CHAPTER ONE

 

Edenbrooke, England, 1812

The handsome stranger’s frothy white cravat looked like frosting waiting to be licked away from the chocolate-colored wool of his tailcoat. Isabella bit down into her strawberry, watching as the man tugged at the linen, exposing the tan lines of his throat. Touching her tongue to her lower lip to remove a drop of sweet juice, she stared at him and imagined the sweet taste of the prior night’s whipped cream slathered upon his neck.

She sighed, absently rubbing her belly. Then froze.

Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she peered with dismay at the strawberry stem dangling from her fingers. Then back at the man. And then back down at the remains of her strawberry. Eyes widening, Isabella was never so glad she had—for once—not spoken her thoughts aloud. She couldn’t believe she was hiding behind a horse, spying on a newcomer, and having indecent thoughts. Indecent Thoughts beginning with a capital “I” and “T.” I must be hungrier than I realized.

Her stomach growled, and she bit into another strawberry to cover her embarrassment. Lud, she was ravenous, which was likely why her reveries had taken a decidedly peckish turn. Now that she had identified the source of her daydreams—the hunger, it was definitely hunger—she should stop staring at how the man’s shoulders flexed and moved underneath his coat as he hauled his large trunk inside the Devon Ox.

He swung his gaze toward her for a moment, but he didn’t seem to spy her where she was concealed beside the horse. She saw a flash of pale eyes—though she couldn’t quite tell the color from the distance—and a cleft chin fixed upon a strong jaw. All of it was enhanced by his dark hair, many shades darker than his coat, not quite the color of coffee.

Coffee pairs well with cream, does it not?

Her cheeks burned, and she pressed her lips together, praying the man wouldn’t notice her or wonder why she was watching him. She was a rotten liar.

Isabella was also sure it was hunger—and not the sight of strong thighs and broad shoulders—that caused a fizzing sensation in her stomach as he spun to walk into the inn. Closing her eyes, Isabella inhaled the tart scent of the half-eaten berry and acknowledged it wasn’t the only thing making her mouth water.

Can men look edible or has my brain finally been commandeered by my stomach? Thank heavens he hadn’t been holding a biscuit in his hand, or she would have assaulted the poor man.

“We’re keeping this between you and me,” she whispered down to the strawberry. “No one ever needs to know.”

Isabella rolled her shoulders and stretched her legs under her skirts to relieve the stiffness from the morning’s work on the upcoming festival. She regretted her small breakfast, but she’d been in a hurry to meet her friends. Later, she’d been too busy arranging flowers to pay heed to her stomach. She couldn’t put the blame of her famishment entirely on the morning’s activities, though; she’d barely even had an appetite this week in her excitement over the architect’s planned visit in two days. After spending months trying to convince the brilliant Hugh Barlow, the Viscount Bolton, to come to Edenbrooke, she was almost unable to believe he had changed his mind. His sudden and unexplained capitulation was stunning.

All-in-all, the week had been quite satisfactory, she reflected. The fact that she had been able to toil all morning without resting was even a small triumph. Just six months ago she would not have had the stamina after her illness. Lifting her chin, she grinned at the thought.

She went back to petting the magnificent chestnut horse that was tethered outside the inn. This, and not turning the handsome stranger into an imaginary edible confection, had been her original reason for stopping on her way home. Of course, once the man had arrived in his carriage, Isabella couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch.

Gossip traveled faster than the breeze along the shore by Edenbrooke, and Isabella was surprised she didn’t know the identity of the traveler. The size of his travelling trunk suggested he was planning to stay for the summer, but Isabella thought she knew all the houses leased in town for such a purpose. Her brother owned half of them, after all.

Humming to herself, Isabella stroked the soft space between the horse’s nostrils. Her hand slowed as she remembered how nicely the man’s pantaloons hugged his thighs, and the pretty mare nudged and sniffed at her other hand. “You don’t want this, do you?” Isabella held up her last strawberry. The horse eyed her. She eyed the horse and then relented with a sigh. “You may have it, but if your owner shows up to berate me for ruining your diet, I am not taking the blame.” The horse snorted, making Isabella laugh. Horses were so wonderfully intuitive about people’s emotions. “Here,” she said, extending her fingers. “I can come by these easier than you.”

The door to the inn banged open, and Isabella dropped her hand from the mare’s reddish mane. The delicious-looking stranger strode out into the sunlight, looking to each side before gazing straight ahead to where Isabella was standing. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. As he descended upon her with a tempestuous scowl, she also had a growing feeling that she would like him a lot less when he opened his mouth.

“Step away from that horse!” The man strode toward her at an alarming pace.

Heaving out a long breath over her confirmed suspicions, Isabella folded her arms across her chest and stood her ground. She had never been a woman who did as she was told, and she would not begin such a habit now. “Pardon me, but who are you to tell me what I may do?”

The man stopped in front of her and inched his way between Isabella and the horse, forcing her to take a step back or be plastered against him. “Miss,” he said in a long-suffering tone reminiscent of Isabella’s eldest brother in a fit of temper, “this beast will tear off your arm.”

