Every woman dreams of saying “I do.” Jilly Jones did—and years of a deeply imperfect marriage followed. Now living in London and working in a charming bookshop, the free-spirited Jilly is perfectly content with her newfound independence…until she meets a dashing naval officer who sparks her longing for a real happily ever after.
Captain Stephen Arrow is just home after years of service, and he’s in no hurry to give up his hard-won freedom. The meddlesome bluestocking Jilly Jones is exactly the kind of woman he doesn’t need…But there’s something about her that keeps drawing Stephen back to the bookshop. With her sparkling wit and understated beauty, she seems like a surprisingly real match for Stephen. But will a scandalous chapter in Jilly’s past stand in the way of their heated attraction? For this bachelor, nothing is impossible…
An exclusive extended excerpt of Chapters 1-3 of Cloudy with a Chance of Marriage (Available April 26, 2011) by Kieran Kramer.
Books were Jilly’s great escape, but unless she chose to use them as missiles—which she’d considered but decided against as they were her source of livelihood now—even they couldn’t save her from the unpleasant task before her. She must stop the loud goings-on at the dead end of the cobblestone lane once and for all.
She walked up from a murky bed of fog that swirled thickly about her knees onto the front steps of 34 Dreare Street and knocked on the door. The sprawling three-story house was situated on a scrap of lawn at a right angle to her own shop. A tattered skull-and-crossbones flag hung listlessly against the roofline while a piece of wood painted with the words house for sale leaned against the aged foundation.
She knocked again and heard bumping noises and several loud male voices, one of them singing off-key.
Finally, the door opened wide. A gorgeous man with golden hair, dressed only in a cambric shirt and faded trousers, lofted his golden brow. “Thank God, it’s you.” His voice was like honey. “Miss Jones.” He swept a slow, warm gaze over her.
Of all the nerve!
Jilly was so taken aback by what she could only call his brazen maleness, she didn’t know what to say.
He chuckled. “I thought you might be the constable.”
And then he smiled and winked, as if he’d just asked her to meet him in the garden at midnight.
She blinked, which she was wont to do when she was flustered. “And . . . and how would you know I am Miss Jones?”
“Because you look terribly angry.”
He certainly didn’t. He looked the opposite. He looked happy, damn his hide.
“May I assume you’re the thoroughly undisciplined Captain Arrow?” she demanded to know.
“The very same.” He took out a cheroot and lit it. She’d meant her remark as an insult, but he made unruly behavior seem like an appealing state. “I only forgo discipline when I’m off duty, you know. What can I do for you . . . Miss Jones?”
Really. He was too much. Did he honestly think a woman with any brains in her head would fall for that kind of nonsense?
“Stop saying my name as if—” Oh, dear. She couldn’t finish that sentence, not if she were to remain a lady.
“As if what?” He gave her a wide-eyed, innocent look.
“Never mind.” She forced herself to inhale a breath through her nose. “There’s a man hanging out of your upstairs window.”
Now it was his turn to give a short laugh. “Lumley, probably.”
She blinked. “Aren’t you concerned?”
“No,” he said around the cheroot. “It’s a trick of his.”
“Well”—she shook her head and tried not to make her hands into fists—“I find it hard to work when I see a man hanging upside down out a window.”
Captain Arrow gave her a charming grin. “You’re not getting angry again, are you, Miss Jones? We moved onto Dreare Street on the same day, after all. That’s a special connection, don’t you think?”
She huffed. “Your sign makes clear you’ve no intention to stay. I do plan to make this my home. And I’m not angry. I want—”
“You want what?” Very well. She was angry. “I want to be able to look out my window and not see a man hanging upside down, that’s all!” She flung an arm in the direction of her store. “Who’s going to have a pleasurable browse for books when my neighbor holds parties night and day? You and your cohorts had just better not introduce any fallen women to the mix, or I’ll call the constable myself.”
“We already have,” he said, his expression angelic, “but the ladies leave discreetly through the rear so as not to cause a stir.”
Jilly gasped. “How dare you! The sooner you sell this place, the better.”
“I told you,” Captain Arrow said, “after the last letter you put through my door—”
“My fourth,” she interjected, running out of breath. “My fourth in six days.”
“Yes, your fourth,” he replied equably. “I had a courier deliver you a note in return—”
“You call a drunken man who falls through my door a courier?”
Captain Arrow looked abashed—yet somehow not. “This is an unusually complicated house party, Miss Jones. I beg your patience. On the one hand, my friends and I are celebrating my safe return from my fi nal voyage with the Royal Navy, during which I captured a notorious pirate. He was a ruthless murderer, so you must grant—”
“Your noble deeds don’t give you license to disturb the peace!”
“Nevertheless,” he went on smoothly, “at this house party we’re also mourning the fact that I didn’t receive the purse I should have. All that pirate gold seems to have vanished into other people’s pockets.”
“That’s your business, not mine—”
“Which brings me to the third reason for the house party. There’s hope yet for me to become a rich man. I’ve suddenly found myself the proud owner of this tidy mansion, and as soon as I procure a buyer for it, I’ll be well equipped to make my way through the world as a landlubber. In the meanwhile, the house needs christening, don’t you agree?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “No. I don’t. It needs paint. And you’re ruining my business.”
