Series: Shadows and Silk #6.5
Nell never dreamed she’d have a holiday romance…
Miss Nell Tait is nobody’s fool—at least not now. In her youth, a man had taken advantage of her and changed her whole life. Now she’s left the East End behind and is a successful modiste to the ton—and will never fall for another man’s lies.
And certainly not with an eligible Duke masquerading as a valet…
His Grace Lucas Kendall, the Duke of Amherst, hadn’t meant to lie to Nell. But he couldn’t miss the chance to know the smart, spirited woman who laughs at mishaps and asks after his injured horse. The woman who doesn’t know he’s a peer.
But anything can happen when it comes to true love…
When Nell learns the man she is falling for is a duke, she knows her dreams will never come true. But Lucas knows two things that Nell doesn’t. Despite his deception, she knows him better than anyone else—and dukes can do anything they like…
Matlock Bath, England
11 July, 1832
“Even a nob’s carriage has an uppity roll to it, you know?”
As Nell stood beside Tilly on the front drive of the Old Bath Hotel and watched said carriage roll down the high street, a dry laugh escaped her. Leave it to Tilly to sum it up perfectly.
Tilly wasn’t finished. “Even their horses have their noses in the air, all hoity-toity like.” Her assessing eye fell on Nell. “And how long until your next client arrives?”
“Three days,” said Nell.
For a year now, two of her most valued clients from the north had been asking Nell to journey up from London and bring the services of Galante Dressmakers: Extraordinaire here. As it was summer, she’d finally agreed. The shiny black coach-and-four that had just disappeared around a bend in the road was the first client finished. As Matlock Bath was too far from London to return between clients, she had three days to herself.
It was a strange feeling.
In Nell’s whole life, she’d never once had a holiday. She was a Cockney girl from the East End. Her people didn’t holiday. They worked. In fact, they worked so others could holiday.
Tilly waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “That gives us time to see what all Matlock Bath has to offer a pair of chits on their own.”
Tilly had been playing dressmaker’s apprentice to Nell these last four days, and was clearly aching for a bit of freedom as her gaze cast about.
For her part, Nell simply took in the view. The grand Old Bath Hotel was situated along the inner curve of a bend in the river Derwent, and a lovely green meadow lay between hotel and river, offering a view of the nature surrounding them. Nell hadn’t imagined such a place truly existed.
“Now for the people we’ll be meetin’,” said Tilly.
Nell inwardly groaned. By “people,” Tilly meant “gents.”
“Will you be givin’ them your true identity?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Nell. In truth, she had no intention of meeting any “people.”
Tilly shrugged. “But why not play with it?”
Before becoming a lady’s maid, Tilly had met her future employer, Isabel Galante, while working at an exclusive London brothel. Which was to say Tilly was comfortable with switching identities as a situation called for it. Nell, on the other hand, had never been anyone other than Nell Tait.
“What about that Frenchie accent you were puttin’ on for a while?” asked Tilly. “You could give it another go.”
Nell shook her head, adamant on this point. “That’s better left in the past.”
Her one attempt to be someone other than herself had ended in miserable failure. It wasn’t enough to put on a French accent. One had to know a few words, too. Which she hadn’t, and the ladies she serviced with her dressmaking skills did… An experiment best forgotten.
Instead, these last several months, she’d been picking up books from a lending library and practicing her pronunciation at night in front of her dressing table mirror. It seemed to be going well. She’d even stopped dropping her aitches, which was an accomplishment in itself. She would never sound like a nob—why would she want to, anyway?—but she could sound like the businesswoman her employers, the Galante sisters, had taught her to be.
“Well, methinks you could loosen your corset a wee bit and let yourself have three days of fun. Our five shillings is paid up for the week,” finished Tilly, as if that settled it. “Surely, you can approve of that?”
Nell wasn’t sure she could. At least, not the sort of fun Tilly wanted.
With her bright blonde curls and voluptuous figure, Tilly attracted men like bees to honey.
Nell had absolutely no interest in or intention of attracting men. Men only got a woman into trouble. At least, that had been her experience.
