About the book
“Now that I know you exist, how do I not love you?..”
Miss Adeline Brooks never wants to marry. Determined to avoid the matter at all costs, she is desperate for a chance to prove to her widowed father that she is capable of fending for herself. A chance that arises when she is presented with the opportunity to spy on her father's life-long antagonist.
After his father’s recent passing, Elliot Colborne, Earl of Starhall, is in over his head with the management of the Gentlemen's Club he inherited. So, when he discovers the beautiful daughter of his biggest rival spying on him, they make a secret deal: Adeline will help him develop his business to test out her ideas.
When a wave of sickness befalls Elliot's club patrons, he accuses Adeline of sabotage and sends her away. A decision that he instantly regrets when he finds out her father promised her hand to someone else. Blinded by his desire to get her back, Elliot walks straight into the wolf's den. For there is nothing more dangerous than a man who hides his anger quietly and has nothing to lose.
November 28, 1815
Adeline Brooks wasn’t sure she had heard the gentlemen right. It sounded like they were telling her she was meant to be getting engaged.
Her heart pounded so loudly against her chest, she could hardly hear anything more than what her father, Wilbert Brooks, and his business partner, Terrell Harvey, were saying. She glanced over at Russell, seated at the table beside her, to see how he was taking this news.
I’m marrying Russell. My dearest friend.
The one I used to push into the creek when we would pretend we were royals over the muddy banks. The one who teased me endlessly when I caught my hair in a button so badly that I had to cut the chunk out.
It felt as though she were attempting to hold onto a squirming fish that was desperate to be returned to the water.
“You both knew this would happen one day,” Terrell said. The older gentleman looked at her with his wide grin. He was a portly fellow with thinning hair, and he always seemed happy. On the few occasions that he wasn’t smiling, she had always known there was trouble ahead.
He was smiling, so she assumed this was supposed to be good news.
Adeline looked over at her father. She had his tall, slender build and dark hair. They both had dark hooded eyes, too. His lips were pressed tightly together now. He wasn’t always good at expressing his emotions and she couldn’t help but wonder if he was happy about this decision.
Why am I questioning myself? He is most likely the one who had spurred the idea on.
“Well?” Terrell rubbed his hands together as he looked at his son and then back to Adeline with an expectant smile. He had always been like a second father to her.
Wilbert Brooks and Terrell Harvey had been running one of London’s prestige gentleman clubs for as long as she could remember. Her home was right behind the building and the Harveys lived a short distance away. They had enjoyed family meals and holidays together in the back of the club for many years.
“It does make sense.” Russell spoke up. She jerked her head up to look at him. He was already looking over at her with that earnest expression of his. “There has always been talk of keeping our families united. A marriage will ensure that. And it’s not like we would be marrying strangers.”
His last line was directed toward her.
Adeline forced herself to give him a smile, even though she felt rather queasy inside.
Yes, but do I really want to marry my friend? That’s all he has ever been. Though I haven’t expected much, and I have few prospects, I wasn’t expecting anything like this so soon.
She was nineteen years old. Though she knew it was time for her to be seriously courting someone, she was unprepared for this news.
“I didn’t… I mean,” Adeline cleared her throat. She straightened her shoulders. “Do you two really think this is the best decision for us? How will it help the club?”
“Of course.” Her father gave her a slight nod. “It makes sense, Adeline. You’ve seen the numbers. Besides, the two of you have been practically courting all your lives. We will allow for a grace period since the holidays are upon us. Then in the new year, we shall begin the preparations. I’m sure we could have the banns read by February at the latest.”
That is so soon.
Both her father and Terrell gave her another look before leaving the room.
“Well, you can’t say we didn’t see this coming.”
Adeline shifted slightly as Russell rose from his seat. He smiled kindly at her as though he could feel her unease.
She studied him as he began to walk about the room, rubbing his hands.
She could do worse. Russell was a handsome enough man. Six years her senior and a little taller than her with thick blond hair and dark blue eyes. Though he’d begun to grow a paunch, he was friendly and relaxed, which added to his charm. There had been girls she grew up with who would whisper about him. Adeline had always thought it rather silly.
“Adeline?” he raised an eyebrow when she said nothing.
“I suppose not,” she said at last. “To be honest, I didn’t think I would be married so soon.”
That made him chortle. “What else would you be doing? We’re of age, Addy.”
“It’s Adeline,” she said automatically. That pet name of his had never been to her liking. “And I know.”
