an unexpected proposal (st daine family 1)

An Unexpected Proposal
Leighann Dobbs
Raven Ashton
Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

About the Author

More Books By Leighann Dobbs:

Preview: An Unexpected Passion

Preview: The Claiming Of Julia Locke

Copr 2015

1

L
ady Claire Leighton
peered covertly across the crowded ballroom from behind her mother's shoulder, almost wincing in despair at the crush. This early in the Season, the weather was still a bit chilly, but with so many people in attendance, the Kelsing's receiving room – an antechamber off the rather large ballroom where they waited – was already sweltering. That she was wearing several layers of clothing did not help. Her fingers gripped the ivory and lace fan suspended by a silken cord from her wrist and she toyed with it while waiting for her party to be announced.

The ballroom was gorgeous, done up with colorful streamers of crepe, statues and sculptures, and hundreds upon hundreds of brightly sparkling lights. A low dais had been erected in the center of the room for the musicians and of the hundred or so guests who had already gone through the receiving line, a score or more had paired off into couples and were enjoying a turn about the dance floor. At the far end of the ballroom, on the wall opposite the doors leading out to the gardens, a long table had been laid with a sumptuous buffet for tonight's guests.

Everything seemed so perfect, but then, no one expected anything less than perfection when a Kelsing presented one of their own to Society. Everyone knew the Locke, St. Daine, and deVere families were very close – so close it had been no surprise to Claire to learn that Lady Christina Locke and Lady Phoebe St. Daine would share the focus of attention at their first ball – which just happened to be the first ball of the Season. And it was to be a Kelsing ball, no less.

Bringing her gaze a bit closer to the area where she stood with her mother and father, the Earl and Countess of Sterne, Claire caught a glimpse of the receiving line. At the head stood the Duke of Kelsing and beside him, his mother, Lady Jocelyn, the current duchess. Next was his sister, Lady Christina Locke, who was making her debut tonight. Beside Christina was her older sister, Julia, and then the Duke of Rothwyn, who stood beside his grandmother, Lady Amelia, the dowager duchess. Next was Rothwyn's sister, Lady Phoebe St. Daine, who was also making her bow during tonight's festivities. She shared the end of the line with Lord Nicholas Locke.

The Duke of Ambray, Claire noted, was conspicuously absent, as expected, but it was the dukes who held Claire's concern, mainly because they were the chief reason for her attendance this evening. Well, the dukes and Melisande, she amended.

Her gaze flitted to her left where Lady Melisande Ruebrige, daughter and only offspring of the Marquess of Dunheath stood, her coppery tresses trickling down a vivid field of brighter than customary yellow and had to stifle a grin. Only Mel would dare attempt to wear such a bright pastel with that particular shade of hair color. But Claire considered her friend's sunny choice tonight to be a bit of a nod to the “old Mel” – the outspoken young lady who was often seen as unruly and considered far too brash by their peers.

Claire, too, was occasionally guilty of seeing her friend as somewhat scandalously ambitious, but tonight, she was happy to see the “old Mel” gone, having been replaced by a much more demure, composed, and mature young lady who was more than prepared and ready to become a duchess. In fact, to do so was her only goal.

Like Claire, this was Mel's third Season, her third attempt to snare a husband on London's marriage mart, and she meant to have no less than a duke. Granted, her aspirations had first been much higher – her first year out, she had had hopes of winning the promise of Prince Simeon of Kozla, but alas, the fellow's heart had been captured by Mel's best friend and confidant at the time – Lady Helena Blackthorpe, who soon became Her Royal Highness, Lady Helena Blackthorpe Pietroc, Princess of Kozla.

Losing the prince to her best friend had been quite a blow to Melisande's expectations. If put to the question, most of tonight's guests would likely concur that the prince's choosing another over her had affected nothing so much as it had dented Mel's ego, but Claire knew better and now, Melisande was determined if she could not have a prince, nothing less than a duke would do – and she was determined to secure a proposal of marriage by the end of the Season.

At first, Claire had found it amusing, Mel's misguided belief that the answer to her future happiness lay in becoming a duchess, but once she understood what drove the lovely, titian-haired beauty, she was not adverse to assisting her friend with finding said duke if it meant Melisande would be happy at last.

For herself, however, Claire would prefer to do anything
but
choose a husband, or have some man choose her to wife. A proposal of marriage was the last thing she wanted – for now.

Her gaze moved to her father's broad shoulders and immediately shuttered. Nay, she was not eager to bind herself to any man if they were of the same mind as her father – and her two previous Seasons had her convinced most of them were. Wives, men seemed to believe, were for the begetting of heirs, of property, or for display if they were particularly lovely. But rarely were they the object of a man's true affection. The gentler emotions were reserved for one's mistress, it seemed, and that was something Claire could not tolerate.

