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"Bother!" I declared, glancing at the calendar. "Is it the end of May already? The butcher's bill is due, and my pockets are to let."
Aunt Hennie looked at me in alarm. She knew I had recently inherited thirty thousand pounds. Prior to this tremendous piece of luck, both sides of my family were mired in genteel poverty.
It was Papa's second wife who brought him a fortune, and obligingly died before him. Lorene was a mean old bint, and I am not hypocrite enough to shed crocodile tears for her passing. I was truly shaken when Papa died a year later. I still miss him. Of course, I miss him a little less every day. It is ironic that Lorene's entire fortune came to me, whom she thoroughly disliked. I spent a year in Cornwall mourning Papa's death, then sold the house and traveled to London to place myself on the Marriage Mart. That was a year ago now, and I am still Miss Denver.
I had no idea it would prove so difficult to purchase a husband. It seems that in order to meet gents of the first stare, one must first make her debut at Court. In order to be presented to Queen Charlotte, one must have the proper connections. We made very few social connections in Cornwall. The fact that I am five and twenty is another obstacle. The mamas are yanking their daughters out of the schoolroom at a younger age every year.
While I rooted through my purse, Aunt Hennie looked at the opulence surrounding us. My saloon was crowded with expensive cast-off furnishings of nobles who were obliged to hawk them to pay the grocer. Indeed, a satinwood commode had been added to the superfluity only that week. It cost me fifty pounds, and is worth a hundred easily. Isnap up any such bargain I see, with the plan of removing to a larger mansion next year. On the walls there gleamed gilt frames holding paintings, not all of them good, but all done by fasionable and expensive artists. The Persian carpet beneath our feet had the honor of being trod on by a duchess last season.
"Must you pay the butcher today?" Hennie asked.
"I pay the merchants every six months, whether they dun me or no. I certainly must pay the butcher. He told Cook he is being married next week, and asked for his money."
"Perhaps I could lend you..."
I smiled indulgently. I knew to a penny that my aunt had a miserable two thousand pounds, which gave her roughly two pounds a week pocket money. How did she manage to look respectable on that pittance? I want to augment Auntie's fortune one of these days. She adamantly refuses to accept a salary for acting as my companion, saying that rack and manger are more than enough. I know she enjoys living in London--who would not, after the confinement of a small vicarage in Cranbrook? Auntie's late husband was vicar of St. Martin's.
"Not necessary, Auntie," I said. "It is a temporary shortage. I shall hawk a piece of jewelry." I swallowed a smile to see her goggle at this strategy. What a mousy little thing she was, all squinty gray eyes, gray gown, gray hair. Sometimes I forget she is even in the room.
"Could you return the satinwood commode?" she asked doubtfully.
I laughed merrily. "I could not part with Lord Hutching's commode. I got it at a terrific bargain from a used-goods dealer in Shepherd's Market. I spotted a pawnshop right next door. We shall go there and place a piece of jewelry I never wear on the counter. Lorene used to take jewelry as collateral for loans. Half the time she got stuck with it. I shall use Mrs. Minton's ring. It has a good-sized diamond, but with a chip out of the corner."
I went up to my room to get the ring out of the safe and get my bonnet. I spared a peek at myself in the hall mirror before entering the saloon. No wonder Auntie found it hard to believe the fashionable dame staring back at me was short of money. I looked the picture of wealth, in my dashing feathered bonnet and teal blue walking suit with a fichu of Mechlin lace. Diamonds sparkled on both hands. The temporary financial shortfall did not hamper my spirits either.
I had been calling myself twenty-one for four years, and meant to continue this ruse until I found a husband. My dark hair, worn in a loose, fashionable coil, was touched with copper from the sunlight entering at the window. My green eyes were not so brilliant as emeralds, but the comparison was not laughable. My figure was good. I was always the energetic sort who preferred walking to driving, and riding to walking or any other mode of transportation.
One thing that displeased me about London was the poor, shambling rides available at Rotten Row. If I do not marry a gentleman who has a country estate soon, I shall buy a little country property close to London, just for the pleasure of riding.
"I don't know what your papa would say if he knew we were going to a pawnshop," Auntie said with a daring smile when we were cutting through the London traffic in my dashing tilbury.