He chuckled. “I’m ruining your business? I should hardly think so. Perhaps your business needs a proprietress with a little more sport in her.”
He smiled, and one of his eyebrows flew up in a suggestive manner.
“Why,” she asked, ignoring his disgusting display of masculine allure, “would a respectable female wish to be sporting?”
“You’ll know once you try it. Come to my house tonight. We’re holding a small theatrical evening.”
“Over my dead body,” she said, even though she adored theatrical evenings. “Let’s get back to the point that forces me to venture over here—you’re disturbing the peace, sirrah.”
“Hardly. We’ve had no one running naked down the street in the last two days.”
“And not a single one of my guests has sung a word of any song outside.”
She put a finger to her mouth, pretending to consider his words, then dropped her hand. “You know, you’re right. They only sing in the house now—with the windows wide open. And sometimes”—she drew in a breath and said low—“the singer is wearing only a tricorne hat.”
“That’s Lumley again,” he said as if he were talking of the weather.
Speaking of which, didn’t this unrelentingly cheerful man notice they had bad weather here on Dreare Street? All the time?
Jilly’s heart was pounding so hard, she needed support. So she leaned forward and put her hands on either side of the door jamb. Captain Arrow leaned back a fraction of an inch.
“If I”—she whispered—“have to come over”—she pulled back to take a breath—“one more time—”
“Yes?” He leaned forward again. “What will you do?”
She closed her eyes a brief moment, then opened them and stared at him. “I’ll go mad.” It was as simple as that. “I’ll go stark, raving mad.”
Before he could answer her, she turned around and marched back to her store, directly through a plump cloud of fog that refused to be dispersed by the weak morning sun overhead.
Miss Jilly Jones.
Already Stephen adored her. He always did the outliers. Perhaps because he was one himself. Of course, his new neighbor was doing her best to be true to type. She excelled at appearing bookish. Prim. A bluestocking with no sense of humor. A woman to be avoided at all costs.
But no other prim miss he’d ever met had grasped door jambs and leaned into his face as if she’d like to bite his head off. He was a sea captain used to giving orders, not taking them, by God. This cheeky Miss Jones showing up flinging commands about was something new. Truth be told, he’d never met a woman as unmanageable, which made him admire her a great deal. It also made his blood hot for her. She was a challenge, that one. And Stephen never turned aside from a challenge.
Hadn’t he risen to the challenge of being named an Impossible Bachelor not long ago with his three best friends, Harry, Nicholas, and Charlie? And he’d come out of Prinny’s ridiculous albeit amusing wager unscathed, unmarried, and as unrepentant a bachelor as he’d ever been.
When Miss Jones left his front step, he instantly determined that he wanted to have a scorching flirtation with her. Other than sell his house, what else did he have to do?
He had a strict rule that he didn’t seduce virgins, so bedding her was out of the question. But imagine what creative machinations he’d have to go through just to steal a few kisses! Grabbing a delicious tendril of her hair and wrapping it around his finger would be practically out of the question unless he were good . . . very good. And if he could slip a hand up her gown at least to her knee, then his short stay on Dreare Street would go from being mildly entertaining to memorable.
This was one war he’d have to be very cunning to win.
He was crestfallen when she entered the bookstore and pulled the door shut without looking back out to see if he were still there. It was a good move. Pretend indifference to the enemy—shake their confidence. His own strategies would have to be put in place, he realized. Miss Jones was too substantial, obviously, to fall for his good looks alone, a fact which delighted him. Infatuated young ladies bored him.
He wanted a real dalliance. A real one, of course, engaged his mind.
And Stephen had a brilliant mind. He chose not to emphasize that point when he was out of uniform. It was something to do with his need to relax, to disengage, to not be the leader always. As captain of a ship in the Royal Navy, he’d always been at the center of things, interconnected by necessity to every man on board. It was an exciting but exhausting way to live.
Perhaps he was addicted to lack of sleep, loud noises, near-death experiences, and chasing enemies. Settling down in a quiet, peacetime navy held no appeal for him, which was why he was leaving it, despite the Admiralty’s hope that he’d take command of a man-of-war.
Neither was he tempted to resign himself to a subdued gentleman’s existence on land, complete with a demure wife, several adorable children, and a second career in banking or international trade.
Give him lots of money—more than his pension was worth—so he could live beholden to no one. Give him noise and bluster. Boxing and horse racing. Bawdy girls and boisterous men.
His own sailing vessel.
A pied-à-terre in Paris.
Give him something out of the ordinary.
Give him Jilly Jones.
In the late afternoon of the day of her useless conversation with Captain Arrow, Jilly heard a loud popping noise from his house. She looked up from smoothing a page in her nearly blank accounting book and saw a young man at a second-floor window drop a bag of water onto the pavement.
“Bull’s-eye!” the fellow cried.
A roar of approval went up from the group of well- dressed gentlemen gathered on the street.
Jilly sighed. For goodness’ sake, when would a constable ever arrive and throttle the lot of them?
“I often wonder,” she heard her clerk, Otis, remark to their lone customer of the afternoon, a small, elderly woman perusing a copy of Pride and Prejudice, “if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth had a few secret trysts before they made their nuptial vows.” He chuckled and looked into space. “Who could have resisted Darcy?”
