“I should throw you out into the snow.”
The duke’s words traveled the short distance between them, reverberating through the cavernous gallery. Adriana Flint shivered. That heady voice filled her with awareness and forbidden desire. A most terrifying combination.
She lingered silently before him, bathed in the red glow of the enormous fire stoked to blazing. Uncertain how to reply.
The boisterous notes of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen being played down the hall on the new Broadwood Grand in the drawing room, complimented by the numerous guests, all made merry by many cups of mulled wine, drifted through the champagne hued brocade walls.
It was a song that usually made Adriana sad at Christmas. It reminded her of the loneliness she had always felt on the most hallowed and anticipated days. Now, that song reminded her of the bold girl she’d been. The bold girl who demanded she give back as good as she’d been given. But this last year, she’d practiced meekness so well, that now. . . Well, now, her own voice was hesitant and meek.
After all, she’d been in awe of the duke for almost a year now. An aching year in which she’d masqueraded as the perfect governess.
The worst of it was that she felt a hint of fear that sent her heart pounding against her ribs. It was an emotion she wasn’t particularly comfortable with. Squaring her shoulders, she said softly, “No, you won’t throw me out thus, Your Grace. I know you won’t.”
He took two sure steps forward, the black wool of his perfectly tailored frock coat and trousers straining against his well-muscled form. He stared down at her, his face a mask of dark shadows. Yet, even so, those whiskey-tinted eyes glowered from under two black slashes of brows. “And how do you know?”
She bit her lower lip and glanced towards the holly and evergreen-decked mantle.
That voice, it slid over her skin like liquid sin. Every time she’d been in his presence, every moment she’d heard that timbre, heat had coiled in her belly, teasing lower and lower still. Sadly, as a governess, she’d seldom been in his company. And so, she’d savored every brief encounter.
Only now, he thundered at her, a menacing sort of growl that should have frightened her out of her wits. But she was no schoolroom miss to quake at a man’s displeasure. She’d been cornered in the galleries of a theater by men who didn’t understand the meaning of desist, and she’d sent those men packing. So, even a duke’s censure couldn’t frighten her. Not truly. Not physically. Only. Only, she desperately didn’t wish to lose her place at Highburn. She was safe here. She had a place. A home. A little girl to love and who loved her in return. Oh, no. She wasn’t simply going to skulk away.
She drew in a steadying breath then gazed up at him through her lashes. “How do I know? Because unlike some of your station and sex, you are not cruel. You would never cast me out to such a rash fate.”
His square, perfectly shaved jaw set in a hard line. “Do you know what I have heard about you, madam?”
She inwardly winced. She could only guess. “There are many things I don’t doubt you might have heard. The important question is, from whom did you hear them?”
He paused as if considering keeping his source a secret. “Mr. Betterton.”
How in bloody Hades, had he found that man? She’d always been so careful with her correspondence and, in London, she wore a veil when she went out on business. “Did you follow me?”
His lids lowered, half hiding his molten, amber gaze. “Yes.”
He’d followed her? Himself? Surely, a duke had far more important interests than following his ‘governess’. She was beneath his notice and yet. . . He had noticed. Blast. That didn’t bode well. Not for her future at Highburn. “Why did you follow me?”
“You were acting most strangely, dressed like a woman in mourning, scurrying out of my home.”
She fought a misplaced grin. It was too preposterous. “So, you followed me. Based upon your displeasure with my choice of dress and manner. My, but you are suspicious.”
His gaze narrowed. “You are avoiding the point.”
She widened her eyes innocently. “What point?”
A low sort of growl seemed to rumble from his throat. “Your black reputation.”
She offered him a slow, wry smile. “I imagine you must think me in quite a biblical light to be so upset.”
“If you infer I am comparing you to the Virgin Mary, you are most mistaken. I doubt virgin and your name can be uttered in the same sentence.”
It was tempting to allow indignation and anger to rule her, but he was correct. And he even had a right to be angry. She’d misrepresented herself to the world, assuming the guise of a prim and proper governess, leaving that Adriana Flint behind.
“Speechless?” he demanded. “Surely, it is I who should be shocked.”
A laugh, quite inappropriate, escaped her lips. “Not speechless. I’m simply certain you’re thinking more along the lines of the whore of Babylon. It sounds like something Mr. Betterton might say.”
“You said it, not I, Miss Grey. Or is it...Miss Flint?”
The imperiousness of his wide stance didn’t escape her. He thought himself so above her, so high. A prince among mortal men. That coolness didn’t detract from his attraction. Perversely, it only added to it. She’d always loved strong men. A weakness since strong men could not be managed.
