One Dangerous Desire – Christy Carlyle

WHEN YOU’VE COME to plunder, blending into the crowd is no longer a possibility. “He’s an American,” one lady whispered. “Dangerous,” another added. “Wild,” the third insisted. The ladies’ whispers carried through the din of chatter in the Bridewells’ crowded drawing room, and Rex Leighton tightened his grip on the ridiculously tiny glass a footman had deposited in his hand. He longed to shatter the damned thing. Instead, he raised it to his lips and downed the sickly sweet claret in one swig. Overlong gazes and speculative murmurs shouldn’t irritate him. Why attend a posh soiree if not to be noticed and make an impression? It wasn’t as if he could deny any of the words they called him. Dangerous? Oh yes, even if his day-to-day existence was no longer a matter of survival but a question of strategy. These days, the dangers he faced related to his bank account. Risks written in ink, rather than blood. Businessmen, he’d found, preferred to battle with their wits. Wild was the word that soured in his gut. He’d heard the claim before, at the orphanage he’d been sent to after his mother’s death.

Perhaps he had been a wild creature once, but it rankled to hear the accusation now, when he was trying his damnedest to play the gentleman. Moving away from the gaggle of women assessing him from behind fluttering fans wouldn’t stop the whispers. They—women and whispers—trailed after him no matter where he positioned himself. He’d already circled the room once and secured the dimmest corner. No one at his back and a prime position from which to appraise the crowd of titled lords and well-bred ladies. Especially the ladies. From among the bounty of pampered females at this party, or the next ball or dinner he attended, he’d choose a wife. Only an aristocrat’s daughter would do. One whose titled father and brothers and cousins possessed connections with other titled men. Men who sat in the House of Lords and served on influential committees or the boards of corporations.

After five years in London, wealth and business success had finally begun to earn Rex invitations to a few upper-crust events. One realization had come, swift and unwavering, after his first taste of high society. He could accept every invitation extended to him and still remain an outsider. Unless he married into their world, he’d always hover at the edges. An oddity to spark whispers. An exotic almost-gentleman with strange eyes and hair longer than fashion allowed to titillate bored women. Yet no matter how expensively tailored his suits or well-fitted his boots, his bulk did not fit in their polished world. Literally. His broad shoulders and overlong legs weren’t suited to their dainty furniture. He’d taken to staying on his feet.

“I wonder if he carries one of those ferocious Bowie knives.” “A stiletto, actually.” He turned to face the trio of ladies hovering nearby. “Much smaller, far sharper, and easier to wield in a hand-to-hand scrabble.” He flexed his right hand, stretching the crisscross of faded scars. He’d learned to revere stiletto knives at the wrong end of such a blade. For a fleeting mischievous moment, he considered truly scandalizing the group by rolling up his sleeve and letting them spy the sheathed weapon he hid under his evening clothes. But one young lady had already skittered away. The second gasped and, as far as he could tell, hadn’t taken another breath since. The third lifted her fan and began flapping it wildly.

A footman stopped in front of Rex and offered another puny glass of claret. Barely a mouthful. He declined and approached the doors leading to the Bridewells’ spacious balcony, considering an escape into the inky darkness beyond for a breath of fresh air. The three whispering ladies reassembled just over his left shoulder, their murmurs lower but infused with a kind of frantic giddiness. “Do you think he carries a gun?” He did, though they might be surprised to learn it wasn’t an American Colt he favored but a small, powerful English Webley revolver. “He prowls the room like a tiger.” “Tigers aren’t native to America,” the breathless miss reminded the others. “A mustang, then.” “Horses don’t prowl,” Miss Breathless insisted. Good God, they fashioned him some industrialist version of Wild Bill Hickok.

A reformed Artful Dodger would be a far more accurate assessment. The host’s eldest daughter approached, a lush young widow with a shockingly direct gaze and a husky timbre to her voice. “Is there something amiss with our claret, Mr. Leighton?” “Not at all, Mrs. Thackeray. I simply desire something with more bite.” After glancing over each shoulder to ensure no one was close enough to hear their exchange, she leaned in as far as her corset and a semblance of propriety would allow. “Down the hall, second door on the left. Join me there, and bring your desire with you.” As she swiveled to move away, the wide skirt of her gown dragged across the front of his trousers.

