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Patricia Barletta
Patricia Barletta
Patricia Barletta
Patricia Barletta

Excerpt: The Duke Who Loved Me

Book 1: On His Majesty's Secret Service Series

Jessica arrived at Madame’s somewhat later than usual. After paying her respects to the woman and receiving her approval, she went to the private room where she would be playing cards. A game was already in progress when she arrived. One chair was empty, its back to the door. She recognized all of the players but one, who was in the chair to her right. Before she had time to speculate on the identity of the man, however, the round ended and her presence was noted. The men stood as she approached the table.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” She smiled as she glanced around at them. She turned to the man to her right to introduce herself. Her smile froze on her face as she recognized the green eyes watching her. She nodded a greeting. “Your Grace,” she murmured.

“Ah, good show!” Lord Patterson exclaimed. “You two children have met.”

“Yes,” Wyndham said. “The lady and I spent a most interesting evening together.”

Jessica did not miss the interested glances that were passed about the table at the Duke’s remark. Not wishing to cause more gossip, she remained silent. To her dismay, Wyndham held her chair, not Lord Hoxly who was to her left. Jessica fumed. Why did the Duke have to be here tonight of all nights? One more evening and she would have been gone for several days. He could have come to Madame’s then. Besides that, he was sitting next to her. Fate was not being fair.

As Jessica waited while the cards were being dealt, she noticed there was a considerable pile of money before His Grace. Did he never lose? Well, tonight, she was ready for him. Tonight, she would win.

Play continued for several hours. Except for an occasional witty or charming remark from the other players at the table, the time seemed to drag on forever for Jessica. The pile of money before her became smaller and smaller, while that before the Duke grew. Becoming desperate, Jessica decided to do something she had never done. She decided to cheat. Her father had taught her how to do this when he had taught her to play cards, only because he wanted her to know when other people were doing it. She had become so proficient at it that even her father had been unable to tell when she had dealt from the bottom of the deck. She doubted that the Duke, who was her only target, would be able to catch her.

It was Jessica’s turn to deal. She held her breath as she dealt the cards around the table. The Duke said nothing. He merely picked up the cards before him. Bets were placed and play went on. Jessica won the hand. The Duke lost.

The turn to deal traveled around the table twice more. Each time she dealt, she won and the Duke lost. She was convinced he did not realize what she was doing. It was so easy. Perhaps she should have tried this before.

It was her turn to deal again. She picked up the cards, shuffled them. Just as she was about to deal them out, a darkly tanned hand snaked out and grabbed her by the wrist. With wide, frightened eyes, she looked up into twin shards of green ice.

“It would seem that the lady is dealing from the bottom of the deck,” the Duke said. His voice was quiet, menacing.

Jessica blinked, but hid the fear that slithered through her. “What are you accusing me of, Your Grace?” she asked innocently.

“I think that is quite evident,” he said. “I believe it is called cheating.”

“How dare you, sir!” she demanded. The only thing to do was to bluff her way out. She jumped up, knocking over her chair in the process. She hoped he would release her wrist, but his grip became even tighter as he remained seated.

“But I do dare, my lady,” he answered, his tone deadly quiet. “You see, I have been watching you. It is only to me that the cards come from the bottom of the deck. Would you care for a demonstration?”

One of the other men at the table cleared his throat and tentatively suggested, “I really don’t think that is necessary, Your Grace.”

The Duke acted as if he had not heard. Never taking his eyes from Jessica’s face, he turned the deck of cards face‑up and began to recite each card as he took it from the top of the pile. “Four of hearts. Seven of spades. Jack of spades. Trey of diamonds. Shall I go on?”

Jessica’s eyes closed and she felt the blood drain from her face. Suddenly, he was on his feet. He seemed to tower over her.

“If you were a man, I would demand satisfaction with weapons tomorrow at dawn,” he told her roughly. “But since you are a woman, there will have to be another way.” He paused for a moment, then his voice became silky. “I believe I have just the solution.” One arm went about her waist and pulled her close against his unyielding body. He forced her head back with a thumb under her chin as if he meant to kiss her. “Perhaps Madame would not be pleased to discover that one of her patrons has been cheating in her house.”

Jessica’s eyes widened in fright. “No, please!” she gasped.

“Then you will have to convince me otherwise,” he said coldly.

Lord Hoxly leapt to his feet. “This has gone far enough, Your Grace,” he said stiffly. “I demand that you leave the lady alone.”

The Duke’s chilling glance fell on the man. “You demand, sir?”

“Yes.” Lord Hoxly stood tall. “If you require satisfaction from this young lady, I will gladly stand for her.”

Jessica glanced from one man to the other in uncertainty. She was relieved that someone at the table saw fit to protect her from the rogue who held her, but she did not wish anyone harmed because of her. Before she could gather her wits enough to speak, she saw the Duke’s eyes narrow dangerously.

“This does not concern you, Hoxly, nor any of the other gentlemen present. If you value your life, I would suggest you remain silent. You know I do not speak idly if I tell you that I will call out every man at this table if there is a hint of rumor concerning this night. The insult was to me and me alone, and the satisfaction I demand will come only from this lady. I presume I make myself clear, gentlemen?” His glance swept around the table.

The men either nodded or lowered their eyes. Even Lord Hoxly sank back into his chair.

The Duke turned back to Jessica. His thumb casually caressed her cheek as he murmured, “Remember, my sweet, persuade me.” He released her without warning and strode from the room.

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