Lady Ivy Plumthorne is a worry to her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Wythorpe. Desiring only that she be as happily wed as her younger sister, they've spent the past year parading prospective suitors in front of her. When she finds none of the suitors… suitable, her parents despair she will ever find the perfect husband. With Christmas approaching, they find one more prospective suitor, the Duke of Greenbriar. Only problem is, Ivy's already met the man of her dreams… and he's a toymaker.
Noel Phillip Vincent Greenstone, the Twelfth Duke of Greenbriar, isn’t cut out to be a duke. He prefers crafting toys that make children happy. As Phillip Green, he travels freely, making certain no child goes without a toy of his or her own. But after a few coincidental meetings with Lady Ivy, he knows he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. The problem is, she needs to marry a nobleman and she only knows him as Phillip the Toymaker.
The world needs to meet the reclusive Duke of Greenbriar, so Phillip plans his own coming out. But how will Ivy react when she learns the truth?
THE SIGN WAS small and unassuming. Caroline’s Antiques & Estate Liquidations. Angela didn’t know what possessed her to pull into the parking lot. It was just another junk store, the kind that seemed to crop up around the Virginia countryside like weeds. She’d been to dozens in the last few weeks, for no other reason than she enjoyed seeing what people had kept through the ages that ended up needing liquidation when nothing was left but the estate.
Twin mutinous groans rose from the back seat as the SUV rolled to a stop, undoubtedly begun by twelve-year-old Kalie. She was just discovering the fine art of boy watching with girl pals at the mall and any stops along the way were potential life-altering emergencies. At only eight, Sam was still pretty agreeable as little boys went. As long as he got to his lacrosse and basketball games on time and had an assortment of junk food to choose from after school, he didn’t complain too often. But he did try to be supportive of his sister’s rebellions.
“Not another smelly store filled with junk.” Kalie wrinkled her nose as she peered through the side window.
“We’ll be quick, I promise.” Angela switched off the ignition, opened the door, and slid to the ground below.
Fine limestone gravel crunched beneath her feet as she stepped away from the protection of the door and shut it. A gust of wind sent the light flurries that fell from the sky skittering across the windshield and stirred the bits of white that had already collected on the ground. They’d have to be quick or she’d be sweeping snow before they could drive again.
Behind her, Sam popped open his door and vaulted from the vehicle. With more exuberance than a lazy Saturday morning should allow, he turned and laid both hands against the door and shoved it closed with a mighty thump. When he stepped back, two sticky purple handprints had been added to the assortment of other such decorations on the champagne colored paint.
A soft clunk from the other side of the car signaled Kalie’s more ladylike exit. As Angela and Sam met the slender girl at the front of the SUV, the chilly, almost-winter breeze fluffed the spray of hair spouting from the top of her head. Snowflakes clung to a single strand of chestnut hair that had escaped the arrangement and fallen across Kalie’s forehead above her right eye.
“Ugh! What time is it?” she asked with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “We’re going to be so late.” She shivered. “Could it be any colder?”
Angela hid a smile. Could you be more dramatic?
“Yep!” Sam raced across the gravel, kicking up puffs of snow with each footfall. He made it to the shade of the overhang that ran across the front of the building and turned around with a cry of triumph. “It’s thirty-one degrees. That’s what the bank said. That’s below freezing. But it’ll be colder on Christmas!”
Kaylie scrunched up her nose as she picked her way across the limestone. “No one cares, squirt!” She kicked out with her left foot, chasing a pebble through the air with the toe of her fur-trimmed, suede boot.
“Uh-huh! You asked!” Sam chortled as he performed a robot-style victory dance.
Time for Mom to take control of the situation before it got out of hand. Angela cleared her throat. “All right, let’s save it for later. Sam, where do your hands go?”
Instantly, her son reached deep into the pockets of his blue jeans.
“Good. Keep them there until we’re outside again.” Angela pointed to the single glass door at the far end of the cluttered porch. “It’ll probably be heated inside.”
“And stinky,” muttered Kalie, stomping onto the wooden planks.
With a soft sigh, Angela pulled open the door. “You used to like going to these places with me, you know.”
The near-teenager’s face pinched into a frown. “Kim and Bridget are probably already at the mall, Mother!”
