Authors: Susan Carroll
Tags: #comedy, #brighton, #romance historical, #england 1800s
By Susan Carroll
Copyright 2013 Susan Carroll
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Out of the mists he came—his windswept hair
darker than a raven's wing, the pulse at the base of his throat
throbbing with all the fury of the passionate blood coursing
through his veins. His scarlet-lined black cape swirled about his
broad shoulders as he reached out his arms to her. Even though the
castle ruins loomed behind him, even though its sinister shadow
cast a blot upon the bright beauty of the moon, Gwenda felt safe as
she hurled herself into his strong embrace.
Lost in the depths of her dream, Miss Gwenda
Mary Vickers stirred upon the hard wooden settle in one of the
White Hart's private parlors. Her chestnut curls tumbled over her
spencer, the folds of the rose-colored jacket scrunched up to form
a pillow. Gwenda clasped to her bosom the heavy volume she had been
attempting to read when she had fallen asleep. Hugging the book
tenderly, she mumbled, "Oh, Roderigo. Roderigo, my love."
His fingers, warm and rugged, crooked beneath
her chin, forcing Gwenda to look up at him. Even as she did so, his
features blurred, becoming obscured by the mists, but she sensed
the full curve of his lips drawing closer to her own.
With a low groan, Gwenda rolled over, still
clutching the book. Balanced precariously on the settle's edge, she
moistened her lips in eager anticipation of her dream lover's
His arms tightened about her. He pulled
her closer, ever closer. She could feel the heat of his breath. His
mouth was but a whisper away
Thud! Gwenda tumbled off the edge of the
bench, landing hard upon the inn's polished wooden floor. The fall
jarred her instantly awake. Gwenda sat bolt upright, shoving aside
the heavy book that had somehow landed on top of her. Before she
could so much as draw breath, she heard a low whine, and then a
warm, rough tongue shot out, bathing the side of her face with
"Down, Bertie," Gwenda commanded firmly,
thrusting aside a large, lean dog, his glossy white coat spotted
with black. She rubbed her bruised hip and blinked, trying to get
Her gaze traveled upward along the coaching
prints set upon stout oak walls, the fireplace swept clean of ash
for the summer, the mantel laden with plates and mugs of gleaming
copper and pewter. From outside the open window she could hear the
clatter of iron-rimmed wheels and horses' hooves announcing more
arrivals and departures from the bustling inn yard.
She was in a private parlor of the White
Hart. On the floor, to be precise. She had been cooling her heels
here for the past three hours, ever since her carriage had snapped
a brace a few miles outside the village of Godstone Green. The
Hart's congenial landlord had very kindly offered her a book with
which to pass the time. What was it now? Gwenda consulted the
book's title page. Daniell's travelogue,
Views of the East
Mr. Leatherbury's tastes in literature did not quite match her own.
Small wonder that she-had fallen asleep. Then she had begun to
dream, only to fall off the high-backed settle just as ...
Gwenda's green eyes darkened; her usually
good-humored countenance tensed into a scowl. Fending off further
attempts of her dog to console her, she heaved herself to her feet
and plunked back down upon the settle.
"Damn!" she muttered. Her brother, the most
holy Reverend Thorne Vickers, would have blanched with horror if he
had heard her, but Spotted Bert was far more forgiving of her
vagaries. The dog merely cocked his head to one side, arching a
disreputable-looking ear that was much the worse from too many
encounters with ill-mannered cats.
"It is too provoking to be endured, Bertie,"
she said. Bert emitted a sympathetic bark and thrust his head upon
her lap. Gwenda absently scratched him behind the ear. "I could
have been in the throes of the most hideous nightmare and I might
have slumbered through the day undisturbed. But let me be caught up
in the most delicious of dreams and it never fails. I always wake
up at the best part."
Her hand stilled, coming to rest upon the
dog's head. She sighed, feeling bereft, as though she truly had
been deprived of Count de Fiorelli's kiss Although she could never
bring his features clearly into focus, she knew his name well. The
Italian nobleman had appeared in far too many of her fantasies,
both sleeping and waking, besides having emerged as a character in
many of the novels she wrote for Minerva Press. He might have borne
a different name and title in both The Mysteries of Montesadoria
and The Dark Hand at Midnight, but he was still, as ever, her
Roderigo: brooding, passionate, and courageous.
Gwenda smiled at her own nonsense, ignoring
Spotted Bert as he nudged her hand with his cold nose, indicating
his earnest desire that she resume the scratching. Although she had
been writing Gothic tales of love and terror for the past three
years, she would have stoutly denied she was a romantic. Confirmed
spinsters of one and twenty years were not supposed to give rein to
flights of fancy. But there was always one foolish corner of her
heart urging her to allow the bright colors of her imagination to
splash over drab reality. Even now she was tempted to stretch back
out upon the bench, shut her eyes tight and seek to recapture the
dream. But experience had taught her that that never worked. It was
possible to drift, right back into nightmares, but never dreams.
She would have to content herself with falling back upon her
But that was the difficulty Her imagination
never balked at conjuring what it would be like to have one's side
skewered by a villain's sword, but that soul-searing kiss always
eluded her. Despite two broken engagements, she had never
experienced anything like it. Both Sir Jasper Pryor and Marlon
Lambert had been content to kiss her hand. Perhaps that was why she
had never married either one of them.
Only once had she ever been kissed upon the
mouth by a man, and that had been by her cousin Wilfred, the
Christmastime she was fifteen. For a wager, her youngest brother,
Jack, had made Wilfred do it by holding a sword to his back. With
Wilfred's mouth so cold with fear, his hands clammy, his embrace
had reminded Gwenda of a dead mackerel.
