Wanton – Carole Mortimer

“Lady Diana Fitzwilliam.” The monotone voice of the Walkers’ butler announced the new arrival into the ballroom. “Good God! Surely it cannot be…” Andrew Belgrade, the Duke of Essex, gasped as he reached for the ribbon of his eye ring before raising it up to his right eye. “It really is her,” Essex announced incredulously. “How dare that woman even show her face in Society after what happened?” Xavier was barely aware of the other man’s words as all other conversation in the room stuttered and then stopped completely and every eye turned toward where a beautiful young woman stood proud and alone in the wide doorway. Well, perhaps not every eye, Xavier allowed wryly. The Dowager Duchess of Leith had a lazy eye which never quite seemed to follow its twin. Being tall, several inches over six feet, Xavier was able to look over the heads of most of the other guests, allowing him to clearly see Lady Diana Fitzwilliam. Tiny and slender, aged in her mid-twenties and already a widow, Lady Diana Fitzwilliam’s beauty could initially be overlooked, until one studied her more closely. Which Xavier had done more times than he cared to acknowledge… She wore her golden hair in several plaits coiled Grecian style about her head, with delicate wisps at her temples and nape. Her eyes were the color of a clear summer sky and surrounded by dark lashes. Her nose was small and straight, cheekbones high and sculpted. Her mouth was a perfect and sensual cupid’s bow, with the top lip fuller than the bottom. Her purple silk gown gave the pale and unblemished skin at her throat, the tops of her breasts, and her arms beneath short capped sleeves a delicious ivory luster that almost seemed to glow in the candlelit room. Unfortunately, Lady Diana had arrived at the Walkers’ ball during a break in the dancing to allow the guests’ time to seek refreshment in another room.

It was also a time when the quartet of musicians had stopped playing and their hostess had gone into the adjoining room to socialize with her guests, who were eager for drinks, food, conversation, or merely to escape the hot crush of the ballroom. Xavier counted the seconds as the gazes of the forty or so guests still in the ballroom remained fixed upon Lady Diana. One heartbeat. Two. Then three. Before, as if it were done by mechanical means, all those same heads now slowly turned and made Xavier the focus of their attention. At the same time, like the parting of the Red Sea, the people directly in the path of Lady Diana all stepped to the side. Leaving an open space directly from where Xavier stood beside the fireplace to the woman standing so still and alone across the room. Why had she come here alone, damn it? Admittedly, Lady Diana was a widow and did not need to be chaperoned if she chose not to. But as this was her first foray into Society since the scandal the previous year, it was not the most sensible thing for her to have done.

What had she been thinking to have come here at all? Let alone without some sort of male escort or friend to stand at her side to offer her their emotional and physical support. And how should she have done that, Xavier instantly answered his own question. She no longer had any living male relatives to accompany her. Most of her friends had also deserted her the previous year, after gossip of the scandal had spread like wildfire amongst Society. Her parents were both dead. Her husband had been killed during the first defeat and deposing of Napoleon two years ago. Then her brother, several years older than her, had fallen at the Battle of Waterloo the following year. The battle which had put an end to Napoleon’s brief hundred days of trying to regain and this time keep his empire. Any aunts and uncles Lady Diana might have obviously did not feel inclined to accompany a woman who had suffered such a disgrace the previous year. Even if Lady Diana currently had a lover, and Xavier knew she did not, then that gentleman’s escort would not have done either.

Still, to come here alone was the height of folly on her part. As proven by the fact all in the room still remained silent and expectant. An expectation which became heavier by the second as all waited to see what Xavier would do about the arrival of this tardy guest. No doubt they believed Xavier Asherton, the Duke of Northcliffe, was about to provide them with enough fresh fodder for their vicious and gossiping tongues for the rest of this Season and beyond, to add to the misery of the previous year for all those involved in or close to the couple at the heart of the scandal. Never one to do what was expected of him, Xavier straightened his spine so that he stood at his full height. He then took the time to adjust the lace of his shirt cuffs so that it draped from beneath the sleeves of his black evening jacket, before he strode purposefully across the room. He stopped briefly beside the four musicians, softly instructing them to begin playing a set of waltzes, and nodding his approval when they immediately resumed playing. Xavier looked to neither left nor right as he strode down that parting of the Red Sea toward the woman known, in part, to have been responsible for the death of his younger brother the previous year. In part? A young and apparently healthy man did not die of a seizure of the heart whilst in bed with his mistress without some serious physical activity having preceded, and so been the cause of, that seizure. Physical activities, once Xavier was recovered from the devastation of his brother’s death in such an ignominious manner, Xavier’s imagination had been only too eager to punish him with, night after night, as he lay alone in his bed, his cock in hand as he pumped harder and faster until he spilled.

