If the viscount falls, p.1

If the Viscount Falls, page 1

 

If the Viscount Falls
 



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If the Viscount Falls


  “ANYONE WHO LOVES ROMANCE MUST READ SABRINA JEFFRIES!”

  —New York Times bestselling author Lisa Kleypas

  “JEFFRIES’S ADDICTIVE SERIES SATISFIES.”

  —Library Journal

  Praise for the Duke’s Men novels from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author SABRINA JEFFRIES

  HOW THE SCOUNDREL SEDUCES

  “A winner. . . . The setting is vivid, the lovers are well-drawn and colorful, and the mystery is intriguing.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Marvelous storytelling . . . destined to steal readers’ hearts. . . . A memorable romance.”

  —RT Book Reviews (4½ stars, Top Pick, K.I.S.S. Award)

  “Scorching. . . . From cover to cover, How the Scoundrel Seduces sizzles.”

  —Reader to Reader

  WHEN THE ROGUE RETURNS

  “For lovers of romantic fiction, Sabrina Jeffries has a gift for you. . . . [This] story . . . will leave you hungering for more adventures from the Duke’s Men.”

  —NovelsAliveTV

  WHAT THE DUKE DESIRES

  “A totally engaging, adventurous love story . . . with a strong plot, steamy desire, and an oh-so-wonderful ending.”

  —RT Book Reviews

  “This unusual tale of interlocking mysteries is full of all the intriguing characters, brisk plotting, and witty dialogue that Jeffries’s readers have come to expect.”

  —Publishers Weekly, starred review

  “Another sparkling series” (Library Journal) from Sabrina Jeffries—read all of the “exceptionally entertaining” (Booklist) novels of the HELLIONS OF HALSTEAD HALL

  A LADY NEVER SURRENDERS

  “Jeffries pulls out all the stops. . . . Not to be missed.”

  —RT Book Reviews (4½ stars, Top Pick)

  “Sizzling, emotionally satisfying. . . . Another must-read.”

  —Library Journal (starred review)

  “Superbly shaded characters, simmering sensuality, and a splendidly wicked wit . . . A Lady Never Surrenders wraps up the series nothing short of brilliantly.”

  —Booklist

  TO WED A WILD LORD

  “Wonderfully witty, deliciously seductive, graced with humor and charm.”

  —Library Journal (starred review)

  “A beguiling blend of captivating characters, clever plotting, and sizzling sensuality.”

  —Booklist

  HOW TO WOO A RELUCTANT LADY

  “A delightful addition. . . . Charmingly original.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “Steamy passion, dangerous intrigue, and just the right amount of tart wit.”

  —Booklist

  A HELLION IN HER BED

  “Jeffries’s sense of humor and delightfully delicious sensuality spice things up!”

  —RT Book Reviews (4½ stars)

  THE TRUTH ABOUT LORD STONEVILLE

  “Jeffries combines her hallmark humor, poignancy, and sensuality to perfection.”

  —RT Book Reviews (4½ stars, Top Pick)

  “Delectably witty dialogue . . . and scorching sexual chemistry.”

  —Booklist

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  For my husband, Rene, whose support for my writing has stayed steady throughout our thirty years of marriage.

  And for my sweet son, Nicholas, whose autism prevents him from reading this but who is always in my heart.

  I love you both so much!

  PROLOGUE

  London

  February 1817

  DOMINICK MANTON HAD never expected to spend his twentieth birthday peering covertly through open terrace doors into the Earl of Blakeborough’s ballroom. But he had to find Jane Vernon, his fiancée, before some footman ousted him.

  She pirouetted into his line of sight, and his breath settled like a lead weight in his chest. In her pearly gown, she shone so brightly under the candles that she fairly blinded him. Her pert freckled nose, her full red mouth, her wild auburn curls were all so essentially Jane. And now completely out of his reach.

  Blast it, he couldn’t even dance with her. Instead, she was partnered with Edwin Barlow, heir to the earl and a good friend of her family’s. The man was as remote as ever, and Jane was trying to soften his melancholy by being animated and vibrant and . . .

  Young. So very young. Only seventeen. She’d be eighteen soon, but the two years between her and Dom felt like ten, now that he’d lost everything.

  His vision of Jane was suddenly blocked by a blond, curvier version of her: Miss Nancy Sadler, Jane’s cousin on her mother’s side.

  “Mr. Manton?” she whispered as she peeked through the French doors onto the terrace. “Is that really you? Why aren’t you inside?”

  He backed up to allow Nancy to join him. “I wasn’t invited.”

  “Whyever not?”

  He eyed the wealthy merchant’s daughter askance. “Because society can’t abide the sight of disinherited, disgraced second sons with no respectable future.”

  She winced. “Oh. Right. So how did you get in?”

  “Scaled the back fence.” He gazed inside to where Jane and Edwin had finished the dance and were joining Samuel Barlow, Edwin’s younger brother. “I need to speak to Jane alone. She keeps refusing to meet with me.”

  “What do you expect? At your last meeting you tried to convince her to jilt you. She’s afraid that at your next one you’ll end the engagement yourself.”