Her gaze slid to her mother and she felt a pang of pity, which she rapidly suppressed. Poor Mum. She spent so much of her days trying to gain Father's attention and affection, only to lose what meager notice she managed to gain the minute they returned to
Town
. Claire wondered, not for the first time, why her mother had not realized the earl kept a mistress. Not that she should know of such things, but it had been through no fault of her own that she had stumbled upon Father and Lady Somerton last May in the Bedderfelt's withdrawing room.

“Claire, are you quite certain I look presentable? My hair is not falling about my shoulders, is it?” Melisande fretted in a whisper, interrupting Claire's thoughts.

She cast a quick glance in Mel's direction and shook her head. “Your hair is fine, Mel, as is the rest of you.”

And it was true. Although the gown she had chosen might be a bit brighter than Claire would have wished for tonight's introduction to two of the three dukes Melisande had set her sights upon to marry, it did create the perfect compliment to her darker coloring. So, too, did the creamy smoothness of the pearls at her ears and neck. Melisande did not think so, but Mel often labored under the misguided notion that nothing she wore was complimentary, just as she believed no one ever really heard or noticed her, despite the fact her name was frequently on everyone's lips.

After what had seemed like hours, the group in front of them moved, at last, and Claire let her fan drop. Gathering her skirts in one hand, she whispered to Melisande, “Chin up, Mel. It is time to begin.”

M
elisande straightened
, pasting what she hoped resembled a polite smile on her lips, and started forward with the Leighton's to be introduced to two of this Season's most promising young ladies. Not that she was after an introduction to the girls. No, she was more interested in the gentlemen at their sides. “The Graces,” as she and Claire had subtly dubbed the dukes of Kelsing, Rothwyn, and Ambray, were her true targets – only it sounded so very crass to think of the trio of close friends as such, she thought.

She was not seriously singling either of them out, and none for nefarious purposes, she argued with her conscience. Nay, she was merely after a proposal. Nothing more, nothing less, and her plan to secure one was certainly no more wrong than the intentions of any of the gentlemen who had come here tonight to meet the newest debutantes making their way onto the marriage mart for the first time. Still, as she stepped forward to acknowledge the Duke of Kelsing, Melisande felt a moment of unease.

These men were not to be taken lightly.

As noble peers of the realm, they each were important personages, which had played a big part in the reason she had placed these two at the top of her list of dukes; they were both currently eligible and also acceptable choices for a husband.

There were actually
three
dukes at the top of her list but the Duke of Ambray had obviously elected to decline his invitation to tonight's affair. The man was both eccentric and reclusive, according to gossip, but that same gossip lauded him as being one of the most rakishly handsome men in all England. Melisande would not be opposed to wedding such a coveted man, she decided, provided her other requirements were equally well met, and so, she had added a third duke to her list of prospects.

Voices intruded upon her thoughts and she allowed her smile to widen. Just a touch, though. She would be especially careful to not appear overly impressed or eager. Not tonight. Tonight was for introductions only. Later, once it was acceptable to do so without gaining the censure of the
ton
, she would begin her campaign for a noble husband in earnest.

Claire's father, Lord Audrey, made the introduction to the Duke of Kelsing, and Mel held out her hand to the man while her eyes made a careful study of his physique from top to toe.

Sebastian Locke was a beautiful man, all golden-haired and blue eyed, tall and breathtakingly handsome in his evening wear. Any normal woman would become weak in the knees merely from looking at him, Melisande thought, and yet, she found the moment strangely disappointing.

A quick, desperate glance at Claire, who frowned and shook her head before moving ahead of her along the receiving line, warned her she was allowing her disappointment to show on her face. Forcing her features to smooth, she corrected her smile before stopping to say hello to the dowager duchess of Kelsing, Lady Jocelyn Locke, and then to congratulate her daughter, Lady Christina, on inspiring such a fine turn out. She could not resist an inquisitive peek back at the Duke of Kelsing, however, before she was ushered along to make the acquaintance of the next duke in the receiving line. She had felt nothing when he looked at her, yet she had been expecting...

The truth was, Melisande was not exactly sure
what
she had thought to feel, but she certainly had been looking forward to
something
. A twinge of interest, maybe, or even a lingering look? Helena, her oldest and dearest friend despite the fact she was now married to the prince Melisande had once thought to wed, swore there would be something—either in his eyes, in the way he looked at her, or in his voice that would help her to know he was the right duke for her. But with the Duke of Kelsing, Melisande felt nor saw neither of those things and she was certain the lack did not bode well for the evening, which was likely why her smile had begun to falter by the time she was introduced to the Duke of Rothwyn.

Sebastian's opposite in every way, Lucien St. Daine was dark. Dark hair, dark looks; of the two dukes present tonight, he was by far the most forbidding, though he smiled and politely murmured all the correct phrases to indicate it was his pleasure to meet her. Her eyes sought and met his and her spirits fell still more because the distraction she saw in his gaze was all too familiar. He looked at her, yes, but like her father, he did not really seem to
see
her.

