The duke cut a good figure, Penelope thought, when he entered the drawing room of Huntley House that evening attired in a splendid red-and-gold jacket. He was tall, with broad shoulders and narrow waist, the gray flecks in his chestnut-brown hair giving him an air of maturity. He had a reserved manner about him and could be formal at times, but he was undeniably attractive, although not as vividly good-looking as Viscount Weymouth.
Oh dear. When had she started comparing the two men? It was terribly unfair, for she doubted there were many men in the British Empire who could compete with Weymouth’s handsome face.
Appearance was not everything, thought Penelope, silently scolding herself. It was a man’s character that was important, and in that regard, the duke won easily over Weymouth. Her fiancé was kind, honorable, and solid as the Rock of Gibraltar; well-respected by all who knew him, and not just because he was fabulously wealthy, although he was not the sort to frivolously spend his inheritance the way Weymouth had. Penelope had no doubt the duke would be a good and loyal husband and that her children would want for nothing and make brilliant marriages. Those were the sorts of things that really mattered, Penelope told herself. One did not make a decision about something as important as marriage based on toe-curling passion.
The duke had arrived at Huntley House promptly at a quarter past eight o’clock to escort Penelope to Lord and Lady Haslingden’s dinner party.
“You are looking especially lovely tonight, my dear. Why, you are practically glowing,” the duke said. “Dare I hope it is because you are glad to see me?”
She wore a dress made in an emerald silk, selecting it because she knew the color flattered her dark hair and hazel eyes. She had needed no rouge for her cheeks, for as he had noted, she was flushed, but in agitation instead of happiness as her fiancé was hoping.
He pressed a chaste kiss against her cheek, and Catherine’s words sprung into her mind. “Borewood hasn’t kissed you properly yet, has he?”
He wasn’t boring, Penelope scolded herself mentally. He was merely considerate, which was a good quality. Being punctual was also a good quality, as was being polite, and the duke was unfailingly polite. Regretfully, none of those good qualities would make a woman’s toes curl the way Weymouth had with his…
Drat that man!
She had a perfectly wonderful fiancé standing right in front of her. Why was she allowing him
to invade her thoughts again?
Focus on the lord you are with, Penelope.
“You are too kind, sir. Any glow you perceive is a reflection of my delight in your company and my happiness over our impending nuptials,” she said, fluttering her lashes.
“Then I am the most fortunate of men. Your loveliness will make me the envy of every other man at tonight’s dinner.”
The sincerity of his compliment made her feel even worse about her deception, if such a thing were possible. Her assignation with Weymouth was just a few hours away, yet it felt as far off as Christmas. How wonderful his hands had felt on her body. How his kisses had made her tingle.
She was utterly terrified to be with him. She could not wait to be with him.
The duke took her arm solicitously as he helped her into his barouche, which was adorned with the Kirwood crest. The design, comprised of two stags leaping in the general direction of the ducal coronet, was even now being stitched into the train of her wedding dress.
They arrived at Lord Haslingden’s residence a few minutes early, and the duke ordered his coachman to drive around the park a few times to ensure they did not arrive unfashionably early.
“One doesn’t want to appear too eager where Haslingden is concerned,” Kirwood said.
“No, one doesn’t,” Penelope agreed, determined not to allow Weymouth to distract her from her duties to her fiancé. It was not going to be easy, as she recalled the way he had touched her that afternoon. She shivered and pulled her cloak more closely together.
Kirwood looked concerned. “I hope you are not catching cold.”
“Not at all; I’m just a bit chilly,” she said, smiling at him as flirtatiously as she knew how.
He responded by patting her hand in a fatherly way. “We’ll be there soon, my dear,” he said, and Penelope sat back in dismay.
She had just informed her fiancé that she was cold. They were completely alone in the privacy of his carriage. Why was he patting her hand instead of taking her into his arms? Other women complained about being constantly set upon by their husbands. Penelope had not experienced that with Henry, and Kirwood seemed perfectly content to sit on the opposite side of the coach. She did not seem to be the sort of woman who inspired passionate feelings in men. At least not these two men.
She thought about Weymouth and the unmistakable evidence of his arousal earlier that day. Was arousal the same thing as passion? Or was he simply the sort of man who was always ready for such carnal activities?
Kirwood’s voice abruptly interrupted her musings. “We’re here,” he said cheerfully as the carriage drew up at last in front of Lord and Lady Haslingden’s mansion.
The evening passed slowly for Penelope. She greeted friends, nodded at acquaintances, and made conversation as if her mind was not already back at the house on Wilcott Place. Her expression was serene, but her thoughts were as tumultuous as the North Sea in a winter gale.
Dinner was served promptly at ten o’clock, and while there was no shortage of dishes to tempt one’s fancy, the food might as well have been sawdust for all that she tasted it. Had Weymouth arrived at her house yet? Was he at this very moment pouring himself a drink in the drawing room of the empty house, for she had dismissed the staff for the evening. Would he soon be making his way up the staircase to the front bedroom? Lighting a candle to illuminate the room, moving toward her bed and…
“Lady Huntley, did you hear me?”
