Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson
A Daughter's Destiny
Jo Ann Ferguson
Sister-in-law and friend
There it was! Again!
Brienne LeClerc dropped the knife onto the kitchen table and rushed to the back door. Throwing it open, she looked both ways along the alley.
Fog twisted as if in pain through the trash pressed up against the walls of the buildings. A cat yowled in victory at catching its dinner. Rain splattered the ground that was the same gray as the fog.
But no one was in the narrow space. From the street, she could hear the calls of teamsters and the clatter of wagon wheels. Not the whisper of a footfall intruded in the empty alley.
Brienne shut the door and frowned. The first time she had caught the motion out of the corner of her eye, she had guessed it belonged to the delivery boy from Covent Garden. He was late. The next time she had thought she had seen someone, she had waited for his knock. Now, this third time â¦ mayhap it had been just Madame Dumont's cat.
Although the kitchen was hot while this evening's selections cooked on the iron stove, she shivered. Odd things had been happening lately. Grand-mÃ¨re had laughed at Brienne's disquiet. So many people traveled in London's crowded streets; therefore it was not strange that a man should follow the same route through Soho as Brienne did while on her errands yesterday and the day before. She must not be fanciful when so much work waited here at L'Enfant de la Patrie.
She laughed softly, not wanting to disturb Maman, who was resting upstairs. Grand-mÃ¨re would be pleased to hear that any man was paying attention to Brienne. A young woman should have many callers, Grand-mÃ¨re believed.
Brienne had no time for callers. Her hours were filled with the chores necessary to keep the salon open and her patrons well-fed and eager to return.
Taking a deep breath and savoring the aromas of red wine and garlic, she went to the table where she had been chopping carrots. Her patrons among the
would not arrive at the salon off Tottenham Court Road until long past dark, but she still needed to iron the napkins and arrange the flowers for the tables in the salon.
The bell over the front door chimed. At last! The delivery boy must be here, because no one else should be entering at this hour.
. Another tremor cut across her shoulders. She tried to shrug it away. Grand-mÃ¨re was correct. She was too fanciful.
She drew the pass-through aside. “Tip, how many times have I told you to make deliveries to the kitchen door?”
“If I were Tip, I might know the answer.” The deep voice resounded in the salon as if heralding the Prince Regent.
Stop being fanciful!
Putting down her knife, Brienne peered through the small window. Her view was blocked by a stack of extra plates on the sideboard. She gasped as a shadow cut across the window, just as it had at the back door. Tempted to ask if he had been in the alley, she could not as her gaze met eyes the same blue as the plates. Those eyes pierced her as fiercely as a shard of china. Mesmerizing, they refused to let her look away.
Then, so abruptly her breath caught, the eyes crinkled in amusement. She clutched the sill of the pass-through. Who was this man who could unsettle her with a mere look?
“I am looking for a Miss Laclerk,” said the voice that belonged to those extraordinary eyes, which were ringed with a deeper blue.
His appalling pronunciation freed her from his spellbinding gaze. Maman always was distressed by how the English slaughtered their name. Of course, Maman hated everything English. Brienne could not share that prejudice, for she had been only an infant when the Terror had forced her family to flee Paris. England with all its quirks was home.
“One moment, sir,” she said, closing the small window.
Leaning against the wall, she forced her heart to slow its frantic beat. The man's voice was quality. Her flighty thoughts must not betray her into insulting a potential patron.
She straightened her unbleached muslin dress and grimaced when she noted the spots splattered across the high bodice. No apron ever caught everything she splashed. She pulled off her apron and tossed it onto the table.
Gathering up the carrots she had chopped, she dropped them into the soup. She dipped the spoon and took a sip. Grand-mÃ¨re was appalled at the very idea of such samples, but Brienne could not cook without them. After pinching a bit of sage into the bubbling pot, she hurried to the salon door.
The room was as elegant as the kitchen was utilitarian. White latticework climbed one wall where she struggled to keep flowers alive amid the smoke and dust of London. With the salon boasting walls the color of a summer sky and a stone floor and bricks edging the room's single window, she hoped her patrons would believe they had entered a hushed garden.
As she walked past the half dozen tables, Brienne wondered what the tall man, now standing by the front door, wanted. He glanced around the salon with disinterest, but his clean-shaven jaw was taut.
He was dressed well enough to be part of the
, but not as grand as a peer. A younger son, mayhap, or a gentleman aspiring to match his money with the hand of a penniless lord's daughter to gain a title for his son. His brocade waistcoat was shadowed to a dusky maroon by the lowered shades over the window. He wore tan breeches beneath a perfectly tailored coat of cocoa-colored wool that was lightly spotted with rain. Above his white cravat, which was tied as fashion dictated, his hair was a warm, light brown. He carried a silk hat in his hand.
“I am Brienne LeClerc,” she said as his gaze came back to her. Again her heart started to thud against her chest, for those eyes were even more powerful at close range.
“A pleasure, Miss LeClerc.” When she smiled at his proper pronunciation, he took her hand in his, which was gloved in walnut-colored leather. He bowed over it, but did not raise it to his lips. “My name is Evan Somerset. I had the honor of dining here last evening. The meal was one of the finest examples of French cuisine I have ever sampled. I wanted to tell you that, so please forgive my intrusion at this hour.”
She smiled. Grand-mÃ¨re would be pleased to hear of this call. “Mr. Somerset, I hope you will join us at L'Enfant de la Patrie again some evening.”
“I had hoped to speak with you now, Miss LeClerc,” he said as she turned toward the kitchen door.
“About what?” She did not have time to waste on idle chitchat, but she must not antagonize any patron. “I should warn you, Mr. Somerset, that I do not share my recipes with anyone's kitchen.”
