About the book
Because the most dangerous lies are the ones you tell your own self…
Oblivious of her true identity since birth, Abigail Thorne lives a quiet life working in her mother’s dressmaking shop. When a stunning nobleman enters the shop with his obnoxious fiancé, she is immediately enticed.
Suffering his parents’ sudden loss at a young age, Percival Montagu, Duke of Northcott, becomes enamored with the ravishing dressmaker and craves to make her his mistress. But he has made a lucrative deal and too much is at stake should he breaks it.
When a stolen jewel and a series of well-crafted events throw Abigail in gaol, her life is in peril. Percival is the only one who can save her from a terrible fate.
However, he doesn’t know that their pasts are sickeningly intertwined and something darker is connecting them...a shattering secret that should have been kept hidden, forever.
Lady Martha Stanley sat in the sun room, embroidering a cushion when the butler, Forbes, brought in Lady Rosaline Hoskins’ calling card. She smiled with pleasure, expecting her visit, and bade Forbes to send her in.
Lady Rosaline swayed intothe room, leaning in to touch her cheek to Martha’s. “Your ladyship,” she murmured, straightening up and seating herself in the armchair next to Martha’s.
Martha put her sewing aside. “My dear Lady Rosaline, how pleased I am to see you. It has been too long.”
“Indeed it has. I am recently returned from the country where we spent the Christmas holidays. My father sends his most sincere regards.”
Martha inclined her head in acknowledgmentof the greetings, her face coloring slightly. “Thank him for remembering me. Now tell me how you have been faring, my child. It is so nice to have another woman around to speak to again. Henry and His Grace are quite hopeless at civilized conversation.” She gave a small laugh to indicate she was joking and Lady Rosaline smiled back at her.
“And how is His Grace?”
Martha smiled, noting the high color on Lady Rosaline’s cheeks and the way her hands fidgeted. Her tendressefor Martha’s nephew was no secret and Martha was trying to do all in her power to make him step up to the mark—so far with no luck. She reached out, patting Lady Rosaline’s thigh.
“No need to fret, my dear. We shall get what we want sooner or later.”
Lady Rosaline sighed, “I do hope so. The Duke is everything I ever dreamed.”
Lady Stanley smiled to see her so enamored. “And you are exactly what my nephew needs, as well.”
Percival Montagu, Duke of Northcott, found reviewing accounts exceedingly tiresome. It was, however, better than sitting in the parlor and enduring his aunt’s endless entreaties. There was only so much a person could be expected to suffer because of the hysterics of a former guardian, before they declared themselves wearied.
He flicked through the ledger, looking over the profits from the Northcott dukedom, sighing occasionally with fatigue, and wished all his relatives to the devil.
His mind drifted toward Lady Rosaline Hoskins, daughter of the Earl of Huntington and the woman his aunt would have him wed. She was fair of face and comported herself well, Percival could concede. He did not know much about her but his aunt did assure him that she would make an excellent wife. He saw no reason why his aunt would lie about that. There was nothing to be gained by it.
His only other option for finding a wife would be to participate in the Season and that he was strongly disinclined to do. Not only did he find it a supreme waste of his time but the prospect of suffocation by various simpering, overly-scented debutantes made him nauseous.
His aunt was right about him wanting a family and he gave her credit for being attentive to his needs; he would not have thought it of her if asked.
So perhaps he would allow her to invite the Earl and his daughter for dinner and see if a match was possible.
The Duke went back to his accounts, his mind clear and free from worry.
“Ouch!” Abigail exclaimed as she pricked her finger on the sewing needle. She was quite good at sewing, if she did say so herself, but today for some reason she was distracted. It might have had something to do with her mother being out of humor, her pathos spreading about the shop like noxious fumes.
Abigail was on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She tried to concentrate on the intricate gown she was making for Lady Dorothea Gray, who was very particular about her wardrobe and trusted Abigail and her mother to have her at the very pink of fashion. Abigail did not want to let her down.
She sighed, putting the muslin aside and getting to her feet. She could hear her mother huffing and puffing at the back of the shop, probably ruining fabrics as she tossed them about. Abigail knew she should go in there and ask her what the matter was but Joan Thorne was not to be trifled with when she was prickly. She was wont to jump down one’s throat and Abigail did not see what good that would do anyone.
Instead, she sent a ticket porter with a note to Philip Sinclair, entreating him to save Abigail from his beau’s foul temper. Only he knew the secret to lifting Joan’s spirits.
Just as she reentered the shop from summoning a ticket porter, she was besieged by a bevy of aristocratic ladies, all buzzing discreetly with excitement at the prospect of the first assembly of the Season to be held two days hence at Almack’s.
