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Miss Compton's Christmas Romance by Barnes, Sophie (1)

Chapter One

SNOWFLAKES DRIFTED lazily past Leonora's bedroom window and onto the pavement bellow, softening the hard London contours. She'd pulled back the curtains moments earlier to admit a pale purple hue of early morning light and was now in the process of combing her hair. Tying it up in a knot at the nape of her neck, she dressed, wrapped a thick woolen shawl around her shoulders, and exited her bedchamber.

Her days were different now from what they’d once been. But at four and twenty she’d long since given up on marriage and had therefore asked her father if he would permit her to use her dowry to open a shop instead.

Having her younger sister already settled and married to a viscount had definitely helped persuade him. The family line was secure. But she was still a gentleman’s daughter intent on going into trade, and this had given her father pause until she’d pointed out the alternative: her eventual dependence on her sister and inevitable unhappiness since she had always been the more self-reliant of the two.

She’d made a solid argument for her case, stating that her independence would allow her parents to travel since they would no longer be required to stay in London for the sake of ensuring her future. Last but not least, she’d brought up Madame Clicquot, who presently ran the famous champagne house in France. When her father had pointed out that Madame Clicquot was French and that her liberties could not be measured against those of a proper Englishwoman, Leonora had been ready to tell him about widow Berry – the founder of the famous wine merchant, Berry Bros. and Rudd, whose primary shop was located on St. James Street.

At the end of this discussion, Leonora’s father had spent a full week considering his daughter’s request, after which he’d been forced to acknowledge defeat. Leonora’s mother had made a small protest when she’d been informed of her daughter’s plans, but had swiftly forgotten her reason for arguing when her husband had said they were off to see the pyramids. As soon as her parents left on their travels, Leonora had forged ahead with her plans, undaunted by any potential obstacles in her path.

Leonora descended the stairs and followed the delicious smell of cooking until she entered the kitchen. “You're up earlier than usual,” she told her friend Kathy who was standing by the stove. They’d known each other since childhood, ever since Kathy’s father had set up his grocer’s shop down the street from Leonora’s home. When Leonora had told Kathy about her plan to open a shop, Kathy’s excitement had almost exceeded Leonora’s and she’d immediately insisted on coming to work for her.

Kathy turned to her with a smile. “I thought it might be nice if breakfast was ready when you woke since you don’t have much time to spare this morning.”

Leonora thanked her and poured them both a cup of tea before taking her seat at the table. She’d been invited to visit her sister and brother-in-law for Christmas at their spacious home in Yorkshire. The coach she planned on catching was due to depart at eight, allowing her only a couple of hours in which to eat, go over a few last minute details with Kathy, and reach the coaching inn on time.

“Are you sure you will be all right here by yourself?” she asked Kathy as a plate filled with steaming hot eggs, bacon, and toast was set before her. After moving into the living quarters the shop had to offer, they’d decided they had no need for the dining room at the back of the building. So they’d knocked out a wall and transformed the space into a hothouse instead, taking their meals in the kitchen ever since.

“Of course.” Kathy sat opposite Leonora and took a sip of her tea. “Unlike you, I have family here in London. I'll be spending Christmas Eve with my parents and siblings, so you needn't worry.”

“I was actually thinking of the shop. Keeping the fire going in the hothouse so the plants don't die is—”

“Time consuming, I know. But Mildred is here to help, so I shan't have to manage alone.” Kathy jutted her chin toward Leonora's plate. “Now eat your food before it gets cold.”

Leonora knitted her brow and took a bite of her eggs while considering Kathy's words. She'd hired Mildred a month ago in preparation for this, but... “What if she gives the pineapple too much water?” As nice and helpful as Mildred was, she had an unfortunate tendency to drench all the plants, which had been nearly disastrous on two occasions.

“I will take care of the pineapple, Leonora. Mildred won't be allowed anywhere near it. I promise.”

With that assurance, Leonora started feeling slightly more comfortable with the prospect of leaving her business in someone else's care.

Until a gentleman came to call at precisely seven o' clock. He entered the front part of the house where the shop was located, glanced about with an assessing eye, and approached the counter where Leonora stood. She was writing some last minute prices for Kathy and Mildred to adhere to once the mistletoe arrived and the garlands and wreaths were ready for sale.

