Candle’s Christmas Chair first chapters

Chapter one: An unexpected meeting

bookcoverccc-1“Tha’ wants to talk to Min about they chairs,” said the man in the office, and directed Candle Avery to the far corner of the carriage-maker’s yard.

Candle strode through the light rain, dodging or leaping the worst of the mud and puddles. Min. Short for Benjamin, perhaps? Or Dominic?

No, he concluded, as his eyes adjusted to the light inside the shed. The delightful posterior presented to his eyes belonged to neither a Benjamin nor a Dominic. The overalls were masculine, but the curves they covered were not.

She was on a ladder, leaning so far into a bank of shelves that lined the wall opposite the door that her upper half was hidden, but he had no objection to the current view—said delightful posterior at his eye level and neatly outlined as she stretched, a pair of trim ankles showing between the tops of her sensible half boots and the hems of the overalls.

“Botheration.” Whatever she was reaching for up there, it was not obliging her by coming to her hand. Perhaps his lofty height might be of service?

“May I help, Ma’am?” he asked.

There was a crash as she jerked upright at the sound of his voice, and hit her head on the shelf above. As she flinched backward from the collision, the ladder tipped sideways, spilling its occupant into Candle’s hastily outstretched arms.

The curves were everything he thought, and the face lived up to them. A Venus in miniature, black curls spilling from the kerchief that held them away from the heart-shaped face, that quintessentially English complexion known as peaches and cream, grey eyes fringed with dark lashes.

Grey eyes that had haunted his dreams for three long years, ever since she’d led him on at a house party for the amusement of her friends, and then left without saying goodbye.

Grey eyes that turned stormy as he held her a moment too long. He hastily set her down.

“Miss Bradshaw.”

“Captain Avery. No, it is Lord Avery, now, is it not? My condolences on the death of your father.”

He bowed his acknowledgement, his mind racing. Bradshaw Carriages. He hadn’t made the connection. Had he known when he was courting her that she was a carriage-maker’s daughter? He didn’t remember anyone mentioning it.

But he did remember that her friends called her Minnie. Miss Minerva Bradshaw. Min.

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Lord Avery was broader than she remembered. He’d been little more than a boy at that horrid house party, but even then the tallest man she had ever met. Isolated and nervous in that crowd of scheming cats who had only invited her to humiliate her, she’d believed him when he claimed to care. She’d been thrilled when he called her a little goddess, and asked for leave to worship her.

With him at her side, she’d braved the crush at the ball. Short as she was, she usually found such occasions overwhelming. People looked over her, bumped into her, ignored her. But Lord Avery—Captain Avery he’d been then—kept her safe. She’d even, for the first time in her life, been enjoying herself at a ball. Right up until she overheard his best friend talking to him, and it became clear that Lord Avery despised her common origins and was only courting her for her money.

That had been Min’s last venture into the aristocratic world her parents had educated her for. She’d come home to Bath, and told her mother that she would marry, if marry she ever did, within her own class. But none of her suitors had ever measured up to the tall red-headed guards officer who even now, standing here in her workshop, turned her knees to jelly.

What was he doing in her workshop? Why would he track her down?

“Can I help you, Lord Avery?” She couldn’t do much about the colour that pinked her cheeks, or the way her heart pounded. But she could, and did, keep her voice level and her tone cool.

He was immediately all business. “I am after a chair, Miss Bradshaw. It is still Miss Bradshaw?”

She nodded, seething. How dare he comment on her marital status. She wanted to tell him that she’d refused five proposals in the last three years. But he was continuing: “The Master at the Pump Rooms told me that Bradshaw Carriages makes the best chairs in Bath, and the man in the office sent me here.”

“I see. And what sort of a chair do you require?”

His brows drew together. “An invalid’s chair. That is what you make, is it not? What your father makes, I mean?”

He might as well know the whole of it. She was not ashamed. And if his eyes turned cold and scornful, what was that to her? She was, no doubt, just imagining the warmth she saw. As she had imagined his admiration so long ago.

“You were right the first time, Lord Avery. I design the chairs. And I make each prototype for my assistants to copy.”

“I say,” he said, “good for you!” And he smiled at her. She remembered those smiles. And, though her mind knew he couldn’t be trusted, her foolish heart didn’t believe her.

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Miss Bradshaw was as lovely as he remembered. Such a shame that she preferred other women! He’d refused to believe it at first, when her friend hinted it to him after she had run off. What a fool he had made of himself over her.

“So can you sell me an invalid’s chair, then?” he asked.

