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Authors: Joan Smith

Tags: #Regency Romance

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BOOK: Bath Belles
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“Top of the trees!”
he smiled.

“Yes, this will be fine,”
I said as calmly as I could, and removed the material. The woman standing in the mirror now in her plain blue serge coat was a different creature. She was only Miss Haley from Bath, not that other golden woman.

“What will you want with it?”
Mr. Maitland asked. “Some blond lace, perhaps, or some ribbons?”

I chose both a length of lace to embellish the neckline and some narrow, dark brown velvet ribbons for my hair. It gave me an air of recklessness to be spending money in this fabulous shop amid all the ladies of fashion. I threw discretion to the winds and bought a pair of white kid gloves as well. The bill was inordinately high, but rather than bothering me, it made me feel good. Being irresponsible and foolish for once agreed with me. I felt like a different woman as we walked along the street, looking for Mama and Esther.

We didn’t find them, and after a few blocks we reentered the carriage for a drive through Hyde Park. “It will be livelier in the afternoon,”
Mr. Maitland mentioned, but it was already livelier than even the Pump Room at home, which is the most active corner of Bath in the morning. “When you have the carriage you should drive down here around four in the afternoon and watch the ton disport themselves, if you are interested in such nonsense.”

“Of course we’re interested!”
I answered airily. “We can do all the worthy things at home. While in London we plan to immerse ourselves in such abandoned dissipations as drives and theaters and routs.”

He reached out spontaneously and took hold of my fingers. “Do you hear that, Miss Haley?”

I listened but heard only the turning of the carriage wheels and the sound of horses’
hooves. “What do you mean?”

“That sighing sound ...”

“Is it the carriage springs?”

“No, it’s a sigh of relief. My carriage was afraid it would be taking a tour of all the churches and libraries.”

I laughed and pulled my fingers free. “How absurd you are! And I have already told you, we don’t plan to take your carriage.”

“You must.”

“Why must we?”

He cocked his head to one side and considered the matter a moment. “Because I want you to, Miss Haley. How else am I to get on a first-name basis with you? You must admit it would sound odd for you to be telling your friends, ‘We borrowed Mr. Maitland’s carriage.’
They would wonder at your forwardness in accepting favors from a mere acquaintance. No, you must be able to say, ‘Des Maitland was kind enough to put his rig at our disposal.’
I know I should feel more comfortable saying, ‘Belle Haley is using my carriage’
than ‘Miss Haley’

“You have a novel way of looking at things, Mr. Maitland.”

“Good, then it is settled, Belle. And now that you are being as agreeable as usual, I shall soon let you go home, as I know you have been wanting to do ever since we left the drapery store.”

“Oh, dear! My
was showing, was it? I admit I felt out of place there.”

No, not that. You looked delightfully confused and greedy, like a girl in a sweet shop. I only meant that when Liz buys a new bolt she can hardly wait to get home and start wrapping herself in it and wondering whether she shouldn’t have chosen some other color or trim. Ah, and then the agonized bliss of choosing the pattern! Do you have a pattern book? I am privy to all ladies’
necessities, you see.”

“You’re stealing my very thoughts, sir!”

“Surely you don’t object to such petty larceny? Er—you can delete the ‘petty.’
To imply your thoughts are anything but weighty must give offense.”

“Fashion is no petty matter, but Esther will bring a pattern book home.”

“Yes, but Esther will choose one that pleases
I think Miss Haley would prefer something a little more dashing. I know Mr. Maitland would.”

“Miss Haley’s hanging a little past maturity on the family tree calls for stronger efforts at allurement, you mean?”

“Past maturity?”
he asked, and laughed convincingly. “The sulfur waters have preserved you uncommonly well, ma’am. I see no trail of the crow’s foot yet, no corrosion of the brow. I’ll send over some of Liz’s books.”

These compliments were reassuring, and I was also happy to hear so many friendly references to his sister. A man who is on good terms with his family cannot be all bad. “You are very close to your sister, I think.”

“She tolerates me, as I am a bachelor and useful for doing errands and filling an empty seat at dinner parties. Then, of course, it is always a married sister’s prime avocation in life to see her bachelor brother shackled. I take it as a good sign she’s happy in her own marriage. I wasn’t sure she chose wisely.”

“Why? Is there something amiss with her husband?”

