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An Angel in Time – Excerpt

An Angel In Time

Harlequin
October 1, 2004
ISBN-10: 037381075X
ISBN-13: 978-0373810758

"Hello! Hannah Bradshaw?"

Hannah heard her name and peered through driving snow. An elderly man waited, smiling, by the front door to her apartment building.

"That’s me." Puffing into the scarf she had wrapped around her nose and mouth, she grasped a slippery iron railing and scuffed up the steps.

"A lucky day," the man said, rocking to the square toes of his old-fashioned black boots and back onto his heels. "A very lucky day."

Lucky? So far today she’d lost her secretarial job and been jilted. Well, not exactly jilted. After two years, good old reliable John Norris had told her they shouldn’t see each other for a while, that they should date other people to see how strong their bond really was. To Hannah that felt remarkably like a polite way of saying goodbye.

She gained a precarious foothold on the marble top step and took a closer look at her visitor. Clear, kind gray eyes, too young for his face, met her gaze squarely from beneath the rakishly dipped brim of a gray Stetson with a corded band. Hannah thought fleetingly of Confederate uniforms.

"Not the best of days, if I may say so, ma’am." Bushy white brows, a luxuriant mustache and beard covered much of his face.

"It stinks," Hannah said grimly. Usually she loved snow, particularly in November with the hope of a white Christmas to follow.

"Er, indeed." He bowed slightly. "As you say."

Hannah swept snow from her lashes. There was something about him…

"I’ve been waiting for you, ma’am," he said, working an envelope from the pocket of the high-buttoned black jacket he wore beneath an oddly long and voluminous gray cape, which looked as if it might be intended for horseback riding in bad weather. A second flap of fabric fell over his shoulders, and Hannah saw with amusement that a stiff collar, held in place by a dark cravat, rose to his jaw. Like a man from another century.

His shaggy brows drew together in a quizzical frown. "Is my arrival inconvenient?"

She realized she’d been staring and pulled the scarf beneath her chin to smile. "Not at all. I’ve won something, right? Or you’re delivering flowers from several admirers. No, no—Miss Universe has been asked to step down and only I can fill her swimsuit."

He shook his head slowly but smiled more broadly. "Does a man a passel of good to hear high spirits from a beautiful young lady." He handed her the envelope and bowed again. "I’m mighty glad I found you. I thought you might be waitin’ for this."

Hannah stopped smiling. The accent was soft and unmistakably Georgian, a male echo of her own. And on this "lucky" November day in cold Chicago, the voice from home was enough to drown her in nostalgia. Studying the man, she took the envelope. "You’re from Georgia."

He inclined his head. "A long time ago. A very long time ago."

"Where in Georgia?" Hannah ripped open the yellowed envelope and barely caught some sort of ticket that slipped from the folded sheet of paper she pulled out.

"Here and there," the man said, but she’d have sworn he knew her home country, the lush flat land of the state’s south, very well. Back there on this early November day, traces of an overnight frost might linger, but chances were the weather was mild enough to make a walk through still-green fields a pleasure.

She unfolded the sheet of paper and read.

Clarkesville, Georgia

December 10 My Dearest Hannah,

Mary-Lee Cassidy’s baby isn’t mine….

Hannah stopped breathing. She raised her face to find the man watching her, unsmiling now, a distant look in his eyes. He reminded her… She made herself continue reading:

I love you, Hannah. There isn’t anyone else for me but you. There never could be. I’ve tried to find a phone number for you in Chicago.

There’s no listing. I managed to get the PO Box address from Donna at the post office. Hannah, I can’t believe this has happened to us. I got back to Clarkesville a week early, only to find you and your mother had left two days before.

I’m grateful to your mother for the note, but I can’t do what she asks. Not trying to contact you is impossible.

My father’s very ill, and you know how things are here on the farm, otherwise I’d be tearing Chicago apart looking for you. But perhaps it’s just as well. We’re going to need to be a little careful with money if we’re going to try to buy Harmony.

Come home, please. We have a date on Christmas Eve. Four o’clock in the walled garden at Harmony. Remember? I told you I’d have a question to ask then.

Use the bus ticket, Hannah. Please. I’ll be waiting in the garden.

I love you, Roman.

P.S. Today I thought about us from the beginning, about how we met when you were a scrawny kid with brown eyes that were too big. You had too many freckles and too much shiny brown hair you couldn’t braid properly.

I thought about how you delivered papers in that awful old truck. Do you remember that, too, Hannah? Those mornings when I waited for you and came along to help out? You were all skinny arms and long tanned legs, but you had a way about you that kept me sneaking out to the road every day. We had to be careful our parents didn’t find out because they might say an eighteen-year-old boy had no business spending time with a fifteen-year-old girl. I always told you I was just being kind to a little kid with too much to do, but I loved you then, too. That’s something I never did tell you.

The bus ticket’s open, so you can come when it’s most convenient. Make it real soon. I need you. R.

With shaking fingers, Hannah turned the envelope over again. Her heart pounded, and she blinked to clear her fuzzy vision. The postmark was indistinct, smudged from handling. Scrawled across the bottom in a hand that was unmistakable as her mother’s were the words: "Moved. No forwarding address. Return to sender."

And with those words her mother had taken the most important choice of Hannah’s life out of her hands. She swallowed acid. A physical blow couldn’t have shocked her more. But her mother had been trying to protect her. That was something Hannah mustn’t forget, regardless of how wrong the action might have been.

"How…how did you find me from this?"

When she glanced up, the man was at the bottom of the steps. He turned his face up toward her. Failing light and the snow obscured his features. "Like I told you. It’s a lucky day." His voice seemed fainter, like the end of an echo. "It’s a lucky day. I did a little fancy footwork, put a few things together, and here you were. Enjoy your trip."

"Mmm?" Hannah had started rereading. No, she hadn’t forgotten the date in the garden, any more than she would ever forget Roman Hunter.

Enjoy your trip? "How did you know…" The man had left. Clutching the railing, she went to the bottom of the steps. "Where did you find this?" She searched in either direction. Despite the snowfall, she could see to both corners of the short block.

He’d gone. Disappeared. Hannah screwed up her eyes to locate his footsteps. Nothing. As if he’d never existed… Now she was getting fanciful. The snow must have filled in his footprints. But he’d reminded her of someone. She couldn’t remember who—not that it mattered. Lots of people looked like other people.

Slowly she let herself into the apartment her mother and new stepfather had insisted on giving her before their departure for Denver a month ago. Hannah had lived here with her mother since they’d left Clarkesville.

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A Useful Affair – Excerpt

A Useful Affair

Mira
Mar 1, 2004
ISBN-10: 0778320200
ISBN-13: 978-0778320203

CHAPTER ONE

Gratitude be damned. When he finally unfolded himself from the inside of this sorry coffin—ouch—when he got out of the hearse driven by his so-called rescuer, his fists would speak for him.

If he got out alive.

Well, if he didn’t he’d be in the right place at the right time . . .

He grinned in the blackness, then winced as the wheels beneath him momentarily left the ground. The rims hit storm torn ruts again, rattled every board and brace in the hearse—and every bone in the Marquis of Granville’s body.

This was all his own fault. He had been in too much of a hurry to get out of France and return to England ahead of a luscious but designing female who had produced a husband bent on blackmail, or worse. Granville, who had made plans to travel with his cousin Frances, persuaded him at the last moment to take the ship Windfall, because it left a day earlier than the one on which they’d originally booked passage.

The captain of the Windfall had turned out to be a smuggler in the employ of an unscrupulous Englishman. But his share of the smuggling bounty hadn’t been enough for the captain. He’d charged a ransom to take Granville and his cousin Frances, with his wife Simonne and little daughter Chloe, across the Channel. Not that the man had ever intended for them to arrive on their home shores alive.

What followed had been disastrous. Francis and Simonne had discovered the Captain’s plot and ended their lives shot, and thrown into the sea. Granville barely managed to save Chloe and himself from the same fate, only to be cast upon the dubious mercy of a wild-eyed stranger.

A smuggler turned rescuer had plucked Granville, together with his first cousin once removed, six-year-old Chloe Worth, from the icy, fog-shrouded English Channel. Once ashore, the man, one Albert according to the ruffians he commanded, insisted there could be no better chance of escape than by traveling as a dead man.

Even inside the coffin, the ceaseless beating of rain could be heard. And wind. Wind howled as if through a tunnel and whirled about the Shillibier. Matched black horses pulled the great carriage and their hoofs clattered and scraped over stone and mud.

The little girl curled against his chest with her hands clapped over her ears didn’t ease Granville miserable confinement. He must manage to save his cousin from any injury inside the magnificent but tossing Shillibier with its rushing team. Also, he was desperate to keep her as warm as he could with both of them still wet from their near-drowning, and to soothe her without making any noise. And he must pray that Chloe would not choose a deadly dangerous moment to find her voice and cry out.

"Chloe," he whispered into her ear. "We shall be safe." When she addressed him, the child called him, "Uncle John." He’d never considered why, but John was his given name and he supposed she must find it comfortable. "Stay very quiet and trust Uncle John," he murmured. Dash it all but he knew nothing of dealing with children. Would a six-year-old believe such rubbish? He had no idea if they were safe.

Albert the smuggler, in a large fishing boat, had used the fog to hide him from the eyes of his fellow villains in a flotilla of small vessels which had arrived to take contraband from the Windfall.

Heading for the mouth of the River Thames and London, and with the coast of England faintly in sight, the ship’s Master had dispatched his illegal cargo. And Albert had turned back to draw Chloe and Granville from the water and into his boat, a boat pulled by oarsmen who seemed cowed by their leader.

The tall, thin man had made no sense, muttering all the time about his damnable conscience and how the Lord and someone named Snowdrop would reward him for going against the others—and "that evil old sod, Leggit." Had he been alone, Granville would have fought for his freedom the instant he stepped ashore. As it was, he’d been unwilling to risk Chloe’s safety.

The smuggler had promised to get them away and been certain none but his "kin," the oarsmen, knew Granville and his charge were still alive. Their secret was safe, he’d insisted in a huge voice that would have done any highwayman proud. A frenzied ride by wagon from the coast to an isolated inn, and Granville had been hustled with his charge into the funeral vehicle driven by Albert. After all, his host said, no-one dared stop the dead on the way to their rest.

This casket didn’t fit Granville at all. True, he was taller than most and strongly built, but he couldn’t imagine any man of his acquaintance who wouldn’t be twisted up in the thing like a bedsheet on washday, even without a small companion. The thing had probably been made for a woman, he decided. A rotund woman, for the box was exceedingly deep.

The pace changed. Albert yelled and the horses seemed to dance, rocking the Shillibier in the process. They slowed down.

"’Old! ‘Oldisay!"

Another man’s bullish, and meaningless words bellowed over the roar of hoof and wheel.

So much for the sanctity of the dead.

He’d chosen to accept a promise of help from a smuggler—a criminal who swore his repentance—rather than expose Chloe to the threat of instant death.

Her chances might have been better had Granville chosen to run with her.

The Shillibier shuddered. Wheels hammered rocks into ground that must be as furrowed as it was muddy. The horses shrieked and John imagined the inky ostrich plumes jostling as they tossed their heads, and yards of black crepe streaming in the shadowy night. Tack jangled, while Granville felt rolling objects thudding against the coffin, heavy objects. Casks of contraband? Damn Albert and his henchmen, they hadn’t been able to resist an opportunity to move some of their spoils out of harm’s way. The smugglers’ weakness could scuttle what hope there was of escape.

He realized what should have been obvious. The reason the coffin was so deep was because it’s real purpose was to transport smuggled goods. Little wonder Albert had thought of the ruse for Granville and Chloe.

Granville knew the sound of gunshot, even over the night’s cacophony. He hugged Chloe tighter and smoothed her hair.

"I told ye to ‘old," the newcomer bellowed again. "Next time I fires, it won’t be past your ‘ead."

"Don’t you ‘ave no respect for the dead?" Albert roared. "Stand off, there. Stand off, I says."

"Who’s in there, then? King bloody George III?"

Granville managed to turn Chloe and settle her face against his neck. "Hush," he told her. "Be very quiet and don’t cry." She had not, in fact, made a sound since they’d been brought ashore somewhere on the southern shores of England. He had no idea where that had been, or where they were now.

"You’ve a perilous bad tongue, sir," Albert told the intruder. "It’s a good thing the King—God save ‘im—can’t ‘ear you all the way in his palace. They don’t tell me who t’is gone to their rest. I just drive. The grieving relations is waitin’. They’ll send after me if I’m late." Following a pause the young man continued. "If it’ll satisfy you, sir, then be my guest. The box isn’t ‘ammered down yet. Take a look."

Granville smiled thinly and held his breath, admiring Albert’s daring bluff, but prepared for the sound of doors being opened. He’d lost his pistol in the dive from the deck of the ship to save Chloe. The only defense would be to play dead, then to "rise from the dead" with horrible howling if necessary, and hope the shock bought him some advantage.

Chloe’s small fingertips opened and closed against Granville’s linen shirtfront. He stroked her hair again, awkwardly, and made what he hoped was a calming noise.

Rain pelted the draped windows of the carriage.

Boots hit the ground. "I’ve thought that over, and I thinks as I’ll do what you suggest and pay me respects to the departed." The other man sounded even bolder than before. "Strangest funeral procession I’ve seen, I can tell you. No train of coaches and only a young cove still wet behind the ears in charge."

Granville braced himself and assumed what he prayed was a more corpse-like pose. "Don’t move at all," he whispered to Chloe. Not that anything would help them if his suspicions were correct and casks of liquor surrounded the coffin.

Heavy footsteps approached the Shillibier.

The handles on the back doors rattled.

It was all up to him then. Granville, lying on his side, inched up the knee that rested against the bottom of the coffin and blessed God for giving him powerful legs. He’d need them to thrust himself out and overpower whoever was coming for them.

"Al-bert!" A feminine cry carried the name on the wind. "Al-bert! You apology for a man, you. What are you doin’? Allowin’ some ruffian to disturb the dead? You’ll rot in hell. We all will. And you there, stop that, you raper of corpses, you friend of the devil, you, you—"

"Snowdrop," the hapless Albert called from the driver’s seat. "This is no place for you, my flower."

"You keep mum and sit where you are, Albert Parker," Snowdrop shouted. "And you, stand back from that carriage and tell me your name? And give it to me honestly, because my father and his men aren’t far behind me. They’ll cut you to ribbons as soon as look at you. Slasher Pick don’t ask questions, ‘e just makes up his own mind and he does it quick."

The mystery of Albert’s earlier "Snowdrop" mutterings was solved. She must be his wife.

"You’ve no need to know my name, missus, only that I’m an agent for a venturer who’ll soon be hearing about a recent mistake made by the master of a vessel he has interests in."

That vessel would be Windfall. And the venturer was likely to be that dog, Leggit, spoken of by Albert as the ship’s owner.

"Seems as if that captain and his crew unwisely took on passengers, then had to dispose of ’em. Only one got away see, a desperate fugitive from the law. Name of John Elliot. You might be interested to know there’s a pretty price on ‘is ‘ead and a search is underway all over the countryside."

The woman didn’t answer and Granville’s stomach plummeted. It went lower as the silence stretched without a word from good old Albert, either. Granville, who had used his family name, Elliot, to travel, was that "desperate fugitive." Intuition told him Albert and Snowdrop were considering the reward on his head.

A horse whinnied and blew and hoofs beat a dancing tattoo.

"’old ‘im," Albert yelled. "Stop’n or he’ll be away."

Scuffling grew louder. The horse’s whinny became a shriek and metal jangled madly. The venturer’s agent hollered, but John couldn’t understand a word.

More noise-soaked seconds passed before there came the fierce drumming, clanking and snorting of horseflesh at a full gallop. A full gallop that carried an animal and its rider away from the Shillibier.

A hush descended.

"Snowdrop!" At Albert’s roar, John jumped and held Chloe very tightly. "What ‘ave you done, then, flower? How did you do it?"

"Ask no questions and you’ll ‘ear no lies, Albert Parker. Nosey Parker. The gentleman decided ‘e had more important people to deal with than us. What did he mean by venturer?"

"Leggit. Him I told you about. He’s the venturer ‘ere. Put up the money for that ship I met tonight. Probably pays for other ships and pockets a fortune for his trouble. They says there’s no record made of his dealings. He must have heard how someone what could tell about everthin’ that went on aboard the Windfall is still alive."

"Albert—"

"Tell me what you did." Albert cut his flower off. "You did something to the horse to make it run, Snowdrop?"

"Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. Now drive that thing off the track and hide it in the trees, you oaf, and get to the cottage."

"I’ve got to make sure they’re . . ." The silence let Granville know that Albert was indicating his human cargo. "Well, I promised I’d see to it they was safe. How’d you know where to find me, anyway?"

"People talk. I already got the message from someone at that inn as how you were coming this way. The whole world knows where to find you. Lose the carriage in Lock’s bower and put the ‘orses in the cave. Other’s will take care of what else ‘as to be done."

"Aye," Albert said promptly.

Granville closed his eyes and prepared for an even more uncomfortable ride once they left the track.

The doors at the back of the carriage opening, slamming wide as they were released into the wind, made sure he was completely alert. The coffin lid began to slide and John prepared to leap upon whomever appeared.

"Settle down in there," Snowdrop said. "Keep mum. Do what I tells you and you won’t be ‘urt."

The lid fell beside the casket and blessedly fresh air rushed in. "Out you get," Snowdrop ordered. "Quick and quiet. There’s no time. We’ve got to be out of the way before someone else comes or that buffoon decides to turn back."

Gingerly, Ganville raised his head and wouldn’t have been surprised to loose it to a bullet at once.

No pistol fired.

"Out. Quick!"

"Come along, Chloe," he said in as normal a voice as he could muster. "We’re to meet some new people who will help us."

With that he moved his cramped limbs and climbed from the casket. Sure enough, brandy casks, boxes of tea, tobacco and rolls that would be lace goods, or silks, confirmed his suspicions. Holding Chloe in his arms, Granville pushed contraband aside and made his way to the ground outside.

No moon pierced the night but he made out a winding track through a forest. Dripping trees soared on either side. His boots squelched in mud. Wind whipped rain into his face and turned his sodden clothes icy. Chloe must be made warm.

"Oh, look at the little mite," Snowdrop said, and John saw her for the first time. "Albert Parker, you’re ‘opeless. Why didn’t you say there was a little one in there?"

"At the time, I was trying to ‘ide them from an enemy, my flower."

A creature so diminutive as to resemble a child herself whirled at John and Chloe, tearing off her cloak as she came. She pulled the little girl from him, wrapped her in the cloak, and pushed her back into his arms. "Get on the ‘orse. Now!"

"Madam, I cannot take your horse."

This small, pale creature with tossing black hair, put two fingers in her mouth and issued a piercing whistle. Immediately a second, unsaddled, horse clattered from the cover of the trees and Snowdrop hauled herself onto its bare back. "Come on. We’re going."

Granville needed no more coaxing. He mounted the gray Snowdrop had arrived on and followed her deeper into the forest, leaving Albert behind to mutter while he carried out the orders she’d given him.

Kiss Them Goodbye – Excerpt

Kiss Them Goodbye

Mira
November 1, 2003
ISBN-10: 1551667452
ISBN-13: 978-1551667454

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

This excerpt from KISS THEM GOODBYE introduces us to Vivian Patin and her mother, Charlotte. They have inherited Rosebank, a big old lush Louisiana Estate just outside the little town of Toussaint. Unfortunately Rosebank needs a major facelift—and the women are waiting for the arrival of their lawyer, Louis Martin of New Orleans.

"Vivian Patin, I’m your mother." Charlotte hissed the words at her daughter. "You have absolutely no right to speak to me in that manner."

She paused to peer down the passageway leading from the big, antiquated kitchens to the hall and the receiving room where their next door neighbor, Mrs. Susan Hurst, waited for tea. After taking no notice of Charlotte and Vivian since they moved in months earlier, she had appeared on the doorstep today, just appeared without warning and invited herself for tea. Imagine that. With a plate of cookies in hand, she’d showed up to be "neighborly."

"Mama," Vivian said in a low voice but without whispering. "I’m a little old to be treated like a child. Now tell me what you’ve been up to. No, no, don’t tell me you haven’t been up to anythin’ because I can tell. Guilt is painted all over your face."

