What sort of man paid to have his sister’s heart broken?
Lord Christian Haukinge tossed the parchment aside, and reclined deeper into the leather desk chair, contemplating the inconceivable notion.
He didn’t bother considering the issue it raised: What sort of man accepted such a proposal? He already knew the answer to that one.
The scribbled letter before him bore no salutation—a deliberate rudeness, a flagrant omission of his title—courtesy though it may be—and his demeanor, as he retrieved the parchment, shifted from indifference to keen irritation. His gaze skimmed the page once more, settling upon the last paragraphs.
... as she seems to have convinced herself no other beau will do, save you, fatuous as it seems, and she has set her face against the new contract I have put before her, clinging to your annulled betrothal simply to defy my wishes, I am forced to offer this proposal. Please consider the above remuneration for your services; the amount is more than adequate for your brief employ, and, indeed, should prove quite useful in the refurbishment of your newly purchased estate. As to that, please accept my condolences.
I am certain you shall wish to begin with all due haste, and look forward to your timely response in this matter. The sooner she has been suitably disillusioned, the sooner you might be compensated for your troubles. For the greater good, I do hope we might overlook the nature of our past relationship, and endeavor to assist each other in persuading my dear, misguided sister in choosing the right-minded course. The advance will assure you see it my way. Accept it in good faith. I shall enlighten you further when we are face-to-face.
Signed simply, Westmoor.
For the greater good?
Christian’s lip curved with contempt—and then a thought occurred to him: If Westmoor knew he’d purchased Rose Park, doubtless his own brother had gotten wind of the fact, as well. Philip was likely choleric with rage, having to discover something of that nature second-or even third-hand. Damn… Christian might have given much to glimpse the expression on his brother’s face when he’d been informed of the fact.
Gazing out from his office window, at the unkept garden, a rueful smile touched his lips. What a family he had; the elder a greedy thief, the younger a contrebandier.
With a sigh he reached back to rip out the satin tie that bound his hair, and then thrust his long fingers through the unpowdered length of it, muttering sourly beneath his breath.
Hell, at least he had no qualms over admitting the fact. Though it might seem appropriate to bear some measure of guilt… too bad he couldn’t muster the sentiment. In fact, he’d burn in hell before he’d regret a damned thing. And that in itself should have disturbed him, he supposed. But it didn’t. Not in the least. He was what he was, and he felt absolutely no remorse for his... enterprising. Supplies were needed in the colonies, and he simply transported those goods. Nor had he any falsely noble incentives to declare. His motives were quite simply self-indulgent.
He wanted money.
Aye, and he wanted respect.
He wanted land.
He wanted more than anything for the sons he intended to sire to all have equal shares of the empire he would build for them. Damned if he’d leave one alone to fend for himself in a world such as this. And nay, it was not so much the lack of title he abhorred, for he might truly have been happy in most any situation—save the one in which he found himself. Youngest son, nonentity.
All that disdain without anyone having known of his greatest social flaw, even. His wry smile deepened. What a field day the gentry would have if they were to discover his bastardy.
All those years he’d settled for what little his father had cared to give him. Which was nothing, not even a momentary-lapse pat on the head, a “good show, son.” Nothing. The only one thing he’d counted on, was his bequest of Hakewell, his mother’s dower land. It was to be hers, until her death, and then it was to go to Christian. And God’s truth, he’d been perfectly content to bide his time, however long that should be, for he cherished his mother and would have her live an eternity were it possible. But he had counted upon that estate someday. And then he’d been offered a betrothal with Westmoor’s young daughter, and he’d found himself with such great expectations, such dreams. Security for his heirs.
Shattered, all of it shattered upon his father’s death. The old man hadn’t been gone more than a single month when Philip had set in motion Christian’s disinheritance. All very discreetly done, of course. He’d finagled possession of Hakewell through legal loopholes and treachery.
Certainly Christian knew he could contest it, for Hakewell was his mother’s to give, but Philip—the son of a bitch—had resorted to extortion, knowing Christian would never sully his mother’s good name. And then he had run to Westmoor to inform him of the transfer of property, and with his bequeathal gone, Westmoor had annulled the betrothal at once; as the sole reason for the contract to begin with was Hakewell. Without that parcel of land, Christian was worth no more than a brass farthing.
