Nine-year-old Viscount Randall gazed toward Lyme’s coast but didn’t see where the glistening water met the vast sky. He was too lost in a vivid daydream of being all grown-up, wearing the black robes of the British prime minister, and delivering a blistering piece of oratorical brilliance to Parliament about why perfectly reasonable boys shouldn’t be forced to spend their summer holidays with jingle-brained girls.
“You know when your dog rubs against me it’s because he wants to make babies,” said Isabella St. Vincent, the most jingled-brained girl of them all, interrupting his musings.
The two children picnicked on a large rock as their fathers roamed about the cliffs, searching for ancient sea creatures. Their papas were new and fast friends, but the offspring were not so bonded, as evidenced by the line of seaweed dividing Randall’s side of the rock from hers.
“All male species have the barbaric need to rub against females,” she continued as she spread strawberry preserves on her biscuit.
She was always blurting out odd things. For instance, yesterday, when he had been concentrating hard on cheating in a game of whist in hopes of finally beating her, she had piped up, “Do you know the interest of the Bank of England rose by a half a percentage?” Or last night, when she caught him in the corridor as he was trying to sneak a hedgehog into her room in revenge for losing every card game to her, including the ones he cheated at. “I’m going to purchase canal stocks instead of consuls with my pin money because at my young age, I can afford greater investment risks,” she’d said, shockingly oblivious to the squirming, prickly rodent under his coat.
Despite being exactly one week younger than he was, she towered over him by a good six inches. Her legs were too long for her flat torso. An enormous head bobbled atop her neck. Her pale skin contrasted with her thick, wiry black hair, which shot out in all directions. And if that wasn’t peculiar enough, she gazed at the world through lenses so thick that astronomers could spot new planets with them, but she needed them just to see her own hands. Hence, he took great glee in hiding them from her.
“You’re so stupid.” He licked fluffy orange cream icing from a slice of cake. “Everyone knows babies come when a woman marries a man, and she lies in bed at night, thinking about yellow daffodils and pink lilies. Then God puts a baby in her belly.” He used an exaggerated patronizing tone befitting a brilliant, powerful viscount destined for prime ministership—even if “viscount” was only a courtesy title. Meanwhile, Isabella was merely a scary, retired merchant’s daughter whom no one would ever want to marry. And, after all, a female’s sole purpose in life was to get married and have children.
“No, you cabbage-headed dolt,” she retorted. “Cousin Judith told me! She said girls shouldn’t be ignorant about the matters of life.” Isabella’s Irish mother had died, so Cousin Judith was her companion. Randall’s mama claimed that Judith was one of those “unnatural sorts” who supported something terrible called “rights of women.” He didn’t understand the specifics, except that it would destroy the very fabric of civilized society. He would certainly abolish it when he was prime minister.
“Judith said that for a woman to produce children, she, unfortunately, requires a man.” Isabella’s gray eyes grew into huge round circles behind her spectacles. “That he, being of simple, base nature and mind, becomes excited at the mere glimpse of a woman’s naked body.”
He was about to interject that she was wrong again—girls were never right—but stopped, intrigued by the naked part. Nudity, passing gas, and burping were his favorite subjects.
“Anyway, a man has a penis,” she said. “It’s a puny, silly-looking thing that dangles between his limbs.”
He gazed down at the tiny bulge in his trousers. He had never considered his little friend silly.
“When a man sees the bare flesh of a woman, it becomes engorged,” she said. “And he behaves like a primitive ape and wants to insert it into the woman’s sacred vagina. My cousin said that was the passage between a woman’s legs that leads to the holy chamber of her womb.”
“The what?” Where was this holy chamber? He was suddenly overcome with wild curiosity to see one of these sacred vaginas.
“Judith said the man then moves back and forth in an excited, animalistic fashion for approximately ten seconds, until he reaches an excited state called orgasm. Then he ejaculates his seed into the woman’s bodily temple, thus making a baby.”
