Authors: Rachel van Dyken
Tags: #historical romance, #regency romance, #Humorous, #Rachel Van Dyken, #The Ugly Duckling Debutante, #kindle romance, #Fiction, #Romance, #Astraea Press, #London, #Historical Fiction, #Regency London, #Sensual romance, #Under 3.00 Kindle
A resounding hush descended soon after they were announced. What in the blazes? Confusion set him to look at the faces of those around him. All eyes were trained on the lady next to him. He looked down.
Her shawl was off.
Alarms went off in his head. Devil take it, her shawl wasn’t on her body.
Her dress was…well, originally he had only seen parts and he had been ready to rip it off of her.
Now—well now he felt like he was naked instead of her. The dress wasn’t scandalous. It was…without compare.
And absolutely magnificent.
The fabric wound tightly around her chest then seemed to get looser as it neared the floor. A small train attached to the back boasted of several different shades of white that eventually met in the middle at the bodice. The gown was completely off her shoulders, leaving creamy soft skin in its place.
Pasting a smile on his face, he closed his eyes and took three calming breaths. He was the Duke of Tempest. He could escort her without tripping over himself. And surely he could keep his hands firmly placed by his sides, the only other option being ripping her bodice completely off her body sealing both of their fates. Replacing the worry and, to his great irritation, lust on his face with one of his usual smiles, he urged Emma forward.
“Ah, and this is our lovely hostess for the evening, Lady Walters.” He kissed her hand then asked, “How does your daughter fair this evening, my lady?”
Lady Walters was still staring openly at Emma but managed to snap out of her rude gawking when she heard the mention of her own daughter.
“Oh, your grace, I didn’t think you’d remember!” She swatted him playfully with her fan and chuckled again. “She’s fine, out exploring in France, I’m afraid. She’ll be sad to have missed you.”
“Pity.” He shook his head longingly. “I should have liked to discuss her recent art work. Does she have anymore I could take off her hands, by chance?”
Lady Walters beamed. “His grace is too kind. Yes, I will have it sent to you straight away.”
“Excellent. Shall we?” He turned toward Emma and grasped her gloved hand again.
Each time they stopped by another couple, Emma felt more and more at ease. Her original assumption of the duke’s character was sound. He was an angel. Albeit a fallen-looking one. Nonetheless he treated everyone with respect and in return he was adored.
Her stomach did a tiny flip-flop as she noticed him pick up a tiny girl and swing her in his arms.
“Your grace! Your grace!” she squealed, throwing her head back. “Again!”
Her mother stepped forward. “I’m sure his grace has many more things to get to tonight, Laura.” The girl pouted then pulled Sebastian’s face down to hers and kissed it.
Was that envy Emma felt in the pit of her stomach or something much worse? Flares of attraction continued to invade her as she looked for the quickest escape route. The man was charming, attractive, and sinfully charismatic. She needed to get away and fast, before she started begging like Laura.
“Dance with me,” he said next to her.
She had just turned to walk away from him. But it was too late. Now she was caught. Her chest tightened. Oh, how she wanted to dance. She hadn’t danced since the incident, unable to bring herself to relive it again. Best she keep the desire and memories locked away forever then deal with what had happened so long ago.
“I do not dance, your grace.”
Breaking free of his hand, she quickly moved through the crowd. Spying her prey by the refreshment table, a smile formed on her lips.
Her cousin whirled around. “Goodness, Emma, you gave me a fright. Where’s Sebastian.”
A masculine laughter shook behind her. “Oh, preying on young women as usual. Only this one managed to run away from me without an explanation of why she rejected my offer to dance.”
Sara’s punch shook in her hand as she struggled for composure. “You see, your grace, Emma hasn’t yet been introduced to Lady Fenton, it has been years since they have seen one another.”
“That’s right!” Emma cut in. “I hope she won’t be put out that I have waited this long to say hello. Of course you understand, don’t you your grace? One simply cannot greet family members when in Town.” She winked and again walked off, leaving a confused duke behind.
That was close
, she thought then promptly bumped into a man.
“I’m so sorry, my lord.” She met his eyes and froze.
It was like looking into the face of a predator. A large, menacing predator. The air whooshed out of her lungs in one fast heave. Staring back at her was Lord Phillip Rawlings, the sole heir of the deceased Lord Rawlings and the only other person besides Emma’s family who knew of the incident that had happened so long ago.
Memories of that night came flooding back. Rawlings had torn the marriage contract in half, and with it every last shred of hope Emma had left. He was a few years older than Emma and had been not only her friend, but her future husband. But that was before the incident. Afterwards, his father had told him he could never pursue someone with such a soiled reputation or wanton ideas. Emma hadn’t cared much for marriage at the time. After all, she was still so young, as was Rawlings. But the devastation that a once loyal friend would also turn on her had been heartbreaking.
Breathtakingly handsome, his whole attitude toward her downfall had been rather selfish. Never once did he ask for her side or care to hear it. The day after she’d been ruined, he took off for London, but not before publicly denouncing their association and friendship.
Rawlings’ reputation was anything but spotless. Last she heard, he had been after Sara himself before Nicholas beat him to it. Yet another reason Emma envied men. They had no consequences for their actions. Rakes were to be praised, yet if a woman was caught in a compromising position, she was thrown out without a trial, with nothing except the job of picking up the broken pieces.
No, the only thing men worried about was money. Something Rawlings definitely had loads of, unless he had gambled away his entire fortune, which was highly unlikely.
“Ah, Miss Gates, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? Might I say you look positively delightful.” Lord Rawlings bowed over her hand and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. The touch of his lips threatened to send her into hysterics. Rawlings had the power to destroy her with one word. The gentry had no idea the real story or her background. Her parents, with the help of the Rawlings family, had spun a tale about her wanting to spend time with her ailing grandmother before having a season. Never mind that her grandmother was as healthy as an ox.
