About the book
The definitive guide to seduction…
Threatened with eviction by her uncle unless she and her spinster sisters marry this Season, Lady Lydia does the unthinkable: she publicly announces her engagement to the Duke of Marigold.
There is one reason Michael Connor, the Duke of Marigold, cannot marry and sire children. And it’s not just his horrendous reputation as a debauched rake, but the sacred vow he took to die a bachelor.
So when word of their alledged engagement goes out, he is determined to make the cheeky Lady pay. What he never expected though was that he would find himself on his knees for her in more ways than one. Or that’d he bring her to ruin.
“Polly, darling, I’m afraid you are failing to see reason-”
“Reason has not escaped me, Francis,” Mother said tersely, fanning her bosom. The spring afternoon had turned uncomfortably warm. She waved for a servant. “Please, bring some refreshments. The girls are wilting.”
Uncle Francis, annoyed by the distraction, leaned forward from his chair, impassioned, “Polly-”
“-and how many times have I asked you not to call me that childish nickname?”
Frustrated, Uncle stood quickly and started pacing the room, much to the exasperation of Lydia and her sisters, who exchanged eye rolls.
Lydia had claimed the settee first. She lay with arms stretched over her head. Trinity took the couch by the window, looking remorsefully out to the London streets below. Lucretia and Marcia were amusing themselves with cards at a table across the room, while Johanna was dutifully working on a sampler near their mother.
They had chosen their seats by age, too tired for their usual bickering. While the warmth had taken the fight from them, the unexpected arrival of their uncle had put everyone in an irritated mood.
Martha continued her defense, “Francis, I must insist you put aside these fantasies of yours. How many times must I tell you? I am not interested in marrying again. I’m quite busy ensuring my daughters all make appropriate matches.”
“Full time job, that is,” he muttered.
“Uncle!” Lydia cried in protest. “Just last night Trinity danced two full sets with the viscount. He’s properly smitten.”
“Her only two sets of the Season!” he argued.
Lydia opened her mouth to speak again, but he ignored her, turning back to Martha.
“Martha, I know your financial situation has become increasingly dire. Paying for the dresses and carriages and whatever else is deemed necessary to see your girls married – you have almost no other option. You must marry.”
“The Season is not yet over,” Martha insisted. “We have at least a month yet. You’ve only just arrived, Francis, you have no idea what prospects we have been cultivating all season long.”
Francis stroked his mustache, unconvinced by her sincere face.
Lydia always considered her uncle an unremarkable man. In her memory, her father had been dashing. He had been tall, broad, strong, friendly, and amenable. Uncle Francis was always in his shadow, glowering in the corner, casting a dull pallor on company whenever he visited.
Her mother, by comparison, was poised and graceful. In her Season, she had been the belle of society, easily winning the attention of the man that became her husband – The Viscount of Rackliff. Still elegant, even with five daughters out in society, Martha held her own against any formidable man or woman.
“Tell me Martha, without a daughter wed, how long can you survive?”
“It’s not that simple,” she argued. “Yes, the purse is growing smaller and smaller, but once the girls are wed, I will have a comfortable living from my dowry.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Francis said. “How much longer can you survive on the funds you have?”
“We have the manor, after all,” she responded, avoiding the question as she gestured to the room around them.
“Ah!” Francis cried, lifting a finger in the air before pointing it straight at Martha, who did not even flinch. “You forget, my dear. With no heir, your dear, late husband is no longer viscount. That title belongs to me.”
“What are you implying?”
Standing as tall as he could, as though trying to intimidate her, he said, “I am offering you my hand, as your husband, so that I can take care of you and your girls. Yet, you scorn me, at every turn, with so little care that you laugh at the suggestion.”
“I do not laugh at you, dear Francis,” she argued in a tired voice. “I cannot help that I still mourn the love of my life – your brother, I might remind you!”
Practically seething, Francis took several steps forward. Drawing himself to his full height, he took a deep breath.
“Bloody hell listen to me! I’m telling you, if you will not have me as your husband, Martha, you shall be out of this house by the end of the season.”
Quiet shock settled over the parlor. Lydia straightened up on the settee while Trinity swung her legs from the couch to the floor. Lucretia and Marcia held their cards in their hands, their jaws dropping open in surprise. Only little Johanna seemed unphased.
“If you will not marry me, I will ask you to seek other accommodations by the end of the Season,” Francis reiterated, when Martha did not reply. “So, unless you think you will be so blessed with a son-in-law that will allow you to reside with him, then I suggest you reconsider your stance.”
“I do not understand why you had to subject the girls to such a shocking statement.” Martha sniffed, folding her hands carefully in her lap. “So, you have given us all an ultimatum and wish to see me destitute - Embarrass me in front of my daughters, so they know who to blame when they have no home!”
Turning in shame, Francis recanted, “I did not mean to come across so harsh.”
