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A Lord for the Wallflower Widow (The Widows of Westram)

Untouched and alone…

Could he awaken her senses?

Part of The Widows of Westram: When widow Lady Carrie meets charming gadabout Lord Avery Gilmore, she is shocked by her intense reaction to him. She’s never before longed for wifely pleasures, and it takes all of her courage to propose that he show her them! He might be taken aback by her request, but as Carrie learns firsthand, this lord will take the challenge very seriously…

The Widows of Westram Series

Book 1 — A Lord for the Wallflower Widow

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An excerpt from A Lord for the Wallflower Widow (The Widows of Westram)...

Chapter One

April 1813

Carrie Greystoke carefully dusted each shelf, as she had done every morning since the little shop had opened three days before. She replaced what she considered the shop’s pièce de résistance, a sumptuous leghorn bonnet decorated with handmade flowers and cherry-coloured ribbons, in the window and took up her position behind the counter. Hope however, was beginning to fade.

In the three days since the doors of First Stare Millinery had opened not one customer had entered the little shop. If she didn’t sell something soon, they would likely have to admit defeat. The thought of going to the landlord to admit her error in thinking she and her sisters-in-law could sell the product of the hard work they had put into the bonnets these last few months was humiliating.

Mr Thrumby, a friend of her dead father’s, had taken a chance in renting her the shop. For her father’s sake. Perhaps if it had been located on Bond Street rather than the less fashionable Cork Street... But then it would have been far too expensive. As it was, they’d had to pool all of their meagre resources to pay the first month’s rent on this narrow little establishment. Shelves lined one wall, displaying bonnets on little stands. The glass-topped counter behind which she stood had been an extravagance, but was an absolute necessity to display the painted fans, lacy gloves and embroidered slippers also made by her sisters-in-law.

* * *

After an hour, she slumped on to the stool. Perhaps she should rearrange the window again? What on earth was she to tell Petra and Marguerite? They would be so disappointed when she returned home in two days’ time with nothing to show for their efforts.

A shadow fell over the window display.

Carrie straightened and pinned a smile on her lips.

The shadow passed on. Her heart sank.

‘I be back, missus.’

Jeb, their young ruddy-faced lad of all work at Westram Cottage, had brought her up to town the day before the shop opened. It was he who had built the shelves and carried in the counter she had purchased in a down-at-heel shop in the Seven Dials. He’d also helped her furnish the room she used as lodgings at the back of the shop, since it was too far for her to travel home to Kent each evening.

Marguerite had not been happy about this last arrangement, but had given in when Carrie agreed to come home to Kent with Jeb as her escort every Saturday night in order to attend church with them in the morning. They planned that she would return on Monday afternoons with new stock for the shop.

Not that they would be needing any new stock. They still had all the old stock left.

‘Did you deliver all of the flyers to the addresses I gave you, Jeb?’

‘Yes, mum.’

The flyers had been another costly idea they could ill afford, but she had to get the word out about their offerings somehow. An advertisement in the newspaper would have reached more people, but was horribly expensive.

Unfortunately, she had no way of knowing if the flyers had got into the right hands. Perhaps she should go and stand at the entrance to Hyde Park and hand them out herself to passers-by. Not just any passers-by, but ladies of quality with good fashion sense.

It might work.

She would go about five this afternoon. Fortunately, she was still largely unknown to society as she had not been introduced to very many people of the ton before her hasty marriage to Jonathan. In addition, their wedding had been a tiny family affair, because her father had been at death’s door. Why Jonathan had even singled her out... She squashed the thought and the accompanying pang.

Face it, Carrie. He’d chosen her because he’d been looking for a way out of his money troubles. Somehow Father must have learned of this circumstance and, worried about her future once he passed away, had made Jonathan an offer he couldn’t refuse. Carrie had known none of this when she’d arrived in London before the Season began. Jonathan had been pointed out to her by her aunt when she went on her first carriage ride in London. He’d bowed to her and she’d agreed with her aunt that he really was a most handsome gentleman. The next day he’d arrived at her door on a morning call and a few days later had proposed.

Everyone had said it was love at first sight. She’d been a complete fool to believe such nonsense.

In hindsight, it was as plain as the nose on her very plain face—he’d only married her to get himself out of debt. If she had known, she would never have agreed. Not even to please her dying father, who had been thrilled to see his daughter become one of the nobs. She certainly hadn’t expected her bridegroom to take to his heels the morning after the ceremony. No doubt he couldn’t stand the thought of living with his plain, middle-class, gruff wife. That had hurt dreadfully. Worse yet, he’d not even done her the courtesy of coming to her bed on their wedding night.

