Authors: Sandra Heath
Tags: #Regency Romance
The sound of the mail coach disturbed the sea gulls and they rose screaming into the air over the coast road. Late evening sunlight turned the wild expanse of heather to a deep pink, and the sea in the bay was indigo.
With a clatter the coach turned at the foot of Harcot Hill, the horses straining on the final stage of the journey from London. The climb was long and the coach moved slowly now. Inside, the solitary passenger leaned to look back toward the bay. In the distance she could see the Welsh coast, a line of purple smudging the horizon. The trees of Harcot Hill slid past the dusty window and she sat back, leaning her head wearily against the horsehair padding. The smell of the sea was clear and fresh and she thought that nowhere on earth was as beautiful and welcoming as Somerset on a warm summer evening.
But would she receive a welcome? She doubted it. She saw the road ahead curving toward the gallows-tree at Hangman’s Cross. Only a mile or so beyond lay Henbury, her destination.
She stretched her fingers nervously in their tight-fitting kid gloves. Henbury was her home town, the place where she had been born and raised, and the place she had scandalized by jilting her wealthy bridegroom at the altar to run away with her best friend’s husband.
Put like that it seemed so very wrong, so very reprehensible. But it had been so right, to run from Henbury with Philip, to cast caution to the winds and spend every hour with him. She toyed with the flounces on her pale blue parasol and her eyes filled with tears. It was all ended now, for Philip was dead. She would never see him again, never hold him close or lie safe and protected in his arms. Blinking back the tears she looked at the stark gallows as the coach rattled across the crossroads and began the long descent to Henbury.
“Well, Jessica Durleigh, you’re coming home now,” she whispered, staring ahead toward the tall spire of St. Mary’s Church rising from the fold in the countryside. They would all know she was coming, for the reading of Philip’s will would have insured that. Everyone would know that the notorious Miss Durleigh had been left the cottage of Applegarth and that for some months now it had been repaired and refurnished.
They would all be waiting for her to return. She could well imagine the lip-licking glee with which all the old biddies prepared the well-stirred remains of the old scandal, and how they could have poured it all out again and chewed it over until everything had been thoroughly masticated. Well, at least her father was dead now and could not be hurt again by his daughter’s reappearance.
She nervously smoothed the dainty muslin skirt of her London gown, picking idly at an embroidered daisy. Henbury was the last place on earth she would have chosen to live, but Philip had left her only a small income and, of course, Applegarth. She had no choice.
As the coach turned a bend in the road she could see Varangian Hall on its cliff overlooking the sea. The elegant Palladian house was bright in the setting sun, its windows glittering as the coach moved along the road. Below it she could see the dark green cloak of Ladywood. Somewhere at the foot of that escarpment nestled Applegarth, although she could not see it. Her eyes slid to Varangian Hall again. Once she would have been mistress of it, Lady Varangian. How would Francis be now?
How would any of them be? Rosamund, whom she had loved since childhood, but who had been so hurt when Jessica had eloped with her husband. Sir Nicholas, Philip’s elder brother who had never liked Jessica anyway and who had always had a tender heart for Rosamund. Or Lady Amelia Woodville, Philip’s mother, who had so doted on everything her younger son did; except in the matter of Jessica Durleigh. They all still lived at Henbury.
She took a long, shaky breath and composed herself as the coach swayed past the first cottages on the outskirts of the town. Varangian Hall was hidden from view now by the roofs and walls, and she looked at the remembered buildings fondly. Oh, yes, she could still look gently on Henbury, for she had always been happy there. But in spite of everything, she knew that if Philip were to smile at her now she would go with him again without a second thought.
The cobbles of Market Street were as uneven and pitted as ever they had been, and the coach slowed to a crawl as the horses’ hooves slithered on a surface made damp after a recent shower. There was a scent of straw in the air, and the smell of fresh bread as they passed the bakery. She sat back in the shadows as the coach halted at a road junction. Snippets of conversation drifted in through the open window, the soft Somerset voices lying gently on her ears. She saw the apothecary shop, and Miss Brendon’s haberdashery. It was all so exactly as she remembered.
With a lurch the coach moved on again, the guard blowing the trumpet to clear the cluttered road ahead, for Friday was market day and the stalls were being cleared away after a busy day’s trading. A dog barked excitedly at the chocolate-and-black mail coach and the coachman cursed roundly as the team jerked nervously. Then they were turning into the low entrance of the Feathers, the wheels crunching and echoing as the coach drew into the galleried courtyard of the old coaching inn.
Jessica held her breath for a moment. She had arrived. She listened to the noise of the inn, watching as the ostlers ran to unharness the tired team.
“Made good time from Taunton then, Ben?
shouted the innkeeper, bringing a mug of ale to the weary coachman.
“Ah, good enough, my friend.”
“No sign of trouble over Harcot Hill?”
“Not this time. Reckon as how they’re lying low for a time.”
“Right enough, for ‘tis a terrible punishment they’ll have if they’re caught. Holding up the Royal Mail be a deportation crime.”
Ben climbed wearily down. “Well, they can send the beggars where they likes. I’m for a good feed, a long, long drink, and a good wench to warm my bed for me.”
“I can give you the first two, my old friend, but as to the last you’ll have to look for that yourself.” The innkeeper was grinning as Ben walked past the window where Jessica sat. His smile faded as he saw her.
There was no mistaking Miss Jessica Durleigh. No other woman had that dark chestnut hair and those great big green eyes. He wiped his hands on his clean apron and opened the door for her. “Welcome to the Feathers, Miss Durleigh.”
Her heart leapt. She had hardly known him and yet he remembered her. She climbed down, shaking out her sky blue skirts and fastening the buttons of her waist-long jacket. The innkeeper stared at her. It was not often that so fashionable a lady graced his inn, and by all that flew she was a real London beauty now, was Henbury’s little Miss Durleigh. But what on earth did she have to come back for? It would do no good, no good at all.
