IF THE DUKE DEMANDS
This scene originally went right after the opera scenes in IF THE DUKE DEMANDS. Although I personally love these scenes and how they show both Miranda's spirit and Sebastian's attraction for her, my editor was afraid that it showed their relationship as too much physical and not enough affection. Most of the dialogue between Seb and Jane was moved to another chapter, although sadly I wasn't able to salvage Monty. (Warning: it's a bit spicy.)
Two Very Long Days Later
“You’re distracted, Trent.”
Sebastian glanced sideways at Lady Jane as she sat on the phaeton beside him, smiling at him from beneath the shade of her parasol as they drove slowly through Hyde Park. He bit back the fierce urge to disagree, offering instead, “My apologies.”
Because the truth was that he was distracted this afternoon.
This afternoon? He almost laughed. He’d been distracted since the night of his mother’s birthday party at Chestnut Hill. And that distraction took the form of a frustrating, strawberry-blonde woman who would most likely be the death of him before the season’s end.
In the two days since Miranda made her operatic debut, the attention she’d garnered had only intensified. Men of all social ranks—including some peers and heirs, more out of curiosity’s sake than any serious interest—were calling on her. She’d become the talk of the season, He couldn’t walk into White’s without one of the men there asking about her, and invitations from the ladies of the ton were arriving in a stream for her. So were the gentlemen callers. While his mother assured him that the sudden attention was harmless, the truth was that Sebastian didn’t like it. Not at all.
But what could he do except follow his mother’s wishes and allow gentlemen to call on her? He had no claim to her, nor ever would. That fit of madness that had him nearly seducing Miranda backstage at the opera was only that—madness to think that he could be with a woman because of the way she made him feel about himself, because she made him laugh and challenged him intellectually, because when he was with her he forgot about all the pressures of the dukedom resting on his shoulders and could simply be himself. But being himself was to be the duke now, at every moment, and the sooner he resigned himself to that fate, the better.
So he’d redoubled his commitment to find a wife. He’d eliminated the rest of the list and settled on Jane, then arrived on her doorstep today, posies in hand like any dandy, to request an afternoon drive in the park. If all went well, when he returned her from the drive he would formally ask the viscount for permission to court her. An offer would be made within the month, and they could be wed by August, just as he’d originally planned. And he’d never again be bothered with the madness of wanting to be someone he could no longer be.
“It’s been a bit of a trying season,” he explained. Trying? He nearly laughed at himself. Downright frustrating was more like it. In everything, he tried to remember the promise he made to his father to always put the dukedom first. But Miranda had completely spun his world on end. When he wasn’t longing to spend time with her, he felt riddled with guilt about the way he’d behaved with her. What would Father have thought of him that every time they were alone together he nearly ruined her? That certainly wasn’t the duke his father expected him to be.
“I’m certain it has been,” she agreed. Then, after a pause, “She’s the talk of the ton these days, you know.”
“I know.” There was no point in pretending he didn’t know what she meant.
“I can understand how she could be distracting for you.”
“Oh?” He shot her a sideways glance. What the hell did Jane mean by that? Was she insulting Miranda?
She brushed at an invisible dust particle marring her carriage dress, and when she looked back up at him, she was smiling with patient understanding for his situation with Miranda, not a drop of jealousy in sight. “You’re so busy this season—Parliament, your duties to your mother and sister, trying to keep your brothers in line…and now that girl. It’s a wonder you’ve got time for me at all.” She touched his arm in a sympathetic gesture. “But I’m glad you do.”
So was he. At least his search for a wife was going well.
“So I certainly don’t fault you for being distracted with all that you have to manage, and I hope you don’t think that I do.”
The tension eased from his back. Thank God Jane understood all the responsibilities resting on his shoulders. Another reason that she was the right choice to be his duchess. “Thank you.”
“Will Miss Hodgkins be staying until August, then?”
“Yes, but she has no influence on the time I plan to spend with you,” he assured her, which earned him a demure smile of gratitude.
