LOCATING HER IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE
Cyrus Ryland didn’t become England’s wealthiest bachelor by being a pushover, but the mysterious beauty he discovers sneaking around at his grand ball enflames his curiosity. When the clock chimes midnight and she’s nowhere to be found, Cyrus vows to scour all of London to uncover who she is. Little does he know that not only does Claire Mayhew not want to be found, but she wants nothing to do with him at all…
Praise for Meet the Earl at Midnight:
“A refreshing Georgian spin on Beauty and the Beast.”-Grace Burrowes, New York Times bestselling author of The Captive
“Delightful… [Conkle’s] fresh, vibrant voice shines through…in a story where the simmering sexual tension builds to the perfect climax.”–RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
“Conkle’s clever and enjoyable Cinderella tale offers a unique character in her historical businesswoman, along with lively action and fun romantic chemistry.” – Booklist
Here’s a peek into the story…
No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.
A woman on the verge of moral downfall ought to be well dressed. After all, a fine silk gown could hide a multitude of sins, and her particular transgression folded neatly against her thigh, braced there by a practical black garter. The single sheet crinkled on her skin, declaring its innocence, but what she planned to do with the paper twisted the matter entirely.
Moving through the dark alley, Claire smiled at a singular truth: No one dared ask a lady what her skirts concealed.
She glanced down at her small bosom where soft moonlight splashed a distracting display of flesh spilling over silk. “And no one will be alarmed by what’s revealed there. Not that any will see me in this dress.”
The sparkling blue and silver gown would be off soon after midnight for entirely sensible reasons of course. She wore the ball gown just in case, a costume of sorts to fit into a place she didn’t belong, but despite each well-planned detail, damp palms proved her outward calm a hoax. She’d always been a good girl, minus a slip in judgment some years ago. What she did tonight, however, trumped that past error. In spades.
That is if someone catches me.
A deep breath failed to stop a tiny hiccup. This evening’s foray proved one thing: a woman’s independence came at a price. If she wanted a different path, everything hinged on tonight’s success.
Facing flickering candle lamps ahead, Claire hooked her wool cloak over a fence post. The serviceable garment didn’t fit the evening’s ruse but would protect the beautiful dress she’d have to return to her friend come morning.
Underfoot, dampness swathed cobblestones from a recent summer shower, wafting scents of washed earth. Nice for this part of London…so different from her Cornhill section of Town.
She stepped from the shadows of Vigo Lane into the lit mews of one Cyrus Ryland, her evening’s target. England’s celebrated citizen had something she wanted — his signature. Somewhere in his palatial West End sprawl of a home she’d find it, forge it, and disappear back into the late August night…a well-laid plan that sounded reasonable.
Why then did the sheer size of Mr. Ryland’s home put a lump in her throat?
“There you are, Claire,” Abigail called, waving from the kitchen’s back door. Pots and pans banged in the background when she stepped into the courtyard with a busy woman’s stride. “Didn’t see you earlier. Thought you’d lost your nerve.”
Abigail Green, housekeeper of Ryland House, jingled a set of keys, searching out the right one. Her heels clicked cobblestones, moving her closer to the servants’ quarters further down the limestone edifice. A dozen brass candle lanterns hung from the stone wall, chasing away night where two of Mr. Ryland’s hulking carriages claimed much space in the mews.
“Lost my nerve? No.” Claire adjusted her beaded mask and slipped around a carriage. “But I admit, I’m holding onto my last ounce of courage.”
An iron key slid home in the lock and rotated in metal with a quiet snap. Abigail kept one hand on the knob, her mob cap casting shadows over serious features.
“If you’re having a change of heart,” the housekeeper’s voice wavered low. “Now’s the time to say so.”
Claire looked hard at the narrow door, the present barrier to her future. “No. I’m going through with this.”
The door clicked opened, revealing a stark, white-washed hall. Both women marched forward, skirts swishing in their advance. At the end, they reached another door, this one wide paneled and crafted to blend into the wall.
