<A Fashionable Affair>
A Fashionable Affair
A novella originally featured in Dressed to Kiss
Read the Prologue
Read Chapter One

Love is never out of fashion …

Felicity Dawkins is determined to save her dress shop, Madame Follette's, from ruin. Times and styles have changed, but the upcoming coronation of King George IV is just the opportunity she needs to bring it back into vogue.

Evan Hewes, Earl of Carmarthen, also has big plans for Follette's dress shop: he intends to tear it down to make way for the grand new boulevard he's building. All he has to do is persuade Felicity.

She won't sell. He won't be denied. But the attraction that sparks between them every time they meet might upend all their plans…

A Fashionable Affair
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Chapter One

London

May 1821

<A Fashionable Affair>Vine Street was a very ordinary lane in London, no longer fashionable and never stately. The brick buildings slumped together in comfortable shabbiness, relicts of a frenzy to throw up anything to support the rapidly expanding city. A mixture of shops occupied the ground floors and curtains fluttered at several narrow windows on the upper stories. Vine Street offered cheap lodging and reasonable shopping, a hidden pocket of threadbare gentility only two streets away from the thriving bustle of Piccadilly and the gleaming new boulevard being built from Carlton House toward the elegant neighborhood rising in Regent's Park.

And it was all coming down.

Evan Hewes, Earl of Carmarthen, surveyed it dispassionately as he rode the length of the street. In a year's time Vine Street would look vastly different, with wider pavements and improved drainage, modern sewers, pipes laid for gas, and buildings of clean white stone. There would still be shops with lodgings above, but they would be modern and new, crisply uniform in appearance and no longer a dark hodgepodge of Stuart brick and Tudor half-timbering. It was a new century, and Vine Street would soon be just as new.

The prospect filled him with excitement. Rebuilding always had, ever since his ancestral manor burned to the ground only a month after his father died, and Evan was faced with the monumental task of rebuilding. He soon realized it was more like a shining opportunity. The stone shell remained, but everything within the house, which dated from the time of the Plantagenets, had been wood, and thus burned to ash. Evan moved his weeping mother and younger sister into the dower house and hired a brash young architect who helped him rebuild a house that featured none of the odd corners, strangely shaped rooms, smoky chimneys, or stairs so tight and narrow the footmen couldn't go up them without stooping. Now the manor had clean gracious lines, a modern aesthetic, and every convenience.

He meant to do the same to this grubby little corner of London. It was near the fashionable shops, and once it was rebuilt, the whole area would be revitalized.

The milliner on the corner, the stationers next to it, and the teahouse at the end of the block had all recently accepted his offers to purchase their properties. He already owned almost everything else. There were some tenants who would need to go, but his solicitor had secured settlements with most of them and Evan expected the rest to follow soon. He was giving generous inducements to uproot and move elsewhere.

There was, however, one tenant who had refused all offers. He bent a grim and impatient look upon the premises of Madame Follette's, modiste. It sat near the midpoint of the street, the bow window slightly warped from the settling of the building. The door was painted a bright blue and the steps were neatly swept, but nothing could disguise the careworn feel of the place.

He dismounted in front of the shop. His solicitor had tried for several months to secure the cooperation of the owner, to no avail; when Evan finally declared he would go see her himself, Grantham expressed doubt.

"She's an older lady, a Frenchwoman," the solicitor explained when Evan expressed frustration over the delay. "Stubborn as a mule."

"Offer her more money."

<A Fashionable Affair>"Tried it twice." Thomas Grantham leaned back in his chair. "In reply she sent a three-page letter that was mostly in French and insulted my intelligence, my manners, and my clerk's penmanship. At the conclusion she refused your generous offer, and for good measure added that she would refuse an offer five times as high."

Evan scowled. If Grantham—who was known for being smooth and persuasive—had failed, the old lady must be a regular shrew. "Did you tell her everyone else in Vine Street has accepted, and the improvements will happen regardless?"

"I did," said Grantham pleasantly. "Her reply to that was a single page of paper containing one word, writ large: No. I hope you have an alternate plan, or can demolish and build around her."

