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SEDUCING THE DUCHESS
by Ashley March

Genre: Regency Period, England, Historical Romance

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“I know how to be a duke,” he said softly. “I know how to sneer, how to freeze a man cold in his step. I know how to be harsh and cruel, how to manipulate others to serve my will. All of these things were taught to me, and I learned them well.”

His fingers smoothed the hair at her temples.

“Being a duke comes easy to me. Knowing how to be a husband does not. It is too late for us, but I would like for you to teach me. And for the rest of the time we are married, I will try to be a better husband to you, and you will help me be a better husband to my next wife—whoever she may be.”

Charlotte lifted her hand, eased his fingers away from her face. Soft words and gentle touches were too much, coming from Philip. “You seem sincere.”

His eyes searched hers, cautiously, earnestly, as if he needed to see that she believed him. “I am sincere.”

Only time would tell if it was the truth. She knew well how easily lies slipped from that quicksilver tongue. But all that mattered to her right now was that he kept his promise to divorce her.

Time would tell on that account, as well.

She was a fool to trust him, but did she have any other choice? She could either go through the pretense of teaching him how to be a husband, with the possible outcome that he would carry through on his promise. Or she could refuse, and he would leave her at Ruthven Manor, imprisoned in the countryside, without any hope of freedom in the foreseeable future.

He had played her well; she was a pawn disguised as a duchess.

Philip edged forward. “Pretend Mr. Lesser is still here. In fact, twenty other guests are here, come for a harp recital. You have become the best harpist in the world, and everyone is eager to see you, to hear you play.”

Charlotte couldn’t help it—a tiny smile tugged at her lips at the fanciful image he drew for her.

“You and I are husband and wife, but we are different people. We are happy. We love each other.” He gave her a glance of warning, his own lips curved. “Don’t laugh.”

Charlotte held up her hands. “Never. Do go on.”

“Your performance, of course, is amazing, and I am proud to have you as my wife. I boast to all of our guests—”

Shaking her head, Charlotte said, “No boasting.”

Philip stared at her. “Nothing at all? But what good is it to have a wife such as you if I cannot—”

“Nothing at all.”

“Well.” Philip tucked his hands behind his back, then swung them forward again, gesturing to some imaginary guest by the fireplace. “Lord Cohen has been leering at you all evening. I continue to glare at him, but he doesn’t take the hint. I’m beginning to think I will have to have him escorted off the premises by Fallon and a footman or two. And if he doesn’t comply, perhaps I will be able to persuade him by other, more forceful means.”

Charlotte cast the empty space a considering glance. Was it by pure coincidence that he used the name of one of the men rumored to have been her lover?

She turned her head to look at Philip. Even though his stance was relaxed, his eyes glittered with possessiveness, ever watchful, ever secretive.

Charlotte fought to control the shudder that inched along her spine. Either Philip was a damned good actor, making himself believe he was jealous of another—even imaginary—man, or something had changed between them.

Something intimate, and new, and altogether frightening.

“No.” Charlotte forced the word past her lips. “It would be more appropriate to ignore him altogether. Stay by me, fetch me another glass of champagne, banter wittily with the guests who meander our way. Touch my shoulder, my hand, my waist—not often, and not conspicuously, but enough to show that we belong together.” She swallowed, wishing she had one of those glasses of champagne right now. “That we love each other, as you said.”

Philip raised a brow. “This is how a proper husband behaves when we have guests?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm.” He looked pointedly over her shoulder. “And what do I do if a, shall we say, very well-endowed lady tries to catch my attention and lure me from your side?”

Charlotte craned her neck to search the spot where he indicated. Somehow it was very easy to imagine the busty and worldly Lady Harrington, Philip’s mistress, beckoning to him behind her back.

She returned her gaze to him. “First of all, a good husband wouldn’t have even noticed that another woman was ‘very well-endowed.’”

“You mean a blind husband.”

Charlotte bared her teeth in a smile. “A good husband,” she repeated.

“Then you expect me to look at you and only you for the remainder of my life?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. Something in his tone of voice made her suspicious. “Yes . . .”

“You expect me to be faithful.” He drew out the last word, bending toward her as he did so, and Charlotte stiffened. But at the last moment before his lips could brush her cheek, or her ear, or her hair, he pulled back, paced away from her.

“Of course,” Charlotte murmured to his back, overly aware that her heart had stopped beating and had only resumed its fierce pounding when a goodly amount of distance was put between them.

“And do you think if I were a good, proper, faithful husband, that my wife would be good and faithful as well?”

If she had any talent as an artist, she would sketch Philip right now, just as he was, all vertical lines. And she would use a thick, black piece of charcoal to indicate the stiffness and tension evident in his posture. “I assume you are referring to yourself and Joanna, and not to you and me?”

He moved his head by only a fraction, just enough so she could see the hard, sculpted plane of his jaw. “Quite so.”

“Then yes, if you were faithful and, as you said earlier, you loved one another, then I imagine she would be faithful to you also.”

Philip turned around then, his expression inscrutable. He spoke as he strolled toward her. “You have told me how to behave when we are in public, when we have guests. But what about when we are alone, Charlotte?”

He was getting close, far too close.

“How should I behave then? Or should I behave at all?”

Her instincts told her to leave, to sashay away, to use the movements of her body to distract him from whatever devious purpose he intended.

“Would a good husband touch you like this?” Philip raised his arm, cupped her cheek tenderly in the palm of his hand.

“Or perhaps like this?” He laid his other hand at the small of her back. Charlotte wasn’t certain whether he used it to pull her toward him or to keep her still as he stepped closer to her, but suddenly she had no space to breathe, to move. He was there, everywhere, surrounding her.

“Philip—”

“Tell me, Charlotte. If I were a good husband, would I kiss you like this?”