Scandal of the Year
One tryst was all she wanted...
From their very first meeting, Julia knew that Aidan Carr, the oh-so-proper Duke of Trathen, had a bit of the devil in him, a devil who secretly yearned for what he could not have, a devil who harbored a desire for her. So when she needed to be caught in a compromising situation, Aidan was the answer to her prayers.
One tryst just wasn’t enough...
Aidan is supposed to be looking for a bride, yet his scandalous liaison with Julia is all he can think about. Hot, erotic memories of kissing her skin, falling into her bed, pulling her naked body on top of his own continue to torment and tempt him. What is it about this brazen seductress that he finds so hard to resist? And how can he stop himself from falling into her bed a second time?
The Duke of Trathen needed to find a wife. The problem was that when it came to picking the right woman for the job, His Grace was having a serious run of bad luck.
One might think that for a man of his station, choosing a bride would be a relatively straightforward business. Dukes were a rare commodity, highly sought in the marriage mart, so it wasn’t as if he lacked a substantial slate of candidates from which to choose. Nor were dukes hampered by anything as inconvenient as love. Alliance was a perfectly acceptable reason for matrimony among those of the aristocracy, and Aidan Thomas Carr was a man who could trace his aristocratic lineage to the days of Queen Elizabeth.
The 11th Duke of Trathen, Aidan was in possession of half a dozen lesser titles as well. He was also one of the wealthiest men in Britain, with substantial lands and investments. He had an astute head for business, a keen interest in politics, and was considered by many among the fair sex to be quite a handsome fellow.
This stellar resume notwithstanding, the Duke of Trathen was a jilted man, having been abandoned at the altar not once, but twice, and he was a bit skittish about making a third attempt. But every duke had a duty to his family and his heritage to marry well, produce sons, and pass everything on to the next generation, and Aidan was a man who would never ignore his duty.
Which was why, when the time arrived for the Marquess of Kayne’s annual May Day Ball, the Duke of Trathen was among the attendees. The May Day Ball was the most prominent charity event of the London season, and a man could meet many potential marriage partners at a charity ball. Aidan was not particularly fond of dancing, he hated these crowded charity affairs, and given the endless gossip about him these days, he would have preferred to spend the spring as he had spent the winter—at his favorite estate in Cornwall, but he could not afford that luxury. He was now thirty years old, and time was going by.
When he’d begun his search for a duchess three years earlier, he’d never dreamt it would be this difficult. He had decided, quite logically, that twenty-seven was a good age at which to wed, and he had set about finding his duchess. Four months later, he’d met Lady Beatrix Danbury, a girl who seemed his perfect match. Lady Beatrix was not only beautiful, with honey blond hair and big, soft brown eyes, but she was also charming and intelligent. The daughter of an earl, she’d been groomed all her life for the responsibilities and duties of a high-ranking peeress. Aidan had thought their interests coincided, and their affection was deep and mutual. Not an overmastering passion, perhaps, but he had never been the sort of man to be carried away by passion, a fact which had seemed acceptable to his fiancée, and by Christmas of that year, they had become engaged. All had boded well for a happy, companionable union, but then, less than two months before the wedding, she’d thrown him over for her childhood sweetheart, the Duke of Sunderland.
Aidan’s heart, though bruised, was not broken, and after spending six months in Cornwall, he’d felt ready to launch his second search for a suitable duchess. He began armed with the same sound criteria he’d employed the first time: birth, background, connections, and compatibility. Lady Rosalind Drummond, eldest daughter of a Scottish marquess, had met all his expectations, and a wedding date of November had been decided upon.
But then had come his unaccountable liaison with Lady Yardley. By the time the story of their afternoon tryst hit the society pages, he was already on his way to Scotland to face his fiancée. Still stunned by the entire inexplicable interlude, Aidan could offer the tearful and humiliated Rosalind no defense. Hell, he couldn’t offer so much as an explanation.
He didn’t even like Lady Yardley. The details of how he had ended up naked in bed with that woman, her enraged husband standing over them both, were still a bit vague in his mind, but the facts spoke for themselves, and involved a picnic, an inordinate quantity of champagne, and his own foolish determination to prove he could resist the seductive baroness no matter what. These facts, along with some hazy, hotly erotic memories, were all he remembered of the incident that had brought public humiliation raining down upon him, and to this day, he could not understand what it was about that woman that had so easily evoked such promiscuous and unacceptable behavior in him.
