EXCERPT FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE --- The Reluctant Duke

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A peek at Caroline's stallion, Demon.
* * *
Caroline halted and dismounted. She slipped Demon?s bridle off and loosened the girth on the saddle to give him some ease. The horse made his way to the stream by himself and dipped his muzzle into the water. Swishing it around, he snorted loudly. She grinned at his obvious enjoyment. His drink must?ve tasted good.
Caroline plopped down onto the cool grass, shaded by the feathery branches of a willow and munched on her lunch. Demon meandered a short distance away, biting off the thicker grass along the streambed. The water looked delightfully refreshing where it bubbled over a series of small boulders and eddied in calmer pools. She knew fish lurked in the stream. James often brought his young son, Joshua, there to fish. The cruel memory of Joshua, Lorena and James Thorndyke?s deaths filled her again with sadness.
It also brought to mind James?s successor.
Six weeks had passed, but Caroline had no trouble recalling her last meeting with Antonio. Unconsciously, she had monitored the time. For reasons she'd rather not accept, she'd been plagued by a hollow spot in her insides that ached to be filled by his presence.
How foolish can I be? I mean nothing to him. Why should I miss him, of all people?
She chided herself, knowing she thought of him too often, reliving those moments in Hal?s study. His words were simply lustful thinking, she decided, nothing more. It had to be. He?d mauled her with his eyes and with sly innuendoes. So far she was unable to formulate a plan to bring him down a peg for his insolence, but with him in Town and her in Kent, it wasn?t likely they would soon meet again.
Finished eating, Caroline knotted the remains of her bread and cheese in a scarf, depositing the bundle beneath the willow?s swaying branches. She slipped off her boots and stockings and placed them next to the leftovers. She rolled her breeches up above her calves. It was a short walk to the inviting water of the stream. Dipping toes of one foot in first, she finally waded out into the shallows until the water level rose to just below her kneecaps.
Undoing several buttons, she bent and scooped up handfuls of water and splashed it onto her forehead and cheeks, letting the cool liquid drench the front of her fine fabric shirt. ?Umm, this is wonderful,? she said with a sigh of satisfaction. She heard Demon nicker but ignored him. Pulling the shirttails out of her breeches, she dried her face. She was pushing errant locks out of her eyes when she looked up and saw him.
Oh my Lord! The Duke!
Caroline?s face mirrored her shock. She believed him in Town, chasing petticoats.
?Your Grace! W-what are you doing here?? She stammered without thinking.
Antonio stood a small distance from the water?s edge, toying with the reins of Challenger?s bridle. He was dressed casually in shirt and tight buckskin breeches and tapped a riding crop lazily against one booted calf.
?This is my property. Why shouldn?t I be here??
Uh-oh, she thought. He?s going to be difficult. I know it.
?The question, Senora, is what are you doing here? I received no noticification that you wished to use my stream for your?umm?daily bath.?
?What?? Taken aback, Caroline blinked in astonishment.
Then suddenly, she realized how disheveled she looked. Her shirt was open halfway to her waist, and shirttails were hanging out of her breeches. Both shirt and abbreviated chemise were soaked through and clung to the skin of her chest.
?You-Your Grace!? she repeated, embarrassed. ?Please!? she exclaimed, attempting to pull her shirt placket closed. With a nervous shake of her head, she tossed the long sopping ends of hair away from her face and swung them over a shoulder. ?Turn your back! Have the decency to allow me to make myself presentable.?
Antonio smirked and made no move to comply. Instead, he continued to stare; his hot gaze dropped appreciatively to her exposed bosom and even lower to her thighs, bare calves and back up again.
Horrified, she looked down after his sharp-eyed perusal. Her deep pink aureolas and nipples had pebbled from the chilly water and were evident through the sodden shirt and chemise. There was no way she could escape his stare other than to turn her back.
Which is exactly what she did.
She saw the light of mischief dancing in Antonio?s dark eyes when she glanced over her shoulder. His teeth gleamed between smiling lips as she watched him tether Challenger to a small bush. Caroline heard his chuckle, certain his wicked laugh spelled trouble.
Antonio returned to his vantagepoint.
Caroline was even more discombobulated when she realized her rear now faced him with an excellent view encased in the skintight breeches. She was sure he was appraising its size and rounded shape, too.
How can he be such an uncharitable beast staring at me?
Caroline cringed beneath his ungentlemanly perusal. A flush crept up from her bare chest like mercury in a thermometer, rising out of the opennecked shirt. Heat flamed on her countenance.
