She’d seen it eight years ago on Willy Jenkins’s face. Willy Jenkins had been bigger than all the other boys his age—alarmingly so. At just fifteen years of age, he’d been six feet tall and almost thirteen stone in weight. He had the strength to fit his size, too. She’d seen him lift his two younger brothers, once, one in each hand.
Willy Jenkins was big and strong, and the other boys would have been frightened of him were it not for his smile.
Mr. Charingford gave an obsequious bow, so low that he almost doubled over. He scarcely choked the words out. “Might I present…?”
Mr. Charingford didn’t even assume that this man would allow the introduction—seemed to think that it would be perfectly good manners if he said no.
“By all means,” the man said. He met Minnie’s gaze; she looked away swiftly. “My circle of acquaintance is never so large that it cannot include more young ladies.” That apologetic smile again—Willy’s smile. It was the one Willy gave when he won at arm wrestling—and he had always won at arm wrestling. It was one that said: I’m sorry that I am bigger than you and stronger than you. I’m always going to win, but I’ll try not to hurt you when I do. It was the smile of a man who knew he possessed considerable strength, and found it faintly embarrassing.
“So considerate,” Mr. Charingford said. “This is my daughter, Miss Lydia Charingford, and her friend, Miss Wilhelmina Pursling.”
The blond man bowed over Lydia’s hand—a faint inclination of his head—and reached to take Minnie’s fingers.
“Young ladies,” Mr. Charingford said, “this is Robert Alan Graydon Blaisdell.”
His eyes—a blue so lacking in color that it put her in mind of a lake in winter—met hers. That smile curled up at the corners, more chagrined than ever. His fingers touched hers, and even through their gloves his hand felt overly warm. Despite every ounce of good sense, Minnie could feel herself respond to him. Her smile peeked out to match his. In her imagination, for just that one moment, there were moonlit paths. And that silver light painted every bleak facet of her life in magic.
Beside her, Mr. Charingford swallowed, the sound audible at this distance. “He is, of course, His Grace, the Duke of Clermont.”
Minnie almost yanked her fingers back. A duke? A bloody duke had found her behind the sofa? No. No. Impossible.
Charingford indicated the other man by his side. “And his, uh, his man of business—”
“My friend,” the duke interrupted.
“Yes.” Charingford swallowed. “Of course. His friend, Mr. Oliver Marshall.”
“Miss Charingford. Miss Pursling,” the duke said, nodding to Lydia over Minnie’s shoulder. “All the pleasure in the introduction is surely mine.”
Minnie tipped her head slightly. “Your Grace,” she choked out.
The entire night was conspiring to destroy her. Her best friend’s fiancé thought she was engaging in sedition, and the Duke of Bloody Clermont could ruin her with a single word. That for her treacherous imagination. That for moonlit paths. That for even a moment’s contemplation of romance. Dreams failed, and when they fled, they left reality all the colder.
His Grace met her eyes just before Minnie took her leave. And once again, he gave her that sheepish smile. This time, she knew what it meant.
She was nothing. He had everything. And for what little it was worth, he was embarrassed by his own strength.
THE CARRIAGE SWAYED, NOT SMOOTHLY, but in harsh back-and-forth jerks. Once, Minnie supposed, the springs had been new, and every bump in the road back to her great-aunts’ farm would not have been magnified into teeth-jarring jolts. But funds were scarce, and repairs were a luxury, one that her great-aunts could ill afford.
Her Great-Aunt Caroline sat on the bench across from Minnie, her cane poised over her knee. Next to her sat Elizabeth, less stooped but far more gray. They could not have looked more different if they had been picked from a crowd. Caro was tall and plump, while Eliza was short and angular. Caro’s hair was sleek and dark, with only a few gray strands; Eliza’s once-blond hair had become white and frizzled.
At their age, they should have been resting at home by the fire on a cold November night, not gallivanting out to attend musical evenings. But they had come with her, and now they wore twin expressions of grim dissatisfaction.
In the dark of night, shielded from the view of the man who drove the carriage, they’d joined hands for comfort.
And, as she always did, Minnie was about to make everything worse.
“Great-Aunt Caro. Great-Aunt Eliza.” Her voice was quiet in the velvet night, almost overwhelmed by the rattle of the wheels. “There’s something I have to tell you. It’s about Captain Stevens.”
The two women exchanged a long, lingering glance. “We know,” Great-Aunt Caro said. “We were wondering whether to mention it to you.”
“He’s looking into my past.”
The two women exchanged another slow look. But Caro was the one who eventually spoke. “It’s a setback, to be sure, but we’ve weathered worse setbacks before.”
Minnie shook her head. “He knows. Or he will. Soon. I don’t know what to do.”
Eliza reached over and patted Minnie on the knee. “You’re panicking,” she said softly. “Never panic; it tells others that something is wrong. Just remember, the truth is too outlandish to be considered. Nobody will ever guess.”
Minnie took a deep gulp of air, and then another.
“In order to uncover the truth,” Eliza said, “he’d have to ask the right questions. And trust me, my dear. Nobody, but nobody, is ever going to ask whether your father passed you off as a boy for the first twelve years of your life.”
“Still, he only needs to suspect—”
“Stop. Minnie. Breathe. Working yourself into a state won’t accomplish anything.”
Easy for them to say. With her eyes shut, she could almost see the mob closing around her, harsh discordant shouts emanating from faces twisted by anger…
“It’s nothing,” Eliza said, awkwardly rearranging herself in the carriage so that she sat next to Minnie. She put her hand on Minnie’s shoulder. “It’s nothing. It’s nothing.” With each repetition, she smoothed Minnie’s hair. Each whisper brought greater calm, until Minnie could curb her rising panic. She locked that memory back in the past where it belonged, held it there until her vision stopped swimming and her breath returned to a regular cadence.