Valiant – Adele Clee

It was one hell of a storm. Lightning lit the night sky in a blinding burst of white. The angry grumble of thunder followed seconds later while raindrops the size of small pebbles pelted the windowpanes in Evan Sloane’s drawing room. The raging tempest stirred his restless spirit. A man with the blood of a pirate flowing through his veins welcomed life’s trials and tribulations. Was that not the reason his friends called him Valiant? Did he not live by the Sloane family motto? He who braves the storm emerges stronger. Still, the sudden thud echoing through the hall came as an unwelcome intrusion. The persistent caller hammered the door knocker against the plate as if afraid a lightning bolt might strike him down dead. What fool ventured outdoors in a thunderstorm? With Evan’s mansion house situated amid the sprawling fields of Little Chelsea, perhaps the sound of clashing clouds had spooked some poor devil’s horse. Then another thought struck him—one infinitely more alarming. Had his stalker, Miss Hart, braved the inclement weather to demand an audience? The wallflower had prised herself from the ballroom wall to follow Evan about town. Whenever he glanced over his shoulder, be it in the circulating library, the theatre or Gunter’s, Miss Hart was there spying. Had she heard of his pirate heritage and found it all rather fascinating? He’d spotted her loitering in Hart Street, staring at the house belonging to the Order. Perhaps her ancestor once owned the land. Perhaps the fact Evan’s pursuer shared a name with his place of business was one of those uncanny twists of fate.

Amid a thunderclap that shook the heavens, Evan could not determine the butler’s mumbled comments. But it came as no surprise when the knock on the drawing room door brought the somewhat agitated servant. “You look like a man with something to confess, Fitchett.” “Sir, I fear you’ll think me a dreadful disappointment, or worse, dismiss me without a reference.” A man with an eye patch and a jagged scar cutting through his bushy white brow should fear nothing except for losing his sight. “Dismiss you? Not unless you’ve disobeyed orders and Miss Hart is dripping water onto my marble floor.” Fitchett’s shifty gaze confirmed Evan’s suspicion. Damnation! The pest would stop at nothing to gain his attention. “Did I not give explicit instructions the woman must never cross my threshold?” “But the lady might perish in such terrible—” “How is that my concern? If she persists in wandering the countryside in the dead of night, she must suffer the consequences.” Evan spoke loud enough for Miss Hart to hear.

“I pray she brought a chaperone.” Evan entertained actresses and widows. Never unmarried chits skilled in harassment. Miss Hart was fortunate he lived in the wilds of Little Chelsea, away from the prying eyes of those in the ton who enjoyed casting aspersions. Still, perhaps he would play the dissolute rake when he put the woman in her place. “The lady arrived with two attendants, sir.” Fitchett lowered his voice. “Both of Scottish descent.” Miss Hart could have arrived with the vicar; she was still a reckless fool. Time spent conversing with potted ferns must have dulled the wallflower’s brain.

“Her companions, they’re soaked to the skin, sir. Might I be permitted to show them to the servants’ quarters so they may take a hot meal and dry their clothes?” Evan raised a reprimanding brow in reply. “Sir, the lady begs for a moment of your time. Surely you don’t expect me to throw her out into the storm.” “Fitchett, while I allow you a certain freedom of speech based on your unfortunate accident, do not overstep the mark.” Fitchett pursed his lips. He bowed, yet couldn’t help but say, “No man wants a lady’s death on his conscience, sir. I shall not sleep tonight for worrying.” Hellfire! The butler knew how to find the chink in Evan’s armour. Evan breathed a weary sigh.

Maybe Miss Hart’s audacious manner had worked to his advantage. It was time to put an end to the woman’s meddling. Time to get rid of her for good. “Would it ease your anxiety if I let her warm her hands by the fire, offer her a sip of sherry?” He would give Miss Hart one of his famous concoctions—rum, whisky and a dash of sugar syrup. Fitchett slapped his hand to his heart and bowed again. “Sir, I could rest my aching bones with nary a care in the world.” “Then show the lady in.” Into Lucifer’s lair. Evan smiled to himself as he tugged his shirt from his breeches and shook his brown locks free from its queue. How would the wallflower fare when faced with a rakish rogue? Fitchett’s eyes widened upon witnessing the outrageous spectacle.

