If the Duke Demands, page 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Anna Harrington
Excerpt from When the Scoundrel Sins copyright © 2017 by Anna Harrington
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ISBN: 978-1-4555-9725-3 (mass market), 978-1-4555-9724-6 (ebook)
Chapte r Thirteen
An Excerpt of When the Scoundrel Sins
About the Author
Also by Anna Harrington
Praise for Anna Harrington’s Novels
Fall in Love with Forever Romance
Dedicated to Sarah Younger,
who convinced me to write about the Carlisle brothers,
and to Kayla Haley,
whose love for Milton is even greater than mine
A very special thank-you
to the world’s best editor, Michele Bidelspach,
for her patience and insight,
to Jessie Pierce,
for putting up with
all of my odd requests and technical helplessness,
and to Professor Robin Jarvis, for help in
researching nineteenth-century adventurers and their books
Sebastian Carlisle strode up the front steps of Park Place just as the first pinks of dawn began to lighten the sky.
Damnation, he’d been out later than he’d intended. Far later. But his parents disapproved of the women whose company he favored, so he’d had no choice but to spend time covering his tracks. After all, that talk with Father last year when he’d gotten caught with Lady Bancroft provided enough of an object lesson to last a lifetime. Good God, he still felt the embarrassment of that evening. He didn’t know which was worse—being threatened to a duel by Lord Bancroft or seeing the disappointment on Father’s face.
So he’d promised to put the reputation of the family and its legacy before all else. Including his own pleasures.
But he was a Carlisle, for heaven’s sake! Did Father truly expect him to give up all his wild ways? Certainly, he’d reined himself in and was decidedly more careful now, including staying away from the married ladies of the ton. But he also had a rogue’s reputation to uphold, and truly, what good was there in living like a monk? As fine as he felt as he let himself inside the house, with the lavender scent of the actress who’d spent the night entertaining him still lingering on his skin, he knew he’d made the right decision last night. What Mother and Father didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. And he did so love the theater.
Apparently, he considered with a grin as he remembered the woman’s eagerness, the theater also loved him.
Careful not to wake the still-sleeping household, he strode into the front foyer. And froze.
His youngest brother, Quinton, sat on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, his elbows resting on his knees and his head hanging in his hands.
An icy foreboding slithered down Sebastian’s spine. His brother shouldn’t have been here. He and Robert should still have been out wreaking havoc on St James’s Street until long past dawn.
“Quinn?” he called out gently, suddenly afraid to break the stillness of the house.
Quinton lifted his head and stared blankly at him, as if he didn’t recognize him. His face white, his eyes red-rimmed, all of him shaking violently…The rasping words tore from him—“Father’s dead.”
No. Sebastian’s body flashed numb as he stared at Quinn and tried to comprehend the words as they swirled inside his head. No, he couldn’t have heard correctly. Impossible! Father couldn’t be…“Dead,” he breathed out, no sound on his lips.
Quinn leaned his head against the banister and squeezed his eyes shut as anguished grief twisted his face.
Worry for her consumed him. He ran up the stairs without feeling his feet on the marble steps, without being aware of anything except the deafening rush of blood pounding in his ears and the fierce thumping of his heart, so brutally hard that each beat pierced a stab of pain through his chest and ripped his breath away.
He reached the second floor landing, stopped, stared down the hall toward the family’s bedrooms— The world plunged away beneath him.
His sister, Josephine, sat crumpled in the hallway outside the door of their parents’ bedroom, weeping inconsolably in the arms of her husband, so hard as if she would break into pieces. Leaning against the wall, Robert stared blankly at his hands. Scarlet red…covering his fingers, staining his clothes. Blood. Father’s blood. A blinding pain shot through him, and Sebastian grabbed for the banister to keep from falling.
He gathered himself with a deep breath and walked stiffly past them into the room. Strong…he had to be strong for them. He was the oldest, the heir. It was his responsibility to protect his family. Father would have expected it of him. What he wanted to do was scream.
