Phillip Vallence, Earl of Edais and current owner of the sugar and tobacco plantation Hawk’s Cove, stared at the books on the large mahogany desk he sat behind. The desk was massive even by his standards, and he loved the intricate work on the edges, along with the stamped brass ornamentation.
He sighed and pushed a hand through his hair, curling up his lip at the ever-present feel of sweat on his skin. Something that hadn’t been much of an issue most days in England. Blowing out a breath, he tore his attention from everything else that it found and placed it back onto what he needed to focus on.
All of it was boring to him. He had a man in England he’d entrusted with his estates there, but here he didn’t have anyone of his own yet. Right now he waited to go over the numbers when the man he’d summoned to look over them with him showed up.
This was a working plantation, but he didn’t have slaves. He paid a wage to every worker here and was going to continue to do so. More of a wage if he could figure out how to make sense out of the other man’s style of ledger keeping.
Otherwise, it looked like he would have to continue to pay the man to keep his books. He’d spoken to shops in the small nearby town and had confirmed he was in good standing with them all. In fact, all he’d heard was praise on how his accounts were never late.
The knock came and he bade them enter without looking away from the intricately neat printing of numbers. Phillip didn’t think his London-based steward would be on board for coming down here. Even though the weather was sublime and he had quickly fallen for the allure of this island. The sweat was something he’d had to get used to, still was in some respects, and knowing his man back home, he wouldn’t be interested in moving here.
“You requested my presence, my lord?”
He reached for his drink and sipped as he took his time gazing over Elonne. Not overly tall, his dark skin also had a sheen. The man was fit and his clothing had seen better days.
“Come in and sit down. Elonne, was it? Can I call you Elonne?”
“You can call me what you wish, my lord.”
Despite the tone and the smooth way the response fell, Phillip felt the undercurrent of tension in the words. He understood it—well, as much as a man of his station and position in life could.
His visitor remained perched on the edge of the chair as if he expected it to move back so he landed on the floor.
Phillip nudged the books toward him, the three of them that were chock full of lines overflowing with numbers and calculations that made his own head spin.
“Your books, my lord.” A slow blink as the gaze moved from him down to the books, where it hovered a moment, and back up. Not so much with fear, but with confusion as to what reason he’d had to be summoned. “Is there a problem?”
“No problem. I would just like to learn the method you used to do these so I can follow along without having to ask you to explain it all.”
“You’re not… I mean, of course, sir. I can come by tomorrow and tell you.”
His nose itched. Always had when he smelled a lie or an untruth. Leaning back in his chair, he steepled his fingers.
“Now works best for me.” He made sure to hold Elonne’s gaze when he spoke.
The man glanced down for a moment, his lips moving before he lifted his head once more. “I’m sorry, my lord. I cannot.”
He didn’t like being had. Phillip moved his fingertips so they tapped against one another. “Cannot?” he asked silkily. “Or will not?”
Knowing full well he baited the man, who seemed much more concerned than when he had first entered the room, Phillip waited. No longer the rash younger man, he’d grown a lot, partially on his own and partially because he’d had to in order to maintain his friendships. The ones that meant a damn to him.
Elonne held his gaze. The man had that much going for him at least. There wasn’t any squirming or hemming and hawing to try to buy some additional time. “Cannot, my lord.”
“Then I was misinformed when I was advised that you were the one who takes care of the estate’s books?” A layer of honey to bring him in closer.
“No, my lord.”
He flattened his lips together. “Explain this to me then.” His tone had gotten hard and carried the same ‘I am above you because of my station in life’ character that he had used on a daily basis in England. “I would really like to know how the man I had been led to believe took care of the books on my newest purchase suddenly is informing me he does not know how to teach me his method.”
“My sibling Fyre does the books. I needed to spend more time out in the fields to get the harvest in. Fyre took over and added in this new way to keep those who would come and snoop from being able to read your profits.”
Who is trying to find out about my business here?
Elonne got to his feet and approached the desk. He reached one hand out to the books but paused before there was actual touching. “May I, my lord?”
“By all means.” He waved a hand and continued leaning back in the chair. Phillip had to admit, he was intrigued. And impressed. This man was still working in the fields when he was fairly certain what he would be earning as one who took care of the books should provide him with enough.
The man turned one book toward him and placed the tip of a blunt finger along a line.
“I know that this means you are flush, my lord. This symbol means that, but I cannot tell you all the profits from sugar, tobacco or other items that are grown here. I can tell you that when we started growing and selling other items, more people came around to see how much money was being made. The book change came when we found a few visitors snooping around.”
“Snooping around.” That, he wasn’t a fan of hearing. The hardness in his gut took root and grew. It took an effort to keep his sneer contained but he did, waiting to hear what else he would be enlightened about.
