Excerpt: A Suitable Replacement
“If you drop that crate, I will take you to the roof and drop you from it,” Max said as the worthless moving men made to do precisely that, as though the damned box was not clearly marked ‘fragile’ in precisely twelve places.
They turned surly looks toward him but changed their minds about whatever they’d wanted to say, carefully setting the box down on the spot he’d marked before fleeing the room. Cowards. Huffing, Max went over to inspect the crate, but it seemed undamaged. When he gave it a jostle, nothing clinked or rattled in a way it shouldn’t.
Satisfied, he returned to his spot in front of the cloth-draped desk and crossed his arms over his chest as he watched the movers bring in the rest of the laboratory crates and chests. When that was at last accomplished, he said, “Now you may begin on the rest of the rooms. Work from the upstairs down, and you had better not break anything. Am I clear?”
“Yes, my lord,” the group of half a dozen men mumbled before scurrying off to get it done.
Max removed his spectacles and pulled a cloth from his jacket to clean them, frowning as a stubborn speck refused to be immediately banished. Finally defeating it, he tucked the cloth away and restored the spectacles to his nose. He looked around the room that was to be his laboratory, making mental note of all the changes that would have to be made: shelves and cabinets added, the rugs removed, curtains and furniture removed, minus the desk, additional tables added—
The sound of something slamming against the doorframe made Max jump. “Where the bloody hell is she?”
Max turned toward the door, ready to tear apart whoever was tearing about his house in such ridiculous fashion. He planted his hands on his hips—
And froze, lips slightly parted, words forgotten. Whatever he had expected, it was not a bloody highwayman. He looked precisely like all the absurd penny story images of a highwayman: dark, dashing, dangerous. Given he had not heard so much as a creak until the man had chosen to make himself known, the description might be more accurate than Max liked.
The man was tall, and the breadth of those shoulders was absolutely absurd. He skin was so dark it was more black than brown. A handsome face, sharp cheeks and broad nose, large brown eyes. His hair was cut quite close to his head. Max had briefly taken up with a woman who kept her hair that way; he had loved to run his fingers over it, back and forth and back again. Max wanted to do it to the man before him, then stroke the lines of his face, the sharp cut of those cheekbones and that mouth. Ridiculous. Who needed lips like that? Max wanted to bite them.
Damn it all, he hated distractions—especially good-looking ones that were glaring hard enough Max was grateful the man did not appear to be carrying a weapon. “Who the bloody hell are you and what are you doing in my home?”
“I want to know where the hell my intended is and why she has decided to vanish without so much as a word to me,” the man replied, biting out each word. His eyes were the brown of good coffee, as irritatingly distracting as the rest of him.
He began to cross the room, and Max decided that, distracting or not, he’d had enough. He reached behind himself and grabbed one of the books that had already been unpacked, lobbing it at the man, who caught it and dropped the book to the floor. Max started to throw another, and the man rushed in, grabbing his wrists tight enough he was forced to drop the book.
“Violence, sir, will accomplish nothing,” Max said, lifting his chin.
“You tried to strike me first.”
Max scoffed. “You came barging in here without so much as a by-your-leave. I would assume from your dress, if not your absent manners, that you do understand the concept of a calling card? I am not certain what you expected to accomplish crashing in here bellowing about a woman you’ve yet to name. Now, who the devil are you, and why are you bothering me?”
The man scowled as he let Max go. “You look just like her! Where is she?”
“Oh, bloody hell,” Max muttered as the pieces fell into place. Of course the delectable, if snarly, highwayman belonged to Mavin. “You must be the fiancé.”
“In theory, but it is hard to be half of an engaged couple when the other half has been missing for three weeks.”
Max drew back, eyes widening, mouth opening, then snapping shut, before he finally managed to get out, “What are you talking about? I got a letter from Mavin a fortnight ago that seemed to indicate she was still right here!”
“She vanished three weeks ago, immediately after the Forte ball,” the man bit out. What the bloody hell was his name? Something that did not provoke images of dark and stormy highwaymen, to be sure. “I have been attempting to find her, but all I get is vague reassurances from her friends that all is well.”
That sounded alarmingly familiar. Damn her. Why did he have to be the twin brother of such a reckless ninny? He was going to choke Mavin with her own hair ribbons when he found her, and this time it was not going to be an idle threat. “I am her brother, not her keeper, and she mentioned nothing to me of vanishing.”
“I want to know where she is! Why she has abandoned me like this? Is she safe? Is she running from something?”
Max almost posed she might be running from her affianced, but honestly the man did not actually seem dangerous, simply … loud and slightly dramatic. Much like Mavin. “Sir, I wish I could provide you an answer, but she made no mention to me of any untoward plans. I thought she was about in the city; indeed I planned to call upon her this very evening. I’ve arrived a few days early and thought to surprise her. We look alike, sir, but that is where our similarities end.”
“Yes, I can see that,” the man replied.
The words should not sting, but in all his thirty-three years Max had never deduced how to make them stop hurting. No, he was not his sister, but honestly wasn’t one of her enough? Heaven knew one was enough for him. “You have overstayed the welcome you never had to begin with,” Max said. “Show yourself out.”
“I’m not going anywhere—”
Max reached into his jacket and pulled out his pistol. “You will depart.”
To his astonishment, the man looked amused more than anything. Max wanted to shoot him for that alone. “I want to know where my fiancée is,” the man replied. “I’ll return in the morning, and you will receive me.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” Max said, but it was for naught as the bastard had already departed as quickly as he had arrived.
He tucked the pistol back into his jacket and decided he had best go make certain the damned movers had not broken the china or put his books in the dining room. Running a hand through his hair, he strode toward the door—and stopped just in time to avoid running into a man in blue and gold livery. “Who the devil are you, and why are so many strangers just traipsing about my house?” he demanded.
“Beg pardon, my lord,” the man said and dipped into the most elegant bow Max had ever witnessed. The few royals he’d endured had not bowed that well. “My name is Hugh, and Master Moore bid me remain here and assist you howsoever you require, in recompense for his behavior.”
Well. That was unexpected. “I see. Go nail the front door shut, then, so I don’t have to fret over who I am going to trip over next.” He noticed belatedly that the man held out a salver, upon which was a calling card. Picking it up, he murmured a thanks as Hugh departed.
Master Kelcey Moore
113 Dogwood Row
Kelcey, that was the name. Max tapped the card against his lips. Definitely not the name of a highwayman. Pulling out his silver card holder, he tucked it away as he went to go yell at the movers; he might be three floors up, but he still knew a dropped crate when he heard it.