“Pray come inside, Miss Durleigh, and enjoy the hospitality of my house.”
“Is Miss Davey here?”
“Tamsin? Aye, she’s waiting in the parlor, but I didn’t know as how it was you she was waiting for.”
The wide green eyes moved coolly over him. “Does your every customer confide in you then, sir?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “ ‘Twas but an observation.”
She nodded, walking swiftly past him toward the half-open door of the parlor.
Tamsin waited by the dark fireplace with its highly polished copper pans. “Miss Jessica. . . .”
Jessica took the other woman’s hands warmly. “Oh, Tamsin, how good it is to see you again. But you are sure that you still wish to come to me, for if you would rather not then I will understand.”
“I’m my own mistress now, Miss Jess, and I don’t care what’s said. I’ll come to you
just as I served at Durleigh Farm all those years ago.”
“Thank you, Tamsin, but it will not be easy. Or comfortable. I am not a wealthy woman by any means.”
Tamsin’s plump country face saddened. “I was right sorry about Master Philip, Miss Jess. Right sorry.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
Tamsin’s face changed suddenly as she saw someone’s shadow blocking the sunlight in the doorway. “Oh, Miss Jess. . . .”
Turning quickly, Jessica saw Francis. His hand rested against the door, his pearl-handled riding crop tapping the wood slightly. His golden hair caught the sun as he swept off his tall hat and bowed low to her. His dark green riding jacket was faultlessly cut, as ever, and his breeches clung almost indecently to his hips and thighs. He was every inch the picture of sartorial excellence.
He smiled slightly. “I thought I was not mistaken, that it was you I saw in the mail coach.”
She curtsied. “Francis.”
His blue eyes rested thoughtfully on her face. “Why have you come back?”
“I am the new owner of Applegarth.”
“Ah, yes, the little property which borders my lands.”
“I shall cause you no embarrassment, Francis, that I promise you. I wish to live quietly and without moment.”
You? In Henbury? My dear Jessica, that will be an impossibility, for Henbury will not let you.”
She flushed. “Anything is possible, sir.”
“Why didn’t you sell the cottage and take yourself elsewhere? I do not mean that unkindly, Jessica, I merely cannot understand why you would wish to come back here after all that happened.”
“I cannot sell. One of the conditions Philip laid down was that if I wished to inherit Applegarth then I must promise to live there for two years.”
“How like the Honorable Philip Woodville, to make certain of snaring you to his memory like that,” he sneered, his overwhelming dislike of his dead rival coming swiftly to the surface.
She drew back. “Francis, I will not listen to you speak like that of him. I loved him very much, and I will always love him. I was once betrothed to you, and I treated you shabbily
I freely admit that I did. But nothing has changed by his death. I will eventually follow him to the grave, and still I will love him.”
He smiled again then. “You are so wrong when you say that nothing is changed by his death. So very wrong.”
She looked at him. What did he mean?
He tapped his top hat on to his head. “I wish you well of Applegarth, Jessica.” For a moment she saw the warmth in his eyes, that same warmth which had been there when he had asked her to marry him those years before.
“This is the first chance I have had, Francis, the first time I have even seen you since that day. I am sorry for what I did to you, for it was none of your fault and you did not deserve me.”
He nodded. “I put it down to your appalling taste, Jessica, to have plumped for the Dishonorable Philip when you might have had me. Tut, tut!”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Am I forgiven?”
“Almost. If I forgive you entirely, then I will have no excuse for visiting you.”
“You need no excuse, for you are welcome.”
“As a friend.”
“As a friend.”
“Then that is how I shall come, Jessica. The past is past, but I can still find great pleasure in your company.”
“You are most gracious, Francis.”
“I have little choice, my dear, for to be otherwise would be to be boorish, and a Varangian is never boorish.” He flicked his spotless sleeve with his handkerchief, bowing over her hand. “Until we meet again then.”
“Good day, sir.”
“Good day, Miss Durleigh.”
For a moment his shadow blotted the sunbeams in the doorway and then he was gone.
Tamsin glanced at her from beneath lowered lashes. “Well, that be a turn-up for the books.”
“Tamsin Davey, you’ll think nothing, nothing at all. No matchmaking, for I want none of it.”
“He’ve got a soft spot for you still, after all this time.”
“No, Tamsin. He said it himself, a Varangian is never boorish.”
“I may be a countrywoman, Miss Jess, and never stepped outside Henbury in my whole life, but I knows when a man has a fancy and when he don’t.”
“Sir Francis Varangian is ever the gentleman, always gentle and polite, kind and charming
which makes my past conduct all the more detestable.”
Tamsin went to the window and saw that Jessica’s baggage had been unloaded from the coach. “I’ve brought the dogcart to take us back to Applegarth.”
“What’s it like there?”
“Oh, ‘tis nice enough, more than nice enough. Master Philip had had a lot done before ... well, before. Shall you have a bite to eat afore we go?”
Jessica looked around the parlor, noticing the two men playing dominoes in a corner by the fireplace. They were deep in their game and she doubted that they’d even noticed the other occupants of the room, but she did not want to stay for all that.
“No, let’s go. I’ve seen enough of old faces for one day, and if I stay in Henbury then there’s always the chance I’ll see some more.”
“Ah, maybe you’m right, Miss Jess. I’ll bring the dogcart round.”
Jessica watched the plump country figure bustle out into the courtyard. She straightened the pale blue ribbons of her bonnet, fluffing them out automatically, as she always did when anxious. Francis she had already encountered. But what of Rosamund? And the overbearing Sir Nicholas Woodville?