London, March 1850
“For God’s sake, man. Make way.”
The impatient command came from close behind, startling in its proximity. Will Repton clenched his teeth against a reply and edged to the right of the pavement, his limping gait either too slow or too unsightly for the haughty Londoners passing him.
Ignoring their frowns, he tucked his chin against the cold wind coursing down Oxford Street and trudged on. At the end of the block, he slowed. There was always a body rounding the corner, always a carriage approaching, always another woman averting her gaze from his twisted step.
So many bodies, so much bustle. He didn’t remember London this way. Could six years so alter a city?
Though it hurt like the devil, he straightened his stride entering Hanover Square. Here, at least, was unchanged. The same statue of Chancellor Pitt, the same handsome homes, the same center of wealth and pedigree. This was Mayfair as it always was on a Sunday afternoon, and he was calling on Ben Paxton just as dozens might call upon their acquaintance.
If he didn’t remember the London sky looking flat as paint in the space between buildings, he reasoned he’d not had the iridescent heavens of the Yangshuo Mountains to compare it with before. And if he couldn’t shake the chill from his bones of late, he shouldn’t be surprised. He was a good stone lighter and less insulated than when last he was here.
No, the city hadn’t changed. He had.
Will had left London a hale and hearty envoy of the East India Company; he’d returned—after being twice-rumored dead—a famed explorer, celebrated plant hunter, and universally pitied cripple.
The wind threatened to dislodge his hat and the icy handle of his glass case bit through his glove, but it was the precious plants within that would suffer most from the cold. He hurried to gain the shelter of Paxton’s door. For a moment, a wry smile twisted his lips, standing at the affluent address. He’d not seen Paxton in years—long before his astonishing marriage to a countess—but the man was a friend of his father’s.
And as wealthy and sympathetic investors went, he was an excellent prospect.
A quick turn of the bell key, the door opened wide, and Will froze in reaching for his card. The butler with the smiling face and crescent eyes so resembled a stevedore he’d met on a dock in Xiamen that Will nearly uttered ni hao in greeting.
No, London hadn’t changed. But he could look nowhere without the colors of the East seeping into its lines.
“Good afternoon,” Will said. “I believe I’m expected.”
He presented his card and followed the butler to the receiving room. In the quiet hall, the drag of his heel was conspicuous, but still he slowed to assess his surroundings. Marble floors. Paintings crackled with age. Silk wallcoverings. Paxton had married very well.
A Chinese vase was displayed in an alcove. He was no expert, but centuries old to be sure. Yuan or Ming Dynasty—
A patter of footsteps slapped on the tiles behind him and he spun round, his muscles seizing in readiness. A boy—three or four or six, he could never discern the age of children—dashed past the stairs and vanished behind a door.
The sight came and went so swiftly, he clenched his eyes and grappled with the reality of the vision.
A disturbance of the air…a faint chortle from the room…
The boy was real.
Will dragged in a breath and willed his heart not to pound out of his chest. Damn it. His father had warned him Paxton had children.
“Don’t mind our young master.” The butler grinned from the end of the hall. “The boy has us all at his mercy. There’s not a nursery in London that can hold him.”
He nodded stiffly, unable to share the man’s amusement. Ratcheting tight his nerves, he passed his coat and hat to the servant, who swiftly withdrew. Confused, he watched the butler disappear around a corner.
He’d always been announced before. At least at all the other fine houses where he’d solicited funds.
Will turned into the room and jolted to a stop. This was no reality he’d ever known—London, China, or otherwise. The parlor was screamingly female, stuffed with satin seats and tasseled pillows and a perverse number of breakable objects on every surface, but it was a gathering of men who swung their heads at his entrance.
Evidently not the desired addition to their party, the men ignored him to rearrange themselves in the parlor. One propped an elbow on the trinket-covered mantelpiece, another leaned suavely against the pianoforte, another feigned interest in a book. One young man, of a romantic bent, brooded out the window stroking the petals of a rose.
Eight—no, nine men. All posed in depictions of masculine leisure. Ridiculous, in light of all the doilies. What business did they have here?
And where the devil was Ben Paxton?
He set down his small Wardian case, checking through the fogged glass that the plants hadn’t been upset in their journey, and searched for a seat.
The only available chair held an ugly needlepoint pillow of a goat. Or perhaps a horse, though it appeared to have only three legs. Whatever the sorry creature was, it was named “Beatrice” according to the stitching beneath. A child’s effort. Moving aside the pillow, Will sat—and slowly sank—into the overstuffed cushion.
“I say.” A man in a red coat pointed to Will’s case. “What is that? That little glasshouse?”