“This sweet-goer?” she asked, incredulous. “I’ve been petting her for five minutes.”

“I assure you that she is a dreadful menace. She tried to take a chunk out of my shoulder the moment I set eyes on her.” He rubbed his large hand across the part in question in emphasis.

Isabella glanced at his shoulder, her eyes tracing the broad distance between it and the other one. She dragged her regard upward and found herself looking into a pair of remarkable grey eyes. Fighting a blush, she took another step back. “I do not wish to be impertinent, but are you sure you have the right horse?”

The stranger snorted, the sound harsh and grating. “I sent her here ahead of me some days ago, and I’d recognize the foul creature anywhere.”

“Foul creature!” She moved around he-of-the-perfect-face-and-foul-disposition to the front of the horse. “Don’t listen to him,” she crooned, stroking her hand down the mare’s soft nose. The horse lowered her head and rubbed against Isabella’s chest. Isabella looked at the stranger from the side of her eyes and gave him a triumphant smile.

“I cannot believe it,” the man said with a little huff.

He seemed so chagrinned that some of Isabella’s ire diminished in sympathy. “I appreciate you trying to save me, though I’m no damsel in distress.”

The man threw his hands up in exasperation and let them fall against his sculpted thighs with a slapping sound. “I stand corrected. Apparently, she’s a docile lamb who hates me.” Even though he had calmed, his voice was still deep and commanding, sending a tremor of awareness through her, like the velvety petals of that morning’s primroses rubbing across her skin.

“It can’t be so bad.” Lud, did she sound breathless? She did, she decided, and wished she was wearing something other than her plain beige dress. It had been at least a year since she’d cared how she looked to the eyes of a man, but of all the days to be wearing her ugliest frock, she’d chosen this one. She even had bits of flowers stuck to the cloth from arranging the bouquets earlier, making her look no better than bramble.

The man raised his eyebrows, stood still, and lifted his hand toward the horse’s face.

The mare flattened her ears, turned her neck, and promptly tried to bite the proffered appendage that was jerked back to escape damage.

Isabella clapped her fingers over her mouth and choked back her chortle.

“Go ahead and laugh.” The man rolled his eyes toward the sky.

“It’s just the look she gave you was so irritated. I didn’t even know horses could look that way. It’s as if she smelled something terrible.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, causing the fabric to tighten across his impressive biceps. “As I don’t know you, I’m going to pretend not to take offense.”

“Oh, I apologize! My mouth runs away with me. I did not mean to imply that you smell anything but wonderful. My sister says I have a particular talent for saying the wrong thing.” She frowned. “But then, she says many things about me, as sisters do.”

The man shrugged, a slow roll of his broad shoulders upwards and downwards. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Do you have brothers?” Isabella’s three brothers had as many opinions as her sister.

He shook his head.

“La, that’s a shame. My family is rather large. We are forever getting into scrapes together, particularly the younger part. I’m afraid we were notorious growing up in Edenbrooke.” She realized she’d started gesturing animatedly with her hands and tucked them back behind her.

“For some reason, that doesn’t surprise me.” The man scanned her face, and his eyes sparked with something Isabella might deem as amused interest.

“Do I give myself away so quickly?”

“Only to the discerning.” Angling his head to the side, he continued to watch her closely.

“And you’re discerning?”

“Definitely.” The silken edge of his voice caused Isabella to shiver.

His eyes were warm, but his lips held a firm line. He seemed friendly but sober, and Isabella wondered if she could coax him into a smile. “I must ask,” she began, “do you always shout at unsuspecting females you’re trying to rescue? I believe you require a new technique.”

“I’m not in the habit of talking to the fairer sex.”

Interesting. He must not be married. “Speaking for all females, which is a responsibility I take with all due gravity, we tend to prefer softer tones than a bellow.”

“I will take note for any future unnecessary rescues of ‘not-damsels.'”

“Thank you on behalf of all ‘not-damsels.'” A pleasant warmth, like standing the perfect distance away from a lit fireplace in winter, bloomed in her chest at his teasing. She still hadn’t elicited a grin from him, though. As she watched, his gaze clouded for a moment, going distant for a fraction of a second, before his focus returned to her. She swallowed hard, blushed and looked away toward the mare. “What is your horse’s name?”

“Izzy.”

Isabella had always hated when her brothers called her that. She started to mention her name was Isabella, but stopped herself. That would almost certainly lead to her explaining that she was Lady Isabella Halwick, and she’d prefer to postpone that as long as possible. It would be a disappointment to see the shadow of greed, awe, or, worse, obsequiousness, darken those grey eyes—eyes that seemed to be lingering upon her mouth at present.

“That’s an unusual name for such a grand horse” She licked her lips with a dry tongue.

“I chose it as a reminder of someone.” The mixture of irritation and mirth was plain in his voice.

Isabella winced. “Given your opinion of the horse, I suspect you do not hold the original in high regard.”

“One might say that.”

