She did one country dance with the Duke before dinner was called, and she was forced to sit next to him during the meal. Food and spittle came out of his mouth at regular intervals as he spoke, and when she tried to converse with him of books and science in an effort to find a shared interest, he informed her that he thought women had no place reading, much less discussing topics like science.
She grew more and more depressed as the meal wore on, and when Missy tried to catch her eye from across the room, she couldn’t take it anymore and excused herself awkwardly, rushing off down the nearest hallway, just needing to get away from him .
She rounded a corner into an empty corridor and leaned back against the wall, taking large, heaving breaths, her breasts practically spilling out of the top of her dress as she did so. She hated this dress. She hated this place. She hated the Duke and her father and all the choices made in the world that led to her current situation.
After a few deep breaths, she began to calm a bit and felt cool air on her face coming from further down the corridor.
She knew she shouldn’t be on her own anywhere in the house without a chaperone -- the very last thing she needed was to ruin her reputation and thereby her chances of an advantageous marriage if she were discovered. In London Society all it took was a word in one person’s ear and any woman’s prospects could be shattered. Her family would be ruined and so would she. Nevertheless, she welcomed the feeling of the cool air on her hot skin, and rather thought a breath of fresh air might help her to center herself so she could return to the party.
She rounded the corner and found a door that led to the garden. She stepped through it gratefully.
The garden smelled of roses and jasmine and was blessedly deserted. She stepped under an arbor dripping with wisteria and found a bench in front of a small fountain. She sat.
She wanted nothing more than to loosen her corset and fling it away, but she leaned back instead, trying to take as deep breaths as she could. It was hopeless. Everything was hopeless. She felt the sharp sting of tears at the corner of her eyes and finally let them fall.
She wept for what felt like an hour but was probably only a matter of minutes, before she heard what she thought was a footfall from the doorway through which she’d come. If her mother found her out here, she’d be furious, and Dana had no doubts that she’d noticed the empty chair next to the Duke and would come looking for her. She needed to get back to the dinner -- and the Duke. There had to be another way back into the house.
She stepped around the fountain and under another arbor, and when she turned the corner, there sat the Earl of Wexford, sitting on a twin of the bench she had just been occupying.
They both started at the presence of the other and then the Earl shook himself and stood politely.
“Lady Dana,” he said, squinting at her, no doubt seeing the tracks of tears on her cheeks, “are you all right?”
Dana quickly wiped at her cheeks then smoothed her dress. Finally she raised her eyes back to the Earl.
“I’m fine, thank you.”
He nodded once and reached into the inside pocket of his coat, pulling out a crisp white handkerchief that he handed her without a word.
She looked at it for a long moment before accepting it with all the dignity she could muster, wiping it delicately under her eyes and nose. She handed it back with a small smile.
“Can I escort you back inside?” he asked kindly, “it wouldn’t do to be caught out here alone together. I’m afraid I do have a bit of a reputation -- earned or otherwise -- and being out here with me is sure to get you one, too.”
She knew he was right but didn’t want to go inside just yet. The open sky and the fresh air lent her a feeling of freedom she knew she should revel in while she still could. She sat on the bench. He looked at her for a long minute then sat gingerly down beside her, giving her as much room as was possible on the small seat.
“Your reputation isn’t earned?” she asked him boldly. He leaned back and smiled at the ground in front of him.
“I suppose that depends,” he said.
“On what you’ve heard,” he looked back at her and she hoped he couldn’t see the blush she could feel blooming on her cheeks in the dark.
“I’ve heard you keep a fallen woman in a luxurious apartment in Mayfair,” she said, surprising both of them with her boldness. “Is it not true?”
He looked at her -- his eyebrows still up -- and then back to the ground.
“It is true,” he finally said.
Dana was shocked. She barely knew him, but he seemed a decent man and had treated her with dignity and respect. He didn’t seem the kind of man who would keep a whore.
“And you keep her there for your…” she wasn’t sure how to demurely ask it, but something inside of her really wanted to know, “...personal use?”
He threw his head back and laughed once, mirthlessly.
“That part is not true.”
“She is a friend,” he said simply.
Dana didn’t want to pry further, but couldn’t keep the interest from her face.
He rested his elbows on his knees and looked at the flowers surrounding them.
“She is an old friend,” he went on, “who was met with an unfortunate series of events in her life. We were childhood friends. When I found out what became of her, I… did what I could for her.”
