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Euphemia Marlington considered poisoning the Duke of Carlisle. After all, in the harem poison was a perfectly reasonable solution to one's problems.
Unfortunately, poison was not the answer to this particular problem.
First, she had no poison, or any idea how one acquired such a thing in this cold, confusing country.
Second, and far more important, poisoning one's father was considered bad ton.
The Duke of Carlisle could have no idea what was going through his daughter's mind as he paced a circuit around his massive mahogany desk, his voice droning on in a now familiar lecture. Mia ensured her father's ignorance by keeping her expression meek and mild, a skill she had perfected during the seventeen years she'd spent in Baba Hassan's palace. Appearing serene while entertaining murderous thoughts made up a large part of days spent among sixty or so women, at least fifty of whom would have liked to see her dead.
Mia realized the duke's cavernous study had gone silent. She looked up to find a pair of green eyes blazing down at her.
"Are you listening to me, Euphemia?" His bristly auburn eyebrows arched like angry red caterpillars.
Mia cursed her wandering attention. "I am sorry, Your Grace, but I did not fully comprehend." It was a small lie, and one that had worked well several times in the past six weeks. While it was true she still thought in Arabic, Mia understood English perfectly well.
Unless her attention had wandered.
The duke's suspicious glare told her claiming a language-related misunderstanding was no longer as compelling as it had been weeks before.
"I said, you must take care what you disclose to people. I have gone to great lengths to conceal the more lurid details of your past. Talk of beheadings, poisonings, and, er ... eunuchs makes my task far more difficult." Her father's pale skin darkened at being forced to articulate the word eunuch.
Mia ducked her head to hide a smile.
The duke — apparently interpreting her bowed head as a sign of contrition — resumed pacing, the thick brown and gold Aubusson carpet muffling the sounds of his booted feet. He cleared his throat several times, as if to scour his mouth of the distasteful syllables he'd just been forced to utter, and continued.
"My efforts on your behalf have been promising, but that will change if you insist on disclosing every last sordid detail of your past."
Not every detail, Mia thought as she eyed her father from beneath lowered lashes. How would the duke react if she told him about the existence of her seventeen-year-old son, Jibril? Or if she described — in sordid detail — some of Sultan Babba Hassan's more exotic perversions? Was it better to appall him with the truth or to allow him to continue treating her as if she were a girl of fifteen, rather than a woman of almost three and thirty?
The answer to that question was obvious: the truth would serve nobody's interest, least of all Mia's.
"I am sorry, Your Grace," she murmured.
The duke grunted and resumed his journey around the room. "Your cousin assures me you've worked hard to conduct yourself in a respectable manner. However, after this latest fiasco — " He shook his head, lines creasing his otherwise smooth brow.
Her father was referring to a dinner party at which she'd stated that beheading criminals was more humane than hanging them. How could Mia have known that such a simple statement would cause such consternation?
The duke stopped in front of her again. "I am concerned your cousin Rebecca is not firm enough with you. Perhaps you would benefit from a stricter hand — your aunt Philippa's, for instance?"
Mia winced. A single week under her aunt Philippa's gimlet eye had been more terrifying than seventeen years in a harem full of scheming women.
The duke nodded, an unpleasant expression taking possession of his handsome features. "Yes, I can see that in spite of the language barrier you understand how your life would change were I to send you to live at Burnewood Park with my sister."
The horrid suggestion made Mia's body twitch to prostrate itself — an action she'd employed with Babba Hassan whenever she'd faced his displeasure; displeasure that caused more than one woman to lose her head. Luckily, Mia restrained the impulse before she could act on it. The last time she'd employed the gesture of humble respect — the day she'd arrived in England — the duke had been mortified into speechlessness to find his daughter groveling at his well-shod feet.
She bowed her head, instead. "I should not care to live with Aunt Philippa, Your Grace."
The duke's sigh floated above her head like the distant rumble of thunder. "Look at me, Euphemia." Mia looked up. Her father's stern features were tinged with resignation. "I would have thought you would wish to forget your wretched past and begin a new life. You are no longer young, of course, but you are still attractive and within childbearing years. Your history is something of an ... obstacle." He stopped, as if nonplussed by the inadequacy of the word. "But there are several respectable men who are quite willing to marry you. You must cultivate acceptance and learn to accept minor, er, shortcomings in your suitors."
Shortcomings. The word caused an almost hysterical bubble of mirth to rise in her throat. What the duke really meant was the only men willing to take an older woman with a dubious past were senile, hideous, brainless, diseased, or some combination thereof.
She said, "Yes, Your Grace."
