by Annette Blair
England, The Sussex Coast
At first 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.
Black leather 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 to tantalize.
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 opportunity.
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.
The siren stiffened, all lucent cream porcelain in black leather, and when she raised her defiant chin and leveled him with her ebony gaze, Marcus became transfixed.
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 this one.
Marcus smiled, 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.
She straightened 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.
Thick muscles. 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.
He stood 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 instructed.
“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?”
“Actually I 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 the hour.”
“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.”
“Impossible to 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.”
Marcus felt 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.’”
Not haughty, 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 cripple it.
“What experience 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 employer.”
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 benevolent.”
Marcus swallowed his grin. “Your pardon. Pray, continue.”
“The Society’s 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 man?”
“Was?” she 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.”
Marcus schooled 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 sale?”
“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 it back?”
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 to.”
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.
Speaking of 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 my—”
“Assets?” No sooner had the word passed his lips than Marcus knew he had jeopardized his position.
“I beg your pardon!” Jade Smithfield rose with righteous indignation, full of cold dark fury and bold striking magnificence.
Despite his 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 cretin, sometimes.”
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 you that?”
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 part.”
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.”
Jade Smithfield's ebony eyes widened, and she paled slightly, before a crimson blush scuttled up her neck.
Marcus nodded, 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.”
Jade’s clenched 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.
After the 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.
The children 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 fear today.
Tomorrow the last excerpt from The Knave of Hearts series, Holy Scoundrel