Tainted Tea for Two
Susanne Marie Knight
Uncial Press Aloha, Oregon
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2001, 2006 by Susanne Marie Knight
Previously published by Hard Shell Word Factory
ISBN 13: 978-1-60174-000-7
ISBN 10: 1-60174-000-X
Cover design by Judith B. Glad
All rights reserved. Except for use in review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the author or publisher.
Published by Uncial Press,
an imprint of GCT, Inc.
Visit us at http://www.uncialpress.com
For John and Stacy--always,
Mary Ann--for her wonderfully effective, gentle exercises,
and Michael--for always being with me.
Skulking didn't come naturally, but the intruder somehow managed to creep past the maid, unnoticed. It helped that the servant was busy polishing the corridor's brass and woodwork fixtures. Plus she listened to music so loud that the tinny buzz from her earphones was audible, even fifteen feet away.
The library door opened soundlessly. Once inside, the intruder shut it gently, holding the knob so that there was no click as it caught, and leaned against the oak door.
Noxious fumes from the furniture wax seeped under the door and fouled the inside of the room. The intruder's nose twitched, but there was no time to worry about discomfort. When the servant finished polishing the hallway, her routine dictated the library as the next stop.
The intruder hurried over to the computer; its cold, sleek design incongruous with the Georgian splendor of the room's decor. As always, the computer was on. A blue-swirled planet Earth hovered on the screen, poised to disappear at the slightest touch of the keyboard or mouse.
A yank on the mouse diffused the screen image into a directory of files. "So, they think the old bugger will improve with a bit of physical rehabilitation, hmmm? Maybe even regain his health? We'll just see about that."
Accessing the Internet was easy, then with a click, the Google search engine website appeared. The search for "Fitness Trainers" resulted in almost 800,000 hits. After a quick scan of the sites listed on the screen, the intruder swore. "Hell, all of these are from the States. No, damn it, I need a London specialist. Not a physical therapist, though, like they want. Someone who handles hard-core body building and aerobic exercise. Yes, that is exactly what the old bugger needs--overtax his heart and hasten his trip to the undertaker."
A moment passed. "And yet..."
Maybe an American was just what the doctor ordered. A Yankee--by definition: good-natured, dull, and stupid. The Yanks even coined a word for what was needed: patsy.
In the interest of time, the intruder selected the first entry. "1st Place Athletics--Marty Jackson, former Mr. Universe, owner and personal trainer. Norfolk, Virginia."
The intruder snickered and copied down the information. "Perfect. By the time I get through digging an incriminating hole around this Jackson, he won't see the light of day again. And no one will suspect me--ever."
It would take a bit of doing to insure that Mr. Jackson was hired, especially since the patsy had to be flown in from the States, but the intruder had considerable influence.
After restoring the computer screen to the familiar visage of Earth, the intruder returned to the door and glanced into the corridor. Luckily the maid, who was slightly hard of hearing, had stepped into an alcove to steal a couple of puffs.
The intruder slipped outside into the cool, fresh air, without bumping into anyone from Embrey Hall. A good, clean escape in this venture augured well for what lay ahead.
Two brownish wrens swooped down from leafy beech trees and warbled agreement with these thoughts. Another favorable sign. It was a certainty the old man's poisoning would go like a charm.
Marty Jackson knocked on Embrey Hall's large entrance door for the third time. "Hello? Is anybody home?" There had to be someone inside. After all, she was expected, wasn't she?
Or maybe not. She'd been stranded without the promised chauffeur at Heathrow airport, then had to make her own arrangements to get to here. Wherever here was. With a sweep of her head, she took in the Hall's majestic gateway, impressive brick frontage, and acres and acres of pure, unadulterated wilderness.
She gulped. This place was huge, absolutely huge...and way out in the boonies. Not within easy walking distance to the nearest town of Aldsworth. It had better not come to that though. Being paid to travel to England had, at first, been a dream come true, but things were sure going sour and fast.
Don't give up, Marty. You've only just arrived.
Desperation seeping into her gut, she adjusted her wide-brimmed straw bonnet, smoothed a stray curl behind her ear, and pounded on the door. "Hello?"
Finally, the door creaked open to reveal a pencil-thin man in a black-and-white uniform. He took one look at her, wrinkled his pug nose, then sniffed. "Wot d'you want?"
Marty put down her suitcase and returned the man's rude stare. "I'm Marty Jackson."
No spark of recognition lit his gaze.
She skewed her lips. "Viscount Embrey's expecting me. I'm his personal fitness trainer."
The man, maybe a butler, continued to block her way. "No arrival of a trainer was mentioned t'me." He made a move to close the door.
She didn't fly all this way to be intimidated by a twirpy-looking penguin. Picking up her suitcase, she pushed him aside, entered the dim entryway, then looked around. Spooky. All four corridors leading from the main door were shrouded in inky darkness.
She shivered. "Maybe Viscount Embrey neglected to tell you. I agreed to sign on for three weeks."
The butler held out his bony hand. "Here now, let's have a look at the paperwork."
Thoroughly annoyed, Marty dug into her handbag and pulled out the contract. Shouldn't someone apologize for inconveniencing her?
