How I have come to hate weddings!' Lady Arabella St Claire
muttered inelegantly as her partner in the waltzâ€”a dance
still considered slightly risquĂ© by the older members of the
tonâ€”swept her assuredly amongst the two hundred or so other
wedding guests milling about the candlelit ballroom of St
Claire House in London.
'Could that be because in the
past year you have been three times the sister of the groom
rather than being the bride?' drawled Darius Wynter, the
Duke of Carlyne.
Arabella looked up sharply,
intending to give him a set-down for the mockery she
detected in his cynically bored tone. That was her
intention, but instead Arabella found her attention caught
and held by the hard and perfect male beauty of his faceâ€”a
face Arabella had once described to one of her
sisters-in-law as being that of an angel. Or a
Six or seven inches taller than her own five
feet and eight inches in stockinged feet, Darius Wynter had
stylishly overlong golden hair, which gleamed in the
candlelight, and his eyes were of dark cobalt-blue, edged by
long lashes of that same gold. His nose was long and
aristocratic, his cheekbones hard, and he possessed perfect
sculptured lips above a square and determined
The stark black of his jacket over snowy-white
linen emphasised rather than hid the width of his shoulders,
his muscled chest and taut abdomen, and the lean elegance of
his hips and thighs was defined by tailored black
Yes, Darius Wynter, Duke of Carlyne, was
certainly elegance personifiedâ€”and he was also the most
com-pellingly handsome man Arabella had met since her coming
out the previous year.
Until a few short months ago
he had been Lord Darius Wynter, a man well known for his
numerous exploits in the bedroom and at the gaming tables. A
wild and reckless reputation that had only been added to
when he'd married the heiress Sophie Belling a year ago,
only to be suddenly widowed one short month later, when his
bride was thrown from her horse while out hunting and
As expected, the majority of the
tonâ€”marriage-minded mamas especially!â€”had forgiven Darius
Wynter all his previous sins when he'd inherited the title
of the Duke of Carlyne on the death of his elder brother
seven months ago.
Arabella had been drawn to his
decadent good-looks the first time she'd seen him at a ball
some eighteen months ago. An attraction, despite the many
social occasions at which they had both been present, that
Darius Wynter had unfortunately never given any inclination
Her top lip curled now with haughty
disdain. 'I am sure you did not mean your remark to be so
insulting, Your Grace.'
Darius gazed down into the
beautiful face of Lady Arabella St Claire. With three
brothers older than herself, one of them Hawk, Duke of
Stourbridge, Darius knew that this young lady had been
petted and spoilt for most if not all of her almost twenty
Nevertheless, her beauty was dazzling: a riot
of honey-gold curls framed her heart-shaped face, her eyes
were the colour of melted chocolate, and she had a tiny
up-tilted nose, full and sensuously pouting lips, and a
pointedly determined chin. The pale cream gown she wore
revealed a spill of creamy breasts above a narrow waist and
rounded hips, and her tiny feet were covered in cream satin
Yes, Lady Arabella St Claire was without
doubt a very beautiful and highly desirable young lady. But
as the young and so far unattached sister of the Duke of
Stourbridge, wealthy in her own right following the death of
her father eleven years ago, this haughtily condescending
young lady had been hotly pursued by every eligible buck
during the past two Seasons. Darius, whilst still only the
lowly Lord Wynter, had even made an offer for her himself
the previous year. An offer that had been summarily
dismissed by this wilful baggage, he recalled
Are you so sure?' Darius
Those deep brown eyes narrowed slightly. 'I
am but nineteen years of age, Your Grace, hardly old-maid
Darius rather liked the angry flush
that had entered her cheeks. It made her eyes appear darker,
the fullness of her lips redder. Lips that it would no doubt
be a pleasure to kiss and explore, he noted. 'Nevertheless,
you have been out for two Seasons now, with no hint of a
betrothal being announced.'
Those expressive dark
eyes flashed her displeasure. 'Is it your opinion, then,
that all young ladies are so giddy and empty-headed that
their only aim in life must be to snare themselves a
He raised enquiring blond brows.
'By suitable I presume you mean wealthy, as well as
Her pointed chin rose challengingly. 'It is
the enlightened year of eighteen hundred and seventeen, Your
Grace, a time when not all women feel that they need a
husbandâ€”any husbandâ€”by which to justify their very
'Then it is not your intention to marry?'
he asked curiously.