Right. The mall. That assortment of shops sporting shiny new fancies… and boys. Angela sighed. In Christmases past, Santa had been the only male Kalie had been interested in at the mall.
Despite her objections, though, it was Kalie who crossed the threshold first. No more than two steps inside, she twisted her head and sent Angela a wrinkled-nosed grimace over her shoulder. “Musty,” she announced, but moved deeper into the building regardless.
It did smell of dust and disuse, conceded Angela. But the interior afforded relief from the brisk chill outside. She smiled at the four-foot plastic snowman standing guard over a cardboard box filled with multiple strands of Christmas lights to the left of the door.
What would Rob do if he came home from his deployment to Afghanistan to find that in their front yard? Angela pushed back the wave of loneliness and replaced it with practicality. He’d be home in the spring, so unless she left it up that long, the snowman would be a moot point.
A right turn put her at the start of an aisle lined on either side with breakables. Angela sent a quick glance over her shoulder to assure herself that Sam’s hands remained safely in his pockets.
Chickens and cows, dogs and cats, daisies, fruit, a sun and moon set, sailing ships — all shapes and sizes of colorful salt and pepper shakers, some dating back to the 1940s or 50s. These yielded to milk china dinnerware and Blue Willow place settings. Fascinating to see what people from half a century earlier had once placed on their dinner tables. Rounding the corner at the end of the aisle, Angela was met by a wooden counter that ran all the way to the back of the store. Pile after pile of hand-crocheted doilies and embroidered dresser scarves had been arranged by color along the countertop. Who had meticulously stitched the lacy pieces? What rooms had they graced in their day?
“Mom, look!” In a typical moment of forgetfulness, Sam removed his hands from his pockets. He tugged on Angela’s left arm and pointed with his chin. “Toys!”
Indeed, the entire rear wall was a delight of HO and O gauge trains, a handful of gas powered model airplanes, and a plethora of model cars made of tin. Squinting at the assortment, Angela could easily imagine the treasures filling out the shelves of a small-town mercantile in the early twentieth century.
She scanned the aisles, seeking Kalie, not surprised to find her standing next to a grouping of dolls. Those had always been her favorite. She held a life-sized baby doll that looked like it might have been crafted in the 1960s. Sporting a plastic head and limbs on a cloth-stuffed torso gave the doll the floppy look of a real newborn. The poor baby was naked, though, showing off a body of well-worn, white cotton. Here and there, seams had loosened, and the batting had begun to poke through.
Kalie glanced up at Angela’s approach and smiled. “She’s not in bad shape. Too bad I’m not into toys anymore.” She laid the doll back into a carved wooden cradle and covered her with a tiny flannel blanket.
Angela suppressed a smile. So you say, kiddo. But I see the gleam in your eye. You’re just itching to patch her up and dress her in something pretty.
She opened her mouth to make an offer when Sam popped up next to her again.
“What’s this?” He held out what looked like a stack of skinny wooden blocks tied up with lengths of narrow ribbon. The colors had probably once been vivid, but time had stolen much of their vibrancy.
“Oh, wow! That looks like a Jacob’s ladder toy,” Angela murmured, accepting the toy. “It looks pretty old, too.”
She stretched it out. The ribbons had been wound securely around the flat pieces of wood in a fairly elaborate fashion. When she pulled one block up, the rest spilled downward, giving the illusion of changing positions. She flipped the block around and one of the blocks below it poked outward and then adjusted, falling into place. Then the rest seemed to roll down in a slow tumble. She turned the top block over again and the process repeated.
“Cool!” breathed Sam, keeping his eyes on the toy. In his typically analytical way, he was most likely trying to figure out how it worked.
“Where did you find this?” asked Angela, as the thought occurred to her that perhaps other such treasures might be laying just feet away.
Sam pointed over his shoulder. “In a box back there.” He sent his sister a sly glance. “I saw a doll in it.”
Kalie’s head popped up and her eyes lit on her brother with interest at the utterance of the magic word.
Angela smiled. Oh, no, you aren’t into toys anymore. Much.
They followed Sam back along the aisle to where a sizeable wooden crate rested on the floor. Huh! She must have stepped right around it.
