The Explorer Baroness

The Explorer Baroness

November 2021

He’s the wealthiest nobleman

She’s a risk to his reputation!

Gregory Lattimer is well aware Charis Dunnfield is not the Society bride this Baron’s son needs to restore his family’s tarnished reputation. She is scandalizing the ton—living mostly in Constantinople and running her father’s antiquities business. Gregory must settle for her friendship instead—and her help vetting other potential brides for him—until she voyages east again. But will any debutante match up to Charis?

London May 1834

Early on a pleasant late-May morning, Gregory Lattimar, eldest son and heir of Baron Vraux, walked stiffly down the stairs from his bedchamber toward the morning room overlooking the garden at Vraux House.  Though the weather had been fair enough for him to ride, cutting down the time required for the journey from the family estate in Northumberland to London, there was no avoiding that fact that it was still a long, often bone-jarring transit.

Railways, his friend and investor Crispin D’Aubignon, Viscount Dellamont predicted, would soon crisscross the country, both speeding long journeys and making them more comfortable. Gregory smiled as he thought of his friend, whose wedding he’d recently attended in Newcastle. 

He wasn’t sure he’d welcome a shortening of the route.  The long journey allowed him several days of leisure between his duties overseeing Entremer and tending the family’s affairs in London.

Since he’d been away from the city longer than usual, the London accounts were likely to be even more tangled than normal, he thought with a sigh.  For the thousandth time, he wished that the father who, by virtue of his disinterest and neglect, had required Gregory to take over management of the Vraux assets immediately after leaving Oxford, could at least keep in order the records of his ever-growing collection of weapons, gems and artifacts.

A wish unlikely ever to be fulfilled, he acknowledged as he reached the main floor and headed to the morning room, where an informal breakfast would be set out on the sideboard.  As time went on, his father grew increasingly distant and remote, spending the whole of his day immured in his library or in the ballroom converted to hold his vast collection, having his meals delivered to that room and seldom interacting with any member of the household.

Greg sometimes wondered how the baron could tolerate the loneliness of such an existence, but the self-imposed isolation seemed to suit him.  On the occasions when Greg was compelled to invade his father’s domain to receive approval for some project at Entremer, catching the baron’s attention had become more difficult, his focus on what Greg was trying to tell him more wandering. Greg was certain his father forgot his existence before he even left the room.

The older he grew, the more easily he was able to understand and forgive his beautiful mother for coping with her spouse’s disinterest by looking elsewhere for affection.

As he walked into the morning room, intent on filling a plate and ordering fresh coffee, he stopped short.  “Mama!” he exclaimed, walking across to kiss the cheek she offered.  “What a delightful surprise!  What are you doing up so early?”

Despite bearing her husband one son—him—twin daughters and a second son rumored to be fathered by other men, the lady who smiled up at him seemed hardly old enough to have grown children.  The dazzling beauty that had made her the reigning Diamond of her debut season nearly thirty years ago had hardly faded.  Her porcelain face remained unlined, her golden hair luminous, her blue eyes bright, and the voluptuous figure that had made men vie for her favor still inspired fools with more lust than sense to try to tempt her into affairs.  Even though she’d kept the promise she made to her girls when they turned sixteen that she would take no more lovers.

Unfortunately, her impeccable behavior in the years since had not been enough to redeem her reputation.  Greg could not forgive the society that had dubbed her notorious, while the men with whom she dallied had suffered no loss of standing.

“You arrived so late last night, we hardly had time for a chat, and I knew you would be up early to start cracking on the accounts.  I wanted to have you to myself  over breakfast before you disappeared to take up your duties.  Fill your plate and come tell me all about the wedding.  I could hardly believe it when you wrote me that Crispin was getting married!”

“It came as a shock to me, too.”  After visiting the sideboard and pouring a hot cup of coffee from the pot the footman brought in, Greg settled at the table beside his mother.  “I’d met the girl once before—Crispin’s mother might have mentioned her when she called on you.”

“Yes, the ‘Factory Heiress,’ I believe they called her?”  His mother gave a dismissive sniff.  “Cruel and condescending, the ton gossips.”

“You should know better than most,” Greg said feelingly.

