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The bell on the draper's shop door tinkled, and Claire glanced behind her. A well-dressed man and equally well turned-out woman walked in, laughing. The man's head was inclined towards his companion, and the rich brown of his hair-Claire couldn't help but notice it-was in startling contrast to the almost white-gold of hers. Claire raised her eyebrows fractionally at the low décolletage of the woman's gown. A bit daring for an afternoon's shopping expedition, but she did look beautiful.
He was very tall.
Claire turned around before she could be accused of staring and returned to her careful examination of the basket of Haraldson's less expensive lace remnants. She allowed herself a small smile. The portly shopkeeper had spent the last ten minutes hovering over her, obviously anxious that she make a selection, but at the entry of monseigneur et madame he breathed, "Heavens, the Earl of Ketrick," and at once forgot that Claire existed. He hurried towards the newcomers as the woman with white-gold hair laughed, a throaty, musical sound.
"Edward, the one thing I don't need is another hat."
"Nonsense," came the man's voice in reply. "I know of not a single woman in London who believes she is the owner of an adequate number of hats."
"Oh, hopeless," said the woman, and laughed again.
"Here milady, this one surely cries out for a gentlewoman of your rank," said the shopkeeper, almost tripping in his haste to lift an enormous confection of turquoise satin and ostrich feathers out of its perch in the window. Claire caught a glimpse of the hat out of the corner of her eye. Good heavens,could that possibly be a bird's egg nestled among the explosion of feathers? Claire decided that indeed, it could, and she barely repressed a snort. What a toady the man was! And with poor taste, as well.
"Oh, no, my dear," the woman said, addressing herself to the shopkeeper. "That's much too grand for me."
It was the man who laughed this time. "Indeed."
"I should think..." The woman hesitated, and Claire felt rather than heard her soft, gliding steps as she moved around the shop.
"That young lady's hat is very fine don't you think, Pam?"
Startled, Claire looked around again. The man was staring at her, his deep blue eyes amused and speculative.
The nerve! Did he take her for a shop's model? Claire favored him with her coolest glance before returning once more to the remnants basket. She was uncomfortably aware of the sudden pounding of her heart. He was quite the handsomest man she'd ever seen. A strong nose and chin, with cheekbones that looked chiseled out of stone. His chestnut hair wasn't styled into any of the current fashions-"the Brutus" or "the Chevalier"-but was pulled back and held with a simple black velvet ribbon at the nape of his neck.
She told herself not to look at him again, feeling strangely uneasy. Perhaps it was time to move on to a different shop. The woman's voice stopped her as she started towards the door.
"Edward, my love, you are right as usual."
Claire glanced up to see an exquisite face, framed in white-gold curls and smiling reassuringly at her.
"That cloche is beautiful on you," the woman said. "Wherever did you find something so perfectly elegant?"
Claire had heard enough insincere compliments in the last few months to recognize a genuine one. But the feeling of unease returned as she considered the dangers inherent in any casual acquaintance with a member of the ton.
"Forgive me, ma'am," she said to the woman, surprised that her voice sounded strong and clear. "It was a gift from mon frère-my brother." She hesitated, then added, "He loves to keep secrets when it comes to hats. Bonjour." Claire nodded to the lady and swept confidently through the door.
Once safely outside she forced herself to walk slowly away and to look straight ahead rather than back at the shop. So she missed the eyes of the man as they followed her exit, and the eyes of the lady, as they followed the man.
Edward Tremayne, the twelfth Earl of Ketrick, stared thoughtfully out the shop window.
"Who is she?" he asked. He was surprised to hear Lady Pamela reply, scarcely realizing that he'd spoken out loud.
"I don't know," said Lady Pam. It was an unusual admission for her. "Her French seemed impeccable, but then, we only heard a few words."
"Hmm," said the earl. He had turned back to the shopkeeper's latest effort when another thought struck him. "Her hat-it would have looked marvelous on Melissa, don't you think?"
"Hmm," echoed Lady Pam. Edward didn't see her roll her eyes.
"Pooh," thought Claire, ducking down the nearest alley and making her way home in zigs and zags. "Telling fibs about a hat." Well, it wasn't all a lie, she reassured herself. Jody had found the feathers, and had helped her drag Grandmama Isabelle's old court dress out of a musty attic trunk. The heavy gold satin of the underskirt had been perfect for the simple silk-lined hat.
Jody's feathers, tucked into the satin at a graceful angle, bobbed up and down as Claire moved quickly through another alleyway. She held her skirts as high as she dared and wrinkled her nose at a particularly noxious odor coming from one of the doorways. A large rat scurried across her path, and Claire sidestepped it neatly. Their house, rented for the season, was in a respectable neighborhood, but it wouldn't do to tarry on some of the side streets nearby. The rent consumed almost every pound she had been able to scrape together, even at that. Claire heard the clip-clop of a hackney cab on St. James's Square and knew she was almost home. A few hours of rest would be welcome, and then it would be time to dress for Lady Pemberton's ball.
"I don't like it," said Jody.
Claire sighed. She and her brother had been having the same argument for days. It was remarkable how stubborn a fifteen-year-old boy could be.
"Major Trevor is too old for you. And that baronet is much too old. Besides, he's fat."
"We've been over this before," said Claire, patiently.
"Je sais. I know." Jody screwed up his face and did a passable imitation of his sister's voice. "An older man will be more likely to marry for his own pleasure"-Claire winced at the word-"and less likely to have family scrutinizing every particular of his prospective bride."
"The major and the baronet are both kind, respectable men. I wouldn't marry a cad or a drunk-you know that, Jodrel."
It was Jody's turn to sigh.
"And it's not as if I'm planning to make a fool of my husband, either. I'd work hard to be a good wife, and he would never have cause to regret offering for me."
"I know that, too! Either one of them should consider himself incredibly fortunate to have you."
Claire smiled at her brother's loyal declaration.
"But," Jody added, "you don't love the major, and you certainly don't love the baronet."
Pah, thought Claire, it must be the French blood. They were both sitting cross-legged on the old four-poster in her bedchamber. The fireplace here had a decent draw, making it the coziest room in the house. She threw a pillow at her brother, resulting in a small explosion of feathers. Jody sneezed.
"L'amour!" she exclaimed. "Quelle bêtise! You're fifteen years old, what do you know about love?"
"I know as much as you do!" retorted Jody.
"Ha!" said Claire. "Well, it's a highly overrated commodity, I'm quite sure."
"Perhaps Sir Clarence doesn't think so." Jody, hand over heart, puffed out his cheeks in imitation of the baronet's ample jowls. "'Oh, Mamselle Claire,'" he intoned dramatically, in an execrable Yorkshire-accented French, "'vooz etts ler ploo belle, ler ploo magnifick.'"
Claire grabbed another pillow as Jody dove for a defensive position underneath the duvet.
"'Ler ploo splendeed,'" came his voice faintly.
They both collapsed in laughter.