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 forego 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 final 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 find a buyer for it, I’ll be well-equipped to find 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 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 go-to man 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 lifestyle 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 a terre in Paris.
Give him something out of the ordinary.
Give him Jilly Jones.