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It was the sound of her laughter, rich and melodic, sensuously feminine, that changed his life forever.
Standing beneath a crystal-chandelier in the Marquess of Wester's elegant ballroom, Randall Elliott Clayton, seventh Duke of Beldon, turned in search of the sound, not the laughter of a missish young girl, but the inviting, unaffected mirth of a woman.
Rand's gaze traveled over the crush of expensively garbed men and women, his mind conjuring images of a dark sensuous beauty with heavy-lidded, black-fringed eyes, though logic told him such an open, uninhibited laugh could come only from an aging matron no longer governed by the dictates of society.
Taller than most of the men in the room, he spotted her quickly. She was younger than he had imagined, perhaps no more than twenty, not dark and exotic but exactly the opposite, with fiery, gold-tipped red hair and clear green eyes. Her skin was neither dark nor pale, but glowed as if she had spent time in the sun.
"I see you have discovered the guest of honor."
Rand turned to find his best friend, Nicholas Warring, Earl of Ravenworth, standing beside him. Black-haired and dark-skinned, nearly as tall as Rand, Nick was handsome and intelligent, but his past was nebulous, and there was an underlying toughness about him that kept people away.
"Who is she?" Rand asked, careful to keep his tone nonchalant, though it wasn't the least how he was feeling.
"Her name is Caitlin Harmon. Her father is Donovan Harmon, an American professor of antiquities."
Rand took a drink of his champagne, studying the petite woman over the rim. "American ... yes ..." In the course of his thirty-one years, he had bedded quite a number of them. American women didn't seem to abide by the same moral dictates as English women, not even those who were as yet unmarried. They often traveled about unchaperoned and apparently lived their lives as they saw fit, an attitude he found quite useful.
"I gather they've been living on some island off the coast of Africa for the past several years," Nick said. "You may have read about him in the newspapers."
Indeed he had. Professor Harmon and his ongoing quest for the infamous Cleopatra's Necklace. Now that he thought of it, he remembered the article also mentioned Harmon's daughter and that she worked closely with him.
Rand's probing glance found her again, small and shapely, with high, full breasts that rose above the neckline of her gown. Lovely in the extreme, he thought, feeling an unexpected heaviness in his groin. He had always liked women. Enjoyed their company, and of course their companionship in bed. He liked the looks of this one. Too easily, he could imagine stripping away the layers of her emerald silk gown and pulling the pins from all that softly curling red hair.
Inwardly, he smiled. And she was American, he reminded himself, thinking of the possibilities that might present. Perhaps he had been right about the womanly laughter. Rand hoped so. He couldn't remember when the sound of a woman's voice had affected him so profoundly.
* * *
Caitlin Eleanor Harmon took a sip of punch from the silver cup she held in her hand, but she didn't really taste it. All evening she had been smiling and nodding, answering the same questions over and over, repeating information about her father's upcoming expedition in an effort to help him raise the money he needed—the reason they had journeyed to England.
Cait sighed. She couldn't help thinking that in the course of the evening she had pretended interest in some of the dullest conversation she had listened to in years. Fortunately, for the moment at least, she'd been rescued by her hostess and newfound friend, Margaret Sutton, Lady Trent. Since then, Cait's thoughts had shifted from buried treasure to a far more interesting topic.
She took another sip of her punch, focusing her attention on the tall, broad-shouldered figure she watched covertly above the cup's silver rim.
"There's a man across the way," she said to Lady Trent, "the tall one beneath the chandelier. Who is he?"
Blond and blue-eyed, Maggie Sutton was five years older, but she didn't seem so. The nearly nine years she had spent in a convent had left her with an innocence that made her appear far younger. Her husband was the Marquess of Trent and it was his interest in Cait's father's project that had brought Cait and Maggie together. Considering how badly Cait had yearned for female companionship those past two years, the marchioness was truly a godsend.
Maggie's gaze followed Cait's, coming to rest on the two men conversing on the opposite side of the dance floor.
"Believe it or not, that handsome black-haired devil is my brother, Nick. Nicky is the Earl of Ravenworth and, aside from my husband, my favorite person in the world. But you are referring to the other man, are you not? The one who has been looking at you as if he would eat you with a spoon if he could."
Cait laughed. She wouldn't have phrased it quite that way, but it was difficult not to notice such a man's inter est. "The bigger man, yes. The one with the dark eyes and coffee-brown hair."
