Never Deny a Duke in Christmas by Harriet Caves

Chapter Five

Kendra was startled by loud laughter that seemed to echo through Hallshire Manor. It reminded her of celebrations. Balls. Joy. The promise of a new year at a time of togetherness that was Christmas. But this time, Christmas was unlike any other before, and she doubted it would only get worse from here. She was in no mood for carols, of greenery, or festive decorations. The spirit of the holidays was indeed here, but it was somehow vacant from her heart.

The laughter was heard again, almost offensively jubilant. Who on earth was so overjoyed with life in their household, when everything that had befallen them was misfortune?

The strange laughter didn’t belong to her father, neither did it belong to her brother. She relinquished the quill pen from her hands and stood up from her writing desk. She walked right out of her chamber, through the hallway, her dress flying behind her, down the staircase and right to the salon. The door was open. Boldly, she stepped in.

That was when she saw him.

“Miss Strentham,” Duncan’s face beamed at seeing her. Her father stood right by his side, and the two men seemed to be in cahoots, with smirks still on their faces, as if they just shared a juicy piece of gossip. Then, Duncan proceeded to bow before her respectfully.

The first thing she noticed was how handsome he looked. Even more so than that evening during their inappropriate meeting on the balcony. His brown hair was sleek, parted to the side. His face was cleanly shaven. She could smell his cologne even from afar. Anyone who put on so much cologne did so with a specific intent in mind.

“My dear,” her father addressed her. “I was just about to send for you.”

“I see you are quite entertained, the both of you,” she noticed.

“His Grace had just been telling me about an acquaintance of ours, but that does not matter,” her father went on to elaborate, obviously delighted by the arrival of their guest. Kendra herself was not certain if she shared his enthusiasm. “That is not the reason why he came.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Your Grace, why did you come?” Kendra asked, pretending that she didn’t know. She could only hope that he did not come to discuss that ridiculous topic of marriage again.

Against all better judgment, the very knowledge that someone wanted her as a wife awoke contradicting emotions inside of her. On one hand, she believed that the right to be a good wife to a good man had been stolen from her. That disappointment and anguish would live inside of her forever, and she refused to risk falling in love ever again. Then again, the thought of ever relying on someone in such a manner made her nauseous. She had learned the hard way that she could only rely on herself, and fortunately, on her father. No one else in the whole world.

Her father’s lip curled into a smile. “Why don’t you two sit down, while I ring for the maid to bring us some tea and biscuits?”

With those words, her father left the salon, leaving the door to the room wide open. She almost laughed out loud at the insinuation. For a moment, she almost felt as if she actually had a reputation to fret over. She expected Duncan would take a seat next to her on the sofa, but he surprised her when he took a seat in the armchair, keeping himself at a respectable distance from her. She chuckled at the idea, unable to resist.

“Is something funny?” he asked, tilting his head a little as if to take a better look at her. She couldn’t help but feel as if there was more to that inquisitive gaze than he was letting on.

“Maybe a little,” she admitted, entertained. “My father still seems to believe I am a delicate flower whose reputation is yet untainted.”

“A lady’s reputation is always something to be taken quite seriously,” he surprised her once more with his words. “I am glad that both your father and I share our conviction that your reputation is indeed worthy of being safeguarded.”

She was completely taken off guard by his words, the tenderness in his voice, the way he refused to take his eyes off of her. It took her a moment to regain her senses. She had fallen for a man’s charms once before, and it proved to be the most tragic mistake of her life. She promised herself she would never again allow herself to be such a fool. The betrayal and disappointment were still deeply ingrained inside her heart, but fortunately, time had been kind to her, allowing her some release from pain.

“That is most kind of you to say,” she offered a cool reply to his warmth, not wanting to give him any hope that she had even considered his marriage proposal. Because she had. Only she would rather die than admit it to him. To anyone, really. It was a secret that would die within her, silent and buried. “Now, what is the business that brings you here, my lord?”

He adjusted himself in the armchair before speaking. Even seated, he was tall, with height that emanated strength and authority. She could see why all those women fell for his charms. After all, being a rake necessitated being handsome as well. Devilishly handsome, as he happened to be.

“The same proposal I offered you several nights ago,” he stated importantly.

“I’m afraid that my response is also the same.”

He didn’t seem discouraged by this at all. “I was hoping you would have changed your mind by now.”

“Are you used to women changing their mind around you so easily?” she felt the need to counteroffer him, for she was more than aware of his reputation. The list of ladies he had bedded was longer than the length of all her dresses put together. And she had quite a few.

“That depends on the situation,” he snickered softly, his eyes burning with something she dared not acknowledge. Her mind refused to recognize that look, but her body certainly could not. “People change their minds all the time, don’t you agree?”

