Miss Melody Thornton stood at the edge of the dancefloor, as she always did during balls. She watched, longingly, as couple after couple danced past her, wondering what it might be like to be one of those ladies who was asked regularly to the dancefloor. As the daughter born of scandal, it very rarely occurred. And though sometimes that was a relief, especially when some of the gentlemen in attendance were less desirable, it also left her quite miserable at times.
Her only solace was standing beside her best friend, Miss Petunia Blackford. Brown-haired, blue-eyed, pretty and petite, Miss Blackford, as the daughter of Viscount Blackford, was well-liked and often sought out at such events. Though Melody thought she would be even more sought after if she did not insist upon associating herself publicly with her.
“I cannot believe I allowed you to talk me into coming tonight,“ Melody sighed deeply, feeling the eyes of several other guests upon her. Their expressions were only mildly unpleasant towards her, but it was enough to tell her they thought that she had no right to be amongst them.
It had always been that way. She had been dealing with the scorn of the ton since the moment of her birth, through no fault of her own, but sometimes it affected her more than others. That particular night was one of those times. She hadn’t really been feeling up to attending anyway, but standing there with so many scowls and whispered comments thrown in her direction, she constantly felt the urge to run.
“Oh, Melody, we have barely been here for half an hour,” Petunia protested. Though she shook her head, her updo was pinned to perfection and didn’t move an inch on her head. Though the diamond tiara upon her head looked heavy, she seemed to be having no trouble with it either. Petunia made everything look flawless and effortless and next to her, Melody felt as though she stuck out like a sore thumb. Yet, she would not change her best friend for the world. She just wished that they could keep their company together private so not to leave a smudge upon her friend’s reputation, as there was already one upon her own.
“Yes, and that half an hour has been enough for everyone in the room to begin their gossip about my being here,” Melody said, discreetly tilting her head towards several older ladies across the dancefloor who were glancing at her, their heads close together as they whispered to each other.
“Oh, Melody, stop being so self-centred,” Petunia said mockingly and with great affection. “Not everything is about you, you know.”
Though said in jest, her words made Melody’s gut churn at the truth behind them. Deep down they both knew Melody was right. She could see it in the way that Petunia kept shooting warning glares at those close by. But Melody’s friend’s silent warnings could only go so far. As the daughter of a viscount, she had some influence but not enough. And Melody hated her to use it either way. Though she could never give up the one true friend she had, she often concerned herself with the problems it might cause for Petunia if they were seen to be too close. Would her friend struggle to find herself a husband if men believed her to be too close to the product of a scandal?
Though she often thought herself silly for thinking too critically on the matter, there were times, especially at such events, when those thoughts crossed her mind even more than usual.
After all, Melody and Petunia had been at the ball for half an hour and though Melody had not expected anyone to come and ask her to dance, she would have thought that at least one gentleman would have asked Petunia by now.
“Perhaps I ought to go and get us a drink?” Melody suggested, glancing in the direction of the refreshments table. Though she felt sick at the thought of travelling through the crowd alone, especially to the table where a great portion of guests liked to congregate, she was certain she would be doing her friend a great favour.
“I can come with you,” Petunia insisted, and Melody was about to protest, already half-turning to leave when suddenly she felt herself come up against something hard.
Colliding with the woman who had been walking in the opposite direction, Melody stumbled backwards, immediately and automatically apologising, “Oh, my lady, please forgive me for…”
She cut herself off the moment she looked up and saw the woman staring back at her. Anger and aggression boiled just beneath the surface of her green eyes and Melody got the distinct impression that their colliding was far less of an accident than she at first believed.
“Watch where you are going, servant,” Lady Florence Thornton snarled at her.
Melody’s stomach clenched at the words. She already knew what was coming. She had heard it all before. “Oh! Miss Thornton, cousin, forgive me. I mistook you for a lady’s maid!”
The sarcasm and mockery in her cousin’s tone was enough to make Melody grit her teeth.
“You really ought to watch where you are going.” The woman who was only eighteen months or so older than her, growled the words out, almost reminding Melody of a wild animal. Yet, it was Melody who was feeling cornered. With the other guests all around them, she knew all too well who would be blamed for any incident that involved herself. No matter what happened, it would always be her.
“You know, Lady Florence, maybe if you paid more attention to your own surroundings, you might not have mistaken Melody for a servant,” Petunia put in, and though her friend had always stuck up for her when it counted, Melody couldn’t help but feel awkward about it. “You also might not have stumbled into her at all.”
