The Lady Meets Her Match (Midnight Meetings)

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9781402294303: The Lady Meets Her Match (Midnight Meetings)

LOCATING HER IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE
Cyrus Ryland didn't become England's wealthiest bachelor by being a pushover, but the mysterious beauty he discovers sneaking around at his grand ball enflames his curiosity. When the clock chimes midnight and she's nowhere to be found, Cyrus vows to scour all of London to uncover who she is. Little does he know that not only does Claire Mayhew not want to be found, but she wants nothing to do with him at all...

Praise for Meet the Earl at Midnight:
"A refreshing Georgian spin on Beauty and the Beast."-Grace Burrowes, New York Times bestselling author of The Captive
"Delightful... [Conkle's] fresh, vibrant voice shines through...in a story where the simmering sexual tension builds to the perfect climax."-RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Gina is a lover of history, books and romance, which makes the perfect recipe for historical romance writer. Her passion for castles and old places (the older and moldier the better!) means interesting family vacations. Good thing her husband and two sons share similar passions, except for romance...that's where she gets the eye roll. When not visiting fascinating places, she can be found in southern California delving into the latest adventures of organic gardening and serving as chief taxi driver. Find her at www.ginaconkle.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

London, 1768

No mask like open truth to cover lies,

As to go naked is the best disguise.

William Congreve, The Double Dealer

A woman on the verge of moral downfall ought to be well dressed. Claire's particular transgression was gartered to her thigh, a paper hidden by yards of silk. She walked through the empty alley, confident in one comforting truth: no one dared ask a lady what her skirts concealed.

She glanced down at her small bosom, where soft moonlight splashed a distracting display of flesh. "And no one will be alarmed by what's revealed there, not that any will see me."

The sparkling blue-and-silver creation would be off soon, after midnight. The ball gown was worn just in case, a costume of sorts to fit into a place she didn't belong. Despite each well-planned detail, damp palms proved her outward calm a hoax. She'd always been a good girl-minus a slip in judgment some years ago.

What she was about to do trumped her past error. In spades.

That is, if someone catches me.

A deep breath failed to stop a tiny hiccup. Looking at the grand house ahead, this evening's ruse proved one thing: a woman's independence came at a price. If she wanted a different path, everything hinged on tonight's success.

She hooked her plain cloak on a fence post. Wetness swathed cobblestones from a recent summer shower, wafting scents of washed earth. Nice for this part of London...so different from her Cornhill section of Town.

She stepped off Vigo Lane into the mews of one Cyrus Ryland, the King of Commerce. England's celebrated commoner and landlord for much of midtown had something she wanted-his signature. Somewhere in his palatial West End sprawl of a home she'd find it, forge it, and disappear back into the late August night.

The well-laid plan sounded reasonable.

Why then did the sheer size of Mr. Ryland's home put a lump in her throat?

"There you are," Abigail said, pots and pans banging behind her. She passed through the kitchen doorway with a busy woman's stride. "Didn't see you earlier. Thought you'd lost your nerve."

Abigail Green, housekeeper of Ryland House, jingled a set of keys. She searched out the right one as she moved along the limestone edifice toward the servants' quarters. Overhead, brass candle lanterns chased off the night where two of Mr. Ryland's hulking carriages claimed much space in the mews.

"Lost my nerve? No." Claire adjusted her beaded mask. "But I admit, I'm holding on to my last ounce of courage."

An iron key slid home in the lock. Abigail turned it with a quiet snap, but she kept one hand on the knob, her mobcap casting shadows over serious features.

"If you're having a change of heart, now's the time to say so."

Claire looked at the key nestled in the lock. "No. I'm going through with this."

The door clicked open to a stark, whitewashed hall stretching ahead. Both women marched through the lonely quarters, their footfalls echoing.

"Understand, I'll lead you to his study, but I won't stay with you." Abigail opened another door, this one broad paneled and crafted to blend into the wall. "The house is in an uproar what with being two footmen plus a maid short and this grand ball going on."

The portal offered entry into another world, the kind of place spun in fairy tales told for lesser mortals. People talked of Ryland House's grandeur, and now Claire stood, an openmouthed witness.

Massive chandeliers cast tiny rainbow prisms high on pale walls trimmed with elaborate boiseries. For the hall to be so well lit... Were there people in this section of the house? She couldn't imagine letting candles burn for no reason.

Lush murals of pastoral bliss covered ceiling panels, creating a wonderland. The artful display unfolded overhead like delightful pages of a child's picture book, stretching the length of the hallway.

Abigail pushed the door shut and pocketed the keys, a dark, weighty clump in her apron. "I'm only helping you because of what you did for my sister, but if you're caught, don't say my name. I'll deny everything."

