Authors: Lynn Messina
Tags: #historical romance
2014 BY LYNN MESSINA
COVER DESIGN BY JENNIFER LEWIS
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved
Published 2014 by Potatoworks Press
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Miss Emma Harlow
was so intent on her task that she did not notice the gentleman in the leather armchair. She didn’t see him lower his book, cock his head to the side and examine her with interest.
“I say, is that the best way to do that?” the gentleman asked after a moment.
Emma, whose feathers were never the sort to ruffle easily, even when she was behaving improperly in
a place she didn’t belong—in this case, with her fingers around the stem of a prize
in the Duke of Trent’s conservatory—calmly turned around. Her blue-eyed gaze, steady and sometimes intimidating, met with an amused brown one. “Excuse me?”
The gentleman closed the leather-bound edition, taking care to mark the page, and stood up. “Snapping the stem will ill serve your
purpose,” he said, approaching.
Emma watched him stride across the room, taking in his handsome features—the long, straight nose, the chiseled jawline, the full lips—and neat appearance. The unknown gentleman was tall, lean and given to easy grace. She liked the way he was dressed, simply and without affectation in buckskin breeches, shiny Hessians and white lawn. His shirt points were without
starch and his shoulders without padding. Of course, she readily noted, his broad shoulders precluded the necessity of such foppish enhancements. His hair, a deep rich brown color that well suited his dark complexion, was cut short in the fashionable mode. “My purpose?” she asked when he was within a few inches of her.
“Given the situation, I can only assume that you were overcome with admiration
for this lovely and rare flower and sought to take it home with you to show off to all your friends in the Horticultural Society.” He didn’t wait for her to confirm or deny his theory but continued in the same conversational tone. “Surely as a member of that esteemed institution, you know that the only way to ensure that the flower lives is to cut it at the bulb through the rhizome.”
words, Emma dissolved into delighted, unguarded laugher, and several seconds passed before she could respond intelligibly. “You must be the visiting country cousin the duchess spoke of!”
A faint curve touched the gentleman’s lips. “I must?”
“Yes, of course,” she insisted. “Who else in town would bandy about the word
“Your logic is irrefutable. Indeed I must be the visiting country
cousin. And who are you?”
“Come! You are standing here in the conservatory with me, as corporeal as I am. You’re hardly a ghost. Surely you wouldn’t have me believe such a whisker.”
“No, not that sort of nobody,” she explained. “I’m nobody of importance. You needn’t bother asking my name because you will only forget it in a minute or so and then I will have to remind you, which
will be a dreadful embarrassment for the both of us. Now do show me where the rhizome is so I may return to the party. I told Mama I would be gone only a minute and now it has stretched into five. Mama brought me here as a favor—she and I rarely socialize together—and I’d hate to do anything that would distress her.”
Unaccustomed to orders and amused by the novelty, the gentleman complied. “The
rhizome, my dear, is the stem usually under the—”
“Sir, you are very kind to try to edify me on the topic of rhizomes, but I assure you I have little interest in learning about plants.”
Feigning a look of disappointment, he said, “Very well. We will need a knife for the operation. I don’t suppose you brought one with you?”
Emma laughed, a pleasant trilling sound that made the gentleman
smile in appreciation. “Sir, I did consider smuggling a knife out of the kitchens, but a gently bred lady cannot wander the streets of London with a knife in her reticule. It’s just as well, of course, since my sister-in-law keeps very close watch over the family silver and I couldn’t bear it if a scullery maid was turned off because of my lack of resourcefulness.” Emma examined the room, considering
the situation. Her gaze settled on the desk. “Perhaps you should search the drawers for a letter opener. Yes, that would be just the thing!”
“Rifling through my host’s drawers is a very sad sack way of repaying his hospitality,” he observed.
Emma stared at him for a moment before saying, “You make an excellent point, sir, and far be it for me to corrupt the newly arrived country cousin. Since
I’m the one lacking in any sense of propriety, it’s best that I do my own dirty work.” The drawer was unlocked and glided easily open. “There,” she said, taking the long silver object in hand, “now we shall cut the rhizome and return to our separate occupations. No doubt Mama is wondering what happened to me.”