The butler grabbed papers and scanned the words. Marty wondered how he could read in the pervading gloom.
"Ooh, the secretary signed it. That explains everything." The man returned the papers, then sniffed.
"Come along then. I'll show you t'your room."
The lukewarm reception was an improvement. Marty followed the butler up a magnificent staircase, turned left down a corridor, right down another corridor, left, right, until he opened a door into a furniture-crammed bedroom. Goodness, she'd need a compass to find her way around.
"I'll send up a maid t'unpack." He pivoted on his squeaky black shoes and closed the door.
And she was a monkey's uncle if she didn't hear the words, "bloody Yank," drift back to her. Cripes, that was quite an insult for one who called Virginia home. Was this all-expense-paid assignment in the land that had once been Camelot worth this abuse?
Maybe not, but then again, thoughts of her fantasy vacation in Italy on the heels of England soothed her. "Buon giorno, Italia. Here I come!"
Marty took out her most prized possession: a paperweight in the shape of a giant, clear crystal. She held it upside down, and the colorful pearls suspended inside gently floated to the bottom. A kid's toy, of course, but she never went anywhere without it. It was the last thing her father had given her.
She gave it a place of honor on the nightstand, then tucked her clothes away in an old armoire. A few minutes later, a series of chills skittered up her spine. She stopped, pulled off her straw bonnet, and fingered her unruly cap of curls.
Nerves, that's all. The antiques littering the floor space were starting to close in on her. Even the air had an ancient smell to it. Several slow, deep breaths were in order.
Ah, much better. Could think better, too. To get away from her claustrophobia, she walked over to the window and swept aside the lacy curtains. After a tug, the window opened to admit a rush of flower-scented air. From her second story vantage point, she saw a garden rich with rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias. Lush, bushy beech trees grew in clumps, their heavy branches draped over high, weathered gates and provided shade for a tangle of brick pathways. In the distance, a meandering stream rippled through the valley landscape, bubbling with life on this crisp, clear afternoon. Truly a garden of earthly delights. Who could remain depressed at such a sight?
She replaced the lacy curtain. Now that she was here in Aldsworth, Gloucestershire, she'd clear things up with Viscount Embrey, assess his fitness needs and get started on his regimen. This was a plum job. When she finished her contract, her long-awaited vacation could begin. Surely things would go more smoothly from here on out.
As if to dispute this last sentiment, a bold knock sounded on the bedroom door. Before Marty had a chance to respond, a small girl peeked her head inside. "Hallo, ducks!"
Slipping into the room, the girl--no, young woman--marched in front of Marty and gazed at her from head to toe.
"Had to have a look-see for myself! Nardo tol' me you were a blinkin' female, but I didn't believe him. He's got the last laugh after all." The woman's eyes, ringed with black cosmetics, bulged out even further and a mischievous smile lit her vivid red lips. "A looker, too. Gor, but Ol' Toff'll be cheesed off!"
Marty stepped back from this tiny bundle of energy who stood much too close for her comfort. Nardo had to be the stuffy man who answered the door. The woman's black uniform and white apron pegged her as one of the household staff. But who was Old Toff? He sounded formidable.
"Yes, I'm afraid my name does cause a fair amount of mix-ups," Marty agreed as she held out her hand in greeting. "I thought I'd taken care of any misunderstanding on that with Mr. Smythe-Davis."
"The secretary?" The dynamo shook her head with all the fury of a hurricane. "No good talkin' about him. 'Round two weeks ago, Ol' Toff sacked him. Without a bye-your-leave." She shrugged. "No tears over that one, though. His morbid face put all the help in a sour mood. Thought he was a Romeo, he did. Pinched my bottom too often for my tastes."
Rather belatedly, she noticed Marty's outstretched hand. "You're a real lady, aren't you, ducks? M'name's Charlotte, but you can call me Lottie. Everyone does. Except Ol' Toff, of course."
Marty smiled. Her hand actually vibrated after contact with Lottie's. "Pleased to meet you, Lottie. What do you do here and who in the world is old Toff? Is he the viscount?"
Lottie's screech of laughter disturbed even the wrens nesting on the closest beech tree. Marty watched as the birds trilled their protests and flew off into the late afternoon light.
"Lord love you, ducks! That's the best snicker I've had all week." Lottie wiped a merry tear with the corner of her apron, smudging her makeup and dirtying the unsoiled material. "Ol' Toff--that's my name for him. Toff means, you know, a big shot, full of himself. Describes his lordship's son down to his bones. You'll be meetin' him soon enough. He is..." She stood at attention--all of five feet, or less. "...the Honorable Gregory George Gresham. The three G's--gruff, grouchy, and--though I do hate to admit it, gorgeous."
Handsome with an attitude. Marty grimaced. She'd met enough of those kinds of males to fill a bottomless pit.
"I wouldn't mind havin' a go at him myself, though." Lottie leaned over and nudged Marty in the ribs. "He'd give a girl her money's worth, know what I mean?"
"Ah, sure." Marty felt heat creep into her face. She wasn't a prude, but Lottie's plain speaking disconcerted her. "I think...ah, I'd like to see the viscount now. Could you ask him if this is a convenient time?"