“But you meant it!”
He resumed stroking his mustache and pacing. “Yes, well. I do, Martha. You have given me no choice.”
“There are plenty of other choices!” Martha argued. “You are not married, Francis, and you are now the Viscount of Rackliff in title. You could choose to support us, without demanding my hand in return.”
Tired to listening to her uncle berate her poor mother, Lydia piped in, “We will find suitors, Uncle.”
“No one spoke to you,” he snapped.
Lydia and Trinity exchanged shrugs, puzzled over their uncle’s short temper, an exchange that their mother noted with a hard look at them both.
“Francis, I do believe you are being a bit extreme,” Martha said.
“No, I think not. You have taken advantage of my hospitality these past few years, knowing full well the depth of my feelings for you. I will not tolerate it any longer!”
His monologue was interrupted by the servants bringing in refreshments. The girls flocked to the trays, momentarily distracted from the tense argument. Francis paced, casting side glances at the noise the girls made, in annoyance. Martha sat calmly still, giving Francis her full attention.
“Francis, you’ve only just arrived from the country, please take some refreshments,” she coaxed.
“I do not need anything,” he protested, waving his hand. “Pray tell me, what do you hope will happen? If just one of your girls secures a proposal this Season, could you afford a second Season to see the rest married?”
“They will all find matches,” Martha affirmed, her back stiffening. “Further, their father made a decent allowance for each of them, once they are wed, to use as they see fit.”
Francis scoffed dramatically, drawing Lydia away from the cakes and sandwiches. “You mean to say, you are counting on your girls to continue to provide for you with their dowries?”
“Yes, we’ve discussed it extensively. You seem not to understand how close we are as a family,” Martha argued.
Starting to get annoyed with her uncle, Lydia felt it necessary to interject. Before she could, though, he continued his tirade.
“My understanding is that they have been wallflowers all Season long, hardly securing a first set of dances with any suitor at all, let alone a second. How, then, do you insist that all of them will find matches?”
“Lydia has attracted plenty of suitors. With her securing an advantageous match, the rest of the girls will quickly receive proposals as well,” Martha told him.
Realizing that Lydia was watching them, Francis turned to look her up and down, unconvinced. “While you may not be homely, your lack of charm makes me quite skeptical.”
Extremely insulted, Lydia realized that she could not be polite any longer.
“I’m incredibly charming!” she cried, “…and I’ve had plenty of suitors this season!”
When he rolled his eyes and turned back to her mother, Lydia interrupted again, angry that he dared to dismiss her.
“I have had a proposal!” she blurted.
Her outburst caused everyone in the room to stare at her. Francis turned towards her with an eyebrow raised.
“How am I just hearing of this?” he asked. He motioned to her mother. “We have been discussing your prospects all afternoon and you did not think it pertinent to tell me?”
Turning to Martha, he demanded, “Did you know of this?”
“No!” Lydia cried. “No, I hadn’t told anyone yet.”
With all eyes on her, she clutched her hands in front of her, panicking.
“Do go on,” Francis prompted.
“It all happened very suddenly,” she rushed. “It was just last week, at the Assembly. I wasn’t even sure if I should accept at first, given his reputation, but ultimately I’ve decided that I must do my duties to my sisters.”
“Reputation?” her uncle asked, shocked. “What kind of proposal have you received?”
Whispering, she told them, “The Duke of Marigold.”
Her sisters shrieked, flocking around her.
“The duke?” Trinity asked, clutching her hands, “He was only there for a few minutes, how did you manage? Though, that smile he gave you was-”
“I just knew it!” Lucretia interjected. “He stared at you the entire evening.”
“And not just at that radiant smile,” Marcia chimed in with a wink.
“Girls, sit,” Martha commanded. The chatter subsided instantly, then with the stern look on their mother’s face, the girls returned to their respective seats. She turned to Lydia. “Lydia, this is quite remarkable news. I had thought that you had caught his attention. Have you let the duke know you’ve accepted his offer?”
“I wrote to him just this morning,” she said, blushing.
“Well then, I’m quite surprised,” Francis said, taking Lydia’s seat on the settee, which annoyed her. She took a less comfortable chair with a scowl. “Perhaps, I can call on the duke later this week, congratulate him on your upcoming nuptials and start making arrangements.”
“NO!” she cried, too quickly, then continued, “No, please, I wish to speak with him first, personally, before we make any formal announcement.”
“This will cause quite a stir,” Martha noted. “The duke is a known rake, Lydia. Are you sure this is the man you want to accept?”
“I must,” she said, raising her chin. “For my sisters.”
“Quite responsible of you,” Francis smiled, leaning back with his arm over the back of the settee. “I’m quite looking forward to announcing this engagement. It will be the talk of the ton.”
“Indeed,” Lydia smiled, weakly.
