“Hello, Melanie. Miranda tells me you need a bit of help with your bath.”
“If you wouldn’t mind?”
She spun, showing him her narrow shoulders, her tiny waist, and the greatest ass he’d ever observed. It was tight and smooth as an adolescent boy’s.
Miranda guided him to the side of the tub, urging him to kneel. She placed a cloth in his hand, and he dipped it and stroked it across Melanie’s back. He yearned to attempt more, to touch her breasts or rub it between her legs, but he was afraid he’d break the carnal spell they’d created.
Melanie turned toward him and asked, “Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Yes, very pretty.”
“Do you ever wish you could ...
The crude word was casually voiced, and spewing as it had from her cupid’s mouth, it sounded extremely coarse. His cheeks actually flushed with embarrassment.
“I’ve thought of it. I won’t deny that I have.”
Melanie leaned forward and almost kissed him, but she didn’t. Her lips were a hair’s breadth from his own.
“That’s enough for now,” she whispered. “Will you visit me again?”
“I’ll have another surprise for you.”
“I can’t wait to discover what it will be.”
“You’ll like it; I promise.”
She sank down in the water, her intimate parts disappearing, as Miranda tugged him to his feet and ushered him away.
“When may I come back?” he inquired.
“I’ll let you know.”
“But . . . but . . . how long will it be?”
“It could be a few days. It could be . . . never.”
He was desperate for another meeting and already pondering how dreary the hours would be until they summoned him. They’d commenced a dangerous game, and he was anxious to learn the rules, to spar at the next match. What might they permit? He was agog over the possibilities.
Miranda peeked into the hall, then shoved him out. The door was closed and locked. For a moment, he dawdled, hoping he might hear what they were saying. He pressed his ear to the wood, but all was silent.
Finally, he yanked away and hurried to his room to tend an erection that was painful in its intensity.
LILY Stomped down the road, proceeding to Penworth Hall and cursing under her breath with every stride.
The twins had demanded she accompany them into the village, which she had, but they’d passed through the nearest town and traveled to the next one. They’d insisted on buying a certain color of ribbon before they could sail for Scotland.
Lily was sent into a shop, then they’d driven off, leaving her stranded. She’d had coins in her reticule, so she could have purchased fare on a public conveyance, but there’d been no coach going toward Penworth Hall and no way to return except to walk the six miles.
Normally, she would have enjoyed a stroll in the countryside, but she was furious at being duped and angrily speculating over how she’d get even. And she
get even. She just hadn’t figured out how. She wasn’t a novice at dealing with tomfoolery, and she had some tricks of her own she could play.
How she yearned to change her life! To marry and have a home of her own! She was sick of being alone, and it was exhausting having to rely on the likes of Lord Penworth to keep a roof over her head. She would glean enormous satisfaction from telling him she’d wed, and thus could no longer work for him.
“My husband won’t allow it,” she said aloud, testing how the word
rolled off her tongue, but she snorted with disgust.
As if some man would ever marry
. She was fetching enough, but without a dowry, she couldn’t entice anyone worth having. A kindly, competent fellow who was gain-fully employed would expect a wife to add wealth to the family coffers.
Lily had nothing, so the sorts who noticed her were cads like Penworth who didn’t need riches from her, but were happy to take what she wasn’t inclined to give. She couldn’t believe he’d already sneaked into her bedchamber. On her first night in the house!
He hadn’t exhibited any dastardly conduct, but it was only a matter of time before he would. If he grew amorous, what would she do? Especially once they were in Scotland?
With how her luck was running, she’d deflect an advance, then be tossed out without her wages being paid. She’d be marooned in the foreign country and unable to get back to London.
Why couldn’t she alter her fate? It was so unfair that she struggled so hard but none of her plans came to fruition.
She rounded a corner and stumbled on a colorfully painted peddler’s wagon. The rear doors were open, the bottles and jars artfully arranged.
She stopped to read the placard on the side, chuckling to see that he claimed to sell everything: medicines, love potions, invigorating tonics. She wouldn’t mind being
for the remainder of the galling trek to Penworth Hall.
The peddler approached, and he wasn’t at all what she’d anticipated. Tall and handsome, he had long, dark hair tied with a strip of leather. His delicious brown eyes drew her in and made her want to dawdle and chat.
His skin was bronzed, whether from the sun or ancestry she couldn’t decide, but it had her supposing he was a Gypsy or an Italian.
“Bonjour, bonjour, Mademoiselle,” he greeted in perfect French, and she was captivated as he swept up her hand and gallantly kissed it.
“Hello,” she replied. She smiled and he smiled, too.
“I am Philippe Dubois. Your name,
“Miss Lily Lambert.”
“Welcome to my humble wagon, Miss Lambert.”
“I’m delighted to be here.”
“Why are you alone? It is not safe for you to be walking by yourself.”
“Let’s just say I had a ride, but my carriage driver forgot me.”
Mais non! C’est terrible!
You are too pretty. Who could forget you?”
“Just about anyone,” she grumbled, feeling surly and ill-used by the twins.
“Perhaps it is time to hire a new driver,
If only it were that simple. “Yes, perhaps.”
He gazed at her, his expression compassionate and concerned. He had an interesting way of looking at a woman—as if she was unique and exotic. She felt more at ease, her troubles less vital and imposing.
“You are having a very bad day,” he correctly deduced. “How can I make it better?”
