Book 5 > A Whisper of Scandal
The Year of Our Lord 1820
Arabella’s shoes tapped against the tile floor of the Stanhope Home for the Mentally Impaired. Every window she passed as she walked down the corridor was wide open, and she wrinkled her nose at the stench that blew in from the river. Her mother often complained of the terrible smell, but Mrs. Henderson, the warden, had said the windows must remain ajar because becoming overheated made some insane people’s conditions worse. Arabella didn’t know for certain if this was true or not. How could she? She was a seamstress, not a physician or the wife of one like Mrs. Henderson.
Arabella had to rely on the woman’s word—quite an upsetting thing for someone who’d learned a long time ago to rely only on herself. It made her nerves tingle, but circumstances left her no choice, much in the same way fate had left Papa no choice but to rely on her. Once his lower body had become paralyzed and he was confined to a wheelchair, he’d been forced to trust her to provide everything—food, clothing, even the caretaker who watched him when Arabella went to work.
Just as her mother had trusted Arabella to pay the monthly bill for this place, with its white walls and the whimpers of sadness that rang through the halls. Otherwise, Mother would be sent away to Bethlem Mental Hospital, a horrid place for the deranged, where more than moans resounded in the corridors. Arabella had visited Bethlem—or Bedlam, as many had taken to calling it—when she didn’t think she would be able to scrape enough money together for the Stanhope Home. The hospital was damp, dark, and smelled of feces, and she’d seen dozens of patients chained naked who appeared to be starving with their skeletal frames. Upon leaving, she had vowed to sell her body before sentencing her mother to that misery. Thankfully, it hadn’t come to that.
She quickened her pace, hastened by the memories of Bedlam. Cries of horror filled the silence there, and fear colored the eyes of all who peered out from the tiny windows of their cells. Arabella’s throat constricted and her nails curled into her palms, breaking the soft flesh of her skin. She winced and forced herself to relax her tight fists. It wasn’t right to treat people so poorly simply because they had no money.
Her family was perilously close to destitute, and ever since visiting Bedlam, her nights had been haunted by dreams of her mother being imprisoned there. Arabella clenched her jaw and focused on the hunched back of the guard, Stewart, who walked in front of her. His shoulder blades protruded against the faded-blue material of his uniform, and his repellent odor wafted back to her with each step they took. Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
He turned the corner, and with the sunlight shining through the window, she got a better look at the angry, red scratch on his cheek that she’d noticed when he’d let her into the home. It reminded her of the terrible scratch her old cat, Matilda, had given one of the neighborhood boys when he’d tried to hurt her. Arabella narrowed her eyes, a terrible suspicion rising. Had Stewart been harming one of the women here? He was always sending inviting, disgusting looks that she ignored, but if you were a patient here, trapped in a room, unable to leave… A sour taste filled her mouth.
Suddenly, Stewart paused at the door to Mrs. Henderson’s office and turned to Arabella with a leer on his face. He swallowed and his Adam’s apple bobbed. “If Mrs. Henderson gives you trouble about that blanket for your mother, pass it to me and I’ll get it to her. I don’t mind doing you the favor.” His gaze trailed away from her face and down her body before returning upward.
Arabella stiffened. “No, thank you. I’m sure Mrs. Henderson will be agreeable to allowing my mother a blanket from home.” She didn’t know if the warden would be congenial or not, but she was not about to take a favor from this man. His dull, lust-filled eyes told her what he’d want in return. It was the same thing the creditor, Mr. Branburry, had expected in exchange for not taking all their possessions when Papa could no longer pay the bills. Arabella had simply told the man what time to arrive at their house to empty it. She still felt a tug of satisfaction when she recalled his gawking face. She’d explained to him in careful, controlled tones that she’d rather have nothing to wear, read, or sit on than allow him to touch her.
Stewart leaned toward her; her nostrils flared at the heavy scent of urine that wafted from him. “One day,” he snarled under his breath, “you’ll realize how much you need a man.” He swiveled around and knocked on Mrs. Henderson’s door.
Arabella clutched the frayed, wool blanket that had been her only one. Need a man? She almost let the sharp laugh in her throat free. She’d had a suitor, Mr. Benjamin Fowler. Thinking of him didn’t even make her heart skip a beat anymore. She’d realized that she had not really been in love, but rather, infatuated with the idea of love. She’d thought his blue eyes kind and his heart pure and would have probably married him. But he’d proven just how deceitful appearances could be. He’d told her in very polite words that he could never marry a woman who likely had insanity tainting her blood, no less a traitor for a brother. She didn’t bother to tell him that she was adopted.
His willingness to leave her had shown he was not worth her breath. Nor did she trouble to remind him that there was no actual proof that her brother Daniel had been attempting to flee his regiment when he’d been shot and killed. The evidence Daniel had sent before dying showed a different story. She had letters from him, telling of things his commander had lied about. And his commander had been courting the same woman as her brother… She had no doubt he’d been jealous of Daniel, but no one would listen. The false words of a shifty-eyed captain would never convince her, even if it had convinced the rest of the world.
A giant lump formed in Arabella’s throat and she swallowed it back. Now was not the time to become misty-eyed over all that had befallen her family. She suspected most men would have done just as Benjamin had, but she didn’t care to find out. She slaved all day to simply put food to the table, house herself and her father, and ensure her mother continued to receive proper care. The last thing she desired was the trouble of a man.
