When You Wish Upon a Duke
Book 2 of the Awakened by a Kiss Series
All it takes…
After a childhood spent cavorting around Europe with a dangerous crowd, Miss Isobel Tinker has parlayed her experience and language skills into a safe, reliable life. Working as a clerk in a Mayfair travel shop, she has two wishes: to buy Everland Travel from her lascivious employer and to never leave the familiar shores of England ever again. When a handsome duke arrives at her doorstep, she realizes her staid existence is about to take flight.
…is faith and hope
Jason “North” Beckett, the Duke of Northumberland, desperately needs a travel guide. He’s inherited a dukedom but has a final mission for the Foreign Office—rescuing his wayward cousin from Nordic pirates. Isobel Tinker is the ideal translator, discreet and unknown, but she’s also uncooperative, stubborn, and disarmingly beautiful.
And a little bit of trust
In exchange for her help, North promises Miss Tinker her own travel agency upon return and strict professionalism at sea. Isobel cautiously agrees but soon realizes “strict” and “professional” are not how she would describe her feelings for the irresistible duke. As their adventure sweeps them to the shores of Iceland and beyond, can temptation and growing trust give way to the magic of wild, passionate love?
When You Wish Upon a Duke
Book 2 of the Awakened by a Kiss Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 1: A Duchess A Day
- Book 2: When You Wish Upon a Duke
Share this Excerpt
Enjoy an Excerpt
When You Wish Upon a Duke
Jump to: Chapter Two
. . . . . .
Does this man think he’s invisible?
Isobel Tinker stared out the window of her Mayfair travel shop. On the sidewalk outside, looming with his face to the glass, a tall man stared back.
The window was several yards away and the man’s features were obscured by a hat, but she could see the shadowy outline of his eyes through the a and n that spelled “Everland Travel” across the pane.
She raised her brows in an expression of, Yes?
She gestured to the door. Come in?
She gave an elegant, two-finger wave.
He remained expressionless, as if he couldn’t see her at all.
“Samantha?” Isobel called to her clerk. “There’s a man standing at the window. Can you see him?”
“A man?” Samantha asked, sorting folios behind the counter.
“There. To the left. Purplish greatcoat, high collar, highwayman’s hat.”
“Oh yes, I see him,” said Samantha, cocking her head. “Shall I get the saber?”
Isobel swallowed a laugh. “The saber, I hope, would be precipitous in this moment. He appears simply to be—”
“Stalking,” Samantha said knowingly. “Or is he more . . . casing? Calculating?”
“I was going to say ‘standing,’ ” said Isobel. “He has the look of a man who wishes to come inside but for some reason . . . cannot. Perhaps he has a diametrical opposition to . . .”
“Rule of law?”
“Travel agents,” finished Isobel.
“Well, I’ve set the locks on the windows and he’s far too broad for the chimney. So if he will not use the door, never you fear—”
“I’m not afraid, Samantha. I simply wished to confirm that he isn’t an apparition. If you see him, and I see him, then he must be there.”
“Oh, he’s there, to be sure,” said Samantha. “And I don’t mind saying, I don’t like the look of him. Too tall by half. I cannot abide tall men. Never have done.”
“And why is that?” Isobel learned a new thing that Samantha could not abide nearly every day.
“They can see over the heads of crowds.”
“And this is a problem because . . . ?”
“Stampedes,” said Samantha. “Started by tall men, one and all.” Samantha’s fierceness was matched only by her deeply held suspicions. Never had a spectacled vicar’s daughter indulged such robust bloodlust.
“Right,” said Isobel, looking again to the window.
And now the man was gone. Of course.
Isobel muttered a curse. “I need fresh air,” she said, shoving from her chair. “I’ll take a turn around the block.”
“The saber is in the bureau by the alley door,” Samantha called, not looking up.
“I shall risk Lumley Street with no weapons today, save my parasol.” She took her umbrella and gloves and was halfway to the door when she paused.
“What is it?” asked Samantha.
“Nothing, I’m sure.” Isobel looked right and left out the windows. “It’s just that . . . this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this person. Do you think that’s odd? To see the same lurking man three times in one week?”
Samantha’s head popped up. She glared at the spot where the man had stood, narrowing her eyes as if she was taking aim.
“Do not overreact,” said Isobel. “I’ve noticed him here and there. He’s committed no offense.”
“That remains to be seen. Where ‘here and there’?”
“Waiting to be served in the tearoom on the corner. Leaning on the wall behind the flower cart. With a horse in the hostler’s yard at the end of the street. He appears one moment and is gone the next.”
“I knew it,” said Samantha, her voice filled with excitable dread.
“I really do think he means no harm,” repeated Isobel. “I’d not bother to challenge him, except for today. Of all days. He must not—”
“Hunt for unsuspecting women—”
“Loiter around the shop,” corrected Isobel.
“And your plan is—what? Stern words and a formidable look?”
“I’m hoping a simple introduction will suffice. Ask him how we can help. Request that he call another day. How long before Drummond Hooke arrives?”
“An hour. At most.”
“Right,” Isobel sighed, making a face. “An hour.”
Drummond Hooke was the disaffected and mostly absent owner of Everland Travel. Barely twenty-two years old, his parents had died three years ago and willed ownership of the shop to him. Drummond was lazy by nature and a miser by choice, and if left to his own devices, he would have driven Everland Travel to bankruptcy within months.
