Pretender

Pretender

by Barbara Miller

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)

$6.99

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743412308
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 04/02/2002
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 4.00(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

By day Barbara Miller works as a business analyst; by night she runs a retirement home for aged horses, dogs and cats. On the week-ends she spends a lot of time in Regency England, creating heroes and heroines to fight the Napoleonic Wars, shock London society, and set the countryside in an uproar. Her accomplice is her computer-expert husband Don, who is one of her biggest fans.

Barb started writing because she was running out of reading material and all her copies of her Georgette Heyer novels were becoming dog-eared. Under the name Laurel Ames she produced eight Regency-era historicals for Harlequin, one of which was nominated for a Rita in 1994.

Barb admits to enjoying the research as much as the writing, and has the books to prove it. France used to be in the dining room and England in the living room. Now that she has taken over the upper story of their old farmhouse as an office at least all the books are one floor. This saves a tremendous amount of time when she is trying to confirm an obscure fact in the middle of the night.

Dearest Max is Barb's first Sonnet and although it is a Regency, it required research into Henry VIII's time since the characters are looking for an artifact from Nonsuch Palace. She feels that the combination of romance and mystery is the perfect mix for a fast-paced book.

"The most bizarre feeling is when you are proofreading one of your own books and you get down to the last 30 pages and start wondering how the author (you) is going to fit everything that has to happen in before the end. That's when you know you have the pacing right."

My Phillipe, Barb's second Sonnet will be released in October of 2000 and has been blessed with a cover as beautiful as the one for Dearest Max. All the readers want to meet these men.

Barb is a member of the Western PA Chapter of Romance Writers of America and edits The Laurel Wreath newsletter for them. You may email her at scribe@cvzoom.net.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

LONDON

AUGUST 1817

"Must you go back to Talltrees so soon?" Draco asked, looking across the breakfast table at Trent and Amy Severn, his two dearest friends. "The season is at its height, if you care for such stuff."

Amy put down her teacup and nodded, her mop of red hair bouncing. "I have colts to train. We only came to pick up my new saddle and to see how you and your parents are."

"And to show off the baby, of course," Trent added with a grin.

Draco pushed his plate away and leaned back in the elegant chair, making it creak. "I perceive it was not to check on any of the businesses. Trent never set foot in the office these past five days."

Draco noted that Trent's smile was relaxed now, not tense as it had been last year when he had been helping Trent court Amy. He had been right in thinking they were perfect for each other and was glad he had invested so much time last season in getting them together.

Trent finished his coffee and set the cup aside. "Now that you are our partner I thought you might like to have a free hand with the businesses, find your feet."

"Someone has to keep an eye on them since you've retired to the country."

Trent reached for Amy's hand and squeezed it. "A wife must always take precedence over affairs of business."

"Ah, that is my signal to get little Andrew ready and check on the packing so you two can cram in a discussion of all those important matters you ignore when I am around."

Amy slipped out of her chair before Trent could even rise and he fell back in his seat to watch her.

"Certainly not," Draco said, turning to call after her. "We tell you everything that goes on."

Amy paused with her hand on the doorknob, looking utterly feminine in a creamy muslin dress. "Nevertheless I have important chores to do. You have ten minutes." Amy left them and Draco heard her running up the marble stairs of the large house.

He brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and pulled his coffee cup toward him, a sign that the aged butler interpreted as meaning he wanted more. Fenton refilled his cup, looked enquiringly at Trent, and when Trent smiled and shook his head, left them alone in the room.

"Actually, I did poke my head in to see Mr. Lester." Trent folded his arms and leaned on the table. "Amy had bought presents for his children. He seems happy with the exchange, considering us interchangeable, except that you decide matters fast. Your military training, no doubt."

"I at least know when to make a decision. Some matters do not improve with study."

"You look preoccupied," Trent said. "If things are going badly you can tell me."

"The businesses are thriving, all of them. We have new investment clients, even some legal cases that are bringing in money, the foundry has been fully converted to domestic goods rather than arms, and we haven't lost so much as a sail off any of the ships this past year." Draco swirled the black coffee in his cup, holding it by the rim since the handle was too small for his fingers.