“Miss Grey?” he repeated.
Anna Grey. What a tiring name she’d taken on. Now he knew. But how much? How much did her employer know and why was he interrogating her, not simply having her chucked out by the housekeeper?
Under his fierce stare, any woman would confess all and beg forgiveness. Years of scraping along in the streets, buying gin for her father and fighting off the advances of the artists who had worked in her parents’ studio, had made her hard and determined. It had been some time since she’d needed to draw upon that strength but... “It is Miss Flint, and if you fear I am a whore of Babylon, from what I understand of your proclivities, you are its king.”
He stared down at her for a long blank moment then a sharp laugh boomed from him. Humor was absent from the sound, yet he laughed. A devil’s laugh. “My god. I have allowed you to guide my ward, and you don’t even try to deny your past.”
“To deny it wouldn’t avail me, would it?” She smoothed her hands down the front of her simple, dove grey gown suddenly very concerned that the man she had watched and secretly admired from afar might indeed cast her out into the frigid North Country winter the night before Christmas. “You clearly have confirmed information, or I wouldn’t be standing before you.”
He shook his head, hair blacker than a raven’s wing brushing his brow. “You are nothing like a governess should be.”
“But I am one. I have been now for some time.”
“And before that?” he demanded.
“Many things.” Oh, how many, she couldn’t count. Flower seller, matchstick girl, student, prostitute in training, and very nearly a woman of the night. So near, she’d been burned but had not been consumed in those dangerous flames.
A tired sigh escaped him. “I cannot castigate you for immorality.”
The smirk that curled her lips was entirely unbidden. She had no idea where her sudden boldness came from, but she found herself speaking as Adriana would have. Not Anna Grey. “I never did take you for a hypocrite.”
“That, I refuse to be. But Miss Flint, I cannot allow you to look after my ward.” He strode back towards his massive desk. Reaching for his pocket book. “She is a child, and your morals are that of a hardened jade.”
She stiffened, surprised at how much the insult hurt. She’d believed herself impervious to such things. She’d lived through the pain of her parents’ broken lives, the rod in cold schoolrooms, and later the dangers of the street.
She lifted her hand to the small green velvet ribbon at her throat, her only nod to the festive season, and pressed it lightly. “That is hardly fair.”
“You are a liar, and I cannot trust you.” He reached for his quill.
Her throat tightened. He was clearly about to give her the last of her salary and send her off. Away from her home. Away from Georgiana. She strode forward. “Your Grace—”
“You cannot deny your dubious past, can you?” He didn’t even look up as he opened the ink well.
She looked away, her heart hurting in a way she had not felt for years. What a fool she had been to begin to allow herself to care. To allow herself to find peace here. Hadn’t she learned so long ago that one was never safe? “No, I cannot.”
“You’re a…a—” his mouth twisted with distaste. “A bloody novelist.”
There were far worse things she could have been. Almost had been. She nodded. “In fact, my books are on your library shelves.”
He stared down at the paper on his desk, sighed then pulled open the top drawer, dragged out four green leather bound books and dropped then on the desk as if the mere touch contaminated his skin. “Once I discovered your name, I read them. They were surprising.”
He hesitated then moved his strong hand back to the books, letting his fingers hover over them. He looked up, his eyes softening with sympathy. “You’re life— It must have been very hard before you took on your new identity, to write so well about the lower classes.”
That sympathy, suddenly turning his hard gaze warm, burned her more than any harsh words might. How did she stay strong when he looked at her as if he could see every misfortune, every harrowing moment of her childhood? Every day her father had hit her, every night her once beautiful mother had gone out to make money for food, and every day she’d shivered in the rain for lack of proper clothing.
How did she make him see her? The woman. Not the governess. Not the wretch who’d clawed her way up from the pits of misery that haunted London.
One look about this room and it was clear he was different than other men. Five hundred years of family mottos, stained glass, and armory presently swathed in green boughs and red velvet ribbon decking his walls. All meant to remind him how tied he was to his dukedom. How could such a man ever see someone like her? A girl from the gutter who had no pedigree or fortune, but the wits to secure a place in his home.
But she had to try.
She rushed forward the last few steps and braced her hands on the desk, daring to stand with nothing but the solid, polished dark wood between them. “In all this time, have I in any way misguided Georgiana?”
Lord, she’d slaved to be the perfect lady. More than perfect. A governess had to be an even more appropriate example than a true lady of society, lest she be sacked. And here she was about to be sacked by the very man who had made her long to be more than a fraud. He made her long to have been born a lady and able to meet him as an equal, not as a woman who would do anything for the only security she’d ever known.