She straightened her spine, feeling each rung tighten and relax from her earlier exertions. “I’m sure this person earned your disfavor.”

“Of course.”

He was frowning again, which for some reason sat heavy in her stomach, so Isabella chose to change the subject. “Are you in Edenbrooke for the summer?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t expect to be here long.”

Isabella tapped her fingers against her skirt. He didn’t seem a talkative man. However, she didn’t have the feeling that she was an unwanted presence. He was…guarded. “That is too bad. I hope you stay long enough for the festival this weekend.”

“I have an unfortunate business meeting later today, and then I plan to return home.”

Her smile remained fixed as her heart sank when she realized he must be in some sort of trade. She probably wouldn’t see him even if he were planning to stay for long. “I saw your trunk, and I assumed you were staying here for the summer.”

He stared at her, grey eyes unblinking, and didn’t respond.

Something niggled at her between the name of his horse and the fact that he had business affairs in Edenbrooke. Was there was a chance that this was Lord Bolton? No, it couldn’t possibly be the architect. Bolton would certainly be planning on staying for more than a day to discuss the project, and besides, he wasn’t due there for two more days.

“I mean,” she began, nervous at his silence, “it was such a big chest, and I was quite impressed you lifted it. I’m sure I couldn’t, but you seem quite large and strong.” Drat it, why can’t I stop chattering? She’d be comparing him aloud to cream and coffee in a matter of seconds.

The man lifted his eyebrow, stepping a little closer. “Large and strong, you say?” He somehow managed to look pleased and imposing at the same time.

Isabella wasn’t sure if she would have preferred a giant bird carrying her away or lightning to strike her down at that moment. Anything to save herself from her runaway mouth.

“I apologize. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and it’s affecting my words. I’m on my way home to remedy the situation. I’d eat anything at the moment.” Don’t look at his cravat. Don’t do it. Think about something other than frosting and cravats. “I daresay I could eat a bear, though I’ve never actually seen one to know the scope of such a commitment.” If there were a convenient wall nearby, Isabella would be banging her head against it.

The man appeared mystified and was arching his brow in an increasingly dramatic fashion as she spoke. He cleared his throat once and then again. “This is a very odd conversation to have with a stranger. I, too, have not seen a bear…Is that how one should reply?”

It was then that Isabella was almost (but not quite) glad he wasn’t staying in Edenbrooke for long. She’d never recover from this mortification, and the fact that she was embarrassing herself while wearing a dress that made her look like a sallow thorn bush didn’t make her feel any better. If she were going to humiliate herself, she could at least look smart while doing so.

“I’m—” and she halted. She’d almost introduced herself to remedy the “stranger” part of his reply, but she cut herself short. It was better to remain unfamiliar. And likely politer as she lacked an introduction—not that she had any honest claim to good manners at this moment. “I’m sorry. As I said, I’ve a rare talent for making a cake of myself. I’m not even the worst in my family, though. I’ve a brother who met his future wife on an empty stomach and angrily decried the evils of birch trees. We were all amazed when she married him.” Ashton would kill her if he ever found out she let that story slip about how he met his now-deceased wife.

Her stomach growled again. She eyed the horse with resentment over the strawberry she’d fed him. “This is your fault,” Isabella grumbled as she kicked at the ground.

A snort interrupted her aggravated thoughts, and she looked up to see the man had slapped a hand over his mouth as he tried not to laugh.

It wasn’t quite the smile she was hoping for, but she thought it would do for the day. His smoky eyes crinkled with good-humor, and she found herself grinning up into his handsome face. Her aching limbs felt weightless, buoyant as if she were floating in bath water.

Before they could speak any further, the innkeeper, Mr. Bantry, came bustling out of the inn. “Sir!” he exclaimed, “You cannot leave that trunk in the middle of the room!”

The stranger flushed a pale cherry color (that looked quite edible on top of his cream-like cravat). “I’ll be there in a moment.” Turning back to Isabella, he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry—I saw you here with Izzy, and I forgot all about my belongings. I should take my leave.”

“Yes, of course. It was lovely meeting you.” She paused, uncertain about making her next suggestion. “If you do change your mind and stay a few days, please come to the festival on Saturday. I’ll be in the pie booth that morning. It’s truly the best day of the year to be in Edenbrooke.” It was a forward thing to say to a man without proper introductions, but given how she’d behaved thus far, she guessed the risk of diminishing his opinion of her was minimal.

“I won’t change my mind, but thank you, Miss–?”

Isabella was about to reply, guessing she couldn’t avoid her name forever. It would be nice to know his, in any event.

“Sir!” barked Mr. Bantry.

“Yes! I’ll be there presently.” The man looked at Isabella with an apologetic tilt of his face. “Goodbye,” he said in soft, low tone.

“Perhaps we will meet again one day.” She curled her lips into an encouraging smile.

He considered her for a moment, ignoring Mr. Bantry’s shouts. His eyes grew cloudy on his now somber face, and something in Isabella’s stomach twisted. “No, we won’t,” he said.