“Still…” She pulled at her kid gloves, whose embroidered trim matched that of her carriage dress and pelisse. Even the ribbon decorating her bonnet had the same gold and maroon stitching. Every inch of her was fashion plate perfection, right down to the laces on her half-boots. “The stories circulating about her antics aren’t particularly kind, even when uttered with admiration.”
He bristled in Miranda’s defense. “She’s simply enjoying herself. Her parents both died when she was a little girl, and her aunt and uncle who raised her had no children of their own.” So they’d had no idea what do to with her, between overly strict tutors and letting her run wild with the Carlisles, and neither extreme was good for her. No wonder Miranda lived her life in extremes, he realized as he considered her situation, why she felt such swings of emotion. She’d never known anything in-between. “She’s just trying to find her way.”
Jane turned away to wave at an acquaintance. “I hope for your sake that she finds it soon.”
Something about her tone struck him as icy, despite the apparent concern for Miranda in her words. So did her lack of sympathetic comment on Miranda’s past. “She will,” he assured her, although he hadn’t the slightest idea how to make that happen. Reining the team to a walk as they neared the lawn near the ponds, he added, “I’m grateful you haven’t let the gossip chase you away.”
Another brief touch of her hand to his arm, this one lingering longer than before. “I would never let another woman decide my suitors for me.”
Her suitor. He was that all right, so why didn’t he feel especially thrilled about it, beyond relief at having his choice of wife settled so soon? In fact, after nearly an hour’s ride, he felt nothing for Jane beyond pleasant companionship, which even then had been half distracted. And that had to change if he was going to make her his wife.
“My family’s going to Vauxhall tomorrow evening for the season opening of the gardens,” he told her. “We’ve been invited by Alexander Sinclair to dine in his box. We would enjoy having you join us.”
He was also looking forward to getting her alone in the close paths and dark bowers of the pleasure gardens. After a few kisses and touches from Jane, his focus would be back on her where it belonged, and he’d be able to put Miranda out of his mind for good.
She looked at him flirtatiously through lowered lashes, just as Miranda often did. But with Jane, the gesture felt unnatural. Practiced. “I would very much enjoy that as well.”
He smiled at her. “I’m glad—”
A flash of brown caught his attention as it dashed across the lawn toward the ponds, followed immediately at a run by Miranda with her skirts hitched up almost to her knees. Charles Downing chased after, with Elizabeth Carlisle more slowly bringing up the rear.
“What the hell has she done now?” he muttered and set the team after her.
“Monty! Come back here!” Miranda called out after Elizabeth Carlisle’s runaway corgi who had gotten lose and was now leading her on a wild chase through the park. The animal was surprisingly sprite and quick given his rotund body and short legs. Not even the leash dragging through the grass behind him could deter him from his goal of the nearest duck pond and the poor, unsuspecting fowls floating innocently near the reeds. “Stop this instant!”
Just like the children at the orphanage, he refused to obey, although she knew from the flicker of his ears when she called his name that he heard her. Well, that was certainly just like the children.
Monty had pulled free from the duchess at the sight of the distant ponds, and Miranda had given chase, which sent all of them running after the dog. But only she would be able to catch him now, and she couldn’t stop since she was so close. So close, in fact, that she was only a few steps behind by the time they reached the edge of the pond, the leash nearly within her grasp.
The corgi slowed, and the leash went slack. Miranda grabbed for it. As she lunged, he dodged to the right, and she slipped left. Her foot flew out from under her. She stumbled forward, falling through the weeds and tumbling heels over head into the pond.
She plunged into the water, all of her instantly drenched, and the cold water tore a scream from her throat. She was dimly aware of a commotion on the bank, of shouts and the sound of horses. But she was more concerned about finding her footing on the slimy floor of the muddy pond, knowing there was no way to hide the scarlet blush of humiliation on her face despite the freezing temperature of the water soaking her clothes.
“Miranda!” A splash of water immediately followed the masculine shout of her name.
Oh. God. No.
She held her breath, waiting for the worst…
“What the hell!”
Flinching at the outburst, she jumped to her feet and spun around in the shallow water—and stared in horror at a drenched Sebastian who had leapt into the water to save her, now standing in water up to his knees. He clenched his jaw so hard that the muscles in his neck worked in fury, and his dark blue eyes shined nearly black. Dirty pond water soaked into his clothes and dripped from his chin.
