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Ladylike pursuits were vastly overrated, Quinn Peverill decided, throwing down her pitiful attempt at embroidery in disgust. How could something be simultaneously so frustrating and so boring? Her father insisted that all Society ladies embroidered, but after several hours' trial, Quinn took leave to doubt it.
Rising, she restlessly moved to the window of the sumptuous parlor of the hotel suite, kicking at her pale pink skirts as she walked. What did she care whether she impressed her mother's relatives or the stuffy young men her father wanted her to meet? English Society would never accept her as one of their own. Nor did she wish them to.
It hadn't been her idea to come here, after all. Her father had overridden her protests, insisting that she accompany him to England for the sake of the business and to meet her late mother's estranged family, the very people who had cast her mother off some twenty-five years earlier. It seemed almost disloyal to her mother's memory to care what they thought of her.
Quinn thought longingly of Baltimore, an ocean away. Would her brother, Charles, be able to handle her role in the family shipping business? He knew far less than she about the most competitive routes to China and Europe, or the best suppliers, as he'd been away at college for the past few years. What if he botched everything? And who would catch the clerks in their inevitable errors, without Quinn there to oversee them?
With an impatient sigh, she turned from the window just as herfather entered the parlor, a broad smile on his handsome, weathered face.
�Quinn,� he exclaimed in obvious delight, �I have the most wonderful news.�His ebullience was infectious, and she couldn't help returning his smile, pushing her worries about the business momentarily aside. �What news, Papa?�
�Look!� He waved a letter at her. �We've actually been invited to stay with your uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Claridge, at their town house. I feared they might have gone down to the country or to the seaside by now. Your mother used to tell me London is all but deserted from July till October.�
Quinn glanced over her shoulder at the activity outside, on the fashionable corner of Albemarle Street and Picadilly. �Clearly not, though I confess it does seem tame compared to the bustle of the docks at home.�
�Oh, the docks here in London are every bit as busy even more so. Don't you recall the confusion when we landed?�
She did. The London shipping district put American ports to shame, in volume if not efficiency. �So we are to remove to their house?� she asked without enthusiasm. �When?�
�Tomorrow. Lord Claridge himself sent this letter, offering to send a coach to move us and our things to Mount Street. Wasn't that handsome of him?�
�Indeed.� Sometimes Quinn couldn't understand her father. Eminently capable in business and all things nautical, he took orders from no one but himself yet he seemed to hold the British nobility in a respect amounting to awe. It was an awe Quinn did not share. �I suppose it will be more interesting than staying here, in any event.�
Her father's brow crinkled apologetically. �You will enjoy London once I have a chance to show you about, my dear. I know you miss home, but�
�But this is an admirable chance to expand my horizons,� she finished, repeating what he had told her numerous times. �You're right, of course, Papa. I'll have that new French maid of mine pack up my things.�
The worry disappeared from her father's brow. �That's my girl! When I return from my meeting, I'll pack as well.�
�Another meeting? Can't I come this time? I have a proposal about the tobacco trade, and some thoughts about the cotton warehouses that�
He cut her off, as he'd done whenever she raised such subjects lately. �Not today. I'll pass along your ideas, and if there are any developments, I'll inform you when I get back.�
Though Quinn sighed, she did not protest, knowing it would do no good. When he left, she headed to her bedchamber where, instead of her maid, she found only a hotel chambermaid a young redheaded girl of perhaps twelve. At Quinn's entrance she snatched up her dust cloth, ducked her head, and hurried to the door.
�Excuse me,� said Quinn, halting her flight. She had meant to ask the girl to fetch her maid, but a glimpse of her frightened face halted her. The girl's eyes were red with weeping, and a large bruise was purpling across one cheek.
�What on earth...? Who did this to you?� Quinn demanded.
The girl shook her head violently. �Nobody, mum. I...I fell, is all.� She headed for the door again, but Quinn put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.
�Please, don't be afraid. Did someone here at the hotel strike you?�
Another quick shake of the head. �No, mum. I'll...I'll be fine.�
�What is your name?� If she could get the girl talking, she might be able to get at the truth.
�And have you worked here at Grillon's long?�
That question, unaccountably, seemed to increase the girl's alarm. Ducking away from Quinn's restraining hand, she darted for the door, but before she could reach it, a heavy, enameled box slipped from beneath her apron to bounce on the thick carpeting. The girl froze, lifting horrified eyes to Quinn's.
�My jewel case. You were...stealing it?� Quinn could scarcely believe it. The girl was a mere child!
Polly's reserve broke, shattered by fear. �Oh, please, mum, don't tell no one! I ain't never stole nothing before, I swear! I only did it for my little brother. His master beats him if...�A Rebellious Bride. Copyright © by Brenda Hiatt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.