Sometimes, you’ve got to take a job with the devil to pay the bills…
Too bad I learned too late the devil wears Armani, is the most uptight man in the history of history, and I just signed an unbreakable contract shackling me to his pompous royal side for the summer.
But God, he’s got this British accent that makes my panties melt.
Until the words he says catch up with my brain and make me want to throw one of his precious vases at his head.
One minute we’re fighting—and the next—we can’t keep our hands off each other. Because somehow, when Mr. Blue Eyes is kissing me, he makes me forget how much he annoys me.
And that starts a whole new level of complications I. Don’t. Need.
Cuz if you dance with the devil, someone’s gonna end up getting burned…
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The usual suspects were already in full swing, haggling for people’s discarded treasures at the Carolina Days flea market.
Some antique dealers, older couples, then me––the recent college grad with a master’s in history and nothing to show for it. Well, I guessed I did have a pile of Mom’s hospital bills, another pile of “while your resume was promising” letters, and a lot of packing tape and boxes to mail out the array of old Pepsi signs, that being the main things that sold on my eBay site.
Plopping down at a table near a row of food trucks, I set down my bag of the day’s finds and hooked my phone up to the free Wi-Fi from the barbecue cart.
“Hopefully, some of this stuff is worth something,” I muttered and dug into the bag I made out of an old high school band T-shirt.
The first thing I pulled out was a Georgian vase I’d been able to persuade a man to sell me for five dollars. The only thing that could potentially have some real historic value if it really was from England and as old as the hand-painted style seemed to indicate.
I took a few photos of the vase from different angles and made sure to get a nice picture of the stamp on the bottom.
Never heard of it, and I studied English history.
I typed Webley, England in my search bar, surprised to get only the bare minimum results of a small town in the English countryside. But the photos that accompanied the sites were like something straight out of a fairy tale with fields of golden flowers and a charming town set in the shadows of a stone castle.
If nothing else, adding the description of the town in the ad could help entice a buyer with wanderlust.
Pulling up my site, I added the photos then typed up a description.
Georgian-style porcelain vase with hand-painted vibrant flowers, reminiscent of the Webley, England, countryside from where this vase originated. Believed to date to the 1800s, it’s in good vintage condition with minuscule chips on the handles and some crazing with age.
As soon as I hit send on that wording, it was time for the next item. The more I could use the free Wi-Fi from the food truck, the less I’d have to worry about going out to the library or somewhere else later to use the internet. One of the first things to go when we had to choose between lights or the web. Lights won out from my mom and sister’s perspective, at least.
Well, maybe a few sales and we could have both.
Before I could finish taking photographs of a handful of brass knobs that I had found , my email pinged with a message from my site.
An inquiry about the vase already?
My heart fluttered as I pulled up the email but then sank defiantly in my chest as soon as I read the words in front of me.
I rolled my eyes. Seriously?
I guessed it was better than someone just trying to lowball me on an item, but I’d never received anything like this. And by the haughty tone, I may have offended an English local who had nothing better to do than troll me.
The nerve of this guy, really.
I thought about saying something even snarkier but instead put my energy into adding another listing. One that hopefully wouldn’t get any rude emails saying that I didn’t know the exact origin or taken the brass knobs off the wardrobe myself.
After I’d put up the next listing, I had another email waiting for me in my inbox.
Gritting my teeth, I opened the tab, ready to see what else this guy was going to throw at me.
What. The. Hell.
Did this guy want me to send him my résumé or something?
Would he even stop if I did?
I waited a few minutes to pry my locked jaws apart then sent the email, letting out a deep breath as I did.
Glancing down at my phone, I stared at the mail icon, wondering how soon he would have a snappy response.
Sitting a few more beats, I laughed to myself. I was being irrationally stupid. Probably the lack of sleep and the mixture of dust and pollen in the air had my brain going haywire.
After taking a few more photos of some miscellaneous items I’d purchased, I went back to my inbox. Still nothing new.
Dammit, did I offend the one person who might have possibly been interested in the item? If he even was.
Opening my inbox, I hovered over the button, ready to write another email.
But what the hell would I even say?
