Book 2 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
Polite Society doesn’t take Lady Anne Adamson seriously. However, Anne isn’t just another pretty young miss. When she discovers her father betrayed her mother’s love and her family descended into poverty, Anne comes up with a plan to marry a respectable, powerful, and honorable gentleman— a man nothing like her philandering father.Armed with the heart of a duke pendant, fabled to land the wearer a duke’s heart, she decides to enlist the aid of the notorious Harry, 6th Earl of Stanhope. A scoundrel with a scandalous past, he is the last gentleman she’d ever wed…however, his reputation marks him the perfect man to school her in the art of seduction so she might ensnare the illustrious Duke of Crawford.Harry, the Earl of Stanhope is a jaded, cynical rogue who lives for his own pleasures. Having been thrown over by the only woman he ever loved so she could wed a duke, he’s not at all surprised when Lady Anne approaches him with her scheme to capture another duke’s affection. He’s come to appreciate that all women are in fact greedy, title-grasping, self-indulgent creatures. And with Anne’s history of grating on his every last nerve, she is the last woman he’d ever agree to school in the art of seduction. Only his friendship with the lady’s sister compels him to help.
What begins as a pretend courtship, born of lessons on seduction, becomes something more, leaving Anne to decide if she can give her heart to a reckless rogue, and Harry must decide if he’s willing to again trust in a lady’s love.
In a Society that placed such value upon honor, respectability and virtue, Lady Anne Arlette Adamson came to a very interesting revelation. A young lady would discard her self-worth and sense of decency…all for a glass of champagne.
Or more precisely, two glasses of champagne.
The full moon shone through the Marquess of Essex’s conservatory windows and splashed light on the two sparkling crystal flutes. Drawn to them, Anne wet her lips and did a quick survey of her host’s famed gardens, searching for any interlopers. Lured by the forbidden liquor, she wandered over to the table strewn with vibrant pink peonies and blush roses and picked up a flute. She angled her head. Eying the pale, bubbling liquid contained within, a sudden desire filled her, to taste the fine French brew.
Of course, young, unwed ladies did not drink champagne. At least that was what Mother was forever saying. A mischievous smile tugged at the corners of her lips. Then, she’d never been lauded as the obedient, mild-mannered daughter. Anne raised the glass to her mouth…and froze. An honorable young lady however didn’t drink champagne belonging to two other people.
She sighed and set the glass down.
With a frown, she began to pace the stone floor. Where was he?
She’d heard rumors of his notorious assignations, knew he planned to meet…she wrinkled her nose, some widow or another, in the marquess’ conservatory.
Perhaps the rumors were just that, mere rumors. Perhaps…
The click of the door opening sounded off the glass walls of her floral haven. Anne jumped. Her heart pounded hard and she raised a hand to her chest to still the sudden increased rhythm.
For the first time since she’d orchestrated this madcap scheme involving Harry Falston, the 6th Earl of Stanhope, she questioned the wisdom of such a plan. Enlisting the aid of one of Society’s most scandalous rogues would hardly be considered one of her better ideas. The ladies adored him, the gentlemen wanted to be him, the leading hostesses frowned at him from one side of their fans and tittered behind the other.
He also happened to be the gentleman who’d tried—and failed—to seduce Anne’s twin sister, Katherine.
For all Anne’s twenty-years, she’d forever been considered the more spirited, imprudent twin sister. Of course, being the more sensible of the twins, Katherine had not fallen prey to his devilish charms. However, in a wholly insensible thing to do, her sister had befriended him, a rogue of the worst sort who didn’t even have the decency to respect Katherine’s marriage…or any marriage, for that matter.
The door closed. With breath suspended, she slipped behind one of her host’s towering hibiscus trees.
Good, respectable young ladies, marriageable young ladies at that, should have a care to avoid Society’s most notorious rogue.
Her nose twitched and she widened her eyes in attempt to hold in a sneeze. Then, she’d not paid too close attention to the tons rigid expectations for a young lady.
The tread of a gentleman’s footsteps echoed off the glass windows. “Hullo, sweet.”
Oh, by Joan of Arc and all her army. Hullo, sweet? That was the kind of claptrap this rogue was known for? His husky baritone however, well, that was better suited for the Gothic novels she’d taken pleasure in reading before her mother had gone and stolen her spectacles. But, “hullo, sweet?” She shook her head. It would take a good deal more than an unclever endearment to earn her favor.