"Me ask?" Again came the shrill laugh. "No, ducks. You've got to learn the lay of the land. I'm just one of the housemaids. It's the valet you need to ask. He controls his lordship. Has to, 'cause ever since the accident, the ol' man's a bit touched in the head."
Great. A grouchy son and a half-crazy father. This was going to be one helluva assignment. Maybe she should've stayed home. "Where do I find Mr...?"
"Compton. Plain Compton. Stay here and I'll--"
Another loud knock reverberated through the room. Before she could answer it, the door opened to reveal the reed-thin butler, Nardo. Marty massaged the bridge of her nose. Was privacy as elusive here as good manners?
"Miss Jackson," snapped the man. "You're t'follow me, quick like, to the library. Mr. Gresham requires a word with you."
Well, she didn't require a word with him, and she certainly didn't care for the dictatorial command. "Tell him I'll be right there. And, for your information, it's Ms."
Lottie hid her giggles behind her small hand. "Gorblimey! Heads'll roll now." After saying that, she quickly left them alone.
Nardo wrinkled that pug nose as if the air had suddenly turned rancid. "Here now, my instructions are t'wait."
"Fine." Marty opened her suitcase and grabbed her business valise. If she hadn't been more than thirty-five hundred miles from home, she would've headed straight out the front door and not stopped until she parked her buns on her own comfy couch. But she'd already signed the contract. Like it or not she was stuck here for the duration. Mr. Big Shot Gresham could be as gruff and grouchy as he wanted, but she didn't have to put up with it. His father was her boss. She only hoped the son didn't get his bad attitude from his dad.
With as much dignity as she could muster, she placed her hat back on her head. Her long skirt swaying with the force of her movements, she followed Nardo out into the corridor. A sharp turn left, down some stairs, a long walk then a right turn and another right. Good grief, this was a big house.
Thoroughly lost, Marty stood behind Nardo as he knocked on the library door. A Do Not Disturb sign hanging on the doorknob shook from the vibrations. After hearing a man call out, "Enter," Nardo gestured for her to go inside, so she did. Conflicting odors assaulted her nostrils: a mixture of cigar smoke, decaying books, and furniture polish. Before she had a chance to take stock of her surroundings, a deep, resonant voice cut through the stale air. "So it's true."
Marty focused on the speaker. A man with hair as dark as ebony sat rigidly behind an immense wooden desk. His lean face shaded with a five o'clock shadow one hour before its appointed time, he stared at her, antagonism glinting in his dark eyes. The tie around his neck was loosened and the stark white sleeves of his fine linen shirt were rolled up as if preparing to engage in a thankless task. Stacks of papers littered the desktop and the computer keyboard to the left of him.
Even with his black eyebrows slashed in a vee of displeasure, the man was a compelling hunk of masculinity. Or to quote Lottie: gorgeous. His glare, however, gave Marty the willies. "Ah, hello. I'm Marty Jackson." She extended her hand.
He ignored it. "Nardo, you may leave us."
With an expressive sniff, the butler turned abruptly, which caused his shoes to squeal in protest, and closed the door. Instead of shaking her hand, Gregory Gresham gave her the once-over. By the downturn of his firm lips, he obviously didn't like what he saw.
Pompous ass! Marty returned her hand to her side and sat down, uninvited, on the nearby armchair. "And you are?" she inquired sweetly.
"You're sitting on my suit jacket."
"Oh!" She jumped to the left and extracted a pin striped coat with a label from Henry Pool & Co., Saville Row. Very, very expensive. "I am sorry." Not!
Running his hand through his thick, dark hair, Gresham leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "This will never do. Lord Embrey is in the most delicate of health. What possessed Smythe-Davis to send for a woman?"
Delicate health? She felt like a lead weight had settled in her stomach. She was a fitness trainer, not a rehabilitative therapist. "I wasn't told about the viscount's poor health. I assure you, Mr. Gresham, I cleared up any misunderstanding about my gender with Mr. Smythe-Davis."
Sighing, Gresham waved a well-manicured hand. "As I let the bounder go this past fortnight, I'm not surprised he neglected to inform the staff."
Some intangible unpleasantness filtered through Gresham's words. Marty shuddered in response. She inhaled to quiet her growing unease, but the room's murky air caused her to cough.
Gresham frowned. "Miss Jackson, I want it understood that I had no part in the decision to send for you. I believe that importing a foreigner for this task is foolhardy, at best." He raised an eyebrow. "It appears I am right. However, you are here, I cannot dispute that. Now, please be so kind as to explain your qualifications and how you plan to restore the use of Lord Embrey's left side."
An enjoyable vision of using this man as a punching bag flashed in front of Marty's eyes. What an insufferable man! But she could handle him. Years of public contact had prepared her for dealing with people like the Honorable Gregory George Gresham. But maybe she wouldn't have to deal with him for long. He'd just given her the perfect way out of this nightmarish assignment.
She reached into her valise and removed Mr. Smythe-Davis' correspondence. "My company, 1st Place Athletics, has won national fitness awards for three years in a row. We specialize in building, firming, and toning muscles. Our clientele ranges from out-of-shape novices to world-class competitors."