He swiped his hand angrily at the surface, spraying the water in a wide arc. “It’s only a bloody foot deep!”
“It’s more than—”
The murderous narrowing of his eyes silenced her in mid-sentence. He pointed at the pond directly in front of him. “Come here,” he growled through clenched teeth.
Oh no—that was the last thing she’d do! Certainly not as he stood there, shaking with fury and soaking wet with a bulrush hanging from his shoulder. All her courage dripped away with the water running down her body, and instead of stepping toward him, she retreated. “I don’t think that’s a good—”
He advanced on her through the water like an oncoming army and reached her before she could run away, weighed down by her soaked skirts and slowed up by the slippery mud beneath her shoes. His arms went around her and lifted her from the water.
“Sebastian!” she cried out. “What are you doing?”
“I jumped into the pond to save your life,” he bit out, each word an angry snarl, “and I am damned well going to save you.”
But she had the sinking feeling he planned on saving her from the pond only so he could murder her himself. Each step through the water only made her heart pound harder with fear and dread of what would happen once they reached the bank.
“You don’t have to—”
Keeping his head straight ahead, he dropped a furious gaze at her, and she choked with a startled gasp.
Oh, she’d truly gone and done it this time. She could feel his restrained anger in the way his muscular arms held her stiffly, could see it in the hard clench of his jaw. And falling into the pond like this was so much worse than sneaking backstage during the opera, because that time had been only her. This time…oh, she’d dragged him down with her!
He carried her from the water and dumped her unceremoniously onto the muddy bank, where Monty the dog watched from a few feet away, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging.
“Downing!” Sebastian shook the water off his wet jacket, the expensive material water-stained and completely ruined, along with his beaver hat which had fallen off in the initial plunge into the pond and now bobbed on the surface near the weeds. “Escort the duchess and Lady Jane home, would you?”
“Of course, but—” Charles Downing came forward, a sheepish look on his face that Miranda couldn’t quite fathom…whether embarrassed for her that she’d fallen into the pond or upset that Sebastian had reached the pond to save her before he did. The fact that she didn’t need to be saved at all wasn’t one either of the two seemed willing to acknowledge. Men. “But how is Miss Hodgkins?”
“I’m fine.” For a drenched woman sitting in the mud. But the aghast looks that Elizabeth Carlisle and Lady Jane gave her…Oh, she simply wanted to crawl into the bulrushes and die!
Charles began to kneel next to her, but Sebastian took his arm and stopped him. “The ladies, please. I’ll take Miss Hodgkins home in the phaeton.” When Charles hesitated, uncertain if he should switch off escorts in mid-afternoon outing, Sebastian assured him with a smile, “As her guardian this summer, I promised her aunt and uncle to watch after her. I don’t want to risk her catching fever by walking.”
No, Miranda thought grimly, he wanted to keep her alive so he could kill her himself. “I can walk home. I’m fine, truly. I don’t need—”
In horror, her hands flew up to her nose, and her eyes grew wide, just in time to see Sebastian’s gaze swing to her. “No! It was just a sneeze—I’m not cold!”
But his smile only curled up higher, like a cat about to kill a mouse. Oh, blast that bulrush that tickled at her nose! And devil take the man—
Without warning, he swept her into his arms and carried her to the waiting phaeton. He placed her onto the seat and bounded up onto the rig to take the ribbons, signaling to the groom to release the team and take his place on the rear-facing seat in back.
“Downing, thank you for attending to the ladies.” When Miranda tried to wiggle off the seat so she could jump to the ground and flee, he clamped his hand over her shoulder to hold her still. “Lady Jane, my sincerest apologies.”
“No apologies necessary, Your Grace.” But the guarded expression on her face told Miranda that she most certainly did mind having her ride with the duke interrupted. A great deal.
“Mother.” He nodded at the duchess, who was now staring at them more in curiosity than surprise. When his eyes slid silently to the panting corgi who had caused all this mess in the first place, Miranda knew he was biting back a threat to the dog’s life.
