A missing heirloom. A stolen inheritance. Can love conquer mistrust?
Athena Hawthorne never imagined that she would lose everything she'd ever had. But after the death of her father, his prosperous jewelry store is sold off to pay his supposed debts. Athena, now destitute, embarks on a mission to discover the truth, but circumstances force her to accept an offer from a handsome stranger to work as a governess. She's determined to clear her father's name, but a certain earl is making matters far more difficult than necessary. And she can't be in danger of losing her heart to a member of the aristocracy...
Orion Ashcroft, the Earl of Rockford, is convinced that Athena is a grasping thief who stole a priceless family heirloom, the rare sapphire known as the Couleur Magnifique. When he offers her the position of governess to his sister's children, he only intends to catch her in some nefarious scheme and get back the sapphire—his grandmother's dying wish. But he soon discovers that keeping his distance—and his sanity—around the beautiful Athena isn't as easy as he'd planned. It certainly doesn't help that his sister and his best friend plead her innocence at every frustrating turn. Soon he's struggling between honoring his promise and his growing attraction to Athena.
But there's danger closer than either expect. Even a masquerade can't hide Athena from the curiosity of the ton forever...and there's a threat hiding among the highest members of society...
CHAPTER ONELondon, England 1819“What do you mean, it’s all…gone?” Miss Athena Hawthorne stared at the weasel-faced solicitor in front of her and tried to keep a rein on her rising temper—and utter panic.Nigel Bartholomew shifted the girth of his pudgy body uncomfortably. Clearing his throat, he replied calmly, “It’s just what I said, Miss Hawthorne.” He looked at her as though he were trying to soothe an unstable horse, which only added to Athena’s frustration.“The funds your father invested from the profits of his shop, Hawthorne Jewelry, have been sadly depleted. I’m afraid that after all his creditors were paid, there was not much left. You will, of course, be given a draft of the remaining…” Here he paused to recheck his paperwork, the rustle of the parchment causing Athena’s fists to clench on the arms of her chair. “…two pounds, six pence…” Glancing back at her, the man finally tried to appear somewhat contrite. “I’m truly sorry, Miss Hawthorne. Your father was a master in his field. It’s regrettable that he wasn’t more frugal.”Athena ignored the buzzing in her ears as she watched Mr. Bartholomew scratch a few lines on a bank note before handing it to her. Standing slowly, the shock of what had just taken place freezing the very blood in her veins and leaving her in a daze; she reached out and took what remained of her livelihood. Athena still couldn’t believe that her father would leave her in such dire straits, knowing that he hadn’t been long for this world. For years, it had been just the two of them, working side by side in their modest jewelry store, crafting priceless pieces for commoners and the aristocracy alike. Prinny himself had even remarked at how no one else in London could even begin to compare to her father’s skill.Now, just like that, it was all gone. Her father…his legacy…all she had left of him—of her life—was this scrap of paper with such a paltry sum that wouldn’t even get her through the cold, winter months.And suddenly, she found her voice.Putting her hands on the desk in front of her, Athena leaned down to stare into the solicitor’s wary face. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” she stated evenly. “But I will never believe that my father was the spendthrift you claim he was.” Narrowing her dark eyes, she added, “However, I can assure you that once I uncover the truth, you, sir, will owe me an apology for your false accusations.” Straightening, Athena spun on her heel and left the gaping man’s office, her threadbare, navy blue cloak swirling angrily behind her. It wasn’t until she’d stepped outside into the gray, March drizzle, did her bravado finally fail her.Putting a hand to her pounding heart, she collapsed against the side of the brick building she had just left and closed her eyes. Dear God…it couldn’t be true…For all of her one and twenty years, Athena had never known her father to even glance twice at a deck of cards, let alone fall prey to one of the numerous gaming hells in the city! In fact, he had seldom set foot outside his workshop; his focus remained continuously on gemstones of every shape, size and clarity. And when he wasn’t working on a new piece of art, he had been with his only daughter in their comfortable but humble lodgings above the shop. Many nights they had spent around a warm fire, drinking tea and talking about the day’s work, or else sitting in companionable silence as she read the latest dime store novel and he sketched new ideas. Ever since her mother had died many years before, they had shared a simple but satisfying life together.More importantly, it was an honest one, which is why the accusations from Mr. Bartholomew just didn’t make sense. Holding all those cherished memories close to her heart, she found it unfathomable that her father could be so careless as to squander a lifetime of hard work and timeless dedication, especially during those last few weeks when the lung fever had progressed to the point he was unable to fill any more orders. Even then, he had been concerned only for her welfare.Now, with little to her name, other than the clothes on her back and the draft in her cloak pocket, knowing there were no relatives to go to for assistance, Athena was on her own. Granted, the baker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Grayson, had been offering her temporary room and board, but