Grace stared at the duke, determined not to allow him the satisfaction of her anger and said calmly,her voice as chill as a winter wind, "Would you have me open my bodice to prove it, Your Grace?"The duke looked momentarily taken aback. Her uncle's voice, however, came sharp as a rap on theknuckles."Grace!"Grace turned to where the Marquess of Cholmeley sat in his carved chair just the other side of theAxminster carpet. The Irlandaise knot on his cravat looked to have slipped a degree off center and hismouth was fixed most unpleasantly amidst his bushy side whiskers. But instead of directing hishostility at the man who had just insulted her, his only niece, he was staring with displeasure at
Surely even Uncle Tedric must recognize the impropriety of this interview. But he wasn't moving.He wasn't even speaking. In fact, he was smiling, damn him, smiling at her in the same way that wilyclerk at the glove-maker's shop had when he'd tried to fool her into buying that pair of gloves with theoverlong pinky fingers.
They'll shrink with age,
the clerk had said—as if he had actually expected she'd believe him. Grace frowned again, looking from her uncle back to the duke;
shrunken with age,indeed.
Suddenly the clerk's words couldn't have rung any truer."I assure you, Your Grace," her uncle said, giving Grace a smile that held so little warmth it madeher shiver, "there is no artifice. Everything you see of my niece is indeed what the good Lord endowedher with.""Indeed," the duke repeated as he shifted from one buttock to the other in his seat, "although shecertainly wouldn't be the first chit to have puffed out her bodice with a wad of stuffing to wheedle aman into marrying her."With a sniff, he returned his attention to her. "Walk here to me girl."Grace shot one last look at her uncle, silently begging him to stop this unprincipled humiliation. Butinstead of speaking out and protecting her as he should in his role as her guardian, he simply nodded,his eyes telling her his thoughts more clearly than any words.He was determined that the duke should offer for Grace's hand and bless them all with his guineasin the process.How had she never before realized the truth of her
uncle? Grace could remember as a child how her grandmother had
and shaken her head over her youngest son.
she'd called him.
But to Grace, from the time she'd been old enough to walk, her "Uncle Teddy" had beennothing short of the most handsome, most distinguished man she'd ever known, the closest thing onearth to his elder brother, her father.Until now.In the time since she had come to live under his guardianship, Grace had come to see Tedric Ledys,Marquess of Cholmeley, undistorted by childhood adoration. In reality, her uncle was everythinganyone else had ever termed him. It was he and no other who had brought her to standing as she was before the Duke of Westover, feeling like a mare on the block at Tattersall's."Take a turn now, my girl."Grace lifted her chin, fixing on the stare she'd seen her grandmother employ so many times duringher childhood, most often whenever Grace had misbehaved. It seemed to succeed, too, this particular look, for the duke actually knit his brow in a moment of confusion. Bolstered by his reaction, Gracetook a short turn, then stood stiff as a lamppost before his chair.At this nearness, she could see that the duke was even older than she'd first thought, perhaps nearinghis seventieth year. He stood nearly half a head shorter than she, cloaked in the heavy clove scent of his cologne. Grace closed her eyes.
Good God, in the name of all that is holy, please do not allowUncle Tedric to marry me off to this man.
"You've spirit," the duke said on a half smile that revealed decaying teeth. "I like that."Grace swallowed, calling on every ounce of fortitude she possessed to remain still and hide her revulsion at the mere thought of sharing any form of marital intimacy with him. She schooled herself to hold her tongue until after the duke had gone, when she would inform Uncle Tedric as firm as shecould that no amount of wealth was worth having to wed the Duke of Westover."Thank you, Your Grace," she said, fighting to keep her voice cold and detached.The duke took her chin between his fingers, turning it to stare at her profile.