Authors: Gina Conkle
“Miss Montgomery, this is Edith Lumley. She will see to your comfort. If you need anything, let her know.” He raised a hand toward the other woman, who stepped forward. “And this is my housekeeper, Miss Mayhew.” With a curt nod, he finished, “I bid you good night.”
That last pleasantry was quite a proper set-down.
What’s more, the housekeeper was shockingly beautiful.
Mayhew, not the generally preferred
., which nobility hired or women of that class manufactured for appearances sake. Lydia gaped at the housekeeper and murmured greetings before turning to the earl. Lud, the man moved fast, going without a candle to light his way. Did he have a beast’s night vision? The black hall swallowed him whole, with his boots echoing retreat.
“Your lordship, please…” she cried after him.
There was a momentary hitch in the earl’s step and then a quickened pace. Somewhere in the deep shadows, a door opened and clicked firmly shut. Lydia wanted to crumble from the indignity witnessed by these virtual strangers. Miss Mayhew, a vision of flaxen blond perfection, frowned toward the dark hall and then at Lydia.
“Let us see to your comfort,” the housekeeper said, smoothly turning to the older woman. “Edith, please take Miss Montgomery to her room. Unfortunately, I must attend to something else.”
Miss Mayhew, cupping a lone candle, floated down another dark hall, but not before turning her mouth in a small, disapproving moue at Lydia. Owl-eyed, Miss Lumley nodded and placed a comforting arm around Lydia.
“Don’t mind his lordship, miss. He’s usually an affable sort. Sometimes he needs to be alone with his thoughts.”
“Please take me to him, Miss Lumley. I must apologize—”
“Apologize? Now, now, miss. Not to worry. And please call me Edith,” she said, patting Lydia’s back as she led her to some stairs. “Sometimes a woman has to let a man stew before
needs to apologize to
.” The older woman winked. “I’m sure ’twill all be right as rain come morn. And, Lord knows, we’ve plenty of that these days, haven’t we?”
Gentle pressure guided Lydia. Miss Lumley stopped, and concern crossed her features.
“If your ankle’s well enough, that is? His lordship mentioned you might’ve hurt it getting out of the carriage.”
“Yes, it’s fine.” Lydia twisted around, trying to figure out which door hid Lord Greenwich. A slender white line lit one part of the hall, but the maid pushed her along to the stairs.
“Good enough, miss. Though not ‘miss’ for long, right?” The maid chuckled. “Ah, it’ll be good to have a lady take charge of the house. Of course, Miss Mayhew’s done a fine job, but a wife gives a home the personal touch…and children soon, we can only hope.”
Now that was doubtful. His lordship couldn’t be bothered to hear an apology, much less look at her. At the mention of the stunning housekeeper, a niggling question pressed its point:
beautiful, unmarried woman already lived under his roof?
After the door snapped shut, Edward peeled off his hat and cloak, tossing aside his armor to the outside world. He needed his study’s comfort and solitude. Even the air smelled better in here; his lungs expanded, testing that notion. Leather-bound volumes brushed with oil, the flat scent of beeswax polish on wood, and…
Tick, tick, tick. His mind, however, moved like a constant clock, keeping rest at bay. Categorical thinking divided the evening into neat columns. Column one: he coerced a woman to his home—a woman with vivid green eyes and smooth skin, though he couldn’t fully vouch for the latter, since he’d touched her glove to skin, but appearances were promising.
He’d used all the weapons in his arsenal to achieve Miss Montgomery’s acquiescence: persuasion, reason, family wealth and name, a little humor…and yes, threats.
Column two: he needed her—a simple detail encased in messy reality. The flesh-and-blood part of him admitted he wanted her. What was meant to be a simple transaction at a tumbledown inn turned into the unexpected. That surprising business of caressing her neck, albeit with his gloves on, set him back a notch.
Prowling his study, Edward contemplated that verity. His father’s silver fob pressed inside his hip pocket, a reminder of familial duty. Time ticked by with the persistence of an astronomical clock. The universe moved forward, and so must he.