Then he flipped the ribbons as Miranda opened her mouth to protest that she was more than capable of walking the short distance to Audley House. The team started forward with a lurch, leaving the two ladies and Downing standing beside the pond and staring after them in bewilderment. Monty was still wagging his tail, oblivious to all the trouble he’d caused.
“Stop the horses and let me down right now,” she demanded.
His only response was a flick of the ribbons that sent the team trotting faster. His face was set hard, his eyes focused straight ahead.
“Sebastian! You cannot kidnap me like—”
He swung his head to look at her, and the fury on his face ripped her breath away. “What in the hell were you thinking?”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
He crooked a single brow at her, his jaw clenched so tightly that she wondered how he managed not to break his teeth.
She took a deep breath to calm herself enough to explain. “Charles invited us for a walk in the park, so of course—”
“Charles?” His eyes narrowed at her use of Downing’s Christian name.
“Yes, Charles,” she shot back. “And why shouldn’t I go for a walk in the park with a gentleman? After all, you took Lady Jane for a drive.” She jabbed him in the shoulder with her finger. “Without a chaperone, I might add.” And now he was with her, also without a chaperone, although she was certain this was not the time to point that out.
“I didn’t need a chaperone,” he growled back. “We were in a phaeton, and I can’t take my hands off the ribbons.”
She crossed her arms with a not-so-silent humph at that. “And I had your mother with us to make it perfectly all right.”
“And how, exactly, was sprinting across the park with skirts hitched to your knees and throwing yourself into a pond ‘all right’?”
Miranda threw up her hands. “I did not throw myself into the pond! I accidentally fell in. You’re the one who threw himself in on purpose. So you can’t blame me for the fact that you got all wet when—”
Blackness flashed across his face, and his eyes fixed on hers with a look of murder.
She swallowed. Hard. Reminding him of that, apparently, was not a wise strategy.
“Next time I’ll let you drown, shall I?” Each word was more of a promise than a threat.
“The water was only two feet deep,” she pointed out helpfully. “I don’t see how I could have drowned.”
“Miranda,” he growled out her name in warning, the sound reminding her of the grizzly bear she’d seen in the Tower Menagerie. And just as dangerous.
“All I’m saying is that you didn’t have to go jumping in to save me. I was perfectly fine climbing out of the pond myself.” Then another thought struck her to aid her argument in the battle. “Besides, wasn’t that Charles’s responsibility as my escort? To protect me?” With a wave of her hand, signaling that to have been the perfect answer, she leaned happily back in the seat. “You could have let him jump in and save me, and then you wouldn’t be all wet.”
At that, he let loose a curse that was decidedly ungentlemanly, and one so fierce that the horses skittered before settling back into their perfectly matched strides.
“And why in damnation were you sprinting across the park in the first place?” he demanded.
Uggh! The man was infuriating! “I wasn’t sprinting across the park. Monty escaped from your mother and ran away, and I had to chase him down before he got himself into trouble.”
His face grew impossibly darker. That explanation clearly didn’t satisfy him. “I’d rather have the dog in trouble than you.” He leaned closer, his blazing blue eyes level with hers. “Although I’m beginning to appreciate the merits of keeping wild creatures on leashes.”
Refusing to be cowed by him, she leaned even closer until she could feel his breath against her lips. “Isn’t that exactly where you’ve tried to keep me since I arrived in London…on your leash?” She flashed a sickeningly saccharine smile. “How is that working so far?”
A growl tore from him, his hands clenching tighter around the ribbons.
She forced a mocking sigh, so hard it sagged her shoulders. “I bet you’re regretting choosing the phaeton over a chaperone now, since you can’t take your hands off the reins to throttle me while the team’s moving.”
The devil inside her couldn’t help but taunt him, even though she safely slid to the other side of the seat to put as much distance between them as possible.
Instead of shouting at her, though, he smiled slowly, such a calculating and wicked smile that her heart skipped. He drawled softly, “We won’t always be moving.”
Oh God. Her courage plummeted, along with her stomach. “Murder is scandalous,” she reminded him quickly.
