Crash has never let the circumstances of his birth, or his lack of a last name, bother him. His associations may be unsavory, but money, friends, and infamy open far more interesting doors than respect ever could. His sole regret? Once lovely, sweet Daisy Whitlaw learned the truth about how he made his fortune, she cut him off.
Daisy’s father is dead, her mother is in ill health, and her available funds have dwindled to a memory. When the local parish announces a Christmas charity bequest to help young people start a trade, it’s her last chance. So what if the grants are intended for men? If she’s good enough, she might bluff her way into a future.
When Crash offers to show her how to swagger with confidence, she knows he is up to no good. But with her life in the balance, she’s desperate enough to risk the one thing she hasn’t yet lost: her heart.
“[A] wonderful, redeeming love story for anyone who has ever felt like they were somehow less because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity - or any other factor that they couldn't control.”
“[N]o one gets to the heart of human emotions like Courtney Milan.”
—Tessas Books and Tea
“[I] did a significant amount of jumping up and down with glee.”
—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
All my books have code names. This one was "Dresses" which makes absolutely no sense, but that’s because this book is no longer about Daisy borrowing someone’s dresses.
London, England, November, 1866
The crowd stood elbow to elbow, buffeting Daisy Whitlaw about as if she were a slice of bread that had landed in a bucket of slops. No wonder; she suspected she was about to be thrown to the pigs.
A temporary stage had been set up in the square just outside the church. A few dead leaves lay in the gutter as a reminder of autumn, but the trees were bare. The days were growing shorter and colder, but the holidays were too far away to seem real. Perhaps that was why the awarding of the charity bequest felt like such a celebration.
Wooden benches ringed the stage, but nobody was sitting. It was cold, and sitting was freezing work. People shifted from foot to foot, chafing gloved hands, leaning in close to one another. The crowd on this fine Saturday afternoon was jovial. They’d worked their half-day. Most of them had already downed a pint or seven of their favorite ale, and the afternoon’s entertainment still lay ahead of them.
Daisy gritted her teeth and popped up on her toes. She still couldn’t see.
“Excuse me.” She tapped the shoulder of the big, broad fellow who was blocking her view.
He didn’t notice her. She was used to this. With a sigh, Daisy jumped atop the bench. From this vantage point, she could see over the man’s head. She was five rows back. Close enough, she hoped. Gray buildings enclosed the square, the walls high and grim in the dying light. The noise from the docks was a distant, ever-present roar, layering over the hum of the crowd.
More importantly, the respected, gray-bearded grocer who had been appointed to run the proceedings was already standing at the podium. They were about to start.
Daisy knew she didn’t have a chance. She’d been foolish to enter. Still, she’d done it, and there was no walking away now.
“All right, you lot,” the grocer at the front bellowed. He was grinning, too, his face flushed with what was undoubtedly more than his fair share of beer. “You all know what we’re here for, so let’s get started. Sit down, everyone, sit down.”
There was a general rumble. The man in front of Daisy started to sit on her feet without looking behind him; she yelped and jumped off the bench, scarcely in time. There was one spot on the end of the row. Daisy slipped into it just ahead of another woman, who gave her a cheerful shrug before retreating farther back.
“We’re here,” the grocer said as the crowd’s noise subsided to a mere rumble, “to settle the terms of the late Mr. and Mrs. Wilding’s bequest. They’ve left fifty pounds to be given to one promising individual who attends services at St. Peter’s.”
“Hear, hear!” called someone in the crowd.
The grocer paused for a nod at the vicar before continuing. “In the month since the initial announcement, we’ve received proposals of business from forty-seven young people, all of whom wish to start a trade.”
Daisy had her letter of acceptance in her skirt pocket. She’d scarcely believed her luck when it had arrived. Good news rarely came her way. Letters came from creditors, not charity committees.
But she’d labored over her proposal. Every spare hour she had, and then some, had gone into it. She couldn’t fail now.
She folded her hands in front of her as the crowd slowly quieted. A ridiculous figure of speech, that. A stupid one. Clearly, she could fail now. Failure was expected. Failure was a given.
Every time she reached for her dreams, someone slapped her hands away. Still, she kept on reaching. She wouldn’t have the best proposal; she knew it. Men who had studied business had no doubt entered. She didn’t know why she kept trying. She just knew that she did.
“We’ve selected the ten finest proposals that were put before us,” the grocer was saying. “Those ten promising young people will deliver a preliminary description of the business they wish to enter today. Each of the five judges will choose the best of this lot. Seven days hence, we’ll hear their perfected proposals. The most promising one will receive the full fifty pounds.”
That was what the bequest had said. Daisy had read the announcement posted on the church wall over and over to be certain. The most promising proposal. Not, the man with the most promising proposal.
Daisy’s position at the flower shop was secure—assuming Mr. Trigard, the owner, didn’t hear about this little excursion on her part. With the little extra her mother earned for her lacework, they made do.
She wasn’t starving. She had no reason to enter this competition. None, except that she hoped to win.
“And so, without any further ado,” the grocer declaimed, “I should like to invite our first candidate up to present his proposal. Mr. J. Batting, please come up.”
