About the book
It’s her last chance at love this winter—all she has to do is trap a duke.
Lady Louisa could never have imagined a fate worse than having to endure even a moment in Wyatt’s company of relentless teasing. Until her father suddenly died, her dowry evaporated, and her prospects disappeared.
Wyatt Fords, the Duke of Carriston, carries a secret which he has never shared with anyone. Not even to explain why he has changed into a cold-hearted rake. Or why he intends to die a bachelor and let the title pass to his cousin’s heir.
With an eventful ball marking the beginning of the Christmas holidays, Louisa is surprised to see that, despite his horrid reputation, Wyatt is still the same insufferable man that used to torment her. Only… This time the torment he provides is one she would very gladly submit herself to.
“Shall I wear my green or blue coat?” Irene asked, holding each thick, velvet coat over her grown. She turned her head in one direction, then the other.
“It would not matter,” Louisa retorted. “You shall just leave it in the ladies’ retiring room.” Louisa’s maid pinned another curl in place on her head.
“No, no, like this,” Louisa said, pushing the curl in the other direction. She sighed dramatically. “I have no idea why I bother.”
“I think I shall wear the green,” her sister, Irene, announced cheerfully, ignoring Louisa’s dour tone. “It would seem much more festive; do you not think?”
Louisa sighed again. “Yes, the green suits you better, regardless.”
Irene laid the coat over the back of her vanity chair, swooshing the skirts of her dress as she pretended to waltz toward Louisa. “Mary, once you’ve finished with Louisa’s hair, would you help me with my ribbons?”
“Yes, my lady,” the maid agreed, focusing intently on Louisa’s hair still.
“I am terribly excited to see a ball at Carriston Manor. It has been ages!” Irene cooed. “You look simply splendid, tonight. I am sure you will have everyone swooning at your feet!”
“Men do not swoon,” Louisa corrected. She inspected herself in the mirror on her vanity, feeling critical of the paleness of her face. She pinched her cheeks in frustration. “But so long as it is not Wyatt himself, then I shall pay no mind.”
“The Duke?” Irene asked, wide eyed. She fell to the footstool at Louisa’s feet. “How can you still hold such a grudge against him? It has nearly been ten years since we’ve last seen him.”
“It has not been ten years,” Louisa protested. “He has been back home several times. But even if it had, ten years would be too few.”
“You cannot possibly think of him as some wayward boy, as he was then,” Irene continued.
“I shall!” she protested. “Do you not remember how he tormented me? Frogs under my skirts, mud in my hair, dunking me in the lake. He was positively cruel to me. I learned to never play games with him, as I knew he would cheat just to relish in my discomfort.”
“I must confess, I do not have the same memories that you do. Surely, boys will just be boys.”
“You were quite young,” Louisa reminded her, then pointed to the paper on her desk. “If you do not believe me, look here, the latest gossip column speaks of tonight’s ball.”
Irene dutifully picked up the paper and read aloud, “It is to this author’s delight that the rakish Duke of Carriston will be hosting a holiday fete at his countryside manor. Rumors are that he has invited half the countryside, the female half that is, in hopes to secure his next mistress,” Irene scoffed but continued on. “After his studies, the Duke traveled through Europe, though what sights he saw cannot be discussed respectfully in this column.”
Irene shook her head. “Please, you cannot trust a word this report says. Just last week, Lady Whidby was said to be on her deathbed, when she was suffering from no more than a cold!”
“To be fair, Lady Whidby probably believed herself to be on her own deathbed,” Louisa laughed unkindly.
Irene set the paperback on Louisa’s vanity in a huff. “Still, you have no idea what he is like now. You should go tonight with an open mind. If he turns out to be a terrible flirt or tease, then seek solace with Rickard.”
Louisa pursed her lips thoughtfully, thinking about Wyatt’s younger, kinder cousin. “It has been a long time since we have visited him, too, since he went off to Oxford.”
“If nothing else, surely there will be plenty of other potential suitors there tonight,” Irene smiled. “As the columnist said, the Duke has invited half the country!”
“The female half!” Louisa reminded her. “If such is the case, then there shall be plenty of young ladies sitting out. I shall be surprised if I am asked to dance at all. Especially once everyone sees you.”
Irene started to protest, but Louisa laughed. Ever kind-hearted and good, Irene would deny her own beauty, especially when compared to others. She had beautiful, pale skin, golden blonde hair, and blue eyes. Even though they had similar features, Irene carried them better. By comparison, Louisa had hard edges, a steely coldness to her blue eyes.
“I know you feel so much responsibility for me to marry well,” Irene told her kindly. “It is not fair to you, especially when you do not care for society events like this.”
“You should not feel guilty, either. Neither of us could help that father died in the middle of our season,” she assured her sister. “I promise you, I will do my best tonight, and any other events we may be invited to.”
“Promise me, you will at least marry someone you care for,” Irene asked, her face somber. “Do not just marry for title or money, just for my sake.”
