breathtaking sight, Marcus Fitzalan was willing to wager his membership
in the Society of Scoundrels that the Lady Jade Smithfield was proud to
be a scandal.
breeches embraced her long sleek legs. A matching waistcoat caressed her
lush, ripe breasts and nipped at a waist smaller than the span of his
hands. Her pirate’s blouse laced high enough for modesty, but low enough
She kept him
standing in her study, as if on the auction block, circling him in a way
meant to intimidate—like a buyer examining a stallion’s fine points—not
entirely unaware that her perusal afforded him the same enticing
Hair of rich sable
silk fell in loose waves down her back, pointing to such a fine little
bottom, Marcus itched to introduce it to the palm of his greedy hands.
If acquiring a
position in her outrageous household were not so important, he’d match
her shocking tactics, without a backward glance, and teach her a few
tricks into the bargain.
As things stood,
her proximity made him feel like that stallion, agitated and vigilant,
as if something momentous were about to be granted. Her very scent
stirred him, and though he dare not initiate an advance, neither would
he disregard her slightest overture.
“Are you buying?”
he asked, tongue in cheek.
stiffened, all lucent cream porcelain in black leather, and when she
raised her defiant chin and leveled him with her ebony gaze, Marcus
Her eyes gave her
skewering power and that hint of a widow’s peak added sorcery to the
blend. Even as she held him in her sight, Marcus wondered what demons
compelled so young a woman to flaunt society’s rules as boldly as did
cocked his head, and passed her the gauntlet, so to speak.
Jade raised her
chin at the audacity of the unlikely man of affairs, examining her every
bit as thoroughly as she did him, his blue eyes narrow, piercing in
their cobalt intensity, as if he would draw her out and bare her soul
... clear to the panic she kept hidden there.
her shoulders and firmed her stance. He would not see what she did not
want him to. “Please remember which of us holds the whip hand,” she
said, as much to remind herself.
“At your service,”
the bounder said, his cocked brow belying his words, his overt
masculinity sounding a warning in her head.
Wide-shoulders. Hands, big and ... capable of cold-hearted brutality. A
thoroughly daunting scent, perilous and soothing at one and the same
time—tobacco, leather, and spearmint—called to her like the dashing
blade her imagination conjured late at night when she held no control
over her mind and allowed, for a blink, that a good man might exist
somewhere in this sorry world.
His skin shone
bronze, his raven hair unshorn, a lazy lock falling over one eye. A
scamp, a scoundrel ... heartless. His lips appeared sculpted by a
master, and when the slight curve of them, one side up, as now, hinted
at a smile, a chin dimple appeared, dead center.
annoyingly cocksure and secretly-amused, his gaze so brazen, she’d swear
he could see through her clothes to her lace chemisette and reveled in
the sight. Half her girls would swoon, if they saw him, the rest would
run screaming from the room.
If the scoundrel
all-out grinned, Jade feared she would lose her breath.
“I am yours to
command,” he said with a bow.
Jade had lost her
ability to blush at twelve, but when the ominous warmth threatened, she
turned her back, went round her desk, and sat behind it, placing it
square between them—placing herself, once more, in the position of
authority. “Sit,” she said, “if you please.”
Fitzalan sat, as
“Not just any
knave,” Jade said, “but a practiced one,” which only served to augment
his aura of ambient potency, drat the blighter. “You won’t do.” She
straightened. “You’re too young and too ... perfect, except that you
need a shave.”
His bark of
laughter baffled Jade. She’d been prepared for anger; he was a man,
after all, but ’twas incredulity furrowed his brow. “Perfect?” he asked.
Odd that vanity
did not march beside magnificence in this one. “No, not perfect,” she
said. “No man is; you’re all rotten.”
He raised a shrewd
brow. “You’ve met the wrong men.”
“Scores of them,”
she said. “Since Ivy recommended you, I assume that he explained what I
want in the man I hire. Did Ivy travel with you, by the way?”
traveled with him.” Marcus grinned.
She hadn’t been
wrong, Jade saw now. Marcus Fitzalan’s grin was deadly. But fortunately
for her, breathing was still, more or less, an option.
“Ivy is setting up
his puppet stage right now,” Marcus said. “He plans a performance within
“Good,” Jade said.
“Was this the first time you traveled in his old gypsy wagon?” she
asked, back in control, satisfied the man before her understood as much.
“The first as an
adult,” he said. “’Twas like stepping back in time, with children
running alongside, calling Ivy’s puppets to come out and play. Difficult
to believe I was that innocent once.”
believe,” Jade said acerbically, gaining perhaps a modicum of grudging
respect, judging by the surprised approval in Fitzalan’s heated gaze.