“Lady Comeryn told me she was rather surprised to find Miss Cranmore quite—genteel, despite her origins in trade.  Lovely, well-spoken, and despite her wealth, neither covered in jewels nor overdressed in vulgar style, unlike some Cit’s daughters trying to catch a titled husband.  Lady Comeryn assured me then that Crispin had no serious intentions toward the girl, and was only pretending to court her so that his father would allow the family to remain in London for the Season.  You know Comeryn usually keeps poor Lady Comeryn shut up in the country, the dictatorial miser!” His mother shook her head.  “Vraux has his faults, but despite…everything that happened, he has never tried to control me, limit my funds or threaten me with banishment to Entremer.”

Though Greg wouldn’t have wanted his mother to have married an arrogant, egotistical autocrat like the Earl of Comeryn, he couldn’t help thinking it would have been better for them all if the baron had paid a little more attention to his neglected wife.

“Yes, Dellamont told me he’d agreed to enter Society so his mother might have the treat of a season, which was the last I heard of the matter before I left for Entremer.  Imagine my shock to discover that Crispin not only paid attention to the heiress, he decided to marry her!”

“You must tell me all about her and the wedding.”

And so, over coffee and toast for his mother and a hot cooked breakfast for himself, Gregory related his impressions of the new bride—bright, clever, welcoming--confirmed that his friend seemed besotted with her, and finished by revealing that not only was the bride interested in Crispin’s railway projects, her engineer father had trained her to be so proficient, his friend intended to use her as his technical advisor when he evaluated potential new railway investments.

“First your former carousing partner Gifford wed your sister, now your remaining close friends Dellamont and Alex Cheverton have found brides.  Which leaves you the sole bachelor of the group.  Are you finding it…somewhat lonely?”

“Not especially.  I would never begrudge Temper and Giff their happiness.  And since we left Oxford, I haven’t been able to see either Dellamont or Alex all that often, with Cheverton in Sussex running Edge Hall for the Duke of Farisdeen and Dellamont riding around England, investigating railway projects.  With his new wife-advisor at his side, Dellamont is even less likely to be in London, and with Alex occupied with his new wife and training for his eventual duties as the next duke, he won’t have much time to spare either.”

He wouldn’t admit it to his mother, but he was feeling…not abandoned, precisely, but…left out.  His friends all now had wives who would naturally displace him as their closest advisor and confidante, forever changing the dynamics of their friendship even when they could meet.  Pleased as he was for Gifford, Alex and Crispin, he would miss the closeness they’d shared.

“Not that I’m hinting it’s time for you to marry,” his mother added.  “Far be it for me to urge anyone into that estate!  Although when you are ready, I urge you to choose wisely—since you will have a choice.  I would earnestly wish for you to have a more fulfilling marriage than mine has been.”

His mother hadn’t had much choice.  Her beauty hadn’t been matched by her dowry, and to settle their debts, her family had pressed her to marry the wealthiest of her many suitors. 

His father.  Who, the best Greg could figure, had decided to marry Miss Felicity Portman because she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, choosing her as the first peerless object in his collection.  He’d fulfilled his obligation to beget an heir and ignored her ever since.

“Never fear, Mama.  When the time comes, I’ll give due regard to choosing a woman whom will give me at least a fair chance of marital happiness.”

He wouldn’t wound her by telling her his primary criteria for marriage was finding a woman of impeccable reputation from a family of equally stainless repute in order to redeem the rakish reputation of his own clan, dubbed “the Vraux Miscellany” by the ever-malicious ton for their varied parentage. In particular, he intended to harness his wife’s sterling contacts to try to get his exiled mother received back into society, as such a warm and loving soul deserved to be.

He looked up from those reflections to see her studying his face.  “Truly, Mama.  I can’t say I expect to become as besotted as Alex and Crispin seem to be with their new wives, but surely I can find a woman with whom I build a harmonious and affectionate bond.” 

“That is all I wish for,” she said simply, reaching over to squeeze his hand.  “Now, before I send you off, I need to warn you the task of sorting out Vraux’s papers may be more…taxing than usual.”

“I thought it might, since I’ve been away longer.”

“It’s more than just that.  Let me summon Jennie, so she can explain.”

