South Framley, England
“The menus are planned, Winston.” Her voice cut through the morning stillness. “The far wings are dusted, and I’ve finalized, edited, and refinalized the guest list three times now.”
Winston, her young Andalusian, his rich gray-and-black coat warm in the chill, whinnied and shook his head, obviously itching for a morning ride and none of this standing around ruminating on the preparedness of the house party. He cared not for the celebration of Emmeline Westington Wright, Duchess of South Framley’s oldest childhood friend’s engagement. Fine. Equestrian approval or not, she was ready. There wasn’t an afternoon unscheduled, a seating arrangement incomplete, or a bed unmade across the sprawling Roseburn Estate.
Then why are my fingers gripping the reins as tightly as a vise?
Because her attempt to calm her racing mind with an early morning ride was ineffective, given that her muscles refused to unbunch and her teeth ground so vehemently that her jaw pulsed and the thread of a headache ran sideways across her temple. This is nonsense. She couldn’t be happier for Elisabetta, the sister with whom she had studied languages and literature, learned to swim beside in the lake, and shared ideas and summers and books until their hearts and minds were full.
Elisabetta deserves every happiness. Emmeline believed that to the depths of her heart and had leaped at the opportunity to provide even some of it. The engagement house party in honor of Elisabetta and her fiancé, the Marquis of Barrington, had been canceled after a wicked rainstorm knocked an ancient oak down straight across the Barrington Manor entrance hall, and Emmeline had stepped in. Do use Roseburn. It will be such fun. The planning had been a distraction, and apparently a good one. Very good, since now that I’ve finished party planning, I’m talking to my godforsaken horse, shivering from the cold, because damn South Framley’s fog and I still haven’t the faintest idea why I’m so uneasy.
She was a duchess, and nothing was the matter. South Framley was safe. The famine that had racked the county had passed some three seasons ago. Now farms swelled with summer crops, and the people were happy and well cared for. The new duke, William’s distant cousin Jonathan, was just four years old and tucked away with his widowed mother, Lady Hadley, who was happy to cling to her baby and the very much grander and nobler country seat of her late lord and to have Emmeline take on the burden of stewardship of South Framley and its Roseburn Estate until Jonathan came of age.
This caretaker management was a state of affairs Emmeline happily accepted. She made every effort to take care of “her” people, just as William had, and she would until the day she was no longer their duchess.
William. As always when thinking of him, she glanced up to the sky. Though she had long ago placed the Good Book aside, Emmeline still believed he was watching over them, a spirit that guided her and her people. That was certainly the kind of man he had been in life, and he had taught her to manage the responsibilities of the dukedom well.
It isn’t my duty that has me feeling discontent. I’m lonely.
Despite the peace of the morning and the land, pressure built at the back of her neck and behind her eyes, making her head throb. She was lonely. She had passed the mourning period some two years ago now, and yet, the thought of her dearly departed William still made her heart clench and her throat grow tight. A love match, and I’m not foolish enough to believe I’ll be granted two such relationships in my life. She had used it up early, and now she looked out on a life as lonely and shrouded as the misty countryside surrounding her.
But she didn’t have the chance to think on it, because a dark figure appeared against the bright white mist, and Emmeline’s mind was already so tangled in knots that she very nearly went mad in that moment.
William? No! No—it’s not possible.
It wasn’t possible. A moment later, the stable boy materialized before her, stepping out of the fog like an apparition, and Emmeline almost leaped from her horse at the unexpected sight of him. She had been jumpy these past few days, another sign of her ill ease.
“Your Grace.” The boy sank to his knee, and Emmeline swung down from the saddle with a lifetime of propriety training settled in her bones.
“Please rise, Thomas,” she said. “What is the matter?”
Her throat tightened just a little, a sure sign of anxiety and nerves winding through her body and wrapping around her mind. When she’d married the Duke of South Framley, the staff had come with the house, lifelong workers at Roseburn Estate, who knew full well that she enjoyed a few precious moments of privacy during a morning ride. When one of the boys came running to find her, it undoubtedly meant something had happened, and her fear at what that something might have been made her palms sweat cold beneath her morning riding gloves.
“Nothing is the matter, Your Grace,” Thomas said, his breath a little short from running, Emmeline assumed, all the way from Roseburn.
“Then what brings you here?” she asked, unease creeping up her spine like the ghostly fingers of the still-thick morning fog. When Thomas looked up at her, his blue eyes were knowing and a little apprehensive.
