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London, England, Spring 1805
A man was standing in her mirror. Lady Claire Winthrop didn't turn to see if he was real. He couldn't be real. Even with that neat auburn beard and mustache, the face of her dreams was unmistakable. Richard Everard had sailed out of her life ten years ago. He wasn't likely to return now, just because she'd never needed him more.
She regarded the massive gilt-framed mirror hanging on the wall of the sitting room in the town house that would be hers for a few days more. The reflection gave back a picture of the perfect society widowevery honey-colored curl sleeked back into a bun behind her head, face suitably wane and pale against the black of her silk gown. Nothing about her appearance had changed since the day her husband had died nearly a year ago. All the changes were inside of her.
She turned to regard the portly tradesman standing beside her. "I'm afraid, Mr. Devizes, that ten pounds simply won't do. Surely you can see that a mirror of this size is worth so much more."
Mr. Devizes sucked in his chubby cheeks and peered at the glass. Like everything else in Claire's life, it was elegant and ornate and tarnished around the edges. "M'customers aren't so much impressed by size as pedigree," he mused in a rusty voice. "Were it owned by someone famous, then?"
She had no idea. The mirror was one of the last pieces left that had belonged to her late husband. Nearly everything else had been returned to his family seat and the possession of his heir, or sold to pay off debts. The remaining pieces were sadly inferior, which was why she'd had to go to less reputable dealers to find a buyer.
Claire waved a hand. "Well, certainly it was owned by the affluent and powerful. Very likely, kings have regarded themselves in this glass."
"Or at least those who fancied themselves royalty," said a warm bass voice.
Words froze on her tongue. Mr. Devizes turned to glance behind them, then took a step back, closer to the mirror. "I thought you said this was to be a private sale. I didn't come prepared to bid."
Lord, please help me! Is he truly here? Every muscle in her body protested as she turned to find out. Just one look at that tall, powerful frame, and she felt her knees buckling.
No! She would not faint. Richard Everard already held her in the utmost contempt. She refused to let him see her least weakness. She did what she'd done since the day he'd abandoned her. She smilednot too effusive, not too sweetjust a gentle upturn of the corners of her mouth, which most people took as approval.
"Good day, sir." Her voice was equally calm and distant. Excellent. Surely she could do this. "Mr. Everard, isn't it?"
One russet brow went up, whether in surprise or amusement, she wasn't sure. Once she'd been able to read every thought in those deep brown eyes, every quirk of that gentle mouth. He had obviously grown skilled at hiding his feelings.
"Captain Everard," he corrected her, but his nod was for the tradesman beside her. "Forgive the interruption, sir. The footman who answered my knock seemed to think I was expected."
A logical assumption. Jones knew his mistress was expecting any number of furniture purveyors to make offers on the last items. The footman and her cook were only staying on at the house until they secured other posts. Claire was thankful for their loyalty, especially since she could no longer afford to pay them for their help.
Devizes licked his flabby lips, then glanced between Claire and the towering stranger. "Friend of yours then, your ladyship?"
How could she answer? Once she'd hoped for so much more.
"No," Richard Everard said, and his gaze hardened. "I have business with the lady."
"Twenty pounds," Devizes barked out to Claire. "I was here first. I have rights."
Claire glanced at Richard. So he would not even claim a friendship. Why did that hurt so much, after such a long time apart? And she certainly couldn't imagine what business they had, unless he'd come about one of the other pieces. How absurd! What interest could a privateer turned merchant captain have in things like an old walnut secretary and a tarnished mirror?
But she'd also learned in the last few years to make the most of every opportunity, never knowing when another door would close. Richard might not be a friend, but he could be of use to her. Desperation made for strange companions.
"Fifty," she said to the dealer.
"Fifty?" Devizes fairly sputtered. Then his eyes narrowed. "Thirty."
Captain Everard was staring at her, but she didn't care, much. She needed that money. It was the only way she might start over. "Forty-five."
