Catching Caroline (Pride and Pleasure)
Pride and Pleasure
* * * * *
London, England 1818
As a thief-taker, Jasper Bond had been consulted in a number of unusual locations, but today was the first in a church. Some of his clients were at home in the rookeries his crew haunted. Others were most comfortable in the palace. This particular prospective client appeared to be one of strong faith since he'd designated St. George's as the location of their assignation. Jasper suspected it was considered a "safe" place, which told him this person was ill at ease with retaining an individual of dubious morality. That suited him fine. He would probably be paid well and kept at a distance: his favorite sort of commission.
Alighting from his carriage, Jasper paused to better appreciate the impressive portico and Corinthian columns of the church's fa?ade. Muted singing flowed outward from the building, a lovely contrast to the frustrated shouts of coachmen and the clatter of horse's hooves behind him. His cane hit the street with a thud, his gloved palm wrapped loosely around the eagle's head top. With hat in hand, he waved his driver away.
Today's appointment had been arranged by Mr. Thomas Lynd, a man who shared Jasper's trade and confidence for many reasons, not the least of which was his mentorship of Jasper in the profession. Jasper would never presume to call himself a moral man, but he did function under the code of ethics Lynd had taught him–help those in actual need of it. He did not extort protection money as other thief-takers did. He did not steal goods with one hand in order to charge for their return. He simply found what was lost and protected those who wanted security, which begged the question of why Lynd was passing on this post. With such similar principles, either of them should have been as good as the other.
Because Jasper had an inordinate fondness for puzzles and mysteries, he was too intrigued by Lynd's motives to do anything besides follow through. This, despite the location being one that necessitated his handling the inquiry personally, which was something he rarely did. He preferred to work through trusted employees to retain the anonymity necessary to his greater personal plans.
Mounting the steps, he entered St. George's and paused to absorb the wave of music that rolled over him. Near the front on the right side was the raised canopied pulpit; on the left, the bi-level reading desk. The many box pews were empty of the faithful. Only the choir occupied the space, their voices raised in musical praise.
Jasper withdrew his pocket watch and checked the time. It was directly on the hour. In his profession, he found it highly useful to be a slave to punctuality. He moved to the stairs that would take him up to the right-side gallery for his appointment.
When he reached the landing, he paused. His gaze was drawn to and held by wild tufts of white hair defying gravity. One hopelessly overworked black ribbon failed to tame the mass into anything but a messy, lopsided queue. As he watched, the unfortunate owner of the horrendous coiffure reached up and scratched it into further disarray.
So fascinated was Jasper with the monstrosity of that hair, it took him a moment to register the petite form beside its owner. Once he did, however, his interest was snared. In complete opposition to her companion, the woman was blessed with glossy tresses of a reddish-blond hue so rare it was arresting. They were the only two people in the gallery, yet neither had the tense expectation inherent in those who were awaiting an individual or event. Instead they were singularly focused on the choir below.
Where was the individual he was scheduled to meet?
Sensing she was the object of perusal, the woman turned her head and met Jasper's weighted gaze. She was attractive. Not in the exceptionally remarkable way of her hair but pleasing all the same. Deep blue eyes stared at him from beneath thick lashes. She had an assertive nose and high cheekbones. When she bit her lower lip, she displayed neat white teeth, and when her lips pursed, she revealed a tiny dimple. It was a charming face rather than beautiful, and notable for her seeming displeasure at the sight of him.
"Mr. Bond," she said, after a slight delay. "I did not hear you approach."
One could blame the choir's singing for that. However, the truth of it was that he walked silently. He'd learned the skill long ago. It had saved his life then, and continued to do so in recent years.
Standing, she moved toward him with a determined stride and thrust out her hand. As if cued, the singers below ended their hymn, leaving a sudden silence into which she said, "I am Eliza Martin."
Her voice surprised him. Soft as a summer breeze, but threaded with steel. The sound of it lingered, stirring his imagination to travel in directions it shouldn't.
He shifted his cane to his other hand and accepted her greeting. "Miss Martin."
