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Sheri Cobb South

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BRIGHTON HONEYMOON

 

Sheri Cobb South

 

Chapter 1

 

You may tempt the upper classes

With your villainous demitasses,

But Heaven will protect the working girl.

EDGAR SMITH,
Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl

 

 

“I should sooner give up my life,” declared Isabella, “than surrender my virtue!”

“So be it!” snarled the Count, drawing his sword. “Your life, then!”

Secure in her hiding place between two bookshelves at the rear of Minchin’s Book Emporium, Polly Hampton eagerly turned the page of
The Wicked Count
and continued to read.

“Oh, will no one save me? “ Isabella cried piteously, clasping trembling hands to her bosom. “Would that I might—”

“Why, Lady Helen, as I live and breathe!”

Polly grimaced as a shrill greeting interrupted the thrilling confrontation between the evil Count del Vecchio and the fair Isabella.

“Good morning, Lady Farriday,” returned a well-modulated voice. “How are you today?”

“Never better, my dear, never better. And if I may say so, you appear to be bearing up remarkably well.”

“Is there any reason why I should not be?” Lady Helen sounded puzzled.

“Oh, none at all!” was Lady Farriday’s hasty reply. “And how, pray, is your husband?”

“Mr. Brundy is quite well, thank you.”

Marking her place with her finger, Polly peered around the shelves to glare unseen at the two ladies whose conversation made reading impossible. She recognized the elder and louder of the two, Lady Farriday, as a regular customer, but the younger, a regal beauty with hair the color of honey, was apparently a newcomer; at any rate, Polly could not recall having seen her before. Resolutely blocking out Lady Farriday’s quite audible response, Polly returned to her book, only to be interrupted a second time by a voice even more difficult to ignore.


Guy Mannering
? Why yes, Sir Aubrey, indeed we have it, and all the other
Waverley
novels, as well.”  Although the bookshelf hid the speaker from view, Polly could imagine her employer fawning over his distinguished client. “You’ll find it on the second shelf to your right. Miss Hampton will assist you.”

As the sound of footsteps signaled the customer’s approach, Polly shut her book with a snap and hastily returned it to the shelf. She quickly located the three leather-bound volumes and pulled them from the shelf just as a tall gentleman appeared between the rows. His artfully disarranged chestnut locks, double-breasted coat of Devonshire brown, tight-fitting biscuit breeches and cleverly tied cravat all bespoke the gentleman of fashion. Had she not been so aware of being caught shirking her duties, Polly might have stolen an admiring glance from under her lashes.

“Here you are, sir,” she said breathlessly, offering him the books.

“Thank you.”

Cool gray eyes flickered briefly in her direction as he accepted the proffered volumes and thumbed through their gold-edged pages for just a moment before taking his purchase to the counter. Alone once more between the shelves, Polly felt annoyed and not a little foolish. She might have known such a tulip of fashion would hardly be interested in the indiscretions of a mere shopgirl. Why, he had looked right through her as if she were invisible! Now she had lost her place in
The Wicked Count,
and all because of a worthless fribble with no thought in his head beyond the shine on his boots!

Not that she had any desire to receive his attentions, Polly reminded herself sternly. Those few girls of her station who had the misfortune to be so singled out generally found themselves in dire straits nine months later. Better that he should reserve his advances for those who wanted them, she thought, glowering from behind her bookshelf as he bowed over Lady Helen’s hand.

“Poor Lady Helen,” sighed Lady Farriday to her fellow patron, following the honey-blond beauty’s departure with a pitying click of her tongue. “It pains me to see the duke’s lovely daughter wed to that dreadful man, be he never so wealthy! Still, one must admire her stoicism, for she never utters a word of complaint.”

“She seems happy enough,” observed the gentleman. “So, for that matter, does her husband.”