Sorry I was rude, how about if I give you a $5 discount because I really need to pay something on my mom’s bills before they go to collection?
Probably too desperate.
Drumming my fingers along the table, I racked my brain for something to say. Anything at all.
My phone buzzed in my hand, the sensation making me drop the device on the table with a small thud.
My shoulders tightened as I quickly picked it up, inspecting the case for cracks before looking at the screen. An international number?
Dammit, was this one of those people who hijacked my phone in the Caribbean again?
As if my day couldn’t get any worse.
With adrenaline still coursing through me from the previous emails and the weight of everything else pouring on, I slid the phone unlocked, my pulse pounding in my ears.
“Listen, if this is another scam thing, you can stop it now, because I have your number and I’m turning it over to the authorities, and my phone company, for that matter.”
I waited a few seconds for a response, my heart beating with each breath.
Then, instead of the line going empty, a clear laugh rang through the speaker.
“I don’t think the American authorities would be able to help you with what I have to offer,” a deep English accent replied.
“Who is this?” I asked shakily, my breath coming in ragged puffs as I tried to steady my voice.
“For a woman who acted so miffed on an email, I guess I should have expected this response.”
Swallowing hard, I tried to calm my thumping heartbeat. “Is this Gavin? From the ad? How did you get my number?”
He laughed even harder than the first time before letting out a deep breath. “It’s posted on your site, miss. If you didn’t want people calling you, maybe you should leave that off. Or not send them emails of your academic résumé and expect them not to call you out on a few things in your listing.”
I opened my mouth then closed it again, the right response not coming to me. So, of course, I went for whatever happened to squeak out. “I can just as easily hang up and block you, yanno.?”
“But you’re not going to, are you? You’re just as intrigued as I am.” His husky tone sent a shiver down my spine even though it was a warm June day.
“Um, if we’re talking about the vase, the price is firm. But there are extra shipping fees for overseas.”
He cleared his throat, a crack in that sultry accent. “This is about more than the vase. This is a proposition or, more appropriately, a job offer.”
“Job?” I squeaked.
“The position is temporary. I need someone with your knowledge of antiquities to help clean out my family’s estate here in Webley, curating some of these objects. Of course, you’d be compensated for your time and travel as well as room and board. As long as you think you can do it and have it done as soon as possible.”
“Is this a joke?” I asked, my heart thudding so hard I swore it was going to leap out of my chest.
“Check your email, Natalie.” His voice returned to that low, husky tone, and if my heart hadn’t already been bumping, it was probably now ready to explode.
“Okay. Um. Hold one moment.”
My hands shook as I pulled the device from my ear then opened up my email app.
The first unopened piece of mail staring back at me was from Gavin Webley with the subject “Formal job offer.”
Webley? What was this guy, keeper of the town or something?
If my heart wasn’t already going into overdrive, I swore it beat even faster, ringing in my ears.
I opened the email and the PDF attachment, scrolling through pages of legalese. Then I stopped when the salary popped onto the screen. A number just over what we were in debt from Mom’s medical bills.
My breath caught in my throat as I tried to control the shaking that ravaged my entire body.
“Miss? Natalie? You still there?”
I sat up, pushing the phone against my ear. “First off, if I’m even going to consider this offer, you can just call me Natalie. No need for the miss stuff.”
He laughed. “Okay, Natalie.”
I huffed. “Is this all just a joke and soon some Tv show guy with a hidden camera is going to come around the corner and tell me I’ve been pranked?”
“Natalie.” My name came off his tongue like a prayer.
I sucked in a deep breath. No getting excited just by a stranger’s voice.
“The job offer is very real. I’ll send a contract via email. You can have your solicitor or attorney look over it if you wish. Once you sign the document, I’ll have travel expenses deposited, and a first-class ticket will be waiting for you. I assume you have a current passport, or will we need to get that expedited as well so you can get here next week?”
“Next week?” I asked, trying to keep the shaking out of my voice. No. Way.
“What? Would you rather make it this week? We can do that, too, but I need an answer, Natalie. Do you want to keep trying to sell miscellaneous items online or do you want to take this position at the estate?”
I should have told him I’d think about it or maybe use the last of the money I had for my cell phone bill to get a cheap attorney.
