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Natalie Miller didn’t run away from challenges. Not recently, anyway. But what was a girl to do after clocking an aristocrat in the nose with a semi-valuable piece of art? It had been a month since what had been dubbed “the incident” came to pass, and after her most recent conversation, there was no returning to her life in the city she called home.
It certainly wasn’t how she expected her time in London to end. Normally, Natalie handled the inappropriate advances at the gallery without too much trouble. A smile and a step away, or a flick of her hand almost always worked like a charm. This time, however, it wasn’t about only her; it was about the terrified college student who had been cornered by a group of drunk, entitled men who were at the gallery for a private lunch. The aggressiveness of one client in particular crossed every line of decency. It was one thing when he put his hands on Nat, but the other woman was young and terrified. Natalie would not allow it. Absolutely not.
It was the beginning of the end.
What was the saying? No good deed goes unpunished. A cliché, to be sure. But sometimes things were clichés for a reason.
The threats that had been leveled regarding her future left her with few options. It was time to go. She wouldn’t be a fugitive; there wouldn’t be criminal charges…as long as she left the country permanently.
She’d gone home to her family in New York right after it happened, spending time at the beach and with her future sister-in-law preparing for the upcoming family wedding. It had been a good cooling-off period for her, and she hoped it would all blow over, but the letter that arrived from the earl’s solicitor limited her options.
Maybe it was all for the best.
Two months ago, Natalie was happy. Better, she was content. She was settled in a place she loved, had a guy whom she deeply cared for, and a job that gave her satisfaction. She’d been running from herself for so long, she thought she’d finally be able to stop. To settle down and make a life, but fate had other plans for her.
Natalie shuffled over to the curio that held her collection of antique glass. Reaching in, she picked up an elegant giraffe and let him catch the sunbeam streaming through the window. The light reflected the colors in wavy patterns on the wall. Gold, and yellow and amber…if she tilted the animal, she could guide the light up the wall to the decorative ceiling. The shards of light flickering around like daytime fireflies.
It was a gorgeous late summer day, and she was packing one final box to take home with her. There wasn’t anything left to do once her menagerie was packed. She’d hired a moving company to ship the rest of the boxes, and the furniture would stay with the apartment. She’d lease it out for now, but she expected she’d sell it sometime down the road. When she was ready.
This wasn’t her place anymore. Maybe it never was.
Isn’t that what the earl had said? She didn’t belong. She wasn’t wanted here.
Maybe she was in over her head. The drama that was her life was always going to end with a crash. What happened at the gallery was the final act.
A gentle rap on the door startled her. “Natalie, are you in there?”
Damn. The deep voice, with its clipped boarding school English set every nerve ending on fire. But the last thing she wanted to do was have an actual conversation with him.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at school?” How did he know she was in town? She’d kept her text messages short and sweet…and noncommittal.
“I need to talk to you, Nat. Open the door.”
“I can’t right now.” Her voice cracked on the last word. Dammit, she couldn’t cry. A deep breath helped her get a grip. “Go to your apartment. I’ll call you later.” No, she wouldn’t.
She tried to ignore him, but he rattled the doorknob so thoroughly she thought it might snap and fall out. He knocked again. “Bloody hell, Nat. Don’t be so bullheaded. You’ve been blowing me off for weeks. Is this still about the gallery?”
She was certain he’d heard some of the story. Whether there was a grain of truth in it was another matter altogether. His stepdad—the Earl of Rutherford—had likely given him the part that painted Natalie as a complete loon.
“Natalie! I can’t help if you won’t talk to me.”
“James, please go away.” No doubt he wanted to be her knight. Her savior. Didn’t he know the only one who Natalie needed saving from was herself?
“Let me in or I’ll shout so loud they’ll hear me clear to Westminster.”
God, he was stubborn. Determined. And it was one of the things she loved most about him. Whether he was fighting for a cause or a person, he never gave up. Right now, he was fighting for her.
But he shouldn’t. Natalie was back in her old territory of feeling like a disaster magnet. Problems had a way of following her, and that’s the last thing James needed in his life. Natalie had brought enough trouble to her family at home, embarrassing and worrying them. She wasn’t going to add somebody on a new continent to her list.
“Natalie, open the door.” Now James sounded pissed. While she always wanted a man to be desperate for her, this wasn’t what she had in mind.
Still, her heart fluttered and flipped. Thinking about him always did that to her, but she didn’t want to see him—couldn’t see him.
He was pounding the door now. “Natalie!”
Certain that every single person on her block in Belgravia could hear him shouting, Natalie came to the conclusion he wasn’t going away, finally flicking the dead bolt and yanking the door open.
“You are out of control,” she snapped. “Have you no sense?”
That got his attention. His eyebrows shot up and two stormy green-gray eyes narrowed as he considered her. “Me? I think you’re the one who’s run out of sense. What’s going on? Why didn’t you tell me you were back in England? I’ve been calling you every hour since yesterday.”
“Have you? My phone must be off.”
“Well, that’s brilliant. Is this still about my stepfather and the problem at the gallery? He keeps waving me off, saying it was some sort of disagreement.”