By the time she had made her way through to the end of the receiving line, Melisande was convinced the plan she and Claire had carefully laid during the previous weeks was doomed to fail. Having met two of the three
Graces
, she was no longer sure either of them could help her with her problem. Grabbing Claire by the hand, she offered a hurried apology over her shoulder to Claire's mother while whisking Claire quickly away toward the ladies retiring room.


N
ow
there
is
one who quite catches both the eye and the imagination.”

The husky sound of a male voice washed over Claire like a current, making her footsteps falter and her body shiver in response. Not from a chill, but rather, the opposite. Turning slightly so as not to appear as if she were seeking out anyone in particular, she shook her hand free of Melisande's and lifted her head, her eyes climbing high along the rather tall frame of an elegantly dressed man.

Her gaze wandered along from his black Hessians, up along, muscular thighs to lean, tapered hips, across a white lawn covered abdomen encased by a beautifully embroidered vest, coat, and overcoat, and then higher still, past his perfectly drawn cravat to the shadow of a very strong jaw. Above this, a pair of soft lips, slightly curled in amusement twitched, causing her wandering eyes to snap upward to meet his gaze, to see if he had caught her staring at him unabashedly only to discover, mortified, the Duke of Rothwyn had obviously been watching her the entire time.

His hazel eyes lit with golden sparks of humor, giving his face an expression which bordered on mischief. Claire felt her breath catch and would have looked away, but he nodded in acknowledgment of her perusal and she found she could not do so. As if he realized her inability to break the sudden connection between them, his eyes darkened to a deeper shade of green and his lips curled upward ever more into one of the most rakish smiles she had ever seen.

“Though I daresay one might find conversation with her more than a mite lacking,” he finished unkindly, tilting his head toward Mel, and Claire started to offer a few words in retort, but recalling where she was—inside the Kelsing's lavish ballroom, surrounded by hundreds of their peers—she lifted her chin and turned away from the brilliant green of his eyes to wordlessly follow Melisande away from the receiving line.

“They hate me, Claire,” Mel whispered the moment she was sure they were alone. “The Duke of Kelsing listened attentively but did not
hear
me. The Duke of Rothwyn looked but did not
see
. What am I to do now?”

Claire's voice was reassuring. “Nonsense, Mel.
The Graces
have only just met you! There is a reason people say patience is a virtue, you know. We have several weeks ahead of us during which we will impress them with your suitability as a duchess, but until then, you simply must relax. You will cause your lovely face to wrinkle prematurely if you continue to frown so.”

“But Helena says-” she began, but Claire cut her off.

“Helena has been out of the courting game for two years, Mel. Things have changed. Now wipe that forlorn expression off your face this instant and follow me. I saw Lady Julia at the refreshments table and I am sure she will be all too pleased to give us a bit of information about her brother.”

“What if you are wrong?” Melisande asked, pure desperation edging her words.

“I am
not
wrong,” Claire promised. “You are beautiful, Mel. And intelligent, and charming, and I assure you at least one of
the Graces
will fall in love with you before we are through.”

2

L
ucien St. Daine
felt as if he were suffocating.

Standing in line, waiting with his sister for the infernal but requisite introductions to be done, he complained to himself, grumbling beneath his breath about how chaperoning a young lady during her come out was something he should never have had to do—not for another twenty years, at least.

The fact of his death notwithstanding, it should have been his father standing here, proudly waiting with Phoebe to be admitted into the Kelsing's ballroom—or, barring that, their younger brother, Tristan, at the very least.

Though he dare not shift from foot to foot, he continued to wait impatiently while his mind played through a much more satisfactory scenario—one in which his father was busy doing those things he always did (like chaperon his eldest younger sister during her come-out) while Lucien himself continued to enjoy a life of leisure and ease that most certainly did not include escorting his younger sister to a ball.

Perhaps he would have been at White's this evening and Tristan, ever the faithful protector, would have been the one made to wait in this hellish heat to present Phoebe to the eligible males of the Season in his and their father's stead? Tristan would have loved the entire moment, basking in the attention, but Lucien quite detested every moment—mostly because the responsibility of seeing to not only his sister's well-being but her honor as well had never been his to bear. He was completely in the fog as to what was expected of him in this area.

Drawn out of his thoughts and back to the moment at hand, his gaze quickly scanned the crowd before returning to his grandmother, Lady Amelia. He meant to deliver Phoebe into her care straightaway the moment the introductions were done, but ….

His eyes were drawn toward a gleam of bright copper curls lying resplendently upon a field of even brighter yellow. At first, he thought the combination garish, but upon closer inspection of both the colors and the young woman who sported them, he found them to be well matched after all. Turning to Phoebe, whom he now realized had been watching him the entire time, he murmured a comment about the girl, though strictly for the sake of conversation. She was already uncomfortable with having him at her side. Should he grouse through the entire evening without a single word spoken between them, well, it would only make matters worse.

