• Carrie Lomax

The Duke's Stolen Heart (Excerpt)

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“I need your…” Havencrest paused. His gaze flicked down her body and back up so quickly she barely registered his brazenness. “Assistance,” he finished.

Antonia grinned. Needing her made the man despise himself for weakness. When the time came, she would use that leverage to make her escape. Antonia was nothing if not practiced at biding her time. In the meantime, men who needed to control the people around them were often the easiest to manipulate.

“I see,” Antonia smirked. “My assistance. With bandaging your hands?”

Where the devil had that offer come from?

Havencrest stiffened. He tucked his hands behind his elbows, arms crossed over his broad chest. “My hands are fine.”

“You had best clean the wounds and bandage them to prevent infection. I further recommend you take leave of your heavy schedule of scowling at ladies lest your injuries provoke an excess of heartfelt outpourings. You might find yourself saddled with a duchess.” Antonia prodded him with any combination of words she could think of that might provoke a reaction.

He scoffed. Antonia felt like a kitten dangling by the scruff of her neck, hissing with impotent fury.

“I hardly set foot in London society, as you well know.”

She did know. Antonia made it her business to observe. Havencrest, apparently, did too. Well, now that the man had caught her dead to rights defiling a corpse, she had little choice but to cooperate with his plan.

“I need specifics,” Antonia insisted as color bloomed across the morning sky over dark rooftops. “What is it you want me to steal?”

Havencrest hesitated. “The other half of the necklace you stole. I know you’re capable of it. You’ve done it before.”

“Perhaps.” Antonia shrugged. If she was not mistaken, the way the scowling man’s gaze flicked over her body indicated interest beyond the mercenary. She could use that, too. “Whose?”

“The Dowager Duchess of Summervale’s.”

Antonia crossed her arms over her chest. “You hardly need me for that. Any fool could clip the chain. I doubt she would even notice it was missing until…”

A faint smirk quirked up the corners of the duke’s lips, the shape of which she ought not to be noticing at this inconvenient moment. Antonia’s eyes narrowed. The bastard had as good as tricked her into a confession. It was one more powerful piece of leverage he held over her. Anger flared in her breast. No man controlled her. Not now. Not ever.

The tension between them shifted subtly. Havencrest’s mouth softened. His blue diamond gaze bored into hers until she averted her eyes and lifted her chin. “My point is, any fool could nick the old lady’s necklace in a trice.”

“How do you do that, Miss Lowry?” he asked roughly.

“Do what?”

“Mimic my accent to perfection.”

Antonia shifted in her seat. She had always been able to copy another person’s mannerisms and accent with a few minutes’ study. It was how she had turned herself into a shy maid, and then an American heiress, and countless other identities over the years. Garbed in a stable boy’s shirt and trousers, Antonia hadn’t even realized she had slipped into another person’s skin.

“I wasn’t trying to,” she snapped. The carriage jolted around a turn and she slid a few inches across the seat. Antonia stomped her boot to the floor and braced her arm against the side of the coach. Her fingers dug into plush velvet. When they completed the turn, she found her foot trapped between the Duke’s gleaming Hessians. Unbidden, her gaze followed the line of his long leg up to the knee where black leather became buff trousers. Thick thighs a few inches apart from one another invited her to look where no lady’s eyes should wander—

But then, Antonia had never been a lady.

Her cheeks burned as she contemplated what she had almost done. Though the sky had lightened with portending dawn, it was not yet light enough for Havencrest to see it. She composed herself with a sharp inhale and removed her foot from between his calves as if her leg had been caught in a steel trap.

“If I help you, I want money,” she said carefully. “I am the best jewel thief on two continents, and the best don’t work cheap.” Antonia’s natural language was blunt and mercenary. She sat straight and unyielding in her seat.

“Done.” Havencrest’s lips twisted into a ghost of a smile. It might have made him handsome if not for the self-satisfied arrogance. Antonia read disdain in his face for matters involving coin. It was a luxury she had never had an opportunity to enjoy. She was looking forward to the experience, though, just as soon as she fleeced him out of every farthing she could get. The Duke of Havencrest would have empty pockets by the time she was done with him, Antonia vowed.

“Oh, no, we aren’t done,” she declared with false sweetness that made the span between his eyebrows pucker. “I haven’t told you how much I want.”

“Name your price.”

“A hundred thousand pounds.”

Havencrest gaped at her for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed. Damn the man for possessing the kind of rich laugh that could make a woman’s knees weak and her heart beat faster, if Antonia had been inclined to emotions of any kind. It was bad enough how the organ in her chest skipped a beat at the sound.

This man had everything. He wanted her to risk her life over a few ounces of metal and fancy rocks, when she had nothing. No family. No country. No friends that she hadn’t lied to from the first moment she said the words, “My name is Antonia Lowry.”

How dare he laugh.

“Leave me here at the corner,” she ordered. That cut off his laughter in a hurry. Good. Antonia had underestimated him twice now; she wasn’t making that mistake again. She still had one objective. To disappear. Hang this arrogant aristocrat with his pretty eyes and his obsession with a damn necklace he didn’t need.

“The next time I extend to you an invitation, whether it is to dance, or to attend the opera, or to dine privately with me, you will accept it,” Havencrest growled, and Antonia’s pulse turned thready in response. All she did was lift one eyebrow.

“Alas, I am ever disappointing people,” she sighed in a tone like sugar doused in honey, so sweet as to be unbearable. “If you expect me to maintain my residence with the Evendaws, you’d best leave me off out of sight so I can slip into the house through the stables.”

As though she had any intention of doing so. The instant the coach was out of sight, she would simply go to her hideaway and disappear into London’s underclass. How convenient for Antonia that these toffs couldn’t tell one maid apart from another. There was no valor in a hangman’s noose.

But there was Margaret’s needy friendship to think of. When Margaret found the note she’d left…Antonia sighed. She needed to get into the house and out of these clothes, right now, or risk discovery.

Havencrest tapped the roof and called to his driver to halt. The footmen must be freezing, not that she counted on a duke to mind to his servants’ physical comfort. He eyed her suspiciously as he leaned forward, his forearms on his knees. Given his height, the man dominated the space until Antonia had no room to move away and was forced to sit back against the backrest. He brushed her chin with his thumb.

“You won’t disappoint me, Antonia.”

The gentle touch did strange things to her stomach. It stole her will to protest.

He sat back with a self-satisfied smirk. “Now get out of my carriage, Miss Lowry. You reek of corpse.”

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