Book 13 in the >Heart of a Duke Series
A Devil in Disguise…
Years ago, when Nick Tallings, the recent Duke of Huntly, watched his family destroyed at the hands of a merciless nobleman, he vowed revenge. But his efforts had been futile, as his enemy, Lord Rutland is without weakness.
With his rival finally happily married, Nick is able to set his ruthless scheme into motion. His plot hinges upon Lord Rutland’s innocent, empty-headed sister-in-law, Justina Barrett. Nick will ruin her, marry her, and then leave her brokenhearted.
A Lady Dreaming of Love…
From the moment Justina Barrett makes her Come Out, she is labeled a Diamond. Even with her ruthless father determined to sell her off to the highest bidder, Justina never gives up on her hope for a good, honorable gentleman who values her wit more than her looks.
A Not-So-Chance Meeting…
Nick’s ploy to ensnare Justina falls neatly into place in the streets of London. With each carefully orchestrated encounter, he slips further and further inside the lady’s heart, never anticipating that Justina, with her quick wit and strength, will break down his own defenses. As Nick’s plans begins to unravel, he’s left to determine which is more important–Justina’s love or his vow for vengeance. But can Justina ever forgive the duke who deceived her?
Just outside London
There were different levels of evil.
Some men bore that transparent blackness with their every deed, every word. Other men had contaminated souls only the Devil himself could see and know.
Sated and now bored from an endless night of sex, Nick Tallings, the Duke of Huntly, contemplated the cherubs in the mural overhead with jaded eyes. Those plump, winged creatures danced amidst a pale blue sky. Only one foolish fat-cheeked angel hovered too close to the earth, a serpent near its feet. It spoke to the rose-cheeked, smiling cherub’s ultimate finish. He grinned coldly. It was the unsuspecting who were ultimately always ruined. His father had been proof of that. Nick’s smile withered and he swung his legs over the side of the enormous four-poster bed.
Two cream white arms wrapped about his waist. The sultry owner of them pressed her breasts against his back. “Never tell me you’re leaving already,” she breathed against his ear. She flicked her tongue over his lobe. “You are all that is keeping me sane in the country, darling.” There was a faintly desperate entreaty there. Lady Marianne Carew, a lady once heralded as a Diamond of the First Water. How quickly a person fell.
Then, he well knew that.
Nick shoved away her hand. “I’d hardly call East Grinstead the country,” he drawled in frosty tones. He grabbed his breeches and stuffed one leg in and then the other.
The lady flopped onto her back and stretched catlike in her supple grace. Her red-tipped breasts bobbed with that slight movement. “Oh, poo, Huntly,” she pouted. “You know I cannot return to London.”
He did. It enhanced the overall convenience of dealing with a viper like her. Not that he’d any qualms in dealing with sinners whose souls were as black as his own. She had proven a lusty diversion and, more, invaluable in terms of information she’d handed over about the Marquess of Rutland. The man who’d destroyed her family. A shared enemy was a powerful thing. Nick grinned coldly. Apparently, Rutland had missed that particular lesson. “We are done here,” he said, bluntly.
All traces of sleep vanished from her voice. “Done?” she squeaked. The bed creaked with her sudden movement as she shoved upright, a display of carnality in all her lush nakedness.
“We both received what we desired in a partnership,” he said coolly, pulling his shirt on. “And were well pleasured for it.”
The siren, unhappily married to an ancient baron, had provided countless nights of pleasurable diversion. Her usefulness, however, had come to an end. “I have more information about him.” All earlier vestiges of desperation gone, the husky promise there brought him slowly around.
“Do you?” he asked in deliberately neutral tones. Long ago, he’d learned to reveal little in the way of one’s thoughts or feelings. To give little away. He’d spent years expertly crafting a mask, so that at seven and twenty years of age, it was the only skin he knew.
Marianne climbed from the bed and stalked over with long, languid steps that artfully displayed her well-rounded form. “Lady Rutland delivered her third babe.”
There it was. The information he’d been awaiting. Nick snapped his cravat and set to loosely tying it in a sloppy arrangement that would have had his valet in tears. “Did she?” The marchioness’ most recent pregnancy was what had allowed him to set his plan into motion.
“Ah, but that is not all,” she teased.
“It was a very difficult delivery. The papers say she almost died in childbirth. And the babe is weak.” A sick desire sparked in the lady’s eyes. As she stroked a hand over her breast, her breath caught.
