Going toe-to-toe with a brooding Scotsman is rather bold for a respectable suffragist, but when he happens to be one's unexpected husband, what else is an unwilling bride to do?
London banking heiress Hattie Greenfield wanted "just" three things in life:
1. Acclaim as an artist.
2. A noble cause.
3. Marriage to a young lord who puts the gentle in gentleman.
Why then does this Oxford scholar find herself at the altar with the darkly attractive financier Lucian Blackstone, whose murky past and ruthless business practices strike fear in the hearts of Britain's peerage? Trust Hattie to take an invigorating little adventure too far. Now she's stuck with a churlish Scot who just might be the end of her ambitions....
When the daughter of his business rival all but falls into his lap, Lucian sees opportunity. As a self-made man, he has vast wealth but holds little power, and Hattie might be the key to finally setting long-harbored political plans in motion. Driven by an old revenge, he has no room for his new wife's apprehensions or romantic notions, bewitching as he finds her.
But a sudden journey to Scotland paints everything in a different light. Hattie slowly sees the real Lucian and realizes she could win everything—as long as she is prepared to lose her heart.
As she hovered on the rain-soaked pavement in front of the Chelsea townhouse she was about to infiltrate, feeling hot beneath her woollen cloak, Hattie Greenfield couldn’t help but think back to the last time she had run from her protection officer. It had resulted in an altercation with a toad of a policeman and a dear friend being held at Milbank prison. She supposed all the most perilous adventures began with escaping dour Mr Graves. All the best ones, too.
She eyed the lacquered front door atop the steps. The iron cast lion’s maw holding the doorknocker had absurdly long, pointy teeth. The warning that she was about to enter the lion’s den was almost too shrill to ignore for someone selectively superstitious. But this time, her adventure wasn’t an inherently risky women’s rights march on Parliament Square, it was a private art gallery tour. Perfectly harmless.
She lifted her skirts in one hand and began the ascent.
Her friends would point out that both art and gallery were owned by Mr Blackstone, a man society had nick-named Beelzebub, and that he furthermore happened to be her father’s business rival, and no, she shouldn’t be found admiring the man’s Pre-Raphaelites unchaperoned. But it was safe to assume that Mr Beelzebub wasn’t present; in fact, very few people had ever seen him in the flesh. Second, she had registered for the tour as a Miss Jones, Classics student at Cambridge, not as Harriet Greenfield, Oxford art student and banking heiress. Third, the full tour through his private collection comprised a handful of other young art connoisseurs and likely their chaperones, and the invite in her reticule said she was keeping them waiting. The tour had begun at 2 o’clock sharp and her small pocket watch was all but burning a hole through her bodice.
The thuds of the doorknocker appeared to fade away unnoticed into the entrance hall beyond. She rang the bell.
Beneath the hem of her deliberately plain cloak, her wet foot began to tap. They must have started the tour without her. She had climbed from the cab, which had become hopelessly stuck in rain and traffic soon after leaving Victoria Station, and had braved the remaining quarter of a mile on foot - for nothing?
The pounding of iron on oak became insistent.
Or perhaps, she had done it again. She fumbled for her reticule between the folds of her cloak and pulled out the invitation. She squinted at the address, then back at the house number with full attention. It was still number 12, Carlyle Square. The square was small, she doubted there was a house number 21. She knocked again, and again.
The heavy door swung back unexpectedly.
The man facing her was not a butler. His thinning gray hair was dishevelled, he wore a paint-stained apron, and he smelled pungently of … antique wax polish? She tried to assess without staring whether his face, long and lined, was familiar to her from the artistic circles. His assessment of her person wasn’t subtle: his gaze searched the empty space where a female companion should have been – then roamed from her sodden hem up to her undoubtedly frizzy red hair.
“And you’ll be?” he drawled.
She cleared her throat. “I’m here for the tour.”
“The tour?” Comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes. “The tour.”
His thin lips curled with derision. “I see.”
She shifted from one foot to the other. “I’m afraid I was delayed on my journey. I have come all the way from outside London, you see, then my companion was… unwell, and then there was such dreadful traffic on Lyall Street because of the heavy rain; the roads are -“
“Come on then,” he said, and abruptly stepped aside with a wave of his hand.
He was cross; male artists had this prerogative, to let it be known that they were cross when one interrupted their work.
No maid was in sight to take her cloak and hat in the entrance hall; in fact, the place was yawningly empty. A nervous sensation fluttered in her belly. But the wax-polish man was already several paces ahead, his hasty footsteps echoing on the black and white tiles.
“Sir.” She hurried after him, water squelching between her toes.
They turned into a shadowed hallway. To her left and right, the intriguingly elegant lines of statues and vases beckoned, but not slipping on the floor in wet heels demanded her full attention. Ahead, the man had stopped and opened a door. He motioned for her to enter, but she hesitated on the doorstep, for while the room was brightly lit, there was no trace of the group. There was no one here at all. The painter flicked his fingers impatiently at the nearest settee. “Go on, take a seat.”
