Tempted At Every Turn Excerpt
Taken from chapter one…
“It won’t be too much longer,” Amelia Brindley said. She glanced at her husband. “I’m certain dinner will be ready momentarily.” She smiled warmly at Willow.
Willow Mabson nodded politely. Amelia was her best friend and she loved her, but she should have declined the invitation to dinner tonight. She needed to be home caring for her mother, instead of leaving poor Edmond to do so. Her brother had much more important things to do than watching over their irascible mother. However, she’d been in such a state this past week; someone had to sit with her at all times. Thankfully Edmond wouldn’t have to handle things alone for too long as their father was returning from his short trip tonight.
Forcing herself to focus on the present, she noted the parlor was ornate, but tasteful, decorated in soft golds and yellows. She should have felt calm and relaxed, yet she couldn’t shake her feeling of unease. Willow plucked a wayward string off her blue satin skirt. She didn’t have many evening dresses and it seemed silly to don one for a simple dinner with her friends. But propriety was quite clear on that matter. Besides she had no idea who else was invited tonight, Amelia had been quite mum about the details.
Willow glanced around the room, and noted Amelia and Colin exchanging knowing looks. Colin glanced at his pocket watch and nodded to his wife. The air was charged, something was amiss. Amelia and her husband, Colin, were far too suspicious.
“Precisely what are you two about?” she asked.
Amelia jumped slightly. Her hand flew to her neck where she fiddled with a necklace. “I haven’t the faintest notion to what you’re referring.” She smiled brightly at Colin who stood by the piano swirling the drink in his hand.
“Nothing at all,” he said stiffly.
Willow resisted the urge to roll her eyes. They were up to something. She was no fool.
There was a quiet knock on the door, then the Brindley butler, Westin, appeared. He cleared his throat. “An Inspector James Sterling has arrived. He said he would be in momentarily.” He bowed heavily, then stepped out of the room.
Willow came to her feet. Sterling? She shot Amelia a pointed glance as her heart inexplicably skipped a beat.
So this is what they were doing.
Amelia had offered to introduce them on several occasions, all of which, Willow had declined. She hadn’t wanted to meet him. Hadn’t wanted to make a fool of herself. Because she knew once they met, she would end up opening her mouth and chiding him for his flagrant lack of regard when it came to the rules and regulations of being an inspector with the Metropolitan Police.
Those very guidelines she’d had opportunity to view once, while visiting her cousin, who worked as a clerk in Yard offices. She’d only read through them as a matter of curiosity, but the instructions were clear and had been created to benefit both the people of London and the investigators. At the time she’d thought very highly of the head of the police for instituting such requirements. Without rules it was quite likely that the men working London’s streets would abuse their power and become corrupt and end up as criminals themselves.
Her cousin had told her that many of the investigators were disgruntled over the new rules. In fact, several of them had already voiced their disapproval of the system. Primarily one by the name of James Sterling.
She’d nearly forgotten his name and the regulations she’d read until one day while reading the paper, a small article had caught her attention. So over the past two years, she’d followed his cases in the Times and on more than one occasion–well, if she were honest, on several occasions–she had sent him a letter, anonymously, of course, detailing all of the areas where he neglected to follow the rules. Some of the information she’d gathered from her cousin, so she was privy to a few details that the average Times reader was not.
At first, she’d merely sent harmless inquiries into how he’d solved this case, or how he’d uncovered this bit of evidence. If she were honest, she knew it was none of her concern, that she was simply being nosy. Although it seemed to her that as a citizen of London, she had the right to know how the police managed their investigations. Besides her cousin had been more than willing to fill her in on any gossip from his work and had informed her that Inspector Sterling often had complaints filed against him. She’d created a way for him to respond all the while keeping her identity a secret, but all of her inquiries went unanswered even though, which frankly, had annoyed her, so she’d altered her tactic.
