Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

The Siren of Sussex Excerpt

Book 1: Belles of London

London, England
March 1862

Evelyn Maltravers entered the dimly lit shop in Conduit Street. A modest sign above the door proclaimed the names and trade of the proprietors: Messrs. Doyle and Heppenstall, Tailors. The interior of the shop was equally modest—a small showroom furnished with a pair of plump leather chairs, a trifold mirror, and a tall counter of polished mahogany. Gas wall sconces cast a diffuse glow over the fabric shelved behind it. Rolls of superfine cloth in subdued shades of black, brown, and blue.

It was a quarter to seven. Nearly closing time. The murmur of a deep male voice emanated from the back room, drifting out through the curtained door that separated it from the showroom.

Evelyn’s pulse quickened. A tailor’s shop was a masculine domain. One in which a lady’s presence was as rare as it was unwelcome. But she didn’t let that fact deter her. Stiffening her spine, she approached the counter and rang the bell.

The voice in the back room fell silent. Seconds later, a thin, white-haired gentleman emerged from behind the curtain. His eyes were rheumy, his back bent, as if he’d spent a lifetime hunched over a worktable.

“Can I help you, madam?” His voice was as reedy as his figure. “Thank you, yes. I’d like to speak with Mr. Doyle, please.”

“I am Mr. Doyle.”

Her spirits sank. She’d been expecting a man of fashion. Of vision. Someone with magic in his fingers. But the elderly fellow who now stood before her looked neither fashionable nor particularly capable. His fingers were gnarled with age, his hands trembling as if he suffered from some manner of palsy.

A hopeful thought struck her. “And Mr. Heppenstall? Is he at liberty?”

“Mr. Heppenstall passed away last autumn.”

“Oh.” Her spirits once again plummeted. The deep voice behind the curtain must belong to a shop assistant or one of the cutters. Someone of no account.

“Is there something I can assist you with?” Mr. Doyle asked with a hint of impatience.

She reminded herself that appearances were often deceiving. It was certainly true in her own case. For all she knew, the elderly tailor might still be a veritable magician with a needle and thread. “I sincerely hope so. You see . . .” She pushed her delicate silver-framed spectacles more firmly up onto her nose. “You were recommended to me by a . . . a friend.”

Not entirely the truth, but not strictly a lie, either. His bushy white brows lifted. “A client of mine?”

“Indeed,” she said. “I’d like to commission a riding habit.”

He gave her bespectacled face and plainly clad figure a dubious look.

A wave of self-consciousness took her unawares.

Perhaps she should have ordered a new dress before calling? Some- thing from a fashionable modiste that would have lent her a bit of countenance? Instead, she’d worn an unembellished skirt and caraco jacket. A sensible ensemble cut and sewn by the village seamstress in Combe Regis. No doubt it made her appear thoroughly countrified.

But it was too late to second-guess herself.

Countrified she may be at present, but she wouldn’t be so for long.

“Everyone with the slightest claim to fashionable dress knows that tailors make the very best ladies’ riding habits,” she continued determinedly. “And I mean to have the best.”

“Understandably so, but if you’ll forgive me . . .” He paused. “We don’t design apparel for bluestockings.”

Evelyn failed to suppress a flinch. She wasn’t wholly surprised by the charge. She’d been called a bluestocking before. A wallflower, too, and any number of other unoriginal epithets applied to young ladies who failed to conform. Mr. Doyle’s words nevertheless hit her like a dash of cold water. “You’ve mistaken me, sir.”

“I think not, ma’am. Might I direct you to Mr. Inglethorpe in Oxford Street? He does a steady trade in ladies’ habits, and would have no qualms about accepting your custom.” Bowing, Mr. Doyle moved to withdraw. “I bid you good evening.”

She opened her mouth to argue, but he was gone behind the curtain before she could formulate her words. She was left standing in the empty shop, her gloved hands clasped tight in front of her.

