Book 4 in the Mischief in Mayfair series
Miss Catherine Fairchild spent much of her life haring about the globe with her diplomat parents, though she grasped at a young age that as a legitimate by-blow, her social standing among Polite Society would be marginal at best. Now she’s lost both parents and is settled back in London, where she learns that not only is she an heiress, but that the family title can be preserved through the female line.
Miss Dubious has become Miss Desirable, though Catherine has no plans to marry–or so she claims. Even if she were to admit to some loneliness, the last place she’d turn for companionship would be one of Mayfair’s fawning fortune hunters. The one person she can trust to treat her honestly is Monsieur Xavier Fournier, a plainspoken émigré who also has no intention of putting his foot in parson’s mousetrap… Or so he claims.
Enjoy An Excerpt
“Elle est une veuve.”
She is a widow. Xavier Fournier offered the observation quietly enough that the lady would not have heard him. He stood behind the beaded curtain that separated the wineshop’s mercantile area from its private domain, while his sole customer perused the labels on some of the best Merlots ever to leave the Continent.
“She asked for you specifically, monsieur.” Jacques spoke softly as well and also in French. “Is it unusual for a proper English lady to buy her wines in person?”
“Widows can become prodigiously fond of wine,” Fournier said. “Some widows.” Others became fond of laudanum, lusty bachelors, gambling… Interesting women, widows. “In general, the wine purchases are an errand for the butler or the first footman.”
The woman moved between the racks of bottles with unhurried confidence, her steps silent on the Axminster carpets. Her ensemble was black velvet, a peculiar choice for mourning attire, because the fabric held a sheen. The cloak draped loosely over her shoulders looked to be a merino blend—excellent quality, warm, and lightweight, though at present, glistening with damp.
Black gloves, rain-spattered black bonnet, and a heavy black veil, but no wilted posture, no sense of soul-deep fatigue as she inspected the clarets in which Xavier took such pride. Her mourning attire showed off a rounded figure several inches taller than dainty perfection.
She would be an armful, this widow. Xavier mentally kicked himself for entertaining such a thought. He checked his appearance in the cheval mirror—halfway between dapper and dashing, as befit an émigré successfully navigating proper English society. Dark hair, dark eyes, slightly exuberant but fashionable attire.
“Look in on the clerks,” Xavier muttered to Jacques. “Be sure the stove is roaring. This English weather is less obliging than a neglected mistress.” What passed for spring in Albion’s great metropolis frequently involved sleet, rain, and bitter wind.
And this widow, if she truly was a widow, had braved the elements, without maid, footman, or companion, merely to shop for wine? A puzzle, that.
“Madame.” Xavier passed through the curtain and paused a good six feet from the lady, a friendly but not flirtatious smile in place. “Fournier, at your service. Jacques says you have some questions for me.”
“Monsieur.” Her curtsey was both correct and graceful, neither the nervous dip of a recent schoolgirl nor the creaking gesture of a matron with bad knees. “My thanks for your consideration. I am not familiar with the clarets on offer, and your expert opinion is needed.”
She managed to make that most unwieldy of tongues—the king’s English—sound lovely. So many Englishwomen either drawled their general disdain for life itself, darling this and ever so that, or they adopted such precise diction that they sounded annoyed even when they were not.
Warmth came through when this lady spoke, despite her weeds. Xavier would swear that behind her veil, she was smiling at him.
“I can but recommend, Madame. The ultimate decision must be yours. What sort of occasion inspires your purchase?”
“A beefsteak supper, informal, and the meat will be properly prepared.”
“Will ladies be present, or is this meal for masculine palates only?”
She returned the bottle she’d been inspecting to the shelf, an unassuming Sauternes that would have been an abomination with beefsteak. “You choose different wines for men and women?”
“May I speak freely, Madame?”
“I much prefer honesty.”
If so, she was different from the usual insinuating, innuendo-ing, on dit-ing proper lady.
“If the meal is for men only, Englishmen, then the meat will be charred on the edges and nearly raw in the center. No sauces will conceal this mortal sin against proper cuisine. No spices will soften the affront to the feckless creature who gave its life for human sustenance. To add barbarity to insult, a lone, shriveled potato will accompany the steak, and if le bon Dieu is merciful and the heifers have not all gone dry, then butter will render the potato alone nearly edible.”
“And if ladies are present?”
“Then the diners have a prayer that proper care will be taken with the menu.” Not being able to see the woman’s face had become irksome. Was she amused at his tirade? Insulted? Xavier passed her a bottle of decent claret. “That one is heavy on the Malbec, a heartier choice than some others, but not what I would call intense or… effronté.”
She held the bottle up to the weak light offered by the window. “Forward? You think a wine can be brazen?”
“A wine can be utterly bellicose, enchanting, luminous, or gracious.”
She passed the bottle back to him. “Are you flirting with me, Monsieur Fournier?” The question was laced with humor, always a fine quality in a lady.
“I would never presume to flirt when the topic was as serious as the choice of claret for Madame’s dinner. If you sought to purchase a case of champagne, then, perhaps, I might be persuaded to flirt, but only within the bounds of good taste. I flirt outrageously when the older ladies are buying their cordials and am nearly somber when the topic is a young man’s preferred Armagnac.”