with their brood of four children to feed, Athena knew she couldn’t rely on their hospitality for much longer. She would have to try and find some sort of suitable employment—and soon. Not only to ease the burden of her longtime neighbors, but if she was to hire a private investigator to look into Hawthorne Jewelry’s true financial status, she needed to make haste before the paper trail began to run cold.In the end, she vowed that she would uncover this deception, for it could be nothing else.Intent on her newfound mission, Athena pulled up the hood of her cloak to ward off the rain and set off at a brisk pace. However, she had only taken a few steps forward before she was caught off balance as someone rudely bumped into her. With a cry of alarm, she found herself falling backward. Cringing at the thought of walking home in a mud-caked frock, she gasped as a pair of strong arms caught her mid air.Both startled and furious, Athena looked up, prepared to give the individual a proper set down for nearly running her over, but the retort instantly faltered when her gaze caught the expensive flash of a maroon, superfine coat of quality. Not only was that enough to give her pause, but the shadowed face peering down at her was absolutely gorgeous! Tall and broad shouldered with a three-layered greatcoat and top hat that only enhanced the man’s striking looks and obvious wealth, his stare was intent as it lit on her, so much so that she could almost feel it upon her skin.When he spoke, of course it was with a rich, smooth timbre. “My apologies, madam. I’m afraid I was in a rush and didn’t see you.”As her own harsh reality abruptly rushed back, Athena pushed away from the stranger, ignoring the way her legs shook and suddenly threatened to give way beneath her. Convinced that she was merely disturbed by the near fall and the bad news she had just received, she lifted her chin a mutinous notch. “That is apparent, sir. Now, if you’ll excuse me?” Determined to put as much distance between the man—and the law offices of Bartholomew and Phelps, as possible—Athena set off again with purpose.So it was with a start when she encountered that deep voice again, but this time at her elbow. “Surely you will allow me a chance to make amends?”Athena kept her gaze affixed firmly ahead, though her entire body tingled at his nearness. Clenching her fists, she stated in no uncertain terms, “I don’t have time to satisfy your gentlemanly honor. I have more pressing matters to attend to. Now, good day!” She glanced at him then, catching sight of a sardonic twist of those strong, masculine lips, before she quickened her pace.When he lengthened his stride to match hers, she felt her pulse skip a beat, though that was ridiculous, of course. Why she might feel anything other than pure annoyance at his unwanted presence was completely absurd.“So cynical for one so young,” he murmured. “Why is that, I wonder?”She gave a bark of laughter and for some inane reason felt the need to defend herself with a reply. “How about finding out that your father was an invariable gambler who left you a penniless orphan?” As soon as the words left her mouth, Athena could have kicked herself. Why she felt the sudden compulsion to confide her troubles to a complete stranger was beyond rational thought. Someone of his ilk likely looked at women in her position as little more than a bothersome insect to flick off their coat.So naturally, his next statement took her completely off guard. “If that is the case, then perhaps I may be of some assistance?”Athena finally stopped and faced him fully, her eyes wide with patent disbelief. “You’re not serious?”Now that he had her attention, the man leaned against a nearby lamppost, heedless of the congestion of the city around them and the poor weather threatening to break free on them at any given moment. With a shrug, he asked, “Why wouldn’t I be?”Athena lifted a dark brow. “I think a more appropriate question is why you would.”She thought she caught a predatory flash of his eyes beneath the brim of his hat, before he dipped his head. His face was swathed in shadow, though she was able to catch a glimpse of the strong line of his jaw, painted with a day’s worth of dark stubble. “Mayhap damsels in distress are a particular failing of mine.”She couldn’t help but give a rather unladylike snort at that. “I seriously doubt that.” But before he could reply, natural curiosity came to the forefront and she found herself being blunt and calling his bluff. Crossing her arms, she asked pointedly, “What exactly are you suggesting?”There was a brief pause as he appeared to be giving her person a slight perusal. Stiffening, the dreaded feeling that he was about to proposition her, Athena opened her mouth to give him a proper scathing, but again, he surprised her by offering something completely respectable. “I happen to know of someone in need of a governess.”Athena hesitated. As much as she would like to consider the idea, it just seemed too good to be true. “Is that so?” she said slowly, then in all honesty, “I’ve never been a governess before.”She felt that sly smile again before he countered smoothly with, “Oh, I have faith in you.” Pulling a card out of his vest pocket, he handed it to her. “This is the address. Be there tomorrow at ten.”Athena noted that it was located in the fashionable area of Mayfair, but there was no name mentioned. Glancing back at the stranger to inquire further, she was chagrined to see that he was already halfway up the street. Blast. Other than chasing him down, she had no choice but to take her chances on the morrow. Even if it turned out to be a sham, at least she could say she hadn’t shunned her first chance for respectable employment.With a thoughtful frown, Athena tucked the card into her cloak and headed for the Grayson’s.