The disgruntled expression on her cousin’s face told Melody that Florence was not pleased at all for Petunia’s interjection.
“I am certain my cousin did not mean anything by it,” Melody said through gritted teeth; an attempt to stop things from escalating. There was enough attention being drawn their way as it was, the very last thing she wanted was for everyone in the room to notice that a confrontation was taking place.
Why must she always do this? Melody asked herself, unable to understand why her cousin had to be so hateful towards her. Just because their fathers—brothers—did not get along, did not mean that they had to be at each other’s throats all the time. Yet it was clear that Florence preferred it that way.
“You know, Petunia, people are beginning to talk,” Lady Florence said in a low tone, leaning forward as though she meant to give them both a hint at a secret. She glanced from Petunia to Melody and back again before she added, “The respectable members of the ton are worried that if you spend too much more time in close proximity with Miss Thornton, you might find yourself scandalised also.”
Melody’s stomach clenched at her words and her throat constricted when she saw the look upon her friend’s face. It was clear from that instant that Petunia had already come up with a very witty response, one that she was no doubt going to be horrendously proud of.
And Melody barely had a chance to brace herself for whatever fallout there would be when Petunia replied with a hissing tone, “I would be more concerned with spending too much time in close proximity with someone as toxic as you, Lady Florence.”
At the words, Lady Florence looked horrified. Her mouth formed a huge ‘O’ for several seconds before she quickly grabbed her feather fan and popped it open, lifting it to hide her face from view. Her eyes darted about as though she wanted to be sure there had been nobody around close enough for them to hear Petunia’s words.
“Lady Florence, I would advise you leave us be before you make a fool of yourself,” Petunia continued, glowering at Melody’s cousin as though she would have liked to hit her physically as hard as her words already had.
Lady Florence again looked between them and hissed, “The two of you were made for each other,” before she turned and left in a huff.
Melody had to bite back a small hint of laughter. Though she was horrified at how her friend had stood up for her yet again, she couldn’t help but find humour in the way her cousin had stormed off.
“You know, you really ought not to aggravate her like that,” Melody said with a deep sigh, even as Petunia slipped her arm into the crook of hers, beginning to guide her in the direction of the refreshments table. “She could make life extremely difficult for the both of us if she had a mind to.”
Petunia looked at Melody and rolled her eyes. Shaking her head, she pointed out, “If she were to make life difficult for us, she would have to be entirely spotless herself, and Lady Florence is far from innocent.”
“I suppose,” Melody thought aloud with a deep sigh, hoping that her friend was right. It would be all too easy for her cousin to make up some rumour or other about her, something that would bring her reputation even lower than before, if such a thing were even possible.
At that point she believed her reputation was entirely upon the ground. Not that she had ever really had much of a reputation anyway. Save for being a scandal-born daughter, nobody really knew anything about her, not that they cared to know. In fact, sometimes, she believed she barely knew herself.
Her encounter with her cousin had told her one thing though. “Perhaps I should just go home,” she thought aloud, looking to her friend for confirmation of the fact.
Petunia had just opened her mouth, looking as though she was going to offer some grand protest, when there was the sound of someone clearing their throat behind them.
Please, don’t be Florence again, Melody thought with gritted teeth, her entire body tensing painfully even as she turned with Petunia.
As soon as she did, she felt entirely stupid. How could she have mistaken such a masculine throat clearing for her cousin? Lady Florence was many things, but masculine was not one of them.
And the man standing before her was far from feminine. In fact, he was ruggedly handsome with an afternoon shadow upon his strong jaw, and his flawlessly tanned skin suggested that he was a lover of the outdoors, something her cousin absolutely loathed. One could tell it simply by her milky complexion, entirely pure when compared to Melody’s own freckled pale skin.
“Forgive the interruption, ladies,” the man said with a breathtaking smile, as he ran his fingers through his glossy brown hair and looked between the two of them. With a dip of his head, he introduced himself, “James Hastings, Duke of Haston.”
Melody gulped past the sudden lump in her throat. She did not need to be told who he was. She knew very well, just as everyone else in the room knew exactly who he was. It was not only his ruggedly handsome good looks that had gotten him his reputation but also his family name and his business savvy. Even more so than that, he had gained a reputation for being the kind of man to do exactly as he pleased. That was, in the last few years or so, since he had become Duke after his father.
