Read Don't Tempt Me Online

Authors: Loretta Chase

Don't Tempt Me

Loretta Chase
Don't Tempt Me

Contents

Prologue

Yesterday, when they buried his parents, the sun shone.

One

Lucien Charles Vincent de Grey, the eleventh Duke of Marchmont,…

Two

As he usually did upon entering a room, Marchmont paused…

Three

Marchmont had done nothing more than brush his lips over…

Four

The Duke of Marchmont did not even look up when…

Five

It was early afternoon, well before the fashionable hour for…

Six

The duke made Jarvis ride with Filby the groom in…

Seven

Zoe might have become calmer and more rational if her…

Eight

Marchmont didn't answer. He stayed where he was, regarding Priscilla…

Nine

The Duke of Marchmont didn't know where Zoe had found…

Ten

The Duke of Marchmont had arranged with Lexham to collect…

Eleven

Zoe knew what he wanted. She'd known from the moment…

Twelve

By Thursday night, the rumors were racing through the Beau…

Thirteen

Zoe remembered the wedding ceremony vividly. Events thereafter were not…

Fourteen

“I should like the table moved nearer to the window,”…

Fifteen

Only a few short weeks ago, the Duke of Marchmont…

Sixteen

Despite her travails of the day, the Duchess of Marchmont,…

Seventeen

For a moment, Zoe couldn't form a thought, let alone…

Eighteen

Everything goes into the newspapers. In other countries, matters of…

Northamptonshire, England
Spring 1799

Yesterday, when they buried his parents, the sun shone.

Today, too, was incongruously sunny, cruelly bright and cheerful and hopeful, the birds singing and the first spring flowers blooming.

Ten-year-old Lord Lucien de Grey hid from the sun and the world's horrible happiness.

His older brother Gerard found him, a ball of misery curled up in one of the numerous small passages of the old house their parents had loved. It had been a favorite of the Dukes of Marchmont since it was built, centuries earlier.

Gerard, three years older than Lucien, had become the tenth Duke of Marchmont.

“Don't think about them,” he said. “That only makes it worse.”

“I wasn't!” Lucien shouted. “You don't know anything! I hate you!”

The battle quickly escalated from words to blows. They fought, that day and in the following days, over everything and nothing. Family members and tutors intervened, but no one liked to chastise two grieving boys, no matter how appalling their behavior.

They broke furniture and crockery. They broke a window and knocked the head off a statue their grandfather had brought back from Greece. So it went on for weeks.

Then one day their father's great friend Lord Lexham appeared.

The two families had spent summers together. For a long time every summer, it had seemed as though yet another Lexham baby had arrived. By the time the fatal fever struck Lucien's parents, Lexham's brood appeared to have settled at eight: three boys and five girls, with the last child named Zoe Octavia.

Lord Lexham was one of the three guardians the Duke of Marchmont had appointed in his will to look after his sons.

Lexham was the only one who took an active hand.

His hand was active, indeed.

He hauled first Gerard then Lucien into their father's study and gave them each a birching, and no light one, either.

“Ordinarily I do not believe in corporal punishment,” he said afterward, “but you pair are hard cases. One must get your attention first.”

No one—
no one
—had ever whipped them.

And yet, strangely, it was a relief.

It certainly got their full attention.

“We had better find something for you to do,” he said.

He found a great deal for them to do. He put them on a punishing course of study and exercise. It proved a powerful antidote to angry misery and brooding.

And then, as the bright spring warmed into summer, another antidote to sorrow entered Lucien's life. Once again they traveled to Lexham's country house. This time Lucien finally became personally acquainted with the catastrophe-waiting-to-happen that was Zoe Octavia. She was five years old.

 

Zoe Octavia Lexham hated rules even more than Lucien did, and broke them more than he did. This was no small accomplishment, considering how much harder it was for girls to break rules.

She ran away. Constantly.

She'd done it for the first time, he discovered, when she was four years old. She did it several times during that first summer after he'd met her and did not stop doing it in the years thereafter. She was the problem child. Her tendency to bolt at every opportunity was only one of the problems.

She rode horses she wasn't supposed to ride. She played with children she oughtn't to associate with. She was too often found in places where a nobleman's daughter did not belong. She seemed to take delight in doing exactly what she was not supposed to do.

She lay awake nights, Lucien was sure, devising ways to annoy and embarrass her brothers, especially.