“’Tis the captain, Your Grace. He’s returned.”
Her heart stopped beating, motions frozen, breath caught in her throat, and for a moment Emmeline couldn’t think to respond, couldn’t think to force air back into her lungs. They burned in protest, and when Thomas made a concerned noise from the back of his throat, everything happened at once, her heart pounding against her chest like the beat of a war drum, air scraping past her tongue and swollen throat, shoulders and neck and back trying to unclench, untangle, unknot.
But, of course, there would be no relief, physical or otherwise. Not now. Because the captain was back.
CAPTAIN ALEXANDRE PIERRON Simonnet stroked his fingers over the gold pocket watch he kept and pretended to admire the wall decor in the drawing room at Roseburn Manor. He had been away some eighteen months, and the room—in its splendor of springtime hues for which the region was so famous—had not changed. Not so much as one delicate porcelain ornament an inch from where he recalled seeing it last. Compared to the greasy, worn decks of the Ophelia, the drawing room was a paradise fit for a king or, rather, a duchess.
Ah, the duchess. Alexandre’s fingers moved over the gold watch with more speed and less composure at the mere thought of her. Eighteen months. Eighteen months, and his mind still ran roughshod with an ache he had no right to indulge, a pressing carnal need that had kept him awake at all hours of the night, no matter how rough the seas had run or how hard he had hiked the jungles of the Americas. No exhaustion was great enough to temper the need, a need that had him sailing the long way home, stretching out the days before returning to his greatest temptation.
And yet, here he stood in her gilded drawing room, wearing worn leather boots and an equally worn leather jacket, his decoration his silver belt buckles and the hoops that ran through his right ear, the ink winding his arms and shoulders, the sparkling chains hanging from his neck. Ha, we may both wear gold, but there are oceans smaller than the distance between our bejeweled lives. Their roads converged at one point, and one point alone, and it would keep his neck from the hangman’s noose to remember that.
Alexandre pocketed the gold watch just as the doors to the drawing room opened. He jumped. He, the preeminent explorer, swordsman, adventurer, started at the sound of a wooden door knocking against its frame in an ornate drawing room.
But when he turned toward the door, every minute motion of his body froze. His blood ceased to course, his heart paused its rhythm, his eyes remained unblinking, staring straight ahead.
Because there she stood, the Duchess of South Framley. She was even more breathtaking, even more aggressively beautiful than the specter who had haunted his dreams, who had kept him alive in the worst of winter storms, fueled by desire and a desperate ache for something—someone—he could never have. Should never want.
She wore her riding clothes, but instead of a skirt, her long, powerful legs were clad in a pair of fitted britches. Despite himself, Alexandre gazed up the length of her body, his own surging to attention at the simple, overwhelming need to touch her, to know she was real and not another ale-soaked imagining deep in the night. He wanted to run his fingers up the length of her calf, to kiss the inside of each pale thigh, to tease and torment the duchess as her image had done to him so many nights. Then he wanted to plunder her body with his mouth and hands and rod until the sun rose.
The duchess raised an eyebrow, and Alexandre sank to one knee before pressing a kiss to her outstretched hand.
“Do rise, old friend,” she said with a small laugh. “We have much to discuss, but first, are you and your men in need of a good meal?”
Alexandre rose, finding she had stepped just an inch closer to him. The distance, small as it was, put them very nearly too close for the thin grip he kept upon his tethered desire.
“My men remained at the docks, Your Grace,” he replied. “As for myself, I should not wish to keep you. I can certainly find my way to the kitchens. As you may recall, I spent a great many summers at this house when William and I were home from Eton.”
But while William, his closest friend, had inherited a dukedom, Alexandre, the second son of a second son, had taken off for the seas to become the family explorer. No fewer than fifteen years had passed since he’d first walked through Roseburn’s grand entrance, and he was still not entirely familiar with all the nooks and crannies hidden in her glittering halls.
But when the duchess glanced at him with a sardonic light in her deep brown gaze, Alexandre wished to explore only one of those secret places—wherever the duchess went to sleep at night.
“I know better than to keep a hungry explorer waiting, Captain,” she said. She nodded to the footman, and he disappeared into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Amazing how she did that, commanding a small army of staff and a great village of farmers and weavers, often without uttering a single word. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was a leader—and a powerful one, at that.
