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Authors: The Dream Chasers

Melinda Hammond

BOOK: Melinda Hammond
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THE DREAM CHASERS

 

Melinda Hammond

 

Chapter One

 

‘Philip, I promise you I have had enough adventuring. When a man reaches thirty it is time he took a wife and settled down.’

Major Lagallan exchanged a laughing glance with his own dear spouse, and Mrs Lagallan shook her head at her brother-in-law.

‘Vivyan, I do not believe you are serious!’

Mr Lagallan grinned across the dining-table. ‘For shame, Caro. I thought you at least would applaud my intention!’

‘If you are truly sincere in your wish to marry, I am glad of it. But tell me a little about the woman who has affected this change in you.’

‘She was the toast of London last season: Helen Pensford.’

Mrs Lagallan frowned. ‘I have never met her, I think. You must remember, Viv, that we did not come to London last year, what with little Philip coming down with chicken-pox, and then Charles had that dreadful cough. When the doctor suggested a little sea air would be beneficial, I took both boys to Worthing. But tell me about Miss Pensford. Is she truly a beauty?’

‘Oh, a veritable diamond.’ Vivyan Lagallan lifted his wine glass and stared thoughtfully at the dark contents. ‘Her breeding is impeccable. The Pensfords own a considerable estate at Combe Charlton, near Bath. Helen is their only child. Very little wit, but she dances like an angel.’

‘Oh dear.’

He laughed at the look of dismay upon his sister-in-law’s countenance. ‘What! Are you jealous, Caro?’

The lady’s eyes twinkled.

‘Not a bit, you know I made my choice years ago, and have never regretted it!’ She reached out a hand to her husband, who caught her fingers and carried them to his lips. She smiled, and continued, ‘No, Viv, what I fear is that Miss Pensford sounds far too dull for you. Pray do not laugh at me, I am serious! You have lived all your life for adventure and excitement, and I do not care how beautiful the girl may be, if she is a ninny-hammer she will bore you within a month.’

‘Well, I hope you are wrong.’ Vivyan refilled his glass and sat back, a faint smile playing about his lips. ‘I am travelling into Somerset tomorrow to propose to the lady!’

She bit her lip, frowning at him. ‘I hope you will not regret it, my dear!’

* * * *

Vivyan recalled his sister-in-law’s words as his travelling-chariot pulled away from Combe Charlton a week later. Perhaps Caroline was right: having spent only a few days in Miss Pensford’s company, he was inordinately relieved to get away. The visit had gone exactly as planned: the lady’s family had made him welcome, gratified that he had taken up their invitation to take pot-luck with them. His proposal had been accepted, if not with rapturous delight then with satisfaction, and the fact that he had spent the past decade living abroad was easily forgotten when put against his considerable fortune. A family bereavement kept the Pensfords in Somerset, but they promised to travel to London later in the season, and it was agreed that no official announcement should be made until then. Vivyan gazed out of the carriage, and as the pale April sun disappeared behind a bank of trees that bordered the road, he wondered if he had made the greatest mistake of his life.

* * * *

His reverie was cut short when the carriage lurched suddenly and came to a stand amidst shouts from the coachman and much blowing and stamping from the team of high-bred bays. Mr Lagallan jumped down from the carriage to enquire the cause of their delay, and the coachman touched his hat to him.

‘A bag, sir. Someone threw a bag into the road - made the leaders shy, and no wonder!’

Following the coachman’s outstretched finger, Vivyan spotted a large portmanteau lying at the edge of the road. Walking up to it, he pushed it gently with the toe of one of his shiny Hessians.

‘Now how the devil did that get there?’

‘It is mine.’

Mr Lagallan looked around.

‘Up here! In the tree.’

Looking up, Vivyan saw a ginger-haired figure, dressed in a brown woollen suit, gazing down at him through the branches.

‘Well now, lad. What do you mean, to be frightening my horses so?’ he demanded.