“Wise of you.” His eyes narrowed, although his face did not lose its polished smile. “If I may â¦” He pointed to the sideboard beneath the pass-through.
“If you may what?”
“Indulge me, Miss LeClerc. I need to satisfy my curiosity.”
His eyes crinkled again, but she was not fooled. They were cool and appraising every motion she made. What could he possibly be interested in on the sideboard? The wrinkled napkins? She bit her lip. The silver was spread across it. Could he be a thief disguised as a gentleman? Had he been checking out every entrance and exit to the salon in hopes of robbing her?
“I intend you no harm, Miss LeClerc.”
“I am pleased to hear that.” She wondered if he could read her thoughts.
Don't be fanciful!
She was standing as stiff as a Beefeater at his post. Anyone with a hint of insight could see she was disquieted.
“I know this is a most unusual request.” His deep voice took on a soothing warmth. “Do humor me, mademoiselle.”
Brienne gestured toward the sideboard, not wanting to own that she was more than a bit curious to discover what had intrigued him enough to bring him out on this foggy, rain-swept day. She watched him walk to the old oak cabinet. Every step was measured yet graceful. The image of Madame Dumont's cat stalking some hapless creature burst into her head. What was Evan Somerset on the prowl for?
She frowned as he reached behind the pile of unironed napkins and picked up a vase. Held in his broad hands, the vase seemed even smaller than its scanty six inches. Why was he interested in that? For years, it had been collecting dust upstairs. When Brienne had noticed it last week, she had brought it down because its blue color complemented the dishes. She had since decided not to use it because the gilt bolt of lightning slicing across its side ruined the serenity of the salon.
When he turned it upside down, she cried, “Mr. Somerset, no!”
Water splashed over his breeches and shoes, and he cursed. She shoved several napkins into his hand. He dabbed at his shoes without putting the vase back onto the sideboard.
“You could have warned me a bit sooner,” he said with a grin. She was amazed, because she had guessed he would be furious. His golden brown eyebrows arched to a rakish angle. “I trust that was not the excellent white wine sauce that I enjoyed last night.”
“No, only water.” She was astonished at her reluctance to own that. Mr. Somerset, with his practiced smile, alarmed her more than he should, and she wished he would take his leave.
“Is that so?” He balanced the vase on his palm. “Miss LeClerc, I am prepared to offer you Å50 for this lovely vase.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Is that too little?”
She plucked the vase from his hand, then drew herself up to her full height so her eyes were level with the cleft in his chin. “Are you mad?”
“I would prefer to think not.”
His composure threatened to undo hers even more. “Then, why are you offering me Å50 for a useless piece of bric-a-brac?”
His gaze glided along her. She wanted to flee back to the safety of her kitchen, but she could not move, save for her heart that sped like a racehorse. The strong emotions in his cobalt eyes confirmed what she had guessed. Evan Somerset was a man who guarded the truth as closely as a miser watched every ha'penny.
“Mayhap the vase has been useless to you,” he said with that smoothness that was no longer soothing, “but I suspect you might be willing to part with it for Å100.”
“I am willing to pay twice that, but no higher. Surely Å200 would be of some use to you.”
Brienne faltered. So much money would have many uses. A new coat for Grand-mÃ¨re. Flowers to brighten Maman's room. A new stove for the parlor upstairs. There might even be enough for a visit to the theater, a treat she had not enjoyed in more than a year.
He smiled and ran a finger along the lightning bolt on the vase. She pulled back, holding it against her splattered bodice. A mistake, she realized instantly, for his gaze followed. The heat from his eyes seared her breast, and she did not dare to breathe.
His voice became hushed. “Very beautiful. I would say exceptional.”
“The gentle curve, the smoothness, the warmth.” His eyes sparked like iron wheels on the cobbles. “All in all, exceptional.”
“I would not have described this vase as exceptional.”
“Neither would I.”
“But you just said â¦” Her face became hot.
“By Jove, I believe I have insulted you when I meant only to pay you a compliment.” He reached under his coat. “And Å200 if that is acceptable to you.”
“It is not!”
He frowned, and she took a step back, for his eyes were as cold as a frost fair day. “Please be careful, Miss LeClerc. That vase is very valuable.”
“Its only value is sentimental, for my father gave it to my mother before he died.”
“My client has seen it and is willing to pay highly.”
He withdrew a leather folder from beneath his coat. Pulling out an engraved card, he offered it. She looked at his fake smile. What was he hiding?
“Miss LeClerc?” he prompted, pressing the card into her hand.
When she was about to put the vase on a table, he tensed. Would he try to snatch it? She tightened her grip around its slender neck as she looked at the calling card.
DEALER IN FINE ART AND ANTIQUITIES
She held the card out to him. “I suspect you have been the butt of a very expensive prank, Mr. Somerset.”
“It is no prank. I must have the vase. I have offered you Å200. Be reasonable, Miss LeClerc.”
“The vase is not for sale.”
“Not for sale?” His smile became as frigid as his eyes. “My dear Miss LeClerc, everything is for sale. All one needs to do is find the price.”
“You are mistaken. Everything is not for sale at L'Enfant de la Patrie.”
“I bid you good day, sir. Ifâ”
His arm around her waist tugged her to him. His gaze held hers again as his fingers splayed across her back, pressing her to the hard planes of his chest. “'Tis a shame, Miss LeClerc,” he said softly, “that you are so sorely mistaken. Everything and everyone has a price. Find it, and what you want is yours.” His hand slid up her back to curl around her nape as he whispered, “And I have found what I want right here in your salon.”