“Mrs. Henderson says you can go in.”
Arabella snapped her attention to Stewart, who was already striding past her with long, gangly steps. Her gaze fastened on that dark slash on his cheek. Could that be the mark of fingernails from a woman who had clawed at Stewart’s face in self-defense? Her stomach pitched downward as she thrust her shoulders back and took determined steps through the door and into the warden’s office. She would make sure that Stewart had no contact with her mother anymore.
Mrs. Henderson, dressed in a severe black gown, sat behind a large, gleaming mahogany desk. She raised a creamy hand to her coif of brown-and-silver hair. “Miss Carthright, I’m glad to see you here today. I was about to pin you a note.”
Arabella’s chest tightened. “I know my payment is overdue.”
Mrs. Henderson nodded. “Two months. I could overlook one month, but two…” The woman clucked her tongue.
Arabella slipped her mother’s wedding ring off her finger. If Mrs. Henderson demanded security until she received the money Arabella would soon have, this ring was all she had to offer. There was no other institution like this in London, and she refused to see her mother go to Bedlam. “I will be able to pay by tonight,” Arabella promised, pressing the wedding ring between her thumb and forefinger. This time her words were true. The gowns Lady Conyngham had commissioned were finally complete after hours of tedious toil, and the lady had promised her ten pounds if all four garments were ready within two weeks. She planned to deliver them to Lady Conyngham after leaving here and collect payment. Of course, she had to pay ten percent to Madame Chauvin as the proprietor of the dress shop and the one who had given her the job. But Lady Conyngham had said that if she was pleased, she would give Arabella a bonus on top of the agreed-upon pay.
Mrs. Henderson tapped her nails against the wood, the clack, clack, clack filling the silence and making Arabella’s nerves sing. The warden let out an irritated sigh. “Miss Carthright, this is not Bedlam, where they take people who can pay nothing. This is a private home owned by a generous lord who took up the cause of the deranged after his own beloved wife perished at Bedlam. Yes, he does dip into his own pockets to keep this home afloat, but his generosity does not include your mother being here for free.” Mrs. Henderson’s painted mouth twisted into a sympathetic smile. “I wish we could be more accommodating, but running this place is costly.”
“I understand,” Arabella quickly inserted.
“It does not seem you do,” Mrs. Henderson replied in a sharp tone that made Arabella’s temper notch up.
She ground her teeth. It would not do to argue the point.
Mrs. Henderson picked up her quill pen, glanced down at the document before her, and began writing. A sinking sensation filled Arabella’s entire body. She leaned forward but could not make out the words. “What are you doing?”
The warden paused and fixed her dark eyes on Arabella. “I’m writing to the hospital to let them know that your mother will be delivered there tomorrow morning.”
“No, please!” Arabella snatched the paper off Mrs. Henderson’s desk and thrust the ring in front of the woman’s nose. The warden’s eyes widened a fraction as she stiffened in her chair. The leather squeaked with her movement. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
“It doesn’t have to be hard at all,” Arabella replied, moving the ring back and forth in the air. The small, well-cut diamond caught the light and cast a glow in the shadows. “Take this ring as collateral. I vow I’ll bring the money tonight.” Though coming tonight would mean paying her father’s caretaker an additional wage to sit for longer hours today. Arabella would do it, and make up the deficit of funds by skipping dinner for the next two weeks.
With pinched lips, Mrs. Henderson slowly outstretched her hand.
Arabella deposited her mother’s wedding ring in the warden’s open palm, and as she did, a hard knot of despair lodged in her belly. This was the only possession of her mother’s that Arabella had left. The ring symbolized a happier time, and giving it away like this—She swallowed hard. Well, handing it over was like handing over all the happy memories she had left, too.
Dash it all! Tears burned in her throat, but she’d die before relenting to the silly fear that was trying to consume her. She was not giving the ring—or her hope—away forever. She licked her dry lips. “When I bring you the money, you can give me back the ring.”
Mrs. Henderson held the ring close to her face. Her droopy eyelids pulled upward, forming three folds of skin over her eyes. She bit the ring and nodded with a grunt of satisfaction. “I will take this ring as payment for the two months you owe. The first is on Monday. That gives you three days to secure two more pounds for the upcoming month. Be here then with the money or your mother will be gone by day’s end.”
Arabella stared at her mother’s ring. She could not lose it. “What if I bring you the six pounds we owe tonight? Will you return the ring to me in exchange?”
Mrs. Henderson gave her a flinty stare. “I have a previous engagement tonight. I cannot wait around for you,” she snapped. “And if you want this ring back so badly, it will cost you seven pounds. You may pay me Monday morning and not before. I’ve no idea when I’ll return to the office this weekend, and I’m not planning my time around you. Are we clear?”
Oh, they were clear, all right. Mrs. Henderson was going to pocket some money for the favor of letting Arabella pay late, but there was nothing she could do about it. “Yes,” she forced, nearly choking on the word.
Mrs. Henderson smiled and deposited the ring in her desk drawer with a clink. Arabella’s chest tightened. At least the ring was not gone for good, unlike her mother’s mind. She took a deep breath. Her responsibilities to her mother and father were her top priority, and she’d not fail them, just as they’d never failed her.
“I brought a blanket for my mother,” she stated in a firm voice. “She complains of always being cold. Will you see that she gets it?”