She regarded him, a somewhat unnerving experience when she was so heavily veiled. “You are teasing me.” She put the claret back on the rack and passed him another choice.
“I am bantering,” he said, studying the label. “You are a woman enduring a mourning ritual, and I think to myself, ‘Who has more use for a little smile than the heavyhearted among us?’ You have chosen a black wine, from Cahors. You English would call it cheeky, but the aroma is lovely and the color quite rich. Shall we sample a few of these vintages?”
She glanced at the window, which was like viewing a waterfall from the back. Torrents of cold rain coursed down the glass, and Xavier hoped that the lady hadn’t far to travel when she left.
“I was told you did this—offered customers samples of your wines.”
“The wines are their own best advertisements. I could rhapsodize at length, in several languages, but the proof is in the tasting. Shall we?”
He gestured toward the open door of his public office, a room used mostly to impress customers who sought to negotiate bulk sales. The appointments included a pretty inlaid escritoire rather than the massive oak desk preferred by the English, a pink Carrara marble fireplace to complement the burgundy velvet drapes and upholstery, and Savonnerie carpets.
If Xavier could not stand on French soil when discussing business, he could at least stand on French carpets.
“You will warm yourself by the fire, Madame, and I will pour. Please do have a seat.”
She complied on a soft rustle of velvet, while Xavier pretended to study the wine rack along the inside wall. He knew precisely which wines he’d offer her, and he had a fairly good idea which one she’d choose—if the wine was for her.
And if the wine wasn’t for her, and she was widowed, then for which lucky fellow did she purchase it, and would she be back when the time came to replenish her stock of cordials?
“We will start with these,” Xavier said, selecting three more green bottles from the rack running the length of the inside wall and set them down next to the Cahors. “Ideally, the wine must breathe before sampling. Fortunately, we are in no hurry. Perhaps Madame would like to remove her bonnet?”
He wanted to remove Madame’s bonnet, to see the face that went with the voice. For her to make this outing in such vile weather suggested she’d wanted the shop to herself, a reasonable objective for a widow, but then, where was her footman, her coach, her porter?
“I ought not,” she said, slipping a hatpin free and sticking it through the strap of her reticule. “Veils are hot, though, and nobody warns one about that, not that there’s anything one can do.”
She lifted her bonnet off and passed it to Xavier, as if he were as much footman as proprietor of the entire establishment. That he wore the finest morning attire Bond Street had to offer and quite profitably traded exquisite wines throughout Europe did not, in English eyes, make him any less a shopkeeper.
Liberty, equality, and fraternity had a hard going on British soil, despite all of John Bull’s bleating about his rights. Fortunately, Fournier also owned substantial acreage, most of it in France. London society grudgingly tolerated his gentlemanly pretensions as a result.
Fournier shook the bonnet gently before hanging it on a drying hook beneath the mantel. The label in the crown was from a fine shop indeed, and the brim had been finished with exquisite blackwork embroidery.
The elegant clothing prepared Xavier for the possibility that the lady herself was plain, which would have suited him quite well. Beautiful women were sometimes not all that interesting, after all. Like handsome men, pretty ladies could become so absorbed with their appearance that they failed to acquire other, more substantially attractive traits.
Humor, political acumen, literary sophistication, scientific expertise, musical skill… The list was long. Contemplating such feminine attributes left Xavier lonesome for France, even as the restored Bourbon monarchy tried to shove the whole nation back into the same wretched confines from whence the revolution had sprung.
“While the wine breathes, we must find a topic to discuss other than the weather,” he said. “Would I offend Madame if I took a seat?”
“Of course not. Please do, Monsieur Fournier. I actually like rainy days.”
“I will never understand the English,” he said, taking the second of the two wing chairs before the fire. “Why on earth do rainy days appeal?”
As his guest gazed into the flames, Xavier got his first good look at her. Madame’s features were unremarkable taken individually. An unprepossessing nose, particularly compared to Xavier’s own aquiline beak. A lovely complexion—the dreary British climate giveth, occasionally. And a good, strong chin.
The lady’s mouth was generous and curved at the moment in a faint, self-conscious smile. Her hair was somewhere between auburn and brown and done up in a simple braided bun at her nape.
“I am in thrall to good books,” she said. “On rainy days, nobody comes calling, and I can order a tea tray, curl up with an old friend, and spend hours cast away in bliss. Snowy days are almost as lovely, but snow is so quiet, and the sound of rain comforts me.”
Xavier had been speaking English almost exclusively for more than a decade. He still needed the space of a heartbeat to realize that when the lady referred to curling up with an old friend and spending hours cast away in bliss, she meant curling up with a treasured book.
His mental fumbling was not simply the result of a small linguistic confusion. The lady’s eyes were also somewhat to blame. The impact of her gaze was extraordinary, both for the color—not blue, but rather, the majestic hue of the blooming iris—and for the directness of her regard.
Xavier was acquainted with only one family boasting eyes of that striking shade, and to the best of his knowledge, none of the Dornings had suffered a recent bereavement.
Who was she, and what was she about?
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End of Excerpt
Miss Desirable is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
June 14, 2022