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His Wicked Heart(5)

By:Darcy Burke

“Olivia, Miss Clifton’s nuptials are in mid-September. I assured her that would be plenty of time to construct her gown and complete the embroidery. Don’t you agree?” Mrs. Johnson asked.

Olivia focused on the round-faced Miss Clifton in an effort to ignore the father’s rude appraisal. “Yes.”

Miss Clifton blinked overlarge gray eyes. Then her face split into a wide grin, and she clapped her hands.

Mr. Clifton coughed again, drawing everyone’s attention once more. Olivia found it odd he accompanied this girl on her errand. If she didn’t have a mother, surely she had some other female guiding her? Olivia wasn’t so far gone from her polite upbringing to comprehend that a young, unmarried girl in Miss Clifton’s sphere required a feminine influence.

“I’ve just realized,” Mr. Clifton said, nodding appreciatively—too appreciatively. “You look rather like Mrs. Scarlet.”

Olivia’s gut tightened. Her mother.

Mrs. Johnson looked from Mr. Clifton to Olivia and then back again. “The actress?”

His gaze traveled over Olivia, lingering on her tell-tale red hair. “Yes.”

Mrs. Johnson gave him a placating smile. Olivia expected her to remark that this was an inappropriate conversation to conduct in front of Miss Clifton. Instead, she said, “You must be mistaken, Mr. Clifton.”

He smiled, the corners of his mouth jutting up in a grotesque fashion. “I’m certain I’m not.” He didn’t elaborate, but from the subtle widening of Mrs. Johnson’s eyes, she well understood his meaning.

Olivia prayed her dead mother wouldn’t cost her more work. She didn’t know what to say—and judged protestation as pointless in any case—so she simply folded her hands in her lap and awaited the outcome. And hoped they didn’t notice the quiver in her frame.

Mr. Clifton slapped his palm against his knee. “Do you know, Mrs. Johnson, I believe we’d like to hire Miss West outright. My daughter requires an entirely new wardrobe, in addition to the wedding clothes, and I can think of no one better suited to the task than your protégé. She can move into our servants’ quarters.”

Olivia squeezed her fingers together until she lost feeling in the tips. “No, I don’t—”

Mrs. Johnson spoke over Olivia. “There will be a commission to me, of course.”

A commission? Olivia stared, unable to blink, unable to process what the woman was saying. Did she not understand what Mr. Clifton was asking? Or was she eager to play the role of pimp?

Lest they arrange the entire transaction without bothering to obtain Olivia’s consent, she said as sternly as possible, “I’m afraid I’m not available for that sort of employment, Mr. Clifton.”

He frowned, his gaze riveted to Olivia’s chest. “You must. I’ll not be satisfied with any other arrangement.”

Mrs. Johnson leaned toward Olivia and said softly, “This is an excellent opportunity.”

Olivia’s stomach turned. Was the woman daft?

Mr. Clifton smoothed his large hands—with fingers the size of robust sausages—over his thighs. The idea of him pawing her drew a thread of nausea from Olivia’s belly.

“Susana, dear, why don’t you go and look at the fabric again with Mrs. Johnson?” Mr. Clifton wrestled out of his petite chair, his mouth turning up in a condescending smile.

Miss Clifton nodded and stood up alongside Mrs. Johnson who led her through the curtain to the front of the shop.

Alone with Mr. Clifton, Olivia’s skin prickled. His gaze became much more frank, the dark flint of his eyes scraping over her with languid prurience. “You’re even lovelier than your mother. I imagine that’s because you haven’t yet suffered much use. In a few years, perhaps your skin will lose that luscious, youthful glow, but now…” He smacked his lips together as if he were contemplating a plate of succulent cakes.

She edged closer to the curtained doorway.

He moved to block her exit. “Oh, you mustn’t go.”

A blistering set down came to her lips, but she knew better than to insult Mrs. Johnson’s client. If she could just get around him and escape… “Thank you, but no.”

He leaned forward and inhaled her scent. “Are you being overly discriminating, or is it that you haven’t yet engaged in your mother’s trade? I find that inconceivable.” His eyes lit. “Ah! You’ve a protector, perhaps? He can’t pay you very well if you’re looking for work in a lowly dress shop.”

Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She’d been propositioned before—twice just last night, in fact—but never in so awful a fashion. “I’m not interested in that type of work.”

