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Authors: Trish Albright

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BOOK: Siren's Secret
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“Gra—Grayson,” she stammered, the events of the evening finally catching up with her. “He was a colleague. A friend.” And she had stolen from him! Well, not from him specifically, but he might have borne the blame for it. Now he was dead. And someone had already tried to kill her. They might come back. Her knees folded and an arm circled her back.

“I’ve got you,” he said. Then over her head, to the men at the door, “It’s a shock to us all.”

She realized he endeavored to give her a moment to recover. He knew she knew something. Even so—she was grateful.

The American led her to an area where tables had been arranged for guests to wait. The music continued, but in more soothing tones, and the guests—some saddened, some anxious, some thrilled by the excitement—gathered in groups to exchange theories.

“Olivia!” Mrs. Tisdale called.

Olivia turned to her friend and chaperone, who immediately pulled her from the American’s hold and embraced her before stepping back to study. “You’re pale. Are you all right? Oh, my dear. It’s a terrible shock. Let’s sit you down and get this cloak off—”

“No!” She and the American spoke in unison.

“I’m a bit chilled,” Olivia insisted. “The shock …”

“It’s important to stay warm,” he offered. “Especially after such news …”

Mrs. Tisdale eyed the American, curious. She looked between the two, and Olivia flushed guiltily, embarrassed that her friend of nine years seemed to think she had been engaged in a tryst with the man at her side.

This time Olivia had the satisfaction of seeing her previously composed rescuer discomfited.

He bowed. “Now that you are in safe hands, please excuse me while I find my aunt.”

“Wait!” Mrs. Tisdale insisted.

He paused.

“In light of the circumstances, it seems we must make our own acquaintance.”

Olivia stared bemused as Mrs. Tisdale offered a hand. It was very un-English.

“I’m Mrs. Geoffrey Tisdale. Elizabeth, to my friends.”

He relaxed and took the hand, his beautiful lips curling up on the left, as if reluctantly charmed by her offer of friendship. “Samuel Stafford.”

Mrs. Tisdale gasped, yanking her hand back and pressing it over her heart. Not in shock, Olivia knew, but surprise. At the sight of Mrs. Tisdale’s gaping mouth, Olivia had the good sense to close her own.

Samuel Stafford looked at his empty palm, then lowered it. “Samuel, to
my
friends.” The smile disappeared. “My reputation precedes me?”

“Oh. Oh, no, Mr. Stafford.” Mrs. Tisdale strove to cover her less-than-gracious response. “No. No. Stafford Shipping has of course become well known in most circles. And your sister … uh … married not long ago, I understand. Quite well, indeed.”

“You’ve met my
beloved
sister?”

Olivia caught the unmistakable edge in his voice. Whether it was anger at his sister for her behavior or at Mrs. Tisdale for bringing it up, she didn’t know.

“Her Grace? Oh, no. But she is quite … known …” Mrs. Tisdale trailed off.

Olivia knew there wasn’t much more one could politely say about his sister, Alexandra Stafford, now the Duchess of Worthington. Despite a good marriage, she was
not
quite the sort. A heathen and adventuress, by most accounts—though Olivia hoped to someday meet the woman. However, by the look on Mr. Stafford’s face, he would not appreciate the stories that circulated.

Olivia undertook to alleviate the awkwardness, so also offered her hand. “I’m—”

He cut her off, ignoring her hand. “Unnecessary, I believe, as we won’t be seeing each other again.”

She gasped, stunned that he would turn her own words on her, and quite rudely. She stared at his retreating form—a very large retreating form. It appeared they had insulted him. Huh. From their reputations, Staffords seemed impervious to insult. Or perhaps she had thought them too wild and ignorant to recognize one. Bad form on her part. She had let gossip shape her opinion. Neither fair nor scientific of her.

Despite not having been on her own best behavior, she found that his rejection hurt. Still, she had bigger issues to worry about. Frowning, she turned to her chaperone, whose mouth had dropped open again. Olivia pushed her friend’s chin up.

“Oh dear. That was not well done of me, was it?”

“No, Mrs. Tisdale. But no one is quite as perfect as I am,” Olivia said.

Mrs. Tisdale cocked an eyebrow at her. “Your humor is most dry, my dear.”

“Better to be dry than drooling—but enough.” Olivia fingered the paper buried deep in her pocket. She needed to hide it. “What book did you bring tonight, Mrs. Tisdale? I have a mind to read for a bit.”