‘Please accept my apologies for that, sir. I did not mean it to happen. You see, I scrambled up here to avoid a group of drunken men who were on the highway. I was about to climb down again when I heard your carriage and thought I had best wait until you had gone by, but my bag slipped down out of my grasp.’

‘Well, I think you had better slip down, too,’ remarked Vivyan. ‘The coast is clear now.’

‘That’s just it,’ said the youth. ‘I fear I am stuck. You see, I have been here for so long that I’ve grown very stiff, and I don’t think I
can
climb down.’

Vivyan laughed. ‘Well, you don’t look too heavy. Lower yourself off that branch, boy, and I will catch you.’

Looking very relieved, the lad swung down from his perch and dropped into Vivyan’s arms. He caught the boy easily, and found himself looking down into a pair of clear green eyes. Without releasing his grip, he observed the red hair, scraped back from a wide brow and confined at the neck with a ribbon, and the clear skin with a sprinkling of freckles on a straight little nose. Mr Lagallan’s dark eyes gleamed.

‘Damme, you are not a boy at all!’ he exclaimed, a laugh in his voice. ‘I think you must be a wood nymph!’

The body in his arms wriggled to free itself but his grip tightened.

‘Oh, no! I shall only let you go if you promise not to run away. I want to know what you are doing alone on the highway, dressed in those clothes.’ There was no reply. Vivyan said cheerfully, ‘Come now, Miss, you owe me that much for rescuing you.’

The green eyes flashed. ‘You did
not
rescue me!’

‘Oh? And how else were you going to get down from that tree?’ This drew a reluctant twinkle from those engaging eyes, and Vivyan gave her his most charming smile. ‘Let us agree that I
assisted
you! Now, nymph, will you promise?’

‘Oh, very well.’

He set the girl on her feet, and she stepped back a pace to straighten her rough clothes, saying as she did so, ‘Thank you. I am on my way to Bath to catch the night mail to London. I thought it would be safer to travel as a boy, but when I saw that group of men approaching, I thought it best to hide in the tree until they had passed.’

'Very wise,’ said Vivyan gravely.

‘Yes, but they did not pass by! They decided to rest on this very spot, and I was obliged to remain in the tree for
hours’.
They were only just out of sight when you came by. Perhaps you saw them on the road?’

‘Sadly, no. I was, er, sleeping, until your bag dropped from the tree.’

‘I am so sorry about that! And I am truly grateful for your assistance, sir, but if you will excuse me, I must press on if I am to reach Bath today.’

Reason told Mr Lagallan that a sensible man would bid this young person adieu and be on his way. But Vivyan had never claimed to be sensible.

‘I am myself going that way - perhaps I could take you up as far as Bath?’ he smiled at her doubtful glance. ‘I promise you will be quite safe: I always travel with a pair of loaded carriage-pistols — look, you could reach one easily if you need to defend yourself.’

An answering smile gleamed in her own eyes. ‘Thank you sir, but I doubt that would be necessary.’

‘Well, on a more practical level, there is a rug . . . and a hot brick for your feet, if you would like it.’

The temptation proved too great. The girl nodded.

‘Thank you. You are very kind. I do feel quite chilled, after sitting still for so long.’

Mr Lagallan picked up the portmanteau and tossed it to his footman, then after a word to his coachman, he handed the girl into the carriage.

Warming her toes on the hot brick, and with the travelling-rug tucked about her legs, his companion gave a sigh of contentment.

‘That is so very comfortable! Thank you.’

Think nothing of it. But if we are to be travelling-companions, should we not introduce ourselves? My name is Lagallan.’

‘How do you do? I am Eustacia Marchant.’

Vivyan’s lips twitched at the absurd formality, but he asked soberly, ‘And how comes it that you are travelling alone to London, Miss Eustacia Marchant?’

‘I am going to be married!’ She saw his look of surprise, and a dark flush crept into her cheeks. ‘I am going to find Rupert Alleyne. We fell in love during last autumn, when he was staying with his uncle, near Charlton Temple.’

Mr Lagallan remained admirably serious at this matter-of-fact statement.