Before Isabella could muster enough wits to close her mouth at his deliberate gravity, he spun on his heel and went inside the inn.

Isabella regarded the closed door for several heartbeats, trying to understand his statement. It didn’t feel like rudeness; if anything, he seemed almost sad. She wondered at his certainty. Did he live so far from here? It was a peculiar thing to say in parting, and not the expected polite response. Such a serious man. Turning in the direction of home, Isabella dragged herself away with a heavy feeling in her chest. She looked over her shoulder one last time to the empty doorway and then at the chestnut horse.

As the distance grew between her and the inn, she had one thought: She hoped he was wrong.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Hugh did not want to be here.

To his utter consternation, he was sitting in the sapphire blue parlor of Cotteham Hall in anticipation of the mysterious Lady Isabella’s arrival. He was two days early, which meant he was unexpected, but he still felt a twinge of extra irritation at having been kept waiting. With a brief glance around the elegant room, he thumped his booted foot against the Aubusson rug, and a soft echo carried into the large space.

This entire trip is a waste of time. If Lady Isabella had not been so maniacal in her efforts to persuade him to build her deuced hospital, Hugh would not have ever made the trip. She would not accept his refusal in writing, however, and kept sending him bribes. The presents were purportedly from her twin brother Colin, but Hugh knew with churning certainty that the increasingly extravagant items were the work of the sister. Why she thought a marble bust or a snuff box would make him want to design a building for her, he couldn’t understand.

With a long groan, Hugh threw his head back against the top of the Louis XVI-style chair, hitting it a little too hard against the walnut trim. He grunted and rubbed his large hand along his nape, trying not to mess his carefully-coifed hair. Pulling out his pocket watch, he glanced at the time to see he’d been waiting for fifteen minutes.

He thought about the final matter that had brought him here—the chestnut horse. He would have gladly put Izzy in the large chest with all the other gifts he was returning if the deuced beast would have fit. After all his troubles with her, he was keeping the fifty-year-old scotch.

He still could not believe the woman he met outside the inn that morning had not been mauled by Izzy. Every time he got within twenty feet of the mare, she would stomp and pull back her gums to show her eager teeth. He had to admit the blonde woman did have a certain wayward charm, though, and he could almost understand Izzy’s favoritism. She’d been an attractive chit. If he were fanciful, he would say she was made for sunlight. Her large, blue eyes had been astonishing under the clear sky. It must have been a trick of the light, but they seemed to glow.

He wished he had caught the gel’s name before he had dashed back inside the inn. It felt ridiculous to keep calling her “the woman” inside his head. He had thought about asking the innkeeper, but the idea was embarrassing. Besides, it wasn’t like he would encounter her again. From the plainness of her beige dress and the openness of her demeanor, she was likely lower gentry or perhaps the daughter of some man with a profession, a physician’s daughter perhaps. It was doubtful she would ever be in Town. Even if there were a chance of seeing her, nothing could come of it.

He had probably scared her off with his odd, “No, we won’t,” anyway. He hadn’t been joking when he’d told her that he wasn’t accustomed to speaking to women.

There was something arresting about her, however, something that made her more prominent in his thoughts than any one person should be. Something in the way she laughed at herself, or in how she had glared in defiance at him when he had tried to make his misguided rescue. Whatever this “something” was, it made him long for some part of her, which was an unfamiliar feeling…and ridiculous. Hugh had no time for such distractions.

‘Twas fortunate he was leaving that day before he could become preoccupied with things that didn’t and shouldn’t matter to him anymore.

Hugh was so lost in thought he didn’t notice the approaching footsteps. From behind him, a bright feminine voice rang out, “Lord Bolton, I apologize for not being here when you arrived. I was not expecting you today, and I had business in Edenbrooke this afternoon.” She had an appealing tone—soft, seductive, but somehow cheerful.

And startling familiar.

Hugh sprang up, pocketing his watch, and whirled to face her. He was struck again by her wide, icy blue eyes. Over the years, more than one client had expressed a desire to paint a room “Halwick Blue,” but Hugh had not understood the reference until now. The light had not deceived his vision after all—her eyes were truly this magnificent color. With a deep breath, his regard shifted to the rest of her, taking in her lustrous blonde hair with soft tendrils softening the look of her dramatic, high cheekbones. The beige dress was absent as was all the odd debris littering her skirts. In its place, she wore a fine, aquamarine-colored gown with short puffed sleeves.

Dressed in the stare of fashion, it was clear she was not lower gentry. This was a lady of the highest rank.

Twin pink spots graced her cheekbones and traipsed across her nose. She clutched a letter in her hand, bringing it close to her chest. “Oh dear! It’s you! I hadn’t realized earlier…” Her voice drifted off, and her lips formed an irritated frown, which seemed directed at herself. “My sister and Colin are out, I’m afraid. They had wanted to be here to greet you. We are stretched rather thin in town with the upcoming festival. I myself just arrived home, and I apologize for keeping you here waiting alone. Please have a seat.” She waved him back to his chair as she walked over to a settee across from him.