“I promise,” Louisa assured her.
A knock came at the door, just as Mary stepped away from Louisa’s finished hair. In unison, both girls called out, “Come in!”
Their mother swooped in, the picture of grace and elegance. She was already dressed for the evening. Her blonde hair, which both girls had inherited, was piled up on her head in a stately fashion. She had already donned her coat and raised her eyebrows at the state of both her daughters.
“My goodness, I expected you both to be ready! We’ll be terribly late, already,” she said, picking up Irene’s coat from the back of the chair. “Come now, let us be off.”
“One moment, I need my ribbons!” Irene protested, scurrying to her own vanity.
Louisa stood, smoothing her dress with a sniff. “I do not see the fuss. It shall only take a few minutes to reach the Manor by carriage. We shall hardly be the last guests to arrive.”
Mother sent her a withering look. “I expect you to have a much more hospitable attitude once you arrive. This is the first time you are meeting the Duke since his father passed. I expect that he would need our support in this trying time.”
Louisa stifled a laugh by turning her attention to Irene. Mary was deftly tying the last ribbon about Irene’s waist.
“No time to dawdle, grab your coat. Your Uncle is waiting downstairs,” Mother rushed, waving to Louisa to hurry.
With a sigh, she dutifully grabbed her coat from her bed, where Mary had laid it out earlier in the afternoon. Unlike Irene, she had not worried over what to wear that evening. Mary had suggested a dark blue gown, to match her blue eyes and contrast with her blonde hair, which Louisa did not contest. Irene, however, had fretted all evening, finally settling on a shimmery gold dress, which made her appear an angel.
Though they were sisters, their apparel illustrated their differences. Louisa preferred to be serious, quiet, and disappear into the crowds. Irene was cheerful, friendly, outgoing, always the delight of the room. Men bent over her hand and women giggled with her over gossip. Louisa struggled to fill a dance card, while Irene could afford to be choosy.
“Louisa?” Mother called, waving her hand in front of Louisa’s face. “Hello? Darling? Is something amiss?”
Louisa started. “No, no,” she assured her, donning her coat. “I shall meet you downstairs.”
As she passed through the door, she heard her mother urging Irene along, asking about her coat and her reticule. Gladly, Louisa escaped the attention of her mother, down the front steps of their manor, into the foyer where her Uncle Eugene waited.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, appraising her. “You look as lovely as ever tonight.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” she responded, feeling skeptical at his assessment. Looking at the two of them, one would not know that they were related. Both Louisa and Irene took after their mother. If someone had looked closely, perhaps they would have found the girls had their father’s smile. However, their father and uncle did not share that same feature.
“Such a wonderful opportunity this is,” he continued, his eyes shining. He paused, as though he hoped Louisa would press him, as the smile that played on his lips implied a deeper meaning. She raised her eyebrows to encourage him to continue.
“The whole ton will be at Carriston Manor this evening. Anyone of means, that is. You will have no end of eligible men to choose from.”
“I will be sure to keep an eye out,” she promised, looking up the stairs in hopes that Irene and her mother were coming down.
“I should hope, however, that you make sure to greet the Duke and wish him congratulations on his new title.”
Louisa raised her eyebrow again, wryly. “Would that not be in poor taste, Uncle, given that he only became Duke at the death of his late father? Surely, he is still in mourning.”
Uncle waved it off. “They were not close. I do not suppose that he grieves too terribly. Though, I suppose you could offer your support, perhaps, a shoulder to cry on?”
“Whatever are you proposing?” Louisa cried, shocked by her Uncle’s implication.
“You are in need of a husband,” he explained, waving his hands excitedly. “A husband of means. The Duke is, of course-”
“Let me finish!” he protested, grabbing her shoulder. “The two of you grew up together, but surely he has not seen how comely you have become. You may use your familiarity with him to gain his favor. It would be a handsome match.”
“I would never!” she gasped, horrified at the thought. “He would be a terrible husband!”
“Bah,” Uncle scoffed. “Perhaps, but a husband he would be, a husband of significant wealth and power. You would be free to do as you pleased.”
Louisa gasped again. “Uncle, I cannot believe you would say such things to me. I shall not have it! I would rather die a spinster than marry Wyatt.”
“The Duke,” he corrected, wagging his finger at her, brow furrowed in anger. “The Duke would give you the means to support your family, your sister. I have no dowry to lay against either of you. Your father saw to that! What do I have, but to pay off his debts? I support you out of my love for your mother.”
“And as our stepfather,” Louisa muttered. “You could hardly turn us out.”
“Your London season was ruined due to your father’s death, too. You have something to sympathize with him about. Perhaps, if he does not mourn his own father’s death, he may offer you the shoulder to cry upon. No man can resist a woman in distress.”
“You forget, Uncle, that Wyatt could never resist tormenting a woman in distress.”
