Lucy Hathaway perched on the edge of her seat, pretending to hang on every word spoken by the evangelist. Anyone in the crowded salon who saw her attentive posture would admire her piety. Observers would find the sight of the dark-haired young woman, with her hands clasped in religious fervor, uplifting. Inspirational, even. Commendable, most assuredly.
"Your eyes are glazing over," said a deep, amused voice beside her.
She didn't recognize the voice, which was unusual, for Lucy Hathaway made it her business to know everyone. The man must have slid into the seat beside her after the start of the lecture. But she didn't turn to look at him. She pretended not to notice that he'd spoken at all.
"…St. Paul is clear on this point," Reverend Moody intoned frop in the same way she submits to the Lord…." The message rang through the room full of people who had braved a drm the podium. "A wife must submit to her husband's leadershiy windstorm to attend the event at the fashionable Hotel Royale.
Lucy blinked slowly, trying to unglaze her eyes. She kept them trained straight ahead with unwavering attention. She tried to govern her mind as well, batting away the preacher's words like bees at a picnic, when she really wanted to leap to her feet and object to this claptrap about the superiority of man over woman.
And now, despite her best intentions, she found herself wondering about the insolent man sitting next to her.
The man whose whisper had come so close that she could feel the warmth of his words in her ear.
"You know," he said, leaning even closer. "You might try—"
"Go away," she said between clenched teeth, not even moving her lips as she spoke. He smelled of bay rum and leather.
"—leaning on me," he continued insolently. "That way, when you fall asleep from boredom, you won't attract attention by collapsing on the floor."
"I will not fall asleep," she hissed.
"Good," the man whispered back. "You're much more interesting wide-awake."
Ye gods. She mustn't listen to another word of this.
The Reverend Dr. Moody came to a lull in his address, pausing to fortify himself with a glass of lemonade from a pitcher.
She sensed the man next to her shifting in his seat and then leaning back to prop his ankle on his knee in an easy, relaxed pose. By peeking through lowered eyelashes, she caught a glimpse of his pantleg. Charcoal superfine, perfectly creased, fashionably loose-fitting.
Lucy herself was being slowly strangled by a corset designed, she was certain, for use in the Spanish Inquisition, and she resented him more than ever.
"We should leave," he suggested, "while we have the chance."
She glared stoically ahead. This was the first lull in forty minutes of the stultifying lecture, and the temptation to flee burned like a mortal sin inside her. "It's interesting," she said, trying hard to convince herself.
"Which part did you find so interesting?"
Lucy was chagrined to realize that she could not recall one single word of the past forty minutes. "All of it," she said hastily.
"Right." He leaned in closer. "So now I know what bores you. Suppose you tell me what excites you."
She narrowed her eyes in suspicion, for no man had ever voluntarily made small talk with her. He was probably setting her up for some sort of humiliating moment. Some social faux pas so he and his cronies could have a chuckle at her expense. So what? she thought. It wouldn't be the first time someone made her the butt of a joke. She'd survived moments like that before. Many moments.
"Ha," she muttered. "As if I would tell you."
"I'm leaving," he said. "Come with me."
Lucy ignored him. If she got up now, people would notice. They might think she was following him. They might even believe she had "designs" on him.
As if Lucy Hathaway would ever have such a thing as designs on a man.
"Quickly," he urged, his whisper barely audible. "Before he gets his second wind."
The audience, restless and trying not to show it, buzzed with low, polite conversation while the evangelist refreshed himself. At last Lucy could resist no longer. She had to see who this rude, mellow-voiced stranger was. With the bold curiosity that caused her such trouble in social situations, she turned to stare at him.
Heavens to Betsy. He was as handsome as a sun god.
Her eyes, no longer glazing over, studied him with unabashed fascination. Long-legged. Broad-shouldered. Deep brown hair, neatly combed. An impeccably tailored suit of clothes. A face of flawless, square-jawed strength and symmetry such as one saw on civic monuments and statues of war heroes. Yet this particular face was stamped with just a hint of wicked humor. Who the devil was he?
She didn't know him at all, had never seen him before.