In the blink of an eye, everything had been stripped away, and like a man caught in the throes of a riptide, he’d been helpless to do anything but let it bear him away.
He was helpless no more.
And never again.
His gaze returned to the letter in his hand, and his fingers closed about the parchment, crumpling it. He slammed his fist down against the hardwood desk.
By damn, he wanted revenge.
The certainty of it struck him full of force.
Despite that he’d sworn himself against it—even after what had happened before—he wanted it, with a bloodlust that was almost palpable. Cold fury seized him and he determined, instead, to give the cocky young duke his due. The idiot had offered him a ridiculously low sum for this insulting task, as though he were a green boy fresh out of Eton with a bulge in his breeches and little in his purse. But that was not what rankled most. Rather it was the snobbery and contempt at the heart of the insult offered.
One too many from the almighty Westmoor.
Not good enough to wed the man’s sister, was he? But good enough to—what? bed her?
So he would have his sister disillusioned… for the greater good?
Christian wondered what, precisely, that entailed.
From the letter, he’d gotten the distinct impression that Lady Jessamine Stone was not too receptive to her brother’s choice of husband. He supposed it was her bastard brother’s intent that once her little heart was duly crushed, she would more easily bend to his will. But to what end was Westmoor willing to go?
And why choose him, save to rub salt into his wounds?
Christian’s eyes narrowed. God’s truth, he had no wish to do Westmoor any favors, but there was some sense of justice in that he would be paid now to avail himself of what should have already been his.
Aye, he’d do it, all right, but if Westmoor thought he meant to honor the letter of the agreement, he was more fool than Christian supposed. His cobalt blue eyes glinted with ruthless determination. The truth was that Christian had already ruined the father... He now fully intended to finish the business—and he didn’t give a bleedin’ damn who was brought down along the way, the virginal little sister included.
He didn’t bother to scribble a return note; it wasn’t worth the effort to attempt to put words together. He peered up at the figure standing quietly in the doorway, awaiting his return message, and said with barely suppressed virulence, “Tell him my answer is yes.”
And then tell him to go straight to hell, he added silently, and rose from his desk.
God help him, right or wrong, he was about to court Lady Jessamine Stone.
For the greater good.
Jessie sat upon the small embankment, peering dreamily over the rim of an open book, scarcely able to keep her mind upon the text within. She’d chosen the much-loved volume, thinking to pass the time reading outdoors, but who could concentrate with so many delicious thoughts cavorting within her head?
He’d come; Lord Christian had come!
Her brother had been expecting him this morn.
All this time, she’d never dared dream he would come to her rescue. And yet she’d so wished that he would! He was her very last hope!
The awful truth was that at twenty-two, Jessamine was a prime candidate for spinsterhood, and her dowry sadly lacking, as well. Silently she cursed her father for that. It seemed ludicrous that she should be angry with a man for simply dying. But his untimely death, followed by the ugly rumors that surfaced afterward, had forced Westmoor into a monetary pinch, and thus had rendered her virtually unmarriageable. Amazing how swiftly one’s acquaintances withdrew when there was the scarcest nuance of scandal.
It thrilled her that Lord Christian might yet desire her—if not her, precisely, then what little remained of her dowry. Though perhaps it should trouble her that he might desire her for her money alone, it didn’t. God’s truth, she would do anything—anything—to escape the fate her brother would mete her!
Including swear to a love she didn’t feel.
She’d shamefully lied to Amos, and yes it did bother her just a little, but she would have done most anything to persuade him to agree to a betrothal with Lord Christian—anyone, in truth, to be free of Lord St. John.
But Lord Christian had no grand title to consider. Nor had he any money to his name—evidenced by the fact that he’d purchased such a tumbledown estate as Rose Park. In fact, he would be marrying up did he choose to accept Amos’ paltry offer. And with that conclusion, her spirits lifted considerably.
And if he didn’t want her?
Well, then... still she might find a way to prevail upon him to assist her in finding safe passage to her father’s brother in the colonies. She had her mother’s jewels to persuade him, after all. And they had once been affianced. He owed her something for that, did he not?
