Genevieve Norton, known at school at Kitty Cat, rounded her blue, blue eyes into her innocent look. Min had seen her practicing that look and a dozen others in front of a mirror. “Why, if it isn’t little Miss Bradshaw. Fancy seeing you here.”
“I live in Bath,” Min said.
“Oh, I know that.” Lady Norton slid her eyes sideways to Lord Avery, inviting him to join in the fun. “I meant here in a tea shop. With a man. On your own. Oh but perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps the rules are different for those who are not ladies.” And she lowered her voice to not quite whisper to Lord Avery, “She is a tradeswoman you know. Carriages or some such.”
He smiled warmly at Min. “As it happens, Lady Norton, you have interrupted a business meeting. Miss Bradshaw is designing an invalid chair for my mother. I know you will excuse us if we continue.”
“Know what kind of business I’d like to discuss with Miss Bradshanks.” Mr Kitteridge said, waggling his eyebrows at her.
Lord Avery’s nostrils flared. She had heard the expression, but she’d never seen it happen. But his voice was quiet and controlled when he said, “Kitteridge, Perhaps you and your sister had better leave now.”
Lady Norton fluttered her eyelashes at him again. Practiced expression number 8, or was it 9? “Lord Avery, you must call while you are in Bath. Perhaps tomorrow afternoon?”
“Thank you, Lady Norton. However, I expect to be leaving Bath in the morning.” He was taking the Merlin chair home and then coming back, but no need to tell them that.
Kitteridge, his eyes on Min, opened his mouth and then thought better of whatever inappropriate remark he was about to make. He said good day, instead. “Come on, Vivi. Best be on our way. Things to do tonight, you know.”
Lady Norton laughed, a tinkling little sound of amusement, also practiced. “Such a busy place Bath is this month, Lord Avery. Tell me, are you staying at the Royal?”
“I am not,” Lord Avery said.
“Come on, Vivi. Your servant, Avery. Miss Bradshanks.”
Lord Avery took his seat again, and picked up the cup she’d poured for him.
“Do you suppose he gets your name wrong on purpose?” he asked? “Or is it general stupidity?”
The twinkle in his eyes put the nasty couple back into perspective. Now she was an adult, their petty insults had no power to hurt her. She didn’t move in their circles, and they weren’t respected in hers. Anxiety, indignation: both receded under Lord Avery’s calm amusement.
“A little of both, I believe,” she replied.
“What a poisonous pair,” he said. “Did she make your school days as unpleasant as he made mine? You know, when you disappeared from the house party, she told me that you had just been playing at liking me for the amusement of your friends. Her exact words, if I remember, were ‘after all, Captain Avery, you are not exactly the answer to a young girl’s prayers, are you?’ I shouldn’t have believed her, should I?”
Good heavens. She shook her head, her mind racing. Those past few hours at the house party had been too painful to remember, but now she was reliving the conversation that had sent her running to her room, to wait, wide-awake, till morning dawned and she could leave.
“Why did you leave?” Lord Avery asked.
“I heard… I thought I heard you discussing me with Mr Kitteridge. But I did not realise till just now. I heard his voice, but I never heard yours. Kitty Cat–Lady Norton–had told me you were just after my money, but she always sees the worst in everyone… And then… Do you remember that I tore my hem and went to have it sewn up?”
“I remember. It was the last time I saw you.” His eyes were sombre.
“I came back to the alcove where you were waiting, and I heard Mr Kitteridge say, ‘Avery, old chap, you have to admit, if you must marry the shop, it comes in quite a tasty package.’ I could not move. I just stood there. I heard someone reply, very low. I couldn’t make out the voice or the words, but Mr Kitteridge said, ‘That’s right, Avery. No need to take her into society once you’ve got your hands on her lovely money.'” She blushed, remembering the rest of his sentence, which she wasn’t going to repeat. ‘Keep her at home and enjoy all her other lovely assets where the smell of the shop won’t bother the neighbours. I wouldn’t mind getting an heir and a spare on that one, I can tell you.’
“Damn his lying, cheating eyes,” Candle said, forgetting for a moment that he was in the presence of a lady. “I beg your pardon, Miss Bradshaw. Will you believe I wasn’t there? When you left for the retiring room, I went to get us some punch. I stopped to talk to some people. I was watching the door, but someone…” he stopped, his eyes unfocused for a moment as he looked back into his memories. “Lady Norton bumped into me and spilled the punch. I had my eyes off the door for several minutes.”
Miss Bradshaw nodded. “She was in the retiring room. She spent 10 minutes telling me how improvident you were, and how unworthy I was, and on, and on–all in that sweet ‘I am only trying to help’ voice of hers. She left just before I did.”
“They planned it. They were in it together.”
Miss Bradshaw had clearly come to the same conclusion. Slowly and deliberately, she repeated, “Damn their lying, cheating eyes.”
Candle gave a bark of laughter, then turned suddenly serious. “We have wasted a bit of time, haven’t we? May we start again, Miss Bradshaw? I was courting you, you know. I’d like to court you again, if I may.”
Miss Bradshaw shook her head, sadly. “We come from different worlds, you and I. The Kitteridges were right about that.”
“It didn’t matter back then.”
“I was 17 back then. I believed Cinderella could marry the prince. I did not think about what her life would be like the next morning, raised to scrub out the kitchen and surrounded by people who despised kitchen maids.”
Candle would have argued, but the maid arrived with the umbrellas. Miss Bradshaw thanked him for the tea.
“Polly and I will be fine from here, Lord Avery. It is only just around the corner.”
Candle insisted, though, on escorting them both to her father’s fine terraced house on Henrietta Street.
She gave him her hand in parting, and one of those warm smiles that melted him from the centre. “I am so glad to know what really happened at the house party, Lord Avery. All these years, I have believed I was mistaken in you. I am happy to know that I was not.”
He raised her hand, so tiny and delicate in his, but wiry and strong and capable. “Please know that my admiration was, and is, genuine, Miss Bradshaw.” He kissed the air above the back of her hand, fighting the temptation to press his lips to her glove–or to strip the glove off and lay his kiss in her palm.
He doused the thought. All unbidden, it had left her sweet palm to travel up her arm and beyond, and he had to remain respectful if it killed him. Any sign that he regarded her as less than a lady would, he was sure, condemn him take her decision on his proposed courtship as final. And that, he had no intention of doing.