Rough-around-the-edges Cyrus Ryland rose from humble origins to become England’s wealthiest citizen and most eligible bachelor. Dubbed the King of Commerce, he thinks nothing of marriage until he hosts a masked ball and discovers an alluring woman hiding in his study. After one dance the lady vanishes, leaving behind a single shoe. The hunt is on, but finding her is only half the battle.
Claire Mayhew wants her hard won independence…a mid-town shop of her own. She resists the scorching attraction with Mr. Ryland — her new landlord. Cyrus isn’t a man who gives up easily.
But what’s a man to do if Cinderella doesn’t want her shoe back?
An excerpt ~
Under the small table, a male leg stretched, skimming Claire’s skirt. She forced her attention on Miss Ryland, but from her side vision, she noticed him. Couldn’t help it. He watched her like a hawk does a sparrow. Then his booted foot planted itself very close to her leg.
A spangle of awareness shot up her legs, causing her bottom to fidget on hard wood. Despite layers of underskirts, she couldn’t shake the feeling of sitting before him in naught but her drawers. She nodded amicably at Miss Ryland and sipped her coffee. Was he staking territory? Goading her to accept?
His foot moved closer.
One brow rose in challenge at his boot pressing her. She stayed politely stiff. A masculine brow elevated a miniscule arch in response.
The shop. Her muddled mind snapped with clarity of purpose.
“I’d be pleased to attend,” she blurted to Miss Ryland. “I’ll provide an assortment of baked goods. This Saturday, you say?”
Mr. Pentree entered the shop, shutting the door neatly behind him. The agent approached the table, tucking his plain black tricorne under his arm.
“It’s always a pleasure to walk past your door, Miss Mayhew, if only to get a whiff of the wonderful aromas inside,” he said with his customary cheer. “A sure sign of success, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Ryland?”
Her landlord raised his mug in salute. “To Miss Mayhew’s success.”
The deep-voiced words sounded like provocation.
Claire shot up from the bench. “Mr. Pentree, please take my seat.”
Across the shop by the chalkboard, Nate jabbed Sharp Eddie on the chest. Claire rubbed her nape and walked toward the lads. She didn’t want to interfere, but this was a place of business, her business. She couldn’t afford to look bad with Mr. Ryland on the premises.
Nate bared his teeth at his friend. This was the second incident between the two in as many days. Thankfully, the shop’s din absorbed most of their argument.
“Gentlemen, please,” she admonished. “This is not the time or place.”
Eddie’s head whipped around, his lips curled in an ugly snarl. Claire halted mid-step. The lad from St. Giles could be a cornered beast. His breath came heavy…from rage or running from the docks, she couldn’t say, but he thrust a wrinkled page at her.
“Here. News from Tower Wharf.” Eddie jammed his Dutch cap on unruly hair. “I’ll come back later to collect my ha’pennies.”
The youth banged a chair in his hasty departure, and Nate skulked off to the kitchen.
Outside, a tempest of a different kind blustered; gentlemen walked past her window gripping their coats. A storm was coming. Her day held enough turmoil; she need not get between Nate and Eddie.
Claire smoothed the foolscap. Unexpected troubles came of late…conflict between the runners…a late delivery of flour…bad sugar…spoiled coffee beans she had to toss and then purchase more at a higher price…a basket of eggs crashed on the floor twice this week…and the cost of spices…
She rubbed her neck, a dull ache forming. Doubts crept in, sometimes crashing over her, leaving her pummeled and bruised despite her best efforts.
“Trouble with the lads?”
She whirled around, her hand still on her neck.
Her unwavering landlord stood there, hat and box in hand.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, her voice overbright. “Things are going along quite well here.”
“I could see that by the way Mr. Fincher’s friend stormed out of here.”
She chafed at his droll tone, yet for a long second wanted to lean on him, test those capable shoulders. Would that make her less competent, finding shelter in a man, if only for a time? She was strong of mind and body. She stood on her own two feet, but part of her craved rest from the tedium that wore a soul down to the nub.
Her hands slipped into her apron pockets, and she decided against any naked admission of need.
