Connie Brockway
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My Dearest Enemy

My Dearest Enemy

EXCERPT

Lillian Bede was stunning. The shock of her appearance capsized all his preconceptions and left Avery floundering for words.

Thank God, he'd already schooled his expression to blandness before urging. He wasn't sure be would have been able to say anything halfway intelligent had he seen her first and then, not two minutes into their first meeting, Lily Bede would have had the upper hand. Stunning or not, the one thing nearly five years of correspondence with this woman had taught him was that Lily Bede ought never, ever, to have the upper hand.

Broad across the cheeks and brow, her face narrowed to a squared jaw. Exotically tilted eyes studied him, fringed by such a wealth of lashes that they shadowed the clear whites. Her mouth was as full-lipped as an Egyptian's and as red as though she'd been sipping a cherry cordial. Clouds of tightly coiling, inky black hair had been pulled atop her head, accenting her long, slender throat and adding height to an already impressive figure.

Stunning, Avery thought once more. Lily Bede. It wasn't right.

She lifted her hand to her throat, in a gesture both alluring and defensive, drawing his attention to her garb. She wore what looked like a man's plain linen shirt and a dark, gored wool— by God, she was wearing bloomers! In spite of— or maybe because of— the severe, masculine garb, she looked exotic and out of place, like an odalisque in sackcloth.

Abruptly he realized that he'd been dumbly eyeing her for a full minute. Of course, she was taking her time studying him, too. But the expression in her eyes was hardly appreciative.

"You'll forgive me," she said at last, "I thought you were someone else." Her charmingly precise upper class accent only emphasized her foreign appearance.

He must be mad. Lily Bede, first stunning, now charming. "I'm delighted to make your ac—"

"Is there much luggage?" she asked.

"No. Not much." He crossed the room toward her. Her skin was the color of Tahitian sand and when she tipped her head to look up at him he could see a scar beneath one straight, dark brow. "As I was about to say, I'm delighted to finally meet you, Miss Bede. I appreciate your—"

"I don't think you and I need waste time with social niceties." She took a step back. "Where's Bernard?"

Play lady of the manor with him, would she? "I don't know," he answered. "Have you misplaced him?"

"I?" Startled, her eyes widened. They were as black as Turkish coffee, clear and rich. Abruptly they narrowed. "Listen, sir. I don't appreciate familiarity from Bernard's escort and I doubt Harrow's deans will either. Who are you, anyway? The football coach?"

Good God. The chit didn't know who he was. He felt as though she'd struck him. True, he would never have picked her out of a crowd as the author of the astringent letters that had followed him through four continents, but he'd only an ill-remembered newspaper caricature to guide him. She had no such excuse. His damn picture hung in the upper hail— he went still. At least, it had.

Forgetting his resolve to remain cool, calm, and impeccably polite, he strode past her into the hail. Behind him, he heard the rustle of her blasted bloomers.

"I say, you can't just—"

He ignored her, bent on discovering the whereabouts of his portrait. It was the only portrait of him in existence, done at his uncle's insistence. True, it had never meant a bloody thing to him before but it had lately— very lately— gained considerable importance. It was the principle of the thing. How dare she have it taken down?

"Just who do you think you are?" Lily panted, struggling to keep up, her heavy bloomers swishing angrily. "I'll have your job for this!"

He stalked down the central hall, vaguely aware of a certain elegant paucity in the rooms he passed, a bare but gleaming ebony table, the well worn oriental runner with the frayed binding, the smell of beeswax and lemon oil. He mounted the curving staircase and turned into the wing where some of the family's countless pictures had always hung. There, right beside his great grandmother, Catherine Montrose, it should have—

He stopped. There, where it had always been, clear as day, hung his portrait. It wasn't even tilted.

With a scowl, Avery turned. Lily Bede stood a foot behind him, hands on hips, spots of carnelian edging each cheekbone.

"If you're not out of my house in two minutes, I shall have you thrown out." The upper-crust accent still rode high, but the imperious Lady Bountiful attitude had fallen into the ditches.

Throw him out of her house? Her gaze locked with his as he moved closer. She didn't retreat. She would, Avery realized, go toe-to-toe with him rather than back up. This woman he had no trouble identifying. Combative, curt, self-sufficient…

"How you ever got through the front door in the first place… " Her voice trailed off as her gaze swept past him to his portrait, paused, and snapped back She had an exceptionally expressive face, ridiculously easy to read. Right now horror suffused every feature. Good.

He took up the pose he'd held for the months of the painting's creation.

"A good likeness, don't you think?"

"Thorne."