Keeping her voice neutral was almost as difficult as lifting ninety-pound barbells. She dropped the letters in front of Gresham. "As you can see, no mention was made of the viscount's poor health. I was hired as his personal trainer to get him started on an exercise program."
"This letter is addressed to Marty Jackson, Mr. Universe. Are you, perhaps, not what you seem?"
Although her father had been dead sixteen years, the memory still was painful...as was Gresham's inference. She hadn't the heart to remove her father's Mr. Universe title from the company's promotional literature. "Martin Jackson, my father, started the business. He's...ah, he died some time ago. I am carrying on in his name."
Literally. She was everything to 1st Place Athletics that her father had been except for being Mr. Universe. In fact, she felt more like her father than she did her own self. A silent sigh escaped her lips. One of her goals for this trip was to discover herself.
Marty waited while Gresham scanned the rest of the papers. A fax message appeared on his computer screen and he took time out to print it, read it, and put it in a neatly labeled file.
When he finally looked up, she shrugged. "My expertise doesn't include people with debilitating conditions. The viscount suffered a stroke, I presume?"
Surely Gresham wouldn't expect her to honor the commitment. Italy, here I come! "I'm sure you'll agree the contract is null and void. Your father needs a physical therapist, not someone with my qualifications. If it's convenient, I'll leave tomorrow morning." She had to make one last parting shot, though. "And, as I advised your butler, my name is Ms. Jackson."
She reached to reclaim the letters, but Gresham's hand shot out to stay her movements. "I believe you're being a bit hasty, Ms. Jackson. May I view the contract?"
Contact with the warmth of his skin made her flush...and flustered. His strong grip was unexpected. Pulling her hand away, she produced the legal document.
Minutes ticked by as Gresham scrutinized the document. Marty looked around the library. Claw-footed tables, boxy armchairs, and lit shaded lamps dominated the floor plan, while a gallery of old-style portraits hung above the overflowing bookcases.
It was grand enough, and maybe even cheery--if you liked pictures of dead people looking down at you. But an air of neglect rippled below the surface of wealthy respectability. The oriental carpet was worn, and the books filling the many shelves had seen better days. Although Gresham looked slightly rumpled, his appearance didn't blend in with the room's subtle deterioration. Instinct told her that he didn't approve of the run-down surroundings.
But why was she concerned? Come tomorrow morning, she'd be on her way to Italy, to begin her dream vacation, three weeks early!
"Ms. Jackson." Gresham adjusted his black reading glasses. His eyes were the color of grey storm clouds. "Paragraph twelve, section three states you are responsible for developing an exercise program appropriate for Lord Embrey's current fitness level. As of three weeks ago, his fitness level includes recovering from a thrombotic stroke."
Gresham removed his glasses; his steely gaze demolished her hopes of wiggling out of this assignment. "You signed the contract without stipulation. Since you have been brought to the Hall to perform this duty, at great expense I might add, I see no alternative but to hold you to this agreement. Unless, of course, you repay those monies already spent on your behalf. In addition, given the gravity of Lord Embrey's condition, a substantial penalty for breach of contract would not be unethical."
Marty could only gasp. Gresham couldn't be serious, could he?
"I assure you, I am in earnest. As a barrister for the Queen's Bench, I cannot afford to allow bounders to escape their responsibilities."
Bounders. So he considered her a bounder?
One corner of his mouth lifted--in amusement or contempt? "You may have until ten o'clock tomorrow morning to give me your decision."
Marty fisted her hands. Just her luck to have a run-in with a straitlaced lawyer. She narrowed her gaze. Oh, I'll give you my decision, buster. First a left, then a right.
Either unaware or uncaring about her anger, Gresham turned his attention to another incoming computer fax. "That is all, Ms. Jackson."
He was dismissing her? She stood. "I think not."
"Just so you know, Mr. Gresham. I leave a room when I want to." She gave him the smile she usually reserved for offensive jocks: wide, with no ounce of warmth in it. "Fortunately for you, I can't wait to leave this one."
A knock at the door interrupted the verbal sparring match. Nardo entered looking a bit harried. "Excuse me, Mr. Gresham, but Lady Helena just arrived. She demands t'see you. The younger Mr. Gresham wants you, too. Seeing's how you're still... busy, wot'll I tell them?"
Marty sucked in her cheeks, withholding laughter. Anyone making demands on the insufferable Gresham must be A-OK. She liked Lady Helena already.
Gresham ran a hand through his hair, then stood and reached for his coat. He was tall--at least two inches over six feet. "Show Lady Helena and my cousin to the drawing room. Ms. Jackson and I are finished."
Marty didn't bother to hide her genuine smile. What prophetic words. We certainly are! She took a step to leave the room.
Gresham's powerful hand circled her upper arm, stopping her cold. "At seven o'clock the dinner bell rings, a signal for you to change and join everyone downstairs. Dinner is at eight, sharp. I'm certain you'll want to meet your new employer."
Marty glared at his hand. He took the hint and removed it. "I'll keep that in mind," she murmured.
"Good." Gresham slipped on his jacket, then straightened his tie. He now looked every inch the proper British barrister, except for the five o'clock shadow. "Friday nights the entertainment at the Hall is rather low key. You needn't dress to the nines."