“I use it to transport plants.”
“Indeed?” The man abandoned his pose by the fire to inspect the greenery. “And where are these transported from?”
He peered inside. “Are there flowers? Shall we take them out?”
“No flowers. And I’d not open the case because of their scent.”
The man’s brows quirked with amusement. “Rotten luck there. Bit pungent are they?”
Will stared, trying to make sense of the man’s words. “Putrid, actually. Much like a rotting carcass.”
And he thought the room silent before…
Will scanned the bewildered faces; the man with the rose even suspended his brooding to squint at him. Could they somehow smell the carrion plants he carried?
Sighing quietly, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. It was too long. Just this morning, Mum had said it was time to see to it. Now that he was back in Civilized Society, as she put it, he couldn’t lumber about like one of his beloved shaggy-haired yaks. Given a choice, he’d prefer the company of his pack yaks any day. He fingered the frayed edge of his cuff. It might be time to get himself to a tailor as well.
A salver heaped with civilized calling cards sat on the table at his elbow. The uppermost name belonged to a viscount. Beside it, a bouquet of rosebuds. Around the room, more bouquets. Several, actually. The perfume of the flowers wasn’t near as thick as all the colognes…and hair tonics…and shaving soaps—
They’re here for a woman.
Will shot to his feet, flinching at the protesting pain in his leg. “I’m in the wrong room.”
The man in the red coat laughed. “No, never tell me that! You must stay and present your offering to Miss Baker. The look on her face would be beyond price.”
“Miss Baker? Who is—” Right. Paxton’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Baker. The countess’s sister.
His jaw tightened with embarrassment. The butler mistook him for a suitor of some society miss. It was ludicrous.
Men like him did not marry.
“Excuse me,” he grumbled. No doubt the girl possessed a colossal dowry to draw this gathering.
He turned and nearly plowed over a woman standing in his path. His heart jolted from the near collision—but there was little that didn’t jolt him lately. He stepped back. And stood corrected.
Charlotte Baker needed no dowry.
Past the spangles and beads sparking into his eyes, a porcelain doll had come to life. Glossy, dark curls framed the flawless oval of her face. A little nose tipped over lips so pink and pillowy, they shaped themselves into a smile even at rest. And as he stood staring, her cheeks blushed perfect, matching roses and the effect was complete. Another figurine as ornamental as the dainty teacups in the room.
But decorative as she was, her curves were more than functional. Those would stir the primitive in any man. And after Tibet, the primitive in him was very close to the surface.
He wanted to drag her someplace private and…and…
Will grimaced at his lack of imagination. It was a mad thought.
Yet another mad thought.
“I beg your pardon,” he muttered as he picked up his case and sidestepped past her. “I was directed to the wrong room.”
“The wrong—? Oh, but…sir?” Her hands fluttered up but withdrew. The tentative gesture, to delay or help, he ignored. The little doll and—Christ—her chaperone, followed him into the hall.
“It must have been Mr. Penny, Ben’s valet,” she said, hurrying to keep pace at his elbow. “He is at the door today because Mr. Goodley, our butler, had eaten a little mutton that had gone off, I’m afraid, and he must have assumed…well, today is Sunday—”
Will stopped in the middle of the hall. Every door was closed.
And Miss Baker was still talking.
“—and as it is Sunday and you are…well, you are”—she shrugged and tilted her head—“well, not here for me, as I am now aware. I am very sorry.”
Will tensed at her remorse. Stemming from pity, no doubt. With his drab suit and shaggy hair, he would not compare favorably to her suitors. Or had he imagined the remorse? More likely she laughed at him.
Easing his gaze onto hers, his mind stumbled to see eyes of such pure blue they appeared almost violet. No, not violets. Delphiniums.
He redirected his gaze and blew out a frustrated breath. Damn it all, he didn’t think flowery thoughts. He was a botanical journeyman, paid to catalog and classify. Blue eyes. Merely blue.
Yes, she was a pretty girl.
Not that it mattered in the least.
He sought the butler or valet or whatever he was, but only the redheaded chaperone stood watching him with bald amusement. He tightened his grip on the handle of his case. “Miss Baker—”
“Yes, I am Charlotte Baker.” Three skipping steps in jeweled slippers brought her to stand unnecessarily close. “But we have not met, I am sure of that.”
He watched that smile suspiciously. Wouldn’t his mum be heartbroken to see him now? Standing so near a beautiful, unmarried girl with only escape on his mind?