The gentleman accepted the letter opener and was about to apply it to the plant when
his hand halted in midair. “You know, Miss Nobody, I am suddenly struck with a vulgar bout of curiosity. What
you plan to do with this lovely flower after I finish cutting it?”
“I will stick it in my reticule and return to the party,” she answered.
The gentleman smiled. “And then?”
Emma stared at the gentleman’s hand and tried to think of a convincing fiction. However, even as she closed
her eyes and told herself to concentrate, nothing came to mind. “Then I will hand it over to my sister, who’s a great cultivator of orchids.”
“If your sister is so great a cultivator of orchids, I wonder why she sent her sister to steal one of the Duke of Trent’s
Emma laughed at the thought of Lavinia sending anyone to do her evil bidding. It was almost too ridiculous.
“You misunderstand the situation, sir. My sister has no idea I’m here. Indeed, if she did, I imagine she’d be quite horrified.”
“Then why are you here?”
“It is a sordid tale of malice and spite, which I think I had best keep to myself. We are new acquaintances, and I would loath to earn your disgust so quickly. It usually takes me a day or two to offend a man of your stature.”
“Now you must
tell me. I’m a curious fellow, and your speech has whet my appetite for the truth. We will not leave this room until I know the whole of it.”
Miss Harlow sighed deeply and said, “The truth of it is that my sister is engaged to marry a man who does not approve of her pastime of raising orchids. Why not, I cannot fathom, since it is a genteel hobby and not at all down in the dirt like raising
horses or chickens. If that were the case, then perhaps I could sympathize with his aversion. However, the wretched man is trying to make her withdraw from the Horticultural Society’s annual orchid show. My sister earned honorable mention in last year’s show, and she’s sure to win the blue ribbon this year. Alas, I fear her resolve is slipping under Sir—” Emma broke off her speech abruptly. It would
not do to muddy the waters with names. “Under her betrothed’s constant disapproval. I merely wished to supply her with such an excellent example of an orchid that she won’t be able to resist participating. Everyone knows that the Duke of Trent grows the finest orchids in all of England.”
“I suspect the duke would be much gratified by the compliment.”
“I do not know. I’ve never met the duke.
I know only his mother, the lovely and good-hearted dowager duchess. She was at school with my mother and was kind enough not to mind my coming today.” She looked toward the doorway, where the sound of chattering ladies could be heard drifting in. “Now, sir, can we please get on with it? It would be an awful embarrassment if anyone else were to find me in the conservatory with an ill-gotten letter
opener in my hand. Mama would no doubt ring a peal over my head and send me to bed without supper. Then I would be tossed back to Derbyshire in disgrace.”
“We can’t have that,” he said, before applying the sharp instrument to the root. It took him only a moment to slice cleanly through. “There, do be careful not to get soil on your dress. It would be a waste to ruin such a lovely picture.”
“Bah, lovely pictures are the least of my concern. I will take caution because a patch of dirt would rather give up the game and reveal my true nature to the ladies at the tea party.” Emma opened her reticule and let the dowager duchess of Trent’s country cousin help her place the orchid within. It was a delicate procedure, and she was relieved that he handled the flower tenderly and with skilled
fingers. If left to her own devices, she would’ve no doubt crushed it thoroughly. “I am reminded of my nephew Richard, who claimed with frightful vigor that he didn’t finish the last chocolate tart while incriminating evidence spotted his cheeks.”
“No reason to worry, my dear. We’ve covered up your profligacy nicely. You look as though butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth and not at all the degenerate
you have proven yourself to be.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, pleased to have succeeded with her plan despite the unexpected hitch of discovery. “I’m in your debt for not calling the Runners on me.”
“Excellent. I trust you’ll be at the Bennington ball?” At her nod, he continued. “You can pay me back then with a set. Save a place for me on your dance card.”
Emma laughed. “That would be just
the thing, sir. I don’t often have the opportunity to dance with anyone other than my brother and shall relish the opportunity. Perhaps it will be a waltz? I love the waltz, but one simply cannot do it with one’s brother.”
“Fustian!” the gentleman said.
“Really, I assure you, sir, I have danced the waltz with Roger and it’s awful. He’s light on his feet, of course, and is well familiar with
the steps, but even I, who am not a romantical silly miss, knows the waltz should be performed with a beau.”