He owns three shipping companies, a diamond mine, and his own castle. He knows Portuguese, Hindi, Mandarin and Morse code. His assets net thirteen million.
Everyone thinks Andrew Tilmore, Lord Preston, the financial prodigy dubbed “The King of Threadneedle Street,” has it all, but he wants the one prize money can’t buy: his childhood sweetheart.
Alysia Villier can’t say if it’s worse having Andrew’s father in control of her inheritance or Andrew in control of her heart. He’s ruined her for any other man, but she simply can’t give in to him. She knows he’s destined for great things—marrying a courtesan’s daughter would jeopardize everything he stands for.
Keeping Alysia out of trouble and away from eager suitors becomes a cross-continental quest for Andrew, and he won’t be stopped by his old-fashioned family or the disapproval of the ton. After all, he’s a man with the power to play newspapers and investors like pawns, tumble world markets and incite riots…but can he win the biggest gamble of his life?
The King of Threadneedle Street is one of the best historical novels I've read this year. Moriah Densley raised my expectations of the genre. I can't wait to read more!”—#1 New York Times Bestselling Author, Rachel Van Dyken
“Moriah Densley's writing draws you in so close, you feel as if you're standing right next to the characters, seeing through their eyes, feeling the slight breeze across your skin, experiencing everything that they do.”—Bestselling Author Ruth J. Hartman
But men are men, and sometimes the best forget.
~Othello, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Summer of 1870, Lancashire, England
FREEDOM. A DEAR luxury. Cloud-filtered sunshine and a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare so worn the pages lay open — simple pleasures. Alysia Villier lounged in the grass before the lake, sketching in charcoal. Scenes of Ophelia’s lunatic singing started taking shape when sounds of commotion wafted from the direction of Ashton Manor. The clatter of what must have been fallen drapery rods accompanied by a shrill voice gave her twinges of guilt but not enough to make her run home and mediate. The Tilmores should accustom themselves to managing their own disasters.
Two weeks and she would be dropped from the nest, a baby bird with quills for feathers and the faintest instinct how to fly. A demimondaine had an air of sophistication, wit as sharp as a rapier, and ice in her veins by osmosis, apparently. Her mother, the legendary courtesan Violet Villier, had passed such improper magnificence to her daughter, or so all assumed.
After helping produce Elizabeth Tilmore’s wedding to the Duke of Belmont in two weeks, Alysia Villier — housekeeper, lady’s companion, family friend, whichever explanation seemed least embarrassing for the occasion — would become who she was born to be. Courtesan, ladybird, mistress, light-skirt, kept woman: pretty-sounding words with one ugly synonym.
She was already accustomed to the averted eyes and shallow curtsies. But Switzerland, Milan, Prague? Ballrooms, calling cards, gossip — all foreign. Ostentatious gifts from men, clandestine letters, discreet packages from unscrupulous apothecaries…
Oh, saints. Please, no.
She lay back on the grass and squeezed her eyes shut until red spots flashed over her eyelids. Young men will do’t if they come to’t, By Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, You promis’d me to wed. Alysia credited herself with greater wisdom than Shakespeare’s Ophelia; she had neither allowed men to tumble her nor did she expect marriage proposals. If only she could convince the Tilmores she harbored no such ambitions, that she posed no such threat…
A long shadow blocked the sun, accompanied by broad footsteps trampling the grass.
“What have we here, a unicorn caught sunbathing? Prime hunting,” came a familiar voice. A sonorous chocolatey bass, somehow deeper than when she had last heard it, and his Lancashire accent replaced by a genteel inflection she found jarring.
“Not at all,” she replied without opening her eyes, rattled by the jolt in her pulse. “Such plodding footsteps could only belong to a troll. Easily outrun by a unicorn. But trolls are really quite harmless, if you keep them fed.”
“On unicorn meat?”
“No. Pomeranians.” An old joke stemming from their mutual love of mastiffs and disdain for yapping small dogs.
His laughter almost stopped her heart. She distrusted the easy, boyish, tone tempting her to believe all would be well now that he was there. She opened one eye, unsurprised to find their years of separation had rendered him not at all like a troll. Over six feet of Gallic demi-god sharing the same body with the most bookish man she ever met. Andrew Tilmore, Lord Preston, heir to the illustrious Marquess of Courtenay. Drew, to her, or when he deserved it, Troll.
“Lisa,” he said in a tone he should reserve for a hot bath or rare cognac and sat beside her on the grass. “As lazy as ever, I see.” Adolescent teasing which meant, So you managed to sneak away. Bravo.
“You weren’t expected until Friday next, Drew. Unfortunate timing you will no doubt regret.”
“Why? Is something amiss?”
“Only the apocalypse.”
Andrew snorted, waiting for her to explain. She would not. Lady Courtenay trying to run her household for the first time — while pretending to arrange a ducal wedding, which Alysia was truthfully in charge of — would not mix well with the problem Andrew’s presence would bring. Specifically, his being in the vicinity with Alysia.
