She Tempts the Duke – Lorraine Heath

Tonight was the night they would die. At fourteen, Sebastian Easton, the eighth Duke of Keswick, wished he could be brave about it, could face death with the stoicism and courage his father would have expected and demanded of him, but he was so scared, his mouth so dry, he couldn’t even work up enough spittle to fling as an insult at whoever came for him. Within the ancient tower, no fireplace provided a homey atmosphere, but even if one had been built into the stone wall, he doubted that his uncle—Lord David Easton—would have graced them with a fire. He’d provided no blankets to ward off the bitter wind that whistled between the bars at the window. They had nothing except the clothes they’d been wearing when they were escorted to the tower for “their own protection,” as soon as all the mourners had left following their father’s internment in the family mausoleum that morning. He supposed his uncle was hoping they’d catch their death, and thus spare him the bother of killing them. But as Sebastian gazed out the tiny window, he could see no moon, only stars. It was an excellent night for making three troublesome lads disappear. “I’m hungry,” Rafe muttered. “I don’t see why we can’t eat the mutton stew.” “Because it could be poisoned,” Tristan retorted, and Sebastian heard the longing in his voice. Each of them was hungry. And although too proud to admit it—terrified. “But why would Cook poison us? She likes me. She sneaks me extra biscuits.

” “Not Cook, you dolt,” Tristan snapped. “Uncle.” Their squabbling carried on, but low enough that it no longer disturbed Sebastian as he peered into what had to be the blackest night he’d ever seen. No torches flickered to indicate any guards or servants patrolling. No one was about—so certain was his uncle that they were secure here. The clocks in the manor had no doubt long ago tolled the midnight hour. He and his brothers should be asleep, but he had no intention of going quietly. He had already tested the bars. They weren’t likely to give. Only a sparrow could slip between them.

Their options for escape were dwindling. He never thought to be grateful that their mother had died in childbirth, but at least she wouldn’t have to endure the agony of losing her children. Although perhaps Lord David would have done her in as well, to spare her the sorrow. “But I’m freezing.” Rafe’s voice suddenly rose with frustration as though he needed to make his brothers understand how miserable he truly was, as though they weren’t all suffering the same discomforts. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t made of sturdier stuff. He was only ten, and as the youngest he’d been coddled. “If you don’t stop whining, I’ll give you something to truly whine about—a bloody nose,” Tristan threatened. “Leave him be, Tristan,” Sebastian ordered. He was a mere twenty-two minutes older than his twin, but with those twenty-two minutes had come power, rank, and responsibility.

He was worried he’d be unable to live up to all three, that he’d disappoint his father from the grave. “But his whining grates.” “You both need to be quiet, so I can think.” He heard a shuffling, and then Tristan was standing beside him. They had no candles, no lanterns, no lamps. But he didn’t need light to see Tristan clearly in his mind. He looked exactly like Sebastian. Tall for his age, with unruly black hair that constantly fell into his pale blue eyes. Ghost eyes, the gypsies called them. Easton eyes, his father had assured them.

Like his own. And their damned uncle’s. Lord David had brought their father—his head bashed in—back to Pembrook, their ancestral home, after the riding accident. He claimed their father had tumbled off his horse. But he was an exceedingly excellent rider. He’d have never become unseated. Not without someone arranging the unseating, although Sebastian thought it more likely that he’d dismounted to attend to something, and then someone had come up behind him and whacked him. Hard. And he was fairly certain who that someone had been. “So what’s your grand scheme for getting us out of here?” Tristan asked quietly.

“I won’t tell. Even if he puts me on the rack in the dungeon.” The dungeon housed all manner of torture devices, remnants from when the first Duke of Keswick had served Henry VIII and done some of his more unpleasant bidding. It seemed a penchant for bloodthirstiness ran in the family. He couldn’t shake off the sense that his uncle wanted what his father had possessed—and that meant three more murders. “Do you even have a plan?” Tristan asked. “You and I will jump whoever comes through the door next. You go low, cut him off at the knees. I’ll go high.” Take the greater risk for if that someone had a weapon, instinct would have him striking out at what he’d be able to see more clearly: the rabid boy aiming to smack him in the nose.