Sam bent and picked up a carved stick with a cup on one end. A fraying string connected to a small bead at the other end. “This is like those nickel toys at the fair!” He snapped his wrist and flipped the ball up into the cup.
“Where did you see the doll?” Peering into the crate, Kalie pushed a few carved wooden farm animals aside. Then she tossed a triumphant glance over her shoulder as a grin spread across her face. With gentle hands, she lifted a slender wooden doll from the box. “Mom, look at this.”
No more than a dozen inches tall, the doll had definitely seen better days. Her tattered dress had possibly started out as a bold shade of harvest gold, but it had dulled with age. The sleeve of the white blouse had torn at the shoulder, giving a view of a complex joint construction using string that had been run through drilled holes. A babushka had been tied to the doll’s head, but the edges of painted-on hair were easily visible. Probably once a chestnut brown but now chipped and fading, it reminded Angela of Kalie’s hair, especially with the single dark curl falling over the doll’s right eye.
“She’s really old. Do you think they had dolls like this in Jane Austen’s time?” whispered Kalie, fingering the soft muslin.
Angela suppressed yet another smile, for her daughter had claimed to be finished with all things Jane Austen just the week before. Tilting her head, Angela took a second look at the clothing. “Hmm… Her clothes look more German or Bavarian, I think. But she certainly looks at least two hundred years old.” Had the doll been made that long ago or merely dressed to look as though she had been?
“I think she was a Christmas doll.” Kalie slipped a finger beneath the hem of the skirt. “Look at this lace around the edges.”
Angela bent to study the skirt. Almond colored lace rimmed the bottom edge, with only a bit of loosening in places. An intricate pattern of dark green holly leaves and red berries had been embroidered into the dark yellow skirt just above the lace.
“It does look kind of Christmassy, doesn’t it?”
“That’s a peg wooden doll.” A petite woman with a gazillion wrinkles and snow white hair approached, hobbling slightly and leaning heavily on her cane. “That whole box came over from England — probably a hundred years ago. We just picked it up from the James Merrick estate, a family who traced its roots back to the seventeenth century.” Offering a smile, she held out her free hand to Angela. “My name is Caroline Roberts.”
Angela shook the proprietor’s hand.
“What’s a peg wooden doll?” asked Kalie.
Unable to stop them, Angela’s lips tugged into a grin. Had her daughter actually forgotten her planned outing to the mall?
“Well, peg wooden dolls started out in Germany and the Netherlands in about 1810, but they quickly grew popular and then became available in most countries across Europe.” Ms. Roberts had apparently done her homework. Angela herself didn’t know much about wooden dolls but she could imagine such a toy being popular a couple hundred years in the past.
“Mom…” Kalie chewed her lip as she lifted the doll toward her chest, her eyes pleading.
Sam still clutched the ball and cup toy, and with a start, Angela realized she still hung onto the Jacob’s ladder toy. She stole a glance into the crate at their feet. It looked old. Really old. Who knew what historical riches it might contain in its dark reaches?
“How much do you want for the entire crate?” she asked, bringing her gaze up to settle on Ms. Roberts.
“Oh, well I don’t know. There’s not really much in there, and not much call for toys from England.” Mrs. Roberts smiled. “How about twenty dollars for the lot?”
Angela’s smile widened as she stooped to pick up the box. “Perfect. And I’ll take that baby doll with the cradle, too.” She nodded to the doll Kalie had spotted first. Who knew? If Kalie didn’t do anything with her, maybe Angela would fix her up, give the toy another chance to make someone happy.
With the crate of goodies paid for and secured on the back seat of the SUV, the trio resumed their trip to the mall. The snow had stopped but the heavy gray clouds promised it wouldn’t hold off for long.
Occupying the front passenger seat this time, Kalie cradled the battered old doll. “Where do you suppose she came from? Who might have made her?”
Angela shook her head. “We’ll probably never know, but it’s kind of fun to dream and wonder, isn’t it?”
From the corner of her eye, Angela caught her daughter’s happy smile. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on a dreamy quality. “It kind of is.”
Rustling from the back seat drew Angela’s gaze to the rearview mirror. “What are you doing back there?”