But he had not been left on his own; his parents’ will had wisely left ownership of the shop to their son, but management of Everland Travel to their most valued employee, Isobel Tinker.
Drummond accepted his parents’ terms so long as the shop succeeded—which Isobel made certain it did. She also indulged him as the unseen mastermind of the success, which he most certainly was not.
Isobel and Samantha devoted hours to preparing for each Hooke visit. The office and clients must appear prosperous and esteemed, while Isobel must appear humble and matronly. Meanwhile, Drummond’s role—despite being five years Isobel’s junior—would be critical and patronizing.
If Isobel made everything appear immaculate, the young man would return to the Hooke estate in Shropshire and not be seen for another six weeks.
But lurking men were not immaculate. At even the slightest whiff of irregularity or alarming behavior, Hooke would usurp Isobel’s management role, relocate to London, and ruin everything.
Isobel was determined to outpace ruin by Drummond Hooke.
In fact, Isobel’s true goal was to save enough money to purchase Everland Travel from him and become not only the manager but the owner, free and clear.
She needed only five more years of savings. Ten at most.
Now she pushed out the door into Lumley Street, motivated to dispatch the Lurker well before Hooke’s arrival. The August sun was bright today, illuminating Mayfair with sparkling light. It would be impossible to hide in the brightness, and Isobel didn’t try. If the Lurker had come to seek her out, well—here she was.
But he wasn’t stalking or hunting her, no matter what Samantha thought. The man didn’t feel dangerous to Isobel, merely out of place. Honestly, he seemed little more than curious. Isobel was accustomed to curious. She was a young woman who operated a successful business. Female businesswomen were unexpected at best and scandalous at worst. This was not the first lurking husband or brother she’d encountered.
Isobel Tinker designed seamless holidays for women and girls. Her voyages were safe, respectable, and luxurious. They offered the finest destinations in Europe with white-glove service. A lady’s world broadened. The envy of her friends.
It was why Mr. and Mrs. Hooke left her to run the agency instead of their prize-idiot son.
It was how she’d taken Everland Travel from a struggling budget holiday packager to its current premier status: “Travel agent to the most esteemed women in England,” as read her favorite quote in The Times.
It was her life’s work. If she was also a bit of a curiosity—well, she was a successful curiosity.
And if she could achieve her dream of purchasing the agency, she would not simply elevate Everland Travel to new heights; she would own it too.
“I don’t have time for this,” Isobel grumbled, glancing up and down the sidewalk. She turned left, eyeing the pedestrians of Lumley Street.
Despite the Lurker’s great propensity to disappear, his other distinguishing quality was his considerable height and breadth. He stood out like a professional boxer. The tearoom, in particular, had framed his size in striking contrast; its spindly tables and chairs seemed to bow and creak under his weight. The flower cart, which was an immovable rattletrap with warped wheels, wanted only his strength to be rolled spryly away. The horse he stabled at the hostler’s yard looked like a mythical beast. The Lurker himself, who’d been instructing a stable boy on the horse’s care when she’d seen him, had made Isobel think of . . .
Well, the phrase that’d popped into her brain had been Greek god.
Now she turned the corner at Brown Hart Gardens and pressed toward Duke Street. Here, too, the sidewalk was devoid of professional boxers or Greek gods. She was just about to turn into Duke Street when she saw movement in the alley behind her shop.
Isobel slowed, squinting into the dim, crooked passage. She tilted her head and listened. Footsteps crunched from the murk, the heavy footfall of godlike boots.
Isobel sighed, glanced at her timepiece, and followed the sound. Drummond Hooke was due in forty-five minutes. If the Lurker was in the alley, she had fifteen minutes to learn his business and dispatch him, and a half hour to settle at her desk.
Who’s the lurker now? she thought, picking her way around alley debris. A cat leapt into her path, and she jumped. She unhooked the parasol from her arm and held it perpendicular like a handrail. The rear door to her shop came into view. She saw her back steps. The rusty railing. Her mop bucket. And—
The Lurker stood on her back door stoop, his back turned.
She took a silent breath and flipped the parasol so that the pointed tip faced out. Her heart beat faster, but she felt no real fear. She’d traveled the world, for God’s sake. This was Mayfair. She’d yet to see anything in Mayfair, night or day, that rivaled her life before she’d returned to England. And anyway, what choice did she have but to confront him? Drummond Hooke frequently smoked in this alley when he visited. Discovering a giant man loitering on their back stoop would be unacceptable.
“I beg your pardon?” she called, staring at the Lurker’s broad back.
Her tone was sharp and demanding and the man tensed.
“Turn ’round, if you please,” she commanded. “Slowly.”
Obligingly, the man raised two giant gloved hands and slowly pivoted.
Isobel held her breath and watched him turn. She straightened to her full five-foot-two-inch height. His large shoulders were smoothly encased in gray-purple wool; his profile was chiseled, just peeking from a rakish, wide-brimmed hat. His greatcoat hung open, whirling slightly when he turned.
At last, he raised his head and she saw his face.
His eyes were amber-hazel, the color of dark caramel. His mouth was . . . well, perfect was the only word that sprang to mind, as useless as it was. His nose (who noticed noses?) was not unlike his height: Greek-god-like.
Isobel took a deep breath.
