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Improper English, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

  She rounded the landing and disappeared up the last flight of stairs.

  “How perfect?” I yelled after her, good manners flying out the window even as I told myself I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested.

  “Perfect.” Even her voice was elegant, all rounded vowels and languid English richness.

  I walked to the banister and peered up the stairwell. “Is this perfect man a friend of yours?”

  “In a manner of speaking.” Her voice drifted downward, growing fainter. I heard the chimes that brush her door tinkle softly as she went into her flat. “He’s my lover.”

  Chapter Two

  “Oh, that my sainted Lord Raoul would find me here in this evil place!” The Lady Rowena’s creamy, bounteous bosom heaved as she wailed to the silent cell she had been imprisoned in, wringing her hands and rending her clothing without regard to modesty or economy. “Oh but that I could at this dark moment kiss his firmly chiseled lips! Oh that I could hold him in my arms, stroking the tousled curls back from his broad and manly brow! Oh that I could seat myself upon his manly pillar of alabaster and ride him as he’s never been ridden before! Oh! Oh!”

  “Be honest now, is that something you’d like to read more of?”

  “Well…it’s very explicit, isn’t it? I mean, what with his pillars and her bosom and all.”

  I leaned forward onto my knees and wriggled my right ankle to bring feeling back into my foot. I’d been squatting next to the library cart so long my feet were going numb. “All romances have sex in them in the U.S. You did say you read romances, right?”

  The librarian ducked her head in a shy gesture and pushed the cart down the stack. I followed on my knees.

  “Other than his pillar and her boobs, what did you think? Is this a book you would buy?”

  The woman looked around nervously, then leaned her head close to mine and whispered, “I think you should take the smut out of it. Romance isn’t about sex, you know. It’s about two people committing themselves to each other.”

  She smiled a tense little smile and nodded as she wheeled the book cart away. I looked at the manuscript in my hand. No sex?

  I considered the no-sex angle while I marched home to my lovely little flat, the same lovely little flat in which I had laughed long and hard the day before, chortling merrily over Isabella’s offer of her latest boy toy. Oh yes, I laughed when Isabella called down to me that this perfect man—the man she thought was meant for me—was her lover. I laughed and rolled my eyes as I wandered back into my tiny little flat to ask the room, “Yeah, right, like I just fell off the stupid wagon?” The sad reality is that after I got through laughing, I started seriously considering what Isabella had said.

  I suppose a few words are needed to explain why an offer of Isabella’s homme de l’heure would strike a chord of interest in someone who’d spent the last ten years of her life bouncing from creep to creep, with a few intermittent losers tossed in just to break up the monotony.

  My mother’s best friend from school married a rich Brit, and they had a daughter, Stephanie. Steph was off to Australia for the summer, leaving her flat in an old house on a relatively quiet square in need of a subletter. After six long weeks of negotiation, Mom and I made a deal, with her agreeing to pay for the flat while I tried my wings as a writer.

  There was much more riding on the situation than just an arrangement between Mom and me, though; there was a little matter of my entire life, my future, my hopes and dreams and…well, I’ll be honest, I’ve never been much of a success at life, something my mother brings to my attention frequently. I’d been married once, to a workaholic Microsoft yuppie who divorced me after telling me I was bad luck. I’ve had eighteen jobs in the last ten years, doing everything from scraping up gum at a movie theater, to staring blindly at microfilmed checks at a bank, to walking dogs for people who were too busy to walk their own dogs. I’ve had a slightly fewer number of boyfriends in those same ten years, hooking up with some guys who could easily outcreep Charles Manson.

  Although it may seem that my one and only goal is being successful at writing a book—and the motivation for success is strong, since failure means I’d have to give up my life to stay in a hick town in a desert in eastern Washington taking care of my paternal grandmother’s bodily needs—more important than that is my need to prove to my mother once and for all that I can succeed at something. Anything. Just once, I’d like to come out on top and have her witness my triumph.

  The need for parental approval—it’s a massive, unwieldy weight to bear.

