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by Jillian Hunter

Genre: Regency Period, Historical Romance

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Samuel resisted looking directly at her. For one thing her companion had already sent him a lethal stare. For another, he had revealed enough of his intentions for a first impression. A mask could disguise a man’s outward appearance. It tended, however, to accentuate his true nature. And Samuel was struggling to keep his instincts under control. He bowed, his downcast gaze covertly studying the lady dressed in white.

He managed to affect his usual detached but courteous manner as Philbert mumbled through the introductions, presenting Samuel to the dark-haired woman first. Viscountess Stratfield. The title stirred a memory Samuel could not grasp until she, and not Philbert, revealed the other young lady’s identity.

Boscastle. That was a surname he recognized. Miss Lily Boscastle, cousin of the former Chloe Boscastle. He began to understand.

No wonder the viscountess viewed him with overt suspicion. It took a sinner to recognize one. Lady Stratfield’s family escapades rivaled his. But then, he was only one, and the Boscastles formed an entire clan. Still, it wasn’t Lady Stratfield who attracted him. It was the younger lady beside her, in her white-feathered mask and matching cloak. The lady who had given him a beguiling smile.

Lily. The name suited her, evoking a purity that implored protection. He wondered if she was of the imported belladonna variety or the blood hybrid that had withered in his hothouse. Would she flare like a torch lily with a bolder touch?

“His Grace,” Philbert intoned, looking foolish with Samuel’s lance in his hand. “The fourth Duke of Gravenhurst, the ninth Baronet ─”

“You don’t need to go through the whole list,” Samuel said, bowing again to Chloe and then, at last, looking up, with a stare perfected for maximum impact, into a pair of bewitching blue eyes that drew the breath from his body. Fortunately, he was adept enough at deception to hide his intense pleasure.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha,” he said smoothly, handing a disgruntled Philbert his shield, helmet, and lance. “Knight-errant,” he added, “who seeks adventure.”

“Knight-errant, indeed,” the viscountess retorted, giving him a frank look. “What was your latest act of chivalry, or shouldn’t I ask?”

Samuel caught the smile that lurked on Lily Boscastle’s full lips. “I fought a duel this morning in Hyde Park.”

Lord Philbert regarded him in dismay. “Isn’t that a provocative conversation piece? What does it have to do with honorable acts?”

He and Samuel had played the roles of incautious rogue and discreet adviser for so many years that they had not only perfected them; they earnestly lived them. “Honor had nothing to do with it. My opponent is a close friend.”

“What did you duel over?” Chloe inquired after a short hesitation.

“He dared me to shoot his boot off his head,” Samuel replied. “And then he took a shot at me. It was a prank. I didn’t invite the press to attend.” But he had sent them an unsigned letter, stating that the duel would take place. He had also published an editorial on London’s sewer system that same day, and his notoriety would help draw attention to those who might otherwise not read the piece.

Lord Philbert flushed as if he were coming to a boil. “If you’re going to tell the story, you might as well finish it. Both men missed.”

“At least a lady’s honor was not involved,” Chloe said with a meaningful glance at Lily.

Samuel smiled. He was doing his damnedest not to stare at her again himself. Why had he felt compelled to explain that the duel was a boyish caper? His reputation was at risk. He’d never admitted an innocuous motive to explain his antics before. But he had never tried to impress a lady in such a short time, either. What chance did he have of seeing her again if her guardian declared him an enemy of virtue?

And that guardian, in her vivid beauty, gave him the impression that she had dealt with a rake or two in her own past. Chloe. Chloe Boscastle. He frowned then, looking at her with renewed respect. “Lady Stratfield, I do know of you.”

“Oh, my,” Chloe said with an uncertain smile. “Not in front of my cousin, please.”

“I’ve never had the pleasure of an introduction,” he went on, his admiration genuine. “But I am aware of your work in the female penitentiary.”

Chloe appeared taken aback. But then her eyes glistened in delight. She released Lily’s hand from her defensive clasp. Samuel observed the significant gesture in relief. Common ground. His instincts had proven true again.

“That was some time ago,” Chloe confessed. “What a memory Your Grace must have. Nobody cares about that segment of society.”

“Don’t we?” he asked in a dangerously intimate voice. “I admire your bravery.”

“Do you?” she asked, cynicism slipping back into her tone. “You’re brave yourself.”

He scented victory and felt not the slightest guilt in forging onward. A knight-errant was forced to do what he must do to win his lady fair. He waited for the next opening. It came as Lord Philbert’s senior footman approached the quartet and said sotto voce to his master, “Pardon me, milord. But there is a lady frolicking in the main fountain.”

“Then get her out,” Philbert muttered, withdrawing a handkerchief from his vest pocket, Samuel’s knightly accoutrements banging awkwardly in his grasp. “She’ll catch her death at this time of night.”

The footman bowed, his words practically inaudible. “Especially as she is in the raw and shouting for the Duke of la Mancha to save her.”

Lily lifted her gaze.

Her blue eyes kept returning to his, even though she must know better. Her mouth was tempting as a plum. He had to have her. He shrugged. “I have nothing to do with this.”

