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Heiress for Hire
“Romance readers craving substantive mystery and intelligent leads will savor this pitch-perfect love story.” — Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
Minerva Hepplewhite has learned the hard way how to take care of herself. When an intruder breaks into her home, she doesn’t swoon or simper. Instead she wallops the rogue over the head and ties him up—only to realize he is Chase Radnor, a gentleman and grandson of a lord, and a man who makes it his business to investigate suspicious matters. Now he’s insisting that Minerva has inherited a fortune from his uncle, a wealthy Duke. Only one thing could surprise her more: her sudden attraction to this exasperating man . . .
Chase can’t decide whether Minerva is a wronged woman or a femme fatale. Either way, he’s intrigued. Maddeningly, with her unexpected inheritance, she has set up a discreet detective business to rival Chase’s own. She may be the perfect person to help him uncover the truth about his uncle’s demise. But as proximity gives way to mutual seduction, Chase realizes he craves a much deeper alliance . . .
Did you kill him?
The voice spoke in his head vaguely, as if traveling through distance and fog. Not as the voice of his conscience, the way he so often heard the question. A different voice now. A female one.
I doubt it. Help me here.
He looks dead to me.
I promise that he isn’t dead. Now, take this and hold it while I . . .
A bit clearer now. Closer. So close it made his head bang with pain. Each word created a hammer blow. The more words, the more blows, and the closer they sounded.
I should call Jeremy to come here.
We do not need Jeremy. See?
Bad enough already, without that.
We are not the ones at fault here. Hold the lamp closer, so I can make sure it is safe. Wait, give the lamp to me . . . This is no ordinary thief, from the looks of him.
What are you doing with that?
Bam, bam, bam.
Bringing him around so I can find out who he is and why he is here.
The fog disappeared, washed away by an onslaught of liquid that forced him back to full consciousness. He tipped his tongue out to lick some drips on his lips. Not water. Wine.
He did not open his eyes right away. He spent a few moments accommodating the pain screaming on his scalp. His legs felt strange and his arms hurt. He tried to move both and could not. He realized they were both tied behind him, and together, bowing his body. Someone had trussed him like a sheep, only backward.
He opened his eyes to see the end of a pistol mere inches from his head. His gaze traveled up the arm that held it, until he looked into the furious dark eyes of a very handsome dark-haired woman. She held the pistol like she knew how to use it. Her bright gaze said she hoped he gave her a good reason to.
Hell. Tonight was not progressing at all the way he had planned.
* * *
“He looks to be coming to,” Beth said. She raised the bed warmer as if to give another blow.
“Put it down. He is tied and I have my pistol.”
“He looks big. The ropes may not hold him. He may overpower you. I should be ready just in case.”
“He will not attack me.” He had indeed come to. His long lashes moved. After a moment he strained against the bonds. Minerva waited for him to accommodate his situation.
His garments appeared very high quality. Blood now stained a cravat once pristine and crisp. His face might be called handsome if not for the strong bones that made the angles more severe than now fashionable. Something about him made her inner sense send out warnings that prickled her spine. He appeared to be a wealthy gentleman and . . . official. Whatever his reason for entering this house, it had not been to steal a few shillings.
Various reactions assaulted her while she trained her pistol on his harshly handsome face. Fear. Vulnerability. She experienced a surge of the unsettled spirit that had plagued her for over a year once, and that she thought she had banished forever.
Finally those lashes rose. Sapphire eyes focused on her pistol, then his gaze moved up until he looked right into her eyes. He again strained at the ties that bound him.
“Minerva Hepplewhite, I presume? My name is Chase Radnor. I apologize for the lack of a proper introduction.”
Beth sucked in her breath. “Odd for a thief to be so particular about etiquette and such.”
Except he was not a thief, was he?
“You can untie me,” Radnor said. “I never take chances with pistols, and I am not a danger in any case.”
“You are an intruder. I intend to leave you like that while I swear down information against you,” Minerva said.
