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Her brothers would kill her for this.
Lady Lucinda Wellingham knew that they would. Of all the hare-brained schemes that she had ever been involved with, this was the most foolish of the lot. She would be ruined and it would be entirely her fault.
'Just a kiss,' the man whispered, pressing her against a wall in the corridor, the smell of strong liquor on his breath. His hands wandered across the line of her breasts, and in the ridiculously flimsy dress that she had allowed Posy Tompkins to talk her into wearing, Lucinda could feel where his next thoughts lay.
Richard Allenby, third Earl of Halsey, had been attractive at London society balls, but here at a country party in Bedfordshire he was intolerably cloying.
Pushing him away, she stood up straight, pleased that her height allowed her a good few inches above his own.
'I think, sir, that you have somehow got the wrong idea about my wish to '
The words were cut off as his lips covered hers, a wet, limp kiss that made her turn her head away quickly before wiping her mouth. Goodness, the man was almost panting and it did not suit him at all.
'You are here at the most infamous party of the Season and my room isn't far.' His fingers closed across her forearm as he hailed two others who looked to have had as much to drink as he had. Both leered at her in the very same way that Halsey was. A mistake. She should have fled moments ago when the chance had been hers and the bedrooms had not been so perilously close. In this den of iniquity it seemed anything went, the morals of the man whose house it was fallen beyond all redemption.
A spike of fear brought her elbow against the wall, loosening Halsey's fingers and allowing a hard-won freedom which she took the chance on and ran.
Twisted and narrow corridors lay before her. There were close to twenty bedchambers on this floor alone and, moving quickly, Lucinda discovered double doors at the very end. With the corners she had taken she was certain those following would not see which door she had chanced upon and without a backward glance she turned an ornate ivory handle and slipped into the room.
It was dark inside save for a candle burning next to the bed, where a man sat reading, thick-rimmed glasses balanced on the end of his nose.
When he looked up she placed one finger to her lips, asking for his silence before turning back to the door. Outside she could hear the noise of those who followed her, the uncertainty of where she was adding to their urgency. Surely they would not dare to try their luck with any number of closed doors? A good few minutes passed, the whispers becoming less audible, and then they were gone, retracing their steps in the quest for the escaped quarry and ruing the loss of a night's entertainment. Relief filled her.
'Can I speak now?' The voice was laconic and deep, an inflection of something on the edge that Lucinda could not understand.
'If you are very quiet, I think it might be safe.' She looked around uncertainly.
A ripe swear word was her only answer and as the sheets were pushed back Lucinda saw the naked form of a man unfold from within them and her mouth gaped open. Not just any man either, but the scandalous host of this weekend's licentiousness: Taylen Ellesmere, the Sixth Duke of Alderworth. The Dissolute Duke, they called him, a rakehell who obeyed no laws of morality with his wanton disregard of any manners and his degenerate ways.
He was wearing absolutely nothing as he ambled across to the door behind her and locked it.
The sound seared into Lucinda's brain, but she found she could not even move a muscle.
He was beautiful. At least he was that, his dark hair falling to his shoulders and eyes the colour of wet leaves after a forest storm at Falder. She did not glance below the line of his neck, though every fibre of her being seemed to want her to. His smile said that he knew her thought, the creases around his eyes falling into humour.
'Lady Lucinda Wellingham?'
He knew her name. She nodded, trying to find her voice. What might happen next? She felt like a chicken in a fox's lair.
'Do your three brothers know that you are here?'
Her shake of the head was tempered by a lack of breath that indicated panic and she could barely take in air. Every single thing had gone wrong since dawn, so when her hands tried to open the stays of her bodice a little she was glad when they gave, allowing breath to come more easily. The deep false cleavage so desired by society women disappeared as the fasteners loosened, her breasts spilling back into their natural and fairly meagre form. The lurid red dress she wore fell away from the rise of her bosom in a particularly suggestive manner and she knew he observed it.
