Authors: The Perfect Desire
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In memory of Richard LaFoy
husband, father, citizen soldier, businessman
If it wasn’t one thing, it was your mother. And the things one was willing to do for the sake of family peace … Barrett Stanbridge sighed, propped his shoulder against a marble column, and watched the people move toward the theater doors and the lines of waiting carriages outside. Somewhere in the dignified melee were his parents; his mother no doubt striking up conversations with every unattached woman within ten meters and his father just as certainly craning his neck to see where their errant son had fled this time.
Barrett scowled down at the floor in front of his feet, deliberately hiding his face so that they couldn’t easily find him. He’d lost count of how many perfectly proper young women had been shoved in front of him over the last two months. His mother had presented three for his consideration this evening alone. If he had to endure even one more round of inane small talk with a breathless and skittish woman, he’d pull his hair out.
He moved nonchalantly around the marble column, putting it between himself and both the tide of swaying skirts and his parents’ determination to see him permanently attached to one of them. There was nothing wrong with being married, he knew. His mother and father had been happily wed for almost forty years. His friends certainly seemed delighted with their marriages. But he didn’t feel any particular compunction to fling himself on the altar of Holy Matrimony just for the sake of flinging, for the sake of being like everyone else, or for the sole purpose of making his parents happy.
His mother had tearfully declared his resistance selfish in the extreme. She wanted grandchildren to dote upon and brag about in her feminine circles. His father had been much more pragmatic but no less forceful. He wanted to be sure that the considerable family fortune would pass to Stanbridges in perpetuity. All of which required Barrett to find an acceptable woman, marry her, and produce a litter of little Stanbridges. Preferably male. And definitely without wasting any more time than he already had.
“You’re thirty-one,” his father had barked yesterday afternoon. “If it weren’t for your flagrant dalliances with unacceptable women, people would think you’re unnatural. You have obligations and, by God, it’s time you stepped up to them.”
For the sake of ending his father’s tirade and stemming his mother’s tears, he’d agreed to attend a play with them tonight and make yet another effort to sort through the marital possibilities. He’d honored his word, but this evening hadn’t been any different from all those he’d spent at parties, balls, and galas for the last two months; he’d hated every single minute of it and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Barrett lifted his gaze from the floor, mindful that he needed to sweep out with the crowd if he had any hopes of avoiding his parents and another painful introduction. The tide was thinning, he noted. Coming toward the doors now were the ones who always brought up the rear of any mass exodus—the elderly couples and the doddering dowagers with their plain-faced attendants.
But there was one who wasn’t plain faced. Not at all. Very well dressed. Not too tall, not too short. Voluptuously curved. French maybe, he thought as he considered her. And from what he could tell by her movements, she didn’t seem to be attached to anyone in particular. Old or young. Male or female.
She turned her head and met his gaze. Barrett instantly recognized the possibilities and smiled. She was the perfect companion. Cool. Direct. Openly sexual. Temporary. There wouldn’t be much conversation with her, inane or otherwise.
She glided over, her gaze certain and knowing, his loins tightening.
“Might I persuade you to have dinner with me?” he asked as she came to a halt in front of him.
“Might I persuade you,” she replied, smiling up at him, her voice an exotic mixture of French and something else, “to forgo such unnecessary formalities?”
He went hard as he grinned and presented his arm. “I’m the soul of accommodation. Your residence or mine?”
“I am traveling,” she said, slipping her arm around his and pressing her breast against his elbow. “With my maid.”
He happily took his cue and led her off toward the doors saying, “Mine it is, then.”
Out on the walkway, his parents scowled in disapproval but he studiously pretended that he didn’t see them and led the delightful morsel off, thinking that playing the dutiful son had more than earned him the all-night, utterly wanton feast the Frenchwoman promised to be.
Dead women didn’t care what happened to their wardrobes. Well, Mignon might, but there was nothing she could do about it except stomp around heaven, waving her arms and screaming. Not that it was even remotely possible that Mignon had gone to heaven, Isabella Dandaneau reminded herself, staring out the window of the rented hack.
She exhaled long and hard, brought her gaze down to her lap, and then worked at smoothing a wrinkle in Mignon’s skirt.
skirt, Isabella silently corrected. And sensibilities—hers
Mignon’s—aside, desperate situations didn’t allow for squeamishness. She needed clothing and Mignon didn’t. Not anymore. The constables had turned it all over to her, and sending it back to Louisiana would have been nothing more than an exercise in foolish pride. What she couldn’t easily alter to fit her more meager attributes, she’d sell. It’d be nice to have enough money to buy food for a while. Knowing that the bounty had come—albeit indirectly—from Mignon might make swallowing it a bit difficult, but she’d manage.
