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Chapter Nine

The duke led Kit down to the first floor, to the wood and leather-bound realm of his study. Late-afternoon sunshine streamed through the windows in a bright flood; dust motes danced in the hot, slanting beams. The stale odor of books collected but never read, mixed with the smells of fireplace ash, lemon oil, and beeswax pressed heavily against her nostrils. On the ornate stone mantelpiece a large ebony and gilt clock intoned the hour to the otherwise silent room.

"Come in, Mrs. Mallory." The duke gestured for her to precede him into the room, then closed the door behind them.

The sharp click of the latch made Kit jump. "Is this quite necessary, Your Grace?" she asked, fighting to calm her frantic heartbeat.

The duke clasped his hands behind his back as he strode across the Persian carpet. "It is. I also hope you understand that what I have to tell you must be held in the strictest confidence."

"I fail to see the need for such secrecy, sir."

He motioned to a chair. "You will. Please sit down."

Kit perched on the edge of a Chippendale chair, her fingers laced tightly on her lap, one heel tapping a nervous rhythm on the floor.

The duke crossed to his desk, picked up a sheaf of papers, glanced through them, then set them down again. His attire-a jacket of dove gray superfine, intricate cravat, biscuit-colored breeches, and polished Hessians-exuded fashionable indolence, but the hard lines of his face and the almost military set of his shoulders, not to mention his cold, haughty gray eyes, spoiled the effect.

"I am certain you are wondering why I asked to speak to you," he began. "After all, the two of us have not been on the best of terms."

"The thought had occurred to me, Your Grace," she replied, her chin tilted in defiance.

"I assure you that I would not discomfit you thus if the matter were not of vital importance." He stood at his window for a moment, his back to her, before turning around and settling into the chair behind his desk, looking for all the world like a foreign potentate holding court. "Since you seem to favor plain speaking, Mrs. Mallory, I, too, shall be blunt. I am concerned about the growing connection between you and my cousin, the Marquess of Bainbridge."

Heat blazed across Kit's cheeks. "That is none of your business, Your Grace."

He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the mahogany desk, one cool blond brow arched at an inquiring angle. "Has he asked you to marry him?"

Kit rose slowly to her feet, breathing hard. "If you have brought me here merely to importune me with impertinent questions, then I must beg Your Grace's leave to retire."

"Sit down, Mrs. Malloy," ordered the duke in an exasperated tone. "By your reaction, I take it he has not."

Kit remained standing. "No."

"Are you certain?"

She glared at him. "If you know your cousin half as well as you claim, Your Grace, then you realize he will make no such offer."

He relaxed back into his chair. "I must say I am relieved to hear it, but not for the reason you might suspect."

Kit's brow furrowed. "What do you mean by that, Your Grace?"

"Will you sit down, or must I crane my neck to look up at you?"

Her jaw set, Kit complied.

"Better," said the duke. "Now, I must beg your indulgence, for to give you a proper explanation will take some time; I ask only that you bear with me."

"What is this all about, Your Grace?"

He steepled his fingers in front of him. "First, and I do not seek to be impertinent, Mrs. Mallory, but have you never wondered why a man like Bainbridge, a Corinthian who moves in the first circles in London, would show an interest in you, a Cit's widow?"

His patronizing tone raised the hairs on the back of Kit's neck. What the deuce was this arrogant man trying to say? She bit back a rather rude reply; she must not let the duke prick her into a display of temper. "He is a rake, my lord. Any woman can guess his intentions."

"Any woman, indeed," he murmured. "So you agree that his attentions to you seem rather unusual?"

She shifted in her seat. "I do not deny that, Your Grace."

"Then allow me to enlighten you. He pays his attentions to you at my request."

Kit's mouth rounded in shock. "W-what?"

"Just as I said, Mrs. Mallory."

"But-why? You have made your disdain for me perfectly clear, Your Grace. What does Lord Bainbridge have to do with any of this?"

"When my grandmother returned from India, she could talk of nothing else but you. Even now, she spends more time with you than she does with her own great-grandchildren. I ask you-what was I to think? The dowager duchess is getting on in years, and less scrupulous individuals might seek to curry favor with her in the hope of obtaining an inheritance."

"And you thought that I-? That is despicable, sir," she hissed.

He shrugged. "I had no idea who you were, Mrs. Mallory, but I did know of your father, and his reputation was cause enough for alarm."

"And that is why you thought you could buy me off with ten thousand pounds. The apple does not fall far from the tree, is that it?"