Regardless of how it had come about, he’d had to face the consequences, including a second broken engagement. Another winter at his Cornish estate, the arrival of another London season, and now he was back in town to begin his search anew.
The gutter press, scarcely finished salivating like rabid dogs over his testimony in the Yardley divorce and his broken engagement to Lady Rosalind, was now speculating about who his third choice might be, but Aidan, having been twice jilted, as well as humiliated and disgraced, found himself unable to summon the same level of interest Fleet Street seemed to have in his marital prospects.
In consequence of his lack of enthusiasm, the season was now half over, his thirtieth birthday had come and gone, and there wasn’t a potential Duchess of Trathen in his sights. But with his worthless cousin as his sole heir at present, Aidan knew he could not afford the luxury of waiting much longer to marry. To secure his estates and the empire he had built for future generations, he needed a duchess by his side, and strong, healthy sons in his nursery.
Which was why he was here, Aidan reminded himself, and set aside pointless remembrances of past romantic contretemps. Returning his attention to the glittering ballroom before him, he reached for one of the glasses on the tray held by a nearby footman, but when he realized the glass he’d plucked from the tray was filled with champagne rather than punch, he paused, considering. Long ago, he’d discovered that alcohol was rather a dangerous substance where he was concerned, and he usually limited himself to one, and only one, glass of wine on any social occasion. The fact that he’d broken that rule in Lady Yardley’s company last summer was one of only many things about that day that still bothered and baffled him. Aidan prudently set the glass back on the tray and resumed his study of the many young ladies scattered about the ballroom of Lord Kayne’s Park Lane residence.
Many were dancing, and they flitted across his line of vision like so many gauzy pastel butterflies. The first young lady in the room to catch his eye, however, was not dancing. Instead, Lady Frances Mowbray was standing quite near him with a group of her friends. Before meeting Lady Beatrix, he had considered Lady Frances, but Mowbray’s penchant for deep stakes gambling and inability to afford it meant he would be paying his father-in-law’s debts endlessly. He’d rather not.
His gaze shifted to one of her companions. Minnie Goulet was a pretty American girl. Not part of the old New York Knickerbocker set, Miss Goulet was very much New Money. Aidan, with neither the need nor the desire to marry for money, and the patriotism to prefer a British wife, moved on.
Miss Patricia Hopworth? Not as pretty as Miss Goulet, to be sure, but agreeable enough. Her background was impeccable, and from what he could recall, she had a sweet disposition—
“Heavens, Trathen,” a cheerful feminine voice broke into his thoughts, “what are you doing tucked back here alone? The first ball of the season you have deigned to attend, and here you are skulking in a corner?”
Aidan turned to find Lady Vale standing nearby, shaking her head at him in exasperated amusement. “Countess,” he greeted with a bow. “I am not skulking,” he added, impelled to correct her choice of words. “I am observing.”
“I see.” She gave him a thoughtful glance as she moved closer to his side, but she said nothing more, seeming content to stand beside him and watch the couples swirling across the floor. It was not until the waltz ended that she spoke again.
“Ah,” she said as if making a sudden discovery, “so Felicia was dancing. I thought perhaps she might have gone to the refreshment room for a glass of punch.” There was another pause, and Lady Vale gave a delicate laugh. “You are perhaps not acquainted with my youngest daughter?” When he shook his head, Lady Vale waved her fan toward another part of the room. “She is standing beside that enormous vase of lilacs over there.”
Aidan’s gaze followed Lady Vale’s gesture to a petite girl in a pink frock standing by a vase of lavender lilacs. She was lovely, with gold hair, porcelain skin, and dark, almond-shaped eyes, but there was something about her prettiness that made her seem rather like a doll, he thought, noting a certain vapidity in her expression. Still, meeting the girl could do no harm, especially since her mother seemed quite willing to arrange it.
He turned toward the countess, but before he could request an introduction to Lady Felicia, his attention was diverted and his request died on his lips. Standing in the entrance to the ballroom was another feminine figure, one he immediately recognized.
