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Purchase


Nvengaria #2
Dorchester
December 2006
On Sale: November 28, 2006
Featuring: Grand Duke Alexander; Meagan Tavistock
378 pages
ISBN: 0843956070
EAN: 9780843956078
Paperback
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Romance Historical

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Excerpt of The Mad, Bad Duke by Jennifer Ashley

Meagan jumped and thrust the fan in front of her face, but too late. He was staring at her with harsh intensity, his eyes sharp and blue, penetrating all the way across the room. That gaze was for her, not for Deirdre preening herself next to Meagan, not for the dowagers chatting together on Meagan’s other side. Grand Duke Alexander assessed Meagan, his gaze like the edge of a razor.

He knew.

But good Lord, how could he? She’d had a ridiculous dream, a waking vision—it had not been real. No one could know, thank heavens, what lurid thoughts went on inside Meagan’s head.

She remembered the way he’d looked down at her in the bath chamber when he’d come out of his sexual languor, his gaze as intense as it was now. Who are you? he’d started to say before the vision ended.

Across the ballroom, Alexander leaned to the Austrian countess, murmuring to her while keeping his gaze on Meagan, obviously asking who Meagan was. The woman glanced at Meagan in eager curiosity, her eyes bright, her red- lipped mouth moving in answer. Meagan imagined her saying in her rich Austrian voice, That little one? She is nothing. The nobody daughter of a nobody. Do not waste a second thought on her.

Deirdre pinched Meagan hard. “Oh, do you see? He is looking at me!”

Meagan knew differently, but she held her tongue. The Grand Duke murmured back to his companion, then the pair of them began strolling in the direction of the potted palms and Meagan and Deirdre.

“Lud, he is coming this way,” Deirdre gasped. “I knew it. When he asks me to dance, you run up to the sitting room on the third floor, the one two doors from the top of the stairs, and wait for me. I’ll entice him up, and then you slip the talisman into his pocket while I chat with him.”

Deirdre was a fool, and Meagan was suddenly sick to death of her. She’d put up with Deirdre’s clinging friendship this Season for old time’s sake—they’d grown up near each other in Oxfordshire and Deirdre had often joined Meagan and Penelope in their games or dreaming talks of the future.

This spring, when Deirdre had begun including Meagan in her circle, Meagan, lonely for Penelope, had let her. Her stepmother, Simone, approved, mostly because Deirdre as a married woman could take over chaperone duties and leave Simone free to gad about with her friends unimpeded. Meagan’s father hadn’t much use for Deirdre but understood this was Meagan’s first year without Penelope and did not stop Meagan pursuing the friendship.

Meagan suddenly wished he had. “They will hardly speak to either of us, as we have not been introduced,” she said churlishly.

“Oh, bother that. They are foreign. Perhaps they will speak to us anyway, not knowing English manners.”

Meagan had found that non-English Europeans often had even more scrupulous codes of politeness than Englishmen, but she said nothing.

Alexander’s lovely countess solved the problem by stopping their hostess Lady Featherstone on their way across the room and conferring with her. Lady Featherstone, a graying, slim matron, brightened and joined them on their promenade.

Meagan and Deirdre scrambled to their feet as the group approached, Deirdre swaying in excited anticipation, her diamonds rattling. Meagan edged behind Deirdre and lifted her fan to cover her face.

Lady Featherstone began chattering before the three even reached them. “Ah, girls, our distinguished guests were curious about you.” She stopped, all smiles, her rouge staining her high cheekbones brilliant red. Lady Featherstone loved gossip and social gatherings and was a kind and caring woman, genuinely interested in giving all young ladies a chance, not just the titled and wealthy ones. She was the dearest friend of Lady Stoke, a woman who ten years ago had married a pirate turned viscount.

“Miss Tavistock and Mrs. Braithwaite are childhood friends,” Lady Featherstone rattled on. “It is pleasant to see them together in London. Miss Tavistock’s father recently married Lady Trask, the mother of Miss Tavistock’s dearest friend, Penelope, who became Princess of Nvengaria. But of course you’d know that, being the Grand Duke.” She tittered.

“Indeed.”

The single word was rich and pleasantly accented. His voice matched that of the man in Meagan’s vision, down to the exact way he formed the brief vowels and slurred the consonants.