"I know these are not the handsome princes of girlish fantasies, but you are no longer a girl, Euphemia." His tone was matter-of-fact, as if he were speaking about the state of Carlisle House's drains, rather than his only daughter's happiness. "If you do not mend your ways soon, even these few choices will disappear and the only course open to you will be a quiet life at Burnewood Park, and we both know you don't wish for that." He let those words sit for a moment before continuing. "The Season is almost over and it is time you made a decision about your future. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Your Grace, I understand." All too well. Her father wished to have Mia off his hands before she did something so scandalous she would be unmarriageable.
"Very good, then." The duke's forehead reverted to its smooth, unlined state. "This ball tonight will be an excellent opportunity to further your acquaintance with several of the men who have expressed an interest in you. You need merely behave with decorum and enjoy yourself — ah, within reason, of course." He patted her on the shoulder, returned to his chair, and resumed examining his ledger.
The audience was at an end.
Outside the duke's study a pair of towering footmen stood sentry. One of them broke from his frozen state long enough to close the door behind her.
"Thank you," Mia said, even though she knew it was not done to thank servants.
The man's eyes remained fixed on some point over her left shoulder but a dull flush climbed up the muscular column of his throat.
Mia had been back in England for weeks but she was still distracted by the presence of attractive men who weren't eunuchs. That fascination often worked both ways and she could feel the weight of curious eyes on her back as she made her way toward the library.
It was the same no matter whether she went to a shop or a ball or her family's dining room; people were desperate to learn more about the Duke of Carlisle's mysterious daughter. Her father's servants, the crowds of strangers who waited for hours outside Carlisle House every day just to catch a glimpse of her, and, most especially, the men who wrote for the various scandal sheets available on every street corner in London.
Newspapermen couldn't generate stories about her fast enough to satisfy their hungry readers. The most intrepid men had tried to get those stories firsthand. They had climbed into Mia's carriage — once while it was still moving; hidden in the boot of the duke's town coach; and sneaked into the fitting room at her favorite modiste. One enterprising man had even masqueraded as a female and secured a scullery maid position at Carlisle House.
The entire country clamored to know more about Mia's mysterious past. Everyone, that was, except the members of her own family, who lived in a state of perpetual terror that she would do or say something horrific to push their family name beyond the pale.
Mia opened the library door and stopped. Her younger brother sat at the massive desk that dominated the far side of the book-lined room. Only the top of his head was visible above the teetering piles of books and papers. She stifled a groan. Was there nowhere in this enormous house she could be alone and think? She met her brother's startled green eyes.
"I'm sorry, Cian. I did not know you were working. I will leave you to your studies." She began backing out of the room but Cian leapt to his feet.
"Please, stay. I'd love your company." He gestured to the mountain of books. "I'm having a wretched time thinking today."
Mia sighed and closed the library door behind her.
"You think too much, Cian." She crossed the gleaming expanse of dark wood between them and lowered herself onto the oxblood leather sofa across from his desk.
"So Father says."
Mia grimaced. "Ah, Father." She pulled on the ribbons that held her thin kid slippers to her ankles and kicked them off before tucking her feet beneath her. She looked up to find Cian staring and held up a hand. "Please, Brother, I have just come from one scolding. Do not give me another."
Cian shook his head, the action causing a lock of auburn hair to fall over his brow. "I don't give a rap how you sit, Mia. But you know Father does. You'd better get used to rakings if you insist on sitting that way." He shifted a stack of books to one side to see her better. "But enough of that. Tell me, are you excited about tonight?"
"I am not jesting. Tonight is just another opportunity for me to do or say something mortifying and draw Father's censure."
"Oh come, Mia. I've read nothing about you in the betting book at my club." He grinned. "Not in the past week, at any rate."
"Ha. Very amusing. I should think my behavior at the Charrings' ball provided enough to fill several books." Mia propped an elbow on the back of the settee and dropped her chin into her palm.
Cian's smile faded. "You must forget about that, er, incident, Mia. I've not heard it mentioned in ages."
That incident was Mia's disastrous first ball. Mia thought her brother's reassurance was naïve and optimistic. Just because men were no longer putting wagers in betting books did not mean the matter had been forgotten.
"In any event," he continued. "I understand there will be numerous swains in attendance this evening."
Her brother appeared determined to put the best face on an event that was no better than a public auction.
Mia shrugged. "Yes, there will be no undesirables at tonight's dinner, only the finest pedigrees. After Father caught me talking to the scion of a coal magnate at the Powells' soiree, I now understand that wealth derived from coal or textiles is considered detrimental to the bloodline. Imbecility, decrepitude, and foppery are, however, quite acceptable."
