Dukes of War Series #7
Miss Katherine Ross is a wealthy, eccentric socialite who knows precisely what she wants: No husband. No children. No candlelit tête-à-tête with the insufferably emotionless Duke of Ravenwood. She’s convinced his heart is ice — until she touches that chiseled chest for herself. One lapse in judgment is all it takes to turn both their lives topsy-turvy…
The Duke of Ravenwood isn’t cold and haughty, but a secret romantic who has always dreamt of marrying for love. Instead, he gets Miss Katherine Ross — a headstrong hoyden intent on unraveling his carefully ordered world. He doesn’t know whether to kiss her or throttle her. Can they survive each other’s company long enough to turn a compromise into love?
Regency-set Historical Romance Novel
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Lawrence Pembroke, Duke of Ravenwood, could not wait to escape the Palace of Westminster. As usual, the “short” meeting of the House of Lords had not begun until four in the afternoon, because most of the lords present could not be expected to rise from their beds until at least two of the clock.
Ravenwood, however, had been up since dawn. He favored neither drunkards nor dancing, and was not at all pleased that what had been meant to be an intelligent, practical debate on the efficacy of recoinage for greater post-war stabilization of currency had deteriorated once again into speculation about Princess Charlotte’s recent marriage and gleeful gossip about the appearance of a maskless Miss Katherine Ross at one of the Duke of Lambley’s masquerade parties.
Lambley got away with such chicanery because he was a duke. He was not only the very reason why Parliament could not possibly be called to order at a more reasonable hour, but the blasted man was garrulously and delightedly recounting tale’s of Miss Ross’s exploits. Miss Katherine Ross was Lambley’s hoyden cousin, who had apparently staged her stunt to entice other frivolous aristocrats to attend some equally frivolous upcoming crush.
Ravenwood would not be attending. Ever. Besides a visceral dislike of both crowds and parties, he disdained any behavior that cheapened one’s title or one’s integrity.
He wouldn’t even be at the Palace of Westminster at a quarter ’til midnight if he didn’t hold his responsibilities as a duke and a member of Parliament in the utmost respect. He, at least, would uphold his duty to England despite certain capricious lordlings wasting valuable time with idle gossip.
And he would leave here before midnight if humanly possible. His sister had begged him to stop by for a late supper after the meeting, and Ravenwood had given his word.
He rose to his feet. “I propose we form a Coinage Committee to investigate options and propose not only a course of action, but also a schedule in which to achieve it.”
Conversation halted as dozens of faces swung in his direction.
Ravenwood kept his tone imperious, his face a blank mask despite his pounding heart. He disliked being stared at even more than he disliked crowded rooms, but duty came first. The House of Lords needed a nanny, but tonight it must make do with Ravenwood. Experience had taught him that the most expedient way to achieve a goal was to undertake it oneself.
“Anyone interested in joining the fiduciary committee should arrive two hours prior to our next meeting. Until a chair can be formally named, I shall head the effort in the interim.” He sent his cool, imperious gaze about the chamber. “Unless one of you would like to volunteer for the position?”
Of course they would not. The handful of lords with enough intelligence and conviction to join such a committee was bright enough not to volunteer to manage it. The more foolish, indolent lords could be trusted to still be abed at the appointed hour, sleeping off another night of revelry.
So be it.
As soon as the meeting was adjourned, Ravenwood stalked from the Court of Requests and out into the chill night air. Only once he was seated inside his stately coach-and-four did he allow himself a small sigh of relief at finally achieving a moment’s peace.
Six more weeks. That was all. Parliament would disperse in July and would not resume until the following November.
Thank God. He sagged against the squab. Nothing sapped his energy and his spirits as efficiently as being forced to interact with crowds of people whom he could neither comprehend nor corral.
Which was perhaps ironic, given he was currently en route to his sister Amelia’s town house.
Lady Amelia was the epitome of a woman unable to be corralled, but he did at least comprehend her. He not only valued her sharp mind and managing ways, but also quite missed her presence in his household, now that she was married to Lord Sheffield.
Ravenwood hadn’t even realized how much he had missed her until he’d received her invitation to dinner.
He had always maintained a silent, retiring nature, but without his sister about to put her nose where it didn’t belong, the only words spoken to him at home these days were Yes, Your Grace or Perhaps the blue waistcoat today?
Ravenwood straightened his cravat. He was very much looking forward to an hour or two in the company of someone who didn’t want or expect anything of him. Amelia was one of the few people in the world who thought of him as her brother, the person, rather than His Grace, the duke.
When his coach-and-four pulled in front of the Sheffield town house, Ravenwood alighted from the carriage in haste.
His sister would not be surprised by his extremely late arrival—nothing surprised Lady Amelia—but Ravenwood’s stomach had been growling since half eight, and it was now past midnight.
The butler opened the front door before Ravenwood was halfway up the walk, and ushered him from the foyer to the dining room with no delay.
