1822. After years of adventuring in exotic India, wealthy rakehell Lord Dyan St. Laurent Dare has been forced to return to England and assume the title of the 4th Duke of Darke, along with the attendant responsibilities, chief of which is to marry and produce an heir.
Seeking to escape familial pressure, Dyan drops in on old friends whose house parties are a scandalous secret among society’s elite, but, along with his hosts, Dyan is astonished when his childhood sweetheart, Lady Fiona Winton-Ryder, nicknamed Lady Arctic, unexpectedly arrives. Fiona had scornfully dismissed him fifteen years before, and Dyan had left not just her but England, yet their long-ago, simmering attraction has only intensified...now it sizzles.
Fiona has come to save a friend from a compromising situation, but the shock of encountering masterful, arrogant, senses-stealing Dyan after so many years takes her breath away and leaves her emotionally teetering. Nevertheless, coolly assured and every bit the earl’s daughter, she remains determined to rescue her friend, but will she be able to ignore her lifetime fascination and evade Dyan?
Dyan knows this party is no place for a lady like Fiona, but, by using the heat of the moment, could he - just possibly - melt Lady Arctic’s ice, and, at last, capture her heart?
A classic Regency-era historical romance novella, includes explicit love scenes.
Available for the first time in years, this novella from one of the genre’s most popular writers, Stephanie Laurens, reunites a bad boy with his childhood sweetheart.
"When it comes to dishing up lusciously sensual, relentlessly readable historical romances, Laurens is unrivalled."–Booklist
"Laurens’s writing shines."–Publishers Weekly
"One of the most talented authors on the scene today…Laurens has a real talent for writing sensuous and compelling love scenes."–Romance Reviews
"Stephanie Laurens never fails to entertain and charm her readers with vibrant plots, snappy dialogue, and unforgettable characters."–Historical Romance Reviews
"Stephanie Laurens plays into readers’ fantasies like a master and claims their hearts time and again."–Romantic Times Magazine
If you believe the family will continue to countenance such profligate hedonism now that you’ve stepped into your poor brother’s shoes, you are fair and far out, sir! You—will—marry! Soon. And well!
With his great-aunt Augusta’s words ringing in his ears, to the tune of emphatic raps from her cane, Dyan St. Laurent Dare, most reluctant fourth Duke of Darke, sent his gray hunter pounding along the woodland track. An outlier of the New Forest, the wood was thick enough to hide him. The pace he set was reckless, a measure of his mood; the demon within him wanted out.
The gray’s hooves thundered on the beaten track; Dyan tried to lose himself in the driving rhythm. After an entire afternoon listening to his relatives’ complaints, he felt wild, his underlying restlessness setting a dangerous edge to his temper.
Damn Robert! Why had he had to die? Of a mere inflammation of the lungs, of all things. Dyan suppressed a disgusted snort, feeling slightly guilty. He’d been truly fond of his older brother; although only two years had separated them, Robert had seemed like forty from the time he was twenty. Robert’s staid, conservative personality had shielded his own more robust and vigorous—not to say profligate—character from their exceedingly straitlaced family.
Now Robert was dead—and he was in the firing line.
Which was why he was fleeing Darke Abbey, his ancestral home, leaving his long-suffering relatives behind. He had to get out—get some air—before he committed a felony. Like strangling his great-aunt.
Tolerance was not one of his virtues; he’d always been described as impatient and hot-at-hand. Even more critical, he had never, ever, tolerated interference in his life, a point he was going to have to find some polite way to make plain to his aunts, uncles—and his great-aunt Augusta. Naturally, they still saw him as his younger self. They had descended on the Abbey, intent on impressing on him the error of his rakehell ways. They all believed marriage would be his salvation; presumably they thought securing the succession would be a goal in keeping with his talents. They had made it plain they thought marriage to some sweet, biddable gentlewoman would cure him of his recklessness.
They didn’t know him. Few did.
Jaw setting, Dyan swung the gray into a long glade and loosened the reins; the heavy horse plunged down the long slope.
He’d only just arrived back at the Abbey—for the past ten years, India had been his home. A decade ago, he’d left London intent on carving out a new life—that, or dying in the attempt; even now, he wasn’t sure which of those two goals had, at the time, been his primary aim. His family had been relieved to see him go; the subcontinent was reassuringly distant, half the globe a comforting buffer against his scandalous propensities. Under India’s unrelenting sun, his recklessness had found ample scope for danger, intrigue, and more danger. He’d survived, and succeeded; he was now a wealthy man.
On being informed of Robert’s death and his own ascension to the title, his initial reaction had been to decline to be found. Instead, a nagging, deeply buried sense of responsibility had goaded him into liquidating his assets, realizing his investments—and disengaging from the clinging embrace of the Rani of Barrashnapur.