“Understand, I’ll lead you to his study, but I won’t stay with you.” Abigail pulled on the knob, speaking over her shoulder. “The house is in an uproar what with being two footmen plus a maid short and this grand ball going on.”
The portal swept wide, offering entry into another world, the kind of place spun in fairy tales for lesser mortals. People talked of Ryland House’s grandeur, and now Claire stood, an open-mouthed witness.
Small chandeliers cast tiny rainbow prisms high on pale walls trimmed with elaborate boiseries. For the hall to be so well lit, were there people in this section of the house? She couldn’t imagine letting candles burn for no reason.
The artful display unfolded overhead like delightful pages of a child’s picture book, stretching the length of the hallway.
“You’re not going to wait with me?”
“Can’t.” Abigail pushed the door shut and pocketed the keys, a dark weighty clump in her white apron. “You’re on your own. I’m only helping you because of what you did for my sister, but if you’re caught, don’t say my name. I’ll deny everything.”
There was finality in those pale blue eyes, so like Annie’s.
“I’m only copying his signature.” A quelling hand rested on her mid-section. “Then I’ll take my leave as quickly as I’ve come.”
Saying her crime aloud brought to mind awful images of Newgate but, anyone of a reasonable mind would agree, tonight’s dubious errand wasn’t the same as stealing money. She was a grown woman who simply wished to run an honest business, have a coffee shop of her own, and the intractable Mr. Ryland wouldn’t allow an unmarried woman the privilege.
Mr. Pentree, one of Ryland’s agents, rang in her head. “Sorry Miss Mayhew. Mr. Ryland’s most insistent. It’s one of his rules. A husband, father, or brother must be on the lease, or I can’t give you keys to the property.”
In other words, she needed a man.
She didn’t have one in hand. Nor did she want one.
Mr. Pentree had pushed up his spectacles, informing her with all gentleness, “Your only recourse is to see Mr. Ryland in person. Plead your case. Get his approving signature.”
Approving signature, indeed. A grown woman beseeching a man for the right to conduct lawful business? Yet, even there, she’d tried.
One probably had better luck setting an appointment with King George. There was a four month wait for a spot of Mr. Ryland’s time. Former housekeepers didn’t rate high enough to gain entry on his calendar. One of his secretaries always responded with the same polite refusals and delays. She was done petitioning.
She’d snatched back the document from Mr. Pentree that day, informing him she’d find a way to get the signature from the lofty Mr. Ryland, even if she had to accost him on London’s streets.
Time she took matters into her own hands.
Now, Claire walked with Abigail through Mr. Ryland’s elegant beige hallway resembling a skirted soldier on a stalwart march. But, her bravado with Mr. Pentree in front of her would-be shop deserted her, lost somewhere in the expensive chandeliers overhead.
She’d been in grand homes before, but the lights shined…differently. What made this place so extraordinary?
Elegant orchestral melodies drifted everywhere. Words and music threaded together, weaving the kind of noise that turned a large party into an impersonal entertainment, yet easy for a body to be lost in the crowd. The housekeeper nodded to where noise and lights gleamed brightest.
“Go that away, and you’ll find yourself in the ball. But if you turn left at that plant,” she advised, pointing at frothy greenery in blue ceramic pots. “You’ll find yourself in the kitchen hallway. Wait there.”
“You don’t think that’s a bad idea…meeting you in such a visible location?” Claire’s brows knit together. “Someone might see me and wonder.”
“Did you get a good look at yourself?” Abigail asked, her voice notching higher. “You’re lovely. Same as any of those fine society ladies with their gowns and such. You could easily be one of them.”
Be one of them?
The glittering gown made all the difference. The same one come midnight she’d remove. Tomorrow she’d don her practical, starched grey broadcloth, and her conscience could lock away the ball gown and this ruse as an aberration in judgment.
They moved down the hallway, closer to the boisterous ball when the housekeeper turned and pushed open an elaborately carved door set in an alcove. A dark room. The study. She stepped inside the modest space, high-ceilinged but small and rather unexceptional when one considered England’s King of Commerce transacted half the realm’s business here.
