The Scarlet Gown

By: Sarah Mallory

Chapter One

Mrs Killinghurst’s register office was well known as the saviour of many a gently bred young lady who had fallen upon hard times and needed to earn a living. Mrs Killinghurst specialised in finding employment for such young ladies as companions, governesses or even seamstresses, depending upon their accomplishments. Her offices occupied a suite of rooms above a hatter’s shop in Bond Street, and young ladies wishful of finding employment could slip along the narrow alley beside the shop and through the freshly painted doorway with its discreet brass plate.

Miss Lucy Halbrook had already made one visit to Mrs Killinghurst’s establishment and now, a fortnight later, she was returning to the office, as instructed by the proprietress herself, with high hopes of obtaining the gainful employment she so desperately needed. When her father had died twelve months ago Lucy had been prepared for life to change for herself and Mama, but it was only after the funeral that Lucy discovered just how poor they really were. They had been taken in by Mrs Halbrook’s invalid sister, but Lucy soon realised that although Mama had found a niche as nurse-companion to Mrs Edgeworth, she herself was constantly harassed by Mr Edgeworth. Lucy had always thought it a little odd that the female servants in her aunt’s house were all rather mature, but within days of moving in she knew the reason for it. She had so far managed to evade her uncle’s lascivious attentions but she must find somewhere else to live, and soon. If she was honest with herself, she also wanted a little more independence. Her father’s death had been painful, but her mother’s sudden revelation that they were penniless had been even harder to bear. They had never been rich, and it was not just their poverty, but the knowledge that Mama had kept the situation from her. And what of her father, a man she had adored? To find that he was not the hero she had thought him was a severe blow. If only they had told her. After all, it was not as if she was a child. Surely they could have trusted her with the truth when she reached her majority, three years ago? She might even have been able to help. By finding employment, for example, as she was doing now.

Lucy hurried along New Bond Street, dodging between the crowds of fashionable ladies and gentlemen who were taking advantage of the mild spring weather to stroll along, giving more attention to the shop windows than to where they were going. At last she reached the hatter’s and stepped quickly into the alley. It was darker than she had expected and it took her a moment to realise this was because someone was standing at the far end, blocking the light.

Her step faltered, but she pressed on. After all, Mrs Killinghurst was expecting her and she was not to be put off. She might wish she had worn a veil, but since there was no help for it, Lucy continued towards the door. The man—for it was undoubtedly a man—had apparently just emerged from Mrs Killinghurst’s door, so he was either looking for work or for someone to employ. The latter, she thought as her eyes grew accustomed to the shadows and she took in at a glance his coat of blue superfine, buckskin breeches and black boots. In fact, he might well have purchased his coat from Mr Weston’s hallowed portals in nearby Old Bond Street, for it fitted him perfectly with never a wrinkle to mar its elegance. His boots, too, shone with a smooth, highly polished gloss. The buckskins may well have been similarly free of creases, but Lucy had felt a frisson of something she did not quite understand when she had first observed the man and now she dared not let her eyes dwell on those muscular limbs.

Instead, she kept her head up, chin defiantly raised. She would not stare at the ground like some humble, subservient creature. Consequently she could not avoid at least one quick glance at the man’s face. It was rugged rather than handsome, black-browed and with a deep cleft in his chin. There was a latent strength about him that sat oddly with his fashionable dress—clearly he was no Bond Street Beau. Whatever his status, Lucy’s main concern was that he was blocking her way. His curly-brimmed hat almost brushed the roof of the alley and his broad shoulders filled the narrow space.

She observed all this in the time it took her to cover the short distance between them, and it struck her in the same instant that he was the most solid and immovable object she had ever encountered. She stopped, but refused to be intimidated and returned his direct gaze with a steady look. His grey eyes were curiously compelling and again she felt that tremor run through her. An odd, unfamiliar mixture of excitement and attraction that had her wanting to know more about this man and at the same time to turn around and run for her life.

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