Robert, newly anointed First Baronet Ballard, scowled at the dark-haired reflection in his dressing-mirror.
He’d had several reasons to be given pause recently, but none of them were the cause of his present irritation.
It wasn’t the title he’d bought, or its appalling price. He loved his mother, and though her social-climbing seemed ridiculous to him, he’d have done anything to please her. And even as dear as the title was, it might prove a good investment, as it would afford entrée to a segment of society — and the piles of money that supported it — that a mere collier could never have joined, no matter how wealthy he was.
And it wasn’t the lofty estate he’d bought in Benton, or its equally lofty cost. If nothing else, the spectacular view it afforded of the Erindale was vastly superior to the dismal landscape buried under the detritus of a century of coal-mining, near Colton. Not that there was anything wrong with the land that made his fortune, or the plans he had for its mines. But in both looks and location the newly christened Colton Court would serve far better for wining and dining those he needed to finance those plans.
No, none of that had anything to do with Sir Robert’s present frustration, which was primarily due to the costume his valet had laid out for him, and the neck-cloth he had tried and failed to properly arrange nearly a dozen times, despite having paid very careful attention to how it was done when advised to buy it.
And it didn’t help that the reason for wearing it was as irritating as the neck-cloth itself. Yet another trip to town for the sole purpose of filling his mother’s and sister’s closets to bursting. For which purpose he felt practically useless, being too accustomed to dressing in a more casual manner to offer any advice concerning matters of ‘proper’ dress, male or female.
Which meant his presence was required merely to provide cash and cachet. And as far as the cash was concerned, his credit would have allowed his mother and sister to spend his money equally well and far more pleasantly on his part without him.
But then they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to introduce “My son (or brother), Sir Robert Ballard,” and in one way or another strut him about in front of everyone they met, to make sure they bowed and scraped and envied his mother, his sister, and him. Which, given the fact that anyone with enough money and too little sense to hold onto it could buy such a title, hardly seemed reason to envy him.
He gave the neck-cloth one last try, and finally admitting defeat, called his valet.
“Jameson! Come help me with this damned thing!”
His valet appeared so quickly that Sir Robert could have easily believed him already present and merely invisible, and applying deft hands to the neck-cloth finished in a few seconds the task his master had been swearing at for the past quarter hour.
“There you are, sir,” Jameson said, and after dusting him with a brush that made him feel like a horse being groomed for a show, announced himself well pleased with his master’s appearance.
“Thank you, Jameson. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he sardonically noted.
“Neither do I, sir. Which is what makes it such a pleasure to serve you. For you have a fine figure, a fine mind and a fine manner, and with just a tad more training, will do your title proud.”
“I appreciate the thought, Jameson, but no matter how long you polish a lump of coal, it will never turn into a diamond.”
“You shouldn’t think like that, sir,” Jameson said. “You may feel like a lump of coal sometimes, but you really are a diamond in the rough.”
Sir Robert sighed. “If you say so.”
“That I do. I’ve served many a master in my fifty years, and mark my words, you’ve got it in you to go as far as any of them.”
“Well, as far as going, I’m off to the coach, as I’m sure my mother and sister are impatiently awaiting my arrival.”
Sir Robert walked down the broad terrace of Colton Court toward the coach and four waiting at its base, and the two women standing beside it.
“There you are!” the elder exclaimed. “I was beginning to think you had forgotten our plans.”
“I’m sorry, mother. I’m still learning how to tie this blasted neck-cloth, and if Jameson hadn’t come to my rescue you’d still be waiting.”
“I don’t see why you don’t let him do it in the first place,” his sister said. “That’s what he’s paid for.”
“It makes me feel idiotic that I can’t dress myself, but must be dressed like a child.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way,” his mother said, as he helped her into the carriage. “We don’t begrudge our maidservants their duties. Proper clothing requires proper help to don. You wouldn’t have us do it ourselves, would you? We might as well go without clothes, as poor as the results would be.”
“Mama!” Helen exclaimed. “Please!”
“Helen, my dear, you should remember that although some studied embarrassment is appropriate in society, there is no need to observe such niceties when we are alone.”
Helen essayed a moue. “My tutor says if one doesn’t practice proper behavior all the time it won’t become natural, and one must always strive to appear natural, no matter how mannered you are.”
“I’m not sure I will ever feel natural like this,” Robert said, “after nearly twenty-five years dressing myself in whatever happened to be handy.”
“It would be easier if you had been accustomed to it since birth,” his mother admitted. “But think how much more difficult it is for me than for you, and how well I have settled into my role.”
Robert nodded. Not that his mother appeared to him the way she hoped to appear to others. He’d known her too long as the struggling collier’s wife she used to be to see her as a society matron, no matter how she dressed or acted. Still, those in the shops they visited always seemed suitably impressed, so perhaps he was too hard on her and himself.
“So, where are we off to today?” he asked, not really caring what the reply was, but wanting to discuss something other than clothes and manners for once.