They were mainly after ribbons and other fripperies to enhance the beauty of their gowns. Abigail put her mother to the back of her mind as she tried to cater to all of their needs.
Looking up in the midst of fitting Lady Drake, with her mouth full of pins, she saw that her mother had emerged from the back room and was, with a strained smile, serving their customers.
She sighed inwardly and turned her attention back to her own customers, fitting them with ribbons that looked well on their skin and suggesting new styles that would enable them to stand out and attract just the eye they were angling for.
Abigail had been helping her mother in the shop since she was in leading strings. At the time, they were living in Brighton but for some reason Abigail did not quite understand, they were run out of town.
She looked up as Philip stepped into the shop, elegant in a top hat and riding breeches, his black Hessians gleaming even in the dim light of the shop.
His silver-tipped sideburns simply added to his distinguished air and Abigail felt her own spirits lift just to see him. He favored her with a smile before stepping up to her mother, his hand gentleon her arm. He leaned over and whispered something in her ear that made her blush prettily.
The ladies in the shop looked on from behind the shelter of their fans, whispering to each other about this blatant display.
Abigail manfully refrained from rolling her eyes. Oh dear, there they go again.
She had learned long ago to ignore the scandalized talk of the ton. Her mother was happy with her beau and that was all that mattered. Every woman in their shop would give their right arm for such an attentive and refined gentleman. The only thing he was missing was a title.
Her eyes softened as she regarded him fondly. And who needs a title when you are better than any gentleman I have ever met?
Philip had been their protector and provider for as long as she could remember. Abigail considered him to be as close to a father as she was ever going to get. She had tried to ask her mother about her sire, but Joan had been reticent with her information and eventually, Abigail had just left it alone.
Once the ladies had left the shop, Philip entreated them to close up and allow him to treat them to ices at Gunter’s.
“You have been working hard and deserve a reward,” he said.
Joan frowned, “Oh, Philip, you know I do not like to mingle with the Quality. They do love to talk so.”
“Well, it shall give you plenty to write about in La Belle Assemblée. Were you not saying how you could use some new material?” Philip lifted his eyebrows, his eyes wide with inquiry. Abigail smiled so wide her dimples showed, struck once again by how well Philip knew her mother.
Joan wagged her finger playfully at Philip, trying to hide her delight, “Do not make a cake of me, you knave.”
Philip’s hand went to his chest as he gestured dramatically, “I would never!” he declared.
He held out both arms for both Abigail and her mother to take, after making a leg, “Allow me to the honor of escorting you to Gunter’s to partake of some ice on this warm spring day.”
Abigail looped her arm with his, “Well, I for one could do with some ice.”
They both looked expectantly at Joan, who gave a put-upon sigh before taking Philip’s other arm, “All right,” she said, “Let us get some ice.”
Abigail gave a discreet whoop of joy as Philip led them out to his barouche that would take them swiftly to Berkeley Square. She was excited to try the desserts she’d heard so much about but hadn’t dared to venture close enough to partake of.
Even though the ton frequented their shop, they were not at all welcome to socialize with them. Many of the ladies considered Abigail and her mother beneath their touch, not worthy of acknowledgment outside the confines of their establishment. Abigail generally did not mind it, but that did not mean she liked to put herself in a position to be subjected to the cut direct by her high in the instep customers.
Still, it was nice to sit in the Square and have someone else rush around on her behalf for a change. The waiters took their orders, Liqueur Glacées for her mother, Fromage Glacés for Philip, and for Abigail, soft green Neige de Pistachio which was an ice spooned directly from the Seau à Glaces into the Tasses à Glaces - the little serving cups. Despite her earlier objections, her mother took note of all the fashions on display for her article in the women’s magazine. It was an engaging side project for her which also raised the profile of their modiste shop among the ton.
She watched the lords and ladies saunter about the Square in their riding habits, walking gowns, or carriage dresses, no doubt having taken a turn down Ladies’ Mile or a carriage ride around the ring at Hyde Park during the Fashionable Hour.
Abigail sometimes wondered what it might be like to be one of these ladies. She made their clothes and supplied them with hose and corsets, stays and ribbons, but she was always the outsider, looking in.
She huffed a breath, thinking what Claudette, her faithful companion of many years, would make of such a thought. Claudette had recently become the mistress of the Earl of Wallingside. He had been much taken with her performance in a play on Drury Lane and had sent a bouquet of flowers to her dressing room with his compliments. Claudette had been quick to see the advantage of such a liaison and last they had spoken, she was to move into a cottage on St. John’s Wood, courtesy of the Earl.
Abigail had been pleased for her friend, if worried at the precariousness of her position. Abigail wondered if she, too, would consent to such an arrangement one day or perhaps, she would set her cap at a scholar or solicitor.
