Her blush remained, but her eyes narrowed. “You are still the arrogant beast you were when I first made your acquaintance.”
“Yes, I do recall you mentioning I was arrogant,” Daniel said cheerily, knowing he got under her skin with his tone.
“Being a duke has not changed that,” she noted. “In fact, I am certain it has made you even more arrogant than before. That is not a quality that appeals to me, Your Grace.”
“Lady Margaret, there is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. I like to think of myself as merely being extremely confidant.”
She gave a very unladylike snort. “Arrogant and bold,” she observed. “Not exactly a way to endear yourself to me. And that is what it would take for me to even consider kissing you.”
He was glad she was considering it. It gave him hope. “Have you ever been kissed before?” he inquired politely, as if asking her what her favorite food or color might be.
Her jaw dropped. “You did not just ask me that!”
He smiled, a smile he reserved for when he wished for something impossible. “I believe I did ask you that, my lady.”
“You go too far, Westfield,” she rebuked. “I know from what both Mama and Dolley spoke of that nice women do not go about kissing gentlemen. Why, Dolley even bragged to me that the first time she was kissed was after her betrothal to Lord Baxter. That she had snagged a marquess without having to share anything of herself at all with him.”
“Pity,” he commented. “Kissing can be ever so much fun.”
The kiss was reminiscent of the waltz as they moved to a music of their own making, intimate, passionate, and driving Fia to yearn for more.
But she was no typical member of the ton—and Linberry wasn’t just a titled gentleman. He was a duke, someone totally beyond her reach.
Fia turned her head, breaking the kiss. When she got up the courage to look him in the eyes, she saw the heat there and knew it was desire.
Desire for her.
She pulled her hand from his and stepped back a few paces.
“I am not sorry that I asked you to kiss me, Your Grace, but it would be unwise to repeat such an action.”
Disappointment filled his face. “I asked to kiss you, Fia. Not the other way around. I am sorry the kiss went so far.”
“I’m not,” she said boldly. “You have given me a lovely memory, Your Grace.”
He stepped toward her. “What if it did not remain a memory? What if it became a daily reality?”
She placed her palm against that rock-hard chest. “There will be no other kisses for us. You will wed a woman of wealth and intelligence, while I have no plans to wed at all. My goal is to play at ton events, Your Grace—not dance at them. You and I both know my place is no longer in the glittering world of the ton.”
Fia dropped her hand, bereft as the contact between them ended. “Your duchess may one day be gracious enough to hire me to play at a ball you hold in this very room. I might even teach the pianoforte to your children. But we will never speak of this kiss again, Your Grace. It is as if it never happened.”
With regret, Fia turned away from the handsome Duke of Linberry and left the ballroom, her head held high.
“Do not waste my time asking a question you already know the answer to, Your Grace. I am being paid a good deal of money to teach you and Her Grace how to move into Polite Society seamlessly. Your father wanted you to succeed.”
Nalyssa tempered her tone. “His Grace knew he had wronged all of you terribly by not acknowledging you. His last wish was to make it up to you by hiring me. He asked me to bring you to Stonecrest, so that we might have these lessons in private. I intend to honor his wishes. You need to see that you do, as well.”
“I owe him nothing,” the duke said angrily. “He set us aside. We learned to stand on our own, without his money.”
She heard anger in his voice—but also hurt. Nalyssa doubted the duke even knew how hurt he had been by his father..
“You may feel as if you owe him nothing,” she said quietly. “But you do owe your mother and sister the best of you. The impression you make upon Polite Society will be reflected upon them.”
Nalyssa paused. “If you love them, take my lessons to heart. Become the duke your father never was. Care for and protect your loved ones in a way he never did. Are you up for that task, Your Grace?”
“You are suggesting a false romance?” the duke asked.
“If Polite Society thought we were a couple, that would allow us to move among them freely. It would also help my business. An association with a duke would not go unnoticed.”
“We would have to look as if we cared for one another, Miss Trent, or we will not fool anyone.”
“I believe I can gaze adoringly at you for a few weeks, Your Grace,” she said, mischief shining in her eyes. “Could you do the same?”
Elijah knew he was playing with fire and that being burnt was more probability than possibility. Still, to be able to be in Miss Trent’s presence would be worth it. She might even agree to a few kisses to make their romance seem all the more real.
He thrust out a hand. “You have yourself a bargain, Miss Trent.”
She took his hand in hers, and they shook. The touch between them was electrifying.
Yes, this would take no acting on his part.
Delaney didn’t know how it happened, but her fingers were tangled in his hair, running through the dark waves of silk. It felt marvelous. Exhilarating.
Heat poured from her now, enveloping her. They were so close she didn’t know where she ended and he began. Her breasts grew heavy and her limbs languid. His arms now encircled her, his kisses so hot and demanding that she believed she would burst into flames.
What was she doing?
She had let a handsome man’s kiss turn her head. She was not going to make the same mistakes her mother had and have her world upended. She would hold on to her dignity. Her pride.
Sliding her fingers from his hair, she moved her hands to the duke’s chest and pushed against it. Hard.