But then she shook her head, deciding she was being silly. It was just marriage. That couldn’t possibly mean a lot. Her life wouldn’t change much. She supposed she would live with her husband, but they would continue to work at the gentleman’s club together and live in that manner.
That would be enough for her.
Working at The Tempest brought her such satisfaction that she had made herself a small cot in the darkest room there so she wouldn’t have to walk outside to the house if she wanted to work late. And she liked to work late.
Ink on her fingers was as familiar to her as her favorite dress. Her father had begun to include her in his work when he deemed her energy could be put to better use than just running around and causing mayhem. He had taught her at a young age how to read, write, and work the numbers.
And she loved it.
She loved learning everything about the club and how to manage it. Business was an exciting game, and she wanted to play it more than anything else. Her father let her work in The Tempest where she was the only woman accepted inside its front doors. Then she had even taken to sneaking out with Russell in the past to spy on rivals’ clubs.
There were numbers, faces, pleasantries, and so many more pieces to running a club than she had ever known. Exploring it was her favorite thing to do.
Most likely Russell would be the only man to let me continue to work once I’m married, she realized. I had best count my blessings.
Adeline cleared her throat once she had pulled herself from her thoughts. “Well, at least I have time to get used to the idea of having to sit across from you slurping your soup at supper.”
Having picked up the newspaper that his father had left behind, still perfectly folded and otherwise untouched, Russell looked up over the pages and raised his eyebrow at her. “You say that as if you’ve never slurped soup. Who was it that was kicked out of a twelfth night party for her incredibly loud cup of tea?”
Of course, he would bring that up. I’m afraid I won’t ever live that down. What was I to know? I was only nine years old.
She rolled her eyes before skipping over to glance at the paper with him. “Don’t insult your bride-to-be, Russell. That’s hardly respectable. It does remind me that I need to make a few purchases for Christmas. I was thinking about… what’s that?”
“What? The cow that ran into Parliament?”
Adeline grabbed the paper as she tried to understand what she was seeing. Her heart began to speed up again more noticeably this time. She could hardly believe what she read, wondering how Russell could have missed it.
Their fathers hadn’t heard about it, either. A small gasp escaped her lips.
“Oh.” Russell had seen it. He peered over her shoulder with his breath hot on her ear. It was uncomfortable and he smelled rather strongly of garlic. “We have to tell our fathers at once.”
She nodded hurriedly as she read the article. Her eyes flew over the words to memorize every one of them. It was about The Iris. That was their competition. The other exemplary gentlemen’s club in London had been constructed a year after The Tempest, something that her father had always been extraordinarily bitter about.
“The owner has died,” Adeline said in disbelief. Saying it out loud didn’t help her get used to the idea any easier than reading it quietly. “Heart attack, it appears. My goodness. The club is not closing for even a day. What on earth is this?”
Beside her, Russell scoffed at the news. “What does that matter? It’s good news, Adeline. It has to be. Let’s go tell our fathers. Maybe we can buy it out, or at least be ready when the next owner takes over. Does it say anything about anyone else?”
It did at the bottom.
She sucked in a deep breath. “His son. He’s going to be taking over.”
Her friend, and newly betrothed, jerked back to look at her with a quizzical expression on his face. “Since when did the Earl of Starhall have a son?”
Folding the paper, she rolled her eyes at him. “He has had one for over twenty years, Russell. Just because you don’t pay attention to these people doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” she added teasingly before straightening up. “We have to tell our fathers immediately. I have no idea who the new earl is, but we need to find out quickly.”
December 1, 1815
All Elliot could think was that this was not supposed to have happened.
He had crossed the ocean back from the continent to make his way home to London after his father’s untimely passing. The rest of his trunks were still on their way from France, but he couldn’t recall when they would arrive.
His mind was still reeling a week after learning of his father’s death. It hardly seemed possible. The man had been such a rock in Elliot’s life that not having the man around didn’t seem credible. Especially when he arrived home to find his mother teary-eyed with the subdued staff.
“I’m so glad you’re home,” she had managed to say while trying to give him a smile. “Oh, if only it could have been on better terms.”
Elliot had quickly wrapped her in his arms, feeling the frail woman crumble against him.
This was not the way it should have been. My father wasn’t supposed to leave us so soon. I’m not ready for this, and neither is my mother.
As the only child, this meant he became the next Earl of Starhall. It was something he knew would happen one day.
Except Elliot wasn’t sure that he was prepared.
