Excerpt: Once Upon a Maiden Lane

Excerpt: Once Upon a Maiden Lane

Book 12.5: Maiden Lane

Chapter one

September 1747
London, England

 

Mary Whitsun did not like comely gentlemen. She knew it to be an un-Christian prejudice, but there it was nonetheless: she disapproved of and distrusted them. In her experience—not very extensive, it must be admitted, because she was not quite one and twenty—comely gentlemen tended to be aware of exactly how handsome they were. They were affected and flirtatious when a girl just wanted to mind her own business, and they had a tendency to become irate if she did not respond to their ridiculous overtures.

And that was just common handsome gentlemen. An aristocratic handsome gentleman was far worse should he take it into his head to cast his supposed charms upon a woman such as she.

Aristocrats were not used to hearing the word no—especially from maidservants.

Thus it was with no small amount of vexation that Mary realized that an excruciatingly attractive aristocrat was watching her in her favorite bookstore.

Bugger it all.

It was her one full day off for the week, and she had planned to spend several lovely hours perusing the volumes for sale at Adams and Sons before a frugal luncheon at the nearby tea shop. She’d been saving for weeks just for this day, and she’d really rather not have it ruined by some spoiled rake.

Mary moved behind a shelf, hoping that out of sight might mean out of mind for the fellow. She took down The History of Herodotus and pretended to scan the little book while keeping an eye on the shop door. Perhaps he’d leave the bookshop and then she could continue with—

“Sweetheart, whatever are you about?”

The male voice was soft and deep and murmured in her ear from right behind her.

It was only by the greatest use of self-control that Mary didn’t shriek and fling poor Herodotus up in the air.

Slowly she turned and leveled her very best nursery stare at the beautiful aristocrat. It was a stare that made small children immediately put away their toys and ready themselves for bed, but alas, it appeared to be ineffective on males over the age of two.

The one in front of her was at least eight and twenty, and he merely grinned down at her and said, “Is it a wager of some sort?”

When he smiled the comely aristocrat did the impossible and became even more attractive. He already had deep-blue eyes—set off wonderfully by a dark-blue coat, black waistcoat, and snowy white neckcloth—curling jet-black hair clubbed back into a tail, a strong jaw, and a wide, sensual mouth, but when the man smiled, he revealed white, even teeth and dimples on either side of his mouth.

Typical.

Mary placed Herodotus firmly back on the shelf and turned toward the shop door.

“Wait!”

There was no reason for her to stop and look at him at his command, and yet something compelled her to do just that.

The handsome aristocrat wasn’t grinning anymore. In fact, he looked a bit puzzled.

No doubt he wasn’t used to maidservants walking away from him.

“This is a very odd sort of game,” he said.

“I don’t consider it a game at all, sir,” she replied. “Good day.”

“No, but wait,” he protested again, this time laying his hand on her arm.

Mary stiffened. “Unhand me, sir.” 

“If I’d known you liked books, I would’ve escorted you here myself,” he said slowly, searching her face in the oddest manner. His gaze dropped to her gray linsey-woolsey gown and neat white apron. “Although I’m not sure why you’ve chosen that costume. Rather plain, isn’t it?”

Mary frowned up at him. It was early in the day to be intoxicated, but one never knew with beautiful male aristocrats. They tended to be an undisciplined lot. “I’ll thank you not to make comment on my person, and I certainly don’t need you or anyone else to escort me to the bookshop, sir. Now let me go.”

But instead of doing as she asked, he grasped her other arm and turned her so that she faced him. He bent his head, peering at her, black brows drawn together over his startling blue eyes. “Lady Joanna?”

“That is quite enough,” Mary said in a firm tone. “You’ve had your amusement at my expense, sir, but now the jest has grown old. Let me go or I shall be forced to notify my employer. He is—”

“You’re not Lady Joanna,” he interrupted her, having apparently not paid attention to a word she’d said.

“I’m sorry to ask this, but were you dropped on your head as a child?” Mary inquired sweetly. “Because that would certainly explain the inability to follow a simple conversation.”

He grinned. “No, you’re not Lady Joanna at all, are you, sweetheart? You’re much too fiery.”

“I,” Mary enunciated with deep disapproval, “am not your sweetheart.”

“Actually, that remains to be seen,” he muttered under his breath, which did not in any way calm Mary’s alarm. “What’s your name?”

She stared at him, mutely. Perhaps she could wait him out.

“Stubborn,” he said, possibly to himself, since he obviously wasn’t talking to her. “Very stubborn, but the eyes more than make up for it. And the wit. Good Lord, this is amazing…”

She narrowed said eyes and opened her mouth to make a very cutting rejoinder, but he beat her to it.

“May I introduce myself then? I am Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell.”

He made an elaborate and showy bow to her as if she were a lady.

By the time he straightened, Mary knew her face was aflame. This was why she hated well-favored aristocrats so: they thought nothing of mocking poor girls for their own sport.

“Are you done now, my lord?” she asked, her voice frozen.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he said ruefully. “Look here, I don’t suppose you’ll let me escort you to…erm…your place of employment?”

She arched an incredulous eyebrow.

“No, naturally not,” he murmured. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re very, very suspicious?”

“Not that I can remember.”

“It’s just that I can’t let you go without finding out your name and where you live.”

She sighed in absolute exasperation. “Why would I ever tell you those things?”

“Because,” he said, those damnable dimples coming into devastating play again, “I’m almost certain that we’re meant to be engaged.”

###

Henry felt the corners of his mouth quirk up as the little maidservant gave him a narrow-eyed, outraged look that wouldn’t be out of place on the countenance of a duchess.

