Min changed into an afternoon dress, while Lord Avery waited for her in the office downstairs. He hadn’t blinked at the price she asked for the two chairs, writing a bank draft for the first chair, and promising payment on delivery for the other. Rumour had it he’d inherited a fortune from an uncle. Perhaps, for once, rumour spoke true.
As she buttoned her pelisse and tied her bonnet strings, she thought wistfully about the far more fashionable clothes that she had at home. How silly. Lord Avery was a client like any other, and she would no more dress up for him than she would for… she cast about for the person she wanted least to impress. Daniel. She would no more dress up for Lord Avery than for Daniel.
They walked down Cornwall St into Walcot Street, Polly Stample keeping a pace behind.”
“How did you come to be making chairs, Miss Bradshaw?” Lord Avery asked. He couldn’t really be interested, but she would tell him, since he asked.
“I began when my mother broke her hip, Lord Avery. She was not entirely happy with the chair made by one of my father’s workmen, and I designed some improvements. It has grown from there.”
“An unusual hobby for a woman,” he commented.
A hobby, indeed. Every man Min knew, from her father down, insisted on seeing her work as a hobby. Never mind that invalid chairs were one of their most profitable lines. And she managed it all, from designing the chairs to keeping the accounts.
“It is a business, not a hobby,” she told Lord Avery.
He opened his mouth as if to say something, then visibly thought better of it.
“Go on,” she said.
He didn’t pretend not to know what she meant. “I don’t wish to make you cross,” he told her. “I value my skin.”
“I will try to resist tossing you into the Avon.”
He laughed out loud. “You would need to trip me, Miss Bradshaw. I’m rather too large for you to lift.”
“Are you changing the subject, Lord Avery?”
He spread his hands in surrender. “I was just going to say that business is rather an unusual hobby for a lady,” he said. “I meant it as a joke, but I decided it wasn’t very funny. Truly, Miss Bradshaw, after the last six months, I have nothing but admiration for anyone who can run a business.”
He sounded sincere. He looked sincere. He couldn’t possibly be sincere. Min knew what the gentry thought of trade. She’d heard it often enough while she was at school. “Mini, darling, whatever is that smell? Have you not washed today? Oh, but I forgot. You cannot wash off the shop, can you darling?”
But Lord Avery was continuing. “I was raised to run the family estate, of course. But I inherited from my uncle six months ago. He ran a huge business, and now I’m trying to learn how to do it. So far, I’ve been lucky in my managers, but Mother says I need to know the impact of every decision made in my name, and how everything works.”
Min nodded. “That is what my father, says, too. My mother says the same applies to running a house. You have to know how to do everything in order to know everything is being done well. This is Pursell’s.”
Lord Avery opened the door to the showroom.
At first the sales assistant was keen to serve him, but he said, “I am just here to escort Miss Bradshaw.”
Min pulled out an off-cut of the velvet they were matching, and leafed through the sample book until she found a match. They didn’t have that colour in stock, but she was assured they could have it dyed and ready for her within a week. Min reviewed her schedule. If Lady Avery was happy to trial the chair for three weeks instead of a month, they could still make the Christmas deadline.
“I wish to select the skins,” she told the sales assistant.
In the storeroom, she inhaled a deep lungful of the smell of fresh leather, then laughed when she realised Lord Avery was doing the same.
“It reminds me of the saddle room at Avery Hall when I was little,” he said. “What about you?”
“My father’s harness shop. When I was little, my mother was in charge of it, and I spent a lot of time there. My mother was a Conti.”
“Conti? Your mother is related to Gavriel Conti?” Lord Avery whistled. “I am sorry, Miss Bradshaw. That was most impolite of me. But Conti Saddlery is a legend. I have a Gavriel Conti saddle, and I wouldn’t part with it for the world.”
“Gavriel Conti was my grandfather,” she had found the stack of skins she wanted and the sales assistant was pulling them out so that she could inspect them.
The sales assistant’s superior attitude had changed to reverence when he realised that he was serving the granddaughter of the great Conti. He must be new. She seldom bought skins herself, usually picking what she wanted from the manufactory’s stores, but she’d been coming here with her parents since she was a babe in arms.
He and Lord Avery were exchanging stories about Conti harnesses and saddles that had come unscathed through trials that would have shredded lesser leatherwork.
He was not what Min had expected. For a brief week, she had convinced herself that he was not like other offspring of the nobility–that he saw past her modest birth and liked her as a person. Then, for three years, she believed he was just like all the others; an idler who thought his noble birth entitled him to a life of ease and plenty, and who looked down on those whose labours made his leisure possible. Now, he confounded her.
If he wasn’t after her money–and if the fortune he had inherited was a tenth of what people said, he didn’t need her money–why had he come seeking her? She discounted the story that he’d told; it was, after all, highly unlikely the Master of the Pump Rooms would send him to her.
