Read The Reluctant Duchess Online
Authors: Sharon Cullen
From everything that he'd learned after that, Meredith had gone home not much later with her mother and father and Sara. Sometime in the middle of the night, she had left the safety of their townhouse. The great mystery was why. Why did she leave? He had planned to take her for a ride on Rotten Row the next morning, but when morning dawned, no one could find Meredith.
And then they found her.
Mutilated. Barely recognizable.
He shook his head of those images. Who could do such a thing to such a beautiful, vibrant woman?
“What do you think the letters mean?” Sara asked in a tight voice.
“I wish to God I knew.”
“As do I.” She looked into the fire. She was all prim and proper, sitting in his chair in his study in the middle of the night, with her back straight and her shoulders squared. Did she ever relax? Did she ever just sprawl in a chair? Her hair was done up in a tight bun secured to the back of her head, not a hair out of place. What would it look like if it were released from its pins? How long would it be? Would it be soft? He imagined it would. It looked soft.
He lifted himself from the chair and stirred the fire, adding another log so it cracked and popped and flared to life. He wasn't certain how it happened, but he found himself standing in front of her. She looked up at him, surprise in those wide brown eyes, her lips partially open. He wasn't sure what drove him, but he picked up her hand and she stood. They were toe to toe, his thighs crushing her skirts, and still she looked up at him. Her lips were wet, as if she had just licked them, and he discovered in the light of the fire that her eyes held the most beautiful golden flecks.
He shouldn't be doing this. He'd been drinking. She was Sara. They were inappropriately alone.
He touched her cheek. It was warm and soft, heated by the fire and no doubt by the fact that they were standing indecently close. The hand he held was trembling, and he found that oddly appealing. “Sara,” he whispered. He was overcome with an unholy urge to kiss her, and so he did, ignoring the warning that his muddled mind was screaming.
Her lips were just as warm and just as soft as he had imagined. And yes, he
At first she didn't move to kiss him back. Was this her first kiss? Certainly not. She was years past her coming out. Some man must have kissed her at some point in her life.
He opened his eyes to find that she had closed hers, her delicate lashes casting shadows on her cheeks. Her skin was like buttermilk. He slid his finger down her jaw to tip it up so he could possess her lips more fully.
Taking his lead, she pressed her lips against his, opening at his urging. His tongue swept in and he gathered her to him. She was so delicate, so slight, beneath the layers of silk and satin and crinoline. She trembled all over, and he found he wanted to hold her until the trembling stopped.
But suddenly, she was no longer in his arms. She'd taken a step back. Her hand came up to cover her lips, and she looked at him in surprise and disbelief.
“Iâ¦I must go.” She stumbled past him, pushing him out of the way. Instead of reaching for her like he wanted to, he moved out of her way and watched her run from the room.
He turned back to the fire and fell into his chair. “Bloody hell.”
Sara didn't sleep that night. How was she supposed to sleep when all she felt was the press of the duke's lips upon hers? She spent half the night with her hand covering her lips, as if she could hold that feeling to her.
She'd never been kissed before.
Well, with the exception of a young buck who had lured her onto a terrace during her first ball, brushed his lips across her cheek, then hurried away. That was nothing compared to what she and Rossmoyne had shared.
She lay in bed the rest of the night and tried to sort through exactly what had happened. They'd been talking about Meredith, and suddenly they were kissing.
Surely she'd committed a horrible sin.
She tried to chastise herself for her wicked ways, but every time she did, her mind wandered to the kiss.
His lips had brushed across hers, demanding and controlling. He'd touched her cheek and her jaw. His fingers had been hard and callused yet tender. For hours her skin tingled where he'd touched her, and her lips felt swollen.
Oh, she was wicked, wicked, wicked.
Her legs had turned numb and trembled, and she'd wanted nothing more than to lean into the long, hard strength of him, to feel his arms around her. He'd drawn her closer until she could feel his strong thighs through her many layers of skirts.
Stop this, Sara. What you did was wrong.
Yet when dawn crested, she was eager to get down to breakfast to see Rossmoyne again. At the same time, she was immeasurably embarrassed and wanted to hide in her room but that was playing the coward and Sara hated to think that Rossmoyne would think her a coward. So she dressed with care and went down to the dining room.
The empty dining room.
He wasn't there. She'd never thought that he wouldn't be there.
“Is there something I can get you, my lady?” A footman stood uncertainly in the doorway of the dining room.
“No. No, I'm fine.”
“Very well, my lady.”
“His Grace? Has he dined already?”
“He left early this morning with Mr. Montgomery.”