'Choosing my room to hide in might not have been the wisest of options.' He glanced tellingly towards the large bed.
Lucinda ignored the remark altogether. 'Richard Allenby, the Earl of Halsey, and his friends gave me little other choice, your Grace. I had the need of a safe place.'
At that he laughed, the sound of mirth echoing about the chamber.
'Drink loosens the choking ties of societal pressure. Good manners and foppish decency is something most men cannot tolerate for more than a few weeks upon end and this place allows them to blow off steam, if you will.'
'At the expense of women who are saying no?'
'Most ladies here encourage such behaviour and dress accordingly.'
His eyes ran across the low-cut decolletage of her attire before returning to her face.
'This is not London, my lady, and nor does it pretend to be. If Halsey has indeed insulted you, he would have done so because he thought you were available. Free will is a concept I set great store by here at Alderworth.'
The challenge in his eyes was unrepentant. Indeed, were she to describe his features she would say a measured indolence sat across them, like a lizard playing with a fly whose wings had already been disposed of. Her fingers went back to the door handle, but, looking for the key, she saw it had been removed. A quick sleight of hand. She had not seen him do it.
'As free will is so important to you, I would now like to exercise my own and ask you to open the door.'
He simply leaned over to a pile of clothes roughly deposited on a chair and hauled out a fob watch.
'Unfortunately it is that strange time of the evening: too early for guests to be properly drunk and therefore harmless and too late to expect the conduct of gentlemen to be above reproach. Any movement through the house at this point is more dangerous than remaining here with me.'
'Remaining in here?' Could he possibly mean what she thought he did?
His eyes lightened. 'I have room.'
'You have known me for two minutes and half of those have been conducted in silence.' She tried to insert as much authority as she could into her announcement.
'All the better to observe your many charms.' His green eyes were hooded with a sensual and languorous invitation.
'You sound like the wolf from the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, your Grace, though I doubt any character from a nursery rhyme exhibits the flair for nudity that you seem to display.'
Moving back from him, she was pleased when he pulled on a long white shirt, the sleeves billowing into wide folds from the shoulder. A garment a pirate might have worn or a highwayman. It suited him entirely.
'Is that better, my lady?'
When she nodded he smiled and lifted two glasses from a cabinet behind him. 'Perhaps good wine might loosen your inhibitions.'
'It certainly will not.' Her voice sounded strict even to her own ears and her eyes went to the book deposited on the counterpane. 'Machiavelli's Il Principe is a surprising choice for a man who seems to have no care for the name of the generations of Elles-meres who have come before him.'
'You think all miscreants should be illiterate?'
Amazingly she began to laugh, so ridiculous was this conversation. 'Well, they are not usually tucked up in bed at ten o'clock wearing nothing but a pair of strong spectacles and reading a book of political philosophy in Italian, your Grace.'
'Believe me, degeneracy has a certain exhausting quality to it. The expectations for even greater acts of debauchery can be rather wearisome when age creeps up on one.'
'How old are you?'
'Twenty-five. But I have been at it for a while.'
He was only a year older than she was and her few public scrapes had always been torturous. Still he was a man, she reasoned, though the double standards of behaviour excusing his sex did not even come close to exonerating his numerous and shocking depravities.
'Did your mother not teach you the basics of human kindness to others, your Grace?'
'Oh, indeed she did. One husband and six lovers later I understood it exactly. I was her only child, you see, and a very fast learner.'
She had heard the sordid story of the Ellesmere family many times, but not from the angle of a disenchanted son. Patricia Ellesmere had died far from her kin. There were those who said a broken heart had caused her death, but six lovers sounded particularly messy.
'What happened to your father?' She knew she should not have asked, but interest overcame any sense of reticence.
'He did what any self-respecting Duke might have done on discovering that his wife had cuckolded him six times over.'
'He killed himself?'