“May I help you?” she asked, adding a smile in spite of the man's stark expression. “We've tomatoes, beans, some carrots, and a small selection of flowers.”

“Not interested.” He dipped his head and stared down his angular nose at her. “Are you Miss Compton?”

His cold demeanor and sharp tone caused apprehension to snake its way down Leonora's spine. She instinctively took a step back. “I am.”

The stranger's mouth lifted ever so slightly at one corner. “I am Mr. Becker, the new owner of this,” he glanced around again, allowing his gaze to travel across each wall before returning it to Leonora, “building.”

Leonora sucked in a breath. “Has something happened to Mr. Raynolds? Is he not well?” Dear heaven, she'd spoken to him only last week, and he seemed to be in perfect health then.

Mr. Becker stared back at her for a long moment, and Leonora realized she was holding her breath. He licked his lips, affected a bored expression, and said, “When a man risks everything in a high stakes game of cards, one cannot exactly say he is well, can one?”

“Dear god.” Mr. Raynolds had gambled away his property and Mr. Becker had won. Which meant... Leonora swallowed hard and straightened her back before broaching the topic she sensed would affect her the most from this moment on. “As you probably know, my lease is due on the first of every month and—”

“Yes. I am apprised of your situation, Miss Compton, which is why I am here. To inform you of your new rent.”

“New rent?” No. This could not be happening.

“Unlike Mr. Raynolds, I am not running a charity. I believe twenty-five pounds would be the right number and—”

She gasped. “But that is more than twice of what I am currently paying.”

“As unfortunate as that may be for you, this is a prime location. I’m sure I can find someone else willing to pay twenty-five pounds per month for it if you’re not willing to do so.”

“It is not that I’m not willing, but you must understand, this is a new business for me. It has taken some time to figure out the logistics, especially after the fire went out in October and the temperatures dropped lower than expected for that time of year. My income is not yet stable enough to afford such a drastic change in circumstance.”

Mr. Becker raised a scornful eyebrow. “That is your problem, Miss Compton. Not mine.”

“Please. I—”

The door behind Leonora opened, and Kathy stepped into the room. Leonora stared at her for a moment while desperation crawled up her throat. What on earth was she to do? If she couldn’t pay, she’d have to move to a different location, and that would mean starting over from scratch. Not to mention that her current location was perfect. Situated on Bond Street, the shop received more foot traffic than was likely anywhere else.

“We’re already more than a week into this month, so surely you don’t mean to tell me I owe you an additional thirteen pounds?”

Mr. Becker did not reply immediately. Instead, he seemed to consider. He tilted his head, and his eyes suddenly sharpened. “I am going out of Town today and won’t be back until January first. You have until then to make a decision, but it will require two full months’ payment plus an additional thirty percent for my troubles.”

“Thirty percent?” Leonora stared at him, incredulous. “But that’s—”

“Or I can toss you out now, if you prefer. I have every right to do so.”

Leonora closed her eyes briefly before nodding in surrender. “Very well. I agree to your terms.”

Mr. Becker grinned. “Are you quite sure?” He leaned toward her, all humor vanishing from his face. “You could end up in debtor’s prison.”

A hand settled firmly against Leonora’s arm. “This is madness,” Kathy murmured. “You cannot do this.”

“I fear it is already done.” Numbness settled in Leonora’s bones. “The bargain has been struck.”

“Indeed it has.” Mr. Becker glanced at them both in turn before touching his hand to the brim of his hat. “Good day, ladies.” He went to the door and opened it, allowing a gust of wind to sweep through the room. Pausing there, he smirked as he added, “I wish you both a wonderful holiday season,” before disappearing out into the grey London street.

The door swung shut behind him, and Leonora expelled a quivering breath.

“What an awful man,” Kathy said. “I wish him a horrid holiday season and I hope he—”

“Kathy. He could have asked for more. The location is certainly worth it.” Leonora sighed and slumped against the counter. “Mr. Raynolds has been too lenient with me because we were friends, but the truth is, this is a business, and if I cannot afford to keep it going, then perhaps I ought to accept that I’m not cut out for the job.”

Kathy frowned. “Nonsense. This is your dream, Leonora. No one loves plants more than you or knows how to pick the right ones and make them grow. You proved that when you were little, or have you forgotten the corner your parents allotted to you at the back of their garden?”

