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'How I have come to hate weddings!' Lady Arabella St Claire muttered inelegantly as her partner in the waltz—a dance still considered slightly risqué by the older members of the ton—swept her assuredly amongst the two hundred or so other wedding guests milling about the candlelit ballroom of St Claire House in London.
'Could that be because in the past year you have been three times the sister of the groom rather than being the bride?' drawled Darius Wynter, the Duke of Carlyne.
Arabella looked up sharply, intending to give him a set-down for the mockery she detected in his cynically bored tone. That was her intention, but instead Arabella found her attention caught and held by the hard and perfect male beauty of his face—a face Arabella had once described to one of her sisters-in-law as being that of an angel. Or a devil…
Six or seven inches taller than her own five feet and eight inches in stockinged feet, Darius Wynter had stylishly overlong golden hair, which gleamed in the candlelight, and his eyes were of dark cobalt-blue, edged by long lashes of that same gold. His nose was long and aristocratic, his cheekbones hard, and he possessed perfect sculptured lips above a square and determined jaw.
The stark black of his jacket over snowy-white linen emphasised rather than hid the width of his shoulders, his muscled chest and taut abdomen, and the lean elegance of his hips and thighs was defined by tailored black pantaloons.
Yes, Darius Wynter, Duke of Carlyne, was certainly elegance personified—and he was also the most com-pellingly handsome man Arabella had met since her coming out the previous year.
Until a few short months ago he had been Lord Darius Wynter, a man well known for his numerous exploits in the bedroom and at the gaming tables. A wild and reckless reputation that had only been added to when he'd married the heiress Sophie Belling a year ago, only to be suddenly widowed one short month later, when his bride was thrown from her horse while out hunting and killed.
As expected, the majority of the ton—marriage-minded mamas especially!—had forgiven Darius Wynter all his previous sins when he'd inherited the title of the Duke of Carlyne on the death of his elder brother seven months ago.
Arabella had been drawn to his decadent good-looks the first time she'd seen him at a ball some eighteen months ago. An attraction, despite the many social occasions at which they had both been present, that Darius Wynter had unfortunately never given any inclination of returning.
Her top lip curled now with haughty disdain. 'I am sure you did not mean your remark to be so insulting, Your Grace.'
Darius gazed down into the beautiful face of Lady Arabella St Claire. With three brothers older than herself, one of them Hawk, Duke of Stourbridge, Darius knew that this young lady had been petted and spoilt for most if not all of her almost twenty years.
Nevertheless, her beauty was dazzling: a riot of honey-gold curls framed her heart-shaped face, her eyes were the colour of melted chocolate, and she had a tiny up-tilted nose, full and sensuously pouting lips, and a pointedly determined chin. The pale cream gown she wore revealed a spill of creamy breasts above a narrow waist and rounded hips, and her tiny feet were covered in cream satin slippers.
Yes, Lady Arabella St Claire was without doubt a very beautiful and highly desirable young lady. But as the young and so far unattached sister of the Duke of Stourbridge, wealthy in her own right following the death of her father eleven years ago, this haughtily condescending young lady had been hotly pursued by every eligible buck during the past two Seasons. Darius, whilst still only the lowly Lord Wynter, had even made an offer for her himself the previous year. An offer that had been summarily dismissed by this wilful baggage, he recalled grimly.
Are you so sure?' Darius taunted.
Those deep brown eyes narrowed slightly. 'I am but nineteen years of age, Your Grace, hardly old-maid material yet!'
Darius rather liked the angry flush that had entered her cheeks. It made her eyes appear darker, the fullness of her lips redder. Lips that it would no doubt be a pleasure to kiss and explore, he noted. 'Nevertheless, you have been out for two Seasons now, with no hint of a betrothal being announced.'
Those expressive dark eyes flashed her displeasure. 'Is it your opinion, then, that all young ladies are so giddy and empty-headed that their only aim in life must be to snare themselves a suitable husband?'
He raised enquiring blond brows. 'By suitable I presume you mean wealthy, as well as titled?'
Her pointed chin rose challengingly. 'It is the enlightened year of eighteen hundred and seventeen, Your Grace, a time when not all women feel that they need a husband—any husband—by which to justify their very existence!'
'Then it is not your intention to marry?' he asked curiously.
