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Caroline stopped fiddling with the draping of a gown and watched as the black vehicle rolled to a stop in front of her shop. A town coach that fancy didn't belong in this part of London. God only knew why the man climbing out of it was studying her sign, but his pinched nose and curled upper lip clearly indicated his disdain. Proving, Caroline decided, that some days were doomed from the moment you opened your eyes in the morning.
Mrs. Hobson had been waiting for her to open so she could change her mind about the fabric for her walking outfit---for the third time that week. Mrs. Ferrell had come in on her heels to complain about a side seam that hadn't withstood, much less contained, what had to have been, at the very least, a thirty-pound weight gain. She'd no more than stomped out when Mrs. Smythe had sashayed in with all four of her daughters for the final fittings on the dresses they were to wear to a cousin's wedding next week. Caroline had seen poodles less pampered than the Smythe girls. And less inclined to bite.
Now . . . Well, if the stranger ever stopped scowling, he'd be an incredibly handsome man. Tall, dark haired, pleasingly chiseled jaw and well defined, rather high cheekbones. Not young, but not middle-aged yet, either. He had long, straight legs, a narrow waist, and a well-proportioned chest and broad shoulders. In short, he was a tailor's dream walking about in custom leather boots. And obviously there was a grateful tailor somewhere because the suit the man was wearing was well made out of a very fine---very expensive---wool cloth. Given the quality of the suit, the hat he wore was most likely made of the finest beaver.
Yes, all in all, the man coming through her shop door was a man of means and good taste, a man who moved with a natural grace and power.
"Good afternoon, sir," she said a bit breathlessly as he cleared the threshold and removed his hat. "How may I be of assistance?"
"You might summon the owner of this establishment."
His voice would be very rich and deep and pleasant if the haughty edge to it could be chipped away. "I'm the owner," she supplied, thinking that he had the most kissable mouth she'd ever seen. What would he taste like? She wondered? What flavor was carnal delight?
"You are Miss Caroline Dutton?"
He knew her name? Good Lord, had Wilamina Ferrell been serious when she'd threatened to contact her solicitor? "Yes," Caroline admitted, her heart thumping. "How may I be of assistance to you, sir?"
"I am Drayton Mackenzie, Duke of Ryland."
Ryland? Well, that said volumes. Her heart settled back to a normal beat. "And you are here because . . . ?" she asked coolly.
"Because I am cursed."
"I'm afraid that I can't help you," she countered as she went back to adjusting the pins on the dress of the eldest Symthe poodle. "But I have heard of a woman in Whitehall who will cast and remove spells for a bottle of gin."
"I've been cursed by your father."
"Haven't we all," she quipped, tweaking the fabric and then leaning back to study the effects of the change.
"From the grave."
Why didn't she find that surprising? Why did she care enough to even wonder? "I must admit that I'm impressed."
"I am not here to impress you, madam."
That I'm-better-than-you manner of his was really insufferable. She glanced over at him. No, no one appeared to have broken his nose for it. Unfortunately. "Good, because you haven't impressed me at all." At least not favorably in any sense other than the purely physical, she silently added. Carrying the dress through the curtain that separated workroom from showroom, she clarified, "I was referring to the awe inspired by my late father's ability to make people dance to his tune despite his passage to the Great Beyond."
Drayton clenched his teeth and watched the curtain settle into place behind her. Yes, dear old Cousin Geoffrey had been one of the best at pulling strings. Damn him. As though it weren't bad enough that Geoffrey had played people as puppets while he lived, he'd transferred the paddles to a barrister at his death so the manipulation could continue for the next decade.
Maybe even longer, God forbid. Not that it was going to be hellishly difficult to meet the requirements where Caroline Dutton was concerned. She was pretty. She was tall and she was breathtakingly shapely. Add in flawless, fair skin, honey blond hair, strikingly blue eyes, and a deliciously saucy defiance . . .
He didn't have the slightest doubt of her ability to turn male heads wherever she went. And the hopes and fantasies she stirred when she did . . . He reminded himself that his task was not to make a mistress of her. No, he was mandated to make a regal, untouchable lady out of her and then hand her off to the highest, most deluded bidder. What a waste of a naturally seductive female. But since Geoffrey had discreed and the law was prepared to enforce it . . . When she came back into the showroom, he said, "Let me begin again." At her glance, he charged forward into the matter from the top. "I am here to discharge the duties attached to the inheritance of your late father's estate."
"Ah, I see," she said, as she went about straightening the chairs and footstools.
"You see what?"
