That Determined Mister Latham by JoMarie DeGioia Free Excerpt: Chapters 1 to 6
London, England 1821
Patrick Latham Stafford strolled down Bond Street, bound for the fashionable rooms he kept on the West End of London. While his home wasn’t set precisely in Mayfair, the most desirable address for the ton, it was well appointed to a gentleman of reasonable wealth and a lack of attachments. At twenty-seven years of age, Patrick was quite happy to be unattached, living a fairly modest life by the ton’s standards. He was content with the comfortable stipend paid to him from his family’s solicitors, even though he hadn’t spoken to his father, the Earl of Stafford, in five years. His income certainly wasn’t enough to sustain a wife and children, but that was of no concern to him, since he had neither. No. That dream had died five years ago.
After an evening spent at the theaters on Drury Lane, and a few hours spent with one very gifted opera girl, he was eager to find the comfort of his own bed. The night air was stagnant and damp, and clung to his dark, tousled hair and rumpled evening clothes. He glanced absently at the windows of the exclusive shops along Bond Street as he walked home. His eyes landed on an elegant storefront. “Elliot’s Fineries,” the sign proclaimed in grandly-scrolled letters. His eyes narrowed as he read the promise written beneath the name of the store, the words nearly obscured in the dim light of a streetlamp.
“Where you can find your heart’s desire.” He laughed bitterly. “My heart’s desire? Not bloody likely.”
His heart wanted nothing. He drew his greatcoat closer around his shoulders and continued on his way, the click of his booted heels echoing in the still night.
* * *
Victoria Elliot carefully folded the beautiful multi-colored silk scarves and set them on a display table. As the cool fabric slipped through her fingers, she hummed to herself. She was very fortunate to work at Elliot’s Fineries, and silently thanked God that her uncle, J. B. Elliot, had given her a comfortable place to live as well as a sense of purpose since her father’s sudden death little more than one month ago.
Polished mahogany display cases, with sparkling glass doors, lined the store and rich burgundy draperies dressed the windows facing Bond Street. Fine linens of rose and gold and ivory covered the display tables. One table was reserved exclusively for tasty biscuits, small sandwiches, and strong tea that her uncle shrewdly had in ready supply. The shop was packed with chattering customers who were either perusing the fine merchandise, waiting in line to pay for their purchases, or chatting amiably at the refreshment table. It was little wonder that the ton preferred her uncle’s store to the larger shopping arcades in town. It matched the arcades in variety of merchandise, but the shop was more intimately proportioned.
J. B. had emblazoned a pledge on the store’s large sign hanging above Bond Street, “Where you can find your heart’s desire.” Victoria wished that were true. She came across a beautiful swath of silk. Oh, wouldn’t it feel marvelous against her skin? The particular shade of blue would serve as a lovely accent to one of the dresses she wore for work. The ring of a bell interrupted her musings. Laying the scarf on the table, she turned toward the well-dressed matron tapping the silver bell set on the purchasing counter. It was Lady Bowler. Lovely.
She made her way through the crowded store. “At your service, my lady.”
Lady Bowler sniffed as she ran her eyes over Victoria.
Victoria self-consciously touched one hand to her upswept hair, worried that the thick mass might have come loose from its pins. Everything seemed as it should be, including her modest dress in a muted rose. In Victoria’s short tenure at the store she’d come to recognize the look in the older woman’s eyes. Disdain. The older woman saw Victoria as her inferior, and felt no hesitation in treating her as such. Oh, not every member of the ton behaved as Lady Bowler did, but it still hurt . . .
Victoria had grown up in a small parish, with a loving father who was the local vicar. Her mother, Elizabeth, had died when she was but five years old from a fever that had swept through the area. When Victoria was older and could understand what had happened, her father had told her about her mother’s tragic death.
When Victoria had come down with the fever, her dear mother had cared for her night and day until she was well again, but then her mother had succumbed to the fever herself, and being with child at the time, she was not strong enough to withstand the illness and passed away. Her father, though heartbroken, had made certain that Victoria was loved and cherished, and that she knew all about her beautiful and loving mother.
Victoria had been happy assisting her father in his work, and tending to their beautiful garden behind their small home in St. Ives in Cornwall. She had dreams of marriage and raising her own children, but that all seemed so long ago, and here she was now, tending to the whims of London’s well-to-do. Oh, she was thankful that she had a place to live and work to occupy her days, but it wasn’t home. London was a bit stifling and even the air was very different from the crisp, salty fresh snap that seemed to surround St. Ives. And dealing with difficult customers in a shop all day made it a challenge to a girl used to spending her days out of doors.
“Do see to these purchases, Miss Elliot.” Lady Bowler was a broad matron with a bosom like the prow of a skiff. “I have calls to make. I don’t wish to delay them.”
Victoria gave a small nod. She swiftly totaled and wrapped the woman’s purchases. Without any word of thanks, the matron sailed out of the store, her beleaguered maid jostling the many packages as she hurried behind her.
Victoria fought the feeling of vexation at the woman’s demeanor. Yes, Lady Bowler was a member of the ton, and Victoria was a shop girl, but her father had always taught her that no amount of money or power could buy you dignity or self-worth. You were born with that and it was up to you to keep it in the way you conducted yourself throughout life. She forced a smile at the next customer awaiting her attention.
As the gentleman in question leered at her, she found herself longing for the dismissive looks paid her by the female customers. While her day dress was simple in cut, it nonetheless hugged her figure as was the current fashion. Apparently, the man found the lace peeking out of her scooped bodice quite fascinating. She stifled an urge to step on his foot when his gaze drifted to her modest décolletage again and again. He was old enough to be her father, for goodness sake.
She proceeded to wrap the ivory combs the man set on the counter, but she could feel his eyes continuing to ogle her. She let out a sigh as the man took his leave from the store.
“Don’t let them upset you, Victoria,” a kind, soft voice said in her ear.
She turned to find Mrs. Floss smiling at her. A motherly, yet young, widow who also worked in the shop, she’d treated Victoria warmly from the first moment they’d met. Her kindness and calm disposition eased Victoria’s entry into the role of catering to society’s privileged, and there was little that escaped the widow’s notice.
Victoria tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I don’t understand it.”
“You are a beautiful girl,” Mrs. Floss said with a wink. “With your curvaceous figure, you have every man who comes into this shop mesmerized.” Victoria blushed at her compliments. Mrs. Floss continued, “Make use of that to convince gentlemen customers to purchase items they might not think of on their own.”
She shook her head. “But that would be wrong, Mrs. Floss.”
“No, my dear. That would be business. The more items you sell, the more profit the shop makes, and the more your uncle can afford to pay us.” Mrs. Floss smiled a world-weary smile. She was but eight and twenty years of age with shining black hair, a rosy-cheeked complexion, and sparkling blue eyes, but she had the wisdom of an old sage. “Sweet child, you have your entire life ahead of you, but remember that life can be both kind and unkind, so ‘tis better to have money in your pockets for those unkind days.”
Victoria pondered what Mrs. Floss had said. It was true, she was not married, and while she was under the protection of her uncle, she knew full well that life was as fickle as Cornwall weather on a fall day. One moment, it could be sunny and warm, and the next, a cold rain could be lashing at your door. Mrs. Floss was a widow with two daughters, ages six and eight. She had no choice but to work and provide for her family. Life could be so unfair, Victoria thought to herself, but Mrs. Floss was right, she had to think of her future.
“Besides,” Mrs. Floss said, arching her elegant dark brows, “You can’t leave all of the customers to Nan, can you?”
Victoria glanced across the store at Nan, a rail thin girl near Victoria’s age of twenty, who was painfully shy and so pale as to seem nearly invisible. She kept her flaxen hair in a tight bun and covered with a small lace cap, hiding the golden strands from notice. None of the gentlemen approached Nan for assistance, although if they’d stopped to truly look at her, they would surely notice her striking green eyes, and beautiful smile. Another gentleman walked up to Victoria holding a box of dark green cravats, his eyes running slowly over her. She cast a glance at Mrs. Floss, who gave her a swift nod.
“These cravats are very fine,” she said with a bright smile, revealing a set of charming dimples. “May I recommend a few others that I think would suit you as well?”
The man’s eyes widened and he nodded with enthusiasm.
* * *
Patrick found himself standing before Elliot’s Fineries as he had the previous evening. He glanced into the window of the fashionable shop, noting the bustling activity within, and once more read the sign above the entrance.
“My heart’s desire,” he murmured.
He ran his fingers through his unruly hair, trying to give it some semblance of control. His valet, Carson, had wanted to trim his hair that morning, reminding him once again that it had grown far too long for the fashion of the day, and it was far too “wild”, as he’d put it. Wild? Patrick didn’t give a fig about men’s hairstyles of all things, and informed Carson of that very opinion. Besides, his head ached from his overindulgences of the previous night, and he felt out-of-sorts. He certainly didn’t want to sit for a haircut. Instead, he had ventured out for a walk to help clear his head.
And now here he stood in front of the shop, gazing at that absurd sign. He glanced into the window once more. At the very least, he could buy a trinket for his little songbird Emmy, for she could do so much more with her mouth than sing. A reward was surely due for her services. Perhaps he could make amends for the abrupt fashion in which he’d left Emmy’s cramped little room near the theater district.
He nodded at the short, rotund gentleman who walked out of the store—Earl of Something or Other, and received nary a response. Just five years earlier, the florid-faced man would have greeted him as an equal, and engaged him in some boring discussion on taxes or the military. Thank God for small miracles. A liveried servant ran into him in the doorway, his master’s purchases nearly toppling to the ground, and Patrick accepted the young man’s mumbled apologies with a smile. He steadied the slender man and stepped aside as he hurried to catch up. The portly Earl huffed and puffed as he hefted himself aboard the fancy carriage parked down the street.
Patrick entered the store, surprised at both the quality and number of patrons assembled. The new Season had recently commenced, although he had no desire to attend any of the exceedingly dull parties it would entail. It was obvious to him that all and sundry felt the need to congregate in any number of public establishments to gossip about who’d committed what scandal at the previous evening’s grand ball, and to speculate who would scandalize the next one.
As he made his way through the well-appointed shop, he perused the variety and quality of the items available for purchase. Perhaps one of these scarves, he mused as he touched the lengths of cool silk displayed on one table. Dismissing the item as far too sedate for Emmy’s singular tastes, he approached the jewelry counter. As he patiently waited for two skinny society ladies to step away from the counter, he looked about the store once more. A flash of red hair caught his eye and he turned. Not red precisely. More like a lovely shade of auburn. He caught a glimpse of a young woman then, but before he could see her more fully, one of the ladies stepped on his booted foot. He winced and stepped back.
“Oh, do forgive me!” she giggled.
He found giggling most annoying for a woman well past her youth. The other woman, equal to her companion in both age and silliness, ran her eyes avidly over him.
He forced a smile and bowed to the both of them. “Nothing to forgive, I’m certain.”
He nearly laughed at the puzzlement on their faces. He was well-aware that he greatly resembled his father. No doubt these ladies were trying to ascertain his identity: Was he a self-made man of business or a worthy member of the ton? Men who acquired their wealth through business ventures were a “necessary” evil, and while many nouveau riche had “infiltrated” the aristocracy’s ordained world, they were still regarded with at best, a reluctant acceptance, and at worst deep disdain. He was an Earl’s son so that certainly put him in the latter category. And he did, in fact, possess his own title of Baron Latham, passed on to him by an uncle of his mother’s, though he made no use of it. His clothes were as fine as those of the fat gentleman who had so recently taken his leave from the shop, except he wasn’t wearing a hat. He shuddered at that thought. He hated hats. The ladies’ nervous smiles told him that they hadn’t yet come to a conclusion. They each dropped a half-curtsy to him and hurried away from the jewelry counter.