Uncle opened his mouth to retort, but a noise at the top of the stairs distracted him. Mother descended with a smile on her face, exuding charm and beauty. Right behind her, Irene seemed like a younger version of her.
“Ah, there you are, Cora,” Uncle called, a smile spreading across his face. “We were just wondering if we might come up to fetch you.”
“Oh, I do apologize,” Mother said, a charming smile on her lips. With almost no effort, Louisa knew that Uncle could not resist her. “I assure you, Eugene, the wait was definitely worth it.”
“As ever,” he agreed. Once Mother came close enough, Uncle grabbed her hand and kissed the back of her gloved knuckles. Louisa tried not to roll her eyes.
“Louisa, you must try to look a bit more cheerful,” Mother scolded, spotting Louisa’s sour expression. “I promise this shall be quite an enjoyable evening.”
“Yes, we were just discussing the potential of eligible suitors,” Uncle said smoothly. He turned to Irene. “As always, you might keep a lookout for a special young man.” This time, the glimmer in his eye was genuine. Irene’s charm made her their Uncle’s favorite, meaning that she could never do anything wrong.
“I have made a list of a few names you might consider,” Uncle continued. “Respectable men of means.”
“Perhaps we could review in the carriage?” Mother suggested, putting her hand on Irene as though to guide her toward the door. “We shall be so late as it is.”
Snow was falling softly in the dark evening as they alighted the carriage. Carriston Manor was just a few miles down the road from Broadley Manor, where they called home.
As the driver brought them down the lane, Louisa thought of how many times they had called about Carriston Manor. The two families had been close when they had been younger. However, once Wyatt, then Rickard, went off to secondary school, then university, they found their visits grew more and more infrequent.
So, when they finally came upon Carriston Manor, Louisa found herself admiring how lovely the estate looked, dusted with snow, and lit with lanterns. Carriages lined down the drive, as footmen helped ladies step down at the front stairs of the house. Music carried across the front lawn in the quiet darkness.
Once it was their turn, Uncle climbed out first, offering his hand first to Mother, then Louisa, and finally Irene. Louisa marveled at the boughs of holly hung across the massive door, how the candles flickered in the darkness. She had never seen the manor so beautifully decorated.
“The Duke has outdone himself,” Mother whispered, looking around in wonder. “Perhaps, all of his travels did him some good.”
“Or perhaps he has hired a new housekeeper,” Louisa muttered. Mother sent her another withering look, which Louisa took to mean that she must learn to still her tongue. She ignored her mother’s silent reprimand as they entered with a throng into the foyer of the house. Footmen took their cloaks for them, while maids ushered the ladies off to the retiring room.
If the outside of the manor had struck them with awe, it was nothing compared to the dazzle of the ballroom itself. Louisa had to remind herself to keep her mouth closed when the master of ceremony announced them.
“The Earl of Broadley, the Countess of Broadly, Lady Louisa Johnson, and Lady Irene Johnson,” he called. Some of the guests nearest to them greeted them as they entered, but then she heard someone call out her name. Looking about, she grinned seeing Rickard approaching them.
“Rick-” she started, then shook her head. She curtseyed before him, then offered her hand, which he took to kiss politely. “Mr. Williams, I dare say that seems strange to say.”
“Likewise, Lady Louisa,” he said, a lopsided grin on his face. “It’s been far too long. My, how lovely you are!”
She tapped him with her fan. “Come now, do not go proving my sister correct.”
“And what shall I rebuff?” he asked, amused, looking past her. “Lady Irene?”
Irene turned, coming alongside her sister. “Mr. Williams! So lovely to see you.”
With a chivalrous bow, Rickard asked, “Now, please tell me, what has Lady Irene stated that I must prove as true?”
“I was just telling Irene earlier today that men do not swoon, while she assured me that they did,” Louisa said matter-of-factly.
Dramatically, Rickard grasped at his chest. “No, I dare say, it is true. Lady Irene, you most definitely have determined one of the greatest secrets of men.”
Louisa realized with amusement that Irene blushed at Rickard’s dramatic assessment. His eyes danced with delight, which made Louisa realize that their dear Rickard had indeed grown into a fine young man. A shock of black hair curled dashingly over his forehead as his lopsided smile grew larger.
She could not help but feel merry in his presence, but suddenly an eerie feeling crept over her. She suddenly felt terribly cold. Looking for the source of the draft, she locked eyes with the coldest blue eyes she had ever seen.
Turning the glass of whiskey in his hand, Wyatt tried to ignore the sounds coming from the hall beyond. All-day long, staff had been decorating the halls, the musicians had been practicing, and both his butler and housekeeper came to ask questions relentlessly. As the time drew near for guests to arrive, he excused himself to get ready, then locked himself in his study.
He had to remind himself that hosting a holiday fete had been his own idea, though he cursed his past self for thinking it was a good one. Downing the whiskey in one gulp, he reached for the glass decanter to pour himself another, in hopes that the fortitude of alcohol would help.
As he poured, someone pounded on the door. “Wyatt, open up!” Rickard shouted.
