Authors: Rebecca Connolly
“How in the world…?” he murmured to himself.
“I used to sneak out of my aunt’s house sometimes,” came a soft voice from the bed. “I became quite adept at tying sheets together.”
He looked up and saw her on her side staring at him as she lay on the bed, her hands under her face.
“Why does that not surprise me?” he whispered, offering a smile.
She tried to return it, but it faltered. A break in the clouds let a sliver of moonlight in, and Nathan could see tear tracks on her cheeks.
“Are you all right?” he asked, unable to resist going to the bed and sitting down.
She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest, covering her flimsy chemise with the blankets. “I know you told me not to apologize for everything,” she said, her voice quivering slightly, “but I have to this time.”
“No, you don’t,” he urged, putting a hand on her foot. “I was out of line, I am the one who should apologize.”
She shook her head and sniffed. “You were right to be cross. I was dreadful.” She groaned and put her face in her knees.
He couldn’t help it; he smiled. “You were,” he agreed.
She turned her head to glare at him with one eye. “You could pretend and say ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad
“But it was.” He shrugged, still smiling. “I cannot help but be honest, Moira.”
“Well,” she huffed, setting her chin to her knees, “I am sorry that it was so dreadful. Next time you can do the talking and I shall be the meek little mouse of a wife.”
“I would be happy to do the talking,” he said, tilting his head to look at her more closely. “But I don’t want a meek little mouse of a wife.”
A small smile played at the corners of her mouth. “You don’t or Rupert Lancaster does not?”
He groaned, but grinned at her. “Rupert Lancaster just received more sympathy from the men of this inn than some people receive at funerals.”
She snickered. “I bet he did. I hope it fares better for him in the future.”
“It had better. He is not returning.” His look turned severe. “Ever.”
She nodded, wiping at her cheeks. “I understand. No more Rupert Lancaster. And no more Margaret, either.”
Her smile turned rueful. “And what about Nathaniel Hammond? What does he want in a wife?”
“Well, he doesn’t want Margaret Lancaster, that is certain,” he said with a shudder. “But he doesn’t want a mouse wife either.”
“A partner,” he admitted, no longer looking at anything. “Someone to work with me, beside me, and ease the burden of life. Competent, caring, and companionable.”
“And what about love, Nathan?” she asked in gentle tones.
Nathan sat back in thought. “Love. It’s an intriguing idea, but I can hardly require or expect that. Love can grow with time, after all, and the heart is not always as sensible as the head.”
“Love is not sensible. If it were, the poets would have nothing at all to write about.”
He smiled faintly. “Perhaps you’re right.”
The silence stretched between them for a moment, and it was the most comfortable silence he had ever experienced. Far too comfortable.
“Well,” she said lightly, patting her hand on his where it sat on her foot, “I think you will make someone a very fine husband someday, Nathan Hammond, despite Rupert Lancaster.”
He chuckled and brought her hand to his lips and kissed it quickly. “Thank you, my dear. Maybe next time we can have more fun with our marriage, eh?” He grinned and got up, letting her hand fall back to the bed.
“Take an extra blanket, Nathan,” she hissed as he stepped onto the window sill. “It’s freezing out there.”
He snatched one up and stuffed it under his arm. “Pull up the sheets when I’m down. I will walk in tomorrow morning.”
She nodded. “Watch out for droppings. I would hate to have a smelly husband in the morning.”
He rolled his eyes and adjusted his grip on the sheets. “Thank you. Anything else, wife?” he asked, with a grin.
She smiled and shook her head. “No, I think that is all I had to say, husband. Enjoy the hay.”
He smirked, then grew serious. “No more tears, Moira. I mean it.”
She wiped at her cheeks again and nodded. “No more tears, I promise. Good night, Nathan.”
“Good night, Moira.”
Nathan walked back to the inn early the next morning, hoping that he would be able to avoid seeing anyone, and thus have to answer some rather awkward questions about why Mr. Lancaster had been sleeping in the stables.
Unfortunately, the innkeeper was already up and about, preparing the room for the morning meal. He eyed Nathan as he entered and frowned. “Everything all right there, Mr. Lancaster?”
Nathan forced a grimace. “I suppose that all depends on what you call ‘all right’.”
“Was the room not to your liking?”
He shook his head, leaning against a chair. “No, the room was fine. It was the… Well, my wife, you see… She is…” He was not about to say anything against Moira, but he could not see how to finish the thought.
The innkeeper chuckled good-naturedly. “I understand, sir. Haven’t slept in the same room as my wife since our son was born, and I have slept like a baby ever since.” He grinned up at him, and Nathan tried to return it, but it was very forced.
He would have to tell Moira about this, and what people thought of her. Well, of Margaret, he supposed. They did not know Moira. He hardly did, either, but he liked what he did. Most of the time, anyway.