Despite how his body twitched to life in response, Rex held his ground, resisting the urge to follow after the seductive swish of the widow’s hips as she sauntered away. He didn’t require the fine education most of these gentlemen had been given as a birthright to know that joining her in that room down the hall would be a mistake. He needed to find a wife, not pass an evening sating some gentlewoman’s urge for a quick, heated tumble in a dimly lit parlor. No matter how she might cry his given name when he tipped her over pleasure’s edge, the lady would have no interest in taking his surname. Everyone in the room knew Mrs. Thackeray was just out of mourning and already promised to an elderly viscount. If half a dozen gazes followed him before the widow’s approach, twice that number were on him now. Watching, waiting to see if he would spark a scandal before dinner was served. He deposited his miniature goblet on a nearby table and stepped toward his cluster of devotees. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he whispered to the perpetually breathless one, and then strode out of the drawing room.

Past the second door on the left. Out the front doors of the Bridewells’ Saint James Square townhouse. Out of the stifling focus of a dozen gazes tracking his every move. London’s fog was a balm compared to the heated dinner party gathering, no matter what his early departure cost him. He’d send his apologies to the Bridewells and continue his hunt for a bride at the next upper-class soiree. The dampness in the air stirred old aches—a years-old injury in his leg and the tracery of scars on his right hand—but other sensations put him on alert. A sick swell low in his gut. A pinprick tingle at the base of his skull. Someone watched him and not with the lusty hunger of ladies in a drawing room. Rex twisted his head right, then scanned left.

London’s fog-shrouded streets abounded in dark corners, but he couldn’t discern any figures lingering in the murky glow cast by the street lamps. Jerking the collar of his overcoat higher, he tucked his head down and quickened his pace. With his dark hair and clothing, perhaps he could blend into the shadows too. As he walked, the sense of being watched faded. Berkeley Square provided him with a fashionable rented address. Its manicured streets had never been a place where he needed to watch his back as he had in New York. These days, he reserved that sort of energy for his business ventures and drawing-room clashes with arrogant aristocrats. Four steps from his townhouse, he cast one more glance over his shoulder. Metal glinted in the moon glow, and Rex drew his mouth up in a smirk. “Your stealth leaves much to be desired.

” “No stealth intended, sir. I’ve merely been awaiting your return.” When the man stepped from the darkness, brawny shoulders squared in his militaristic way, gaslight caught him everywhere—his metal buttons, the sharp edges of his lantern-jawed face, and the gold watch chain and fob dangling from his waistcoat. Even his close-cropped bronze hair gave off a metallic glint. “Blast it, Sullivan.” Rex glared at his hired man. “I trust you’re less conspicuous when seeking information for me.” Jack Sullivan, Rex’s private inquiry agent, dipped his head and then lifted it with a bold grin. “I am indeed, sir. And yet, perhaps I am more inconspicuous than you allow.

You failed to notice me as I waited just an arm’s length away.” Rex cursed his rusty senses. Too many years living in posh lodgings had turned him lazy and made him feel some semblance of safety. That disturbing thought stoked a hunger for his next challenge. “In future, ring the bell and wait for me inside like any normal guest.” What the hell was he paying a butler, housekeeper, and a house full of servants for if not to deal with those who came knocking at his door? Though he’d instructed them to turn most visitors away, Mr. Sullivan was the one man in London Rex was always willing to see. The fellow brought him facts, and facts allowed him to develop strategies. “Yes, sir.” Sullivan managed to make the obsequious acknowledgment sound like a retort.

Rex led him across the threshold and beelined for the ground-floor room he’d set aside as a studycum-office, ignoring the approach of Mrs. Hark as she hurried to greet them. His housekeeper preferred every entrance and exit to be a bit of a ceremony, with certain niceties exchanged, and a sense of order as to the removal or donning of outerwear. His disdain for such formalities was only one of the ways his American sensibilities clashed with the older woman’s polite English rituals. “Fire’s been laid in your study, Mr. Leighton. Tea for you and your guest?” “Coffee for me. Sullivan?” Rex shed his coat and hung it over a chair just inside the door of his all-purpose room. Out of the corner of his eye, Mrs. Hark reached for it with a hrmph, slapping at the damp garment as if it needed to be chastised for offending the leather furniture.

