Revealing a Rogue – Rachel Ann Smith

T he big, black lettering on the placard next to the front door stopped Landon Neale, Earl of Hadfield, in his tracks. Unmoving, he stared at the sign. Neale & Sons. Life was full of twists and turns. During his formative years, the possibility of Landon inheriting the earldom had been remote. Both his uncle and cousin were hale and exhibited no signs of the lung condition that resulted in his papa’s early death. Yet two years ago, he found himself thrust into the role of the Earl of Hadfield. A near-bankrupt estate was not all he had inherited; a generations-old duty to protect the royal family also accompanied the title. His days as a barrister and principal of his papa’s law firm were in the past. Shrugging away the onset of melancholy, Landon pushed open the front door of the offices his papa left to him and his brother Christopher. Followed by the curious stares of the staff, he made his way down the hall. Duty dictated it was time for him to marry and produce an heir or two. He hadn’t visited his office or seen the woman he wished to propose to in nearly two years. Landon’s heart skipped a beat. Anticipating the smell of old, musty books and files, Landon entered his office.

He came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the room. His forehead contracted into a frown. On top of his desk, three neatly stacked bundles of files sat next to a vase filled with a white and pink floral arrangement. His brother had made no mention of another using his workspace. Landon glanced at the flowers—daisies. His lips twitched and then formed a smile. Miss Bronwyn, his former secretary, favored the blossoms. Perfect. If this was her workspace now, he wouldn’t have to hunt the woman down. Graham Drummond, Lord Archbroke, his cousin by marriage, had advised, “Best to be comfortable when proposing.

” Landon removed his greatcoat and hat. Glancing about the room, he placed them upon the chair his clients had once occupied. He patted the left side of his chest, and the crinkle of parchment settled his nerves. The special license Landon had asked Graham to procure sat securely inside his breast coat pocket. Pacing in front of his desk, he mumbled, “Miss Bronwyn—” He paused. Brow furrowed, he searched his memory for her surname. Good lord, how had he allowed the impropriety? It was one thing not to be a stickler about such things but quite another to never have inquired in the six years she had acted as his personal secretary. He remembered quite distinctly Christopher introducing her as Miss Bronwyn, and he never questioned the familiarity of the introduction until now. The woman had inched her way into his heart and every thought, yet he hadn’t a clue what Bronwyn’s surname was. He’d have to rectify the oversight immediately.

Otherwise, he couldn’t formally propose to the woman. Landon chuckled and resumed pacing. If his cousin Theo, Lady Archbroke, were here, she’d bemoan his lack of preparation. As a former barrister, he should be ashamed of himself, not knowing all the particulars regarding the woman he intended to tie himself to for life. Theo had provided every detail he could possibly need or want to know about each titled lady his mother had recommended to be the next Countess of Hadfield. Any of the delightful debutantes would have sufficed, but his heart belonged to one woman—Bronwyn. Granted, he didn’t know her last name, nor her exact age, but those facts were of little consequence. The woman was intelligent, trustworthy, and excelled at challenging him. She was a mistress of rebuttals, and her expressive face captivated him. As head of the Protectors of the Royal Family, lovingly referred to as PORFs by its network of loyal supporters, Landon should have investigated Bronwyn’s background before proposing.

Still, she was the only woman he instinctively trusted to bear his heir. His son would inherit the title of earl but also bear the mark of a PORF as every other Earl of Hadfield had for ten generations. His mind was set on making Miss Bronwyn the next Countess Hadfield and wife to the head PORF. Pausing at the window, he swept back the heavy drapes with the back of his hand and peered out onto the street. He missed watching her march up the street every morning. Her determined stride, combined with her distracted muttering, made for a delightful image. The door swung open. His wandering thoughts vanished at the sight of her. One of her hands remained on the door handle while the other held up a parchment covering her face. He smiled at the sharp tip of a black lead protruding from her walnutbrown hair.

For years, he’d imagined himself snatching the pencil from Bronwyn’s haphazard bun, releasing her locks, and threading his fingers through. He’d never dared while she was in his employ, nor had he risked touching her by wiping away the adorable graphite smudges that normally adorned her cheek. Bronwyn released the door and strode into the room, her pretty features still hidden behind the file. Her skirts swirled around her legs, exposing the barest glimpse of her ankles. “Of all the irresponsible…” she muttered. Landon chuckled at her comment. Bronwyn froze. “Oh! Lord Hadfield.” Her cheeks reddened. “What are you doing here?” Oh, how he missed Bronwyn’s straightforward speech—her inability to lie and her propensity to get straight down to matters.