The stunned, tight feeling in his chest eased as Hugh realized this must be Lady Caroline if she was making a point of mentioning her sister’s desire to meet him. He was pleased he wouldn’t have to argue over the hospital with the engaging blonde in front of him and could save his spleen for Lady Isabella. Even though he would have been justified given Isabella’s bribery and cajolery, the thought of wounding this woman, who laughed so easily, unsettled him.

The butler brought a tray with a silver teapot and two porcelain cups, set them upon the walnut table with dainty cabriole legs in front of the settee, and left at the lady’s dismissal. She placed the letter she held on the edge of the tray, and he thought about the growing pile of correspondence waiting for him in London. He had to stop himself from drumming his fingers upon his knee. Patience wasn’t something that came easily to Hugh.

Instead of focusing his attention on the mounting work at home, he turned his consideration to the woman in front of him. It required little effort, if he were honest. Whether sister to the odious Lady Isabella or not, she was lovely with her rounded curves and golden hair that gleamed in the light from the open window, and it would not be a trial to sit in her presence for a little longer. Besides, after he was finished with Isabella, it was doubtful this woman would favor him with another smile anytime soon.

Not that he would be anywhere near her after today.

After he declined the tea, the woman grinned at Hugh, causing a twist of hot pleasure to build in his belly. She said, “I cannot thank you enough for agreeing to meet with me, Lord Bolton. Given all these months, I was beginning to fear that I would never entice you. I’m so glad you’ve decided to help me.”

Hugh gaped at her, thinking he had misheard for a wild moment. Surely, this was not the harridan who had been such a thorn in Hugh’s side. He looked at her one beat longer than necessary, taking in her pointed chin and lush, soft-looking lips. “Lady Isabella?” His voice was gruffer than he intended.

A blush rose across her creamy cheeks. “Oh, yes, pardon me. I am Lady Isabella. I thought you knew.”

She dimpled at him, looking not-at-all like a woman who had spent half a year harassing him. She was sweeter and younger than he’d expected, not the cold, imposing figure he’d imagined. He was thirty-one, and she was at least seven or eight years younger than him.

For a moment, Hugh felt a pang of guilt over his rouse. The bedeviled woman, however, had been relentless and had left him no choice. Remember Izzy, he thought to himself, rubbing a hard circle into his shoulder with his thumb.

Before he could reply, Isabella’s lips formed a small, rosy pout and then a grimace. “This morning…You said you were not planning to stay here for long. How can that be as you agreed to the commission?”

“I am sorry,” he began in his most businesslike tone, “but my position has not changed as you believe. I have no plans to leave London to build a rural hospital.” Particularly not when the Orion was mere months from completion. The Orion was Hugh’s dream and completely his own design. Inspired by the Palais-Royale in Paris, it was a public shopping and entertainment complex, meant to draw people from all classes. Every brick and board inside it had been selected by Hugh, and its construction consumed all of Hugh’s time.

Her brow pulled down, causing a few vertical lines to crease her forehead. “If that is the case, why are you here? You led me to believe in your letter that you had acquiesced.” Her voice was still affable, but it had taken a distinct, harder edge.

Hugh sat up straighter at her tone. “Because you left me with no choice.” He did regret deceiving her, even if it had been a clever trick of words that weren’t quite as much untruthful as they were misleading. “And I only said that I had agreed to meet with you; I made no promises of designing anything. Nothing has changed: My calendar is full, and I am too busy and too much in demand to work such a mundane project into my schedule.” If he’d had his way, he wouldn’t be here at all.

She sucked in her cheeks, giving him a cool, layered look. “My reading skills are excellent, I assure you. You more than implied that you had reconsidered your position.”

He met her accusing eyes with a bland half-smile. “I apologize for any deception, but if I had done otherwise, you would have continued your campaign to sway me, and it was beginning to take time away from my ongoing projects.”

A soundless laugh emerged from her throat, and his jaw tensed in response. “A handful of letters and some gifts were taking time away from your business?” Her voice rained upon him like tiny needle pricks upon his skin. “La, I have a strong suspicion that isn’t true.”

Hugh’s temper began to build like rough stones being stacked into an immovable wall. “You wrote me every week for the past three months, I have a trunk full of gifts, and also, you gave me a horse.”

“Izzy!” she exclaimed. “You named that horse, that beast as you called her, after me!”

Hugh had never thought he’d be stupid enough to think a woman was beautiful when she was angry—it had always seemed a ridiculous and patronizing notion to him—but, sure enough, when Isabella’s blue eyes darkened and her lips reddened, she was gorgeous. Hugh closed his eyes at the tremor of lust he felt stirring beneath his ribs, and reminded himself that his objective was to leave Cotteham Hall within the hour.

“I apologize, my lady. I did not intend for you to find out the name.” He tried not to wince, knowing that it was not the best of apologies.

“I notice you do not apologize for the actual christening, however. May I ask why the ‘dreadful menace’ was named for me?” Mimicking his posture, she folded her arms over her chest, which, unlike Hugh, forced her bosom upwards.

