A little treat for you today - an excerpt from my newest release. Enjoy!
"Miss Good—"She slipped and tumbled forward, dropping her basket and all the contents. The gentleman, fortunately, had speedy instincts and saved himself from being bowled over the gate by grabbing her around the arms.
"Oops," she exclaimed, her heart's rhythm scattered like pins, and any attempt to restore it further disrupted by the sudden heat and heaviness of his hands upon her.
"Miss Goodheart!" He was very slightly flushed, his brows drawn together in a cross scowl as he set her back on her feet. "Do have a care, madam."
She realized at once that her sleeve felt loose. The seam had torn again. And thus she remembered where she'd seen him before. It came to her with a jolt and the snap of her stitches.
I am an officer of Bow Street, madam, entrusted by the magistrate to keep the peace and apprehend criminals. I must explain to you, the peril that can befall a member of the fairer sex, especially when she is left untended and happens to be of a venturesome, foolhardy spirit.
"This lane is steep and in a treacherous condition," he lectured her today, "you should take this path with more caution, madam, or you could suffer injury.""Sir, I know this lane as well as I know the back of my hand. I could run the distance with my eyes closed."
"I wouldn't recommend it, but if you must, kindly wait until I am not in your path. Or anywhere within five miles. I'd prefer to remain upright and—"
"And I know who you are," she exclaimed, breathless.
Mr. Caulfield belatedly removed his hands from her person and now held the left one, fingers spread wide, against the front of his waistcoat. "I...have an interest in history and architecture. Kingsthorpe Park is Plantagenet era, is it not?" he said, as if she had not spoken.
"You lied to me in the stagecoach, sir!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You're an agent of the Bow Street Magistrate. At first I did not recall where I'd seen you before, but now I remember."
"You must be confused, Miss Goodheart."
"Indeed I am not. We have met before, and you knew it yesterday on that coach. Why did you not say when I asked? Instead you lied and said it was highly improbable that I knew you."
He looked away from her, a bead of sweat trickling down his temple. "I wonder, Miss Goodheart, if I might prevail upon you to keep the information you have about me to yourself. At least while I am here. It will not be for long."
"Why?" He was suddenly slightly more interesting. "Are you here on official business?" she demanded eagerly. Since he still looked away over the fields, she stepped closer and tugged on his shirt sleeve. "If there is anything amiss going on, we ought to be informed. My father is the Justice of the Peace in this county, so any such matter should be brought to his attention. Are you on the trail of a despicable criminal who has left a dozen victims in his wake? If so, I could be of help to you."
He looked down at her fingers. "No."
"Oh." She released his sleeve, and her shoulders sank slightly. "Why are you here then?"
He ground his jaw, dabbed that bead of sweat from his forehead with the folded handkerchief again, and replied, "I came into the country for my health. The physician thought it would be beneficial."
Melinda studied him thoughtfully for a moment. "I know illness and the incapacitated male, sir, for we've had a few in our family. And you are not one." He felt solid when she ran into him. Certainly, his grip was firm enough to tear her clothes. Again. And she'd seen him scale the side of a stagecoach as if it were nothing. "You are much too... robust. Which suggests you're lying to me again."
He said nothing, his expression utterly blank.
Blood from a stone, she thought grimly.
"I will not be the only curious soul, sir. Strangers are a rarity in Kingsthorpe, and there is bound to be speculation about your purpose here. You'll need a better excuse than fruit."
Still no reply, just a soft, measured sigh and an almost imperceptible narrowing of his eyes.
"You want me to keep your profession a secret and yet you give me no reason why I should." With an arch of her eyebrow, she added, "Your smug face annoys me immensely, and you've already lied to me at least once."
Finally his lips parted. "I see I expect too much of you, when I ask for prudence and discretion. I cannot expect such consideration from an irrational creature. It is probably not in your nature, being a young, silly thing who likes to talk. So you must do as you wish with the information you possess about me. As for my face, Miss Goodheart, I have never been fond of it myself, but it is adequate for my purposes, and anything finer would probably have been a hindrance. It would, most certainly, have been wasted on me."
Well, when he did speak he certainly had plenty to say.
"If one wants a favor," she said pertly, "one ought to be pleasant to the person who can grant it, don't you think? And not imply that she is an absurd chatterbox."
"Since you had no qualm in telling me, with blunt candor, what you thought of my face, it would seem neither of us give compliments for the sake of it."