While his mother signaled the footman stationed by the door to fetch the girl, Greg wondered what could require a housemaid’s explanation.  Though the rooms of his private domain would seem to any disinterested observer to be in a state of continual disarray, his father had long ago forbidden any servant to dust, rearrange, or try to sort through the vast assemblage of knives, daggers, swords, jewels, miniatures, and small archeological artifacts he collected.

A few minutes later, the girl arrived, looking nervous as she made her curtsey.  “Don’t worry, Jennie, no one is going to scold you,” his mother assured her.  “Just tell Mr. Lattimar what happened.”

“Well, sir, you know I know better than to go into his lordship’s rooms.  But as I was cleaning the hallway, I saw a paper sticking out from under the library door.  I tried to pull it out, but couldn’t quite get it, so I thought I’d just open the door real quiet-like, slip it out and close it again, afore his lordship could even notice.  But there musta been a window open in the library, cause when I opened the door, a big ‘whoosh’ of wind sent that paper flying.  That, and a whole lot more that was on his desk, and them falling knocked over a stack of those funny curved knives, and made such a clatter as to wake the dead.  His lordship right started!  Then he saw me and glared and yelled for me to get all the mess out of there.  So I hurried and gathered up all the papers I could, and the knives and things, and rushed them out the door, him sh—shouting at me all the while,” the girl concluded, tears in her eyes again.  “Your lady mother told me to put everything on your desk in the study.  I’m awful sorry, Mr. Lattimar.  I didn’t mean to cause a ruckus.”

“I’m just sorry he frightened you, Jennie,” Greg said.  “Thank you for leaving everything in my office.  You needn’t worry; I’ll sort it out.”

The maid bobbed another curtsey.  “Thank you for understanding, Mr. Lattimar.”

After the maid hurried out, Lady Vraux sighed.  “Poor thing was practically in hysterics afterward, Vraux frightened her so badly.  It was all I could do to persuade her not to give notice.  Heaven knows what the papers concern.  You know Vraux never pays a particle of attention to any of them, be they invoices, descriptions of artifacts or offers from investors to purchase some of his collection.”

“I do indeed,” Greg said with a sigh.  “I’ll go have a look and see how bad it is this time.”

“The quantity of paper was impressive.  Which is why I wanted to alert you before you went in to discover the heaps on your desk and suffered palpitations of the heart.”

“Thanks for the warning.  And especially for the delight of sharing my breakfast with you.”

“An even greater delight for me, darling boy.  You spend so much time at Entremer, I hardly ever see you.  Well, I’ll leave you to sort out those papers.”  After rising, she kissed his forehead and walked gracefully out, the subtle scent of her violet perfume drifting in her wake.

Greg watched her leave with a familiar mix of affection, sadness, and resolve.  To his shame, he hadn’t always treated his mother with kindness.  As a boy struggling toward manhood, he’d resented the upheaval in the house from the coming and going of the assorted men who were or aspired to be her lovers.  He’d been embarrassed and angry at the sly innuendo in remarks made about her by his schoolmates at Eton.  Which generally led to a bout of fisticuffs with the offender, often followed by punishment from the headmaster.

He had left Eton an accomplished pugilist, he thought wryly. 

But the mother whom he’d sometimes shunned or wounded with angry words had returned nothing but gentleness and patience.

Now, as a man grown, an observer of the love matches of his friends, his sisters and his younger brother, he understood far better the loneliness and despair that had led Lady Vraux to look outside her marriage for the love and companionship her spouse disdained to provide.

He felt an echo of that loneliness now. 

Despite the disaster of his parents’ marriage, his siblings had managed to wed happily.  His two closest friends seemed to have found an equal harmony with their brides.  Perhaps he could dare hope he himself might make a marriage that offered companionship, friendship—even love.

Maybe it was time to start looking for that lady of impeccable reputation.

Two hours later, Greg surveyed the several stacks of papers on his desk, frustration and anger having driven all other thoughts from his head.  The hazardous array of papers, knives and daggers he’d found when he walked into his office had been as large and untidy as his mother had warned.  It had taken almost an hour to carefully arrange the different styles of weapon into separate piles and sort the paperwork.  Some of the latter appeared to be certificates of authenticity, which he could simply file.  Others were correspondence from collectors seeking to buy items from his father, which he could toss since his father never sold anything or even acknowledged such requests.  But the largest stack seemed to be invoices for his father’s various purchases. 