Her noises were drowned out by the sound of claws scrabbling on wood and the tenacious yips of a black-and-tan wire-haired dog that scurried out from under his desk. Charlie hobbled as he ran, but his misshapen back leg never seemed to slow him down. Rex leaned to ruffle the dog’s fur before Charlie scampered toward Sullivan, resuming a round of high-pitched barks. Mrs. Hark swatted at the dog. “Quiet, you little fiend! Shall I put the creature out, sir?” “No, but perhaps you could take Charlie downstairs and give him a bit of supper.” Charlie circled Sullivan’s ankles, sniffing and growling, seemingly determined to discover whether the detective hid something threatening under his trouser legs. “And what of your supper, sir?” The housekeeper watched the dog out of the corner of her eye as if she didn’t trust him not to attack. “Cook has prepared your favorite, Mr. Leighton.

” “I’ve already dined at my club.” The woman’s head began to nod, a repetitive bobble, jerking up and down on her stout neck. “Yes, sir,” she uttered in a kind of pained whine. “Very well, sir. I shall see to the tea and coffee.” She twisted her apron in one hand, and her jaw went so stiff with frustration that she fairly spat the word cof ee, her tongue stuttering on the double f’s. As she started to back away, Rex exhaled a sigh. “Mrs. Hark, I’m sorry about supper. I hope the Wellington is still warm so that you and the downstairs staff may enjoy it.

” She nodded again, though thankfully not nearly as many times, and ushered Charlie ahead with a wave of her apron before pulling the door shut. “You’ve named the mutt,” Sullivan said in an amused tone. “I had to call him something.” No one needed to know he’d named the dog after a master thief, a kind of mentor he’d known in New York. The inquiry agent settled into a chair opposite Rex’s desk and cast him a dubious look, one bronze brow winging high on his forehead. “What?” Rex sank into his chair and waited for a bit of the free wisdom Sullivan always offered with the information Rex actually paid for. “Gentlemen do not apologize to their staff.” He sounded so bloody righteous when he said it. His pomposity was only tolerable because Rex knew Sullivan had come from nothing, as he had. He was also the single man in London from whom Rex kept few secrets.

There was little use. Jack could uncover any man’s mysteries. It was what Rex employed him to do. “Judging by your list of what gentlemen should and shouldn’t do, all the gents you know must be real bastards.” The detective let out a rare bark of laughter. “Quite so, Mr. Leighton.” Then he turned thoughtful. “Yet there is a kind of comfort in rules and discipline. Tyrants have their uses.

” Before the man could indulge his tendency for maudlin reflection, Rex jumped in with a lighter tone, hoping to steer them back to business matters. “I have no desire to be a tyrant, and I’ll apologize to whomever I damn well please. Now tell me what you’ve learned about the Duke of Ashworth.” A maid carried in a tray of tea and coffee, edging it carefully onto the wide expanse of the desk while Sullivan reached into his inner jacket pocket and extracted a journal. Rex lifted a brimming cup to his lips, pausing to inhale the brew’s rich aroma before taking the first scalding sip. “He is still investing freely. The man has more wealth than he knows what do with—” “Tell me something I don’t know.” Rex reached for a stack of newspaper clippings and sifted them through his fingertips like slender black-and-white snowflakes. “I’ve been tracking his investments for the last year. He risks funds liberally, pouncing on every newfangled venture that comes his way.

” He collected the clippings and rebuilt a haphazard pile. “What I need from you is what’s not here in print. Does he have electricity installed in his London or country residences?” “No.” Sullivan flipped to a page in his journal. “However, he did attend a gala to celebrate the lighting of the Crystal Palace with ninety arc lamps.” “Then the hotel will intrigue him.” Rex locked his gaze on a blueprint of his hotel he’d had framed and hung above the fireplace. Firelight flickered over the image, and he could envision electric lights twinkling with even greater vibrancy in his new hotel. His soon-to-be home. Not a rented castle or a fine townhouse designed to suit someone else’s taste.

Not some elaborate half-empty heap in the country. His home. The whole thing would run on electricity, from top to bottom. Now he just needed to obtain the piece of London real estate he’d long had his eye on and provide funds for initial construction costs. Most of his money was tied up in investments, many of which had yet to pay out. But he didn’t wish to wait any longer to break ground on the Pinnacle. He’d need an investor like Ashworth to launch the project. “There’s a snag.” Sullivan sipped at his tea much more daintily than Rex would ever bother drinking anything. “I don’t like snags.

