The american heir a jet.., p.3
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       The American Heir: A Jet City Billionaire Romance, p.3

           Gina Robinson
 
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  At the sound of her voice, I almost cried. I missed her, obviously, but I hadn't realized just how much.

  "What?" I was momentarily caught off guard by her flippancy.

  "Oops! Obviously not, I guess." She laughed. "I hope I didn't spoil the surprise. If he bought it for a mistress, I'm going to kill him myself."

  "Since when did his underwear-buying habits become public?" I bit my lip.

  "Since he became a duke and a billionaire. It's all over the entertainment news." She laughed again. "So is it true? Are you wearing diamond underwear right now?"

  "Not exactly. Though I can confirm I'm in possession of a jewel-encrusted lingerie set." I paused, hoping that the underwear was all that had been in the American press and that social media hadn't picked up the British story. Poor Riggins. It was hard to keep a surprise secret.

  How much had someone been paid for the diamond underwear story? At least Rose wasn't the prime suspect this time. "Has anything else about us been in the news?"

  "No." There was a suspicious frown in her voice. "Is there something I should know?"

  "I'm pregnant," I blurted inelegantly. "Half of England already knows. Don't blame me. Rose sold the story."

  Before Sid could either squeal with delight or chastise me, the whole story tumbled out. Everything. Clara's letter to the Dead Duke and all its contents. Riggins walking in. The bruised roses. The bra and panties in the box. I seemed unable to stop myself.

  To Sid's credit, she didn't interrupt.

  "Wow," she said when I finished. "That's all I've got. I'm thrilled for you. I'm going to be an auntie!" She laughed, genuinely psyched and happy sounding. "Way to go, sis!"

  "Didn't you hear the part about Riggins being very angry with me? To the point of livid."

  She laughed again. "What does he matter? It's all immaterial now. He can't divorce you, even if he wants to, without losing Flashionista and everything he's worked for. At least not until little baby heir is born.

  "I can't tell you how proud I am! You finally listened to little sis, got knocked up, and now your future is secure." She was teasing. At least partially.

  "Yeah, that's the problem." I sighed. "That's what Riggins thinks—that I trapped him into fatherhood."

  "Well, he trapped you into marriage. So there's that."

  "No, the Dead Duke trapped us both."

  She ignored that fact. "Riggins will come around. Especially once he sees the adorable baby you're going to pop out. The two of you are such a gorgeous couple—how could your baby be anything short of adorable?"

  I shook my head. She was trying to cheer me up. And it was working, to a degree. "I hope you're right. But it could be a long seven and a half months until the baby's born."

  "Not so long. You have that diamond fantasy bra to keep you company. And if worse comes to worst, you can always hock it."

  "What if Riggins goes AWOL on me?" My heart broke at the thought.

  "Disappear from Flash and a dukedom? It's not likely, is it?"

  "My baby sis, the eternal optimist!" I could almost hear her smile. "The thing is—I don't know how I got pregnant—"

  "If you don't know that yet, Hale, I can't help you. Do I have to explain the birds and the bees to you? When you and Riggins get naked together and he puts his—"

  "Shut up!" I smiled softly.

  Sid! She really did cheer me up.

  "I should have been clearer. I have no idea how my birth control failed. I was so faithful…"

  And then it hit me—given his mastery of manipulating lives, would the Dead Duke leave something as important as his heir's conception to chance? Wasn't that the main point of this entire adventure? If he'd manipulated everything as I suspected, why wouldn't he have done everything he could to make sure I got pregnant? Especially if he'd known, as I was sure he had, that Riggins didn't want to father an heir.

  "Hale? Are you still there?" Sid's voice brought me back to the present.

  I filed my suspicions away and turned my thoughts to more pleasant topics, the real thing I was excited about in all this drama.

  "Sid, hang on. I'm going to text you Clara's letter so you can read it for yourself later." I quickly did so. "You know what this all means?" I said in a rush of excitement. "I think the Dead Duke has been watching us and manipulating our lives for even longer than we imagined."