“Ah, yes, well,” Lady Featherstone burbled. “Your Grace and Lady Anastasia, may I present Mrs. Braithwaite, wife of Hector Braithwaite a prominent MP. Mrs. Braithwaite, Lady Anastasia Dimitri of Nvengaria and Grand Duke Alexander—er . . . I am so sorry, Your Grace, the rest of the name escapes me.”

Alexander, his eyes on Meagan, did not seem to notice. Into the awkward silence, Lady Anastasia extended a slim gloved hand. “How do you do, Mrs. Braithwaite?”

Deirdre shook her hand, but her rabbit-brown eyes remained solidly on Alexander, examining his gold and blue sash, the multiple medals that dangled from his chest, and the ruby glittering in his ear. “Your grace.” She disengaged from Lady Anastasia and moved her hand toward his in hint.

Alexander, his eyes cool, lifted her hand to his lips, clicked his heels, and made military bow. “Mrs. Braithwaite.”

“And Miss Meagan Tavistock,” Lady Featherstone went on. She took Meagan’s arm and nearly dragged her out from behind Deirdre.

Lady Anastasia held out her hand, amusement dancing in her dark eyes. “I am pleased to meet you, Miss Tavistock.”

“Likewise,” Meagan choked.

She knew she was expected to acknowledge Grand Duke Alexander, but she clung to Lady Anastasia’s hand in almost desperation.

In the vision, Alexander had been overwhelming enough. In person, this close, he was impossible to look at. His presence pushed aside that of the other four women, Lady Anastasia included, demanding every inch of space.

He was a foot taller than Meagan, his broad shoulders at her eye level. His masculinity, the scent of his cashmere coat and the male musk behind it, the large, strong hand in the black glove that he wrenched away from Deirdre, all made her weak in the knees. She could not take him in. She had to sit down, or run away somewhere, or maybe swoon.

No, then he might carry her out of the room, and she’d awaken to find herself again in his strong arms, his heart beating swiftly against hers.

Then again, from the look he gave her, he might simply let her lie there on the floor, perhaps signal someone to come and sweep up the mess.

His hair was dark, almost black, but shot through with lighter streaks, as though the sun burned it here and there. His skin was brown with tan, even more brown than Prince Damien’s had been. Where Prince Damien had a charming grace that could make a girl smile and giggle without knowing why, Grand Duke Alexander wanted you on your knees, and only social politeness made him let you stay standing.

He executed another click of heels, another bow, and nearly snatched her hand from Anastasia’s. “Miss Tavistock.”

He lifted her fingers to his mouth and impressed them with one hard kiss, lips burning through her silk gloves. She slid her slippered feet together, trying to stop the trickle of heat that moved between her legs.

He raised his head and his gaze caught her like a bird in a snare, a cruel snare she would have to beat against to escape, and then she’d only get away wounded. His eyes were hard and fierce, intensely blue, Nvengarian blue.

She’d come to like Nvengarians and their wild ways and enjoyment of life. They loved nothing greater than dance and revelry, unless it was fighting a dire enemy or making love to a beautiful woman. The women, Penelope said in her letters, were just as intense as the men and saw no shame in discussing the handsomeness of their lovers or various techniques of pleasure and erotic bed games.

Not that Penelope described any of these bed games, but Meagan had an imagination and was no fool. She wondered suddenly what it would be like to have Alexander stretched full length beside her while he taught her various games.

His eyes flickered slightly, the pupils spreading black through the blue. And she knew, in that moment, that he knew what she thought. Perhaps not her specific thoughts, but the gist of them. He knew about her vision, because he’d experienced it too.

She did not know how she knew that, but his anger washed over her like floodwater. She dragged in a breath and tried to disengage her hand, but his fingers clamped hers like an iron vice.

“Miss Tavistock,” he said, his voice vicious and low. “There is a waltz beginning. Will you dance it with me?”

No, I would rather struggle to the top of a mountain in Scotland in the snow, thank you.

Then again, the thought of dancing in his arms, whirling with his hand on her waist, looking deep into his eyes . . .

Oh, dear, what was happening to her?

“I do not waltz,” she babbled.

“Nonsense,” Lady Featherstone said helpfully. “You have been out three Seasons and you waltz beautifully. I have seen you. Your step-mama would not mind.”

