“Ow! You’d think by now I’d learn the needle goes into the silk, not into my hand,” Chloe said wryly to the ladies around her, as she shook her fingers, knocking off the silver thimble she had been using. The ladies all giggled and Chloe pulled the needle back out of her finger and returned it to the silk.
“Do you think she will like it?” one of the seamstresses asked as she caught the skirt of the gown Chloe was working on and spread it out, exposing the way the gossamer-thin lace fell delicately over silk embroidered with roses.
“Like it? I’m hoping she will love it! Not just like it.” Chloe laughed as she stood and held the gown up, looking around the room as she did so.
The other seamstresses that had gathered in the room of the Duke of Suffolk’s home all turned their heads in Chloe’s direction.
Chloe was in her element. Since her closest friend, Maeve, had married the Duke of Suffolk, Chloe had relished her new opportunities in life. She stayed with Maeve most weeks and constantly designed new dresses for her. Seamstress to a duchess certainly had its allure, but it was designing for her friend that Chloe loved so much.
Now . . . I am ready for the next challenge.
“What do we all think?” Chloe held up the gown in front of her. “Rather than imagining me wearing such a gown, think of someone much, much taller. Not to mention rather more beautiful! Oh yes and imagine a duchess wearing it.” Once more Chloe’s words brought laughter to the group.
Two of the other seamstresses put down their thimbles and thread, coming to observe the gown, whilst the third sat back, admiring from her seated position.
“Rosaline?” Chloe asked, directing her attention to the third seamstress. She was aware they all looked her way. As she was the head seamstress, they all eagerly listened to her with due attention. “What do you think?”
“I think you have outdone yourself, Chloe.” Rosaline clasped her hands together with glee, making the red curly hair that was escaping her updo dance around her face. “To think of a duchess wearing a gown we have made? Oh! The mere thought gives me tingles.”
“I know what you mean.” Chloe sighed as she laid the gown down on the nearest table, the better to examine her work.
Maeve had only just become a duchess. She had married the Duke when he was the Marquess of Lestenmeer. Recently, the Marquess’ father had passed away, making him the new Duke and Maeve a Duchess. A period of mourning had come and passed. Though Maeve had said repeatedly that her husband was fine, Chloe could see the quiet moments where the grief weighed upon the new Duke well enough. He would often reach for Maeve’s hand and clutch her fingers, saying nothing at all with his jaw fixed in place.
“Well, if Maeve likes it, she is to wear it at the ball next week, where they will be introduced as Duke and Duchess of Suffolk to the ton,” Chloe said excitedly. Finding a missing stitch in the hem, she hurried to pick up another needle and thread, fixing the stitch. In her hurry, she tangled her arms with the tape measure that she had hung loosely around her neck. “I pray it will suit the occasion.”
Chloe sighed with satisfaction as her eyes flitted over the gown. It was a truly beautiful dress, and despite her wish to be modest, she was secretly very proud of her accomplishment.
The skirt was made of white silk and embroidered with delicate pink roses. The whole look was softened by the thin lace draped over the top. The bodice itself was thickened with more lace and ivory white silk, hemmed with white pearls, and short-capped sleeves.
Well, perhaps I can accept I can produce something of beauty after all!
The thought stirred a desire within Chloe. Whilst she loved designing gowns for Maeve and seeing them worn, Chloe couldn’t help wanting something a little more. It had been that way since she was a young girl, when she had first picked up a needle and thread and asked her father if he had any spare linens that she could use to make something new. She could still remember his risen eyebrows of surprise, before his lip had curled into a smile and he had run to fetch her some linens.
Perhaps my dream is possible, after all.
“I can’t help dreaming of what it could be like to attend such a ball myself,” one of the seamstresses said as she stopped at Chloe’s side. This was Elizabeth. A rather plump girl, with rounded cheeks. She had one of the finest smiles Chloe had ever seen. “Imagine me at a ball? Ha! Rubbing shoulders with the ton? What would my ma say?”
“She’d probably warn you to watch out for the gentlemen you meet,” Chloe said with wit as she finished her work on the hem. “Gentlemen are not always as gentlemanly as they should be.” The girls laughed once again, but Chloe was aware of Rosaline moving to her feet and coming to stand on Chloe’s other side.
“Are you not excited to attend, Chloe?” Rosaline asked. “I would love to attend such an event, and you of course have the fortune to go as the daughter of a Baron. I can’t help imagining what it would be like to dance at a ball, with some fine gentleman . . .” Rosaline was soon off in a world of her own.
Chloe smiled as she lifted her eyes from the gown and watched Rosaline begin to dance from side to side, as if with some imaginary partner. On Chloe’s other side, Elizabeth and Marianne laughed along with Rosaline. It wasn’t long before Marianne was attempting to copy Rosaline’s dancing, in the hope of improving her skills.
“The mere thought of a dance at a ball is thrilling!” Rosaline gushed once again, spinning round to face Chloe as Marianne copied her.
“You expect rather a lot of a gentleman’s skills in dancing, in my opinion,” Chloe said with a smile and lifted the gown again. There were a few loose threads she needed to clean up along the neckline of the gown. She laid it down once more and pulled out a small pair of scissors for the task.
“You speak as if all the gentlemen you have danced with have stepped on your feet,” Rosaline laughed with her words.
“Or fallen over,” Elizabeth offered an alternative as she moved to Chloe’s side and held out her hand to take the loose threads.
Their words conjured an image in Chloe’s mind. She thought of one man she had danced with before. With his clumsiness, he had often stepped on her feet. At one point, he had nearly fallen over and taken her with him, yet the mere thought of it brought such a smile to her lips, and she had to chew them to stop herself from looking ridiculous.
“The skill of the dancer does not necessarily match the merit of the dance,” she confessed, bending her head forward over the gown. “I think the best dance I have ever had, my partner was hardly spectacular in skill, but I loved it all the same. I do not think I have laughed so much in a dance.”
“Who was the partner?” Rosaline asked, returning to her dancing. This time, she took up Marianne in her arms, and the two of them danced together.