Leonora grinned. “No. I learnt a great deal about flowers and vegetables there.” Many of the things she’d planted were still there, though she hadn’t been to visit the house lately. Not since her parents had departed on their world tour.

A sigh escaped her. The money her father had given her had been spent on acquiring seedlings, paying the rent, and hiring Kathy and Mildred. Little of it remained and with her parents now away, she could not ask them for help. Not that she would. They’d already done enough.

“Perhaps you ought to put some of the orchids up for sale?”

Leonora considered the suggestion. She’d been saving the orchids until they were all in bloom, believing they’d fetch more money if customers saw the exotic flowers they were able to produce, but doing so was probably not an option any more.

“I have to cancel my trip.”

Kathy’s eyes widened. “Nonsense! You’ve been planning this ever since your sister announced her daughter’s birth.”

“I know, but going away now would be completely irresponsible of me. I have to stay here and help with the sales. I have to—”

“I’m just as good at selling as you are. The problem doesn’t lie there but with the products we’re able to offer. People in this part of town want flowers and fruit, not vegetables. So I suggest making all our flowers available for sale along with the lemon tree.”

“I wanted to sell the lemons, Kathy, not the tree.”

“True. But I think it’s time to make some difficult decisions. Don’t you?”

Leonora nodded. “Very well. We’ll offer up the lemon tree and the flowers, then figure out how to procure more later.”

“Good. I’ll make the necessary arrangements.” Kathy retrieved her pocket watch from her apron pocket. “Time for you to go now or you’ll miss your coach.”

“I really shouldn’t.”

“You really should.”

Leonora hesitated. She desperately wanted to see her sister and niece, but leaving her struggling business for someone else to manage felt wrong, no matter what Kathy said. “I won’t stay as long as I initially planned. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

Kathy gave her a strict look of warning. “Don’t you dare. Mildred and I will manage everything splendidly.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “Or don’t you trust us?”

“It’s not that. It’s—”

“Go.” Kathy took Leonora by the elbow and steered her back into the kitchen, where her outer clothing and valise were waiting. “Enjoy your visit with your sister. If anything drastic happens, I’ll send word for you to hasten back, but I daresay that will not be necessary.”

Leonora gave her luggage a wary glance. She then looked at her friend. The determination in her eyes convinced Leonora that Kathy was right. She was more than capable of managing the shop by herself. “Very well. I’ll let you handle it, but as soon as I return, you and Mildred will be taking holidays while I stay here and work.”

Kathy smiled. “You have yourself a deal. Now grab your things and be off, will you? You’re already running late.”

Doing as her friend suggested, Leonora shoved her arms through the sleeves of her pelisse, wrapped a scarf around her neck, plopped her bonnet on her head, and tied a hasty bow. She then put on her gloves, gave Kathy a quick hug, grabbed her valise and her reticule, and strode out into the blistering cold.

#

THE BULL AND MOUTH coaching house was bustling with travelers buying tickets and preparing for departure while others climbed out of newly arrived coaches. Horses neighed and people shouted, pushing and shoving their way past each other, the loud noise occasionally drowned out by the sound of a horn.

Her mother would likely have a fit if she ever found out that her daughter had chosen to travel alone on public transportation. In the past, Leonora had always taken a hired carriage, but that was before she’d become aware of the need to save every penny – back when her parents had paid the expense. In hindsight, she should perhaps have asked one of her parents’ maids to accompany her as chaperone. Except she’d been leading an independent life for the past eight months and had little desire to suffer the constant presence of someone insistent on making her follow a long list of rules.

So Leonora clasped her belongings and wove her way through the crowd on her own. She’d purchased her ticket a week earlier just to be sure she would get one. “Where’s the coach for Sheffield?” she asked a team of hostlers who were in the process of switching out horses.

One of the men pointed toward a coach on the opposite side of the courtyard, and Leonora thanked him before hurrying toward it. Her breath misted in the chill morning air as she stepped around the vehicle and prepared to show the coachman her ticket. But then she spotted him, and her entire body froze in place. Mr. Becker was here, and he was standing next to her coach, which only made Leonora’s heart beat harder. Because if there was one person she did not wish to spend one more second with, it was him. Least of all if they were to be confined to a place from which there could be no escape.