He turned his attention to the trinkets displayed beneath the glass. There were several brooches set upon a burgundy velvet-covered board, of varying beauty and price. As he leaned closer to the glass, he caught another glimpse of that luscious auburn hair reflected in its smooth surface.
“May I be of assistance?” a soft, feminine voice inquired.
He turned to see who was speaking to him and his mouth all but fell open.
She was the most beautiful young woman he’d ever seen. Her hair was gracefully upswept, several tendrils teasingly brushing her smooth cheeks. Her face was a delicate heart, her mouth a luscious rosebud. And her eyes. They were an incredible silver-gray, almond shaped and set under graceful brows.
“I . . .” He cleared his throat. “I’d like to see these brooches.”
The girl nodded and opened the back of the jewelry case. She set the velvet board on the glass top and stepped back, turning to lend her attention to the other patrons.
“I’m Patrick Latham,” he said, for no reason apparent to himself.
The girl turned back to him and inclined her head. She offered him a small smile, slightly curving her lovely lips.
“I’m Victoria Elliot,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Latham.”
He stared at her a moment longer until she nodded again and turned away from him. She was a petite girl, perhaps two or three inches over five feet tall. It was impossible not to notice her curvaceous figure, despite the fact that she was modestly attired in a pale pink dress. He watched her hips sway gently as she walked away from him. Why was he here again? Ah, yes, the brooches. He bent his head to examine the pins. Elliot? His head shot up again, his gaze settling on the girl as she spoke to a female customer at the far end of the counter. Surely she was too young to be the proprietor. Could she be the owner’s wife?
“Victoria,” he heard a man say.
As Patrick watched, he saw a tall salt-and-pepper-haired gentleman walk toward the girl. The affection in the older man’s dark eyes filled Patrick with flash of jealousy. When Victoria bestowed a warm smile on the man, Patrick felt a wave of possessiveness course through him. What the devil was wrong with him?
The brooches held little of his attention as the man approached Victoria. He reached for her and brushed a tendril away from her brow, running his fingers over her cheek. Patrick could almost feel the smoothness of that cheek in his own fingers. He shoved his hand in his pocket.
“Yes, Uncle?” Victoria replied.
Patrick let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Her uncle. He bit back a laugh and bent his head once more to the jeweled pins set before him. The man was her uncle.
* * *
“Several ladies are in need of your expertise, my dear,” J. B. Elliot told Victoria. “At the perfume counter.”
Victoria nodded and turned, her gaze falling on the handsome Mr. Latham where he stood puzzling over the tray of brooches. When she’d first approached him, his head was bowed over the jewelry case, and she couldn’t help but notice his thick, wavy dark hair. But when he lifted his head to face her, she’d been lost in the arresting color of his eyes. Not green, precisely. Nor brown, either. Hazel perhaps, with a touch of gold. And his hair, which had looked black, from across the room, was in fact a rich shade of brown. Oh, she’d almost swooned right there!
He was a tall man. Nearly as tall as J. B. but far different in build. His fine brown jacket spanned broad shoulders. His tan breeches hugged long muscular legs. And his hands, she mused as she watched him carefully handle the brooches, were beautiful. Well, not precisely beautiful, they were large with long, elegant fingers. She wondered what it would feel like to hold a hand such as his. Would his skin be soft like hers or rough? She’d seen many a gentleman helping his wife or fiancée into a carriage. She’d watch how the gentleman would gently, but firmly grasp his lady’s gloved hand. She imagined it would feel lovely, with or without the gloves. Most likely nicer without, she decided. Shaking her head at her muddled thoughts, she turned to assist the impatient ladies with their perfume selections.
The ladies in question, as finely dressed and condescending as Lady Bowler, took what seemed to Victoria to be an extraordinary amount of time to settle on a fragrance. One of the new perfumes that had just arrived distinguished itself with a light and lovely scent that blended lavender and lemon notes. It now lingered on Victoria’s wrist as the ladies didn’t wish to dab it on their very white skin and perhaps soil the cuffs of their gloves. She carefully wrapped the three perfume bottles and settled the purchase at the counter. When she straightened and turned toward Mr. Latham once more, she found those mesmerizing eyes focused solely on her. His mouth was curved in a smile. Her breath caught in her throat as he slowly walked toward her.
“May I beg your assistance, Miss Elliot?” he asked with a raise of a brow. “I admit I’m at a bit of a loss.”
She took a quick breath to calm her fluttering heart. She eyed the garish brooch he held in his hand and her mouth twitched as she sought to hide her distaste. He caught it and grinned at her.
“You don’t much favor this one, I wager?” he asked.
She smoothly stepped back into her role of shop girl and responded in what she hoped was a diplomatic fashion.
“It’s a bit ornate,” she said carefully. “Um, very distinctive though.”
Mr. Latham laughed lightly. “It well suits its recipient, then.”
She raised a delicate brow, puzzling over his comment.
“Which one would you prefer, Miss Elliot?” he asked. “That is, if you were to choose one for yourself, which would it be?”
She was suddenly seized by the desires that had plagued her time and again this past month. She’d gazed often at the jewelry in the shop, imagining the thrill of receiving such a trinket from a favored suitor. She reached unerringly for a beautifully-wrought, delicate brooch of soft gray shell carved with graceful flowers. Vines of gold wrapped the piece, the effect simple and elegant.
She lifted the brooch in her hand. “I believe this one is most beautiful, Mr. Latham,” she said with a smile, her cheeks dimpling.
Mr. Latham stared at her for a moment as if he’d lost his voice. Holding her gaze, he reached out and for a heartbeat she thought he was going to touch her face, but then he looked down at the brooch and brushed his fingers over the tiny flowers on the piece. Then his fingers actually touched her palm and she almost jumped at the warmth of his hand.
Definitely better without gloves.
“Beautiful indeed, Miss Elliot,” he said, his eyes on her face once more. “Why did you choose this particular brooch?”
“It reminds me of home.” She said softly, gazing at the gold flecks sparkling in his eyes. “The flowers put me in mind of my late mother’s beautiful garden.”
“That,” he replied with a smile, “is probably the most wonderful reason I have ever heard for choosing a piece of jewelry.”
Victoria blushed and returned her favorite brooch back to its nest.
He bent his head toward her, his brow slightly furrowed. “What’s that scent?” he asked her, his face close to her wrist.
“It’s a new perfume,” she answered, a little breathlessly, slowly drawing her hand away from him.
He straightened, his lips parted.
“Lovely,” he said, his voice holding an intriguingly gruff note. He handed her the gaudy brooch. “I’ll take this one after all, Miss Elliot,” he told her. “I can’t imagine any other woman but you wearing the one you’ve chosen.”
Her cheeks flamed once more. She nodded and closed the glass case. Picking up the brooch Mr. Latham had chosen, she joined him at the purchase counter and settled the transaction.
“It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Miss Elliot,” he said with a wide smile as he took the small parcel from her. “Thank you for all of your help.”
She nodded mutely to him, flustered. What was the matter with her?
She watched Mr. Latham leave the store, his stride purposeful and smooth. She wondered who would be the recipient of the brooch. Gaudy or not, it would be lovely to receive a gift from such a handsome man. She sighed as she began re-folding the scarves for the tenth time that day, disappointed that Mr. Patrick Latham had left.
That evening Victoria readied for bed in the pretty little chamber at her uncle’s house. The room was decorated in shades of rose and cream, and it had become her refuge after a tiring day. When J. B. had shown her to the chamber upon her arrival in London, she’d openly expressed her delight at how lovely the room was. He’d simply smiled at her and assured her that with all his years of experience as a purveyor and seller of fine goods, surely he could anticipate a young woman’s tastes. That was but one warm memory that came to her mind when she recalled the gracious manner in which her uncle had welcomed her.
He’d seen to it that she had new clothing as well, both modest day dresses for working in the shop and fancier dresses for when he’d need to entertain his business associates at home. She’d never had such beautiful dresses, and looked forward to wearing them. Back home, her wardrobe had been simpler, and more suited to country life.
Her work at the shop wasn’t terribly fulfilling, she mused as she changed into a nightgown of lawn. She sat at the dainty vanity made of gilded white oak and unpinned her hair. Upon the vanity sat a fine brush and comb set, crafted of silver, and she lifted the brush and ran it through her thick auburn locks as she continued to ponder her situation. But it was good, honest work, and she was surrounded by beautiful things all day. True, she did find some of the customers quite off-putting. Some of ladies seemed to look right through her and the gentlemen seemed to look right through her clothing! Only one customer had looked at her as anything other than a lowly servant or a loose woman, and that was Mr. Patrick Latham.
Lord, he was handsome. And when he’d gazed at her with those striking hazel eyes, she’d seen no contempt in them, no lecherous intentions. Just an incredible warmth that had filled her with the strangest sensation. Even now, just the thought of the touch of his hand on hers prompted such an unexpected longing.
Who was he precisely? She knew the name Patrick meant “of noble birth.” Although he’d introduced himself with no title, he carried himself with all of the stature of a peer of the realm. He was wealthy, that was certain. The cut of his clothes, and the easy way in which he’d spent his money on that hideous brooch, was enough to tell her that. Had he bought that trinket for a lover? The prick of envy surprised her. Who was she to feel anything but cordiality toward Mr. Latham? After all she hardly knew him. And experience had taught her that a man could hide an ugly nature behind a charming smile.
Paul had done that . . . The young man she’d thought she would marry. She was lucky to have a place to live in her late father’s brother’s home, especially after the event that had changed her life so utterly, and so soon after she’d buried her father. It hadn’t been enough that she couldn’t go on living in the vicarage after her father’s passing. She had to be cast aside by the boy she’d loved her entire life?
He’d broken her heart . . .
“I’m sorry, Victoria,” Paul had said, his voice nearly lost to her in the sound of the waves propelled by the stiff breeze coming off the sea.
She’d been certain that at any moment he would tell her that he was only playing a prank, that he wasn’t truly going to marry another woman. She’d loved Paul Bellam since she was a little girl, running about the cliffs of Cornwall in tattered skirts and long braids.
“My family demands that I wed a woman of fortune,” Paul had said.
“How can you do this, Paul?” she’d asked him, hating herself for the desperation she’d heard in her own voice. “We were to be together.”
“We can still be together,” had been Paul’s swift response . . .
She cursed, the sound loud in her pretty chamber and shocking to her own ears. He’d meant to keep her. How could he have made such an offer to her? Tears burned her eyes as she stifled a sob and crawled into bed.
She turned in frustration, burying her fist into the feather pillow. The faintly lingering scent of the perfume at her wrist brought a smile to her lips as she recalled Mr. Patrick Latham’s compelling words and actions today. His beautiful eyes had captivated her, and his bright smile had thrilled her. And when he’d intimated that the very lovely brooch could only be meant for her, his words had touched her despite their obvious falsehood. Perhaps there were men in the world who were both charming and true. Perhaps Mr. Latham was one such man. The tears on her cheeks dried as her lips curved in a slight smile.
