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Murder would have been a kinder fate, Claire thought, resisting the urge to chew on her lower lip. All of her plans had been made around an assumption that had proven to be overly optimistic. How could she have underestimated her uncle's spiteful nature? She sighed quietly. There was no point in chastising herself for shortsightedness. There'd be plenty of time for that after she found a way out of the ugly Byzantine maze her uncle had crafted.
If only she'd managed to sleep some the night before. She needed a clear head, a mind that could wrest salvation from thin air. But she'd spent the night pacing her rented room, unable to think about anything except what a black-hearted scoundrel her uncle was. And now all she had to show for the effort was a brain that had all the power and clarity of lukewarm oatmeal. Claire clenched her teeth.
"I hope, Mistress Curran, that you found your lodgings suitable?"
Perched on the edge of the chair, Claire forced herself to swallow past the tightness in her throat, took as deep a breath as her stays permitted, and met the gaze of the man standing behind the desk. "They're more than adequate for my needs, Mr. Cantrell. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and effort on my behalf."
The solicitor lifted a sheaf of papers, perused them briefly, and then cast them down with a soft sigh. "It's the least I can do under the circumstances. I'd like you to form at least a favorable first impression of Virginia hospitality. Devon isn't likely to be as concerned with the warmth of your welcome."
Claire stared down at her lap. She didn't have to remove her worn kid gloves to know that her primly laced fingers had turned a ghostly white. Adjusting the drape of her dress and flexing the blood back to her fingertips, she said, "I'm no happier with the circumstances than Mr. Rivard will be. If a way can be found to escape the situation, I assure you that I'll do so."
Edmund Cantrell arched a pale brow and again picked up the sheaf of papers lying on the desk. "He's not going to believe that you're an innocent party in this affair. You're aware of that, aren't you, Mistress Curran?"
She lifted her chin. "I had no knowledge of either the nature or the contents of the letter before yesterday, and I'll swear such before God. You yourself broke the seal."
"Please," the young solicitor hurried to inject. "I meant no dishonor to you. I know your uncle by reputation, and I'm quite sure that such perfidy is common to his business practices. It's Devon who concerns me. He has a streak of suspicion in him that's both wide and notorious. He won't be as . . ." The man sighed and stared down at the papers as he shook his head.
"As what, Edmund?"
Claire pivoted in the chair, turning toward the office doorway and the direction from which the question had come. A man stood framed within it, the dark curls on his head only a scant distance from the top of the doorway, a mere sliver of space existing between his massive shoulders and the oaken sides of the jamb. The morning light stood at his back and cast his facial features into gray shadows. But she didn't have to see his face to guess the expression he wore. She could tell much about his state of mind by the broad stance he took in the doorway, by the way he commanded the room into which he faced. He was annoyed at having to be there, and he was determined to dispatch the business at hand as quickly as possible.
She fixed her gaze on the desk before the affable Mr. Cantrell and fought back the wave of panic that threatened to propel her out of the chair, out of the office, down the street, and into blissful oblivion. A sense of pending doom settled over her shoulders even as she silently prayed, Please, dear God, let this be some other man.
"As what, Edmund?" the stranger repeated, stepping across the threshold and stripping the woolen greatcoat from his shoulders. He turned toward the young man as though they were the only occupants of the room. "Come now, I'm a busy man and I don't have the time for parlor games."
Claire saw Edmund Cantrell rising to his full height and squaring his shoulders. "I was about to say that you're not nearly as understanding as I am."
Her heart sank with certainty.
Devon Rivard made a soft, dismissive sound before replying, "Hardly a great revelation, Edmund. Your message said it was a matter of great importance. Given the weather this morning, it had better be."
"And it is, I assure you," Cantrell responded, sweeping his hand in a wide gesture toward Claire. "May I introduce Mistress Claire Curran, of London."
For a quick moment Claire considered correcting the details of the introduction, to provide her former title and her proper place of residence, but then just as quickly decided against it. To be a lady trapped in a situation of obviously lower, trading-class origins . . . Besides, she admitted, the truth of what she was and where she came from wouldn't make a bit of difference in the larger, ugly scheme of things about to unfold. Without a word, Claire rose to her feet with a wholly feigned aplomb.