“Very much so. He has the misfortune to be perfect. I should think it would be very trying to live with perfection, wouldn’t you?”

“No, I think it would be—perfect!”
I felt that old, familiar, gnawing ache at losing Graham.

“That’s what Liz says. Men must be different from women. Her husband is perfectly happy living with a pea-goose.”

It was an unusual outing. I had felt uncomfortable at the idea of spending a morning alone with Mr. Maitland, but he was so very easy to get along with that I felt I had known him for years. It was a valuable quality he possessed, getting along equally well with clerks and criminals and ladies of all ages.

We descended from the carriage at the park and went for a walk. There was a cold wind blowing through the trees, but it felt good to get out and stretch our legs. Mr. Maitland said he had to feed Lady Gray, which caused a little confusion. “She gets quite angry with me if I don’t bring her a treat every morning,”
he explained.

“Is she a beggar?”
I asked in confusion.

“The most shameless beggar in the city. I’ll introduce you to her.”

I wasn’t at all sure I wished to add a beggar to my list of acquaintances. Already Mr. Maitland had introduced me to a thief.

He had a bag of nuts in his pocket, and he began looking around the trees. Before long, a large gray squirrel came and took the nuts from his fingers. I was formally presented to Lady Gray. Other squirrels were content to retrieve the nuts as he tossed them about on the grass. He looked younger, less sophisticated, at this occupation. In fact, he looked like a boy.

A bold blue jay was making a wicked racket in the tree-top overhead. It was furious at being left out of the treat. When one nut landed a few yards beyond the others the blue jay swooped down and grabbed it up. “Oh, Des, look!”
I laughed. “Now Lady Jay has joined your party.”

“Too bad for her. I have no sympathy with backward ladies,”
he said, and crumpled up the empty bag. When he re-joined me he wore a triumphant smile. “But I am happy she came, even if she wasn’t invited. She surprised another backward lady into calling me Des,”
he said, and put my hand on his arm to return to the carriage.

When we reached Elm Street I was astonished to learn it was twelve-thirty. Mr. Maitland did not come in with me but carried my parcels to the door and arranged an hour to return that evening. Mama and Esther had already made sandwiches and were fast casting themselves into a pelter at my late return.

“We were afraid Mr. Maitland had done something with you,”
Mama chided.

“Oh, he did, Mama. He took me to meet a beggar in the park.”
I laughed and told her the story.

“Next time I shall go with you and Mr. Maitland,”
Esther said. “Mr. Duke is a dead bore. All he talked about were sermons and churches.”

“He seems a well-behaved lad,”
Mama said approvingly.

“What did you buy?”
Esther asked.

We examined each other’s goods. Mr. Duke had taken the ladies to the Pantheon Bazaar. Mama thought the merchandise there not quite so fine as mine. I didn’t tell her the ghastly sum I had paid for my superior stuff, but I didn’t regret it.

In the afternoon our other callers came to take us out. It was so strange to see Mama walk out the door on the arm of any gentleman except Papa. The feeling of change, of oddness, was mitigated by Eliot. There I felt dangerously at home, it was so much like being with Graham. We did the sorts of things Graham would have done, too. We went to see St. Paul’s Cathedral and Whitehall and St. James’s Palace and Park. Mr. Duke kept us merry with his foolish chatter.

Inside St. Paul’s he stood at the back of the nave, holding Esther’s arm. “Now that is what I call a church,”
he exclaimed. Earlier he had proclaimed St. James’s Palace what he would call a palace, and St. James’s Park what he would call a park. “Shall we go down the aisle together?”
he asked her.

Eliot smiled at me. “Perhaps more is meant than meets the ear, as Milton said.”

Duke scowled fiercely. “Eh? Let him say it to my face!”

We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, and when we reached Elm Street, Mama and Mr. Stone were just driving up, so we stood chatting a moment.

“How did you find your sister, Mr. Stone?”
I asked politely.

“We didn’t go to her,”
Mama confessed. “We went instead to an art gallery—my, such pictures! Enough to make a lady blush.”

I gave Mr. Stone my gimlet eye and he tried to dismiss me. “Just letting down our hair a little.”

“What hair?”
Duke mumbled. For once, I didn’t rebuke him.

“When would you like me to come and clear out Graham’s things for you?”
Eliot asked before leaving. “Or shall I do it now, while I’m here?”

