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'May I offer you a ride in my carriage, Genevieve ?'
Genevieve turned sharply to look at the man standing beside her at the top of the steps leading down from St George's Church in Hanover Square. The two of them had just attended and acted as witness at the wedding of mutual friends.
It was not the gentleman's tone which surprised her, but the question itself, when her own carriage and maid were clearly waiting at the bottom of the steps in preparation for the drive back to her home in Cavendish Square.
There was also the fact that she was Genevieve For-ster, widowed Duchess of Woollerton, and the gentleman at her side was Lord Benedict Lucas, known to his close friends and enemies alike as merely Lucifer. There was a difference in their social standing, the two of them having only been on nodding acquaintance before today, which should have dictated he refer to her as your Grace rather than by her given name 'Genevieve?'
She felt a quiver of awareness travel the length of her spine at the husky intensity of Lucifer's voice, even as she realised he was looking down at her with enigmatic coal-black eyes, with one equally dark brow raised in mocking enquiry beneath the tall hat he had placed upon his head upon leaving the church.
How well that name suited this particular gentleman, with his midnight-black hair curling softly over the collar of his black superfine and eyes so dark a brown they also appeared black. His cheekbones were high besides a sharp blade of nose and sculptured mouth that occasionally curved in sensual appreciation, but was more often than not thinned in haughty and unapproachable disdain above the firmness of his arrogantly angled jaw.
Aged one and thirty, Lucifer was but six years older than Genevieve, but the depth of emotions hidden behind those glittering black eyes spoke of a gentleman much older than his calendar years.
Part of the reason for that, Genevieve and all of society knew, was the tragic way in which his parents had met their deaths ten years ago. Lucifer had found the couple murdered at their country estate and their slayer had never been found or brought to justice.
Which was perhaps also the reason Genevieve had never seen Benedict Lucas wearing anything but black over his pristine white linen, all perfectly tailored, of course, to emphasise the width of his shoulders, muscled chest, lean hips and long legs in black Hessians. It was attire which should have given him an air of som-berness, but on this gentleman only added to his air of danger and elusiveness.
An elusiveness, if Genevieve's assessment of his offer was to be believed, which Benedict Lucas was now suggesting she might be allowed to breach by travelling home in his carriage with him.?
A suggestion, if Genevieve were to accept, which was so very much in keeping with her declaration a week ago to her two closest friends, Sophia and Pandora, that as widows recently returned to society after the required year of mourning, they should each of them take a lover, before the Season ended. It had been a brave and risque suggestion on her part, Genevieve knew, and made more out of bravado than intent on her part; her painful and humiliating marriage to Jo-siah Forster had resulted in a physical wariness on her part in regard to all men.
She moistened her lips. 'It is very kind of you to offer, my lord, but'
'Surely a lady as daring as you cannot be feeling nervous at the idea of travelling alone in my carriage, Genevieve.?'
That quiver of awareness turned to one of alarm at Lucifer's use of the word daring, for that was exactly the same term she had used a week ago, when talking to Sophia and Pandora in regard to their taking of a lover. It had been a conversation she was aware one of Lucifer's two closest friends had overheardand perhaps repeated ? It was most ungentlemanly of him to have done so if that should turn out to be the case.
Her chin rose as she looked up at Lucifer with guarded blue eyes. 'I was not aware that I had ever behaved in a manner which any might consider "daring", my lord?' Nor was she at all sure she would ever be able to do so. Bravado with her two close friends was one thing, acting upon that bravado something else entirely.
Besides which, Benedict Lucas was a gentleman whom all of the ton talked of in hushed voices, if they dared talk of him at all. A man of deep and violent passions, he was known to have vowed ten years ago that he would find the person who had murdered his parents, no matter how long it took him to do it, and that when he did he would kill the man himself rather than trust to the justice of the law.
Lucifer was also known as one of the finest shots in England, as well as a superior swordsman, skills he had honed and perfected during his years spent in the army, which meant that he was more than capable of carrying out such a threat.
'Or perhaps you have heard otherwise, my lord?' she challenged at his lack of reply.
