Home > The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(7)

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1)(7)
Author: Tessa Dare

She sucked in her breath, as if she could read his thoughts. Or maybe her own thoughts had startled her.

She withdrew her hand. “What is your aim? Simply to torment me further?”

“No, that is not my aim. Though I suspect, over time, it will be an unavoidable consequence.”

She gave a little growl.

Ash found it wickedly arousing. Not that he would tell her so. He was too distracted by the way she hugged herself and shivered. “Where is your cloak?”

“I left it at your house yesterday.”

“Well. I hope that teaches you a lesson about making dramatic exits.”

Ash removed his own cape and twirled it about her shoulders, tucking in the ends until she resembled a penguin. “Come along, then.” He swiveled her by the shoulders and nudged her into a waddle.

Offering her his cloak was not mere gallantry. It was self-protection. He had gloves, but the leather was too fine, too supple. Without the barrier of the cloak, he could still feel her. He didn’t wish to relive the visceral shock that had rocketed through him in his library.

“Now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll pay attention. I don’t recall saying anything about a mistress. I believe I used the word ‘duchess.’” He gestured at their bleak surroundings. “I would not trouble to come here for any other purpose.”

“You can’t be serious. Not really, truly, honestly, earnestly, properly.”

He allowed a few moments to pass. “Are you quite done listing adverbs? I should hate to interrupt.”

His little penguin bounced in agitation.

Ash was agitated, as well. Judging by her insistence that he couldn’t possibly want her, he suspected some other man had made her feel unwanted. That made him furious.

“Listen to me, Emma.”

Look, he was already thinking of her as Emma. A small, stubborn little name, Emma. It suited her.

“The answer is yes,” he said. “I am serious. Really, truly, honestly, earnestly, properly. And I mean to have you, completely.”

 

Emma lost her footing and nearly stumbled face-first into an apple seller’s cart.

She righted herself, but not before the duke’s hand shot out to steady her. He didn’t let go, either. Instead, he gripped tighter and guided her around the cart, maneuvering his body between her and a passing carriage.

He moved swiftly, and she struggled to keep pace with him. In truth, she’d been struggling to keep pace with him since the moment she’d entered his library. Wrestling to understand his intentions, sparring with his wit. Chasing after her own body’s responses. He was exhausting. Less of a man, more of a gymnasium.

“If it’s a wife you want,” she said, “surely you could find many women—many well-bred ladies—who would be willing to marry you.”

“Yes, but I’d have to find them. This saves me so much effort.”

She threw him a sidelong glance. “Can you not hear yourself? Do you truly not know how insulting that sounds?”

“I should think it sounds beneficent. I’m offering you a title and fortune. All you have to do is lie back in the dark, then spend nine months swelling up like a tick. What could possibly deter any woman from accepting?”

“What, indeed. Perhaps a disinclination to feeling like a broodmare.”

They stepped off the pavement and crossed the street.

“A broodmare. Hm. I’m not certain I mind that comparison. If you’re a broodmare, that would make me the stud.”

“And there,” she said, “is the injustice of the world in a nutshell.”

He ignored her statement. “On reflection, I prefer ‘stallion.’”

“Never mind the horses!” She made a strangled noise of frustration. “It’s absurd to even suggest we could marry. We scarcely know each other. And what little we do know of each other, we don’t like.”

“I’m not aware of the courtship customs back in your quaint little inbred village, but at my level of society, wedlock is a matter of two concerns: childbearing and finances. What I’m offering is a marriage of convenience. You’re living in poverty, and I”—he laid his hand to his chest—“have a great deal of money. I need an heir, and you”—he waved toward her with a flourish—“have the capacity to bear one. There’s no need to like each other. As soon as a child is conceived we’ll go separate ways.”

“Separate ways?”

“You’d have your own house in the country. I’ll have no further need of you then.”

When they turned onto a busier lane, he tugged down the brim of his hat and turned up the collar of his coat. Night was falling, but the moon was bright. He obviously didn’t want to draw attention. Sympathy breezed into Emma’s heart like an unwelcome visitor.

“You’re assuming,” she continued, “that your theoretical child would be male. What if you fathered a girl? Or five of them?”

He shrugged. “You’re the vicar’s daughter. Pray for a boy.”

“You are terrible.”

“Since we are on the subject of personal failings, you are irrational. You’re allowing pride to cloud your common sense. Spare yourself the effort of argument and skip to the inevitable conclusion.”

“I conclude that this conversation is madness. I don’t understand why you keep speaking as though you’d marry me.”

“I don’t understand why you keep speaking as though I won’t.”

“You are a duke. I am a seamstress. What else is there to be said?”

He held up one hand and counted off on his fingers. “You are a healthy woman of childbearing age. You are a gentleman’s daughter. You are educated. You’re passably pretty—not that it’s a concern for me, but a child should have at least one nonhideous parent.” He was down to his last finger. “And you’re here. All my requirements are met. You’ll do.”

Emma stared at him in disbelief. That was, perhaps, the most unfeeling proposal she could imagine. The man was cynical, insensitive, condescending, rude.

And she was definitely going to marry him.

Against all logic, and contrary to everything she knew of society, he appeared to be making her an earnest proposal of marriage. She would be the greatest ninny in England to refuse.

Seamstresses didn’t have many long-term prospects. The years of detailed needlework caused their eyes to fail and fingers to stiffen. Emma knew that her best chance—perhaps her only chance—at security was to marry. She would be a fool to refuse any duke, even if he were a bedridden septuagenarian with poor hygiene.

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