Nothing else would be accomplished tonight. He chuckled, recalling the astonishment on Miss Montgomery’s face when he stated she’d go home with him. Tonight. Considering the evening’s proposition, her assumption that he would demand conjugal rights this very evening made logical sense.
But he was not a rutting monster.
Drawn to the shelves, Edward moved along rows of favored tomes. His hands skimmed one gold-embossed spine after another. Flamsteed’s
caught his eye. Someone incorrectly shelved the folio in the history section. Probably Rogers, the new footman charged with the study’s care. Edward grinned, recalling the lad’s delight when given leave to borrow books at will.
Greek, Roman, and Persian Governments in Antiquity: A Comparative History Complete with Variorum
He breathed clean leather and reached for the preferred text. Right as his fingers touched the spine, an intrusive knock at the door begged entry.
The evening’s transaction weighed on him: a burden to properly care for the unknown woman abovestairs. Edward pulled the book and let it fall open, flipping idly through its pages. He needed this respite.
“Go to bed, Rogers,” he shouted at the paneled door. “I’m fine.”
Whoever was on the other side wanted an audience; sanctuary and solitude would be short-lived.
An angelic blond head peered around the door. Of course. Claire.
“I’m not bothering, am I?” She slipped in, not waiting for a response.
“Never.” He glanced at her and leaned his shoulder against the shelf.
“I know better than that.” She smiled, walking toward him with one hand behind her back. “You kindly tolerate me.”
Edward focused on the page. “Hmmmm…tolerate you…to the contrary, the household knows
tolerate me.” His fingers skimmed the text. “Whatever it is, leave it on my desk.”
He read the last paragraph, and just as his index finger began to turn the page, the upper space of his vision caught Claire, statue-still with a half smile on her face. This would not be a cursory deliver-the-post-and-leave kind of visit.
She wanted details.
Women always did.
Besides, females were rarely satisfied until they had a man’s complete and undivided attention. That fact etched itself in his brain years ago: he preferred to ignore it. But a long history with Claire demanded he give his full attention; solitude and study would have to wait. Edward didn’t lift his head, but his gaze rose over the massive tome to Claire’s cool presence.
“I take it this conversation requires all my powers of concentration.”
“Edward,” she cajoled.
The book snapped shut, and he slid the tome back on the shelf. Edward crossed his arms loosely.
“I’m at your command.”
“What happened tonight?” One elegant brow rose in question. “You gave such spare details in the hall. I guessed Edith’s presence prevented you from saying more, but do tell. Something horrible must’ve happened to make you so angry. Was it that business of her pulling away from you by the carriage?”
He frowned, annoyed at the rapid spread of news in his household. He had informed her of Miss Montgomery falling from the carriage step, nothing more, but one feminine shoulder lifted with nonchalance.
“The coachman gave me his version in the kitchen.” Her face softened. “You know we mean well. Everyone in this household cares a great deal about you.” Her voice gentled. “Or did something untoward happen at the inn?”
He snorted. “I threatened to throw the woman’s mother in the Compter. Some would call that untoward.”
“You’d no more toss her mother into that place than me or Edith,” she scoffed sweetly.
“Miss Montgomery doesn’t know that. Besides, her stepfather failed to inform her of the night’s business.”
Claire inhaled sharply. “Oh dear. She didn’t know
she was meeting you tonight?”
Edward shook his head, and tension bunched his shoulders and neck. He wanted this interview done. Why did women want a man to bleed everything? Especially in the murky arena of emotions. He didn’t have the heart to ask her to leave. Yet.
“Then the whole thing must have been a terrible shock.” Claire’s fingertips fretted at her neckline, no doubt in solidarity for the set-upon Miss Montgomery.
“She took it surprisingly well. As well as one could expect when confronted with”—he made his fingers spread like claws, and his tone shifted to melodrama—“an infamous, reclusive beast who sweeps her away to his dark lair.”