An alarming number of purchases representing a rather staggering sum.

Greg’s major task each time he stayed in London was to review the family’s London accounts.  The household expenditures were easily resolved, since his mother, along with the butler and housekeeper, kept meticulous records.

His father, however, never concerned himself with anything as mundane as accounting.  Although the firms from which he acquired his objects included invoices when an ordered item was delivered, the bill was likely to land wherever Lord Vraux happened to drop it when he unwrapped his treasure.  There it would languish, neglected, until on his next visit, Greg invaded his father’s domain to gather up all the bills he could find, pay them, and file them away.

He had no idea where his father had tucked away the stack now on his desk, but most likely they had never been paid, in which case some of them were now several years in arrears. 

Had the purchaser been anyone but his father, by now the vendors would have sent the bailiffs to collect the overdue debts.  Greg figured his father’s reputation as the richest baron in England had inspired the shopkeepers with the patience to refrain—not wishing to antagonize a client who, the invoices showed, must be one of their major purchasers.

There was no help for it; he was going to have to go to the shops, request the assistance of the proprietors to track down the expenses and pay those still outstanding.

At least there were only a handful of providers capable of procuring the rare items his father collected.  Indeed, the majority of invoices came from a single source, which would at least cut down on the number of inquiries he’d have to make.

Picking up one of those from the stack, Greg studied it again.  Unlike most of the bills, the ones from this firm were handwritten on a blank sheet of fine vellum, rather than on printed forms stamped with name and address of the shop, with only the date, goods and cost written in by hand.  Nor was there a company name inscribed.  Nothing but “W. Dunnfield” written in the upper right below an engraved address, “7 King Street.”

Greg frowned.  King Street was located in Westminster, not far from the highly fashionable—and expensive--Grosvenor Square.  Not an address at which one would expect to find a tradesman.

Folding the firm’s papers and putting them in his jacket pocket, he rose and walked out.  He’d revive himself with a second cup of coffee, then claim his hat and cane and take a stroll through the morning sunshine to pay a call on “W. Dunnfield.”

CHAPTER TWO

Later that morning, Charis Dunnfield stood in the small ground floor parlor of her father’s town house in King Street, rearranging items on shelves.  Most of their commissions from their recent trip to Constantinople and Baghdad had already been delivered to the collectors who’d ordered them, but some dozen or so objects remained.  Small daggers in their jeweled sheaths from the Ottoman Empire had become especially popular of late, and in addition to the items requested by their clients, her father had purchased a number of extra khanjars and jambiyas to have on hand, should their customers’ friends or family decide they wished to purchase similar pieces.

It would take several weeks for her to use the sales proceeds already collected to order, receive and then pack the supplies necessary for their next journey, giving her father time to recover from the indisposition that had afflicted him on their travel home.  Although she was always impatient to be off again, if Papa decided he needed a few additional weeks to fully recover before they set out, she could deliver the remaining items herself.  Along with planning their route, resupplying their travel necessities, corresponding with clients to ascertain their current desires and with their suppliers in the Orient to determine the best source to satisfy those desires, she would have plenty to keep her busy.

The daggers secured, she returned to her desk and retrieved a strongbox from a bottom drawer, where it reposed behind a secret panel.  After unlocking it, she gazed admiringly at the treasures within. 

Although her father appreciated the workmanship of all the items he purchased, fine jewels were his special joy.  Each trip, along with the items requested by clients, he added to his private collection one or two particularly fine examples he’d not been able to resist. 

Smiling, she touched a reverent fingertip to a gilded brooch set with rubies and diamonds, ran it over a Persian bracelet of pure gold in intricately carved geometric forms inset with lapis and malachite, the gems’ dark hues gleaming against the brilliance of the precious metal. 

She could transfer these latest acquisitions into the basement safe where her father kept the rest of his collection, but since opening it allowed him to take out and admire all his beauties, she would leave these in the strongbox until he felt well enough to perform that pleasurable task himself.