The crowd applauded, and a man near Daisy let out a sharp whistle. Daisy knew Jonathan Batting. He was the blacksmith’s second son, about three years her elder. He lumbered up to the stage and started explaining the plan he had for a new business making straight pins.
She’d expected something stupendous from him. Pins? Factories made straight pins these days, and in far greater quantity, at far lower cost, than any individual man could manage. But the judges nodded gravely as Batting spoke. They asked how he would compete with factory goods.
“Quality,” Batting said, with the placid intellect of a cow contemplating its cud. “I’ll deliver superior quality.”
Superior-quality pins. Had there been any chance anyone preferred handmade straight pins, pin factories would not have driven pin-makers to the poorhouse. Daisy shook her head. She wouldn’t win, but maybe her chances weren’t so terrible.
Mr. Edwin Diggle spoke about his proposed business as a copyist. Mr. Allan Ebler had a plan to sell fish from a cart. Mr. Arden Flisk intended to own a dry-goods store. He’d need more than fifty pounds to amass a creditable store of dry goods—had nobody done any research? By the time the judges had worked through Misters Glowter, Hargo, Manning, Porget, and Walder on their way down the alphabet to Whitlaw, Daisy was beginning to feel an unreal sense of hope. None of the ideas were as good as hers. They wouldn’t toss her out, even though she was—
“Our final candidate. D. Whitlaw,” the grocer announced. “Mr. D. Whitlaw, if you will.”
Daisy stood and started up the aisle.
The grocer frowned and scanned the crowd. “Mr. D. Whitlaw? Is Mr. D. Whitlaw here?”
Daisy drew in a deep breath. “Sir.” It came out a squeak.
He glanced at her down his nose and looked away. In that moment, she saw herself as he must see her: skinny, pale, almost ghostlike, standing in the aisle. Her best gown was dark brown. Once, the flowers imprinted on the cotton had been yellow. Now they might charitably be described as beige.
She’d let out the hem as far as it would go. It went…not quite far enough. That extra black stripe at her ankles proclaimed that this was a gown she’d made over and over again. Daisy’s Sunday finest was much like her hopes: worn to threadbare weariness, not quite dire enough to be discarded.
“David Whitlaw?” the grocer asked hopefully. “Or maybe Damien? Darius? Daniel?”
“Sir.” Daisy spoke a little more loudly. “Sir. I am D. Whitlaw.”
The grocer frowned at her, his eyes shifting away, then returning. He rubbed his forehead. He adjusted his spectacles, squinting in her direction. Finally he spoke. “Is the entrant your brother? I hope he’s not ill. The rules are that he must speak on his behalf in person.”
She squared her shoulders and raised herself up to her full height. “Sir,” she repeated. “I am D. Whitlaw. D is for Daisy.”
He stared at her in utter confusion, as if she were a fish who had announced her intention to stand for Parliament. Behind her, she heard a high titter of amusement.
“You.” He licked his lips. “Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t have a brother.” Daisy raised her voice as loud as it would go. “I’m D. Whitlaw. I’m the tenth candidate.”
The frown on the man’s face intensified. “But you’re a woman.”
“The bequest is for the best proposal.” Daisy stood ramrod straight, clasping her hands behind her back. “Not for the man with the best proposal. I have a proposal.”
The grocer pulled back a step. “Manhood is generally understood to be a prerequisite. The bequest is assumed to be for a man.”
Daisy stood in place, refusing to leave. She’d planned out an argument, something about the law and presumptions and whatnot. Now, with him glaring at her, she felt her throat go dry. Her argument evaporated.
She had no words any longer. She felt ungainly, unwanted. Everyone was watching her. She should just sit down and apologize.
Her legs wouldn’t move.
The grocer’s lip curled. “Feisty, are you?”
Cats were feisty. The word he was looking for was hopeful. Perhaps unrealistic. Daisy didn’t say anything. She stood stock still, looking at him.
He sighed. “Well, I suppose it’s the thing these days for women to ape men. We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happening here. What do you say, gentlemen? Shall we give Miss Daisy Whitlaw the chance to show how women compare to men?”
Nine men to one woman. The odds were entirely unfair. They were also no worse than any Daisy had faced in the past.
“Come on up, then,” the grocer said with a smile that was definitely not kind.
She ascended the steps, her knees stiff with the effort of not knocking together. It felt very cold on that high platform. Without the crowd to shield her, the wind seemed to slice through the fabric of her gown. Still, she marched to the front where the other candidates had stood.
“Tell me,” the grocer said with a smirk. “Tell us all what sort of trade a woman wants to engage in.”
“I’ll take her in trade!” shouted a man from the back.
Daisy looked over the gathering and swallowed back an exclamation.
As a single member of the crowd, the people around her had seemed an overwhelming sea of indifferent waves. Even when she’d addressed the grocer, she’d not had to look at anyone else. But now she stood in front, and every face was turned to her. The gathering felt hostile. All those eyes bored into her. Every person seemed to murmur to one another.
She imagined their whispered conversations. Look at that stupid girl. She’ll come in dead last.
She started speaking anyway. “We have fish carts. We have flower shops. We even have copyists. We don’t need any more of them.”
