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Authors: Anne Stuart

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All three would have been suitable for marriage. “Excuse me,” Annelise said, taking Hetty's hand and drawing her aside for a moment, totally ignoring her duty.

“What do you want?” Hetty demanded in a sulky voice. “I was enjoying myself. There's nothing wrong with any of those gentlemen.”

“Are you considering any of them?”

“No!” she said.

“Then you might be interested in a breath of fresh air, so to speak. In the side garden off the reading room.”

“I know where the side garden is,” she said crossly. “Why would I want to go there?”

Annelise mentally counted to ten. Her charge was not being as astute as she usually was. “You might find something more appealing than that oversize statue.”

“Oh!” Dawning realization spread across Hetty's face, followed by suspicion. “But why should you…”

“I'm feeling sentimental,” Annelise said. “And slightly ill. I'm retiring for the night, but I'm trusting you to behave yourself like a lady. Actually I'm not trusting you, but I expect Mr. Dickinson will make certain you comport yourself properly. Good night, Hetty.”

She started to turn away, when Hetty put her tiny little hand on her arm, leaned forward and deposited a totally unexpected kiss of gratitude on her cheek. “Bless you, Miss Kempton,” she breathed, and slid through the crowds so quickly that people scarcely noticed her passing.

People wouldn't notice her own passing, either, Annelise thought grumpily, but not for the same reasons. But in truth she was quite touched by Hetty's gratitude—perhaps the chit wasn't as shallow as she seemed. She definitely had the good sense to prefer William Dickinson's solid worth compared to the peacocks who surrounded her in London. Except, perhaps for the grandest peacock of all.

Her momentary calm brought on by her ill-advised matchmaking vanished with the memory of Christian Montcalm. He was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Mr. Chipple, which was either a good thing or a bad one. But tonight it was no longer her concern, and if she didn't get away from here in another minute she was going to burst into tears.

She closed her bedroom door behind her and leaned against it. Each time she was around the
blasted man her reaction was worse. How dare he say such things to her? And how dare he lie about her precious pearls?

She went straight to the chest of drawers, shoved aside her undergarments and found the offending note. It was crumpled from resting against her breast and from being open and reread far too many times, since she had to make certain he was as shocking as she thought. She kept hoping that perhaps there'd be a clue to defeating him in the strong slant of his handwriting.

And tonight of all nights the fire had burned down in her grate and the room was cold. The servants were far too busy with the party, and they wouldn't expect anyone to retire for hours.

She considered ripping the note into tiny pieces, but even then it would still exist, and she needed it to go up in flames, to vanish entirely. She'd been a fool to wait so long.

The handkerchief was still under her pillow and she pulled it out, trying to rip the damned thing in half. It wouldn't tear—if was made of the finest linen weave, the Valenciennes lace was very strong, and she gave up, crumpling it into a little ball as she sat down on the bed.

A stomach complaint, she decided. That's what she would tell them, necessitating her absence for the rest of the evening. If Montcalm and Chipple decided to go at it then it was no longer her concern. In truth, if Chipple made a scene then Hetty would most likely be free to marry young William, which to Annelise seemed like a very good thing. Perhaps she'd overestimated Dick
inson's sense of honor and right now the two might be eloping to Gretna Green.

In which case all she could do was rejoice. Keeping elderly women company was fine but herding a strong-willed young beauty through society was not the way she envisioned her future. Particularly if it brought her into the presence of people like Christian Montcalm.

Not that there very many men like Montcalm, thank God.

But if tonight became a debacle her godmother would have a difficult time finding another welcoming household. It didn't matter—if it came to that she could sell her priceless pearls and find some small cottage in the country, living out her days with cats and books and long walks and peace.

She slid the pearls off her neck and looked at them. They were the same as ever—luminous, beautiful, priceless. Montcalm made her doubt everything about herself, from her pearls to her very nature. And she wasn't going to let him do it again.

She slid the pearls into their soft, embroidered bag and tucked them back into her drawer, hidden among the sensible undergarments. Since there was no fire she had no choice but to shove the note back with the pearls, though it felt somehow traitorous to do so. She undressed quickly and climbed into bed, blowing out the candles so that she lay in perfect darkness in the cool, still room.

She could hear the noise from the party downstairs. The music from the ballroom, the sound of laughter
and voices drifted upward to her second-floor bedroom. Apparently the party was going off without a hitch.

Annelise curled up and willed herself to sleep, the offending handkerchief still clutched in her hand.

10

C
hristian moved through the crowded house with his usual aplomb. The most demanding of society was nowhere in sight—Chipple's background made him as much a persona non grata as Christian's reputation—so he was greeted by most of the acquaintances that he passed. He stopped here and there for a short quip, a brief conversation, but then moved on to his eventual destination with single-minded determination.

Chipple's library wasn't that difficult to find. His brand-new house had been designed by Rotterdum, one of the architects used by new money, and Christian had already been in several. The layout was essentially the same, though when he slipped inside Josiah Chipple's study and closed the door he felt a momentary start before he realized the tall, shadowy figure was simply one more of Josiah's damned statues.

