Read an Excerpt
'And you're quite sure the Duke of Dettingham kidnapped or killed that delicious Mr Seaborne we all swooned over when we came out, Eugenia dear?' a young matron asked on a nervous titter at one of the last great balls of the London Season.
'The gentlemen are taking bets on how he's got away with it for so long, Lottie,' her over-excited informant told her as if it was gospel truth. 'Nothing was entered in the betting books, of course, since the Duke must challenge any man who declared him guilty of such a dreadful crime and he's a crack shot. He certainly wouldn't balk at putting a bullet in any gentleman brave enough to expose him when he's disposed of his heir in such a villainous fashion.'
'Although the Duke is rather delicious as well,' Lottie said wistfully. 'That air he has of not caring a snap of his fingers what any of us think quite makes my heart flutter and when he actually looks at me Ooh, even now meeting those compelling green eyes of his makes my knees knock together and then I can't think of a single sensible word to say.'
'I don't approve of conscienceless rakes,' Eugenia told her friend stiffly.
'Once upon a time you would have given your best pearl necklet if it persuaded him to even dance with you, and sold your soul for anything more.'
'Which means I know what a heartless care-for-nobody he truly is,' Lottie's disgruntled confidante informed her as if that settled the matter.
'And how you wish he'd once played the rake with you,' Lottie argued.
'Only to find myself murdered in my bed once he grew bored with me? I rather think not,' Eugenia said coldly and went to find more receptive ears to pour her poison into.
Jessica Pendle had never found it more difficult to sit quietly and pretend she was deaf and daft as well as lame.
She could almost feel her mother willing her not to stand up and publically denounce that malicious cat for circulating such silly, damaging stories about Jack Seaborne, Duke of Dettingham.
Jack and his cousin Richard would not harm each other even if their very lives depended on it and anyone who knew them at all well would happily swear to the fact, but she knew a single lady, even one of her advanced years, could never defend an unrelated gentleman without making bad worse.
'Mama?' she murmured absently.
'Pretend you didn't hear them,' Lady Pendle urged softly.
'It doesn't even make sense,' Jessica muttered distractedly. 'Jack's already the duke, so why would he need to kill anyone to secure his position, let alone his cousin? Do they think Jack will now hunt down every male Seaborne in the country on some lunatic rampage to exterminate all competition?'
'You don't suppose such inveterate gossips consider the implausibility of the stories they make up then spread as if they were truth, do you, my love? It all sounds like the plot of a very bad sensation novel thought up by some bored creature without anything to do and too much time to do it in, but how much good do you think it would do Jack if we both swept into battle on his behalf?'
'None at all,' Jessica admitted. 'But that woman made such ruthless efforts to trap Jack into marriage when we first came out that I wonder he didn't go about in a suit of armour. If he was prepared to murder anyone, it would have been her.'
'A woman scorned can be very dangerous indeed, but we will discuss this at home when nobody else can hear but Papa, if he happens to be in one of his listening moods. For now we must pretend we have heard nothing untoward,' her mother advised.
'But Jack is an honourable man. Even when he's looking down his lordly nose in a way I can't help but find so infuriating that sometimes I long to smack him, I still know that much. I could never believe him capable of such villainy,' Jess continued with a bewildered shake of her head.
'You make yourself such an easy mark for his teasing by flaring up at him on the slightest provocation, my love,' her mother said mildly and Jessica wondered why her family and his never seemed to find Jack's regal-duke act infuriating.
'There's no need for him to play the autocrat whenever he isn't being such a disgraceful rake nobody will even whisper in my hearing what he's really been up to since he came down from Oxford even now,' she muttered grumpily then caught an amused glint in her mama's eyes and looked at her enquiringly.
'Sometimes you sound just like Jack's grandmother, my dear,' her mother declared with a smile that would have made Jessica suspicious, if she wasn't so busy being horrified.
'I don't, do I?' she asked, wincing at the very idea of resembling that dreadful old aristocrat in any way. 'I'll never snap at him again,' she added fervently and wondered exactly why her mama looked so pleased.
Before she could consider the idea further there was a flurry of excited interest around the entrance to the ballroom created by some important arrival then a delighted susurration of whispering. She realised why when the Duke of Dettingham himself strolled into the ballroom as easily as if he was taking a stroll about his own garden, then bowed to his hostess with roguishly exaggerated grace and a wicked smile. That middle-aged matron acted the blushing damsel of twenty years ago rather than the formidable society hostess she was now and simpered girlishly when he kissed her hand like some old-time chevalier.
Jessica frowned as she watched Jack insinuate himself into what had been a hostile environment with his usual careless aplomb. He ought to look as if he'd dressed by guess in the dark, considering his almost-fitting coat and carelessly elegant cravat, she decided critically. Instead he was dark and dangerous, and so careless of the fashion he carried off as if he'd heard of it and decided to try it in his own unique fashion that he was the model all the would-be dashing young men scrambled to emulate. In her opinion they would never succeed, but even she realised he had the casual elegance so many others strove for in vain.
Meanwhile the Duke of Dettingham surveyed the assembled company as if he was mildly amused by the antics of a pack of well-dressed monkeys on the strut then spotted friends in the crowd and forged his way towards them. No risk of losing sight of him, even if he hadn't been so tall that he was head and shoulders above most of his peers, Jessica decided with some exasperation. Wherever he went there was a flurry of greetings and he went about his ducal progress as if he had no idea most of the guests had only just stopped whispering tall stories about him and his missing heir.
