Authors: Margaret Evans Porter
Tags: #bestselling author, #England, #regency romance, #regency historical, #Devonishre, #award winning author, #historical novella, #margaret evans porter, #short fiction, #novella
The Apple Blossom Bower
Historical Romance novella by
Margaret Evans Porter
First published in the
anthology, Signet Historical Romance,
April 1995, copyright © Margaret Evans Porter
Amazon Kindle edition copyright © 2012 Margaret Evans Porter
All rights reserved. No part of this edition may be downloaded, published, reproduced, reconstituted, transmitted, distributed or used in any form or manner whatsoever, electronic or mechanical, without written permission of the copyright holder, except in cases of brief quotations embodied in reviews or articles. Any unauthorized use is illegal. This eBook is licensed only for your personal enjoyment and may not be resold or given away to other people. Thank you for respecting the author’s rights.
This book is a work of fiction. With the exception of real historical figures and events, all names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
The Apple Blossom Bower
Margaret Evans Porter
~ Chapter 1 ~
uiding his horse along the rutted road leading out of Painsford village, Sir Edwin Page acknowledged that the fine weather should have put him in a more cheerful frame of mind. The sun shone brightly and the mild breeze so common to Devonshire’s southern extremity carried the scent of young grass and spring flowers. His view of the winding Harbourne River and the vista of low hills to the south was sublime.
His bachelor state contradicted nature’s immutable law, for songbirds had paired to make their nests and young otters dwelling along the riverbank had selected their mates. He’d soon turn thirty—1794 was four months old now. In all likelihood he’d celebrate his birthday alone.
There was, he reminded himself, a solution to his problem.
A curve in the hedge-bound track brought him to a straighter stretch where he generally guided his mount from a trot into an easy canter to make up time. Two other riders had halted just ahead of him, blocking the way, and he was forced to rein in.
A man in mud-spattered breeches, the local Exciseman, stood in the road arguing with a young female seated upon a sturdy Dartmouth pony. The animal also carried a pair of small wooden kegs, which had apparently attracted the officer’s attention.
“If you won’t permit me to inspection those casks,” he was saying sternly, “I’ll have to seize them.”
“But I’ve told you,” the girl replied, “they contain naught but cider. My mother’s Easter gift to my uncle.”
“If that’s so, why can’t I open them to make sure?”
Edwin was happy to intervene. “Good day, Miss Kelland,” he called out. “And my respects to you, Captain Harper.”
The antagonists turned their heads in unison.
The Exciseman was the first to address him. “Sir Edwin, you’re a justice of the peace, are you not? Please be so good as to inform this young woman that I bear the authority to inspect any and all goods being transported in this district.”
“True,” said Edwin agreeably. “And you have my word that Miss Kelland carries no contraband. You’ve no cause for concern.” He studied the girl’s impassive face. His own mood had improved substantially, and he was thankful for the necessity of his journey to Dartmouth. If fate were truly kind, that was also Annis Kelland’s destination.
“No cause for concern?” Harper echoed. “She’s the daughter of a villainous smuggler, who was tried and committed to Exeter Gaol for his crimes.”
“My father died more than a decade ago,” said Annis, her pointed chin jutting upward. “So I can hardly be considered guilty by association.”
Edwin could well imagine how little she liked having her parent’s unlawful trade and imprisonment held against her. Seeking to spare her further embarrassment, he said firmly, “Captain Harper, you’ve made a grievous error, and the possible consequences will not reflect well upon you. Squire Dundridge is a mild-mannered gentleman, but h’d be displeased to learn you detained his stepdaughter on the high road and accused her of being a free trader.”
The officer was clearly affronted. “I was doing my duty, sir. The gentry may choose to close their eyes to what goes on hereabouts, but I must keep vigilant. If all smugglers had pretty faces,” he grumbled, climbing into his saddle, “I’d have no luck catching any of ’em.” He rode away at a brisk trot.
A blushing Annis turned to the baronet. “I thank you for rescuing me from that land shark, Sir Edwin.”
Her use of smuggling cant amused him. Grinning, he asked, “It
really cider you’ve got in those casks?”
She failed to dignify his teasing question with a reply. Flicking her pony with the peeled willow switch that served as her whip, she rode on.
He urged his own mount forward, for he’d not found an opportunity to speak privately with her since last autumn’s apple harvest. And this time, he thought with satisfaction, she could not escape so easily.
Her pony’s large black eye rolled to the side when the taller horse came abreast, and he tossed his head in agitation. His mistress regarded Edwin with a similar wariness.
Her light brown hair was woven into a long braid that hung down her back, much to his disappointment. Edwin preferred it unconfined, flowing loose and long—as it had one evening some six months ago, when he’d raked his fingers through the curling mass to learn its texture.
