The walls of the dining room were even worse than the walls of the parlor. Life-size life studies hung on every side. Breasts, buttocks, rapturous smiles—Pru had no choice but to focus on her food and eat as quickly as she could without choking to death. Mr. Shaw seemed untroubled by the scenery, tucking into the slapdash lunch that his man assembled with gusto. Between bites he did everything in his power to assure her that his brother Cyrus was worthy of Sophy, but she remained unconvinced.Her reluctance must have been obvious, for at last he pushed himself away from the table. “Mrs. Thorne, I have proof that my brother wants to be a better man. He has refused all his life to take part in the family business.”“And that makes him responsible? One who is idle and lives off the work of others?”
“Hear me out. The Shaws are not precisely respectable, I am sorry to say. My father founded an importing company and attempted to train both his sons to take it over when he passed. Cyrus would have nothing to do with it, and rightfully so. His sensibilities are far too refined, too delicate.”
“Good lord. What is it that you import? Opium? White slaves?”
“Nothing quite so egregious, but some in the ton might find the items equally repugnant. Come. Allow me to open one of the crates and you can see for yourself.”
Pru felt herself pale. What horror could be inside the box? A shrunken head? A voodoo doll? She spent a great deal of time reading about the fantastical finds of great explorers and naturalists. She’d really had very little else to do as she sat by her mother’s bedside. But to actually lay eyes on such things—she was by turns curious and terrified.
And continued to feel both emotions as she watched Mr. Shaw remove his jacket and roll up the sleeves of his linen shirt. His browned arms were sprinkled with fine dark hair. Charles had been fair, looked rather golden in the firelight. Pru shut her eyes at the unwelcome image. She did not remember what he looked like. She didn’t.
Mr. Shaw rummaged through a leather satchel and unearthed a crowbar. With a few quick flicks of his wrist, the lid of the box popped open. Straw spilled out onto the rug, and Mr. Shaw sneezed quite violently.
“Damn. I mean drat. Pardon my language, Mrs. Thorne, but I seem to have an aversion to straw.” He pinched the bridge of his nose in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the second, even more alarming, sneeze. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket. His eyes looked watery and red already.
Pru counted the number of crates “How on earth will you be able to unpack all these boxes?”
“My man Malcolm will help. He’s a useful fellow, although he doesn’t have a gentle touch. He’s dropped more than his fair share of valuables.” He stuck an arm into the straw and pulled out a bronze chalice. “This is as good a place to instruct you on the Shaws’ wicked business. Step a little closer, Mrs. Thorne.”
“I will not, you silly man. Bring it out into the hallway where you will not be subjected to the packing material any longer than you need be.”
“Why, Mrs. Thorne, I’m flattered. Are you concerned about my health?”
“I don’t wish to be sneezed on. What are you waiting for?”
Mr. Shaw grinned. “How did your cousin dare defy you? You frighten me to death.”
“Nonsense,” Pru grumbled, not letting herself be swayed by the twinkle in his eyes. Very fine eyes—hazel green with bits of gold. They navigated through the stack of boxes to the black-and-white tiled hallway. The chalice gleamed in the shaft of sun from the front door’s sidelights.
“Very detailed work, isn’t it?” Pru began, but then she saw all the details. “Good heavens.”
“I believe it’s meant to be Hell, actually. See the little cloven hooves? Shaw Antiquities specializes in sensual, some might even say pornographic, artwork and artifacts. We are the go-to people for those collectors who fancy something a bit different from the run-of-the-mill Staffordshire dog. I’ve traveled the globe to fulfill the wishes of my clients, always on the look-out for the rare and randy.”
“I—I see,” Pru said faintly. She certainly did. And despite her innate objections, her eyes remained open and in wonder at the cavalcade of sex acts depicted on the chalice. She squeaked. “That is possible?”
“Everything is anatomically correct and within the purview of a normally limber and morally ambiguous man,” Mr. Shaw said, his twinkle now blinding.
Pru knew she was blushing, could feel the heat blossom from her breasts to her hairline. She wiped a bit of damp from her brow, inadvertently loosening the corkscrew curl she had pomaded down. She had just the one curl on her temple in her mass of straight, boring hair, a twirling little worm that got caught in her eyelashes. She blinked it back and aimed for a look of indifference.
“I really must be going, Mr. Shaw. I suppose I should thank you for showing me part of your collection, but I would be lying if I told you I felt any gratitude at all. This is—you are—I don’t know what I shall tell Sophy about the family she’s married into.”
“You may tell her that Cyrus has no hand in the family business. And assure yourself that after I dispose of this lot, Shaw Antiquities will shutter its doors for good. I’ll have enough to invest in something more respectable, and I’m tired of traveling. It’s time I settled down. Like my brother.”
Somehow Pru could not see this man at the center of domestic tranquility, surrounded by dogs and children. Instead, a vision came of him robed, riding an Arabian stallion, flashing a scimitar. And in the next second, she was beside him, veiled and warm from the desert sun. There would be sugared dates and roasted lamb at the oasis, and long lovemaking in a silken tent beneath a brilliant moon. They would whisper hours into the night, the gentle breeze beyond rattling the palm leaves.
“Mrs. Thorne, I say, are you all right? You look flushed. I would be happy to escort you home.”
Mr. Shaw had brought her back to reality. How long had she been standing in the hallway with these inappropriate thoughts? She focused on the tile at her feet.
“That won’t be necessary. As you know, Jane Street is conveniently close to the best addresses. I shall walk.”
“I know you did not bring a maid or footman with you.”
“How could I? It would have been even more scandalous to involve one of the servants in this scheme. Poor Sophy. Even if your brother is innocent of having an affair, I cannot think he will make her a good husband.”
“Give him a chance, Mrs. Thorne. We Shaws are full of surprises.”
Pru snorted. She fetched her gloves and reticule from the parlor sofa, and pinned her veiled hat to her chignon. “Good day, Mr. Shaw.”
“I hope we meet again soon.”
Pru was glad he could not see her face. Mr. Shaw was not a man she trusted herself to meet again.