"Thanks. I didn't intend to." She also didn't intend to show up for dinner, either, but she didn't plan to tell him that.
Despite the fact she'd have to ask someone directions to her room, Marty sauntered out of the library as if she didn't have a blessed care in the world. Even thoughts of Italy couldn't cool the simmering anger inspired by the not-so-honorable Gregory Gresham. If he truly planned to hold her to the contract, she was his financial hostage. True. But if she had to spend the next three weeks in this dreary house with that bossy barrister, she just might end up killing someone.
In the rose salon adjoining the formal dining room, Gregory Gresham turned his back on the others in the room while he poured a generous amount of blended Scotch whisky. Normally he enjoyed socializing with his relatives and the estate vicar, but not tonight. Not with his over-eager fiancée present.
He took a big gulp of whisky. The action was a mistake. The liquor burned an unaccustomed path down his throat and he quelled a natural desire to cough the foul stuff back into his glass.
Like a hound homing in on its prey, Helena Devoe uttered a sympathetic yelp of distress, then blindly bulldozed a path to his side. Again, like that hunting hound, she blithely ignored anyone and everyone in her way. In this instance, she collided with the vicar who was left to hobble to a chair, nursing a wounded toe.
Gregory sighed. Helena even resembled a blasted dog--straight, flaxen hair drooped like floppy ears and her nose reminded him of a long, pointed snout. Minus the wet, black tip, of course.
Now stationed at his shoulder, she fluttered her lashes at him and cradled his hand next to her plump bosom. "Darling, are you all right?"
He promptly freed his hand. "The whisky went down the wrong way. Nothing to make a fuss over." He set aside his glass, wishing for a bottle of his favorite brew, Guinness Stout. Now there was a drink to quench a man's thirst. Not this blasted Scottish poison.
"Oh, but I do worry so. I have a pill that will help you. Would you like it?"
Gregory shook his head.
"I wish you'd take it. When I see you in such discomfort, I experience the most intense panic. However can I not, darling? After all, the dear viscount is so unexpectedly close to death's door."
Her words indicated concern for his father, but Gregory wasn't fooled. He glanced at the viscount, but fortunately Raymond appeared to be thoroughly engaged with Aunt Florence's non-stop prattle. Good. No need to get the poor beggar blue-deviled by this empty-headed little witch.
Moving smoothly, Gregory steered his fiancée to the farthest corner of the room and deposited her on the sofa. "Dearest," he managed through gritted teeth, "you remember that we agreed not to speak of the viscount's condition in those terms. He has a difficult enough time as it is, with partial paralysis, memory loss, and depression. He mustn't believe we've given up on a complete recovery."
Gregory sat a reasonable distance away from her and eyed the nearby mantle clock. Only eleven minutes lacked until dinnertime. Where the devil was Ms. Jackson? He'd already sent a housemaid to fetch the woman. As Helena slid closer, no doubt to fondle another part of his body, Giles Gresham walked over and sat his lanky frame between the two of them. "Don't mind me barging in, do you?"
Helena did, but Gregory smiled.
"Saw your attempt to down the Scotch. Quite amusing, actually. Must agree, though, it is damn nasty stuff. Doesn't Helena's father own the distillery?"
Gregory coughed. At any other time, he would have been diverted by his cousin's good-natured ribbing, but not tonight. Not with the day...and night Gregory was having. First motoring down from London and discovering the financial accounts in such disarray. Then learning about the American exercise specialist and the substantial sum of money plunked down to get her here. And then finding out that she was a woman. A very attractive woman.
The appealing image of the slender Ms. Jackson rose up in his unwilling mind. Her ridiculous wide-brimmed hat had cut into a halo of loose auburn curls. Her pixie face with large dark eyes and quivering pink lips haunted him, sending a sudden flash of warmth down through his loins.
He frowned. What kind of a woman goes by the name Marty? Inconsiderate of her father to name her that. Damned odd, in his book.
Gregory sighed. Raymond still wasn't aware that his fitness trainer was female! Not that he would mind. Always was a lady's man from the time he was born. Embittered his deceased wife against marriage...and fidelity. With such sterling examples of the wedded state as parents, who could blame Gregory for delaying his own entry into the parson's mousetrap?
Blast. The little vixen's good looks would most likely cause his father's blood pressure to skyrocket. Gregory shook off that morbid thought. Where in Hades is that woman?
A pout disturbed Helena's thin lips. "Too unkind of you, Giles. Of course Papa owns the distillery, but that wasn't the reason Gregory poured a glass of whisky, now was it, pumpkin?"
"Pumpkin?" Giles mouthed.
Gregory leaned against the plump cushions on the sofa. Lady Helena Devoe was the only surviving offspring of the Earl of Anglesey, whose estate lay adjacent to Embrey Hall. In addition to acres of land, Helena could claim title, wealth, and breeding among her accomplishments. Unfortunately intelligence and kindness were noticeably absent. So why the devil was Raymond determined for his only son to marry her? Just because of her confounded position?
Tapping down his burgeoning anger, Gregory looked at his father again. If they had not gotten into such a row over Helena, maybe the stroke would have been avoided. The sight of the old man's drooping eyelid and shaking left hand stabbed at Gregory's heart and conscience. Although he couldn't turn back the clock, at least the news that he asked Helena to marry him had lifted the right side of Raymond's mouth into a tremulous smile.