That particular rejection had hurt to the core of her soul. And still did, when she listened to her sisters-in-law giggle about the joys of the marriage bed during the long winter evenings at Westram Cottage when they’d been working on fabricating the hats and bonnets they now hoped to sell. Not that she’d ever told them the truth about her wedding night.

‘Put what is left on the counter, Jeb, please. It is time for you to return to the cottage. I am sure the other ladies have all manner of things for you to do.’

Jeb scratched at his unshaven chin. The poor fellow had been required to bed down with the horse in a stables some distance from the shop, since there was no place for him to rest his head here.

‘Are you sure, mum? I don’t like leaving you here alone. A bed of iniquity Lunnon is. Me ma said so.’

‘I will be perfectly fine. The locks you have added to the doors and the bars on the windows will keep me quite safe. And Mr Thrumby’s man is more than a match for any intruder.’ Mr Thrumby’s man guarded the back entrance at night.

Jeb’s expression remained doubtful, but she kept hers firm and unyielding.

‘As you wish, Mrs Greystoke.’ His formal use of her married name was his way of administering an admonition. But it was worse than that. It was a lie. She never really had been Mrs Greystoke. Not properly. Little did anyone know the use of her married name made her resentment of her husband burn like acid.

She forced her mind back to more mundane topics. ‘I will see you back here on Saturday afternoon.’

He touched his forelock and left.

Now she really was on her own.

She slid open the top drawer of the counter, removed three of the lacy embroidered handkerchiefs and put them in the front window. Handkerchiefs were not as expensive as bonnets. A cheaper purchase might lure someone in. She shifted the bonnet to present a more intriguing angle and returned to her stool.

One sale. Then she would be sure she was on the right path.

* * *

Lord Avery Gilmore, younger son of the Duke of Belmane, stepped out into the street and blinked in the light of mid-morning. The porter of the gaming hell where he’d spent the last many hours slammed the door behind him. Avery grinned. His night had been reasonably successful. His pockets were plump enough to ensure not only that there would be food on his sister’s table for a few more days, there would plenty left over for coal for his fireplace and a bottle of really fine brandy.

He never came home empty handed. After his father had thrown him out of the family for refusing to marry the woman Papa had chosen, he’d had years of living by his wits on several continents to hone his skills at the gambling tables. Last night and into this morning had been more successful than usual. Perhaps Lady Luck had turned her smile his way.

Which was a good thing. All these years of living abroad, he’d become adept at supporting himself, but having learned of his sister’s struggles from his older brother, he now felt financially responsible her, too. At least until her husband could earn enough to support his family as a barrister, which would hopefully be soon, since he had recently been called to the bar and accepted for a pupillage in chambers.

Finally, after last night, Avery could truthfully tell Laura not to worry about money, at least for a while.

Blithely, he strode for his lodgings, but halted at the sight of a very pretty bonnet in a window polished to a mirror-like shine. A cleanliness one didn’t often find in the backstreets leading off Bond Street. He crossed the street to take a closer look, avoiding the dollops of horse manure and the vagabond lounging in a doorway. Fellows like that would cut your purse in the blink of an eye if you weren’t careful.

Avery knew all about cutpurses and their ilk. The owner of the Ragged Staff, the establishment he’d just left, had accused him of being a fraudster, because he had so easily seen through the house’s ploy to trick him out of his winnings. For a moment, it had looked as if he might have to fight his way out of the hell, but for the interference of some of the other customers, who were only too happy to see someone win for a change.

Pigeons for the plucking they might be, green as grass, too, but they were also gentlemen.

Avery wavered a little on his feet as he stared at the bonnet displayed in the window. He shook his head to clear it. Too much cheap brandy, though he was nowhere close to foxed. His unsteadiness was more from lack of sleep, though he had no doubt he would have the devil of a headache later. He squinted at the hat. The violets and primroses decorating the crown were not real, as he’d thought at first, but silk. He didn’t want the hat, but he did want a posy to offer to Mrs Luttrell later. The poor little pet pined for such marks of attention. Would silk flowers raise her spirits?

The confection blurred. Dash it. He was a little more in the bag than he had thought. He really needed to go home to bed. But he also needed a gift...

Silk flowers lasted longer.

No doubt they would also cost a great deal more. Still, Mimi Luttrell would be more compliant with such a mark of attention. And for once he had blunt in his pocket.

He entered the narrow shop.

