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Phillip has a duty to marry Francesca. He has always protected his former neighbor and childhood companion, and now that she is of marriageable age, he will give her what she needs most - a real home where she is welcome and wanted.
Unfortunately for him....she is done with being dutiful.
After years of being an obedient daughter to a hateful father, Francesca jumps into her first Season. Francesca is ready to dance every dance, flirt with every bachelor and snatch what she wants most - a man she loves who will make her swoon.
Unfortunately for her...he now sees making her swoon as his duty, too.
And Phillip takes his duties very seriously.
“Of course we’re to be married.” Phillip didn’t even favor her with a glance up from the leather-bound book that lay across his thighs, as he casually crossed his legs atop the oak desk in his father’s study.
“Phillip, have you lost your mind?” Francesca lashed out to push his legs off the desk and onto the Persian rug, where they landed with a thud. She estimated she had twenty minutes to confront him before a member of the March household surreptitiously entered to give their discussion a modicum of respect. She was so often treated as his blood sibling that she herself forgot the impropriety they were allowed.
Phillip grabbed the book, which teetered precariously on his knees, and threw it on the desk. “What is the matter?”
She planted her hands on her hips. “You cannot be serious. You? Married? To me?”
Phillip smiled, his blue eyes twinkling under black, sooty lashes. “I am serious, Franny. I’m twenty-four years of age and have an earldom to consider. It’s the sensible thing to do. For both of us.”
Here he was, acting as if it were natural that they marry. Both families were in agreement. Perhaps something about her turn of mind was wrong. Perhaps her wits were addled. It wasn’t a very encouraging thought.
“I honestly don’t see a sensible thing about the arrangement.” Francesca flung herself into the chaise across from Phillip, unceremoniously crossed her arms and legs in an unladylike fashion, and scowled. “What exactly are you getting out of this ridiculous betrothal?”
Phillip leaned back in his chair. “You, of course.”
As the words rolled off his tongue, a shiver tickled the back of her neck. It was the oddest feeling, but decidedly pleasant. She couldn’t help the arch of her back, the tip of her head as the shiver made its way down her spine. She barely managed to whisper, “What nonsense.”
“Not at all. I need someone whose wits aren’t addled to bear an heir, and I want a wife I can tolerate for decently long periods of time. Experience has shown I can tolerate you for months on end.”
Ah, and then that pleasant sensation was replaced by a drop in the pit of her stomach as though she’d eaten rotten fruit. “I’m flattered, to be sure.” Francesca did not bother to roll her eyes. Phillip was adept at catching her sarcasm.
“Franny, be reasonable. We could have a delightful arrangement. We know each other as well as we know ourselves. We’re friends. Everything can be just as it is.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, you know. Our relationship will be reasonable.” He gave her a wicked smile. “You won’t fly into a fit over my card games, or the nights I spend at the club, or the hunting weekends with my friends.”
“Now, just a moment!” Francesca shot up in her chair. “This is unacceptable. Everyone is having fun except for me. Chastity is enjoying her third Season as we speak. You’ve spent countless years in London. Even after our marriage, you’ll be having all the fun. I’m certain I shan’t be allowed any late-night card games or time at the club or…or…hunting!”
Phillip bellowed with laughter, and Francesca noted for the first time his clean, white teeth made for a beautiful smile. She hadn’t seen his face in recent months, much less his smile, and although she’d seen other smiles from gentlemen at the local parsonage, those smiles were not so white, not so charming.
What was wrong with her? What was so charming about teeth, for goodness’ sake?
“Franny, darling, that’s why you should marry me. I’m willing to tolerate much more from you than another man would. Within reason.”
Francesca narrowed her eyes. “What is within reason?”
Phillip leaned back in his chair and lifted his legs to rest again on top of the desk. “I don’t see how the occasional card game would hurt. As long as you didn’t lose too heavily. And as for nights away with your friends—of course! All mature, sensible couples have nights away.”
“Not all of them,” she said quietly.
“Oh, Franny, I didn’t mean…” He reached for her helplessly.
She waved him off and settled deeper into her chaise. With a simple look of affection, she forgave him the insensitive remark. He might not have meant infidelity, but it always brought to mind the accusations the duke had hurled at her poor mother.
“I would never treat you with anything but respect and honor,” he said as he retook his seat. “As I always have. Franny, think of it. What is it that you want from a marriage? Or a husband?”
“Escape,” she said.
The atmosphere in the room grew heavy and his blue eyes turned stormy and hooded. “Has he—?”
“No,” she said quickly. “There has not been any true need for escape. Since Mother died we’ve hardly had reason to interact until this announcement. I just…I must…You know how I must.”
“I do know. Better than anyone. So why not escape with me?”
Was that a plea in his voice, which had just hitched up a notch? Phillip couldn’t really want to marry her, could he?
“Because.” Francesca pulled at her bottom lip thoughtfully. She had never fully given voice to this innermost desire before. “I want a Season.” I want the opportunity denied my mother—the opportunity to fall in love. “I want the beautiful gowns. I want to dance all night at glamorous balls. I want to flirt with devastatingly handsome men.”
“You’re engaging in that very activity right now, my dear.”
She threw a cushion at his head, which he easily ducked. “It’s not the same. I just don’t see you in that way.” She gave a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry.”
“In what way? As a husband?”
Francesca nodded. “You’re just…you’re Phillip. I can’t imagine swooning when you walk through a door.”
“I assure you,” Phillip said with a wounded look, “that many a woman has swooned when I deign to grace a doorway.”
“I’m sure you don’t need me to salvage your pride. But I’ve just…I’ve always wanted to swoon.” She winced at the longing in her tone. “At least once.”
With a sigh, Phillip stood, prowled around the desk, and firmly pulled her from the chaise to stand before him. There was something so deliberate and determined in his actions that she felt wary, as though she were the prey to his predator, frozen in his sights.
“All right, my Franny. I’ll make a bargain with you. If it’s swooning you want, then swooning you shall get.” He took her small hands in his firm grip and brought them to his lips. His breath fanned over her skin like a warm, soft breeze, a caress from sun and summer air that made her languid.
Something must have been wrong with the room, because they had stood in this intimate position a hundred times before without her feeling so warm…so like her heart was slowing in her chest.