Playing calm, her lips managed a smile, though speech would be impossible, given her inability to string any sort of thought together.
“Allow me to introduce my half brother John.”
Emma’s eyes fluttered to the man on Rawlings’ left. There was something vaguely familiar about his large hands and square nose. His eyes held no brightness. Naturally a woman interested in predatory men would find him handsome. Emma found him frightening and not at all safe. In fact both men seemed like they were spawns of the devil himself. Rawlings had changed, and not for the better. His gaze rested again on Emma. It seemed he wanted to say something, when he suddenly froze and, in place of his smile, a cool mask of indifference formed across his face.
“It seems you’ve evaded me again,” came her savior’s voice.
She felt Tempest’s warmth behind her and was half-tempted to fall into his large frame and cry tears of joy. Turning toward him, she offered a cheerful smile hoping to squelch out the blinding fear she felt at Lord Rawlings presence. What would Rawlings do? Would he say something? Would he leave her be? What possible interest could he have in her affairs? No, if he said something it would be out of pure selfishness, only to ruin Emma and her chances at making her parents proud or at least redeeming herself.
“Rawlings, I thought you were living in the country now. Surprised to see you rubbing shoulders with the lot of us tonight.”
“Yes, well…there was something that needed my immediate attention. Did Miss Gates happen to tell you of the closeness of our families?”
Emma gauged Tempest’s reaction and was relieved to see him promptly ignore Rawlings and give him the cut direct.
Before Emma could pull away or apologize, Rawlings grabbed her hand and laid a fervent kiss upon her fingertips. “It seems I’ve been asked to leave. Until next time, my sweet.”
Emma shuddered as Rawlings’ brother John’s eyes locked on hers. A devilish smile crossed his face as he too bent his head in her direction and walked off. “I don’t know if I’m fond of either of those men.”
“He doesn’t even like himself. As for his brother—well, one hears things. I don’t know your association with Rawlings, but he isn’t the type of fellow with whom you should be associating, if you desire a spotless reputation. Now, would you please stop trying to escape me? I won’t make you dance if that’s what you’re afraid of, but I did promise Nicholas to look after you, and I find it deuced hard to comply when you’re constantly turning your back on me. I doubt I’m that disagreeable to look at.”
Emma giggled. “Your grace—”
“Sebastian,” he stated, sounding bored that she would even bother with using his title.
“Fine. Sebastian.” She leaned in so only he could hear. “I think if we were to sit here and discuss the effect you have on women, we would be whispering all night, and those same women you are trying to marry would think us entangled. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“Of course not. Married to a girl who nearly kills herself every time she rides a horse? No, thank you. I don’t want to live in constant fear of your next suicidal jaunt.”
Emma felt immediately at ease. “My apologies, your grace. I only took off because I thought we were racing. Can I help it that I crave the feel of the wind against my hair? Is that so wrong? Or are young, genteel-breed ladies not to utter such things?”
“My dear, you may utter whatever pleases you, as long as I’m on the receiving end of your little confessions.”
Emma laughed heartily as she took his arm. “What if my confessions are improper, then what will you do?”
Bringing his hand up to her cheek, Sebastian flashed a devious smile. “Then, my dear, I will take it upon myself to alleviate any impropriety you may possess.”
Emma gulped. “In what way, your grace?”
“Any way necessary, my lady.” He lifted her hand effortlessly to his lips and bestowed a wicked kiss on her fingertips, reluctantly releasing her only when they were, yet again, approached by a panic-stricken Nicholas.
“Ah, there you two are,” Nicholas said louder than necessary. “I need both of you to pretend you’re in deep conversation with me, and don’t look behind you less I start crying tears of outrage at the unfairness of my current situation.”
Confused, Emma looked to Sebastian for help. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned to Nicholas and slapped him forcefully on the back. It was then Emma noticed Lady Fenton heading their way. Earlier that evening before leaving, Nicholas had received a glorious set down by his mother-in-law regarding his punishing Samuel. The argument, it seemed, had not yet been settled. Smiling, she looked back to Sebastian, who cleared his throat for attention and spoke.
“Good of you to come so soon, my lord. We have matters to discuss. Emma and I were just conversing about my intention to marry and—”
The room seemed to hush as Sebastian’s words echoed off into the great ballroom. Several pairs of envious eyes darted in her direction, nearly burning her with jealous rage.
“Ah, yes. I forgot about the list!” Nicholas’s voice reverberated off the walls.
thought Emma. All the women of the
needed to know was the Duke of Tempest was keeping an actual list of ladies he was potentially interested in. Selfishly she wondered if she was on it, but that was silly. Of course she wouldn’t be on it. She was merely the daughter of a wealthy viscount. Sebastian was more than likely looking for a princess or the daughter of a duke. Maybe even an heiress, not that he needed it. He was richer than Croesus.
“The names?” Nicholas asked, interrupting her thoughts. She looked at Sebastian.
“Yes, I nearly forgot.” Sebastian’s hands smoothed the front of his perfectly fitting jacket. His fingers fumbled along the inside for something.
He pulled out a piece of paper in triumph. “It’s all here. I even wrote down a few debutantes.”
“May God save us all from such a future,” Nicholas mumbled. Emma caught his wink in her direction.
The timing had been perfect, for just then several twittering girls walked by, giggling in unison. They donned frightfully boring white dresses and feminine fans. None of them looked appealing. In fact, Emma had the sudden urge to throw her punch on their dresses just so she could see them scatter to and fro like a group of wild hens. She stepped forward, eyes gleaming, but was caught by a strong hand.
“Leave them be, Emma.” Nicholas’s mouth twitched into a smile.
“But how did you even—”