Lorsqu’il apprend qu’il est déshérité, Dominick Manton refuse d’infliger une vie de privations à sa fiancée, la délicieuse Jane Vernon. Éperdument amoureuse, celle-ci ne veut pas entendre parler de rupture. Dominick est donc contraint d’organiser une cruelle mise en scène pour la convaincre qu’il est indigne d’elle. Le stratagème fonctionne et, le cœur brisé, Jane reprend sa liberté.
Des années plus tard, Dominick hérite enfin du titre qui lui revient de droit et croise Jane, qu’il n’a jamais oubliée. Entre-temps, la jeune femme s’est fiancée, et elle s’est juré de ne plus croire au véritable amour…
The Duke's Men, Tome 4 : If the Viscount Falls
Extrait offert par Sabrina Jeffries :
Jane Vernon couldn’t imagine being cooped up in one house all the time. Already, she was impatient to be gone from Mrs. Patch’s. Much as she liked the woman’s adorable spaniels, she was dying to know what Dominick Manton had discovered. Was it possible he’d actually found Jane’s cousin? Could that be why he was taking so long? Perhaps Nancy had simply stopped for a few nights at Ringrose’s Inn, and he was even now coming back to give them the triumphant news.
But no, when the Viscount Rathmoor arrived, there was nothing in his grim expression to say that he’d found Nancy. Dom had discovered something, however. She could tell. And it was clearly something he didn’t want to share with Mrs. Patch.
That made it all the harder for Jane to wait through the necessary goodbyes and repeated assurances that they would keep Mrs. Patch informed of what they learned.
By the time they were in the street, she was fit to be tied. “All right,” she said without preamble, “what took you so long? What did you find out at the inn?”
He walked with such long strides toward the Elephant and Castle that she had to hurry to keep up with him. “I didn’t go to the inn right away. I spent some time in this neighborhood first, asking about Nancy and her maid. The neighbors said that after visiting Mrs. Patch the two women always headed off for the more fashionable area of shops.”
“That means they were together,” Jane mused aloud. “So it’s highly unlikely that Nancy was doing anything but shopping.”
A scowl knit his brow. “There’s something else. Since finding out where they’d gone and questioning shopkeepers would require more time than we have today, I went on to the inn. I learned that Nancy arrived there around noon on the day you left Rathmoor Park. And then she apparently vanished.”
“What?” She seized his arm. “What do you mean, ‘vanished’?”
He stared over at her. “No one saw her leave. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much because not all of the ostlers from that day were working today.” Frustration crept into his voice. “They said I’d have to return tonight to speak with everyone who would have been here then. But . . .”
When he hesitated, she shook his arm. “But what?”
“One of the ostlers said that when he asked if he could fetch a hackney coach for Nancy, she told him there was no need because she was meeting a friend.”
Jane’s heart began to pound. “Mrs. Patch?”
“I doubt that.” Eyes hard and brittle as emeralds glittered at her. “She would have said ‘aunt.’ Besides, ‘meeting’ implies that Nancy expected someone to come there for her. And you heard Mrs. Patch say she never ventures from her house.”
This got worse by the moment. “Perhaps Nancy has a female friend in York.”
“One you’ve never heard of? Never met? How likely is that?”
Oh, the man was so infuriating! “I take it you’re determined to believe that Nancy was meeting with a lover.”
“As I said—it’s the most likely explanation.” When she frowned at him, he said smoothly, “Certainly the ostler’s words don’t fit your pet theory—that she was kidnapped.”
Seething with worry and anger and frustration that he could be such a . . . a man about this, she dropped his arm and quickened her pace. “You are attributing a great deal to one remark by an ostler.” She turned onto the street that led directly to the inn. “He might have misheard or misunderstood the fact that she really was heading to Mrs. Patch’s.”
He followed her. “Without telling the woman ahead of time? Didn’t Mrs. Patch say that Nancy always sent a note before she came?”
“She also said that murderers run rampant in the streets of York, but I don’t hear you quoting the woman on that.”
“Yes, but Jane—” he began in that condescending, arrogant tone of his that pricked her harder than any embroidery needle.
“So that’s it,” she bit out. “You’ve got your mind made up. Nancy ran off with a lover, and you’re washing your hands of the whole thing.”
“Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn’t?”
Something in his voice made her glance at him. He was regarding her as a naturalist regarded a beetle he intended to dissect.
That’s when it dawned on her—Dom wanted to unearth her secrets. Nancy’s secrets. And somewhere between Winborough and here he’d deduced that she was hiding some.
