If a Lady Lingers – Anna Harrington

Daisy Daring traced her fingers lovingly over the blueprints spread across her father’s drafting table, as if touching the plans could somehow make her dream house come to life. “One day,” she promised, “I will build you, and you will be splendid.” To seal that pledge, she tapped her fingertip to the sketch of the formal front door she’d made in the corner of the large sheet. The little portico was complete with a hanging gas lamp and brass knockers not in those usual boring shapes of lions’ or horses’ heads, but ones crafted to resemble flowers. The door handles were gracefully arching lilies, the knocker the cup-like bloom of a tulip, the gas lamp a blossoming rose…They made the portico so welcoming that the house simply sparkled with life. Oh, it was a beautiful townhouse! Someday, it would be the envy of those grand residences on London’s tree-crowded squares. Not just a terrace house with the typical five bays and three floors, but one unlike any townhouse that any architect had ever built. She laughed. Not even the celebrated Robert Adam had ever designed such architectural details as these! “Because he lacked imagination,” she whispered to herself. No one could overhear her as she worked in her father’s attic studio where he’d spent his career as one of London’s most talented architects, yet she didn’t dare speak any louder. Putting voice to her dream of becoming an architect was surely tempting fate. And wasn’t fate already against her? After all, she’d been born a woman. Becoming an architect had proved an impossible dream. She’d already tried to squeeze through the door of the architectural world, only to have it slammed shut in her face, then locked, barred, and fitted with a portcullis. She heaved out a sigh.

Well, perhaps her experience wasn’t quite that medieval, yet the results had been just as disheartening. She’d shown her house plans to her father’s clients, only to be patronized by empty compliments and chuckles beneath their breaths— those who hadn’t dismissed her outright, that is. One had told her that her ideas held merit, but since he was certain she’d gotten them all from her father anyway, he’d prefer to work directly with Elias Daring and not muddy the waters by indulging his daughter. Indulging…as if working for hours and hours until her vision blurred and her hand ached from holding her drafting pencil was a mere flight of fancy. So she’d given up on house plans to focus on interior designs. Since decorating decisions were largely the realm of wives, she’d hoped they would be more willing to work with a woman designer, yet she’d fared no better with them. They either didn’t believe a woman was capable of creating beautiful works of architecture and design— after all, how could their little minds actually understand the geometry and science necessary to create an entire building? Why, a house built by a woman would surely collapse on their heads!—or they thought it was morally wrong of her to take work away from men who needed commissions to support their families. Some clients dismissed her designs as amateurish and banal; others refused to look at them at all. One woman actually threw her sketches back in Daisy’s face and demanded that she be shown work only by a true designer, a man who had made his mark… A man. When Daisy presented the exact same sketches a sennight later as her father’s work, the woman gushed out a stream of compliments and commissioned every one.

Daisy had learned a harsh lesson that day. In society’s eyes, the person who created the designs was more important than the designs themselves. Clients would never want them as long as they knew Daisy had imagined them. She picked up the plans for the recent renovations to Baron Hansen’s Belmont Square townhouse, and a wry smile curved at her lips. Perhaps she’d managed to thwart fate in a small way after all. Although the baron had commissioned her father for the project, she was the one who’d actually drawn up the plans. Oh, she loved doing this work! Being creative, using her imagination to bring to life a place where families might be safe and happy for decades to come…making her mark on the world. She only wished she could also put her own name to her drawings. But she knew the terrible truth. No matter how talented or hard-working, a woman could never be an architect.

Society simply wouldn’t allow it. “Miss!” Mrs. Jones rapped excitedly at the door. “There’s a visitor asking for your father.” A lead ball of dread formed in Daisy’s belly as she glanced up at the housekeeper and whispered, “A merchant?” The Darings owed money to nearly everyone. There were barely enough funds to keep up with the ticks from the butchers and dry goods stores, let alone pay for the mounting doctor’s bills. They were behind in paying her younger brothers’ tuition, with the headmaster sending letters requesting payment as regularly as clockwork. They’d even fallen behind in paying wages to Mrs. Jones and Mary, the maid of all work they’d employed to help the aging housekeeper with the more physical tasks, such as the laundry. Soon, they might even have to let Mary go.

After all, why would they need someone to do laundry if they couldn’t afford clothes? Daisy had robbed Peter to pay Paul so often that she feared she’d be handed a ledger upon entrance to heaven. But then, when it came to managing the household finances, she’d long ago surrendered to being cast into hell. “Not a merchant.” Hopeful excitement shone on Mrs. Jones’s face. “A new client!” Her heart somersaulted. Oh, the timing was perfect! Daisy nodded eagerly. “I’ll be right down.” Mrs. Jones scurried away.