Mrs. Henderson nodded. “Certainly,” she said in a falsely accommodating voice. The warden motioned to her desk. “Leave it here, and I’ll give it to the guard to take to her.”
Apprehension ran down Arabella’s spine like quicksilver and curled in the pit of her belly. “I’d rather Stewart not be around my mother anymore. Is there another guard perhaps that could…” Her words trailed off at the flash of anger that crackled in Mrs. Henderson’s eyes. Arabella blinked, sure she saw incorrectly, but no, Mrs. Henderson suddenly appeared livid, her lips pressed white and gaze burning.
“What is your grievance with Stewart?” The question slashed through the air with the snap of a whip.
Arabella stiffened. For her mother’s sake, she could not back down. “He’s made lurid suggestions to me, and I would prefer another guard if you don’t mind.”
“Lurid suggestions to you?” Mrs. Henderson’s voice rang with disbelief, even as she swept her gaze over Arabella.
Heat flushed Arabella’s neck at the woman’s blatant appraisal of her person. The warden’s face paled as her eyes met Arabella’s. “Please take my apology.”
A sigh of relief escaped Arabella. “You needn’t apologize for your guard.”
Mrs. Henderson nodded. “I’m afraid I must. Stewart is my son.”
Her son? The distant manner in which Stewart’s mother treated him almost inspired Arabella’s pity until she recalled his leer. That same tingling apprehension that swept down her spine moments ago now danced up her skin, making the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. Despite Mrs. Henderson’s seemingly unmotherly attitude toward Stewart, Arabella suspected by her pinched lips that the warden was none too pleased to have her son criticized, be it true or not.
“I’m sorry. I did not know.”
“That’s quite all right,” Mrs. Henderson said in a tone of forced cheerfulness. “Of course, Stewart should not be making lurid suggestions to you. Though”—the warden’s gaze dropped to Arabella’s chest where her old gown pulled too tight across her assets—“you should take care to dress more modestly.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Arabella said through clenched teeth.
Mrs. Henderson smiled. “I’ll switch Mr. Black to your mother’s room, but it hardly seems necessary. Your mother does not have the youthful beauty that you do.”
Arabella heartily doubted the warden’s pig of a son cared, but since she had no proof, she forced her own smile to her face. “I thank you for your understanding.”
“Of course,” the warden replied, smirking slightly. “The other guard’s salary is a bit higher, and with one more patient for him to handle, I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you five more shillings a month. But you seem the sort of daughter who would do anything for her mother, am I correct?”
Arabella had the very unladylike and very sudden vision of lunging across the desk and smacking the woman’s smirking face. Instead, she jerked her head in agreement. Two pounds and five shillings a month was a fortune! She’d have to secure more work somehow. Her head pounded with a sudden rushing of blood in her ears.
“Excellent,” Mrs. Henderson crowed while waving a hand toward the door. “You may go. I’ll see you Monday morning with payment. Don’t forget the increase.”
“I won’t forget,” Arabella managed to reply, though she was seething inside.
She turned on her heel and showed herself out. She didn’t waste a moment lingering in the halls but headed straight for the exit since it wasn’t a visiting day. She’d come back tomorrow to see her mother, and by then, she’d have the money for this month and hopefully she would have Lady Conyngham as a future client to aid with some of her family’s financial burdens. And if Lady Conyngham was very pleased, perhaps she would recommend Arabella to her friends.
~ ~ ~
Not an hour later, Arabella sat on a plush, navy-blue velvet settee in the most decadent drawing room she had ever seen. She was glad that the stuffy butler had demanded she wait here instead of following him up to Lady Conyngham’s bedchambers. Arabella had been momentarily incensed that the butler appeared not to believe she was expected and had been instructed to proceed to the bedchamber to fit Lady Conyngham. But as she wiggled her bottom against the soft cushions and slid off her right slipper to curl her toes into the lush Aubusson rug of tan, wine, and indigo, a sigh of delight escaped her and her irritation melted away.
She’d never been in such a grand room. What a treat not to have a hard lump protruding from the settee, and the carpet… She ran the tip of her toe back and forth over the lush weave. They’d had rugs before most of their possessions had been taken away, though nothing near as fine as what was currently under her feet. Closing her eyes, she imagined this carpet was in her home, taking the place of the cold, bare floor. She only allowed the wishful thinking for one moment before she snapped her eyes open and stuck her foot back into her shoe. She trained her gaze on the boxes that contained the gowns she’d sewn. Arabella didn’t like the envy that was filling her heart. She had food and a roof over her head, and that was a great deal more than many poor souls in London had. No more pining over rugs and settees.
She stood and bent to pick up her seamstress bag and the boxes so she would be ready when the butler came to fetch her. As she straightened, the drawing room door opened, and the butler entered. He stopped just inside the room and motioned to her. “Come. Lady Conyngham will see you in her bedchamber.”
Arabella barely refrained from saying, I told you so. She wanted to, to be sure, but the butler’s splotchy, red face told her either he was winded from the walk or he’d perhaps been chastised by Lady Conyngham. Regardless, Arabella was not so uncharitable as to gloat. Unless he pushed her with more snobby looks. She was only human, after all.
