By: Kate Rothwell
London, twelve years later
The man waiting in her office was a penitent. Miss Dunaway could tell by the grim set of his mouth and the sorrow in his hazel eyes . When she firs t started, good works had been all the rage for young ladies. That—and her own restlessness—was how she’d succumbed. Members of society would come to her, determined to work with foundlings and glowing with pleasure at the thought of their future good deeds.
But dirtying one’s hands with charity seemed passé at the moment. These days the society ladies who sat in her visitor’s chair usually had been caught in lies and felt the need to at one for their sins, or prove to their husbands they had some sort of soul.
At her hurried entrance, her gentleman visitor rose to his feet. “Miss Dunaway.” His voice was warm—as if they’d met.
He did look familiar, but surely she’d have remembered any encounter with a person like him. So good-looking and—more to the issue—so obviously wealthy.
Very few men came through her door, and she’d never had such a magnificent specimen of upper-crust male breeding in her office. The jacket that fit him perfectly set off his own dark gold- streaked hair, which was slightly ruffled—his only sign of imperfection.
His dark clothing befitted a visit to an establishment such as hers. Small touches showed his wealth—the pristine white collar and cuffs with dull gold links matching the watch fob and the pin in the Windsor knot tie. Every detail flawless but not fussy. Except, no, even a man like this should have known better than to wear gold to a home for the poorest of the poor. He’d be tempting the inmates .
“What may I do for you today?” she asked.
“As I told Mr. Sheridan, I wish to volunteer.”
She held back the urge to roll her eyes. He was too well dressed, too everything high and mighty to wish to get his hands dirty. This one would quickly lose interest. It occurred to her that once this man disappeared, vanishing in a cloud of guilt and relief, Sheridan could milk him for money. That would be better, really.
Was he famous? Was that why she knew his thin, handsome face? Blast it all, Sheridan had warned her a rich ’unwould be visiting, and she’d forgotten to check the name in the big appointment book at Sherry’s desk. She smiled at the gentleman now, wishing she’d spent the extra five seconds to open the blasted thing. She hadn’t even had time to take off her apron.
“Do take a seat.” She sat behind the huge piles of papers on her desk. “This is terribly embarrassing but… I can’t recall? Um, your name? ”
A flicker of surprise and perhaps hauteur. These men and women of a certain class thought the world of themselves and expected the rest of mankind to consider them the center of existence too.
“I’m Fellington,” he said as if his name should be enough to make all clear—and good God. For once, it was enough.
he wanted to run out the door and hide. Send someone else to deal with him. No wonder he’d looked familiar. Did he know her? She hoped not.
It was so long ago and in another world—she must have changed. He was nothing like the slightly pudgy, rumpled young man who’d sat next to her at dinner and had done such interesting things with her mouth and body less than an hour later. She shivered thinking of it. More than a lifetime ago.
He couldn’t possibly remember her. She’d only learned his identity from the long list of names her angry father had aimed at her. She’d finally understood her “Phil” had been Fell. She said nothing to anyone. Eve
And then there was the other notorious Fellington business. Fellington who fell.That all happened about a year ago. Two of his friends and his younger brother—all dead in an accident, and so many whispers that the magnificent and reckless young earl had something to do with it. Not murder, she recalled. Something to do with a bet or a race.
No wonder the man appeared haunted.
She cleared her throat. “Ah. Of course. Lord Fellington, may I say I’m so sorry for your loss?
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His expression went flat . He looked bored, of all things. “ Yes . Thank you,” he said. Looking at this man whose handsome face was worn with sorrow, she felt a surge of compassion.
Not only the poor and abandoned feel pain, she reminded herself. There is a world of hurting hearts outside the asylum. So when she spoke again, it was with more than a pretense of concern and sympathy. “We are glad you thought of us. What do you think to do here, my lord?”
Wrong question, she could tell by his impatient expression. “I told you, I am at your service.”
“Where do your talents lie?”
A trace of a grimace crossed his face. “I do know a bit about managing an estate, but my greatest talents? I can pick fine wines, I can ride and shoot. I play cards. I am, in short, a fribble.”
Her sympathy evaporated. Life was too short and brutal for a man like this to indulge in self- loathing
And then he made it worse by adding with a small smile, “I know how to give a woman pleasure.”
Heavens above. She knew firsthand he didn’t lie about his ability. But now she wanted to slap him—at the same time she wanted to demand that he show her again. He said he was at her service, after all.
Thank you, no.
Miss Dunaway did not need the suggestion of any sort of sensuality in her life. The dreams and longing were bad enough. During the day, she escaped temptation by staying far too.
busy, but at night…no. The fragrance of flowers in spring was hard enough—this gentleman, with his fine appearance and appealing body, was far worse.