Even from here she could tell the settee was from the days of Louis XIV, and sitting on the butter yellow silk in her damp cloak would damage it.
“Will you send someone to take my coat, please, Mr…?”
The man inclined his head in a mock bow. “You shall be seen to shortly.”
“Sir, I must ask you to – “
The door was firmly closed in her face, and she stood blinking at white wood panelling.
“Right.” She blew out a breath.
In the silence, her heartbeat was loud in her ears. Warm sweat trickled down her back. Dangerous, said her instincts. Underworld lord, said the rumours...
She tried a smile. “Adventurous,” she said. “This is fabulous, and adventurous.”
She turned back to the room. This was a pirate’s lair. And the treasures were piling up high. Every shelf and table surface coming into focus was crowded with splendour: glossy porcelain couples – Meissen, at a second glance -; filigree ivory-and-gold statuettes; ornately carved boxes with softly rounded edges in all shades of jade green. Select pieces were illuminated by small table lamps with ceramic shades so fine, the gaslight shone through them as if they were made of silk. The wall opposite was papered in a riotously floral Morris wallpaper, a waste, because it was covered from floor to ceiling in paintings, their gilded frames nearly touching.
“Oh my.” She laughed softly. A Cranach the Elder was on display, next to a picnic scene that looked like a Monet. Objectively, more intriguing than the Pre-Raphaelites. Shockingly, the glowing embers in the fireplace to her right held the greatest appeal today. As she carefully picked her way through the array of decorated side-tables, her cloak jostled one of them and sent a porcelain ballerina swaying precariously on her pointy toes. Goodness. What had possessed Mr Blackstone or his curator to jumble these precious pieces together like guests of a carelessly composed dinner party, and in a room open to the public no less?
The heat coming from the fireplace was disappointingly feeble. Her reflection in the wide mirror above the mantelshelf was frightening: the purple feather on her hat was thin as a rat’s tail, her usually silky curls were a riot, her upturned nose glowed pink. If this was what her brief walk had done to her face, what havoc had it wrought upon her slippers? She stuck out a foot from beneath her hem. Dainty heels, white silk, embroidered with the tiniest pearls. A wholly inappropriate choice for an outing, but one of her favourite pairs. Clearly damaged beyond repair. Her stomach dipped.
It was Professor Ruskin’s fault. Had he not called her Abduction of Persephone ‘lovely’ the other week, she wouldn’t have boarded the train this morning. It had been one such lovely too many since she had enrolled at Oxford last year. He had said it in passing, with a friendly nod; then he had lingered next to Lord Skeffington’s easel and had critiqued his work in depth and she had stood with her ears straining to catch something useful for her own work. Somehow, the idea of taking a good long look at Millais’ Ophelia, which Mr Blackstone had secured for his private collection, had taken root during that class. And yes, there might have been a tiny temptation in the prospect of setting foot onto Mr Blackstone's territory - the one man in Britain who dared to let her father’s luncheon invitations pass unanswered.
Her attention, of its own volition, shifted to the pair of green-glazed, round-bellied vases flanking the mantelshelf clock. They were easily overlooked at first glance, unremarkable in their earthy simplicity like the poor relation in an opulent ball room. And yet… her eyes narrowed at the relief on the nearer vase. A keen sensation prickled down her neck - she was looking at something extraordinary indeed. Still, she shouldn’t touch it. She really should not. She tugged the glove off her left hand, stuffed it into her cloak pocket, and skimmed her index finger over the pattern on the vase’s rim. With some luck, there was a mark to confirm her suspicions - if she dared to check for it.
Her deliberation was brief.
She took the vase in both hands, handling it with the anxious care she would afford a raw egg, and turned it bottom-up. There was a mark. All the fine hairs on her arms stood erect. This unassuming piece was almost certainly a Han vase. If it was authentic, it was near two-thousand years old. Her palms turned hot and damp.
“I’d rather you not touch that,” came a gravelly male voice.
She jumped and shrieked, pressing the vase to her breast.
What she saw in the mirror made her freeze.
The pirate had returned to his cave.
She had seen and heard nothing while engrossed. He must have been watching her awhile; with one shoulder against the doorjamb of the side-chamber door and his arms folded across his broad chest. She turned slowly, her stomach hollowing. Of course he wasn’t a pirate, but he wasn’t decent: he wore no jacket, no cravat, and his sleeves were rolled-up to expose muscular forearms. His unruly coal-black hair was too long, and his strong jawline was shadowed with stubble. But the most uncivilized part of him were his eyes - they were trained on her with a singular intensity that curled her toes in her wet stockings.
“I just…” her voice faltered.
He closed the door. Her grip on the vase tightened. Obviously, he had been sent to fetch her, but her nerves shrilled, urging her to retreat. He moved in on her smoothly, too smoothly, rattling precisely nothing during his prowl through the delicate artefacts. She was motionless like a stunned rabbit until he was right in front of her.