“Well,” Francis said, rising, “We should make arrangements soon, though. Please, let me know as soon as I can call upon him.”
Wilting, she nodded solemnly.
After supper that evening, Lydia, and her sisters retired to their rooms. While getting undressed for bed, she found herself the subject of their bedtime chatter.
“You had to pick the most rakish duke,” Trinity teased as she worked her stays loose. “Though, admittedly, the most handsome.”
“His reputation is pure rumor,” Lydia argued, pacing her bedroom. “Just because he is incredibly good looking doesn’t mean that he’s a rake.”
“Well, I heard that he will never marry,” Marcia added. “Everyone says so, otherwise he would have found someone by now.”
“Pure speculation,” Lydia insisted. “He is one of the most eligible bachelors in society. He simply must marry and produce an heir.”
“You haven’t even spoken to him,” Marcia said. “How many times have you even seen him this Season? Twice?”
“Lydia, why did you lie to Uncle?” Johanna asked, from the sitting room. Her innocent question drew groans from her older sisters.
“What does it matter?” Lucretia called out. With her hairbrush in hand, she stepped away from the mirror. “Uncle believed her, which should keep him at bay for a while.”
“Until he goes to make arrangements for the marriage settlement with the duke!” Trinity called out from her room.
“What are you going to do?” Marcia asked, turning to Lydia.
Lydia opened her mouth to answer, but stopped when their door opened, sending them into silence.
“Girls, gather around,” Martha instructed, waving the girls to come closer. As she sat down, her four younger sisters sat around their mother. Lydia dragged her feet until Martha’s waving became impatient. Her mother’s cool gaze made her heart race.
“Lydia, my darling,” she began. “What did you hope to accomplish, today?”
She stood before her mother, hands clasped in front of her, head bowed. “I wanted Uncle to think that we weren’t all hopeless. He kept insulting us, I just couldn’t bear to hear it any longer.”
“He will not find it difficult to obtain the truth. What then?”
“We just need to buy time,” Lydia told her. “Let him think that I’m engaged. It will make us all look so much more attractive. We should tell everyone that I’m engaged.”
“Have you possibly considered that, once your lie is uncovered, you will be completely embarrassed in front of the entire society, leaving you and your sisters without any matches at all?”
Mother cocked her head ever so slightly, her mouth pressed into a thin line. While she always kept her poise, Lydia could tell that she was worried.
“The Season will last only another month,” Lydia insisted. “We can stall, make the most of it. If not me, then perhaps Trinity, or Lucretia, just one of us needs to be engaged.”
Her mother studied her carefully. Lydia shifted from side to side, waiting for her response.
“I still think this spur of the moment plan of yours can only fail in dramatic fashion. However, let us try it out for a week. After all, the duke is likely to attend the next Assembly. He may reveal you then after only a week.”
“He never attends Assemblies,” Lydia pointed out. “He only attends private balls.”
“So much for his reputation being a rumor,” Trinity said. “We all know he does not attend the Assembly as this is meant to help make matches.”
“Pure speculation,” Lydia reiterated. She turned back to her mother. “We can be almost sure he won’t attend the Assembly. Let me have the time. I promise you that suitors will most definitely be calling on us the day after the Assembly.”
Martha considered Lydia’s proposal for a moment, her expression void of any indication.
“You cannot marry Uncle,” Lydia whispered, tears coming to her eyes.
With the slightest of nods, their mother gave her approval, rising. “Let us plan this Assembly carefully. Write to your friends and hint to the engagement – but do not use the duke’s name!”
“Thank you,” Lydia whispered, relieved.
“I’ll speak to Francis,” Martha added. “Perhaps, his ego will not prevent him from telling everyone of his niece’s engagement to one of the most powerful men in England.”
She put her hand on the door, then turned back thoughtfully. “Maybe, it will also buy you some time to find a suitor, before the truth comes out.”
“Your Grace,” a musical voice called.
“Your Grace!” the voice called again, drawing out each syllable.
He opened his eyes only to shut them again quickly, the daylight streaming through the window blinding him. He covered his eyes with his hands.
“Your Grace,” the voice continued, even closer to him than before. He lifted his hand to peek at the voice. A woman was kneeling on her hands and knees on the bed in front of him.
“What do you want?” he snapped, closing his eyes again.
He felt her straddle him, silk brushing his thighs. She traced her fingers down his chest, tickling him in the process. The throbbing in his head made him impatient for such advances.
“What the bloody hell do you want?” he asked in annoyance.
“The morning is late, Your Grace,” she told him. She flicked the sash from her robe across his skin.
With a sweep of his arm, he pushed the woman off him. “I don’t care how late it is,” he said. “If I wish to lay here the rest of the day, I will.”
Finally daring to open his eyes, he peered at the woman, who was now pouting on the side of the bed. Her painted cheeks and disheveled hair spoke of an evening of debauchery. He groaned again, prompting her to crawl forward on the bed again.