"I appreciate your courtesy in meeting with me. However, you are exactly what I feared you would be."
"Oh?" Taken aback by her direct approach, he found himself becoming more intrigued. "In what way?"
"In every way, sir. I contacted Mr. Lynd because we require a certain type of individual. I regret the need to say you are not he."
"Would you object to my request for elaboration?"
"The points are too numerous," she pronounced.
"Nevertheless, a man in my position seeks predictability in others but fears it in himself. Since you state I am the epitome of what you did not want, I feel I must request an accounting of the criteria upon which you based your judgment."
Miss Martin seemed to ponder his response a moment. In the brief time of introspection, Jasper collected what his instincts had recognized upon first sight: Eliza Martin was intensely aware of him. Without her cognizance, her baser senses were reacting to him much the way his were to her: her delicate nostrils flared, her breathing quickened, her body swayed with the undercurrent of agitation… A doe sensing the hunter nearby.
"Yes," she said, with a catch in her voice. "I can see why that would be true."
"Of course it's true. I never lie to clients." He never bedded them either, but that was about to change.
"You have not been engaged," she reminded, "so I am not a client."
The man with the frightening hair intruded. "Eliza, marry Montague and be done with this farce."
With the voicing of that one name, Jasper knew why he'd received the referral and how little chance Eliza Martin had of dismissing him.
"I will not be bullied, my lord," she said firmly.
"Invite Mr. Bond to sit, then."
"That won't be necessary."
Skirting her, Jasper settled into the pew behind the one they occupied.
"Mr. Bond…" Miss Martin gave a resigned exhalation. "My lord, may I present Mr. Jasper Bond? Mr. Bond, this is my uncle, the Earl of Melville."
"Lord Melville." Jasper greeted the earl with a slight bow of his head. He knew of Melville as the head of the Tremaine family, a lot renowned for their eccentricities. "I believe you will find me to be highly suitable for any task in want of a thief-taker to manage it."
Miss Martin's blue eyes narrowed on him in silent reproach for attempting to circumvent her. "Sir, I am certain you are capable in most circumstances. However–"
"About the many points…?" he interjected, circling back. He disliked proceeding when there were still matters left unaddressed.
"You are overly tenacious." She remained standing, as if prepared to show him out.
"An excellent trait to have in my profession."
"Yes, but that doesn't mitigate the rest."
The earl's gaze darted back and forth between them.
She shook her head. "Can we not simply leave it at that, Mr. Bond?"
"I would rather we didn't." He set his hat on the seat beside him. "I have always taken pride in my ability to manage any situation put before me. How will I provide exemplary service if I can no longer make that claim?"
"Really, sir," Miss Martin protested. "I did not say you are unsuitable for your trade as a whole, only in regards to our situation–"
"A matter of some delicacy."
"I cannot assist you if I am ignorant of the details," he pointed out.
"I do not want your assistance, Mr. Bond. You fail to collect that."
"Because you refuse to explain yourself. Mr. Lynd thought I was suitable and you trusted his judgment enough to arrange this meeting." Jasper would pay Lynd handsomely for the referral. It had been far too long since he'd felt this level of interest in anything beyond his need for vengeance.
"Mr. Lynd does not have the same considerations I do."
"Sir, you are exasperating."
And she was fascinating. Her eyes sparkled with irritation, her right foot tapped against the floor, and her fisted hands moved often as if to rest on her hips. But she resisted the urge. He found her resistance most appealing. What would it take to break it and see her unrestrained? He couldn't wait to find out.
"I will compensate you for your time today," she said, "so all is not a complete loss to you. There is no need to continue this discussion."
"You overlook the possibility that I might have intended to assign a member of my crew to you, Miss Martin. I would, however, need to know what your situation is so I can determine whose skills would best suit your requirements." He intended to service her himself, but he wasn't above a little subterfuge when the prize was this delicious.
"Oh." She bit her lower lip again. "I hadn't considered that."
"So I noted."
Miss Martin finally sank back onto the pew in a movement of eminent grace. "Just so we are clear you won't do."
"It isn't clear." He set his cane between his legs and placed his hands atop it, one over the other. "At least, not to me."
