At the Duke of Setchfield’s annual masquerade ball, Elinor Sterling has a memorable encounter with her solicitor, James St. Maur.
“Madame, I come bearing a message for you,” intoned a deep voice behind her.
Elinor sighed wearily. Not another would-be suitor seeking her favor. Since Longford had danced with her—twice—it seemed every man in the room wanted to know who this enticing Penelope might be.
For if Longford found her worthy…
She drained the glass of wine she held and rose from her chair, only to find her head swimming.
Good heavens, how much wine had she consumed?
Too much, she realized as she wavered to her feet.
For Longford had brought her a glass, no perhaps two, and then had sent more over via the servants.
At first she had thought he was merely being solicitous, but now…
Still, why ever would he want her so foxed when he’d promised to return to her after this quadrille, and had made some mention of another event this evening that he thought she might find more to her liking.
“Have you come from His Grace?” she asked. “For I have no intention of leaving without—” she glanced up at the man before her and her words came to a halt as she found herself staring at his nearly naked chest.
Oh, gracious heavens. She’d never seen such male perfection, save on a visit to see Elgin’s marbles.
“Are you well, my lady?” asked a deep, familiar voice. “You looked overly flushed.”
That flush now ran from her cheeks down to parts of her that warmed with a different sort of heat, for she knew that voice.
St. Maur. And this chest, this incredible sculpted wall of muscles was his.
“Goodness, you are a devil,” she giggled.
“A what?” he asked, his arms crossing over his chest. “My God, woman! You’re drunk.”
Drunk? Preposterous. And she would tell him so when the room stopped spinning and this half-naked Eastern servant quit whirling about in front of her. The silk vest and bright blue trousers were quite blinding.
And he’s yours to command, came a wry thought. Elinor’s hand rose to her mouth, but it was too late to stifle the giggle she’d tried to hide.
“Did he do this to you?” he asked, glancing around the room. “Has he gotten you in this state?”
No, it was entirely you, she nearly answered back. “Done what?” she managed instead.
“Gotten you drunk!” he said indignantly.
Which ruffled Elinor’s usually staid feathers. “A lady is never drunk.” She tried to punctuate her statement with a wag of her finger, but her hand flopped about in the most unresponsive manner. She leaned closer to St. Maur, “I do believe I might have imbibed too much.”
He reached over and smelled her wine glass and shook his head. “He’s been drugging you.”
“Drugging me? Don’t be absurd. He’s quite fallen in love with me. I’m his Penelope.” Another hapless giggle fell out of her lips. She pressed her lips together and did her best to still her wavering form. “Why ever would the man drug me?”
St. Maur’s features turned thunderous. “Let me show you.”
He caught her by the hand, and even before the heat of his grasp worked its way through her gloves, she shivered.
Her body came alive.
It’s him. He’s come to claim you.
St. Maur towed her along the edge of the wall and then ducked through an opening past a less than surprised servant who was coming out one of the hidden doors.
After all, the Setchfield Ball was known for being a bit of a scandal.
“St. Maur, where are you taking me?” She glanced back over her shoulder. “The ball is that way.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance? Longford did. Twice. And he was coming back after the quadrille. He said he had a surprise.”
“I imagine he does.” St. Maur paused for they had come to an intersection in the halls. He looked left and then pulled her to the right.
“What are you doing here, St. Maur?”
“I’ve come to make my report.”
His report? Now? The man had a rather unorthodox idea of business.
“Wherever did you get that costume? Or even an invitation. You cannot get in without one.”
“I have my resources.”
Yes he does, that odd little voice whispered in her ear. He’s got more than just resources.
Between the wine and his grasp, Elinor found herself breathless and hungry at the same time. Making his report? Heavens, he was leading her deeper and deeper into the Duke of Setchfield’s labyrinth of a house, off from the rest of the guests where they would be entirely alone.
And she hadn’t the wherewithal to protest.
No, she was following him quite willingly.
Why couldn’t Longford stir her the same way as St. Maur was now? Tempt her as this man did with only a glance?
Still, the further from the crowd they went, the more likely she was about to end up in some scandalous situation.
“Couldn’t you make your report back there,” she said, nodding back down the hall. Good heavens, she hoped he knew the way back.
Just then, they went down a flight of stairs and out a door and into a garden. Light from the windows above spilled down, illuminating the paths, but for the most part it was cast in shadows.
A rather romantic, lonely spot.
I know of a place where we can get to know each other better…
Who had said that to her? Her thoughts were so befuddled she couldn’t remember who had said them.
Longford? Certainly not. It couldn’t have been him. Or had it been?
“What are we doing out here?” she said, shivering in her thin gown.
“I didn’t think you would want my report overheard by that line of gossipy hens perched along the walls.”
“They are my fellow widows, sir,” she told him. “It is where I belong.”
“Harrumph,” came his reply. “Besides, the chill of the night might clear your befuddled head.”
Elinor wavered in her slippers, but did her best to assume an elegant and haughty pose. “I’ll have you know, sir, my head isn’t befidded… befudded… ” Oh bother, she concentrated as hard as she could and managed to get it out, “Befuddled! Not in the least.”
He snorted. “Perhaps now you see why you will scratch Longford from your demmed list.”