His dreams of future political power, the shimmering ocean, fluffy vanilla-orange icing, and a prank on Isabella involving a dead, stinking fish all seemed unimportant. He gazed at his crotch and then her lap—the most brilliant idea he ever conceived lighting up his brain. “I’ll show you my penis if you show me your vagina.” He flashed his best why-aren’t-you-just-an-adorable-little-thing smile, which, when coupled with his blond hair and angelic, bright blue eyes, charmed his nannies into giving him anything he wanted. However, his cherubic looks and charm didn’t work on arctic-hearted Isabella.
“You idiot!” She flicked a spoonful of preserves at his face.
“You abnormal, cracked, freakish girl!” he cried. “I only play with you because my father makes me.” He smeared her spectacles with icing. In retaliation, she grabbed her jar of lemonade and doused him.
When their fathers and nurses found them, she was atop the young viscount, now slathered in jam, icing, mustard, and sticky lemonade, pummeling him with her little fists.
Mr. St. Vincent yanked his daughter up.
“She just hit me for no reason,” Randall wailed, adopting his poor-innocent-me sad eyes. “I didn’t do anything to her.”
“Young lady, you do not hit boys,” her father admonished. “Especially fine young viscounts. You’ve embarrassed me again.”
“I’m sorry, Papa,” Isabella cried, bereft under her father’s hard gaze. Humiliation wafted from her ungainly body and Randall felt a pang of sympathy, but it didn’t diminish the joy of knowing she had gotten in trouble and he hadn’t.
The Earl of Hazelwood placed a large hand on the back of Randall’s neck and gave his son a shake. “Son, we didn’t find any old sea creatures, but Mr. St. Vincent has come up with a brilliant idea to help our tenants and provide a dependable monthly income.” He turned to his friend. “We are starting the Bank of Lord Hazelwood. Mr. St. Vincent and I will be the major shareholders and we will add another board member from the village.”
Even as a small child, Randall had an uneasy, gnawing feeling in his gut about this business venture that none of Mr. St. Vincent’s strange terms, such as financial stabilization, wealth building, or reliable means for tenant borrowing and lending, could dissuade. He was never going to get rid of that rotten Isabella.
Through the years, he and she remained like two hostile countries in an uneasy truce; a lemonade-throwing, cake-splatting war could break out at any moment. Randall would indeed follow his path to political fame, winning a seat in Parliament after receiving a Bachelor of Arts from St. John’s College, Cambridge. He basked in the adoration of London society as the Tory golden boy. To support Randall’s London lifestyle, the Earl of Hazelwood signed over a large amount of the bank’s now quite profitable shares to his son.
He came home from Parliament when he was twenty-three to witness Isabella standing stoic and haunted with no black veil to hide her pale face from the frigid January air as they lowered her father into the frozen earth. Having no husband, she inherited her father’s share in the bank and began to help run it. The two enemies’ lives would be hopelessly entwined through the institution born that fateful day in Lyme, when Randall learned how babies were made.
For the next five years, bank matters rolled along smoothly. Then the board secretary passed away unexpectedly, leaving his portion to his young bachelor nephew, Mr. Anthony Powers.
Stuke Buzzard, England
Isabella lifted a delicate, perfectly coiled tendril of hair in the “luxurious shade of raven’s wing” from the Madam O’Amor’s House of Beauty package that she had secreted into her bedchamber.
Her black cat, Milton, who had been bathing his male feline parts on her pillow, stopped and stared at the creation, his green eyes glittery.
“This is not a rat,” Isabella told him. “You may not eat it.”
Unconvinced, the cat rolled onto his paws, hunched, and flicked his tail, ready to pounce.
The advertisement in last month’s Miroir de Dames had read “Losing your petals? Withering on the vine? Return to your full, fresh, feminine bloom with Madam O’Amor’s famous youth-restoring lotion compounded of the finest secret ingredients, and flowing tendrils, puffs, and braids made from the softest hair.”
Isabella typically didn’t believe such flapdoodle. But at twenty-nine, she was dangling off the marital cliff and gazing down into the deep abyss of childless spinsterhood. Now she finally had a live, respectable fish by the name of Mr. Powers, her bank partner, swimming around the hook. After he walked her home from church on Sunday, she had decided not to take any chances and had broken down and ordered Madam’s concoctions. Even then, a little voice inside her warned, “Don’t lie to yourself. Who would want to marry an abnormal, cracked, freakish girl?” All those things Randall had called her years ago. Strange that words uttered so long ago still had the power to sting.