* * *
Patrick found himself on Bond Street several times during the week following his purchase of the gaudy brooch, his feet retracing his steps as if of their own volition. On this particular afternoon, he stood on the walk before Elliot’s Fineries, debating the wisdom of entering on one pretext or another. The number of titled patrons frequenting the store didn’t surprise him as he watched from the dappled shade provided by one of the trees lining the thoroughfare.
Given the excellence of the wares available for purchase, as well as the very charming attendant within, he knew the gentry would be hard-pressed to find a more pleasing shop to patronize. Two dandies strode past Patrick on their way to the shop, identical bored smiles fixed on their faces.
“Have you seen her yet, old man?” the taller of the two queried.
“The little shop girl?” his stout companion replied. “Just two days ago. Quite a tasty morsel.”
Patrick knew they spoke of Victoria Elliot. He was barely able to restrain himself from punching the two fops squarely in their smirking faces.
“I agree,” the tall man said. “Perhaps the little dove is in want of a protector.”
His companion laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. The tall man clicked his tongue and readjusted his hat. They both nodded in Patrick’s direction before stepping into the store. Patrick returned the gesture absently, his stomach churning.
He stepped closer to the shop, peering through the multi-paned window. He spied the girl within, a small smile of deference curving her lips as she faced the two gentlemen. He fancied that even from this perspective he could see the hunger burning in their gazes. Ignoring the fact that he found her very much to his own liking, he didn’t relish the idea of these reprobates finding her to their tastes as well. He certainly didn’t want it to appear that he was like those two hounds, sniffing around her simple but pretty skirts. He turned from the window and continued down Bond Street. As for himself, he’d seek to muddle his mind with a bit of ale along with his luncheon.
* * *
That evening Patrick sat in a crowded public house, his mind filled with a certain silver-eyed girl. What was it about Victoria Elliot that so captivated him? She was beautiful, that was true. But he’d known many beautiful women in his life, and had bedded more than a few of them. Perhaps it was her innate grace, her ability to smile at every demanding customer that came into Elliot’s fine establishment. He hadn’t missed the flash of fire he’d glimpsed in her eyes when the ladies at the perfume counter had demanded her attention. Or her small gasp and pretty blush when he’d bent to sniff the scent on her delicate wrist.
The din of the noisy patrons in the pub did nothing to divert his mind from the beguiling girl. Still bothered by the gentlemen’s insinuations of the afternoon, he impatiently signaled for a serving girl to refill his tankard. He had to wave his hand more than once to draw her attention in the dark, smoky room. He absently watched as the girl approached his table. She smiled widely at him as she poured him more ale. Invitation was clear in her dark brown eyes, but Patrick felt not a glimmer of enticement. The girl shrugged her shoulders and sauntered off to find a more enthusiastic customer.
Perhaps there was still time to take in the last of Emmy’s performance. She’d been very grateful for the garish brooch he’d given her last week. Grateful and most thorough. He’d barely been able to walk the next day, he recalled with a grin. But even Emmy’s lush charms and frank enthusiasm couldn’t draw his interest this night.
Victoria, his mind whispered. Tory, he silently corrected. That name seemed more fitting for the auburn-haired temptress with the beguiling silver eyes. Perhaps he would visit the elegant shop tomorrow. Surely, he was in need of a few cravats. That notion caused him to chuckle.
“Pray, what amuses you, Latham?” a man asked him.
Patrick looked up from the table to find his good friend Tony Waring grinning at him.
“Good evening, Waring,” Patrick said with an answering grin. “And how does this evening find you?”
Tony shrugged and sat beside Patrick at the scarred table. Patrick signaled for the serving girl once more. Tony was another gentleman who no longer felt the desire to make use of his family’s title, although the circumstances were far different from Patrick’s. Tony had been all but disowned by his important family when they learned that he’d compromised the questionable virtue of an earl’s youngest daughter. How Tony had escaped a forced marriage, Patrick had no idea. But he found Tony a likable chum as enthusiastic about loafing and carousing as he himself was.
“What of your evening Latham?” Tony countered, leaning back in his chair. “Do you suddenly find the lures of Drury Lane tiresome?”
Patrick laughed lightly. “I haven’t taken in Emmy’s . . . um . . . performances for over a week now,” he said.
“And so the little songbird told me,” Tony revealed, a sparkle in his blue eyes.
Patrick arched a brow at him, feeling nothing but mild interest that Emmy had taken to entertaining his friend.
“Lovely trinket, by the by,” Tony said. “Tell me. Did you find it at Elliot’s on Bond Street?”
“What do you know of Elliot’s?” he asked Tony, keeping his voice even.
Tony opened his mouth to respond. Just then the serving girl returned to the table with a tankard of ale. After winking in her direction, Tony faced Patrick once more.
“All are talking of that store, friend,” he said, taking up his tankard. “I am not referring to its fine wares, but to the new, very intriguing shop girl.”
A surge of jealousy struck Patrick. He took a long drink of his ale and set his tankard carefully on the table. “And what, pray, is everyone saying of this shop girl?” he asked.
“That she’s bloody beautiful,” Tony replied. “Several titled gentlemen are considering taking her under their protection. Surely she would be willing to leave her position should such an opportunity arise.”
Patrick’s fingers tightened on his mug of ale. Victoria, a mistress? Kept by a man solely for his pleasures? Not bloody likely. “No,” he said aloud.
He lifted his head to find Tony staring at him, confusion etched on his angular face.
“What’s this, Latham?” he asked. “What do you know of this girl?”
“Nothing,” Patrick said quickly. “I’ve noticed her, of course. Nothing more.”
“And perhaps you’ll pay another visit to that shop on the morrow, eh Latham?” Tony said slyly. “For a man who makes little use of his title you readily find the funds necessary to indulge your whims.”
Patrick took no offense at his friend’s words. “A title means nothing to me, Waring. I make use of my mother’s family name,” he said with smile. “And I make use of my inheritance when necessary.”
Just then the serving wench sauntered by their table once more. Tony glanced at her bottom as she bent over the table and then grinned at Patrick.
“I believe I can find amusements far cheaper than Bond Street,” he said.
Patrick laughed and finished his ale.
Victoria painstakingly arranged the perfume bottles in an artful display, delighted by the way the cut crystal caught the morning light filtering through the storefront windows. She lifted the tear-shaped bottle containing the scent that had caught Mr. Patrick Latham’s attention a few days ago. She gently pulled out the stopper and held it to her nose. Closing her eyes, she let her mind drift back to that moment when Mr. Latham had made her feel things she had no right to feel. He made her feel like a woman. Like she was a person worthy of such a man’s attentions.
“Victoria,” her uncle said, breaking through her reverie.
Her eyes flew open and she felt her cheeks heat slightly. She fervently prayed her uncle couldn’t guess the provocative thoughts flitting through her mind. Setting the closed bottle on the table, she turned and smiled at J. B.
“Yes, Uncle?” she asked, running her damp palms over the skirt of her simple dress of ivory muslin.
“Are you wool-gathering, my dear?” he gently chided her.
Victoria shook her head and hurried to assist the lady awaiting her at the purchase counter.
“Forgive me, my lady,” she said to the blonde, impeccably dressed young woman.
“Pray do not fret, Miss.” The pretty woman smiled. “I’m woefully unoccupied this afternoon.”
Victoria nodded absently and began to wrap the woman’s purchases. She caught a glimpse of a male head crowned with rich brown hair and quickly turned toward the windows flanking the front of the store. It was Mr. Latham! The customer before her coughed discreetly to gain her attention, and Victoria forced herself to return to the task at hand. But she didn’t miss the man as he entered the store, smoothly making his way around the display tables. Their eyes met for a moment, and Victoria was certain that everyone in the store could hear her heart pounding. Her cheeks flamed as she finished packing up the pretty blonde’s order.
After wishing the woman a good day, Victoria busied herself with the careful folding of the tissue paper set beside her on the counter. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to watch as Mr. Latham leisurely inspected the various perfumes, his long fingers graceful as he gingerly lifted a glass bottle. The blonde stopped before him, and a dark look crossed his face as he clutched the bottle in his hand.
The woman tentatively reached one hand toward him but Mr. Latham’s scowl clearly discouraged her contact. Her shoulders stiff, the woman turned and left the store. Who was that lady to him? It was evident she was a member of the ton and certainly pretty, Victoria mused. Mr. Latham was such a charming man, why would he scowl at her? She returned to her work, hoping he hadn’t noticed her watching.
* * *
Patrick gazed at Victoria as she worked at the counter, as if he could absorb her sweetness. Despite the fact that they’d had no real contact since that first day in the shop, he nonetheless sensed an innate goodness about the girl. Was that why he’d been keeping an eye on the swains who’d frequented the shop from his post under the leafy tree across the street? He’d vowed to himself that he would find a place for her in his life, even though a girl of such sweetness deserved more than a confirmed reprobate like himself.
As he neared her, he studied her flawless complexion, and the way her auburn tresses caught the light from the chandeliers. She truly was exquisite. He felt a genuine smile curve his lips as he came to stand before her.
“Hello, Miss Elliot,” he said. “I believe I’m in need of your assistance yet again.”
Victoria beamed a smile at him gifting him with a glimpse of her gorgeous dimples. A bolt of anticipation surged through him. His inopportune meeting with Susan had left him in a sour mood. He wouldn’t think of the pain he’d seen in that woman’s pale eyes. She’d set her course long ago, and he wouldn’t feel a glimmer of sympathy for the grasping witch.
“Do you wish to purchase another lovely brooch, Mr. Latham?” Victoria asked, a look of innocence on her pretty face.
Patrick was taken aback for a moment. Then the merry sparkle returned to her beautiful silver eyes.
“Are you teasing me, Miss Elliot?” he asked with a crooked grin.
To his delight, a secret smile curved her lush lips. He stared for a moment longer, wondering how they would taste. As her pink tongue flicked out to lick her lips he nearly groaned.
He cleared his throat and pointed to a display of cravats in the center of the store. “I’m in need of a few cravats. I’m afraid that I take little care of mine, and they are hopelessly creased.”
As Victoria opened her mouth to respond, J. B. Elliot came to stand beside Patrick.
“Cravats?” he asked with a smile. “Surely you will need several, with the Season well under way.”
Patrick didn’t bother to tell Victoria’s uncle that he never frequented the parties and assemblies of the ton, or that he dressed only for himself. Let the man think what he would, Patrick decided with a nod in J. B.’s direction. His money was as good as any dandy’s.
“As you say, sir,” Patrick said. “Several pairs of gloves would suit me this day as well. I was hoping that your lovely niece would be so kind as to assist me with my selections.”
J.B.’s dark eyes were intent on Patrick’s face. Patrick had the unmistakable feeling that Victoria’s uncle could read all of his less-than-honorable thoughts concerning the girl. With a slight nod, the man left Patrick to Victoria’s care.
Patrick watched the man move away from them to confer with another of the store’s clerks, and almost sighed in relief. J. B.’s piercing gaze was a bit unnerving, especially when taken with the interest Patrick now felt toward Victoria. He was unaware of her circumstances, to be sure. But he was certain that he’d never felt so drawn to a woman in his entire life. He looked at Victoria to find her gazing at him expectantly. Smiling despite the nervousness her compelling silver eyes elicited in him, he waved her ahead of him and followed as she led the way to a counter devoted to men’s items, admiring the gentle sway of her hips as she walked.
* * *
Victoria reached into a drawer set below the wooden counter and withdrew several cravats varying in quality and texture. She laid them out for him to peruse.