“Your Grace, perhaps I could pour you a glass of wine, some breakfast, even, to help your head?”
He fell back into the bed, rubbing his temples. She took over, her light fingers making short work of the pain in his head. Feeling less irritable, he took one of her hands and kissed it.
“Thank you, for your tenderness. I believe a glass of wine would help,” he said, at last.
With a smile, the woman left, allowing him some respite. He closed his eyes, tempted to fall back to sleep. Then the door banged open unceremoniously, causing him to groan again.
“Michael, we really must be going,” Joseph said.
Michael squinted, finding his cousin fully dressed and bright eyed. He had the poor manners to not even look tired as he took a seat next to the bed. As always though, Joseph was the responsible one, trying to keep Michael in line.
“If I might remind you, you were supposed to call on the Duchess of Beaufort today. You also said that you’d go down to train at the boxing club.”
“Why did I schedule anything on my calendar today?” Michael said lamented.
“At least have the decency to get dressed.”
“You are the one to barge into my room, knowing full well that I haven’t dressed,” Michael argued. He threw back the covers and tried to stand, but his head spun.
“Too much liquor, again, I see. I do hope you did not disappoint the lovely Miss Penelope,” Joseph teased.
The woman in question returned to the room, carrying a tray. She cast a disappointed glance at Joseph before carrying the tray over to the bed for Michael.
“Your Grace,” she said, offering the tray. Michael picked up a pastry to take a bite, then quickly took the glass of wine the woman offered. Downing a long gulp, he rose, finding clothing strewn throughout the room. The woman pouted at him again, which had no effect on him.
“What?” he asked, growing annoyed by his cousin’s presence.
“You promised this morning-”
He cut her off, “I never promise anything. If I did, I was drunk.”
“I do think you have disappointed Miss Penelope,” Joseph laughed, drawing a withering look from the woman.
“I never promise anything,” Michael reiterated as he buttoned his breeches. “Hence, why I will never marry and will never have children. I had a terrible dream last night, Joseph.”
“Go on,” his cousin prompted.
“I dreamed that I had, indeed, married. The woman was ghastly, gray, and haggard, nagging me about this and that. There was a drove of my children around me, pulling on my shirttails and sleeves. I kept trying to shake them off, but they clung to me like demons.”
Laughing, Joseph assured him, “Well, we both know that will never happen.”
“Indeed,” Michael laughed.
The woman looked shocked. “Your Grace, but they say all over town that you are to be wed!”
Still laughing at Michael’s dream, Joseph nearly doubled over. Michael looked on in shock. When he finally realized that the woman was earnest, he scoffed. “Marry, indeed.”
“It’s in all the papers,” she assured him, rising. Michael found himself distracted for a moment, watching her walk across the room, clad in nothing but a thin negligee. She found the pamphlet she was looking for on a table by the fireplace and brought it to him.
“See, Your Grace?” she said, pointing to an article.
Michael took the paper from her to read aloud, “’The Rakish Duke of Marigold is settled at last. Reports from the Assembly two weeks past indicate that the virtuous Lady Lydia Wenton, eldest daughter of the late Viscount of Rackliff, has accepted a proposal from the most eligible bachelor of the Season. This report comes as an utmost surprise given that no one can claim to have seen the duke actually speak to the virtuous lady.’”
Michael looked up at Joseph and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?”
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Joseph claimed. His shocked expression convinced Michael that he was telling the truth.
“This is preposterous,” Michael went on, throwing the paper down. He found his shirt and shrugged it over his broad shoulders. “I must find out the source of this gossip and squash it immediately.”
“What harm is there?” Joseph asked. “You do not know the lady and don’t attend the Assemblies. Why worry what the papers say?”
“Some woman thinks that she can use my name to curate favor among society,” Michael seethed. “I must find out who this is and teach her a lesson.”
Still trying to recover his breath from his bout of laughter, Joseph shook his head. “Oh dear, she will learn to never cross you again, Your Grace.”
Michael turned to the woman. “Tell me, how long has this report been perpetuated? Is this the first time the paper has said anything?”
“I believe there was a small mention of it last week,” she told him.
“Weeks!” Michael cried. “I cannot have this go on any longer.”
Finding his waistcoat, Michael pulled it on and buttoned it up. “Come on, Joseph, let’s get to the root of this mystery.”
“You’ll have to go to London,” Joseph reminded him. “And you can’t just set off to the city wearing the clothes from the night before.”
He groaned and the woman pouted at him yet again. He started to think that somehow her pouting had worked on him the previous night.
“What?” he sighed.
“Payment, Your Grace,” she reminded him.
Michael sighed again dramatically, found his coin purse, then tossed several coins at her. “Fine,” he told Joseph. “Let’s head down to London.”