The young attorney continued with the formalities, saying, "Mistress Curran, may I present Mr. Devon Rivard, owner of Rosewind and one of the region's preeminent citizens."
"A compliment undeserved, I assure you," the newcomer said smoothly, turning toward her with the most abbreviated of bows.
He was a rakishly handsome man with sooty eyelashes that framed eyes of darkest emerald, a mouth wide and full and somehow mocking, the corners etched with lines that seemed more faded than faint. Yet it was an intangible something about him that knotted a cord deep in the center of her chest. She named it fear and swallowed as best she could around the lump rising in her throat.
His gaze skimmed the length of her, and she wondered if he knew that her secondhand sack dress was three years past fashionable and that she'd deepened the seams of the bodice to fit her meager attributes. With what little resolve she had remaining, Claire said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rivard. I only wish that the circumstances were of a different nature."
He lifted a dark brow while he offered her another brief bow. "I can't consider unfortunate any circumstance which brings such an attractive young woman into my company, Mistress Curran."
She thought the slight curve of one side of his mouth belied the compliment, and a flicker of ire coursed through her veins. The sudden warmth steadied her knees and strengthened her resolve. Claire dipped her chin ever so slightly in the direction of Edmund Cantrell, saying, "I believe you'll shortly abandon any such thinking, sir."
To her relief, the sandy-haired young man cleared his throat, lifted several pieces of parchment from his desktop, and began, "Mistress Curran arrived in Williamsburg late yesterday afternoon bearing sealed correspondence from Mr. George Seaton-Smythe. You're acquainted with the gentleman, are you not, Devon?"
Claire watched the tall American stride across the office to toss his cloak over the back of an elegantly carved chair. She judged his height to be at least six and two. His boots were of soft black leather, rising to his knees and conforming to his calves. His frock coat was well tailored, the fit fashionably loose and covering the rest of him from her perusal. Not that she needed to see any more than she could. Everything about him spoke of a powerful man quite used to getting his way. Claire quickly moistened her lips and flexed her fingers at her sides.
"'Gentleman' is a term I'd use only loosely to describe Seaton-Smythe," Rivard replied, his back to her and his attorney. Folding his arms across his chest and fixing his gaze on something beyond the window glass, he added, "I know him only by reputation. The productions of my estate are agented through another house."
Her heart racing, Claire took a long, deep breath, stared at the carpet, and hoped that the attorney would make short work of the ugly business at hand.
"It appears that Wyndom doesn't share your assessment of the man," Edmund Cantrell continued. "On the fourth day of January last he entered into a contract with"
"For what sum?"
Claire heard the steely edge of anger. The strength ebbed from her legs and she locked her knees before she could collapse into the chair behind her.
"Two thousand pounds sterling," answered the attorney, his voice soft in an apparent effort to ease the harshness of the truth. "According to Seaton-Smythe, Wyndom has been either unwilling or unable to repay the debt."
"Tell me, Edmund . . . Did Seaton-Smythe have the gall to pretend that he ever expected my besotted brother to conduct himself honorably?"
Cantrell quietly cleared his throat and went on. "Mr. Seaton-Smythe has offered three alternatives for correcting the unfortunate situation. As his first offer, he suggests that you permit him to legally attach your present and future consignments until the debt is paid in full. Should that be unacceptable, then he suggests that you pay the entire amount, in sterling. Mistress Curran is to act as the courier."
Rivard broadened his stance and didn't look away from the window as he asked, "And the third . . . alternative?"
Again Cantrell cleared his throat before he spoke. Claire closed her eyes as she listened to him reply, "Mr. Seaton-Smythe has offered to cancel the debt upon delivery of legal proof of your marriage to his niece." Cantrell drew a long breath. "The same Mistress Claire Curran."
She heard the slow measure of Rivard's turn, felt the heat of his attention boring through her. Swallowing back the bitter taste of mortal embarrassment, Claire opened her eyes and met his gaze. Never in all her days had she seen such loathing, such unadulterated hatred in a man's eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't make a sound.