“But why did you not come to see me, sir?” the man asked, stuffing his rag into the apron he wore. “I would have been glad to set you up in another room.”
Nathan shrugged. “The money all comes from her, I am afraid.”
The innkeeper and the few other men in the room laughed. “Ah, the nature of marriage, eh? Chin up, sir. You’ll survive her.”
They all laughed harder, but Nathan failed to see the humor in the statement.
“Well, is there anything I can do to help you before you have to return to your shrew, Mr. Lancaster?” the innkeeper asked with a slap on the back, and smiling at the general chuckles of their companions.
Nathan would really have loved to start a brawl so that he could lay his hands on every one of them without looking like a crazed animal, but it was hardly called for, considering they were to leave soon. It would hinder their efforts to come and go from place to place without leaving much of an impression.
He sighed, more for their benefit than his. “I suppose just a tray of food will do. Maybe I can speed her along, but I doubt it.”
Again, laughter filled the room and the innkeeper waved for a maid to bring him a tray. “Alas, Mr. Lancaster, I don’t know of any way to speed a woman up. Not ones that is proper, at any rate.” He gave a guffaw of a laugh and gave the tray to Nathan. “But try feeding her, sir. That may just do the trick yet.”
“Thank you,” Nathan muttered, his patience wearing thin. He nodded to the group and headed up the stairs to the room, still fuming.
There could not be a single woman in the world that deserved a husband who thought so badly of her. When all of this was over, he was going to have a serious talk with Derek about it. Surely even Katherine had redeemable qualities, something positive he could talk about instead of how much he despised her. He thought of his own encounters with Katherine and shuddered.
Then again, perhaps there was one exception after all.
He knocked quietly at the door, and heard the soft “Come in” from within.
The sight that met him almost knocked him flat. Moira was by the window, wearing her dress from the day before, but looking remarkably refreshed after their talk in the night. What was startling was her hair. She had not put it up yet, so the long copper locks fell in waves across her shoulders and ended halfway down her back. It shimmered in the morning light as if it were a river of precious metal cascading along her body. He honestly could not have said if he had ever seen anything lovelier, let alone anything like it.
She smiled warmly at him and he felt another wave of shock from it. She was beautiful. He had known that, but perhaps never more so until this moment.
“Good morning, husband,” she said cheerfully, eying the still open door meaningfully.
It took Nathan more than a moment to recover from hearing her call him ‘husband’ when she was looking like that, but he soon did. “Good morning, Mrs. Lancaster. I hope you slept well.”
“Very,” she responded with a nod, taking her hair in hand and beginning to plait it. “Have you received word of my brother?”
“Later,” he mouthed, closing the door behind him. He set the tray down on the small table in the corner, and turned to face her again, wondering what had happened to his foul mood.
“What is it?” Moira asked softly as she continued working with her hair.
“What is what?”
She gave him a look. “Something is troubling you. What is it?”
“How could you possibly know that?” he asked with a laugh that sounded as forced as it felt.
“You don’t hide your feelings nearly as well as you think you do, Nathan,” she replied with a pitying smile. “Now stop stalling. What?”
He shook his head. “Not here. I will tell you,” he promised as she opened her mouth to protest, “but later. Once we are gone.”
She eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then nodded. “Very well.” She pinned her plait up, then sat down by the tray of food he had brought and helped herself. “What is your plan for the morning?”
He sighed and rubbed his hands together. “Well, first I think I need to tell you just what our fellow patrons think of us, and then we can decide what to do.”
was a right sight better, don’t you think?” Moira asked as she and Nathan rode away from the inn.
“Indeed, it was,” he agreed, feeling more relieved to be leaving a place than he had in a long time. “Your performance was much better this morning.”
She nodded graciously with a smile. “Why, thank you. I hope they enjoyed my fluttery antics.”
He chuckled. “I am sure they did. I received my share of sympathetic glances.”
“I reminded myself of my Aunt Miriam,” she said with a grimace, shuddering delicately. “It was terrifying, actually.”
“I know,” he teased. “I was there, remember?”
She gave him a look that he pointedly ignored. “And you played the part of a long-suffering husband with a dreadful wife quite well,” she complimented. “I have rarely seen anyone look so convincing while acting.”
He snorted and arched a brow at her. “Who said I was acting?”
She rolled her eyes at him, but grinned. “If I were closer, I would smack you for that. I did say I was sorry for ever creating Margaret, but you were the one who decided Rupert was miserable. You could have been hopelessly in love instead.”
“I would never have received any sympathy for being in love with Margaret,” he protested. “If you could have seen their faces when you were talking last night…”
She sighed, a touch sadly. “It is probably best that I did not. It would have made things worse.” She shrugged and then brightened considerably. “Did they believe you when you said you preferred the stables last night?”