Penelope blinked and realized the duke was speaking to her.
“I must have been woolgathering, Your Grace. Please forgive me.”
“My dear, are you quite all right?” he said, his gentle eyes again full of concern. “You do not seem yourself this evening.”
This was her opportunity, and she seized upon it. “I am feeling tired, what with all the wedding preparations,” she lied. “Would you mind terribly if I made an early night of it?”
“Of course not. How inconsiderate I’ve been.” He was saying all the right words, but she saw the flicker of regret on his face. “I will have the carriage brought around, and we will leave straight away.”
“I could never forgive myself for making you depart so prematurely, particularly since you and Lord Haslingden are hitting it off so well,” she said, squeezing his arm. “I will be fine going home on my own, truly. No, I mean it,” she said, when he started to protest. “This is your opportunity, and you must make the most of it.”
She did not mistake the relief on his face.
“Are you absolutely certain?” he asked.
She was absolutely certain
. “I will be fine. I promise.”
“Yet again I realize how lucky I am that you have consented to be my wife,” he said and kissed her hand. “In the entire world, I could not find a better partner, for already you are a credit to me in every way.”
His gracious words made her feel all the worse for her deceit, but that wasn’t going to stop her from pursuing her course of action.
The duke saw her into his carriage, and she sat back against the cushions, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Telling lies to her future husband did not sit well with her, and she would make it up to him when they were married, she promised herself. After she had experienced toe-curling passion.
* * * *
The carriage ride to Wilcott Place seemed to take forever. When at last she arrived, the windows at the front of the house were dark, and she wondered if he had been the one to change his mind after all.
He had not changed his mind, she realized with relief when she entered the drawing room, for he was seated in a wing chair next to the fireplace, his expression difficult to discern in the flickering firelight. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw that he had a book in his hand. He had been reading School of Aphrodite
, and that knowledge sent a mad mix of emotions pulsing through her.
“You are here,” she said, stating the obvious.
One eyebrow flicked upward. “Did you think I wouldn’t be?”
She tried to sound sophisticated and nonchalant. “You might have had second thoughts.”
“I always try to honor my commitments. Most particularly to beautiful women.”
Did he really think her beautiful? She wanted to believe that what she saw in his eyes was admiration and not pity, but could not be sure that his words weren’t influenced by her money. She could not allow herself to mistake what passed between them as anything more than a temporary arrangement to satisfy a specific physical need. Any other feelings must be kept under lock and key.
“How was the Haslingdens’ dinner party?” he asked. “Was the food delicious, the company convivial, the political ambitions of your intended well-satisfied?”
“It was a successful evening,” she said, loath to admit that her mind had been on other things and that she had no idea what had taken place. “I see you’ve been catching up on your reading.” That was daring, she thought, congratulating herself.
“It has been a few years, so I thought it wise to refresh my memory. One does not like to disappoint a lady,” he said. “Are there any chapters of special interest? Activities that you found particularly stimulating?”
The entire book had been one giant stimulation, she wanted to say. “I think you might be mocking me, sir!”
“How can I put your fears to rest?” he asked, rising fluidly to his feet and coming toward her.
She licked her lips nervously, for he looked dangerous. He had a sinner’s mouth, with a lower lip that was full and wide, and a smile that hinted of untold debaucheries. Every nerve in her body was alive, on alert for what would come next.
“Would you care for another drink?” Even as the words emerged from her mouth, she knew she was only buying time.
“Come here, my lady,” he said. She hesitated, and her reaction did not escape his notice.
“You can still send me away,” he said, as if he had known all along she would lack the courage to go through with it. That thought stiffened her resolve. She did
want this. She had waited her entire life for it. She was not about to back away.
“It is just that I expected…”
“What did you expect?”
“That you might…” She floundered. What had she expected? She was not sure. “That we might go upstairs. To the bedchambers.”
“Where it is dark and you can hide beneath the covers?” He shook his head. “If you wish to repeat what you had in your first marriage, then I advise you to simply wait for your second.”
“That is not what I want.”
He crossed the space between them, and cupping her face with his hand, gently stroked his thumb across her chin, and she went from simmer to boil just that fast.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked, his eyes pools of unfathomable darkness, his voice the only sound she heard beyond the thumping of her heart. “You turn the pages of a dirty book and are aroused by what you see, but are you brave enough?”
“I am,” she said more fiercely than she had intended.
He dropped his hand and stepped away. “Turn around.”
She spun until her back was to him, and realized their images were clearly reflected in the enormous gilt-framed mirror on the opposite wall.
Her nerves prickled in awareness as he came up behind her, his hands against the back of her gown, the slight pressure of his fingers at her neckline as he began releasing the long road of buttons stretching from the top of her shoulders down below her waist.
He had a deft touch, and she wondered how many times he had done this before, and what other women had stood like this, ready to be released from their clothing and their morals by him.