“Remember, we need to get you out before the midnight unmasking,” Abigail warned.
And she shut the door.
The doorknob clicked the sound as good as a pistol cocked at her back. Her fingernails dug sharp bites into her palms while her vision adjusted to the dark. She dare not light a candle.
Her objective, Mr. Ryland’s desk, claimed a spot by the window where moonlight spilled through open curtains. A brass clock ruled a corner of the desk, watching over ink pots and quills and stacks of papers.
A sweet thrill shot through her. This night’s foray was nearly done. She raised voluminous skirts and slipped the folded signature page from her garter. The paper, warm from her leg, wrinkled in her grip.
Her feet moved with care though stealth was unnecessary. Her breathing and the clock’s ticking made the loudest noises in the silent room. The prize sat atop the middle stack of papers, washed in evening’s grey light: the bold scrawl of one Mr. Cyrus Ryland.
Claire slid into his sizable seat, her silk skirts brushing leather. She concentrated on the bold C and R dominating the page, her fingers picking at lace trimming her bodice. The rest of the signature slurred into scrawling, wavy lines as though the writer couldn’t be bothered to form the remaining letters.
“Audacious man,” she said under her breath.
Pressing her lips together, she copied her quarry’s name with a dry quill. The nib scratched foolscap again and again, practiced movements seeking perfection. She had to recreate an excellent facsimile in order to convince Mr. Pentree, or all would be for naught.
Her hand’s repetitive task kept time with the clock’s urgent tick. Yet, within the quiet, her stare flickered over the page.
A new seed of thought sprouted, the roots of which made her hand sluggish. Mid-stroke, the quill stopped. The goose feather brushed her cheek. The bold name she tried to mimic called to her. Ink blurred, ceasing to be mere lines on a page.
Those lines turned into a name…a person.
She touched the name, tracing the letters.
Could a signature reveal much about a man?
The quill, his quill as a matter of fact drooped limp and condemning in her hand. What she was about to do wasn’t simply stealing a signature, nor was she on the path of blank transgression. She set out to deceive a man, a man who was someone’s brother, someone’s son, and deception could turn ugly as well she knew.
Behind her silken mask, Claire’s brows knit together. She lifted the foolscap to the moon’s telling light. Ryland’s signature read strong to the point of arrogance. Yes, arrogant and unstoppable and barely educated. A man quite like her father. She stumbled over that last impression, letting the inkling sink deeper.
Her thumb pressed hard on the signature sheet, leaving a faint crease. “This is just a case of nerves.”
No one will get hurt.
Really, if Mr. Ryland hadn’t been so difficult about leasing his properties to an unmarried woman, she wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
And why did men get to decide these things anyway?
The foolscap went back on the desktop, and notions of men and transgression evaporated. Minutes passed. The secret oasis of soft moonlight lulled her into deeper concentration. Fear and vexation dissolved into what was truly the heart of the matter: the longing for a place of her own, to make her own way in the world.
All made possible by the single stroke of the quill in her hand.
Mr. Ryland stood as the sole impediment. At the moment, her success hinged on one man, at least stealing his name, which struck her as ironic. Her lips curved in a wry smile over this fact.
Carefully, she slid the original signature behind the document to be forged, paper brushing paper with the barest scrape. She set the documents on the desk, and with surprising ease, copied over faint lines.
The result produced a stunning imitation.
Claire blew gently on the ink, her thumb and forefinger pinching the largest stone of her aquamarine necklace when footsteps crunched on gravel outside. A carriage rolled past the study window. Voices came closer. Louder and more of them.
How long had she sat there? She peered around the back of the chair. Footmen tarried on the other side of the window, the tops of their white periwigs visible. If one of them angled his head just so, he’d spy her at Ryland’s desk.
She slipped from the chair and moved to the room’s lone settee, a safe harbor in the shadows. Claire sunk down on the seat, squashing her skirts like some rustic cousin new to Town. Her head lolled against the back cushion, finding needful support.
Her palm flattened on her chest, where her heart stamped a fast rhythm, reminding her she wasn’t in the clear. Taking deep breaths, she coaxed her breathing to a calm state.