When she was seven, she dared her brother Samuel to climb onto the roof. He, six years older, informed her that he wasn't a trained monkey and it wasn't his
job to entertain her. She called him a fraidy-cat-mudfor-brains. Then she climbed out onto the steepest part of the roof.

Lucien was the only one agile enough to fetch her down.

He became the one, too, who fished her out of fish ponds and tracked her to the gamekeeper's cottage or the blacksmith's when she went missing. None of her siblings ever had the least idea where to find her or what to do with her.

The cricket incident was typical.

She was eight years old. The boys were organizing a cricket game. She stormed up to him.

“I want to play, Lucien. Tell them to let me.”

“Girls don't play cricket,” he said. “Go back to your dolls and your nursemaids, brat.”

She snatched up a bat and swung it at him—or tried to. She swung as hard as she could, and kept on going. Round and round she went, like a whirligig, and down she went, on her arse.

And there she sat, her disorderly golden hair standing on end and her vivid blue eyes wide open and her mouth open, too, so startled she was.

He laughed so hard, he fell down, too.

She was annoying, sometimes infuriating, generally impossible. And she was a bright, bright spot in his life.

London
Wednesday, 1 April 1818

Lucien Charles Vincent de Grey, the eleventh Duke of Marchmont, stood on the threshold of the morning room of White's Club, surveying the company through half-closed eyes.

Women tended to read deep meaning in those sleepy green eyes, when in fact there wasn't any deeper thought in his mind than
I wonder what you look like naked.

Women often got the wrong idea about him. The way his pale gold hair shimmered in certain lights lent his features an ethereal quality. The tendency of one wayward lock to fall over his forehead was deemed poetic.

Those who knew him knew better.

The twenty-nine-year-old Duke of Marchmont was neither ethereal nor poetic.

He avoided deep thoughts and allowed no strong feelings to churn inside him. He took nothing seriously. This included dress, women, politics, his friends, and even—or perhaps most especially—himself.

At present, no woman stood in danger of being deluded, because none were in the vicinity. This was White's, after all, the exclusive preserve of five hundred privileged men.

Several of them had gathered at the famous bow window where Beau Brummell had once presided. Even at present, when the Beau languished in France, hiding from his creditors, seats in that holy place were reserved for a select few.

At the moment the occupants included Brummell's great friend the second Baron Alvanley, as well as the Duke of Beaufort's heir, the Marquis of Worcester. Arguing with them were Lord Yarmouth, Lord Adderwood, and Grantley Berkeley. Of the group, only Adderwood—thin, dark, and perhaps the most level-headed of the lot—had not been one of Brummell's boon companions. He was Marchmont's. They'd been friends since their schooldays.

Though he broke half a dozen of the Beau's rules daily and, worse, believed it didn't signify, the Duke of Marchmont was one of the Chosen.

He didn't know or care why they'd chosen him. Truth to tell, he considered Brummell an annoying great bitch, and preferred sitting in the bow window when the rest of that lot weren't about, practicing their wit—such as it was—upon passersby in St. James's Street.

Who the devil cared whether this carriage's panels
were too dark, or that fellow's coat was an inch too short or that lady's bonnet went out of fashion last week?

Not the Duke of Marchmont.

He cared about very little in this world.

His sleepy green gaze slid from the collection of wits and dandies at the bow window to a quiet area across the room, where a fellow dozed in a well-padded armchair. As though he felt the ducal regard, the gentleman opened his eyes. Marchmont made the smallest movement of his hand, a gesture universally recognized as
Go away
. The gentleman quickly got up and left the room.

His Grace had scarcely folded his six-foot frame into the chair when he became aware of a buzz of excitement emanating from the bow window contingent. Their attention, he noticed, was not directed at passersby in St. James's Street but at the leather-bound betting book.

After a moment, Lord Adderwood let his keen, dark gaze travel the room until it lit upon his erstwhile schoolmate. “There you are, Marchmont,” he said.

“What a noticing fellow you are, Adderwood,” said Marchmont. “Nothing escapes you.”

“I was about to search the club for you,” Adderwood said. “We could not possibly close the betting book without you. What do you say? I say she is.”

“Then I say she isn't.”

“How much, then?”

“Put me down for a thousand pounds,” said the duke. “Then pray tell me firstly, Who is she? And secondly, Is she or isn't she what?”

Every head came up, and every set of eyes swiveled in his direction.

“Good God, Marchmont, where have you been?” said Alvanley. “Patagonia?”