  “Nonsense. She has to end it. If I cry off, it will look bad for her.”

  One peculiarity of good society was that a woman could end a betrothal without suffering too badly. But not the reverse. People would always assume the woman had done something awful to cause the rift. He didn’t want Jane’s reputation besmirched.

  “Can you get her to talk to me privately?” Dom asked. “This terrace connects to the library. I could meet her there.”

  If anyone could coax Jane to do anything, it was Nancy. Her father was Jane’s uncle and had been Jane’s guardian since Jane was orphaned, so the two girls had grown up together. And Mr. Sadler wanted to see the engagement broken as much as Dom, though neither could convince Jane of it.

  A secret part of Dom exulted in that. But the part of him that knew what lay before him in the coming years despaired.

  Nancy gave a girlish shake of her head. “I could probably trick her into going into the library, but you won’t get her to throw you over. Jane loves you.”

  As much as a girl her age could, anyway. Except for the accidental drowning of her parents when Jane was eight, she’d led a sheltered life. The Sadlers gave her whatever she wanted, and she loved them deeply. Unlike Dom’s parents, the couple had a true love match, so Jane saw marriage as an idyll.

  Meanwhile, he was heading into hell—a long stretch of uncertainty and hard work and poverty. How could her love for him survive that?

  Nancy shot him a petulant look. “I thought you loved Jane, too.”

  He stiffened. Of course he loved her, had loved her from the moment they’d met in a bookshop. While unconsciously humming the first few bars of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, he’d been jarred from his book by someone on the other
side of the bookcase humming the next few bars.

  It had proved to be Jane, taking respite from the endless rounds of parties and balls that constituted her debut. Until that moment, he’d never encountered anyone with his memory for music. Or his avid interest in symphonies. Or his penchant for humming while reading. He’d never come across a soul who liked both books and people. At once, she fascinated him.

  From there, he’d courted the baron’s daughter through a succession of musicales, operas, and even the occasional ball. Though the foolish woman preferred Beethoven to Mozart, he easily forgave that because she overlooked so many of his own flaws. She didn’t seem to care that his dancing was more precise than heartfelt, that his exacting memory for music and conversation was downright freakish, or even that his prospects were limited.

  Clearly, the woman was as daft as she was lovely. Which, of course, meant he’d wanted to marry her. Still did.

  “It doesn’t matter what I feel for Jane,” he said dully. “Or even what she feels for me. She deserves someone like Blakeborough’s heir, who can give her a decent future.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. She’s never once thought of Edwin romantically. He’s much too gruff for Jane’s taste. And unlike me, Jane would prefer a barrister to a—” Nancy broke off with a groan. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”

  “That I no longer have a future as a barrister?” he said bitterly. “Jane may not crave an earl’s son, but she sure as blazes doesn’t want a Bow Street runner for a husband.”

  With a peevish look, Nancy said, “I don’t understand why you had to go off and take a position doing something so low. Why not live on credit until your brother relents and gives you back your allowance?”

  Dom stifled an oath. As usual, Nancy saw the world through rainbows. “George will never relent.”

  “Perhaps he would if you reasoned with him.” She gestured across the ballroom, and Dom spotted his elder brother standing among his cronies. “It’s him you should talk to privately. I don’t know exactly what happened between you, but—”

  “No, you don’t,” he clipped out. “Jane does, and that’s enough.” Well, most of it, anyway. There were certain aspects he dared not tell even her.

  “She says that George behaved badly,” Nancy persisted. “So if you would just explain to people what he did, perhaps everyone wouldn’t be suggesting all these awful things you did to cause your falling-out.”

  His fingers curled into fists. “Like what?”

  She colored. “I don’t know—that you were too friendly with your late father’s . . . mistress and by-blows. That George didn’t approve, so your father refused to give you an inheritance.”

  That was bad, but not as damaging as the truth. Father had added a codicil to his will on his deathbed in the presence of George and their half brother, Tristan Bonnaud. George had been so angry over it, he’d burned the thing the moment Father perished. And Tristan had been so angry over that that he’d stolen the horse left to him in the codicil.

  Then Dom had found himself in the unenviable position of having to protect Tristan from George’s attempt to have him hanged. George had made Dom choose: Give Tristan over or lose everything.

  It had been no choice at all. Dom would do it again, except that in losing everything he had essentially lost Jane, too. And not even revealing the truth publicly would change that.

  Because while Dom couldn’t prove the burning of the codicil, George could damned well prove the horse theft. The arse had kept quiet about it so far, but if Dom broke his silence, George would surely retaliate by hinting that Dom was somehow involved. Then Dom’s benefactor, Jackson Pinter, would have no choice but to dismiss Dom from the post as Bow Street runner that the man had generously offered. And Dom would not only lack money, he’d lack a means of earning any.

  So he was stuck with the gossip, stuck with his lowered station, stuck with no future. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. Except make sure that Jane wasn’t equally stuck.

  He’d already suffered much because Father and George had neglected to do what was right. He refused to be like them. “It’s precisely because of the gossip that Jane must break with me. She’ll be seen as sensible. And I won’t be any worse off than I already am.”