After making excuses to loiter about the village post office for almost a week, Isabella had been relieved when her order had finally arrived on the train that morning, just in time to restore her full, fresh, feminine bloom before Mr. Powers called on bank business. Little did the poor gentleman know that for once she couldn’t care less about stocks and consuls. She was hoping for a more personal investment with a high rate of marital return: a husband.
Standing before her vanity mirror, she opened the drawer, drew out a hairpin, and headed into battle. Her overgrown, irrepressible mane refused to curl tamely, held a fierce vendetta against pins, and rebelled against any empire, Neapolitan, or shepherdess coiffure enforced on it. She secured the first tendril and studied the result. It didn’t fall in the same easy, elegant spiral as in the advertisement, but shot out from behind her ear like a coiled, bouncy spring.
“Oh no, this looks terrible.” She tugged at it, trying to loosen the curl. “I’ll just secure the other. You can’t tell from just one; it’s not balanced.”
Meanwhile, her cat eyed her, scheming to get at those strange yet oddly luxurious rats on her head.
The second tendril was no better than the first. “I look even more abnormal, cracked, and freakish, if that were possible. I knew this was a stupid idea. Why did I even try when I knew it was stupid?” She sank into her chair and buried her face in her hands. She just wanted a husband and children. Why was it so difficult for her? Why couldn’t she be like her mother—graceful and gentle?
“Darling, I hate to nag,” Judith called through the door. “But the Wollstonecraft Society meeting is in less than two weeks. You really must practice your speech.”
Oh fudge! Isabella didn’t have time to remove the offending curls. She grabbed Madam O’Amor’s box and shoved it under the bed. Milton, who was teeter- ing on the edge of the mattress, saw his moment and took a nasty swipe at her head.
Judith, founding member of the Mary Wollstonecraft Society Against the Injurious Treatment of Women Whose Rights Have Been Unjustly Usurped by the Tyrannical and Ignorant Regime of the Male Kind, strolled in. Her auburn hair was pulled into a sloppy bun and secured by crossed pencils, her reading glasses sitting low on her Roman nose. Before her face, she held Isabella’s draft of her acceptance speech for this year’s Wollstonecraft award.
“My dear, this is interesting information, but it’s rather, well…boring,” she said. “Unlike you, most people don’t remember numbers and—my goodness, what torture have you inflicted on your poor hair?”
Isabella extricated Milton’s claw from her head and drew herself tall. “I’ve styled my hair into tendrils,” she said firmly. Her companion was bossy and a relent- less nagger. Isabella had to put up a strong front.
“I said tendrils.”
A tiny pleat formed between Judith’s eyebrows. “I hope you aren’t doing all this for a man?” Her face screwed up tight, as if the word man emitted a foul stench.
“No, no, of course not.” Isabella had been careful to hide her little infatuation with Mr. Powers. If she didn’t, Judith would launch into her standard marital lecture, that Isabella shouldn’t give over her freedom and money to a simple-minded, barbaric man who would just gamble away her wealth. “W-what would I do with a man?” Isabella laughed nervously, trying to sound innocent. Her gaze wandered to the bed, and her mind lit up with all manner of things she would do with him.
Thankfully, Judith didn’t pursue the subject, but reverted back to her usual obsession: the Wollstonecraft Society. “Now, darling, you need to make an emo- tional connection with the society members in your speech. You must speak to their desires and pains. Remember how we discussed showing our emotions when writing your book.”
Isabella groaned. “We agreed never to talk about the book again.”
