Swept Away By A Wild Lord
Lady Anastacia Danvers made her way through the crowd with steady and sure steps, heading for an empty spot where she could breathe and assess the gentleman who would soon become her husband in peace. She did not care for the attention she was receiving from all the other gentlemen, though it could not be helped. In order to attract the one she wanted, she first had to establish desirability.
She studied her soon-to-be fiancé in quiet speculation.
Lord Averly John Benson, second son of the Earl of Benson, was the perfect specimen. She had taken great care in her choice from her list of potential husbands, and she had not made the decision lightly. This lord would suit her needs perfectly, and he was also quite easy on the eyes. Not that appearance mattered, mind you. All that truly mattered was that she wed the right kind of gentleman and was quick about it.
The rough estimate of time was based on a shocking mixture of guesswork, calculation, and eavesdropping. Fourteen days. That was about all the time Anastacia had to marry. Maybe even less. Her very survival depended upon securing a husband. But no matter how desperate she was, she’d set firm, practical perimeters on what she required. She needed a husband with enough of a backbone for her purposes, but also one who was neither cruel nor controlling, neither greedy nor domineering. She’d not trade her current cage for a similar one. Which was another reason she had chosen Lord Averly. Being the friendly sort, he would never dominate her—or her inheritance—and being a gentleman; he would also play the hero and protect her from harm.
So, on the whole, her task was to win him over, and not only make him fall madly in love with her but also fall in love with her enough that she could persuade him to elope, as well, and all in the span of a prickly amount of time. Because—and she felt nauseous every time she thought of it—her uncle would soon return home to their estate in Herefordshire and find her gone.
Anastacia planned to be married by then.
For all that, the elopement part of her plan depended on her soon-to-be fiancé, and so needed to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. Luckily, Anastacia was confident she possessed the will and means to convince him.
Her hand lifted to knead the curve of her neck as she inhaled deeply, the heat in the room causing moisture to form on her forehead. Not very flattering.
With a glance to the French doors, she hesitated only for a bare moment before heading in that direction. The city, she discovered, proved quite daunting, and Anastacia had to admit that having lived in the country her entire life, she found it rather unsavory. But, well, that was just the air. Beyond that, the experience was rather thrilling.
Outside, the crisp, fresh air cooled her skin, and she let out an audible breath of pleasure. The chilly air also served as a balm to all her worries, concerns she wished she could break free from.
All in good time.
That was if her plan worked.
Glancing about the balcony, she noticed no one else, which pleased her. If her uncle ever learned she had traveled to London without his knowledge, it would not bode well for her. And Anastacia could not bear to live under that tyrant for a moment more than was necessary.
“A dark balcony is no place for a tempting morsel such as yourself.” The sudden low drawl of a male voice filled the night.
So unexpected was the interruption to her peace, Anastacia whirled around with a gasp and was met by the wicked stretch of lips on the most attractive man she had ever come across. Though handsome was too a fine word to describe him.
Striking. Aye, that was a more apt illumination of the man grinning down at her.
Sharp angles lined his face, made complete by an undisciplined dark mane—as if he had just come from a windy horseback ride. Long, envy-inducing lashes fringed his obsidian eyes, but perhaps his most noteworthy feature was his mouth. Devilish and teasing, its full power was directed solely at her.
Alarm bells signaled in her head.
He ogled her like she was a delicious pastry and he had every intention of devouring her. She did not need this, whatever this was.
Anastacia was about to flee when the low ringing of his laughter sent chills down her spine, presumably because of her alarm, or perhaps her dumbstruck reaction before he bowed and introduced himself as, “The Duke of Blackcress at your service, my lady.”
That snapped her right out of her stupor. A duke? Here, on the balcony with her? Alone and introducing himself? Were they not supposed to be introduced by their host? Having spent most of her life in the country, she would not be surprised if things had become more forward since her last visit to London. But if they hadn’t, did that make him a rakish duke then? It certainly made him a bold one.
Her face burning, Anastacia executed the perfect curtsy, her cheeks reddening even more when he raised one brow. Still, good manners dictated she say, “Pleased to make your acquaintance, your grace.”
