Lord Philippe Lavay once took to the high seas armed with charm as lethal as his sword and a stone-cold conviction: he'll restore his family's fortune and honor, no matter the cost. Victory is at last within reach--when a brutal attack snatches it from his grasp and lands him in Pennyroyal Green.An afternoon of bliss brings a cascade of consequences for Elise Fountain. Shunned by her family and ousted from a job she loves, survival means a plummet down the social ladder to a position no woman has yet been able to keep: housekeeper to a frighteningly formidable prince.The bold and gentle Elise sees past his battered body into Philippe's barricaded heart...and her innate sensuality ignites his blood. Now a man who thought he could never love and a woman who thought she would never again trust must fight an incendiary passion that could be the ruin of them both.
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It took all of Elise's fortitude to resist craning her head after the fleeing Mrs. Winthrop.
“Please sit down, Mrs. Fountain.”
She went still. His native French still haunted his consonants and turned the vowels into veritable caresses. She could almost see the elegant, endless spill of a fountain when he said her name.
“Mrs. Fountain. Has Mrs. Winthrop brought to me an applicant who does not speak English?”
The tone was silk over steel, exquisitely polite. And yet she could easily imagine him ordering the beheading of whoever had brought him such a stupid and mute candidate in the very same tone.
“Forgive me, Lord Lavay. I do know how to sit.”
She tried a little half smile. She knew she possessed a portion of charm, though it was a trifle rusty from disuse, given that she'd locked it away after it had gotten her into trouble.
“If you would be so kind as to demonstrate your ability to do so.”
He gestured to a chair upholstered in chocolate-colored velvet. She might as well have been a chair herself for all the charm he exerted. She felt positively neutered. Which was perhaps all for the best.
She sat gingerly, and what she hoped was gracefully, on the very edge of it, the better to bolt if necessary, and folded her hands.
Oh God...the chair was so soft. It cradled her bum almost lasciviously. It's tall, spreading fan of a back beckoned like a lover's arms. And her life had seemed so narrow and spiky for so long, in every direction she turned, the comfort surprised her by nearly doing her in.
She slid a tentative inch backward as Lord Lavay lowered himself into the chair opposite her, slowly.
He's in Sussex recovering from an attack, she'd been told.
She began to think it was an attack of apoplexy.
She could see their two faces reflected in the polished wood of the table. His clean-hewn as wood itself. Hers small and white, looking a little too insignificant.
“Splendid. We have established you do indeed know how to sit. A very good thing, as I do not tolerate liars.” He smiled again faintly here, which she supposed was meant to soften that little thrown-down gauntlet of a statement.
She offered a tight little smile of her own. Demonstrating my ability to smile.
“What do you believe are your qualifications, Mrs. Fountain?”
What an interesting way to put it. As if he alone would judge whether she possessed any qualifications at all.
“I have been trained—” She was shocked to hear her voice emerge as a reedy croak, probably due to the thin atmosphere his lofty presence created. She cleared her throat. “I have been trained in the managing of a fine residence, including adhering to budgets to deciding upon household purchases to preparing pastries and remedies and simples, to hiring and discharging—”
She blinked. “I'm sor...?”
“The residence,” he articulated slowly. “Where was this, as you say, fine residence?”
She'd been with the man for fewer than five minutes and she wanted to kick him.
“For whom did you manage this residence?”
She hesitated. Her heart ratcheted in speed.
“The home belongs to my parents. I was raised and educated there.”
She did not say she was no longer welcome in it.
If he wanted the whole story, he was going to need to drag it from her one question at a time.
His gaze was so intense it was as though he held the tips of two lit cheroots to her skin.
Perhaps he already knew, despite what Mrs. Winthrop had said?. Sometimes it felt as though the entire world knew.
But surely she wasn't as important as all that?
And surely there were enough Redmonds and Everseas about to keep the scandal mill fed?
Her heart was thudding so hard it felt like someone was throwing angry kicks at her breastbone.
She surrendered and slid those last few inches into the chair's embrace. Lavay's shoulders were vast beneath that sleek, flawlessly tailored coat. She wondered if any woman had ever taken comfort there. Or perhaps the sole point of his existence was to make women feel awed and insignificant.
