Publication Date: October 1, 2018
Excerpt – The Orange Blossom Room
Arthur had assigned her to a child’s bedroom? Strolling farther inside, she picked up a book from the bedside table. Flipping to the first page, she read a few lines aloud. “The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. They took some honey, and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five-pound note.”
Peals of laughter rang in her ears and warmth spread throughout her body. She closed her eyes, savoring the sense of happiness reverberating through her. The young girl who owned this book had cherished every word.
Hello, little girl, are you here? Come speak with me. We can be friends, if you like.
“A silly story, if ever there was one,” Arthur said, disturbing the quiet moment.
Maribeth grinned as she stroked her hand over the colorful illustration. “This was one of my favorites as a child, especially when a brooding pirate read it to me. Before meeting Eveline, my guardian—”
The steward’s brow shot up and she snapped her mouth shut, tossing the book onto the bed. She shouldn’t share such stories with a stranger. Better she get on with her purpose for being here. She turned her attention to unbuttoning her coat.
“Go on,” he said. “You had a fascinating childhood. I would love to hear more.”
Arthur leaned his shoulder against the wall, folding his arms over his chest while scrutinizing her. Why did he study her so intently with that enigmatic turn of his lips? Men never watched her every move with interest or engaged her in more than small talk. Her fingers trembled, and she looked away. Speaking about her childhood was out of the question.
“I’m told the daughter of Madame Brown favored that book as well,” he finally said.
“The child who slept here?” she asked.
The gleam in his eyes was inscrutable. “No one else has stayed overnight in this room since the child disappeared many years ago.”
Her chest tightened, and she swallowed past the bile rising in her throat. Something terrible had happened to the girl, every fiber of Maribeth’s being confirmed the truth of the matter.
“I thought perhaps…” The steward pressed his lips together as if thinking better of voicing his thoughts aloud, but the cat was out of the bag.
“You thought my sleeping in this room might nettle the ghost of her mother into seeking me out?”
He rubbed his jaw with a small measure of contrition reflected in his eyes. “Rather coldhearted of me, I suppose. Would you prefer accommodations in the servants’ quarters?”
“Certainly not.” As her gaze swept through the bedroom, a tingling foreboding grew in her belly. “Your intuition was spot on.”
“Does anything scare you, Maribeth?”
He sauntered behind her and peeled the coat off her shoulders. His left hand brushed hers as he tugged on one of the fitted sleeves. She held her breath, attuned in every way to his presence; his heady scent, the sound of his soft breathing, his body heat radiating on her back. She wanted…
She truly could not say. Her experiences with men outside her family circle were limited. But she had witnessed Edith with her husband in unguarded moments when they thought no one was looking. Did she wish Arthur would press his lips on her nape or steal a kiss?
“I have nothing to fear from the ghost of Madame Brown,” she said, turning to gaze up at him. But his nearness and the way he purred her name in that seductive baritone was more than a little unsettling. Ghosts rarely gave cause to be feared. But a handsome man who consumed her with every look…
He folded her coat and placed it on the end of the bed.
“I’ll settle in here later,” she said, clearing her throat. “What was the little girl’s name?”
“Ah, ah, ah.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid you must discover that on your own.”
Her eyes narrowed. “A test of my skills? I could simply inquire with Mrs. Hawkins.”
“But you won’t. I sense your pride doesn’t permit you to travel the easy route.” He smirked.
Bastard. Of course his observation was dead on. She dearly loved a challenge.
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