There was a fire going, but clearly no servant was going to be checking on it during the demands of a party, so he stoked it up himself until it came to a nice blaze, then helped himself to Chipple's brandy. It was
cognac, and he had to resist the impulse to throw it into the fire. He avoided all things French when he could help it, limiting himself to canary and claret rather than the French stuff. For harder spirits he preferred whiskey, but he decided not to be picky, and he sat down in one of Chipple's comfortable leather chairs and propped his feet on the desk, admiring his elegant boots. They'd cost a pretty penny—maybe he'd even eventually pay the poor artisan who'd worked so hard on them. In the meantime, he could enjoy the wonderful sheen and wait for Chipple to make his appearance.

It didn't take as long as he'd expected, though he was on his second glass of cognac. The party was still going strong—the noise and the music filtered through the closed door, and he wondered briefly where the dragon was. Probably searching for him to give him another one of her lectures. Or perhaps she'd given up for the night. She'd looked a bit defeated when he'd left her in the garden.

A shame—both the leaving, and the defeating. He liked his dragon when she was breathing fire, and he would have been more than happy to see whether he could arouse her…ire…if he hadn't had business to attend to. No man hired assassins to kill him and got away without being sternly reprimanded. And made to pay a price.

Chipple didn't even notice he was there. His face was flushed with wine and good humor, and he was halfway toward the desk before he realized he wasn't alone. His expletive was suitably sailor-like, and impressive even to a man like Christian.

“Good evening, Chipple,” Christian said, not bothering to rise, or even remove his feet from the vast mahogany desk. “Have a seat.”

If he'd had any doubts as to Chipple's true calling the expression on his face made it vanish. The cheerful nouveau riche father was simply a facade. The man living behind it was capable of just about anything.

“I wouldn't make a fuss if I were you,” Christian continued smoothly. “It's past time you and I came to an understanding, and I don't think you want any witnesses as to what I have to say.”

“I don't know that I want witnesses as to what I'm going to do,” Josiah grumbled, but his initial flash of rage had vanished, leaving him wary. “Take your boots off my desk, you whoring son of a bitch.”

“Certainly, you soulless purveyor of human flesh,” Christian replied in a mild tone, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Society is so interesting, don't you think? So many simply refuse to accept a man because his money is self-made, and those who do hold the most ridiculous standards. Trafficking in human beings is regarded in very low esteem, and of course illegal in this country. If the source of your money were to become public knowledge you wouldn't be invited anywhere, and your daughter could kiss a titled marriage goodbye. But you know that already, don't you? You've gone to great effort to cover up the fact that you make your money off the slave trade.”

It was a telling blow. “You have no proof,” Chipple said hoarsely, dropping down in the seat behind the desk.

Christian kept his triumphant smile to himself. It wouldn't do to underestimate someone like Josiah Chipple—he would have no qualms in simply cutting his throat and leaving the servants to clean it up. Then again, Christian wasn't easily bested, and he was on his guard.

“It would be easily obtained if I put my mind to it. At the moment I'm a bit perturbed. Two men attacked me this morning, and to my surprise they weren't simply out to rob me. They seemed quite determined to kill me.”

“Imagine that,” Chipple said with a sneer.

“Clearly they weren't properly warned as to who they might be dealing with. They seemed quite surprised when I put up a fight. So surprised that they were, perhaps, a bit too talkative.”

“What happened to them?”

“I'm afraid I killed them both,” he said blithely. The second man who'd run off was terrified of Josiah Chipple's wrath, and having seen the look in his host's eye, Christian could understand. Not that he should go to any trouble to save a man who was out to kill him, but he could afford to be generous in this circumstance, since he was about to get exactly what he wanted. “I suppose I could have spared one, dragged him before a magistrate and lodged a formal complaint, but I decided that dealing with you directly would be much more efficient.”

“I had nothing to do with it.”

“Of course you didn't. And I expect you are such a stalwart and law-abiding citizen that you would make it your duty to see that nothing like that ever happened again, at least to me.”

“What do you want, Montcalm?”

Christian smiled sweetly. “Your daughter's hand in marriage, of course. I thought I made my most honorable intentions clear.”

“You're only interested in her fortune!”

“Wouldn't you want a son-in-law who was eminently practical?”

“She can do better.”

“Alas, I can't argue that,” Christian said. “I must admit my reputation is a bit…shady. Unlike your own unblemished one. But I'm expecting marriage to make a new man out of me. A sober, devoted husband and father…”

“You aren't fathering my grandchildren!”

“Then I suppose we can always have a celibate relationship. And of course there are ways of preventing pregnancy, but I imagine you know them and would rather not think of them in terms of your daughter.” He took another sip of the cognac. “I wouldn't do that if I were you,” he added as Josiah made an involuntary move toward him. “If the poor girl were orphaned she'd have no one to look after her.”

He halted, wisely. “The Honorable Miss Kempton—”

“Ah, yes, the Honorable Miss Kempton. She does try to be inflexible, does she not? I'm afraid if it came to a battle between us then I would undoubtedly win. She's not nearly as fierce as she would have one believe.” He allowed himself a faint smile at the memory.