A shiver ran down her spine, and she jerked her gaze from him, fighting to hide her consternation. “Merely the same reason I gave you before. Nancy could be in trouble. And it’s your duty as her brother-in-law to keep her safe.”
“From what?” he demanded. “From whom? Is there more to this than you’re saying?”
Ooh, the fact that he was so determined to unveil the truth about Nancy while hiding his former collusion with her scraped Jane raw. “I could ask the same of you,” she said primly. “You’re obviously holding something back. You have some reason for your determination to believe ill of Nancy. I wonder what that might be.”
Two can play your game, Almighty Dom. Hah!
He was silent so long that she ventured a glance at him to find him looking rather discomfited. Good! It was about time.
“I am merely keeping an open mind about your cousin, which is more than I can say for you,” Dom finally answered. “She isn’t the woman you think she is.”
“Because she wouldn’t give in to your advances twelve years ago, you mean?” She would make him admit the truth about the night they parted if it was the last thing she did! “Perhaps that’s why you’re determined to blacken her character. You’re angry that she resisted you and went off to marry your brother instead.”
“That’s a lie!” When several people on the street turned to look his direction, Dom lowered his voice. “It wasn’t like that.”
She stifled a smile of satisfaction. At last she was getting a reaction from him that was something other than level-headed logic. “Wasn’t it? If you’d convinced Nancy to marry you, you might not have had to go off to be a Bow Street Runner. You could have had an easier life, a better life in high society than you could have had with me if you’d married me. Without being able to access my fortune, I could only have dragged you down.”
“You don’t really believe that I wanted to marry her for her money,” he gritted out.
“It’s either that or assume that you fell madly in love with her in the few weeks we weren’t able to see each other.” They were nearly to the inn now, so she added a plaintive note to her voice. “Or perhaps it was her you wanted all along. You knew my uncle would never accept a second son as a husband for his rich heiress of a daughter, so you courted me to get close to her. Nancy was always so beautiful, so—”
Without warning, he dragged her into one of the many alleyways that crisscrossed York. This one was deeply shadowed, the houses leaning into each other overhead, and as he pulled her around to face him, the brilliance of his eyes shone starkly in the dim light.
“I never cared one whit about Nancy.”
She tamped down her triumph—he hadn’t admitted the whole truth yet. “It certainly didn’t look that way to me. It looked like you had already forgotten me, forgotten what we meant to each—”
“The devil I had.” He shoved his face close to hers. “I never forgot you for one day, one hour, one moment. It was you, always you. Everything I did was for you, damn it. No one else.”
The passionate profession threw her off course. Dom had never been the sort to say such sweet things. But the fervent look in his eyes roused memories of how he used to look at her. And his hands gripping her arms, his body angling in closer, were so painfully familiar . . .
“I don’t . . . believe you,” she lied, her blood running wild through her veins.
His gleaming gaze impaled her. “Then believe this.” And suddenly his mouth was on hers.
He was kissing her. Kissing her, curse him! That was not what she’d set out to get from him.
But oh, the joy of it. The heat of it. His mouth covered hers, seeking, coaxing. Without breaking the kiss, he pushed her back against the wall, and she grabbed for his shoulders, his surprisingly broad and muscular shoulders. As he sent her plummeting into unfamiliar territory, she held on for dear life.
Time rewound to when they were in her uncle’s garden, sneaking a moment alone. But this time there was no hesitation, no fear of being caught.
Glorying in that, she slid her hands about his neck to bring him closer. He groaned, and his kiss turned intimate. He used both lips and tongue, delving inside her mouth in a tender exploration that stunned her. Enchanted her. Confused her.
Something both sweet and alien pooled in her belly, a kind of yearning she’d never felt with her fiancé. With any man but Dom.
As if he sensed it, he pulled back to look at her, his eyes searching hers, full of surprise. “My God, Jane,” he said hoarsely, turning her name into a prayer.
Or a curse? She had no time to figure out which before he clasped her head to hold her still for another darkly ravishing kiss. Only this one was greedier, needier. His mouth consumed hers with all the boldness of Viking raiders of yore. His tongue drove repeatedly inside in a rhythm that made her feel all trembly and hot, and his thumbs caressed her throat, rousing the pulse there.
Thank heaven there was a wall to hold her up, or she was quite sure she would dissolve into a puddle at his feet. Because after all these years apart, he was riding roughshod over her life again. And she was letting him.
How could she not? His scent engulfed her, made her dizzy with the pleasure of it. He roused urges she’d never known she had, sparked fires in places she’d thought were frozen. Then his hands swept down her possessively as if to memorize her body . . . or mark it as belonging to him.
Belonging to him. Oh, Lord!
