Improper English, page 1
LOVE SPELL NEW YORK CITY
Both of Alex’s chestnut eyebrows rose. “I believe I mentioned the Crime Museum was closed to the public, Alix.”
I watched him step onto the landing, then snapped my mouth shut. “Wait a minute, you just said you would take me, and now you’re saying you won’t?”
He had one foot on the bottom step of the last flight of stairs. The stairwell was too dark to see the expression on his face until he leaned to the side, into the light from a window behind him. He looked just like the Cheshire cat—my jaw dropped at the sight of his grin. The little frisson of fire that had started with our flirtation burst into a full-fledged roaring volcano, threatening to consume me where I stood. I grasped the door frame to steady my suddenly weak knees.
“You asked me to take you, Alix, and I fully intend to honor that request. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for me to take you to visit the Crime Museum.”
I felt as if every bone in my body had melted to pudding under the influence of that wolfish grin. “But…but…you said…you’d take me.…” A lightbulb lit up over my head. I stared at him, unable to believe what I was thinking. Surely he hadn’t meant…he couldn’t, he was English, and everyone knew Englishmen were cold and reserved and didn’t flirt like that, certainly not suit-wearing detective inspectors. “Uh…”
“Close your mouth, Alix,” he said softly, and with a graceful tip of his head, he disappeared up the stairs.
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Lady Rowena gasped in horror at the sight of Lord Raoul’s majestic purple-helmeted warrior of love.
“Lawks a-mercy,” she swooned, her eyes widening as the warlord strode forward, his massive rod waving before her. “However will you fit that mighty sword into my tiny, and as yet untrammeled, silken sheath?”
“Thusly,” Raoul growled, and throwing himself upon her, he plunged deep, deep, oh so deep into her depths, rending from her that most precious jewel of womanhood, making her scream with pleasure as he drove his lance of love home.
“So, what do you think?”
A pronounced silence met my ears.
“C’mon, Isabella, you said you’d help me with this. What do you think of it so far? You can be honest, it won’t hurt my feelings.”
“It’s vivid, isn’t it?”
“Do you like the imagery? I tried to make it colorful.” I reached for the teapot and felt its round little brown belly. It was cold. Rats. I hoisted myself off the floor pillow and padded barefoot over to the cubbyhole that passed for a kitchen.
“Yes, it’s colorful…”
“And you’ll notice I have them in bed in the first chapter. Sex sells, you know, and I’ve started things off with a bang. Ha! A bang! Get it?” I snorted to myself as I checked the water in the kettle and plugged it in.
“Heh. So what do you think? Do you think it’s good?” I marched back and stood in front of the vision lounging on the wicker chaise. Isabella bit her bottom lip and looked vaguely uncomfortable, despite being in possession of the most comfortable piece of furniture in the flat. “Alix…”
I frowned at my critic. Dreadful? My story? “Surely it’s not that bad?”
Isabella grimaced and waved a rose-tipped, slender hand at me in a vague fashion as if she were swatting an unimportant gnat. “I’m sorry, darling, it is. It’s perfectly dreadful. Terrible. Trite, in fact, and almost sickeningly brutal.”
“Brutal? It’s not brutal, it’s erotic! There’s a difference.”
She shook her head at my protest, her hair a shimmering curtain of silver-blond that aroused the fiercest envy in my brunette-headed heart, and eased herself into a sitting position. She tapped at the stack of manuscript pages sitting on the small wicker end table at her elbow. “This isn’t erotic, it’s tantamount to rape. There are no emotions involved in either character, no foreplay, no affection, just a man bent on taking what he can.”
“Oh.” I felt my face fall with my spirits, but immediately began the buoying process. After all, Isabella herself admitted that she didn’t read romances and probably wouldn’t recognize a good one if it came up and bit her on the backside. Still, it was important I get this right on the first try—I didn’t have long to prove myself with it. “You didn’t like Lady Rowena? Or the dashing Lord Raoul? What’s not to like about Raoul?”
“Neither. No, I tell a lie, I liked Rowena. And I suppose Raoul shows promise.” She waved her hand again and gave a little shrug as I hooked my foot around a three-legged stool and pulled it over, carefully lowering myself onto it. I’d had experience with that stool during the ten days I’d been living in the flat, and now approached it with the respect it was due. More than once I had been unwary, only to have it buck me off, resulting in gruesome rug burns from the horribly scratchy polyester burnt-orange carpet.
“Honestly, Alix, it’s not the characters, it’s the writing.”
I sat up straighter and snatched the plate of lemon biscuits from where she was about to snag one. Now this was hitting a little too close to home! “What’s wrong with the writing?”
“Well…it’s a bit purple.”
“Yes, purple. Exaggerated. No one calls a cock a purple-helmeted warrior of love.”