She sighed, and in a patient voice explained, “I need to know more about how the chair will be used, Lord Avery. We have chairs suitable for street use, chairs that work well in a park, chairs that can be easily pushed inside a house, even chairs that can be propelled by the occupant. What sort of chair do you require?”

“I see.” That made sense. What didn’t make sense were the signals he was receiving. Three years ago he’d been as close to an innocent as a 19-year-old with a father like his could be. But his time in the Coldstream Guards had taught him a great deal, including what to think when a woman’s pupils dilated, and she became breathless and flushed.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Certainly, his own anatomy had a strong opinion about what to do with the delectable Miss Bradshaw and his own reaction might be predisposing him to misread hers.

Inspiration struck.

“Can you show me each different type and explain what the different uses are, please, Miss Bradshaw?”

There. That should win Candle at least 15 minutes to observe her while she showed him around.

She stood her ground. “Who is the chair for, Lord Avery.”

Good point. He needed to remember his key purpose in coming here, which had nothing to do with pursuing the elusive Miss Bradshaw.

“My mother was injured in the same accident that killed my father,” he told her baldly. “She is paralysed from the waist down. I wish to buy her a chair so that she is not totally dependent on being carried to go where she wishes.”

Miss Bradshaw’s lovely grey eyes softened and warmed. He remembered how changeable those eyes were. They could go cold with disdain, hot and stormy with anger, and warm with compassion. Lying eyes. He had to keep reminding himself that she had made a fool of him.

“Ah, your poor mother. Yes, we will certainly find a chair for her. And what sort of places does she wish to go?”

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Min showed Lord Avery the inside chairs first. He was very taken with the Merlin chairs, named after the inventor, a clockmaker who had built a self-propelled chair after he’d broken his leg. Lord Avery asked her to demonstrate how to turn the handles on the arms, and then insisted on trying the chair himself, folding his great length in order to fit.

“I think we should have one of those,” he said, brushing past her as he circled the chair, examining it from all sides. He skimmed his hands down the chair’s sides, gently caressing, and Min’s mouth went unaccountably dry.

“Yes, well,” she said. “Over here we have the outdoor chairs.” She had designed them for different types of surface, changing the size and pitch of the large wheels on either side of the chair, and lengthening or shortening the undercarriage to change the distance between the chair and the small front wheel that the occupant could turn in order to steer.

Once again, Lord Avery insisted on trying the chairs, handing her into each one, parading her solemnly up and down the workshop, and then handing her out. Fortunately, he seemed focused on the chairs, and didn’t notice her fingers trembling. His effect on her seemed stronger than ever.

“I like this one,” he said, finally, pointing to the one chair they hadn’t tried.

“I am sorry,” she told him. “That one is not for sale.”

“But it would be perfect,” he said. “The wheels are broad, so Mother won’t sink into the grass when she strolls in the garden, and they are slightly skewed to give her greater stability. The longer undercarriage also improves stability, but it isn’t long enough to impair turning, so she will be able to manage even the paths in the maze. It’s perfect.”

He’d listened to her every word. More; he’d understood exactly what she was trying to do.

“It is a prototype,” she explained. “I do not sell my prototypes, and I do not manufacture until the prototype has been thoroughly tested.”

He was nodding before she’d finished. “That’s even better. Let us test it for you. And once you are satisfied, you can sell us one of the new models.”

He took both her hands as she opened her mouth to reply, speaking before she could. “Please, Miss Bradshaw. It would mean so much to her. She used to practically live in her garden, rain and shine. To be able to get there again without being carried; to be able to move around and decide where she wants to go—it would mean the world to her.”

His big hands cupped hers; his thumbs stroked across her trapped fingers. For a moment, she was almost mesmerised, but then she tugged her hands, and he released her instantly.

“But you wanted it for Christmas.” It was a weak protest, close to a capitulation, and he clearly knew it.

“But this is even better, don’t you see? She’ll get the use of a chair immediately, without waiting for Christmas, and at Christmas she’ll have one made just for her. Oh. But will there be enough time?”

It was late October. Not quite two months to go. Yes, they could do it. Min would need to start building the model before she got the prototype back, but the final testing was unlikely to prompt major changes.

“I will need to upholster the chair and to run some final tests, then your mother could have it for perhaps a month? I will need to talk to her after that.”

“Of course. I’m going to take that—did you call it a Merlin? I’ll take the Merlin with the red cushions. She loves red. Could you cover the new chair in the same fabric?”

