Robert Percy, Viscount Redhill, already had the bottle of brandy in hand when there was yet another knock on the library door. It was barely three in the afternoon, but after a morning such as today, brandy was the only choice to combat the headache growing behind his right eye.
“My lord?” asked Dribbs as he pushed open the library door unbidden.
“No, Dribbs,” Robert said quite firmly.
“Well, yes, my lord. There is a visitor.”
“No, Dribbs, there is not.”
“But she is most insistent.”
“No, Dribbs, she is not. Because there is not a visitor to see me.” To further make the point, he dispensed with the swirling and airing of the alcohol and took a healthy swig straight from the bottle. It was almost gone anyway.
“Well, yes, my lord, there is.”
“No, Dribbs, there cannot be. My father has already been here today, so he cannot have purchased another mine or an interest in a gold venture in Antarctica or discovered the secret to stuffing genies into bottles to grant his every whim.”
“No, sir, it is not the Earl.”
Robert exhaled in relief. “Thank God–”
“It is a woman.”
“No, Dribbs, it most certainly cannot be a woman. Because, you see, I have already spoken with Gwen about her upcoming nuptials just this morning. My mother is in bed where she always is at this hour. And as for all those future in-law women who have let the house next door, I have just this moment escaped from the upstairs salon where the Baroness and her sister were rearranging Mama’s figurines. They were arguing about whether sunlight was bad for a porcelain shepherdess. Porcelain, Dribbs. Why would anyone ever be concerned about a porcelain complexion? Especially since the damned thing has a bonnet!”
Robert forced himself to take another swig of brandy. When had his life become so dashed ridiculous?
“Very true, my lord. Most odd. But the woman who wishes to see you is not destined to be your relation.”
“Thank heaven.” He dropped down behind his desk, pushed aside the mountain of papers to set the bottle down, then looked up in confusion when Dribbs had still not disappeared. “You can go now.”
“Well, no sir, I cannot.”
“Of course you can. Just step backwards and shut the door.”
“Well, yes, I could do that, my lord, but if I were to do such a thing, you would damn me for it in a day’s time. Perhaps even sooner.”
“Perhaps. But at least you wouldn’t be damned right now.”
“Excellent point, my lord. But you see, the lady in question is a Mrs. Mortimer. And she has a trifling matter for you to deal with.”
Robert snorted. In his opinion, all female matters were trifling. But that didn’t stop them from plaguing him with their nonsense day and night. Still, something about the name tickled the back of his brain. He knew that name, but from where?
“She is the dressmaker for your sister’s wedding,” supplied the butler.
Ah! There it was! Gwen had been waxing eloquent on the lady’s dressmaking skill
just this morning. The woman had done this and that, tucked something in or let something out. And then Gwen had blushed a deep pink. That was what stuck in Robert’s mind: that his sister had blushed a deep, embarrassed pink. Because the dress made her look more attractive. In a sexual kind of way. And dashed if that was something he absolutely did not want to know about his sister.
He took another swig from the brandy bottle only to discover that it was empty.
“I shall find you another bottle directly, my lord.”
“But first you must speak with Mrs. Mortimer.”
“No, Dribbs. I must not.”
“But if you don’t, she will inevitably tell your sister that she was denied your presence. And then your sister will commence quietly sobbing in her bedroom because this wedding is already more than she expected and you will of course hear her or notice her red eyes. And then you will find out the reason for her tears and be furious with yourself for being such a callous brother. And then, my lord, you will instruct me most specifically to not allow you to say no to visitors anymore.”
“I would never say such a thing!” he said indignantly.
“You did say such a thing just last week when your mother was distraught over a lost delivery of perfumes.”
“I most certainly…” His voice trailed away. Damnation. He most certainly had. “Bloody hell.”
“It is a trifling matter, my lord. Best deal with it now and be done. Then no more tears, and you can have your brandy straight away after it is finished.”
Robert released a heavy sigh. “Damnation Dribbs, I don’t know whether to sack you or double your pay.”
“Double my pay, sir. Indeed I believe you promised me that last week.”
“I most certainly did not! That I would remember.”
Dribbs paused a rather telling moment. Then he tilted his head. “Are you sure, my lord? Are you absolutely sure you would remember?”
“Yes. I most certainly am.”
Dribbs released a dramatic sigh. “Yes, I am afraid you would.” Then the man straightened to his full height, stepped backwards into the hallway, and pulled the library door wide. “Mrs. Mortimer to see you, my lord. She will not take more than ten minutes of your time.”
