London, 1798

“Cousin Felicity, my brother had the business sense of a pelican,” Mason St. Clair, the new Earl of Ashlin said, waving his hand over his littered desk. “Look at these. Bills for carriages. Bills for horses. I’ve looked in our stables. We have no horses. And we have no carriages. From what I can surmise, as quickly as Freddie bought these extravagances, he gambled them away.”

Mason’s announcement hardly seemed to upset his elderly relative, who sat primly on the settee in the corner of his study.

“Frederick always said life was just a dice toss away. Perhaps you should take up gambling.” She nodded sagely as if she’d recited gospel.

He picked up several sheets of paper and shook them at his cousin. “That’s exactly what got us into this situation. That and Freddie’s ill-advised investments. I never knew anyone who could throw so much money at such nonsense. Gold mines in Italy, Chinese inventions, and of all things, a theatre!” The Earl shook his head. “Only my brother would invest in some tawdry play on Brydge Street.”

“Really, my dear, you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” she sniffled. A day never passed that Cousin Felicity didn’t find something to cry about, especially when it came to Frederick.

“My poor Caro and dear Frederick have only been…been…gone now…” Cousin Felicity faltered, unable to continue. With a shaky hand, she reached for her ever near lacy handkerchief and dramatically blew into it. She glanced up at him, her blue eyes misting, making her look frail beyond her fifty odd years.

Mason sighed. “Yes, I know the last year has been terribly difficult for you and the girls. But weeping all the time does not solve the problems at hand. The bill collectors are becoming quite insistent, Cousin. If we don’t find a way to satisfy some of the more pressing debts…we’ll be out on the street.”

“Pish posh, my boy,” Cousin Felicity declared most decidedly, her bout of tears forgotten as she settled back into the elegant settee and reached for her embroidery. “You are the Earl of Ashlin. They wouldn’t dare cast us out. Honorable debts are always overlooked.” She leaned forward in a confidential manner. “Frederick informed me thusly whenever my dressmaker became rude or insistent about my account.”

“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Cousin Felicity, but debts are never overlooked, honorable or not.”

“But Frederick said—”

He held up his hand to stop her from spouting another litany of Frederick-isms. Even Mason had his limits with the saintly accomplishments and nonsensical witticisms his cousin attributed daily to his deceased brother.

“Really, Mason, you always tended toward exaggeration as a child. I would have thought you’d outgrown that by now. Our situation can hardly be as bad as you say.”

“I don’t see how it could be any worse.”

“If that is the case, you could secure quite a tidy fortune by marrying Miss Pindar,” she began deliberately. “She’s just come out of mourning for her father, and from what I hear, she’s exceedingly well off. Yes, that would be the perfect solution.” She went back to selecting a thread.

Mason leaned over the mounds of paper and gave his cousin what he hoped was a censuring look.

Marry Miss Pindar?

He’d rather suffer transportation to Botany Bay. The girl embodied every vapid, silly pretension he detested. Besides, he’d never considered himself the marrying type, having been happy until now to live out a bachelor existence.

But if Cousin Felicity wanted to deal out marriage cards, he had one of his own.

“Cousin Felicity, why don’t you marry Lord Chilton?”

Cousin Felicity turned a rosy shade at the mention of her twenty-year romance with the reluctant baron. “I wouldn’t find that convenient right now.” She took on a renewed interest in her silks.

Mason knew that what she was really saying was that she hadn’t been asked. Not once in all these years. Oh, he hadn’t meant to embarrass her about her hesitant beau, but he found it the only way to stop her from pushing this proposed marriage to the cloying and wealthy Miss Pindar. And with Cousin Felicity temporarily quieted—he could get back to the accounts at hand.

“My heavens,” Cousin Felicity said, interrupting his tally of the greengrocer’s bill. “Have you considered the girls’ dowries? You could borrow against those accounts.”

Mason shook his head. He should have known Cousin Felicity never gave up easily. “Frederick drained them years ago,” he told her. “Even Caroline’s dower lands are mortgaged to the rooftops.”

Cousin Felicity looked aghast as the reality of their situation finally sank in. “Whatever shall we do?” True to form, the elderly lady finally gave way to a full bout of weeping. “Take my poor pin money. I have some set aside . . . It is yours, my dear boy. Take it with my best wishes,” she said between sobs.

