Authors: K.J. Jackson
Unmasking the Marquess
A Hold Your Breath Novel, Volume 2
A thousand reasons to hold your breath, and one to let it go.
Copyright © K.J. Jackson, 2014
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any forms, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author.
Second Edition: September 2014
For my favorite Ks
London, June 1820
“You cannot do this.”
Killian Hayward, Marquess of Southfork, had hoped for a reprieve from the Duchess of Dunway. But she hadn’t even bothered with the usual polite pitter-patter of conversation after walking in. No. She jumped right into her latest nagging session.
“You cannot do this,” the duchess muttered again as she paced on the blue, spiral-patterned Persian rug before him. Back and forth. She had been wearing down the carpet for the last five minutes, and her steps had only quickened.
Arms crossed, Killian leaned against the doorway of his study. If she wasn’t the wife of his best friend, and, he allowed, a beloved friend to him in her own right, he would have cut Aggie off days, nay, months ago.
As it was, he would have to wait her out. Only fourteen more hours to go.
His eyes went down to the thin line of brandy in the bottom of the short glass he held. Thank goodness he had swallowed several pours before his friends arrived.
She stopped in front of him, green eyes flickering between disappointment and desperate persuasion. “Killian, I am serious. You do not have much time left. You cannot do this to Miss Halstead.”
Taking a deep breath, Killian sidestepped her small frame and walked to the sideboard. “I do not see why your concern has reached such a monumental pitch, duchess.” He forced ease into his tone, even as his throat tightened. “You have had plenty of time to come to terms with the wedding.”
Aggie followed him across the room, a terrier on a rat, not letting him escape. “I have not come to terms with it and you know it. I had hoped I could convince you to alter your course by now. It is not right to do this to her. Reanna is an innocent and you are being a blazing idiot.”
“It is not Reanna I am concerned with, Aggie. You know that.” He picked up the decanter of brandy, his thick hand wrapping around the cut glass. He paused, pondering the streams of light fighting the angles of the glass. A design he had never cared for, except for the show of expense. It was good he could still recognize show from reality. He was beginning to wonder.
“I can,” he cut her off, “and will be moving forward with the plan as decided.”
Her hand went gentle onto his forearm as her voice softened. “But Killian, you are giving no thought at all to what this will do to Reanna.”
He halted his pour, the amber liquid kissing the lip of the decanter. He looked at her. “Do I need to?”
She pulled her hand back as her nose crinkled in disgust. “Do not be an ass. You are being the worst kind of cruel if you go through with this.” Her voice lost all softness and Killian could feel her anxiety explode, uncontrolled, into the room. “There is still time to call it off. I will tell Reanna myself, explain the situation to her. Please, Killian, you need to do what is right.”
“Aggie, the wedding is tomorrow. I will not call it off. Not after all the work that went into it. Not for what is at stake.”
“The work has nothing to do with it.” She went back to pacing. “You are being a stubborn ogre and you know it. You have long since achieved what you needed to out of this. He is done. Destroyed. The wedding need not happen. Reanna should not be brought into your revenge.”
She paused in her movement to stare at him, hands shaking. He could feel her struggling for words.
“Killian, you know I adore you, but how many names do I have to call you before you will listen to reason?”
He turned to her, contemplating the flush in her forehead and on her cheeks. “You have been lecturing me for too long, I agree to that. And since I have yet to yield to your wishes, you should have some clue as to what my actions will be between today and tomorrow. You continue to waste your breath on this subject.”
“I am not wasting my breath, and I will not give up on getting through that impossibly thick skull of yours. I know somewhere in you, there is a shred of decency that is listening to reason and agreeing with what I am saying—you just have to stop ignoring it.”
Killian’s attention went back to the mahogany sideboard to pour a second glass of brandy. Skirting the duchess, he walked across the room. “Devin, can you please call your wife off?”
He handed the glass to the Duke of Dunway, who sat easily on the crisp sofa, his large form swallowing the delicate vine pattern on the silk.
A hollow chuckle escaped the duke. “Do not even try it, friend. I am not getting into this one. I have been hearing about it from both of you for too long, to be stupid enough to stick my neck in the middle of your swinging axes. No thank you.” He raised his glass to both of them. “I will decline any involvement in this conversation. I am merely here to safely remove my wife from the room should you decided to throttle her.”
Killian sighed and turned back to face his pint-sized adversary. She was decked out prettily for this duel; a coral silk evening gown hugged her curves and complemented her softly coifed blond hair.
It rankled his pride, but Killian admitted to himself that he did want her to understand. He hated the growing disappointment he had seen in Aggie’s eyes over the past weeks. But he knew she would never fully understand what he had been through. She hadn’t seen firsthand, as Devin had, the destruction that had been his life. How he had to scrape from nothing to rebuild everything that had been lost.
He also realized understanding was even more difficult for Aggie now that she had grown to count Reanna as a close friend.
Damn that the only two people he actually cared about were in this room, and one of them was Aggie. The whole of his life would be a lot easier had Devin never met Aggie, never married. And damn that she had become just as important to him as Devin was. He opened his mouth one last time to try and sway her.
“I assure you, Aggie, there is not one shred of me that agrees with you on this subject. The wedding will complete all that I have worked to achieve, for all these years. All that both of you have helped me achieve.” His eyebrows rose pointedly. “Do I need to remind you that you were the one who discovered Reanna’s almost-engagement to Lord Hiplan? I will not stop now, not when I am so close.”
Aggie’s hand flew up. “Stop right there. Yes, I was the one that started the whole damn thing, but the second you began to court her and push Lord Hiplan out of the way, I knew it was a mistake. And since then I have never supported you in this particular venture. I do not think I have to remind you that I have been fighting you for months.”