After making note of which pieces still needed to be delivered, Charis relocked the box and returned it to its hiding place.  She’d just begun to log in the payments on the last items her father had delivered before taking to his bed when a knock sounded at the front door.

 Absently noting the sound, she returned her attention to her work.  But when that first knock was followed, after a pause, by several others, she closed the ledger with a sigh. 

Since they spent so little time at the London townhouse, her father maintained only a skeleton staff here. The front door should have been answered by Jameson, their butler/footman/man of all work, who’d gone out this morning to make some purchases for her father.  The continued knocking must mean Jameson hadn’t yet returned.  With their cook/housekeeper and the two maids occupied in their basement domain, she’d have to answer the door herself.

As she stood and pushed in her chair, she smiled to think how aghast Khalil Ibrahim, her father’s major domo at their house in Constantinople, would be at the thought of his mistress answering her own front door, while Alizah, the elderly Persian maid she’d inherited from her mother, would be scandalized.  Since their Ottoman servants poorly tolerated both the climate and the incomprehensible customs of chilly England, after the uproar that ensured several years ago when Papa had tried bringing some of them on one of their trips back to London, he’d since left all their Constantinople staff in their pleasant walled house overlooking the Bosporus.

Shivering, Charis pulled her shawl more tightly over her shoulders.  Despite the pale sunshine that warmed—barely—the front salon, she had to agree with the assessment Khalil Ibrahim had made on his one visit to England—their island homeland was too cold, damp and cloudy for any sane person to remain there for long.

She wondered as she proceeded into the hallway who might be calling. Valuing the privacy of his home, her father never bid his customers to come to pick up their purchases, preferring to delivery them to the client’s dwelling.  As Father had left England at a young age, never becoming involved in English society, he had no friends or cronies here who might pay him a call.  Tradesmen with household provisions to deliver or items to sell would ring at the kitchen entrance.

Charis had sent a note to her mother’s kinswoman, Lady Sayleford, to let her know that they were back in London and that she would try to stop by.  Perhaps the person seeking entrance was one of Grand-tante’s footmen, delivering a reply to her note.

Expecting to see a liveried servant, she opened the front door and stopped short, blinking in surprise.  Standing on the stoop wasn’t one of her cousin’s employees, but a tall, commanding man dressed so impeccably he could only be an English gentleman.

And a very handsome one at that!  He topped her by half a foot at least, with broad shoulders, a square-jawed face, straight, dark hair combed back off his brow and the most arresting ice-blue eyes she’d ever seen.  She found herself staring before she recovered enough to ask,  “May I help you, sir?”

When he didn’t immediately reply, Charis realized he’d been staring back.  After spending most of her life in cities of the Ottomans and the Levant, more often than not while there she wore the loose, casual dress of the local inhabitants.  Though she was forced to adopt European dress while in London, she couldn’t abide the restrictive undergarments currently fashionable for ladies.   As the stranger’s eyes dipped to her bosom, she was suddenly aware that she’d opted to forgo that stifling English object of feminine torment known as “stays” and wore only a thin linen chemise under her gown.

Goodness, Alizah truly would be scandalized to know Charis had appeared before a gentleman not of her own household in this attire, she thought, pulling her shawl more closely about her shoulders.

Proving he was a gentleman, however, the caller immediately lifted his gaze back to her face.  After setting his jaw, as if determined not to let his eyes venture lower again, he said, “I hope so.  I have…correspondence from a ‘W. Dunnfield’ which lists this address, but that might be in error.  Does that gentleman by chance happen to live here?  If not, if you know his current direction, I would be quite grateful.” 

Pulling several papers from inside his jacket, he pointed to the top one.  “My father is a collector who ordered a number of items from Mr. Dunnfield.  I’m afraid some—or all—of the objects he requested may not yet have been paid for.”

Charis quickly scanned the document, almost immediately identifying the purchaser.  “Your father acquired them, you said?  You must be Lord Vraux’s son, then.”

“Ah, so you are aware of the transactions.  Mr. Dunnfield still resides here, then?  And yes, I am Vraux’s son, Gregory Lattimar.”

