What Happens Under the Mistletoe – Excerpt
Miss Amanda Keane missed her home in America, even in winter. She didn’t belong here in elegant England, with these elegant people and their elegant ways. Unfortunately, she’d only reached one of her two aims in coming to England—getting her brother to agree to come home long enough to help her settle Papa’s affairs.
But her other—gaining information about how English mills achieved their success so she could make improvements in her own operation—had eluded her. The English were wary of having their advancements stolen by Americans. As much as she hated to admit it, Lord Stephen Corry had been right about one thing: what she’d been allowed to see on her mill tours had been carefully orchestrated.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
She whirled with a little squeak to find the man himself leaning against the wall next to the lone candle lighting the room. “Are you mad, sneaking up on me like that? You nearly gave me heart failure!”
“Sorry,” Lord Stephen said, but the golden light spilling over his face caught the unrepentant twinkle in his eyes. His lovely, intriguing eyes.
Curse him for those. “How did you find me?”
Pushing away from the wall, he strolled toward her. “I asked Yvette where you might go, and she told me this was your favorite room.”
“That traitor,” she grumbled.
“Hardly. She merely realized that we should talk.”
“Why, so you could insult me again?”
His face was in shadow now that he’d moved in front of the candle. “Are you referring to when I kissed you?”
“Not that.” She could barely see him, but still she caught his sudden smile and realized her mistake. “I mean—”
“Too late to take it back.” He stepped closer. “So, you didn’t mind the kiss.”
“It doesn’t matter if I did or not.” Deliberately, she turned her back on him to gaze out the window. “You didn’t mean it. You were just adhering to some silly English custom.”
“There was more to it than that, and you know it.” His richly accented voice spilled over her like fine wine. “I enjoyed it. As, I believe, did you.”
She swallowed. So he’d noticed, had he? “Why wouldn’t I? You kiss well enough . . . for an Englishman.”
If she’d thought to prick his pride, she’d sorely miscalculated. He laughed. “So Americans kiss better than the English, do they? And how exactly do you know that?”
“I’ve been kissed often enough to make comparisons.” She couldn’t prevent the bitterness that crept into her voice. “As the only heiress for thirty miles around my home, I’ve had more than my share of flirtations.”
With men who wanted Montague and all it stood for. Having seen what Mama had been forced to put up with after marrying Papa and handing him her family’s mills, Amanda wasn’t about to follow in her footsteps.
“That’s not why I kissed you,” Lord Stephen said irritably. “I did it because you were under the mistletoe.”
“And because you thought I was someone else.”
That brought him up short. “What makes you say that?”
“Your familiar manner of speaking to me when you turned me around. And your surprise when you saw my face.”
A long silence passed, as if he were deciding whether to admit the truth. Then he sighed. “It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise, I assure you.” The low thrum in his voice sent a delicious shiver through her.
“Until you found out who I actually was.”
“True,” he said frankly. “Though I believe you were equally annoyed.”
She faced him. “I still am, as a matter of fact. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
As she started past him, he caught her arm. “I came in here to apologize. And I haven’t yet had the chance.”
Pulling her arm free, she stared expectantly at him. Goodness, why did he have to be so attractive? Why must his coat fall crookedly and his cravat be slightly askew, as if someone had mussed him up on purpose to make him more appealing to her?
And why must he thread his fingers through his wavy ash-brown hair until it stuck out, making her want to step forward to smooth it down?
“Well?” she asked, annoyed by her reaction.
He stiffened. “Forgive me for implying that you are as unfeeling as the rest of the mill owners.”
“Apology accepted,” she said curtly, though it wasn’t much of one. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
“I’m not finished.” His jaw tightened. “I admit I made assumptions about you . . . but only because I don’t know you well enough. I should like to remedy that, so I can form a proper opinion of you and your mills.”
She cocked her head. “You mean, so you can write about them—and me—as harshly as you’ve done all the others.”
He looked startled.
“I’m no fool, Lord Stephen. Since all anyone wants to discuss these days are the difficulties of the textile trade, sometimes the press actually deigns to interview a female like me. I presume you wish to do the same.”
He crossed a pair of rather impressive arms over what looked to be an equally impressive chest. “And if I do?”
“I shall regretfully have to decline. I have no desire to see you portray my mills as scenes of unspeakable horror because it suits your purpose.”
