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By Janmarie Anello
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Janmarie Pizzanello
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCalcutta, 1816
The bamboo shutters, pulled tight against the monsoon winds, trapped the stench of cigars and unwashed bodies in the crowded tavern. Orange lamplight flickered through the silvery haze, casting shadows over the room.
Jagger Remington eyed the man seated across from him at the table. He wished the man would go away. Conversation was not on his list of things to do tonight. He wanted nothing more than to get drunk and bed a willing wench or two, preferably in that order. Still, he owed this man more than he could ever repay. He had to listen to what the man had to say, even if it did concern the odious subject of matrimony.
He downed his brandy, then called for another.
The tavern maid sauntered over and refilled his glass. She slowly circled her tongue around her full, sensuous lips. "Need anything else?"
Her blatant invitation teased a reluctant smile out of Jagger, despite his foul mood. For reasons he did not understand, women seemed to find his black hair and blue eyes wildly attractive, so much so that they rarely seemed to notice the hideous scar that marred the left half of his face. He fingered the jagged flesh beneath his eye, a grim reminder of the past he had left behind, the promises he had yet to keep.
The tavern maid crossed her arms on the knife-scarred tabletop. Flashing him a saucy smile, she leaned toward Jagger until the scooped neckline of her smock gaped open, giving him a tantalizing view of her big breasts bulging out of her stays. Honey-blond hair curled around her face. Sea-green eyes opened and closed seductively.
He was about to suggest they head to his room when the tavern keep, who was as big as a bear and looked just as mean, growled her name in a tone that clearly bespoke ownership.
Jagger grinned. "Just leave the bottle."
She shrugged her shoulders and strolled away, her hips swaying flirtatiously as she walked toward her man.
The slurred voices of drunken soldiers and sailors mingled with sultry laughter as a kaleidoscope of painted whores circled the room, plying their trade. All the while, the man sitting with Jagger droned on and on about the benefits Jagger would gain in a match with the man's sister.
"How on earth did you ever find me?" Jagger asked when the man finally paused for breath.
Stephen Treneham, the fourth Earl of Hallowell, crushed his handkerchief in his fist, then mopped the sweat from his brow. He glared at Jagger. "What difference does it make? I have followed you through the backwaters and malarial swamps of this godforsaken region for nigh unto a year now."
The earl's voice trembled with anger, but Jagger refused to rise to the bait. He would explain himself to no one, not even to Stephen, whom he had once loved like a father.
The space between them filled with a charged silence, broken only by the incessant chatter of voices in the taproom and the drumming of Stephen's fingertips on the table.
Murky lamplight played over the earl's bony hand.
Jagger was amazed at how much the man had aged since the last time he had seen him. Gone was the full head of blond hair, replaced by thin, silver strands combed from ear to ear. Harsh lines cut into the flesh around his mouth, as if he never smiled, and his sagging cheeks were flushed from the heat.
His eyes were the same as Jagger remembered, though-vibrant blue and burning with determination as he pointed at the legal documents spread out on the table. "With no entail attached to that estate, once you sign the papers, it's as good as yours. Granted, I have made no recent improvements, but you know as well as I what that property is worth. Why, there is a fortune just in timber on that estate!"
Jagger couldn't mask the momentary interest that no doubt flashed across his face. The fact that Stephen noticed, as evidenced by his satisfied smile, goaded him into irrational anger. "I am not for sale."
Stephen shrugged. "Nor am I buying. I am merely making a settlement upon my sister."
"She is agreeable to this?"
"She signed the papers, did she not?"
Jagger picked up the documents. Her signature was at the bottom of each page, a graceful, flowing sweep across the paper. It was the most bewildering aspect of this ludicrous scheme. Why would she agree to wed a man she had never met?
"I didn't even know you had a sister."
Stephen snorted. "Why would you? You have been gone from England for what, fifteen years now without a word?" His voice had grown louder with each word he had spoken until he finally bellowed, "Did you never think to let me know you were alive?"
The accusation rang through the room. Conversations stopped as the drunkards around them turned to stare.
Jagger clenched his fist but said nothing. He could never explain the anguish he had suffered over his exile from England. Nor did he want to. He would return when he was ready. When the time was right. Then he would have his revenge.
"Did not my mother mention my letters?" Jagger asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. He had written to her as often as he could and had provided for her maintenance, but he'd never invited her to join him. Given her delicate health and the drastically reduced life span of a European in India, he had not thought she would survive.
"I've not spoken with her," Stephen said in a voice so low, Jagger had to strain to hear him. "Not since the arrangements were finalized and she retired to the country."
Stephen cleared his throat, waved his hand. "Never mind. It does not matter. Sophie is my stepsister. From my father's third marriage. There is no blood between us, but I would see her safely settled before I die. In truth, I should have seen to it long ago. So, what do you say?"
