Authors: The Unlikely Angel
As she stood there, mesmerized, he parted the measuring tape and slid his hands down her sides, slowly, gently, tracing her shape, verifying those numbers experimentally. Trickles of excitement wended their way along the underside of every exposed inch of her skin. Suddenly, all she could see were his full, ripely curved lips.
“Thirty-eight … twenty-four … thirty-six. You do indeed have curves, Mad Madeline,” he said huskily, staring into her eyes. “But now the question is, are those numbers the result of your reformed foundations, or are they just you?” He let the tape drop to the floor and brought one hand up to stroke the curve of her cheek.
“There is only one sure way to settle the matter,” he said, brushing his fingertips down the side of her neck and down her shoulder so that they came to rest on the top button of her tunic. With a deft twist of his fingers, it was freed from its velvet loop.…
THE HUSBAND TEST
SWEET TALKING MAN
THE SOFT TOUCH
THE UNLIKELY ANGEL
THE PERFECT MISTRESS
THE LAST BACHELOR
And coming soon
NOT QUITE MARRIED
A Bantam Book / May 1996
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1996 by Betina Krahn.
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For my own, personal angel
Donald Robert Krahn
January 3, 1948–November 18, 1995
With all my heart
London, January 1882
It wouldn’t be a large inheritance. Once the bequests were made and the estate taxes and legal fees were paid, there would be just enough for a modest annual income. But a modest inheritance was perfectly fine with her, Madeline Duncan told herself as she climbed the sweeping marble staircase of the East India Building. The years she had spent tending her aunt Olivia during a prolonged illness had been the old lady’s true legacy to her … filled with learning and discussion, illuminating thoughts and broadening horizons. Whatever provisions Aunt Olivia had made for Madeline’s future would be more than enough.
Hurrying around the domed and columned rotunda, Madeline looked from the letterhead on the paper she gripped to the names emblazoned in gold on polished mahogany doors. Her stomach began to draw into a knot. The gleaming brass, carved marble, oiled leather, and faint redolence
of ink and cigar smoke bespoke great expenditure and even greater income. She had heard the names of her aunt’s solicitors many times, but she had not known they worked in such splendor. It occurred to her that their fees would undoubtedly be commensurate with the elegance of their surroundings. Pausing in the hall before an ornate set of doors reading Ecklesbery, Townshend, and Dunwoody, Ltd., she squared her shoulders and revised her modest expectations for her future … downward.
The door closed with a solid thud behind her, a subtle reminder of the weightiness of the legal establishment housed within. Madeline found herself in a paneled reception room hung with somber portraits and furnished with stuffed chairs and a carved foyer table with an ornate bronze scale sitting on it.
She pulled her long woolen cloak tighter around her and approached the clerk’s desk, clearing her throat. The clerk, a wiry young man, shot to his feet at the mention of her name. But before he could speak, the door to one of the inner offices flew back with a bang and a portly, well-dressed man burst through the opening. “She’s swooned! Go for a female—that charwoman, downstairs—” He wheeled and charged back into his office without closing the door.
“Yes, Mr. Townshend,” the clerk muttered, and bolted for the hall.
Left abruptly alone, Madeline edged across the reception room and peered through the open doorway. In a spacious wood-paneled office, a woman in black was dangling precariously over the side of a chair. Three gentlemen crowded around her, staring at her with a mixture of consternation and annoyance.
“Dashed widows—they’re always going off like this,” the heavyset Townshend was saying as he snatched up a pillow from the nearby sofa and gave the woman a fanning. “Always seems to happen just before dinner,” observed a second
fellow with a dapper gray mustache. He glanced at his pocket watch. “Most inconvenient …”
“It’s the shock. Silly females. Haven’t a clue to their circumstances.” A rail-thin older gentleman hastily poured a glass of water from the carafe on the desk and turned back to the chair—only to realize that the unconscious woman could not possibly make use of it. Scowling, he bent to peer at her face. “I say, Townshend, should we do something?”
“Looks deuced uncomfortable,” the mustached gentleman said, leaning down to scrutinize her as well. “Is she still breathing?”
“Difficult to say, Dunwoody, with her all twisted about and hanging upside down.” Townshend glanced over his shoulder with a twitch of irritation. “Where is Tattersall with that female person?”