“I could possibly do the same colour,” Min agreed. Did she have enough red leather? No; she’d cut the last skin a few days ago. Perhaps she could get some from the main carriage works. If not, she’d have to make a trip to the leather merchants.

He nodded, running a hand over the plush surface of the Merlin and immediately leaping to the right conclusion. “You use leather for the outdoor chairs, don’t you? They might get wet, I suppose.”

“Minnie, are you in here?” That was her cousin Daniel’s inevitable greeting, as if her presence in her own workshop was a perpetual surprise to him. He followed his voice into the room, and drew himself up to his full height, still a good seven inches shorter than Lord Avery.

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The man who called Miss Bradshaw ‘Minnie’ in that familiar way was built like a bull: broad in the shoulders and chest, with massive arms and a thick neck. Candle grudgingly admitted he was handsome enough, in a thick-set kind of way, his blond hair slightly overlong, square-cut even features, and fine hazel eyes currently fixed on Candle in challenge.

Miss Bradshaw kept her smooth calm. “Lord Avery, may I present my cousin, Daniel Whitlow? Daniel, Viscount Avery is here to purchase a chair for his mother.”

The bull relaxed slightly, returning Candle’s nod. “Minnie—Miss Bradshaw—designs the best chairs in Bath, Lord Avery.” He rested a proprietary hand on Miss Bradshaw’s shoulder. “You won’t regret choosing one of her chairs.”

“Two,” Candle said. “Two chairs.” How proprietary was this cousin? Not that Candle cared. Not after what she did three years ago. Or did she? If her friend was mistaken about her preferences, did she tell the truth about Miss Bradshaw’s reasons for leaving? The bull was saying something else.

“One for indoors, and one for outdoors,” Candle explained.

“Daniel, I need dark red leather for the outdoor chair. Can I purchase some from your stock?”

The bull nodded. “Yes, we bought a whole cart-load of skins dyed for the Mail order. We could spare you a skin or two.”

“The one you’re using is a bit more orange. I had in mind this colour.” She ran her hand over the Merlin chair, as Candle had a few minutes ago. In precisely the same place. He wondered if she realised that. He shifted his hat, strategically.

The bull shook his head again. “No. Nothing that colour.”

Candle was opening his mouth to say he’d choose another colour when the bull went on, “And I can’t spare anyone today to take you down to buy some. We’re going to be all hands working late as it is.”

“I could escort you, Miss Bradshaw?” Candle offered.

The bull examined him with narrowed eyes.

“After all, the sooner the chair is covered, the sooner my mother can try it out,” Candle went on, looking as innocent as he knew how.

It was enough. The bull nodded again. A beast of few words. “Take your maid, Minnie. Your servant, Lord Avery.”

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Min changed into an afternoon dress in the room her father kept for her in the main building, 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 a nabob 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 least wanted to impress. Daniel. She would no more dress up for Lord Avery than for Daniel.

They walked down Cornwall Street into Walcot Street, Polly Stample keeping 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 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 and looked sincere, but it couldn’t possibly be true. 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?” ‘Mini’ was short for ‘Minimus’, a comment on her size, and she hated it.

But Lord Avery was continuing. “I was raised to run the family estate, of course. But I also 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, and that seems sound to me.”

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 assumed Lord Avery was the customer, but Lord Avery 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 changed to reverence when he realised that he was serving the granddaughter of the great Conti. He must be new or he would have known. 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.

The sales assistant and Lord Avery began exchanging stories about Conti harnesses and saddles that had come unscathed through trials that would have shredded lesser leatherwork.

Lord Avery 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 he’d told; it was, after all, highly unlikely the Master of the Pump Rooms would send him to her, of all people.

She would have to watch him carefully, and guard her heart.

 

Chapter two: Truth in a tea shop

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 she 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 taken 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 liked his height. 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 House, at the entrance to the bridge.

“Miss Polly,” he said to the maid. “Your mistress and I will take shelter 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 rooms.”

He opened the door for Min as the maid hurried off, almost invisible under the big umbrella.

Following behind, he almost collided with Min’s 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 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 told him they’d been at school together.

Miss Bradshaw had seated herself so all the brother and sister would see was her back. Candle angled his chair so he, too, would be hard to recognise.

Lady Norton was the one who had 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 savoury tarts on the lowest tier, delicate 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 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 to show her contempt.

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.

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Genevieve Norton, known at school as 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.”

“I 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.”

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. Better 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 Min had 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 she was now 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 have just this moment realised. I heard his voice, but the other voice. It was very low; I assumed it was yours, but… 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.’

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“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 remembered. “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.

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