Long before I wrote my sexy paranormal romances, I wrote traditional Regency romances as Debbie Raleigh. Now I’m delighted that one of my favorites is available once more, as full of romance—and surprises—as ever . . .
When a woman appears at Stanholte Manor claiming to be the real heir to the family fortune, Miss Cassandra Stanholte determines to prove her a fraud. Cassie’s one clue leads her to the most notorious neighborhood in London—where she disguises herself as a courtesan. But her plan is hampered by the utterly exasperating, and irresistibly charming, Lord Luke Mumford. The man is apparently intrigued by her, and has a habit of turning up at the most inopportune times. Cassie prays he’ll tire of his obsession before he discovers the truth—and she falls any deeper in love….But Luke is a bored lord, looking for adventure. He’s determined to discover what the young miss is hiding. Yet what begins as a game becomes far more serious when the dashing gentleman finds he is losing his heart . . .
I’m smitten with this tale of love and adventure all over again , and believe you will be too.
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Standing in the center of the tidy office, Miss Cassandra Stanholte glared at the small, insipid Man of Business currently cowering behind the large desk.
"What do you mean there is nothing to be done?" she demanded, her tone as commanding as her expression. "Surely you do not expect me to hand over a sizable fortune, not to mention an estate that has been in my family for five generations, to some stranger who claims to have been married to my long-lost uncle?"
Running a nervous hand over his rapidly thinning hair, Mr. Albert Carson regarded the unexpected intruder in a wary manner. Although the young maiden appeared remarkably harmless with her demure gray gown and her golden hair tugged into a haphazard knot, he was not a bit comforted. Indeed, he was uncannily disturbed by the flashing silver eyes and stubborn jut of the softly rounded chin.
"Please, Miss Stanholte, I am suggesting nothing of the kind," he retorted in what he hoped was a soothing manner, "but you must understand that I am in a very ... delicate situation."
"And what about my position? I assure you that it is untenable."
"It is not that I do not sympathize, but as you know, Lady Stanholte has provided a certificate of marriage to your uncle as well as a birth certificate for their child. She has also provided proof of his death in India last year. Clearly, we must at least investigate her claim that her son is legal heir to the Stanholte title."
Cassie bit back a delightfully rude comment. Although Mr. Carson was no doubt doing his best, she was in no mood to listen to his evasive explanations. In the past fortnight she had endured a horde of strangers invading her home, a near revolt by her tenants, the unpleasant gossip of her neighbors and a ghastly drive from Devonshire to London. She wanted a firm promise that the odious mess would be put to a swift end. Instead it appeared that she might lose everything while this timid man fussed over false certificates and the clever lies of an obvious charlatan. Really, it was more than any woman should have to bear.
"Mr. Carson." She moved forward to place her hands on the wide desk. "My uncle disappeared on a trip to the Continent thirty years ago. After his disappearance, my grandfather spent the next ten years and a vast sum of money searching for his whereabouts. Nothing was ever found. Not a trace that he was still alive."
"Yes, I recall my father speaking of the incident. Quite tragic."
She ignored his sympathetic words. "Naturally, the estate reverted to my father, and on my parents' death, to me. Now, do you not find it in the least odd that if my uncle were indeed alive he never made any attempt to contact the family, if only to ensure that he maintained control of his rightful inheritance?" "Oh, yes, decidedly odd." Albert cleared his throat in an uneasy manner.
"Then why haven't you notified the authorities and had this ... woman taken from my home?" "As I have said, Miss Stanholte, proper procedures must be followed."
The devil with proper procedures, Cassie inwardly fumed, straightening with an angry motion.
"This is absurd, Mr. Carson. Any woman could claim to have married my uncle in the past thirty years. Indeed, for all I know, I might have a dozen aunts waiting to show up on my doorstep with heirs to the Stanholte estate."
"Really, Miss Stanholte, I believe you are exaggerating the situation," Albert protested, his tone flustered.
"Am I?" Cassie arched a golden brow. "It appears to me that all a person needs are a few well-contrived lies and a marriage certificate to acquire the title of their choice."
"I assure you that I am doing everything possible to discover the veracity of this claim."
"But how can you?" she demanded, her silver eyes flashing. "According to the supposed Lady Stanholte, my uncle died after conveniently leaving her a son and a deathbed wish to have him properly raised at the family estate. He obviously is incapable of verifying or denying any such marriage. Unless, of course, you propose to dig him up."
"Yes ... well ..." Clearly unhinged by the upheaval in his staunchly predictable life, Albert fussed with the cravat that appeared to be choking him. "There are a number of inquiries I intend to make before anything is settled. Indeed, I have already sent correspondence to several acquaintances in India. We shall no doubt get to the truth of the matter in time."
Cassie was not appeased. It was all well and good for this man to speak of some eventual resolution of her predicament. His household had not been thrown into disarray and his servants on the point of walking out.
"I will not allow that encroacher to remain in my house while you dither over the finer points of the law," she retorted in sharp tones.
Albert lifted his hands in a helpless motion. "I am sorry, Miss Stanholte, but there is really nothing I can do."
