Simon stirred the fire, his back to Miranda. It amazed him that he had not yet wrung her slender neck. So she thought he could dismiss this gross invasion of his privacy? If she had intruded any later, the damning papers in his pouch would have been laid out on the table. She could not know how he had changed if she thought he would not seek compensation for the way she had turned his life upside down this night.
He had believed his infatuation with her long dead, until today. Holding her in his arms, the feel of the rounded underside of her breast against his fingers, and hearing her innocently questioning whether he would play Prince Charming and pursue his Cinder Ella had done more than rekindle those feelings. He was ablaze with a desire so strong it was driving him mad. Why else would he be considering seducing her?
Suddenly, all he could think of was the fact that, in other circumstances, she would now be his wife. If that were so, he would not have to play with the fire and keep his eyes turned away from her or risk exposing the heat of his desire to hold her, to kiss her, to make love to her. For a moment, he regretted that he had never managed to turn himself into a devil, despite his efforts. For a devil would have no qualms in seducing Miss Fenster. But the old duke’s training was too firmly branded into his heart, despite its falsity.
He sighed into the fire, bringing it further to life.
But he, Simon-the-no-longer-saintly, had more than qualms. He had good reason not to marry and he’d not risk getting Miranda with child and bringing a new bastard into the world. Somehow though, the good reasons didn’t seem good enough tonight. Fate had literally dropped this woman into his arms. And he was damned tired of the cruel jokes Fate had been playing on him.
How many of his men had died in India, fighting the barbaric practices of suttee and the cruel murderous thugees who struck without warning? But not Simon. He had shrugged at danger, had thrown himself into the midst of any situation without a thought to watching his back. And still, he survived. But he intended to cheat Fate of any satisfaction for leaving the bastard duke alive. And he would do so without breaking the promise he had made his father — no, the old duke. The newest duke would soon be dead, replaced by a true-blooded heir. And Simon Watterly would exist no more. He would take another name, another life — and never would he take a wife.
Of a sudden the wind whipped up, wailing past the cottage. Simon shivered at the sound, remembering how he had stood motionless, surrounded by murderous thugees, daring Fate to take him then and there.
The thunder of gunfire and the screams of the dying men had sounded very much like the laughter of the gods, and he had not died.
And now he was here, in a one-room cottage with Miranda only a few feet away. She had been in his arms, had touched his cheek with her gentle hand. He wanted to believe that she was truthful when she assured him she was not trying to compromise him into marriage. He had thought her entirely honest five years ago.
But of course, that was before he had learned that Fate was not done playing with him. Since he had been home, acting as the Duke of Kerstone until he could install a true-blooded heir, at least a dozen or so young “innocents” had thrown themselves at his head in some most ingenious schemes, no doubt configured by their ambitious families. He had found them in his bed, in his carriage, half-dressed in the garden, and fully-nude in the library.
He had extracted himself from all the situations cleanly — even the miss in his bed. She had been the most innocent-looking of all of them, and he’d paid off her papa before she had even finished dressing.
Was Miranda like them? Unable to resist, he glanced over his shoulder. If he had any doubt at all that this innocent-seeming young woman was wearing no stays, the sight of her cheerfully slicing fruit and cheese in the lamplight in her damp dress answered definitively that she was not.
With a hope of dimming the smile on her face that drew the tension in his belly to a sharp point, he said, “Your brother would not approve your being alone with me.”
Her answer was calm, but her smile actually widened. “Valentine does sometimes worry overmuch about my judgment, but I assure you it is sound enough to know that I am safe with you.”
He checked his impulse to pivot and face her, instead turning his gaze back to the flames. “If you believe so, you are a fool.”
There was a momentary silence, and he pictured her imagining herself seduced and abandoned, until she dispelled that notion, her voice ripe with amusement. “I felt certain that I could trust a man who risked his life to pull one of the men in his command away from a suttee fire in which he had been thrown — or who saved a wounded man from death at the hands of thugees, using his own body as a shield.” Her voice softened, all traces of amusement gone. “Or one who dared scandal by helping a foolish young lady escape misfortune with her reputation intact. “
Simon was taken aback. How on earth had this sheltered miss heard such tales, true as they were? Valentine’s judgment must be as sorely lacking as his sister’s. “A man can be brave in battle and craven in — ” he searched for a delicate way to state his meaning and then decided that Miss Fenster could do well with a little shock — “lust.”
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