He leaned down and turned to his right a bit to ensure that only she could hear him, which probably was the real reason he managed to notice
her
.

Having drawn Phoebe's attention with his comment, his sister watched him with her brow quirked just so while he now stared—quite unapologetic and despite the fact he had warned her no less than three times in the carriage that she was never to be caught doing so—at the lady who’d been introduced to them only moments before as she disappeared into the crowded ballroom.

What was her name?
Lucien tried, but he could not recall. Still, he continued to watch her—even when she halted momentarily to boldly inspect him from heel to head.

Staring was rude, he reminded himself, and St. Daine's were never rude. But he continued to watch the lady until she walked away to move about the edges of the room, completely disregarding his sister's derisive snort at his appalling demonstration of
correct
behavior.

The woman was quite beautiful with her inky black hair made up in tight ringlet curls, piled atop her head in a fashionable coif that left her delicate neck exposed. Add to that the gentle slope of her shoulders, just visible thanks to the cut of her bodice, and the reason for his blatant rudeness should be quite clear, if it hadn’t been before. She carried herself well, too, he noted, continuing his observation as she made her way, one step behind the red-haired woman in the yellow gown, through the crush. She stopped, apparently having arrived at her intended destination, and he felt a rather teasing smirk settle upon his lips, thinking the evening had definitely become more interesting.

Phoebe rapped him across the arm with her fan.

The glowering look he directed at her in response would have made a lesser person cower and look away, but not so, Phoebe.

“Behave,” she hissed between clenched teeth. Snapping open her fan, she wielded it delicately while giving him her best haughty look. “You passed
staring
quite some time ago, brother, and Heaven help us, you were practically
salivating
, Lucien.”

He arched his brow, giving her his best deadpan stare. “I beg your pardon?”

Phoebe grinned and leaned close as though she were about to impart a secret. “Oh, I wouldn’t do
that
, brother. I do so love it when people grovel, but you don’t strike me as the type.”

Lucien clamped his jaw shut and pinned her with a dark glare, thinking it was lucky for them both that Grandmother Amelia was half again across the ballroom from them and thus could not chasten them for behaving like errant children at such a grand, important event.

H
alf an hour later
, it was determined by the Duchess of Kelsing that the last of their guest had arrived. The introductions were done and, puffing out an immense sigh of relief Phoebe St. Daine swept past her brother as soon as they entered the ballroom proper. Offering up a cheeky grin, she turned away, clearly intending to leave him there while she wandered off in search of a space not occupied by his dark glower.

“Ah, hold on,” Lucien said, catching her by the arm before she could get away. “Where do you think you’re going in such a hurry, minx?”

Tilting her head a bit to the side to look up at Lucien, she sighed again, but this time in irritation. “Well, I was hoping to escape into the gardens for a quick tryst amongst the roses, but alas, my plans have been foiled.”

“Phoebe,” he began, his tone dark and serious. “You cannot speak of such things in mixed company. You should not even know about things like trysts and such! Heed me well, sister, you may think this a game now, but later—”

Phoebe rolled her eyes and patted him solicitously on the arm. “’Tis quite alright, brother dearest. I spoke out of turn, I know, but it was only in jest. I doubt anyone even heard me. Still, I apologize if I have ruined your saintly image of how I should behave in public. I ought not have done that, either.”

Realizing, at last, that his sister had been attempting to tease him, Lucien’s expression lightened but only slightly, which was likely responsible for her less than genuine smile when she followed her teasing with, “I know you are only looking out for me, Lucien, and I am touched, truly. But if you do not let go of my arm
right now
, I swear I will kick you in the shin in front of everyone here. My fingers are beginning to go numb!”

Lucien released her as though she were made of fire.

After a quick roll of the offended member, presumably to take away some of the sting, she took his arm,placing her gloved hand in the crook of it. “Come, brother,” she said, her expression one of barely concealed exasperation. “Let us find Grandmother and wipe that pained look off your face 'ere you scare away all my potential suitors.”

His features relaxed and she turned her attention elsewhere, her eyes scanning the crowd for a glimpse of the silvery-haired dowager duchess of Rothwyn, their grandmother, who was otherwise known as the formidable Lady Amelia St. Daine. Catching sight of the regal looking lady from the corner of her eye, a relieved smile lit her face. Discreetly, she pointed her out to Lucien. “There she is. Let us go over.”

Grumbling beneath his breath about the travesty of squiring about an ill-mannered sister, Lucien followed her, and the two made their way to the matriarch's side. But when he recognized one particular lady with whom his grandmother was conversing, Lucien almost lost his footing. The stunning, ebon-haired woman from the receiving line stood at his grandmother's side, smiling and nodding along with the conversation as though his grandmother's words were divine. Lucien could only wonder at which tidbits of familial knowledge she dared to impart, but he was not surprised to find the lady's smile, when it came, as stunningly beautiful as the rest of her.