Indeed, Simone Tavistock, thankfully across the room and buried in gossip with her cronies, would not. She’d practically shove Meagan at any gentleman who wanted to dance with her. In Simone’s opinion, Meagan simply was not trying.

“I am feeling unwell,” Meagan began.

“Do not be silly, you look lovely,” Lady Featherstone said. “Go on, do. I will keep Deirdre company.”

“As will I,” Lady Anastasia announced. “Do not worry, Miss Tavistock, we will keep Mrs. Braithwaite quite entertained.”

Deirdre was breathing hard, her color high, bosom straining at her tight bodice until Meagan fancied she heard the seams ripping.

“Of course,” Deirdre said through her teeth. “I would be enchanted.”

Lady Anastasia laid her long fingers on Deirdre’s arm. “Shall we sit? Your tiara is lovely, my dear.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” Deirdre thumped to a chair. “My husband can afford to give me as many diamonds as I want.”

“How lucky for you,” Lady Anastasia said, and gracefully sank to the chair Meagan had vacated. Lady Featherstone, looking motherly and very pleased with herself, made a shooing motion at Meagan.

Alexander made no sign he even noticed this exchange. He took Meagan’s hand and unceremoniously dragged her to the middle of the room where couples were forming. Short of screaming, kicking his shins, and fleeing, Meagan had no choice but to go with him.

* * *

Miss Tavistock’s waist just held the span of his hand. If Alexander spread his fingers, the tip of his smallest finger would brush her hip while his thumb would rest just below her bosom. He felt her hand light on his, her arm a graceful arc. Her face was flushed, her eyes starry, but she would not look at him.

The music took them into the waltz. Couples whirled around them, ladies holding skirts to the side, going round and round like butterflies. Miss Tavistock held her skirt as well, but more like she’d seen a rat on the floor and didn’t want it running across her train.

She was absolutely and stunningly beautiful. Her red hair had been severely tamed into a tight bun surrounded by ridiculous, unnatural ringlets. He knew that unbound, her hair would be long and thick and lush with unruly waves of its own.

He wanted it flowing over his hands, over his face, over his naked body. He wanted to cup her pointed little face in his hands, tilt it upward, and lean to kiss it. He wanted to lay her on a bed and hover over her on hands and knees, parting her legs and drawing his fingers through the fiery tangle between her thighs. She’d be wet for him, and he’d withdraw his fingers and lick her honey from them.

She’d gripped him good and hard in this spell and was not letting go. The proximity of her only made it worse.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice harsh.

Miss Tavistock at last looked up at him. Her eyes were brown-gold, surrounded by thick, dark lashes, and so damn beautiful he wanted to bend and kiss them, giving them the attention they deserved.

“I am Miss Tavistock, as Lady Featherstone told you.”

A nice, evasive answer. “You know what I mean. Who are you? What are your connections, and why have you come here?”

Now that she’d finally looked at him, she was giving him thorough scrutiny. Her gaze raked him from forehead to waist, studying him similarly to the way most women did, but with an important difference. Ladies like Lady Featherstone and Mrs. Braithwaite hungrily took in his medals and sash, the outward trappings of the Grand Duke, second most powerful man in Nvengaria. Meagan Tavistock looked at Alexander the man. She could care less about his medals and his sash of office and everything that being Grand Duke meant.

She examined the black hair that swept back from his forehead, the bronzed skin of his face, the black of his lowered brows, the ruby earring he always wore. She took her time studying his mouth then examined his throat where it disappeared into the high collar of his coat. Her gaze drifted down his chest, skimming his medals, but he had the feeling she looked at what was beneath, his dark skin over pectorals, the tight points of his nipples as they responded to her scrutiny.

“Answer the question, Miss Tavistock,” he said sharply.

She raised her gaze to him, her eyes wary yet holding a quietness he’d never beheld in any person, male or female. “I have come here to dance, this being a ball. My stepmother brought me here to get a husband, if you must know, because I am rather on the shelf.”

He clamped his fingers on hers, and she flinched. “Your banter is amusing, but the effort is lost on me. I want to know who employed you to use a love spell, and why.”