Good God, he thought, appalled, what was that woman doing here?
That was how he usually thought of her—as that woman. Though legal precedent enabled her to retain her husband’s title, her Christian name was Julia, and her friends called her Julie, but to Aidan, she was that woman, or when he was in a less charitable frame of mind, that plague on mankind.
Lady Vale, perceiving that his attention had gone astray, turned to see what had caught his eye, but though he sensed the countess’s gaze on him, he could not seem to tear his own from the woman in the doorway.
The color of her gown suited her, he supposed—a crimson dress for a scarlet woman. Cut with a generous expanse of décolleté, caught at the shoulders by the tiniest of cap sleeves, and made of silk charmeuse, the gown displayed her shape without regard for modesty. She’d gained a bit of weight, he noted, his gaze skimming over her. The curves of her body were more generous than before, her breasts fuller, her hips wider, and it aggravated Aidan beyond belief that though some details of that afternoon still eluded him, he could recall perfectly just how her body had looked without any clothes.
Other memories flashed across his brain—vague, illicit memories of his hands unbuttoning her white dress and pulling it down her shoulders, of her breasts in his hands and her body on top of his.
All of a sudden, the ballroom seemed suffocatingly hot. Aidan drew a deep breath and ran a finger around the inside of his collar, knowing he ought to leave the room before she noticed him, but he could not seem to move.
Her heart-shaped face seemed the same, though perhaps not quite so drawn as before. He was too far away to see the color of her eyes, but he already knew they were the exact same shade of lavender as the lilacs that adorned the room, but the shadows that had been beneath those eyes last summer were gone. Her hair was piled atop her head in the Gibson fashion, displaying her long, slender neck to perfection, but Aidan’s mind could not escape the image of her riotous raven-black tresses tumbling down around her bare white shoulders amid a snowy mound of white sheets, an image that did not make the room feel any cooler.
Diamonds sparkled at her throat, drawing his attention. Had he kissed her there? he wondered, his gaze riveted to the creamy expanse of skin above her breasts. The heat that immediately began spreading through his body gave him the answer to that question. Even now, he thought with chagrin, even two dozen feet away from her and three quarters of a year from that fateful day, he could still imagine the texture of her skin, like warm satin against his mouth.
The waltz ended, the last notes faded away, and Aidan came to his senses with a start, realizing how quiet the room had become. Then he heard the murmurs begin, a ripple of discreet whispers. He could imagine what people were saying—reminders that her husband’s divorce petition had become final last month, tittering jokes about their mutual presence here, speculation as to whether he intended to resume his amour with her.
Beside him, Lady Vale murmured a rather frosty farewell and departed, having drawn the obvious conclusion from his scrutiny of the other woman. A quick glance around confirmed that she was not the only one who had done so. Many curious gazes were sliding back and forth between him and the scandalous divorcee.
Leave, he told himself, now, before any gossip could begin that coupled their names. Yet, even as that thought passed through his mind, he could not find the will to move. Instead, almost like a moth drawn to a destructive flame, he returned his attention to the woman in the doorway, and discovered it was now too late to escape her notice even if he chose to do so, for she’d seen him. She acknowledged him with a nod, then she waited, watching him, a faint smile curving one corner of her rouged lips.
He could still make his feelings clear to everyone present. All he had to do was give her the cut direct. By turning his back on her without an acknowledging bow, he would put a stop to any ridiculous speculation that they might once again be lovers.
The wise thing to do, he knew, but he couldn’t do it. He could not compound his lapse of gentlemanly conduct nine months ago by being ungentlemanly now. The fact that her husband had divorced her was his fault as well as hers. He bowed to her, the slightest bow good manners could allow, then he turned away from her and the erotic images that hovered just at the edge of his conscious memory.
He kept his head high as he made his way amidst the crowd to the open French doors leading onto the terrace. He stepped outside and moved to stand at the carved marble railing, where he stared out into the darkness of Kayne’s gardens and breathed deeply of the brisk spring air to cool his blood. With that woman near him again, anything might happen, and Aidan was glad that this time around, he’d chosen to forgo the champagne.