"Well, pumpkin," Giles drawled, "the hour of eight is almost nigh. You told me there would be an even number of diners tonight. You know how superstitious I am. Comes from my gruesome experience of being the lone man at a Mardi Gras party in Rio de Janeiro. So many women to service."
He said that with a straight face. With Giles, one never knew whether he was serious or joking.
"Rio?" Helena trilled. "I had no idea you were so debauched, Giles."
Evidently his value went up in her eyes, for she licked her lips in a lascivious manner.
Giles knew which way his bread was buttered. He ignored her and counted off on his slim fingers. "Let's see, there's you and Helena, the viscount and Auntie Flo, Vicar Patrick and his sweet little wife, Kitty, and...me, wastrel that I am. Seven. I daresay my arithmetic's not faulty, is it?"
"It never is." Gregory stood. Perhaps Ms. Jackson's late arrival was a good thing after all. It gave him a chance to remove himself from his fiancée's cloying presence--for a short while, at any rate. "Be a good sport, Giles, and when the gong rings, escort Helena to her seat. I'll procure the eighth member of our dinner party."
"And who is that?" Helena furrowed her brow. "Oh yes, that exercise man from the States. Nardo told me about him. I wonder how large his muscles are."
Gregory lifted his eyebrow, which caused her to blush. He ought to have a word with the butler.
Insolence should not be tolerated, and yet... Remaining silent, he contained his chuckle. He looked forward to seeing everyone's surprised expression when Ms. Jackson entered.
To catch his attention, Raymond raised his unaffected right arm. "Gregory, where's thish... Jackson fellow? Where...?"
Raymond's slur had improved over the past three weeks, but he still seemed to forget what he was saying mid-sentence.
"I'll go now, sir. Be right back."
"Do hurry, darling. I miss you already," simpered Helena, pulling on his jacket sleeve. "In fact, I'm counting the days until our--"
Gregory never moved so fast. With the double doors now solidly closed behind him, he allowed his shoulders to momentarily sag. How on God's green earth was he ever going to say 'I do' at next month's ceremony? Marriage to Helena Devoe in perpetuity. Forever and ever. Legally and eternally binding.
A shudder rippled its way down his back.
He turned toward the staircase. He would take great pleasure in hauling, carrying, or dragging the obstinate Ms. Marty Jackson to her assigned seat in the dining room. Her free ride had ended. Whether she wanted to or not, she would start earning her keep tonight.
* * * *
When she heard the knock, Marty ignored it. She concentrated on the trans-Atlantic call she'd placed to her new business partner, Tony Tortelli. 1st Place Athletics needed another head honcho, and she was thrilled to share all the guts and glory, so to speak. Her job was draining the living daylights out of her.
"That's right, Tony. Could you send me everything you can find on exercises to aid stroke recovery? Send it next-day delivery."
She heard the knock again. Good grief, couldn't a girl get some privacy here? Lottie already had interrupted this expensive phone call once. What did she want this time?
"I'll be with you in a second," Marty yelled. In a quieter voice, she apologized. "Sorry, Tony, the natives are impatient here. Listen, I'll check to see if Embrey and company have Internet access so you can e-mail me that way, too."
Tony grunted assent, then gruffly relayed that everyone missed her.
She could read between the lines. Tony had a thing for her. He was a gem of a guy, a great business partner, but not her type in the romance department. Still, just thinking about his friendly face brought a smile to her own. "Yeah, I miss you, too, you big lug. Thanks for helping me out. Bye." She hung up the phone.
"How very affecting," a male voice said.
Marty whirled around. Dwarfing the bedroom with his impressive height, Gregory Gresham stood, dressed in a jet black suit that rivaled the color of his hair. His broad shoulders strained against the elegant material of his jacket, molded to perfection across his powerful physique. He had the body of a multi-million dollar quarterback. Lean, hard, and strong. He was, in a word, magnificent.
She tapped her chin. Maybe they didn't play football over here. Maybe the sport was rugby, or-- Cripes! What was she doing daydreaming over this rude and insensitive man? Even her body was betraying her, tingling from head to toe in anticipation.
Anticipation? Marty mentally slapped herself. So what if he was as handsome as a dream. This was reality, and she certainly didn't need to get involved with someone whose personality rivaled a shark's. Neither her overactive imagination nor her half-dressed appearance helped her equanimity.
Belatedly making sure her short cotton robe covered what it was supposed to, she took a step back from him. No good, though. His masculine aftershave drifted toward her and teased her tired senses. "What do you mean by coming into my room like this? I could've been...sleeping."
She'd almost said naked. Dangerous to suggest such a thing around someone who looked as devastating as he did.
Gresham's smile conveyed his disbelief. "At eight o'clock? I hardly think so." He clasped his hands behind his back and took a cramped stroll around the room. "I'm here to bring you downstairs."
Although she should have thrown him out, she stood rooted to the floor. She didn't flinch when he picked up her special paperweight, but her fingers itched to grab it out of his hands.
