Excerpt: Romancing the Earl
Legendary Rogues, Book 2
Wiltshire, July 1819
“My lord, you have a visitor.”
My lord. Would he ever get used to that? Like as not, particularly after being called by a military rank nearly all of his adult life.
Captain Elijah Hollister—rather, Lord Bloody Norris—looked up from the ledger he was studying. The enormity of inheriting an earldom when one never planned on doing so weighed on him. But not so heavily as the shocking death of his brother last year, which had necessitated his return to England.
“Who is calling, Garber?”
The butler, a rigid, somewhat austere man who appealed to Elijah’s desire for order stood in the doorway, his dark blue costume plain, but immaculate. “She did not present a card, my lord, but says she is Miss Catriona Bowen. She is accompanied by someone called ‘Lacy’.”
Elijah arched a brow, but said nothing.
“Would you like me to inform her that you are busy?”
Elijah glanced down at the ledger and decided an unexpected visit would be more diverting than trying to make sense of these numbers. Besides, he’d yet to make the acquaintance of more than a handful of people since arriving in Wootton-Bassett just a fortnight ago. “No, I’ll come. Where is she?” He stood up from the desk and walked around it.
“The Egypt Room, my lord.”
Elijah fought a grimace. That was his least favorite room. The entire house was overdecorated and stuffed to the brim with antiquities the former earl—that is the cousin who’d held the title before Matthew had inherited it two and a half years ago—collected. However, the Egypt Room was particularly offensive and, frankly, disturbing with a pair of sarcophagi flanking the massive fireplace and an array of paraphernalia that had no doubt been stolen from someone’s tomb.
Elijah left the study, which he’d already begun to simplify by removing much of the former earl’s collection. The ballroom was quickly becoming a depository for the excess of antiquities, which Elijah planned to sell at the earliest opportunity.
A medium-sized saloon, the Egypt Room, was located at the back of the house with a view of the gardens. The day was overcast and mild, a far cry from the burning Australia summers he’d become accustomed to over the past five years.
His guest, a young woman with striking dark, nearly-black hair turned from the windows where she stood with the second woman, a much taller female wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a stoic expression. Elijah had no trouble discerning who was Miss Bowen and who was “Lacy.”
“Good afternoon,” he said, striding into the room.
Miss Bowen moved forward and smiled at him, her dark pink lips curving up and forming dimples in her cheeks. She was quite pretty, though in an unconventional way with her dark hair and eyes and a complexion that could be described as the color of tea with a spoonful of milk. In a room of flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned debutantes, she would gleam like a vibrant jewel.
“Good afternoon, my lord. I must beg your forgiveness for our presumption in visiting. I hope you won’t mind. I am Miss Catriona Bowen and this,” she gestured to the other woman who lingered near the windows, “is Lacy.”
Elijah glanced at the single-monikered woman and decided she’d make a good soldier. There was something about her demeanor that brought a sense of fierce protectiveness to mind. “Your visit is not presumptuous,” he said. “As I am new to the district, people have come to extend their greetings and I expect them to do so.”
Her smile faltered a bit and she blinked. “Yes, well, I am not from the district. My apologies. I am imposing. You are new to town—to England, from what I hear—and are likely trying to find your way as the new earl. Yes, I’m being quite presumptuous,” she said firmly, almost insistently, as if she would argue with him about her cheek.
And she wasn’t from Wootton Bassett? What a pity. “Then do tell me why you’ve come.”
“Certainly.” She walked to a dark blue settee. “Shall we sit?”
“Of course.” His hosting duties required some refinement. But then what about him didn’t? He’d spent the last five years on the other side of the world. Things didn’t get more unrefined than living in a penal colony.
Her smile returned as she perched on the settee, and Elijah decided she wanted something. Why else would she behave so boldly—and be proud of doing so—and continue to smile at him as if he could make all of her dreams come true.
What a ridiculous notion.
“I’m visiting my friend, Lady Miranda Foxcroft. I think you’ve met her?”
He had, as well as her husband. They ran the local orphanage. Fox had seemed a good sort and had done a great deal to put Elijah’s discomfort at ease. Lady Miranda, on the other hand, was a whirlwind of energy and purpose, but with a sense of humor he appreciated. “Yes, I’m surprised she didn’t accompany you.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t inform her of my intention to call on you. You see, my errand today is rather . . . secret.”
What sort of game was she playing? He didn’t have time for nonsense, not when he was drowning in estate business and overwhelmed with creditors demanding to be paid for the bills his brother had run up during his brief time as the earl. “Miss Bowen, perhaps if you went straight to the point?”
She frowned up at him. “I thought you were going to sit.”
He tamped down his growing frustration and sat in a chair opposite the settee. “Pray, tell me how I can help you.”
“Yes, that’s precisely it. You can help me. I’m an antiquarian and I’m looking for a small tapestry that Lord Norris—the previous,” she shook her head, “that is, the previous-previous maintained in his collection.”
Blimey, another antiquarian. Perhaps she’d be interested in taking some of this lot off his hands—provided she could pay for it. He had creditors to satisfy and an entire estate to overhaul. He looked at her intently. “Have you any idea how many tapestries Norris—the ‘previous-previous’—kept in his collection?”
