Too Hot to Handle
By Cheryl Holt
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Cheryl Holt
All rights reserved.
LONDON, ENGLAND, 1813 ...
"The earl will be with you ... soon."
The snooty butler, who'd introduced himself as Mr. Fitch, tugged on his vest. Feeling small and out of place, Emily Barnett straightened in her chair.
"Will the wait be awfully long?" she asked.
"I can't say. Lord Winchester is enjoying himself immensely, so he's in no mood to hurry. The interviews are progressing slowly."
"I see." A bundle of nerves, she fidgeted. She'd never previously had a job interview, especially one scheduled in the middle of the night, and she was terrified. What sort of eccentric, as Winchester was renowned to be, demanded an appointment at two in the morning?
In a whisper, she dared to pose, "Is His Lordship questioning the applicants?"
The butler gave an undignified snort. "I don't believe there's much talking going on in the room."
Emily frowned. Considering the magnitude of the position, that of governess to the earl's new wards — two girls who'd recently been orphaned — she'd expected to be bowled over with inquiries as to her background and experience. Not that she had any true credentials or skills to offer.
Anxiously, she fingered her bag that held the paltry résumé she'd concocted. As part of her pathetic ruse, she'd lied and fictionalized, inventing prior posts and naming imaginary references, from her beloved village of Hailsham. Without a doubt, the document was the most creative piece of writing ever devised.
She'd worried that professionals in the city would be too shrewd to fall for such an evident fabrication, but the gentleman at the employment service had scarcely glanced at the papers before sending her to meet with Lord Winchester. Supposedly, the earl needed someone immediately, and Emily was determined to be that someone. She absolutely could not fail!
"If Lord Winchester isn't questioning the candidates," she tentatively ventured, "what — precisely — is he doing?"
The butler made a choking sound, and a crimson blush stained his cheeks. "Really, Miss Barnett!"
"Pardon me, sir," she hastened to apologize. "I don't mean to be impertinent, but I'm new to this endeavor. Any suggestions you could share would be greatly appreciated."
His flush deepened. "I hardly think I'm the individual to advise you as to how you should conduct yourself."
She sighed. Amiability was wasted on the man. He had a heart of stone and couldn't be bothered to throw a few crumbs of courtesy her way. He could never comprehend how frantic she was, how despairing over the future, and she wondered about her competition.
She was positive they were an intimidating group of the most educated, strict, and cultured females in England. By comparison, she was a dowdy, provincial nobody.
She didn't stand a chance.
Why had she presumed she had the wherewithal to rectify her predicament? What insane folly had driven her to Lord Winchester's door?
"It's so hopeless," she murmured, her head dropping into her hands.
After a lengthy silence, the butler prodded, "What is?"
In her morose condition, she'd forgotten he was lurking. She peeked up, and he was glaring so keenly that she was cowed into commenting. "Well, Mama and Papa passed on within a few months of each other, and there's my widowed sister, Mary. She's blind, and her daughter, Rose, is only nine, so I must watch over them. We came to London so that I could ... could ..."
Her voice trailed off. She hadn't intended to explain, but the stress was wearing on her, making her behave stupidly. She was fatigued, petrified, and at her wits' end as to how she should proceed. If the job didn't pan out, she couldn't predict their fate.
They couldn't go home. Her cousin, Reginald, was in Hailsham and ensconced at Barnett Manor. As her father's heir, Reginald was destined to marry her. He wouldn't actually inherit the house, property, or the money necessary to run the tiny estate until he and Emily were wed.
Emily had been resolved to do her duty, to have boring, stuffy Reginald for her husband, as her father had wished. That is, until she'd inadvertently learned of his genuine character. He'd been secretly plotting to commit Mary to an asylum, and the news had sent Emily scrambling to London, with Mary and Rose in tow.
While Reginald frittered away in Hailsham, her pile of precious cash had dwindled, and she was growing desperate.
"So you're contemplating this ... this outrage to support your family?" The butler was reproachful, condemning.
She bristled. "Yes."
"And your sister is blind?"
"Since she was seven."
"How old is she now?"
"How old are you?" he asked.
"She knows you're here?"
"Your elder sister condones that you would ... would ... prostitute yourself merely to earn a few paltry coins?" He wagged a judgmental finger. "For shame, Miss Barnett. For shame!"
"Mr. Fitch!" She stood, pulling herself up to her full height of five feet, four inches. "You've no call to be rude. Good, solid labor never killed anyone. A woman in dire straits must fend for herself."
"There is always other employment." His arrogant nose was stuck up in the air. "Suitable employment."
He certainly had a poor opinion of his boss. She'd heard some appalling stories about Winchester but had chosen to disregard them. No gentleman could be that notorious.
"There's no disgrace in working for a living," she staunchly declared.