This past year, the beautiful Diana, the mistress of his deceased brother, had become front and center of every one of Xavier’s sexual fantasies. Diana’s expression remained stoically haughty, whilst inside, she quaked in horror at the rapidly approaching Xavier Asherton, the notoriously cold and arrogant Duke of Northcliffe. Bad enough that her arrival seemed to have arrested the attention of every person in the room, but for this particular gentleman to approach her could only mean further humiliation for her in the very near future. Especially as Northcliffe appeared, for all intents and purposes, as a dark and swooping avenging archangel in his black evening clothes. One about to sink its claws into her before taking even greater delight in ripping her to pieces. He was an exceedingly tall gentleman, with raven hair inherited from his Spanish mother, and eyes of a glacial gray inherited from his English father. His shoulders and chest were wide and muscular, his slender waist and hips shown to advantage in a perfectly tailored black tailcoat. Black evening trousers outlined the long length of his muscular thighs and calves. He was, many gentlemen and ladies would say—and often did—an exceedingly fine figure of a man. Moreover, at the age of seven and thirty, he remained a bachelor.

In spite of that eligibility, Diana knew that none of the matchmaking matrons present would dare to push their daughters or nieces forward in the hope the duke might notice them. Because the Duke of Northcliffe also had the coldest and most disparaging tongue in Society, and he did not hesitate to use it. As he was about to use it on Diana? A shudder ran through the chill of her body. Not because of any lack of warmth in the ballroom, but because she feared what Northcliffe was about to do or say to her. Accusations she had absolutely no defense against. The duke came to a halt directly in front of her, ominously so as he towered over her diminutive figure by at least a foot. His wide shoulders and chest also succeeded in blocking out the curious eyes of the other guests, but Diana doubted that was done with any intention on his part of protecting her from those viciously avid gazes. He gave a bow. “Good evening, Lady Fitzwilliam.” Diana’s legs trembled and shook beneath her gown as, after a few seconds of shock at the apparent politeness of his greeting, she curtseyed in response.

The two of them had first been introduced several years ago, so there was no reason to stand on ceremony. Not that she had expected Northcliffe to do so in any case. “Your Grace.” His very white and straight teeth were bared in a smile that did not reach those glacial gray eyes and appeared more feral than warm. “Would you care to dance?” Would I care to dance…? Diana wondered if she might possibly have fallen and bumped her head on the way into the Walkers’ ballroom. Or perhaps finally completely and utterly lost her mind. Lord knows there had been so many reasons for her to have done so this past year, when she had lost so many people she loved and was so very much alone. Having Raphael’s brother, the haughty Duke of Northcliffe, now invite her to dance with him was— “It is not a request,” the duke added so that only she could hear, those cold gray eyes leveled on her in compelling challenge as he offered her his arm. It is not a request, Diana repeated in her head in that same stern voice. And if it was not a request, then it must be an order.

One that, no doubt, would please the expectant guests, all of them quivering with anticipation as to what would happen next. She lifted her chin. “I have heard it said that the Duke of Northcliffe does not dance.” Diana hadn’t just heard it, she had seen it, Season after Season, when the duke chose to spend his time talking with the other gentlemen in the room rather than dancing with the ladies present. “You have heard correctly,” he drawled. “Then—” “I am prepared to make an exception where you are concerned,” he added softly. Diana blinked, not quite sure what to make of that. Unless he intended to upbraid her whilst leading her about the dance floor and away from listening ears? “Very well.” She gave a haughty inclination of her head before placing her lace-gloved hand on Northcliffe’s forearm and allowing him to escort her onto the empty dance space. The musicians had begun to play several minutes ago, but why would anyone have bothered to dance when there was the possibility of a scene unfolding away from the dance floor! Unfortunately, the quartet were currently playing a set of waltzes, something Diana was sure Northcliffe had not been aware of when he issued his order for her to dance with him.

Except… The Duke of Northcliffe, it was rumored, both as member of the House of Lords and one of the Prince Regent’s closest confidants, was always aware of all and everything that occurred around him, in and out of Society. A rumor Diana knew not to be true, when this haughty gentleman had had no idea of his own brother’s lover before Raphael’s death a year ago. None of which was of the least importance when Diana now found herself dancing an intimate waltz with Northcliffe about the wooden dance floor. One of his long arms was wrapped firmly about her waist, locking her torso and lower limbs against his and sparking an awareness inside Diana which she could happily have done without. The fingers of his other hand maintained a tight grip on her lace-covered ones. Diana’s free hand rested atop one of his broad shoulders, allowing her to feel the movement of muscles as well as the heat given off by his powerful frame as he easily guided her in the dance. A dance he was exceedingly good at considering the Duke of Northcliffe did not dance. Many had also accused the Duke of Northcliffe of not having a heart in a body that was carved out of ice. Two more things Diana now knew not to be true. There was definitely a heart beating strongly in that broad chest so close to her own.