Who knew committing a crime could be so draining?
One. More. Minute.
Then, she’d be free.
Slumped as she was on the settee, Claire nestled the signature page on her lap. Let the form get good and dry before tucking the incriminating piece away in her garter. Her lips curved in a smile, exhilaration spreading its cool breeze over her when the door clicked open. She jerked upright, facing the noise.
A bright beam of light sliced the blackness.
She blinked. A man stepped forward, his silhouette, tall and well-dressed, cut the blinding glow. Every muscle seized with the want to flee. Instead, her fingernails dug into chintz upholstery. The commanding figure shut the door, head bent as though lost in thought. He placed a single brass candleholder on a table, oblivious to her presence.
The study’s late night visitor took a step in her direction, his immense shoulders shrugging off a fine velvet coat in slow, distracted fashion. Fabric rustled softly, an intimate hush in the dark.
Excuses flew through her mind. She was looking for the lady’s retiring room…she got lost—
“Who are you?” The man’s coat stopped half way down sizable biceps.
Claire tried a fortifying breath, and then another. Her lungs refused to cooperate while her mind absorbed a new fact: she faced Cyrus Ryland. He loomed large in the middle of the study, waiting. The brass clock ticked, measuring her muteness. Masculine brows shot up when her lack of response stretched on too long.
“I’m Claire.” The simple admission burst from her.
Mr. Ryland came closer, his penetrating stare searching her, as palpable as fingers on her skin. Her body stiffened under his intruding gaze tracing her hair, the mask, finally settling on her plunging bodice with thorough consideration.
She couldn’t shake an alarming sense of nakedness, but neither could she move. Like a victor relishing the spoils, her nemesis took his sweet time removing his jacket, filling the room with alluring innuendos of cloth rubbing cloth.
“Just Claire?” He asked, retrieving the candle. “Not Lady Claire Something-or-other?”
“For a masked ball—” She attempted a light-hearted smile. “—just Claire.”
His granite hard features showed severe in the guttering flame. Mr. Ryland put his coat and the lone taper on a small table beside the settee. Her smile wobbled the closer he came, caught as she was in a neat trap of her own design. Ryland’s large hands unfastened a coin-sized diamond pin inches below his neckwear, all the while continuing his unhurried perusal of her.
Glued to the seat, she couldn’t stop from looking back, fascinated by the small nicks and scabs marring his chafed knuckles. Claire’s vision lingered on those marks before drifting up again to the confident grey eyes watching her.
In better circumstances, she would admit to Mr. Ryland’s unsettling magnetism. That is if a woman preferred a man exuding hard-edged authority. His powerful presence made the idea of him being anyone’s victim laughable. Her evening’s quarry towered over her, his muscular frame taking up so much space, when her stomach dropped.
They’d crossed paths once at Greenwich Park when she was in service there last winter. Would he have any recollection of that day? One hand touched her mask and she remembered: her face was half covered in a dimly lit room. Claire released her breath. She was safe. For now.
Ryland tossed his diamond pin tossed on the table, breaking the silence. “Let me guess. You’ll remain anonymous until midnight when all will be revealed.”
“Typical of these entertainments, don’t you think?”
The cushion dipped when he took a seat on the settee, facing the wall and not her. He spun the jabot’s lacy tiers to the back of his neck, and his hands went to work untying the small knot under his chin.
“Lovely as you are, being in here isn’t a good idea,” he said, boredom etching his voice. “I’m not the type to marry because I’m alone with a lady.”
He thinks I’m trying to entrap him.
Armed with knowledge of his assumption and enticing anonymity, her hand eased its grip on the seat. She didn’t get this far to give up; she’d find a way to extract herself from this predicament. Yet, his confident belief that she sought to snare him made her sit taller, drawing on reserves of coolness.
“I’m not a lady. And, I promise not to accost you.”
Ryland’s grey stare slanted her way, his fingers slowing on the jabot.
