Francesca Hartwell adores cats of every kind. Lions, leopards, tigers. And they all love her. Good thing she gets to see them every day, since her father is their caregiver in the Tower of London’s Royal Menagerie. She’d love to find a man with whom she could share her love of animals, but so far, no one has stolen her heart. And there’s the added snag that whoever she marries must not have anything to do with nobility, as her mother had left her and her father for an earl.
John Fairgate has three rules given to him by his uncle. Inherit the title of baron upon his uncle’s death. Give up ornithology. And marry a childhood acquaintance. The first two, John will abide by, but won’t like. But the third, marrying a shrew who makes his skin crawl, he simply cannot do. Meeting Miss Francesca Hartwell at the zoo, however, has given him other ideas for a wife. But she’s not titled or wealthy. How will he be able to convince his uncle that she’s the woman of his heart?
Ruth, a left-handed, cat-herding, Jeep driving, farmhouse-dwelling romance writer uses her goofy sense of humor as she writes tales of lovable, klutzy women and the men who adore them. Ruth's husband and best friend, Garry, reads her manuscripts, rolls his eyes at her weird story ideas, and loves her in spite of her penchant for insisting all of her books have at least one cat in them. Or twelve. But hey, who's counting?
“Pardon me, miss.”
Startled, she whipped around. A man, tall and fit in black breeches and tailcoat, stood in front of her. Wide shoulders filled out his coat. Her glance roved down his arms to soft leather gloves. His dark hair, curly at the ends, was slightly longer than that of most men. “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t see—”
“It is of no concern.” His dark brown eyes sparkled. She widened her own. When had she ever seen actual sparkling eyes? On a man? Her mouth went dry, forcing her to swallow. Warmth spread from her face to her toes. So beautiful. If he were like most men, though, he might not wish to be associated with that term. She bit her lip, holding back a grin. It couldn’t be helped. He was beautiful.
The man raised his dark eyebrows. And smiled. His teeth, white, with the two front ones a tiny bit overlapped, were ensconced in full lips. Francesca pressed the fingers of her left hand to her own lips and nearly swooned. If she could only step closer, reach up a hand and touch his cheek. What would it be like to kiss—?
“Are you… well, miss?”
How embarrassing! Francesca caught her breath and averted her glance down toward her dusty boots. She clenched her hands together. How could she have stared at him like that? With no regard for propriety or good sense? And how long had she stared? What must he think? Her face heated, surely red. “I… pardon me… sir.”
She frowned. And leveled a glare at him. Her face warmed another degree, probably red in color, but she cared not. How dare he? They had never met, and here he was, having fun at her expense. Did he think himself better than she, to scoff at her blunder? She was only…
Wait. But she had been staring. At a stranger. Still, she bristled at the fact that he laughed. Was still laughing, in fact. Francesca placed her hands on her hips and tapped her boot toe on the ground. Raising one eyebrow, she tilted her chin and waited.
The man’s mirth subsided. His cheeks reddened as he cleared his throat. “Please forgive my impertinence, miss. It seems I have offended you. And of that, I had not the slightest intent.” He held out his hand. “Pray accept my apology and permit me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Fairgate.”
Francesca glanced down. Even the man’s hand was handsome, with long, strong fingers. Would his nails be clean and trimmed beneath those expensive gloves? Around the zoo, the workers all had dirt and grit beneath their nails. Everything about Mr. Fairgate was pleasing to the eye. Simply captivating. Would it not be more of a pleasant diversion to engage in conversation with him?
She smiled. “Apology accepted, Mr. Fairgate. I am Miss Hartwell. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” She held out her hand. He took it and bowed, kissing the air right above it.
Embarrassed, she slipped her hand from his. Who was he that he would do something so out of the ordinary? She was used to common workers, as the only men she spoke to besides her father were laborers at the Tower Menagerie. Men who labored, cleaned filthy animal cages, did the dirtiest of jobs. Rich men visited the Tower, of course, but she did not often speak to them.
This man’s dress marked him as someone with means. Perhaps he was a person of consequence, someone who would contribute to the cause of the zoo? Something which could only help her father retain his position. It might behoove her to be kind to him, since they’d now introduced themselves.