And it was clear from the way that several other guests close by were watching them now, that people were still interested and talking of the man. It was not surprising when the duke was perhaps one of the most eligible bachelors in London. And here he was, standing before them.
“You are Miss Petunia Blackford, are you not?”
The duke’s question told Melody all that she needed to know and instinctively, she began to pull her arm free of her friend’s grip, knowing she would soon be required to release her anyway.
“I am, Your Grace,” Petunia responded with a dip of her head. “And this is my friend, Miss Melody Thornton.”
“I am aware,” the duke responded and even the tone of his voice made Melody’s breath catch in her throat again. Utterly breathless, she felt caught in a trap as the duke turned his gaze once more upon her. The way their gazes met made warmth spread throughout Melody’s body in such a way that every inch of her skin tingled.
Then, just as suddenly, his gaze broke from hers again and he turned his full attention back to Petunia. “Miss Petunia, I wondered if perhaps you might afford me the honour of a dance…with your friend.”
The duke spoke loudly and clearly almost as though he wished for the entire room to hear him and yet Melody could not quite comprehend what he had just said. Even when his gaze fell upon her again, his face broadening into a devilishly handsome smile, she couldn’t get her head around the words.
The gasps of shock that came from all around them told Melody that at least one woman close by had heard. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the news spreading like wildfire; heads whipped around to face them, and the glaring expressions of several young ladies were enough to make her feel sick to her stomach.
I…I think I need to clean my ears out, Melody thought, mentally shaking herself in an attempt to get her brain to work again. She had to have misheard him. He had asked for Petunia’s hand to dance. That had to be it. Men always asked for Petunia to dance with them. After all, she was petite and pretty and she was the daughter of a well-respected and wealthy viscount.
Melody on the other hand was none of those things. To the majority of the ton she was simply the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman people tolerated in their presence simply because that man’s family line had been going for generations, the daughter of a noble second son who had made a heinous choice that had left him disowned from said family and who had been forced to make his living from the ground up.
“Oh, yes, Your Grace,” Petunia said, gripping hold of Melody’s hand and practically shoving it towards the duke. “I am sure that Miss Thornton would be honoured to dance with you.”
Melody shot her friend a horrified glance as the realisation of what was happening suddenly hit her. It had been so long since she had last danced in public that she wasn’t at all certain she would remember how to do it. Would she remember all the steps? Would she stand on the duke’s toes? Would some other couple come barging into them just to cause trouble for her?
There were so many different things that could go wrong, one of them being the fact that everyone was already staring at them as though they were horrified to see the duke asking for her hand to dance.
I should decline, Melody thought though she knew that was not an option. If she was seen to be disrespectful towards a nobleman, a duke of all things, she would only be adding to her own already tarnished reputation. Not to mention the fact that people would question what she could possibly know about the duke that might leave her unwilling to dance with him. So far, he had a reputation for being a rogue and a rake and several other things besides and yet none of that was considered disgusting enough for him to be worthy of rejection, not when he was so wealthy and so well-liked by his peers.
“Miss Thornton?” The duke said with a raised eyebrow, and it was only the look of concern on his handsome face that caused her to realise she had been staring at him, expressionless with shock, for several moments.
He held his hand out close to where Petunia was holding Melody’s out for him to take. Though he did not take her hand from Petunia’s she could already feel the heat of his hand close to theirs and Melody’s entire body quivered all over again.
“Miss Thornton, would you do me the honour of the next dance?” The duke asked when Melody finally blinked and cleared her throat enough to begin recovering from her shock.
“I…I…” Melody stammered, unsure of what to say. It had been so long since she had last accepted a dance, since she had even last been asked to dance, that she had no way of knowing what was acceptable to say and what was not.
Closing her eyes for just a second, she imagined what Petunia might say. Then, holding her breath, she opened her eyes again and barely dared to say, “I would be pleased to dance with you, Your Grace.”
Petunia barely squeezed her fingers before releasing her hand. Out of the corner of her eye, Melody saw the anticipation and excitement upon her friend’s face but in that moment, all Melody could feel was terror.
Her throat constricted, she barely dared to slip her gloved hand into the duke’s.
The murmurs around them and the eyes upon them only grew as the duke turned and started to lead Melody out onto the dancefloor.
“Have fun,” Petunia hissed under her breath to her as she went.