The bootsteps paused. She peeked out from behind the tree.
Her breath caught. The moon bathed the lean, towering gentleman in soft light. The earl’s gold locks, loose and unaffected, gave him the carefree look of one who flouted Society’s rules. But then, isn’t that what the Earl of Stanhope had earned a reputation for? Which made him perfect. Perfect for what she intended, anyway.
The sweet fragrance of the hibiscus tickled her nose yet again. She scrubbed a hand over her face hard and drove back a sneeze.
The earl cocked his head, as if he knew she stood there secretly studying him, quietly admiring him. It really was impossible not to. His black-tailed evening coat clung to sculpted arms. Anne continued to scrutinize him with objective eyes. Gentlemen really shouldn’t have sculpted, well-muscled arms. Not like this. Why, they were better suited to a pugilist than a nobleman.
A grin tugged the corner of his lips up in a hopelessly seductive smile. She fanned herself. Well goodness…mayhap it wasn’t the champagne flutes after all but the pirate’s grin that made foolish young ladies toss their good name away.
She stopped mid-fan. Not that she would be swayed by such a smile. No, the gentleman she would wed was serious and respectable and obscenely wealthy and unfailingly polite and just enough handsome. Not too handsome. Not unhandsome. Just handsome enough.
The earl shrugged out of his coat. He flipped it over his shoulder in one smooth, graceful motion. The effortless gesture jerked her from her musings.
Anne swallowed hard. Yes, he was entirely more handsome than any one man had a right to be. She supposed she really should announce herself. Especially considering his…er…arrangements for the evening.
“You do know, sweet, if you’re content to stand and watch me remove my garments, I’d be glad to provide you such a show. I would, however, vastly prefer you allow me to slip the gown from your frame and…”
She pressed herself tight against the tree. Her arm knocked the branch of the hibiscus and wafted the cloying, floral scent about the air. “Achoo!” Blast and bloody blast.
The earl’s grin widened as he yanked a stark white kerchief from his jacket and wandered closer. He extended the cloth. “Here, sweet—”
Anne stepped out from behind the tree. The earl froze, the stark white linen dangled between them. His hazel eyes widened. She plucked the kerchief from his fingers and blew her nose noisily. “Thank you,” she said around the fabric.
“Bloody hell, Lady Anne,” he hissed. “What in hell are you doing here?” He shrugged into his jacket with the speed surely borne of a man who’d clearly had to make too many hasty flights from disapproving husbands.
She frowned. “You really needn’t sound so…so…” Disappointed. “Angry, my lord.”
He took her gently by the forearm. “What are you thinking?”
She tugged her arm free. “I require a favor—”
“No.” He proceeded to pull her toward the front of the conservatory.
She frowned up at him. “You didn’t allow me to ask—”
“No.” He shook his head. “Mad,” he muttered to himself. “You’re completely and utterly mad. And maddening.”
“I am not mad,” she bit out. She really wished she was as clever as her eldest sister, Aldora. Aldora would have a far more clever rebuttal than ‘I am not mad’ for the scoundrel.
His mouth tightened. And she swore he muttered something along the lines of her being the less intelligent of her sisters.
Anne dug her heels in until he either had to drag her or stop. She glowered up at him, this rogue who’d tried to earn a spot in Katherine’s bed. Alas, Katherine loved her husband, the Duke of Bainbridge, with such desperation the earl hadn’t had a hope or prayer.
He folded his arms across his chest. “What do you want then, hellion?”
She gritted her teeth, detesting his familiarity that painted her as the bothersome sister. Still, she required something of him and as Mother used to say, one can catch more bees with honey than…she wrinkled her nose. That didn’t quite make sense. Why would anyone want to catch a bee? Unless—.
The earl took her, this time by the wrist, and began tugging her to the door.
“I need help,” she said and pulled back.
To no avail. He held firm. The man was as powerful as an ox. “No.”
Most gentlemen would have inquired if for no other reason than it was the polite, gentlemanly thing to do.
Anne at last managed to wrest free of his grip. “Please, hear me out, my lord.”
He took a step toward her. “By God, I’ll carry you from the room this time.” The determined glint in his eyes leant credence to his threat.