The very next day after his arrival, he had attended his father’s funeral. With the news of the title being passed onto him, there had been cards and letters delivered to him offering congratulations as well as condolences. But there was hardly time for him to mourn as business continued on around the world. There were people demanding his attention, and he couldn’t turn them down.
Especially The Iris, the club that his father had begun many years ago.
“Are you sure that you want to go now?”
Elliot had told his mother that he was going to visit the club at last. It had been two years since he had been home. His schooling had been completed at the age of nineteen, and he wanted to see the world. His father had plenty of connections through his business and he’d sailed off to the continent to learn, explore, and embrace the world.
It had been an enjoyable time where he had focused more on learning the intricacies of language and history. There had been little mention about business and finances for him, which now worried him.
“I should,” he answered his mother as he looked over at her. She sat across the room in his father’s favorite chair. There was a small table there for her cup of tea, but she ignored that to look out the window on her other side. “Mother? I won’t be gone long. In fact, I should be home in time for supper. We should eat together, don’t you think?”
When he walked over to her, she gave him a sad smile.
She still looked as pretty as he had remembered with her blonde hair that was so light one could hardly tell it was turning gray. Even then, she wore the colors well. She had emerald green eyes that shined beside the wrinkles that had begun to grow in number over the last couple of years.
“I’ll be fine. I think I shall retire to my room,” she added after a moment. “Or perhaps not. It’s December, Elliot. The Christmas season is upon us, you know.”
He hesitated at the thought. There had been plans to spend December in Hamburg, but that would not happen now. His days of traveling were cut short now so he could stay home and manage the gentlemen’s club.
After losing Father and learning about the club, there is no time for festivities. Perhaps we had best skip them this year.
“Yes,” Elliot said slowly. “They’ll be hard this year. Do you want to skip the season?”
Her large eyes widened before she shook her head.
“What? Of course not. No, my dear boy, we must embrace the Christmas season for my William. Your father would not want us to miss out on such potential for joy.”
How are we to find the holiday spirit so soon after his death?
“I don’t know,” he started. “I think he would grant us a stay. We’ve just lost him, Mother. This is a time of mourning. You’ve just received your new dresses in black, and I don’t think we’ll be in the mood to be singing and clapping this year.”
She craned her head up to look at him. When she put out a hand to him, he took hers in his grasp. Her hands were cold and clammy, so he used his other hand to try and warm it up.
“Your father loved Christmas,” his mother murmured.
“I know,” Elliot said as he avoided her gaze. He could tell she was growing misty-eyed, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. The past couple of days had been trying and only now was he sure that he finally had the energy to move around town.
Besides, I’ve shed more than enough tears this year.
Shifting in her seat, his mother sighed beside him before saying, “Well, we should do something. I don’t think I’ll host my annual card game. But perhaps we could do something. Don’t you think? In your father’s memory?”
Her voice cracked.
It made his throat tighten in such a way that it was as if he couldn’t breathe. Elliot wasn’t sure how to respond to her suggestion.
Grudgingly, he looked up. He didn’t like the sight of the dark circles under her eyes. She hadn’t touched her tea, either. Leaning down, he gave her a kiss on the cheek and excused himself from the room.
There was work for him to attend to, after all. His father loved the club and would have been furious if Elliot dared close it for the day. Elliot felt compelled by love and duty to his father in returning to the club so it would remain open.
“Patrick?” he turned to his butler before stepping out the door. “Make sure my mother gets something to eat, won’t you?”
Patrick had been part of the household for all of Elliot’s life and a few more years on top of that. The man had pure white hair and walked more slowly of late, but he was a hardworking butler and well-respected by the household. And more than that, he cared for the family.
“Of course,” Patrick assured him with a slight nod. “We already have fresh tea brewing for her now. If anything happens, we’ll be able to reach you quickly. Don’t worry, my lord.”
If only I could stop.
Giving the man a nod, Elliot stepped out the door. It was freezing outside as he hurried into his carriage and made his way to the club.
He remembered running around the building when he was a child, but only when there were few to no men around inside. But that had changed over the years as it grew into a much more crowded and social place for people to gather.
“It’s a place for men to be themselves,” Elliot remembered his father telling him once. “I always wanted to create something by myself for the world. I was born into the life of an earl, but I never wanted that to define who I was.”
“Is that so bad?” he had asked.
It hadn’t made sense to him when he was younger. The less work he had, he thought, the better. This left him free to play, explore, and try new things.
His father had shown him the lifestyle of a working man, and he had never been sure that was something he wanted. It meant long hours, stress, complicated relationships, and being away from family.