Whatever possessed her to toss out that morsel of forwardness? The way his focus sharpened on her again, she may as well have dropped a succulent lure to a hungry fish. Smoothing her skirts, she’d not regret her words. That inflated confidence of his needed an adjustment.
“You may find this hard to believe, but not every woman in England wants marriage. To you or any other man.”
“Is that so?” His deep voice curled with amusement.
But her skirt smoothing fingers missed something.
The signature sheet.
Tightness spread across her chest. The page must have slipped from her lap when she turned around on the settee.
Claire’s hand hunted for the single page with subtle movements over her skirt and the cushioned seat, but found only air and cloth. At the bottom of her vision, she spied the lone form lying on the floor, a fallen soldier in the evening’s covert skirmish.
The toe of her shoe inched the damning evidence closer to her hem all the while facing Mr. Ryland and holding the façade of a woman at leisure. Under the circumstances, diverting small talk wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.
She cleared her throat delicately. “I see you’ve unmasked already.”
“Never wore one.” Ryland grimaced, yanking harder on the cloth about his neck. “Waste of fabric.”
“The mask? Or the jabot you’re about to strangle yourself with?”
A small smile touched Ryland’s lips. “Both, I suppose.”
“I’m guessing the evening’s been a trial, and you’d rather be elsewhere.” Claire looked across the room where a thin line of light under the door marked the way of escape. “That makes two of us.”
Ryland tilted his chin higher and his pewter colored eyes sparked with a new glint. “If you’re not a lady, then is it safe to assume you’re a courtesan?”
She clamped her arms under her bosom, laughter bubbling sharply from her. “Rather blunt, are you?”
Mr. Ryland’s stare dipped to the soft, white flesh pillowing from her low cut bodice.
Her arms went stiff. Too late. She would not move them.
“A man can only wonder when he finds a pretty woman waiting in the dark.” He moved his body around to face her. “And I prefer getting to the point.”
“And this assumption of yours is it because you divide women neatly into marriageable and unmarriageable types, and you’re not sure where to put me?”
The corners of his mouth twitched, transforming his stony visage. “Never thought of women quite like that, but you could be onto something there.”
The subtle shift startled her, made her want to lean closer for a better look at what else might change. Did Mr. Ryland feed on candid conversation?
Claire’s arms squeezed tighter, and more air kissed her cleavage. “Did it ever occur to you there’s more to the fairer sex?”
His pure, male smile spread wide. “No, but Lucinda likes to argue a similar point.”
“My sister. The ball honors her birthday. This evening’s part of my blunt attempt to get her wed.” His voice dropped with velvet softness. “But you’d know it’s her birthday and my lack of mask, if you went through the receiving line.”
She lowered her lashes, avoiding his questing stare. Mr. Ryland likely assumed a man spirited her into the crowded festivities. Now, the interloper was caught. Her status was akin to a mouse trapped in an audience with a lion. All of her tensed, ready to spring. The door was not too far.
“Relax,” he said, resting both hands on his thighs. “You’re welcome to stay if you free me from this noose. Bothered me all night.”
“You mean untie your jabot?”
Such a personal request, but then he suspected her of being a woman who removed lots of male clothing. Freeing him of neckwear was modest by comparison.
“You did say you wouldn’t accost me.” His chin tipped high, giving her access to his neck, but not before she caught the amused light in his eyes.
Claire scooted nearer to Mr. Ryland, keeping her spine properly rigid. The change in proximity spread a flush of warmth; probably shared body heat was all. The way he sat, assuming trust, muddled her. But what kind of threat was she to a man of his ilk? To him, she was an unknown woman of pleasure, the type who moved on society’s fringe.
She raised stiff arms, inching into familiar closeness. A marionette master could be maneuvering her, so stilted were her hands. Yet, Mr. Ryland sat at ease. His sheer size and strong frame dominated the settee, overwhelming her senses, and his unnerving, lop-sided smile stayed in place.
“I see you’re entertained.”
“More like glad to be in the company of a woman willing to speak her mind.”
“Oh?” Claire canted her head for a better look at the knot. Faint aromas of smoke and a woman’s perfume clung to him, but another indefinable essence about the man played on her wits.