No more attempts to discover Fellington’s preferences. He wished to be of help? Time to toss him directly into the fire. She rose to her feet. “Very well, if you insist. We will start with the dormitories . I’d summon my assistant to show you how to check them but she’s on a holiday, so I’m afraid you and I will have to get to work.”
He rose as well and looked at her, eyebrows raised, clearly taken aback.
She hid her amusement. “No need to worry. We won’t be cleaning. The maid and older children have taken care of any chamber pots in the younger children’s ward—no indoor plumbing yet in that part of the building, we’re working on that. We shall strip the linen where necessary.
You and I must simply check for stolen goods and other forbidden items such as knives. If you’re still here after lunch, I would like to paint the larger dining room, and perhaps you can have that job since Perkins is far too busy. I’ve picked a blue I hope will cover the dreary gray it is now .
For the first time, he smiled. A full, real smile that was far too attractive and showed white teeth and warmed his grey-green eyes . Had his smile been so very appealing all those years ago? She didn’t recall seeing it.
Her memory of that night was of wine she shouldn’t have drunk and seizing at her chance to escape. And those kisses in the dark. She hadn’t thought of them for years , but the memory still could make her catch her breath and create curious quivers of desire.
Lord Fellington followed her out of the room. As they walked, he said, “Mr. Sheridan said you didn’t suffer fools gladly.”
“Did he?” Had she been rude with Lord Fellington already? Businesslike, she’d hoped, but this man made her nerves dance when she needed them to be still. “I try to be polite —to set a good example for the children. I just don’t have time for…” She caught herself for once. “Well, goodness. I don’t have time to even check the name of my visitors. The list of chores I recited truly needs to be completed. So shall we?”
She led him to the stairs to the dormitory. “I apologize if I seem abrupt,” she said over her shoulder. She moved quickly because his presence behind her made her skin prickle.
“Not at all.” He grinned at her.
They stopped on the steps to give room to a group of third formers who clattered down past them, each shouting, “Morning, Miss!”
The children eyed him curiously, but thank goodness none of them tried any cheek. Perhaps his imposing form was enough to depress the snide remarks.
The children passed, and she examined his lean torso.
he slowly rubbed a hand over his belly and the somber waistcoat. She met his eyes and saw he watched her with a look of entertained surprise. The man thought she was admiring his body. She responded tartly, “I forgot to tell you to hide your watch fob. Thank goodness you still have it and your watch.
His smile vanished. “Your, ah, charges might steal it?
She turned and climbed the stairs . “ I hope not, but one should be prepared.”
“I’m glad no one’s taken it. The watch is rather important to me,” he said. “A matter of sentiment. It was my father’s.” He gave a laugh. “I’d wondered why you wore no jewelry. Now I know.”
How odd that he’d even notice such a thing. She glanced over her shoulder. “One must be willing to sacrifice all sorts of things to be a part of life here.”
“Must one sacrifice everything?” he asked, meeting her eyes.
everything. Love, dreams of a family. All of it. She turned forward at once, and increased her speed—almost stumbling up the stairs . “I’m not certain why Sheridan thought you’d serve us best in the day-to-day business of the place,” she said.
“He didn’t think that. I did.”
She stopped in the upper corridor, and when she turned, he was too close to her. So near she could smell him. Such a lovely, clean scent, not a hint of carbolic, and she rather hated him for a moment, or resented the way her body woke in response.
Miss Dunaway backed away and began to babble, “You say you have no talents, but you’ve been to school and university. I’m sure you’d be perfect at helping him raise money. Or perhaps you’d help us publicize the plight of our children.”
“I wanted to be here, doing this, because of you.” It wasn’t her imagination—he moved toward her, closing the space.
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“What?” She blinked at him and felt her face flush. She’d turned bright red, she knew it. She needed her wits about her, and she was in over her head. It reminded her of her early days here, when a boy pulled a knife on her. This felt as dangerous—although a good deal more interesting.
Was he attempting to be intimate ?
Surely if he’d recognized her, he would have said something before. He’d have laughed and reminded her of her silly, childish plan—the plan that worked.
Since he was a gentleman, he might not mention the five minutes of touching and kisses they’d exchanged. He might not even remember them.
More than a decade had passed, and the man had the reputation as something of a dashing man about town. Even trapped in the asylum, she’d known about him. She’d quietly sought out the gossip.
She put her hands behind her back and decided the time had come. “Lord Fellington. What do you mean because of me? I have no idea what you think you know about me.”