“Well,” the elderly woman speculated, one hand to her lips, the other balancing the book, “I’m not sure—”
“If,” Otis interrupted her in dramatic tones, which made her nearly drop the book, “if Darcy were too much a gentleman to propose an illicit liaison, then don’t you think Elizabeth must have been driven so mad by desire that she seduced him instead?”
The old woman stared at him.
“It’s quite a titillating thought.” Otis took the book out of her trembling hands and placed it back on the shelf. “It’s our only copy,” he confided to her in an earnest whisper. “Let me show you something else.”
Dear God. Jilly watched her assistant sway gently down the aisle toward her meager collection of atlases, crooking a finger at the tiny woman to follow him. The shop would be bankrupt within a month if the mayhem persisted at Captain Arrow’s house and if Otis didn’t learn to sell books.
Her father’s ex-valet didn’t seem able to part with any of them, except for the atlases, but what was Jilly to do? She couldn’t cast him out in the cold, for heaven’s sake. He’d been devoted to her father and, after his death, her only trusted friend.
“You dress very well for an older man,” she heard the little lady rasp, “but you’re quite mad. Almost as mad as those people who live next door.”
A few seconds later, the bell at the front door tinkled, and the door shut with a loud bang.
“And you have a lovely day, too!” Otis fl ung after their lost customer with all the sarcasm a frustrated, impoverished bookseller could muster. “That atlas was just the thing for you, if you’d only listened to reason. And how dare you call me an ‘older man’? I’m not a day over thirty.”
“Otis,” Jilly called in a warning voice.
He’d been thirty for as long as she could remember. He twisted around to face her, his large feet crossed in outrageous saffron-colored shoes, his tailcoat swinging madly.
“But Lady Jilly!”
“Miss Jilly,” she corrected him.
“Oh, dear,” he apologized. “But what am I to do? She wouldn’t have appreciated Pride and Prejudice. She has no fire in her soul. I’m saving it for someone who has spirit, style, and good looks.”
Jilly blew out a breath. “Some of the worst villains and biggest fools have good looks,” she reminded him.
“Yes,” Otis returned smugly and touched the nape of his neck.
He believed himself to be quite good-looking, she knew. And he did have mesmerizing eyes, a jolting blue that was quite disconcerting. But he hardly filled his waistcoat, he was so thin. He also had knobby knees, a Roman nose that looked as if it had been broken several times but hadn’t, wispy gray hair that circled his ears, and a pate as shiny and bald as a baby’s bottom.
“I never said good looks alone.” He lingered on the last word, which was his tendency. “I also mentioned spirit and style. Or did you forget? Those gentlemen at the captain’s house have them in spades.”
Jilly marched past him with a small square sign, which she placed in the window. “That isn’t spirit and style,” she said. “That’s what happens when you buy a cask of brandy and invite your debauched friends over to drink it with you until it runs out. We must start selling books soon, or we’ll run out of money.”
The sign promptly fell over, and she adjusted it again until it was right. “I need a ledge beneath the window.” She brushed past Otis, wishing she had enough money to ask the carpenter who’d put in the bookshelves to come back and make the ledge. But she didn’t. She’d have to make do for a while, until profi ts started coming in.
Otis traipsed after her. “I abhor what Hector has done to you,” he said over her shoulder. “A lady should never worry about money. And she should stay far away from the taint of trade. We may thank Hector for this state of affairs.”
“Be that as it may”—she picked up a feather duster and swept it over a line of dictionaries—“please try to remember, the next time a dull, unattractive patron requests Pride and Prejudice, to acquiesce and allow him or her to purchase it.” She turned and faced him. “If you want to keep food on your plate.”
Otis made a moue of distaste. “I hate when you get dramatic. Of course I want food. Good food, too. It’s been a week since I’ve had a decent brioche.” He put his hand to his mouth, suddenly looking quite hungry. “I suppose I can part with Pride and Prejudice. But only—”
“No but onlys.” She strode past him with the feather duster and threw it in a cupboard filled with cleaning supplies, including a bottle of vinegar-and-water and the rag she used to shine the windows and the large, ornate looking glass her father had always had in his library. The rag she used to clean it was one of Papa’s old shirts, actually. She had a feeling he’d approve of her new endeavor were he alive to see it.
Comforted by that thought, she wet the rag with the vinegar-and-water solution and rubbed it in great circles around the looking glass. London was a smoky place. But even where she’d made a clean spot, the mirror appeared murky, able to reflect back only the meager gray light slanting through the shop windows.
The bell rang again.
“If you’ve come back for Mr. Darcy, you can’t have—” Otis said in a singsong voice then paused.
“Him,” he finished in a whisper.
The glow from the lamp cast over the books went from a watery yellow to a deep, burnished gold in a trice. And no wonder. Captain Arrow, who until this moment hadn’t deigned to grace their shop, was now blocking the doorway and the scant light coming through it. Not only that, he was grinning as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Maybe he hadn’t, which annoyed Jilly no end.
“Ahoy, Captain,” Otis said in an overly admiring voice.
The captain did have particularly gleaming white teeth set off by his swarthy tan, but Jilly did her best to ignore his sterling good looks. “I don’t believe we can help you,” she told her new neighbor, the rag still in her hand. “We’ve no brandy here. Only books.”
She knew it was self-pity making her churlish, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.
“I’ve come to reinvite you to the theatrics,” the captain said, ignoring her slight. “You and your assistant both.”
