Misleading a Duke – A. S. Fenichel

The last person Nicholas Ellsworth expected to find at his good friend Geb Arafa’s dinner party was Lady Faith Landon. Yet there she was, Nicholas’s fiancée, maddeningly pretty and equally aggravating. She fit perfectly with the lush décor and priceless artifacts in Geb’s parlor. “Lady Faith, I had not expected to find you here. In fact, you and your friends’ presence is an astonishment.” “I hope you are not too put out. It seems Lord and Lady Marsden have become fast friends with Mr. Arafa, and that friendship has extended to the rest of the Wallflowers of West Lane.” Despite his desire to be rid of her, Faith’s soft voice flowed over him like a summer stream and he longed to hear that voice in the dark, in their bed. The way her curves filled out the rose gown set his body aflame and there seemed nothing he could do about it. He shook away his attraction, reminding himself that this was a sneaky, manipulative woman whom it had been a mistake to attach himself to. The fact that he longed to find out if her honey-brown curls were as wild as they promised, despite her attempts to tame them into submission, shouldn’t matter. Nor should his desire to get lost in her wheat-colored eyes and voluptuous curves. This was a woman made for loving. Lord, he hated himself.

“I wonder that your being here with those friends is not some dire plot in the making.” He had reason to be suspicious. When he’d first arrived home from France, in the spring, she and her friends had engaged in spying on him and trying to ferret out his past. It was intolerable. He should have called off the engagement, but the thought of ruining her for good society didn’t sit well with Nicholas. Instead he’d offered her the opportunity to set him aside, but she had refused to do so as of yet. She frowned, and was no less stunning. Her full lips longed to be kissed back into an upturned state. “We are here because Mr. Arafa invited us.

He’s your friend. I’m surprised he didn’t mention it.” Nick was equally bewildered by Geb’s silence on the matter of Faith and the other members of the Wallflowers of West Lane. He had met them on several occasions during his feeble efforts to get to know Faith. Her instant suspicions that he was hiding something may have led to her friends’ actions, but he still couldn’t let the slight die. Though he did admire the strength of the friendship between Faith and the three women she’d gone to finishing school with. They were as close as any soldiers who fought and died together. Even if they called themselves “wallflowers,” there was nothing diminished about any of the four. “He is not required to give me his invitation list.” It pushed out more bitterly than intended.

Those cunning eyes narrowed. “I think you would like it exceedingly well if he did.” That she wasn’t wrong raised the hair on the back of Nick’s neck. He had not been able to keep many friends over the years. His work for the Crown had made that impossible. Now his friendship with Geb Arafa was in jeopardy as well. He bowed to her. “I do not always get what I want, Lady Faith.” Head cocked, she raised one brown eyebrow. “Don’t you, Your Grace?” Geb chose that moment to stroll over.

His dark skin set off his bright tawny eyes, and though he dressed in the black suit and white cravat typical of an Englishman, there was no mistaking his Eastern background. “Nicholas, I’m so glad you are here. I thought you might be held up with politics.” Nicholas accepted his offered hand. “I finished my meetings and came directly.” Smiling in her charming way, Faith’s golden eyes flashed. “I shall leave you gentlemen to catch up.” Both Nicholas and Geb bowed and watched her join her friends near the pianoforte. “She is a delightful woman, Nick. You should reconcile and marry her.

” Geb ran his hand through his black hair, smoothing it back from his forehead. Not willing to let his attraction to Faith rule his decisions, Nicholas forced down the desire seeing his betrothed always ignited in him. “She is sneaky and devious. I shall wait for her to give up and call off.” “I would have thought such character traits would appeal to you.” Geb lowered his voice. “After all, you are a spy with much the same qualities. You might consider speaking to the lady and finding out the details behind her actions.” “Why don’t you just tell me what you know, Geb?” It was obvious his friend knew more than he’d disclosed thus far. Nicholas asking for more was futile.

If Geb was going to tell him more than he already had, he would have done so months ago when he’d first informed him that Poppy and Rhys, now the Earl and Countess of Marsden, were investigating his character. Being spies meant that Geb and Nick kept their own counsel most of the time. As an information broker, Geb was even more closemouthed than most spies. He only offered what was necessary to complete a contract or, in this case, to inform a friend of something less than critical. “I am not at liberty to divulge that information.” Geb’s white teeth gleamed. “I didn’t realize you were so keen on keeping a lady’s secrets,” Nicholas teased. Grabbing his chest, Geb feigned a knife to the heart. “I would never tell tales of a good woman. There have been a few ladies of our acquaintance who were not reputable, and those who are part of our line of work whose secrets I had few scruples about divulging.

” “Indeed.” As much as he wanted to be angry with Geb for befriending Faith and her friends, he couldn’t manage it. The truth was, Geb was quite discerning about who he called friend. During the time he’d spent with them, he couldn’t help but like them as well. They were the most spirited and brightest women he’d ever known. He recalled a beautiful blonde in Spain who had tried to put a knife between his ribs, and shuddered. At least he didn’t think these Wallflowers were out for his blood, just his secrets. What he didn’t know, was why they were so keen on divining his past. He might be a fool to think them innocent. His trust of a sweet face in the past had nearly gotten him killed.