  “Perhaps if you just gave yourself time to get on your feet. You couldn’t marry Jane right now even if you wanted to,” Nancy reminded him. “Papa already said you had to wait until she comes of age. And by then—”

  “By then, I will still be nobody, damn it!”

  Nancy blinked.

  Good God, his new life was already changing him; a gentleman never cursed in front of a lady.

  “Forgive me,” he went on, “but clearly you don’t understand what my future holds. In four months as a runner, I’ve earned a mere twenty pounds.”

  She gasped. Twenty pounds was probably two weeks’ pin money for her.

  “Sixty pounds a year will barely support me,” he went on, “much less a wife and a family.”

  “But with Jane’s dowry—”

  “By the terms of her father’s will, if she marries anyone other than a gentleman of means before she turns thirty-five, the money goes to some cousin of hers. Only after thirty-five can she access her fortune without restriction.”

  “You’re a gentlem—” Nancy caught herself. “Well, you were born and bred a gentleman of means, anyway. Besides, Jane’s father set up that will to protect her from fortune hunters.”

  “In society’s eyes, I am a fortune hunter. I have nothing to offer an heiress and everything to gain from one.”

  A troubled look crossed Nancy’s face. “Papa knows better.”

  “It doesn’t matter. He already made it clear that his hands are tied by the terms of the will. So if I marry her now, she loses her fortune. My measly income will scarcely enable us to survive. And that’s assuming I succeed in my new profession, which is by no means certain. Even if I do, I’ll never be able to afford servants or a carriage or any of the comforts she’s accustomed to.”

  His voice turned grim. “There will be no opera performances for her to attend, no concerts, no pianoforte for her to play.” Oddly enough, that was what he missed most about his former life—the ease with which he could hear excellent music. Now he was reduced to drinking up the strains of whatever spilled out into the street from the drawing rooms of Mayfair.

  Nancy chewed on her lower lip. “Jane does enjoy her sonatas.”

  “And her waltzes and reels. If she marries me, there will be no dancing. She won’t be able to attend balls. She’ll have to leave society entirely.”

  “How dreadful!” Nancy cast a worried glance through the open doors into the ballroom. “But she could come to parties at our house.”

  “To be shunned by her friends? Do you really think your parents would invite a runner’s wife and risk the gossip? Would you happily chat with Jane in front of your suitors, knowing that being seen with her would damage your own marriage prospects?”

  Given how she blanched, that hadn’t occurred to her. “Well, I-I . . . don’t know . . .”

  “That’s assuming she’d have time to visit you,” he said coldly, pressing his case. If he could persuade Nancy, she might persuade Jane. “With no servants, Jane would have to keep house for us, something she’s never done a day in her life.”

  “Dear me, that’s true. Although she has—”

  “I’ll be gone for days on end doing investigations, while she is banished from good society and left alone in my one-room lodgings in Spitalfields.” The thought of his fair Jane forced to live in that slum chilled his heart. “And what if I’m killed in the pursuit of some criminal?”

  “Heavens, is your work really so very dangerous?”

  “More than you think.” More than he’d expected, too. “And if I died, she’d be left alone, impoverished and exiled, with no one
to turn to.”

  “She would hate that.” Nancy looked downcast. “All the same, I would never abandon Jane.”

  “Wouldn’t you? What if your future husband didn’t wish you to take in your poor relation? What if your father was dead? We can’t predict what might happen.”

  “Stop it! You’re making it all sound so awful!”

  “Because it is.” He fixed her with a sharp stare. “Nothing lies before me but years of clawing my way up into a position where I can afford a wife.”

  “Oh, Dom,” she moaned.

  “If she waits until I’m financially secure enough to marry her, she’ll be waiting a long time. And if I fail to succeed, she’ll have sacrificed her youth for naught.”

  He gazed past her to where Edwin Barlow was saying something that made Jane smile. Dom fought the irrational urge to march over and punch Blakeborough’s heir in the nose. “But if she jilts me, the whole world is before her. Her dowry is enough to tempt any gentleman, and her amiable character and her sweetness and her—”

  God, how could he stand the thought of losing her to another?

  He gritted his teeth. Better that than to watch her become beaten down through years of hard living and worry for him. Or worse, watching her grow to hate him for tearing her away from everything she held dear. Watching their hard life snuff the light from her eyes, drain the animation from her face . . .

  No, he must give her up while he still could, while she was young enough to find someone new. It was the only way.

  “Don’t you see? She should marry someone like Blakeborough’s heir, a man with a future. Or even his brother. Barlow is a midshipman in the navy, isn’t he?”

  “Yes.” Nancy’s gaze flicked admiringly over Samuel Barlow’s uniform. “But she won’t marry him, either. She won’t give you up, and not just because she loves you. She already told me she would find it dishonorable to abandon you simply because you’ve fallen on hard times. It would go against her principles.”

  He was quite familiar with Jane’s principles, which mirrored his own. But hers hadn’t been forged in the cruel fires of experience. His had. “There must be a way to convince her.”

 
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