Even though she was two-and-twenty, her mother had made no overtures toward her on matrimony or any prospective groom. In any case, the shop kept them very busy and she was very far from on the shelf.
Besides, I don’t have time for all of that now.
Dinner was a tedious affair with the Earl of Huntington droning on and on about business affairs while Percival’s aunt and Lady Rosaline discussed fripperies and on-dits. The Earl’s wife, Lady Mary, sat quietly, not saying much. Percival’s cousin, Henry, sat listening like some moon-eyed chaw bacon, his gaze rarely leaving Lady Rosaline’s face.
It was an embarrassing display and Percival cleared his throat to attract his cousin’s attention to no avail as the goosecap paid him no mind. Percival sighed, taking another gulp of his port, attempting to muster the energy to be sociable, and set his ears to listen to Lord Huntington’s conversation. Instead,he felt more and more tempted to take Frenchleave, retire to White’s, and spend the evening in the midst of cheroot smoke and beef steak.
He was quite sure his particular friends, Lord Wallingsideand Lord Weston, were in residence already, no doubt already a trifle disguised. He repressed a resigned sigh, realizing that he really had no reason not to extend a proposal to Lady Rosaline aside from his own stubborn notions.
Straightening up in his seat, Percival regarded the Earl in all seriousness.
“My Lord, may I call upon you in the morn to discuss a matter of import to us both?”
The Earl’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he nodded his head, “Indeed, Your Grace. What time am I to expect you?”
Lady Rosaline rewarded her Friday-faced bloodhound with a slice of beef off her own plate. Her father had bestowed the dog upon her after she had cried at the conclusion of a hunt, when she realized that the hounds would be staying on Sir Lowry’s estate and not, in fact, coming home with them. Having spent the weekend frolicking with the dogs, she was quite heartbroken to leave them behind. A newly weaned Perseus had been brought to her the next day, as stout as you please. While other ladies preferred their pugs and terriers, Lady Rosaline was enamored of her bloodhound.
Dear Lord Huntington,
I would like to formally announce my intention to call upon you and your family this early March to enter into negotiations on the subject of my engagement to your daughter, Lady Rosaline Hoskins.
Percival, Duke of Northcott
It had been written in a large, spiky hand with a slight slant to the right and thick down strokes. She ran her hand over the letters, noting the modest flourish he had added to his name.
She looked at her name.
Seeing his intent written out in his own handwriting made her heart beat a little faster. She had wanted this for so long and now it seemed that the dream was becoming a reality rather quickly.
She had planned, schemed, and pestered her father to make this happen. She wanted the Duke a lot more than she wanted her bloodhound and now, finally, it was going to happen. He would be hers and she would be a duchess. Her dreams were coming true.
“Why, Your Grace, this is ever so sudden,” Lady Rosaline breathed, clutching her pearls as Percival got on one knee before her. He very nearly rolled his eyes as according to his aunt, Lady Rosaline had been dangling after him for years now. Still, he would allow her her moment of the vapors if that is what she required of a marriage proposal. Getting back up to his feet as she finally said yes, he leaned over her delicately gloved fingers, placing a kiss in the air an inch above them, all propriety observed. She sighed with happiness and the deed was done.
He stepped back, eager to leave as soon as possible but the Earl insisted they all sit down to tea, to celebrate and plan the announcements.
“I must have a new gown for the party,” Lady Rosaline exclaimed, fluttering her eyelashes at Percival, “Won’t you come with me, Your Grace, and pick out the color that pleases you the most?”
Percival most certainly did not want to pick out any colors but he did not want to start off his marriage by declining such a simple request from his bride-to-be. He inclined his head, smiling stiffly and then immediately closed his eyes as she went into transports of delight. It was hard to be pleased about spending his day among bombazine and muslin, surrounded by a bevy of twittering ladies. The thought of it was enough to make him want to recant his proposal.
I shall be sure to make an urgent appointment on the day so that my visit is cut short.
He nodded, pleased with himself for having thought of a way out of spending the entire afternoon looking at fabrics. He was aware that he would have to accompany her to the establishment so she could show off ‘her Duke’. No doubt that was the purpose of the invitation. But he would — truthfully — not be able to tarry due to “prior commitments.” It was perfect and he was relieved to have thought of it.
He stretched his lips into as much of a smile as he could manage and reached out to pat Lady Rosaline on the arm.
“I simply cannot wait,” he declared with aplomb.
Abigail woke up early and left their rooms in Soho while the mist still obscured the streets from sight. She was not afraid footpads or brigands might assail her for she knew them one and all.
They were her neighbors and childhood companions, there but for the grace of God and Philip, might she have ended up. She did not know why Philip did not move them to a more prosperous neighborhood for neither he nor her mother were very clear about it.