Clearing his throat, Landon replied, “Miss Bronwyn, it’s a pleasure to be in your company again.” He tilted his head, smiling. “Revealing that roguish dimple of yours will not distract me. Explain your purpose, my lord.” He suppressed the urge to cup her face and bring her lips to his. Her sharp tongue incited fantasies of enjoying her fiery nature in his bed. “You think of me as a rogue?” She gracefully turned around, ignoring his question, placing the parchment neatly upon the middle stack. In one fluid motion, she pulled back the chair and slid behind the desk. Only after she rested her forearms upon the wood and clasped her hands together did her gaze inch up to meet his. Struck by her sky-blue eyes, Landon stood mesmerized.

Catching himself gaping at the woman like a besotted fool, he took a moment to take inventory of her features. Oh, it’d be no hardship, none at all, to look upon Bronwyn’s sweet face every day. Landon gestured to the middle stack. “What were you reading?” Bronwyn leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest, settling them slightly below her modest décolleté. His concentration strayed—would her bosom fill the palm of his hand? She gave him a I know what you are thinking look, and he promptly returned his gaze to hers. “Why did you not answer my inquiry?” he asked. Her answer was to wag both her eyebrows at him. Landon took a step closer and leaned against the desk. “I didn’t realize I needed a reason to visit my office.” “Mr.

Neale reassigned your office to me since it appeared you no longer had use for it.” It was true his little brother no longer needed his help nor his involvement in the running of the family business. Christopher had matters well in hand, while Landon was still coming to terms with the multitude of responsibilities he had inherited. “My apologies, Miss Bronwyn. Christopher did not advise me of the change. Now, tell me, what could possibly have captured your attention to the extent you didn’t notice my presence?” “Lord Hadfield, I’m certain you’re a very busy man. Please enlighten me as to the reason why you are here today.” The slight twitch of her fingertips was the only indication she wasn’t entirely unaffected by his presence. Her bright blue eyes stunned him again into silence. In the past, he would have claimed that a brief or a case fact waylaid his thoughts.

Now, he had no such pretenses to justify his behavior. Landon was one hundred percent obsessed with the woman who refused to give in and answer his questions first. His heart stopped at a slight up-tilt of Bronwyn’s soft, kissable lips. Riveted by her alluring face… What were they discussing? He gave his head a slight shake. He wasn’t ready to reveal the true purpose for his appearance, yet the challenge in her gaze confirmed Landon’s decision. Bronwyn was no blushing debutante seeking out a titled gentleman to care for her. No, Bronwyn could well fend for herself. While she may not need him, he needed her. Bronwyn hadn’t moved or fidgeted under his intense scrutiny. He grinned, producing his dimple once more.

Her eyes widened, but her lips thinned into a straight line. For weeks he’d contemplated the risks of introducing a woman into the secret world of PORFs and the Network. He continued to ogle the woman who brazenly applied for the position of secretary and excelled in the role typically held by men. She was fearless. He had no doubts she would fully embrace and flourish in the clandestine role. Yes, Bronwyn would suit him well. The woman would not be swayed by a glare, nor a charming smile. Qualities she’d require as both countess and wife to the head PORF. Needing to break the intangible pull of Bronwyn’s attention, Landon pushed off from the desk and strode over to the seat facing her. This woman challenged him in ways no other had.

His brain normally overruled his physical desires without resistance. Mayhap Bronwyn’s intellectual appeal was the cause for his inability to control his bodily attraction to her. Hastily grabbing his coat and hat from the seat, he sat down and laid them over his lap to hide her obvious effect upon him. Landon adjusted his posture one last time and resumed observing the woman he hoped would accept his offer of marriage. Her stare never faltered. The woman had worked alongside him for years. She was fully aware of his faults and weaknesses, especially his inability to back down from a challenge. The silence had become a test of wills. Who would give in and be the first to speak? His brow creased as he struggled to recall a time when Bronwyn had ever conceded the argument during a debate or been the first to relent. Previously as lead barrister of the firm, Landon’s primary purpose was to represent clients.

He had left the running of the office to his brother, who doggedly employed the best person suited for the position regardless of their sex or background, resulting in the Neale & Sons staff being a mixed bag of individuals. In the case of hiring Landon’s personal secretary, Christopher unconventionally hired a woman—Bronwyn. He missed having a set routine. Pouring over case files, representing his clients in court, but most of all, debating with Bronwyn at length. She wasn’t intimidated by him and never complained of the hours he required her to spend at the firm. Landon’s shoulders rolled slightly forward. Damnation. He had been a self-absorbed taskmaster. A quick self-assessment and Landon let out a low groan. His propensity to demand excellence had not diminished.