A job also meant less respect from many people who mattered in society.
“What is good? What is bad?” his father had pointed the questions back at him. “What do you want to do with your life? You can go through the same cycles of the earls before you. Or you can do something more. That’s up to you.”
“I’ll enjoy my life as an earl,” Elliot had responded at the time.
He was also rather certain he might have rolled his eyes at that moment, too.
But his father hadn’t scolded him. Instead, the man had shrugged and said that his mind might change. If it did, then he had plenty of options available to learn. If he didn’t, then he was limiting his choices and would have to rely on others to fix his mistakes.
That had been a valuable lesson that took him a long time to learn.
Now the time for lessons was over. He had to do something with the knowledge he had gained. The club now belonged to him and he had to take charge.
For all his life, Elliot realized he had considered the club to be his father’s. It was his father’s work, his project, and his place of business. That’s who it belonged to because that was the person who had created it.
But now he’s gone and it’s just me.
A heavy weight rested on his shoulders as Elliot forced himself out of the carriage and up the steps. It used to be a merry place to him. Except that was when his father was alive and, he had no responsibilities to worry about.
Everything is changing now.
That worried him. He had a feeling that there was more change to come, and he wasn’t sure he was ready.
December 3, 1815
Adeline purchased a newspaper, thanked the shopkeeper, and hurried outside.
It was the fifth paper she had found. Though she was missing the East London Gazette, Adeline was certain that she had been able to purchase the other relevant newspapers in London.
She held four under her arm as she opened the fifth. Her eyes scanned the articles carefully in search of something particular. A few days had passed since The Iris had switched owners, so she was looking for news that might have followed through with the story.
“There has to be something here,” Adeline murmured.
Her boots crunched through the fresh snow from the night before. She could see her breath puffing out in annoying little clouds that almost distracted her from the words.
While there was plenty going on in the world, there wasn’t much that held her attention besides business. In her free time, she read books about those who had built all sorts of empires.
And if she wasn’t reading a book, she was looking at a newspaper.
They can’t just write that a prominent business has changed hands and nothing more. Surely something must have happened since the son took over. The man has been abroad for years and no one knows anything about him.
It had taken her some searching to find records of the man who was now managing their competition.
Everyone knew they had to know their enemies in order to beat them. Though she felt for the man who had lost his father, this was the perfect opportunity for The Tempest to make some changes to draw in more business. She had helped her father surpass their goals for the year, but she still wasn’t satisfied. They needed to be working harder to be the best gentlemen’s club in London.
“Aha,” Adeline gasped when she finally found mention of the club.
She paused only to look over the paper as she started to cross the street. It was early and already terribly busy. More people arrived in London every year, looking to build their fortune. Getting a carriage lately took longer than walking.
Besides, she liked the time she had to read while she walked.
“‘With the passing of his father, Mr. Elliot Colborne, the Earl of Starhall, takes his father’s place with the ownership and management over the top gentlemen’s club in London.’” Adeline read the words aloud and then stopped. “The top? Who on earth wrote that?”
Forgetting about the world around her, she ignored the cold as she glared at the pages. Her father would be furious and rightfully so.
Who could say such a thing?
They probably only said this because it’s owned by an Earl. If my father had a title, they wouldn’t dare ignore mention of him. This is ridiculous bias and should have never been printed.
Just as she looked for the name of the writer of this article, she thought she heard someone call out.
Adeline looked up in confusion. She looked to her left to find the road mostly empty. No one was looking her way. But on her right, she found a horse and carriage racing right toward her.
Her heart dropped.
Adeline stared as she tried to make herself move away from the impending danger. But she couldn’t. Her feet wouldn’t budge. She inhaled sharply, frozen.
“Watch out!” the voice called again.
Just as she managed to turn her head to look over her shoulder, she saw a dark blur crash right into her. Adeline gasped loudly as she felt herself begin to fall.
Except she didn’t.
Instead, she was lifted off her feet. The world spun as arms wrapped around her to push her off the street. She hardly had time to breathe. The momentum sent her flying into a pile of snow.
It smelled like dirt but cushioned her fall. Landing with a hard grunt, she squinted into the sunlight. She was lying on her back. Her heart pounded in her chest as Adeline struggled to understand what had happened.
“Miss? Are you hurt?”
A head came into view, peering down at her. From his breathlessness and rumpled appearance, she realized that this must have been the man that had saved her.