His grandmother looked up, catching sight of both him standing just a few feet away and smiled grandly. She lifted a hand towards him. “Lucien, my dear boy! You have arrived at just the right time. Come and meet the lovely Lady Claire and her most delightfully charming friend, Lady Melisande Ruebrige.”

Knowing there was nothing for it but to follow her command—and yes, it
was
a command—the dowager duchess of Rothwyn knew nothing less, Lucien swallowed the groan rising to his tongue and quickly crossed the remaining distance between them, remembering too late his grandmother’s current obsession with playing matchmaker.

Straightening, he braced himself for what was sure to be a less than pleasant few minutes of acceptable conversation, frowning when Phoebe used the moment and her grandmother's consent to her sugary plea to spend a moment with Lady Christina to make her escape.

The ladies curtsied, of course, polite utterances of “Your Grace,” falling from their lips in succession.

Phoebe slipped away before introductions could be made, knowing deuced well she was to have remained by his side. The minx. Likely, she had known full well what was about to occur, and given that she had neglected to forewarn him, Lucien found himself rather effectively trapped into his grandmother's most current matchmaking scheme.

Amelia St. Daine claimed she only wanted to see him happily settled, but Lucien knew better. She had decided to find him a bride—for no other reason than she thought it high time he settled down with a woman who: one—would not bring shame to the Rothwyn title, and two—who would bear him heirs in order to continue the rapidly dwindling St. Daine line. His grandmother loved him, this he knew of a certainty, but so, too, did he realize she was not above pulling strings and meddling in his affairs if such was what it took to get her way.

Without warning, his earlier interest paled. The thought of approaching the raven-haired beauty now was suddenly no longer appealing. Still, he smiled and went through the tired, well-practiced motions of bowing before he pressed the most polite of kisses to the ladies' silk-clad knuckles. He feigned attention while his gaze wandered the crowd, his eyes busily searching for a hint of blue in the crush of fabrics that would reveal his sister's whereabouts. Cursing Phoebe for running off, leaving him to deal with the misguided machinations of their grandmother alone, he pasted a polite smile upon his lips and let his eyes roam the crowded ballroom once more but Phoebe seemed to have disappeared. Giving up for the moment, he allowed his focus to return to Lady Claire and her friend.

"Do we bore you, Your Grace?"

Surprise at her rather blunt observation brought Lucien's gaze swinging to Lady Claire. He peered at her, wondering where inside that tightly laced corset of hers she had found the cheek to upbraid him—and in public, no less.

Her eyes flashed with ill-concealed dislike and Lucien found himself slightly taken aback and completely at a loss as to what he could have done to merit such a display. As far as he knew, other than their brief introduction in the receiving line, they had not previously met – so why should he now be the recipient of the obvious animosity in her gaze?

Smiling tightly, he said, “That remains to be seen. The three of us have shared not a word outside of introductions. Given that, I find it quite beyond me to say for certain whether or not I should find your conversational skills lacking, no matter how tasteless and deficient in both tact and good manners it would be for me to do so.”

Her back stiffened. She held herself upright with remarkable aplomb in light of his curt response, he thought, and her expression somehow remained the very picture of polite. But her eyes...

His lips twitched, but Lucien held his silence, his gaze once more busily scanning the crowd for Phoebe whilst he awaited her response. He anticipated nothing less than a most cutting rejoinder, but, alas, she said nothing. Instead, it was Lady Melisande who spoke up—to defend him, of all things.

“Now, now. Let us not forget our manners, shall we?” she attempted to soothe. “I am sure His Grace was not ignoring us on purpose.”

She spoke as if her comments were directed toward Lady Claire but her bright gaze never wavered from his. Her slow, sweet smile brought a dimple to bear.

“Perhaps the quiet of Rothwyn House is more to your liking? If so, I must admit I quite understand. Even
I
find the stifling atmosphere in
Town
dreadful at this time of year, and to be perfectly honest, I would much prefer the quiet solitude to be found…elsewhere.”

Lucien felt a chilling burst of fear bloom in his gut. Had she just attempted to wrangle an invitation from him to visit Rothwyn House?

An icy chill possessed him and he could practically feel the phantom pricks of her metaphorical claws already piercing his flesh. She looked up, a knowing kind of smile flirting on her lips. The wily gleam in her eyes spoke volumes and Lucien felt a sudden, rather desperate urge to run although to do so would be terribly rude. Dukes did not flee, no matter the situation. Not to mention that, thanks to his grandmother's presence, he would not get very far should he dare to make such an attempt. Lady Amelia would reach out and snatch him back the instant he began to walk away.

Feeling rather desperate now to escape the three females, Lucien scanned the press of bodies around him, his eyes searching in vain for Phoebe. She was the only legitimate excuse his grandmother would accept that would allow him to quit this little group, but blast if the hoyden was anywhere to be found!