A tall, remarkably tall, young woman rose to her feet behind the counter. Her face was not pretty exactly, but handsome, with fine grey eyes and a mouth that begged to be kissed even as she frowned. Why was she frowning?

Gad, she really was tall. Not quite his height, but close to it.

‘Good day, sir,’ she said, her voice pleasantly deep. ‘How may I be of service?’

He stared at her in surprise. Outwardly, she looked like a shop girl in her dun-coloured gown and prim cap, but she sounded like a lady, for all that there was a trace of the north in her accent.

Plush full lips pursed in disapproval. ‘Is something wrong?’

He dragged his gaze from her mouth to her face. Brought his mind back to the task at hand. He gave her his most charming smile. ‘Nothing wrong at all. I simply had not expected to find such a lovely lady brightening my morning.’

The frown reappeared. ‘It is after midday, sir, and this is a ladies’ millinery shop. Perhaps you mistake where you are?’

He swayed on his feet, surprised by her lack of response to his smile. He had smiled, he was sure of it. ‘I beg your pardon, but I certainly do know where I am. Your shop has a remarkable array of very fine bonnets.’ That compliment ought to cheer her up. ‘And you, I notice, have remarkably beautiful eyes.’

Astonishment filled her face. ‘Sir—’

Clearly, he was not up to snuff this morning, or else the lady was not of a flirtatious bent. ‘How much for the violets, madam?’

The floor shifted uneasily beneath his feet and he propped a hip against the counter.

Warily she backed up, her expression puzzled. ‘Violets?’

‘Yes, violets. In the window.’

‘There are no—Oh, you mean the ones on the bonnet. They are not for sale.’

Everything was for sale for the right price. ‘I’ll give you sixpence.’

Her eyes widened. A hint of desperation lurked in their depths. Grey depths. Grey depths, encircled by a smoky line around the edge.

He waited for her acceptance.

She shook her head. ‘I am afraid it would ruin the look of the bonnet.’

He blinked. Had she really turned him down? Well, there was a surprise.

‘You can soon make a new trimming.’ He waved at the other bonnets. ‘Put one of those in the window in the meantime.’ He peered at one festooned with rosebuds. ‘This is just as pretty as the one in the window.’ A wave of dizziness hit him and he rested one hand on the counter for support, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

A hand sporting a wedding ring flattened on the counter as if to steady it against his weight. He felt a surge of disappointment at the sight of that ring. Really? No. He was just disappointed that she wouldn’t sell him the posy.

‘All right. I’ll give you a shilling.’

Now who was desperate? And why? He could just as easily buy a posy from a flower girl. There was one on every corner. Except that something told him that this silk posy would be received with a great deal more pleasure. And he never ignored his well-honed instincts of a veteran gambler. Yes, he relied on his skill and never played foolish games of chance, but there was also that certain something that told him when to bet high and when to hold back. And right now, it had a feeling about those flowers.

Another frown shot his way. ‘I will not take advantage of a man obviously in his cups. There are plenty of fresh violets for sale on the street at this time of year.’ She made a shooing gesture with her arms.

Why the devil was she being so intractable? ‘Fresh?’ he scoffed. ‘I’ll be lucky if they last until this afternoon.’ He leaned forward, giving her his best friendly smile. ‘I need to make a good impression. Those flowers are better than real ones.’

She eyed him askance. ‘If you want to make a good impression, you will need to sober up first, I should think.’

‘Rather direct and to the point for a shop girl, aren’t you?’

She coloured faintly. ‘If there is nothing else...’

‘I am not leaving until you sell me those flowers.’

‘Then you must buy the bonnet.’

Aha! So that was the game she was playing. ‘I can’t imagine you get many customers stuck away here on this side street. Isn’t it better to have a shilling in your hand than no sale at all?’

She closed her eyes briefly. He felt uncomfortable as desperation won out over what had been a very ethical response to his demand. Sadly, he’d been right. Everything did have a price.

‘Very well. I will sell you the violets.’ She came around the counter. He moved back to allow her to pass in the narrow confines of the shop. Once more he was struck by her height and now got a look at what could only be described as a sumptuous figure. As she leaned over to remove the hat from the window, he ogled the swell of her derrière, its curves beautifully outlined by the dark fabric of her narrow skirts. Surprisingly, for all the fabric’s drab colour, it was of the finest quality of cotton.

Which was strange for a shop girl.

He squeezed back against the shelves as she returned to the counter with her prize.

She took down another bonnet to place in the window, not the one he had suggested, he noted, but a summer hat with gauzy yellow ribbons and a cluster of cherries adorning the upturned brim.

