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"Well , here we are." Susannah Siddons injected a false note of cheeriness into her voice. After all, it fell to her to convince her sisters that she had matters well under control. Not always an easy task when one was only twenty and the head of the household. "It's not much, but we'll give it a good cleaning and it will look much better."
She turned to face her sisters, Hannah and Rebecca, whom she had long ago nicknamed Nan and Becky, her stair-step sisters, as she called them. Becky two years younger and Nan four years younger-yet despite that difference, they clung together close as twins. Their faces, as alike as two profiles on the same coin, reflected doubt and disgust as they glanced up at the tumbledown building before them.
"It's awfully small," Nan ventured, biting her lip in a distracted fashion. "Where will we live?"
"On the top floor, silly," Susannah answered with a bright smile. "There are two rooms up there and a small kitchen in the back of the shop area."
"It's rather far off the main road, wouldn't you say?" Becky scanned the street with a rapid glance. "How can we attract shoppers if we don't have anyone strolling by our windows?"
"Well " Susannah hesitated. Becky had a point. They were at the far end of the main road, where the gravel path trailed off into the nearby meadow. The hustle and bustle of a daily market crowd-or as much of a crowd that ever gathered in a small village like Tansley-would be down at the end of the road. Still, this shabby storefront was all her slender purse could afford. "We'll just have to give them a reason to seek us out. We'll make our windows so alluring, so stuffed with beautiful goods, that our shop will become a destination."
She tucked a stray lock of deep auburn hair back under her bonnet and leaned forward to get a better look at the store through the dirty glass window. But all that she saw was a reflection of herself-the dark circles under her gray-green eyes, her pale skin with its light dusting of freckles. No one, looking at her, would be deceived. Her life was a shambles, and though she might try to hide it from her sisters, 'twas writ plain across her face and her person.
She drew back from her reflection sharply. It didn't matter. No one cared what she looked like, anyway. "Shall we go in? Father's solicitor said he'd leave the key under a stone."
Becky dropped her satchel on the grass and pushed back her bonnet. "I don't see a stone."
Nan walked up to the front doorway and parted the long moor-grass with her fingers. "Neither do I."
Perfect. How absolutely, positively, perfectly perfect. They had been traveling for weeks now and finally reached the end of their journey-only to find the door locked. 'Twas a metaphor for her entire life. Tears stung the back of her eyelids and a hysterical desire to laugh bubbled within her. What could they do? The solicitor lived back in Matlock, a day's journey away. The mail carriage they'd ridden in on was long departed. People came and went down at the other end of the street, their faces and forms blurred by the distance.
She could go and ask one of the other shopkeepers for assistance, or one of the townspeople. But a sudden and unreasonable wave of stubbornness assailed her, holding her in its grip. She was here to start a new life for her sisters, and it would be intolerable for anyone to know she was making such a poor start. She would find a way to open that door on her own. "I'll look around back. Perhaps there's another door to the shop, and he hid the key there."
With masterful nonchalance, straightening her spine and holding her shoulders back, she marched around to the rear of the building. There was another door, to be sure, but no key there, either. Nothing even remotely resembling a stone graced the back porch. She clenched her fists and bit her tongue, willing herself not to lose her temper completely and utterly. 'Twould be a blessed relief to roll about in the long moor-grass and flail her arms and legs as she had as a child. But it would do no good. Giving vent to her temper wouldn't change their present circumstances.
There was only one thing to do.
She returned to the front of the building, where Becky and Nan stood waiting. "I'm going to break in," she announced.
Her sisters gasped in unison. "No," they breathed, their eyes widening in shock.
"Oh, yes, I shall," she snapped. "I'll break out one of the door panes. You'll see. We'll be in quick as a wink."
Of course, since there was no rock to be found, she'd have to improvise. She opened her valise and withdrew her sturdy boots with their lovely curved heels. One blow from those heels would surely do the trick. Tapping it against her palm, she walked over to the doorway and raised the boot in the air.