“We’ve just met, but you’re not put off by me, are you?” His voice vibrated close to her ear.
“Should I be?”
He hesitated, enough for Claire to breathe in more of him, his strength and warmth.
“No.” His gruff voice rumbled, a comforting sound coming from the wide wall of his shoulders, an expanse covered by an unembellished burgundy silk waistcoat.
Pallid light couldn’t diminish the impression his muscled chest made, like solid armor under supple fabric. Visible parts of Mr. Ryland’s shirt, a fine white Indian cotton, stretched over rock hard shoulders and arms. Rumors spread concerning his youth as a farm hand. Many said he worked as a laborer digging ditches in the early days of the Bridgewater Canal Company.
How could a man like that rise to become a major stakeholder?
His soft chuckle drew her attention upward. “I grew up with seven sisters. Never got through a meal without my ears blistered by unshakeable female opinions.” His body expanded from a slow, deep breath. “Something I never thought aristocratic women would lack.”
“Perhaps you haven’t met the right ones.” She concentrated on the cloth, liking the way his deep timbered voice spread over her.
“I’ve met plenty.”
His voice was decidedly not Town with crisp syllables, but mid-lands or Manchester by the way he honored vowels over consonants with every word.
Claire pinched loose an extra tight section of fabric, not unlike unraveling Ryland’s troubles. “I think I understand. You fear a future of dull dinners with a woman who says what she thinks you want to hear.” She angled her head for a better view of the knot. “But, aren’t you courting a Duke’s daughter?”
His chin dipped, and Ryland’s grey gaze pinned her.
“Since you like bluntness.” She gave him a pert smile. “Besides, we are virtual strangers in a dark room.”
He inched closer to her on the settee, his knee skimming hers. The slight contact was noticeable through layers of silk skirts. She looked at the connection, a small encroachment, but this was only a knee.
“As in strangers with the freedom to say anything.” His voice vibrated on her fingers, intimate and inviting.
“Something like that.” Her focus went back to the knot, but the undercurrent shifted between them.
Mr. Ryland’s warm breath mingled with hers. The simple task of unloosening a tie threatened to dismantle Claire’s thinly veiled composure. She caused herself enough turmoil by sneaking into his house to steal his signature on the incriminating document half exposed under her hem. Now, add to the mix this unusual element surrounding them? Nor were matters helped by the man’s intense scrutiny.
“Is that part of your occupational talent? Listening…to men.”
His voice could be a caress to her skin, the way a tiny shiver followed his words. She licked her lips and concentrated on the balled fabric.
This is sheer madness.
But, how long since the headiness of attraction last touched her? Her throat thickened on notions of tenderness and men. She’d locked away those parts, hiding them in a safe place. Now one man cracked open flirtation’s door and she was ready to skip happily into a new realm.
No matter that Mr. Ryland thought her a woman of loose morals. She couldn’t deny the charged atmosphere crackling around the settee. Discernment told her the sentiment was mutual. Thus heartened, she let provocative, feminine power have its way.
The tip of her finger nudged his chin higher, lingering there. “I need you looking up.” She coaxed free another loop of cloth, and the slow slide of cotton against cotton matched the soft tenor of her voice. “I have lots of talents, Mr. Ryland. Listening is only one of them.”
His breath stalled before filling his chest again. Those words, as potent as her tone, offered shameless invitation. Claire played with fire, but she liked how Mr. Ryland was just as taken with the unusual interlude. And in the unspoken balance of power, the scales tipped gently in her favor.
He kept his head back, eyelids closed as though shutting away the world, save the two of them.
“Since we’re speaking freely, the Duke’s daughter…the Lady Elizabeth Churchill. I’m not officially courting her. Nor do I want to.” His words flowed in the loose way of a wearied man. “But that doesn’t stop her determined mother from pressing the matter.”
“I see.” Claire’s head inched closer. “And by the way her perfume’s plastered to your clothes, Lady Elizabeth’s resorting to desperate measures to gain your attention.”