Otis bowed. “You do me a great honor. I am Mr. Otis Shrimpshire, bookstore clerk extraordinaire. And fashion connoisseur.” He waved a hand. “Not that it matters. Books are my business now.”
Captain Arrow seemed only slightly taken aback. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said in amenable tones. “And marvelous shoes, if I do say so myself, Mr. Shrimpshire.”
“Please call me Otis.” Otis positively beamed at him.
Jilly pursed her lips. “Thank you for asking, Captain, but we’re not interested in attending the theatrics.”
“I am.” Otis elbowed her.
She sent him a dirty look.
“Do come, Miss Jones,” Captain Arrow urged her. “One must make merry occasionally”—his face took on a noble, serious aspect—“even a stalwart woman of business such as you.”
Woman of business. She was that, wasn’t she? It was lovely to hear herself addressed with respect.
And stalwart. That was a good word.
“Yes, well—” she began, about to tell him that owning Hodgepodge was a massive responsibility she didn’t take lightly, then pulled herself up short.
He was making fun of her, wasn’t he?
There was a distinct twinkle in his eye.
“I’d rather be a stalwart woman of business than one of your silly lightskirts,” she snapped at him, and flicked the cleaning cloth at an invisible spiderweb. She would pretend it was the captain’s broad shoulder and that he was so cowed by her skill with the rag, he left her in peace and went home and became quiet and subdued for the rest of his life.
“The shocking female who owns this wretched store is right,” called an ugly voice from the door.
Jilly’s mouth dropped open. She ceased her rag-flicking and turned around to see who had freshly insulted her. A prune-faced elderly woman, her pinched mouth stained in cherry juice, shuffled into the shop and eyed them all with disdain. Her gown was elegant but unfashionable, and a small porcelain figure of a lady looking eerily like her—snooty and grand and diabolical—was hand-painted at the top of the Continental dress stick upon which she leaned.
“Your housewarming celebrations are ill-advised, Captain,” the woman continued. “You should take up your command again and go back to sea. The sooner the better.”
Jilly would have smiled triumphantly at the captain, but she was far too wounded by the woman’s scathing rhetoric about herself to bother.
“Do tell me you three simpletons already knew that despite its exalted location in Mayfair, Dreare Street is considered an unlucky address,” the crone uttered, her words slithering out like a curse.
There was a dreadful stillness.
What a thing to say! Otis gave a small cry and blinked madly. Jilly wanted to speak, but once again, she couldn’t find her voice. Captain Arrow appeared completely unperturbed. Perhaps his having dealt with pirates had something to do with that.
The woman thrust a withered finger toward Jilly. “You, Miss Jones, are the first to buy here in over thirty years. And Captain Arrow, you’re the first person to voluntarily accept your inheritance. I know for a fact that your second cousin thrice removed attempted to give the house to at least three other distant relatives of yours. None of them wanted it because it’s on Dreare Street.”
There was a beat of awful silence. Jilly’s head felt as if it would burst.
“No!” Otis flung a hand to his brow. “Why, God? Why us?” And he drew out an outrageously oversized lace handkerchief with which he covered his face and proceeded to burst into tears.
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jilly said to the woman, her indignation of monumental proportions. “We live here now. And we refuse to believe such nonsense.”
She’d already had her fair share of bad luck. She refused to have more.
“Nonsense?” The woman walked over the threshold. “Did you, the owner of a bookstore with a ridiculous name, say nonsense?”
Jilly’s eyes widened, but she nodded. That small figure at the top of the cane seemed to stare malevolently at her.
The woman stamped her walking stick and shook Jilly out of her trance. “Lady Duchamp doesn’t deal in nonsense. She’s too clever. And she knows that one should avoid fools.”
“Yes, but who are you, madam?” Otis asked.
The woman narrowed her eyes at him. “Why, Lady Duchamp, you idiot.” She turned to Captain Arrow next. “You’re disgustingly handsome. Aware of it, too, aren’t you? I’m sure you think staring at me as if you can see my underthings will charm me. But I’m not charmed. Not in the least.”
Jilly shared a look with Otis. Otis almost giggled but didn’t.
Captain Arrow stepped forward and kissed Lady Duchamp’s hand. “I find that women with tongues like adders usually have good reason for their vitriol, or at least did at one time. Consider me a friend should you ever need one, my lady.”
“Pah,” is all she said back, then lowered her brows. “I am the oldest resident on this street and the most put-upon. I despise everyone who lives here and only wish they had more bad luck than they already have. I hope a tree falls through your shop window in a storm, young lady, drenching all your books, and as for you”— she shoved a finger at Captain Arrow’s chest—“you and your loutish friends . . . I hope the pox visits your house and kills you all.”
“What about me?” Otis looked terribly offended at being left out.
Lady Duchamp pointed the end of her stick at him.
“You, sir, are already so pathetic, I can think of nothing to worsen your lot in life. You are the epitome of failure and misery.”
Otis looked well satisfied with the insult.
The old woman turned on her heel and walked away at a snail’s pace. They could have easily gone after her to deliver their own insults, but Jilly knew—and apparently Otis and Captain Arrow did, as well—that such a harpy would be impervious to any barbs.