“Oh . . . it does not matter.” Chloe kept her head bent forward, not wanting to lift her head and reveal her blush at the mention of the gentleman.
I have not seen him for a while. Perhaps we are to live different lives.
The mere thought made Chloe’s stomach writhe, as if it had an asp inside. There had been a time when she and this gentleman lived in and out of each other’s pockets, but that was before his sister had married the Duke of Suffolk. Now, Chloe barely saw the gentleman at all.
“Perhaps this mysterious gentleman will be at the ball,” Elizabeth said as she presented Chloe with a few more beads to add to the neckline of the gown.
“Hmm.” Chloe got to work on finishing with the beads, trying to offer a noncommittal answer.
“Who else is to attend?” Marianne called from where she danced with Rosaline.
“You are shouting, Marianne,” Chloe said with a snigger.
“That is because Rosaline is humming a tune so loudly in my ear, I can barely hear myself!” Marianne was twirled so madly around by Rosaline that she nearly collided with a table.
“Elizabeth, would you catch Marianne for me before we have a disaster?” Chloe asked with a smirk.
“I’m on it.” Elizabeth was already off, but she didn’t get far, before Rosaline grabbed her hands and led her into another dance. “This was not part of my plan, Rosaline.”
“Oh, dance with me a short while.” Rosaline directed their path around the room, humming a familiar tune.
Chloe fell still.
I know that music.
It was the very song that had been played by the violinists at Maeve’s and the Duke of Suffolk’s wedding. There, as the music rang out across the ballroom, Chloe had danced with the gentleman she missed so much.
I have barely seen him as of late . . . why is it that I think so much about him?
Yet she did, regardless. In her weakness, she thought of the way his hand had touched hers as they had danced together and the gentleness of his fingers. She thought of his smile too, so broad that she couldn’t help joining in with his laughter. Then she thought of the way he had tripped over his own feet, and she had caught him, stopping him from falling flat on his face.
“Who else is to attend the ball then?” Rosaline called to Chloe as she danced. “Will the Duchess’ brother be there?”
“Ow!” Chloe stabbed herself with the needle. Having drawn blood, she had to snatch her hand away from the gown. Merely a second later, Marianne was at her side, offering a handkerchief. “Thank you. It seems I cannot remember how to use a thimble today.” Chloe tried to shrug off what she had done, but she did not miss the way Rosaline watched her from where she danced, a look of curiosity arching her red eyebrows. “Yes, I believe the Duchess’ brother will be there.”
“The future Earl of Nightburn?” Marianna asked excitedly.
“Yes. Lord Felton.” Chloe bent her head forward another time, hiding the mad blush she was certain had now overtaken her cheeks completely, until she was the color of the very bead of blood that had dripped from her fingertip.
Lord Felton . . .
Chloe couldn’t help thinking of the last time she had seen him. He had come to see his sister and nephew, and played with the boy for hours outside, much to young Nathan’s glee. Nathan had guffawed with laughter every time his uncle had fallen in the grass. The mere memory of how Lord Felton had laughed himself, then shot a smile Chloe’s way made her hands weak around the gown.
No. It is merely in my mind. He never saw me as anything other than his sister’s friend and a rather bad influence at that.
She could still remember how furious Lord Felton had been with her the day he discovered she had made Maeve a suit in order to visit a writer’s group dressed as a man. Lord Felton had not given Chloe smiles that day. The thought of his grimace and frown still left a tremble to her hands as she sewed on the last pearl.
“What is he like?” Rosaline asked, abandoning her dance with Elizabeth. Poor Elizabeth tottered on her feet, so dizzy she had to clasp a wooden pillar beside her to stop from falling. Rosaline hurried to Chloe’s side as she held up the gown.
“Lord Felton?” Chloe did her best to sound uninterested, almost nonchalant. “He is a kind man and a hard worker. He is a trained lawyer, of course, and works extensively with the Duke. He is a funny man, too. I dare you to find anyone with half so good a sense of humor. Oh, and he has this skill for always making me laugh, come what may.” Chloe realized she had begun to prattle, going on at length about Lord Felton, yet the words kept on coming. “He is certainly clumsy, but it is invariably charming, and he knows how to laugh at himself too. He’s loyal to his friends, loving to his family, and he . . .”
Chloe faltered. She lowered the gown in her grasp as she looked around at the seamstresses. They were all staring at her with curious gazes.
“You sound rather fond of Lord Felton,” Rosaline said, bringing smiles to the other seamstresses’ faces.
“It is simply that I have known him since we were children.” Chloe shrugged and looked away, hoping to hide another blush.
Do they believe me?
Chloe wasn’t sure how to describe what she truly felt for the man. All she really knew was that she cared for Lord Felton more than she had ever cared for another gentleman. No man was as witty, entertaining, or as trusting as he.
I should not think of him so! He is the son of an earl and a successful lawyer. I am just a seamstress these days.
“Oh, that reminds me.” Chloe prayed her blush had faded as she turned back to face her friends. “Before I go to show the gown to the Duchess, I have some news.”
“What news?” Rosaline said excitedly as she stepped forward.
“I hope it entails us having the rest of the day off.” Elizabeth staggered back to the others’ positions, clutching a hand to her stomach. “Rosaline, you have made me sick with all that spinning.”
“Tush, it is simply familiarizing you with the feeling for when a gentleman spins you around the dance floor at the ball.” Rosaline smiled with glee before turning her focus back to Chloe. “Well? What is your news?”
Chloe clutched tightly to the dress as she looked between her friends. She had thought long about this decision and had decided now was the right time. There had been a time when her father, Baron Maywood, would have been aghast to see his daughter working, but that was a long time ago. They had economized, and he had sent her beautiful letters these last two years saying how proud he was to hear of her work as a seamstress.
Hopefully, he will be proud of this desire too!
“I have decided that though I love working here, and I do wish to continue to make dresses for Maeve, there is something else I wish for my future too.” Chloe could barely contain her smile as her three friends stepped forward.
“She’s leaving us! I knew it.” Marianne cursed under her breath.
“Hold your horses,” Elizabeth said. “Perhaps she is just leaving us for a short while.”
