Miss Suri Thurston knows the pain of abandonment. Intent on confronting the grandmother who tossed her to the lions, she travels from England to her birthplace in India. Her plans run afoul when she encounters the man who, ten years prior, left a mark on her soul with one stolen kiss. But he is a duke, and far beyond the reach of even her dreams.
The Duke of Ravenswood, secret head of the British Foreign Service, has no time for relationships. His one goal is to locate and eliminate key insurgents involved in an uprising against the British East India Company before it's too late. But when Suri appears in Delhi, his resolve is tested as he finds his heart forever bound to her by the one haunting kiss they shared once upon a time.
With Suri's vengeful Indian family looking for her death, and insurgents intent on mutiny tearing their world apart, can their love rise above the scandal of the marriage they both desperately want?
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A Duke's Wicked Kiss
By Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Kathleen Bittner Roth
All rights reserved.
Bridgeford Hall — Bedfordshire, England, 1847
"Blast it all, ladies get kissed, they do not do the kissing." Suri flopped back onto a pile of hay in a shadowy corner of the stable and waved off a cloud of dust. "Before you know it, you'll have ruined your entire coming out over a trifle."
Her half sister shoved an errant curl behind her ear and lifted her chin. "Not knowing how to kiss would hardly be insignificant should my future husband be amongst our guests."
"Oh, for pity's sake, Marguerite. I thought a morning ride might do the trick, but no, you're still a bundle of nerves. Yesterday you were all aflutter over the floral arrangements. What'll it be tomorrow? Deciding you need a different gown?"
At Marguerite's crestfallen look, Suri softened her words. "Have you forgotten that a gentleman might prefer you were innocent of such intimacies?"
Mischief carved little lines at the corners of Marguerite's eyes. "There's always our groomsman to teach me. He's got a fine mouth."
Suri pushed up on her elbows. "And a nasty habit of flapping that fine mouth. Davey would have every stable boy within a day's ride racing here with their tongues hanging to their knees hoping for a bit of what he got. Not to mention, Papa would have your neck if you got caught. You cannot be serious."
"If only I were," Marguerite sighed. "But whether I am good or bad at it, I intend to taste my first kiss tomorrow night, and that's that."
Suri picked bits of straw off her skirt. "Perhaps you should've settled on a masquerade ball for your coming out."
"And lose out on wearing my exquisite gown? Why ever would I want that?"
"Because costumed, you could've stolen kisses from a knight in shining armor or some fallen angel with gilded wings. Then you could have changed into your ball gown before the unmasking with no one the wiser."
"There's a splendid idea you should've thought of sooner."
"Ah, but then you'd not have the scandal you're obviously itching for."
"Don't be impertinent. I've made note of every shadowy corner outside the ballroom. Threat of discovery concerns me little."
The air shifted.
A shadow loomed over the two girls, blocking the morning's long shaft of sunlight streaming through the open doors of the stable.
Marguerite sucked in a breath. "Mercy, me."
Suri cupped a gloved hand over her eyes and squinted. Her heart skipped a beat. Could she actually be regarding the most gorgeous man she had ever laid eyes on? Or was this some figment of her imagination — the knight in shining armor — or the fallen angel? She stared while Marguerite scrambled to her feet and flapped her hands, straightening her skirt and jacket, sending a storm of hay and dust to swirl about.
"A dilemma, ladies?" His voice came low and clear, smooth as honey, and filled with a hint of amusement.
Definitely not the angel. Suri looked him over as boldly as he scrutinized Marguerite. He was tall, long-legged — at least he appeared that way from her supine angle. She sat upright. Yes, definitely long-legged. And well built. She had never seen such a fine cut of a man in the flesh.
He finished scrutinizing Marguerite and turned to regard Suri, his clear gray eyes filled with humor. And a sudden glimmer of something else. Interesting, that flicker ... of ... what?
His brown knee-high boots appeared expensive, and new, judging by the stiff and shiny leather. His suede breeches hadn't seen many days, either. Snug fit ... a dapper? His blue super-fine jacket lay open to reveal an exquisitely stitched white waistcoat buttoned tight over a flat stomach. A snowy white cravat, tied just so, emphasized golden skin that looked as if it received a fair amount of sun. He wore no hat atop dark locks that curled softly over his collar.
One corner of his lips twitched as he watched her study him.
His mouth caught her complete attention and sent a small quiver running through her. Full and invitingly supple, the top lip swept in gentle curves resembling an archer's bow. And his bottom lip — was that a dimple in the middle? Whatever the little dip was, it certainly was comely. I wonder what his kisses taste like. An odd warmth flowed through her at the thought.
He laughed at her — the laughter entirely in his eyes.
He read my mind? Suri's heart skipped another beat. Refusing to rise, she only sat up a bit straighter. "Who are you, and how did you get past the groomsman?"
His eyes fairly sparkled with mischief. "If you intend to be kissed, ladies, fair warning — it would behoove you to know the rules."
Whoever this stranger was, he was quite comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps a bit too cocksure of himself.