“Then what?” “We saddle up our horses and make a dash for it.” “I’m for staying and dealing with Uncle now. We kill him. Right quick. We’re done.” “Are you so daft, Tristan, that you can’t figure it out? The fact that we’re here means we have no allies.” “We must have some. You’re the rightful heir.” “But who? Who do we trust? No, our best course of action for now is to run, then split up. We’ll return when we’re men.

Reclaim what is ours.” “What proof will we have that we are who we say we are?” “How many twin sons with our shade of eyes do you think there are?” And he wore his father’s ring on a chain about his neck. His finger was not yet large enough to provide it with a secure home. But one day . “I don’t agr—” Tristan began. “Shh!” Sebastian heard a distant scuffing, scraping. It was getting louder, nearer. “Someone’s coming.” Even in the dark, he unerringly found his brother’s slender shoulder, gave it a squeeze. They wouldn’t have strength on their side.

Their best weapons would be surprise and agility. “Don’t hesitate. Be quick and sure. Make it count.” He heard Tristan swallow, felt his twin’s body move with his forceful nod. “Rafe, to the far corner,” Sebastian ordered. “Why?” “No questions. Do it, Brother,” he demanded harshly. Rafe was too young to be of any great assistance; besides it was Sebastian’s duty to protect him. He scampered quickly to the door, was aware of Tristan following in his wake.

The only furniture to be avoided was the small table and two stools in the center of the room. Someplace was needed for the signing of confessions, he thought wryly. Holding his breath, he pressed himself flat against the wall, felt the stone biting into him. He heard the key go into the lock, scrape as it turned. The door opened, light spilled in. He rushed forward— The girl leaped on him, securing her legs around his waist, tightening her arms around his neck. Her tears cooled against his cheek. “You’re alive,” she croaked. “I was so scared I’d be too late!” Holding her close, he could feel her trembling. A lantern on the floor in the hallway cast a pale glow into the room.

She must have brought it and abandoned it there as she dug the key into the door. “Shh, Mary,” he urged tenderly, “keep your voice down. Whatever are you doing here?” Lady Mary Wynne-Jones, daughter to their neighbor the Earl of Winslow, hiccupped, sniffled, and buried her face harder against his shoulder. “I was looking for you. Heard him . heard him say to kill you.” “Heard whom?” “Your uncle.” “Damned blighter,” Tristan growled. “I knew it!” “Quiet,” Sebastian ordered. As quickly, but gently, as possible, he extricated Mary from her perch.

She was all legs and arms, light as a feather. When she was finally standing again, he took hold of her shoulders and stared into her green eyes. Two years younger than Sebastian, she was a wild one and often snuck away from her father’s estate to visit with him. Without a chaperone. They would pretend to be adventurers and would explore various ruins. The nearby broken-down abbey was their favorite haunt. Last week she boldly kissed him there. He knew if his father found out that he kissed her back, he would be in trouble. He wasn’t supposed to kiss a lord’s daughter unless he intended to marry her. His father had told him that often enough.

But Mary wasn’t just a lord’s daughter. She was his best mate. He’d taught her to move about stealthily. At many things, she was as skilled as a boy. He loved that about her. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Or almost anything. He could see now that she was as pale as a ghost, her myriad freckles standing out in stark relief. “Who did he tell?” “I didn’t see,” she said on a rush. “I dashed up to your room and when you weren’t there, I thought to look here.

” “Is your father with you?” She shook her head forcefully. “I rode over alone. Knew you’d be sad about your own father dying. I wanted to be with you—like you were with me when my mother went to heaven.” She’d been ten when her mother died of the fever. That night he’d ridden over, climbed the tree outside her bedroom window, and slipped into her bedchamber, into her bed. And held her while she cried and grieved. “I was sneaking about searching for you. That’s when I heard what I did.” “We’ve got to hurry then.

