The merest breath of scandal can ruin a lady.
If Lady Milford hadn’t received a last-minute invitation to dine with a member of the royal family, she might never have gone to the bank so late in the day. And she would never have found the next young lady who de- served to wear the enchanted slippers.
As she entered the bank, Clarissa shivered from a blast of chilly April wind. Heavy clouds darkened the skies and hastened the onset of dusk. It would be a good night to remain at home in front of a fire. But she was not yet so ancient as to huddle in a rocking chair with a rug over her knees. Besides, one did not ignore a sum- mons to St. James’s Palace. Nor did one wear ordinary jewels like those she kept in a strongbox at home. This grand occasion called for her most prized tiara.
Gas lamps had been lit inside the bank. The light cast a warm glow over the polished oak counters along the walls, and the caged stations where tellers served the last few customers. It was nearly closing time.
A middle-aged bank manager in a black suit swooped toward Clarissa. A set of keys jangled at his stout waist. He bowed, revealing sparse brown hair combed over a balding pate. “My dear Lady Milford. How may I assist you?”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Talbot. I should like to access my deposit box.”
He ushered her toward a door where she paused to sign the register before entering the vault with its walls of iron drawers. Selecting a key from his ring, Talbot un- locked a numbered strongbox, carried it to a small private chamber, and set it on a table. Then he left Clarissa alone with her valuables.
The box contained various legal documents along with a selection of her costliest jewels. Picking up a black velvet pouch, she opened the drawstring to gaze down at a magnificent tiara. Diamonds in a honeycomb pattern winked in the golden light of the lamp. The centerpiece was a large teardrop diamond in a rare violet hue. It was a perfect match for her eyes . . . or so her dear prince had proclaimed upon giving her the tiara all those years ago.
A wistful smile played upon her lips. How she missed him. He had been her ardent lover for too brief a time . . . She tucked the tiara into her reticule. Her mind occupied with nostalgic memories, she stepped back into the main vault to inform the manager that she was done. All of a sudden, the door to an adjoining private chamber burst open. Someone rushed out at her.
Clarissa had only half a second to brace herself before the stranger collided with her. She managed to maintain her balance, but her assailant was not so fortunate.
The woman stumbled backward into the door frame. A little box slipped from her kid-gloved fingers and fell with a crash. The golden casket sprang open and a strand of diamonds spilled onto the black marble floor.
“Oh, gracious!” she squeaked.
She bent down to snatch up the casket, stuffing the necklace back into its velvet-lined container. She was a rather buxom woman draped in the latest stare of fashion: a hip-length mantle in claret cashmere over an apple-green gown with several rows of ruffles circling the hem. The gauzy veil of her bonnet partially obscured her features, but as the woman stood up, Clarissa could see sausage-curled fair hair, wide blue eyes, and mature features.
There was something familiar about that face . . .
The woman dipped a quick curtsy. “My lady! I—I do beg your pardon.” With that, she hurried out of the vault and into the lobby of the bank.
My lady. Clarissa could only presume the woman had recognized her. Who was she?
Clarissa followed at a more measured pace, her gaze fixed on the stranger ahead of her. The swift clicking of the woman’s heels echoed in the high-ceilinged chamber. She appeared agitated, almost nervous. A guard opened the door and she vanished from the bank.
Mrs. Kitty Paxton. Yes, that was her name.
Although Clarissa knew everyone in society, she had only a nodding acquaintance with Mrs. Paxton. They moved in different circles, not merely because of Clarissa’s elevated stature as the widow of an earl, but because she preferred to converse about weighty topics like politics and literature. Mrs. Paxton was a shallow gossipmonger who could speak only of fashion and the latest tittle-tattle. Her daughter recently had become engaged to the Duke of Whittingham. Clarissa had seen the betrothal announcement a few days ago in the news- paper.
Heading across the bank lobby, she frowned. There had been an older daughter, too, hadn’t there? A step- daughter who had made her debut some seven or eight years ago . . . Miss Aurora Paxton.
Clarissa recalled a lively debutante with glossy black hair and sparkling brown eyes, one of those rare girls blessed with both beauty and wit. In spite of her modest dowry, she’d possessed a vivacity and charm that had attracted a bevy of gentlemen admirers. She had exhibited a generosity of spirit, too. Clarissa recalled an incident at a ball when another girl had tripped and fallen on the dance floor, and Miss Paxton had been the first to rush to her aid, offering friendly chatter to allay the girl’s obvious embarrassment.
