Read Your Wicked Heart Online

Authors: Meredith Duran

Tags: #Romance

Your Wicked Heart

BOOK: Your Wicked Heart
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Your Wicked Heart

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Available from Pocket Books February 2013

CHAPTER ONE

Hermopolis, Isle of Syra, Greece—1885

The viscount had told Amanda that she must never call on him at his hotel. Discretion was paramount, for if his family were to learn of his intentions, they would do everything in their power to stop him from marrying her. She was nobody, after all—a mere secretary. But what did that matter when he loved her?

Wait for me at the church tomorrow,
he’d said.
Bring a valise, nothing else. We will set sail at sunset as husband and wife!

She sat now on a stone pew in the Anglican church. A few feet away, the curate, Mr. Rogers, pulled out his pocket watch. She pretended not to notice his speaking look.

Her stomach was twisting into knots.

They had waited more than three hours now. The light from the stained-glass windows had begun to retreat toward the damp stone walls.

Sunset.

“Miss Thomas—”

She leapt to her feet. “Just one more minute, sir!” She could not bear to hear Mr. Roger’s next words. Could not bear to hear him draw the obvious conclusion. “Just another minute, please! I
know
he will come.”

How could he not? After so many weeks spent paralyzed by fear—enduring indignities that no self-respecting woman should accept—she had finally mustered the backbone to flee her employer. Light-headed, knees shaking, she had crept out of Madam’s villa this afternoon. And did that courage not make her deserving of a happy ending? He
must
come!

“I am very sorry,” said Mr. Rogers. “But you understand, I have . . . duties. At the consulate.”

“But there must have been an accident!” That was the only explanation. “We must look for him!”

Mr. Rogers sighed.

He thought she had been jilted.

But he was
wrong
. He had never seen how tenderly the viscount treated her! “Very well,” she said, “do go to the consulate, sir! Tell the consul that the viscount has gone missing! Have him send out a search party. And I . . . I will go to his hotel to see what they know!”

His lordship must have taken ill. Or had tripped, struck his head, and slipped into unconsciousness! But he was even now being seen to by the hotel doctor, who would nurse him back to health. Nothing else could account for his failure to appear today, because he was madly in love with her. He had loved her from first sight, in that spice market in Constantinople. He had followed her here to Syra specifically to woo her. He would not abandon her now! He
could
not!

For if he did . . . it would mean her ruin. She would be stranded, penniless, two thousand miles from England. Her erstwhile employer’s ship was even now setting sail.

*   *   *

Amanda flew up the broad, crimson-carpeted staircase of the Hôtel de Ville, her valise clutched in her arms. Ladies descending in fine satin dinner gowns, gentlemen in top hats, looked at her curiously as she passed. Perhaps they wondered at her carrying her own luggage. Or perhaps she looked awkward in her finery—for this gown was the most luxurious thing she had ever owned, dripping with white lace and seed pearls, paid for by the viscount himself. Who had not abandoned her!

In the main lobby, the bright chatter of well-heeled travelers rang against the domed ceiling above. By the concierge’s desk, five or six gentlemen were conversing, hands flying, faces red. Two of them wore the crimson sashes of the governor’s police.

It was not a sight to encourage a lady. But Amanda’s concern left no room for hesitation. She
had
to find the viscount, for if she didn’t . . .

After tucking her valise behind a potted palm, she took a breath for courage and walked into the men’s midst. “Sirs, I beg your pardon. Which of you is the concierge?”

Nobody paid attention to her. They were bent on their argument. “Impossible,” said the shortest of the lot, a stoop-shouldered man with a heavy Scottish accent. He adjusted his wire spectacles with a force suggestive of great impatience. “I am telling you, we would never support such a charade! And our guests will not bear interrogation!”

“I quite agree,” harrumphed another, a pale and portly Frenchman with sweat beading his brow. “You must take this up with the consul.
He
will see to it.”