“Unfortunately, that no longer matters.” He looked up, his dark eyes hard.
“You have no qualms of conscience. Look at you. You aren’t even repentant.”
Her breathing slowed. There was no point in pretense any longer. She could do away with the milk-faced young woman she had forced herself to be. Anna could fade and Adriana could be herself again. She leaned forward, angling her head so that her few loose curls spilled against her throat. Temptingly. “Is that what you wish?” She wet her lips with her tongue. “My repentance?”
The silence that stretched between them was filled with something dangerous. Something exciting. Fire flared in his eyes, like charcoal sparked with flint. And in that silence, Adriana realized something. He hungered for her, too.
Holy god. Every fiber of her being seemed to leap to life as she imagined this man touching her. He was so different than the others. The ones her mother’s friend had sent her way, trying to turn her to the ‘trade’.
This man’s hands upon her skin would consume her like wanton fire. And he’d take his time about it. It was there, in his eyes and the way they burned over her. She could give herself to a man like this because it wasn’t just lechery she saw, but the desire to give her pleasure. Not just take.
And that was why he had followed her in London. Because he had watched and wanted her in secret. Just as she had watched and wanted him.
“Your Grace,” she said softly, daring as she had never dared before. “I lied because I couldn’t make enough money as an author to support myself and was afraid of the rough life a friendless woman such as myself would be forced to live in the lesser parts of London.”
He said nothing.
“This is my home now. Your dau—” She pressed her lips tight, cutting off the rest of the word. Very few knew the duke had fathered Georgiana in a mésalliance, or that he loved the girl deeply but almost never saw her. Everyone believed he had found her in the streets of Paris, unable to turn the small, crippled yet beautiful creature away. “Your ward,” she continued, “is like my own.”
He planted his closed fists against the hard mahogany of his desk as if her words had hurt him, despite his inherent strength. “Georgiana has a great affection for you,” he finally said. As he lifted his gaze to hers a momentary sadness flickered in his amber eyes. “And I do not wish to break such a bond, but I cannot trust you.”
The very fact that he desired her was reason enough for him to send her away, Adriana knew that. Any man with sense would get rid of a governess he desired. It was such a cliché for a lord to dally with a servant, and the duke could never be accused of being a man of predictable tastes.
Still, in the last year, she had forged a home here, winning the staff over. Winning shy, reticent Georgiana, who trusted so few. And most importantly, she had found a place to belong. She wouldn’t give that up.
Not without a hard fight. “I do not wish to leave this place.”
“You wear too many masks, madam.” He placed his quill down and contemplated her, his gaze wandering over her face, looking at her as if truly seeing her for the first time. Meaning, he saw the woman, not the servant. “I have no idea who you truly are.”
“Do not send me away and find out.”
He pulled back from his desk and turned away, giving her his broad back. A back so strong, so wide, she longed to trace her hands along its lines and discover the muscles beneath the layers of his expensive garments.
After several moments, he strode toward the fire and stared into the flames. “And if I let you stay?”
“Your Grace?” she prompted. She could not let herself hope. In all her years upon this earth, hope had laughed in her face. Except for her time here at Highburn Castle.
Here, though she’d spent very little time with him, under his employ, she’d found happiness. He’d done kindness though he needn’t. The very dove gray wool she wore, he’d gifted her last spring. He’d smiled, his gaze askance as he’d handed her the present. Their fingers had brushed ever so slightly, and he’d murmured that he’d noticed she needed a new gown. Before she could even reply, he’d turned away to give a larger pink-beribboned package to Georgiana.
There had been several such moments. Brief, marvelous moments. She’d never understood why he’d taken such care. The housekeeper, Mrs. MacTavish, had said it was simply his generous nature. Now she wondered. There had been other moments. A new piano for Georgiana, and yet he’d sat in reverent silence and listened to Adriana play Chopin, a skill she’d learned in the boarding school she’d spent three years in, as Georgiana played with a new doll from her father.
He raised a dark brow in challenge, breaking her reverie. “I have a proposition for you.” His face grew stony as if he were shoring up his emotions, the all-powerful duke, afraid of her response. “You may stay, but as something different.”
The room expanded about her, her senses sharpening. She felt drunk on his nearness, the lemony, leather scent of him so appealing she wished to walk up to him and bury her face in his strong neck. She blinked, forcing herself to focus on his words. He couldn’t possibly be about to say what she thought.
She slid her palms off his smooth desk and stood straight. “As what?”