“I bet it’s something worse than that,” Rosaline added in a dramatic tone.
“Perhaps I could tell you all what it is, instead of leaving you to guess,” Chloe said with a mischievous smirk, making her three friends fall still and wait for her next words. “I have decided that I wish to open a shop. A modiste’s shop in London. It will be hard work, but maybe someday I could call myself a modiste to the ton!” Chloe barely had chance to finish her words, before she was lost beneath the excited flailing arms of her friends and the eager cries of good luck.
Leo jumped down from the carriage. In his enthusiasm, he didn’t look where he was putting his feet. He was too excited to see the front door of Benjamin’s Buckinghamshire estate open, and the face of little Nathan poking through, so Leo didn’t take the time to put one foot in front of the other. He jumped, then tangled his feet together, slipping on the stones so much that he went flying.
“Uncle Leo!” Nathan cried, running forward.
Leo ended up in a bundle on the ground, face first in the gravel. He laid still for a minute before he laughed at his own foolishness and pushed himself up.
“Leo.” Maeve’s voice was next. Leo looked up enough to see that Nathan was running down the front porch steps toward him, closely followed by Maeve who was laughing softly. “I would have thought you could make it into the house first.”
“Clearly, you do not know me as well as you think you do, sister,” Leo said with a laugh as he jumped to his feet. He wiped off the gravel and specks of dust with ease, so used to falling that the mess was no bother to him. “Nathan!”
The boy bundled himself against Leo’s leg. Leo reached down and picked his nephew up in his arms, noting how big the boy had become since he had last seen him.
“Uncle Leo,” Nathan said again.
“Your words are getting better.” Despite Leo’s praise, Nathan said no more, but threaded his arms around Leo’s neck, burying his face there. Leo chuckled as he turned to face his sister.
“It’s about all he does say. It’s a good thing I don’t get jealous, or I’d wonder why my son is fonder of you than me,” Maeve said in jest and reached for Leo. She stood on her toes and kissed Leo on the cheek in greeting. “You are late.”
“Forgive me.” Leo stepped forward, still carrying Nathan. He looked over the boy in admiration, who was a thorough mix of his parents. He had the fair hair of his father, but his eyes were Maeve’s through and through, with deep brown irises. “I had to stop to pick up the latest paperwork on your book sales, sister.”
Maeve stopped at his side, clearly unable to restrain her look of excitement.
“Oh, is it good news?”
“Do you need to ask?” Leo said, watching as Maeve’s smile grew wider, making those dark eyes sparkle. “It seems the world cannot do without your stories, Maeve. As a published writer, you are making quite the name for yourself. Well, amusingly, a false name for yourself, as you do not use your own name. Come, I’ll let you and Benjamin know the good news inside.” As Leo moved toward the steps, he stubbed his toe. He stumbled, but held tightly onto Nathan still, holding him safely in his arms.
Leo froze for a second, with Nathan attempting to stifle his chuckle and failing miserably. Maeve did not look so humored though. Leo offered her an innocent look that merely made her frown all the more and place her hands on her hips.
“I hope you will refrain from falling over now that you have my son in your arms, Leo?” she asked knowingly, with raised eyebrows.
“I’ll always keep him safe, Maeve. I promise you that.” Leo softened the sincerity in his tone by following the words with a jest. “If I do fall over, I’ll be sure to toss him clear first.”
“Leo!” Maeve said in outrage as they stepped into the house.
Leo was still laughing at his sister’s reaction as he looked around the house, admiring it once again. Since Maeve and Benjamin had moved into Benjamin’s late father’s estate, they had done wonders with the house. It was truly beautiful, with the white marble floor reflecting the sunlight that streamed through the front door and two arching windows. On plinths on either side of the hall, ferns stood in planters, creating the illusion of a green walkway.
Leo gulped a little, though he tried to hide it. Usually, he was more than happy to laugh at his own clumsiness, but when he came to Benjamin’s home, his nerves raised a little.
What if I was to fall in the wrong place and break something? Good lord! I might never be able to pay Benjamin back for what I broke.
“I’m hearing laughter, and that must mean Leo has at last arrived.” Benjamin’s deep voice sounded from one of the doorways. Leo looked round to see Benjamin in the entrance to the sitting room, leaning on the doorframe with an amused smile.
At last, he is smiling again.
The last few times Leo had visited, Benjamin had still been attempting to hide his grief at his father’s passing, and rather failing at it, not that Leo blamed him in the slightest.
“You would be right,” Leo declared as he walked toward his brother-in-law. “How are you doing, Benjamin?”
Benjamin’s smile softened a little, showing he sensed the true meaning of Leo’s question.
“I am . . . well.” He paused in the middle of the sentence, as if debating his answer. “Truly. This one has given me lots to do, for which I’m glad.” He gestured toward Nathan.
“I can see why.” Leo was still holding onto his nephew, aware that the boy was pulling at the buttons on his waistcoat, trying his best to play with them and undo them.
“Come on in.” Benjamin beckoned Leo into the sitting room, with Maeve following behind.
“Yes, do. We’ve had tea set up so long for you, it will be cold by now,” she said wryly.
“May I remind you I am late because I was doing you a favor?” Leo laughed as he reached for the settee beside a table where tea had been set up. The display was quite an affair, with an array of cakes, and a teacup and saucer so fine that Leo was rather nervous about holding it.
He placed Nathan down on the floor, but the boy didn’t go far. He ran off to a rug by the fireplace where his toys were placed. By the time Leo had sat on the settee, Nathan was back at his side and presenting a wooden horse, clearly for approval.
“One horse? No, Nathan, he must have some friends, surely,” Leo said in a jovial tone. “Look, who is he going to play with?” He placed the horse on the seat beside him. Nathan took the hint and ran off back to the rug, where he picked up another wooden horse, this one slightly smaller and returned it to the settee.
“Just so, horse,” Leo agreed and placed the horse beside the other one. “There, now he has a friend and can never be lonely.” Nathan agreed heartily and knelt beside Leo, the better to play with the horses.
There was something about his own words that sat uneasy in Leo as he looked at the horses.
Lonely. I know something of what that is like.
