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The voice was low, mellow and familiar. It spoke in Sally's ear and she came awake abruptly. For a moment she could not remember where she was. Her neck ached slightly and her cheek was pressed against something cold.
She had fallen asleep in her office again. Her head was resting on the piles of invoices and orders that were on the desk. She half-opened her eyes. It was almost dark. The lamp glowed softly and from beyond the door drifted the faint sound of music, the babble of voices and the scent of cigar smoke and wine. That meant it must be late; the evening's entertainments at the Blue Parrot Club had already begun.
This time the voice sounded considerably less agreeable and more than a little impatient. Sally sat up, wincing as her stiff muscles protested, and rubbed her eyes. She blinked them open, stopped, stared, then rubbed them again to ensure that she was not dreaming.
She was not. He was still there.
Jack Kestrel was leaning forward, both hands on the top of her desk, which brought his dark eyes level with hers and put him approximately six inches away from her. From such an intimate distance Sally could not focus on all his features at once, but she remembered them clearly enough from the previous night. He was not a man one would forget in a hurry, for his appearance was very striking. He had dark brown hair, very silky looking and a little ruffled from the summer breeze, a nose that was straight and verging on the aquiline and a sinfully sensuous mouth. Sally was not generally impressed by good looks alone. She was no foolish débutante to lose her head over a handsome man. But Jack Kestrel had had charm to burn and she had enjoyed talking to him the previous night. She had enjoyed his company too much, in fact. Spending time with him had been dangerously seductive. It would have been all too easy to accept his escort, and then, perhaps, to accept an invitation to dinner
Sally had not been so tempted in a very long time and had known she could not afford to get to know Jack Kestrel any better. As soon as he had told her his name she had been wary, for all of Edwardian society knew who he was. The ancestral line of the Dukes of Kestrel had bred rakes and rogues aplenty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and there were those who said that this man was the last Kestrel rake, cut from the same cloth as his ancestors. Cousin to the present Duke, eventual heir to the dukedom, he had been banished abroad in his youth as a result of an outrageous scandal involving a married woman and had returned ten years later having made an independent fortune.
Sally could see why he had gained the reputation he had. There was certainly something powerfully virile about him. Women were supposed to swoon at his feet and she had no intention of joining their ranks and littering his path.
She realised that she was still staring at him. Suddenly hot, she dragged her gaze away from Jack's mouth and met his eyes. His expression was distinctly unfriendly. She drew back immediately, instinctively, and saw his gaze narrow at her reaction. He straightened up and moved away from the desk.
He was not in evening dress tonight and Sally thought that looking as he did, he could not be mistaken for a member of the Blue Parrot's usual clientele. The club catered for the filthy rich members of King Edward's circle who were mainly fat, pampered and accustomed to soft living, and to the sophisticated American visitors whose money and influence increasingly held sway in London. Occasionally the club also hosted the soldier sons of the old aristocracy, roistering it up on leave. Jack Kestrel looked as though he might have been a soldier oncehe had a long scar down one lean cheekand he certainly looked as though he would be more at home on the North-west Frontier or in southern Africa than in a club off the Strand. He was very tall, broad and sunburnt and Sally guessed he was about thirty. Instead of evening dress he wore a long driving coat in dark brown leather over a suit that was as carelessly casual as only Savile Row could make, and he carried his height with a lounging grace that was compulsive to watch. He turned back towards her and Sally felt her breathing constrict. She could not deny that Jack Kestrel had a dangerously masculine appearance. His features were hard and uncompromising.
'I apologise for waking you,' he drawled. 'I suppose that in your profession you must snatch your sleep where you can.'
Sally was not quite sure what to make of that. Although she enjoyed accounting, she did not normally find it so riveting that it kept her from her bed. She was tired that evening only because she had been out late at the Wallace Collection the night before and then up early supervising the final redecorations of the Crimson Salon, which was to open to the public in two weeks' time. The renovations had taken six months and the new developments were going to be the talk of London.
Even the King himself had promised to attend the unveiling.
'You are Miss Bowes?' Jack added, for a third time, when Sally still did not speak. Now he sounded downright impatient.
'I Yes, I am. I told you that last night.'Sally cleared her throat. She realised that she did not sound very sure. She certainly did not sound like the authoritative owner of the most successful and avant-garde club in London. Once, long ago, in the genteel drawing rooms of Oxford, she had indeed been Miss Bowes, the eldest daughter, sister to Miss Petronella and Miss Constance. But a great deal had happened since then.
Under Jack Kestrel's pitiless dark gaze she felt younger than her twenty-seven years, young and strangely vulnerable. She straightened in her chair, brushed the tangled hair out of her eyes and hoped desperately that the ink-stains she could see on her fingers did not also adorn her face. It was infuriating that she had been caught like this. Normally she would change into an evening gown before the club opened, but because she had fallen asleep she had not had time, and no one had come to wake her.
'What can I do for you, Mr Kestrel?' She assumed her most businesslike voice. She had already realised that this could not be a social call to follow up their meeting the previous night. No matter how brief and sweet their encounter had seemed at the time, something fundamental had changed. Now he was angry. 'I think you must know perfectly well why I am here, Miss Bowes.' Jack's tone was clipped. 'Had I known who you were last night, I would have broached the matter then. As it was, I realised your identity too late. But you must surely have known I would seek you out.'
Sally got to her feet. It made her feel stronger and more capable. 'I am sorry,' she said politely, 'but I have no idea what you are talking about, Mr Kestrel, nor why you are here, unless it is to enjoy the famous hospitality of the Blue Parrot.'
