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To endeavor to forget anyone is a certain way of thinking of nothing else.
Jean de La Bruyere, Les Caracteres (1688)
6th of July, 1830, early afternoon New York City
Georgia Emily Milton rarely cared to notice any of the well-to-do men strutting about Broadway as it was a long-standing rule of hers to never yearn for anything she couldn't have and/or didn't need. But as she bustled down the crowded, respectable stretch of Broadway, heading back toward the not-so-respectable trenches of Little Water, an astonishingly tall, well-groomed gentleman strode toward her at a leisurely pace, making her not only slow but inwardly wish she had been born a lady.
Weaving past others to ensure a better view, she caught staggered glimpses of an impressive, muscled frame garbed in a gray morning coat, well-fitted trousers and an embroidered waistcoat with double-row buttons. Gloved hands strategically angled his dove-gray top hat forward and down to better shade his eyes against the bright sun gleaming across the surrounding stretch of shop windows.
His hat alone had to be worth two months of her wages.
As he smoothly rounded several people and strode toward her side of the pavement, his smoldering gray eyes caught and held hers from beneath the rim of his hat. The pulsing intensity of that raw, heated gaze bashed the breath out of her.
Tightening his jaw, he aligned himself directly in her path, the expanse between them lessening with each frantic beat of her heart. That black-leather-booted stride slowed when he finally came upon her. He formallyalbeit a bit too gravelyinclined his dark head toward her, publicly acknowledging her in a way his sort never did during the day.
He behaved as if he didn't see a rag in calico skirts, which had washed itself over from Orange Street, but an elegant young lady strolling alongside her mother with a lace parasol in hand. For making her feel so uncommonly attractive, Georgia considered blowing him a kiss. Fortunately, she knew how to keep herself out of trouble.
Glancing away, she set her chin as any respectable woman would, and sashayed past his towering frame, purposefully letting her own arm brush against his, only to stumble against the dragging skirts of a washerwoman who had rudely darted before her. Of all the
His large hand jumped out and grabbed hold of her corseted waist, balancing her upright with a swift jerk. Georgia froze as her reticule swung against her wrist, hitting the sleeved coat of his solid forearm that held her in place.
Her heart slid off into oblivion upon realizing her bum now dug against a solid, male thigh. His solid, male thigh.
His head dipped toward her from behind, his muscles tensing as he pressed her backside more possessively against his front side. His arm tightened around her waist. "Are you all right, madam?"
His voice was husky and refined, laced with a regal British accent that made the Irish girl in her inwardly put up both fists.
"That I am, sir. Thank you." Trying to shake off the intimacy of that hold, Georgia tried to politely ease away.
He released her, his hand skimming from her waist toward the expanse of her back, making the skin beneath her clothing zing.
Her eyes widened as that same hand curved its way back up her side, intent on outlining the rest of her body.
Though she tried to peddle away, he tightened his hold on her upper arm and drew her back firmly toward himself. "Madam."
Sucking in a breath, she jerked away and shoved him back hard, causing him to stumble. "Don't you be gropin' me!"
"Your bonnet." He held up both of his hands in a quick truce and gestured toward it. "One of the ribbons came loose. That is all."
"Oh." Her cheeks bloomed with heat as she reached up and patted around the curve of her bonnet trying to find it. How utterly humiliating. "I'm ever so sorry, sir. I didn't mean to actually"
"No worries. Allow me." Setting a large hand against the small of her back, he guided her with forceful nudges over to the shop window beyond, removing them from the pathway of hustling pedestrians.
Realizing that he intended to affix the ribbon himself, she glanced up wide-eyed. "There's really no need for you to"
"Yes, there is. You will lose the ribbon otherwise. Now, please. Hold still." He angled her toward himself and leaned in close, lifting the discolored, frayed ribbon dangling off the side of her bonnet.
Georgia awkwardly lingered before him as he wove the length of the ribbon back into place. Although she wanted to dash away, knowing that her bonnet was an atrocity not worth touching, sometimes a girl needed to gaze up at the stars that so willingly sought to shine. Even if those stars were far beyond the reach of a penniless girl's imagination.
As his fingers skimmed her bonnet and tucked the ribbon, she resisted reaching up and grazing her hand adoringly against that smooth, shaven face. What, oh, what would it be like to belong to a man such as this?
Glimpsing a single black band fitted around the shifting gray coat of his bulking upper biceps, she glanced back up at him, her heart squeezing. He was in mourning.
"'Tis almost affixed," he offered conversationally, his eyes scanning her bonnet. He leaned in closer. "I'm using one of the other pins to keep it in place."
"Thank you," she murmured, lowering her gaze.
His coat smelled like mulled spice and cedar. It was divinely warm and inviting, even on a summer's day. The double row of buttons on his embroidered waistcoat shifted against the expanse of his broad chest as he finished maneuvering the last of her ribbon into place. She could tell by the reflective metal gleam of those buttons that they weren't painted brass made to emulate silver, but were, in fact, real silver. Only an elite group of men in New York could afford silver buttons. It was an elite group she knew she'd never be able to touch, not even with an outstretched toe.
"There we are." Meeting her gaze, he drew his gloved hands away and offered in a low baritone, "And how are you today, madam?"