There was a way out of this. He could, and would, figure it out. The directionless emotion pouring through him pissed him off. That feeling had been part of the reason he had left England. He wanted to do more. Be more.
Make something of himself, even if that wasn’t a typical urge for a member of the peerage. His friends had, and while he was still included in the circle, he was now the outlier. The one without a woman, without a cause, without any direction.
Something he wanted desperately to change.
“Where is Fyre now?”
Unease hit the man’s expression. He clearly worked hard to contain his frown, causing his forehead to wrinkle. “In town, working.”
“So there is not enough work doing the books here to keep him busy? He is also in town working?”
Something akin to shame kicked free over his features. “The books were my job, my lord. Fyre works at a few other places. I was the one who asked for the assistance in keeping your books. Fyre would never speak of what was seen here.”
Phillip thought about this discussion. He knew this island had a different mentality than some of the others he’d visited on his way here. The dynamic wasn’t just slave and owner. There were Blacks who had businesses in the port town and some, he had been told, had small farms of their own. That alone had marked this island as one of the odd ones out and he fully expected in the future there might be trouble from the other plantation owners on surrounding islands who still had slaves and were looking to always increase their own holdings.
Right now, he had to figure out this puzzle of his steward’s bookkeeping.
“Where is Fyre now?” He repeated his question.
“In town, my lord.” The answer hadn’t changed and was given without so much as a slight hesitation.
Wouldn’t divulge a location. Interesting. “And how soon will he be made available?”
“I am unsure, my lord. There are long hours to be kept.”
Regret slashed over Elonne’s face the second the words escaped. Phillip let it go. There were times and places for every battle. This wasn’t one of them. At least not for the moment.
“Very well then, we shall ride into town.”
He’d expected more of a fuss from Elonne, and was both surprised and pleased when the immediate agreement came.
Phillip sent one of his footmen to get their mounts ready and Elonne accompanied him. Once again alone in his study, he stared down at that handwriting. Neat. Precise.
He was sure Fyre kept great books, he just needed to know how to interpret them for himself. Given how scattered this place had been when he’d taken over, he wasn’t about to let any portion of this plantation not be overseen by him.
With a heavy sigh, his thoughts turned back to England and the people he’d left there. Friends? Two to three, and they were blissful in their wedded state. When he’d come here to help out a friend of his friends, he had not expected to fall in love with the island. Or her people.
All of them.
The island hummed and vibrated with a life one never saw in London. Or anywhere he’d been in England. Sure, the heat had taken a bit to get used to, but the problem of sleeping with one sheet or none seemed better to him than hoping his heating stones wouldn’t die out through the night and he would have to wake someone to tend his fire.
“My lord, your horse is ready.”
He looked up to see one of the maids standing in the doorway.
Standing, he nodded. “Very good.” He shoved the ledgers into a bag then slung it over his shoulder.
As his feet hit the wood of the veranda, he found Elonne standing by two horses, holding their reins. The worry on his face was unmistakable. No doubt in Phillip’s mind that there was a story there, but he would find out soon enough.
Stowing the books behind the saddle, he looked back at his new home while his fingers tied the bag with deft strokes. There was still work to be done, quite a bit, but for the first time in years, he had a thrum of excitement in his chest. A chance here was what had appealed to him, called to him. A chance to prove he was more than just a title. To prove he was more than a wastrel who thought of nothing but the next pussy he could sink into or bet he could make.
Pussy, however, was always a nice thought, and since he’d gotten here, he’d kept his dick dry. He was determined to make a name for himself because of what he did with his plantation, not because of the women he fucked.
With ease, he swung up in the saddle and waited for Elonne to follow suit. Together, they turned their horses and made their way to the end of the driveway, heading into town.
* * * *
Four shops later, his frustration had mounted. Fyre hadn’t been at any of those places. What kind of man worked at so many different stores? How were things kept in good order if he bounced around from place to place so much?
They entered another and he looked around at the variety of items.
“Elonne. What are you doing here?”
The soft voice jolted through him, causing him to jerk with the shock. Lust slammed him and it took a moment for him to snap from the haze which had settled over his entire body.
Phillip looked up and was mesmerized by the woman standing behind the counter, a pencil in hand hovering over a book. Dark curls had been pulled back from her face and her smooth brown skin, a shade he’d never seen before. The collar of her dress hid most of her neck and that was upsetting to him.
How would someone describe her? Short of breathtaking, I have no words.
Warmth flooded him as the hairs rose on his arms and the nape of his neck. Flushed, he struggled to catch his breath. Never had he had such a visceral reaction to a woman before.
His nerves were on fire and it wouldn’t take much more than the slightest of sparks to set him ablaze.