All she knew was that it had to do with a dark and mysterious past. Abigail could well understand that her mother might feel Abigail’s opinion of her would be compromised if she knew what this past was. Abigail had long ceased to try and persuade her otherwise for it was clear that her mother would not be budged.
She arrived at the shop just as the sun was peeking over the horizon and she paused to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise. A light drizzle had her hurrying in, leaving the door propped open behind her. She set about cleaning up the shop and arranging the window to display their wares to bestadvantage.
The bell tinkled and she looked toward the door to see a tall dark-eyed man filling up the doorway, one eyebrow raised as he watched her. She was standing on a ladder, cleaning the ledge of the window of all the dust that tended to accumulate overnight. She descended the ladder, feeling mortified at being caught in such a position.
“Welcome. What can I do for you?”
It was only as she reached the floor that she noticed the young lady standing in front of the gentleman. Abigail didn’t know how she could have missed the lady. She was dressed in an elaborate confection of pink lace and silk, not really appropriate for a walking gown. Her mouth was pursed in a displeased frown and Abigail suspected she was not fond of being overlooked.
Abigail could not even fathom why hereye had been drawn straight to the man. The fine cut of his clothes lovingly embraced his impressive physique and named him for a dandy. His dark hair and dark eyes drew the eye, but not to the exclusion of all else. At least, Abigail would say so if anyone asked.
Still, even knowing that the lady was her customer, she could not stop her eyes from sliding to the man. He held himself straight and stiff, clearly uncomfortable but braving the unfamiliar setting like the gentleman he was.
Abigail snorted quietly to herself before stepping forward with a welcoming smile and a curtsey.
“Good morning, My Lord, My Lady, how may I help you today?”
The lady preened, “We are newly betrothed and seek to procure a gown for the engagement party.”
Abigail experienced a sinking in her belly that felt like disappointment. How can that be? I do not even know them.Nevertheless, her eyes drifted—again—toward the gentleman and she nodded stiffly.
“Felicitations to you both.”
The lady practically skipped, taking the man’s hand and pulling him over to the array of fabrics on display. Behind them, now revealed by the emptied doorway, was an older woman, clearly the girl’s chaperone.
Abigail gave her a stiff smile before walking over to the happy couple so as to be on hand should they need any suggestions as to fabric or design.
The lady was holding different colored fabrics against her flesh and Abigail took a moment to study them both. They were not familiar to her which simply meant they had not frequented her shop in the past. The man wore what was clearly a signet ring on his finger, his hands held rigidly behind his back as he listened attentively to his fiancée. He did not strike her as particularly interested in the look and feel of the fabrics upon his Lady’s skin but he paid sufficient attention to pass inspection. Why can’t I stop looking at him? She was frankly bewildered.
Suddenly he turned his head and his eyes met hers. Beetle-browed, eyebrows forming a perfect arch just below the sweep of his unwigged mane, he turned back to his bride-to-be, all agog again at her chatter.
Abigail took a deep breath and looked away from them, trying to compose herself.
Come on, Abigail, you are better than this. Fiddlesticks! Why isn’t Mama here? I could leave the happy couple to her. What is wrong with me?
The bell tinkled again and two more ladies entered the shop, nattering away to each other. Their eyes fell on the gentleman and their conversation stopped quite abruptly.
“Your Grace!” the one in front exclaimed, “If this is not the last place I would ever have expected to see you.”
Her face went puce as she realized her faux pas, and she stepped back, lashes lowered demurely, “Forgive me, I did not mean to speak out of turn,” she said.
The Duke made a leg, “It is quite all right, Lady Ahern. I do understand. This is probably the last place I, too, would expect to see myself.” He gestured toward his companion, “May I present my fiancée, Lady Rosaline Hoskins?”
This led to a new eruption of twittering and excitement and Abigail retired to the corner to set out some ribbons for them to examine once they were done with pleasantries. She did not know why it hurt to hear the lady referred to as His Grace’s bride-to-be. It was patently ridiculous to feel this way about a man she did not know and had not clapped eyes on before this morning!
“Girl!” the lady called, gesturing for Abigail, “I require this fabric, please.”
The lady was pointing at a blood red silk that would complement her pale skin but clash horribly with her strawberry blonde locks. Abigail opened her mouth to say that it might behoove her to choose a deeper red, the color of claret, perhaps. But then she closed her mouth again and with an internal shrug, fetched her scissors.
The Duke was watching her with interest as she took a measuring tape to his betrothed and then wrapped fabric around her.
The lady fluttered her eyelashes at the Dukeand simpered. “How does it look, Your Grace?”