Lady Amelia all but clapped her hands with glee at his arrival. “Lovely to see you, brother. Your salmon will be served momentarily.” She shot a pointed look over her shoulder. “I told you he’d arrive, if you would suffer the least bit of patience.”
Given that her husband, Lord Sheffield, had never once displayed an ounce of impatience, Ravenwood could only surmise that Lady Amelia had invited other guests to her table.
Guests whose presence would once again force him to resume the role of His Grace, the duke. Delightful. He turned to greet them.
A surprised smile tugged at his lips.
Major Blackpool and his wife Daphne leapt to their feet. Or rose awkwardly, in Daphne’s case. She was partway through her first pregnancy, and still getting used to navigating her new dimensions.
“Good to see you,” Ravenwood said gruffly. And so it was.
With them, there was no need to put on airs. Their company was a pleasure. Bartholomew Blackpool had been one of his bosom friends since they were children.
Much had happened since then. Ravenwood’s parents had died while he was a schoolboy at Eton. The French Revolution had been raging for years, and had taken a turn for the worse right around the time they’d all left Cambridge.
When Blackpool and a few others had joined the Army to fight Napoleon, Ravenwood had not been able to join them. Indeed, he had initially been jealous.
From the moment he’d inherited his title, every breath, every moment, had been dedicated to the dukedom. To being the sort of man his parents would have wanted him to be. To being a duke that would have made them proud.
And that meant rigid adherence to gentlemanly conduct. Protecting the title and the estate. Staying home. Leaving battles and regimentals to freer men.
But the reality of war had soon become clear.
Major Blackpool had returned home not in glory, but delirious with pain. He’d lost his leg and his brother on the battlefield. He wouldn’t be alive at all if another friend hadn’t risked his own life to drag the injured man to safety.
Ravenwood swallowed. If he had been present that day, might he have been able to save his friends from tragedy? Or might he have been the one never to return, leaving his lifeblood and his father’s cherished title to trickle into nothing upon the battlefield?
Now was not the time to dwell on dark thoughts. It was a happy surprise indeed to be able to spend the evening with close friends.
Before he could ask Daphne how she was faring or what plans they had for the baby, Ravenwood’s sister forcibly tugged him toward a third party, whom he hadn’t initially noticed due to his excitement to see the others.
His posture tightened at the sight of a pretty young lady with glossy blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a quick smile.
Miss Katherine Ross. Cousin to the infamous Duke of Lambley. Hoyden extraordinaire.
Ravenwood narrowed his eyes at his sister.
It was a truth universally acknowledged that Lady Amelia loved her brother dearly. And that she was an unrepentant busybody of the first order.
He would not put any scheme past his sister. Including a misguided attempt to matchmake her brother with a long-legged, laughing-eyed woman that he could not possibly abide. Ravenwood frowned at Miss Ross in distaste.
Lady Amelia barreled on, as if the sudden return of Ravenwood’s icy public demeanor was of no consequence. “Katherine, it is my absolute pleasure to present His Grace, the Duke of Ravenwood. Ravenwood, please allow me to present Miss Katherine Ross. She is cousin to the Duke of Lambley.”
“We’ve met,” Ravenwood answered coldly. He detested being forced to converse with anyone who flouted propriety.
Miss Ross gazed back, unperturbed.
Ignoring society’s conventions no doubt had led directly to her still unwed state, despite her high ranked connections and sparkling blue eyes. Ravenwood frowned. It would take far more than a pretty face to turn his head.
He had nothing but respect for the other individuals at the table. Every one of them consistently put duty above all other concerns.
The beautiful and brazen Miss Ross, on the other hand, had apparently spent the prior evening courting the edge of impropriety at one of her cousin’s masquerade ball.
A few months ago, she had provided shelter during Daphne’s courtship with Blackpool, however, which was no doubt how she had earned everyone else’s blessing. Humph. Tolerable enough manners on that occasion, Ravenwood supposed, but hardly refined enough to tempt him. He preferred the company of people who could be expected to conform to society’s rules.
Indeed, he would have chosen to sit at the opposite end of the table from Miss Ross, except the only vacant seat belonged to Lord Sheffield. All other chairs were taken. He stiffened his spine. There was nothing to do but accept the only empty place.
With his habitual mask of formal hauteur firmly in place, Ravenwood took the seat beside Miss Ross. His long-practiced indifference to those beneath a duke’s notice allowed him to sip a much-needed glass of wine whilst cataloguing what could be made of the situation.
Familiar sweetness coated his tongue. He froze. Not just any wine—his favorite port. No doubt, then. His sister was absolutely up to her usual tricks.
He arched a brow at her.
She gave him a bland smile and blinked in wide-eyed innocence.
Dread soured Ravenwood’s wine.
He and Miss Ross were opposites in every way. Ravenwood took pride in his lineage, his title, his comportment. In being an exemplary peer of honor and good breeding.