“Sheridan and I are good friends.”
Oh. Could that be some perverse disappointment she felt because his visit had nothing to do with their shared past? Certainly she didn’t want him to know the competent Miss Dunaway was the ridiculous, tipsy girl from the Campbells’ party. He’d be less likely to donate the money the asylum sorely needed.
She was intrigued that Lord Fellington would admit to having a friend like Sheridan. Sherry wasn’t at the very bottom rung of the social ladder, but he could never climb even close to the elite heights this man occupied.
Lord Fellington went on, “Sherry told me the truth about you.”
She felt a stab of panic. “What?” she croaked. “I mean, what did he tell you? ” She wanted to protest her discretion, then realized there was no reason. Sherry wouldn’t have told Fellington she was the idiot girl who’d begged for a kiss at that long-ago party. Sheridan hadn’t even heard the story of the kiss. None of her London friends had.
“He told me you wrote most of the papers he publishes as his own. The appeals, the stories . You put most of the words in his mouth. ”
With dismay, she recognized Lord Fellington’s reverent tone and knew why he’d come to her office. This man simply admired her good works. How dreary—another one of those.
“He’s wrong,” she said. “I supply facts, but I don’t come up with most of the ideas he uses to raise funds.”
Sheridan was the one who decided to make her the face of the asylum, blast the man. And so here was another one come to worship her as some sort of saint and perhaps find absolution with her blessing. Bah.
Of course Lord Fellington’s interest in her had nothing to do with her appeal as a woman. She plastered a bright smile on her face and reminded herself that she was most definitely not surprised or disappointed. After years of living and breathing the asylum, she was not what any male would consider a real female any longer. She was twenty-nine years old, for heaven’s sake. Or would be in a week.
“I was drawn by your strength,” Fellington went on, confirming the fact that she was not entirely human to him. “Sheridan says you never give up. Even in your weakest moments, you’re stronger than anyone he’s met .
Oh, enough. Blast the man. Why should she care if he saw her as some kind of saint , as a marvelous, sparking electrical device, rather than a woman?
“If I have strength, it’s not something that’ll rub off on people. I’m stubborn, that’s all,” she snapped. “You don’t catch stubbornness as if it was influenza.”
She ordered herself to stop. This was a man with money. She rubbed her hands over her face and groaned. “Stubborn and an idiot . I apologize. I am not usually so rude.” She often was , but he needn’t know it
“No need to apologize.” Fellington’s smile was real. Not a frozen grimace of mortification. “That was a rather dreadful thing to say wasn’t it?
She thought he referred to her scolding, until he went on. “It slipped out. I don’t mean to portray myself as some sort of clinging vine or to imply that you’re…” He waved a hand. “Some sort of martyr or angel.”
She opened her mouth but didn’t speak.
“Don’t look so shocked. Sheridan told me you disliked his practice of using you in appeals for funds, even though he’s found it effective.”
She nodded. “It is so mawkish. And silly.” She made a face. “Last month when he was conducting a tour of potential donors, a woman grabbed my hands. She wept on them and kissed my fingers. I wanted to tell her that less than ten minutes earlier I’d been using those hands to clean the most unimaginable… Well. Never mind.”
She felt the heat of another blush again. She would not treat this man as a confidante— although it occurred to her that he did know how to keep a secret. After that night so long ago, she’d never heard a hint of gossip about the loose or slightly lunatic Miss Dunaway . How easy it would have been for him to spread the entertaining story, too
“Here.” She opened the door and led him into the youngest girl s’ dormitory. The familiar smell of young bodies and urine and carbolic soothed her. She went to the farthest bed, pulled out at runk and opened it.
“What are we searching for?”
She looked up at him from where she knelt. Such an odd angle from which to examine a man. He looked straight, tall and immensely powerful — totally out of place in this room and her life. She cleared her throat. “I don’t wish to treat their possessions with disrespect, but there have been some thefts recently.
We still haven’t tracked the culprit, though I have my suspicions. At any rate, if they know we regularly check their belongings, thieving seems to slow down. Also I see which children are in need of new clothing.” She pulled a small tattered stocking from the trunk and then fished through her apron pocket for her memo book.
He still loomed over her.
“That’s what you can do.” She thrust the book and a pencil at him without looking up. Looking into his watchful hazel eyes , more green than grey, disturbed her. Their fingers touched, and even that slight contact made her heart beat faster. “You’ll make the lists. Start with the fact that the youngest Lucy is in dire need of stockings.”
She folded Lucy’s belongings carefully away , far more neatly than the girl had left them. She pulled a small mint drop wrapped in brown paper from her pocket and left it on the pile before closing the lid.