He turned slowly on his heel without so much as a backward glance or a word and led her at a snail’s pace down the hall and up the majestic winding staircase with its breathtaking scrolled iron railing. No doubt the man was tired from the trek up and down the stairs, so she followed in silence with her boxes, content to gaze at the beautiful stained glass windows that lined the staircase. There were four, and she’d never seen the likes of them.
When they arrived at the top of the stairs, the butler stopped in front of a bedchamber with dark double doors. The butler raised his hand, presumably to knock on the door, but it swung open and a man burst out, almost knocking the butler down.
The dark-haired man, thick locks disheveled and cravat dangling from his neck, bowed slightly to the butler while offering an apology, and then he fixed his burnished gaze on Arabella. He didn’t seem a bit surprised to see her, which was odd until she considered that, of course, he must have heard the butler announce her arrival. A slow smile spread over his face, and then, before she knew what he was doing, he had taken her hand and raised it to his lips to place a kiss there.
“You are exquisite with your bright blue eyes and sable hair,” he murmured. “And quite the seamstress, I hear.”
“I’ve said no such thing,” came a feminine, distinctly irritated voice from behind the man.
Arabella snatched her hand away and quickly curtsied to Lady Conyngham, who stood in the doorway in a shocking state of dishabille. Arabella did her best not to gape at the woman, but honestly, who with any sense pranced around in a sheer dressing robe for all to see what God had given her? A quick look at the butler told her that he was having the same thought. High color touched his cheeks, and he snapped his mouth shut and shot his gaze toward the floor. For a moment, the inability to decide what to do paralyzed her, but then she quickly spoke. “Good afternoon, Lord and Lady Conyngham. Thank you for—”
An eruption of laughter from both of them drowned out the rest of Arabella’s hastily planned greeting. She frowned. What had she said wrong?
Still chuckling, Lady Conyngham stepped toward her and eyed her with a sharp, rather unfriendly narrowed gaze. She dismissed the butler with a flick of her hand. “Go, Mr. Gregory.”
The butler moved quicker than Arabella would have thought possible of him. Lady Conyngham, who was a good five inches taller than Arabella, stared down at her, her light eyes darkening and narrowing further. “This man is not my husband.” She fluttered her fingers at the gentleman still standing by the door.
Arabella’s gaze went back to the gentleman before she could stop herself. Not only was his cravat untied but his shirt had been tugged loose at his neck. She stared at the multitude of lip prints perfectly made on his neck and upper chest, revealed by his open shirt. Slowly, she pulled her gaze back to Lady Conyngham and desperately tried not to look at the woman’s mouth, but it was as if her whole face had suddenly been consumed by enormous, ruby-stained lips.
Arabella licked her own lips and winced when she realized what she was doing. “I’m sorry. I assumed since he was coming out of your bedchamber—” She bit down on the inside of her cheek to stop herself from prattling any more nonsense that would worsen the already rapidly disintegrating situation.
“Never assume anything, Miss Carthright. It shows how foolish and ignorant you are.”
“Elizabeth,” the gentleman chided. “Don’t be so testy. Or jealous. You know my heart is yours.”
Yet, Lady Conyngham’s heart should be with her husband only. Or at the very least, her bedchamber reserved solely for the lord of the house. What a sticky mess.
Arabella pondered how not to get embroiled further in the lady’s private affairs, nor continue to rile her possessiveness over this man. Excusing herself seemed the best recourse. “I’ll wait in the bedchamber for you, my lady.”
“How very wise of you,” Lady Conyngham snapped, even as her lover, who was standing behind her, winked at Arabella, as if to say he would tame any ruffled feathers. Arabella certainly hoped he could, though she had serious doubts. The lady did not seem in the mood to be appeased.
Arabella prayed she was wrong. Within minutes of Arabella’s entering the opulent, royal-purple bedchamber and setting the gowns out, Lady Conyngham breezed into the room, her mouth swollen and red with fresh kisses. She stopped in front of the settee where Arabella had carefully laid out the four gowns she had created. Lady Conyngham plucked up the first one, a deep-burgundy cloth, and fisted it in her hands. “This is not the color I ordered,” she said, tossing the frock to the ground.
Arabella’s heart plunged downward with the garment. The blasted gown was the exact color that had been ordered. She took a deep breath and hoped she sounded soothing and not angry. “Lady Conyngham, I assure you this is the same burgundy you said would nicely suit to scandalize the ton.”
Lady Conyngham’s eyes widened a fraction, so Arabella knew the woman recalled saying the words. Yet, her mouth twisted into a vicious grimace. “I would never have said such an intimate thing to you. You are incorrect, and I won’t take this gown.”
Arabella swallowed the curses she wanted to fling at the woman. The lost revenue would cost her dearly, but letting her pride get the best of her and saying what she really felt would undoubtedly cost her more. Fierce anger burned in her throat, but she managed to say, “Of course, my lady.” She motioned to the ice-blue gown Lady Conyngham had exclaimed would match her eyes perfectly, undoubtedly the cool color suited her heart, as well. “What of this one? Won’t you try it on? I’m sure you will love it.”
“Never be sure of anything. Especially not men who vow they love you. Men are liars.” She stalked over to her dressing table and snatched up a gold box. A multitude of stones embedded the closed lid. They glittered in the sunlight streaming in through the windows. “They try to cover their lies and false hearts with pretty baubles,” Lady Conyngham growled. “Trinkets are not love. Real love is what I desire! I don’t want these trinkets. I want utter devotion!” She’d fairly screamed the words as she reared her arm back and threw the box. It hit the wall with a loud clank and slid down to the floor, landing with a clattering noise that made Arabella grit her teeth.
