Rubbing his midriff and grinning, Michael slipped down Anglesey’s interior marble staircase. He hadn’t expected interference from the servants when he’d brought the brat in the back way and ordered them to outfit her appropriately. He made it a point to know the servants in any place he visited, and Lady Blanche’s servants in particular. They looked after her like the parents she didn’t have, and they understood that Michael had the lady’s best interests at heart. Of course, they didn’t understand Fiona’s presence, but that wasn’t his immediate concern.
His immediate concern was the Lady Blanche herself. He was a trifle nervous about facing her after all this time. But if anyone could help him pry information out of his obstinate stray, Blanche could. They’d shared mischief in the past. He hoped she would enjoy a little adventure.
From the direction of the estate office drifted the lilting voice Michael remembered with such pleasure. “No, Beamis, I will not sell the Wilmington acreage. Did you not hear me clearly the first time?”
Michael frowned. He’d never heard the lady’s voice raised in anger before. He distinctly remembered her as mild-mannered and ever courteous.
“But Lady Blanche, it is naught but rock and wood and of no use to anyone at all but poachers, His Grace said.”
“You may remind the duke that the acreage is mine to do with as I wish, and I do not wish to sell it.”
Michael hesitated, not wanting to interfere in a business discussion, but all his protective instincts clamored for him to halt the harassment of a lady in the name of her noble cousin. The intrusion of a third voice caused him further pause.
“My lady, we could use the proceeds from the sale for expanding the mine in Cornwall, as we discussed earlier. Your grandfather would have.”
“I am not my grandfather, Barnaby! I have reason to keep the acreage and reason for not expanding the mine, and no need for explaining either. If you can do nothing better than badger me with the wishes of yourselves or my cousin or my grandfather with no care to what I want, than I shall be better off without the lot of you!”
Astonished, Michael presented himself at the office door. Two obviously harassed men, one in country tweed and the other in tradesman’s drab, stood hats in hands before a wide desk. Behind the desk sat the dainty woman Michael remembered well.
Wisps of sunny hair drifted from her coiffeur, framing sky blue eyes. But the rounded cheeks he’d once admired had reddened into drawn, angry patches, and the blue eyes appeared a glacial gray as she glared at her steward and man of business. Rose lips formed a humorless line above a small chin tilted in defiance. Michael advanced into the room. “Why don’t you just kick them in the balls and get it over with, my dear lady?” he asked with good cheer. “Men deal with physical pain much more stoically.”
* * *
The startling appearance of her knight in tarnished armor dashed all thought of business out of Blanche’s head. Michael! After almost two years, the wretched O’Toole dared to sweep back into her life as if he’d left only yesterday. She stifled an urge to dive over the desk and scratch his laughing eyes out.
He was more devastatingly handsome than she remembered. The years had sculpted his features into sharp cheekbones and lean jaw. Only the absurdity of his gloriously auburn hair and the laughing crinkle of his eyes softened his harsh features. She cast a quick glance at the breadth of strong shoulders she remembered too well, then forced herself to look away.
His ribald remark had left her men of business gaping with horror, but Blanche rose to his provocation. “Shall I take a pistol ball to your hide and discover the truth of that, O’Toole?”
Undeterred, Michael swept around the desk, produced a nosegay from his pocket, and flourished it before kissing the scar along her hairline. “Pistols at dawn, if you require, but I’d much rather take one to Neville than your dainty self.”
He gestured toward their audience. “Wouldn’t it be much simpler to just tell the gentlemen that you prefer feeding the poachers than letting your neighbors set traps for them? And I suppose the working conditions in the mine have deteriorated again to the point that you must visit the foreman and cut off his head before you give him one more ha’penny?”
“O’Toole, will you get away from me with your blarney and take these blasted flowers and shove them back in my garden where they belong?” Refusing to fall for Michael’s charms as she so stupidly had once before, Blanche glared at their gaping audience. “You’re both dismissed, and you may take this layabout with you when you go.”