"Ten thousand pounds would have made you quite wealthy. I could not credit the fact that you turned me down."

"I had no need of your money, Your Grace," she snapped. "Not then, and not now. Not ever."

"Yes, you are a stubborn creature. When my grandmother announced her intention to bring you here on holiday, I invited Bainbridge here to distract you."

A horrid premonition shot through Kit like a lead ball. Her eyes widened. "You asked him to to seduce me?"

The duke spread his hands. "I asked him to get to know you, to charm you, to insinuate himself into your confidence."

"And then what?" she demanded.

"I wanted you away from my grandmother, Mrs. Mallory. Since you would not take my money, I asked Bainbridge to seduce you, to transfer the focus of your interest from my grandmother onto him. He intended to set you up most handsomely, then abandon you. And, after having had an illicit, very public affair with her great-nephew, my grandmother would hardly want to have any further contact with you."

Kit began to shake. "This is utterly preposterous. I don't believe you."

"You may ask him for the truth of the matter, if you wish, but I suspect you already know."

Their infamous bargain. Now she understood. It all made sense, in a strange, cruel sort of way. All the charm, all the flattering attentions. He had toyed with her, pretended to go along with her plans for compromise, all the while weaving his spell of seduction around her. The playful banter. The kiss on the hill. Their meeting in the folly. The strawberries

"Why are you telling me this?" She swallowed against a sudden swell of nausea.

The duke pursed his lips. "For two reasons. First, I now perceive that I was mistaken. Your reaction to my grandmother's fall told me that you hold genuine affection for her, despite the fact that you share no blood connection. I am a proud man, Mrs. Mallory, but I know enough to admit when I am in the wrong."

Kit rose, her entire body trembling. "Do you mean to tell me that after all this, after bribing me, insulting me, and planning to ruin my life, you have had a sudden attack of conscience?"

His cold gray eyes seemed to look right through her. "Call it what you will."

"And your campaign to induce Her Grace to retire to the dower house? Was that part of your plan, as well?"

The duke did not flinch from her withering scorn. "No. But after this accident, I do not know if my grandmother will be capable of prolonged travel. The dower house may hold more appeal for her."

"I see. Very neat. And the second reason?"

"I fear my cousin still intends to follow through with his plan."

A cold void opened in the pit of her stomach. "What do you mean?"

"Even a connoisseur of beauty grows jaded over time, and seeks more unusual avenues of diversion. Lord Bainbridge thinks you the antidote to his ennui, Mrs. Mallory, and will use you to amuse himself, no matter what the consequences."

"You seem very sure of this, Your Grace."

"I know my cousin."

She tasted bile at the back of her throat. "I see. Is there anything else you care to tell me?"

"Only that I owe you an apology." Placing his hands on the desk, he slowly climbed to his feet.

"An apology?" A low, hollow laugh echoed from her throat. "You astound me, Your Grace. After all you have done, I would not have thought you capable of any such thing."

"You have it nonetheless. What more do you want?"

What did she want? She wanted to wake up from this nightmare! The situation, however, called for a more practical and immediate solution. Her lips thinned. "I wish to leave Broadwell Manor. Leave, and never have the misfortune to cross paths with you again."

A strange, enigmatic smile crossed the duke's thin features. "What about my grandmother?"

"Dr. Knowles is confident of the dowager's recovery," Kit stated. "I leave knowing she is in competent hands."

"But she will be most disappointed that you did not stay."

Kit clenched her trembling hands in the folds of her skirt. "You cannot expect to abuse me so thoroughly, Your Grace, and wish me to remain under your roof. Despite any disappointment Her Grace might feel, I am certain she will understand. I shall leave a note for her that explains the circumstances behind my departure."

"There is no need," the duke said quickly, coming out from behind his desk. "I shall tell her myself, if it will spare you any pain."

Kit put the full force of her loathing behind her stare. "Do you fear any lack of discretion on my part, Your Grace, or is it that you know how your grandmother will react to your intrigues? You cannot keep the tale from her for long; she is more intelligent than you give her credit for. She will discover the truth eventually, even if I do not reveal it to her."

The duke responded with a raised eyebrow. "I thought I made it quite clear from the beginning that I expected you to hold our conversation in the strictest confidence."

She bit her lip. "So you did."

"I would never dream of insulting my grandmother's intelligence, but I also do not wish to upset her during her convalescence. I had hoped you would share that sentiment."

