Laura Lee Guhrke

New York Times Best Selling Author of Historical Romance

To Dream Again


     Beautiful widow Mara Elliot has only one goal—to save her London factory from the creditors. A no-nonsense woman of business, Mara has no patience with impractical schemes and risky ideas. But when she is forced into accepting handsome inventor Nathaniel Chase as her business partner, Mara has no choice but to go along with his reckless plans, plans which put everything she’s worked for at risk.

     Nathaniel knows success doesn’t come to those who play it safe. Mara’s factory is the perfect place to transform his innovative ideas into reality, but his new business partner isn’t cooperating. The provoking beauty questions his judgment at every turn and fights his plans every step of the way, but she also sparks his desire like no woman he’s ever met before. Can Nathaniel convince her to trust him and follow his dream, or will he have to give up everything he’s ever wanted in order to win her heart?
 



Excerpt

Chapter Four

    Mara was bone-weary. She had gone to the memorial service with Mr. Finch and Percy that morning, expecting them to be the only ones there. But several dozen people had attended, many of them employees of Elliot's.


     When it was over, they had crowded around her to express their sympathy and tell her their stories of what James Elliot had done for them. Mara couldn't fathom how a man who never stayed in one place long enough to make friends could have so many.

     After the service, she'd spent the rest of the day meet­ing with potential investors. But her efforts had been in vain. Men with money to invest were not enthusiastic about having a female partner.

     As twilight descended, she trudged home through the narrow, twisted streets of Whitechapel, tired, discour­aged, and even frightened. She had one day left, and she was out of options. The bank would take the company, and she would have nothing but the twelve pounds and six in her little tin bank.

     Mara passed an abandoned warehouse, and she paused to glance at the boarded-up windows and the "For Sale" sign on the door, fully aware that Elliot's would soon look much the same. A cackle of laughter caused her to glance down, and she saw a thin, disheveled figure hud­dled amid the trash in the shadowy doorway. She froze, unable to tear her gaze away from the empty, hopeless stare of the old woman sitting there.

     '"ave ye tuppence for me, dearie?"

     Mara's heart twisted with compassion. She fumbled in her pocket and pulled out a sixpence, more than the woman had asked for, enough for a night's lodging. She stepped forward and thrust the coin into the gnarled hand reaching up to her. "Find yourself a room, ma'am."

     "Room?" The woman clutched the coin to her breast and shook her head fretfully. "No, no, I must feed the pigeons." She laughed again. "Tuppence for the pigeons, dearie."

     Mara shivered and quickly walked away, but the vision haunted her all the way home. Tuppence for the bank, Mara. Tuppence for the pigeons, dearie. Tuppence was never enough. Her future had never looked more bleak.

     She arrived at her lodging house. By the light of the street lamp, she could see the gray kitten she'd first noticed two days before. It was sitting on the front stoop. It hissed at her as she approached.

     "Scat!" she ordered, waving a hand to urge the kitten away. It jumped back, but it did not run. Instead, it backed up into a corner by the door and watched as she mounted the steps and stepped inside her lodging house.

     She closed the door behind her and climbed the stairs to her room, knowing it was time she faced facts. She would lose the company. The bankers would not change their minds, she would not be able to find investors. No guardian angel would magically appear and save her from poverty.

     She reached the landing and turned toward her room, then halted in surprise at the sight before her. Her neigh­bor from upstairs was kneeling in front of her door, a screwdriver in his hand. Beside him stood her solicitor, Mr. Finch, holding a lamp to light the dim landing.

     "Use your free hand to hold the latch in place while I insert the screws," the former instructed, and Mara watched in astonishment as the dignified Mr. Finch knelt on the floor beside Mr. Chase. The two men remained there for several moments, then rose to their feet.

     Mr. Chase must have sensed her presence for he suddenly turned and glanced in her direction. Looking at her over the rims of his spectacles, he smiled. "We've fixed it," he announced proudly and stepped back so that she could see the shiny new brass handle that now graced her door.