"Did you not hear me, sir? How did you manage your way past the groomsman, and who, pray tell, are you to march in here and intervene in a private conversation between two people you have never met? Why, we haven't even been properly introduced."
He folded his arms over his broad chest and slowly, ever so slowly, ran his gaze the length of Suri, from her head to the tips of her dusty riding boots and up, settling on her lips.
Something ... something ... rolled through her lower belly like a storm hell-bent on ravaging the landscape. Heavens.
A lazy smile tipped one corner of his mouth.
Marguerite's sharp intake of breath caught Suri's ear. Would her sister never learn to contain herself?
"I've an appointment with the Duke of Bridgeford."
"Impossible," Suri said. "Our father is engaged in an annual meeting with a peer."
"Would that be the Duke of Ravenswood?"
Suri's spine stiffened. "I daresay, you are quite bold, sir. Who are you?"
"Ravenswood was my father. He met his demise, and I've come in his stead." He glanced at his sleeve, dusted it with a gloved hand. "I arrived a bit late, but I am here nonetheless."
"Then you are now His Grace?" Marguerite asked.
"Fortunately, no. I am merely Lord John Fairfax, second in line. My brother had far too many appointments this week, and I was sent."
"I am sorry for your loss." Suri made to rise.
He motioned for her to remain seated. "Please, do not stand on my account. His Grace died eleven months ago. Enough time has passed to have adjusted. Now then, ladies, back to the subject at hand." He turned to Marguerite. "I take it you are to attend your coming out ball? And you expect your first kiss?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Suri said. "'Tis none of your concern."
"Ah, none of my concern, perhaps, but I would wager I am more trustworthy than your groomsman. So you are sisters? You look nothing alike."
His scrutiny was bolder than bold this time, but Suri refused to take her eyes off him. No doubt he was busy comparing the vast differences between the two. While Marguerite was nearly a head taller than Suri with wayward curls winding about her head like red corkscrews, Suri's black hair fell thick and straight to her waist. And then there were the eyes. Marguerite's were a lovely sable brown flecked with gold, but Suri's were so green she'd been told they resembled cut emeralds.
She smirked. "We're twins."
Soft laughter escaped her sister's lips. "Actually, we are half-sisters who happen to be exceedingly close — in age and otherwise. I am Lady Marguerite, and this is Miss Suri Thurston. Although we share no resemblance, Papa says we may as well be twins since we are never apart. Thick as thieves, he calls us."
"A titled lady and a mere miss?" Lord John asked.
Suri shot her sister a scowl meant to silence, but it did no good, as usual. Marguerite continued. "Papa had an affair with a high caste Indian who died in childbirth. Her family was shamed so her grandmother tossed the babe to the lions. Our father rescued Suri and brought her back to England, where I had been born some months before his return. Obviously, I was conceived just prior to his departure."
"Obviously," Lord John drawled. He gave Suri another once-over.
"The entire event was a great scandal," Marguerite continued. "However, Mother forgave him in the end, and even though Suri is illegitimate and therefore cannot hold a title, my mother raised my half sister as her own."
Suri rolled her eyes. "Despite our parents' repeated tries to civilize Lady Marguerite, she still cannot manage to understand how the word discreet could apply to her tongue."
A faint grin passed over his mouth. "Are you treated well?"
"Treated well?" Marguerite put in. "She's downright spoiled. Most likely because she'll not have a husband, seeing as how she is illegitimate as well as a ..." Her mouth clamped shut.
"A half-caste," Suri finished. "And don't look so stunned, sir. There is little that Lady Marguerite can say that angers me." The sisters looked at one another and grinned.
"And it may disappoint you terribly to learn that I have no wicked stepmother, no spiteful half brothers to torment me, nor a father who treats me ill, thank you. And my dear sister tells this story at every turn, so do not consider yourself special to have heard it, having just met."
"You won't marry?" The depth of his gaze intensified and traveled over Suri from head to foot again. "Surely there are suitors falling over one another for your hand."
She knew what was coming next — she'd heard this time and again from Papa. Still, she played the game. "And pray tell, sir, why is that?"
He raised a deliberating brow. "The beautiful daughter of a powerful and wealthy duke asks me why? I assume you are also due a substantial portion? I'd think any question of legitimacy or heritage would be easily overlooked in your situation."
Ah, yes, marry someone after Papa's money. Then give birth to children scorned by society as half-breeds no matter their status — children who then stumble across proper ladies gossiping behind their fans about how they were considered worthless and tossed to the lions. If God threw Adam at her feet, she would not bear his children and submit them to a lifetime of what she had endured.
She conjured up a look of disdain. "If your words were meant to flatter, Lord John, they leave much to be desired."
That wicked mouth she could not take her eyes off lifted at one corner. "Suri. Unusual name. Does it carry any special meaning?"
"It's Hindustani. Means babe with the pointed nose. My father named me."
He chuckled, lifted her chin with his fingers, and examined her profile. "'Tis a fine nose, not pointy a'tall."
A visceral shock tore through her. She jerked her chin from his grasp. "Were you given permission to touch me?"
