Misadventures in Seduction excerpt

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Taken from the Prologue…

Country house party at the edge of Derbyshire, 1810

 

Prudence Hixsby, eldest child to the late Mr. and Mrs. Hixsby of Staffordshire, stole a glance at the tall man across the parlor. Harrison Carlisle, Duke of Sutcliffe. He leaned against the mantel as if he owned the room even though he was as much a guest as she. His arrogance was palpable.

His lean figure cut a dashing view with his bright white cravat, expertly tied, and his black tailcoat. She looked down on her own dress—meager by his standards, certainly, but it was one of her finest gowns, a soft blue embroidered muslin with a satin ribbon tied just under her breasts. It was a flattering color, she’d been told. Still, in comparison to the duke’s finery, she felt lacking.

His shrewd blue eyes scanned the parlor, yet he never seemed to see her. Blast it all, but he was handsome.

“You’re staring,” her brother’s voice said from behind.

She started at his intrusion. “Johnston, you shouldn’t sneak up on a person in such a way.” She tapped his elbow. “And I was not staring.” Had she been staring? Nearly twenty people were in attendance. She recognized most of them. Lord and Lady Flintlock played cards at a table in the back of the parlor, with two older women whom she recognized, but could not recall their names. Several others chatted around the room as she and her brother were doing. None of them seemed to notice her, so had she been gawking, perhaps it had gone unseen by all but her brother.

“Deny if you must, dear sister.” Johnston gave her one of his charming smiles. “But we both know the truth.”

She ignored his goading. It was alarming, not to mention troubling, that she’d been staring at the duke at all, let alone that she’d been caught. What was it about the man that she found so interesting? It was not his charm; he’d never been particularly friendly to her.

“I want to speak with you about something,” Johnston said, interrupting her thoughts.

Regardless, she need not spend any considerable time noting the Duke’s assets. “We speak every day. Several times a day, in fact.”

Still, Johnston took her by the elbow and led her to the back corner of the room, near a large bookcase. “Yes, but there are always children around.”

She chuckled. “Those children are your siblings, too.”

“Indeed. But Astrid is always bothering me to teach her to ride like a man.” He tugged uncomfortably on his cravat. “Constance looks at me so disapprovingly for a twelve year old.”

“Jefferson idolizes you,” Prudence said.

Johnston shrugged. “I suppose. And Matilda is always on your lap.”

A pang shot through Prudence’s heart. “I am the only mother she has ever known.”

“Still, this is a private matter, and it would appear that we are alone at the moment.” Johnston glanced about the parlor, then back to her. “I’m tired of sitting at home doing nothing, Pru. I know you won’t approve, but I’m going to join up and fight this war.”

The floor seemed to fall from beneath her. She eyed her brother, four years her junior, and found nothing but sincerity in his gaze. “You cannot. We have a family to care for.”

“But it is my duty to serve my country and honor our family name. Besides you don’t need my help with the family. You never have. You likely won’t even notice I’m gone.”

“I hardly think that is true.” Why did he always assume she was so capable? Because she never let on how terrified she was of the fact that the fate of her family rested on her shoulders. She’d always known that if she required his assistance, all she need do was ask. But now— “And what if you’re killed?”

“That’s unlikely,” he said.

“Don’t be flippant about this.” Her brow furrowed and she fought to keep her voice low. “War is extremely dangerous. Men are killed every day on the peninsula.” Panic rose in her throat; her stomach churned.

“You’re not my mother, Pru. I don’t require your permission for this.”

He was right, and she knew her brother, once he’d set his mind to something, could not be convinced otherwise. She clenched her teeth and scanned the room. Her gaze fell upon the Duke of Sutcliffe again and she glared at him. Another gentleman had joined him, and they stood together at the mantel, drinking and conversing. She was certain that Sutcliffe was to blame for Johnston’s newfound enthusiasm to join the military. He’d listened intently to Sutcliffe’s stories of the battles he’d fought before coming back to England to head up intelligence gathering. And Johnston wanted to be a part of that.