“No, please, Cousin Felicity,” Mason said, getting up from the desk and sitting beside her. He couldn’t take her small allowance, besides the fact that it probably wouldn’t start to cover their bare necessities. But perhaps now she’d be willing to discuss the economies he’d been trying to explain to her earlier when she’d come into his study to badger him about firing their French chef. “You know how I feel about tears.”

“But the girls…” she wailed. “How will they ever hope to find husbands without dowries?”

Mason groaned. Not this husband subject again. It was worse than discussing his order that she cease her weekly visits to the dressmaker.

“Oh, Mason, this is a disaster. I’ll not say another word about the way you cast out dear Henri, for the girls must have husbands. I will forgo whatever necessities I must, for I’ve promised them all brilliant matches.”

“Cousin Felicity, you should never have made them such a vow.” He lowered his voice, and though he felt guilty saying it, he uttered the words both he and Cousin Felicity knew were true. “There isn’t enough gold in all of England to entice a man to marry one of those girls.”

She opened her mouth to protest, then just as quickly shut it.

While Frederick and Caro had held society in their thrall with their wit and grace, the likeable and handsome pair had passed little of their amiable traits on to their children.

Cousin Felicity glanced at the door, then back at Mason before she too lowered her voice. “Oh, I’ll grant you they are a bit on the ungainly side, but that’s just because Caro neglected their schooling.” She sighed. “I don’t like to gossip, but I always thought it scandalous that she wouldn’t entertain the notion of seeing the girls brought out. I’m afraid Caro felt that having daughters out in society would call attention to the fact that she wasn’t a newly arrived Original herself.” Cousin Felicity picked at a loose thread on her needlework. “Certainly, with a bit of time and help, I think Louisa may show some real promise. And Beatrice and Margaret need only the right guidance to bring out their true talents.”

Mason nearly laughed, too afraid to ask her what those talents were. Though he loved his nieces in spite their faults, what his cousin proposed would take time and cost a great deal of money.

Two things they didn’t have.

As Cousin Felicity offered up names of tutors and ideas for economies, Mason glanced back over at the mountain of debts on his desk and considered his next course of action.

When he’d received Cousin Felicity’s note seven months ago informing him of his brother and sister-in-law’s deaths in a yachting accident, he’d left his fellowship at Oxford fully intending to settle the family estates, see his nieces and cousin established comfortably, and then return to the college before the fall sessions started.

But since then he’d done nothing but try to unravel the tangled Ashlin estates. First working with the solicitors, and then enduring the visits by creditors.

The visits. Oh, how he dreaded them.

So sorry, my lord. If I could trouble you for just a moment, ’tis the matter of this debt.

I hate to speak of such things, my lord, but I was wondering when you could see to this bill.

Lately their creditors had become less polite and more to the point.

My lord, without some sort of consideration or payment, I’m afraid I’ll have to…

Mason knew what they would have to do. His nieces and cousin wouldn’t have anything left, even their shifts and stockings were part of unpaid accounts.

And up until a few weeks ago, he’d been inclined to let everything be taken away, sell whatever was left, and retreat back to Oxford. There he would make the best life he could for his family and forget he’d ever been made heir to the Ashlin legacy of debt and wastrel ways.

That was until, late one night, he’d stumbled across a tattered volume on his family history in the library upstairs. In his desire to aver himself of everything the recent generations represented, he’d never taken the time to realize his father and Frederick were nothing like their illustrious ancestors.

Ashlins had fought beside their kings in the crusades and been consulted in matters of state during the reign of Henry Tudor. Ashlins had sailed as privateers under a grant by good Queen Bess. Ashlins had helped Charles the Second regain his throne.

Instead of being known for gambling debts, endless strings of mistresses, and other dubious endeavors and scandals, the Ashlin name, Mason discovered, had once been associated with honor, their sacrifices for King and country revered. It was the reason the very square they lived on was named after them.

So in the faint light of dawn, as he’d finished the last page of the heroic testimonial, Mason knew there was only one thing to do.

Keep the family from being mired any further in scandal and return the name of Ashlin to its place of honor.