“Templeman’s. I hear they have the finest stock of fabrics and fripperies in Benton.”
“Templeman’s? Sounds Jewish to me. Do Jews have any sense of fashion?”
His mother started to explain that many of the finest dressmakers of the day were Jewish, then realized he was teasing her and made a rude remark, which drew a well-mannered reproach from her daughter.
“Well, whatever sort of place it is, I thought you said the last one we went to had the finest stock in Benton.”
“As you should have realized from how little we bought, it was not half so fine as I was led to believe. Really, we ought to have settled near Donton if you truly wanted us to have access to the finest stores and people...”
Robert did his best to avoid making a face. He’d been to Donton on business several times these past three years, and though it was a good place for doing business, the airs put on by its so-called ‘upper class’ would have driven any sensible man mad within a month. Which was precisely why he had settled in Benton, instead.
“I’m sorry the efforts I’ve made aren’t to your liking, but the mines require so much of my attention that if I settled you near Donton, I’d hardly ever see you.”
“That’s true,” his mother replied. “Sad, but true. It’s too bad you don’t have a brother to take over the business, so you could enjoy your leisure.”
Given his mood, Robert was tempted to point out that that failure could be laid at her and his late father’s feet; but rejecting the idea even as it arose, he adopted a placating tone.
“I appreciate your sympathy. But I will do what I can to groom one of the men from the business to do the job, and perhaps some day I can enjoy the leisure you suggest.” Just so long, he thought, as that moment was as far off as he could manage to put it.
By now the carriage had turned onto the river road, and as they passed one ostentatious pile after another, his companions’ attention turned to comparisons of their situation and appearance with their own establishment, which Sir Robert might have been happy to note invariably ended with declarations of the superiority of his choice of accommodations. However, he had already turned his attention to the natural beauty of the riverbank, and the river coursing in the other direction. It was an unusually balmy day for late November, and a slight haze in the air and the leaves scattered along the shore made the scene even more pastoral and colorful than usual. A skiff passed by, a man sitting at its tiller and another mid-keel, each with a fishing line. Sir Robert had never fished, but it seemed a lovely way to pass the time, just floating down the river, quietly enjoying the early afternoon sun, with not a care in the world. No mines or businesses to run, no women to cart from one shop to another, and no need to impress anyone else with one’s clothes or manners. He sighed a great sigh, for even in his dream he knew that those in the skiff would probably feel even more envious of him than he was of them.
Jacob raised a hand to summon his sister to his side.
“I want you to take over for Ellie,” he said, in a low tone.
Lizzie turned toward Ellie and the women seated across from her at the jewelry counter — an older brunette with a scowl on her face, and a young blonde with a frustrated expression.
“Is there something wrong with her work? Or are the customers being unreasonable?”
“Neither,” Jacob replied. “She appears to be doing a reasonable job, and as you know, wealthy customers are never considered unreasonable. But they seem unhappy with what she’s showing them, so try to smooth over any rough waters.”
Lizzie nodded and made her way to the trio.
“Ellie, it’s past time for your break,” she lied, “so if you and your customers don’t mind, I’ll take over for you.”
“I don’t mind... but of course, that would be up to the ladies.” Ellie turned to the others. “Would that be all right with you?”
The older woman looked Lizzie up and down, then turned to the girl. “I’ll leave it up to my daughter. Helen?”
Helen gave her mother an uncertain look and said, in a half-questioning way, “She can’t be any... less satisfactory? I suppose...”
A termagant and a daughter anxious to please her, Lizzie concluded. The perfect recipe for an unpleasant encounter. No wonder Ellie was having trouble pleasing them. Still, as Jacob said, the customer was always right. So she smiled, expressed a hope that her efforts would leave them well pleased, and took Ellie’s place.
Sir Robert leaned against a pillar, surveying the parade of humanity passing Templeman’s windows. Rich and poor strolled or straggled past, singly and in small groups. A gaggle of youths ran past them, laughing and teasing each other, and attracting baleful looks from those they ran into or otherwise disturbed with their high spirits.
“Robert? Come here, please.”
Robert turned to his mother. “What is it n...” he started to testily reply, then stopped and goggled at the vision of beauty seated across from his mother and sister. Thick dark curls framed the prettiest face his eyes had ever had the pleasure to see, and the rosiest lips he might have ever hoped to taste.
He jolted out of his reverie and strolled over to them.
“Which of these do you think looks best on Helen?”
He turned to Helen and watched as she held first one, then the other choker to her neck. “I don’t know. They both look nice to me.” He turned to the girl of his dreams. “Which do you prefer?”
Lizzie blinked her surprise at his question, but quickly recovered. “I think either would go very nicely with her color. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have suggested them. But if only my opinion counted...” She gave his mother a wary look, not wanting to imply that her opinion was of any real value.
“Pretend that it does,” Robert said. “You seem very well turned out, and I’m sure that any woman’s opinion is worth more than mine in such matters.”