Another beat of silence passed, broken only by the sound of Otis whimpering into his handkerchief again. Finally, he lowered it and looked accusingly at Captain Arrow. “You’re a sailor, and sailors are terribly superstitious. What do you plan to do now that you know Dreare Street is unlucky?”
Captain Arrow shrugged. “Sell the house as always.”
“But who will want it?” asked Jilly. “Who’ll want to buy a house—or books, for that matter—on an unlucky street?”
She felt such despair, she wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t burst into tears at any moment. But then she remembered how useless tears were, and the despair hardened into a knot of defiance in her stomach.
Captain Arrow looked at her with the bland con fidence of a man who seldom encountered misfortune—or if he did, quashed it. Perhaps with a broadside of cannon fire, or a saber, at the least.
“One can thwart any superstition by employing one’s wits,” he said. “I’ve defied every nautical superstition there is without mishap. I’ve set sail on Friday, thrown a stone into the sea, stepped on and off a ship left foot first, and conversed with a ginger-haired person before boarding, all to no consequence. It shall be no different on Dreare Street. I’ll sell the house and be on my way in no time.”
“You navy captains are so demmed confident!” Otis cried.
“And so should you be,” the captain insisted, slapping Otis on the back. “It’s a waste of time, putting credence in luck and superstition. One simply needs to use one’s own resources, and the world is your oyster. Is it not, Miss Jones?”
Of course, Jilly was reluctant to agree with him in any way, but she must. Here she was, the proud owner of a bookshop because she’d gone after what she wanted, which was wrong, according to the vicar in her home village. She was supposed to do only what the men in her life told her to do.
“You’re correct, Captain,” she said. “There is no such thing as bad luck. We make our own fortunes. Therefore, I declare with complete certainty that Dreare Street is not unlucky. Just because there’s an inordinate amount of fog in the morning, and a man next door who’s a disturbance to the peace, and no customers in Hodgepodge, and an evil old woman with a frightening walking stick—well, that doesn’t mean it’s unlucky. All that can be dealt with, I assure you.”
She crossed her arms and glared at her handsome neighbor. Woe to anyone who interfered with her plans for Hodgepodge. There was too much at stake for her to capitulate.
Thoroughly unruffled, Captain Arrow looked at her with a devastating smile on his well-defi ned lips—the kind of smile that would make any other woman swoon—and a slow-burning gleam in his golden eyes. It was as if he found her the most appealing woman in the world.
No doubt he looked at every woman that way, so Jilly refused to be flattered, even though her breath was a bit short and something depraved inside her wanted to eat him up, like a delicious pudding one licked off the sides of the bowl when no one else was looking.
She must suppress that thought immediately.
“Excuse me, Captain. I’m busy.” The rag-snapping had lost its luster, so when her eyes lit upon a book of poetry, she determined to read a line. Any line. She opened it to a random page, held it beneath her nose, and read:
To His Coy Mistress,
by Andrew Marvell
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
My goodness! She felt scandalized, but better that than be required to look at Captain Arrow. She allowed herself to peek at a few more lines:
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest—
“Enjoying yourself, Miss Jones?” Captain Arrow’s honeyed tones broke through her reverie.
She slammed the volume shut, her face flushed and her temples damp. What a naughty poem! The captain would no doubt adore it.
“No,” she said. “I’m not enjoying myself.” And she shoved the book back beneath at least ten others and made them into a neat pile. “I’m organizing my shop. It’s exhausting, time-consuming work.”
“All the more reason for you and Otis to come with me now,” her golden-haired nemesis said. “My friend Lumley has mixed a fine rum punch to fortify us during the performance. I assure you, our lady friends are absent, and every man is clothed”—Jilly turned scar-let—“and on his best behavior.”
Otis straightened his cravat. “I’m going.”
Jilly stomped her foot. “No, you are not.”
Otis stomped his foot back. “Come now. We need to welcome our new neighbors.”
“But we’re the new neighbors, too,” Jilly said.
“Exactly,” Captain Arrow replied, and held out his well-clad arm. He’d taken the time to put on a coat, a fine one that fit him like a glove. His cravat, she couldn’t help but notice, was a sartorial miracle. “An entertaining skit and one small cup of punch while you watch, Miss Jones. Perhaps we’ll bring better luck to Dreare Street if we all share a toast to it.”
She hesitated. Toasting their new abode did seem like a fine idea. Her father had taught her to toast when she was a small girl. Perhaps the ritual of toasting was just the tonic she needed to keep her more anxious thoughts at bay.
Besides, the captain’s boots were shined so bright, she could see books reflected in them, which was a pleasant sight. Her determination to avoid the man was temporarily forgotten.
“Oh, very well,” she said, removing her apron. “Just one small skit and a cup of punch.”
It had been so long since she’d indulged in any amusements.
Since well before she’d married the odious Hector.
She took the captain’s arm and prayed she’d continue to believe he wasn’t charming or intelligent in the least. She didn’t need a neighbor who would make her wish she wasn’t trapped in a bad marriage to an awful man. And she most definitely didn’t want a neighbor who would uncover her secret—
That she was a runaway wife hiding from her husband.
“Here is your seat of honor, Miss Jones,” Stephen said as he guided her to a faded armchair in the parlor where the theatrics were to be held. He handed her a glass of punch. Their fingers tangled, and she fl inched ever so slightly.