“I remember how
excited I used to get,” she said, “when his white wagon, trimmed in red
and green, came rolling down the road, like Christmas in summer. I loved
Ivy’s puppets. I loved Ivy. Still do.”
strangely relieved that the Lady Jade might not be as cold and
formidable within as she appeared without. Sharing Ivy as a friend, as
well as similar, though separate, childhood memories, made her seem ...
human. “My lady, I—”
“You may call me
Jade. Everyone does. The title is a throwback to a bygone era. No one in
Peacehaven gives a flying fig about my father’s title. They care only
that before he abandoned us, he gave new meaning to the word ‘wastrel.’”
either, Marcus thought, her abandonment revealing an additional breadth
of common ground between them. “Jade.” Marcus sat forward. “Ivy said you
need a man of affairs to put your finances in order, and I’m the man who
can.” Marcus wished he could tell her the true reason he wanted the
job—that an inconspicuous resident of Newhaven could look into the
accidents slowing local railroad construction, without raising
suspicion. But to reveal his investigation at this juncture could
do you have, Mr. Fitzalan?”
“You may call me
Marcus. I’ve been running a sizeable estate in Seaford for the past
year, and a smaller one before that, both with a great deal of success,
I might add.” He removed a sealed missive from his waistcoat and handed
it to her, but she made certain their fingers did not touch as she
accepted it. Odd, considering her reputation for courting scandal.
“Inside, you will
find a letter of introduction from the Earl of Attleboro, my ... former
She read the note,
raised a brow, and folded her hands on her desk, appearing for a minute
to fight some deep inner battle. “Ivy said that you have personal
business in the area as well,” she said, and waited ... for him to
elaborate, Marcus assumed.
When he merely
nodded, she made a moue of disapproval, and caught Marcus’s fancy. He’d
like to take his lazy time kissing those luscious lips into a smile.
“Did he tell you
about The Benevolent Society for Downtrodden Women?” she asked, a bit on
the loud side, snapping him back to their conversation, her chiding brow
telling him she’d discerned the significance in his preoccupied gaze, if
not his precise thoughts, praise be.
Marcus cleared his
throat. “Ivy said you inherited Peacehaven Manor and the Downtrodden
Society from your grandmother, that you run it here as she did.”
“The Society is
not downtrodden,” she snapped. “The women are. The Society is
his grin. “Your pardon. Pray, continue.”
very existence is threatened of a sudden by financial chaos,” she said.
“If it fails—if I fail—the women I rescue, house, and train to support
themselves, will end in the street. With no homes or skills, they will
be forced to support their children in unimaginable ways.
“Almost since my
grandmother's man of affairs left my employ,” she said, “my finances
have been all of a muddle. I am not sure where I stand.”
“Who was this
snapped. “I didn’t kill him. I discharged him. His name is Neil Kirby.”
She firmed her jaw and clasped her hands tight. “He sold an option on a
tract of my grandmother’s property to the railroad. Never mind that I
refused, point-blank, to sell. Now, the income from the sale is missing
as is the record of the sale.”
his features so as not to reveal the intensity of his interest. His
railroad investigation had barely begun and already he knew that the
Lady Jade Smithfield bore watching, which intrigued him as much as it
disturbed him. “Surely the man needed your signature to complete the
“The papers had
been signed, as it turned out, by my grandmother on her deathbed. Kirby
had to have lied to accomplish it, because she would never have optioned
that parcel. To get the land option back, I need the paperwork, and the
money we were paid.”
“Why do you want
Though Lady Jade
paled, anger snapped her spine to the inflexibility of a ramrod. “Your
business, in the event you are hired, Mr. Fitzalan, would be to keep my
records, nothing more.”
Marcus knew then,
without doubt, that if Jade Smithfield found a way to keep the railroad
from going through her property, she might very well be first in line as
suspect. “Do I take your words to mean that you might overlook my ...
perfection long enough to hire me?”
Her chin went up.
“Mine is not the average household. More than a dozen brittle,
soul-scarred women and seventeen sad frightened children live here. All
my servants are men, from scullery maid to cook, all beyond reproach in
fact, and beyond danger in years. You, I am afraid, would seem too much
of a threat, as young as you are.”
All male servants,
Marcus thought, the final straw, the ultimate transgression that branded
the Lady Jade Smithfield—young, beautiful, and unmarried—as a perfect
scandal in the eyes of society as far away as London.
Ivy said that
because Jade’s grandmother had been ninety and considered eccentric, her
outlandish behavior had been tolerated, but when her granddaughter
stepped into her shoes at twenty-seven, and changed nothing, the gossips
had gone on rampage. Marcus had in fact been in London when he first
heard the gossip, and, therefore, he had been fascinated before having
the opportunity to meet her.
She shook her head
now at some disharmony Marcus could not discern. “If I were to hire
someone as young as you, frankly I would be concerned about—”
Not the least
amused, she set her jaw, firm, disapproving. “Women—” She cleared her
throat, which eased the fury in her gaze. “Some women feel they
need ... a man ... on occasion, and I would not want you—I would
forbid you—to take advantage of the vulnerable among my residents.”
“You wound me.”