Nor could she doubt the heat given off by that muscular body. Being in such close proximity to him also enabled Diana to breathe in the pine and sandalwood of the cologne he wore. Not as a way of hiding more unpleasant body odors, as many gentlemen in society did, but as emphasis to the heady and seductive male musk Diana believed belonged exclusively to Northcliffe. Several more couples had now joined them on the dance floor, no doubt hoping to overhear some of their conversation as they waltzed by. A futile hope when Diana and Northcliffe had not spoken a single word to each other since he demanded she dance with him. This continued silence between the two of them was fraying what was left of Diana’s nerves. “Are you going to begin this conversation or am I?” she prompted abruptly. Northcliffe looked down the length of his nose at her. “What conversation would that be?” Diana glared up at him. “The one where you no doubt accuse me of being a whore, as well as responsible for the death of your brother in my home a year ago.

” The duke’s chiseled lips thinned. “At least that passing of time allows us to be assured you did not find yourself pregnant with his child, either before or since his death.” Diana drew in a sharp breath both at Northcliffe’s scornful tone and the disappointment and hurt she had long carried inside her because of her inability to be able to have a child. She and her husband, Percy, had desperately wanted to have children together during their four years of marriage. To no avail, and Diana had finally come to accept that she was barren. Her prospects of ever marrying again—following the scandal this previous year, along with her decision to inform any prospective suitor of her inability to give him children— were not high, in any case. She had inherited Percy’s personal fortune, making her a relatively wealthy widow, but Diana was averse to being married merely for her money. Besides, why would she bother when she now lived a life of relative freedom as Percy’s widow? One with few friends and no lovers, admittedly, but it was freedom of a sort. “Yes, at least we can be assured of that,” she finally echoed the duke flatly. Xavier sensed an underlying heaviness to that statement, one that puzzled him.

Surely Lady Diana had not wished to have Raphael’s child? As she’d been a widow for a year before Raphael’s death, a child would have caused even more of a scandal than Raphael having expired while in her bed. Xavier had been away at the time of his brother’s demise, at the Prince Regent’s request, dealing with the aftermath of Waterloo and setting up the new peace arrangements. But he had returned to England the moment he received news of Raphael’s death. He had been too late to attend the funeral held at the Northcliffe ducal estate in Hampshire, but his maternal uncle had informed him that the service had been attended by many, including Lady Diana Fitzwilliam and her brother, Lord Jeremy Wilton, a friend from Raphael’s university days. No doubt it was through that acquaintance that Raphael and Diana had met. Raphael had been eight years younger than Xavier, and as children, those eight years had gaped like a huge chasm between the two of them. Xavier was already away at boarding school before Raphael was old enough to even be aware he had an older brother. They had become closer friends during Raphael’s years at university, only for a distance to once again yawn between the two of them during the years they were in the army and both away from England fighting against Napoleon. Consequently, Xavier had not even known of his brother’s affair with Lady Diana until he was informed Raphael had died in her bed. Even if Xavier had been in England when it happened he doubted even he could have silenced that particular scandal.

Xavier had applauded his brother’s choice of a beautiful widow with whom to have a short or even lengthy affair. There was no messy innocence to deal with or a husband who might feel the need to challenge his wife’s lover to an illegal duel or the scandal of a divorce. Dying in that lady’s bed was less acceptable. As Lady Diana had learned to her social detriment this past year. Xavier freely admitted he hadn’t really taken much notice of her before that time. She was twelve years younger than him and had become betrothed and then married to Lord Percy Fitzwilliam during her very first Season, aged only eighteen. The marriage had seemed to be a happy one before Fitzwilliam’s death two years ago, another casualty of the war with Napoleon. As his widow, Lady Diana had continued to reside at Fitzwilliam House rather than moving back to Wilton House to live with her unmarried brother. Something which Xavier viewed as an indication of her independence of will and the shunning of a need for protection from any man. No, Xavier had not noticed Diana before learning of his brother’s involvement with her.

Unfortunately, she had not been far from his thoughts since then, night as well as day. Lady Diana had not attended a social function since that time, being in mourning for her brother. Jeremy had died at Waterloo shortly after Raphael’s death and his sister’s involvement in that scandal. But that did not mean Xavier did not know of Diana’s carriage rides in the park, or her visits to those few close female friends who had remained loyal to her. Lady Tabitha Walker was one of those friends, which probably explained why Diana might have allowed herself to be persuaded to attend the ball this evening. Her presence here tonight certainly made nonsense of Xavier’s months of trying to ignore the inappropriate attraction he felt toward her. Holding her, dancing with her, Xavier knew if he did not soon fuck this woman senseless, then he was at risk of losing his sanity altogether.

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