Blinking up at him, she noted the way his eyes and his brow had softened, lending to a boyish vulnerability that didn't match his imposing height of more than six feet. She tried to quell the anxious tingle knotting her stomach. Despite the full bustle on Broadway, this glorious man sought to share in a bit of conversation with her. "I'm very well, sir. Thank you."
She refrained from asking how he was out of respect for the band around his arm, and instead offered a flirtatious smile, gesturing toward the pleated rim of her bonnet. "Rather impressive. Have you considered takin' up haberdashery?"
He slowly grinned, the edges of those handsome gray eyes and that firm full mouth crinkling, brightening his overly serious appearance. "No. I haven't."
Of course he hadn't. He had silver buttons. He probably owned every haberdashery in town. Or in the town from whence he came.
He shifted toward her, his large frame blocking whatever view she had of the street. "Are you from around these parts?"
She refrained from snorting. "You're overly kind, to be sure, but given that my bonnet can't even hold a ribbon, most certainly not. Only gold-feathered peacocks can afford these parts, sir. I'm merely passin' through."
"Gold-feathered peacocks?" He smirked and set his hands behind his back, broadening his impressive shoulders. "Is that what you like to call those of wealth?"
She scrunched her nose playfully. "Nah, not really. I'm bein' polite, seein' that you're one of them, and I've roughed you up well enough."
A gruff laugh escaped his lips. "Rest assured, I am quite used to it," he remarked, still intimately holding her gaze. "I've already endured more than my share of elbowing from the public given that I'm British. Too many Americans still remember the burning of Washington, but I swear to you I didn't do it."
Georgia burst into laughter, smitten with his marvelously wry humor. "Ah, now, can you readily blame them? You Brits are nothin' but gadflies cloaked in a fancy accent."
He paused and leaned in, heatedly searching her face without any further attempt to mask his unabashed interest. "Might I cease being polite for one brief moment and ask whether you would like to join me for coffee over at my hotel? It's been quite some time since I have allowed myself a moment of leisure. Honor me."
The wistful intensity lingering within that taut face was so galvanizing, it sent a tremor through her body. Though tempted to glimpse how the other half lived over the rim of a porcelain cup, she knew better than to involve herself with a man who wore silver buttons. It would never last beyond the toss of her skirts and a single night.
She eyed the people weaving past. "I don't mean to be rude, sir, given that you've been nothin' but kind, but I really ought to go. I've a long day ahead of me." She gestured toward the pavement as if that explained everything.
His hopeful expression melted to disappointment. "I understand and will detain you no more." He inclined his head, touching the tips of his gloved fingers to the satin rim of his hat. "I bid you a very good day, madam."
By all that was blue, his manners were as divine as the rest of him. "And a very good day to you, as well, sir. I appreciate the unexpected service you rendered my bonnet."
His mouth quirked. "It was an honor to be of service. Good day." Stepping back, he eased his large frame around a passing couple. Glancing back at her one last time, he smiled and disappeared into the surrounding wall of bodies.
Georgia eased out a wistful breath knowing she had just glimpsed life as it might have been had she been born a genteel lady of high society. Ah, money. If only it could also buy a woman true love and happiness, she would be the first to dash into the local bank and point a pistol at every clerk, demanding tens and twenties.
Swiveling toward the opposite direction, Georgia resumed her steady march home, which was still a good forty-minute walk. Why couldn't such refined gentlemen exist in her part of town? It wasn't in the least bit fair that her only selection of men smacked the bottoms of passing women and whistled through crooked, un-chalked teeth. Not for long, though. She was only six dollars short of moving west and couldn't wait to climb into that stagecoach and leave her piss of a life behind.
A towering, broad frame suddenly appeared beside her and veered in, startling her. "Madam."
Her eyes widened. Upon her soul, it was her Brit. Slowing her step, she offered a quick, "Yes?"
He swung toward her, trotting backward in an effort to face her before jumping into her path and coming to an abrupt halt.
Georgia squeaked and skid to prevent herself from dashing herself against him.
He leaned toward her. "I can only apologize for being so uncommonly bold, but I must have your name."
She glanced up in astonishment. "And what do you intend to do with my name, sir?"
He lifted a dark brow. "Perhaps you and I can discuss that over coffee? Couldn't you make time for one small cup? Just one? My nickel."
What was he thinking? Did she really look the sort? "I appreciate the offer, sir, but I don't drink coffee. Or men. I'm swearin' off both until I move west."
His eyes darkened. "I am not asking you to drink me."
Despite the warmth of the day, another shiver of awareness grazed the length of her body, knowing full well what the man meant. "Not yet you aren't, but you're invitin' me to join you for coffee at your hotel. I may be third-generation Irish, but that doesn't make me stupid."
He lowered his chin. "Coffee was merely a suggestion."
"Oh, I know full well what you're suggestin', and I suggest you leave off. Do I look desperate for a toss or coffee?"
A smile ruffled his lips. "Have mercy upon a smitten man. What is your name?"
It was times like these that she hated her life. Such an attractive man graced with wealth and status would only ever view her as a one-night commodity. Although she knew better than to want more for herself, given that she was nothing but a Five Points widow, her dear Raymond had taught her she had a right to want the universe, and by God, she was going to get it.