Considering how often I fearlessly faced censure to defend friends and strangers alike from the lords who considered them property, I shouldn’t be affected by a single, mournful plea.
A cat. Only an animal, some might say. To me, nothing so desperate could be only an animal.
I pulled my cap down over my eyes and stared at the scuffed toes of my boots as I stepped over the cobblestones. No one stopped me, meaning my gender was concealed—for the moment. The sooner I reached the shop, the sooner I could leave St. James’ Street without scandalizing half of le bon ton.
When that plaintive wail curled the air, my heart seized and I stopped in my tracks.
A month ago, I wouldn’t have cared. However, after my misunderstanding with her nephew, I walked a thin line with my godmother. As my sponsor to Society, she contributed a healthy sum to Papa’s and my finances. Before she’d withdrawn most of it in punishment for the way I’d publicly called out her beloved nephew, I hadn’t realized how much. One more misstep and she might cut us off entirely.
However, even knowing the consequences couldn’t keep me indoors today. The scarcity of funds had driven Papa, a barrister, to working more hours than ever. The eleventh anniversary of Mama’s death approached, and every year, he remembered her with a vintage of the same wine they’d drank at their wedding. Since he didn’t have time to procure a bottle, it fell to me to keep that tradition alive.
But as I gathered myself and continued, my steps faltered at another plaintive mew. Reflexively, I scanned the street. A man jostled me as he brushed past, cursing at my slowed pace. I should hurry on as well, before the next man recognized me for a woman despite the men’s clothes and tight bandages to conceal my figure. We couldn’t support another stray animal.
And yet, the moment I spotted the hapless kitten, its gray-and-white fur matted and sticking up on end, I stopped altogether. The poor thing was skin and bones. It stared at me from across the street with its crystal-blue eyes and mewled again. Anyone could translate that sound.
I’m hungry and alone. Help me.
Swearing under my breath, I detoured across the street and reconciled myself to yet another cat. I’d find it a home with a wealthy family who would fatten it up on milk and mice. I couldn’t leave any creature so alone and helpless.
As I reached the kitten, it shied back, afraid. Gentling my gait, I shuffled the last step and crouched. I held out my hand for the furry vagabond to sniff. When it tottered closer, I smiled. “That’s it, love. I won’t hurt you.”
The kitten, unperturbed by the cacophony of booted footsteps, muttered voices, clop of horses’ hooves, and rattle of carriage wheels, gingerly sniffed my fingers. After a wary moment of exploration, it rubbed its whiskers against my thumb. My smile widened. Nice to meet you, too.
“Bloody hell, boy. Get out of the way!”
I glanced up—
And stared into the business end of a carriage team of four closing fast. The thunder of my heart roared in my ears, overpowering the clatter of hooves. I snatched the kitten to my chest. No time to move. I hunched my shoulders, hoping to protect the little—
A strong arm encircled my waist and hauled me against a hard, male body as he pulled me back and out of the carriage’s path. He was well over my slight, five-foot height. My feet didn’t touch the ground. As he released me, my knees didn’t want to hold my weight. I remained upright by will alone. My ears rang, the sound slowly fading as I turned to face my rescuer.
Lord Edwin Sutton. Old Lady Gladstone’s nephew and the man I had recently accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The kitten squirmed in my grasp, mirroring the writhing nerves in my belly.
Apologize. I opened my mouth, not certain of what I meant to say.
“What were you thinking?”
My hackles rose. “I beg your pardon?”
Over a foot taller than me, Sutton surrounded me as he leaned forward. The kitten pawed ineffectually at his blue jacket. A muscle twitched in his clenched jaw as he swept his top hat off his head. The tousled umber strands of his hair kissed his clean-shaved jaw. It needed a cut. He ran his fingers through the locks, then smashed the hat into place again.
“You could have been killed.”
I gulped at the displeased growl in his voice, belatedly recalling that I wasn’t supposed to be on this street. Would Sutton tell his aunt? I met his hazel eyes for a prolonged moment. The forbidding man in front of me melded with the gentle, soft-spoken boy I’d once known. How could he have changed so much?