“Well, brother, tell us everything,” Maeve said eagerly. As Leo reached forward to take the teapot and offer to pour, Maeve got there first. They exchanged a look with each other. Leo knew exactly why she had done it, just in case he dropped the teapot and poured tea everywhere. He may have even broken the teapot.
“I have good news from your publisher.” Leo took the bag he had been carrying off his shoulder and placed it beside him before pulling out papers that he handed over to Benjamin and Maeve. The two pressed themselves closer together on a second rococo settee, the better to read the papers.
Leo felt something swell inside of him. He wasn’t sure if it was admiration of Maeve and Benjamin’s closeness or something else entirely. All he knew was that as Maeve placed her hand to Benjamin’s arm and he turned to whisper something in her ear, making her smile, Leo shifted in his seat and adjusted the collar of his cravat.
Is it so wrong to want something like that in my life?
The problem was, he had only ever thought of one lady whom he could regard with such admiration, but he was fairly certain she merely looked at him as Maeve’s rather foolish and clumsy brother.
As he waited for Benjamin and Maeve to look over the papers outlining Maeve’s book sales, Leo turned his head away a little. As he watched Nathan play beside him, he caught sight of his reflection in the sitting room window.
He was tall, almost gangly on the settee, and his light brown hair was slick today, as formal as he could make it, with his dark eyes turned firmly on his own reflection. He saw nothing wondrous. He’d once been told he had a charming smile.
Chloe had said that.
Yet he found his lips too thin.
The mere thought of Chloe made him pull at his cravat again and turn his eyes towards the door.
Is she here today? Will I see her?
“This is wonderful!” Benjamin gushed as Maeve sat straight and pressed a handkerchief to her eyes, stopping tears of happiness from leaking down her cheeks. “Maeve, did you ever think your books would sell like this?”
“Never.” She laughed at herself and dried the last tear. “Thank you for bringing this, Leo. To think I am giving people such enjoyment; I cannot tell you how that makes me feel.”
“I am glad for it.” Leo sat forward and picked up the teacup Maeve had poured for him. He nearly knocked the teacup off the saucer in his effort, before he managed to right it. Maeve narrowed a glare at him, as Benjamin smiled, humored by the mishap. “It’s alright, it’s not cracked.” Though Leo lifted the teacup and analyzed it a bit just to be sure before he took a sip. “So, how are the preparations for your ball progressing?”
“With vigor,” Benjamin said tiredly. “I can scarcely believe how much effort goes into holding a ball for the ton, especially at this scale. All to just announce us as duke and duchess? It all feels rather, pointless.”
“Exactly.” Maeve sighed as she sat back in her seat, still looking over the paperwork, but distractedly now. “That is why I hope we can do something more with this ball.”
“What do you mean?” Leo asked. When Nathan came to his side and presented him with another horse. Leo made a horse’s whinny through his lips, which caused Nathan to laugh raucously, then the boy took the horse back again.
“Leo would be as good as our nursemaid for Nathan,” Benjamin said, reaching for his own teacup while Leo rolled his eyes.
“You were talking about an ulterior motive for the ball, Maeve,” Leo encouraged his sister.
“I wish to take the opportunity to do something more with it.” Maeve moved to the edge of her seat, her excitement barely contained. “It is high time Chloe was not just admired by the two of us for her designs.”
The mere mention of Chloe’s name made something jolt in Leo’s stomach. The teacup nearly slipped out of his hand. He took a firmer hold of it, earning more raised eyebrows from his sister.
“The cup is safe,” he assured her.
“As I was saying. I wish to show off her designs, and I am hoping the ball will be an opportunity to do so. I have asked Chloe to make me a unique design for the evening.” Maeve placed down the papers, now completely absorbed in what she had to say. “She thinks I asked her to design it in order to appear a proper duchess. In actual fact, it is because I wish to sing her praises to the ton all night.”
Leo smiled at the idea. Maeve and Chloe had first come to London two years ago, and they had both stayed with Leo at the time in his apartments for a while. There, he had seen what talent Chloe had as a seamstress. She had a way of looking at women’s fashion that made her dresses unique, both alluring and captivating. He hadn’t ever told her as much though. He rather thought his compliments were a little thin on the ground at times, but he feared what she would think if he was too gushing in his praise.
Leo looked down at his teacup as he thought of the time Chloe spent in his apartments. He rather missed her presence these days. There was no one to make him laugh at himself with wit and a ready jest. The lodgings were far too empty.
“Do you think it a good idea, brother?” Maeve asked, clearly eager for his opinion.
“I do.” He nodded, looking up from his teacup again. “Is Chloe . . . I mean, is she here today?” He tried not to sound too eager as he glanced at the door.
Maeve didn’t appear to notice the way he had stumbled over the sentence in his nervousness, but Benjamin lowered his teacup an inch and stared at Leo. It made Leo lift his teacup to his lips once again, hiding his expression and what he feared might be a reddening face.
“She is. In fact, she said at some point she would come to see me this afternoon—” Before Maeve, could finish, the door burst open, “—God’s wounds, Chloe!”
“Maeve, Maeve! I just had to show you.”
Leo nearly dropped the teacup again as his eyes shot to her. This time he managed to spill tea all over his hand and up his sleeve, much to Nathan’s amusement.
“Maeve, it is your new gown – what do you . . .” Chloe trailed off.
In her hands she held a new design, but her eyes were no longer on Maeve. She had clearly noticed Leo, and she was staring at him with the same surprise he felt.
Her dark black hair was elegantly curled at the back of her head in an updo, and her green eyes were wider than usual. The lips that were usually smiling at her own latest jest were now parted as she stared at him.
That familiar jolt was back in Leo’s stomach. It was the same every time he looked at her. She was beautiful, though she never seemed to notice. She wasn’t like other ladies of the ton who would flutter their fans in front of their faces and hope to bat their eyelashes just enough to make a gentleman admire them. No, Chloe was different.
“Leo, something tells me you need this.” Benjamin’s words were coupled by a handkerchief being thrown in his direction to mop up the spilt tea. Leo caught it in a kerfuffle and hoped that Chloe merely thought the mess was caused by his usual clumsiness and nothing more.