Melody threw a glance over her shoulder at her friend, practically begging her with her eyes to come up with some way out of this entire thing. Again, she thought that she never should have allowed Petunia to talk her into going to the ball in the first place. If she had just stayed home, she would not have the eyes of an entire ballroom upon her right then, as one of the most eligible bachelors in the country caused the entire ton to set their attention upon her.
Even as they reached a space on the dancefloor and the duke turned to pull her into his arms, Melody couldn’t help but think that this had to be his roundabout way of getting Petunia’s attention. She braced herself, ready for the immediate barrage of questions she was about to receive about her friend once the music began.
But instead, the moment that the music started, the duke began to guide her silently about the dancefloor. Though it was slightly confusing, Melody took the silence and the time to ensure that she was dancing properly.
Still, she could feel the eyes of the room upon them and with every glance away from the duke, she could see that there were several expressions of confusion besides her own. One such expression, tinged with hatred, was that of her cousin. Lady Florence was standing off to one side of the dancefloor, looking absolutely horrified at the fact that Melody was on the floor. No doubt she believed that she ought to have been the one in the duke’s arms, not Melody.
And for once, Melody would have had to agree with her cousin. After all, Lady Florence was the daughter of an earl, a well-respected young woman with a great family lineage, wealth, and beauty. By rights of birth and nobility, Lady Florence was the one thought to ‘deserve’ the attentions of a duke.
And it was clear from the looks of many around them, that the rest of the ton would have agreed with her also.
Yet, the duke seemed entirely unphased by their stares, or the fact that they were clearly gossiping about the newest couple upon the dancefloor.
The longer that they danced, the harder Melody found it to concentrate on what was going on around them. The feel of the duke’s hand upon the small of her back and the way he squeezed her fingers in his other hand made it almost impossible to think of anything else.
With every movement of his feet and the way he glided them around the dancefloor, Melody started to feel as though they were not even touching the ground. For once, she felt featherlight and the moment that she dared to meet the duke’s gaze, everything around them seemed to melt away.
Again, her breath caught in her throat and suddenly she felt as though time itself had halted.
She was shocked all over again when the duke leaned forwards and whispered into her ear, “There is no need to look quite so surprised, Miss Thornton.”
“Excuse me?” Melody exclaimed and when he pulled back to look her in the eye once more, she felt her entire body tingling with heat. His closeness was enough to make her blush as she felt his solid, muscular body pressed against her own.
Embarrassingly, she felt her nipples hardening against the material of her stay and there was a heat building between her thighs, the likes of which she had never experienced before.
The scent of the duke was heavy all around her, musky and masculine and all-consuming. Every rational thought in Melody told her that she ought to get away from him, that she could not afford to allow herself to be so close to such a man, when her reputation was already on the ground, and yet she knew that if she so much as put a foot out of step while dancing with him, everyone around them would read far too much into it.
If she were to leave the duke half-way through a dance, she would be forever known as the woman who had spurned the most eligible man in London. And that was the last thing her reputation needed right now, or ever.
“Forgive me, Your Grace, but I cannot help but wonder why you invited me to dance,” Melody admitted, knowing that talking would be far better than imagining what might be going through his mind; all the reasons why he had asked her onto the dancefloor. She could well drive herself insane with wondering. And in the end, she would always come back to the same conclusion; that it really had nothing to do with her but with Petunia or some other ulterior motive that had nothing to do with his wanting to get to know her personally.
“Perhaps, Miss Thornton, I simply sought to cause a little trouble this evening,” the duke announced, his smile growing even more devilish. Melody’s stomach twisted, a fluttering sensation immediately attacking her insides as though she was filling with butterflies.
This is not happening, Melody thought. A part of her wondered whether she ought to have been angry with him for suggesting that he would drag her into such a thing. Yet she couldn’t help but feel a fresh wave of desire when his hand upon her back pulled her ever closer.
He held her so close now that there was no space between their bodies and she could only begin to imagine how they must look to everyone else around them as he leaned in and whispered into her ear again, “You are far too beautiful to be left standing at the edge of the room, Miss Thornton.”
At his words, the fluttering in her stomach suddenly attacked her heart and stole her breath. For a second, her lungs burned for air and her throat constricted so painfully that she almost gasped aloud.
Then she reminded herself, he is only trying to woo me to get close to Petunia.
She had met the likes of him before. Men who liked to play games to get what they wanted. And never in her life had she been what they coveted. Instead, she had always been a pawn in everybody else’s game, and never the prize. It was a fact that she had grown steadily used to over the years, and yet that still did not lessen the pain inside of her.