“Will Repton, miss.” By the widening of her eyes, he surmised his name was known to her. It was all those damn newspaper stories. “I’m here to meet with Ben,” he added to discourage questions. But there was no need. His name had effectively rendered her mute.
He cleared his throat. “Where should I—”
“You are William Repton?”
His frown deepened, concerned by the raw astonishment on her face. “I…well. Yes.”
“No. William Repton, the explorer? Of China? That William Repton?”
He sidled away and pointed to the nearest door, careful to keep an eye on her. “Is this the room then?”
She launched forward, startling him backward and nearly into upsetting the Yuan or Ming vase—he still didn’t know, he was no expert—and for God’s sake, what did she want?
Miss Baker hooked his elbow and his eyes careened from the small gloved hand to her widening smile to her big delphinium eyes. “Miss Baker—”
“Do please put that case down.”
“Ben will not mind. He is well aware I have been desperate to meet you and has been positively maddening in not inviting you sooner. He would not begrudge me this chance—I pray you will not—and I simply must know you better. Please?”
She batted her lashes. At him. The sight both aroused and disturbed.
Taking his speechlessness for compliance, Miss Baker emitted a kittenlike squeal and pulled him back into the horrible parlor.
Christ, where the devil was Ben Paxton?
“Gentlemen!” she announced. “How fortunate we are. I must introduce William Repton. No doubt you are aware of the man and his achievements. He is here to meet with Ben, but I would not let him go.”
The men stared, half-curious, half-dubious, as Miss Baker led him to a short settee. Commanded to sit beside her by a dainty hand, he folded his stiff leg, gritted his teeth, and lowered with control. The arrangement was too close; if he turned his head, they’d brush noses.
“I hope you will not find the flavor of our tea too pedestrian given your learned palate, Mr. Repton.” Miss Baker poured him a cup of tea. “Our housekeeper prides herself on her blend. She has been induced to try a variety from Assam which I find a bit bracing but lovely with milk. How do you take your tea? Sugar? Lemon? Or perhaps with a sprinkling of tobacco?”
The last was said with a giggle to the man at the pianoforte before she directed her smile back at Will. “I am being silly, of course. That is a jest between the viscount and myself. Sugar?” She waited with sugar tongs poised over his cup.
He blinked. “No.” Her smile dimpled. “No, thank you.”
“Forgive me, Miss Baker,” the red-coat man said. “But ‘Repton’ is not a name known to me.”
The man, who was evidently a viscount, scoffed. “Come, Matteson! You cannot be in earnest. The man is written of ad nauseum in the periodicals.”
“Indeed,” another man put in. “You cannot tell me you have avoided the tale of ‘Chinese Will’?”
Recognition struck the man like a board to the back of the head. “Oh, deuce take it! You are Chinese Will?”
Will turned to Miss Baker to beg his freedom, but she only beamed brighter.
“There are two Mr. Reptons of accomplishment, actually,” she said, her gaze not unlatching even as she addressed the others. “John Repton is supervisor at Chiswick Gardens. But his son, my—our Mr. Repton, is England’s most remarkable plant collector. His reports are sublime and archived at the Geographical Society. Mr. Helmsley, you are a member. Have you not read them?”
Mr. Helmsley aborted his sip of tea with a clumsy gulp at being blindly addressed. “Ah…regretfully, no, Miss Baker.” He leaned forward in an attempt to catch her eye. “But I shall do so post haste now that I am aware of your interest and we may have a meaningful intercourse on the subject.”
The other men committed to reading the reports themselves, but the pretty hostess seemed unaware of their attempts at ingratiation. Will glanced at her, feeling her rapt attention like a bonfire.
No sensible woman looked at him like that.
Perhaps there was something wrong with her.
“Favor us then, Mr. Repton, with tales of adventure.” The viscount didn’t mask the imperious edge of his voice. “My father will be mortally jealous when he learns I have met ‘Chinese Will,’ the man himself.”
Will frowned into his teacup, plunked the dish on the table, and turned to summarize the last six years of his life in as few words as possible.
Charlotte was too overcome to listen. How was it possible?
But thank God. Thank God! Here he was! The man who could redeem the family name. The man she dreamed of. The man she was destined to marry—even if William Repton was not yet aware of the fact.
At last here and just as she had seen him a hundred times before. More. Never in London, never in any real place, but he was already so very dear and familiar.
And she didn’t imagine him so from the countless accounts of the incredible Mr. Repton.
He was familiar because he looked just the way she imagined her beloved explorer would look if she could invent him. Hair that was many shades of blond, and never—no never—thinning. Easily, the thickest hair of all the men in the room—though it was a bit long for fashion. Her heart panged tenderly for the lock curling at his collar.