But Lady Farriday had no sympathy to waste on Lady Helen’s spouse. “As well he might!” she said with a snort of derision. “A weaver, of all things, whose mother was no better than she should be—and God only knows who his father might be! They say he gave the duke one hundred thousand pounds for her, you know,” she confided in a carrying whisper.

“My dear Lady Farriday, you behold me agog with curiosity,” drawled the gentleman. “Who, pray, gave the duke one hundred thousand pounds—Mr. Brundy, his father, or the Almighty?”

“La, you were ever the wit, Sir Aubrey,” tittered Lady Farriday, wagging a finger at him. “I know Mr. Brundy is a particular friend of yours, so I shall say no more on that head, but I must say it looks very odd for a man of your standing to keep such low company. A cousin of the Marquess of Inglewood on your mother’s side, fraternizing with a common tradesman!”

“On the contrary, my lady, if he was indeed able to pay one hundred thousand pounds for a wife, I should rather call him an
un
common tradesman.”

“But a tradesman nonetheless, and you are constantly in his company. How it must grieve your poor mama!”

“It does, indeed,” Sir Aubrey acknowledged, inclining his stylishly cropped head. “But at least her efforts to reconfigure my circle of friends give her something with which to occupy her mind—something, that is, besides gossiping in bookstores.”

Polly, who would have lost her position for such insolence, gasped quite audibly. But Lady Farriday had no interest in eavesdropping shopgirls, being fully occupied with glaring up at the impertinent Sir Aubrey before exiting the shop in a huff.

The door had no sooner closed behind her ladyship than Mr. Minchin, owner and proprietor of Minchin’s Book Emporium, once more summoned Polly. Recalled to her duties, she retrieved her neglected feather duster and began to wield it with industry.

“Miss Hampton? Come here, Miss Hampton. I wish to speak to you.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Minchin,” she called. “Right away, sir.”

Polly hastily tucked a stray curl back into her ruffled cap and smoothed the front of her starched white apron, then followed her employer into his office. The cramped little room at the rear of the shop was furnished with a scarred desk, two straight chairs, and a seemingly endless assortment of papers and books. Sweeping a stack of these off one of the chairs, the shopkeeper motioned for her to be seated.

“Miss Hampton, as you are no doubt aware, the social season is ending, and many of our clients are leaving the Metropolis for Brighton or their country estates,” Mr. Minchin began.

Polly, not quite sure what the social season had to do with her, merely nodded.

“Business has already fallen off considerably, and by August, Mayfair will be practically deserted,” he continued. “Much as it pains me, I must reduce the size of my staff. Since you were the last one hired, it seems only fair that you should be the first released.”

Now I shall never know how Isabella escapes from the Count,
Polly thought irrelevantly as her benumbed brain struggled to grasp the enormity of her predicament. Since most shops only hired men, finding this position had seemed like a dream come true—and this was a rude awakening indeed. How would she ever find another position? As the gravity of her situation began to dawn, Polly clenched her hands tightly in her lap in an effort to subdue the panic which threatened to overtake her.

“Still, you have been an excellent worker for the four months you have been in my employ,” Mr. Minchin assured her, as if conciliatory words would somehow sustain her through the lean days which loomed ahead. “Much of the nobility will return to Town in the autumn when Parliament reconvenes. If you will check back with me at the end of September, perhaps I shall be able to offer you your old position back.”

“That—that is very kind of you, Mr. Minchin,” stammered Polly, her mind still reeling from the shock.

“There, there,” he said, seating himself in the chair next to her so that he might drape a comforting arm about her shoulders. “I always take care of my girls, Polly. You’re welcome to stay at my flat for as long as need be. I’m sure we can find something for you to do to earn your keep.”

As his left hand kneaded her shoulder, his right hand patted hers in a manner which could only be described as familiar. His palm was moist and clammy, and his hot breath fanned her cheek. Suddenly she knew why Mr. Minchin was so eager to hire young women to work for him. She had been warned that evil abounded in the city, but in the tiny Leicestershire village of Littledean, such tales had been difficult to credit. Too late, it seemed, she discovered they were all too true.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Minchin,” she said, rising from her chair with great dignity. “If you will give me my wages, I had best be about the business of finding a new position.”