She danced backward. “Oh, I imagine that would be a good deal worse.” He narrowed his eyes. “Your carrying me,” she clarified. “Imagine the scandal if—”
Lord Stanhope cursed and advanced. “You risk ruin in being here, my lady,” he said, his voice a satiny whisper that sent warmth spiraling through her body.
She shook her head. People might believe her an empty-headed ninnyhammer, but she was not so foolish to be swayed by a crooked grin and a mellifluous whisper. She took another step away from him. Her back thumped against their host’s table. It rattled and one of the champagne flutes tipped over. She gasped as the pale liquid spilled across the wood table and threatened her skirts.
Lord Stanhope yanked her away from the dripping champagne and tugged her close. “Tsk, tsk, my lady.” He lowered his lips to her ear. “However would you explain returning to the ballroom with your skirts drenched in champagne?”
Anne glanced up. And wished she hadn’t. Really wished she hadn’t.
The earl’s impossibly long, thick golden lashes were enough to tempt a saint, and after more than twenty years of troublesome scrapes, Anne had earned a reputation amidst her family as anything but a saint.
A lock toppled free from the collection of ringlets artfully arranged by her maid. She brushed the strand back. It fell promptly back over her brow.
The earl collected that single curl between his fingers and studied the strand bemusedly. “A ringlet,” he murmured. His lips twitched as though he found something of the utmost hilarity in her gold ringlet, immediately snapping her from whatever momentary spell he’d cast.
She swatted at his fingers. “What is wrong with my ringlets?” She knew there was a more pressing matter to attend. But really, what was wrong with her ringlets?
He tweaked her nose. “There is everything wrong with them.”
Well! Anne gave a flounce of those ringlets he seemed so condescending of. “I’ve not come to speak to you about my hair.”
The earl narrowed his gaze as he seemed to remember that: one, they were shut away in their host’s conservatory one step from ruin and two, that she was the sister of the twin he’d once tried to seduce. And more specifically, the sister of the twin who’d looked down a pointed nose at him whenever he was near.
With trembling fingers, she righted the upended flute. “I require but a moment of your time.”
“You’ve already had at least five moments.”
Distractedly, she picked up the crystal flute still filled to the brim and eyed the nearly clear contents of the glass. It really did look quite delicious. “Do you mean five minutes?” Because there really wasn’t such a thing as five moments. Or was there? She raised the glass to her lips.
With a growl, he snatched it from her fingers with such ferocity the exquisite liquor splashed her lips.
“What are you doing, Lady Adamson?” he asked, his voice garbled.
She sighed. She really should have tried the bubbly drink before he’d arrived and gone all serious, disapproving-lord on her. “If you must know, I’d intended to sample—”
“You are not sampling anything, my lady.” He set the flute down so hard liquid droplets sprayed the table.
Yes, it seemed the roguish earl had gone all stodgy. She released a pent up sigh of regret. What a waste of perfectly forbidden champagne.
Footsteps sounded outside the door and her head snapped up as suddenly, the ramifications of being discovered here with the earl slammed into her. She felt the color drain from her cheeks and frantically searched around.
The earl cursed and taking her by the hand, tugged her to the back of the conservatory. His hasty, yet sure movements bore evidence of a man who’d made many a number of quick escapes. He opened the door and shoved her outside into the marquess’ walled garden.
“You really needn’t—”
“Hush,” he whispered and propelled her further into the gardens. From behind the marquess’ prize-winning gardens, the moon’s glow shone through the clear crystal panes and briefly cast the earl’s partner in a soft light. The tall, voluptuous lady walked about the conservatory.
“The Viscountess of Kendricks?” Shock underscored her question. “But she is recently widowed.” Granted she’d come out of mourning, but that was neither here nor there. Oh, he had no shame.
Lord Stanhope clamped his hand over her mouth. He glowered her into silence and pulled her back, before the viscountess caught sight of them.
Oh, the highhandedness! She’d never been handled thusly in her entire life. She glared up at him.
At long last he drew his fingers back. She continued to study the lush creature, a recent widow with a hopelessly curvaceous figure.