But I didn’t. “I’ll take it.”
I’d been on a plane ride exactly twice in my life, once for my grandmother’s funeral in Arizona and the other for a very long trip to Florida, where my little sister broke her arm on the Dumbo ride and we spent most of our time at the ER.
And I had an unused passport that I got when I graduated, praying someday I’d get out of North Carolina.
With my sister home for the summer and Mom in remission, it was the perfect time to leave. To take the leap of faith I’d been dying to do.
I loved history and studying different cultures, but I’d never seen any of it up close. So as soon as I got off the plane, I immediately bolted for the nearest window, taking in as much of the scenery as I could. Which, since it was early afternoon and at an airport near the city, there wasn’t much but some large buildings and a fog in the distance.
Webley didn’t have an airport, which meant I also had a train ticket in hand, making the journey across the English countryside to the small town.
I thought then I’d get a view of some scenery.
As soon as I got to my seat, it was as if the universe had it out for me.
A crack of lightning followed by a loud boom of thunder shook the car. Then the downpour.
The universe and I couldn’t be that lucky as the train crawled along the tracks.
Instead of getting into the town of Webley in the late afternoon, it was now evening, the sky even darker and the rain hurling down in buckets.
I didn’t have an umbrella and only a thin UNC hoodie that was in my carry-on bag.
I’d changed out of my yoga pants and T-shirt from traveling, thinking I needed to make a good impression for my new boss.
As soon as the cold water soaked through my hoodie, button-down shirt, and even my pants and into my heels, I was past the point of presentability.
Now I was just a shivering bundle of nerves, trying to find a bathroom or somewhere to clean up before I met the driver who was supposed to pick me up.
Annnnnd, since I spent the train ride playing games on my phone, it was dead.
In a foreign country with no one to call.
Not my ride.
Just me, standing there, in the rain, with a dead phone. Why didn’t this thing have a better shelter?
Everyone else who got off the train had already grabbed their luggage and stepped into awaiting cars or taxis.
I, on the other hand, had no idea who I was looking for.
Maybe someone with a sign that said my name?
I couldn’t see anything like that through the heavy rain.
“Great,” I muttered, all hope I once had earlier now deflating out of me.
Looking around the small station, I scanned for a pay phone.
Did they still have those anymore?
Slogging through the door terminal, I made my way to the ticket counter.
Only to have my heart flop down to my feet when I saw the closed sign dangling over the window.
I shook my head as a painful lump formed in my throat.
I could break down and cry or I could move on.
And I had to do the latter.
I was in another country, away from everyone I knew, and I needed this job. For me. For my mom.
Wiping my eyes and pushing aside some water droplets from my mop of hair, I looked at my surroundings again.
Maybe, in the daylight, the place would be charming with the cobblestone streets and Tudor-style buildings. But right now, the only thing I could catch sight of was a neon Guinness sign in a window.
Pulling my suitcase behind me, I sloshed through the street and then opened the heavy door. My mouth watered as the warm air hit my face, along with the scent of fried food.
I tried to eat some of the fancy in-flight meal service on the plane but also didn’t realize how much motion sickness could get to a girl who rarely flew. So I sipped on the complementary soda and ate pretzels. A few hours ago.
A waiter passed me with a tray full of fish and chips, and my stomach grumbled. I swore the patrons at the long wooden bar could hear it, even if they couldn’t see me in the dim light of the room.
I plopped down on one of the leather stools, and my outfit squished like a sponge, a puddle dripping to the floor beneath me.
Quickly, I rolled my suitcase over the splash of water, hoping no one noticed it soaking into the old wood floor.
The blond woman behind the bar, pretending to clean some of the colorful alcohol bottles on the shelf, didn’t even glance in my direction.
Better to ignore me than openly gawk at my mop of hair, the drenched red locks splattering on my back like a wet rag. That was usually the first thing people noticed about me, but then as soon as I opened my mouth and history facts started pouring out, that’s when they slowly backed away.
Well, today, I needed someone to at least pay a little attention to the girl with the soaked clothes and dead cell phone.