     "You should have strong locks if you insist upon living in this area of town, my dear," Finch chided her as he crossed the landing to hand her a key.

     Mara took it from him automatically. She couldn't think of a thing to say. She glanced from one man to the other, completely baffled.

     "We've been waiting for you," Mr. Chase said. "Thought we'd pass the time putting a new latch on your door. Haversham's Hardware is just up the street, you know."

     "Thank you." Mara shook her head, still trying to sort things out. "You've been waiting for me?"

     "Mr. Chase came to see me today," Finch told her. He glanced at the other man. "Perhaps we should go upstairs?"

     "Excellent idea." Mr. Chase lifted his spectacles to place them atop his head, then took the lamp from Finch, turned, and started up the stairs.

     Mr. Finch held out his arm to her. "Mr. Chase and I have been discussing a business proposal," he explained. "Given your situation with the bank, it might be of interest to you."

     Her problems with the bank aside, Mara couldn't fathom what sort of business proposal her bizarre neigh­bor might have that could possibly interest her, but she put her arm through the solicitor's, and they followed Mr. Chase.

     When Mara stepped through the door into his rooms, she noticed that many of the crates had disap­peared, but the steamer trunks were still where they had been that morning, and his belongings were still scat­tered everywhere. She was relieved to note that none of his toys were whirring or spinning.

     Glancing at Mr. Chase, she wondered how anyone could live in such disarray. His eyes were amused as they met hers, as if he were fully aware of her disapproval and didn't care a whit. Gesturing to the sofa and chairs to Mara's right, he added, "Shall we sit down?"

     He removed papers, various toys, and other gadgets from the leather sofa, clearing space for his guests to sit. He turned to the fireplace and dumped the armful of items he'd gathered into the empty coal bin. "I'd offer you tea, but I'm afraid I've none here. As you can see, I'm still moving in."

     Mara took a seat on the leather sofa and privately thought it wouldn't matter how long Mr. Chase lived in these rooms. They would never be tidy. Mr. Finch sat beside her and Mr. Chase took the chair directly oppo­site. He placed his spectacles on the low mahogany table that lay between them, then looked at her. Silent, he studied her for a long moment.

     Mara tapped her foot against the floor, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Why did he have to stare at her as if he wanted to read what was in her soul? "Perhaps you should tell me why we're here," she suggested with a hint of impatience. "You have a business proposal that might interest me?"

     "I was very sorry to hear about your husband," Nathaniel said unexpectedly. "I knew him, you see."

     "What?" Mara was startled as much by the change of subject as by the surprising news that he'd known James. Not so surprising, she amended to herself. Her husband had known many strange people.

     He nodded, and one unruly lock of hair fell over his forehead. He brushed it back with an impatient gesture and went on, "I didn't know you were his wife, of course, until I went to see Mr. Finch. I explained to him why I was here in London, and he suggested that we come and see you. Of course, I had an appointment with you—although I didn't know it was you—for eleven o'clock this morning, but when I arrived there, everything was closed, and I realized James was dead, and I went to see Mr. Finch. That's what it said on the sign, you know." He paused for breath. "So, here we are, you see."

     Mara didn't see at all. She felt hopelessly fogged, but she concluded that nothing this man said ever made any sense anyway, and she decided it might be best to start over. "You said you knew my husband?"

     Mr. Chase nodded and looked over her head, staring into space for several moments without speaking. "'He was a man, take him for all and all,'" he murmured, breaking the silence. "'I shall not look upon his like again.'" He glanced at her. "Hamlet. Shakespeare, you know."

     Mara spoke to forestall any more quotations from Shakespeare. "Where did you meet?" she asked, praying Mr. Chase would eventually say something important.

     "We met in San Francisco several months ago. I'd been living there for some time, and James came to see me. He'd heard about me and was interested in seeing some of my inventions." He paused and gave her a quizzical glance. "You did know I was an inventor, didn't you?"

     "Yes, yes," she said, wondering if he would ever come to the point. "You told me. Go on."

