Authors: Christi Caldwell
Tags: #Fiction, #Regency, #Romance, #Historical
By Christi Caldwell
Copyright © 2015 by Christi Caldwell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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To Nana Lil
For years and years, my Nana Lil was my cheerleader and champion. When things seemed impossible, she assured me my world would open up. She used to say: “I wish I’m around to someday see it.” I would tease her and say; “I hope I’m around to see it, too, Nana.”
Two years ago, my cheerleader and champion was diagnosed with dementia. She no longer knows I’m her granddaughter. When I visit her, she smiles and loves to speak with “the young author who writes romance novels.” Of all she’s lost in terms of her beautiful, cherished memories of our family, she recalls my stories.
And for that, and for everything you’ve been to me and for me—Nana Lil—this one is for you.
A very special thank-you to the dear Carol Cork for all her patience, and all the valuable time she spent answering my questions on Wales. Carol, you are a champion of romance authors and a fountain of information! Thank you!
he lady wore an ivory, lace-trimmed, cashmere shawl. Such details generally only applied to an interest in how that delicate slip of material could be used for dark acts behind chamber doors. In this particular instance, that tedious, ladylike fabric would serve an entirely different purpose.
Seated behind his mahogany desk in the comforts of his own office, Edmund Deering, the Marquess of Rutland, absently rubbed his thumb and forefinger over the old, silken black tress. Such an act would be considered sentimental in any other gentleman. A hard smile turned the corner of his lips. Then, he was not most gentlemen. Ladies, dowagers, widows, and the husbands of a whole host of discontented wives would, in fact, say he was no gentleman at all.
And they would all be right.
The tress had been clipped a lifetime ago. Given to him as a token of affection, it had ultimately come to signify empty promises and the indefatigable truth—women were faithless, fickle creatures who’d splay their legs for the right title and not a thing more.
As if in agreement, the muscles of his right thigh tightened. He rubbed the old wound, welcoming the sharp reminder of his own past weakness.
A knock sounded at the office door and he stopped rubbing his leg. In one fluid movement, he tossed that scrap of hair into the rubbish bin at the side of his desk. He shifted his gaze to the clock. Odd, he’d not expect a wastrel to also be perfunctory. “Enter,” he drawled. His butler, Wallace, a loyal fellow who’d served Edmund’s father, entered. “The Viscount Waters to see you, my lord.”
Viscount Waters hovered at the threshold of the room.
Wordlessly, Edmund inclined his head and the servant backed out of the room, closing the door behind him, and leaving Edmund and Lord Waters alone.
The short, pudgy nobleman with a bulbous nose and, even more importantly, an enormous debt to Edmund shifted on his stout legs. “R-rutland,” he stammered. He tugged at his stark white cravat, highlighting the crimson red of his flushed cheeks. “Y-you summoned me?”
Dispensing with formalities, Edmund sprawled back in his chair. “Come in, come in,” he murmured resting his arms over the sides of his chair.
The balding viscount swallowed audibly and cast a desperate glance over his shoulder at the path the butler had retreated.
“I said come in,” Edmund said on a lethal whisper.
Lord Waters jumped. “Er, yes, of course, of course.” And yet, still, he lingered before stiffly moving forward. Perspiration dotted the man’s brow, which Edmund suspected had little to do with the exertions of his movement and everything to do with his unease.
The man feared him. Anxiety bled from his eyes, seeped from his lips. Fear made Edmund powerful. Weakened others. Yes, fear was good. Very good.
Lord Waters paused in front of his desk. He yanked a white handkerchief, embroidered with his initials, from the front of his pocket and dabbed at his brow, smartly silent. Likely the only thing which the man had ever been smart about.
“You have a daughter,” Edmund said, a steely edge to his words.
The older viscount blinked several times at the unexpected pronouncement. Always leave others unsuspecting. Unsettled individuals were careless and Edmund thrived off that the way he did fear. “A daughter?” the man squawked. Then a slow understanding glinted in his eyes. He paused mid-dab and thrust his handkerchief back into the front of his jacket. “Er, yes. Lovely, lovely gel. Quite lovely,” he rambled. “She’d make you a splendid—”
Edmund leaned forward and laid his forearms upon his desk. “I’ve no intention of making a match with your daughter.” He peeled his lip back in a sneer.
The man’s skin went ashen and he tugged out the kerchief once more. “Er, uh, yes…well, you’d have me settle our debt in other ways then, will you? Very well…”
A dark, ugly laugh rumbled up from Edmund’s chest cutting into the man’s offer. Lord Waters would sell his daughter. The darkness in people’s souls had ceased to surprise him long ago. “I’ve little desire in tupping your virginal daughter,” he snarled. Virgins didn’t interest him. Simpering young debutantes, innocent misses, held little appeal. He’d wait until they were wedded, bedded, and craving real lessons on passion.
“Oh.” The viscount rocked back on his heels. “May I sit?” He gave his lapels another tug.
Edmund arched an eyebrow at the man’s unexpected show of courage. He pointed to the leather winged back chair and the fat, fleshy lord ambled over then sank into the seat. The leather groaned in protest to the man’s hefty weight.