She glanced at his lordship, then–reluctantly–back to Jasper. "You force me to say what I would rather not, Mr. Bond. Frankly, you are too handsome for the task."
He was stunned into momentary silence. Then, he relished an inner smile. How delightful she was, even when cross.
"Mr. Lynd was less conspicuous than you," she continued. "You are quite large and, as I said, far too comely."
Lynd was a score of years older and average in height, features, and build. Jasper looked to the earl and found the man staring at his niece with confusion. "I fail to see what bearing my face has on my investigate skills."
"In addition–" her voice grew stronger as she warmed to the topic of his faults, "–it would be impossible to disguise the air about you which distinguishes you."
"Pray tell me what that is." He was beginning to find it difficult to hide his growing enjoyment of the conversation.
"You are a predator, Mr. Bond. You have the appearance of one, and you carry yourself like one. To be blunt, you are clearly capable of being a dangerous man."
"I see." Fascination deepened to captivation. Perhaps she wasn't so innocent after all. He spent obscene amounts of coin on his attire, deliberately crafting an appearance so polished very few saw past it to the rough edges underneath.
"I doubt you would be effective at your profession if you were not possessed of both predatory and dangerous qualities," she qualified in a conciliatory tone.
"And many others," he offered.
Miss Martin nodded. "Yes, I suspect the trade requires you to be well versed in a multitude of skills."
"It certainly helps."
"However, your masculine beauty negates all of that."
Jasper was ready to move forward. "Would you get to the point, Miss Martin? What–exactly–did you intend to hire me to accomplish?"
"Quite a bit, actually. Protection, investigation, and… to act as my suitor."
"I beg your pardon?" Bond's voice rumbled through the air between them.
Eliza was flustered and out of sorts, and her state was entirely his fault. She had not anticipated that he would be so persistent or so curious. And she had certainly not expected a man of his appearance. Not only was he the handsomest man she had ever seen, but he was dressed in garments fit for a peer and he carried his large frame with a sleek, predaceous grace.
He also regarded her in a manner that would only lead to trouble.
To receive such an examination from a man who looked like Jasper Bond was highly disconcerting. Men such as he usually dismissed women of average appearance the moment they saw them. That was why she took such pains to be as unobtrusive in looks as possible. Why encourage responses she was ill-equipped to deal with?
Perhaps it was her hair? Her mother had posited that some men had a peculiar preference for specific parts of the female body and for tresses of a certain hue.
"Repeat yourself, please, Miss Martin," Bond said, watching her with those dark and intense eyes.
It was her curse to feel compelled to gaze directly at the person with whom she was speaking. She found it difficult to think quickly when awed by Jasper Bond's perfection. Stunning as he was from the shoulders down, he was more so from the shoulders up. His hair was as thick and dark as her favorite ink, and blessed with a similar sheen. The length–slightly overlong–was perfect for framing his features: the distinguished nose, the deep-set eyes, the stern yet sensual mouth. It was a testament to the way he carried himself that he could be so formidable with such a pretty face. He was very clearly not a man one wished to cross.
"I need protection–" she said again.
"I heard that part."
"And–" her chin went up, "–a suitor."
He nodded as if that were a mundane request, but the glitter in his eyes was anticipatory. "That's what I thought you said."
"Eliza…" The earl stared at his clasped hands and shook his head.
"My lord," Bond began in a casual tone. "Were you aware of the nature of Miss Martin's inquiry?"
"Trying times these are," Lord Melville muttered. "Trying times."
Bond's precise gaze moved back to Eliza. Her brow lifted.
"Is he daft?" Bond queried.
"His brain is so advanced, it stumbles over mediocrity."
"Or perhaps it's tangled by your reasoning in this endeavor?"
Her shoulders went back. "My reasoning is sound. And sarcasm is unproductive, Mr. Bond. Please refrain from it."
"Oh?" His tone took on a dangerous quality. "And what is it you hope to produce by procuring a suitor?"
"I am not in want of stud service, sir. Only a depraved mind would leap to that conclusion."