“And I’ll bring up a tea tray!” She leaned against the drafting table in relief. Thank God. Her father, Elias Daring, had once been a shining star in London’s architectural world. But then he’d taken ill three years ago, and his business had fallen off drastically. Only old friends and those who didn’t have the means or connections to hire a more prominent architect had graced their doorstep. If business had kept dwindling at that rate, they might very well have found themselves homeless and at the mercy of the parish poor laws. She’d had no choice but to commit fraud. At first, Daisy had simply served as his assistant, with Papa still capable of creating the plans himself. He still met with clients face-to-face, too, whenever he’d felt well enough. But on days when he was too ill to leave his room, she’d acted on his behalf to interview the clients and assure them that she would pass along their information to her father.

She’d acted on his behalf the following mornings, too, when she sent out letters accepting their work on retainer to which she’d signed her father’s name. That left Papa free to focus all his energy on his building plans. Soon, though, even that had become too difficult for him. He’d grown more fragile, capable only of giving direction to her from his chair while she sketched out the preliminary plans that he would end up finishing himself. But then he’d grown too weak to finish them. So the work had sat undone. The clients were demanding their retainers back, the bills were piling up— That was when Daisy took it upon herself to finish the plans on her own. Soon, though, she wasn’t just finishing them; she was creating them from the very beginning. Her own house renovation plans, her own interior designs—her own hands shaking as she presented them to clients under the pretense of being her father’s emissary. Oh, she didn’t dare admit she’d done them! They would have laughed themselves silly, then refused to accept them, just as others had done before.

But when she scrawled her name across the bottom right corner—Daring, just the last name and no initials—it was as close to claiming them for her own as she ever could. They believed that her father had renovated their homes and were thrilled with the finished projects. Whoever was waiting downstairs would believe the same. Even though she’d managed to save her family—so far—the tiny bit of work she was able to do was barely enough to keep them from bankruptcy. Since he’d become housebound, few people remembered that Elias Daring existed, and commissions had dried up until they were now few and far between. Very few and very, very far. That’s what made this new client such an unexpected surprise. No—he was simply a godsend! And one who shouldn’t be kept waiting. So she snatched up her sketch book and pencil and hurried downstairs. She paused outside the parlor to offer up a prayer, put a smile on her face, and swept into the room— “Hulloo!” She froze, startled mid step by the man who wheeled around to greet her.

By the flame-red hair that sat tousled on his head except for one startling shock that fell right between his eyes. By the ruddy cheeks that stood out even more against the red hair. By the giant smile that seemed to engulf his face. And most of all, by the flamboyant limegreen waistcoat, brown trousers, and orange kerseymere jacket that stretched over his impossibly tall, slender body and made him resemble an orange tree. Goodness. Apparently, God had a sense of humor about what he sent her way. Bright blue eyes swept over her, from head to toe and back again. And yet again. Impossibly, his smile grew even wider. “Apologies.

” Surprise rang in his voice as he stared unabashedly at her. “I was expecting Mr. Daring.” Finally, Daisy remembered to close her mouth and took a tentative step into the room. This was her potential client? He looked as if a wagonload of Chinese silks had collided with a maypole. “Of course.” She cleared her throat and forced a smile that struggled not to reveal her shock at his appearance. “Unfortunately, my father is indisposed at the moment and asked me to meet with you on his behalf.” She curtsied as he gave a low and far too formal bow. “I’m his daughter Daisy.

” “Daisy,” he repeated in an awed whisper that once more set his bright blue gaze sweeping over her. “Daisy Daring…oh, that’s fabulous! Absolutely lovely.” His smile quirked up at the left corner of his mouth. “You are lovely.” Startled by that wholly unexpected compliment, she choked out, “Pardon?” His eyes blossomed into wide circles, matching the O that formed at his lips. “Did I say that aloud? Deuces! My apologies. It’s just…” His grin returned as he clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back on his boot heels, teetering so much that she wondered how he didn’t fall over. “Well, you are lovely.” That made her mouth fall open again. Doing her best to ignore both her shock and the flush rising in her cheeks, she prompted, “And you are…?” “Not so lovely.

” He laughed at himself, such a good-natured and self-effacing laugh that she couldn’t help but smile back. “I’m Hugh Whitby. I certainly hope you haven’t heard of me.” He lowered his voice earnestly. “I have a bit of a…” He waggled his brows at her. “A rakish reputation.” “Do you?” She bit her inner cheek to keep from laughing as she cast another glance over him. “No, I’ve never heard of it.” “Thank goodness!” His narrow shoulders sank under his visible relief. “I wouldn’t want Mr.

Daring to refuse to work with me.” No chance of that! He could have dressed like a harlequin—although he seemed close even now—and been as scandalous as the royal dukes themselves, and she wouldn’t have turned him out. She and her father needed him…however peculiar he was. “You see, Miss Daring, I have quite the project planned.” Relief warmed up from her toes. “Then you’ve come to the right place.” She gestured at the settee for him to sit, then took her own chair on the opposite side of the tea table. She placed her sketch book on her knees and busied herself with opening it as he perched himself on the edge of the cushion and leaned eagerly forward. “I apologize that my father couldn’t be here to welcome you personally. I know you were expecting him,” she explained.