His gesture of kissing her hand had caused uneasiness and discomfort, and yet… Why did her stomach quiver as if filled with tiny fluttering birds flapping their wings to escape? The back of her hand tingled, even though his lips hadn’t actually made contact. But his breath had warmed her skin, radiating up her arm, to her chest, neck, and face, like sunshine on a July day.
Mr. Fairgate’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Now that we’ve been properly introduced, I’ll proceed to the intended purpose for my visit. I must say, I’ve quite been looking forward to seeing what’s new here.”
She swept her arm toward the cages. “If you’re here to see some of the wild cats, perhaps I can be of assistance.”
“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows. “Do you work here?”
“No. My father is chief caretaker of all of the different large cats. So I spend much of my time here. I know quite a bit about them, if you have any questions.” What was she doing? She sounded prideful. He must think her—
“That would be splendid. I have always admired cats, big or small, so any information you can supply would be most appreciated.”
A sigh of relief escaped her lips. Even if he did think her forward, he seemed not to mind. If her father had heard her just now, he would be displeased. Again. Wasn’t he always chiding her for being too outspoken for a woman? Too forward? Too opinionated?
She pointed toward the leopard’s cage. “This is Belle, the Tower’s newest leopard.”
“Such a gorgeous animal. And quite… large. I had not expected a leopard to be such.”
“Yes, she is large. Partly due to expecting a litter.” Her face warmed. Why did I let those words slip from my mouth? While she easily discussed anything having to do with the cats’ care with her father, she was embarrassed to speak of such a delicate matter as giving birth to a stranger.
Especially this stranger.
He lifted the corners of his mouth, forming deep dimples. “Ah. How marvelous. Very soon the world will have several more cats to admire.”
What a wonderful thought. Her father would only grumble that it would cause more work for him. The workers would complain that they would have to make sure the mother had extra shares of food so she could nurse her cubs. But Mr. Fairgate seemed to appreciate them. Their beauty. As she did.
“I agree. Most likely, she’ll have anywhere from one to four in the litter.” She sighed. “Leopard cubs are delightful.”
He tilted his head toward the cage. “I shall have to return after the cubs are here. I should so love to see them.”
“Indeed, once she has them, I daresay her cage will be most popular with visitors for awhile. Perhaps people will take time to watch them instead of the smelly bear around the corner.”
Mr. Fairgate laughed. This time, it bothered Francesca not a whit. On the contrary, it sparked something within her, bringing every sight and sound around her into sharper focus. Brighter. Louder. More vivid. As if she’d never fully experienced life until this moment. Until meeting him. But why?
“A smelly bear. That sounds not in the least appealing. But cats of any sort, I’ve always had a fondness for. As a boy, I’d often play with them when others might ignore them or be cruel. I’d sneak them into the house until found out, and reluctantly return them to the out-of-doors.”
She smiled. How alike they seemed in that manner. “Oh, I agree. More often than not, I would rather have spent time with my house cats than with most people.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “And you are not alone in sneaking your cats inside. Just the thought of mine toiling outside in the wind and rain of winter or in summer’s heat had me in tears many a night.”
“How pleasant it might have been had we been acquainted as children, to have the same fondness for our pets.”
Blushing, Francesca nodded. Never had she met someone as fond of cats as she was. And never had she spoken so with a man, especially not with a man so appealing. She swallowed hard, glancing behind her. But what would Papa say if he saw her right then?
“I’ve been away due to my position as an ornithologist. It has been too long of a time since I’ve visited the zoo. Especially now.” He tilted his head toward the cage. “As the leopard shall soon have her cubs. That is an event I would hate to miss.”
“Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to visit when it… occurs.” References to the physical act of giving birth still refused to slide easily from her lips.
He placed his hand on one of the bars of the cage’s gate and nodded. “You know, I— Ahhh!” He widened his eyes as the gate creaked and opened beneath his grip.
Francesca gasped. Saul must not have fastened the latch when he’d hurried away from Belle! She grabbed for Mr. Fairgate’s arm, but touched only air. He stumbled as the gate creaked open. Tripping, he fell into Belle’s pen, landing with a thud.