Lizzie gave him a wry smile. “Well, in that case I’d say the violet, as it sets off her eyes so well.”
“Then the violet is my choice as well,” he declared.
“I don’t know,” his mother said. “The violet is very pretty, but the red is more striking.”
“Then buy them both,” Robert replied, “and let Helen wear whichever suits her fancy.”
Helen gave him an angelic smile. “Really? As dear as they are, I presumed you’d only let me get one.”
Robert blinked. “How dear are they?”
Lizzie quoted a sum that might have fed a family of five for a year back in Colton.
That part of Robert that worked for three years to rescue his father’s business from bankruptcy quailed at the thought of spending so much on baubles, no matter how pretty. “I hope you work on commission,” he told her.
“I do,” Lizzie replied, “but the commission won’t be mine, as I’m merely filling in for Ellie.”
“The brown-haired mouse who served us at first,” his mother explained.
“Ah. Then Ellie should be very grateful to you for doing such a fine job in her place.”
“I’m sure she will be,” Lizzie agreed.
“So,” Robert said, turning to his mother, “are you done yet?”
His mother nodded and rose. “Yes, though we’ll have to come back next week for the fitting.”
“Yes,” Helen replied. “I’ll need a gown to go with the choker.”
“Of course you will. How silly of me.” He turned to the shopgirl. “I hope you will take care of that, as well.”
Lizzie flushed from the heat of his dazzling smile. “I...” She looked toward Jacob, who nodded assent despite being unaware of what he was nodding for.
“It’s not really my place,” Lizzie explained, “but I’ll be happy to provide whatever assistance I can.”
Robert nodded. “In that case, we shall all look forward to seeing you again.”
“I can take the chokers now, though, can’t I?” Helen asked.
“Of course you may,” Lizzie replied. “We’ll just put them on Sir Robert’s account.”
“Ah. I see I have been introduced to you in my absence. You have me at a disadvantage, Miss...” He looked at her inquiringly.
“Liz... that is, Ryanson,” Lizzie answered, belatedly realizing how inappropriate it would be to use her first name with someone of such rank.
Robert’s heart sank. He should have known that such a beauty would not remain long unattached. “I take it you are recently wed?”
Lizzie blinked. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“You started to give one name, then changed to another.”
“I… well, I…” Lizzie stammered.
“What difference does it make what her name is?” his mother asked.
“Since she served you so well, we’ll want to ask for her next time. And it’s only polite to do so by name.”
His mother gave him a searching look. “Of course it is. So we’ll be sure to ask for Miss Ryanson.” She turned to Lizzie. “That is correct, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“In that case, you can escort us to the carriage now, Robert.”
“You and Helen will have to wait just a moment. I want to talk to the manager, to make sure there aren’t any problems with my account.”
His mother frowned as he left, then turned her attention to Lizzie. “Don’t think that my son’s interest in your welfare gives you any chance with him.”
“What?” Lizzie said in surprise.
“I said, don’t...”
“I heard what you said. I just can’t imagine why you would think I have ‘any chance’ with him. After all, he is a baronet, and I a mere shopgirl.”
“That’s right. He is, and you are. And don’t you forget it for a minute.”
Under other circumstances, Lizzie might have told the old gorgon exactly what she thought of her. But she did a good job of holding her temper, and only slightly hissed her reply. “I can assure you that an alliance with your family would be the farthest thing from my mind, even if your son were the most desirable man in the world.”
“Are you implying he isn’t?”
Lizzie looked at the dark-haired demigod talking to her brother. “No. I’m sure that he is a fine man, in every way. But I am fully aware of how impossible any relationship between such as he and I would be.”
Sir Robert’s mother nodded. “Good girl. I apologize for chiding you, but not all girls are so sensible, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t get any ideas.”
“I think you underestimate your son, madam. He seems a man of dignity and principle, and I am sure he would never stoop so low.”
The old woman laughed. “You don’t know men very well, do you? I hope you can maintain that innocence as you grow older.”
Sir Robert returned, escorted his mother and sister outside, and Jacob made his way over to his sister.
“You must have impressed Sir Robert,” he said.
“He must be easily impressed, then. I hardly spoke to him, save for discussing his sister’s purchase.”
“Well, whatever the reason, it will give you a tidy bonus at the end of the month.”
“Yes. He insisted on your receiving a commission equal to Ellie’s.”
“Surely you won’t go along with that. It wouldn’t be fair to Ellie to cut her commission in half.”
Jacob smiled. “It won’t affect Ellie at all. He had me add a sum equal to her commission to the sale.”
“Not at all,” Jacob said, and showed her the sales slip.
Lizzie shook her head. “It must be nice to have so much money that you can throw it away like that.”
Jacob laughed. “It would be. But I’m sure that even those rich as Croesus think themselves ill used at times.”
Lizzie thought of how Sir Robert’s mother ordered him about, and nodded. “Yes. I suppose they must...”
End of this excerpt (and Chapter 1)