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Lorelie Brown

BOOK: Lorelie Brown
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Acknowledgments

The past few months have been a difficult time in my life, and I’ve discovered who my true friends and family are. To everyone who’s supported me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Special thanks go to my mother, who made returning home something that felt good, and to Carrie Lofty and her husband, Keven. Love to Sarah Frantz, Zoe Archer, Dayna Hart, as dear friends. Last but not least, to TLTSNBN and to The Sekrit Illuminati Ninjas. I hope one day you’ll make peace again.

Chapter One

Miss Charlotte Vale had a problem. More than one, including her father’s recently renewed intentions for her future, but at the moment only one stood in the doorway of her small office. The man was tall, slender and elegant—with a scowl that threatened to do war. A maid hovered at his side, making apologetic eyes and wringing her hands.

“Sorry, miss. He barged right by,” Mary said.

“Quite all right. You may go.” Lottie’s nod dismissed the girl, though she’d lurk nearby. Lottie’s school had an efficient system set up for self-protection. She stood from her leather chair with calm borne of years’ experience dealing with strange men. Nerves still rushed through her after her father’s most recent letter, sent from their country estate. Unfortunately she didn’t have time to dwell on his glowing review of neighboring Lord Cameron. “Sir, we aren’t open to general inquiries. This is a by-invitation society.”

Men occasionally attempted to visit at unapproved hours. Along with education and etiquette lessons, the school survived by courting subscriptions from men of fair education and newly burgeoning wealth who sought wives. Their quarterly soirees were quite popular.

She wouldn’t have guessed this man had need of a marriage service. He was sharp. A keen-edged smile tipped finely shaped lips, and lines scored his cheeks. Most of all, he arrowed in on her with an intensity that made her toes curl.

“I’m not here for membership.” His gaze finally flicked off hers, taking in the rest of the office with one go. Papers piled everywhere, overflowing bookshelves and the small clutter of slates. A chair needing repair listed in the corner. Judged, condemned and dismissed in one tiny glimpse of pale blue eyes. That must be a handy skill. “If I had my way this moment, I’d shut this whole foolish enterprise down.”

She sat. If she were to be lectured, she’d much rather be comfortable. Her skirts shifted and swooshed as she fidgeted one foot up and down. “How lucky I am that you’ve no authority over me or mine. Is this for any particular offence, or do you simply have a virulent dislike for untidiness?”

“Harboring thieves.”

The laugh that loosed from her chest was part hysteria and part real amusement. “I think not. I can personally speak to the character of almost every one of our girls.”

He still hadn’t moved from his position inside her doorway. He wore a dark, voluminous coat, obscuring most of his clothing beneath. His top hat was made of quite fine beaver, and he carried a gold-capped ebony walking stick. “You think none of them are capable of indelicate or licentious impulses?”

“I wouldn’t dream of making such sweeping pronouncements, much less agreeing with a man whose name I don’t know.” She paused then, letting her gaze unfocus and looking beyond him. Her teeth bit into her bottom lip, and even in her looking-past-him state she saw his gaze drop to her mouth. She felt it, the weight, the attention. “Though I’m not sure what name would actually have any influence on me. Perhaps I could be swayed if you were the second coming of Christ.”

He hissed in a breath. His chin jerked back into the crisp points of his collar, as if he were a startled turtle. She pinched her lips together to hold back her grin.

Under her palms were stacks of paper. Bills needed to be paid before she could go home to visit her mother for their daily tea appointment. An invitation to the Duchess of Marvell’s ball in two months nestled along with the note from her father. More tasks than she had hours in the day. She would prefer this man hustle himself out, but that didn’t seem likely.

“I’m Sir Ian Heald.”

She waited. Let the draught from the window swirl through the air between them. She kept a pleasant curve to her mouth, which her mother would approve of.
Always turn a sunny disposition to the world.
Though it had never worked for Mother, she’d insisted Lottie smile, as if that would make unpalatable events easier to swallow. Lottie placed one hand atop the rough paper she’d been making tallies on. The clock on the mantle made quiet ticks as the seconds dragged by.

Men were so accustomed to having women fall all over themselves to acquiesce, they didn’t realize how much they took for granted.

One small advantage of her mother’s madness meant Lottie could dispense with some of those expectations. She so adored playing with men and never filled silences with idle chatter unless it served her purposes.

He took her small game better than she might have thought, never faltering and his expression placid. “You’re Miss Charlotte Vale.”

“I am. You haven’t run astray on that score.”

“I’m looking for Patricia Wertherby.”

She kept her smile, but her palms turned damp. Her fingertips wanted to curl into the papers. “I don’t know her.”

“You’re lying.”

“Maybe.” Her biggest, brightest grin didn’t make him blink. “But you’ve no proof of it.”

He came closer. She hesitated to add the word finally, but it hovered in the shrinking space between them. Like he were the sort to linger and watch and only move forward when he’d taken stock of the entire situation.

Rather than an actual frown, his bottom lip pinched into displeasure. Twin divots dove between his brows. “You don’t understand. I have to find her. She stole from my household.”

“Did she steal an item of yours?”

“Not exactly.” The displeasure carved on his expression flittered away momentarily, turning into exasperation. “Suffice it to say, the item in question is important to me.”

“Of course it is,” she drawled. She waved a hand at the seat opposite her desk. “Please. Sit.”