Ryland’s hands curled into fists on his velvet clad thighs. “The perfume belongs to another woman.”
Who? Claire’s eyebrows shot up, brushing the inside of her silk mask.
“Well,” she said, slipping free another section of the knot. “At least you’re honest. For a man who doesn’t appreciate aristocratic women, you certainly have your share of their attentions.”
“And yet, here I sit, seeking refuge in my study.”
The uninvited thought slipped past her defenses.
She squashed further fanciful thinking by keeping her attention on the task at hand and not responding. Their conversation took a peculiar turn on this already peculiar evening. She didn’t like Ryland’s rules of business, but his directness gave an unexpected surprise. She asked forthright questions; he gave forthright answers.
The tie was almost undone but to gain a better hold, Claire slid two fingers inside the shirt’s neckline. The touch, a fraction of warm skin to skin contact, shot another tingle across her flesh. New whiskers and warm skin grazed the back of her fingers, peeling away another layer of intimacy from the sphere in which they sat.
“Careful,” he teased. “A body might think you’re trying to accost a vulnerable man after all.”
She laughed softly, dipping her head closer to his chest. “Something tells me, Mr. Ryland, you’re vulnerable to no one.”
“Cyrus,” he said, his voice scraping low notes. “At least in here…call me Cyrus.”
Was there a touch of longing in his voice?
They sat so close, his words vibrated over her, finding intimate places. Claire studied him under the veil of her lashes. England’s King of Commerce proved to have a vulnerable side, did he? Funny how she always imagined him as an indomitable force. Now, she licked her lips unsure of this new ground between them, when a new question came.
“Aren’t you on the marriage hunt for yourself?” She asked, quickly adding, “For an aristocratic woman, I mean.”
His wide chest swelled from a deep breath. “No.”
The steel hard quality in that word brooked no further discussion. The lone candle flickered behind him, outlining powerful shoulders, inviting solidness she wanted to test. She shook her head at the forbidden want, glad her partner on the settee couldn’t witness her befuddlement. The unexpected connection with a problematic a man disconcerted her. She ought to remove herself from this tangled interlude soon.
Sitting up straighter, she tried for efficiency, unraveling the last of the jabot’s knot. But, her body, lax from their sheltered encounter, had a mind of its own. Her hands smoothed the wrinkled fabric over the top of his chest, lingering high on Ryland’s silk waistcoat. Her fingers dallied with his neckwear before setting the crumpled cloth on the seat. She didn’t want to let go of the last threads of their unexpected, but engaging meeting.
“There. You’re free,” she said softly.
His shirt’s neckline opened, the cotton seams bunching and wrinkling enough to reveal the smooth flesh of his upper chest. Sitting so close, interesting details like a minute cut on his jaw drew her attention. The split marked the center of a maroon bruise the size of a ha’penny.
A hard force must’ve struck this stone wall of a man to leave the deep, but healing cut. Near that mark, a cleft of nature dented low on the center of his strong chin. Before Claire could stop herself, her fingertip touched the small valley on his chin then slid along his jaw to circle the bruise.
“Battles with your valet?”
He grabbed her hand, holding her fingers in his warm grip. Ryland suspended his hold, like a man who knew what he should do but hesitated.
Slowly, his grey stare searching her, he set her hand on her knee. “My turn for questions.”
Claire’s legs turned to jelly. They sat closer than propriety allowed, with his warm hand possessing hers. This strange meeting blurred Society’s rules, but to him she was a woman of easy virtue alone with a man. In these circumstances both parties set their own boundaries, didn’t they? Though Mr. Ryland had no idea who she truly was, Claire sensed they sat as equals in this room.
She sat up straighter, aware this shared power was of a sensual nature only; there’d be no parity outside the bedroom with Mr. Ryland. He was a man who led, expecting others, especially the gentler sex, to follow. Yet, his strong-boned face would appeal to most women, women who’d forgive his overbearing ways and find his rough magnetism and substantial fortune qualities of great consideration.
But, Mr. Ryland’s riches didn’t interest her. Her gaze dropped to his firm, inviting mouth. Other parts of him did.
