Meet the Earl at Midnight, Book 1

9781402294273-300 for RTEnigma Earl…The Phantom of London…

Reclusive Lord Edward’s heard them all, but a deadline looms. He needs an heir quickly. The hasty offering of Lydia Montgomery, an on-the-shelf woman, works, but she has plans of her own, secret plans that don’t involve a man. Their agreement forged in moonlight changes in the light of day. Edward discovers Lydia’s a woman with a past, which only adds to their distracting chemistry. Even worse, the impertinent woman insinuates herself in his scientific work: the domain where no woman should mix. Lydia’s diagrams and illustrations speak volumes…of his work to the outside world and hers to London’s art world – a place reserved for men.  Soon, new found fame makes a tangled mess. Will their greatest discovery be each other before time runs out?

 

Everything changes at midnight

Meet the Earl at Midnight, Midnight Meetings series #1 

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Enter the 18th century…

Midnight Meetings series

Book 1 – Meet the Earl at Midnight

Book 2 – The Lady Meets Her Match

Book 3 – The untitled story of Lord Marcus and Genevieve Turner coming 2017


Meet the Earl at Midnight  available on audio format

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Meet the Earl at Midnight

Book 1, Midnight Meetings series

 

    “Come. Step into the light.”

     Lydia opened her eyes. Beside her George licked his lips as his glittering, avaricious gaze bounced between her and Lord Greenwich. That calculating gleam of his…the irksome man saw an opening to bilk the situation.   

     George raised his index finger. “Perhaps milord, we can renegotiate—”9781402294273-m

     She groaned.

   “Jonas,” Lord Greenwich called behind him. 

     Mr. Bacon nodded his shiny pate and grasped the unspoken request. The velvet clad brute moved off the wall with surprising grace for one his size. Then, some shuffling of feet, a firm redirection or two, and his lordship’s man of business gripped the back of George’s cloak with one hand, removing him like a broom sweeping out refuse. The big man finished the job by shutting the slanted door neatly behind him.

     “Perhaps I spoke to the wrong Montgomery.” The Earl tipped his head in invitation. “Please. Come closer. This evening’s been an unexpected trial.”

     No harm in that. The bewildering night might end well, if she could just have a sensible conversation with his lordship.  After all, a peer of the realm ought not to marry a woman of little consequence, especially when one considered the dynasty in question. Matters could be negotiated, if only the Earl would be reasonable.

     But, Lord Greenwich studied her with a different potency in his dark eyes. Lydia lowered her lashes, aware of how men’s minds worked. She needed to regroup and gather her wits, but the Earl must have sensed her wariness, or so she guessed when he extended a gloved hand.

     “Please. This need not be unpleasant.” His voice lulled her. “I promise I won’t bite.”

     “Meaning sometimes you do,” she snipped.

     A muffle of low, masculine laughter floated from his collar. “Only on a full moon.”

     His quip surprised her much like a clue revealed. Still, this midnight meeting defied reason, best she use caution. When she didn’t move, his hand dropped to his side. His lordship’s presence grew bigger in the tiny room, though he stood a safe, respectable distance.  

    “Very well then.  Why not take off your cloak?” he coaxed.

    “How like a man,” she said, eyeing him from the safety of her hood. “Get a woman naked, first. Solve a problem, second.”

    That earned her another low masculine chuckle.

     “Now, now,” he chided. “I’m not asking you to undress, only that you remove your cloak. As you informed all, you are wet and soggy.”  Lord Greenwich motioned to the blazing hearth. “You could stand here and warm yourself…dry your damp skirts.”

     How did he manage to be commanding and reasonable at the same time? With a sigh, she pushed back her faded red hood and stepped closer. The welcome fire warmed her ankles nicely.

     “I am, if anything, ever accommodating,” she said tart-tongued.

     Her sharpness missed its mark. Instead, her target tipped his head with great interest, almost fascination, when her face came to view. Topaz brown eyes inspected every exposed inch of her visage, searching her with blunt curiosity. A spark as hot and fast as flint striking stone shot through her. Flummoxed, Lydia squared her shoulders and tried for business-like composure.