When the room fell to silence again, she tried to think of something to say to calm the tempest that was Lady Conyngham. Before she could utter a word, the woman bent down and swept all the gowns off the settee and onto the floor. “Get out. And take the gowns with you. I no longer want any of them.”
A cold sweat instantly dampened Arabella’s brow as her stomach squeezed and started to turn violently. This simply could not be happening. Lady Conyngham had to take the gowns. “I’ll come back tomorrow, my lady, when you are feeling better.”
“You sound exactly like my pathetic husband! I won’t want these gowns tomorrow or ever. I could never wear them now. I’ve been betrayed.” She glanced wildly around the room while turning in frantic circles, then stalked to the gold box she’d thrown and kicked it. “Duped! Left to sit, wait, and hope in vain! As if I would simply do so because he rules! I won’t wait like a child.” She kicked the jewelry box again.
Arabella stared in awe. That box, if sold, could likely pay for her mother’s care for the year. Wild laughter filled the air, causing her to flinch. She dragged her gaze back to Lady Conyngham, who was glaring at her.
“Do you hear me?” the lady demanded.
As if the woman needed to ask, but Arabella forced a nod. The woman must have been angered by her lover. Perhaps their dalliance was now ended. Whatever the circumstances, it did not change the fact that Lady Conyngham had ordered the gowns. She simply had to take them or pay for them at the very least. Each one had been made exactly as the lady had demanded.
“Lady Conyngham, regardless of what has happened with your friend, you did order the gowns.”
The lady drew her eyebrows into a high arch. “I will not keep them nor pay for them, and you are giving me a megrim.”
Arabella’s hands went clammy and her vision swam. She blinked rapidly. The woman had no care for anyone but herself. There would be no reasoning with her.
Lady Conyngham cocked her head. “I’m going to speak with my portrait painter now, and I do not want you here when I return. Understand?”
Arabella understood the woman was a hateful witch who was needlessly jealous. She also comprehended that to say so could worsen her already terrible problem. “I’ll be gone,” Arabella said in the calmest voice she could muster.
“Excellent.” Lady Conyngham turned to leave but paused near the door and swiveled back around. “I’m afraid I’ll have to tell Madame Chauvin what a terrible disappointment your creations were.” She smiled a cruel, twisted smile. “I don’t think you have a promising career as a seamstress. I’d try the brothel if I were you. You dress as though you crave attention.”
Arabella was so angry she was left momentarily speechless. Lady Conyngham took full advantage of the moment and promptly quit the room. Blast the woman to the devil!
Outside the door, Arabella heard a deep male voice speaking in a soothing tone, and then Lady Conyngham screamed, “Mr. Gregory, get rid of that damned atrocious jewelry box! I never want to see it again!” The angry tap of slippers on the stairs filled the air, after which all fell silent.
Arabella shook where she stood as her blood roared in her ears and pounded through her veins. She squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in gasps of air to calm herself. After a minute, the roaring subsided, though as she raised her hands to her gown, she noted they still trembled. She tugged at her gown, trying to loosen the way the material clung to her breasts, but it was useless. The frock was too small, had been for quite some time, but there was no money to purchase material to make a new one.
A brothel, indeed. Arabella’s principles were just fine, too-snug gown or not. Lady Conyngham was the one who had misplaced her morals, with her sheer, frothy white robes and her lover.
She made a disgusted sound and wearily bent to pick up the clothing that had been thrown to the floor. Losing this money was bad, but deep within, she feared the worst was yet to come. Madame Chauvin liked her, but not so much that she’d jeopardize losing Lady Conyngham as a client by keeping Arabella as an employee.
Bile rose in her throat, and she struggled against the urge to curl into a ball and pretend all this had not just happened. In three days the money to pay for her mother’s continued care was due, not to mention that she needed to pay her father’s caretaker and buy food.
She shoved the gowns into their boxes. Even if Madame Chauvin paid her the meager salary she was owed, which Arabella was uncertain would happen, it would not make a drop in the giant bucket required by Monday. Arabella swallowed her mounting fright. She needed money, and she needed it quickly. Standing here like a fool was not getting her closer to solving her problem.
She started toward the door but stopped when her toe hit the gold jewelry box. She glanced down and her heart began to hammer. She could take it. Lady Conyngham didn’t want it anyway.
Arabella squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, perspiration covering her brow. Tremors engulfed her entire body, along with clamminess, yet she crouched down, her knees popping as she did so. She breathed heavily as she set her packages on the floor and reached out to touch the box. She ran her index finger over a large emerald and snatched her hand away, feeling as if she’d been burned or, better yet, branded a thief. Taking the box was wrong.
“Take it,” a deep, amused voice said behind her.
Her heart gave a hefty jerk as she twisted around and faced the gentleman who had started all her trouble.
He offered a mock bow, his hair flopping over his eyes. As he came up, he flicked his hair back, walked over to her, and held out his hand. She took it but left the box, which he immediately bent down to scoop up and then thrust at her. “Don’t be a foolish nitwit. She no longer wants it. She ordered it thrown out.” He eyed her for a moment. “I heard what she said to you. I hear everything.” His silky smooth voice surrounded her.