Her breath caught. All it would take was one word from Sutcliffe to change her brother’s mind. She need only appeal to his gentlemanly nature, provided he had one, to ensure her brother stayed out of harm’s way.

“You’re absolutely right, dear brother. Enjoy the remainder of your evening.” She nodded, then strode toward the fireplace, fists balled in her skirt. Thankfully the other gentleman moved on before she reached the duke. Confronting the Duke of Sutcliffe would take every ounce of strength she could muster, so she needed to do it now while the panic of war still burned in her gut.

His brows rose as she approached. “Miss Hixsby,” he said with a slight nod of his head. “I wasn’t expecting you’d attend this party. I didn’t think you left your estate after dark.”

“Yes, well, it would seem I have important business to discuss with you.”

“Indeed,” he said, his tone dismissive. “What business does a lady such as yourself have with a rogue like me?” His eyes quickly trailed the length of her, then studied the glass in his hand.

She narrowed her gaze at him. “Precisely what sort of lady am I? A spinster?”

His shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. “Your words, not mine. But you are, as they say, on the shelf.” He turned his body away from her, and looked out at the room again.

It was a small gathering, a country house party, but that didn’t mean some of the most important families in London weren’t represented. In fact, she and her brother were only invited because they’d been longtime neighbors of Lord and Lady Grant.

“My marital prospects have nothing to do with this discussion,” she hissed. Though he was correct. Even if she hadn’t been old enough to be a spinster, she had so many siblings to care for that no man would want to be saddled with that much responsibility. “I am quite upset with you.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible.”

The weight of his blue eyes nearly buckled her knees. Good heavens but she was a goose. He was merely a man.

“My brother,” she said.

“Which one?”

“Don’t play coy with me, Your Grace. I know that you’ve convinced Johnston to join the ranks of your…” She winced as if what she was about to say physically hurt. “War.”

“My war?” He took a slow swallow of his drink. “You know I find it…” He paused as if searching for the right word, “fascinating how you can insult me while using my title. It seems to me that if we’re to exchange taunts, you might as well use my Christian name.”

“I know you are in charge of some elite group gathering intelligence to help with the battles,” she said, refusing to respond to his offer of familiarity, if it was one.

“What are you insinuating, Prudence?”

“I am insinuating nothing, merely stating that my brother is young and impressionable and he, for whatever reason, admires you, wants to emulate you.” She poked one gloved finger on his chest. “If you don’t do something, you are going to get him killed. You must prevent him from joining this foolish war.”

“There is nothing foolish about a man persecuting people in his own country and trying to do the same across others.”

“I didn’t mean to imply—”

He took a step closer to her, leaned down so that his mouth was dangerously close to her ear. “I don’t take kindly to insults.” His whispered words were hot on her skin, making her shudder.

She sucked in her breath and completely forgot what she was about to say. Having him this close was overwhelming her senses. She should have known better than to approach him alone. He was a trained soldier, and she had no notion of what that entailed. But he was strong and physically perfect. Perhaps she should not be standing so close to him.

Then he straightened his spine. “Besides, I have not recruited your brother.”

“You deny that he has joined your association?”

“This is a discussion you should have with him.” He motioned with his glass. “Look, he’s over there.”

“I have tried, and it would seem I’m not terribly compelling.”

“On the contrary, Prudence, I find you utterly compelling.” His voice did not waver, and his gaze locked on hers.

Certainly he toyed with her, because he could not possibly be flirting. While he’d always been polite in their interactions, she could tell from his expression and tone that he’d never been particularly fond of her.

“It appears as though I need another drink.” He gave her a slight bow. “If you’ll excuse me.” With that, he walked away. The conversation had gained her nothing.

He was too distracting with those ridiculously beautiful eyes and chiseled jawline. Good gracious, but she was a goose.

She could not forget her brother, though, and this foolish decision of his. Johnston was impressionable, not to mention idealistic. Her own efforts had fallen onto deaf ears, but it seemed unlikely that Sutcliffe intended to join her cause. She would talk to her brother again, but she doubted it would do any good.