Her mother’s pretty, fair-skinned face and innocent, liquid brown eyes couldn’t hide a thing from Vivian. Charlotte Patin feared nothing and would dare anything. Her close-cropped gray hair and petite frame added to the impression that she was a dynamo. In fact, she rarely stood still and she hatched a plan a minute. And Vivian adored her. She also knew that her mother was putting a great face on her grief. She and Vivian’s father had lived a love affair. As brave as Mama was, David Patin had only been dead a year and Charlotte’s odd, empty expressions that came and went without warning, made lumps in Vivian’s throat.

"Mama, please," Vivian said gently. "I know whatever you’ve done is with the best intentions. But—and I’m beggin’ now—put me out of my misery."

Charlotte hushed her and leaned out of the kitchen door once more.

"Just tell me what you’re up to," Vivian said. "I’m worried out of my mind about Louis Martin. Where can that man be? That should be all you care about, too, but you’re up to something else. You got off the phone real quick earlier." Her mother in a stubborn mode was a hard woman to break down.

"I’d better call Louis’s offices in New Orleans and see if he ever left," Charlotte said, knowing she was going to be on thin ice with Vivian. "I don’t hear any hammerin’ or bangin’ in this house, do you? No? That’s because workers have to be paid and we’re about out of money." A mother had to do what a mother had to do and right now this mother had to safeguard her little surprise planned for the evening.

Vivian shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans. She decided they were better there than taking out her ire on some innocent dish—particularly since most of the dishes around here were actually worth something. "Don’t try to distract me with what I already know," she said, raising her voice a little. "Tell me the straight truth."

"She’ll hear you," Charlotte whispered. "She’s only here because she’s a nosy gossip who finally decided to come and poke around. That woman will run straight from our house to chatter about us to her cronies. She behaves like the lady of the manor visiting the poor on her estates. I can only imagine what she’ll say about us."

"If I shout at you, she’ll have a lot to say."

"Oh, all right, I give up. You have no respect. I called that nice Spike Devol and invited him to dinner this evenin’. A handsome man like that all on his own. Such a waste."

Vivian took a calming breath. "He has his daughter and his father," she said while she turned to water just under her skin, all of her skin, at the mention of that man. "Anyway, I’m sure he didn’t accept. Why would he?"

For a smart woman who, until months ago, had managed an exclusive hotel in New Orleans, Vivian, Charlotte thought, could be plain stupid. "Well, he did accept and he’ll be here around seven. He may be a deputy sheriff and we know the pay’s not so good, but I hear he does well with that gas station and convenience store his daddy runs for him, and now he’s got his crawfish boilin’ operation."

She watched for Vivian to react and when she didn’t, said, "He’s obviously not afraid to work and he’s had his hard times with his wife leaving him like that. For a body-builder. There isn’t a thing wrong with Spike’s body as far as I can see. Of course, I haven’t seen—" Vivian’s raised eyebrows brought Charlotte a little caution. "Well, anyway, he’s just about the best-looking single man in these parts, and quiet in that mysterious way some strong men are. I’m tellin’ you, Vivian—"

"Nothing." Vivian hardly dared to speak at all. "You are telling me nothing and from now on you won’t make one more matchmaking attempt. Y’hear? I can’t imagine where you got all your personal information about him."

"You like him, too. You have since you first met him. That had to be a couple of years back. I’ve seen how the two of you talk—"

"Not a thing, Mama. You will not do or say another thing on the subject. Give me that tea." With that, she snatched up the pot. "Bring the cups and saucers and help me get rid of this woman quickly."

"He had a disappointing thing with Jilly at the bakery in Toussaint—All Tarted Up," Charlotte said from behind Vivian. "I guess everyone thought they were goin’ somewhere but it didn’t work out. They’re still good friends and I always think that says a lot about people."

"I know that," Vivian said.

"Father Cyrus and Spike are good friends so Spike must be a good man."

Vivian faced Charlotte, pressed a finger to her own lips and said a fierce, "Shh," before hurrying on, crossing the hall with its towering gold relief plasterwork ceiling and walls hung with faded chartreuse Chinese silk. She entered the shabbily opulent receiving room. With a big grin, she said, "Here we are, Mrs. Hurst. If I say so myself, my mother and I make the best tea I ever tasted." She grinned even more broadly. "But then, I only drink tea when we’re at home together."

Apparently Mrs. Hurst didn’t see any humor in what Vivian said. She looked back at her from a couch covered with threadbare gold tapestry and supported on elephant foot legs. Mrs. Hurst’s glistening pink lips hung slightly open and vague confusion hovered in her blue eyes. The woman could have been as young as forty or approaching sixty. It was hard to tell but everything about her was pretty tight and with not a wrinkle or sag in sight. She did have a nineteen-year-old daughter, Olympia, but that didn’t really give much of a clue to the woman’s age.

Vivian remembered to pour tea into three cups.

"Hot tea?" Mrs. Hurst said with horror in her voice. "Well."

"We drink hot tea in the afternoon," Charlotte told her. "My English grandmother taught us the right way to do things. Hot tea on a warm afternoon. The tea makes your body temperature higher. Brings it closer to the temperature of the air and you feel cooler. Anyway, Grandmama would turn in her grave if I served you iced tea at this time of day."

Without further comment Mrs. Hurst accepted her tea. Vivian caught her mother’s eye and winked. Mama’s grandmothers had been French and mama liked hot tea—that was all there was to it.

"We are so happy at Serenity House," Mrs. Hurst said. With her younger, handsome husband she lived at the estate that bordered Rosebank to the north. They’d bought the place some months earlier and the building had swarmed with architects, contractors and workmen ever since. Susan Hurst reached for one of her own cookies but thought better of it. "We’re still renovating, of course, but the house is already beautiful. Do please call me Susan, by the way. Dr. Link would like me to take his name but when we were married I chose to keep Hurst because it’s Olympia’s name. Anyway, I believe a woman should have some independence, don’t you? Without appearing strident, that is."

On the surface Susan’s accent was almost southern, but that was forced and phoney and spread on over of something Vivian didn’t recognize. "A woman should never be strident," she said, and found herself looking at her mother again.

"Never," Charlotte said. She stood behind Susan. Making outrageous faces at Vivian, she took one exaggerated step backward, then another forward to her starting position. "Never strident." Vivian’s mother had an irrepressible sense of fun. "I thought your house was called Green Veil."

Susan managed a haughty toss of the head. "It’s called Serenity House now. Much more refined and appropriate. I’m sorry to see the work on this place slow down so. It’s huge. Such a maize of wings and outbuildings. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to get rid of this asian jungle theme. Monkeys and pineapples everywhere." She shuddered discreetly.

"Guy Patin was still in residence when we bought Serenity or we might have looked at this—even if it is in a terrible mess. And the grounds are horrible, you poor things. Give me the word and I’ll send my head-gardener over to talk to you. I know he and his crew could give you a few hours a week, or suggest another crew who can. Make sure you don’t get those people who work on Clouds End. Marc and Reb Girard’s place. All that overgrown tropical look wouldn’t appeal to me."

Vivian had seen Clouds End and her ambition was to have Rosebank look just as lush. The Girards were nice people and had welcomed Charlotte and Vivian to the area. Marc was an architect and Reb the town doctor in Toussaint.

"Rosebank was never on the market," Charlotte said. "You probably noticed right away that we’re also Patins. Guy was my husband’s brother and the house was left to us."

"Of course I knew that," Susan said. "Silly me to forget. We’ve been so busy for such a long time these things slip my mind sometimes."

"We like what you call the jungle theme, y’know," Vivian said. She might as well show the woman they weren’t easily intimidated, especially by money. "We’re going to keep it. It’ll be made wonderful again, of course."

"Poor thing." Susan patted Vivian’s hand as if she didn’t take a word seriously. "I can see you’re overwhelmed. Let me help you. Did I tell you our pool house is just about finished. It’s all marble. Very Roman and wickedly decadent, but almost edible." She hunched her shoulders. "Morgan and I want you to use it whenever you have a mind. We know the pool here isn’t usable."

"Thank you," Vivian said, making a note never to have a mind for a swim in Susan’s decadent pool. "We do have a gardener and we’re very pleased with him." Gil Mayes might be seventy-two and a bit crippled by gout but he showed enthusiasm for the work. Unfortunately he moved slowly and the gardens were big, but more men couldn’t be afforded yet, not until some serious money came in.

Susan said, "Hm," and flipped back her artfully shaggy red-streaked brown hair. Good looking, sexy even, her mannerisms were naturally provocative. "I hope you won’t think me too curious, but after all we are neighbors. There are rumors about your having some intentions about this place—not that I believe a word."

"Of course you don’t," Charlotte said. "And a very good thing, too."

If Susan didn’t know their intentions perfectly well Vivian would be amazed. And Mama might enjoy her banter but afternoon crept toward evening and she glanced repeatedly toward the front windows. Vivian knew her own uneasiness was for the same reason as her mother was edgy. Where was Louis?

"It may be crude to say so, but I come from money," Susan announced. "Might as well have honesty among friends. I’m accustomed to a quieter, more gracious mode of life. It’s true that I’ve had my share of the social whirl in Paris, London—Milan, and New York of course, but I need the life only a true Louisianan lady knows how to live. Quiet. Refined. I’m sure you know what I mean. Soon Serenity will be perfect and I expect a good many visitors—friends—who expect a certain atmosphere at a house party."

Vivian said, "I thought you wanted peace and quiet, not a load of uppity visitors."

Vivian spied Boa, short for Queen Boadicea, her hairless chihuahua. The tiny dog had roused herself from some hiding place and stood in the middle of the green silk rug with one minuscule paw raised. Her black eyes popped and shone while she watched Susan. Like her namesake, Boa just didn’t accept her limitations.

"I didn’t know you had an animal," Susan remarked. "I prefer big dogs myself, not that I have any." Her nose wrinkled. "They just aren’t clean."

"That always depends on the dogs you hang around with." Vivian made sure she sounded sweet. "Come to me, sweetypie. Come to mama."

Her daughter, Charlotte thought, could be charmingly snippy. "I’m sure you’re very happy at Green Veil, Susan."

"Serenity House." The woman corrected Charlotte firmly. "Just to put my mind at rest, tell me you don’t intend to turn Rosebank into a hotel with some sort of, well, trendy restaurant."

With Boa under her arm, Vivian had strolled to the windows and peered out into the rapidly darkening grounds. She heard Susan’s question and winced a little, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything but Louis’s failure to show up. Anger had begun to replace concern. He obviously wasn’t coming now and the way he’d treated them was just plain rude. Louis had always been polite, kind even, but she guessed they might not be important to him if a more valued client needed attention.

She realized there was silence in the room and turned around. Mama ate a cookie, toothful by toothful, with the kind of close attention that spelled avoidance. Vivian recalled the question Susan had asked. "This will become a hotel, a good hotel, and we will be opening a restaurant in the conservatory. We intend to pull in clients who aren’t necessarily staying with us. My mother and I have a lot of experience in the business. I managed Hotel Floris in New Orleans. My parents owned Chez Charlotte. They ran it together and it was a huge success. I thought everyone in the area knew our plans."

"A hotel?" Susan set down her cup and saucer and pressed her fingers to her cheeks. "I thought it must be a joke. Say you aren’t serious. Why, at your time of life, Charlotte, you should be taking things easy and enjoying yourself."

"I will enjoy myself—doing what I like best. Vivian, it’s 5:30."

The heavy significance in Mama’s voice meant she was reminding Vivian that they would have a guest for dinner and that Susan Hurst needed to leave.

Susan wasn’t hearing anything that didn’t relate to the reason she was here—to try to influence Charlotte and Vivian onto her side. They would, if she had her way, come to realize that Susan was a superior person who should not be thwarted in any way.

"We have traditions to uphold, we Louisianan ladies. The reason I moved here—what I want from life—is to model a way of living that’s in danger of disappearing. I know both of you understand what I mean. Louisianan ladies, and houses like this, are about grace and holding out against progress." Susan turned up her nose and turned down her mouth. "It’s up to us to keep certain standards alive. With something like a hotel, you could get any sort of person wandering about and most of them just wouldn’t fit in."

Charlotte sat beside Susan and rested her hand on the back of the woman’s right forearm. "Now you calm yourself and trust our good judgement. We intend to make sure our business doesn’t endanger anyone who lives around here." The devil had gone to work on her. "Why, we’ve already started looking for a reliable firm of uniformed guards to patrol the grounds—especially when we hold outdoor concerts that will draw lots of young folk."

"Concerts on the grounds?" Susan said weakly.

"Oh, yes," Vivian said, her expression angelic. "We’ve already reserved dates with some of the best known zydeco bands around—and some swamp pop, of course. And we’re in negotiation with one or two popular groups, hip-hop will really bring in the crowds."

Susan was no fool. She narrowed her eyes and cast suspicious glances at each of them. "I think you have very strange senses of humor."

Vivian didn’t argue. She did look at her watch, then at her mother. They were running short of time if they were going to prepare dinner. Boa nuzzled her neck but repeatedly arched her little back to cast a suspicious glare at Susan.

The phone rang and Vivian went into the hall to answer.

"Vivian," the voice at the other end said. "It’s Madge at the rectory. Father Cyrus asked me to give you a call." Madge was Cyrus’s assistant.

"Is something wrong?"

"No! Why would there be? He said you were having a meeting with a New Orleans’ lawyer earlier this afternoon and you said you’d call and let him know if the news was good. He wanted me to check in with you."

Vivian yanked on the bottom of her too-short T-shirt. "Now I feel guilty. I should have gotten back with him. We waited all afternoon but Louis didn’t show. Guess we’ll call his office in the morning. Maybe there was a muddle up over the date. Tell Cyrus we’ll talk to him tomorrow, would you?"

Madge agreed and hung up.

And the doorbell gave a rusty buzz.

Charlotte got to her feet at once. "Louis. He must have gotten lost, poor man." She looked at her watch. "Oh, my, it’s almost six-thirty."

"I’m going to the door," Vivian said, frowning. "This is turning into a messy evening."

Charlotte waited for Vivian to add that it was her mother’s fault but she didn’t, although the look in her green, almond-shaped eyes said it all.

"I suppose I should leave," Susan said, her attention on the hall and curiosity oozing from her pores. "I’ll slip along now. Don’t forget how convenient that path between the two estates is. Come over anytime, anytime at all. You’ll fall in love with Morgan—and Olympia’s a charmer—" she didn’t as much as blink when Charlotte put a hand beneath her elbow and eased her to her feet. "Olympia is a beauty. She’s considering the Miss Southern Belle Pageant. I’ve tried to dissuade her but you can’t stand in children’s way, can you?" Her long sigh wasn’t convincing.

Vivian opened the front door.

Rather than Louis Martin, Deputy Sheriff Spike Devol stood there.

He stood there, a broad brimmed black Stetson covering his hair, his eyes very blue in a tanned face, and with a bunch of flowers in each hand. Rather than say, "Hi," or "Good evening," or even, "Here’s looking at you," he studied the flowers as if he’d never seen them before and raised and lowered them as if figuring out how to get rid of them.

Behind Spike, bands of purple streaked the setting sun, shading his face but backlighting him with gold. The deputy was in his thirties, with the mature, muscular body of a man who knew all about being physical. His shoulders and arms, and his chest filled a crisp, dark gray shirt to capacity, but his hips were slim. His legs weren’t so slim. Once again long, well-developed muscles strained at his clothes; in the best possible way. Vivian felt a definitely sexual thrill.

"Hi, there, Spike," she said, making sure she sounded pleasant but detached. "Mama said you were coming for dinner." She felt Susan Hurst arrive at her side and knew she’d heard what Vivian had said.

"I’m Susan Hurst. I live next door at Serenity House," Susan said with a new, husky sound in her voice. "I’m just going to pop along the path and go home. So convenient."

"That’s nice." Spike had a deep voice, deep and soft and impossible to read. There was something a little different about him than Vivian had noticed on the previous occasions she’d run into him, but she wasn’t sure what—other than his being out of uniform.

Finally he grasped both bunches of flowers in one hand and took off the Stetson. "Evenin’ Vivian," he said, managing to get his thumbs anchored in the pockets of his jeans.

Susan Hurst still hovered.

"Take care," Vivian told her. "Best make it home while there’s still enough light. It looks like it could rain, too."

Susan didn’t look happy, but she gave a stiff smile and trotted off, her very nice behind swaying in tailored white slacks.

"C’mon in," Charlotte said from behind Vivian. "You’re never going to believe this but Susan Hurst’s visit was a surprise. We haven’t gotten far with dinner done yet, but it won’t take too long."

"I’m early," Spike said in that still voice of his. "I’m useful in the kitchen. I’ll give a hand."

Vivian stood aside for him to enter and her heart—or the vicinity of her heart—squeezed. As he passed her he looked sideways and down into her face. The faintest of smiles pushed dimples into the creases beside his mouth. His sun-streaked hair, she noticed, had a way of standing up on end in front.

Down girl, down.

"We wouldn’t hear of it," she said when she found her voice. "What do you like to drink? Make yourself comfortable and we’ll show you how quickly we can get things done."

"Thank you, ma’am," he said, inclining his head and broadening his smile enough to deepen those dimples and show very good teeth. He actually made Vivian feel small and feminine and she’d never thought of herself as either.

The phone rang again and Charlotte hurried away, apparently to answer it in the kitchens although she could have done so in the hall. Mama was still in matchmaker mode, but then, she’d been trying to marry Vivian off for years.

"If it won’t upset you," Spike said. "I’d like to help. I’m not good at sitting still and doing nothing."

"Neither am I," she told him, emphatic. "I guess it’s because my parents were always busy."

He only nodded and suddenly thrust both bunches of flowers into her arms. Boa had disappeared at the sound of the doorbell—guarding wasn’t one of her duties—but she chose this moment to skitter into the hall and make a dash for Vivian, screeching to a halt with all four feet braced in the forward position.

"Nice dog," Spike said, with a look that suggested he wasn’t sure Boa was a dog at all.

"Thank you," Vivian said, and smiled at him. "Nice flowers. I don’t remember the last time someone gave me any."

His smile dropped away. "You should be given flowers every day." Immediately he colored under the tan and the result was disarming. "I thought you could share them with your mother. How is she doin’?"

For an instant she didn’t understand. Then any last reserve against this man melted. He wasn’t just a tall, good-looking piece of manhood, he was thoughtful. And that was a killer combination. Almost no one here mentioned their loss. "Mama’s strong, but she and my dad just about grew up together. It’s hard and it’s going to be hard for a long time. Especially because of the way he died."

Spike slid the brim of his Stetson through his fingers. "There’s nothing anyone can say to whitewash that. I’m real sorry. Not that it helps."

David Patin had burned to death in the fire that destroyed Chez Charlotte. "Kindness always helps," Vivian said feeling the too familiar desire to be alone again.

"Vivian!" Charlotte came from the kitchens and her face was too pale. "I don’t know what to make of it. That was Cyrus. He says when he was walking toward the road, to his car, he saw Louis Martin—driving a brand new powder-blue Jag."

Vivian’s mind became blank.

"Y’hear me?" Charlotte said, her voice rising. "That wretch Louis drove all the way here—Cyrus spoke with him—and then he must have decided he couldn’t be bothered and left again."

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About Adam – Excerpt

About Adam

Mira
Mar 1, 2003
ISBN-10: 0739433148
ISBN-13: 978-0739433140


PROLOGUE

Mayfair Square, London. 1824

The trouble with the people at 7 Mayfair Square is that they are alive.

There is no doubt that bodies, the bones and blood, the mortal mind, the so-called heart and other various bits and pieces get in the way of good, solidly disconnected logic. It’s all that and the wretched feelings they swear by that may scuttle the sensible plans of a superior being like yours truly. Nevertheless, I must say that being a ghost can be more than it is cracked up to be.

My word, I almost forgot to tell you that I am the late Sir Septimus Spivey, esteemed architect knighted for his worldly accomplishments, the crowning glory of which was my family home at Number 7 Mayfair Square.

Desperation at the possible misuse of my masterpiece forced me to hang around in mortal form until I was 102! 102, I tell you, when I was perfectly ready to commence my path to heaven a good ten years earlier. If my family hadn’t shown themselves incapable of keeping my house in the manner to which it deserved to be accustomed, I should not have wasted those extra years trying to guide my ungrateful progeny. I rarely complain, but this delay put me considerably behind in angel school and it has only been through diligent work that I have made sterling progress—much to the annoyance of my "friend," William Shakespeare and one or two others I won’t bore you with now.