Lord Philbert turned toward the retreating footman. “You will have to excuse me for a few moments, ladies. Gravenhurst, I trust you will keep our lovely guests politely entertained.”

“I have a brilliant idea,” Samuel said, his gaze locked with Lily’s. “Why don’t I escort the ladies on a private tour of the gardens? The formal affair will be a crush.”

Lord Philbert shook his head. “It hasn’t been properly lit up yet. You won’t be able to see much in the dark.”

“All the better,” Samuel said with a deep chuckle, “if we have a naked noblewoman in our midst.”

“That is a wonderful idea,” Chloe said after Philbert trudged off to take care of his frolicking guest. “Lily and I would love a peek at the gardens. I would also love another glass of champagne.”

“Allow me,” Samuel said, gesturing to a pair of footmen stationed in a candlelit alcove.

At his subtle movement one footman braved the crowd to make way for the other to balance a tray that held three glasses of champagne. Lily could not believe it. Had the duke brought his own staff to the party, or had Lord Philbert assigned individual servants to attend him? Either way, she was growing more impressed with him by the moment.

Across a room he had drawn her notice by appearing to be an insouciant rogue. Up close he countered the image with a geniality that neither she nor Chloe seemed able to resist. Handsomeness was one thing. Personal magnetism was another. Look how easily he had persuaded them to go out into the gardens. Indeed, it was hard for Lily to hold any sensible thoughts in her head when she was caught up in his charm. And he was beautifully formed, his frame agile and almost slender. She would have felt ungainly if he hadn’t topped her by several inches.

His face, or what she could make out of it beneath his half mask, fascinated her. His brown eyes brewed with unfathomable emotions above hollow cheeks that gave his face its chiseled symmetry. His strong chin balanced what at first glance seemed to be a seraphic appeal, marking him as pure, dangerous male. She reassured herself again that he posed little danger to her at a party.

Still, she wanted to pull off his mask and put the rest of his features in perspective. The parts of his face she could not see might explain what it was about him that mystified her. That seemed missing. He was definitely not an uncomplicated man.

“Come, Lily. Your Grace,” Chloe said. “We cannot stand here staring at one another forever. Let’s view the gardens that London is raving about. Don Quixote, would you be so kind as to lead the way?”

He straightened, grinning at the loud creak his breastplate made. “With pleasure. Please excuse any rude noises coming from my costume.”

Lily stifled a laugh as he gave her another engaging grin. He was going out of his way to amuse her. Should she be flattered or raise her guard?

“There is a private anteroom in the main hall that leads through the dining room,” he explained, bending his head between the two women. Lily caught a whiff of his lime cologne. Divine.

“From there,” he continued, “the last door to the right takes you into a private gallery overlooking the garden.”

Chloe gave one of her low, uninhibited laughs. “Your grace is an architect, too?”

He smiled artlessly. “Madam?”

“How else do you know the secret exits so well?”

“I’ve been forced once or twice to make an escape.”

“By yourself?”

“Her Ladyship is naughty to ask.”

Chloe inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Your Grace is naughty not to answer. Understand that my cousin is my concern.”

“Rightly so,” the duke agreed. “It would be remiss of you to entrust her to a . . . scamp.”

Lily listened to their exchange in envy. Her cousin could tease to her heart’s content as a viscountess and reformed sinner. What a shame Lily had never come to London for lessons in the wicked graces. They seemed delightful. But who was charming whom here? She couldn’t decide whether Chloe or the duke had won the match. Was it possible that she, an unknown girl from the country, was the prize?

Undoubtedly not. Gentlemen like Gravenhurst viewed young ladies as─she glanced down at her dress─feathers to put in their caps. Still, she was enjoying his attention. His playful energy attracted her more than all of London’s other entertainments combined.

“To the gardens,” Chloe said with a spirited laugh.

And the evening might have ended innocently, the three of them absconding together, had another band of the viscountess’s past admirers not intercepted them as they approached the gilt candelabra in the corner.

“Chloe, Chloe, Chloe!” a chorus of beguiling voices called. “Don’t run away yet─we haven’t seen you in ages!”

Chloe halted, unable to resist glancing back, beau-monde butterfly that she was. Overall, in Lily’s opinion of her, which grew warmer by the minute, Chloe resisted little when it came to indulging convivial pleasures.

“I’ll only be a moment, I promise.” Chloe bit the edge of her lip in clear hesitation. “Dash it all. Go on without me. I’ll be right there. And I mean it.”

Lily took a breath. “But I─”

Chloe gave her a light hug. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she whispered. “And that goes double for you, Your Grace. We Boscastles have spies everywhere.”

Lily heard the duke’s voice beckoning her. She looked up slowly. “You will be perfectly safe,” he said. “Lady Stratfield knows where to find us. Our challenge will be making sure that the rest of the party doesn’t catch on.”

He opened a door behind him that she had not even noticed. But then, how would she have been aware of an exit when she had been staring at the winsome Gravenhurst all night?

A Duke’s Temptation by Jillian Hunter. Copyright November 2010. Excerpt with permission of Signet Select, a division of Penguin Group USA.