“Whatever for?” she asked. “He’s handsome and charming. He’s been most solicitous. Why he’s kept my glass filled—”
“Yes, most effectively, I see.”
Elinor waved him off, but her hand did that flopping thing again, so she had to settle for tipping her nose in the air. “Why the Duke of Longford would never… ” Oh, good heavens, she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to say next, so she just waved that off and continued with a more important point. “I cannot cross him off, for he’s invited me to a private ball he’s holding next week. A most exclusive event—”
“One of Longford’s private evenings?” he sputtered.
“Yes, I said that,” she told him, feeling oddly proud about being able to string that much together.
“Do you know what he means when he says he wants to you to come to one of his private affairs?”
“Of course,” she said, wavering along the garden path. “He finds me preferable above all others. I’ll have you know it’s an exclusive evening. He’s a duke after all. He can be as choosy as he wants.”
St. Maur groaned and paced in front of her.
“Oh, Mr. St. Maur, you needn’t be so distressed. I shall find a way to pay your bill, even when you haven’t had to do overly much.”
“Pay my bill? You stand there telling me you’ve been invited to one of Longford’s debauches, and then worry about my bill?”
“Debauch is a rather rude way of describing the night, just because you shan’t be invited.” She sighed. “You’ve been quite diligent and kind, but I may find myself married very quickly.”
“Don’t count on it, my lady.”
“What was that?” Elinor hadn’t really been listening; she’d been watching him stalk about the garden, fascinated by the way his muscles tensed and rippled as he walked.
“Nothing,” he told her. “You didn’t accept his invitation, did you?”
“No—” she said, fascinated by his pacing.
“But I will.”
He stilled—much to her chagrin—and turned toward her. “Lady Standon, under no circumstances will you—”
But Elinor wasn’t listening. The wine had gone completely to her head and St. Maur… oh, St. Maur in that costume was so utterly…
“Really, sir, your tone is most arrogant.” And alarmingly appealing, she realized.
Would be he be so… so… commanding at other times?
Her heart fluttered, dangerously, traitorously so.
“I am only looking out for your welfare,” he said in his defense, “I wouldn’t be a good… a good… solicitor if I didn’t.”
That was all? He’d dragged her off to this secluded garden merely to be a good solicitor?
Elinor didn’t know whether to be insulted or furious.
She decided on both.
Straightening, Elinor let her shawl drop from her shoulders, leaving them as bare as his midsection.
“Longford has been most solicitous and kind,” she said, holding herself as tall and graceful as she could. “Very kind.”
Still she wavered, for it was ever so hard to stand there, looking in control of one’s senses with St. Maur standing before her half dressed.
“Kind enough to get you foxed,” he said, leaning over and picking up her shawl. He held it out for her, but Elinor only stared at it.
“You didn’t ask me to dance,” she said. “He did. Twice.”
“So you said.” He pressed her shawl toward her. “Put this on.”
“It is too warm out here.”
St. Maur ignored her, and reached around her, settling her shawl over her bare shoulders. Then he paused, standing there ever so close with his arms practically around her. The heat from his body surrounded her. She’d lied before — the garden was freezing, anything but warm, but now it was.
“Does he stir your heart?” the man before her asked.
Mesmerized, Elinor could only stammer out a “Wha-a-a-t?”
“Longford. Does he stir your heart?” St. Maur drew a little closer, albeit to settle her shawl atop her shoulders and to draw the ends together, but it brought the two of them just a breath apart. “Does he set your senses aflame?”
How the devil did the man expect her to answer him when he stood so close?
Setting her senses ablaze.
Leaving her witless and hungry. Filled with desire.
Elinor grasped at her earlier anger, for it was far more steady and solid than the spinning ground beneath her slippers. “Whatever business is it of yours how he makes me—”
Mad About the Duke”I have it on good authority that you shouldn’t marry unless the man sets you afire,” he offered. Having secured her shawl, he reached down and picked up one of her hands, slowly pulling off one of her gloves and bringing her fingers to his lips.
His kiss whispered over the tips, warm and heated, leaving her breathless. “When you danced with him, did you find yourself overcome?”
She could only shake her head. She was far too overcome to speak.
His lips trailed up the back of her hand, over her gloves to where her arms were bare and when they touched her skin, she nearly gasped.
She hadn’t realized until then that she hadn’t been able to breathe.
“Mr. St. Maur!” she said in a faint protest. “The Duke of Longford is a gentleman.”
St. Maur glanced up from her shoulder, where he’d paused in his explorations. “He is?”
“Certainly,” she said, but even to her own ears, her words were hardly that—certain, or even definite.
“What do you think Longford planned when he plied you with too much wine?” he asked her.
Not for you to come along and do this, she would have told him.
And then she would have told St. Maur to do it again.
“I think you exaggerate, sir,” she whispered instead. “For that would be scandalous. He would never have… he never could have… .oooh,” she sighed as his lips touched the base of her neck, rose to right behind her ear.
Made me feel so… Not the way you do.
Good heavens, whatever was he doing to her?
“Mr. St. Maur, we shouldn’t be doing this,” she protested as he hauled her up against him. “You are but half dressed in that costume.”
“My good lady, that is how it is done best,” he told her, as he tipped his head to kiss her.