Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.
He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought and drew closer.
Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.
He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind or to seek instruction?”
Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.
“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”
James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”
“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”
Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.
“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.
James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.
“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.
“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.
“How would you know this?”
“I know everyone here.”
“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”
James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”
Elizabeth’s head dipped.
“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”
“Indeed, your information is correct.”
“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.
“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”
“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”
“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.
“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”
A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.
“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wit—you can do better.
She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”
“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.
“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Naturally, by your speech.”
“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.
“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”
Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.
“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”
Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”
James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”
“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.
“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.
Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”
“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”
“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”
“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”
“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.
With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.
“Unmistakable.” He grinned.
“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”
“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”
This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”
“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.
“What of our wager?” James called out to her.
Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction, a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award. A forthcoming third book in the standalone series, Rebel's Knot, was published November 2021.