'Not for some years, no,' she answered stubbornly.
Her brows drew together. 'I beg your pardon?'
Darius shrugged broad shoulders. 'At nineteen a woman's body is still firm and ripe—' He broke off as Arabella gave a shocked gasp and attempted to pull away from him, yet Darius easily prevented her withdrawal by tightening his arm about the narrowness of her waist and his fingers about her tiny gloved fingers.
Her eyes glittered up at him angrily when she found herself forced to continue dancing, the softness of her thighs pressed against his much harder ones. 'Release me at once, sir!'
Darius grinned down at her unrepentantly. 'I am merely endeavouring to show you what you are missing by spurning the idea of marriage whilst you are still young enough to enjoy it.'
Arabella had not grown up with three older brothers without learning at least some of the mechanics of a man's body. And at the moment she could feel exactly what she would be missing as the hard press of Darius Wynter's thighs became a shocking torment against hers. A shockingly sensual torment…
Her legs felt weakened by the intimacy. Her breasts were swelling against her gown, her palms becoming slightly damp inside her gloves, and her cheeks were burning as she glanced about them self-consciously.
Luckily there was such a crush of people attending the celebration of her brother Sebastian's wedding to his darling Juliet that no one—not one of her brothers or their wives, nor indeed her many aunts and uncles and numerous cousins—seemed to have noticed the Duke's over-familiarity with Arabella.
Arabella's eyes gleamed as she turned back to face him. 'Surely it is not necessary for a woman to marry in order for her to enjoy such…intimacies?' She looked up at him challengingly, hoping to shock him.
The Duke narrowed his eyes. 'Perhaps you have already done so?' he retorted.
Of course Arabella had not. She might not as yet have found any man interesting enough to even think of marrying him, but for her to go to her husband on their wedding night as anything but pure and untouched would cause the most tremendous scandal. Besides which, her three over-protective older brothers would never allow it.
However, she considered this taunting mockery from a contemporary of her eldest brother Hawk intolerable. At one-and-thirty years of age, he should know better! 'Perhaps…' she echoed enigmatically.
Those sculptured lips curved into a hard smile. 'Why is it I find that so very hard to believe, Lady Arabella?'
She drew in a sharp, indignant breath. 'Are you calling me a liar, Your Grace?'
'I believe I am, yes,' Darius murmured.
Arabella St Claire really was a wayward little baggage, he acknowledged with admiration as he continued to twirl her about the magnificent candlelit ballroom. A wilful baggage with a complete disregard for the fact that she was playing with fire by behaving in this flirtatious way with a man she had refused to marry so condescendingly the previous year.
She held herself very erect, her challenging stance pushing up the full swell of those creamy breasts so that Darius now felt their warmth against his chest.
'I do not tell lies, Your Grace.'
He quirked a brow over lazily sensual blue eyes. 'Prove it.'
Her eyes opened wide at the challenge. 'I beg your pardon?'
They might have been the only two people in the room as Darius regarded her from between narrowed lids. The air between them was charged with expectation as he noted the loss of colour to her cheeks and the shocked uncertainty that now shone in those previously rebellious brown eyes. 'I am merely inviting you to prove your claim, Arabella,' he repeated softly.
'I—But—How am I to do that, Your Grace?'
His mouth repressed a smile. 'Surely there is only one way in which a woman might prove her…experience in the matter of physical intimacy?'
Arabella stared up at Darius Wynter in disbelief. He could not seriously mean for her to—? He did not expect her to—?
Yes, he did!
His intent was blatantly plain for Arabella to read in that single raised brow. In the deep blue of his eyes. In the cynical half-smile on those perfect lips.
Darius Wynter, Duke of Carlyne, was openly challenging her to indulge in physical intimacy with him!
Arabella's heart fluttered wildly in her chest at the mere thought of the muscled strength of this man's hard, naked body pressed against her own; those wide shoulders, the firmness of his chest and stomach, his powerful thighs and the naked glory of his—
'I assure you, sir, that the infamous Darius Wynter is the very last man I would ever contemplate becoming intimate with,' Arabella bit out with deliberate insult.
He looked down his aristocratic nose at her. 'Is that so?' he responded icily.