How long is the Spanish devil going to keep me trapped in this stream?
Antonio crossed his arms and waited as if he had all the time in the world. ?Well, Caro, you must either come out now--or come out later. It?s up to you. I have no pressing business, so I will await your decision.?
The impudent rogue! Is he really going to treat me so humiliatingly?
?Your Grace, if you please--?
Her voice shook with impotence although the words were enunciated clearly--in a haughty voice--at least as haughty as her flustered predicament allowed. ?You?re being despicable, you know. I assure you I won?t forget your loathsome behavior.?
?You challenge me, my lady??
She watched his expressive eyebrows inch skyward.
?You are here on my property uninvited. Isn?t it my prerogative to exact some sort of penalty or, perhaps, some recompense for such a trespass??
She watched him sidling closer to the edge of the water. No more than an arm?s length separated them. One tanned hand rested on a lean hip. His crop was tucked under the other arm; his face didn?t display a clue as to what he was thinking as he waited for her reaction.
Hardly knowing what to say, Caroline grasped at the first flimsy excuse that came to mind. ?I-forgive me, Your Grace. I was merely enjoying a picnic?.? Her throat tight with shame, her explanation had rolled into a murmured apology. She remained transfixed, quite flabbergasted after his odious accusations.
The air sizzled with an uneasy silence. At last, Antonio relented, ?I?ll make the punishment light.? He leaned over and stretched out a hand to assist her out of the stream.
She clutched her open shirt with one hand and gripped his fingers with the other. His ungloved hand was warm and firm. Slowly, he backed up as she struggled out of the water onto the slippery mudbank. Halting abruptly, she tried to disengage her hand, but he held on. He dropped the crop and grabbed her other hand. Since both of her hands were now engaged, she couldn?t prevent him from pulling her against him. He held her hands briefly before releasing them but, instead, wrapped iron hard forearms around her waist. She was trapped in the circle of his embrace. Body heat crept from his to hers where they rested against one another.
Antonio released an audible sigh when he leaned back and looked down at her. ?Do you have any idea how you intrigue me, Caro??
And you devil me?and perturb me?almost as much as you fascinate me. The surprising admission flashed across her mind.
?You?re quite unusual, you know, muchacha. Nothing like any women I?ve known. You tantalize me and challenge me, with an allure to which I?m quite unused. And I recall you?ve exhibited those same?charming contradictions at the supper party. You?re definitely a puzzle, Senora Lockler. One I mean to solve.?
?Your Grace, please unhand me,? she pleaded, pushing hard against his chest, learning he was stronger than she thought.
?Don?t you realize the inappropriate attire you have on adds to your?umm?flamboyant beauty and strikes me as being very unladylike. Besides being imprudent, it is dangerous to appear so in a man?s sight. It?s very naughty of you,? he scolded, his black eyes blazing down at her. ?And since when does your brother allow you to traipse across the countryside unaccompanied??
She felt her apprehension growing.
?I must say, you look?er?quite different?from when we last met, Senora.? His grin widened. ?I can see I?ve learned more about you since then.?
What is he thinking?
?I seem to recall one day not so long ago that I told you we?d be close friends. Do you remember??
Taunting Caroline more gently now, his voice sent a shimmer of excitement darting through her. She filled her lungs with a shuddering breath and felt her breasts push against him. She couldn?t begin to form words to answer his remark. Her heart raced. Rank confusion made her weak and trembly. Her reactions toward him were slipping out of control.
Antonio exhaled, and she felt his warm breath on her temple. His chocolate-colored eyes, hot with intention and admiration, melted her reserve. First, he had nuzzled her hair. Then, his gaze roved over her forehead, her eyes, her nose, the skin of her warm cheeks, and lower, to her mole and her lips.
Perdition! I must stop this seduction or?
?I have never encountered such a beautiful?intruder before.? He paused in a husky whisper. ?What shall I exact as a penalty, hmm? Do you have any suggestions what might be appropriate??
?I-er, no, of course not, Your Grace, but I-I?ve said that I?m sorry--? She struggled to reply, but he cut her short.
?Sorry does not answer the offense as I see it. I need to devise some better form of punishment if you can?t.?
She tried to force her body away from his encircling strength but to no avail. She felt his muscles flex and hold. Her only salvation might be to kick him hard, in the shins. So far, he?d only embraced her, taunted, and embarrassed her.
Humph! Kicking him on his high leather boots would scarcely make a dent in his composure and might break a toe or two of mine. I?d still be trapped right where I am.
