With Seduction in Mind
A thoroughly modern woman…
Daisy Merrick has to earn her living, but she keeps getting the sack. When her rash tongue costs her yet another job, the feisty, outspoken girl-bachelor is undaunted, and she comes up with a plan that could give her a future beyond her wildest dreams. There’s only one problem. Her success depends on a man, the most infuriating, impossible, immovable man she’s ever met.
A most notorious man…
Sebastian Grant, Earl of Avermore, is England’s most famous author, but when writer’s block steals his creativity, Sebastian becomes more well-known for his notorious reputation than his work. When Daisy arrives on his doorstep, hired by his publisher to help him write his next book, Sebastian has no intention of cooperating. The provoking, fire-haired beauty stirs his senses beyond belief, and when collaboration forces them together at his country home, Sebastian knows he has only one way out. Seduction.
An enemy can partly ruin a man, but it takes a good-natured, injudicious friend to complete the thing and make it perfect.
~ Mark Twain
Every time Sebastian thought of Daisy Merrick’s pleased little smile, he became more convinced he had not seen the last of her.
It only took three days to prove him right. He was in his study, going through the last of the crates from Switzerland, when Wilton entered with the announcement that Miss Merrick had once again come to call on him.
He groaned. “I knew it. Good God, does she not comprehend what the word ‘no’ means?”
“Evidently not, sir.”
“Well, send her away,” he ordered, pulling a book from the crate at his feet. “I told you before, to that woman I am never home. And send Saunders to me, will you?” he added, shoving the book into the appropriate place on the bookshelf beside him. “Several of these crates need to go to the attic.”
Wilton hesitated, glancing at Sebastian’s desk. “You have packed away your typewriting machine, sir?”
“I have.” He saw no point in torturing himself by having the blasted thing out where he could see it, but he wasn’t about to explain his motives to a servant. “Anything more, Wilton?”
“No, sir.” The butler departed without another word, but of course, a simple order was not sufficient to dispense with Miss Merrick. Moments later, Wilton reappeared.
“Sorry, sir,” he apologized at once, “but the young woman is most insistent upon seeing you. She says she has come regarding a legal matter involving yourself and Marlowe Publishing, something of vital importance.”
“Legal matter? Damn it, man, does the girl look like a solicitor?”
“Well, then, what legal matter could she possibly be here about? Women don’t involve themselves in legal matters. They aren’t allowed to sit for the bar, thank heavens. If they were, can you imagine the havoc that would ensue? Men would never win any arguments again. Not that we ever do anyway. I told you, send her away.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but she says this must be handled at once. Marlowe has sent her to ascertain your wishes so the proper actions can be taken by Marlowe Publishing.”
“Oh, for the love of—” Sebastian bit back an oath and shoved the book in his hand onto a shelf of the bookcase. This had to be a ruse, designed to give her another go at persuading him to write a book. He started to tell Wilton to send her packing, but then he paused to reconsider.
His publisher had a perverse sense of humor. If this were a genuine legal matter, it was just like Harry to send the pretty and pernicious Miss Merrick to tell him about it. It probably involved nothing more than a request for the translation rights of one of his books into French, or some proposal from an American newspaper to serialize one of his story collections. He hoped it was the Americans. They paid well. The French, on the other hand, were terribly stingy. Either way, it meant income for him, and he could ill-afford to be cavalier. If he were in funds, he’d instruct his own solicitors to handle things for him, but he already owed Bassington and Burton quite a bit of money, and incurring more debt was the last thing he needed.
It wasn’t as if the girl could persuade him to write anything anyway. Although, he amended as an image of those viridescent blue eyes and that lush pink mouth came into his mind, it might be enjoyable watching her try.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ll be down in a moment.”
Wilton departed, and Sebastian turned to lean back against the bookcase, recalling his last encounter with Miss Merrick. He’d almost kissed her that day. Even now, he didn’t know quite why. Granted, she was pretty enough that a man hardly needed a reason, but in this case, that didn’t quite explain things. He didn’t like her. He found her annoying as hell. She provoked him beyond belief. Yet, strangely enough, those very qualities were what made kissing her such an intriguing notion.
She’d felt it, too, and it had rattled her. She’d jumped like a startled deer the moment he’d come too close. Perhaps this time, he could get closer. It occurred to him that getting close to Miss Merrick might be akin to lighting matches near a powder keg, but some risks were just worth taking. Sebastian ventured down to the drawing room.
Sadly, she was once again wearing those spinsterish clothes and carrying that hideous dispatch case, but he took some consolation in the fact that the sunlight through the drawing room windows poured in behind her as she rose from the sofa, outlining her shape beneath the cotton shirtwaist. “My lord,” she greeted with a curtsy.