If she had, she would have remembered. Because the unfamiliar warmth that curled through her when she looked at him was not a sensation one would easily forget. Lucy Hathaway was suddenly contemplating "designs."
He smiled, not unkindly. She caught herself staring at his mouth, its shape marvelously set off by the most intriguing cleft in his chin. "Randolph Birch Higgins," he said with a very slight inclination of his head.
Guiltily she glanced around, but to her relief noticed that they sat alone in the rear of the salon. She cleared her throat. "I beg your pardon?"
"Please don't. I was simply introducing myself. My name is Randolph Higgins."
"Oh." She felt as gauche as a schoolgirl unprepared for lessons.
"I believe the usual response is 'How do you do?' followed by a reciprocal introduction," he suggested.
What a condescending, pompous ass, she thought. She resented the marvelous color of his eyes. Such an arrogant man did not deserve to have perfect leaf-green eyes. Even more, she resented him for making her wish she was not so skinny and black-haired, pinch-mouthed and awkward. She was not an attractive woman and she knew it. Ordinarily that would not bother her. Yet tonight, she wished with humiliating fervor that she could be pretty.
"Miss Lucy Hathaway," she said stiffly.
"Pleasure to meet you, Miss Hathaway." He turned slightly toward her, waiting.
She had the oddest sensation of being alone with this man. On some level she perceived people milling around the large outer salon behind them. Through the arched passageway, she vaguely noticed ladies laughing and flirting, men stepping through the French doors to light up their cigars in the blustery night. In the lecture room, people spoke in low tones as they awaited the next portion of the address. Yet a strange electricity stung the air around Lucy and the man called Randolph Higgins, seeming to wall them off into a place of their own.
"Now you're supposed to say 'It's a pleasure to make your ac—'"
"I don't need lessons in idle conversation," she said. Lord knew, her mother had taught her that well enough. Ensconced in a North Division mansion, Viola Hathaway had elevated frivolity to an art form.
"Then we should move on to meaningful conversation," he said.
"What makes you think you and I could have a meaningful conversation?" she asked. Her parents had spent a fortune to drill her in manners, but all the deportment lessons in the world had failed to keep Lucy from speaking her mind.
She wished Mr. Higgins would go away. Far away. A man who produced this sort of discomfiting reaction in her had no possible use except…
Lucy was nothing if not honest with herself. Perhaps she should quit trying to feel peevish and admit that she was most inappropriately intrigued. A sudden, sinful inspiration took hold. Perhaps he could be useful. As a New Woman who adhered fervently—if only in theory, alas— to the radical notion of free love, Lucy felt obliged to practice what she preached. Thus far, however, men found her unattractive and annoyingly intellectual. Mr. Higgins, at least, seemed to find her interesting. This was a first for Lucy, and she didn't want to let the opportunity slip away.
"You're looking at me like a cat in the creamery," he whispered. "Why is that?"
She snapped her head around and faced front, appalled by her own intoxicating fantasy. "You're imagining things, sir. You do not know me at all."
The lecture started up again, a boring recitation about the ancient founders—male, of course—of the Christian faith. She tilted her chin up and fixed an expression of tolerant interest on her face. She'd promised Miss Boylan not to argue with the preacher; her radical views often got her in trouble, tainting the reputation of Miss Boylan's school. Instead she kept thinking about the stranger beside her. What wonderful hands he had—large and strong, beautifully made for hard work or the most delicate of tasks.
Lucy tried to push her attraction away to the hidden place in her heart where she kept all her shameful secrets.
Men were trouble. No one knew this better than Lucy Hathaway. She was that most awkward of creatures, the social misfit. Maligned, mocked, misunderstood. At dancing lessons when she was younger, the boys used to draw straws in order to determine who would have the ill luck to partner the tall, dark, intense girl whose only asset was her father's fortune. At the debutante balls and soirees she attended in later years, young men would place wagers on how many feet she would trample while waltzing, how many people she would embarrass with her blunt questions and how many times her poor mother would disappear behind her fan to hide the blush of shame her daughter induced.
