She wore her riding clothes, but instead of a skirt, her long, powerful legs were clad in a pair of fitted britches. Despite himself, Alexandre gazed up the length of her body, his own surging to attention at the simple, overwhelming need to touch her, to know she was real and not another ale-soaked imagining deep in the night. He wanted to run his fingers up the length of her calf, to kiss the inside of each pale thigh, to tease and torment the duchess as her image had done to him so many nights. Then he wanted to plunder her body with his mouth and hands and rod until the sun rose.
The duchess raised an eyebrow, and Alexandre sank to one knee before pressing a kiss to her outstretched hand.
“Do rise, old friend,” she said with a small laugh. “We have much to discuss, but first, are you and your men in need of a good meal?”
Alexandre rose, finding she had stepped just an inch closer to him. The distance, small as it was, put them very nearly too close for the thin grip he kept upon his tethered desire.
“My men remained at the docks, Your Grace,” he replied. “As for myself, I should not wish to keep you. I can certainly find my way to the kitchens. As you may recall, I spent a great many summers at this house when William and I were home from Eton.”
But while William, his closest friend, had inherited a dukedom, Alexandre, the second son of a second son, had taken off for the seas to become the family explorer. No fewer than fifteen years had passed since he’d first walked through Roseburn’s grand entrance, and he was still not entirely familiar with all the nooks and crannies hidden in her glittering halls.
But when the duchess glanced at him with a sardonic light in her deep brown gaze, Alexandre wished to explore only one of those secret places—wherever the duchess went to sleep at night.
“I know better than to keep a hungry explorer waiting, Captain,” she said. She nodded to the footman, and he disappeared into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Amazing how she did that, commanding a small army of staff and a great village of farmers and weavers, often without uttering a single word. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was a leader—and a powerful one, at that.
“You are wise beyond your years, Your Grace,” Alexandre replied, the corner of his mouth quirking up as he looked down at her. She wasn’t nearly so tall as she seemed. Not that she was a small woman, with her body rounded and curved like an hourglass, full plump breasts straining against the jacket just below his chin. Even in the formfitting riding outfit, her flesh glowed lush and generous, and Alexandre couldn’t deny how he longed for her—had longed for her for so many months.
“You have news.” The duchess sat upon a chair as if it were perfectly respectable for the highest-ranked woman in a day’s ride to wear britches and boots and share amiable conversation with a roughened sea captain.
“I do,” he replied, accepting her gestured invitation to sit across from her. “Did you wish to hear it all at once or…”
“I do. Please, share what you have learned.”
Alexandre nodded and reached into the pocket of his worn leather jacket to pull out a letter. Though frail from its many months of travel, it still bore the original, if faded, wax seal of the Marquis of Fulton’s signet ring.
The duchess accepted the missive but made no move to read the contents. Instead, she fixed her eyes upon him, her gaze intense and knowing, as if she were reading him rather than the letter. Peer into my mind, Duchess, and you’ll be sure to learn a great many things you have no wish to know.
“He is staying in the Americas,” she said. “He has settled down, forsaken the land. He loves her, of course, and wishes us all well. He is sorry, but he just can’t return. Did I get that all right?”
Alexandre didn’t quite know how to respond. She had
gotten it all right, and in the face of his answering silence, steel resolve masked the sadness in her eyes. Finally, he nodded, pausing just a moment before he replied.
“The marquis was quite insistent,” he said. “The letter should explain in further depth, but he waxed until hoarse about his love for the American lass, and refused to follow us home. Short of force, we had no other way of bringing him aboard the ship.”
The duchess placed the letter down upon the table, still sealed. “Well, that is my brother, is it not? I suppose I don’t know what I should have expected.” The soft puff of a sigh escaped her lips, and she very nearly relaxed, if the straightness of her back and the sharpness of her jaw could ever be considered relaxed.
But she sat just a little softer, as if she were behaving less as a duchess and more as a…friend?
Alexandre stood, and when he turned, her gaze was hot upon his back. Even the weight of her watching him turned his body molten and made him want to strip her down right there in the damn drawing room, made him want to wrap the chains he wore around her slender ankles and—
“Do forgive me for overstepping my bounds, Your Grace,” he said, walking over to the liquor cabinet William had long ago hidden in a bookshelf at the far end of the room, “but it appears you are in need of a strong drink.” He poured two glasses from the secret decanter and returned to settle once more into the seat before her.
The duchess laughed. “Ah, Captain Simonnet.” She accepted the tumbler of whiskey he offered. “It is not past six in the morning. Surely that is too early for a strong drink.” Their fingers brushed across the edge of the cut glass, and Alexandre realized that her hands were bare, that the smooth skin of her fingers pressed against his. Such a simple, small touch that feels anything but.
“Not if you are accustomed to life as a sailor,” he replied. “I have spent many months at sea, Madam, and if I know anything, it is that it is never too early for a strong drink.”
She sat forward, swirling the drink in her glass with a contemplative expression before bringing it to her lips. She didn’t react to the strong liquor, and that she could drink whiskey without flinching was yet another remarkably erotic detail in the picture of why she made him ache so desperately.
“Is life out at sea lonely?” she asked, as if her mind had gone on some adventure, returning to the moment only after several leaps of topic.
“It can be,” Alexandre answered honestly. “I have my crew, naturally, but it is easy to miss for companionship.”
Her eyes flickered at that, a sparkle of golden across deep brown. Interest, perhaps? Or maybe I’m just imagining it, hoping for it. I see signs of her returning my desires everywhere—how do I know what’s real?
Only, he didn’t think
he was imagining it, not this time.
“And do you find it?” she asked, and was it in his own mind or did her voice waver just an inch, as if she were well aware of the deeper implications in her words? “Companionship, I mean.” Oh, the duchess knows. She also knows that dangerous waters lie ahead, and she’d be wise to heed those old pirate warnings.
But she wouldn’t. Alexandre knew her better than that, and he swallowed the rest of his whiskey, focusing on the burning spice that lit his throat aflame, but it didn’t provide the distraction he needed. Nothing could distract him from the topic of companionship in a conversation with the duchess who haunted his dreams, as they sat alone in the pastel drawing room. Alone.
“Sailors have their reputations for good reason,” Alexandre replied at last. “I shall allow you to answer that question for yourself, Your Grace, however you believe fit.”
To his great surprise, she placed a hand upon his wrist. He clutched hard at the now empty whiskey glass at the contact, but he couldn’t possibly ignore her touch.