She pushed herself up on her elbows, mindful of the buttons she’d loosed on her bodice. He wasn’t looking but fastening them would draw his attention. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her bent knees.
Andrew leaned in to catch her gaze, and she suppressed her shock. From anxiety or lust, she couldn’t say, but in the seconds it took to trade glances, it became clear that what his parents had tried to douse between them had not yet faded. He cradled her chin between his thumb and forefinger then stroked the edge of her jaw, which in times past heralded a kiss.
Two years ago, he would have mock-whispered, “See, I am making eyes at you, Lisa. Wet your lips, I will lean closer and, as soon as you close your eyes, the violins will start. When you see firecrackers, say so.” Then he would have overly puckered his lips, smacking them together like a fish, while she dodged, squealing. But sometimes his manner was quite serious, and those memories were best left buried in the back of her mind.
He was serious now. She knew that expression he wore, as plainly as if she’d heard his thoughts. Still it made her stomach drop and her lips tingle with longing. Alysia pulled away, not trusting herself to look him in the eye. If she had any hope of surviving two weeks under the same roof with Andrew, she had best set the precedent now for their behavior.
He opened his collar and yanked off his necktie then used it to dab the sweat and dust from his throat. He eyed the lake as though contemplating jumping in. Instead he blurted, “And how do you find the Duke of Belmont, Lisa? Does he deserve my sister?”
“He is everything one would expect of a duke.”
“As bad as that?”
“Judge for yourself. He is a guest at Ashton. You hadn’t heard?”
“What? No.” He scowled.
“You don’t approve?”
He spun the necktie around his finger and unraveled it again — still fidgeting as a habit, restless as ever. “I know Belmont only by reputation.”
“As bad as that?”
“Worse. Have a care and watch your back. Or your skirts, rather.” He winked, as though the accusation was humorous rather than grave.
“Well. It seems you shall all have a lovely time here at Ashton.” High-strung, strong-willed, mischievous, and dubious characters with the addition of Andrew’s impending antagony, all under one roof? She rose and brushed her skirt. “Which way to the circus, please?”
He tugged her hand, forcing her to sit where he could gather her shoulders under his arm. Lovely how she fit against his side. She hadn’t forgotten, but what had once been simple affection now seemed alarmingly wonderful.
Andrew chuckled and pressed his lips to her temple, which made her eyelids drop. A shiver brushed her spine. Her poor pleasure-starved soul couldn’t manage even his casual affection. Familiarity had once shielded her with immunity, but it was utterly stripped now. She could afford no such weakness. Perhaps she should depart Ashton early and leave Lady Courtenay to her domestic chaos.
“You may not believe me, but I am half serious.” She finally noticed his post horse grazing in the reeds, still saddled and in need of a rubdown.
“Do not steal the horse. If I must endure it, so shall you. Will you be my Bedlamite?” He said it like a marriage proposal, and she couldn’t resist a smile.
He sighed through his teeth. “How I have missed you, Lisa. Let me have a look at you. It has been two years.” He reached to hold her face again, and she leaned away. “Keep still. Obey, wench,” he teased, raising her chin.
She met his warm brown stare as he studied the top of her hair to the bottom of her ankles, her raised hem exposing bare skin to mid-calf. He’d seen much more in the past.
“You are a woman.”
“Brilliant. I knew those years at Oxford weren’t a complete waste.” She tucked her feet under the skirt.
“No, I mean you’ve grown up.” He still held her chin, tighter when she tried to pull away. “The roundness is gone from your cheeks — you look like your mother. And you’ve outgrown your freckles.” He traced a finger across the bridge of her nose where the faint trail of sunspots had once been sprinkled. “It seems your hair is darker. Is it proper to call it chestnut or maple? And now you wear it up like a lady. So I can’t tug on your braids?” He pulled on a curl hanging over her shoulder then let it spring back into place. “Your famous lavender eyes are the same. That pleases me.”
“My mother’s eyes were famous, not mine.” He seemed oblivious to her unease.
Andrew looked across her collar, shamelessly down her torso, and back to her face. “I confess you are quite elegant, Alysia. Very well formed indeed. When I last saw you, you were short and plump.”
“I was sixteen,” she defended. “And you were lanky, Andrew, with hands and feet far too large for your frame. And your ears…”
“Am I not at all improved?”
“I suppose. Your shaggy hair hides the ears, at least.” His hair, no doubt fashioned by London’s finest valet, waved around his temples and neck in a style that made him look like a poet. Teasing came automatically to her, and somebody should keep his ego in check. “Shall I study you in return?”
“Yes, please. Yours is the only honest opinion I shall ever get. Everyone else is either indulgent or mercenary.”
“Very well.” She assessed him from head to toe; inexplicably he flushed under her scrutiny. “My, Andrew. You have the look of experience about you. The rakish way you lounge propped on your elbow and how you square your jaw and there is that directness in your expression. You know you are beautiful.”