With deliberate, methodical slowness Edmund pulled open his desk drawer. He withdrew the leather folio inside.
The man’s skin turned white and he gulped. “Y-you have a b-book.” It was a statement of fact—a confirmation of a detail he’d likely heard bandied about at his clubs and gaming hells but had, until now, taken it as a rumor.
“Surely, you do not imagine you’re the only person indebted to me?” He made a clicking noise with his tongue. No, a whole host of gentlemen owed Edmund in some way or another. Exorbitant debts, promises made, favors pledged. Lord Waters was but one of those many and the man would now pay his debt. He opened the leather book, never taking his gaze from the viscount. “You owe me quite a vast sum.”
Waters wet his lips but said nothing.
“Five thousand pounds, your unentailed property in Hampshire.” Though Edmund had little interest or need in a country property. He didn’t leave the glittering filth of London. “Your pathetic wife’s jewelry.” The man winced. “Your eldest daughter’s dowry.”
“Have you called to collect?”
He strained to hear the man’s whisper. Edmund spread his arms wide. “Indeed, I have.”
The man closed his eyes a moment. “And you’re sure you wouldn’t want my daughter. Quite beautiful she is, quite—”
“I’m quite certain,” Edmund said, placing mocking emphasis at the man’s redundant choice of words. “I’ve little interest in your simpering—”
“Oh, no,” Waters gave his head a frantic shake. “Not simpering at all. If you care for feisty, spirited gels, my Phoebe will—”
“I’ve already stated, I have no interest in your virginal daughter,” he whispered. Though an unholy humor twisted inside him at the truth that, for a bag of coin, a man would sell even his daughter.
The viscount closed his mouth quickly and gave a jerky nod.
Edmund reclined in his seat. He captured his chin between his thumb and forefinger. He did, however, have an interest in one virgin. A particular virgin with nondescript, brown hair, a slightly crooked lower row of teeth, and a pair of dull, brown eyes. In short, an uninteresting lady who’d never hold even the hint of appeal for a practiced rogue such as himself. The only thing to set the lady apart from all other ladies—her name: Miss Honoria Fairfax. The beloved niece of Margaret, the Duchess of Monteith. That love would lead to the girl’s ruin. Another icy grin pulled at his lips. He stood, unfolding his length to display the towering six-foot four-inches that terrified lesser men, such as this coward before him.
Waters recoiled, burrowing deep into the folds of his chair.
“You see,” Edmund began, wandering casually over to the sideboard at the corner of his office. “There is something I will require of you.” He selected the nearest decanter, a half-empty bottle of brandy. He pulled out the stopper and tossed it upon the table where it landed with a thunk.
The viscount remained silent. He hungrily eyed the crystal decanter in Edmund’s hands. Only the man’s ragged, panicked breaths and the splash of liquor streaming into the crystal glass split the quiet. Bottle and brandy in hand, Edmund wandered back over to his desk and propped a hip on the edge. He took a sip. “Miss Fairfax,” he said at last.
The man cocked his head and with confused eyes, looked about as though expecting to find the lady in question there. “Miss Fairfax?” he repeated.
Edmund swirled the contents of his glass. “I’d like something that belongs to Miss Fairfax.” Her good name. Her virtue, and more—the agony of Margaret knowing her beloved niece would be forever bound to the man she’d thrown over for another. A thrill ran through him as the sweet taste of revenge danced within his grasp. Unfortunately for Miss Fairfax, she had rotten blood running through her veins and, as such, would pay the ultimate price for her aunt’s crimes.
“I don’t know a Miss Fairfax,” the man blurted.
Edmund stilled his hand mid-movement and he peered at the viscount over the rim of his brandy. It, of course, did not surprise him the man should fail to note those minute details of his daughter’s life. Likely, his lack of notice would result in that quite lovely daughter he’d described with her legs spread wide for some unscrupulous rogue.
“Beg p-pardon,” the man said on a panicky rush. “I—”
“Miss Fairfax is a friend of your daughter’s,” he interrupted. He glanced across the room at the long-case clock, ready to be done with this exchange.
Lord Waters scratched his brow. “She is?” He frowned and Edmund could practically see the wheels of the man’s empty mind turning. Then, an understanding lit his unintelligent eyes.
“Not the beautiful one,” he said of the other young woman Waters’ daughter considered a friend. It really was quite unfortunate the stunning Lady Gillian Farendale, whose sister had been jilted by some worthless cad, was not, in fact, the one he sought. He’d have delighted in taking his pleasure in that lady’s body.
“Ah, the other one.” The man guffawed. “A taste for the ugly ones, do you?” he said with a crude laugh. “Then, they’re all the same when you have them under you.” He dissolved into a paroxysm of laughter. “That one has lovely bosom.” That fact likely accounted for the modest scrap of hideous fabric the lady donned with a nauseating regularity. A shame the young lady went through the trouble to hide her one mentionable attribute. Though convenient, considering the important plans he had for Miss Fairfax and her shawl. He eyed the man through hooded lashes until the demmed fool registered Edmund’s dark displeasure.