And those were just the right shoulders—slightly too broad and muscled for his frame—because she did so love a man’s shoulders. And that face…
Well, she had never assembled his features so perfectly before. But for whatever this mood was, with its corresponding “just get on with it” expression, she would only choose this square chin, stern brow, and piercing blue eyes to form this handsome, heroic face.
A heroic and somewhat irritated face.
She dropped her gaze. Goodness, she must not stare moon-eyed at the man. What nonsense had she prattled on about before? Why, why, had she mentioned the mutton?
“I wonder how you were able to read them, Miss Baker?”
Lord Spencer’s voice recalled her to the present. “Do forgive me. What did you say?”
Lord Spencer—Hugh, as he had asked to be called—flicked an uneasy glance to Mr. Repton and reset his smile more tightly. “The reports, Miss Baker. The Geographical Society is exclusive to men. How did your little person conspire to read them?”
“Ben is a member and retrieved them for me.” Charlotte beamed at Mr. Repton, willing him to look at her, but he seemed to prefer scowling at his boots. “Or most of them anyway. I have not read the final installment.”
“Nor should you,” Mr. Repton said.
“But I must.”
“There is nothing in them of worth to a lady.”
“Nothing of…?” But he appeared entirely in earnest. How could he not know what his writing meant to others? To her? “But you are too modest. The reports are full of sound and color and feeling! When I read them, it is just as Aristotle wrote—the soul never thinks without a picture—”
“It is not my mind that thrills at the adventure—”
“—but my very soul—”
His head reared, passion sparking in his eyes. “Then you see what you wish to see.”
Her breath caught in her throat. Those intense eyes, the flushed cheekbones, the hot, panting breath laving her cheek. The man was magnificent!
His words were utter nonsense but he delivered them with such glorious conviction.
Another lady might have been chastened and turned shy in the face of this growling man. But she had always been a bit more…well, buoyant than most.
And his chest was heaving so attractively within that awful coat.
Unable to repress it, she smiled hugely and his glare faltered. “Now I am all the more curious why our perceptions should differ,” she said softly.
His eyes widened and she remembered herself. “Would anyone care for more tea?” She reached for the pot. “Though perhaps it does not refresh. I cannot credit how warm the parlor is.”
All the men were instantly solicitous of her comfort.
All except for Mr. Repton, who had taken a firm grip of his temples.
Doubt trickled over her. Had she said something to distress him? Were the memories of his travels painful?
Perhaps they were. It appeared he had been injured, though he limped only a very little. Having watched him walk a few paces, his back was straight above his slim hips and hard, sculpted backside. The memory of which warmed her already-heated cheeks.
She could not recall ever noting the shape and muscularity of a man’s bottom before, but there it was.
Quite a vivid picture, really.
She pressed a napkin between her damp palms. The parlor was too close, but then she had not expected most of these gentlemen, as they were not of a society she encouraged. Only Lord Spencer was Upper Class Proper; the rest only Upper Middle.
Only Lord Spencer. After three seasons…
How odd…how odd and remarkable and wonderful that none of these men mattered in the least now. Not now that she’d made a discovery all her own: William—no, Will. A fitting name for one who made his own place in the world, Society and lineage and rules be hanged.
Here was the husband she yearned for. Not a mere aristocrat but the Talk of London. And quite literally, the man of her dreams.
She angled a glance at his profile. Yes…the very picture.
If only these men would leave. If only he would look at her again. She leaned close. “Mr. Repton, I—”
“His Grace, the Duke of Iddlesleigh,” Mr. Penny announced from the door.
The men swiveled their heads as Iddlesleigh entered and Charlotte stiffened with surprise. And shame.
Thank goodness he had not found her alone. But honestly! An unmarried duke ought to have a better use of his time than to always be hunting for his next mistress. Undoubtedly he would have requested her favors and she would have declined with all the humble gratitude a powerful man like him would expect. She may be common-born but she was no one’s cocotte .
Not his, not Lord Welston’s, nor Misters Ware’s, Adkins’s or Playfair’s. She almost suspected the men of wagering on who might win her virtue as often as the stupid offer was made.
“Dearest Charlotte.” Iddlesleigh brushed his lips over her fingers. “I see from this entrenched party of admirers, I am shamefully tardy. Will you forgive me?”
She removed her hand, mindful not to yank it from his touch. “You are always forgiven, Your Grace.”
The duke hoisted an imperious brow at Will, who stared out the window as if watching a tedious bit of theater. It was obvious that Iddlesleigh desired Will’s seat and expected him to surrender it to his betters.
