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Authors: Edith Layton

The Indian Maiden

THE INDIAN MAIDEN

Edith Layton

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Miss Faith Hamilton was sent from America to England to find a proper husband among the cream of the upper-class crop. But the beautiful Miss Hamilton had her own notion of what she sought: freedom from the wants and whims of any man, and from the enslavement that amorous enticement would surely breed.

For Lord Barnabas Deal, society

s most renowned rake, Faith was a quarry he could not resist. For the elegant and witty Earl of Methley, whose mountain of debts was as towering as his august title, the American heiress was
the ideal answer to both his financial and physical needs.

Never was a young lady courted by two such seductive suitors—and never was a young lady so determined not to surrender...

 

ONE

The ladies sat
beneath the trees and spoke in voices as light and murmurous as the slight breeze which stirred the vault of leaves above them. The oaks and beeches still wore their frivolous yellow-green spring foliage, though it was close enough to the change in season for those who sheltered beneath them to wish they instead already bore the broad, serious leaves of summer. That might have provided a deeper darkness than the thin, shifting, dappled shade they rested in. So some put up their parasols, and others kept their faces downcast to avoid the touch of the shards of sudden dancing light, so ruinous to the complexion, so sure to increase the already unexpected warmth of the day.

Since these were very young ladies who took their ease beneath the towering trees, they did not sit upon chairs as their watchful chaperones did, where they were ranged, further back, almost out of sight (though never out of line of sight), right in front of the trunks of the great trees. Nor did they stand, as some of their attendant gentlemen did, nor did they rest gingerly upon little spread squares of handkerchief linen as some of the more foppish of those fellows did, nor never, of course, did they squat or sit Indian style in emulation of some of the other gentlemen, either. No, servants had brought them various small rugs, and paisley throws and plump cushions and knitted patchworked stoles to protect their skirts from the grass and they rested on them as they languished on the close
-
cropped lawn, and fanned themselves lightly and complained softly about the warmth of the day.

A lone gentleman had been riding slowly along a high
bridle
path that ran between the long avenue of twinned trees, and when he came upon the gathering it seemed to
him that they all were ranged beneath him in a hollow of the land in tableau, specifically for his viewing. Thus the young ladies in their light gauze dresses, upon their varicolored seatings, appeared to him at first to be almost like a bowl of blossoms shaken down from some fabulous tree and newly settled upon the greensward. It was such an unexpected sight and such an amusing sudden thought that he checked his horse and gazed down at them with the pure simple pleasure of the unseen, uninvolved observer.

Although he was a man who valued progress and although he fully appreciated the scene before him, for a moment, because of his love of the theatrical and his connoisseur’s eye, he almost wished he could have come upon such a scene a generation before. Then it would not have only been the cloths and cushions and blankets that pied the landscape with brilliant color, but the ladies themselves in their billowing gowns would have been spectacularly set off against the grass, surrounded by yards of rich fabric and brocade. But
modern
fashion in this year of 1816 had all the females clad in the lightest, narrowest wisps of gowns. And these young ladies were, if no other thing, fashionable.

Yet, though they lacked the antique splendor he might have preferred for art’s sake, there was enough that was piquant about their appearance to keep his interest. In their pale and drifting gauzy garments, they looked to him like wan sprites riding on fantastic Arabian carpets.

He would have only rested there for a moment and looked his fill before moving on with a smile and a sigh for the ephemeral visions and joys of youth, if he had not then, with assistance from a fractious wayward breeze, heard them speak.

“Well I don’t think,” protested one pastel pink vision atop a fat green striped pillow, “that just sitting here helps in the least.”

“And I think Sallie’s entirely right,” mewled another young lady from her island of puce satin-pieced rag rug, “there might be a breeze by the lake. And it least, it
looks
cool there.”

“The reflection, however, from the waters,” a very fair young creature upon a wine-colored silk runner commented in as ominous a tone as her spidery voice could manage, “might produce glare.
Glare
causes more harm than the sun itself does, Mama says,” she added in baleful tones, with an emphasis on “glare” that made it sound like she considered it some hideous contagious disease.

But so it seemed did all her listeners, for a nervous silence fell over the group after her pronouncement. Though the observer had heard quite enough, since what passed for conversation in the assembly below was beginning to bore him as heartily as their appearance had captivated him, he did not move his mount forward lest the sound of its passage ring out in the quiet and trap him in his tracks, a penalty he discovered he disliked more than the unknown young lady dreaded glare.

“I say, let’s do go,” called out a youth whose spirited voice was at odds with the stocky figure it issued from, as he hunkered near a young creature in an apricot gown and fanned her absently and unproductively with her matching fan. “It would be far better than sitting here and roasting. It’s a bit of a trek, to be sure, but there are willows there. Willows have acres of shade.”

The observer edged his mount on a few paces as a general con
s
ensus was taken of opinion on this startling suggestion, but he halted his mount abruptly when the glare-hating female silenced the discussion by insisting in highly dire accents, “But
things
drop from willow trees. If you sit beneath them, they drop right on your head.”