Of course, the nature of his nose or mouth made no difference. What mattered was that he was ever-so-slightly smiling. Just a quirked uptick at the corner of his (perfect) mouth. It was the smile of someone who’d staggered from the pub and eaten the Christmas pudding the night before the feast.
“Hello,” said the Lurker.
His voice was casual. Playful. Confident.
Isobel felt an intermittent shimmer at her wrists and throat.
No, she thought. Oh no.
She’d left Europe seven years ago with only the clothes on her back and two solemn vows: never to return to Europe and never, ever to engage with playful, confident men.
The word danger began to burn in the back of her mind like a pillaged farmhouse.
The Lurker continued, full of innocence and good humor. “Do you happen to know if this door is always locked?”
It was a ridiculous question, which they both knew. Either he was trying to distract her from his larceny or catch her off guard to commit some worse crime.
Isobel was, to her extreme irritation, both distracted and caught off guard.
It had been so long. So very long.
“I do know that this door is always locked,” Isobel said, “as it is my door, and I lock it.”
“Always?” he wondered.
“Stop,” she said, unwilling to play along. If Isobel Tinker understood nothing, she understood the easy currency of flirtatious, handsome men who “played” at everything they did. She’d learned at the foot of a master, and it had nearly destroyed her. She’d survived instead, and now she was immune.
Or mostly immune.
“Who are you?” she demanded, tapping the parasol in her palm. “And what is your business at the alley door of my shop?”
“I was . . . hoping to come inside?” Another joke.
“Why not use the front door?”
“Why not have a back entrance?” he suggested. “Double your traffic?”
“Because this is an alley, and no one travels here except rats and men trying to pick the lock.”
“Well, there you have it—two potential customers at your disposal.”
“I’m sending for the constable,” she said.
“No, wait.” He reached out a hand. “I am a customer. I need to book passage. Truly.”
“Passage for whom?” The words were out before she could stop them. She gritted her teeth. If he’d been old, or wretched, or spotted, or anything but handsome and dashing and jocular, she would not entertain this conversation. Not for One. Second. More.
But he was handsome and dashing.
And she’d learned nothing at all.
“For myself,” he said. He leapt from the stoop and landed in the alley with a thwack.
Isobel took a step back. “Everland Travel provides holidays and travel services primarily for women,” she informed him. “I’m sorry, Mr.—”
“Northumberland,” he provided. “The Duke of Northumberland.”
Isobel let out a laugh. “The Duke of Northumberland?” She shook her head. “Charming. A stalker and an imposter.”
“Heard of me, have you?”
Isobel stared at him, taking in his posh accent, his finely crafted boots, his easy confidence.
He added, “I prefer to be called ‘North.’ ”
Surely, surely not.
He finished with, “I’m only now becoming accustomed to the title. It’s . . .” a sigh, “. . . new. To me.”
Isobel opened her mouth to challenge this preposterous misinformation. A duke, new or otherwise, lurking in her alley? Highly unlikely. But something made her stop short of saying the words. There was no time for preposterous misinformation or challenges. There was only
Drummond Hooke, due any minute.
“I’m forced to ask you to leave, sir,” she said. “And also, you really must cease your lurking.”
“The alley, the window, the businesses up and down Lumley Street? Today of all days, to be sure. Although I prefer a neighborhood devoid of lurkers on any day. So if you could simply . . .”
She walked her fingers through the air, the gesture of something small and invasive skittering away.
“Wait, but I—” he began.
“You’re mistaken if you think I haven’t noticed. You’re also mistaken to claim business with Everland Travel. And if you try to pass yourself off as a duke again, I really will call the constable. The Duke of Northumberland, as anyone knows, is a national hero. And he’s mourning the loss of his brother, the previous duke. May God rest him. Let us show respect for families who suffer such great loss. If we do nothing else.”
The man tried to interrupt, but Isobel pressed on. It was all coming back to her now—how to manage imposing men who exuded playful charm. You called them out and sent them on their way. You kept your distance.
She made a twirling gesture with her parasol. “You’re handsome and dashing—I’ll concede that—but I’ve not the time nor patience for lurkers or liars, no matter how they appear. In less than an hour, I’m convening a very important meeting inside the shop. There can be no interruptions or irregularities. Now.” Deep breath. “Please, sir. Be gone.”
She hooked the handle of the parasol over her arm, brushed her hands together, and began to stride away.
“Miss Tinker, I presume?”
Isobel faltered. She turned back. “I beg your pardon?”
“You are Miss Isobel Tinker?”
Many people know my name, she reminded herself. I’ve sold holidays to half the heiresses in London.
She stared at him, not confirming or denying.
“I thought you’d be older,” he said. “Considerably older. You’re not yet thirty. I’d put money on it.”
“What business is it of yours, my age?” She was seven and twenty as of last week.
“I was led to believe you were a cynical, gray-headed matron, running this shop behind spectacles and a stack of dusty travel books.”
A vision of Isobel’s future flashed before her eyes, and she wasn’t certain she liked it.
He went on. “And you’re shorter.”
“Led to expect by whom?”
“The Foreign Office.” He stepped up and gestured to Lumley Street with an open arm. “After you.”
Isobel’s feet moved of their own accord, walking toward the sunlight. “What foreign office?”
“The one that serves the interest of His Majesty King George outside our United Kingdom.”
