Excerpt from Pistols at Dawn
Eliza hesitated at the door to the library, wondering whether to venture another visit to Lord Killingworth's private lair. The first one had been, in every respect, a rather embarrassing experience. But as a glance below showed nothing but darkness, she decided there was little likelihood of another midnight encounter.
Especially if she were quick about it.
The door library was already slightly ajar. Anxious to be done with the errand, Eliza shouldered it open, taking no notice of the faint glow of candlelight dappling the threshold
"Bloody Hell and damnation."
The oath was hardly more than a whisper, but it stopped her dead in her tracks. "Oh!" she exclaimed in some dismay. "Forgive my intrusion. I had no idea—"
Marcus looked up, a harried expression on his lean features. The gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose blurred the sharpness of his gaze, making him look far less forbidding than usual.
"My words were not directed at you Miss Kirtland," he muttered. "Is something amiss?"
"No, no. I was not yet sleepy, so I, er, I thought I might borrow a book. To read." To her annoyance, Eliza found herself stuttering like a schoolgirl. "That is," she added stiffly, "If you have no objection."
He gave a curt wave at the shelves. "Take whatever you please." Without so much as another glance in her direction, his eyes dropped back to his blotter.
Much as she wished to slink away, she didn't wish to give him the satisfaction of thinking her intimidated by his presence. Drawing in a deep breath, she marched on, but on passing his desk, she couldn't help but glance at what was causing his brows to furrow in such an odd manner.
"You are doing sums?" she murmured on seeing the open ledger. "I wouldn't have thought such a task would have a gentleman like you burning the candles until dawn."
"Actually," snapped the earl, his voice edged with sarcasm. "I am writing a manual on the seduction and deflowering of innocent maidens."
She felt an uncomfortable heat spread over her cheeks. "So much for the notion of civility between us. I'll leave—"
"No, wait." He rubbed at his forehead. "Forgive me. I did not mean to be rude." His mouth crooked in a rueful grimace. "It's just that these columns of numbers are proving to be a more formidable opponent than Napoleon's Imperial Guards."
Did the man actually have a sense of humor?
Her interest piqued, Eliza leaned in to have a closer look. "You have made a mistake," she murmured after a moment.
His brows shot up. "Where?"
"Here." She pointed it out. "Oh—and here." After studying the page a bit longer, she made a face. "Good Lord, you've really made a mull of it. Here, let me have a closer look." Without thinking, she reached for the ledger.
Marcus leaned back without protest and allowed her to take it.
Rather surprised at his willingness to relinquish the accounts to a female, she carried the heavy volume to a nearby chair and began thumbing through the most recent entries. It was quite some time before she finally looked up and called him over.
A series of rapid-fire questions followed, none of which the earl could answer with any certainty.
"Hmmph." Eliza frowned she snapped the covers shut. "It doesn't make any sense. Your estate should be highly profitable. Have you considered switching to wheat in the south fields?"
"And the price you are getting for wool," she went on. "Either your steward is a hopeless incompetent or..." The sentence trailed off, but there was no doubt as to where it was leading.
Marcus's lips thinned. "I was beginning to wonder as much, despite my total lack of knowledge in these matters."
Once again Eliza found herself amazed at his reaction. Most males of her acquaintance would rather swallow nails than admit to any weakness, especially in the face of a female. She cleared her throat. "Unlike you, sir, I have a good deal of experience with the business of farming. If you like, I could have a look at all the past records and see what other irregularities may turn up. I am accorded to have a very good knack with figures."
The earl hesitated, and her faint smile hardened to a brittle scowl. No doubt his next words would be a snide comment concerning females and figures.
"I would be quite grateful," he began, but on taking in her change of expression, words cut off in a harsh laugh. "Ah. It appears you didn't expect me to take you up on the offer. No doubt with all the other duties you have been forced to assume these past few days—"
"It's not that. I—I was simply surprised that you don't mind asking for help from a female."
"I'll take any help I can get. It is clear that males have no innate skill at this." The lopsided smile that tugged at his lips caused Eliza's fingers to go rather slack on the leather binding. "At least not this male."
Hell's bells! Did he practice that boyish expression of vulnerability in front of the looking glass each morning, knowing what a devastating effect it would have on any female close by?
Even an aging country spinster.
Ignore the dratted man, she warned herself, forcing her gaze away from sensuous curves of his mouth and the twinkle of humor that softened the glitter of his eyes. He may be unskilled in practical subjects like mathematics, but the Earl of Killingworth obviously knew how to slather on the charm.
Finally mastering her momentary confusion, Eliza muttered a tart reply. "Well, I suppose I shall have to credit you with some shred of natural intelligence. Precious few gentlemen are smart enough to realize they are not infallible, much less admit it aloud."
This time, his low laugh held real amusement. "I am well aware of my faults, Miss Kirtland. And if I had, perchance, forgotten even a one, your cataloguing of them over the past few days would certainly have jogged my memory."
Eliza flushed on recollecting all the accusations she had hurled in his face. She ducked her head, pretending to take one last look at the ruled pages. "If you leave these accounts out in the morning room, I shall give them a careful study after breakfast."
With what she hoped was an expression of cool composure, she rose slowly and turned for the door, determined to make a dignified exit.
"Did you forget something?"
Her toe caught on the carpet, ruining the effect. With a silent oath, she looked around in consternation.
"A book—I believe you wished to borrow a book." Marcus gestured at the expanse of shelves. "There are, as you can see, a great many to choose from."
Was the earl really engaging in a bit of banter?
Angry with herself for allowing his rich baritone drawl to send a flutter through her insides, she snapped a waspish retort. "Any suggestions? Or are you as unfamiliar with them as you are with your ledgers?"
Ignoring the obvious sarcasm, Marcus steepled his fingers and appeared to be giving the barb serious consideration. "That would, of course, depend on your tastes, Miss Kirtland. If you favor the classics, there is a wide selection of Homer and the ancient philosophers in both Greek and English—though I'd not recommend the translation of The Iliad. It's rather dry in comparison with the original."
There was a fraction of a pause. "Or perhaps the Bard is more to your liking. There is a lovely set of the complete tragedies and comedies." His mouth betrayed a twitch of amusement. "Including The Taming of the Shrew."
"Hmmph." She turned on her heel, hoping her cheeks were not quite as burning as they felt. "On second thought, I find I have had enough entertainment for the evening. Good night, sir."
"Good night, Miss Kirtland."
As she drew the door closed, Eliza could have sworn she heard a very unlordly chuckle.