Her depravity would have repelled a more honorable man. Nick hadn’t been that weak-willed fool in many, many years. “Your information is reliable?” he demanded, impatiently.
“Very,” she purred.
He picked his way around the garments haphazardly thrown about the night prior and grabbed his jacket.
“Surely that excites you as much as it does me,” she wheedled.
It did. But not for the same reasons that drove her madness. Again, she wrapped a pair of long, slender arms about his waist and caressed her clever fingers down to the front of his breeches. His shaft jumped reflexively under her ministrations.
“I see that it does.” Her low, throaty laugh spilled past her lips but ended on a sharp gasp as he gripped her wrist and thrust it away.
“I have matters to attend.” He softened that by pulling out a purse and tossing it to her. Coin always kept her happy.
The lady easily caught it in her greedy fingers. “I’m no whore.” Her lips formed a soft moue of displeasure. Then, she yanked open the purse and roved her gaze hungrily over the contents, showing the depth of her avarice.
“We’re all whores one way or another, madam,” he said tersely.
The baroness pulled her bag close to her chest and eyed him. “When will I see you again?”
Nick didn’t deal in clingy females. He took his pleasure when and where he wished, and be damned with emotional entanglements. Silently, he stalked over to the shellback chair and rescued his cloak. “Never.”
“Never,” she parroted. The velvet sack slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor in a noisy jingle. “But…”
“Do not make any more of what we shared than it was,” he said, ruthless in his honesty. He fastened his cloak at his neck and started for the door. With his plans, he couldn’t afford to be linked to a mistress.
Her gasp exploded around the room and, with a catlike speed, she sprinted across the floor and placed herself between him and the doorway, barring his retreat. “But you need me,” she rasped. “You cannot see this plan through without me.” He firmed his mouth, repulsed by her desperation. Desperation was what had started Nick on this journey. It had ended his father’s life and left the Tallings’ broken.
“See this through without you, madam?” he repeated. His dry humor raised furious color to her cheeks.
“But—but, I was the one who told you about Miss Barrett’s love of silly gothic novels and her fascination with bonnets. If it weren’t for me, you’d know nothing about her.”
“You think I require any further help from you to seduce Rutland’s sister-in-law?” His plan now must be set in motion. By the reports in the gossip columns, Miss Barrett was an empty-headed ice princess who was holding out for the most powerful title. He grinned. Fortunately, he now had one of the oldest, wealthiest titles to tempt the lady “I have, at best, a fortnight to make the lady fall in love with me, and you’d rather I stay here, tupping you?” Rage flashed in Marianne’s eyes. He stepped around her.
“I will tell him,” she called, her voice a frantic pitch as he reached for the door. “I will tell Rutland what you’ve done.”
He paused, fingers on the handle. “Tell him what, my lady? That we plotted his family’s demise,” he reminded her, turning back. A cold, mirthless grin tipped his lips at the corners. “He ran your brother off to the Continent. Do you think the faithless maid in his employ will not gladly sing the tune of your treachery when presented with an inquisition from Rutland? And what will a man like him do to a woman who plotted to destroy his family?”
The color leeched from her cheeks.
“Madam,” he said on a steely whisper. “I intend to bring Rutland to his knees. Will your hungering to have me between your legs blind you to the hell you now live because of that man?”
His words kindled the embers of hatred in her brown eyes. “Tell me what we shall do to them,” she rasped, desire glazing those depths.
“I will bankrupt the father-in-law,” he whispered, feeding her what she wanted, reminding her of what had united them. “So he is as poor as Rutland left your family. I’ll strip his fool of a brother-in-law of all his wealth and future properties.” For there was no doubt with the Barretts’ love of the tables, they’d gamble away all that was not entailed. “All those Rutland’s wife loves will be devastated. Their families in shambles.” Just as he had done to Nick. Just as he’d done to this viper’s family.
A hungry moan spilled past the baroness’ lips and her lashes fluttered. “And the girl,” she panted. “Tell me how you’ll destroy that chit.” As one of Society’s Incomparables, Lady Carew had demonstrated a vitriolic loathing for Miss Justina Barrett; a woman she’d never met and yet hated because the lady had taken her place as the Diamond of the Season.
“I’ll woo her,” he said on a husky whisper. “Seduce her.” She bit her lower lip, hunger clouding her eyes. “I’ll win her heart. Trap her. Make her my wife and then shatter her.”