By the time he’d reached London, Robert had been dead for well-nigh a year; there had seemed no need to rush into the country. Dyan had dallied in town, expecting to slide into the indolent life he’d enjoyed a decade before. Instead, he’d discovered himself a misfit. The predictable round of balls, select parties, and the pursuits of tonnish gentlemen had engendered nothing more than acute boredom, something he was constitutionally incapable of tolerating.
Worse, the perfumed bodies of discreetly willing ladies, as ever, at his beck and call, had completely failed to stir his jaded senses. For one who, for the past ten years, had had his every sexual whim instantly and expertly gratified, abstinence for any measurable time was the definition of pure torture.
And self-imposed abstinence was the definition of hell.
Reluctantly, knowing his family was lying in wait for him, he’d returned to the Abbey, his childhood home. Only to be met by the family’s demands that he marry and ensure the succession without delay.
It was enough to send him straight back to India.
And the Rani of Barrashnapur.
Memories of golden limbs, all silk and satin, wrapped around his senses; gritting his teeth, Dyan shook them aside. The end of the glade was rapidly approaching, the gray all but flying over the thick grass; Dyan hauled on the reins. Slowing the huge hunter to a canter, he turned into the bridle path that led from the glade.
He was searching, still searching, as he had been for years. Searching for something—an elusive entity—that would fill the void in his soul and anchor his restless passions. His failure to discover that something, to fulfill his inner need, left him not just restless but with his wildness—that demon that had always been a part of him—champing at the bit.
His predator’s instinct was to focus on his target—and then seize it. To be unable to define what his target was left him directionless. Like a rudderless ship in a storm.
Drawing rein in the clearing that marked the next bend, he sat still, breathing deeply, letting the gray do the same.
Through the trees, lights twinkled. Shifting to get a better view, Dyan saw that the entire ground floor of Brooke Hall was ablaze. His childhood friend Henry, now Lord Brooke, and his wife, Harriet, were obviously entertaining. From the extent of the lights, a house party was in progress.
Hands relaxed on the pommel, Dyan stared across the fields. Wisps of conversations caught during his stay in London wafted through his brain. Allusions to the Brookes, and the house parties they gave. A vision of his relatives’ faces, particularly his great-aunt Augusta’s, if he failed to show for dinner—failed, indeed, to return at all that night—rose in his mind. His lips lifted, then curved.
He hadn’t seen Henry and Harriet in ten years; it was time to renew old friendships. Twitching the reins, Dyan swung his hunter toward Brooke Hall.
“I realize it’s inconvenient, but I would like to speak to Lady Brooke, please, Sherwood.” Her bag at her feet, Lady Fiona Winton-Ryder tugged off her gloves and ignored Sherwood’s scandalized expression.
“Ah...indeed, Lady Fiona.” His calling coming to the fore, Sherwood relocated his butlerishly impassive mask and turned.
The drawing room door opened; Henry, Lord Brooke, looked out. “What is it, Sher—” Henry broke off, his gaze sweeping Fiona, taking in her travelling bag and her pelisse. He stepped into the hall, firmly closing the drawing room door. “Fiona!” Plastering a smile over his transparent surprise, he advanced. “Is there some problem at Coldstream House?”
“Indeed.” Lips thinning, Fiona lifted her head. “Edmund and I have had a falling out—the most acrimonious disagreement! I have sworn I will not stay at Coldstream another hour—not until he apologizes. So I’ve come to beg houseroom until he does.”
Henry’s jaw slackened.
Fiona swept on, “I realize the timing’s inconvenient.” A regal wave indicated the drawing room and the sounds of the gathering therein; in reality, she’d planned her arrival to the minute, for just before dinner, so that Henry, with guests waiting, would be hard-pressed to argue. “But I know you’ve plenty of room.” She smiled confidently; Henry couldn’t contradict her—she’d known this house from her earliest years, and knew very well how many beds it held. More than enough.
“Ah, yes.” Henry lifted a finger, easing the folds of his cravat.
Squirming—as well he might; Fiona fought not to narrow her eyes. If she got her way, Henry would squirm even more before the evening ended. The doorbell pealed; assuming it was a late-arriving guest, Fiona did not turn as Sherwood bowed and moved past to the door. Her gaze firmly fixed on Henry’s face, she waited, brows raised in polite question.
“I suppose—” Henry began, then he blinked and stared past her.
“Good evening, Sherwood.”
The deep, rumbling voice sent Fiona’s eyes flying wide.
“Good evening, my lord—er, Your Grace.”
Fiona’s heart stopped, stuttered, then started to race. She stiffened; shock skittered down her nerves and locked her lungs. She spared one instant in pity for old Sherwood, stumbling in his surprise. She’d known Dyan would eventually return to take up his brother’s mantle—but why did he have to turn up now?