Once she was satisfied, she returned and removed the violets from the bonnet and wrapped them in tissue paper. ‘I hope your lady is suitably impressed.’ She held out her hand. ‘One shilling, please.’

The dryness in her voice struck him on the raw. Clearly, she thought the gift paltry. He glanced down at the wares on display in the glass case. ‘How much is that handkerchief? The one embroidered with violets.’

‘Thruppence.’ She smiled for the first time since he had walked into the shop. It changed her whole face from plain to lovely. Not pretty, exactly. But...lovely. He blinked.

She pulled the drawer towards her, withdrew the delicate square from the case and laid it on the counter.

Another wave of exhaustion washed through him. He forced his spine straight. Besides, he’d already spent quite enough. Silk violets for a shilling? He must be more foxed than he’d thought.

‘I’ll take it, Mrs...’

Again, a wash of colour rose up her face. ‘Greystoke.’

Greystoke. The name sounded familiar. Propped against the counter, he watched her fumble in the drawer. She pulled out a calling card which she wrapped inside the tissue paper along with the handkerchief. ‘In case you should know of anyone who might be interested in one of our bonnets. They are of the finest workmanship. Perhaps your wife...’ She smiled encouragingly.

Once more he found himself staring at her in a bemused fashion. ‘I am not married.’

She glanced at the neatly wrapped package. ‘I see.’

‘Those are for a special lady of my acquaintance.’ Hell, why had he felt the need to say such a thing? The recipient of his purchases was none of her business. ‘A very special lady.’

‘Of course.’ Her voice held not a scrap of interest. She tied the package with a ribbon.

He bowed and hand over his calling card. ‘It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Mrs Greystoke.’

Out in the street he glanced through the window to see Mrs Greystoke rearranging her display of handkerchiefs and watching him from the corner of her eye. Making sure he departed post-haste, no doubt.

He clapped his hat on his head and marched off.

A spray of silk violets for a shilling. He hoped like hell Mimi Luttrell appreciated the sacrifice.

But he would tell her about the bonnets. Because Mrs Greystoke was right. Even in his inebriated state, he could tell they were of the finest quality.

* * *

Whatever hopes Carrie had harboured that Lord Avery’s purchase would result in a swarm of ladies interested in hats had died over the following two days. He hadn’t bought a hat, he’d merely pillaged its decoration. The hat, sans violets, now resided on the highest shelf, there to languish until her return to Kent.

There it remained, a constant reminder of his wheedling smile and beautiful brown eyes rimmed with the longest eyelashes she had ever seen. Disastrously beautiful brown eyes with gold flecks scattered like sunbeams across them. Not to mention how he towered over her, which so few men did. Dash it all, she did not want to think about Lord Avery, the younger son of a duke, she’d realised later, having properly read his calling card. A wealthy young man she should have tried to convince to buy a dozen embroidered handkerchiefs instead getting flustered and wrapping up one. She’d made a proper mull of it, as her father would have said.

The idea of returning to the ladies at Westram with nothing but the grand sum of one shilling and thruppence and a ruined bonnet had given her nightmares. Her handbills had not brought in a single customer and she dared not use any of these meagre funds to print more. All in all, the shop in which she had placed such high hopes was a failure.

They would be able to afford one more week’s rent from what little funds they had saved over the winter before she had to close the doors. It was so frustrating. If the ladies of the ton saw these bonnets, their original design, their craftsmanship, she had no doubt they would snap them up. But how was she to accomplish it?

For the third time that morning she rearranged the items beneath the glass counter top, putting lacy gloves beside the chicken-skin fan Marguerite had painted with a pastoral scene. The bell above the door tinkled. She straightened. Her jaw dropped. ‘Lord Avery?’

He bowed. ‘Mrs Greystoke.’

She glanced behind him. There was no sign of the very special lady he had mentioned. ‘How may I help you?’

‘I have need of another of your fripperies.’ He scanned the hats.

Blankly she stared at him. ‘This is a millinery shop, my lord. You bought the one and only violet nosegay in the shop and I have no intention of demolishing any more of my stock for a whim. However, I would be more than pleased to sell you a hat in its entirety. What you do with it afterwards would be your prerogative.’

Oh, dear, that was not the way to treat a customer. Especially the younger son of a duke. But really!