“Go away!” Wyatt retorted, taking another swig. “I am getting ready.”
“Do not be ridiculous, you’re hiding!”
Wyatt sighed, knowing his cousin would never leave unless he let him in. He pushed himself to his feet and stalked across the room, unlocking, and wrenching the door open in annoyance.
“Can a man not have five minutes alone in his own household?” he asked, returning to his desk.
“Not when he’s invited half the country to said household, which would imply that he would hope not to have a moment alone,” Rickard retorted, his eyes teasing. He plopped down in a chair in front of Wyatt’s desk. “Come now, how can you possibly be in a sour mood? Have you seen what they’ve done with the place? It’s completely magical out there.”
“I have not,” Wyatt admitted, picking up the decanter with raised eyebrows.
Rickard waved him off. “No, thank you, I’ll be drinking soon enough. Tell me, what’s on your mind? Has something gone wrong?”
Wyatt eyed his glass, debating what to tell his cousin. Unfortunately, he could not quite lay a finger on what was wrong. He had been looking forward to the ball, but the nearer the date drew near, the more he dreaded it. Probably because of -
No, do not think of such things, he told himself.
“Hullo? Wyatt? You hear me?” Rickard asked, waving his hand in front of Wyatt’s face.
“I was just thinking of how long I’ve been away,” he responded, finally. “Then, with my father's sudden illness…”
“I suppose it has been a bit much, especially with you just having come out of mourning.”
Wyatt scoffed. “Such mourning as it was. If custom had not dictated how I should behave, I would not have mourned at all.”
Richard gave him a sympathetic look. “I do not suppose you could at least pretend?”
“Pretend?” Wyatt asked incredulously. “All I have done since I returned is pretend. Did I tell you what he said to me?”
“In a few words-”
“A disappointment. I was a disappointment to him. That’s the whole reason I planned this affair, to prove that I would not be a disappointment to anyone as the new duke. A huge mistake that was, for now, I’ve disappointed myself.”
“Come now,” Rickard tried again to assuage him. “Everyone is going to be awestruck tonight. You will have to fend off the ladies en masse.”
With a wicked grin, Wyatt laughed. “Ah yes, though I suppose my reputation precedes me. Perhaps that is a good thing.”
With chagrin, Rickard admitted, “Yes, there are a few young ladies you’ve not met yet. But please, promise me that you will not dawdle with any of the unmarried girls, please. The last thing you need is a scandal on your hand, or some young man challenging you in a duel.”
Rickard rubbed his temples. “Again.”
“I assure you I will be on my best, most charming behavior. I will not embarrass you.”
“I am not worried about you embarrassing me, as much as yourself, and your title.”
“Yes, my title,” he sneered.
“You should be looking for a suitable wife,” Rickard told him gently. “Not prowling around under the sheets with someone else’s wife.”
“I should do no such thing,” he said quickly. “I have no desire to marry, least of all one of the virtuous young ladies that you are so concerned about.”
“Heaven forbid you should be happy and secure and produce an heir.”
“I’ll leave that up to you,” Wyatt said, picking up the decanter again.
“We really should go down to greet your guests,” Rickard said, stopping him.
Wyatt poured the glass regardless. “Let them come under the spell of the magical decor, as you said. Drink all the champagne and eat all the food, for all I care.”
“Up!” Rickard commanded, rising to his feet. When Wyatt did not budge, he waved at him to stand. “Come! Now! Do not make me drag you down there.”
“As if you could,” Wyatt told him defiantly. However, he downed his glass and finally rose to his feet. “Fine. I’ll make an appearance and encourage everyone to get riotously drunk so I can make an exit.”
With a sigh, Rickard patted his back. “As you say.”
Wyatt led the way out of his study, down the hall to the main stairs, Richard following closely behind. As they drew closer, Wyatt was happy to hear guests laughing and chatting merrily, hoping that he could blend into the crowd without much ceremony. His foolish hopes were dashed before he even made it down the stairs. Several guests in the foyer looked up to him expectantly.
“Your Grace!” one man shouted, taking several eager steps forward as he bowed. “Splendid party already, and we’ve barely passed through the front door!”
Wyatt tipped his head toward the man. “Thank you, sir…?”
“Oh, you do not remember me, eh?” he said, laughing. “I expect not, I suppose last I saw you was right before you went off to Eton. I am a good friend of your fathers, Thomas Hardley.”
“Ah, Lord Alyesford,” Wyatt said with a cool smile. “Yes, I remember you, indeed. It has been a while.”
“Indeed, indeed, my condolences for your father, great man. Such a terrible loss,” he said. Wyatt tried to continue walking into the assembly, but Alyesford fell into step with him.
“Thank you, sir,” Wyatt said, stopping to touch his arm. “I appreciate your sentiment.” Wyatt tipped his head again, trying to end the conversation quickly. He looked past him, through the foyer into the ballroom, the mass of heads in the crowd. He did not recognize a single person and his heart sank with dread.