"Very well, Your Grace. I will not say anything to her until she has recovered. But I do intend to correspond with her while she is still here. I trust you will not interfere with the delivery of those letters."

His lips twitched. "Certainly not."

"I would like your word on the matter."

Anger flared in his eyes. "I suppose you would try to find a way around me if I did not."

"I may be only a Cit's widow, Your Grace, but I do not hold my honor as cheaply as you seem to hold yours, and I do not think you above reading your grandmother's correspondence."

"Then you have my word, madam."

"Thank you." Kit gripped the back of her chair for support as the room began to waver around her.

"My dear Mrs. Mallory, you look unwell," said the duke, suddenly solicitous. "Should I ring for tea? Or would you prefer something stronger-a glass of sherry, perhaps?"

Kit gritted her teeth. "All I require is the opportunity to depart this house with all due speed."

"You would be better advised to stay the night and start your journey in the morning."

She looked toward the window. The sun still hovered well above the horizon. "In light of all you have told me, I am resolved to leave as quickly as possible."

"Then I shall order my carriage brought around for you. That is the least I can do."

She put a hand to her throat and steadied herself. "Thank you, Your Grace-and yes, it is the very least you can do."

The enigmatic smile still on his face, the duke offered to escort her back upstairs. Kit recoiled away from him when he reached out his hand to her. She opened the door and all but flew up the stairs to her room. Tears blurred her vision. A heavy weight pressed against her chest, making her gasp for breath.

Dear God. What a great fool she had been. After his attempt to bribe her, she should have known the duke would try another approach. But she had never expected anything like this! She should have been more careful, more guarded. Lord Bainbridge's attentions had seemed too good to be true; she should have seen right through him. But he had trapped her as neatly as a fly in a web, and to her everlasting shame, she had welcomed it.

She paused at the top of the stairs, one hand gripping the wrought-iron railing.

If only she had listened to her instincts: Lord Bainbridge had been too calculated in his charm. Still she had fallen prey to it and bared some of her most intimate secrets to him in the process. Not only that, but her wanton response to his touch, his embrace, his every method of seduction, had only served to encourage him. In a few more days, she would have willingly surrendered her honor to a man who had none.

Images from the past week tormented her. The blazing kiss they had shared in the gallery. The marquess laughing with Emma and Nathaniel beneath the tree by the lake. The strawberries. God, she would never be able to eat strawberries again without remembering the silky feel of his mouth against her skin. And the tender way he had held her, comforted her after news of the dowager's injury, only hours ago. Every touch, every caress, every laugh was seared in her memory.

What a simpleton she had been!

She flung herself through her chamber door, slammed it shut, then collapsed with her back against it.

The tumult sent Lakshmi rushing out of the dressing room. She took one look at Kit's face and murmured a quick prayer in her native tongue. Then she hurried to Kit's side and gently pulled her away from the door. "Memsahib-oh, Memsahib, what has happened?"

"We are leaving, Lakshmi," Kit said flatly. "Pack our things."

"The duchess-memsahib-she has not?" The maid's ebony eyes were saucers full of worry.

Kit shook her head. "No, she will be fine, but we cannot stay. Please, Lakshmi-no more questions. Just get us packed as quickly as possible."

"As you wish." The maid pressed her palms together, then glided to the wardrobe and began removing the clothing from its depths.

Kit, her knees still shaking, went to her writing desk and gathered her books from its surface. She glanced at the clock. As impossible as it was to believe, she had been kissing Nicholas-Lord Bainbridge-in the folly only a few hours ago. It felt like a lifetime. With a muttered oath, she set aside the books. Then she sat down, drew out a sheet of vellum, and began a note to the dowager duchess.

What would she write to Her Grace? That despite Kit's own instincts, she had fallen in love with a rake? A man who had played her like a trout on a line? Kit sighed and dipped her pen in the inkwell. No. For the moment, all she would say was that however much she regretted having to leave the dowager's side, she must return to Bath and would explain her actions later. A few days from now, when she could summon enough courage, she would relate the entire story in another letter.

Then she paused, her pen poised above the paper.

Fallen in love

A large blot of ink dripped from the nib, marring the blank page. Kit stared at it. She did. She loved him. Good God. What had she done?

Kit shook herself, set down her pen, then crumpled the ruined sheet of paper and tossed it away. She pulled out a fresh page. Damn the duke for his interference. Was her life any less important because she possessed no title and no surname of dignity? And as for the marquess

Angry heat crept up the back of her neck; she flexed her fingers. Despite her shame, she refused to slink into a hole and lick her wounds like an injured animal. The marquess had taught her one thing of value: no more running. She knew what she had to do. With fresh conviction, she picked up the pen and began to write.

