Stephen jumped off her as though he'd been burned. His foot caught on the rug, and he went tumbling down again. He scrambled backward until he felt the lion's foot of his desk. Maharajah was right beside him, in the way, but somehow Stephen managed to find his feet. A moment later, he was squinting from the burst of the lamp's flame. He shook the temporary blindness off, and peered at the thief, still sprawled on his floor.
Bloody hell. It was indeed a woman, though one wouldn't have known it from her dress. She wore trousers and a loose white shirt under a large coat. But her low cap had tumbled off in their struggle, exposing her face and hair, and though she wore her hair cropped, there was no mistaking the delicate bones and lines of that face. This was a woman. A beautiful woman.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded. Maharajah barked as if emphasizing the question.
She sat and blinked at the dog and then him, her dark green eyes huge and mischievous in her pixie face. "Well, that's not much of a welcome."
He touched his tongue to his lip. At least the tender flesh had stopped bleeding. "Perhaps because I don't recall inviting you."
"You didn't." Climbing to her feet, she brushed her trousers off. "Rather rude of you, too."
"Rude? Madam, you just broke into my library."
She frowned at him, but the look did not fit her face. She had a small, delicate face, high cheekbones, and a pert, straight nose. Her forehead was high and her eyebrows swept across the bottom of it like wings. Her eyes were what truly struck him. They were almond shaped, dark green, and positively sparkled. She was one of those women whose expressions—her playful smiles, her teasing laughter, her impish looks—made her beautiful. She was tall and thin, not much shorter than he, now that she'd risen to her full height. She put her hands on her hips in a challenge.
"Well, I would not have had to break into your library had you sent me an invitation. As it was, I was curious."
"Curious?" Stephen shook his head, certain he was not hearing the chit correctly. This was turning into one of the most frustrating conversation he'd ever attempted—even more frustrating than trying to communicate with the Indians in his limited Punjabi. "I'm supposed to believe you broke into my house because you were curious," Stephen said. He was going to get answers out of her if it took all night. "Madam, I suggest you tell me why you are really here. Now."
Her hands slipped from her hips, and she looked almost saddened by his words. Inexplicably, Stephen found himself feeling guilty for having hurt her feelings. Bloody hell. The woman was some kind of fairy with powers of enchantment.
"I told you why I was really here," she said, her big green eyes filled with sorrow. "I wanted to visit you. After all, that is the neighborly thing to do, is it not?"
And once again, Stephen felt the conversation jump out from under him. Now what was the chit going on about? She couldn't possibly mean...
But as he stared at her, the slopes and lines of her face became clearer, rearranging themselves into someone familiar, someone--
She beamed at him and clapped her hands together. "Lord Westman! You remember me!"
"Remember you? Madam, we have not been formally introduced."
She shrugged and smiled. "We have certainly been introduced now." She looked about his library, her shining eyes lighting on the books, then the desk, then the worn furniture near the dark hearth. "What a lovely room you have here."
He almost thanked her before he realized he had not invited her and therefore did not care if she liked the room. "Miss Hale, if you were thinking to form a connection with my family, would it not have been more appropriate for you to call on my sister?"
She snorted. "Mrs. Withrow? Ha! She would never have received me. I'm the granddaughter of Nathan Hale, the pirate. Our families are enemies, you know."
Out of patience and lacking the strength to follow the twists and turns the girl continually threw at him, Stephen sunk into his chair and lifted the snifter of brandy. The girl moved closer, raising an eyebrow when he drank. He looked at the glass, then at her, and said, "What? Would you like a glass?"
"Oh, you are too kind." She took a seat in the chair opposite his desk. "Yes, thank you."
He thought about refusing her. A girl of her age should not be drinking anything stronger than watered wine, but then again, he had offered. What had he expected her to say? With a shrug, he reached for a clean glass, filled it half full, and moved it toward her. She eyed it, then him, then pushed it back at him.
Clearly, she did not appreciate only being given a half measure.
Stephen almost laughed, something he could not remember having done in years. Instead, he nudged the glass back with one finger, and said, "Drink it."
"You are certainly bossy." She lifted the snifter and took a dainty sip. To her credit, she did not screw up her face. But her eyes watered.
"And you're certainly forward. I know who you are and who your grandfather was. In light of that knowledge, I must ask why you are here. You realize that we will never be friends."
"Oh, but I don't want to be friends," she said, lifting the brandy and taking another small sip. "In fact, I could not be more pleased that our families are enemies. It serves my purpose."
Stephen's hand itched to pour another glass of brandy, but he restrained himself, not wanting to have to offer the girl one as well. "And might one inquire as to your purpose, Miss Hale?"
"Of course. I've been trying to tell you."
That was debatable, but Stephen held his tongue.
She lifted her glass and took another drink, this time downing the last remnants. With a thwack, she set the snifter on the desk, rose, and put both hands between them.
"Lord Westman, I have come to be your mistress."
© Shana Galen