"Why you've come to a place so obviously beneath a person of your importance," she answered. "You were compelled to do so by the lure of a fortune."
His importance? Ha! "I am not unfamiliar with environs such as this."
"Your upper lip apparently hasn't become accustomed to them."
He blinked and barely resisted the urge to lift his hand to his mouth. "Pardon?" he asked, more irritated by her dismissive manner than he was interested or mystified.
"Your upper lip," she repeated, picking up a basket and checking the contents. "When you climbed from your carriage, it tried to crawl up your nose."
Drayton tried to suppress the shudder and largely failed. If Geoffrey hadn't been dead, he'd have killed him. "If," he said crisply, determined to take the situation firmly in hand, "I might have your complete attention."
She sighed heavily, closed the lid of the damn basket, and looked at him. "Do go on," she instructed tightly. "And then do go on your way."
Her eyes darkened considerably when she was angry. At the moment, they were terribly close to the color of a well-blued gun barrel. And they were fixed on him with about the same sort of deadly intensity. He took a slow breath and met her challenge full on, saying, "As your father saw death approaching, he resolved to rectify what he considered the wrongs he'd done to others over the course of his long life. In addition to making several generous bequests to charities, he set aside funds for the proper maintenance and support of his children."
Her smile was barely civil. "I'm sure they're appropriately grateful. What does all this have to do with me?"
"You are his daughter."
"His illegitimate daughter," she countered icily.
"His direct legitimate descendants did not survive to assume the title."
"Or, as they say, they failed to survive him."
Well, yes, that was probably a fair statement. From all that he'd ever heard, Geoffrey's expectations of others had been considerably higher than any of those he had ever imposed on himself. "We were distantly related," Drayton offered, choosing his words carefully, "and I met him personally only once in my life. I can't say that I came away with the impression of his being a particularly ogreish or deliberately hard-hearted man."
"You're one meeting ahead of me in the tally," she said, her voice sounding oddly strained. "What impressions I've formed of him over the years are from my mother's life in his wake. Forgive me if I'm not giddy with the thought of dancing off to the south of France to live a life of carefree abandon with the buckets of money he left behind for me. I know enough of my sire and his tendencies to keep a very firm grasp on reality. And that reality is that, like my mother, I must make my own way."
"I believe I mentioned that he had something of a change of heart at the end of his life."
"Yes, you did," she allowed, heading for the curtain again, this time with the basket in hand. "You may leave the bag of coins on the counter and consider your task fulfilled."
The woman was maddening beyond belief! This shouldn't have been anywhere near as difficult as she was making it. He followed her through the curtain saying, "Madam, I would appreciate it if you would stop walking away from me while I am talking to you."
Standing at a worktable littered with scraps of fabric and tubes of vellum, she looked over her shoulder at him and arched a brow.
"If tossing a bag of coins at you were sufficient," he declared, "I would have handed the matter off to a solicitor and not made the effort to appear here personally. As a condition of inheritance, your father has charged me with the personal responsibility of seeing you formally recognized as his offspring and situated in an advantageous marriage."
She tilted her head and blinked at him in a manner that was unexpectedly, stunningly coquettish. "What?"
"If tossing a bag---"
"I heard what you said," she interrupted, straightening her head and obliterating the brief moment of femininity. "Quite clearly. My amazement is over the part relating to recognition and the arrangement of a marriage. Why would he suddenly care about such things?"
"I can only deduce that he was motivated by a keen sense of regret."
She arched her brow again and there was a decidedly sarcastic edge to her voice when she said, "Having to give an accounting to Saint Peter undoubtedly figured into it as well."
"Perhaps," he agreed with a slight shrug. "I can't speak to the spiritual beliefs he might have held. Whatever his deeper motives were, the fact is that he intended for you to use his name to secure an elevated station in life and the financial certainty which attends it."
She rolled her eyes. "And how many men of substance are there who would be interested in marrying the twenty-three-year-old bastard daughter of a dead-as-a-doornail peer?"
"You will be amazed."
"The bastard daughter who has spent the last five years of her life in . . ." She tilted her head slightly back and pressed the back of her wrist to her brow. "Oh, gasp," she whimpered in patently feigned distress. "Trade."
"You would be amazed by what men are willing to overlook in the light of a substantial dowry." And be willing to give for a taste of you.
"I would rather be left alone, thank you."
"Unfortunately, neither of us has a choice in the matter."
She considered him, an odd, almost taunting smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Do you intend to take me from my shop by force, hold me in chains, and auction me to the highest bidder?"