“You are wise beyond your years, Your Grace,” Alexandre replied, the corner of his mouth quirking up as he looked down at her. She wasn’t nearly so tall as she seemed. Not that she was a small woman, with her body rounded and curved like an hourglass, full plump breasts straining against the jacket just below his chin. Even in the formfitting riding outfit, her flesh glowed lush and generous, and Alexandre couldn’t deny how he longed for her—had longed for her for so many months.
“You have news.” The duchess sat upon a chair as if it were perfectly respectable for the highest-ranked woman in a day’s ride to wear britches and boots and share amiable conversation with a roughened sea captain.
“I do,” he replied, accepting her gestured invitation to sit across from her. “Did you wish to hear it all at once or…”
“I do. Please, share what you have learned.”
Alexandre nodded and reached into the pocket of his worn leather jacket to pull out a letter. Though frail from its many months of travel, it still bore the original, if faded, wax seal of the Marquis of Fulton’s signet ring.
The duchess accepted the missive but made no move to read the contents. Instead, she fixed her eyes upon him, her gaze intense and knowing, as if she were reading him rather than the letter. Peer into my mind, Duchess, and you’ll be sure to learn a great many things you have no wish to know.
“He is staying in the Americas,” she said. “He has settled down, forsaken the land. He loves her, of course, and wishes us all well. He is sorry, but he just can’t return. Did I get that all right?”
Alexandre didn’t quite know how to respond. She had gotten it all right, and in the face of his answering silence, steel resolve masked the sadness in her eyes. Finally, he nodded, pausing just a moment before he replied.
“The marquis was quite insistent,” he said. “The letter should explain in further depth, but he waxed until hoarse about his love for the American lass and refused to follow us home. Short of force, we had no other way of bringing him aboard the ship.”
The duchess placed the letter down upon the table, still sealed. “Well, that is my brother, is it not? I suppose I don’t know what I should have expected.” The soft puff of a sigh escaped her lips, and she very nearly relaxed, if the straightness of her back and the sharpness of her jaw could ever be considered relaxed. But she sat just a little softer, as if she were behaving less as a duchess and more as a…friend?
Alexandre stood, and when he turned, her gaze was hot upon his back. Even the weight of her watching him turned his body molten and made him want to strip her down right there in the damn drawing room, made him want to wrap the chains he wore around her slender ankles and—
“Do forgive me for overstepping my bounds, Your Grace,” he said, walking over to the liquor cabinet William had long ago hidden in a bookshelf at the far end of the room, “but it appears you are in need of a strong drink.” He poured two glasses from the secret decanter and returned to settle once more into the seat before her.
The duchess laughed. “Ah, Captain Simonnet.” She accepted the tumbler of whiskey he offered. “It is not past six in the morning. Surely that is too early for a strong drink.” Their fingers brushed across the edge of the cut glass, and Alexandre realized that her hands were bare, that the smooth skin of her fingers pressed against his. Such a simple, small touch that feels anything but.
“Not if you are accustomed to life as a sailor,” he replied. “I have spent many months at sea, Madam, and if I know anything, it is that it is never too early for a strong drink.”
She sat forward, swirling the drink in her glass with a contemplative expression before bringing it to her lips. She didn’t react to the strong liquor, and that she could drink whiskey without flinching was yet another remarkably erotic detail in the picture of why she made him ache so desperately.
“Is life out at sea lonely?” she asked, as if her mind had gone on some adventure, returning to the moment only after several leaps of topic.
“It can be,” Alexandre answered honestly. “I have my crew, naturally, but it is easy to miss for companionship.”
Her eyes flickered at that, a sparkle of golden across deep brown. Interest, perhaps? Or maybe I’m just imagining it, hoping for it. I see signs of her returning my desires everywhere—how do I know what’s real? Only, he didn’t think he was imagining it, not this time.
“And do you find it?” she asked, and was it in his own mind or did her voice waver just an inch, as if she were well aware of the deeper implications in her words? “Companionship, I mean.” Oh, the duchess knows. She also knows that dangerous waters lie ahead, and she’d be wise to heed those old pirate warnings.
But she wouldn’t. Alexandre knew her better than that, and he swallowed the rest of his whiskey, focusing on the burning spice that lit his throat aflame, but it didn’t provide the distraction he needed. Nothing could distract him from the topic of companionship in a conversation with the duchess who haunted his dreams, as they sat alone in the pastel drawing room. Alone.
