Enjoy Chapter 1…
The morning began in the same way as most of Chase’s mornings lately. With a tragic demise.
He turned onto his side. As he blinked, Rosamund’s face came into focus. “What was it this time?”
Using the sofa’s upholstered arm for leverage, he pushed to a sitting position. As he did so, his brain sloshed with regret. He rubbed his temples, ruing his behavior the night before. And his licentiousness in the very early morning. While he was at it, he decided he might as well regret his entire misspent youth, too. Clear a bit of his afternoon schedule.
“It can wait until later.” Once his head ceased ringing and he’d washed off the cloying scent of French perfume.
“It must be now, Daisy says, or else the contagion could spread. She’s preparing the body.”
Chase groaned. He decided it wasn’t worth arguing. Might as well have it done with.
As they began climbing the four flights of stairs to the nursery, he interrogated his ten-year-old ward. “Can’t you do something about this?”
“She’s your little sister.”
“You’re her guardian.”
He grimaced, rubbing his throbbing temple. “Discipline isn’t one of my particular talents.”
“Obedience isn’t one of ours,” Rosamund replied.
“I’ve noticed. Don’t think I didn’t see you pocket that shilling from the side table.” They reached the top of the stairs and turned down the corridor. “Listen, this has to stop. Quality boarding schools don’t offer enrollment to petty thieves or serial murderesses.”
“It wasn’t murder. It was typhus.”
“Oh, to be sure it was.”
“And we don’t want to go to boarding school.”
“Rosamund, it’s time you learned a harsh lesson.” He opened the nursery door. “We don’t always get what we want in life.”
Didn’t Chase know it. He didn’t want to be guardian to a pair of orphaned girls. He didn’t want to be next in line for the Belvoir dukedom. And he most assuredly did not want to be attending his fourth funeral in as many days. Yet here he was.
Daisy turned to them. A veil of dark netting covered her straw-colored curls. “Please show respect for the dead.”
She waved Chase forward. He dutifully crossed to her side, bending down so that she could pin a black armband around his shirtsleeve.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. So very sorry. You don’t know how sorry.
He took his place at the head of the bed, looking down at the deceased. She was ghostly pale and swaddled in a white shroud. Buttons covered her eyes. Thank God. It was damned unnerving when the eyes looked up at him with that glassy, empty stare.
Daisy reached for his hand and bowed her head. After leading them in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, she poked Chase in the ribs. “Mr. Reynaud, kindly say a few words.”
Chase looked to the heavens. God help him.
“Almighty Father,” he began in a dispirited tone, “we commit to your keeping the soul of Millicent. Ashes to ashes. Sawdust to sawdust. She was a doll of few words and yet fewer autonomous movements, yet she will be remembered for the ever-present—some might say permanently painted—smile on her face. By the grace of our Redeemer, we know she will be resurrected, perhaps as soon as luncheon.” He added under his breath, “Unfortunately.”
“Amen,” Daisy intoned. With solemnity, she lowered the doll into the wooden toy chest, then closed the lid.
Rosamund broke the oppressive silence. “Let’s go down to the kitchen, Daisy. We’ll have buttered rolls and jam for our breakfast.”
“You’ll breakfast here,” he corrected. “In the nursery. Your governess will—”
“Our governess?” Daisy gave him a sweet, innocent look. “But we don’t have a governess at the moment.”
He groaned. “Don’t tell me the new one quit. I only hired her yesterday.”
Rosamund said proudly, “We were rid of her in seventeen and a quarter hours. A new record.”
Chase strode to the world map on the wall and plucked a tack from the border. “There.” He stabbed an unsuspecting country at random, then pointed at it with authority. “I am sending you to boarding school there. Enjoy”—he squinted at the map—“Malta.”
Fuming, Chase quit the room and made the journey back down the four flights of stairs, and then down a half flight more and through the kitchen—all the way to his private retreat. Upon entering, he shut and locked the door before exhaling a lungful of annoyance.
For a gentleman of leisure, he was damned exhausted. He needed a bath, a shave, a change of clothing, and a headache powder. Barrow would arrive in an hour with sheaves of papers to look over and bank drafts to sign. The club had a bacchanalian revel this evening. And now he must hire yet another governess.
Before he could face any of it, he needed a drink.