He didn’t go anywhere.
She turned her head, breaking the kiss, but his lips merely caressed her cheek. They moved to her ear, his breath hot as his teeth found her earlobe and tugged. Hot lightning tore through her, sizzling, as he did so. Delaney shuddered and turned her head again to face him.
He took advantage of that, seizing her mouth once more, his kiss demanding. All-consuming. Branding her.
Her thoughts were scattered, and she forced herself to ignore the physical sensations. She must break free. If she didn’t, she would wind up a puddle at Abington’s feet.
And never want to let him go.
Willa had sensed that the kiss was coming, but she was powerless to stop it. No, she lied to herself. She would never have stopped this kiss. She wanted it.
His mouth touched hers, and a shiver raced through her. His hands still framed her face, and his thumbs began to stroke her cheeks as his lips moved gently over hers. He brushed his lips softly against hers, letting her get used to the contact between them.
He broke the kiss and gazed at her with such intensity she should have been frightened. She wasn’t, though. Willa felt safe with this man.
“I am going to kiss you for a very long time, Willa,” he promised.
Xander bent again, and his mouth fused to hers. The gentle kiss from before became harder. More demanding. Her hands slipped from his coat and wound around his neck so she could be closer to him. His hands caught her waist, and he pulled her to her feet, enveloping her in his arms, their bodies pressed against one another. His was hard, solid muscles everywhere, so different from her own body. Then he teased her mouth open and suddenly, his tongue was inside. Sweeping. Searching. Tasting. Taking. She had had no idea that a kiss could be like this. Fierce. Drugging. Empowering.
He broke the kiss. “You are the most fascinating creature I have come across. You are the woman I want by my side, Willa. Without even realizing it, you have convinced me that not only can I be a better man, but that I am a better man when I am with you.”
Cy slipped his arms about her as his lips moved over hers, his warmth enveloping her. She placed her palms against his chest and found it hard as a stone wall. Cy’s lips caressed hers, and then his tongue swept across her bottom lip, as if he tasted her. The thought intrigued Finola.
She wanted to taste him, too.
Suddenly, he broke the kiss.
“I must apologize, Finola,” he said, his voice husky. “I do not know what came over me.” He searched her face as if it hunted for some answer to a question he had yet to ask. Then he said, “No, I knew what I was doing. And I still want to kiss you.”
His arms fell away from her, leaving her bereft. Desperate, she clutched the lapels of his coat, their gazes meeting.
“I don’t want you to stop, Cy. I want you to kiss me again.”
Finola had never made such a daring statement and was afraid Cy would be too much of a gentleman and leave her now. She would do whatever it took to prevent that from happening. With a boldness she did not know she even possessed, Finola yanked hard on the coat she grasped, his mouth crashing down on hers. Once more, his arms encircled her, holding her flush against his hard, muscular body. He did not hide his hunger for her and in fact, celebrated it. Finola opened to him—to this unknown world—and he kissed her with a sense of desperation, mingled with desire. She knew the combination because she felt the same. It was as if she had been set adrift at sea many years ago, alone and with no hope.
Until this man appeared in her life, making her think hope still existed.
“I turned thirty this past Christmas Day, Your Grace,” Jasper told the Duke of Bradford. “I had decided it was time to take a wife and start a family. Since I have become the duke, I have met someone. A woman who, in her own way, is as unique as your furniture-designing duchess.”
“Does this woman have a name? And how did the two of you meet? Especially since so much of the ton remains in the country at this time of year.”
He chuckled. “She is far from a member of Polite Society. In fact, she is the antithesis of most women of the ton. She actually works for her living. I met her because I hired her when I went to Bow Street recently.”
Bradford smiled broadly. “Then you must be referring to none other than Miss Shelby Slade.”
Surprised filled him. “You know of her?”
“I know her—not of her. She handled a delicate matter for me. I would recommend Miss Slade to anyone who needed a satisfactory conclusion to a matter troubling them.” Then the duke paused, understanding dawning in his eyes. “It is Miss Slade you referred to.”
“Yes,” Jasper confirmed. “Might I ask your opinion of Miss Slade?”
“Whatever you have hired her to do or discover, she will never quit until she accomplishes her task. Miss Slade is committed to solving her cases and setting your world right again. She champions those who seek justice and has an innate compassion for the downtrodden.”
“But do you know anything more personal about her?” he pressed.
“I have come to know Miss Slade well because she and my Abby are friends. Miss Slade is courageous. Persuasive. Headstrong.” He chuckled. “And most opinionated.”
Jasper smiled. “I am learning that for myself.”
“Her background is most humble a story she must choose to share with you,” the duke continued. “I will warn you to be respectful to Miss Slade, Edgethorne. I would not see her abused in any way—or you will answer to me.”
He liked that this man was standing up for Shelby. It told Jasper a good deal about Bradford’s character.
“Have no fears, Your Grace. My intentions toward Miss Slade are honorable.” He paused. “She doesn’t know it yet—but I plan to make her my wife.”