Read an Excerpt
When someone drops a pearl in your palm, make a fist.
London, the last decade of Victoria’s reign
“But how can I?” Lady Agatha Whyte asked Henri Arnoux in a hushed undertone, painfully aware of the other passengers waiting in the lobby to board trains. “The Bigglesworths are depending on me. They fear that unless they make some sort of statement with the wedding ceremony and postnuptial celebration, the Marquis of Cotton’s family will never accept young Miss Bigglesworth as their equal, and she will be forever marked as socially inferior to her new in-laws.”
“But, how is this your problem, my dear, my darling, Lady Agatha?” M. Arnoux begged in his wonderful French accent.
Lady Agatha stared at him helplessly, trying to think of some way in which to phrase her unique position, and subsequent power, in Society. It would be immodest to call attention to her undoubted influence, but she had to make him understand just how important her services could be ... couldn’t they?
Perhaps she was deluding herself, she thought in alarm, and what influence she had was not as extensive as she herself had been led to believe.
“The Bigglesworths are convinced only the cachet of my involvement will gain Miss Angela entrée into Society. Indeed,” she said apologetically, “they say the only reason Society will venture to so remote and provincial a place as Little Bidewell is because I will have planned the postmatrimonial celebration. As I did for your daughter, sir.” She felt a blush rise in her cheeks. How many years had it been since she’d blushed?
“And a lovely celebration it was, too,” Henri Arnoux assured her. “Yet, delightful as it was, it was not the basis for my daughter’s future happiness. Unlike the decision I am asking you to make, which most definitely forms the basis for my future happiness and, dare I be so bold, perhaps in some measure your own? That is, if you can feel for me something of the regard I have for you, dear Lady Agatha.” He secured her gloved hand and raised it to his lips.
Lady Agatha’s reservations began to melt. He spoke so chivalrously and his face was so earnest — and hadn’t it been romantic, the way he’d followed her all the way here, to the train station? Yet, how could she even consider eloping to France with M. Arnoux instead of going to Little Bidewell, the ticket for which she held in her hand?
If only she hadn’t agreed in the first place. But the bride’s aunt, Miss Eglantyne Bigglesworth, was an old classmate of Lady Agatha’s favorite cousin. And when dear Helene had asked, it had seemed a fairy-tale sort of endeavor: a simple country girl wedding a man who, as well as being one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors, was the scion of one of Society’s haughtiest families.
“I fear Miss Bigglesworth might feel my loss acutely, and how would I forgive myself if — ”
“Ach! I never ‘eard such flummery,” a disgusted female voice muttered from somewhere behind M. Arnoux. “I don’t mean no offense, mum, but believe me, if this ‘ere chippy has managed to land ‘erself a marquis, she ain’t needing no ‘elp from you.”
Nonplussed, Lady Agatha leaned sideways to look around M. Arnoux. She stared. The person who’d delivered this blunt advice was not the Cockney girl Lady Agatha expected to see, but a genteel and well-to-do-looking young lady perched decorously on a bench.
She looked to be in her mid-twenties and was remarkably handsome in an unconventional sort of way, with high, chiseled cheekbones and a sharply angular jaw. Her warm, brown eyes were deep-set and heavily lidded, the thin brows above them straight and dark. Only her mouth failed to be exactly ladylike, being too wide and full-lipped to be precisely ... nice.
Lady Agatha’s gaze rose to the enormous and ornate picture hat perched atop a mass of upswept auburn tresses. Sprays of silk lilacs nestled amidst striped ribbons, while a long purple dyed plume flirted rakishly with her temple. An amazing confection.
And while her dress was unsuited for travel, it was the absolute height of fashion and obviously expensive. From her slender throat to her narrow wrists, delicate ivory-colored lace overlay a snug sheath of rich periwinkle-hued silk. The frock hugged the narrow span of her waist and curved out to accommodate the swell of her hips before falling free and sweeping the tops of kidskin half-boots. One could purchase a gown like that for no less than twenty-five guineas. Certainly no Cockney girl could afford it.
Lady Agatha looked around quickly for another possible source of the unsolicited advice. No one else was near.
The young lady smiled brightly. “Crikey, ducks. If a well-’eeled-lookin’ bloke like this one ‘ere asked me to peel off with ‘im, you wouldn’t see me for the dust!” She grinned cheekily and winked. “Best look lively, dearie.”