“Mr. Ryland, on your first visit to my shop, you questioned my accounts. Now do you plan to inspect how I manage the messengers?” She was being a little tetchy, but that assessment of his touched a sore spot. “As long as I pay my rent come Friday, whatever else happens is no concern of yours.”
He cracked a smile. “Not afraid to put me in my place, are you?”
“As in reminding you that you’re my landlord and you’ve no business giving me such commentary? I’m happy to.”
Frayed nerves and a morning fraught with mishaps put her on edge. To admit this to him would be akin to acknowledging a chink in her shopkeeper’s armor. She wasn’t choosing her words with care.
“I admit I haven’t changed my mind on this venture of yours,” he asserted. “At the table, even you acknowledged the dangers preying on women in London. At least my sister’s business proposition must prove some goodwill during this trial period.”
She heard him, but her vision caught on the curious red ribbon.
He held out the wooden box. “It’s for you.”
Her gaze snapped up to his. “For me?”
Claire reached out, accepting the gift with cautious hands. She hefted the box gingerly up and down, checking the sides.
He chuckled. “I promise there’s no viper inside.”
“You bought me a ledger, didn’t you?” Her words lacked all enthusiasm. A rectangular account book could fit inside the box. So would a shoe.
“If I did, you must agree a ledger would do you good.” The way his brows slammed together, a small vertical line formed above his nose. “But you won’t know until you open it.”
Claire took a step closer, clutching the box between them. She could never stand nose to nose with him—her head reached him mid-chest—but something about being in Mr. Ryland’s presence enlivened her. She welcomed whatever he offered, same as she welcomed the small revelations that came to her about this man.
Wasn’t a gift of an account book a step in the right direction? She should be grateful, but looking again at the coming storm outside her shop opened her to a new notion.
“I thank you for the gift, Mr. Ryland, but it’d be more truthful to say today has been most insightful. I’d even go as far to say I’ve figured you out.”
“Have you, now?”
“Yes.” She nodded, warming up to her discovery. “You actually enjoy telling women what to do, giving them the full weight of your opinion.”
Ryland clasped his hands behind back. “Is that so?”
“Oh, yes. Some men bluster on about duty, issuing orders to their wives, daughters, or sisters”—she dropped her voice and gave him a pointed look—“their mistresses. But you, you take joy in the task.”
“And what if I do?” He drawled. “Is it bad to want to take care of a woman?”
“Take care of a woman?” Light laughter bubbled up from her. “Therein lies our dilemma: how you and I define what that means.”
Her body quickened, invigorating every limb. Standing up to him, speaking her mind, freed her, almost erasing the rough morning. But his reaction baffled her. He didn’t bristle at all from her pronouncement. Rather, unsettling, natural power emanated from his eyes, as deep a gray as calm winter seas.
Did Mr. Ryland feed off their exchange?
She wouldn’t find the answer because the caustic smell of burning baked goods reached her nose.
“Oh, the tarts,” Annie cried and sprinted from her place behind the counter.
Weight settled again on Claire’s shoulders, reminding her she was a woman of business, not leisure. Beyond her front window, a black conveyance fitted with polished, brass trim came to a halt. The demands of the day pulled her in one direction, taking Mr. Ryland in another.
“Your carriage,” she said, looking past him to the front window. “It’s here.”
He put on his hat. “Yes, there’s a cistern that apparently needs the full weight of my opinion this morning.”
She tried to stifle a hiccup of laughter. Mr. Ryland’s mouth twitched, but his sister’s approach concluded the moment. Claire’s hand dropped to her side, tautness setting in as she faced her empty chalkboard to the kitchen.
“And the morning news will have to wait, since there’s a dilemma in my kitchen.”
Ever the gentleman, Mr. Ryland bowed his leave.
“Until we meet again, Miss Mayhew.” He glanced at the gift she held. “Please. Don’t wait long to open the box.”
The Lady Meets Her Match Available April 7, 2015 Book 2, Midnight Meetings series
Don’t miss out! Book 1 in the Midnight Meetings series is Meet the Earl at Midnight where we first meet Claire and Cyrus