Fortune's Kissby Lisa Manuel
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Moira Hughes’s stepfather has died, and although the bulk of the family holdings must pass to a relative, a codicil to his will secures her and her mother’s future or so she believes. When their London solicitor denies all knowledge of this codicil, practical, country bred Moira must put aside both pride and propriety, travel to London and press her rights. Once there she resolves to confront her stepfather’s heir, the dashing black sheep of the family whom she believes has unlawfully withheld her rightful share of the family fortune. Graham Foster, treasure hunter and Egyptian antiquities expert, must leave his adventurous life to return to England and claim the barony left him by a distant cousin. Upon his arrival he discovers his estranged and spoiled family making free with his inherited home and fortune, while a dazzling, dark-haired step-cousin several times removed adamantly accuses him of foul play. There are times he feels his only true friend is his pet African Sun Spider . . . Coming to a wary truce and teetering on a middle ground of irresistible if imprudent desire, Graham and Moira team up to hunt for her lost treasure. A trail of fraud, deceit and murder leads them through the streets of London and into each other’s arms, and to the most unlikely of conclusions.
"A cunning story of treachery. . . . Settle down with some tea and cakes and put up your feet. Fortune's Kiss is an excellent Sunday afternoon read." Novelspot
"A fast paced and easy read that will have readers thinking about what is going to happen next." The Romance Readers Connection
"The story is enthralling and entertaining. . . . You will enjoy every aspect of this unique and sinfully delicious story." Romance Reviews
"Grabs ahold of your attention and doesn't let go . . . definitely one for the keeper shelves." Night Owl Romance
"An amusing, engaging, historical romance starring two likeable heroes and a zany out of control support cast." Harriet Klausner, Gotta Write Network
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By Lisa Manuel
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Lisa Manuel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSir Graham Foster sucked blistering air into his lungs, gave his Arabian gelding a firm pat on the neck, adjusted his feet in the stirrups, and raised his saber high above his head. Glaring sunlight arced along the steel, sending a shimmering signal to the men assembled before him.
Boot heels dug into drought-scorched earth. A plaintive creaking arose as hemp ropes tightened and clenched. Some two dozen workers strained forward beside ten of the best camels British pounds could buy. Slowly, painstakingly, and with a screech that set Graham's teeth on edge, the barrier to the tomb inched open.
He prayed the ropes would hold. And that the laborers handpicked from a local tribe of nomads wouldn't choose that moment to start an uprising or observe one of hundreds of incomprehensible religious rituals. Or simply decide it was time to return to their colorful tents on the desert.
He gripped a handful of damp shirtfront and unstuck it from his chest. It had taken three months to find this tomb, a modest vault of stone and mud brick laid out on a rectangular slab about twenty feet below ground. It hadn't always been subterranean, but part of the once-prosperous village of Deir el-Medina, now buried beneath centuries of blowing sand. It wasn't a place one would expect to find the remains of a pharaoh, but rather a pharaoh's master craftsman.
Which suited Graham Foster fine. He wasn't searching for a king's treasure or anything of great historical value. Not this time. A text in the Alexandria archives had indicated this to be the burial site of a wealthy goldsmith from the second millennia BC, and Graham expected a handsome return for his pains. He only hoped the poor dead chap wouldn't mind extending him a bit of a loan for a good cause.
It had taken another two months to raise the money and manpower needed to excavate. An additional four weeks to successfully bribe Pasha Mohammed Ali, Egypt's temperamental Turkish ruler, into allowing the "pesky British swine" access to the area. Of course, this excavation was merely a means to a more important end. If it proved fruitless, there would be more searching, more money to raise, more bribes to offer, and more nomads to deal with.
"My lord! My lord!"
Shaun Paddington, his friend, assistant, and, when necessity dictated, imposter British consul, hailed from the top of a rise some thirty yards away. Graham swore under his breath. What could be so important that Shaun would interrupt him at such a crucial moment?
A high-pitched groan snared his attention. The workers were moving too fast, putting undue strain on both the ropes and the entrance slab. Too much tension on the stone could literally render it to pieces and cause a cave-in.
Graham cupped his hands around his mouth. "Slow down before it shatters!"
The perspiration rolling down his sides had little to do with the hundred-degree heat pounding down from an unimpeded sun. He sucked another breath in preparation of a second warning when he saw the lead camel drivers signal to their snorting, spitting charges.