It took an effort not to let the old tailor’s words pierce her armor. She knew all too well what people saw when they looked at her—if they saw her at all. It was the very reason she’d settled on her plan. And she wasn’t about to be thwarted now. Not by Mr. Doyle. Not by anyone.

She considered ringing the bell again. She hadn’t come this far to be so easily rebuffed. But what good would it do to summon Mr. Doyle back? She couldn’t very well force the man to accept her business. Unless . . .

She supposed she could offer to pay him a higher price.

According to Evelyn’s sources, Miss Walters had paid thirteen pounds for her latest habit. Surely Evelyn could manage to scrape together a few shillings more?

Long seconds of indecision passed, marked by the heavy ticking of a wall clock. It counted down the minutes until she must return to her uncle’s house in Bloomsbury.

No,  she  decided  at  last.  She  wouldn’t  bribe  Mr.  Doyle.  She couldn’t. It was a point of principle. Of personal pride. If he didn’t think her worthy of one of his creations, she’d simply have to find another tailor. Someone with comparable skill and artistry.

If such a person existed.

Marshaling her emotions, she turned toward the door, only to be halted by the sound of a deep voice behind her.

“The shop closes at seven.”

“Yes, I’m aware. I was just . . .” She glanced back. The words died on her lips.

A man stood behind the counter. A tall, powerfully built man, with rich copper-colored skin and hair as black as new coal. The harsh planes of his face were half-shadowed in the gaslight, making him look almost sinister.

Her mouth went dry.

So, this was the owner of the voice she’d heard behind the curtain. The voice that had made her heart beat faster. That was still making her heart beat faster.

She moistened her lips. “I was just leaving.”

But she didn’t go.

She was caught by his insolent gaze. It drifted over her, seeming to take an inventory of her entire person, from the top of her three- times-made-over felt hat to the hem of her brown poplin skirts.

Her breath stopped. Never in her life had a man looked at her thus. So bold and knowing. She had the unsettling sensation that he could see straight through the fabric of her clothes, all the way to the naked skin that lay beneath.

Heat rose in her cheeks. “Are you Mr. Doyle’s assistant?”

His eyes met hers. They were as dark as his hair. Black and luminous, like obsidian glass.

Which wasn’t possible, she knew. It must be a trick of the light. “Something like that,” he said, a wry undercurrent in his tone that was just shy of amusement.

Her embarrassment swiftly gave way to irritation. It was one thing to be insulted and dismissed by Mr. Doyle, but to be laughed at by one of the man’s underlings was something else altogether. She fixed him with her most disapproving glare. “May I say, sir, that the service in this shop is execrable.”

“You have a particular complaint?”

“I have.” She returned to the counter, very much on her dignity. “You may tell your employer that just because a lady wears spectacles, and just because she’s new to London and hasn’t yet availed herself of a dressmaker, does not mean she’s a bluestocking.”

He was silent for a taut moment. “With respect, ma’am, a business has its reputation to consider.”

“And I have mine to establish.” She leaned over the counter. “I am not a bluestocking. I don’t attend intellectual salons or meetings on rational dress. I don’t secretly write novels or newspaper editorials. And I certainly don’t dabble in scientific experiments. I have only two passions in life: horses and fashion. I’m well-equipped to cut a dash with the former, but I need Mr. Doyle’s assistance with the latter.”

“Even if what you say is true, Doyle would still be obliged to refuse you. His female clients exist in a different sphere—”

“He outfits the Pretty Horsebreakers,” Evelyn interrupted. “Yes. I know. That’s precisely why I’ve come to him.”

The man’s gaze became even more intent. “These ‘Pretty Horsebreakers,’ as you call them, are no ordinary women.”

Her chin lifted a notch. “I know what they are.” They were courtesans. Famously beautiful courtesans who were also the most fashionable and accomplished equestriennes to ever canter down Rotten Row. “And I’m determined to outshine them all.”

