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Authors: Alissa Johnson

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

Tempting Fate (4 page)

BOOK: Tempting Fate
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“Oh, but I don’t know which kind I might prefer, exactly, and I’d very much like to spend some time shopping with my friends before all the…” She waved a weak hand in the air. “Fuss and noise of the party. But if it’s too much trouble for you, we can walk.”

“Walk?”

“Yes, of course.” She began to lever herself out of the chair with all the strength and grace of a woman on her deathbed. “It’s not more than three miles, and I’m not an invalid, you know.”

Whit was inside the room and gently pushing her back into the chair in under a second. Mirabelle managed, only barely, to keep from laughing. Oh, but Sophie was a wily creature, she thought. Outright weakness might make a man like Whit inclined to pamper a bit, but quiet bravery would destroy him.

“Sit down, Sophie, please. There’s no need for you to walk, for pity’s sake. Alex and I will take you into town.”

“Well, if you’re sure—”

“Of course. Of course, I’m sure. You’ll have all the pastries you like.”

“Looks as if the carriage is nearly ready, ladies,” Whit commented later as their transport, along with his and Alex’s
mounts, were brought to the front of the house. “We need only hitch the imp to the front of the team.”

Mirabelle sent him a sneer and climbed in behind a freshly attired Kate. “Rest assured, cretin, if I were to suddenly find myself a horse, the first thing I’d do would be to kick you in—”

“We’re ready to go now!” Sophie inserted enthusiastically as she clambered in and sat beside Mirabelle, making room also for Kate and Evie.

“—the head,” Mirabelle shouted after him before turning to Sophie with a furrowed brow. “What did you think I was going to say?”

“Er…something else. Something…” Kate waved her hand to indicate the lower half of her body.

Realization dawned on Mirabelle’s face, and with it, a delighted grin. “Oh. Oh, that’s very good.” She poked her head back out the window to amend her earlier threat, but found Whit gone. “Blast.”

There was only one dress shop in all of Benton, but as the dress shop was run by Madame Duvalle, one was all that was needed. A London modiste of some import in the previous decade, Madame Duvalle had fallen out of fashion in part because of the capriciousness of the
ton,
and in part because of her unwillingness to compromise her work to the demands of silly young girls—but according to Lady Thurston, that could only be counted as a mark in her favor.

She’d made the short move to Benton at Lady Thurston’s urging, and kept up a lively business catering to the Coles, their frequent guests, and the surrounding gentry.

Madame Duvalle also held the unusual distinction of being an actual native of France, having been born, raised, and trained in her art in Paris. And just so there would be no misunderstanding on the girls’ part, what Madame Duvalle created was art.

The shop was located with the other shops of quality in the heart of the town. A young woman with a friendly smile greeted them at the door, then disappeared into a back room to discreetly inform Madame that her most prestigious patrons had arrived. Before Mirabelle had had a chance to glance at the new materials, a very tall and somewhat plump woman sailed out of the door the young woman had recently exited. She stopped abruptly, let out an enormous sigh, and clasped her hands to her heart.

“Mes chéries!”

It was an entrance the young women had long grown accustomed to, but as it was no less sincere than it was dramatic, they returned the greeting with smiles.

“Mes belles,
look at you,” Madame Duvalle crooned. “Why I should bother to put such effort into your gowns, I do not know. You would make a draped sheet appear a masterpiece of thread and needle. But I am most delighted to see all of you…except for you,” she informed Mirabelle with a sniff and a twinkling eye. “You are too stubborn.”

Mirabelle laughed and, unable to resist, leaned up to kiss a cheek. “You were able to convince me to choose the lavender gown over the brown,” she reminded her.

“Yes, but it was the ivory I wanted you to have.”

And it was the ivory that
she
had wanted to have, Mirabelle recalled, but it had been too dear, and far less practical than the deep lavender, which would hide stains more easily.

“I’m here twice in as many weeks with the intention of making a purchase, surely that must count for something.”


Oui,
it counts for much.” She gave Mirabelle a hopeful smile. “The ivory this time?”

“Nothing quite so grand, I’m afraid. We’re in need of undergarments.”