“Dear me, it appears His Grace is at a loss for words, Mel. I wonder why?” Claire said. Turning a cold glare in his direction, she continued, “Perhaps your search for a more suitable female among tonight's attendees might be put off for a bit, if only momentarily, Your Grance, considering you really should be concentrating on our conversation. Else your grandmother is certain to think you are being particularly rude to us, and for no reason at all.”

Her voice, laced with subtle derision and a very healthy dose of sarcasm, snapped Lucien back to his senses and he regarded her carefully through narrowed eyes. Her gaze was sharp; direct. Shrewd. Her eyes glimmered with a knowing light not unlike that of Lady Melisande's, he noticed, and yet, he had a feeling they each did so for different reasons entirely. The Ruebrige chit was merely doing what one expected but Lady Claire—she had thrown a gauntlet, as far as Lucien was concerned, challenging him to pay attention to
her
.

The realization brought a chuckle rumbling up through his chest, which he quickly hid behind a feigned cough. Why he had believed from their very brief interaction earlier that she would be anything less than spirited was now quite beyond him, for he now realized without a doubt that Lady Claire Leighton was a lady possessed of quick wit and an equally lethal sharp tongue.

“Claire!” Lady Melisande hissed in an undertone, her eyes saying more than her lips that she was not happy with her friend's contribution to the conversation. “Don't be rude!”

“I was only acting in a similar manner as His Grace,” Claire responded with a soft shrug of her shoulders. “It would be unfair of us to allow him to think we will stand idly by while he insults us with his gross lack of attention.”

“I am certain His Grace did not mean to be insulting,” Lady Melisande replied through clenched teeth.

Listening as the two debated the matter of his intentions between themselves, Lucien found it slightly amusing that neither of them paid
him
a scrap of attention from that point forward though he was, in fact, the very object of their somewhat heated discussion.

He turned to his grandmother, who had remained strangely silent throughout the entire exchange and found her looking on with a merrily twinkling gaze as though she were profoundly enjoying this farce of polite conversation. Sighing inwardly, he glanced out over the crowd once more.

Brows pulling low, he muttered a quick, “Excuse me, Grandmother. Ladies,” he tacked on, almost as an afterthought, offering nothing more than a slight nod in their direction before he strode purposefully into the crowd.

Off to the side and well out of his immediate reach, Phoebe was standing next to a tall male clad in a smart uniform. The fellow had dark hair and angled features, and Phoebe was laughing at something he had said, her fingers resting briefly atop his arm. She cocked her head to the side and murmured something Lucien had no hope of overhearing, given the distance between them, but whatever she said had brought a deeply pensive look over the man's face that did not sit at all well with Lucien.

Jaw clenched, he hastened to Phoebe's side, but by the time he managed to make his way through the crush in the ballroom, she had somehow managed to disappear from view yet again. Cursing her headstrong nature beneath his breath with every step, Lucien made for the doors to the terrace, swearing beneath his breath the entire way that his sister would be made to spend the rest of her days locked away in her room if she continued to insist upon treading without care—for her reputation if not her safety.

3

C
laire studied
the duke's profile as he strode away, a feeling akin to nausea twisting her stomach well before she glanced back to find Melisande attempting to hide a glare from her. A hot blush stung her cheeks. She glanced out into the crowd to avoid the censure in her friend's gaze but that did not help, either, because judging by the look on her father's face, he, too, had seen the duke walk away and had decided it must have been
her
fault the fellow hadn't stayed to chat.

Only then did Claire consider precisely what she had done: not only had she insulted the duke of Rothwyn, but she had done so with both his grandmother and her best friend looking on as witness to her ill-mannered behavior. Her gaze slid to the floor, unwilling to see for certain precisely how affronted his kindly grandmother must feel about her much less than sterling manner with her grandson. “Your Grace, I do apologize. I do not know what came over me, I—Excuse me, please.”

Walking away, Claire immediately began to chastise herself.
How could you have let the man goad you into such behavior? He merely shows up and your brain goes to mush?
The very idea was preposterous, but from the moment she had caught the duke staring at Melisande in the receiving line, she could not seem to make herself
not
think about him.

“Claire? Are you alright, darling? Your father...”

Claire slowed her steps and looked over her shoulder at her mother, who no doubt had been sent by her father to further chastise her for estranging the duke, and stifled a groan.

“I am fine, mother. Merely feeling a bit parched. I was looking for refreshments.” Not precisely the truth, but she could do with a bit of punch to cool the fire in her face, if nothing else.

“Well then, you are going in the wrong direction, my dear. The refreshment tables have been set near the doors to the terrace. Come, I will join you,” her mother offered, tucking her hand through Claire's arm before turning her to retrace the exact path through the crowd the Duke of Rothwyn had taken only moments before. Glancing back, she saw Melisande still standing beside the dowager duchess, engrossed in conversation.

No doubt about
His Rudeness
, Claire thought unkindly, but she could not be angry with Mel. She had known
her
intentions well before the beginning of the Season—to snare herself a duke—and it was Claire's duty as her best friend to assist her in her quest.