“If you do it will come to naught and will only delay my mission. Now, untie me. I have something important to tell you that will explain why I am here.”
She hated how that provoked her curiosity, and also her trepidation. He might tell her that the investigation into Algernon’s death had been revived. Then again, he might reveal that at long last the poacher involved in that accident had been found. Or he might tell her that he had come to take her to gaol.
She collected herself. It was foolish to build monsters out of this stranger’s presence. There had been nothing to indicate he knew about her former identity and life.
“Explain yourself first.” She leveled the pistol firmly. “I am not inclined to trust a housebreaker.”
He gave one furious tug on the ties behind his back. He narrowed his eyes. “I have come to inform you of something that benefits you significantly.”
“What is that?”
“You have inherited some money. A large amount of it.”
* * *
Chase did not like when carefully laid plans failed. Now he grimaced while the servant called Beth dabbed at his scalp to clean the wound of blood.
A good deal of blood. He knew from his time in the army that scalp wounds were notorious for bleeding, no matter how minor.
Not that his felt all that minor. The hammer still banged.
He was sitting on a stool while the stout woman did her nursing. Fifteen feet away Minerva Hepplewhite waited patiently, watching. Lounging, damn it. The pistol now lay on a table next to where she relaxed on a divan.
She appeared composed. At ease. Minerva Hepplewhite had a level of self-possession that unaccountably irritated him.
“Explain yourself,” she said. “If you had information to give me, why didn’t you show up on my doorstep and present your card?”
That was hard to explain without putting her on her guard. “I wanted proof you were Minerva Hepplewhite. I did not want to risk speaking to the wrong woman.”
She frowned over that.
The hands on his scalp lifted, then returned and pressed against his head. He almost cursed the woman, even though he knew she only applied a poultice.
The woman Beth stepped back, taking the scent of cheap rose water with her. “Done. Shouldn’t bleed much now. You will want your valet to wash your hair carefully for a spell. If he soaks your shirt in salt water, it should help get the blood out.” She gestured to his coats. “Not much help for those stains, though.”
The two women exchanged looks. Beth left the library and closed the door behind her.
“How did you find me?” Minerva Hepplewhite asked.
“It is my profession to find people.”
“Ah, you are a runner. Is this not an odd assignment? I thought it was your profession to find paramours of married individuals, then tell their spouses about their misdeeds.”
He did that too. It was the least interesting work, and an assignment he did not seek. Yet it came to him too often, since so many spouses committed so many misdeeds.
“I am not a runner. I am a gentleman who on occasion conducts discreet inquiries.”
“If the fine distinction gives you comfort that you are not a servant, hold to it.”
He stood. His scalp gave a few good hammer blows in response, but they were not quite as bad as they had been.
“Tell me about this inheritance,” she said.
She wore an undressing gown. It sported a good deal of frothy lace around her neck and at its hem, but it had seen better days. Shapeless but soft, it revealed her form while she sat there with it billowing over the divan’s faded rose toile cushion.
“A fortune was left to a woman named Minerva Hepplewhite, currently resident of London, by the late Duke of Hollinburgh.”
He took satisfaction in how her eyes widened. Then she laughed. “How absurd. This must be a joke. Why would the Duke of Hollinburgh leave me a fortune?”
He shrugged. “Believe me, that is my burning question as well. You must be . . . a good friend? A retainer? . . . A lover?”
Her frown dissolved and a broad smile took its place.
“A lover?” She swept her hand—an exceedingly lovely hand, he noticed—gesturing at the chamber. “Do I look like I have enjoyed the favor of a duke? Did you see a footman in the entryway? A fine carriage in the yard?”
Like that undressing gown, only serviceable furniture populated the library, and none of it was new. This certainly supported what she was saying, for this modest house on Rupert Street would hardly satisfy a duke’s mistress . . . at least, so it seemed.
Still smiling, she caught his gaze with her own. She had a talent for captivating one’s attention with that compelling focus. She appeared to invite him to look into her soul, to learn whether she spoke the truth or not. To discover—everything. He was not immune to the lure. She was a damned attractive woman. Distinctive. Unusual. Her disconcerting self-confidence made her interesting.