“But he’s asked me to act as his proxy for this meeting, if you don’t mind.” “Not at all! I was told to expect an elderly man with a beard and a cane, but when you came into the room, golly, I had to blink to clear my mind.” His eyes sparkled apologetically at the idea of mistaking her for her father. “For a moment there, I’d imagined you in a beard.” “Yes…well.” A most peculiar man. He glanced back at the door, as if expecting another person to enter. “Your mother doesn’t involve herself with clients?” “No.” She looked down at her sketch book. “My mother passed away several years ago.

” “I’m so terribly saddened to hear that.” Apparently, he was. Grief filled his voice, which had grown oddly quiet. “You must miss her a great deal.” “Every day,” she whispered. Then she cleared her throat and brought the conversation promptly back to business. “Now, Mr. Whitby, are you interested in renovating your entire house or only a portion of it? We can also do projects as small as single rooms, although —” “Oh, no!” Her gaze darted up to his. “Pardon?” “You have the wrong idea, Miss Daring.” His expression was suddenly serious.

“I don’t plan on renovating anything.” Her heart plunged to the floor, all possibility at earning a sizeable commission falling away with it. Disappointment panged in her hollow chest, which was filled a second later by more worry about how she would settle that month’s bills, pay for doctor’s visits, and keep her brothers at school. Just last week the headmaster threatened to send them home for falling behind on tuition. Again. “Oh.” She slowly closed her book and stood. “Well, then I don’t think my father can help you with—” “No, you don’t understand.” He scrambled to his feet, blinking rapidly with confusion. “I plan on building an entirely new townhouse.

” She sank onto the chair with a soft gasp as her knees gave out. He couldn’t possibly mean… “A new house?” He nodded and reached into his jacket’s inside breast pocket. “I just secured a leasehold on a section of a square that’s being laid out to the north of Marylebone Road.” He held out a folded piece of paper across the tea table. “I need a house, Miss Daring, built to fit this space. A house with a very specific purpose.” She unfolded the paper with trembling fingers and scanned the description of the square and lot, her heart pounding so hard that it ricocheted against her ribs. Not just one room or two, but an entire house! Not just a small renovation commission but house plans that could finally erase all her family’s debts. “And what would that purpose be?” “A house big enough for all the children, of course.” He was…married? She forced a smile past her surprise.

“And how many children do you have, Mr. Whitby?’ “Oh, it varies—” Varies? She gaped at him. “Pardon?” “—but I’d like to make the house big enough for a dozen children or so.” She blinked. “A dozen children?” “Or so.” He shrugged with a laugh. “Well, as many as we can cram in, I suppose!” Too startled to remember herself, she blurted out, “Are you mad?” That stripped the grin from his face, and he stared at her as if she’d just sprung a second head. As if she were the one who should be placed in bedlam instead of him. “I’m so sorry!” Heat rose in her cheeks. Oh, she’d ruined everything! “I didn’t mean—” “Well, perhaps I am mad,” he answered, his grin slowly reappearing, “although no one’s ever asked me about it before.

But I suppose I must be.” He circled his eyes in selfdeprecating amusement. “After all, I’m the patron of a school.” “A school?” Relief flowed through her. In all the times she’d acted as her father’s assistant, she’d never once had a client conference like this! “The Gatewell School for Orphans of the Sea,” he explained, pointing at the agreement she still held in her hand. “That’s why I secured the leasehold. I want to build a new house for the students so that when they no longer need classroom instruction they’ll still have a place to live while they find apprenticeships and positions.” He blinked. Twice. “What did you think I meant when I said a dozen or so children?” “Why, a school, of course.

” She smiled to hide her embarrassment. “What else?” Mrs. Jones knocked on the open door to announce the arrival of tea. Thank goodness! This conversation certainly needed a change of direction. Whitby stood in gentlemanly politeness as Mrs. Jones carried in the tray. Mrs. Jones winked at Daisy in encouragement, then quickly left so the meeting could continue. Daisy poured him a cup of tea. She was more grateful than she wanted to admit to be able to reset the conversation and start again.

“So Mr. Whitby—” “Hugh.” His hand brushed hers as he accepted the cup and saucer, then returned to his seat across from her. “Please call me Hugh.” “Mr. Whitby,” she insisted. His offer of familiarity startled her, and now was not the time to ponder why her fingers tingled where his had touched hers. “Tell me about your project. What features are you hoping to have in the house?” “I want it to be a grand place, safe and welcoming.” Resting the tea on his knee, he leaned forward, and his eyes practically glowed.

“For the boys and me. A house where they can adjust to their futures and where I can live instead of renting bachelor’s rooms. You know…a home.” He helped himself to one of the lemon biscuits from the tea tray. “If it works, I’m hoping to build a second house for the girls, perhaps on the same square. Wouldn’t that be grand to have them all together so close? Your father would design it, too, of course.”

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