‘It is hardly demolished.’ He gave her that heart-stopping crooked smile that had flustered her the first time he’d gazed at her. He looked even more handsome this morning than he had the other day. His lovely brown eyes were clear and bright, his jacket unrumpled, his dark brown hair carefully ordered. And that smile... It was doing devastating things to her insides. ‘And besides,’ he continued, ‘a hat is far too personal item for a gentleman to purchase. In my experience, a lady needs to try on several bonnets before she can decide on one. Do you let your husband buy your hats?’

‘My husband is dead.’ She clamped her jaw shut. Now why had she told him that? And in such a blunt manner, too. He might think she was interested in him and before she knew it he’d be taking advantage. That was the sort of thing men did. It had been drummed into her at Mrs Thacker’s Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen.

His expression changed to one of sympathy. ‘I am sorry.’

Why should he be sorry? She meant nothing to him. But he was right about him buying his lady a hat. Most women did prefer to choose their own. There was something very intimate about the purchase of a hat and it was decidedly perspicacious of him to realise that particular fact. Clearly the man knew women.

A suggestion was in order. She gave him a tight little smile, wishing she knew how to be a little more charming. ‘Perhaps you could bring her with you and let her choose.’

He gave a low chuckle, a deep rich sound that seemed to stir things up low in her belly. ‘Perhaps one day. In the meantime...’

‘Well, I doubt any lady would be pleased to receive the same gift, even if it is in a different colour and form.’

His brow clouded. ‘No. You are right.’

‘What about a pair of gloves?’ She brought out a pair and set them on the counter.

‘Too practical.’

‘An embroidered pair of slippers.’ She laid several before him.

‘Too mundane.’

‘Not these. The workmanship is the finest you will see anywhere.’

He shook his head. ‘I would prefer something more...’

‘Romantic?’ She smiled sweetly.

‘Unique.’

‘What about a fan?’ She spread two hand-painted silk fans, showing off the delicate paintings, one of a ballroom scene and the other of the countryside.

He picked one up, opening and closing it and inspecting the painted sticks. ‘Very nice. Are they imported from the East?’

‘No, my sister-in-law makes them.’

‘She is a talented woman.’

Carrie smiled. She loved to hear her sisters-in-law complimented. She’d been an only child and the idea of having sisters thrilled her.

He stood there, staring at her mouth as if he had never seen a woman smile before. Her body flushed warm. Goodness, but the man was a flirt.

‘Your special lady will love using it,’ she said firmly. ‘It is sure to be admired by all her acquaintances.’

He gave her a sharp look. ‘And put me in her good graces?’

She nodded encouragingly. ‘Of course.’

‘How much?’

‘Half a crown.’

His lips thinned. ‘That’s a little steep, don’t you think?’

‘Is the lady not worth it, my lord?’ She flicked it open. ‘Nevertheless, because you are a repeat customer, I am willing to sell it to you for two shillings.’ That was sixpence more than the price she and the others had agreed upon, but the man’s need seemed urgent. And her own needs were pressing in.

‘Very well. Two shillings it is. Though I feel I am getting the worst of this bargain.’

It was not good for a customer to feel that way. ‘You will not see another fan like this one anywhere, I assure you.’

‘I see another right there.’ He pointed to a third fan.

She spread it open. On this one, the leaf was a pale blue silk and showed a scene of the ocean at sunset. ‘It is not at all the same.’

He grinned. ‘You have me there, Mrs Greystoke. Very well, I will take this fan for two shillings.’

He dug out his money pouch. ‘I hope you will recommend my shop to your lady,’ she said as calmly as possible despite the rapid beating of her heart. Was it him making it beat so fast? Or merely the idea of finally making a sale? She wrapped the fan in tissue. ‘When she is next in need of a hat.’

‘I most certainly will. Indeed, I will mention your shop to every one of my acquaintances.’

He bowed and left with the little package tucked under his arm.

Carrie could not help admiring his lithe male figure as he disappeared through her shop door. He was so masculine. Despite his elegant tailoring, he looked athletic and fit. He’d no doubt be an excellent lover. She blushed at the unbidden thought. It was his flirting that had made such a wicked thought about a man she scarcely knew occur to her.

She was a woman, wasn’t she? And her thoughts were her own. As long as they remained merely thoughts, she was doing nobody any harm.

What would it be like to have such a handsome gentleman paying attention to one?

Lord Avery would no doubt be a master of the art of flirtation. And she had never been the object of a gentleman’s attentions. Not even her husband’s.

A sigh escaped her. She was such a fool. No doubt Lord Avery would never even think of her again, let alone mention her little shop to anyone.

She looked in the tin cash box. The grand sum of three shillings and thruppence stared back at her.

The Westram ladies were going to be so disappointed.