That’s history and I only mention it to let you know that since you will be supporting me in my current endeavor, you are on the side of right.

You’ll be meeting the former Misses Smiles who used to rent 7B Mayfair Square–the second floor. Below the Smiles, Latimer More and his sister, Finch, had 7A, and the third floor—for reasons only my granddaughter Lady Hester Bingham could explain—became her home and known as 7. Hunter Lloyd, her nephew, lived on the same floor and that oaf of a painter, Adam Chillworth was, and is, in residence at 7C as they call it. An attic by any other name is still an attic to me and that’s where that frequently silent, oppressive north countryman continues to live.

I had no intention of boring you with too much information but why not bring you up to date on the happenings of recent years within the walls of my house.

As I planned, Finch More married Ross, Viscount Kilrood, a scotsman who owns Number 8 Mayfair Square, in addition to considerable Scottish holdings. They divide their time between the London house and the Scottish estate.

Meg Smiles of 7B designed an audacious plan and snared Jean-Marc, Count Etranger, the vulgarly wealthy son of Prince Georges, ruler of Mont Nuages, a principality on the border between France and Germany. They own Number 17 Mayfair Square and a home at Windsor. That little arrangement wasn’t quite what I had in mind but it worked well enough.

Meg’s sister, Sybil, was as besotted with Hester’s nephew, Hunter Lloyd, just as he was with her and since their marriage this has remained sickeningly true. Hunter, a barrister, was knighted for services to George IV—that almost came to a nasty pass. A Cornish holding and considerable money came with the knighthood. The holding is small but nice enough. However, the boy insists on spending a good deal of time at Number Seven and Sibyl is as attached to Lady Hester as he is. Their little boy doesn’t lessen the confusion about the place, even if more rooms have been made over for the family.

Drat, I knew I should get a headache—an ache in the region where my head once was, that is—if I tried to make you aware of the way things are and how they became so.

That leaves Latimer More, Finch’s, now Viscountess Kilrood’s brother. I got lucky there. The unthinkable actually worked out and he settled on a pauper, an orphan from the most degrading beginnings, as his wife. Jenny O’Brien was . . . well, I must be charitable. Jenny knew she had no rightful place in the polite world and did her best to make that rattle Latimer see the truth. He didn’t and they’re married. The only good part of that arrangement is that they now live at Number Eight, Ross and Finch’s house, where they have a handsome suite of rooms and seem ridiculously happy each time Ross and Finch and their offspring arrive to crowd the place.

A moment please, I must rest after all that.

Did I tell you that one of the flawlessly carved newel posts in the foyer at Number 7 is my retreat? Well, it is. From here, at the base of my miraculous staircase, I observe all comings and goings. I admit that since my wings have matured from buds and are growing a little every day, I am not quite as comfortable as I used to be; the space inside the post has become somewhat snug. Yes, yes, of course I know I should be able to deal with this problem but I can’t ask help in finding out how to make the change and I have had rather a lot of other things to learn.

By gad I forgot Birdie, that wretched, wispy little creature Hester insisted on adopting. The child is audacious but Hester dotes upon her and I suppose the girl dotes upon her, but she makes entirely too much noise. Fortunately she dotes on Hunter and Sibyl and spends a goodly amount of time with them.

Toby! I can’t be blamed if some of these people slip my mind. Toby is Jenny More’s tatty young friend from her days of living in Whitechapel and, yet again, Hester took pity on the clumsy creature. He now lives in the best room in servants’s quarters and is treated like a particularly intelligent pet.

Never mind all that. Forget about it unless one or two of them show up while I’m cleaning up the mess they’ve all made at Number 7. And they have made a mess. Almost nothing is simple.

But I have a plan, the Perfect Plan. My previous attempts to rid the house of Hester’s unbearable lodgers (protogées as she pretends they are) were fraught with obstacles because I had not seen the obvious. Lady Hester Bingham must become a celebrity hostess and patroness in her own right. For this she will need her home to be serene and impeccable. There she will welcome literary gatherings, guide silly girls toward fine matches, and have the ear of every important member of the ton.

There are one or two problems to overcome—:when haven’t there been problems to overcome in this house? But getting rid of Adam Chillworth is my essential goal now, and since the only woman he believes he can love (as if love had anything to do with these matters) is Jean-Marc Count Etranger’s sister, Princess Desirée of Mont Nuages, then that must be arranged.

Since the attic at 7 Mayfair Square would hardly make an adequate home for a princess, I’m sure the girl’s brother—once he stops trying to oppose the marriage, as he most certainly will—I’m sure Jean-Marc will provide a suitably splendid abode and, after all, the Princess herself is to come into a fortune. And if that dolt Chillworth climbs on his high horse and talks about not being prepared to live on his wife, well then, there are ways to force his hand.

I do foresee a nasty conundrum in Hester’s plans to renovate the house. Hunter and Sybil encourage all this, but from what I’ve heard of those plans, well, they must not be carried out and I shall rely upon your eyes and ears and, where necessary, your hands to help me scuttle their vulgar ideas.

The usual rule applies—your mouths are no good to me and should be kept shut.

I’m off to meet someone who will be my right hand in all of this, my earthly helper. In the past my error has been to seek the assistance of empty minds I assumed would be simple to control and guide. Never again. This time I have realized where I went wrong. This time a busy mind will be the weapon against any resistance. After all, doesn’t it make sense that the busy mind of a self-centered person will clamor and scheme with such deafening vigor that my instructions, so craftily introduced, will go unnoticed in the din. Before this indispensable helper realizes what’s happened, the deeds I order will be performed and even then, and with any luck, the arrogant prancer will still be too involved with other matters to notice mine.

It is time to set my plans in motion. Await my dispatches and be ready to act. Soon.

Tell Me Why – Excerpt

Tell Me Why

Kensington
August 1, 2001
ISBN-10: 1575668203
ISBN-13: 978-1575668208

"Ladies and gentlemen," Brandy Snopes said, tossing back her luxurious auburn hair and wetting carmine lips. "I give you-Carolee Burns!"

Applause broke out and Carolee entered from Brandy’s office at Bistro Brandy on Kirkland’s Lake Street. The full skirt of her black silk dress flipped about her calves. Her bare shoulders and the decolletage at the neck of the backless halter top were luminously pale.

Wearing a stretchy strapless dress of turquoise sequins, Brandy kissed and hugged Carolee, then backed away, clapping as she went.

Max Wolfe sat at a small round table to the right of the baby grand piano. To the right and with one table closer to, but not blocking, the makeshift space where Carolee performed.

He knew that she and Brandy were old friends–that they’d known each other since grade school. Max and Brandy had met more recently–four years ago when they’d had a brief fling and been lucky enough to realize they weren’t meant for each other but that they liked the friendship.

It was Brandy who let Max know each time Carolee was going to play at the bistro. He didn’t like feeling disappointed that this would be her last night here for more than a month.

When she sat down, the black dress swirled around slim ankles and drew attention to high, very sexy sandals.

She played, and Max sipped a glass of red wine. He didn’t know the names of her pieces, but every one of them turned him on. A feeling that he wouldn’t be anywhere else but watching her rattled him. Max Wolfe, the man no woman had managed to tame, had a bad case. Even though he’d been smitten by someone whose complicated life was public knowledge, including the fact that she wasn’t interested in a new man, he wasn’t finding a way to switch off his feelings. He lowered his eyes. If his history was repeating, the challenge she presented could add to her appeal.

He wasn’t looking for a way to stop the feelings.

She looked at him.

Max smiled, just a little, and rolled the bowl of his glass between his hands.

Carolee seemed to keep looking at him but he couldn’t be sure she actually saw him. When she played her whole body moved. She wasn’t thin and he liked that. He also liked the way she wore her thick, dark hair rolled away from her face and caught loosely at the back of her head. Her face was heart-shaped, her chin pointed. There was nothing typical about her. She’d been described as interesting but not conventionally good-looking. Max had spent more than one solitary evening enjoying visions of her, and wishing he could figure out how to spend a lot more time looking at her unconventional face.

"You again, huh?"

Max jumped and glanced up at a white-haired guy who was probably seventy, even if his light eyes could pierce a man.

"Have we met, Sir?" Politeness to older males had been an obsession Max’s father passed on.

"No," the man said. "I’m Sam. You expecting company?"

Max shook his head, no, and Sam promptly commandeered the second chair at the table.

"What d’you think of this place?" Sam asked. "Hokey, huh? Faux Italian."

Max smiled and glanced around at rough-plastered terra cotta walls and silk grape vines draped along pink beams. "I don’t know," he said. Bunches of purple plastic grapes dripped from the vines. "Have you been to Italy?"

"Nah. Why would I go somewhere foreign when I live in the best country in the world."

"I went there a couple of times," Max said. "I liked it. Beautiful country. Nice people. This place isn’t so far off some of the ones I ate in there."

Sam snorted. "I guess that puts me in my place. Did you have dinner yet?"

"Nope."

"You gonna eat?"

"No," Max said. "Just stopping in for a drink. Can I buy you one? Or are you hungry. Don’t let me put you off."

"Just coffee," the man said. "I’m not hungry and I abused the other privilege a long time ago. Now I don’t need it."

Max signaled a waiter and ordered coffee.

"I saw you here before," Sam said. "Several times. You must be a real music lover." His sharp eyes skewered Max again.

"Depends on the music. I like this. I heard her play in New York once. She’s got a supper club there. Or she did."

"Still does." The guy cleared his throat. "At least, that’s what I’m told."

"Nice place. Burns Near Broadway. Good food. But I’ve got to confess I went for her, not the food. She’s phenomenal. I don’t guess she gets to New York much now."

Sam shrugged and cleared his throat. "You live around here?"

"Uh huh. A condo. Here in Kirkland."

"I wish these bozos would quit talking and eating," Sam said of diners at the bistro.

Max didn’t point out that Sam hadn’t stopped talking since he sat down. "They do quiet down while she plays," he pointed out. "They know they’re in on something special. I keep expecting the word to spread so much it’ll be impossible to get in here, but this is mostly regulars and Brandy doesn’t advertise."

"Carolee wouldn’t come if things got out of hand."

Max noted Sam’s confidence when he made statements about Carolee Burns, but made no comment.

She ran her fingers over the keys and those who continued to eat did so discreetly. Sam’s coffee was delivered but he ignored it. He bent forward over a bright yellow table cloth, his eyes fixed on the pianist, and Max frowned. For Sam to have seen him here before meant the other man had also been present.

"What do you think of her?" Sam leaned close and whispered. "She’s something, huh?"

"Yes, something." Her fingers skimmed across the keyboard and she sang in a husky voice, a slow, husky voice. Her eyelids closed and he could see her eyes moving beneath. "Gutsy, too. I like that."

"I know who you are, y’know," Sam said. "I bet everyone here does. Must be hard to hide when you’re bigger than anyone else around."

"It might be if I was trying to hide." Max didn’t want to talk about himself. "She shouldn’t be shut away in this backwater. She’s a woman who needs to be free and that doesn’t make her a bad wife-ex-wife-or mother. She got a bum rap."

The unwavering attention that comment brought him wasn’t too comfortable. "You ever been married?" Sam asked.

"No."

"Are you involved?"

"No." Max raised his eyebrows.

"I know, I know," Sam said. "Nosey old bastard, aren’t I? Just wondered. What d’you do now you can’t play football anymore?"

The waiter put a basket of warm bread on the table and Max tore off a piece. He made a diversion of gathering crumbs into a small pile. "I own a software company," he said finally. "And I help out with highschool football for The Lakes. I’m kind of a visiting motivator who gives pointers."

"Must have been a helluva shock. The accident. Trapped under a pickup like that. Then watching your best buddy get your job had to hurt."

"I’m a grownup. I got over it." More or less. "And Rob Mead is still the best friend a man could have. He couldn’t help what happened to me." Max didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Avoiding comments on what people liked to call his "tragedy" could keep him at home for long periods.

"Do you like kids?"

Startled, Max looked at him quizzically. He thought for a moment. "Yes, I guess I do. I don’t think I’d have wanted to get involved with a high school team if I didn’t."

"Ever think about having your own?"

"My own?" Max was having difficulty listening to Carolee Burns and understanding Sam’s oblique questions.

"Your own kids."

He gave that some thought, too. "With the right woman, sure." Carolee was looking in his direction again and he smiled, making sure his expression was open and friendly. She smiled back but he still didn’t think she was really aware of him.

"She’s a charmer," Sam said. "Never saw a woman with so much to offer who had so little confidence in herself."

"Maybe you’re right, but I like her just the way she is."

"You do, huh?"

"Well," Max drank more wine and followed it with a bite of bread. "Well, I don’t know her, do I. But I think I’d like her a lot if I did."

Sam sipped at his coffee and grimaced. "Swill," he said. "This stuff never saw a coffee bean. Do you ride."

"I’m sorry?" Max set his glass down on top of the wet circle that had already formed on the cloth.

"Horses." Sam said. "I’m getting a couple out at my place for when my granddaughter visits. I’m too old to keep up with exercising ’em."

"I grew up riding on my folks’ farm. And if that’s an invitation, thank you. I might take you up on the offer one of these days."

"That’s good." The man’s broad grin disconcerted Max.

"Do you know what this piece she’s playing is called?" Max asked to change the subject.

Sam considered, then said, "I Know You In The Dark. Strange she never wrote any words."

"Do you know if she wrote the music."

"Sure, she wrote it. When she was married to moron, the guy she was supposed to have taken advantage of. I ask you, does she look like she could take advantage of anyone?"

Good old Sam knew a great deal about Carolee Burns and Max intended to find out why. "She looks intense to me, intense but gentle."

"And she’s beautiful if you like a face that’s all eyes."

Max grinned. "She is beautiful."

"You must be pretty well fixed," Sam said offhandedly. "All that money from playing in the pros, and now your own software company."

"I can pay my bills."

The piece of music Carolee played didn’t need any words. Just knowing the title conjured images of heat and damp skin that caused Max to ache in places where he enjoyed the sensation. She was really sexy, he hadn’t noticed just how sexy before. Now and again she ran her tongue over her full lower lip and she kept her eyes closed almost all the time she played, only to open them with an vaguely startled expression, as if she was surprised to discover she wasn’t alone.

He could watch her and imagine she was playing for him, telling him she’d know him in the dark.

She didn’t know it, but they had things in common. The losses were different, but they had both lost. First her marriage had failed and her child had been all but taken from her. Then she’d chosen to walk away from a dynamic career. She could go back to the career. He didn’t have that choice. He’d been a wide receiver with the Broncos. Speed and his teammates’ confidence in his reliability went with the job. After the accident he’d brought himself back to excellent physical shape, but the metal plates in his legs meant he wouldn’t play again. Carolee obviously wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted for the rest of her life. Neither was he.

He’d just like to talk to her-alone. She might turn out to be vapid, but he didn’t think so, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d have plenty to say to each other.

Sam didn’t talk anymore and soon the only sounds in the restaurant came from the piano and from Carolee singing. Her mood changed with the mood of each piece but Max couldn’t get that one melody out of his head. I Know You In The Dark. He wanted to know her in the dark, and in the sunlight or the rain.

He’d been alone too long. It was time he found a new lady.

Max looked at a clock on the wall. Carolee had been playing almost forty-five minutes. A crowd hovered inside the front doors, straining to get a better look at her. He saw her nervous expression when she turned her head and saw them.

"Uh oh," Sam said, pushing back his chair. "She’s about had enough. Time to get her out of here."

Bodyguard, maybe? Or her driver more likely. Max pushed back from the table, too. He’d follow at a distance but make sure they got away safely.

The moment she finished the number she was playing, Carolee rose from the bench to bow and smile in all directions. The applause would be loud even in a much larger room. She walked toward Sam, caught Max’s eye, and veered away toward Brandy’s office.

A man reached for her arm as she passed. She sidestepped him, but without appearing angry.

"Parking lot at the back," Sam muttered. "She’s not usually this edgy. I’d better get her out through the kitchens."

"I’ll make sure no one bothers her," Max said, doing what came naturally and using his height and muscular weight to wall off a path from the office to the kitchens. "Tell her she’ll be fine and walk her out. These folks think she’s great, that’s all."

Sam opened the office door and said something Max couldn’t hear. Grinning and waving, Carolee came out, offered Max a grateful wink, and hurried into the kitchens.

Just that quickly she was gone.

And just that quickly Max was left with a wonderful picture of her winking one definitely green eye.

Italian music came from overhead speakers. Chatter and laughter meant everyone was having a good time and that they hadn’t noticed any awkwardness on Carolee’s part.

"Hey, Max," Brandy said, placing her tall, shapely body in front of him. "She’s great. You’ve got good taste."

"I like listening to her. Thanks for giving me a call and letting me know she’d be here."

Brandy ran her hands up and down his sides and puckered her lips at him. "I was watching you. You look lonely to me, Max. And frustrated, maybe? How about getting together later-for old time’s sake. No expectations, just good company."

He really did like her. "Not tonight, kid. I’m beat. Can I have a raincheck?"

"You bet." She pressed her elbows to her sides, showing off awe-inspiring cleavage. "Just one little kiss, though?"

He dropped a kiss on her brow but when she caught his head in both of her hands, he gave up and pressed his lips to hers. Fortunately he’d had enough practice to manage sliding contact. "That was nice," he said honestly. "We’ll get together soon."

"Oh, yes we will," she said. "Now run along."

He did as he was bid and didn’t get a single comment from the staff when he exited via the kitchens as Carolee and Sam had.

The lot behind the bistro was small, badly lighted, and smelled dank. Sudden shrieks from cats of the night startled him, but Max’s luck was holding. He made out Carolee leaning against the side of a one ton Dodge pickup. The hood was propped up and he could hear Sam’s voice spitting a venomous tirade from the depths of the engine compartment.

Max hadn’t expected to feel shy if he was ever more or less alone with Carolee, but he did. Still he pushed himself to amble toward the Dodge and call, "Hi, Sam. It’s Max. You having some trouble?"

Sam’s head emerged and he wiped his brow on his sleeve. "Nothing but trouble. Never has been."

"It’s been perfectly fine for fourteen years," Carolee said. "It’s tired and neglected is all. Time you traded it in."

"No way." Sam used a wrench like a baton. He made a growling sound and said, "Carolee Burns, meet Max Wolfe. You youngsters are to blame for all this planned obsolescence. If something breaks down, you want to throw it away and buy new. If I didn’t have a bit of arthritis, I could keep this thing going until we get home. It starts, but it’s touchy. If you could drive it, girl–"

"But I can’t drive a stick shift. We both know that. I’ll take some lessons."

"That’s not going to help us now."

Max tossed around the possibilities before saying, "I could drive you in my car, then come back and get you in the morning so you could deal with the Dodge."

"I’m not leaving my truck here," Sam said, all sharpness. "You might not get it, but there are a lot of young whippersnappers just dying to get their hands on something like this. If they couldn’t steal it, they’d strip it. I’d better get help."

"I could drive it for you," Max said and shook his head slightly. What was he thinking of, getting involved here?

Carolee spoke at last. "Then you’d be marooned without wheels."

"He could drive your car back," Sam said quickly. "We’d come into Kirkland for it in the morning. Max lives up the street here in a condo."

"I see." Clearly she didn’t see, but she wasn’t sure how to argue what Sam seemed so sure of.

"You two could drive out in my car while I drive this," Max said. "That would solve everything."

"What do you drive?" Sam asked.

"A Cadillac," he said and laughed uncomfortably. "One of the drawbacks of having mostly metal legs is that it’s more comfortable to stretch them out."

"We’re not driving your Cadillac," Sam said. "No way. Might do something to it. No, if you’d be kind enough to drive us back, you can use Carolee’s wheels for tonight."

Max wanted to ask how Sam intended to get anywhere tomorrow if he didn’t have a vehicle. He kept his mouth shut instead. The time always came to give in gracefully.

Carolee went to the driver’s side of the truck and Max handed her up. Promptly she slid to the middle of the bench seat and angled her legs to the passenger side of the cab. Sam got in beside her and slammed his door.

Max took a cleansing breath through his nose and climbed behind the wheel. "Here we go," he said and turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned over immediately and smoothly, but he treated the gas and clutch gently just in case.

"I’ll bring you home," Carolee said. "Then you’ll be put out as little as possible."

He shouldn’t be so pleased at the idea of spending more time with her–alone.