He seemed thoughtful as he examined her and then his eyes slid to Abigail, “I would like to hear what the mantua-maker has to say, first,” he said.
Abigail narrowed her eyes at him, feeling cornered. No doubt the Duke was of the same opinion as to how the red clashed with the lady’s coloring.
Of course,he didn’t tell her. Oh no, I have to be the villain of this piece. She snorted quietly even as she composed her face into something suitably solicitous. “Uh, well, the color is lovely and no doubt you would look stunning in anything,” Abigail began, still unsure whether to offer her unvarnished opinion, “However, a darker shade might suit you better.”
The lady turned her nose up at Abigail. “Do you presume to tell mewhat would suit mebetter?”
Abigail hesitated as the Duke looked on, seemingly with bated breath, awaiting her reply.
“Don’t think,” the lady cut her off, speaking sharply. “Just do as I say and make me the gown that I want.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Abigail said and sketched a curtsey. She waited until the lady’s back was turned before rolling her eyes and then her cheeks filled with color as she realized that the Duke was regarding her with amusement.
She turned away toward the safety of the counter and extracted her extensive design collection for the lady’s perusal. She was a consummate professional and would not let the presence of a duke fluster her in the slightest.
The lady drifted toward her, looking over the designs with a disinterested air. She turned to her fiancé with a coquettish smile, “Which do you choose, Your Grace?”
The Duke stepped forward, frowning, then studied all the designs with interest.
He pointed to a complicated Parisian design. “This one.”
The lady immediately began to gush about the perfection of his choice.
She leaned toward him, her bosom on display. “Do you think I shall look ravishing in it?”
“I think you shall be a sight,” he replied before turning back to Abigail, “May we see your fichus? I fear Lady Rosaline forgot hers at home.”
Abigail bit her lip to hide a smile, going at once to the corner where they kept the tuckers. She selected a discreet green one that would complement the lady’s gown and offered it for their inspection.
The Duke barely looked at it. “Perfect. We shall take that now. Do you have the measurements you need to sew the gown?”
Abigail nodded. “Indeed, I do, Your Grace.”
“Excellent. We shall let you get on with it. Come along, my dear,” he said, holding his arm out to the lady, “We shall take our leave of you now, Miss…?”
“Thorne,” she hastened to answer him, “Abigail Thorne.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Thorne. I expect we shall be seeing quite a lot of each other should this gown live up to your reputation.”
Abigail’s mouth was dry and she did not know what to say, “I...yes, I-I expect we shall.”
And what is your name?
She longed to ask the question out loud but knew that it was not her place.
Percival was well aware that his plan had gone awry. He had stepped into the shop and suddenly he forgot that he didn’t want to be there. His first sight of the modiste was her pert behind shaking from side to side as she stood on a ladder cleaning, while her gay yellow muslin shimmered in the sunlight.
That was all he could see, along with the tight bun of her luxuriant dark hair. But then she turned around, regarding them with wide, moss-green eyes; their gazes had locked and everything else had seemingly disappeared. All he had wanted was to take her hand and lead her to his home, ensconce her in his chambers, and never let her leave.
It was disconcerting, tosay the least.
She had come towards them, skirts swaying from side to side, and they both startled when Lady Rosaline spoke. For surely they had both forgotten that they were not alone. Whatever he was feeling, she was probably feeling it, too.
But then Lady Rosaline introduced him as her fiancé, causing the brightness of the modiste’s gaze to dim and she looked away from him. Percival felt the loss of her regard like a knife to the heart.
He stayed for the entire visit, simply looking at the modiste whose name he did not even know until they were leaving.
The name was like a caress in his mind as he thought of her, the dimples in her cheeks when she smiled, the eloquence of her moss-green gaze as she took Lady Rosaline’s measure…and found her wanting. Percival had thought he was content with his decision but to see the censure in Miss Thorne’s eyes had only reinforced his own doubts. Perhaps Lady Rosaline Hoskins was not as excellent a partias he would have liked to think.
It was a quandaryfor sure.
His aunt would be disappointed but until he was sure of his feelings, Percival decided to delay the official engagement.
He knew one person who would be pleased by that decision. Henry hardly bothered to disguise his calf love for the earl’s daughter. Perhaps he ought to direct Lady Rosaline’s attentionstowards his cousin.
He wondered why his aunt had not made that match if she was so eager for an alliance with the Earl of Huntington. On the other hand, Percival was not wont to make decisions based on sentiment for it was an unreliable measure by which to navigate one’s life.
He prided himself on having mastered his emotions and basing his choices on logic and reasoning. It might have had something to do with being orphaned so young, Percival was not sure. But he had made this choice willingly and he could not go back on it without sufficient reason.