     “I’m sure something can be done to rectify this debt.”  

     “Your cloak.”  

     “My cloak?” she repeated, running her palms over damp wool.

    “Remove it.”

     Something in his firm tone brooked no disagreement. Her leaden hands obeyed, loosening the frogs and loops under her chin with graceless plucking. Her well-worn red half-cloak, a sign of her modest station, parted and swayed, all while his gaze roamed over her head to hem, waiting. A stag, tense and alert, scenting a doe came to mind. This is one way a woman could find herself flat on her back, as well she knew from times past. 

    Wind and rain squalled outside as the last closure came undone. Damp wool slipped from her shoulders; though fully clothed, she couldn’t shake the sense of being stripped bare under his lordship’s keen scrutiny. Lydia clutched her cloak in both hands and made a rumpled shield. There really ought to be more space between them.  

    Lightning slashed the room. Quick flashes split darkness behind Lord Greenwich. His acute study drifted up her skirts to pause just below her neckline — lud, he stared at her bosom and her traitorous, corset-less bosom pointed back. Was it the cold air? Or him? Lydia inched her cloak higher, and his lordship, undaunted in his perusal, returned to his intense study of her face. Was he pleased? That she entertained such a question shocked her. 

     The Earl clasped his hands behind his back. “Turn around.”

     She gave an indignant huff and glared, not budging an inch. “I will not.”

     “If you please, Miss Montgomery.” He made the request sound courtly. “I’m only asking you to take a turn.”

     The cloak, rough scratchy wool, bunched tighter in her hands. “Next, you’ll want to check my teeth.”   

    His lordship twirled his finger. “A single rotation will suffice.”

     Being at the mercy of his good grace reminded her to get this done and over with…all the better to move onto a more reasonable solution. Her mother’s welfare beat a constant drum in her head, thus, she obliged him. The water stained ceiling became the safest place to look as she crossed one foot over the other, beginning a slow circle. 

     “You know, my lord, I have a small amount of my own funds. Well, not much, really, but if we could discuss this tomorrow. At luncheon perhaps? I might have a solution of my own.” 

    “No. We do this my way.”

     Fire crackled and floorboards creaked from her slow circling movement. A tickling sensation flowed over her, touching everywhere. Her lack of corset set her cheeks aflame. Yet, his scrutiny was fascinating. She bemoaned her wrinkled, outdated dress.  Did he notice? Or did he notice her smooth skin and glossy waves of sleep-mussed sable hair of which her great aunt raved?  The Earl’s impertinent gaze ranged everywhere.

     If you’re quite through, my lord,” she said with some starch.

     Lydia pressed the cloak closer. Lud, but he needed a set down. She’d dealt with overzealous farmers and country squires in the past and knew how to put men in their place. Men are all the same, no matter their status; the quality of their clothes differed, but all were flesh and blood underneath. A biting remark formed on her lips when she froze. 

     He reached for her.

     Lord Greenwich’s gloved hand hovered near her face in the gentlest fashion as if he wanted to touch her but held himself in check. They stood that way for a few, eternal seconds. Only his warmth touched her cheek. So close, she smelled oiled leather and saw the stitching on his glove. Why the hesitation? 

     Long moments stretched, measured by the sound of rainfall. His brown eyes studied her lips, her hair, even the outline of her ear, as odd as the notion was. His lordship examined her as if he would memorize shape and texture without contact. He angled his head, the black tri-corn casting shadows, and something passed between them: something elusive and slight when his gaze met hers…a current of curiosity that must have beckoned him to test her. 

     A lone, leather-clad finger trailed over her cheek, so light. Lord Greenwich’s subtle connection caused tantalizing shivers, shivers that followed his whisper soft caress on Lydia’s skin. His exploring finger slipped under her chin and angled her face toward firelight.

     “You’re a thorough one,” she said breathy and low. “No doctor’s ever examined me thus.”

     His dark gaze flicked to hers. “Even phantoms have their standards.”

     The tip of his glove grazed her neck, a mere hint of touch. His eyes fixated on that fraction of her exposed flesh, following the line his finger traced. Unexpected warmth swirled across her body, yet her feet were stuck. His hand dropped to his side, and the Earl stepped back, breaking the current.