     "Well, James was very excited about my ideas. He wanted to manufacture some of them, and we decided to form a partnership. Pool our resources. We arranged to meet in London around the tenth of July. And, so, here I am."

     Mara wanted to scream. "What exactly is your proposal, Mr. Chase?"

     "Mara—"

     "Mrs. Elliot, if you please," she said.

     Her emphasis on propriety seemed to amuse him. A slow smile lifted the corners of his mouth and crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Mrs. Elliot," he said in a voice so low and intimate he might just as well have used her Christian name, "it seems only right that we carry on with the plan. I propose that we form a partnership."

     "A partnership? You and I?" Mara nearly laughed aloud. Her gaze traveled down the length of him, noting his untidy hair and the wrinkles in his white shirt. "You must be joking."

     "I never joke about my work."

     "Neither do I," she assured him. "The answer is no."

     "Mara, there's no reason to be hasty," Mr. Finch interjected, speaking for the first time. "Perhaps you should at least listen."

     "Really, Mr. Finch! I don't think—"

     "As I said earlier, Mr. Chase may have a solution to your problem," the solicitor reminded her gently. "You have very few options, my dear."

     The solicitor was right, although Mara didn't like being reminded of the dire situation in front of Mr. Chase. "Very well," she said to the man across the table. "I'm listening."

     He leaned forward. "It's quite simple, really. I wish to buy a portion of Elliot Electrical."

     Mara could scarcely believe that this man had enough money to solve her problem, but she refrained from saying so. She lifted one brow and asked the vital question. "How large a portion, and how much are you willing to pay?"

     "I'll pay off Elliot's debt to Joslyn Brothers—it comes to approximately five thousand pounds, I believe—in exchange for fifty-one percent of the company."

     "Fifty-one percent!" Mara straightened with a jerk. "Absolutely not."

     He smiled. "I believe the company's net worth is less than ten thousand pounds. Therefore, my offer is a fair one. You won't obtain a better deal from anyone else, and your time is running out. The bank intends to foreclose on the loan tomorrow, do they not?"

     She turned to give Mr. Finch a hard, accusing stare.

     The solicitor gave her a helpless shrug in response. "I knew Mr. Chase was serious about investing," he said. "A potential investor has the right to know what the situation is."

     She could have killed Finch for taking away any power she might have had to bargain, but she decided to try anyway. She turned back to Mr. Chase and took a deep breath. "Forty-nine."

     She watched his expression harden into stubborn lines. For the first time, she wondered if there might not be a shrewd intelligence behind those baby blue eyes. When he spoke, his voice was low and quietly firm. "If I'm to bail this company out of the mess it's in with five thousand pounds of my money, I must have the controlling interest."

     "Mess?" The word caused her spine to stiffen.

     "Mess, Mrs. Elliot." He slanted a look at her from beneath his lashes, a look that dared her to contradict. "Fifty-one percent."

     Her lips pressed together, and there was a long moment of silence as their gazes locked in combat. All her instincts told her this man had absolutely no business sense, that he was, in fact, crazy. But she knew she had no options, and the man sitting across from her knew it, too.

     Mr. Finch gave a slight cough, breaking the silence. "I took the liberty of drawing up a partnership agreement." He reached into the dispatch case beside him and pulled out a document.

     Mara looked from one man to the other, feeling as if she had been outmanned, outgunned, and definitely outmaneuvered. Here was a way to save the company, but it was hardly the ideal solution. She wanted to know more.

     "Why would you want to buy only fifty-one percent?" she asked. "If you know about the foreclosure, you must also know that the bank will sell the company. You could probably buy the whole lot for not much more than what you're intending to pay now."

     "True." He leaned back and stretched out his long legs, casually putting his feet on the table as if it were a

     Footstool. "But it seems only right and just that you be a part of all this. James and I had an agreement, and although he is dead, I owe him a debt of gratitude."

     "I don't want anyone's gratitude, sir."

     He held up a hand to forestall any further protests from her. "There is more to it than that. I need you, Mrs. Elliot. Mr. Finch informs me that you are quite experi­enced in financial matters. I need that sort of expertise."