Kitty sighed, “I do miss London, with the endless balls and the excitement of society.”
Sitting across from her, Michael tried not to roll his eyes. Joseph was engrossed in a paper, thoroughly ignoring his betrothed. The carriage tilted haphazardly across the rough road.
“I’m so glad we are going down, at least for the last few weeks,” she continued. “It is always so dull in the country.”
Realizing that neither man was going to respond, she pouted, and spoke directly to Michael. “Tell me, what embarrassment do you have planned for this wretched Miss Wenton?”
“Lady Lydia, if you please,” Joseph murmured.
She ignored Joseph, asking Michael again, “Pray tell, what plans have you in store for the wicked Lady Lydia?”
“I must find her out first,” Michael said with a sigh. He stared out the window of the carriage. “I have no certainty that the rumor was perpetuated by said lady or some other miserable soul.”
“I say it’s her,” Kitty continued, her lip drawn up in a sneer. “Just like some debutante to try to draw the interest of the ton with a false engagement to a duke.”
“If it is the lady,” Michael told her, a playful smile on his face, “I mean to find out why she has dragged my name into this affair and see if I can get myself out of it. Perhaps, while I’m at it, see if I might be of interest to her.”
“Do you even know anything about Lady Lydia?” Joseph asked, dropping the pages of his paper.
“Do you?” Michael challenged.
“She is well known in society. She debuted in society six Seasons ago. She is pretty but does not know how to use it, but worse – she’s terribly dull. This false rumor holds likely more excitement than she has had since she was presented in the court. I doubt that she would be willing for you to seduce her unless you actually mean to marry her.”
Michael stroked his chin, considering Joseph’s information. “Then, perhaps, she truly could use a little more excitement in her life.”
“This does sound like fun,” Kitty smiled, clapping her hands.
“Why does that sound like fun?” Joseph asked, confused.
She waved her hand. “Country living is so dull. I could use some more excitement in my own life.”
“Do I need to remind you that you are engaged?” Joseph asked, then added, “To me?”
She put a hand on his arm, reassuringly. “Darling, of course I need no reminder. However, you must let me have my fun, too.”
“You best stay out of whatever Michael means to do. Let him conduct his business on his own.” Joseph shook his head, picking the paper back up again. Michael turned back out to the window, watching the countryside pass by.
Kitty interrupted his thoughts again. “It is quite a shame, Your Grace, that you do not consider marriage. Tell me again, what is it that precludes you from such happiness?”
“Happiness?” he scoffed. “Happiness indeed. Why would I chain myself to such a miserable fate?”
“Joseph seems to be quite looking forward to the prospect, don’t you, my dear?” Kitty asked, turning to her fiancé.
“Of course,” he answered amicably.
“How many marriages are truly happy?” Michael challenged. “Kitty, your mother, how long has she been dead?”
Kitty blanched. “My mother died in childbirth, you know that. Why are you being crass?”
“My mother died of an illness. My father passed away some years ago, cursing her name. Joseph’s parents are alive and well, though Lord knows why. You hear of this affair and that, wives dying in childbirth, men dying of apoplexy, or some other affliction. Why put yourself through any of that?”
“For love!” Kitty cried. “Do you think you will be happy sharing the bed with the same woman?”
“What do you know about sharing anyone’s bed?” Michael asked, scoffing. “No, thank you. I’d rather not die of boredom.”
Kitty had the decency of blushing for the first time.
“Exactly,” Michael continued, unrelenting. “You gently bred ladies know nothing of marital relations. Why any man would choose-”
“Michael, I’d thank you to mind who you are speaking to,” Joseph interrupted, finally folding his paper in frustration. “You are not speaking to one of your low born women you tumble, you are speaking to my fiancée.”
Michael held up his hands in surrender. “Apologies, Cousin. This is why I do not frequent London society anymore. I cannot be bothered to bend to the rules of society. This whole affair with this false engagement is more than enough scandal for me for years.”
“I’ll be very surprised if you meet Lady Lydia and think you would actually hope to seduce her,” Joseph said.
“Come now, she can’t be too homely,” Michael protested. “After all, the lie seems to be somewhat believable, despite my reputation.”
“Attractiveness aside, you don’t know her personality,” Joseph argued.
Michael resumed staring out of the carriage window, trying to imagine what this mysterious lady would turn out to be like.
The duchess’s sitting room was opulent and feminine, which had always made Michael uncomfortable.
“If I thought you were one to marry, Duke, I would have propositioned you long ago,” the duchess teased. “I was quite surprised by your choice, as well.”
Lounging back in his seat, Michael rolled his eyes dramatically. “Duchess, you should know me better than that.”
“I do,” she laughed, offering him a cup of tea that he refused. “Which is why, of course, I told everyone it was true.”
“I should have known,” he responded with no trace of anger.
“I thought perhaps if it were true, I might be able to convince you that I would be the better option.”