Miss Ross, on the other hand, had no such compunctions about…anything at all. If the recent scandal sheets were any indication, she had no respect for her time, her reputation, or her standing in society. She delighted in disrupting the status quo.
Which was no doubt why his obvious disapproval of her antics had no effect on her sunny smile. She was perfectly happy living her life precisely how she pleased.
Ravenwood’s shoulders relaxed. He suspected that even Lady Amelia would have difficulty influencing a woman as infamously headstrong as Miss Ross.
Which, along with the Blackpools’ presence at the table, suggested this was perhaps not a matchmaking ambush after all.
Knowing his sister, however, it was still an ambush. The question was why.
“How may I be of service?” he asked without preamble. He addressed the question to Major Blackpool, as he was the least likely to prevaricate in his reply.
Blackpool gestured toward his wife.
Daphne immediately blushed. “I wish you wouldn’t assume even friends don’t dine with you unless they desire a favor. It makes it even worse on the occasions when you’re right.”
Ravenwood granted her a smile that he did not feel.
He liked Daphne. They were friends. But the truth of the matter was, since the moment he’d inherited the dukedom, virtually no one sought an audience with him unless they wished him to use his title for their benefit.
On most occasions, he was happy to use his influence to help others.
On other occasions, he simply wanted to enjoy a moment as a human being, not as someone else’s stepping-stone.
Footmen rushed forward bearing steaming trays of fragrant delicacies, as if Lady Amelia’s kitchen had synchronized their clocks with the timing of the parliamentary meeting.
From Amelia, he would expect nothing less. However, he had also expected her to uphold their childhood bargain of never forcing him into awkward social situations unawares.
Hours spent arguing with and wrangling the House of Lords were bad enough. He did not need a relaxing evening turned into more of the same.
“I have had a long day and a long night,” he said to Daphne. “I am hungry and out of sorts. I am aware my sister has been helping support your charities. If you require a financial donation for one of your causes, the answer is yes. May we eat now?”
Daphne’s gaze darted toward Miss Ross. Not Lady Amelia.
Ravenwood turned to Miss Ross in dismay. “Is this gathering your doing, Miss Ross?”
“Not this one,” she answered cheerfully as she picked up her spoon. “I try not to organize anything with less than a hundred attendees. But you’re right on the mark. While your financial contribution is always welcome, this time Daphne is aiming even bigger. She would like to auction art for charity. My antiquities museum is the perfect venue, both for displaying the objects as well as for hosting a large number of attendees. The date is Saturday next, at eight in the evening. It has the makings of a perfect crush.”
Ravenwood held back a grimace. It did sound like a perfect crush. Horrid. “Presumably Daphne will handle distributing the funds to the appropriate parties, and Lady Amelia will handle the invitations and the auction itself. I fail to see my role in the scheme.”
Miss Ross licked her rosy lips. “You are the bait.”
He recoiled. His tone was of the same frigid disdain that could silence the House of Lords in the space of a breath. “Explain.”
Miss Ross’s blue eyes twinkled at him from over her glass of wine. “You needn’t scowl so. I promise you’ll survive with your reputation intact. In fact, we’re counting on it.”
We. He turned his glare toward his sister.
Lady Amelia nodded enthusiastically. “Your presence at the soirée—”
“I thought it was an auction.”
“It must be both, if we’re to attract everyone. Most of the upper classes don’t care a button about auctions—and they care even less about donating their largess to charitable causes. They do, however, care very much about keeping up appearances, and would be loath to miss a gala with the reclusive Duke of Ravenwood himself in attendance.”
“My shadow will make the evening a success?” he asked sarcastically. Blast.
It was true, of course. And one of the many reasons he hated crowds. His mere presence always made them larger.
“Your attendance will attract…others.” Miss Ross leaned back in her chair, her pretty face free of worry. “Your large donation, delivered before all and sundry, will open their pocketbooks.”
“Why not Lambley?” Ravenwood suggested. There had to be an alternative. “Your cousin is a duke, financially sound, and popular. Is his schedule too full to fit another soiree?”
Miss Ross waved her hand. “Of course my cousin will be there. Lambley would never miss a party. Which is precisely why his presence is unlikely to cause a stir. Lambley’s notoriety is more likely to generate gossip than altruism. You, however, are someone the sheep affect to imitate.”
Ravenwood clenched his teeth. If Miss Ross’s goal was to sweeten him up, she was failing tremendously—and was undoubtedly enjoying every moment of it. The “sheep” she referred to were the upper classes. His peers.
She might think eschewing decorum and proper respect made her a free spirit, some sort of modern woman.
In truth, it simply made her unpalatable.
He was not, however, an unfair or unfeeling man. Far from it. Daphne’s charitable causes always improved the lives of some underserved portion of the population, and Ravenwood would not allow his distaste for Miss Ross’s lack of restraint to deter him from doing his part. As a duke, his first responsibility was to England.
His second responsibility was to his own peace and happiness.