“Listen to her, Agatha,” Arnoux urged. “Come with me.”
“But — ” Agatha’s attention, momentarily diverted, returned fully to M. Arnoux. “I have made a commitment. I can’t simply leave this poor motherless girl and her father...” She struggled to find the appropriate words.
“In the lurch?” the auburn-haired young woman supplied helpfully and then shook her head in disgust. “Coo! That’s a dodge if ever I ‘eard one. I’ve got your number. Taken to overstating your own importance, you ‘ave. Made your bit of talent out to be all the thing, and why? Because you’re afraid if you don’t ‘ave something, you’ll be nothing.”
Agatha remained mum. The young woman’s words too closely echoed thoughts she’d more than once entertained.
“Well, that’s fine and good if you ain’t got nothing, but you do. You’ve got ‘im.” The young lady jerked her thumb at Henri Arnoux. M. Arnoux nodded eagerly. “Take my advice. Don’t be a chump. Life grants you only a few choice bits of plum, far too few to be spitting out those what’s already in your mouth. If this ‘ere muck-a-muck wants to set you up on easy street, you let ‘im. It’s now or never, ducks.”
The amazing creature leaned forward, her dark eyes sparkling, transformed from a fashionable young aristocratic Miss into an irresistible vixen. “Besides which, it don’t take a genius to see you’re in love with ‘im and ‘e’s a fair goner where you’re concerned!”
Finally, something Agatha understood. She blushed fiercely.
Her unsolicited advisor was about to say something more, but a shaggy little dog that had been rooting about the refuse bin suddenly darted past her, the oily wrappings from a sandwich in his maw. With a cry, the young woman nabbed him by the scruff of the neck and set about wresting his prize from him. “Fool mutt! Could be rat poison on this!”
The mangy creature began to growl, the young woman shook him in response, and —
— and M. Henri Arnoux kissed Lady Agatha Whyte. Right there, in full view of everyone in the station!
Oh, my! It had been years, nay, over a decade since Agatha had been kissed. Her knees began to buckle. Her eyelids fluttered shut. Her reasons for refusing him suddenly seemed pitifully inadequate and the advice of the young woman like the wisdom of Solomon.
“Who would have thought when you took over the arrangements for my daughter’s wedding that you would also take over my heart?” Arnoux said, stepping back. “I love you, Agatha. Marry me. Now. Today. Come with me to France.”
Dimly, Agatha heard her counselor sigh with pleasure.
“It’s as the young lady says, Agatha. You must decide now. Now!” He spoke so manfully and his little black mustache quivered so passionately and yet ... and yet...
“But M. Arnoux, what of Nell?” Agatha motioned vaguely toward the area where her lady’s maid had discreetly taken herself. “What about all my trunks and my things? Except for some few personal things, they are already in Little — ”
Gently, he placed a finger over her lips. “Nell will come with us, of course. As for your trunks, if there are sentimental items amongst them, we will send for them later. But for now, let me buy you things, Agatha. Let me dress you, bedeck you with jewels, cosset you — ”
“Gorblimey, let ‘im!”
The young woman had the little canine in a stranglehold, half the greasy wrapper in her hand, the other half clamped in the dog’s maw. Both sets of brown eyes, canine and human, gazed unblinkingly at Agatha.
“Really?” Agatha whispered, amazed she should seek advice from a stranger and such a remarkable stranger at that.
“Without a doubt.”
The last of Agatha’s hesitation evaporated. Happiness washed over her. Henri Arnoux cupped her face in his hands.
“Will you marry me, ma chere, mon coeur?”
“Without a doubt,” she answered.
He kissed her soundly and, wrapping an arm around her waist, hastened her from the railroad station. So dazed and happy was Lady Agatha that she didn’t even notice her train ticket fall from her fingers and drift to the ground, like confetti at a wedding.
But the young woman sitting on the bench did.
“Well, I’d say we’ve done our good deed for the day, eh, Fagin?” Letty Potts said to the dog. All traces of the Cockney accent had vanished. She watched the couple exit the London train station, a plump woman scurrying in their wake — doubtless the soon-to-be-expatriated Nell.
“Ain’t love grand?” she asked, reverting to the cheeky Cockney accent. “Gor, sweet as treacle puddin’, it be. Fair makes me teeth ache.”