Inside the dimly lit room, Richard Carlisle lay in his bed. Sebastian’s heart stopped. Father wasn’t dead, surely. Not with his eyes closed so lightly like that, his face calm. He was sleeping, that was all, except that he lay fully dressed on top the coverlet, even in his boots. A red-stained towel lay beneath his head. So unnaturally still…Sebastian stared at his chest, waiting for it to rise and fall, holding his own breath as he waited for proof that the others were all wrong, that Father wasn’t…But no breath came, and when Sebastian could no longer hold his own, the air rushed from him in a choking sob.
Mother…oh, dear God, Mother. She sat on the edge of the bed, holding her husband’s hand tightly in hers. So pale, so weak and frail, her face so blank—only her eyes revealed any sign of life still left inside her, glistening bright in the dim light of the lamp.
“Yes?” But she didn’t look away from his father, her hollow gaze fixed to his face.
“Mother,” he repeated and reached up to gently pull her hand away from his father’s, to hold it in his. So cold, like ice, her fingers gripped his as if he were the only anchor now holding her to this world.
She looked down at him, and the grief he saw in her ripped him apart. “Sebastian,” she murmured as recognition pierced her grief, “there’s been an accident…”
His eyes blurred with stinging tears, and he nodded, his voice choking in his throat.
“Where were you?” She reached a trembling hand to cup his cheek. “We couldn’t find you.”
Guilt poured through him with a self-loathing that burned so hot that it scalded his soul. “I’m sorry,” he choked out.
She whispered, “He asked for you.”
The weight of the world crashed down upon him, suffocating, crushing. Its weight was unbearable. With every inch of his body and soul aching with a guilt he feared he’d never be able to absolve, he buried his face in shame against her knee. “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…”
Miranda Hodgkins peeked out cautiously from behind the morning room door. The hallway was empty. Thank goodness. Drawing a deep breath of resolve, she hurried toward the rear stairs and reached a hand up to her face to make certain that her mask was still firmly in place.
The grand masquerade ball that had been held in celebration of Elizabeth Carlisle’s birthday had ended, and now the guests were dispersing…those who had come only for the evening’s ball into a long line of carriages, those few remaining for the last night of the house party into their rooms in the east wing. And the family would eventually make their way to their rooms in the west wing. Exactly where Miranda was headed.
She scurried up the dark stairs, knowing the way by heart from years of playing at Chestnut Hill with the Carlisles when they were all children. She knew which steps squeaked and how to move over them without making a sound, just as she’d attended enough parties here to know that the servants would be busy in the lower rooms of the house and that the family would take several minutes to say good night to all their guests.
If this had been any other night, she wouldn’t have been sneaking around like this. She would have gone home with her auntie and uncle and stayed there, instead of changing into her second costume of the evening and sneaking back to Chestnut Hill. And she would have entered right through the front door instead of through the cellar, with no one thinking twice about seeing her in the house that bordered her auntie and uncle’s farm and that felt like a second home to her.
But this wasn’t just any other night. Tonight, she planned on declaring her love for Robert Carlisle. The man she wanted to marry and spend the rest of her days making happy.
And the man she planned to surrender her innocence to tonight.
She reached the landing and felt carefully in the darkness for the latch to release the door. She’d known Robert since she was five, when her parents died and she came to live with Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Hamish, when she’d met the entire Carlisle family and been welcomed warmly into their embrace as if she were a long-lost relative instead of the orphan niece of one of their tenants. Seldom a day went by that she hadn’t been at Chestnut Hill, playing in their nursery or gardens. But a stolen kiss from Robert when she was fourteen changed everything. For the first time, she had evidence that Robert thought of her as more than a friend, even if he’d never attempted to repeat it. She hadn’t stopped dreaming of him in the intervening years, and during the past two years, since his father passed away and he returned to live at Chestnut Hill, she’d dared to dream of more.
Oh, he was simply wonderful! He’d always been dashing, with that golden hair and sapphire blue eyes that all the brothers shared, along with the tall height and broad shoulders, that same Carlisle wildness and charm. The three men were so much alike physically that they even sounded the same when they spoke. But their personalities were completely different, and so was the way they’d treated her. Sebastian had already been sent to Eton by the time she arrived in Islingham and so was too busy to pay her much mind, and Quinton had been…well, Quinton. But Robert had paid the most attention to her, had always been kind and supportive, even when he’d teased her mercilessly, just as he had his sister, Josephine. Since he’d returned to Islingham to help Sebastian with the dukedom, though, he’d also matured. Bets placed in the book at White’s had never thought that possible. But Miranda had always known how special he was, how dedicated to his family and especially to his mother. And tonight, she planned on showing him how she felt about him.