“I will attend the auction.” He looked down his nose at Miss Ross. “I will bid high, I will encourage others to do the same, and then I will take my leave. Once my duty is done, our paths will not cross again. Are my terms clear?”
Lady Amelia gasped. “Ravenwood—”
“Your delightful presence will be deeply missed from that day forward,” Miss Ross said drolly, neither chastened nor flustered by his disapproval. Her lips quirked as she lowered her gaze to her glass of wine.
Ravenwood’s jaw tightened. His cut had not insulted her. Displeasing Ravenwood was likely the highlight of her evening. Miss Ross reveled in walking the line between respectable and fast. He could not tear his gaze away.
One night, he reminded himself. He would see her briefly from across the room—and then never see her again.
He couldn’t wait.
Miss Katherine Ross grasped the thin, liver-spotted hands of her Great-Aunt Havens and gaily twirled the older woman about the salon of the antiquities museum. “Isn’t this fun, Aunt? Guests will arrive in less than an hour!”
Aunt Havens’ smile was as instant and as exuberant as a babe’s. Her eyes, however, did not light with understanding. “Are we having a party? Where are we?”
“This is my museum, Aunt. See all the glass displays atop those white columns? Those are the objets d’art Daphne will be auctioning for charity. She claims the cunning wooden animals inside them were carved by a pirate.”
“A pirate!” Aunt Havens gasped in delight.
The same reaction she’d had the three previous times Kate had relayed this same bit of information.
No matter. Kate kissed her aunt’s wrinkled cheek and led her to a comfortable chair with a direct view of the entrance.
Hopefully Aunt Havens would stop wandering off to the storage rooms this time. Every time she tried to “help” organize an event, another priceless artifact tumbled off its shelf.
Kate patted her narrow shoulder. “Relax right here, Aunt. I’m going to help Daphne for a moment. Whistle if you need me.”
“Whistling is not at all ladylike,” Aunt Havens said sternly. “Don’t engage in such antics once the Duke of Ravenwood is here, or he’s liable to give you the cut direct in the middle of your own museum.”
Kate’s shoulders sagged with relief. No more vacant answers. Aunt Havens was back. She even recalled Kate’s many complaints about the Frost King—the irreverent moniker Kate had once given him after he’d attended a ball and refused to dance with anyone.
She grinned to herself. Ravenwood might be a staid, emotionless, ice-in-his-veins stick-in-the-mud, but all that could be forgiven because Aunt Havens had remembered him.
Then again, despite his aloofness, the Duke of Ravenwood was handsome as sin. Who could forget wide shoulders and piercing green eyes like his?
Kate linked her arm with her aunt’s. Aunt Havens’ moments of confusion were brief, but Kate couldn’t help but worry. Sometimes a month or two might go by without incident, and then other times Aunt Havens couldn’t seem to grasp the conversational thread from one moment to the next.
Nights like tonight. When all Kate wanted was to share the joy of success with the sole close family member she had left. She leaned her head against her aunt’s shoulder.
It was unfair. When Aunt Havens had opened her home and her heart to an orphaned little girl all those years ago, she hadn’t just become a mother figure in Kate’s life. Aunt Havens had become Kate’s confidante, her conscience. Her best friend.
She straightened her spine. It was good to see Aunt Havens’ eyes alight with wit and intelligence again. Whatever those moments of confusion had been, they were gone now. Aunt Havens was fine. She would stay fine. The two of them were a force to be reckoned with.
Starting with this charity soiree.
Kate clasped her hands to her chest and feasted her eyes upon the remade salon. Most of her precious antiquities were tucked safely into crates inside the back rooms, but a few carefully selected pieces were still on display.
With any luck, this gala would be a rousing success for Daphne’s charity and Kate’s museum.
She had spent days and weeks agonizing over which pieces would pique the most interest, which pedestals would display them to best light. If antiquities museums were not the preferred nighttime haunt of the fashionable set, well, Kate would simply have to change their minds.
The museum doors pushed open and a gaggle of Kate’s artistic friends rushed in, talking excitedly. She rushed forward to greet them.
It was vital that the struggling artists be here tonight. They had donated most of the paintings, woodwork, and lavish costumes on display for the auction. This was likely to be their one chance to witness a high-priced auction and realize the true value of their maligned and under appreciated talent.
Yet to make that happen, Kate had to ensure their presence would not send the Upper Ten Thousand fleeing home before a single penny had been raised.
Although it pained her to do so, she had no choice but to usher each cluster of her lower-class friends up the stairs and out of the way. She told them they were fortunate. The balcony railing would provide them a bird’s eye view of the proceedings.
They knew the truth. They didn’t argue or take offense.
Kate’s fingers clenched at her inability to make the beau monde accept talented artists like her friends simply because they were born from the wrong bloodlines.
Being near enough to spy bald spots atop moneyed roués was as close to equality as any of them ever expected to get. They were happy to be here.
“Don’t spit on anyone,” she teased before turning toward the winding staircase to intercept the next batch of guests.