 “Please, come in.  Father is…somewhat indisposed today, but I’ll be glad to help you.  I’m Charis Dunnfield.  Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lattimar.  I serve as Mr. Dunnfield’s assistant, and most probably, all the invoices were written by me.  There are in fact a number outstanding, but let us not discuss the matter with you standing on the doorstep.  If you will follow me?”

“With pleasure.”

“Leave your hat and cane there, if you like,” she said, indicating a coat tree just inside the entrance. “I’m sorry; our butler, Jameson, is out this morning.”

“I’m quite capable of hanging up my hat myself,” Lattimar said with a smile.        And what an engaging smile he had!

Charis turned and led him down the short hallway to the salon, conscious of his tall form looming over her as he followed.  A prickly feeling skittered over her skin at being overshadowed by all that vigorous maleness, particularly when she knew he knew she was garbed in a fashion that, by English standards, bordered on the indecent.  Feeling her face flush, she made herself squelch the feeling.  Since Lattimar had displayed the courtesy to ignore her attire, she would ignore it, too.

She silently vowed that in future, she would remember not to answer the door unless she’d persuaded herself to don jump stays under her gown, the only sort of corset she could tolerate. 

 “Won’t you take a seat?” she said, motioning him to the small sofa before the fire.  “Would you like me to ring for some tea?”

Not immediately answering, her caller was looking around curiously at the shelves that displayed both the objects still to be delivered as well as a portion of her father’s most prized pieces.  “Mr. Dunnfield is a…collector, too?  I was expecting to find a shop.  And no tea, thank you.”

Taking a seat behind her desk, Charis nodded.  “He began as a collector.  Other Englishmen abroad, mostly diplomats, admired the things he acquired and asked him to find similar objects for them.  Often after they returned to England, they would write him requesting that he find them other pieces, or some friend or family member would want a similar one.  His hobby gradually turned into something of a business, the profits of which fund our travels and his own acquisitions.  Now, how can I help you?  You would like to settle some of Lord Vraux’s purchases?”

“I’d like to settle them all.  But after belatedly discovering the invoices I’ve brought with me, I’m not sure these, numerous as they are, represent the whole.  Or that some invoices are not duplicates.  I note here,” he continued, putting some papers down on her desk and thumbing through them, “Five invoices from different dates listing at differing prices an ‘Abyssinian dagger in jeweled sheath.’  Do these represent the same piece, perhaps at increasing prices because the original invoice wasn’t paid?  I cannot imagine why Vraux would need five of the same thing.”

Lord Vraux was extremely negligent about paying his bills.  Was his son insinuating that her father had taken advantage of that to bill him several times for same item?

Drawing herself up stiffly, Charis said, “I’m not sure I like your inference, sir.  Unless the invoice clearly states it is a duplicate request—something very rarely done--I guarantee you that each item listed represents a different and distinctive object, even if they are similar items from the same area.  The workmanship of each is considered an art, the design overseen by the person who originally commissioned the piece, and created by the skill and imagination of the individual craftsman.  One could collect a score, and not find two exactly the same. We are certainly not attempting to be paid over and over for same item.”

Realizing he had overstepped, Lattimar said hastily, “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to offend.  My father may not appear sometimes to recognize his own family, but he spends so much time studying and cataloguing his collection, I can well believe he wanted five of the same type of item—five very different, artistically crafted items.”

Mollified, Charis nodded.  “Very well.  If you allow me to inspect the bills, I will identify and classify them for you.”

He pulled from his jacket another, larger sheaf of papers and placed them on the desk beside the first ones, creating a stack tall enough that her eyes widened.                “Goodness, there really are quite a few!” she exclaimed.  “Lord Vraux sometimes is…tardy about settling his accounts, but I really can’t imagine that many would still be outstanding.  It’s quite possible that a number have already been paid.  I cannot be sure without checking all of these against our records.”

“I would very much appreciate it if you could do so.”

“I’m afraid that will require more than a moment.  I shall have to match the acquisition dates and the general description on your invoices against the copies of the invoices and certificates of authenticity we retain after items are delivered.  We keep copies,” she explained, “in case the investor misplaces his own, or needs a duplicate to send to a prospective purchaser, if he decides to resell a piece to another collector.”

“I suspected that sorting this out wouldn’t be simple.  I’m sorry to put you to so much trouble.”