“Miss Hixsby,” a deep voice came from her right. “If you keep walking so intently, you shall walk right past me, and I will miss an opportunity to enjoy your company.”

She smiled up at the familiar face of Sir Bailey Fenton. “How right you are, sir. My apologies.”

Though he was more than a handful of years her elder, he flirted with her often, had even gone so far as to suggest they have an affair. She could have found his request disrespectful. Instead, she found it refreshing. So many people patronized her lack of marital prospects, insulting her intelligence by suggesting that if she were just to be patient, she’d make a good match. It was startling that they were able to say such things without grimacing. But Sir Fenton fully recognized her spinsterhood and spared her no lies, and she respected him for it.

He was not an attractive man, but his flirtations entertained her. She might be a spinster, but she was still a woman who enjoyed attention from men.

“You look rather lovely this evening,” he said. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Not particularly.” Then she caught herself and took a deep breath. “I beg your pardon, sir. I should not have answered so candidly. I misspoke. I am merely distracted, ’tis all.”

“Oh, sweet Miss Hixsby, what could have you so distraught?” he asked. Across the room, several of the guests were engaged in a lively game of charades. He took her elbow and led her over to an empty settee.

His sympathetic eyes relaxed her, the tension falling from her shoulders. “My brother is insisting on joining the military and fighting in this war. And caring for my family will be left solely to me. I have no marriage prospects, which is certainly fine by me. I have no time for such frivolities as courtship. But without a partner and, without my brother, I shall most assuredly be alone in the care of my younger siblings.” She gulped in a breath and realized she’d said entirely too much. She dared a glance at Sir Fenton, expecting him to be horrified by her outburst.

Instead he sat next to her and patted her hand. “It is perfectly normal to be concerned about your brother.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand. We’re all we have. Our parents are dead; we have no aunts or matronly grandmothers to care for us. It has been up to Johnston and me to care for the younger ones.” Tears pricked at her eyes, but she blinked them away. If she thought too much on the situation, she’d fall completely apart. “I attempted to persuade Sutcliffe to talk some sense into Johnston, but I don’t believe His Grace is up to the task.”

“Yes, well, I suspect His Grace has other tasks at hand to contend with.”

“I suppose you’re right about that. And there are plenty of other brothers and sons who go off to fight in the war.” She took a deep breath and rounded her shoulders back, forcing herself to sit up. She would not get herself all in a dither about this, not here.

“What if I told you that I could put your brother in a position that would satisfy his need to be involved in the fight, but keep him safe here in England?” Sir Fenton asked.

Her heart stuttered. “You can do that?” She knew Sir Fenton was involved with the government in some capacity, but she had no notion of his power. And since he was merely a baron, she had not assumed his power was considerable.

“Perhaps.”

“Sir Fenton, I am willing to do whatever is necessary to keep my family safe.”

“I am most pleased to hear you say that.” He leaned closer, still keeping a legitimate distance between them, but close enough that he could lower his voice considerably. “As you know, I find myself quite attracted to you, Miss Hixsby. Perhaps we could spend some time together. Privately. In my room, this evening?”

She brought her hand to her chest, trying to still the fluttering of her heart. “Sir, I believe you’ve just insulted me.”

“Nay, it cannot have escaped your notice that I have made requests for your attentions before.”

She swallowed. “No, of course not. I am not daft. I meant only that to suggest an affair in exchange for something else makes the entire scenario a little too suggestive of the poor girls working beneath the piers.”

“I meant no such comparison.” His lips curved into a smile. “The fact that I find you irresistible is hardly an insult.”

Irresistible? No man had ever found her irresistible before.

Even though she most decidedly did not find Sir Bailey Fenton irresistible, some part of her was tempted.

“You are suggesting I prostitute myself in exchange for favors.” She kept her voice low, but it hitched with emotion.

He frowned, looking saddened by her indignation. “On the contrary, I am merely being a realist. The job I do for the Crown is quite dangerous, and if I am to keep an eye on your brother, it will be more dangerous still. Is it so hard for you to believe that I’d desire the comfort your company could bring me?”