“What about your Frost King?” Miss Nottingworth, a talented seamstress, teased back.
Kate gave an exaggerated shudder despite the quickening of her pulse. “He’s not mine, thank heavens. I pity the future duchess who spends her wedding night suffering frostbite.”
She slipped back down the steps to the sound of her friends’ laughter.
While she did indeed suspect Ravenwood’s touch to be capable of turning anything to ice, the mere thought of lovemaking did not send her a fit of the vapors, as it did so many of the useless debutantes gathering below.
What Kate dreaded was not the physical act, but marriage itself. The loss of her freedom. The requirement to bear children. The probability she or her child would not survive the ordeal. Kate’s fingers grew cold. The very thought paralyzed her limbs with dread and sent her into a panic.
Many of her earliest memories were of her Aunt Havens’ drawn face when she’d returned from a midwifery visit only to report one or both of the patients had not survived the birth.
Uncle Havens had been a parson. Each time, he would comfort his wife as best he could, then prepare for the funerals.
The sight of tiny coffins even smaller than Kate herself had been more than enough to convince her never to take such a risk.
As she’d grown older, as the cemeteries became crowded, her resolve had only strengthened. Losing one’s own life would be terrible enough. Losing a child…unthinkable.
Kate shivered. She might fantasize about knowing passion, but she did not need or want the trappings that came with it. She was perfectly happy to remain both a spinster and a virgin for the rest of her days.
Another reason why her artist friends loved to tease her. Many were not confined by the same rules and expectations. A few of them were married, but most took their pleasures when and how they pleased. They used scandalous devices like sponges or French letters to prevent conception.
Kate’s sensibilities should have been shocked by such unseemly behavior. Instead, she was deeply jealous of their freedom. Of the ability to connect with others without forethought or consequence.
As a lady, choosing not to bear children meant never marrying at all. She sighed. Sometimes she wished she were made of ice. Then maybe her fate wouldn’t seem so lonely.
For the moment, however, Daphne’s auction deserved Kate’s full attention. Streams of eager faces spilled through the front doors and into the receiving salon.
A grin spread across Kate’s face as she stepped into the milieu.
She loved this. The noise of excited conversations, the clash of a hundred perfumes, the whirl of colors as expensive silks and painted faces sparkled beneath the light of dozens of chandeliers. She drew a deep breath as energy sang through her veins.
Within the space of a couple hours, Daphne’s charity auction was a roaring success. The crème de la crème were having fun in an antiquities museum. Kate’s antiquities museum. It was perfect. Champagne flowed. Bids soared. Her friends watching overhead were openmouthed and awestruck at the exorbitant prices their hard work was fetching. Aunt Havens was laughing with Daphne and her husband.
Kate’s heart thundered with joy. Nights like this made her feel like she could do anything, be anyone she desired. The world was hers.
She clutched her hands to her chest and smiled at the whirling crush. What else might she accomplish if she put her mind to it? ’Twould be splendid if she could get the art-and-theatre crowd and the beau monde not only under the same roof, but actually interacting. Perhaps not like peers, but at least…like people.
A thought struck her. The ton loved to be entertained. They just didn’t realize how much of an effect their patronage—or lack thereof—truly had.
Kate could spread awareness, much like Daphne was doing, except Kate’s goal would be to entice the wealthier set to become more active patrons of the arts. Anyone could spare a few coins to sponsor the tutelage of a protégé. What Society matron wouldn’t wish to boast that she’d “discovered” London’s newest rising star?
The entertainment district would become richer in every sense. Artists and actors could focus on their craft instead of finding their next meal. And the beau monde, as spectators, would reap the benefit of their generosity.
Kate forced herself to push the tantalizing idea aside. At least for tonight.
Right now she needed to concentrate on flawlessly executing the charity event. Perhaps she could even lay the foundation for her future event by spending an extra moment with the faces she recognized as performers in past musicales, or those whose box was never vacant during a theatre performance.
Practically bubbling with excitement and good cheer, Kate made her way through the crowded salon. She gave a personal word of welcome to everyone she passed, teasing them all to return soon for a glimpse of the antiquities even their money could not buy. Mentioning favorite operas, favorite violinists to the aficionados who shared her passions.
A self-deprecating smile teased her lips. She could be more than charming when she wished. So could the ton. With them both on their best behavior, the evening was positively magical.
Until she caught sight of high cheekbones. Chestnut hair. Strong shoulders.
The devilishly handsome Duke of Ravenwood stood back from the crowd, almost in the shadows, but there was no hiding a form that tall. A body that muscular. A scowl that dark.
Annoyance itched beneath her skin. A charity ball was clearly too gauche for someone as high in the instep as Ravenwood, but did he have to glower from his perch like a gargoyle in a waistcoat?
Not that his frosty arrogance discouraged the eyes of every woman in the salon from turning his way. For a duke, everything was easy. He probably took his passion wherever he pleased. If he ever had any passion.