Kit and her maid had all but finished packing when a thunderous banging erupted from the chamber door. Lakshmi ran to open it, and Lord Bainbridge's tall form burst into the room.

"What the devil are you doing?" he demanded.

Sweet heaven-her heart turned over at the mere sight of him, and his voice sent a rush of delicious shivers down her spine. She steeled herself. "I should think that much is obvious, my lord," she replied. "I am packing."

His dark brows drew together in a forbidding line. "Why?"

"To return to Bath, of course."

"Return to? I don't understand. Why this sudden departure? What about Aunt Josephine?"

Kit placed the last few items of clothing in her trunk, shut the lid, then directed the footmen to take it down to the waiting carriage. "As much as I would like to remain by the dowager's side during her recuperation, circumstances prevent my staying here any longer."

"Circumstances?" he repeated, incredulous. "What happened? What did Wexcombe say to you? Damn it, Kit, look at me!"

"I will thank you not to address me in that familiar manner," she said with frosty disdain. "And you need not swear at me."

A stunned look crossed the marquess's handsome face. "Good God. He told you."

She struggled to keep her anguish at bay. "Yes. He told me everything. How he suspected me of being after the dowager's money, and how he asked you to seduce me and ruin me in the dowager's eyes."

"Kit, I can explain."

She laughed, a raw, brittle sound. "A bit late for that, my lord."

"I was going to tell you," he stated grimly.

"Oh? And when were you going to do that? When you had become bored with me and moved on to your next mistress?"

His jaw tightened. "Of course not."

"Then when? No, do not bother; I have already heard enough lies to last a lifetime."

She saw him wince. "It's not like that. Please, listen to me."

Kit turned to face him, her head up. "All right, my lord. Never let it be said that I did not give you a chance to speak in your own defense."

He closed the distance between them, one hand outstretched. "Kit"

She stepped back to avoid his touch. "That is close enough."

"God, how can I? It was never supposed to be like this." Shadows lingered in his dark eyes. "When Wexcombe first came to me and told me about you, my first thought was for Aunt Josephine's safety. But soon after I met you I realized my mistake."

"Then why continue the charade, my lord? Why did you not tell me the truth?"

He sighed and shoved a hand through his hair, rumpling the dark waves. "Because you would have reacted badly. Like you are now."

"That is a paltry excuse."

"I wanted to tell you," he insisted. "But the more I learned about you, the more attracted to you I became. In the end, I knew I could not insult you so grievously."

"So you strung me along in order to spare my feelings-how noble." Bitterness permeated her words.

"Kit, I had not planned to make you my mistress."

She folded her arms over her chest. "Your persistent attentions seemed to indicate otherwise, as did your infamous proposal."

"I would never have asked you to fulfill your part of that bargain."

"No, you would have continued the seduction until I fell into your bed of my own accord."

A deep flush rose in his face. "Kit, it's not easy for a man to admit that he's been a complete scoundrel."

"A complete scoundrel? Oh, you give yourself far too much credit, my lord," she shot back.

"What would you have done if at the end of the week I had told you that I was wrong to put a price on my assistance, and that we should go our separate ways, with no regrets or obligation?"

"A very easy thing for you to say now, given that the cat is already out of the bag." God, every word he spoke seemed to shred her heart into tiny pieces. Tears pricked her eyes, but she refused to let him see her cry.

His flush intensified. "Kit, not everything was a lie. After the dowager's fall, when you turned to me for comfort that was real."

"Was it?" A sad smile touched her lips, and she reached for her traveling cloak. "Where you are concerned, my lord, I fear I can no longer discern what is real and what is yet another deception."

With a growl, he lunged forward and seized her arms just above the elbow. "Blast it all, Kit! Do not tell me you are indifferent to the passion that lies between us. You have felt it. I know you have. Just this morning you responded to my kisses with a desire that equaled my own."

Kit swallowed around the lump in her throat. "Is passion all you have to offer, my lord?"

"I I do not know. At the moment-yes."

His words snuffed out the last tiny flame of hope. She pulled away. "Then let me go."

He released her, his face set in haggard lines. "Kit, give me another chance. Allow me to make amends."

She shook her head. "No, Lord Bainbridge. You have seduced me, lied to me, and used me in the most abominable fashion. I have had enough."