Graham held the searing oxygen in his lungs. Done without the proper skill, the drivers could stop the progress altogether instead of simply slowing it. The momentum would be lost. That meant starting over.
"My lord!" Shaun shouted again.
Damn. From the corner of his eye, Graham saw his friend descend a sand dune at top speed. As his image undulated in the heat waves, Graham noticed something white flapping in Shaun's outstretched hand.
"Blazing hell, Shaun, not now."
But within seconds, the overseers had brought the pace under control. The whining complaint of the ropes and the slab ceased. With a whoop of mixed relief and triumph, Graham swung from the saddle.
"Did you see that, Shaun?" he called to the panting man, whose running steps kicked up whorls of sand around his legs. "Can I pick them or what? Are these fellows not princes of their trade?"
They weren't completely out of danger yet, wouldn't be until the slab cleared the tomb and was secured with more ropes and scaffolding. But already Graham felt the charge of adventure, the anticipation of entering the three-thousand-year-old grave site.
Shaun loped to a halt a few feet away, waving what Graham now identified as a sheet of paper practically under his nose.
"What have you got there?" Graham asked. "A grant from the same university that sent me packing ten years ago? Tell them I don't need it."
"No, it's ... a letter ... from your ... solicitor." Puffing, Shaun bent full over, resting a hand on his knee in an effort to recapture his breath.
"I don't have a solicitor."
His friend maintained his bent posture and continued gasping. Finally, hand pressed to his chest in a manner that would have worried Graham if he wasn't familiar with the man's dramatics, he straightened. "You do now. And it seems you're needed at home."
"The devil I am. Bad joke, old man." An oddity struck him. How had Shaun hailed him? With cries of my lord?
He'd been Sir Graham Foster since his twenty-fourth birthday, after presenting His Majesty, King George, with assorted artifacts from various digs. Tanis had yielded a gilded ebony statue of the god Osiris; from Karnak came a bejeweled pectoral pendant featuring the eye of Horus; and from Akhenaten, an elaborate burial mask. Baubles that had granted him a solid footing on England's social ladder.
But a lordship?
"Shaun, my friend," he said with a laugh and a swat to the other man's broad shoulder, "you've been baking in this sun too long. Go back to your tent. Have a little nip. It'll restore perspective to that addled mind of yours."
Shaun shook his head and the paper at the same time. "There's nothing wrong with me, my lord. Your cousin twice removed and then some," he jabbed at the information with his forefinger, "Everett Foster, has died and-"
"Your second cousin twice removed. Or is it thrice? Here, it lists the lineage tracing you to him."
Scowling, Graham peered at the page. "Oh. Old Man Monteith. Only met him a couple of times, and that was years ago. But this is absurd. He has a nephew."
"Dead, as well, within weeks of his uncle." Shaun squinted down at the page. "Says here you're the great-great-grandson of the first Baron Monteith's younger brother." He dropped the paper to his side and met Graham's gaze with a mixture of disbelief and amazement. "It would appear you've been the new Baron Monteith for quite some time now, my lord."
"Call me that again, and I'll knock you a facer. Now tell me how I can avoid this calamity."
Shaun stared back, lips compressed. A hot gust nearly ripped the letter from his hand, but he whisked it tight against his chest. Then he said, "There's more."
"Out with it."
"Your solicitor sends his apologies for having allowed your family access to your new London town house. He didn't think it would be a problem. They are your family, after all." Shaun paused to swallow. "But it seems they've amassed some debts."
Gritty sweat trickled into the corner of Graham's eye. He swiped at it with his sleeve. "Blazing hell."
* * *
Moira Hughes threw her weight against the cottage door and shoved. It stuck for an instant, then gave with an abruptness that nearly sent her headlong across the foyer floor. She clutched the doorknob and anchored her feet, managing not to fall but only just. Then she took her first glimpse of her new home. It was ...
Dim. Shabby. An enormous disappointment. She stepped across the threshold.
To her left, an archway opened upon a cramped parlor. She spied, between two dust-laden windows, a diminutive fireplace that promised to smoke the very instant anyone dared ignite a blaze. To her right, a decidedly rickety staircase ambled its way to the second floor. Ahead, the foyer narrowed to a tight corridor that must surely lead to an equally oppressive kitchen. Moira could only imagine the amenities to be found there.
