The second book of my Matchmaker trilogy, To Charm a Naughty Countess, is a rake and bluestocking romance. But the heroine is the rake, and the hero’s the bluestocking! Social butterfly Caroline has never met a man she couldn’t control…except for blunt-spoken, brilliant Michael, the Duke of Wyverne. To Charm a Naughty Countess tells the tale of Michael and Caroline’s romance.
This little scene takes place a few months after the events of the novel, on their first Christmas Eve as a married couple. I wrote it as part of a holiday blog event after being given the prompt “Daring a Duke on Christmas Eve.”
“All right, I choose ‘truth.’”
Again. He always chose truth.
“Michael.” Caroline trailed around the edge of her husband’s desk, tracing the nicks and scars in its battered leather top. “You must pick dare sometimes. Otherwise it’s not a game.”
“You asked me if I chose to give you a truth or accept a dare. I chose truth. It’s easier.” The dark-haired Duke of Wyverne flipped a page, squinting at the diagram, then flipped it back. “That can’t be right. Trevithick has overstated the capacity of this boiler by at least fifteen percent.”
Caroline grinned. A few months into her marriage, she was still daily delighted by Michael’s devotion to his tenants. His determination to improve the fallow, impoverished lands of his Lancashire holdings. No one worked harder, or with more imagination, more focus.
Still, there were limits to how hard one must work on Christmas Eve. And as she’d often thought during their courtship, the best thing about a man who worked so hard was teaching him to play. For to him, every moment of play was a wonder.
She laced her fingers through his short-cropped hair. “I should have known better than to speak to you the day a new set of plans arrived from your favorite engineer. You study prints the way other men look at bawdy etchings from France.”
This caught his attention. As straight-backed as his enormous, ancient wooden chair, he looked up at her. His eyes were pools of shadow in the lamplit room, but she caught a hint of mischief in their depths. “The same way? Are you quite sure of that?”
She laughed. “All right, maybe not quite the same way. I suppose you ought to look at a few bawdy etchings to be certain.” Moving behind his high-backed chair, she rubbed lightly at his temples. “Or you could sit here with me and tell me the truth. Are you not tired? Tomorrow you shall attend services and compliment the vicar and feast with your tenants and give them Christmas gifts. The Duke of Wyverne will be much needed. But tonight, you could be…Michael.”
Her fingertips must have drawn some of the tension from his brow, for he took her hand into his. “The Duchess of Wyverne will be busy tomorrow as well, and her tenants will be delighted by her charm and spirit.”
“Perhaps I ought merely to be Caroline while I have the chance, then.” The slow, deliberate way he stroked her fingers made her feel a little fluttery.
“There is nothing mere about it.” He trailed his fingers up her forearm. How glad she was that she’d worn a short-sleeved gown. Not even a Lancashire winter could chill her love of fashion—besides which, one’s husband could be counted upon to keep one warm, if one asked in the proper way.
“If tomorrow I shall belong to my tenants,” he mused, “to whom do I belong today?”
“To yourself, of course.” Her feet began to wiggle in their slippers.
“Are you certain of that?”
Her mouth curved. “Indeed, yes. You chose truth.”
“But I asked the question; not you. So we are not bound by the rules of your game at present.”
Inexorable logic. “All right. I shall ask you a question.” She tugged free from his clasp with a sweet shiver, then made her way to the study’s fireplace to stand before it. The flame would trace the outline of her body if she stood just here—yes. “What must I do to get you away from this desk?”
Michael set aside his papers, regarding her with an intensity as rich and intoxicating as a Christmas pudding. “Dare me.”
She folded her arms. “Dear Michael, I dare you to get up from that desk.”
The curve of his mouth decided to become a full smile. “You can think of something more enticing than that, surely?”
“Do you require additional enticement?” She waggled her shoulders, sending the bodice of her gown in a dangerous direction.
“Ah, ah, my dear duchess. Dare. Not truth.”
“Now you seize the purpose of the game,” she muttered.
He arched a brow.
“All right, all right. A dare.” She moistened her lips. “I dare you to entice me to join you in that chair, then, if you will not leave it.”
“Entice you to join me in this chair? Why ever should you want that?” He looked blank for a moment, then looked at the chair—as though he didn’t see it every day of his life. “It has few charms to recommend it.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Upholstered in velvet worn smooth from time and much use, it was as large and heedless and practical as its owner. “The occupant of the chair is to my liking.”
He seemed not to hear. “I should have caught up a book of poems from the library. You will never be seduced to join me by a reading of plans for a boiler.”
Now it was her turn to smile, slow and secret. “Do your utmost, duke. You have been dared.”
For a moment he went still. And then, with a sleek unconcern that could only have been feigned, he turned up the flame of his lamp, then flipped a page of plans. “Most interesting, these plans. They deal with the passage of fluid heat through pipes. Long, thick pipes. I beg your pardon; did you speak?”
“No.” A chortle wasn’t speaking. “Do tell me more, please.”
“Yes, certainly. Anything for the curious.” He wasn’t looking at the paper anymore; he caught her gaze, then held it, as his fingertips traced lazy circles over the plans. No—not lazy circles. Precise and lovely circles. “Water must be brought to a boil. Through the application of heat, obviously. The slow building of heat by flame and the application of pressure. Not too much; just the right amount to cause a flare of heat to grow and tingle—”
“I beg your pardon.” He looked down the length of his nose, mouth quirking. “I am the one describing the plans, madam. Yes. The boiler…tingles.” He coughed, or so it would have seemed to someone who did not know the sound of Michael trying not to laugh. “It is a common engineering phenomenon.”
“And what powers the…tingles…of this boiler?”
She should have known the effect of such a question. In an instant, he drew the plans beneath the lamp and skimmed their workings. “Coal would be best, of course. But in a pinch, peat might suffice.”
“Oh, Michael.” Laughing, she flung herself around the desk and over the great arm of the enormous chair. “You do know how to entice your duchess.”
Readily, he wrapped his arms around her and drew her into his lap, though he looked puzzled. “I have won the dare? How did I manage it? Surely it was not the talk of peat. Unless it was? Do you have a fondness for peat? I had not previously considered, but it would be a potentially sound investment if one—”
With a kiss, she stopped his sentence. “You enticed me,” she said, “by being yourself. That’s all I want. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day. Every day.”
“Then you shall have it, my love,” he said. And proceeded to demonstrate that a large and worn velvet chair was a seat quite large enough, and pleasurable enough, for two.