A sharp rap at the door brought Mason out of his silent musings and stopped Cousin Felicity’s prattling about potential husbands for the girls.

Looking up, he found Belton entering the study. The family butler for two generations, Belton remained the stalwart defender of the house. As a child, Mason had thought Belton old. Looking at the crusty butler today, he wagered the man to be in his seventies, an age when others were confined to their chairs complaining of gout. The only evidence that the butler had aged in the last twenty years was a smattering of gray hair at his temples.

“Yes, Belton, what is it?”

“My lord, there is a person who wishes to see you,” the butler announced, a slight Scottish burr tingeing his words and giving away his Highland origins.

Mason knew when Belton’s speech slipped from anything other than his normally upper crust London tones, it meant another bill collector had arrived. Belton possessed an unholy disdain for those in trade, and an even worse attitude toward those who expected their bills to be paid. And it always came out in his accent.

“Send him in,” Mason said, rising to his feet and returning to his chair behind Frederick’s imposing mahogany desk.

“As you wish, my lord.” Belton nodded, then exited the room.

Mason turned to his cousin, who was getting up to leave. “Fleeing before the storm?”

“I have no wits for these matters, my boy. Truly it is best if you handle these people.” She began retrieving her discarded bits of silk and clippings.

Mason saw through her haste. “No, stay. I insist. It could be your dressmaker after all.”

When she ignored him further, continuing to gather her jumble of belongings with even greater speed, Mason realized he was on to something.

“Is that a new gown?” He didn’t need to hear her answer, for her own guilty features convicted her on the spot. “I hope that went on Lord Chilton’s account and not mine.”

Cousin Felicity opened her mouth to protest such a gross impropriety, but before she uttered a word, Belton admitted their unwanted guest. If Cousin Felicity had been gaping before, her mouth opened even further at the sight of a woman entering the study, a spectacle far more welcome than the weasel-eyed bill collector Mason had expected.

Suddenly realizing his lapse in manners, he bounded to his feet.

Though he knew his cousin was far too near-sighted to really see the woman, even a blind man would have had a hard time missing the vibrant green of the woman’s gown or the rich glitter of silver embroidery decorating the fabric.

Having reviewed enough bills lately for women’s clothing and toiletry, he knew the woman before him was a walking fortune. Her wide-brimmed straw hat, powdered and curled wig, and frothy silk gown alone would fetch enough gold to ward off the worst of his creditors.

Mason’s gut tightened as his imagination suddenly envisioned just that, this creature stripped of her finery and standing before him clad only in her shift.

It wasn’t that difficult to picture, glancing for a lingering moment at her low-cut bodice where her full breasts threatened to spill out.

Eh gads, he was starting to think like Frederick.

So he tried to study her as a professor would, as a theory or hypothesis to ponder.

His classical training told him she had the figure of a Venus and the grace of a Diana. But mythology studies hadn’t prepared him for the way his breath stopped in his throat.

Cousin Felicity’s gasp brought his attention back up to the entrance of the room where, ducking through the door, a man with Eastern features followed the lady.

This additional guest wore a tall red silk turban, which only added to his great height and breadth. Stretched across his nearly bare, muscled chest he wore an open, richly embroidered tunic which fell to his knees and contrasted sharply with his wide-legged striped trousers. Tucked in a black leather belt circling the man’s waist glittered a wicked Saracen blade.

Whatever untoward thoughts Mason had amassed about the lady, they cooled somewhat with one dark look from her protector. The man’s features were unholy indeed, sharp boned and fierce, not unlike some of the infidel warriors Mason had read about in his studies of the Crusades. Like his twelfth century predecessors, this man looked as though he would enjoy gutting everyone in the room just for the sword practice.

Mason glanced back at the woman, who’d stopped a few feet in front of his desk.

She inclined her head politely. Her perfume, an enticing concoction, wafted toward him.

Try as he could to discern her face, he found most of her features were artfully hidden under the wide brim of her hat. He could see her face was made up, but where other woman might use such devices to hide flaws, he could see her layers only attempted to hide the perfection beneath.

The powders and paints did little to conceal the fullness of her lips, the gentle curve of her cheeks and finally the mysterious languid pools of her green eyes as she stole a glance at him.