That last was added in a stern look to the lady in question. The lady of course nodded sweetly in acknowledgment, but he saw the martial gleam in her eyes. He also saw her full cleavage, her sweetly rounded hips, and the dark red lips of a woman who obviously wanted to be kissed.
Good lord, what had he just been thinking? She was a dressmaker, for God’s sake. Who would want to kiss a dressmaker? That would be like fondling the boot black. True, it was often done, but not by him! And yet here he was thinking of just where he would fondle her.
Robert came back to himself with a start. “I beg your pardon?”
“No, I beg your pardon,” she said. “You sounded as if you were choking.”
“No. No. Just…um…mourning the loss of the brandy. Empty bottle you know.” He lifted the bottle and shook it about as proof. Then he sheepishly set it back down again. Really, what was he doing? One did not discuss empty brandy bottles with servants. Unless it was the servant’s job which it was definitely not for her. Damnation, he was addled! “I believe you wanted something?”
“Yes, my lord. I am afraid I require payment.”
“You’re afraid of payment? Well if that’s a problem for you, you needn’t bother visiting.”
She paused a moment, her brows lifting in surprise. Then a glimmer of a smile skated across her lips. “Er, no my lord. I apologize deeply. I misspoke. I have no fear at all in me, and thus I am here at your door asking for payment. Now, if you please.”
He sighed. Dribbs was right. Best to be done with it. The thing was, what with his father’s recent investment whims and his sister’s trousseau, he was rather tight on ready cash. The repairs and like at the mine alone had depleted the earldom to the point where they all must economize. Add in a future bride’s trousseau, and he had no idea where the funds would come from.
“Really, Mrs. Mortimer, there is a process for this. I have a man who brings the bills directly to me. You need not come visiting–”
“I have already spoken to Mr. Starkweather. He said I should speak directly to you.”
He frowned. “The devil you say. Can’t imagine Starkweather doing such a thing. He is usually most officious about his place. Likes to keep the riffraff away from me, he says. Good man, that Starkweather.” Robert smiled at the empty brandy bottle and wondered when ten minutes would expire. Soon, he hoped. Though he did like the view of Mrs. Mortimer’s bosom, especially when viewed through the exaggerating distortion of his empty brandy glass.
Then he had cause to look up from this glass. Was the woman blushing? Enough that her cleavage had turned a rosy pink? Why, she most certainly was! Extraordinary. Especially since with her figure she must be used to being ogled, and not just through a brandy glass.
He frowned. Obviously, he was missing something significant, but for the life of him he couldn’t quite grasp what. He set his glass down, pulled in his feet so that he sat straight in his chair despite the way that made his temple throb, and forced himself to be serious.
“I have had a most trying morning, Mrs. Mortimer. Please tell me why I should talk with you and not with Mr. Starkweather?”
“Because I am not riffraff, my lord, and never have been.” Her voice was clipped and cold despite the blush that still pinked her skin.
He blinked. Had he said that? Oh yes, he supposed he had implied it at the very least. And yet, some devil in him could not resist tweaking her.
“Ah well, you certainly don’t appear to be riffraff, Mrs. Mortimer, but you are a bill collector attempted to circumvent my man Starkweather. At a minimum, that suggests you are Riff, if not exactly Raff.”
Far from deepening her blush, it actually caused her color to cool and her eyebrows to arch. “I can see you have a love of the ridiculous, my lord.”
“Well, I certainly love my family, and if that is not a love the ridiculous, then I don’t know what is.”
She had no answer to that. Good thing because he really ought not to say this sort of thing to a stranger, servant or not.
He relaxed backwards in his seat, trying to decide exactly what he should do with the lady. Any other day, he would have already paid her just to be rid of her. But he found himself smiling at her in an absent sort of way. She was lovely to look at, and she sat there all prim while he spouted all manner of nonsense. It was really quite fun. Until she spoke, her voice low, her manner almost soothing unless one actually listened to her words.
“Do you know how humiliating it is to come begging for honest payment, my lord? To stand hat in hand before some clerk on a high stool who curls his lip at you merely because my birth is not as exalted as yours?”
He blinked, startled by what she said. “Starkweather does not sit on a high stool.” Then he frowned, that is not at all what he meant. As far as he knew, Starkweather was a fair and honest man, but of course, he did not know that for certain. Neither did he know if the man ever curled his lip at honest tradesmen. All he knew is that the man sat at a desk like a normal person. And so that is what blathered out of his mouth.