Besides, feelings aside, the modiste would be more suited to be his mistress than taken to wife. He could delay the engagement and sort out this temporary confusion before getting leg shackled. What could possibly go wrong?
Dismissing the thought, he called his steward to him.
Sherwood stepped into the room with a bow. “Yes, Your Grace?”
“I have an assignment for you, Sherwood. There is a dressmaker’s shop on Bond Street ran by an Abigail Thorne. I need you to find out everything you can about her.”
Sherwood frowned, “Yes, Your Grace?”
Percival gave him a look and Sherwood turned around and left the room.
Percival sighed, turning back to his accounts. Whatever happened next, he was done letting his emotions rule his life.
It was as if he was a ghost, simply following the trail of his parents as they walked along the street, their hackney carriage two streets away. Where they were coming from, he did not know. He shouted at them, fruitlessly, trying to get them to stop; to turn back. But they just kept walking toward their doom.
He saw the brigands long before his parents did. Three of them, hiding in the shadows, watching the Duke and Duchess approach them obliviously, lost in their conversation. He ran forward, trying to push his parents out of the path of the robbers; get them to cross the street perhaps - anything to avert the looming danger.
His hands went through their bodies and all he could do was watch helplessly as the street rats assailed them, surrounding them so fast that Percival could barely blink. They tore the Duchess’ rings from her fingers, her ear bobs off her person, leaving her ears torn and bleeding. Then they reached down, tore her lace front off and grabbed her pearls. When the Duke tried to intervene, they hit him on the head and he fell, bleeding and unconscious on the ground.
“Father! No!” Percival cried but the Duke didn’t hear him.
He sat up in bed, bathed in cold sweat, breathing hard and wondering why that particular dream had returned. Why now?
He staggered out of bed, grabbing the pitcher of water by his bedside and gulping it down without the benefit of a glass. He closed his eyes, trying to rid himself of the dream. His parents had passed on when he was nothing more than a youngling, waiting at his aunt’s house for them to come for him.
They never did.
He had learned to live with the grief and accept the loss. But he had always hoped that one day he would marry for love just as they did. That was before heartbreak and disappointment taught him that love was for fools and children.
Nowadays all he wanted was peace.
Abigail was fiddling with Lady Rosaline’s gown, working on gathering the material so it would disguise any imperfections about her waist.
She could not seem to bring herself to focus on the work. Her mind kept returning to the Duke. The way his eyes had lingered on her as if he knew that she was entranced by him. The span of his knuckles as he had signed the chits. He had such big hands. She felt he might be able to lift her off the ground with them.
And why would she be thinking about a duke lifting her off the ground? It made no sense to her at all and she tried to dismiss her thoughts but could not quite manage.
She sighed, turning away from the fabric. Her mother came in from the back room and then stopped short, eyes narrowed.
“All right, Abby, I have had enough of your Friday-face and sighing. Won’t you tell me what is bothering you?”
Abigail blushed to think that her mother had noticed her moping. “There is nothing wrong, Mother. Simply a flash of the megrims. I expect they will go away soon.”
Joan swayed over to her, placing an arm around her shoulders. “Whatever it is, dear girl, you know you need only but tell me and I shall try to make it better.”
Abigail smiled, reaching up to squeeze her mother’s hand. “I know that, Mother. I promise you, if there was something to tell, I would tell you.”
The bell tinkled and both women looked up. Abigail felt her heart speed up as she caught sight of the tall, dark, handsome figure of the Duke.
What is he doing here?
And alone, to boot?
The Duke stepped in the room, “Forgive me, but I...wanted to make an inquiry,” his eyes were on Abigail and she was suddenly short of breath.
“Uh, oh, well that’s quite all right, Your Grace” she said stepping away from her mother and hurrying forward to pull up a chair for the Duke, “Please be seated.”
The Duke adjusted his breeches, sitting stiff and straight in the chair and Abigail felt the need to curtsey or give some acknowledgment that they were in the presence of nobility. She wasn’t sure whether she should or not and so ended up standing stiff and frozen. She bit her bottom lip, waiting for himto continue. He glanced to the side where undoubtedly her mother was still standing behind the counter and then back at her.
“I...wanted to purchase a few fripperies for...my aunt.”
Abigail could not help how her eyebrow rose doubtfully, “Your aunt?”
“Y-yes, my aunt. I thought to get her a wrap and a redingote.”
“Do you know her sizes?” Abigail asked.
The Duke seemed nonplussed for a moment, “Erm, well, one does not need a sizeto buy a wrap.”
“That is true, Your Grace,” Abigail inclined her head, not wanting to argue with the Duke, “But for the redingote…”
“Ah, you wish to know her girth?”
Abigail hesitated, not really wanting to agree with that description but also not wanting to argue with him, “Er, yes. The measure of her shoulders and waist would be helpful.”