  My voice rose with enthusiasm as I told her my latest theory. "Sid, I think my great-grandfather arranged your adoption. That your father is British and somehow connected to the Dead Duke, at least peripherally."

  I detailed my theory. "He didn't do anything that wasn't intentional. I'm guessing he was helping someone out. If I'm right, someone at the castle or in the village might know something about it. I think the Dead Duke is leaving me breadcrumbs."

  I could almost see Sid's ears perk up. I wished we'd been FaceTiming.

  "Wow. That's a great theory." She paused. "You're thinking we're both somehow connected to Witham House?" There was excitement in her voice at the thought. She laughed again. "Maybe I'm the Dead Duke's bastard child. And the one true heir."

  "It's not impossible," I said, running with the gag.

  But it was preposterous. If she'd been the Dead Duke's child, I was pretty sure Rans would have arranged for her to marry Riggins, not me. A child trumped a great-granddaughter any day.

  I looked upward, thinking and doing a little math in my head. "If that's true, we're related by blood! And that would make you not my half-sister." I concentrated. "My grandma?"

  We both laughed because it was so ludicrous. Or was it? We spent a good half-hour trying to figure out what our relationship would be if Rans had sired her. Talking with my fun-loving sister, I almost forgot my problems with Riggins.

  "Should I start calling you Granny?" I said to Sid.

  "Don't you dare! Let me at least turn twenty-one and go on my bar run before you age me like that. Grannies have to act semi-respectably and sedate, and I'm not ready for that."

  I sighed. "You have to come to England, Sid. I need you here. Together we'll play sleuth and find your sibling."

  "I can't," she said sadly. "Not until the quarter's over at school. End of June, Hale. But we'll talk every night and bounce conspiracy theories off each other, evaluate suspects, and scheme. In the meantime, you have some investigative legwork to do."

  "Yes," I agreed. "Where do I start?"

  "Make a list of everyone who was at the estate the year I was born. Everyone who worked there, even as a contractor or deliveryman or newspaper boy.

  "Talk to Mr. Thorne. He's been the Dead Duke's solicitor for years. It's possible he knows something that he doesn't know he knows. Go to the village. Chat up the longtime residents. Gain their confidence. Get them talking about old times. Listen with enthusiasm. Espouse your love of learning all of the village's past.

  "Use your capacity as the duchess for good, sis! My good. Call on your subjects and get the scoop."

  "Did anyone ever tell you you're brilliant?" I beamed with pride for her. Too bad she couldn't see it.

  "I don't know about that. Someone definitely needs to inform my profs."

  "Brilliant sis, font of all wisdom, I need one more piece of advice. In the meantime, how do I deal with Riggins?"

  "You're asking me for advice on men?" She sounded amused and pleased.

  "You have more experience than I do," I said, honestly.

  "You have to ask?" Her tone was wry. "This is a no-brainer. You kill him with kindness. Adore him. Go on as if he wants this baby as much as you do. Make him fall in love with the baby. Get his paternal instincts to kick in. You act the part of happy duchess and get the staff and public opinion on your side. Make it impossible for him to stay mad."

  "Easier said than done." I sighed.

  "Catching a fly has never been easy."

  Our conversation wound down. I yawned, suddenly tired. This pregnancy wore me out at the most inconvenient times. "It's late here. I should go." Not that I would be ab
le to sleep peacefully.

  "Before you do. Promise you'll text a picture of you wearing that diamond bra and tell me how it feels. I can't even imagine…"

  Riggins

  Breakfast was laid out for us in the dining room like we were royalty. And expecting a large crowd. Warming trays of fat English sausages, bins of stewed tomatoes, toast racks full of toast that cooled too quickly. The excess. The waste. As I filled a plate, I made a note to talk to the staff and ask that it be scaled down when it was just Haley and me. A bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee were all I needed. Speaking of coffee, where the hell was it?

  I poured myself a cup of the family blend of tea that Haley seemed to prefer and made a note to ask for coffee to be put out on the sideboard with breakfast.

  The assistant chef who made breakfast came in with another warming pan of something. Eggs, I thought.

  I caught her attention. "Do we have any coffee?"

