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Forbidden to Love the Duke

By:Jillian Hunter
Forbidden to Love the Duke - Jillian Hunter




James had pursued his alluring prey midway to the ladies’ retiring room. A black silk mask concealed half his face, but the more experienced guests at the masquerade ball knew his identity. A duke’s heir rarely went unnoticed at a party, especially when he paid attention to a particular lady. To his amusement, the object of his infatuation seemed to be the exception.

The lady acted unconcerned by his pursuit, perhaps even oblivious to his interest. She hadn’t once glanced over her shoulder or faltered in her steps to show she cared that she’d captured his fickle attention. She swept down the corridor like a princesse royale, oblivious to whoever fell or trailed in her wake.

He admired her demeanor. Was it possible she was blithely unaware of his existence? He had to remedy that situation before he had half the guests at his heels. But he was starting to wonder whether he wasn’t hunting her as much as she was leading him somewhere.

She certainly wasn’t dressed to entice a man. Her skirts belled out over a metal-framed Elizabethan farthingale that bumped a pair of footmen on either side from her hurried path. It was quite the costume. If James hadn’t become so instantly enamored of her angelic face, he might not have gone on the chase with so many tiresome debutantes warning her, between giggles, that a scoundrel had her in his sights.

“Hurry up, my lady!”

“He’s going to catch you.”

“Do you want us to escort you?”

“She isn’t from London,” one of them whispered to another, looking at James through a bejeweled mask. “He’ll take advantage of her innocence.”

The silly geese dispersed as soon as he approached her—his personal attendants had made an art of protecting his privacy. They crowded the hall until he caught her by the hand and led her to a corner beyond the betraying lights of the wall sconces.

He neglected to ask her name, or to speak at all, while memorizing her face. And he ignored her initial resistance as he pulled her into his arms and kissed the lovely mouth that had lit an unbankable fire in his blood. Her body refused to mold to his, but neither did she push him away. The feather in her tall hat poked him in the eye. As soon as he had noticed her in the ballroom, he had wanted to take her home and remove her square-necked Elizabethan lady’s costume. But now he realized she was too young to dishonor, as badly as he desired her, and beyond that, he’d enlisted in the infantry. She would belong to someone else when he returned home.

Stolen kisses on this night would have to suffice.

“Sir, I don’t even know who you are,” she whispered when he gave her a moment to breathe.

“If I told you, would you allow me greater liberties?”

She laughed at his bold question, evidently delighted at the prospect of a season of romance and gentlemen to vanquish ahead of her. “I should warn you—my father has a hot temper.”

“I have a hot temperament.” Which she did nothing to cool. How could he offer her anything except trouble when he was about to leave for war? He brushed his hand down her back, over her stiff skirt and petticoats, then around and up to her bodice, seeking the true shape of her body. She was well built, and he laughed at the delicate hand that arrested his quest.

“That’s quite enough.”

“Not for me.”

“Who do you think you are?”

“Isn’t it better sometimes not to know?”

“I couldn’t say. I’ve never attended a masquerade.”

He stared down into her sweetly indignant face and proceeded to ravish her tempting mouth until the rumble of background voices forced him to release her. He had acted rashly, and it was his responsibility to protect her reputation. After all, she was presumably at the ball to find a husband.

He brought his hand to her warm cheek, murmuring, “My body servants will stand as a barricade for you to slip away. I’m sorry if I offended you, but I simply couldn’t resist. And I’m not sorry that I kissed you. Tell me the truth—are you? Do you regret my actions this evening?”

He knew even before she replied that she wasn’t. He’d felt the shivers she had tried to control when they kissed. Still, he didn’t expect a lady to willingly admit that she had shared his inexplicable surge of desire.

She surprised him with her answer. “I’ll tell you the truth,” she said under her breath. “This was my first kiss. From what I’ve heard, as far as first kisses go, yours was fairly decent. But if you try anything like this ever again, I will call you out. I won’t let you kiss me a second time. My father is looking for a husband for me tonight. I’m his eldest daughter, and that’s all you need to know.”