She’d foolishly believed he’d find her suggestions instructive. However, it had become increasingly clear the inspector had either failed to receive her letters or was blatantly ignoring them. Willow had a great deal of confidence in Her Majesties’ postal service therefore one could only assume Mr. Sterling felt himself above helpful criticism.
It was Amelia’s fault, really, if it were not her insistence that they start the Ladies’ Amateur Sleuth Society, Willow would never had bothered reading those bits in the newspapers–
James Sterling swaggered in as if he himself had invented arrogance. It dripped off him and made her palms itch. He wasn’t at all how she’d envisioned him. And she had envisioned him, only she’d wanted him to be short and fat and wrinkled, not tall and athletic and positively dashing.
Willow shot Amelia an annoyed look which her friend sweetly ignored.
“James,” Amelia said with a smile. She walked towards him and he graciously bent his head over her hand.
“Amelia, you look as lovely as always.” The deep timbre of his voice feathered across Willow’s skin and she had to remind herself to keep her mouth closed. She took a deep breath in a vain effort to try to ease the chaos that had erupted in her stomach.
The two men exchanged pleasantries and Amelia met Willow’s gaze and winced slightly. Were Amelia not full of good intentions, Willow might be angry, but it was awfully hard to be angry with someone as kind as Amelia. But this really was testing Willow’s patience and good will.
“James, might I introduce you to my dear friend.” Amelia led him over to stand in front of Willow. “Miss Wilhelmina Mabson, Inspector James Sterling.”
She put her hand out as respectability demanded, but he when nodded absently over it, she snatched it back before was customary. He raised his eyes to meet hers and cocked his left eyebrow.
“Most intrigued, Miss Mabson,” he said.
Dismissed again. Just as he’d done with her letters.
He was far more foppish than she would have imagined. His suit was at the pinnacle of fashion, making her all too aware of the faded fabric in her own dress. She grabbed a handful of her skirt and now wished it were a much larger dinner party so that she could shrink to the background.
His clothes were certainly well-tailored, but he was no dandy. Far from one. For one, his hair was too long, it brushed the tops of his shoulders, and had not a drip of smoothing cream in it. He did not look like a dandy. He looked…dangerous. Well-dressed, but dangerous. Willow swallowed.
She turned to Amelia. “Might I have a word with you,” she said her voice coming out much softer than usual. “In private,” she added.
Amelia practically beamed. “Of course.” She linked arms with Willow and led her out into the hall. And then her dear friend had the audacity to blink at her with innocent eyes. “What?” she asked sweetly.
Willow frowned. “What? What do you mean what? You know very well what.”
“James?” She waved a hand in front of her. “Oh, he’s harmless. I thought it would be best for the two of you to meet. Clear the air, so to speak.”
Her lip curled unconsciously. “Honestly, Amelia.” She would have to concentrate to keep her mouth shut tonight else say something she would really regret. She fully acknowledged that she should never have started sending those letters, but things had gotten out of hand. Her pride had been wounded. She was certainly used to people ignoring her based on her appearance as she wasn’t considered handsome by today’s standards, but when it came to her mind, she did not like to be dismissed.
Amelia held one finger up. “He is handsome, don’t you agree?”
“I most certainly do not agree.” She tugged on the hem of her jacket. Yes, he was handsome. Outrageously so. Which, frankly, made the entire situation all the more humiliating. Had she ever thought meeting him was an actual possibility, she never would have sent that first letter. But at the time Amelia had not met Colin and James Sterling was just a name to her.
“I know he’s arrogant, Willow.”
“And reckless,” Willow pointed out.
“Yes, reckless. But he’s a decent man, not the devil you believe him to be.” Amelia tilted her head. “If you wish to leave, you may, I shall make up an acceptable excuse so to not embarrass you.”
Willow couldn’t do that. Her friend had gone to all this trouble, and Willow had already been unkind. Sure, she had no wish to befriend the inspector, but she refused to be any more inconsiderate to Amelia than she already had been. She needed to be kind, keep her mouth shut and get through the evening without embarrassing herself or Amelia.