"What do you think you're doing?" A man's voice, rich and deep, boomed behind her. She dropped the boot and swung around. There, beside her sisters on the tapering path, were two young gentlemen. Her breath came in quick gasps as she studied the form of one of the men. Surely that wasn't Daniel Hale. No, it couldn't be. And yet-those mischievous green eyes, the tousled black hair-she squinted, taking a closer look. Daniel wasn't as tall as this fellow when he left, but then, that was several years ago.
Her sisters were staring at her, openmouthed and silent. Both gentlemen awaited her reaction. The dark one who looked like Daniel appeared amused, if one could judge from the upturned corner of his mouth. The man beside him, with dark brown hair and brown eyes, merely looked confused and a trifle bored.
"It's my shop," she explained, coming toward them with her palms turned upward in a defensive gesture. 'Twould be horrid to begin life in Tansley marked as a woman who tried to break in to a building. She must defuse the situation. "We're just moving in. But I cannot find the key and so I thought I could break the glass with my boot heel."
"Good thing we came along," the green-eyed man said with a chuckle. "'Tis mighty hard to find a glazer in the village. You'd have a broken door for weeks."
There was no doubt about it. This man was Daniel. An older, more rugged version of the boy she'd known, but it was him. Her heart pounded so that surely everyone in the little group could hear it. Better to cover her nervousness by concentrating on the problem at hand. "I don't know how to unlock it. Without the key, I have no way to get in. And I can't go back to Matlock to beg the key from the solicitor. We've only just arrived." She indicated her sisters with a jerk of her bonnet.
"I can help you." He stepped forward, dusting his hands on his breeches. "Give me a hairpin and I can pick the lock."
She nodded. Of course. If only she'd thought of that herself. She tugged her bonnet off her head, pushing some of the curls back off her shoulder. As she removed a hairpin, her hair finally broke free of all restraint. It tumbled around her shoulders and she pushed it behind her with an impatient hand. So many women had hair that behaved perfectly well. Why couldn't her hair be more ladylike?
His intense gaze searched her face and lingered on her hair as she held the hairpin out. He no longer looked mischievous or amused. His mouth was pressed into a firm line and his green eyes no longer twinkled. They- Well, they overwhelmed her, truth be told. As he took the hairpin from her palm, his fingertips brushed against her glove. She suppressed any reaction to his touch. He probably didn't even recognize her. Better not to let on that she knew all too well who he was.
He turned his attention toward the lock, straightening the hairpin. Kneeling in the moor-grass, he leaned forward, working the lock with the bit of wire until a click sounded. "There," he exclaimed, and twisted the latch until the door eked open. "Of course, you'll have to have the locksmith come out and assist you with finding a new key. But I wouldn't worry. Tansley's a safe place. No need, really, for a locked door."
"Thank you." They had no money left for a new key. They'd just have to leave the door unlocked until she could write to the solicitor and beg for the old key back.
"You're welcome ?" He paused, midbow. Of course. Where were her manners?
"Sus-I mean, Miss Siddons." Gracious, what a blunder. 'Twas mere habit, but still-her face heated to the roots of her hair. He would never want to know who she was. He'd merely helped her out once.
He peered at her with hooded eyes. Did he remember, after all? "Mr. Daniel Hale." He finished his bow and indicated his friend, who tipped his hat. "This is Paul Holmes, my friend." He turned back toward her. "Is there anyone here who can help you? Your father your uncle, perhaps?"
Was there a heavier emphasis on those last words? No, she must have imagined it. "No one. We are on our own. But I do thank you for your help." She waved her hands at Becky and Nan, beckoning them inside the building. Better to cut this interview short. It had rattled her more than she cared to admit. She was ready to be safe behind those walls, where she could breathe again.
"Ah, then, I shall check on you in a day or so."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her short with a shrug of his powerful shoulders. "No, really. I don't like the idea of three women living alone without any male protection. I have a place not too far from here, Goodwin Hall. I come to the village often and shall stop by."
With that, he touched the brim of his hat. He gesturing to his friend, and the two men strolled down the path as it narrowed and was overrun by long grasses and wild-flowers. She pressed her back against the stone facade of the building, watching the two men as they grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Wiping her clammy hands on the worn fabric of her faded gown, she glanced down at her boot, discarded in the grass. Looking both vulnerable and ridiculous. Just like Susannah Siddons.