She had heard that Jack Kestrel had once spent a thousand pounds on champagne alone in one sitting at the gambling tables in Monte Carlo. Sally wished that he would do the same at the Blue Parrot. But it seemed unlikely, given the hostile expression on his face.
Jack's mouth twisted with sarcastic appreciation at her words. 'Legendary as I understand the Blue Parrot's hospitality to be, Miss Bowes,' he drawled, 'that is not what I came for.'
Sally shrugged. 'Then if you could perhaps enlighten me?' She gestured to the papers on the desk. 'Stimulating as your company is, Mr Kestrel, I do not have the time to play guessing games with you. As I mentioned last night, my work is my passion and I am keen to return to it.'
Some emotion flared behind his eyes, vivid as lightning. Sally could feel the anger and antagonism in him even more powerfully now, held under tight control, but almost tangible. She wished the lamps were turned up. In the semi-darkness she felt at a strong disadvantage.
'I can quite believe that you have a passion for what you do, Miss Bowes,' Jack said, through his teeth. 'You must possess a great deal of nerve to pretend that you are unaware of my business with you.'
Sally did not reply immediately. She moved out from behind the shelter of the desk, turned up one of the gas lamps, struck a match and lit the second and the third. She was pleased to see that her hands were quite steady, betraying none of the nervousness she was feeling inside. She could feel Jack Kestrel watching her, his dark eyes fixed on her face. She wished the room were a little bigger. His physical presence felt almost overwhelming.
She turned to find that he was standing directly behind her. There was something close to a smile lurking in his eyes, but it was not a reassuring smile. Now that she was standing she found that her head reached only to his shoulder, and she was a tall woman. It was unusual for her to have to look up in order to look a man in the eyes.
'Well?'he said softly. 'Have you changed your mind about this unconvincing little game of pretence that we are indulging in?' His appraising dark gaze travelled over her. 'I must confess that you are not quite as I imagined,'he added slowly. He raised a hand and turned her face to the light. 'When we met last night I thought your looks unusual, but when I found out who you were I was surprised. I was expecting someone a great deal more conventionally pretty. After all, they call you the Beautiful Miss Bowes, do they not'
Sally slapped his hand away. Despite her anger, his touch had made her skin prickle. His gaze made her acutely aware of her body beneath the plain brown shirt and skirt she was wearing. She felt very strange She paused to think about the hot, melting feeling within her. She felt as though she was bursting out of her corset and coming unlaced. Not a single one of the gentlemen who frequented the Blue Parrot had ever made her feel that way, although plenty had tried.
'Mr Kestrel ' she kept her voice steady ' you speak in riddles. Worse, you are boring me. My good looks, or lack of them, are something about which I alone need be concerned. As for the rest, unless you explain yourself I shall have to call my staff to remove you.'
He laughed and his hand fell to his side. 'I'd like to see them try. But I will explain myself with pleasure, Miss Bowes.'He spoke with deceptive gentleness. 'I am here to take back the letters that my foolish cousin Bertie Basset wrote to you. The ones you are threatening to publish unless his dying father pays you off.'
His words made no sense to Sally. She knew Bertie Basset, of course. He was a young sprig of the nobility, charming but not over-endowed with brains, who came to the Blue Parrot to play high and drink with the girls. When last she had seen him, her sister Connie had been sitting on his knee as he played poker in the Green Room.
Connie Of course
Sally rubbed her brow. Jack had called her the Beautiful Miss Bowes, but it was Connie, her youngest sister, who was known by that title. If she had not been so distracted by Jack Kestrel's touch, she would have realised sooner that he must have confused her with Connie. Miss Constance Bowes was indeed so beautiful that the gentlemen wrote sonnets to her eyebrows and made extravagant promises that she was quick to capitalise upon. But Sally had never envied her sister's looks, not when she had the brains of the family.
Jack Kestrel was watching the expressions that chased across her face.
'So,'he said thoughtfully, 'when I first mentioned the matter you had no idea what I was talking about, did you, Miss Bowes? And then, suddenly, you realised.'
'How on earth do you know?' Sally snapped. She was annoyed with herself for having given so much away.
'You have a very expressive face.'Jack sat down on the edge of her desk and swung his foot idly. 'So you are not Bertie's mistress. I might have guessed. He would be too young and unsubtle to be a match for you, Miss Bowes.'
'Whereas you, Mr Kestrel,'Sally said, very drily, 'no doubt claim, quite truthfully, to be far more experienced.'
Jack shot her a sinfully wicked grin. For a second it reminded her forcibly of their meeting the previous night. Sally's knees weakened and her toes curled within her sensible shoes. 'Naturally,' he said. 'And please call me Jack. I doubt that this place operates on formality.'
It did not, of course, but Sally was not going to let Jack Kestrel tell her what to do in her own club.
'Mr Kestrel,' she said, 'we digress. As you so perceptively pointed out, I am not your cousin's mistress. I know nothing of this matter. I believe there must have been a misunderstanding.'
Jack sighed. His expression hardened again. 'There usually is in cases like this, Miss Bowes. The misunderstanding is that my uncle is going to part with a large sum of money.'
This time the angry colour stung Sally's face. 'I am not attempting to blackmail anyone!'
'Perhaps not.' Jack came to his feet in a fluid movement. 'But I also believe that you know who is.'
Sally stared at him, her mind working feverishly. If her guess was correct, then her sister Connie, the toast of London, had done a monumentally foolish thing and was trying to blackmail a peer of the realm. Unfortunately it was all too easy to believe because, though Connie might be incredibly pretty, she was not over-endowed with intelligence. And she was spoilt. If she did not get what she wanted, she would stamp her foot.