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.Surrendering his empty beaker to a still-smiling maid, Raven stifled a yawn.“I’m for bed, too.It’s been a long day.” He arched his brows at the others.“Coming?”Morris and Melinda nodded.Daniel glanced at Claire and caught her eye.“We’ll follow in a moment.”Meeting his gaze, Claire nodded, then glanced at Melinda.“I’ll be up soon.”Turning away, Melinda waved.“Don’t rush on my account.Regardless of what night it is, I’ll check on the girls anyway, just to be sure, so you can come straight up—don’t worry about them.”“Thank you,” Claire called.Standing beside her, Daniel watched the others make their way out into the front hall.As they passed out of sight, he glanced around.The crowd had thinned dramatically.Other than the Cynster parents, the older three settled once again in their armchairs on the dais, and several staff clearing the last platters, bowls, and beakers, he and Claire were the last of the company remaining.The Cynster ladies were gathering their shawls, and their men were stretching; clearly, they, too, were about to leave.Touching Claire’s arm, Daniel nodded toward the inglenook beside the main fireplace.“Let’s sit there.It looks as if everyone else is leaving, so we should be able to talk freely—privately despite being in public, so to speak.” He suspected she would find the latter reassuring.She nodded readily, and together they made for the stone bench built into the alcove beside the fireplace.The bench was large enough to comfortably seat them both, and once they’d sat, the shadows of the large overmantel enveloped them, adding a further element to the privacy the spot afforded.A spurt of laughter reached them, then the duke and duchess led the other Cynster couples past and on toward the main archway, no doubt making for the drawing room, where the group usually spent the latter hours of most evenings.With the duchess on his arm, the duke reached the archway—and halted.Both Daniel and Claire had been watching the small procession.They saw the duke look up, saw a slow, distinctly devilish smile spread across his harsh features.He was looking at a dangling bunch of mistletoe.What with the anxiety over the riding party and the excitement before and after, until then, no one had noticed it.Abruptly, the duke looked down—at his duchess, who had only just followed his gaze upward.“Oh!” Her dark eyes widened.“Indeed.” His arm sliding about his wife’s trim waist, the duke bent his dark head and kissed her—thoroughly.The other couples looked on with indulgent smiles.Eventually, the duke raised his head, and the duchess broke from the kiss on a laughing gasp.“Really, Your Grace!” She tried to frown, but she was smiling too much to manage it.Devil Cynster, Duke of St.Ives, cast a glance at his brother and cousins, waiting their turn to pass through the archway.Unrepentant, he grinned; looking up again, he reached up, plucked one of the white berries, and tucked it into his pocket.“Plenty more berries left on the bough.” Without looking back, he urged the duchess on.“Come, my dear.As ever, it falls to us to lead the way.”There were laughs and hoots at that, but one by one, the other couples did, indeed, follow the lead of the head of their house, sharing long, passionate, yet gentle kisses under the dangling mistletoe before continuing on to the drawing room.At last, Daniel and Claire were alone in the hall, except for the three oldest of the company, but a quick look their way showed all three dozing in their armchairs by the fire.They were as alone as they could hope to be.Daniel turned to Claire, but before he could speak, she laid a hand on his arm.Drawing in a breath, she glanced at him briefly, then, her voice low, said, “I need to explain so you’ll understand.” She moistened her lips, then went on, “I have believed—believe—that…” She drew in a tight breath, let it out on “That I would—will—never be able to commit to another marriage.That I would never want to—and this has nothing to do with the gentleman involved [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]