The most highborn lady Mick had ever been withthe wife of a sitting member of the House of Lords, as it turned out -- told him that the French had a name for what she felt for him, a name that put words to her wanting his "lionhearted virility" -- he liked the phrase and. remembered. it.
"'A yearning for the mud,'" she told him. "That's what the French, call it."
Mud. He hadn't much liked the comparison. Still, from the moment he heard it, he hadn't doubted the phrase's clear sight or wisdom. Posh ladies who took a fancy to him had to make some sort of excuse to themselves, and this was as good as any.He was a novelty at best.At worst, a bit of mud to play in for ladies whose lives'd been scrubbed clean of good, earthy fun.
He lay now on the floor, dirtier than usual, truth be told, his palm and belly flat to the floorboards of a dress shop in Kensington. Three silky ladies stood over him -- they stood very far over him, one on a chair seat, one on a countertop, and one on the last inch or so left of a shelf taken up mostly by bolts of fabric.These three watched him, breathless, while Mick, his ear turned to the floor, listened.
He was a big man -- he took up a long length of floor. He had wide shoulders, a hard, muscular chest, long, weighty limbs. Handsomely made, he didn't doubt it. Vigorous. Five minutes ago, he'd been out back, using this, very fact to flirt with the seamstress's assistant. He'd made her laugh, his first triumph, and ,had just stepped a little closer, when the seamstress and her customer inside the shop had begun screaming, "Mouse! Mouse!" The only man nearby. he'd been pressed into service.
Now, whenscared, mice had a nasty habit. They'd run up anything, including a person's leg. The nightmare for a lady was that a mouse'd scamper into the understructure of her dress -- her petticoats, dressimprovers, and half-hoops -- where it could run, around indefinitely in a maze of horsehair and steel wires.
Hoping to avoid a mouse circus inside their dresses, the seamstress, a patron, and now herassistant had climbed as high as they could in the room, pressing their dresses to themselves, frightened out of their wits. Mick could've told them it wouldn't do them no good. Mice could get onto tables and chairs easy. But he didn't mention it. He didn't want to frighten them more.
He lay quiet, scanning the floorboards, palms flat, elbows up, toes curled to support some of his weight, ready to spring up if a mouse came into sight. Then he spied it, and it was sort of a letdown. A little thing, it was more scared than the ladies, shaking over in a comer at the base of a sewing machine in the shadow of a press-iron. Barely more than a baby. He could catch it in his hand. There were no others, no noise under the floor, no activity.
"Is there a nest?" whispered the seamstress, her voice hushed with worry. "Are there more?"
Now, right here, Mick should've said no and stood UP. But he didn't. He got distracted.
He turnedhis head, to use the other ear, to listen again and make sure. And there, through a doorway into a back room, under a painted screen, in a mirror he saw a pair of legs, a second customer. There were four women, not three. This one'd been trying on dresses, he guessed, when the commotion broke out. She was trapped in the dressing room.. In the mirror he could see she'd leaped on top of something, maybe a trunk. Anyway, with his position, her having moved up and out of the protection of the screen, and what with the angle of the mirror, he' was looking right at. a pair of devilish long legs. Bloody gorgeous, they were.
He lay there, caught in his own admiration. She was on her toes, dancing a little, nervous, the long muscles of her legs flexing beneath pink stockings with a hole at the knee. Long. Hell, long wasn't the word for these legs. They went for yards and yards -- she had to be a tall one, this one. And shapely-her legs were poetry. Balance, muscle, motion. They gave new meaning to fine.
Now, normally, Mick was a polite man. He would've protected a woman caught off guard by turning his head. Or at least he thought maybe he would've. But these were the damnedest legs. "Sh-h-h," he said in answer
the ladies above him drew in their breaths, trying to calm themselves, to allow him to hear any skittering or chewing or other nasty mouse sounds. One, of them murmured, "This is so heroic of you, Mr. -- " She was asking for a name.
Oh, yes, heroic. The hero lay on his belly, getting his eyes as low as he could so as to stare- across the floor into a mirror at -the prettiest legs he'd yet seen in thirty years of living. If he'd been standing up, he'd've seen to maybe just above the ankles-the screen in front of her came within a foot of the ground. That alone would've been an eyeful, since her ankles were narrow, her foot pretty with a high arch and instep, the Anklebone showing -against the soft leather of her shoe.
But when he got his head just right, he could see in the mirror: from the toes of high-buttoned shoes I up long,neat shins, plenty of curvy calf, past the, knee... The Proposition
. Copyright © by Judith Ivory. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.