“Ha! I am Philippe Dubois. I can see your problem as clear as the nose on your face. You need a love potion.”
“No, I don’t.”
“But every woman should be loved. Why not you?”
Yes, why not me?
Why was she so unlovable? Why did she attract men like flies, but always the wrong kind with the wrong motives?
Should she buy a potion? She didn’t believe in superstition or charms, but so far, she hadn’t had any luck in her personal affairs. It would take a miracle for her to find a husband, and a bit of magic might be just the ticket.
She explored his rows of merchandise, handling the odd-shaped bottles, pausing to sniff the contents. He stood off to the side, letting her survey his wares, and he was quiet, seeming distracted, but it was a companionable silence.
“What is this?” she asked.
“It is my famous elixir, Woman’s Daily Remedy. It calms body and soul, being especially beneficial when you are distressed.”
“May I have a little taste?”
He urged her to try it, and she removed the cork and took a huge gulp. The elixir slid down her throat, and her eyes watered. She coughed and coughed. There was no mystery to the brew. It was laced with alcohol.
No wonder he could tout a calming effect. If she drank too much of it, she’d be passed out on the floor!
“Oh my,” she sputtered. “It’s quite potent.”
“It definitely is.”
“With where I’m going, though, it might be just what I need.”
“Are you off on a journey,
“To Scotland—as companion to the two most horrid twins you’ve ever met.”
He commiserated, being very supportive of her complaints, which she appreciated. No one ever listened to her; no one ever sympathized or consoled, and he was so understanding that—before she knew it—she had not one, but two bottles of the Daily Remedy in her reticule.
She held up a vial. “What’s this?”
“Ah . . . it is my biggest seller, my Spinster’s Cure.”
spinsters? Of what?”
“If you swallow it while staring at the man you hope to marry, you will be wed within the month.”
It was an absurd declaration, and she laughed as he bragged about a successful customer he’d had, an ordinary commoner who had ingested the potion and wound up wed to a viscount.
Though his story was nonsense, it intrigued her against her will, niggling at a feminine part of her character that yearned for love and romance. She wanted there to be magic in the world, and she thought life would be marvelous if she could solve all her problems simply by consuming a peddler’s elixir.
“My Spinster’s Cure,” he boasted, “will aid you in fulfilling your wish to be married. You crave a husband, yes?”
She gaped at him, stunned by his comment. “Of course. How did you know?”
“It is my job to know. You would like to have a home of your own, a cozy cottage in the country, with dogs and cats and three”—he halted and studied her—“no,
She gaped again. How could he have guessed? She’d dreamed about the family she wanted—so often and in such detail—that she had already picked the names of her four babies: Michael, Marcus, Margaret, and Mary.
Late at night, when she was alone in her bed, she would envision herself with a handsome husband. She’d be puttering about in her own kitchen, her children seated at the table, immersed in their lessons. They’d chatter away, asking her questions, and she’d be so happy, surrounded by people she cherished.
Suddenly, Mr. Dubois didn’t seem so farcical. Nor did his stories seem so false or contrived.
Perhaps he really knew something about amour. Perhaps he really had a tonic that could help. If she bought his Spinster’s Cure, where was the harm?
If it was fake, it would be no great loss. Naught would happen. She’d have a fond memory of Dubois, and she’d chuckle over her gullibility in making a silly purchase.
But if his potion worked, if it actually altered her destiny . . .
She wasn’t prone to fantasy or flights of fancy, but wouldn’t it be splendid if his claims turned out to be true?
“You are absolutely amazing,” she murmured.
“Aren’t I, though?”
“I’ll take two vials.”
“A prudent choice. A double dose can never hurt.”
“MISS Lambert, the sea air is giving me a chill.”
“You poor dear.”
John was seated at the head of the intimate dining table in Captain Bramwell’s cabin, and he furtively watched the exchange between Miss Lambert and Miranda. He pretended he wasn’t paying attention, but it was impossible not to notice the tension.
Bramwell’s vessel was a merchant ship, so the group surrounding him was a small one, comprised of John’s family and two of Bramwell’s officers. Bramwell himself was on deck, directing them through the busy shipping lanes leading out of the city.
John had grown up sailing in the summers, and it was a diversion he relished. He was an investor in Bramwell’s company, and he traveled with the man whenever he could, seizing any excuse to be out on the water.
While most people would have endured a long, bumpy carriage ride to Scotland, he chose an exhilarating alternative, and he wouldn’t have others spoiling it.
Miss Lambert had informed him of the twins’ intent to harass her. At the time, he’d discounted her complaint, but it was becoming patently clear that her description of the relationship was accurate, which he found problematic.
He hated discord and quarreling, and he planned on a quiet eight weeks in Scotland before he settled in London for the winter. He wouldn’t tolerate any friction among the female members of his party.
“Would you run and fetch my shawl?” Miranda requested of Miss Lambert.
“I’d be happy to,” Miss Lambert said.
It was a task a servant should have completed, and with supper having just been served, it was churlish of Miranda to make Miss Lambert go below. Plus, they had left the calmer currents of the Thames, and the turbulence was increasing as they moved from the protected river and out into the ocean.
Miss Lambert wasn’t accustomed to the pitching of the ship, so it would be difficult for her to manage the ladder down into the hold.
“We’ve just sat down,” John was surprised to hear himself say, “and Miss Lambert hasn’t even picked up her spoon. Perhaps, Miranda, you could wait until she’s finished her meal.”