“You tease still,” Michael said. “If I remember correctly, you accepted your husband’s proposal without waiting for mine.”
“Oh, you know you never would have,” she said, smiling. “So, don’t pretend you meant to.”
“Very well,” he consented, then added, “but I was in love with you.”
“You flatter me, but we were children! Tell me, Duke, what is your real reason to call on me today?”
Realizing that the duchess was done with her banter, switching to a serious tone, Michael straightened up. “I had hoped that you would help me find the source of the rumor.”
“Well, I did already tell you that I helped to spread it,” she said, staring at her nails for a moment. A servant offered to pour her more tea, but she refused.
“You were earnest about that?”
“Indeed, I don’t lie, even in my charm,” she said, flashing him a smile.
“From whom did you hear the rumor?”
“What is it to you?” she stalled.
“It’s a falsehood and I hope to put it to bed.”
“Ah, so finally you do deny it,” the duchess sighed. “A little part of me had hoped that it would be true.”
“Come on, Duchess, tell me. Who told you the rumor first?”
“I am afraid to disappoint you,” she sighed. “I was dining with the Millingtons last week. They all knew. So did the Bellinghams, who were there as guests as well.”
Michael wiped his hands on his knees, getting ready to stand. “That is unfortunate. I had hoped that you would have been more informative.”
“Hold on just yet,” she said, holding up a hand to stop him. “My Lord Lindsey did say that it was the Viscount of Rackliff who mentioned it to him.”
“The girl’s uncle?” he asked, surprised.
“Indeed, which is why I thought perhaps there might have been a semblance of truth to it.”
“Very interesting,” Michael said, rubbing his chin. “She must be crafty indeed to have convinced her own family of this charade.”
“Or he’s in on it,” the duchess countered. “The poor girls, none of them have done remarkably well this Season.”
“She has sisters?”
“Four of them.”
“Quite the family,” Michael laughed, then rose in earnest. “Thank you for being so enlightening, Duchess.”
She rose as well, holding out her hand for Michael to kiss. He did so obligingly.
“If you do turn up at the Assembly, let me know,” she suggested. “I would be happy to keep you company after you’ve repaired your reputation.”
He bowed over her hand again and took his leave.
The Assembly room was crowded, to the pleasant surprise of Lydia and her sisters. When they entered the room, all eyes were on them. Women whispered to their companions behind their fans. Young men smiled in their direction. Starting the rumor provided exactly the response that Lydia had hoped. She found herself blushing when young men came to claim their dances with her, intrigued that she had caught the attention of the duke. She couldn’t help but to smile, seeing her sisters receiving the same attention.
When she had but one set remaining empty on her dance card, she realized that she had to at least pretend to save it for her fiancé, saying, “Of course, I must leave a set for the duke, if he makes it tonight. He’s been so busy as of late.”
For the first time that Season, if not in several Seasons, she was proud to have had her dance card filled up, or almost. Her first dance partner was a young, handsome marquess. He talked excitedly during the whole dance, complimenting her dancing, her hair, even her smile.
“It’s incredible, I’ve never noticed you until tonight,” he said, smiling down on her. “How did such a lovely young woman escape my eye for this long? Where have you been hiding?”
“Right under your nose,” she quipped.
“Such a shame that you have accepted the Duke of Marigold’s proposal,” he continued. “I’m sure I could make you much happier than he would.”
“Is that so?” she asked, trying her best to be coy.
“Indeed, though I won’t speak ill of your fiancé,” he said. “Tell me, how have you found London this Season?”
They made small talk throughout the dance. When the set ended, he bowed to her, kissing the back of her hand. She smiled and curtsied deeply, pleased with the attention she was getting now that potential suitors thought her unavailable. Finding her mother watching, she took her leave of her partner and went over to her. Giddy with excitement, she stood next to her mother looking out over the rest of the dancers.
“Can you believe this?” Lydia asked, whispering gleefully.
She searched for her sisters across the room. “Look there, Trinity with the Viscount of Weymouth, Lucretia with the Baron of Hastings, Marcia with the Baron of Segrave. But where’s Johanna?”
“Just there,” her mother pointed out.
Johanna was talking to a handsome young man, but mostly staring at the floor. Much shorter than the gentleman, he kept trying to peer down into her face, causing her to blush. Though Lydia still considered Johanna a little girl, she was finding plenty of attention with the younger men in the crowd.
“Who is that gentleman?” Lydia asked. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“I do believe that’s a certain Mr. Weller,” Mother responded. “He recently bought the Northham manor and makes a handsome salary.”
The caller started announcing the arrival of a new guest, but Lydia was too focused on watching Johanna to care, asking, “Did he just arrive in London at the end of the Season?”
“-Duke of Marigold!”
Hearing the name of her supposed suitor, she snapped her head around to look for the newcomers.