“Shall I have Randall bring your coat and cravat, sir?” “Hell, no! The lady arrived without invitation and can damn well suffer the consequences.” Having already expressed his opinion, Fitchett didn’t dare press the matter further. While the butler walked gracefully into the hall, Evan pasted a wolfish grin. One look at his open shirt and the wallflower’s confidence would wither and wilt. Fitchett returned and announced the intruder. Evan’s heart thumped against his ribs as he waited … and waited. Had Miss Hart caught a sudden case of nerves? He coughed impatiently into his fist. “Just one moment,” the lady called from the hall. Arrogance turned to annoyance. But then Miss Hart strode into the room, and Evan found himself face-to-face with his insipid nemesis.

The lady’s dark, intelligent gaze drifted over his open shirt as if it were perfectly natural to find a man in a state of dishabille. “Forgive me, Mr Sloane. I’ve deposited my cloak and gloves on the floor in the hall for fear of dripping water onto your expensive Persian rug. I did not wish to burden your butler.” Wet tendrils of chestnut brown hair clung to Miss Hart’s pale cheeks. Her tempting bow-shaped lips were a deathly shade of blue. The damp green dress hugged the gentle flare of her hips and—devil take it—the imp’s stocking feet poked out from beneath the hem. Evan inhaled sharply. “Where are your boots, Miss Hart?” “In the hall, sir.” She raised her dainty chin.

“They’re in a dreadful state.” How novel. Women usually took a drink and engaged in saucy banter before undressing. “Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry to make a point. I suppose I should be thankful your only concern is for the state of my rug.” The lady’s mouth twitched in amusement. “Come now, Mr Sloane. You’ve seen your fair share of naked women. I doubt another would earn more than a fleeting glance. If my aim was to shock you, I would have drawn the pocket pistol from my thigh belt and fired at the chandelier.

” Evan’s chin almost hit the floor. Yet it wasn’t the outrageous comment that seized his attention, but the flicker of admiration in his chest. “What, and fire your only lead ball? That would be a foolish move, would it not, Miss Hart?” Her teasing smile seemed to mock him. “A lady does not walk the streets at night armed with only one weapon. That would be foolish, would it not?” “Dangerously so.” Evan observed Miss Hart’s keen gaze and the relaxed set of her shoulders. Weren’t wallflowers supposed to nibble their lips and refuse to make eye contact? They were dull and dim, yet Miss Hart’s blithe spirit illuminated the room like a bright ray of sunshine. Was it a facade? Or did this devil of a creature enjoy posing as the shy, awkward type? Indeed, Evan was so preoccupied with his study, he had forgotten to dismiss Fitchett. “That will be all, Fitchett. See if a maid might dry the lady’s outdoor apparel.

Have Turton prepare the carriage and show Miss Hart’s servants to the—” “Their names are Buchanan and Mrs McCready,” Miss Hart interjected. “I’m sure you will come to admire their talents in the coming weeks.” The coming weeks? The misfit made it sound as if she had arrived with her portmanteau, ready to take residence. “I doubt I shall have cause to make their acquaintance.” Another mocking smile accompanied Miss Hart’s knowing look. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your sense of adventure. A grandson of Livingston Sloane should have found my comment intriguing, not dismissed it out of hand.” Suspicion flared. So, this did have something to do with his pirate heritage. And what could this busybody-come-wallflower-come-spinster—for she must be five-and-twenty—know about adventure? “I do have one question.

” “Only one, sir? As an enquiry agent for the Order, I expected more.” Cursed saints! Did she know his inside leg measurement too? “You said you removed your boots so as not to ruin my rug. How did you know it was Persian?” “I called a week ago, but Fitchett said you were attending a wedding in Surrey. The wedding of your colleague Mr Cole. I asked if I might see the painting of Livingston Sloane, and he obliged.” The soft-hearted devil. Fitchett would feel more than the whip of Evan’s tongue. Still, he admired Miss Hart’s honesty despite the mildly arrogant delivery. “And why would you travel from Silver Street to Little Chelsea just to glance at a painting of a scoundrel?” Was this the moment she revealed some distant kinship? Would she claim her parent was the bastard child of the buccaneer? “I journeyed from Silver Street to Little Chelsea to see you, Mr Sloane, as you’re intent on avoiding me.” Miss Hart seemed unperturbed by the fact he remembered her address.