“Sailors have their reputations for good reason,” Alexandre replied at last. “I shall allow you to answer that question for yourself, Your Grace, however you believe fit.”
To his great surprise, she placed a hand upon his wrist. He clutched hard at the now empty whiskey glass at the contact, but he couldn’t possibly ignore her touch.
“My name, Alexandre,” she whispered, her voice a low, deep rumble in the empty room. Blood surged through his veins, fire burning him the way it did when he entered a sea battle. His name on her lips, the tone so husky and so demanding, stripped away his common sense entirely, as did what she said next. “We are alone, and it has been so very long since I have known anyone well enough to hear my name spoken aloud.”
Ah, but they did know each other well enough, didn’t they? Of course, I’ve known her for over a decade. Well long enough that I should have ceased this endless desiring, and yet, God, when it comes to wanting her, I know no bounds. Such a fool.
And if he acted the fool now, if he spoke, if he said her name as she all but begged him to do, she would know everything. His desires would be plain and impossible to hide, every deep, desperate need stripped bare in his voice, every fantasy he had ever indulged, wrapping his hand around his throbbing cock, imagining her tied to his bed, blindfolded and at his mercy. She would hear all of that and more.
But he was a sailor, and as he’d warned her, sailors’ reputations were hard earned and well deserved. So he slid his finger down the curve of her soft, pale hand and looked her straight in the eyes, catching that golden-brown gaze and holding it as he whispered, “Emmeline.”
HER BREATH CAUGHT, a tangle of carnal needs and emotions raging through her body, a never-ending chase with no clear victor. Captain Alexandre Pierron Simonnet was not a handsome man. He is dangerous and devilish, nowhere near the reserved, polished handsome men of high English society, nowhere near William, nowhere near safety.
No, this man was the depth of the sea, of sin and potent desire and temptation. Emmeline had denied her lust for him since well before sending him on the fool’s errand of returning her errant brother to the shores of England. Hell and damnation, she had denied far more than her desire for him—she had denied the ache deep within herself for a lover who knew the real version of who she was. I ache for a man who sees me as me, not the prim and proper duchess, not the widow. And that man, damn him, was before her now, skin glowing golden from months at sea, hair tumbling in thick waves across his shoulders, eyes alight with a fire entirely for her.
And I’m so terrified of my own desire that I sent him to the edges of the earth. Because when he looked at her with that incredible gaze, the potency of his desires matched only by her own, she questioned all the reasons she shouldn’t. Her name spilled off his lips, decadent as the first bite Eve took from the apple, and so much more dangerous.
Duchesses did not engage in affairs. Widowed or not, as temporary caretaker of the dukedom she remained the head of her land, a ruler, a member of the British peerage. Partaking in any sort of illicit behavior, most especially with a tattooed, roguish sea captain, guaranteed disaster. I’m mad to consider it, completely and utterly mad. And yet, when he whispered her name, Emmeline’s mind slipped away from her desk, where stacks of correspondences and responsibilities lay waiting for her, to the hidden room in the depth of the manor, where William taught her so much more about desire than her dear mama or the Holy Book ever had.
And Emmeline knew without doubt that Alexandre would be exactly the kind of man who understood the rules of that dark, secret room, and he would indulge them while he indulged in her. And then where would she be? Heartbroken all over again, as she watched him retreat to the ends of the earth, the world caving in under her feet. Because if I give in to this man, if I give in to my desires for him, what’s to stop me from giving him everything I am?
Abruptly, she stood and pulled her hand from his grasp, brushing nonexistent dust off her britches. Alexandre came up in a breath, standing from respect, and she hated it, hated these rules and requirements that governed every moment of her life, that kept her from taking the one thing she wanted most, the one thing she wasn’t allowed anywhere near, despite being the most powerful woman in the county.
“You mustn’t look at me like that.” The words spilled free of her lips before she could stop them, scorching the air. It had been a dangerous thing to think, let along say aloud.
“Like what, Your Grace?” Alexandre asked, as if he didn’t know every single debauched thought tattooed across her mind. Her body ran hot, nipples pebbling to thick, swollen points. Emmeline darted her tongue out to lick suddenly dry lips and, despite every ounce of better judgment, answered him.
“Like you’re hungry.”
