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.”

Excerpted from The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews. Copyright © 2022 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group. All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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