Authors: Mary Balogh
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
He was in no particular hurry to arrive at Grandmaison Park. His grandmother had summoned him there, as she sometimes did, and he was humoring her as he usually did. He was fond of her even apart from the fact that several years ago she had made him the heir to her unentailed property and fortune though he had two older brothers as well as one younger—plus his two sisters, of course. The reason for his lack of haste was that, yet again, his grandmother had announced that she had found him a suitable bride. It always took a combination of tact and humor and firmness to disabuse her of the notion that she could order his personal life for him. He had no intention of getting married anytime soon. He was only eight and twenty years old. And if and when he
marry, then he would jolly well choose his own bride.
He would not be the first in his family to take on a leg shackle, though. Aidan, his elder brother, had succumbed and married abruptly and secretly a mere few weeks ago in order to fulfill a debt of honor to the lady’s brother, his fellow officer in the Peninsula. By some strange miracle the hasty marriage of convenience seemed already to have developed into a love match. Rannulf had met Eve, Lady Aidan, for the first time just two days ago. He had ridden from their house this morning, in fact. Aidan had sold his commission and was settling into the life of a country gentleman with his wife and her two foster children, the besotted idiot. But Rannulf had liked his new sister-in-law.
Actually it was a relief to know that it
a love match. The Bedwyns had a collective reputation for wildness and arrogance and even coldness. But they also had a tradition among themselves of remaining scrupulously faithful to their spouses once they did marry.
Rannulf could not imagine loving one woman for the rest of his life. The thought of remaining faithful for a lifetime was distinctly depressing. He just hoped his grandmother had not said anything about the projected match to the woman concerned. She had done that once and he had had the devil of a time convincing the woman, without appearing to do so, of course, that she really did not want to marry him.
His thoughts were diverted suddenly by the appearance of a black dot ahead of him denser than the prevailing mud and hedgerows. At first he thought it was a building, but as he rode a little closer he realized that it was actually a collection of people and a large, stationary coach. An overturned coach, he soon realized, with a broken axle. The horses were out on the road as well as a few of the people. Most, though, were huddled on the grassy verge above the wreck of the coach, keeping their feet out of the worst of the mud. Many were shouting, waving, and gesticulating in his direction as if they expected him to dismount, set his shoulder to the ruined vehicle, heave it to the road again, magically repairing the axle in the process, and hand them all inside once more before riding off into the proverbial sunset.
It would be churlish, of course, to ride on by without stopping merely because he could not offer any practical assistance. He drew rein when he was close to the group and grinned when almost everyone tried to talk to him at once. He held up a staying hand and asked if anyone had been seriously hurt. No one, it seemed, had been.
“The best I can do for you all, then,” he said when the hubbub had subsided again, “is ride on with all the speed I can muster and send help back from the nearest village or town.”
“There is a market town no more than three miles ahead, sir,” the coachman told him, pointing off along the road. A particularly inept coachman, Rannulf judged, to have so completely lost control of his coach on a muddy road and not to have thought of sending a postilion on one of the horses to fetch assistance. But then the man showed distinct signs of having been keeping himself fortified against the damp and the chill with the contents of the flask that was clearly visible inside a gaping pocket of his greatcoat.
One of the passengers—a woman—had not joined the others in greeting him. She was bent over a muddy gentleman seated on a wooden crate, pressing some sort of makeshift bandage to his cheek. He took it from her even as Rannulf watched, and the woman straightened up and turned to look at him.
She was young and tall. She was wearing a green cloak, slightly damp, even muddied at the hem. It fell open down the front to reveal a light muslin dress and a bosom that immediately increased Rannulf’s body heat by at least a couple of degrees. She was bareheaded. Her hair was disheveled and half down over her shoulders. It was a glorious shade of bright red-gold such as he had never before seen on a human head. The face beneath it was oval and flushed and bright-eyed—the eyes were green, he believed—and quite startlingly lovely. She returned his stare with apparent disdain. What did she expect him to do? Vault down into the mud and play hero?
