Melinda Goodheart is a young woman with a vivid imagination and a very determined plan for her future. With no expectation of finding a husband—she's been described as an "ungainly, robust girl with big feet and the grace of a plow-horse"—Melinda has opened a small hat shop called Desperate Bonnets.
Hoping to stay out of trouble and spread simple happiness with the help of her uniquely designed hats and bonnets, she is quite content without a man anywhere in her sight.
But Melinda has the demands of her father—impoverished baronet, Sir Ludlow Goodheart—to deal with before she can get on with her life. And he has his own plan for her future. As if that's not enough obstacle, there is also her lazy, scapegrace brother; a bumbling, over-eager suitor; a fantasy highwayman who keeps wandering into her thoughts; and, finally, that "dullest man on earth", Heath Caulfield, a Bow Street Runner who always seems to be rescuing her.
Whether she needs it or not.
If only all these men would stop meddling, and insisting they know better, this "Lady Most Unlikely" might finally be able to get on with her own adventures.
An Introduction in Mid-Air.
(Well, one must begin somewhere)
Dangling from a drainpipe could be a distinctly drafty business, she discovered. It was also a pastime far from ideal when dressed in her Sunday best. However, if such measures were necessary, Melinda Goodheart was your girl. Few pupils at the Particular Establishment for the Advantage of Respectable Ladies would claim to be made of stronger stuff, and certainly none could prove it.
As she clung to that rusted, cast iron pipe and felt one shoe begin its slow, tantalizing slip from her foot, knowing her own weight would not be far behind it, her predominate concern was not for herself, but for whom or what she might land upon when she fell. Hopefully she would not leave too large and unsightly a stain on the pavement, scar some poor child for life, or frighten a horse.
"Oh, do take care, Melinda," shouted her new friend Georgiana Hathaway who, being ten months older, thought herself a decade wiser. Clutching the window ledge from the warm safety of their bedroom interior, the young lady added gravely, "You might fall! Do hold tightly!"
"Your counsel, dear friend, is invaluable," the amiable maladroit replied from her chilly perch. "How lucky that you are here to advise, for it had not occurred to me to hold on. No, no, being of simple brain, that was the last thing I had in mind to do." Barely was the last word out than another bracket gave way and the drainpipe tilted ominously away from the building, exhaling a low groan that vibrated through her fingertips.
It was, she mused, inevitable that she should meet her end in so undignified a manner. Everybody had warned her.
"Of all my pupils you three are the very worst," Mrs. Lightbody, the school headmistress, frequently assured Melinda and her friends. "You are this academy's biggest failures, with no accomplishment or talent among you. Not for anything but mischief, that is."
All of it quite true, Melinda would agree, nodding solemnly.
But this ready concurrence by the miscreant made Mrs. Lightbody even more scarlet and fuming, and when she added, as she invariably did, "You are the most unlikely to make good matches. You'll be three debauched old ladies huddled together, probably living a life of crime, not a decent husband between you," it meant nothing to Melinda. The words were merely hot air and as hollow as the threat they sought to impose.
At the age of fifteen, seldom sparing a moment to consider anything that was not immediately before her, she could only reply with great warmth, "Thank heavens. Whatever would I do with a decent husband? I'd only get him dirty and worn. Look how merciless I am upon my shoes!"
Melinda saw herself not as a delicate flower of England waiting to be plucked, but as a brave Sir Galahad with spears of sunlight sparking off her armor, a champion of the downtrodden, rescuer of desperate princesses. Or even princes, if the need arose.
Or even— as was the case on the day Melinda rode that rusty drainpipe— a savior of lost bonnets.
As she was fond of saying, one has to start somewhere.
Ah yes, bonnets. Has any item ever been more innocent in nature and yet more likely to get a young lady into trouble? The hat at the very root of Melinda's problem today had earlier been thrown by somebody leaning out of the window and tossing it up, with all their spiteful might, to the frosty roof. There it was held custody by two curious pigeons who pecked at it, and each other, with increasing violence, while little Emma Chance, to whom this hat belonged, had burst into a fresh round of hiccupping sobs whenever a flicker of windblown ribbon was visible over the edge of the gutter.
"Mrs. Lightbody will be furious," the poor girl had lamented, clutching at her dress with fingers that probably already felt the sting of a fiercely wielded cane. "She says that to lose one's possessions shows carelessness and disrespect."