“It’s quite mild,” he assured her, pretending not to notice her reaction to his touch. It was a good sign, even if she did think she abhorred him. “I’m directing this piece, so I shall leave you two to be our audience. We invited Lady Duchamp and several other neighbors, as well, but no one responded.”
“Then they are fools, Captain,” Otis said. “This is a lovely home. It’s large and rambling—quite lopsided, in fact—but it’s full of people with spirit, passion, and style.”
“Do you agree, Miss Jones?” Stephen couldn’t resist asking her.
“I suppose I must,” said Miss Jones tartly, “if the compliment will hasten you back to your duties as stage director.”
He chuckled. “You’re rather a spitfire, aren’t you?”
“I’m nothing of the sort,” she said, and tossed her head.
He exchanged a look with Otis, who rolled his eyes, and left them. But from his position behind a potted palm near the front of the room, he watched Miss Jones focus on the stage. She was as guarded as ever, a vertical line on her brow. She took a tentative sip of the punch, and then several more.
No wonder. It was a delicious punch, Stephen’s own recipe.
Miss Jones’s eyes widened when he drew the curtain back and the actors appeared. His friends were dressed as women with coconut breasts, grass skirts, and awful wigs (all of which Stephen had accrued in various ports).
Miss Jones leaned forward in her chair and watched the players avidly. Her eyes sparkled at their witty repartee, which Stephen had written on a piece of foolscap that same morning. And then she laughed—a big, light, airy laugh—and clapped her hands madly at the conclusion.
Much to Stephen’s surprise, she’d turned out to be the type of audience member any playwright or actor would yearn for. In appreciation for her enthusiasm, the actors, led by Lumley, drew her up on their makeshift stage, which was really nothing more than an area of the drawing room emptied of furniture and rugs and flanked by standing candelabra. She immediately fell into the part they desired her to play, Queen of the Coconut Girls.
Otis begged to be allowed onstage as well, hopping up and down in his seat, so Lumley called him up and urged him to play the King of the Fire Dance.
Then someone began playing a set of small, primitive drums Stephen had purchased in the islands.
It was at that point, when Miss Jones began a lively dance, a wreath of flowers sliding off her head, that he realized his prudish neighbor was a bit tipsy. Of course, he’d planned for that. He’d had designs on her since he’d first seen her, but now—
Now he wasn’t so sure he should pursue them, at least that evening, not when she was in her cups.
Timing was everything. He knew that from the war. And now Miss Jones was pushing him out of the way to get to the window on the second fl oor so she could drop a bag of water on the target painted on the pavement outside 34 Dreare Street.
He was surprised he hadn’t noticed earlier that she had vivid black eyebrows made for drama. And glossy black hair done up in a tight knot begging to be unraveled. Her eyes, the startling violet-blue color of pansies, stared up into Stephen’s own with obvious plea sure.
“Watch this, Captain!” she cried lustily, and leaned out the window with her paper bag of water. The sun was just setting behind the massive holly bushes at the top of the street.
“Bull’s-eye!” She yelled her delight then drew her head back in the window. “Another! Get me another!”
Lumley and his cohorts raced to get her another bag while Otis clapped madly.
Stephen yanked Lumley to a stop. “What in bloody hell did you put in the rum punch?”
Lumley shrugged. “The usual.”
“The usual? For a lady? I said to make it strong but not that strong. Just enough to make her somewhat malleable to the suggestion that she’s out of order expecting us to be as goody-goody as she.”
Lumley had the grace to blush. “Well, you can’t taste the rum. Not with all that delicious coconut milk and bits of orange in it,” he said defensively and paused. “I like your Miss Jones. She’s the most sporting female I’ve ever met. You should do everything you can to stop being such a vast annoyance to her.”
Stephen glowered at him, but Lumley didn’t seem to notice. His impatient, determined expression suggested he had more important things on his mind, such as filling paper bags with water. He moved on to do Miss Jones’s bidding.
“I think it’s time you went home, Miss Jones,” Stephen said in his best captain’s voice.
She frowned. “Whatever for? We’ve all night. Stand aside, Captain, and let the true merrymakers have their way.”
She looked at him as if he were the dullest man on earth.
Stephen wasn’t used to being considered dull. In fact, the assessment quite wounded him.
And he also wasn’t accustomed to insubordination. He hadn’t tolerated it on board navy ships, and he certainly wouldn’t in his own house.
“Your store,” he said to Miss Jones. “It needs tending.”
“What do you know about it?” she said, fl agrantly defying him. “I’m the proprietress of Hodgepodge. I make all the decisions there.”
He turned a steely eye to Otis. “Doesn’t the store need attention, Otis?”
“Surely not, Captain.” Otis was wide-eyed. “It’s closed for the day.” And he turned his back on him and went skipping off to assist Miss Jones.
Good God. What was happening here? What ever it was, Stephen didn’t like it. He didn’t like it the way a sailor doesn’t like a red sky in the morning, which signaled squalls ahead.
He maneuvered himself closer to his two guests, which involved squeezing in between them at the window.
“It is a late hour,” he lied. Somehow without elbowing anyone in the ribs, he managed to take his watch out and observe the face in an obvious manner. “And I’ve got an early-morning meeting. Do go home now, Miss Jones. You’ll escort her, Otis?”
About an inch from Stephen’s face, Otis gave a sloppy salute. “Demmed right, Cap’n.”