'Not for some years, no,' she
Her brows drew
together. 'I beg your pardon?'
Darius shrugged broad
shoulders. 'At nineteen a woman's body is still firm and
ripeâ€”' He broke off as Arabella gave a shocked gasp and
attempted to pull away from him, yet Darius easily prevented
her withdrawal by tightening his arm about the narrowness of
her waist and his fingers about her tiny gloved
Her eyes glittered up at him angrily when
she found herself forced to continue dancing, the softness
of her thighs pressed against his much harder ones. 'Release
me at once, sir!'
Darius grinned down at her
unrepentantly. 'I am merely endeavouring to show you what
you are missing by spurning the idea of marriage whilst you
are still young enough to enjoy it.'
Arabella had not
grown up with three older brothers without learning at least
some of the mechanics of a man's body. And at the moment she
could feel exactly what she would be missing as the
hard press of Darius Wynter's thighs became a shocking
torment against hers. A shockingly sensual
Her legs felt weakened by the intimacy. Her
breasts were swelling against her gown, her palms becoming
slightly damp inside her gloves, and her cheeks were burning
as she glanced about them self-consciously.
there was such a crush of people attending the celebration
of her brother Sebastian's wedding to his darling Juliet
that no oneâ€”not one of her brothers or their wives, nor
indeed her many aunts and uncles and numerous cousinsâ€”seemed
to have noticed the Duke's over-familiarity with
Arabella's eyes gleamed as she turned back
to face him. 'Surely it is not necessary for a woman to
marry in order for her to enjoy suchâ€¦intimacies?' She looked
up at him challengingly, hoping to shock him.
Duke narrowed his eyes. 'Perhaps you have already done so?'
Of course Arabella had not. She might
not as yet have found any man interesting enough to even
think of marrying him, but for her to go to her husband on
their wedding night as anything but pure and untouched would
cause the most tremendous scandal. Besides which, her three
over-protective older brothers would never allow
However, she considered this taunting mockery
from a contemporary of her eldest brother Hawk intolerable.
At one-and-thirty years of age, he should know better!
'Perhapsâ€¦' she echoed enigmatically.
lips curved into a hard smile. 'Why is it I find that so
very hard to believe, Lady Arabella?'
She drew in a
sharp, indignant breath. 'Are you calling me a liar, Your
'I believe I am, yes,' Darius
Arabella St Claire really was a wayward
little baggage, he acknowledged with admiration as he
continued to twirl her about the magnificent candlelit
ballroom. A wilful baggage with a complete disregard for the
fact that she was playing with fire by behaving in this
flirtatious way with a man she had refused to marry so
condescendingly the previous year.
She held herself
very erect, her challenging stance pushing up the full swell
of those creamy breasts so that Darius now felt their warmth
against his chest.
'I do not tell lies, Your
He quirked a brow over lazily sensual blue
eyes. 'Prove it.'
Her eyes opened wide at the
challenge. 'I beg your pardon?'
have been the only two people in the room as Darius regarded
her from between narrowed lids. The air between them was
charged with expectation as he noted the loss of colour to
her cheeks and the shocked uncertainty that now shone in
those previously rebellious brown eyes. 'I am merely
inviting you to prove your claim, Arabella,' he repeated
'Iâ€”Butâ€”How am I to do that, Your
His mouth repressed a smile. 'Surely there is
only one way in which a woman might prove herâ€¦experience in
the matter of physical intimacy?'
Arabella stared up
at Darius Wynter in disbelief. He could not seriously mean
for her toâ€”? He did not expect her toâ€”?
His intent was blatantly plain for
Arabella to read in that single raised brow. In the deep
blue of his eyes. In the cynical half-smile on those perfect
Darius Wynter, Duke of Carlyne, was openly
challenging her to indulge in physical intimacy with
Arabella's heart fluttered wildly in her chest
at the mere thought of the muscled strength of this man's
hard, naked body pressed against her own; those wide
shoulders, the firmness of his chest and stomach, his
powerful thighs and the naked glory of hisâ€”
you, sir, that the infamous Darius Wynter is the very last
man I would ever contemplate becoming intimate with,'
Arabella bit out with deliberate insult.
down his aristocratic nose at her. 'Is that so?' he
She nodded. 'You are undoubtedly the
rake everyone believes you to be. A rake and a scoundrel. A
man who married for money before being suspiciously widowed
only a month later.'