“The governmental office where national heroes mill about, doing their duty. For Crown and Country.”
Isobel’s brain began to spin. On leaden feet, she walked into Lumley Street. She blinked. She took a step toward her shop. And another.
“I’m sorry our first encounter was in the alley,” he said. “I’m not a thief, I promise you. I was doing a bit of reconnaissance, although very poorly, I’m afraid. I cannot account for the debacle of this introduction.”
“This is not an introduction.”
“I was being obtuse, and there’s no excuse, although I do have one.” He flashed her a heartbreakingly handsome look and Isobel turned away. She felt a ping inside her chest like a reverberating chime.
He went on. “My file on you and this shop was riddled with bad intelligence. Obviously.”
She looked back. He was staring in open assessment, his gaze methodical, like he was in the business of studying people.
“Deuced unprofessional,” he continued. “Amateur, really. No wonder you don’t believe I’m a duke.”
“I’ve asked you to go,” Isobel said weakly. No matter who he was, he had to go. Drummond Hooke, the meeting. She reached for the door—
“Not before,” he said, taking hold of the door above her head, “we discuss this journey.”
“But you cannot mean . . .” Her brain swam with the highly unlikely (and yet very small possibility) of dukes and foreign offices and national heroes and a file about her. She drifted to her desk.
Behind the counter, Samantha looked up. She stared at the Lurker with narrowed eyes. “You’ve found him, I see,” she said, her tone suggesting that a snake had been found beneath the barn.
“How do you do?” the Lurker asked pleasantly.
“Managed to find our door, did you?” Samantha asked.
“Indeed,” said the man.
“Did you tell him?” Samantha looked to Isobel.
Isobel stared back, her brain going almost entirely blank. Her only thought was, I’ll tell him nothing.
Samantha said to the man, “Please be aware, sir, that we’ve an important meeting in ten minutes’ time. The owner of this agency has traveled from Shropshire for a review. When he arrives, all customers will be asked to—”
“He’s not a customer,” corrected Isobel, her heart thudding in her throat. “Samantha, can I trouble you to prepare tea? Mr. Hooke relishes little flourishes.”
“The kettle is on,” said Samantha, looking back and forth between Isobel and the man.
“Go and check it,” Isobel bit out.
“It’s not whistled.”
“Right,” drawled Samantha. “Now may I get the saber—?”
“Samantha!” breathed Isobel.
Samantha backed from the room with exaggerated stealth. When she was gone, Isobel hurried behind her desk. With the safety of the familiar oak between them, she took a deep breath and turned to the Lurker. In two frustrated yanks, she pulled off her gloves.
He exhaled. “Can we begin again?”
“Can you be gone in ten minutes?”
“My name is Northumberland—North, if you prefer—and I’ve come to book a journey.” He approached her desk in two easy strides.
Isobel braced against his proximity. The alley was one thing, dark and easy to flee. Now sun through the window illuminated him like an angel and she was trapped behind her desk.
She checked the clock. How had he evaded her for days but now trailed her inside? Perhaps if she changed tack. What if she simply went along?
“This trip is for yourself?” she asked. She took up a pen.
“As I’ve said, Everland Travel primarily arranges holidays for female clients.”
“But are you capable of booking passage for a man? It’s possible?”
She sighed heavily and sat down. She scooted her chair behind her desk. She hovered the pen over a blank piece of parchment.
“Where do you wish to go?” She looked up with faux professional interest.
“Iceland,” he said.
Her professionalism and detachment dissolved. Isobel blinked. She squeezed the pen. A single drop of ink dripped to the sheet.
“I beg your pardon?” she said to the drop.
“Iceland?” he repeated. “Nordic island? Recently ceded to Denmark? Covered with volcanoes and, one would assume, ice?”
Isobel felt the blood drain from her face in the same moment her cheeks caught fire.
“Why?” she rasped.
“I’ve business on the island,” he said simply.
“And your business is . . . shepherding?” she asked, her voice strange and high and breathy. “Goat shepherding? The only work to be had in Iceland at the moment is goat farming and agronomy.”
“No,” he said carefully, “I’m on assignment for the Foreign Office. As I’ve said.”
She closed her eyes. This again. “And why hasn’t the Foreign Office booked this Foreign Office–related travel on your behalf? Surely if the Crown dispatches you to . . . foreign shores, they manage the details of the journey.”
“My office could arrange it,” he said, “but it would take time I do not have, and the nature of the mission is particularly delicate. More secret than most. I’ve come to you because my file—that is, the background information on this mission—pointed me in the direction of a woman called Isobel Tinker in a travel agency in Lumley Street. It’s been suggested to me that you might know a devil of a lot about Iceland, more than anyone on the travel desk at the Foreign Office. And so here I am.”
“You’re joking,” she said, dropping the pen. She’d never had a conversation that sounded so patently false but also so terrifyingly possible.
If he was some sort of governmental agent, and he did have access to information (“files”?) on private citizens, was it possible his office knew something? About her? Isobel Tinker? After years of being so very good and so very stationary and so very . . . so very—
Isobel closed her eyes. Was it possible that her uncle had left a trail of documents when he’d extricated her?
Could this strange man possibly know anything about the time she spent in Iceland?
“It is not a joke,” he said easily. “And by the look on your face, I’d say you’re not entirely surprised that I’ve sought you out.”