“Ah.” Madame Duvalle looked over as newcomers arrived. “You know the way, of course. I will give you time to look while I see to these ladies, yes?”

Unlike the bolts of cloth and the ready-made gowns, items of a more intimate nature were displayed in a separate, windowless room.

“Have you any idea what you might want?” Kate asked Evie as the women took in the contents of the room.

“No, but I’ll own myself intrigued by this.”

Mirabelle looked up from where she’d been studying a fashion plate to see Evie point out a…a something, displayed on a seamstress’s form. Light blue satin cut much too simply to be a gown, hugged rather than draped over the model.

“Well, for heaven’s sake,” Mirabelle laughed. “What is the point of such a garment?”

“I’ve no idea,” was both Kate’s and Evie’s reply.

“To feel delicious,” was Sophie’s. Three heads immediately spun in her direction. She shrugged, a slight bloom of red showing on her cheeks. “Perhaps one needs to be married to appreciate the prettiness of it.”

“Or be in the market for something pretty and pointless,” Evie added with a pointed look at Mirabelle.

“That’s absurd, Evie,” Mirabelle chuckled. “We don’t even know what it is.”

“Sophie appears to.”

“Not really,” Sophie admitted. “I just think it’s lovely. Perhaps it’s a chemise.”

“It’s too long.” Mirabelle argued. “It would reach near the ankles. And the material isn’t right.”

Chemises were made of sturdy material that could withstand the abuse of repeated washings. The fabric before her looked as if it might melt in a hard rain. She reached out to run a finger down the material. And fell instantly in love.

“Oh my,” she breathed. “Have you ever felt anything so soft?”

“Ah, you have found my little experiment, I see.”

At the sound of Madame Duvalle’s voice, Mirabelle
snatched her hand back with a guilty start. “I beg your pardon, I shouldn’t have—”

“Pftt. If I did not want it admired, I would not have left it out. What do you make of it?”

“It’s divine,” Mirabelle whispered and had four pairs of eyes blinking at her. “Well, it is,” she defended. “It feels like…like water. What’s it for?”

“It is a chemise.”

“But…”

“But it is most impractical, yes. And so every woman of means has informed me.” She gave an annoyed huff. “It is odd, is it not, that even the most frivolous of women would not be eager to indulge themselves thus?”

“Because they can’t display it where others could see and envy,” Evie murmured.

“Exactly so, my clever girl.”

“A woman with a husband could,” Sophie said, considering.

“This is true,” Madame Duvalle laughed. “But this piece is not for you,
juene mère.
It is for Miss Browning.”

Mirabelle wouldn’t have been more stunned if she’d been offered the deed to the shop. Which is likely why she failed to see the look of understanding pass between Madame Duvalle and Kate.

“For me? But I couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly. I…” She trailed off. “Couldn’t,” she felt, summed up her position quite well. She couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t find a use for it. Couldn’t all sorts of things.

Her objections feel on deaf ears. “I insist. I would have my creation appreciated, not sitting in this room collecting dust.” Madame Duvalle began to pull the chemise off the model. “I ask three shillings and will do the alterations for free, yes?”

Three shillings? It was a ridiculously low price.

“Three shillings? That’s absurd. The material alone—”

“Three shillings, stubborn girl, and also the currency of gossip. I would hear of the guests.” She held the material up against Mirabelle and squinted. “No alterations needed, I think. We are fortunate.”

“A very hard bargain,” Evie cut in before Mirabelle could continue her argument. “But she’ll take it. Which gossip would you care to hear first?”

Outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and not all that interested in having her way, if truth be known, Mirabelle dug into her reticule for the three shillings. “I’ll take good care of it,” she promised. “Thank you.”

“Of course you will.” Madame Duvalle moved into the front of the store, which was—to Mirabelle’s vast relief—once again empty. “Now, tell me what you make of the Mr. Hunter who has come to visit.”

Kate shrugged. “He has business with Whit. We haven’t met him as yet.”

“I’ve met him in London,” Sophie told them. “He seems pleasant enough.”

“Yes, a very pleasant man,” Madame Duvalle responded as she set the chemise on a table and began to wrap it in tissue. “That is how, I am told, the London actresses and opera singers speak of him, a most pleasant gentleman.”