  When I first arrived at the house in London, Isabella greeted me politely, gave me the keys to the doors, showed me my new home for the next two months, and briefly explained who the other tenants were.

  “The ground floor has two families and their children,” she said in a plummy English accent that sent little goose bumps of delight up and down my spine. England! I was really in England!

  She frowned for a moment at an oversized gold floor pillow and adjusted it infinitesimally to the left. “The families are related—sisters—and both spend their summers in Provence. Their flats are let to visiting scholars. This should be fixed.”

  I looked where she was pointing at one of the side windows which didn’t quite close all the way. “It’s not a problem, I doubt that anyone would scale three floors to crawl into the flat.”

  “Mmm.” She moved on to straighten an ugly Van Gogh print. “The first floor is shared by Dr. Bollocks—he teaches at London University—and the Muttsnuts.” She pursed her lips and shook her head briefly at the mention of the last name. “They’re newlyweds. We hardly ever see them.”

  Dr. Bollocks? Muttsnuts? Quaint English names—you gotta love ’em!

  “The second floor has two women, Miss Bent and Miss Fingers, and Mr. Aspertame. Philippe is from the Bahamas.”

  I watched as she fussed briefly with a hideous yellowcracked vase full of wilting daisies, and wondered when she was going to leave so I could quietly collapse on the small daybed that lurked in the corner. “Fingers. Aspertame. Bahamas. Fascinating.”

  Isabella pushed back the beads that hid the entrance to the cubbyhole of a kitchen while I sent a brief glance of pronounced longing toward the bed, but as she showed no signs of leaving, I stiffened my knees against the jet lag that was threatening to make them buckle, and tried to pay attention to what she was saying.

  “You’ll be careful with this gas ring?”

  I nodded my agreement. Honestly, I was willing to forgo ever using the bloody thing if she’d just leave me alone.

  “The third floor consists of this flat, and across from you are two university students, Mr. Skive and Miss Goolies. They’re very quiet, so you need have no worry about late-night parties, loud music, or any other violations of the house rules. You did say you were looking for a quiet flat?”

  I maneuvered all the muscles necessary into a smile, but I was sure the result was less than pretty. Isabella’s startlingly blue eyes quickly slipped away as I confirmed that I was indeed seeking quiet to work on a personal project.

  “Mr. Block and I share the upper floor,” she said smoothly as she opened a battered wardrobe and wrinkled her nose at the musty smell. “You should air this out before you hang your clothes in it.”

  “Thank you,” I said firmly as I sidled toward the door. “I’m sure everything will be perfect, and I’ll fit right in.”

  “Mmm.” She looked rather disbelieving as she glided past me and out the opened door. I kept the tepid smile on my face for the count of ten, then closed the door softly, took a proprietorial look around the small flat, and headed straight for the bed.

  By the time ten days had elapsed I had met most of my neighbors and felt happy in my new digs, happy enough to smile at Isabella’s ridiculous offer before trotting out to do a little research for my book. It was a Regency romance, and I wanted to be sure to have all of the twiddly bits right—descriptions of Rotten Row, Kensington Park, White’s, and other such l
andmarks. I spent an agreeable hour getting a reader’s card at the British Museum’s new library, returning home in a most satisfied state of mind. Satisfied, that is, until I came face to face with my nemesis.

  Isabella’s house wasn’t really what we West Coast Americans think of as a house—it was part of a long line of connected buildings that ran the length of one side of the square. Made of white stone, each house had nearly identical black metal railings, white stone steps, and white net curtains at all of the front windows. Our house had a rich mahogany-colored door that I swore came straight from the depths of hell. That door hated me—or rather, the lock did. I’d seen it work for other tenants, so I knew it wasn’t defective, but let me approach it with my arms full of shopping, and it would turn its face away as if it couldn’t bear to allow me across the threshold.

  “So, you’re in that sort of a mood today,” I muttered as I jiggled the key in the lock, twisting it back and forth in an attempt to engage the mechanism. “Well, my steely friend, I have news for you—I have a little something here guaranteed to make you see the error of your ways!”