“Ah. Of course.”
Because it was expected of her and it would look odd if she didn't, Sara filled her plate from the sideboard and sat down to eat. The footman stood with his back to the wall, his eyes straight ahead. It was strangely quiet in the large house with only the clink of her utensils against the china.
She'd been foolish. Foolish to kiss the Duke of Rossmoyne and foolish to think that he would wait to eat with her. Obviously, the kiss meant much less to him than it did to her. He'd probably kissed scores of women since Meredith. Sara was just one of many. After all, he'd had a fast reputation. After he left for India she hadn't heard a peep about him but certainly he'd been kissing other women. The thought made her feel foolish and schoolgirlish.
She quickly finished her meal and wandered through the cavernous house. “House” was an inadequate word to describe the duke's home. It was one of the largest in the city and by far the largest Sara had ever been in. It would take days to see every room. Not that she had a desire to. After a while one sitting room looked much like another.
She soon found herself back in the study. She was certain Rossmoyne would have preferred she stay out of his study and enjoy one of the many sitting rooms, but she didn't care. This was the most lived-in room of the estate, and it felt comfortable. Except every time she looked at the chair she'd been sitting in last night, she relived that toe-tingling kiss.
She found a book that looked passably entertaining and sat by the floor-to-ceiling window to read. However, she found herself looking out the window more than at the pages of the book. The view was breathtaking, looking out over a beautifully tended garden with a profusion of flowers that gave it a rainbow quality. She didn't enjoy the view as much as she should have. She was too busy trying not to be humiliated.
She'd kissed the duke.
Well, if she were truthful, the duke had kissed her first. But he'd been drinking. So he hadn't been in his right mind. And she had kissed him back.
Surely there was a special place in hell for her.
But wouldn't there be a special place in hell for him as well? After all, it took two to kiss.
Oh, how it took two to kiss.
So it wasn't entirely her fault. She was
to blame, but so was the duke.
“There you are, dear. I've been looking all over for you.”
Sara stood quickly to curtsy to the duchess. “My apologies, Your Grace.”
Elizabeth waved a hand in the air. “We don't stand on much formality, Sara dear. After all, you were practically family.”
practically family. The past tense stung a bit and increased her guilt. Just last night she'd kissed the man who had almost been family to her.
“What are you reading?” Elizabeth asked as she settled into a chair across from Sara.
“Oh.” Sara had to look at the spine to remember what she had been reading. “A history of Scotland. Although I must admit, I haven't been particularly attentive.”
“Well, there is a lot of history to cover. Are you enjoying your stay in London?”
“What brings you to town?”
Rossmoyne had made it clear that he had not told his mother Sara's true reason for being here. “It was time to order some new gowns, and while the seamstress of Hadley Springs is passably talented, I really wanted to come to London and do some shopping.” She'd told her father she was visiting the Earl and Countess of Blackbourne, but she couldn't perpetuate that lie with Elizabeth, because it would be easily discovered that the Blackbournes weren't in residence in London at the moment. Oh, all of the lies she was spewing made her feel sick.
However, she hadn't had a new gown in a few years, and while she'd never thought overmuch about fashion, it seemed a good enough excuse. Who knows, maybe she would do some shopping here. The more she thought about it, the better she liked the idea. A new gown sounded wonderful.
“And how are your parents? Such dear people. You know my late husband and your father were close friends.”
“I didn't know that,” Sara admitted, confused as to whom Elizabeth was referring.
“They went to Cambridge together, from what I can recall. Such a terrible tragedy when he died.”
Ah, so they were speaking of her real father.
“I confess I don't remember my parents very well,” Sara said sadly.
“I didn't know your mother well. We met once or twice, and it was so long ago. It's very fortunate that the current marquess and marchioness took you in.”
Was there censure in her tone? Sara was not usually sensitive to such things, because her new parents had made it known that Sara was considered theirs. No one even mentioned it because it had been so long ago. “I consider them my parents now,” she said.
Elizabeth smiled. “And well you should. They are good people. How are they?”
“They are well.” Sara refrained from telling the duchess that she hadn't seen her mother in over a year. There was no need to get into that story. Although she wouldn't be surprised if the duchess already knew. Word traveled quickly, and separated couples were always food for the gossip mills.
“How are you, Sara?” The duchess looked at her with a steady gaze. So much like her son's and yet so different.
“I'm well, thank you.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No. I mean how
you? How are you faring?”
Sara looked at her warily. “I'm well. Thank you.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips into a thin line. “I'm not one to pry, Sara.” She looked away and seemed to think about what she wanted to say, then looked Sara boldly in the eye. “I know your mother isn't around much, and you take care of your father. Are you truly doing well?”