“There you are!” Wyatt turned to find himself face to face with Samantha, his aunt. He sighed with slight relief.
“Aunt,” he said, bending down to kiss her plump cheek. “As beautiful as always.”
“And you’re as shameless as always,” she laughed. “I just saw Rickard, too. He must have brought you down as I asked.”
“I suppose he did,” Wyatt allowed, turning back to the crowd. Samantha was Rickard’s mother and had lived at Carriston Manor almost as long as Wyatt had. Since she had run the household for his father, after the death of Wyatt’s mother, he had turned to her for assistance upon his return.
“So many guests were asking for you, it seemed rude for you not to be down here greeting people,” she scolded him in a low voice.
He did not lower his, saying, “Why? I knew you were mesmerizing everyone.”
“Stop it,” she giggled, tapping him on the shoulder. “There are so many people you should meet or get reacquainted with.”
Wyatt took her hand and wrapped it around his arm. “Lead the way. I know surely you will keep me safe from the throng.”
Samantha waved at a man across the room. “Your neighbor, the Earl of Broadley. He’s just arrived with his new Countess, the late Countess of Broadley.” Weaving expertly through the crowd, Samantha smiled charmingly at guests, giving no leeway for interlopers in her mission.
“Come again?” Wyatt asked, furrowing his brow.
“The late Earl of Broadly passed, a few years back,” she whispered. “Surely you heard about that. But he had no sons, so the title passed to his brother, the current Earl, who then married his brother’s widow.”
“Yes, Cora,” Samantha explained, rolling her eyes. “Keep up.”
Wyatt sighed. He was never one for remembering who was who in the ton, if only to make sure he was not trying to seduce the wife of any man too powerful. Eugene turned to them, grinning, as they approached.
“Your grace!” he cried, reaching out to shake his hand affably, which caught Wyatt off guard. He pulled his hand back slowly, wiping it on his breeches. “So nice of you to come my way. What a splendid ball you have put together.”
“I assure you, it was all my aunt and the housekeeper’s doing,” he told him, politely. “My idea of an evening would be playing cards and smoking cigars.”
“I cannot fault you for that!” he guffawed.
“I dare say my nephew has really come into his own,” Samantha told Eugene. “What a wonderful idea to be able to reacquaint himself with his neighbors.”
Cora came up behind Eugene, smiling elegantly. Though Wyatt had been away for so long, Cora looked as young as she had when he was a boy. He did not have as many memories of Eugene, who resembled nothing of the late Earl.
“Wyatt - I mean, your grace-” she started, correcting herself.
Wyatt took her hand and kissed it gently. “My lady, you may call me Wyatt for as long as you please. You are practically another aunt to me.”
“Still the same charming boy,” she smiled. “But a boy no longer, for sure! You’ve grown handsomely, your grace. You must come for supper some night soon. We would be most pleased to hear of your travels.”
Wyatt wondered wickedly what stories from his travels he might share but shook his head. He was honest when he said Cora was like an aunt to him. So often he played with both of her daughters as a boy…
But Cora had been going on. “... in fact, it appears your cousin has found them already. That’s Louisa on the left, and Irene on his right.”
Wyatt looked in the direction that Cora had indicated, and his heart nearly stopped in his chest. Both women were stunningly beautiful and there was no doubt that both were related to Cora. He could hardly believe that Cora was old enough to have daughters their age. In his mind, they were both young girls who wore their hair down.
The one that she said was Irene shimmered in her gold dress, a kind, smiling laugh playing on her lips. She touched Rickard’s arm, laughing daintily at something he said. She looked good, pure, innocent.
But the one on the left was hauntingly stunning. Her dark blue dress hugged her curves seductively, in a way that Wyatt wanted to run his hands down her hips-
“Shall I introduce you, your grace?” Cora asked. Wyatt barely heard her, as Louisa looked in his direction. Her eyes were like sapphires, cool and calculating. Her gaze seemed to look right through him, as though she knew all his secrets.
It had been so long since he had seen her. He had always thought she was pretty and smart. He had always tried to show off when they played games and it bugged him relentlessly that she would somehow always win, without him even having to try to lose. Therefore, he remembered teasing her to soothe his own ego.
“Yes,” he agreed, realizing that they were all waiting for him to say something. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”
The next thing he knew, Cora was guiding him across the room, straight into the lion’s mouth. He felt his throat closing and coughed to clear it. Scolding himself, he tried to remind himself of all the women that he had seduced over the years. Why should any common, well-bred, country girl have such-
“Your grace, you remember my daughters, Irene, and Louisa?” Cora said coyly, as though she had not just been pointing in their direction.
“As though it were yesterday,” he said, reaching to kiss Irene’s hand first. She seemed a safer bet, but when he turned to Louisa, he scolded himself for allowing his hand to shake. He bent over her delicate hand, kissing the back of her gloved knuckles, trying not to linger too long.
