“He breathes, though?” Daniel murmured.
Mr. Hoby did not bother to look up. “We are not amused.”
Daniel could not help but wonder if “we” referred to Mr. Hoby and the duke or if the famed bootmaker’s self-regard had finaly expanded to the extent that he was forced to speak of himself in the plural.
“We need you to hold still,” Mr. Hoby growled.
The latter, then. An annoying habit, no matter how lofty the personage, but Daniel was inclined to put up with it, given the blissful perfection of Mr. Hoby’s boots.
“I shal endeavor to do your bidding,” Daniel said in his joliest voice.
Mr. Hoby displayed no signs of amusement, instead barking for one of his assistants to hand him a pencil with which to trace Lord Winstead’s foot.
Daniel held himself completely still (outdoing even the Duke of Welington, whom he was quite sure did breathe while being measured), but before Mr. Hoby could finish his tracings, the door to the shop burst open, hitting the wall behind it with enough force to rattle the glass. Daniel jumped, Mr. Hoby cursed, Mr. Hoby’s assistant cringed, and when Daniel looked down, the outline of his foot sported a baby toe that jutted forth like a reptilian claw.
The noise of the door slamming open would have attracted enough attention, but then it became clear that it was a woman who had come into the bootmaker’s establishment, a woman who appeared to be in distress, a woman who—
It could be no one else, not with those raven locks peeking out from her bonnet, or the incredibly long sweep of eyelashes. But more than that . . . It was strange, but Daniel rather thought that he had recognized her by the way she moved.
She jumped a foot, probably more, so startled by his voice that she stumbled into the display shelves behind her, the ensuing cascade of footwear halted only by the quick thinking of Mr. Hoby’s beleaguered assistant, who leapt past her to save the day.
“Miss Wynter,” Daniel said again, striding over to her side, “come now, what is the matter? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” She shook her head, but the movement was too jerky, and much too fast. “It’s nothing,” she said. “I . . . ah . . . There was . . .” She blinked and looked about, as if only just then realizing that she had run into a gentleman’s shop. “Oh,” she said, more breathing the word than anything else. “I’m so sorry. I-I appear to have come into the wrong storefront. Ehrm . . . If you’ll all excuse me, I will just . . .” She peered out the shop window before putting her hand on the doorknob. “I’ll be going now,” she finaly finished.
She did turn the doorknob then, but she did not actualy pull open the door. The shop went silent, and everyone seemed to be waiting for her to leave, or speak again, or do some thing. But she just stood there, not so much frozen as paralyzed.
Carefuly, Daniel took her arm and led her away from the window. “May I be of assistance?” She turned, and he realized it was the first time she looked directly at him since she’d come in. But the connection was fleeting; she quickly returned her attention to the shop window, even as her body seemed to instinctively cringe away from it.
“We will have to continue another time,” he caled out to Mr. Hoby. “I shal be seeing Miss Wynter home in—”
“There was a rat,” she blurted out. Quite loudly.
“A rat?” One of the other customers nearly shrieked it. Daniel could not recall his name, but he was a most fastidious dresser, complete with a brocaded pink waistcoat and matching buckles on his shoes.
waistcoat and matching buckles on his shoes.
“Outside the shop,” Miss Wynter said, extending her arm toward the front door. Her index finger wagged and shook, as if the specter of the rodent was so grotesque that she could not bring herself to identify it directly.
Daniel found this curious, but no one else seemed to notice that her story had changed. How was it that she had gone into the wrong shop if she’d been trying to escape a rat?
“It ran over my shoe,” she added, and this was enough to make the pink-buckled man sway on his feet.
“Alow me to convey you home,” Daniel said, and then more loudly, since everyone was watching them anyway: “The poor lady has had a fright.” He deemed that to be explanation enough, especialy when he added that she was in the employ of his aunt. He quickly donned the boots he’d come in with, then tried to lead Miss Wynter out of the shop. But her feet seemed to drag, and when they reached the door, he leaned down and said, quietly, so that no one could hear, “Is everything quite all right?”
She swalowed, her lovely face drawn and taut. “Have you a carriage?”
He nodded. “It is just down the street.”
“Is it closed?”
What an odd question. It was not raining; it was not even the least bit cloudy. “It can be.”
“Could you have it brought forth? I am not certain I can walk.”
She did still look shaky on her feet. Daniel nodded again, then sent one of Hoby’s assistants out to fetch his carriage. A few minutes later they were ensconced in his landau, the canopy puled up tight. He gave her a few moments to compose herself, then quietly asked, “What realy happened?” She looked up, and her eyes—such a remarkably dark shade of blue—held a touch of surprise.
“That must have been quite a rat,” he murmured. “Almost the size of Australia, I should think.” He hadn’t been trying to make her smile, but she did, anyway, the tiniest tilt of her lips. His own heart tilted, and it was difficult to understand how such a small change of expression on her part could cause such a large burst of emotion in his.