“I would if I had
With that threat
on her lips, she reminded him of a swan, rising in hissing defense, a
host of cygnets beneath her sheltering wings.
His respect for
her grew. “I would not seduce any of the women in your care.” Which
is not to say that I will not seduce you.
“You, I can
handle,” Jade said, as if she heard his caveat. “My concern is my women.
I fear they will try to seduce you,” she said, entirely
serious. “You must not let them.”
Marcus grinned; he
couldn’t help himself. He’d be damned if he’d respond, negatively or
positively, to being seduced before ever setting eyes on his seductress,
unless ’twas she who sat before him. This seductress, he
would never refuse.
enigmas, Jade Smithfield was a classic. “You dress like a man to prove
you are as strong and capable as one, do you not?”
“I dress like a
man, Mr. Fitzalan, so men will take me seriously and stop looking at
sooner had the word passed his lips than Marcus knew he had jeopardized
“I beg your
pardon!” Jade Smithfield rose with righteous indignation, full of cold
dark fury and bold striking magnificence.
remorse for insulting her, the stallion in Marcus quickened in
anticipation of the challenge she presented.
“This interview is
at an end,” she said. “I despise you and every man like you.”
Marcus stood. “It
is I who must beg pardon. My impertinence is unforgivable. I can act the
She waved away his
apology. “You’re a man. Crudity and stupidity are to be expected, though
not accepted—not by me and not in this house.”
“I assure you that
foolhardiness and insensitivity are not chronic failings of mine,
despite the fact that the momentary dullness of my wits seems matched
only by the size of the foot in my mouth.” Marcus ran a hand through his
hair and considered speaking frankly. “Jade ... you did say I could call
She nodded with
all the warmth of an ice queen.
Marcus stood. “As
a man who will, as it turns out, never enter your employ, but offers ...
fellowship, on the basis of a shared friend, and similar childhood
memories, I beg you will allow me to advise you on one point before we
He received a
second royal nod. Regina Victoria herself would be proud.
Placing the flat
of his hands on the mahogany surface of his unlikely employer’s desk, he
leaned forward, to keep his advice between them, and capture her brazen,
chin-up gaze with his earnest and open one. “When a man can see
exactly how long a woman’s legs are, and how perfectly her—” Marcus
cleared his throat. Telling her how well her bottom would fit his palms
would simply release the fury roiling in her, so he let the thought go,
and straightened. “Well ... he isn’t likely to be thinking clearly, or
seriously, on any level, save one.”
ebony eyes widened, and she paled slightly, before a crimson blush
scuttled up her neck.
certain she’d got his point. “I apologize for my impertinence, though
not for my admonition, and I am genuinely disappointed that we will not
be working together.”
hands relaxed slightly, her composure returning in slow determined
measure. “With Ivy staying, you will be forced to catch the public coach
for your return journey, but since it won’t be along again until
tomorrow, a room will be prepared for you.”
A few minutes
later, a brawny, barrel-chested older man—Jade’s resident doctor cum
housekeeper—introduced himself to Marcus as Beecher. With twinkling eyes
and fond looks for the children scampering about, Beecher led Marcus
from the bedchamber to which he'd been assigned and into a main-level
ballroom. Ornate with gilded wainscoting and festooned mirrors, the
stately room held an array of fussy gilt chairs facing a puppet stage in
the throes of preparation.
The minute Marcus
stepped into the room, the assemblage of women and children stilled and
quieted, as if they knew he’d displeased their benefactress. But no, on
second look, their reactions reflected nothing so simple as displeasure.
Some of them had stepped back, others placed hands on hearts, touched
their children or each other. Like game in a hunter’s sight, all were
frightened and too stunned to move.
Ivy warned him
that most of Jade’s cygnets had been assaulted—by husbands, fathers,
strangers, males all. He knew they had been battered physically and
emotionally, and still, Marcus stood stunned in the face of their
terror. Judging by the children, their mothers’ experiences had been, at
the least, witnessed. At the worst, Marcus refused to consider.
Drawn by the
silence, Ivy peeked from behind his puppet stage and grimaced. He came
and made the introductions. Ivy—Yves St. Cyr, Puppeteer—reveled in his
role as friend, mentor, and father-figure to half the children in Sussex
... even to the ones who’d grown up, or should have done, at any rate,
the scoundrels and scandals especially.
silver-haired puppet-master’s introduction, most of the women relaxed.
Ivy must seem as safe as Jade’s retainers, though not nearly as old.
calmed, because their mothers did, all but one cowering blonde moppet,
her wide-eyed china-doll gaze directed straight at Marcus himself. Even
from across the room, he could see that his presence terrified her.
Damn it, he’d left
enough damage in his wake for one lifetime, Marcus thought. He did not
want to leave one woman, or child, with nightmares, especially not as a
result of a swift appearance in their lives.
Since he would
leave Peacehaven tomorrow, he had no choice but to counter China Doll’s