As he looked up to her, her cool gaze lingered on his face, a smirk spreading across her lips. She knew; she had to know that he was trembling.
“How have I not heard that such stunning beauty was waiting for me in my own backyard?” he found himself saying. The words of a charmer came to him so naturally, he could seduce a woman and not even remember having done so. “I would have rushed home right after university.”
The words worked on Irene, who blushed and looked demurely at her feet. Yet, Louisa appeared unaffected, still smirking at him.
“Your grace, I am sure there was no rush, indeed,” she said, cuttingly. He assumed that he was not supposed to witness Cora’s subtle glare at her daughter.
“Did you spend any time in France, perhaps?” Irene asked boldly, innocently. There was no way to know what things he did in France…
“Paris, yes,” he agreed. “Have you been?”
“No, indeed,” Irene rushed. “However, I wondered if perhaps you had learned to waltz while you were there. It has become quite the fashion of late.”
“I did see a waltz on the program,” Louisa remarked, turning from Irene to Wyatt. “Surely, your grace, you would not have put a waltz on the program if you did not know how?”
Wyatt raised an eyebrow at her, feeling his temper rising at her impertinence.
“Shall I prove it to you, then?” he asked. “Let me see your dance card.”
“We’ve only just arrived,” Louisa protested, but Wyatt noticed another stern look from her mother, which resulted in Louisa handing the card over to him.
“Ah, I see my cousin has already claimed that dance,” Wyatt said, looking at Rickard. “You have no objections to me stealing Lady Louisa from you?” Rickard did seem to want to object, his lips pressed into a thin line as he shook his head.
“Your grace!” Louisa protested, as Wyatt used the pencil to strike Rickard’s name from the line. He handed the card back to her with a smug look on his face.
“You must remember how competitive I am,” Wyatt told her, then turned to Rickard. “Perhaps you could take Lady Irene for the waltz, then compare who might be the better dancer?”
Louisa gasped in shock, but Cora laughed. “Still the same boy, your grace. I am sure we’re all so glad to have you back in the country.”
Rickard obediently took Irene’s dance card to write his own name in as Wyatt turned back to Cora. “I do assume, then, that the young ladies have permission to waltz?”
“Indeed, they do. You need no permission, your grace.” Embarrassed by his own shaking, he quickly tried to think of a way to escape the penetrating glare which Louisa continued to level against him, wondering if Rickard had been right about the number of drinks he had taken just before coming down.
“I shall find you for the waltz, later this evening,” Wyatt said to Louisa. “For now, I must see to other guests.”
She curtsied to him politely, but he could not have said later if Irene or Cora had done the same. He paid them no notice.
Trembling with rage, she watched Wyatt turn on his heel and storm away, a smug look on his face. She could not believe the audacity of him, taking a dance away from his own cousin without permission. The sheer impertinence of his action only showed her that he had not changed at all since they were children, only grown with rakishness.
“What a delight,” Cora exclaimed, a hand over her chest. “It's such a delight to see Wyatt again.”
“Is it?” Louisa challenged. She looked at Rickard. “I am so sorry. I was quite looking forward to dancing the waltz with you.”
“Hand me your card, perhaps I can claim another dance,” he offered, reaching his hand out. Louisa handed him his card and tried not to smile as Irene leaned into Rickard.
“Well, I am glad I have the chance to dance the waltz with you,” Irene said, smiling. “Hopefully I shall be a tolerable substitute for my sister.”
Rickard smiled politely at Irene as he wrote his name into Louisa’s card in another space.
“I shall not attempt to detain either one of you,” Rickard said, putting a hand on Irene’s shoulder to guide her away. “I am sure you both will want to fill your entire dance card this evening.”
Without much encouragement, Louisa turned away, but turned back to offer her hand to Irene. Louisa could not help but see a slight fall in her sister’s face as Rickard stepped away.
“Come, I believe I see Mr. Hardman,” Louisa told her, hoping to distract her. Irene took Louisa’s hand but smiled at Rickard one last time before she left him behind.
“Who is Mr. Hardman?” Irene hissed at Louisa.
“I made him up,” she whispered back, taking Irene’s hand and placing it over her arm. “Rickard was right, we must try to dance with other young men.”
“I believe I do see someone I know,” Irene said, nodding past Louisa. “Isn’t that Mrs. Salisbury?”
“I believe so,” Louisa confirmed. “She has a nephew, I believe. The Viscount Lisle?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Irene confirmed.
Mrs. Salisbury smiled at them as they approached. “Lady Louisa, Lady Irene, how lovely for you both to come my way. How are you both this evening? Have you met my nephew?”
The young man in question turned to them, smiling. He seemed healthy and affable, but his cheeks were covered in pox scars. They chatted politely for a few moments before Louisa and Irene were both pulled into their next conversation. Before long, both Louisa and Irene had found partners for all their dances.