“You do not.”
“This is not decent, this is not right, and this is certainly not honorable.”
“Too far, Aggie. Too far.” Killian couldn’t stop his jaw from openly clenching. “You dare to call honor into this? Have I ever been dishonorable to you, Devin, or even to anyone of consequence to us?”
He stared at her hard, the question hanging in the air, demanding she answer it.
Aggie bowed her head slightly, chagrined, and shook it.
He gave her a curt nod. “Thank you. Honor is exactly what has driven this. You knew that when you first agreed to help me.”
“And I agreed to help you because of what he did to your mother…God…” She closed her eyes, a visible shiver running through her. “I still cannot bear to think on it.”
She opened her eyes, pinning him, even as her voice was soft. “But this—when did you become such a cutthroat that you are willing to sacrifice an innocent?”
“She is not an innocent. Not with her father.”
“Killian, how many times do I have to tell you? She is not her father. She has no idea what her father is. What her father has done. So, yes, that makes her an innocent. An innocent you will be destroying if you go through with this marriage.”
“We all lose our innocence, Aggie.”
Sighing, Aggie sat down next to her husband, grabbed the glass of brandy from his hand, and took a swallow. Suspicious. Aggie did not drink brandy.
She scooted closer to Devin, tucking herself under his extended arm.
Killian’s eyebrow arched at her. “Are you exhausted or cowering?”
She didn’t look up at him. “Both.”
“You need to tell him, Aggs,” Devin said.
“Tell me what?”
She took another sip of the brandy, face contorting at the burn. “I called on her today.”
“You went to see her?”
Hand wrapped around his glass, Killian’s knuckles turned white. “What the hell did you say to her, Aggie?”
She handed the brandy back to Devin and looked up at Killian, defiance in her chin. “She was talking, glowing, going on and on about how happy she is. But then she asked me what your favorite color was—it was about something her aunt said regarding her trousseau and the colors she chose for the materials. She did not know what your favorite color was. She was so worried. She wants to please you and had chosen blue, but only because you wear a lot of blue. She said she actually did not know what your favorite color was.”
“So that is the point. She does not know anything genuine about you. I have never seen someone so in love, and at the same time, so misguided in that emotion. It is heartbreaking to watch. Have you ever had a real conversation with her?”
“Enough that she fell in love with me.”
“Ass. If you had done so much as that—an actual conversation with her—in the past three months, you would know she is nothing like her father, never will be, and she deserves so much better than what you are going to do to her tomorrow. Maybe if you knew her in the slightest, you would actually be hearing what I am telling you.”
“I know who her father is. That is the only thing I need to know about her. Maybe you should have left it at that as well.”
“Stop. I like Reanna. I consider her a true friend. But I have never met such an innocent soul. She knows nothing of her father’s dealings. She knows very little about the world. You are going to crush her when she finds out, and she has no resiliency, no way to handle such cruelty. She loves you deeply and believes you return the sentiment.”
“What did you tell her, duchess?”
“Nothing. Nothing about your plan. But I did tell her to protect her heart.”
Aggie tucked further under Devin’s arm. “Her heart. I told her to protect it. I wanted to create a sliver of doubt in her, so that when she finds out what you are doing, it will not be such a shock. You went too far with her, Killian. She loves you.”
“What difference does that make?”
“You did not just make her want to marry you. You made her fall in love with you. That is the difference. That is why this is vicious. You could at least tell her the truth about her father. She deserves that.”
“You know exactly what will happen if she knows the truth.” Worry invaded his face. “You are not going to tell her, are you?”
“I have a good mind to, if my conscience is to remain clean.”
Her tone dropped, mirroring her shoulders as she interrupted him. “Do not worry. I will be silent. This is your decision. Even if I think you are an imbecile.”
“Again, the rudeness.”
“It is only because I have run out of things to say to make an impression on you.” She sighed, weary. “I hate everything about this. I just cannot believe you have this cruelty in you.”
Killian’s eyes shifted to Devin. If his friend was worth his salt, he would have clamped his wife’s mouth shut minutes ago. Instead, the duke’s lips remained solidly closed, one eyebrow raised at him. Devin was probably enjoying this haranguing his wife was delivering.
His attention went back to Aggie. “Why do you continue to insist this is cruelty? If anything, I am getting her away from her bastard of a father. And saving her from being whored out to some overweight, over-old, bumbling cad with a few coins to his name.”
Aggie’s voice shrunk to a whisper as she shook her head. “It is cruel because she loves you, Killian. And she believes you love her. There is nothing crueler than falsely believing you are loved. Falsely believing you are important to someone.”
Aggie’s words rang true, Killian couldn’t deny. He had given false impressions to the girl. In all that he had done to her father over the past years, it was the lying to Miss Halstead that his conscience hadn’t been able to shake clean.
But Aggie couldn’t know that.
Killian’s voice hardened. “She will get over it in no time. Once the marriage is consummated, she will be off the market for good, and the last chance her father had to gain coinage by selling her will be gone forever.” Killian swallowed the last of his brandy. “She will have an enviable life as a marchioness. A life of comfort. And I will have no demands on her time.”
“Killian, that is what you do not understand. It is not about the life she will get. She wants you. You. You could be penniless, and she would defy her father for you. You can tell her. She would choose you over her father in a second.”
“I am not about to take that chance. You put too much emphasis on love, Aggie. Yes, you and Devin found fortune in each other, but I do not think I need to remind you that loveless marriages are the norm, and you are the exception. You do no good arguing about love with me.”