Geb nudged him out of his thoughts. “Talk to the girl.” Glancing at where Faith stood drinking a glass of wine and talking to Poppy Draper, Nicholas mused over if they were plotting their next attempt to invade his privacy. “Perhaps later. First, I would like a glass of your excellent cognac.” “Avoiding her will not make your situation better,” Geb warned, his rich Egyptian accent rounding the words and lending a sense of foreboding. “The lady will decide I am not worth the trouble and find herself a less complicated gentleman to attach herself to.” Nodding, Geb said, “I’m certain that is true. She is too lovely for half the men in London to not be in love with.” Nicholas wished that thought didn’t form a knot in his gut.

He also longed for a day when Faith wouldn’t enter his mind a dozen times. She had gotten under his skin before he’d even met her, and he couldn’t rid himself of her spell. Even knowing it had been her mother and not the lady herself who had written to him when he was in France hadn’t dulled what he knew and liked about Faith Landon. “One day you shall have to tell me how you came to this, my friend.” Geb signaled for Kosey, his servant. The extremely tall Egyptian wore a white turban and loose black pants and a similar blouse. He carried a tray with two glasses of dark amber cognac. “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, sir. Will that please you?” Kosey spoke English in an Eastern way, which made the language warmer and less harsh to the ear. It gained looks from some of the other guests, but Nicholas liked the formal, oldfashioned speech.

“Very good,” said Geb. Nick observed the gaping of the other guests. “Why have you invited these snobs to Aaru, Geb?” “Flitmore has some items I wish to obtain and Humphry has proved to be a good source of information about certain parliamentary discussions.” “I trust you would never use such information against my beloved country.” A knot formed in Nick’s gut. “No, but I might try to sway other members of your government. I like to know what is happening in my adopted country, Nicholas. That is all. As a foreigner, I have no say. This gives me some needed control.

” Geb grinned. Nick held back a scolding that would do no good. “Do not look at me so ill. I merely use information to my advantage just as everyone else does. I will share bits with them or buy back pieces of Egyptian art. It will harm no one.” Kosey moved to the door where he waited for word from the cook that dinner was ready to be served. Lord and Lady Flitmore gaped at Kosey. Perhaps it was his height as he towered over everyone in the room. It might have been his odd clothes.

Whatever it was, their shocked regard needled at Nicholas. Faith stepped between him and the couple. “Lady Flitmore, it’s nice to see you again. I heard your daughter Mary would be here tonight, but I’ve not seen her. I hope nothing is wrong. I know how she can get into mischief.” Lord Flitmore coughed uncomfortably. “Mary had some trouble with her gown and is coming in a later carriage. She will be here any moment.” As if on cue, a footman announced the arrival of Lady Mary Yates.

A slim woman with red hair and flawless skin sauntered into the room. Pretty in the classical way, her long, thin nose appeared in a perpetual state of being turned up at everyone and everything. Hands folded lightly in front of her, she walked directly to where Faith stood with Mary’s parents. In a voice without modulation, Mary said, “Mother, Father, I’m sorry to be late. I hope no one was waiting on me.” The lack of any emotion in Mary’s voice made it difficult to tell if she was sincere or just saying what was expected of her. “Thank you for sending the carriage back for me.” Lord Flitmore pulled his shoulders back and beamed at his daughter. “Dinner has only just been announced, my dear girl. Please say hello to His Grace, the Duke of Breckenridge.

” Mary made a pretty curtsy and plastered a wan smile on her rosy lips. “How do you do, Your Grace?” Bowing, Nick couldn’t help but notice the look of disdain that flitted across Faith’s face. “A pleasure, Lady Mary. I’m pleased you could come tonight. Do you know Lady Faith Landon?” Another curtsy and a smile that likened to a wolf, and Mary said, “Lady Faith and I went to the Wormbattle School together. We have been acquainted for many years. How are you, Faith?” Faith raised a brow. “Very well, Mary. You are looking fine. Your parents tell me you’ve had some issue with your gown this evening.

” Mary’s gown was dark blue and threaded with gold. It pushed all her assets up to the breaking point of the material at her breast and flowed down, showing off her perfect figure. She blushed. “Just a small issue that my maid and a needle and thread resolved easily enough.” The ladies leered at each other. Clearing his throat, Lord Flitmore said, “Mary, let me introduce you to our host.” “Of course,” Mary agreed, and with a nod to Nick, all three Yateses left the circle. Faith watched after Mary but had schooled her features to a pleasant expression that no one could have noted anything amiss from. Nick had many questions, but none of them were any of his business. “Shall we go in to dinner?” As they were officially engaged, Nick offered Faith his arm and they preceded the others into the dining room.

