Home > The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(2)

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(2)
Author: Tessa Dare

Now that the shock of her revolting attire had worn off, Ash turned his attention to the young woman who’d been devoured by it.

She was a great improvement on the gown.

Complexion: cream. Lips: rose petals. Lashes: sable.

Backbone: steel.

“This embroidery alone . . . I worked for a week to make it perfect.” She skimmed a touch along the gown’s neckline.

Ash followed the path her fingertips traced. He couldn’t see embroidery. He was a man; he saw breasts. Slight, enticing breasts squeezed by that tortured bodice. He enjoyed them almost as much as he enjoyed the air of determination pushing them high.

He pulled his gaze upward, taking in her slender neck and upswept bounty of chestnut-brown hair. She wore it in the sort of prim, restrained coiffure that made a man’s fingers itch to pull the pins loose, one by one.

Take hold of yourself, Ashbury.

She couldn’t possibly be as pretty as she seemed. No doubt she benefited by contrast with the revolting gown. And he’d been living in solitude for some time. There was that, as well.

“Your Grace,” she said, “my coal bin is empty, the larder’s down to a few moldy potatoes, and my quarterly rent comes due today. The landlord has threatened to turn me out if I don’t pay the full amount. I need to collect my wages. Most urgently.” She held out her hand. “Two pounds, three shillings, if you please.”

Ash crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her. “Miss . . . ?”

“Gladstone. Emma Gladstone.”

“Miss Gladstone, you don’t seem to understand how this whole intruding-on-a-duke’s-solitude business works. You should be intimidated, if not terrified. Yet there’s an appalling lack of hand-wringing in your demeanor, and no trembling whatsoever. Are you certain you’re merely a seamstress?”

She lifted her hands, palms facing out for his view. Healed cuts and calluses showed on her fingertips. Persuasive evidence, Ash had to admit. Yet he remained unconvinced.

“Well, you can’t have been born to poverty. You’re far too self-possessed, and you appear to have all your teeth. I suppose you were orphaned at a tender age, in some particularly gruesome way.”

“No, Your Grace.”

“Are you being blackmailed?”

“No.” She drew out the word.

“Supporting a passel of abandoned children, whilst being blackmailed?”

“No.”

He snapped his fingers. “I have it. Your father is a scapegrace. In debtor’s prison. Or spending the rent money on gin and whores.”

“My father is a vicar. In Hertfordshire.”

Ash frowned. That was nonsensical. Vicars were gentlemen. “How does a gentleman’s daughter find herself working her fingers to nubs as a seamstress?”

At last, he saw a flash of uncertainty in her demeanor. She touched the spot behind her earlobe. “Sometimes life takes an unexpected turn.”

“Now that is a grave understatement.”

Fortune was a heartless witch in perpetual anticipation of her monthly courses. And didn’t Ash know it.

He swiveled in his chair and reached for a lockbox behind the desk.

“I am sorry.” Her voice softened. “The broken engagement must have been a blow. Miss Worthing seemed a lovely young woman.”

He counted money into his hand. “If you spent any time with her, you know that isn’t the case.”

“Perhaps it’s for the best that you didn’t marry her, then.”

“Yes, it was excellent foresight that I destroyed my face before the wedding. What bad luck it would have been if I’d waited until afterward.”

“Destroyed? If Your Grace will forgive me saying it, it can’t be that bad.”

He snapped the lockbox closed. “Annabelle Worthing was desperate to marry a man with a title and a fortune. I am a duke and ungodly wealthy. She still left me. It’s that bad.”

He stood and turned his ruined side to her, offering her a full, unobstructed view. His desk was in the most shadowy corner of the room—and purposely so. The room’s heavy velvet drapes kept out much of the sunlight. But scars as dramatic as the ones he wore? Nothing but complete darkness could obscure them. What bits of flesh had escaped the flames had only been ravaged further—first, by the surgeon’s knife and then, for hellish weeks afterward, by fever and suppuration. From his temple to his hip, the right side of his body was a raging battle of cicatrices and powder burns.

Miss Gladstone went quiet. To her credit, she didn’t swoon or vomit or run screaming from the room—a pleasant change from his usual reception.

“How did it happen?” she asked.

“War. Next question.”

After a moment, she said quietly, “May I have my money, please?”

He extended a hand, offering her the money.

She reached for it.

He closed his hand around the coins. “Once you give me the gown.”

“What?”

“If I pay you for your work, it’s only fair that I get the gown.”

“For what purpose?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t decided. I could donate it to a home for pensioned opera dancers. Sink it to the bottom of the Thames for the eels to enjoy. Hang it over the front door to ward off evil spirits. There are so many choices.”

“I . . . Your Grace, I can have it delivered tomorrow. But I must have the money today.”

He tsked. “That would be a loan, Miss Gladstone. I’m not in the money-lending business.”

“You want the gown now?”

“Only if you want the money now.”

Her dark eyes fixed on him, accusing him of sheer villainy.

He shrugged. Guilty as charged.

This was the peculiar hell of being disfigured by sheer chance on the battlefield. There was no one to blame, no revenge to be taken. Only a lingering bitterness that tempted him to lash out at anything near. Oh, he wasn’t violent—not unless someone really, truly deserved it. With most, he merely took perverse pleasure in being a pain in the arse.

If he was going to look like a monster, he might as well enjoy the role.

Unfortunately, this seamstress refused to play the trembling mouse. Nothing he said rattled her in the least, and if she hadn’t fled in terror yet, she likely never would.

Good for her.

He prepared to hand over the money, bidding her—and that gown—a grateful adieu.

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