Perhaps I still had a prayer he hadn’t recognized me. After all, I had taken pains to conceal my identity. Clutching the kitten—Patches, I decided to call him—I bowed. When my braid swung forward and the kitten took a swing at the black tip, I grimaced. My cap must have fallen off in the excitement.
I adopted a cockney accent. “So sorry to inconvenience you, my lord.”
“Don’t be a fool, Mary.”
Blast! He had recognized me. Stifling a sigh, I straightened to meet his arrogant gaze. “Is that title reserved for you?” The words slipped from my mouth on a whisper. He’d said the very same thing to me once, when I’d refused to leave him as he fought off a vicious dog.
For a moment, his expression gentled, as if he was reliving that day years ago, same as me. Then, as if I’d imagined the vulnerable moment, the arrogant air of an earl’s son curled around him like fog.
I adjusted my hold on the kitten to keep from crushing him. Patches mewled in protest all the same. He stretched out a paw, claws retracted, as if he reached for Edwin.
Sutton leered down his long nose at me. He smelled of crisp starch. The starch must have seeped into his very bones, he stood so stiff.
“I must be a fool, to expect your gratitude after saving your life.”
I started a mocking curtsey, belatedly recalling that I wore breeches instead of skirts. I tried to cover with a bow, but the result undoubtedly looked awkward. Sutton didn’t laugh. In fact, his frosty demeanor didn’t even slip to show a sliver of the boy I’d spent so much time with as a child. If anything, his lack of emotion compounded the situation.
I didn’t want to be in his debt. However, even if I might have been able to throw myself clear, the fact remained that Sutton had rescued me. “Thank you, my lord.” As I added the address, I studied his face. As an adolescent, he’d flinched at the address. He hated to be the center of attention, especially if someone fawned over him.
This time, I saw no such qualms. He truly had changed. I held Patches closer to my chest.
His thick eyelashes fluttered as he narrowed his eyes. My neck ached from craning it back to look him in the face. I refused to let my discomfort show. So what if he looked as welcoming as the French army? He was only a flesh-and-blood man. When he shifted, the scrape of his sleeves against his sides overpowered even the thunder of my heartbeat. The clamor of the London morning fell away, leaving the two of us isolated in a world of our own.
He wasn’t the same man. Even if he had been, we hadn’t parted on good terms years ago.
“If you’d like to thank me, I know a better way.”
I held up the kitten. “Do you need a mouser?”
His mouth softened, turning down at the corners as he studied the cat as if only noticing it now. “I beg your—no. That wasn’t what I meant at all.”
“A shame, because he needs a home.”
“You keep him, then.” His baffled frown turned into a scowl.
I shifted Patches so I could scratch him behind the ear. “I would, but we’ve too many stray animals as it is. Papa would flay me.”
Sutton studied the kitten. His dark eyebrows lowered over his eyes. “He probably has fleas.”
“Most likely. You’ll need to bathe him.”
As his chin set in a mulish line, I amended, “Or have someone else bathe him, O Lord of the House.” I ended with another mocking bow.
“Stop that ridiculousness at once.” I could nearly hear his teeth grind in frustration.
Curious. The address bothered him, after all. Or perhaps I did. We didn’t exactly see eye to eye since we’d parted.
No, I reminded myself. Since he’d left. I couldn’t forget that he’d chosen to depart London knowing full well that I couldn’t follow.
Much the way my two closest friends had, this month.
I pressed my lips together. I ought to be happy that Francine had fallen in love and married her best friend, even if their estate was two days away by carriage. I couldn’t fault Rose for leaving the sooty air of London behind, either, not with a baby on the way. Even if one or both had offered for me to come along, I wouldn’t have been at liberty to accept. People counted on me here. Animals, too. I jostled Patches, earning a disgruntled mew as he turned his blue eyes up to me. If I’d left, he might have died.
However, it would have been nice to be asked.
“Will you stop playing with your cat? I’m trying to make you an offer.”
I raised my gaze to Sutton once more. His expression, like his voice, betrayed a hint of annoyance.