It was not obvious to Will.
The duke paused pointedly until Lord Spencer surrendered his seat and the duke sat. His Grace turned to Will. “I am not acquainted with you, sir.”
Charlotte touched Will’s sleeve and a hard muscle jumped under her fingers, thrilling her. “This is Mr. Repton, Your Grace. Do you not recall that we spoke of him at the musicale last week?”
The duke’s eyes sharpened. “Indeed. The plant hunter.”
“Your Grace,” Will mumbled at Iddlesleigh and stood abruptly. “Miss Baker, thank you for the tea. If you’ll excuse me.”
No! No, no, no! He could not leave! “Yes, of course.” She stood to offer her hand in farewell but Will was already at the door. Faced with the delicate challenge of chasing after a man with all correctness, she began with a bright smile for the benefit of the room and called after him. “Allow me to show you to his study.”
Will stopped short at the sound of her voice and let her precede him with a huff of breath. She blinked at the sound. Did he truly not like her?
At the door, he lifted his plant case and walked to the center of the hall, his head swiveling from one closed door to the next. Slowly, he turned back with what was becoming a familiar frown. That could not be his usual countenance. It was horribly out of place on the Mr. Repton she knew.
“Will you direct me, Miss Baker?”
“I am sorry to have kept you—”
“—but you must know how ardently I—”
“Thank you.” Will held up a staying hand, then—looking embarrassed at the uncivil gesture—dropped it. “I do thank you, but…”
His eyes caught on something behind her. Patty stood at the parlor door. Her maid really was a lax chaperone; she did not even bother to look up from her novel.
Will shook his head and whatever he muttered was too low to hear. Not that she could attend. His jawline was magnificent. Would it appear so even when he was not clenching it?
“Miss Baker, I’m sure you understand my eagerness in seeing your brother-in-law, having matters of actual importance to discuss.”
Matters of actual importance. Oh dear. She really ought to take offense at that. Very likely she would, later.
“Yes, of course,” she murmured.
Blast it! God—! Save him from virgins!
He’d hurt her feelings. Of course he had. He was a yak’s ass. A steaming pile of horse apples. A maggot in the—
“Jamie?” Miss Baker turned to the footman. “Mr. Repton was shown to the wrong room. Would you see him to Ben’s study?”
The footman’s lips bunched with smothered laughter and Will stared over the boy’s head. What matter if the lad was amused by the picture he made as one of her callers? God’s sake, the woman attracted the likes of a duke.
He had changed. He’d always been patient before. And slow to anger. And kind to women.
But damn it, weren’t servants supposed to be helpful?
“Yes, miss.” The sniggering footman set off down the hall. “This way, sir, if you please.”
Will inclined his head to Miss Baker, letting his eyes touch that beautiful face one last time. That beautiful, pouting—damn it—sad little face.
He bowed stiffly. “Thank you…for the tea, Miss Baker.”
Her eyes shot to his and her brilliant smile was blinding him again. “You’re welcome, Mr. Repton. And please do call anytime. Anytime at all.”
He stared. Did she just invite him to call? On her?
Perplexed, he walked away but something made him stop and look again.
Still there. Still beaming.
There was definitely something wrong with her.
“Why?” he heard himself ask, frowning at his own stupidity.
Her head tilted in question. A trait of hers, then. A bloody adorable one. “Why did you read my reports?” he asked brusquely.
“You are a hero.”
“Right,” he muttered. “Good-bye, Miss—”
“But then because—” She glanced back at the parlor of admirers and, for the first time, her face wore a look of uncertainty. “Because I felt you were writing to me. And to me alone, and if I did not read every report as soon as they arrived, then you would be all alone. And not just feel alone, but truly…be alone.”
“I wasn’t alone,” he blurted.
But you were, a voice in his mind hissed. You were alone at the end.
“It is silly, I know.” Her blush deepened, but still she smiled. “Everyone tells me I am prone to fanciful notions. I realize those who actually experience have no need for fantasy. I am endeavoring to be such a person.”
She eyed him expectantly—hopefully—but he was at a complete loss. With a quick bow, he turned and left her in the hall.
Thank God the study was empty. He set down the plants and massaged the tension in his neck. At twenty-eight, he’d stared down the sheer wall of an eight-hundred-foot gorge but was shaken from a minute’s proximity to one happy…confusing chatterbox of a woman.
There was much to get used to again. Crowds, comforts, women. He and the crew had subsisted on the crudest food and meanest shelter, growing tough as the weathered hides they wore on their backs.
Yet rugged as they all were, he’d been the only one to survive...