Yes, indeed, she determined, and refused to be disheartened. One way or the other, her greatest chance to escape Lord St. John lay with Lord Christian—and he had come at last.
Her mood lighter than it had been in ages, she set the age-blackened volume down upon the grass to peer at the brook below. An old stone packhorse bridge spanned its shallow width. It had been there as long as Jessie could recall—put there by druids, her mother had claimed. Bathed in misty sunlight beneath the lush oaks and elms, this had always been her favorite place to come, whether to brood or shout huzzahs.
This instant she felt like dancing wildly.
The water seemed so cool and tempting...
Surely no one would spy her if she removed her slippers and stockings to soak her feet…
How long had it been since she’d risked such a thing? It seemed a lifetime ago she’d dared be so carefree.
Closing her eyes, she called to mind the day so long ago when her mother had caught her wading in nothing more than her pristine white shift. If she remembered very hard... she could still see it... almost hear her mother’s sweet voice...
“Jessie love! ’Tis no place for a young lady to cavort by her lonesome!”
She’d caught sight of Jessie’s gown cast away upon the grass. “Good heavens!” she’d exclaimed. “What would your papa say!”
Bursting into fits of giggles, Jessie had flopped upon her belly in the water, splashing everywhere.
“Whatever shall I do with you?” her mother had asked, but Jessie had spied the smile she tried so hard to conceal.
“Watch, Mother!” Sucking in a mouthful of water, Jessie held it dammed within her mouth as she watched her mother remove her silk shoes and wade in after her. When her mother stood before her at last, she popped her cheeks with her palms, spewing water all over her mother’s fine gown.
Her mother had peered down incredulously at her ruined gown, and seeing the flustered expression upon her face, Jessie feared to have angered her at last, but suddenly her mother had lunged after her, a peal of raucous laughter bursting from her lovely lips.
Looking back upon it now, Jessie thought it might have been the disheartened expression on her face, for she couldn’t begin to imagine what could be so funny about an impish child and a ruined gown. And yet, how they’d laughed and frolicked that day.
Tilting her head back, she sighed, feeling the gentle warmth of the sun upon her face. She was six years old that day... the year before her mother had died. More than a lifetime had passed since then.
Her brother ruled like a dreary little monarch. As her father would, he’d turn choleric with rage to spy her at such merrymaking. And truth to tell, she couldn’t help but giggle at the expression she imagined he’d wear. A spark of mischief ignited. The birds twittered nervously in the treetops. What could he say, after all? He couldn’t possibly be more callous toward her than he already was. What harm could come of it?
Impulsively she tossed off her slippers and stood, flinging up her skirts. Rolling down her stockings, she removed them, and cast them away with an impish giggle. And then drawing up her skirts, she knotted them firmly to keep from soaking the lacy hem, more than pleased with herself for forsaking her petticoat this morn. She’d had to sneak to get out of the house, but the freedom it now gave her was well worth the undignified duck behind the server.
She wasn’t fool enough to run about in her shift at her advanced age, but she could see nothing wrong with wetting her feet—to blazes with Amos!
She started down the incline, humming cheerily.
Christian found himself reluctant to intrude upon her delightful diversions and so he sat, admiring her unheeded as she whirled and frolicked like a doe in the fields. Kicking up a slim leg, she showered water into the air, laughing huskily when it rained down upon her face.
He smiled despite himself.
She made quite the charming picture.
He didn’t want her to be refreshingly sincere and guileless. He wanted her to be coy and artificial... so that he could loathe her as he did her father and her brother.
Christ, why the hell was he doing this?
There was too much to be dealt with to be engaged in paltry revenge.
So what if he’d been betrothed to the green-eyed witch? So what if the betrothal had been wrenched from him solely because he’d been disinherited?
God’s teeth, she wore no petticoat.
The revelation slammed into him without warning. Desire slid through his veins like warm brandy.
Provoked by his body’s response to the sight of her, he spurred his mount down the incline, some part of him bent upon spoiling her revelry. He entered the brook without hesitation, his mount’s hooves splashing, churning water, angrily grinding stones beneath the crystalline surface.
With a gasp of surprise, she spun to face him. “My lord!”
He arched a brow.
