Miss Desirable (Mischief in Mayfair #4) - Grace Burrowes

CHAPTER ONE

“Elle est une veuve.”

She is a widow. Xavier Fournier offered the observation quietly enough that the lady would not have heard him. He stood behind the beaded curtain that separated the wineshop’s mercantile area from its private domain, while his sole customer perused the labels on some of the best Merlots ever to leave the Continent.

“She asked for you specifically, monsieur.” Jacques spoke softly as well and also in French. “Is it unusual for a proper English lady to buy her wines in person?”

“Widows can become prodigiously fond of wine,” Fournier said. “Some widows.” Others became fond of laudanum, lusty bachelors, gambling… Interesting women, widows. “In general, the wine purchases are an errand for the butler or the first footman.”

The woman moved between the racks of bottles with unhurried confidence, her steps silent on the Axminster carpets. Her ensemble was black velvet, a peculiar choice for mourning attire, because the fabric held a sheen. The cloak draped loosely over her shoulders looked to be a merino blend—excellent quality, warm, and lightweight, though at present, glistening with damp.

Black gloves, rain-spattered black bonnet, and a heavy black veil, but no wilted posture, no sense of soul-deep fatigue as she inspected the clarets in which Xavier took such pride. Her mourning attire showed off a rounded figure several inches taller than dainty perfection.

She would be an armful, this widow. Xavier mentally kicked himself for entertaining such a thought. He checked his appearance in the cheval mirror—halfway between dapper and dashing, as befit an émigré successfully navigating proper English society. Dark hair, dark eyes, slightly exuberant but fashionable attire.

“Look in on the clerks,” Xavier muttered to Jacques. “Be sure the stove is roaring. This English weather is less obliging than a neglected mistress.” What passed for spring in Albion’s great metropolis frequently involved sleet, rain, and bitter wind.

And this widow, if she truly was a widow, had braved the elements, without maid, footman, or companion, merely to shop for wine? A puzzle, that.

“Madame.” Xavier passed through the curtain and paused a good six feet from the lady, a friendly but not flirtatious smile in place. “Fournier, at your service. Jacques says you have some questions for me.”

“Monsieur.” Her curtsey was both correct and graceful, neither the nervous dip of a recent schoolgirl nor the creaking gesture of a matron with bad knees. “My thanks for your consideration. I am not familiar with the clarets on offer, and your expert opinion is needed.”

She managed to make that most unwieldy of tongues—the king’s English—sound lovely. So many Englishwomen either drawled their general disdain for life itself, darling this and ever so that, or they adopted such precise diction that they sounded annoyed even when they were not.

Warmth came through when this lady spoke, despite her weeds. Xavier would swear that behind her veil, she was smiling at him.

“I can but recommend, Madame. The ultimate decision must be yours. What sort of occasion inspires your purchase?”

“A beefsteak supper, informal, and the meat will be properly prepared.”

“Will ladies be present, or is this meal for masculine palates only?”

She returned the bottle she’d been inspecting to the shelf, an unassuming Sauternes that would have been an abomination with beefsteak. “You choose different wines for men and women?”

“May I speak freely, Madame?”

“I much prefer honesty.”

If so, she was different from the usual insinuating, innuendo-ing, on dit-ing proper lady.

“If the meal is for men only, Englishmen, then the meat will be charred on the edges and nearly raw in the center. No sauces will conceal this mortal sin against proper cuisine. No spices will soften the affront to the feckless creature who gave its life for human sustenance. To add barbarity to insult, a lone, shriveled potato will accompany the steak, and if le bon Dieu is merciful and the heifers have not all gone dry, then butter will render the potato alone nearly edible.”

“And if ladies are present?”

“Then the diners have a prayer that proper care will be taken with the menu.” Not being able to see the woman’s face had become irksome. Was she amused at his tirade? Insulted? Xavier passed her a bottle of decent claret. “That one is heavy on the Malbec, a heartier choice than some others, but not what I would call intense or… effronté.”

She held the bottle up to the weak light offered by the window. “Forward? You think a wine can be brazen?”

“A wine can be utterly bellicose, enchanting, luminous, or gracious.”

She passed the bottle back to him. “Are you flirting with me,