His eyes danced. "Ah, yes, I touched you. Forgive me." He dropped his hand and turned to Marguerite. "Now, then, if you will allow me, I shall teach you how to accept a proper kiss so as not to lead a man on, nor to send him scurrying in another direction."
Marguerite's cheeks blazed. "I ... I ..."
"Up, girl." He gave an upward motion of his hands. "And put your gloves back on. A lady does not go bare-handed for her first kiss."
Suri arched a brow in the manner of her father before he was wont to issue a setdown. "Are you a hapless second son eager to be caught kissing the daughter of a duke?"
He turned to her. Something between a smirk and petulance framed his mouth. Oh, my, he knows how to use that mouth. Liquid heat ran through her veins.
He placed a hand over his heart. "You wound me."
Another sultry jolt swept through her. What the devil was wrong with her? "Oh, get on with things, then. Show her how to kiss and be done with it." This, she had to see.
He took hold of Marguerite's hands. "For the man to take your hands in his is quite acceptable. In fact, it is an agreeable means by which to preserve your good reputation, providing both sets of hands are properly dressed, of course. As you can plainly see, with our hands held between us, a gentleman is forced to keep his distance. And it is up to you to see that he touches only hands and lips. Ready?"
"Good girl. Now then, here we are, ready for the kiss." His voice lowered, and he smiled at her. "Take in a slow, deep breath and exhale just as slowly."
"Slow and gentle movements are best," he said. "Lift your chin a bit, let him know you are willing to receive his kiss. And whatever you do, do not open your mouth."
"Open my mouth? For heaven's sake, why would I do such a thing?" She pressed her lips together until they formed a slit.
A corner of his sinful mouth twitched. "You are a green sprout, aren't you? Relax the muscles in your face. Pursed lips indicate rejection or a kiss as hard as pecking a wall. That's it, chin up. And when a gentleman's lips touch yours, count to five and pull your head back slightly to indicate the kiss has concluded. Much longer would be improper." He leaned over, and touched his closed mouth to hers.
A shiver ran through every nerve in Suri's body. Silently, she counted to five.
Marguerite pulled her head back, let go of the man's hands, and splayed her fingers across her stomach. "Oh, my."
Lord John turned to Suri. "Your turn."
"My turn? Thank you, no. I believe I have seen enough to know what to do."
His head tilted, and that winsome quirk of his mouth shot another twinge through her belly.
"Ah, my dear, if I am to serve both you ladies well, then I must insist on showing you the improper kiss, the kiss that would cause scandal, the kiss that should you be caught unawares, could lead to your ruin."
His words set Suri's lips tingling. "The very idea. You think me a dunce?"
That heart-stopping smile captured his mouth once again. He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, anything but." With the same uplifted wave of his hand he'd given Marguerite, he signaled Suri to rise. "Up, and remove your gloves."
This time it was she who tilted her head. "Remove my gloves?"
"Indeed. I will demonstrate why a lady's hands should not go bare on her first kiss. Are you observing, Lady Marguerite?"
Marguerite fairly danced in place, her eyes glittering. "Oh, I shan't miss a moment."
Suri stood. Curiosity could be a powerful little beast at times. Besides, she was never one to back down from a challenge. Slowly, she tugged at each finger. Tossing her gloves aside, she extended her hands.
Instead of clasping them, he kept his gaze steady on hers as he, too, did away with his gloves and threw them on the hay. "Breathe, darling," he murmured and stepped closer. "Ever so slowly, so as not to faint in my arms."
Her lungs quivered. She caught his scent — male musk with a faint hint of bergamot — and it held her immobile. "You are beyond arrogant, sir."
"No, merely knowledgeable." He enclosed her cold fingers within his hot hands.
His touch could have been a naked embrace for the shockwave it sent screaming through her body. Good heavens! She took that slow breath, as much to fill her exhausted lungs as to steady her knees.
Cradling her upturned hand in his, he exposed her wrist. "Never allow a man access to this pulse point." His voice had grown husky.
"What pulse point?" She was afraid to look.
"This one." He bent and pressed his warm mouth to her wrist, swiped it with his tongue.
Her head buzzed as a rage of passion swept through her. Nothing in the world had ever felt so delicious.
His tongue swept her wrist once more.
Hot. Her skin was about to burst into flames.
She blinked furiously to keep her eyes open, to keep from swooning. She wanted to shout, "Again!" but said nothing, only stared at him.
"And never allow a man access to your palm." His words were liquid velvet now, and she knew the direction his lips were headed. She closed her eyes as he buried his mouth in her palm and swept his tongue in tiny circles.
The air burst from her lungs. "You are quite mad, sir." Nonetheless, she stood there, incapable of removing her hands from his. Where Marguerite stood, Suri did not know, did not care. All she knew was that this man's head was bent over her hands, and his hot mouth was the devil's playground, licking fire through her veins.
And then he did the most outrageous thing — he took her thumb in his mouth and sucked. Her world exploded. A small moan escaped her lips.
Excerpted from A Duke's Wicked Kiss by Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Bittner Roth. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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