As Phoebe stood, the stranger caught her hand. A ripple of warmth ran through her.
“I thought I should introduce myself to you.”
“I’m not sure you should,” she blurted out, trying to remove her hand from his and failing.
“Why not?” he asked, puzzled.
“Because I know you are a criminal.”
The man frowned. “And how did you come to that conclusion, Madam?”
“We are in Cornwall, Sir. Home to smugglers too numerous to count. You’ve been shot. It had to be a dispute over whatever you brought back from France. Frankly, I don’t want to know what goods you smuggled or who might want you dead. The fact that you are in my home is bad enough. If I don’t know your name and learn nothing about you, then when you leave I won’t be able to tell anyone in authority about you.”
“You think whoever shot me will come looking for me?” he asked.
She jerked hard and freed her hand. “I don’t care. I am a simple widow who was only trying to help a stranger in distress. I will do my best to see you healed and then I want you gone, Sir. Is that understood?”
He gave her a brilliant smile. “I see. Well, you’re going to have to call me something while I’m here.” The man thought a moment. “Why not … Andrew?”
She was appalled. “I cannot call you by your first name!”
The smuggler gave her a lazy smile. “Who said it was my first name?”
“Oh. Mr. Andrew. I’m sorry. I’m a bit flustered.”
He grinned. “It must a little bit disconcerting, having a naked smuggler in your bed.”
Phoebe’s jaw dropped. So, he was a smuggler. Admitting it to her. She shook her head, trying to rein in her wild emotions.
“I shall be back, Mr. Andrew. Then I’ll see to your shoulder.”
She grabbed the tray and left the room, irritated at the chuckling she heard.
“I’m tired of the empty existence I’ve led for so many years. Days that blend into nights. Weeks that become months and then years. I’m ready for a change. I’ve spent too long living a lie,” George said.
Sam snorted. “Does this mean you’ll stop bedding any woman who catches your fancy?”
“Yes. I’m ready to settle down and act like a duke and a proper gentleman.”
She laughed harshly. “A leopard cannot change his spots.”
“I will prove to you that I am a changed man.”
Her brows knitted together. “And however will you do that, George?”
“By being loyal and faithful to one woman.”
He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her fingers. Sam flushed an enticing shade of pink and jerked her hand away.
Rising, she said, “You are disgusting. All of this talk of wanting to be a different man. Is this how the Duke of Charm finagles his way into a woman’s bed—through sweet lies?”
George stood and clasped her shoulders. “I’m not lying to you, Sam.”
“Samantha,” she ground out.
“Samantha,” he said softly. “From the moment I decided to become the man I should have been all along, I thought of you. You were here all along and I was too ignorant to see you.”
His fingers tightened. “I don’t want to charm every woman in Polite Society, Samantha. I only want to impress you.”
She stared at him in confusion. He took the opportunity to press his mouth to hers.
Elise couldn’t believe what she had just agreed to, striking a bargain with the Duke of Disrepute to find him a bride.
“Do you have any particular characteristics in mind, Your Grace?”
I’ll be very choosy. I need a woman with keen intelligence. I become bored easily. If I’m to spend the next fifty years with her, she must be clever and interested in a variety of topics.”
She frowned. “That doesn’t sound like many women of the ton. What about her family name and dowry?”
“Pish-posh on that, Lady Ruthersby. My name and title are plenty old and I couldn’t care one whit about a dowry—or lack of one. I have estates too numerous to count and untold wealth. No, I want other things.”
His words intrigued her. “Such as?”
“Besides intelligence, I need a woman who can make decisions quickly and without questioning herself. I have a large household for her to run. My duchess will need to be firm with servants but not to the point where they don’t like her or their jobs. She must be an excellent hostess, able to plan soirees and dinner parties with ease.”
The duke’s list was certainly growing. “Anything else?” she asked, worried that there would be.
“I want her to enjoy activities I enjoy since we’ll be spending so much time together.”
“What might that involve?”