He grinned lazily and spoke without looking away from her.
“I could, I suppose,” he said, “take one person up with me. One lady? Ma’am? How about you?”
The other women passengers were having their say about his offer and his choice, but Rannulf ignored them. The redheaded beauty looked back at him, and he fully expected from the scorn on her face that she would reject his offer. He was certain of it when one of her fellow passengers, a thin, reedy, sharp-nosed individual who might have been a clerical gentleman, gave his opinion, uninvited.
“Strumpet!” he said.
“’ere,” one of the other women said—a large, buxom woman with apple-red cheeks and a redder nose, “you watch ’o you are calling a strumpet, my man. Don’t think I ’aven’t noticed the way you been eyeing ’er for the past ’alf a day ’cos I ’ave, you old lecher, squirming around in your seat so you could feel ’er up surreptitious like. And you with a prayer book in your ’ands and all. You should be ashamed of yerself. You go with ’im, dearie. I would if ’e arsked me, which ’e wouldn’t do on account of the fact I would dent ’is ’orse in the middle.”
The redhead smiled at Rannulf then, an expression that grew slowly even as the color deepened in her cheeks.
“It would be my pleasure, sir,” she said in a voice that was warm and husky and crawled up his spine like a velvet-gloved hand.
He rode over to the side of the road, toward her.
e was nothing like the highwayman of her day
dream. He was neither lithe nor dark nor handsome nor masked, and though he smiled, there was something mocking rather than carefree in the expression.
This man was solid. Not fat by any means, but . . . solid. His hair beneath his hat was fair. It looked wavy and it was certainly overlong for fashion. His face was dark-complexioned, dark-browed, and big-nosed. His eyes were blue. He was not at all handsome. But there was something about him. Something compelling. Something undeniably attractive—though that did not seem quite a powerful enough word.
Something slightly wicked.
Those were the first thoughts that flashed through Judith’s head when she looked up at him. And of course he was no highwayman but merely a fellow traveler offering to ride on for assistance and to take someone with him.
Her second thought was one of shock, indignation, outrage. How dared he! Who did he think she was that he expected she would agree to mount a horse with a stranger and ride off alone with him? She was the daughter of the Reverend Jeremiah Law, whose expectations of strict propriety and morality from his flock were exceeded only by what he expected of his own daughters—especially her.
Her third thought was that within a very short distance—the coachman had said three miles—there was a town and the comfort of an inn, and that perhaps both could be reached before the rain came tumbling down. If she availed herself of the stranger’s offer, that was.
And then she remembered her daydream again, the foolish, lovely fantasy of a dashing highwayman who had been about to carry her off on some unknown, glorious adventure, freeing her of all obligation to her family and her past, freeing her from Aunt Effingham and the dreary life of drudgery awaiting her at Harewood. A dream that had been shattered when the coach overturned.
She had a chance now to experience a real adventure, even if it was just a tiny little one. For three miles and perhaps as long as an hour she could ride up before this attractive stranger. She could do something as scandalously improper as leaving the safety and propriety of numbers to be alone with a gentleman. Her papa would shut her into her room with bread and water and her Bible for a week if he ever heard of it, and Aunt Effingham might well decide that even a month was not long enough. But who would ever know? What harm could possibly come to her?
And then the bony man called her a strumpet.
Strangely she did not feel indignant. The accusation was so absurd that she almost laughed. Yet it acted like a challenge to her. And the plump woman was encouraging her. Could she be such a sorry creature that she would turn down this small chance of a lifetime?
She smiled. “It would be my pleasure, sir,” she said, hearing with some surprise that she was not speaking with her own voice but with that of a fantasy woman who would dare do such a thing.
He rode closer to her, holding her eyes with his own as he came, and leaned down from the saddle.
“Take my hand and set your foot on my boot, then,” he instructed her.