“Good day, Chloe.” Leo felt the words escape him breathily.
Chloe felt her breath catch in her throat, making her mouth suddenly dry. Of all the people she had expected to find in this room, Lord Felton was last on the list.
He was smiling at her, in that way she couldn’t help returning. Beside him, Nathan was playing, making whinnying sounds for his wooden horses as they charged across the seat of the settee.
How long have I been silent?
“Ahem.” The Duke cleared his throat.
“Oh, good day, Lord Felton.” Chloe hurried to speak and curtsied, careful to hold the gown close to her chest so that she would not trip on the long skirt.
When did I last see Lord Felton?
“Chloe, is this the new gown?” Maeve was on her feet, taking the gown from Chloe’s hands. Chloe took the opportunity to place down a notebook that had been tucked under her arm as well, full of more of her designs.
“Yes. It is.” Chloe tried to return her attention to Maeve and the gown, but it was difficult. She was too busy looking repeatedly in Lord Felton’s direction as he stood to his feet. He bowed to her in greeting, but he also managed to trip over one of the wooden horses that Nathan had left by his feet.
“Leo!” the Duke called out.
Chloe pushed the gown completely into Maeve’s hands, almost covering her friend’s face with the lace, and stepped the short distance toward Lord Felton. There had been a time when stopping Lord Felton’s falls had been second nature to Chloe, yet that was when she had been staying in his lodgings in London. She as not convinced she could reach him in time now.
She jumped forward and held out her arm, barely managing to catch Lord Felton’s hand before he fell. His other hand had reached out to the arm of the settee. Between her hold on him and the clutch he had on the settee, he managed to stop himself from falling further.
“Oh, my goodness,” Maeve said in a breathy sigh as Lord Felton stood straight once again. “I thought you’d land on the tea table this time.”
“We could have always bought a new tea set, Maeve,” the Duke declared with a laugh.
“I was more worried for my brother’s health!”
Chloe smiled as Lord Felton’s eyes met hers. It took a second for her to realize that they were still holding one another’s hand. She extracted her palm from his quickly, doing her best not to think too much of the warmth of his skin against her own.
“You’ll see not much has changed,” Lord Felton said with a laugh and gestured to himself. “It seems I am still as clumsy as ever.”
“I am pleased to see it.” Chloe smiled at him. “I would feel as if I didn’t know you anymore if you did not fall over at least once today.”
“You think he has only done it once?” the Duke said from his place on the other settee, smiling behind his teacup.
“Thank you for that, Benjamin.” Lord Felton shot a glare the Duke’s way and returned to his seat. “Perhaps I’ll be safer back on this seat.” When he sat down, Nathan yelped.
Chloe held her hands to her lips, watching as Nathan stepped back from the settee with his arms folded. Lord Felton seemed to realize exactly what he had done, for he winced.
“Nathan . . . where are the rest of your wooden horses?” Lord Felton asked through gritted teeth. Nathan used the one horse in his hand to point to exactly where Lord Felton was sat.
Chloe couldn’t help laughing as poor Lord Felton leaned forward to pull one of the wooden horses out from behind him. The horse had snapped in two, and the wood had splintered completely.
“Nathan, I am so sorry.”
As Maeve and the Duke laughed too. Clearly everyone was used to Lord Felton’s ways. Chloe looked at Lord Felton’s face. She had seen him laugh repeatedly at his own clumsiness, but now was not one of those moments. The apologetic look he shot to Nathan showed how uncomfortable he was with what he had done. The thought of Lord Felton being uncomfortable sat uneasy in Chloe.
She hastened to sit down on Lord Felton’s other side and took the horse from him.
“Well, this shouldn’t be too difficult to fix,” she mused, aware that Lord Felton had snapped his gaze to her.
“Not at all,” she assured, much to Nathan’s relief who dropped to sit on the floor beside them and continued to play with what horses remained. Chloe leaned toward Lord Felton and whispered conspiratorially, so only he could hear her. “And at least it wasn’t one of Maeve’s teacups.”
“At least?” he repeated. “I think you mean thank God it wasn’t!” He laughed now. “If looks could shoot a man, I would have many bullets in me by now courtesy of my sister.” His sudden smile brought such relief to Chloe that she smiled back.
Warmth spread through her, until she realized how close she was sat to Lord Felton. She leaned back again but bumped the arm of the settee.
I should not be so close to him! What must he think of me? That his sister’s friend is rather eager to see him again?
The mere thought embarrassed her so much, she was certain her face was turning red. It seemed that despite the months away, the care she felt for Lord Felton was still there. Yet somehow, it was stronger too. As if her body was nearly out of control in its want to be beside Lord Felton. Looking back to Maeve, she prayed that her blush was hidden from Lord Felton’s view.
“Maeve, what do you think of the gown?” Chloe asked excitedly.
“I love it. Oh, Chloe, it is truly beautiful.” Maeve stood to her feet and held the gown against her body, before turning so that the Duke could admire it.
“Very beautiful.” Though the Duke’s eyes seemed to be more on Maeve’s face than on the gown.
“Subtle, are they not?” Chloe asked, looking straight at Lord Felton who sniggered as he picked up his teacup.
“What was that?” the Duke asked, looking their way.
“Nothing,” Chloe and Lord Felton answered together.
“Like conspiring children.” The Duke shook his head at them while Maeve hurried off to the nearest mirror that sat above the fireplace, lined in gilt edging and beveled around the edge. She smiled the more she looked at the gown.
“Chloe, I do not know how to thank you,” Maeve gushed as she returned to their sides. “It is simply stunning. Look at this embroidery, how delicate it is!”
“It took hours, but the effect is worth it, I think.”
“Without a doubt.” Maeve was still turning in circles with the gown, adoring it in such a way that Chloe couldn’t take the smile off her face.
This is what I want from life. To make people smile with such simple things.
“You have outdone yourself, Miss Green.” Lord Felton’s voice beside her prompted Chloe to look in his direction again.
“Was that a compliment?” She couldn’t help teasing him.
