Love Me, If You Dare – Alyssa Clarke

T he afternoon sun receded as bloated gray clouds scuttled across the sky. The scent of wild earth permeated the air, and a cool gust of wind flapped the golden drapes by the open windows. It was unusual to have such dreary weather in spring, Sebastian Crawford, the Duke of Hartford idly noted, quietly thankful for the mercurial nature of the weather. The unexpected shift from bright and merry to an overcast sky perfectly suited his quiet contemplation as he stood in his office facing his sister, who had just returned from her excursion. Three little lies. Separately they might be considered unimportant, such small fibs they were not worthy of any attention. However, once combined, they were the sum of many older brother’s fears, especially for one who had permitted his younger sister to do one of the most dangerous things required of them at this tender age—debut into the marriage mart of London’s society. In the marriage mart, the true underbelly of the ton, if a debutante was not properly chaperoned, she might encounter a rake…a libertine who might encourage her into a ruinous scandal with seductive whispers and touches. Except his sister, Lady Perdita, should have been safe. For she was already engaged to a young gentleman whom she loved with her entire heart and soul. Or so she had prettily assured him when she had begged him to allow their engagement. Those three little lies—a headache to escape early from a ball but not returning home until hours after, an afternoon trek to the milliner but going elsewhere, and now this… “So, you had a lovely walk in the park,” Sebastian said in a smooth, unconcerned tone, not at all liking the hard knot in his gut. He turned to face her, noting the rising rosy pink in her softly rounded cheeks. He had truly thought her safe from unwanted advances, given her close attachment to the young viscount. The flush on her cheeks and that quick, unfathomable glitter in her expressive grey-blue eyes made her an enigma to Sebastian, for why else would she need to lie? “Yes, the walk in Hyde Park was perfectly wonderful,” Perdie said, tugging at the strings to her bonnet, flashing him her warmest smile.

“I had a most relaxing time.” Sebastian did a credible job in masking the alarm darting through his heart upon once again hearing his sister and apple of his eyes lie to him so smoothly. Grown men, powerful lords, and those with whom he had business dealing wouldn’t dare. Or if they attempted it, surely they would not manage that level of composure. His sister didn’t shift uncomfortably, nor did her eyes skitter away with guilt. This informed him Perdie was becoming practiced and very much at ease in the art of deflection. Why it was necessary befuddled him, and with a small jolt, Sebastian admitted it hurt. “Perdie,” he began gruffly. “You do know you can speak with me about anything?” A soft breath shuddered through his sister, and she was careful in not meeting his eyes. “Of course, how odd that you would say so, brother.

” As if to reassure him all was well, she hurried toward him, rose onto her toes, and placed an affectionate kiss on his cheek. “If you do not mind, Seb, I will skip our afternoon tea and chat. Will you please let mama know I am going to take a nap in preparation for tonight’s ball. The walk tired me more than I imagined it would.” A whisper of warning sizzled along his nape. “Lord Owen called earlier.” While turning away from him, Perdie froze. “Oh?” “Yes. It seemed there had been plans for him to take you out in his new barouche. The weather was delightful, and there was much to talk about.

” Without facing him, his sister replied, “Oh dear, I must have forgotten! How clumsy of me. I shall send him a note of apology and save two dances for him tonight at Lady Edgecombe’s ball.” Sebastian considered the stiffness of her posture. “When I told Lord Owen you were not here, he made his way to Hyde Park. I was surprised when he returned a couple hours later saying he did not see you there, and he had made a round of the park.” A fine tremor went through her elegant frame, and Sebastian took a few steps closer to her, not liking the odd feeling twisting deep in his insides. “Perdie?” She turned to him, lifting her chin high, her expression carefully composed. Her lips flattened, and an emotion he could not identify flashed across her eyes. “The park must have been too crowded. As a gentleman, he should have simply arranged for another outing, not stalk me to the park.

How positively medieval of him.” “He was not stalking you,” Sebastian said mildly, masking his surprise at that acerbic reply. “Lord Owen is your fiancé. Even I thought it proper for him to head to Hyde Park in the hopes of seeing you.” “And because he is my fiancé, I am not allowed the freedom to walk with my companion alone?” “Of course not, Perdie.” Sebastian casually sat on the edge of his desk. “Did you and Lord Owen have a falling out? You seem very out of sorts with the viscount.” Lord Owen had acted like a fool earlier, ranting that he had lost her love and attention. Sebastian had given him a stern lecture and sent him home. “We did not quarrel,” Perdie said softly, heading toward the door.