Melinda watched him tucking that folded handkerchief away into a small pocket in his waistcoat, his movements very precise and tidy. Clearly he would tell her nothing more about his reason for being in Kingsthorpe. Perhaps he chased her, she mused. What had she done now?
"So you will not tell me your purpose here."
"I'll let you speculate, madam. I suspect that would be more entertaining for you than the plain, unexciting truth." He knew that about her already, she mused. It was rather infuriating to be read so easily, while he kept his own pages tightly shut.
"How funny it is that we keep running into each other, sir."
"Funny is not the adjective I would choose."
She laughed. "Vexing then."
"With that I can agree." Suddenly he hunkered down and began to put all the fallen items back in her basket. He still wore leather gloves, which looked odd beside bared forearms and rolled up shirt sleeves.
Melinda let her gaze travel over his strong arms and wide shoulders. "If you were on the trail of a dangerous highwayman, I might have been of use to you in apprehending the villain. I am quite without fear. You have, after all, seen me in action."
"Indeed," he huffed. "Thrice."
"Thrice? How so?"
He looked up at her, his eyes half shut against the sun. "That was me in your hat shop three days ago. The man you crushed to the floor, and who was then beaten severely by an angry lady wielding a parasol."
Now she was even further amused. That was him too? The lovelorn fellow? No wonder she had sensed a familiarity with his...aura, she supposed one could call it...when he entered her shop. A recognition from some sense deeper than the customary five.
"Hattie was right then, after all. You are crossed in love."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Lady Clara Beauspur. The young lady for whom you came into my shop. You left her portrait and her address behind when you departed in haste, so I delivered a bonnet to her on your behalf. Did she not tell you?"
"Ah." His hands paused in the process of refilling the basket. His shoulders went rigid.
"I hope you are not offended."
He squinted up at her. "Too late now if I am, is it not? Like meddling in other folk's business, do you?"
"I object to the term meddling, sir. You wanted a bonnet for your young lady, and I delivered it."
"My young lady? What exactly did she tell you?"
"You needn't be so wary. She told me how hard you work, how you never rest, and how much she adores you."
"She did?" His expression was dismayed.
"Lady Clara worries about you and waits patiently for your visits. She agreed with me that love should conquer all and nothing should stand in its path." Melinda wanted to pat his shoulder to comfort, but perhaps that would be too forward. Then he moved again, in any case, and continued repacking her basket.
"Lady Clara," he muttered, "enjoys her mischief."
"Well, I wanted only to help your state of affairs."
"My state of affairs? Do tell me what that is? I am quite at a loss."
"It's obvious. She is a titled lady— an aristocrat's daughter— and I suppose her family does not approve of a match with an officer of the police. Worry not, these problems can be resolved, if one is determined."
Melinda heard a low groan and, for a long moment, feared she might have gone too far in her eagerness to do a good deed. But when he looked up at her he seemed to be mulling something over. At last, in a calmer voice, he said, "I wondered where I'd misplaced the miniature."
Relieved, she exclaimed, "Lady Clara is delightful. I liked her very much."
"I saw no mischief in her. Indeed, she was very well behaved and proper." She smiled. "Nothing like me at all."
"I would hope not." He finished reloading the basket and stood.
"If you confide in me, I might be able to advise you."
He looked doubtful. "Your expertise reaches beyond bonnets, does it?"
"I do know a man in love when I see one."
His narrowed gaze moved slowly over her upturned face. "Do you?"
"You must love her dearly to go to all that trouble. A ladies' bonnet shop is clearly not your province."
But his expression gave nothing away. It remained a closed box, inscrutable.
"Evidently," she said firmly, "you need my help."
"Miss Goodheart, all I require from you is the assurance that you will keep my profession to yourself while I am here."
Melinda gave a heavy sigh and reached for her basket, but he held it away from her.
She put her hands behind her back. "It would quite enliven things, if you were here on business. It would even make you interesting. Slightly."
"Miss Goodheart, I hate to disappoint you, but I am a very ordinary, uninteresting, humdrum fellow." Tucking her basket under one arm, he added, "I can, however, promise you that whatever else I may or may not be, I am a gentleman. While I am here, I will allow no harm to befall you."
"Oh, lord." She rolled her eyes. "Just as I feared."
"You would rather be in harm's way, madam?" He looked puzzled.
She shook her head. "A hint of danger would not go amiss. No woman wants to be assured that nothing exciting will ever happen to her."
Want to read more? OUT NOW! THE DANGER OF DESPERATE BONNETS
(image: Painting by Edmund George Warren)