“Now see here, gel.” He snagged her wrist in a brutal grip. Olivia tried to wrench free, but he pulled her against his barrel-sized chest. His fingers bit into her flesh, sure to leave a mark. Cruelly, he grasped her chin while he lowered his head. “Open up now.” His humid breath washed over her, and she gagged. No, no, no, this couldn’t happen! She brought her knee up and delivered the blow her mother had assured her would wound any man.

Sure enough, Clifton howled with pain and fell to the side onto one of the chairs. The wood splintered beneath his weight and he crashed to the floor in an ungainly mess. Olivia didn’t wait to see if he got up. She turned on her heel, plucked up her basket, and raced through the curtain, running into Mrs. Johnson in her dash to safety.

The shopkeeper held her steady for a moment then dropped her arms, glaring at Olivia. “What did you do?”

Miss Clifton, ribbons cascading from her fingertips, gaped at Olivia.

“I protected myself. Mr. Clifton was…too familiar.”

Mrs. Johnson sucked in a breath. “Did you hurt him? I heard a noise.” She peered around Olivia.

Fright and anxiety suffused Olivia in sweat. She had to get out of the shop. “He’s fine. I think.”

The shopkeeper returned her narrowed gaze to Olivia. “If you’ve done him harm, pray he doesn’t notify the watch.”

Olivia’s fear crested into panic. She tried to push past Mrs. Johnson, but the older woman grabbed her arm. “You’re a fool to refuse his offer.”

“I’m not for sale, Mrs. Johnson.” Olivia’s voice shook with anger and revulsion. “I was raised as a gentlewoman.”

Mrs. Johnson sneered, revealing yellowed teeth. “You’re no gentlewoman now. From what I’ve seen, you can’t afford to refuse Clifton, and I refuse to lose his business! If you leave now, you’ll never work for me again.”

“I know. Here.” She pulled the dresses from the basket and thrust them at Mrs. Johnson so the shopkeeper had to let go of her arm. The loss of income, especially for the dresses she’d just brought, was something she’d contemplate—and bitterly regret—later, but now she just had to get out of the shop.

The curtain behind her rustled. Olivia turned her head just as Mr. Clifton’s beet-colored face appeared. Sweat ran down his cheek as he limped into the shop, retribution etched into his angry features.

Olivia sprinted for the door and freedom beyond.

“I’m not finished with you!” Clifton’s furious promise chased her from the shop.

Olivia ran until perspiration trailed down her back in rivulets. When her lungs felt close to bursting, she slowed. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed she hadn’t been followed. At least not that she could see.

She walked quickly, her breathing coming in fast, hard pants. Mr. Clifton may not be on her heels, but his declaration still rang in her ears.

Twice in as many days she’d suffered attacks on her person. The protective cocoon she’d carefully built in the months since her mother’s death was crumbling around her. She supposed it was bound to happen. How safe could a young, unmarried woman with no family hope to be in London?

Olivia forced her panic into a cold knot of determination. Though she’d lived with her mother the past seven years, she’d spent the entirety ensuring her own well-being.

If she could manage to find employment—honest, decent employment—she could continue as she’d done. She’d survived nearly a year on her own, and she refused to let these two lamentable occurrences beat her down. She simply had to find more sewing work immediately. Several embroidered handkerchiefs sat at the bottom of her basket. She made her way toward the Strand where there were several shops that might be interested in purchasing her work.

Her options, like her meager savings and her food stores, were dwindling. She could almost see how her mother had fallen into the position of courtesan. How easy it must have been to accept a protector and enjoy all of the luxuries that accompanied such an arrangement. But Olivia couldn’t countenance suffering the unsavory proclivities of the man who all but owned her.

Unless the man wasn’t unsavory at all. Like Lord Saxton. Little flutters danced in her belly as she recalled his fair hair and pale blue eyes.

She cringed at the direction of her mind. She wasn’t yet willing to take on her mother’s trade. And there was the key: yet. Which meant she was already beginning to consider it.

Chapter Three

THAT AFTERNOON, Jasper strode into his parents’ drawing room. As the space was not yet filled to the brim with Important Persons, he was able to make his way quickly to his aunt, the only person he really cared to see. In truth, he’d rather be anywhere else, but duty dictated he suffer his mother’s bi-weekly tea, which was a means to another dutiful end—selecting a wife.