“You?” He didn’t laugh at her, thank goodness. He merely looked at her in that same assessing way, examining her as if she were some variety of strange creature he’d encountered unexpectedly. “Have you seen Miss Walters and her ilk?”

“Nearly every afternoon since I arrived in London. Their riding

skills are good, but not that good. Certainly not as good as my own.” Evelyn squared her shoulders. “Admittedly, they far surpass me in terms of dress. But I mean to remedy that.”

“With Mr. Doyle’s help.”

“With someone’s help. Mr. Doyle isn’t the only tailor in London.”

He regarded her thoughtfully. “Why him?”

She’d have thought the answer was obvious. “Because his riding costumes are beautiful. And because they make the ladies who wear them beautiful, too. It’s a sort of magic, I believe. To create clothing that can do that for a person. That can transform them into something extraordinary.” It was what she wanted for herself. A bit of Mr. Doyle’s magic to set her own fortunes on the right path. “But, as I say, he’s not the only tailor in town. I’m sure I can—”

“Where do you ride?” the man asked abruptly.

She blinked at him from behind the lenses of her spectacles. “I beg your pardon?”

“You claim to be an excellent rider—the very best. Better even than Miss Walters. Where is it that you exhibit your vast skill?”

Her lips compressed. “I wouldn’t characterize it as an exhibition.”

“Where?” he asked again.

“I haven’t yet ridden in London. My horse only arrived this morning. I meant to wait until I had my new habit. That way . . .” She stopped herself, aware of how calculating she must sound.

“You want to make an impression.”

“Something like that.” She tossed his own words back at him.

He didn’t seem to mind. “Tomorrow morning, at sunrise, I’ll be taking the air along Rotten Row. Not many are about at that hour.”

She stared at him. “You wish to see me ride?”

He looked steadily back at her.

And little by little the truth crept up on her. The confidence with which he carried himself. The way he’d looked at her figure so knowingly. And the way he spoke, not in the grating, obsequious manner of a shop assistant or a servant, but in a voice of authority.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ahmad Malik,” he said. “I’m the habit-maker.”

You?” Hope surged anew. She took an involuntarily step forward, nearly stumbling over her own half boots. “But I was told that Mr. Doyle—”

“At present, Doyle’s name is more palatable than my own.”

Her brow creased. Malik was an Indian name, wasn’t it? And yet, Mr. Malik didn’t appear Indian. Not entirely. Indeed, he might have been from anywhere—India, Persia, Italy, or Spain. He might even have been of Romany extraction, like the travelers who sometimes passed through her village in Sussex. It was difficult to tell. He had no discernible accent. All one noticed—all she’d noticed—was that he was tall and dark and rather unnervingly handsome.

“But they are your designs?” she asked. “You cut them and sew them yourself?”

He inclined his head.

“And you might consider making one for me? If my horsemanship is up to snuff?”

“I can make no promises.”

For the first time since Evelyn entered the shop, she knew that all would be well. Once he saw her ride—once he clapped eyes on Hephaestus—he would see she was worthy. More than worthy. “Tomorrow, then? At dawn?” She extended her gloved hand. “You won’t be disappointed, Mr. Malik.”

An odd expression passed over his face. As if she’d taken him off his guard. Surprised him in some way—or offended him. “You have the advantage of me.”

Her confidence wavered. “I’m sorry. I—”

“I don’t know your name.”

“Oh, that.” She instantly brightened, stretching her hand out still further. “Evelyn Maltravers.”

“Miss Maltravers.” His hand engulfed hers, large and strong. And—good heavens. She felt it everywhere. That warm, pulse-pounding contact. It resonated deep within her, the strangest sensation. Something both alarming and exhilarating. As if a jolt passed between them. The spark of something new. Something important.

Her gaze jerked to his, and she saw it there, reflected in his eyes.

He felt it, too.

His black brows lowered. “It is miss, isn’t it?”