Arabella glanced at the box and back to him. “Don’t you want it?” He’d given it to Lady Conyngham, after all. It seemed as though he’d desire to have such an expensive thing back in his possession.
For a moment, his stare turned incredulous, but then laughter filled his eyes. “No, I don’t want it. That box fills my mouth with distaste. You can have it and sell it for whatever you can get for it. In fact, I’ll help you.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“Ah, but I do,” he replied. “You are a desperate woman in need, correct?”
“I’ve been desperate before. One can always recognize a fellow troubled soul.”
She nibbled on her lip. “How can you help me?”
“I know a man who can sell the box for you. He’s incredibly discreet, and he’ll know how to find suitable buyers for you. Understand?”
Arabella nodded, as a hopeful flutter filled her belly. “Could you arrange a meeting for me this afternoon?”
He smiled but shook his head. “No, Mr. Winston is not in Town currently, so you must bide your time.”
Her legs suddenly felt as if they could no longer hold her up. Hope had been teasingly offered, only to be cruelly dashed away. She needed money now. Not next week. Perhaps she could find another buyer herself.
As though the gentleman had read her thoughts, he shook his head. “Don’t even consider it.” The words were a command and a fierce one. “You may sell only to Mr. Winston. That is my requirement for giving you this box. You cannot disappoint me.”
What the devil did he mean “disappoint him”? She started to ask but then clamped her jaw shut. It was no matter if he said odd things, if he could help her. “I need money now,” she admitted, shoving aside shame in favor of survival.
A strange glint filled his eyes, almost a knowing one. “I can offer you another way if you trust me. Do you? Do you trust me?”
Wariness enveloped her. What choice did she have? “Tell me.”
“You are exquisite. And young. Are you untouched?”
She flinched away from his words, and what they suggested. Yet, did she have a choice any longer? She curled her toes downward against the desire to flee. “I’m an innocent, yes.”
“I knew you would be!”
She furrowed her brow. He didn’t know her, therefore could not know such a thing, but she supposed his suggestion that she looked like an innocent was far better than Lady Conyngham’s declaration that Arabella looked like she should be in a brothel. Even if at this point the cruel words did foretell her future.
“Go on,” she whispered hoarsely.
“You could make a fortune selling yourself. I know a woman who could arrange a showing for you.”
The way he watched her made her feel as if he was trying to judge something. Maybe he wanted to be sure she had the nerve to do such a thing?
She forced her cold lips to form words. “A showing?”
His posture relaxed suddenly and an almost imperceptible smile came to his face for the briefest moment before it disappeared. He nodded, his gaze darting to the door. He produced a cream-colored calling card and handed it to her. “Call on me here. Tomorrow.”
Arabella took the card, looked at it, and froze. She knew this address: number six, Golden Square. It was the townhome directly across from Madame Sullyard’s hotel, which was not really a hotel but a rather infamous brothel.
“I’ll set up the appointment,” he said, interrupting her recollections. “And I’ll have someone near during the meeting and after to ensure all goes as planned. Don’t worry. I am going to look out for you.” His gaze moved away for a moment, then settled on her once again. “Bring the box when you come to see me tomorrow.”
“But you said Mr. Winston was not in Town.”
“Bring the box,” he repeated.
“That’s silly. Why don’t you just take it, and you can help me sell it when Mr. Winston returns?”
He looked momentarily angry but then shook his head. “Better for you to carry it away from here than for me to do so. Elizabeth and I have, um, shall we say, unfinished business, and just because she no longer wants the box I gave her does not mean she wants me to have it.”
She supposed that made sense, yet she felt as if he was holding something back. “Why are you helping me? Really.”
His eyes held an almost secretive look, yet his smile was gentle. “Truthfully, I’ve no choice.”
What an odd thing to say. Of course he had a choice.
They stood in silence staring at each other until he spoke once more. “You… you remind me of my sister. She would have been your age. One and twenty, are you?”
Arabella nodded. There must be a profit involved for him if he helped her, yet she had precious few other choices. In fact, unless a miracle occurred, she had none. She glanced quickly down at the card again and looked at his name: J.I. DEVINE.
“What does J.I. stand for?” To trust a man, one needed to know his full name. Her father had always said that names told a great deal about a man, and thanks to her father, she knew the origin of most names.
“Judas Iscariot, but don’t you dare ever tell a soul.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“You’re gawking,” he chided.
She snapped her jaw shut. “Who the devil wouldn’t when told the person they just met is named after the apostle who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You are not serious, are you?” It was a hopeful statement as much as a question.
“Completely. You know, I’m offended.” He scowled down at her.
“You’re offended?” she heard herself ask in disbelief.
“Yes, indeed. You are the very first stranger I have ever told my real name to, and you are acting as if I’m the very apostle who did the dirty deed.”
Heat warmed her cheeks. “I’m sorry. Truly, I am, but why would your parents name you Judas Iscariot?”
His gaze bore into her. “Because I was born of betrayal, I suppose. In fact, my mother has never even met me, but I’ve seen her portrait. I have her eyes. And my father’s lips.” She stared at his eyes. They were the color of a chestnut and had an interesting shape. They rounded near the nose and slanted on the outer part. And his lips were thin on top but shaped like a bow on the bottom.
“Are you always this honest?” she asked incredulously.
“No,” he retorted with a chuckle. “I feel peculiar today.”