"Forty-three, and I shall have it delivered."
The dealer eyed her a moment more, then inclined his head. "Done. Payment when it is delivered."
Claire gave him her reasonable smile. "But, sir, surely you don't malign my character. Payment now will allow me to arrange delivery."
"You might have her put that in writing," Richard Everard said.
Why, the nerve! Well, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that he'd hurt her yet again. "What an excellent suggestion, Mister Captain Everard. I have parchment and a quill on the secretary." She made her way carefully across the nearly empty room, hoping she was the only one who heard the angry footsteps under the whisper of her skirts against the bare wood floor.
"No, no," Mr. Devizes protested, following her. "No need. I'll take you at your word. I heard your father was an earl."
Yes, he had been, though little good that had done her. Earls had expectations about whom their daughters should marry, expectations of how their daughters should comport themselves in society. And earls could not leave their titles or entailed property to anyone female in the line. That was one reason she was in such difficulty at the moment.
She turned once more, and the dealer, with a side glance at Richard, met her in the middle of the room. He took a bag from inside his rumpled brown coat and handed it to her. "That should cover it."
And she was expected to be a lady and take him at his word as well. After all, ladies did not haggle with tradesmen. Sordid matters like finance were far below them. Unfortunately, too many gentlemen of her acquaintance had failed to live up to their words, and they had claimed to love her. Claire had no one to protect her but herself. And You, Lord. Thank You for never failing me!
"Oh, how kind," she said to the dealer. "Let me just make sure. We wouldn't want you to overpay, now, would we?"
Richard Everard crossed his arms over the chest of his black greatcoat as if she was inconveniencing him, and Mr. Devizes fairly danced with impatience. But she counted every coin, made sure the amount added up to the forty-three pounds he'd offered, slipped the money into a corner of the secretary for the moment and returned the bag to the dealer. The gold and silver glowed against the dark wood, but the gleam only reminded her of the future she'd planned, far away from her beloved London.
"I'll have the mirror to your shop later today," she promised as she walked Mr. Devizes to the sitting room door and out into the parquet-tiled entryway. Jones was elsewhere, so she opened the front door and watched the dealer descend the short flight of stairs to the Mayfair street. Outside, life went on. Ladies in flowered and ribboned bonnets strolled past, attended by strapping footmen; gentlemen rode by on horses with lineages better than hers. Soon, if things went as planned, she would leave them all behind.
But first she had to get rid of the past that had suddenly loomed up in front of her. She held the lacquered green door open and eyed Richard Everard where he stood in the doorway of the sitting room. That long, straight nose always made him look as if he were leaning forward, ready for anything. She didn't feel nearly as ready.
"Please don't let me detain you, Captain Everard," she said. "Surely you have something more important to do than to accost me."
He strolled toward her, and she stood taller. Thereshe'd succeeded in insulting him, and he'd leave as quickly as he'd arrived. She wouldn't have to learn why he'd shown up at her door, what he thought he could say to her. She wouldn't have to take the chance that her heart would break all over again. She could go back to dreaming of him and waking in the night wondering what might have been.
He reached up over her head with one large hand, took hold of the door and pulled it easily from her grip. It shut with a click.
"We must talk," he said.
Richard watched as Claire's blue eyes widened. Such a pale blue, as clear and bright as the sky on a winter's morn. And just as cold, like the heart that beat in that silk-covered chest.
"Fah, sir," she said with an elegant wave of her long-fingered hand. "I cannot imagine what we have to say to each other."
Couldn't she? He'd thought of little else on the long ride from Cumberland. What did you say to the woman who'd jilted you, now that you needed her help? He'd hoped to apply to her husband first, even if he had to clench his fists at his sides to keep from planting the fellow a facer.
But the few discreet questions he'd asked to locate Claire had yielded surprising news.
Lord Colton Winthrop was dead and in the ground nearly a year. And that fact made any conversation harder still.
"I came here to seek your help," he told her. "I've a cousin set to make her debut, and she needs a sponsor."
