The Importance of Being Wicked
an excerpt in which the reputedly wicked Lord Stillwell meets the very proper Lady Garrett on the grounds of his fire ravaged family home. . .
“You have me at a disadvantage, I’m afraid.” Win peered around the woman, who had introduced herself as Lady Garret, at the carriage he had sent to fetch the representative of Garret and Tempest from the train. The carriage had stopped at the foot of the circular drive, discharged the lady and appeared to be empty of additional occupants. “Lady Garret—” He glanced down at her or rather where she had been a moment ago. She was now striding toward Fairborough Hall.
He hurried after her. “I say, Lady Garret, I was not expecting—”
“You were not expecting a female,” she said over her shoulder. She carried a paperboard tube and a satchel and was pretty enough in an ordinary sort of way. The kind of woman one would glance at approvingly but might not look at a second time. Her clothing, while obviously of quality, was a few years out of fashion, and nondescript in color and style. She was a good six inches shorter than he with hair a warm shade of walnut worn in a severe manner under an entirely too sensible hat and eyes that were neither green nor brown, or perhaps a bit of both. An intriguing color—hazel, he supposed—although she had scarcely paused long enough for him to be certain. Pity, he had always found knowing the color of a woman’s eyes to be most useful for spontaneous flattery.
Win suspected Lady Garret would not be susceptible to spontaneous flattery. In truth, there was a practical, no-nonsense air about her, vaguely reminiscent of a governess that said, far louder than words, that this was a woman not to be trifled with. “No, I most certainly was not.”
She stopped to study the façade of the house and he nearly ran into her. It wasn’t enough that she was a woman, but he would wager she was an annoying woman at that.
He cast her his most charming smile. It had served him well in the past. Indeed, he had been told it was very nearly irresistible. He doubted even the stalwart Lady Garret could long ignore it. “I assumed that Lord Garret—”
“I do apologize for the confusion, Lord Stillwell. I regret to say my husband died nearly three years ago.” Her manner was brisk, her tone was matter of fact, as if her husband’s death was something she had long ago accepted as part of her life. Which was, no doubt, an eminently practical, no-nonsense way of looking at it.
Now that he thought about it, he vaguely remembered having heard of the death of Viscount Garret some three or four years ago and the subsequent death—in an accident if he recalled correctly—of his younger brother and heir only a few months later. But he hadn’t known either of the men. He assumed Lady Garret was the widow of the younger brother, but then he had also assumed she would be a man.
“My condolences, Lady Garret, and my apologies.” He did so hate awkward moments like this, but when the architect one thought one was hiring turned out to be dead, well, awkward was probably to be expected. “I should have realized—”
“Nonsense. You have nothing to apologize for, my lord.” She directed her words toward him, but her gaze stay fixed on the house. He could almost see the gears and wheels of her mind spinning like the workings of a fine Swiss clock. He brushed the absurd idea from his head. She was only a woman after all. “But I do thank you nonetheless.”
Apparently, Lady Garret was not about to freely offer an explanation as to why she was here representing her late husband’s business instead of, oh, Mr. Tempest, who—one would assume, given the name of the firm—was Lord Garret’s partner. Indeed, from the woman’s calm demeanor, one might think she didn’t feel an explanation was necessary. She was wrong.
“Forgive me, Lady Garret, for being blunt—”
“I am indeed the representative from Garret and Tempest. That is what you were about to ask, is it not?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“And, as I am quite alone, you needn’t continue to look hopefully at the carriage.”
“I wasn’t,” he lied. How could she possibly know that? She hadn’t looked at him once since she’d stopped to consider the manor.
“Perhaps, as you are so obviously still confused, I should explain.” Her tone remained pleasant enough, but her resemblance to a governess reasserted itself. Perhaps that was why he felt not unlike a small, chastised child. And a stupid child at that.
This was not the ideal way to begin a business arrangement if, indeed, he decided to hire Garret and Tempest. Although in truth, he had little choice. “That would be most appreciated.”
“My husband founded Garret and Tempest shortly after we married. He was not expected to inherit the title, you see, although he did so a scant three months before his death. I then became the majority owner of the firm. I feel an obligation to my late husband’s employees to ensure the continuation of the company . . .” She slanted him a pointed look. “In the same manner in which you, no doubt, feel a responsibility to your tenants and others who work for you.”