Her chest tightened and she realized then that she was holding her breath. She expelled it and hesitated briefly, torn between choosing to face him and walking away. He was speaking with a younger and much taller gentleman with dark brown hair. Mr. Becker smiled, his countenance far more pleasant than when he’d come to call on her earlier. The younger gentleman nodded politely and offered his hand which Mr. Becker promptly shook before tipping his hat, adding a comment, and walking away. The younger man watched him go before turning toward the coachman. The two exchanged a few words, and the younger man pulled out his pocket watch to check on the time.

Leonora stepped forward. Thankfully, it did not seem as though she would have to endure Mr. Becker’s company. Just that of his friend. Determined to ignore him, she walked straight past the spot where he stood, her entire focus on the coachman. Reaching him, she set down her valise and retrieved her ticket from her reticule.

“Thank you, miss,” the coachman said when she handed it to him. He glanced at her luggage. “That will have to go on top of the carriage or in the boot. Which do you prefer?”

“I’ll put it in the boot,” Leonora told him. She picked up her valise and turned, only to find her path blocked by what had to be over six feet of solid masculinity. Leonora looked up and immediately bristled upon realizing not only that the man was Mr. Becker’s friend, but that he, upon further inspection, had eyes that weakened her knees and lips that quickened her pulse. He was, as it were, impossibly handsome, and that was almost more annoying than anything else that had happened that morning.

“May I help you with that?” he inquired.

Oh Lord, his voice was lovely too – like plush velvet sliding over her skin.

Leonora squared her shoulders. “No thank you. I can manage perfectly well on my own.” She stepped around him quickly, before his angular jaw and broad shoulders could cause her to change her mind, and went to the boot. It already contained a trunk and a couple of other valises, which meant she would have to heft her own up and over in order to secure it. She glanced around. Surely there must be some Bull and Mouth employee available to help?

If there were, none came to offer assistance. Leonora blew out a breath and proceeded to lift her valise, bringing her other hand underneath it while her reticule dangled back and forth from her wrist. Feeling the weight in her arms, she steadied herself against the carriage, bracing her body while struggling to push the darn thing toward the top of the boot.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” the handsomest man in the world inquired.

“Absolutely,” Leonora panted. She was now holding her valise at shoulder level, supporting it against another valise that was in her way. Just a few more inches...

“Have you always been this stubborn?”

“I am not stubborn...just...” Ugh! She managed to wedge her shoulder underneath the valise, but its size and shape made it unstable, and before she could manage to steady herself properly, she felt the entire thing lean to one side. Oh no. She reached up attempting to grab it, but that only quickened the inevitable outcome.

Her valise slipped from her shoulder and started to fall, until it was caught by a pair of large hands.

Like Thor wielding his mighty hammer with seemingly little effort, Mr. Becker’s friend lifted the piece of luggage with infuriating ease and placed it securely in the boot. He stepped back and turned to face her, his toffee-colored eyes catching a ray of rare winter sunshine in the process. The effect was dazzling. More so when the edge of his mouth lifted to form a crooked smile with a perfect dimple placed right at the corner.

Leonora swallowed. For heaven’s sake, her hands were trembling, though she quickly decided that this was from her recent exertion and not at all because of this handsome man’s attentions. She had no interest in him, she reminded herself. Not when he kept company with the sort of man who would happily force a woman from her home and place of business during Christmas.

Deciding she would not allow him to divest her of her manners, she raised her chin and met his gaze boldly. “Thank you, sir.”

His smile broadened. “Mr. Dalton.” He glanced aside for a second before returning his attention to her. “Mr. Philip Dalton. How do you do?”

“Very well, now that my luggage is on board. Thank you once again.” She managed a smile before attempting to go around him, only to have him step into her path. She glared at him and tried again, but just like before, he was quicker, and she found her escape route cut off once more. A horn sounded their departure. Frustrated, she blew out a breath. “Will you please allow me to pass?”

“Certainly. Once you give me your name.”

Leonora hesitated. She’d been trying to avoid this, to prevent the need for further conversation, to simply keep her own company and ignore the fact that the most attractive man she’d ever met was friends with the loathsome Mr. Becker. Which said everything she needed to know about Mr. Dalton’s character.

Still...to deny Mr. Dalton the courtesy of her name when he specifically requested it would be no less rude than Mr. Becker wishing her a wonderful holiday season after threatening her with debtor’s prison.