As he made his way to the bar, he navigated a card table draped with a dustcloth and a stack of paintings propped against the wall, waiting to be hung. The apartment was a work in progress. He had a well-furnished bedchamber upstairs, of course, but for now he needed a space as far away from the nursery as architecturally possible. The arrangement was for the girls’ benefit as much as his own. He would rather not know what mischief his wards wrought at the top of the house, and they must never learn of the devilry he practiced at the bottom of it.
He uncorked a bottle of wine and filled a large glass. A bit early in the day for burgundy, but what of it. He was, after all, in mourning. Might as well lift a glass to Millicent’s memory.
He’d downed half the glass in one swallow when he heard a light knock at the door. Not the door to and from the kitchen, but the door that opened onto the side street.
Chase cursed into his burgundy. That would be Colette, he supposed. They’d had their fun the other night, but apparently neither his well-established reputation nor the parting bouquet he’d sent had communicated the message. He would be forced to have “the talk” with her in person.
It’s not you, darling. It’s me. I’m an irredeemable, broken man. You deserve better.
All of it was true, as hackneyed as it sounded. When it came to relationships, sensual or otherwise, Chase had one rule.
Words to live by, words to make love by. Words to send wards to boarding school by. When he made promises, he only caused pain.
“Come in,” he called, not bothering to turn around. “It’s unlocked.”
A cool draft swept across his neck as the door opened, then shut again. Like the whisper of fingertips.
He took another glass and filled it. “Back for more, are you? Insatiable minx. I knew it was no accident you left your stocking here the other”—he turned, holding the wineglasses in his hands and fixing a roguish half smile on his face—“night.”
Interesting. The woman who’d entered was not Colette.
She was very much not Colette.
A small, dark-haired young woman stood before him. She clutched a weathered brown satchel in her hands, and her eyes held abject horror. He could actually watch the blood draining from her face and settling at the base of her throat as a hot, fierce blush.
“Good morning,” he said amiably.
In reply, she made an audible swallow.
“Here.” Chase extended his left hand, offering her a glass of wine. “Have this. You look as though you could use it.”
It was him. She would know him anywhere. Those features were etched in her memory. He was indelibly handsome. Roguish green eyes, mussed dark hair, and that lopsided smile so seductive, it could steal a woman’s virtue from across a crowded room.
Alexandra found herself standing toe-to-toe (she was too small-statured to manage face-to-face) with the Bookshop Rake, in the flesh.
So. Much. Flesh.
Sleeves rolled to the elbow, open shirt, no cravat . . . Alexandra dropped her gaze to keep from staring. Good Lord. Bare feet.
“I . . . I . . . Forgive me, I thought this was the servants’ entrance. I’ll leave straightaway.” She ducked her head to hide her face, praying he wouldn’t recognize her. If she left now, and quickly, this encounter might be survivable.
“You weren’t mistaken. It was the servants’ entrance until a few weeks ago. I’m adapting the space for my own purposes. A sort of gentleman’s retreat.”
She swept her gaze about the room. His “purposes” were easy enough to discern. Well-stocked bar. Plush chaise longue. Plum-colored velvet drapes. A rug fashioned from the hide of some shaggy beast. On the wall, a rack of antlers.
And there it was, the aforementioned forgotten stocking. Draped over one of the stag’s forked prongs like a white banner of surrender.
She’d wandered into some sort of pleasure dungeon.
Embarrassment seared her from the inside out. A sheen of sweat broke out on her brow. “I’m clearly intruding. I’ll return another time.” She tightened her grip on her satchel and attempted to sidle around him.
But he wouldn’t be sidled so easily. He was too quick, too tall. Too muscled and male. He slid sideways, blocking her path to the door. “Believe me, I am delighted to see you.”
I’d be delighted if you didn’t see me at all.
Alex shielded her face with one hand and slanted her gaze to a painting propped against the wall. It featured a woman bare to her skin, save for a strategically positioned fan. “I left a card last week. I meant to speak with your housekeeper about offering my services.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then perhaps you could direct me to her.”
“I conduct all the interviews myself. Saves time, I find.”
She looked up in surprise. It was beyond unusual for the gentleman of the house to interview his own employees—let alone an employee whose sole duty would be to adjust the clocks to Greenwich time once a week.
“Forgive me. I’ve run ahead of myself.” He inclined his head in a perfunctory bow. “Chase Reynaud.”
Mr. Charles Reynaud.