Beside him, close enough for their arms to touch, Carolee sat quite still. He wore a gray silk shirt and darker gray pants. It was impossible to ignore the warm feel of her when he turned the wheel. Each time he shifted, his hand brushed her thigh. When he glanced down, he saw that her skirts were hiked above her knees. The sight of her long, well-shaped legs tightened his belly.

"You and Sam seem to know each other," she said to him. "Do you fish?"

Questions, questions. "Not often."

"Play golf?"

"Occasionally."

"We met watching you," Sam said, evidently unnerved by the third degree. "He’s Max Wolfe the pro-football player."

"Ex-football player. Don’t forget to give me directions."

"Turn left on Central Avenue," Carolee said promptly. "Then take a right on Market Street."

Kirkland was crowded. Cruising cars jammed the narrow streets. Groups on the sidewalks hollered responses to blaring horns. Some danced to music blasting from clubs, and from vehicles with rolled down windows. Warm weather had brought out halter tops and shorts. In-line skaters dodged among walkers, skateboarders, cyclists and runners.

Sam’s truck didn’t have air-conditioning. "Don’t need it around here," he’d said and Max had been glad it was Carolee who responded, "You’re the only one who thinks so." But tonight Max enjoyed feeling the town’s energy, and smelling flowers in overflowing hanging baskets. He liked Kirkland a lot.

"Son of a . . . Will you look at this place?" Sam said. "Damn carnival. They think they own the roads. Look at that. No signal. Geez, move it, will ya? Honk, Max. We should be halfway to Juanita by now."

Carolee’s sudden laugh made Max grin and look sideways at her. She gave him a conspiratorial smile that wrinkled her nose and Max felt almost as if she’d put her arms around him. Intimate, that’s how her smile felt.

Finding Ian – Excerpt

Finding Ian

Thorndike Press
July 1, 2001
ISBN-10: 0783894570
ISBN-13: 978-0783894577

CHAPTER ONE

One shoe box with a broken lid. One lousy shoe box held together by a knotted length of graying elastic.

Byron saw the end of the thing beneath a pile of shirts he never wore. He’d probably have thrown them out years ago–only somewhere inside him where he tried never to look, hovered a warning not to go near that pile.

Ignoring the deluge of falling clothes, he pulled the box from a shelf in the walk-in closet, carried it to the bedroom, and dropped it on the bed.

It slipped to the floor. The elastic snapped.

The life of Byron and Lori Frazer spilled out.

Two years of loving scattered on a green and rust Chinese silk rug Lori never saw. Loving, and hoping, and praying, and daring to laugh–and losing. Thirteen years ago they’d lost the battle for a future together, and it hurt all over again, dammit, it hurt almost as much this morning as it had hurt then.

He went to twenty-foot-high windows overlooking a sheer drop to San Francisco Bay. Here, high up on the west side of Tiburon, he’d managed to find a kind of peace, a kind of insulation from the demands of his life that he’d rather leave either in his consulting rooms in the city, or at the TV station where he spent hours of every day.

Jim Wade, the private investigator who’d worked for him for years, had obviously followed Byron’s offhand invitation to finish his coffee–even though Byron had excused himself from their meeting to come up here. While Byron watched, Wade slowly emerged from the two story house and sauntered to his inconspicuous brown Honda.

An inconspicuous car for an inconspicuous man who made his living watching, while not being watched. And he was good at it. Jim Wade was the perfect, unremarkable face in any crowd.

He glanced toward a cloudless blue sky, and the water that shimmered beneath an early March sun. Blue, on blue, on blue. Shaded bowls of blue, their rims dissolving into each other. Bougainvillaea in colors of ripe oranges, red, and a luminous purple, billowed over white stucco walls edging the steep cliffs. The twisted limbs of stunted pines backed the wall and made jigsaw pieces of the horizon.

Wade threw a battered black briefcase and the jacket of his brown and beige striped seersucker suit into the Honda, climbed in, and drove away from the parking area at the back of the house.

Then he was gone.

Wade was gone, and Byron was left with no one but himself to make the decisions he’d hoped would never have to be made. Not that the fault for what had happened could be set at anyone’s feet but his own. And he could choose to walk away from responsibility. After all, he’d turned his back on responsibility once before and been able to convince himself that what he’d done was for the best–for all concerned. And it might have been, mightn’t it?

He returned to the side of the bed and went to his knees. He started gathering pieces of paper and photographs. Notes. Pressed flowers that crumbled at the slightest touch. A bracelet of colored yarn–faded now–and with Lori’s name, in turquoise-colored beads, woven into the strands. Cards, Lori’s, and even some of Byron’s, handmade. They’d had so little money, not that he could have felt for a store-bought card what he’d felt for each of Lori’s simple designs, or her words that could not have been for anyone but him. “I promise I’ll never slow you down. I’ll only be free if you’re free. Be free, Byron. Love you, Lori.”

He hadn’t wanted to be free, not free of Lori, the sweetest, most honest creature ever to be part of his life.

He had owed her so much, but he’d failed her. And when he’d failed her, he’d failed himself. He had turned her concern for him into an excuse to do what he’d wanted to do–to avoid anything that might tie him down.

Hell, he didn’t know anymore. He hadn’t known then, but after all he’d been doing what Lori told him to do–choosing freedom at a time when to do anything else would make his way not just hard, but near impossible.

Byron Frazer had betrayed his wife.

The box should have stayed where it was.

A picture taken in Golden Gate Park. Lori clowning by a tree trunk. An insubstantial girl, with long, fine blond hair blowing away from her face, a bright grin, and gray eyes screwed up against the sun. He’d been playing his guitar and she’d leaped up to dance. She’d twirled and laughed, twirled and laughed, and he abandoned the guitar for their old point-and-shoot camera. Her slender body and well-shaped legs showed in shadow through a thin, flower-strewn, gauze dress.

His hands shook.

“Byron! Byron, are you here?” The unmistakable voice of his agent, Celeste Daily, came from the foyer. Celeste had her own key and never hesitated to use it. “Byron, darling, it’s me, Celeste.”

He listened to her inevitable exceedingly high heels clip on the terra-cotta tiles that covered the ground floor. She would be checking each room for him.

Celeste, his agent, and the woman who thought she owned him.

Tucking the photo of Lori into his shirt pocket, he made a rapid pile of everything else, and crammed it into the box. Then he pushed the box under the bed.

Celeste was already climbing the stairs.

What the hell was he going to do?

“Byron Frazer? Come out, come out. Be warned, I’m comin’ in if you don’t come out.”

Some might be beguiled by her playfulness. Byron knew her too well.

The bedroom door stood open to a wide balcony that ran around the second floor. This room, decorated for him by the strangers he’d hired to make the house peaceful–his only instruction to them–echoed the cool greens and creams, and soft white used in the foyer that soared to open beams above the upper floor.

Tall, slender, elegant in putty colored silk, her blond hair curving smoothly to chin-level, Celeste appeared on the threshold. She looked at him, and frowned. “Byron? Honey, what gives? There’s a studio full of people twiddling their thumbs and waiting for you over there.” She looked at the phone by the bed, took obvious note of the unplugged chord.

He could lie, say he was sick, had unplugged the phone to get some rest, then overslept. Only this wasn’t a time for lies. He shifted his foot slightly and the toe of his right sneaker made contact with the shoe box.

No more lying, especially not to himself.

“For God’s sake, what is it?” Celeste jiggled the car keys she held in one hand. “Oh, there isn’t time now. We’ll talk about it while we drive. I met Rachel outside, by the way. She’s not a happy camper. She likes early morning visitors less than you do. Good housekeepers are hard to come by–you’d better smooth her feathers.”

“Rachel’s fine. She enjoys complaining.”

He didn’t have to deal with what Jim Wade had told him. For thirteen years he’d avoided doing anything–why start now? He crossed his arms and felt the photo in his pocket.

The coldness, the old coldness he’d learned to ignore, it spread beneath his skin. His scalp tightened and he felt himself growing distant. Celeste’s mouth moved. He watched, even shook his head a little and turned away as if dismissing her, but he couldn’t hear her clearly anymore.

He drew a deep, deep breath and closed his eyes, willing himself to be calm, to stop himself from moving away, moving inside himself. It was Byron the quitter who ran away. He wasn’t that man anymore. He wouldn’t run again. Would he?

“Why didn’t you come to the studio?” Celeste asked. “Or at least call and say you’d be late.”

He struggled to concentrate. People thought him rude, arrogant, when he turned his silence on them, but he literally withdrew, just as his mother had withdrawn from his father’s mental and physical battering. In the end she had gone so far away she’d never returned…

“Byron?”

“We’re well ahead of schedule on the tapings,” he said.

“That doesn’t matter. You can’t leave that many people standing around doing nothing just because you decide to sleep in. That’s expensive. And it’s not your style. You can’t–”

“How do you know what my style is?” Much as he yearned to shout, he kept his voice steady. His father had been a screamer and Byron had learned to stuff down any urge to follow in good old dad’s footsteps. “You don’t know me, Celeste.”

Her large, violet-colored eyes grew hard. “If you say so. That’s a discussion that’ll have to wait. Right now I need you downstairs in my car. We’ve got some major opportunities lining up. You’re one hell of a success. I do know that about you. You’re thirty-four, and you’re already a media phenomenon. Dr. Byron Frazer, the country’s leading popular expert on the family–and every woman’s ideal man. Let’s go.”

“You go,” he said. “I’ve got some things to attend to. Be a love and go buy me time, hm?” He managed a smile. The instant softening in her perfect features brought him no pleasure. So he had a face and smile that had women eating out of his hands. Big deal. They wouldn’t want to come within miles if they knew what he really was. No woman worth knowing would want to.

“Byron, please–”

“I just told you I’ve got things to do.”

“You bet you do. If we hurry we’ll at least make lunch. Buddy’s talking about product tie-ins.”

“We’ve already got product tie-ins.”

“Other than tapes and videos and books.”

Byron rubbed his eyes. “I’m not talking about this now.”

“Because of the detective?”

He grew still, then slowly dropped his hands. “What did you say?”

Celeste walked across his bedroom to the simple teak writing table by the windows. She skirted the table and sat atop deep green corduroy cushions on a long window seat. “Rachel was outside dead-heading some flowers. Your Mr. Wade was just leaving.”

“My Mr. Wade . . . How do you know his name?”

“He stopped and said goodbye to Rachel, and she said, “Good bye, Mr. Wade.” Then Rachel rolled her eyes at me and said, “Detectives wanting coffee almost before my eyes are open.” Celeste crossed one long leg over the other and didn’t attempt to stop her skirts from slipping up her thighs.

“What’s happened, Byron? Why would the police be here?”

“He’s not a policeman. He’s a private investigator–and my business with him is private.”

She raised her silver blond brows, got up, and bent over the writing table.

Damn, he’d forgotten about the papers Wade had brought and left spread out.

Celeste picked up a photograph and studied it. “Who’s this?”

“No one you know.” No one he knew–he’d made sure of that.

On that terrible day he was never going to forget, Lori had said, “Byron, promise me you’ll put this behind you if something goes wrong. Promise me you won’t let anything stop you from doing what you want to do.”

“This is what I want to do,” he told her.

“But if. . . if something doesn’t turn out the way we hope? You won’t be stupid, will you? You won’t give it all up. We both know that would never work. You wouldn’t be able to manage everything.”

“No, Lori, we don’t both know that. You think you do. But nothing’s going wrong.”

“Promise me, please,” Lori said. “You’re going to be a great psychologist. You’re going to help people like us. Like the people we were when we were kids.”

“I promise you I’m always going to try to do what’s right.”

But afterward he’d lost his nerve.

“Nice looking kid,” Celeste said, and tossed the photograph down again. “C’mon, open up to me. What’s going on.”

“Back off, Celeste.”

“We’ve been through too much together for me to shrivel up just because you sound pissed.”

“I’ve got to leave California for a while. Maybe quite a while.” That had been the last thing he’d intended to say. But that was the answer, that’s what he had to do–what was right. Finally. The pressure on his chest lightened. He’d made his decision. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m going away. We’ve got plenty in the can at the station. If necessary they can go to reruns.”

“That’s the craziest suggestion you’ve ever made.” She hurried around the table and came to him, grasped his biceps. “You’re tired, that’s all. Everything’s gone so fast and you haven’t had a real break in two years. Take a vacation. Go to Grand Cayman for a couple of weeks. You like it there.”

“I don’t like it there. I’m going to . . .” No, he would not tell her or anyone else where he was going. “I’m going to visit someone.”

“Who?”

She never backed off, never gave up.

“My son,” he told her, meeting her eyes while, inside, he began to move away again. The faint, familiar buzzing began at the center of his mind. The palms of his hands sweated–cold sweat.

Celeste dropped her hands. “Son? What son? You don’t have–you can’t have a son, for God’s sake. What are you saying to me?” Her voice rose to a thin shriek.

“I have a son,” he said, and this time the sound of it felt more real.

“No. Where is he? With his mother?”

“I’m not talking about Lori.”

“Oh, my, God.” Clapping her hands over her mouth, she tottered to the bed and sat down with a thump. “Lori? We’ve known each other for years. We’ve been more than business partners, Byron. But now there’s a son, and Lori?”

“I’ve told you I won’t talk about Lori. I’ve got a son who needs me.” A son who might or might not need him, but Byron intended to find out for sure.

“That’s him.” She nodded toward the table. “The blond kid with the dog. I don’t get it. How could you do this? Dr. Frazer can’t have a secret kid stashed away somewhere. Or a wife, or ex-wife, or whatever. Think what that could do to your credibility. If you’d been straight about it up front, we could have made sure there was never any mess to clean up.”

A mess to clean up? “Please go . . . Celeste, please give me some space. This isn’t something I can talk about with you. Not with anyone. I need–”

“Oh, Byron.” She surged to her feet and rushed to him, wrapped her arms around him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me, please. I don’t know . . . You shocked me and I’ve never been good at shocks. Why aren’t I saying what I should be saying. This is wonderful. You have a son and he’s beautiful. He must get the blond hair from his mother, but I bet he’s got your eyes. What a beautiful boy.”

“You can hardly see him in that picture. He’s too far away.” Wade had been warned never to intrude on Ian, to make certain the boy was never frightened.

“I don’t have to see him any clearer to know he’s wonderful. He’s your boy. He’d have to be wonderful. A green-eyed blond. He’ll soon be fighting off the girls. I want to meet him. I want to come with you.”

There was only one person he’d like with him when–if–he met Ian, and she wouldn’t be available. “No.” He stiffened and gently disentangled himself from her. Forcing a smile, he said, “But thank you. Cover for me here, will you? Family is what I’m supposed to be about. You can say–without lying–that I’ve got a family emergency.”

“That man–the investigator. He’s working for you.”

He bit back a retort. “Yes, yes he is.”

“He came with all that.” She waved toward the writing table. “About that boy. You’ve been having his mother watched, haven’t you? Because you want custody?”

“You watch too much television.” His voice was jocular, he made sure of that, but his pulse hammered at his temples. Somehow he had to satisfy Celeste’s curiosity and keep her out of his business. “Nothing like that. Custody? Get real. What would I do with a kid? I analyze ’em, I don’t live with ’em.”

She smiled at that, nervously at first, then more widely and with confidence. “So why do you have to go see him?”

Blurting out his intentions about that hadn’t been smart. “Just to check out that everything’s okay. His situation’s changed.” Changed? Every shred of security had been pulled away from him and he’d been shuttled off to some relative he’d never met.

“You keep tabs on him through a private investigator. Why?”

“I don’t have to go into all that with you, but it’s the way it had to be.” Because, when the chips were down and he’d officially turned his back on the boy, he’d been unable to put him out of his mind. Making certain Ian was safe and well-cared for had felt right–essential.

“You don’t have whatever rights a father’s supposed to have in cases like this?”

She had to leave. She had to stop asking questions he didn’t want to hear, much less think about.

Her eyes flickered away, then back again. Something had changed in the way she looked at him. Wary? Questioning? He could almost hear her wondering what else she didn’t know about him, just how much he’d hidden behind a false face he’d perfected for the world.

“Look,” he began, stepping cautiously, thinking his way through each word before he spoke, “this isn’t something I ever expected. I thought the issue had been put to bed years ago. It all happened when I was a kid–twenty-one. It wasn’t supposed to become an issue again.”

“Ugliness has a way of not staying dead.”

“There’s nothing ugly–” he made himself take a breath. Of course she thought he was keep a dirty little secret, a secret he was ashamed of. “I know what you’re trying to say. I’m being absolutely honest with you Celeste. We’ve been in business together a long time.” An idea came to him. “Maybe you’d feel better if we severed that now–at least until I’ve straightened all this out and I can come back minus the baggage again.”

“No, Byron!” She fluttered around him. “Let me pour you a drink.”

“It’s the middle of the morning.”

“I could use a brandy even if you couldn’t.”

“Help yourself. I’ve got plans to make.”

The heels of her cream leather pumps were of a gold metallic material. When she moved from the rug to the rosy-hued madrona floor, the heel tips made muffled thuds.

He wanted to take a closer look at the photos of Ian. Through the years he’d avoided having Wade take any shots. Without a visual image it was easier to remain detached.

Ian hadn’t needed him before–not really. He’d made sure he was well provided for, and safe. And from Wade’s regular observations and reports, the boy was happy enough.

Celeste opened a cabinet fronted with etched glass, selected a decanter and brandy bubble, and poured a healthy measure of Hennessey. She drank too much but she didn’t want Byron’s opinion or advice on that topic.

She wandered back, a calculated, hip-swinging wander, and arranged herself in his favorite dark green leather wingback chair. She used one heel to pull the ottoman close, and stacked her feet. Celeste’s legs were her most remarkable feature, not that the rest of her wasn’t remarkable.

“How old is . . . Ian?”

“Thirteen.”

“You haven’t exactly been an active part of his life.”

He hadn’t been any part of his life. “No. It never worked out that way.”

“So why go rushing off now? Why not get through this season’s shooting and make leisurely plans to take some time off? It would be much simpler–”

“Simpler for whom? No, that won’t be possible.” The truth was that he only had Wade’s word for it that Ian was happy, and now, with this move, there was no assurance that life wasn’t very difficult for a thirteen-year-old uprooted from home and school during early adolescence.

Celeste swirled her brandy, sniffed, tipped up the glass until she could poke the very tip of her tongue into the liquor. She kept her eyes downcast, but the affectation was deliberately sexual. He regretted the brief, intimate interlude they’d shared. The cost had been too high, but it was over and would stay that way, no matter how hard Celeste tried to find her way back into his bed.

She rested her head back. “What’s she like?”

“He . . . Oh.” He spread his hand over the pocket with Lori’s picture inside. “A wonderful woman. That’s all I’m going to say. That, and we had a child. Then something happened, something too awful to be true–only it was true. I had to make a decision and it meant I gave up being part of my son’s life. As long as everything was fine with Ian, it was fine with me. Now I’m not sure he is fine, and everything’s changed.”

“You’re wonderful,” she told him, drinking more brandy. “You’ll forgive me for overreacting, I know you will. And I am coming with you. You need someone to look after your needs, too.”

“No, Goddammit!” So much for being the expert on controlling temper. “No, Celeste. A man has to do some things alone. But I promise you I’ll keep you in the picture–as much in the picture as you need to be to do a good job for our interests here. And I appreciate your concern.” He went to the open door and stood there, pointedly waiting.

Uncurling her legs, Celeste got up slowly. She walked toward him until she was close enough for him to see tiny beads of moisture on her brow. The lady was thoroughly unnerved.

“It’s about the woman, really, isn’t it? You want to see if it’s still as good as you remember.”

Even the thought sounded disgusting. “You . . . You wouldn’t understand someone like Lori. I don’t want you to mention her again. Not ever. Do we understand each other?”

Pressing her glass into his hands, she made a silent “Oh,” with peach-colored lips. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you were in love with a saint.”

Anger confused him. “Give my apologies,” he said formally. “I will contact you–but I’m not sure when. Until then, you can say what I’ve told you to say: I’ve been called away on a family emergency.”

She started to say something, but he turned his back on her and went to sit at the writing table. He touched nothing until he heard her footsteps on the stairs. She moved quickly and soon the front door slammed hard enough to rattle windowpanes. Defeat wasn’t a word Celeste liked to include in her vocabulary.

Byron picked up the photo and looked closely at Ian. For the first time he allowed himself to wish he could see the boy more clearly.