Her eyes widened in recognition. And then suddenly she was gazing up at him, her expression one of adoration.
“My lord,” she said again, and her eyes turned liquid. “I cannot believe you’ve come!”
Christian knew she was addlepated—must be. There was no way she could know who he was, and still look so damned grateful to see him. But then, all she really knew was that her brother had supposedly written him and reinstated the offer of matrimony, only with a lesser dowry. “Of course I came,” he said, “did you think I would not?” Though he didn’t smile to reassure her.
She shook her head, and actual tears sprang to her eyes.
There was no need for her to weep, was there? Taken aback by her unexpected reaction, he scowled, not quite able to tear his gaze away from her liquid green eyes; how singularly beautiful they were. As they had been that day so long ago. They’d haunted him then. Bewitched him still.
He forced his gaze lower, to her full, sensual lips, and concluded that his business with her brother might not be so unpleasant, after all.
Quite the contrary. She was possibly one of the fairest women he’d ever laid eyes upon. Not beautiful, precisely, though something about her made him feel she was—those eyes... and those lips that seemed made for kissing.
She was a bold little thing, he decided. The longer she stared the greater her danger of being soundly and ruthlessly kissed. He was tempted.
Why postpone the inevitable?
“My lord,” she said softly, demurely, “I shall forever be in your debt!”
“Really, m’mselle?” He couldn’t keep himself from baiting her, knowing she couldn’t possibly recognize him and look so damned grateful. “Won’t you tell me just who it is you think I am?”
She peered up a little anxiously. “Why, Lord... Christian... of course...”
She sounded so beautifully anxious, so very uncertain, that Christian found himself grinning down at her. “In the flesh,” he confessed, “though how you placed me so quickly after all these years, I shall never know.”
Why was it he felt suddenly so relieved?
“How could I ever forget you, my lord?”
She smiled sweetly, and it pricked at his heart.
Jessie found herself staring unabashedly, regarding Lord Christian’s windblown locks with both fascination and scandalized horror. The truth was that he was not at all the man she recalled. Gone was the genteel boyish quality she remembered, and with it every last pretense of civility.
Whereas decent men wore dignified headpieces and powder, he wore only his natural dark mane, bound at his nape—and heaven help her, her first impression of the man before her was that he held himself accountable to no one.
Why had he come?
It didn’t matter, she told herself.
The years had changed him much, but all that truly mattered was that he had come to her rescue and she was heartily grateful despite a new tide of misgivings.
If only he would stop staring at her so...
“I-I was reading,” she blurted, unsettled by his mercurial eyes.
“Were you?” The tiniest smile curved his lips. “You certainly appear to be reading,” he said sarcastically, and gazed down pointedly at her bare feet. “Perchance you have a book beneath those pretty little toes of yours?”
Jessie’s gaze fell to her bare feet.
Good Lord, she was a ninny hammer!
Mortification squeezed the breath from her lungs. “Nay, my lord!” she said, her gaze flying back to his. “It’s just that, you see... well, I-I left the book upon the bank!”
She fanned herself unconsciously. “It was rather hot, you see!”
Lord, but it was uncomfortably warm of a sudden. Feeling more than a little foolish, she turned at once and began to make her way out of the brook. “I should go!” she declared.
“Not on my account, I hope.”
Jessie didn’t stop, couldn’t find the courage to do so; mortified, she continued instead toward the bank.
“I must confess, I was rather enjoying the sight of your revelry,” he said behind her, and Jessie’s stomach lurched.
She halted abruptly, turning to peer up at him, a little chafed by his confession.
Lord, just how long had he stood watching before making his presence known?
She reminded herself that she needed him and couldn’t afford to offend him. “I must have been woolgathering,” she said, unable to keep the censure from her tone. “I never even heard you approach, my lord.”
His blue eyes glinted silver and the silence between them lengthened as Jessie scrutinized him.
He wore a midnight blue riding coat, with immaculate white breeches that clung to his thighs so snugly, they were almost indecent. His waistcoat was blue, and his shirt a crisp white, with frilly cuffs that flared from beneath the sleeves of his coat. To his credit, his stock was neatly tied. And truth to tell, save for the dusty black boots, and his Bohemian hair, he appeared quite respectable, quite patrician, and not at all the nefarious rogue Amos had portrayed him to be.