The air sparked, the room growing almost too hot to bear. Alexandre stepped closer to her, his dark brown eyes nearly black in their intensity, kindling her skin and catching her breath. He ran one finger down her arm, and the simple touch, even with the barrier of fabric, was so much more than an inappropriate intimacy. It was a promise. A challenge. If just his whispering finger made her womanhood clench with need and pulse with hot wetness, how on earth could she deny herself more from him, from whatever might come of their coupling?
“Your Grace,” he said, and for once in the decade of knowing him, the words didn’t sound wholly respectful on his lips, but instead demanding and impatient, as if he strained at a very thin leash against himself. “Don’t you know better than to keep a hungry explorer waiting?”
She bit her lip, peeping into the abyss of his gaze, and in that instant, she was Emmeline, not the Duchess of South Framley, not William’s widow. Not anyone but myself. And she wanted more of that baseness, wanted an escape, a way to be something other than the duchess, for a single day, for a single hour.
So she looked up, straightening her back and licking her lips as she held his intense gaze, ready to accept whatever he was willing to give her. And from his hooded, lustful expression, as he leaned down ever so slightly, he was willing to give her an awful lot.
Voices rose in the hallway, quickly coming closer and filling the long corridor, and Emmeline stepped back from the captain not a second too soon, because Elisabetta strode into the drawing room. She spoke as she entered, a flush high on her cheeks and her hands moving in wild animation, bowing just barely enough to be respectful, not that Emmeline gave a damn about whether or not her best friend bowed to her.
“The florist says that he won’t have the roses ready in time for the ceremony,” Elisa wailed. “The dowager marchioness is throwing an absolute fit over the dinner menus, and to be honest, I think she’s just doing it because she can, and I cannot for the life of me locate the lace from my mother’s wedding gown. I have a modiste, three French chefs, and an old, haranguing bat breathing down my neck, and the sun is barely over the hills.”
She paused to take a breath, cocking her head to the side when Emmeline nodded in the direction of the captain standing just behind Elisa. Slowly, color rising even higher on her cheeks, Elisabetta turned to face Captain Simonnet. She smiled, the grim smile of someone decidedly embarrassed, and tentatively extended her hand.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Captain,” Elisa remarked, her tone clipped. Simonnet grinned, placed a kiss to her knuckles, and sank low, honoring the daughter of a duke.
“The pleasure is mine, Lady Remington,” he replied. “Is there any way I might be of service in your wedding preparations? I have extensive connections down at the trading docks.”
Elisa’s color slowly returned to normal, her cheeks once again a soft, pale English tone, and she smiled more genuinely this time.
“Thank you for your kind offer, Captain,” she replied. “I don’t believe your help is necessary right at the moment, but I do appreciate it. Please, accept my apologies regarding the display you just witnessed. I’m afraid I’m quite at my wit’s end, regarding these preparations, and I believed Her Grace alone.” At those words, something shadowed Elisa’s eyes; she was just realizing that Emmeline was alone—with the captain. In that instant, the room suddenly grew strained, and Emmeline willed her oldest friend not to make a fuss, not to say anything that might push the words that hovered just below the surface into the thick air. Emmeline and the captain had been skirting this so long she desperately didn’t want it to see the light of day under these circumstances.
But Elisa came from a highbred family and knew when to speak and when to hold her tongue. And though she divided a knowing look between Emmeline and Captain Simonnet, she made no remark to give away her observations.
“You will be staying for the house party, will you not, Captain?” she said instead, looking expectantly at Emmeline, who sent another silent prayer to her best friend to keep her damn mouth shut. For all she was the picture perfect of English gentry, Elisa had a devilish streak a mile wide.
Alexandre turned his head, the motion so gentle as to be nearly unobservable, save for the heat she felt when their gazes collided and held strong. So much was said in those simple twitches of his golden eyes, so much was asked. Permission. He wanted her permission.
Stay. Think of the possibilities.
Possibilities she should know better than to want, possibilities that had every potential to ruin her, possibilities that had been haunting her dreams and fantasies for months, nay, years. The truth. That was what ached so fiercely in her heart that morning and so many days before it. She was lonely and desperately weary of being in control and nothing else. Always a duchess and never a woman. And if anyone in the world could make her feel like a woman, it was Captain Alexandre Pierron Simonnet.
And if anyone could break me to pieces, in the end, it will be Captain Alexandre Pierron Simonnet.
“If the duchess agrees,” Alexandre said. “It would be my pleasure.”
She caught his eye with what she hoped to be her most innocuous, stately smile, but inside her mind whirled. Yes. It most definitely would be.