Sam stopped rummaging through the crate and sent an engaging grin forward. One day he was going to break a lot of hearts. “I wanted to see what else was in here.”
“Wait ‘til we get home, squirt!” Kalie’s voice took on a sharp tone. “We have to go through it together.”
“Nah-a-ah! Mom didn’t say.”
Angela sighed. “You’re right. I didn’t. But how about I say it now, okay? We want to go through it carefully so nothing gets broken.”
“Why does KK get to hold the stupid doll?”
Kalie twisted in her seat, straining against the seatbelt. “Stop calling me that!”
The shriek reverberated around the inside of Angela’s skull until she was certain she’d end up with a migraine. “Stop fighting over it. Kalie, be quiet. Sam, you may choose one toy and hold it if you’re very careful getting it out.”
Sam made a rude noise and began rummaging again. “Hey, look at this!” He sneezed.
Angela chanced another fleeting look in the mirror. Sam clutched a battered book in one hand. The brown leather binding was dry to the point of cracking along the spine, and the edges had crumbled in places. About the shape and size of the leather-bound Bible on Angela’s nightstand, it wasn’t quite as thick. Yellowed pages had come loose and hung haphazardly, in danger of falling out.
“What’s that?” asked Angela.
“Some diary.” Sam turned the book over and opened the front. “It’s got writing in it but it’s hard to read.”
“Let me see it,” demanded Kalie.
With a hearty eye-roll, Sam passed the journal forward. Kalie opened the book and picked up a tattered and yellow piece of paper.
“Be careful with that,” warned Angela, sending her daughter a sideways glance. “It looks like a bit of newspaper.”
“What’s Mrs. Peabody’s Society Papers?” asked Kalie, wrinkling her nose.
Angela’s heartbeat quickened. “A society page is a part of the newspaper devoted to reporting on the members of high society — like movie stars or rock musicians today. Does it have a date on it?”
“Is that like one of those gossip magazines Grandma likes?” Kalie brushed a finger across the top of the scrap of paper. “It says it’s from… December 29, 1812. Wow! I mean that’s really old.”
“Ancient,” agreed Angela. She knew they should examine the stuff at home so she could concentrate, but she opened her mouth and surprised herself with the words that tumbled out. “Can you read it? What’s it about?”
Kalie cleared her throat and began to read, slowly at first but soon picking up momentum. “My, my, my, does my quill deceive me or was it the reclusive Duke of Greenbriar I saw at the annual Kringle Ball? Naturally, I was the only one privy to the man’s true identity, after all, this author never forgets a roguish face. But dear readers, and I hate to say this, you know how I despise any sort of gossip, I do try to always tell the truth. After all, is that not my duty as a leader in this lovely city? It appears that Lady Ivy Plumthorne was seen making a very hasty retreat once she set eyes on the handsome devil. Now, it is not my place to say, truly it isn’t, but one cannot help but assume that the duke had everything to do with it. For he made no move, not even a breath escaped his lips, as he watched the very beautiful girl run away. Debutantes beware! Just because the man is mysterious, does not mean he isn’t dangerous. Stay tuned, dear readers, for this Christmas Season it seems everyone, and I do mean everyone, is coming out of the woodwork.” Kalie scratched her neck and sniffed. “It’s signed ‘Mrs. Peabody.’“
Dukes and ladies! And the article was written in English! Maybe even a scandal sheet from London! And dated 1812. “Kalie, I think all this stuff is from the Regency period… like Jane Austen. Jane, herself might have read that paper!”
Sam snorted. “What does all that mean?”
“Nothing for kids like you, squirt.” With a gentle sigh, Kalie tucked the article into the back of the book and then squinted at the writing on the yellowed page in front of her. Angela wanted nothing more than to pull the SUV to the side of the road right then and there so she could pore over the writing with her daughter.
“Oh! Listen to this!” Kalie began to read. “Nothing ever comes easily with Phillip. I should have known from the start he would turn my life upside down…”
Late November 1812
THE FINE RUSSIAN bristle brush carried the paint in a smooth line across the wooden doll’s head, outlining what would eventually become her face with a shock of brown hair. With a slow and sure hand, Phillip finished the dark cap with a little curl over the forehead and then set the peg doll into a drying rack he’d fashioned out of an old crate. From there, she and a half dozen of her sisters presided over the room.
