Under normal circumstances, Max would not only have personally seen Schneider to the door, but also quit the Cloven Hoof himself.
This was the sole free day he allowed himself each week, and at this hour of the night he was running low on opportunity to do little more than catch a few hours’ sleep before beginning anew.
However, tonight something felt… wrong.
A missing candle, when his staff was trained too well and paid too handsomely to miss obvious necessities like candles. One of his books, not lined up perfectly with the others. His folding screen, butted up against the wall instead of how he normally angled it.
His carefully predictable world was different. Max hated inconsistencies, no matter how small. He would put things to rights and then he could return home in peace.
He drew out his key ring in order to retrieve a fresh candle from the supply cabinet across the corridor.
Once the taper was properly seated in the wall sconce, Max began to feel better. Things were almost back to normal. Back to how they should be.
He ran a careful finger along the spines of his books to nudge them into alignment, then stalked toward his folding screen in irritation.
Who the deuce would have placed it in the far corner, when his entire staff well knew that Max preferred—
He yanked the screen aside and froze in surprise.
Also frozen in surprise was the wide-eyed lad hiding on the other side.
After taking one look at whatever thunderous expression was currently storming through Max’s eyes, the lad blanched, flailed, and moved to flee.
Max was faster.
He allowed the screen to fall where it may in favor of grabbing the lad’s thin arm and jerking the intruder further from the exit. Off-balance, the lad tripped backward over Max’s feet and windmilled wildly in a desperate attempt to regain his balance.
Max reached out to intercept him before he cracked his foolish head against the edge of the mantel.
Before the interloper could make another attempt to flee, Max swung the wriggling lad away from the shadows and into the light.
Not a lad.
Max nearly dropped her in shock.
In the space of a mere breath, his meticulously planned, carefully ordered world had spiraled far outside his wildest imaginings.
“Who are you?” he demanded without loosening his grip.
“Brian,” came the immediate gruff reply.
Max doubted that very much. “Miss Brian, is it?”
An impressively unladylike curse whispered from her lips. Her eyes did not flinch from his. She was still pale, but defiant, as if it were he who had disturbed her plans for the evening, rather than the other way about.
“Let’s try this again.” His voice was cold, authoritative. “Who are you?”
“Bryony,” she said at last. “Shall I address you as Maxwell or Mr. Gideon?”
Impertinent baggage. “Mr. Gideon. We are not going to be friends.”
“How do you know?”
Max stopped himself from pointing out that he knew everything that happened between these walls because, clearly, his streak of many years spent controlling and predicting every aspect of his life, his industry, and his surroundings had come to a shockingly abrupt standstill.
He tightened his hold. “Who are you?”