Across the room, Samuel found his aunt, Lady Margaret, surrounded by a bevy of elder statesmen. Aunt Maggie was his mother’s sister, and the last close English relative still living. She’d spent several years in Boston with the Stafford clan after her husband died and was dear to him and all his siblings.

He smiled patiently while Maggie instructed the gentlemen on the importance of supporting the arts. Aunt Maggie could often appear absentminded, but behind the soft exterior was a sharp mind that missed nothing. She excused herself to join him.

“What happened to your face?”

“I ran into a statue. Venus or someone.”

“Really, Samuel. I don’t believe that for a second, and neither will the authorities. Do you know anything about this?”

“Nothing.”

“I saw you with Lady Olivia and her companion.”

“Lady Olivia?”

“She’s not for you, you know.”

Samuel froze. “I have no intentions—”

“Heavens, dear. I felt the electricity from here. And your eyes gave you away. But only those who love you would know,” she said.

“Um-hmm. So tell me about Lady Olivia. She was friends with Grayson, you know.”

“Yes. Very upsetting, this business.” Maggie studied Lady Olivia. The younger woman stared at a closed book, deep in thought. “Olivia, hmm. She’s confident, quick-witted, entertaining as a dinner companion, gifted in the classical languages, extremely well educated. In short, an intellectual—though a very frustrated one. Females do meet a few closed doors, you know. It’s unfortunate.”

“You like her,” Samuel accused.

“Immensely.” Maggie tucked her arm through his. “Let’s take a turn about the room.”

Samuel escorted his aunt while she recollected her facts.

“What else?” said Maggie aloud. “Her mother passed I think when she was fifteen. She has a manor home in Ashford left to her by her mother, and one thousand pounds annually, though I don’t know if that goes directly to her or her father. They are very close and work on his research together. He is obsessed with finding ancient Egyptian tombs. I saw him at an event last year, and I know he was leaving for Egypt soon after. A charming man, if a bit of a zealot when it comes to Egyptian mythology and all things Alexandrian. He has passed his passion on to his daughter.”

“And if I may ask, dearest aunt: what is wrong with me?”

“Nothing, Samuel. You just deserve to have someone in your life much easier than the very complicated Lady Olivia Katharine Hastings Yates. If you must know, before your sister came along, she was considered
not
quite the sort.”

“Not quite the sort to do what?”

“Not quite the sort to go placidly along with society’s plans for her, for one.”

Samuel sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, I find that unusually admirable.”

She patted his arm. “I know, dear.”

They reached the end of their walk, very near to where Lady Olivia sat. Her companion stood not far away, talking with one of the officials. Lady Olivia looked up from her seat, spying them. Carefully adjusting her cloak, she rose and approached with a gentle bow and a genuine smile to his aunt. He felt his gut clench at the change. The smile transformed the angles of her face into something more elfish and mischievous, relieving the severity of her jaw. The eyes he had thought silver streaks of lightning were a warmer, mysterious gray. The result was engaging. Intriguing. And very interesting.

“Lady Margaret, it’s a pleasure to see you,” she greeted before tilting her head to him. She held the smile, albeit a bit more tentatively. As much as Samuel wanted to be flattered, he was mostly suspicious.

“Have you met my nephew, Lady Olivia?”

“Only informally, I’m afraid, and I don’t believe I made a very good first impression.”

His aunt made the formal introduction, while Lady Olivia continued to fuss awkwardly with her cloak, holding both her reticule and a book. Giving up, she asked him, “My apologies, could you please hold this for a moment?”

Samuel took the book and slid it under his arm before folding both arms across his chest to regard her. Truthfully, he was fascinated. She’d gone from ice queen to bumbling maiden.

She continued to readjust the mink neckline of her cloak, smiling helplessly, until her companion joined them. Samuel took another look at the older woman. Not so old. About his age. Thirty, perhaps. Attractive. Or she would be if her hair weren’t pulled back similarly to Lady Olivia’s. Up and tight. He wondered if they were trying to set a style. He prayed it wouldn’t catch on.

“Olivia, dear, they’re ready for us.” Mrs. Tisdale indicated the three tables set up for guests to meet with inspectors.

“Oh. Of course. Excuse us a moment. Lady Margaret. Mr. Stafford.” She nodded and followed Mrs. Tisdale to the table. Most of the guests had gotten past the outrage of opening the contents of their hand purses and personal belongings. Both ladies did this automatically.

