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For the Love of Lila

For the Love of Lila by Jennifer Malin
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When Lila Covington decides to escape the restrictions of 1820s London society and go to Paris to live as a writer, she seeks financial advice from Tristan Wyndam, a barrister her late father mentored. An honorable man with political aspirations, Tristan can’t allow his mentor's daughter to travel alone. But their journey together would be improper—and could lead to indiscretions...

English Historical Romance by Jennifer Malin; originally published by Leisure Books

Belgrave House; May 2002
199 pages; ISBN 9780843949971
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Title: For the Love of Lila
Author: Jennifer Malin

London, 1828

Lila Covington stepped back, startled to see blotches of fury spreading across the solicitor’s face.

“We shall see what your uncle has to say about this, young lady.” He lunged toward her and grabbed her arm, his knuckles cracking with the effort.

She yanked free and scooted around his desk. How dared he assail her! Too outraged to deliver the set-down he deserved, she snatched up her portfolio and ducked into the hall. She kicked the door shut behind her, in case the scoundrel was daft enough to try chasing her.

As she rushed down to the first floor, she thought the dankness of the stairwell would suffocate her. For the past two years, she’d had a sense of walls closing in her. Lord, but she wanted out. With one hand over her nose, she plowed through the exit into the street.

She gasped in the city air, ripe with smells ranging from apples on a passing fruit cart to horse manure ground into the cobblestones. The street air embodied the whole of life, tainted but plentiful. Free.

A window above her grated open.

“You think you can escape me because I am infirm?” the solicitor shouted down at her. “I shall write to your uncle today and tell him your whereabouts and your intentions. You’ll never get your hands on that trust.”

“The trust is mine,” she said, her voice trembling. But arguing with him was useless. She shoved her bonnet on her head and marched off, ignoring the stares of other pedestrians.

“Blast the old fool,” she muttered, not caring who heard. This solicitor had been the worst she’d visited yet. The gall he had, accosting her! Had he truly thought he could haul her back to her uncle by force? Even at five-and-twenty, a woman couldn’t count on being treated as an adult. She should have seen that and avoided telling him that she and her uncle were estranged.

Charged with anger, she stormed past streetside vendors and urchins with dancing dogs. Perhaps she should have lied and told him her uncle was dead. But she didn’t want to lie. Why should she be reduced to dishonesty? She had every right to close the trust her father had left her. Had she been born male, no one would question why she wanted her own money.

Her elbow knocked into a passerby, and she realized her gait had been careless. The man she’d struck, an elderly gentleman, stopped to scowl at her, adjusting the white wig on his head. He wore a black silk robe, the garb of some sort of lawman.

“Beg your pardon, sir,” she said. She glanced up at the building he’d quit. “Lincoln’s Inn” was carved in stone above the entrance. Below, in smaller letters, were the words “Chancery Court” and “Barristers’ Chambers.” She shot a second look at the man.

“Next time, mind your step, gel.” He brushed off his sleeve, as though contact with her had soiled it. Directing a last glare at her, he continued up the street.

“One moment please!” She started after him, but when he turned to glower back on her, her courage failed. This old crosspatch would be no more willing to help than the last man.

“Forgive me.” She dropped a curtsy. “Good day to you.”

He frowned and limped away with the aid of a cane.

She watched him go, then looked back at Lincoln’s Inn. According to the sign, the building housed barristers’ offices. She knew that one could engage a barrister only by hiring a solicitor, but she didn’t actually need to bring a case to court. She only sought guidance on how to access her trust. Surely, one of the lawmen here—a kinder sort than the one she’d met—would be willing to explain the procedure.

With a lift of her chin, she walked inside.

No one occupied the front hall, so she paused to scan some of the portraits and coats of arms hanging closest to her. The austerity of the paneled walls might have intimidated her, but the smell of the building, reminiscent of her father’s old library, had the opposite effect. She had always liked the smell of books.

As she crossed the hardwood floor, she wondered which of the various corridors led to the barristers’ chambers. Slowing her pace, she continued toward the back, searching the walls for a placard. Her stomach began to flutter, and she pressed her portfolio against the front of her spencer.

She heard the street entrance open behind her and ducked into an alcove, not yet prepared to meet anyone. From around the corner, she saw a man enter, a young one wearing a robe like that of the other lawman but made of a less fine fabric, perhaps indicating a lesser rank. He lugged a bulky volume jammed with papers, and he strode in her direction.

She squeezed further back against the wall.

The lawman passed, and Lila glimpsed his straight, strong nose and dark hair that needed taming. Even as she breathed a sigh at escaping detection, she began to regret her impulse to hide. A younger man might be more tolerant of the unconventional and more willing to help her. And his scowl-free face had made a good impression. She thought he’d looked rather kind.