“Oh, I won’t murder you, Miranda.” He calmly turned his attention back to the team, and suddenly, his lack of anger was even more frightening than his fury of just moments ago. Cold dread sped through her. “Too quick and easy.” He smiled again, and oh, she was beginning to hate that smile! He might look as charming as an angel, but she knew the devil lurked inside. And right now, a very angry devil. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to get blood on those pretty slippers of yours.”
Slippers— She gasped. Oh, it was worse than murder! “You wouldn’t.”
He shot her a hard glance. “We had a deal. You swore to stay out of trouble.”
“Sebastian, please!” If Robert ever found out how she’d felt about him—oh heavens, worse, if anyone found out how Sebastian had come to possess her slippers in the first place!—she would be completely mortified. She’d never be able to show her face again to any of the Carlisles, least of all to his mother and sister. “I didn’t hurt your chances with Lady Jane,” she rushed out, her fingers grabbing at his arm pleadingly. “She said so herself. She understands that it was all an accident.”
“I think, Miranda,” he murmured as he pulled the team to a stop, “that you’re in no position to make demands.”
He tied off the ribbons as the groom hopped off the back and hurried around to the front of the team to hold them.
She glanced up and blinked. Park Place. She’d been so busy arguing with him that she hadn’t noticed before where they were heading. “This isn’t Audley House.”
“No.” He lowered himself to the ground and turned back to give her his hand to help her down. “We’re both soaked through and freezing, and Audley House is twice as far.”
Instead of taking his hand, she folded her arms across her chest and leaned even further away. “I’m not cold.”
“Your teeth are chattering.”
Oh, Lord, they were! All of her was shaking violently, in fact, and covered with goose bumps. “I’m all right, really.” But this time, even she heard the chattering of her own teeth. “Please take me to Audley House.”
He arched a brow. “Please come down.”
She jabbed her nose defiantly into the air despite the fearful pounding of her heart. “No.”
“If that’s how you want it.” He looked up and down the street, but they were alone. No witnesses.
“Yes! That’s how I—”
With a single, frustrated motion, he stepped up and pulled her onto her feet, then tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. He dropped to the ground and hauled her into the house, past a very surprised Saunders as he stood holding the front door open wide for his normally reserved employer.
“Mrs. Prattly!” Sebastian bellowed through the house for the housekeeper. “Mrs. Prattly, I need you!”
Within a few seconds, the graying housekeeper hurried into the front foyer, wiping her hands on her apron. “Yes, Your Grace. What can I do—” She stopped. And stared. “Oh my.”
Miranda’s face flushed hot with embarrassment.
“We need a chaperone,” Sebastian snapped out. “Come.”
He carried her up the stairs, with Miranda still dangling over his shoulder, Mrs. Prattly following uncomfortably behind, and Saunders staring in wide-eyed shock at the bottom of the stairs.
“Put me down!” She flayed her arms and kicked her legs.
“Stop that.” He grabbed both her legs with one arm to keep her still and slapped her bottom with his free hand.
She fumed. “How dare you—”
“This is why I have to marry someone like Lady Jane,” he huffed out. “A woman who doesn’t go around throwing herself into ponds. A woman who does what she’s told. One who knows how to behave herself.”
His words stung more than she wanted to admit. “Good!” she retorted, striking out in anger. “Because I would never marry a man like you!”
He said nothing and slapped her bottom again.
He carried her down the second floor hallway and flung open one of the doors. “Mrs. Prattly, wait right out here.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Miranda couldn’t see the woman, but from the tone of her voice, she clearly thought her employer had gone mad.
He carried her inside, leaving the door open. Then he tossed her off his shoulder, and she landed with a bounce on her feet.
Around her, the large bedroom was prettily decorated in soft creams and dark browns, the afternoon sun slanting in through the lace curtains on the tall windows and shining against the cherry bed with its tall canopy. Pictures of Japanese cherry blossoms hung on the wall in gold-gilded frames, and a border of blossoms circled the room, the artist having painted branches onto the ceiling to create a feeling of floating among the trees. For a moment, she stared wordlessly at the room around her, thinking once again that Park Place was the most beautiful house she’d ever seen. What a dream it must be to live here.
Then her gaze circled back to Sebastian…and the dream turned to nightmare. Well, that was not a pretty look.