She resisted the urge to whip about; slowly, regally, with all the cool haughtiness at her command, she turned, her composure that expected of an earl’s daughter—only to discover Dyan almost upon her.
His eyes met hers instantly, the dark, midnight-blue gaze more piercing than she recalled. Her heart in her throat, she lifted her chin—a necessity if she was to continue to meet his eyes.
She’d forgotten how tall he was, how intimidating his nonchalant grace. Large, lean, and distinctly menacing, he prowled—there was no other word to describe the languid arrogance of his stride—to her side. His name rhymed with lion; she’d always thought of him as a dark jungle cat, black king of the predators. Dark brown hair, black except in bright sunlight, with one thick lock falling rakishly over his forehead contributed to the image, as did the hard, austere planes of his face, set in an arrogantly autocratic cast.
The years in India had changed him. She was struck by that fact as he drew closer and her gaze took in the alterations, some obvious, others less so. Gone was all vestige of youth, of innocence, of any lingering softness; his features, now heavily tanned, had been stripped to harsh angularity, leaving them more dramatically forceful, more compelling than she recalled. His gaze, always sharp, was more penetrating, his intelligence more obvious in his eyes. His expression was world-weary, more deeply cynical; his movements were slower, more languid, more assured.
Gone was the youth, the young man she had known. In his place was a black leopard, mature, experienced in the hunt, in the full flush of his masculine strength. India had honed his dangerous edge to lethal sharpness.
He was dressed with negligent grace in buckskin breeches and a dark blue coat, his Hessians gleaming black, his linen faultlessly white. His expression was studiously impassive.
He halted by her shoulder; his presence engulfed her. Her gaze locked with his, Fiona discovered it took real effort to breathe. “Good evening, Dyan.” She raised her brows haughtily. “Or should I say, Your Grace?”
A frown flashed in his eyes. “Dyan will do.” His accents when irritated were as clipped as she recalled. For one instant longer, he stood looking down at her, at her face, then he switched his gaze to Henry. And smiled, effortlessly charming. “Evening, Brooke.”
The devil-may-care grace worked its magic, as it always had. Henry relaxed. “Dyan.” Smiling, he held out his hand. “We hadn’t heard when you’d be back. What brings you this way?”
“My relatives.” Dyan grasped Henry’s hand. “Or,” he drawled, as, releasing Henry, he turned to gaze rather speculatively at Fiona, “should I say my great-aunt Augusta?”
Henry frowned. “Your aunt?”
“Great-aunt,” Dyan corrected him, his gaze still on Fiona’s face. “Believe me, there’s a difference.”
“Don’t have any myself, but I’ll take your word for it.” Henry tried unsuccessfully to catch Dyan’s eye. “But what’s this great-aunt done?”
“Driven me from my home.” Deserting Fiona’s stubbornly uninformative countenance, Dyan looked at Henry. “And my bed. I wondered if I might prevail on you to put me up for the night.”
“Certainly,” Henry gushed—then glanced at Fiona.
Who smiled winningly. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “if you summon Harriet—”
Harriet didn’t need to be summoned—she slipped out of the drawing room at that moment, carefully closing the door before turning to see who was keeping her husband from his guests. When she saw who it was, she paled—then flushed—then paled again.
Dyan viewed the reaction with acute suspicion. It wasn’t, he knew, due to him. Finding Fiona Winton-Ryder there, a bag at her feet, had shaken even him—more deeply than he could credit. Despite the intervening fifteen years, despite his firm conviction Fiona was no longer any business of his, his immediate, almost overpowering impulse was to grab her by her honey-gold hair, haul her out of the house, give her a thorough shake, then throw her up to his horse’s back and cart her straight home to Coldstream House.
Given what he’d heard of the Brookes’ house parties, and having a more than academic understanding of the subject, he was not just surprised to find Fiona here, he was—the realization was a shock in itself—shocked. For one unholy instant, his mind had reeled with all manner of visions—visions of Fiona. But, as he’d looked deep into her eyes, all hazel-greens and golds, he’d seen, clear and true, the same girl he’d known years before. Relief had hit him like a blow, right in the center of his chest.
She hadn’t changed. Not in the least.
Which meant she was up to something.
That conclusion was borne out by her next speech.
“Harriet, dear.” Smiling serenely, Fiona opened her arms to Harriet and they exchanged their usual kiss. “I fear I am come to throw myself on your hospitality—as I explained to Henry, Edmund and I have had a falling out, and I’ve refused to reside at Coldstream until he apologizes.”
