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by Sheri Cobb South
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: When the Brundys' seaside wedding trip is interrupted by a young woman claiming to be Mr. Brundy's sister, Sir Aubrey promises to do what he can in order to relieve his friend of an imposter. But golden-haired Polly Hampton proves to be more than a match for Sir Aubrey, who finds himself thinking about having a honeymoon of his own? Regency Romance by Sheri Cobb South; originally published by Prinny World Press, second of the Brundy trilogy
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: December 2008
24 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [263 KB]
Reading time: 152-213 min.
"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.
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 uncommon 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.
With the loss of her position, however, the task of finding her father must yield to the more pressing demands of keeping food in her belly and a roof over her head. Squaring her shoulders and thrusting her chin forward, she opened the door of the milliner's shop and marched inside to inquire after a position.
She repeated the process frequently on her way home, but the answers to her queries were variations on the same theme: with the migration of the beau monde from Town, no new workers were being hired. By the time she reached Henrietta Street, where she lived with a linen-draper's family in a hired room over his shop, her spirits were utterly downcast. She had lost her old position and had no hope of finding a new one. She had no choice but to swallow her pride and return home in defeat--if, in fact, her meager store of coins would stretch to the cost of a ticket on the stagecoach.
The bell over the door of Hargett & Son, Linen-drapers, jingled as she entered the shop, its cheerful music a sharp contrast to Polly's dispirited sigh. If only she had thought before flinging her apron and cap back at Mr. Minchin! They might have fetched a few pence at a used-clothing shop. But the provocation had been too great to resist, and she had always been impulsive to a fault; indeed, good Reverend Jennings had often said it was her besetting sin. Now, besides admitting that her impulsive trip to London had been but one more of her rash starts, she would have to endure the added humiliation of requesting the vicar to send her money he could ill afford for the return trip.
And he would do it, too, she thought with a sudden rush of affection for the man who had stood in loco parentis to her for the last six years. He would send her the needed funds over his wife's objections, and never utter a word of censure.
"Why, Miss Hampton, you're home early," observed her landlord, Mr. Hargett. "My Tom will be sorry he missed you," he added with a broad wink.
"Business was slower than usual," she answered vaguely, unwilling to reveal the whole truth just yet. Mr. and Mrs. Hargett were kindly enough people, but Tom Hargett, the junior half of Hargett & Son, had been making sheep's eyes at her almost from the day of her arrival, and his fond parents lost no opportunity to let her know how much they would welcome a match between their only son and their genteel young boarder. Polly doubted they would be so cruel as to turn her out immediately, but remaining under their roof now that she could no longer pay her keep would make it exceedingly awkward to repulse their son's ever more pressing advances. And so she said nothing of her misfortunes, but watched as Mr. Hargett artfully draped a bolt of fabric the better to catch a customer's eye.
"Pretty," she remarked, fingering the crisp folds of printed cotton.
"That's the future you're looking at," the loquacious Mr. Hargett informed her. "So far as I know, it's the first fabric to be woven and printed all under the same roof. A man named Brundy produces it at a mill near Manchester, and I'll wager it won't be long before every textile mill in the North will be doing the same. I met the fellow myself many years ago, when the old man--Mr. Brundy that was--brought him to London to show him this end of the business. He couldn't have been more than eighteen years old at the time, but already he was as shrewd as he could stare. Of course, his name wasn't Brundy then--he changed it when the old man died and left him the mill, lock, stock, and barrel."
"His family must have been pleased at his good fortune." Polly feigned an interest she did not feel, grateful that Mr. Hargett had apparently dropped the subject of young Tom.
"Oh, he had no family. That's what made his story so unusual. The old Mr. Brundy got him from the workhouse when he was only a tadpole."
The mention of the workhouse brought unpleasant memories to bear. Polly, unwilling to face those memories just yet, sought to stifle them by seizing upon the familiar name.
"I heard some mention of a Mr. Brundy in the bookshop today," she remarked when her landlord paused to draw a breath.
Mr. Hargett grinned knowingly. "Oh, there's been gossip a-plenty about Mr. Brundy since he married a duke's daughter and set himself up as a gentleman in Grosvenor Square. Bookstores aren't the only place where fashionable customers talk, you know," he added with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"No, I suppose not," she said with an answering smile before heading for the back stairs. Suddenly she longed for the privacy of her room and the opportunity to rest for a moment before facing the task of composing a suitably penitent letter to Reverend Jennings.
Mr. Hargett's exclamation interrupted her flight, and she turned back.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Crump, his name was. Ethan Crump," he said, pleased beyond bearing at this feat of memory. "Isn't it funny, the things the mind recalls after so many years?"
"Funny, indeed," Polly agreed, and climbed the narrow staircase to her room, a cramped chamber furnished with a bed, a rickety washstand bearing a pitcher and basin, a single straight chair, and a writing table over which a cracked mirror was hung. She removed her bonnet and hung her shawl on a peg behind the door, then collapsed onto her bed. She had not the luxury of a long repose if she hoped to make the day's post. She rose quickly, washed her face with water from the basin, and sat down to write. She struggled with this epistle, as she could not spare more than a single sheet of paper in the attempt and thus had to choose every word with care, but at last it was finished. She folded it and sealed it with a wafer, and was about to take it downstairs to be mailed when a knock fell upon her door.
"Miss Hampton?" The voice belonged to Mrs. Hargett, her landlady. "You have a letter, dear."
So she had missed the post, after all. Somehow this relatively minor setback seemed perfectly in keeping with everything else that had happened to her. She opened the door and took the letter, then broke the seal and spread the single sheet.
She glanced down at the signature first, and found that the sender was Mrs. Jennings, the vicar's wife. The discovery was enough to fill Polly with foreboding, since Mrs. Jennings had never approved of her husband's generosity to one born in sin and had never hesitated to voice her views on the subject, so long as her husband was not there to chide her for her lack of Christian charity.
As Polly deciphered the spidery script, she felt decidedly unwell. It pained Mrs. Jennings to inform her that Mr. Jennings had been carried off quite suddenly by an infectious fever of the lungs ... They could be thankful that his sufferings, though severe, were not of a long duration ... It would mean so much to him to know that Polly was well established in London ... As for herself, she would now be making her home with her widowed sister in Hampshire....
There was no mention of the location of this sister's house, nor anything else that might be construed as an invitation for Polly to join her there. The message was clear: Polly was now "well established in London," and Mrs. Jennings considered any obligation on her part to have been fully discharged. There was no home to go back to, even had she possessed the funds to do so.