The to-be-decided rakish duke tilted his head to the side, amusement entering his gaze. “Did your parents not see fit to gift you with a name?”
Anastacia blinked. Should she? Dare she? She was just about to let her name slip from her lips when the sudden gleam in his eyes gave her pause. His countenance resembled that of a wolf. A disreputable wolf. Of course, she may yet be wrong, but since time was of the essence, she could not afford to spend it fighting off the dubious attentions of a rake.
“Why yes, your grace,” Anastacia murmured, their gazes locking, “but not one I feel the need to share.”
If he was taken aback by her boldness, he did not show it.
“You refuse to tell me your name?”
Anastacia shrugged, which caused his smile to broaden. Belatedly, she wondered if it was wise to refuse a simple request from a duke. It appeared as though she had unwittingly issued a challenge of sorts. However, there was nothing wrong with her intuition. It may have been years since she last graced the streets of London, but instinct still warned that this duke’s intentions were unsavory.
This man, duke or not, was a rake.
Artfully, he stepped away from the entrance and onto the balcony, moving into the shadows but leaving her in full view of the ballroom. Her gaze followed his movements, although now his face was obscured by darkness.
So, he would not leave until she gave him what he wanted. No matter, she would leave. Her focus ought to be on Lord Averly, anyway. “If you will excuse me, your grace—”
“No, I do not excuse you, not before you tell me your name.”
Anastacia stilled, her senses going on high alert. Her mind racked for the appropriate way to handle her predicament. Years of living with a tyrant had taught her one thing: to spot a domineering male. And this one’s determination surprised even her.
“Why do you wish to know?” Anastacia asked, curious.
“You are an exquisite creature; why would I not desire to know your name?”
More bells chimed in her ears, this time the kind that warned a lady of imminent danger. She dared not give him her actual name and neither did she dare incur his wrath. The only course of action to protect her identity, and thus protect her reputation, was to give him a false name.
With confidence she did not quite feel, Anastacia haughtily lifted her chin and replied, “Fine, if you insist. My name is Fidelia June Williams, but my friends call me Fid.”
“Bloody hell,” he cursed. The horror in his eyes was priceless.
“What kind of parents saddles their child with such a name?”
Anastacia almost doubled over in laughter when she saw his lips pull up in what looked to be a snarl of disgust. She pretended mock outrage instead. “I will not have you disparage my parents. I happen to like my name. Now, if that is all, please excuse me. I have a dance partner who must be in search of me.”
She started to back away from him.
“Fidelia.” He tested her name on his tongue, but his lips remained curled upward. “Unfortunate, but it can be overlooked.”
Overlooked? Whatever for?
As though sensing her inner question, his next words chilled her to the bone. “I find myself quite fascinated by you. And in light of this, I propose a proposition.”
Her pulse leaped in dread. A proposition? Wait—did he mean marriage? In light of her current predicament, would she say yes if he did? And yet, dukes did not ordinarily propose marriage to complete strangers on impulse. Her instincts warned her of danger, and she steeled herself accordingly.
“What sort of proposition?” Because it needed to be asked even though she may not like the answer.
“One that may be beneficial to us both.”
“I fail to see how any proposal would be beneficial to me,” Anastacia muttered, almost on a snort. Even if his proposal included marriage, such a union to a tyrant would never be advantageous to any woman, even if it came with a lofty title.
He stepped out from the shadows, black eyes fixed on hers, and this time Anastacia held her own, squaring her shoulders, her feet rooted firmly to the ground. He stopped inches away from her, forcing her to crane her neck as his gaze held her imprisoned with its intensity.
“One night of wild passion in my bed.”
The words, spoken in a low, gruff tone, clearly intended to seduce, hit her like a thunderbolt. She blinked, attempting to comprehend what the duke was asking of her. “I beg your pardon?” Anastacia croaked.
“No need to beg, just say yes.”
To one night of wild passion in his bed?
Lud, no wonder many a woman had fallen prey to the attention of a rake. Staring up at him now, his eyes filled with the promise of untold pleasure and his voice sounding like the stuff poets waxed poetry about, Anastacia wanted to believe one night of passion with him would be beneficial to her.