Dyan frowned. He knew Fiona’s explanation was a lie, but why the devil was she staying with her brother at Coldstream House? Where was Tony, Marquess of Rusden—her husband? He looked at Fiona, but she avoided his eye. Harriet’s reaction to Fiona’s tale was more revealing; she blushed fiercely—and glanced helplessly at Henry. Who, muffin-faced, looked helplessly back.
“Ah...” Wide-eyed, Harriet stared at Fiona, who smiled encouragingly; Dyan knew the precise instant Harriet inwardly shrugged and bowed to fate. “Yes, of course.” Her words sounded like the capitulation they were; a fleeting frown tangled Fiona’s brows, then was banished. Wringing her hands, Harriet continued, “I’ll get Sherwood to show you to your rooms.” She smiled weakly, but with a hint of hope at Dyan.
He smiled reassuringly and held out his hands. “It’s been a long time, dear Harriet, but I, too, am claiming refuge from my relatives. I hope you can find a pallet somewhere.”
“Oh, I’m sure we can.” Harriet’s smile turned to one of relief. She took his hands; under cover of planting a kiss on his cheek, she squeezed them warningly. “We’ll have to reorganize a trifle but...” Shrugging lightly, she turned. “Sherwood—”
Harriet’s hope—her relief—had communicated itself to Henry. Leaving Harriet to issue her orders, he faced his unexpected guests and fixed Dyan with a significant look. “Well! Just like old times—isn’t it?”
Dyan studied Henry’s face; so did Fiona. “Old times” referred to their joint childhoods, when, as a small army, Dyan, Fiona, Henry, Harriet, and an assortment of others—all children of the local gentry—had roamed far and wide through the New Forest. Dyan had been their leader; Fiona, two years his junior, had been his second-in-command, the only one who would, without a blink, argue, remonstrate—simply dig in her heels—if some escapade he suggested was too wild, too reckless, too altogether dangerous. She had jerked his reins any number of times, usually by invoking his conscience, a sometimes inconvenient, but surprisingly forceful entity.
Conversely, as far as he knew, he was the only person presently alive who had ever succeeded in managing Fiona, mettlesome, argumentative female that she was. Dyan surmised it was that aspect of their “old times” of which Henry was attempting to remind him. Which confirmed his guess that the entertainment Henry and Harriet had planned for this evening would not meet with Fiona’s approval. But that still didn’t tell him what had happened to Fiona’s husband.
“Indeed,” he drawled, politely noncommittal.
Fiona flicked him a quick, suspicious glance, but said nothing.
“If you’ll follow Sherwood,” Harriet said, gesturing towards the stairs, “he’ll show you to your rooms.”
Smoothly, Dyan offered Fiona his arm; she shot him another suspicious glance, but consented to rest her fingers on his sleeve. In silence, they followed the stately Sherwood up the wide stairs; a footman followed with Fiona’s bag.
Dyan held his tongue as they ascended—for the simple reason that he couldn’t formulate a single coherent thought. His predator’s senses were well-honed, acutely sensitive. They were presently screaming, far too adamantly to be ignored. Their message left him reeling.
Fiona, strolling haughtily beside him, was, indeed, the same girl he’d known before. Unchanged. Untouched.
He knew it—felt it—deep in his bones. One glance at the fingers of her left hand, presently resting on his sleeve, confirmed it—no band, not even a lingering trace.
As they reached the top of the stairs, Dyan hauled in a not entirely steady breath. The foundations of his life had just shifted.
He couldn’t interrogate Fiona in front of the servants. Forced to hold his tongue, he slanted her a glance as she glided regally on his arm. She was of above-average height—her head just topped his shoulder. Her hair, lustrously thick, was pulled back in a chignon; her face was a perfect oval rendered in ivory satin. Her glance, delivered from large hazel eyes set under finely arched brown brows, still held the same directness, the same uncompromising honesty—the same uncompromising stubbornness—that they always had. That last was echoed in the set of her full lips, in the elevation of her chin.
He squinted slightly—and saw the band of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She was exactly as he remembered.
So what had happened to Tony? And why was she there?
He frowned. “How’s your brother?” In Sherwood’s wake, they turned down a long corridor.
Fiona kept her eyes forward, her chin up. “Edmund’s in perfectly good health, thank you.”
The urge to shake her returned; Dyan set his jaw and held it back. They’d reached the end of the wing and servants were scurrying everywhere.
The rooms Harriet had assigned them were next to each other—Dyan suspected for a very good reason. A maid appeared and Fiona, with a haughty nod, disappeared into her room.
“I’ve brought some fresh cravats, Your Grace.” Henry’s valet hovered at Dyan’s elbow. “If you’ll let me take your jacket, I’ll have it brushed.”
His gaze on Fiona’s closed door, Dyan nodded. “You’ll need to be quick.”