"I see." She tilted her chin and gazed up at him. Time had been kind, but he thought she was one of those women who would only grow more beautiful with each passing year. Though how she'd tamed her soft curls into that stern bun was beyond him. The style narrowed her face, called out the line of cheekbone and chin. But her lips were as pink and appealing as they'd been when he'd first longed to steal a kiss.
"You will forgive me, sir," she said. "I've been in mourning, so I am not completely au courant on the social scene. But I don't recall your having a cousin the proper age, and certainly not a female."
Trust her to know. She'd always been fascinated with the lineage of every one of the ten thousand individuals said to make up the bon ton. No doubt her late viscount had a title dating to the conquest. Richard's family title was far more tenuous. He had to go carefully. His cousin Samantha could ill afford the gossip. "My uncle, Arthur, Lord Everard, has a daughter. She's sixteen."
"Indeed," she replied.
He'd forgotten how she could stop conversation with a single word. If he'd had any doubts as to her feelings on the matter, the narrowing of her crystal gaze would have convinced him of her skepticism.
"But I believe I heard your uncle passed on recently," she continued. "Surely his daughter must be in mourning."
She would understand that as well. Her slender figure was swathed in black, from the high lace collar to the ruffled hem of her graceful skirts. And she hadn't worn a single piece of jewelry, not even a wedding ring. He remembered a time when she'd refused to go out in anything less than pearls. She must have loved her husband a great deal to give up so much to mourn him. The thought brought less comfort than it should have.
"My uncle instructed that she forgo mourning," he explained. "He believed in living to the fullest."
"Yes, so I recall." She refused to take her hand off the brass pull of the door, as if she'd throw it open and order him from the house at any moment.
Her attitude grated on his nerves, already too high for his liking. In fact, his cravat seemed to have tightened since he'd arrived in the house, and he tugged at it now. "Perhaps we could sit down."
That oh-so-proper smile did not waver. "I fear I've nothing to offer you, Captain Everard, by way of seating or assistance. I'm sure you'll find another lady far more suited to your purpose. You should go."
So she was throwing him out. Why had he even considered asking her for help? She was more high-handed now than she'd been as a girl. Nothing he'd said back then had mattered. Why should today be any different? If I needed a lesson in humility, Lord, this is it.
"No doubt you're right, Lady Winthrop," he said with a bow. "As I recall, you had the annoying habit of always being right. I bid you good-day, madam." He took the handle from her grip and swung open the door.
She sighed. It was the smallest of sounds, hardly audible, because of her own good breeding and through the noise from the busy street. But the dejected breath cut through his frustrationawakened something inside him he'd thought long dead. His foot on the step, he turned to gaze back at her.
"Are you all right, Claire?"
An emotion flickered across her oval face. Was it because he'd used her given name, or was she truly in trouble? Still, that infuriating smile remained pleasant. "Certainly, Captain Everard. I have all I need. I am quite content."
Content? The Lady Claire he remembered had never been content. The latest fashion, the fastest carriageshe had to have them all and much sooner than half of London. She had ridden with more skill and danced with more enthusiasm than any other woman he'd ever met. He truly hadn't been surprised when she'd chosen a wealthy, titled peer over a second son of a second son of a newly minted baron. Just crushed.
She shifted as if eager to have him leave, and he caught a clear view into the entryway. For the first time, he noticed the darker rectangles on the papered walls where paintings must have been removed, the scuffs on the parquet floor where large pieces of furniture had no doubt been scraped as they'd been carried out. A house this size ought to boast a half dozen servants at least, but no maid had attended her during her conversation with the tradesman, and no butler came hurrying to see him out now.
"You don't have a sofa to sit on, do you?" he asked. Her smile slipped at last. "That, sir, is none of your concern."
He put a hand flat on the door, shoved it wide and strode back into the house. "It may not be my concern, madam, but it is to my advantage. I have a proposal for you, and I advise you to listen."