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The Duke's Perfect Wife

By:Jennifer Ashley

a desk, his sinewy hand bracing on the desk’s top beside his hip. His head was bent as he studied something at his feet, out of the frame.

The pose, though perhaps a bit unusual for a portrait, was not the unique thing about the picture. The most interesting aspect of this photograph was that, in it, Hart Mackenzie was quite, quite naked.

Chapter 2

“Where did you get this?” The question was hard, harsh, demanding. She had Hart’s full attention now.

“From a well-wisher,” Eleanor said. “At least that is how the letter was signed. From one as wishes you well. Grammar indicating the writer is not an educated person—well, at least educated enough to write a letter, but she obviously didn’t attend finishing school. I believe it a woman from the hand—”

“Someone sent it to you?” Hart interrupted. “Is that what you are coming around to telling me?”

“Indeed I am. Luckily for you, I was alone at the breakfast table when I opened it. My father was out classifying mushrooms. With the cook, who was not so much classifying mushrooms as choosing them for our supper.”

“Where is the envelope?”

Hart obviously expected her to hand the whole thing over to him on the spot. But that would spoil her plans.

“The envelope did not reveal much,” Eleanor said. “Hand delivered, not posted, brought to Glenarden from the train station. The stationmaster got it from a train conductor, who said it was passed to him by a delivery boy in Edinburgh. One line on the envelope—To Lady Eleanor Ramsay, Glenarden, near Aberdeen, Scotland. Everyone knows me and where I live, so in theory, even if the sender had dropped it somewhere between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, it would have reached me. Eventually.”

Hart’s brows drew down as he listened, again reminding Eleanor of his father. A portrait of the man had hung in this room, in the place of honor above the mantel, but it wasn’t there now, thank heavens. Hart must have taken it to the attics, or perhaps burned it. Eleanor would have burned it.

“What about the delivery boy in Edinburgh?” Hart asked.

“I did not have the time or the resources to conduct such an investigation,” Eleanor said, drawing her gaze back from the fireplace. A landscape of a kilted man fishing in the Scottish Highlands, painted by Mac, now hung there. “I plunked the last of our money on train tickets to London to come here and tell you that I’d be happy to look into the matter for you. If you will provide the funds and a small salary.”

His gaze fixed on her again, sharp and gold. “Salary.”

“Yes, indeed. That is the business proposition I mentioned to you. I want you to give me a job.”

Hart went silent, the ponderous clock across the room ticking loudly into the stillness.

It unnerved her to be in the same room with him, the world closed out, but not because he watched her with his assessing stare. No, what unnerved her was being alone with Hart, the man with whom she’d once been madly in love.

He’d been devilishly handsome, teasing, and tender, and he’d courted her with a verve that had left her breathless. She’d fallen in love with him quickly, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever fallen out of love with him.

But the Hart she faced today was a different man from the one she’d been engaged to, and that worried her. The Hart who’d laughed so readily, who’d been animated and excited by life—was gone. In his place was a man even harder and more driven than before. He’d seen too much tragedy, too much death, too much loss. Gossip and newspapers had put it about that Hart had been relieved to be rid of Lady Sarah, his wife, but Eleanor knew differently. The bleak light now in Hart’s eyes came from grief.

“A job,” Hart was saying. “What are you up to, Eleanor?”

“Up to? Our ears in debt, of course.” She smiled at her joke. “Quite seriously, Hart, we need the blunt. Father is dear to me but a wee bit impractical. He believes we still pay the staff wages, but truth to tell, they stay and look after us because they feel sorry for us. Our food comes from their family’s gardens or charity from the villagers. They think we don’t know. You can call me an assistant to a secretary or some such, if you like. I’m sure you have several of those.”

Hart looked into the determined blue eyes that had haunted his dreams for years and felt something break open inside him.

She’d come like an answer to a prayer. Hart had planned to travel to Glenarden soon to convince her to marry him, knowing the pinnacle of his career was nigh. He’d wanted to win everything and present it to her on a platter, so she’d not be able to refuse. He’d make her see that she needed him as much as he needed her.

But perhaps this would be better. If he inserted her into his life now, she’d grow so used to being there that when he put his hand out for her, she’d take it and not say no.

He could find some nominal employment for her, let her track down who had these photographs—she was not wrong that they might help his opposition make a fool of him—while he slowly closed his fist about her. So slowly that she’d not know he had her in his grasp until too late.

Eleanor would be with him, at his side, as she was now, smiling her red-lipped smile. Every day, and every night.

Every night.

“Hart?” Eleanor waved a hand in front of his face. “Woolgathering, are you?”

Hart snapped his focus back to her, on the kissable curve of her mouth, the little smile that had once made him determined to have her. In all ways.

Eleanor tucked the photograph into her pocket. “Now, as to salary, it needn’t be large. Something to get us by, that’s all. And accommodations for myself and my father while we’re in London. Small rooms will be fine—we are used to scratching for ourselves, as long as the neighborhood is not too seedy. Father will walk anywhere alone, and I do not want street toughs bothering him. He’d end up trying to explain to his assailants how knives like the one with which they are