“I’m capable of giving them,” he said with something of a mischievous smile on his lips.
“I seem to remember a time you were not so impressed with my designs.”
“That had more to do with the fact you were designing a man’s suit for my sister to wear, not a gown.” He held her gaze as he said it.
“Oh, and you were not impressed at the skill involved in making such a suit?” Chloe asked, turning to face Lord Felton on the settee and sitting taller.
“That was beside the point, and you know it.” He smiled at her, their bickering words falling freely between them.
“Miss Green, have some tea, I beg you,” the Duke said from the other side of the table. “If you two are to sit here arguing about this again, then you must have some refreshment to continue the argument.”
“Oh, I . . .” Chloe paused and looked around the room. She rather liked the idea of staying longer and talking with Lord Felton, laughing with him as they reminisced, but was it wise?
She could feel how near to him she sat and feared that the others had noticed it as well. There was something about being close to Lord Felton that made her admire him more. She kept stealing glances his way, looking at the slant of his jaw and the curve of his cheekbones beneath his dark eyes. That charming smile was back in place too, with its usual ability to make her stomach do somersaults.
“I should probably return to the other seamstresses soon,” Chloe murmured, tearing her gaze away from Lord Felton.
What is wrong with me? Am I incapable of looking at anyone else in this room?
“Stay a little longer.” The Duke insisted and leaned forward to pour her a cup of tea. “Besides, Maeve is not done praising your gown.”
“Indeed, I am not.” Maeve laid the gown down on the settee beside her husband, then reached for the skirt, fanning it out to admire it all the more. “Look at the beads here.” She trailed a hand across the neckline, admiring the pearls that Chloe had sewed into the hem.
Chloe glanced away to the notebook she had dropped when she had hurried into the room. She reached for it, hoping that if she talked of her designs enough, they would distract her mind from the rather powerful need to keep looking Lord Felton’s way. When she pulled the notebook into her lap though, it did not stay there long. Lord Felton somehow easily took it from her grasp.
“Oi!” Chloe said, attempting to get it back.
“Would you deny an old friend wishing to look at your designs?” he asked with a playful smile upon his lips.
“I may if he did not say please.” Her wit prompted him to laugh again. Still, he didn’t return her book to her. Instead, he placed his teacup and saucer down on the table, clearly intending to turn his focus completely to the book. In his distraction, the saucer was not completely on the table.
Chloe saw it in time and reached forward to grab the teacup and saucer, stopping them from falling completely onto the floor.
“Leo!” Maeve said from across the room, having looked up from where she was admiring the gown.
Chloe glanced Lord Felton’s way to see he was wincing.
“At least the cup was not full, or it might have spilled all over Miss Green by now.” He met Chloe’s gaze. “Thank you.”
“It is no bother.”
“You seem to have a habit of picking up after me, Miss Green.” As he spoke, his attention was on the notebook.
“Do I?” Chloe said innocently, pretending she had not noticed. Those dark eyes lifted from her notebook and met hers, narrowed in playful anger.
“You know you do. You seem to have this habit of calling out things I was about to trip on.”
“That I do. You still manage to fall over things anyway.” Chloe’s soft words made him laugh all the more.
“Well, perhaps the obstacles should be called out to me sooner.”
“Oh, I see, so it is my fault?” Chloe asked, angling herself in her seat to face Lord Felton completely.
“That is not what I said. Although . . .” He left the words dangling in the air as he turned another page.
“You two seem to be in a world of your own.” The Duke’s words made Chloe snap her attention his way.
What did he mean by that?
She suddenly felt self-conscious once again of how near she sat to Lord Felton. She pressed herself back against the arm of the chair, her nerves so great that the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
Can the Duke see what I think of Lord Felton?
She couldn’t be sure as the Duke looked between the two of them. Maeve didn’t appear to notice. She was too busy admiring the gown.
“Leo, are there more designs in that notebook?” Maeve asked excitedly, moving to her feet and crossing toward her brother.
“That there are.” He turned the book for Maeve to take it from him. “Many, in fact, far more than you could probably hope to wear in a lifetime, Maeve.”
Ah . . . has he figured out what my news is?
Chloe clasped and unclasped her hands in her lap. It was an old nervous habit of hers. Her nerves made her reach for the broken wooden horse she had discarded nearby and press it together, figuring out how to fix the toy later.
“It is a shame only you have the chance to wear such designs, Maeve,” Lord Felton continued.
Chloe froze in her work on the wooden horse, her fingers so still that her breath seemed to stop too.
Has he guessed?
When Lord Felton’s hand took the toy from her, she jumped. His fingers had touched her own, and there was a spark of static there. It made her lean back in the settee, noticing the way Lord Felton looked away from her.
“You would think I had burned you, Chloe,” he whispered, so quiet that only she could hear him.
“It’s not that, I was just . . . surprised.” Yet her words didn’t seem to do anything. He kept his gaze down on the horse.
Have I upset him?
“Look, are they not beautiful?” Maeve said to her husband as she presented the notebook. The Duke flicked through the pages, agreeing with a hearty nod.
“That they are. As Leo says, it is far more dresses than one woman can have in her wardrobe.”
“On that subject, I have some news.” Chloe sat forward on the settee, deciding it was time to talk of her plans. As much as she loved working for the Duke and Maeve, she could not stay here forever, nor did she wish to. Wherever she went next, she could still produce designs for Maeve.
It’s time for the next challenge!
“What news?” Lord Felton asked at her side. His hand had gone still around the wooden horse, not moving a single muscle as he waited for her answer.
Chloe was aware of his lips that were pressed together, not revealing a flicker of that usual smile.
“I know it will be a challenge, but I’ve decided that I would like to open a shop.” She turned her focus on Maeve, wanting to see her friend’s reaction. “I’d like to try to be a modiste in London.”
“A shop?” Leo sat forward with his words, certain that his voice was louder than he had intended.
“Yes. What do you think?” As Chloe spoke, she nervously clasped and unclasped her hands, moving them together and apart once again. She glanced between Leo and the others in the room. For a second, Leo could have sworn she held her breath, waiting for their answer.
“It is a wonderful idea,” Leo said, just as Maeve spoke.
