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The Duke's Indiscretion
Colin Ramsey, third distinguished Duke of Newark, had been in love with Lottie English for three and a half years. Oh, that probably wasn't her legal name, and of course he hadn't actually been introduced to her formally. But the part of her that so engaged him when she sang upon the stage never ceased to capture his imagination, and, he suspected, would remain at the center of his very erotic fantasies until his dying breath—or at least until he bedded her.
Just such a vision of her lingered in his mind as he entered the magnificent Royal Italian Opera House in Covent Garden, vowing that tonight he would meet her face to face at last. He'd attempted to make her acquaintance twice before by calling on her behind the stage after her performances, but she'd cleverly eluded him, offering her final curtsy to her adoring public, then hastily leaving the theater by hired hack to places unknown before he could reach her.
That was the mystery of Lottie English, and, Colin supposed, why she endured as his fantasy, haunting his dreams. Nobody knew who she was, aside from her persona as one of England's greatest coloratura sopranos.
Tonight, however, performing as Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, he would watch her as always, but his plan had changed from all previous attempts to introduce himself after her performance. Tonight, he would catch her unawares during the final interval. Because he was the Duke of Newark, she could hardly deny him a request for an audience.
Highly confident, Colin felt as giddy as a schoolboy ashe spied his friends, Samson Carlisle, the Duke of Durham, and the man's new wife, Olivia, sipping champagne in the center lobby of the opera house. Of course everybody he personally knew had, over time, become quite aware of his lustful infatuation with the lovely Lottie, and they were all, one way or another, rather amused by it, enough to tease him on occasion, as they undoubtedly would tonight.
The magic of the impending performance charged the air, as Colin graciously nodded to a few ladies who curtsied to him as he passed through the crowded foyer, lit brightly by wall sconces and crystal chandeliers. He'd dressed formally this evening, choosing his finest evening suite in black silk with velveteen collar and cuffs, a white shirt with pleated frills, and a charcoal-gray waistcoat and matching cravat secured by an onyx tie pin. He'd brushed his hair back from his face, shaved closely, and wore only a trace of musk cologne. Nothing but the best for Lottie English.
Olivia noticed him first, her dark blue eyes sparkling knowingly as he walked up to stand beside her. "I see you're looking your best for Lottie English."
Colin grinned, grasping her gloved palm and leaning in to kiss her cheek. "I was just thinking the same thing."
"You never seem to think of anything else," Sam drawled. "At least not lately."
He shrugged. "It is the winter opera season."
"Indeed," Olivia agreed. Then with a nod of her head to beckon them, she moved to her side a little so that she closed in on the wall to her right, taking them away from the growing crowd. After a sip of champagne, she murmured sneakily, "I've heard a rumor about her . . ."
Colin's brows rose. "Oh? I adore rumors."
"Especially if they're about you," Sam said, trying not to smirk.
He ignored that, gazing at Olivia with ardent anticipation. "Well?"
She began to swivel back and forth, teasing him with a crooked smile. "I just left the ladies' withdrawing room, where several people who apparently 'know' said they've heard she's the daughter of a viscount."
Sam chuckled and raised his full champagne flute to his lips. "Ridiculous gossip."
It sounded beyond credible to Colin as well. "Daughters of nobility don't work on the stage," he said with an exaggerated sigh. "Just another dead end, I'm afraid."
"And yet rumors are sometimes true, are they not?" Olivia piped in, twisting a loose tendril of hair at her neck with a finger. "At least the rumors I've heard about you seem to be."
"Madam," Colin asked in feigned shock, "what has your husband been telling you?"
Sam answered for her. "Nothing that I'm certain she didn't hear whispered first in the ladies' withdrawing room."
Colin tipped his head toward her. "If that's where you've heard these rumors, then yes, they're all true."
"Oh, really?" Olivia mused. "Quite the ladies' man, aren't you?"
Colin lifted a flute of champagne from the tray-carrying server walking by. "I'll know for certain later tonight."
Sam shook his head, smiling dryly. "Here we go again. I suppose you'll let us know if you manage to woo her."
He'd said that as a statement, not a question, and Colin only shrugged. "I guarantee to both of you, right now, that the lush and lovely Lottie English will one day swoon at my feet." He took a sip from his flute, then pointed it toward them, "Mark my words."
Olivia laughed again. "Determination counts for something, right, darling?"
Sam shook his head but offered nothing in response.
"And what are we discussing this blustery evening?" came the gruffly cheerful baritone voice from behind him.
Colin turned to acknowledge his longtime friend and immediate supervisor in his work for the Crown, Sir Thomas Kilborne, a stately, rotund gentleman with pinkened cheeks and thinning black hair that he combed over his head from one ear to the other.
"Good evening, Sir Thomas," he remarked good-naturedly. "We were just discussing the ladies who swoon at our feet."
"Ah. Lottie English, again."
Olivia took two steps to kiss the older man's cheek. "Good evening, Sir Thomas."
"Madam, you look as lovely as ever," he replied, pulling back a little to view her person, dressed richly in dark red satin. Then he turned to Sam and bowed slightly. "Your grace."The Duke's Indiscretion. Copyright © by Adele Ashworth. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.