Well, no, but he couldn't afford to admit it. "If need be."
She laughed---the sound feathering over his senses---and walked past him saying, "And to think that you appear to be such a civilized man. You must be in desperate need of money."
And once again he found himself standing on the wrong side of the curtain, watching it fall back into place and facing a choice between trotting after her like some damn cocker spaniel or standing his ground with no one to witness or appreciate the show. He scrubbed his hand over his chin, pivoted on his heel, and stepped to the other side of the curtain.
"My circumstances are not relevant," he lied as he crossed the showroom. With the counter between them, he met her gaze squarely and said, "I am required to see you properly wed and settled and I will employ whatever means are necessary to achieve that end."
That one single word, the disdainful, mocking tone of it . . . He reached into his coat pocket, took out his ace, and laid it on the counter in front of her.
"And this is?" she asked even as she picked it up.
"Notice from your landlord concerning the sale of this building," he explained.
"Do let me guess," she countered, putting it down without having looked at it. The color of her eyes was like that of a pure blue flame. "He's sold it to you. And you are fully prepared to increase my rent to an utterly astronomical level if I refuse to play my part in assuaging my dead father's conscience and securing your claim to his estate."
"That would be it in the proverbial nutshell," he admitted, nodding. "The rent is now two hundred pounds a month. Payable semiannually, in advance. Which means the sum of twelve hundred pounds is due at the present moment." He put out his hand, palm up, and added, "In the absence of my business manager, I will, just this once, set aside convention and accept your payment."
Caroline drew a slow, deep breath and considered her possible courses. None of them were pleasant. If she had a bit of chain and a padlock, she could fasten herself to the coal stove in the workroom to keep him from hauling her out. But she didn't and now that he'd made it a contest of money . . . It wasn't a fair fight at all and she knew good and well that she was going to lose in the end. But surrendering without so much as a whimper . . . She lifted her chin. "Please consider this notification of my intent to immediately relocate my business."
"There is the matter of the unpaid balance on this month's rent," he countered instantly, apparently having anticipated her plan. "I'm afraid that I will have to seize your inventory in lieu of that payment."
Of course. A man every bit as ruthless as he was handsome. "Are you a bastard by birth as well as by temperament?"
Anger flashed in the depth of his dark eyes. It didn't, however, show in his voice when he said coolly, smoothly, "Casting aspersions will not alter my course. Or yours. You are the daughter of a duke."
"I have always been the daughter of a duke. Not that it's mattered one whit until today."
"Ah," he drawled, as the tiniest of smiles lifted one corner of his mouth. "But today has arrived and your destiny has been forever altered. Please get your wrap and whatever personal items of sentimental value you might wish to bring into your new life."
I have snapped my fingers. Obey. Caroline counted to ten and brought her anger under control. "I can't walk out the door right this instant, lock it behind me, and hand you the key."
"Why ever not?"
"This is a business," she explained tightly. "I have clients to whom I owe goods. They have made deposits and I have made promises. Aside from their disappointment, my professional reputation will be ruined if I simply up and leave."
"Your reputation as a modiste is now . . . pardon the pun . . . immaterial."
"And my assistant?" she posed. "What of her? She's to return from her shopping within the next hour or so. What's she to do when she finds the shop closed and locked?"
"Leave her a note telling her that she's free to find herself another situation."
"And my personal reputation?" she demanded, her voice higher pitched than she liked. She paused to swallow and drag in a settling breath. "What of it? Is there a proper chaperone waiting in your carriage?"
He shrugged. Barely. "Appearances do not matter overly much until such time as society becomes aware of you. Now please gather your belongings. We have much to do yet today and this has already taken far more time than I intended."
Far be it from her to inconvenience him. She folded her arms across her midriff. "And what will you do if I refuse?"
"Your trinkets will be left behind when I sling you over my shoulder and haul you out."
Trinkets. The pompous ass. "I'd kick and scream," she threatened, not caring that she sounded like a peevish child. "The public spectacle would be horribly embarrassing for you."
"Probably so," he admitted with a full-fledged, heart tripping smile. "Which would mean, of course, that I could never appear in this part of town again. A tragedy I will simply have to bear as best I can."
Oh, to win against him . . . There had to be a way. Simply had to be. Perhaps she could make a pretense of gathering up her things and---
"Yes, you could easily slip out the rear door while you are collecting your belongings. But please be aware that my footman is waiting there for you."
How he'd known what she was thinking was a mystery she'd ponder later. At the moment, she was too frustrated and resentful to see anything except the trap in which she'd been caught. "You appear to have considered all of my likely reactions."