By some great feat of restraint he didn't curse out loud. He couldn't demolish around the dressmaker's shop without fatally compromising its structural integrity, as it shared at least one wall with its neighbor. That was part of what made Vine Street so attractive a proposition: Everything needed to come down. He could demolish the buildings on the other side of the street, but the approved plan called for both sides of the street to be rebuilt. Leaving one half in place would add insurmountable obstacles, in time, engineering difficulty, and expense, to say nothing of spoiling the elegant uniformity of design he envisioned. The dressmaker had to go.

So here he was, determined to oust the obstinate modiste personally through some combination of charming persuasion and subtle intimidation. He tied up his horse and went in.

A tiny bell tinkled as the door opened, and he stepped into a room that stretched the width of the building. He supposed some would call it bright, and it was for this street, but he couldn't help thinking how much nicer his new buildings would be, when the sun could reach the ground floor windows and illuminate the whole room, instead of only a small area at the front.

But otherwise it was a pleasant room. The floor was impeccably clean, the walls were soft blue, and behind the wide counter shelves held bolts of silk and lace. A selection of periodicals was spread on the counter, and three gorgeously attired fashion dolls stood on shelves near the fabric.

At his entrance a woman emerged from the curtained doorway at the rear. "Good morning, sir," she said, her voice very faintly tinged with French. "How may I help you?"

The answer that came immediately to Evan's mind was rather risqué. If he'd known seamstresses were this attractive, he would have personally escorted his mother and sister to every fitting. The woman before him was lovely, with dark gold hair and vivid blue eyes. He couldn't stop himself from taking a swift but thorough survey, from the top of her blond head to the hem of her skirt. Round hips, trim figure, splendid bosom, and a face he'd very much like to see flushed with passion.

<A Fashionable Affair>"Sir?"

He snapped his gaze away from her very kissable mouth. Business, then pleasure, he told himself. Buy the building, then flirt with the seamstress. "I've come to see Madame Follette."

Her soft pink lips parted in surprise. "Have you an appointment?"

By God, she was beautiful. He leaned against the counter and grinned. "No, but I hope she'll see me all the same." He produced one of his cards and slid it across the polished wooden surface.

A thin puzzled line appeared between her brows as she reached for the card. It vanished as soon as she read it. Her eyes flew back to his, and this time they shone with a more cordial light. "My lord."

"Will Madame see me?" he asked, lowering his voice to a more intimate register.

"But of course!" She smiled, and his stomach took a drop. There was a dimple in her cheek, and he was sure that smile was coy, almost inviting, as if she felt the same attraction he did … "I am Madame Follette."

It was so unlike what he had expected Evan was struck speechless. "You?" he said stupidly.

Her eyes flashed, but her smile didn't waver. "Yes. What did you wish to see me about?"

Inside his head Evan cursed his solicitor. An older Frenchwoman, stubborn as a mule, eh? He'd been prepared for that sort of woman. This woman—young and attractive and dangerously appealing—threw him.

But only for a moment. He straightened his shoulders and assumed a contrite expression. "I beg your pardon. I was expecting an older woman. I'd been told Madame Follette was a Frenchwoman about my mother's age."

"Ah." Understanding softened her demeanor. "That will be my mother, who founded Madame Follette's and ran the shop until a year ago. She has taken an extended holiday to the seashore. But I would be happy to assist you. Have you come to inquire about a gown for Lady Carmarthen?"

"Er … No." Behind him the bell chimed again.

Madame's face brightened at once. "One moment, my lord," she murmured to him. "Lady Marjoribanks! Come in, Miss Owen has been expecting you. May I offer you a cup of tea?"

<A Fashionable Affair>"Not this morning," said Lady Marjoribanks as she stooped to set down a ball of gray fur she was carrying. "Midas isn't well today, he didn't want to be alone. I hope you don't mind."

Evan didn't see the slightest flicker in Madame's face as a pair of malevolent yellow eyes winked open amid the gray fur and glared up at her. "Of course I don't mind. Come, I'll show you to a private room and tell Miss Owen you've arrived."

As they crossed the shop, the older woman caught sight of him. "Carmarthen! What are you doing here?"

"Delighting in our chance encounter," he said smoothly, giving her a bow. "A great pleasure to see you again, Lady Marjoribanks."

She seemed amused. "And you, my boy! I hope you've not come to haggle with Miss Dawkins. She's a wonderful girl, so clever with a needle and thread, and if you reduce her to tears, you'll have me to deal with." She shook her finger in admonishment.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Evan replied, covertly noting the way Madame—Miss Dawkins?—flushed and avoided looking his way.