Still acutely conscious of the almost palpable masculine energy that seemed to emanate from him, she thought that spending additional time in his company would be no trouble.  But he was altogether too appealing, and would certainly distract her from her work, should she try to complete the task with him watching her.

With her plate already full of tasks, she should dismiss him so she could finish the additional one he’d just handed her in the least amount of time.

Even though she was loath to have him quit her presence.  Over their extensive travels, she’d met many charming European men.  But she couldn’t remember one to whom she felt so immediate and visceral an attraction.

Tempting as it was to indulge herself, nothing useful could come of it, so she might as well steel herself to send him away and get on with her work.

  “Rather than have you kicking your heels here for however long it makes me to finish the task, why don’t I call at Vraux House once I’ve had time to sort these out?  I’ll send you a note when all is ready, and you can reply with a time that would be convenient for you to receive me.  Or if you’d prefer to dispense with another in-person meeting, I could write you a summary indicating which items still need to be paid, and you could return the amount due. I don’t wish to inconvenience you.”

“Meeting you again would be no inconvenience.”

Something about the warmth and timber of his voice had her gaze flashing up to meet his.  He might be looking in her eyes rather than staring at her bosom, but she felt the heat of his attraction burn from her face all the way down her body.

An answering heat skittered to all her nerves. 

Shaken by the intensity of her response, she looked away.  “Very well,” she said, working hard to keep the tremble from her voice.  “I’ll look into these and send you a note when I’ve sorted them out.”

“I’d be very grateful.  Father is obsessed by his treasures and derives considerable pleasure from them, so I must thank Mr. Dunnfield for locating them.  Vraux is…somewhat reclusive, and probably will not be present when you call, but I shall be very pleased to welcome you to Vraux House on his behalf.” 

The sound of rapid footsteps coming down the hallway, followed by a knock at the door, forestalled her response.  “Ah, you’ve returned, Jameson,” she said as the butler entered.

“We have a visitor, Miss Charis? I’m sorry I wasn’t here to receive him.”

The look he gave her and the slight flush on his face said he wasn’t happy about her entertaining a gentleman in her current state of dress.  “No harm done, Jameson,” she said, wanting to forestall that line of inquiry.  “Lord Vraux’s son, Mr. Lattimar, came to inquire about some invoices.  It will require some time for me to sort them out and get back to him.  If you would escort him out?”

“Of course. This way, sir.  By the way, I brought back items you needed, Miss Charis.”

“Very good.  I’ll speak with you about them in a minute.”  Rising, she extended her hand to the caller.  “Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Lattimar.”

Rather than shaking it, he bent to bestow a kiss on her knuckles—setting her nerves tingling again.  “My pleasure.  I’m only sorry to have made so much work for you.”

“No need for apologies.  We are happy to demonstrate to our clients that all our transactions are straightforward and aboveboard.  What matters most is the beauty of the articles and artifacts we are privileged to share with other connoisseurs.”  She smiled.  “If it were financially feasible, I believe Father would simply give them away to people who appreciate them as much as he does.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the resources of a pasha to present handsome gifts! I shall commence work immediately, Mr. Lattimar, and hope to have answers for you very soon.”

He gave her another of those charming smiles.  “I shall very much look forward to meeting you again.  Soon.”  Then, with a bow, he walked out.

Watching him depart, Charis blew out a sigh.  Into her mind flashed the image of a more intimate rendezvous…scented oils burning while she performed the dance of fluttering veils and ended up in his arms.  But in London as in Constantinople, such a thing was not possible unless a woman belonged to the man for whom she was dancing.

After the devastation she’d observed in her father after her mother’s death, she’d vowed never to belong to any man. She intended to take best of both the two cultures her upbringing had straddled.  The ability to own property, manage her own money and make her own decisions, a right which even married woman of Ottoman world possessed.  While she retained the European freedom of travel and independence denied her sisters in the East.  But retaining that would only be possible if she didn’t marry, since under English law, a married woman’s money and property became her husband’s.

As free spirited and restless as her father, she could never tolerate being pinned down in one place, restricted to managing a household, her fortune and future directed by a man.

Not even a man as sinfully attractive as Gregory Lattimar.

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