It takes two flints to make a fire.
— Louisa May Alcott
LONDON MAY 1875
Lady Helena March was inclined to dislike Maxwell Crenshaw without even having met him. There were several reasons for this, but climbing quickly to the top of her list was the fact that he was tardy. A glance at the clock on the mantelpiece revealed him to be a quarter hour later than she would have preferred. They would never catch up to his runaway sister at this rate. As she paced the confines of her drawing room, she considered that she may have to leave without him.
The Crenshaws from New York, excluding the daughters August and Violet, had revealed themselves to be the very worst sort of social climbers. Not only had they touted their extraordinary fortune to make social connections, but they had used their own daughters to further their aspirations. As the heir to the Crenshaw Iron Works fortune, Maxwell Crenshaw should have been able to stop his parents from serving up his sisters to the impoverished noblemen of London. But from what she could tell, he hadn't, which likely meant that he supported his parents' machinations. Perhaps she should leave without him. If he intended to marry Violet to a stranger for a title, then he may very well prove to be a hindrance.
"Mr. Crenshaw." Helena's butler, Huxley, announced the man's arrival from the door of her drawing room.
She whirled from her pacing as a man entered behind him. Maxwell Crenshaw was nothing like she had expected. Tall, at several inches over six feet, broad in the shoulder, and thick in the chest, he should have seemed brutish, or at least unrefined; but he wore the clothes of a gentleman well. The impeccable tailoring of his coat meant that the fine garment hugged his shoulders without pinching or pulling, and it tucked in fashionably at his waist just enough to illustrate his lean frame. He walked into her drawing room with the graceful stride of someone who knew his own size and was comfortable with it. There were no hunched shoulders on this man to minimize the space he filled in her doorway.
None of that was a surprise, really. He was probably one of the wealthiest men she would ever meet. It stood to reason that he would be well turned out. What surprised her was the intensity he carried about him. It was his eyes. Those eyes pinned her in place across the distance, like a falcon sighting a target. Helena had been assessed in the matter of a few seconds, and she had no idea what he had made of her. His face remained impassive. All she knew was that her mouth was dry and nerves rumbled pleasantly in her belly, which was ridiculous. She had stopped allowing men to affect her long ago. She wasn't about to let this one—a man who would use his sisters to further his own ambitions—change that.
"Good morning, Miss..." His voice was pleasantly deep with a rich timbre, his American accent putting a soft edge on the words even as his tone was one of impatience.
"Lady Helena March." Never in her life had she been happier to use her title. "You are late, Mr. Crenshaw." The note she had sent earlier that morning to his parents' rented home on Grosvenor Square had indicated that he should come right away.
An eyebrow arched as he walked farther into the room. "Did we have an engagement I missed? My apologies. Back home we use calling cards and invitations, not cryptic messages left unsigned." He held up the note she had sent him. "I'll have to become accustomed to the way you do things here."
Touché. His censure was probably warranted. Her note had simply read: Come alone. Leave immediately. 43 Berkeley Square. She had not dared sign it in case someone aside from the boy she had hired to deliver it had read it. She had even hesitated about adding her house number but had realized having Mr. Crenshaw walking aimlessly around Berkeley Square would have been even more unwise. No one was supposed to know she was in town, but she had needed to see him, so it was a risk she'd had to take.
"Thank you for coming," she said, keeping her voice measured. "I regret that I could not reveal more in my note, but I could hardly take the chance that someone might see it." She doubted very much his parents knew her address on sight.
"Someone? Do you mean my parents?"
It was no use pretending to approve of the Crenshaw couple. While Helena was inclined to believe Maxwell Crenshaw was involved in his parents' scheming, it would be unfair for her to assume so outright. "Yes, I regret to say."