Tarquin took the scent of his wine and examined the still figure. She reminded him of a hart at bay, radiating a kind of desperate courage that nevertheless acknowledged the grim reality of its position. Her eyes met his scrutiny without blinking, the firm chin tilted, the wide, full mouth taut. There was something uncompromising about Juliana Beresford, from the tip of that flaming head of hair to the toes of her long feet. The image of her naked body rose unbidden in his mind. His eyes narrowed as his languid gaze slid over her, remembering the voluptuous quality of her nudity, the smooth white skin in startling contrast to the glowing hair.
"If you insist upon making this proposition, my lord duke, I wish you would do so." Juliana spoke suddenly, breaking the intensity of a silence that had been having the strangest effect upon her. Her skin was tingling all over, her nipples pricking against her laced bodice, and she had to fight against the urge to drop her eyes from that languid and yet curiously penetrating gray scrutiny.
"By all means," he said, taking a sip of his wine. "But I must first ask you a question. Are you still virgin?"
Juliana felt the color drain from her face. She stared at him in disbelief "What business is that of yours?"
"It's very much my business," the duke said evenly. "Whether or not I make this proposition depends upon your answer."
"I will not answer such a question," Juliana declared from a realm of outrage beyond anger.
"My dear, you must. If you wish to spare yourself the inconvenience of examination," he said in the same level tones. "Mistress Dennison will discover the answer for herself, if you will not tell me."
Juliana shook her head, beyond words.
He rose from his chair and crossed the small space between them. Bending over her, he took her chin between finger and thumb and tilted her face to meet his steady gaze. "Juliana, you told Mistress Dennison that your husband died before your marriage was consummated. Is that the truth?"
"Why would I say it if it wasn't?" Somehow she still managed to sound unyielding, even as she yielded the answer because she knew she had no choice but to do so.
He held her chin for a long moment as she glared up at him, wishing she had a knife. She imagined plunging it into his chest as he stood so close to her she could smell his skin, and a faint hint of the dried lavender that had been strewn among his fresh-washed linen.
Then he released her with a little nod. "I believe you."
"Oh, you do me too much honor, sir," she said, her voice shaking with fury. Springing to her feet, she drove her fist into his belly with all the force she could muster.
He doubled over with a gasp of pain, but as she turned to run, he grabbed her and held on even as he fought for breath.
Juliana struggled to free her wrist from a grip like steel. She raised a leg to kick him, but he swung sideways so her foot met only his thigh.
"Be still!" he gasped through clenched teeth. "Hell and the devil, girl!" He jerked her wrist hard and finally she stopped fighting.
Slowly Tarquin straightened up as the pain receded and he could breathe again. "Hair as hot as the fires of hell goes with the devil's own temper, I suppose," he said, and to Juliana's astonishment his mouth quirked in a rueful smile, although he still held her wrist tightly. "I must bear that in mind in future."
"What do you want of me?" Juliana demanded. An overwhelming sense of helplessness began to eat away at her, challenging bravado; and even as she tried to fight it, she recognized the futility of the struggle.
"Quite simply, child, I wish you to marry my cousin, Viscount Edgecombe." He released her wrist as he said this and calmly straightened his coat and the disordered lace ruffles at his cuffs.
"You want me to do what?"
"I believe you heard me." He strolled away from her to refill his wineglass. "More champagne, perhaps?"
Juliana shook her head. She'd barely touched what was in her glass. "I don't understand."
The duke turned back to face her. He sipped his wine reflectively. "I need a wife for my cousin, Lucien. A wife who will bear a child, an heir to the Edgecombe estate and title."
"The present heir is, to put it kindly, somewhat slow-witted. Oh, he's a nice enough soul but could no more pull Edgecombe out of the mire into which Lucien has plunged it than he could read a page of Livy. Lucien is dismembering Edgecombe. I intend to put a stop to that. And I intend to ensure that his heir is my ward."
He smiled, but it had none of the pleasant quality of his earlier smiles. "I shall thus have twenty-one years to put Edgecombe back together again...to repair the damage Lucien has done--as much as anything, I believe, to spite me."
"Why can't your cousin find his own wife?" she asked staring incredulously.
"Well, I suspect he might find it difficult," the duke said, turning his signet ring on his finger with a considering air. "Lucien is not a pleasant man. No ordinary female of the right breeding would choose to wed him."
Juliana wondered if she was going mad. At the very least she had clearly stumbled among lunatics. Vicious, twisted lunatics.
"You...you want a brood mare!"
she exclaimed. "You would blackmail me into yielding my body as a vehicle for your cousin's progeny, because no self-respecting woman would take on the job! You're...you're treating me like a bitch to be put to a stud."
Tarquin frowned. "Your choice of words is a trifle inelegant, my dear. I'm offering a marriage that comes with a title and what remains of a substantial fortune. My cousin doesn't have long to live, hence the urgency of the matter. However, I'm certain you'll be released from his admittedly undesirable company within a twelvemonth. I'll ensure, of course, that you're well looked after in your widowhood. And, of course, not a word of your unfortunate history will be passed on."
He sipped his wine. When she still gazed at him, dumbstruck, he continued: "Your secret will be buried with me and the Dennisons. No one will ever connect Lady Edgecombe with Juliana...whoever-you-were." His hand moved through the air in a careless gesture. "You will be safe, prosperous, and set up for life."
Juliana drained her champagne glass. Then she threw the glass into the fireplace. Her face was bloodless, her eyes jade stones, her voice low and bitter as aloes. "And to gain such safety...such rewards...I must simply bear the child of an undesirable invalid with one foot in the--"
"Ah, no, not precisely." The duke held up one hand, arresting her in midsentence. "You will not bear Lucien's child, my dear Juliana. You will bear mine."
Excerpted from Vice by Jane Feather. Copyright © 1996 by Jane Feather. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.