"Very good. Keep an eye on Midas, would you, while I have a word with the ladies about my gown." She turned her attention to the proprietress, still at her side. "I saw the most original style the other day. Four shades of fringe! Do you think Miss Owen could create something similar?"

He couldn't make out Madame's reply as she guided her client through another doorway. With a sigh he rested his elbow on the counter and regarded the cat still crouching on the floor where Lady Marjoribanks had put him. He knew the viscountess was eccentric, but carrying her cat around with her? From the baleful look on his face, Midas didn't seem pleased to be here, and as soon as his mistress had gone he crept under a nearby chair.

Evan tried to use his moment alone to reassess his approach. It galled him that he'd made such a mistake about the owner, no matter what Grantham had said. Still, it could work to his benefit. An older woman might be reluctant to move, but surely a young woman would see the value in what he wished to do. Surely she couldn't like the way her floors slanted, or that her windows only got an hour of direct sunlight every day. Surely a young woman must want modern plumbing and gas lighting. Evan had done his research, and this was one of the oldest parts of Vine Street. There was no record of it having significant improvements in the last several decades, and he certainly didn't see signs of any now that he was here.

On the other hand, he couldn't afford to be distracted by a pretty face and a splendid bosom. Regretfully he pondered that point a moment. There must be someone else he could speak to, if only to persuade them to intercede with the actual owner.

Madame—Miss Dawkins?—emerged. "I apologize, my lord," she said as she went behind the counter again. "Have you come to inquire about a commission? We are quite busy, but I'm sure we could accommodate you." Her hand drifted toward the fashion periodicals.

"No." He paused as another woman burst out of the same doorway where Lady Marjoribanks had disappeared. With a murmured apology she took some of the periodicals and went back where she'd come from.

<A Fashionable Affair>"That is Miss Owen, one of my head seamstresses," said Madame. "She has a dramatic eye for color and flair, and designs garments unlike anything else in London. Lady Marjoribanks is devoted to her."

"I've come about a financial matter, Madame." He paused. "Or is it Miss Dawkins?"

Slowly her hands curled into fists before she put them below the counter. "Dawkins is our family name. Follette was my mother's name before she married my late father. What sort of financial matter?"

"One I must discuss with the owner. My solicitor has been corresponding with your mother, I believe, whom he understood to be the person holding the deed to this building." He waited a moment, but she just stared at him, her eyes darkening. Too late Evan thought he ought to have heeded Grantham's advice and stayed out of it. He didn't want to make this woman hate him, but he had plans—investors—promises he had to keep. "Where might I find her?"

"Yes, my mother is the owner. But I am managing the shop now." Her chin came up. "You can speak to me, my lord."

"Perhaps I could speak to your man of business," Evan said hopefully. Surely her man of business, or her solicitor, would see reason and help argue his case.

That was the wrong thing to say. Her mouth flattened and she set back her shoulders with a little twitch. "You can speak to me," she repeated, a hard stress on the final word.

There was no other choice, it seemed. He nodded and tried to look rueful. "Don't mistake me—it would be my pleasure to speak to you. Are you aware of your mother's correspondence with my solicitor, Mr. Grantham?"

"No."

"That explains it." He gave an abashed grin. "I feared as much, which is what brought me here today. I've a business proposal to make, but your mother is unwilling to listen."

Her expression didn't change. "As I said, I am managing Follette's now; my mother has retired from the trade. What is your proposal?"

He doubted she was empowered to accept it, but she could help persuade her recalcitrant mother. Evan propped his elbow on the counter again and leaned toward her. Lord, she had the most magnificent eyes, and the way her face tipped up to his … "I couldn't help but notice your floor slopes and your windows are warped. This building must be nearly two hundred and fifty years old." He knew it was; building records showed it had been built before the Great Fire, one of the small pockets of London that survived unscathed. And from the looks of things, it hadn't changed much since.

<A Fashionable Affair>"Yes," she allowed, "but it's home. Surely you have a home, my lord, all the more endearing for its quirks and oddities."

He didn't mention that he'd had that building completely rebuilt, in part because of its oddities. "Of course! But there are quirks, and then there are … failings. The drains in this street are appalling; it must flood in every heavy rain. And there's no gas, I noticed. All the shops in Piccadilly have gas lighting now."