Her hands shook as she silently closed the door behind her and paused to let her eyes adjust to the dim light in the hallway. Heavens, how nervous she was! Her heart pounded so hard with anxious excitement over what she’d planned for tonight that each beat reverberated in her chest like cannon fire. She’d never attempted to seduce a man before, had never even considered such a thing, and her entire knowledge of how to please a man came from the barmaid she’d paid to tell her everything the woman knew about men. Which had proven to be a great deal, indeed.
Yet Miranda had no choice but to carry out her plan tonight. Time was running out. She could no longer afford to wait for Robert to tire of temporary encounters with the string of women he was rumored to have been involved with since university and crave something deeper and more lasting. Or wait for him to realize that she could be the woman to give him that. He would be in London soon for the season, and once there, he’d court Diana Morgan, the general’s lovely daughter he’d talked about since last fall. And the woman he’d spent the house party chatting with in quiet conversation, taking for turns about the gardens, waltzing with tonight…If Miranda didn’t take this chance now, she would lose him forever. And how could she ever live with herself then, knowing she’d never dared to reveal her true feelings?
She knew tonight could go horribly wrong, that he might not return the feelings she had for him…But she also knew it could go perfectly right. That he might finally see her as the woman she’d become and the seductress she could be rather than as nothing more than the friend who had always been there, like a comfortable piece of furniture. How would she have lived with her cowardly self if she didn’t at least try?
Drawing a deep breath, she pushed herself away from the door and hurried down the hall, counting the rooms as she went…two, three—four! This was it, the one the footman had told her was Robert’s.
She slipped inside the dark room, then closed the door and leaned back against it, to catch her breath and somehow calm her racing heart. There was no turning back now. In a few minutes, Robert would walk into his room and find a masked woman draped across his bed. By the time her mask came off and he realized that the woman was her, he would be too enthralled to see her as simply plain Miranda Hodgkins any longer. She would show him that the same woman who was his friend could also be his lover and wife.
And finally, he would be hers.
Her eyes adjusted to the dark room, lit only by the dim light of the small fire his valet had already banked for the night. A new nervousness swelled inside her that had nothing to do with her planned seduction. Heavens, she was in Robert’s room. In his room! His most private space. But instead of feeling like an intruder, she felt at home here amid the large pieces of heavy furniture and masculine furnishings. As she moved away from the door and circled the room, her curiosity getting the better of her, she passed his dresser and lightly ran her hand over his things…his brushes, a pipe that she was certain had belonged to his father— Her fingers touched something cold and metal.
She picked it up and turned it over in her palm, then smiled. A toy soldier from the set Richard Carl
Lifting the soldier to the faint smile at her lips, she circled the room to take in as much of this private side of him as possible. A typical bachelor gentleman’s room, she supposed. Then she laughed with happy surprise when she saw the stack of books on the bedside table. Of course, he was well-educated; Elizabeth and Richard Carlisle had made certain of that for all their children. But Shakespeare, Milton…poetry? A warmth blossomed in her chest. She loved poetry, too, and discovering this romantic side to Robert only made her certain that they belonged together.
A noise sounded in the hall. With her heartbeat thundering in her ears, she raced to the bed, kicked off her slippers, and draped herself seductively across the coverlet. That is, as seductively as possible, because her hands shook as they pulled at her costume to spread it delicately over her legs and to check once again to make certain that her mask was still in place.
The door opened, and her heart stopped.
Miranda stared at the masked man silhouetted in the doorway and swallowed. Hard. The only conclusion to this night would be her utter and complete ruination.
Exactly what she hoped for.
Praying he couldn’t see how her fingers trembled, she reached a hand toward the draping neckline of her costume to draw his attention to her breasts…er, rather to what there was of them.
Robert’s sapphire blue eyes flickered behind the panther mask. The shocked surprise in their depths faded into rakish amusement, and his sensuous mouth curled into a slow, predatory smile.
Her belly pinched. Oh my.
Without shifting his eyes away from her, he closed the door behind him.
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