She had no idea what to think of this man. “Were you not raised by your father?”
He shook his head. “I was raised by a witch.” He frowned. “My sister was, too, but her witch flew away. Mine still lurks around.”
Sadness flickered across his gaze and dissipated as quickly as it appeared. The man was odd indeed and spoke in strange riddles, but she was too desperate to care.
“Now, Miss Carthright, you may call me Jude, never Judas. I’m sure you can understand why.”
She nodded. “Jude is not a name, though.”
“I know,” he said, his voice suddenly intense. “Which makes it very fitting for me.”
She cocked her brows. “Meaning?”
“I am not who I seem. Do you see?”
She wasn’t entirely confident she did. “As in you are no Judas?”
He inclined his head. “Something like that. Now, I told you my secret because I believe we shall be friends.”
She really didn’t have any friends. Work and caring for her parents didn’t permit the luxury. She prayed she didn’t regret this, especially given his name. Her father would tell her to run in the opposite direction, yet the man could not help with what his father had branded him.
“Friends only,” she said sternly.
He chuckled. “Yes. I told you that you remind me of my sister. I shudder to think of you as anything but a comrade.”
“Excellent,” she murmured and tugged on the box, which he relinquished easily.
“Come find me at the address on that card tomorrow at precisely four in the afternoon. Now, run along, Miss Carthright. The tigress will return shortly, and she’ll eat you alive if you’re still here.”
Arabella didn’t like the way he thought of her as helpless to defend herself, but after depositing the jewelry box in her seamstress bag and gathering her things, she quickly obliged. When she reached the front entrance, the butler gave her a suspicious look, and she inadvertently clutched the bag to her that contained the box. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but another gentleman stumbled into the foyer at that moment, also heading for the exit, and the butler pressed his lips together and showed them out.
The man held an easel in his hands and had a bag that appeared to be full of supplies slung over his shoulder. As the door closed behind them, he turned to her and bowed. “I am Mr. Fitzherald, formerly Lady Conyngham’s portrait painter as of a few short minutes ago,” he fairly snarled.
By his angry tone, Arabella would say that Mr. Fitzherald had gotten a dose of Lady Conyngham’s temper today, the same as Arabella had received. “I’m Miss Carthright. Formerly the seamstress. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
He smiled as they descended the steps and swept his arm toward the curricle that the stable master was leading toward them. “Would you care for a ride to your home?”
She eyed the curricle wistfully. It got awfully tedious walking everywhere, but riding in a curricle with a man—a stranger at that—was not the done thing, even if she was on the verge of selling herself. She shook her head. “I prefer to walk, thank you.”
“But it’s not safe!” he exclaimed. “A woman as lovely as you walking alone…”
“Oh, I’ve managed to stay safe all my life,” she replied. When he looked as if he would protest again, she quickly added a firm, “But I thank you. Good-bye.” She moved to stride ahead of him but stopped when he called her name. “Yes?” she said, facing him once more.
“I insist you let me follow you to ensure you get there safely. I do not feel right letting you walk alone.”
She shrugged. “If you’d like.” She did not have the time or inclination to argue with this man.
She went straight home to check on her father and drop off the jewelry box. The idea of carrying such an expensive case out on the streets made her feel tense. And what if Madame Chauvin saw the box? Arabella didn’t want anyone to know she’d taken it, even though Jude had given her permission. She felt a bit like a thief. As she neared her home, she turned to wave good-bye to Mr. Fitzherald and offer him her thanks for his unnecessary but kind gesture.
She entered her house and called, “I’m home!” while maneuvering through the tiny door with the garment boxes and her seamstress bag. She deposited the packages on the floor by the entrance and paused a moment to stare at the little dark square of wood that contrasted so greatly with the lighter wood that surrounded it. The entrance table previously sat over that square, which was why the wood had not been bleached by the sun that filtered in through the small windows on either side of the door. The table was gone, and soon her innocence would be, too, she thought sourly.
“Are you done for the day, daughter?” came her father’s low, crackly voice from the kitchen at the back of the townhome.
“Just stopping in before I go to Madame Chauvin’s,” she replied as she hurried down the hall and into the kitchen. She offered Alice, her father’s caretaker, a smile. Alice grinned back, her blue eyes twinkling and her soft, wrinkly skin turning a slight rosy color. Arabella set the bag containing the jewelry box on the counter and then bent down to kiss her father on the cheek. He smelled clean like soap today, not like the strong-smelling mixture of horseradish juice, mustard, turpentine, and goose grease that so often lingered on him.
Arabella stood and saw the still-full bottle of the rheumatism lotion on the counter, which explained why her father smelled good. Alice must have made it but not had time to rub it on him yet. Alice reached for the bottle, but Arabella got there first.
“Go rest, Alice. You look a bit peaked.”
Alice fanned herself, making a few strands of her silver hair move with each burst of air. “It’s hot in here today.”
“It’s hot outside, as well,” Arabella said. “I’ll rub the concoction on, but then I have to go to Madame Chauvin’s. I won’t return late,” Arabella promised.
Alice nodded. “I’ll sit for just a minute.”
“Sit for twenty. Then I have to depart.”
Alice patted Arabella on the shoulder as she kneeled in front of her father and began rolling up his pant legs to put the pain-easing ointment on him. He had a dollop of noodle stuck on his chin. She smiled up at him as she took the napkin Alice held out and cleaned his chin. “You missed a spot.”