“I just recalled I have some correspondence to deal with. I shall attend to it and then take my rest.” “You can confide in me about anything,” he said. The discomfort in his gut grew until it spread through his entire body. Sebastian couldn’t pinpoint exactly when his sister had started to change. The change was infinitesimal, but it was there. They had not lied to each other, ever, and yet she had done so with such ease. “Perdie, were you at Hyde Park?” Her gloved hand tightened on the doorknob. “Where else would I have been?” Then she opened the door and sallied outside, closing it behind her. Sebastian stared at that closed door, waiting to see if she would return, tip her head, and laugh in that charmingly unfettered way of hers before admitting she had been elsewhere.

The door opened, but it was his mother, the Duchess of Hartford, who entered, fashionably dressed in a dark green riding habit of the latest style, a hat with several plume feathers tilted rakishly atop her mahogany brown curls. At five and fifty, his mother appeared to be a lady ten years younger and owned an even younger lady’s energy. “Perdie has returned home?” she asked, tugging her gloves from her hands. “I wasn’t aware she had been missing,” he said drily. No, his sister had been very circumspect in the address she had scurried off to for almost three hours. And then lied about it. Bloody hell. This was a scandal waiting to happen, and he did not want that for her or their family. “Anna mentioned that she was missing,” his mother said, taking off her hat and fluffing the feathers, before tossing it onto the sofa closest to her. Mrs.

Anna Hartington was a young lady of modest means who served as his mother’s companion. She was also a busy body who loved to gossip. Mrs. Harrington’s daughter Miss Felicity acted as friend and chaperone to his sister, and they were often in each other’s pocket. So whatever Perdie was about, he was perfectly sure that Miss Felicity knew it. “Your daughter was not missing. She claimed to have been in Hyde Park with Miss Felicity.” His mother arched an elegant brow. “I’ve been down Rotten Row and around the Serpentine at least three times catching up on the latest on dit with Lady Ambury and Lady Landish. I did not see Perdie.

” “I know she was not there.” The implications behind his words robbed the breath from his mother, and she slowly sat in the well-padded armchair by the low burning fire. “Perdie lied about her whereabouts?” “Yes.” His mother’s hand fluttered to her chest. “Are you certain, Sebastian?” “Yes.” “I do not believe it.” “Your daughter left under the guise of going to the park, but she was somewhere else entirely.” A touch of alarm entered his mother’s bright blue eyes. “Why would Perdie act in such a careless manner? And how did you come to know of it?” “Lord Owen called earlier. They had arranged to ride in his new barouche,” Sebastian said, walking over to an armchair and sitting down.

Quickly he relayed the tale of his sister’s fiancé heading to the park and returning to their townhouse flustered and flummoxed. “How dare he harbor such suspicions about Perdie,” the duchess snapped. “They have been betrothed for two years, and their wedding is only three months away. What nonsense is he thinking about losing her affection to another? Who else might he say such nonsense to?” “That is why I took it upon myself to sternly question the coachman as to where he has been taking Perdie.” Sebastian shook his head, almost amused at her daring. “For the last few weeks, she has been visiting a particular townhouse in Berkeley Square. Thankfully, Miss Felicity always accompanies her, but Perdie bribed the coachman to keep his silence whenever she takes the carriage. And as the servants are fond of her, he was persuaded to go along with her request. He was very reluctant to reveal the information, but I reminded him who pays his wages.” Sebastian felt a rush of sympathy for his mother, whose face had paled alarmingly.

“I beg your pardon?” The duchess’s voice was a mere whisper, and in her eyes, he spied fright and outrage. “My daughter would not act in any salacious manner to ruin this family’s good name and reputation.” An edgy restlessness bit at Sebastian’s bones. “We do not know whose house it is,” he gently reminded her, though Sebastian himself did not believe it to be innocent. If it were above scrutiny, there would have been no need for his sister to lie about her whereabouts or to bribe their coachman to secrecy for the last few weeks. He had given her every opportunity to tell the truth. “Does it matter whose townhouse it is? Surely it cannot be something good or respectable. Dear Lord in heaven, what was she thinking?” Sebastian was familiar with the less than civilized workings of the male mind, yet as for a lady’s thoughts, he believed navigating a battlefield littered with traps might be easier. He didn’t know his sister’s thoughts or what she might be going through at this very moment, and that frightened Sebastian immensely. And he was not a man easily rattled.

He was a duke and had been so from the tender age of sixteen. He had been more than Perdie’s brother; he had become practically her father and confidant. However, Sebastian could sense her pulling from him, and the helpless feelings worming through his heart could not be tolerated. In his mother’s eyes, he spotted a similar fear. And the promise to fix everything rose unswerving inside him. His duty was always to his family, one he had accepted with pride, love, and honor. “You need not worry, madam; I will get to the heart of this matter concerning Perdie.” His mother shook her head a bit dazedly. “Where is she now? I will demand an explanation.” “I do not want her to be aware of our knowledge.