“I am wholly surprised,” she whispered. “I am in shock.” The truth.
“Because Iceland is an obscure island that is impossible to reach seven months out of any year and difficult to reach the rest. The least traveled destination in all of Scandinavia, to be sure.” This was also true, but only a fraction of why she was surprised.
She managed to add, “It’s sparsely populated by common laborers and a handful of landowning families. There are no trees. To say that it is remote is an understatement.”
She scooped up the pen and jabbed it back into the inkpot. She shoved back from her desk. “That is really all I have time to say on the matter, Mr.—”
“It’s ‘North.’ The Duke of Northumberland.”
“Please stop saying that.”
“It’s my name.”
“You are not a duke . . . you do not work for the king . . . you are not standing in my travel shop asking to book passage to an island that I—”
She couldn’t say it.
“You don’t sell holidays to Iceland?” he asked. He looked so very confused.
“Because I do not believe you when you say you wish to travel there.” In her head, she thought, Because I was utterly destroyed in Iceland, and the memory of it is too painful to bear.
“Well,” he sighed, shrugging giant shoulders, “it’s where I’m going.”
“Then you’ll have to find some other travel agent, because it is out of my realm of expertise.”
“But the file—”
“Do not mention ‘the file,’ or the Foreign Office, or your identity as an alleged duke again,” she said.
He blinked at her. His handsome face was creased with innocent confusion.
Isobel narrowed her eyes and planted her fingertips on the desktop, leaning toward him. “I’m sorry that I cannot help you. You’ll need to find someone else. As I’ve said, I have a very important meeting. Now . . .”
A deep breath.
“. . . I’m afraid I must ask you to—”
She was cut off by the arrival of Mr. Drummond Hooke sailing through the door.
. . . . . .
Jason was confused.
Jason was confused, and irritated, and extremely pressed for time, and no one in the hallowed halls of Everland Travel seemed to care.
Miss Isobel Tinker had gone from dismissing him and dodging him and moved to simply ignoring him.
She ignored him.
Even before he’d become the Duke of Northumberland, Jason “North” Beckett was not accustomed to being ignored. Or dismissed. And certainly not dodged, not by a woman.
“If you’ll excuse me, sir,” she’d said, evading him smoothly when the little bell on her door jingled. “My meeting. It’s happening. Now. I’m afraid we’ll need to postpone your . . .”
She’d stopped talking, seemingly at a loss about what she might do for him.
At a loss, after he’d clearly said, “Please sell me passage to Iceland,” at least five times. It was almost as if she knew what he really wanted was not a holiday package at all. It was almost as if she knew what he really needed was a guide inside Iceland.
Jason looked again at the man who’d breezed through the door. He stood in the center of the agency’s small lobby and turned a slow, deliberate circle, assessing the room. He was of medium height, thin, with a patchy beard. Small eyes, like a subterranean creature prone to burrow. A mole? He wore the ostentatious greatcoat and voluminous cravat of someone far older, a country squire on his first trip to London. He carried a gold-tipped walking stick and teetered on high-heeled boots. And he looked at Miss Tinker like a puppeteer looks at his favorite marionette.
Miss Tinker, in turn, greeted the man with the bracing smile one reserved for pushy vicars.
Jason tried to remember if she’d flashed that smile at him. He’d tailed her for three days. She’d demonstrated polite cordiality to neighbors and crisp helpfulness to strangers, but she did not waft about with a freewheeling grin. In the alley, her pervading expressions had ranged from irritation to impatience. There had been no smiling.
The alley had been a turning point. Jason had realized that his file was all wrong; the profile of Isobel Tinker bore little resemblance to the Isobel Tinker of life.
Generally speaking, diminutive women did not interest him, but Isobel Tinker was very pretty. Although not sweet-pretty or fancy-pretty; more unpredictable-pretty, exciting-pretty. Like a baby snake. Or a lit fuse.
There was something about her that reminded him of a demonstration he’d seen in a chemist’s lab at Oxford: a luminous burst of electrical current flickering inside a tiny glass orb. She strummed. Her bearing suggested coiled energy. He was afraid to look away for fear of missing the explosion.
Ducking into the alley had been, quite literally, the act of “looking away.” He’d hoped to learn more about the shop; instead, she’d materialized behind him. She’d been direct and articulate, calling him out for the dark-alley marauder he’d been.
And she was so bright. Big blue eyes, swinging umbrella, pale hair in a bobbing bun on the top of her head.
He’d spent fifteen years in the Foreign Service and seen mortal combat, but in the alley, he’d had to work to keep up.
He was working still.
“Samantha?” called Miss Tinker now. “Can I trouble you to provide this gentleman with literature about our Scandinavian destinations? And to set an appointment for another day?”
She meant him, of course. He was the gentleman. He would receive literature about Scandinavia and be sent off until another day.
Surely not. He looked at Isobel Tinker.
Surely yes, Miss Tinker said with her eyes.
The clerk called Samantha bit out the words, “Right this way, sir.” She pointed a sharp finger to a desk near a window.
Given no other choice, Jason went.
At the desk, Samantha thunked down a stack of travel guides and slid them to him. “You,” she whispered, “must go.”
“Who’s the bloke?” Jason whispered back, flipping open the topmost book.
“Who are you?” the clerk countered.