She sighed. Until this morning, Monteith Hall had been her home. Sprawling, elegant, large Monteith Hall, a mere two miles and a world away. There had been servants, gardens, fine carriages. Not that Moira and her parents had used the latter for much besides excursions to church on Sundays. They had settled, these past several years, into the uneventful routine of country life. But there had been security and a sense of peace, a dependable contentment.
That had ceased to be true some four months ago. Until then, she had been the beloved stepdaughter of Everett Foster, Baron Monteith. Then one frigid November morning, she had watched his coffin lowered into a fresh grave in the family cemetery. Influenza turned into pneumonia, the physician had informed her and her mother. Through their grief, there had at least been a sense of reassurance, of continuity, for Moira had for some months been engaged to Nigel Foster, her stepfather's nephew and heir.
But there would be no marriage now, nor had Nigel enjoyed his inheritance for long. Poor Nigel. Dearest Nigel had been thrown by his horse and laid in his grave not two months after Papa, leaving Moira and her mother alone. Quite alone. And what a great irony, for Nigel had been the most proficient of riders. Something, a rabbit perhaps, must have spooked his horse and, in a freak occurrence, Nigel had fallen and broken his neck.
At the moment of his death, Moira and her mother had lost all claim to Monteith Hall and become merely the distant stepcousins of the new baron. A baron who very much wanted-needed, his letter said-to take up immediate residence in his country estate, and would Moira and her mother please make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible.
Those arrangements had thankfully materialized in the form of this cottage, offered to them by St. Bartholomew's Parish. St. Bartholomew's had once been presided over by Moira's natural father, the Reverend Mr. John Hughes, and she found the congregation's gesture touching, indeed. Not to mention a tremendous relief. If the accommodations were somewhat inadequate, the rent at least was cheap. Needless to say, she and her mother hadn't rushed to pack their things, but this day had arrived in a dizzying blur all the same.
Uncertain footsteps picked along the path behind her. Moira backed out of the cottage, pasted on her most cheerful smile, and turned. "Oh, Mother, isn't it wonderful? Just like in a fairy tale." Seeing her mother's brow pucker with doubt, she added, "Think how cozy we'll be here in winter. And once the furniture arrives, you'll feel right at home."
Putting a spring in her step, she went to her mother's side and linked arms with her. "Come, let's explore."
"Do you think your father will like it, dear?" Estella Foster raised a skeptical glance to the stone and timber facade. "It seems rather limited. You know how Papa likes to roam the house at night when he cannot sleep."
Moira regarded the hazy confusion in her mother's eyes. A weight that had become a familiar burden these past months pressed her heart. She patted a wrinkled hand, kissed a careworn cheek.
"You know Papa is in heaven, Mother," she said quietly, and paused to let it sink in. Again. "And yes, I do believe he would be quite pleased with our snug new home. Come, let us have a look about. We must decide where to place your settee and armoire. And the petit-point chair and footstool."
Yes, those items had been part of Estella Foster's dowry, and so they were allowed to take them from Monteith Hall. Most of the other furnishings must stay, of course, part and parcel of the new baron's inheritance.
"And don't forget your father's chair, dear." Estella's grip tightened on Moira's arm as they entered the cottage together. "He'll want it just so beside the hearth. Is there a window nearby? Your father is most particular about having natural light to read by during the day. You know how he disdains lighting the lamps before tea."
Moira sighed and nodded.
Hours later, when the scant furnishings had been placed to their best advantage and Moira had tucked her bewildered mother into bed, she stole outside. Mrs. Stanhope, still at work organizing the kitchen, promised to check on Estella often.
Thank heaven for Mrs. Stanhope, something of a saint in Moira's estimation. She'd been housekeeper at Monteith since before Moira and her mother's arrival when Moira was only three years old. Favoring loyalty over her enviable position in the manor, Mrs. Stanhope had chosen to accompany them to their new home, such as it was.
Exhaustion clawed at Moira's limbs, but she trod a resolute path to the remnants of what had once been a kitchen garden. No one had lived here for years, and the cultivated rows had long gone to weeds. She would have to hoe and rake quickly in order to plant in time for the growing season. Even then the first yield would be negligible at best. There would be little money besides. The vast bulk of the fortune was entailed to the estate and belonged now to the new Lord Monteith.
Moira curved her tongue around his name: Graham Foster. She wondered who he was, what he looked like. As to the sort of man he was, she wasted no time in pondering. His nature had been made plain by his curt request that they vacate the Hall.