Mrs. Alexandra Reynaud.
For the love of God. Stop.
He set aside the glasses of wine and wiped his hands on his trousers. “We can discuss your immediate employment. Make yourself comfortable.”
Alex would rather make herself invisible. She moved toward the windows lining one side of the room, partly wishing to disappear behind the draperies. But also because she was drawn by the glimmer of brass.
Could it be . . . ?
Yes. Pushing aside a fold of aubergine velvet, she found confirmation of her hopes.
Since childhood, Alexandra had been fascinated by the night sky. Life aboard a merchant frigate didn’t offer many ways to amuse oneself after sundown. She’d borrowed her father’s spyglass so often, he’d finally given in and bought her one of her own. Here in London, she made do with a collapsible pocket telescope she’d purchased for sixteen shillings at a lens grinder’s shop. A hobbyist’s instrument.
But this . . . ?
This was, without question, the most astonishing object she’d ever touched.
Without thinking, she bent to have a look through the eyepiece. She found the instrument to be directed at an attic window of the house across the way. The servant quarters of a pretty young housemaid or two, no doubt.
Alex swung it away from its sordid direction, pointing it toward the gardens in the center of the square. Heavens, she could make out individual blades of yellow-green grass pushing through the soil.
Behind her, glassware clinked. She startled, jumping back from the telescope, knocking it on its swiveling mechanism, and sending it into a nearby vase, which she had to lunge to catch before it hit the floor. What a display of professional skill. Why yes, I’m here to offer my services handling intricate, expensive machinery.
“Forgive me. I didn’t catch your name, Miss . . . ?”
Her tongue was a sailor’s knot. “Mountbatten,” she managed. “Alexandra Mountbatten.”
Then he tilted his head and looked at her. Truly looked at her, with that same deep, searching gaze he’d given her in the bookshop.
Her heartbeat paused in anticipation.
Alexandra didn’t expect a confession of unrequited love, of course. At most, a simple Haven’t we met somewhere? Perhaps even Oh, yes. Hatchard’s, was it?
“Miss Mountbatten. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Oh. He had no memory of meeting her at all.
A stroke of luck, she told herself. If he did recall her, she would have lingered in his memory as a clumsy, stammering, bookish ninny, not an object of admiration. This was a boon, truly. Now she could cease wasting time thinking of him.
It would be completely irrational to feel disappointed. Much less hurt.
However, her powers of reason flew out her ear whenever this man was involved. She did feel wounded, just a little. Inside her, the sharp proof of her foolishness twisted and scraped at her pride.
He cleared the tea table of a candlestick with guttered tapers and two emptied brandy glasses. He whisked the forgotten stocking from the antler prong and—after casting about in vain for an appropriate place to store it—wadded it into a ball and stuffed it behind a pillow.
“I truly should go,” she said. “I seem to have interrupted something, and I—”
“You’re not interrupting anything. Nothing of consequence, at any rate.” He patted the back of an armchair. “Sit down.”
She numbly took the offered seat. He dropped onto the chaise across from her. From the way he sank into the cushioning, Alexandra suspected the upholstery had strained and bounced beneath many a torrid encounter.
In one last farcical swipe at decency, he ran a hand through his disheveled brown hair. “I’ve two that need looking after.”
Yes. Concentrate on the clocks. Those ticking things with dials and gears and numbers. They were how she made her living, and she’d been knocking on the door of every servants’ entrance in Mayfair to find more clients. She wasn’t here to gawk at the sprinkling of hair on his chest, or ponder the meaning of his black armband, or flog herself over silly fantasies that he would sweep her into his arms, confess his months of suffering for love of her, and vow to abandon his sinful ways now that she’d given him reason to live.
She slammed the lid on her imagination, buckled the strap, affixed a padlock, and then pushed it off a cliff.
This was just another business call.
He went on, “I can’t tell you much of their history. They’d been passed around by several different relations before they landed with me last autumn.”
Family heirlooms, then. “They must be precious.”
“Oh, yes,” he replied dryly. “Precious indeed. To be honest, I’ve no idea what to do with the two of them. They came along with the title.”
“The title?” she echoed.
“Belvoir.” When she did not respond, he added, “As in, the duke of it.”
A wild burst of laughter escaped her.
A duke? Oh, how Penny would gloat over having guessed that.