"Then clearly I shall have to take matters into my own hands," Cassie announced, her delicate features set in lines of determination.
"Miss Stanholte, I would sternly advise against any hasty actions. This is a situation that calls for —"
"I know precisely what the situation calls for, Mr. Carson," she interrupted with a toss of her head.
Clearly sensing that Cassie was more than capable of plunging herself into disaster for the sake of family pride, Albert abruptly rose to his feet.
"You are understandably distraught, Miss Stanholte. I would suggest that you stay in London for a few days, perhaps enjoy a few of the entertainments, and then we will discuss this situation again."
Gray eyes flashed with a dangerous fire at the patronizing tone. "I have no desire to enjoy the local entertainment. All I want is that woman out of my house."
"Surely you would like to visit the shops —"
"Mr. Carson, I came to London because I assumed you would be willing to do whatever was necessary to save my estate. It seems I was mistaken," Cassie informed the incompetent attorney in stiff tones. "It is becoming increasingly obvious that I will have to deal with this unpleasant matter on my own."
"With or without your help, I intend to prove Lady Stanholte is a fraud."
"Miss Stanholte —"
"Good day, Mr. Carson."
Without waiting to hear any more foolish arguments, Cassie turned on her heel and marched from the stuffy office.
Really, the man was impossible, she seethed as she stalked down the long hall. He should be doing whatever was necessary to safeguard her inheritance from such ghastly intruders. Instead he appeared quite content to dawdle in his office cowardly hoping the unpleasant situation would simply disappear.
Well, thankfully, she was not so hen-hearted. Although she was virtually alone in the world, she was no helpless Miss unable to protect herself from devious scoundrels. Just the opposite, in fact. She possessed far more of the Stanholte stubborn pride and fiery temperament than was reasonably proper for a young lady.
Why should she be forced to hand over her estate just because she was a woman on her own? If her father were alive, he would certainly be prepared to go to any length to protect his inheritance. Why should she be any different?
No, she thought grimly, she would not concede defeat. The estate was all she had left of her parents. She would fight to the bitter end to protect what they had left entrusted to her care. And with the letter she had tucked in a pocket of her cloak, she knew precisely where to begin her search.
Halting in the small hallway, Cassie withdrew the crumpled note. She had discovered the letter hidden in the belongings of Lady Stanholte shortly after her arrival in Devonshire. At the time, she had felt a pang of remorse at prying through the lady's private correspondence. Now she could only be relieved that she had put aside her finer sensibilities.
Unfolding the cheap parchment, Cassie held it up. In the dim lighting, the scrawled words were nearly impossible to decipher, but after studying them for the past fortnight, Cassie could recite them by heart.
I know how yer said not to rite, but I must beg yer to give up this daft notion. No good can come of trying to rise abuv yer station, and I fear yer be as likely to end up in the cove as to be Lady Stanholte.
I have left the stage as Herbie has at last put me in a proper establishment. T'aint much as Herbie is as skinflinted as he is dimwitted, but there is room enuf for yer to stay until yer gets yerself on yer feet.
The letter convinced her beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lady Stanholte was nothing more than a common thief, and that this Nell was well aware of the plot to steal Cassie's inheritance.
All Cassie needed to do was locate the woman and force her to reveal the truth.
But first she would have to acquire the courage to enter the most notorious neighborhood in all of London.
"Egad, Mumford, has your coachman gone soft in the noodle?" Leaning forward to peer out of the window, Lord Horatio Bidwell wrinkled his distinctly pointed nose. "He's clearly taken a wrong turn."
Seated across from the thin, flamboyantly attired gentleman, Luke Travell, Earl of Mumford, allowed a small smile to touch his handsome countenance.
"Rest assured, Biddles, my coachman possesses full control of his faculties," he drawled, his magnificent blue eyes glinting with humor. "I requested him to make a brief halt before we go on to White's."
"A halt? In this neighborhood?" With a dramatic shudder, Biddles threw himself back in his seat to regard his companion in a petulant fashion. "Why the devil didn't you warn me? I would never have agreed to accompany you if I had realized your intention."
"My business will take but a moment. And there is nothing amiss with this neighborhood. Indeed, it is quite proper."
"Precisely my point," Biddles complained with a disdainful sniff. "The place utterly reeks of respectability. Imagine the damage to my reputation if I am seen.
Luke chuckled. It was true that Lord Bidwel took great pains to cultivate a frivolous image. Few among society considered him more than a twittering fool, renowned for his outrageous behavior and decidedly cutting tongue. Luke, however, was well aware that it was a dangerous mistake to underestimate the man's formidable intelligence. Like himself, Lord Bidwell was often recruited by the War Office to perform the more delicate assignments. Assignments that needed the utmost secrecy.
Unfortunately, Luke's own brilliant career had come to an abrupt end several months before. Much to his annoyance, the unexpected death of a distant cousin had encumbered him with a ponderous fortune and a vast estate that required a tedious amount of attention. His carefree days of daring adventures were now only a fond memory, replaced by days spent closeted with estate managers, investment bankers and long-neglected tenants. Even when he managed to escape to London there seemed an endless number of details that required his personal attention, and, of course, the dreary round of social obligations his position made impossible to decline.