He whistled as he worked, a habit he’d picked up as a boy, and one which his mother had never failed to remind him was rude for one of higher station. Strange, he’d not thought of his mother for ages. It must be the approaching holidays; she’d loved Christmas, had always made it special. The whistle trailed into a soft sigh as Phillip moved another rack forward and picked up one of the dolls resting in it. The coat of paint he’d applied the day before had dried nicely. He’d not need a third coat on this batch.
He picked up another brush, even finer than the first, and loaded just the tip with black. Using practiced skill, he applied tiny lines that formed eyebrows, dotted eyes, a C for a nose, and a pouty little mouth.
The case clock on the mantle chimed twice. Time to ready himself for his outing. He wiped the excess paint from his brushes and then dipped the white bristled ends into the spirits and swirled them around until the last remnants of paint had been removed. Then he laid the brushes on their sides to dry, untied his leather apron, and lifted it over his head.
His valet met him at the door, cradling a tweed tailcoat across his arms almost like he might hold an infant. “The gig is waiting out front,” he said, the words thickened just a bit by a hint of Genoa, Italy in his voice.
Phillip glanced down at his man with a smile. “Thank you, Eduard.” He smoothed a hand over his clothing, grateful to see he’d managed to keep it in order while he’d painted. Using the blacksmith’s apron had proven to be just the trick for keeping the paint off of him. How did master painters manage to remain neat and clean while they painted their portraits? Hmm… maybe such mundanity didn’t matter to them.
He slid his arms into the tweed tailcoat and brushed his hand along one sleeve to smooth it. Then he straightened his linen necktie and turned.
Eduard held out a greatcoat, careful as always to keep the garment from dragging on the floor by lifting it high over his head. Phillip accepted the coat and shrugged into it. He smoothed one gray wool sleeve where it bunched at his elbow, his mind already racing ahead to his appointment.
Eduard brushed at the other sleeve and then hopped off the sturdy wooden footstool they kept in the foyer and pushed it to the side with his foot. In a single fluid motion, he lifted a black umbrella from the iron stand next to the door and extended it with a flourish. “The mist is especially heavy today.”
~ * ~ * ~
“IVY PLUMTHORNE, WHERE have you been? You have a dress fitting with Madame Duroche this afternoon.” The regal tones of Chloris Plumthorne echoed throughout the large drawing room. “It is quite difficult to gain an appointment to be fitted by Madame herself. Punctuality is a must.”
Scowling at her grandmother was a rather safe activity, since the dowager duchess was as blind as a newborn kitten. She wasn’t nearly as helpless, though, so Ivy kept her voice even when she replied, “Grandmama, I was gone but an hour’s time. I went to visit with Mr. and Mrs. Merrick.”
“Eh? The gamekeeper? Whatever for?” Chloris shifted on the settee and aimed her empty stare at Ivy. Heavy layers of white coated both eyes, obscuring what had once been a sharp blue gaze. Though she knew her grandmother could no longer see her, the old woman had the uncanny ability to discern exactly what Ivy was doing, especially when she was doing something she oughtn’t.
And in her grandmother’s opinion, much of what Ivy did was that which she oughtn’t.
Ivy sighed and tried not to shuffle her feet through the plush red and tan carpet under her feet. “The holidays are approaching, Grandmama, and I’m helping Papa and Mother make certain that the families on the estate have everything they need.”
The dowager duchess snorted. “They should be providing for their own. They earn a decent living.”
Ivy squeezed her eyes closed and pushed back a sigh, seeking patience she was on the verge of losing. “Yes, Grandmama, but many of them have rather large families, and unexpected expenses sometimes arise.”
And ever since Ivy had been a small girl, her mother had taken her around to visit with the land tenants and the estate help at the holidays, making certain everyone had what they needed for a fine celebration.
“We have been blessed with so much that the only right thing to do is share with those less fortunate,” Helen had always said.
At one time Grandmama had been of the same mind. But the years had taken their toll in the form of tragic losses and ill health, and sometimes she was little more than a sad and bitter old woman.