"What is it, then?"

"I sailed along with that last cargo of goods to Cuba. On the way we encountered a slaver." Draco drained his cup. He needed the intensity of the black coffee to tell his story.

"Damn." Trent's dark brows knit together. "Nothing you could have done."

"No, she outran us anyway. Trent, there were English sailors on that vessel. I heard them speak."

"What flag was she flying?"

"Spanish. As soon as she spotted us she ran away before the wind. Human flesh is a lighter cargo than iron and tinware."

Trent leaned forward. "We outlawed the slave trade a decade ago. I thought that would put a stop to this."

"Only for England and America. The English owner may have sold the ship to some Spanish factor for the voyage."

"What have you found out about it?" Trent's green eyes were intent.

Draco sighed. "Not much. We guessed she was making for Cuba but we were two days behind by the time we docked. They had already unloaded their cargo and left. I couldn't find a single person who would tell me who was the captain or owner of the ship."

"Not even when you backed them up against the wall with a hand around their throat," Trent guessed with a grin.

"No, not even then. So I carried our load to Philadelphia instead." Draco had the satisfaction of seeing Trent look surprised for once.

Trent nodded as a slow smile spread. "You broke a number of contracts, my friend."

"I want no money coming to us that was wrung out of human misery."

"I agree. What then do you intend to do about it?"

"When I came back I went to the Admiralty. If it is a British merchant ship and crew, it's in clear violation of the law."

"And?" Trent asked.

"The upshot is they want me to find out who it is, to look into it unofficially."

"Isn't that a job for the navy?"

"So I pointed out, but with the war over half our ships are in dry dock, the captains pensioned off at half pay. And with me in my new position in trade they felt I might come in the way of more information than any official inquiry. They actually implied it was my duty to help clean up merchant trade, since I'm involved in it."

"I suppose if you were not still in uniform it would have been easier to refuse."

He glanced down at his scarlet dragoon's jacket in stark contrast to Trent's black coat, and a constant reminder that Draco Melling was still, before anything else, a soldier. "I would not have refused. I had meant to do something about it even if they consigned me to the devil. I just wanted to warn them."

Trent arched an eyebrow at him. "We cannot comb the seas, and I suppose they did not go so far as to give you a commission to attack a suspected slaver?"

Draco shook his head no.

"But we have all our contacts in ports around the world," Trent continued. "Information always did flow more easily along the lines of commerce than by any other route. I shall write some letters for you."

"I will interview all our captains as they come into Portsmouth or London. The hell of it is that the ship looked familiar."

Trent sat up straight. "You've seen it before?"

"I'm almost sure of it, but I can't remember where. And it must have been in this past year I have been working for you."

"You do not work for me. We are partners."

"I am quite proud of the fact that I do work, no matter how much it makes my mother shudder. And by the way, thank you for the use of your house." Draco glanced around the elegant dining room. "It helps to keep her sighs and disappointments at a distance."

"Well, do not tell her about your investigation. You already worry her far too much."

"And she seems to feel that my marriage would end her concern."

Trent chuckled. "That by marrying you will suddenly become less at risk?"

"Yes, you are held up to me as a paragon of respectability."

"Me, with my reputation? Your mother called me the worst man in London before I married Amy."

"At which point you suddenly became a responsible citizen with the potential to bear an heir."

"Oh, that again. I would have thought your mother would have given up on you producing a grandchild for her."

"She will never give up." Draco reached for his cigar case, then put it back into his pocket.

Trent hesitated. "You never told them that you were married, and how Maria died?"

"What would be the point?" Draco stared across at his friend. "When she told me she was pregnant I thought she would be safer with my parents in England, and thought it a piece of good luck that one of your ships was just leaving Lisbon."

"You couldn't know they would cross swords with a slaver."

"Killed by a splinter when a cannonball passed through the hold. What are the chances?"

"Then this vendetta on the slavers, it is about Maria."

"In part. If I had left her in Lisbon, she would still be alive."