“You needn’t wed her,” she protested.
“Of course I do,” he said impatiently. Since he’d shared that particular part of the Barretts’ ruin, Marianne Carew had been tenacious in trying to alter it. The lady was too blinded by her own lust for him. “Otherwise, her father can sell her over to another and have his debts paid,” he reminded her.
“Will you think of me every time you have that mealy-mouthed virgin in your bed?”
“How could I not?” he countered, giving her the words she wished to hear. Even though he’d not give her another thought when he stepped outside these chamber doors. It was safer to feed this woman’s vanity.
“Then you’ll come back to me,” she rasped as he opened the door. “You’ll need a real woman in your arms, Huntly. In your bed.”
Nick gave his head a disgusted shake. “I’ve already said we are through.” He’d long ago tired of her. Theirs had been a relationship based on lust and hatred for a mutual enemy. Nothing more bound them.
“I shan’t let you go,” she said, a panicky tremor to her husky contralto.
“You’ve no choice, madam. And lest you again fill your fool head with the idea of sharing all with Rutland, remember, he is the man responsible for you selling your soul and body to an old baron who keeps you on a tight purse string.”
Hatred contorted her features, turning her into something ugly on the outside that matched the inside.
“Would you humble yourself before the man who owned your brother’s debt and turned it over to another?”
Shock marred her features. Yes, Nick knew all. He knew of the vowels Rutland turned over to the Viscount Wessex; a fortune that had Lady Carew’s brother facing debtor’s prison. He had since been run off to the Continent. The lady, with no prospects, had sold herself cheap on the Marriage Mart, getting herself a doddering husband in the process. The man had one foot in the grave and the other gleefully tapping a rhythm of life that promised to make her a widow no time soon.
He smirked coldly. “I did not think so, my lady.”
“But we are joined in our hatred of him and our plotting,” she entreated.
“The loathing we share for Rutland is hardly a bond that ties us.” Nick fished another sack of coins from his pocket and tossed it over.
The lady immediately folded greedy fingers around it. Indecision warred in her eyes and then lust won out. “I want more of you, Huntly. You have made me feel things I’ve never felt.”
A low, humorless chuckle rumbled from deep in his chest. “You’ve had more men in your bed than a doxy on a Dials’ street corner.”
With a growl, she closed the space between them and wrapped her palm around his neck. Dragging his face down for a kiss, she mated her mouth to his with a roughness that had fueled his ardor in the past. Now, he felt a bored numbness with her. He’d been enlivened by the only thing that had brought them together. “Have some pride, my lady,” he whispered, pulling back.
“Bastard,” she hissed. Leaning up, she bit his lower lip.
He winced and set her away from him hard. “Show yourself out within the hour,” he said, bored by her display.
With the lady’s furious shrieks trailing after him, he yanked the door open and stepped out into the hall. He drew the door closed and a loud thump sounded in the hall. Followed by another. And then a spray of glass.
Lady Carew forgotten, Nick pulled a white, embroidered kerchief from inside his front pocket and pressed it to his bleeding lip. He made his way through the halls. Some other man’s ancestors, people whose blood he only distantly shared, stared back in their pompous, frozen glory.
He reached the foyer and his butler, Thoms, rushed forward. “I’ve had your horse readied, Your Grace.”
Nick inclined his head in thanks. When the remaining two servants had scurried off and prattled to the world about the telling marks of suicide on the Baronet Tallings’ neck, this man had remained loyal. He’d stayed alongside their family as everything was stripped away and until Nick and Cecily had been carted off to their miserable grandfather’s property. On his meteoric rise from the once-forgotten fourteen-year-old son of a shamed baronet to the suddenly-minted duke of a distant, childless relative, the first business he’d undertaken had been seeking out and rehiring Thoms.
The man, who’d remained silent on the darkness of that day and stood by his family, had demonstrated an ability to maintain a property where Nick’s illicit dealings were conducted. “I want the household closed,” he said, adjusting the collar of his cloak.
The graying servant nodded. “As you wish, Your Grace.”
He jerked his head toward the opposite hall. “If she’s not gone within the hour, see that she’s removed.”
Thoms again nodded and rushed to open the door.