But one wild night would not fix her situation, so she crossed her arms over her chest. “I fail to see how your sordid proposition would benefit me. My reputation would be ruined and my prospects reduced to particles of dust.”
If it were at all possible, his smile turned more rakish before he drawled in that low, seductive voice, “But you will have known true passion, sweet.”
That was it? That was his final line? That was the Grand Benefit? Anastacia scoffed. She, for one, would happily go without knowing true passion if it meant escaping the cruel clutches of her uncle.
Anastacia stared at the madly inappropriate man before her, uncertain where to go from here. How did one decline a sinful proposition from a duke politely? What’s more, did he honestly believe “you will have known true passion” was reason enough that she would gift him with her virtue?
Perhaps he did. Privileged and pampered all his life, this man probably never spared a thought to what other people may be going through, how they may claw and fight for every scrap they possess.
Anastacia took a step away from him, noting how his hawkish eyes filled with fire when he took note of the action.
“You disagree with my assessment.” Sweet charm dripped with sarcasm.
Anastacia took another step back. Forget politeness. “Allow me to make myself clear, your grace. I will not, not even in the unlikely event the world perished and you and I were the last survivors, spend one night with you.”
Well, maybe then. The duke seemed unperturbed, however, if not a bit amused. “Never is a long time.”
“Perhaps, but I have come to London to secure a husband, not cater to the fancies of a man such as yourself. Unless you happen to be in the market for a wife?”
The duke visibly flinched, and Anastacia gave a curt nod. Earlier speculation aside, it was as her instincts had warned: there were no good intentions in this one. Not that she’d have ever considered him for a husband in normal conditions—the man was far too self-absorbed.
“Why would a creature as beautiful as you wish to wed? You could hold the world in the palm of your hand if you so desired, yet you waste such a gift on marriage.”
Her heart fluttered at the ridiculous compliment. Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous man!
“For one, marriage will protect me from rogues that accost young women on balconies.”
A warm, velvety chuckle filled the space between them, making her skin tingle. “I have only ever accosted you on a balcony, my dear,” the duke murmured.
“Nevertheless, I am sure there are more than enough willing women to appease your desires.”
He waved her comment aside. “Spend one night with me, Fidelia, and you can name any man, and he will be yours.”
Anastacia coughed to cover the gurgling sound that had erupted at the use the name. Fidelia. Dear Lord.
Still, his words rankled. “And just how will you manage to convince whatever poor lord I name to marry a woman sullied by your touch?”
“You will be surprised, my dear, what a man can accomplish if he puts his mind to it.”
Just then, and much to her distress, Lord Averly appeared at the entrance. She would rather not have had him witness her exchange with the duke. And any doubts, however minuscule, she may have harbored about the duke’s reputation, that he was nothing but a rogue, vanished with the faltering smile of Averly when he spotted Blackcress. His eyes darted between them before he said, “Lady Anastacia, I believe this is my dance.”
Anastacia turned to give the younger lord what she hoped was her finest smile. “Lord Averly, you are just in time to save me from making an utter fool of myself. It seemed I interrupted his grace in a private moment when I came out for a breath of air.”
The duke stiffened beside her. Too late, Anastacia recalled they were the only people on the balcony. Oh drat. What would a private moment alone on the balcony entail? Retching in the plants? Relieving himself over the balustrade? From the corner of her eye, Anastacia noted the glare he shot her way but was grateful he remained silent.
The temperature in her cheeks rose.
Lord Averly, bless his heart, held out his arm, and Anastacia wasted no time placing her hand on the soft material of his jacket. Over her shoulder, she remarked, “My apologies, your grace, I hope to be more vigilant in the future.”
She would be much more vigilant!
Lord Averly turned on his heel and led her into their dance without so much as an acknowledgment to the duke, his displeasure clear. All the while, Anastacia could not help but imagine the duke’s dark, heated eyes burning into her back. The entire time, pondering what treasures she’d discover in sharing his bed for one night.
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