But the twinkle in her eyes belied the sarcastic comment and she dropped a fond kiss on Fagin’s nose before bending to retrieve the fallen ticket. She peered at the name inscribed on the destination line.
“Little Bidewell, Northumberland,” she read. “Coo, now that is remote. Where in the world is it, do you suppose? Not that it matters, eh, Fagin me lad?” Fagin’s tail thumped against her side. “If a ticket to Little Bidewell is what we have, Little Bidewell is where we’re going.”
Her smile slowly faded. With the amusing diversion provided by the tall, thin redhead and her potbellied French swain at an end, Letty’s thoughts turned to her own problems. Nick would be looking for her soon. But he wouldn’t have started yet. He’d still be sitting at his “office” awaiting her arrival.
After all, in burning down the lodging house where she lived, he’d destroyed not only her home, but everything in the world she owned, except the gown she wore. It, too, would have burned if Letty hadn’t donned her one truly elegant dress in a futile attempt to impress the manager of Goodwin’s Music Hall.
After two weeks of searching for employment she should have realized it was useless. One way or the other, Nick had found the means of “persuading” every theater manager in London to blacklist her, in spite of the fact that she was one of the musical theater’s rising stars. Or could have been if she could only cut herself a break.
The critics would come round in time. They already loved her voice; sooner or later she’d land a role that allowed them to see that she could sing with this “emotional depth” they all seemed to think she lacked, as well as comedic lightheartedness. But that break would have to be delayed some, it seemed.
She smiled bitterly. Nick must be congratulating himself on finding a way, short of murder, that left her no options but to come crawling back to him and be part of the nasty confidence game he was plotting.
But she hadn’t crawled back. Instead, she’d come straight from viewing the fire at her boardinghouse to St. Pancras Station, where she’d counted out her few coins and asked the ticket master how far the small bit would take her. The answer had been disheartening: not even as far as Chelsea. Not nearly far enough.
Only then had desperation begun to unravel the tight hold she’d maintained over herself during the past weeks. She’d sat down to think, fighting the unfamiliar wash of helplessness. She was Letty Potts, by gad! Known for her spit-in-your-eye spirit, quick wit, and ready smile. Saucy, bold Letty Potts.
She wasn’t going back to Nick. She wouldn’t be part of his latest confidence game. This wasn’t the usual bait-and-switch where they hoodwinked some peer’s overbred, overornamented slumming son. Nick’s newest enterprise was a cruel bit of work involving filching middle-class widows’ much-needed inheritances. She’d have no part of it.
Then, as Letty sat deep in thought, the Society folks had appeared and literally dropped the answer to her woes at her feet. She could go to this Little Bidewell and lie low for a good while. Maybe she could even get a job doing a spot of millinery work — supposing this town was big enough to have a milliner. At the very least, she’d be out of Nick Sparkle’s way.
Now, Letty was nobody’s pigeon. Benevolent guardian angels were about as likely as snow in July. But she’d seen enough to know that every now and again Fate cracks open a door that only a fool refuses to slide through. She tucked Fagin under her arm and rose to her feet, looking about for the platform number printed on the ticket.
Letty Potts was no fool.
If a minor character is introduced in the first act, you can be sure he’ll be carrying a knife by the last.
“I won’t be bullied into granting my water rights to some vile Whig!” Squire Arthur Himplerump thumped his cane against the train platform’s floor.
Sir Elliot March placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder, turning him. As soon as he had the elderly curmudgeon away from the ladies, he intended to put an end to this nonsense once and for all. The old reprobate had seen him drive the Bigglesworth ladies up to the train station and had immediately cut across the main street to speak with Elliot. Or rather at Elliot.
That was the charm as well as the problem with living in so small a market town as Little Bidewell. If one were “in town,” eventually one was bound to come across everyone else “in town” — whether at the greengrocer’s, Murrow’s Tearoom, the dry goods store, the bank, or the church.
“It is, of course, your decision,” Elliot said, fixing Himplerump’s florid face with a steady gaze. “But, Arthur, even though you have a legal right to deny Burkett’s easement request, the law was intended to protect your rights, not punish a man for his political leanings.”
Himplerump’s jowls quivered with indignation.
“I know you are not a vindictive man, Arthur.” In actuality, Elliot knew exactly the opposite, but was willing to sacrifice the truth in the name of harmony. A short distance off, the incoming train whistle blew.
From the Paperback edition.