In a last-ditch effort to find their daughter a proper place in the world, Colonel and Mrs. Hathaway had sent her away to be "finished." Like a wedding cake in need of icing, she was dispatched to the limestone bastion called the Emma Wade Boylan School for Young Ladies, and expected to come out adorned in feminine virtues.
Women whose well-heeled papas could afford the exorbitant tuition attended the lakeside institution. There they hoped to attain the bright polish of refinement that would attract a husband. Even those who were pocked by imperfection might eventually acquire the necessary veneer. Lucy found it bizarre that a young woman's adolescence could end with instructions on how best to arrange one's bustle for sitting, or all the possible shades of meaning created by a crease in a calling card, yet she'd sat through lengthy lectures on precisely those topics. To her parents' dismay, she was like the wedding cake that had crumbled while being carried from oven to table. No amount of sugar coating could cover up her flaws.
Whenever possible, Lucy buried her social shortcomings between the delicious, diverting pages of a book. She adored books. Ever since she was small, books had been her greatest treasures and constant companions, offering comfort for her loneliness and escape from a world she didn't fit into. She lived deeply in the stories she read; caught up in the pages of a book, she became an adventuress, an explorer, a warrior, an object of adoration.
And ironically, her many failures at Miss Boylan's had endeared her to some of the other young women. There, she'd made friends she would cherish all her life. The masters at the school had long given up on Lucy, which gave her vast stretches of free time. While others were learning the proper use of salt cellars and fish forks, Lucy had discovered the cause that would direct and give meaning to her life—the cause of equal rights for women.
She certainly didn't need a man for that.
"We stray too far from the virtues our church founders commanded us to preserve and uphold," boomed the Reverend Moody, intruding into Lucy's thoughts. She stifled a surge of annoyance at the preacher's words and pressed her teeth down on her tongue. She mustn't speak out; she'd promised. "The task is ours to embrace tradition…"
Lucy had a secret. Deep in the darkest, loneliest corner of her heart, she yearned to know what it was like to have a man look at her the way men looked at her friend Deborah Sinclair, who was as golden and radiant as an angel. She wanted to know what it was like to laugh and flirt with careless abandon, as Deborah's maid, Kathleen O'Leary, was wont to do belowstairs with tradesmen and footmen. She wanted to know what it was like to be certain, with every fiber of her being, that her sole purpose in life was to make a spectacular marriage, the way Phoebe Palmer knew it.
She wanted to know what it would be like to lean her head on a man's solid shoulder, to feel those large, capable hands on her—
Exasperated with herself, she tried to focus on the mind-numbing lecture.
"Consider the teachings of St. Sylvius," the preacher said, "who taught that 'Woman is the gate of the devil, the path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word a perilous object.' And yet, my friends, it has been proposed that in some congregations women be allowed to hold office. Imagine, a perilous object holding office in church—"
"Oh, for Pete's sake." Lucy shot up as if her chair had suddenly caught fire.
Moody stopped. "Is there some discussion, Miss Hathaway?"
Unable to suppress her opinions any longer, she girded herself for battle. She'd promised Miss Boylan she wouldn't make waves, but he'd pushed her too far. She gripped the back of the empty chair in front of her. "As a matter of fact, we might discuss why our beliefs are dictated by men like St. Sylvius, who kept paramours under the age of fourteen and sired children concurrently with three different women."
Scandalized gasps and a few titters swept through the audience. Lucy was accustomed to being ridiculed and often told herself that all visionaries were misunderstood. Still, that didn't take the sting out of it.
"How do you know that?" a man in the front row demanded.
Well-practiced in the art of airing unpopular views, she stated, "I read it in a book."
"I'd wager you just made it up," Higgins accused, muttering under his breath.
She swung to face him, her bustle knocking against the row of chairs in front of her. Someone snickered, but she ignored the derisive sound. "Are you opposed to women having ideas of their own, Mr. Higgins?"
Half his mouth curved upward in a smile of wicked insolence. He was enjoying this, damn his emerald-green eyes. "So long as those ideas revolve around hearth and home and family, I applaud them. A woman should take pride in her femininity rather than pretend to be the crude equal of a man."