Ian was bent over with his face turned aside to accept licks on his neck from the big, black lab he embraced with both arms. A thick head of blond hair and a grin. A tan from what Byron could make out.

He pulled out Lori’s photo and set it on the table beside Ian’s.

And he brought a fist down so hard the impact made him flinch. They should all have been playing together with the dog, laughing together. And Byron and Lori Frazer should be holding each other while they watched their boy romp, secure in his parents’ love–their love for him, and for each other.

He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his hands. He didn’t want to think, not about that hospital. He didn’t want to hear it’s sounds and smell it’s smells–or see what he had seen there.

Why couldn’t he forget?

“It’ll get better, Byron, son.”

He tried to evade the doctor. “I’m not your son. I’m nobody’s son, never was.” He took several steps along the hospital corridor but, his legs were too heavy.

“Look,” Dr. Harrison said, “this is a tough one. The toughest. My god, I want to help you. Right now you feel–”

Byron’s teeth chattered. “You don’t know how I feel.”

Rubber wheels squeaked on the green and white tiles. The doctor caught Byron’s elbow and steered him closer to one wall. An orderly in blue scrubs pushed a gurney past–to the closed door of the room Byron and Harrison had just left.

“No!” Byron yanked his arm free. “Oh, no. Not yet, please.”

“Byron, why don’t we take a walk.”

The orderly had stopped. “Are you talking to me, sir?” He looked uncertainly at Byron, then at Dr. Harrison.”

“Carry on,” Harrison said.

Before Byron’s stinging eyes, the corridor’s beige walls rippled sluggishly as if they were under water.

He looked at Harrison, and the man with the gurney. They were all under water here, and sinking deeper.

“God’s not finished with me yet,” he muttered.

Harrison came closer, jutting his chin and frowning, his eyes vast and popping behind thick-lensed glasses. “You need some air,” he said.

“Don’t tell me what I need.” Byron pointed to the room into which the orderly pushed his white-draped gurney. “She needs air. My wife needs air.”

“I want you to lie down,” Harrison said. “I’m going to give you a shot of something to make you feel better.”

“Stop telling me something can make me feel better.” Byron sidestepped to the opposite wall. He held out a hand to ward the man off.

Harrison shook his head and said, “Okay, okay. Coffee, then. I’ll get us both some coffee. Come with me.”

“She tried to laugh,” Byron said. Tears burned his throat. “She tried to laugh and she said she didn’t think she’d die today because God hadn’t finished with her yet.”

“Lori had spirit.”

“She was twenty years old.” He reached behind him to feel the cool wall.

“And you’re only twenty-one.” Harrison folded his arms and bowed his head. “Too damn young, both of you.”

“Those people don’t know her,” Byron said. Breath fought its way in and out of his lungs at the same time. “I don’t want”–he rubbed his eyes and tried to focus–“I don’t want strangers touching her.”

“Byron–”

“I don’t want them seeing her like that. Putting their hands on her.” He made to go back the way he’d come, but Harrison stepped into his path. “I want to take care of her. Please. I can do it. Just tell me how and I’ll do it.”

“Hell,” Harrison said, almost to himself. “She’s . . . Lori’s at peace now, Byron. There isn’t any pain, now. Just peace.”

“She never weighed anything. I could carry her where she has to go, couldn’t I?”

“No.”

“Sure I . . . could. I–” With a clicking sound, his throat closed. “I want to hold her–just one more time. Please.”

The doctor’s hands came down on his shoulders. “If I could change this, I would. Damn it to hell, there are never any right words. You can’t hold her now, Byron. Lori’s dead. You’ve got to find a way to let her go.”

“I want to die. I want to be dead, too.”

The banging open of the door jarred his teeth together. He saw the orderly backing from the room.

This time the white drape covered Lori on the gurney. Webbing straps had been buckled over her body.

Laughter welled in Byron’s chest. “They think”–he pointed–“They’re afraid she might run away. And they’re right! Lori can really run. Give her a blue sky and soft grass and she can run . . . and run.”

They wheeled her past.

“Watch her,” Byron called. He wiped the back of a hand over his mouth. “Watch her, you hear? She’s fast.”

A nurse came to stand in front of him. He remembered her face, but not her name. “Will you let me take you upstairs, Mr. Frazer?” She had a light voice. “That’s where you need to be. It’ll help.”

“No.” He shook his head, and shook and shook it. “I can’t Not now.”

“Yes, you can.” Her fingers closed around his left wrist. “I’ll take you. For Lori, Mr. Frazer. You told her you’d be all right. Remember?”

“She wasn’t supposed to die.” Abruptly, the tension drained away. He just wanted to lie down. “Leave me alone.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea.” The nurse tucked her arm firmly beneath his. “Upstairs we go. There’s someone who needs you to hold him. It’s time you were properly introduced to your son.”

Beneath his face, Byron’s crossed hands were wet. Tears? How long had it been since he’d cried? Not since that afternoon in a San Francisco hospital watching his young wife’s body wheeled away?

Or had he last cried some weeks later, in the dark, in the bed they’d shared?

Yes, that had been it. And he’d turned his face to the wall and prayed he would one day believe what he’d told himself in a lawyer’s office, that he’d been selfless in relinquishing his tiny baby boy to a couple who would never have children of their own.

Now that grateful husband and wife were dead and once more the boy was moving on, moving on to more strangers.

But this time Byron would do what he’d promised Lori, he’d try to do whatever was right.

Perhaps then he could stop hating himself.

7B – Excerpt

7B

Mira
Mar 1, 2001
ISBN-10: 1551667959
ISBN-13: 978-1551667959

Stella’s Thoughts and Excerpt of 7B

The Mayfair Square series has hooked me. I think I’m going to pop over to London in the summertime this year and do more digging around. 7B is Sibyl Smiles and Hunter Lloyd’s (soon to become Sir Hunter Lloyd) story, but I want to think about a few things for the next MS book. Ooh, I’m so excited about 7B — I just love the old-fashioned gas lamp on the cover. They’ve made the glass look like glass. By the way, I’d like you to imagine a teensy bit more snow on those winter pansies! But let’s think about 7B for now and look at the lay of the land.

Sir Septimus Spivey, resident ghost at 7 Mayfair Square, and incurable meddler into the lives of those who live there, has the following to report on Sibyl and Hunter:

"Females. I should have known that even so placid an example as Sibyl Smiles could become difficult. Her sister, Meg, is a headstrong creature, a daring and unpredictable specimen if ever I saw one. Sibyl is the pale shadow, or should I say that she used to be the pale shadow. I cannot imagine what has come over her, unless it is jealousy of her sister, and a determination to prove that she, Sibyl, is capable of equally flamboyant and unsuitable behavior. Oh I am almost certain she trembles within. I have seen how she gathers courage to embark on each outrageous step she plans, but embark, she does. And what if she accomplishes her aim to achieve independence of the most extraordinary kind? Well, then, I shall not only be foiled again, but doubly foiled again.

"You see, my plan is that at last that cold fish Hunter Lloyd, Hester’s nephew and another unwanted occupant at Number 7, will decide that a man in his position — barrister, y’know, and about to be knighted, although I cannot imagine why — must have a wife and a residence of his own. So, Hunter marries Sibyl. Sibyl marries Hunter. The result is obvious, or so I had hoped."

You see — when he was alive, Sir Septimus designed Number 7 and considered it a crowning achievement. He can’t stand the idea of lodgers living there and is determined to get rid of them by any means.

"I believe Hunter may have noticed Miss Sibyl. His gaze lingers, y’know. But Miss Sibyl’s mind is elsewhere. She is rehearsing; making ridiculous faces in front of the mirror. Practices walking with a devil-may-care swagger. A strut. The silly chit is determined to put on a self-assured air, a worldly air, even. With her newfound friends, a group of drab, bluestocking creatures destined for the shelf, she is devising a plan to obtain what she wants most in life.

"Miss Sibyl Smiles wants a child."

"She does not want a husband."

"I shall overcome."

*   *   *   *   *

Poor old Spivey, it would be so much easier on him if he admitted he has no idea about the workings of the "modern" mind. Perhaps you’ll understand exactly how determined Sibyl has become if you listen to a conversation she has with her older, married sister, Meg.

*   *   *   *   *

Sibyl could not stem the rush of blood to her neck and face. "You are examining me, Meg, and looking for flaws. You’ve decided I’m different, well, the only thing different about me is that I, too, wish to have a baby. Why not?"

Astounded, Meg saw when Sibyl ran out of breath. She slumped onto the chaise and Meg didn’t know what to say — a quiet extraordinary turn of affairs for one who was gifted with quick wits.

At last she recovered a little and said softly, "You are eight and twenty. Hardly ancient. You will have your own children, dearest. Why should you think I expect otherwise?"

"I’m tired of waiting," Sibyl said. "There is no eager husband panting to sweep me away. I do not grow younger. The time for me to bear children is now, and that’s what I’ve decided to do . . ."

Unwillingly, Meg made herself consider what Sibyl had actually told her. "I will not question your sincerity in this matter," Meg said at last. Perhaps she had misunderstood Sibyl. "You have met someone who has asked for your hand. You do not love him, but you have accepted him because you want a child at once. That is what you mean?"

"No." There was only determination in Sibyl’s tone. "There isn’t a man in my life, yet."

*   *   *   *   *

What Sibyl hasn’t told her shocked sister is that a man has been selected, the only man Sibyl can imagine approaching with her wild request — and she does intend to ask him, in a most straightforward manner, to help her achieve her heart’s desire.

*   *   *   *   *

"Is this a bad time?" Sibyl asked, entering Hunter’s rooms as soon as he called for her to come in. "I apologize if it is, but I have something to ask you and I want to do so before my courage deserts me.

"I was only joking, of course." She smiled and played casually with he double ruff at her neck. "Courage isn’t likely to desert me, not when I ask a favor of a dear old friend."

"Glad to hear that," Hunter said, but felt unaccountably disquieted by the impression that she had either become more bold, or was pretending to be.

*   *   *   *   *

Hunter already has an inkling that something is different about Sibyl. What follows is extraordinary. Sibyl bungles her request, giving Hunter the impression that she intends to go to the Continent and simply "find" a man to become her child’s father. For her part, Sibyl is embarrassed by her own awkwardness and decides she must "get on with it."

*   *   *   *   *

"What I require cannot be accomplished without a man." The next breath she took was so hard. She would tell him what she would like, tell him straight. "What could be better than to know the father of one’s child is an honorable man, a man one likes so much?"

This was an encounter Hunter would never forget. "Certainly sounds like an absolute requirement to me." She had no interest in a husband, but he would save her from herself, no matter how difficult that proved.

Sibyl could scarcely hear for the pounding of her heart. "Then we are agreed. Surely you know the man I would choose, don’t you? There is only you who could be the perfect one. Will you do this for me, Hunter?"

*   *   *   *   *

As you see, this relationship is off to a most unusual start. Perhaps you think Hunter will turn Sibyl away and everything will fizzle. Or that Sibyl will change her mind and return to her usual, sensible self. Well, I’m very sorry, but for Hunter Lloyd and Sibyl Smiles, nothing will ever be the same.

 

Once and for Always – Excerpt

Once And For Always

Mira (April 1, 2000)
ISBN-10: 1551665808
ISBN-13: 978-1551665801

Buy at Amazon.com

PROLOGUE

He was the most quiet eighteen-year-old boy she’d ever met. At least, he was quiet around her. She’d seen him being pretty rowdy with his friends.

"Do you like being in Wales?" he asked. "It must be a lot different from America."

Caitlin looked up at him. He stared at the ocean. "I do like it here," she said. "It’s different and that’s exciting." Every day this week he’d followed her from school and asked in his soft Welsh voice if he could walk her home. And each day she’d said yes, her heart thumping, a funny tingling in her arms and legs.

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and kicked at rocks underfoot. She liked the way he dressed, casually but more tidily than most of the other boys in the local school. And she liked him being tall because she was too.

"How long will you stay in Tenby?"

"Until it’s time to start school in Los Angeles in the fall. I wish I could be here longer but I need to be back in the States for my senior year of high school."

"Why did you come?"

Anyone else would have asked these questions when they’d first met. Not Trevor Morgan. Until today he’d barely said two words to her. Their afternoon walks had been carried out in silence until he said goodbye at the gate to her grandparents’ yard. Now the strained set of his fine features, his big hunched shoulders, the occasional sidelong shift of serious gray eyes let her know that he’d probably rehearsed what he wanted to say a dozen times and agonized again and again trying to get started.

They carried on along the cliffs toward her grandparents’ house which lay north of the bustling fishing and resort town of Tenby on the southwest coast of Wales. Just as Trevor had suggested, everything here was foreign to Caitlin. With each day Los Angeles felt farther away and less real.

Trevor stopped walking and faced the sea. "Would you like to sit down for a bit?"

No eighteen-year-old boy back home would be so diffident, so uncomfortable around a girl who interested him. Caitlin was very sure she interested Trevor.

"Yes. There’s a hollow over there. Right at the edge of the cliff. We’ll be mostly under the wind."

Wordlessly he took her hand and guided her through wildly rustling scrub grass into a sandy bowl above a sheer drop to chrysolite green water. As soon as she sat cross-legged on the coarse sand he let her go and dropped down beside her.

"Only another week before school’s out," he remarked.

"Mm. A month hasn’t really been long enough to get much of a feel for the differences between curriculum here and back home. But I’ve got a good idea. And I am looking forward to the summer vacation."

"What will you do?" Now he looked directly at her. His eyes were a steely gray, like the ocean below them on a cloudy day. "I mean what will you do in the holidays?"

"I haven’t really thought about it too much. Help my grandparents around the house, I suppose. And come out here to walk. Maybe sail a little if I can rent a boat. And swim, of course."

"I’ve got a sailboat."

Instantly he became red and poked holes in the sand with a long forefinger.

She mustn’t laugh or he’d think she was amused at him rather than delighted. "Is that an invitation?"

"I suppose so."

"Then thank you. I’ll look forward to it. Do you like to swim — when you’re not playing that awful rugby, that is?"

"Rugger isn’t awful. It’s a great game."

"If you say so." She wouldn’t tell him that the only reason she’d gone out to the school playfield to watch the team practice the strange rough game was because she wanted to see him. He was as noisy as his teammates out there; yelling and pushing in a sport she didn’t understand although it reminded her of American football without helmets and pads for the players.

"We won’t be playing rugger in the summer," Trevor said.

"Does that mean you might want to come swimming then?"

"With you?"

She was the one with the reputation for reticence. The tables were being turned here and she enjoyed the sense of power. "Yes, with me. You take me sailing because you’ve got a boat and I’ll take you swimming because I can swim."

"I can swim, too."

They laughed and Caitlin felt him relax a little.

"Your family runs that big tavern in town, don’t they?"

He nodded and stuck a blade of grass between square even teeth. "The White Knight. Only it’s a pub in this country, not a tavern. My grandfather ran it before my Dad took over."

"And one day I suppose it’ll be your turn."

"No." He sounded adamant. "Not me. I want to go to school in London and become an accountant."

Before she could make the mistake of saying that being an accountant sounded boring, a gull swooped in, squawked, flapped its wings furiously at the sight of Trevor and Caitlin and swept away again. The dried grass around them smelled sweet, the salty aroma from the sea, warm.

Trevor leaned forward and his striped tee-shirt stretched over a broad back. "Where did you get a name like Caitlin? It’s Irish, isn’t it? Caitlin Rhys. They don’t match. You said your father grew up here and you can’t get much more Welsh than Rhys."

When he said her name it sounded different, lilting, nice not flat the way she was used to hearing it. She glanced at his strong tanned arms, his straight brown hair tossed this way and that in the breeze. "My grandmother came from Ireland. Her mother’s name was Caitlin and that’s where it comes from. I guess that’s where I got the red hair too, just like Dad. They call him Red."

"I’ve never seen him. Does he have blue eyes like you too?"

"Yes." Her stomach felt jumpy. Just as she’d been watching him, noticing everything about him, he must have been doing the same with her.

"They say in town that your father’s a big film producer in Hollywood and your mother’s Eileen Allen the actress."

"That’s right." She didn’t want to talk about all that. Here everything was quieter, more down-to-earth, and much as she loved her parents she’d rather not think about the make-believe life she often felt she lived.

"Will you be an actress like your mother? You’d look lovely in the pictures."

She couldn’t see his face but his cough made her certain he was blushing again. "I don’t want to act. I want to go into design. Clothing or something. I’m not sure what."

"I see." The way he said it suggested he didn’t see at all. "You live in Hollywood they say. I can’t even imagine that. It’s something out of the pictures to me."

"It wouldn’t be if you went there. It’s ordinary. But actually I live in Beverly Hills. That’s close to Hollywood though.

"What’s it like to have lots of money and live in a big house with a pool and servants and . . ." He closed his mouth. "That’s rude to ask personal questions. I’m sorry."

"It’s okay. And living that way is okay too, only it’s better here."

He scooted around until he faced her. "You mean that?"

"Yep. This is the first time I can remember when I felt free. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re seventeen to feel free."

Trevor let sand slip through his fingers before he replied. "I like you, Caitlin Rhys. I’d like to swim and sail a lot with you."

She leaned forward and folded her hands over his. "I’d like that, too," she told him.

He sighed, keeping his eyes on their hands until the silence made Caitlin nervous. She swallowed and swallowed again, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t.

"Trevor," she said when she couldn’t be quiet any longer, "look at me." When he did she leaned to touch her mouth to his and felt him jolt. He pulled back, his eyes startled, then put a hand on each of her shoulders.

He’d never kissed or been kissed by a girl before, Caitlin realized. The idea thrilled her. She returned his gaze, thinking how firm yet gentle his mouth had felt.

The next kiss was better, a lot better. With Caitlin’s guidance, Trevor learned quickly.

The sun was much lower when she remembered that her grandparents would wonder why she was so late getting home.

* * *

"Do you have to go back?"

"You know I do."

Trevor held her so fiercely she could hardly breathe. "Tell them you won’t. Tell them you’d rather go to school here."

August was drawing to a close but the sun beat down into their little hollow above the ocean with more intensity than it had all summer. Caitlin shifted until she could kiss Trevor’s neck. Her insides hurt, and her throat, and her eyes stung.

"Tell them." He shook her slightly and rested his cheek on her hair. "Come October I’ll be in school in London. But it’s not so far and we can see each other there or here whenever I can get the money."

He was old-fashioned. Throughout the vacation weeks he’d refused to allow her to pay for as much as a candy bar and she’d let him spend his earnings from helping his father because she wouldn’t risk hurting his ego.

"Caitlin, will you stop with the silence and say something?" When he was anxious he sounded even more Welsh than usual.

She wanted to stay right where she was forever. But in some ways she saw what had to be more clearly than Trevor. "I must go home to my parents. You know how your mother and father would miss you if you went away then said you didn’t want to go home to them."

"That’s different. I’m the only kid they’ve got."

Caitlin shook her head. "You aren’t thinking. I’m the only child my folks have. But that isn’t the point. I don’t want to go, Trevor, but I have to."

"I love you," he said and she knew he was crying.

Her own tears began. "I love you, too. And I’m going to write to you every week. I promise. Every week."

He sniffed and held her away to see her face. She would go, just as she said she must. Somehow he had to imprint in his mind the way she looked: her tall almost frail body, the long red hair, shot through with sun now, the slender face that showed barely a trace of tan . . . her blue, blue eyes.

"Will you write to me, Trevor?"

"Yes," he whispered. "I’ll write every week, twice a week. And one day we’ll be together again. Promise me that, cari."

He’d called her cari many times before she’d asked what it meant and he’d told her it was Welsh for love. His heart hurt with the love he felt for her.

"We’ll be together again," she said. Her cheeks were wet and he kissed salt tears.

"Forever?" he asked. "Tell me we’ll never stop loving each other and one day we’ll find a way to be with each other forever?"

"Forever," she said. "I promise."

All Smiles – Excerpt

7B

Mira
Feb 1, 2000
ISBN-10: 1551666154
ISBN-13: 978-1551666150

CHAPTER ONE

"Single ladies should not discuss eligible gentlemen so . . . intimately," Sibyl Smiles told her sister Meg.

Seated on the very shabby rose-colored chaise in the parlor at 7B Mayfair Square, Meg rearranged the black lace mantilla with which she’d draped her head and face and said, "Who should discuss them intimately, then? Married ladies?"

