Blame It on the Duke(9)

By: Lenora Bell

There was an aura of danger about him—an air of unpredictability.

The apothecaries of the world would do a brisk trade if they could distill his decadent allure to sell to the masses.

Only a dab of this, Mr. Smith, and the ladies will swoon at your feet.

Alice stood taller. She might be country bred, but no man, no matter how outrageously good-looking, would make her breathless.

Really, his eyes are an ordinary gray, she reflected.

Mice are gray. Cobwebs. Dirty dishcloths.

He was perfectly at ease in unfamiliar surroundings.

All that expensive tailoring and aristocratic indolence made the library’s new-purchased Aubusson rugs and gilt ormolu clocks look tawdry and pretentious.

“This won’t stand, Sir Alfred,” Lord Hatherly said with an icy smile. “The duke can’t be held responsible for his actions.”

Her father crossed his arms, refusing to crumple under the disdainful assault of Lord Hatherly’s gaze. “My man of business made some inquiries this morning. We believe the wager to be legal and binding, Lord Hatherly.”

A brief flicker of surprise lit Hatherly’s eyes. He hadn’t expected such resistance.

“You may have one of our other properties.” The marquess made an impatient gesture. “You’re welcome to the castle in Essex. It’s far more profitable and better maintained than Sunderland.”

“I’ll have Sunderland House or I’ll have you for a son-in-law. It’s entirely up to you,” Papa said belligerently, not yielding an inch.

Mama gave Alice a small push forward. “Here is our daughter, Miss Alice Tombs. Curtsy to His Lordship, Alice.”

Alice dropped a grudging curtsy, hoping the marquess remembered the gory details of their last conversation.

“We’ve met.” Hatherly’s gaze flicked over her dismissively.

She gave him her best kitten-with-sharp-claws smile. “So your father gambled you away, Lord Hatherly? What must the other gentlemen be saying? How very inconvenient to be society’s latest drollery.”

“Alice,” whispered her mother warningly.

Hatherly’s gaze darkened. “I could challenge this in the courts.”

“But you won’t,” said her father with a smug smile. “You don’t wish for a protracted public dispute.”

Hatherly’s wide shoulders went rigid. Slowly, he rotated toward Alice’s father. “Do not presume to know what I want, sir.”

Her father shrugged. “If you don’t wish to marry, Sunderland will be mine. Even if I have to fight you for years. I have unlimited resources, don’t forget.”

Alice’s heart sank into her kid slippers. This was bad.

The only silver lining here was the way Hatherly’s cold gaze swept over her with approximately the same amount of interest he might give a moldy carrot.

Excellent. She didn’t need him to find her attractive. Quite the opposite. She needed him to find her repellent.

So repellent that he’d be willing to give up his house rather than marry her.

Alice had to make absolutely certain the option of marrying her was inconceivable.

She had more pressing problems. No Fred. No passage to Calcutta. No reuniting the missing chapters of the Kama Sutra to make a whole.

An adventureless lifetime stretching before her.

Her painstaking translation moldering in a drawer somewhere, unread. Unloved.

She must rid herself of the marquess swiftly and concoct another plan.

But how to send him running?

A man who wore such tight-fitting breeches required something custom-fit, Alice decided.

Hit him where it hurts the most.

“Papa, I simply can’t marry Lord Hatherly given his”—she arched her eyebrows delicately and lowered her eyes to his snug breeches—“condition.”

“My what now?” Hatherly asked with a frown.

“The price you’ve paid for a lifetime of dissolution and dissipation.”

“I’ve absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, Miss Tombs.”

“Come, ’tis plain for all to see. The unhealthful sheen upon your brow.” Alice warmed to her topic, improvising glibly. “The grayish pallor of your skin.” Actually, his skin was a nicely tanned shade, as if he liked to be out of doors in summer in only his shirtsleeves. “How your hands tremor.”

He looked down at one of his large hands for a moment in puzzlement.

She shook her head sadly. “It is ever so with gentlemen who overindulge in drink, fatty meats, and other immoderate pleasures of the flesh.”

Hatherly stared at her with a gratifyingly dazed expression.

“Stop this nonsense immediately, Alice.” Mama stamped her foot and set the perfectly formed clusters of curls about her cheeks shaking.

“What are you implying, Miss Tombs?” Lord Hatherly’s deep, bass voice held a jagged edge.

“I’m not implying anything, my lord.” She leaned closer to deliver the coup de grâce. “Everyone says you’ll never be able to sire an heir. Terribly tragic, I’m sure.”

She heaved a dramatic, anguished sigh, as if she were auditioning for the role of Lady Macbeth.

Out, out, damned marquess!

Hatherly stared at her as though she had crawled out from a crack in the wall. No young lady had ever dared impugn his manhood before.