Mr. Minchin’s air of concern melted away, leaving in its place an ugly sneer. “I wish you luck in your search, Miss Hampton. Respectable positions are hard to come by, particularly for young females with no references.” Seeing Polly’s eyes widen, he explained. “I have long been aware of your penchant for reading during work hours, and while I am tolerant enough to make allowances for such behavior, other shopkeepers might not be so lenient. I could not in good conscience recommend you.”

“My wages, Mr. Minchin,” she reiterated, holding out her hand. Polly might lack references, but she was not without pride, and she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her grovel. However, upon seeing the pitifully small number of coins he counted into her outstretched palm, she was moved to protest. “This is not the amount we agreed upon four months ago!”

“You haven’t worked the full week,” he reminded her. “And what about the apron and cap you’re wearing? Did you think those things were free? No, Miss Hampton, I have a goodly sum invested in my employees. When one proves unsatisfactory, I must recoup my losses.”

Without another word, Polly stripped off the apron and ripped the cap from her head. “In that case, you may keep them,” she replied with false bravado, dumping the discarded garments onto her erstwhile employer’s lap. “I’m sure you will look lovely in them.”

Clutching the coins tightly in her fist, Polly collected her shawl and bonnet and exited the tiny office, but not quickly enough to avoid hearing Mr. Minchin’s parting shot.

“I shall call on you in the workhouse a few weeks hence, Miss Hampton. I have a feeling by that time you may have changed your mind.”

He is only trying to frighten me,
she told herself, blinking back tears.
But I will not cry. I am a great lady, at least on my father’s side, and a lady would never so demean herself.

Nevertheless, her eyes filled in spite of her best efforts to keep her emotions in check. Head bowed to conceal her distress, she had almost reached the front door of the shop when she collided with a well-tailored coat of Devonshire brown.

“Here now, watch your step,” admonished its wearer, as slender but strong fingers closed over Polly’s arms.

Glancing up, she saw Sir Aubrey, startled out of his habitually bored expression.

“I say, miss, are you all right?”

“Quite all right—I beg your pardon—so clumsy of me—”

Wresting herself free of his grasp, she stumbled out of the shop and into the street, neither knowing nor caring where her feet took her, until at last, winded and panting, she was forced to stop for breath. As her breathing gradually became less labored, she became aware of her surroundings, and found herself standing before a milliner’s shop, staring unseeing at her reflection in the glass. As her gaze focused, she became aware of light blue eyes dilated with fear looking back at her from a face framed by riotous red-gold curls.

Other young women might have been pleased with the image reflected in the glass, but Polly saw there only a reminder of how dismally she had failed. She had come to London to search for a similar face, and had found nothing but disappointment and now poverty. Her mama, God rest her soul, had warned her to stay away from London, as had the kindly vicar who had taken her in after her mother’s death, but Polly had been adamant. By her mother’s own admission, there existed somewhere among fashionable London society a gentleman whose likeness she bore. She had been convinced that she had only to confront the mystery man to make him, if not acknowledge her publicly as his own, at least provide some modest stipend for her so that she might repay Reverend Jennings for his kindness. When Mr. Minchin gave her a position at his shop, she was convinced it was only a matter of time before her father walked through the door. The only question remaining was who would be the first to recognize whom.

It had made perfect sense when she had first hatched the scheme after reading the popular gothic romance
The Lost Heir.
In the book, the hero Leandro and his father had enjoyed a tearful reunion, Leandro had married his true love Dolores, and everyone had lived happily ever after. But after four months, Polly had been forced to admit that, if her father were indeed in London, he had never read
The Lost Heir
; certainly no likely gentleman had entered the portals of Minchin’s Book Emporium.

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