She did both and suddenly it was too late to change her mind. With a seemingly effortless strength that left her breathless rather than alarmed, he lifted her and turned her so that almost before she knew she had left the ground she was sitting sideways before him, his arms bracketing her and giving her the illusion of safety. There was noise all about them. Some people were laughing and encouraging her while others complained about being left behind and begged the stranger to hurry and send back help before the rain came down.
“Is one of those portmanteaux yours, ma’am?” the stranger asked.
“That one.” She pointed. “Oh, and the reticule beside it.” Although it contained only the very small amount of money Papa had been able to spare her for tea and perhaps some bread and butter during her one-day journey, she was horrified at her carelessness in almost leaving it behind.
“Toss it up here, man,” the horseman instructed the coachman. “The lady’s portmanteau can be fetched with the others later.”
He touched his whip to the brim of his hat after she had her reticule and nudged his horse into motion. Judith laughed. Her great, pathetically small adventure of a lifetime had begun. She willed the three miles to stretch to infinity.
For a few moments she was preoccupied with the fact that she was far from the ground on horseback—she had never been much of a horsewoman—and that the ground itself was a sea of oozing mud. But it did not take her long to become more aware of the startling intimacy of her position. She could feel the warmth of the stranger’s body all down her left side. His legs—they looked very powerful encased in tight breeches and supple top boots—were on either side of her. Her knees touched one of them. She could feel the other brushing her buttocks. She could smell horse and leather and male cologne. The dangers of travel paled beside these other wholly unfamiliar sensations.
rather chilly for a summer day,” the horseman said, and he wrapped one arm about her and drew her sideways until her shoulder and arm were leaning firmly against his chest and she had no choice but to let her head fall against his shoulder. It was shocking indeed—and undeniably thrilling. It also made her suddenly remember that she was not wearing her bonnet. Not only that—with a quick sideways swivel of her eyes she noticed that at least some of her hair was loose and untidy about her shoulders.
What must she look like? What must he think of her?
“Ralf Bed—ard at your service, ma’am,” he said.
How could she announce herself as Judith Law? She was not behaving at all true to her upbringing. Perhaps she should pretend to be someone else entirely—a fantasy self.
“Claire Campbell,” she said, slapping together the first names that came into her head. “How do you do, Mr. Bedard?”
“Extremely well at the moment,” he said huskily and they both laughed.
He was flirting with her, she thought. How scandalous! Papa would depress his impertinence with a few withering words—and then doubtless punish
for flaunting herself. And this time he would be justified. But she was not going to spoil her precious adventure by thinking of Papa.
“Where are you bound?” Mr. Bedard asked. “Pray do not tell me there is a husband waiting somewhere to lift you down from the coach. Or a sweetheart.”
“Neither,” she told him, laughing again for no particular reason except that she felt lighthearted. She was going to enjoy her brief adventure to the very last moment. She was not going to waste time, energy, or opportunity in being shocked. “I am single and unattached—the way I like it.” Liar. Oh, liar.
“You have restored my soul,” he assured her. “Who, then, is awaiting you at the end of your journey? Your family?”
Inwardly she grimaced. She did not want to think about the end of her journey. But the good thing about adventures was that they were neither real nor lasting. For the remainder of this strange, brief one she could say and do—and be—whatever took her fancy. It was like having a dream and some reality all at the same time.
“I have no family,” she told him. “None that would own me, anyway. I am an actress. I am on my way to York to play a new part. A leading role.”
Poor Papa. He would have an apoplexy. And yet it had always been her wildest, most enduring dream.
“An actress?” he said, his voice low and husky against her ear. “I might have known it as soon as I set eyes on you. Such vivid beauty as yours would shine brightly on any stage. Why have I never seen you in London? Can it be because I rarely attend the theater? I must certainly mend my ways.”
“Oh, London,” she said with careless scorn. “I like to
Mr. Bedard, not just be ogled. I like to choose the parts
wish to play. I prefer provincial theaters. I am well enough known in them, I believe.”