“It’s thrilling!” Maeve moved to her feet, still clutching the gown Chloe had made for her.
“Ha! Maeve, you can barely sit still,” Chloe pointed out, gesturing to how Maeve danced on the spot.
“How can I after hearing this exciting news?” Maeve appealed to her husband who showed his agreement by nodding. He parted his lips to say something, but didn’t manage to say it, for Maeve was too lost in her excitement and continued on. “Where? Where will your shop be? Are you hoping to make gowns for the ton?”
“Oh, slow down, Maeve. For starters, you are thinking ahead of me.” Chloe turned to Leo as she spoke, offering another whisper. When she leaned toward him in this way, he couldn’t help leaning back towards her. “The poor Duke cannot utter a word.” Leo laughed, watching as the Duke attempted to speak again, but Maeve turned to him, speaking over him without realizing it.
“Oh, Benjamin, we must help her.”
“Help me?” Chloe seemed shocked at the idea. She reached for her own teacup off the table and brought it quickly to her lips. Leo watched her intently as she did so, his eyes staying a moment too long on her lips.
He had to snatch his gaze away. It would hardly be the first time he had wondered what it would be like to kiss Chloe, but now was not the time for those thoughts!
“You have plans for your shop?” Leo asked. He turned in his seat, fixing his attention completely on her. When he accidentally bumped his knee against hers, she shifted away. Leo saw it all and felt a deadening lump form in his stomach.
She moves away from me the way a cat would flee a dog.
The thought made him shift uncomfortably, pulling at his collar.
“I have drawn up some ideas,” Chloe said, speaking so quickly that one word ran against another. “Designs for the gowns, designs for how the shop should be laid out.”
“What of the particulars? A shop and a rental contract, for instance,” Leo encouraged her, determined to know more. She offered a rather sad smile at this point.
“I will admit, I have not got that far at this point. Such things are hardly skills of mine.” She looked down at her teacup, as if embarrassed by such a thought.
Yet . . . they are in my skill set!
Leo felt an idea begin to grow.
“I could help you.”
“What?” Benjamin said across the room, nearly dropping Chloe’s notebook.
“Feeling clumsy, Benjamin?” Leo couldn’t help teasing his friend and brother-in-law.
“Put it down to the surprise.” Benjamin met Leo’s gaze firmly. It was as if those eyes were trying to warn Leo of something, but Leo looked away, seeking out Chloe once again.
She was dressed in an ivory gown today, one that contrasted with the darkness of her hair and the bright green of her eyes. She shifted forward, making the skirt of the white gown dance around her knees as she turned her focus completely on him.
“You wish to help me?” she asked, her voice a little breathy.
Leo decided he rather liked it when Chloe looked at him with such intensity. For a change, he wasn’t a fool or a clumsy oaf about to cause more disasters. He was someone else entirely.
“Yes,” Leo nodded with the word. “I have experience with contracts and rental agreements. These are things you will need. I would be more than happy to help.”
“You would?” Chloe’s smile appeared to be growing. “But . . . you are a busy man, my lord. What of your work?”
“What good is all of that training if I cannot help out a friend?” Leo couldn’t resist. As he said the words, he offered Chloe a wink. For a beat, he could have sworn she blushed, but he quickly presumed it was in his imagination. “I have some contacts in London we could use.” Leo couldn’t sit still as he thought. He stood to his feet and began pacing around the room.
“Contacts? What contacts?” Chloe asked, who stood as well and began to follow him. Leo stepped over Nathan playing with his toys, taking extra care not to step on any of the wooden horses. “Nicely done,” Chloe murmured behind Leo, clearly having noticed.
“Thank you,” he said, glancing back at her to match her smile. “I have contacts in Covent Garden, Regency Street, and Bond Street too. I have drawn up contracts for purchases, sales, and rental agreements. No doubt I could find something that is suitable.” He circled the settee, deep in thought, suddenly aware that Chloe followed him all the way, as if she was his shadow, moving at his heels.
“You could really do that?”
“Of course.” He turned back to look at her and promptly bumped a vase with his elbow.
There was a sharp intake of breath across the room from where Maeve was busying herself with Chloe’s notebook. Leo held still, waiting for the inevitable smash, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes to find Chloe standing before him with the vase perfectly in her hands.
“You were saying?” she encouraged him on, apparently deciding not to draw attention to the near mishap.
“Perhaps Covent Garden would be best. Or Bond Street.”
“Are they just going to brush over what happened?” Maeve asked her husband. Leo shot a glare his sister’s way, but she didn’t appear to notice. “That vase was nearly destroyed.”
“Thanks to Chloe, it wasn’t,” Benjamin added, with an amused grin.
“Bond Street already has many modistes.” Leo continued around the room, clicking his fingers together as his thoughts raced. He often did such a thing when he was at home in his study, deep at work. The thoughts came quickly with each click. “Perhaps too much competition. If you went to the center of Covent Garden, perhaps near the square, then you would stand out as one of the few modistes in the area.”
“Covent Garden?” Chloe cut in front of him. Leo had to step back, fearful of bumping into her. When he collided with a table behind him instead, Maeve gasped once again as a glass inkwell rolled across the surface.
Both Leo and Chloe went to grasp it, but Chloe got there first.
“My lord, I am not sure I could afford Covent Garden,” she explained as she returned the ink well to the table.
“Are we not going to talk about that incident either?” Maeve asked Benjamin. Once more, Leo sent a glare his sister’s way that went unnoticed.
“I think they are too caught up in their conversation to notice any incident, or the fact we are here at all.” Benjamin’s words may have been said with humor, but there was something in them that caught Leo’s interest.
He stared at his brother-in-law for a second, wondering if Benjamin could read what Leo was trying so hard to keep a secret.
His eyes turned back to Chloe, feeling that familiar restlessness around her.
It is no good. I cannot deny it. Whatever I felt for her before, this feeling I cannot put words to, it is stronger now.
It had culminated in this determination to help her. Like him, Chloe had been born to a titled man who had fallen on hard times. Leo had trained traditionally to be a lawyer to see his family through these hard times, and Chloe had goals of her own. How far she had come in just a few short years impressed Leo more than he could say. That feeling had grown into this desperate need to help her.