There was a kind of grim resignation to his voice. As if he believed he might have to give his life to win this war. Furthermore, he wasn’t complaining. He didn’t expect sympathy. He was merely asking for comfort. In that light, his request seemed almost reasonable.

He wanted to have an affair with her, and he’d made that abundantly clear on more than one occasion. But tonight, in light of the situation with her brother, he’d given her a reason to accept his proposition. She genuinely liked Sir Fenton. As a man, not as a potential suitor. He had always been kind to her, had always flirted with her and made her feel sought after, when other men spared her so little attention.

Her gaze drifted across the parlor to where Harrison leaned insolently against the wall.

Blowing out a breath, she turned her attention back to Bailey. What he was proposing was outrageous…or was it?

He stood. “I shall give you time to consider my offer. Just remember that I can ensure your brother stays in England, safe and close by.”

Was she actually considering his offer? A laugh from across the room caught her attention. The Duke of Sutcliffe chuckled boisterously at a jest his companion had shared. If he had made the same proposition, she would likely have climbed atop him here in the parlor. Well, certainly she could have waited until they were alone. So why was Sir Fenton so different? Because he was less handsome? Less powerful?

He had assured her he could keep her brother safe. Certainly her virtue was worth that. It was not as if it was currently serving her any purpose. How could she grow into the eccentric spinster aunt without having some worldly experiences?

***

Harrison lay still in the darkness. A sound had awakened him, and it took him a moment to realize it had been the click of his door unlatching. Someone was in his bedchamber. He reached to the bedside table and retrieved his pistol. He hated these bloody country house parties—they exposed him to too many people. He had only attended so that members of the Seven, the elite group of spies he led, could exchange information without drawing undo attention to themselves. But apparently he hadn’t been discreet enough, because someone was entering his room. He gripped the pistol’s handle and tried to appear as if he were still sleeping.

There was movement by his bed, and he wished he hadn’t allowed the fire to die down to nothing but a handful of coals. It wasn’t chilly in the room, but it was unforgivably dark.

Then pressure on the mattress as someone crawled in beside him. Soft feminine curves pressed to his bare chest—soft, naked curves. No doubt a servant girl looking for a toss. He sighed in relief and his taut muscles relaxed. She nuzzled closer.

“I’ve been unable to stop thinking about our conversation this evening.”

He knew that voice, and it was most assuredly not a servant. “Prudence?” he asked in a hushed whisper.

She pressed her fingers to his lips. “Shh. This will be easier for me if you let me do the talking.”

Well, she’d better do the talking, because he didn’t understand what the hell she was about. He set the pistol back on the bedside table.

Yes, he found Prudence Hixsby undeniably appealing. How could he not with her intriguing curves, her sharp mind, and her straightforward practicality? She was precisely the sort of woman—maybe even the precise woman—he would court, if he was a man in the position to court a woman.

But there was no place for romance in his life, let alone marriage, and Prudence was not a woman one romanced without the intention of marrying her.

Which was precisely why he’d worked so hard to ignore the attraction he felt for her. Until this very moment, he’d been certain he did such a good job disguising his feelings that she hadn’t a clue that he was attracted to her. Apparently he was less adept at hiding his desire than he’d thought.

“Pru,” he began, his voice so rough he didn’t even sound like himself.

Again she stopped him. “I understand that this isn’t marriage you’re offering. I believe I can accept that. I am old enough and practical enough to know that doing this isn’t going to ruin my chances on the marriage mart.” She drew in a breath, as though she was mustering her courage. Then she pressed a kiss to his jaw. “Please. I want to do this.”

He should have protested. He intended to but, before he could, she crawled atop him, kissed his chin, and then his jaw. Hot, sweet kisses all the way until she reached his mouth.

He had not expected Prudence to seduce him. She seemed so very irritated with him much of the time. Perhaps that was merely her way of flirting.

Her chaste kisses were driving him insane. That and the very unchaste feel of her naked skin against his. He was hard. She wanted him. He sure as hell wanted her.

He rolled her over and kissed her intensely, taking her sweet seduction and setting it afire.

 Copyright © 2014. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.


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