"Nonsense." Melinda would not let any friend of hers suffer the wrath of Lightbody. If there was one thing she could not abide, it was to see a small creature being picked upon, and nobody was ever more eager to right a wrong than she. "I'll get your bonnet back for you." She had already assessed the breadth of the window ledge and the proximity of the gutter, her heart beating excitedly.
"Oh, do take care, Melinda," Georgiana then exclaimed, while comforting Emma with an arm around her. "I know you mean well, but really...I could lend her one of my bonnets for church today, and Mrs. Lightbody will never know."
Of course, Georgiana, who had a devoted elder brother to send her beautiful gifts from his travels with the navy, would not understand how it was to have so few nice possessions and even fewer fond relatives who cared to give them.
No, Melinda's mind was made up immediately and the hat must be rescued. It might not be entirely practical, but it was a matter of principal.
Do not think she embarked upon this mission completely without fear, however. She was forced to concede that it did look to be a very long way to the ground. Once galloping forward in battle, however, one could hardly turn about and charge away again without exhibiting a less than flattering view of one's backside. So once she had climbed out onto the ledge there was no retreat.
Her plan had been to reach the fluttering ribbons and pull the lost bonnet loose. But a most inconsiderate winter wind had suddenly blown the ribbons farther away from her stretching fingers, soon making it apparent that this would, by no means, be an easy task.
Unfortunately, as Mrs. Lightbody liked to point out, our heroine was an "ungainly, robust girl with big feet and the grace of a plow-horse." In all honesty, Melinda found that description rather more flattering than it was meant to be— she loved those solid, steady and gentle horses—but this was certainly a time when she wished she was less the lumbering oaf and more of a willowy, light-footed creature with long elegant, dexterous fingers.
Balanced precariously on the ledge, she had suddenly heard a bloodcurdling scream and, thinking somebody must have been trampled in the street by a coach and four, she glanced down, only to see a cluster of people on the pavement below, pointing up at her. After a moment's contemplation, realizing they thought she meant to jump to her death, she had smiled and waved down to the growing crowd.
"Good people, please do not fear! I am retrieving a hat."
Apparently they could not hear. Her gestures must have convinced them that she was unhinged, for another wave of screams drifted up to her.
For pity's sake, had they never seen a girl on a ledge before? If they had ever witnessed poor Emma's sore, beaten fingers they would understand the dire situation and shout their encouragement. Because those wailing cries of apprehension were not helping at all.
Carefully she had inched her toes along the ledge, trying to ignore her audience. The wind built up again, plucking at the edge of that ribbon, teasing her with it.
"I've got it! I've got—"
Alas, what she hadn't got was more ledge and when a gust of wind from behind blew her skirt hard against her legs, challenging her balance, hasty requisition of the rusted drainpipe had become necessary. It rattled in protest and then gave a low creak, signifying a definite reluctance to be part of her scheme.
Even then, the rhythm of her heart thumping like battle drums in her ears, Melinda had determinedly reached once more for the hat. This time the startled pigeons took off in a flurry of discontent and grey feathers, giving up their claim. But before she could celebrate, the drain shook, grumbled a somber dirge, and began pulling away from the building.
So that was how she got there, slowly dropping through the air while the weathered old pipe, struggling under her weight, bent toward the pavement. Inch by shuddering inch. And as the quickening breeze pummeled her gown and froze her fingers, her friends continued to offer their advice, which, while well-intended, was neither useful, nor particularly uplifting in the circumstances. Indeed, some of it bordered on the bizarre with offerings such as, "Try to land on your feet, Melinda dear," "Bounce just before you land," and "Fall slowly."
Although she muttered a hasty prayer, Melinda feared she had little credit with the Almighty. It was certainly doubtful that He would listen to her pleas, since she was such a wretched girl, inclined to daydreaming in church, watching folk in the other pews and making up lurid stories about their lives. Hardly likely to put her on His good side.
She imagined her headstone beside all the other Goodhearts whose bones and boots were deposited in the parish churchyard at home:
Here Lies Melinda 1798-1813
She meant well and managed ill
Hopefully they would plant her next to Grandmother Ethelreda, who had shared her love of good causes, rhubarb pie, and hide-and-seek— particularly the hiding part. Melinda had once remained hidden for almost an entire day before she realized that her brother had long since grown bored with the game and had, in fact, left the house for a ride, having supposedly forgotten she was hiding at all.
As she dangled above the street her shoe finally slid completely from her foot and tumbled toward the ground, caught mid-air by the gloved hand of a passing gentleman who, previously paying no attention to the scene unfolding above, was now obliged to stop and see what held the gawping crowd so deeply enthralled.
"What on earth—?"