Or, well, the long-lost daughter of an earl.

The girl before him had a very familiar face: large coffee-brown eyes, heavy mahogany hair, an oval face so perfect she could have posed for a medieval Madonna. She looked, in fact, exactly like his fiancée, Lady Joanna.

And there the similarity between them ended.

He’d grown up with Lady Joanna, considered her almost a sister. Lady Joanna was silly, sweet, and sometimes vaguely irritating.

He’d long been used to the idea of marrying her.

This woman caught his attention and held it. She was impatient and sharp tongued, and he had the sneaking suspicion that she disapproved of everything about him—right down to his stockings.

He ought to find her tartness dismaying.

Instead he was intrigued.

He wasn’t used to a lady so obviously disliking him. Most had a rather dismaying tendency to fall at his feet, truth be told. In fact, he was so accustomed to feminine approval that he noticed it only when faced with its opposite: a lady who knit her pretty brows at him while frowning down her slim nose.

She was rather refreshing.

“The thing is,” he began, only to be interrupted by a great oaf.

“There you are, Blackwell,” said the oaf—more commonly known as John Seymour, third scion of Baron Bramston. “Can’t believe you dragged me to a bookseller’s. Place is full of dust, and there’s an old chap behind the counter who looks dead. Let’s go—” Seymour stopped abruptly, probably because the maidservant had turned at his voice and he’d finally seen her face.

He stared.

Frowned.

And said, “You’re not Lady Joanna.”

Which was a bit disappointing, because Henry would’ve bet his new riding mare that Seymour would be just as taken in by the uncanny resemblance as he.

For the first time the maidservant’s brow cleared, and she almost smiled—at Seymour of all people. “No, I’m not, sir.”

“However, you’re enough alike you might be her sister,” Seymour continued.

Exactly,” Henry said. “The Albright twin.”

Seymour frowned. “Thought she was dead.”

The maidservant huffed and started to walk away.

Henry stepped in front of her, blocking the way, still talking to Seymour. “No body was ever found. And the nursemaid was quite out of her mind.”

Seymour turned fully to him. “You can’t think…”

Look at her.”

Seymour studied the girl, his somewhat protuberant pale-brown eyes widening. “Good Lord!”

The girl tried to sidestep around Henry. “Do you mind?”

He pursed his lips ruefully, attempting to look solemn. “I’m afraid I do, sweetheart.”

“I’m not your—”

“But that’s the thing,” Henry said. “You might very well be my sweetheart. Can you at least tell me who your people are? Who were your parents? If you were born in the country and have seven brothers and sisters who all resemble you, well, then we’re wrong, and I’ll apologize and leave you be.”

She looked at him, and that was the moment when he truly knew—because she hesitated. “I…don’t know where I was born,” she said, lifting her chin. “I was raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children in St Giles. I was left on their doorstep when I was a baby—on Whitsunday.”

“What year?” Henry asked, holding her gaze. Those coffee-brown eyes were a bit fearful now, and he mourned that—she was such a proud little thing—but he had to know.

She swallowed. “Seventeen twenty-six.”

He felt a slow grin curve his lips. “That was the year the Albright twins, the daughters of William Albright, the Earl of Angrove, were stolen from their nursery by a mad nurse. A fortnight later the younger of the two, Lady Joanna, was recovered in good health. The elder, Lady Cecilia, was never found.”

Her pretty rose-red lips parted for a moment as she stared at him.

Then she blinked, and her eyes narrowed with what looked like suspicion. “You cannot expect me to believe this ridiculous tale, my lord.”

“It’s actually rather well known,” Seymour said, sounding apologetic. “Was a scandal at the time. I know this sounds like the veriest balderdash, miss, but you do look quite a lot like Lady Joanna. I wonder if you might tell us your name?”

She pursed those luscious lips but finally said, “My name is Mary Whitsun. I’m a nursemaid. And now, if you will excuse me, I would like to enjoy the rest of my day off in peace.”

Henry bowed and stepped back. “Certainly. But won’t you tell me where you reside? If you don’t mind, I would like to call upon you tomorrow afternoon.”

Her brows rose. “Do your maidservants usually entertain visitors at your house?”

Her tone had such bite.

He grinned. “This is a special case. I think your employer will be persuaded to make an exception.”

“Well, I don’t wish to tell you where I live. Good day, my lord.” She turned and made her way out of the bookshop.

Henry watched her walk away. The minute she was out the door he was after her.

“What—?” Seymour started, but Henry ignored him.

He opened the bookshop door in time to see that prim back retreating down the busy London street.

Just in front of the shop, a trio of boys of about twelve were loitering.

“Want to earn some money?” he asked them.

The boys came to attention.

Henry quickly explained his needs and gave them each a coin with promise of more should they successfully fulfill their mission.

Then they were off, weaving through the mass of people.

Henry turned to see Seymour by his side.

“What was that all about?” his friend asked.

“She was suspicious of me,” Henry said quietly. “I can’t simply let her go.”

He stared after her, though she’d long since disappeared into the crowd. He had an almost overwhelming urge to follow her, as if she might be lost again. Ridiculous. He’d already set three urchins on her trail.

Besides. He didn’t know her. She was a stranger to him. If anything, he should be appalled at the mere possibility that he might be tied to a woman who’d been raised as a servant instead of a lady.

Yet he was oddly eager to find out more about the girl.

He looked at Seymour. “Well. I’d thought to attend the horse auction this afternoon, but I think on the whole we ought to pay a visit to Lady Joanna and the Countess of Angrove, don’t you?”