"A good thing he does not know," I replied airily. "Do not judge me by your high standards, Auntie. I pay my bills, and do no harm to any man. We live differently in London, but we are not the dissipated creatures you think us. Where is the harm in borrowing money when you know you can pay it back?"
"I did not mean to criticize, dear," Hennie said hastily. "I know you are good. You handed that beggar a whole guinea the other day on Bond Street, and you are generous with your servants, to make up for your sharp tongue. Charity covers a multitude of sins."
Hennie's compliments usually come with a sharp edge. "Perhaps it is my self-indulgent life that appalls you? Theaters and drives..."
"Oh no! I never had such a wonderful time in my life. I shall never forget it."
A smug smile seized my face. I had done pretty well for a provincial solicitor's daughter. That was Papa's occupation when he met and married Lorene Hansom. She and Papa happened to be in London on business at the same time. They met at their hotel, and before you could say Jack Robinson, they were married. She had inherited mines and things from her papa.
I could not abide Cornwall after Papa died. I lived there only seven years, but they were the years from eighteen to twenty-four, when I should have been meeting potential husbands. In Cornwall I never met a man I would want to spend an afternoon with, let alone a lifetime.
All that stifling tedium was over now. I was in London; I owned the elegant mansion I occupied on South Audley Street, and a small apartment house in town as well. Foster, my man of business, suggested I buy it with a small down payment and let my tenants pay off the mortgage.
The carriage drove south on South Audley to Curzon Street, turned south again, and we were suddenly in Shepherd's Market. It was a mean, narrow lane lined with mean establishments. The few men loitering about were not the sort ladies wished to encounter. A mangy yellow cur was hunched at one doorway, looking about with a hungry eye. I pulled the check string and asked the groom to have the owner come out to me. When in doubt, I take it as a rule of thumb that the ladylike thing to do is whatever is most comfortable for myself.
A moment later his head peered through the window. "Oi, the name's Parker," he said, offering a not very clean hand. He was a fall-faced commoner with dark hair and beady eyes, the sort of man Papa would have called an oiler.
"I want to leave this ring in your safekeeping for a few days," I said. "I shan't take less than a hundred and fifty pounds, mind. It is worth a dozen times that. The stone is ten carats if it is anything."
Parker removed his head and the ring into the sunlight, stuck a loupe in his eye, and examined the stone. I noticed his finger touching the little chipped corner. Very likely he would use that as an excuse to bring down the price. His head reappeared and he said, "I can let you have fifty for it."
I reached out my hand. "Not interested, thank you. There are plenty of reasonable dealers about."
"We'll split the difference, missus. Seventy-five," he said, still holding on to the ring.
I wiggled my fingers imperiously. "Return my property, if you please. I could not possibly accept less than a hundred."
"A hundred it is then," Parker said, muttering for my benefit that he was a fool.
"I shall retrieve it in a week. Mind you don't sell it."
Parker drew the agreement up, right there in the street. He shoved a piece of paper into my hand, drew a roll of bills from his pocket, and counted out a hundred greasy pounds. I gave him the ring, and we were off.
"You always want to ask for fifty percent more than you will take," I explained to Hennie. "I could have got one twenty-five out of that fellow, if I had held out a bit longer." I glanced at the chit he had given me, and snorted. "Fifty percent interest per annum on the loan! Highway robbery! Let it be a lesson to me. Now, Hennie, where to? A scoot through Hyde Park to see the smarts and swells? Or shall we go to Bond Street for a bit of shopping?"
"Let us go to the park," she said. She was afraid the hundred pounds would never reach South Audley Street if I was let loose in a shop with the money. I do shop more than is necessary. At first, I needed a good many fashionable items. Now it has become a habit. When a lady has such a small circle of friends, shopping is one of the few genteel pastimes available to her. On that afternoon, however, we just drove to Hyde Park, and watched the ton disporting themselves.
It was always an agony to me, yet I kept at it. I felt very much an outsider when I saw the handsome young people talking and laughing together. They seemed to form a charmed circle, and I was the perpetual outsider. The few times I seemed about to crack society, I learned that my beau was a gazetted fortune hunter. One man I met at the theater, the other here at Hyde Park. I was not so eager to join the golden circle that I was willing to pay for it with Lorene's fortune.