  I set down a stack of paperbacks I’d picked up at a mystery bookshop, my bag of groceries, and a small spiky plant I’d bought off a street vendor. “Aha!” I cried, flourishing the small metal awl I had found in a jar with a bunch of Stephanie’s ceramics tools, and subsequently had placed in my purse for just such a moment. “Vengeance is mine, you little bastard!”

  I set to work poking the awl into the lock and muttering imprecations under my breath. “We’ll just see how you like to be gutted,” I said with a particularly vicious jab at its inner workings. “Won’t open up to me, will you? Ha! No lock can keep me out, I’m…” I struggled with the tool and leaned my weight into it. The metal in the lock squealed against my prodding. “I’m…” A slight metallic snap sounded. Sensing victory, I gnawed on my lower lip and jabbed the awl in at a different angle. “I’m…”

  “Breaking and entering is, I believe, the term you’re looking for.”

  “Bugger and blast,” I swore, and whirled around with the awl still clenched in my hand. The man standing on the steps leading up to the house wasn’t familiar, so I assumed he was there to visit one of the residents. I stared for a minute into the loveliest pair of green eyes I’ve ever seen on a man, and let my gaze trail upwards, over a forehead with a few faint frown lines etched in it, up higher to gorgeous chestnut hair with just a hint of curl hanging over his forehead, then back down over his nice cheekbones, long nose, lips that were thinned with annoyance, and a gently blunted chin. I made a concerted effort to pull myself together and tried not to think about what his lips would look like if they weren’t mashed together in a thin line.

  “Um…the lock doesn’t work.”

  He looked again at the awl in my hand, and one dark chestnut-colored eyebrow rose in question. I felt a little blush moving upwards from my neck. “I have a key, it doesn’t work, so I thought I’d try this and see if I couldn’t—”

  “—persuade the lock to open. Yes, I heard you.” He looked me up and down in an arrogant manner and shifted a leather satchel from his right hand to his left. From his pants pocket he pulled out a key ring and without so much as a by-your-leave, shouldered me aside and fitted a key. The bloody door opened without a peep.

  “It hates me,” I muttered as I gave it a good glare, then stooped to pick up my belongings.

  “One moment, if you please,” said the green-eyed locksmith, holding up a restraining hand. He stood rigidly, clutching his satchel and keys, a faint sheen of perspiration beading on his forehead. It had to be at least eighty, and this joker was decked out in a black and charcoal suit, looking like a hot, mildly pissed lawyer. He reached behind him and pulled the door shut.

  “Hey! You can just open that again.” I reached into my bag of groceries and pulled out a loaf of French bread, waving it in what I hoped was a suitably threatening manner. His eyes narrowed as I took a step closer, ignoring the whiff of spicy cologne that curled around me in an intoxicating manner. “You open that door up again, or I’ll bop you on the head with my bread, and I just bet you wouldn’t like a head full of crumbs! They might get on your suit!”

  His eyes widened in surprise. “Are you threatening me, madam?” he asked in a low, rich voice that reminded me of Alan Rickman, the dishy English actor.

  “You got that right. I live here, buster. See, I have a key!” I showed him the key clenched in my palm, along with the straps of the shopping bag, the awl, and the three paperbacks. I hefted my fresh-baked weapon a bit higher. The man was a good four inches taller than me, but even though he was on the step above me, I figured that if push came to shove, I could beat him about the head and shoulders with my bread until he opened the door.

  He didn’t look intimidated by the threat of being impaled by a loaf of French bread, but he didn’t look happy about it either. His eyebrows came together in a frown as he gave me the once-over. It was apparent from the look of distaste that flickered across his face that he wasn’t impressed with what he saw.

  “You’re no prize either, you know.” He blinked in surprise as I poked him in the chest with the bread. That was a lie, but I wasn’t going to stand there and be examined like I was a piece of moldy cheese.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “That look you gave me—it wasn’t very flattering. I just wanted you to know that you can speak in that Alan Rickman voice all you want—it’s not going to do a thing for me.” I nodded and pulled myself back from where I had leaned in to deliver my warning. Somehow that cologne he wore seemed to pull me in closer. I fought a curl of lust that flared briefly to life, and matched his frown.