  "Sorry, sir." She looked properly apologetic and just a bit harried. "I'll get you some. I didn't know you'd be returning until I got in this morning. And then with the preparations for this afternoon…" She set the buffet pan over the warming flame. "The duchess prefers tea."

  Yes, during my short absence the duchess had made herself completely at home and taken over the estate rather thoroughly. Tea! Traitor. And this was the buffet that was set out for one person? I didn't give a damn that she was eating for two; this was still too much food.

  I held my temper. "Thank you. I should have brought some back with me from Seattle." I had connections and friends at Seattle's premier coffee company.

  "I prefer a nice, dark Kenyan roast. Order some fresh. Overnight it if you have to." I rattled off a list of the coffees I wanted. "Whole bean, not ground." I shuddered at the thought. Ground coffee lost its flavor and went stale too quickly. "And if you don't mind, set up the grinder and pour-over gear in the buffet here, along with a pot of hot water or one of the coffee machines I bought.

  "I'll make my own coffee fresh. I prefer it that way." I smiled at her. "Sorry to be such a coffee snob. I can't help it. Being from Seattle, I was raised on the stuff." I paused. "I suppose the Italians are worse."

  She grinned, mollified—I hoped, anyway—and went about her business before bustling out of the room.

  I frowned. Last night had been hell. I was bleary-eyed, tired, needed coffee full of caffeine, not tepid tea, and only slightly calmer than I'd been last night.

  Haley strolled in just then looking lovely and irritatingly fresh. My heart flipped over, treacherously joyous at the sight of her. The pregnancy had only begun to show, and was only noticeable if you looked closely enough and knew the intimate curves of her body the way I did. Her slender waist had grown thicker and her breasts lusher. There were hints of circles beneath her eyes that she'd carefully covered with concealer.

  She smiled when she saw me, as if nothing ugly had happened between us last night.

  What is her game? I scowled and turned away.

  She caught my arm and kissed my cheek when she couldn't capture my mouth. "If it isn't my handsome duke! How did you sleep last night, darling?"

  Darling? Now she was just baiting me.

  When I answered with a glare, she looped her arm through mine and snagged a piece of dry toast off my plate. "Lovely of you to share. I need my nourishment. We have a big day ahead of us. Speaking of which, I hope your calendar is clear. We have a doctor appointment at eleven in the village. Dr. Turner has graciously squeezed us in on a moment's notice."

  Her grin was lopsided and confident as she whispered, "The perks of being the duchess."

  I stared at her in disbelief. "Dr. Turner?"

  She smiled sweetly. "He delivers babies, duke. We need official confirmation before our official announcement in the gardens at four."

  "What?"

  She waved a hand breezily. "No need to worry. I've got it all handled. I contacted the press and made an appointment at the salon in the village to get my hair and nails done. There's an adorable little dress shop I'll need to pop into. You can come with!"

  I regarded her with stony silence.

  "Sorry, but this isn't the time to wear something from Flash. Not even by a British designer. Rumor has it that the shop owners in the village are feeling threatened by the thought of you taking Flash into the UK. Brick-and-mortar stores are already feeling the pinch from online buying. They're afraid of what a fashion flash sale site like Flash could do to their livings."

  I was stunned and surprised by the thought. I should have been pleased by how savvy my duchess was.

  "I think wearing something by a British designer purchased in a local shop is best for the occasion of announcing our first attempt at an heir. The gesture will go a long way to showing our support for the local economy, building goodwill, and allaying fears."

  Gibson came in, interrupting before I could respond. He smiled when he saw us whispering to each other. I gathered he preferred domestic tranquility to the nasty, cold alternative. "Is everything satisfactory, sir? Madam?"

  "Perfect, Gibson," Haley answered for us.

  I said in her ear, "We need to talk. In private."

  "Yes, of course." She was still smiling. "Your office? After we finish our breakfast."

  She took another bite of toast. "I hope you have something dashing to wear to the announcement this afternoon. Something that photographs well. Ask Gibson for help." She winked at him. "I'm sure he'll have an opinion."