“Riding, for one. I’m never happier than when on a horse. Unless it’s walking. I can walk for hours and do so frequently in London. I enjoy the theatre. Playing chess. Of course, I also spend a good deal of my time at Gentleman Jack’s. My duchess won’t have to box, however.”
She snorted. “Well, that’s certainly a relief.”
“She will also need to be kind. Compassionate toward others. A sense of humor would be nice. And naturally, she’ll need to adore children.”
“Your Grace, your list is growing by leaps and bounds. I’m not certain any of the young women making their come-outs would—”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be some young miss straight from the schoolroom, Lady Ruthersby. In fact, I doubt any of them will do. I don’t mind if my future bride has a few Seasons in her past.”
“You want that Town polish.”
“I do.” His eyes gleamed. “Debutantes don’t have that.”
“I beg to differ. I’ll daresay there are half a dozen girls making their come-outs who have been raised by their mamas to become a duchess should such an opportunity arise.”
“Still, I am almost thirty. Ancient to those newcomers. I require a lady of sophistication and maturity. She’ll need to not only be my friend and companion—but an eager, willing partner in the bedroom.”
Elise felt herself go hot all over. “Surely, you don’t think I can assess such a thing, Your Grace.” Her face felt on fire.
“No,” he said, a wicked grin touching his lips. “You can leave that to me.
A very beautiful blond sat curled up in a chair on the far side of the room, engrossed in the book in her lap. Jon couldn’t remember ever having seen her. Her gown was dowdy. Most likely, she was a poor relation and companion to someone attending tonight’s ball, a woman of no means or social standing. No wonder she’d retreated to the library to hide in a quiet world of books, where she probably felt most comfortable. He should leave her to her solitude and find somewhere else to go.
Then she smiled at something she read on the page, her face lighting up. Jon could have left—except for that radiant smile. It intrigued him. The book she held was monstrously fat. He ascertained that she must be educated. Well-read since a book of that size didn’t put her off.
Suddenly, he wanted to know what she was reading. Discuss it with her. He was a great lover of books and could talk about them all day long, having read everything he could get his hands on as a boy. His love of reading and gaining knowledge had followed him into manhood. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could talk to this woman about what she was reading and not have the usual, dull conversations that surrounded a ball? It would be novel to find a woman with not just outstanding looks but brains to accompany them.
That would be not only an intriguing woman, but a dangerous one.
Her smile widened and he knew what she read amused her. A deep laugh followed, much deeper than any woman’s he’d heard before. It was rich and vibrant and drew him in. He wanted to hear that laugh again.
And he wanted to know the woman behind the laugh.
“You don’t want me. You never did,” Hadley said dully, pushing hard against his chest, trying to get away from him.
Sebastian refused to let her go. “I will always want you. I will go to my grave wanting you.” His chest tightened as he spoke. “But I have been scarred by the war. I will not bind you to me when so much is wrong inside of me.”
Her gaze grew fierce. “Shouldn’t I have a choice in the matter?” she demanded.
“No.” He captured her hands in his. Bringing them to his lips, he pressed a fervent kiss upon her knuckles. “You need to choose happiness. I could never give you that.”
“I love you, Sebastian,” she said.
Her words were like a kick in the gut—because he knew in this moment that he loved her, too.
And always would.
“You cannot save me, Hadley. Love isn’t enough to—”
“It is!” she insisted. “Even if you think you have no love in your heart. I have enough love for both of us, Sebastian. Let me prove it to you.”
She jerked her hands from his and grabbed his face, pulling it swiftly to her and slamming her lips against his in desperation. He took her by the shoulders and pushed her away.
“No. You are to find a man who can return your love. I will never be that man, Hadley. Find someone worthy of you.”
Her eyes narrowed and she shrugged away. “You will change your mind,” she said, her mouth setting stubbornly.
“I won’t,” he promised. “Go and live your life, Hadley. Make it a great one.”
With that, he left the stall and found his way to the front of the stables—leaving behind his heart—with the woman he would always love.