It was quite vexing that Lady Isabella appeared to have such excellent recall of everything he said.

Two footmen, dressed in the Halwick livery, then dragged in Hugh’s trunk and set it next to Isabella with a loud thud on the rug. He’d had it sent over from the inn to arrive after him, but the timing could have been more opportune.

“I suppose I know what this is.” Isabella’s words were as sharp as a freshly honed saw.

“It’s everything you’ve sent me in the past month.” He’d already returned several items—a silver jug, a quill-and-ink set, and a rare Roman coin among them. It was astounding how much she had sent in the span of a few weeks.

Isabella listed to the side, bright eyes still fixed upon Hugh, and opened the chest. The brass latches popped open with loud clicks before she threw wide the lid.

She dropped her gaze to the contents. “Everything looks in order, I see.” She flashed him a sickly, pathetic mockery of a smile and lifted the ancient architectural manuscript into her lap. She tapped her fingertips against its leather cover. “You kept the scotch.”

“I needed it after Izzy took such an interest in my person with her teeth.” He jerked his chin toward his shoulder and glared.

“What, did you use it to cleanse the wound?” Sarcasm covered each word like poison on a blade.

“Perhaps I used it to forget the tremendous amount of time I was wasting in having to deal with her in the first place!”

The bothersome woman closed her eyes and took a deep, audible breath. “I—I apologize if my exuberance got the best of me. The mare, I admit, would take up some time. Also, I did not choose her—I haven’t even seen her before today—so I had no idea that she would be temperamental.”

Hugh was disconcerted by her sudden abandonment of the argument. Her admission of a mistake was unanticipated given her dogged pursuit of Hugh thus far. He didn’t trust her conciliatory tone. At all. “I cannot be bribed into taking on the commission.”

Isabella lost any defensiveness in her posture and turned up her hands in a pleading gesture. “I never meant to suggest such a thing. I was just hoping to gain your attention after you had refused my letters. Please, since you are here, allow me to convince you of the worthiness of this project. If you are calling it mundane, then I don’t think you quite understand its importance.”

Hugh shook his head, unyielding. No matter how disarming he found her beseeching eyes, the matter was of too much importance to change his mind. “You have done nothing but try to convince me for months, Lady Isabella. There is no more for you to say. I came here to tell you in person that I am refusing the commission, since you will not accept my answer in writing. Please stop the letters and the gifts.”

“Your notes were so brief that I hardly believed you read my correspondence.” Only the small (and not distracting whatsoever) purse of her full lips betrayed any frustration.

There was more than a little truth to the accusation, though Hugh would never acknowledge it to her. Believing there was nothing of import said within, he had tossed aside more than a few of her letters and left his clerk to reply. “Thus, you chose to grease my palms?”

“I was trying to procure your attention. Besides, I would be paying your commission if you accepted. I’m not sure I understand the distinction.” She widened her eyes and shrugged at him, causing one puffed sleeve to slip an inch down her arm.

Hugh hauled his gaze up from the bared skin and forced himself to look at her with a sardonic expression. “I daresay I’ve never had a client give me a rare Roman text on architecture. I’ve also never had one try to convince my clerk to influence me.” Admittedly, he’d always wanted the book for himself, and he couldn’t stop himself from leafing through it before sending it back to the Halwicks. Even now, he wanted to snatch it from Lady Isabella’s lap.

She scrunched up her nose and let one side of her mouth flip upwards in amusement. “I see it didn’t work.”

He relaxed back into his chair at her show of self-deprecating humor. Still, he had no plans to relent. “No, it did not, my lady. You have taken up too much of my time, and I need to return to London.”

Isabella pressed her hands together in her lap, worrying the knuckles of one elegant hand with the fingers of the other. “I know the project is rather small, but the opportunity for this type of teaching hospital is unprecedented. And after the…illness…here last year, the research and service of such a hospital would be invaluable.” Something uncomfortable and undefinable flickered across Isabella’s face.

He didn’t understand the source of her unease, and he paused only long enough to realize that it was foolish to wonder over it at all. He would be leaving in a matter of minutes. Letting his palm fall against his knee, he said, “My lady, I have no interest in building some sort of glorified almshouse.”

“Of course not.” Isabella narrowed her eyes to the point that the blue was barely visible. “If I had wanted that, I could have asked one of the architects here in Dorset.” She paused and slowed her speech. “I want you, specifically.”

On another occasion, Hugh might have enjoyed the spark he felt down his neck at her words, the force with which she said, “I want you.” It was, however, ridiculous that he let those words—or the way her lips puckered over the last syllable—affect him.

A horse, he told himself. She bought him a horse that Hugh had no means to board. A horse that had promptly tried to take a bite out of Hugh’s shoulder. Izzy, like her namesake, had deplorable manners.

Hugh concentrated again on his objective. “Lady Isabella, you have your answer. I will depart for London when I take your leave, and I would appreciate if you would let this be the end of it. You have no means of keeping me here.”

