"I must be completely honest with you, Mr. Chillhurst." Olympia folded her hands on top of her desk and peered at Jared. "I have hired three tutors in the past six months. None of them stayed longer than a fortnight."
"I assure you I shall stay as long as is necessary, Miss Wingfield." Jared sat back in his chair, propped his elbows on the upholstered arms, and regarded Olympia over his steepled fingers.
Bloody hell, he thought. He could not take his gaze off her. She had fascinated him from the moment he had walked into her library.
No, he realized, his fascination had begun the other night in that grimy French port tavern when Artemis Wingfield had described his unusual niece. Jared had spent the entire trip across the channel speculating about the woman who had managed to locate the Lightbourne diary. Various members of his own family had spent years attempting to discover it and had failed. What sort of female had beaten them all to it, he wondered.
Even allowing for his curiosity, however, he still did not understand the strange shock of awareness that had gone through him when he had seen Draycott seize Olympia. The sensation that had washed through Jared in that moment had been deep and disturbing, almost savage in its intensity.
It was as if he had walked into the room and discovered his woman being mauled by another man. He had wanted to strangle Draycott. At the same time he had been outraged at Olympia's obvious lack of common sense. He had longed to shake her and then drag her down onto the carpet and make love to her.
Jared was dazed by the strength of his feelings. He recalled his emotions the day he had found his fianc'ee, Demetria Seaton, in the arms of her lover. His reaction on that occasion had not been nearly as violent as what he had experienced today.
It made no sense. There was no logic to it.
But even knowing that, it had taken Jared mere seconds to make his reckless decision. In a heartbeat he had tossed aside his coolly conceived, eminently logical plans. All thoughts of purchasing the diary and its secrets and then returning to his business affairs vanished in an instant.
With a breathtaking, completely uncharacteristic disregard for common sense he had consigned the Lightbourne diary to hell. A mundane business arrangement was the very last thing he wanted to enter into with Olympia. Indeed, he could not bear the thought.
He wanted her. Wanted her.
Once that blazing realization had struck him all that had seemed important was that he discover a way to stay here in the vicinity of his enchanting siren. He needed to explore this fierce, powerful, passionate attraction if it was the last thing he did on earth.
Nothing else mattered quite as much, not his sensible plan to secure the diary and thereby put an end to his family's pursuit of it, not his far-flung business affairs, not even tracking down the person who was systematically embezzling from him.
His family, his business affairs, and the damned embezzler could all take care of themselves for a while. For the first time in his life he was going to do something he wanted to do and the devil with his responsibilities.
With his customary ruthless intelligence he had grasped the obvious solution to his new dilemma and presented himself as the new tutor. It had been remarkably easy, almost as if fate itself had taken a hand.
It was only now that he had had a chance to reflect upon his stunning impulsiveness that Jared wondered if he had lost his wits.
Still, he could not bring himself to regret his rash action. He knew very well that the twist of desire in his gut and the sensation of heat in his veins were dangerous threats to his much-prized self-control. But for some reason he did not care a jot about the risk.
That very lack of concern amazed him more than anything else that had happened thus far. The one thing Jared had always valued above all was the calm, cool, logical approach he applied toward every aspect of his life.
In a family where everyone around him had always appeared to be at the mercy of their passions and whims, self-control and cold restraint had offered Jared inner peace and a reassuring sense of order. He had mastered his own emotions so thoroughly that lately he had begun to question whether he even had any left.
Now Olympia Wingfield had proven to him that he did. She was definitely a siren, he thought. One who did not yet know her own power.
It was not her beauty that had sliced through the armor that had shielded him for so long. He recognized that Demetria had been far more elegantly beautiful.
But Olympia, with her wild, sunset-red hair, expressive features, and eyes the color of a hidden lagoon, was something other than beautiful, Jared thought. She was exciting. Intriguing. Vivid. There was an innocent charm about her that was more alluring than he could ever have imagined.