Before he could stutter out a greeting, she turned to her companion, and held out her hand. The man bowed and with great precision and ceremony drew a familiar looking blue packet of papers from within his tunic and handed them to his mistress.

Mason knew exactly what that meant. Those blue papers could only be one thing—warrants of collection.

He’d obviously underestimated the local creditors.

They’d taken to hiring women to dun their more recalcitrant debtors.

He was loath to confess it but he should be congratulating them. She was enough to entice a man to give her anything and everything he possessed.

Her companion came to stand behind her, his legs spread in a wide stance, his posture like a rod of iron, his arms crossed over his chest.

One hand, Mason noted, rested idly on the hilt of his blade. Apparently if she failed, her warrior friend added his own form of persuasion to the transaction.

He turned his attention back to the intriguing woman before him and tried to put the blandest expression he could muster.

“Uh, will you have a seat?” he asked, pointing toward a chair. The lady smiled toward Cousin Felicity who, Mason noted wryly, had reclaimed her place on the settee and was searching frantically through her embroidery basket.

More than likely looking for her spectacles, he wagered silently.

“Thank you,” the lady murmured, as she perched herself on the edge of the chair.

Mason sat as well, relieved to have the support of Freddie’s great chair beneath him.

She shifted slightly, and raised her head, the plumes in her hat fluttering back and forth above the brim as she revealed her emerald gaze to him.

A shade of green so clear, Mason knew he would never forget it.

Like the verdant blush of the Trinity College lawns on an April morning, like a—

He stopped himself from waxing any further into poetics. Why, he never indulged in such fanciful thoughts and he could only cringe at what had possessed him now—probably the vestiges of Freddie’s unwanted influence haunting the room.

Then again, perhaps he should have listened to Frederick a little more often. His brother would have known what to say…

Though that innate knowledge of witty forte, Mason reminded himself, was what had gotten the Ashlins in this predicament in the first place.

He resorted to cool indifference. “May I help you?”

The lady smiled, a winsome pretty gesture that almost unraveled Mason’s resolve.

“Why, yes,” she said. “Though I have a rather personal matter to discuss with you, my lord and you alone.” She inclined her head ever-so-slightly toward Cousin Felicity.

A personal matter.

Those three words tossed all his musings aside in an icy dash of reality.

Oh, she was a bill collector, of a sort. More likely, she had come for the rents owing on her town house and her unpaid millinery bills. Just like the others.

The angelic lady could be nothing less than another of his brother’s mistresses. Yet even as he came to this logical conclusion, he still couldn’t help shake the notion that there was something very different about this one, something almost too fine for the fickle vagaries of high priced prostitution.

“Whatever you have to say, can be said in front of me. There are no secrets in this house,” Cousin Felicity piped in, as she continued searching for her spectacles.

Mason knew there was no evicting his cousin now. She might love a trip to the dressmaker’s, but there was nothing like a good piece of gossip to make Cousin Felicity’s day.

He nodded for the young woman to continue. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to enlighten his dewy eyed cousin as to how her faultless Frederick dallied away the Ashlin fortune.

“It has come to my attention that there is a matter of an unpaid debt between us,” the woman began.

Mason shook his head. “A debt? I certainly doubt that. We’ve never met.”

“You are the Earl of Ashlin, are you not?”

He nodded, thinking her voice held a magical quality, drifting through the room like notes from Pan’s flute, striking the chords of his unsettled soul.

Poetics again? Gad sakes!

She folded her hands in her lap and shifted once again, another delicate breeze of perfume floating toward him, creating havoc with his senses. He struggled to keep his mind on the matter at hand, but her fragrance did nothing except fuel his earlier musings of her clad only in a chemise.

And if she had been his brother’s mistress, she’d probably spent most of her time in a lot less.

She let out a pretty little sigh. “I recently learned you are having…well, how does one put it? Some difficulties. So I’ve come to repay part of the money I owe you.”

“You owe me?” Mason wasn’t quite sure he had heard the woman correctly. He was either still asleep or going stark raving mad like the eighth Earl of Ashlin. As far as he knew, beautiful woman didn’t just arrive in one’s study claiming to owe you money.

