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Authors: The Substitute Bridegroom

Charlotte Louise Dolan

 
THE SUBSTITUTE BRIDEGROOM

 

Charlotte Louise Dolan

 

Chapter 1

 

Captain Darius St. John, home on leave from the war in Spain, tightened his grip on the reins, choked on the dust he was being forced to eat, and seethed with frustration. In a moment of boredom, he had let Charles Neuce persuade him into betting on which of them could win a race from Upper Dorklington to Lower Dorklington to East Dorklington and back to Upper Dorklington. He should have known his friend would have a trick up his sleeve.

Quite sure that his team of blacks was superior to Charles’s grays, Darius had allowed his friend to take the lead at the beginning of the race. It would be an easy matter to overtake the other team when they began to tire, which they were sure to do, considering the blistering pace Charles had set.

Unfortunately, Darius had made the mistake of underestimating his opponent, which had led him to make a serious tactical error—he had not scouted out the course in advance—and his blunder was about to cost him the race.

In plain words, the lane that ran from East Dorklington back to Upper Dorklington was quite old, quite crooked, and what was more important, was worn down by the passage of multitudinous hooves and wheels, until it was sunken several feet below the level of the surrounding fields. As long as Charles continued hugging the crest of the road, which he showed every intention of doing, Darius would be trapped behind him.

“You might as well concede, Capt’n,” said his batman, who was sitting beside him in the light curricle. “He ain’t never going to give you the opportunity to pass.”

“In that case, Munke, I shall have to make my own opportunity,” Darius replied. Never would he go down in defeat to a civilian, and such a frivolous one at that. “You may have noticed he swings a bit wide on the turns.”

“Capt’n, you ain’t never going to pass on this corner.”

Instead of slowing his blacks, at the crucial moment Darius St. John dropped his hands and his team shot forward, hugging the inside of the turn and pulling abreast of his friend’s curricle.

The corner was tight, and for a moment Darius thought he had pushed things too far. His curricle tipped alarmingly, but Munke immediately threw all his weight to the side, virtually hanging suspended over thin air, while Darius held his team with steady hands. When the road straightened, his blacks were safely in position. At first running neck and neck with the other team, they gradually began to pull ahead.

With a shout of triumph, Darius glanced sideways at Charles, who was urging his team to greater efforts, efforts that were clearly beyond them. Then suddenly Charles was tugging back on the reins just as desperately.

“Capt’n, the child!”

Jerking his attention back to the road ahead, Darius was horrified to see a small child standing frozen in the middle of the road, his mouth open in a round, silent scream. Realizing at once that there was insufficient room between the high banks of the lane to avoid running down the child, Darius nevertheless tried to check his horses’ headlong gallop.

What occurred next happened with such speed that the details were not clear in his mind. A figure in yellow appeared out of nowhere and snatched up the child at the same time that Darius managed to swing his horses to the left, forcing them over against the other team.

There were screams from the horses and a rending sound as the curricles collided. Gradually Darius became aware that he was lying on the ground looking up at the sky, the wind knocked out of him.

When he regained his breath, he moved his arms and legs gingerly and decided that, although he would undoubtedly be stiff for a few days, he had not broken anything.

He could hear Munke already on his feet soothing the horses, and the jangle of tack told him his batman had efficiently set about the task of untangling the horses from their traces. At least the accident had happened near the end of the race, when the horses were too exhausted to do more than stand with their heads drooping.

Looking around, he spotted his friend lying motionless nearby, facedown in the roadway. “Charles?”

“Damn, I think I broke my arm,” was the muffled reply.

Behind them the child was sobbing quietly, but other than having a moment of thankfulness that he was obviously unhurt, Darius paid him no heed. He pushed himself up to his knees, shook his head to clear the momentary dizziness, sat back on his heels, and ruefully surveyed the wreckage of what had once been two of the finest racing curricles that money could buy. “How have the horses fared, Munke?”

Munke straightened up from feeling the legs of the leader and replied, “Better’n could be expected, Capt’n. They’ll not be up to running in another race in the near future, but I don’t think they’ve been permanently damaged.”

“That was a damn bit of driving, Darius,” Charles said, rolling over onto his side and trying unsuccessfully to wipe the dirt off his face. “Although it’ll take me a while to decide if it was damned good or damned bad.” He started to chuckle and then broke into a laugh.

Darius joined in, and the two of them staggered to their feet, leaning against each other and laughing as if demented.

“Capt’n, the lady ...” Munke’s voice rang with horror.

Darius turned and saw that the child’s rescuer was a young woman, and the laughter died abruptly in his throat. She stood by the embankment, the child clinging to her skirt, her hands pressed to her right cheek.

Blood was oozing between her fingers, dripping onto her dress. She stared at him with eyes that were shocked with pain and disbelief.

Then her beautiful blue eyes slid shut, and she swayed where she stood. He reached her before she could fall, and caught her up in his arms. Bellowing at the top of his lungs, the child released his grip on her skirt, scrambled up the bank, and vanished through a break in the hedgerow.

“Hellfire and damnation, how did she get hurt? We missed her and the brat completely.” Charles came up behind him.

“Shrapnel,” replied Munke, picking up a bloody piece of wood that had once been part of a spoke. “How bad is it, Capt’n?”

“It looks worse than it probably is,” Darius replied, lowering himself carefully to the ground, the girl still in his arms. He could not bring himself to lay her down in the dirt, and they had neither cloak nor rug to put under her.

He barked orders to Munke, who quickly folded all their handkerchiefs into a pad, pressing it firmly to the girl’s cheek until the bleeding slowed, then binding it in place with the cravat Charles reluctantly sacrificed to the cause.

