HAMILTON was within sight of the Dee Bridge when, above the oily reek of the river, a drift of attar of rose assailed his nostrils.
Coming towards him, her pet dog under one arm and parasol lightly held, was Alice Courtney. In her gown of speedwell-blue with matching pelisse and her high-crowned bonnet, she was the very breath of summer.
Hamilton raised his hat in greeting.
“Alice. How good to see you.”
“Good day, Hamilton.” She gave him a coy smile. “What an unexpected pleasure. I thought you and Emma were out, some tale of going to see a horse for your grandfather.”
“We’ve been back this half hour.”
“Did all go well?”
“No, not exactly.”
Her look was one of such utter concern that before Hamilton knew it he was unburdening himself into her sympathetic ear. The little dog closed its eyes and began to snore quietly.
Alice twirled her parasol, her light blue gaze intent upon Hamilton’s face, her expression one of absolute absorption.
“Ah, me,” she said once the epistle had come to an end. “In truth, dearest Emma can be somewhat headstrong. But there, we are not all made the same.”
“Indeed.” Hamilton was captivated.
Alice leaned closer. The cloud of rose about her person was almost intoxicating.
“What a trying time you’ve had, Hamilton, dear. Would that I could help in some way.”
“Methinks you already have,” he said gallantly. “I wonder, would you care to walk a little way with me? I was heading for the meadows.”
“Delighted, I’m sure.” She gave him a smile and it struck Hamilton what a fortunate fellow Alfie was to have won such a prize. “If you would take darling Suzette for me?”
She deposited the furry bundle into his arms, which brought from the dog’s throat a sleepy growl of disapproval. Warily tucking her into the crook of one arm, he offered the other to Alice and off they went, Alice chattering brightly, the two of them heading towards the river together in the drowsy sunshine.
Some time later, Alice welcomed Emma into the front parlour of her home on Eastgate Row. The room was stifling. Heavy plush drapes were half-drawn against the unlikely event of the evening sun glancing through the thick lace curtains and fading the soft furnishings.
A monster aspidistra plant wilted in an ornate china bowl on the whatnot and ornaments bedecked every polished surface, from the simpering shepherdesses beloved by Alice’s mother to Alice’s favoured models of dogs.
Emma plumped down on the sofa, wriggling as the horsehair tickled the backs of her legs through the thin stuff of her clothes.
“Alice, such news,” she began, bending to pick up the Pomeranian which was investigating interesting smells on her boots.
“Give Suzette to me. Do continue, Emma. I’m all ears.”
“The outing ended in near disaster. Poor Master Brookfield, Josh’s father, was taken badly just as we were about to depart. Hamilton wanted to leave but I simply couldn’t. So I went to help.”
“You entered the house? What was it like?”
Emma frowned, thinking back.
“I really couldn’t say. I was too intent upon Master Brookfield. It’s more a cottage. Rather untidy, but you’d expect that with two men. Anyway, I’m glad to say he recovered. But Alice, before that, what do you think?”
“I cannot begin to guess.”
“Josh asked me to go with him to Frodsham Fair!”
“Oh, la!” Alice was agog. “What did you say?”
“I turned him down, naturally,” Emma said in a voice as close to primness as she could muster.
Alice did not miss the note of regret in her friend’s tone and was quick to pounce.
“My heart, Emma. Frodsham Fair is such fun! You get the chance of going and turn it down?”
“Well, what would you have done?”
“Why, accepted, of course.” Alice’s eyes narrowed cunningly. “Did he say where to meet?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Then you must go. Can you have the ribbon made up in time?”
“I suppose so. Alice, I couldn’t possibly! How would I get away for a whole day without them knowing at home?”
“Easy, you simpleton. I shall cover for you. You and I are spending the day together. The problem is solved.”
Emma bit her lip.
“I’m tempted. I’d practically made up my mind on the way home. Hamilton was so disagreeable over my insistence on helping poor Master Brookfield, it quite sickened me into a decision. But I’ve had time to dwell on it since.”
“And your heart failed you. Fret not, Emma, my pet. After what happened today you deserve an outing. Go with your horse-trader.”
“I think I might,” Emma replied daringly.
Alice hid a smile. With Emma gone she’d be free to continue her delightful dalliance with Hamilton.
It was of no issue for her to deliver Papa’s bill of sale for the Rhenish to Gideon Trigg.
The gesture would provide the dual purpose of pleasing Papa and give her the opportunity to secrete a message to the right quarter.
After all, a girl needed a little excitement to look back on after she was wed.