“Melisande seems to be enjoying herself this evening,” her mother pointed out, having noticed the direction of her gaze, and Claire nodded her agreement.

“I believe it is impossible for Mel to not enjoy herself at any function where she is allowed to dance with every eligible male in attendance.” Bemused, she continued, “One smile from her is all it takes to have them eating from her palm but she merely laughs and sends them on their way, her true intentions elsewhere.”

“And you, Claire? Do you find it impossible to enjoy yourself?” her mother pried, and Claire felt a blush heat her cheeks yet again.

“No, Mother. I quite enjoy the music and the conversation and even the dancing on occasion.”

“But not with the Duke of Rothwyn?” Clarisse asked, a sad but knowing smile turning up the corners of her lips. She laid her hand on Claire's shoulder, her expression pained. “I do not blame you for sending him away, Claire. Men like the duke are…not quite the sort a lady need seek for a husband, despite his wealth and connections.”

Claire's brow furrowed. “Men like the duke? I'm sorry, Mother, but I thought a man like the duke was
precisely
the sort of man Father would prefer I wed.”

She did not mention she did not understand the many mysterious things in the duke's life her mother referenced with her less than explicit description. What, precisely, had her mother meant when she said
men like the duke
?

Not that it mattered, Claire silently added. The Duke of Rothwyn, like most men, likely considered marriage for the same reasons her father did, and while Claire was not adverse to wedding one of them if her heart were engaged, it was far more probable those men would display a marked inclination toward Melisande rather than her. Still, she would need to be on her guard, Claire decided, because it simply would not do to give her father the impression she would dare to spurn the interest of a duke. Not if she hoped to remain free from the sort of entanglements suddenly finding herself betrothed would create.

If her father realized her plan to remain unfettered, Claire knew without a doubt that she would be pledged to the first eligible male he could find, and that simply would not do at all.

I
t had been
a bit difficult to pull off, but a promise had been won from the Duke of Kelsing to dance at least once with Melisande before he quit the Malburton's ball.

Claire knew full well Sebastian had agreed as a nod to his sister, Julia, but the manner in which winning his agreement was accomplished mattered little. That he and Melisande were together on the dance floor at this very moment was all that counted. Watching them now, after last night's failure to live up to her expectations, Claire felt a little thrill that perhaps their plans for the Season were finally getting underway—until the deep rumble of a masculine voice slightly raised in irritation caught her attention, and she turned to stare at the doors leading to the terrace.

Rothwyn.

From the moment of their introduction the evening before until now, his voice had threaded its way through her thoughts more than once, giving way to a variety of reactions Claire had not cared to analyze. It was
distracting
, and she had neither the time nor patience for distractions because she needed to focus every bit of her attention on helping Mel.

“Damn it, Phoebe, I should not even be having this conversation with you!” Claire heard him say. “Are you
trying
to create a scandal?”

“If this is about me taking the air with the good Captain Usbourne...” came his sister's reply, but he quickly cut her off.

“What were you thinking, Phoebe? Surely you realize how important it is to steer clear of even the hint of scandal just now? You are a
St. Daine
.”

“Does being a St. Daine mean we must pretend to not notice when one of our own is missing? Tristan is in trouble, Lucien. I
know
it. Last night, I was hoping to learn something of his whereabouts from Captain Usbourne, but...”

“It is not your place to do so, Phoebe,” he said, cutting her off again.


Someone
has to do it!” she hissed in response. “If being a St. Daine means I must pretend I am not worried about Tris, if it means I am forbidden to seek out those I believe can help find him, well, perhaps I would rather not
be
a St. Daine!”


Phoebe...

Claire could not hear his sister's reply to that but it must have been sufficient to secure her freedom because, a few seconds, later the girl swept through the Malburton's double doors, a barely composed vision in pastel blue, with her brother following closely at her heels.

Claire's eyes lifted to the duke's face and their gazes caught. The dark but concerned scowl which had pinched his features only a moment before smoothed, melting away until, finally, he smiled.

“Girl's going to be the death of me, I swear,” he said by way of explanation as he motioned toward his sister. “I seriously hope she finds herself a husband this Season because I do not think I can tolerate another round of
this
.”

Claire's eyes widened. Had he really just attempted to jest about the serious goal of every young woman of marriageable age at every function one attended past their come-out? A surprised laugh bubbled up from somewhere inside her, sputtering from her lips in a burst of unexpected merriment.

“Do not laugh, Lady Claire,” he chastened, though his smile widened. “You've no idea the magnitude of trouble my sister can inadvertently land herself in—without trying in the least.”

His half-serious, half-teasing tone sent a wave of warm sensations through her, causing Claire to snap open her fan and wield it with a bit more enthusiasm than she intended. His nearness was wreaking havoc on her senses—so much so, the unusual warmth flooded her, heating her face and limbs until, confused by her body's reaction, she forced herself to look anywhere but into the teasing merriment of his gaze. It was then that she recalled her mother standing quietly at her side, observing their conversation in amused silence.