It seemed to him that her entire slender, gently curved body sang a silent, sensual song beneath the modest muslin gown she wore. The Reginald Draycotts of the world would have to go elsewhere for female companionship for a while, Jared decided. He wanted Olympia and he did not intend to allow any other man to come close while he, himself, was under her spell.
Even caught as he was in the gossamer web of curiosity and fascination, Jared could not help but notice that Olympia had a rather disorganized and disheveled air about her. From the muslin cap that sat askew on her fiery hair to the cotton stocking that had come free of its garter and slipped down to her ankle, there was a cheerfully distracted quality to her attire. She had the appearance of a woman caught between the everyday world and some fabulous landscape that only she could see.
She was an obvious bluestocking, clearly doomed to be left on the shelf, but she showed every sign of being content with her fate. Jared could well believe that she relished her spinsterhood. By now she had undoubtedly discovered that there were very few men who could understand, let alone share, her private inner world.
Olympia bit her lip. "It's very kind of you to promise to stay and I'm certain you have the best of intentions. The thing is, my nephews are somewhat difficult to manage. They have had some trouble settling in here, you see."
"Do not concern yourself, Miss Wingfield. I shall manage them." After years of dealing with wily men of business, belligerent ships' captains, the occasional pirate, and the unpredictable members of his own family, the prospect of dealing with three rowdy young boys did not alarm Jared.
For an instant a hopeful expression lit Olympia's magnificent blue-green eyes. Then she suddenly scowled. "I trust you do not mean to try to control my nephews with floggings, Mr. Chillhurst. I will not allow them to be beaten. They have suffered quite enough in the two years since they lost their parents."
"I do not believe that one should control either a boy or a horse with a whip, Miss Wingfield." Jared was mildly surprised to realize he was repeating something he had overheard his father say years ago. "Such methods serve only to break the spirit or create a vicious streak in the victim."
Olympia brightened. "Precisely my sentiments. I realize that many people believe in such old-fashioned techniques of discipline but I could never countenance them. My nephews are good boys."
"They have only been in my care for six months," Olympia continued. "They were handed off from one relative to another after their parents died. By the time they landed on my doorstep, they were quite anxious and very dispirited. Hugh still suffers from the occasional nightmare."
"I realize they are somewhat undisciplined. But I am greatly relieved that in the past few months they have started to become more cheerful. They were much too quiet during those early weeks. I consider their present high spirits a good sign that they are happier now."
"They very likely are happier," Jared allowed.
Olympia's laced fingers tightened together. "I knew just how they felt that day when their aunt and uncle from Yorkshire left them with me. I had experienced the same dreadful loneliness and apprehension myself when I was deposited on Aunt Sophy's doorstep."
"How old were you at the time?"
"Ten. After my parents were lost at sea, I, too, was passed around from one relative to another, just as my nephews were. No one really wanted to be bothered with me, although some tried to do their duty."
"Duty is a poor substitute for affection."
"Very true, sir. And a child knows the difference. I eventually wound up here in Aunt Sophy's house. She and Aunt Ida were both past sixty at the time, but they took me in and gave me a real home. I am determined to do the same for my nephews."
"Very commendable, Miss Wingfield."
"Unfortunately I do not know much about raising young boys," Olympia admitted. "I have feared to discipline them because I have not wanted to make them feel unwanted or unwelcome."
"An orderly routine and reasonable discipline do not make a young boy feel unwanted or unwelcome," Jared said quietly. "Indeed, just the opposite is the case."
"Do you think so?"
Jared tapped his fingertips together. "It is my opinion as a tutor that a firmly established schedule of lessons and instructive activities will greatly benefit your nephews."
Olympia heaved a small sigh of relief. "I would certainly be very grateful to have this household restored to some semblance of order. I vow it is very difficult to work with all the noise and the dashing about that goes on these days. I have not been able to write a single paper in the past few months. It seems as though some crisis is always occurring."
"Last Sunday Ethan brought a frog to church. You would not believe the commotion it caused. A few days ago Robert tried to ride a neighbor's horse without a saddle and got thrown to the ground. The neighbor was furious because he had not given Robert permission to ride the beast. I was terrified that Robert had been seriously injured. Yesterday Hugh got into a fight with little Charles Bristow and the young man's mother created a dreadful fuss."
