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A Seduction at Christmas
Fiona Lachlan draped her shawl over her head as she pushed her way through the narrow, crowded street. The damp coldness of the December evening air cut right through the thin muslin of her dress. She tried not to shiver as she moved toward a hired coach waiting for her at the corner.
Well, it didn't actually wait for her. The woman who had hired the hack, Hester Bowen, was expecting Annie Jenkins to come. It was up to Fiona to convince Hester to take her in Annie's place.
The hack driver saw her coming and jumped from the box to open the door. Careful to keep her head down, Fiona climbed inside.
"You're late," Hester complained. She rapped on the ceiling. "Drive," she snapped at the coachman who shut the door behind Fiona.
"I said eight," Hester continued as the driver set the coach in motion, "You've left me waiting a full ten minutes. I'll tell you, Annie, my time is more valuable than yours . . ." Her voice trailed off into a beat of suspicious silence.Fiona kept her head bowed, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Every turn of the coach wheel was in her favor.
Hester ripped the shawl away. "You aren't Annie Jenkins."
Caught, Fiona quickly confessed, "No, I'm not. She couldn't come this evening and asked me if I would. My name is Fiona. I'm her neighbor. We let rooms next door to each other...please," she beseeched, reaching for Hester's arm to stop her from throwing up the window and shouting for the coachman to stop. "Annie sent me. She said it would be all right. She assured me you wouldn't mind."
Hester's eyeswere alive with anger. "You are Scottish." She curled her lips and pretended to gag.
"I am, but my accent isn't thick," Fiona answered, almost choking on the words. She hated having to defend her heritage, something she seemed to have to do daily in London. "And I do speak well." Better than you, she wanted to add. "Whatever errand you wished Annie to perform, I can do it."
"Annie and I are friends," Hester countered. Her voice had a hard edge.
She was a bit older than Fiona's own three and twenty years. In the coach's flickering light, her blond hair seemed almost white. Beneath her furlined velvet cape, she wore a beaded and lace gown of the darkest blue. Its bodice was so tight, she appeared to have cleavage up to her neck. All in all, she appeared exactly what she was...the most infamous courtesan in London. "We go back a long way," Hester said. "I trust her."
"Well, Annie and I are friends, too," Fiona answered. Necessity made for strange bedfellows. "She knew you needed her and asked me to help."
Hester sat back against the hard leather seat with a snort of disdain. "So what has happened to Annie this time? Has she deviled herself with gin or fallen in love...again?"
"She eloped," Fiona answered. "This morning. Her last act before she left was to knock on my door and beg me to help you."
"Who did she run off with now?" Hester asked without sympathy.
"A soldier. She is in love."
"Annie is always in love." Hester gave a heavy sigh. "Why are we all such fools when it comes to love?" Her words were laced with the irony of self knowledge. She looked at Fiona, studying her now and then nodding as if in approval. "What did Annie tell you about the task?"
"She said for me to dress well..."
Hester's keen gaze ran over the white muslin Fiona was wearing, seemingly taking in every detail. There had been a time when Fiona had owned a closet full of the finest dresses. This dress and her dog Tad were all that was left of that former life.
"You look presentable enough," the courtesan decided. She reached over and picked one of Tad's dog hairs off Fiona's shawl, rubbing her fingers and releasing it to the floor.
Fiona gathered her courage. "You offered Annie twenty pounds for this favor. Will you pay me as well?"
Hester's lips curved into a sly smile. "Desperate for money, are we?"
"Of course. Isn't everyone?"
"In London," Hester agreed.
Fiona had been earning her money as a dressmaker but last month Madame Sophie had let her go. Madame's cousin had arrived from Belgium and took Fiona's place in the sewing room. As talented as Fiona felt she was with a needle, she was discovering few wanted to hire a Scotswoman, especially one who had the air of "Quality." They preferred their seamstresses without ambition or intelligence, the better to do as they were bid without questions. They didn't trust Fiona's knowledge or her manner.
Meanwhile, she needed money. Her landlord, Mr. Simon, threatened to turn her and Tad out into the streets. Fiona had already discovered how hard it was to find rooms that would let her keep Tad. She didn't want to lose these.
Of course, with twenty pounds, she might even be able to leave London. When her parents were alive, she'd dreamed of having her coming out here, of meeting a gallant gentleman, being swept off her feet. As a well-known magistrate's daughter, she could have hoped for a brilliant match. Now, she couldn't wait to kick the dust of this godforsaken place from her heels, and her longings were for a small cottage in the country where the air was free of soot and she could live in peace.
"Annie said it was not..." Fiona stopped, feeling heat rush to her cheeks. She forced herself to be blunt. "She said I'd not have to please a man."
Hester's sly, lazy smile vanished. Her gloved hand curled into a fist. "You'd best not. I'll slice your face so no one would want to look at you if you spread your legs for this one."
The brutal threat didn't intimidate Fiona. She'd learned that manners and fine clothes often masked evil in London. "You needn't worry," she said stiffly. "I don't do that."A Seduction at Christmas
. Copyright © by Cathy Maxwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.