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Bradford / WHEN THE DUCHESS SAYS YES
It was duty that had drawn the Duke of Hawkesworth back to England. More specifically, duty, and lawyers, and a woman he’d never met but was bound to marry.
Bored already, Hawke sprawled in his chair in the playhouse box, pretending to watch the abysmal opera before him. He’d been away nearly ten years, long enough that he suspected those in the other first-tier boxes were desperately trying to decide who he must be. It wouldn’t be easy. He knew he’d changed, grown from a schoolboy to a man, and he’d grown into both his broad frame and his title. Thanks to a long-ago Mediterranean grandmother, he had dark hair and dark eyes, and his face was so unfashionably tan after the long voyage that those in the other boxes had likely all decided he was swarthy, even foreign.
The thought made him smile. Well, let them peer at him with their opera glasses and whisper behind their fans. They’d all come to recognize him soon enough.
“Those two dancers with the scarlet stockings,” whispered the Marquis of Petershaw, an old friend and the first to welcome him back to London. “The ones with the golden hair. A delectable pair, eh? Sisters, I’d wager. Should I send our compliments for a late supper, the way we did in the old days?”
“We were randy schoolboys in those ‘old days,’ Petershaw, ready to mount anything female that didn’t kick us away,” Hawke said, bemused. “We weren’t exactly discerning.”
Petershaw’s round face fell. “I judged them a fine pair of doxies.”
“They are, they are,” Hawke assured him, not wanting to belittle his friend’s tastes. But the truth was that Hawke’s own tastes had changed with the rest of him, and in comparison to the vibrant, voluptuous women he’d left behind in Naples, English females seemed pale, bland, and thoroughly insipid, just as English food now tasted underseasoned and overcooked. “I’m not in the humor for such entertainment, that is all.”
“You, Hawke?” His friend’s brows rose with disbelief. “I’ve never known you to refuse feminine company.”
“You forget my reason for returning,” Hawke said, as evenly as he could. “I am to be wed, and my days with that manner of strumpet are done.”
“Perhaps on your wedding night,” Petershaw said, “but not forever. Not you.”
Hawke only smiled, letting his friend think what he pleased. Petershaw would anyway, regardless of what Hawke told him.
“No, not you,” Petershaw declared with a suggestive chuckle that also managed to be admiring. “Not at all! I’m going to send a note down to the tiring room for those little dancers, and I’ll wager you’ll change your mind before the evening’s done.”
He went off in search of a messenger before Hawke could answer. Hawke sighed, sadly wondering if he’d lost his taste for English friends, too. But then Petershaw could afford to be impulsive with dancers, milliner’s assistants, and whatever other pretty faces caught his fancy. He was a third son with no need to wed or sire heirs, and he was completely free to scatter his seed wherever he pleased.
But the truth was that Hawke’s smile masked a great many misgivings about his own upcoming marriage. He was, of course, obliged to follow through with the betrothal that Father had long ago arranged for him. It wasn’t only a matter of honor, of not abandoning some poor lady of rank at the altar. No, Father had mistrusted his only son so thoroughly that he’d bound this marriage and his estate together into a tangled knot of legal complexities and obligation that could never be undone. Father couldn’t prohibit him from inheriting the dukedom, but he could—and had—restricted the estate necessary to support the title. In other words, unless Hawke married the lady of Father’s choosing before her nineteenth birthday, he would become a duke without a farthing.
Restlessly Hawke tapped his fingers on the polished rail before him. Accepting his fate didn’t mean he found it agreeable. Far from it. Ten years had passed since Father died, yet Hawke still resented both him and that infernal will. Still, though his father expected him to marry, at least he didn’t expect him to be faithful. Their family had been founded on the legitimized by-blows of a king and his mistress a century before, and every Duke of Hawkesworth since had followed suit and kept at least one mistress. It was a tradition Hawke fully intended to continue. He’d marry this lady, remain honorably faithful to her long enough to produce children, and then, with the title secure, his duty complete, and his family well provided for, he’d depart for Bella Collina, his beloved villa in Naples, never to return.
In theory it was a most excellent plan, one that had given Hawke much comfort on the long voyage to En-gland. But as he idly glanced around at the well-bred faces in the other boxes, his heart sank. He’d forgotten how unappealing his fellow aristocrats could be, and one lady after another struck him as smugly complacent as they preened in their jewels and costly gowns, their painted faces and towering white wigs no more attractive to him than the two dancers that Petershaw had spotted.
Glumly he wondered what his bride would be like. Wynn, his agent, had written that she was a beauty. But then every bride was considered beautiful, and what, truly, could Wynn have written instead? There was no portrait enclosed, never a favorable sign. Wynn had mentioned that the lady had been raised in the country and wasn’t accustomed to society, let alone to sitting for portrait painters, but Hawke had immediately imagined some bland, stolid, milk-fed creature, more like a farmer’s daughter than an earl’s, with a round face and wispy pale hair.
By unfortunate coincidence, his wandering gaze had settled on exactly that sort of young lady, not two boxes away, who set off her pasty pallor and snub nose with black velvet patches scattered over her cheeks. To Hawke’s dismay, she’d noticed him, too. She smiled, flashing teeth marred by too much sugar and tea, and coyly winked at him over the blades of her fan.