“And why do you now seek employment as a housekeeper for a fine residence?”
She hesitated. At least she now knew a good use for that word she loathed.
“My circumstances have since changed.”
His brows flicked upward in apparent surprise.
Since she was now convinced this would be the last time she ever saw him, she was emboldened to stare back, which wasn't easy to do, because he somehow managed to be both exhilarating and terrifying. His eyes were an unusual color, russet and gold, a bit like brandy shot through with sunlight. She wondered if they brightened when he laughed.
If he laughed.
Faint mauve shadows curved beneath his eyes; his skin seemed stretched with fatigue. What appeared to be a new scar, faintly pink and narrow as a knife tip, scored his cheekbone for about two inches. How that must have hurt, she thought. Though didn't really mar his looks. It was more like an underscore: This man is beautiful and dangerous.
She suspected she now understood what “attack” meant now. Something like sympathy surged through her. There was, of course, always the possibility he'd been attacked by the last housekeeper for being insufferable.
In the silence a log tumbled from its perch and the fire gave a vehement pop.
“Circumstances,” he said ironically at last, “have an unfortunate tendency to do that.”
His mouth dented at the corner. If this was a smile, it hadn't reached his eyes. Irony seemed his native language.
She was stunned.
She feared she stared at him dumbly in the silence that followed.
Which was so taut that when he gave his fingers a single drum on the table, she almost jumped.
“The current staff is lazy and recalcitrant and I because I have had sent to me a few possessions I value, such as silver and porcelain, thievery is a concern. But then good servants are always difficult to come by, even for such a one as me. I have high expectations and low hopes of seeing them met. What qualifies you to command loyalty and efficiency from a staff, and makes you think you will be able to meet my expectations?”
The unspoken words being, “where others have departed sobbing.”
And 'Such a one,' was it? Surely the world could not withstand another such man.
She drew in a long breath.
“I've taught classrooms full of unruly children possessed of a variety of natures, and I know how to make them listen and learn and like it. I understand the concerns and politics of household staff and am prepared to address and manage them. I have experienced a number of, shall we say, economic conditions, and can adjust to any of them. I am scrupulously organized. All in all, I have a very good brain. And I am afraid of nothing.”
She'd just told a brazen lie to the man who claimed he would not tolerate them.
She suspected he looked at men just this way before he decided whether or not to run them through: It was sort of a mildly interested, fixed expression. She was not a woman to him; she was a problem to address, a code to decipher, a decision to coolly make. At one time her vanity may have been wounded.
Now nothing else mattered apart from what Lord Lavay did next.
“You may have the position on a trial basis for a fortnight, Mrs. Fountain.” He said it almost idly. “You will start immediately.”
And then an almost violent relief sent heat rushing into her face and blurred her vision. For a merciful second an infinitely safer, softer version of him swam before her eyes.
He drew one of those crumpled-then-smoothed sheets of foolscap toward him and perused it. As if he'd already forgotten her.
She freed her hands from their demure knot and absently swiped her damp palms along her skirt before folding them again.
She was proud that her voice was clear and steady.
“Thank you. You shall not regret your decision, Lord Lavay.”
“I seldom have cause to regret my decisions.” He said it coolly, almost absently, eyes on the correspondence, not on her. Indulging a serf just this once. “You may leave now, Miss Fountain.”
As she departed she surreptitiously dragged her hand across the top of the chair as if it were an exotic pet. A thank-you for the comfort.
Julie Anne Long originally set out to be a rock star when she grew up, and she has the guitars and the questionable wardrobe stuffed in the back of her closet t prove it. When playing to indifferent crowds at midnight in dank clubs lost its, ahem, charm, she realized she could incorporate all of the best things about being in a band—namely, drama, passion and men with unruly hair—into novels, while at the same time indulging her love of history and research. So she made the move from guitar to keyboard (the computer variety) and embarked on a considerably more civilized, if not much more peaceful, career as a novelist.
Julie lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with a fat orange cat. (Little known fact: they issue you a cat the minute you become a romance novelist.)
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