Authors: Susan Kay Law
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance fiction, #Historical fiction, #Romance - Historical, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romance: Historical, #Historical, #Fiction - Romance
My deepest thanks to the ladies of
Camp Wannabeawriter, Minnesota edition:
I can’t remember who made which suggestions, but the book wouldn’t have been nearly as good without you.
Not to mention a lot less fun.
“I am not so unwise,” she went on when he…
There were those who said the ballroom at the Rose…
He would not feel guilty about it.
He studied her expression as she entered the shack. He…
Kate had gotten up long before Jim. Hours, by the…
Two and a half days later, Kate’s horse trudged along…
He beat her back to that ridiculous great hall. She…
His torch finally sputtered out about two-thirds of the way…
Fitz Rafferty, managing editor of the Daily Sentinel, who had…
The third cot crowded Mrs. Latimore’s tent but not unduly…
“Well, Webb, what do we do?”
“What?” Kate lifted to her tiptoes, peering over Jim’s sturdy…
He shook his head, unable to believe what he’d just…
It’ll do, Hobson thought. The handsome, shirtless adventurer with a…
“Have you seen this?”
“An affair?” he choked out.
Jim had been all in favor of, after they made…
Half an hour later they strolled through the narrow passageway…
The Emperor should steam into Le Havre tomorrow morning. Very…
The ship reached the French port ahead of schedule, as…
Regular articles appeared on the front page of the Daily…
It snowed through the night and most of the next…
Men arrived throughout that evening, sometimes alone, a few times…
They ran into trouble ten miles from London. The roads…
Harrington had a chapel, built even before the current manor…
In October, 1900, Wilcox & Sons, Publishers, New York City,…
August 28, 1899
Were she a man, she might have checked the loading of her pistol one more time, held it out with one eye narrowed along the barrel. Or she’d have drawn her sword from its sheath and watched the light shear down the keen edge of the blade before swishing it through the air to reacquaint herself with its weight. Perhaps bounced on her toes once or twice like a boxing champion finding his balance.
But she was Kathryn Virginia Bright Goodale, and so, in the silent, lush hallway of the Waldorf-Astoria, she leaned closer to a mirror framed in elaborate gold and inspected herself with ruthless precision. She pinched fresh color into her cheeks and bit red into her lips.
Will it do? she wondered. Twelve years…She’d held up well, she judged. Kate didn’t believe in false modesty, particularly when one could not afford it. Would he look at her and see a mature and blossoming woman or immediately note the fading of that glowing girl that had perhaps only existed for one brief moment, for him?
But delaying never solved anything. She’d little enough time as it was. And so she made one final adjustment—this, to the neckline from which she’d shaved a full inch for just this occasion—and turned her smile up to full brightness.
The door was a thick gleaming slab of rosewood; the sharp report of her knuckles against it, satisfyingly authoritative. She must not give the impression that she came in supplication…even though that veered uncomfortably close to the truth.
“Come on in.” The voice was muffled through the door, low and hoarse, and her heart pounded harder than the echo of her knock.
“You coming in or not? Because I’d rather not get up.”
Well, she hadn’t sought him out for his manners, had she? Though he’d certainly owned them once; she recalled a handsome bow, an elegantly correct kiss of her foolishly trembling fingers.
She pushed open the door, stepped through in a hiss of expensive silk, and forgot how to breathe.
She’d been so busy worrying about how he’d view the changes in her that she’d never considered that he’d have changed, too. He’d remained constant in her memory, handsome and brash and so vibrantly alive the air had seemed to hum around him. A perfect reminiscence, one she’d no right to claim but had cherished just the same.
His skin had darkened. His hair, too, from light, sun-streaked brown to something richer and darker and far more interesting. His shoulders, clad in the thin silk of a burgundy robe, were broader. He sat sprawled in a chair, contemplating the half-filled glass in his hand, the gaping front of the robe exposing a long length of hairy, muscular leg and far too much chest for any healthy woman’s composure.
“Put the towels down anywhere.” Years of travel had roughened the edges of his aristocratic British accent but never eliminated it entirely, an odd contrast with the informality of his grammar.
“I—” She’d practiced her speeches, all the arguments she’d suspected she’d need. And they’d all fled the instant she stepped into the room.
“Huh.” Eyes that were more than a shade blurry focused on the hem of her skirt. “Guess you’re not the maid.”
That put genuine warmth into her careful smile. “I most certainly am not.”