     Mara stared at him skeptically for a moment. Every other potential investor she'd spoken with held the opposite point of view, and she found it hard to believe that he was any different. But she could see no trace of deception in the eyes that gazed back at her.

     "What is your decision?"

     Mara bit her lip, hating the idea of giving up control. She didn't want anyone else to be in charge. Especially him. Indecision gnawed at her.

     He was a very odd man.

     She had no choice.

     He was a poetic fool.

     She had no choice.

     Her mind spun in desperate circles, looking for any other solution, but she could think of none. Owning forty-nine percent of a company was better than losing it all, she supposed. She sighed, feeling a headache com­ing on as she gave in to the inevitable. "Where do I sign?"

     Mr. Finch handed her the document. As she read it carefully, the solicitor pulled a bottle of ink and a pen from the case and placed them on the table before her. She signed the agreement in her neat, copperplate handwriting beside Mr. Chase's scrawling, unreadable signature, and her insides twisted with dread. She was handing over control of Elliot's to a man she knew nothing about, a man who was very odd, to say the least. The company was safe from the bank, but Mara had the feeling it was in just as much danger from the man seated across from her.

     She set the pen on the table, blew on the document to dry the ink, and handed the paper back to Mr. Finch. "What happens now?" she asked.

     Mr. Chase reached for the bank book that lay on the table and opened it. "Tomorrow, I'll want to take a complete tour of the factory," he said, picking up the pen. "What is the exact balance owed to Joslyn Brothers?"

     "Five thousand twenty five pounds, twelve shillings, and ten pence," she answered. As she said the words, a dull ache began in her heart.

     He wrote out a bank draft and handed it to the solici­tor. "I've added an extra two hundred pounds to be deposited in Elliot's account. You'll see that everything is handled?"

     Mr. Finch took the slip of paper from his hand. "Of course."

     "Good. You'll investigate that other matter as well?"

     When Finch nodded, Mr. Chase set aside the bank book, and turned back to her. "I'll also want to go over operating procedures with you, Mrs. Elliot."

     Mara was too upset to wonder what "other matter" Finch was investigating for Mr. Chase. She rose to her feet.

     "We start at eight o'clock," she told her new partner, wanting to escape. Now that this partnership was a reality, the ache in her heart was almost unbearable, and she wanted desperately to leave before his percep­tive eyes could see it. "We'll meet in my office."

     "Excellent. We can begin modifying production pro­cedures right away."

     "Modifying production procedures?" Mara frowned at him. "Our system of production doesn't need modification. It works very well as it is."

     "I'm sure it does," he answered, "but it won't work at all once we've made changes to the product line. When I was there, I noticed—"

     "Wait!" Alarmed, Mara held up one gloved hand to halt his flow of words. "What do you mean? What changes to our product line?"

     Mr. Chase lowered his feet to the floor and rose. "Let me show you."

     He came around to the sofa and took her by the elbow, pulling her toward the table near the door. As she watched in bewilderment, he fastened a wire to the track of the toy train. The locomotive began to move, gathering speed as it pulled away from the miniature station.

     He straightened and walked around to the other side of the table, watching the train move along the track. "See how it takes the curves? Rather marvelous, isn't it?"

     Mara folded her arms beneath her breasts, uninter­ested in his toys. "What changes do you want to make in our product line?"

     "You and I are embarking on a grand adventure, Mrs. Elliot." His eyes sparkled with the excitement of a boy as they met hers across the table. "We shall make dreams come true."

     She shook her head impatiently. Did the man always have to speak in riddles? "I don't understand what you're talking about."

     "Toys, Mrs. Elliot. We shall make toys."

     Mara stared at him, stupefied. She looked down at the locomotive moving around the miniature track and swallowed hard as the sick feeling of dread returned to settle in her stomach like a stone. She had just signed over control of Elliot's to a madman. She groaned and pressed a gloved hand to her aching head. Elliot's was doomed.