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Dear Madame Hera, The other day, while taking a walk in the Cow-gate district of Edinburgh, I was approached by a young man who gave me some assistance with my umbrella. Since he was very well dressed, seemed most polite, and the rain was coming down in torrents, it seemed churlish of me not to offer to share my shelter. He accepted with some alacrity, but the small circumference of my umbrella forced us into a somewhat compromising intimacy, of which the gentleman was not slow to take advantage. He stole a kiss from me, and I permitted him to take several more while we found respite from the downpour in the close of a nearby tenement. By the time the rain stopped, we were rather better acquainted than we ought to have been.
We parted without exchanging details. Alack, when he left me, the young man took not only my virtue but my umbrella. It was a gift from another gentleman, who is bound to question me most closely when he discovers its loss. I fear he will not understand the peculiar effect the combination of rain, a good-looking young man and a very small umbrella can have on a woman's willpower. What should I do? Drookit Miss EdinburghJune 1840
I am very sorry, Mrs McBrayne, but there is nothing to be done. Both your father's will and the law are perfectly clear upon the matter. Could not be clearer, in actual fact, though if you insist upon a second opinion, I believe my partner is now free.'
'You, Mr Thomson, are my second opinion,' the woman said scornfully. 'I have no intentions of spending more money I don't have, thanks to that spendthrift husband of mine and that trust of my father's, simply to hear what you have already made perfectly plain. The law is written by men for men and administered by men, too. Be damned to the law, Mr Thomson, for it seems to be forcing me to earn my living in a profession even older than your own, down in the Cowgate. I bid you good day.'
'Mrs McBrayne! Madam, I must beg you
The Fury merely tossed her head at the lawyer's outraged countenance and swept across the narrow reception hall of the office, heading for the door. Innes Drummond, who had just completed a similarly entirely unsatisfactory interview with Thomson's partner, watched her dramatic exit admiringly. The door slammed behind her with enough force to rattle the pane of glass on which the names Thomson & Ballard were etched. Innes could hear her footsteps descending the rackety stairs that led out into Parliament Square. She was as anxious to quit the place as he was himself. It struck him, as he flung the door behind him with equal and satisfying force, how ironic it was, that they both, he and the incandescent Mrs McBrayne, seemed to be victims of very similar circumstances.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and heaved open the heavy wooden door, only to collide with the person standing on the step. 'I am terribly sorry,' Innes said.
'No, it was my fault.'
She stood aside, and as she did so, he saw tears glistening on her lashes. Mortified, she saw him noticing, and scrubbed at her eyes with her glove, averting her face as she pushed past him.
'Wait!' Instinctively knowing she would not, Innes caught her arm. 'Madam, you are upset.'
She glared at him, shaking herself free of his reflexive grip. 'I am not upset. Not that it's any of your business, but I am very far beyond upset. I am
'Furious,' Innes finished for her with a wry smile. 'I know how you feel.'
'I doubt it.'
Her eyes were hazel, wide-spaced and fringed with very long lashes. She was not pretty, definitely not one of those soft, pliant females with rosebud mouths and doe-like gazes, but he was nonetheless drawn to her. She eyed him sceptically, a frown pulling her rather fierce brows together. She was not young either, perhaps in her late twenties, and there was intelligence as well as cynicism in her face. Then there was her mouth. No, not a rosebud, but soft all the same when it ought to be austere, with a hint of humour and more than a hint of sensuality. He noticed that, and with some surprise, noticed that he'd noticed, that his eyes had wandered down, over the slim figure in the drab grey coat, taking a rapid inventory of the limited view and wanting to see more, and that surprised him, too.
'Innes Drummond.' He introduced himself because he could think of nothing else to say, and because he didn't want her to go. Her brows lifted haughtily in response. For some reason, it made her look younger. 'A fellow victim of the law, of his father and of a trust,' he added. 'Though I'm not encumbered with a wife, spendthrift or otherwise.'
'You were listening in to a private conversation between myself and Mr Thomson.'
'Ought I to have pretended not to hear? The tone of your voice made that rather difficult.'
She gave a dry little laugh. 'A tone I feel sure Mr Thomson found most objectionable. Bloody lawyers. Damned law. You see, I can swear as well as shout, though I assure you, I am not usually the type who does either.'