“I’m the Duke of Northumberland,” he said, enunciating the words with tight poshness, perhaps his first time ever to emphasize the title.
“Why have you been stalking Miss Tinker for a week?”
Jason stopped. Wasn’t the title enough? For his father and brother, the title had always been enough.
He tried again, speaking like the foreign agent he’d been long before he was a duke.
“I’m not stalking Miss Tinker,” he whispered. “I’m appealing to her. On behalf of the British Foreign Office.”
“Appealing for what?”
“Information. About the island nation of Iceland. And possibly a booking. Although she seems very young to be an expert on foreign destinations. She seems too young to be an expert on anything at all. I was led to believe she was . . . older and, er—Older.”
“She’s seven and twenty,” the clerk said slowly. She glanced at Miss Tinker and back at Jason, the movement of someone who knew she was speaking out of turn.
“Miss Tinker has assured me,” Jason lied, “that she can provide information about Iceland. She said she’s spent a considerable amount of time there. She was an expatriate, I understand, some eight years ago?”
The clerk bit her lip. She glanced again at her employer.
Jason flipped a page and tried again. “But can you tell me how often she returns to Iceland?”
“Miss Tinker will never return to Iceland.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
The clerk gave a slow shake of her head.
“Right.” Jason fell back. “But how long did she live there? Two years? Or was it three?”
“She does not discuss Iceland with me,” said the clerk. “Or anyone.”
Jason nodded and returned to the truth. “Well, she was very shrewd to have spotted me these last few days. I was only surveying the shop to get the lay of the land. I had no idea she was the owner. Or is she simply the manager?” He eyed the girl.
“Miss Tinker is the manager,” informed Samantha. “But she might as well own the shop. She should own it.”
Jason shut the book, filing away this bit of information. “This book is written in Dutch,” he said. “Which I cannot read. How long will she meet with this person?”
“With Mr. Hooke? They will meet for hours. At least.”
“He is the owner of Everland Travel.”
“This man owns the shop?”
A nod. “He inherited it from his parents. Most of the year, he lives in Shropshire and Isobel manages the business. When he travels to London, he must be included. And validated.” Another frown. “He must bask.”
Jason made a grunting noise. “Bask?”
The clerk inclined her head, indicating the ongoing conversation in the center of the room.
“I see you’ve worn the dress I enjoy so very much,” Hooke was telling Miss Tinker, his voice a singsong.
Irritation flared and Jason stifled the urge to join the conversation. His skin buzzed with the familiar, jumpy energy that tormented him whenever he was forced to sit idly by and wait. He reached into his pocket for a coin and flicked it into the air. He caught it, spun it in his palm, and flicked it again.
“Was this a favorite?” Miss Tinker asked her employer.
“But you’ve not worn the pinafores, I see,” said Hooke.
“Oh yes, the pinafores,” hedged Miss Tinker. “I’ll need to call to the seamstress’s. There was some issue with the embroidery, I believe.”
“Oh, the embroidery must be perfect,” said Hooke. “Please remember, the tailor in my village can do up the confections I have in mind—”
“Do not trouble yourself, Mr. Hooke,” soothed Miss Tinker. “We shall have them for next time . . .”
Jason caught the coin and whispered to Samantha, “Pinafores?”
“He wishes for us to wear ruffled yellow aprons with the words ‘Hooke’s Everland Travel Lass’ embroidered on the bib.”
The girl nodded. Jason made a coughing noise and flicked the coin again.
“I was surprised,” Hooke was saying, “to see you’ve not closed the shop for our meeting. We’ve so much to discuss. Ideas and directives. Money-saving measures . . .”
Now the man looked pointedly to the desk by the window. Jason stared back, flicking his coin into the air.
Miss Tinker rushed to say, “Oh, this gentleman was just on his way out.” She shot Jason a pleading look.
“A drop-in client, I assume?” Drummond Hooke said, studying Jason.
“Indeed,” said Miss Tinker.
“How often,” Drummond Hooke now asked, “do lone gentlemen come to us without wives or sisters in tow?” He puffed up, inhaling deeply. “I cannot say it’s—”
“Oh, very rarely,” assured Miss Tinker. “In fact, I cannot remember the last time we’ve served a gentleman without his family. The ladies wish to be involved in each step of the planning. Anticipation is part of the holiday.”
She rushed to appease him, signaling to the clerk. “Samantha, perhaps if you bundled up the guidebooks for—”
Jason flicked the coin once more and caught it. He shoved up and crossed to the younger man.
“Northumberland,” he said, giving a slight bow. “The Duke of Northumberland. How do you do?”
Twice in his life now, he’d proclaimed the title with the intent of impressing everyone in the room.
“Northumberland?” gasped Hooke, clearly impressed. “But, Your Grace!” Hooke swept his hat from his head and bowed with exaggeration. “Isobel?” scolded Hooke. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I—ah . . .” began Miss Tinker.
“What an honor to have you in my shop, sir,” continued Hooke. “But how similar you look to your portrait in the papers. Wait! I’ve today’s edition here.”
While the room stared, Hooke pulled a broadsheet from his greatcoat and unfurled it.
“Aha, there ’tis!” Hooke shoved The Times at Jason, but only Miss Tinker and Samantha leaned in to see.
The headline “Northumberland Departs Foreign Office to Assume Dukedom” shouted from the page, accompanied by a rather constipated-looking etching of Jason’s face.