A fellow member of the Wollstonecraft Society had recently bought a printing press in London. Judith had thought it a wonderful idea for Isabella to write a volume educating women about investing and the stock exchange. She’d pestered Isabella for months. Finally, when the weather turned brutal in the winter, Isabella produced a work she titled A Guide to the Funds and Sound Business Practices for Gentle Spinsters and Widows by “A Lady.” She gave the pages to Judith to edit and happily forgot about it. Three months later, her companion returned a bound book retitled From Poor to Prosperous, How Intelligent, Resourceful Spinsters, Widows, and Female Victims of Ill-fated Marital Circumstances Can Procure Wealth, Independence, and Dignity by Isabella St. Vincent, majority partner in the Bank of Lord Hazelwood.
The entire village must have heard Isabella’s morti- fied scream. To make it all the worse, Judith had taken her modest examples, such as “Hannah was a plain spinster with only the limited means left to her by her late father,” and added such Gothic claptrap as Hannah having been used and abandoned by some arrogant lord of a manor.
She had hoped the book would languish unread on some library bookshelf until it disintegrated into dust, but it was now in its fourth printing. And Isabella, who was only a member of the society because Judith sent in her membership letter each year, was to be awarded the society’s highest honor: the Wollstonecraft—a large gold-painted plaster bust of the famous advocate of rights for women.
Judith pointed to a paragraph on page two of Isabella’s scribbled speech. “Now, where you say consuls return three percent, you should perhaps say, ‘an infirm widow whose husband, a typical subjugating, evil man, had gambled away their savings before drinking himself to—’”
“I can’t say those things.” Isabella flung up her arms. “You know I’m a horrid lecturer. I just stand there mute or start babbling nonsense. Please go to the London meeting and accept the award. You had as much to do with the book as I. And you know Milton gets mad when I go away, and wets my bed out of spite.”
“Isabella!” Judith gasped. “It’s the Wollstonecraft! Do you know how many ladies dream of being in your shoes?”
Isabella couldn’t think of more than six. “But… but…” I’ve almost got one of those subjugating, evil men hooked and squirming on my marital line. I can’t leave now. To Hades with the gold bust of Mary Wollstonecraft! If I don’t know a man soon, I’m going to spontaneously combust. “No buts,” her companion said, handing Isabella back her pages. Surrounding her neat, efficient words and tables were arrows pointing to her cousin’s scrawled notes that read “Young widow must support ailing child,” or “Honorable, aging spinster turned away from her home.”
“This is wrong. Investing is about numbers, not whether you are abandoned or caring for your dead sister’s husband’s cousin’s eleven blind and crippled orphaned children or such nonsense.”
“Now you sound like a man.” Judith scrunched her nose again at the terrible M word. “The women of Britain need your help. They have no rights, no vote, no control over their lives. Money is their only freedom.” She placed her palm on Isabella’s cheek. “I know what a brave, kind soul you are. Inside of you remains the grave child who didn’t cry by her mother’s casket and the young woman who waited stoically every day by her dying father’s bedside. Don’t be afraid of your vulnerability and pain. Use it to talk to your sisters in need.”
Isabella’s throat turned dry. Judith didn’t know what she was talking about. Emotions were wild and confusing variables. Their unpredictability scared Isabella, making her feel like that helpless child unable to stop her mama from dying. Logic was, well, logical. It had numbers, lines, formulas, and probabilities. If she could teach those ladies anything, it would be that the key to good investments was to discard those useless, confounding emotions that only muddied the issues and look at the cold, hard patterns in the numbers.
“I knew from the earliest moments of our acquain- tance that you would grow into a brilliant leader of women,” Judith continued. “Now you must go to London and accept your calling.” She turned and sat in the chair by the grate. “Let’s rehearse. So chin up, shoulders straight, and begin.”
Isabella stared down at the pages and began to drone, “Thank you, ladies of the—”
Mary, one of the servants, slipped through the door. Mr. Powers is here! “Pardon me,” Mary said with a bob of a curtsy. “Lord Randall has called.”
“Lord Randall,” Isabella said, disappointed. “What is he doing here? Isn’t his parents’ annual house party starting today? Oh bother. Put him in the library.” At least she could use the loathsome viscount as an excuse to escape this oratorical torture. “I’m sure this is about extremely urgent bank business that needs attending to immediately,” she told Judith.
