Never in all her days had Selina Ellis imagined she would set foot on the surface of the River Thames—at least not without sinking to the bottom. Resting the toe of her boot on the uneven, icy surface, Selina strained her ears over the cacophony surrounding the Frost Fair, listening for the crack that would surely come as she trusted the ice with her weight. She took one step, then another, a smile stealing over her frigid cheeks. The crack didn’t come. She wasn’t falling between floating shards of ice. Here she was, standing on the Thames, halfway between London Bridge and Blackfriars. Somewhere deep below her feet was a body of water, one that would have caused her to sink only days before. A thrill shot through her bones at the phenomenon, and she walked farther across the ice, taking in the scene she had crossed town in a freezing carriage to experience. Word of the Frost Fair had only been circulating town for a day, and already hundreds, if not thousands, were gathered on what Selina had heard called ‘The City Road,’ a walkway of sorts, spanning the entire distance between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. Flanking the walkway were booths, printing presses, and tradesmen of every sort, shouting out their offerings and selling them at thrice their previous value. Even Selina, much tighter with her purse than her elder sister, was tempted to purchase an item to prove she had been at the fair. Fanciful women bundled from head to toe in wool coats, scarves, and hats encircled a nearby booth. Selina rose on her toes, catching sight of the fine jewelry on display in the center of the crowd. Perhaps she could distract her mother with that. “Selina, do be careful,” Mama said in a stern voice.
“We must stay close to the edge, should there happen to be an . accident.” Mama held her skirts up with her gloved hands, taking minuscule steps to catch up to her daughter. Selina turned, casting a pointed look near her mother’s feet. “I suspect the edges to be the more dangerous terrain, Mama. Just yesterday I heard of a man and two young boys standing on the edge by London Bridge. The ice broke away and they would have been swept off had a waterman not come to their rescue.” Mama’s features twisted in dismay, the outline of her face barely visible behind her scarf and cap. “And to think we have paid the watermen such a lofty fine to be here at all. And for what purpose?” She watched her feet again as she finally made it to Selina’s side.
“To be daring. To experience a peculiarity. For a bit of frivolity.” Selina smiled broadly, her gaze searching out the raucous noise coming from a booth nearby. Knock ’em downs, it appeared, was the cause of the noise. A group of gentlemen laughed as they played the game, and Selina was reminded of her other purpose in being here at the fair. Yes, the Frost Fair had sounded enticing, but none of the fair’s attractions could compare to the attractions of Mr. Noah Skinner. A sigh escaped her lips. What would he be wearing? He only owned one coat, but it was black, and there were a great number of men at the fair in black greatcoats.
When she had arranged to meet him here, Selina had not expected the fair to attract this many people. Noah had told her he would be near the closest entrance to her home, which was the one she and her mother had taken. He had to be nearby—somewhere amid the immense crowd. “Shall we purchase one of those reticules to prove we have come?” Selina pointed discreetly at a young woman walking by, a small silk bag in her hand, embroidered with the words, Bought on the Thames. If she could entice her mother to investigate the booth, Selina might be able to sneak away for a short time. Selina’s gaze caught on another booth nearby, one with more exotic offerings, even a miniature statue of a tiger. She had always been fascinated with the animals. “Or we might purchase one of the little tigers.” Selina pointed at the exotic booth. “For the cost of a souvenir like that, we could each afford a new gown.
” Selina’s mother tapped her fingers together. “And I have already spent a great deal of money on my preparations for Christmas. A paper from the press might be a wiser purchase, don’t you think?” After becoming a widow at a young age, Mama had been left with little to raise her daughters on and had never married again. Selina had heard tales of her father’s estate and had even visited on one occasion, despite the fact that it had been entailed away to a distant relative. Mama had been cast away from all that she had married for. Her jointure was sufficient, although she liked to pretend to her daughters that they were far more needy than they truly were. And compared to the upbringing Mama had experienced, they were quite poor. “A paper would be wiser, Mama,” Selina said. “You are right. Shall we stand in line there first? Afterward, we might explore the rest of the city road so you might tell Mrs.
Perry all that she has missed out on.” Mama’s eyes gleamed a little at that suggestion. “Mrs. Perry is calling on us tomorrow afternoon, so I suppose she would like a firsthand account of the Frost Fair.” Mama’s steps no longer seemed quite so tentative as she followed Selina to the back of the line at the nearest printing press. Selina smiled at her small victory. She knew her mother so well. There was an unspoken rivalry between Mama and Mrs. Perry, one that could only come from being neighbors for nearly twenty years, both with two daughters of similar ages and fortunes. It was a constant competition over whose daughters were prettier, whose would be married first, and whose would be married to the highest-ranking gentleman.
Rose, Selina’s elder sister, had married into wealth, but not title. That was Selina’s duty if Mama were to claim victory over Mrs. Perry and her one married daughter—who had wed a man of at least one thousand more per year than Rose’s husband. And that was precisely why Mama could not know about Mr. Noah Skinner, and especially not the fact that he was waiting for Selina somewhere on the surface of the River Thames. Selina cast her gaze about the nearby booths, searching for the dark hair and broad shoulders she knew belonged to Noah. Her heart leaped when she caught sight of his familiar face. He stood near a tent where the open door revealed several people dancing the reel within, while others sipped on hot tea, the steam rising visibly in the cold. Noah’s gaze found hers, and a charming smile stole over his lips. He took one step toward her, but she gestured at her mother, who was distracted by the booth ahead.