I blushed a little. “Well, I don’t call it…it…you know, either.”
“You know. What you called it. The c-word.”
“What do you call it?”
“I use creative euphemisms instead,” I said with great dignity and allowed her to have just one lemon biscuit. They were my favorites and very expensive, but she was my landlady and she had volunteered to give me her opinion on my work in progress. Sacrifices were sometimes inevitable. “I am, after all, striving to be a writer. I am expected to be a bit on the exuberant side, verbally speaking.”
Isabella pursed her lips and tapped an elegant finger to their rosy fullness. Seeing her perfect mouth in her perfect face, topping her perfect body, made me suck in my bottom lip and gnaw off the few tendrils of chapped skin that graced it, all the while making a mental note to check out whether or not the National Health Insurance plan for visiting Americans covered plastic surgery.
“Euphemisms like lance of love and anything with a helmet are passé, Alix. I suggest you try something a little less flowery.”
“Flowery, huh?” She nodded. I thought about it. “How about if I change that first line to read Lady Rowena gasped in horror at the sight of Lord Raoul’s throbbing manhood…”
“No,” Isabella said firmly, shaking her head at me, her pageboy swinging emphatically. “No throbbing. Nothing should throb, it sounds like it’s infected. Find another phrase.”
She raised a perfectly shaped pale eyebrow. “I should think not.”
“Really, Alix, you’re not being serious.”
“How about tarse? Tarse is good. I like tarse. Tarse sounds manly and firm, and not in the least bit infected.”
“No-o-o,” she drawled after considering for a moment. “It’s too blunt. If you’d take my advice—”
“How about poleax?”
She shuddered delicately. “Too violent. Why must you beat around the bush? If you won’t call it a cock, simply use the word member.”
“Member,” I scoffed. “Member! How prosaic. Member.”
She glanced at the thin gold watch on her delicate wrist. I abandoned my protests and hurried on, deciding it was better to fight the big battles. If it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to sweat the little stuff. “Well, all right, for the sake of moving on, I’ll go with member. Now, about the next scene—”
“You know, darling, honestly, I think you’re just a bit over your head with this project. You said yourself that you’ve never written anything, and to plunge in with a romance seems a bit…”
She sighed. “Ambitious. Alix, I think you should reconsider your plan. Surely your mother would understand if you decided it was too much for you to do in three months. Why don’t you just enjoy your holiday rather than trying to write the entire time? You could travel about, visit Europe, see the rest of England—” She stopped when I made a rude face.
“I don’t imagine you learned too much about my mother from the draft she sent for this flat, but I can tell you that our agreement is iron-clad, with no changes allowed: She pays for this very expensive flat for two months, and I write a book. It’s as simple as that. If I don’t succeed…” My mouth went dry at the thought of the alternative. “Well, I’d rather not think of that. Assuming I do finish the book, I’ll be sitting in clover. Mom’s agreed I can spend a year rent-free in the apartment over her garage, allowing me to establish myself as a writer. After that, my future is negotiable.”
A languid hand reached for the red lacquer fan sitting next to the tea tray. I avoided the questions in her eyes, and went to check on the water.
“In case you’re wondering, I threw away those tea bags and I’m making tea the way you like it, although I have to admit, it never fails to amaze me how you English drink hot tea in the middle of summer.” I swished out the teapot with hot water and added fresh tea. “You’d think everyone would drink iced tea when it gets this hot out.”
Isabella examined her perfectly painted rose-colored toenails. “Tea should be hot, not iced,” she said pedantically, then allowed a smile to curl her lips as I carried the tea to the small table next to her. “And coffee should be white, not black.”
I shuddered as I kicked the floor pillow next to the table. “You’re not going to get me into that argument again. You forget I’m from Seattle—if it’s not strong enough to strip paint, it’s not real coffee.”
“You say that with pride.”
A smart-ass retort rose immediately to my lips, but it withered when I met the look of concern in her eyes. I hadn’t told her much about my life, but Isabella seemed to have an uncanny knack of seeing through the usual screens. I gave her a rueful smile instead, and plopped down on the pillow. “Seattleites take their coffee very seriously.”
“What will you do if you don’t finish your book?”
I considered what to tell her while I played mother and poured tea, adding milk to hers and lemon to mine. I’d only known Isabella for a little more than a week, having met her the day I took over the sublet on the flat. She was polite but rather distant then, warming a little each day until the previous day when I admitted my purpose for being in London. Although our contact was limited to a few hours each afternoon, our friendship had grown into something very comfortable. I trusted her where I trusted very few people.
“If I can’t cut it as a writer, I will…” I paused, staring into the tea, hoping for inspiration, hoping for a lifealtering event, hoping for hope. “…I will be an indentured servant with no future. None. Ever.”