“Edward, don’t. You’re nothing of the sort.” Claire stepped closer, reaching out to him, though not touching.
“Most of the realm has a different point of view.”
The hand hidden behind her back slid forward. “Perhaps these will provide worthwhile diversion. They arrived late this afternoon.” Claire’s slim fingers held a large, official-looking post and another smaller missive.
The elegant, embossed calligraphy in the upper corner of the official post piqued his interest:
He accepted the letters and turned the large one over: Lord Blevins’s red wax imprint. Edward broke the seal and scanned the brief letter.
“Now this makes for an interesting turn,” he said, studying the parchment.
By rote, his footsteps took him to the wide leather chair dominating his desk. Without looking, he folded his body into the chair as he read and reread the note.
“Hmmm…amusing,” he murmured and sent the post skidding across polished wood.
He put his booted feet on the desk, crossing them at the ankles, and opened the smaller letter. He scanned the note and dropped it on his desk. Across the mahogany, Claire seated herself.
“Do tell.” She linked her fingers and waited, posture perfect.
“Mr. Cyrus Ryland needs a consult about a patent he’s considering. We’ve maintained lively correspondence. Now he wants to meet in person.”
“And, you plan to receive him?”
“Yes.” He chuckled at her shocked expression. “What door in England doesn’t open to one of its wealthiest citizens? Besides, I’m sure he’s not coming to gawk. He means business.”
“I’ve read about him. Owns half of England. Stodgy, fat, and boorish, I’m sure.” She smiled, and her gaze fell on the larger parchment. “And that?”
Edward steepled his fingers. “An invitation from none other than Lord Blevins, the Royal Society’s newly minted president. Wants me to present my latest discoveries at a symposium in June…and
requests I submit an abstract a fortnight prior to the presentation.”
“That’s wonderful. You must go.”
“No.” Edward’s steepled fingers tapped his chin. Plans for tomorrow’s dissections took root. But this development…could it be a long-awaited victory?
“Why?” Claire leaned forward and touched the desk’s edge. “He obviously wants to make peace with you.”
“More like he wants me to apologize for the leaflet before God and man.”
“Don’t be so quick to think the worst.” She grinned like a schoolgirl trying to hold back forbidden giggles. “But that caricature of him…” She shrugged a slender shoulder. “I see why you think he wants an apology. You accused him of stealing your work, Edward, and in a very public, humiliating way.”
“What other options did I have? I was barely out of university. Blevins had position and reputation in the scientific community.” He looked pointedly at her. “And he
steal my work.”
“Exactly. What’s it been? Three years since the pamphlet?” Her index finger tapped the offending sheaf. “This is his olive branch.”
“It’s been four years. And unequivocally
Claire shifted in her seat, a prim smile on her face.
“All right then. Think of your father. He’d be thrilled.” She mimicked a lofty tone and leaned closer. “Family reputation lives on and all that.”
Edward found himself opening to her infectious humor. She softened his sometimes hard edges, but the die was cast.
“My father’s cronies no doubt prodded Blevins to extend the invitation out of pity…or curiosity…find out once and for all what happened to me.” He shook his head and rubbed his jaw. “No, I’m content with staying here and publishing my findings. They can read about my work. Besides, there are more pressing matters, in particular one residing abovestairs.”
Claire’s delicate brows pressed together.
“There is that,” she agreed quietly. “Does Miss Montgomery understand the full…
Edward tipped his head back. “Very delicately put. And no, she learned the genesis of the bargain only this evening.” He scrubbed both hands across his face. “I prefer to approach this one issue at a time.”
“Well, you have—what is it?—ninety days to work this all out, right?”
“Less than eighty days…seventy-nine to be exact, since midnight came and went.”
He tugged off the black velvet tie wrapped around his queue and rubbed the back of his head and neck. Pressure and weariness washed over him. Claire was gracious enough to take note and rose from her chair, and when she did, returned to her role of Greenwich Park’s solicitous housekeeper.