"You can't leave like this," he maintained.

"Can I not? With the exception of the dowager, I see no reason why I should stay."

His hands fell to his sides. "You will not remain, even for her sake?"

"No. She will understand."

His face closed over. "I see. So what do you intend to do now?"

She gulped back her tears and replied, "I am going to return home, my lord. And I am going to forget you."

His body numb, the marquess watched her as she fastened her cloak, gathered her reticule, and marched from the room. She did not look back.

He put out one arm and steadied himself against the back of a chair. Dear God. What had he done? All his good intentions had come crashing down around his ears, but he had not expected it to leave him with such a tremendous sense of guilt, pain, and loss.

Go after her, you dolt!

His lips twisted in a sneer. Yes, go after her and then what? Have her reject him yet again? What good would that do? She had made up her mind; that much was obvious. If Katherine Mallory had her way, she would never see him again, and thank God for it.

"Ah, there you are, Bainbridge. Gone, has she?"

The marquess raised his head to see his cousin standing in the doorway, a small, almost smug smile on his narrow face. He stiffened. "Why, Wexcombe?"

"Because it had to be done. I've seen you fascinated by women before, but never like this."

"What you did was reprehensible. You hurt her. Deliberately."

"You managed to do that much on your own, Cousin," the duke replied with a casual shrug. "I simply made her aware of the circumstances."

Bainbridge scowled. "Damn you, I didn't mean for it to end like this. I would have broken it off, with her none the wiser. She didn't have to know. She was innocent."

"Well, she had no designs on Grandmama's money, if that's what you mean. But as for innocent I told you earlier that she was playing for higher stakes."

"You never bothered to talk to her," snapped the marquess, "so how would you know?"

"Because anyone with eyes in his head could see what was going on between the two of you. I do not think you would have broken it off."

Bainbridge grimaced. "I should have done it days ago. It was selfish of me not to."

"You see? So what I did was for your own good."

"My own good?" Bainbridge stalked toward his cousin. "And what would you know of that?"

The duke examined his manicured nails. "If you had not ended it with her, what would you have done?" He paused and peered intently at the marquess. "My God. You weren't actually considering making her an offer of marriage, were you?"

A slow smile stole over Bainbridge's lips as his cousin's words registered in his stunned mind. Marriage to Kit? Only this morning he had thought the notion absurd. But the more he thought about it, the more he recognized the strange sense of longing that gripped him. Kit-his wife. Raising children together, telling stories to them. Having picnics on warm summer days, sharing bowlfuls of strawberries. Having her in his bed night after night for a lifetime. A thrill coursed through him.

"Why not?" he replied.

The duke gaped at him. "Why? Because the woman is a Cit's widow, for God's sake, and the daughter of a social pariah. Suitable as a mistress, perhaps, but as a wife? Preposterous. I swear I don't know what has come over you."

Mistresses He'd had his fill of them. He had spent years pursuing one new lover after another, but none of them had captured his attention for long; all he could remember was a string of faceless bodies. A shallow way of life, in retrospect. Was that all he wanted? The thought of returning to Angelique's vapid blond embrace made him shudder with revulsion. Such an existence may have satisfied him in the past, but now he found he craved something more.

Realization struck him like a thunderbolt. All his life he had derided love for the pain it could bring, never recognizing how much joy he had denied himself in the process. Time for him to follow his own advice: no more running away. Yes; he would do it. At this point, he had nothing to lose.

"What's come over me?" he said softly. "I'll tell you, Cousin. I love her."

The duke snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. You're simply infatuated with her because she's different from ladies of the ton. You will forget about her soon enough."

Bainbridge shook his head, grinning. "You do not understand, do you Wexcombe? This goes beyond infatuation. I think I've finally discovered what I want."

The duke's gaze was cold enough to extinguish burning coals. "No. I will not allow it. You are a marquess, and you have a duty to your family."

"Allow?" Bainbridge scoffed. "I would like to see you try to stop me, Cousin."

"What are you going to do?" the duke demanded.

Bainbridge tugged at his jacket. "Somehow, some way, I am going to win her back. And then I will marry her."

The duke made a dismissive gesture. "I doubt that. She'll never let you near her. Not after all that has happened."

"Perhaps. But I can try."

"Oh, for God's sake, man, don't be a fool," snapped the duke.

The marquess inclined his head in a mocking bow. "Strange that you should say that, Cousin. I've been too great a fool already."

Chapter Eight | A Reckless Bargain | Chapter Ten