In her first Season, Hope Baxendale attracts the interest of a powerful English duke, the husband all debutantes wish for and some will fight dirty to get. If only the handsome Frenchman Daniel Brienne, Duc du Ténèbres wasn’t distracting her from her course. Daniel shows little interest in marrying again, and surely, it is only the sadness in his deep brown eyes that pulls her to him:
Daniel yearns for solitude. When his very existence is threatened, he wakes to the possibilities of a life passionately lived. He knows just whom he wants in his future, but the weary hawk, the Duke of Winslow, circles. And is it fair to ask Hope to leave her family and her country for him?
A heavyset man halted beside Hope. When his way forward was blocked, he lost his temper and pushed against her. His foot crashed down on her instep, unprotected in her thin evening slipper. Hope cried out in pain, but the man merely ground his shoe into hers to gain momentum and pushed on.
With an angry scowl at the man’s back, the duke took her arm and pulled her sideways. He frowned down at her. “Did he hurt you?”
She grimaced. “My foot is a little sore.”
Hope limped as he drew her toward the open French doors.
When they reached the doors where the curtains flapped in the breeze, they escaped out into the cool, welcoming fresh air. The terrace was deserted. A small party of guests, who had braved the weather, disappeared amongst the trees to admire the gardens lit by braziers.
Hope had left her evening cloak when she’d entered the mansion. She shivered and rubbed her arms. Her foot throbbed horribly, and she’d begun to hobble.
The duke put an arm around her and led her to a garden seat. He shrugged out of his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. “I’ll fetch your parents.”
Hope clutched his coat, still warm from his body to her chest and breathed in his musky, masculine scent. “It will be difficult for you to locate them in that crush.” She looked toward the open door. “I expect they’ll soon find me.”
“Then please allow me to see the extent of your injury.”
Hope cautiously lifted her gown high enough to expose her foot and ankle as the duke knelt at her feet.
She muffled a gasp as his gloved fingers took a gentle hold of her ankle and his dark head bent over her foot. Her skin tingled where he touched her. The only man who had ever paid attention to her ankle was the groom who’d taught her to ride. The duke removed her slipper, revealing an obvious swelling beneath her damaged stocking.
“You’ll have a nasty bruise, but I don’t think you’ve broken a bone,” he said, lifting his head and pinning her with his deep, soulful dark brown eyes.
She sucked in a breath and fought to compose herself. He didn’t look beguiled. In fact, he sounded like their doctor. She’d thought him quite sociable when they’d last danced, but tonight, there was more distance between them despite his proximity. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. She supposed she didn’t present well from this angle. She now had a big hole in her soiled stocking. “I was to ride in Hyde Park on Sunday. I suppose I shan’t be able to, now,” she said. “And I was looking forward to it.” She closed her mouth firmly, aware she was rambling.
“I doubt this injury will prevent you. You like to ride?”
“I do. Riding gives one a wonderful sense of freedom.”
“Although Rotten Row is a little restricting. One cannot gallop there. My father disapproves of women galloping. He says sidesaddles are dangerous.” She pressed her lips together.
“They have been proved so.”
“I would love to ride astride, like men. I don’t see why women cannot.” Rambling and opinionated. She was so nervous she seemed unable to stop.
“In the future perhaps, when you marry.” He straightened, but having him stand so close didn’t improve her breathing.
“A husband would permit it?”
“I don’t see why not in the privacy of his estate.”
“Then you agree?” she asked, curiosity getting the better of her. “You would allow your wife to ride astride, I mean.”
He paused to consider it. “It would be entirely my wife’s decision.” His smile softened the firm set of his jaw and turned his eyes to brown satin. “But I imagine you could persuade your husband without a great deal of difficulty, Lady Hope.”
It wasn’t a criticism, for his tone was warm. He might even like her a little. In fact, his gaze was a soft caress, and oddly, it seemed to bring him closer, although he hadn’t moved an inch. A lurch of excitement shocked her and brought her back to the present. They were at a rout, surrounded by the beau monde. Her dress was rucked up, and he was holding her shoe!
“We’d best replace your shoe before your foot swells.” The duke dropped down again and returned to his task.
He was holding her ankle in his long fingers while slipping on her shoe when her father stormed out of the door with her mother following on his heels.
For a moment, Hope held her breath as her father surveyed the scene. Thankfully, he did not rush to judgment. But neither was he pleased. His brows snapped together. “Thank you for rescuing my daughter from that infuriating melee, Your Grace.” He strode over to Hope. “We feared you’d been trampled underfoot, my dear.” He eyed her foot. “It seems you have.”
Fortunately, she and the duke were not alone, for several guests had emerged from the gardens and approached the terrace steps.
Having replaced her shoe, the duke straightened. “Your daughter has suffered a slight injury.”
“I’m grateful for your assistance,” Father said, his tone brisk. He whipped the duke’s coat from Hope’s shoulders and held it out to him. “Most grateful.”
The duke shrugged into his coat. “Lady Hope finds it painful to walk.”
“Come, Hope.” Her father took hold of her arm and led her across the terrace.
A sharp pain shot through her instep, and she staggered. “I can’t walk, Father.”
“Dashed infernal entertainments, so called,” her father muttered. “How on earth are we going to get through that crowd?” He swung Hope up into his arms.
Hope held on to her father’s shoulder and peered around at the duke, who nodded to her as she was carried inside. “Thank you,” Hope mouthed.
Her father blustered his way through the throng, which was thankfully dispersing, her mother behind them. Reaching the front porch, he set Hope on her feet. “Never ask me to attend another of these ridiculous routs again,” he said to her mother through clenched teeth. “I’d rather brave Billingsgate fish wharf.”
“Are you overset my dear?” her mother asked. “He actually had his hand on your ankle! The French do not have the same sense of proprieties that we English do.”
“He wore gloves, Mama.”
“Nevertheless. He might have seen more than was fitting.”
“He did see my foot and my ankle. I believe he will recover from the experience.”
“Don’t be impertinent,” her father said. “Your mother is quite correct.”
At least her parents were now in agreement.
As they were led to their vehicle, the duke strolled onto the porch. Footmen stood to attention while others scurried for the carriage. His fingers on her ankle had been gentle and impersonal, and he’d showed no sign that he found her irresistible. Why would he? It had been kind of him to bother with her. He was a puzzle, however, welcomed with respect in English ballrooms and sought by those in high office, but at the same time, there seemed a wall between him and the rest of the world.