She glanced at the portrait of Livingston Sloane hanging in a gilt frame near the fireplace. “But I believe the painting holds a vital clue and so couldn’t leave without persuading your butler to let me examine the piece.” Evan narrowed his gaze. It occurred to him that Miss Hart suffered from a form of mental instability. Perhaps she was a fanatical eccentric whose imagination ran riot. Perhaps she had grown so bored with hiding behind potted ferns she thought to invent an exciting heritage. “A vital clue to what, Miss Hart?” he foolishly said, for the woman needed no encouragement. By rights, Evan should summon his loose-tongued butler to escort her to the door. Yet this annoying pest had piqued his interest. Hell.

Miss Hart paused. She rubbed her hands together and gazed at the amber flames dancing in the grate. “Might I take a moment to warm myself by the fire? And could I trouble you for a glass of sherry?” How could he deny the needs of a woman caught in a raging thunderstorm? “Please make yourself comfortable, Miss Hart, and I shall pour you a drink.” It wasn’t often one played footman to a loon. “Thank you.” She moved to stand before the fire and raised her hands to the flames. “When one has important information to impart, one should have a firm grasp of one’s faculties.” Had Evan been entertaining a paramour, he might have suggested his faculties needed a firm grasp, too. The lewd thought was undoubtedly the reason his hand shook as he poured the fortified wine. “The information must be important to bring you out in this weather.

” Evan crossed the room and handed Miss Hart a glass of sherry. Her fingers brushed his as she gripped the stem. They were long and elegant and would look splendid wrapped around his— “I used the weather to my advantage, sir,” she said in so confident a manner he decided she must be a bluestocking, not a wallflower. “You’ve failed to reply to my letters, and so I had no choice but to play the damsel in distress.” “So, this is a game of sorts, Miss Hart.” Her expression darkened. “On the contrary, this matter will alter the course of our lives, Mr Sloane. In coming here, I have placed us both in grave danger.” Yes, the woman was most definitely a loon. Evan huffed in frustration.

During his work as an enquiry agent, he’d met his share of vicious villains. Every new case brought the prospect of death. Miss Hart had misjudged him if she thought to intimidate him with baseless threats. “Madam, do I look like a man who scares easily?” Miss Hart’s warm gaze drifted over Evan’s mane of brown hair, down to the open neck of his shirt. “You’re a man who rescues innocent children from their abductors, Mr Sloane. A man who thwarts poisoning attempts, who proves paid companions do not steal rare blue diamonds.” Her slow, teasing smile was that of a courtesan, not a damn bluestocking. “Nothing terrifies you. Yet I will lay odds my proposal will chill your blood.” Proposal? Hellfire! “Miss Hart, while I find your honesty and resolve refreshing, stop dancing around the maypole and come to the point.

” “Very well.” She swallowed her sherry swiftly and placed the glass on the mantel. “While I’ve imagined this moment for a while, I must confess to being somewhat nervous.” Evan’s heart softened. Then he remembered this woman was potentially deranged. “Your confidence has served you well so far, madam. Be blunt, and I shall afford you the same courtesy.” Hopefully, she wouldn’t weep when he threw her out. She nodded, turned away from him and hiked up her skirts. Good Lord! So much for being a timid wallflower.

He could damn well see her ankles. “Perhaps we should begin with this.” She tugged a tightly rolled scroll from what he could only presume was the thigh belt she mentioned. “Forgive the indecent display, sir, but it was the only way to protect the document from the horrendous downpour.” “Indeed.” Evan watched this odd creature whose character he struggled to define, annoyed by the thrum of excitement in his chest. Curiosity danced like the devil, too, as he considered what might be scrawled on the parchment. Miss Hart certainly knew how to hold a man’s interest. She dropped her skirts and faced him fully. “Perhaps you should sit down.

The news will come as a terrible shock.” Evan stared down his nose. “Madam, nothing could be more shocking than discovering the woman I thought was a wallflower is a teasing scamp.” He expected her to gasp upon hearing the cutting remark, but Miss Hart laughed. “You see. You’re already agitated. No doubt you’ll fly into a rage when you learn of our ancestors’ devious deed.” She handed him the rolled parchment secured with a black ribbon. “My father broke the wax seal many years ago, but had no need to stake a claim.” “Stake a claim?” Mild panic fluttered in Evan’s throat.