She nodded mutely, heart thumping hard.

He gave her a searching look. And then he released her hand. “Tomorrow at dawn,” he said. “Don’t be late.”

***

Ahmad climbed the creaking stairs to the set of bachelor rooms he rented above the tea dealer’s shop in King William Street. Far from the fashionable traffic of Mayfair, it was an undistinguished address in a neighborhood rife with warehouses and commercial enterprise. A place a man could lose himself among the bustling shoppers and the shouts of overzealous hawkers.

His door was located at the end of a narrow corridor. A soft strip of light glowed from beneath it. He heaved a weary sigh. He’d hoped to have a bit of privacy this evening to work on the dress he was making for Viscountess Heatherton.

It was the first of what promised to be many commissions for the season. A chance to see his creations displayed not by the courtesans of Rotten Row but by a high-ranking member of fashionable London society.

“Is that you, Ahmad?” Mira’s faint voice rang out.

“Who else?” Unlocking the door with his key, he entered the sitting room to find his cousin occupied at the round wooden table in the corner. She was hand-stitching a length of point appliqué lace onto the bertha of Lady Heatherton’s unfinished ice-blue muslin evening dress. He scowled at her. “What are you doing here?”

Mira glanced up from her sewing. At four and twenty, she was six years his junior. Like him, her hair was black, but where his eyes were dark, hers were a stunning shade of olive green. A testament to her mixed Pathan and English ancestry.

Her mother, Mumtaz, had been Ahmad’s aunt, an Indian lady residing on the outskirts of Delhi. After the death of his own mother, Mumtaz had taken Ahmad in, treating him as her own. A good, kind woman, she’d succumbed to a sweating sickness in the summer of ’46. On her deathbed, she’d made Mira’s natural father—a British soldier—promise to take Mira back to England with him. Ahmad had accompanied them, vowing to watch over his cousin.

And he had watched over her.

Her father had died of drink not long after they’d arrived in London, leaving Mira alone and penniless on the streets of the East End. Her survival had been completely dependent on Ahmad. He’d done the best he could for her, but he’d been only fifteen, still just a child himself.

Together, he and Mira had experienced some of the worst the metropolis had to offer. But their luck had changed of late, and much of that due to the kindness of Mira’s employers, solicitor Tom Finchley and his wife, Jenny. Mira acted as companion to Mrs. Finchley. Ahmad had worked for the Finchleys, too, until last year, when he’d finally been in a position to strike out on his own.

“Mrs. Finchley had no need of me today,” Mira said. “I was perfectly free to call on you this afternoon.”

“You’ve been here that long?” “Since five o’clock.”

Of course she had. The fire was lit, coals glowing cheerfully in the hearth. She’d tidied the room as well. Plumped the cushions on the threadbare sofa and straightened his heaps of books and half-finished sketches.

She held up the bodice of the lace-edged evening dress. “I’ve nearly finished this part of the trim.”

Ahmad moved to the table to examine her work. “Very good.”

She gave him a smug smile. “I thought so.”

He chucked her under the chin. Over their long years together, he’d taught her nearly everything he knew about dressmaking.

In the beginning, it had been precious little.

He’d  been  apprenticed  to  a  tailor  in  India,  not  a  dressmaker. Working in the Chandni Chowk Bazaar in Delhi, he’d learned how to cut and stitch European-style shirts, coats, and trousers with efficiency and precision. But it wasn’t the garments of British gentlemen that had inspired him. It was the gowns of the British ladies. The elegance of a fitted bodice, and the sensual sweep of a voluminous skirt.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.

Mira resumed her needlework. “And why not? Would you prefer spending your evening alone?” Her eyes briefly met his. “You were planning to be alone, weren’t you?”

“None of your business, bahan.” He removed his coat as he crossed the room, tossing it over the back of a chair. He stretched his arms wide. Sewing took a toll on a man’s neck and back. And he’d been sewing too much lately, trying to fit in his orders for evening gowns along with those for riding habits.