That was better. Sort of.
Stephen gradually moved out his elbows so neither one had any room left and waited for the two of them to figure out his silent message. Somehow, they never did—Miss Jones almost hit him in the eye with her own elbow—but after three more plops, she’d had enough and decided to go home.
“Not to tend to Hodgepodge,” she said, eyeing him askance when she rose from her perch. “But because I’m tired.”
She took Otis’s arm, and he patted her hand. “I am as well. I think.”
Stephen watched the two of them walk ahead of him toward the stairs. But Otis’s shoe, adorned with gaudy rubies and pearls no doubt made of paste, had lost a heel, a fact its owner hadn’t noticed until now. He was so busy looking for it, he knocked over a small table, whereupon a tumbler of punch fell and hit him on the head.
Miss Jones screamed when her friend sank in a heap to the fl oor.
Stephen immediately went to him, checking Otis’s head and bending over to listen to his breathing and his heart. He stood and grinned at Miss Jones to reassure her. “Don’t worry. He didn’t feel a thing, and I think he’s snoring, actually, so he can’t be too bad off. I’ll get Pratt to escort him home later. You need to go home now.”
“Are you sure he’ll be safe for the nonce?” Miss Jones surprised him when she took Stephen’s much larger hands between her own and squeezed. “He’s my very special friend, Captain. Nothing can happen to him.”
Stephen—master flirt, commander of warships— was touched by her simple devotion to her eccentric companion. “He’ll be fine. I promise.”
“All right, then,” she said brightly, and dropped his hands. “We can go.”
Out on the street, he couldn’t remember the last time a female had looked at him so—with utter trust. Women often looked at him with nary a bit of inhibition, as she was doing now, as well. It stirred his blood. But the trust part disconcerted him. It made him feel noble, especially as she still had flowers in her hair and looked in need of saving.
“It was a fine party.” She yawned, and her bodice almost burst open with the effort, exposing the tops of her breasts. “What a shame it’s over.”
He thought back on the past week. He’d seen the way she’d peeked through her shop window to observe the boisterous goings-on taking place at his house. No one looked that often without wishing they were somehow involved in the merriment themselves.
“Tomorrow is always another day for a party,” Stephen said, suddenly encouraged—encouraged in a heated way—by her bodice and by her unusual complacency. He was a man, after all, a man who’d recently been on a long voyage with no women to charm him.
They stopped outside her door.
She looked up at him, and he was tempted—tempted even though if he were being sensible, he knew she was all wrong for him.
But the primal part of him reminded him she wasn’t all wrong, was she? He saw her lips, plump and pink and half parted. Why shouldn’t he kiss them?
Encouraged even further by her utter stillness—so unusual for an unmanageable miss— he leaned in an inch—
And she stepped back an entire foot. Defi nitely out of kissing range. Even out of hugging range.
Miss Jones opened her door, pulled it almost shut behind her, and peeked out. “I enjoyed the evening!” she said airily, and gave him a brilliant smile.
He had that same utterly lost feeling he’d had the first time he’d let a line accidentally slip through a cleat, leaving a sail flapping uselessly in the wind and out of his reach.
“I’m, ah, glad you enjoyed the punch,” he said. “It’s a special recipe from the islands.”
“Oh.” That grin again. “It was delicious. But the fumes made my nose prickle, so I poured some into the dead potted palm near the stage after the performance.”
“You mean when you were dancing and dropping bags of water . . . ?”
She nodded. “I was simply having fun. I think. I’m not quite sure. I’ve never had punch before. I feel—”
“Yes?” She had a certain longing look in her eyes that made him want to rip the door open and kiss her.
“I feel—” She hesitated and bit her lower lip. “I feel like . . .”
Dammit all, she felt as if she wanted to kiss him. He could tell.
She lifted her chin and suddenly looked noble and passionate, like Joan of Arc. “I feel like reading,” she said.
She nodded avidly. “Oh, yes. I do it every night before I go to bed.”
Bed. She shouldn’t have said that. He imagined her in a high-necked cotton night rail with a long row of buttons.
She let out a pleased sigh. “Yes, every night I read.”
Of course, on the ship, he read every night, too. But he’d much rather read the curves and sighs of a warm, willing woman, any day.
“I’m reading mythology this week,” she went on. “I adore Hermes.”
“The messenger god?” Stephen was doing his best to turn away from thoughts of undoing her buttons one by one.
“Yes.” She grinned. “The book I’m reading now has impressive illustrations of him. In one picture, he’s standing with his fists on his hips and one knee bent, and he’s laughing. It’s as if he’s looking straight at me.”
Stephen saw her eyes turn dreamy, and it wasn’t about him. It was about that damned Hermes.
“I suppose you’re not in your cups, then, if you can read about the gods tonight.” He scratched his head, most disappointed.
“Me?” Her nose wrinkled. “In my cups? Whyever would I be?”
Stephen felt extremely guilty of a sudden. “No reason.”
“I’m beginning to think you had a secret plan,” she said stoutly. “I should have stayed more on guard this eve ning.”
“I’m a wolf, am I?”
She closed the door a fraction of an inch. “We both know what you’re after, Captain.”
He moved forward and said into the crack, “Come back out here, Miss Jones, and tell me what that is.”