Her eyes widened the slightest bit, and her slim throat moved in a swallow. Alexander had recognized right away that this woman held no guile and was likely not a conspirator herself. She was an innocent tool, a means to an end, and he would make her lead him to whoever had manipulated her.

“You are quite mad, Your Grace. I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“You do,” he returned. “This is a dangerous game, Miss Tavistock, and you would be wise to inform me of everything. Who do you work for and what did they promise you if you ensnared me?”

Her red ringlets trembled, her face turning pink enough to highlight the freckles on her nose. “I work for no one. This is a silliness, Your Grace, that is all. Not worth bothering about, I vow to you.”

She was giving her word. In Nvengaria, giving a word was binding even unto death, but he had no way of knowing whether an English miss regarded things in the same fashion.

“Tell me,” he said, “and I will tell you if it is worth dismissing.”

Miss Tavistock looked away. He read in the set of her mouth that not only did she not want to reveal the name of the person who’d put her up to this but that she was not afraid of Alexander. That only betrayed her ignorance, and her innocence. Alexander did not hurt pawns to prove he could, but he had to know who was using her and he would employ any method he could.

“You dance quite well, Your Grace,” she said suddenly, as though trying to change the subject. “Not like I thought Nvengarians danced at all. I thought you grabbed each others’ waists and snaked around in a line.”

“That is a peasant dance. The dances of Nvengarian aristocrats use are far more intimate.”

Her lips parted, her body swaying a little toward him at the word intimate.

He had a sudden vision of himself and this beautiful red- haired woman dancing alone in the fantastic ballroom in his Berkeley Square house, drifting round and round under the arched, red-painted and gilded ceiling. He’d hold her much closer than this, of course. The room would be lit by sunlight from the windows on the far end, and there would be no music, just the pair of them dancing and dancing and dancing.

He was extremely aware of her waist beneath his palm, of her legs pressing at her gown as she glided in time with him, their feet a mere whisper of distance apart.

Miss Tavistock’s eyes were soft, her gaze no longer wary or evasive. She was looking at him, at Alexander, as though she saw past his cold façade to all his flaws.

“The vision we shared came from a spell, Miss Tavistock,” he said, reminding himself of the danger.

“Yes, I thought it must have done.”

“At least you acknowledge that. Where is the talisman?”

She hesitated a moment, then she silently raised her hand. A small silk bag with roses embroidered on it dangled from her wrist.

And then, instantly, he was back in the marble-pillared bath chamber of his house in Berkeley Square.

Candles burned in sconces along the walls, light dancing on the water that obscured the sweet body of red-haired Meagan Tavistock. She sat on the far end of the Roman bath, staring at him with brown eyes in a pale and round face. Her lips were full and lush, wanting kisses, her bare shoulders brushed with a line of freckles. She stared as though surprised to see him there, then her gaze drifted down his unclothed body, regarding him with flattering interest.

He wanted her with a suddenness that took his breath away. He could already feel his hands on her body, imagined himself opening her thighs and pushing inside her. She’d welcome him into her slick warmth and she’d move beneath him, making soft noises of pleasure. His erection lifted at the need to make his longings truth.

Hot water bit his skin as he descended into the bath. Steam rose to engulf them both, curling the wisps of red hair on Meagan’s forehead. He smiled, enjoying the pretty picture she made.

“Love,” he asked softly. “Would you wash my back?”

Her eyes widened, her chest rising with an intake of breath. He glided the few steps across the bath and stood over her before bracing himself on the lip of the tub and sliding his knees to either side of her on the hard marble bench. His arousal, thick with need, fell against her thighs.

He drew his fingers along her cheek, then leaned down and tasted her lips from one corner to the other.

Beneath him, she gasped, and with the suddenness of a slap, the bath dropped away, and he was standing in the glittering ballroom, her in his arms, both of them having come to a dead stop. Another couple danced into them and stared in amazement at the two standing motionless on the dance floor.

Alexander glanced swiftly down at her. By the wideness of her eyes, the way her bosom lifted with her breath, he knew Miss Tavistock had felt every inch of the vision with him.

He seized her by the elbow, murmured, “Miss Tavistock, you seem unwell, let us get some air,” and pulled her out the nearest door.

Excerpt from The Mad, Bad Duke by Jennifer Ashley
All rights reserved by publisher and author

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