‘And does Mr Alleyne know you are coming to see him?’

‘No, but it is imperative that I find him, before he proposes to someone else!’

‘And - er - is he likely to do so? If he loves you, that is.’

‘He
does
love me, very much, but Aunt Jayne says his parents are arranging an - an advantageous alliance for him. But if he loves me, I do not see that he should marry anyone else, do you? And it is not as if I am a pauper,’ continued Miss Marchant, considering the matter. ‘When I am five and twenty I shall inherit my mother’s property, and of course there is grandfather’s fortune, too, when he dies — oh!’ Her hands flew to her mouth, and her eyes danced as she looked at Vivyan, sitting opposite her. ‘That sounds very heartless, but indeed I am very fond of Grandpapa, and have lived very happily with him for years - in fact, I can remember no other home, for my parents died when I was a baby.’

‘And how old are you now?’

‘I have just turned one and twenty. I know that I look much younger than that,’ she added confidentially. ‘I was presented two seasons ago, and it was
not
a success. I think I was far too young, then, but Aunt Jayne says she is already much distracted by the arrangements for my cousin Cordelia’s wedding and cannot bother with me again until that is over, and Grandfather is far too old to travel to London, so there is no one to come with me, and I
must
find Rupert before it is too late!’

‘And you have not seen — er — Rupert since last year?’

‘No. He left Somerset in September, and Mrs Alleyne - his aunt, you know — had a letter from him at Christmas explaining that he was obliged to remain with his papa. So I quite see that he could not come back
then,
but now Mrs Alleyne is hinting that he is looking about him for a rich wife, and I
cannot
let that happen!’

‘But, forgive me, I know I must seem very dull-witted, why should — er — Rupert marry someone else if he loves you?’

‘Aunt Jayne says he will do so to please his papa, but surely, if I go to London and we explain to Mr Alleyne, he must see that we truly love each other?’

The green eyes were turned trustingly upon Vivyan and he hesitated before making a reply. How could he explain to this absurd child that the young man had most likely looked upon their romance as nothing more than a mild flirtation to pass the time?

He said gently, ‘Miss Marchant, let me advise you to go home. I will happily break my journey to take you there myself, and if you like I will carry a letter to young Mr Alleyne. I cannot believe that he would want you to be travelling the country in this way.’

The young lady’s countenance took on a stubborn look.

‘No, you are very kind, sir, but I
must
find him. You see, I very much fear that if I do not see him and talk to him myself, he will be persuaded to sacrifice himself in marriage to an heiress.’

‘But surely your family will be missing you: you cannot wish to alarm them.’

Her sunny smile dawned again.

‘No indeed, but they will not worry, for they think I am staying with my old governess! I persuaded Miss Frobisher to invite me to stay for a few weeks. Since she lives but five miles from Bath, I knew I could easily walk there to catch the mail.’

‘Do you mean to tell me the lady is a party to your madcap scheme?’

‘Oh yes, for she quite sees that one must make a push to secure one’s happiness. Besides, I knew she would be able to fit me out with a boy’s suit, for she has several nephews, all of whom come to stay with her at times.’

Vivyan dropped his head in his hands.

‘Miss Marchant, you are incorrigible!’

‘Thank you.’

‘It was not a compliment!’

‘But you do see that I am determined to get to London and find Rupert? If he should marry someone else, it would be the end of all my dreams!’ She glanced out of the window. ‘Goodness, we have reached Bath already! I am deeply grateful to you, sir, for I was very much afraid that the delay on the road would mean I would be walking into Bath in the dark.’

Gazing down into Eustacia’s trusting face, Mr Lagallan realized the impossibility of dropping the child at The White Hart and leaving her to make her own way to London.

‘Miss Marchant, if I may make a suggestion? Even in that disguise I cannot think it wise for you to travel alone. The dangers awaiting such an innocent as yourself are legion. I am even now on my way to Town, and if you will not allow me to escort you home, which is the course of action I would most strongly advise, then I would rather take you with me than let you jaunter about the country unattended.’

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