The american heir a jet.., p.9
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       The American Heir: A Jet City Billionaire Romance, p.9

           Gina Robinson
 
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  "So you've come to put me in my place?" she said when I finished.

  "I came to make my position, our relative positions, clear."

  Her nostrils flared slightly. "If that's all—"

  "That's not all," I said. "I require some penance on your part. Some restitution for all the trouble you've caused me. And if you're very good, I'll keep you in my inner circle and not ruin you. Invite you to all my parties. Introduce you to the right people. Basically, help you keep your celebrity circle and reputation up."

  Her eyes narrowed. "What do you want?"

  I paused, wanting her to feel my wrath, using my position of power to its full advantage. I wanted her to squirm. Not out of revenge, but because a person with Rose's personality needed to know unequivocally that I was boss and couldn't be pushed around or easily sucker-punched again. If I didn't flex my muscles now, she'd never respect me or stick to her part of the agreement.

  "Information," I said slowly, meeting her gaze with a steely one of my own. "Double-cross me or go back on your word and you'll regret it."

  Her answering gaze held a hint of respect. She expected a threat.

  I paused again until she gave me a small nod of acquiescence.

  I nodded back just perceptibly enough for her to see. "You grew up here. What do you know about our gamekeeper Bird, his late wife, and son? I want to know everything. And what you don't know, I want you to find out for me. Discreetly."

  She laughed and clapped, clearly delighted. "Darling, Haley! I do believe you and I are going to get on." She paused. "What a delicious assignment. Where do I start?"

  Riggins

  Thorne was his usual jolly self when I met with him at his London office. Which was to say he was in his standard staid mode. It was raining in London. One of those days that reminded me of Seattle and made me homesick. But I had the feeling I was going to be trapped spending most of my time in England until I could convince Haley to come home with me. Damn that Dead Duke.

  Even though I'd suspected it since the DNA test, I was still reeling from the revelation that Haley was, indeed, his full-blood great-granddaughter. Because of that one revelation, the Dead Duke's mania about his heir and an ancestor of Helen's continuing his dynasty made complete sense. He wasn't handing his legacy to a complete stranger. He was handing it to his bloodline.

  I was furious about the situation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was the pawn in this whole grand scheme. It wasn't me who mattered, but Haley. She had to become duchess for his line to continue. I was just a means to an end.

  Worse yet, I might never be able to pry her out of that damn castle. Then there was my inheritor guilt, if that was what you'd call it. Like survivor guilt. Why the hell should I inherit what rightfully belonged to her?

  I had an obligation to do right by her now. And that damned obligation made any gesture I made, any action I took, look like exactly that, obligation, not love. And I was definitely in love with her. I couldn't even stay mad enough at her to stay away from her. She was constantly on my mind, invading my thoughts, making me burn with desire, filled with longing to laugh with her and share the intimacies of life.

  What kind of douche would I be now if I cut her out of the estate? And yet there was no way to give it to her. And no way to stay married to her and divest myself of it. Now who was a prisoner of that cursed castle?

  Then there was the baby to consider. I'd mentally been cursing the Dead Duke since Haley told me. He'd made damn sure I was never extricating myself from the almost royal mess he'd dropped me in.

  "Congratulations, Your Grace," Thorne said, bringing me back from my thoughts to reality. "Tea?"

  I shook my head. I was damned tired of tea. Why did no one ever offer coffee? "No, thanks."

  "You must be overjoyed with the news." He smiled steadily at me, his mild expression completely in character.

  He should be jumping for joy. He was successfully executing the Dead Duke's plan. If this child were a boy, no doubt Thorne would soon be getting some kind of performance bonus.

  Hell, I deserved the performance bonus. I was the stud material here, and I meant that in a purely breeding way. I felt used. Like a horse put out to stud. Like a fool.

  I resisted scowling at Thorne, trying to keep my anger and frustration to myself. "I'm hoping like hell it's a boy, if that's what you're referring to." I didn't want to give my true sentiments away.

  "We all are, sir." He smiled wryly. "Then we can divest ourselves of the cumbersome requirements of the late duke's will."