Her eyelids dropped over her brilliant blue eyes. Outside, a siren Dopplered against the building and in through the three open windows as a panda car swerved in and out of the busy afternoon traffic, around two corners of Beale Square, finally heading off for God-knows-where. We sipped our tea in companionable silence, the fragrant smell of Earl Grey mingling with the tang of fresh lemon and the faintly acid bite from the bouquet of flowers I’d bought at the corner shop. I stopped avoiding the inevitable and glanced at Isabella.
“I must be going,” she said with what sounded like genuine regret, and set her cup down next to the few pages of my book. A slight line appeared between her eyebrows for a moment as she eyed the papers; then her brow smoothed as she rose gracefully from the chaise and ran her hand down the tunic of her hand-dyed primrose silk hostess pajamas that I coveted almost as much as I had coveted everything else she had worn. “There is such a thing as trying too hard, darling. Perhaps if you were to forget everything you’ve read about writing a book, your prose might be less…”
I stared at the hostess pajamas for a moment, calculating how much they must have cost, finally determining that they were probably more expensive than my entire stay in England. “What?” I scrambled up from the pillow and walked the ten feet over to the door. “Purple?” I tried on a little pout for size.
She smiled suddenly, tiny laugh lines appearing around her cerulean eyes. She patted my hand reassuringly as I smiled back. “Ghastly.”
My smile slipped a little, but I managed to murmur my appreciation for her advice.
“Do you know what you need?” she asked, her head tipping to one side as she ran her gaze over me. I straightened up from my habitual slouch, and wished I had on something more elegant than the plain Indian sundress I’d picked up at a tiny shop in the tube station. I also toyed with the idea of wishing I wasn’t quite so Amazonian and more in the line of Isabella’s sylph-like figure, but shrugged that thought away. Wishing wouldn’t make me shorter, skinnier, or more graceful.
“What do I need?” I asked as soon as she completed her survey of my rumpled dress, bare legs, and unpainted toenails.
Her smile deepened, a dimple peeking out from one side of her mouth. “A man.”
“Ha!” Surprised, I hooted with laughter. “Sure, you got one in your pocket? I’ll take him!”
One perfect blond eyebrow rose quizzically.
“You thought I was going to say I don’t want one, didn’t you? You can think again, sister. I’ve been looking for a man my whole life.”
“I’ve had some, too—I don’t want you thinking I haven’t, because I have.”
“I never imagined you hadn’t.”
“It’s just that they’ve all been creeps. I’m a bit of a creep magnet, you see. If there’s a flaky guy around who thinks it’s sexy to rub Cheetos all over your erogenous zones, I fall for him.”
“That sounds rather uncomfortable.”
“The Cheeto-rubbing or the creeps? Doesn’t matter, they are both uncomfortable, so if you have some guy just hanging around looking for a babe, I’m your girl.”
“I’m not sure he is hanging around looking for a babe…”
“Course, he’s got to be fun. I don’t like those stodgy types, like lawyers and what-have-you. And I don’t have time for a real romance, you understand, just a quickie or two.”
Isabella frowned. “I’m sure my friend would want more from a relationship than just casual sex.”
“Oh. Damn. Well, then, you’d probably better not fix me up with him. I don’t have the time or strength to go through the whole se
She smiled a distant, rather cold smile. “I’m sure you could find any number of such men at the Drake’s Bum.”
I made a face. I’d been to the Drake’s Bum—it was a local pub that had been modernized within an inch of its life. Now it was a trendy hangout, populated with people there to see and be seen; not my type of crowd at all. “I was kind of hoping for a guy who had been creepvetted already.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you there. I seldom count creeps amongst the men of my acquaintance.” She tried to sidle past me.
I turned to block her progress and took a moment to wax philosophical. “You know, Isabella, I’ve always said that men are like a bag of potato chips. They may look scrumptious and tasty, but once you’ve had them, all you’re left with is an empty bag.”
She paused, frowning slightly. “I don’t quite see the analogy.”
I waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter. The point is that unless you know of a non-creep who wants a fling, I’m not interested in this guy of yours.”
She eased past me. “If you change your mind, let me know. The man I have in mind is a perfect match for you. I thought so the day you arrived, but I wanted to know you a little longer before I suggested him.”
A matchmaking landlady—just what I needed to complete my happiness. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
She nodded and stepped out the door. I watched her start up the stairs to the floor above, which she divided with another tenant, and leaned back against the doorjamb to scratch an itch between my shoulder blades. A perfect man. Ha! In the whole of my twenty-nine years I’d yet to see such a thing. Perfect for someone else, no doubt, but not me. I wasn’t going down that slippery slide into hell again. No sir, not me. Once burned, twice shy. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. A bird in the hand is worth two in the…oh, dear.
“Yes?” she called down without pausing in her ascent.
“You said this guy is a perfect match?”
“Perfect for you, yes.”
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