“How convenient.”

Amanda, turning, found the source of this icy pronouncement: a tall, dark gentleman whose face gave her a visceral shock. He was beyond handsome; she had not known such a man existed outside the pages of Gothic novels. His bone structure was sharp and strong, his eyes nearly as black as his hair.

His full lips twisted into a scornful smile as he continued. “Yet it will prove less convenient for you, I think, when I have this hotel closed for collusion in fraud.”

This threat was met with silence. It was not the ideal opening, but Amanda would take it. Quickly she spoke. “I seek the concierge! It’s a matter of
great
urgency!”

All eyes swung to her. Several brows lifted. “I am he,” said the short man in spectacles. “But as you see, I am presently engaged—”

“But I fear something dreadful has happened to one of your guests! The Viscount Ripton—he stays here, does he not?”

The collective intake of breath startled her. And then all the men inched away—save the dark one.
He
stepped closer.

He was not smiling any longer.

“The Viscount Ripton, you say.” His eyes (they could not
truly
be black, could they?) trailed down her body, a rude intimacy that made her spine stiffen.

How predictable. The handsome ones were always the
worst
boors.

She lifted her chin. She had grown accustomed, in her time, to the impertinent looks of men who fancied themselves her betters. But she was finished with being cowed and humbled. Besides, she was dressed at present in a gown that could rival a queen’s! This blackguard had no call to think he might look at her so lewdly. “Yes,” she said. “The Viscount Ripton, my betrothed.”
So mind your manners, cad!

The man lifted one elegantly shaped brow. “How curious.” Stripping off his gloves and tossing them to the startled man at his left, he came prowling toward her.

By a great effort, she stood her ground. “It is not a matter of
curiosity
but concern! I fear he has been brought to a bad end!” And so would she be, if she did not find him. She wheeled toward the concierge. “Please tell me—have you seen him today?”

The concierge blinked at her, then looked onward toward the blackguard.

Everyone
was looking at the blackguard.

Foreboding slipped down her spine like a drop of ice water.

The dark man gave her a slow, unpleasant smile. “Miss . . . what is your name?”

Obviously he was somebody important. Certainly he was rich; that was clear from his casual arrogance, and the jeweled stickpin at his throat, and even the fit of his greatcoat, which hewed expertly to his tall, broad-shouldered frame. The dark wool gleamed in the low light: expensive wool, the very finest.

His hair gleamed, too. Black as a crow’s wing, it caught the light.

The smile on his full lips was sharpening. He was not, she decided, the sort of man whom a wise woman engaged without cause.

“We have not been introduced,” she said. Giving her back to him, she addressed a new man—the Frenchman. “The viscount
is
a guest here, isn’t he?”

“The—the viscount—” The Frenchman’s voice squeaked like a girl’s. He glanced beyond her and visibly shuddered. “—is right behind you.”

“What?” Heart soaring, she turned. But the viscount was nowhere to be seen. And everyone else was gaping at her.

Save the blackguard, who tipped his head slightly. “How good to meet you,” he said. “Shall we take a walk? I will be very interested to learn of when I proposed that we marry.”

*   *   *

The girl lost all color. Fear, Spencer supposed. That suggested she was sane, a boon which he appreciated. Revenge could not be exacted on a lunatic. It would not be sporting.

“So silent?” he asked. A malicious feeling of enjoyment was coming over him—a far more pleasant sensation than the aggravation, alarm, and anger of the past twelve days. Since docking in Constantinople, he had discovered, everywhere he’d gone, that he had already preceded himself. Chasing one’s impostor across two foreign countries could tire even a saint. “Come, surely you weren’t so reticent when I was wooing you.”

The girl’s mouth dropped open, forming a perfect, rosy O. It was a very pretty mouth in a blandly pretty face: heart shaped, framed by blond ringlets. A doll brought to life.