  "And your duties to play villain?" I grinned sardonically at him.

  He didn't appear surprised at my mood. "You misjudge me, sir. I believe I actually enjoy the villain role. It adds spice and drama to my otherwise rather dull job. I'll miss it when it's over." He winked.

  Okay, I hadn't expected such dry humor from Thorne. I cracked up. I couldn't help it. "You'd have to enjoy villainy to work for the Dead Duke for as long as you have."

  Thorne shook his head and raised an eyebrow, but his eyes twinkled with humor and affection. "The late duke was misunderstood by most. Including you, sir, pardon me for saying. He was a kind and conscientious man at heart. The duchess appears to have a more accurate picture of him and sees him for who he really was." Thorne settled into the sofa across from me.

  He had a comfortable grouping of furniture. Elegant and expensive leather. The Dead Duke had paid, and probably continued to pay, well.

  "Speaking of the duchess—how long have you known she's the Dead Duke's great-granddaughter?" I watched his reaction carefully for any signs of surprise.

  "Is she?" He nodded approvingly. "Well, we suspected as much, didn't we? It makes perfect sense, doesn't it, sir?" He looked like he was telling the truth.

  He crossed his legs and studied me in return. "We both suspected, naturally, that the connection was closer than the story that she was a great-something niece of Helen's. Especially when the DNA test showed she must be directly descended from Helen herself.

  "When I saw the duchess in person, my impression was strengthened. She looks a good deal like Helen. But there's something almost indefinably Feldhem about her. If you knew the Dead Duke as well as I did, you would see it, too."

  "What else do you know or suspect, Thorne? I need to know everything." I rattled off our suspicions about Bird and everything I knew about Bird, China, and Sid. "Is there any chance Sid is Bird's love child?"

  Thorne considered a minute. "Very astute, sir. Of course there's a chance." He hesitated. "I told the duchess I thought her sister was a twin."

  "Yes, I know. She told me." I frowned. "Do you think there's a twin? Could Bird have fathered twins with a Chinese girl and a son with his wife at around the same time? Could we be looking at a buffet of siblings that could match Sid?"

  "It's possible." Thorne didn't look convinced.

  "What other explanation is there? From what I've heard, Bird's son is Caucasian. Sid is a mix."

  Thorne's brow furrowed. "Yes. That's always been a puzzle to me, too."

  Neither of us seemed to have an answer.

  "There's something else I need, Thorne. I need your legal assistance. I'd like to keep you on as my British solicitor with responsibilities for dealing with the castle and all aspects of the dukedom. You know it better than anyone. I hope that won't conflict with your duties as the Dead Duke's executor?"

  "I don't believe so, sir. It's standard for a predecessor's competent solicitor to be kept on by the inheritor."

  "Very good. Your first order of business is my will. If something happens to me, I want the castle and the entire Witham estate to go in its entirety to my oldest surviving child at the time of my death, whether that child is male or female. Enough of this male-centric inheritance bullshit."

  Thorne raised an eyebrow. "Very good, sir."

  I sighed. "Haley will be trustee and oversee it until the child is twenty-five. If I die with no living issue, the estate goes to Haley. In the case
that she predeceases me, it goes to Sid.

  "I'll make generous allowances for any other surviving children from my personal holdings and Flashionista."

  Thorne grabbed a legal pad and pen from a nearby cabinet and took notes. "The oldest male child still inherits the title. A girl can't, not by law."

  I nodded. "Understood. Of course, we're hoping this child is a boy." I laughed without humor. "Haley, naturally, will have her share of the Dead Duke's money to provide for her. My share will go toward maintaining the estate and providing for other children."

  Thorne smiled knowingly, seemingly pleased with himself. "So there will be other children, sir?"

  His question startled me. When I thought about it, I realized it sure sounded like I was planning a family with Haley. "Just covering all possible scenarios and eventualities."

  "Very good." He asked a few more questions and made a few more notes. "I'll draw up the paperwork. Will there be anything else?"

  "As a matter of fact, there is. What would happen to the estate and my title if my father suddenly showed up very much alive?"