He scoffed. "How could you suppose that an innocent such as yourself would have any talent for pleasing a scoundrel like Lord Winchester?"
"I'm sure he's partial to the more experienced ladies available in the city —"
"— but I have my own charms and quirks, which I believe he'll find most refreshing. And ... I've brought numerous references." For emphasis, she showed him her reticule where the faux list was discreetly hidden.
"Egad! References!" he grumbled. "Times must have changed in the country since I was a lad. I ought to take a switch to you. I ought to take a switch to your sister."
"Honestly, Mr. Fitch, with your attitude, how will Lord Winchester hire anybody? Who would stay around to be insulted by you?"
She was close to storming out, herself, but her grim prospects kept her feet firmly planted on the floor. Who was Fitch to criticize her simply because circumstances had laid her low? She was doing the best she could.
Her affront was palpable, and it seemed to register with the thick fellow. "I understand your dreadful situation," Fitch claimed, "but I want to confirm that you grasp the consequences of what you're about."
"It's just a job, Mr. Fitch. I'll survive it."
"If you're so determined, at least you could have costumed yourself for the part." He assessed her functional gray gown, with its high neck, long sleeves, and white cuffs. "The earl has instructed everyone to wear red."
"It's his favorite color."
On a governess? "Do I look like the sort of person who would own a red dress?"
"No; that's why I can't fathom your going through with this." He spun away. "I'll fetch you when it's your turn."
He stomped off, and she seethed in the quiet. A table of punch and scones had been arranged, which she deemed touching and odd. She walked over to it and was embarrassed at how her stomach growled. She wolfed down a scone; then, peeking about to guarantee no one was watching, she stuffed more into her purse. In their dismal rented room, food was a scarce commodity, and Mary and Rose would enjoy the treat.
The scone was a tad dry, and she ladled a glass of punch to wash it down. The liquid was bubbly and fruity, and she liked how it tickled her throat, how it heated her cheeks. She had another and another, swilling it so quickly that the sweet concoction made her dizzy.
There was a mirror on the wall, and she stared into it. She'd been reduced to penury, to thieving a rich man's pastries in order to eat. When her entire life had been ripped to shreds, how could she appear so normal?
Her auburn hair was in a tidy bun, the wavy strands meticulously concealed with dozens of pins and combs. Her emerald eyes were expressive, guileless, providing ample evidence that she was the innocent Mr. Fitch had accused her of being. She'd been raised in a quaint village, the daughter of a gentleman, a homebody who'd whiled away the years caring for her aging parents and invalid sister.
She was so far out of her element. How could she hope to convince Lord Winchester that she'd be a proficient governess?
Her nerves frayed, she gulped several more glasses of punch, and the frothy pink mixture had a palliative effect. She slumped down in her chair, her limbs loose and too relaxed to hold her in the seat. If she wasn't vigilant, she'd slide to the rug.
What was in the punch? She hadn't thought to inquire. If she didn't know better, she'd suspect Lord Winchester had spiked it with liquor.
She hiccupped — loudly — as a ruckus erupted in the hall. Another applicant had finished her interview and was leaving. As the woman passed by, Emily was shocked.
The woman was a strumpet! She was attired in a bright crimson dress, the bodice cut so low that it barely covered anything that ought to be covered. She had an enormous bosom, her breasts trying to escape the confines of her corset. Her brows had been plucked, and her lips were painted red, her cheeks, too, and she'd donned an elaborate hat with a feather trailing behind.
This was her competition? What was Lord Winchester thinking? Who would let such an unrestrained trollop in the door? Her confidence soared. Within the hour, she'd have the position; then she'd rush back to Mary with the marvelous news.
The woman halted and bluntly evaluated Emily's conservative outfit.
"Lord, love" — the woman sneered — "what are you pretending to be? The maidenly governess?"
"I'm not pretending," Emily insisted. "I am the ah ... the ah ..." Her mind was fuzzy, her tongue tangled.
"I wouldn't count on landing the post," the woman brashly maintained. "Not after how I entertained him."
Emily panicked. What did the hussy know that Emily didn't? What covert deeds was a governess required to perform? "How have you entertained him?"
"As if I'd divulge any of my tricks!" She appraised Emily as a rival, then chuckled. "You're too skinny to be a threat."
She strutted out as Mr. Fitch announced, "The earl will see you now, Miss Barnett."
"Fabulous," she replied, but she rose too rapidly. The floor swayed, and she steadied herself by grabbing onto a sofa. She hiccupped again.
Fitch studied her and scowled. "You're sotted."
"I am not," she bravely contended.
He glanced at the punch bowl, which contained much less liquid than it had when she'd arrived. "Miss Barnett, how much punch have you had?"
"Oh, for pity's sake. It was laced with rum! The earl has it shipped in from his plantations in Jamaica."