Of course he belonged to an aristocratic and powerful breed and had started out with a good many unfair advantages, but the current Duke of Dettingham was taller, long limbed and more leanly muscled and formidably intelligent than even the Seaborne clan expected of their titular head. He was probably a bit too much the leader of the pack for some of them, too, considering most Seabornes were as determined to go their own way as their piratical forebears had been, but she doubted a single one of them would put out a scurrilous story about Jack and Rich to clip his wings a little and keep him busy with his own affairs instead of theirs.
Dismissing his current notoriety, since he was clearly as indifferent to it as a rock, Jessica concentrated on dealing firmly with her own senses and the feral beat of excitement his presence awoke deep inside her without any effort on his part. Her body had an infuriating habit of getting into a silly flutter at the very sight of Jack in his full arrogant glory and it would never do to let even a hint of that show. There were other good-looking and active gentlemen of Jack's ilk with rank and power at their fingertips and she told herself he wasn't that special, but a deeply buried and highly excitable Jess whispered they didn't possess the air of such casual power that Jack had no need to flex to prove himself, or that infernal natural charisma he would still possess even if he'd become a boot boy at sixteen instead of a duke.
She had been a sad tomboy and had wanted to join his and Richard's wild rides and rough sports when he was sixteen, but they usually managed to evade her. Jessica recalled her twelve-year-old self doggedly searching up hill and down dale when they left with the dawn and came in at dusk to avoid her and might have blushed, if she wasn't too old to flush when her cool composure was threatened by a careless aristocrat nowadays.
'Richard was always terrified something would happen to Jack and he would be obliged to take on the dukedom,' she muttered under her breath and heard her mother's shocked gasp that she should even think about such things now.
'Kindly remember where you are before you start discussing a very good friend's premature demise, Jessica.'
'That wasn't what I meant at all, and nobody is paying the slightest attention to me. They are all far too busy being intrigued or scandalised by Jack to listen to anything a plain nonentity like me has to say about him and his.'
'You always set yourself too low,' her mother scolded and Jessica heard the note of concern in her mother's voice and tried to pretend interest in the company while Jack sauntered about the room as if he owned it.
She even managed to carry on a laboured conversation with a sober young gentleman of political ambition in search of a well-connected wife. Jessica knew she was well born and related to many of the ton in some degree or other, but wondered why this plodding young man thought she could be that wife. At three and twenty she was nearly on the shelfthe eighth child of parents who had provided livings and dowries for the other seven already and were therefore not rich, powerful or careful enough to make good in-lawspossessed of only moderate looks and a damaged left ankle. Still, she supposed she had the modest fortune left her by a great-aunt, in the belief Jessica would stay single and need it; her father was a viscount and her godmother was the Duke of Dettingham's beloved aunt by marriage. Luckily Jessica didn't like Mr Sledgeham enough to admire him for finding that a desirable connection, despite Jack's current notoriety.
'So what do you say, Miss Pendle?' the wretched man asked all of a sudden and she tried not to look at him blankly.
'Thank you, but, no,' she managed civilly but firmly and it seemed a good enough answer as he only looked mildly disappointed.
'Then can I fetch you some refreshment, Lady Pendle?' Mr Sledgeham politely enquired of Lady Pendle and Jessica breathed a sigh of relief.
'No, but thank you for the offer and your company, Mr Sledgeham,' her mother said with such brisk kindness that he accepted it as his dismissal and took himself off.
Jessica hardly had time to repress a shudder at the very idea of enduring a lifetime with such a prosy bore before Jack Seaborne loomed over her in person and she promptly forgot Mr Sledgeham altogether. Her heart thumped uncomfortably at Jack's proximity and she ordered it to behave itself. Of course he would come and be civil to them if he was on his best behaviour tonight, she reassured herself. Lady Pendle was a long-time friend of his Aunt Melissa and Jessica was that lady's goddaughter, so he could hardly stroll past them as if they were mere nodding acquaintances, even if that was all they really were nowadays.
Jack presented her with a glass of lemonade without even asking if she wanted it, as if he'd armed himself with it in case she was overcome with artless enthusiasm at the very sight of him. Then he insinuated himself on to the chaise between herself and her mama with a faintly amused air of omnipotence.
'Your Grace,' she managed with a stiff nod and an indistinct murmur that might be a thank-you for the lemonade, if he had an obliging imagination.
'Miss Pendle,' he said blandly with an annoyingly elegant seated bow. 'I trust you are enjoying robust health and spirits?' he asked, as if was addressing some ageing spinster at least twenty years older than her three and twenty.
'I am very well, thank you,' she replied repressively.
He had always delighted in provoking her, then sitting back to watch her struggle with her stormy emotions in public. It was annoying and ungentlemanly of him and she silently told him so with a furious glare disguised as a weakly smile. He grinned and stretched his long legs out in front of him as if he hadn't a care in the world. Jessica reluctantly admired his elan even as she felt the flex and steel of sleek, masculine muscles next to her and wished him a great deal further off. With his black-as-midnight, slightly overlong, curling hair catching all sorts of devilish lights in the candles' glow and the starkly male beauty of his sensual mouth added to that hint of a smile in his gold-rayed green eyes, he might look like the answer to a maiden's prayer, but she couldn't dream the dreams other well-born society ladies indulged in.
Somehow she fooled herself he was a run-of-the-mill gentleman who had stopped for a polite conversation to stop herself colouring up like every other idiot he smiled at in that way. Jack Seaborne wouldn't want her if she was presented to him naked on a platter with an apple in her mouth, like the wild boar's head at Christmas. The very idea of him prostrating himself at her imperfect feet made her smile so wryly to herself that she met his enquiring gaze with a fading memory of it on her lips.