Anne frowned. Mother said gentlemen didn’t desire ladies with well-rounded figures but Anne quite disagreed. All the well-rounded ladies seemed to, for some unknown reason, earn the favor of all manner of gentlemen. The respectable ones. The less respectable ones. Even the old ones with monocles.
A sly smile played about the viscountess’ lips as she paused beside the table. Even with the space between them, Anne detected the viscountess’ lazy yet graceful movements as she picked up the still full glass and took a slow taste of the bubbling champagne.
Envy tugged at Anne. He really should have allowed her just a small sip. Surely there was no harm in a mere taste of the French liquor. And now this blousy creature with her… She wrinkled her brow. “Has she dampened her gown?”
The widow froze mid-sip and glanced around.
Lord Stanhope cursed softly, clapped his hand across Anne’s mouth yet again and whispered harshly against her ear. “Hush, you silly brat, or you’ll see the both of us ruined.”
Anne pointed her gaze to the moon above. As if a rogue, especially this particular rogue, could be ruined. She, on the other hand… She swallowed hard. She, on the other hand, danced with disaster.
With good reason, of course. But still, disaster nonetheless.
“Hullo, my lord,” the woman called into the quiet. A smile played on her too-full lips. “Are you teasing me, Lord Stanhope? I’m eager to see you. Will you not come and see how eager I am?”
Anne glanced up the more than a foot distance between her and the earl to gauge the gentleman’s, er…eagerness. He appeared wholly unmoved by the woman’s none-too-subtle attempt at seduction. His narrow-eyed gaze remained fixed on Anne. Annoyance glinted within the hazel-green irises of his eyes.
“Lord Stanhope?” the woman called again.
Oh, really. She tapped a foot and wished the bothersome baggage would be on her way already. As charming as the Earl of Stanhope seemed to most ladies, she was quite confident that no gentleman could manage to lure her away from polite Society—for any reason.
Lord Stanhope reached down between them and through the ivory fabric of her satin skirts, wrapped his hard hand about the upper portion of her leg, effectively stilling her moments.
Anne’s breath froze and she looked at him.
Be still, he mouthed.
Her throat convulsed. Odd, they were just fingers on just a hand, so very uninteresting, something possessed by everyone. And yet, her skin thrummed with awareness of his touch. She swallowed again. There was nothing uninteresting about his fingers upon her person.
“Stop tapping your foot,” he whispered against her temple. His words had the same affect of a bucket of water being tossed over her foolish head.
“She’s not going to hear my foot,” she shot back. “It is more likely she’ll hear your constant haranguing.”
He closed his eyes and his lips moved as if he were uttering a silent prayer. Which was peculiar, because she’d not ever taken him as the religious sort.
“Lord Stanhope?” the woman called again, impatience coating her words.
Anne sighed. She’d had this all planned out. She’d speak to the earl. Enlist his help and be gone before his trysting partner had arrived. That had been the plan. Then again, a lifetime of scrapes that had gone awry should have prepared her for how this evening would likely turn out. “Oh, for goodness sake, will she not go already?” she muttered. “Whyever is she so insistent on seeing y—”
The earl cursed under his breath. “For the love of all that is holy.” And then, he kissed her. Hard.
Anne stiffened and leaned back a moment, eyes opened, studying his impossibly long golden lashes. She trembled under the heated intensity of his kiss, a kiss that drove back all logic. He slanted his lips over hers again and again and she moaned, but he only swallowed the desperate sound. He slipped his tongue between her lips and boldly explored the contours of her mouth.
The tension she carried inside slid down her body and seeped from the soles of her passion-weakened feet as she went limp. He caught her to him and cupped her buttocks in his hands, anchoring her body to his.
Then he stopped.
She blinked up, dazed, waiting for the world to right itself.
She tugged her hand free and fanned herself.
So this is what young ladies threw away their reputations for. It would appear it had nothing at all to do with the wicked smiles. Or even the forbidden champagne. She’d venture the champagne was merely a little extra sin for a lady’s troubles.
Anne stole a glance up at Lord Stanhope and her eyebrows knitted into a single line. The bounder had his gaze trained on the conservatory windows, looking…looking…wholly unaffected. Impossibly composed. And horribly disinterested. He released her so quickly, she stumbled backward, catching herself before she made a cake of herself and fell at his feet.
She frowned as he turned abruptly and walked away. “That really wasn’t well-done of you, my lord.”
