The Mad, Bad Duke (Nvengaria #2)(7)

Meagan sensed him size up each person he met and categorize them—inconsequential, possible ally, enemy. There was no classification, she noticed, for friend, acquaintance, would like to know him better.

She did not understand how she knew this, but she did. Meagan’s vision of him in the bath chamber seemed to have given her a strange insight into Alexander’s way of thinking—he regarded every person he met as either a threat or someone to stand with him against a threat. That was all. It struck her as ruthlessly efficient and at the same time incredibly lonely.

Meagan wondered what category he’d placed the Austrian woman into. The lady seemed to have many friends and acquaintances here, though Meagan noticed that most of them were male. The ladies, on the other hand, regarded her with jealous and even hostile eyes.

Seeing the lady so comfortable with him made Meagan feel odd. In the vision in the steam-fogged room, Alexander had been hers and hers alone. Thinking of the Austrian lady, or much worse, Deirdre, sliding her hands inside Alexander’s coat to find his warm body made Meagan wretched.

What the devil is the matter with me? It was only a dream, for mercy’s sake. I am nothing to him and he is nothing to me.

Meagan flicked her attention back to Alexander to find his hard gaze resting directly on her.

She jumped and thrust the fan in front of her face, but too late. Alexander was scrutinizing her with harsh intensity, his eyes sharp and blue, his stare penetrating all the way across the room. That gaze was for her, not for Deirdre preening herself next to Meagan, not for the dowagers chatting together on Meagan’s other side. Grand Duke Alexander assessed Meagan, his gaze like the edge of a razor.

In that instant Meagan understood. He knew.

But good heavens, how could he? Meagan had experienced a ridiculous dream, a waking vision—it had not been real. No one could know, mercifully, what lurid thoughts went on inside Meagan’s head.

She recalled with clarity the way Alexander had looked down at her in the bath chamber when he’d come out of his languor, his gaze as intense as it was now. Who are you? he’d started to say before the vision ended.

Across the ballroom, Alexander leaned to the Austrian countess, speaking to her while keeping his gaze on Meagan. The woman glanced at Meagan in eager curiosity, her eyes bright, before her red-lipped mouth moved in answer. Meagan imagined her saying in her rich Austrian voice, That little one? She is nothing. The nobody daughter of a nobody. Do not waste a second thought on her.

Deirdre pinched Meagan hard. “Oh, do you see? He is looking at me!”

Meagan knew differently, but she held her tongue. The Grand Duke murmured a response to his companion, then to Meagan’s great alarm, the pair of them began strolling in the direction of the potted palms, and Deirdre and Meagan.

“Lud, he is coming this way,” Deirdre said excitedly. “I knew it. When he asks me to dance, Meagan, you run up to the sitting room on the third floor, the one two doors from the top of the stairs, and wait for me. I’ll entice him up, and then you slip the talisman into his pocket while I chat with him.”

Deirdre was a fool, and Meagan was suddenly sick to death of her. She’d put up with Deirdre’s clinging friendship this Season because she’d been lonely without Penelope and had known Deirdre all her life. Simone approved, mostly because Deirdre as a married woman could take over chaperone duties and leave Simone free to enjoy herself at the balls and soirees she brought Meagan to. Meagan’s father hadn’t much use for Deirdre but understood this was Meagan’s first year without Penelope and did not stop her pursuing the friendship.

Meagan suddenly wished he had. Deirdre had been only a bit silly when they’d been girls together in Oxfordshire, but she’d turned into a vain, selfish fool. “They will hardly speak to either of us, as we have not been introduced,” Meagan said stiffly.

“Oh, bother that. They are foreign. Perhaps they will speak to us anyway, not knowing English manners.”

Meagan had found that ladies and gentlemen from the Continent often had even more scrupulous codes of politeness than Englishmen, but she said nothing.

Alexander’s lovely countess solved the problem by intercepting their hostess, Lady Featherstone, on the way across the room and conferring with her. Lady Featherstone, a slim matron with graying hair, brightened and joined them on their promenade.

Meagan and Deirdre scrambled to their feet as the group approached, Deirdre swaying in excited anticipation, her diamonds rattling. Meagan edged behind Deirdre and lifted her fan to her face.

“Ah, girls,” Lady Featherstone said as she halted in front of them. “Our distinguished guests were curious about you.” She stopped, all smiles, her rouge staining her cheekbones brilliant red. “Miss Tavistock and Mrs. Braithwaite are childhood friends,” Lady Featherstone went on. “Miss Tavistock’s father recently married Lady Trask, the mother of Miss Tavistock’s dearest friend, Penelope, who became Princess of Nvengaria. But of course you’d know that, being the Grand Duke.” She laughed merrily.

“Indeed,” Grand Duke Alexander said.

The single word was rich and pleasantly accented. His voice matched that of the man in Meagan’s vision, down to the exact way he formed the brief consonants and made the vowels a purr.

Lady Featherstone continued. “Ah, yes, well. Your Grace and Lady Anastasia, may I present Mrs. Braithwaite, wife of Mr. Hector Braithwaite, a prominent MP. Mrs. Braithwaite, Lady Anastasia Dimitri of Nvengaria and Grand Duke Alexander—er … I am so sorry, Your Grace, the rest of the name escapes me at the moment.”

Jennifer Ashley's Books