We kept country hours, and I knew Mama would be wanting her dinner almost immediately. “Can you come tomorrow morning?”
I suggested.

“As you don’t plan to go out, why don’t I come this evening?”
he parried.

“We’ve been pounding the streets all day. I think Mama is tired.”
There was no particular reason for keeping Mr. Maitland’s visit a secret, but I didn’t tell him. He’d poker up and act offended. No, that was Graham! How odd. During the afternoon my mind had been busy turning Eliot into his cousin. Graham would have been stiff, but then Graham would have had a reason, as I had been his fiancée.

“I’ll be here tomorrow at ten, then, if that suits you,”
he said very agreeably.

“That will be fine.”

After he and Mr. Duke left, I told Mama that Mr. Maitland was coming that evening. “Whatever for?”
she asked, astonished.

I explained that he wanted to look for clues to his money, and she accepted it. Esther, the sly minx, cast a wise look at me from the corner of her eye but didn’t say anything. All the same, she wore her new ribbons at dinner and borrowed the pearls again.


Chapter Seven


When Mr. Maitland arrived at the door that evening we received two surprises. The first was that he was dressed in evening clothes, for of course he would be going on to his sister’s rout party. He looked almost like a stranger in his elegant black jacket and sparkling linen cravat. The second surprise was that he came loaded down like a footman, carrying flowers for Mama, a box of bonbons for Esther, and a tin of salted nuts for me.

“My goodness, Mr. Maitland, you didn’t have to do that!”
Mama exclaimed, but she was pleased with his thoughtfulness. She rushed off immediately to put her flowers in water.

Esther took her sweets and said, “This is an unexpected compliment, sir. Are you implying I am not sweet enough?”

“Certainly not. I make reference to the cliché
‘sweets for the sweet.’

When I saw the label on my tin I added my thanks. “I am honored, Mr. Maitland. Now that I understand your reasoning, I don’t have to inquire whether I am salty enough. This puts me in the elevated company of Lady Gray, does it not?”

“You must know you’ve replaced the ladies Gray and Jay in my esteem, Belle.”
I gave him a heavy frown for using my name, but as only Esther was present, he ignored it. We sat in the saloon for a few moments before beginning our work. Mama came back with the flowers in a vase and offered tea.

“Mr. Maitland is on his way to a party, Mama,”
I explained. “I’m sure he would like to get away early, so he will want to get to work.’’

He turned a mocking eye on me. “You don’t get rid of a barnacle that easily, milady. We require stiffer hacking. I’ll accept your kind invitation to tea, ma’am,”
he said, glancing at Mama, “but your daughter wants to work first, I believe. Where would you suggest we begin?”

“Graham used his bedroom as an office, so that is the likeliest place,”
I suggested.

Esther, eager for a little attention, asked Desmond, “What do you hope to find?”

“Probably nothing, but I would like to look, on the off chance that I will learn something.”

Esther came up with us and sat on the bed, eating her bonbons and playing propriety while Mr. Maitland rooted through desk drawers and I searched jacket pockets. I noticed him lift my packet of letters to Graham. He looked at the blue satin ribbon, looked at me, and put them back in the drawer. I went to the bedside table and opened the little drawer. There was a tin of headache powders, a book of essays, and a small ledger of Graham’s personal finances.

I flipped the book open and glanced at the last page of entries, mostly pertaining to the purchase and furnishing of the house. Graham was a precise accountant. Several items were listed—the sofas and tables, the draperies and silver--but this would be of no help to Desmond. I turned back to the earlier pages, perusing the accounts and looking for any oddity. In January of the year he died there was a withdrawal of two hundred pounds, listed as K.N. As I looked down the months I saw regular withdrawals of smaller sums. Ten pounds, five pounds, twenty pounds. And in August, another two hundred pounds, all entered as K.N.

I cast my mind back, trying to remember what Graham had been doing at that time. January was the time I had first gone out with Graham to the Assembly Rooms in Bath. In August we had become engaged, but there had been no great expense in that. My ring had belonged to his mother, so even that hadn’t been a purchase.

I closed the book and peered over my shoulder at Desmond. He looked up and noticed my secretive air. “Did you find something?”
he asked, and paced forward.

BOOK: Bath Belles
12.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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