Benedict might have laughed at how little that expression of haughty reproach suited Genevieve For-ster's impishly beautiful face. Almost. Except laughter, amusement of any kind, was not something which had come easily to him this past ten years. Instead, his mouth now curled into a hard and mocking smile. 'Not particularly, Genevieve.' He continued to use her given name deliberately, having noted her earlier discomfort.
'But I am sure it is not too late for you to remedy that particular omission, if you so choose ?'
There was no denying that Genevieve Forster was a very beautiful woman; her abundance of curls beneath her blue bonnet was the colour of flame and her mischievously twinkling eyes the colour of periwinkles. Her nose was slightly snub above full and sensuously pouting lips, her complexion that of peaches and cream. And although tiny in stature, almost daintily fragile, the swell of her breasts, above the low neckline of her blue gown, appeared full and lush.
To Benedict's knowledge she had been married for six years, and widowed for one. She was without any male relatives, except for her stepson, the current duke, a gentleman who was several years older than Genevieve, and it was known that the two were not close. Her two closest female friends were also currently engaged in relationships which he knew took them from Genevieve's side.
Not that Benedict had ever been known to prey on unprotected females, but as a widow of five and twenty years, that term hardly applied to Genevieve Forster. A public acquaintance with her would do well as a foil for his own movements over the next few weeks, in his capacity as a spy for the Crown, with the added bonus that her beauty and vivacity would also ensure that Benedict enjoyed that acquaintance.
'Unless, of course, you feel it would be too daring to travel alone with me in my carriage ?' he now challenged softly.
Genevieve bristled at what she considered to be a slur upon the independence she had tried so hard to acquire since her widowhood a year ago. She was also well past the first flush of youth. She was a duchess, and a widow, and as such she could, and would, now behave as she pleased.
Neither would she give the arrogantly mocking Benedict Lucas the satisfaction of thinking her a coward. 'Not at all, my lord,' she assured him frostily. 'If you will just give me a moment to dismiss my own carriage?'
'And your maid?'
Her spine stiffened at this further challenge. 'And my maid,' she conceded coolly after several seconds' thought.
'Shall we ?' Benedict Lucas offered her his arm to escort her down the steps.
Genevieve's cheeks were pale and her heart was beating a little too rapidly in her chest as she placed a gloved hand lightly upon that muscled arm and allowed Benedict Lucas to escort her down to her carriage, whereupon he excused himself to stroll across to engage in conversation with his own coachman as he waited for her to join him.
'Are you sure, your Grace?' May, Genevieve's maid for the past seven years, had given a wide-eyed glance in the direction of the dark and dangerously attractive Lucifer upon being informed of Genevieve's intention to ride home in his carriage with him.
'I am very sure, yes,' Genevieve stated more firmly than she felt. May knew better than most how horrific Genevieve's marriage to Josiah Forster had been.
Her maid looked unconvinced. 'I've heard such tales about that particular gentleman'
'That will be quite enough, thank you, May.' Genevieve had also heard 'tales' about Lucifer, and all of them wicked. But what else could she have done when he had challenged her so obviously?
Run as far away as was possible, came the instant and emphatic answer!
No, she would not, could not, continue to live in the way she had been forced to live during her marriage to Josiah, frightened of her own shadow most of the time. No matter how much the thoughts of being alone with any gentleman made her pulse flutter and her stomach clench with nausea!
Besides, what could Benedict Lucas possibly do to her in his carriage in broad daylight.?
'Is that really necessary, my lord?'
Benedict smiled at Genevieve Forster as she sat across the carriage from him, those blue eyes wide as she watched him pulling down the blinds on the windows. 'Do you not find the sun a little overbright?' he drawled derisively.
She studied him for several long seconds. 'It is a little intrusive,' she finally conceded abruptly.
'Exactly.' Benedict's gaze continued to meet hers as he pulled down the last of the blinds. 'This is much cosier,' he murmured appreciatively.
'Much.' The coolness of her smile was belied by the telltale rapid beating of her pulse in the slenderness of her throat. 'Tell me, were you as surprised by today's wedding as I?'