After the first few dances, Louisa almost forgot about Wyatt. He had disappeared somewhere in the crowded ballroom. She had not even noticed him approach after her set with a certain Mr. Steere, a son of a merchant that had recently purchased a manor in their country. He was asking to dance another set with her when Wyatt cleared his throat behind her.
“I believe I have the next dance,” Wyatt said firmly. When Louisa looked up at him, she realized that he was not speaking to her, but to Mr. Steere, who looked surprised, if not a little afraid. Mr. Steere bowed to him politely, taking his leave quickly. Louisa turned to him, angry that Wyatt had frightened the young man away.
“I do believe I am quite parched,” she said, trying to buy some time before dancing with him.
“Come with me,” Wyatt offered, taking her hand, and placing it on his arm. “Let’s fetch a glass of lemonade for you.”
Seeing no way to escape his attention, she recanted, “On second thought, perhaps I should not.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “As you wish.”
The band started the next song, so Wyatt took a step from her and offered his hand. “My lady?” he asked.
She put her hand into his reluctantly, looking away from his smoldering gaze. Fury raged in her breast, wondering what adult game he now played with her.
“I hear you quite enjoyed yourself in your adventures,” she told him as he led her out into the floor.
“I imagine a lot of people have heard the same,” he replied, smirking at her. “Shall I tell you stories?”
“I think not,” she sniffed, indignant how he toyed with her.
“Do not ask questions that you do not wish to hear the answer to.”
He placed his hand on her waist. She gingerly placed her hand on his shoulder, trying not to pay mind to the firm muscle that lay beneath her hand. She looked away, trying not to meet his gaze.
“You have not changed a bit,” she noted to him, trying to ignore the firmness of his hand on her waist. She felt the slight pressure of him, pulling her against him, and she felt obliged to resist, even as he started to spin her.
Dancing so close to him made her feel dizzy. She tried to tell herself that it was just the spinning, or that she really was thirsty, and not how close Wyatt was to her. He had changed, despite her statement otherwise.
When they had last seen each other, they were nearly equal in height, but he loomed over her now. His shoulders and chest had broadened, and he seemed to know how to dress to accentuate his stature. He wore his chestnut hair long, tousled as though he had just been roving the countryside. What she could stand the least, though, was his ever-watchful gaze, as though he studied her and found her lacking.
“How do you find your evening?” he asked politely.
“I found delight where I could,” she allowed coolly, still refusing to meet his gaze, though she knew he was studying her reaction.
She tried to tell herself that she did not want to encourage him with anything that could resemble flirtation. If she was honest with herself, though, it was because she did not want to think of how wonderful his lips looked.
“Indeed,” he said, a smile playing at those same lips that she was trying not to think about. She felt his hand flex on her waist, perplexed with how she had come even closer to him in their spinning. Her breath came quickly, and her heart raced in her chest. Scolding herself for feeling so weak, she wondered how her anger toward him could affect her so, because surely it was not attraction.
“I know what you are doing,” she sniffed.
“Do you?” he asked. “I seem to be oblivious to my own actions. Pray tell, what do you accuse me of?”
“I will not be your next victim,” she assured him.
“Victim?” he scoffed. “And what crime am I committing?”
“Such things are not polite to speak of.” He laughed suddenly, causing several other dancers around them to turn to look. Louisa felt her cheeks burn, wondering if they assumed he was preying on her. Her shame turned to anger again and felt her cheeks flush.
“I will not have my name thrown about in proximity to yours. I endeavor to marry well and will not have our family’s closeness tarnish my reputation.”
“You must think so highly of yourself,” he scoffed. “You always have. You say I have not changed, to which I would disagree. But you, my lady, are definitely entirely the same.”
“And you have no mercy,” she hissed. “For you to have no compassion toward my situation. Dancing the waltz with you might as well label me a fallen woman.”
“You could only wish that I would tarry with someone like you,” he laughed again. Frustrated with his scathing words and how closely he had pulled her to him, on their next turn, she found a way to stomp directly on his toes. He bit a yelp from escaping his lips and she took the opportunity to escape his grasp.
“My apologies, your grace,” she said, curtseying. “I must be lightheaded due to thirst. I beg you to give me leave.”
“At least let me-” he started, but she turned on her heel and walked as quickly as she could to the back door to the ballroom. Someone had opened the door a crack, as the ballroom had become warm with the number of people and activity. She pushed the door open, gasping for breath, hoping to cool the flush from her cheeks.
Outside, snow was falling even heavier than it had when they arrived. The crisp air shocked her lungs and she gasped for breath. Why did she feel like a child again? She did not understand why her nerves felt frayed, brittle, ready to snap with just another smoldering look.
She hated him, despised how he treated her, and was disgusted by his reputation. His behavior only reinforced her suspicions: he was a rake, and he would have no qualms about ruining her. She would not play into his game. When she heard a step behind her, she closed her eyes, disbelief flooding through her. She whirled, startled to find him right behind her, anger in his eyes.