The horn sounded again and Leonora sighed in defeat. “It is Miss Compton,” she said.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Mr. Dalton told her while allowing his gaze to linger on hers. The sun from earlier disappeared, darkening his eyes while his smile faded just enough to afford him with a roguish appearance. It occurred to Leonora then that he was studying her mouth, prompting her to involuntarily lick her lips, which in turn caused him to suck in a breath.

Fearing she might lose her footing even though she was standing perfectly still, Leonora reached for the side of the carriage, hoping to steady herself. Mr. Dalton offered his arm but Leonora shook her head. “Thank you, but I can manage.” The last thing she needed right now was to touch him. Good lord! The effect would probably cause the blood in her veins to ignite, and that would not be the least bit healthy.

“Are you sure?”

“Perfectly sure. Just...You go ahead. I’ll follow.”

He frowned. “I cannot do that.”

Oh. Right. Ladies first and such. She sighed. What a nuisance that was at the moment. A concept she became increasingly aware of when she passed Mr. Dalton and felt the heat of his gaze on her back.

Just ignore it.

This of course was easier said than done when she climbed inside the carriage and saw that the only two remaining spots were next to each other on the same bench. Smiling tightly in the hope of making the most of the fact that she would soon find herself sandwiched between another young man and Mr. Dalton, she greeted the other passengers – a pair of older women and a girl roughly fourteen years of age – and took her seat.

As expected, Mr. Dalton sat beside her, his long legs and broad shoulders shrinking the interior even though he appeared to make some effort to press up against his corner in a futile attempt to offer more space. Leonora tried not to think. Indeed, she did her best to make her mind go completely blank. She absolutely refused to consider the way the entire length of Mr. Dalton’s leg and thigh connected with hers, which naturally caused her brain to focus exclusively on that.

Closing her eyes briefly, she prayed for the strength to avoid succumbing to madness, and deliberately shifted. Which of course brought her right up against the young man to her left. He moved his arm slightly as if to allow her more room, then said, “One never knows who one might have to sit next to on these long journeys. I’m glad to finally have a pretty young woman like yourself beside me.” His hand dropped to the spot where her leg met his, turning slightly, so his fingers pressed firmly against her knee. “Name’s Smith. James Smith.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” Leonora lied as she scooted back in the direction of Mr. Dalton. For reasons she could not explain, he seemed less threatening than Mr. Smith, whom she did not like at all. There was something oily about him, which made her want to remove herself from his vicinity as much as possible.

Mr. Dalton grunted as if surprised by her sudden closeness, and then the carriage moved forward with a jolt, jostling them all together as it rolled over cobblestones. Mr. Smith appeared to take advantage. He fell against her, and this time his hand landed right in her lap.

“I do beg your pardon,” he murmured while allowing his hand to slide slowly against her thigh. He retrieved it with a chuckle.

Leonora shuddered, then caught herself and straightened her spine. “Touch me again and—”

“It’s always like this in the beginning,” one of the older women across from Leonora said, interrupting her whispered attempt at a threat. “It gets better once we’re out of London and the roads are all made of dirt.” She turned to her companion, who remarked on a building they were passing, and the two began a curious comparison of architectural elements. Beside them, the young girl seemed perfectly happy to ignore everyone by burying her nose in the book she was reading.

Leonora wished she’d brought one herself, but Mr. Becker had distracted her during her final preparations for the trip, and she’d lost her focus. Which meant she could either watch the people opposite her, talk to the men beside her, or sleep. She closed her eyes. Everything was going to be fine. She would arrive in Sheffield and say goodbye to Mr. Dalton forever, visit her sister, and return to London with renewed determination and a plan to solve everything.

“You were saying?” Mr. Smith whispered close to her ear. “Something about touching each other.”

Leonora clenched her fists. Perhaps she ought to have hired a carriage after all. Travelling by stagecoach was certainly not turning out as she’d thought it would when she’d imagined herself enjoying the company of strangers.

“No,” she informed Mr. Smith. “What I was about to tell you is that I know of ways to make a man cry.”

“That’s no way to repay my attempt at being friendly.” He grinned. “I brought some bread and cheese along with me. Would you like some?”

“No, thank you.” All I desire is to be left alone.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t my intention. So perhaps you’ll allow me to buy you a meal later on instead? To make up for my poor manners?”