He looked over at Abigail’s mother, “She is more or less the size of your…?”
Abigail hastened to introduce them, “This is my mother, Joan Thorne. She and I run the shop together.”
The Duke inclined his head, “A pleasure to meet you. Percival, Duke of Northcott, at your service.”
Joan sketched a proper curtsey, even bowing her head, “Pleased to meet you, Your Grace.”
“Your daughter is quite the modiste if I may say so, ma’am.”
“Why, thank you, Your Grace,we are much obliged for the sentiment.”
There was a pregnant moment in which no one said a word.
Abigail sought to break it by whisking around and spreading her fingers wide to show the Duke their display. “Ah, so we have quite a few wraps.”
The Duke stood up, not even looking at the array of fabrics. “So I see. Which would you recommend?”
Abigail picked up a few shawls that she thought might suit an older woman and draped them on the counter for the Duke’s inspection. He stepped forward, running the fabric between his fingers.
“Hmm,” he said.
“Are they suitable or would you like me to show you some more options?”
“Show me some more,” the Duke said, and Abigail was not in the least surprised. Whatever he had come for, it was not a shawl. She allowed him to ask her as many pointless questions as he wanted. At some point, she noticed that her mother had retired to the back rooms again. She was too busy enjoying herself, seeing just how outlandish his questions could get.
What will happen when he runsout of questions? Will he purchase something or move on to another item of clothing?
“I shall take three shawls,” he said at last, “Now let us move on to redingotes.”
Abigail nodded and smiled, “Well, if you will follow me…” she moved to another corner of the shop.
“We have a variety of styles and fabrics for your perusal. I’m sure you’ll find something that your aunt will love,” she murmured, pulling pieces out and putting them on the display table so that he could take a look. He nodded, even though his eyes looked lost.
“These are indeed an excellent selection,” he said.
“Come closer and feel them,” she urged and almost touched him before she recalled that he was a Duke and not to be touched without permission. He stepped closer to her so she could feel his warmth all the way down her side. He looked at the selection and then turned toward her.
“I have a confession to make,” he said abruptly.
“Yes?” she looked at him expectantly, knowing that they had come to the crux of his visit.
“I do not really want to buy a coat or a shawl.”
She lifted an eyebrow in faux surprise, “Indeed?”
“Yes. I simply wish to speak with you.”
Abigail frowned, wondering what he could possibly have to say to her. “Oh…”
The Duke took a deep breath, “I…” he swallowed, looking nervous and Abigail was intrigued, “I was wondering if you would walk with me this afternoon along Hyde Park.”
Abigail almost smirked, “Your Grace, while that is a very generous offer, I fear I must decline for I will be occupied with work. However, if you would like, we have nuncheon around noon. Perhaps you could join us?”
The Duke stared at her for a long while before nodding, “I will, thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, Your Grace.”
What are you doing? He is engaged!
Her mind seemed to scream at her and her fingers trembled even as she curtsied him out of the shop. She turned around and was not surprised to find her mother regarding her with a mixture of understanding and fear.
“Is he the reason? Is the Duke why you have been moping?”
Abigail sighed, thought about denying it for a moment but then acknowledged how pointless that would be. Her mother knew her well. She knew already that she was right.
“Maybe. I don’t know, Mother.”
“What don’t you know, Abby?”
Abigail shrugged, crossing over to Lady Rosaline’s engagement gown, the irony not lost on her.
“He...I…” she began, unable to find the words to explain the unfathomable pull that the Duke had on her.
Percival Montagu...he sounds like a pirate.
She smiled absently at her fanciful thoughts but then stopped when she heard her mother’s sigh. She knew, absolutely knew, that this would not lead to anything…respectable.
Yet she could not stop her heart from fluttering at the thought of the Duke. Her mind turned to nuncheon and what they could serve that would be worthy of a Duke. All they had was some bread, cheese, andgingerbread. It would have to do.
She hurried to the back, choosing a light brown muslin gown that showed off her clear skin to perfection and paired it with an emerald green Spencer jacket that brought out the color of her moss-green eyes. She added a pair of earbobs and retied her hair in a tight bun before adding a bonnet that matched her jacket. It was more than she usually bothered with on a daily basis but not too outré as to invite comment.
She knew her mother would comment anyway and was not disappointed. As soon as she stepped back into the front room, her mother’s eyebrows went up and she opened her mouth to speak.
Abigail forestalled her, “I know. I am building castles in the air. I don’t want to be sensible about this, Mama. Please, just leave me be.”
Her mother sighed, eyes dropping as her cheeks filled with color. It was clearly an effort to refrain from speaking but she managed it, giving Abigail a curt nod instead.
