William Lawton swore under his breath as the bell above the shop door
jangled, announcing the arrival of a customer. He pulled his attention from the
dusty crate he’d just opened and glanced at the mantle clock. Twenty-three
minutes past closing time.
Damn it all. He should have turned the lock and flipped the carved wooden sign
propped in the window to “closed” when he was in the front of the shop a half
hour ago, but as neither his grandfather nor his father had ever closed Lawton’s
Antiques and Curiosities so much as one minute before six p.m., William had been
loath to break with tradition.
Unfortunately, as often happened when the anticipation of discovering a new
treasure had him firmly in its grasp, he’d become completely engrossed in
removing the stubborn wooden top of the crate in the back room and forgotten the
time. And now, just when he’d finally managed to pry open the damned crate, his
curiosity well and truly whetted to examine the contents, he’d have to abandon
Bloody hell. Everyone in Halstead knew the shop closed at precisely six, which
meant this late-arriving customer was no doubt a visitor. Probably one who
wanted nothing more than to browse, pump him for information about the village’s
history, then depart without making a purchase. Not only would William be forced
to make idle conversation when he’d rather be working, but he’d also be late for
dinner. As if on cue, his stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten
Bloody double hell.
“That will teach me to lose all sense of time,” he muttered. With impatience
scraping at him to return to his task, he brushed the dust off his hands as best
he could and strode toward the front of the store. He’d simply tell whoever had
entered that they’d have to return the next day, a decision he mentally seconded
when a whiff of the meal Mrs. Worthington had prepared for his dinner wafted
down from his rooms above the shop.
He lifted his chin and took an appreciative sniff. Lamb stew. He could almost
taste the savory concoction of meat, potatoes, and vegetables. No one prepared a
lamb stew like his long-standing housekeeper, and he’d be damned if he’d allow
the meal she’d left him to turn cold while he listened to a bunch of palaver
from a tardy stranger.
Bristling with impatience, not to mention his newly recalled hunger, he crossed
the threshold into the front section of the store, pausing in the archway when
his gaze fell upon the figure of a woman. She stood in profile to him, her
features obscured by both the peacock feather curving around the wide,
semicircular brim of her dark blue bonnet and the golden shaft of early evening
sunlight spilling through the window panes.
A single glance at her fine, cream-colored gown, the fabric printed with small
bouquets of flowers, its long sleeves fashionably shirred and puffed, as well as
the delicate lace draped over her shoulders marked her as a woman of means. No
doubt passing through on her way from London to rusticate at a country estate or
one of the resort towns popular with the Quality.
She leaned over the glass counter, and William heard her quick intake of breath.
He barely suppressed the groan that rose in his throat. Something had obviously
caught her fancy, the price of which she’d probably wish to haggle over
Damn it, he really wasn’t fond of cold lamb stew.
He moistened his lips to voice a greeting, one he hoped wouldn’t sound overly
insincere, and stepped forward. The floorboard beneath his boot creaked. The
woman quickly straightened and turned toward him. Their gazes met.
And everything in William froze. His limbs. His breath. His heart. Recognition
slammed him like a battering ram to his gut. He hadn’t seen her in two years.
Two years, three weeks, and seventeen days, his inner voice whispered. Not
that he kept account of the time. Certainly not. He’d known she would someday
visit Halstead again, but he hadn’t dreamed that today would be the day. A bolt
of panic struck him. He wasn’t prepared for this. For her.
Yet really, there was no preparation that could adequately shore up his defenses
against her. God knew he’d been trying for the last decade. One would think that
ten years was enough time to exorcise her from his mind. He’d tried valiantly.
And failed utterly.
He blinked to see if she was just a figment of his vivid imagination, but she
remained, her eyes, the unforgettable shade of aquamarines, riveted on him.
Still, he wasn’t truly certain she was real until her lips parted and she said,
Two words. That’s all it took to damn near knock him off his feet. The sound of
her voice swamped him with memories, recollections that both haunted his days
and invaded his dreams. Thoughts that no amount of work or alcohol or travel
A tremor rippled through him—part desire, part dread. For as much as he
desperately wanted Callie Albright here, he just as strongly didn’t want her
anywhere near him.