Mr. Dalton produced a low snort and leaned forward so he could look at Mr. Smith properly without Leonora blocking the view. Naturally, the effort caused his leg to shift against hers, which in turn stirred to life a whole series of hot little embers that pricked at her skin. It was most unsettling and had to be stopped or she’d never survive this journey.

“You are being rather forward,” Mr. Dalton told Mr. Smith. “Perhaps the lady would like to be left in peace.”

And now he was fighting her battles for her. Brilliant! Typical male arrogance.

Leonora turned, intent on having her own say in the matter, but then Mr. Smith moved and addressed Mr. Dalton. “Have you a claim on her, sir? Or are you merely intent on being obstructive?”

“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Dalton said smoothly while Leonora opened her mouth with every intention of stopping this ridiculous conversation from progressing any further, “she’s my wife.”

What?

She had meant to ask that question out loud, but his outrageous proclamation had rendered her utterly dumb.

“In that case, I do beg your pardon,” Mr. Smith sputtered. “If you could just...just...forgive me.”

Mr. Dalton’s hand curled around Leonora’s, cocooning it in his warmth. “Don’t worry, Mr. Smith.” He leaned in closer to Leonora, who held herself ramrod straight for fear of doing something completely stupid, like actually liking the feel of his much larger body pressing firmly into hers. “I know my wife is a stunning beauty.” He leaned back and added so softly that Leonora was sure only she could hear him. “You’re not the first to think so, of that I can assure you.”

Completely bowled over by the flattering compliment since she had never really considered herself much to look at, Leonora stared at the opposite side of the carriage in bafflement. The old ladies there were now discussing grandchildren while the young girl continued to read. It wasn’t that Leonora thought herself dull, but she would have said she looked ordinary if someone had asked. Yet in the space of only half an hour, she’d apparently managed to stir the interest of two men, though one was clearly an absolute scoundrel.

“Are you not tired?” Mr. Dalton asked her.

“A bit,” she replied without even thinking. She turned to look at him, which proved a mistake, because the way he was looking at her...

Sucking in a breath, she averted her gaze and tugged on her hand. He released it without hesitation, and she instantly felt herself cool in response. Forcing herself to stay calm, she turned back toward him while pinning her gaze on his greatcoat collar. As long as she didn’t look up at his face, she might pretend he was every bit the man she intended to dislike.

“Why would you say that?” she whispered.

“Because you were being harassed.”

“I was not being any such thing.” She paused before adding, “Mr. Smith was merely being polite.”

Mr. Dalton snorted. “No. He was not.”

Obviously, but at least they were arguing now, and that felt better than whatever else had been happening between them since they’d met. It felt more manageable.

“Are you talking about me?” Mr. Smith asked.

“No!” Leonora and Mr. Dalton said in unison.

“I could have sworn I heard my name,” Mr. Smith said.

“You were mistaken,” Mr. Dalton assured him. “My wife and I are having a private conversation.”

Leonora glared at Mr. Dalton. “I am not...” He raised an eyebrow, and she reluctantly let the rest of her sentence die. Because she was stuck in a carriage with two men vying for her attention until she reached the inn where she planned on spending the night. Mr. Dalton, she believed, might be discouraged, but she had a feeling that Mr. Smith would not, which meant that making herself unavailable to him was the best course of action – one Mr. Dalton had swiftly provided.

“Fine,” she agreed, to which the annoying man smiled.

“You’ve made the right decision, I’ll wager.” He leaned his head back against the wall of the carriage, and without elaborating further, he closed his eyes.

Leonora glanced at Mr. Smith, whose interest was now on the scenery outside the window. Perhaps Mr. Dalton was right. It certainly seemed as though Mr. Smith would leave her alone from now on. But what Mr. Dalton had failed to elaborate on were his own intentions. Had he merely saved her out of gentlemanly politeness, or did he have designs on her himself? She would have to figure that out later. For now, the only thing she wanted was rest, so she settled herself against the squabs and closed her eyes once again.

#

THE FIRST THING LEONORA became aware of when she woke was the juxtaposition between the hard surface of the seat beneath her and the soft wool molded against the side of her face. Next came the sway, reminding her she was in a moving carriage travelling north. The surface she was leaning against rose and fell ever so gently, like a living thing. Something solid was wrapped around her, holding her steady. Leonora’s mind fought its way back to wakefulness in an effort to make sense of these curiosities. Sleep slipped into the background, bringing everything into sharper focus. She was at an angle, which had to mean...

