The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)(6)

He walked with the wary grace of a prowling panther, his careful gaze taking in every person in the room. Female heads turned as he passed, and no wonder. Meagan wagered that more than one lady wondered what he’d look like strolling across her boudoir while she watched from the bed. The way he moved promised that his body would be just as elegant when he danced and when he made love.

Oh, yes, when he made love …

Meagan tore her gaze from Alexander to examine the poised, black-haired beauty on his arm. She was not English, nor did she look Nvengarian. She had a tall, willowy body that made Meagan conscious of her own plumpness, along with creamy skin and sleek hair. She dressed in the most elegant, understated, shoulder-baring gown that money could buy. The ensemble was a pale-colored peach trimmed with darker peach, exquisite in its simplicity, and hung on the perfect figure to wear it.

The woman walked confidently beside Alexander as though she belonged there, her hand lightly on his arm. This lady knew that every woman in the room coveted her position at the Grand Duke’s side, and the fact amused her.

The palms next to Meagan crashed as though a tropical storm tore through them, and Deirdre Braithwaite plopped into an empty chair in a cloud of perfume and satin.

“Him,” Deirdre said breathlessly. She was resplendent in a gold satin gown that bared more skin than was quite tasteful and glittered from head to foot with diamonds. She must have jammed every single jewel she owned onto fingers, bosom, throat, and ears. “Grand Duke Alexander of Nvengaria. The Mad, Bad Duke they call him.”

“Who calls him?” Meagan asked, her eyes on the dark blue back and broad shoulders.

“Oh, everybody. You know, like that scandalous Lady Caroline called Lord Byron—mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Deirdre pinched Meagan’s arm with hard fingers. “My husband told me the most delicious story about him—apparently young Lord Mortinson got it into his head to challenge the Grand Duke to a duel over who knows what. The Grand Duke refused, and Mortinson claimed he was a coward. The next day, the Grand Duke took Mortinson and his friends to a green near Islington and held a shooting competition. The Grand Duke shot his target three times in the bullseye, each shot dead center of the last. My husband was there—he says Mortinson put his finger on the bullet holes in a kind of shock, realizing the bullseye could have been his own heart. Then the Grand Duke took him for a drink, and Mortinson has worshipped him ever since.”

Meagan could imagine Alexander’s sharp blue eyes narrowed over the pistol, his body turned in profile, his long arm steady as he potted his target with unerring ease. She had met Lord Mortinson, a somewhat vapid young man, and she suspected he’d gawped at Alexander’s shots with his plump mouth hanging open.

Deirdre leaned closer, sending a wave of patchouli over Meagan and the innocent palms. “I intend to unbutton that Nvengarian coat tonight and discover everything beneath it. You did bring the spell, did you not?”

Meagan lifted her gloved wrist from which dangled a silk reticule embroidered with tiny roses. The talisman, still wrapped in the handkerchief, lay inside.

Meagan’s first instinct upon emerging from her vision earlier tonight had been to put the talisman on the fire, then she had admonished herself not to be silly. Deirdre would demand the cost of it, and Meagan had nowhere near fifty guineas.

“He seems to be with another lady,” Meagan pointed out as Alexander and the woman turned to greet another pair.

Deirdre made an airy gesture. “Oh her. She is an Austrian countess or some such. I am not afraid of her.”

“They make a beautiful couple,” Meagan said wistfully. They did, the tall man and poised woman matching each other in attractiveness—coolly self-confident against the ton’s close attention. “Are they lovers?” she asked.

“Well, of course they are. Rumor is rife with it. Look at the way she drapes herself all over him.”

Just then the countess moved her fingers on Alexander’s arm in a possessive way and slanted a lovely smile up at him. The gesture sent a dart of pain through Meagan’s heart, though she could not for the life of her fathom why.

“How do you propose to cut him away from her?” Meagan asked Deirdre. “If they are lovers, and she is so beautiful?”

“Oh, that is simple. You will help me, my friend.”

Meagan forced her gaze back to Deirdre. “I most certainly will not. Keeping the talisman for you was one thing, but I draw the line at helping you betray your husband. Mr. Braithwaite is too kind for that.”

Deirdre flicked her fingers. “He is a bore and never pays me any attention. You will do it, or I will tell your father that you went with me to Black Annie’s, and we both know what he’d say about that.”

Meagan’s anger surged. She knew Deirdre would make good on the threat, and while Meagan at one time might have sheepishly confessed to her father and borne his disapproval, Black Annie’s claim to have made a spell for her mother made her cringe from facing him. She wanted to think things through before she endured a lecture from her father about why innocent young ladies should stay away from women like Black Annie.

“You will say nothing to my father,” Meagan said in a low, rapid voice.

Deirdre gave her a smirk. “Excellent. Then you will help me.”

“Oh, botheration, do be quiet.”

Meagan flapped her fan and tried not to follow the Grand Duke with her gaze as he and the Austrian woman made their way across the ballroom. People watched him in fascination and fear, and he regarded them coolly, as though he knew their reaction and damn well wanted it to remain that way.

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