It was all part of the plan. A necessary sacrifice that would bring him one step closer to opening his own dress shop.

He stifled a yawn.

“Were you at the tailor’s all day today?” Mira asked.

“Most of it. Doyle had two orders for suits he needed finishing.”

“And you had to complete them, did you?” Her disapproval was evident. “He believes you work for him.”

Ahmad didn’t. Not officially. He and the elderly tailor merely had an informal agreement, one they’d been adhering to since the autumn.

After  Heppenstall’s  death,  Doyle  had  been  reluctant  to  continue on his own. He’d been equally reluctant to have an Indian for a partner.

With Finchley’s help, a compromise had been made.

Ahmad would work from the shop, lending his skill to gentlemen’s tailoring. In return, Doyle had agreed that, in one year’s time, he would retire, and—in doing so—permit Ahmad to buy out his lease.

Six months had already passed since they’d made their bargain. Which meant that, in six months more, Doyle and Heppenstall’s would he his. Ahmad already had the capital. All that was wanted was the clientele.

“And the rest of the day?” Mira asked.

“I spent the morning in Grosvenor Square, doing a fitting,” he said.

“For Lady Heatherton?” Mira frowned. “I don’t like her.”

“You don’t have to like her.”

Viscountess Heatherton had indicated that she might consider becoming his patroness. She’d already ordered three evening gowns from him to start the season. And once the ladies of the ton saw his work, they’d be clamoring for dresses of their own.

“The way she looks at you,” Mira said. “As if she wants to eat you.” He grimaced. “The less said about that the better.”

Mira ignored him. “I suppose she asked you to measure her again.”

She had, actually. And in her boudoir, too. As always, he’d ignored her flirtatious remarks and the familiar way she’d touched him. What choice did he have? At this stage, he needed a patroness. One who would show off his designs to the best effect, and to the best people.

Mira clucked her tongue. “Between her and your soiled doves, it’s no wonder you’re so tired all the time.”

“My soiled doves,” he scoffed.

“Aren’t they? Those creatures who wear your riding habits?”

He loosened his cravat. “What do you know of them?”

“I read the papers. I see what people are saying about that Miss Walters person. They call her ‘Incognita’ or ‘Anonyma,’ but everyone knows who they mean.”

“I expect they do,” he said dryly.

Catherine Walters was the most famous courtesan in England. A skilled equestrienne, she’d taken society by storm, as much on the bridle path as in the ballroom. Her slim figure, enhanced by the dashing riding habits she wore, had made her a sight worth seeing by anyone frequenting Hyde Park. Every day, during the fashionable hour, people gathered along Rotten Row just to watch her pass.

After seeing one of his habits on Mrs. Finchley last season, Miss Walters had approached Ahmad with an order of her own. She’d commissioned one riding habit to start, and then another five upon completion of the first. It had been something of a sartorial coup. The best sort of advertising, considering the crowds she drew. Almost worth the cost he’d expended in time and materials.

Indeed, since Miss Walters had first worn one of his designs, two additional courtesans had ordered their riding habits from him as well. The Pretty Horsebreakers, the newspapers called them. Their style and skill were emulated by women from every strata of society. “You may set your mind at ease,” he said. “Miss Walters is selling up. She’ll soon be leaving London.”

Mira’s brows lifted. “She’s found a new protector?”

“I believe so. With any luck, he’ll settle her bill before he spirits her away.”

“Don’t say she hasn’t paid you yet?”

“Not for this season’s order.” In truth, Miss Walters had only just settled her bill for last year’s habits. Like most fashionable ladies, she saw no issue with letting her accounts go unpaid for months at a time.

“How much does she owe?” Mira asked.

“A substantial sum.”

“How substantial?”

“One hundred pounds.” Ahmad felt a bit queasy to admit it. It was no small amount, especially to a man in his position. When Miss Walters hadn’t paid, he’d been obliged to dip into his savings to cover expenses. The very money slated to open his dress shop.