He couldn’t tug the ends of the ribbon quick enough. “Before you begin reading, sir, allow me to offer some advice. One should not label a person without knowledge of their character. I’m no more a wallflower than I am a mermaid.” For a heart-stopping moment, Evan thought he’d misheard. “Did you say mermaid?” Shock held him rigid. “Have you spoken to D’Angelo or Ashwood?” Evan’s colleagues at the Order sought every opportunity to torment him. “Did they encourage you to tease me about my fondness for sea nymphs?” When a man lost his mother in childbirth, was it not natural to fantasise about being rescued by an immortal woman? Miss Hart frowned. “No, I noticed your mermaid fountain and used the mythical creature merely as a comparison.” “Mythical?” he mocked.

“Livingston Sloane claimed a mermaid rescued him when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta.” “That is a myth. My grandfather rescued Livingston Sloane near Malta, and though I never met him, I’m confident he did not have a tail or fins.” She gestured to the parchment in Evan’s hand. “The heroic deed is documented. It’s the sole reason we’re standing here this evening.” “Then give me a moment to examine the testimony, so I am not battling blindly in the dark.” “Of course.” Miss Hart faced the fire and continued warming her hands. The document, written in Latin, dated 1756 and bearing an official Spanish stamp, raised an important question.

“You read Latin, Miss Hart?” Perhaps she had struggled with the translation and there was nothing startling about the information. “My father insisted on it, sir. When a family is owed a debt of this magnitude, there can be no room for error.” She glanced over her shoulder and cast a mischievous grin. “Do not think to dupe me, Mr Sloane. My lawyer confirmed it is a legally binding intergenerational contract.” Inter-generational contract? Was there such a thing? The hairs on Evan’s nape prickled. With some trepidation, he read the agreement made between Livingston Sloane and Lucian Hart. It appeared Mr Hart had rescued Evan’s grandfather when the French attacked his ship during the Seven Years’ War. “Why mention the war when my grandfather was a marauding pirate?” Miss Hart continued to stare at the amber flames.

“Our grandfathers were privateers, not pirates. The British Admiralty commissioned the men to attack French vessels in the Mediterranean.” Evan snorted. “Perhaps your family embellished the tale to spare you the shame.” To make her ancestor seem like an honourable gent. “Livingston Sloane looted and pillaged and would never have served the Crown.” Miss Hart glanced at the painting of the young bearded man with a devilish twinkle in his eye. “If you believe that, why display his portrait?” Oh, the lady was as sharp as a blade. It would be easy to lie, but he suspected Miss Hart knew the answer. “Because while my family disowned him, and I have been raised to despise the name, I often feel like a misfit myself.

” Many times during his youth, he had imagined running away, imagined living life on the high seas, free from society’s suffocating restrictions. Miss Hart gave a knowing hum. “When Livingston Sloane died, your father was raised by his grandmother, Lady Jane Sloane. My mother said the matron intended to eradicate the memory of her wayward son, and yet she kept his portrait.” Lady Jane Boscobel, daughter of the Earl of Henley, had married Daniel Sloane, Viscount Leaton’s youngest son. They had married for love, by all accounts, though having married beneath her, the lady had kept her title. The couple were blessed with two sons, Cecil and Livingston, and Cecil had inherited the viscountcy when his uncle died without issue. “Lady Sloane reverted to her maiden name when her husband died and the admiralty pronounced her son a pirate. Consequently, I always refer to her as Lady Boscobel. When one holds rank and position in society, one is easily influenced by opinion.

Yet beneath the bravado was a mother who still loved her rebellious son.” Miss Hart appeared doubtful as she stared at the portrait of the young Lady Jane. “And you display both paintings because you want to understand the mother and son bond. You wonder if your mother—” “That’s enough, Miss Hart!” Evan never spoke about his mother and had no intention of discussing a personal matter with a relative stranger. Despite his annoyance, he softened his tone. “You have an uncanny ability to distract a man from his mission. Cease prying and permit me to finish reading this document.” “Then, for fear of distracting you further, let me summarise the legally binding agreement.” Miss Hart squared her shoulders. “In short, you’re contractually obliged to marry me, Mr Sloane.

.

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