Tears burned the backs of Ivy’s eyelids. How she missed Mother and Papa. Thank goodness they were scheduled to return home two days hence. Whatever business it was that had required her father’s presence in Bath so late in the autumn, Ivy hoped it was successful. She wished it would be finished quickly so they could return early. She loved her grandmother but spending her days under the blind, yet somehow all-seeing, eye of the dowager duchess was wearying.
“Did you have an escort at least?” asked Chloris.
Because the saints know a young lady must be escorted everywhere. Ivy rolled her eyes. “Yes, of course I did, Grandmama. Miss Elise came with me. And the coachman, too.”
“Miss Elise, eh?” Chloris pursed her lips.
While the case clock ticked off the seconds, Ivy shifted her gaze away from her grandmother. The wizened old pun-sai tree her father had brought back from China years before stood near the window, where it soaked up the sunlight on bright days. Only about a foot tall, the tree reminded her of red cedar. But rather than tall and splendid, the pun-sai’s tiny, gray-green branches slanted to one side, as though swept there by the wind, and cascaded over the edge of the dark clay pot like a waterfall. How sad that a tree with the potential to be so majestic would be forced to live its life confined to the tiny pot, its branches deliberately stunted and gnarled at the whim of man instead of spreading upward to embrace the sun.
“Hrmph.” The dowager nodded once. “Very well. I suppose you cannot find yourself in too much trouble with that old spinster around.”
Standing in the doorway like a sentry, the butler, Harrison, gave a delicate cough. Ivy lifted her gaze heavenward. Spinster indeed. Elise Langton had once been Ivy’s governess, and while it was true she’d never married, she was only ten years older than Ivy herself. That hardly left her a spinster.
Ivy untied the ribbon beneath her chin and tugged off her hat, suppressing a curse. If she had been mere moments quicker in getting herself through the door, Grandmama might never have known she had been gone. But her errands had taken longer than she’d expected, and her grandmother had been in the parlor when she’d returned home.
“We stopped off at St. Timothy’s, Grandmama.” Ivy handed her hat to the maid and turned her attention to her grandmother again. “Vicar Wexley sends his regards.”
“Hrmph. The church, eh?” Chloris shifted on the green velvet settee. The movement probably caused her a great deal of pain, but her face never showed a trace of weakness. “Saying a prayer for a good husband, I hope. You’re fast growing beyond the time when you will be able to compete with the girls who are newly out.”
Curling her hands into fists, Ivy bit back the impulse to snap at her grandmother. She was well aware of her age… and that she’d never married, despite numerous attempts by her parents and grandmother to interest her in a mate. If only her potential suitors had been more… appealing.
But any retort would only start a disagreement Ivy could never win. Particularly on one of Grandmama’s bad days. And it had been apparent from the moment Ivy had arrived home that the dowager was having one of her bad days. She was only quarrelsome when she was frustrated by the pain and stiffness in her twisted hands.
It was the weather, Ivy decided. Even though Grandmama couldn’t see the way the overhead clouds were the same gray of the stone walls that ran alongside the lane, she was probably aware of the dampness. She always felt greater pain when the damp weather rolled in.
As aggravated as she was, Ivy knew it wasn’t her elderly grandmother’s fault that she was hard to please. Perhaps a diversion would lift the dowager’s spirits.
“I’m here now and we still have plenty of time to get to Hampstead. Let’s have a nice cup of chocolate together before we leave.”
Grandmama heaved a loud sigh that managed to sound exasperated and delicate at the same time. “Very well. Abigail, some chocolate and scones please. And then I shall freshen myself and change for an outing and we will depart.”
Oh, as formal as ever, aren’t you, Grandmama? Ivy smiled as she unfastened her pelisse and handed it to one of the upstairs maids. Then she pushed pleasantries into her mind, crossed the room, and sat on the green settee. “It’s quite misty and chilly today, Grandmama, so we must bring an extra lap blanket for the carriage.” Ivy placed a hand on her grandmother’s arm and rubbed gently.
Her grandmother sighed again, softer this time, and seemed to sag into the touch. “Oh, you do take care of me, don’t you, my darling? I’m sorry to be so disagreeable.”