She shoved him away. How could she have fallen for his kisses after what he did? How could she have let him slip that far under her guard?
Never again, curse him! Never!
For a moment, he looked as stunned by what had flared between them as she. Then he reached for her, and she slipped from between him and the wall, panic rising in her chest.
“You do not have the right to kiss me anymore,” she hissed. “I’m engaged, for heaven’s sake!”
As soon as her words registered, his eyes went cold. “It certainly took you long enough to remember it.”
She gaped at him. “You have the audacity to . . . to . . .” She stabbed his shoulder with one finger. “You have no business criticizing me! You threw me away years ago, and now you want to just . . . just take me up again, as if nothing ever happened between us?”
A shadow crossed his face. “I did not throw you away. You jilted me, remember?”
That was the last straw. “Right. I jilted you.” Turning on her heel, she stalked back for the road. “Just keep telling yourself that, since you’re obviously determined to believe your own fiction.”
“Fiction?” He hurried after her. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, why can’t you just admit what you really did and be done with it?”
“What I really did?” Grabbing her by the arm, he forced her to stop just short of the street. He searched her face, and she could see when awareness dawned in his eyes. “Good God. You know the truth. You know what really happened in the library that night.”
“That you manufactured that dalliance between you and Nancy to force me into jilting you?” She snatched her arm free of him. “Yes, I know.”
Then she strode out of the alley, leaving him to stew in his own juices.
Dom stood dumbfounded, as Jane disappeared into the street. Then he hurried to catch up to her, to get some answers.
She knew. How the devil did she know?
The answer to that was obvious. “So, Nancy told you, did she?” he snapped as he fell into step beside her.
Jane didn’t reply, just kept marching toward the inn like a Hussar bent on battle.
“When?” he demanded. “How long have you known?”
“For ten years, you . . . you conniving . . . lying—”
“Ten years? You knew all this time, and you didn’t say anything?”
“Say anything!” She halted just short of the inn yard entrance to glare at him. “How the blazes was I to do that? It’s not as if I encountered you anywhere. You disappeared into the streets of London as surely as if you were a footpad or a pickpocket.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “Oh, I read about your heroic exploits from time to time, but other than that, I neither heard nor saw anything of you until last year when you showed up at George’s town house to get Tristan freed from gaol. It was only pure chance that I happened to be at dinner with Nancy that day. As you’ll recall, you didn’t stay long. Nor did you behave as if you would welcome any confidences.”
Remembering the cool reception he’d given her, he glanced away, unable to bear the accusation in her eyes. “No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“Besides,” she said, “it hardly mattered that I knew the truth. I assumed that if you ever changed your mind about making a life with me, you would seek me out. Since you never did, you were clearly determined to remain a bachelor.”
His gaze shot back to her. “It was more complicated than that.”
She snorted. “It always is with you. Which is precisely why I’m happy I’m engaged to someone else.”
That sent jealousy roaring through him, predictably enough. “Yet you let me kiss you.”
A pretty blush stained her cheeks. “You . . . you took me by surprise, that’s all. But it was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
The hell it wouldn’t. He intended to find out if the past was as firmly in the past as she claimed. But obviously he couldn’t do it here in the street. He glanced up at the darkening sky. Or right now.
She followed the direction of his gaze. “Yes,” she said in a dull voice. “Looks like we will have a rainy trip back.” She headed into the inn yard. “Perhaps if we hurry, we can reach Winborough before it starts. Besides, we’ve got only three hours until sunset, and it’s not safe to ride in an open phaeton after dark.”
She was right, but he didn’t mean to drop this discussion. He needed answers, and once they were on the road, he meant to get them.
He strode into the inn yard, his mind awhirl. He’d never been one for snap judgments, which was precisely what made him a good investigator. He liked to be sure he had all the facts before he sorted them by their implications and importance so he could come to some conclusions.
With Jane, though, getting all the facts was proving difficult. She was obviously too angry to tell him rationally what he needed to know. And he was too unsettled to make sense of what little she’d said.
Fortunately, calling for his phaeton, putting the top up, and getting them on the road gave him time to settle his thoughts. Certain things seeped into his memory. Like how Jane had called him “Saint Dominick” three months ago, which he’d thought odd at the time for a woman who should have believed him a fortune-hunter. Or how she’d spoken of being tired of “waiting” for her “life to begin.”
Good God. She really might have been talking about him then. About waiting for him to come after her. All this time . . .
No, he couldn’t believe that. She’d only been seventeen when they’d ended things, and women that age were still feeling their way in life. She couldn’t possibly have been carrying a torch for him all these years.