“Your Grace, are you not fearful of inciting a scandal?” Melody blurted and the moment that the words left her lips heat burned in her cheeks.
The duke pulled back just enough to meet her gaze once more and Melody found she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze. In the depths of his brown eyes, she saw amusement. It flickered in the golden and amber flecks in his irises and Melody couldn’t help but think that looking too deeply into his gaze was dangerous. She felt trapped, caught in his eyes and in the sensations that his closeness caused within her own body.
Men had tried to get close to her in the past, just to get to her friend, but none of those times had felt anything like this. And when he leaned into her again, she felt his breath caressing the side of her neck. He drew closer and closer still until she feared that he would do something they would both regret.
Yet, desire filled her from head to toe, so much so that she felt as though she was on fire. Suddenly, the only thing that would ease her feverish flesh was the touch of his lips upon her.
In the instant that she blinked her eyes closed, she felt his mouth upon her throat. Desire and pleasure made her heady and she spun and spun around the dancefloor, entirely forgetting everything save for his touch.
Then, just as suddenly, her eyes flew open once more and the sudden realisation that the music had ended caused her to realise that she had imagined the kiss entirely.
She had to have, because she couldn’t imagine that anyone in the room would be able to keep quiet if they had witnessed such a thing and every single pair of eyes seemed to be on them.
“Thank you, Miss Thornton, for a wonderful dance,” the duke said warmly as he released her from his arms. Disappointment threatened to overwhelm Melody for a moment, but it was replaced just as quickly by a rush of surprise when he reached out and took hold of her hand again.
This time, instead of pulling her into his arms to dance again, he lifted her knuckles to his lips and kissed them through the silk of her glove. As he did so, he looked up through the thickness of his eyelashes and met her gaze once more.
Though she knew that she ought to have looked away, she found herself caught in his stunning gaze once more.
What is wrong with me? She asked herself, unable to believe that not only had she allowed herself to be wooed by him, but she had also imagined something entirely inappropriate—with a man she barely knew—while surrounded by people who loathed her very existence.
Deciding that it was best to put it down to the stress of the evening, Melody forced a smile and said, “No, Your Grace, thank you.”
The corners of his lips twitched upwards in a smile, and the duke again kissed her knuckles before finally releasing her hand. Then he stepped backwards, bowing low as though she was a highly respected noblewoman rather than a stain upon their otherwise perfect society.
“Until we meet again,” he said in a whispered tone that caused Melody’s flesh to come out in goosebumps. The mere thought of being in his presence again made her head spin and she wasn’t at all certain she could handle it. In fact, every single muscle in her body was screaming at her to turn and run from the room but she was frozen to the spot by his continued gaze upon her.
All she could manage to say was, “Your Grace,” before she dropped into an awkward curtsey.
When she straightened up again, she found that the duke had already departed, slipping away into the crowd which seemed to open then close, swallowing him up protectively.
The glares of several young women and their mothers remained locked upon Melody while others turned their attention after the duke, clearly looking for whomever he might seek to dance with next.
“Melody, whatever was that all about?”
The excited tone of her best friend caused Melody to jump. She had been so intent upon the duke’s departure that she hadn’t even noticed Petunia coming up behind her until she felt her hand wrap around her wrist.
Melody shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Petunia’s grip tightened on Melody’s wrist then and she yanked her around to face her. The excitement and shock that fizzed in Petunia’s eyes left Melody feeling more than a little uneasy.
“Is there something you need to tell me?” Petunia demanded and Melody gulped. It was clear that her friend had already gotten the wrong end of the stick and from the looks of it several people around them had also. She could only imagine the kind of gossip that would be spread by the time dawn came around.
“I am as confused as you are,” Melody assured her friend. “I have never found myself in the duke’s presence before.”
“Well, he certainly seemed to want to find himself in your presence!” Petunia exclaimed, and the excitement in her tone only grew as she added, “Perhaps he has taken a liking to you!”
Melody scoffed at that and shook her head. “I imagine that his interest was elsewhere.”
Petunia scowled back at her and cocked her head to one side. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Melody’s stomach groaned with anxiety then and she shook her head. Though it had happened several times before, Melody couldn’t bring herself to point the finger at her friend and accuse her of being the reason for the duke’s attentions. Nor could she allow herself to share in her friend’s excitement of the fact he had taken notice of her. There were too many possible reasons for his actions and not one of them was acceptable to Melody.