"Perhaps you would be so good as to keep my slipper, sir," she shouted cheerfully, "until I have made my descent, one way or another. It is from a very good pair, and I should hate to misplace it or see it destroyed in a puddle. Or have a horse ride over it."
The downpipe shifted again as more brackets and nails came loose.
"Keep your slipper? The fate of your shoes, young lady, would appear to be the least of your difficulties." His stern gaze followed her overhead as she swayed from left to right and back again, like a pirate flag.
"I comprehend your concern, sir, but one can never be dispassionate about pretty footwear. Especially when there is a distinct lack of those delights in one's possession."
At that moment Melinda's icy fingers finally lost their grip on the pipe and she followed her shoe through the air. Fortunately the gentleman was there to break her fall too, having remained riveted to the very spot where he previously caught her slipper.
"Good God!" he wheezed from somewhere under her petticoats.
As he set her back on her feet, she heard the ominous snap of stitches, followed by a cool breeze through her chemise under one arm and knew the seam of her sleeve was torn. Nobody in the school had more torn sleeves than Melinda, and she was recently punished for it by being made to wear a sign around her neck that said "Miss Goodheart is a very poor seamstress, a reckless gesticulator and hard on her garments."
Not withstanding all these acknowledged failings, today she was victorious, Emma's lost bonnet reclaimed and her mission successful.
"Thank you, sir, for breaking my fall and saving me from a most ignoble end," cried she. "One day I shall repay the favor and, when you are in need, I'll save you in return."
Still winded, clutching Emma's bonnet to his chest, the fellow gasped out a bemused breath. "I sincerely hope that service is never required. For both our sakes." He paused, catching another gasp of surprise as she gripped his gloved hand to help her balance on one foot and replace her shoe. "Were...were you breaking out or in, might I ask?"
"Neither, sir. I was rescuing the hat for a friend. I would have thought that was obvious."
"Indeed. For what other purpose would anybody be dangling from a downspout?"
"Desperate situations require extreme measures, do you not think?"
"And a bonnet is a desperate situation?"
Men were generally too thick headed, of course, to understand the importance of peripheral adornment, but she had no time to explain further or even treat him to a scornful remark. Melinda now heard Mrs. Lightbody's less-than-dulcet tones demanding to know what was going on— locked away in her study with the gin bottle, the headmistress had missed most of the excitement— so our heroine hastily took Emma's hat from the gentleman's grip and bobbed a curtsy of sorts. "Goodbye then, sir."
With his heels together, he gave a neat, quick, shallow bow. "Might I suggest you stay off rooftops and away from those Desperate Bonnets in the future?"
He smiled. It was as if he didn't want to, but couldn't help himself. For that brief moment he was almost handsome. Then sadness, like the shadow of a raincloud, passed over his face and he turned his back.
"But sir," she called after him, "were you not going that way?" She pointed over her shoulder in the direction he'd been walking before she fell onto his head.
"Ah." He spun around on his heel. "Yes. You got in my way, didn't you?" The man seemed annoyed rather than thankful to be reminded. With a brisk nod, he marched by her again and he did not look back.
Melinda was so distracted watching him pass that she tripped over the step and banged her cheek on the door frame. The resulting bruise was 'oohed' and 'aahed' over with great respect for almost a full week.
And so, you see, the Desperate Bonnets were all his fault. He was entirely responsible for putting the idea in her head.
* * * *
She would, many years later, write to her friend,
Some romances might be described as whirlwind. They might be stormy with passionate declarations and littered with tortured embraces stolen by moonlight. They generally, of course, involve an innocent, fragile maiden and a wicked rogue, who suddenly reforms his debauched ways at one glance of her limpid eyes.
But for me it was very different. No cupid's harp sang in my ear, no clouds were rendered apart by lightning, no breathless recognition seized my bosom, no delirium of star-crossed, self-sacrificial love sent me to the charnel house. And he was no rake seeking my love for his redemption.
Mine is not that sort of romance.
My awakening took place on the slowest of meandering, rainy dawns. But it leaked upon me with steady persistence so that I could not fall back asleep again.
It was years before I saw him a second time and more years still before I saw him a third, or thought of him as anything other than the dullest, most frustrating of men. In truth, I believe he wishes I still thought of him as such, for the idea of becoming anything more thrilling and beloved in my vivid, lust-filled mind quite terrifies the poor fellow. Look how hard I am on my favored slippers!
But good things come to those who wait, and ours is a story of Patience and Virtue.
Neither of which, incidentally, were mine...