“My mistress,” he said to the leaping flames. “I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you. I couldn’t have you then, a lady, and my ward’s governess. But now, it’s different.”
Her lips parted, and it was on the tip of her tongue to adamantly refuse. She did desire him. Very much so. How she wished to lace her fingers through his black hair. To discover whether it was coarse or silky. To slip his linen shirt from his shoulders and explore the hills and valleys of his broad chest. Now was her chance.
And every action she’d taken in these last moments suggested she’d be pleased to climb in his bed but if she did accept him, she’d be taking a path she’d thought she’d abandoned. A dangerous path where she’d have to wall her heart up and ensure she never gave even the slightest part of it to him.
She could not bear to be hurt again. Once, long ago, she’d made the mistake of giving herself to an unworthy man. She should refuse and try to stay in any other way possible. For Georgiana, she would scrub floors.
She held her breath before she dared, “May I continue to see Georgiana? I can’t bear to be parted from her.”
A long moment passed before he gave a single nod. “I couldn’t separate the two of you so suddenly. It would be cruel.”
She closed her eyes, briefly, out of sheer relief. She’d known he wasn’t a brutal man, but the confirmation of it warmed her in a way she hadn’t suspected.
Somehow, she’d known he wouldn’t toss her abruptly out into the night, even if she refused him, but if she wasn’t exceptionally careful he wouldn’t give her a reference when he did let her go. After all she was a liar and fraud. And without a reference, a woman had few choices in this world except to earn her bread upon her back.
And there was another factor. She wanted this man. She wanted him as she had never wanted a man in her life. Could she throw such a chance away?
No. She knew what she wanted but, born unto a drunk artist and a woman who bitterly regretted the choice she had made, Adriana should have stayed in the gutter. If it weren’t for her mother’s closest friend, an actress, she’d have died there. The woman had scrimped and saved to send her to a girl’s school where she might learn the airs of a lady. To then ply those airs on unsuspecting men in the playhouse.
Having refused that particular life, her mother’s friend had cast her out as an ungrateful child. But, Adriana had learned harsh lessons early.
A woman who gave herself up to a man right away risked being cast out as well. Her mother, in her own way, had proven that in running off with her drawing master without the permission of her family. Once a lady, the daughter of an earl, she’d sunk so low, she’d never been able to swallow her bitter unhappiness unless she drank it with gin.
So, Adriana would play this game wisely. She wouldn’t go back to the streets of London where other women had to take any comer. Risking pox. Risking beatings. Risking starvation. No, here she’d stay. With a man who gave her fabric she’d never be able to afford and glances which promised pleasure. And she could stay with Georgiana. And that would be enough. “I will be your mistress, Your Grace.”
His broad shoulders straightened as if he dared not believe it.
She cocked her head to the side, a slight challenge now to her own stance. “But only if...”
A single dark brow rose at her audacity “Only if what?”
“You say you want me, and from the look in your eye, your want me rather badly.” She met his gaze and held it. Determined not to waver. For if she did, she’d lose any power she had in this dance. “But you cannot have me unless you can seduce me.”
He paused. “I beg your pardon.”
“You must prove to me that you are worth me becoming a mistress.”
“Seduce you?” he echoed belatedly.
“Oh, and I don’t mean a simple bedding. I know you’re a passionate man. Seduction comes in so many guises. Christmas is tomorrow and while you seduce me, you shall give me twelve days to convince you to let me stay. Here. With you and Georgiana. ”
Even if it was only as his mistress. She would find a way to stay.
He stared at her. “You’re quite serious?” He hesitated for a moment. “You know that it is highly unlikely you shall convince me to remain connected to my ward?”
“I understand, but it would be cruel to leave her suddenly, especially during this festive time. At the very worst, it will give her the Christmas season with me and the chance to say good-bye. At best, you may see that I should stay. That despite my past, I belong here.”
The skepticism that filled his eyes burned.
For now, she had to focus on his passion, not her ultimate goal, which was to remain in the only home she’d ever known. “Am I not worth your seduction?”
His expression changed from cold calculation to one of intrigue. “Yes, Miss Flint. I do believe you are.”
And the clock began to chime; twelve tolls of its light, brass bell filled the room. Her breath caught in her throat before she managed to whisper, “Happy Christmas, Your Grace.”
“Happy Christmas, Miss Flint.” A devilish, half smile played at his sensual lips. “May your seduction be bright.”
© 2012-2013 by Máire Claremont.
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Excerpt from All I Want Is A Duke ©2012 by Máire Claremont. All rights reserved.