“Oh, dear.” Mirabelle and Kate didn’t bother to hide their frowns. Sophie and Evie didn’t bother to hide their grins. And Madame Duvalle didn’t bother to consider that either reaction might be anything other than encouragement.

“His conquests are quite legendary, but it is said he does not dally with the innocent or the married, as many young men seem to feel they must, and that is something, no?”

Evie gave a scoffing laugh. “It’s quite all right, then, for him to seduce legions of women so long as they’re actresses and courtesans?”

Madame Duvalle gave a very Gallic shrug and put the chemise in a box. “One cannot expect him to exist as a monk, after all.”

“Why not?” Evie demanded. “Women are expected to live as nuns. It’s most unfair.”


C’est vrai, ma petite,
but so it has always been for women, no? If life were fair, I would be forever young and beautiful, I would have a delectable young man to dance attendance upon me, and all my customers would be as much fun as the four of you.”

“I think, Madame Duvalle,” said Sophie, “that if you were forever young and beautiful, it would be distinctly unfair to the rest of us.”

Madame Duvalle smiled slyly. “Don’t be silly, I would share my dancing man.”

Four

T
o Mirabelle’s mind, it was just a touch unsettling to traipse about Benton carrying a box that held an unconventional undergarment. As such, she thought it might be best if she dropped her purchase off at the carriage while the others went ahead to the bookseller’s.

But if she had known she would run into Whit on the sidewalk, she would have carried the box from one end of town to the other without complaint. There w ere, after all, varying degrees of unsettling.

“Whit. Hello. It’s a very nice day, isn’t it? The others have gone to the bookseller’s. Where’s Alex?”

She was chattering. She knew she was chattering, she just couldn’t seem to stop herself. It was amazing she was able to
get out anything at all, considering she had an entirely different—and entirely involuntary—sort of conversation running through her head.

Whit. Hello. I’m carrying a blue chemise in this box. I think it might be some sort of satin. Isn’t that lovely?

She peeked over his shoulder at the carriage and wondered if she could sneak by him without being too obvious about it. She rather thought not. Certainly not with him suddenly looking at her so intently.

She felt the heat creep up from her chest to spread across her neck and face. She was blushing. Five-and-twenty years of age and she was blushing. It was ridiculous. And dangerous. Whit was watching her with amused curiosity, his blue eyes narrowing with an interest that alarmed her.

“Alex is at Maver’s Tavern. What are you hiding, imp?”

“What?” The word came out too loud, but good Lord, how could he possibly know? Had he seen her? Mirabelle glanced back at the modiste’s shop. No, the windows reflected the afternoon sunlight, no one could see inside without standing mere inches away, and she was fairly certain someone would have mentioned if the Earl of Thurston were pressing his nose against the glass.

She cleared her throat nervously. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Whit.”

Her voice came out too soft this time. Damn it, she was only making things harder for herself.

“You’re only making things harder for yourself,” he said, and smiled at her scowl. “You’re so nervous, I half expect you to bolt.”

The idea had merit. Her whole body was tensed for flight. She forced her muscles to relax. But not too much. She liked to keep all her options open.

“I’m hot,” she offered lamely. It didn’t come within a mile of explaining her tension, but it was the best she could manage under the circumstances.

Apparently, her best was none too good for Whit because he ignored her last statement entirely. “Are you making excuses for the rest of the ladies?”

She blinked at the non sequitur. “Er…no,” she stuttered, honestly confused. “I told you, they’re at the bookseller’s. Kate wished to see if a particular Wollenscroft book was available.”

Whit groaned and leaned around her to peer down the street. She heard him mumble something about “trash” and “putting my foot down,” and she jumped at the chance to change the subject.

“They’re quite horrid, it’s true, but I can’t see any harm in her reading them.”

“They’ll rot her brain.”

“Oh, I doubt that. Even if it were a possibility, which I don’t believe for a minute, we would have seen the effects by now. She’s been reading books like those for years.”

“Maybe we just haven’t recognized the damage they’ve done.”

“Such as…”

Whit shrugged. “She’s one-and-twenty,” he replied distractedly. “She should have been married by now.” He moved to step around her.

Well,
that,
she decided, was a bit much. She stepped in his path.

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