The Pursuit of Mrs. Pennyworth

By: Callie Hutton

To all the fantastic authors who write romantic suspense, encouraging me to dip my toe into the suspense waters.





Prologue

Melbourne Station, England, April 1887

Miss Charlotte Reading furtively glanced at the clock on the wall in her tiny bedroom. Her heartbeat increased as she mumbled encouragement to herself and shoved her meager belongings into a small satchel. Lord Barton had sent a note around that he intended to return home at four o’clock, and to make herself available.

Fifteen minutes.

He didn’t need to say more—she knew exactly why he’d demanded her presence. She tried to hold down the panic as she looked around, grabbed her hairbrush and the small gilded mirror that had belonged to her mother, and shoved them into the satchel. Deciding there was nothing more important than her life, she fastened the bag, grabbed her pelisse and bonnet, and fled the room.

And the house.



An hour later, Charlotte took her first deep breath as the train rolled out of Melbourne Station, headed to London. As she’d waited for the train, her heart had seized every time a man had entered the station. She clutched her ticket tightly in her hands.

Giddy with relief as the train gained momentum, she studied the countryside passing by, carrying her farther from her employment. Tears gathered on her eyelashes, and her chin trembled. She’d made it. Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back against the seat and smiled.

Lord Barton’s face rose in her mind—with the ever-present sneer.

Dangling a very expensive ruby necklace that belonged to his mother—the woman Charlotte had served as a companion to for almost two years—he grinned. “It seems our chambermaid Molly, found this hidden under your mattress.” He waved the necklace back and forth in front of her face.

“I am sorry, my lord, but either she is lying, or you are mistaken.”

His arrogant eyebrows rose. “Indeed? Do you imagine the magistrate will assume I am mistaken, Miss Reading?” He shook his head, a look of feigned pity on his face. “An impoverished lady’s companion, a servant, tired of listening to an old woman’s complaints, decides to help herself to a piece of jewelry to better her position?”

In the past year, Charlotte had spent almost as much time avoiding Lord Barton, and dodging his groping hands, as she had serving his mother. His mother, who was a demanding, petulant woman, no doubt had taught all she knew to her egotistical, arrogant son.

Charlotte raised her chin. “I arrived with excellent references, my lord. I have never been accused of thievery in my prior two positions.”

He walked toward her, the leer on his face threatening to bring up her lunch. “I will be happy to have the magistrate decide for himself.” He moved even closer, causing her heart to beat so loud she was sure he could hear it. “However, if you agree to better your position by accepting my offer of carte blanche, this necklace will automatically re-appear in my mother’s jewel case.”

“I will not be your mistress.”

He continued to dangle the necklace, his eyes turning a darker brown. “Oh, yes, my dear. You will spread your lovely legs for me,” he leaned in closer and murmured in her ear, “except when I have you on your knees.”

To her relief and astonishment, he backed up and gave her a slight bow. “We are not finished with this. Think about my offer. Then think about jail.” He clicked his tongue. “Such a horrible place for a beautiful young woman.” Shaking his head, he turned and left, dropping the necklace into his coat pocket.

The clicking of the train wheels soothed her, reminding her that every mile it traveled took her farther from the monster. She had saved enough of her wages to see her through a couple of weeks, but she needed to find a position as quickly as possible. Without references, it would be tricky, but she patted the two letters that she had from her previous employers, tucked into her reticule, hoping they would be sufficient.

She took stock of her situation. She was three and twenty and had been in service for six of those years. London would have many more opportunities. Perhaps a dress shop, or millinery. Maybe she could secure a position in a bank. The prospects were many.

Lulled by the rhythm of the train, she relaxed and enjoyed the ride, anticipating the new life to which she was headed.





Chapter One

London, England—Eighteen months later

Elliot Baker studied the small calling card in his hand. A charming card, it had a colorful array of flowers, with two doves, on one side. The second side read:

Mrs. Gabriel Pennyworth

“You say she is here in the waiting room?” He tapped the card with his finger and regarded his secretary, Mr. Gleason, the man who had been with him ever since he opened his office two years prior. Tall, thin, dressed—as always—in all black, he was the perfect complement to the type of business Elliot conducted.