He nodded curtly in return, only enough to be polite, then swiftly turned away, back toward the portly singer.
But before his gaze reached the stage, it stopped, stopped as completely and abruptly as a gaze could be stopped. He couldn’t look away if his life depended upon it, and in a way, perhaps it did.
She was standing alone at the front of an empty box, leaning forward with her hands on the railing. From her pale pink gown and the strand of pearls around her throat, she appeared to be a lady, but she bore no resemblance to any of the other ladies in the entire house. If she was alone like this, unattended, then she was likely a courtesan, some wealthy gentleman’s costly plaything despite her youth.
Not that Hawke cared, and in a way that made her even more fascinating. He’d stolen women away from other gentlemen, and he was quite willing to do it again. She was undeniably pretty, even beautiful, and fresh in a way that wasn’t fashionable for London, let alone for whores. Her face was bare of paint and artifice, rosy and glowing by the light from the stage, and her hair was unpowdered as well, so dark that it blended into the shadows around her. She was tall, too, with a slender grace that didn’t depend on tight lacing, and the way she bent forward, offering a generous view of her breasts framed by the pink silk, was unconsciously elegant.
That was it, then, the intangible that compelled him to look at her. She was a beauty who didn’t seem to care about being one, unashamed of being unaware. It charmed him, he who’d been sure he’d seen and admired every kind of female beauty; no, it captivated him. And the longer he watched her, the more intrigued he became.
In his eagerness, Hawke leaned forward, too, almost as if mirroring her pose. Suddenly she looked from the stage directly toward him, as if she’d felt the power of his interest clear across the playhouse. She looked at him openly, studying him without any coyness or coquettishness, and slowly raised one hand to smooth a loose curl behind her ear. Automatically he smiled, more with pleasure than with any seductive motive, and to his delight, she smiled in return.
He had to learn who she was, no matter the inconvenience this would cause to his wedding plans. His unwanted bride had already waited a good long time for him, and surely she could wait just a little longer. He had to meet this beauty as soon as possible. At once he rose, intending to leave his box and find her, and crashed directly into Petershaw.
“Here, Hawke, no hurry,” he said, his broad face beaming as he put his hands on Hawke’s shoulders to steady himself. “I’ve made certain that those two little hussies will be waiting for us after the performance, and then—”
“Damnation, Petershaw, not now.” Hawke untangled himself from his friend. “That beauty in pink, there, in the box directly across the way. Do you know who she might be?”
He turned back to point her out to Petershaw.
The box was empty. The girl was gone.
Hawke swore again, and raced through the door of his box into the corridor. She couldn’t have gone far. Her box was on the same ring, and if he hurried, he was sure to find her.
But the opera’s second act had just concluded, and while applause rippled through the house behind him, the doors to all the other boxes opened and their occupants streamed into the corridor in search of refreshments or one another. At once the narrow passage was filled with people, with the ladies in their wide hooped skirts claiming three times the space. Though Hawke did his best to press through, by the time he’d finally made his way to other side, the young woman in pink was nowhere to be found, and doubtless long, long gone.
“Whose box is this?” Hawke demanded of the attendant standing beside the door.
“The Earl of Farnham, my lord,” the man said.
“Your Grace,” Hawke corrected impatiently. He didn’t know Lord Farnham, but then he didn’t know much of anyone in London now. “I’m the Duke of Hawkesworth.”
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” the man said, mortified, and bowed hastily. “I did not know.”
“There was a young woman here this night, dressed all in pink,” Hawke said. “Was she a guest of Lord Farnham’s? Do you know her name?”
The attendant’s brows rose with surprise. “Lord Farnham’s not in attendance tonight, Your Grace. Forgive me for speaking plain, but his lordship must be eighty if he’s a day, Your Grace, with scant interest in young ladies.”
“You saw no young woman in pink?”
“No, Your Grace,” the man declared soundly. “None at all.”
“What is this all about, Hawke?” Petershaw asked beside him. “Who the devil is this chit in pink that has you in such a steam?”
Hawke sighed with frustration, and a certain amount of confusion as well. He didn’t know why finding this girl had become so important to him; he could not put her smile from his thoughts, nor, truly, did he want to.
“I do not know who she is, Petershaw,” he said, “beyond her being the most beguiling creature imaginable. It would seem she has vanished clear away.”
“Now that’s the Hawke I recall, always with his nose to the trail of a vixen.” Petershaw grinned slyly. “Where’s that dutiful, dull bridegroom now, eh?”
Petershaw had intended it only as a jest, a sly and slightly envious jab at Hawke’s reputation with women. But instead it struck Hawke as a sobering reminder, as determined to douse his desire as a bucket of water from an icy river. It should have been, too, especially for a man such as Hawke, who seldom denied himself anything. As delectable as the smiling girl in pink might be, she was not for him. For the foreseeable future, he was doomed to keep to only the most respectable of paths, and grant to his bride exclusive rights to his honor, his title, his fortune, and, most of all, his cock.
A sobering reminder, indeed. A grim, depressing, damnably sobering reminder.