He seemed curious rather than disapproving, so she told him the truth. “Candy. I leave it because I feel guilty, I expect. I’m rather like a sneak myself riffling through their belongings.” She glanced up to see if he frowned. It was weakness on her part, giving treats for no particular reason. A matron must be decisive and unbending in her rules and habits. But no, he only grinned back.
Heavens, she wished his smile didn’t show the intriguing lines around his eyes or make his whole face glow.
They made their way along the beds. She flipped up a mattress to check underneath. “That looks heavy. May I?” he asked.
“I am used to the exercise,” she said. “And I’m not sure you’d recognize the sign s of bedbugs or fleas.”
He took a step away from the mattress, and she couldn’t help smirking. When she looked up again, he was grinning at her as if they were old friends. “ I rather get the impression you’re trying to give me a disgust of this place. You don’t wish to send me on my way , do you?
“No, of course I don’t,” she answered and realized she wasn’t lying. He was a pleasant man, even if his presence awoke her body and made her yearn for something she’d no business desiring. She felt at witch of resentment at that unfulfilled sensation.
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“Good, because trying to drive me off won’t work,” he told her gently. “I shan’t leave. I have no where to go.”
“Oh, bah.” She flipped open the last trunk so hard the leather hinges squealed in protest. Miss Dunaway quickly flipped and folded her way though Molly’s belongings. “ I happen to know you own a fine mansion in Mayfair and no doubt some sort of country estate and hunting box and—and all sorts of properties. Nowhere to go, my eye.
She froze and groaned. “Lord Fellington, I beg your pardon. I wish I knew why I feel the need to be rude to you. ” Liar , you know exactly why.
She forced herself to look up at him. He stood with the book and pencil poised and ready, no sign of resentment. There was even warmth in his face.
“I find it interesting that you know so much about me. And I hope you’re willing to express how you truly feel because you are growing comfortable with me.”
She flipped the lid of the trunk closed and paused to consider his words. Heavens, she wasn’t the least bit comfortable with him. For one thing, she was far too aware of his body and his exotic adult maleness. Even the smell of him reminded her of luxury and the world of temptation she’d so carefully removed from her life—or rather she’d locked herself away from.
“Yes , perhaps that’s it. Comfortable, ” she lied and turned away to haul up Mindy and Lisa’s shared mattress. She gave it a brief inspection and carefully controlled her breathing. She’d keep a tight check on herself. She knew how. “I do wish you would tell me what you wanted from me. From us,” she hastily amended. “Why are you here? Has it anything to do with the tragedy in your life?”
His teasing manner vanished, and she hoped he wasn’t offended. Especially because, for once, she wasn’t trying to goad him.
“Yes ,” he said after a moment’s silence. “I suppose that forms the main reason.”
She cocked her head. “Please tell me.”
“After the accident, I was in a bad way. Foul tempered and full of self pity, I mean. That’s how I got to know Sheridan. He wasn’t a close friend but he came to see me and refused to take offense at my ill manners.”
She nodded and smiled fondly. “He’s a stubborn person.”
Lord Fellington went on, “He told me stories — anecdotes about the foundling asylum. About the indefatigable Miss Dunaway and how you held the board of directors hostage until they agreed to improve the children’s diets. He told of the day you faced down a chimney sweep who’d pretended to be a small lad’s uncle in order to get some free labor for his business
She felt her face turn red and hoped Sherry hadn’t repeated some of the words she’d used that day. Working with the foundlings had significantly changed her vocabulary.
“I laughed at those stories. And. It had been so long since I laughed.” He closed his eyes for a long moment
She wanted to touch his hand but didn’t dare. She crossed her arms to stop herself. After a moment, he went on. “He convinced me that there had to be a reason I was still alive. I shouldn’t have been, you see. It was a fluke I only broke a leg.”
He swallowed with visible effort. “ That night my brother and the others died. It was stupid. Too much drink and my brother’s reckless desire to race in bad weather. Three people I loved had been wiped from existence.”
She held so still she barely breathed, trying not to disrupt the halting words. After a few seconds, he seemed more able to speak. “I was spared. I shouldn’t have been, because I was just as great a fool as they’d been. But I came to believe. There had to be a reason. I had to find more. There had to be a reason. Why I lived.” He fell silent.
“And you came here,” she said at last
He nodded. She allowed herself to touch his shoulder. “We’ll keep you, then.”
He drew in another long sigh, and she could hear the rattle of unshed tears in it. But when he spoke, he sounded entirely composed again. “May I escort you to lunch, Miss Dunaway?”