“I’m not leaving. I should like to see what the cook has prepared.” She smiled at her friend.
“Shall we?” Willow said.
“Yes.” Amelia took a step forward. “Oh, and Willow-”
Willow held up a hand. “I shall endeavor to be kind to the man.”
It was quite evident that Amelia was suppressing a smile, but she merely nodded and opened the parlor door.
“My dear,” Colin said. “Dinner is ready.”
“Very good.” Amelia stepped to her husband’s side and linked her arm with his. An action that left Willow awkwardly standing in the doorway as if she were nothing more than a frail wallflower waiting for an escort.
Far be it from her to play the pretty maiden, she turned and followed her friend.
But Inspector Sterling was quick to find his way to her side. “Miss Mabson, please allow me to escort you to the table.”
Willow forced a nervous smile. “I don’t believe I’ll lose my way, but thank you.”
He chuckled at her response, but linked her hand into the crook of his elbow, then draped his hand lightly over hers.
They said nothing else as he led her to her seat, and Willow concentrated on her steps so that she would not stumble.
Several quiet moments passed after they were all seated as they waited for the first course to be served. Willow was quite aware that a particular set of eyes were on her, but she refused to look in his direction. She pushed her spectacles further onto her nose and examined her empty plate.
“Thank you both for coming. Our two dearest friends,” Amelia said, glass high in hand. “To each of us.”
Willow quickly raised her glass and nodded. Finally the hot food was served and Willow was relieved to have somewhere to focus her attention. The aroma of pork and potatoes reached her nose and her stomach grumbled in response.
“So tell me James, how fairs it at the Yard these days?” Colin asked.
Willow kept her head down. If she paid no attention to the discussion, she could keep her mouth shut, not say anything she would regret. Not say anything about her anonymous letters, or why he refused to acknowledge them.
James gave his friend a scowl. What were these two about tonight? And who was the less than charming Miss Mabson? Certainly not Amelia’s vain attempt to match him with one of her spinster friends. James released a deep breath. As if his life weren’t complicated enough.
“Randolph is still on my back,” he finally answered.
“So you’re still working with Finch, I gather?” Colin asked.
“Working under him,” James corrected. No reason to pretend the situation was anything other than what it truly was.
“How much longer for your probation?” Amelia asked.
“As long as Randolph decides, I suppose. I’ve asked repeatedly and I never get a clear answer. I decided my next plan is to ask him on a daily basis. Perhaps if I annoy him enough he’ll come to his senses and give me my old post back,” James said.
It was then that Miss Mabson looked up from her plate and locked gazes with him. Even behind her spectacles he could see the chocolaty depths of her intelligent eyes. She wasn’t precisely smiling, but he detected a slight movement of her lips. Was she smirking? But before he could be certain, she looked away.
What was this woman about with her mysterious expressions and dismissive attitude? He’d never before had a woman dismiss him so coolly, so unaffectedly as she’d done when he’d offered to escort her into the room. It was as if – as if she were immune to his charm. He hated to boast, but he had yet to meet a woman who could resist him. It wasn’t vanity; it was simply experience that had taught him that women found him engaging, charming and appealing. Clearly this woman was unbalanced in some fashion. Perhaps she couldn’t see well, thus the spectacles, and could not see his features clearly.
He pulled his gaze off her and focused on Colin. “I suppose he could have paired me with someone other than Finch. At least Finch recognizes my abilities and doesn’t treat me like a dolt. Just the same, I much prefer working on my own.”
Colin held up his drink in a salute. “Precisely the reason I left the Yard.”
“No, you left the Yard because you don’t like people in general,” James corrected. He leaned back in his seat. “I simply don’t want anyone to tell me what to do. They can work with me so long as they allow me to use my own techniques.”
A small choking sound erupted across from him.
“Willow, are you quite all right?” Amelia asked.
“Quite,” she said tightly.
