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Authors: Escapades Four Regency Novellas

Anne Barbour

BOOK: Anne Barbour
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ESCAPADES: 
Four Regency Novellas

 

Anne Barbour

 

**

 

The Castaway

 

1

 

The carriage was very fine. The young woman perched stiffly on the edge of one of the plush seats glanced about her in appreciation. She removed one glove, neatly darned in several places, to draw her hand over a velvet curtain swagged across the window.

Idly, she ran her fingers over the modest carpetbag placed on the seat opposite her, pausing at the initials
MF
stitched near the top. Martha Finch. For how long, she wondered with a shiver of anticipation, would that be her name. If only she could convince Lord Branford of her credentials.

It wouldn’t be an easy task, she reflected with a sigh. From what Seth Pinfold had told her, the earl was formidable—and suspicious. At least, she mused, trying to force herself into a more optimistic frame of mind, Lord Branford had sent this elegant vehicle for her, and provided for a comfortable, leisurely journey from York. She wondered what sort of hotel he had chosen for her lodging in London. Odd he would choose one so out of the way. She could well imagine his purpose in doing so, however.

Absently, she touched her hair, balled into a tight knot atop her head. Perhaps she should have lightened it. On the other hand, if she managed to keep her enterprise going, it might be difficult to apply lemon juice at frequent intervals, to say nothing of the evil-smelling chemicals suggested by the apothecary. At any rate, it might be supposed that the golden curls of a small girl would later darken to an indeterminate brown.

The carriage slowed and Martha looked out the window once more. They had turned off the Bays-water Road and were pulling up before a large edifice, obviously new and intimidatingly stylish. Bas-relief columns, interspersed with Grecian medallions, embellished the front of the building. Emblazoned just beneath the pediment over the door were the words
GRAND
HOTEL
. Minions in livery bustled about the entrance; one of them scurried to let down the carriage steps and fling open the door almost before the carriage had drawn to a halt.

The footman, poised to assist Martha, halted suddenly to gape at her in surprise. He drew himself up to ask in a supercilious tone, “Are you a guest of the hotel, then—ma’am?

Putting out her hand, Martha replied calmly, “Yes. I believe I am registered—as the guest of the Marquess of Canby. I understand that Lord Branford made the arrangements.”

At this, the footman’s eyes fairly bulged. Recovering himself, he assisted Martha from the carriage with a flourish and issued instructions to another underling as to the disposition of madam’s luggage.

Straightening her skirts, Martha reflected ruefully that she could not blame the footman for his misperception. The sort of young woman who might patronize the Grand Hotel would certainly not arrive sans abigail and dressed in a plain gown of cheapest muslin. In addition, the sort of young woman who might be presumed to be under the protection of Lord Branford would not, in all probability, be tall and plain and thin as a bedpost.

She sighed. None of that could be helped. At least, Lord Branford was familiar with her station in life and would expect nothing more than her very undistinguished person.

Drawing herself up, she swept into the lobby of the hotel. She refrained from gaping at the grandeur about her, but walked swiftly to the desk. There, a middle-aged gentleman of sober mien, his thinning hair brushed back severely, greeted her. When she gave him her name, he bowed courteously.

“Of course, Mrs. Finch, we have been expecting you. I am Mr. Simmons, the hotel manager. Your suite is ready. If you will follow me?”

Martha said nothing, merely nodding regally. Mr. Simmons led her across an expanse of thick blue carpet to a broad staircase that led upward in a lavish sweep.

Martha was by now thoroughly awed by her surroundings, but she stiffened her back. She must assert her right to take her place in these exalted surroundings.

Martha followed Mr. Simmons up the stairs. At the top, he led her through a corridor embellished with Greek statuary. He paused at a door, painted a rich cream, and knocked discreetly.

Martha held her breath at the sound of soft footfalls on the other side of the door, but the figure who swung the door wide was obviously not the Earl of Branford.

“You must be Martha Finch!” exclaimed the plump, middle-aged woman who confronted her. Mr. Simmons stepped aside to allow Martha to enter the room, and bowed himself away.

Martha scarcely noticed his departure, her attention wholly on the woman who ushered her unceremoniously into the room.

“I am Carolyn Coppersmith,” she announced, smiling a welcome. “I am to be your companion during your stay here.” She hesitated a moment. “I believe it is Mrs. Finch, is it not?”

Martha nodded, smiling. “Yes, Mrs. Matthew Finch. My husband passed away two years ago.”

Mrs. Coppersmith’s returning smile was warm and sympathetic. “I’m so sorry. I, too, am a widow. It’s been twenty-five years since I lost my Roger.” She did not wait for a response from Martha, but turned to a young maidservant who had entered the room. “Peters, take Mrs. Finch’s things. I’m sure her luggage will be up in a few moments. And I think we’d like a nice cup of tea.” To Martha she said, “Do come and sit down. You must be exhausted.”

Martha, mentally reviewing her pampered journey from York, smiled. “Thank you,” she murmured, accepting Mrs. Coppersmith’s gesture toward a cherry-striped satin settee. “You’re very kind.”

She glanced about. “Is Lord Branford—?” she began.

“Branford will be so sorry you arrived ahead of him,” interposed her new companion. “He should be here momentarily. In the meantime—

She was interrupted by a peremptory knock on the door. The young maid, Peters, who had returned to the room a moment earlier scurried to open it and was almost flung aside by the gentleman who strode into the room.

Watching him as he mouthed a brusque apology to the maid, Martha reflected that it was as though she observed the advent of a force of nature. The Earl of Branford was not overly tall, nor was he extraordinarily large, and he certainly could not have been described as handsome. His features were harsh and his nose was large and shaped rather like a scimitar. It had apparently been broken at one time, for it seemed to change course midway down its impressive length, curving to a blade-edged hook at the end. Despite these flaws, however, he was-—well, magnificent. There was an energy about him and an air of command that was both compelling and a little frightening. His eyes were dark and brilliant and penetrating, and above them, black brows lifted in a straight, heavy slash toward his temples. His hair, also black, and thick as coal dust, was neatly trimmed and shorter than the current fashion.