Tristan, stay close to Rafe.” “I don’t need watching,” Rafe objected. “Shut your mouth,” Tristan snarled. “It’s not a game. Uncle means to kill us.” “Why?” “Because we’re all that stand between him and everything. Now come on.” Sebastian grabbed Mary’s hand and stepped out of the room. Reaching down, she picked up the lantern and they rushed down the steps. He heard his brothers following behind them.

At the bottom, the guard was sprawled on the floor, a large branch abandoned beside him. “I crept up behind him and smashed him in the head,” Mary said. “Well done, Mary.” She beamed, her clover-green eyes sparkling for only a moment before the worry settled back in. They didn’t dare tarry here. Still gripping her hand, he raced outside. Her legs were long enough to keep up with him. She was as graceful as a filly and almost as fast. They had been friends for as long as Sebastian could remember. He’d never seen anyone with hair as vibrant a red as hers.

It was braided now and tapping rhythmically against her back as they ran for the stables. Once there, he and his brothers each saddled a horse. Mary’s horse was tethered nearby. He boosted her onto it, mounted his own. “I’ll catch up to you, Tristan. I’m seeing Mary safely home first.” “No. We stay together as long as we can.” “Right then. Let’s ride like the wind.

” Mary’s lantern guided them, causing the shadows to ebb and flow with their progress. They couldn’t travel too fast; they didn’t want their horses tumbling. But still there was an urgency that snaked along Sebastian’s skin. They were halfway across their property when he had an undeniable urge to stop. “Hold up one minute,” he shouted. Everyone did as he ordered. He was, after all, the duke. He dismounted and moved to where Mary’s lantern shed a bit of light. “Mary, can I have your hair ribbon?” She handed it over without question. That was so like her.

They trusted each other implicitly. Pulling out the handkerchief that his father assured him a gentleman always carried, he knelt down. “Sebastian, what the hell are you doing?” Tristan asked. “We don’t have time for nonsense. We’ve got to go.” But he couldn’t leave without taking a bit of home with him. He clawed, scraped, and scooped up a handful of the rich soil over which seven previous dukes, several kings, and queens had galloped their horses. He enfolded it in the linen, secured it with Mary’s ribbon, and stuffed it into his pocket. He remounted and they were off once again. The next time they brought their horses to a halt, they were outside her father’s stables.

Sebastian vaulted off his horse and approached Mary’s. “Come inside. My father can help you,” Mary insisted. “It’ll be too dangerous for you and your family.” And probably for us as well. “I’ll go with you then.” “No, you can’t go where we’re going.” “Where are you going?” “If you don’t know, you can’t say.” And no one can torture it out of you. Reaching up he wrapped his hands around her narrow waist and brought her down to the ground.

She clutched his arms. “Don’t leave me, Sebastian. Take me with you.” “I’m Keswick now. And I can’t take you with me, but I promise you that I shall return. Ten years, on this night, at the abbey ruins.” Bending down he gave her a kiss, brushing his lips so quickly and lightly over hers that it resembled little more than touching a butterfly’s wings as it took flight. “Thank you, Mary. I’ll never forget what you did for my brothers and me.” “You must be careful.

” “Always,” he said with a confidence that belied his youth—and his fear. He had no idea what the future would hold. “Send me word when you’re safe,” she said, and he realized she didn’t understand the true peril that lurked. “No matter what happens, Mary, never tell anyone what you heard or what you did. It has to remain a secret, for all our sakes.” “I promise.” He felt like there was more he should say but he wasn’t quite certain what it was. Climbing back into the saddle, he urged his horse into a gallop, his brothers’ horses thundering alongside him, all of them leaving Mary behind. As they rode into the night, into the darkness, into the unknown, he vowed that he would one day return to Pembrook to claim all that belonged to him. Nothing mattered more than that.

It was a vow that would shape the man he was to become.

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