“Well, I cannot pay it back all at once, but I do have a partial payment.” With an artful grace, she drew out a pouch from within her lace-trimmed d�colletage and offered it to him.

Later Mason told himself that it was the lure of sudden wealth that made him bound to his feet and hastily walk around his desk toward her outstretched hand.

An Ashlin, at least the newest Earl, would never admit that what truly pulled him toward her was a wrenching desire to fill his senses with the closeness of her intoxicating scent. Nor would he admit how his fingers itched to hold the velvet purse still warm from its hiding spot between her perfectly shaped breasts.

But then, Mason was still working on this new Ashlin image, and honesty could come later.

“Thank you,” he said, as he took the offered bounty. The bag weighed heavily in his hand, and from the feeling, he knew it contained good English gold.

Enough to give him some respite from Frederick’s creditors, until out of the corner of his eye he saw Cousin Felicity furiously shaking her head.

She was right, he realized, it wasn’t good to appear too eager. He paused and chastised himself silently.

He had more business sense than that. At least he’d had a measure of it before this lady entered his study.

What kind of man was he becoming, when he was willing to take money from his brother’s ex-mistress?

Ignoring the enticing warmth in his hand and the mountain of notes behind him, Mason handed the pouch back to the woman.

“I can’t accept this. Whatever understanding you had with my brother, it ended with his death. It is not my place to interfere with his liaisons,” Mason stated, returning to the relative safety behind his desk.

The woman looked first at him and then to his cousin. Confusion fluttered over her partially concealed features, and for a moment, Mason thought she was about to cry.

Lord, not more tears, he thought. Cousin Felicity’s daily deluges were bad enough.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

“My lord, I think you are very mistaken.” Her tone held an icy edge, her words firm. “I don’t know anything about liaisons with your brother, unfortunate or otherwise. The moment I learned of your difficulties, I came straightaway. This debt is one I fully intend to repay.” Standing up, she walked over to the desk and deposited the pouch, as luck would have it, on top of the more pressing bills.

During her speech, Mason noticed something odd about her voice, something which had escaped him earlier. She spoke each word with deliberate diction. Hardly the purring tones of a mistress in search of a new source of income.

They sat in silence once again, until Cousin Felicity spoke up. “My dear girl, when was the last time you were with Lord Ashlin?”

Mason could have sworn Frederick’s mistress blushed like a virgin beneath her layers of powder at his cousin’s indecent inquiry.

“My lady, I’ve never met Lord Ashlin. That is until now.” The woman smiled politely at Mason.

If she had never met Frederick, then she had never been his mistress…and if she’d never been his mistress that meant…Mason cleared his throat as he tried to clear his errant thoughts.

It meant nothing!

“If we have never met, and you never knew my brother, Freddie, I’m unsure how you can owe me money.”

The lady opened her packet of papers, and pulled out a document. “Perhaps this will refresh your recollection as to our understanding.”

Mason quickly scanned the paper, which she’d laid before him, recognizing the contract instantly.

A partnership agreement with M.R. Fontaine. Frederick had lent this woman an immeasurable sum to finance a new play at the Queen’s Gate Theatre.

“You are the Fontaine mentioned here?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Madame Fontaine, at your service.”

Cousin Felicity, who’d finally found her spectacles, promptly dropped them at this introduction, groping in a very unladylike fashion about the floor until she’d located them at the Saracen’s feet. Hastily, she shoved the lenses up on the bridge of her button nose and stared at the woman and her servant like they were a new pair of curiosities bound for the Royal Zoo.

Mason tried to ignore his cousin’s gaping and turned his attention back to his guest. “And you say I loaned you this money?”

“Yes. Don’t you remember? I know it may not seem a great amount to a man of your means and generosity, but the circumstances and conditions of the agreement must at least stand out.”

Mason returned to his review of the document.

“Are you truly Madame Fontaine?” Cousin Felicity asked excitedly.

“Yes, my lady.”

“And is that Hashim?”

The woman smiled again. “Yes, this is my servant, Hashim.”

“You played Helen in Love’s Fancy!” Cousin Felicity had gotten to her feet and stood before the woman, peering unabashedly into her face. “No wonder I didn’t recognize you! You never look the same on stage and in person—why it is amazing—you are even more beautiful than when you played Confite in The Lost Minuet. Mason, we’re famous! Madame Fontaine is here! In our study. Is it true you slept with the Prince and his entire regiment of guards in one evening?”