As the stout young gentleman began to exclaim the innocence of all things dropping from willows, with the energetic assistance of a lanky young man who became so exercised at the discussion that he leaped to his feet shouting, “Catkins! That’s what they call them, and they haven’t any legs at all, they’re not even properly alive. Catkins is what they are, Caro, don’t be a flat,” the horseman blessed the empty-headed chit who’d started the altercation and under cover of the resultant clamor, moved his horse quite a few unnoticed paces along the beech-lined avenue.

The level of intellectual discussion raging beneath him was exactly what he’d expected to hear from the group he’d spied, which was the chiefest reason why he’d no intention of stopping to pass the time of day with them when he’d seen them. He’d been too far away to make out any individual faces then, but there was not a doubt that the gathering consisted of the daughter of the owner of this great estate, and her entire court of friends and suitors. Since that gentleman, the Duke of Marchbanks, had a young daughter, and she, the Lady Mary Bolton, had been acclaimed this past Season’s “Incomparable,” the solitary rider had a fairly good idea of exactly what and who her retinue consisted of. And he shunned the thought of consorting with them in every bit as lively a fashion as the unknown young lady below resisted having her head used as a landing site for unspecified many-legged creatures.

He was eyeing the distance to a curve in the beech avenue and estimating how long it would be before he could get there and then let his mount gallop, since the hindquarters of a horse are scarcely recognizable enough to give anyone an excuse to flag a fellow down, when he heard the sudden lack of voices as loudly as he might have heard a scream.

“I said,” a clear, carrying young female’s voice then asserted on the empty air, “that nothing, absolutely nothing, would induce me to wander through a forest. From my experience of such ventures, Miss Timmins’s willow-dwelling thingies are as nothing. But you go on, I won’t mind waiting here in the least. Here, it’s at least safe, so far as I can see.

There was something about the voice, before he even digested the content of the words, that made the rider pause. The little speech had been clearly enunciated, but there was something odd in the intonation. All thought of imminent escape vanished. The rider sat still upon the rise, the only motion that might betray his presence in the shifting shimmer of sunlight, his beast’s head dropping to crop the grass and its tail idly switching as its master looked down with a new interest at the group he had now gotten close enough to see clearly.

“I assure you, Miss Hamilton,” the plumpish young man declared, rising to one knee in front of the young lady he’d been fanning as though he were going to declare something quite different to her rather than addressing the young woman who’d spoken, “there is nothing in the forest to upset you in the least. The duke would not permit it,” he added pompously, and by craning his neck, the rider could see what the voice would have told him anyway, that it was the absurd young Lord Charles Holland, who’d been trying to get into the four-in-hand club for a year, paying court to what must have been one of the Swanson girls, obviously the latest model to reach the market, that nose was unmistakeable, even at
a
distance.

“Charles is right, Faith. Daddy would never tolerate anything dangerous in our home wood,” an anxious voice said immediately. Yes, the rider thought, his lips curving in an involuntary smile of tribute and acknowledgment, it was a fair designation, for if she wasn’t exactly “incomparable,” the speaker’s appearance came close to the meaning of the word. Her hair was cool sunlight, and her features fulfilled the faultless, flawless classic expectation of what a well bred, wealthy titled young female ought to look like. If there was not enough animation and charm there to suit the silent horseman’s own preferences, he reminded himself that those quirks that personified loveliness to him were often considered antipathetic to beauty by the arbiters of the
ton.

A trim looking, spruce young man with a blunt, open countenance stood beside the Incomparable, and though his face was unknown to the horseman, his accent was not. When he said, with the smallest hint of threat, “Come along, Faith, it’s only a short walk; I hadn’t thought you such a poor sport,” the rider’s smile widened, he’d been right, the party contained some more interesting specimens of humanity than he’d thought at first stare. But the sound of the next voice wiped his smile away.

“My dear,” a gentleman drawled in amused mellow tones, “we rid ourselves of dragons centuries ago. Or is it possibly unicorns you fear? It’s been, to my shame, decades since I had anything to worry about from them, but from what I’ve been given to understand, although you might meet up with one if there were any at all left in the realm, you, at least, would have nothing to fear from that encounter.”

A great deal of tittering arose at the comment, but it had been so adroitly phrased that even the chaperones didn’t stir more than their fans at his words. But then Robert Craig, Earl of Methley, was a gentleman noted for his wit.

The only surprise was that he would be exercising it here among these infants, the rider thought, bending forward and growing more involved in die chance-met party.

“Heavens no,” the clear young female voice replied without missing a beat, “I don’t fear unicorns. They are only ho
rn
ed beasts. Females never worry about the wearing of horns so much as the gentlemen do, you know.”