Sara had to swallow the lump that formed in her throat. Just as she'd expected, Elizabeth had heard of her mother's departure from Hadley Springs. If Elizabeth knew, then everyone in society knew. Not that it made much difference. Sara's days in society were long over. Her life consisted of caring for a father who lived more inside his own mind than he did in the real world. Hadley Springs was her home and where she felt safe and comfortable. Town living wasn't for her, and therefore the gossips shouldn't concern her.
Or so she'd told her herself for the past two years. But now that she was in London, she discovered that she missed coming to town occasionally. She didn't miss the social whirlâthat had been Meredith's forte. Sara missed the intellectual aspect, the arts, the museums, and simply being in a city that was the center of the world. Hadley Springs had one lending library, and she'd read nearly every book in it. She'd also made use of her best friend's massive library at Blackbourne Manor. But here in London, there were many lending libraries and books and places of learning and people of learning whom she could talk to. She regretted that she didn't have time for such frivolities during this visit. Maybe she should make more of an effort to visit London to partake in the cultural center of the world.
“We truly are doing well,” she said, turning her mind from all of the silly stuff. “Father is happy at home with his studies. He has an affinity for astronomy and is more often than not in his workroom charting this star and that. I have friends whom I visit, and the spring festival committee that tends to meet year-round. All of that keeps me very busy.”
Elizabeth looked at Sara closely, as if she could discern the truth. But the truth was, she was being honest. Her life was good; not what she had expected, but good nonetheless. She had thought she would miss her mother desperately, but she didn't. There had been so much fighting before Carolina had moved to Bath. Fighting and tears and accusations on both of her parents' parts. It had been a relief, in a way, when her mother left.
“And your mother? Is she happy in Bath?” Elizabeth asked.
“Oh, yes. She writes to me occasionally, and her letters are full of stories of friends visiting and the various committees she belongs to.”
Elizabeth leaned forward, her expression sympathetic and full of concern. “If you ever need anything, you let me know. I consider us friends and not just because we were almost family but because my late husband thought highly of your father.”
Tears sprang to Sara's eyes, unexpected and unwanted. She wasn't one to show her emotions, and she hated that she was almost ready to cry in front of a duchess. But Elizabeth's words warmed her heart where, for such a very long time, she had felt cold and alone. Here was an unexpected link to her real parents, and she savored it.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Elizabeth stood and smiled down at her. “I will leave you to your history of Scotland, then.”
When she left, Sara found that she was no more interested in the history of Scotland than she had been before Elizabeth's arrival. She was always a bit shaken when someone mentioned her real parents; she didn't know why. Maybe because it was a reminder that she didn't quite fit in with her family. Oh, they never said as much, but Sara sometimes felt that way. It was as if something were missing, that there was a hole inside of her, a deep loneliness that marked her as the orphan she really was.
She left the study and wandered down the steps to the entryway, where she found James guarding the front door.
“James,” she said, delighted to find a familiar face.
“Do you know where His Grace and Mr. Montgomery have gone off to this morning?”
A wary look came over James's face. “I heard they were off to ask some questions.”
“Without me?” Had she not made it clear the day before that she was interested in being part of the investigation? Why would they leave her behind? Did Rossmoyne think that he would lock her away in his towering mansion and go about his day? Did he really believe that would be perfectly fine with her?
“I have strict orders to keep you in the house,” James said a bit reluctantly.
“Strict orders?” She raised a brow at him. “Since when do you take orders from Rossmoyne and not me?”
James looked decidedly uneasy, and Sara's anger softened a bit. It wasn't James's fault. He was merely caught in the middle of thisâ¦whatever this was.
“Very well,” she said on a sigh and walked away, having no idea where she was to go. This was a mighty big house, but there wasn't much to do in it.
She wandered into the back garden. There were several paths to choose from, each leading to a different part of the garden, but none of the paths sparked her interest. What she wanted was to be with Rossmoyne and Mr. Montgomery. She wanted to be doing something other than sitting in this fine house like another of Rossmoyne's possessions. Not that he thought of her as a possession. Truthfully, he probably hadn't thought of her at all, evidenced by the fact that he had gone off without her.
And after they had kissed and everything.
No, no. She would not think about that kiss. Absolutely not. She'd already determined that it had been wrong to kiss him. She would not revisit it. She wouldn't.
She turned around to walk back inside and came up short with a gasp. Rossmoyne was standing on the terrace, looking down upon her.