Calvin McAlistair immediately regretted gesturing at the empty chair on the other side of his small dining table.
He’d chosen the smallest table in the farthest corner specifically to avoid being forced to speak to anyone. Managing awkward small talk was painful enough with acquaintances. With strangers, it was impossible. Already his body tensed and his mind emptied of anything clever to say.
But though he had the social abilities of a block of marble, inside he knew all too well what it was like to gaze about and realize one did not belong. That there was no place here for you, and never would be.
The young woman he’d gestured to, on the other hand, did not appear familiar with the sensation of not having a place at the table. Even before her eyes had widened and her pretty forehead lined with disbelief, then consternation, it had been obvious from the moment she’d swept into the posting house that she expected to be welcome anywhere.
Soft brown hair, swept high. Cheeks flushed with good health rather than chapped from the cold. Gorgeous carriage dress of olive bombazine, trimmed with golden Spanish puffs and a double row of intricate matching crepe. Sarcenet-lined fur wrapping-cloak, combined with an enormous matching pelerine to guard against the winter weather.
In other words, she was the sort of woman his mother might have worked for, not the sort of woman who took her meals with common folk like Calvin McAlistair.
Despite his attire, he was no gentleman.
But it was too late to take back his reckless act of kindness. The elegant young woman glided his way, a hesitant smile on her pretty lips.
Calvin was more than hesitant. He was a rash, regretful curmudgeon who enjoyed the anonymity of large crowds, but vastly preferred solitude. He should have taken his meal in his room. Then she could have the entire tiny table to herself, and he would not be forced to spend the next quarter hour in increasingly awkward levels of hell.
But no. He’d already ordered his food, and he’d extended the silent invitation to come and disturb him.
She was here.
“Thank you.” Her voice was confident, cultured, as rich as honey. He could almost taste each syllable on his tongue. She paused next to the empty chair.
Calvin did not leap up to pull it back from the table for her. He did not want to feel the rich fabric of her skirt brush against his stiff body or catch a hint of some flowery perfume as she sank gracefully into her chair.
Making it through his meal would be challenge enough.
“Mmphh,” he said gruffly. He could not quite bring himself to say my pleasure.
She floated down into her chair like a feather nestling in the crook of a tree.
Interactions such as these were torture, not out of fear of rejection, so much as the certainty of embarrassing himself. He did not know what to say to a refined lady in a posting house dining room, and preferred saying nothing at all rather than mortifying them both with inescapable awkwardness.
Now that she’d sat before him, they were both trapped. There would be no running away until the food was ordered and consumed. Even if he wolfed down his mutton pie in the space of a breath, politeness dictated he remain in his seat until she, too, had finished eating.
The hesitant smile was back on her lips. “I’m… Mrs. Lépine.”
“McAlistair.” The word came out easily.
In fact, his muscles had relaxed considerably and the hardness in his stomach had nearly vanished. Mrs. Lépine was the best possible name the beautiful stranger could have.
She was obviously respectable—one glance at her expensive carriage dress indicated that much—and a respectable married lady would not be in the least concerned with what kind of impression Calvin happened to make.
“Are you here on holiday?” she asked politely, her cultured accent slightly jarring.
He was here on business. Mostly. Which was another reason why he should have taken his meal upstairs in his room. He would not come downstairs again until he was ready to leave. Calvin did not have time for distractions, even temporary ones that smelt of lavender.
Why did she smell like lavender? She had just arrived; he’d been watching. He watched everyone, took note of everything. The back of her traveling costume was wrinkled. She had a driver, a maid who’d fallen sick. She should smell of long carriage rides, not lavender.
Belatedly, he remembered it was his turn to ask a question. He went with the same one she had chosen.
“Are you here on holiday?”
“Yes.” Her hazel eyes lit with warmth, elevating her features from beautiful to luminous. “We’ll spend the Yuletide visiting friends and family.”
He did not have to ask who “we” was. She was Mrs. Lépine. “We” meant she and her husband, the imprudently absent Mr. Lépine.
Calvin would never find himself in such a predicament, because Calvin did not intend to marry. A wife would get in his way, and he in hers. They would be forced to have awkward dining conversations like this three times a day. True, some married couples never saw each other save for the occasional nocturnal visit, but Calvin saw even less point in leg-shackling oneself to someone one had no wish to spend time with.