And yet there was something about him that was not quite civil...
Her eyes narrowed as she followed his gaze to her hem—her knotted hem—and she gasped and scrambled to untie the knot in her gown, settling it hastily over her bare limbs, letting the fragile material she’d taken such care with only moments before soak up the brook. To her great misfortune, her mortification escalated.
Completely at a loss for words now, she lowered her gaze to his boots. She didn’t dare look elsewhere—certainly not up into his too handsome face, for it seemed she was destined to remain apple-cheeked this morn. “My brother would not approve of us here alone,” she said. “I-I should go!” She turned at once to leave.
“But, m’mselle,” he protested. “It was your brother who suggested I might find you here.”
Jessie spun to face him, her gaze flying upward in surprise. “Amos?”
His smile was somewhat cocksure. “Amos, indeed.”
Jessie tilted her head. “How... very…” Strange she thought, but said, “forthcoming...” It wasn’t her brother’s way at all to abet the foe—and foes they certainly were in the matter of Lord Christian. It seemed her brother was bound and determined that she should wed Lord St. John. And God’s truth, he would condemn her to a fate worse than death with that man! Her proposed intended was a detestable boor—and more, the thought of his hands upon her made her physically ill.
She was determined to prevail.
But so was Amos.
She peered up at Lord Christian, unconvinced.
“And yet I did get the distinct impression he does not care for me overmuch,” he added offhandedly.
Jessie choked on the truth of the admission. His gaze was all too knowing, and she found she couldn’t perpetuate even the tiniest untruth under his scrutiny, not even a wee one for his own benefit.
Curse Amos and his condescending ways, for the last thing she wished to do was to discourage Lord Christian’s suit. “Perhaps it’s true, my lord,” she confided a little resentfully, “Though I’m certain my brother is harmless.”
He made some choked sound. “Harmless?”
“I believe so, my lord.” She couldn’t very well tell him Amos was, in fact, a pantywaist, though she couldn’t have him believing her brother would call him out either.
He smiled down at her, his eyes glinting. “He had me quivering in my boots this morn, hinting of pistols at dawn.” The gleam in his eyes intensified, and Jessie cast him a dubious glance, for it was impossible to believe the man before her had ever quivered before anything, or anyone.
He was jesting with her, she thought... though she couldn’t be certain. “Really, my lord,” she countered, “you mustn’t take my brother’s mettle too much to heart. The truth is he trusts no one.” She lifted her chin, meeting his gaze. “He must have determined you were quite harmless, as well, or he would never have directed you here to me, I’m certain.”
The chit was too trusting by far, Christian decided.
Didn’t she realize he might have said anything to gain her trust, including the truth?
Then again, wasn’t that what he wanted? To gain her faith. Certainly it would make his task here go all the easier. Why should he care whether she was easily duped?
He didn’t, he assured himself.
His jaw clenched as she lifted her gaze fully to his, and he spied the uncertainty she tried so hard to conceal. It gave him a heavy feeling in his chest. “’Tis only fitting a brother should be mindful of his sister,” he told her. “Not all men are so honorable, you realize?”
She peered up at him, arching a brow in challenge. “Nor are they all such terrible lechers as my brother would have me believe,” she surprised him by saying.
Christian lifted a dubious brow.
“I do not believe they are,” she asserted, and blushed profusely.
She nodded, a little less certain now. “Truly,” she persisted.
He watched her flush creep lower, to the region of her décolletage, and his gaze lingered upon the square-cut neckline of her rose colored gown. Subconsciously her hand fluttered to her throat—an alluring gesture—and he compelled himself not to think of what it might feel like to press his lips to that burning flesh.
Heaven; it would feel like heaven.
The only sort of heaven he was ever like to know.
“Well, I… I really should go,” she declared once more, and again moved toward the bank, backing away slowly, as though she were no longer quite certain whether to flee or to stay, to trust him or nay. He found he didn’t wish her to leave so soon, and so he allowed her the comfort of distance between them.
He waited until she was seated high upon the bank, beneath the old elm, and was well on her way to replacing her slippers to her feet, and then he spurred his mount after her.