     “You realize I offer marriage?” He clasped his hands behind his back and spoke matter-of-factly.

     They were back to the evening’s transaction. But, her breathing, heavier from the singular invasion of his gloved hand, hadn’t recovered.

     “A legitimate heir requires as much,” she managed, trying to sound like a woman with some wits about her.

     “You would lack for nothing. As my wife, you will have every luxury, I daresay more than—”

     “My mother,” she blurted. Was she giving in to this bargain?

     Lydia needed to gauge the man who held all the cards and this discomfiting sense that all was out of her control. Even more, she needed him to remove that infernal great coat, or at least have him drop his collar. Hadn’t she done as much for him?

     He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes. What about your mother?”

     “Leave my mother alone. No harm befalls her.” Lydia twisted and bunched her cloak, rationalizing what was important and what was not. “Tristan and my stepfather can rot for all I care, but I don’t want my mother to suffer for anything they’ve done.” 

      “Of course. You have my word. She will live as free as she pleases.”

     Free. She smirked at the notion. That was a relative word where her mother was concerned. Still, he agreed so quickly. Hands clasped behind his back, his lordship was all business. Yes, she had to protect her mother, but her whole reason for coming to London also hung in the balance.

     That could not be pushed aside any more than she could stop breathing.

     And one ought to consider how the Greenwich name could help with that.

     Her mental scale tipped in favor of this preposterous agreement. She was in no hurry for marriage fetters with the any man, if ever at all, thank you very much.  However, a peer of the realm could open doors, doors previously closed to her. Lydia’s mental scale slanted more toward the Earl’s plan.

     Her chin tipped high. “And I want a measure of freedom.”

     Lord Greenwich crossed his arms. The action caused his collar to slip lower, revealing the top of a blade straight nose.

     “You’re in no position to make demands, Miss Montgomery,” his cultured voice firmed. “Especially, oddly phrased ones.”

     Lydia licked her lips. She should have asked for funds. He probably expected as much, but she lacked the cunning for that sort of thing. She wanted what she wanted, however out of the ordinary that may be. Her cloak knotted into a tighter ball in her hands. Like a juggler at a country fair, her mind tossed each notion and problem up high and worked to keep track; then a new one joined the whirl.

     “On the contrary, my lord, no respectable family of rank will marry their daughters to you because…” Her voice trailed as she searched his collar unable to meet his eyes.

     Lydia recalled the scandal pages, each with their own lurid story of a failed liaison with another noble family. The common theme in all the gossip rags claimed the engagement fell apart last summer when his betrothed slashed her wrists and nearly bled to death. Nasty business it was that drove the family into seclusion. The earl’s notoriety as The Phantom of London grew.  Was he horrid to that young woman?  

     Reading about the disgrace made little more than passing news for her and her great aunt. This close to the earl, discomfort poked Lydia’s conscience like a stick. Gossip charged a hefty price: she saw it in his eyes. Shame must have stung him, and all of England played voyeur, entertained by his private pain. Nevertheless, her empathy had its limits. Lord Greenwich tilted his head back and looked at her as an unexpected chess rival.

     “Apparently, I underestimated you.” His voice softened. “It’s true. Certain circumstances have made the possibility of marriage…difficult.” His paused and his tone turned weary. “You asked for freedom. What kind of freedom?”

     She hesitated. How to word this? After all, what she wanted was out of the ordinary.

    “To…to…pursue the same quiet interests I enjoyed in the country with the occasional stay in London, where I’ll—.” 

    “I don’t participate in Society.” He nearly growled the words at her.

     “Yes, I understand this.” She searched the exposed part of him. “I…I only wish to maintain my…interests, such as they are—” Lydia squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye with a different approach. “—Give me free rein, my lord, and I’m confident that I can be of assistance to your needs. As often as you like.”

     His head snapped to soldierly attention. That last distracting bit was a tad bold, but men were rather simple: Wasn’t food or sex what most men clamored for? Keep those appetites sated and a woman could do what she wanted. Lord Greenwich stepped forward, invading her space. His dark eyes narrowed as he searched her face.