?Let go,Your Grace. I?ve asked you to do so more than once. You?ve no right to handle me so,? she went on, this time trying a more concilliatory tone.
?I have every right, Caroline,? he replied. ?I have captured an unlawful trespasser.? His sudden tone turned curt. ?I see by the black horse you rode here that this isn?t the first time you?ve infringed upon Weston property without good reason.?
Untrue, she thought, unwilling to test his argument with denials.
He couldn?t be serious, could he?
?The fact that you weren ?t truthful is not in your favor. I believe you need a more severe lesson.?
It was only a tiny fib, she groaned inwardly. What kind of man are you? How can you be so confoundedly rotten and unreasonable?
?Your Grace, if you?ll just allow me explain--? she began again.
?Tonio,? he corrected.
His gaze still pinned hers. Flipflops circled in Caroline?s chest. Worse was the realization that her thighs were pressed against his from knees to groin. Heat melded their bodies. Her legs suddenly felt uncommonly weak, the way they had in Hal?s study. She was unable to tear her eyes away from his. That unblinking stare was so intense, she thought she might endure even more rigorous palpitations. Oh, please my heart. Calm down before I swoon!
?You are to use my name when we?re alone. Don?t you remember??
Perhaps doing as he wished would help her cause, and he?d give up badgering her. ?Well then?yes, T-Tonio.? She hated conceding to his wishes, but she sputtered out the pet name he demanded.
He bent to her, the timber of his voice taking on a velvet murmur. ?I?ll take my payment now.? So saying, his mouth descended. He licked gently at the tiny mole above the corner of her mouth. His warm tongue was a gentle, wet caress touching the spot. He said, ?Ah, first a taste, then?.?
She flinched away, but his teeth and lips followed, holding her close, lingering to nibble her mouth. Despite her resolve, Caroline?s eyelids drooped; her lashes fluttered like a gossamer breeze against her pale cheeks. She stilled and waited.
Antonio rubbed his warm lips once or twice across the width of her mouth, then covered hers with a passionate kiss. He persisted, his tongue teasing the opening. Finally, she complied, and he plunged inside, exploring her mouth with all the expertise of a welleducated lover.
Caroline thought she heard someone murmur something unintelligible.
Perdition! Was that he or me?
Slowly, without her volition, her hands rose to his shoulders and circled his neck. She knew she should protest. But she didn?t have the conscious power to resist. Her fingers played with the crisp hair on his nape.
I never knew I?d feel this way. Being embraced by him feels so right, so wonderful. Why have I been so tormented by my wanton attraction to him?
Then other niggling, unwanted thoughts intruded to warn her that this taste of romance was simply brought on by lust--not true love. Didn?t she realize it was simply an unexpected, torrid kiss that happened out of the blue--one that would never flame into a bonfire--nor last for an eternity?
Ages ago when she fantasized about him, she knew in her foolish heart it was unwise to pine or waste her youthful imaginings on him. He lived on the other side of the world. He never saw her as anything but a silly schoolgirl, never looked at her with any sort of male interest. Well, at least not until lately?
It was because of those recent glances that she didn?t stop him now.
Antonio dragged his lips from Caroline?s mouth, along her cheek, spreading light, feathery kisses over her closed eyelids and back down the other cheek to her beauty mark. ?You taste like fine Spanish wine, and just as intoxicating. The sweetest of nectar, pressed from our ripest grapes. You captivate me, Caro. I feel drunk from a tiny taste of your lips, your mouth--?
When he lavished those lovely words in her ear, she almost believed she meant something special.
He bent to her a second time, and his tongue slipped into her mouth again, dancing with hers in a series of erotic movements that made her gasp, first with wonder and then with burgeoning desire.
He raised his head and looked at her in surprise. ?Why do you jump away when I do that? I only wish to sip more potent wine from your succulent mouth. Haven?t you been kissed many times before??
Caroline shook her head. ?No, no--?
She buried her face against his shoulder. ?I?no, never like this--? she whispered.
?Ah, what a pity, Caro. Never mind. You like it when I kiss you, don?t you??
She must have agreed. There was not even a murmur of sound from her, but he felt her move her forehead against his chest in a nod. ?I?m glad you told me, querida, for now I can continue.? He smiled and tilted her chin with a tanned knuckle and proceeded to deal out penalties one by one, devouring her mouth, feeding on her sweetness.
?I?ll punish you with all the kisses you deserve,? he promised, the words evenly spaced. ?Si?with many kisses?as many as you wish?until you tell me to stop.?

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