Darian Hunter, Duke of Wolfingham: legendary rake and notorious bachelor
Mariah Beecham, Countess of Carlisle: society's scandalous widow and secret agent of the crown
A notoriously debauched house party
Forced to pose as lovers, Darian and Mariah must work together to stop an assassination plot
As the shocking and oh-so-sensual games play out around them, the romantic ruse becomes all too real. And the tantalizing temptation to indulge their every desire becomes overwhelming
Rakes about town
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'Would you care to repeat your remark, Wolfing-ham, for I fear the music and loud chatter must have prevented me from hearing you correctly the first time?'
Darian did not need to look down, into the face of the woman with whom he was dancing, to know Mariah Beecham, widowed Countess of Carlisle, had heard him correctly the first time; her displeasure was more than obvious, in both the frosty tone of her voice and the stiffness of her elegantly clad body.
'I doubt that very much, madam,' he drawled just as icily, as the two of them continued to smile for the benefit of any watching them as they moved about the dance floor, in perfect sequence with the other couples dancing. 'Nevertheless, I will gladly repeat my statement, in that it is my wish that you immediately cease to encourage my brother in this ridiculous infatuation he seems to have developed for you.'
'The implication being that you believe me to have been deliberately encouraging those attentions in the first place?' His hostess for the evening arched one haughty blonde brow over eyes of an exquisite and unusual shade of turquoise blue.
A colour that Darian had previously only associated with the Mediterranean Sea, on a clear summer's day.
Darian had long been aware of this lady's presence in society, of course, first as the Earl of Carlisle's much younger wife and, for these past five years, as that deceased gentleman's very wealthy and scandalous widow.
But this was the first occasion upon which Darian had spent any length of time in her company. Having done so, he now perfectly understood his younger brother's infatuation with the countess; she was, without doubt, a woman of unparalleled beauty.
Her hair was the gold of ripened corn, her complexion as pale and smooth as alabaster; a creamy brow, softly curving cheeks, her neck long, with elegantly plump shoulders shown to advantage by the low decolletage of her gown. Those unusual turquoise eyes were surrounded by thick dark lashes, her nose small and pert above generousand sensuallips and the ampleness of her breasts revealed above a silk gown of the same deep turquoise colour as her eyes.
No, Darian could not fault his brother's taste in women, for Mariah Beecham was a veritable diamond, in regard to both her beauty and those voluptuous breasts.
Unfortunately, she was also a widow aged four and thirty to Anthony's only four and twenty, and mother to a daughter of seventeen. Indeed her daughter, the Lady Christina Beecham, was newly out this Season, and so also present this evening. She also bore a startling physical resemblance to her mother.
The young Lady Christina Beecham did not, however, as yet have the same scandalous reputation as her mother.
It was that reputation that had prompted Darian's recent concerns in regard to his brother's future happiness and for him to have uncharacteristically decided to interfere in the association.
He would have understood if Anthony had merely wished to discreetly share the lady's bed for a few weeks, or possibly even months. He accepted that all young gentlemen indulged in these sexual diversionsindeed, he had done so himself for many years at that agefor their own enjoyment and in order to gain the physical experience considered necessary for the marriage bed.
Unfortunately, this lady could never be called discreet. And Anthony had made it more than plain, in their conversation two days ago, that he did not regard Mariah Beecham as his mere mistress.
As Anthony's older brother and only relation, Darian could not allow him to entertain such a ruinous marriage. As Anthony's guardian, for at least another few months and so still in control of Anthony's considerable fortune, Darian considered it to be nothing more than an unsuitable infatuation.
His efforts so far to dissuade Anthony from continuing in his pursuit of this woman had been to no avail; his brother could be as stubborn as Darian when he had decided on a course of action.
Consequently, Darian had been left with no choice but to approach and speak to the woman herself, and he had attended the countess's ball this evening for just that purpose. His forays into polite society had been rare these past few years.
He much preferred to spend his evenings at his private club, or gambling establishments, in the company of the four gentlemen who had been his closest friends since their schooldays together. The past ten years had seen the five of them become known collectively in society as The Dangerous Dukes. It was a reputation they had earned for their exploits in the bedchamber, albeit discreetly in recent years, as much as on the battlefield.
Confirmed bachelors all, Darian had recently watched as two of his close friends had succumbed to falling in loveone of them had already married, the second was well on his way to being so.
Much as he might deplore the distance a wife would necessarily put between himself and two of his closest friends, Darian considered the two ladies in question to be more than suitable as his friends' consorts, and had no doubt that both ladies were equally as smitten as his two friends and that the marriages would flourish.
Also, Worthing and Hawksmere were both gentlemen aged two and thirty, the same age as Darian himself, and so both old enough, he considered, to know their own minds, and hearts. His brother, Anthony, was so much younger, and as such Darian did not consider him old enough as yet to know enough of life, let alone the true meaning of love for any woman.
Most especially, he knew Anthony could have no previous experience with a woman of Mariah Bee-cham's age and reputation. Nor had it helped to quell Darian's disquiet over the association that, when he had arrived here earlier this evening, his first sighting of his younger brother had been as he danced with the countess, a besotted smile upon his youthfully handsome face!
That she now felt just as strongly opposed as Anthony did to Darian's interference in the friendship was in no doubt as he looked down into those cold and challenging turquoise eyes.
It was a long time since Mariah had allowed anyone to anger her to the degree Darian Hunter had just succeeded in doing. Not since her husband, Martin, had been alive, in fact. But Darian Hunter, the arrogantly superior Duke of Wolfingham, had undoubtedly succeeded in annoying her intensely.
How dared this man come into her home and chastise her in this way? As if she were no more than a rebellious and impressionable young girl for him to reprove and reproach for her actions?