"Oh, fiddlesticks," Sibyl said. "I think you want to shock me and it’s really too bad of you."

"I want to say whatever I’m thinking–when I’m thinking about it. That is whenever I’m forced to abandon my meditation for matters of the mundane world. And it isn’t as if I were discussing an actual man, for goodness sake. Simply men in general and why one might or might not find one man in particular more attractive than another man in particular. "These are things I must be clear about, and very soon."

"Why?" Blonde and ethereal, lovely Sibyl fluttered over Meg.

This was where caution became imperative. "Don’t worry so, Sibyl. There is no absolutely clear direction for all this. I’m gathering, simply gathering to broaden my understanding." Slight understatements, or even fabrications could occasionally be justified. "I should think a man’s hands would be most important, shouldn’t you?"

"Yes."

"But why do you think, so, Sibyl?"

"I . . . Well, if you must know, I do not at all care for men with soft hands. There, now you know. They are not manly to me. And I do not like small hands. That is more difficult to explain except to say that I should prefer a man’s hands–if I were interested in him at all–that is, if I noticed him at all–I should prefer a man’s hands to be larger than mine. Much larger. There is something inside me that insists this is important, yet I don’t know why. Yes, large, strong, well-shaped, long-fingered–perhaps blunt at the nail–yes, yes, that is what I prefer."

Meg watched her sister’s deep concentration and smiled. "Hm. I agree." And all this from dear Sibyl who didn’t think they should as much as have an opinion on a gentleman’s person.

"I also dislike those small, neat feet some gentlemen seem to take pride in. But again, the reason is beyond my reach. It’s just that I know it could be important."

"Hm. Yes."

"Height is not of such great importance. But a good carriage is essential, and fine, strong-looking shoulders–legs that look well without padding, particularly when the gentleman is on horseback and the muscle is flexed. Yes, very pleasant. One doesn’t, of course, tend to see a gentleman’s chest other than when he adjusts his waistcoat, but there are those moments. A solid-looking chest. Firm with good muscles again. Oh, yes, that is quite the thing. And I do warm to a charming smile. I shouldn’t care for a man who smiled all the time since I prefer a serious side in all acquaintances, but a charming smile so becomes a handsome gentleman’s face, don’t you think? And dimples here?" She touched her own face just below each cheekbone.

Meg scarcely dared move one of her own muscles, or take the smallest breath for fear of diverting Sibyl from this absolutely wonderful revelation. Sibyl was human. Sibyl had longings. Sibyl was no different from Meg in reacting to certain qualities in the male.

"Meg?" Sibyl said. "Do you agree?"

"Oh, I do, I most definitely do. Oh, very much so, I assure you. But do go on."

"Go on? What do you mean?"

Fiddledeedee, the spell was broken. "Nothing. I didn’t want to interrupt if you you had more to say. I thought you might have an opinion on, um, well, a gentleman’s . . . derrière?"

Aghast came close to describing Sibyl’s expression.

"No," Meg said rapidly, "I see you don’t. But I do. Muscle is important there, too–only to ensure the fit of the trouser, of course. But, moving on to another subject, I’m going to make certain our affairs turn out well. It’s just that I have things to learn, and quickly. Because I do have a plan."

Sibyl’s blue eyes sharpened with worry. "Oh, no, no, Meggie. I don’t know what you intend, but already you frighten me. This is all part of this, this"–she waved a hand at Meg–"this new preoccupation with strange, foreign notions. Oh, do take that thing off your head, Meggie. I can’t think what’s come over you of late. You are quite changed."

"A grateful parishioner brought the mantilla back for Papa," she said, still hoping to deflect any alarm. "From a long sea journey. It never had any purpose before. But it does now. It calms my inner self and helps me achieve a serene state. Familiar objects can do that, Sibyl. And if I am changed it’s because the world has changed me–for the better, I prefer to think. I am a woman of spirit, a woman with a backbone. I am a woman who will not sit with her hands crossed, waiting for disaster–waiting to become destitute. I am." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"You are what?" Sibyl whispered.

Meg breathed in again, long and deep through her nose and repeated, "I am, that’s all. One day, when you are ready and no longer frightened of anything you don’t understand, one day I shall begin your instruction in abstraction."

"I cannot bear it," Sibyl said pacing the drab floral carpet. "If Papa were alive he would put a stop to it. This is what comes of women attending lectures by foreigners. They get foreign ideas. I’m not at all certain all this abstracted thinking, and muttering of mantram, or whatever you call these meaningless words you chant, isn’t, well . . . I’m just not sure, that’s all. I thought you only chanted when you assumed you were alone, but now you are perfectly content to worry me with your muttering and humming, and with assuming such completely unladylike poses at any moment at all. They just–"

"Are," Meg finished for her sister.

"There, you see?" Sibyl planted her feet and pointed at Meg. "You do it all the time. Dear, dear. I’m just not sure what to do about you. We won’t discuss the subject further at this time."

"Good for you," Meg said. "Now do sit, Sibyl. I have something wonderful to tell you. I was going to wait, but perhaps it will cheer you, and since I am expecting a message on the subject, we might as well get the explanation out of the way."

Sibyl shook her head. Her serviceable gray morning gown became her, but then, anything became Sibyl "You are afraid," she said. "No, don’t interrupt me please. You were experimenting with this strangeness before, but now–since the, you know what–you’ve only become so, so obvious since that."

Since she had been pushed into the path of coach near the Burlington Arcade. "I will not lie to you," she said. "There are moments when I want to make my mind so busy there is no room in there for being frightened."

"If we only think good thoughts," Sibyl said, "then we cannot possibly be frightened."

With a great deal of effort, Meg held back a retort that would upset dear, good, Sibyl.

"There, you see now?" Sibyl sounded triumphant. "You can’t argue with the truth. Papa–God rest his soul–would be so pleased and proud of you that you are willing to examine your motives in this."

"I wish Papa were here now," Meg said.

"Oh, so do I."

"If he were," Meg continued, "I should give him a piece of my mind and he would not be at all pleased with that."

"Meggie, you are disrespectful."

"I am practical. If Papa had been sensible enough to find a way around leaving our home to a wretched male relation, we should not be in our current dilemma. My current dilemma. We should be safe in dear little Puckly Hinton, not in rented rooms in London, trying to support ourselves while someone tries to . . . kill me." The time had passed for mincing words.

Sibyl halted her agitated pacing. Sun through the window shimmered on her hair. Her soft mouth trembled. "You cannot be certain someone pushed you. It’s perfectly possible that in such a crush, you tripped, or imagined you were pushed. After all, you do have an active mind, Meggie."

"We won’t pursue the subject farther at this time" Meg said. "My plan is the result of a letter I received from Finch in Scotland."

"You heard from Finch?" Sibyl was instantly distracted. She plopped down beside Meg on the chaise. "You didn’t say she’d written. How is she, and His Lordship? How is Hayden faring–and dear little Oswin?"

Finch had been Finch More when they’d all met. Her brother, Latimer More, still lived in the rooms beneath Meg and Sibyl’s. Latimer was at 7A Mayfair Square whereas the Smiles lived at 7B. Above them were Lady Hester Bingham, owner of the house, and her nephew Hunter Lloyd, Barrister at Law. Adam Chillworth, artist and Meg’s friend, lived in the attic. That was 7C. Lady Hester might be on the third floor but her address was 7, since it was her house. Finch had married Ross, Viscount Kilrood, who owned Number 8 and they were currently at their Scottish estates.

"Meggie? Do tell."

"Sorry. I’ve rather a lot on my mind. They are all well. Finch mentions Hayden often and is glad His Lordship took him in." Hayden had come to Viscount Kilrood as a street urchin paid to carry a message. And he’d stayed, together with his dog Oswin. "I miss them all. But I’ve no doubt they’ll be back in London sometime during the Season." The Season which was all but upon them, and which Meg intended to exploit in order to provide the Smiles sisters with the opportunity they urgently needed.

"It will be lovely to see them," Sibyl said. "Meggie, forgive me if I am sometimes sharp. You know, the mantilla becomes you. Your eyes sparkle most mysteriously through the lace."

Meg said, "Thank you," and reached to embrace her sister.

"Your hair!" Sibyl’s mouth opened and remained so.

This had been inevitable. "Let me tell you what is about to happen," Meg said.

"What have you done to your hair?" Sibyl was not to be diverted. She peered through the mantilla. "Why didn’t I notice it before. Meggie, it’s turned red."

"Don’t be silly, it’s brown." Meg swallowed. "Finch’s letter arrived yesterday. She knows of the people who have moved into Number 17–across the square. They are from a small country on the border between, er, France and Italy, I think. Mont Nuages."

"Your hair is red," Sibyl announced. "The sun is shining on it and it glows red."

"The man’s name is Count Etranger and he has brought his young sister to make a London Season. Anyway, he is not well equipped to guide her in preparing for the whirl to come and is in need of assistance. A companion for the girl, someone who can instruct her in matters of fashion and deportment. She is also–although I cannot imagine why–but she is not accomplished at the pianoforte, nor does she sing appealingly although she has a pleasant enough voice."

"You sew brilliantly," Sibyl said, distracted. "And no one has better sense of style or is more informed of current styles." Meg’s girlhood skills as a seamstress had provided them with some meager wages since they came to Town. However, she was not well known (did not wish to be), and the ladies she sewed for took advantage by paying her very meager compensation for excellent work.

"And you play brilliantly," she told Sibyl, "and sing brilliantly. What could be more perfect?"

"Please tell me what has happened to your hair."

"Ooh, you are not to be silenced on the matter, are you?" Meg said. "Very well. I shall tell you and then I wish to hear not another word on the subject. There is a certain small shop behind a milliner’s establishment on Bond Street. It is known to young ladies–and certain others–as a discreet place from which to obtain advice on matters of personal delicacy. At Mme. Suzanne’s one need never fear saying, or asking anything. So, when I went to seek that lady’s assistance she was most helpful. As you have said, my hair is brown, the dull brown of a dull brown mouse. Not good enough. I need excitement, Sibyl. I need that mystery you mentioned. Red hair is mysterious."

Sibyl fell back on a cushion. "But–but ladies do not do whatever you have done to achieve such a thing. And why do you need it, Meggie, why?"

"I have told you what I’ve done to my hair. Now I must move on to more important things. Before someone comes with a message."

"Before who comes with a message?" Sibyl moaned. "What are you talking about? What is wrong with you? What is to become of us?"

She would remain calm, Meg told herself. "Early this morning I had a letter delivered to Count Etranger at Number 17 Mayfair Square. I informed him that I had heard through a mutual friend, Viscountess Kilrood, that he was in need of a companion for his sister. I offered my services in that capacity and assured him that with my help he need have no further concern about the Princess’s wardrobe, deportment, or her understanding of the social intricacies she will meet while she is in London."

"You didn’t." Sibyl’s voice was faint.

"Buck up, Sibyl. I most certainly did. We are all but penniless and I will not remain in this house for one moment longer than we can afford to pay rent."

"Lady Hester would never make us leave."

"No, she would not. And I know it pleases her to insist to her friends that all of her lodgers are her protogées, but it isn’t true. She must need the money, and we understand such situations, don’t we? Of course we do. So, I have decided to find employment."

"You will also teach . . . Princess? Did you mention a princess?"

Meg composed herself and sat absolutely still. "Princess Désirée of Mont Nuages. The Crown Prince’s daughter."

"And you have put yourself forward to be her companion?"

"They will find none better."

Sibyl covered her face. "You applied for work. Oh, what have we come to? What will become of us? Perhaps we should go to Cousin William and ask for–"

"We will ask William Godly-Smythe for nothing. We are going to become advisers to Count Etranger, for which he will compensate us out of gratitude."

"We?" Sibyl squeaked.

"Well, you are the pianoforte and voice teacher, not I. So the Count will be doubly fortunate. Between the two of us, we will turn his drab, graceless, bad-tempered sister into a charming creature."

Sibyl stared, but then she smiled, smiled more widely, chuckled, laughed more loudly that Meg ever recalled her laughing before. When Sibyl was at last in control of herself again, she dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief and said, "You are incorrigible. You frighten me with your wild words. Undoubtedly your abstracted thinking is responsible, it causes you to imagine your dreamings to be true. How foolish of me to believe you even for a moment."

"Believe me."

"Yes, yes, of course. You wrote to someone you do not know, a count from Mont Nuages, and offered to become his sister’s–his sister, the princess, that is–you offered to become her companion, her ultimate adviser in making a successful Season. Certainly, you did. And I suppose your decision to do whatever you did to make your hair red has something to do with this plan."

"It does now."

"I see." Sibyl giggled afresh.

"No, you don’t." Meg had not meant to sound so cross. "I intend to use this wonderful opportunity to our own ends. In order to do that, I must make the best of my less plain attributes. I have been told I have good skin–so I shall take special care of it. And, so I understand, I have fine eyes. I am deciding how to use them well. I’m pleased to hear my mantilla may be useful on occasion. My hair is thick and shiny, but it is brown. As I have already told you, I’ve done something about that. And then"–she looked at the floor and felt her face grow hot–"then I have, well I might as well get it said. After all, we’re both women, and sisters, we should be able to say anything to each other. I have a passable figure. Rather a lot of bosom, I always thought, but, since I’m told many gentlemen are extremely attracted to such things, well then, I intend to flatter that aspect of my person."

"Meggie."

"Oh, don’t swoon, dear. Not now when there is so much to consider."

"You are not yourself. You can’t be. So much worry has turned your mind. Where shall I go for help?"

"Help will be here at any moment," Meg said, matter-of fact. "I expect a prompt response to my letter. After all, I wrote to the Count that I am a friend of Finch who is the wife of his long acquaintance, Viscount Kilrood. It was the Viscount who helped the Count’s father locate a suitable establishment from which to launch his sister, you know."

"You mean Finch suggested you approach the Count?"

"Well, no, not exactly."

"So you fabricated in your letter? You implied that had been the case?"

Sibyl was too intelligent to be deceived by any effort of Meg’s to cover the truth. "I did. Just a little. But only out of desperation."

"Nothing will come of it." There was more hope than certainty in Sibyl’s voice. She got up and took a poker to the small fire that burned in the grate. March, always an uncertain month, was proving pretty but cold. "I am hopeful of finding new students, soon. Lady Chattam is so pleased with her Teddy’s progress. She has said she will recommend me to others of her friends who are having difficulty with their children’s music lessons."

Poor Sibyl. So talented, yet reduced to spending tiresome hours with the untalented and spoiled offspring of the wealthy.

"It will not be necessary for you to take on more nasty Teddy Chattams. I will make sure of that."

Sibyl dropped the poker. It clanged on the green stone hearth. "Meg." She spun about. "Oh, no, you cannot possibly be planning such a thing. Say it isn’t true."

Meg frowned at her sister through the mantilla. "What isn’t true?"

"You haven’t spun some fantasy in which you will . . ." She tottered back to sit by Meg. "You haven’t–aren’t–won’t pursue any notion of getting this Count to, to, to marry you?"

Now it was Meg who laughed loud and long. When she could speak again, she said, "You silly goose. We both know a man like that would never consider marrying the daughter of an English country clergyman. No, nothing of the kind."

Sibyl let out a breath. "That’s good then. But . . . Meg, you wouldn’t. You couldn’t. Could you?"

"Speak plain, Sibyl. I am tired by my abstractions, and more tired by the matters of this world that interfere with my inner improvement. Do not speak in riddles."

"Very well." When pushed, Sibyl could become quite the rigid little tyrant. She sat straight and drew her lips in tight and pale. "Do you seek to become Count Etranger’s ladybird."

There had been few occasions when Sibyl had shocked Meg, but this was one of them. She pulled up her slippered feet and crossed her legs beneath the loose, scarlet robe she had sewn to wear during abstraction sessions. "Mystery," she said, "that is the answer." And she rested her upturned hands on her knees, in the manner illustrated in the book she has secretly obtained and which she kept hidden.

"So, you do not deny it?"

A rap on the door preceded the slow entry of Old Coot, Lady Hester’s aged butler. He fixed his bulbous eyes on Meg and shook his head. "Unsuitable behavior," he said, as certain as always of his place in the world and his right to say whatever came to mind. "Can’t imagine what things are coming to. A person to see you, Miss Meg. Are you receivin’?"

"Of course," Meg said promptly.

"Then I’ll send M. Verbeux up."Old Coot withdrew to be quickly replaced by a slender, dark-haired man with a black mustache that curved downward at either side of his mouth. He wore spectacles with small, round frames that barely revealed all of his brooding dark eyes. M. Verbeux was . . . compelling.

"Oh, Meggie," Sibyl muttered.

M. Verbeux did not as much as glance at Sibyl. "Miss Meg Smiles," the man said to Meg, with only the faintest trace of a French accent.

Meg managed to stop herself from shooting her feet back to the floor. "I am Miss Meg Smiles, If that is who you seek."

M. Verbeux studied a thick piece of paper in his hand and grunted. "He’ll see you. Now. Accompany me, please."

"The Count?" Meg said, scarcely able to breath at all.

"Answers only. No questions. He tolerates nothing more." M. Verbeux turned his handsome back and retreated.

"Help me change," Meg said the instant the door closed again. She worked to unhook the satin frogs on her robe. "I must be quick."

"Quick to run to a rude man, with a rude man who does not know you but who orders you about as if you were a servant?"

"I am prepared to be a servant," Meg said, tossing aside the robe as she entered the bedroom she and Sibyl shared. "I am prepared to become the Count’s most pleasing servant for which I shall be well compensated."

* * *

CHAPTER TWO

Number 17 was not at all like Number 7. In fact, whereas Number 7 was a single terraced house, albeit of shabby but grand proportions, Number 17 consisted of two houses made into one. There was no longer a Number 16 Mayfair Square.

Grand, hardly did justice to Number 17.

Meg sat where M. Verbeux had indicated she should. The dimensions of the brown, brass studded leather chair she used were enormous. If she were a considerably taller person, tall enough for her head to reach the chair’s wings, she doubted she could see to either side. As it was she perched, stiff-backed, at the very edge of the seat, surrounded by the lustrous dark panelling of a galleried library and study. Four narrow windows, curtained with fringed green velvet, soared at the opposite side of the room from where Meg waited. Indeed, the windows were so far away as to cast slim oblongs of sunlight that didn’t reach her toes.

Her toes barely made contact with the green and gold Aubusson carpet.

Perhaps she had been hasty in approaching the Count.

Footsteps rang from the stone-tiled foyer outside the room, from behind Meg. Measured footsteps. A man’s measured footsteps–no doubt made by his boots. They paused somewhere out there. She could not risk peering around the side of the chair in search of a person.

The footsteps continued, drew closer, changed in tenor as heel left stone and descended on wood, then thudded on carpet.

Meg sat as straight and tall as she could.

Perhaps she should stand. Yes, that’s what she should do.

With as much grace as possible, she slid even farther forward and, using a slight but embarrassing jump, made audibly solid contact with the floor. She prepared to curtsey.

"Sit, if you please," a man’s voice ordered. A deep voice with the faintest of French accents.

Intriguing.

Terrifying.

Meg worked her way back onto the seat of the chair in time to look up at a person who would undoubtedly fit Sibyl’s list of desirable male attributes–only this man wasn’t smiling so Meg couldn’t say whether or not his smile might be charming, or produce fascinating dimples somewhere.

He clasped his hands behind his back. "Miss Smiles, I presume?"

This was no time or place for the faint hearted. "I am Meg Smiles."

"But of course you are." He bowed very slightly and reached for her hand. When she thought to raise it, he took her fingers in his and passed his mouth within a breath’s distance of her skin. "Charmed," he said.

His hands must be the actual hands Sibyl had described. Meg raised her eyes to his and felt hot and cold at the exact same time. His eyes were as dark as his hair–which was very dark. He had an exceedingly handsome face, in a commanding way.

"Count Etranger," he said, and released her hand.

Meg didn’t recall her hand being kissed–in a manner of speaking–by a count before. Meg didn’t recall her hand being kissed by anyone before.

She remembered to return both hands to her lap and tried not to stare at this tall, imposing, somberly dressed man who would render Sibyl in an ecstacy. He had absolutely no effect on Meg. Well, almost no effect.

He put some small distance between them. But his regard didn’t waver.