“Cousin Felicity!” Mason found himself shouting as he jumped to his feet. “Where are your manners? ”

Madame Fontaine glanced over her shoulder at her servant as if to give him a signal not to silence Cousin Felicity with one stroke of his deadly blade for her incredible tactlessness.

“I’m afraid that rumor is slightly exaggerated,” the lady demurred.

His cousin appeared visibly disappointed.

“Felicity, apologize this instant to our guest,” he told her.

“But you don’t understand,” Cousin Felicity said. She turned to Madame Fontaine, and began apologetically, “He’s been in Oxford.” She made it sound like he’d been living in some hottentot’s village in the darkest reaches of Africa, instead of the intellectual center of England. Before he could stop her, Felicity rushed over to the lady’s servant. “Is it true your tongue was torn from your mouth by the Pasha of Cairo himself?”

For the first time since the man had entered the room, Mason detected a hint of emotion in Hashim’s grim features. His obsidian eyes glittered with what could have only been described as amusement.

“Oh, is it true?” Cousin Felicity asked again.

Hashim opened his mouth and answered Cousin Felicity’s question by allowing her a look past his lips.

For about two seconds Cousin Felicity peered into the giant man’s mouth, then let out a blood curdling scream and promptly collapsed into Hashim’s arms in a dead faint.

Mason fell back into his seat and wondered how his day could get any worse.

Madame Fontaine, or Riley as her friends called her, fanned the prostrate woman with her handkerchief, praying the earl’s cousin would recover from her fright. Hashim had deposited his victim on a red velvet settee, while Lord Ashlin poured his cousin a drink from the nearby tray of spirits.

As she continued her fanning, Riley hoped this little interlude distracted Lord Ashlin from looking too closely at the fine print on their contract.

That was exactly why she’d trussed herself up in this damned dress—to keep his lordship too busy to do anything other than ogle her—for it certainly wasn’t comfortable being crammed into some infernal corset. And to make matters worse, she was sure she was going to catch her death with the amount of skin she had exposed.

But Aggie, her long-time partner, had assured her she looked divinely distracting.

It took a lot less to divert the tradesmen to whom she owed money, so this costume should have guaranteed the earl’s attention would be beguiled.

He was an Ashlin, after all. Certainly not the dashing, man about town Aggie had described, but then again, Aggie hadn’t told her their former indulgent patron was dead.

She stole another glance at him. There was something different about this man—something Riley wasn’t too sure of—a feeling that left her unsettled.

Fashionable was a description the man would never earn—for he wore his golden brown hair in an old-fashioned queue like some Colonial merchantman. His clothing, a dark coat and plain white shirt and cravat befitted a local printer, not the Earl of Ashlin.

And as if all of this wasn’t enough to leave her wondering, the man wore spectacles.

Spectacles on an earl!

She would never have believed it.

Despite the fact that he looked more ready to lead them all in prayer or sell them his latest acquisition from some far off port, given his family’s reputation, she would have thought he’d already have tossed her paperwork aside and begged to have a private audience with her.

Still, she mused, could she be so lucky that his cousin’s fainting spell would distract him from returning to his sharp-eyed perusal of the contract?

“There, there, Cousin Felicity. Drink it slowly,” Lord Ashlin advised his cousin. He slowly tipped the glass to the lady’s lips.

The brandy worked immediately as Lord Ashlin’s cousin caught a hold of the glass and tossed down the entire contents in one large gulp—a maneuver that would have made a sailor choke and sputter. Cousin Felicity however just sighed and laid back in the settee, her hand resting dramatically over her forehead.

Riley wondered if the lady had ever been on the stage.

“My sincerest apologies, my lord,” Riley said, hoping to soothe the man. “Hashim is rather proud of his injury and delights in showing it off.”

She shot a glare over the Earl’s shoulder squarely at Hashim.

You needn’t grin so much, you great fool.

Hashim’s shoulders shrugged slightly. Well, she asked for it.