Isabella peered at him with a calculating expression, causing the hairs on his neck to prickle. “If I cannot persuade you myself,” she said, “then perhaps this will.” She shifted forward and grabbed the letter on the silver tray, then stood briefly to hand it to Hugh. Her hand slid across his for an instant, and he resisted the urge to flinch back at the sudden heat that shot up his arm. He felt a moment of gratitude when a cool breeze wafted through the room from the open window, keeping his face from reddening.

She smiled, wide and sunny, in an apparent effort to palaver him as she sat back down. His heart thrummed in his chest as she turned the full force of her charisma upon him. Good God, with those innocent looks, the woman could probably get away with murder.

He shook himself. Reminded himself of the truth. Fair skin and captivating eyes aside, she was the devil—Beelzebub wrapped up in fluffy layers of muslin.

Swallowing and glancing one more time at Isabella, Hugh turned the letter over and sliced his finger under the plain, red wax seal. Flipping back to the other side, he lifted his brow at the signature, “George PR.” Prinny. A beleaguered breath fell from his lips, and he began reading. By the end of it, Hugh’s spine was ramrod straight and his free hand was clenched in a trembling fist on top of his breeches. He couldn’t believe Isabella would be so low and outrageous as to have the Prince Regent threaten Hugh’s career to get her way.

“You think this will convince me?” Hugh spat, unbridled anger wrapped around his voice.

Isabella hesitated, perched on the edge of the settee like she might spring up from it at any moment. “I had hoped it might.”

“When bribery doesn’t work, you move onto coercion? How the devil do you justify that?” His breath burned in his throat, and he jerked his head back with a deep inhale. Her round, startled blue eyes made him want to wipe the expression from her face. How dare she feign innocence!

Her skin paled, and her shoulders rose atop a ramrod-straight spine. “I would hardly call it coercion. Besides, you deceived me about the reason you would be here today.”

“Wasn’t it fortuitous that you had this little item in your pocket? God forbid that I trifle with a deuced Halwick.” He couldn’t believe that she was comparing his hinting that he might construct her hospital to what was in the prince’s letter. He couldn’t believe he had started to feel guilty over his actions.

“Trifle with us?” Her brows lifted in confusion, resembling a lost puppy. A treacherous and appalling lost puppy.

Hugh picked up the letter and read aloud in the most obnoxious tone he could muster: “‘Outside of my own, there is no family who has ascended so far, who has connections so great, or who has power so vast. Trifling with the Halwicks would be a mistake.'” Hugh paused to sneer at Isabella some more. Blasted Halwicks.

He continued, imitating Prinny’s voice: “‘I know you believe you are irreplaceable on the Orion, but allow me to disabuse you of such a notion. Another architect will be more than happy to complete your pet project. Lady Isabella is a very good friend. Her three brothers are very good friends to the Crown as well. It matters little to me who finishes the Orion so long as it is finished. I suspect it would matter a great deal to you should I withhold my patronage from it as well as all future dealings.'”

“Ah.” Isabella bit down on her lip and seemed to freeze in place.

“Ah? You have the Prince Regent threaten the funding of the largest ongoing project in London, and that is all you can say? I know you Halwicks are flush in the pocket, but I would be ruined by such an action.” Hugh’s father would no doubt rejoice in Hugh’s downfall. At least, Hugh assumed that he would be happy—the esteemed Earl of Marchfleet hadn’t seen his son in over a decade.

His father’s abandonment had unwittingly caused Hugh to be more focused, more driven, and more ambitious than anyone else in his business. Now, he had three architects working underneath him to help with supervising the multitude of projects. His success was unprecedented, and Hugh intended to keep it that way. His life was carefully structured around architecture—he kept strict daily schedules in his personal and professional life. Everything revolved around order and routine so that Hugh could meet his goals. He put every waking moment into creating buildings that would inspire, so that one day he would be considered one of England’s greatest.

Unfortunately, his designs may have inspired Lady Isabella a little too much. He doubted a lesser craftsman would have provoked this demented fervency.

Isabella stared down at her lap, her jaw clamped tight. “I didn’t—I never—” She drew a loud breath into her lungs and tossed her head back to look him in the eye. “I don’t suppose you would believe there’s been a misunderstanding?”

Hugh’s hands clenched around the letter, his fingers threatening to tear right through it. “I am holding in my hand a letter from the Prince Regent threatening my entire career. Unless you claim it’s a forgery, I don’t see how there could be any misunderstandings.”

“Well, no, but—”

Hugh cut off her words with a slash of his hand. “And since I do not think you so foolish as to claim that, then no, Lady Isabella, I would not believe there is even the possibility of a misunderstanding. You went to the Regent, you cried and complained about the awful architect who wouldn’t give into your whims, and now Prinny is threatening everything I hold dear.”

“It’s not—”

“I do not care what you have to say on the matter.” Hugh’s voice had turned into a growl. “If you try to deny you’re behind this threat, I’ll call you the vilest liar in England.”

Isabella’s chin wobbled for a moment and she took a stuttering breath between her teeth.

“Nothing else to say, my lady?”

