Excerpt from A Duke's Temptation
Lord Anonymous had seduced more women in Europe than a man of discretion would willingly admit. Although he had forgotten the dates of these affairs, he had fondly recorded his lovers’ names in a red morocco leather notebook which he kept under lock and key. He had done his best to leave each of his ladies with a happy ending.
But sometimes a man had to let go and conquer other challenges.
He had stolen the virtue of a French comtesse on her wedding day and helped her escape her cruel bridegroom an hour before she was to take her vows. He had made love to a German princess in the Black Forest and guarded her in a hut until the traitors who wanted her lovely head could be caught. There were trolls involved, as he recalled. He had killed every last one.
Still, depending on his mood, he might be considered not only an epic hero but a classic villain. Among his less gallant acts, he had once abducted an innocent lady and imprisoned her in his castle for seven months. He had set out to despoil her, and he had.
It was further recorded, in his own hand, that the lady had refused to be rescued when her brothers stormed the bailey.
She had been ruined for life, she proclaimed from the tower where this depravity had taken place. So enslaved was she by her unprincipled abductor that she ordered him to murder her siblings if they dared intervene again. She had no desire to be redeemed, and she would stab even her own brothers in the heart before she would give up the dark nobleman who had disgraced her.
Lord Anonymous could turn from valiant deed to bloodthirsty revenge in a heartbeat.
It was no wonder he had been accused of corrupting the populace.
Lord Philbert’s Literary Masquerade Ball
It was common knowledge in the beautiful world that Samuel Aubrey St. Aldwyn of Dartmoor, the fourth Duke of Gravenhurst, and ninth Baronet, was a radical young rake and champion of unpopular causes. Samuel realized that society considered him to be one of its most charismatic and controversial figures. He did his best to oblige. He was one of the first guests invited to an event. He was also usually the first asked to leave by nature of his declaring himself bored to death.
His appearance tonight at Lord Philbert’s masquerade party guaranteed that the other guests would go home well amused.
On this point both his friends and rivals agreed─the duke was a most entertaining man.
One could even say that he lived to entertain.
He spoke infrequently, and then only to a select few, but he always spoke his mind and cared little whether he shocked anyone.
Because he was young, dangerously beautiful, and as elusive as a dark angel, the duke got away with offenses that would have cast out another man. Still, society knew only the half of who Samuel was when he wasn’t in London. He hoped to keep it that way. He valued his private life, spending most of the year on his secluded Dartmoor estate, with people he completely trusted.
His impertinence infuriated certain members of the aristocracy and invigorated others who welcomed a breath of fresh air. But tonight, at least, he was among his own, other patrons of the arts and the artists grateful for their generosity.
The thought crossed his mind that he might find an intelligent mistress at an affair like this. He and his last lover had parted several months ago. The closest she had come to showing any interest in literature was to hurl a volume of Milton at the door when he announced he was leaving her.
It was exhausting trying to live up to his reputation. Excess drained the energy he could put to better use.
Dressed as his favorite literary character, Don Quixote, Samuel shrugged off the stares of recognition that followed his entrance. He paused only once in the hall, dented helmet, shield, and lance in hand, to bow before acknowledging any single person with his attention. Let the world think he was aloof. His breastplate was killing him. Cutting into his ribs like a butcher’s knife.
“Decent work this morning, Your Grace,” someone said, reminding him of the mock duel he had fought at dawn.
“Good show, Gravenhurst.”
Show. He smiled to himself. It was all show. To further his secret career. And to keep a promise to his host and partner in literary crimes, the London publisher Lord Aramis Philbert.
“You deserved to win,” a gentleman at the end of the line declared above the others. “How dare anyone challenge your decadence so early in the morning?”
“I’ll challenge it later tonight if His Grace is inclined,” a sultry voice said from the crowd.
His gaze cut through the glittering maze of guests to a lady languidly waving a fan hand-painted with a variety of improbable sexual poses.
“Madam,” he said, “I am an aristocrat, not an acrobat.”
At her startled laugh, he presented his usual devil-may-care grin to the crowd, retreating to the antechamber that Lord Philbert reserved for Samuel’s private use. In the past he might have engaged the lady in a tryst. But she didn’t seem worth the trouble of taking off his armor. He would never get it back on again for the rest of the party. Why did the literati perpetuate the myth that lust made fools of only the lower classes?
“Honest to God,” he muttered to the towering valet who handed him a bracing glass of burgundy the moment Samuel dropped into a chair. “One would think I had cured the world of cholera instead of challenging a friend to a drunken duel. It’s embarrassing, Wadsworth. Are you not embarrassed on my account? Loosen this body armor. I’m turning into a damned tortoise.”
The valet ventured a smile. “Sit forward, Your Grace, while I bend the wrench under your breastplate again. The only thing you have in common with a tortoise is your fondness for lettuce. There we go. Don Quixote can tilt again. The world does love a hero.”
Samuel snorted. “Even when that hero isn’t real? How many of the dearly deluded are here tonight?”
“Bickerstaff guessed at over three hundred, Your Grace.” Bickerstaff was Samuel’s butler. “Tickets were still being auctioned off at clubs around the city this afternoon.”
“I assume we bought a good share.”
“One hundred twenty at last count.”
Grinning, Samuel rubbed his cheekbone. “As long as it goes to a good cause. What is our current cause?”
“Legal counsel against the war loan hucksters, Your Grace. Would you like to read what the papers are saying about you now?”
“Why bother? I probably wrote it.”
The duke downed his wine and stood. He took the battered shield that Wadsworth whisked from the corner and scowled at the reflection in the dented metal. “Whose idea was it for me to dress as Don Quixote for this affair?”
The valet polished the right corner of the shield with his coat sleeve. “I believe it was Marie-Elaine who suggested it, knowing how you enjoy playing the knight-errant.”
“Remind me in future that I am not to take a housemaid’s advice. And . . .” Samuel looked under his chair. “I don’t suppose you know where I left my lance?”
“Perhaps the majordomo took it into safekeeping. Ah, no, my mistake. You put it in the potted fern on your way in.”
Samuel tucked the useless weapon under his left arm. “If Don Quixote looked mad, I’m sure I won’t make a different impression. Please instruct Emmett to have the coach ready in an hour. I doubt I can keep myself under control any longer than that.”
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