“Ignore me,” she insisted with a deep sigh. “I believe I am too tired to think straight. Perhaps I ought to leave after all.”
Petunia looked exceedingly disappointed by Melody’s words but for once she did not protest. With a glance around them, Petunia commented, “I think you might be right. It seems you have already caused quite the stir tonight.”
Melody gulped past the lump in her throat. Her friend was right. But the worst stir of all was the emotions that the duke had stirred up inside of her. And even as she urged her friend to escort her from the ballroom, she couldn’t help but wonder.
What is this sensation deep inside of me?
The ball had been far more entertaining than James Hastings had anticipated. In fact, it had even been a little rewarding, in an odd sort of way, though his cousin did not seem to share his opinion as they climbed into their carriage to head home.
The viscount glowered at him almost the moment that the footman clicked the carriage door closed behind them.
“Would you please explain to me what on earth you thought you were playing at tonight?” His cousin, Edward, Viscount Hastings, demanded. Though they were cousins, there was very little similar about them. Where James was dark haired, dark eyed and tanned, Edward was opposite. Blonde haired, blue eyed and fair skinned. Some might even describe him as quite feminine, especially when compared to his cousin. Where James struggled to keep the stubble from his face, Edward had no trouble at all.
As for their demeanours, where James was cool, calm, and collected, his cousin was entirely too tense all the time. Now, more so than ever.
“I am not sure I know what you mean,” James said, though he struggled to keep the amusement from his tone. For in truth, he knew exactly what Edward was talking about.
The carriage started on its journey then, and Edward was so intent upon glowering at James that he looked surprised by the sudden movement. It only added to James’ amusement when his cousin looked like he might be jostled right off his seat.
“You know exactly my meaning!” Edward insisted, gripping tightly to the edge of his seat and meeting James’ gaze once more. There was frustration in his blue eyes, and he shook his head. “Must you always be so willing to make trouble?”
“We were at a ball,” James said with a deep shrug of his shoulders. “I danced and made merry. I see no harm in that.”
At his words, his cousin cocked his brow. Shaking his head, he clucked his tongue against his teeth in chastisement. When he looked him dead in the eye again, James already sensed he knew exactly what was coming.
“Of all the ladies you had to choose to dance with,” Edward said, his voice filled with disgust, “why did you have to choose her?”
James knew well who his cousin was talking about, perhaps the most enchanting creature he had ever laid eyes upon, at least when it came to the fact she was like no other lady of the ton with her glossy red hair, her storm grey irises and her pale, freckled complexion. Add to that the fact that she was practically forbidden fruit and James wasn’t sure how any man could resist.
At least, any man like himself would not be able to resist, not when it came to causing a ruckus and what better thing to do than cause chaos when at an otherwise boring social engagement?
“A dance is not a marriage proposal,” James sighed and shook his head, adjusting his cravat. The damn thing had been annoying him all evening, always just a little too tight. He would have preferred not to wear one at all but that would likely cause even more talk, and heaven forbid anyone should judge him for his wardrobe choices. Not that he was one for caring what anyone thought of him. He did however like to cause a fuss, making chaos sometimes just to ruffle the feathers of the mamas of the ton, hopefully to keep some of them from his door. As an unmarried duke he was a prime target, best to make himself borderline unavailable so not to invite too much unwanted attention.
“A dance with a woman can mean many things in the eyes of our society,” Edward stated.
James rolled his eyes. “Since when are you such a wise old owl?” he mocked. He loathed it when his cousin tried to get all high and mighty upon him. Anyone would think that Edward was the duke and not the other way around. Though he supposed that someone had to care for the reputation of their family. When it truly mattered, James would step up. Until then, all he wanted was to continue to have fun. After all, his days were numbered when it came to such things. One might say his time had long since run out already. The hens were already chattering. Though they would never admit it to his face, he knew that half the ton were waited with bated breath for him to begin his search for a wife.
He had been duke for long enough now since his father’s passing. It was time he found a duchess. Or at least, that was what the braver members of the ton told him.
Seeming to ignore his comment, save for a scowl, Edward continued, “What is worse is you not only danced with her, but you also chose not to dance with anyone else all evening!”
James bit the inside of his lip perhaps a little harder than he ought to have, and he had to purse them in order to stop himself from laughing again. If his cousin had noticed his actions, then others must have as well.