She touched her silver locket, as she always did when she thought about the trouble she’d found herself in at the age of sixteen. Ewan. His name, though he’d never drawn a single breath. All she had left of him was the curl of fine red hair that she’d snipped off before they’d pulled him from her. It had taken her two full years of saving to buy the locket. But it had been worth every shilling, for now she was able to carry him everywhere, not only in her heart.
She cleared the familiar ache of grief from her throat. “I have a few notes to jot down regarding Lady Somerton’s court dress before I forget.” She hoped that would be excuse enough for Tilly. If not, an outright no wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. After all, she was a Cockney girl born and bred. She could be blunt when the situation warranted, but usually her smile sufficed, for Nell understood the power of her smile.
It wasn’t a brilliant smile meant to dazzle. It was smaller and softer. Within her subtle smile was the power to reassure. Sometimes it was reassurance for another. Sometimes it was for herself. And sometimes—oftentimes—it was both. It wasn’t a false smile, but it could be a smile borne of bravado. Well, one needed a dash of bravado to go out into the world and do what it took to live within it.
“Face the world with a smile on yer mouth,” Mum had always said. “Even when it kicks you in the teeth. ’Specially then.”
Nell lived by those words every day of her life.
And they served her well.
Thankfully, Tilly allowed herself to be put off. “There’s a sweet shop up into the village a little ways. Catch me up when you’ve finished.”
Nell gave a noncommittal nod, which was enough to send Tilly flouncing off with the sort of smile on her face that said she was ready for whatever fun life had on offer today.
Relief speared through Nell, even though she wasn’t sure how she could continue to forestall Tilly for the next three days. Her friend was decidedly determined to have a lark, and Nell had no doubt Tilly would find it. For Nell, fun came in different forms, none of them being that of a man.
However, instead of returning to the hotel chamber she shared with Tilly to jot down a few notes as she’d said she would, she found herself crossing the hotel’s front drive and stepping onto the green meadow between it and the river. As she took to the gravel path that wound through overgrown shrubberies, the sun shone down on her bright and warm for the first time since her arrival four days ago. It had been raining buckets for days. Truly, where was the harm in taking a little stroll and soaking in the sunshine? She’d never breathed air so fresh.
A lightness entered her step, and a smile lifted about her mouth at the sound of the river rushing in the not-too-far distance. She rounded a bend in the path and the view opened, stopping the breath in her chest.
Across the river towered a broad horizontal slab of limestone, too massive to be believed by anything other than one’s own eyes, in some places stark and bare of vegetation, and in others luxuriant in it, as rugged and imposing a sight as one was ever likely to experience. With the river rushing across rock fragments tumbled down from those ancient heights, all one could see and hear was Nature at its most magnificent.
A word hovered just at the edge of memory. One she’d heard a client utter at the sight of a ball gown. “Sublime,” fell from her mouth. Fearsome, yet beautiful—that was this place.
It wasn’t the mannered beauty of the parks in London she’d visited from time to time on her afternoons off. Neither Hyde nor St. James’s parks hinted that there could be nature like this—wild and rugged and utterly untamed. Nay, not merely untamed, but untameable. Mankind could never shape a place like this to its fancy, and she loved it all the more for that very quality.
This had been here the whole time she’d been in her hotel room?
This… here… This was her sort of fun.
She pivoted toward the town and thought perhaps a nice amble up the high street might offer a bit of delight, after all.
What harm could come of it?
None she could’ve predicted, it turned out.
Below a bluebird sky, Lucas rode into Matlock Bath astride his favorite Cleveland Bay mare, Lady Mischief, and let the summer sun pour into him. Aristocrats flocked to this popular little spa village in droves to take its curative waters, for both soaking and drinking, which had naught to do with Lucas’s purpose today. He was simply passing through as he rode north to discuss leases and farming with Baron Hatton.
At least, that was the official reason for his visit. In truth, Lucas was humoring his mother, for the baron had a daughter of marriageable age, and Mama was most insistent that Lucas meet her.
“A country girl is what you want in a wife, correct?” she’d asked, not precisely upset at the idea, but possibly annoyed by it. “We don’t want another engagement broken, do we?”
She was correct on both counts.
He enjoyed the day-to-day running of his many estates and would much rather spend his time in the countryside than in Town, and he needed a wife who felt wholly the same.