"I believe in being thorough," he admitted with a nod. "But I must admit to being surprised by your resistance. Why do you feel the need to be such an obstinate creature? I'm offering all the stuff of grand, girlish dreams. Wealth, privilege, marriage. What could this . . ." He glanced around her shop and made a weak gesture to encompass it. "What could this place offer you that would be of equal worth?"
Place? Place? She gripped the edge of the counter in front of her in a desperate effort to contain her anger. No, her shop wasn't a high-priced, self-important salon that decided who they'd deign to serve and who wasn't good enough to darken their door. But neither was it a dark and dingy and sweaty back room where clothes were assembled by women who were slaves in all but legal status. How dare he dismiss her shop as though the efforts to build it hadn't amounted to anything. How dare he walk into her life and expect her to happily---no gleefully, instantly!---abandon everything she and her mother had worked so hard to achieve.
"I'm not a girl," she replied tautly, inwardly seething. "I'm a woman, full-grown. I don't pine to be a wife, to either a rich man or a poor one. As for dreams of castles and houses with names and attending fancy balls in elegant, obscenely expensive gowns . . . My father couldn't be bothered with my dreams while he lived, couldn't be bothered with me. My dreams died long before he did. As for what this place offers me . . . Independence and protection from the whims of selfish men like my father. Of men like you."
He cocked a brow and tilted his head, studying her for a second as though she were some exotic Egyptian bug in a display case at the museum. "Have you ever heard the expression, cutting off one's nose to spite one's face?" He didn't give her a chance to reply. "Your father is dead. Refusing to accept his largesse accomplishes nothing that will make the least bit of difference to him or to anyone else. It will simply ensure that you spend the rest of your life as you have spent the first part it, existing on the margins of respectability and clinging by your fingertips to economic survival."
He was right, of course. Damn him. But there was something so terribly humiliating, so patently desperate about throwing away all the efforts as if they'd been mere diversions while she waited to become a fairy-tale princess.
"Perhaps," he went on, "it might help to think of acceding as the fulfillment of your late mother's greatest hopes."
She sucked in a deep breath, furious that he'd stoop so low, weakened by the realization that her mother would have had her out the door and into his carriage before he'd even gotten out of it. "And how is it that you know anything of her aspirations?" she asked, stalling as she tried to weigh her pride against her mother's dreams.
"As I said, I am thorough. I came here to take you away by any means necessary. I prefer, of course, to accomplish the task through reason and an appeal to your intelligence and sensibilities. To that end, I made a point of learning all that I could about you and the history of your parents' relationship."
"Such as it was," she felt compelled to add testily.
"True." He dredged up a smile that actually seemed slightly apologetic. "Unfortunately, ‘brief' and ‘irresponsible' seem to be the words to characterize all of your late father's more . . . intimate relations outside his marriage."
"He had others?" she asked, stunned less by the fact that her mother hadn't been the man's only victim than the fact that she'd never considered the possibility.
He nodded. "Three that produced offspring. There may well have been more, but the other ladies involved did not make claims of paternity and ask for maintenance."
"Three," she said softly as Lord Thorough continued his monologue. "I have two siblings."
"Two sisters," he clarified, looking at her as though she'd suddenly become another kind of bug entirely. "Collecting them is next on my rather pressing list of tasks to be completed today. So if you could be so reasonable as to abandon your pride and understandable resentment of the past so that we may get on with it all, I would be most appreciative."
Part of her brain recognized that his request was a slightly milder, quieter version of a finger snap. Another part of her brain was whirling with childhood memories. Yet another was cringing at unacceptable possibilities. "Are my sisters older or younger?"
"Younger," he supplied crisply. "Miss Simone is reportedly fourteen and Miss Fiona only eleven."
Oh, dear God. Babies. They were nothing more than babies. "And do you intend to see them established and married off as well?"
"When the time is appropriate."
Perhaps she was being needlessly concerned for their welfare. It could well be that their families wouldn't relinquish them. Or at the very least have the resources necessary to check the new duke's influence and control. "What are their present circumstances?" she asked.
"Let it suffice to say that I do not anticipate any difficulties in acquiring them."
Acquire. As he undoubtedly acquired a new suit. Or a title. Or a mistress. God, fourteen. She remembered being that age. It had been horrible. Part woman, part child. Not sure which would surface in any given situation. Hideously, acutely aware of how her body was changing. Minute by minute, it seemed. And how her new body had changed the way men looked at her and how that had changed, overnight, all the rules for dealing with people.