Ivy leaned over and gave her grandmother a kiss on her soft, wrinkled cheek. “I know you love me, Grandmama.”
“I do, my dear, and I only want what’s best for you.”
~ * ~ * ~
“IT IS SUCH a wonderful thing you are doing, Phillip.” Monique Duroche’s voice was an oasis of soft tones with just a hint of the exotic, owing to her mysterious French ancestry. She patted the coil of black hair neatly twisted at her neck and then turned her attention to the pair of men entering her shop, each burdened beneath a large amount of satin rolled onto several long bolts.
The young man taking up the rear tripped as he crossed the threshold and slammed into his companion in front of him. One of his rolls of fabric tumbled downward, leaving a trail of pale rose satin to drape around both of them like a French wedding veil.
“Watch it!” shouted the young man in the lead, twisting away from the fabric as though it was an adder.
“Bonté divine, Michael! Have a care for how you go, Sebastian!” shouted Monique, rapping her cane sharply on the wooden plank floor beneath their feet. “The fabric will be of no value if you trample all over it.”
Both men gave her a quick nod and looked away. Monique was a formidable personality, Phillip had to admit. Had she turned that fierce stare in his direction, no doubt he would have quailed also.
He picked up a slip of purple muslin from the pile of tiny folded garments and rubbed it between his thumb and two fingers. “Your work is exquisite as always, Madame. I would be lost without your capable assistance.”
Monique waved her hand in a dismissive motion as she lifted the fabric from his hand and shook out a tiny replica of the latest in fine ladies’ fashion. “I must confess I have not had so much fun since I was a child playing with dolls myself.” She angled a look in Phillip’s direction. “Perhaps I should commission a set of your dolls for my shop. That way I can show my customers what their final product will look like.”
Phillip chuckled but then stopped and shrugged. “I shall be at your service. After the holidays, of course.”
Monique’s dark gray eyes grew shiny, and she blinked, appearing suspiciously close to tears. “It truly is a beautiful thing you do for the children,” she said in a soft voice. Then she sniffed and straightened her back. As she laid the doll-sized garment back on top of the crate, she brushed her hand along the muslin and smoothed a wrinkle. Then she drew a scrap of plain white muslin over the lot. “Andrew!” she called in a brisk voice with another rap of her cane on the floor. “Please carry this crate to the gig out front.”
From his seat on a bench at the back of the shop, a walnut-haired youth, probably no older than his early teen years, leapt to his feet and rushed toward them.
“See that you take care to secure it properly and well out of the mist,” admonished Monique as Andrew hefted the crate.
“Yes, Mother.” With a cheeky wink, the youth scurried toward the front of the store with his burden resting on his right shoulder.
“So like his father,” murmured Monique. She raised her eyes to look beyond Phillip. “Excuse me a moment.”
As Monique hurried away, Phillip eyed the bolts of fabric lining the walls of the dressmaker’s shop. He liked the colors, especially those that were of a more vibrant nature. Fashion had dictated a trend of whites and pastels over the last few seasons. Hopefully that would end soon. The young ladies who wore those washed out colors often reminded him of bloodless creatures, pale specters wandering balls and dinner parties, seeking their perfect mates. Bolder colors commanded attention, made statements. And it was the vivid colors along the wall that drew his eye. Monique had used such fabric to fashion the perfect dresses for the peg dolls in his workroom. How well she knew his taste.
Andrew entered the shop, his ready smile announcing that he’d secured the parcel as instructed. Phillip tossed him a coin without checking to see what it was. Andrew shot him a wide grin of appreciation as he caught the coin and with only a quick glance pocketed it.
As Phillip was about to depart, Monique appeared at his elbow. “I beg your pardon, Phillip, but one of my customers has requested a gentleman’s opinion.”
Phillip’s head jerked up of its own volition. “Me? I…” He gestured helplessly. “I know nothing about fashion, Madame.”
“Nevertheless, you are a gentleman and the only one here at the moment.” She strode off, leaving him with the choice of following her or displaying extreme rudeness.
“Please allow me to present her grace, the Dowager Duchess of…” Her introduction ended in a whisper with her head turned away from him.