He was arresting. His contrasting colouring drew all attention to his eyes: eyes hard and gray like slate, with inky brows and lashes, set in a markedly pale face. The well-proportioned symmetry of his masculine features was vaguely disturbed by a once broken nose and a thin scar bisecting the left side of his upper lip. He had the ageless, strangely compelling look of a man who had lived too much, too soon.
He held her in his gaze while he slid two fingers into the mouth of the vase. Which she was still clutching like a thief caught in the act.
“Why don’t you give this to me,” he said.
Her skin pulsed red hot with embarrassment as she released the precious ceramic. She had brothers and she studied alongside men, and she was never tongue-tied in their presence – she was never tongue-tied. But as the man placed the vase back onto the mantelshelf, she breathed in his scent, an attractive blend of pine soap and starch - incongruently clean with his piratical appearance - and she didn’t know where to look. She was altogether too aware of this man being a man. He stood just above average height, but his soft cotton sleeves clung snugly to the balls of his shoulders, hinting at swells and ridges of muscle no gentleman would possess. She glanced back up at his face just as he inclined his head, and their eyes met in another mutual inspection. Her mouth turned dry. It was a trick of the light, but his irises had darkened by a shade or two.
“I had not meant to touch it,” she said primly.
A faintly ironic expression passed over his face. It failed to soften the hard set of his mouth. “And with whom do I have the pleasure, Mrs…?"
"Miss. My name is Miss Jones.” It came out on an unnatural pitch.
His eyes flashed as he registered the lie. "What’s the purpose of your visit, Miss Jones?”
He was a Scotsman. His r’s were emerging as softly rolling growls. It explained the fair skin and celtic dark locks… More interestingly, the heat emanating from his body was warmer than the embers on the grate. She knew because he stood too close. His right hand was still braced on the mantelshelf near her shoulder, his arm cutting off any escape route to the left.
She licked her lips nervously. The purpose of her visit? “The full tour?"
A subtle tension tightened his shoulders. “And are you certain of that?”
“Of course, and I would be much obliged if you could– “
He raised a hand to her face and lightly touched her cheekbone.
The man was touching her. A man was touching her.
The world slowed to a halt. She should scream. Slap him. Her body did not obey, it stood immobile while the air between them crackled with a premonition that she was on the cusp of something vast.
The gray of his eyes was as soft and menacing as smoke. "Aye," he murmured. "Then I’ll give you the tour, Miss Jones."
His fingers curved around her nape, and then his mouth was on hers.
She inched open the connecting double-doors and felt pleasantly surprised. His bed chamber exuded warm elegance, with rich shades of burgundy, navy blue and dark woodworks.
She slipped inside quickly.
In contrast to the rest of the house, the décor here was sparse: an armchair in cognac leather next to the fireplace, a secretary against the wall; a large wooden chest with metal fittings at the foot of the bed. The bed was vast and square and covered by a tartan blanket patterned in earthy browns and greens. The Mackenzie Tartan? Looking at the bed made her feel shy, so she moved on to a side-door. His walk-in wardrobe. It was spacious and neatly organized: glossy cherrywood shelving from floor to ceiling and an armchair at the center. The lingering fragrance of his shaving soap drew her deeper into the small room. She trailed a fingertip over silken waistcoats. She stuck her nose amid the freshly starched shirts and inhaled. He might not have been her choice of husband, but she would bottle his scent if she could. She pulled out drawers, and paused when she found his braces rolled up in neat coils. On impulse, she grabbed a pair and stuffed it into her skirt pocket, but the moment her loot had been securely stashed she felt like a terrible intruder. Her heartbeat picked up as she slid the drawer soundlessly back into place, and she hurried out the door. She screeched like a loon, for Lucian stood next to the bed.
“Good evening.” His tone was mild but his gaze was coolly assessing.
“Mr Blackstone,” she said.
He approached, and now her heart was pounding at double speed. He halted with his toes an inch from hers, his expression opaque. “What were you doing?”
She had been in his wardrobe, sniffing his shirts.
“I wanted to see where you sleep,” she said. As if that was a less disturbing explanation.
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Why do you want to see where I sleep?”
The beginnings of a beard shadowed his cheeks and jawline. This morning, in his exercise room, he had been perfectly clean-shaven, and it crossed her mind that he must have shaved last night, just before coming to her bed, for his face had felt smooth against hers….
She gave a nervous cough. “I wished to become more closely acquainted with you.”
“By… looking at my room,” he said. “When I'm not in it.”
“It does sound rather silly when one says it out loud.”
His shoulders relaxed and his eyes were warming. “Learned anything interesting?”
Her wits scrambled. “You hold Scotland close to your heart?” She nodded at the tartan counterpane.
He looked at the bed, then back at her. His eyes were hot. Her heart dropped to her belly.
“You know,” he said casually, “there are more expedient ways to become acquainted with one another than snooping through a wardrobe.”