The long table had rounded corners and was draped in white linen. Fine china leafed with gold, and highly polished crystal and silver, made the setting gleam under three fully lit chandeliers hanging overhead, and with four standing candelabras placed in all corners of the room. The high-backed, dark wood chairs were cushioned with a pale blue damask. It was decidedly English, and extremely elegant, to appeal to Geb’s guests. At the head of the table, Geb welcomed everyone formally to his home before launching into a story of being on a sinking ship, and the diners were riveted despite the fact that most of them would not invite an Egyptian man of no known rank into their own homes. Faith smiled warmly at Geb, and Nick wondered if she were different. Would his friends, regardless of their origins, be welcomed to her table? He shook off the notion. He would not be going through with marrying Faith Landon, no matter how much he desired her or how kind she pretended to be. She had betrayed him with her spying, and he wouldn’t have it. Another exception to the apparent prejudice against Geb were Rhys and Poppy Draper.

The earl and his bride genuinely liked Geb and had become fast friends with him after being stranded at his house in a storm. “Did you swim to shore from that distance, Mr. Arafa?” Poppy’s blue eyes were wide and her dark hair and lashes made the color all the more demonstrable. Geb’s cheeks pinked and he laughed. “I’m afraid nothing so heroic, my lady. I was hauled out of the ocean by a small fishing vessel. My lungs were full of water and I caught a terrible ague and spent three weeks in a Portuguese hospital.” They all laughed with Geb. Rhys Draper took a long pull on his wine. “I would be willing to bet you were the most interesting thing those fishermen plucked from the Atlantic that day.

And you were damned lucky. Not only could you have drowned, but if this had happened a year later, you might have been caught up in Napoleon’s invasion.” “Indeed, luck was with me that day and many others.” More sober, Geb gave Nick a knowing look. Nick noted his friend’s careful use of luck rather than invoke the name of the Prophet in a room full of Christians. Knowing how religious Geb was, Nick knew what he was thinking. They had experienced many adventures together, and luck, Allah, or God had seen them through some things that at the time, seemed impossible. The footmen served the soup. Nick noted that many of the guests poked at the fine broth, vegetables, and bits of tender beef, but didn’t eat. The Yates family were among those who would not eat from the table of an Egyptian but would be happy to attend, since Geb was a good resource for many business dealings.

Not to mention the depth of Geb’s pocketbook. Faith, Poppy, and Rhys ate with gusto. Perhaps more than was natural, and Nick decided they had also noticed the rudeness of the other guests. Besides the Yateses, Sir Duncan Humphrey, his wife and two sons, Montgomery and Malcolm, were in attendance as well as William Wharton and his wife. All were well respected among the ton and had obviously not come for the food or company. They didn’t speak other than the occasional thank you. On Nick’s right, Faith sipped the last of her soup and turned to Mary. “You didn’t like the soup?” “I’m not hungry. I’m certain it is quite good.” Mary narrowed her eyes at Faith.

“It’s really too bad, it was the best I’ve tasted.” Faith smiled warmly and turned her attention back to Geb. “Poppy told me how wonderful your cook is and now I can taste the truth of it.” “You always did have a great love of food, Faith.” Mary’s voice rang with disdain and she peered down that thin nose at Faith’s curvaceous figure. Poppy looked ready to leap across the table and do Mary physical harm. A low laugh from Faith calmed the situation. “I suppose where I am fond of a good meal you are fond of a good bit of gossip. We each have our hidden desires. Don’t we, Mary.

” It was a warning, but Nick didn’t have enough information to know what was at stake. Mary bit her bottom lip and narrowed her eyes before masking all emotion and nodding. “I suppose that’s true of everyone.” A flush of pride swept over Nick. He had no right to feel any sense of esteem for Faith’s ability to outthink another woman and put her in her place. Yet, he couldn’t help liking that she had not been bested by a bigoted daughter of parents who would attend the dinner party of a man they clearly didn’t like, but wanted something from. Turning his attention back to Geb, Nick noted his friend’s amusement at the social volley going on at the table. Geb smiled warmly at Poppy as she changed the subject to the delectable pheasant and fine wine. By the main course, Nick had given up on the other end of the table and was ensconced in a lively conversation among the four people around him. Rhys was well versed in politics and they discussed the state of coal mines.

Faith and Poppy both added their opinions, which were well thought out and more astute than he would have thought for ladies of their rank. Perhaps he should rethink his views of what ladies ponder in the course of a day. Clearly it was more than stitching and tea patterns. Geb, too, ignored the reticent group at the far end of the table and joined the banter. When Kosey announced that cake and sherry were being served in the grand parlor, Nick was disappointed to leave the conversation. As soon as they entered the parlor, Flitmore cornered Geb about the sale of several horses, and Sir Duncan wanted to know when the next shipment of spices from India would be arriving. Stomach turning at their duplicity, Nick escaped to the garden. Geb had torches lighting the paths. The gardens here were one of Nick’s favorite places in England. They were orderly and wild at once.

White stones lined the lanes meant to guide one through the low plantings. It was a maze but without the threat of becoming lost. The fountain at the far end broke the silence of the pleasant autumn night. Soon winter would turn the garden into a wasteland and a good snow would give it the feel of an abandoned house. Nick sighed and walked on. “Are you determined to be alone, or might I join you, Your Grace?” Faith called from only a few feet behind him. He must be losing his training for her to have sneaked up behind him without notice. “Is there something you wanted, Lady Faith?”

.

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