Nick bounded down the steps and made for the servant waiting with his mount, Thunder. After he swung into the saddle, the midnight black stallion with the white streak between its eyes danced skittishly about and he adjusted the reins, until his horse settled. He urged the stallion down the graveled drive, leaving dirt and dust in his wake, until they reached the old Roman road that stretched toward Charring Cross.
While he rode, the early morn breeze slapped at his cheeks, invigorating, and he swallowed deeply of the cool air.
As a boy, he’d despised London. A man who’d climbed from the ashes of life, he’d slipped easily into the ugly filth of the London streets and the people who called that place home. Now, a duke, recently come to London with matchmaking mamas eager for the title duchess for their daughters, he’d been welcomed within Society’s fold in ways he’d never been accepted as a boy who’d spent three fleeting weeks at Harrow.
Those eager matchmaking mamas and papas were content to see precisely what he affected on the surface. Charming. Affable rogue. Never a rake. Moderate at the gaming tables. In short, a paragon of the ton.
In sum, the apple dangled before unsuspecting sinners. None cared to delve into the past of a now duke, to see the life he’d lived prior to striking a rich chord at the expense of his late father’s fourth cousin twice removed.
There was but one who could see, perhaps. A like-minded serpent who spied the evil under the surface because he carried it as a mark upon his worthless soul—Rutland. If Nick had slithered before his feet, the man would have looked. Closer. Because he knew. Knew never to trust a smile. Never trust the good in a man. Always question it. After all, Rutland had made him this way. Had shaped him in ways not even Nick’s own father had.
For after his father had put a noose around his own neck and ended his life, Nick had learned a lesson delivered in blood—the fallibility of man. His father hadn’t truly loved them. Not enough to stay behind and fight. Nick, however, was not, nor would ever be his father. He would have vengeance for not only himself, but for Cecily and her daughter, Felicity. And for Mother, whose spirit had flickered out, and then been forever extinguished not even six months after her husband had ended himself. Cecily, in her romanticism, had said their mother had died of a broken heart. Nick knew better. It had been the games of the Devil, Rutland, that had weakened her heart until that frail organ had attacked her.
That had always been one sharp, definable difference between him and Rutland. He had people who he loved. People who depended on him—his sister and her daughter. And Rutland? Well, he may as well have been sprung from Satan’s side without a single person to his name. It was a fact Nick had spent thirteen years resenting.
Nudging Thunder with his knees, he slowed the mount to a canter. But every person had a weakness. For Nick, his would always and only ever be Cecily and Felicity. Theirs was a bond forged by blood. As such, he’d long ago given up hope that Rutland would ever willingly commit to the emotion that made a man vulnerable. Then it happened. His patience had been rewarded. The Devil had fallen in love.
Lord Rutland, long without attachments beyond the material, had tied himself to another and, in doing so, he’d found himself an entire family. A mother-in-law who wore a perpetual smile that did nothing to conceal the heartache in her too-kind eyes. A rake of a brother-in-law who’d lost, and would continue to lose, countless coin the way he’d been schooled at his pudgy father’s knee.
Then there was the sister-in-law. The ever-cheerful creature he’d caught but a glimpse of weeks earlier hadn’t fit with the reports of her being an ice princess. When others had been engrossed in the gossip and the performance unfolding at the Drury Lane Theatre, he’d watched boldly the young lady who would serve as the ultimate chess piece in his game of revenge. Naïve. Stars in her eyes. And hope in her heart. Miss Justina Barrett would be his pawn. And with one tiny, insignificant and powerless pawn, he would maneuver Rutland into the ultimate checkmate.
Then there could at last be peace. A like destruction that would never ease their suffering, but would equalize the world, filling Rutland’s existence with a similar misery.
Training his gaze on the distance, where the sun, a crimson and burnt orange orb, just peeked over the horizon, he nudged Thunder onward.
Nearly two hours later, when the sun was climbing in the morning sky, Nick reached a pink stucco townhouse. He dismounted and handed the reins over to a waiting street urchin. “There will be more,” he promised, turning a small purse over to the boy’s dirty fingers.
The lad nodded eagerly and stood in wait. After bounding up the steps, Nick knocked several times on the front door. A moment later, the young, familiar butler pulled it open. “Your Grace,” the man greeted. With surprise apparent in his gaze, he stepped aside and granted Nick entry. The man wrinkled his nose.