  Thorne looked up suddenly. He didn't appear as surprised as I expected he would. But he did look alert and maybe even slightly alarmed. "Your father was declared legally dead."

  Nice evasive action, I thought.

  "That's not the same thing as him really being dead, though, is it?"

  Thorne didn't answer.

  I wasn't accusing him of anything. But I also wouldn't have been surprised if the Dead Duke had gotten my deadbeat dad out of the way, clearing the path for Haley to marry me and become duchess. And that Thorne knew something about it.

  It was just a theory. And maybe a crazy one. But there was no way Haley could have been induced to marry my father. Maybe he did drown after that boat capsized. Maybe he didn't. I wasn't about to go digging into it. But it was a contingency I had to plan for.

  I shifted in my chair, leaning toward Thorne. "His body was never found. Would he have any claim to the title and estate?"

  The ghost I suspected was haunting the tower was very human. I wondered…

  "It's highly unlikely. If he did suddenly appear, it would open up a legal tangle for the title, perhaps." Thorne appeared a little too unconcerned. And slightly wary at the same time. "I wouldn't worry about it, sir. You've been declared the duke and possession of all property was willed to you."

  He paused as if taking time to compose his thoughts. "I would be leery, though, sir, of anyone coming forward trying to extort money from you for any reason regarding your late father. If someone appears purporting to know the whereabouts of your father, or makes any claims to the dukedom, you will let me know? Our firm has experience dealing with inheritance disputes and illywhackers."

  Illywhackers? I hoped he meant con men. Whatever he was talking about, I had the feeling he knew more than he was letting on.

  I nodded. "Of course." I wasn't going to let my suspicions show for the moment either. "Now that that's settled, do you happen to know which British firms handle and manage social media for the high-profile members of the British upper classes? I need someone to manage the duchess' media presence.

  "There are American firms I have managing Flash's image. But I think the duchess could benefit from a British firm who knows the lay of the land here. I have one recommendation from a friend, but I want to be sure I'm getting the very best for the duchess."

  Thorne smiled slowly. "I can connect you with a very reputable firm that's worked for various members of the royal family. Will that do, sir?"

  Chapter 9

  Haley

  "Bird's wife was a fat old cow," Rose said with a laugh. "No one in the village liked her, particularly. I didn't know her, of course, but I heard the help gossip about her. She held her position as the gamekeeper's wife over absolutely everyone. And was too proud of the house that came with the position for anyone's taste. She held that over people's heads, too."

  "But Bird must have loved her?" I hoped. Otherwise her life seemed so sad.

  Rose shrugged one shoulder and threw up her hands. "Heaven knows why if he did. She must have been decent looking and possibly decent-mannered at one time. How she produced such a handsome son is rather a mystery to everyone.

  "Will Bird is smart, charming, and good looking. One of my younger sisters had quite the crush on him. Which was a bit scandalous. Papa is old-fashioned. He still believes an earl's daughter should marry up if possible."

  Rose pulled her phone from her pocket. "Here. I'll show you his picture." She brought one up.

  My heart raced as she handed me her phone. As I took a look, my hopes crashed. He was good looking. And very white. As I'd heard in the village. I saw no trace of anything vaguely Chinese about him. He had blond hair and blue eyes. He bore no obvious resemblance to Sid that I could see. None of her exotic beauty.

  "Well?" Rose asked.

  "Yes, very handsome." As I took another look at his profile, his birthdate jumped out. It was the same as Sid's.

  My heart nearly stopped. How probable was it that Bird had three children born on the same day? One to his wife and twins to a mistress? Or could it be that the twin Mr. Thorne had heard about was Will? And was a twin only because he and Sid were both Bird's children and, by an odd quirk of fate, born on the same day?

  Rose cleared her throat and gave me a funny look. "Are you all right? You look pale."

  I nodded. She was probably afraid I'd throw up in one of her vases. "I'm fine."

  She frowned slightly, not quite believing me, if her expression was any indication. "I can get you a cream cracker to settle your stomach. We have a box of them in the cupboard."