Once again, a desire both to laugh and cry seized hold, threatening her with madness.
She'd run away from the past. And here it was, claiming her once more as she ventured out on her own.
"I had no idea you were so deft with a hairpin, old fellow," Paul remarked as they strolled across the pasture-lands toward Goodwin Hall. "Something you picked up during your days as a pirate, no doubt."
"I wasn't a pirate." Daniel rolled his eyes. "I was on a merchant vessel. Any man worth his salt knows how to help a lady in distress. I was merely following my instincts." He kept his tone light and bantering. He didn't want to talk about meeting Susannah again. She must remember him. But pushing her recognition with his best friend and her sisters standing there, watching with avid interest-no, thank you. He would hate any display like that, and so-if he remembered the lady correctly- would Susannah. But the unanswered questions would gnaw away at him until he finally was able to satisfy his curiosity.
"She's very decorative, that Siddons gel." Paul slashed his riding crop at a particularly large clump of moor-grass. "But I thought the sisters were pretty, too. Should have asked them to tea."
"Well, since they've moved into the village, I am sure you shall have a chance to be formally introduced." Daniel scanned the horizon, willing his heart to resume its normal pace. He didn't like hearing Susannah referred to as a "gel" and he certainly didn't care for the admiring tone in Paul's voice. 'Twas all well and good for Paul to behave the way he did around women Daniel didn't know. This was a different matter altogether.
"You sound rather prim, like an old schoolmaster," Paul said with a laugh. "I can tell, after all, that you found Miss Siddons rather attractive yourself. Didn't you help her right away? Never even asked to see a deed for the building. You just took it on faith that she was telling the truth. She could have been burgling the place, for all we knew."
"It's highly unlikely that a young lady would set about burgling a vacant building in broad daylight. Have some sense, my good man." There, perhaps now Paul would cease his constant babbling, if he knew he couldn't draw Daniel out.
Paul looked up, scanning Daniel's face. "All right, all right. I know when I am invading on precious turf. I shan't say another word about the lovely Miss Siddons."
They strolled the rest of the way to Goodwin Hall, as the late-summer sunshine gilded the hilltops. Daniel breathed deeply of the scent of the grass as it swayed in the wind. He stifled the feeling of dread that crept up his spine as he looked out over the moors. Soon they would be mowing the hay at Goodwin, and like his father and brother before him, he would be expected to supervise- or at least pretend an interest in the matter. He swallowed convulsively. He was no master, not really. In fact, he had run from any hint of obligation or duty since he was a lad. 'Twas mere fate that brought him back, not a desire to settle down. Some fellows might call it the hand of God that brought him here, or took him anywhere, for that matter. But he'd relinquished his faith long ago. And pretending he was a happy, fulfilled master merely brought on that insatiable thirst, the kind that would only be quelled with a few stout scotches.
He just glimpsed the Hall on the horizon, the sunlight turning it a bright shade of slate. The turrets that flanked the main hall were squat and modest compared to some of the grander homes of Derbyshire. David kept the Hall just as it should be while Daniel was off gallivanting on the high seas, and after Father's death he hadn't helped David as he should.
Now that David had passed, it fell to him to keep Goodwin Hall and adhere to family traditions and customs as he should have done long ago. And he was certainly not equal to the task, as much as he tried to conceal it.
"You're awfully silent company today, Daniel. I suppose I shall see you tomorrow for dinner?" Paul paused at the park gates and leaned against the balustrade.
"Yes, of course. You're always welcome, you know. Sorry I haven't been much company. Got a lot on my mind ." Daniel forced what he hoped was a casual smile.
"Ah, chuck your cares in the bucket. Come back to London with me when I return next. We shall tear the Town apart, and no debutante's reputation shall be safe." Paul chuckled at his small joke with appreciation.
"I'd like nothing more," Daniel rejoined with bravado. But even as he spoke the words, the memory of his boyhood promise flitted across his mind. He would never be free of it. Never. They were both pretending at a farce, Paul and he. Paul would never be free of the sorrow of his first love, try as he might to satisfy himself with light skirt after light skirt. And he himself would never be free of the unhappy shadows of his past, try as he might to drown them with scotch.