Yes, at this fashionable hour it was hardly a time for receiving visitors, particularly ducal guests that stank of horseflesh and sweat. Pleasantries and morning ablutions, however, mattered little when presented with the information he’d obtained a short while ago. Nick pulled off his gloves and glanced about. “Is my sis—?”
An excited child’s cry cut across his question. He looked up just as a small girl rushed forward and launched herself into his legs.
He immediately settled his hands around his niece’s shoulders and hefted her into his arms. With her pale blue eyes and blonde ringlets, she was a mirror of Cecily as she’d been in her innocence. A forever reminder of innocence destroyed. He forced aside the always-present hatred brewing under the surface and peered at her for a long moment. “Forgive me. For a moment, I believed you were my niece, Felicity, and yet…” He put his face close to hers and squinted. “And yet, when last I saw her, she was a sprout. Surely, she could not have grown so, and so quickly.”
His niece giggled. “You just saw me a fortnight ago, Uncle Dominick,” she scolded, slapping at his arm.
Nick flared his eyes. “By goodness…it is you, Felicity!” He staggered back under the weight of pretend shock, earning another round of healthy laughter from the girl.
“You, my dear, should be in your nursery seeing to your lessons.”
Nick and Felicity looked as one to the owner of that gently chiding voice. His sister, Cecily, stood there, pale and solemn in ways she’d never been as a girl. Just a year older than his seven and twenty years, she bore the same hardship of life in the sad lines at the corners of her eyes. Pain stuck in his gut. There had been a time when she’d been garrulous and always smiling.
“Must I go?” Felicity pleaded with her mother, sparing him from having to formulate words past his tight throat. “Uncle Dominick has only just arrived.” The girl looked hopefully to Nick, her saucer-wide eyes meeting his. “Did you bring me anything?”
He tweaked her nose. “I’ve been a rotted uncle, this time,” he said in conciliatory tones.
“A game of chess?” she bartered.
He dropped his voice to a whisper. “I must speak to your mother, now.”
She scrunched her mouth up. “Promise to return?” Since she’d been a babe just stringing together words into sentences, those three had become the ones she uttered at their every parting.
“Later in the week, I’ll meet you for chess and then take you both for a ride in Hyde Park, with a bag of peppermints.”
A girlish squeal trilled from Felicity’s lips as she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Permission to leave granted.” Reluctantly, Nick set her down and she scampered off.
His sister spoke without preamble. “There are whispers about your intentions for the Season.”
“It is lovely to see you, as well,” he drawled. Doffing his hat, he turned it over to an attentive footman. Nick unfastened his cloak and the butler accepted it in his gloved hands.
Cecily stood, her gaunt face stretched in a solemn mask. Then she gave him a smile, an empty rendition of the ones that had creased her lips as a young girl. “You smell horrid, Dominick,” she chided, the same little mother she’d always been to him.
He offered a half-grin. “That is hardly a welcome to receive after riding hard to London to see you and my favorite niece.”
This time, her smile widened and, for the sliver of a moment, it reached her eyes. “She is your only niece,” she needlessly reminded him and then motioned him forward. Nick fell into step alongside her. “It does not escape me that you did not answer my question,” she observed as their footsteps fell in a matched staccato.
“Oh, was there a question?” he asked, stealing a sideways look.
She snorted. “You may be a man grown and the most sought after rogue in London, but you’re as transparent now as you were as boy poring over a volume of poetry.”
That beloved verse, buried and forgotten until now, whispered around his mind. God, what a callow fool he’d been. Poring over verses. Penning his own pathetic drivel.
They reached a vibrant parlor with sunlight streaming through the drawn curtains. “Well?” she prodded as soon as they were seated. “Has the Darling Duke set aside his reckless ways?” That droll inquiry sent heat rushing up his neck. It was one thing to be a rogue. It was an altogether different matter discussing it openly with one’s sister.
His shoulders tight from the continuous hours in the saddle and his erect posturing, Nick rolled the stiff muscles. “I have.”
Cecily surged forward in her Louis XIV floral upholstered seat. “Why?” she demanded, narrowing her blue eyes.
In a bid for nonchalance, Nick stretched his legs out. “I daresay you’d approve of me settling down in my…” He winged an eyebrow up. “What did you call them? My reckless ways?”
“Why are you here, Dominick?” she asked with her usual gravity.
He flexed his jaw. “Have I ever been a disloyal brother that you’d question my visiting?”