And eleven . . . She remembered that time, too. It had been awful in a different sort of way. Life had stopped being simple then. She'd realized there were ugly things in the world at eleven. Not that she'd understood exactly what they were then, but she'd sensed the shadows keenly enough that the distraction of old childhood games had started to feel like a dangerous thing. It was when you weren't paying attention that the monsters under the bed would grab your ankles and drag you off to hell.
She wouldn't go back and relive those years for all the money in Christendom, all the tea in China. She'd gotten through them and past them, but only because her mother had been such a strong and steady presence at her back. If she hadn't been there . . . If she'd been handed into the care of a stranger who issued decrees and saw to her care only because he had to . . . Caroline swallowed away the tickle of tears in her throat and surrendered to the whisper of her conscience.
"And where," she asked, "is it that the three of us will be . . ." She faltered, overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and the weight of unexpected responsibility.
"Ensconced? Housed?" he suggested.
"I was thinking more along the lines of imprisoned," she admitted.
He ignored her lack of enthusiasm. "The current Season is over and everyone has retired to their country estates. Your father had one, of course, and it was among several properties that passed into my possession at his death. It is my plan that we all take up residence there and spend the coming fall doing whatever is required for young women to be considered socially acceptable."
It didn't bode well that he didn't appear to have any better idea of the specific tasks that lay ahead than she did. But the die had been cast and there was nothing to do but make the best of things. "I'll accompany you, willingly, on three conditions."
His brow shot up. Warily, he asked, "And they would be?"
Believing that the strength of conviction accomplished far more than mealy pleading and hopeful suggestions, she said firmly, "The first is that you will place my account ledgers into the hands of an able manager to be settled fairly. I won't have those who have supported my mother and myself over the years treated shabbily."
"Consider it done. The second condition?"
"My assistant will see that the orders due in the next week are completed and delivered as promised. After that, she'll join us in the country."
"Don't ladies have personal maids?"
"Yes. Does she have experience at that sort of thing?"
"No, but then I have no experience at being a lady, so it's not as though I'd notice any shortcomings on her part. Either you agree to bring Jane to the country, or I won't go."
"What is one more female in a house full of them? Your third condition?"
"If it becomes apparent that I don't have the temperament or the ability to become a socially acceptable woman, you won't persist in humiliating me. You'll allow me access to the money my father set aside for bribing a would-be husband so that I can reestablish an independent life for myself."
He narrowed his eyes. "Doing what?"
"The difference between being a modiste and a couturier is the price of the creation," she explained. "It takes money to make money. With adequate funds, I'm quite capable of designing and creating with the best in London. In Paris, too, for that matter."
He laughed. The sound was soft, but it was full and deep. More importantly, it brimmed with obviously sincere amusement and eased the knot around her heart. "You certainly don't lack for confidence," he observed.
"I'm the daughter of a duke," Caroline replied. "Nobility is often just as much an attitude as it is the good fortune of being born on the right side of the sheets. Do we have an agreement?"
"We do," he said, nodding slowly, almost . . . well, appreciatively.
"I want it put into writing."
His brow shot up again. "You don't trust my word?"
Oh, she liked taking him by surprise. There was something decidedly satisfying in knowing that he didn't have complete control of all the world and everyone and everything in it. "It's nothing personal, Your Grace," she assured him, coming around the end of the counter. "It's simply that the last duke who promised a woman in my family something proved himself a liar. I learned from my mother's mistake not to trust them any further than I can toss them."
Drayton watched her head toward the curtain, certain that she was walking away just because she knew it irritated him. But since he'd won the larger battle of wills, he could afford to be magnanimous and let her have her little demonstration of defiance. "I will have my solicitor draw up the papers when I give him your ledger to settle. Fair enough?"
"Fair," she said, disappearing without so much as a glance over her shoulder at him. "I won't be but a few moments."
He tilted his head and considered the curtain. If it was all a ruse and she bolted . . . He really should have thought of bringing his footman along to guard the rear door. It wasn't as though he hadn't inherited one. He had a slew of servants. Enough that he was constantly either tripping over them or bumping into them. At some point he was going to have to learn to think like a nobleman and actually use them.
And given the apparent intelligence, willfulness, and self-confidence of Caroline Dutton---no, it was Lady Caroline---he needed to get his feet under himself as quickly as possible. If he didn't, the charade was going to be blown to tiny, embarrassingly public bits.
Copyright © 2006 by Leslie LaFoy