“If you do anything like this again,” he warned, his voice low and controlled, “it will mean the end of your season, and I’ll send you back to your aunt and uncle.”
Her head swam. If you...again...Was he truly granting her a pardon? “You’re not going to tell on me, then?”
Mumbling a string of curses, he strode into the connecting room and returned with a dressing robe. He held it out to her and pointed at the Japanese screen in the corner. “Give me your dress so I can give it to Saunders to put by the stove,” he ordered. “The sooner you’re dry, the sooner I can take you home and end today’s headache.”
With a grudging stab of her nose into the air, she snatched the robe from his hands and stomped off to change.
Expelling a harsh breath, Sebastian turned his back to the screen as she undressed, at least remembering to be that much of a gentleman despite his anger at her. He leaned against the wall and ran a hand through his hair. His fingers shook.
He’d never wanted to throttle a woman so much in his life as he had at that moment when he jumped into the pond to find the water two feet deep and her in no danger of drowning at all. But the shaking wasn’t from anger—it was from the sudden fear that gripped him when he saw her fall into the water and go under, immeasurable panic that she was in danger. His fear turned to anger when he discovered he’d been a victim of her antics. This time, right in front of Lady Jane. She was damned lucky he hadn’t throttled her pretty little neck right there in the park.
“If anyone was at fault in all this,” she called out over the screen as he heard the rustle of damp clothing, “it was Monty.”
“The dog?” he drawled. “Are you seriously attempting to blame your misbehavior on that dumb beast?”
“Monty isn’t dumb. He’s quite smart, actually.”
Good God, now she was defending the dog! Sebastian rolled his eyes—
And caught sight of the full-length mirror across the room.
And her reflection in it.
From where he stood, the angle of the glass gave him a perfect view behind the screen, and while he might have had enough of a gentleman inside him to turn his back, he couldn’t find enough to look away. Not when she peeled off the layers of the wet clothing plastered against her skin, revealing bare flesh one layer at a time until she wore only her stockings and shift. The thin piece of white cotton, now wet and transparent, clung to her curves and hid nothing from his eyes…the dusky circles of her nipples puckered hard from the cold and pressing against the material like pebbles, the concave curve of her waist into her hips, and lower, between her thighs, the soft curls guarding her womanhood.
His cock hardened instantly, and each racing heartbeat pounded down to his throbbing tip. Shamelessly, he continued to watch as she rolled each stocking down her leg and let it fall to the floor, then reached up to remove the last pins holding her hair in place and shake loose the damp curls until it fell in a golden-red mass of thick, unruly waves across her shoulders and down her back. And all the while, blissfully unaware of how deliciously tantalizing she was and how achingly tempting to the steel-stiff erection between his legs, she prattled on about the dog.
“Don’t you think so?” She reached down for the hem of her shift.
Slowly, she peeled it up her body, the wet cotton clinging to her as inch by inch she revealed the naked body beneath. Up her legs to her thighs, across her waist and on up over her full breasts…His cock jumped in agonizing pleasure-pain, and he pulled in a sharp breath through clenched teeth as she raised it over her head and let it drop to the floor. For a moment, he had a perfect view of her naked body, all long legs and smooth curves, pale skin and burnished-gold hair, and that mouth, that delectably kissable mouth—her pink lips drew into a perturbed little pout because he hadn’t answered her.
Then she turned around to toss her wet clothes over the screen, and the view of her naked backside was just as glorious as the front.
“Sebastian?” She paused, tilting her head and unknowingly posing like a nude model. The temptation of her was overwhelming.
“Stay here,” he rasped out through clenched teeth and strode toward the connecting door.
“Are you leaving?”
“I’m…changing my clothes.” The most feeble excuse he could have found, but at that moment, all that mattered was getting out of the room. Fast. “Stay here!”
He hurried through the connecting sitting room to his bedchamber, and with images of her naked body still playing enticingly through his mind, he closed the door, leaned back against it, desperate to calm his heart and collect himself. And somehow find a way to drive her out from his mind and from under his skin.
He pounded his head against the door. Sweet Lucifer. He’d completely lost his mind.