"Is that not what you are thinking?"
A wicked smile came to his lips. Eliza was certain her heart skipped a beat at the sight of it. "It wasn't, no."
Wanting to conclude this meeting as swiftly as possible, she rushed forward. "Do you have someone who can assist me or not?"
Bond snorted softly, but the derisive sound seemed to be directed inward and not at her. "From the top, if you would please, Miss Martin. Why do you need protection?"
"I have recently found myself to be a repeated victim of various unfortunate–and suspicious–events."
Eliza expected him to laugh or perhaps give her a doubtful look. He did neither. Instead, she watched a transformation sweep over him. As fiercely focused as he'd been since his arrival, he became more so when presented with the problem. She found herself appreciating him for more than his good looks.
He leaned slightly forward. "What manner of events?"
"I was pushed into the Serpentine. My saddle was tampered with. A snake was loosed in my bedroom–"
"I understand it was a Runner who referred you to Mr. Lynd, who in turn referred you to me."
"Yes. I hired a Runner for a month, but Mr. Bell discovered nothing. No attacks occurred while he was engaged."
"Who would want to injure you, and why?"
She offered him a slight smile, a small show of gratitude for the gravity he was displaying. Anthony Bell had come highly recommended, but he'd never taken her seriously. In fact, he had been amused by her tales and she'd never felt he was dedicated to the task of discovery. "Truthfully, I am not certain whether they truly intend bodily harm, or if they simply want to goad me into marriage as a way to establish some permanent security. I see no reason to any of it."
"Are you wealthy, Miss Martin? Or certain to be?"
"Yes. Which is why I doubt they sincerely aim to cause me grievous injury–I am worth more alive. But there are some who believe it isn't safe for me in my uncle's household. They claim he is an insufficient guardian, that he is touched, and ready for Bedlam. As if any individual capable of compassion would put a stray dog in such a place, let alone a beloved relative."
"Poppycock," the earl scoffed. "I am fit as a fiddle, in mind and body."
"You are, my lord," Eliza agreed, smiling fondly at him. "I have made it clear to all and sundry that Lord Melville will likely live to be one hundred years of age."
"And you hope that adding me to your stable of suitors will accomplish what, precisely?" Bond asked. "Deter the culprit?"
"I hope that by adding one of your associates," she corrected, "I can avoid further incidents over the next six weeks of the Season. In addition, if my new suitor is perceived to be a threat, perhaps the scoundrel will turn his malicious attentions toward him. Then, perhaps, we can catch the fiend. Truly, I should like to know by what methods of deduction he formulated this plan and what he hoped to gain by it."
Bond settled back into his seat and appeared deep in thought.
"I would never suggest such a hazardous role for someone untrained," she said quickly. "But a thief-taker, a man accustomed to associating with criminals and other unfortunates… I should think those who engage in your profession would be more than a match for a nefarious fortune hunter."
Beside her, her uncle murmured to himself, working out puzzles and equations in his mind. Like herself, he was most comfortable with events and reactions that could be quantified or predicted with some surety. Dealing with issues defying reason was too taxing.
"What type of individual would you consider ideal to play this role of suitor, protector, and investigator?" Bond asked finally.
"He should be quiet, even-tempered, and a proficient dancer."
Scowling, he queried, "How do dullness and the ability to dance signify in catching a possible murderer?"
"I did not say 'dull,' Mr. Bond. Kindly do not attribute words to me that I have not spoken. In order to be acknowledged as a true rival for my attentions, he should be someone whom everyone will believe I would be attracted to."
"You are not attracted to handsome men?"
"Mr. Bond, I dislike being rude. However, you leave me no recourse. The fact is, you clearly are not the sort of man whose temperament is compatible with matrimony."
"I am quite relieved to hear a female recognize that," he drawled.
"How could anyone doubt it?" She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. "I can more easily picture you in a swordfight or fisticuffs than I can see you enjoying an afternoon of croquet, after-dinner chess, or a quiet evening at home with family and friends. I am an intellectual, sir. And while I don't mean to imply a lack of mental acuity, you are obviously built for more physically strenuous pursuits."