When would he learn that sheltered English ladies didn’t usually see a mouth where a tongue had been cut out? Continuing to wave her handkerchief over the lady, she commented, “Why she seems to be coming to quite nicely.”

“Oh, my. Oh, my.” Cousin Felicity said, her eyelashes fluttering over her wide brown eyes. She started to sit up, but Lord Ashlin stopped her.

“Careful, cousin. You’ve had quite a shock.”

“Oh, haven’t I!” she said triumphantly, before falling back on the cushions again. “What a tale to tell. I’ve seen Hashim’s mouth! With my very own eyes. Why I’ll be the envy of all my friends. I’ll be the toast for some time.” She reached over and clasped Hashim’s hand, drawing it to her ample bosom. “I will be forever in your debt, sir. Forever.”

Hashim bowed his head slightly and tried to extract himself from her grasp, but it appeared Cousin Felicity was not about to let go of her newfound hero.

Riley’s lips twitched with amusement at Hashim’s obvious discomfort, until Lord Ashlin came to her servant’s rescue.

“Cousin Felicity, release Mr. Hashim.”

The woman did, though with a great sigh of reluctance.

Hashim fled back to his post behind Riley’s chair. Following Hashim’s example, Riley retook her seat, carefully posing herself to her best advantage, head tipped, chest up and posture straight.

Back in an upright position, Cousin Felicity adjusted her spectacles. “Oh Madame Fontaine, it is such an honor to have you in our house.” The woman turned, her white lace cap fluttering. “Mason, Madame does not make social visits, so we must count ourselves very lucky indeed.”

“Well this is hardly a social call, my lady,” Riley explained to her. “However on some of my business matters, I find a personal touch makes the transaction go so much more smoothly,” she added, her statement directed with a smile and a demure nod at Lord Ashlin.

It was one of her better poses, one she’d used to great affect in Romeo & Juliet, yet the man seemed unaffected.

Cousin Felicity, meanwhile, continued peering at her like she was on display. “Oh, I can see now why they call you Aphrodite’s Envy.” She turned to Lord Ashlin. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mason? Isn’t Madame Fontaine the most tempting woman who’s ever graced the world?”

He looked very much like Hashim had just a few moments ago. “Yes, cousin. Madame Fontaine is tolerably pretty.

Tolerably pretty?

Riley didn’t know if she should be insulted or wonder if Lord Ashlin needed new spectacles.

One called sallow-faced debutantes with large dowries and title-hunting mothers tolerable.

Pretty described whey-faced dairymaids fresh from the country.

Never once since she’d taken the London stage and been dubbed “Aphrodite’s Envy” by the young bucks of London had anyone described her as ‘tolerably pretty.’

Her vanity, having grown used to being the recipient of sonnets and tokens of affection, found itself pricked at Lord Ashlin’s vague praise.

Tolerably pretty and from an Ashlin, no less! Rakes, reprobates, and wanton flatterers, the entire lot of them. And great patrons of the arts, well, rather actresses, opera singers and ballet dancers.

What had happened to this one? Riley wondered.

He held the sharp look of a Lloyd’s advisor, able to add a column of numbers in his sleep. After all, she only wanted to make a down payment on the money she owed him, not let on that he was due a lot more.

Money she didn’t have.

And much to her growing irritation, he’d picked up precisely the page he’d just set aside moments before. As she watched him scan the document with an efficient gleam, her pulse raced. Perhaps after he threw them out into the streets, she and the company could stage a play dedicated to him—The Curate and the Actress.

It would do well in the country, she thought, as she watched with a sinking heart as one of his brows rose with an elegant arch and a smile curved at his lips.

Oh, she was in trouble. They’d be lucky if they had enough left over to stage a puppet show.

“Are you familiar with the conditions of this loan?” he asked.

Riley tipped her head back and smiled sweetly, hoping the look would succeed in dazzling him out of his current line of inquiry. To her annoyance, it didn’t seem to distract him in the least.

A handsome nobleman impervious to her charms?

Oh, she was in more than trouble.

“Well, I think so…” she faltered, stalling for time. Maybe if she lifted the edge of her skirt a little and revealed a bit of ankle—goodness knows, that fair sight had kept the printer in abeyance for over four months.