Over the years she had heard rumors about him, mostly from Nigel. Tossed out of Oxford for cheating, Sir Graham Foster had become something of an adventurer, an explorer who dug up ancient treasures in Egypt and claimed them for England. He'd won the king's favor for his efforts. Now he was coming home to claim the only security Moira and her mother knew.
She bit her trembling lip and vowed not to shed a single tear. She'd shed plenty for dearest Nigel. Many more for Papa.
Of her natural father she retained no memories, for John Hughes had died before her second birthday. She had always thought of Everett Foster as her father with no other word attached, just as he used to sit her on his knee and declare her his bonnie little daughter. He'd called her his child for the last time as he lay dying, and whispered of a recent change in his will that would ensure his family's welfare.
Where had that money gone? Mr. Smythe, their solicitor in London, had written to say he knew of no funds other than those entailed to the estate, except for the small sum her mother had brought to the marriage. Hardly enough to see them through the coming months. Although the rent was paid for a full year, they'd need food, fuel, and clothing, and Moira couldn't expect Mrs. Stanhope to stay on for free.
Something was very wrong, and it now fell upon her shoulders to discover what that something was. The thought of leaving her mother, even temporarily, brought on waves of numbing doubt, but she knew Mrs. Stanhope would die before she allowed any harm to touch her mistress.
She and her mother would never again have a home such as the one they'd left. They would never again enjoy the privileges so recently stripped from them. But the other things-security, contentment, a feeling of home-those Moira believed-hoped-she could provide. She must first go to London and press for their rights. She must summon every ounce of her courage, barge into Mr. Smythe's office, and demand to see her stepfather's financial records. Somewhere a codicil to his will existed, and she intended to find it.
In the fading twilight, she scanned the surrounding countryside, the gentle hills and meadows of Shelbourne. Deeply she inhaled the piney-sharp scent of the village's evening fires. From a quarter mile away, the church bell struck a single peal, ringing in the half hour.
The very thought of leaving produced an ache so sharp it nearly cut off her breath. Although the family had many acquaintances in London, in truth she could count none as close friends. Certainly no one in whom she felt an inclination to confide. She could not have borne the pitying looks, nor the whispered gossip about how low poor Estella Foster and her daughter had sunk.
So then, where would she stay? Not in the family's Mayfair town house. That belonged to Graham Foster now. There was Uncle Benedict, but the letter she had sent him nearly a month ago had brought no reply; he must be traveling at present. No, she would be on her own, and on such limited funds she despaired of eating more than one meal a day. But what other choice?
With no man to champion her cause, she must act as head of the family, no matter how inappropriate, how frowned upon. For there was nothing genteel about poverty. Nothing to be gained from an empty stomach. No, indeed. She must plant the garden and see her mother settled into a pleasant routine with Mrs. Stanhope. Then she would pack her bags and set out for London.
Excerpted from Fortune's Kiss by Lisa Manuel Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Manuel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Lisa Manuel is the author of Mostly a Lady. She lives in Coral Springs, Florida.
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Her beloved stepfather Everett Foster always promised Moira Hughes and her mom (his widow) that he has insured they will be provided for in the event of his death. Moira understands that the brunt of the estate must by law go to his heir. However to her chagrin the codicil to his will, if it was ever written, is missing not filed with the will in the Prerogative Court in Canterbury soon afterward the solicitor Mr. Smythe of Smythe and Davis, Legal Consultants is dead. --- Desperate to find it, Moira accepts work as a maid at Monteith Hall, the house she once lived in as a lady, so that she can search for the codicil. Meanwhile the heir Egyptologist Graham Foster returns to England, a place he left years ago in scandal, accompanied by his African Sun Spider. He finds his wastrel family pretending to welcome him while unable to hide how they want this usurper back in Egypt so they can spend his estate¿s assets without care or control. However, he is attracted to Moira, who reluctantly tells him her story. Being an adventurer and in love, he helps her investigate her late stepfather¿s life and helps her search for the missing codicil. --- This is an amusing engaging historical romance starring two likable heroes and a zany out of control support cast. The story line is fast-paced and though a nineteenth century tale with its obvious period piece moorings, in some ways the structure of the plot feels more like a 1930s madcap romantic suspense comedy. Fans will enjoy Graham¿s efforts to prove to Moira that men like Everett and himself don¿t stray from love. --- Harriet Klausner