She nodded. 'You are undoubtedly the rake everyone believes you to be. A rake and a scoundrel. A man who married for money before being suspiciously widowed only a month later.'
'Suspiciously?' His voice was deceptively, dangerously soft.
'Conveniently, then,'Arabella substituted recklessly. As you were then able to keep your heiress's money without the bother of the heiress. In other words, sir, you are a man no decent woman should ever align herself with, as wife or mistress, regardless of your newfound wealth and respectability as the Duke of Carlyne!'
Arabella was instantly aware of her serious error in judgement in insulting this particular man as those dark blue eyes narrowed dangerously in a face gone hard with displeasure. His mouth was a thin, uncompromising line above a clenched and unrelenting jaw. That very stillness was in itself a warning of the coldness and depth of his anger.
Arabella swallowed hard. 'Perhaps I have said too much—'
'Only perhaps?' Darius grated menacingly.
She had said too much. Far too much, and most assuredly to the wrong man. That the Duke had challenged her into being so indiscreet Arabella had no doubts. That she should not have taken up that challenge was also beyond doubt. As was the retribution promised in the hard blue of his eyes…
'I believe we should retire somewhere a little less…crowded so that we might continue this conversation in private,' Darius growled, his fingers firmly gripping Arabella's elbow as he left the dance floor to pull her along at his side through the crush of people.
'We cannot be seen leaving the ballroom together,' Arabella hissed self-consciously, hoping that at any moment one or other of her brothers would arrive and demand to know what they were about.
Darius did not so much as falter in his departure as he glanced down at her with cold, remorseless blue eyes. 'I believed you to be unconcerned by such impropriety in this enlightened year of eighteen hundred and seventeen!'
Arabella felt her cheeks warm as he neatly turned her earlier bravado back on her, to good effect. 'I assure you I am completely unconcerned, Your Grace, but my brothers may perhaps be less…guarded in voicing their opinions.'
His mouth twisted derisively. 'Sebastian and his bride disappeared some minutes ago, and Hawk and Lucian also seem to be similarly engaged with the charms of their own wives.'
Another hurried glance about the ballroom did indeed show an obvious lack of the presence of Arabella's brothers. How typical! Since her coming out last Season her brothers had made her life almost impossible with their over-protectiveness, and now, when Arabella would actually have welcomed their high-handed interference, they had all disappeared to goodness knew where to dally with their wives. Even Aunt Hammond, her chaperon during these past two Seasons, appeared blind to Arabella's unwilling departure from the ballroom as she stood across the room engrossed in conversation with several of their relatives.
As I said,' Darius drawled with dry satisfaction, 'I think it better by far that we retire somewhere less crowded in order to continue our present…conversation.'
Arabella had no doubt from the determined tone of his voice that conversation was the last thing the arrogant Duke of Carlyne wished to continue….
Darius strode from the ballroom, pulling Arabella through yet another crush of people where they stood chattering and laughing in the cavernous hallway, although he was not unaware of the expression in her beautiful brown eyes as he looked for a room where he could be alone with this insultingly outspoken young madam. Those eyes of hers, Darius knew, could sparkle with laughter as easily as they now snapped with anger.
So far the former had never happened in his presence….
Whenever he and Arabella St Claire had chanced to meet this past year and a half it had always been at one function of the ton or another. Occasions when this feisty little miss had treated the disreputable Lord Darius Wynter with all the haughty disdain of which a St Claire was capable—if she deigned to acknowledge him at all. Which usually she had not.
The tenuous accuracy of Arabella's recently voiced insults proved that although she had appeared to be completely unaware of him personally, she had obviously not been above listening to the scandalous gossip that so often circulated about him amongst the ton!
It was time—past time—for Darius to demonstrate to her that as the Duke of Carlyne he would no longer tolerate such dismissive behaviour from her or anyone else!
The noise and heat of the wedding party faded, and Darius kept his hand tightly about her elbow as he strode forcefully down a corridor towards the back of the house.
'What is in here?' He indicated a door to the left of the hallway with his free hand.
'It is a linen closet, I believe. Lord Wyn—Your Grace,' she corrected herself hurriedly as she stumbled along beside him, 'this really is most improper—'
'Here?' Darius ignored her protests, his expression grim as he indicated a door to the right.
'Hawk's study. But we cannot go in there!' she protested agitatedly.