“Mr. Radnor, not only was I not this duke’s lover or mistress, but I never even met him.”
And with those words, Chase’s current assignment suddenly became much more difficult.
* * *
A fortune. A duke. Minerva tried to absorb the astonishing revelation.
“There must be some error,” she murmured.
Radnor shook his head. “‘Minerva Hepplewhite’ is not a common name. I found you by putting a notice in The Times. One of your neighbors came forward and pointed me to you.”
She stood and paced while she accommodated the shock. She all but forgot Radnor stood by the fireplace until she turned to retrace her steps and saw him there. Tall. Dark. Formidable. A strict posture. Perhaps he had been in the military. His somewhat craggy features would look good in uniform and giving commands on the field. His blue eyes alternated between deep pools and icy barriers.
He exuded power and authority. He was the kind of man that tempted a woman to depend on him for protection and care. And, perhaps, much more. Oh, yes, Mr. Radnor’s presence contained that kind of power too. She experienced an urge to believe anything he said merely to obtain his good favor.
“How much is this inheritance?”
“There is a direct legacy of ten thousand.”
She gasped, her eyes wide, then turned away as she absorbed her shock.
“There is also a partnership in an enterprise in which the duke had invested,” he said to her back. “That holds the promise of much, much more.”
For the very first time in her life she worried she would swoon. To learn such a thing, and in such a bizarre manner—
That sobered her. Her mind cleared and her thoughts lined up the events of this night. She turned and eyed him. “Who are you? Why were you the one sent to find me?”
He crooked his elbow on the edge of the mantle and relaxed into a pose of aristocratic nonchalance. “The duke was my uncle. His heir, my cousin, asked me to help the solicitor find the unfamiliar legatees so the estate can be disbursed in a timely way.”
His cousin was the new duke. That made him the grandson of a previous one. She tried to picture him at a society ball, but instead kept seeing him in a Roman centurion’s uniform. From the evidence revealed by his snug trousers, he had the legs to look good in one.
“How did the duke die?”
He did not respond right away, which only heightened her interest.
“His country manor house has a parapet at the roofline behind which one can walk. He often went there at night to take some air. Unfortunately, one night he . . . fell.”
The slight hesitation and the subtle shift in tone sent a shiver up her spine. She conquered the alarm and held her composure. “An accident, then.”
“You are not sure?”
“It will probably be investigated. Dukes have their privileges, even in death.”
She advanced on him until she stood only five feet away. She gazed right into his eyes. “I think you believe it was no accident. You believe he was pushed.” She stepped closer yet. “Perhaps you believe that I was the one who pushed him.”
The ice with which he met her gaze melted and for an instant she saw enough in his eyes to know she was correct.
“Not at all,” he lied. “Now, to claim this inheritance, you will need to present yourself to the solicitor who is serving as executor of the estate.” He reached into his frockcoat and removed a card. “Here is his name and the location of his chambers.”
He made it sound so simple. Only it wasn’t. This legacy would complicate everything, and reopen a perilous door.
She took the card.
“I will show myself out.”
As he walked toward the door, she stared down at the solicitor’s card.
“Oh, there is one other thing,” he said, turning back. “The solicitor may ask you about your history, to ensure you are the right woman. The will referred to you as Minerva Hepplewhite, previously known as Margaret Finley of Dorset, widow of Algernon Finley.”
Then he was gone, leaving her utterly stunned.
She would have sworn that no one in London knew about her history, except Beth and Beth’s son Jeremy. No one.
Yet apparently this duke—the Duke of Hollingburgh—knew exactly who she was.
Now that she thought about it, she was sure Mr. Radnor had not entered her home to make sure he had her identity correct, as he had claimed. There were better ways to do that. He had done so because he had suspicions about her.
Perhaps because he already knew about the murder accusation she had run from back in Dorset.
Heiress for Hire, copyright © 2020 Madeline Hunter