One hundred pounds?” Mira’s face clouded with outrage. She received only thirty pounds a year in her position as a lady’s companion, and that was considered a generous wage. “I knew you shouldn’t have accepted an order from her. She has a reputation for leaving creditors in her wake. I read only yesterday that—”

“Does Mrs. Finchley know about your penchant for reading the scandal sheets?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

He squeezed her shoulder as he walked past her chair on the way to the cabinet where he kept his liquor. “Have you eaten?”

She nodded. “Have you?”

“Not yet.” He withdrew a bottle of brandy and a single glass. “A drink,” he said. “And then I’ll see you into a hackney. I have an early day tomorrow.”

“Lady Heatherton again?”

He shook his head. “A new client, potentially.” Sitting down at the table, he told Mira about the peculiar young woman who had come into Doyle and Heppenstall’s today.

“Another soiled dove?” Mira asked when he’d finished.

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. “She spoke and acted like a lady, but . . .”

“But?”

“She didn’t have a maid with her. And she didn’t have a carriage waiting. I suspect she must have walked to the shop from the omnibus stop.”

“Was she very beautiful?”

He stared into his glass of brandy. “Possibly.”

It had been difficult to tell. What charms Miss Maltravers possessed—if any—had been well hidden.

Still, he’d caught glimpses of potential.

Her eyes, behind the lenses of her spectacles, had been a velvet-soft hazel, wide and doe-like, framed by impossibly long black lashes. And the hair curling from beneath her dowdy flat-brimmed hat had appeared a lustrous brown, threaded with strands of red and gold that glittered in the gaslight. Auburn hair. A great, thick mass of it, twisted into a singularly unflattering knot at her nape.

As for her figure, it had seemed well proportioned beneath the shroud of her loose-fitting caraco and skirt. She stood at least five and a half feet tall, a respectable height for a lady, with hints of a generous bosom.

All the rest, at this stage, was so much guesswork. He wouldn’t know for certain until he’d seen her with her clothes off.

The prospect sent a rare flush of heat creeping up his neck.

Mira’s eyes twinkled. “You couldn’t tell? You must have thought her pretty enough to have agreed to make a habit for her.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything. I’m merely curious.” “Why?”

He shrugged. “She has possibilities.”

“She’s probably nothing more than one of those ladies who attempt to copy the courtesans’ style.”

Ahmad supposed that she might be. There were enough of them about these days. Even so, thus far, none of those young ladies had yet had the ingenuity to visit Doyle and Heppenstall’s.

Until today.

Miss Maltravers had recognized that his designs were something out of the common way. Magic, she’d called them. He’d been ridiculously flattered.

“Or perhaps,” Mira said, “she’s looking to go into business for herself?”

“As a courtesan?” He thought it unlikely. And yet . . .

And yet the mere touch of her gloved hand had sent a startling shock of arousal through him. His breath had jammed up in his chest, and his blood had swiftly heated to a simmer.

He’d wondered, in that moment, what manner of strange creature she was, this frumpy female who had the power to beguile a man as surely as a siren.

To beguile him.

Good lord.

He’d  spent  his  formative  years  working  as  a  bullyboy  at  Mrs. Pritchard’s gentlemen’s establishment in Whitechapel. It had been the first job he’d found in England, the only one that had allowed him to keep Mira with him. There, he’d been surrounded by attractive women—outright professionals at their trade—and none of them had ever affected him as deeply as Miss Maltravers had. Certainly not by the mere touch of their hand.

If this was a sample of her erotic skill, she’d soon be as much in demand as Catherine Walters herself.

The prospect left a sour taste in his mouth. He downed another swallow of brandy.

“What else?” Mira asked.

He flashed her a questioning look over the rim of his glass. “If not a lady or a courtesan, then what is she?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I mean to find out.”

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