A smug expression crossed his face. “So you’re afraid of what I might learn by talking to you.”
“Then why not let me do it?”
Did he think her a complete fool? “Because you’ll twist my words into an indictment of a business you know nothing of.”
He recoiled as if she’d slapped him. “I may not run a mill but I know plenty about them. That’s why I came here in the first place. To see if what I’ve been hearing about Hanson Cotton Works is true.”
“And what is that, pray tell?”
“Why should I tell you? You don’t want to tell me a thing about your precious mills.” Triumph glinted in his eyes. “Besides, you can always go on one of your special tours, can’t you? The ones where they show you everything.”
Arrogant rascal. “I suppose Yvette already told you that Mr. Hanson refused to give me a tour at all.”
“Did he, indeed?” His eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t surprise me. If what I’ve heard of him is true, he wouldn’t want anyone, even a fellow owner, witnessing his methods.”
Drat it all. Lord Stephen couldn’t have garnered her interest more effectively if he’d offered her actual designs of English machines. She wished she could dismiss his sly hints, but she knew full well that he discovered things no one else did. Someone on the inside was always willing to talk to him. It was how he exposed cases where laws were ignored, how he brought great injustices into the public eye.
“If he’s so secretive,” she said, “how have you happened to hear of it?”
One corner of his mouth kicked up provocatively. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Ooh, he was infuriating. But maybe she was going about this all wrong. As Mama was so fond of telling her, one could catch more flies with honey. Maybe she could make use of him, and in the process teach him a thing or two about responsible mill owners.
“I would like to know, actually. So much so that I might even be willing to agree to your interview.”
That certainly made him take notice. “Really?”
“But only if you introduce me to your sources of information and let me ask them as many questions as I please.”
His face closed up. “I can’t guarantee they’ll answer you.”
“They’re more likely to if I’m with you, aren’t they?”
“Perhaps.” He tilted his head, still wary. “And I suppose you expect to be given some measure of control over what I write about you and Montague Mills.”
“Is that a possibility?”
“No,” he said tersely.
“What a relief. For a moment, you had me thinking that members of the English press can be bought. In America, we believe that they shouldn’t be stifled.” He was still blinking at that remark when she added archly, “Although obviously someone should have considered stifling you long before now.”
He burst into laughter. “You do speak your mind.”
“As often as I can.” And he was the first man to say so without its sounding like a criticism. To her annoyance, that softened her toward him. Somewhat. “So? Do we have a bargain?”
“Not yet. There are some things to work out first. For one, you and I cannot wander the town alone together speaking with my sources.”
She shrugged. “My mother can chaperone.”
“For another, I heard that you’re leaving England soon. So when exactly do you mean to do this?”
“I’d like to begin tomorrow, if you can.”
“In the middle of the house party?”
“Certainly. I’m not exactly the kind of woman who enjoys sitting around making silhouettes or embroidering gloves. And I doubt you’re the kind of man to enjoy shooting or fishing or whatever else gentlemen do during a house party.”
“On the contrary, I enjoy such activities upon occasion.” A slow smile curved up his lips. “But I confess I’d much prefer squiring you about town.”
The rough timbre of his voice affected her most tellingly. “Well then,” she said as she strove to ignore that. “Are we agreed?”
“I believe we are.” He marched forward, forcing her to back up or be run down. When he halted, his gaze drifted unexpectedly to her lips. “All that’s left is to seal our bargain with a kiss.”
That fluttering in her belly began once more. “Why would we do that?”
With a broadening smile, he pointed overhead. “Because we’re under the mistletoe again.”
She looked up, dismayed to see there was indeed another kissing bough hanging from the ceiling. Goodness, how many of them were there?
Then it dawned on her. That was why he’d maneuvered her this direction, the arrogant devil.
And just his mention of a kiss had her heart pounding again, even harder than before. She couldn’t gather enough air to breathe, and what air there was seemed rich and thick, heavily perfumed by the Persian irises and Christmas roses of the conservatory.
Or maybe it was just the heat simmering between them that made it seem so. Good heavens, she didn’t want to feel this for him, of all people.
“Oh, very well, get it over with,” she said, trying for a dismissive tone.
As if he saw right through her, he smiled. Eyes gleaming in the dim light, he tipped up her chin with one hand. “Rules are rules.”
Then he took her mouth with his.