“When the need arises, I do what I must to make certain the firm does not fail. This is one of those times.” There was a note of resignation in her voice that one would expect from a well-bred lady who found herself involved in business. It didn’t quite seem to ring true, although surely he was mistaken. He was, no doubt, still stunned that she hadn’t fallen prey to his smile. “Our Mr. Clarke usually meets with clients and oversees construction. However, due to matters of a personal nature, he cannot assume that position at the moment. And that, Lord Stillwell, is why I am here.” She cast him a polite smile, then returned to her perusal of the house. “You’re quite fortunate that the façade is still intact.”
The debris from the fire had, for the most part, been cleared away and indeed, from the outside, Fairborough Hall did not look substantially different from how it always had. A bit blackened here and there perhaps, but all in all not bad. He sent yet another silent prayer of thanks heavenward for the skills of the original builders and architects.
“The interior did not fare as well.”
“Then perhaps I should see that.” She started for the door and again he trailed after her. “It was wise of you to send along drawings, plans, and photographs with your inquiries to the firm. How on earth did you manage to salvage them?”
“Only the center section of the house suffered serious damage,” he said. “I believe I mentioned that in my letters. Neither of the wings burned although there was considerable damage from smoke. The items I sent you were in the library, which, fortunately, needs little more than cleaning. We have been doing nothing but cleaning for the last few weeks.” He smiled in a wry manner. “We don’t seem to be progressing very quickly.”
“When you say ‘we’ I assume you mean servants and workers you have hired?”
“Yes and no. We have hired a great number of people to assist our servants in the cleaning. But this is my home, Lady Garret, the home of my parents and my cousin. My father will allow only a select few to work in the library—by his side, I might add. His books and his collection of rare manuscripts are entirely too dear to him to turn over to someone else. My mother feels the same about the artwork, furniture and family heirlooms that survived. We are not averse to physical labor in this family under circumstances such as these. Throughout its long history, the Elliott family has done what was necessary in times of trouble.” He wasn’t sure why he felt it necessary to explain, but, for whatever reason, he did.
“Sometimes when we lose something of importance what we have left becomes even more precious.”
“So it would seem.”
They reached the front entry and the temporary door that had been erected to keep out unwanted intruders—human or otherwise. “I should warn you, while we have accomplished a great deal, it’s still something of a mess inside. We had a carpenter from the village inspect the floor and he pronounced it sound, but you should watch your step.” He opened the door.
“If you would be so kind as to hold these.” She thrust the tube and her satchel at him and he had no choice but to take them. She picked up her skirts to step over the threshold. She wore the sturdiest, and possibly ugliest, shoes he had ever seen. “Are you staring at my ankles, Lord Stillwell?”
“I am scarcely in the habit of staring at the ankles of a woman I have only just met, Lady Garret,” he said with all the indignation he could muster, even though he had long thought a nicely turned ankle to be most provocative. And he had never hesitated to consider an ankle when the opportunity arose, whether he knew the lady or not.
“Ah, but your reputation precedes you, my lord,” she said mildly.
“One cannot believe everything one hears.” He resisted the urge to snap.
Certainly, in his younger days he had been prone to misbehavior and even now, he did enjoy a rousing good time in the companionship of like-minded gentlemen and indeed, whenever possible, he availed himself of the charms of a beautiful and willing woman, but he wasn’t the rogue he once was. He simply didn’t have the time. And it was somewhat irritating to be considered so. He was thirty-three years of age, managed his family’s business interests and property, and did so in a most successful manner. The Elliott family fortunes had more than prospered under his hand. Why, even his father was pleased with the man Win had become. That this overly sensible woman with her sturdy shoes had—
“One never can, my lord.” She started into the house, paying him no attention whatsoever. It was most annoying.
“As much as it pains me to admit it . . .” He stepped to her side. “I was not looking at your ankles as one can barely see them being blinded by the sight of the most horrendous shoes I have ever seen.”
“I am not going to a ball,” she said absently, her gaze scanning what was once the center part of the house. She turned toward him, opened the satchel—which required a bit of juggling on his part as she made no effort to take it from him—dug around in what looked to be a bottomless pit of a bag and withdrew a notebook and pencil. “And these are eminently practical for the task at hand.”
“God save us all from practical shoes on the feet of a lovely woman,” he said under his breath.
“I daresay God has more to worry about.” She stepped farther into the house, then stopped and wrote something in her notebook. He tried to get a glimpse of what she’d written, but she shifted and hid the notebook from his sight. He wasn’t sure if her movement was deliberate or not. Regardless, that too was annoying.
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