“No,” she replied in confident tones. “You already know.”
He sighed. “Can’t you be complacent again? As you were just a minute ago when you were yawning?”
“Complacent?” Her pitch rose a notch.
“Yes, dammit all. Complacent.” He felt like knocking his head against the shop’s stone wall.
“I knew it!” she cried. “You were trying to ply me with punch, so I’d stop complaining about the noise from your house. Either that, or so I’d become another one of your fancy women.”
“Miss Jones.” She’d guessed correctly, of course.
“Don’t ‘Miss Jones’ me.” She huffed. “You’re a sore loser. You could at least admit I’m right.”
“Very well.” He blew out a breath of frustration. “You’re a shrewd woman. Impossible to fool.”
“And you’re an intelligent man to recognize that fact.”
All evening he’d been thinking about the moment their fi ngers had met around that glass of punch. She was ripe for a man’s touch, and he was heady with longing to be that man.
“Now let’s go back to how you looked when we were navigating the corner,” he said in a husky whisper. “Happy. Sporting. Kissable.”
There was a beat of silence, but it was cut short by her predictable bluestocking gasp. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she hissed through the crack. “I told you I’ve no need to be sporting for you or anyone else. Nor shall I kiss you. Ever.”
The crack in the door became even smaller, but he noticed she didn’t shut it completely.
He leaned on the jamb and saw her eye, unblinking but narrowed. “It would be so much easier for both of us if you’d fall in line.”
That same eye grew wide and offended.
“Not in a million years,” she declared. “How can I sell books when you persist in tomfoolery? I enjoyed being Queen of the Coconut Girls and dropping those bags of water very much. But I’m wise enough to know there’s a time and a place for making merry, and doing so every night and day on a street where many other people live and work is not the time nor the place.” She paused a beat. “Good night, Captain. Please send Otis back when he’s feeling better, with both his shoes and his missing heel.”
She shut the door in his face.
In his face.
Stephen could hardly believe it. If anyone had done that on board his ship, they’d have been thrown into the ship’s brig. And when they were let out, made to scrub the decks with a tiny scrub brush until they gleamed.
Jilly leaned against the bookshop door and took a deep breath. Captain Arrow was a dangerous man. Thank God he was leaving Dreare Street soon.
Dancing on stage had made her giddy with delight. So had dropping bags of water out the window. Even walking home with the captain had made her happy. Possibly because he was breathtakingly handsome. And funny. He’d made clever jokes all night long, the kind that sometimes took a minute to ponder because his sense of humor was so dry.
Of course, she’d ignored them. She didn’t want him to think he was entertaining in the least.
She was on to his strategy: he’d confessed it himself. He wanted her to fall in line, to make her more malleable, to turn her over to his way of thinking. He believed one could take part in revelries whenever one wanted to, whether one had obligations or not. He wanted her to stop complaining and join his party indefi nitely!
Thank God she’d not succumbed.
“Oh, dear,” she muttered, and put her fingers to her lips. She couldn’t help thinking about how close she’d come to seeing things his way, when he’d put his mouth so close to the crack in the door and said the word kissable.
For a split second, she’d had visions of them doing just that. But then she’d remembered.
She was married already, and to a cruel, stupid man—a distant cousin, actually—who’d delighted in making her miserable while running through her father’s fortune. From his deathbed, Papa had acknowledged Hector was a crude sort of man, but he was also the true heir. He was kind to marry Jilly and not force her out of her own home, wasn’t he?
Jilly shuddered. If only Papa had known Hector’s true nature. He was the opposite of kind.
But it’s all right, a stalwart voice in her head reminded her. At least you’re free of him now.
Jilly’s mother had owned a small property independent of her husband’s estate. Thanks to the discretion of her family attorney, Hector had known nothing about it. Jilly had sold it off, along with a steady stream of precious family heirlooms, behind Hector’s back, to raise the funds to buy Hodgepodge.
And then she’d run away—in the middle of the night.
She’d been terrified, but the closer she’d come to London, the more exhilarated she’d become.
It was a new life for her. A new life for Otis, too.
Now she yawned and crawled into bed, comforted by the thought that someday she’d be able to go long lengths of time without thinking of her husband.
But she found she couldn’t sleep, and not because she was thinking of Hector. She was thinking about Captain Arrow again. They’d never gotten around to making those toasts to Dreare Street, had they?
“And we probably never will,” she whispered softly to herself. “Not if his aim is to ply me with punch.”
Even as she said it, she felt regrets about what couldn’t be. Because the evening had been unlike any she’d ever known. Diverting, joyful.
With many plops.
She thought back to the sheer exuberance she’d felt dropping those bags of water. And before that, the dancing between the fl aming candelabra, surrounded by men in grass skirts.
Hector would have hated every minute of it.
But thinking of him again made Jilly’s chest tighten with fear and loathing, so she closed her eyes and clutched her coverlet close, only to slip into a dream about coconuts and drums.
Copyright 2011 by Kieran Kramer
Kieran Kramer was born in Washington, D.C. to an Air Force pilot father and actress/singer mother. Having worked for the CIA and as a regional feature story writer and health columnist for The Charlotte Observer, Kieran is now a stay-at-home mom. She’s been married to her naval officer husband, Chuck, for twenty-one years. Visit her on the Web at www.kierankramerbooks.com to learn more.