“Miss Merrick. How delightful to see you again so soon.” He bowed and gestured for her to resume her seat, but as she did so, he chose not to take the chair across from her. Instead, he sat down on the sofa as well.
She scooted sideways until she was at the very other end. “I am quite well, thank you. But this is not a social call,” she added, turning a bit so that she could face him on the sofa. “It is a matter of business, so may we begin at once?”
The brisk efficiency of her voice sounded terribly forced and made him want to smile. He was flustering her again. “Of course,” he answered. “My butler mentioned you have come to consult me regarding some sort of legal matter?”
“I have.” She reached for her dispatch case, opened it on her lap, and extracted a sheaf of documents. “This is a copy of your most recent contract with Marlowe Publishing.” She closed the case, set the papers on top, then pulled out the last sheet and held it up for him to see. “Is this your signature, Lord Avermore?”
He felt a glimmer of uneasiness, but he didn’t show it. “Yes,” he answered, stretching his arm across the back of the sofa, assuming the pose of a man perfectly relaxed. “Why—”
“Excellent,” she cut him off and replaced the page in its place. She scanned the top page, using her forefinger as a guide, and paused near the bottom. “Section 2, Subsection A, Paragraph 1 of your contract states that you agree to deliver a manuscript consisting of a minimum of 200,000 words to Marlowe Publishing by January 31, 1893.” She looked up. “You are late.”
Only a fool could not see where this conversation was headed. Damn Harry and his perverse sense of humor. Sebastian moved closer to her, turning and bending his head as if he wanted to read the document on her lap. She stirred, and a wisp of her bright hair fell from beneath the boater perched atop her head. The curl glinted in the sunlight like a burnished strand of fire against the skin of her cheek. Once again, he imagined what she would look like with all that glorious hair undone, but this time he pictured it spread out on green grass all around her, and arousal flickered to life in his body. “Am I truly as late as that?” he asked in a low voice. “Show me.”
She didn’t look at him, but bent her head over the contract on her lap and tapped the appropriate paragraph with her forefinger. “It is right here.”
“Hmm…” He pretended to read it, keeping his gaze on her profile. The golden freckles on her cheek were like toffee sprinkles on a dish of cream, and as he imagined kissing them, he was almost able to taste the sweetness of her skin against his mouth. “Yes,” he agreed, “I do seem to be a bit behind.”
“Three years, three months and twelve days behind, to be precise.”
“My, how time does fly.” He eased his body closer to hers and caught a fresh, delicate scent he couldn’t identify. Somehow it fueled his erotic notions of her beneath him in the grass, and he closed his eyes. Inhaling deeply, he tried to place the elusive fragrance.
Papers rustled as she turned the page. “Furthermore, per Section 2, Subsection B, Paragraph 1,” she went on, “should you not comply with delivery of said manuscript by the required date, it is your responsibility to request an extension.”
He took another deep breath and suddenly realized what that delicate, gardenlike scent was. It was nothing more than soap—Pears’ soap to be precise, whose advertisements must be right because she did indeed smell as fresh and sweet as an English garden. Not a scent he’d ever thought particularly erotic, but combined with the images in his mind, it was becoming very erotic indeed.
Beside him, she droned on about his contract. “Any request by you for an extension shall be in writing, and shall be considered solely at the publisher’s discretion. Should the publisher agree to an extension, the terms shall be negotiated in good faith. Did you request an extension, Lord Avermore?”
The question forced Sebastian to set aside fantasies of love in the grass for the moment. He opened his eyes to find her staring at him as if expecting an answer. “No. I did not.”
“Then none has been granted, despite your seeming assumption to the contrary. Nor has Marlowe Publishing received any other correspondence from you, nor have you replied to any of Lord Marlowe’s inquiries on the subject.”
At Miss Merrick’s reiteration of his publisher’s tirade, Sebastian’s stirrings of lust toward her began to evaporate. “Harry and I discussed this,” he began, but she cut him off.
“Because you failed to request an extension and refused to negotiate extensions proposed by Marlowe Publishing in good faith, you are out of compliance with your contract.” She frowned, drawing her brows together in an attempt to look stern. Owing to the abundance of pretty freckles on her face, however, the effort didn’t amount to much.
“Yes, it seems I’ve been very naughty,” he agreed languidly. “Am I to be sent to bed without my supper?”
Her frown deepened at his obvious lack of contrition. “It is my understanding that you received an advance payment against this contract of five thousand pounds?”
He gave a sigh of regret as the last vestiges of a most pleasurable erotic fantasy faded away. “I did.”