“I… no.” She blinked as she tried to think. Carefully she sat up, feeling the snow seeping into her clothes. Though the man beside her put out a hand, she refused it as she sat up and tested her limbs. “I’m fine. That is, I think I am.”
Adeline looked around and flushed when she realized that the man was still staring at her. There were also a few people in the street looking their way.
Perhaps I shouldn’t walk and read out in public. Father always said it was a dangerous habit.
“I’m terribly sorry about that push,” the man offered after a heartbeat. He gave her half a smile. “It’s been a while since I saved a damsel in distress.”
Adeline frowned. “I wasn’t in distress.”
His brown hair, clearly once carefully coiffed, now curled over his brow. She couldn’t help but notice his dark eyes, which studied her curiously. “Well, it didn’t look like you were about to move.”
The flush on her face grew warmer. She wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
Of course, she would have moved. She was just waiting for her feet to pick themselves up.
Adeline shifted in the snow, shivering. He had rightfully humbled her, but she had never taken her medicine without a grimace. “All right. Perhaps I did need some help. Thank you, sir, for your heroic valor.”
To her surprise, he accepted her slightly sarcastic remark with a chuckle. He stood up and put out his hands again. She accepted, desperate to get out of the snow.
“It was my pleasure,” he assured her. “I’ll take the chance to save a lovely lady like yourself any day I can.” He was a tall man, still rather young, and had a fine chin.
Her gaze returned to his eyes. “Oh. Well, again, I thank you.”
“Can you walk?” the man asked.
Nodding, she took a step to prove herself. “Yes. Bruised and damp, but I think I shall make it. And I suppose I should apologize for causing the same,” Adeline added when she noticed a tear in his jacket. Wincing, she could see it was a very fine black jacket.
He looked down when she gestured to the rip. “That is nothing for you to concern yourself with. It is only a jacket, and those can be brought to life much more easily than a person.”
Then he looked at Adeline. His eyes met hers and a new sensation bubbled inside of her stomach. She felt as though she were floating in the clouds. For a moment, she forgot how cold she was.
This stranger had the loveliest eyes that she had ever seen. And right now, they were looking right into her soul.
None of this even feels real. Perhaps I’m still dreaming and will wake up any moment. And yet, I suppose I could stay here a little longer.
“Such generous words from a gentleman,” Adeline said before slowly smiling at him. His eyes drew her in while she forgot about the blush on her cheeks. “If I didn’t know any better, I might think you pushed me just for the chance to hold me.”
Never before had she dared say something like that to anyone, especially someone she didn’t even know. But the words slipped off her lips before she could help it.
There was a sparkle in the man’s eyes as his smile widened. “That wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me, would it? Yet speaking of holding you close, perhaps I can escort you to your destination? I would hate for any more wild carriages to come your way without someone there to save you.”
Of course, he was a Lord. The man dressed too well not to be. Adeline swallowed hard. He might tease her now, but once he found out that she bore no title, she had no doubt that he would leave her in the dust.
Before she could say anything, someone hurried across the street to them. Adeline tried not to frown as the man arrived with his attention directed on the handsome stranger before her.
“Phillip?” the stranger asked the man with a confused look. “What is it?”
“There’s a delivery that requires your immediate attention at home,” Phillip explained breathlessly. He glanced at Adeline to give her a quick bow. “Immediately,” he added as though he had not said it before.
The other man nodded reluctantly. “Thank you.” Then he turned to Adeline. The smile he wore was dimmer now. But she could still see the spark in his eyes. “It was a pleasure. Perhaps fate will grant us another opportunity. Until then, stay away from dangerous carriages.”
Of course, he didn’t know that she bore no title. Seeing the light flicker in his gaze made her feel the strangest fluttering in her stomach. They would never see each other again, she told herself, so he could think whatever he liked.
Her lips twitched. “I shall do my best. Thank you.”
Then she watched the men walk quickly down the street. Her heartbeat was still hammering as she turned in the other direction.
What on earth just happened? I have never seen that man before, for I would have certainly remembered those eyes. But what was I thinking? He didn’t even give me his name.
Adeline then scolded herself, finally remembering that she was engaged to someone else. There was no reason for her to be thinking of another man whose eyes sparkled brighter than an emerald.
No reason at all.
She still needed to run her errands. The club needed some holiday supplies to cheer up the rooms, and she needed to find the right tree to set up.
The newspapers were forgotten, lost when she was swept off the ground. Adeline felt lightheaded as she made her way down the street. Though she was there to take care of business, her mind kept turning back to that handsome stranger who had saved her.
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