Miss Meg Smiles conducted herself well, Jean-Marc decided, but the effort cost her considerably. Given her unorthodox and impertinent approach, he had expected someone different, someone more . . . bold. In fact, despite her mention of his old friend, Kilrood, he would have ignored her letter had she not offered exactly the type of services he urgently needed, including some he hadn’t even identified before she mentioned them.

He propped an elbow on the opposite forearm and tapped his chin. The question was; could she really accomplish what her proposal had promised? And would she command the respect she must command in order to relieve him of the onerous duty of spending too much time on Désirée’s debut? Naturally, he would assume the essential responsibilities, but what did he know of bringing out a seventeen-year-old girl?

Miss Smiles was not remarkable, other than for what he could see of her thick, red hair beneath the brim of a fashionable bonnet the color of lemons. Now that was startling, in fact–the contrasts. She achieved a sort of brilliance with her choice of bright colors against that very fascinating hair. He strolled to view her from the opposite side. Only once had she looked at him direct. Memorable eyes of a light brown, perhaps the brown of good cognac. Nice mouth. Full, but not too full. And she had good skin, pale but with color high on the cheek, and a bloom of health. That was appealing–important. It was important that she be healthy. Her yellow pelisse had a stand-up collar faced with satin. Jean-Marc rarely took overmuch notice of such things, but the impression she would give was of the utmost importance.

Her clothes seemed to him to be highly fashionable, if devoid of excessive ornament, and of fine quality. For the first time since his arrival in London he felt a lightening of the heart.

Only with extreme difficulty did Meg sit still and endure the count’s examination, his rather rude examination in her estimation. He strolled to look at her from first one, then another direction. Meg felt when his regard was on her face, and when it progressed to other parts of her person. She had only recently finished the outfit she wore. The pattern she had made herself, using French fashion plates as her guide. The ensemble might be a trifle girlish, and somewhat too noticeable, but it was in the latest style and the Count might want to feel confident that she could manage the acquisition of a most up-to-date wardrobe for his sister. The Princess could, in fact, already have most items she would need, but there must always be additional purchases at such a time.

Count Etranger assumed yet another angle on her person. Meg reached into her beaded reticule for a handkerchief and touched it to her nose. Sitting just so while he observed her with such . . . His regard was rude.

Her half boots had caught his attention. Meg blushed. They were not new, a fact that the small, yellow satin roses she’d sewn at the ankles would not hide from a sharp eye. And he couldn’t fail to note that even though she pointed her toes, she could scarcely reach the floor. Hardly a dignified situation.

Miss Smiles was short.

In other circumstances that would be of no importance. As it was, it could present a problem. She would have to have presence. "Kindly stand, Miss Smiles. If you don’t mind."

The manner in which she moved her nether regions to the edge of the chair before launching into a jump that landed her on the carpet, was unfortunate. Particularly unfortunate since the combination of that jump, and the concentration that knitted her brow, might cause a less composed man to laugh.

She did look at him direct then, and said, "The chair is sized for a much larger person, Your Lordship. I fear it makes a spectacle of me," and she smiled just a little–and he liked her smile. With the explanation, and that smile, she regained her dignity, a feat he admired. Evidently there was some shortage of blunt, though. Something would have to be done about the worn boots–if he decided she was worth a trial.

"I should like you to walk, Miss Smiles. Perhaps toward the desk, then around the desk to the windows. You might move a curtain to look down upon the street."

Meg wasn’t certain she could move her legs at all. The reason for all this observation, which required that she endure his scrutiny, eluded her. Never had she suffered such acute awkwardness, such stinging of the skin all over her person, such heat in her face, such lack of feeling in her hands and feet.

However, she had a plan, and that plan could very well benefit from practice such as this. She must become accustomed not only to enduring the attention of gentlemen, but to seeking it out. The thought brought a painful glow to her already over-warm face.

Collecting herself, she inclined her head at the count, stiffened her spine yet again, and progressed, eyes high, toward the desk. And promptly tripped.

In one stride the count was at her side, catching her about the waist as she would have fallen. "You might want to have the bottoms of your boots inspected," he said. "Possibly a seam has become unstitched." He released her at once.

He had noticed they were old. "Thank you," she said, breathless. And he had held her about the waist. "I shall take your advice." Lifting each foot in a manner that felt ridiculous, she continued her progress toward the desk, and around the desk to the windows, where she pulled a heavy, looped drapery aside and looked down upon the shiny, black metal railings fronting the flagway. A gate in the railings led to steps descending to the basement and the servants’ domain.

Meg waited to be told to return. The count made no such request. Rather he came to stand some feet distant, his arms crossed, his dark, arched brows pulled down in a frown. She inclined her head as if to took toward the gardens in the middle of the square. "A lovely time of year," she remarked while the pulse in her throat felt painful. "Crocus and primrose, and so much budding. Spring can be so delightful."

"You speak well," he said.

"So do you." The instant the words left her lips she looked at him, aghast.

He actually smiled, and he did have a dimple beneath each cheekbone.

"I apologize," she said. Oh, would she never learn to curb her careless retorts?

"You are perhaps overly outspoken, but I accept your apology."

Such generosity of spirit, Meg thought. Would she actually manage to navigate her way through this difficult interview, obtain the position, and turn it into the result she and Sibyl needed if they were to survive with any degree of dignity?

"I am half-English," the count said, surprising Meg. "Which may account for my command of the language. I was educated in England, and I have property here–on the Thames at Windsor. It has always been my delight to spend as much time as possible there."

She nodded with genuine interest and smiled. "My travels have only been within this country, and those over short distances, but my love for England is a deep thing that brightens my heart."

The Count look a long time to respond, and while he was silent he concentrated on Meg in a most disconcerting manner. "I think you may do quite well as my sister’s companion," he said at last. "At least from the manner in which you present yourself. Tell me about your accomplishments."

These had been glossed over in her letter, Meg thought. How paltry they were bound to seem when explored. "I, er, have a flair for design. Of ladies clothing. I am self-taught–to pretend otherwise would be foolish. But I am always informed of the latest fashions and I am adept at making patterns from fashion plates and producing wardrobes that bring great pleasure to my small number of clients."

"But you are not well known?"

She looked away. "No. My father is dead, but he was a minister and did not approve of drawing attention to oneself. He would have been embarrassed that Sibyl–my sister–and I are forced to work." She regarded him. "We are forced to work, Count Etranger. And we work hard. We were brought up as ladies, but that is not enough to guarantee that one may placidly expect to be taken care of. We are understated women, but accomplished in our own small way."

His expression didn’t change from one of mild interest.

He was not touched by her description of herself. Tension mounted for Meg. She needed this position–needed this position as a stepping stone to something more, or she and Sibyl would surely descend into poverty.

"I will do my utmost for the Princess," she said, hearing how hurried she sounded, and how eager–too eager. "I believe I will be able to win her confidence and help her enter what must be a disconcertingly demanding time in her life, with a sense of assurance."

"A commendable speech," he said, but he was frowning again.

"After our father died, Sibyl and I decided to come to London. This sounds somewhat silly, but we no longer had a home and we came to seek our fortune. We intended to make the best of the talents we have. Sibyl is a most accomplished musician, an excellent teacher of the pianoforte, and also a voice teacher. I’m sure your sister needs little help in these areas, but my sister is available and she works well with young people."

"Yellow becomes you, Miss Smiles."

Meg forgot whatever else she had intended to say. She glanced down at her pelisse and said, when she could gather her wits, "Thank you."

This was a pretty muddle, Jean-Marc thought. The girl was a minister’s daughter, probably from some insignificant place where society consisted of the odd musicale in less than elegant surroundings. Yet she had courage and style and she might just do.

It wasn’t as if he’d had any luck finding someone more qualified who was at all interested in the post.

"You also walk exceedingly well. Do you feel qualified to, to ensure that the Princess’s deportment is without flaw?"

"I do indeed," Meg said. She would approach Lady Hester Bingham for any extra advice she needed. "Oh absolutely." She wondered how often she would see Count Etranger–if he retained her. Often, she hoped–although she shouldn’t hope for any such thing.

"In matters concerning toilette. Coiffeur and so on. What of those?"

"I’m sure–"

"Kindly remove your bonnet."

Meg swallowed, but she slowly untied the ribbons beneath her chin and slid off the bonnet. Sibyl had been right when she’d said Meg’s experiments with Mme. Suzanne’s product had produced a startling result. What if the Count found the color garish?

Count Etranger came toward her and bowed his head to regard her at a singularly discomforting proximity. "Yes, indeed, your own hair is most fetching. Do you dress it yourself?"

"I do," Meg said. Did he think she’d be looking for employment as a companion if she could afford her own maid?

Etranger made one of his slow progressions around her, studying her hair from all sides. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen hair of a brighter red hue. Extraordinary."

Artificial. "Thank you."

"How well it sets off your white skin."

Yet again her white skin felt scorched. "Thank you."

"Think nothing of it." He stood inches from her right shoulder and she would have to be blind not to note that his attention rested where she’d made the rash decision to follow the fashion plate to its most extreme feature by including a keyhole cutout that revealed her decolletage. After all, she had decided not to disguise the full bosom with which she had been endowed.

Jean-Marc realized he had contemplated Miss Smiles interesting–or rather, her somewhat arousing display of bosom for too long. It wasn’t as if it was obviously presented. Oh, no, the girl had merely created a wicked little peephole beneath the collar of her pelisse, a peephole just large enough to give a glimpse of the way her plump breasts pressed together above the neck of her gown.

"Very white," he murmured. "And you have a few freckles." He shifted his gaze to her nose. "Yes, I do think you may be what I need–for my sister."

If Miss Smiles noted his correction, there was no change in her expression. She appeared vaguely bemused.

"Very well, my dear," he said, deliberately hearty. "We shall discuss what I require of you, shall we?"

Meg said, "Yes," and enjoyed his hand beneath her elbow, and the manner in which he guided her to a chair facing the huge expanse of an ebony desk, the legs of which ended in gold claws. The Count settled himself on the opposite side of the desk and pulled clean paper before him. The silver lid of his crystal inkwell clicked open beneath his fingers and he dipped his pen.

"Sibyl–my sister–is very musically gifted and–"

"So you have said. I will consider giving her a trial. But first we must be clear on what I expect you to accomplish, and plan how you will set about following my instructions."

He absolutely had to agree to take Sibyl, too. Not only did Meg need her sister’s support, but she had vowed to remove her from the odious business of teaching badly behaved children.

Jean-Marc reached into a drawer in the desk and produced Meg Smiles’ letter–her well-composed letter written in a strong, beautifully formed hand and with evident understanding of such matters as appropriate forms of address and so on. "Now," he said, tossing the two sheets of good quality paper on his blotter, "let us dispose of the details. Princess Désirée is barely seventeen and brilliant. Her knowledge of world affairs is probably more developed that many men, even men of her class and position."

Meg was sure to murmur appreciatively. Surely Finch’s letter had hinted that the Princess’s disposition was other than pleasing?

"Princess Désirée is very quiet by nature," Jean-Marc said, deliberately nonchalant. "But she is charming nevertheless, and ready to learn those graces she will need. Not, of course, that she lacks grace, but she has had little need to use it in social situations. Mont Nuages–our home–is a small country. Our intimate circle is also small."

Miss Smiles murmured again.

"Princess Désirée is witty. In fact, when she is in one of her ebullient moods, it may be necessary for you to subdue her tendency to become over-excited and to laugh too often and too loudly."

Miss Smiles said, "I see."

"Of course we must understand her enthusiasm at the prospect of making her debut. And she loves clothes. She has so many. However nothing will suit her but that she acquire a completely new wardrobe. You are confident you can supervise such an extensive undertaking?"

"Yes, yes. It will be my pleasure."

"Good." Very good, Jean-Marc thought. The idea of having to take part in any of this foolishness had all but undone him. "Spare no expense. Princess Désirée learns quickly, so, if you should see some area of her development that appears to need considerable attention, do not panic–she will understand your concerns and set about fulfilling your instructions at once."

"I am not given to panic," Miss Smiles said.

"Good. Princess Désirée is malleable. She wants to please. She will want to please you. But you are to do whatever you think necessary to make her the success of the Season."

Meg smiled. "I will," she said. Evidently she had misunderstood Finch. She began to look forward to the prospect of working with a high-spirited person. "And, if I may say so, your admiration for your sister is a heart-warming thing to see."

He raised his eyes from the notes he was making. "I’m glad." One moment he smiled and looked approachable, the next he became forbiddingly cool. "Family loyalty is expected, isn’t it?"

He was putting her in her place. "My father taught us that love of family should be second only to love of God."

Apparently Count Etranger found her comment noteworthy. He wrote for quite some time. Meg liked the sharp bones in his face, and the manner in which his eyebrows flared upward at the ends. His white neckcloth was simply tied and stark against an unrelieved black coat and waistcoat.

She must not be caught watching him. "How fortunate that you found such a lovely house to rent," she said, admiring the shimmer on dark wood, the acres of leatherbound books, the elegant furnishings, most of them French and old.

"I understand it was not so lovely when it had no furniture. But you are right, it is quite fine now."

"It . . . Yes, indeed." So, what she saw belonged to him, not that she should be surprised that he would choose to go to such lengths for a stay of a few months.

"I take it you understand who we are?" he said, still writing. He allowed a few seconds to pass before continuing, "Our father, Prince Georges, rules Mont Nuages. Do you know where that is?"

"Yes," Meg said.

"Good. Princess Désirée and I are his only children. It is at my father’s request that I am here to attend to bring my sister out."

The manner in which he informed her of these did not invite a response.

"Very well." He pushed back his chair and rose. "I shall send Princess Désirée to you so the two of you may become acquainted."

Meg became anxious all over again. "You will be with her, Your Lordship? To make sure she is comfortable with me?" There had been entirely too many strangers for one day.

"No. You must exert authority, you understand? Not without respect for my sister’s status, but authority indeed. I shall hope for a suitable degree of friendship between you, but, as with any undertaking where one must follow the instruction of another without question–absolutely without question–rank must be established."

Meg wasn’t at all certain how she felt about that. "Surely–"

He wagged a finger to silence her. "Think of battle, dear girl. How would it be if a soldier were to challenge his commanding officer at the height of battle? Tell me that, hm?"

"Battle–"

"It would be disastrous." Without so much as glancing in her direction again, the Count went toward the foyer. "Deferentially in command, that will be the nature of your position with Désirée. Oh, do you speak French?"

Praying he wouldn’t change his mind, Meg said, "As well as a person taught by her English father can. A person who has never spoken French with a French person. Schoolroom French, I suppose I should say."

"Ah." He turned back. "Then I should remind you that the purpose of your position here is not to improve your command of French. Under no circumstances will you speak French in this house. Is that understood?"

What a vexing man. A contrary man. A confusing man. "I hadn’t thought–"

"Well, think of it now, Miss Smiles and all will be well. Désirée’s English is perfect. Almost perfect. If she becomes uncertain about something, she may stumble a little. But she will be anxious to practice, and she must. She must practice a great deal. So"–he inclined his head and smiled–"not a word of French. We are agreed?"

"Agreed," Meg said, hoping he wouldn’t hear her relief.

The Count’s purposeful footsteps departed across the stone floor in the foyer once more and Meg heard a door open, not too distant a door, and the sound of muffled conversation.

A longcase clock ticked loudly. Meg remained facing the door, a pleasant smile in place. A princess was bound to be sure of herself, but still it was always nice to be welcoming.

The ticking seemed to grow even louder. Meg could barely hear the voices now.

More minutes passed, and more. She took a few steps while humming notes from a waltz Sibyl had played. It might be a good idea to improve her own dancing skills, Meg thought, just in case. Of course, the waltz was very new and daring and she doubted she would ever have an opportunity to enjoy it herself.

She held her arms as if she were dancing with a gentleman and whirled around, and whirled around again. Really, she might become skilled at this. "Thank you," she said to her imaginary partner, and laughed. "You are too kind. Why yes, it is warm. You think so, too?" Meg laughed again. "Of course, you are right."

Her next twirl took her past the oversized leather chair, then around it. She had always loved music.

Count Etranger stood near the door, at the edge of the carpet.

Puffing a little, Meg stood still. There was nothing she could do about either her blushes, or the erratic beating of her heart. Oh, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, the mortification of it. "Practicing," she said in a silly little voice that shamed her.

"So I see," the Count said, and there was no doubt that the corners of his mouth twitched. "Very industrious of you. I thought better of what you said and decided to bring Princess Désirée to you myself. Come along, Désirée."

He leaned outside the library wall, then left the room entirely, to reappear holding a girl by the wrist. "Désirée, this is Miss Smiles. Miss Smiles, Her Royal Highness, Princess Désirée of Mont Nuages. Please remember everything I’ve told you, particularly the part about rank, and battle."

This time he closed the door behind him when he left, closed Meg and his sister inside the room together.

Meg dropped into a deep curtsey and wondered how one gave orders from such a position. When the princess failed to make any comment at all, Meg straightened, and re-applied her smile. "I am honored to meet you, Princess Désirée. Your brother has told me so much about you. He has said you are very excited by all you are to experience here in London. We shall work only as hard as we must to make you ready for all the wonderful parties and balls, and so on. The Count said you are to have an entire new wardrobe and I shall be thrilled to help you with your selections."

Princess Désirée watched Meg, appeared to listen, but showed no sign of the exhilaration her brother had insisted she felt.

An unpleasant premonition assailed Meg. She might fail here. If she did, and that failure was noted too soon, she would have no time to take even a small advantage of her hard won opportunity.

"Deportment will be simple, of course. And most of the so called required graces. You must already know a great deal about those."

Not a word.

Before Meg stood a thin girl, a thin girl who must be at least six inches taller than her new ranking officer. Princess Désirée’s hair was not exactly brown, but neither was it blond. Light brown, perhaps, and straight. Probably straight. Parted at one side and pulled flat over her ears, it was plaited. Two long plaits fell forward over the girl’s narrow shoulders. Not a hint of color brightened her features. Sallow might be the description employed by someone less charitable than Meg.

"Do you enjoy music?" she asked.

The princess looked at her feet.

Meg cast about for some means to ease the girl’s obvious shyness. How could such a plain, gangly duck be turned into a swan–in so short a time? That was an unpleasant description even to think. But the princess was gangly, pallid, rather plain, dressed completely in gray–apart from a white chemisette–and resembled a schoolgirl recently soaked in a storm and dried out with her clothes on. And she drooped. Everything about her drooped. No spark showed in her. If she had any figure at all, the walking dress–which was indeed much too large–did a fine job of disguising the fact.

Even if she hadn’t been pleased by Meg’s plan, poor dear Sibyl’s only hope was for this seemingly impossible venture to be a success. Persistence would be the key.

"Come here, please," Meg said, summoning a little of the authority she’d been told she must employ. Rather than wait for her wish to be obeyed–and it showed no sign of any such thing–she went to the princess and looked up into her face. "What beautiful eyes you have. Grey. A fine color. We must experiment with your hair. It’s time for it to be put up. Some favor a great many curls. I do not care for that myself, and I think we will see how we do with a smooth coiffeur for you. Your hair is fine, but"–and limp–"but there is plenty of it. We shall see. Perhaps we might begin getting to know each today? I should like to spend our first hours together in conversation. If you would prefer a smaller, more intimate room, I’m sure the Count would be more than agreeable. I want you to talk to me about your expectations. About your hopes. The things you like about London so far, or don’t like about London. Most of all, we must deal with those things you do not understand. Once those are cleared away, the rest will be simple." Meg widened her smile, although the princess wasn’t actually looking at her. "Shall we summon your brother?"

Princess Désirée lowered her eyelids.

"Come, come, now," Meg said. Her stomach felt so unpleasant. "I will make the decision for both of us. A more intimate room. I’ll ring for someone."

"Qu’est-ce que vous pouvez bien faire ici? Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?"

With one hand on the satin bell pull, Meg froze. She worked her way slowly through what she’d just heard. What on earth was she doing there, and what did–she–want? Not a word of French, the Count had instructed her. He had also assured her that the princess’s English was excellent. "We must speak English," Meg said. "Your brother insisted."

The thin face rose and Meg was given the questionable honor of a flat stare from her so-called charge’s light eyes. "Je n’y comprends absollument rien."

Nothing? Surely that was wrong. Princess Désirée could not mean she didn’t understand any English at all.

The door opened again and the Count strode in. His smile was brilliant, but did not allay Meg’s horror at the certain failure that confronted her.

"You are getting along," he said. "Good, good. I have always found that I can trust my instincts in such things. Are you available to start at once, Miss Smiles? This afternoon?"