"And a set of shoulders that barely fit through the ballroom door? Along with your intelligence, it is also clear you have excellent taste in men. That, my dear, is the Duke of Beldon. Rand Clayton is perhaps the most eligible bachelor in London. He is wealthy in the extreme, certainly one of the handsomest and most charming men in the city, and also quite possibly the most dangerous—at least when it comes to women."
Cait could see exactly what Maggie meant. With his tall, muscular build, handsome profile, and faintly arrogant stance, the duke had a presence no woman—nor man for that matter—could miss. He exuded power and authority, and even from a distance, whenever he looked at her, she could feel those fierce brown eyes like a fire burning' into her flesh.
It was unfortunate that he was a duke, she thought with a pang of regret. Aside from the small, select group of friends she and her father had made since their arrival, Cait had found most of the aristocracy to be arrogant, self-centered, and spoiled. Through the accident of their birth, they considered themselves above the common man. A duke, at the top of the aristocratic pyramid aside from actual royalty, would probably be worse than the rest.
From beneath her lashes, Cait studied the man, saw that he was watching her in return, felt the fire of his powerful gaze as he began to stride in her direction, and a shiver of warning ran through her. He shouldered his way through the throng of people clustered around the dance floor and strode toward her, his body moving with purpose and grace. Even at a distance, she could feel the fire shooting like sparks between them, feel the heat and the sensuous pull. The thought occurred that if she had a lick of sense, she would turn tail and run.
But then, Caitlin had never been afraid of fire, even as a child. And she loved nothing better than a challenge.
Instead, when the duke appeared in front of her a few moments later, Cait looked into that arrogant, sinfully handsome face and smiled.
"Your Grace ..." Maggie turned to make the introductions. "I should like to present my friend, Miss Caitlin Harmon."
The duke's dark eyes held hers. She knew she was staring, had been since the moment she had seen him, but then so was he, those intense brown eyes locked with hers as if there wasn't another person in the room. She noticed they were flecked with gold, giving them an odd sort of warmth.
He bowed formally over her hand. "A pleasure, Miss Harmon. I've looked forward to making your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is mine ... Your Grace." The last two words didn't come out as smoothly as she had intended. With the rest of the nobility, she played by the rules of British society, but somehow with Beldon, it galled her to address him as if he were better than she.
His dark eyes brightened with a trace of amusement. Clearly, he had guessed her thoughts. "You're American, I gather."
"I was born in Boston. That is about as American as it gets." Her smile held a hint of challenge. "You might remember the Boston Tea Party."
Maggie's blond eyebrows shot up. The duke merely smiled. "That was long before my time. Besides, the war is over. You might remember that, Miss Harmon."
"Yes ... well that is certainly true. If memory serves, it ended with the passage of the Bill of Rights, making all men equal. I don't believe that sort of thinking is common in this country—or am I mistaken ... Your Grace?"
Beldon's mouth curved up. "You're quite mistaken, Miss Harmon. Here in England we know all about equality. We simply believe some men are more equal than others." Those hot brown eyes met hers, sparkling with amusement and something more.
The beating of her heart increased to an uncomfortable pitch and the air seemed to heat between them. When his smile grew broader and a dimple formed in his left cheek, it occurred to her that, duke or not, arrogant and spoiled as she was certain he was, the Duke of Beldon was a dangerously attractive man.
Briefly, he turned to Lady Trent. "Your brother would like a word with you, Maggie. I'll be happy to keep Miss Harmon company until your return."
Maggie flashed a look at the black-haired man across the dance floor. "I trust she'll be in good hands," she said with a trace of warning.
"Undoubtedly," the duke agreed.
"I shan't be long," Maggie said to Cait. With a last pointed glance at Beldon, she took her leave, heading toward her tall, darkly handsome brother on the opposite side of the ballroom.
The duke's attention swung back to her. "Since we both agree the war is over, how about a truce, Miss Harmon?"
She couldn't help a smile. There was something about the duke that was hard to resist. "All right, a truce." The Your Grace went unsaid. "At least for now."
His lips twitched. He lifted a glass of champagne off a passing servant's tray and took a drink. "Rumor has it, you and your father have been living on an island off Africa for the past several years. Rather out of the social whirl, I imagine."
She recalled the primitive living conditions she had endured on Santo Amaro. "That is to say the least."
"Still, I have watched you dancing. You do so admirably for a lady who has lived away from civilization for so long. Do you also waltz, Miss Harmon?"