He laughed. 'No. He gambled away his fortune and then lost his woes in strong brandy. My parents died within a day of the other, at different ends of the country, and in the company of their newest lovers. Liver failure and a self-inflicted shot through the head. At least it made the funeral sum less expensive. Two for the price of one cuts the costs considerably.' His lips curled around the words and his green eyes were sharp. 'I was eleven at the time.'
Such candour was astonishing. No one had ever spoken to her like this before, a lack of apology in every new and dreadful thing he uttered.
Her own problems paled into insignificance at the magnitude of his and she could only be thankful for her close and supportive family ties.
'You had other relatives to help you?'
'Mary Shields, my grandmother, took me in.'
'Lady Shields?' My God, who in society did not know of her proclivity for gossip and meanness? She had been dead for three years now, but Lucinda still remembered her beady black eyes and her vitriolic proclamations. And this was the woman whom an orphan child had been dispatched to?
'I see by your expression that you knew her?' He upended his tumbler and poured himself another. A generous another.
He wore rings on every finger on his left hand, she noticed, garish rings save for the band on his middle finger which was embellished with an engraving. She could not quite make out the letters.
A woman, no doubt. He was rumoured to have had many a lover, old and young, large and thin, married and unmarried. He does not make distinction when appetite pounces. She remembered hearing a rumour saying exactly that as it swirled around in societya diverting scandal with the main player showing no sense of remorse.
The Duke of Alderworth. She knew that most of the ladies in society watched him, many a beating heart hoping that she might be the one to change him, but with his having reached twenty-five Lu-cinda doubted he would reform for anyone.
Foolish fancies were the prerogative of inexperienced girls. As the youngest sister of three rambunctious and larger-than-life brothers she found herself immune to the wiles of the opposite sex and seldom entertained any romantic notions about them.
Surprisingly, the lengthening silence between them was not awkward. That astonishing fact was made even more so by the thought that had he pushed himself upon her like Richard Allenby, the Earl of Halsey, she might have been quite pleased to see the result. But he did not advance on her in any way. Outside the screams of delight permeated this end of the corridor again, women's laughing shouts mingled with the deeper tone of their drunken pursuers. A hunting horn also blasted close, the loudness of it making her jump.
'A successful night, by the sounds. The hunters and the hunted in the pursuit of ecstasy. Soon enough there will be the silence of the damned.' He watched her carefully.
'I think you are baiting me, your Grace. I do not think you can be half as bad as they say you are.'
His expression changed completely.
'In that you would be very wrong, Lady Lucinda, for I am all that they say of me and more.' A new danger cloaked him, a hard implacability in his eyes that made him look older. 'The fact is that I could have you in my bed in a trice and you would be begging me not to stop doing any of the tantalising things to your body that I might want to.'
The pure punch of his words had her heart pounding fast, because in such a boast lay a good measure of truth. She was more aware of him as a man than she had ever been of any other. Horrified, Lucinda turned to the window and made much of looking out into the gardens, lit tonight by a number of burning torches positioned along various pathways. Two lovers lay entwined amidst the bushes, bare skin pale in the light. Around them other couples lingered, their intentions visible even from this distance. The intemperance of it all shocked her to the core.
'If you touch me, my brothers would kill you, most probably.' She attempted to keep fear from the threat and failed.
He laughed. 'They could try, I suppose, but ' The rest was left unsaid, but the menace in him was magnified. The indolence that she imagined before was now honed into cold hard steel, a man who existed in the underbelly of London's society even though he was high born. The contradictions in him confused her, the quicksilver change unnerving.
'I came to the party with Lady Posy Tompkins and she assured me that it was a respectable affair. Obviously she and I share a completely different idea of the word "respectable" and I suppose I should have made more of asking exactly where we were going before I said yes, but she was most insistent about the fun we might have and the fact that her godmother was coming made it sound more than respectable '
He stopped her by laying his finger across the movement of her mouth. 'Do you always talk so much, Lady Lucinda?'