If anything, after becoming an earl and head PORF, they had intensified. Bronwyn’s lips curved into a smirk, in effect declaring herself the winner as he had been the first to emit a sound. She leaned forward. “How may I be of assistance to you, Lord Hadfield?” He may have lost this round, but he wasn’t about to lose the next. “Tell me your surname.” “Why?” Since the day he recovered the rondure, deeming him head PORF, over six months ago, not a soul had dared to challenge him. With the exception of Theo and now the woman staring back at him. Landon swallowed a groan returning his focus to the task at hand. “How else will I know who to ask for permission to marry you?” Bronwyn jumped up from her seat. “Marry me?” A frown appeared on her features.

She took a deep breath, and the deep creases in her brow disappeared. Leaning down, Bronwyn planted her palms on top of the desk. “I beg your pardon, Lord Hadfield. Are you attempting to propose?” It was not the reaction Landon had hoped for. But her position over the table afforded him a lovely view of her chest, which mollified his agitation at her outburst and mocking tone. He shouldn’t be vexed. Her lack of fear and ability to take him to task were the reasons Landon wanted Bronwyn for his countess. He tugged on his cravat and blundered on. “Yes, I wish for us to be wed by week’s end.” He had the special license.

All he needed was her agreement. Her eyes roamed over his features. She cocked her head inquisitively. “Lord Hadfield, are you unwell?” “No. Why would you suggest I was?” “Your cheeks are flushed, and you suggested the mad notion that you wish for us to wed.” “It’s not an insane idea.” Bronwyn rounded the desk to stand before him. She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead and then quickly removed it. “Well, you don’t have a fever.” His skin might be cool to the touch, but his blood was a-boil after the barest graze of her hand.

Wedging a finger under his cravat, he tugged hard. He’d roast like a pig if she were to trail her palms over his naked body. She waved a hand in front of his face. Head cocked to one side, Bronwyn asked, “Did you experience a head injury recently? It might explain your absurd proposal.” Perhaps from Bronwyn’s point of view, his unexpected reappearance and bungled opening statements would give her cause to question his well-being. “I can assure you I’m quite well. There is nothing wrong with my head nor my wish to wed…you.” She placed her hands on her hips. “We haven’t spoken in over twenty-four months.” It had actually been seven hundred and forty-one days.

He had counted every single one since he last laid eyes on her. Bronwyn drummed her fingers at her side. “You know nothing about me. Not even my surname.” She dropped her gaze to his chest. “I’m no fresh-faced lady looking for a husband, especially not to a titled gentleman such as yourself. I’m not even from a wealthy merchant family, and I’m not…” Landon placed a finger over her soft lips. The touch was meant to simply silence her, but as soon as he came into contact with her smooth skin, his brain misfired, sending heated waves of desire through him. Landon blurted, “Your surname. I’ll not ask again.

” Desperation was causing him to behave like a boor, instead of executing his oft-practiced pleas for Bronwyn to marry him. He would apologize and attempt to persuade her with the arguments he’d originally crafted. When Bronwyn pursed her lips against his finger, he flinched and withdrew. The daring minx jutted her chin up, boldly staring into his eyes. Relieved to know she hadn’t changed in the past months, he waited for her answer. Seconds ticked by. He was determined not to give in and lose the battle. He loved her spirited nature, but he wouldn’t always be able to accede to her demands. Rolling her eyes, she answered, “Cadby.” The name sparked an alarm in his mind.

He shook his head, dropped to one knee, and pried her small hand from her hip. His hand engulfed hers. “Miss Bronwyn Cadby, will you do me the great honor of marrying me?” “Are you asking, or are you merely phrasing a command in the form of a question?” Of course, the woman wouldn’t simply say yes and jump for joy. Most women would cheer at the prospect of becoming a countess. Not her. She had to scrutinize his intentions. “Very well, I shall address each of your concerns.” Rising to his feet, Landon continued, “While we have not been in contact for years, I confess you have been at the forefront of my mind every day since we last spoke.” The corner of Bronwyn’s lips twisted as if she didn’t believe him. Squeezing her hand, he continued, “I know everything I need to know about you.

I’m not a fortune hunter in need of funds. However, I am in need of a wife and heir. You are the woman I want.”

.

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