Asher's Dilemma

By: Coleen Kwan

“At least they can be redone.”

“That’s not the end of it. My house has been burgled several times, and despite my extra security measures I haven’t been able to catch the thief.”

Minerva glanced at the costly furnishings around her. “You do have some beautiful things in your home.”

Asher shook his head. “The criminal took none of the real valuables, but my clothes, some spare cash and even some of my correspondence.” His frown deepened. “Perhaps this bandit is the one who has been writing to you, masquerading as me. Is that possible?”

She thought of some of the more ardent passages in the letters, and her cheeks warmed. “No thief could possibly know of certain, um, intimacies that only you could be aware of.”

He said not a word, but the dubious expression he wore spoke volumes. Indignation surged in her. She had come here in good faith. Granted, society did not approve of an unwed woman visiting a single man on her own, but the bond between her and Asher was stronger than these artificial rules. At least, she used to think that. Now, she was unsure. The Asher who eyed her now with such wariness was almost a stranger to her.

A distant clock in the hallway chimed the quarter hour. It seemed to galvanize Asher into action. He pulled out his fob-watch to consult the time, and his frown deepened as though he was all too aware of the time he was wasting because of her. Pocketing his watch, he approached her with a purposeful air.

“We’ll get to the bottom of these mysterious letters, but in the meantime I must beg your pardon as I have another engagement very soon.”

His politeness stung her even further, leaving her in little doubt he wanted to get rid of her with all possible haste. She reared to her feet, ignoring the sudden spinning of her head. “How rude of me to keep you waiting. Good day, Asher.” She swept out of the room, her only wish to quit his house with some dignity left intact.

Asher followed her into the hallway as Cheeves materialized like the good butler he was to open the door for her. “Cheeves will hail you a coach.”

“No need.” Minerva held her head high. “I’m quite capable of doing that myself.”

Spine ramrod straight, she walked away from the house with all the composure she could muster, which was precious little. By the time she reached the corner of the street, her back was aching from the effort and the dizziness had not yet subsided. She held on to the iron railing of a garden fence as the disaster of her visit rolled over her in a bilious wave.

Instead of being delighted and overjoyed, Asher had been cold, distant and even suspicious. She couldn’t understand it. Had the pressure of his work become too much for him? Could he possibly write letters to her and then subsequently have no memory of them? It didn’t seem feasible. Asher Quigley was many things but never forgetful.

The rumble of a passing carriage caught her attention. Glancing up, she saw the carriage come to a halt directly outside Asher’s house. The smartly polished brougham, drawn by a pair of glossy chestnuts, piqued Minerva’s curiosity. Was this the prior engagement Asher had referred to?

The driver opened the carriage door and a female figure stepped out. The elegance of the woman took Minerva’s breath away. Her fur-lined cloak flapped open in the wind to reveal an exquisite black-and-ivory silk ensemble. Her black full-brimmed hat and fine veil obscured her features from view, but everything about her hinted at her beauty. With a sinuous, almost Oriental grace the woman glided into Asher’s house, her feet barely seeming to touch the ground.

The constriction around Minerva’s chest tightened. So this was why Asher had bundled her out of his house so unceremoniously. A burning sensation scorched her stomach. It took her a moment to realize she was jealous, furiously jealous of the mysterious woman in black and ivory. She’d never thought herself capable of such passion—she was English, for goodness sake—but the thought of Asher paying his attentions to this woman made her livid.

The rough wind stung her eyes and tormented her clothes, but she squared her shoulders and brushed her eyes impatiently. Once upon a time she would have meekly skulked away, but not anymore. Now, she was ready to fight for Asher, whether he wanted her to or not.

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