Then, for some reason, the four poster bed seemed to attract him. He walked to it and began pawing through her pile of recently discarded clothing. "I was under the impression that Americans understood English, Ms. Jackson. Dinner, I remember saying, is at eight. You are keeping everyone from their food."
Only when he uncovered her bra did her motionless state vanish. "Do you mind?" She quickly tugged on his arm, and pulled him away from the bed and the intimate articles.
He smiled again, revealing perfect white teeth. This time her heart fluttered in a peculiar way. "I, ah, told Lottie I wouldn't be joining you."
"You have no choice. Come. It is late."
Annoyance crept into her tone. She planted her hands on her hips. "Listen, I appreciate the offer but I'm tired and I don't feel like eating."
The top of her robe gaped open. Naturally his gaze took in the sight. Just collarbones, but his smile deepened. She grabbed at the material. The beast!
Then he did the unexpected. He bent down to stare directly into her eyes. His masculine, musky aftershave teased Marty's senses. His sparkling grey eyes mesmerized her, and once again, she couldn't have moved if her life depended on it. She gulped. Embarrassingly enough, her nipples hardened. Good grief, this power he had over her was unfair, but how could she protest such a thing. What was she supposed to say? Stop using your charm, I'm getting attracted to you?
"Ms. Jackson," Gresham murmured, "you will accompany me to dinner, undressed as you are, or otherwise." He skimmed the side of her cheek with two fingers.
Whoa. "I don't know what the laws are in England, Mr. Gresham, but sexual harassment isn't tolerated in the States. I don't think anything in the contract covers you coming into my room unannounced and making advances." Despite her words, she couldn't stop the shiver his touch invoked.
He broke contact and shrugged. "I have no intentions toward you other than to see that you go to dinner on time. Make no mistake about it. Lord Embrey wishes to meet you tonight, and I'll not have him disappointed."
She felt breathless. Her outrage was tempered by this insane attraction to him. Never in all her born days had anyone affected her to this degree. She didn't know the man, didn't like him, but one touch from him and she was like Jell-O.
Marty, you're losing this battle. Better retreat and build up your defenses.
"Ah, okay." She massaged the bridge of her nose. Was this day ever going to end? "Give me a minute and I'll get dressed."
She waited but he didn't leave the room. She started to lift her hands to her hips again, then remembered about the robe's tendency to gape. "I can't change with you here."
"No?" Gresham raised a dark eyebrow. "A pity." He walked to the door, then turned around. "You said a minute, so that's when I'll expect you to be done. And, by the way, there's no sense locking the door."
He patted the pocket on the left side of his chest. "I have the key."
The click of the door closing was a welcome sound. She needed to tuck away her anger. It wasn't an emotion she could indulge in right now. Her instincts told her that if she wasn't ready in sixty seconds, not one second more nor less, the Honorable Gregory George Gresham would be true to his word and forcibly remove her to the dining room--whether or not she was dressed.
As she hooked her bra and pulled a short-sleeved sun dress from the closet, Marty thought about the man waiting outside her room. The next time she took a turn at the punching bag, she'd imagine Gregory's handsome, arrogant face as the target.
* * * *
"Don't forget to apologize for your tardiness." Gresham maintained a gentle grip on Marty's upper arm and escorted her through double doors into the dining room. To her consternation, the warmth of his fingers sent tingles of pleasure up her arm. She attempted to free her arm, but it was no use. The man was as strong as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Since you're so determined to move me around like a puppet, Mr. Gresham, why don't you apologize for me as well?"
"Ms. Jackson, I'm convinced you will do a more effective job of it." His expression impassive, he guided her to the head of a table filled with somber people.
Seated in a wheelchair was a handsome, elderly man with a twinkle in his eyes; he had to be the viscount. Everyone looked at her with curiosity. Marty caught the gaze of a ruddy blonde woman with a long, patrician nose. Thunderous disapproval radiated from the tip of that pinched nose to the curve of her raised eyebrows. Marty tugged on a loose curl. She lost whatever appetite she had. Hostility had that effect on her.
Gresham released her. "Allow me to make the introductions." He gestured around the table. "The family. My father, Viscount Embrey." Sure enough, the man in the wheelchair nodded and smiled a little lopsidedly.
"My mother's sister, Florence Whipple," Gresham continued. The matronly woman next to the viscount gave her an avid smile.
"Next is my cousin, Giles Gresham."
"Delighted." A lankier version of Gregory Gresham winked at her.
Gresham gestured toward a middle-aged man with a double chin and ample waistline and a nondescript redheaded girl. "Our vicar, Patrick O'Shaughnessy and his bride, Kitty."
Marty hid her surprise. The man looked old enough to be Kitty's father.
Gresham saved the best for last. "And this is Lady Helena Devoe."
Ah, the demanding Lady Helena. The woman lifted her patrician nose and pressed her thin lips together. Her baby-blue eyes shot daggers at Marty.
How charming. Marty assumed she was supposed to sit in the vacant chair to the left of the viscount and next to the vicar, so she sat down. "Please forgive me for being tardy." She grinned in defiance at Gresham, now seated at the other end of the table. "I didn't intend to take a nap, but I guess the trip tired me out more than I realized."