"Mistress Curran wishes to find some manner of evading the proposal," the young attorney offered in hasty rescue.
"Oh?" Rivard drawled, both dark brows slanting derisively. "Do you have two thousand pounds sterling on your person, Mistress Curran?"
The cold mockery of his tone stole what precious little air remained in her lungs. She shook her head mutely.
"Have you, mistress, any property you'd be willing to forfeit for payment of my brother's debt?"
The sun-warmed stones of Crossbridge Manor shimmered bright before her mind's eye. But Uncle George holds the title. Her eyes aching from the threat of angry tears, Claire again shook her head.
"If I might be permitted to offer a possible solution?" Edmund gently interceded. "Seaton-Smythe has offered to cancel the debt upon the receipt of proof of your marriage. He made no stipulations regarding the nature of that union or the duration. Perhaps . . ."
"A divorce?" Rivard supplied, quirking one brow and smiling. "An intriguing idea, Edmund."
The young attorney stared blankly at the top of his desk and shook his head in slow disagreement. "Intriguing, yes, but with attendant difficulties, Devon. As you well know, Virginia lacks the power to grant them, and so the case must be made in England itself. Additionally, acceptable grounds are very narrow and would cause the both of you permanent social scars. I was thinking of a slightly less scandalous way out of the marriage contract. One that we can manage in our own house, so to speak."
"An annulment?" Claire heard herself ask in a stunned whisper. "Are you suggesting that the marriage be annulled after my uncle has pardoned the debt?"
"Not too terribly honorable, I know," Edmund replied. "But it would be escape without complete social ruination."
Devon Rivard's gaze swept her from head to hem, contempt shining in his eyes and twisting his lips into a cruel smile. "And how quickly the lady thought of it."
The sound of his scorn ignited fires she'd thought carefully and safely banked. The words escaped before she could stop them. "How dare you, sir, cast aspersions on my character. You know nothing of me or my circumstances."
She lifted her chin and appraised him in much the same manner as he had her only a moment before. "I'd rather bed the Devil himself than consider marriage to such a self-consumed fool."
He cocked a brow in slow consideration. Deep within his eyes a flame kindled. "You speak of your circumstances," he said, his voice soft and yet somehow sharply cutting.
She wouldn't explain anything to him. She'd go to Crossbridge Manorsomehowand do what she could to sort out the disaster her life had become. Stepping around the chair, Claire took her cloak from the wall peg, saying as she did, "I owe you no accounting, Mr. Rivard. And I'll give you none. Seek a solution to your dilemma as best you can, but don't expect me to be a party to it." She draped the woolen cloth over her shoulders and, while fastening the frog at the neck, added, "I'll make arrangements to return to London as soon as possible. If you wish for me to bear your payment to my uncle, please see that it's delivered to my lodgings before I depart Williamsburg. Mr. Cantrell knows where to find me."
She turned to find the attorney staring at her, his blue eyes large in his face. "Mr. Cantrell," she said, dropping her chin in polite acknowledgment, "I sincerely appreciate your kindness and"
"And how is it that you intend to pay for your passage back to London?" Rivard asked, his tone no kinder than before.
She turned to glare at him. His arms were once again crossed over his chest, but he had shifted his stance so that he rested his weight casually on one leg. The gaze that met hers was cool and distant. "Perhaps you acquired some jewelry from the woman who gave you that god-awful gown?" he ventured before she could reply. "Might you be planning to sell a bit of it for your ship passage?" His words struck her like a fist. Her throat tightened and she willed back the hot torrent of words. To speak would unleash angry tears and she would never give him that satisfaction. "It doesn't matter on which side of the Atlantic you stand," he continued, both his tone and the light within his eyes hardening. "George Seaton-Smythe has the reputation of a wharf rat. That you're of some blood relation to him counts against you. On the other hand, that you're obviously a poor and utterly disposable member of his family speaks in your behalf. He didn't send you here and offer you for sacrifice just to rid himself of an undowered, crumb-gobbling relative. What's his true intent?"