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Forbidden to Love the Duke(2)

By:Jillian Hunter

“My goodness.”

“You’re everything a lady should avoid.”

“I might be.”

“Well, it’s never too late to repent.”

“At my age? I have absolutely no intention. Save the sermon for the next rake you meet.”

“I’ll tell you something else,” she whispered. “It’s a good thing I can’t see your face, because in the event that someone has seen us together, I can’t identify you to my father.”

He laughed. “Or to your future husband, who, it is becoming apparent, must kiss decently and be on his guard against scoundrels like me. You do have a delicious mouth. Are you certain I can’t entice you to meet me in a more private spot at midnight?”

“This is my debut,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “Would you ruin it for me? Would you ruin me for the rest of my life for your passing pleasure?”

He crushed her to him, closed his eyes for an agonizing moment, and released her with a regret he’d never known he could feel. “I suppose it’s too much to ask you to remain pure another few years?”

She laughed again. “If you had your way, I wouldn’t remain innocent for the rest of the night.”

“Let’s make a bargain.”

She shook her head, the feather in her hat tickling his nose again. “I don’t think so.”

“Hear me out first.”

“Hurry, then. I’ve left my sister alone in the ballroom.”

“If you don’t have five proposals by noon tomorrow, I shall offer for your hand.”

Her eyes widened. “Now I know you’re mad.”

And at that moment he let her slip away, unable to disagree, convincing himself it was for the best. What did he want with a woman who made him lose his head?

* * *

Ivy had felt quite beautiful during the short interlude with the masked stranger, bedazzled by his attentions. In fact, she so wanted to believe the scoundrel had meant what he said that she made one excuse after another not to dance with anyone else for the remainder of the night. If they spotted each other across the room and he broke through the crowd of dancers to reach her, well, she wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next in a romance.

She expected there was a good chance that she’d catch him flirting with another lady, in which case she would simply stand with all the poise she could muster, smiling until her face ached, and count the hours until she could escape.

At least she wasn’t alone in the crowded ballroom. She had an ally at her side; of her three sisters only Rosemary had been old enough to accompany her to the ball. Rosemary had met a young gentleman, too, one who shared her passion for literature but was too shy to ask her to dance, and he had disappeared when his aunt complained that she had felt a need for air.

Ivy hadn’t yet dared to confess to Rosemary what had happened, but of course one day she would. She wanted to savor the secret for the evening and not appear gullible in Rosemary’s eyes. Her sister could be counted on to lecture Ivy for behavior beneath the Earl of Arthur’s eldest daughter, and then, even worse, she would demand that Ivy describe every detail of the rake’s kisses so that she could include it in one of her future novels.

Ivy doubted she could describe the alchemical transformation she had undergone in the stranger’s arms. The magic of it still shimmered through her veins. She intended to keep it private for as long as possible.

Five proposals.

What a bounder.

“Ivy?” Rosemary nudged her. “Who are you looking for?”

“Who—oh. Papa, I suppose.”

“He’s upstairs gambling.” Rosemary unsuccessfully attempted to fit her skirts into a Chippendale chair. “Bother. Are you enjoying yourself?”

Ivy nodded. “Yes. I think so. And you?”

“It’s amazing how much one can learn about life from watching what goes on in a ballroom. I’d love to take a stroll down the corridors. Are you game?”

“Not in these skirts. I’d rather remain here and observe the crowd.”

Just before the midnight supper the evening’s festivities turned ugly. Another debutante, one who had attended the same boarding school as Ivy, had been caught in a bedroom with a married baronet. Ivy comforted her in the retiring room while the other girls talked of nothing but her disgusting behavior. Later Ivy persuaded herself she should feel fortunate that she had not been witnessed in an indiscretion herself. After the guests had settled down from the excitement, her father’s footman appeared during the supper and the two sisters were whisked home to the town house.

By the next morning their father, Thomas Fenwick, the Earl of Arthur, had been accused of cheating at cards and killed in a duel. In the rush of sorrow that followed, the scoundrel’s kiss faded into a sweet memory that Ivy buried beneath her grief for so long that at times she even wondered whether it had happened at all.