After the last session of Parliament, what Lord Randall, the House of Commons’ famed Tory orator, needed to fortify himself was twelve uninterrupted hours in bed with a lovely lady before heading home to his parents’ annual house party and shackling himself to a powerful Tory daughter, living unhappily, but politi- cally connected, ever after.
If things had gone as planned, at this very moment he might have been leisurely arriving on the train after one last good morning tumble.
Of course, things hadn’t gone as planned, as they hadn’t for the last six months. Instead of feeling the soft curves of a stunning little ballet dancer or actress, he had felt the bump and rumble of a train as he trav- eled alone through the night, staring at the blackness beyond the window, his mind swirling with scenarios of political ruin. Now he stood in the library of a woman he was desperate to see. But hell and damna- tion, he would rather gnaw off his own leg than share twelve uninterrupted hours of frolicking with Isabella. He raked his hands through his hair, feeling little strands come loose. Great. On top of everything, he
was losing his hair. Could something else go wrong?
And where is she?
He paced up and down the Aubusson rug adorning her somber, paneled library. Some books lined the shelves, but mostly financial journals in leather boxes labeled by date and volume. A large oak desk was situ- ated between two massive arched windows, its surface clean except for a lamp and inkwell. He tugged at his cravat as if he were choking. How could Isabella live in such oppressive, silent order? It stifled his soul.
He strode to one of the windows and watched the line of carriages and flies from the railroad station head- ing up the hill to his father’s estate. Inside them rode Tories of the “right kind” as his mother had phrased it, along with their daughters, all vying for Randall’s hand in marriage. He leaned his head against the glass. “You’ve got to save me, Isabella,” he whispered.
“I’m surprised to see you,” he heard that familiar soprano voice say behind him.
An odd, warm comfort washed over him at the sound. He turned and found himself gazing at the fashion tragedy that was Isabella. She wore a dull blue dress or robe or something that made a slight indenta- tion around the waist area and concealed everything else from her chin to the floor. Her glasses magnified her gray eyes, and she had styled her wild hair in some new, odd, dangly arrangement. Still, a peace bloomed in his chest at the sight of her frumpy dishevelment, like that nostalgic, grounding feeling of coming home. Well, not his real home, where, despite all British rules to the contrary, his strident mother ruled. As the rest of his world was coming undone, Isabella remained the same old ungainly girl of his memory—his faithful adversary.
“Just ‘I’m surprised to see you’?” he repeated in feigned offense. “Perhaps ‘Good morning, Lord Randall. I’ve missed you terribly. You haunt my dreams. I’m enamored of your dazzling intellectual and manly powers. There is a void in my tiny, black heart that only you can fill.’” His anxiety started to ease as he settled into the thrust, glissade, and parry of their typical conversation.
For a beat, she just stared at him. The old girl took everything at face value. Then the realization dawned in her eyes that he was ribbing her. “Oh, I was about to say that, if you had waited…for several thousand years,” she retorted. “What I meant was that I thought you would be busy at your house party, choosing a wife. At least, that is what the papers claim.”
“As you often say when avoiding something messy and emotionally taxing, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’” he quoted her back to herself. “Except to say it’s a shame that Napoleon could not have enlisted Mama; I believe the war might have turned out differently. The Duke of Halsington sent a late reply, upsetting Mama’s meticulous arrangements. He will be joined by his wife, who requires a room conveniently adjoin- ing the Earl of Worthsam’s, while his grace much prefers comfortable quarters beside Mrs. Kettlemore’s. That little farce resulted in ousting me from my chambers to the Fauna chamber, named for housing my late uncle’s stuffed avian collection. I spent the early hours of the morning being stared at by dead birds. But enough about nightmares of being eaten by African lappet-faced vultures.” He gestured to a chair. “Would you care to sit down? Oh, wait. It’s your home. You were supposed to politely suggest that.”
“Would you care to sit down, Lord Randall?” she said, with mock sweetness.
“I don’t mind if I do; how thoughtful of you to ask.” He pulled up a chair before her desk. “Ah, I have something to tempt you with.” He withdrew some folded pages from his pocket and wagged them before her. “I did retrieve the list of new clients for the London bank as you ordered—pardon, I meant requested in your last letter.”