Jagger laughed. "You honestly expect me to do this thing?"
"Why not? I admit it's a bit out of the ordinary way."
"That's a mile short of nowhere," Jagger drawled.
"But I see nothing wrong with it," Stephen continued as if Jagger hadn't spoken. "That is, of course, unless you are already engaged?"
Jagger shook his head. He tossed back his brandy, relishing the warmth as the smooth liqueur slid down his throat.
Stephen smiled. "Then I see no reason not to proceed. What say you?"
"I say you have gone daft, man. I have no need of a wife."
"Why not? Every man needs a wife. If for no other reason than to care for him in his old age."
"Nonsense." Jagger poured himself another bumper of brandy. "You cannot be more than fifty. I am certain there are any number of nubile, young maidens eager to wed a man of your station, regardless of your years."
"No." Stephen stared into his drink. A hint of despair crept into his voice. "I loved a woman once ..."
Wretchedly uncomfortable at the mournful expression on the man's face, Jagger shifted on his seat. Romantic drivel, he thought harshly. He had never met a woman who inspired anything more in him than momentary lust, and that was easily assuaged by a night spent in carnal bliss.
Stephen drew a shuddering breath. "But she was lost to me, so I did my duty and married another."
He leveled his piercing gaze on Jagger. "When everything is said and done, duty is all we have. Unfortunately, my wife died in childbirth along with the babe. Now the title will go to my brother, but I need to see to Sophie's future. I need to know she is safe."
"Why me?" Jagger asked bluntly. "There must be a dozen or more eager young bucks vying for your sister's hand. Choose one of them."
Stephen shook his head.
Jagger narrowed his eyes. He stroked his thumb and forefinger over his stubbled chin as he studied the earl. The man was definitely hiding something.
"What's wrong with her?" he said.
"There is nothing wrong with her!"
"Oh, cut line, Hallowell. Why else would you be fishing in India for a man to marry the chit?"
The earl slammed his fist on the table. "There is nothing wrong with her. Watch what you say!"
Jagger merely lifted a brow.
Stephen sighed. "I admit, she is a bit headstrong and set in her ways. But given the right man to guide her, she will make an exemplary wife. And I assure you, she is fair of face and form. You will not find her displeasing."
"I tire of this game," Jagger said. "I ask you again-why me? And this time, give me the truth."
"Why not you?" Stephen snapped. "You are my godson, after all. Jagger! I am offering you more than wealth. I am handing you a treasure beyond compare if you would only have the sense to reach out and grasp it."
Jagger swirled the brandy in his glass. The steady buzz of voices around him faded away as he contemplated the offer.
He had to admit that he was tempted.
The land they were discussing was deep in the heart of Norfolk. Rich, arable land with less than a third of it being properly used. With the new agricultural methods available, Jagger knew he could double, perhaps even triple, the corn harvest in the first year alone. The fact that its northernmost border marched along with his father's principal seat sweetened the prize indeed.
Why not? Why the hell not?
It wasn't as cold-blooded as it sounded. Most marriages amongst the ton were arranged entirely for financial reasons or for matters of estate. And God knew he was heartily sick of the life he was leading. He was tired of the heat. Tired of the disease. Tired of roaming from place to place, searching for something-he didn't know what-that would ease the ache inside of him. The wealth he had amassed over the years meant nothing to him. Oh, yes, he wanted the land, if for no other reason than to drive his father mad.
There was only one problem. He did not want a wife.
But it wasn't as if it would be a real marriage. It would be a business arrangement. Nothing more. Nothing less. With no pretense of love involved, no foolish emotions would complicate the issue.
Unless the lady in question wanted children.
Jagger most definitely did not want children.
He shook his head. What the hell was he thinking? To contemplate marriage to a woman he had never met was completely insane.
Stephen leaned forward as if he were about to impart a state secret. "Your father tells all and sundry that you are dead. Though he has yet to seek a formal declaration, I am certain it is only a matter of time."
Jagger grinned. "So, like our Savior before me, you want me to rise from my grave? No doubt my father would suffer fits, not to mention my dear uncle Anthony, who has, I am sure, grown quite accustomed to my absence." Jagger could well imagine the outrage that would distort his father's face when his long-lost son returned to hearth and home.
He tightened his grip on his glass until his arm ached from the tension. "He knows I'm alive. He just wishes I were dead."
He drained his glass, then pushed it away. "I will return to England when I am ready. Do not ask me again."
Stephen rubbed his hands over his face. He started to speak, then stopped. Finally, he whispered hoarsely, "There is no longer any reason for you to stay away."
A piercing pain gripped Jagger's chest. He sucked in a deep breath. "What do you mean?"
"I did not want to tell you like this. Not here."