“Did I hear that correctly?” she asked her mother.
“I dare say you did,” her mother agreed, waving with her fan. “There he is now.”
The duke had arrived with another man and woman. The other man favored the duke in his dark looks but was smaller in build. The lady was pretty but painted, dressed in the latest fashion, and sporting a haughty look.
Lydia grabbed her mother’s arm for strength, whispering, “He’s not supposed to be here.”
“What did I tell you?” she whispered back. With a sideways glance, she continued, “It appears you have just a few moments to devise another scheme before you and your sisters both fall into utter ruin.”
She started trembling, staring at the duke striding across the Assembly. Guests bowed and greeted him, slowing his approach. He stood taller than most of the crowd, making it very easy for her to see that he was heading directly toward them. Turning on her heel, she pulled her mother with her to head further into the crowd. Weaving between crowds of people, she hoped that her much shorter stature would help decoy her position.
“Well, you cannot just avoid him,” her mother scolded. “Everyone knows that he’s your betrothed. You have to speak with him at some point. Right now, frankly, it appears as though you’re fleeing from him.”
“Help me think of what to say,” Lydia gasped. She desperately wanted to break into a run. She had not considered the possibility that the duke might show up at the Assembly. The only reason she could think of was that he had heard of the rumor.
“I think the best course is for you to win his affection,” her mother suggested. They stopped behind a dense throng of matrons with their daughters, who were gossiping loudly. Lydia glanced over her shoulder to ensure that the duke had not yet found them.
“How do I do that?” Lydia asked, panicking. She clutched her hands together to try to hide her trembling. “If I had known how to win any man’s affection, I would not still be unmarried.”
“I think you must face him,” she suggested, rubbing Lydia’s arm reassuringly. “Flirt with him, try to get him to ask for a dance.”
“It would be the truth that I saved a set for him-”
“I had hoped you would!”
Lydia turned around quickly to find herself face to face with the duke. She had spun so rapidly that she almost fainted. She must have teetered, as the duke grasped her elbow to steady her. Feeling the warmth of his hand on her elbow jolted her awake again.
“I knew I had some effect on women,” he smiled teasingly. “But I’ve yet had a woman faint upon the sight of me. You look lovely tonight, Lady Lydia.”
Staring up at him she found that she was unable to speak. He had lively blue eyes that crinkled at the corners as though he found her amusing. Incredibly tall and broad, she felt dwarfed by him. A sharp elbow in her back reminded her of the urgency and importance of the moment.
“Your Grace,” she said, dipping into a low curtsy to collect her thoughts. In that moment, she wished she had a fan to hide the embarrassment in her face. “I was just saying how I was hoping to dance with you tonight.”
“May I see your dance card?” he asked, holding out his hand.
She attempted to flash him a charming smile as she handed it over.
“Ah, Wycliff and Nottingham, Ashcroft,” he read, glancing up at her. “You can do far better than that.”
“I’m flattered,” she blushed, hoping he found it enticing.
“Hmm,” he smirked, looking down at her card. He wrote his name into the empty set and handed it back to her. “It won’t do for my fiancée to dance with every other man at the Assembly. I see Wycliff claimed two sets. I’ve scratched off his second. I’m sure he’ll understand.”
She blanched but curtsied again. “Your Grace, I look forward to dancing with you.”
When she rose, she found his eyes settling on her bosom. Smiling, she lowered her eyes demurely as he bowed and walked away.
“Which set did you leave for him?” her mother asked in a hushed voice.
“I do hate the quadrille, so I left that one open,” Lydia responded, opening her card again. “So, of course he has chosen that one. However, the Viscount of Wycliff had chosen a set that might have a waltz. The duke has struck his name off and written in his own.”
“How presumptuous of him,” her mother observed, wrinkling her nose. “At least he has not revealed you yet. You have the chance to entertain him over the course of your hour with him.”
Lydia sighed a dramatic, “Oh, dear.”
“There you are!” a man cried. Lydia looked up in fear, thinking Michael had found her again, but she found the Duke of Nottingham extending his hand. “The set has already begun, does my lady hope to dance still?”
Relieved, Lydia took his hand and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor.
Michael had not expected to find Lady Lydia so exceptionally attractive. By Joseph’s and Kitty’s accounts of her, he had expected a pretty but plain girl, so demur as to only stare at her shoes. The young lady that spun around to face him was anything but demur.
Petite, her head barely came to his sternum. She looked up at him with large blue eyes, framed by thick eyelashes. Her cheeks were not overly painted with rouge, which allowed him to see the tantalizing blush that overcame her pale skin. Unlike the statuesque girls throughout the Assembly, her figure had handsome curves. When she curtsied for him, he briefly wondered how her stays contained her ample bosom.
This will be fun indeed, he thought.