Prettiness was required in her trade, no doubt. Had Spence wanted to hire a charlatan, he might indeed have picked this very girl, for her pinkening cheeks, paired with her plump mouth and wide blue eyes, conjured a very persuasive air of innocence: Miss Muffet, shocked by the spider.

Certainly she was good enough at her business never to have been caught before. Otherwise she would have known to run.

Instead, dividing a panicked look between him and the concierge, she stammered, “I—I don’t understand. I seek the Viscount
Ripton,
not—”

“This
is
the Viscount Ripton,” the concierge snapped. His concern was for the reputation of the hotel; he had been fighting Spence’s attempts to have the guests questioned for a quarter hour, and now he evidently saw a solution. “And you, madam, are not welcome in this establishment! The police will take you!”

“No,” said Spence. He would not gamble a farthing on their skills of investigation. “I will take her to the consul. You
are
a British citizen?” Her accent suggested as much.

For one moment she nodded—and then changed her mind, shaking her head so vigorously that her ringlets began to bounce. “I . . .” She stepped backward—or tried to. The train of her ostentatious gown tripped her, sending her pinwheeling.

By some ingrained reflex of courtesy, Spence stepped forward to steady her. But as his grip closed on her soft upper arm, his intentions changed: not to rescue, but to capture.
Got you.

Her arm was very soft, her lips very pink. Pursed as they were, they revealed the hint of dimples. And if holding her forcefully as she sought to break free sent a dark thrill through him, he would not blame himself. This little creampuff had worked a nasty trick. And it was a fine, even
heady
combination, to discover villainy wrapped up in such a small, curving, scented little package.

“You are coming with me,” he said. “Do you understand?” She was the key to untangling this nightmare: how the impostor had so persuasively adopted his name; how he had purloined Spencer’s letters of credit from Constantinople to Smyrna to Syra. By God, he would have the thug’s head on a plate—and this girl’s, too, if she opposed him.

With a violent effort she tried to rip free. “Unhand me! You don’t—” To the other men, she directed her next words. “This
cannot
be the viscount! I
know
Lord Ripton! I have met him a dozen or more times! Why, I—”

“Excellent,” said Spence. She was already admitting crucial details. “You may tell me all about it—in the presence of the consul.” He did not have the authority to coordinate a manhunt, but the consul certainly did. With a brutal grip, he forced her a step toward the stairs.

She twisted in his grasp. “Please!” she cried over her shoulder. “Do not let him take me!”

“Can’t you hush her?” the concierge demanded.

A fine idea. “I lack a gag,” he said. “A handkerchief would serve.”

The men began to rummage through their pockets. The girl whimpered, sagging in Spence’s grip, and then gathered herself to try to break free again. Her elbow knocked into his ribs, surprising a grunt from him.

She did not lack for spirit. Criminals required it, he supposed. He locked an arm around her waist and pulled her straight into him, crushing her between his chest and his forearm.

She was soft everywhere. As she blinked up at him, visibly shocked, his perverse body prickled pleasantly. Some faint scent clung to her, a teasing hint of flowers.

He bent his head to take a deep breath. Roses. Of course. Sunny ringlets and eyes as blue as the morning sky: her appeal was elemental, perfectly designed to remind a man of his adolescent hungers. Every English boy, when his appetites finally began to stir, dreamed first of this sort of milkmaid prettiness.

But Spence was a man grown. “You chose very unwisely,” he said into her ear, “when you chose to target me.”

Transferring his grip to her wrist, he twisted it just enough to cause her to gasp. That would keep her compliant. Then, thinking better of his position, he inched backward to put space between them. Away from that goddamned perfume.

The concierge approached, waving a handkerchief. As the milkmaid’s eyes fastened upon it, Spence felt her tremble. With her round eyes and full cheeks, she looked very young, barely older than his youngest cousin.

He loosened his grip. After all, it was not necessary to manhandle her. She was a woman, and therefore deserving of—

BOOK: Your Wicked Heart
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