“An offer for what?” I didn’t want anything from him. In fact, seeing as he’d saved my life, I already owed him too much.
His hazel eyes held mine, hard and serious. “An offer of marriage.”
My hand slackened. Patches protested, his claws digging into my bare skin, as he slipped. I caught him and held him closer, biting back a wince.
Marriage? Perhaps I hadn’t been pulled from the path of the carriage, after all. It seemed the sort of thing my imagination might conjure after I’d been trampled by horse hooves.
“Did your horse kick you in the head on the way here?” The words slipped out of my mouth without permission, but I stood by the sentiment behind them. We hadn’t spoken for years until I’d confronted him about a rumor that turned out not to be true. Now he decided to propose? “You’ve gone mad if you’re suddenly proclaiming your love for me.”
He scowled. “I never mentioned love. This is a matter of convenience.”
“It would be most inconvenient for me to find myself married at all, let alone to you. I’m no man’s property.”
Once more, Sutton swept off his hat in order to run his fingers through his hair. He would look like he wore a bird’s nest by the time this conversation was through. What had possessed him?
“Forget the marriage, then. An engagement.”
One of us had certainly been kicked in the head by a horse. He made less sense the longer he spoke!
“An engagement…without the marriage.”
He made a face as though hearing the offer aloud made him realize how bizarre it was. Thank Zeus. This conversation couldn’t end quickly enough.
As he shoved his hat on his head once more, I took a step back. “Good day, Lord Sutton.” I turned away. The kitten clawed up my sleeve to look over my shoulder at him.
“I bet you couldn’t last two weeks playing the lovesick fiancée.”
I stopped. Narrowing my eyes and sucking on one cheek, I turned. “I have no incentive to try.”
“Not even to thank me for saving your life?”
“Not even then.” He asked too high a price.
His mouth twisted with chagrin. “For money, then?”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’re reduced to paying for female company, are you?”
Sutton flexed his hands. His leather gloves creaked with the movement, drawing my eye to the long line of his arms and his tapered fingers. He scoffed, drawing my attention to his face once more.
His scowl returned. A thrill coursed through me at the evidence that I’d nettled him.
He closed the distance between us, until we stood toe to toe. I held the kitten between us like a barrier but didn’t move away. If he intended to spew proposals, I’d prefer half of St. James’ didn’t hear.
“If you last two weeks, I’ll give you enough money to open a shelter if that’s what you desire. You can help dozens of animals.”
When I glanced down at Patches, he tilted those clear-as-a-blue-summer-sky eyes up at me. His lips moved in a silent meow as if to say, Please? Not only would an animal shelter help desolate animals like him, but I’d be able to offer jobs to women in need. I nearly accepted on the spot, before common sense returned.
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you gain from this?”
The strangled sound he made, half like a growl, enveloped me. I shivered. “Does it signify?”
“Of course it signifies. I imagine you must have a good reason to want a wife.”
He raised a hand as if he meant to run it through his hair again, then fisted it and returned it to his side. “Everywhere I turn, my mother and aunt are breathing down my neck to marry.”
“So leave London. You’re good at that.”
At the venom in my voice, his expression closed off. He took a step back, every inch the arrogant lord. “You don’t want my money? Fine. I’ll find someone who does.”
As he took another step back, I couldn’t breathe through a wave of regret. “Wait.”
I swallowed hard, trying to set aside the past for the moment. Truthfully, I needed his money. Without Old Lady Gladstone’s support, Papa couldn’t support everyone in the house on a barrister’s meager salary. I had to start living independently. If all I had to do was pretend… “Two weeks?”
He nodded curtly. “Not counting today.”
“I expect to see a written contract listing the sums involved.”
He released a short breath, almost a snort. “Of course you do. Very well.”
Would I truly go through with this? What would people think?
I’d care a lot more about the thoughts of the people and animals I helped once I had that money. So what if rumors abounded, leading people to believe I was actually in love with him? There wasn’t a shred of the boy I’d known in the Lord Sutton standing in front of me. I was in no danger of losing my heart to him in truth.