“So she now lives comfortably in Mayfair?” Dana asked, realising only after she said it how rude it sounded.
“Yes, and she no longer has to prostitute herself to do so,” he said curtly.
Dana felt the sharpness of the words in her chest.
“What is her name?” she asked quietly, and his posture softened. He turned to look at her.
“I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that,” he said. “It’s kind of you.”
She waited for an answer and finally he gave it.
“Her name is Diana.”
“Then I shall tell all who will listen that your reputation is unearned,” she said, sitting up smartly. “When I’m a Duchess, they’ll have to listen.”
“I pity the person who doesn’t listen to you,” he said softly. “Duchess or no.”
She felt tears well in her eyes for his kindness.
“I do hope we can be friends,” she said, standing and then holding out her hand for a shake, “after I’m married.”
He stood as well and clasped her hand warmly, giving it a firm shake. The hair on her arms stood on end from the contact. He let go after a moment.
“It is my hope as well,” he said, “though it would require your Narcissus of a future husband to permit you.”
“He had better,” Dana said, laughing a bit now with gallows humor, “for it sounds like he won’t permit me to discuss anything more exciting than the weather... I shall need someone to discuss Evanston with.”
Lord Wexford’s eyebrows rose.
“You read Evanston?”
“Evanston and a good deal more,” she said, proudly.
He smiled at her, impressed.
“I look forward to discussing his newest prose with you -- I admit I have a hard time picturing those elegant words emitting from the Duke’s flexuous lips.”
“Ugh,” Dana shuddered, thinking of the food that had flown out of the Duke’s mouth not an hour ago, “do not speak to me of his lips! And to think -- my first kiss will be to those .”
A look came over his face with her words.
“You have never been kissed?” he said, his voice taking on a rough quality. His eyes drifted from her eyes to settle on her lips and then flitted briefly, for the first time, to her bosom.
“I have not,” she said primly, for the first time feeling a bit nervous about being alone with a man in an empty garden.
He seemed to sense her change in comfort and put his hands behind his back as if to reassure her.
“Would you like to be?” he asked quietly.
“Would I like to be what?” she said dumbly, both hoping and not hoping that he meant what she thought he did.
“Kissed,” he said simply, and unconsciously licked his lips slowly, drawing her attention to his mouth, to his plump lower lip.
She felt something low in her gut, and before she realized she had said it, the word sat there in the air between them:
He said nothing but took a slow step toward her, allowing her time to turn and run away if she had any second thoughts.
She was surprised to find that she didn’t. Not one. In fact the only thing she wanted in the world right now was to feel this man’s lips upon her own.
When he got close, as close as he had been when they had been waltzing, he reached his hands up to lightly touch her face, and her breath hitched in her throat.
“You will permit me?” he said as he leaned down slowly to bring his lips level with her own. She nodded once and her eyes slid closed.
She felt the light fan of his breath on her face, smelling a hint of honey and something else more sharply masculine. And then his lips were upon her own.
His first touch was gentle and light, the briefest whisper, like the touch of a butterfly’s wings. His second was more firm, the press of him becoming more insistent. She found herself kissing him back, leaning into his lips as he pressed into her. She felt one arm come around her waist to pull her body into his own, and she felt a thrill -- a frisson of energy running from her toes up to the top of her head and then settling, like the fizz of champagne, where their lips met.
When her body pressed into his further, she heard the lightest of moans from him and her heart thrilled at the power she felt -- like Aphrodite holding the golden apple. She tentatively put a hand around his waist and pressed gently.
It was all the encouragement he seemed to need, and she suddenly felt his tongue gently insisting on entry passed her lips. Surprised, she opened her mouth, and his tongue plunged inside, rubbing against her own. She felt her womb contract up into her body and a heavy feeling she’d never felt before settle between her legs.
She released a moan of her own and he moved his head slightly more to the side so that he could more thoroughly plumb the depths of her mouth with his tongue. Feeling a bit like a fencer, she parried with her own and he breathed in once deeply through his nose, moving his other hand into her hair.
She had never felt anything like this. Not once in all of her 20 years. All she wanted was to kiss this man for the rest of her life and never stop, not for sustenance, not for air.
Then in the haze of her desire and the ringing in her ears, she heard a noise and a sharp intake of breath from behind her.
She pulled her lips from the Earl’s as if in slow motion and turned just in time to see both her brother and her mother standing behind them, shocked looks upon their faces. Her brother’s face slowly turned to outrage.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he shouted, and took a menacing step forward.