The carelessness of his clothing almost proclaimed him a Corinthian. However, his fawn pantaloons and his coat of Bath superfine were expertly tailored, and he wore them with an offhanded elegance.

His gaze swept past the maid and Mrs. Coppersmith and, like a falcon sizing up its prey, focused on Martha.

“Mrs. Finch, I presume?” he asked in crisp, well-modulated tones.

Drawing a deep breath, Martha rose, extending her hand.

Gabriel Storm, the fourth Earl of Branford, stood at the door for a moment, surveying the woman who approached him so calmly. Good God, Wister had described her as a tall, thin nonentity! Was the man blind? To be sure, she was somewhat on the spare side. Her light brown hair strayed in untidy wisps from the unfashionable knot that sprouted from the top of her head like a belligerent mushroom. However, she stood tall and proud as a goddess. Her eyes, large and luminous, were extraordinarily expressive. He thought he saw a hint of apprehension there, as well as humor and an unexpected intelligence. Her gaze was calm and assessing. For a single, uncomfortable moment, he felt it was he on trial here, rather than the woman before him, who, all his instincts told him, must be an adventuress.

“Branford!” exclaimed Mrs. Coppersmith, hurrying to him with outstretched arms. “It is so lovely to see you again. I want to thank you for suggesting me to Canby for this position.” She refrained from actually embracing the earl, perhaps because he had stiffened so alarmingly at her approach, but she grasped one of his hands in both of hers. “And what splendid accommodations you have procured for us.” She gestured toward Martha. “Mrs. Finch arrived a few moments ago, and we were just introducing ourselves.”

Another knock at the door heralded the arrival of a servant with a tea cart, complete with an impressive silver service and plates of sandwiches and cakes. While Mrs. Coppersmith dealt with this largesse, Branford moved to Mrs. Finch and, nodding for her to be seated, settled himself beside her.

“I trust you had a pleasant journey,” he murmured in a noncommittal tone.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Finch, smiling slightly. “I must thank Lord Canby when I meet him for making sure my journey was such a comfortable one, and, of course,” she added hastily, “for Mrs. Coppersmith.”

Her voice was pleasant, noted Bran. She spoke in low, well-modulated tones. Hmm. Hadn’t she claimed to have been raised in a fishing village? Contemplating her words, he grinned. Was Mrs. Finch throwing down the gauntlet with this subtle assumption that she would, of course, be meeting the marquess in the near future? Or was it merely an expression of her disappointment at not being invited to Canby House in the first place? Lord, if it had been up to the old man, the female would have been ushered into his best guest chamber upon receipt of Wister’s report. It had taken all Bran’s powers of persuasion to induce the marquess to follow a more circumspect path.

At Mrs. Coppersmith’s direction, the tea apparatus was set out on a marble-topped table near the settee, and the next few minutes were occupied in pouring, stirring, and passing the exquisitely thin sandwich and cake plates.

Conversation was general during this ritual, dealing with the extraordinary expansion of London in the last few years, the marvels of the peace celebration, and the notables who had come to participate in the festivities. Bran noted, again with some surprise, that Mrs. Finch seemed to know her way around a tea table. She ate with delicacy and spoke quietly and with sense. When the cups had been drained, however, and the last sandwich lay curling on its plate, he turned purposefully toward her.

She obviously knew what he was going to say. He watched in amusement as her hand hovered for a moment over the sandwich. Under his gaze, she phased the movement into a genteel brushing of her lips with the tip of one finger. She stared straight into his eyes and straightened her shoulders as though readying herself for battle.

“Now, tell me, Mrs. Finch,” he began, as one opening the first salvo in a skirmish, “why I should present you to the Marquess of Canby as his long-lost granddaughter.”

 

2

 

Martha stared at Lord Branford as he continued meditatively.

“There have been many claims over the years by enterprising young women claiming to be Lady Felicity Marshall, granddaughter of the Marquess of Canby, miraculously rescued from the sea some twenty years ago—under unvaryingly dramatic circumstances, I might add. These claims have, not unexpectedly, also proved unvaryingly false. It is almost certain that Felicity perished in the same boating accident that claimed the lives of her father, the marquess’s heir, and her mother. Stewart, the Benningtons’ son, escaped the tragedy since he was visiting friends when the rest of his family embarked on their yachting vacation. The bodies of the other shipwreck victims were recovered, but Felicity was never found. Hope dies hard, and the old gentleman has never ceased his search.

“Lord Canby is a very old and valued friend. Eventually, the steady stream of claimants to his fortune and his affection—primarily the former, I must say—became too much for him, and he asked me to represent him in filtering out those whose claims were patently false. Thus, Mrs. Finch,” he concluded colorlessly, “while I am willing to listen to your no doubt touching story, I make no promise that you will ever come to Lord Canby’s personal attention.”

Lord Branford gazed at Mrs. Finch, assuming an expression of bored expectancy.

For a long moment, Martha remained perfectly still, her rigidly controlled features revealing nothing of her inner chaos. Lord Branford had made every effort to put her at a disadvantage. Despite this, oddly, she stood in no fear of him. On the contrary. From her first sight of his forbidding countenance, she had fell— she could find no other words to describe the sensation—a peculiar bond. It was as though something in her recognized and cherished something compelling in his makeup.

She shook herself. This was no time for such nonsense. Her moment had come. The moment for which she had so carefully prepared. She opened her mouth, knowing that the next few minutes would decide her fate for the rest of her life.

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