"And just who in heaven's name are you?" Lady Helena Devoe's loud, venomous tone grated Marty's ears. Even the vicar winced. Or perhaps he objected to her disrespectful use of the Almighty's home.
Maybe Marty's imagination was working overtime, but Gresham, on Helena's other side, seemed smug with secret amusement. "This is Ms. Jackson. Marty Jackson," he said. "She's here to coax Lord Embrey back to good health."
For a second, total silence filled the immense room. Then, like swimmers coming up for air, nearly everyone gasped.
"But of... coursh you are, my dear." Viscount Embrey patted her hand. "Devil take it, I feel...b-better already!"
Gresham's aunt, Florence Whipple, tucked a corner of the viscount's linen napkin in at the neck. "Raymond has the right of it, you know, Ms. Jackson. When he sees a pretty face, all the world's aglow."
If that was the case, why were the older woman's eyes misted?
"But you...you were supposed to be a man," young Kitty insisted, cutting at the slice of some type of poultry on her dish. The cadence of her musical voice was at odds with the harsher English sounds. Although she looked Irish, she must have come from someplace else.
"Now, now, Kitty," admonished her husband. "You must remember your place. This is the viscount's table, you know. As the first book of Timothy, Chapter two, verse eleven, tells us: 'Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.'"
Kitty meekly bowed her head, but Marty tilted her own. What did that have to do with anything?
"Yes, indeed, we expected you to be a man!" agreed Helena. She reached over the vicar to yank up the sleeve of Marty's loose-fitting dress. "Muscles? Pish, I have larger muscles than that."
Marty forcefully detached the woman's hold, then smoothed down the wrinkled sleeve and glared at her. What in the world had she gotten herself into? These people were stark-raving mad.
The viscount patted her hand again and gave her a shaky smile. "I am...d-delighted that you are a woman, my dear." As if that settled the matter, he ordered a servant to pour her some wine.
Well, at least not all of these people were bizarre.
"I certainly concur." Again, Giles winked at her from across the table and lifted his glass. "A toast to Ms. Jackson--the most pleasant surprise of the day."
A few glasses were reluctantly raised.
Giles downed half his glass. "You're a sly one, cuz. Taking all of us in like this. Hat's off to you, old boy."
"You mistake me. Ms. Jackson wasn't my choice. That blasted secretary, Smythe-Davis, is responsible." Gresham cut open a roll, taking care to spread butter from end to end. If there was a contest for the most perfectly buttered roll, he certainly would've been the winner.
Florence passed a plate to Marty. "You simply must try the broiled pheasant. It is absolutely fabulous."
Marty took a small piece and chewed. It had a gamy taste.
The older woman smiled in approval. "Lovely, isn't it?" She didn't wait for Marty's reply, which was just as well. "I must say that I, for one, always liked Mr. Smythe-Davis. Such a fascinating man, if a trifle melancholy. And now he's brought us our Ms. Jackson." Florence adjusted her pince-nez and leveled a glare at her nephew. "I don't understand why you gave him his card, Gregory."
He casually shrugged those broad shoulders of his. "Why does any incompetent get fired?"
"W-was he now?" The viscount coughed into his napkin. "I'll be...snowed."
Glancing around the table, Marty studied each of the guests' reactions to Gresham's statement. Everyone had such a reserved demeanor, she couldn't tell who agreed with the assessment and who did not.
A servant entered the dining room and tapped Gresham on the shoulder. Marty pretended not to eavesdrop, but she did hear the words 'fax', 'London', and 'urgent'.
Gresham stood. "A thousand pardons. I must contact the office. Important business. I'll return shortly."
Helena plunked down her glass. Bordeaux splashed out. "Pish! You pay more attention to work than you do to me. This is July, darling. Parliament's on vacation, so why aren't you?"
"Life doesn't stop because Parliament's out, Helena. I have an important case pending. A few moments on the computer, then I'll return."
"I don't understand why that infernal computer is always on." She pouted. "Fax, fax, fax! One of these days I'm going to permanently pull the plug."
Giles waved Gresham on. "Go ahead, cuz. I'll keep her hands tied. Wouldn't do to have my connections with the real world cut off." He explained to Marty, "I've got contacts from all around the globe. My lifeline, actually. Such a backwaters place is Aldsworth."
Helena sank into her chair, defeated.
Marty held back her smile. Her guess was that Helena got her way too many times for her own good.
Florence watched her nephew leave, then uttered, "Dearie me, I'd also be lost without the computer, though I must say at times it tries the patience of a saint. No offense, vicar. All my recipes are locked inside the thing, you know."
The rest of the dinner took forever to end, but at least it passed without further incident. Before the dessert tray was brought out, Gresham returned. However, the viscount excused himself. A servant, perhaps his valet Compton, wheeled him from the room.
Marty toyed with the whipped cream topping her vanilla custard. If only she could leave, too! Helena was hogging the conversation, yapping on and on about her hair, her house, her approaching wedding, her garden, ad nauseam. Marty couldn't prevent a yawn from escaping. Who in his right mind would marry that gabby gal?
Florence seemed to take the yawn as a hint for she stood abruptly, almost causing her chair to fall. "Now that we've finished our desserts, if you gentlemen will excuse us, it's time for the ladies to take tea in the drawing room."