She was reminding herself that she was not to let him ruffle her feathers, when his hooded green eyes met hers—and just as quickly glanced away.
Her mouth fell open. Was he truly going to stand inside her museum and pretend not to see her?
She took a step forward.
He turned his back and slipped into the shadows.
Of all the—Kate curled her fingers into fists. He might be the silent prince of the ton but he would not cut her right in the middle of her own museum. Ice King or not.
He wished to avoid her? Too late now. He could melt into whichever corner he liked, but no one knew this museum as well as Kate. He would not cut her again. Her heart banged as she stalked through the crowd. He could be as uppity as he liked in his domain, but tonight he had walked into hers.
She found him in moments, standing beside the open door to the storage cellar as if he were entitled to poke his aristocratic nose anywhere he pleased, simply because he’d been born with a title.
Well, he might be the Duke of Ravenwood, but he wasn’t lord of her museum. She’d built it from the ground up. Her unmarried status made it hers and hers alone.
Which meant she had every right to throw him out on his ear if he dared to insult her between these walls. After all, she’d invited him.
She stormed over with a ferocious smile. “Looking for the powder room, are we?”
He started in surprise—or at least, she thought he might have done—and then turned to face her in the slowest, haughtiest way imaginable. “The only thing I’m looking for is a respite from all the noise.”
The “noise”, as he put it, was the proof that her long weeks of planning and preparation had been worth every effort.
Of course His Grace wouldn’t approve.
“By all means,” she said as she brushed past him, “step into my lair. Be warned, there’s more dust on these shelves than Ravenwood House sees in a year.”
She strode into the storage area with her head high, pleased to have had the last word. His Highness would never follow her into such a lowly chamber.
Giddiness filled her. She had turned her back on him and walked away. Given the Duke of Ravenwood the cut direct. A laugh bubbled at her lips. Her friends would never believe this!
“You have never seen the inside of Ravenwood House,” came a deep voice from right behind her. “Nor are you likely to.”
She gasped and spun around, heart hammering.
He’d left his precious ton to follow her into storage quarters? Was he mad?
“Not be invited to Ravenwood House?” She arched a brow and tried to calm her pulse. “Be a gentleman and pass me your handkerchief. I fear I may weep.”
His cool eyes didn’t leave hers. “Come to think of it, I rarely see you at any society events. I’ve only seen your name in scandal sheets. Why is that?”
“Because you don’t go to society events,” she snapped.
He tilted his head to concede the point.
Good. She crossed her arms. If he wasn’t already aware, she would hate having to explain to him that she was rarely asked to attend any of the “respectable” balls anymore. While she’d never done anything scandalous enough to permanently ruin her reputation, her friendships with the art and theatre crowd tainted her by association.
If she were a man, perhaps her motley friends wouldn’t have mattered. Lord Byron managed to be a poet and a baron. Brummell managed to be both a dandy and a debtor.
For women, it was different. If one were an actress, the assumption was that she was also a whore. And if she were not an actress, but merely a woman who both enjoyed the performances and befriended the entertainers?
Well. She hadn’t flinched when her Almack’s voucher was revoked. She certainly wasn’t going to cry about the Duke of Ravenwood acknowledging her lower status.
The opposite, in fact. His unexpected pursuit of her into the storage area filled Kate with a giddy sense of unreality. Part of her was picturing herself telling her friends about her close encounter with the Frost King, and the other part of herself wondered if they’d even believe her.
A prideful man as high-in-the-instep as the lofty Duke of Ravenwood, shadowed amongst dusty wooden crates and towering shelves? Unthinkable!
Even here, surrounded by row after row of her painstakingly collected antiquities, the insufferable man looked more imperious than ever. More handsome. More unreachable.
His broad shoulders and tense frame seemed to fill the overstuffed aisle, making her feel for the first time as if she were not in her prized treasure room, but rather a wayward maiden who’d wandered into his domain.
She glared at him for daring to take her sense of ownership from her with his mere presence.
His eyes glittered back from beneath his dark chestnut brows.
He neither smiled nor frowned. As was his wont. Ravenwood was infamous for staring coolly out of those inscrutable emerald eyes, with no indication upon those firm lips and square jaw as to what he might be thinking. She had spent weeks trying to figure him out. Months.
Kate straightened her spine and tried to match his indifference with her own.
Let him see how immune she was to his arrogance and cold beauty. If she wanted a statue of Adonis, she knew where to find one. She already had one, in fact—packed away against the back wall. She didn’t need Ravenwood towering over her, judging her. Dismissing her.
She jerked her gaze away from him. The charity gala needed her concentration. Now that she was in the storage area, she might as well make something of it. But Aunt Havens had been in here earlier, “organizing” the collection…which always made it that much harder for anything to be found.
As Kate scanned the shelves in search of the Greek pottery she’d hoped to put on display after tonight’s gala, every prickling inch of her skin was hyper aware of Ravenwood’s unflinching gaze. Her usually steady fingers trembled as she reached for a squat wooden box tucked away upon one of the tallest shelves.