“Busy night,” said His Grace. “Don't remember where I've been. Where's Patagonia? Anywhere near Lisson Grove?”

“He doesn't read the papers until bedtime,” Adderwood explained to the others.

“I find them an unfailing aid to a deep and dreamless sleep,” said His Grace.

“But you don't need to read anything,” said Worcester. “They've plastered pictures in all the print shop windows.”

“I came the other way,” said Marchmont. “Didn't see any pictures. What's happened? Another one of the royal dukes wooing a German princess? No surprise there. I have long waited for one of the royal family to do something truly shocking, like marry an Englishwoman.”

Last November, following a long and agonizing labor, the country's beloved Princess Charlotte had produced a stillborn son and died. This sad end to England's hopes—she'd been the Prince Regent's only child and heir—had led her uncles, the royal dukes, to abandon their mistresses and numerous illegitimate offspring in order to commence marriage negotiations with various Germanic cousins.

“Nothing to do with them,” said Adderwood. “It's to do with Lexham. We are evenly divided between those who say his lordship has finally taken leave of his senses and those who say he was right all along.”

Marchmont's eyes opened a little wider then, and
his indolent mind came to something like attention.

“Zoe Octavia,” he said. If they were making bets about Lexham, it must have to do with his long-lost daughter.

A dozen years ago, Lexham had taken his wife and youngest child on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean. This had not struck Marchmont as the wisest enterprise during wartime.

True, the French had surrendered Egypt to the British in 1801, and Lord Nelson's great victory at Trafalgar had demonstrated England's naval supremacy. But the seas remained far from safe. Furthermore, European power struggles meant nothing to the various pashas and beys and whatnot ruling their bits of the Ottoman Empire. Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land were part of that empire, and rulers and ruled alike all carried on as they'd always done. The slave trade was lucrative, and white slaves were always wanted for the harems—as the pirates lurking in the Mediterranean well knew.

The region was not, in short, the safest place to take any twelve-year-old, fair-haired, blue-eyed English girl, let alone Zoe. They'd scarcely reached Egypt when the fool girl had bolted, naturally, the way she'd so often done at home.

But this time Marchmont wasn't there to track her down, and those who'd searched could find no trace of her. It was believed she'd been kidnapped. Lexham waited for a ransom note. It never came.

He never gave up trying to find her. Though eventually he'd had to return to England, he'd hired agents to carry on the work. They had traveled up and down the Nile, and they'd made their way from Algiers to
Constantinople and back again. They'd heard she was here and they'd heard she was there. They'd gathered rumors and nothing else.

Marchmont had given up hope a decade ago, and locked away Zoe in the mental cupboard with the others he'd lost and the feelings he no longer let himself have.

“What number is this?” he said. “Has anyone kept track of how many females have appeared on Lexham's doorstep, claiming to be his long-lost daughter?”

“I made it to be twoscore,” said Alvanley. “The greater number in the early years. It's dwindled considerably of late. I'd nearly forgotten about her.”

Though everyone believed him mad to continue searching for her, Lexham had proved sufficiently compos mentis to reject every last one of the would-be Zoes.

“Then I reckon we can put the total at twoscore and one,” said Marchmont.

Alvanley shook his head.

“This time he took her in,” said Adderwood.

The Duke of Marchmont left his chair and stalked to the bow window.

Berkeley picked up one of the newspapers from the table there and gave it to him.

“Lord Lexham Welcomes Harem Girl,” the headline proclaimed.

Marchmont's usually unexcitable—some said nonexistent—heart began to pound in a very strange manner. Not that anyone could tell. His drowsy expression never wavered while he scanned the lengthy article in the
Morning Post
.

“‘Mysterious young woman,'” he read aloud. “‘Arrived in London on Monday night with Lord Winterton…. Family forewarned, gathered at Lexham House, prepared to confront and oust yet another imposter…' and so on and so forth.” He shook his head as he skimmed the columns. “‘The reader will imagine the tears shed upon the joyful discovery—'” He looked up. “I believe I shall be sick. Who writes this drivel?”

He read on dramatically, “‘But indeed it was she, restored at last to the bosom of her family, after twelve long years as a captive in the palace of Yusri Pasha.'” He skipped a few more paragraphs. “‘Shocking crime…Lexham…ancient barony…youngest daughter kidnapped and sold in the slave market of Cairo…'”

With a laugh, he dropped the newspaper onto the table. “Vastly amusing. You didn't happen to notice the date, perchance?”