     With the hot fire at her back and cloaked man leaning close, there was no place to go. Silence stretched between them save the rain easing to a light patter outside. A ceiling stain turned into a steady drip, its subtle ping of water droplets hit a porcelain bowl on the floor with hypnotic rhythm. 

     The bottom of his cloak brushed her skirt. She couldn’t be sure if the Earl was trying to read her or intimidate.  Lydia’s neck tensed, ready to snap, but she met Lord Greenwich’s stare, despite his invasive closeness. Stiff-armed, stiff-necked, she pressed her cloak to her ribs.

     His eyes crinkled in the corners. “Very well, Miss Montgomery, we have a deal.”

     Her jaw dropped. She stared at him as wide-eyed as her great aunt’s cow. Lord Greenwich took a step back, pointing at the cloak she clutched to her chest.

     “You’ll want to put that on, won’t you? There’s a storm outside.” The lines at the corner of his eyes deepened. 

     “Yes, yes, of course.” Stunned, she fumbled with her cloak and managed a wobbly smile.

    The cloth had rotated into a tight ball. A mass of jumbled nerves, she whisked her hand from the mess and the garment dropped. Lydia and Lord Greenwich knelt to the floor at the same time. They crouched low and close; her head almost touched his hat. As she reached for her cloak, her bare hand bumped his gloved fingers.

    “Oh.” Her quick inhale was slight.

      The touch was trivial, yet Lydia couldn’t help but check for visible signs of normal flesh and bone. What woman wouldn’t?  Her study of his gloved appendage must have gone on too long. When she glanced up, she met the Earl’s hard-eyed gaze. 

      “Checking for a hideous claw?”

     She flinched, locked by his dark stare and whip-like sarcasm. There was a rustle of movement, the slip of leather against leather, but she dare not look down. One of his eyebrows rose in challenge.

     “Aren’t you going to look?”

     She winced, but her gaze took a cautious path to his high collar, then dropped in a rapid free fall of curiosity to the second sign of humanity from this arcane man. Veins roped the skin of a very normal, rather large, but nicely shaped masculine hand.  Gold hairs sprung from bronzed flesh. Scraped knuckles were darker brown, leading to long, tanned fingers. Odd, a recluse wasn’t supposed to be so tan.

      How would those fingers feel on her skin?

     The unbidden question sent a jolt through her body. He flipped the appendage over for her to see his palm dotted with calluses at the base of each finger. A no-frills, white linen cuff obscured his wrist, but Greenwich had a different reaction to her study. 

    “You see, Miss Montgomery, I’m human. Every. Inch. A human.”

     Each razor sharp word hit the mark. Lydia’s face tingled with unwelcome heat. In spite of her blunder, she looked him square in the eye.

     “I don’t doubt your humanity, my lord. I simply wonder about the complete stranger who bartered for my body. This situation, after all, was heaped on me with only a moment’s notice, late at night when most souls are abed. And you stay hidden in your cloak.”

     “That’s the deal I offer. I like my privacy. I’m sure you’ve read the gossip columns,” he mocked. “They’ve mentioned as much.”

      “Begetting an heir, my lord, involves more exposed flesh than your hand,” she said.

      Oh, that was brilliant.

     “I’m familiar with the process.”

     Lydia squeezed her eyes shut at his dry tone; he must think her rather dim. She smarted as much from his gibe about gossip pages as her impulsive tongue. More unwelcome warmth spilled over her face and neck. If only the floor would swallow her now.

     Lydia stood up and smoothed damp palms down her muslin skirt. Perhaps she’d try for reason at a later time. Lud, but she needed her bed. A body couldn’t keep a clear head without decent sleep.

     Lord Greenwich rose to full height and, in gentlemanly fashion, held open the cloak for her. She stepped back into the cloak but studied his ungloved hand folding the garment’s edges over her shoulders. His mannered voice vibrated close to her ear.

“In due time, Miss Montgomery, you’ll see much more than my hand.”

 

Book 1, Midnight Meetings

Book 1, Midnight Meetings

Book 2, Midnight Meetings

Book 2, Midnight Meetings