“Believe me,” he said, “I find it absurd, as well. Actually, I’m merely heir to a duke, for now. Since my uncle is infirm, I’ve been handed the legal responsibilities. All the duties of a dukedom, none of the perks.” He waved aimlessly in her direction. “Well, then. Teach me a lesson.”
“I . . . I beg your pardon?”
“I could inquire as to your education and experience, but that seems a waste of time. We may as well have a demonstration.”
A demonstration? Did he want to know how clockworks operated? Perhaps he meant the chronometer. She could explain why it kept the right time when clocks could lose several minutes a day.
“What sort of lesson did you have in mind?”
He shrugged. “Whatever you think I might need to learn.”
Alex couldn’t hold it in any longer. She buried her face in her hands and moaned into them.
He leaned toward her at once. “Are you ill? I do hope it’s not typhus.”
“It’s disappointment. I expected something different.I should have known better.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “What precisely were you expecting?”
“You don’t want to know.” And I don’t want to tell you.
“Oh, but I do.”
“No, you don’t. You really, truly don’t.”
“Come now. That kind of protestation only makes a man more intrigued. Just have out with it.”
“A gentleman,” she blurted out. “I expected you’d be a gentleman.”
“You weren’t wrong. I am a gentleman. Eventually, I’m going to be a peer.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. I thought you’d be the respectable, considerate, honorable kind of gentleman.”
“Ah,” he said. “Yes, that was a mistaken assumption on your part.”
“Obviously. Just look at you.”
As she spoke, her gaze drifted downward, toward his broad shoulders. Then toward the rumpled linen of his shirt. Then toward the intriguing wedge of masculine chest exposed by his open collar. The skin there was smooth and taut, and the muscular contours were defined, and . . .
And she was openly staring now.
“Look at this place. Wineglasses scattered on the table. Perfume still lingering in the air. What kind of gentleman conducts an employment interview in this . . .” She indicated their surroundings, at a loss for the word. “. . . cave of carnality?”
“Cave of Carnality,” he echoed with amusement. “Oh, I like that. I’ve a mind to engrave that on a plaque.”
“So you understand my mistake now.” The words kept pouring out of her, rash and unconsidered, and she couldn’t put them back in the bottle. She couldn’t even find a cork. “When I opened the door, I was fool enough to expect someone else. A man who’d never allow a lady to wander London with only one stocking and call it ‘nothing of consequence.’ Stockings are of consequence, Mr. Reynaud. So are the women who wear them.” She made a defeated wave at his black armband. “All of this whilst you’re in mourning.”
“Now that, I can explain.”
“Please don’t. This lesson is cruel enough already.” She shook her head. “Then there’s the telescope.”
“Hold a moment.” He sat forward. “What has a telescope to do with anything?”
“That”—she pointed with an outstretched arm—“is a genuine Dollond. A forty-six-inch achromatic with a triple object-glass of three-and-three-quarters-inch aperture. Polished wood barrel, brass draw tubes. Capable of magnifying land objects sixty times over, and celestial objects to one hundred and eighty times. It’s an instrument most could only dream of owning, and you’re letting it gather dust. It’s . . . Well, it’s heartbreaking.”
In the end, Alex had only herself to blame. All the clues were there. His dreadful taste in books. His charming grin that made promises no man could intend to keep. And those eyes . . . They held some kind of potent, brain-addling sorcery, and he went about jostling young women in bookshops without the decency to keep them hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat.
Her only consolation was that he’d forget this conversation the moment she left, just as he’d forgotten her before.
“Thank you, Mr. Reynaud. You’ve given me a much-needed lesson today.” She released a heavy sigh and tipped her gaze to the wall. “Antlers. Really?”
After a prolonged silence, he whistled softly through his teeth.
She rose to her feet, reaching for her satchel. “I’ll show myself out.”
“Oh, no, you won’t.” He stood. “Miss Mountbatten, that was capital.”
“Absolutely brilliant. I would very much like to engage your services.”
Perhaps she had this all wrong. Maybe he was not the Bookshop Rake after all, but the Bookshop Madman.
Then he went and did the most incomprehensible thing yet. He looked into her eyes, smiled just enough to reveal a lethal dimple, and spoke the words she’d stupidly dreamed of hearing him say.
“You,” he said, “are everything I’ve been searching for. And I’m not letting you get away.”
“Come, then. My wards will be delighted to meet their new governess.”