The girl’s loveliness was far from conventional yet Edwin had been enchanted by it for the past two years. He especially liked her hazel eyes, so large and clear, and her pink mouth with its lusciously plump lower lip. The bones of her oval face were delicate, surprisingly refined for a country lass. Her complexion was lightly and unfashionably tanned, and the freckles scattered across a straight nose and along her cheekbones bore testimony to her aversion to hats. A snowy white kerchief was crossed over her full breasts, and the rest of her figure was flattered by a flowered bodice worn over a serviceable skirt of russet cloth.
Annis Kelland’s charming countenance and superbly endowed figure had first caught his eye. On becoming better acquainted, he’d found himself admiring her calm demeanor, and a contradictory mischievous quality. Unapologetic about what her father had been, neither did she boast of her mother’s unusually advantageous second marriage. She kept her thoughts and feelings to herself. For Edwin, in whom she inspired something stronger than neighborliness, her detachment was a barrier to intimacy—and damnably frustrating.
“Where are you bound this morning?” he asked her.
“So am I.”
“But I shan’t be riding all the way,” she added quickly. “Pippin needs to be shod, so I’ll leave him with the blacksmith at Tuckenhay and continue to the town by boat.”
Concealing his regret, he hastily concocted a plan. “A fine day to be out on the river,” he commented. “I’ve a mind to travel by ferry myself.”
She reacted with such obvious consternation that he knew his suggestion found no favor with her. Nettled by her apparent indifference, he wondered if he’d ever find a way to please his elusive charmer. All these months he’d been thinking about her, wondering if she was also thinking of him. If so, it hadn’t been with affection.
“At this season your stepfather’s orchards must be a splendid sight,” he said, renewing his efforts to draw her out.
“Old William the furze cutter says this is the loveliest spring he’s ever seen.”
“Dartmouth is rather far to go all on your own,” Edwin ventured, determined to accompany her.
“I don’t mind,” she said blithely. “My stepfather disapproves of my riding about the countryside unescorted, but I prefer it.”
They came to a spot with an unobstructed view of the river, higher and broader than usual after recent rains. The large wooden wheel that powered Bow Mill spun steadily, churning up the water.
Breaking the silence, Edwin said, “Squire Dundridge is well?”
He noticed that her mobile mouth drooped slightly before she answered, “He enjoys his customary good health. My mother also.”
“I shall soon call upon them. And,” Edwin added with a meaningful glance, “I hope to find you at home. Perhaps by catching you unawares I can save you the trouble of hiding yourself, as you did when I last called at Orchard Place.”
A blush transformed her face from sun-kissed gold to glowing pink. “I was busy. Lambing had just begun, and Shepherd Martin required my assistance.”
Edwin doubted her assertion. Although Squire Dundridge’s flock was hardly the largest in the neighborhood, his shepherd was the most highly skilled and respected. But he let her excuse go unchallenged.
They said nothing more while passing through Bow village, a clutch of houses clustered near a stone bridge over the river.
Edwin silently and heartily damned Garth Corston to hell. His friend’s untimely arrival presented him from taking Annis to Totnes Fair on Easter Tuesday. As his horse followed the marmalade pony across the narrow bridge, he wondered whether she would spurn the invitation. There’d be another fair in May. He had three weeks to persuade her to go with him.
This impromptu meeting affirmed what he’d suspected for several months: time had intensified rather than lessened his interest in Annis Kelland. Where it would lead he couldn’t be sure—he had no reason to believe his tender feelings for her were reciprocated. He’d thought so last autumn, holding her in his arms beneath her stepfather’s heavily laden apple trees. On that starry October night, lust and an excess of the Squire’s heady cider had prompted a passionate interlude, and Annis had done nothing to discourage it. When he’d kissed her she’d been anything but aloof and her eager response had confirmed that she did care for him, if only during that brief, heated moment.
All too soon they arrived at Tuckenhay. Edwin, not yet ready to part from Annis, went with her to the blacksmith’s shop. He was helping her to dismount when a trio of children darted out of the adjoining cottage.
“Miss Annis, Miss Annis!” a red-cheeked little boy cried ecstatically. “Come inside, do, and see the new kittens!”
“Our mam baked fresh buns,” the little girl volunteered shyly. “We’re selling them to the travelers for a penny apiece. But you can have one for nothing.”
“I’ll gladly pay,” Annis assured her with a fond smile. “Let me see these kits. How many are there, Tim?”
“Four,” was the boy’s prompt reply. “I’m to have one of the toms for my very own.”
Turning to the oldest of the group, a gangly youth, Annis explained that she wanted to leave her horse to be shod. “Is there room in your stable to keep him overnight, Ned? I can’t collect him till tomorrow.”