"What was the fight about?" Jared asked curiously.
"I have no notion. Hugh would not tell me. But he got his nose bloodied and I was very worried that it might be broken."
"I take it Hugh lost the fight?"
"Yes, but that is neither here nor there. The important thing is that he got into a fight in the first place. I was quite alarmed. Mrs. Bird said I should take a switch to him, but I certainly will not do that. In any event, that is a small sampling of what life has been like around here every day for the past few months."
"And there always seems to be so much noise," Olympia continued unhappily. "It is always like Bedlam around here." She rubbed her brow. "I confess that it has been somewhat trying at times."
"Do not concern yourself, Miss Wingfield. You are in good hands. I shall establish an orderly household routine for the boys that will enable you to carry on with your work. Speaking of which, I must say I am very impressed by your library."
"Thank you." Momentarily distracted by the comment, Olympia glanced around the room with pride and affection. "I inherited the majority of my books from Aunt Sophy and Aunt Ida. In their younger days they traveled widely and they collected books and manuscripts everywhere they went. There are many, many treasures in this room."
Jared managed to drag his gaze away from Olympia long enough to examine her library more closely. The room was as unexpected and intriguing as the woman herself.
It was a scholar's retreat, crammed with volumes, maps, and globes. There was not a book of pressed flowers or a sewing basket in sight. Olympia's desk was a large and substantial item of furniture made of highly polished mahogany. It bore no resemblance to the delicate little writing tables most ladies used. In fact, Jared thought, it reminded him of his own library desk.
"About your position here, Mr. Chillhurst." Olympia frowned uncertainly. "I suppose I ought to ask for references. Mrs. Milton, a neighbor of mine, has informed me that one should never hire a tutor who does not provide excellent references from several sources."
Jared glanced back at her. "Your uncle sent me. I assumed that would be sufficient recommendation."
"Oh, yes." Olympia's expression cleared. "Yes, of course. What better reference could you possibly have?"
"I'm glad you feel that way."
"That's settled, then." Olympia was obviously relieved not to have to worry about such pesky details as a tutor's references. Her eyes grew wistful. "You say you met Uncle Artemis in France?"
"Yes. I was en route to England from Spain."
"You have been to Spain?" Olympia was obviously entranced. "I have always wanted to go to Spain. And to Italy and Greece."
"I have been to all of those places, as it happens." Jared paused to study her reaction. "And to the West Indies and America."
"How thrilling, sir. And how I do envy you. You are, indeed, a man of the world."
"Some would say so," Jared agreed. He was only a man, he thought with rueful amusement. He could not help but be warmed by the light of feminine admiration that he glimpsed in the siren's eyes.
"You are no doubt well versed in the customs of the inhabitants of other lands, I should imagine." Olympia looked at him expectantly.
"I have made a few such observations," Jared said.
"I consider myself a woman of the world because of the excellent education I received from my aunts," Olympia confided. "But I have never had the opportunity to actually travel abroad. My aunts were not well off in their later years. I get by on the small inheritance I received from them but it is certainly not enough to finance an interesting journey."
"I understand." Jared smiled slightly at the notion of Olympia as a woman of the world. "Now then, there are perhaps one or two small matters we should discuss about my position in this household, Miss Wingfield."
"I'm afraid so."
"I thought we'd settled everything." Olympia sank back into her chair. She heaved a sensual sounding sigh that in another woman might have been mistaken for passion. "I have never met anyone who has traveled as widely as yourself, sir. I should dearly love to ask you a great many questions and to verify certain facts that I have gleaned from my books."
Jared realized that she was gazing at him as though he were the most handsome, the most fascinating, the most desirable man on the face of the earth. No woman had ever looked at him with such unabashed longing. She did not even appear to mind his sightless eye.
He had never considered himself a skilled seducer of women. For one thing he had simply been too busy since the age of nineteen to devote much time to the matter. And, as his father had often pointed out, he seemed to lack the Flamecrest fire.