Darius stared down at the unconscious woman cradled in his arms. He had seen soldiers blown apart on the field of battle, had held dying men in his arms, and had thought he was inured to the grisly reality of violent injuries, but there was a feeling of wrongness here that deeply disturbed him.

This was not the proper place for pain and suffering. This was Hertfordshire, not Portugal. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees here, not a harsh wind scorching the parched earth.

The peacefulness of the morning was not shattered by the sound of artillery and muskets, but only sweetened by the melodies of small birds trilling in the shrubbery.

No stench of death and decay reached his nostrils, just the faint fragrance of lavender.

This was no injured man he held in his arms, no toughened soldier. This was a graceful woman with slender arms and legs and soft curves.

The bright red of her blood made an obscene contrast with the delicate yellow fabric of her dress, and he felt again the impotent rage and despair that had tormented him after his initial experience in battle, when he had first seen the mindless, stupid carnage of war.

This accident had been just as mindless, just as stupid, just as pointless. If only he hadn’t ...

He checked his thoughts as ruthlessly as he had earlier checked his horses. Long ago he had learned that what was done was done. There was never any going back, never a way to undo a mistake. Regrets and self-recriminations served no purpose except to weaken a man’s resolve, which in turn only made an officer indecisive and prone to further misjudgments.

Darius had conquered his emotions long ago, and these feelings he had now were no more than a temporary aberration, easily banished. Life was as it was, and he had no room in his life for softer emotions.

“Shouldn’t we try to wake her?” Charles asked, hovering nearby, carefully holding his left arm with his right.

“Why?” Darius asked bluntly. “So she can suffer more? If we’re lucky, she won’t wake up until after the doctor has finished stitching her cut.”

“Stitches?” his friend moaned weakly.

Darius looked up to see him white as a sheet. “You’d better sit down yourself, because no one’s going to catch you if you faint.” Damn, all he needed now was a squeamish companion. At least he knew Munke was equal to any emergency.

“Ride to the next village and get help,” Darius ordered his batman. “It can’t be more than a mile or two down the road. Take whichever of the horses is fit to ride.”

Before Munke could mount up, however, they heard voices, and moments later two young girls emerged from an unnoticed driveway about a hundred feet farther along the road and came hurrying toward them.

“Cousin Elizabeth,” the brown-haired one cried out. She looked reproachfully at Charles and Darius. “Oh, what have you done to her? You’ve killed her!” She clasped her hands in front of her, rather overdoing it, in Darius’s opinion.

“Don’t be a gudgeon, Florie, she’s still breathing. She probably just fainted, although I wouldn’t have thought she’d ever do something like that,” the younger girl said.

She had the same honey-colored hair as the woman he held in his arms, but there the resemblance ended. She appeared to be about fourteen or fifteen years of age and was still all arms and legs, whereas the elder miss looked almost old enough to put up her hair and emerge from the schoolroom.

Florie, after a surreptitious glance around, pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, moaned, and fainted melodramatically in the direction of Charles, who managed to catch her with his one good arm, but who could not hold back a gasp of pain when she bumped against his broken one.

Darius looked at her in disgust. Typical female, he thought. Silly, spoiled, and unable to pass up an opportunity to practice her feminine wiles, no matter what the situation. He turned to the other girl, who was still young enough not to have lost her wits completely. “Is your home nearby?” he asked, rising to his feet.

“Yes, this way.” She started back the way she had come, and he followed, the injured girl a scarcely noticeable burden in his arms.

“Is Beth hurt badly?” she asked anxiously over her shoulder.

“She’ll need a doctor. Can you run ahead and warn them we’re coming?”

Without another word, the child dashed away.

“Wait!” Charles called from behind him. “What do I do with this one?”

Turning in at the driveway, Darius looked back. “Drop her in the dirt.”

He had just time to see an enraged female jerk herself out of Charles’s grasp before the hedgerows blocked them from view, and Darius said a small prayer of thanksgiving that women were not allowed on the battlefield.

The young woman he was carrying moaned, then began to struggle in his arms. “Robbie, Robbie,” she cried in a dazed voice.

At first he did not understand, and his efforts to soothe her were unsuccessful. She became more and more agitated, until finally he heard her say, “The child—”

“The child is fine. Now calm yourself, or you’ll start the bleeding again.”

At his words of reassurance, she relaxed again in his arms, and before he had gone more than a few steps farther, he realized she had fortunately subsided back into her swoon.

* * * *

“Ah, there you are, my dear. Dorinda told me she thought I might find you in the rose arbor. There’s a gentleman come to call on you.”

Elizabeth Goldsborough looked up from her book to see her Aunt Theophila Donnithorne approaching, her lace hat slightly askew and several of her scarves in imminent danger of sliding off her shoulders.

“Simon is come?” Elizabeth touched a hand to her bandaged cheek. Her fiancé had been in the north visiting friends, and her twin brother had written at once to inform him of her accident.

“No, not Simon. I do wish the dear boy would get here soon. I think it is disgraceful of him to be absent from your side at a time like this.” She seated herself beside her niece and began fanning her face, which was quite red from the exertion of her walk.

“Then who is it?”

“Who is what?”

“Who has come to see me?”

“Oh, it’s that dreadful Captain St. John,” her aunt said indignantly. “That horrible man who caused your accident. I shall understand perfectly if you do not wish to see him. I will simply tell him you are still indisposed.”

Elizabeth felt an unexpected relief. She had not realized how much she dreaded seeing Simon Bellgrave, or rather, how much she worried about letting him see her.

“Why should I not wish to receive this captain?”

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