He swung back around and took a step toward her. “Do you know what was not well-done, my lady?”
“Uh, well…” She retreated and then remembered herself, angling her chin up. After all, there could very well be any other number of offenses she might hold him responsible for. She ticked off on her fingers. “There was the hand over my mouth.” She shook her head. “Not at all well-done of you. Then there was the kiss.” Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. “Certainly not well-done of you.” Definitely pleasurable, however. “Or you setting me aside so—”
By the saints, he mouthed, appearing more and more religious. “I referred to your actions, my lady. It wasn’t well-done of you to drive away my company for the evening, Lady Adamson.”
Humph. “Oh.” She wrinkled her nose. That wasn’t at all gallant.
His golden lashes swooped downward as he peered at her through a narrow-eyed gaze. “Now, say whatever it is you’ve come to say so I might be rid of you.” He folded his arms across his chest.
Why, with his clear desire to be free of her, she may as well have been the gorgon Medusa with her head of serpents. She bristled, all foolish desire replaced by annoyance. How dare he? How dare he kiss her and remain wholly unaffected by that soul-searing moment? She shook her head once. No, that was not quite right.
“Lady Anne,” he said again, this time with even more annoyance.
How dare he kiss her, period. No further outrage needed. How dare he kiss her? Rather, that is what she’d meant. “I need help.”
He scoffed. “Yes. So you’ve said. Four times now.”
“Oh.” Had she? She really didn’t remember…
He gave her a pointed look and she jumped. “As I was saying, before I was interrupted.” She gave him a pointed frown. “I require a bit of help.”
“Five times,” he muttered under his breath. He really was quite infuriating.
He drummed his fingertips upon his coat sleeves. “If you say you’re in need of help, I’m leaving without a backward glance, Lady Anne,” he said drolly. He rocked on his heels and she suspected his words were no mere idle threat.
Anne smoothed her palms over her skirt and drew in a steadying breath. With the time and care she’d put into her plan, she had imagined this conversation would go a good deal more smoothly than this botched attempt on her part.
The earl cursed and spun on his heel.
He continued walking toward the glass door back into the marquess’ conservatory.
Her foot snagged a particularly nasty root in the ground and she cursed. She pitched forward. Lord Stanhope swung back around and closed the distance between them in three long strides, catching her before she hit the ground. The breath left her on a swift exhale. “Oh.” The touch of his hand burned through the modest fabric of her satin gown. “Thank you,” she said breathlessly.
He grunted and set her on her feet. Humph. Who knew the Earl of Stanhope did something as barbaric as grunt? He resumed his hasty exit, wholly unaffected. Well!
“Stop,” she cried softly into the quiet. Her voice echoed off the brick walls.
His broad shoulders tightened under the folds of his black evening coat. He changed direction yet again and advanced on her. Fire snapped in his eyes.
Anne stumbled backward. A friend of Katherine, Anne knew little of the Earl of Stanhope beyond the roguish reputation he’d earned amongst the ton. She couldn’t be altogether certain he’d not hurt her. She swallowed hard and continued to retreat. And her slipper caught that blasted root again.
This time she landed with a solid thump on her buttocks. “Ouch.” She touched a hand to her bruised derriere and then remembered herself.
He froze above her with a glower on the chiseled planes of his face. “Are you trying to compromise your reputation, my lady?”
“No.” Not per se.
He stretched out a hand. “Because I’ll not be caught in a compromising position and forced into a wedded state with one such as you.”
She ignored his offering and shoved herself to her feet. “With one such as me?”
“An impertinent, empty-headed young lady without a serious thought in—”
She jabbed a finger into his chest. He winced and she delighted in that slight twinge of discomfort from him. The cad. “I’ve had quite enough of your insults. I don’t like you any more than you like me, my lord.” She’d long tired of Society, her family, everyone’s rather low opinion of her. But she required his assistance and when one required help, it behooved them to set aside their pride.
“You have two minutes, my lady,” he bit out.
Her mind raced. How did a lady ask such a question as the one she’d put to him. There was no polite way to make a request as the one she intended to make—
“Your first minute is up, my lady,” he said, his voice heavy with annoyance.
Anne took a steadying breath and opted for direct honesty. “I’d like you to teach me how to seduce a man.”