Why not? You’ve been carrying one for her.
He stifled a curse. Nonsense. He’d cut her out of his heart.
God, he was such a liar.
They were now well out of the city. She sat quietly beside him, obviously uncomfortable after what had happened between them.
She couldn’t be any more uncomfortable than he was. He could still taste her mouth, still feel the moment when she’d turned to putty in his arms. He was aware of every inch of her that touched him. Her hand lay in her lap, so close he could reach over and take it.
Or perhaps not. The last thing he needed was her shoving him off the phaeton, which she was liable to do right now if she took a mind to it. She was damned angry.
Though he wasn’t entirely sure why. She was now engaged to a very rich, very well-connected earl, all because Dom had set her free. So why did she look as if she wanted to throttle him?
Nancy. The chit must have made everything sound worse than it was. “Tell me how much your cousin told you about our . . . supposed dalliance.”
“Everything, as far as I know.” Jane smoothed her skirts with a nonchalance he might have believed if he hadn’t also noticed how her hands trembled. “That you coaxed her into making it look as if you were making advances to her. That she then convinced Samuel Barlow to help get me into the library without suspecting, so I could see your manufactured tableau.”
Nancy really had told her everything. “She promised she would never say a word.”
“I gave her no choice.” Her voice lowered to an aching murmur. “I’m not the fool you take me for, you know.”
“I have never taken you for a fool.”
“No? You didn’t think I’d notice when you made no further attempts to court Nancy? Or any other rich ladies? There was no gossip about you, no tales of your fortune-hunting. It wasn’t long before I smelled a rat.”
Blast it all. “So you went to Nancy and forced her to tell the truth.”
She got very quiet. He glanced over to find her looking chagrined.
“Actually, I sort of . . . tricked her into it. I claimed that I had encountered you in Bond Street, and you’d revealed the truth then. I told her I just wanted to hear her side of things.”
A groan escaped him. “In other words, you deceived her.”
“Pretty much.” She fiddled with her reticule. “It wasn’t difficult. Nancy isn’t, well . . .”
“The brightest star in the sky?”
Jane winced. “Exactly. She’s fairly easy to manipulate. Indeed, that was all it took to have her blurting out everything. That you told her a bunch of nonsense about how I would be better off without you—”
“It wasn’t nonsense,” he interrupted. “You were better off without me.”
“Was I? You don’t know that.”
“I do, actually.” He clicked his tongue at the horses to have them step up the pace. “Do you know where I lived for my first three years as a Bow Street Runner?”
“It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have cared.”
He uttered a harsh laugh. “Yes, I’m sure you would have been delighted to share a garret above a tavern in Spitalfields with me. To eat only bread and cheese four days a week in order to save money. To forego coal in the dead of winter so we’d have enough money to pay the rent.”
“That does sound dreadful.” Her voice held an edge. “But that was three years of the twelve we were apart. What about later? After you started to have some success?”
“I didn’t move out of the garret because of any great success,” he said. “I moved out because I . . . was traveling too much to sustain lodgings in London. That’s how I spent the rest of my time as a runner.”
In Manchester and wherever else the Spenceans and their ilk were fomenting rebellion. But he couldn’t talk about that, not to her. She would never understand those difficult years, what he’d done, what he’d been expected to do. How could she? She was a lady encased in a castle of privileged living. She didn’t know anything about the struggle between the poor and the rich. He wouldn’t want her to.
“That was your choice, though, wasn’t it?” she said softly. “Not all Bow Street Runners travel.”
He tensed. “No, but neither do they make much of a living. I was paid far more for . . . er . . . traveling than for catching criminals in London. I was able to save up enough to start my business concern precisely because of all those years when I was willing to go anywhere for my position.”
To take any risk. To spy on his fellow countrymen. It still left a bad taste in his mouth.
“And what about after you started Manton’s Investigations? That was four years ago, Dom. If you had wanted me, you could have approached me then.”
“Of course,” he said bitterly. “I could have marched up to your uncle’s house and begged you to marry me. To forgo your fortune, leave your comfortable position, risk being cut off by all your friends and relations so you could marry a man whom I was sure you considered a fortune-hunter.”
“Yes. You could have.”
“And you would have gladly accepted my suit. Even though you could have had your pick of the men. Even though you had an earl and a marquess sniffing at your skirts—”
“You knew about the marquess?”
He cursed his quick tongue. “The point is, you would have been a fool to choose me over one of them. And I was astute enough to realize it.”
“No, the point is that you’ll never know whether I would have accepted your suit or not. You didn’t offer it. You never took the chance, and that is your loss.”