“No,” she said calmly, folding her hands primly on her lap. “You visit every week you are in London with guilt stamped on your features. I do question your arriving with scruff on your face and smelling as though you’ve wrestled a horse.”
He ignored the latter part of that admission as her words struck him like a fist to the belly. “It is my fault.”
“Pfft,” Cecily scoffed, settling back in her chair. “You gentlemen with your misbegotten sense of guilt and honor. You would hold yourself accountable for allowing me to be bullied into marriage by Grandfather? If that is what drives your visits, I’d rather you not come. It merely serves to remind me of my own mistakes.”
Her mistakes. Marriage at just fifteen to an ancient bounder of an earl, who refused to die and make her a widow. And Nick had failed to protect her. Failed her when they’d been failed by so many.
His sister waved a hand about, slashing through his musings. “Do not distract me with talk about my own circumstances. It is your sudden changing ones that give me concern.”
She’d always seen too much. Nick held her gaze directly. “There is nothing to worry about,” he said quietly, offering her the only hint of truth he could. He’d see her protected. Nor could he tell her more, for reasons that had everything to do with her need for absolution of any knowledge of what he intended.
Cecily thinned her eyes into narrow slits. “This is about him, isn’t it?”
Him. The unspoken name that they never breathed. “This is about me,” Nick countered. He layered his arm along the back of the sofa.
“Do not,” she commanded like a stern governess who’d never brook “no” for an answer.
“I’ve said nothing.”
“You didn’t need to,” she shot back. “I know you.” Cecily glanced to the doorway and then scooted to the edge of her chair. She tugged the large piece closer to Nick, scraping the seat noisily along the hardwood. “You have let him turn you into a shell of the person you were.”
They were both empty caricatures of the people they’d been. Determined to not remind her of the misery of her marriage, he buried that profession. “I want you in the country,” he said in hushed tones.
Understanding dawned in her eyes. “So, that is why you are here.” She shook her head slowly. “I’m not running to the countryside. And I’m certainly not taking Felicity to where the earl is.”
He balled his hands. “Do you expect I’d ask you to go off with your husband?” He could not banish the disappointment that her doubts roused. “Go to Suffolk.”
“To our old home?” Another sad little smile hovered on her lips. His purchase and restoration of that small cottage had begun out of his bid to eradicate the demons that dwelled there and had laid conquest to his past. “Oh, Dominick, you still do not see that nothing can right the past. Nothing can bring Papa and Mama back. Nothing can erase Grandfather’s verbal assaults. Or undo my…” Marriage.
The word hung unfinished and as real as if she’d uttered it. “But there can be justice.”
As soon as that whisper left Nick’s lips, worry flooded his sister’s eyes. “You will let him turn you into a version of him.”
He’d already become that man. Only Cecily and his niece saw good in him, still. He’d not waste his breath trying to convince his sister of the contrary. Nick tugged out his watch fob and consulted the timepiece. “I must go,” he said with finality. “I am meeting Chilton shortly.” He snapped the gold trinket closed.
Cecily fluttered a hand about her chest and let her fingers fall to her lap. “He has always been a friend to you.” There was something sad and contradictory in that quiet pronouncement. They three had been inseparable as children and Chilton had developed the same apathy for the peerage as Nick himself. She climbed to her feet. “Let your hatred go. It will destroy you.”
As a boy who’d sustained himself on hatred and survived the hell of, first, his father’s death, then his mother’s, and then the misery of residing with his grandfather, it had been the hope of seeing Rutland love and ultimately lose, the way Nick’s family had.
This would be an act of vengeance that lived not just for him, but for Cecily, as well. For all they as a family had lost on that dark night.
He started for the door and had his hand on the doorknob. Nick paused and glanced back. “I’ll ask you again to please leave—”
“I am not leaving London, Dominick.” Censure laced her reply. “This is where I belong. If you believe something you intend to do will have ramifications on mine or Felicity’s well-being, then you should rethink your course.” A curse stung his lips, but she quelled him with a look. “I. Am. Not. Leaving.”
Nick dragged a hand through his hair and at her stony expression, the fight withered on his lips. She was as stubborn as he himself. He gave a curt nod.
“Please, be careful, Dominick.” Her softly-spoken plea rang like a shot in the quiet room.
“I will do nothing to cause you any more pain,” he vowed.
His sister held his gaze. “I’m not worried for me.”
Forcing a grin for her benefit, Nick offered another reassurance and then took his leave.