There was finality in those pale blue eyes, so like Annie's.

"I'm only copying his signature." A quelling hand rested on her midsection. "Then I'll take my leave as quickly as I've come."

Saying her crime aloud brought to mind awful images of Newgate, but anyone of a reasonable mind would agree tonight's dubious errand wasn't the same as stealing money. She was a grown woman who wished to run an honest business, have a coffee shop of her own. The intractable Mr. Ryland wouldn't allow an unmarried woman the privilege.

Mr. Pentree, one of Ryland's agents, rang in her head: "Sorry, Miss Mayhew. Mr. Ryland's most insistent. It's one of his rules. A husband, father, or brother must be on the lease, or I can't give you the key to the property."

In other words, she needed a man.

She didn't have one in hand. Nor did she want one.

Mr. Pentree had pushed up his spectacles, informing her with all gentleness, "Your only recourse is to see Mr. Ryland in person. Plead your case. Get his approving signature."

Approving signature, indeed. A grown woman beseeching a man for the right to conduct lawful business? Yet, even there, she'd tried.

One probably had better luck setting an appointment with King George. There was a four-month wait for a spot of Mr. Ryland's time. Former housekeepers didn't rate high enough to gain entry on his calendar. One of his secretaries always responded with the same polite refusals and delays. Claire was done petitioning.

She had snatched back the document from Mr. Pentree that day, informing him she'd find a way to get the signature from the lofty Mr. Ryland, even if it meant accosting him on London's streets.

It was time she took matters into her own hands.

Now, Claire walked with Abigail through Mr. Ryland's elegant beige hallway, her bravado floating away, lost in the expensive chandeliers overhead.

She'd been in grand homes before, but the lights shined...differently here. What made this place so extraordinary?

Graceful orchestral notes drifted everywhere. Conversation and laughter threaded with music, weaving the kind of noise that turned a large ball into an impersonal entertainment, yet easy for a body to get lost in the crowd. The housekeeper nodded to where lights gleamed brightest.

"Go that away, and you'll find yourself in the ball. But if you turn left at that plant," she said, pointing at frothy greenery in blue ceramic pots, "you'll be in the kitchen hallway. Wait there when you're ready to leave."

"You don't think that's a bad idea? Meeting you in such a visible location?" Claire frowned. "Someone might see me and wonder."

"Did you get a good look at yourself?" Abigail's voice notched higher. "You're lovely. Same as any of those fine Society ladies with their gowns and such. You could easily be one of them."

Be one of them?

The glittering gown made all the difference. Tomorrow, she'd don her practical, starched gray broadcloth, and her conscience could lock away tonight's aberration in judgment.

They moved down the hallway and the housekeeper turned and pushed open an elaborately carved door set in an alcove. A dark room. The study. Claire stepped inside the modest space, high ceilinged but small and unexceptional when one considered England's King of Commerce transacted half the realm's business here.

It was said Ryland owned every warehouse from Manchester to London. Northern goods sat in one of his buildings waiting for a ride to London's harbor on one of his canals.

And this humble-sized room is where he labored?

"Remember, you must be out before the unmasking," Abigail warned.

And she shut the door.

The latch clicked like a pistol cocked at her back. Claire's fingernails dug into her palms while her vision adjusted to the dark. She dare not light a candle.

Her objective, Mr. Ryland's desk, claimed a spot by the window where moonlight spilled through open curtains. She raised voluminous skirts and slipped the folded signature page from her garter. The paper, warm from her leg, crinkled in her grip.

She moved with care, a sweet thrill shooting through her. The prize sat atop the middle stack of papers: the bold scrawl of Cyrus Ryland.

Silk skirts brushed leather, a murmur of sound, when she slid onto his seat. A brass clock ticked a steady cadence, and she concentrated on the bold C and R dominating the page, her fingers picking at her gown's lace.

Ryland's signature slurred across the bottom as though he couldn't be bothered to form the remaining letters.

"Audacious man," she said under her breath and grabbed a quill.

Keeping the nib dry, she traced her quarry's name on foolscap, scratching the paper again and again. To convince Mr. Pentree, this had to be an excellent facsimile. Yet, within the quiet, the bold name she copied called to her.

Her hand slowed. Ink blurred, ceasing to be lines on a page.

Those lines turned into a name...a person.

Cyrus.

Her brows knit together, brushing the inside of her mask. Could a signature reveal much about a man?

What she was about to do wasn't simply copying a signature, nor was she on the path of faceless transgression. She set out to deceive a man, a man who was someone's brother, someone's son, and deception could turn ugly, as well she knew.

The moon's telling light washed over Ryland's black signature, the lettering strong to the point of arrogance. Yes, arrogant and unstoppable and barely educated. A man quite like her father. She stumbled over that impression, letting the inkling sink deeper.