Miss Paxton should have received numerous marriage proposals. Yet something had happened in the middle of the season. She had become entangled in a scandal with a foreign diplomat and had been banished for her indiscretion. Clarissa had never again glimpsed the girl in London society.
Where had Miss Paxton gone? What was her situation now? Had she been consigned to the dreary life of a disgraced spinster?
A spark of interest energized Clarissa. Given her own experience with a stepmother, she had a natural empathy for the girl. She knew what it was like to be unloved, unwanted, abandoned. Long ago, upon the death of her well-to-do father, Clarissa had been exiled by her step- mother to the kitchen to work as a servant. One night, a gypsy beggar had come to the back door. Clarissa had taken pity on the poor woman and fed her a hot meal, and in return had been given a pair of enchanted slippers that would lead the wearer to her true love. The shoes had certainly worked well for Clarissa and her prince. Ever since, she had made it her mission to help deserving girls in difficult situations.
Miss Aurora Paxton was the perfect prospect. Now would be a good time to have a word with Mrs. Paxton about the fate of her missing stepdaughter.
Clarissa hastened out of the bank. The dark clouds spat out a few icy raindrops as she glanced up and down the road. At this late hour, traffic had slowed to a trickle. Only a few hackney cabs rumbled over the cobblestones. Workmen headed home after a long day’s labor, and the local shops were closing for the night. A lamp man trudged along the pavement, lighting the occasional gas lamp, the golden orbs shining through the fine mist.
Only a minute or two had elapsed. Yet Kitty Paxton was nowhere in sight.
Clarissa proceeded to the carriage parked at the curb- stone. The coachman sat on the high seat, hunched in his greatcoat. Another servant stood by the carriage door, his shoulders squared, his husky form ramrod stiff. A thatch of salty cropped hair topped his weathered face.
Clarissa stopped in front of him. “Hargrove, did you see a veiled woman depart the bank just now?”
“Indeed, my lady.”
“Where did she go so quickly? I don’t see any other carriages, only hackneys.”
“She was on foot.”
“Walking? In this neighborhood? Why, Mrs. Paxton had a valuable necklace in her possession!”
“She went around that corner.” He inclined his head toward the left. “Shall I follow her?”
“I’ll accompany you.”
They started down the street. Clarissa was glad for Hargrove’s presence. He was more than a butler; he was her most trusted servant. She always brought him along whenever she visited the bank. With his military back- ground, he served as her bodyguard and even her spy from time to time. He could be depended upon to use the utmost discretion.
Disquiet coiled in the pit of her stomach. Mrs. Paxton ought to know better than to proceed on foot in a business district at this hour. Ruffians abounded in the city. Some- thing wasn’t right, and Clarissa felt an obligation to assure herself of the woman’s safety.
They turned the corner. Shadows cloaked the deserted side street. At the far end, a carriage and coachman waited. Perhaps the vehicle belonged to Mrs. Paxton since she was nowhere in sight.
“We must have missed her,” Clarissa said, disappointed. She would have welcomed the chance to in- quire about the woman’s disgraced stepdaughter.
“There,” Hargrove muttered. “By those bushes.”
Stopping beside him, she peered down the street. A buxom figure lurked in the gloom underneath a tree. Clarissa would never have noticed without Hargrove’s sharp eyes.
As they watched, Mrs. Paxton bent down to slip an object underneath the shrubbery. The dull glint of gold revealed it to be a small box. Then she scurried away down the street and stepped into the waiting carriage, which departed to a clattering of wheels.
“What on earth?” Clarissa said. “That must be her diamond necklace. I recognize the box.”
How very peculiar. Why would Mrs. Paxton leave a costly piece of jewelry under a bush? And behave in such a clandestine manner? Was that the reason she had seemed so agitated inside the bank?
No sooner had those thoughts flitted through Clarissa’s mind than the cloaked figure of a man emerged from a nearby building. At once, Hargrove drew her into the shadows of a doorway. The fellow snatched up the gold box and slipped it into his pocket, then hurried away.
“He’s stealing it!” she exclaimed as he vanished from sight.
“No,” Hargrove said. “It was left for him. A payment, possibly.”
“Do you mean blackmail?”
“Perhaps. Shall I go after him, my lady?”
Clarissa thought for a moment. Into what manner of intrigue had they stumbled? “No. We shan’t interfere. Better I should call on Mrs. Paxton tomorrow and find out what I can.”
And hopefully she could use the incident as leverage to bring Miss Aurora Paxton back to London.
Copyright © 2017 by Olivia Drake and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.