The Duke in Disguise
cards."

"I've been practicing. Maybe that's where the accusation came from. Or maybe not."

"What do you mean?" Miss Barome asked in a softer voice.

Meriel casually leaned nearer, only half listening as Stephen chatted on about using the North Star for guidance. If they chose to speak in front of her, it was not her fault that she could hear them.

"Who did you hear the rumor from?" The duke spoke in a voice that sounded too serious to be him.

"Sir Dudley," Miss Barome said. "But I cannot credit him with the intelligence to deliberately harm your reputation."

"I agree. Doesn't he move within Rexford's circle?"

"Yes."

"Then perhaps it came from him."

"But why?" Miss Barome asked.

The carriage drove up before them, and the duke waited for Stephen to scramble up inside before next lending a hand to Meriel.

He turned to help Miss Barome, and Meriel heard him say, "Not sure, old girl. It didn't hurt me, so what does a harmless prank matter?"

But Meriel didn't believe he cared so little about a challenge to his honor.

Why couldn't she believe the worst about him? After they let Miss Barome off, the duke turned down the lamp so that Stephen could continue to watch the stars. Meriel answered questions from the boy, but mostly she sat on her bench opposite the duke in the darkness, where an occasional gleam from his eyes reminded her that he was watching her.

Not that she needed to see it to know it. Regardless of what she'd learned about him today, just being near him made her feel strange yearnings. She told herself he had been kind to her tonight because he wanted her impression of him to be favorable. As far as her physical impression of him, he didn't have to worry. Black and white evening clothes made him look dashing and elegant and handsome, and watching him dance with other women had made her feel her newly humbled position more than anything else had. In the past, she was the one every man had wanted to dance with.

Why could she not remember that he was a man who seduced his servants?

Because he was also a man who worried about his son, and spared his governess public humiliation. She told herself that he was only trying to soften her resistance.

When they arrived home, she saw Stephen up to his nurse, then took a chance and went back to look for the duke. She found him in the library, relaxing in a comfortable chair, his feet propped up as he faced the door— as if he was waiting for her.

As if he knew she'd come.

She stood in the doorway and linked her hands together, striving to look relaxed instead of nervous. "Might I come in, Your Grace?"

"Of course, Miss Shelby."

He said nothing else, only watched her, letting her make the next move. His cravat and stock were loosened, baring more of his skin.

Oh, why did she have to notice such things?

"I wish to apologize for my conduct tonight in regard to your son," she said.

He leaned his head back. "Your conduct? I heard you explain the stars to him in a way perfect for a six-year-old to comprehend."

"But I lost sight of him again, Your Grace."

"He is good at escaping, it would seem. I'm rather proud of the way his mind works."

She remained silent— confused, angry, grateful. These feelings conflicted within her, making her miserable. She should leave his employ, but instead she would only leave to attend her sister's wedding. Maybe the time away would help.

"I'll be leaving in two days' time, Your Grace."

He got so swiftly to his feet that she took a step backward.

"Leaving?" he said, stalking toward her, his usual pleasant expression gone.

By candlelight, he looked…dark and exotic and forbidden. And her insides churned in reaction to him.

"I have not terminated your position here."

She licked her lips and arched her neck to look up at him. He was far too close. "I am attending my sister's wedding. We discussed it several days ago."

He rocked back on his heels, hands on his hips, danger at bay for the moment. But she knew it was still

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