The Siren of Sussex (Belles of London # 1) by Mimi Matthews




One




            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? Something 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.”