Her eyes were warm as she nodded. “I do. I’ve toured Lord Norris’s collection on multiple occasions. It’s exemplary.”
It was bloody obnoxious. “I couldn’t say.”
“No, of course not. You’re a soldier, not an antiquities expert. I can describe the tapestry for you. It’s a medieval battle scene, about three feet square.” She gestured the size with her hands. “I believe it’s the only tapestry of that dimension. It’s a bit of an oddity. Lord Norris used to display it in the upstairs gallery, however he liked to move things around from time to time, and of course who knows what’s happened in the years since he passed.”
“While my brother was the earl.”
“Right.” Her forehead creased and her eyes filled with sympathy. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. However, I haven’t seen the tapestry you describe and I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to look. I’ve only just arrived a fortnight ago and I’m still trying to find my footing.”
“Of course you are, and this is why my presumption is terrible. I’m so sorry for bothering you. However, I’m afraid my need for the tapestry is quite urgent.”
He wasn’t sure what she was after. Did she want to buy it? “I wouldn’t know what to charge you for it. I will, in fact, be selling the entire collection, but I need to consult with an antiquarian before I do so.” He’d received a letter from a Lord Septon who’d offered to assist him with cataloging and evaluating the collection and planned to respond to him with haste.
Her face split into a beatific smile. “That is where I can help you. I can tell you precisely what the tapestry is worth, and I can pay you for half of it now.”
Half? “That’s a bit dubious, isn’t it? You telling me the price for something you clearly desire most fervently.”
Her expression dimmed. “Yes, I suppose, but I’m a trustworthy sort.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “So you say, but I don’t know you at all. You’re here on a secret errand so that I can’t even verify your identity with Lady Foxcroft. Would you trust you in this situation?”
She blinked at him. “Of course. I know myself to be quite honest and ethical.”
He resisted the urge to laugh. “It hardly signifies since I don’t know where the tapestry is and I don’t have time to find it. I would be happy to contact you after I’ve located the piece and ascertained its value.”
She scooted forward and squeezed her hands together on her lap. “I understand your hesitation, but perhaps I haven’t made my need for this tapestry plain. I require this tapestry immediately, my lord.”
He sat back and set his hands on the arm of the chair, then speared her with an intense stare. “Why?”
She glanced at her maidservant or chaperone or whatever-she-was, who seemed to slightly nod her head as if they’d silently communicated something. When Miss Bowen returned her attention to him, she set her chin at an audacious angle. “Because I need it to find something.”
That made no sense whatsoever. “How?”
She stared at him and he could almost see her mind churning. “It contains a . . . map.”
Just like that, Elijah snapped to attention as if his commanding officer had just stalked into the room. He leaned forward once more and slitted his eyes at her. “Like a treasure map?”
Her eyes widened. “I didn’t say anything about treasure.”
No, but he could tell from her reaction that treasure was precisely what she was looking for. Suddenly, the note Matthew had penned just before his death took on a whole new meaning. Instead of the drunken ramblings of a man who’d always dreamed of a grander life, it now seemed like something far more sinister.
“What do you know of this map?” Elijah asked.
“It’s a medieval battle scene and was likely stitched in the mid-fourteenth century.”
“How is it a battle scene and a map?”
For the first time, uncertainty crept into her gaze. “I don’t know. It only ever seemed to be a battle scene to me.”
“How on earth do you know it’s a map then?” His temper was beginning to spark. He didn’t appreciate fools and suffered them even less.
“I just do.” She pursed her lips. “I’m afraid I can’t disclose more than I already have. As I said, this is a secret endeavor. I should not have even told you this much, but you must understand how important it is that I obtain this tapestry.”
“What I understand is that you are likely trying to fleece me of something that is already quite valuable and that which possibly represents even greater value.”
She shook her head. “I’m not. The treasure it leads to is not monetarily valuable. It’s only important to the study of history. My brother is the curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and I plan to give it to him for display. The amount I would offer you for the tapestry is more than fair.”
Yet she hadn’t stated it as of yet. “How much?”
“Two hundred pounds.”
Good Christ, where had she gotten that kind of money? “You actually have a hundred pounds with you to give me today—you did say you had half?”
“Yes,” she said evenly. “I am prepared to pay you a hundred pounds. But first we have to find it. I know Lord Norris kept an inventory. Perhaps that will reveal its location. Might we review it?”
There was an inventory and Elijah had given it a cursory overview. However, it wouldn’t help them. Not with this. “I’m afraid that won’t be necessary. I’m fairly certain the map is gone.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open for the barest second. “No,” she breathed. “It can’t be. How do you know? You said you didn’t know where it was; you didn’t even know what I was talking about.”
“Not until you called it a map. My brother wrote a letter to me shortly before he died. I discounted it as his fanciful imagination, something he was prone to. However, in it, he mentions a treasure map that someone offered to buy, but whom he refused to sell it to.”
“If he refused, then it’s still here.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “I wasn’t finished. After he refused to sell it, he believed the men who’d visited him would perhaps try to steal it. He even worried about his own safety.”
Miss Bowen lifted her hand to her chest. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean, I am beginning to wonder if my brother’s carriage accident was really an accident after all. And I can tell you that he hid the map somewhere to keep it safe, but I haven’t the faintest idea where.”