Available for Preorder at $0.99 and out on 3/23/23
Miss Vanessa Claxton gave her heart to Lord Crispin Tilson when she was only seventeen. He did not ask for it, but it went willingly. A secret friendship on the cusp of young love, and then he was gone.
Lord Crispin Tilson hadn’t expected that at the age of twenty he’d fall in love with a miss enjoying her first Season. He certainly hadn’t anticipated that their meetings would take place in secret and that nobody would ever learn. But, as much as he wished to be with Vanessa, adventure called, and he had to leave her behind.
Nine years later, they meet once again when Lord Crispin, the finder of all things, and Miss Claxton, the thief finder, are asked to locate a missing gem. Will love bloom again, or will competition and wagers get in the way?
(This book originally appeared in The Wedding Wager – no longer available)
Country Estate of Lady Pandora Osbourne, Early March
“A bloody house party,” Lord Crispin Tilson muttered as he gazed down at the guests milling about on the back lawn of Lady Osbourne’s estate. “I hate house parties,” he grumbled to himself.
However, he wasn’t here to socialize. Thank God! He was here to locate Lady Osbourne’s heart-shaped ruby that had gone missing. She knew it was at the estate but had been vague as to when or where she’d seen it last, as if she couldn’t quite recall. However, it must be found before she returned to London for the Season. Of that she was most insistent.
Crispin didn’t specifically ask what setting the ruby was in, but since it used to be worn, it was probably a brooch. If so, it could have fallen off anywhere.
Lady Osbourne feared that if anyone knew that something of such great value, even priceless, was somewhere on the estate, someone might try to steal it. Thus, the true reason Crisp attended this blasted house party. It was his hostess’s assumption that if Crispin had paid her a visit, conjecture would abound. As Lady Osbourne most certainly did not wish to have the ton speculating about her, she arranged a house party to explain Crispin’s presence at her estate. He had tried to explain that her reasoning was flawed. As he never participated in any societal event, his being here would actually invite more gossip than if he had simply, and quietly, called upon her. Lady Osbourne had refused to consider such. Of course, he could have refused Lady Osbourne, but only a fool would reject the substantial fee she had offered.
Crispin could only hope that luck was on his side, and he’d find the blasted ruby quickly and be gone from here before he was forced to partake in too much polite socializing. At least Lady Osbourne had devised a scavenger hunt scheduled to last the duration of the house party, with new riddles each day. This would at least allow him to search without suspicion and offered a perfect excuse for why he might be in strange places.
As the guests below began to wander toward the manor, Crisp checked his timepiece and blew out a sigh. It was time.
After making his way down the long staircase, Crisp entered the formal sitting room where the other guests had gathered to await their instructions and was brought up short when he spied Vanessa Claxton standing beside the window, watching him.
The air nearly left his lungs as his chest tightened at the mere sight of her. Vanessa was even more beautiful than when he’d last seen her nine years ago. Mahogany curls with a hint of red framed her face and sapphire eyes watched him with the same mischief and humor he remembered. Crisp marveled at the change. There was a maturity that the seventeen-year-old Vanessa had lacked and an assurance of who she was and her place in Society.
As Vanessa was stunning, wealthy and the granddaughter of a duke, it was likely she had wed. Crisp glanced around and wondered which gentleman in this room had been lucky enough to win her hand, and all the other benefits that came with being married.
She was one of the reasons he had not returned to Society when he returned to London. After being gone for so long, he assumed that she’d married and possibly had children and he didn’t want to witness what could have been had he stayed. Except, if he hadn’t left for his adventure, he would have always wondered.
Vanessa Claxton—the one person who made him almost change his mind about traveling. Not that she had asked. It was Crisp who hadn’t wanted to leave her.
Miss Vanessa Claxton had heard the rumor that Crisp would be in attendance, but thought it was simply unworthy gossip to be dismissed. Afterall, he’d returned to England over a year ago and had not attended even one entertainment.
However, when he stepped into the parlor the breath lodged in her throat as her heart sped. He was still the handsome rogue he’d been nine years ago. In fact, he was even more appealing. There was an air of confidence about him, and any boyish roundness that had once filled his face was gone and revealed strong cheek bones and a firm jaw. His shoulders were wider and by the way his clothing fit, especially his trousers, Vanessa became convinced that he was all muscle.
Thank goodness she was standing beside the open window as the breeze was very welcoming to her suddenly heated skin.
Her heart had ached when he left. But Crisp had been eager for adventures, and she was simply a miss, unable to accompany him. Much had changed for her since he left, and she was certain they had for him as well. It was likely that he didn’t even remember her. But Vanessa had never forgotten Crisp, nor that one kiss they shared the night before he left London.
“Now that we have all gathered, we shall divide up into teams. There should be two females with each gentleman for propriety’s sake,” Lady Osbourne announced.
Vanessa glanced about the room, not eager to join any of the other guests. The females were younger than she by three years or more, and none of the gentlemen were of interest, except one, and he hadn’t joined a group either.
In fact, Vanessa and Crisp were the only two not part of a team.
“Oh, dear. It appears I miscalculated,” Lady Osbourne worried.
Her eyes met Crisp’s.
Lady Osbourne most definitely did not miscalculate. This was intentional. No doubt, Crisp was only here to find the ruby, as was she.
“Well, there is nothing to be done for it now,” Lady Osbourne announced. “Lord Crispin Tilson would you please partner with Miss Vanessa Claxton?”
At the mention of his name, there was an audible gasp amongst the guests as they turned in his direction. They hadn’t truly believed he would be here either. In fact, none had really noticed that he’d entered the parlor until Lady Osbourne gestured to him.
Crisp simply smiled and offered a slight bow.
It was quite delightful to watch as misses sent a quick glance to the male partner they’d chosen with disappointment.
“I’m certain that neither of you need a third party to help you decipher the riddles.” Lady Osbourne chuckled. “Afterall, Lord Crispin your reputation precedes you and Miss Claxton is also known for her little hobby of being a thief finder. Not that we have any thieves here,” she laughed. “The two of you should do well together.”
Vanessa glanced at Crisp again. He hitched an eyebrow and the corner of his mouth twitched. It was probably because Lady Osbourne had referred to her little hobby, which it was not.
A footman entered with a silver tray upon which were pieces of paper.
“Here are the riddles for today. Once the last item is found, please advise my cousin, Lady Sewell and she’ll direct you to the next activity on the schedule for today.”
A footman handed out a sheet of paper to each team and one to Crisp.
“Now, go along everyone while I make the proper introductions for the last team. And remember, you must stay together and not go in three separate directions.”
As guests left the room, Vanessa came forward. “Well played Lady Osbourne, but what would you have done if someone had asked me or Lord Crispin to be on their team?”
“I knew that was not a possibility.” She dismissed the concern with a wave of her hand. “They are younger, and you often produce a chill when you don’t wish to be bothered.”
That was not true, Vanessa nearly argued. Then considered her words a second time. Vanessa had become more aloof with each year that passed, and as debutantes and dandies became more ridiculous and juvenile.
“I knew they wouldn’t know who Lord Crispin was until I announced his name.”
“You wish us to partner?” Crisp asked.
“Why yes, you can’t be going off on your own searching without inviting speculation and Miss Claxton might very well be of assistance as she is extremely observant.”
Crisp stared at Vanessa. “You know why I am here?”
“It is the same reason as I.”
“Yes, well, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I should make the proper introductions. Miss Vanessa Claxton, may I introduce Lord Crispin Tilson.”
He bowed before her, lifted her hand, and nearly kissed her fingers. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Claxton.”
“And you, Lord Crispin.”