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"Isabelle Montgomery, I presume?"
"No, the Queen of Sheba," Isabelle answered in the most sarcastic tone of voice she could summon. She arched a perfectly shaped blond brow at him and drawled, "The Duke of Avon, I presume?"
"No, the fifteenth Duke of Doom," John told her. "I am also the tenth Marquess of Mean and the twelfth Earl of--" He hesitated as if searching for the correct word.
"The Earl of Egads?" Isabelle supplied, her lips twitching with the urge to laugh in spite of her reluctance to like the man.
"Precisely." The Duke of Avon gave her a wickedly handsome, thoroughly devastating smile. "I see that my reputation precedes me."
"Indeed it does, Your Grace." Isabelle succumbed to the smile she'd been struggling against.
Sweet celestial breath, Isabelle thought, wiping the smile off her face. She'd wanted to insult the man into leaving Arden Hall. She would never have guessed that the duke possessed such an easygoing nature that he'd joke with her in the face of her impertinent provocation.
"What a sly charmer he is."
Isabelle turned her head and looked in the direction of the hearth where her old friend sat. Does he seem familiar to you?
Giselle smiled ambiguously and shrugged.
"He seems familiar to me," Isabelle muttered in a voice barely loud enough to hear.
"To whom are you speaking?"
Isabelle whirled back toward the duke and shook her head. "I have a habit of thinking out loud," she tried to explain her odd behavior.
"Who looks familiar?" John asked.
"You do," Isabelle answered. "I feel I've seen you somewhere before."
"If we'd metbefore," John said, walking around the desk toward her, "I'm certain I would have remembered you." He stopped in front of her, and Isabelle had to tilt her head back in order to meet his gaze. "I watched you walking across the lawns," he added. "You were--"
"Thinking out loud, Your Grace," Isabelle finished for him.
Ever so slowly, the Duke of Avon slid his midnight-black gaze down the length of her body. "Why are you dressed like a servant?" he asked when his gaze returned to hers.
"Have you ridden to Arden Hall to criticize me?" Isabelle challenged him, her gaze fixed on his, every nerve in her body trembling. "If so, you'll need to get in line behind my stepfamily."
The Duke of Avon leaned back against the edge of the desk and folded his arms across his chest. "Do you have an invisible friend?" he asked bluntly.
"Ah, you've had the pleasure of meeting Lobelia and Rue."
That devastating smile of his appeared, confounding her. "If those two were my stepsisters, I'd invent an invisible friend too."
"With all due respect, Your Grace, do not patronize me." Isabelle unfastened her cloak and tossed it on top of the desk. Then she walked around the desk and sat in her brother's chair in an unspoken challenge that she, not he, was in charge of Montgomery affairs.
The duke turned around to face her, his expression telling her that he knew her ploy. "Call me John," he said in a husky voice.
Isabelle stared down at the top of the desk and refused to spare him even one small glance. "Your Grace, I don't know you well enough to use your given name," she said in refusal.
"You don't like me, do you?" the duke asked baldly.
Isabelle felt the heated blush rising upon her cheeks. Of all the things he could have said, that remark was not the one she'd expected.
"You are a stranger to me, Your Grace," Isabelle replied, refusing to let him embarrass her into meddling in Montgomery affairs. "Like or dislike has no significance to this business between us."
"The handsome devil certainly has you flustered."
Isabelle glared at her old friend.
"What is so interesting about that hearth?"
Isabelle snapped her head around to look at the duke. She blushed and then inwardly cursed herself for letting the man fluster her. She took a calming breath and asked, "What is it you wish to discuss, Your Grace?"
The duke gestured to the chairs in front of the hearth and asked, "Shall we sit down and discuss this gently?"
"I'm already sitting, Your Grace," Isabelle replied, a mulish expression upon her face.
Walking around the desk to stand beside her, he offered her his hand, saying, "Please, Mistress Montgomery, humor an illustrious peer of the realm."
Isabelle looked from his offered hand to his eyes, blacker than a moonless midnight, and became caught in their fathomless depths. Acting on instinct, she placed her hand in his and rose from her chair. His touch was firm yet gentle as he guided her across the study toward the hearth.
Isabelle sat down in one of the vacant chairs. "Oh, don't sit there," she cried when he moved to sit in the other chair.
John stopped short and stared at her in obvious surprise.
How was she to explain this? The duke couldn't know that he'd been about to sit on her guardian angel.
"I'll move," Giselle said.
Covering her blunder, Isabelle reached out and brushed nonexistent lint from the chair's cushion. "You may sit down now," she said, managing a smile.
Isabelle breathed a sigh of relief when his expression cleared, and he sat down beside her. She nervously fingered her golden locket and hoped her mother's spirit would give her the strength to see her through this difficult interview.
"That's an interesting locket," John remarked, noting her movement. "Is it an heirloom?"
"I carry my mother's miniature inside it," Isabelle told him, dropping her hands to her lap. She certainly didn't want him to realize how nervous she felt.
"Oh, may I see it?" he asked, obviously trying to be pleasant.
"My mother's image is meant only for me," Isabelle said, reaching up to cover the locket with one hand. "Get on with your business."
"Bloody hell, have you no social graces?" the duke asked. "However will I--"
"Your Grace, I really must protest your vocabulary," Isabelle interrupted. "And spoken in anger too."
"A man would need the patience of a saint in order to hold his temper when dealing with you," John shot back.
Feeling unaccountably guilty about her rudeness, Isabelle cast him an unconsciously flirtatious smile and said, "Ah, yes, I hear the clinking of the black stone falling onto your spiritual scale."
"To what do you refer?" he asked.
"The angels drop white or black stones onto a person's opposing scales of spirit in order to keep track of the soul's virtue or sin," Isabelle explained. "You, Your Grace, just earned yourself a black stone, while I earned myself a white stone for warning a sinner."
The duke smiled. "So, will I earn myself a white stone if I wander the streets of London and warn sinners of their folly?"
"Warning the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy," Isabelle told him. "There are thirteen other works of mercy you may perform in order to earn yourself white stones."
"And what would they be?" John asked, stretching his long legs out in front of him.
"Warning the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowing, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, and praying for the living and the dead," Isabelle informed him. "The corporal works of mercy are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead."
"How about bedding the frustrated?" he quipped.
"God mend your words," Isabelle gasped, shocked by his vulgarity. Hearing the old woman's chuckle, she said without thinking, "Lust isn't funny."