"I am confident your reputation will survive a passing brush with respectability, Biddles," Luke consoled his sulking companion, determinedly shoving aside his brief flare of self-pity. It seemed rather ludicrous to regret what most would consider a stroke of incredible fortune. Even if he did at times feel as if a noose had been slipped about his neck. "But, of course, if you are concerned, you could always huddle on the floor until we leave."
"And risk ruining this exquisite attire?" Biddles demanded in horror, glancing down at the claret coat that provided a shocking contrast to his pink waistcoat. "Don't be absurd. This delightful ensemble cost me a small fortune."
Luke quirked a raven brow. "You can't mean to say that you were actually asked to pay for that ghastly insult to fashion?"
"I say, most unsporting of you, Luke," Biddles protested, his expression wounded. "You have besmirched the honor of my tailor. Luckily for you, the nasty little man has been pestering me for weeks about some beastly bill or I should demand a duel."
Luke merely smiled. Unlike the clothes of his dapper friend, his own pale blue coat and buff pantaloons were cut to enhance rather than distract from his powerful frame. It was a style that was unfortunately gaining appeal among the young dandies, most of whom could not claim such a well-proportioned physique.
"I must say I am deeply relieved. You are a notoriously poor aim, and I should no doubt be forced to stand in some muddy field for hours waiting for you to draw blood."
"Perhaps." Biddles shrugged with the nonchalance of a man confident in his skill as a marksman. "But I cannot imagine it would be any more tedious than being cloistered with some stiff-rumped agent as he prattles about the wisdom of investing in barley rather than wheat or the disastrous effects of the latest labor unrest on the price of corn."
"Unfortunately, it is my duty to ensure that the family fortune isn't being dwindled away on absurd inventions or worthless gold mines." Luke grimaced, inwardly acknowledging that the staunchly proper Man of Business would be as likely to toss himself into the Thames as to take an unnecessary risk.
"Well, it is a devilish bore, if you ask me."
"Ah, yes, quite dull when compared to your habit of constantly attempting to outrun the constable."
"It adds a decided spice to life," Biddles sniffed, abruptly raising his quizzing glass as a carriage rolled past. "Egad, was that Pembroke? Do you suppose he recognized me?"
"I fail to see how he could not have recognized you," Luke drawled with a pointed glance at the painful waistcoat. "Who else in London would be similarly attired?"
The long nose twitched, but before Biddles could conjure a suitable retort, the carriage swerved to an abrupt halt, throwing both occupants sharply against the padded walls. It took a moment for Luke to regain his scattered wits; then with years of training rushing to his aid, he found his balance and was leaping onto the crowded street with the innate grace of a natural sportsman.
Spotting his groom at the head of the perfectly matched grays, Luke hurried forward, quite prepared to discover that the street had crumbled into oblivion. That could be the only reasonable excuse for his groom's cowhanded treatment of his thoroughbreds. What he found instead was a tiny bundle of gray topped by a mass of golden curls lying at his groom's feet.
"What the devil ...? Jameson, what is about?"
Hearing his approach, the young groom turned to gaze at him with fearful eyes, clearly shaken by the small form huddled in the street.
"I'm sorry, my lord, but the young lady stepped directly in me path. I did me best. Honest I did. But ... Oh, blimey, it t'wasn't my fault. It t'wasn't."
Realizing the groom was swiftly working himself into a pucker, Luke regarded him in a stern manner.
"Go fetch the carriage blanket, Jameson."
"I ... Yes, my lord."
Scurrying back to the carriage, the groom left Luke alone to carefully round the skittish grays and slowly kneel beside the recumbent young lady. Then with exquisite care he turned her onto her back.
Just for a moment he felt his breath catch in his throat. How tiny she was, he thought inanely. Like a delicate child laid down for a nap. Rather hesitantly he reached out to push aside her cloud of silken curls. An odd pang twisted in his heart at the pale oval face that appeared so utterly still. He could see no obvious sign of injuries, but he knew that was no reassurance that she had not received grievous wounds in the unfortunate accident.
Almost unconsciously his slender fingers moved to gently wipe a smudge of dust from her smooth cheek. He knew that he would never forgive himself if she were to die, regardless of the fact he had no way of preventing the grim situation. Then a flare of deep relief rushed through his body as the long, black lashes began to flutter.
"No, do not move," he urged as she began to lift herself off the hard pavement, his hands instinctively grasping her shoulders.
Turning her head, she regarded him with bewildered silver eyes, blinking rapidly as if startled by the sight of his dark, aquiline face so close to her own.
"What ... What has occurred?" she asked softly, her cultured voice at considerable odds with the ragtag gown.
"I fear you had a rather nasty fall."
"Yes. You apparently stepped in front of my carriage."
"According to my distinctly distraught groom."
"Oh." She considered his words a long moment; then a shudder shook through her slender frame. "Yes, I remember."
Excerpted from "Lord Mumford's Minx"
Copyright © 2017 Alexandra Ivy.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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