Innes laughed. 'I really do know how you feel, you know.'
She smiled tightly. 'You are a man, Mr Drummond. It is simply not possible. Now, if you will excuse me?'
'Where are you going?' Once again, he had spoken without thinking, wanting only to detain her. Once again her brows rose, more sharply this time. 'I only meant that if you had no urgent business But I spoke out of turn. Perhaps your husband is expecting you?'
'My husband is dead, Mr Drummond, and though his dying has left me quite without resources, still I cannot be sorry for it.'
'You don't mince your words, do you, Mrs McBrayne?'
Though he was rather shocked at this callous remark, Innes spoke flippantly. She did not smile, however, nor take umbrage, but instead paled slightly. 'I speak my mind. My opinions may be unpalatable, but at least in expressing them, there can be no pretending that I have none.'
Nor, Innes thought, could there be any denying that a wealth of bitter experience lay behind her words. He was intrigued. 'If you are in no rush, I'd very much like it if you would take a glass of something with me. I promise I don't mean anything in the least improper,' he added hurriedly, 'I merely thought it would be pleasantcathartic, I don't knowto let off steam with a kindred spirit' Her astonished expression forced him to break off. 'Forget it. It's been an awful day, an awful few weeks, but I shouldn't have asked.'
He made to tip his hat, but once again she surprised him, this time with a faint smile. 'Never mind weeks, I've had an awful few months. No, make that years. The only reason I've not taken to drink already is that I suspect I'd take to it rather too well.'
'I suspect that you do anything well that you set your mind to, Mrs McBrayne. You strike me as a most determined female.'
'Do I? I am now, though it is by far too late, for no matter how determined I am to get myself out of this mess, in truth I can see no solution.'
'Save to sell yourself down the Cowgate? I hope it doesn't come to that.'
She gave him what could only be described as a challenging look. 'Why, are you afraid I will not make sufficient to earn my keep?'
'What on earth do you know of such things?' Innes asked, torn between shock and laughter.
'Oh, I have my sources. And I have an umbrella,' she added confusingly.
She spoke primly, but there was devilment in her eyes, and the smile she was biting back was doing strange things to his guts. 'You are outrageous, Mrs McBrayne,' Innes said.
'Don't you believe me?'
'I have no idea what to make of you, and right at this moment, I don't really care. You made me laugh, and honestly, after what that lawyer told me, I didn't think that was possible.'
Her smile softened sympathetically. 'It sounds like I am not the only one in need of a dram,' she said. 'Why not! I've nothing at home waiting for me except final demands and most likely a few bailiffs. Buy me a drink, Mr Drummond, and we can compare our woes, though I warn you now that mine will far outweigh yours.'
Ainsley McBrayne wondered what on earth had come over her. There had been ample time in the short walk from Parliament Square over the North Bridge for her to change her mind, but she had not. Now here she was, in a secluded corner of the coffee room at the Waterloo Hotel, waiting while a complete stranger bribed one of the waiting staff to bring the pair of them something stronger than tea.
She had surrendered her coat at the door, and her bonnet, too, for they were both wet with that soft, mistlike mizzle that was not quite rain, in which Edinburgh specialised. Her hair, which even on the best of days was reluctant to succumb to the curling iron, was today bundled up into a careless chignon at her nape, and no doubt by now straggling equally carelessly out of it. On a good day, she would tell herself it was chestnut in colour, for it was not red enough to rate auburn, and she was fairly certain there was no such thing as mahogany hair. Today, it was brown, plain and simple and the colour of her mood. At least her gown was one of her better ones. Navy blue worked with silver-grey stylised flowers formed into a linking pattern, the full skirts contrasted with the tightly fitted bodice, with its long narrow sleeves and shawl neck. The narrow belt showed off her slender waist; the crossover pleating at the neck was cut just low enough to allow a daring glimpse of bosom. It had been designed to be worn with a demure white blouse, but this morning Ainsley hadn't been interested in looking demure. This morning she had not, however, intended to take off her coat. Now, she tugged self-consciously at the pleated shawl collar in an effort to pull it a little closer.