She snatched up the papers, her face glowing with the same delight he had seen in his mistress’s—ex- mistress’s—when he had given her a ruby necklace. Isabella was an odd bird. Any man who dared to romance the shrew would have to forgo the floral tributes—and not because of her adverse reactions to certain flowers, grasses, and hay—and arrive with bouquets of financial reports instead.
She took a seat in her late father’s massive leather chair on the other side of the desk and scanned the lines of patrons. “This is much better than expected,” she said, a small smile playing on her lips—soft and cushy lips, he noted. Rather kissable, not that he would ever consider kissing her. It was merely an empirical obser- vation: the sky was blue; the sun was yellow; Isabella had the kind of lips that should be ravished.
“And by the way,” he continued, drawing her attention back to him, “I wouldn’t write to someone, calling him a flaming ignoramus of the grandest magnitude for his vote on the Scottish banking bill, and then ask him to spend the afternoon at the new bank building kissing babies and welcoming new customers.”
Despite the panicky economy, when nervous customers were putting runs on another bank every day and sinking their savings, the Bank of Lord Hazelwood was rapidly expanding, “discovering new markets,” as Isabella would say, taking offices in London and Manchester. He and his father’s profiles and the family’s coat of arms appeared in journals all over England above a caption that read “For four hundred years the name Hazelwood has inspired trust. Place your monies where you place your trust.”
“It must have been such a hardship being adored and fawned over,” she mocked. “I’m sure every unmarried lady in London was beating down the bank door.” She waved the documents. “Incredible. There must be five hundred and fifteen names on this list and about three-fifths of them are women.”
“I seduced the Hades out of those stodgy old ladies and spinsters for their pennies. I still have bruises in the sensitive areas where they pinched me.”
She paused, then a spark lit in her eyes as she real- ized that he was jesting again. She laughed, a beautiful, silvery sound. Again, he felt that flood of peace. He had an urge to hide in her library, behind that unfash- ionable skirt of hers and away from his political woes and his parents’ damned house party. But alas, the world marched on. Or marched over him, as it seemed these last weeks.
He drummed the great oak desk with his fingers, suddenly feeling vulnerable. He had never let his guard down around her before, always keeping a protective wall of lithe, barbed words between them.
“Speaking of being pinched, perhaps you read about my little set-to with George Harding in the parliamentary railroad committee meeting.” He tried to sound casual, even as his heart sped up.
“Little!” She raised a single brow, comically screw- ing her features. “It’s an epic scandal! The financial columns criticize you for standing in the way of England’s progress, the political columns believe you have committed electoral suicide with the election coming, and the society columns wonder whose powerful Tory daughter you’ll marry to patch up the mess.” He couldn’t miss that little hint of glee under her words.
He found that he was too restless to sit after all, and rose to his feet. “The railroad committee voted Harding’s line down. I merely asked if he was spread too thin. The very words you used at the bank board meeting last winter when we decided against investing in his other lines.”
She blinked. “You actually listened to something I said?”
“I didn’t mean to. I was just about to drift off when your words hit my ears. Splat! Then they wouldn’t come out, just rolling around in there. Anyway, I thought you might be right and—”
“Stop right there!” She held up her palm. “Say those words again.”
Despite his worry, his lips cracked into a smirk. “I said I thought you might be right.”
“Oh God.” She flipped open a ledger and reached for her pen. “I must make a note: On this day of our Lord, May 17, 1847, Lord Randall has finally admitted that I was right.”
“No, you weren’t,” he barked. “And I’m glad my troubles amuse you.” His words came out harsher than he intended.
Her head jerked back. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, cursed under his breath, and crossed to one of the windows.
She joined him there. Her eyes were tense, con- flicted between fear and concern. She reached out, letting her hand hover an inch from his before pulling back. He knew she struggled to connect with others and messy emotions scared her. He remembered the days surrounding her father’s funeral, when she’d tried so hard to hide her sorrow, but he still felt her deep grief ripping her apart.