This was sailing very close to the wind, and the rider, grinning, leaned forward to get a good look at the young creature who’d just created a buzz among the chaperones as well as a giggly stir among her contemporaries. But the gentleman blocking his view, the Earl of Methley, was not contemporary with most of the other young men. The earl had recently left his third decade behind him, even as the rider himself had lately done.

That wasn’t the only thing that distinguished him from the others in the party. It was odd, almost jarring, to see him here in the green outdoors, since he was so much a creature of the salon. And if he were set on maintaining his reputation as a man of taste and dangerous wit, the rider thought critically, he might do better to remain there. London suited the earl’s style, the drawing room was clearly his milieu; this particular fish appeared very much out of the social swim here. In a salon his extreme height was a distinctive and impressive sight; beneath the trees it was reduced to a trifling oddity. In a ballroom the marked contrast between his stark white skin and straight jet hair seemed dramatic, rather than unhealthy. But standing outlined against the open landscape he looked merely thin instead of aristocratically slender, and overall, attenuated rather than elegant. He no more belonged upon a lawn beneath a limitless azure sky than did one of the gilded, spindly chairs he customarily arranged his narrow frame upon.

And yet, his silent critic admitted grudgingly, the man was never a fool. For those light gray eyes sparkled with the same intense intelligence here in sunlight as they did in candlelight, and he dominated the scene here as easily as he did in Town. He loomed so extraordinarily tall, and even with his spareness cut so commanding a figure in his signature garb of stark black jacket, breeches, and boots, that he was like a blot on the pastel canvas the company seemed posed upon. So much so that when he stepped back to execute an overdone bow of complete submission to the young woman who’d silenced him, it was to the unseen rider as though a dark cloud had drifted away from the face of the luminous, shining moon.

He couldn’t compare her to the sun. Such brilliance was left to fair beauties like her hostess. This girl, surely no more than a girl, the rider thought, glowed rather than shone. Almost demure in her green sprigged frock, she sat upon a patchwork throw, and he could see little of her slender form save for the fact that it was, like the rest of her, pleasing. But then, he was busy absorbing every detail of her face.

She was nothing at all like such an acclaimed beauty as her hostess, though he found her far more entrancing. Her hair wasn’t blessed with the frizz and curl of fashion, but was absolutely straight and drawn back in a glossy slide of amber, so light a brown that it shone like honey in a glass jar in the glancing spears of sunlight. Her face was a clear oval, never the coveted color of milk, but rather the more ivory hue of cream. Her nose was small and straight above lips, acurve with secret laughter at her triumph, the exact flushed shade of bruised raspberries.

It was while the rider was sitting startled, wondering at why so many of his thoughts of her had come couched in edible terms, that the earl, rising from his bow, both hands out to either side to show he was unarmed, capitulated further by asking sweetly, as though he knew she meant him to, “But then, my dear, why hesitate to stroll through the wood with us?”

“In my country,” she said, very much in the manner of a governess telling a tale before bedtime, and since her listeners, for all their affectations, were most of them not too far from that stage of life, they responded by unconsciously settling back to listen, “one does not venture into a forest without good and sufficient reason. It is not,” she said sternly, “a thing lightly undertaken.”

“Red Indians, of course,” the earl said dulcetly.

“Of course,” the young woman answered readily, “but,” she added on a gusty sigh, “if only that were all.”

“I should think,” murmured the dashing Harry Fabian to his friend Charlie Bryant, “that a slew of Red Indians would be enough to discourage any picnics.”

“Oh but you see,” the young woman promptly answered what she’d overheard, “they aren’t such a bother, really, since we can post sentries to warn of their coming. Although, one has to post a sentry to watch the sentry, you understand, since Red Indians creep a great deal, and as they shoot arrows, and carry knives, and pad about in deerskin boots, one never knows the sentry has been gotten until one sees him fall.”

At this, Lieutenant FitzHugh, the local squire’s third son, who’d got himself a bit deafened by cannon at Salamanca and who’d been listening in desultory fashion, now left off admiring Miss Protherow’s necklace as he’d been doing just to see her blush and leaned forward to pay closer attention to the young narrator.

“It’s that which we can’t post sentries for, those creatures and things that lurk in our great forests, that we most dread. But if you really wish me to come along with you now, and can assure me that there are no such things here in England, why then,” she said, rising, with the earl’s immediate assistance of a hand beneath her elbow, “I should be pleased to go along with you.”

“Hold on a bit,” demanded Lord Greyville, who’d been on fire to go to the lake a moment before, “what sort of things do you have lurking?”

“Poison bushes and snakes, ticks and leeches and poison spiders,” the young lady said pleasantly, and since she’d only gotten to her knees, she shook off the preferred hand and remained there, looking blandly at her inquisitor.

“We’ve ticks and leeches,” the young gentleman pointed out patriotically.

“Nettles, too,” one of the ladies put in ruefully, remembering one unpleasant encounter in her youth.

“Do we have any poison spiders?” one of the Washburn sisters asked fearfully, even as her twin left off fanning herself and looked down, examining the rippling surface of their satin coverlet anxiously.

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