No one will get hurt.

Her thumb pressed a new wrinkle on the foolscap. "This is just a case of nerves."

Really, if Mr. Ryland hadn't been so difficult about leasing his properties to an unmarried woman, she wouldn't be in this predicament.

Why did men get to decide these things anyway?

She slid the original signature behind the document to be forged, paper brushing paper. Vexation dissolved into what was truly the heart of the matter: the longing for a place of her own, to make her own way in the world-a new path made possible by the single stroke of a quill.

At the moment, her success hinged on one man, or at least on stealing his name. Lips curving in a wry smile, she dipped the nib in ink and, with surprising ease, copied over faint lines.

The result produced a stunning imitation.

Once the signature was sanded, she leaned back in Ryland's chair, her thumb and forefinger pinching the aquamarine stone hanging from her neck. Footsteps crunched on gravel outside. A carriage rolled past the study window. Voices came closer. Louder and more of them.

She peered around the chair. Footmen loitered by the window, the tops of their white periwigs visible at the bottom. If one man angled his head just so, he'd spy her at Ryland's desk.

Slipping from the chair, she sought the room's lone settee, a safe harbor in the shadows. She sunk down, squashing her skirts like some rustic cousin new to Town. Her head lolled against the back cushion, finding needful support.

Who knew committing a crime could be so draining?

One. More. Minute.

Then, she'd be free.

The signature page nestled on her lap. Let the form get good and dry before tucking away the incriminating piece, but behind her, the door clicked. She jerked upright and faced the door.

A bright beam of light sliced the blackness.

A man stepped forward, his silhouette tall and well dressed. She blinked at the blinding glow. Every muscle seized with the want to flee. Her fingernails dug into chintz upholstery. The commanding figure shut the door, head bent as though lost in thought. He placed a single brass candleholder on a table, oblivious to her presence.

The study's late-night visitor took a step in her direction, tense lines bracketing his mouth. Immense shoulders shrugged off a fine velvet coat in slow, distracted fashion, the fabric rustling its intimate hush in the dark.

Excuses flew through her mind. She was looking for the lady's retiring room...she got lost-

"Who are you?" The coat stopped halfway down sizable arms.

Claire tried a fortifying breath, but her lungs refused to cooperate while her mind absorbed a new fact: she faced Cyrus Ryland. He loomed large, waiting in the silence.

Masculine brows shot up when her lack of response stretched too long.

"I'm Claire." The truth burst out, and she cringed as much from the social slip of blurting her Christian name as from revealing her identity.

His eyes flared, likely from her blunder of manners, but she hadn't thought of a false identity. Mr. Ryland took his sweet time removing his coat. His unhurried gaze traced her hair, the mask, finally settling on her plunging bodice with thorough consideration.

"Just Claire?" he asked. "Not Lady Claire Something-or-other?"

"For a masked ball"-she attempted a lighthearted smile-"just Claire."

He retrieved the candle, his granite-hard features severe behind the guttering flame. Mr. Ryland put his coat and the lone taper on a small table beside the settee. Her smile wobbled the closer he came, caught as she was in a neat trap of her own design.

Big hands spun his jabot's lacy fall around to his nape and went to work on the knot under his chin. Glued to the seat, she couldn't stop from staring. Little scabs marred his knuckles. She lingered on those marks before her vision drifted upward to confident gray eyes watching her. His powerful presence made the idea of him being anyone's victim laughable.

The cushion dipped beside her, and her stomach dropped. They'd crossed paths once at Greenwich Park, when she was in service there. Would he have any recollection of her? One hand touched her mask, and she remembered: her face was half-covered in a dimly lit room.

She was safe. For now.

Mr. Ryland faced the wall, more concerned with his neckwear than the stranger in his study.

"Let me guess," he drawled. "You'll remain anonymous until midnight, when all will be revealed."

"Typical of these entertainments, don't you think?"

"Lovely as you are, being in here isn't a good idea. I'm not the type to marry because I'm alone with a lady."

Mr. Ryland assumed she'd come here to entrap him? She wanted to laugh at the absurdity. The evening's ironic twist was too delicious.

"Oh, I'm no lady, Mr. Ryland."

His keen stare slanted her way.

"And I promise not to accost you, sir."

What possessed her to toss out those forward morsels? She may as well have dropped a succulent lure to a hungry fish.

There was a snick of sound, velvet rubbing on chintz from his body shifting toward her.

She sat taller, drawing on reserves of coolness. Armed with enticing anonymity, her hand eased its grip on the settee. There had to be a way to extract herself from this predicament, but his inflated belief that she sought to snare him needed an adjustment.

"You may find this hard to believe, bu...

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