She had been angry when she left the lawyer's office, though she should not have been, but it seemed, despite all, that she'd not managed to lower her expectations quite enough. There had been a tiny modicum of hope left in her heart, and she'd been furious at herself for that. Hence the tears. Stupid tears. If Mr Innes Drummond had not seen those stupid tears, he'd more than likely have gone on his way and she wouldn't be here. Instead, she'd be at home. Alone. Or in the company of yet another bailiff. And it wasn't going to be her home for much longer. So she might as well be here. With a complete stranger. About to imbibe strong liquor, just like one of the loose women she'd claimed she would become.
Not that that was so far-fetched either, given the state of things, except one thing she was absolutely sure about was that she had no talents whatsoever for that sort of thing. In fact, she had not even the skill to interest a man if he didn't have to pay, if her husband was anything to go by.
Ainsley sighed. Second to tears, she hated self-pity. Giving her collar a final twitch, she forced herself to relax. Mr Drummond was still conferring with the waiter, so she took the chance to study him. His hair, which was cut unfashionably short, was glossily black. He was a good-looking man; there was no doubt about it, with a clean-shaven jaw, and none of the side whiskers gentlemen preferred these days. A high forehead spoke of intelligence, and lines fanning out from his eyes and forming a deep groove from nose to mouth spoke of experience. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, perhaps five years older than herself. A confident man, and well dressed in his dark coat and trousers, his linen impeccably white. Judging by appearances, money was not one of his worries. But then, if one could have judged John by appearances, money had not been one of his worries either. Not that her husband had ever been at all worried by moneyor the lack of. No, that was not true. Those sullen silences of his spoke volumes. And latterly, so, too, did his habit of simply disappearing when she challenged him.
Ainsley sighed again, irked with herself. She was absolutely sick and tired of thinking about John. Across the room, Mr Drummond, having concluded his business with the waiter, glanced up and smiled at her. His eyes, under heavy dark brows, were a deep, vivid blue. She felt it then, what she had ignored before, a tug of something quite basic. Attraction. It made her stomach do a silly little flutter. It made her pulses skitter and it made her mouth dry, that smile of his, and the complicit look that accompanied it, as if the pair of them were in cahoots. It made her forget her anger at the injustice of her situation, and it reminded her that though she might well be a penniless widow with debts so terrifying they could not be counted, she was also a woman who had not known the touch of a man for a long time. And this man, this Mr Innes Drummond, who was seating himself opposite her, this man, she was pretty certain, would know exactly how to touch her. 'So, ladies first.'
Colour flooded her face. She stared at him blankly, horrified at the turn her mind had taken, praying that none of those shocking thoughts were visible on her countenance 'I beg your pardon?'
'Your tale of woe, Mrs McBrayne. You tell me yours, and then I'll tell you mine, and we can decide which of us is worst off.'
He had very long legs. They were stretched out to the side of the table that separated them. Well-made legs. Not at all spindly. And really rather broad shoulders. Well built, that was the phrase she was looking for. Athletic, even. And yes, his face and hands were rather tanned, as if he spent a deal of his life out of doors. 'What is it you do?' she asked. 'I meando youare you a resident here in Edinburgh? Only, you do have an accent, but I cannot place it.'
Instead of taking offence, or pointing out that she had changed the subject, Innes Drummond gave a little shrug. 'I'm originally from the Highlands, Argyll on the west coast, though I've lived in England most of my adult life. I'm an engineer, Mrs McBrayne.'
'A practical man.'
He smiled. 'You approve.'
'I do. It is none of my business, butyes.' She smiled back. 'What do you build?'
'Railway lines. Tunnels. Canals. Bridges and aqueducts. There is a very high demand for all these things, thanks to the steam locomotive. Though I don't actually build the things myself, I design them. And even that Business is very good, Mrs McBrayne. I am afraid I employ a rather large number of men to do most of the real work while I spend too much of my time in the boardroom, though I still like to think of myself as an engineer.'
'A very successful one, by the sounds of it. I did not think that money could be an issue with you.'
He gave her an enigmatic look before turning his attention to pouring them both a glass of whisky from the decanter that the waiter had deposited. 'Sldinte!' he said, touching her glass with his.
'Sldinte!' Ainsley took a sip. It was a good malt, peaty and smoky, warming. She took another sip.
'I take it, then, that money is an issue for you,' Innes Drummond said.