“I'll find someone else…”

“Accept the inevitable, Chipple.”

Josiah sank down in his chair, a calculating expres
sion on his face. It had taken him long enough, Christian thought lazily. He had to be a smart man to acquire the kind of fortune he had, but it was taking him a damnably long time to get down to business. Perhaps it was simply that he didn't want to admit defeat on any level.

“How much do you want?” Josiah demanded hoarsely.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You know what I'm talking about. I'll give you five thousand pounds to leave my daughter alone and to be silent about any speculations as to where I made my money.”

“Sir, you insult me.”

“Ten thousand pounds.”

Christian was enjoying this. “What kind of gentleman do you think I am?”

“Twenty thousand pounds.”

“A remarkable sum of money, indeed. But your daughter is your sole heir.”

“Fifty thousand pounds and not a farthing more. Or I'll kill you myself and be damned to the consequences.”

“You could try,” Christian replied in a silken voice. “But I would hate to see such a thing happen. And it would be so hard on poor little Hetty. I suppose in good conscience I can only agree. After all, I would hate to see her abandoned with a father in the dock.”

“I could always get away with making you disappear.”

Christian smiled. “Believe me, you couldn't.”

“I'll send someone over to your rooms with a banker's draft—”

“And a knife? I don't think so.”

“Then how do you expect me to arrange this…?”

“You're not the sort of man who trusts anyone, even banks. I'm certain you can find at least that much hidden in this house.”

“Do you think I'm a fool? I could be robbed.”

Christian was tactful enough not to point out that that was exactly what was happening. “Most street thieves have the sense to steer clear of me, because my reputation precedes me. I imagine the same holds for you. The members of the criminal underground are very well informed, and only a dolt would think to rob you.”

“Isn't that what you're doing?”

“We are simply two gentlemen—and I use that term with great affection—who have come to an agreement due to our mutual concern for your daughter. We both want what's best for her, and I would never be so bold as to think that I could aspire to her hand.” Christian was enjoying himself. “I'm willing to relinquish her affection at great cost to myself, and it is only to be expected that it be at great cost to you, as well.”

Josiah Chipple stared at him for a long moment. “All right,” he said finally. “I accept.”

“Of course you do,” Christian murmured. It was a lie, of course. Chipple might hand over the cash, but he'd do everything within his power to get it back, and he'd choose his assassins a little more carefully next time.

On the other hand, Christian had absolutely no intention of relinquishing his hold on adoring little Hetty. Why should he, when he could have the fifty thousand
pounds and her, as well? And once he had her, Chipple would definitely think twice about having her husband slaughtered. No, he'd have no choice but to accept him into the family. Though somehow Christian doubted they'd be spending much happy time together, even when the children came along.

She'd be a viscountess, which was what she wanted. He'd have enough money to live as he pleased, though he wasn't sure his young bride would find it as amenable. If she grew tiresome he could send her to live with her devoted father for long periods at a time, taking her noisy brats with her, while he concentrated on dragon baiting.

He was moving way too fast—he had to secure the lady first. And by the time they were married Annelise would be long gone, off to some other needy family.

“Stay here and I'll go get the money.”

“I think I'll come with you. I feel the need to stretch my legs.”

“You think I'm going to allow you to see where I keep my emergency funds?” Chipple demanded.

“And it is an emergency, is it not? I also know that you would change the location of your secret stash regularly, so you'll be giving away no secrets. Unless you have one of your black slaves chained with it to keep it safe.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Josiah said stiffly. “And I'd appreciate it if you stopped mentioning that. If word of my former life reached society it could be devastating.”

“Former? I gather it was an ongoing concern.”

“I've retired,” Chipple said.

“Of course you have,” Christian replied, not believing a word. “Shall we go? Your guests must be wondering where their host is, and Miss Hetty might come to check on her dear father.”

Josiah Chipple didn't like to lose. “There's a word for people like you,” he said darkly.

“The word is blackmailer,” Christian said. “Though I prefer businessman.”

“We'll go through the garden,” Josiah said.

“We'll go through the house,” Christian corrected. “I imagine you have at least one man stationed outside the house at all times, and it would simply take a gesture from you to have him attack. And then we'd have another bloody corpse to deal with, and it still wouldn't be mine. Accept the inevitable and cut your losses.”

Chipple glared at him. He rose and walked over to the fireplace, fiddling with the books. A small section of shelving swung out, revealing a tiny compartment filled with neat packages. Chipple reached his hand inside, and Christian spoke.

“I wouldn't go for that pistol if I were you. If it's been in there for long it will no longer be properly primed, and think of the noise it would make. And I think it should be quite clear that I'm not about to go quietly.”

Chipple turned back with his hands full of neatly bundled sacks. “I accept defeat when I must. If this is what it takes to get rid of you then I consider the price small enough.”

Now, that was a total lie on every account, Christian thought as Chipple counted out the sacks. He wasn't the
sort of man who ever accepted defeat, and he wouldn't part with a penny unless he had no other choice. At the moment he realized that he had no choice, but Christian expected that to be only temporary. Which required him to act quickly.

BOOK: The Devil's Waltz
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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