A mixture of discomfort and longing flickered over her face. "That is true. But there are great improvements happening just a few streets away, and I expect the tide will eventually reach Vine Street."

"You are exactly right." He smiled. "Very soon, in fact. That's what I've come to discuss. I have submitted a plan to improve Vine Street just as Mr. Nash is doing in Regent Street."

"Oh!" Her eyes brightened, and a pleased smile curved her lips. "That is very welcome news! And you've come to let the tenants know? How good of you, sir."

"It will be absolutely splendid," he went on, growing enthusiastic as he always did when talking about his plans. "Modern sewers, gas to every building, wider pavements. The shops will be brighter, the rooms above supplied with water closets and pipes for pumps, to say nothing of taller ceilings and perfectly proportioned rooms."

"That sounds delightful," she said in bemusement, "but how will you change the proportions of the rooms?" Her voice trailed off as she spoke.

Evan went for the bold strike. "I would like to buy this building, Miss Dawkins. Everything in Vine Street will be torn down and built anew, exactly as I said—and you're right, it will be delightful, and a vast deal better than this." He swept one hand around the shop.

"What?"

<A Fashionable Affair>He ignored the horror in her exclamation. "Mr. Nash himself approved the plans, and the work will be carried out with his advice. This street is very near Piccadilly, but has frankly grown too shabby to be fashionable. In two years' time, it will rival Bond Street." He paused, but she only gaped at him, her face pale. "I'm prepared to make a very handsome offer, Miss Dawkins."

"No," she said faintly.

"An offer you would never receive from anyone else," he said softly. "This is an old building. The work in Regent Street will disrupt traffic for years and cut you off from the fashionable part of town when it's complete."

"No!" Her expression grew stormy. "You cannot sweep in here and have my shop for the asking! I presume you've come because my mother has refused all your solicitor's previous inquiries"—he said nothing, and she jerked her head in a knowing nod—"and you should know that I agree with my mother. We will not sell Follette's!"

Evan sighed. As pretty as she was in a fury, he didn't have time for this. "That would be foolish."

"Foolish?" She raised one brow in disdain. "How arrogant, to presume you know anything about my shop or my concerns. Good day, sir." She swept around the counter and went to the door. The bell jangled sharply as she jerked it open, and Midas hissed from beneath the chair.

He tugged at his gloves, studying her through narrow eyes. By God, she was throwing him out. "It would be foolish to stay," he said coolly,"because I have already bought every other building around you." Her eyes went wide, and he gave a small shrug. "Vine Street is coming down, Miss Dawkins. If you stay, it will come down around your ears, and when the work is complete, yours will be the lone spot of drab in the middle of a gleaming new street, devoid of all the modern trappings I just described. How much will it be worth then? If, however, you accept my offer now, you'll get good—no, exceptional—value for it. I could even sweeten the offer by extending you a lease in the new premises at favorable terms," he added.

She swallowed. "When do you expect this destruction to begin?"

"The last tenant will be out by the end of the month." He put on his hat. "I expect to begin tearing it down the next day."

"The end of the month," she gasped. "Why so soon?"

Evan rocked back on his heels. "So soon? I've been acquiring property for almost a year. Did your mother not mention the multiple letters my solicitor has sent her?" She blanched. "No? Because I assure you, this has been several months in the planning." He took out another card and laid it on the counter. "You may inquire with my solicitor, Thomas Grantham, if you don't believe me."

<A Fashionable Affair>For a long moment she just stared at him, her blue eyes wide and unfocused. "Good day, my lord," she finally said.

Confounded woman. Annoyed, Evan strode past her, only to pause on the pavement beside his waiting horse. "Look around, Miss Dawkins," he warned her, waving one hand at the shop across the street. The tailor had already gone, and the windows of his shop had a blank, dead look about them. "Soon every window on this street will be dark except yours. Soon the street itself will be torn out. Your clients won't be able to drive to your door, and dust from the demolition will seep through the cracks in your windows and ruin every bolt of silk you possess. Do you really want to run your shop under those conditions?"

For answer she closed the door with a snap, and remained behind it glaring at him, arms crossed over her chest. This time Evan didn't even glance at her splendid bosom. "Think about it," he said again. "And when you reach the obvious conclusion, you have my card." Somewhat sardonically, he bowed to her, then got back on his horse and rode away.

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