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Forbidden to Love the Duke(99)

By:Jillian Hunter

Lilac grinned at his bewildered expression. “It was a secret until recently. His Grace was going off to war and our father was—well, let’s not discuss that tonight. But James gave Ivy her first kiss when they were strangers in London, and now they’re married. It’s quite romantic if you don’t count the five years of misery that we spent before they were reunited. By the way, I very much like your costume. King Arthur, are you?”

“Yes, my lady, and you are?”

“Lilac, didn’t you catch my name?”

* * *

Across the room Ivy caught sight of Lilac and then assessed the bemused expression on her brother-in-law’s face. “He can take care of himself,” she heard James say over her shoulder. “Besides, he needs to practice. I can think of no better way for a man to gain an understanding of women than by spending time in the company of your sisters. Meeting the four of you is the equivalent of running a gauntlet. I am rather proud to say I survived the challenge and took you as my prize.”

She turned slowly. A tall handsome man in a black silk mask and Georgian courtier’s long quilted coat stood before her. “I desire you,” he said with a bow.

“I don’t even know who you are,” she whispered, toying with the feathered hat she’d removed.

“If I told you, would you allow me liberties with your person?”

She laughed. “My husband has a hot temper.”

“I have a hot temperament.” As he straightened, he swept his hand up her back, seeking the shape of her through her stiff skirts and drawing her into his body. He was as hard as the columns that rose to the ballroom’s ceiling.

“Sir, I must insist that you—”

“I know this won’t be your first kiss, but let me try to make it exceptional all the same.”

Exceptional? She tilted her face to his. As she expected, his kiss laid siege to all her senses. She had never spent an unexceptional moment in his company.

“I also realize we’ve only just met,” he murmured, “but I have a desperate urge to bed you. Is that a possibility?”

She took a breath. The black mask highlighted the promise of dark pleasure in his eyes. “I’m not sure. This is my debut as a duchess. I ought to be mingling with my guests. It would seem highly improper to rendezvous with a stranger when I’m supposed to be an official presence at the party. My absence would be noticed, as would yours.”

“There are plenty of distinguished guests who would stand in for us.”

“It isn’t quite the same,” she murmured, already relenting.

He lifted her hand to his mouth. “Five minutes. Your room or mine?”


* * *

The Duke and Duchess of Ellsworth discreetly exited the ballroom, only to be arrested in the middle of the staircase by the three guests peering through the railings at the candlelit ball below.

“Mary and Walker,” Ivy said, sinking down indecorously two steps below them. “I’m not at all surprised to find you here, but, Rosemary, for heaven’s sake, haven’t you outgrown this sort of thing?”

“Outgrown what?” Lilac asked as she slowly ascended the stairs with Curtis on her arm. “Make room for me and your father, children. We want a front-row seat.”

“Oooh,” Mary exclaimed, rising to her knees in excitement. “Look at the lady in the blue silk dress, Walker. She’s wearing wings. She’s a fairy queen.”

“What lady?” he asked, attempting to squeeze his head through the railings.

“The one with the black hair walking beside the old woman holding a cane.”

“God’s teeth,” he said. “She’s the most beautiful lady in the world.”

“It’s Rue,” the three sisters said in unison.

Curtis leaned over his son. “Walker, I don’t want to hear you use that sort of language ever again. And if you get your head stuck, your rear is vulnerable to attack.” Then he glanced down at the ballroom and broke into a grin. “Who is she again?”

A knight in light armor and a crusader approached the bottom of the stairs. Ivy glanced down at Sir Oliver and Captain Wendover, who said, “Is this a private party or is anyone invited?”

James knelt on the step beside Ivy, removing his mask to look into her eyes. “Shall I have the footmen serve us up here or are we returning to the party?”

“We can’t sit on the stairs all evening,” she whispered. “And there’s no way to escape now without causing a stir. Besides, I should greet Rue, and her employer doesn’t appear agile enough to climb the stairs unassisted.”