“You’ll sail through this tiny setback with no trouble,” she whispered, her voice shaky and unsure. “You’ll win your seat. You lead a charmed life.” He discerned a hint of bitterness under her last words.
“Well, it’s been quite difficult lately, for all its charm,” he quipped. In the distance, a fly rambled down the long drive to the Hazelwood estate. “I think Harding is plotting against me,” he confessed.
He ran his hand over the cleft in his chin, ponder- ing what he could politely repeat about the previous night’s bad turn. He probably shouldn’t mention to Isabella the desire for twelve uninterrupted hours in bed with a beautiful woman, which had made him stick a red rosebud in his lapel and stroll into a gaming hell off St. James’s early last evening. How he had drained a couple of brandies, trying to wash away the anxiety of the last weeks, until he felt the shine of his old, cocky charm return. That he had been about to amble over to the perfect quarry—curly, raven hair; large, luxurious dark eyes—when he heard a sweet, breathy voice say his name.
He had spun to find Cecelia, his ex-mistress, standing there, ravishing in pale blue. His throat had gone dry. The entire room stopped mid-roll, play, bet, or conversation and watched her, as though the famed actress were onstage in her own production. Before he could manage a “good evening” to her, George Harding had stepped forward, flanked by three personal flash men, and placed a possessive hand on her shoulder.
Randall didn’t think that Harding stealing his mis- tress was relevant to Isabella and the business at hand. Nor did he want to admit to Isabella that Harding was damned handsome, in an exotic way. While Randall was tall, the railroad baron towered over him. The man had bronze skin, a muscular build, a flint-like jaw, and a shiny, bald head. His black brows were slashes above eerie, unblinking eyes. So, essentially his version of the story for Isabella’s ears began with, “I went to a club and saw Harding. He asked me to sit down for a drink, something about clearing the bad blood between us.”
“Why did you take my railroad, my lord?” Harding had asked, setting his glass of cognac on the table and opening his palms. “I try to be a good Tory. I back your candidates.”
Harding’s flash men rushed to agree. “That’s right, Mr. Harding. You’re a Tory’s best supporter,” and “You’ve always done right by the Tories.”
“Do you pay for this personal audience of yahoos?” Randall had asked. “Or do these cullies follow you around because they don’t have any bollocks of their own?”
Harding’s flash men had glanced at each other, as though deciding how to react. The consensus was menacing until Harding broke into deep belly laughter. “Oh, you’re a funny, funny man.” The railroad baron leaned over, plucked the rosebud from Randall’s lapel, and twirled it under his nose. “Smells nice. With your title, pretty words, and face, you could have gone far, maybe prime minister. But you supported child labor laws and the repeal of the Corn Laws, instead of building railroads and prosperity. What will become of our golden boy with his empty head and glorious ambitions if he isn’t reelected?”
Randall had let a slow smile crawl cross his lips. “Careful there, old chap. One word from me and you might lose another railroad.”
Harding replaced the viscount’s rose. “With your title, you think I can’t touch you. The world is about to change; you need to choose which side you’re on before the election. Enjoy your house party. I hope you find a lovely, connected wife. I understand you’ve been a bit lonely of late.”
Randall decided it wasn’t important to tell Isabella how everyone in the gaming hell had watched the railroad baron leave with Randall’s beautiful mistress—ex-mistress—or the stream of colorful curses he’d released under his breath.
Now he gazed out the window in Isabella’s library. In the distance, at the entrance of his home, he could make out ladies in expansive skirts stepping from the carriages. His mother must be cursing him for not being there to greet them.
“I know you make fun of me,” he said quietly. “I know you, like my critics, think I’m shallow and overly ambitious and you disagree with my views.” He turned to Isabella, latching his gaze on her face. “But dammit, I’m a good politician. I’ve all but given my life to this country. I try—”
“You need something solid to hold against Harding.”
“No.” The motivation for his visit sounded so conniving, almost dishonorable when echoed back to him. He sank into his chair, rubbed his forehead, and conceded. “Yes.”