“Here you are, Mr. Latham,” she said.
He ran his eyes over the neck cloths and smiled crookedly. “Once more I defer to your expertise, Miss Elliot.”
Choosing what she thought was the best of the lot, Victoria held aloft a white one made of the finest silk. Mr. Latham fingered the cravat and nodded his dark head.
“You have an excellent eye,” he said. “This neck cloth is superior to the others.”
“I’m sure your valet will be pleased to handle such items for you, Mr. Latham,” she offered.
“My valet doesn’t tie my neck cloths, Miss Elliot,” he told her. “I find that I can handle all but the most complicated folds on my own.”
His own crisp white cravat was tied in a simple, masculine style. Victoria took the cloth back from him, folding it carefully.
“I’ll take a half-dozen cravats, Miss Elliot,” he told her.
Victoria slanted a look at him. “Only a half-dozen, Mr. Latham?” she asked.
He chuckled and nodded. “If I were to take as many as I needed,” he told her, “I would have no excuse to come back to this fine establishment.”
Victoria’s cheeks flushed hot. Busying her hands, she set aside six of the cravats and set the others back into the drawer. Taking a steadying breath, she turned to him once more.
“Would you like to see to the gloves now?” she asked him.
He seemed to study her closely, his eyes intent on her face.
“Riding gloves, I presume?” Victoria asked trying to gain control of her nerves. “We have several pairs made in a soft but very strong kid leather.”
“No, thank you,” he said with a warm smile. “I’m most pleased with the ones I have now. They are well broken in and most comfortable. Dress gloves would be the order of the day, I daresay.”
She could feel his eyes on her as she crossed to a set of drawers that held the dress gloves. Oddly, it didn’t bother her as it did when the other men watched her. She wondered what it would feel like to have his eyes on her in a more intimate setting . . . Oh my! Her scandalous thoughts shocked her.
“White ones, I believe,” he provided.
She nodded, flustered, and withdrew several pairs of dress gloves.
“I assumed you would want white,” she said as she placed them before him. “I wasn’t as certain of the size. Your hands are very large, although you’re large all over—” Oh, goodness, I can’t believe I just said that.
“Th-that is,” she stumbled, her gaze averted. “You’re a tall man, Mr. Latham, and it would follow . . .” She cleared her throat and fussed with the gloves, trying to re-gain control of her run-away tongue. An odd, choking, coughing sound came from Mr. Latham, drawing her eyes to his face. “Are you all right, Mr. Latham?” she inquired.
He grinned as he picked up the largest pair of gloves she’d set before him. “Quite . . . all right, Miss Elliot.” He slipped on the gloves, flexing his fingers as if to show her that they did indeed fit his very large hands.
“You see, Miss Elliot,” he pronounced. “A perfect fit. Let us give them a try.”
He reached for one of her delicate hands and brought it to his lips.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes looking into hers. “Perfect, indeed.”
She withdrew her hand from his slowly and lowered her eyes to the counter once more. Mr. Latham removed the gloves and placed them before her.
“And a half-dozen pairs of gloves, I believe.”
Victoria stared at his hands, her lips parted. Without thinking, her fingers brushed the scratches on his knuckles.
“You’re injured,” she said, her eyes widened in concern.
“It’s nothing,” he assured her, his voice sounding strained. “You should have seen the other fellow.”
Her fingers stilled. “You were in an altercation?”
He smiled at her. “Hardly that. I was sparring. Harmless fisticuffs, believe me.”
Relief washed over her as she stroked his hand one more time. Then realizing what she was doing, she pulled her hand away. He cleared his throat and asked her to see the items delivered as he’d not brought his carriage. As she wrote down his address he cleared his throat once again. She wondered if he was getting a cold. Perhaps she should recommend a remedy that her old housekeeper had taught her.
“Miss Elliot,” he interrupted her thoughts. “I was wondering if we—”
“Is everything quite in order here?” J. B. asked, coming to stand beside Mr. Latham. “Is everything to Mr. Latham’s satisfaction, my dear?”
Victoria smiled sweetly at her uncle. “I believe that Mr. Latham has all that he needs at the moment, Uncle,” she returned.
“I was wondering, sir,” Mr. Latham began anew. “Is there any way that you can see your way clear to allowing Miss Elliot an hour or two of free time this afternoon? I would very much enjoy taking tea with her.”
J.B. narrowed his eyes, seeming to consider the request.
“There are several respectable establishments right here on Bond Street,” Mr. Latham supplied.
Victoria looked at her uncle hopefully.
“You may indeed have the pleasure of my niece’s company for tea, Mr. Latham,” J. B. said, glancing at his niece with a warm smile. Then, looking back at Mr. Latham, her uncle added, “Pray, don’t keep her engaged overlong.”
Mr. Latham gave the man a short bow and turned to Victoria.
“I shall be back shortly,” she said softly before disappearing into a back room of the store.
* * *
Miss Elliot emerged wearing her wrap and a dove gray bonnet. She placed her gloved hand on Patrick’s offered arm and the two of them walked out into the waning afternoon sunshine.
“I admit, this little excursion is a surprise,” she said.
He tilted his head, a smile curving his lips. “Is it? I believe I’ve paid you some attention in the last several days.”
She laughed a little at that. “Some? I daresay you were dogged.”
“Dogged? Hmm. I prefer determined. Or decided.”
“So you say,” she said.
They continued over the cobbles until they arrived at a cozy little tearoom not far from Elliot’s Fineries. Sunlight filtered through the lacy curtains trimming the windows facing the street. The same lace covered the small round tables. The air was filled with pleasant sounds of happy chatter and clinking china along with the enticing scents of cinnamon and imported teas.
“Have you ever had the pleasure of taking tea here?” Patrick asked Miss Latham as he held out the delicately-wrought chair for her.
“My uncle brought me here once,” she replied, nodding with thanks.
Patrick stood behind her for a moment, studying the gentle curve of her neck. Oh, how he would love to place a kiss right on that delicate skin. He caught himself before he did something foolish, and took his seat across from her. The server, an older lady, primly dressed, came immediately to their table for their order. He asked for a pot of steaming tea and a plate of assorted biscuits. He paused and flashed a smile in her direction.
“Do you like honey, Miss Elliot?” he asked her. “They have the finest here, delivered nearly every day from Shropshire.”
Miss Latham nodded her head in answer and Patrick added his request for honey. They sat in silence for several moments until they were served their refreshments. She gracefully lifted the bone china teacup and sipped. He picked up one of the fluffy cookies that accompanied their tea and drizzled some of the sweet honey on it. Holding it out to her, she hesitated for a moment, no doubt a bit self-conscious at having another waiting on her. She took the biscuit from him with her fingers and gingerly took a bite. Her eyes drifted closed for one moment, bliss etched on her lovely face.
“Mmm,” she murmured with delight.
A surge of lust coiled through him at the little sound. His gaze fastened on a drop of honey glistening at the corner of her mouth and he was unable to look away. As if of its own volition, his hand reached out toward her and touched her mouth. She blinked up at him, her eyes round. He gently wiped the drop of honey from her mouth and she instinctively parted her lips to him. Sharply drawing in a breath, he ran his finger gently over the swell of her lush lower lip. God, her lips were so soft. And the sight of that small pink tongue . . . The sounds from the other patrons soon intruded upon him. He leaned away from her, still gazing at those soft full lips.
“There was a drop of honey,” he said in a strained voice. “I hope that you will forgive my forwardness.”
“Nothing to forgive.” She blushed, and took another sip of tea, her hand trembling slightly.
He suddenly cleared his throat and picked up his cup. She was even more beautiful when she blushed. They sat in companionable silence, enjoying their tea and biscuits. He didn’t miss that she chose a second biscuit without the addition of honey.
“My mother used to make such biscuits,” she mused aloud.
“Mine never did,” he said.
She blinked at him and he smiled. “Her skill bent more toward flowers,” he said. “Her gardens were quite beautiful.”
“My mother gardened as well, but mostly vegetables and herbs.”
He sensed a sadness there in her expression. “She’s passed on, I take it?”
“She died when I was but five years old.”
“That is something we have in common, then,” he said. “Although I was blessed to have my own mother until I was nineteen.” A surprising pang of grief bit into him. “I do miss her.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. It was simple and genuine, and it warmed him.
“You were only five when your mother passed?” He sought to find out more about her. “How do you recall her baking and gardening?
“My father told me a lot about my mother, when I was a growing up,” she said softly.
“Where did you grow up, Miss Elliot?”
“I lived in Cornwall all of my life.” Her expression, filled with sweet sadness earlier, was now quite melancholy. “My father was the vicar in St. Ives. He died a month ago.”
That certainly explained the melancholy he’d glimpsed. “And how did you find Cornwall growing up?” he asked, eager to brighten the conversation.
She gave him a smile. “It was all I ever knew, but I can’t imagine a lovelier place to be a child. The sea, the hills, the fresh air. I loved it.”
“And as a young lady, I’d imagine.”
She nodded, her gaze growing a bit shuttered. “Perhaps.”
When she said nothing more, he thought to tease her a bit.
“Come now, Miss Elliot,” he said lightly, leaning toward her. “Surely, you left a lover or two pining for you.”
Her head shot up, her eyes round. Pain flickered in their gray depths. She shook her head. “You have no right to speak to me of such matters,” she said, laying down her linen napkin.
“Miss Elliot, I—”
“I must return to the shop,” she said, coming to her feet.
Patrick stared at her. What had he said? He stood quickly and settled the bill as she studied the tips of her leather shoes.
“As you wish,” he said at last, drawing her eyes to his.
He took her elbow. They said nothing more as they walked the short distance to Elliot’s Fineries.
“Thank you for the tea,” she said stiffly, facing him once more.
He took her hands in his, bringing them swiftly to his lips. He dropped the lightest kiss on her fingers.
“Forgive me, Miss Elliot,” he said. “It wasn’t my intention to upset you.”
“I’m not upset, Mr. Latham,” she said, her voice sounding strained to his ears. “I must return to work. That is all.”
Patrick gave her a nod and escorted her back to Elliot’s. As she entered the store, he watched her for a long moment through the multi-paned store window.
“Damnation, I’m a fool,” he muttered.
What was it about Victoria Elliot that filled him with such strange compulsions? What would prompt him to make such a ridiculous and inappropriate query to such a girl? She had every right to be angry with him. He’d spoken to her as if she was one of his seasoned paramours. She was a vicar’s daughter for Christ’s sake. But the pain that had filled her eyes had been most surprising. Who was the man who had hurt her in Cornwall? And did he still have a hold on her heart?
It was of no consequence to him, He turned and began to walk away from Elliot’s Fineries. Miss Victoria Elliot wasn’t a woman who would suit him. He preferred his women more worldly and his liaisons free from any emotional entanglements. Yet why was he so drawn to her? He was surely a fool. That was certain.
* * *
Victoria forced a smile at her uncle as she placed her wrapper aside in the back room and prepared to resume her work in the shop.
“Did you have a pleasant time with the young man, my dear?” J. B. asked from behind her, his dark eyes intent.
“Mr. Latham is a very nice gentleman, Uncle,” she said.
J.B. grasped her arm, urging her close.
“Take care, Victoria,” he said in a low voice. “While I’ve nothing against Latham, I fear that I know nothing of his situation.”
“But, Uncle,” she began.
He held up a hand to still her. Victoria indulgently held her tongue.