"Tell me what?" Jagger said, though a sickening suspicion twisted in his gut.
Stephen slowly shook his head. He rubbed the fingertips of his left hand along a gouge in the tabletop. When he looked back at Jagger, his face had gone ashen. His eyes glistened. "Your mother is dead."
Jagger's vision went dark at the edges. The room swirled around him. He was perilously close to fainting, he realized with chagrin, and that made him furious.
Grown men didn't faint. That was for vaporish young women and shriveled-up old maids. Then why did his limbs feel so weak, as if he would topple over should anyone so much as cast a heavy breath upon him?
"When?" The single word was all he could manage to push past the knot in his throat.
"Shortly before I sailed from England."
Jagger closed his eyes. Fifteen years he had stayed away. Fifteen long years to protect his mother's life. Now she was dead. He hadn't expected it to hurt so much. Until this moment, he hadn't even known if he loved her or if he hated her.
Now he knew, and it was too late.
He didn't know whether to laugh at the irony or cry for her passing. Instead, a cold fury settled over him, seeping through his pores to the very marrow of his bones. Oh, yes, it was time he went home. It was time he made his father pay.
It would take him six months to reach England. He had no time to waste. He pushed to his feet and headed for the door.
Stephen grabbed the documents from the table, then shoved them into his pocket as he rushed after Jagger. "Wait."
"This discussion is over," Jagger snarled. He did not need to marry this girl to gain his revenge-even if she was the sister of his father's worst enemy.
His thoughts turned to more pressing matters. He had no idea how long he would be away. He had contracts to sign, shipments to arrange. His man of affairs would have to-
Stephen grabbed his arm. "Someone is trying to kill me."
That snapped Jagger's attention back to the present. "Good God, man. You tell me this now? Who?"
"I do not know." Stephen rubbed the back of his neck. "Ever since I left London, there has been one attempt after another. At first, I thought it was a series of random accidents. Then two nights ago ..."
He pushed up his coat and shirtsleeves. A long, ugly gash rent his skin from wrist to elbow. "I was attacked by a man with a knife. He jumped out of an alley as I walked by. I did not recognize him, but it was no accident. He meant to kill me." He lifted his gaze to Jagger's. "Had he succeeded, I shudder to think what would have happened to Sophie."
Jagger groaned as he felt the shackles of matrimony clamp around his legs. He searched for an excuse, for any honorable means of escape from the trap the earl had skillfully woven around him.
"What you need is a bodyguard," he growled.
Stephen sliced his hand through the air. "No. I need a man I can trust. A man who will fight to protect what is his, who will guard my sister with his life. There is no one else I trust in this, but you.
"Besides," he added, ramming his words home with deadly precision, "you owe me."
Chapter TwoNorfolk, England 1817
"I do not understand why you persist in doing the servants' work," a stinging voice said from behind her.
Sophie Treneham gave the mahogany banister one last swipe with the dust cloth before she turned to face her companion, a distant cousin from her stepbrother's side of the family.
Lynthea Washburn stared at her through narrowed gray eyes. Her red hair, artfully arranged about her face in a flurry of delicate curls, did nothing to soften the tightness of her lips or the sharp angle of her chin lifted in haughty disdain.
Sophie curled her mouth into what she hoped would pass for a smile. She silently cursed her brother for forcing Thea's company upon her. He'd said he wanted her to have a companion close to her own age, but Sophie rather thought she would have preferred it if he had bought her a dog. Then she felt mean and petty. She knew Thea had nowhere else to go. For if she did, she certainly would not remain here in exile with Sophie.
She wanted to warn Thea to smile or her face would freeze like that, but she bit her tongue.
"I like to keep busy," she said instead. Or rather, she needed to keep busy. The alternative was to sit and think, and thinking was the last thing she wanted to do.
Thea plunked her hands on her hips. "Can you not at least do something more befitting of a lady? Despite your, er, unfortunate circumstances, you are still the sister of an earl."
"Stepsister," Sophie said, turning back to the gleaming banister. The fresh scent of beeswax filled the air as she rubbed her dust cloth over the intricate pattern of flowers and leaves she had just finished polishing.
Unfortunate circumstances, indeed. "And what would you have me do? Unlike you, I do not enjoy watercolors or stitchery. Nor do I have the time."
"You could practice on the pianoforte. Or study your French. Honestly, I do not understand it. Lord Hallowell has let you run wild. I mean to give him a piece of my mind when he comes home."
If he comes home, Sophie thought. So much time had passed, she was beginning to doubt he would ever return. Maybe the rumors were true. Maybe he had fled the country for good. Or maybe he was dead-no, she would not believe that!
Excerpted from Forever Yours by Janmarie Anello Copyright © 2007 by Janmarie Pizzanello. Excerpted by permission.
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