Rebelliously independent Lady Nicole Bragg Shelton refuses to be constrained by the stifling rules of Victorian England. Desire impels the beautiful heiress toward a shocking liaison with Hadrian Braxton-Lowell, Duke of Clayborough.
Obsessed by Nicole's daring conduct and sensuality but bound by the dictates of duty and honour to another woman, Hadrian resolves to have the raven haired beauty as his mistress...though never as his bride. But Nicole will be no man's plaything. She will risk pain and heartbreak to satisfy her wild, uncompromising passion—determined to win the handsome Duke's unwavering devotion...and his undying love.
Draping herself in a fine red wool cloak, Nicole set off for Tarent Hall on Friday night. She was a jumble of nerves when she was finally on her way. Earlier that day she had given in to a few doubts about going without an escort, but she had finally laid them to rest by sheer willpower. She had been challenged and she was no coward—she was going to attend the masque, come what may.
She had a terrible feeling that she was going to regret this night. If she were sane, she thought to herself. She would forget about Stacy Worthing ton and stay home as a proper young lady should.
But it was too late now. Nicole though, fingering the brilliant orange petticoat and vividly pink skirt beneath her cloak. She had never been proper, not really. There was a wild streak in her, and there always had been. She got it from her father’s side of the family, or so her mother said, although the Earl insisted disregard for convention was a Barclay trait. At the age of twenty-three she was mature and honest enough with herself to recognize this outlandish side of her nature and accept it. It was this wild part of her that had accepted Stacy’s challenge and that was even now propelling her forward without an escort against her better judgment.
Nicole had always hated the rules and conventions that bound all the women of her day. Fortunately, she was not alone, although she was in quite radical minority, led by suffragettes and agitators like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her aunt, Grace Bragg. Women were supposed to do nothing more than bore themselves with gentle womanly pursuits such as flower arranging and watercolours. When her tutor had tried to teach her those arts, the eight-year-old Nicole had flown into a rage. She would spend her days painting roses while Chad, Ed and her father rode across Dragmore, overseeing the tenants, the farms and the livestock? Never!
Of course, she was forced to learn such pursuits, which she did in a dismal fashion, but in her free time she haunted the menfolk of her family and was allowed to accompany them after her studies, a liberty unheard of for a well-bred young lady. Through childhood and adolescence she had been endlessly sorry that she was not a boy—another son. When she was not on horseback with her brothers and father, she could be found reading everything from Bryon’s sensual poetry to John Stuart Mills’ The Rights of Woman. Her family never thought twice about her boyish inclinations until she was suddenly a full-grown woman, and they did their best to ignore her unconventional ways.
They would drop dead if they knew what she was doing, or, worse, if they saw her now.
She had only had three day to find a fabulous costume, but she had solved the problem by scavenging in the vast attic of her home. Her mother, Jane Barclay, had been a popular stage actress, although she had given up her promising career to devote herself to her children, her husband and Dragmore a few years after her marriage. Acting was in her blood, for Jane had been following in the footsteps of her mother, the famous and incomparable Sandra Barclay, and there had been trunks of wonderful costumes in the attic.
Nicole chose a gypsy costume. Even she had to admit that, with her colouring, in the brilliantly coloured clothes she had found, she looked like the real thing. Of course, the costume was daring. It was not exactly proper. The blouse fell off her shoulders in a very suggestive way, and the skirts were only knee-length. But gypsies—or so the thirteen-year-old Annie assured her—went barefoot in short skirts. Nicole did not care. When Stacy Worthington and her little friend saw her, they would be set upon their ears! Nicole was certain that they did not really expect her to come at all.
She smiled as she sat back on the plush leather seats in the big black Dragmore coach, which was pulled by six greys and attended by four liveried footmen. Not only was she attending the masque in a very authentic costume, she was actually starting to become excited. It had been ages since she had been out among the set, and even longer since she had been to a costume ball.