“I know that the rooms he keeps are in a very suitable part of town,” he went on. “But you’re an innocent, my dear, and I wouldn’t want to see such innocence lead to undesirable circumstances.”
Victoria could say nothing to the man. Did he truly think her so naïve as to let a man’s kindness lead her astray? She wasn’t the same girl she’d been in Cornwall. She glanced at J. B. as they walked back out onto the store floor, and knew that his mind was already on another matter, his eyes darting about the store as he mentally calculated the spending potential of each elegant customer. Victoria was thankful she wouldn’t be pressed for a response to his comments. At the moment, she was most pleased he could switch so easily from one topic to another.
She didn’t want to think about what a fool she’d made of herself in the tearoom. Thoughts of Paul and his rejection or about her extreme response to Mr. Latham’s innocent question of a lover left behind in Cornwall.
Her uncle walked swiftly away, and Victoria gave a slight shake of her head. The silver bell at the purchasing counter soon beckoned and she hurried to answer its call.
* * *
Victoria tossed and turned that night, the pretty floral coverlet in a tangle at the foot of her bed. She couldn’t free her mind enough to let sleep claim her, and she believed that she knew the reason. Paul.
The blond gentleman’s image floated before her. In an instant, that image shifted and changed, and Patrick Latham filled her mind. His compelling eyes, his incredible touch, was all she could ponder. Lord, he was a handsome man. And although he’d inadvertently caused her pain when he mentioned her leaving a lover in Cornwall, the compassion on his face afterward had more than made amends for that lapse.
She lifted her fingers to her mouth, remembering his touch as he’d wiped the honey from her lips. Although she’d never truly felt a man’s lips on hers, she knew that the feelings Mr. Latham aroused were unique. He made her yearn for something she’d longed to have her entire life. A husband. Children. A cozy home. A family. Oh, she was surely a fool to believe that a man like Patrick Latham, would ever find her the least bit to his liking. She knew she had physical attributes that attracted men, but there were plenty of pretty girls in the world. No. What she didn’t have was a pedigree and the wealth that went with it. Hadn’t Paul cast her aside with nary a twinge of regret? Not fit for marriage. But certainly fit for being a mistress.
Oh, the shame of it!
Was that what Mr. Patrick Latham desired as well? Even not knowing his particular situation, she was certain he was as out of her reach as Paul had been. He had seemed so kind, though. So unlike the other gentlemen who frequented the shop.
“Patrick,” she whispered into her pillow.
Sleep found her swiftly as she hugged herself and took comfort in the notion that the dark-haired gentleman with the mesmerizing hazel eyes might want her just a little bit.
* * *
Several nights later, Patrick climbed the stairs to his rooms, feeling a bit befuddled. He’d turned down an offer of female companionship at his favorite pub, raising his friend Tony’s eyebrows more than a notch. The theaters held no interest for him either, much to his surprise. He well knew the reason for his disinterest. Victoria, his mind whispered.
“Tory,” he breathed in correction, his voice echoing in the narrow staircase.
She was all he’d thought of this night, even as a comely wench had stood before him with an offer which would have drawn him on any other evening prior to that day he’d walked into Elliot’s Fineries. Paying a visit to the very talented Emmy was no longer attractive to him either. Even the memory of the guilty passions that woman had brought out of him didn’t rouse him in his dark solitude at this moment. He wanted Tory, he acknowledged to himself for the first time. But he didn’t deserve her. She was sweet and untouched and he’d happily played the rogue for the past five years.
He entered his sitting room, ignoring the lure of the deep green overstuffed chair that squatted close to the fireplace as he continued through to his sleeping chamber. The fact that she worked as a shop girl was of no consequence to him, he acknowledged as he stripped off his clothes. He turned back the green satin coverlet and fell onto his bed. He pillowed his head on his hands and let his eyelids droop. He knew little of her financial situation and cared even less. He knew without question that it was her goodness—her innocent allure—that drew him. He felt a tug in the center of his chest, a burgeoning hope beating in his breast. He swore softly in the quiet room. His heart had been taken from him all those years ago, his emotions untouchable since his father and Susan’s betrayal. What did he possibly have to give Tory?
Money, he allowed, knowing that his mother’s bequeath would support both himself and a wife in relative comfort. But his heart was cold, holding no room for such a vibrant, tender girl. And what of Tory’s heart? Did that fool she’d left in Cornwall still hold it in his inept hands?
Patrick came to his feet beside the bed and crossed to the sitting room. Aside from the comfortable lodgings the house afforded, he could count on the supply of libations for its male inhabitants. He smiled ruefully as he opened a cabinet set in the sideboard. Some brandy would quell these bothersome thoughts, he mused as he withdrew both a bottle and a crystal glass. He poured a generous amount and swallowed it swiftly, letting out a breath as he set the glass back down on the sideboard. He thought then of the item he’d purchased at Elliot’s yesterday, a piece purchased without the lovely girl’s assistance, when he’d found her out of the shop or perhaps working in the backroom. His eyes fell on the small parcel where it sat on the sideboard, wrapped and patiently awaiting its recipient. The older woman who had waited on him had eyed him with frank interest before settling the purchase, and he’d wondered what Tory had told her of their all-too-short visit to the tearoom. And this night, he wondered at the manner in which the gift would be received were he to ever muster the courage to give it. He drank another glass of the liquor before setting the bottle aside. He fell upon his bed once more, waiting for sleep to claim him.
Tory came to Patrick in a dream, and in the vision they were taking tea in his own private rooms. The honey glistened once more on her lips, but when he reached out toward her she welcomed his touch with lush enthusiasm. Her full lips parted, her pink tongue flicking out to slowly stroke his fingertip. She gently suckled his finger and desire pounded through him. Her silver eyes were fathomless as she drew his hand down to cup her round breast. She fit him perfectly. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back and whispered his name. He was nearly lost.
“Tory,” he murmured in his sleep, his fingers clutching the sheets as, in his mind, she gave herself up to his expert touch.
“Patrick,” she breathed in the dream, wrapping her arms around his neck as she came to sit in his lap. “Oh, Patrick . . .”
Patrick came awake with a start, the sound of his breathing harsh in the darkened solitude of his chamber. He was rock-hard with wanting, and knew in that moment that none but Victoria would ever be able to arouse such longing in him again. He dashed his hand across his brow and took a deep steadying breath.
“Tory,” he said aloud. “My God.”
During another busy day at Elliot’s Fineries, Victoria couldn’t push Mr. Latham, Patrick, from her mind. Oh, the feelings he aroused within her as she’d lain in her bed the previous evening. Would he come into the shop today?
She kept herself busy arranging a selection of glass fruits upon a display. The pieces were quite whimsical and she wondered who would ever purchase such oddities. Her uncle hadn’t told her where they’d come from, but that wasn’t unusual. He didn’t share any details of his business as a rule.
She often found herself alone in the evenings, J. B. off on shop business of some kind. Where he went on these evenings, she didn’t ask. Used to relative solitude in Cornwall, with only her father and Mrs. Davies, the housekeeper, sharing the quaint little vicarage, it had been a common occurrence.
That was before the double heartbreak of Paul’s betrayal and the arrival of the new vicar and his wife and children. No, her beloved Cornwall was no longer home to her. She thanked God for her uncle’s kindness in bringing her to his home. She relished the quiet evenings when her uncle was out and about, no doubt acquiring more of the fine and unique items for which his store was famous. She absently fingered the delicate golden leaf adorning the glass-hewn grapes.
“Miss Elliot,” a woman’s voice called from across the shop.
Victoria looked up to find a short, plump society lady waving at her, her ruddy cheeks flushed in excitement. A smile graced Victoria’s face as she recognized Lady Whitby, one of her favorite regular customers.
“Lady Whitby, what a pleasure to see you.” Victoria greeted the woman warmly.
“My dear girl,” Lady Whitby began as she placed her hand over her heart. “I declare, you are the only person who can me help, I am certain.”
“I am very pleased to help you, my lady,” Victoria’s lips twitched as she tried to suppress her humor. Lady Whitby was wife to one of the most powerful earls in England and yet, unlike so many other well-to-do ladies who frequented her uncle’s shop, she treated Victoria like an equal. This was astounding, and so very appreciated.
“I need a fitting gift for my daughter,” the older woman said her eyes wide. “She’s having her come-out, you see, and attending her first ball, and I would very much like to mark the occasion with something special.”
Victoria was silent for moment as she pondered the possibilities. “I think perhaps, a piece of jewelry,” she offered, beckoning the woman to follow her to the jewelry counter. “We have several lovely pieces from which you can choose, all well-suited to a young girl’s first come-out.” Victoria withdrew the velvet tray holding the brooches. The lovely gray one, she thought with a twinge of regret. She was certain a young girl in her first season would favor such a delicate and beautiful piece of jewelry.
When she failed to locate the piece she was disappointed. Oh no! It had been sold. Now, she wouldn’t even have the pleasure of knowing for certain that the brooch had found a worthy recipient. She inwardly sighed, and chose several brooches that were tasteful and elegant in their own manner. The older woman squinted her eyes as she carefully looked over the selection.
“Oh, there are so many pretty ones. I cannot possible choose one,” she exclaimed. “My dear Miss Elliot, what do you think?”
Victoria perused the beautiful assortment of brooches and her gaze landed on a very daintily-wrought rose-covered piece. She picked it up and showed it to Lady Whitby.
“I think your daughter would be very happy with this one. Golden roses. So pretty and yet so unique.”
“Oh, you do have such exquisite taste, Miss Elliot,” the woman said with a warm smile. “It’s one of the reasons I take my business here.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Victoria beamed.
She wrapped up the purchase and bade Lady Whitby a good day. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spied a dark-haired gentleman intently watching her. Hope filled her and she turned fully toward him. That hope faded as she realized she was mistaken. It wasn’t Mr. Latham standing in the store, but an equally well-dressed gentleman with very lively blue eyes. He was on the lean side, wearing a crooked smile on his face. He beckoned to her with one hand and Victoria nodded and came to stand before him.
“May I help you with something, sir?” she queried.
The tall gentleman’s smile widened. “Miss Elliot, I presume?” At her nod he introduced himself. “Tony Waring. I’ve heard much of your welcome addition to this fine establishment.”
Victoria tilted her head to one side. “Is that so?”
“You’re quickly gaining a reputation as a woman well-versed in the selection of fine goods,” Tony said with a nod.
Victoria returned the man’s smile with one of her own.
He blinked. “Beautiful.”
Victoria was grateful he didn’t leer at her as most of the gentleman who frequented the store.
“Is there something in particular you need today, Mr. Waring?”
“Tempt me, Miss Elliot,” the man returned smoothly. “What, precisely, can a gentleman such as I possibly not do without?”
Victoria laughed lightly at the man’s words.
“Perhaps a new watch fob, sir,” she said, “or a new pair of riding gloves?”
Tony nodded. “Capital! Please, Miss Elliot,” he went on, “do show me a pair of riding gloves in the softest, finest leather. I fear I go through them rather quickly. Although a very good friend of mine swears that I’m too quick to replace them, that they are much better when well broken in and formed to the hand.”
Victoria thought immediately of Patrick, her cheeks growing warm as she recalled his very large, very strong hands. She glanced at the customer and found him wearing a look of interest.
She cleared her throat and managed a smile. “Riding gloves, then,” she said, leading him to the counter holding such men’s items.
