradled her head against his chest, wrapping his other arm around her shaking body, and just held her like that.
Her sobs stopped nearly immediately, but they stayed that way, entwined in the sudden quiet and stillness. The last thing he should be doing was holding her, and yet, he couldn’t seem to let go. His steely self-control had suddenly evaporated.
He worried he might have crushed her, and lack of air was the reason for the sudden cessation of her crying, but he could feel the rise and fall of her chest matching his. It was a hypnotic thing, and he found himself trying to match her breath for breath.
He’d never been so close to a woman, not like this. He’d had his fair share of mistresses, but there had never been intimacy. Intimacy was far too dangerous.
However, just then, he wouldn’t have stepped away for anything. That was, until Louisa spoke.
“You’re not used to doing this, are you?” Her tone was nasally, and he realized just how firmly he pressed her head against his chest.
He relaxed his grip. “No, I am not. Is it obvious?”
“Then I must apologize.” He didn’t let go, though.
“Oh, please, no apology is necessary. Thank you for…well, everything.”
He did step back now, but it was only so he could see her face.
“You needn’t thank me. If I had my choice, I would have carried that weasel out of here by his balls and presented him to his father in the middle of the ballroom as the rat he is.”
Her splotched face softened into a watery smile. “I should have liked to see that.”
Neither of them spoke then, and he found himself in the precise situation he had avoided at Christmas. Now he could do nothing but stare at her beautiful face, her soft brown eyes and golden hair. She was an utter mess, more so now that he’d squashed her in his arms, but he didn’t care. He’d never seen anything so beautiful.
Such beauty was dangerous.
He started to step back when he heard footsteps in the corridor.
Louisa turned to stone in his arms, and he could feel her heartbeat where she still pressed against him. It was an ethereal feeling, and one so intense it made him study the space between them, or rather, lack thereof.
“Someone’s coming,” she whispered.
Her eyes darted madly about the room, and he knew she was taking into account the same thing he had noticed upon entering.
There was absolutely nowhere to hide in this room. Even the windows were bereft of substantial drapery, and the only furniture to speak of were the sofa and two chairs, fit for nothing more than a Pomeranian.
They were going to be discovered, and Louisa’s life would be ruined.
He couldn’t let it happen.
In not more than a breath, his entire world shifted.
Sebastian and the things he expected of his life no longer mattered. The careful plans he had laid to ensure he’d never get entangled in anything as damning as love or marriage vanished. Studying Louisa’s deep brown eyes and the utter terror that lurked there banished all thoughts of his own well-being.
He had to save her.
So he kissed her.
She gave a startled, indecipherable sound when he pressed his lips to hers, but then even more startling, she wrapped her arms around him and returned his kiss with far greater vigor than he’d anticipated.
He may have been inexperienced with comforting a woman, but he had ample practice when it came to kissing one, and he applied it now. Kissing Louisa was as blissful as he had imagined. Her lips were full and soft, and she tasted of lemonade and salt. He tilted his head, deepening the kiss, trying to get more from her, as simply kissing her was not enough.
It should have scared him, and it would prevent him from shutting his eyes once he reached his bed so many hours later, but right then, he wanted more. He wanted all of it. All of her.
He very nearly missed the door opening, and the sound of footsteps halting suddenly just inside the room. He didn’t miss the exaggerated gasp nor the cry of a protective sister.
Sebastian thanked every god he knew that he had the power to pull away from Louisa’s tantalizing mouth as he turned to face the intruders.
The Marchioness of Lumberton he had expected. The Duchess of Margate, Louisa’s eldest sister, he had not. Not that it mattered. She would discover them soon enough.
“She’s just agreed to marry me,” he spoke the words clearly so as not to be misunderstood, but their faces only showed bewilderment. He followed their gazes to Louisa, still perched under his arm. He was surprised to find she no longer looked assaulted but now she looked rather…well, loved. He swallowed. “See,” he said. “She’s overwhelmed…with happiness.”
It was a struggle for him to find that last word, but it needn’t matter.
The duchess and the marchioness did not appear to believe him in the slightest.