Or did he simply look handsome?

She stole another peek, a longer one, but got only a view of his back. He had a tall frame, broad shoulders and an easy stride that marked an athletic body hidden beneath his robe.

Perhaps too handsome. Such men frequently held a high opinion of themselves, and women could be fooled into sharing it. She knew of ladies, intelligent ones, who had confused good looks with good intentions. To assume this man’s heart matched his appearance would be folly.

He turned down a corridor, and she listened to his footsteps fade with distance. If only there were a way to determine the politics of the barristers here, to know which held conservative views and which held liberal ones. Then she’d have some idea who would side with her uncle and who with her.

If any man would side with her. She slumped back against the wall. Even her own father, whom she had believed she’d known better than anyone, had betrayed her in the end. After years of laying open the world to her, he had slammed every door in her face. He’d tied up her entire inheritance in a trust.

Papa was gone, and she would try not to think ill of him. If no one would help her dissolve the trust, she would simply find a way to live without it. To do so would mean retrenching to a point near poverty, and she’d have to double her efforts to get her writing published. As for Paris . . . well, she’d have to put off that plan indefinitely. But her ultimate aim had always been to support herself. If she had to do so sooner than planned, then she would.

The front entrance opened again, and this time she willed herself to step into view. The new arrival, however, was only a boy, dressed in rags and bearing a parcel wrapped in paper. Her mind worked quickly. If he regularly served as a messenger to Lincoln’s Inn, perhaps he could tell her something about the men who worked here.

“Pardon me, lad.” She walked up to him and gave him her warmest smile. From up close, he appeared a little older than she’d first thought. He might have been all of twelve. “Do you often deliver packages here?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He bowed low. “I’ve me own messenger business. ‘Ave you a parcel in need of sendin’?”

She dug into her reticule and pulled out a few coins, holding them out to him. “Actually, I wondered whether you could tell me which of the barristers here . . . well, if you think any of them are, er, nice. I expect most are old and crotchety.”

He took the coins, glancing at them before he stashed them in a pocket. “You in some sort of trouble?”

She raised her eyebrows, surprised such a question should occur to a youngster. But perhaps a poor lad in London knew more of trouble than he ought.

“I reckon you are,” he said, before she’d formed an answer. “Well, you ‘ave the right of it. All of ‘em are old—the youngest at least as old as me mum. Most of ‘em are right mean, too, but if yer lookin’ fer one what’ll ‘elp you, I reckon Mr. Wyndam’s yer man. Was ‘im what ‘elped Mum fetch me back from the sweep ‘oo ‘prenticed me.”

Her hopes stirred, but she didn’t quite allow them to wake. “This man helped your mother? Did she hire a solicitor to apply to him?”

“Lud, no. Mum ain’t got money for ‘irin’ no one. ‘E came across ‘er searchin’ fer me in the streets, sobbin’ and what not. Mr. Wyndam took over and got me back fer Mum. ‘E’s a right proper barr’ster.”

The story encouraged her, but she knew enough to delve deeper. She had read a great deal, even some books her father had forbidden. And Mrs. Evans, Papa’s housekeeper, had told her certain things a woman ought to know about the world—things men tried to obscure from them.

She moistened her lips, grappling for a delicate way to phrase her question. “Is this Mr. Wyndam a particular friend of your mother’s? Does he often come to see her—or she him?”

He shook his head. “Neither of ‘em ‘ave time for makin’ calls. Mum’s too busy with ‘er washin’, and Mr. Wyndam’s always studyin’ law books. I see ‘im all the time, though. Was ‘im what got me started workin’ for the barr’sters. ‘Is office is right down that ‘all in the back.”

She glanced in the direction he indicated and swallowed. “Well, you have given Mr. Wyndam a sparkling recommendation.”

“Yes, ma’am. Just tell ‘im Petey sent you. And don’t worry. ‘E’ll set yer troubles aright. Good day to you.” He bowed again and swept off into the stairwell. His whistling resounded off the walls, punctuated by his rapid steps.

When both sounds had dwindled, she still stood in the spot where he’d left her. She didn’t quite share Petey’s confidence, but he had given her reason for hope. Before she could change her mind, she headed for the back of the building. She turned up the last corridor, skimming the nameplates on the doors. At last, she found a sign denoting the offices of The Honorable Tristan Wyndam.

Tristan Wyndam. The name sounded familiar. She stared at the plate, probing the corners of her memory. Yes . . . she believed her father had conducted some sort of correspondence with a Tristan Wyndam a few years ago. Likely, the man had numbered among the many students who applied to Papa for assistance with university treatises. Her father had been a well known authority on both classical and modern philosophies.