“I have my reasons,” James said calmly, and attempting to look nonchalant, he raised his hand to inspect his fingernails, not that he could see all that much in the dark of the carriage. Only the moonlight that filtered through the windows lit up his cousin’s disgruntled expression when he glanced at him again.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you are trying to do!” Edward snapped at him. When he shook his head, his golden hair that had turned silver in the moonlight started to become unstuck from where he had combed it back.
“What exactly am I trying to do?” James asked, feigning innocence, though his expression only appeared to anger his cousin further.
“If you think associating yourself with that woman will put a cog in my mother’s plans then you have greatly underestimated her,” Edward assured him, and James scoffed at the words. He had rarely underestimated anyone in his life and in fact he knew his aunt well enough to know that she was a formidable woman, especially when it came to matchmaking. Over the years she had gotten a list of successful matches longer than her arm. And yet James had no desire to find himself upon that list.
“If dancing with one woman could put a cog in your mother’s plans I would dance with her a thousand times more,” James told his cousin and as he did so, he couldn’t help but think of the dance he had shared with Miss Melody Thornton.
Though it had started out as a dance entirely for his own benefit, to do exactly what Edward accused him of and cause a general load of trouble, James had honestly enjoyed the dance far more than he cared to admit.
“My mother shall never give up, you know,” Edward insisted, his expression becoming almost pleading as though he wished James would simply give up and accept his fate.
“And that is why I have never envied you your mother,” James chuckled. “Were she my own I am not sure I could cope.”
Even as he said the words, his stomach clenched slightly for they were only half true. He did envy the fact that his cousin had a mother at all. Having never had the chance to get to know his own, who had been Edward’s mother’s sister, he did sometimes feel a jealousy only a motherless boy could feel. Even as a man grown, he still felt its sting at times. And this moment was one of them.
“James, I fear you are at great risk of making yourself unmarriageable.”
At that, James cocked his head to the side and asked, “Is that you speaking or your mother?”
“Me,” Edward hissed, scowling back at him. “As your cousin and your friend, I must say, people are already talking after your little charade this evening.”
“Let them talk,” James scoffed. “It is of little consequence to me. If dancing with a beautiful woman can make me entirely unmarriageable to any other woman that I am not certain I would wish to marry them anyway.”
Though James would never admit it, he liked the thought of having only a single dance partner for the rest of his life. He would happily sacrifice the hand of all other women, if only he could find the right woman.
Yet with all his aunt’s fussing and all her throwing women at him, he feared he might well pick the wrong one. It was better not to pick one at all than to end up with a woman he would come to loathe simply because he was being forced into such things.
He had believed he was being forcefully pushed towards marriage while his father had still been duke but now things were even worse. Lady Hastings, the dowager viscountess seemed to have doubled her efforts of late, leaving James to have to get creative to keep the mamas and their desperate daughters at bay.
Edward looked as though he was going to offer another protest, but James beat him to it. “I do not see what the problem is. How long can a scandal survive when a lady’s only mistake was being born?”
Edward looked only half amused and shook his head quickly, removing the half-smile from his face just as fast as it had appeared. “The daughter of a second born nobleman and a maid could never be scandal free.”
James cringed at that. To remember the beautiful woman and how wonderfully she had danced in his arms, to still be able to feel the warmth of her touch in his hand, he felt sorry for her. To have been afforded such scorn just by matter of her birth, he couldn’t help but sympathise. His own birth had left him feeling quite alone indeed. Being born the only son of a duke was isolating enough, he couldn’t even begin to imagine how he might have been treated if his mother had been a commoner.
Though he couldn’t see the real problem in it himself, he had seen enough of how wildly infuriated it made the rest of the ton, almost as though Miss Thornton’s very existence was a stain upon their entire way of life, as though one decision made by one man so many years ago had changed the very fabric of existence, causing chaos wherever Miss Thornton went.
To James it was ridiculous. To everyone else it appeared to be second nature.
“And yet, Miss Thornton was quite an exceptional dance partner,” James said and seeing the colour draining from his cousin’s face, he couldn’t help but add, “I rather think I would like to dance with her again were I to get the chance.”
At that, Edward looked absolutely horrified.
Before he could offer a protest, James added, “I think perhaps she is a most intriguing gentlewoman, far less self-centred and air-headed than her peers.”
He saw the way his cousin’s gaze darkened. “Some would say she is not a gentlewoman at all.”
