Book 6 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
Ruthless, wicked, and dark, the Marquess of Rutland rouses terror in the breast of ladies and nobleman alike. All Edmund wants in life is power. After he was publically humiliated by his one love Lady Margaret, he vowed vengeance, using Margaret’s niece, as his pawn. Except, he’s thwarted by another, more enticing target–Miss Phoebe Barrett.
Miss Phoebe Barrett knows precisely the shame she’s been born to. Because her father is a shocking letch she’s learned to form her own opinions on a person’s worth. After a chance meeting with the Marquess of Rutland, she is captivated by the mysterious man. He, too, is a victim of society’s scorn, but the more encounters she has with Edmund, the more she knows there is powerful depth and emotion to the jaded marquess.
The lady wreaks havoc on Edmund’s plans for revenge and he finds he wants Phoebe, at all costs. As she’s drawn into the darkness of his world, she risks being destroyed by his ruthlessness. And Phoebe who desires love at all costs, has to determine if she can ever truly trust the heart of a scoundrel.
The 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.
His laughter faded and he swallowed audibly once more. “I know the one,” he said. He gave his cravat a tug. “Th-though my daughter has large bosom as well and is far prettier than the Fairfax chit. Are you sure—?”
Edmund fixed an icy glower on the man that forced him into silence. Then, he took a long, slow swallow of his drink and set the empty glass down. Folding his arms across his chest, Edmund stood over the man in a method he’d long used to rouse terror in much stronger men than this coward before him. “She wears a shawl.” He dropped his voice to a hushed whisper. “I would like that shawl.” Once he had that piece of fabric in his possession, it would set his calculated plan into motion. And from there, he would have more. A devilish excitement stirred in his chest.
“Eh? A shawl?” The older man fixed his gaze on the empty glass of brandy and then cast a longing glance over at the sideboard. The man was a drunkard. He wore his need for liquor upon his person the way a fat dowager doused herself in too fragrant perfume on a hot summer day. Relishing the other man’s inherent weakness, Edmund picked up the decanter and splashed several fingerfuls into the glass. That failing had cost the viscount a small fortune, property, and, inevitably, his daughter’s good standing in Society. He held the glass up in salute and took another swallow.
Lord Waters closed his eyes momentarily. Sweat rolled down his brow. This time, he did away with all hint of politeness and dragged the back of his sleeve across his head. “Why should I help you, Rutland? What are the benefits in me collecting anything for you? You already have enough.”
Edmund passed over his half-empty glass. “Ahh, because I’m prepared to forgive a portion of your debt each time you gather information about Miss Fairfax.” Waters hungrily eyed the glass and then greedily grasped at the offering.
Waters accepted the glass with trembling fingers. Liquid droplets splashed over the rim as he raised the tumbler to his lips and took a slow, savoring sip. “Why should I trust you?” he finally asked, eying Edmund with not nearly enough suspicion in his bleary eyes.
“The way I see it, Waters, you’ve little choice.”
Lord Waters downed the remaining contents of his glass and then eyed the amber droplets clinging to the rim. Then like the base animal he was, he licked the remaining liquid from the edge and set the snifter down. “You’ll forgive my debts, then.”
“Each time you help.” Though he suspected those debts would be promptly owed him once more when they sat down behind a faro table at Forbidden Pleasures.
The man scratched at his paunch. “Very well. The chit’s shawl.” He dusted his arm over his perspiring brow once again. “How do you expect me to collect this scrap?”
Edmund cracked his knuckles. “That is for you to worry about.” He strode around his desk and reclaimed his seat. “We’re done here,” he said, coolly dismissing the viscount. With an unholy delight in the other man’s discomposure, he pulled out the folio that contained Waters and a whole host of other gentleman in his debt, and proceeded to review the names, dismissing the fat viscount.
Edmund slowly raised his gaze, daring the man to speak.
The man sketched a jerky bow and then all but sprinted from the room, knocking over the furniture in his haste to be free.
He sat back, looking down at a whole host of names of men who’d already realized that one could never truly be free of Edmund, the Marquess of Rutland—unless he wished it. And unfortunately for Miss Honoria Fairfax, she was what he wished for.
With a dark laugh that would have roused unholy terror in the unwitting young lady, he returned his attention to the men in his debt.