“Like you said, that depends on the situation,” she repeated his own words back to him, grateful for the distance between them.

She had always found him handsome, even before she met that scoundrel, Marquess of Creek. He made her insane with love, infatuation, desire. He made her blind to all others. Knowing him meant forgetting about every other man. But now, that silly love was fortunately gone from her mind and heart, having left a deep hole.

“I understand you are in desperate need of a wife. I, on the other hand, am not in a desperate need for a husband,” she concluded.

“Ah, that would make me endlessly disappointed,” he admitted playfully. A little too much so.

Against her better judgment, her heart pounded maddeningly as she watched his hands rest to his sides. She wondered how soft his skin was. Would it be hot? Because for some reason, she was hot. Perhaps there was too much heating. Yes, that was probably it, she thought. There was no other explanation for her sudden heat rush.

It was true that he was despicably handsome. But at the same time, he was the Duke of Reedson. He was a rake, conceited and egotistical, bent upon marrying her for her money alone, or at least the promise of it. She could come up with a few more negative traits, but there was no need. These were more than enough for her to adamantly tell him no. Yet, she did no such thing.

Instead, she stood up to walk over to the window, in an effort to distance herself even more from him, and allow her mind to clearly form a no to him vocally. Then, she proceeded to trip over the hemline of her own dress, a clumsy motion which sent her reeling right towards the table that separated them, when he grabbed her in his arms and kept her standing. His fingers dug into her waist through the thin fabric of her dress.

There it was, the answer to the question she had silently asked herself. His touch was scorching hot, just like before at the ball. Why did he have to touch her again? Now she remembered what his fingers felt like, a sensation her skin would never again forget.

“Are you all right, Kendra?”

Kendra. Her name sounded like the sweetest melody on his lips. If only he remained on the borders of propriety and referred to her in a less familiar fashion. That would make resisting his charms easier, almost possible. But hearing her name pronounced so lovingly, so tenderly made it unbearable.

She pulled away from him, as if scorched by his touch. His nearness was distracting. It was an attack to her reputation. The thought was laughable, but that was all she could think of to justify this sudden need to remove herself from him, to create that safe distance again and not allow him to touch her like that. But that velvet voice of his was still inside her ears, flowing inside of her, down to her heart, where it would remain.

“I am quite all right,” she assured him, straightening an invisible wrinkle on her dress, looking down as if in a personal inspection of herself. “A little embarrassed, but…”

He chuckled. “Good. In fact, that is marvelous.”

“Marvelous?” She lifted her eyebrow at him.

“Yes, because now I’m certain that you are not indifferent to me.”

“I most certainly am,” she objected. “Do not mistake clumsiness for me being enamored.”

At that moment, Kendra’s father walked back into the room, with Albert by his side. The two young men greeted each other cordially, but as always, Albert’s aloof behavior towards her did not escape her attention. The relationship between the siblings had been strained ever since her return to her father’s home. Both of them had something to resent the other for. He blamed her for the horrible words others had been attaching to her and their family, while she begrudged him for not being on her side, as a brother ought to be. This had created a rift between them, which only seemed to grow bigger as time went by.

Albert refused to even acknowledge his sister’s presence in the room, instead focusing on his casual conversation with Duncan, while Kendra’s father seized the chance to approach his daughter and whisper a few words into her ear.

“Have you accepted his proposal yet?”

Kendra clenched her teeth before she replied. “No.”

“Why?” Her father sounded genuinely surprised, while his words still remained barely audible.

“Because,” she replied like a petulant child. Her father sighed, placing his hand softly around her waist. His words were once again said under his breath, but they were loud enough for her to hear them.

“Do not let pride be your downfall, darling. Sometimes, we need to lower ourselves in order to rise back up again.”

With those words, he pressed a soft kiss upon her forehead, then walked back to the two men, who seemed to be enjoying a conversation about a topic personal to only them. However, they immediately turned to the viscount respectfully, and the conversation took a turn involving all four of them.

Kendra joined in very little, opting instead to remain the introvert he had always been. Her father’s words lingered inside of her mind, like an echo, reminding her that indeed, time was ticking away. If she wanted a husband, then she needed to hurry. She needed to accept the opportunity that had presented itself to her and seize it, like a dying man sized the hand that would drag him back to the shore.

Kendra knew what it was like for a woman to give herself completely to a man and become completely depended on him. She knew it and she never wanted to fall victim to that sensation ever again. Duncan wanted to chain her. He wanted to use her for her money, while pretending to save her from a fate that was considered worse than death.

She watched him laugh with her father, that perfect row of pearly white teeth occasionally turning to her. He was devilishly handsome. She had to give him that. But she would not play this game according to his rules.

No.

Instead, she would make him play her own game.