He clasped her arm and escorted her down the hall, and Emily struggled to keep up. She was disoriented, the corridor an endless gauntlet. Finally, Fitch led her into a candlelit room. Even though it was the middle of June, and a balmy night outside, a fire roared in the grate and, as if she'd been dropped onto a tropical island, she was hit by a blast of humid air.
She squinted into the shadows, stunned to note that the chamber was a virtual den of iniquity, decorated with potted plants, decadent colors, and plush daybeds. Large pillows were scattered about, as if she could plop down anywhere to get comfortable. It was the kind of place one read about in books, a reclusive count's hideaway, or a sheik's refuge in Arabia. If a harem of veiled concubines had flitted by, she wouldn't have been surprised.
A male voice sounded, a deep, sonorous baritone that tickled her innards and rattled her bones, but she couldn't locate from where it originated.
"Who have we here, Mr. Fitch?"
"Miss Emily Barnett, sir."
"Emily ..." He spoke her name as if it was honey and he was tasting it.
"She's recently moved to London from the country. To seek employment."
"From the country?" the man mused. "Oh, how I love variety."
"She claims she has references, but I feel duty-bound to mention that she may be a tad out of your league."
"But she's managed to snag herself the most lucrative appointment in town. She can't be all that naive."
"She's drunk, sir. She didn't realize there was rum in the punch."
Emily had never imbibed of hard spirits, and truth be told, she was beginning to wonder if she wasn't a bit foxed. There was no other explanation for her wooziness, which had her pondering what type of madhouse she'd entered.
Who would slyly intoxicate a potential governess? Was it a test? If so, she'd failed miserably.
"Be silent, Mr. Fitch," she snapped as she squinted into the gloom, "or I'll tattle as to how much you dislike Lord Winchester. And I'm not drunk."
The curious man barked out a laugh. "Did you hear that, Fitch? She's going to tell the earl how much you despise him."
With no rejoinder, Fitch slinked out. Left alone, her heart pounding, Emily stood her ground.
"Come to me," the man commanded.
She stepped farther into the room, slithering through a gauze curtain, and on the other side, she was face-to-face with the most handsome man she'd ever seen. He lounged on a huge chair that resembled a throne. His hair was black and worn much longer than was fashionable, and his eyes were an intense, mesmerizing shade of blue. He was tall — six feet, at least — and he was lean and fit, as if he practiced fencing or pugilism to keep himself in shape.
Dressed in casual dishabille, he had on a flowing shirt and trousers, the sort she'd expect to witness on a sultan or a pirate. The shirt was loose and open at the neck, baring his chest partway down. She'd never viewed a man's chest before, and amazingly, it was covered with a matting of hair, as black as the hair on his head. She was fascinated and couldn't stop staring.
He hadn't shaved, and his cheeks were darkened with stubble. He looked like a dangerous bandit, capable of any nefarious conduct, and a ripple of trepidation swept over her.
Was she dreaming? She was so exhausted, and it was so late. Had she fallen asleep in the parlor?
Discreetly, she pinched her wrist, but the tweak was discernible. She approached until she was directly in front of him, and though she had a sinking feeling that she'd already gleaned his identity, she queried, "Who are you?"
"I am Michael Farrow, Lord Winchester."
She winced. "I didn't mean what I said about Mr. Fitch. He thinks you're a splendid emp —"
Lord Winchester cut her off with a wave of his hand. "It's no secret that he loathes me. And with valid reason."
He scrutinized her, taking a slow and inappropriate journey across her bosom, her tummy, her thighs, and he frowned. "I hate your gown."
"I'm sorry." Of her small number of outfits, it was by far the most conservative and unadorned. "I'd thought it would be best for the role I hope to play."
"What role is that? The virtuous governess?"
"Well ... yes."
"I suppose a fantasy could be amusing" — he shrugged — "although I'm not much for games. I fail to grasp how you'll entice me when you're attired in gray. Do you know anything about masculine inclinations?"
"Of course," which was a blatant fib. Her upbringing had been extremely sheltered, her contact with men garnered through her relationships with her father and Reginald.
"I'd advised the interested candidates to wear red."
"I don't have any clothes that are red."
"Miss Barnett, have you any actual experience at this kind of thing?"
"An ample amount."
"I'm a veritable expert."
"Surely, you jest." He raised a skeptical brow.
"I've had many previous positions."
"And were your prior employers satisfied with your performance?"
"Each and every time."
"These references of which you're so proud" — he chuckled — "would your patrons be anyone with whom I'm acquainted?"
"I'm positive they're not." She'd invented the names, having copied them from gravestones in the Hailsham cemetery.
"Good. I detest having to share my intimate associations with friends." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Too Hot to Handle by Cheryl Holt. Copyright © 2005 Cheryl Holt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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