Oh, he understood why the aristocracy did so. Heirs and such, the passing down of titles and entailed estates, the strategic alliance to increase land or political connections. After the obligatory begetting of sons, each party was free to discreetly do as they pleased. Many lords kept the same mistresses they’d had since before the wedding.
Calvin did not need to bother with any of that. No title, no land, no estate, no link to politics. If he wanted a mistress, he could just get one, and skip the bit about lying to his wife about it. Being a common bachelor was simple and straightforward. Having no friends and family to visit, even better. No strings at all, just as he liked it.
“McAlistair,” she said slowly, as if tasting his name the way he tasted all of her honey-rich words. “Are you Scottish?”
“No.” Maybe. Probably. It was none of her business. He turned the tables back on her. “Are you?”
“Am I… Scottish?” She leaned back. “I’m Mrs. Lépine.”
He shrugged. “You’re not French.”
Her face flushed crimson. “How… I… My husband…”
The serving girl appeared, rushed and out of breath. She looked at Mrs. Lépine. “Pie and ale?”
Mrs. Lépine darted a startled look at Calvin.
“I’ve already ordered,” he told her. “Pie and ale.”
“You, madam?” prompted the serving girl.
“Er,” said Mrs. Lépine as if they were all speaking a different language. Perhaps she was French. “Is there a menu?”
“Yes,” the serving girl replied impatiently. “Pie and ale if you’re hungry, no pie if you’re not.”
“She’ll have the pie and ale,” Calvin murmured.
The serving girl bobbed her head and spun away without another word.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Lépine said. “I thought… I don’t know what I thought.”
“You thought there would be choices,” Calvin said dryly. “And usually you would be right. But when the dining room is this busy, the kitchen makes one meal in order to feed the guests with as much haste as possible.”
It was the longest speech he could remember making to a stranger. Nor was the topic a particularly interesting one.
But Mrs. Lépine grinned at him as if they were old acquaintances sharing a private jest.
Calvin’s heart beat uncomfortably fast.
“Have you stayed here long?” she asked.
“A few days.”
Eight, to be exact. Tomorrow he would depart for a meeting that would change his life forever.
But before he met with the investor, he needed to finish the new prototype. That was why he had chosen this posting house. Close enough to be a convenient distance from his meeting. Far enough that he need not fear running into his business partner before the prototype was ready.
Far enough for Calvin to get ready. Days of haggling with his business partner over the best way to present their secret project awaited him, followed by the most awkward conversation ever, in which he and his partner attempted to convince a potential investor to part with his money in order to fund a speculative venture.
All of which meant he should not be sitting at a cozy table, making idle talk with a married lady. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to have the serving girl send his pie and ale up to his room. Unconscionably rude perhaps, but it wasn’t as though Mrs. Lépine longed for Calvin’s company in particular. They were strangers and would remain so. Once he exited the dining room, he would never lay eyes on her again.
“Ale.” The serving girl thunked two pints onto the table and disappeared.
Mrs. Lépine stared at her glass of frothing ale as though she had no idea what she was meant to do with it.
Calvin lifted his and held it up toward her. “May the pies arrive as fast as possible.”
She burst out laughing and clanked her glass with his, her hazel eyes merry. “I’m being horribly awkward, aren’t I? A thousand heartfelt apologies, Mr. McAlistair. I’d like to blame the long journey, but the truth is, I’ve never been in a situation such as this, and I find myself uncertain what to do or say. You are a perfect gentleman to let me stumble about so without a word of complaint.”
He stared at her.
Mrs. Lépine thought she was being horribly awkward? And Calvin a perfect gentleman?
“I’ve never been in this situation either,” he blurted out, exactly unlike how a perfect gentleman would do.
Mrs. Lépine all but melted in obvious relief. She brought her glass back to his with a conspiratorial grin. “To two hopelessly lost souls sharing a delightfully awkward supper together.”
It had never occurred to Calvin that awkwardness could be delightful, but if ever it were to be true, it was at this moment, right here with her. He clinked her glass. “To pie and ale with a stranger.”
But already the word no longer fit. The sharpest edges had worn away. He no longer felt prickly and uncomfortable. Or rather, he still did, but in a new way. The prickles fluttered in his stomach, rather than crawled upon his skin. His discomfort came not from the desire to flee, but the realization that he no longer wished to. He hoped the kitchen took twice as long with the pies.
“This is my first time in Houville,” Mrs. Lépine confessed.
“Mine, as well.” He hesitated, then added, “I cannot tell you much about it. I haven’t left the posting house since I arrived.”