Actions of which she was, in this particular instance, completely innocent.
Mariah had, of course, been aware of Anthony Hunter's youthful attentions to her during these past few weeks. Attentions that she had neither encouraged nor discouraged. The former, because Anthony could never be any more to her than an entertaining boy, and the latter, because she had not wanted to hurt those youthful feelings.
All of which she would happily have assured his arrogant duke of a brother, if Wolfingham had not been so determined to be unpleasant to her from the moment they began dancing together.
She should have known that Darian Hunter, a gentleman known for his contempt of all polite social occasions, would have an ulterior motive when he had accepted the invitation to her ball. That he had also claimed a dance with her was unheard of; the duke's usual preference was to stand on the edge of society, looking coldly down his haughty nose at them all.
So much for that particular social feather in her cap! For Mariah now knew that Darian Hunter's only reason for attending her ball, for asking her to dance, had been with the intention of being unpleasant to her.
If only he was not so devilishly handsome, Mariah might have found it in her heart to forgive him. After all, his concern for the welfare of his younger brother and ward was commendable; Mariah also felt that same protectiveness in regard to her daughter, Christina.
And Wolfingham's arrogant handsomeness was of a kind that no woman could remain completely immune to it. Not even a woman as jaded as herself.
That she knew she was not immune rankled and irritated Mariah more than any of the insulting things Wolfingham had just said to her.
The duke was excessively tall, at least a foot taller than her own five feet, his overlong hair as black as night and inclined to curl slightly on his brow and about his ears. His faceemerald-green eyes fringed by thick dark lashes, a long patrician nose, sharp blades for cheekbones, with sculptured lips that might have graced a Michelangelo statue, along with a strong and determined jawpossessed a masculine beauty that was undeniably arresting.
The width of his shoulders, and broad and powerfully muscled chest, were all also shown to advantage in his perfectly tailored, black evening clothes. As were his lean and muscled thighs, and the long length of his legs and calves.
Wolfingham was, in fact, everything that Mariah, while acknowledging his male splendour, recoiled from and disliked in a man.
'I was not implying anything, madam.' Those sculptured lips now turned back contemptuously. 'Merely stating a fact.'
Mariah eyed him coldly. 'Indeed?'
Wolfingham nodded tersely. 'I know, for example, that my brother has attended every one of the same excessive amount of entertainments as you have these past three weeks or more. That he then rarely leaves your side for longer than a few minutes. That he calls at your home at least three, sometimes four, times a week and that he stays well beyond the time of any of your other callers. And that, in turn, you'
'You are having me watched?' Mariah gasped, so disturbed at the thought she had almost stumbled in the dance.
'I am having my brother watched,' Wolfingham corrected grimly, his tightened grip upon her gloved hand having prevented her stumble. 'It is an unfortunate coincidence that you have always happened to be wherever Anthony is and so your own movements have been afforded that same interest.'
It was truly insupportable that the haughtily contemptuous Duke of Wolfingham dared to so blatantly admit to having monitored those innocent meetings. Totally unacceptable on any level Mariah cared to consider and regardless of Wolfingham's reasons for having done so.
Lord Anthony Hunter was young, yes, but surely old enough to live his own life as he chose, without this excessive interference from his arrogant and disapproving older brother?
As for Mariah, she did not care in the least for having her personal life placed under such close scrutiny.
'Well, madam, what is your answer to be to my request?' Darian prompted impatiently, aware that the dance would soon come to an end and having no desire to waste any more of his evening than was absolutely necessary at the countess's ball. His shoulder, still healing from the recent bullet wound, was currently giving him an excessive amount of pain, following his exertions on the dance floor.
Mariah Beecham pulled her hand from his and stepped back and away from him as the dance came to an end. 'My answer is to make a request of my own, which is that you should leave my home forthwith!'
Darian's eyes widened in surprise before he was able to hide it; he had been the Marquis of Durham for all of his life, and the Duke of Wolfingham these past seven years, and as such no one talked to him in such a condescending manner as Mariah Beecham had just done.
He did not know whether to be irritated or amused that she should have done so now. 'And if I should choose not to?'
Her smile was again obviously for the benefit of anyone observing them, rather than genuinely meant, her gaze remaining icily cold as she took the arm he offered to lead her from the dance floor. 'In that case I will have no choice but to ask two of my footmen to forcibly remove you,' she answered with insincere sweetness as she removed her hand and turned to face him.
In contrast, Darian's own smile was perfectly sincere. Indeed, he could not remember being this amused and entertained, by anyone or anything, in a very long time. If ever! 'Are you certain two footmen would be sufficient to the task?' he drawled derisively.
An angry flush coloured those alabaster cheeks at his obvious mockery. 'I do not care how many footmen it takes, your Grace, as long as they are successful in removing you, and your insulting presence, from my home.' Her voluptuous breasts quickly rose and fell in her agitation.
'I believe I have only been stating the obvious, madam.' Darian arched a challenging brow.
'Which is that you consider me entirely unsuitable as a focus for your brother's infatuation?'
'I would go further, madam, and say that I find you entirely unsuitable to occupy any situation in my brother's life.' Darian's mouth thinned disapprovingly at the realisation that he now found himself in the position of being attracted to this bewitching woman. A woman, he had discovered during the course of the past few minutes, totally unlike any other he had ever met.
Mariah Beecham was undoubtedly a dazzling beauty and it was impossible for a man's gaze not to admire the rise and fall of those voluptuous and creamy breasts. But he had discovered, as they danced together, that she was far more than just a beautiful face and a desirable body.
Her forthright manner, and her obvious contempt for him, was a refreshing change after the years of women simpering and flirting in his company, in a bid to secure his attention and in the hopes they might one day become his duchess.