The circular driveway in front of the Georgian brick home was already filled with coaches and carriages. A coach twice the size of the Dragmore vehicle had turned into the drive ahead of them. The carriage was also black and so highly polished it gleamed in the moonlight. The coat of arms was brilliantly, the lights of the carriage making sure that no one could possibly miss it, oversized and embossed as it was on two of the doors of the carriage. Two lions, one red and one gold, reared up against a black, red and gold shield, while another red lion snarled above it. Below the shield, the two rearing lions stood on a silver ribbon, bearing a motto that said, “Honor First.” Such an elaborate coat of arms could only belong to the Duke of Clayborough.
Eight magnificent blacks pulled the coach, gold plumes waving from their bridles. Four footmen stood on the back running board, splendid in red, black and gold uniforms. A dozen outriders accompanied the Duke, all mounted magnificently on matching bays, all liveried in the Duke’s colours. The coach was splendid enough for royalty, which, Nicole knew, the Duke was not.
They stopped in the drive, her carriage behind his, with Nicole straining to glimpse the illustrious guest of honor. She discerned only a tall, powerful figure in ebony tails, a black cloak swirling about his shoulders, lined in crimson, as he alighted. He had chosen not to come in costume, she noted, and there was no Duchess in tow.
She was helped from the carriage and hurried up the steps toward the bright lights of the mansion. The front doors were open, and a liveried servant took her cloak, not blinking once at her attire. She followed a footman to the entrance of the ballroom, her heart beginning to pound. When he asked for her name, she gave it automatically.
For just a moment, she recalled to many soirees, and too many failures. For just a moment, the daring side of her retreated, and she felt frightened.
She paused behind the Duke, while he was announced. He was even taller than she had guessed, nearly half a foot taller than she, with massively broad shoulder. His hair was too long to be fashionable, as if he were too busy to bother with a barber. It was a dark, tawny colour, and even in the interior lighting, she could see that it was heavily sun-streaked, as if he spent most of his time out of doors. “Hadrian Braxton-Lowell, the ninth Duke of Clayborough,” the butler intoned. A long string of the Duke’s various other titles followed.
The Duke paused, his posture impatient and careless, but the butler had barely finished the introduction before he was striding down the steps into the ballroom. Nicole moved forward, watching him as a splendidly attired woman, clearly the hostess, greeted him.
“Lady Nicole Bragg Shelton,” the butler was saying.
Nicole did not hear him. Her heart was in her throat. She was suddenly overwhelmingly conscious of her bare legs and bare feet. She felt as if the entire crowd was staring at her, which they were of course, because she had just been announced and, that, right after the Duke. A hush fell upon the crowd, and she prayed it was because of the Duke and not because of her appearance at this masque.
But he, too, turned and stared at her.
Nicole held her head. Barefoot, as a true gypsy would be, bangles on her arms, her hair flowing to her waist, her skirts swirling above her calves, she gracefully descended that stairs. People started to whisper. Nicole had an awful feeling they were talking about her.
She had been right she should never have come. No one had forgotten, and her costume was to daring even for a masque.
Unfortunately she glimpsed Stacy Worthington standing in front of the crowd, clad in a white Regency gown, a perfectly proper kind of costume. Stacy wasn’t on her ear. She was smirking.
Nicole forgot all about Stacy Worthington. The Duke was staring at her. He took her breath away. Somehow, she moved toward her hostess without falling dead away into a faint. “Lady Adderly,” she murmured, curtsying.
The Viscountess blinked at her. Nicole felt the Duke’s eyes burning on her. “Oh, yes, Lady Shelton, how good of you to come. And what a...charming...costume.”
Nicole could not smile, she still could not breathe. But she was not sure whether it was because she was still being gawked at by a hundred guests, or whether it was because he stood so close beside her she fantasized she could feel the heat of his powerful body. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“A magnificent costume,” the Duke said, his voice carrying without any apparent effort on his behalf.
Nicole whirled and met his eyes. The floor seemed to drop out from under her feet.
He was handsome. Devastatingly handsome, devastatingly male. He nearly dwarfed. His dark eyes seemed to command hers, and she was held enthralled in his power. “You are unique, Lady Shelton,” he said abruptly, his gaze slipping down her body. “And I, for one, find it refreshing.”
Just as abruptly, he turned his back on her, nodded to his hostess and strode off, leaving the two women standing alone.