Further, it was, indeed, time for him to marry. Not by his age—which was all of eight-and-twenty years—but because of a feeling inside him. He desired the comfort and companionship of wife and family. But she must be the right sort of wife, which was proving difficult. Mama and his sisters, Elizabeth and Catherine, weren’t strict society sticklers and had the best of intentions—for the most part—but they loved Town and city life, and introduced him to ladies who only saw his title—Duke of Amherst. He couldn’t spend his life with that sort of wife. She would be miserable, and he would be, too.
Hence the broken engagement. Lucas still felt terrible about it, but Lady Dorothea’s papa had been cheered considerably by all the blunt Lucas had thrown his way to enhance his daughter’s dowry for the next match. Lady Dorothea embodied all the qualities of a marriageable young lady—a pretty face and figure; pleasing docility; and thanks to Lucas, one of the largest dowries in England.
But for Lucas, those qualities weren’t enough. The woman Lucas was to spend the rest of his life with must see him—the man.
He took in the dozy little village of Matlock Bath as he entered on the high street, which was so riddled with mud puddles from all the rain this last fortnight that Lady Mischief had to play hopscotch to successfully navigate the road. With its many shops and hotels catering to the tourists who came for the waters, it put one in mind of a seaside resort town without the sea. Though the natural beauty of the place more than compensated for its lack of ocean, with its river and massive cliffs to the other side. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had called the area ‘Little Switzerland.’
Lucas only realized he’d been daydreaming when a small woman caught his eye. Slight of form and wearing a plain, forest-green pelisse and ivory cotton day dress that wouldn’t necessarily differentiate her from half a dozen other young ladies on the street, something about her made it so he couldn’t easily pull his attention away. Perhaps it was her faraway gaze and subtle smile meant for no one in particular—or perhaps it was for the ice she was eating. She appeared a bit daydreamy herself.
Lucas only just realized she was poised to cross the street, one foot already in the air for the step down. As he pulled the reins to angle his horse’s next step away from her, he miscalculated, and a few happenings occurred at once, the most unlucky being that Lady Mischief planted her right front hoof into a deep black puddle.
As if time had the ability to slow and stretch, a great muddy wave sloshed into the air, arcing higher than seemed possible given the limitations of gravity, and washed over the woman, coating her from head to toe in a wet mess of brown grime.
The woman froze in stunned shock, her ice falling from her hand in an unnoticed splat. In a work of fiction, it would be the stuff of comedy. But here, on the street, it was a decided tragedy.
Meanwhile, Lady Mischief kept tossing her head and letting her displeasure with the situation be known. Lucas stroked her mane and leaned forward to give her a soothing shush. He met the woman’s gaze. She remained utterly frozen, except her eyebrows had drawn together. Clearly, what had happened to her was beginning to sink in. Any second now, she would give him the tongue lashing he so richly deserved.
He braced himself for it when her mouth opened and she… laughed.
Not a laugh of disbelief or bemusement or even a great expulsion of fury, but a hearty chuckle that sprang from the pit of her belly. So infectious was her laugh that he was almost tempted to join in with her. Then Lady Mischief lifted her front right hoof and tossed her head again. Something was wrong.
He quickly dismounted and grabbed her fetlock. She’d lost a shoe. In the kerfuffle, her back hoof must’ve knocked her front shoe off in the mud.
Now he was stuck in Matlock Bath for the rest of the day, and likely night, while Lady Mischief was reshod. He shook his head in bemusement and flicked a glance toward the woman, perhaps to commiserate in their separate, but linked, misfortunes.
But the patch of cobblestones where she’d stood only moments ago was now empty. She’d vanished.
A pang stole through him. Not of loss—for not even a single word had been exchanged between them—but of something else… of what could have been? Or was it a sense of connection provoked by their shared moment of misfortune?
The fact was she interested him. He didn’t know the woman from Eve, but he thought he might already like her. At the very least, he owed her an apology and some coin, too, for her ruined dress and pelisse.
But truly, what woman laughed after getting soaked by a great wallop of mud?
No woman he knew.
He found it intriguing and strangely refreshing.
Who was she?
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