He chuckled. “I always do. Tell me of Lady Conyngham’s.”
Arabella made a show of opening the lotion and pouring it into her hands. Really, she didn’t want her father to see her face because she knew he’d see through her lies. He was very observant, and he didn’t need to worry.
“It went splendidly.” Was her voice high? Brittle? It sounded false to her own ears.
“Splendidly,” he echoed as she began to rub the white lotion onto his misshapen legs. Lack of use had done this to her poor father.
“Mm-hmm,” she responded, not wanting to compound one lie with another. The less she said, the better.
He reached down and caught her hands, his big one enveloping hers. His grip was still strong from years of blacksmithing and wielding heavy tools at Buckingham Palace. She knew how much he missed the job he’d lost after he’d had his stroke. He rarely spoke of his time there, but when any of his close friends came to visit and mentioned the king or queen, her papa always tensed. It made her think he harbored anger over being dismissed, but really, what could they have done? He could not do the work that was required of the lead blacksmith.
His brow furrowed. “Are you certain it went splendidly? You’re usually bursting to tell me all the details of your day and what you accomplished.”
She bit her lip. Well, all she’d managed to do today was lose an important client, take something that didn’t belong to her, and agree to sell her body. She most definitely would not be telling her father any of that. He’d have another stroke if he knew what she planning, and this one would possibly be the thing that killed him.
She forced a smile to her face, her cheeks aching, and she looked up. “I’m sorry, Papa. I’m preoccupied with having to see Madame Chauvin. In truth, Lady Conyngham didn’t react exactly as I had expected, but things still turned out well.”
Lies, lies, lies.
Her nose twitched with her deceitfulness. She quickly put the cap back on the bottle and stood. “I better be going. As I said, I’ll be home early.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek and then moved to the counter to get her bag so she could hide the box in her room. As she picked it up, she lost her grip and the bag fell to the floor with a clank. From where she stood, she could see the box inside the bag. Her heart jerked that her father might have seen it, too. She scooped the bag up, but as she did, he spoke.
“What’s that in your bag?”
“It’s for Madame Chauvin from Lady Conyngham,” she instantly replied, hating to lie again but feeling she must protect him. She didn’t wait for him to speak. She scrambled out of the kitchen and to her room where she hid the bag in the only piece of furniture she had left—her wardrobe. Then she dashed out the door, calling her good-byes.
The distance between her home and Madame Chauvin’s dress shop was not great, but it seemed to take forever as her guilt and worry made her progress slow. Her mind turned. What would she say to Madame Chauvin about what had happened, and how was she going to persuade the seamstress to keep her as an employee?
As soon as she walked into the shop, Madame Chauvin gave her a pitying look, and Arabella’s heart sank. Lady Conyngham must have already sent word. How bad of a picture had the woman painted? She opened her mouth to explain, but Madame Chauvin shook her head and held a note—it had to be the note—toward Arabella. “This was delivered to me only moments ago by Lady Conyngham’s footman.”
Arabella set down the packages she had been holding and took the note with her trembling fingers. She stared at it. What nastiness had Lady Conyngham written? She bit her lip. “Will you let me tell you my side?”
The compassionate look on Madame Chauvin’s face became even more pronounced. “Of course, my dear, but it will not make a difference. I cannot keep you as an employee. To do so will cost me Lady Conyngham’s business, and that of all her friends. Unfortunately, the lady has a great many influential acquaintances. As much as I want you to stay, and as sure as I am that you truly don’t deserve this, it would destroy my business. I have my children to think of. The loss of income from the dresses you made for the lady will set me back significantly as it is.”
Arabella’s heart squeezed as she pictured Madame Chauvin’s three children hungry. The seamstress offered Arabella the money that was owed her for the previous week’s work, but Arabella shook her head. “I cannot take it.”
Madame Chauvin’s mouth dropped open. “Come. You need it just as much as I do.”
It was true, but she did have a way to make the money she needed, even though her skin crawled when she thought about selling her body. But sell it she would, rather than cause three children to go hungry or her mother to be sent to Bedlam. “I’ll be all right.”
Madame Chauvin hugged Arabella to her and when she withdrew, she grasped her by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “You may tell me your side now if you wish, but there is no need. I know Lady Conyngham is vain, and no doubt you somehow pricked her vanity.”
Arabella nodded. “’Twas something like that. She had a man there, not her husband, and I think she became jealous of his greeting me.”
Madame Chauvin clucked her tongue. “That woman plays a dangerous game.”
“Do you mean because her husband might discover she’s unfaithful?” Arabella asked.
A momentary look of discomfort crossed Madame Chauvin’s face. “No. I mean because it’s whispered that she’s the king’s mistress and seeks to make him jealous.”
Shock took Arabella’s breath for a moment. “Well”—her memories of today tumbled over one another—“it was certainly not the king I met today, nor was it her husband.”
Madame Chauvin nodded. “As I said, the lady plays a dangerous game, and whoever is bedding her is either a fool or has a treacherous agenda himself.”
Unease fluttered in Arabella’s stomach. Did Jude have some sort of agenda? Was she a fool to trust him? Wanting to be alone with her thoughts, she bade Madame Chauvin a hasty farewell and set out toward her home and very uncertain future. Though the June day was still rather warm, it could have been the dead of winter for the chill that had taken hold of her.