It was not that he did not experience the normal male appetites, Jared thought. He was only too well acquainted with them. He was very aware of what it was like to lie awake late at night and hunger for a warm, loving woman.
The problem was that it was not his nature to become involved in a series of shallow affairs. The few he had had over the years had left him feeling restless and dissatisfied. He suspected his partners had felt very much the same. As Demetria had taken pains to point out, once one got past his title and expectations, there was nothing very interesting left to discover.
But today some deep masculine instinct told Jared that it would be quite possible for him to seduce Olympia Wingfield. She would not require poems and bouquets and smoldering looks.
All he had to do was ply her with travelers' tales.
He considered just how he would proceed with the seduction. She would no doubt smile at him for the story of an adventure in Naples or Rome. She would likely melt for a tale of a voyage to America. There was no telling what she would do if he gave her a story of a journey to the West Indies. His body grew hard as he contemplated the possibilities.
Jared took a deep breath and clamped down on the hot, aching need that had seized his insides. He did what he always did when he felt his self-control slipping. He reached into his inside coat pocket for his appointment journal. He was aware that Olympia watched with interest as he opened it to the page that contained his list of notes for the day.
"First, we should discuss the shipment of goods your uncle entrusted to my care," Jared said.
"Yes, of course," she said briskly. "It was very kind of you to escort the shipment to me. Uncle Artemis and I have worked out a very profitable arrangement, as I expect he explained to you. He selects a variety of interesting items in the course of his travels and ships them back to me from various points along the way. I, in turn, sell them to some London merchants."
Jared tried and failed to envision Olympia as a shrewd merchant of imported luxuries. "Do you mind my asking how you go about finding a buyer for your goods, Miss Wingfield?"
She gave him a sunny smile. "It is really quite simple. One of my neighbors, Squire Pettigrew, has been kind enough to assist me in that regard. He says it is the least he can do out of respect for my dear aunts who were his neighbors for so many years."
"Just how does Pettigrew handle the goods?"
Olympia waved her hand in a vague gesture. "I believe his man of affairs in London sees to all the details."
"You are satisfied that Squire Pettigrew's man of affairs strikes a good bargain?" Jared persisted.
Olympia chuckled. She leaned forward with an air of imparting a deep confidence. "We realized a sum of nearly two hundred pounds off the last shipment."
"Is that right?"
"Of course, that was an exceptional shipment. Uncle Artemis sent several lengths of silk and a large variety of spices on that occasion. I doubt that we'll do as well this time."
Jared thought of the approximately three thousand pounds worth of goods that he had accompanied from France. He had been obliged to hire two burly men to act as guards after the ship had docked in Weymouth.
Jared withdrew a piece of folded foolscap from his journal. "This is a copy of the list of goods your uncle sent to you this time." He handed the paper to Olympia. "How does it compare with the last shipment?"
Olympia took the sheet of paper from him and perused it with a distracted frown. "I cannot recall all of the items on the previous list but there does not seem to be quite as much lace this time. And I do not see any of those Italian fans Uncle Artemis sent with the last lot."
"There are several bolts of silk and some velvet in this shipment," Jared pointed out softly.
Olympia lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug. "Squire Pettigrew tells me that unfortunately the market for silk and velvet is not strong at the moment. All in all, I expect we shall probably not do quite as well as we did on the last shipment. Nevertheless, we'll see a nice bit of the ready out of it, as my nephews would say."
Jared wondered how long Squire Pettigrew had been systematically fleecing Olympia. "I have had some experience with the business of importing goods, Miss Wingfield."
"Have you, indeed?" She looked at him with polite surprise.
"Yes." Jared reflected briefly on the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods that filled the holds of Flamecrest ships every year. "If you like, I can deal with this shipment for you."
"That's very generous of you." Olympia was clearly overwhelmed by his helpfulness. "But are you quite certain you wish to undertake such a task? Squire Pettigrew tells me it is a very time-consuming business. He says one must be constantly on the alert for swindlers."
