Home > The Siren of Sussex (Belles of London # 1)

The Siren of Sussex (Belles of London # 1)
Author: Mimi Matthews

 


One

 


   London, England

   March 1862

   Evelyn Maltravers entered the dimly lit shop in Conduit Street. A modest sign above the door proclaimed the names and trade of the proprietors: Messrs. Doyle and Heppenstall, Tailors. The interior of the shop was equally modest—a small showroom furnished with a pair of plump leather chairs, a trifold mirror, and a tall counter of polished mahogany. Gas wall sconces cast a diffuse glow over the fabric shelved behind it. Rolls of superfine cloth in subdued shades of black, brown, and blue.

   It was a quarter to seven. Nearly closing time. The murmur of a deep male voice emanated from the back room, drifting out through the curtained door that separated it from the showroom.

   Evelyn’s pulse quickened. A tailor’s shop was a masculine domain. One in which a lady’s presence was as rare as it was unwelcome. But she didn’t let that fact deter her. Stiffening her spine, she approached the counter and rang the bell.

   The voice in the back room fell silent. Seconds later, a thin, white-haired gentleman emerged from behind the curtain. His eyes were rheumy, his back bent, as if he’d spent a lifetime hunched over a worktable.

   “Can I help you, madam?” His voice was as reedy as his figure.

   “Thank you, yes. I’d like to speak with Mr. Doyle, please.”

   “I am Mr. Doyle.”

   Her spirits sank. She’d been expecting a man of fashion. Of vision. Someone with magic in his fingers. But the elderly fellow who now stood before her looked neither fashionable nor particularly capable. His fingers were gnarled with age, his hands trembling as if he suffered from some manner of palsy.

   A hopeful thought struck her. “And Mr. Heppenstall? Is he at liberty?”

   “Mr. Heppenstall passed away last autumn.”

   “Oh.” Her spirits once again plummeted. The deep voice behind the curtain must belong to a shop assistant or one of the cutters. Someone of no account.

   “Is there something I can assist you with?” Mr. Doyle asked with a hint of impatience.

   She reminded herself that appearances were often deceiving. It was certainly true in her own case. For all she knew, the elderly tailor might still be a veritable magician with a needle and thread. “I sincerely hope so. You see . . .” She pushed her delicate silver-framed spectacles more firmly up onto her nose. “You were recommended to me by a . . . a friend.”

   Not entirely the truth, but not strictly a lie, either.

   His bushy white brows lifted. “A client of mine?”

   “Indeed,” she said. “I’d like to commission a riding habit.”

   He gave her bespectacled face and plainly clad figure a dubious look.

   A wave of self-consciousness took her unawares.

   Perhaps she should have ordered a new dress before calling? Something from a fashionable modiste that would have lent her a bit of countenance? Instead, she’d worn an unembellished skirt and caraco jacket. A sensible ensemble cut and sewn by the village seamstress in Combe Regis. No doubt it made her appear thoroughly countrified.

   But it was too late to second-guess herself.

   Countrified she may be at present, but she wouldn’t be so for long.

   “Everyone with the slightest claim to fashionable dress knows that tailors make the very best ladies’ riding habits,” she continued determinedly. “And I mean to have the best.”

   “Understandably so, but if you’ll forgive me . . .” He paused. “We don’t design apparel for bluestockings.”

   Evelyn failed to suppress a flinch. She wasn’t wholly surprised by the charge. She’d been called a bluestocking before. A wallflower, too, and any number of other unoriginal epithets applied to young ladies who failed to conform. Mr. Doyle’s words nevertheless hit her like a dash of cold water. “You’ve mistaken me, sir.”

   “I think not, ma’am. Might I direct you to Mr. Inglethorpe in Oxford Street? He does a steady trade in ladies’ habits, and would have no qualms about accepting your custom.” Bowing, Mr. Doyle moved to withdraw. “I bid you good evening.”

   She opened her mouth to argue, but he was gone behind the curtain before she could formulate her words. She was left standing in the empty shop, her gloved hands clasped tight in front of her.

   It took an effort not to let the old tailor’s words pierce her armor. She knew all too well what people saw when they looked at her—if they saw her at all. It was the very reason she’d settled on her plan. And she wasn’t about to be thwarted now. Not by Mr. Doyle. Not by anyone.

   She considered ringing the bell again. She hadn’t come this far to be so easily rebuffed. But what good would it do to summon Mr. Doyle back? She couldn’t very well force the man to accept her business. Unless . . .

   She supposed she could offer to pay him a higher price.

   According to Evelyn’s sources, Miss Walters had paid thirteen pounds for her latest habit. Surely Evelyn could manage to scrape together a few shillings more?

   Long seconds of indecision passed, marked by the heavy ticking of a wall clock. It counted down the minutes until she must return to her uncle’s house in Bloomsbury.

   No, she decided at last. She wouldn’t bribe Mr. Doyle. She couldn’t. It was a point of principle. Of personal pride. If he didn’t think her worthy of one of his creations, she’d simply have to find another tailor. Someone with comparable skill and artistry.

   If such a person existed.

   Marshaling her emotions, she turned toward the door, only to be halted by the sound of a deep voice behind her.

   “The shop closes at seven.”

   “Yes, I’m aware. I was just . . .” She glanced back. The words died on her lips.

   A man stood behind the counter. A tall, powerfully built man, with rich copper-colored skin and hair as black as new coal. The harsh planes of his face were half-shadowed in the gaslight, making him look almost sinister.

   Her mouth went dry.

   So, this was the owner of the voice she’d heard behind the curtain. The voice that had made her heart beat faster. That was still making her heart beat faster.

   She moistened her lips. “I was just leaving.”

   But she didn’t go.

   She was caught by his insolent gaze. It drifted over her, seeming to take an inventory of her entire person, from the top of her three-times-made-over felt hat to the hem of her brown poplin skirts.

   Her breath stopped. Never in her life had a man looked at her thus. So bold and knowing. She had the unsettling sensation that he could see straight through the fabric of her clothes, all the way to the naked skin that lay beneath.

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