“Funny that you’d invite me to sit now. Have I hovered long enough for your tastes?”

“More like I’m tired of feeling like my neck is about to break.” He was rather tall, after all.

“I should hate to inconvenience you.” His teeth gritted around the words, and a muscle popped and shifted in his lean jaw. He sat nonetheless. His long legs folded, knees rising and poking at fine wool trousers. She’d bet that at some point in his childhood he’d shot up a half dozen inches in a few short months. He had that sort of narrow build.

Lottie laced her fingers, considering how to continue. Asking him to sit had been a diversion. She needed time to go forth without endangering the girls of her school. “Let’s suppose that you had a dear friend.”

“I have a few, as the case may be,” he said with dry humor.

“How lucky for you.”

His head tilted toward her a fraction, and dark brown hair slid across his forehead. The tumbled, messy locks were his one error in dressing. He looked every inch the rising gentleman, except his coiffure was in ruins.

She wanted to delve her fingertips through the mass, see if it were nearly as silky as she thought it must be.

She jerked her hands to her lap. Fingers curled into her palms. How very curious. She knew lust, of course, and had indulged in tastes now and then. This was new, the sharpness with which it lodged under her ribs and turned her heart heavy and foreign in her chest.

“But I wonder,” he went on, absolutely oblivious to the fact that the air in her small office had suddenly become ten degrees warmer. “Do you often call serving girls your dear friends?”

“Why do you assume I’m talking about a servant?”

One of his eyebrows quirked, giving him a rakish aspect she wouldn’t have guessed at moments ago. “Because Patricia Wertherby’s most recent position was as an upstairs maid. Before she ran away to the city.”

She waggled her fingertips at him. “Details. Nothing says I’m talking about Patricia. If I knew who this girl was.”

“I see.”

She managed to keep her smile. He was certainly droll when he meant to be, infusing his words with both doubt and humor. “Now, let’s return to this dear friend. She’s come to you for help and assistance, wishing to make herself into a better person. She relies on you.”

He stacked his hands over a fine waistcoat of wool and silk and embroidery that covered a flat torso. “More fool her.”

“Someone
else
comes along. Asking where this friend of yours is. They’re bigger and more powerful than your dear friend. More than that, they seem entirely displeased with her. I might go so far as to say they seem positively furious, though they’re hiding it admirably well.” She infused her smile with sweetness. “Would you give this person your friend’s direction?”

He managed to surprise her. She knew men and liked them for the most part, even when the men of her class spoke first and thought later. She’d not have thought Sir Ian much different.

Except his mouth stayed closed. His eyelashes flickered, and he rubbed his bottom lip with one thumb. When he spoke, the words oozed like treacle. “No. I’d likely not.”

“Well done,” she couldn’t help but say, like he were a five-year-old who’d added his numbers, and she thought for a second that now,
now
he would take offense. Now he would run his mouth off and say something rude or crude or demanding, in the way of men.

He didn’t. His mouth tweaked into a bare curve. He lowered his chin as he watched her. “So I think you should take me to her.”

 

Ian liked surprising people. Making their eyes widen and their expectations tumble sideways was particularly satisfying.

Miss Charlotte Vale gave a lovely, distinct reaction too.

Her skin was pale enough that the slightest blush showed in the flush of her round cheeks. Her eyes were the true source of his satisfaction. She had amazing eyes. Large, almond-shaped and fringed with lashes that turned her exotic and remarkable. Those smoky eyes shifted darker as they went wide with surprise. The black center grew.

Straight white teeth worried at her bottom lip. “Certainly not.”

“Why not?”

Her gaze darted about the room, as if looking for some way of escape. She gripped the carved wooden arms of her chair and settled her shoulders across the back. Staking her territory. He rather admired a woman who established her place in the world.

That he was in this position was entirely his sister Henrietta’s fault. Their father had carried the family through the initial boom of tin mines, and it had given him hope for a new elevation for their lower gentry family. Etta and Ian would both marry well and have solid, steady lives of comfort.

Etta had refused to marry any of the men their father suggested, all of whom had been well-titled men in need of cash infusions. She’d run away to marry a millwright. The family had managed to cover that up well enough, including her husband’s unfortunate early death.

The problems had come only six months ago, when the blackmail notes started.

He pushed away the cold churn in his stomach. His father had wanted so very much for them both.

Ian gave the most reasonable smile he knew, though from the way Lottie’s cheeks flinched perhaps he’d failed. “I understand your reluctance to simply hand over directions. You don’t know me from Prince Albert.”

“Actually, I know Prince Albert reasonably well.” Her brows tipped up in the center, and her chin rose. “You’d best keep talking or I’m likely to think you’re entirely too dangerous. Perhaps I should have you seen out.”

“That’s unnecessary. I’m harmless. My point is that you don’t know that, and that makes me understanding.” He spread his hands wide. “So go with me. Take me there. You can see for yourself that I mean her no bodily harm.”

“No bodily harm?” she echoed. “Seems to me that leaves you plenty of room for other sorts of harm.”

“Nothing she won’t have earned. I will wish to inspect her lodgings to look for the item I seek.”

“This might be easier if you told me what that was.”

Not a chance in hell. His spine went rigid, though he never let his intentionally casual posture straighten. No need to encourage her doubts. The tiny muscles and pings along his back told him how much tension he carried, like he didn’t already know from the pressure across his chest.

BOOK: Lorelie Brown
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