Cait flicked him an assessing glance. Even in America the waltz was considered somewhat daring. Though she had never actually done it, she knew the steps. Thanks to her father, she was as well educated as any man, and as far as she was concerned there was nothing the least bit scandalous about a waltz.
Still, it was clearly a challenge, perhaps a result of the slight in her form of address. Reminding herself she was there on a mission to help her father and that the duke was a potential contributor, she decided the use of his title was little price to pay.
"I believe, Your Grace, they are playing a contradance at present." She turned to survey the floor, saw that the music was just ending. As if by some hidden cue—which Cait was certain there had been—the orchestra struck up the chords of a waltz.
"Do I take that to mean you do not?" he pressed.
A smile blossomed of its own accord. "I suppose I could try—if you are willing to risk getting your very shiny shoes stepped on."
The duke laughed and flashed her a charming grin. "I believe I am willing to risk it." Leading her onto the dance floor, he placed his hand on her waist while hers found his wide shoulder, then he was sweeping her into the dance, whirling her around the floor with an ease she couldn't have imagined. For a moment, conversation seemed to slow as a dozen pairs of eyes swung in their direction. Then several other couples joined in, including Lord and Lady Trent, clearly there to lend respectability to the dance.
"I believe you've made a friend," the duke remarked as he led her into a graceful turn. "Maggie is extremely protective of those she takes under her wing. You' re lucky to have won her support."
"And I am more than grateful. I think having a female friend was the thing I missed most in the years I was away."
"I gather your father and Lord Trent are also friends."
She nodded. "Lord Trent has a passionate interest in history. He and my father began corresponding several years back, when proof of the necklace first began to surface."
"Cleopatra's Necklace, as I understand it. Quite a treasure, I would guess."
"It would certainly be an important find. Including the years of study he's done, my father's been searching for the necklace for nearly four years." Cait stared into the duke's handsome face, but it was difficult to concentrate. Not when his big warm hand rode at her waist and a muscular thigh brushed intimately between her legs with every turn. He was incredibly graceful for a man of his height and build, making his steps easy to follow. She reminded herself that he was a duke and they had nothing at all in common.
Still, the music was entrancing and the rhythm of the dance began to lull her.
"It's like floating," she said, closing her eyes for a moment, absorbing the melody and the cool air rushing past her cheeks.
His hold tightened almost imperceptibly, drawing her closer still. "You dance beautifully." His eyes found hers when she looked up at him. "And fool that I am, I thought that you were a novice."
Cait smiled. "I had a dancing instructor who taught me the steps, but this is the first time I've actually tried it. My father was a stickler for education."
His mouth curved faintly, the most sensuous lips she'd ever seen. "Being a professor, I imagine he would be."
"Yes ..." The word came out breathy and far away. She tried to tell herself she shouldn't be attracted to a man like him, but that didn't keep her heart from beating too fast or her mouth from drying to the texture of cotton. Good heavens, she had danced with men before. Still, she couldn't recall even one who'd been able to make her feel as if she had lost her wits.
When the music came to an end, she barely noticed, and oddly, neither did he. They might have gone right on dancing if it hadn't been for Lord and Lady Trent, who managed to place themselves in the duke's path at exactly the right moment to prevent them from being embarrassed.
Beldon smiled down at Lord Trent, who was shorter, well built, and also extremely good-looking.
"Sorry," the duke said. "I guess I should have been paying attention." But when he looked at Cait, she saw that he wasn't the least bit repentant, and his big hand still rode at her waist.
"It's getting late," the marquess said pointedly. "I'm afraid it's time for us to leave." Since Caitlin and her father were currently Lord Trent's houseguests, that meant she was leaving, as well. Cait felt a thread of disappointment.
She gave the duke a tentative smile. "Perhaps our paths will cross again, Your Grace."
Taking her hand, he made an elegant bow. "You may count on it, Miss Harmon." He raised her fingers to his lips and an odd little tingle ran up her arm. Cait did her best to ignore it.
But several hours later, as she lay beneath the rose silk canopy on her bed in the marquess's lavish town house, she pondered those parting words. Would she see him again, as he had said?
The sudden quickening of her pulse said how very much she wanted that to occur.
Sitting in his solicitor's oak-paneled office on Threadneedle Street, Rand Clayton, Duke of Beldon, studied the blue-inked columns in the ledger, staring at the numbers so long his vision began to blur.