Belle crouched low, lashing her long tail. She bared her teeth, growling much as she’d done to Saul. But this time was different. This time Mr. Fairgate was not in a position to run. He had fallen and was now at the mercy of the angry, expectant cat.
Rushing forward into the cage, Francesca positioned herself beside Mr. Fairgate. “Shhh, Belle, it’s fine. No need to be afraid.”
Mr. Fairgate whipped his gaze away from the cat to her. “She’s afraid? I daresay she cannot feel the terror running through her veins as I do in mine!” He trained his gaze back toward Belle and scampered back, his boots scraping through the dirt. But he crashed into the stone wall and could go no further. He swallowed hard, his face draining of color.
Francesca took slow steps, reaching out her hand toward Belle. Keeping her voice barely above a whisper, she spoke to the cat. “There now, Belle. Mr. Fairgate is an acquaintance of mine. He’ll not hurt you. You have no need to put up such a fuss.”
“Miss Hartwell—” Mr. Fairgate’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
Francesca bent down, now on eye level with the cat. “Belle, I know you aren’t feeling well right now, but we must be nice to our visitors.” She peeked over her shoulder.
Mr. Fairgate opened his mouth, but no words escaped. He clamped his teeth together, and swallowed. “Miss Hartwell, what are you doing? You’ll be killed!”
“Nonsense. Belle and I are friends, aren’t we, girl?” Francesca angled back toward the cat. Belle’s whiskers twitched as she yawned, exposing long, sharp teeth. She lowered her head and lay down on her belly, her chin resting on her paws. Francesca reached out her hand, wiggling her fingers. Belle closed her eyes partway and sniffed Francesca’s hand.
“But—” Mr. Fairgate shuffled in the dirt behind her. A small cloud of dust filtered throughout the cage.
Francesca stayed still, letting Belle continue to sniff her hand, fingers and nails. Once finished, Belle turned away and groomed her paws, her rough, pink tongue wetting her spotted fur. The cat, content to see to her own toilette, seemed no longer concerned with people in her midst.
“See? It’s all fine.” Francesca turned around and reached out her hand to Mr. Fairgate, much as she’d done to Belle. He eyed the leopard for several more seconds before peering up at Francesca. Eyes locked on her outstretched hand, he grasped it, allowing her to help him stand. Once he regained his balance and seemed not likely to faint, she released his hand.
He followed her from the cage, his hand grazing her shoulder when he stumbled. Heat sparked from his touch. If just touching her shoulder produced such a sensation, what would it be like if he touched her neck or face? Best not to dwell on that.
Francesca tugged the gate closed. That latch is fastened tight this time. If she hadn’t been there and Mr. Fairgate had been alone in the cage…
Taking in huge gulps of air, Mr. Fairgate hurried toward a visitor’s iron bench and collapsed onto the seat. His skin pale, he let out a breath as he ran his hand down his perspiring face. “I can hardly believe what just happened. That leopard nearly… You saved my life! You’re a heroine. To be commended—”
She waved a hand back and forth through the air. “Nonsense. It was… I am just able to—”
He sat forward, his elbows resting on his knees. “We must contact the newspaper. An article should be written extolling your—”
“No!” She glanced around, relieved no one else was about. She’d not meant to shout.
Mr. Fairgate spread his shaking hands. “But why?”
Stepping closer, she sat on the opposite end of the bench. “I don’t want anyone to know.” Angling her glance away from him, she shrugged. “My father could get into trouble if the wrong person found out I’d been in the cage. He could lose his position. Please…”
He touched her arm briefly. “As you wish, Miss Hartwell. I will not speak a word of this to another soul. Although it was the most heroic, amazing feat I have ever personally witnessed. Just know that I am, and will always be, in your debt.”
A large group of people entered the Menagerie gate. Several children ran ahead, laughing and squealing, much to the dismay of the frowning adults. Mr. Fairgate, still pale and shaken, stood and tipped his hat.
“I find that I am not feeling the best at present, Miss Hartwell. My experience with the leopard… Please forgive my abrupt departure, but I’m afraid I must go.”
Francesca, concerned for Mr. Fairgate’s health, only had time to nod before the man disappeared into the crowd. She sighed. It would have been so pleasant to have had a longer conversation. Would he ever return? Or would his fright from a leopard’s near-attack keep him away?