"Why, one has only to look at you to ascertain you aren't like the others at all! It would be evident straightaway that I would never consider a man such as you with even remote seriousness. It is quite obvious you and I do not suit in the most fundamental of ways, and everyone knows I am too observant to fail to see that. Quite frankly, sir, you are not my type of male."
The look he gave her was wry but without the smugness that would have made it irritating. He conveyed solid self-confidence free of conceit. She was dismayed to find herself strongly attracted to the quality.
He would be troublesome. Eliza did not like trouble overmuch.
He glanced at the earl. "Please forgive me, my lord, but I must speak bluntly in regard to this subject. Most especially because this is a matter concerning Miss Martin's physical well-being."
"Quite right," Melville agreed. "Straight to the point, I always say. Time is too precious to waste on inanities."
"Agreed." Bond's gaze returned to Eliza and he smiled. "Miss Martin, forgive me, but I must point out that your inexperience is limiting your understanding of the situation."
"Inexperience with what?"
"Men. More precisely, fortune-hunting men."
"I would have you know," she retorted, "that over the course of six Seasons I have had more than enough experience with gentlemen in want of funds."
"Then why," he drawled, "are you unaware that they are successful for reasons far removed from social suitability?"
Eliza blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Women do not marry fortune hunters because they can dance and sit quietly. They marry them for their appearance and physical prowess–two attributes you have already established I have."
"I do not see–"
"Evidently, you do not, so I shall explain." His smile continued to grow. "Fortune hunters who flourish do not strive to satisfy a woman's intellectual needs. Those can be met through friends and acquaintances. They do not seek to provide the type of companionship one enjoys in social settings or with a game table between them. Again, there are others who can do so."
"No, they strive to satisfy in the only position that is theirs alone, a position some men make no effort to excel in. So rare is this particular skill, that many a woman will disregard other considerations in favor of it."
"Please, say no–"
"Fornication," his lordship muttered, before returning to his conversation with himself.
Eliza shot to her feet. "My lord!"
As courtesy dictated, both her uncle and Mr. Bond rose along with her.
"I prefer to call it 'seduction,'" Bond said, his eyes laughing.
"I call it ridiculous," she rejoined, hands on her hips. "In the grand scheme of life, do you collect how little time a person spends abed when compared to other activities?"
His gaze dropped to her hips. The smile became a full-blown grin. "That truly depends on who else is occupying said bed."
"Dear heavens." Eliza shivered at the look Jasper Bond was giving her. It was… expectant. By some unknown, godforsaken means she had managed to prod the man's damnable masculine pride into action.
"Give me a sennight," he suggested. "One week to prove both my point and my competency. If, at the end, you are not swayed by one or the other, I will accept no payment for services rendered."
"Excellent proposition," his lordship said. "No possibility of loss."
"Not true," Eliza contended. "How will I explain Mr. Bond's speedy departure?"
"Let us make it a fortnight, then," Bond amended.
"You fail to understand the problem. I am not an actor, sir. It will be evident to one and all that I am far from 'seduced.'"
The tone of his grin changed, aided by a hot flicker in his dark eyes. "Leave that aspect of the plan to me. After all, that's what I am being paid for."
"And if you fail? Once you resign, not only will I be forced to make excuses for you, I will have to bring in another thief-taker to act in your stead. The whole affair will be entirely too suspicious."
"Have you had the same pool of suitors for six years, Miss Martin?"
"Did you not just state the many reasons why you feel I am not an appropriate suitor for you? Can you not simply reiterate those points in response to any inquiries regarding my departure?"
"You are overly persistent, Mr. Bond."
"Quite," he nodded, "which is why I will discover who is responsible for the unfortunate events besetting you and what they'd hoped to gain."
She crossed her arms. "I am not convinced."
"Trust me. It is fortuitous, indeed, that Mr. Lynd brought us together. If I do not apprehend the culprit, I daresay he cannot be caught." His hand fisted around the top of his cane. "Client satisfaction is a point of pride, Miss Martin. By the time I am done, I guarantee you will be eminently gratified by my performance."