Naturally, she took his statement as the stupidity it was. “I was speaking metaphorically, my lord.”
“Were you?” he wondered aloud. “Nevertheless, it’s not quite the thing to accuse a man of being high in the instep if he was not actually on a high stool. Makes me wonder if you were speaking of Starkweather at all.”
Ah, he had her there! He could tell by the way her gaze canted aside and the color in her bosom flushed again. Most beautiful, he decided. And rather distracting. Thankfully, he was spared more of this odd discussion by a firm knock on the door. He didn’t even need to say a word because he knew who it was. Ten minutes was up and Dribbs was pushing open the door.
“My apologies for the interruption, my lord,” said Dribbs with a faint smile. “But your next visitor has arrived.” He lifted the bottle of brandy into the air.
“Excellent,” Robert said with a grin. “I am sorry Mrs. Mortimer, but I am afraid I leave all matters of bill payment to Mr. Starkweather.”
The lady pushed to her feet, but not to leave the room. Instead, she stepped forward to confront him across his desk. “No, my lord, you shall not. Do you think I cannot see the bottle of brandy in his hand?”
Robert raised his eyebrows in surprise. Her back was to the door, so how could she see anything that was in Dribb’s hand?
She snorted. “The reflection, my lord.” She waived airily at the polished black marble of his fireplace. From her angle, it would provide the perfect reflection of Dribbs.
“Ah. Most clever of you.”
“I am not clever, my lord. Just stubborn. It will take the work of a moment for you to write me a bank draft. I insist you do so. Unless you wish it to be known that the Earl of Redhill does not pay his debts.”
Now that was a serious allegation. “You would not say such a thing, Mrs. Mortimer, because I would have you ruined in a heartbeat. I pay my bills.”
“Then pay this one.” She stepped forward and slapped a paper down on his desk. It was a bill, neatly itemized and tabulated in a fair hand.
He picked it up with a frown, perusing the list to the best of his ability. It was his sister’s trousseau, he supposed. Dresses, ribbons, underclothing and the like. He even doubled-checked the math on the list and found it to be accurate. But such a total! The sum was exorbitant!
“This cannot be right,” he murmured.
“I assure you it is. Would you care to summon your sister to verify it?”
God, no. He had no wish to engage Gwen in yet another discussion of clothing. And from the look of triumph in her eyes, she knew it. What’s more, she chose that moment to shift into a beautiful smile. It was a warm and winning, and transformed her face from merely lovely to one of sweet seduction.
“Come now, my lord. Merely write the draft and then I shall personally pour you that glass of brandy. Mr. Dribb’s arm must be getting very tired holding that heavy bottle aloft.”
My God what a potent woman! He was already reaching for his bank book when reason grabbed hold of him and stopped his hand. Something was very wrong about this situation. As far as he knew, Starkweather would never refuse an honest bill. And this woman was using all her wiles to get him to pay an exorbitant tab.
He looked back at the paper, his mind searching for the elusive clue. What was it he was missing? What…
“My lord?” her voice was a distraction, a low siren song of seduction. “Your brandy awaits.”
“Describe to me this dress,” he said by way of stalling. “What does it look like?” He pointed at random to the most expensive single item on the list. A ball gown with pearl buttons.
She frowned. “Truly, my lord? Whyever would you wish to–”
“Humor me,” he said as he folded his arms across his chest. Then to save poor Dribbs whose arm did appear to be shaking most dreadfully, he motioned to the sideboard. “Set it there, Dribbs. I find that Mrs. Mortimer and I have a bit more to discuss.”
Dribbs did as he was told. And while the butler was setting the bottle far out of reach, Robert turned his attention back to the woman across from him.
“Do you know anything of my father, Mrs. Mortimer?” he asked.
The woman shook her head and a tendril of honey fine hair slipped from her chignon to dance about her pert chin. Adorable, he thought.
“I am not acquainted with the Earl of Willington,” she said.
“Well, he is a charming fellow. Loves a good bit of brandy, a cigar, and his friends. Some say I resemble him in looks.” He gestured to his hair. “Brown hair, broad forehead, and we are nearly the same height.”
She nodded, obviously confused by his wandering thoughts. “Then your father must be a handsome man.”
He took the compliment as his due. Many thought his entire family had been inappropriately blessed in their looks. “Yes, well there is something else about my father that everyone knows.” He waited a moment for her to ask the obvious question. She did so with a touch of irritation.