Leaving her until their set, he sought Joseph out in the crowd, finding him standing against the wall.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know why I agreed to come with you,” he grumbled, arms crossed. “I have no desire to dance, and Kitty has found her own partners already.”
“There are plenty of women sitting out,” Michael observed, waving about the room with a smirk. “It’s in bad taste for you to not ask one of them to dance.”
“One could say the same of you,” Joseph argued. He nodded to Lydia, on the dance floor. “You found her, then?”
“Yes,” Michael affirmed, watching her dance for a moment. She was smiling and laughing with the man. “What happened? I thought you said she was boring.”
“This girl is not the girl I once knew,” Joseph said, shaking his head. “It appears your engagement to her has brought about a change in her.”
Michael laughed, but quickly got distracted by Lydia’s hopping steps in the dance. She looked so carefree and lively.
“Do be careful,” Joseph warned him in a low voice. “You tumble that girl, and you ruin whatever chances she has at a real marriage. And, while I promise to be your second if it comes to a duel, I’d rather prefer to keep you out of that sort of trouble.”
“Who says I’m going to bed her?” Michael asked, surprised. “I merely wish to have a bit of fun with her before I expose her lie.”
“That look in your eye says you don’t mean the innocent sort of fun,” Joseph pointed out.
He only smirked in response, observing the dance until it was time for him to reclaim Lydia’s hand. He was tempted to follow her when her partner escorted her to the refreshments table. Waiting by Joseph’s side until the next set was ready to start, he did not lose sight of her in the crowd. Once it was time, he made his way to her.
Her partner was still entertaining her with a story of hunting with his dogs, at which Lydia was politely laughing. When she saw Michael approach, her genuine smile faded. She kept a polite one, for him.
“Your Grace,” the man greeted, bowing. He took Lydia’s glass and said, “Thank you for the dance, Lady Lydia, it was most enjoyable.”
Michael almost found himself annoyed at how pleased she looked when she curtsied back at the man. He cleared his throat and offered his hand. “My lady, if you would, please.”
She put her dainty hand in his, following him stiffly out to the dance floor. Standing side by side, Michael asked her, “So, how does one go about getting engaged, these days?”
He was rewarded by her deep flush. The music began, sending them into the steps of the quadrille.
“Is it so easy to just announce the engagement, and hope that it’s true?”
“You have my sincerest apologies,” she whispered. “It got a bit out of hand.”
“Is that what you call it?” he asked, smirking.
She did not respond. He looked her up and down, letting his eyes wander from her pale neck to her bosom, even to her rump as she turned. When she turned back to face him, he grinned rakishly, knowing that she caught him ogling her.
His boldness caused her eyes to glint. “I picked you,” she told him in a low voice, “as you were the most unlikely suitor I could think of.”
“And why is that?” he asked, grinning impishly. “My devilish good looks?”
She glared at him, not laughing at his jokes. “I would think us equal there, Your Grace.”
“So, you do find me handsome, then?” he asked, teasingly. She turned away from him. “Would you admit it, if I told you that I found you attractive?”
“You are bold, Your Grace,” she replied politely, keeping her head turned still.
“I might be bolder,” he whispered when she was close again. “I think, perhaps, you might have thought me your first choice of suitors, if you had your pick.”
“We’ve barely spoken!” she said, shocked.
“You need not speak to have desires.”
While he thought she would blush again, she met his gaze with a fiery look. “Is this how you hope to embarrass me, then? Treat me rakishly and shame me to society?”
“Perhaps, it might suit me to let this farce play out,” he said, grinning. “See how long you hope to keep up the charade, especially if I reward you with my worst behavior.”
“I pray, please mind your voice,” she hissed. “We are not in private.”
Michael glanced around at the neighboring dancers, all engrossed in their own conversations and flirting. “I would have you in private, if I could.”
She gasped at his boldness, which made him laugh. Yet, a small arch of her eyebrow suggested she had a small interest in pursuing the thought.
“Does that intrigue you, my lady?” he whispered seductively. “Shall I whisk you off in private, tell you what I really think of your wickedness?”
She clenched her jaw, turning away from him again, but did not respond. Try as she might to hide her expression, Michael knew that he had struck a chord within her. A part of him desperately wanted to get her away from the crowd. Thoughts of ripping her gown from the neckline to expose her breasts invaded his mind. She caught him staring again and swallowed. As her neck moved, he wondered how she would taste if he kissed her there.
“So, you mean to punish me, then,” she sniffed. “I will not make it easy for you.”
“You have no choice,” Michael warned. “You created this sham, so you must decide to live with it, or expose yourself as a fraud.”
The music ended. Lydia turned to face Michael and curtseyed low. He wondered if she intentionally posed herself for his observation.
“If you will excuse me, Your Grace,” she said, “I’m quite tired and must sit out for a moment.”
Michael watched her turn and storm away with quiet amusement.
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