One Thing Leads to a Lover (Love and Let Spy #2) - Susanna Craig

Chapter 1

For as many of her thirty-two years as Amanda could remember, her mother had been urging her to mind her step.

Not that Amanda was particularly clumsy—barring the summer of her twelfth birthday, when she had grown several inches taller in mere weeks and both the dressmaker and the dancing master had thrown up their hands in despair over her ungainliness.

No, the wrong-footedness Mama fretted over was primarily of the social variety. Did Amanda comport herself properly? Did she say the right things to the right people? Did she attract neither too much notice, nor too little?

Amanda had always been a little too curious, a little too bold to suit her mother.

One might have hoped—Amanda certainly had—that her mother would relax a bit once Amanda, at nineteen, had received and accepted a much-coveted offer of marriage from the Earl of Kingston. If not then, surely once the vows had been spoken in St. George’s in front of hundreds. Or once the requisite heir and a spare had been born.

But if in fact Mama had ever allowed the phrase to fall into disuse, she soon took it up again when Amanda found herself a young, and most eligible, widow.

Though she loved her mother, Amanda despised being told to mind her step. To be forever minding your step meant worrying more about others’ thoughts than your own. Making yourself small, fearful of taking up space. Always looking down instead of looking up.

But when the glorious June sun shone from a sky of cerulean blue, dotted with puffs of white clouds so fat and happy they appeared to have been added to the world’s canvas by an enthusiastic five-year-old, then who, on such a day, would not rather look up?

Heedless of the potential for either gossip or freckles, Amanda tipped her face to the sunshine and reveled in its warmth, watching light and shadow dance across her eyelids in a rose-tinted quadrille. The sounds and smells of Bond Street washed over her like a raucous stream flowing around an unmoving stone. Clutching her parcel—a copy of Pascal’s treatise on geometry in the original French—so that one sharp corner fitted against her ribs, she drew in a deep breath and—

A sharp blow to her left shoulder and elbow jerked her from her moment’s reverie. Her chin snapped downward and her eyes popped open as the paper-wrapped book flew from her hands. Before she could bring him into focus, the man who had jostled her arm was already disappearing into the crowd.

The footman who had accompanied her on the outing—at Mama’s insistence, for Amanda had been firmly of the opinion that a widow could surely go into a bookshop alone—had been trailing at a respectful distance. Now he surged forward and would have given chase had not Amanda instead directed him with trembling motions to rescue the package, which had skidded to a landing on the pavement several yards away. The book she’d bought for Jamie’s birthday was in danger every moment of being kicked by careless feet into the gutter.

Just before it met an ignoble fate on the steaming pile left by a passing dray, the footman snatched up the package. In another moment, it was back in her kid-gloved hands, the paper wrapping scuffed and torn at one corner, the string holding the paper frayed but still knotted. No real harm done.

“Thank you, Lewis. Thank you.” Once more, she clutched the book to her chest, heedless of the grime it had gathered.

“I’m only sorry I couldn’t lay hands on the fellow who treated you with such disrespect, milady.” A flush, part anger, part embarrassment, spread across his youthful cheeks and to the edges of his powdered wig, clashing miserably with the rusty orange of his livery. “Mrs. West will box my ears.”

Her eyes traveled in the direction the stranger had been walking, but of course, he was long out of sight. She had caught no more than a glimpse of him, just the back of a drab greatcoat and tall beaver hat, an identical costume to the one sported by dozens of gentlemen strolling and striding along the busy street.

“I’m sure it was an accident, Lewis. I hadn’t any business stopping in the midst of all this bustle.” The crowd still surged around them, oblivious to the incident. “But I think it’s best if my mother hears nothing of the matter. Now.” She nodded in the opposition direction. “Let’s make our way back to Bartlett House, shall we?”

Lewis sent a glance toward the package.