“Perhaps we should stretch her out somewhere.” Dunwoody gestured to the tufted leather sofa.
“Stretch her out?
her?” Townshend drew a sharp breath.
“Touch her personage? Highly irregular.” The older fellow scowled at his colleague. “Not to mention improper.”
“But what if she isn’t breathing?” Dunwoody looked a bit nervous and tugged at his mustache. “Women do wear contraptions that sometimes interfere—”
” The thin fellow raised his nose an indignant inch.
Madeline’s eyes widened, then narrowed.
Silly men. There they stood, posturing and pontificating, while the poor woman was all but expiring!
Never one to stand idly by while something needed doing, she sailed through the open door, startling the trio of solicitors. As she advanced, they abruptly retreated.
can be of help.” Madeline knelt by the chair and raised the woman’s drooping head, brushing a silk mourning veil out of the way. The woman’s face was pale and clammy and there was a tinge of blue about her lips. “As I suspected,” Madeline said, lifting the woman’s upper half
back into the chair. “She needs air. We must move her to the sofa.”
The men looked at each other, clearly appalled by the prospect of personal contact with a person of the female persuasion. But when Madeline looked up expectantly, Townshend and Dunwoody reluctantly went to help her.
When the woman was safely deposited on the sofa, Madeline asked for smelling salts and a bit of privacy. The gentlemen solicitors fairly stumbled over each other in their haste to quit the room.
Madeline knelt, listened to the woman’s shallow, troubled breathing, and ran her fingers over the woman’s impossibly narrow waist. “Small wonder she’s fainted,” she muttered. “Cinched up worse than a Suffolk sausage.” She rolled the woman onto her side and worked the fierce little buttons of the black bombazine dress. Then she struggled to loosen the laces of a vicious steel-boned corset. “Infernal inventions … distorting women into ridiculous, unnatural shapes … cutting off their very life breath. And we call the Chinese barbaric for binding feet. If I had my way—”
Once released to more natural proportions, the woman took a shuddering breath and settled immediately into a more restful state. Shortly, Madeline answered a quiet rap on the door and found the clerk outside with a vial of smelling salts and a wan smile of gratitude.
After a whiff or two from the bottle, the woman roused, averting her nose. Madeline helped her to sit up.
“I loosened your laces so you could breathe properly,” Madeline told her, giving her hand a pat and sliding onto the sofa beside her. “You’ll be fine now.”
The woman looked blankly around the office, then turned to Madeline with anguished recollection. “No, I won’t. I will not be fine—ever again!” Sorrow too fresh and too large to be contained by ladylike sufferance spilled forth. “I am ruined—penniless,” she choked out. “My dear Theodore was ripped untimely from my arms. And now the lawyers
say that he had borrowed on everything he owned. I am left with two little boys to raise and scarcely a penny to my name. Oh, my babies—my poor sweet darlings—whatever shall I do?”
Madeline impulsively put her arms around the weeping woman. Through the ensuing outpouring of tears and troubles, Madeline found herself drawn into the woman’s story, imagining the terrors of being left penniless and ill equipped to deal with the world. In so many English minds, a woman was expected to be “the angel of the house,” and kept ignorant of the world and its “corrupting” influences: money, commerce, debt, and legal maneuverings.
Now, like so many others, this particular “angel” had been rudely cast out of her nuptial paradise and into the real world. Madeline’s mind filled with images of the delicate young woman with two rosy, tousled cherubs in her arms … destitute, frightened, bravely trying to keep body and soul together.
She shook her head. If only she could do something to help …
Another knock came at the door, followed quickly by an invasion of solicitors. In the interval, the gentlemen of the firm had learned Madeline’s identity from their clerk and now insisted on ushering her into another office for the reading of her aunt’s will.
The woman held her hands tightly to delay her, looking up with eyes that bore traces of sorrow and fear. “Thank you, miss, for your kindness to me.”
“Take heart,” Madeline said quietly. “You’ll find a way to go on. You have to believe that in order to do it. And you do have to go on, for the sake of your children.” Madeline read her doubts and gave her a smile that was a blend of understanding and confidence. “You are stronger than you know, Mrs …”