“Let me help,” came his deep voice from immediately behind her.
She jumped and flailed her arms. The preternaturally silent man had managed to startle her yet again, causing her to grasp the shelving to keep her balance.
It didn’t work.
Rather, she stayed upright—but the overpacked shelves wobbled just enough to send the items on the topmost shelf tumbling right at them.
A blown glass flower. A porcelain bust. And Aunt Havens’ misplaced pail of water.
Kate grabbed the bust and swung it onto the closest shelf.
Ravenwood rescued the glass flower.
The falling bucket splashed over them, dousing his wide chest and pristine cravat with cold water.
His impenetrable eyes met hers.
Kate swallowed. Her pulse hammered wildly. Words would not form.
He ought to look ridiculous. An uppity duke, clutching a glass flower, his neckcloth dripping as if he’d been caught in a summer rain.
The opposite was true. With his chestnut curls awry and his cravat plastered to his chest, the typically standoffish duke looked…approachable. Handsome. Dangerous.
She touched her fingertips to his cravat. “You’re wet.”
“You’re observant.” Against all odds, his mouth curved into a wry smile.
She froze in place, her palm against the heat of his chest, her startled eyes locked on the curve of his lips.
Had she ever seen him smile before? Heaven help her, he was gorgeous. That slow, self-deprecating smile transformed him from a princely statue to someone kissable. Desirable. Someone she absolutely should not be touching.
Fire, not ice.
She snatched her hand from his chest and jerked away—only for her slippered feet to skid out from under her on the water-slick floor.
He caught her to him, preventing her fall.
Her arms tightened about him reflexively before she realized her mistake. Er, mistakes. She was alone with the Duke of Ravenwood, her silk bodice plastered against his dripping wet chest.
And part of her didn’t want to let go.
She tried to breathe. His muscles were firm and hot beneath his snugly tailored coat sleeves. Her damp bosom trapped between his heartbeat and hers.
His hooded green eyes were no longer as unreadable as they’d been a few moments earlier. They were focused on her parted lips. The lips she couldn’t help but lick in anticipation.
He lowered his head toward hers…as the storage room door swung open.
Ravenwood released Miss Ross from his arms, his heart pounding in trepidation.
It was already too late.
An older woman stood in the open doorway, blinking owlishly at them from a pale, angular face.
“Oh, thank heavens.” Miss Ross all but sagged back into his arms in obvious relief. “It’s just Aunt Havens.”
Ravenwood stiffened. From what he had always gathered, aunts happening across an unchaperoned niece in the arms of a duke generally put one at distinct risk for a leg shackle.
He couldn’t risk Miss Ross becoming his duchess, for God’s sake.
She was intriguing and beautiful, but tempting curves and kissable lips were not the traits he most desired. No matter what his traitorous body might have thought when he’d given into temptation and pulled her into his arms.
He knew precisely what sort of woman would make the perfect wife and a wonderful duchess, and Miss Ross unquestionably did not fit his requirements.
When he married, it would be for his dukedom…and for love.
Or at least, that had been his plan until a few moments ago.
However, Mrs. Havens had yet to sound the alarm. Or do much of anything besides stare at them, with her back to the noise from the gala and Ravenwood’s freedom in the palm of her hand.
“She’s frowning because she can be slightly addled at times, not because she intends to compromise us,” Miss Ross whispered. “It’s going to be all right.”
Relief coursed through him.
His moment of weakness, of madness, was nothing more than that. A flight of fancy. It wasn’t like he had actually kissed her.
Mrs. Havens had done them a favor by interrupting.
He tried to calm his racing heart. Miss Ross’s ability to drive him mad with both distaste and desire did not deserve to be dwelled upon any longer.
Thank God they wouldn’t be compromised. If they could not be in each other’s company without arguing—or kissing—then they would simply take care to avoid each other’s company.
Indeed, it was past time for Ravenwood to select a proper duchess. If he had already taken a wife, he would never have made the terrible mistake of a horrifically incompatible woman like Miss Ross.
He required someone of moral restraint, of unimpeachable reputation, of soft words and a gentle heart. A duchess who would command the unflagging respect of the entire ton. Once he took a wife, he would no longer be tempted by the likes of Miss Ross.
He forced himself to drag his gaze away from the pretty flush on Miss Ross’s cheeks…and the sight of her tongue as she licked her lower lip.
No matter how badly he’d longed to escape the crowded salon, he should never have followed her into the storage area. Her goading was far less dangerous than the temptation of her kisses.
But then, who would imagine he could ever be tempted?
“There’s no trouble here, Aunt.” Miss Ross grabbed one of the dusty cloths covering the many crates and placed it atop the puddle on the floor. “We’re just attending to a slight mishap.”
“Why was a pail of water perched at the edge of a shelf to begin with?” he growled beneath his breath.
Miss Ross’s blue eyes sparked up at him from beneath dusky lashes. “’Tis my museum, not yours. I’ll store my possessions wherever I please.”