  She squeezed my arm, grabbed the last slice of toast off my plate, and walked off, leaving me to stew like the horrible tomatoes the Brits insisted on serving for breakfast. Give me some American pancakes and Vermont maple syrup, damn it.

  Chapter 4

  Haley

  Hearts can break in too many painful, shattering ways. As I waited for Riggins to show up for our after-breakfast confrontation, I was hanging on to the ragged edges of mine. It turns out that killing someone with kindness is not as easy as it sounds. Not when your own heart is under constant assault.

  I wanted Riggins to want me. I needed him to need me and this baby. And to realize there were worse things in life than having a woman who happily carried his child.

  I sat in the Dead Duke's chair—maybe I should start referring to him as Grandpa—sipping my morning Duke of Witham tea as I stared at the picture of him and Helen on the wall opposite the desk. My great-grandparents, I realized with a start. The reality was still sinking in, slowly.

  By all rights, I should have grown up with this inheritance. I should have sat on the Dead Duke's knee as a child. Pulled his long gray beard. Did he have a long gray beard in old age? Played with his glasses. Ran wild through the maze and gardens. Explored the turrets and towers. Played scary hide and seek in the Ghost Tower. Been as familiar with this place as any grandchild should be. Have known my family legacy instead of being a stranger to it.

  If only Helen had told Rans about Gloria. If only she hadn't let pride stop her. Or shame. Or love. That was what Clara claimed, that Helen hadn't wanted to marry Rans unless he loved her. And that she didn't want to trap him into marriage with a child. Well, that part was implied, anyway.

  And here I was, holding Riggins to me with a child. Not by choice. But Helen hadn't really had much of a choice either. Still, which one of us was in the right in the end—me or her? Had she been right to consider her barren sister's happiness and her own over the legacy her child deserved?

  Or was I in the right, fighting for my child to have its birthright and carry on a family tradition that I thought was worth saving? Was I right to fight for a man I loved using any method possible, underhanded if necessary, including a child I hadn't meant to conceive? Or had she been right to set her man free and absolve him of any obligation and any choice in the matter? Had he had the right to know about his own baby?

  Speaking of that baby, some things made sense now. All those miscarriages Helen had? The result of the Rh factor problem between her and Rans. The first baby wasn
't affected and was healthy, as Gloria was. It was after that, with subsequent pregnancies, that the mother's body attacked the growing fetus as if it was an infection or disease. Rans and Helen had been fortunate, indeed, to have one subsequent birth that went to full term and lived for almost a year. If I had to guess, that child had an undetected heart defect of some kind. That was the usual problem.

  My own mom would have said you play the hand fate deals you. You play it not knowing what cards life holds. And you do your best with it. No second-guessing. No Monday morning quarterbacking. Full speed. Full throttle, making your way to your destiny.

  I could almost hear her telling me this again. See her face soften with love as she encouraged me. Thinking of her had given me the courage to overcome my fear of the unknown British healthcare system and call the village obstetrician for an appointment.

  There was no need for secrecy from the village now. Riggins would have to face this. And I would have to face a healthcare system I was unfamiliar with. And a press I wanted to shy away from. I'd have to live a public life until I was old enough and eccentric enough to be the old duchess.

  "So, Helen, we're each doing our best," I said to the photo of my great-grandparents. It felt good to say it aloud.

  Even though she continued in her duke's passionate embrace, I felt she approved. And so did he. I put my hand protectively on my abdomen, praying for a boy, as so many newly married duchesses had before me.

  I started as the office door opened and Riggins strolled in. His face was set and hard. All business. Even etched with anger, he was so handsome he made my heart squeeze, shackled in the bonds of the love I felt for him.

  I was sitting in the duke's chair, but I had no intention of giving up the power position and offering it to him. As far as I was concerned, this place was as much rightfully mine as his. If princesses could now ascend the throne, it was high time the female line should have rights to a dukedom. My great-grandfather, that ancient introverted hermit, had handed me this opportunity. I wasn't handing it back to anyone. Least of all a distant relation that didn't want what he'd been given.

 
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