Taking a ground-eating step closer, close enough that I had to crane my neck back to look him in the eye, Sutton added, “But if you’re not able to keep up the ruse for two full weeks, you’ll have to marry me. A matter of convenience—don’t expect pretty words or lovelorn looks.”
I laughed. His expression didn’t alter. “Are you serious?”
He nodded, curt.
“Why in Heaven’s name would I have to marry you?” The very idea sent a frisson of distaste down my spine. I hadn’t avoided matrimony this long only to sign myself over as property the moment I might have to earn my own income.
He didn’t bat an eyelash at my reluctance. “Those are my terms. I’m pressured to marry. I need a woman who won’t be under any illusions as to the nature of our arrangement.” His voice trailed off as he extended his hand toward me as casually as if he asked for a dance.
I wouldn’t do that with him, either. “I will not marry you.”
“You’ll get the money either way.”
Perhaps, but in one scenario I’d have to endure his company for a lot longer than two weeks. I couldn’t fathom a month locked in the same house as the haughty lord Sutton had become, let alone a lifetime.
One corner of his mouth tilted up in challenge. “Unless you don’t think you can do it.”
I glowered at him. “Oh, I can. Don’t underestimate me.”
A smug smile curved his lips. “Then we have a deal.” He wasn’t asking.
I raised my chin. “We’ll have a deal when I’ve reviewed the terms of the contract.”
He held out his hand. “We should seal it…unofficially, of course.”
I thrust my palm into his, but instead of shaking it, he drew me off the street and into a sheltered alley between two stucco-sided buildings. Although the space barely fit the two of us and his body surrounded me, I wasn’t afraid. Deep down, I knew Sutton would never hurt me. He couldn’t have departed that much from the person he’d once been.
He leaned closer. Beneath the starch used on his collar, he smelled like cedar and cinnamon. “This isn’t a business deal, Mary.”
To me, it very much was.
“You’ll have to make a convincing show that you’re in love.”
I scoffed. “I’ll act so in love it will be nauseating.” I’d been in love before; I knew how good it felt.
“Prove it. Let’s seal this with a kiss.”
That bounder. He only demanded that as his price because it had been the first thing I’d denied him at age eleven. We’d had an understanding—friends only, no kissing. “What about the no-kiss rule?”
“That was a decade ago, Mary. Break it.”
My ears rang as he spoke the two words I’d silently begged him to say before he’d left for university. I’d never gotten to kiss him then, and curiosity enveloped me now. Raising myself on tiptoe, I brushed my mouth lightly against his.
No, this was madness. I dropped back onto my heels.
A spark flared in his eyes. In the next instant, his mouth was on mine again.
I gasped. His arms enveloped me, lifting me until my weight settled on him, leaving me at his mercy. His palm held the back of my head steady as his other hand pressed me against him. He explored every inch of my mouth with his tongue. He tasted sweet, with a spice almost like cinnamon. His warmth spilled into me, pouring down my arms and torso. My head spun. With my free hand, I grappled for something to hold me steady and latched onto the lapel of his jacket. I’d been kissed before, but never like this. Who knew a botanist was this experienced with a woman’s body?
When he dropped me, his receding warmth splashed over me like an icy bucket of water. I gasped, staring at him. A twin expression of horror crossed his face. At any other time, I might have been smug to see it. Not now.
What had just happened? I couldn’t…kiss him like that. That was not a part of this agreement.
The kitten mewled between us. He braced a paw against Sutton’s jacket, looking up.
I swallowed hard, finding my voice. “I can’t do this.”
“Mary—” His voice was hoarse.
He reached for me, but I thrust the kitten into his arms instead.
“His name is Patches. Your staff will know what to do with him.”
Retreating from the alley, I searched the ground for my cap—there. I whacked the flattened garment against my thigh to shake out the dirt, then stuffed my braid beneath it without breaking my stride. I didn’t stop until I was safely inside the St. James’ Street shop.
Sutton didn’t follow. Thank Zeus.
What did I almost get myself into?