“And they can continue to say whatever they would like but I shall not judge anyone on the basis of what others say,” James said firmly. He met his cousin’s gaze steadily as he added, “I would much prefer to form an opinion myself, especially on a poor woman whose only reputation has been built upon her birth so many years beyond counting.”
Even in the moonlight, Edward appeared to be growing redder and redder. Clearly exasperated by James’ words and knowing that he would never hear the end of it if he did not do something, James sighed, “Do not fret, cousin. I have no real designs upon the woman.”
“Then why must you always cause trouble?” Edward demanded. James couldn’t exactly blame him for how upset he was. His mother would likely blame him for not being commanding enough to try and prevent such things in the first place. James did feel sorry for his cousin when it came to his mother’s wrath.
“I meant only to slow your mother’s plans,” James assured his cousin. His stomach clenched at the words because deep down he knew he could only do so for so long.
“You would do well to give up,” Edward said, shaking his head. “You will only stall her for so long.”
“Then I must milk every moment I am able to,” James insisted, cringing at the thought of all the invitations and uncomfortable situations his aunt had forced him into over the years. No doubt his own mother would have done the same if she had seen him into adulthood. He dreaded to think how much pressure would be upon his shoulders if he had them both to contend with.
Sensing the speed of the carriage lessening, James knew that they were drawing closer to their destination, and he knew that if he did not end their conversation soon, he would not hear the end of it, he told his cousin, “I will try to give your mother’s plans a little more thought.”
And yet, even as their carriage drew to a halt, he couldn’t help but think of that evening. Moreso, he thought of Miss Thornton and how perfectly she had fit into his arms. She had gazed into his eyes intently as they danced and had refrained from making meaningless small-talk or trying to sell herself to him during the short duration of their dance. In fact, she had been relatively quiet, a trait that James welcomed after so many chatty ladies.
Miss Thornton was quite unlike any other lady of the ton he had had the pleasure of dancing with. In fact, their dance had been a true pleasure, one that he would indeed readily welcome again.
When he blinked his eyes closed, he could still see her storm grey ones staring back at him. He saw the way her lips had twitched upwards in a half-smile when she realised he had come to ask her to dance, and it was a welcome relief from the ladies who automatically assumed he wished to dance with them simply by engaging in conversation.
Edward was indeed right when he said people read far too much into a dance. Several young women over the years had seemed to mistake his offers to dance for much more and yet he did not get that sense of determination from Miss Thornton.
She was a breath of fresh air. The kind of woman he could well see himself married to if he were so inclined.
But the simple thought of that was just as quickly pushed away as the carriage door was pulled open, causing him to jump right out of the depths of his thoughts and realise he was being foolish. He had never had any intentions towards marriage. And he wasn’t about to begin now. He could only imagine what his aunt might do if she got so much as a sniff of his thoughts toward marriage changing.
“The Scarlet Lady’s Duke of Desire” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Miss Melody Thornton, the daughter of a scandal, born to an earl’s second son and a common servant, has always been an outsider amidst the judgmental gazes of high society. With one foot in each world but fitting into neither, she prefers to keep her nose buried in books rather than experience life the hard way. Despite society’s rejection, a captivating Duke’s attention lures Melody into his seductive world and the opportunity to stir up some chaos within the society that has so often shunned her.
Will she finally find the courage to break free from her shell and take a chance at passionate love, even if it means stirring up scandal?
As expected, Lord James Hastings has taken to his new title as Duke of Haston with ease. Well-respected and versed in noble life, he knows he must fulfill his duty and find a suitable wife. The ladies of the ton yearn for his attention, but when he meets the alluring Melody, his desire to conquer her body and soul threatens to unravel his carefully crafted reputation.
Will he succumb to the temptation and risk losing everything for the woman who has captured his heart?
As honour clashes with irresistible passion, Melody and James can not help surrendering to their undeniable lust. Can they defy their predestined fate and everyone’s expectations, for the sake of all-consuming love? Or will their scandalous affair go down in flames before it fills them with sparks?
“The Scarlet Lady’s Duke of Desire” is a historical romance novel of approximately 70,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
One thought on “The Scarlet Lady’s Duke of Desire (Preview)”
Hello there, my dearest readers! I hope you enjoyed this little treat and can’t wait to read the rest of this fiery romance! I will be waiting for your first impressions here. Thank you! 📚❤️🔥