People stared at her in sullen disapproval.
“We don’t have any of what I propose.” Daisy had practiced her speech often enough that she could launch into it despite the dryness of her mouth. “Daisy’s Emporium will be a small shop of carefully selected goods. Durable, beautiful, and inexpensive. Designed for—” Women, she had been going to say, but she was speaking too fast. And looking out over those disapproving faces…
They didn’t want to hear about women and their wants.
She inhaled. “I propose a business in a central location, one where—”
“Speak up, girl,” the grocer said. “Nobody can hear you.”
She tried again a little more loudly. “I propose a business in a central location, one—”
“Can anyone hear the girl?” the grocer asked.
“Yes!” shouted a man in the back.
“Because all I hear,” he said, “is something like the squeaking of a mouse.”
Daisy’s face flushed hot. She turned to him. “I propose a business in a central location,” she bellowed at the top of her lungs. “One that provides inexpensive items designed to lift spirits, beautify homes, and teach relevant skills.”
The grocer looked upward. “How like a woman. Screaming like a fishwife already.”
She was not going to let him bait her. Daisy took a deep breath and recalled her place in her memorized speech. “The cost of all this—”
“Oh dear,” the grocer said. “Please stop before you get into the figures. We know what happens when women attempt mathematics.”
“I have to do the figures.” She could not keep the hopelessness out of her voice. “It’s part of the bequest.” She turned back to the crowd and tried to put on a smile. But if that mass of faces had looked unfriendly before, it seemed downright hostile now.
“The cost of all this,” she made herself say, “is, as an initial outlay, fifteen pounds per annum in rents as determined by…” She was stumbling now, the words she’d practiced so many times sounding rote and boring. The people in the back could no longer hear her; they were turning away.
A man at the back stood. At first she thought he was going to leave. Instead, he stepped into the aisle and hurled something at her. She watched the brown blob come sailing in her direction, watched it in confusion, scarcely able to move away as it hurtled toward her. She stepped aside just as it landed on the wooden platform with a disheartening plop.
It took the words right out of her mouth. She looked at the man. He smiled at her, a cruel, ugly smile.
Before she had a chance to say anything, another man materialized at his side. The new fellow took the man by the elbow and spun him around lightly. She could only tell that he’d wrenched the man’s arm by the sudden squeal the thrower let out.
The newcomer leaned down, whispered something in the man’s ear, and then pushed him to the ground before raising his face to Daisy.
She’d known who it was from the moment he had stood. Crash stood out in any crowd. It wasn’t just the color of his skin—a pale brown—nor the brightness of his smile. He had an air about him, one that always attracted attention.
“Go on, Daisy.” Those were the words she thought his mouth formed. Or maybe he’d said, “Go to hell, Daisy.” Either was equally likely from him.
Once, she’d loved Crash’s attention. Every moment he’d given her. Every wicked smile. Once, she’d believed that…
But none of her wishes ever came true. It wasn’t fair, but it was her life, and she was used to it.
“So.” She swallowed. “These are the figures.” She’d spent so long gathering them; now she felt herself deflating like a child’s broken toy. She stumbled through the end of her speech.
Nobody applauded her.
“Well,” the grocer said. “The men have presented their ideas. The woman has…tried. Now the judges will confer. They will each pick one candidate to advance to the final proceedings.”
Daisy was left standing stupidly on the stage.
The grocer looked at her. “Go join your fellow…ah, candidates.”
Daisy stumbled to the seats at the back of the stage.
None of the other men looked at her except Mr. Flisk, who turned around and whispered to her. “You took a spot from a man who might have needed it. A man with a family to support. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Oh, she was. What did you call someone who refused to learn? Who kept reaching above herself?
The judges stood one by one, coming to the front. “I choose Mr. Flisk,” said the first judge. “Hargo,” said another. They named Manning and Porget next.
They were the ones Daisy would have picked out of the proposals she had seen. She supposed that Mr. Diggle would be the last one chosen. Stupid or no, his proposal had been the most sound out of the remaining candidates.
The fifth judge came to the front. He didn’t look at any of the candidates. He just looked out over the audience. He wouldn’t choose her. Daisy knew it, the way she knew that snow was cold and winter turnips were bitter. She knew it in her chilled, numbing hands and her growling belly.
She’d reached. They’d slapped her down. It had happened to her often enough that she was almost used to it by now. One day, she’d learn to stop wasting effort chasing foolish dreams. One day. Just…not yet.
The final judge faced the crowd and said one word. “Whitlaw.”
Daisy jumped. A well of hope started up inside her. There was a moment of utter silence from the crowd. Maybe the strain had finally driven her mad.
Maybe he hadn’t said it. It couldn’t be true.
But Mr. Flisk turned to look at her with venomous eyes. The crowd murmured more loudly.
“Well,” the grocer managed after a meaningful pause. “We’ll see you all next Saturday. And it looks like we have our entertainment in order. After all, we’ve just lined up the jester.” He gave Daisy an exaggerated waggle of his eyebrows and let out a great, braying laugh, one that explained precisely why she’d been chosen.
Content Notes coming soon.