  She was definitely worried. I shook my head. "I'll be all right." I let her think it was the pregnancy making me sick.

  "If you're sure you're quite all right, Mrs. Becker is working out front getting the abbey ready for tourist season. She's from the village and about Bird's age. Also, a big gossip. Let's go talk to her. She may know something."

  I followed Rose out.

  Mrs. Becker was quite the talker. She took up Rose's story with ease. "How she produced a child at all after all those years of being barren is a mystery to everyone. Some suspect she didn't.

  "She went to China and came home five months later with a beautiful blond baby boy. Raising speculation that she and Bird had adopted Will and were keeping the adoption mum. She was a proud, arrogant woman, and none too well liked. Some even say that Will was Bird's love child with another woman.

  "If he is, no one would have blamed Bird."

  That would fit well with what I had originally suspected. But made no sense now, because Will was white.

  "Will was only a few weeks old when Mrs. Bird brought him home to England. She was so fat, that rolly kind of fat, it was hard to tell whether she'd ever been pregnant or not. You know the kind, I imagine."

  Rose nudged me. I nodded.

  Mrs. Becker laughed. "Well, maybe you don't. She was cute when Bird married her. Plump and curvy. But once she caught him, she let herself go.

  "She and Bird weren't a good match, never were. After she had Will, they bonded over him and not much more. There was iciness between them for quite some years after Will was born. And right to the end, you didn't dare mention China to her.

  "Something happened between her and Bird in China. We all think it was another woman."

  Sid's mom?

  After leaving Rose's, I had the car drop me off in the village. I spent the rest of the time before my appointment with Bird shopping and running errands. I loved the pleasant atmosphere and friendly people. It took my mind off the puzzles swirling around.

  I arranged to have my purchases delivered to the castle. And even though the day was showery and breezy, I enjoyed the walk to Bird's cottage. Which wasn't really a cottage in the traditional sense, or at least what I imagined when I thought of one. It was a large, two-story brick house that looked larger and more posh than the home Sid and I owned in Seattle
.

  I could see why the late Mrs. Bird put on airs. It was grander than ninety-nine percent of the homes in the village. She should have had a large family to fill it. I wondered at Bird rattling around it all by himself. I wasn't good at guessing the size of buildings, but it had to be three thousand square feet or so.

  I rang the bell, heart pounding. Bird answered so quickly, he must have been watching for me to arrive.

  "Your Grace." He bowed his head respectfully. "Please. Come in, madam." He stepped aside to let me pass.

  I still had a hard time being called madam or ma'am or your grace or duchess all the time. These days it seemed only Riggins called me by my name. And not often enough, instead choosing to use the teasing term "duchess" too often for my tastes.

  The cottage was well lit and warm. A little too warm at the moment. I was flushed with the exercise from my walk.

  Bird was an ordinary-looking middle-aged man. Gray hair that could have been blond at one time. Weathered. Blue eyes. Certainly not as handsome as his son. And only the barest trace of similarity to Sid. Something maybe in the shape of his face? In any case, it was so generic and faint that I couldn't immediately attribute it to him being her father.

  "Nice of you to come, madam."

  I followed him to a pleasant sitting room. All these old houses seemed to have them.

  "Or did you want to look around?" he said uncertainly. "I've been out tracking the birds this morning. Looking for nests and seeing what kind of hatchlings we'll have. I haven't had much time to straighten up the place. The cleaning lady comes in tomorrow."

  I smiled, trying to reassure him. "No, no. That won't be necessary. I'm mostly here to introduce myself and see if there's anything we can do for you. I should have come earlier."

  "Oh, no, madam! I didn't expect you to come at all." He looked almost embarrassed. "The late duke, kind as he was to me, hadn't been to the cottage in over twenty years."

  "Which is exactly why I've come! To make sure the house is in good repair."

  "Oh." He brushed my concerns away. "Don't worry about that. The duke, I mean, the late duke, took care to keep the cottage up to date and well tended. I see to most of it myself and send the bills for any supplies or anything I can't manage myself and need to hire out to the estate. It's a good system. Same one as my dad before me had with the duke.

 
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