“I didn't need to notice,” said Adderwood. “On the way here, any number of urchins told me my handkerchief was hanging out of my pocket. Does there exist an April Fool jest older than that one? I vow, boys must have tried it on Socrates. April Fool was the first thing I thought when I saw the paper. But what, exactly, is the joke?”

“Everyone's forgotten about her,” said Alvanley. “Why make her a joke? Why not choose a more timely topic?”

“You saw who brought her home,” said Berkeley.

“Winterton.” England's second most cynical cynic. The Duke of Marchmont came first. “Even had I failed to observe the date, that name would have
aroused my suspicions.” Cold-blooded and single-minded, Winterton was not the sort of man who rescued damsels in distress.

“Still, the fact remains, a girl has turned up at Lexham's, claiming to be Lexham's youngest,” said Worcester. “That part isn't an April Fool joke.”

“Have you seen her?” said Marchmont. He took up the paper again. It made no sense—unless Winterton had suffered a concussion in the course of his travels in the East.

“No one's seen her, except those she claims are her nearest kin,” said Alvanley. “And they're keeping mum. Last I heard, they'd cloistered themselves at Lexham House and were not at home to visitors.”

In spite of his determined efforts to suffocate it, the Duke of Marchmont's interest was well and truly piqued. His expression remained sleepily amused.

“I begin to understand why Adderwood was about to stir himself to hunt me down,” he said.

“You're family to the Lexhams,” Adderwood said.

That was no joke. Marchmont knew his former guardian better than Lexham's own children did. The man was no fool.

Yet this young woman had bamboozled him—as well as Winterton, apparently.

It made no sense.

The Duke of Marchmont, however, was never at a loss. If he felt uneasy or doubtful or confused or—as was the case at present—utterly confounded, he ignored it. He certainly didn't show it.

“As a member of the family, I declare that this girl, whoever she is, cannot be Lexham's youngest,”
Marchmont said. “Zoe in a harem for twelve years? If they chained her to a very thick wall, perhaps.”

“She was a hoyden, as I recall,” said Adderwood. More than once he'd joined Marchmont during those long-ago summer holidays with the Lexhams.

“A bolter,” said Marchmont.

He saw her too clearly in his mind's eye.

I want to play
,
Lucien. Tell them to let me.

Girls don't play cricket. Go back to your dolls and nursemaids
,
brat.

He shoved the memory back into the mental cupboard it had escaped from and slammed the door shut.

“I hope for Lexham's sake the woman isn't his daughter,” Alvanley said. “‘Bolter' would be the kindest of epithets Society will bestow upon her.”

“Twelve years in a harem,” said Berkeley. “Might as well say twelve years in a brothel.”

“It isn't the same thing,” said Adderwood. “Quite the opposite, actually.”

“No one cares whether it is or it isn't,” said Marchmont. “No one's going to let facts get in the way of a good scandal.”

And this situation was the sort scandalmongers dreamed of, as alchemists dreamt of the philosopher's stone. The tale—of an English girl, a peer's daughter, lost for twelve years in the exotic East among heathens and polygamists—was a feast for the dirty-minded.

“Wait until you see the prints,” said Worcester. “Wait until you see the mob outside Lexham House.”

“They'd already gathered when I was going home at dawn today,” said Berkeley. “Place looked like Bartholomew Fair.”

“Clerks, milkmaids, shopgirls, peddlers, pickpockets, and drunkards, all wanting a look at the Harem Girl,” said Worcester.

“I heard they summoned troops to disperse the crowd,” said Yarwood.

Marchmont would have laughed at this latest example of human absurdity if Lexham hadn't been at the center of it.

It was Lexham whose good name the scandal and notoriety would besmirch. It was Lexham, one of the House of Lords' most dedicated and hardworking members, whose judgment would be questioned. It was Lexham who'd be ridiculed.

The Duke of Marchmont cared about little in this world, and the little began and ended with Lord Lexham. What the duke owed his former guardian could hardly be put into words and certainly could never be repaid.

This nonsense had to be stopped. Immediately. And, as had used to be the case in a Zoe-related crisis, Marchmont was the one who had to do it.

“Put me down for a thousand pounds, Adderwood,” he said. “I don't know who she is, but she isn't Zoe Lexham. And I'll prove it before the day's over.”

 

An hour and more after he'd made his bet, the Duke of Marchmont regarded the sea of people in once-peaceful Berkeley Square. Above their heads thick grey clouds mounted, bringing an early darkness to the day.

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