"You cannot blame yourself. She might have died a thousand other ways in Spain or Portugal. Hasn't Amy taught you anything about not being able to control the whole world?"

Draco shook his head. "No, Amy was your lesson. I have yet to find the woman who can make sense of the world for me."

"Maria did not?"

"Love born out of dependence and need is not real love." Draco stared at the white tablecloth trying to call up the image of her face. "Still, I wish I had not failed her."

"You did not fail her. It was the war and that renegade slave trader."

"So now that I have the chance to do something about it, I will take it."

"Then the war has not ended for you," Trent said.

Draco looked up at the noise of a trunk being set down in the hall and Amy's quick steps. "No, it's just a different enemy."

Juliet was reading the paper and Ariel stared out the window of their sitting room in Barclay's Hotel when Harry entered and tossed his hat on the table. Juliet watched him strip off his gloves and could tell by his tight, pleased smile that he had news for them. He sat down opposite Juliet with a tired sigh. "How did it go, your tea with Lord and Lady Marsh?"

"The Mellings are very nice," Juliet reported, "and they were impressed with Ariel. Without them saying so, I could see they would like to have her for a daughter-in-law."

"I mean, will Ariel have this Draco fellow?"

Ariel plopped down on the sofa beside her sister. "He was not there and I could see that it peeved his mother. But I would wonder about a man who let his mama order him about at the age of thirty. I am rather glad he did not obey her summons."

Harry laughed. "I have not been idle on your behalf. It appears that no one orders Captain Melling about, not even his superiors. His valiant charge at Waterloo was entirely his own idea, and now he operates in the business world even though he still retains a commission, pretty much ignoring what anyone thinks of him."

"Where did you have that from," Juliet asked. "The coffeehouse?"

"Yes, he lives between Mayfair and the business district in a house belonging to the firm of Severn and Conde. He is some sort of partner, I take it. To tell you the truth, I think better of him for having independent means."

"It was sweet of you to check into it, Harry," Ariel said, her blue gaze sliding wistfully toward the window. "But it does not sound as though Captain Melling wants a wife, no matter how much his mother desires that he wed."

"He comes well recommended by Lady Scrope," Juliet said, casting the newspaper aside.

"But we cannot have Ariel marrying just any bounder who might steal her fortune and lock her in the attic."

Ariel grinned. "Oh, Harry. Men don't do that anymore."

Juliet stood and paced to the window. "Harry is right. If you chose the right husband we can stop worrying about you and your share of the money, but if you marry some fortune hunter, or worse, a subhuman like our cousin Redmond ..."

Ariel looked down at her pale yellow gown, pleating the fabric across her knee. "Yes, I know. I shall be careful. I still dislike abandoning you two. I am your sister. Part of the danger should be mine."

"But I need to take back Oak Hill," Harry said, "and I can do that better if I do not have you to worry about. In fact, it would be better if Juliet married as well." Harry looked up at Juliet.

"The last thing I need is a husband." She looked down at her gray matronly dress and realized she had decided not to marry so long ago it was part of her character.

"I should not try to marry either." Ariel's generous mouth pulled down in a frown. "Not after what happened to Frederick."

"She's right, Harry. How can we be sure this Draco Melling will fare any better?"

Harry leaned toward Ariel. "Melling is a soldier, for one thing, used to dealing with emergencies."

"But it's not fair to him," Ariel protested, "not knowing what he's getting into."

"See if you like him first," Juliet advised. "Then if he seems competent, we will explain the dangers of the position to him."

"Position?" Ariel turned to stare at her. "It sounds like you are hiring a bodyguard."

"We tried that, too, if you recall," Juliet said. "It turned out he was working for Redmond as well as us. Our cousin probably knew our itinerary better than we did."

"Yes, and had orders to prevent either of you from marrying," Harry agreed. "So what is our next move?"

"There is a ball tonight at Melling House," Juliet said. "Captain Melling is supposed to attend. Ariel can meet him there."

"But I don't know that I want a husband," Ariel argued. "It has been just the three of us and I like that."

Harry reached across and took her hand. "Oh, I fancy a husband would have his uses other than as a protector."

Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Miller

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