The gentleman chose a pair of gloves made of the finest kid leather and thanked her profusely for aiding in his choice. His hands were large, she noticed, but also long and elegant. Patrick’s hands were broader. And when Patrick’s finger had touched her lips . . . She forced her attention to the present as she nodded to the gentleman. She settled his purchase and handed the new gloves to him.
“My hands will thank you, no doubt, when I take my horse out on the morrow,” he said with a grin. “And perhaps my friend will change his mind about buying new riding gloves when he sees these very fine ones you’ve helped me select.”
“I’m glad you’re satisfied, Mr. Waring,” she said. “It was my pleasure to serve you.”
“The pleasure was mine, Miss Elliot,” he said with a bow. “I daresay that I’ll be back again.”
Victoria returned to her work as the man left the store, her mind still on Patrick and whether or not he would deem it necessary to purchase something, anything, from Elliot’s today.
* * *
Patrick wiped a towel over his sweat-stained face as his heart slowly resumed its normal beating. A quick sparring match at Bradley’s Boxing Saloon was just the thing for getting the blood pumping and the head clear, he mused as he nodded to the owner, his sparring partner.
“Excellent match, Bradley,” Patrick said. “I believe I needed it.”
“You were a bit wild, Latham,” the man teased, pushing his blond waves back from his face. “Has it been that long since you were with a woman?”
Patrick laughed. “Never mind.”
He’d known Thomas Bradley back in school, but they’d lost touch in the interim. A second son, he was a bit ahead of Patrick, actually. Closer to thirty, by now. He wasn’t the bosom chum Patrick found in Tony, but he was a good man. And a hell of a boxer. He was the same height as Patrick but heavier, his brawny frame boasting several scars from his many fights in the ring. Bradley had started the boxing club a few years back and it had grown to great success among gentlemen of the ton who preferred hard physical activity to sitting in their parlors eating bon-bons or in their clubs drinking brandy. He’d definitely put Patrick through his paces today.
“What do you have planned for the rest of your day, aside from having your valet rub liniment on your muscles?”
“Ha. Nothing out of the ordinary, actually. Dinner in my rooms, perhaps a drink at the club.
“Perhaps I’ll see you there.” Bradley’s brow furrowed. “Although my mother wants me to dance attendance on some debutantes she’s brought down from the country.”
Patrick gave a shudder. “Better you than me, friend.”
Bradley rolled his eyes skyward. “She’s beating a dead horse, I’m afraid. I don’t want one of those fresh-faced little girls. I want a woman with some substance, do you know what I mean?”
Patrick did indeed. Although Tory appeared young, there was depth to her, and a backbone as he’d seen at the tearoom when he’d inadvertently insulted her.
“Good luck with all of that,” he told Bradley as they both headed into the dressing rooms.
The session had done little to cool Patrick’s blood. The dream about Victoria had clung to him all the day, much to his chagrin. He didn’t dare go to the shop today, despite his desire to do precisely that. He knew without question that one look at that girl’s lovely mouth would have him wanting her fiercely. And how would he face her uncle in such a condition? Surely J. B. Elliot’s sharp eyes missed nothing.
After washing and dressing, Patrick exited the boxing saloon and climbed aboard his carriage. He directed his driver to White’s and leaned back on the cushioned seat. A rousing game of cards with several idle gentlemen of his acquaintance would surely keep the thought of Tory from his mind. When he arrived at White’s he did indeed find several chums within. Tony was the first to spot him and he waved for Patrick to join him at a corner table.
“Just the man I was hoping to see,” Tony said. “Sit down, Latham. Sit down.”
Patrick sat down in a comfortable leather chair.
“What have you been about, Tony?” Patrick asked as Tony gathered up the cards on the table.
The glint in Tony’s eyes told him that the gentleman held some sort of mystery. Patrick believed he knew well the nature of that secret.
“Am I right in assuming you’ve found yourself a new paramour?” Patrick asked.
“Hardly,” Tony said. “Emmy suits me quite well for the time being. But I did purchase a new pair of riding gloves.”
Patrick stared at him for a moment before the truth struck him. “You went to Elliot’s.”
Tony’s face split into a huge grin. “My God, man,” he said. “She’s incredible. That face, those eyes, that figure.”
Patrick felt that now-familiar glimmer of possessiveness. “Ah,” was all he could say.
Tony laughed at his wry expression. “You can’t keep her to yourself, Latham. She’s too bloody beautiful to ignore.”
Patrick leaned toward his friend, a man with as strong a reputation as a rake as he, and chose his words carefully. “She’s not for you, Tony,” he said deliberately.
Tony blinked in response. “What do you mean? As charming as Miss Victoria Elliot appears set in the midst of that lovely shop, surely she would prefer to be kept in an equally lovely apartment.”
Patrick clenched his hands into fists. “Tory is not—” He stopped himself and took a calming breath. “Miss Elliot is not a woman who would welcome such an arrangement, Tony.”
“Tory?” Tony repeated with a grin. “A most fitting name, I daresay. Means ‘Victory’ if I’m not mistaken. Seems to me she’s won a few swains’ hearts, eh Latham?”
“Let it go,” Patrick said through clenched teeth.
“I meant no offense, Latham.” Tony shrugged and began to deal a new game. “One would believe that you’ve taken her under your own protection.”
Patrick ran his fingers through his hair as he let out a breath. “That notion,” he said as he took up the cards, “is out of the question.”
Tony’s head snapped up from contemplation of his cards, his blue eyes round.
“Why not?” Tony asked incredulously. “Haven’t you taken women under your protection in the past?”
“No. And she’s not that type of girl,” he told Tony.
Tony snorted in disbelief.
“You’ve met her,” Patrick continued. “Tell me you believe such an arrangement would suit her.”
“You’re a wealthy gentleman, Latham,” he said. “She wouldn’t have to work.” His mouth curved into a grin. “At least, not on her feet.”
Patrick felt no anger at the man’s goading. He simply shook his head.
“Victoria’s different,” was all he would allow.
Tony raised his brows a good inch and let out a low whistle. Patrick cast him a sideways glance, reluctant to hear the man’s latest insinuation.
“You don’t truly favor the girl?” he asked Patrick in a low voice.
Patrick merely shook his head and turned his attentions to the cards dealt to him. How had Tory so quickly wormed her way into his heart? No, he swiftly decided. His heart wasn’t at issue. He wanted her and that was all. But what, pray, was the meaning of such thoughts?
He played his hand of cards absently, his mind swirling with the incredible notion of making Victoria far more than his mistress.
* * *
Victoria stood with Nan in Elliot’s Fineries, arranging the exquisite handkerchiefs that had arrived that morning. The lacy trim had been painstakingly embroidered with the tiniest of flowers in pretty pastel colors, and Victoria was certain they would prove to be very popular among the young ladies.
The Season was well underway, and the ladies would surely have no free time to work their own stitches until its conclusion in August. She took vicarious pleasure in the stories she overheard while the girls shopped at Elliot’s, unable to keep from wishing she could experience at least one ball. She hummed a tune to herself as she closed her eyes for a moment, imagining the very handsome Mr. Latham asking her to dance, his gloved hand held out to her.
“Girls,” Mrs. Floss said, carrying a tray of tea biscuits. “Do let’s set up the refreshments. In mere moments, we’ll no doubt be trampled.”
Victoria and Nan shared a smile. “Coming, Mrs. Floss,” Victoria said.
“Right away, Mrs. Floss,” Nan chimed in.
Tea was steeping and cups stacked and ready as they put out the treats J. B. procured from a local bake shop. The combined scents of sweets and strong tea reminded Victoria of her afternoon with Patrick at the tearoom.
“Oh, these are lovely,” Nan said, turning a platter so the violet sugar crystals caught the morning sunlight coming through the front windows.
“Take one” Mrs. Floss told her. “You could use some sweets, I daresay.”
Nan shook her head. “No. I couldn’t.”
“Whyever not?” Victoria asked, snatching one herself. “These are delicious, and my uncle sees to it that we have plenty.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Floss said. “Sometimes there are a few left that I bring home to my girls. Take one, Nan.”
Nan nibbled her lip, desire clear in her green eyes. “Perhaps.”
Mrs. Floss clicked her tongue and grabbed two off the platter. “Eat these, Nan. Before you faint away. I’ve already had one of the lemon tarts this morning.”
There was kindness in the woman’s voice but Victoria caught something else as well. Something like mothering, and Nan appeared to bloom a little from the attention.
“Thank you,” Nan said as she accepted the biscuits.
Victoria nibbled her treat, and the three of them finished setting up the refreshments. J. B. soon opened the doors, and the time for chatting and indulging in sweets was over.
“Victoria,” Nan said in her usual shy whisper.
“Yes?” Victoria asked absently, glancing up from the stack of handkerchiefs she’d gone back to arranging.
Nan looked about nervously, and Victoria followed the girl’s line of vision. She blinked in surprise as a woman entered the store, as different a lady as she’d yet encountered. The curvaceous woman’s hair was a brassy blonde, and curled elaborately about her head. Her makeup was heavy, her lips painted a vibrant red. Her clothes seemed ill-suited to daytime—her ample bosom was nearly exposed!—and Victoria watched with amazement as she looked the more regal customers directly in the eye as she passed them.
“Whatcha starin’ at?” she questioned one lady whose face wore obvious disdain.
At the lady’s sniff of annoyance, the blonde laughed loudly. She approached the table where Victoria and Nan stood, running her fingers lightly over nearly all of the items which came into her reach on her way.
“Ain’t these lovely,” she said, picking up one handkerchief and holding it close to her cheek.
Victoria was relieved that the linen came away from the woman’s face without a smudge.
“They’ve just arrived,” Victoria said as she watched a nervous Nan move away. She turned her eyes on the voluptuous woman once more. “May I help you?”
The woman sighed loudly and set the pretty little handkerchief back on the table.
“I don’t know,” she said with a dramatic wave of her heavily beringed hand. “I was hopin’ I could find myself a little trinket. You know, a bit of a treat for myself. I’ve heard that you have some of the best here.”
Victoria smiled and directed the woman to the jewelry counter. The woman peered into the glass, her nose nearly pressed to the case.
“Maybe some earrings,” she mused aloud. “Somethin’ to match the lovely brooch a gentleman recently gave me.”
Victoria suddenly knew with absolute certainty that this was the woman well-suited to the garish brooch Patrick had chosen. Her pulse pounded as she took a breath to calm her nerves. She watched warily as the woman leaned toward her.
“Not that he had to gift me with it,” the blonde confided with a saucy grin. “Gave me as much pleasure as I gave him, he did!”
Victoria pictured the two of them in that moment, Patrick’s strong arms wrapped around the blonde’s lush body while her very red lips planted kisses on his handsome face. She blushed, forcing her thoughts aside. It was no business of hers how he spent his time. She withdrew a tray holding several pairs of earrings. The woman hummed tunefully as she perused the goods before her, finally choosing a pair that nearly matched the gaudy brooch.
“What do you think of these, love?” she asked Victoria, holding them up to her dainty earlobes. “Now, mind, I’ll be wearin’ a different outfit than this one. Somethin’ a bit more enticin’—Or knowin’ my gentleman, maybe nothin’ at all!” the woman laughed conspiratorially.
Victoria’s eyes widened. What could she possibly say to that! She glanced over her shoulder and noticed Mrs. Floss suppressing her laughter as she unpacked the latest shipment of scarves.