She could have used that dream kiss to bring
greater authenticity to the romantic scenes in her books. But she
could not spend the rest of the day bemoaning it. She reached down
to pat Bert but found him gone. The animal's attention had been
claimed by something he had spied through the window. His entire
body taut with anticipation, a low, joyous growl erupted from
Bert's throat. Gwenda recognized the sound only too well. It was a
warning the dog reserved especially for his feline enemies.
"Bert!" she said, attempting to collar the
dog. But it was too late. With a bunching of his powerful
hindquarters, Spotted Bert cleared the sill and bounded outside.
Gwenda reached the window in time to see a barking flash of black
and white tearing between horses' legs in hot pursuit of a
caterwauling fluff of gray.
She started to shout but immediately
recognized the futility of the effort. Bert would not pay her the
least heed. He would return when he was ready, to lament fresh
scratches or with his tail wagging with victory at having forced
his opponent to take refuge in a tree.
Gwenda scanned the crowded inn yard, hoping
for some glimpse of her own coachman bringing her the welcome
intelligence that the carriage would be ready soon for her to
continue her trip to Brighton. Her family would be expecting her by
five at the house Papa had rented in the Royal Crescent, and as
matters now stood, it would be long after dark before she arrived,
especially since she saw no sign of Fitch or her footman.
The inn yard appeared in more of a state of
confusion than usual. A stage from London had just arrived, letting
down its passengers for their twenty minutes of rest and
refreshment. Just behind them an elderly gentleman was demanding a
mug of ale and a change of horses for his post chaise. But most of
the uproar stemmed from a large party that had just rattled into
the yard, consisting of several carriages, a low perch phaeton, and
some young bucks on horseback, all obviously traveling together on
some sort of excursion. As the ladies were handed down from the
coaches, waiters, ostlers, and postboys flew in all directions to
provide the Hart's customary lightning service.
Even the host himself appeared harried. Mr.
Leatherbury combined the mannerisms of a jolly country squire with
a brisk efficiency in dealing with his guests. He mopped his
cherubic countenance with a large kerchief as he bent his rotund
frame into a bow to a tall man wearing a curly-brimmed beaver who
alighted from the phaeton.
In the midst of such bustle, Gwenda feared
that the landlord had forgotten about the lady he had ushered into
the private parlor hours before. She thought of sending her maid to
make inquiries about the progress of repairs to her carriage, but
as usual the pert French girl was nowhere to be found. Colette was
likely off flirting with one of the handsome young waiters
Gwenda drew back from the window, eyeing with
little enthusiasm the book that lay discarded upon the floor. If
she didn't want to spend the rest of her afternoon absorbing more
details about Indian mosques, perhaps she had best go to check on
the carriage herself.
Returning to the settle, she retrieved the
spencer that had served as her pillow and attempted to smooth out
the rose velvet garment whose pile had been sadly crushed. She
shrugged herself into the short-waisted jacket, then eased it over
her traveling gown of dove-gray jaconet. She buttoned the frog
enclosure, noting with a grimace how the spencer appeared to band
tightly over the curve of her bosom, as all her apparel did.
Gwenda had oft heard herself described as "a
handsome figure of a lady." She had always supposed that meant she
had a chin a little too forthright for her to be considered
beautiful, was too tall, and had full breasts. Her mother was
forever reminding her not to hunch her shoulders forward. It was an
old habit that had evolved from her youthful self-consciousness
over being buxom when her friends yet appeared boyishly slender.
Her mama had tried in vain to help Gwenda correct her posture.
"A general's granddaughter should always
maintain a proud military bearing," Prudence Vickers would remind
her sternly. But Mama, not quite so amply endowed, had no notion of
how self-conscious one felt. Those high-waisted clinging gowns that
were now the fashion made Gwenda feel like the figurehead on the
prow of a ship.
Remembering her mother's admonishment,
however, Gwenda did try to straighten a little. Without benefit of
a mirror, she attempted to fluff some order into her wayward mass
of curls, then headed for the door.
But she had not taken two steps when she
realized she had forgotten something. Rather guiltily, she glanced
down to where her stockinged toes peeked out from beneath the hem
of her gown. It was another of her bad habits: forever discarding
her shoes, then forgetting where she had put them.
In the sparsely furnished inn parlor, it took
her little time to locate one of her Roman sandals by the settle.
She sat down, then slipped her foot into the soft blue leather,
quickly crisscrossing the lacing up her calf and tying it into a
But the second sandal proved more elusive.
She finally found it dropped behind the fireplace andirons as
though someone had sought to hide it. She could well believe that
had. Gwenda pursed her lips as she examined her
footgear. The leather bore signs of many teeth markings, and the
damp, frayed lacing was nigh chewed through. Now she knew how
Spotted Bert had whiled away his time when she was napping.
"Blast you, Bertie," she muttered as she sank
down on the settle, trying to figure out how she was going to wear
the mangled sandal. She had hoped the dog had finally outgrown his
penchant for gnawing on any unguarded shoes he could find. When the
lacing broke off in her hand, she stifled an oath of vexation just
as she heard the parlor door open behind her.
Gwenda hoped it would prove to be the errant
Colette. Knowing that because of the settle's high back she could
not be seen from the door, she started to peer around the wooden
side to make her presence known. But instead of her maid it was the
plump landlord who bustled in, saying, "Right this way, Lord
Ravenel, and I shall have some refreshments sent in