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That letter was quite a shock," Lady Valery finished.
"What letter?" Mary asked.
"The blackmail letter." Lady Valery dusted her fingers together as if the mere mention made them feel dirty.
"Does your housekeeper know anything about that" Lord Whitfield doubted Mary in every way. He'd made it clear before; he showed it now with that nasty half smile and his skeptical tone of voice.
"I have free access to everything here!" Mary wanted to convince him of her innocence in this matter, at least. "Why would I have stolen a diary when I could have had jewels?"
"The diary is worth more than the crown jewels." He stood, and Mary shrank back. He observed and found her guilty, she was sure, but he did no more than remove his jacket. Such informality was his right, of course. This was his godmother's home, and he remained decently covered by a double-breasted waistcoat. His white shirtsleeves covered his arms, but somewhere during the journey he'd untied his cravat, which hung in limp strands around his neck. Slowly he pulled it away and tossed it over an ottoman with his jacket.
Mary's fingers itched to pick up his apparel and hang it on a hook, but she subdued her housekeeperly instincts.
He sat once more, sideways in the chair, and hooked one knee over the wooden arm.
To Mary, schooled to rigidity, his sprawl bespoke a lack of respect, almost...intimacy. She glanced at Lady Valery, but Lady Valery seemed affectionately amused at his discourtesy.
"There's to be a house party at Fairchild Manor," he said.
She took a long breath and with a courtesy born of desperation, said, "There is always a house party at Fairchild Manor."
"I haven't been invited," he said.
"Do you think I have?"
"Of course not. The Fairchilds don't know where you are." He observed her closely. "I wonder why."
Panic writhed in the pit of her stomach. She'd trained herself to listen when the occasional guests visited, and never had she heard the name of Guinevere Mary Fairchild mentioned as a fugitive from justice. But this man seemed to be demanding that she revive Mary's vanished spirit, and with it, the specter of disgrace, imprisonment, and death. She scarcely unclenched her jaw as she replied, "I can be no help to you. When my father died, we begged my grandfather for help and he refused us. There's no reason for the family to welcome us now."
Funny. She was usually more discreet. "Hadden and me. My brother and me."
"So Charlie had an heir."
He made a statement, but it sounded as if he were musing, or worse, remembering, and she didn't want that. Not if he truly didn't remember that night. "As I said, the Fairchilds would not welcome me."
Clearly he realized her discomfort, but this was a man who liked to have the upper hand. He relaxed back into the upholstered Chippendale chair.
She comprehended his scheme. Thinking her uncowed by the threat of arrest, he threatened her with himself. Beneath the thin white linen of his shirt, she could see a thatch of dark hair over a well-muscled chest, and his shoulders resembled a prize-fighter's more than a nobleman's. His hands, she'd already noted, and his face ... well, she'd seen executioners less austere.
Yes, he was threatening her.
"I can't help you."
"But you must, my dear. Half of the town has been invited, including some very powerful men. I have no doubt the exchange of diary for money will occur during the party."
"I'll use you as a distraction while I search for the diary, and that distraction will be a pervasive one."
Oh, she would be a distraction, all right. Especially if one of the nobles at the house party recognized her.
"I assure you, I've anticipated every possible obstacle."
"You see" -- he leaned forward, his eyes as gray and cold as the night fog she feared -- "you are going to be my betrothed."
Copyright © 1997 by Christina Dodd. Reproduced in arrangement with Avon Books and the author. All rights reserved.