I am determined to do it!
“The money . . .” Chloe went on, clasping her hands together once more. “I only have a little. Perhaps Covent Garden is too much to hope for.”
“Not if we negotiated the rent down to a reasonable price,” Leo declared, watching as Chloe’s lips spread into a smile.
“You could do that?”
“I have some skills.” Leo tried not to look too proud, even as he continued walking around the room, taking extra care not to bump into anything or knock an ornament to the floor. When he stepped between two Chinese porcelain vases, placed either side of him on plinth-style tables, he moved incredibly slowly, glancing between them as if they would come alive at any moment.
“I could look at some shops and the contracts for you. Once you are set up and making a turnover, rents and fees will become much easier.” Leo returned to the others by the settee, aware that things there had changed.
Nathan was no longer playing with his toys but sat in his father’s lap, on the verge of going to sleep with his eyes half lidded. Maeve looked lost, as if she didn’t know whether to spend her time admiring the gown beside her or the notebook in her lap.
“Would you like that?” Leo asked, turning back to look at Chloe.
“Like it? I would love it, my lord!”
Not for the first time did Leo wish Chloe wouldn’t call him “my lord.” They had known each other for so long, and even lived under the same roof for a short time. It would have been natural for her to call him Leo, just as he thought of her as Chloe. It irked him that he had to address her as “Miss Green”, for it lacked any intimacy at all.
“How do you intend to announce yourself to the world?” Benjamin asked, holding his son. “In my experience, modistes can go unnoticed if they do not have the proper announcement.”
“I can help with that,” Maeve declared and closed the notebook. Leo remembered the idea she’d had earlier, just as Maeve stood to her feet. “Chloe, there are so many designs in this book. It is imperative that if you are to be successful, as many people as possible from the ton see your designs.”
“But how?” Chloe asked, wrinkling her nose as she stepped toward her friend. Leo was rather disappointed to no longer have her beside him.
What is wrong with me!?
Leo turned away and purposefully sat back down on the settee, only this time, he checked for discarded wooden horses on the cushion before he did so. As he sat, he grew aware of a pair of eyes on him. He looked up to see Benjamin staring at him, those eyes calculating.
Why is he watching me so?
Leo shifted uncomfortably and turned his focus back to Chloe and Maeve.
“I can hardly afford a fashion magazine to display some of my designs.” Chloe shook her head at the idea, clearly baffled by the thought.
“Then how about the ball?”
“The ball?” Chloe repeated Maeve’s words.
“Yes.” Maeve turned to grab the gown and held it up to her body once again. “I shall wear one of the gowns, and we can ask others to wear them too. Your friend Lady Shrewsbury, she could wear another. Do you think she would if we asked?”
“I think she’d do so in a heartbeat,” Chloe said with a smile.
Leo remembered the first night Chloe had met Lady Shrewsbury. He had introduced the two of them at a ball, for Lady Shrewsbury had quickly approached Chloe when seeing the beauty of the gown she was wearing. Very quickly, Lady Shrewsbury had become another of Chloe’s customers.
“What about the rest?” Leo asked, gesturing to the notebook. “There are so many designs in there, it would be a shame for only two to be on display.”
“Then we could ask the seamstresses to wear some. They could attend the event themselves to display the designs.” Maeve placed down the gown and took Chloe’s hands excitedly. “Think of it, Chloe. It could be like the displays in a ladies’ fashion magazine, yet this display will be real. Women will be dancing at the ball wearing your designs, making many a lady titter and gossip about who created such beautiful gowns.”
Chloe felt a smile growing across her cheeks. She was thinking of the happiness it would bring her friends to be invited to a ball, especially after they had been talking of it excitedly earlier that very same day.
“It sounds like the perfect advertisement,” Leo concurred with a nod. “In truth, it will probably be more effective than a printed advert anyway.”
“Do you think so?” Chloe looked to Leo as she spoke, as if particularly desirous for his opinion. Leo loved that moment, even it didn’t last long.
“Of course, he does,” Maeve said, pulling on Chloe’s hand and taking her attention.
Leo shifted in his seat, longing for Chloe to be sat beside him again.
What has gotten into my head? Why am I so jealous whenever Chloe looks at another person in this room?
Leo hadn’t seen Chloe for a while, but it seemed that time apart hadn’t done anything to soften his admiration for her.
No. It has only made it stronger!
“Well, it sounds like a thorough plan to me,” Benjamin mused as he sat back in his seat, with Nathan now firmly asleep on his lap. “The ball will announce Chloe’s designs to the world, and Leo will help secure a shop.”
“You really think you could help me with that, my lord?” Chloe asked, turning to look at Leo once again.
“I am certain of it.” Something built within Leo at the words, this swelling emotion he was unsure how to describe. All he knew was that this was an opportunity. It was a chance to show Chloe that he could be of use. That he was capable of more than just being a bumbling fool who left carnage in his wake.
Is it so mad to hope for her to see me as I do her?
The mere thought made hope build within him, so that the hairs on his arms stood up beneath his shirt and black tailcoat.
“What do you think, Chloe?” Maeve asked, holding onto her friend’s hand and encouraging her for an answer. “You will have a shop and a ball to announce you to the ton.”
“As for the ball . . .” Chloe paused, her nerves clearly getting the better of her as she shifted her weight from side to side. “Do you think people will notice the gowns?”
“Notice them?” Leo laughed as he gestured to the dress slung over the settee across the room. “I think there is little doubt of that. Maeve has not stopped gushing about that dress since you ran into the room with it.”
“I did not run,” Chloe said, looking back to him with an innocent look. When he held that gaze and raised his eyebrows, she capitulated. “Well, I wasn’t running fast.”
“What do you say, Chloe? Are you up for the challenge?” Maeve asked, drawing Chloe’s attention away from Leo again.
Chloe looked between them all, one at a time. Leo could have sworn she looked at him a little bit longer than the others, but that was probably just his imagination.
“I am ready for this challenge. So, how do we begin?”
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