” “You won’t like this one either, though I may be able to suggest a solution.” The fact man flipped to another page in his journal. Rex had come to think of the thing as a kind of Pandora’s box that held, if not the evils men did, then at least the secrets they wished to keep hidden. “After looking a bit deeper into his finances, it’s clear he only invests after he’s formed a relationship.” “A relationship?” The concept sounded murky, entangling. “The man gives money to friends.” “Friends?” Rex scooted back and gripped each arm of his chair until the leather squeaked under his fingertips. “That’s ridiculous. Business has nothing to do with friendship. The men I’ve counted as friends would have robbed me blind, given half the chance.

” Friendships were about survival, mutual benefit, or the means to an end. And they involved risk. Privacy was difficult to maintain when you allowed an acquaintance to grow, and Rex had secrets to keep. Sullivan cleared his throat. “I’m well aware of your views on friendship, sir. May I suggest an alternative?” Rex spun his finger in the air, encouraging the man to continue. Sullivan had never been so coy when delivering his reports. He employed the man to collect facts and didn’t expect to have to cajole them out of him. “The duke has an unmarried daughter.” Interesting.

“Tell me more.” “She’s . ” Sullivan looked down at the pages open on his lap and then closed the journal with a slap, as if it contained none of the answers he needed. Or he’d memorized everything he intended to say. “Bookish.” “A bluestocking, you mean.” “She is a well-read woman.” Rex imagined a room lined with books, books on the bedside table, piles of books in the morning room. He’d always been fond of books, especially when he was a child, and they’d seemed as unattainable as precious jewels. “I suppose there are worse things.

What else?” “His Grace’s eldest is a woman of mature years.” “How old?” “Just turned one and thirty.” Rex let a chuckle rumble up and spill over, loosening the tightness in his chest. “Come, man. I’m not even one and thirty.” “You are two years shy of it. Hardly an impassable chasm of years between you.” Shooting up from his chair, Rex planted his feet on the ground and leaned across his desk. “If she’s unmarried at thirty-one, I doubt she’s keen to enter the trap now.” Sullivan rose too, matching Rex in height and wearing a stern mask of determination.

“You’re wrong there, Mr. Leighton. The lady has merely been overlooked. The duke has four daughters, and the rest are frivolous and pretty. All three married during their first seasons.” Rex crossed to the fireplace, edging close enough to allow the heat to singe his clothes, letting the warmth soothe the twinges in his hand and leg. He turned his head but didn’t look directly at Sullivan, loathe to allow the man to see any flicker of pain on his face. “You’re determined to defend this woman, Jack. Do you fancy her yourself?” The detective gusted out a breathy sound of disgust. “The very notion is asinine.

I, of all men, have nothing to offer a duke’s daughter.” Muscles in Rex’s arm twitched, and he flexed his scarred hand. Any other man who spoke to him so dismissively in his own home was apt to find himself flat on his arse. He gripped the marble fireplace mantel and turned to glance at his inquiry agent. “I have no interest in the woman,” the detective protested in a more respectful if no less vehement tone. “I merely know what it is to be overlooked.” There was history behind the comment Sullivan husked out in a flat, cold voice. Before settling on Jack Sullivan as his inquiry agent, Rex had investigated him. Years in an orphanage, never adopted because of illness, and a tendency toward obstinacy. That obstinacy was why Rex chose him.

The man’s terrier-like determination—a bit like Charlie, come to think of it—meant he left no stone unturned. Based on his own bleak history, Rex understood that obstinacy in an orphaned child was simply another word for survival. And survival was what mattered most. Rex turned his back on Sullivan, stealing a moment to push away the memories of hunger and fear that colored all the days of his youth after his mother died. Facing the detective again, Rex fought to secure an expressionless mask. “Very well. Where can I find this duke’s daughter?” He wasn’t ready for a meeting with Ashworth, so he’d need to encounter the lady when she was outside her father’s home. “You’re in luck, sir. She’s a busy woman, out of the house nearly every day of the week with some charitable endeavor or the meeting of one woman’s group or another.” “Give me the best option.


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