Cian glanced at the door, as if somebody — the duke? — might be listening at the keyhole.
"My dear sister, you must curb your tongue if you are to catch even such men as fit those descriptions."
"So I've been told. Father also made it plain he would sequester me with Aunt Philippa for the remainder of my days if I did not marry by the end of the Season."
Cian opened his mouth, and then closed it again.
Something about her brother's forlorn expression pricked Mia's conscience. "Don't mind me, Cian, I'm still smarting from the scolding Father gave me."
"Do you know whom he has assembled for your perusal tonight?"
"Oh yes. I have seen the guest list." Mia struggled to keep her voice light, even though her blood hummed with fury at the men her father was offering for her consideration. "There will be placards on the table before each one: Lord Cranston — octogenarian, drools, mistakes me for one of his seven daughters and is in dire need of an heir and a new roof on his country house in Devon. Viscount Maugham, who is two and twenty, has skin as fair as a young girl's and a decided partiality for young boys."
Cian started so violently he dislodged a stack of books and fumbled to catch them before they slid to the floor. "Who told you such a thing?"
"I am two and thirty, Cian." She raised her brows. "Tell me, Brother, do I not speak the truth?" Cian remained mute but his bright red face made her smile. "Your countenance is most articulate." Indeed, Mia could not recall the last time she'd worn such roses on her cheeks. The sultan had used up her blushes years ago.
"You may know such a thing, Mia, but you cannot speak of it in company, and never around Father."
"I am not in company, Cian, I am with you. If I cannot speak openly with you, who else is there? Cousin Rebecca?"
"Good Lord, no!"
Mia heaved a sigh. "Oh, Cian, as if I would do such a foolish thing."
"No, no, I don't suppose you would." His green eyes were dazed and he stared at the cluttered surface of his desk before looking up. "If you must speak of such matters, you might as well do so with me — provided we are alone. I want you to give me your word you will never do so if anyone else might hear."
Mia gave him a look of disbelief, instead.
"I am serious, Mia — your word." Cian's stern mouth and piercing stare made his resemblance to their father more than a little marked, a comparison she doubted he would appreciate.
"Very well, Cian, I give you my word. Shall we spit on our palms and shake, as we used to do when we were young?"
Cian groaned and lowered his head into both hands.
"I was jesting," she said, laughing. "I vow I will not speak of such matters unless we are very much alone. Will that serve?"
Rather than a look of relief, two lines of worry grew between his eyes. "Surely not all your suitors are terrible?"
Mia wanted to comfort her brother almost as much as she wanted it for herself. It wasn't as if her marital requirements were stringent. She didn't expect love or companionship — far from it. All she wanted was indifference. The less interest her husband showed in her, the easier it would be for her to make plans to escape back to Oran.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the kind of thing she could share with Cian. Especially given the public embarrassment he'd suffer when she deserted whatever man she did marry. If only she could just disappear without all the bother and fuss of marriages and husbands. But her father had made that impossible by refusing to release anything but pin money until she was wedded. And even if she had enough money to purchase passage back to Oran, the strict watch the duke kept on her made organizing such an escape impossible. The sad truth was she had to marry.
Mia looked up and gave Cian a reassuring smile, the best she could offer under the circumstances. "In spite of all my complaining, I'm looking forward to tonight's ball." The relieved expression that spread across his face at her small lie was gratifying. She slipped her feet into her shoes, tied the ribbons, and stood.
"I will leave you to your studies." She braved the mountain of books and papers to kiss him on the cheek before turning to leave.
"Save a dance for your little brother," he called after her.
Mia closed the door and leaned against it. Should she tell Cian her plans? Was it possible she'd misjudged him? After all, he was not happy here, either. He spent most of his days buried in books to avoid the crushing expectations the duke laid upon him. Would he help her?
Mia pushed away from the door, shaking her head at such wishful thoughts. Cian might sympathize with her on matrimonial matters, but he would never understand her desire to return to Oran. Nor would he be happy to learn about the existence of her son. To any member of the Upper Ten Thousand — her own family included — her precious Jibril would be nothing but the half-caste bastard of a heathen savage.
No, finding her way back to her son was a task she must face alone. She could trust no one, not even her brother. The sooner she did as her father ordered and selected a husband, the sooner she could escape this horrible country and return to Jibril.
Mia would make her choice tonight, no matter how poor the options.
Excerpted from "Dangerous"
Copyright © 2018 Shantal M. LaViolette.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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