A thin guise of civility covered this brute of a man who through will or wealth got his way. But, his brotherly admission of listening to, even liking, his sisters’ opinions turned her on end — not at all what she expected. How extraordinary to be in the company of a difficult man to discover he’s not so…difficult.
She folded her hands on her lap and inched back for mind-clearing space between them. “What do you want to know?”
He stretched one arm along the back of the settee. “Who’s your protector?”
“Perhaps I’m a woman of independent means. An honest business woman.”
Cyrus laughed, a full sound radiating from his chest. “Sounds dangerous.”
With fluid movement, he stood up and walked across the room toward his desk. She shifted around on the settee, watching his broad back.
“You don’t think a woman should live a life of independence?”
“An invitation for trouble, if you ask me. Women need a man’s guiding hand. Been that way since the beginning of time. Why change what already works?” He picked up the brass clock from the corner of his desk, glancing at her. “What about those baubles around your neck? Made of paste?”
Her hand shot up, touching the necklace. By his inflection, she caught Ryland’s assumption that the jeweled necklace was a gift from a man. He’d be right. Claire’s fingers rolled the largest stone, evidence of a past mistake.
“They’re real,” she said, her tone flat. “But, I mean to sell them.”
“Not sentimental jewelry, then?”
“No.” She’d give no more on the necklace.
Her shoe pressed the floor ready to grind stinging memories underfoot when something crunched under her heel. The signature sheet. How could she let rampant flirtation muddle her mind and forget the very reason for being here?
Mr. Ryland angled the clock’s face toward the moonlight. “Midnight approaches.”
Midnight. The unmasking hour. She was supposed to meet Abigail. Claire glanced at the door, her gaze ricocheting back to the man by the moonlit desk. Was he going to suggest she go into the ball with him?
Warmth prickled her hairline. Claire bent down, the air squeezing out her lungs from whalebone stays poking and prodding. Her corset and false hips made touching the floor nigh to impossible. Quick fingers folded the paper into quarters then once more all done in time to quick, shallow breaths.
She stuffed the incriminating piece down her cleavage. Her eyes shut a split second before opening again.
The shop, her plans…all were within reach.
The necklace swung forward at the bottom of her vision, a pendulum of sparkling aquamarine, reminding her, time to move on with her new life. Out of the corner of her eye, Ryland’s polished black shoes came into view.
“You’ve got to give me more about yourself before the unmasking—” He stopped and bent low from the waist. “—Is something wrong?”
“Fine. I’m fine,” she said, brushing her skirt and moving upright again. “My hem needed fixing.”
Cyrus Ryland looked appealing standing there, mellow candlelight touching his brown hair, the length of which was restrained in a black silk queue. The bottom seam of his fine burgundy waistcoat rested on strong, muscular thighs. All of him was granite hard without an ounce of excess. Claire stroked a white blonde lock of hair curling against the top of her left breast. The coy move was unintentional, but caught his eye all the same.
She could be any woman she wanted to be tonight.
Wasn’t she doing that already?
Free, masked, unknown…a woman once in service, now wearing a ball gown, playing a part she’d never play again. What woman didn’t want a taste of the forbidden at least once in her life? The chance to masquerade as someone else if only for a night?
And then she’d leave, escape as harmlessly as she came. No one would be hurt. Besides, there was no better place to slip away unnoticed than in a crowded ballroom. Tomorrow would bring the beginnings of her more reliable adventure as mid-town proprietress of a humble coffee shop.
“What were you saying?” She asked, champagne-like giddiness pouring over her.
She’d sipped the stuff twice in her life, and tonight’s victory made her feel as if she consumed the sweet, golden nectar all over again.
Growing up a steward’s daughter on the grand Greenwich estate afforded her many opportunities. But life changed one fateful night, a reminder of who and what she was. Since then, Claire labored hard, building callouses anew to her hands and heart, all in an effort to fall into a deep sleep every night and forget what happened years ago. Many more years of hard work stretched ahead of her.
Why not sip champagne once more?
What harm could come of that?