Isabella studied him—his strong shoulders slumped, head bowed, stray strands of blond hair falling over his brow. In that moment, he reminded her so much of Papa in those months after her mother had died. Again she reached out, desiring to touch him, comfort him, but she didn’t know how. Upset people made her feel awkward, because she desperately wanted to make their pain go away. Somehow, though, she always said or did the wrong thing, and just made them feel worse. What are you doing? It’s not your father; it’s Randall.
Stop feeling sorry for him. This is probably the only adversity he has faced in his life, other than losing a cricket match or two at Cambridge.
“You’re being too emotional,” she told him.
“Of course you would say that. Tell me your cold and detached solution to my problems.”
She crossed to the opposite side of the room, giving herself some space to turn over the problem in her head. Tangible things involving numbers she could handle. After several long seconds, she began to speak. “I would wager he had several backers lined up, telling them the railroad was a sure thing, until you caused him problems. Now he’s in trouble. You see, Harding pays higher dividends than anyone else—five percent—yet there are other people who have just as many or more lines. He’s probably working out of his capital or using his four obscure companies to conceal
or manufacture money.”
He crossed to her and seized her hand. A heated tingle ran up her arm. “Have you considered turning into a man and running for Parliament?”
“As Judith’s cousin, I have to ask, is that a compli- ment or an insult?”
“Why, wanting a woman to be a man is the highest praise he can give her,” he said in what she thought was a serious tone, but his eyes twinkled. She wasn’t skilled at reading twinkles, glows, or sparks in people’s eyes, and the viscount’s dazzling orbs especially con- fused her.
“At least it’s better than those usual compliments you insult ladies with.” She extracted her hand, which still tingled from his touch, and walked away a few paces, putting a safe distance between them. “You know, ‘vision of luscious splendor,’ ‘ethereal loveliness,’ and my all-time favorite, ‘dream of tran- scendent beauty.’”
“And I was just about to say you were looking rather transcendent…well, for you.”
She paused and fiddled with her tendrils. “Do you think I’m…j-just a little pretty?” She smacked her forehead. “I can’t believe I asked you that. Just forget I said anything.”
“No, no, I want to answer.” Randall clasped her shoulders, eliciting another unwanted tingle, this time in the vicinity of her sacred feminine regions.
He studied her, lips pursed in a serious line, his eyes scrunched. Something about his gaze heated her skin, turning that bothersome tingle into a throb.
Stop that throb, tingle, whatever, this instant, she ordered her body. This is Randall. Even if he weren’t wildly attracted to ladies who had difficulty under- standing any pesky words with three or more syllables, he was still, unfortunately, a ravishingly handsome viscount. And that was an entirely different genus of miscreation that never cross-bred with awkward spinsters possessing a rather unnatural ability with numbers. All that withstanding, she stood still for his perusal of her face…and lower.
Tingle. Tingle. Throb.
“Hmmm,” he considered, stroking his chin with his index finger and thumb. “I would say above vision of luscious splendor but not quite ethereal loveliness. It’s your hair.”
Her cheeks burned. “W-what’s wrong with it?” “Why is it being attacked by two jellyfish?” “Judith was right!” She dashed to the mirror over
the mantel. “They’re tentacles. I have to get these off. He’s going to be here any minute.”
“Oh, never mind.” She began to tug at the coils but the two-dozen pins she used to keep them captive refused to budge.
“Let me help.”
She felt his fingers digging into her scalp. “Ouch!
That’s my real hair.” “Your real hair?”
“Just let go!” she ordered.
“Wait. Don’t move. My cuff link is stuck in what may or may not be your real hair!”
“Pardon me,” a servant said. “Mr. Powers has arrived.”
Isabella whipped around. Pain flared on the left side of her head. In Randall’s hand dangled a black coil and hairpins were scattered on the carpet. He stared at the creation, his bright eyes wide. A snort of laughter erupted from his lips and then he quickly shoved the thing behind his back.
Mary stood by the door. Beside her, holding a small box wrapped in a loopy, intricate pink bow, was Mr. Anthony Powers.
Isabella opened her mouth but all that came out was a squeak. Randall, that ever-smooth devil, performed a sweeping bow, the tendril behind his back hanging down like a tail. “Good morning, Mr. Powers.”