He nodded in understanding, retreating to the tent. Before Mama could have the chance to turn around, Selina took off across the ice, careful not to trip on the rugged surface. She glanced back, relieved to find Mama’s gaze still transfixed on the workings of the printing press. Noah stood with his arm outstretched, and the moment Selina reached him, he took her hand, pulling her quickly behind the tent where her mother couldn’t see them. As any gentleman would, he released his grip on her hand the moment they were tucked safely away from the crowd. Disappointment dropped through her stomach. She enjoyed the warmth of his fingers, even through their gloves. He did not need to always act like a gentleman. Anyone in society would neglect to call him one, no matter his behavior. He was the son of a solicitor.
Her family’s solicitor. And that posed a problem no amount of gentlemanly behavior could rectify in the eyes of her mother. “Dear Selina.” Noah searched her gaze, his deep brown eyes warming her insides like a cup of hot tea. “I have missed you.” As his eyes searched her face, she carefully touched her blonde curls, ensuring they still hung from the outside of her cap. Despite the lack of propriety, she had worn her hair down, hoping it would aid in keeping her neck warm. She had seen a few other ladies at the fair with the same style. “I—I have missed you too,” she said. There was something about Noah that made her infuriatingly bashful.
He was simply too charming for her words to function properly. “How long have you been waiting?” Selina asked in a quiet voice. “My mother was quite afraid to come to the fair, or I would have been here sooner.” He cocked his head to one side, a slow smile spreading on his lips. “Were you truly so eager to see me that you would convince your fear-stricken mother to accompany you?” “She is not so fearful now.” Selina avoided directly answering his question. “She is actually quite eager to tell our neighbor, Mrs. Perry, of her experience here.” “Women are always searching for something to boast of.” He smiled, his tall frame shifting slightly forward as he searched her eyes.
“I wish it were possible for you to boast of me.” He did not need to explain for Selina to know what he meant. They were forced to hide their courtship from her mother, who would wholeheartedly disapprove. “If my mother knew you, she would have plenty to boast of.” Selina tipped her head up to look at him, taking in all the things that recommended him. He was very handsome, he was very . flattering to her. Very . She bit her lip. She would have to compile a better list than that if she were to try to convince her mother to allow her to marry him.
She did not know him well enough for that yet, but she did know that she was in love with him. He was far more attentive than any gentleman she knew, and she had never felt more important than when she was with him. She loved him far more than Rose loved her husband, and far more than Mama had loved Selina’s father. Selina would rather marry the son of a solicitor than someone she would become ‘fond of’ over the years as her mother had promised. She’d claimed there was no reason to aspire to love. Noah smiled down at her, and a flutter erupted in her stomach. Yes, he was quite handsome, indeed. “You must tell your mother of me eventually, you know.” The intensity of his gaze was somewhat shocking, and she felt as if she couldn’t refuse his request even if she wanted to. “My mother loves Christmastime.
” Selina interlocked her fingers in front of her. “There will be no better time to tell her than the holidays.” It was already the nineteenth of December. How could Selina gather the courage to tell her mother by the end of the month? Perhaps she could extend her confession to Twelfth Night. It wasn’t that she feared her mother’s disappointment—she had faced enough of that throughout her life to be accustomed to it. It was that she feared her mother would find a way to stop her. “What shall we do if your mother disapproves?” Noah appeared genuinely distressed, removing his hat for a moment to rake a hand over his thick, dark hair. An idea flitted through Selina’s head, but she didn’t dare say it aloud. Noah seemed to read her mind—or her expression. “We could marry in secret,” he whispered, a sly smile on his lips.
Selina’s stomach flipped, her hands perspiring in her gloves. The flush his words had caused on her skin made her feel warm all over, despite her standing on a sheet of thick ice. “An elopement?” Noah paused as a couple walked past, waiting until they were out of earshot to continue speaking. “If it is the only way we can be together, I would not object. Would you?” Selina shook her head, which had become very light. “Not at all.” Noah smiled, taking both her hands in his and tugged her into an abrupt embrace. His arms wrapped around her waist. She froze, a mixture of shock and excitement pulsing through her veins. Had she just become engaged atop the River Thames? Surely Mrs.
Perry’s daughters could not live up to that. Noah held her tightly, squeezing as though he never meant to let go. “I am so pleased to hear that,” he muttered, pulling back to look at her face. “No matter the obstacles, we shall find our happiness together.” Selina smiled, clinging to his upper arms as she looked up at him. The realization hit her that they were standing at a very public gathering, where any watchful eyes would meet their recent embrace with suspicion. Selina’s gaze darted to the right, and panic cut through her happy, unexpected moment. Standing just a few feet away was a man with yet another familiar face, one that took her several seconds to recognize. A face she had not seen in three years. But she would recognize the black curls, crystal blue eyes, and towering build of Edmund Sharp anywhere