“The earrings are lovely, Miss.” She cleared her throat. “I’m sure your er-gentleman caller will enjoy seeing you wear them.” Goodness, she was beside herself. She’d never met such a woman as this. So bold. The woman seemed very pleased with Victoria’s reply and followed her to the purchase counter, her humming growing a bit louder. Victoria wrapped the jewelry for her, her fingers shaking a little. Don’t think about them together. Don’t think about them together.
“Thanks so much, love,” the blonde said with a wink. She turned from the counter and almost bumped into Lady Bowler, who’d just arrived. “Well, let me tell you, m’lady,” the coquette exclaimed to Lady Bowler. “If you’re looking for a pretty trinket to impress your fella, this is the place to find it!”
The wealthy matron huffed at being spoken to in such a manner. Mrs. Floss had a sudden coughing fit and Nan’s mouth fell open, her eyes wide as she almost dropped the porcelain figurine she was dusting. Victoria busied herself at the counter, pretending she hadn’t witnessed the exchange.
Breaking into a pretty song, the woman swept herself from the shop, leaving whispers of outrage in her wake. Victoria watched her go, her mind still reeling from the realization that Patrick could quite possibly be the blonde woman’s lover. She thought of the touch of his finger to her own lips and well imagined the pleasure he could give a woman. Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear Mrs. Floss come to stand behind her.
“There goes one of those opera girls,” Mrs. Floss said to her. Victoria started and turned to face her. “Most of them entertain gentlemen on stage and off,” the older woman went on.
Victoria was unable to shake the feeling of betrayal. Stop it, she told herself. Who was Mr. Patrick Latham to her anyway? If he chose to spend his time with such women, what did it matter to her?
Grateful for the harsh ring of the bell, she turned her attention to the business of selling pretty items to London’s elite.
* * *
Patrick walked down Bond Street, unerringly bound for Elliot’s. The past evening’s musings had done nothing to quell his desires to find a way to bring Victoria Elliot into his life. He hadn’t been speaking falsely when he’d told Tony that Victoria was meant for so much more than being a rich man’s plaything. There was passion in her, of that he’d no doubt. But the fortunate fellow who brought it forth should be man enough to earn it, not just pay for it.
He stopped before the shop as he’d done nearly every day since his first encounter with Tory. Should he treat himself to a conversation with her today? The sight of a woman exiting the store, her brassy blonde head bobbing along with the tune she was singing, caused his feet to freeze to the stone walk. Emmy.
Emmy stopped in mid-song when she spied him, her red mouth an O of surprise. That mouth curved in a smile as her eyes lit up with pleasure.
“Latham!” Emmy gushed, walking toward him. “Why, what brings you out into the morning sunshine?”
Patrick smiled down at her, a bit chagrinned that he’d not paid her any mind for the last two weeks.
“Hello, Emmy,” he said. “And how is it that you’re awake before noon?”
Emmy laughed, the sound full of music and self-confidence.
“I can survive on very little sleep, Latham,” she told him, her eyes sparkling. “Long after you took your leave I would stay awake reading.”
Patrick’s cheeks heated. He always regretted his swift exit from her little room, but never imagined that she stayed awake in solitude.
“Emmy,” he began, “I don’t know what to say.”
She waved her bejeweled hand in the air. “Don’t fret about such matters, dear Latham,” she smiled. “My new gentleman doesn’t share your aversion to passing time in my company as well as in my bed.”
Duly chastened, Patrick nodded.
“And do I know this particular gentleman?” he teased.
Emmy’s eyes sparkled and she gave a coquettish nod. “But a lady doesn’t speak of such matters,” she said with a cheeky grin.
Patrick laughed. His eyes fell on the small parcel in her hand. “And what, pray, did you find to interest you in Elliot’s, Emmy?”
“Bought myself a treat,” she said. “And what, pray, brings you to this particular shop, Latham?”
Patrick shifted his gaze to the carriages making their way along Bond Street, seeking to avoid answering the girl’s question. When Emmy let out another boisterous laugh he turned to face her, arching his brow in question.
“She’s a lovely little dove,” Emmy said. “And quite sweet-tempered to put up with all those high and mighty ladies.”
Patrick shook his head in denial. “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” he insisted.
Emmy’s eyes narrowed shrewdly and he suddenly had the uncanny feeling that she could see into his mind, his soul. Lord knows she’d always managed to anticipate his every base desire. Why should his mind be immune to her perception?
“What are you thinking, Emmy?” he asked with some trepidation.
She bit her lower lip for a moment. At last she shook her head, blonde curls bouncing from the motion. “I believe there’s far more to you than you ever let me see,” she offered with a slight shrug.
He stood there, feeling like an utter fool. Nonetheless he recovered and took her hand in his, dropping a kiss on her fingers.
“Good day, Emmy,” he said with a bow. “And do give my regards to the fortunate man now sharing your company?”
“Certainly,” she chirped.
Patrick watched as she made her way down the street, humming as her feet danced over the stones of the walk. He didn’t regret his involvement with her, but he could have handled the end of it with more tact.
He turned his attention from the lithe figure dancing away from him and faced the many-paned window of the storefront. He glimpsed Victoria, taking her usual care with a snobbish customer Bewildered from his encounter with Emmy and what she’d said to him, he turned away from the auburn-haired vision and all the promise that she encompassed. Taking plodding steps, he glumly took himself away from the store.
A few days had passed since Victoria’s encounter with the opera girl, and in that time she’d tried to keep the woman and her provocative statements out of her mind. The image of the blonde caught in Patrick’s embrace often floated before her, particularly at night as she sought to find elusive sleep. The daylight hours offered her little relief. She didn’t want to know why he kept away from the shop, certain that he was spending his time with the opera girl, or someone else like her. She told herself again and again that he meant nothing to her. Pity she couldn’t convince herself.
At least today she could fill her mind with preparations for a short trip to be taken with her uncle. J. B. had assured Victoria that Nan and Mrs. Floss could handle the running of the shop. He wanted to take her to what was widely considered to be one of the finest fairs held in early September each year. The Sturbridge Fair, held in Cambridge since 1211, promised a variety of interesting diversions, J. B. had insisted, giving him the opportunity to peddle his quality goods as well as the chance to purchase unique items for the shop.
She allowed herself a glimmer of excitement as she packed a little satchel for the trip. She’d only been to country fairs. She’d never been out of St. Ives before moving here to London. They were to stay on the fairgrounds, in a snug little booth her uncle had assured her would be suitable. She set her satchel aside and, willing Mr. Latham from her mind, she retired for the night.
The next morning they arrived fairly early. Victoria peered excitedly out the window as the carriage rolled to a stop. After they alighted to walk among the bustling crowds, J. B. hurried her past the show booths containing exotic beasts, performers and human oddities, his lips pursed in impatience and distaste.
Victoria was astounded as she glimpsed giant men and tiny people and scantily-dressed dancers populating the entertainment tents and various stages. Snatches of music, loud and soft, was tuneful and exuberant. She found herself humming along as she strained to take in all that was visible before they hurried past. Colorfully dressed tumblers rolled on by her, big grins splitting their small faces as Victoria laughed gaily at their antics. They soon passed the rows of shops selling fruits and cheeses, and J. B. told her that they were as fine as any that could be found in London. The aroma of sausages, baked goods, and fried meats filled the air. Her stomach rumbled in response.
“Oh, I must sample some of these delights, Uncle,” she said as they reached a booth selling the most delectable looking meat pies.
J.B. gave a quick nod and purchased a few of the pasties before hurrying her along once again. They finally reached a range of booths referred to as Garlickrow. She knew J. B. had sent workers ahead to construct his shop near the end of this range, though she was surprised by how well-built and comfortable it appeared. It bore more than a passing resemblance to the shop in town, though naturally on a much smaller scale. The fittings and fixtures were as fine, the cloth and drapes as lush. The little booth even possessed a back room in which they could have a private rest, with comfortable furnishings borrowed from her uncle’s residence in town. The shop was placed between two like booths, one specializing in furniture and the other in the finest in footwear.
After giving the display a careful examination she exited to stand in the midst of the row, clasping her hands with excitement. J. B. came to stand beside her.
“What do you think, my dear?” he asked with a smile. “Do you find the fair to your liking?”
“Oh, Uncle!” She spun to face him. “I fear I may never be able to take it all in!”
J.B. laughed lightly at her exuberance. “I promise you’ll have ample time to explore, Victoria.”
She nodded and made quick work of the pasty. Having assuaged her hunger, she began to set about preparing the shop for its patrons, smiling at the sounds of the horses kept at the inn not far from the row of stores. She took a deep breath and sighed with pleasure. The country air was welcome to her lungs. She hadn’t realized how confining the atmosphere in London was until she’d left it for this brief respite.
She was astounded at the sheer number of shoppers that frequented her uncle’s booth on that first day, though they varied widely in dress and circumstance as those in London never had. The atmosphere was far different from the London shop, as well. Victoria noted that most were in high spirits, and smiles and winks were abundant. The good-natured gentlemen who bestowed those smiles and winks upon her gave her none of the strange and uncomfortable feelings that the leering gentlemen in town had.
As the afternoon of that first day began to wane, J. B. advised Victoria that he would be closing well before dark to give her an opportunity to explore the fair.
“I would take you about the grounds myself, my dear,” he told her, his gaze darting up and down the row of shops. “But I have to meet a gentleman regarding some business.”
“I’m twenty years old, Uncle,” she pointed out to him. “I can look after myself.”
J.B. turned those intent eyes on her face, his brow wrinkled in thought. “You must promise me that you will keep to this section of the fair,” he said. “I don’t anticipate my business taking overlong, but if I don’t come for you please make sure you’re back at the shop before dark.”
Victoria nodded and donned her straw bonnet. “I won’t wander far afield, Uncle.”
J.B. nodded with satisfaction. He escorted her from the shop, locked it tightly, and gave her one of the keys, which she placed in her reticule.
“Do take care, my dear,” J. B. said, his eyes once more running over the row of shops.
She accepted the distracted kiss he dropped on her temple and watched as he hurriedly made his way down the row. Happily anticipating all that she would see, she tied the wide burgundy ribbon of her bonnet below her chin and slipped the ties of her purse over her wrist. With one final tug of the hem of her short gloves, she began her leisurely walk through the fair.
* * *
Patrick and Tony made their way among the booths at the fair in Cambridge, eyeing the wares displayed with idle interest. The happy chattering of excited children and the hum of adults debating the merits of one particular item over another, surrounded them. Patrick took a deep breath, taking pleasure in the combined scents of savory roast meats, sweet-smelling baked goods and fresh-cut hay. An errant breeze ruffled his hair and the befuddlement that had plagued him these past weeks began to dissipate.
“Capital idea, Latham,” Tony said. “I do love a country fair.”
Patrick smiled at his friend’s words. “At the very least you can spend too much of your money on a horse you don’t need.”
“I find that I need to get out of London now and again,” Patrick went on with a nod. “I daresay I was feeling stifled.”
“Not enough to entertain you in town, friend?” Tony teased. “Not even the lovely Miss Elliot could entice you to stay?”
Patrick started at the mention of Victoria. He’d thought of little else since last he’d seen her, despite his attempts to put her from his mind. He’d taken in several shows on Drury Lane, and had frequented several public houses. He’d participated in so many sparring matches at Bradley’s boxing club that there was nary a man whom he’d not met in the ring. But when he fell into his bed at night, either drunk or utterly exhausted, Victoria was the one who haunted his dreams.
