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"The Duke of St. Austin to see you, sir," the butler intoned from the library door.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Show the man in."
Thaddeus Jamison stood in the center of his book room, its shelves stuffed to overflowing with leatherbound volumes he collected as a testament to his wealth. His heartbeat quickened. His chest felt tight as a surge of anticipation rushed through him. He was playing a dangerous game with a powerful man, and all of his dreams hinged on the outcome of this meeting. He had to remain calm, in control, or lose before it even began.
When the door swung open, Jamison drew a steadying breath, then turned to meet the man approaching him with a swift and forceful stride.
Richard Wexton, the sixth Duke of St. Austin, was the pinnacle of aristocratic elegance and everything Jamison longed to be. Power and authority were etched in every line of his face, from his firm, high cheekbones to his strong, square-cut chin. The raven hair that fell in reckless disarray about his face conveyed an air of negligent grace, while the haughty tilt of his head and proud, squared shoulders spoke of an arrogance ingrained through the ages.
There was no doubt about it. The man would breed fine sons, and Jamison wanted him for his daughter.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice," the duke said. His baritone voice rang with the easy self-assurance one would expect from a man of his station, and Jamison couldn't help but smile.
"Not at all, Your Grace. Would you care for a refreshment? Perhaps a glass of claret?"
"No, thank you. I would like to come straight to the point, if I may."
"Certainly." Jamison gestured to the leather-padded armchair facing his mahogany pedestal desk before returning to his seat. Sunlight from the bay windows behind him glinted off the polished desktop. He moved a ledger to block the glare. "How may I help you, Your Grace?"
"I am here on behalf of my brother," he said. "I understand he lost a substantial amount of money to you at cards last night. I would like to settle his debt."
Jamison grabbed a quill from the standish. He ran his fingers up and down the feathered tip as he carefully worded his response. He eyed the duke. "He was your brother, you say?"
A flicker of amused disbelief flashed in the duke's black eyes. "Are you implying you didn't know who he was?"
"No, I did not. Truth to tell, until a few moments ago, I thought he was you. He said he was St. Austin."
Not a hint of emotion crossed the duke's face. "That is a very serious and upsetting claim. And, I might add, somewhat difficult to believe."
Jamison flung the quill to the floor and shot to his feet. "Do you dare to imply that I lie?"
"Not at all," the duke replied without hesitation. "It merely seems my brother neglected to provide me with all the details of his encounter with you. Perhaps you would care to enlighten me?"
Jamison gave a stiff nod, then settled back on his seat. "The lad claimed he was St. Austin. I thought it strange, a duke in a place like that-The Pigeon Hole ain't real popular with the titled folk, don't you know-but I saw no reason to doubt him."
"I see." The words were clipped, controlled, the slightest tightening of his jaw the duke's only visible reaction before he continued in a cool voice. "Please, allow me to apologize for any inconvenience this misunderstanding might have caused you. You may rest assured, I will deal with my brother when I get home. If you would present me with his vowels, I will settle them for you."
Jamison crushed his shaking palms against his knees, all the while praying he could keep the quiver from creeping into his voice. "I'm afraid it might be a trifle more complicated than that."
"What do you mean?"
The words, spoken with icy disdain, sliced through the air like daggers hurled at Jamison's chest. Sweat drenched his neck even though the temperature in the room seemed to have dropped twenty degrees. He yanked his handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and swiftly mopped his brow. "Well, he was pretending to be you. So he signed his note with your name. And lest you don't believe me, I have the note to prove it! It seems what we have here, Your Grace, is a case of forgery and fraud, not to mention the insult given me by this deception."
"I see. Exactly how much did Geoffrey lose?"
"Thirty thousand pounds."
"A significant amount of money indeed." The duke flicked his hand through the air. "Although no excuse, Geoffrey is young and given to rashness as all young men are. How much would it take to rectify this situation and alleviate the pain you suffered from this deception? Would, say, sixty thousand pounds suffice?"
"You insult me again!"
"Forgive me," the duke drawled in a voice that implied he was anything but sorry. "I fail to see how an offer of sixty thousand pounds could be construed as an insult."
"I do not want your money."
"It is merely a settlement to ease the anguish you suffered from this deception."
The condescension dripping from the duke's voice made Jamison seethe. "I do not want your money," he bit out. "I do not need it. I own most of the cotton mills in Lancashire. I've no doubt I have more money than you!"
The duke relaxed in his chair and crossed a booted foot over his knee. His sun-darkened features were perfectly composed, but the eyes that studied Jamison over steepled fingers were as hard and unforgiving as the jagged cliffs that carve the northern coast of Devon where Jamison had lived as a boy. Bitter memories of gnawing hunger and ragged clothing flashed through his mind.