Abigail was relieved. Her mother and she were close but there were still secrets between them, the name and location of Abigail’s father being one of the bigger ones. Abigail had stopped asking long ago but that did not mean her curiosity was slaked. She had it in mind to visit their old home in Brighton one day and find out for herself what the mystery to her existence was.
For now, however, she just wanted to enjoy the Duke’s company until he inevitably tired of her and sought to dismiss her. What harm could it do? They did not have a reputation to protect. In spite of their exceptional talent with a needle, and honest dealings, a cloud hung over their heads. Abigail suspected that it was linked to her mother’s secrets but had long tired of asking.
She busied herself for the rest of the morning with customers and gowns before retiring to the back roomto set up nuncheon on their sewing table.
At almost noon, her mother poked her head into the room, “I am going out.” she said, “Philip and I are to meet and inspect the housing development over at Devonshire Terrace.”
Abigail paused in her work to spare her mother a glance, “Why?” she asked.
Joan hesitated, “He feels our neighborhood is not quite safe for two women. He proposes a move.”
Abigail hesitated before nodding, “All right.” She returned to cutting up the cheese, her heart accelerating with the prospect of being alone in the shop with a gentleman.
She wondered what her mother thought she was doing, leaving her alone like this when she knew full well the Duke was coming. While she appreciated the gesture of trust, she was also not ready to subject herself to the prospect of being compromised should the Duke…
But no, he would not…would he?
Abigail cut the thought off as unproductive, finished setting the table and then straightened out her skirts. Whatever the Duke wanted to talk about, he would likely feel more at ease about it wereher mother absent. Doubtless,that was why Joan was making herself scarce.
She willed her hands to stop trembling as she ran them down the front of her gown, seeking to smooth it out and calm her nerves at the same time.
At the stroke of noon, The Duke of Northcott darkened her doorway and she stared at him as if she had never seen him before.
She gestured for him to enter. “We-welcome, Your Grace.”
He took one step into the shop and then another, taking off his hat and making a leg to her, “Thank you, Miss Thorne.”
She led him, blushing, to the back room and he followed her with no demur, sitting where she directed him and watching as she plated some food for him. She smiled until her dimples showed, unable to help herself. It was exceedingly strange, sitting here with a Duke, having nuncheon and yet, being here with this manfelt...fated.
“Here you are, Your Grace,” she said, handing him the plate.
“Please, call me Percival,” he replied softly and she could not help but color further.
“All right, Percival,” she took her seat, her own plate in front of her, “And you may call me Abigail.”
“Thank you,” he replied as if she were some high-born lady condescending to him. She took a deep shaky breath and picked up a piece of cheese, chewing thoughtfully as she regarded him—allowing herself to really examine him.
His height was obvious even when he was sitting and the breadth of his shoulders took her breath away. His elaborately tied azure cravat lightened the dark of his eyes while his white shirt provided just the right contrast to his golden waistcoat visible beneath his unbuttoned coat. Both sat on his broad shoulders and impressive chest as if molded to it and Abigail had the odd thought that she would like to just lay her palm flat on his chest and breathe in his sandalwood scent.
Perhaps do more than breathe…She shivered at the thought.
It was a ridiculous notion, ofcourse, one which she wouldneveract on. She cast about desperately for something else to say, to take her wayward mind away from its scandalous thoughts but he beat her to it.
“Tell me something, Abigail?”
She placed her cheese back on her plate and swallowed. “What would you like to know?”
“How did you come to be here?”
She raised an eyebrow, surprised at the question. Even though he was interested in her as evidenced by his presence in her backroom, she had not expected him to show curiosity about anything except, perhaps, a potential liaison between them. She held no illusions as to the direction of his interest. Her own quandary centered around the question of whether she would grant his wishes or not.
She reflected seriously on what his question might mean; whether he was speaking of here in the sense that she was sitting alone in a backroom with a man and no chaperone or else he meant here, in this shop, working as a modiste.
Perhaps it was both.
“I only mean to get to know you better, if you don’t mind,” he provided the clarification after studying her face closely. Perhaps he could see her confusion.
“I appreciate that. It is difficult to know where to start.”
He tilted his head becomingly to the side and smiled, “Start at the beginning,” he said.
She huffed, perfectly aware that he knew not the irony of his words, “Wish I knew what the beginning was,” she murmured, mostly to herself.
“Take your time, there is no hurry,” he encouraged, and she narrowed her eyes at him doubtfully.
“Isn’t there? I shall need to return to work and you probably have some duties that need doing.”
He gave her a smile, “Ah, but we can always continue the discourse at a later date,” he assured her and his words were more than a commentary on their conversation. He was saying that he wanted to see her again. Abigail did not know what to think about that.
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