Willow wasn’t an unattractive female, although he’d certainly seen finer specimens. But she had a pleasing figure as best he could tell in her excessively modest evening gown. It wasn’t cut low enough to reveal any hint of cleavage, as was customary, but he could see enough to recognize a sizeable chest. She wasn’t overly thin or particularly plump, but she looked soft in those places where a woman ought to be soft.
He’d never met a woman who wore spectacles, but they seemed to fit her. He could appreciate a well-shaped mouth that, were it on any other woman in the world, he would have assumed was made for sin. On Miss Mabson, he imagined she clucked her tongue in disapproval on more than one occasion. A pity.
“We’re finishing up a counterfeiting case right now,” James said. “Not very interesting, I’m afraid. Nothing more than a bloke who took advantage of one of the abandoned buildings down on the docks and figured he’d print his own currency.”
He looked up at Miss Mabson.
“I was merely curious as to whether or not it is appropriate for you to discuss active investigations with regular citizens?” Her lips pursed. “Would not such behavior be frowned upon?”
He was beginning to wonder if this entire evening was some sort of jest. He glanced at Colin and Amelia who looked as confused as he felt. “I’m speaking to a former Yard detective, I don’t suppose that matters much.”
“Amelia and I are also in the room, surely that is against the rules,” she countered.
He gave the lady one of his lazy smiles. “I’m not overly concerned with the rules.”
“Clearly not, since your supervisor saw fit to put you on probation.” Her tone was still even, sweet sounding, but James sensed there was more fire lurking below.
“My supervisor doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” James said.
“Surely he has some elevated skills else he would not have been given his position with that rank.”
“I think, Madam, that you speak of much that you know very little about,” he said through tight teeth.
“You would be surprised what I know.” She tossed her napkin onto the table and her eyes blazed. “You disregard propriety as if the rules were nothing more than guidelines developed on a whim of boredom,” she said. “Were it not for these rules, much of our civilization would be in chaos.”
His stomach jolted. He’d heard those words before. “What did you say?”
She had the grace to look slightly guilty. “Chaos,” she repeated. “I believe without structure chaos would surround us.”
“No, not that, the other thing you said.”
She folded her arms over her chest.
He knew those words. That exact phrase about disregarding propriety. He’d seen it only this morning. In that bloody letter. This small scrap of a woman that hid behind her tongue and a pair of spectacles. She was responsible for all of those anonymous letters.
Well, that was simply too good to be true. He chuckled at first, but then released a full-fledge laugh. Slowly, he stretched his legs out in front of him not caring if he kicked her foot with his own. “I knew you’d be a woman,” he said with a smile.
The crease between her brows deepened. “I beg your pardon.” Her speech was so refined, so crisp.
“The letters, Miss Mabson. Do you think me dense?” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “Don’t answer that. I received your most recent one just this morning.”
“You said you’d stopped, Willow,” Amelia whispered.
“I did,” Willow said softly. “It was just this once.”
“You knew?” James asked Amelia.
She smiled sheepishly.
“What the devil is everyone talking about?” Colin asked.
James didn’t take his eyes off Willow. “Did you want to explain it, or shall I?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “I think I will. I wouldn’t want you to leave out any details. The lovely Miss Mabson has been sending me anonymous letters for some time now. Letters that criticize everything from my technique at solving cases to my record keeping. I’m rather surprised she’s never commented on my choice in clothing.”
“Well, had I known,” Willow blurted out. “I don’t suppose any of the other inspectors dress in such a fancy manner.”
He said nothing, merely eyed her steadily.
“Had you responded to my first letter,” she stammered. “I did not criticize, at least not originally. I merely had some questions. But you,” she pointed at him, “ignored me. You don’t answer to your supervisor, and evidently you don’t answer to the good people of London.”
So that was what lit her ire. Well, he wasn’t ignoring her now. “As you mentioned before, it really isn’t appropriate for me to discuss investigations with people who do not work for the Yard.” He loved tossing her words back at her.