“Pockets, m’lady?”

“Why yes, one. In my dress,” Olivia replied. “For my handkerchief.”

“Can you stand and turn it out for me?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sorry m’lady. Lots of material. Anything could be hidin’ in there. Fact is, theft is a good motive for killin’.”

Olivia huffed, but stood and turned out her pocket. “Will that suffice, sir?”

“Just a few more questions. You in a rush?”

Olivia froze at the implication she was running from something.

“Not at all. I merely find your method insulting, sir.” At his raised brow, she explained, “Your process.”

He stared at her, then finally went on, “Were you alone at any point this evening, m’lady?”

“No.”

“That right?”

“That’s right, sir. I’m nothing, if not veridical. That means truthful. But I don’t suppose you meet many people like that in your line of work.”

“Not a one, m’lady.” He dipped his quill and scribbled. “You were reported wandering off alone in the exhibits, Lady ’Livia.” He looked down at his note for a long while, saying nothing, then finally looked up. Silent. Waiting for an explanation.

Olivia stared at him. Gads! Was all society filled with captious gossips? She schooled her expression to betray nothing. There was only one answer that would save her.

“If you must know …” She glanced hesitantly at Mr. Stafford, who sat next to them with his aunt. “I had a rendezvous. That’s French for—”

“I know what—”

“Fine. With a gentleman whose name I wish not to mention.” She glanced sideways again.

Mrs. Tisdale gasped in what Olivia presumed was shock. Olivia scowled. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tisdale, but I’m four and twenty. Surely you did not think me innocent?”

Mrs. Tisdale pressed a hand over her chest dramatically. “Innocent, indeed.”

Her inquisitor bent over his notes again, suppressing a smirk. “I think I can figure out the rest, m’lady. Yer excused.”

Mrs. Tisdale asked, “What about me?”

“You’re not the sort, ma’am.”

“Well. That’s a bit disappointing. Am I so uninteresting, Olivia?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “However, that seems to be a bit of good fortune in this instance. Thank you, sir.” She turned to Olivia. “Ready, dear? It seems we have some catching up to do.”

Olivia stood at the same time Mr. Stafford and Lady Margaret were excused. Mr. Stafford laid a book on the table. “Don’t forget this, Lady Olivia.”

Olivia nearly wheezed. Before she could take the book, the Bow Street Runner swept it from her grasp.

“Yours?”

Olivia couldn’t speak. Thankfully Mrs. Tisdale did.

“Actually, it’s mine,” she said.

The man took the book, read the title slowly—
A History of the American Colonies
—then examined the front and back covers.

Olivia felt her knees buckle.

The man lifted the book by its spine and shook it thoroughly before handing it back. “Cain’t be too safe.” He winked at her. “A popular form of hiding and passing messages.”

“Truly?” Mrs. Tisdale retrieved the book.

Olivia stared, befuddled, until Mr. Stafford bumped her from behind to move along. He must have taken the script. Fury welled up inside. What did he want with it? Gads, had he been involved in Grayson’s death? She went cold. He walked near her, escorting his aunt. Sensing her regard, he turned his head—and those lips curled up, most wickedly!

The bastard! The bloody, brash, American—

“You look unwell, Lady Olivia?”

Her throat was tight. “I’m perfect.”

“Out of sorts?”

“I’m fine!” Then she softened her answer. “But, Mr. Stafford, I would most appreciate it if you could escort us to our carriage. It is a bit farther off.”

“Of course. Please wait while I make my aunt comfortable.”

They waited as Mr. Stafford took his aunt to a carriage nearby. She wondered how he had managed to get such a prime location. He returned and took Mrs. Tisdale’s arm, while Olivia led the way. She would get to the bottom of this.

Mr. Stafford helped her chaperone into the carriage, then Olivia slammed the carriage door on Mrs. Tisdale’s surprised face, asking the groomsmen to wait for a moment. She and Stafford were on the dark side of the carriage, shadowed, though her eyes adjusted quickly—quickly enough that she sensed his shadow moving closer.

“This is very forward of you, Lady Olivia, but I understand you want to make true on your lie. I’m happy to oblige.”

Stunned, Olivia didn’t move when he stepped that final distance and once again pressed her to him—only not in safety. She squeaked. It was humiliating, but the ridiculous man had quite obviously mistaken her intent, and he was about to—

BOOK: Siren's Secret
10.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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