The duke obviously had not suffered from such a lack of awareness, however, because he turned to her mother and asked, “Lady Sterne, may I dance with your daughter?”

Claire bit back a groan of despair. Had he directed the question to
her
, she could have politely refused his request, but.... Had he somehow known she would do so? Perhaps that was why he had chosen to defer to her mother. Whatever his reasons, he
had
asked, and now her stomach twisted into a tight knot while she tried to figure out a way to manage being at his side long enough to dance with him. Even a few moments' brief conversation made her feel all tingly and overheated, both inside and out, and now she would be forced to deal with her peculiar response because, if there was one thing she knew for a certainty about her mother, it was that Lady Clarisse Leighton would never deny a duke the opportunity to dance with her daughter.

D
uring the few
seconds Lucien waited for the countess's reply, the lilting strains of a minuet fading into the very different tone of a waltz and Lucien felt his smile slip a bit. He was fully aware of the connotations behind waltzing with a young, unwed woman, but despite the sudden chase of unease rippling along his spine, he somehow managed to hold his slightly amused, somewhat teasing expression until the countess offered a demure smile and nodded her assent.

His dance partner, however, drew up noticeably, her spine stiffening. Her previously mirthful expression drained immediately of the brief gaiety his mild kerfuffle with his sister had lent her mood, and yet, having made the inquiry, Lucien knew he could not just leave her there simply because of an unexpected change in the music. Taking Claire's hand in his, Lucien nodded to the countess and swept her into the dance.

Her discomfort was palpable.

After a moment of tense silence during which the light floral scent of her played with his senses, teasing Lucien with fantasies of forbidden promises not yet made, he politely whispered his gratitude into the air above her ear. “Thank you for agreeing to waltz with me, my lady.”

He stepped away and her brow rose, the delicate arch climbing high. When the music brought them close again, she reminded, “I did not agree, Your Grace. But then, neither did you ask for either my permission or my preference. Whether or not I cared to dance with you did not seem to signify.”

Lucien's brows snapped downward at her accusation. The hauteur in her voice, a direct contradiction to the interest he had seen in her eyes only moments before, confused him. He knew he had not imagined the appreciation in her gaze after her slow perusal of him at the Kelsing ball the night before, either.

Nay, he was not wrong about that, but perhaps he
had
been mistaken to think the flush warming her cheeks and the way she quickly averted her gaze meant more than he had assumed.

He studied her now, noting the way her pulse jumped when he pulled her close. The way her eyes widened, though fractionally, when his hand touched her waist. The way her breath seemed to catch before she expelled it in an irritated little puff. No, he had not been mistaken, he decided.

She was affected by him.

So why, he wondered, was she behaving as if he had somehow insulted her by asking her to dance?

“Of course I asked!” he tried to placate, but she was having none of it.

“You asked
my mother
,” she pointed out. “And despite how the two must seem the same in
your
mind, in mine, I can assure you, they are far,
far
removed.”

Through the next several turns, Lucien stared at her, nonplussed.

How could she be upset with him for asking her mother's permission to dance with her? Countess Sterne was there—he could not simply ignore her presence. Her ire made little sense, Lucien thought, giving his head a mental shake. But the crackle of incensed fire blazing in her eyes every time their gazes met assured him she was most certainly angry with him over something.

“If you had truly wished to dance with me, Your Grace, you would have asked
me
and then politely deferred to Mother for her permission,” she pointed out. Her expression, however, clearly said had he done so she would have refused him out of hand, and finally, he understood. She was angry with him for leaving her no choice in the matter.

Uncomfortable now beneath her direct, somewhat haughty scrutiny, he looked away. “I do apologize for my obviously misdirected inquiry, my lady, but you may rest assured that I would not have asked either of you had I not desired to be with you.”

And he truly
had
thought her bold gaze and the lingering way she looked at him signified an interest in him on her part, as a dancing partner at the very least. Could he truly have mistaken the curiosity in her warm gaze for something else?

Glancing across the way, his eyes caught Phoebe's, hers sparkling with a mocking gleam, and Lucien could have sworn a blush burned its way up his neck and onto his cheeks at her scrutiny.

“Why?” Claire blurted out, and his eyes came back to her face, only to be met by a look of such accusatory puzzlement he was struck quite forcibly by the unsettling notion that she did not like him very much at the moment. “Why did you wish to be with
me
, Your Grace? We do not even know each other. Indeed, we have barely been introduced, while Melisande—”

“Why do you dislike me so?” he countered.

She looked away, and he reached up, his fingers lightly grasping her chin. Forcing her gaze to meet his eyes once more, he continued, “As you say, before last evening's ball we had not previously met, yet you insulted me there as if I had done you some great harm. And then tonight, you get all up in the boughs when my polite inquiry for a dance is directed at your guardian rather than you—as it rightly should be.”