At the Duke's Service. Carole Mortimer
At the Duke’s Service
St. Claire House, Mayfair, London, 1784 “Would you kindly explain who you are and what you mean by coming here uninvited and taking me from my dinner guests?”
Miss Angelina Hawkins rose slowly to her feet as a tall, arrogantly forceful man strode into the cavernous entrance hall where the butler had requested she wait whilst he informed his employer of her arrival.
Whilst she waited for this man. Alexander St. Claire, the ninth Duke of Stourbridge.
A man who, as an acquaintance of her late father, was not at all as Angelina had imagined him to be whenever she had thought of him these past three years. Pleasantly so. She had been prepared for a man of middle years, perhaps running to fat, with a face florid from an overindulgence of port.
But this man could be aged only thirty years at the most. And his face, though admittedly hard and aristocratic, held the same chiseled beauty of an archangel Angelina had once viewed in a painting at one of the art galleries her tutor, Miss Bristow, had insisted “my young ladies” visit in an effort to broaden their education.
It was a decadently handsome face, one stamped with authority as well as arrogance, with a firm, unyielding jaw, and dominated by the darkest, most beautiful eyes Angelina had ever beheld.
Elegantly dressed, his shoulders were wide beneath the tailored black evening coat, his waist narrow, and his thighs and legs long and muscled in black silk breeches.
Yes, Alexander St. Claire was very handsome indeed. “I am come, Your Grace,” she informed him huskily, almost overwhelmed by how instantly taken she was by his good looks.
“Come?” he echoed sharply. “Come where?”The scowl on his brow deepened with his increasing irritation.
She gazed up at him guilelessly. “Here, Your Grace.”
“Without a doubt.” He gave an icy inclination of his head. “What the devil do you mean by it?”
“Do not be cross with me, Alexander!” She moved to press herself against him, her head resting on the broadness of his chest as her arms moved lightly about the slender waist hidden beneath the fine material of his black evening coat. “Miss Bristow did caution me to remain patient and wait until you came to collect me, but I could not wait any longer, Alexander, and decided to take matters into my own hands and come to you instead!”
Alexander stood stiff and unyielding under this overfamiliar onslaught of feminine softness, as he felt a faint stirring of memory at the mention of a female called Bristow. He had the distinct feeling he had heard that name before. But for the moment, with firm breasts pressed against his chest, slender arms about his waist and the soft rose perfume wafting from the golden curls peeping from beneath her bonnet, he was having difficulty remembering exactly when and where…!
Not that it mattered at this particular moment. What mattered was releasing himself from this young woman’s far from unpleasant hands upon his person.
Alexander straightened to push her from him abruptly. “Now see here…”
“Excuse me, Your Grace…?”
He turned a scowling face in the direction of his butler. “What is it, Thompson?”
Thompson became uncomfortable under Alexander’s icy stare. “Should I inform your guests that you have been…called away on business, Your Grace?”
“His Grace will rejoin his guests in but a few moments,” the young woman reassured Thompson before Alexander could speak.
He cast a look at this very forward and beautiful young lady. She was perhaps nineteen or twenty years, dressed in a traveling gown the same peach color as her bonnet. The golden curls beguiled, and her eyes were the clear blue of a summer sky. With a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her tiny nose, and a mouth—Ah, her mouth! Surely no respectable young lady should have such a sinfully decadent mouth! Those lips so full and pouting that they begged to be kissed and to kiss in return…
Damn it, who was this chit to come here and interrupt Alexander’s evening entertainment, addressing him so familiarly by name, whilst at the same time evoking such fantasies that Alexander’s perfectly tailored breeches now felt uncomfortably tight?
She smiled up at him, seemingly unconcerned. “I understand your need to return to your dinner guests, Alexander. I am tired from traveling these past two days, anyway. And of course, it would not do for you to introduce me to any of your guests,” she accepted good-naturedly. “I assure you I shall be quite happy to wait in one of the private salons until you have finished dinner and are free to join me.”
Alexander’s head was starting to spin. Who was she…? From where had she been traveling these past two days? And why did the name Bristow seem so irritatingly familiar? Until he had answers to his questions, Alexander was reluctant to return to his guests.
“Wait there, Thompson,” he ordered, as the butler would have moved to do this young woman’s bidding. Meanwhile, Alexander’s dark gaze never wavered from the creamy and irritatingly enchanting perfection of his intruder’s face. “Exactly who are you?” he demanded of her impatiently.
That blue gaze widened. “Angelina Hawkins, of course. Although I would much prefer that you call me Angel. Your Grace.” Belatedly she made a polite curtsy.
Alexander stared down incredulously at her bent head.
Angelina Hawkins…! The illegitimate daughter of Benjamin Hawkins and his mistress? An illegitimate daughter whose existence Benjamin had confided to Alexander on his deathbed almost three years ago?
It had been bleak and stormy on the night Alexander was ushered into Benjamin’s hushed bedchamber. The older man had suffered a fall from his horse in an even worse storm two nights previously, resulting in injuries that would ultimately prove fateful. Alexander had sat at Benjamin’s bedside and listened to his tale of love and passion for the mistress who had been carried off by a fever but three days before. Benjamin’s distress at her loss was such that he had no desire to continue without her; hence, the deranged horse ride and fall that had sealed his own fate.
But there had been more. There was a child from the alliance. A daughter, named Angelina.
With both of her parents gone, and no other relatives who could take her in, Benjamin feared what would become of her, and had requested that Alexander see that suitable arrangements were made for her. A request that Alexander, distraught at his friend’s rapidly failing health, had readily agreed to do.
But he had assumed that the girl was no more than nine or ten years of age, and had requested that Hopkins, his man of business at the time, place her in a school where she could board until she reached adulthood. At which time Alexander would turn his attention to arranging a suitable marriage for her, to a parson or some such. Someone who would not question her family background too deeply.
Obviously the chit had decided to take matters into her own hands by appearing here uninvited this evening!
“You really must run along back to your dinner guests, Alexander,” Angelina now told him dismissively. “Thompson and I shall sort out where I am to go.”
The last person to instruct Alexander St. Claire to “run along,” had been his nanny when he was but five years of age—no one would have dared to do so in the four and twenty years since then!
That this—this young woman had done so was intolerable. Unacceptable. As was the fact that she was here, in his home, at all, and acting as if she had a perfect right to be here!
Alexander drew in a sharply hissing breath. “Angelina—Miss