He made no move to get up, just traced his gaze slowly up her until he paused at her chest. He grinned, lazy, seductive. “Heard this place had the best service in the city, but I certainly underestimated it.”
And then he looked up, into her face at last, and every trace of boozy warmth disappeared from his expression. Hooded eyes, set mouth, all emotions carefully blanked away, the expression he’d worn the last time she’d seen him. Just before she’d walked away.
He set his drink aside, taking more care than the task required to place it square in the center of the tiny carved table at his elbow. Was he that soused? She hadn’t considered him a drinker but a lot could change in twelve years. A lot
“Starting early this morning, aren’t you?” she asked. She meant her comment to be light, nothing more than conversational—and winced when it came out sounding like an accusation.
“It’s never too early,” he said, in a tone that implied he’d have started a whole lot sooner if he’d suspected who would show up at his door. He pushed himself out of his chair with far less concern for the gap in his robe than Kate would have preferred.
His steps were slow, a bare saunter, yet they ate up the space between them with disconcerting speed until he towered over her, her nose level with his—
She couldn’t look up at him, so she studied the room instead. It was as lush and rich as the hotel lobby had promised, gleaming in shades of blue and gold and cream. It was an awful mess, three mismatched socks strewn over the Aubusson carpet, a crumpled khaki jacket tossed over the back of a chair, a clutter of glinting rock specimens and poor, stuffed creatures strewn across a fine tabletop. The bed was in worse shape, a riotous twist of sheets and blankets that gave testament to one sort of wild night or another.
“Mrs. Goodale,” he said, so formal and stiff and suddenly British that he could have been another man than the warmly tipsy, casual one who’d spoken before he’d realized her identity, “I am sorry about your husband.”
“I know that.”
He was perhaps more sorry about her husband’s death than anyone else on earth. “I would not have missed the…” He paused, cleared his throat. “I was in Greenland. I did not receive word until long after—”
“I understand”—then, because it was the truth—“and so would he.”
She’d have to look at him sooner or later, finally worked up the courage only to find that he was apparently no more eager to meet her eyes: His gaze focused over the top of her head. All Kate could see was the bold jut of his jaw bristling with at least a day’s growth of dense beard.
“Then, with the formalities done, you can go away.”
Well, she hadn’t thought it would be easy, had she? “Lord Bennett—”
“Lord? Oh, please. You can do better than that.”
She tamped down a spurt of irritation. “I was attempting to be polite.”
“And when have you ever known me to appreciate politeness?”
“Do they?” he murmured, and then he looked fully at her at last.
It made her suddenly realize just how close they stood; so near, a half step would bring their bodies together. She would have jumped back if that movement wouldn’t have taken her out of the room—for she suspected that the instant she did so he’d slam the door in her face.
“Not that I’ve noticed,” he finished.
“Now, why doesn’t that sound like a compliment?” replied Kate.
“I can’t imagine.”
She could leave at any time, she reminded herself. Walk away and do…something. The fact that she’d no idea
didn’t have to be a deterrent. But she’d never been one to wander off a path once she’d set her feet upon it. “May I come in?”
It hovered in the air between them—the
she knew he wanted to snap out. “Please, Jim?” She used the name deliberately, reminding him that she was not a stranger.
He sighed and stepped aside, a gesture to allow entrance. Her skirt brushed his bare leg and hissed as she passed, soft as surrender.
“May I sit?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
She swept aside a long striped scarf and crushed black bowler from an armchair upholstered in royal blue plush, and fluffed her skirts as she settled into it.
“Why did you bother to ask?”
“I always attempt the easy way first,” she told him.
Not bothering to remove a pair of black leather gloves on the seat, he dropped into the nearest chair.
Kate had been married for nearly fifteen years; she was not an innocent young woman, terrified and fascinated by a man’s body.
It took every ounce of determination she’d ever owned not to flee the room in embarrassment. “If you’d like to get dressed—”
“My less-than-correct attire isn’t disturbing me if it’s not disturbing you.”
Pride left her no other answer. “Of course not.”
“Glad to hear it.” He sprawled back, by all appearances completely at ease, so big and male she could scarcely breathe. How could she have forgotten? How could she have believed that somehow in all these years he might have…aged, muted, diminished? Instead he’d become even more overwhelming.
But she was no longer young, foolish and easily impressed, she reminded herself. And if she’d failed utterly to handle him years ago, well, this time would be very different.