"I expect he knows what he's talking about." Jared privately considered that Pettigrew certainly ought to recognize another swindler when he saw one. "But I believe that I can do at least as well for you as Squire Pettigrew has done in the past. Perhaps better."
"You must take a suitable commission out of the proceeds, of course."
"That will not be necessary." Jared's calculating brain skimmed over the problem, weighing and assessing the task. He would entrust the goods to his man of affairs, Felix Hartwell. When he sent instructions to Hartwell, he would utilize the opportunity to inquire about any progress that might have been made in the embezzlement situation. "I shall consider the task part of my normal duties as a tutor in this household."
"You will?" Olympia stared at him in amazement. "How very odd. None of the other tutors offered to extend their services outside the classroom."
"I trust you will find me useful about the place," Jared said softly.
The door of the library opened abruptly to admit a stout, sturdy female in an apron and cap. She held a tea tray in her work-reddened hands.
"Here, now, what's all this about a new tutor?" She glowered at Olympia. "Are ye going to blight the hopes and dreams of yet another poor soul who believes he can instruct those little monsters?"
"My nephews are not monsters." Olympia gave the older woman a disapproving frown. "Mrs. Bird, this is Mr. Chillhurst. Uncle Artemis sent him to me and I believe he is going to prove extremely helpful. Mr. Chillhurst, this is Mrs. Bird, my housekeeper."
There was nothing about Mrs. Bird that put one in mind of a delicate, winged creature of the air, Jared thought. She was a robust woman with a heavy face and a large nose who looked as if she had spent her entire life with both feet flat on the ground. There was a look of wary suspicion in her faded eyes.
"Well, well, well." Mrs. Bird set the tray down on the desk with a clatter. She peered at Jared as she poured the tea. "So those three hellions upstairs were right. Ye look more like a bloodthirsty pirate than a tutor, Mr. Chillhurst."
"Do I, indeed?" Jared's brows rose at the housekeeper's familiar manner but he noticed that Olympia apparently considered nothing amiss. He accepted the cup and saucer with cool politeness.
"No matter." Mrs. Bird gave him a considering look. "It'll take someone who can handle a cutlass and a pistol to keep them rascals in line. Nigh broke the last three men o' learning that Miss Olympia hired, they did."
Olympia glanced quickly at Jared. Her eyes filled with anxious alarm. "Really, Mrs. Bird, you mustn't give Mr. Chillhurst a bad impression."
"Why not?" Mrs. Bird snorted. "He'll find out the truth soon enough. Be interestin' to see how long he lasts. Going to put him up in the old gamekeeper's cottage like ye did the others?"
Olympia smiled at Jared. "Mrs. Bird is speaking of the little cottage at the foot of the lane. Perhaps you noticed it when you arrived?"
"I did. It will do nicely."
"Excellent." Olympia looked relieved. "Let's see now. What else do we need to discuss? Oh, yes. You're welcome to join us for meals. There is a room on the floor above which functions very nicely as a schoolroom. And of course you're free to make use of my library." She paused, apparently trying to recall anything she might have overlooked. "You may begin your duties in the morning."
Mrs. Bird rolled her eyes. "What about his wages?" She cast a sidelong glance of warning at Jared. "Ye'll have to get used to the fact that Miss Olympia ain't much good at keepin' accounts. Ye'll probably have to remind her about yer wages and such. Don't be shy about it."
Olympia glared at her. "That is quite enough, Mrs. Bird. You make me sound like a featherbrained idiot. As it happens, Mr. Chillhurst's wages have been paid in advance by Uncle Artemis. Is that not correct, Mr. Chillhurst?"
"There is no need to concern yourself with my wages, Miss Wingfield," Jared said gently.
Olympia shot a triumphant look at her housekeeper. "There, you see, Mrs. Bird?"
Mrs. Bird snorted loudly. She did not look entirely convinced but she let the matter drop. "If ye'll be joinin' the family at dinner, ye might like to know there's some claret and sherry in the cellar."
"Thank you," Jared said.
"Miss Sophy and Miss Ida always had a sip or two of one or't'other before dinner and a swallow of brandy afore they went to bed. Good for the digestion, y'know. Miss Olympia has carried on the tradition."