The recollection offered her a little more assurance, and she gathered it up to knock on the door. Too bad she had never met Mr. Wyndam herself. Had she known him personally, she might have had the very leverage she needed. As matters stood, she could only hope for the best.

“Come in,” a voice called from within.

She let herself in, purposely smiling, but the man at the desk didn’t look up from his writing. His preoccupation gave her a chance to observe him. He looked young indeed, though if he’d been at university when she recalled her father’s helping him, he must have reached at least his late twenties. The man had a thin frame and a nervous way of twitching one leg. His desk, centered in the cramped office, appeared remarkably organized, littered with only two neat stacks of papers and an ink well.

“Are you Mr. Wyndam?” she asked.

He started and looked up, leaping to his feet. “Beg pardon. I hadn’t realized you were . . . that a, er, lady had entered the room.” He glanced over her shoulder, presumably expecting a solicitor to follow her.

She smiled again and closed the door. “I fear I have come alone, Mr. Wyndam. But I hope you will speak to me, regardless. I shan’t take up much of your time.”

“Oh, no. That is, I’m Humphries, Mr. Wyndam’s clerk. How, precisely, can I help you, Miss . . . uh?”

“Covington. Lila Covington.” She held out her hand, which he shook after an instant of hesitation. She glanced past him to the closed door of an inner office, then focused back on the clerk. “Do you think Mr. Wyndam might spare me a moment? I understand he knew my father, Sir Francis Covington.”

“Indeed?” His gaze flit over her face. “I mean, yes, I believe I have heard him mention Sir Francis. Would this be a . . . a social call?”

“No, I have a legal question—a simple one, I’m sure.”

The clerk’s brow crinkled. “Have you seen a solicitor?”

She flashed one finger up, then dug into her reticule. Pulling out a handkerchief, she feigned a ladylike sneeze into the cloth. “Oh, my. Pray pardon me.”

“Bless you,” he murmured.

“Thank you.” While she dabbed at her nose, she could feel his gaze fixed on her. After folding and stowing away the handkerchief, she looked up again. “The Chancery Court is the one that oversees trusts, is it not?”

He nodded, still frowning.

“I thought as much. Where better, then, to seek answers about the trust my father left me? Especially since Mr. Wyndam was personally acquainted with Papa.”

“Yes.” He looked toward the door to the other office and rubbed his chin.

“Is this an inconvenient time?”

“Well, no, not necessarily, though Mr. Wyndam usually takes appointments. Allow me to consult him. You are, after all, Sir Francis’ daughter. Please, make yourself comfortable.”

One obstacle down, she thought. She helped herself to a stark wooden chair and surveyed the decor of the office. The walls lacked any adornment, unless one counted several bookcases filled with fat volumes. Either Mr. Wyndam cared naught for decoration or had not long held these chambers.

Mr. Humphries tapped on the door. No answer came from within, but the clerk turned the knob. Lila leaned forward to peer inside.

She could see the corner of another desk, also occupied by a man. Humphries shifted a little and . . . oh dear. The second man was the one she’d seen in the great hall—the one with the long hair and nice nose. Now she could see his eyes, too—surprisingly blue and edged with enviable lashes.

Was it too much to wish he might be another clerk?

“Someone to see you, sir,” Humphries said.

The other man looked up, and her stomach began to ripple again. “Indeed? I don’t have an appointment, do I, Humphries?”

Something in her midsection turned over, and her fingers tightened around her portfolio. Blast her silly constitution! A moment ago, she’d been resigned to meeting this barrister. Why should the fact that he had a handsome face intimidate her? Was she a schoolroom miss, given to flights of romantic fancy? No, she was a worldly woman, capable of conquering such whims with a single stroke of rationality.

She glanced at the door, now closed but for a crack. Through the opening, she could just discern a portion of Mr. Wyndam’s thick hair, tickling the crest of his jaw. Her blood quickened and she dropped her gaze, smoothing down the wool of her skirt. But it was understandable that she should feel a wee bit nervous. After all, this man represented her best chance to obtain her trust money. She could allow herself some apprehension about meeting him.

What she would not allow was for him to see her lack of ease, to think even for one minute that he held any power over her. He most certainly did not. She’d already reasoned that she could do without the trust if she had to. The loss would delay her move to Paris—likely delay it for years—but she knew how to wait. She had spent a long time waiting for Paris.

She rose, shoulders back, and reminded herself what stable ground she stood on. Her father had created the trust for her, and Tristan Wyndam was indebted to her father. He would agree to see her, and he would help her access the money. He had no good reason to deny her.

Turning to face the door to his office, she lifted her chin higher. She’d make sure nothing in her demeanor—no sign of weakness or silliness—would give him even a poor reason.