“And can you in good conscience name a date at which you shall be presenting Marlowe Publishing with a manuscript?”
He made a sound of impatience. Harry was still under the mistaken impression that all he had to do was sit down at his typewriter every day and a book would magically appear in short order. Though why Harry thought sending Miss Merrick to cite petty legalities would spur him to buckle down was rather baffling. “I have already refused to consider Harry’s idea of having you as a writing partner, or assistant, or whatever you two want to call it, so now he is using you to remind me of the terms of my contract? Did he think you would be more persuasive in bringing me up to scratch than a long-faced solicitor?”
“Because you are out of compliance with your contract,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “and because you have categorically refused to negotiate in good faith with Marlowe Publishing for an extension of that contract, you are required to repay your advance to Marlowe Publishing.”
He jerked upright. “What?”
She tapped the page on her lap. “It is right here. Section 2, Subsection B, Paragraph 2.”
“I don’t care what section it’s in, damn it all. I thought Harry employed you to persuade me to write a book. This doesn’t seem an effective way of achieving that goal.”
“Your adamant refusal to discuss writing a new book has led Lord Marlowe to reconsider the situation. You are to repay your advance, thereby voiding your contract.”
“Harry knows I can’t buy back my contract. He knows I haven’t a bean at present.” He scowled at her. “A circumstance which is partly due to the fact that a certain critic working for a newspaper owned by my own publisher shredded my play, thereby ruining any chance I had of deriving an income from it!”
She shrugged. “Blame me all you like, but it won’t alter a thing. You owe Marlowe Publishing the sum of five thousand, nine hundred thirty-four pounds, and eleven shillings.”
“Marlowe advanced me five thousand. Why is he charging me an additional nine hundred odd?”
“What?” He couldn’t help a laugh, for this entire conversation was now venturing into the absurd. “Marlowe intends to charge me interest?”
She tapped the page again with her forefinger. “Pursuant to Section 2, Subsection C, Paragraph 1, should you not present the publisher with an acceptable manuscript within a period of three years following the date required for submission of said manuscript, the publisher is at liberty to charge interest on any funds advanced to you, beginning from the original deadline and compounded yearly at a rate of four percent per annum. Hence the amount. Which, by the way, is payable upon demand. That, Lord Avermore, is why I am here.”
She held out her hand toward him, palm up, as if expecting him to hand over nearly six thousand pounds then and there.
“Of all the asinine—” He broke off, remembering he was speaking to a woman and too angry to voice what he really wanted to say anyway. “For heaven’s sake, Miss Merrick, put your hand down,” he said instead. “I don’t go about carrying that sort of blunt in my pocket.”
She lowered her hand. “If you wish to retrieve your bank book and write a cheque,” she said, clasping her hands together and resting them atop the contract, “I would be happy to wait.”
“I can’t pay over a sum of money like that on such short notice. And Harry damn well knows it.”
“If you refuse to comply, then I have been instructed to report your refusal to Mr. Jonathan Ghent, Esquire, of Ledbetter and Ghent. His firm represents the legal interests of Marlowe Publishing, and he will proceed with the appropriate actions against you.”
“Sue me in the courts? Harry wouldn’t dare.”
She nodded as if she had expected such a reply. Once again, she opened her dispatch case and extracted a folded sheet of paper, which she held out to him without a word.
Sebastian snatched the letter, broke the wax seal and opened it. The moment he saw the insignia of Ledbetter and Ghent at the top of the page, and Jonathan Ghent’s signature at the bottom, he knew he was in serious trouble. The letter confirmed the legal firm’s readiness to begin collection proceedings via the assizes, should Sebastian Grant, Earl of Avermore, refuse to honor his debt to Marlowe Publishing, Limited.
Sebastian looked up from the letter to stare at the woman beside him, appalled. “Good God. A judicial proceeding would turn my private life into a public spectacle.”
“Well, yes, the news will be widely reported, no doubt,” she agreed with infuriating complacence, “along with the fact that you are no longer contracted with Marlowe Publishing and never will be again. No doubt the scandal sheets will speculate as to the depth of your financial insolvency—”
“Damned right they will! Does Harry realize the damage this will do to me? Given my present circumstances, I wouldn’t be able to obtain a loan if my life depended upon it.”
“I cannot say what Lord Marlowe realizes or does not realize. I am merely following his instructions.”
Sebastian glared at the delicious, infuriating bit of skirt on his sofa, once again chagrined that nature could have fashioned such a paradox. Perhaps he’d died that day in Florence, after all, and he was now in Hell. He could well imagine this fire-haired wench had been sent to bedevil and torment him for eternity.