“I shan’t have an opportunity to go exploring, either. I didn’t mean to stop here. As soon as my maid is well enough to travel, we’ll be off.”
Calvin did not ask to where. The Christmas village of Cressmouth was an obvious choice, but the Yuletide was still a fortnight away. Perhaps the reason she’d inquired about Scotland was because she had just come from there. Or maybe she was en route to London. She looked the part.
“I wish your maid good health.”
“As do I.” Her tone was so fervent, one might be forgiven for thinking a family member had fallen ill, rather than a servant. She took a sip of ale and wrinkled her nose. “Is it meant to taste like this?”
The corners of his mouth twitched.
“The ale is actually nice,” he admitted. “I suspect many of the dining guests are local residents who’ve come specifically because of the ale.”
She took another sip, swished it in her mouth for a moment, then swallowed with a grimace. “Will it grow on me?”
“Do things tend to?”
She tilted her head to one side as if this were a fascinating question she had not previously considered.
“Some things,” she said at last. “The best ones are like honeysuckle. By the time you notice, they’ve bloomed, and you’re glad they’ve taken over your façade.”
Calvin blinked at the image. He often thought in terms of façades and pretty armor. It was the reason he always dressed as though he was off to promenade with the bon ton in Hyde Park. At a young age, he had learnt that the easiest way to avoid unwanted questions was to appear highborn enough that it would be impertinent to ask.
Mrs. Lépine was likely being metaphorical.
“Have you honeysuckle growing on your house?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Red brick. It’s… When I’m there, I’m usually somewhere else. At a window looking out, or carrying my favorite paint set off to—”
Her cheeks flushed, and she took a sip of ale rather than finish her sentence.
“Do you paint?”
She waved this off. “All ladies are forced to dabble in watercolor during their youth. What about you?”
“Do I watercolor?”
“I don’t know your vice. That’s why I’m asking.”
He wasn’t certain whether it was more intriguing that she’d grouped herself in with “all ladies” or that she considered watercolor a vice.
“I have no vices.” None that he was willing to mention. “Except for opium-eating, pig wrestling, and the politesse not to mention a frothy mustache on a supper companion’s top lip.”
She let out a choked giggle. “Have I froth on my lip?”
“You make it fetching,” he assured her. “If Ackermann were to walk by, he’d sketch you on the first page of the next repository.”
“In that case…” She lifted her ale to her mouth and held it to her lip for a moment too long. When she returned her glass to the table, the hint of froth below her nose was now a lopsided swath of bubbles. “All better?”
“Your frothy whiskers are undetectable.” He pretended to scrutinize her. “Unless I’m looking at you.”
“Pie.” The serving girl slid two steaming platters onto the table. “You’ve got froth on your face.”
Calvin and Mrs. Lépine burst into laughter.
The serving girl had already moved to the next table.
“She doesn’t understand high fashion,” Mrs. Lépine whispered.
“No one ever does,” he said sadly. “It’s a curse.”
“I hope this pie is the cure. It smells divine.”
“They’ve excellent pies here,” Calvin admitted. “My favorite is the minced meat. I shan’t be at all offended if we’re too busy shoveling food into our froth-adorned mouths to have time for conversation.”
“I shan’t be offended either…” A shy smile curled up one side of her lips. “But I would be disappointed. It turns out I’m glad there were no free tables in the dining room. I’ve been enjoying sharing this ale together.”
“You hate the ale,” he reminded her.
“True.” She set down her glass. “Then it must be the fine company I like so much.”
The back of Calvin’s neck flamed with heat. Thank heavens for the pompously overblown neckcloth exploding from his throat. Mrs. Lépine would not see him blush like a schoolboy.
He wasn’t certain precisely when it had happened, but he’d at some point forgot his awkwardness entirely. He hadn’t realized that forgetting one’s awkwardness was a phenomenon that could even occur.
“I suspect,” he said gruffly, “I’m only fit company when with the right person.”
“You charming flatterer.” She blotted her lip with a serviette, eyes twinkling. “If we’ve determined anything, it is that I am the wrong person to take anywhere. If the pies hadn’t arrived when they did, who knows what silly mischief we’d have got up to next.”
That sounded… marvelous. She was marvelous.
No, no. This could not stand. He picked up his cutlery and fixed his gaze on his pie. He did not have time for a distraction, even one as fetching as Mrs. Lépine.
His future depended on it.