The words stabbed a dagger through his chest. She spoke as if she’d given up on him. But of course she had, hadn’t she? She’d accepted Blakeborough’s marriage proposal. And given how hard she’d fought twelve years ago not to jilt Dom, she was certainly not going to jilt Blakeborough.
What if Dom had asked? What if he had blundered into her life again and wrenched her from everything she knew?
No, that couldn’t have ended anything but badly.
It had begun to drizzle. Since the phaeton top only extended so far, he pulled out a blanket to put over their laps to keep some of the damp off. When he took the reins in one hand so he could reach over to tuck the blanket about her, she froze.
So did he, painfully aware of his hand lingering on her thigh. He had half a mind to stop the phaeton, drag her into his arms, and kiss her until she softened and remembered what they had been to each other.
But she did remember. She’d made that clear earlier. She just no longer cared.
He drew his hand back and the moment blew away on the breeze.
A stilted silence fell over them. Mile after mile of dreary gray seeped into his blood, weighing him down. He didn’t know which was worse. Being without her entirely all these years or being so close and not having her.
After a long while, she released a sigh. “Do you even regret what you did to end our engagement?”
“No,” he said tersely.
He could feel her gaze on him.
“After all this time,” she said tartly, “you still think you and Nancy did the right thing.”
“Absolutely.” It was the truth. Wasn’t it?
Another uncomfortable silence stretched between them.
“Nancy regrets it,” Jane said at last. “She says she regretted it from the moment she agreed to go along with it.”
He was tempted to point out that Nancy had certainly hidden her regret well behind her triumphant marriage to George. But pointing that out would merely put Jane on the defensive again regarding her cousin. Jane seemed determined to believe Nancy some sort of saint, and until he had more facts, he couldn’t dispute her view. Which was precisely why he had to investigate further.
“So, are you going to get to the bottom of Nancy’s disappearance?” she asked.
Good God, did the woman read minds? “I think I must. You made a valid point earlier. If Nancy has been duped by some fortune-hunting scoundrel, it would be unwise to let the matter lie.”
“You mean, because he might hurt her,” she said, her tone anxious.
“Because he could hurt Rathmoor Park and Nancy’s future along with it. Her dower portion comes out of the estate’s income. Any husband she takes on will want to look after her interests and won’t care what strain that puts on Rathmoor Park.” Or how much trouble it caused Dom.
Shock emanated from her side of the phaeton. “You know, Dom, whether or not I was better off without you, it’s clear that you were not better off without me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You used to have a heart, to care about people.” She uttered a ragged oath. “Or perhaps I just thought you did. Perhaps you were always this cold-blooded, and I merely missed it.”
He bristled at the accusation. “And what is it that makes you think me cold-blooded? The fact that I questioned the need to rush off after Nancy?”
“The fact that you only seem to see the financial aspects of this. She’s a woman alone. That should secure your concern.”
“I lost my concern for Nancy the day she married George,” he snapped.
“So that’s what this is about. She married your enemy, and that made her your enemy as well.”
He tightened his grip on the reins, not sure what to say. “I suppose you could see it that way.”
“Well, she’s still my cousin and my friend, so I hope you have enough . . . softness left in your heart toward me that you would search for her on my behalf if not on hers.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not so ‘cold-blooded’ as all that,” he said irritably. “Tristan and I will return to York tonight to speak with the ostlers at Ringrose Inn who weren’t there today. Then we’ll comb the town, see what more we can learn.” He shot her a hard glance. “You’ll only get in our way, so you should stay with Lady Zoe at Winborough.”
“That’s probably best,” she shocked him by saying.
So she was agreeing with him now? Was that because she feared he would attempt to kiss her again? Or because she’d learned what she wanted to know from him, and now only needed him to find Nancy?
Either possibility chafed him.
They traveled farther without speaking, but when he caught himself humming some doleful notes from Mozart’s Requiem Mass, he winced. Damn it, there were things he wanted—he needed—to know from her. “Jane, have you been happy all these years?” Was my sacrifice worth it?
When she didn’t speak, he looked over to find her regarding him with a stark gaze that chilled him. “You don’t have the right to ask. You didn’t attempt to find out or ensure that I was, so think whatever makes you sleep better at night.”
And she called him cold-blooded?
She squared her shoulders. “But I do intend to be quite deliriously happy from now on. I intend to marry Edwin and have his children and live to a ripe old age surrounded by people I care about. I assume that sets your mind at ease.”
It should. But it damned well didn’t. Because for the first time, he saw his life laid out before him, devoid of Jane in a different way from before. And it made him want to howl and gnash his teeth.
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