The sight of the headline invoked a now-familiar burn in the lining of his stomach, and Jason looked away.
“Let me guess,” boasted Hooke, “you intend to pack away your mother and sisters on holiday so you may enjoy peace and quiet as you settle into Syon Hall?”
“Mr. Hooke,” said Isobel Tinker in quiet shock, “the Duchess of Northumberland and His Grace’s sisters have suffered a great loss.”
Hooke ignored her. “You could not have chosen a more reliable, respectable, and, dare I say, esteemed travel agent for the ladies! And what luck, you’ve called on a day when the owner—that would be me, sir—is in the office to manage every detail. Samantha?” he barked to the clerk. “Bring chairs so His Grace and I might sit.”
Jason held up a hand. “If it would be agreeable to you, Mr. Hooke—it is Mr. Hooke, isn’t it?”
“Drummond Hooke, at your service,” said Hooke, bowing again.
“Right,” said Jason. “If it would be agreeable, I’d hoped to finish quickly and be out of your way. I’ve already given my details to your Miss Tinker here. I understand that you’re in town on important business and I’m loathe to intrude on your meeting.”
“’Tis no intrusion,” tried Hooke.
Jason gritted his teeth. “Miss Tinker and I were nearly finished, and I’ve my own demanding schedule.”
Hooke looked uncertain.
Jason finished it. “Honestly, these are the sort of secretarial notes that are surely below the notice of the owner.” He gave the younger man a knowing look. “The girl will do for this.”
Hooke nodded, mimicking Jason.
Miss Tinker cleared her throat. “Perhaps I can see the duke on his way while you review the ledgers with Samantha, Mr. Hooke?”
The younger man glanced first to Samantha, then to the open ledger on the counter, then to Miss Tinker. It occurred to Jason that Drummond Hooke had been looking forward to crowding over that ledger book with Isobel.
“It’s all settled, then,” Jason said quickly. “I’ll not take more than five minutes of Miss Tinker’s time.”
He scooped up a second chair and plunked it at the desk. Meanwhile Samantha darted behind the counter, flipping pages in a ledger.
“Here you are, Mr. Hooke,” the clerk called. “In fact, we have a question on the profits for this quarter. Higher again, you’ll see.”
“So you say,” said Hooke slowly, watching Jason flick his coin again.
Isobel Tinker slid into the chair. “You have three minutes,” she whispered.
“I said five.” Jason sat across from her.
She closed her eyes and drew a deep, calming breath. When she opened them, she said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were a duke?”
“Dukes do not lurk about in alleys. They do not book holidays at small travel agencies for women travelers.”
“Well, I haven’t been a duke for long,” he said offhandedly. “Now, about Iceland—”
“Stop.” She raised a small hand. “I’m at a loss to make myself clearer: no one travels to Iceland. It’s simply not done. If it’s your intention to waste both of our time on a lark, you’ve come on a terrible day. Dealing with my employer is both delicate and taxing. My livelihood depends on accommodating him in a hundred different ways. Mitigating your odd requests is not one of them. I cannot tell you again that there are no holidays to Iceland. Iceland is many glorious things, but it is not a holiday destination.”
“It’s no lark, Miss Tinker,” he said.
“Then what’s the meaning of—?”
“Pirates,” he said plainly. “Nordic pirates. It’s why I came, and it’s why I cannot leave until we speak.”
Her blue eyes widened. “What of Nordic pirates?”
He exhaled deeply and glanced toward the duo at the counter. He looked back at Isobel. “A band of Nordic pirates has taken capture of a contingent of English merchants.”
“Oh,” she said, a hollow sound. “How? Why?”
“We cannot say for sure. The merchants were trying to establish some unofficial arrangement for trade between the east coast of England and Iceland. They set out to speak to civic leaders in Reykjavík about importing goods, but they were taken captive by pirates instead.”
“But the merchants should have sailed to Denmark, not Iceland,” Isobel said. “Denmark controls trade in Iceland.” She reached for a pamphlet entitled Tour Majestic Denmark.
“They should have,” Jason acknowledged, “but they did not. The merchants sought to circumvent the Danes and trade directly with Iceland.”
“To escape the Danish tariffs,” she guessed.
“Yes,” Jason said, his heartbeat kicking up. This young woman knew far more about Scandinavia than he’d been led to expect. But perhaps she could be of significant help to him.
“The merchants were, in essence, setting up a smuggling route,” he said. He’d never intended to reveal this much. But he’d also not expected her to know this much.
“They would not be the first English smugglers to Iceland,” said Miss Tinker. “England and Iceland are neighbors that have been either fighting or trading—or both—for centuries.”
“Indeed. And our government might allow the merchants to simply languish in captivity—pirates are, after all, a consequence of smuggling—but one of the captured merchants just happens to be a . . . relation of mine.” Another deep breath. “A cousin. His father, my uncle, has appealed to me for help. In doing so, I should not rattle the Minister of Trade in Denmark. In fact, none of the leadership in Iceland should be invoked. It’s a colossal cock-up and has the potential to be a diplomatic nightmare.”
“Oh,” she said again, barely blinking.
Jason continued. “The recovery of my hapless cousin and his townspeople is to be my last assignment before I retire to Syon Hall in Middlesex and assume my duties as duke.”
