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.”