He couldn't imagine a life without problems. Without duties and responsibilities. For a few brief hours last night, dancing with the stunning little American at Wester's ball, he'd had a respite from his demanding life. He'd enjoyed their playful bit of sparring and laughed as if he hadn't a care.
Ah, but that was last night and this was today The pressures had returned and his mind focused once more on his duties.
Hundreds of people relied on him.
It bothered him to think he had failed even one of them.
He stared back down at the ledgers, books that had formerly belonged to his youngest cousin. "Whoever it was, the bastard managed to pluck the boy clean. In less than twelve months, Jonathan invested nearly every dime of his inheritance."
His solicitor, Ephram Barclay frowned. "Young Jonathan was never satisfied. He always wanted more. He was determined to make his fortune and in doing so prove himself. In the end, his ambition was his destruction."
Rand leaned back in the deep leather chair on the opposite side of Ephram's desk and rubbed his eyes, feeling suddenly weary. "The boy was too damned trusting. If he had just come to me—"
"If he had come to you, Your Grace, you would have told him the venture was too risky. Jonathan believed that in order to make his fortune he would have to take those sorts of risks. Unfortunately, he was unprepared for the consequences."
And those consequences were severe, indeed. Being humiliated in front of his friends, losing his prized membership at Almack's, facing a mountain of debts he had no means to pay. Rather than ask for help, at the age of two and twenty, young Jonathan Randall Clayton had taken his own life. Two weeks ago, a groom had found his body hanging from the rafters in the stables of the family estate he had mortgaged and lost to his creditors.
"Whatever mistakes he might have made," Rand said, "Jonathan was a good boy. With his mother and father dead, I should have kept a closer eye on him. I can't help feeling this is partly my fault."
Ephram leaned over his desk, a tall, thin, gray-haired man who had managed Beldon affairs for the past twenty years. "You mustn't blame yourself. You had no idea what the lad was doing. The boy only came into his inheritance last year. Who would have thought he would invest it so unwisely—or that after he failed, he would take the rash course of action he did?"
But Rand still blamed himself. Jonathan was young and impressionable. For years, the boy had vowed to rebuild his fortune from the small inheritance his father, Rand's uncle, had left him. Instead he had lost what little remaining money the family still had, and fallen into such despair he had killed himself.
Rand looked back down at the account sheet. "There's no mention here of where the money went."
"No, not there." Ephram reached for another sheet, laid it over the first. "As you can see, almost all of the money went to Merriweather Shipping. It was intended for the purchase of copra from the West Indies. A successful venture would have doubled your cousin's investment. Unfortunately, the ship sank in a storm at sea with the loss of all hands, and Jonathan lost his money, all the funds he had in the world."
Rand heard something in Ephram's voice. The man had been a trusted confidant since Rand's father had died and Rand had inherited the dukedom. "All right, my friend. Obviously, there is more to all of this. You may as well tell me."
Ephram pulled off his wire-rimmed spectacles and rested them on the top of the polished oak desk. "Knowing you as I do, I thought you would want to know as much about Merriweather Shipping as I could find out. I've been doing some checking ... not the usual sort, you understand, but the kind that involves an exchange of money into the right hands. It seems Merriweather Shipping has had more than one of their ships conveniently go down—and a number of investors have lost goodly sums of money."
Rand's muscles went tense. "What are you implying, Ephram?"
"I'm saying these cargoes were completely financed with investors' money. If the ship didn't sink but actually landed somewhere other than England, the entire profit would have gone to the owners."
Rand leaned forward in his chair. "Are you telling me the venture was a fraud?"
"I'm saying it's possible that Merriweather Shipping may have faked the sinking, changed the name of the vessel, and landed the ship somewhere else. The profit would have been enormous."
A knot of cold fury tightened in the pit of Rand's stomach. His cousin was dead, a young man with a future that could have been bright and shiny. Instead he lay moldering in an icy grave.
Rand looked at Ephram with cold, hard purpose. "I want to know what happened to that ship, And I want to know everything there is to know about Merriweather Shipping. I want to know who runs it, and especially who raises the money for its ventures."
On the arm of his chair, his hand unconsciously listed. "I want to know what happened to my cousin, I won't stop until I find out if Jonathan's death was simply a result of bad judgment—or if some greedy bastard took advantage of his trust and drove him to it."
Excerpted from Perfect Sin by Kat Martin. Copyright © 2000 by Kat Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.