  “I see. Thank you for telling me that. Now perhaps you would care to show me your identification?”

  I goggled at him. The nerve of some people! “My what?”

  “Your identification. I assume you’re American or Canadian?”

  “American, not that it’s any of your business. Just open the damn door, Bulldog Drummond, and let me get to my flat before my ice cream melts.”

  “You must have a passport,” he insisted.

  I looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Gee, I could have sworn I went through passport control at Heathrow. If you won’t open the door, the least you can do is step out of the way so I can kick it down.”

  He gazed over my head for a moment, sighed, then slipped his hand into his suit jacket and pulled out a leather wallet. He flipped it open. A thumb-sized image of his face, minus frown, stared back at me. I read the words at the top.

  “Metropolitan Police.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Scotland Yard?”

  He closed his eyes briefly and nodded. I looked again.

  “You’re a detective inspector! Cool! Who are you visiting here?”

  “No one. I live here, which puts me in the perfect position to know that you, my fair little bread-wielding housebreaker, do not. Now please show me your identification.”

  “I’m subletting Stephanie Shay’s flat,” I told him, suddenly noticing that his hands were large, but nicely shaped. I admit to having a thing about men’s hands, and the combination of a real live Scotland Yard ’tec, his hormone-stirring cologne, and those hands was making me a bit woozy. “You can ask Isabella. You’re not one of the people who lives on the ground floor?”

  “No, I live on the fourth floor.”

  It was my turn to blink in surprise. “You live above me?”

  “Evidently.” He frowned once more for good measure, then picked up my spiky plant and gave it a curious look. “Are you accustomed to carrying illegal drugs around with you?”


  He held out the plant. My fingers overlapped his as I tried to take it, but he wouldn’t let go of it. I tugged harder.

  “You’re aware that this is a marijuana plant, aren’t you?”

  I stared at my cute little spiky plant. It looked so innocent! “I…no! I bought it off a
guy outside the tube station. He had a whole row of them—he said it was…oh.”

  He cocked an eyebrow at me, but released the plant. The sensation of his fingers sliding out from under mine made me babble. “The guy selling it said it was a homeopathic herb used to bring enlightenment and peace, and was harmless.” I felt my face flame up as I admitted to my naivety, but said nothing more when he unlocked the door and held it open for me. I gave him a quick, crooked smile, the door a muffled promise of retribution, and swept into the tiny hall.

  “I will ask Isabella about you,” he warned as I started up the stairs.

  I shrugged as best I could with my arms loaded, and heard his footsteps follow me up the uncarpeted stairs. “It’s no skin off my nose; she’ll tell you the same thing I did.”

  I looked over my shoulder as I turned on the landing and was delighted to see that his eyes had been solidly fixed on my derriere. “Well, well, so there is flesh and blood beneath that suit.”

  His emerald gaze shot up to mine. I cocked my head at him. “Gee, I can’t remember the last time I made a man blush.”

  He seemed to grow more rigid, if that was possible, his jaw tightening until the muscles there jumped with tension. Obviously, Mr. Detective didn’t get a whole lot of yucks during his day. Poor guy, here he was sweltering away under a hot suit and I was teasing him.

  “Hey, it’s all right,” I said with a reassuring smile, giving the hand clutching the banister a friendly little squeeze. “If it will make you feel any better, you can walk in front of me and I’ll ogle your ass.”

  His eyes bugged out a little at that, and he looked like he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to yell at me or laugh. I turned my smile up a notch and poked him in the ribs. “It was a joke, Sherlock. You’re supposed to laugh. You know, ha ha ha?”

  One corner of his mouth twitched, then the other, and then lo and behold, Mother Mary and all the saints, he smiled. I took a step back and clutched the bread to my chest. “Oh, be still my heart! I shall have to avert my eyes lest such a devastating smile brings me to my knees and strips me of what sensibilities I possess,” I said in my best Regency heroine voice, and grinned when he laughed a rusty-sounding little laugh.