Meg looked at the Princess, then at the Count. "If you think that’s a good idea."

"Of course it is." He bent to bestow a kiss on his sister’s cheek. "Remember what I have told you, Miss Smiles. My sister can be very quiet, but she will soon come to trust you–as I already do. The sooner she will chatter away, the better. I am most concerned that her English be as perfect as I know it can be. And I should like to see a pretty new coiffeur when I return home this evening. You shall show it off at dinner, Désirée. Miss Smiles is to retain a modiste for you–an army of modistes. She is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and will supervise all decisions. Yes, I shall look forward to dinner. You shall join us–"

"Jean–Marc, Je suis–"

"English," the Count thundered at his sister. "I thought we both understood that was to be your language until I say otherwise."

"I must go to Windsor," he said to Meg. "But only for the briefest of visits. The ride both ways will be hard in such a short time, but I’ll expect to see you at dinner. We did not discuss all our arrangements. Remuneration. You will leave that matter to me. I assure you it will be adequate. And your sister will receive the same sum."

"Thank you, Your Lordship." Meg hovered between ecstacy and doom. He would employ them both, and pay them both. They would manage again–as long as she didn’t weaken.

"The other Miss Smiles may remain where she is, at Number 7, is it?"

Meg nodded.

"Just so. And you will decide appropriate times for Désirée’s musical instruction. You, of course, as Désirée’s companion, her right hand, my right hand, her teacher, her confidante, her mother while she is without her own, you will share her suite and be with her at all times. All times. You live with us."

More and More – Excerpt

More and More

Grand Central Publishing; Warner Books
April 1, 1999
ISBN-10: 0446606138
ISBN-13: 978-0446606134

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PROLOGUE

7 Mayfair Square, London. 1820

"You cannot trust the young.

"I thought I had made myself very clear: I am too old and too busy and too important to waste time on tasks that should not require my superior talents. To this end I expected to be free of my more youthful relatives’ muddles by now.

"They are impossible.

"They have squandered the opportunities I provided them.

"Ah, well. And so it goes. Once more I must be the one to step in and save the day. Without me foolish Hester and that boy Hunter will undoubtedly lose this beautiful house entirely. I must rescue the family–yet again–and do so without revealing my fine hand in the matter for even an instant. As I have today, I must find disgracefully devious, but necessary ways to gain information on the lay of the land.

"When I left Mayfair Square–that was some years ago, but considerably later than should have been necessary–when I left I said I’d done everything I intended to do, that they had benefitted greatly from my endeavors and did not deserve further assistance. I told them that in future they must manage without me. To allow them to know I have weakened would only make them more demanding, more dependent.

"I will warn you at once that my patience and my restrained sensibilities will doubtless be tried almost beyond endurance. There will be moments when I shall simply have to absent myself from events that I cannot condone or control. Please understand that if I could, I would shield you from the more flamboyant escapades I expect from those who have not learned to suppress the impulses of the heart (and body) and listen to intellect alone. Unfortunately I know matters will get out of hand and there won’t be a thing I can do about this.

"There are lodgers at 7 Mayfair Square. Lodgers!

"In a house that was once a center of culture, of musicales and soirees, to say nothing of intimate gatherings where only the most elite could hope to share the delicious honor of being invited–in this house there are, even as I write to you, three floors occupied by paying strangers.

"The shame of it nearly overwhelms me, but I do not have time for such self-indulgence. I must act, and act quickly. And I ask you to forgive me if my methods become–from necessity–less than, shall we say, conventional?

"You will? Of course, you will, I knew you were too sensible not to support me.

"So, it is time to begin. I am persuaded that my best chance of speedy success lies in dealing with these interlopers one-by-one, or should I say, floor-by-floor. First we will convince the brother and sister on the ground floor (offspring of a Cornish merchant–I shudder at the thought–a merchant involved in China Clay) to leave. Latimer and Finch More. Common names, but what can one expect of a tradesman’s family? Latimer has a small import business. Oddities and rarities, so I’m told. And Finch catalogues offerings and deals with clients. More & More they call themselves. No doubt they consider that quite clever, but I have little patience with these new and flippant ideas embraced by those with little understanding of the value of well-bred reserve.

"Fortnum and Mason, Limited. Of Piccadilly, of course. Now there’s a solid, no-nonsense name for a company. The original Mason owned a small shop on his own at first. Then his friend Fortnum–that was William who was a footman in the royal household–Fortnum retired and they became partners. Traded through the East India Company. They imported really exotic stuff. Harts Horn, Gable Worm Seed, Dirty White Candy. Those are items you will remember because they are worth remembering. Fortnum and Mason’s cocoa powder even went on the expedition to find the North West Passage last year.

"I only remind you of these things to make a point. Fortnum and Mason always knew their places. Straightforward tradesmen. You wouldn’t find them getting above their station by insinuatin’ themselves into the households of the ton.

"I must collect myself.

"The challenge will be to bring about events that will encourage the upstart Mores to move along. At present they are much too happy at Number Seven, but I do have a plan.

"Young Ross, Viscount Kilrood, lives next door at 8 Mayfair Square. He’s a scotsman who bought the property from Lord and Lady St. Germaine, not that we are concerned with such details here. But Ross will definitely play a large part in what will happen during the weeks to come.

"He is a glowering fellow. Angry, I rather think. I have heard rumor that he was engaged, but his intended married his brother instead and Kilrood has never recovered, or some such poppycock. But he has visited with the Mores on occasion. Something to do with a commission he has for them. Anyway, I am given to believe that he has looked a little longer than might be expected–at Miss More. Can’t imagine why myself. Plain stick of a thing from my observance. But no matter. The man has obviously deprived himself of female company for too long and consequently is no longer a fair judge of feminine attributes. I shall take advantage of his growing need.

"Ahem. Forgive me if I am less than subtle. However as I’ve told you, these young blades will stoop to less than admirable behavior anyway. I am simply forced to take advantage of human nature–for a higher cause, of course. But I shall, you may rest assured, choose to avoid actually watching.

"I grow tired. As I have said, I am old and deserve to rest upon my laurels. I shall do so, at least for tonight.

"Tomorrow the work truly begins. And it may be a great deal of work to ensure that Viscount Kilrood is forced to take More & More into his home–and away from Number 7.

"Hah. It is time to embark on Kilrood’s seduction of Miss Finch More."

CHAPTER ONE

If there was one thing Finch More couldn’t abide it was being wrong and having to admit as much.

She was wrong.

She should not have returned to Whitechapel alone, and on foot, and when it was growing dark, and colder.

She should not have placed herself in the way of being frightened out of her wits by her own imagination–which could be overactive. Why, a moment ago she’d even mistaken a slight sound for someone speaking her name.

"Finch."

There it was again. She looked in every direction. The streets were all but empty and the few muffler-swathed people still abroad walked with the certainty of folk who knew where they were going, and were in a hurry to get there. Not one of them spared her as much as a glance.

"Silly female," she said aloud, and glared at a grinning boy with a big, sticky bun in one hand, who poked out his crumb-covered tongue as he passed. What did she care if a mannerless boy thought she was light-brained for talking to herself?

"They puts people the likes of you in asylums, they does," the boy said. He held the bun in his teeth, crossed his eyes, and rushed away with his arms flailing.

Why did Latimer insist upon keeping the business down here in Whitechapel where all manner of sordid events occurred? "Cheap," she said, and glanced furtively behind her to make sure the boy was well enough away not to hear. Latimer watched every penny and insisted she do likewise. That was why she’d decided to walk rather than get a cab after she’d made the delivery of a small package. She should have continued home as Latimer had expected, but he was likely to stay at the warehouse all night, very possibly without eating, if she left him alone there.

"Fi-inch."

A great bound of her heart made her feel quite odd. There, she thought, that was her name. Very softly spoken, to be sure, but definitely her name. Someone she couldn’t see said, no, sang her name in a foolish manner to try to make her afraid. The back of her neck prickled.

Who? She didn’t know anyone in London apart from the rest of the people who lived at Number 7. And the people Latimer did business with. Hardly likely candidates for playing tricks on her in the street.

Very soon she would be there, at the warehouse, and safe. Not that she wasn’t safe now. After all, what could happen to her with buildings on either side of the street and people . . . There had been people only a moment ago and there would more at any second. She pulled the looped ribbons of her reticule into the crook of an elbow. Only a country girl, a girl from a Cornish village or some such backward place, would start dreaming voices just because she was in London.

"Fi-inch."

She whirled about. This time it had sounded closer.

A hand, clamped over her mouth, caught her next breath in her throat. Her bonnet tipped forward and she couldn’t see past the brim. She choked, and kicked at whoever stood behind her, but her slippered heels undoubtedly fared worse than what felt like a pair of solid boots.

The bonnet slipped sideways until it hung beneath her chin.

"This won’t take no great time, miss," a voice said against her ear. Seams on his heavy glove bit into her face. "Better to keep your feet for walking, if you please." With that she was bundled through a gap in a high wooden fence and into a yard between two buildings. A squalid yard strewn with rubbish from what she could make out. And the buildings were of blackened brick with no windows, and had roofs that blurred into a darkening sky where smoke scarred a faint purple haze.

Why would anyone bother to murder her? That’s what he would do, wasn’t it? This man was going to kill her.

Finch tried to scream.

"’Ere, ‘ere," her captor said, and shook her. "You’d do well enough to ‘eed my warnings and do what I tell you."

She had no opportunity to do otherwise before a shape materialized from the shadowed wall to her right, a tall figure with head bowed. His billowing cloak and top hat cast a fuzzy silhouette behind him.

Like a great bat.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Finch struggled, kicked and squirmed, and bit hard at the gloved hand over her mouth. A muffled curse was her only reward. For the rest, she was lifted from the ground and flung down.

Flung down, but caught by the cloaked creature the moment before she would have hit muddy ground. When she raised her face toward him, he spun her around, relieving her of her reticule as he did so, and finished what the other had started by depositing her in a heap on the ground.

"Remain as you are if you please, and you will be unharmed," she was told in a voice so low of tone it echoed from its owner’s depths. The man did not sound English, did he?

A shower of objects hit her back and she cried out.

"Silence."

Shaking, placing her hands over her mouth, Finch did her best to do as she was told. She would die here in this filthy, smelly place with smoke burning her eyes and stinging her nose. Die in the chill of a young winter’s night.

"Remember my words, Miss Finch More," said the voice from the earth. "The time is coming soon. The old tiger will give way to the new. Then the young Tiger will eat its predecessor. So it reads. Each of us has a purpose whether it be great or small. Your small purpose will be served and you will no longer be required–but you might be overlooked if you cause no irritation."

The speaker fell silent but his speech echoed on. A meaningless dissertation. Part of their evil design to terrify their victims into complete submission.

Finch bowed even lower. What made them think she could do anything but be submissive?

Another hard article, and another, then several more bounced from her shoulders and neck to land among the stones and debris.

These creatures were tossing down the contents of her reticule. She opened her mouth to say she had nothing of value, but thought better of the notion. They would discover what a poor prize they had chosen soon enough and then there would be no need to wait longer to dispose of her.

"Keep your eyes closed, Miss Finch More. And you will put your hands on your ears. There will be loud noise. Like the roar of the tiger. It will be easier if you do not see or hear." She didn’t know which of the men spoke, but she quickly clapped her hands over her ears. Her eyes were already tightly shut.

A loud noise? An explosion, perhaps? A pistol shot?

Finch moaned, and curled into as small a ball as she could make of herself.

Poor Latimer. He was so absent-minded about anything but his treasures from the Indies and China–and the pieces he’d recently obtained from Egypt. What would he do without her? How would he remember to eat, or put on a neckcloth, or make sure the accounts for the business were kept in order, to say nothing of paying the rent to Lady Hester Bingham?

Latimer would never go to Papa for help because their father had disinherited his son when Latimer insisted on studying antiquities rather than going into Papa’s business.

Poor Papa. He was a hard man but not without feelings and he did love her. Finch just knew Papa loved her, and Latimer, of course. And since Papa was a widower of many years he didn’t have a wife to turn to in times of grief.

Finch’s mind spun and spun–and spun. Everyone she loved would be distraught at her death. When her pale, lifeless body . . .

She held her breath and parted her hands from her ears a scant distance.

Not a sound.

No one spoke harshly to her, or tried to stop her from moving.

She opened her eyes, and when she could see a little made out a shiny coin nearby. When she dared to raise her head a fraction she saw several more coins, and the silver cross that had been her mother’s and which Finch always kept with her. Also there were a number of large buttons she’d bought for her collection–and the Hydrobia ulvae she’d been fortunate to find for her shell collection.

Finch sniffed. Tears spattered the backs of her hands.

Crying, for goodness sake.

She knelt more upright and checked around. Her attackers had definitely left.

They had left.

She was still alive.

They had not shot her.

"Of course I’m crying. I am not made of stone. I almost di–di–died here." She wiped her face with the back of a sleeve and kept on sobbing. Such a terrible shock was bound to make a woman cry and shake and feel unwell.

"I have been too strong for too long," she said into her sleeve. It was true. Always the strong one. Always the one to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of trying to make a life with only her own small allowance, Latimer’s meager inheritance from their mother (portioned out in minuscule amounts) and what little profit could be squeezed from the fledgling business.

Still weeping, she clumsily retrieved her spilled treasures. Why hadn’t those beasts taken her money? Little enough, it was true–just the coins she carried for emergencies–but thieves weren’t supposed to leave money behind.

Her hands hurt, and her knees, and her face, and other parts of her.

Oh how horrified Latimer would be when he saw her, and how angry that she had returned to him rather than go home.

When she stood up every bit of her ached. Now she must collect herself as best she could and try to ensure Latimer had no idea of exactly what had occurred. She must devise a suitable story. True, she abhorred lies but on this occasion she would invent a small untruth for the purpose of saving her dear brother’s temper.

A large untruth.

She did what she could to pin up escaped locks of hair, and replaced her bonnet. Fortunately her pelisse and gown were of sensible brown chintz. The darkness made it impossible to see well, but she thought mud might be scarcely noticeable.

At last she could do nothing more to improve her appearance and she set off to go the short distance left to the warehouse. The building was in a mean alley and flanked by two similar hulks at present unoccupied. On the opposite side of the alley hovels slunk together in a dismal line. Those who lived there were seldom seen.

The night was all but black now. A sullen moon barely bothered to stroke the edges of a single cloud break. Finch’s soft half-boots scuffed the cobbles. Cold struck through the thin leather to her feet.

She reached the door where a small (Latimer called it "discreet") sign announced, More & More, Importers, in white letters on a piece of polished wood.

Pushing her way inside the echoing cavern, Finch finally decided what she would tell Latimer and felt hugely relieved.

"Latimer," she called, hurrying between crates containing items Latimer had obtained from abroad. The space reeked of dust and mildew. "Latimer, it’s Finch." A light shone through the open door to the large office they called their showroom. In truth they could only show certain items in the office. Anything too big, or too heavy, required that a customer make the best of a viewing it in the warehouse itself, not an ideal arrangement but the best that could be offered at present.

"My what a day," Finch said, affecting a cheerfully exasperated tone. She walked quickly into the office.

With his back to her, Latimer bent over an open crate.

Lord Kilrood faced her from behind the desk.

Drat, Finch thought and felt her false cheer sink beneath gloom. Of all the rotten luck. How could she have the misfortune to find him here tonight of all nights?

A number of weeks earlier they had met Lord Kilrood through Hunter Lloyd, the nephew of Lady Hester Bingham who owned 7 Mayfair square. Kilrood had started doing some business with them. He seemed a decent enough sort, despite the superior manner one could expect from someone of his station, but he had an uncanny way of staring at her as if he found her a puzzle. Or perhaps she shocked him . . . Perhaps he could not believe that in his privileged life where he could surround himself with nothing but pretty women, he occasionally found himself in the company of a plain one.

She bobbed an abbreviated curtsey, not that it was worth the effort since he showed no sign of noticing.

He really stared.

Finch attempted to stare back but he had the kind of disquietingly brilliant blue eyes that didn’t blink. In fact they didn’t even flicker. His eyelashes were very black and cast a shadow in that blue stare.

How rude. He should have been taught from childhood that open curiosity was incredibly rude.

She cleared her throat and made a great deal of cinching the ribbons on her reticule. When she glanced downward she noted with disgust that there were jagged rips in her skirt. And mud did show when it began to dry–even on brown chintz.

"Latimer–"

He interrupted her, "A moment, Finch. I’m looking for something."

Just as well. She prayed her hastily fabricated tale would be convincing.

Lord Kilrood came from behind the desk. He lowered his head slightly and peered at her more closely.

Finch nodded politely–although restraint cost her considerably–and she even smiled a little. But then she felt what she had felt on more than one occasion when in the company of this imposing man: wobbly inside.

Oh fie, of all the treacherous tricks of silly female vulnerability to the male. The man appealed–well, he caused some strangely exciting sensations and she actually felt drawn to him. It was as if she wished, no, she did wish she were other than plain. And she did wish that he might look at her as a man interested in a woman–as a woman–looked at that woman.

This was most muddling. After all, she was nine and twenty and had known love once. These feelings had not been associated with that pure and tragically lost love, not at all. Naturally there could be no question of loving a stranger anyway, but tonight’s events, the manner in which she felt bemused in his company, suggested that her reaction to Lord Kilrood was motivated by something quite other than a pure spirit. Why it felt . . . carnal?

"Are you all right, Miss More?"

"Don’t mind Finnie, your lordship," Latimer said from the depths of his crate, "you know how quiet she is. She has lived a very simple life in the country and is unaccustomed to making polite conversation."

Sometimes Latimer could be intensely irritating.

Lord Kilrood paid no attention to Latimer’s comment. He did come a little closer to Finch.

She felt warm, which was ridiculous since she was obviously cold. Oh, her fearful experiences this night had been too much. They had made her–she hoped temporarily–feeble minded.

"Miss More," he said, very quietly. "What has happened to you?"

Finch looked to Latimer’s back and was grateful to see that he hadn’t heard. She placed a finger on her lips and shook her head.

Lord Kilrood narrowed his eyes.

The wobbly sensation returned. He was a well made man. A very well made man. Taller than she had thought she cared for because she didn’t like feeling overpowered by another’s size, but she felt differently about this man’s person. He was tall, and broad of shoulder, and he had a solid presence that suggested his fine figure would be just as fine without his well cut clothes.

A wild heat overtook Finch, and she couldn’t stop her mouth from falling open. What had come over her? She closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again. Had she hit her head when that creature threw her down? She didn’t remember doing so, but then, perhaps she wouldn’t if it were bad enough.

Amnesia.

A change of personality.

Without clothes? Of all the terrible, absolutely unsuitable, completely unforgivable thoughts.

"You should sit down," he said, blessedly keeping his voice low. "You do not look well."

She looked awful. Greville had liked the way she looked, God rest his soul, but that was because of their long familiarity. Everyone else said she was a fright.

"Miss More?"

Finch shook her head again, more violently this time. Lord Kilrood had a pleasing face. His cheekbones were high, his mouth . . . he had a most pleasing mouth. A finely cut face, that’s how she would describe it. Finely cut but very much the face of a strong man. A strong, handsome man. Pleasing was a pathetic word that did little to convey a person’s true feelings if those feelings were about something she thought marvelous.

He had a slow manner of speech, slow and considered, with the faintest hint of that most intriguing scottish accent. There was a touch of red in his dark hair.

"Miss More," he said, sounding less concerned than determined this time, "I insist that you take a seat. You are not yourself."

Latimer stood up and turned around.

Finch braced herself. She must not cause him more worry. Providing for their livelihood was already enough strain on him. "Latimer, I don’t want you to worry about me."

"Hm?" His thick, brown hair fell over his brow. He was examining a white figurine of a naked woman.

She would not allow him to blame himself for the outcome of her own careless actions. "I had a little accident. Nothing serious."

At that Latimer looked up sharply. "Did it break?"

"Break?"

"That perfect Grecian amulet. Not particularly old, but without a flaw. Did you break it, Finnie?"

"Er, no." She felt foolish. "I delivered it safely. Then I decided to come back here after all."

"Good, good," he said, smiling at her. "I say, Finnie, that dress is getting a bit tatty, isn’t it? Even for you? Never mind. You wouldn’t be good old Finnie if you gave a fig for such things. See if you can make some tea for his lordship, would you?"

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