The cab rolled out of traffic and slowed to a stop before a dark gray granite building. The gold-lettered sign plate beside the heavy door was the right one and she let herself out of the carriage. Her heart racing, Isabella considered the five stone steps that led up to the door. Desperate situations didn’t allow for cowardice, either, she sternly reminded herself. Still, it took a deep breath and every measure of her self-discipline to gather her skirts and march upward and into the offices of the man the authorities considered Mignon’s killer.
The secretary looked up from his desk and only reluctantly rose to his feet to say, “Good morning, madam. How may I help you?”
Isabella took another slow, deep breath and committed herself to seeing it through. “I’d like to speak with Mr. Barrett Stanbridge, please.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible, madam,” the little man replied, his nose tilted at a disdainful angle. “Mr. Stanbridge has canceled all of his appointments for the foreseeable future.”
Of course he has,
Defending oneself against murder charges would be rather time-consuming.
“Please tell him,” she said firmly, unable to let the man’s concerns override her needs, “that I am here regarding the woman killed the night before last.”
The secretary’s eyes narrowed. “Regarding in what manner?”
Hoping that she held all the cards for the next few moments, Isabella smiled and politely, quietly replied, “What I intend to say to Mr. Stanbridge, I intend to say in private. I’ll wait here while you deliver my request.”
He assessed her, clearly weighing his hope against his employer’s instructions. After a long moment, he tugged the hem of his coat and stepped around his desk, saying, “Your name, madam?”
She hesitated, then decided there was a slight advantage in taking Barrett Stanbridge by surprise. “It’s not necessary that you know it.”
The man hesitated again, but finally knocked on the door, opened it just wide enough to slide through sideways and then instantly closed it, leaving her alone in the anteroom. Isabella sagged and rubbed her sweating palms along the side seams of her skirt. God, this would be so much easier if she had even the slightest bit of experience at parlor intrigues. Mignon had been one of the best at it and she was dead. What did that suggest about the odds of
Closing her eyes, Isabella held her breath and lifted her chin. There was no going back. There was nothing to go back to. She’d simply have to assess the man when she met him and make reasonable judgments as matters went along. The trick would be to tell him no more than she had to, before she had to. And if her instincts even so much as whispered for her to run, she would. Dignity and poise be damned. Staying alive was what mattered.
The twisting of the doorknob warned her of the secretary’s return in time for her to slip the mask of cool composure back into place. The door opened wide and the slight man stepped back into the anteroom, moved to the side of the doorway and gestured to the opening, saying regally, “Madam.”
Both relief and trepidation washed over her in a single wave. Not trusting her voice, she nodded her thanks and swept forward, bracing herself and hoping her bold plan didn’t turn to disaster. Or suicide.
Resolve and fortitude took her across the threshold and halfway to the desk before wavering. Momentum alone provided two additional steps and then she found herself standing on the Persian carpet, her heart racing and her mind careening through a tumble of observations.
He was a massively shouldered, incredibly long-legged man. Dark eyes, dark hair, a wonderfully hard chiseled jaw. Wickedly handsome. Of course Mignon had noticed him in a theater crowd. Every woman had. And at any other moment—when he wasn’t strangling on curses as he was now—he’d be rakishly smooth and confident. The perfect ladies’ man. Which was why Mignon had chosen him.
He blinked, took a deep breath. As he was swallowing, Isabella seized what there was of an advantage. “No, you’re not seeing a ghost, Mr. Stanbridge,” she said, putting on a soft smile and forcing her feet to carry her forward again.
He’d cocked a brow and begun to openly assess her by the time she reached the edge of his desk, stopped, and added, “My name is Isabella Dandaneau. Mignon Richard was my cousin. Our mothers were sisters. There is—or rather
—a strong family resemblance.”
He nodded ever so slightly. “Are you here for vengeance?”
Good God, the man’s voice had the most delicious rumble to it. If his hands were just half as efficient at caressing … She started, appalled by the direction of her thoughts and stunned by the ease in which they’d not only escaped her control, but also set her heart skittering with a ridiculous kind of feminine anticipation.
“Well, in the first place,” she replied as her stomach twisted into a knot, “I never liked Mignon well enough to go through all the effort of avenging her. In the second place, the only thing surprising about her death is that it didn’t happen long before now. And in the third…” She considered him and listened to her instincts. “You’re not the one who killed her.”
“And why do you think that?”
Cool and calm and analytical. The advantage of surprise was gone. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” Isabella countered, trying to affect a manner matching his, “that’s a rather odd response from a man who stands a good chance of being charged with murder before sunset tonight.”