She would have to watch him carefully, and guard her heart.
Miss Bradshaw chose the skins she wanted and arranged for them to be dyed and delivered. Out in the street, it was raining again. Candle unfurled his umbrella. He was so much taller than her, that if he held it over both of them, she would be soaked in every gust of wind. When he tried to hold it just over her, though, she objected.
“My bonnet will keep me dry, Lord Avery. I must not take you out of your way.”
“I promised to escort you, Miss Bradshaw. Surely you will allow me to keep my promise? Do you return to your workshop?”
“I am for home on Henrietta Street. Polly and I will be fine.”
Candle turned, and handed the maid his umbrella. One of them might as well be dry.
“Then we will brave the weather together, Miss Bradshaw.” He offered her his arm.
They hurried down Northgate Street and turned towards the bridge. Miss Bradshaw leant into him as she jumped over the puddles he strode past. The magic was still working; she still made him feel strong and capable.
Three years ago, fresh out of university and new to the Guard, he’d been nervous in company, expecting the teasing he’d endured at school to follow him into society. And it did.
But Miss Bradshaw had talked to him about books, and gardens, and animals. She’d listened as he explained his plans for a military career. She’d leant on his arm on walks and waved admiringly as he showed off his one skill, outriding all the other male guests.
Tiny though she was, she never made him feel over tall and clumsy. Indeed, she had confided that she was always nervous in crowds, but not when he was there to protect her. Was it all a tease?
On an impulse, he pulled her into the doorway of Crofts Tea Room, at the entrance to the bridge.
“Miss Polly,” he said to the maid. “Your mistress and I will take shelter in here while you hurry home and fetch another couple of umbrellas.”
The maid turned uncertain eyes to Miss Bradshaw. Would she agree? Candle held his breath.
“Run along, Polly. We will wait in the Tea Room.”
He opened the door for her as the maid hurried off, almost invisible under the big umbrella.
Following close behind her, he almost collided with her back when she stopped suddenly. He was close enough to feel the tension radiating from her, and the effort she made to relax, and continue into the little tea shop.
A servant hurried up. Candle absently asked for a table for two and for tea to be served. Most of his attention was on the couple already seated at the far side of the shop. Guy Kitteridge was one of those who had made his life miserable at Eton and later at Oxford. Kitteridge was with his sister Genevieve, Lady Norton, a slender blonde with a waspish tongue.
They were absorbed in their conversation, and with luck wouldn’t notice Candle and Miss Bradshaw. He waved Miss Bradshaw ahead and followed her and the waiter to a small table near the window that looked out onto the street across the bridge.
Interesting that Miss Bradshaw reacted as she did. Lady Norton had been a great friend of hers three years ago. Although, come to think of it, he hadn’t seen any signs of closeness between them during the house party. It was only after Miss Bradshaw left that Miss Kitteridge, as she was then, told him that they’d been at school together.
Miss Bradshaw had seated herself so that all the brother and sister would see was her back. Candle angled his chair so that he, too, would be hard to recognise.
Lady Norton was the one who told him why Miss Bradshaw left so precipitously. Wasn’t that interesting? Candle beamed. Miss Bradshaw raised her eyebrows. No. He would not explain to her why he was suddenly happy. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps one day.
The servant brought a laden tray. Two cups, a teapot, milk and sugar, a three-tier cake plate filled with delicate sandwiches on the lowest tier, iced cakes on the middle tier, and candied fruit and flowers on the top.
As Miss Bradshaw poured the tea, he tested his new theory. “Mr Kitteridge and Lady Norton are over there in the corner,” he said. Yes. That was a slight grimace, quickly controlled. But it was definitely a grimace.
“No doubt you wish to greet your friend,” was all she said. But the warmth that had begun to creep back into her voice during their afternoon was markedly absent.
“He’s no friend of mine,” Candle assured her.
“You have had a falling out?” She handed him his cup, prepared just the way he had liked it three years earlier.
“We never had a falling in,” Candle said. He was watching the pair from the corner of his eye. They’d seen him–it was hard to be inconspicuous when you were well over 6ft tall and had red hair.
“Don’t look now,” he told Miss Bradshaw, “but they’re coming over.”
“Lord Avery? It is Lord Avery. I told Guy it was you.” Lady Norton was fluttering her eyelashes at him. She must have heard about his inheritance. Three years ago, she had barely acknowledged his existence, except that one time at the end of the house party, and even then she had let him see her contempt. Even when she’d made eyes at him a few months later, she’d made it clear she was stooping to do so.
The contempt was well veiled today, at least in his direction. She didn’t acknowledge Miss Bradshaw’s existence at all.
Well, he could fix that. “You remember Miss Bradshaw, of course,” Candle said.