“Disagreement. I see. That’s what he’s calling it?” This was exactly the kind of psychological manipulation she was dreading. It left Nat with few options. The earl would keep his mouth shut about her assaulting him if she kept hers shut about the way he had harassed both herself and the other woman in the gallery. It didn’t matter who saw what he did, discretion was expected when the titled and privileged were involved. However, Natalie was at peace with her behavior. He’d put his hand on the woman. It was a vile power play and Nat had been angrier than she’d ever been in her life.
London was a modern, vibrant city—and she loved living here—but it still had a bit of a class problem. Of course, the old Lord Rutherford didn’t think it was a problem. Assaulting a woman in a public place for kicks and giggles was just de rigueur for someone like him. That was more a function of his age and entitlement than any inherited status. The problem rested with Natalie standing up to him. It was, in his eyes, altogether unacceptable.
The questions leveled at her by the detectives when it all went down were downright insulting, but even they could see it was best to let it drop. The police didn’t want to be in the middle of a scandal with a member of the old guard. Natalie was warned, sternly, to keep her head down. The earl was more direct. He recommended an extended visit with her family.
James was looking down at her, a lock of his thick auburn hair was falling across his forehead and his face—with those high cheekbones and straight nose—showed a determination often found in those who had to fight for what they wanted.
Natalie might be in love with James, she was almost sure of it, but her feelings didn’t change anything. She had to go home. Permanently. “I have to leave. I just need to…”
“You just got back and you didn’t even tell me you were here. What the hell happened? This makes no sense.”
What was she going to tell him? That his scheming and pompous stepfather propositioned and manhandled a random woman at a small exclusive gallery event? That every one of the people with him laughed and patted the old chap on the back? Or maybe she’d tell James that his stepfather had to go to hospital to get stitched up after she plunked him with the phallic statue he’d wanted to buy. No, he already knew that part. That was the only thing he did know.
“I don’t want to get into it. But after being home for a while, I realized it was time to make a change.”
“Yes. I—I need some time to think about what I want to do since I no longer have a job. My brother is getting married, the holidays will follow not long after, so it’s a good time to head back.”
Not that there wouldn’t be questions. Her family and friends were already wondering if there was something wrong. Three weeks ago she blew into town for no reason. No one expected Natalie until right before the wedding. An extended visit would definitely raise eyebrows. She wasn’t known for her stability.
James was stable though. He had been the most dependable thing in her life. Brilliant, steady…and oh, so handsome. She had to get out before she wrecked that, too. Better to walk away now than screw it up and break her own heart.
Taking a few steps to the window, she folded her arms across her belly. She loved the view from her flat on Eaton Square. The garden across the street was still in full summer bloom. The colors—pinks, yellows and purples surrounded by green—gave the impression that the world was excited and happy.
Her body warmed when James slid his hands over her shoulders. She leaned into him when he wrapped his arms around her. Loving the safety and security, she rested her cheek on his right hand.
“Do you have a plan?” His gaze was trained on the large, half-filled suitcase lying across her sofa.
Natalie didn’t know how to answer him. Originally, her only plan was to put some distance between herself and this place. It wasn’t that moving home was the wrong decision, but now her heart hurt when she thought about the person she was leaving behind. She should have told him first. Running away wasn’t fair. They may not have a future, but they had a past, and she owed him that.
Turning in his arms she looked up. God, how she would miss this face. “No. Not really. I’m going home, like I told you.”
He nodded. “I understand. It will be good for you to take some time away. A visit—”
She cut him off. “I don’t know how long I’ll be there. I’m putting my apartment up for let.”
“I’m not following.” He held her at arm’s length and blinked a few times as if trying to process what she said. “Natalie…”
“We’ve only been together a few months; I think it’s better if we move on.”
“A few? It’s more like six months and I’m bloody crazy about you.”
“The length of time doesn’t matter. This isn’t going to work.”
“Why would you say that?” He took her face in his hands, those wide, somber eyes blinking to focus on her face, to make sense of what she said. “Nat? Why?”
Why? There were a multitude of reasons. Did she want to tell him that his mother had said as much when she’d taken Natalie to tea at The Savoy two weeks ago? Or that his stepfather said so straight out when confronting her at the gallery?
She was “unsuitable.”
The snobbishness was ironic when she thought about it. His lordship made a crack that Natalie was “no Vanderbilt,” referring to one of the New York Gilded Age socialites who wed a British nobleman and secured herself a title. If only they knew the silly American girl they so disapproved of could have given Lord Rutherford’s bank account a bit of competition.
But it wasn’t about money. It was about her. It made sense when she thought about it. If she was too much for her own family, she couldn’t expect James’s family to accept her.
No, she couldn’t tell James anything. He was close to his mum, and Natalie had no intention of mucking that up for him. There wasn’t a place for her in his life, and it was better that she end it now before she got in any deeper.
His lips came down on hers…gently, sweetly…as if the kiss would prove his commitment and convince her to stay. His fingers threaded through her hair, her body responding eagerly to his touch. He pulled her closer, but Natalie stepped back before she drowned in him, taking his hands in hers. She loved his hands. Weathered and strong from working in his garden, they knew exactly how to touch her. “Let’s go to bed,” she whispered, pressing a finger to his lips before he had a chance to question her.
There were probably a thousand things wrong with the idea, the biggest being that it would give him false hope, but she wanted him. She wanted this one last moment of intimacy and closeness between them because saying goodbye to James would be the hardest thing she ever had to do.
End of Excerpt