At that moment, he hated the duke for his privileged birth almost as much as he coveted his noble title and envied his cool composure. Good God, how could the man look and act as if they were discussing the weather rather than a criminal act that would cast shame and dishonor upon his family name?
Suddenly, the duke smiled. It was more a savage baring of teeth than an expression of amusement. "Exactly what is it you want?"
A shiver coursed over Jamison's skin. This was it, the moment for which he had waited a lifetime. He perched on the edge of his chair. "I have a daughter. A lovely girl, just eighteen. As sweet and biddable as you please."
He stabbed his finger through the air. "I want you to wed her. In return, after the birth of an heir, I will give your brother's note to you. If you refuse, I will have no choice but to go to the authorities."
The duke grinned. "What an amazing man you are. You think lying beneath you, and yet, you've managed to refine blackmail into a true work of art."
Jamison bit back his angry retort. "What will it be, Your Grace? A scandal? Or a wedding?"
The duke said nothing. He merely arched one thick, black brow. He kept his keen eyes trained on Jamison as he waited, seemingly undisturbed by the silence between them.
Jamison fought the urge to wiggle beneath the duke's unrelenting stare. He had come too far to turn back now. He clenched his fist. "I repeat: What will it be?"
The duke laughed. "Although I admire your ingenuity, I fear I must decline. A cotton miller's daughter is hardly suitable material for a duke's wife."
"There is nothing unsuitable about Leah," Jamison retorted. "She is pretty enough to look at, but her dowry is the real prize. Two hundred fifty thousand pounds, plus more at the birth of an heir. Such wealth makes her acceptable to any level of the nobility, eh, Your Grace? It's done all the time, ain't it? If you don't agree, your brother will find himself in the Fleet."
The duke shrugged. "A few months in the Fleet will not kill him. Then again ..." A wry smile graced his lips. "Let Geoffrey wed the chit as payment for his debt. It is a supremely fitting punishment, and given the option of a wedding or gaol, even he would choose the wedding-"
"Oh, no, Your Grace, that won't do. The boy's a tosspot as well as a gamester. I have no desire to see my money lost at the tables. Besides, I'm of a mind to be grandfather to a title. It will have to be you, or no one."
"Then it will be no one."
Jamison slammed his fist on the desk. "If your brother's treachery becomes public knowledge, the Wexton name will be synonymous with scandal and dishonor."
"Scandal is nothing new to the Wexton name, so that threat holds no weight." The duke rose from his chair. He pulled tan kid gloves from his frock coat pocket and slowly drew them on. "Better men than you have tried and failed to bring me to the altar with their 'ever so sweet and biddable daughters.' Go to the authorities, with my blessing. But remember, extortion is also a crime. You will find yourself in the Fleet right beside Geoffrey."
He pivoted on his heel and headed for the door.
"I do not think you want to do that," Jamison called after him, his voice laden with quiet confidence.
The duke swung around and fixed him with his cold, dark stare.
"Your brother was deep in his cups." Jamison shook his head in mock dismay, then heaved a heavy sigh. "Drink. Loosens the tongue, don't you know. Things get said that are better left unsaid. Things of a delicate nature. Very delicate, I'd say. And once a rumor starts, well ... there is no calling it back, is there?"
The duke took two steps forward and flattened his palms on the desk. His eyes flashed with lethal promise as he towered over Jamison. "I am not sure what you think you know," he said in a voice gone soft and deadly. "But take caution if you dare to threaten me."
"Threaten you?" Jamison held up his hands. "No, you mistake the matter. 'Tis the truth I'm talking about. How can the truth hurt? Unless, of course, one is afraid of the truth. Tell me, St. Austin, are you afraid of the truth?"
The duke narrowed his eyes.
Confident now that he had the man right where he wanted him, Jamison smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Before you refuse my offer, you should contemplate that scandal ... then think of Lady Alison."
Chapter Two "Should we send for the doctor?" Leah Jamison pushed the auburn hair off the young boy's brow. His skin, slick with sweat and sticky beneath her palm, was growing hotter by the moment, and still he shivered.
Mrs. Bristoll, her cheeks ruddy from boiling a posset of milk and ale, placed the steaming cup on the sideboard by the make-shift bed. They had moved Thomas into the pantry in hopes of keeping the illness from spreading to the other children. "Do not worry yourself, miss. 'Tis only a childhood grippe. It will pass."
Leah's doubt must have shown on her face, for the stout matron patted Leah's shoulder, as if she were one of her charges. The scent of sorrel and red sage rose from her apron. "The posset will sweat the fever from him. He will be up and about by tomorrow. I promise you that."
The illness had come on so swiftly, Leah greatly feared it was much more serious than a mere childhood complaint, but Mrs. Bristoll had years of experience caring for children. Surely she must know of what she spoke.