"Especially since my nephews arrived," Olympia muttered.
"Thank you, Mrs. Bird." Jared smiled fleetingly at Olympia. "I could do with a glass or two of claret before dinner tonight. It's been a long trip."
"I reckon." Mrs. Bird walked heavily toward the door. "Wonder how long ye'll last?"
"Long enough," Jared said. "By the way, Mrs. Bird, what time is dinner served in this household?"
"How should I know? Depends on when Miss Olympia can get those three hellions to the table. They're never on time for meals. Always got an excuse."
"I see," Jared said. "In that case, Mrs. Bird, dinner will be at six tonight and every other night. Anyone who does not appear at the table on time will not eat. Is that clear?"
Mrs. Bird glanced back at him with a somewhat startled look. "Aye, it's clear enough."
"Excellent, Mrs. Bird. You may go now."
She glared at him. "And just who's givin' the orders around here now, I'd like to know?"
"Until further notice, I am," Jared said coolly. He saw Olympia's eyes start to widen. "On behalf of my employer, of course."
"Bah. I doubt ye'll be givin' orders long," Mrs. Bird declared as she stalked out of the room.
Olympia bit her lip. "Pay no attention to her, Mr. Chillhurst. She's a bit brusque, but she means well. Indeed, I don't know how I could have gotten along without her. She and her late husband were employed by Aunt Sophy and Aunt Ida for years, and she has stayed on with me. I am quite grateful to her. Not everyone wants to work for me, you see. I am considered rather odd here in Upper Tudway."
Jared saw the faint flicker of old loneliness that appeared in her eyes. "Upper Tudway is no doubt unaccustomed to having a woman of the world in its midst," he said.
Olympia smiled wryly. "Very true. That's what Aunt Sophy and Aunt Ida always used to say."
"Do not concern yourself. I'm sure Mrs. Bird and I will deal well enough with each other." Jared took a sip of his tea. "There is another matter I wish to speak to you about, Miss Wingfield."
Olympia's gaze narrowed in concern. "Have I forgotten something? I fear Mrs. Bird is correct. I am always overlooking some annoying detail that seems extremely trivial to me but which everyone else believes to be vital for one reason or another."
"You have overlooked nothing of importance," Jared assured her.
"Thank goodness." Olympia relaxed back in her chair.
"Your uncle asked me to inform you that in addition to the items that are to be sold, he has also sent along several volumes. One of them is an old diary."
Olympia's natural air of delightful distraction vanished in the blink of an eye. Her attention was riveted. "What did you say?"
"There is a volume known as the Lightbourne diary in the shipment of goods, Miss Wingfield." Jared did not have to wait long for the reaction.
"He found it." Olympia sprang to her feet. Her face was flushed with excitement. Her eyes glowed with the brilliance of a turquoise flame. "Uncle Artemis found the Lightbourne diary."
"That is what he said."
"Where is it?" Olympia demanded eagerly.
"Packed in one of the trunks or crates I brought with me in the carriage. I'm not certain which one."
Not that he hadn't been tempted to look for it. But the truth was, there had been no opportunity to stop and search for the diary after the ship had made port. Jared had secured a carriage and the two guards, loaded the crates and trunks aboard, and traveled through the night from Weymouth. He had not stopped until he had arrived at Upper Tudway. The risk of highwaymen had seemed preferable to the risk of having the goods pilfered by thieves at an inn.
"We must unpack the carriage at once. I cannot wait to see the diary." Olympia was bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement.
She rounded the desk, picked up her skirts, and flew toward the door.
Jared watched, bemused, as she dashed out of the library. If he was going to be obliged to live in this chaotic household for a time, he would have to establish his own rules and prepare to enforce them, he told himself. There was no substitute for an orderly routine.
He must start as he intended to go on.
Alone in the library, Jared calmly finished his tea. Then he put down his cup, pulled out his watch, and consulted the time. Ten more minutes before his young charges were due downstairs.
He got deliberately to his feet and walked toward the door.