“I am simply breathless with wonder, my lord. What could it be that everyone knows?”
“That my father is the greatest gull on Earth. Yes, truly, the man could be snookered by a mentally deficient bootblack. In fact, I believe he was just last year. Bought some magic blacking cloth, I believe. Thought he’d make a fortune with it.”
A spark of interest did indeed light in Mrs. Mortimer’s eyes. “Magic blacking cloth?”
“Yes. I believe it was cheesecloth soaked in the boy’s spit.”
She gasped. “You cannot be serious!”
“I most certainly am. My father bought it for a shilling.” Then he sighed. “To be fair, the boy had been chewing tobacco and so the cloth was rather thick and black. It did look like a blacking cloth.”
She laughed. Not a full laugh. Indeed because she suppressed it, it sounded more like a horse’s snort than a lady’s laugh.
“That story cannot be true.”
“I assure you it is.”
Then she tilted her head while her eyes danced in merriment. “I cry foul, my lord. I believe you are lying to me. And I believe I shall prove it to you.”
“Really? Pray, how?”
“I shall make a wager with you, my lord. If I can prove that you are lying, then you will pay my bill. If not, then I shall leave without further ado.”
He wasn’t so sure he wanted her to leave just yet, but he was a gentleman and so he nodded. “Very well. If the bill is honest, then you shall be paid immediately.”
She nodded slowly, obviously taking that as the best bargain she could make. “Very well, my lord. You say the story is true, that it happened exactly as you said.”
“Well, then, I submit to you that either the bootblack was not mentally deficient in that he gulled an Earl. Or that the Earl was aware of the true nature of the magic cloth and was merely being kind to a handicapped boy.”
Robert frowned, wondering which could be true. Given that his father had been quite proud of his purchase, he thought it more likely that the bootblack was not nearly as deficient as he claimed. Nor, he supposed, did the boy have an ailing mother and four younger siblings to feed. Thankfully, he did not oversee his father’s staff as the man lived in rooms at his club. So long as the Earl kept within his quarterly allowance, Robert didn’t care if he purchased a dozen magic blacking cloths.
“Have I won our bargain, my lord?”
He smiled. “Yes, I suppose you have.”
“Excellent,” she said with a grin, “then if you would–”
“I said if the bill was honest, Mrs. Mortimer. You have yet to describe this ball gown to me. Unless, of course, there is some reason why you would not.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I will describe it.”
He smiled and shot her own words right back. “I am simply breathless with wonder.”
She grimaced, her nose wrinkling in a delightful manner. “It is blue, my lord, with Belgium lace crisscrossed over the bodice. Shoulders bare, as she will be married woman by then and can reveal a great deal more than before, and with a shawl of gauze such as will preserve her modesty if she wants or draped in a variety of tantalizing poses should she not.”
He blinked. My God, did she think he wished to know of his sister in tantalizing poses? “You are speaking of my baby sister,” he said in irritation. “The one who wore pigtails and sported ink stains on her nose.”
“No, my lord,” she said gently. “I am speaking of your fully grown sister who will be a married woman within a month. And quite possibly increasing soon after that.”
He shuddered at that. His baby sister with a babe of her own. He knew it was possible. Probable, even. That is what married women did, was it not? But in his mind, she was still so young.
“It is the way of young girls, you know. They grow up and start families of their own.” Then Mrs. Mortimer did something wholly unexpected. She rose in a single lithe movement and crossed to the brandy snifter. Then she poured him a glass, swirling it for him just as it ought to be done, and brought it to him. But she didn’t just cross to his side, she set it in his hand, then sank to the floor before him. She looked up at him just as his sister had once done, back when she was still a hoyden running wild throughout the house. And Mrs. Mortimer smiled up at him in exactly the same way.
“Change is hard, especially when it is inevitable. But you should be proud of the woman she has become, my lord. Not fighting the purchase of her trousseau.”
He swallowed. She was right. And when she sat like that before him, he could deny her nothing. Except for one thing.
“Mrs. Mortimer,” he said as he reached out and stroked her cheek just as he had done with Gwen so many years ago. “I cry foul.”
She blinked. “What?”
“Gwen does not have a ball gown such as you describe. It has not been made and you and your bill are false.” She made to leap to her feet, but he was faster than she. Within a second, he had clamped a hand down on her arm preventing her escape. “Oh do remain right where you are, Mrs. Mortimer. It will no doubt take a few moments for the constable to arrive.”