Her eyes flared.
He chuckled. He’d love to see that passion, that fire, put to something more pleasurable and productive. “There is one thing I’ve been curious about. How do you get all your details? You know things about the investigations that are not printed in the papers.”
Her lips tightened into more of a line, if that were possible. “I will not tell you that.” She shifted in her seat as if uncomfortable. “Perhaps you did not owe me an explanation, but you could have, at the very least, acknowledged my letters. It is the polite thing to do. Be that as it may, your disregard for proper procedure is flagrant, at best,” Willow pointed out.
“I appreciate your concern, but I can assure you that regardless of my methods, I am quite capable of solving my assigned cases. Some might even say I’m rather accomplished at my job.”
“Were I to have the same resources the Metropolitan Police offers you…” her sentence trailed off without her completing her thought.
He leaned forward and scraped at the day’s growth on his chin. She was bold, but he could beat her at her own game. “I do believe you’re making quite a daring assumption, Miss Mabson. You seem to imply that you might be better than I at solving these dastardly crimes and catching criminals,” he said.
“I did not say that,” she said.
“Oh, but you seem to have been insinuating precisely that. Or were you simply boasting?”
He’d hit a nerve. He smiled.
“No, I was not boasting,” she said, her voice lined with defiance.
“Then you believe you could solve a case?”
She eyed him for several moments before she finally nodded, almost begrudgingly. “Yes, I do.”
“Very well,” James said.
She actually smiled then and her white, even teeth stopped the words of his response. With a true smile in place, she was actually pretty. Very pretty. It was unfortunate she was so opinionated. Whatever happened to the demure young miss who did nothing more than smile sweetly and nod? Apparently women like that were in a shortage. Not that he’d actually be interested in such a creature. Far too boring.
She was quite pleased with herself, that much he could tell. But it was time to challenge her hand. It was time to call her bluff. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the gloves he’d stashed there earlier and tossed them onto the table.
Her eyebrows arched. “You challenge me to a duel? They have been illegal for quite some time, as I’m sure you know,” she said, quite satisfied with herself.
“Yes, I do know. And no, not a duel. At least not one with pistols. I would hate for such a lovely creature to die at my hands. Rather a duel of the wits. Skill against skill. The first case I’m given, once I’m released from probation,” he added. “We will battle to see who can solve it first.”
Amelia gasped. “She’s rather gifted, James, you might want to reconsider.”
Amelia was a kind soul and she was good for Colin, but her sweetness often blinded her to the truth of the matter. And with this, she saw her dear friend as an actual threat to James’s detecting skills. It was laughable, but he restrained himself. Besides it was unlikely the prim and proper miss would actually accept his bold dare.
“Thank you for the warning, Amelia, but I will take my chances. That is if Miss Mabson agrees to a little friendly competition.” He turned his glance back to the lady in question. “That is if she’s brave enough to prove herself. Or perhaps she’s second guessing her abilities.”
“If you think me frightened, Sir, rest assured I am not.” She made eye contact, and didn’t look away for quite some time. This woman meant what she said, which James found amusing.
“I do have a question, though,” she said. “How am I to solve a case when I am not privy to the kinds of investigative details you will have? Not quite a fair challenge.”
He shrugged. “I will share all of my information with you. You take the information and do with it what you will. You follow your precious rules and I shall solve the case with my own techniques and whoever solves it first is the winner.”
He could see her fight an internal battle. She wanted to do it, that much he surmised, but something was holding her back. No doubt that shield of propriety she had hanging around her neck. His mother would love her. And were that not such a terrifying though, he might have found it amusing.
“What say you, Miss Mabson? It might give you ample opportunity to point out all the errors of my ways. Surely you can’t decline such an opportunity.” He had her there. He was goading her and she was going to accept, he could feel it on the charged air between them. He should have stopped why he’d been ahead.
She took a deep breath and nodded. “Very well, Inspector, I accept your challenge.”
Copyright © 2007. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.