“Did I leave my bucket on the floor?” came a querulous voice from the doorway.
Addled sometimes. He swallowed in sudden understanding. Miss Ross wasn’t the beautiful, shallow creature he’d believed her to be. Her fiery glare hadn’t been because she was cross with Ravenwood, but because she wished to protect her aunt from censure. He appreciated such a noble streak.
“Go back to the others,” Miss Ross called over her shoulder. “I’ll find you in a moment.”
Ravenwood’s entire body tensed as he waited to see whether Mrs. Havens would follow such a directive without asking what her niece was doing alone with a strange man in the first place.
To his relief, Mrs. Havens nodded as if this were a perfectly normal request. “Make haste if you could, please. Daphne has questions about the pink vases and Lambley says we’re running out of champagne.”
Ravenwood blinked at the mundane query.
Miss Ross had been correct. Everything was going to be all right. All they had to do was slip back into the salon before anyone else noticed them missing and then life would continue as planned.
The hardest part would be explaining why his cravat looked like he’d dropped it in bathwater.
As Mrs. Havens turned to close the door, her voice floated back to them. “No, you’ll have to wait for the champagne. Kate needs a private moment with a young man before she can join us.”
Miss Ross flushed pink and sucked in a breath.
Ravenwood covered his face with his hand.
The storage door swung back open with enough force to rattle its hinges.
“Ravenwood?” spluttered the Duke of Lambley in disbelief. “Why are you skulking about with my cousin?”
“A fine accusation, coming from the likes of you,” Ravenwood returned icily.
Lambley’s more illicit parties were legendary for their hedonism. They were also precisely the wrong comparison to make whilst explaining why Ravenwood was alone with Miss Ross.
Mrs. Havens clasped her hands to her chest and fixed her nephew with a worried gaze. “Is something wrong, dear?”
“Ravenwood is about to ask my cousin for her hand in marriage right this very moment, that’s what’s wrong.” Lambley stalked forward with his hands clenched into fists.
Miss Ross rushed forward. “Cousin, wait. It’s not what you think!”
Lambley drew up short, his posture relaxing. “Please tell me there’s a reasonable explanation.”
For a moment—a brief, glorious moment—Ravenwood let himself believe that he would be able to exit this museum the same way he had entered it: a bachelor.
Then dozens of familiar faces swarmed the open doorway in shock and delight.
“What is it?”
“Lambley nearly engaged in fisticuffs with the Duke of Ravenwood!”
“A brawl? In a museum?”
“The Duke of Ravenwood has compromised Miss Ross!”
“Can you imagine her as a duchess?”
“Can you imagine Ravenwood compromising someone? His blood isn’t made of ice after all!”
“A tryst, at a charity gala! Can there be anything more vulgar?”
“Must not have wanted him, though. Looks like she tossed her drink right in his face.”
“Not want a duchy? Are you mad? That’s a lover’s quarrel, that is. She wanted to be more than a mistress, but he had his sainted image to uphold.”
Ravenwood was clenching his jaw so tight he feared his teeth would grind to dust. His “sainted” image had been one of his prized possessions. An achievement of which he’d had every right to be proud.
In eight-and-twenty years, he’d never once given Society a reason to view his manners and his bearing with anything less than absolute respect.
In less than a quarter hour, he’d managed to tarnish two reputations. All because he’d ducked into a quiet room for a much needed respite from this very crowd.
He slowly turned toward Miss Ross, expecting to find her prostrate with mortification. Or perhaps smug with satisfaction, if the gossips were right about every woman’s innate desire to become a duchess.
Miss Ross didn’t look delighted at her unexpected new fortune. She looked like she was going to cry.
Devil take it.
Ravenwood’s spine snapped into its habitual commanding posture. A sudden betrothal was the last thing either of them had planned, but becoming the new Duchess of Ravenwood was hardly the end of the world. For someone like her, ’twould be a giant step forward.
“Miss Ross.” He forced himself to voice the dreaded words that had now become inevitable. “Would you do me the great honor—”
“It’s no honor,” she muttered back, glaring at his wet shoes. “This is a nightmare for both of us.”
Well. At least she acknowledged the truth. Ravenwood grabbed her hand and turned toward the jostling spectators. “She said yes!”
She dug her fingernails into his skin. “I didn’t say yes. You didn’t finish your sentence.”
“Do you want this to become even more of a farce than it already is?” he asked through clenched teeth, forcing himself not to grab her. “If that bucket hadn’t been there—”
“If you hadn’t followed me somewhere you certainly didn’t belong—”
“If you hadn’t forced me into attending this ridiculous gala—”
“If you didn’t have such a large stick up your arse—”
“If you could act like a lady for just once in your flighty, spoiled little life—”
“Congratulations,” Lambley boomed. He yanked Miss Ross to safety before Ravenwood could throttle her for making a horrible situation even worse. “You may call upon us tomorrow to work out the details.”