voice was deceptively, dangerously
'Conveniently, then,'Arabella substituted
recklessly. As you were then able to keep your heiress's
money without the bother of the heiress. In other words,
sir, you are a man no decent woman should ever align herself
with, as wife or mistress, regardless of your newfound
wealth and respectability as the Duke of
Arabella was instantly aware of her serious
error in judgement in insulting this particular man as those
dark blue eyes narrowed dangerously in a face gone hard with
displeasure. His mouth was a thin, uncompromising line above
a clenched and unrelenting jaw. That very stillness was in
itself a warning of the coldness and depth of his
Arabella swallowed hard. 'Perhaps I have said
'Only perhaps?' Darius grated
She had said too much. Far too
much, and most assuredly to the wrong man. That the Duke had
challenged her into being so indiscreet Arabella had no
doubts. That she should not have taken up that challenge was
also beyond doubt. As was the retribution promised in the
hard blue of his eyesâ€¦
'I believe we should retire
somewhere a little lessâ€¦crowded so that we might continue
this conversation in private,' Darius growled, his fingers
firmly gripping Arabella's elbow as he left the dance floor
to pull her along at his side through the crush of
'We cannot be seen leaving the ballroom
together,' Arabella hissed self-consciously, hoping that at
any moment one or other of her brothers would arrive and
demand to know what they were about.
Darius did not
so much as falter in his departure as he glanced down at her
with cold, remorseless blue eyes. 'I believed you to be
unconcerned by such impropriety in this enlightened year of
eighteen hundred and seventeen!'
Arabella felt her
cheeks warm as he neatly turned her earlier bravado back on
her, to good effect. 'I assure you I am completely
unconcerned, Your Grace, but my brothers may perhaps be
lessâ€¦guarded in voicing their opinions.'
twisted derisively. 'Sebastian and his bride disappeared
some minutes ago, and Hawk and Lucian also seem to be
similarly engaged with the charms of their own
Another hurried glance about the ballroom did
indeed show an obvious lack of the presence of Arabella's
brothers. How typical! Since her coming out last Season her
brothers had made her life almost impossible with their
over-protectiveness, and now, when Arabella would actually
have welcomed their high-handed interference, they had all
disappeared to goodness knew where to dally with their
wives. Even Aunt Hammond, her chaperon during these past two
Seasons, appeared blind to Arabella's unwilling departure
from the ballroom as she stood across the room engrossed in
conversation with several of their relatives.
said,' Darius drawled with dry satisfaction, 'I think it
better by far that we retire somewhere less crowded in order
to continue our presentâ€¦conversation.'
no doubt from the determined tone of his voice that
conversation was the last thing the arrogant Duke of Carlyne
wished to continueâ€¦.
Darius strode from the ballroom,
pulling Arabella through yet another crush of people where
they stood chattering and laughing in the cavernous hallway,
although he was not unaware of the expression in her
beautiful brown eyes as he looked for a room where he could
be alone with this insultingly outspoken young madam. Those
eyes of hers, Darius knew, could sparkle with laughter as
easily as they now snapped with anger.
So far the
former had never happened in his presenceâ€¦.
he and Arabella St Claire had chanced to meet this past year
and a half it had always been at one function of the ton or
another. Occasions when this feisty little miss had treated
the disreputable Lord Darius Wynter with all the haughty
disdain of which a St Claire was capableâ€”if she deigned to
acknowledge him at all. Which usually she had
The tenuous accuracy of Arabella's recently
voiced insults proved that although she had appeared to be
completely unaware of him personally, she had obviously not
been above listening to the scandalous gossip that so often
circulated about him amongst the ton!
timeâ€”past timeâ€”for Darius to demonstrate to her that as the
Duke of Carlyne he would no longer tolerate such dismissive
behaviour from her or anyone else!
The noise and heat
of the wedding party faded, and Darius kept his hand tightly
about her elbow as he strode forcefully down a corridor
towards the back of the house.
'What is in here?' He
indicated a door to the left of the hallway with his free
'It is a linen closet, I believe. Lord Wynâ€”Your
Grace,' she corrected herself hurriedly as she stumbled
along beside him, 'this really is most
'Here?' Darius ignored her protests, his
expression grim as he indicated a door to the
'Hawk's study. But we cannot go in there!' she