With that, she rose from her chair and glided toward the escape of her private apartments behind the public office.
Before the two burly men could manhandle him out the door, Michael called after her. “If I leave, you’ll have to look after Fiona. I’m afraid she’s a bit of a handful, but she’s too far from home to return now!”
Blanche halted with her hand on the door to freedom. “Fiona? One of your strays, I presume?” she asked tartly.
He grinned. “Of course.”
Unconsciously, she raised fingers to a brow knitted with the pain of this day and too many others like it. “Leave him, Beamis. I may as well deal with one more nodcock before this day’s over.”
Intelligently, the beefy steward dropped Michael’s arm.
Michael waited until the two men closed the door behind them before speaking. “We meet again, my lady.”
“It’s been what? Two years?” she asked wearily. “And you just pop in and act as if it were yesterday. Who the devil is Fiona and what am I supposed to do with her?”
Michael rolled his shoulders beneath the ill-fitting frock coat. He knew he wasn’t a careless person. He’d looked after the duke’s wealthy granddaughter at a time when he’d thought she needed it, as Fiona did now. Of course, unlike his usual strays and orphans, Lady Blanche had any number of people who could have looked after her, but she’d been vulnerable after the fire that had almost taken her life. She couldn’t trust anyone else back then, but she’d trusted him. And then, when she hadn’t needed him anymore, he’d moved on.
He hadn’t forgotten her, but he’d rather thought a titled lady would have forgotten him. But oddly enough, she seemed to be accusing him of neglect.
“I’m not entirely certain what Fiona is quite yet. I thought you might help me,” he answered honestly, having no other reply.
“As if I have nothing else better to do,” Blanche answered with bitterness. “Why bring her here? Surely you have any number of other women to whom you could take her.”
For the first time in memory, Michael’s instincts failed him. She possessed every treasure known to mankind: beauty, wealth, intelligence, the sunniest nature he’d ever been blessed to know. What had happened in the two years since he’d seen her last?
“I could take her to Gavin and Dillian, I suppose, but they’re so wrapped up in the new addition to the family and the renovation of their mansion that I didn’t like disturbing them. I thought you might enjoy a bit of adventure,” he admitted. ”If not, then I’ll take her into London myself. She’s a bit nervous about traveling with a strange man, so I’ve pretended to believe she’s a boy until we arrived. She’s utterly terrified of something, and I’m afraid she’ll bolt now I’ve exposed her disguise.”
“Tell me, O’Toole, do you make it a practice of rescuing every helpless female who crosses your path?”
“I thought you rather enjoyed learning to play hide-and-seek with me in Gavin’s ridiculous fortress after the fire. Admittedly, you were never as terrified of your arsonists as you should have been, but you should appreciate the need to help those in trouble. And to answer your question, no, I don’t limit my practices exclusively to females,” he answered with pretended insouciance.
“Not exclusively females,” she murmured, taking in his tattered state of dress.
Michael resisted shifting from one foot to the other beneath her contemptuous glare. He didn’t remember her minding his carelessness before. He should have found a starched cravat and a more respectable coat. He knew where Neville kept his wardrobe.
“Do I have a choice?” she asked. “If I remember correctly, you go where you want and do as you please.”
He leaned his hip against the sill, crossed his arms, and offered a bland smile. “I think you are in need of a little reprieve from your duties, my lady. A court jester is just the solution. Why don’t you call for a nice cup of tea, and I’ll bring Fiona to you?” He watched her waver.
“I’ll be in the gold sitting room. Bring her there. And see if one of Neville’s coats won’t fit you better. If they see you looking like that, the maids will think you a chimney sweep.”
She swept out, apparently meaning to leave him feeling even smaller than before. Instead, Michael rubbed his jaw. Gavin hadn’t mentioned anything amiss with his wife’s lovely cousin, but then Gavin wasn’t inclined to notice anything but his fields. Well, he had nothing better to do than dig to the bottom of the mystery while resolving Fiona’s problems.