How was it possible for a woman dressed in the drabbest of colors to somehow be the brightest one in the room? He moved his mouth a few times but words didn’t and wouldn’t come. Who was this woman?
What is wrong with me?
“Looking for you, Fyre.” Elonne tugged at his collar. “Lord Edais wants an explanation about his books.”
Well, shit. His bookkeeper was a woman.
Gwen, better known as Fyre to the majority of the people on the island, swallowed with deliberate measure. She was going to kill her brother. Assuming this English lord didn’t kill the both of them. How dare he bring that man to one of her businesses? And all without giving her a chance to prepare.
She’d managed to avoid him since he’d come in and taken over Hawk’s Cove. Grudgingly, she could admit, he looked much better now. He was dressed more like the men who lived here than someone about to attend the opera in London.
Or so I would assume. I have never been to an opera nor seen anyone actually dressed to attend one.
His sandy brown hair had lightened as he’d spent time in the strong sunlight. But it was those eyes, gray and sharp, that got to her. He was thinner than some of the men she knew, but it wasn’t because of sickness. She had watched him work.
Every chance she could.
Okay, perhaps a few times.
Remembering herself, she executed a curtsey. “Good day, my lord.”
Her hands were slick all of a sudden and she found herself holding her breath. Not advisable.
A low grumble rolled through the room and part of her wanted to lounge in the warmth it gave her, but another part of her wanted to run. Far. Fast. Without looking back.
This man is dangerous.
“Really?” His accent was sharp and yet she found she didn’t mind so much how his words fell from his mouth to the air for her to hear. “That is what you say to me? Nothing about how it is the two of you have been deceiving me, doing who knows what with my books?”
Panic flared. The fear of losing her life hadn’t lessened. She hadn’t been given permission to touch his books. Not only that, but her brother was in danger as well.
Grateful there wasn’t anyone else in the building, she made her way from behind the counter.
“Begging your pardon, my lord.” She kept her eyes down.
His big feet stepped into view. In her periphery, she watched her brother move as well and she flicked her fingers toward him, holding him off. No matter what the consequences, she knew Elonne would never allow this man to lay hands on her.
In either of the ways her brain was trying to figure out—pain or pleasure.
He snorted in disbelief. “How long have you been doing them?”
She knew better than to tarry with her response. “Since a week after you left. Elonne got ill after picking up more time in the fields to make sure none of your crops went bad and I took over. It is easier for me than him, but please do not punish him for my behavior. I made the choice and decision to do this, not he.”
Fyre pushed out a short breath and lifted her gaze to find his gray eyes waiting for her. She couldn’t make out what she read in their depths.
Her brother frowned and made another move forward. Again, she waved him off. In the grand scheme of things, he was far more important than she was. He could do the physical labor she couldn’t. And he had a wife and children to take care of. For all intents and purposes, she was alone and expendable.
“You have to explain this to me. I cannot make sense of your system.”
“Yes, my lord.” She nearly held her breath once more. Perhaps she would get out of this with her life intact.
He walked to the door, where he glanced over his shoulder at her and lifted one eyebrow, impatience stamped all over his features.
Funny how that didn’t detract from his attractiveness. That hawklike nose took him from perfectly pretty and handsome to rugged and slightly dangerous.
“Why are you still there?”
“I am working, my lord. I am here for another three hours.”
He scowled and crossed his arms as he pivoted back to her. “And then?”
It is like he knew I would try to avoid this today.
“And then I will show up at your home to explain my system.” And hope you do not call for my death.
He grunted and walked out. “Let us return, Elonne.”
Her brother shot her a concerned look as he hurried off after the man who had all the power.
The moment the door closed behind her brother, she exhaled and made her way back to the counter, legs wobbling in both relief and for the simple fact that because of her interaction with the earl, they had decided they weren’t strong enough to keep her up any longer. She took a few moments to get some stability back, then retreated around the counter once more.
Legs still shaky like she’d been out toiling in the heat all day, she pulled out the stool and sat with a grateful sigh. Rubbing her chest to try to ease the ache that had filled her lungs, she took several deep breaths.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes and she tried to keep them at bay. Her hand only shook a little as she pulled the book she’d been about to start working on when he had come in out from beneath the counter.
He even smelled different than the other men she was around. Something deep and earthy had floated from him to her nose.
I do not need to think about that man any more than I already do. Especially since she thought about him a lot.
With a harsh mental reprimand, she put her wavering attention to the work before her and began getting Mr. Larson’s books in order. She tended to do his accounting today as his shop was slower aside from people coming in to pick up packages.
Since she only had two packages left to be picked up, she figured she’d get quite a lot done and not have to come back to catch him up. She was newer to his place and had been pushing hard to get his information in order.