But before she could put her plan into action, he frowned at her ever so slightly, rustled the papers with an important air and spoke. “This contract shows that you owe me the opening night receipts from a fortnight ago.”

Her hands curled into tight balls. “We’ve had some unforeseen difficulties which have prevented us from opening on time. I assure you, we will be in full production within a month. And then you shall have your money.”

“What, and have you run up more bills in the meantime? No, that will never do.” Lord Ashlin shook his head, sending one of his golden brown locks straying out of its mercantile queue—giving him a rakish air and lending her hope that he truly was an Ashlin, not some foundling foisted onto the estate to maintain the lineage as she was starting to suspect.

“Besides,” he continued, “with your payments overdue, that puts this loan in default. According to this paragraph here,” he said, pointing to a section in small print, “I’m entitled to collect the total amount due immediately, with penalties.”

“But I have no more cash, other than what I’ve brought,” she replied too quickly.

This appeared to stop him for a moment, until he glanced over at the gold-filled pouch on his desk. “Then you’ll have to find some other means of raising it. Perhaps your theatre company has props or costumes which can be sold?”

Riley looked down, pausing for a moment to prepare for the performance of her life. There was too much at stake here, and she’d do anything to save her theatre—from Lord Ashlin and the other problems which had plagued her these past months.

Searching her repertoire of characters, she glanced once more at Lord Ashlin and settled into what she hoped would be a role to touch even his stony heart.

Slowly raising a handkerchief, she dabbed at the corners of her eyes delicately, adding a small sniff and a quiver to her lips.

“I…I…I only meant my meager offering as a token of kindness for the immeasurable consideration your brother bestowed upon the arts. Think of his memory, my lord. This play, our production is a memorial to him—his charity, his fine works, his dedication to the arts.” She looked upwards at the plaster ceiling, a pleading glance meant to evoke the most benevolent of emotions, while her fingers clutched her handkerchief to her breast. “Now I fear my gesture is lost on his successor and will be the ruin of my poor, beloved company.” She dropped her gaze to the wool rug, not daring to hope her speech had worked.

From the sobbing and sniffling across the room, his cousin had more than enjoyed the performance.

“Oh, Mason, you can’t close Madame Fontaine’s theatre,” the woman wailed. “Why we would be shunned by everyone in London.” She turned to Riley. “Madame Fontaine, please forgive my cousin. He’s been in Oxford these many years and doesn’t understand how things are done.” She turned back to Lord Ashlin, shaking her finger as if he were a recalcitrant schoolboy. “What would people say? It just isn’t done! Not at all.”

“Cousin,” he said, “Madame Fontaine owes us a great deal of money. Money better spent…well, say, on the girls. For all that finery and those lessons you think are so necessary for finding husbands.”

“That much?” Cousin Felicity replied in awed tones.

He nodded back at her.

Cousin Felicity sighed. “Oh, how Freddie’s dear girls do need those lessons. If only they possessed a bit more deportment, knew when to use their sweet smiles, or how to do the latest dance steps. ‘Tis a terrible shame. I know our girls could be the talk of the town, what with the proper instruction and all. Imagine it, Mason, they would be able to make their entrance into a room and all eyes would turn on them. Why with the right teacher they would be the most tempting creatures, the envy of…” The lady’s voice trailed off as her bespectacled gaze fluttered, then turned slowly toward Riley.

The weight of the woman’s last words hung in the room, until not only the lady’s gaze, but the earl’s as well had swung in her direction.

Cousin Felicity, for Riley couldn’t think of her as anything other than that, was beaming again, like Riley had just deposited the crown jewels in their study rather than an odd sum of coins.

Lord Ashlin, on the other hand, was shaking his head, his face a mask of disbelief, as if his cousin had just proposed stealing the royal treasures in broad daylight.

Riley shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

“It’s perfect, Mason,” Cousin Felicity announced. “She is perfect. There isn’t a man in London who can resist her, and who better to bestow a measure of charm and grace on our dear girls?”

Mason’s head shook faster. “You are not proposing that…that I let her…?”

“Proposing what?” Riley interrupted, having the strange notion she was about to agree with the prickly earl.

“Oh, Madame Fontaine,” Cousin Felicity bubbled. “You’re about to render a service to our family that will be remembered for generations.”

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