With a sigh, Leah gathered her cloak. She did not want to leave, even though she knew she must. Her father would suffer fits if she did not appear properly dressed at their evening meal. Provided she remained the dutiful daughter, he did not seem to care how or where she spent her days, though she shuddered to think what would happen if he learned of her visits to the foundling home.
No, she could not risk it. She had to go.
She cast a last, lingering look at Thomas. Huddled beneath the blankets, he looked too small, too helpless. If only her father were a different man, she would scoop the boy into her arms and carry him home. She pulled her hood up over her hair. "You will send word if he worsens?"
"Of course," Mrs. Bristoll said. She escorted Leah to the door, waiting until she climbed into her carriage before disappearing back into the house.
As the carriage rattled its way over the cobbled streets, the crumbling, overcrowded tenements of St. Giles soon gave way to the beautiful homes of Bloomsbury Square.
The stark contrast never failed to startle Leah.
Her first warning that she had stayed away from home too long came when she climbed from the carriage and noticed that the afternoon sun had given way to dusk. The second came from her aunt's frantic greeting at the door.
"Where have you been? You are late," Emma said, her hands fluttering through the air. Tufts of gray hair had escaped from the knot at the base of her neck and now curled wildly about her cheeks. "Your father wishes to see you in his library. He is in such a state. Hurry, my dear. Hurry."
Her aunt's obvious distress was so at odds with her usual placid demeanor, Leah cringed. Papa must be furious indeed. She handed her cloak to the waiting footman before heading through the hall. "Any hint to the crisis?"
Emma shook her head as she scurried to match Leah's rapid pace. "But he set the servants to searching for you over half an hour ago. As Alexander chose that moment to call, you can well imagine your father was not pleased."
No, he would not have been, as Papa had no liking for Alexander, though Leah could not imagine why. A kinder, more respectable young man had never existed. "I was not expecting Alex until this evening. Did he leave a message?"
"The dear boy was most apologetic," Emma said, a tender smile softening her harried expression. "He cannot escort us to the theater tomorrow, as he had hoped. An urgent summons from his grandmother has called him to Suffolk."
Oh, bad news indeed, but Leah had no time to dwell on this pronouncement, as the library door had snapped open and her father was glaring at her, his lips curling as he took in the soggy state of her frock.
When he lifted his hand, Leah stepped back, but not quickly enough to keep him from grabbing her forearm and dragging her into the room. He propelled her toward a gentleman who stood facing the bookshelf on the far wall.
The stranger did not turn or give any indication that he heard the commotion behind him. The exquisite cut of his clothing revealed a powerful frame blessed with long legs and glossy black hair curling roguishly over a pair of stunningly broad shoulders. Hands crossed behind his back, he held his head high and his spine straight in the easy, graceful stance of a man supremely confident of his worth.
A magnetic attraction about his person drew all of Leah's inner awareness and pulled her closer, her feet moving her toward him as if of their own volition, or perhaps it was her father's hand pushing on the small of her back. When the man finally turned, Leah found herself staring into the eyes of the devil himself.
Who else but Satan could possess such unrelenting black eyes, as dark as the midnight sky with no hint of light? Who else could seduce her senses so swiftly, so thoroughly, that she was unable to speak or decipher her father's words through the buzzing in her ears?
Surely there could be no other explanation for her gaping stare, as if he were the first handsome man she had ever seen, which was decidedly untrue-Alexander was quite the handsomest man she knew-but Alexander's beauty was like basking in sunlight, not drowning in the bewitching, dark, brooding visage of an underworld lord.
"Leah," her father said, his anger at her tardiness evident in his sharp tone, but it was the underlying glee lurking in his voice that swung her gaze to his face.
His wide smile and gleaming eyes did not bode well for whatever words he was about to say. "Leah, my dear. May I present to you, the Duke of St. Austin." His chest expanded as he took a deep breath. "Your betrothed."
Leah blinked. Her mind went blank, as if her wits had suddenly scattered like raindrops on the wind. After the perfidy of his past actions, she had thought nothing her father could do or say would ever surprise her again.
She had been wrong.
Her breath rushed from her lungs. She turned to the duke, but her brain had yet to start working again. She watched as his dark gaze dropped to her lips, then traveled over her face in a slow, sensual caress, before wandering back to her eyes.
Good Heavens, her skin actually tingled, as if he'd swept the back of his knuckles over her cheeks. She expected him to deny her father's outrageous announcement, but he said nothing. He simply stared at her through obsidian eyes that revealed no emotion.
She held up her hand. "This is a jest, is it not?"
Excerpted from A Dangerous Man by Janmarie Anello Copyright © 2008 by Janmarie Pizzanello. Excerpted by permission.
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