Phillip strained to hear without being too obvious about it. What? What was that name? Blast the modiste for her tendency to trail off at important times. Monique glanced over her shoulder at Phillip with the apparent intent of reciprocated introduction.
“Your grace,” he said quickly, offering a deep bow. He’d caught that part at least. “Phillip Green at your service.”
“Green?” The dowager duchess frowned and tilted her head to the side as though making sense of the name. Only when she raised her face in his direction did he become aware of the heavy bluish white coating over both eyes. The dowager was blind.
The young lady seated next to her wasn’t as young as he’d first deduced. No young giggling miss, she held herself with the composure of a few years in polite society. He offered another bow in her direction.
“I’ve never heard of you,” announced the dowager with an imperious tone and a shake of her head. “Still, I suppose you’ll have to do.”
Why, thank you, your grace. Very nice to have your approval for whatever you have in mind. He held his tongue.
The dowager made an impatient gesture toward the table in front of her. “What do you think, Mr. Green? The sapphire satin trimmed with white?” she asked as he approached. “Or the amethyst and lavender?”
Phillip stiffened. Was the dowager asking his opinion on fabric? Whyever for? “I… I’m not certain I understand the question, your grace.”
“I’m having a gown made for my granddaughter…” The dowager kept her head high, her blank gaze straight ahead as she spoke in regal tones. “She is to attend the Kringles’ Christmas ball at Holly Hall, in London, where her parents and I hope she will…” She heaved a sigh. “…attract the attention of a suitor.”
Ahh… so ‘twas all about a granddaughter’s quest for a mate. The young woman in question winced and a deep wine color stole up from her neck into her cheeks. And yet, she met his questioning gaze straight on.
Then she smiled. Not one of those simpering, falsely gracious smiles he’d seen all too often on the faces of young chits in search of a good match. The lady’s smile emanated from laughing blue eyes as she offered a helpless lift of one shoulder. The floor seemed to crumble around him, leaving Phillip standing on uneven ground.
After a hard swallow, he recovered his wits enough to lean over and examine the samples of cloth set before the two women. A fine fragrance wafted to tease his nostrils… what was that scent? Not quite floral, stronger, a bit acrid, reminding him of the pine wood near his home. Her grace gave a delicate cough and Phillip forced his attention back to the requested task.
By far, he preferred the brilliance of the amethyst and lavender swatches. But he pretended to consider the fabric before he said so, noting that the granddaughter’s gaze strayed frequently to the pale blue cloth, and that those swatches rested closer to her right hand.
He smiled and inclined his head to the side. She wore a day dress in a brighter shade of periwinkle, so blue might be a color she favored. Perhaps because her eyes reflected a blue as deep as the sea off the cliffs at Dover. Yes, fabric in shades of blue might set her eyes off. But the amethyst would bring out the glints of violet in the outer rings of her irises.
The lady quirked an eyebrow. Slowly, she lifted one finger and pointed toward the blue swatches. So, she wanted him to choose the blue. She was willing to put on a show of allowing a stranger to make the choice for her grandmother, but she sought the safety of what was likely a typical choice for her.
A slow smile tugged at Phillip’s lips. Only if you want to appear as wraithlike as a young chit at her debut, my lady.
“The amethyst and lavender,” he murmured. “That is what would draw my eye from across a crowded ballroom.”
One fine brow arched briefly, and then the granddaughter narrowed her eyes and her defiant gaze collided with Phillip’s. So much for the indulgent smile and laughing eyes. She pressed her lips into a firm line. But it was her eyes that stole Phillip’s ability to draw a breath. Her blue gaze sparked with purple glints as she allowed him to see her temper.
A warm smile stole over the dowager’s features. “Thank you, Mr. Green.” She turned her smile in Madame Duroche’s direction. “We should like a proper gown fitted with the amethyst and lavender.”
Effectively dismissed, Phillip offered the young lady another bow. The smile still stretched his mouth upward, and he bit back the urge to laugh at her outraged expression.
He took his time leaving, strolling along the edge of the store and admiring the bright colors. A whisper of the scent that had clung to the stranger chased after him. For the first time in his thirty years, he experienced the desire to follow an impulse. But of course, such things had a time and place…
The Kringles’ holiday ball… Now, that presented all sorts of possibilities.