” His mother stood. “You still think of her sensibilities when you should—” “Mother, I cannot guess at Perdie’s thinking at the moment. I do not dare confront her because I must know who is at that townhouse and what we need to prepare for. Perdie can be very obstinate. I do not want her to warn the bounder, allowing him to run.” The duchess closed her eyes, her expression pained. “I am thinking of all the times she has been from our sight. It…it truly cannot be contemplated.” It seemed his mother had drawn a similar conclusion. That whoever his sister stole away to visit during the day and even last week when she begged to leave a ball early pleading a headache.

He feared it was all to visit this particular house. “How often does she visit this…place?” the duchess whispered. “At least three times a week for the past month.” “And we have not noticed? Though she is affianced and allowed liberties not afforded to other debutantes, she is always properly chaperoned with Miss Felicity as her companion!” His mother’s expression cleared, and her lips flattened. “Of course, Perdie has convinced Miss Felicity to deceive us in this willful and insupportable manner! Lord Owen must never find out about this, Sebastian. He loves Perdie very much, and he is from a fine, upstanding family. Should he discover her activities—” His mother placed a gloved hand over her mouth as if she couldn’t bear to say whatever fear lingered in her heart. That her daughter had led herself to be seduced and ruined. “Perdie has good sense,” Sebastian reassured his mother, masking his own turmoil and the rage bubbling deep within him. Whoever had preyed upon his sister would rue the day they initiated the scheme.

“I am certain she has not allowed herself to be wayward. Perhaps it is not what we think.” His mother sent him a glance filled with fury and disappointment. “I will hold my tongue until you uncover what this is all about.” “You have my word I will not delay. Do not expect me at Lady Edgecombe’s ball this evening. Do pay close attention to Perdie.” The duchess nodded. “Do you plan…plan to visit that house today?” “I sent word to my man of affairs to uncover who owns or occupies that townhouse. He should have the information by tomorrow.

I shall, however, not delay in my visit.” His mother took a few bracing breaths, and it pained him to see the worry in her eyes. It was an emotion he felt in his heart, for he could not imagine what sort of shenanigans his young, innocent sister might have embroiled herself. “The scandal—” “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We do not know what I will find in that house. It might be innocent.” “You are a man of the world,” his mother snapped. “Surely you do not believe that nonsense. The recklessness of her scheme could make life exceedingly difficult for both of you. You might be a duke, a very wealthy one, but even your reputation matters.

Our family’s reputation matters. If this gets out, you might lose your opportunity to match with Lady Edith.” He stared at his mother, almost admiring the manipulative ease in which she had slipped that lady’s name into the conversation. “I see you’ve been sucked into the assumptions of everyone else in the ton into thinking I intend to offer for Lady Edith.” There was even a wager on it at White’s; it had got as far as to be written in the book that he would offer for Lady Edith this month or closer to the end of the season. Serious money would be lost if he did not propose. He had laughed somewhat bitterly in annoyance when he’d heard of the entry. His mother shot him a startled glance at his cold tone. “Is there anyone else you wish to marry in society? I cannot imagine anyone else who would be a better match for you. She would make the perfect duchess for you.

The daughter of a marquess, she’s a very accomplished dancer and speaks three languages fluently. Surely, you must realize she was the only eligible young lady you danced with last season? It was all anyone talked about for weeks.” “It wasn’t a marriage offer,” he said with simplicity. “It was a dance.” “There was nothing simple about it. Lady Edith is known to have rejected several splendid offers for her hand, and I suspect we both know who she is waiting upon.” “I do hope it is not me!” “Of course, it is you!” Though he had overheard sly hints on many lips that he had found his duchess, at last, he was far from convinced. Lady Edith was indeed beautiful and openly had been declared incomparable these last three seasons. She was also a witty conversationalist, and he had liked that she hadn’t tried to hide her intelligence when they had conversed. “I have not given her any encouragement…” His mother laughed, something mocking in her eyes piercing him.

“You are thirty, my dear, and I sense the shift in your moods of late. You are thinking of settling down and filling your nursery with the patter of little feet. And I happened to come across your list, so I am perfectly aware Lady Edith is at the very top of it.” Bloody hell. He had made a list of all the eligible ladies currently out in society. Sebastian should have known the current duchess would have snooped to uncover it. Now he understood why the duchess had expended so little effort over the past few weeks in reminding him of his duty to his title and the realm. “If you will excuse me, madam, I will prepare to pay a visit to Berkeley Square.” “To turn up without any warning will be a great shock for the reprobate. I highly doubt you will be admitted.

” “I am the Duke of Hartford, who dares turn me away?”

.

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