“No. Yes. No.” Her eyelids fluttered closed, and she stretched out her fingers upon her skirts and then scrunched them into fists.

“How very illuminating.” Deuce take it, he couldn’t wait to leave. But he couldn’t, could he? She’d made certain of that.

Her eyes opened, and she sat up so that her spine was a straight line, as if she’d come to some sort of conclusion and was bracing for her next line of attack. “Please, Lord Bolton, I have no wish to hurt your reputation. I am not asking you to drop all your current projects. I am only asking for mine to be worked into your schedule. Architects design buildings in the countryside every day, and I understand you have not done so in quite some time, but I will pay you a premium for the inconvenience. You can go about your work as you would typically.”

Hugh’s nostrils flared. He could almost admire her determination if it weren’t so counter to his own. “I am surprised you haven’t asked Ashton or Lord Alec to level my career into dust. But no, you aimed for the highest rank you could grasp to force me to your bidding.”

Isabella’s mouth open and closed, and she blinked a few times as her gaze locked onto her fisted hands before it returned to Hugh. “My brothers have been out of town. They know nothing of this and won’t until they return.”

“At which time, I suppose I’ll have to worry about all three of them decimating me, no doubt.” Hell. Her elder brothers could do as much damage as Prinny. Hugh looked away from Lady Isabella for the first time since she introduced herself. As he took in the room with a quick glance, it felt oppressive in its understated opulence. Most people wouldn’t notice subtle differences between this house and the type of estate in which he had grown up, but Hugh did. From the rarity of the marble on fireplace mantle, to the Italian writing desk with expensive inlays in the walnut, Hugh could see the wealth and authority on display in every aspect. Everything was of the finest quality to be found in the world, not just England. Hugh’s father did not have the blunt to afford such things. There were royal dukes that could not afford them, either. The room reeked of consequence. The Halwicks were not just a family of the Ton. They were the family.

Hugh despised defeat.

As he tried to find a way out of this preposterous situation, Hugh tapped his hand against his thigh. He stared at the guileless-looking Isabella, wishing a hole might open up and swallow her. He had no time to rusticate in the country while he had five commissions, the largest of which was the Orion, ongoing in London. Isabella with her Halwick blue eyes, however, had cornered him.

Isabella, an uneven smile upon her lips, leaned forward in her seat. She looked sincere and determined—and oddly apologetic for someone who must know she was about to get her way. “Give me one week, Lord Bolton. You can scout the site and share your thoughts. If at the end of it, you are still uninterested, I will let you go without a word.”

Hugh would have been a fool not to recognize that this proposal was better than the alternative of committing to the entire project. “Very well,” he snapped. “One week.” Usually, he’d create the drawings at his office in London and wouldn’t need a week. He knew it would be a waste of words to make the argument: Lady Isabella wasn’t going to trust him out of her sight.

Isabella’s smile widened into something real, if a little victorious, and Hugh felt something shift in his gut in response. Apparently, his gut was stupid.

Isabella ducked her head in an abashed manner. ” I do apologize for Prinny—he is sometimes overzealous when it comes to me.”

Overzealous. As if Isabella hadn’t orchestrated this devilry. As if it were Prinny’s fault.

Hugh didn’t say a word.

When it was evident Hugh wouldn’t reply, Isabella tucked an invisible lock of hair back over her ear and flashed another smile. “I do hope you will stay with us. We will send someone to London to fetch what belongings you might need for a week.”

“I’m positive one of the inns in town will do.” As much as Hugh hated such establishments—they were unfailingly noisy and crowded—he did not want to be under the same roof as his vile oppressor.

“No, you must stay here,” Isabella said, her words hurried. “The beds are much more comfortable, and our cook is wonderful.”

“Is this a requirement?” His voice was rough from the string of insults he was biting back. He jutted his chin forward, not wanting to hear her answer.

Isabella tucked in her lips as she regarded him with (deceitful and) worried eyes. “You’ll get more accomplished here than you would at the Devon Ox or the Swan Hotel.”

He noticed she hadn’t bothered to give him an answer. No doubt she felt she was above issuing her own threats, “No sense in letting the fly out of the web.” Hugh would never admit that she was right about the working conditions being better here. He had tried working at inns in the past, and they were invariably too cramped.

“I don’t—” she began, her stuttering and uncertain cadence a good match to the furrow between her brows. Isabella sucked in one cheek and appeared to come to some sort of resolution with a quirk of her head, her expression clearing. “I do hope any unpleasantness thus far won’t affect our working relationship.” She said it in the same light tone she might use if she were planning a ridiculous picnic in some absurdly sunny meadow.

If Hugh were one bit less in control of his faculties, he was certain his mouth would fall open to gape at Isabella’s ability to pretend his presence here was in any way civil. “Lady Isabella, the only relationship between you and me is one of gaoler and inmate.”

“Well, it’s a start.” A spark of mischief brightened her eyes. “May I have our butler show you to your cell? It has a wondrous view of the gardens.”

Copyright © 2020 Evie Jamison All Rights Reserved. 

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