Mark quirked his mouth into a half smile. Nicole had always been direct. It was one of the things that had first drawn him to her. She wasn’t about to let him get away with arriving unannounced without admitting that he wanted something. Good, because he liked to be direct too. “You’re right. I do want something from you.”
“Say it.” She crossed one leg over the other and for the life of him he couldn’t stop staring at how those breeches hugged her long legs. Outside, he’d been slightly obsessed with how they hugged another part of her anatomy. And that shirt . . . the one that was exposing her chest in a way that made the back of his neck sweat. Leave it to Nicole to have her hair down and to be wearing breeches while riding around a French château on a horse named Atalanta. She’d been besting the comte in the race they’d been engaged in. That was also like her. She adored competition and hated to lose at anything. If he had any hope of her saying yes to his proposal, he needed to make certain he didn’t become her adversary . . . again.
He glanced around the drawing room. Outfitted in rose and cream silks with the occasional hint of green, the room was tastefully decorated. The château itself was large and well appointed without being ostentatious. She had access to his money but had never spent a shilling of it. No, this was all a result of her own money or her family’s.
He spread his arms wide along the back of the settee. “No reminiscing? No catching up? No discussing the good times?”
Her dark red eyebrow inched even higher. “Were there good times? I seem to recall those being few and far between.”
“There were a few.” In bed. He tugged at his collar.
She poked at the chignon on the back of her head. Only she could make a quickly put-together hair arrangement look effortlessly gorgeous. Several tendrils of the long red locks fell to frame her face, which wore a decidedly disgruntled look. “Out with it. I’m quite busy. I’m attending a dinner party this evening and I must dress.”
Mark bit the inside of his cheek but ultimately he couldn’t keep the comment that had sprung to his lips to himself. “A cleaner pair of breeches?” Damn, she looked good in those breeches. She looked good altogether. Better than good. The years had been kind to her. The fresh-faced plumpness of her cheeks had given way to a slenderness that made her cheekbones prominent. Her lips were still full and pink and inviting. Her hair luxurious, soft and smooth. Her eyes looked more world-weary, to be sure, but their sea-foam-green depths were still astute and intelligent. Her body was still trim and fit. Her thighs looked even fitter, probably from riding astride. Ahem. What he wouldn’t give to see those thighs once more, to have them wrapped tightly around his—
“Despite my present appearance, I do own a gown or two.” Her words snapped him out of his indecent line of thought. She gave him another tight smile.
He stood, crossed to the nearby sideboard, and poured himself a brandy. “Going to meet the comte again?”
“Careful,” came her throaty voice from the settee. “It’s nearly sounding as if you’re jealous.”
Still facing the sideboard, he cocked his head to the side. “Jealous? Whatever does that word mean?”
“The comte is a friend, nothing more.” Her voice sounded dismissive. He didn’t believe her, however.
Mark splashed more brandy into his glass. “I’m certain you’d tell me if he weren’t.”
“I’m certain you’d care.”
Mark turned back toward her and took a healthy swig of his drink. “A man doesn’t like to think of his wife in the bed of another.”
She actually rolled her eyes at that comment. “Oh, you’ve been celibate all these years then?” she countered, her voice dripping with skepticism.
He had been, but he’d die a slow death back in the French prison camp before he told her that. However, he wasn’t so unrealistic as to think Nicole would have remained untouched. They had agreed to part ways, hadn’t seen each other in ten years. She was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life. Still, the notion of punching the comte dead in the face held a great deal of appeal at the moment. “I’ve never been one to kiss and tell, love.”
She gave him a tight smile, which clearly indicated she didn’t believe him, either. “You’re a general now?” she asked abruptly, clearly ready to change the subject.
“I am.” He moved to the window and looked out across the lavender fields, one arm held behind his ramrod-straight back as if he were surveying a battlefield. The stance was still comfortable for him even after all these years of working for the Home Office.
“I suppose congratulations are in order.” The tea arrived and Nicole poured a cup for herself and splashed in a liberal amount of cream. He remembered that about her. She took her tea with no sugar, just cream.
“No congratulations needed,” he intoned, taking another swig of brandy.
The silver spoon she used to stir her tea clinked against the delicate china teacup. “I must admit, I’ve often wondered when I’d get a missive that you’d been killed.”
His chuckle was humorless. He turned to face her. “Such little faith in me? Or wishful thinking?”
“Neither,” she replied, lifting the cup to her pink lips. “Just a profound knowledge of how reckless you are.”
He inclined his head. “Used to be.”
“Really?” She raised a brow. “Is that why you’ve come? To tell me you’ve changed?”
He chuckled. “I haven’t changed that much.”
“I’m not surprised.” She set down her teacup and crossed her arms over her chest. “Tell me, Mark, why have you come?”
He saluted her with his glass, the amber-colored liquid shining in the afternoon sunlight. “You were right. I need a favor from you.”
She didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “Of course you do. What’s the favor?” She picked up her cup once more and took a sip.
He downed the final splash of brandy and met her gaze. “I need you to return to England with me for a few months and pretend to be my loving wife.”
Copyright © 2018 by Valerie Bowman in A Duke Like No Other and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.