'No,' he answered unhelpfully; the confidences of the bridegroom were exactly that, confidences, and they would remain so.
'Do you think?'
Genevieve Forster arched red-gold brows. 'You have not heard my question as yet.'
Benedict gave a hard smile. 'It is not necessary when I have no intention of discussing the private business of today's bride or groom.' His gaze moved to the firm swell of her breasts as she drew in a deep breath. 'That is a very pretty necklace you are wearing.'
'I Thank you.' Her gloved fingers instinctively moved to touch the sapphire as large as a robin's egg nestling between her breasts. 'It was a wedding gift,' she added stiffly.
'Obviously your husband was a gentleman of discerning tastes,' Benedict murmured softly. 'Both in his wife and the jewellery he bestowed upon her.'
'You may choose to think that if you wish, Lucas.' Genevieve's voice had hardened to ice.
The sharpness of Benedict's narrowed gaze returned to her face, easily noting the twin spots of colour that had appeared in her cheeks and the angry sparkle in those beautiful blue eyes. 'The duke was not a gentleman of discerning tastes.?' he said slowly.
'He was not a gentleman at all!' she snapped scathingly. 'And, might I say, Lucas, that if you invited me into your carriage with any intention of furthering our acquaintance, then I believe I must tell you that, by introducing the subject of my late husband into our conversation, you have failed utterly!'
Benedict's brows rose at the directness of her statement. 'Your marriage was not a happy one?'
' Obviously not.'
Genevieve Forster was proving more of a distraction than Benedict would ever have guessed before engaging in conversation with her.
'You did not find becoming a duchess suitable compensation, for the duke's deficiencies as a husband?'
'I did not.' Genevieve's mood was not in the least lightened by the glint of humour she was sure she could now see in the darkness of Benedict Lucas's eyes. 'A word of caution, perhaps, for the next time you find yourself alone with a lady, might be not to mention the woman's dead husband!'
'If I have offended'
'I am not offended, my lord, I am merely bored by this conversation.' She turned to raise the blind beside her before looking out at the street below.
Benedict sat back in stunned silence for several long seconds, as he acknowledged he had never encountered a woman quite like Genevieve Forster before. For all that he was always discreet, Benedict had known a number of women intimately this past twelve years. Women he had desired physically, but had no interest in knowing in any other way, let alone any of the private details of the lives they had led before he met them.
His intentions towards Genevieve Forster had been equally dispassionate, in that it had been his intention to use a friendship with her, as he had others in the past, as a shield to his appearance in society. Benedict usually made a point of avoiding attending any of society's balls and parties, and it was only when it was required, in his role as agent for the crown, that he deigned to accept any of those invitations.
For Genevieve Forster to so firmly express her own lack of interest in continuing their acquaintance was galling, and yet somehow intriguing, at the same time. 'Is there not some way in which I might redeem myself?' he cajoled softly.
An irritated frown still creased her creamy brow as she turned to look at him. 'I should tell you that I was married for six unhappy years and have spent the last year in mourning for a husband I thoroughly detested. As such I seek only adventure and fun in my life in future.'
Benedict had known of the huge difference in ages between the duke and his wife, but until now he had not been aware of the circumstances of Genevieve's marriage to Josiah Forster. Now that he did, he could not help but wonder in what manner that marriage had been so unhappy. 'And you believe me to be incapable of providing that adventure and fun?' He arched dark brows.
'Adventure of a kind, perhaps,' she acknowledged in measured tones. 'After all, you are known as the dangerous and elusive Lucifer.'
His brows rose. 'Am I?'
'Oh, yes.' She nodded derisively. 'But fun? No, I do not believe so, my lord.' Her smile was coolly dismissive.
Benedict's irritation increased at that easy dismissal. 'How can you be so sure of that without having spent any time in my company?'
'I have spent the time of this carriage ride in your company, my lord.' She eyed him haughtily.
She shrugged. 'And that has been quite long enough to assure me that the differences in our natures would not suit.'