Her eyes shot open.

“It’s so nice to see a young married couple showing affection for each other,” the old woman sitting directly opposite Leonora remarked.

Leonora blinked. “We are—”

“Very much in love,” Mr. Dalton murmured. He squeezed her side and she realized it was his arm she could feel at her back. He’d wound it around her and was holding her close – too close, considering they’d only just met.

Intent on escaping his embrace and the butterflies it stirred in the pit of her belly, Leonora shoved herself upright only to have him pull her closer. “Our...engagement was swift,” she told the woman tightly. “So much so it was over before I had time to fully adjust.” Turning slightly, she prepared to give Mr. Dalton a pointed look, but the flicker of amusement brightening his eyes tempted her to smile instead.

No.

He was a troublemaker, completely improper, and the sort of man who used charm and dashing good looks to his advantage. So she tamped down her momentary amusement and added, “The wedding was the same. I don’t even recall speaking my vows.”

The old woman grinned. “I can understand why. You husband is very fine indeed, and considering how pretty you are, I’m sure your children will be something to behold.”

Leonora gulped. “Children?”

“We hope to have many,” Mr. Dalton said. His free hand reached for hers, and before Leonora could protest, he’d woven their fingers together, and as if that wasn’t enough, he leaned in close to her cheek, brushing her skin with his lips. “Isn’t that right, my darling?”

Indignation lit up inside her, extinguished seconds later by the pleasure of his thumb stroking over her wrist. Logic called for her to revolt, to name him a liar and a scoundrel, no different and possibly worse than Mr. Smith. After all, he’d merely offered her a meal, although to be fair, he had touched her leg as well, but that was different, that was...uncomfortable and awkward and utterly disagreeable while Mr. Dalton’s touch...

If she were honest, she rather liked the way he made her feel.

Even though it’s wrong?

It really was, in more ways than one, for it wasn’t just the lie that should give her pause but the liberties he’d taken since. She was, after all, a young woman travelling alone, and some would argue that he’d taken advantage. She should think he’d done so considering what she already knew about him. And yet, she sensed that he would have let her be if she’d been adamant about it – that the only reason he was holding her now was because she’d allowed it, because she’d somehow granted him permission when she’d remained silent.

Why did you do that?

Because she’d secretly liked the idea of being the center of a his attention, because she was going away from London, from all that she knew and because she had a brief chance right now to be whatever she chose, including his wife. It was also because she’d spent years devoted to plants rather than people. Her debut had been a fantastic failure for that very reason – because none of the gentleman she’d had a chance with, like the Earl of Radcliff’s nephew, Mr. Young, had shared one ounce of her passion. As soon as she mentioned fruits and flowers, their eyes glazed over, and she’d eventually stopped trying.

Still...she’d seen Mr. Dalton in animated conversation with Mr. Becker. There was a good chance he knew of Mr. Becker’s recent property acquisition and his intention to profit from it, and if that were the case, could she really continue this farce? She shifted again, pulling away with enough force to tell him she wanted some space between them. He removed his arm from behind her and let her hand go. She masked the gesture by rummaging through her reticule.

“Absolutely,” she murmured, answering Dalton’s question about children while searching for nothing in particular. There was a handkerchief, a small box of homemade mints, her ticket to Sheffield, and some money. Not one useful thing to keep herself busy with or to distract her from Mr. Dalton’s presence.

He smelled good too, of leather and sandalwood and a hint of coffee.

Not that it mattered.

She rummaged some more.

“What are you looking for?” His voice tickled the nape of her neck, sending warm little shivers straight down her spine.

“I wish I’d brought a book,” she told him before closing her reticule again. Mr. Smith stirred beside her, and the girl diagonally opposite dropped her book. It slipped from her fingers as she fell asleep.

Mr. Dalton caught it. “Here. Read this if you like.”

She stared at him. “I couldn’t possibly.”

“I doubt she’d mind,” the old woman said. “I wouldn’t.”

“Even so, it’s not my book. It belongs to her,” Leonora said. “You ought to put it back.”

“So it can fall to the floor the next time the carriage jolts?”

“No, but—”

“I’ll read it then,” he said. And so he did, starting with page one. “‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’”