“I believe the country can provide any number of diversions, Tony,” Patrick quipped.
Tony laughed again as they continued on their leisurely stroll. The very enticing figure of a woman was soon before Patrick, clad in a lovely day dress of ivory sprigged with tiny red flowers. Her hips swayed pleasingly as she made her way down the row of shops, one graceful hand trailing lightly over one item or another that seemed to capture her attention. What do we have here? Perhaps the diversion was at hand.
A fetching straw bonnet capped the intriguing woman’s head, and he saw that its burgundy ribbon was tied in a saucy bow right beneath her dainty chin. The woman paused at a booth selling spun glassware, turning ever so slightly as to allow Patrick a glimpse of her profile at last. He stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded.
“Tory!” he called, causing the girl to turn.
Her eyes widened with surprise as she met his gaze. He nearly bit his tongue as he realized the name he’d called.
“Miss Elliot,” he said smoothly in correction, plastering a smile on his face.
Her face was alight with surprise and pleasure. As he neared her he fully took in the lovely picture she made in her pretty day dress and bonnet.
“Mr. Latham,” she said, one graceful brow arched. “What was that name you called me?”
Patrick grinned foolishly for a moment, lost in the allure of that one simple gesture.
“Allow me to introduce my good friend to you, Miss Elliot,” he said at last, evading her question. “This is Mr. Tony Waring.”
Her lips curved in a slight smile. “I daresay I’ve already made your friend’s acquaintance,” she said as Tony took her hand in his.
“Ah yes,” Tony said, bringing her hand to his lips. “Miss Elliot was most helpful to me at the shop.”
Patrick waited with impatience while Tony held her hand a bit too long. He studied Victoria’s reaction to the man, pleased that her incredible eyes held nothing of the fire he glimpsed in them when it was his own hand holding hers. She withdrew her hand gracefully from Tony’s and faced him fully. He was struck by how the fresh air in the country had given her smooth cheeks a glow. She was even more beautiful standing in the sunshine than she’d appeared in the elegant shop in town.
He took her hand in his, feeling the welcome spark pass between them. Satisfaction filled him as he saw her eyes widen slightly. Did she feel it too?
“I’m very pleased to find you here,” he said, bringing her hand to his lips. “I trust your uncle is with you?”
She gave a slight shake of her head. “He had to see to some business,” she said. “I’m not to wander too far afield and must return to our booth well before dark,” she added with a cheeky grin, her eyes sparkling.
“Then you must allow us to accompany you,” he said trying not to be distracted by her charming dimpled cheeks. “Tony here is a fitting chaperone, I daresay.”
“Chaperone!” Tony crowed. “The ladies at Almack’s would surely swoon to hear me addressed as such.”
“Never mind.” Patrick placed her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Shall we?”
She arched a brow. “You do seem . . . What did you call yourself? Determined?”
“That I am, Miss Elliot. That I am.”
Her thick lashes dropped demurely as she nodded her acceptance and he led her slowly down the row, ignoring the look of amusement on Tony’s face as he followed along beside him.
* * *
After exploring the shops at the fair for nearly two hours, Patrick and Tony escorted Victoria back to Garlickrow. The two gentlemen were quite gallant toward her, and she enjoyed the afternoon immensely. Mr. Latham was ever-solicitous and Mr. Waring interjected humorous observations as they made their way among the other shoppers.
As the sun met the horizon, they passed a booth still open for business despite the growing lateness of the hour. Victoria noted that the jewelry it offered for purchase was of nearly the same quality as that sold by Elliot’s. Her escorts stood by her side as she perused the wares with interest, her fingers brushing lightly over the finely-made trinkets resting on blue velvet.
“Are you by chance searching for anything in particular, Miss Elliot?” Patrick asked, his voice teasing. “A brooch, perhaps?”
A pique surged through Victoria. She snapped her head up to face him, extremely vexed by the smile curving his mouth. “I’ve no need for a brooch, Mr. Latham,” she asserted, her voice conveying the irritation she felt at his ill-placed words.
Patrick’s eyes widened and she was certain he grasped her meaning. How dare he allude to that hideous brooch? Did he think her so grasping as to wish he would gift her with such a trinket? That she would welcome everything else that would accompany its receipt? Not likely.
“Miss Elliot,” he murmured, falling into step beside her. “What’s wrong?”
Victoria spared him a glance before facing stoically ahead once more, her hands clenched in fists so tight her nails bit into her palms through her gloves.
“Nothing is amiss, I assure you,” she said stiffly. “I’m tired, Mr. Latham, and anxious to find my bed.”
She nearly bit her tongue at what her words could be misconstrued to mean. Oh, she silently lamented, was she to be forever plagued with the thought of Patrick locked in a passionate embrace with the opera girl?
Patrick seemed to take no such inference from her words, although a look of bemusement was stamped on his very handsome features. Tony wore a secret smile on his face, the source of which she couldn’t fathom. The three of them continued in silence down the row to her uncle’s locked shop.
“Your uncle has not yet returned?” Patrick asked at last as she eyed the closed shop.
Victoria peeked around the side of the snug little building and shook her head. “I don’t see him.” She withdrew the key from her reticule. “But I’m certain he’ll return shortly.”
They saw her to the back of the shop. She unlocked the door and turned to Patrick once more. He appeared uneasy to leave her, and she assumed that was as much due to her short words to him as to the fact that it was now well past sunset. She smiled up at him in an effort to relieve his apprehensions. Wonder filled her as gold flecks began to dance in his hazel eyes. He dropped his gaze to her lips and she drew in a breath.
“I . . .” he began, stepping closer. He cleared his throat. “We’ll leave you then.”
They bade her good night and took their leave, to both her regret and her relief. She closed the door and removed her bonnet, looking about the sparsely furnished private chamber. The abrupt and awkward end to her time with Patrick and his friend left her feeling disappointed, and she truly had no wish to settle in for the evening. She set her bonnet aside and tapped her foot impatiently. The faint strains of boisterous music reached her ears and she suddenly felt an urge to pay a visit to the shows set far from their row of shops. She recalled her uncle’s warning, but the night was still early and she promised herself that she would be careful. The excitement of the performers she’d glimpsed upon her arrival beckoned so she donned her cloak against the chill of the damp evening and set out for the lights and sounds of the stages.
Her spirits lifted as she approached and saw the merrymakers. Flags of every color festooned the stage and laughing patrons crowded the area. Jugglers performed for the spectators, accompanied by tumblers. Two gifted little girls who apparently hailed from the Far East seemed to fold themselves in half, and with bright smiles, deftly tumbled off the stage. Victoria laughed gaily and clapped her hands with delight.
A vibrantly-garbed singing girl soon took the spotlight and Victoria was immediately reminded of the blonde who now possessed the gaudy brooch. Was this girl also as free with her favors as that woman so obviously was? Victoria eyed the garish green velvet dress wrapping her voluptuous form. And why did all of the men surrounding the stage wear identical looks of longing as they gazed at her?
She caught a glimpse of Patrick where he stood with his friend off to one side of the crowd, his head tilted back as he laughed with ease. The two gentlemen each held large tankards of ale in their hands, obviously already well into an evening of various diversions. Would Patrick seek to occupy the opera girl’s absence with this woman? That thought filled her with both anger and hurt. Perhaps he could find her an equally ugly brooch from the booth they had visited earlier, she thought darkly. The turn of her mind’s wanderings took her by surprise. What was it about that man that caused her such turmoil?
She gazed at Patrick’s wavy brown hair, glinting richly in the light of the torches set about the stage. The smile on his face was breathtaking, showing his even white teeth. He turned his face toward her and she started, backing quickly away from the revelry on the stage. Had he seen her?
She sought to lose herself in the assembled crowd, the sound of the music rapidly fading as she carried herself away from the stages. Her mind was muddled from her rush to escape Patrick and she mistakenly turned down an unfamiliar row of closed booths. Trying to get her bearings, she came to a stop in the deserted area, and heard two men arguing somewhere close by. A shiver of fear tickled her spine as she heard what the men were saying.
“This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be,” one man said in a surly tone. “What the hell is he thinkin’?”
“Pipe down, ya’ bloody fool,” another hissed. “Elliot knows what he has to lose.”
Victoria gasped at her uncle’s name.
“What the hell was that?” the first man asked nervously. “Did you hear somethin’?”
“What?” the other replied. “You’re goin’ daft, you are.”
Victoria took a step away from the angry voices and stumbled over a discarded crate. She yelped as she landed on her bottom, her cloak and dress fanning out around her bared legs. The two men hurried from out of the shadows. They came to an abrupt halt to stare at her in surprise.
“What the b-bloody hell?” the larger of the men stammered.
His skinny companion nodded. “I told you I heard somethin’!” he crowed.
“Ah, shut up,” the large man returned.
Victoria watched the surprise leave the man’s eyes as he gawked at her. The look of hunger that crossed his dirty face caused her heart to pound with raw fear.
“Well, well,” he said, rubbing his fat hands together. “What have we here?”
His thin and equally filthy companion nodded with enthusiasm. “I think we be mighty lucky,” he said, licking his lips. “She be a pretty little dove.”
“S-silly me,” Victoria stammered, coming slowly to her feet. “My father always told me how clumsy I was. I seemed to have lost my way and tripped over this crate,” she explained as she began to slowly back away. “But I do believe I recall where I was heading, and so I shall bid you gentlemen a good night.” She turned to make a quick get-away when the fat man made a grab for her elbow with his grimy hands.
“We’ll be more than happy to help you, miss,” He grinned, showing several missing teeth. “Never can be too careful at a fair, you see . . . A lot could happen to a lost pretty girl.”
Her mouth went dry as his friend stepped behind her to cut off her escape route.
“Bring her behind the booth,” he rasped, his foul breath fanning over her face. “We’ll soon set her on her proper way.”
The fat man’s laughter joined his friend’s as Victoria began to struggle.
Patrick left the crowd behind. Had that been Victoria he’d seen near the stage? Wasn’t she supposed to be tucked safely into her uncle’s booth?
He strained his ears and eyes as he searched for her. She was daft if it was her. Didn’t she know that a woman alone was prey to all sorts of dangers? His heart pounded as he pictured what could befall her. The country held as many perils as the seediest London street.
He slowed as he came to an area that was dark and far less populated than the stages. Looking sharply down each dark row, he began to feel an urgency that he couldn’t explain. Hearing a sound, not far to the left of where he stood, he cocked his head to one side and listened for it to come again. Words reached him then, words that chilled his bones.
“Leave me alone,” a female voice sobbed. “Please, I won’t tell anyone—just let me go.”
Patrick had heard enough. His pulse raced as he ran behind the booth. At first he couldn’t fathom the scene in front of him. Two unkempt men stood together, pressing a slight female against the wide wooden boards of the outer wall of the booth. She struggled, earning another slap for her efforts. Patrick couldn’t see if the degenerates had any weapons. Loath to bring more harm to the woman, he tamped down his outrage and forced himself to take easy steps toward the trio.
“What have we here, gents?” he drawled in his best impression of a carefree gentleman out for a bit of sport.
The thinner of the two men turned sharp eyes on him, his lip curling. “Take yourself off,” the thin man spat. “She be our bit of fun for the evenin’.”
His fat companion nodded and turned, at last giving Patrick a glimpse of their struggling captive. Patrick sucked in a breath, as terrified gray eyes turned pleadingly toward him.
Tory! . . .
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