“You forget yourself,” he told her. “I cannot believe Cora would allow you to behave as you have.”
“I was feeling ill,” she lied, not even attempting to be believable.
“I do not understand your animosity!” he said, shaking his hand at her. Louisa rubbed her hands up and down her arms, feeling the cold air on her skin, even though she still felt her cheeks flushing. His anger toward her only caused her to feel even warmer with her own passion against him.
“You come back, after all these years away, and just expect everything to be like it was when we were children. It’s impossible!” she cried. “I shall be gossiped about amongst the ton just for dancing with you.”
“I expected nothing from you!” he argued. “I have had no expectations, whatsoever. I did not expect my father to die so suddenly. I did not expect to inherit the title for many years. If anything, I expected to stay away, doing whatever I pleased, to whomever I pleased for as long as I pleased.”
“Then why come back?” she challenged him, raising her chin in defiance. “Why return at all? Why host a ball? Why not just attend your affairs from afar, or be a recluse? Why make me dance with you, the waltz of all things?”
He stared at her indignantly, the muscles in his jaw working. She could see his quick breaths fogging in the cold night air. She knew she had hit a sore spot for him and decided not to relent. “You singled me out, not moments before I entered the ball. You have lived to torment me. I have done nothing to you but exist, but you cannot help but drag me into your own degeneracy.”
“As I said before,” he said in a low voice. “You think far too highly of yourself.”
“No, by contrast, I merely think so lowly of you.” She made to push past him, but he grabbed her arm, pulling her closely to him.
“Do you always rely on the papers to tell you what to think?” he asked with a hiss. She wrenched her arm from him, worried that anyone had seen him touch her, but he stepped forward, closing the space between him. The lapels of his coat nearly brushed her dress.
“Come no closer,” she warned, pulling back.
“Or what?” She took a step back, backing away from him toward the garden.
Fear pounded in her chest, but not because of the anger in his eyes, nor because she feared for her safety. It was how her for stomach felt when he gave her that look, as though it was filled with butterflies. She felt like she would truly be sick. Her nerves had never betrayed her so profusely.
When she did not respond, he stepped closer to her again. “Lady Louisa, you are cold. You are getting snow in your hair. I do not understand what I have done to lose your friendship,” he said, his voice even.
“What friendship?” she asked, seeing through his attempt to change his approach. “We were children last we spoke.”
“I have nothing but fond memories of our times together,” he explained, reaching out for her, but she did not soften, so he dropped his hand. “Yes, perhaps I thought we could be friends again when I returned. I thought perhaps it would make my return easier.”
The anger in his eyes had faded such that he almost seemed to be pleading with her. She wanted to hold on to her resistance, her anger, telling herself that it was just a game he was playing. She wanted to deny this sensation she was feeling, but her body continued to betray her sensibility.
“Louisa, please,” he said softly, reaching for her again. His hand found her wrist, but she pulled it away quickly. Tears pricked in her eyes. She felt so confused. On one hand, she wanted to hate him, despite him for the memory of the boy she once knew and the man that she thought he was. On the other, this handsome rouge challenged all sense of propriety that she thought she knew.
Turning away from him, she rushed down the steps of the terrace, deeper into the garden, hoping he knew better than to pursue her, for propriety's sake. She could not hope for so much, as he followed her quickly. Between the row of hedges, he finally caught her arm again and spun her around.
“Yes, I see that you and I are children no more. You’ve become a beautiful woman, Louisa. I do not wish to be your enemy, nor do I wish to ruin you. Will you not be my friend again? I promise I will not put toads in your baskets any longer.”
Face to face with him in the darkness, she laughed, caught off guard by the memory.
“You knew how much I hated toads,” she chuckled softly. “I hated it. I thought you were the most terrible menace.”
“It’s only because you were so good at everything,” he laughed, putting his warm hands on her arms. She felt a shiver go through her, feeling the touch of his hands. He was too close and should not be touching her, but she felt as though she could not pull away. She wanted to feel his touch on her, indecent has it was.
He continued, “I thought I had to level the playing field.”
“You were relentless,” she tried to say, but her voice came out no more than a whisper
“No longer,” he assured her. “You may think I still play games, but I assure you, I will no longer be teasing you so.”
“Oh?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Not as a boy would, at least,” he laughed, a wicked gleam coming to his eye. The sight of that wicked smile caused Louisa’s breath to stop in her throat. Without thinking, she took a step back, away from him, bumping into the hedge behind her, afraid of the desire she felt toward him
The motion was enough to send a cascade of snow down on top of her head. She shrieked in response, suddenly doused in the ice-cold crystals. Panicking, she quickly tried to brush the snow from her face.
“Oh dear, let me help,” Wyatt laughed, stepped forward, brushing her hair and face, then her shoulders.
Next thing Louisa realized, Wyatt was brushing snow from the top of her bosom, his fingers just at the edge of her neckline. Despite the snow, she suddenly felt very, very warm.
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