If only she could dredge up the right words.
“Wandering around the halls of a hotel unescorted, Mrs. Goodale? Not to mention slipping into the hotel room of a notorious adventurer.” He shook his head. “Quite a risk to your reputation, isn’t it?”
“I was supremely careful.”
“You always are, aren’t you?”
Once, which had been both the biggest and sweetest mistake she’d ever made. The memory bloomed over her, a memory she allowed herself to pull out and savor so very rarely, in case she’d become too tempted by it. A memory she indulged in only at the most difficult moments of her life, when she needed its consolation the most.
The scent of roses, the heavy, sultry air of late summer. The silver radiance of moonlight frothing through the intricate gingerbread of the gazebo. That hollow, empty ache for all she’d surrendered, an ache she’d almost always managed to subdue but which had seized her viciously that night, driving her out of her husband’s party. And the young man who stepped out of the garden like he’d been conjured from her dreams, everything she’d never known, could never hope to know, and that brief moment of surrender to fantasy.
Enough! Only a fool did not learn from her mistakes. “I need to speak to you.”
“You’ve been here five minutes and haven’t said anything worth hearing yet.”
“After the doctor’s death, I—”
“The lawyers found me. You don’t have to do this. I know he left me his maps, the books.” She kept looking for a flicker of emotion in him, finding none. Had he always been so dispassionate? Had she imagined, then, the empathy and warmth she’d once seen in his eyes?
“There was a letter—”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” He sprang up, coming back to his feet in a flash of bare legs, as if the chair couldn’t contain him any longer. But he’d never been one to settle in one place; every time the doctor heard from him, he was in another country, embroiled in another quest. Kate would never admit it to anyone, but she used to pull out the atlas every time a letter arrived—driven by a curiosity she found both embarrassing and surprising—to find the exact spot on the map where he’d last reported himself. “Don’t do this, Kate. I got the letter, the lawyers will hold the papers for me, so don’t pretend you’ve anything from the Doc to give me.” His mouth thinned into a sneer. “What is it? Or is it simply that you’ve come to conclude unfinished business?” His gaze, blatantly sexual, slid down. “I suppose I should be flattered, after all this time.”
“Don’t be.” She snapped to her feet, jerking her skirts into place. “Believe me, you’ve
to be flattered about in that regard.”
“Yes, really.” She wished she could climb on the chair to meet him nose to nose. “You know, you really don’t wear this constant anger well. For some reason I thought you’d have outgrown it by now. Most young men do when they mature.” He was not the only one who could sweep someone with a contemptuous gaze, she thought with some satisfaction.
“This is absurd,” she went on. This…
was what she’d cherished all these years? How disappointing. She had no idea there was so much of the sentimental fool in her. “I’ve no idea why I ever considered for so much as an instant that this might work.”
He was quicker than she, stepping in front of the door and facing her before she could sweep through it, denying her the grand exit.
“Move aside, please.”
“Interested? No.” He inclined his head. “Call it curious, maybe.”
“Yes, I do believe you are quite…curious.”
Stalemate. Kate, ready to spring out the door should he give her the slightest opening. Jim, as impenetrable and implacable as a palace guard, thoroughly blocking her way.
Let her go
. Even as his brain commanded his body, Jim couldn’t seem to step aside. Letting her walk out that door for another twelve years would be the wisest move he could make. But he’d spent more years than he liked to remember with questions nagging him. This time, he’d have enough answers to finally put her to rest. And that was the only reason he kept her here, he told himself. And thought that maybe it was even true.
He reached behind and shut the door. “Wouldn’t want anyone to wander by and see you here,” he told her. “And I
curious. How did you find me?”
She relaxed a little. The set of her shoulders softened in their sheath of periwinkle silk; the line of her mouth curved up. Good. Perhaps if she were not so rigidly on guard he’d even pry the truth from her this time.
“Oh, that was hardly difficult. ‘The famous Lord James Bennett, discoverer, adventurer, Arctic survivor.’” She quoted directly from the hotel’s flyer. They’d sent it out before he’d had a chance to stop them, and he’d damn near gagged at it. He was everlastingly glad he missed ninety percent of what was written about him.
“‘Scintillating stories of bravery, daring, and conquest from the most dashing explorer of our generation.’” She tucked her tongue firmly in her cheek, mischief lighting her eyes in a thoroughly attractive way. “Have they not heard of Sir Stanley, do you suppose?”