Excerpt from The English Heiress
Michael slipped down Anglesey's interior marble staircase. He made it a point to know the servants in any place he visited, and Lady Blanche's servants in particular. They looked after her like the parents she didn't have, and they understood that Michael had the lady's best interests at heart.
His immediate concern was the Lady Blanche. He was a trifle nervous about facing her after all this time. But if anyone could help him pry information out of his obstinate stray, Blanche could.
From the direction of the estate office drifted the lilting voice Michael remembered with such pleasure. "No, Beamis, I will not sell the Wilmington acreage. Did you not hear me clearly the first time?"
Michael frowned. He'd never heard the lady's voice raised in anger. He distinctly remembered her as mild-mannered and ever courteous.
"But Lady Blanche, it is naught but rock and wood and of no use to anyone at all but poachers, His Grace said."
"You may remind the duke that the acreage is mine to do with as I wish, and I do not wish to sell it."
Michael hesitated, not wanting to interfere in a business discussion, but all his protective instincts clamored for him to halt the harassment of a lady in the name of her noble cousin. The intrusion of a third voice caused him further pause.
"My lady, we could use the proceeds from the sale for expanding the mine in Cornwall, as we discussed earlier. Your grandfather would have."
"I am not my grandfather, Barnaby! I have reason to keep the acreage and reason for not expanding the mine, and no need for explaining either. If you can do nothing better than badger me with the wishes of yourselves or my cousin or my grandfather with no care to what I want, than I shall be better off without the lot of you!"
Astonished, Michael presented himself at the office door. Two obviously harassed men, one in country tweed and the other in tradesman's drab, stood hats in hands before a wide desk. Behind the desk sat the dainty woman Michael remembered well.
Michael advanced into the room. "Why don't you just kick them in the balls and get it over with, my dear lady?" he asked with good cheer. "Men deal with physical pain much more stoically."
* * *
The startling appearance of her knight in tarnished armor dashed all thought of business out of Blanche's head. Michael! After almost two years, the wretched O'Toole dared to sweep back into her life as if he'd left only yesterday. She stifled an urge to dive over the desk and scratch his laughing eyes out.
He was more devastatingly handsome than she remembered. The years had sculpted his features into sharp cheekbones and lean jaw. Only the absurdity of his gloriously auburn hair and the laughing crinkle of his eyes softened his harsh features. She cast a quick glance at the breadth of strong shoulders she remembered too well, then forced herself to look away.
His ribald remark had left her men of business gaping with horror, but Blanche rose to his provocation. "Shall I take a pistol ball to your hide and discover the truth of that, O'Toole?"
Undeterred, Michael swept around the desk, produced a nosegay from his pocket, and flourished it before kissing the scar along her hairline. "Pistols at dawn, if you require, but I'd much rather take one to Neville than your dainty self."
He gestured toward their audience. "Wouldn't it be much simpler to just tell the gentlemen that you prefer feeding the poachers than letting your neighbors set traps for them? And I suppose the working conditions in the mine have deteriorated again to the point that you must visit the foreman and cut off his head before you give him one more ha'penny?"
"O'Toole, will you get away from me with your blarney and take these blasted flowers and shove them back in my garden where they belong?" Refusing to fall for Michael's charms as she so stupidly had once before, Blanche glared at their gaping audience. "You're both dismissed, and you may take this layabout with you when you go."
With that, she rose from her chair and glided toward the escape of her private apartments behind the public office.
Before the two burly men could manhandle him out the door, Michael called after her. "If I leave, you'll have to look after Fiona. I'm afraid she's a bit of a handful, but she's too far from home to return now!"
Blanche halted with her hand on the door to freedom. "Fiona? One of your strays, I presume?" she asked tartly.
He grinned. "Of course."