Jason heard himself say the words, his voice remarkably steady, his body relaxed. He was getting better at concealing the gut-rolling dread.
He forced himself to finish. “My brother’s been dead almost a year. I’ve put off my family responsibilities long enough. My resignation has already been announced, but I should like to restore my cousin before I go. He is not the . . . shiniest marble in the pouch, but we were close in boyhood and I’m fond of him. And anything I can do to keep England on the up-and-up with Denmark is advantageous. The relationship between our two countries is tremulous at the moment.”
Miss Tinker nodded. “They sided with France in the war.”
“Indeed they did.” Denmark’s alliances were hardly obscure, but he couldn’t name another young woman who could readily spout off the contents of Napoleon’s dance card. She surprised him nearly every time she opened her mouth. He waited to hear what she might say next.
“I . . .” began Miss Tinker, and then she paused and closed her eyes. She looked so anguished Jason thought it could’ve been her cousin taken by pirates.
He offered, “Not to heap you with reasons, Miss Tinker, but also there is some urgency on the part of the captured merchants. They hail, primarily, from the coastal town of Grimsby, in Lincolnshire. The lot is made up of unknowing townspeople who were, in a manner, convinced of the endeavor by an ambitious town council that misled and bullied them—my cousin included. The captured merchants, by and large, are innocent of the aspiration of smuggling and likely terrified.”
She opened her eyes, shot him a look of something like desperation, and then stared at the ceiling.
Jason went on. “One man is old and frail; still another has a sick child at home. They were only meant to be gone for a month, and now it’s been nearly three. I must go after them, but Iceland happens to be a gray void in my realm of experience. I’ve been a lot of places, Miss Tinker, but never there. However, I understand that you have. And I need your help.”
Now she nodded and glanced at her employer behind the counter. When she spoke, her voice was unsteady. “Look, you appear to be everything you’ve said. I’ll grant you that. And the situation you describe sounds both believable and . . . pressing. But why me? You claim to have information on my experience in Iceland but you don’t know me—not really. Meanwhile, there are Norse scholars and North Sea adventurers and even Icelandic immigrants in England to whom you could appeal for information. I am . . . I am nobody. I’m also distracted and reluctant. Why me?”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “That. I need your help in particular for precisely those reasons. You happen to be the very best source of information because you are obscure in identity and, by all accounts, discreet by nature. You are a young woman who lives a quiet life in Mayfair and wants nothing to do with international diplomacy.”
“Meaning, I won’t tell anyone, and if I did, no one would listen?”
“Yes,” he said. He thought, And very, very clever.
Isobel Tinker nodded, more to herself than him, and looked away. This afforded him a prolonged view of her profile. Delicate nose, a swoosh of lashes, a fringe of soft blond wisps against her forehead. She was lovely. A bit unexpected. Different. Fiery and tightly wound. He found himself wondering what it would take to unwind her.
He wondered why she was unmarried. Why spend her days toiling away in a travel agency, enduring the scrutiny of its petty owner? Most bright and pretty women of seven and twenty were married and had begun a family by now.
“What if I tell you I cannot help you?” she asked softly. “What if I said that I know nothing about Iceland or pirates.”
“Then I’d say you were lying.” He watched her carefully. Her heart-shaped face tightened but she didn’t deny it. Something about the tenseness and the dread gave him pause. Her expression said, Anyone but me.
“Lives are at stake, Miss Tinker,” he said lowly, speaking to the coin in his hand. He wasn’t immune to silent pleading but he truly needed help. And she was proving herself to be a very promising resource.
He looked up, hoping his face conveyed the same plea. “Will you not help us?”
She said something under her breath. A curse? A prayer? He couldn’t be sure. She glanced over her shoulder at Hooke.
“Likely my contributions will be of no help at all,” she said, turning back, “but I’ll share what very little I . . . I remember.” She shot another look at the counter. “Only, not now. And not here.”
“Fine. Meet me tonight?”
“Mr. Hooke will wish for me to accompany him to dinner and some diversion.”
Jason felt a twitch by his left eye. “Diversion?”
She shook her head and held up a hand. “It’s nothing . . . amorous. Let me be clear.”
“You said you would accommodate him a hundred ways.”
She gave one, curt shake of her head. “Not that type of accommodation. It will be dinner and a concert in the park or similar.”
“I believe you,” he said. He hadn’t meant to embarrass her, but he’d wanted to know. It felt very important, for some reason, that he know how she accommodated Drummond Bloody Hooke.
“My job depends on indulging him in this,” she said. “But I cannot say when I will be home.”
“You live here?” he asked.
She nodded. “Upstairs.”
“Alone?” he confirmed. This also seemed important.
Jason felt himself breathe. “Fine. I’ll wait for you. Check the alley when you return.”
“I am not in the business of creeping around in alleys, Your Grace. This afternoon notwithstanding.”
“Don’t disparage alley creeping,” he said. “It’s one of the many things I’ll miss about this job when it’s gone.”
Miss Tinker stared at him with an inscrutable expression. As a rule, Jason had no time for inscrutable women, not when there were so many demonstrative women. But he’d not sought her out because he had time for her. He’d sought her out because he needed her help.
“Fine,” she began, “meet me in the street—not the alley—at ten o’clock. Surely I will be home by then. I’ll give you half an hour on a park bench in Grosvenor Square. But no more.”