And if that wasn’t enough, the guy a few stools down from mine had to get a plate of something fried and delish that had my stomach grumbling so loud, I swore everyone heard it over the loud music coming from the speakers.
Maybe if I ordered a little something, I could ask the bartender to use a charger.
If she’d look at me and if I could find my debit card in my waterlogged purse.
Where the hell did I put that thing anyway?
After buying way-too-expensive Dramamine at the airport and a tube of Chapstick, I knew I put it in there.
Did I have enough left on my card for a big meal?
What was the conversion rate now for dollars to pounds?
Shit, pounds or euros? I thought I was in pound country now…
“What can I get for ya, miss?” she asked in a two-pack-a-day hack that somehow still sounded melodic with her English accent.
“Uh…” I stared at the chalkboard menu above her, squinting as water droplets clung to my lashes, blurring my vision.
I had to call my boss to tell him why I was late, so alcohol was out of the question. What I really wanted was a greasy cheeseburger and fries, but all I saw on the menu were drinks. Though others had food…
First world problems.
“Um, can I, uh, start with a water and get a food menu? And, um, do you have an outlet or someplace to charge my phone?” I held up the dead device, putting on my best smile, though my lips trembled as a nervous laugh escaped.
The bartender rolled her eyes before glancing at the row of full barstools. When she turned back to me, I swore she scowled, her mouth open and ready to tell me to shove my phone somewhere.
But before she could say anything, a slim phone slid across the counter, and the hulking frame of a man scooted into the seat next to me.
Okay, maybe hulking wasn’t the right word, but at my five-foot-two, he was at least a foot taller than me. Unlike me, he wasn’t soaking wet. He wore a crisp suit, molding to his broad shoulders. Then that face, like it was chiseled with a bright white row of straight teeth, a hint of stubble on those high cheekbones, brilliant blue eyes, and tousled, sandy blond hair. He was the opposite of my drenched-rat look.
“Here, you can use my phone,” he said in a commanding voice with an English accent that practically purred.
I would have taken it if I actually remembered the phone number and not just saved it in my dead phone.
“That’s okay. I just need a quick charge to call my ride,” I said quickly, forcing a smile so I would at least seem polite.
He didn’t miss a beat, his gaze still focused on me as he slid his phone back in his pocket. “Your ride may be a while. Most of the roads are flooded, unless she lives in town.”
“I think it’s a he who lives in town, and I’m not exactly sure where he lives.”
He arched an eyebrow, a small crack in his beautiful exterior. “So you have someone picking you up, but you don’t know where he lives? Let me guess, you don’t know his phone number or what he looks like, either, so really, he could be an ole bloke in this place.”
My entire body tensed as I glanced toward the bar, hoping maybe the bartender would come to my rescue with some free peanuts and a charger. But, of course, she was chatting up another set of patrons, not even glancing in our direction.
Way to save a girl from random pub dude.
Really attractive random pub dude, but still.
“I was hired to help out this guy clean out his family’s estate. I’m a historian, and he needs help with some of the older pieces on the property, so I’ll be curating them.” I sat as straight as I could, trying to add as much confidence as a girl with soaking wet clothes could to her voice and appearance.
He smirked, a breathy laugh escaping his nose. “So you met a man online who offered you a position in England to clean out his family’s place, not knowing anything about him, and yet you came? This sounds like one of those catfish TV shows you Americans love.”
I slumped involuntarily as I put my hands on my hips, ignoring how heavy my wet blouse was as it dragged my arms down. “I did do an internet search on this guy I’m supposed to meet. He doesn’t have any social media presence, and the only photos I found of any Gavin Webleys were of an old man cleaning shotguns.”
The man in front of me just smiled, not saying a damn word.
It was the bartender who cleared her throat, and I turned to face her, finally trying to control my breathing after I spit everything out to the smirking guy next to me.
The woman pushed a glass of water and a phone charger across the counter. “Here ya go, love, but if you really are looking for Lord Gavin Webley, I don’t think you’re going to need the charger.”
I stiffened, licking my lips, before I tried keeping my voice and posture steady.
Did she just say Lord? As in nobility? “Did he call into the pub?”
She shook her head then nodded toward the well-dressed man next to me. “Can I get you anything, Lord Webley?”