The Pursuit of Mrs. Pennyworth(7)

By: Callie Hutton

“Yes.” She took a deep breath and licked her lips, causing his lungs to seize. Every single drop of blood in his body traveled south, shouting hooray! After Elliot assisted with her cloak, they headed to the front door.

The muscles in her arm tensed as the parlor maid opened the door. He bent toward her, a whiff of her delectable scent filling his nostrils. A big mistake. “Do not concern yourself. There was nothing there when I arrived.”

She offered him a slight smile and relaxed as they stepped onto the empty front steps.

“Shall I fetch a hansom cab?”

“No. I have my own carriage. Yesterday, I arrived at your office in a hansom because my coachman was down with a chill, but he has recovered.”

No sooner had she finished her explanation when a smart carriage and matched pair rounded the corner from the mews and rolled to a stop in front of her house. Whoever Mr. Pennyworth had been, he’d certainly left his widow in a comfortable place.

Elliot waved at the coachman to stay where he was, opened the carriage door, and helped Mrs. Pennyworth in. He followed her, and when they were both settled, he tapped on the ceiling of the carriage, which rolled away to the familiar sound of horses’ hooves clomping on the cobblestones.

“Tell me a little bit about the poetry reading.”

Mrs. Pennyworth laughed, a light tinkling sound. Somehow, he had expected her laugh to be deeper, throatier. However, this appealed to him more, and suited her well. “Do you realize, Mr. Baker, that you wince every time you mention poetry?”

“I am afraid poetry is one art form that escapes me. If it rhymes, and the writer uses words that make sense, I can understand it. But I find most of it boring drivel.”

“Well, do not hold back, Mr. Baker. Please do tell me how you feel.” She tempered her words with another smile.

He offered her a lopsided grin in return. “I am afraid that is one of my character traits.”

“Therefore, I assume you do not suffer fools?”

“No, not at all.” He hesitated as he studied her. “’Tis something to remember.”

Her raised eyebrows were her only response.

Arriving at the townhome, they entered the room where the poetry reading was to take place. Mrs. Pennyworth nodded at a few people, most of whom were already seated. They took their seats, and Elliot looked around at the crowd of about forty people. His attention, of course, was on the men.

From what he could see, none of them were paying any special attention to Mrs. Pennyworth. All those who greeted her were friendly and seemed harmless enough. However, he knew from experience that meant nothing when it came to crime. Some of the most congenial people committed the most horrendous misdeeds.

After about ten minutes, an older lady moved to the front of the room. The feathers in her hair wobbled as she nodded and welcomed everyone, and announced the first reader. Elliot groaned inwardly and prayed he could stay awake.

One final sweep of the room revealed no one looking in their direction. Satisfied that, for the moment, he could relax his guard, he gave his attention to the young man at the podium with a sheaf of papers, adjusting his horn-rimmed spectacles.

Let the torture begin.

Although she would never admit it, Charlotte was no great fan of poetry herself. In fact, she had rather enjoyed Mr. Baker’s description of it. She also felt if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. The only reason she had accepted the invitation was because her dear friend’s son was offering a reading of his poems.

Mr. Alvin Macon was third in the program, and his mother, Lady Oldridge, was unable to appear due to attending her daughter in Bath. The woman had just delivered her third child and desperately needed her mother’s assistance.

Lady Oldridge had never accepted that her daughter had married a member of the merchant class. As such, she did not live in a grand house, have a horde of servants to see to her every need, and had to actually—gasp—deal with her own children as they did not employ a full-time nurse and governess.

Even so, she had agreed to help her daughter, with the strict understanding that she would only entertain the two older children, and not deal with the new baby. Charlotte adored the woman, even though she sometimes found her insufferable. She’d never told Lady Oldridge of her own meager beginnings, of being forced into service in a noble’s home when she was seventeen years.

Papa’s older brother, who had acted, rather reluctantly, as her guardian after her parents had perished in a carriage accident, had given her from the age of fifteen to seventeen to find a husband. When no one appealed, she was shipped off to her first servant job. In fact, Charlotte had never told anyone about her background. She still worried about the theft charges brought by Lord Barton. She was certain he had carried through on his threat, and right now there was a warrant for her arrest hovering over her head.