When Gwyneth turned the corner into Sutton Row and saw the curricle stationed right outside her front door, there was no sense of foreboding, no premonition that Jason Radley was about to enter her life again. This was just another ordinary day. She'd spent the morning at the Ladies' Library in Soho Square, where she worked three mornings a week, and she'd stopped off on the way home to buy a loaf of bread. She was late and was hurrying home so that she could share the midday meal with her young son before her first piano student of the day arrived.
Then she saw the curricle.
There was no alarm on Gwyn's part, only the fervent hope that the father of one of her pupils had come to settle his account. When she approached the curricle, however, and observed the groom standing by the horses' heads, she frowned. He was dressed in a maroon frock coat with silver frogging on the epaulets and turned-back cuffs.
The Radley livery. She'd know it anywhere.
As her heart picked up speed, her steps slowed. She wasn't ready for this; she would never be ready for this. As soon as the thought occurred to her, she became impatient with herself. She'd known when she'd come to live in London that there was every chance she and Jason would cross paths. It had happened sooner rather than later, that was all.
Her heart was beating fast when she entered the house. It was a modest two-storey, and the front parlor also served as the music room. Because her home was also her place of business, she'd taken care to create a good impression on the ground floor. The entrance hall and front parlor were furnished with her best pieces and the only carpet she possessed. The rest of the house was Spartan -- bare floorboards and odds and ends that served their purpose. There were no extras. She couldn't afford extras.
Her maid, Maddie, came out of the kitchen when she heard the front door open and close. She took the loaf of bread from Gwyn and helped her with her coat. Maddie was no more than fifteen, as neat as a new pin, good-natured and capable. She wasn't a live-in maid, but shared her services with Gwyn and an elderly lady who lived around the corner in Soho Square. Gwyn couldn't afford a live-in maid.
Maddie's eyes were avid with curiosity. She spoke in a whisper. "There's ever so fine a gent waiting to see you, Mrs. Barrie. A Mr. Radley. He said he was your cousin. I showed him into the parlor. I hope I done right."
Gwyn refrained from pointing out that there was nowhere else in that small house for anyone to wait. "You did fine, Maddie," she said, and gave herself a quick glance in the looking glass above the hall table.
Her auburn hair had been flattened by her bonnet. She was on the point of fluffing it up, then thought better of it. It didn't matter what kind of impression she made on Jason Radley.
If only her heart would stop racing.
"You looks real nice," said Maddie. Her bright eyes took in the high-waisted dove-gray twill gown with its white lacy collar and long sleeves. "Real quality, if you wants my opinion."
A maid would never have been allowed such familiarity in any other household, but Gwyn and Maddie were not mistress and maid in the usual sense. They shared the work of the house equally and ate their meals together. When Gwyn was away from home, Maddie looked after Mark. It was Maddie, far more than Gwyn, who kept a respectful distance in the relationship. Despite her lack of years, Maddie understood the necessity of keeping up appearances, especially in front of the rich city merchants and professional men whose daughters came to the house for piano lessons. To her knowledge, this was the first time that Gwyn had ever been visited by a member of her family. But Maddie saw the pulse beating at Gwyn's throat, and her imagination took flight.
"Where's Mark?" asked Gwyn, despising the breathlessness in her voice.
"He's with Mr. Radley. Go on then, in you goes."
Maddie opened the parlor door and the moment could not be avoided. Gwyn took a few paces into the room and halted. Jason and Mark were on their knees at the small table in front of the fire, demolishing a plate of scones and sharing a pot of tea.
Jason saw her first and rose in one lithe movement, then Mark jumped up and quickly went to her. She concentrated on Mark.
"Mama, Cousin Jason is here. He's family, Mama. He found out where we were living and came to visit us. I didn't know we had any cousins."
This telling little speech brought faint color to Gwyn's cheeks. Her son didn't notice. "And Cousin Jason says I can drive around the square in his curricle, after he's talked to you. May I, Mama? May I?"
Such rare treats were not to be scorned, even though she didn't want Jason Radley anywhere near her son. She gazed into Mark's eager face, a face that was so like her own: gray eyes, flashing dimples, and a pointed chin.
Her own dimples flashed a reply. "I don't see why not. Did you finish the lessons I set you this morning?"
"Then go tidy up and help Maddie in the kitchen. When we're ready, I'll call you."
Mark let out a long breath. The eyes he turned on Jason were glowing. "Oh, I do thank you, sir," he said, and quickly left them.
They could hear him calling for Maddie as he ran to the back of the house. Gwyn quietly closed the door. There was no avoiding it now. She had to look at Jason.
Tall, dark, and handsome didn't do him justice. He was remarkably good-looking in a rugged sort of way, with vivid green eyes and a physique that an athlete might have envied. He was her cousin, twice removed, and the last time she'd spoken to him was eight years ago.
Excerpted from Princess Charming by Elizabeth Thornton. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.