Read The Smithfield Bargain Online

Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

The Smithfield Bargain

The Smithfield Bargain

A Regency Romance

Jo Ann Ferguson

For my sisters Debbie & Cheri

and for my grandmothers who first

taught me the Joy of Storytelling.

Chapter One

Romayne Smithfield took a deep breath of the cool, crisp air and smiled. It was wondrous to be away from the stifling house and the company of Lady Foxcroft. The old tough could prattle for hours, seemingly without pausing. Today, the countess had been irritated by the shortcomings of her
modiste
and had listed the woman's inadequacies in minute detail.

As she rode along the country road curving through the Yorkshire moors, she heard the hoofbeats of Thatcher's horse behind her. Usually she traveled with her abigail, but Grange was feeling a bit peaked today. Romayne had decided to take the groom with her on her look-in at her neighbor's. That obligation done, she was anxious to return home to Westhampton Hall and pen a letter to her betrothed.

Her smile faded as she pulled her cloak tighter around her blue riding habit which was only a shade darker than her eyes. More than a fortnight ago, she had agreed to become Bradley Montcrief's wife, but no one else knew of their plans. No one could, until her grandfather was told. Bradley had implored her to let him speak first to the Duke of Westhampton, but she was growing impatient. She wanted to proclaim the tidings of the match from the highest window of Westhampton Hall.

When she heard her name shouted, she looked along the road to see a man riding at a neck-or-nothing speed toward her. Her fingers tightened on the reins as hope bubbled within her when she saw sun glinting off his hair that was even paler than her tawny curls.

“Bradley!” she called back and waved to him.

Hearing a low grumble from Thatcher, she turned in the saddle to see what disturbed her groom. The young man's face was long with consternation. Romayne bit back her comment. She could not scold Thatcher when he was duty bound to obey the duke's edict that she was to welcome the attentions of no man save Colonel Newman.

She would be blasted to perdition before she let the colonel lather her with court-promises. Colonel Newman was a bore and smelled of gin. Such a cheap drink was never served in Westhampton Hall, so she surmised he spent hours imbibing in a tavern before he called on her. Seldom speaking to her, he attempted to charm her grandfather. She bit her lip as she recalled her angry words to her grandfather after the colonel's visit the previous week. The duke could saddle himself with the colonel if he wished, she had told him coldly, but she would never marry him.

She never had seen her grandfather so incensed. His earlier bouts of temper had been dimmed by his fury at her outright defiance. He could not accept that she refused to repudiate her heart's longings to be Bradley's wife and marry a man the duke respected. Yes, the colonel was a hero. He had had an exemplary record in the war against Napoleon before a wound sent him back to England. She had told her grandfather soundly that she was no prize to be awarded to a war hero. Remembering her fierce words, she flinched as she recalled as well the anguish on her grandfather's face. She had not wanted to hurt him.

“So dreary, my sweet?” Bradley asked as he drew his horse even with hers. “I had thought to see your smile as bright as today's sunshine and far warmer.”

No one could call Bradley Montcrief handsome, for he had an unfinished appearance about him. His blond hair was as fine as a babe's and refused to do anything but drift across his high forehead. Yet Romayne had been able to ignore that when she first was caught by the heated glow in his gray eyes. She admired the way he wore stylish clothes without being a flashy spark. Despite his unfortunately large nose, he attracted much attention from the ladies of the
ton
, for his manners were the most polished of any gentleman she had ever met.

“I have just come from Lady Foxcroft's,” Romayne hedged, not wanting to cast him down with her melancholy thoughts.

He chuckled as he did so often. “Your ears should be battered, but not your lips.” When he looked past her, she followed his gaze to Thatcher, but her groom pretended not to see that Bradley wished to speak with her alone. Boldly Bradley kissed her cheek.

“Bradley—”

“Bah,” he muttered. “I tire of hiding the truth of my feelings.”

Romayne's eyes widened. “Does that mean you have spoken with Grandfather? Have you come from Westhampton Hall? Did you tell Grandfather of our plans? What did he say? Was he surprised? Was he pleased?” Romayne struggled to keep her voice serene, but the barrage of questions came out in a squeak.

When he sighed and shook his head, she was sure she never had been so disappointed. “The duke refused to receive me. How can I get him to consider my suit to court you, Romayne, when I cannot speak with him?” His smoky eyes were filled with grief.

She knew she was brazen when she put her hand over his on the reins. “Dear Bradley, I shall tell him the truth of the longings I harbor in my heart to be your wife. Surely he cannot dismiss that.”

“It will do no good.” He brightened as he shrugged back his tan cloak and added, “I have just the dandy!” Lowering his voice, he leaned toward her. “We shall elope.”

“Elope?”

“Hush, my sweet.” He led her gaze toward Thatcher, who was becoming more suspicious as he could not hear their conversation. “Tonight when the Hall is asleep, meet me by the gate on the main road. Bring only the few things you will need for the time it shall take us to get to Scotland. If we leave shortly after midnight tonight, we should reach the River Tweed by sundown tomorrow evening. Then we can be married in Coldstream on its far bank. Think of it, Romayne. No more waiting for your grandfather's blessing or for the weeks it would take for the banns to be read. We could be married tomorrow evening.”

She hesitated. The idea was seductively enticing. From the moment she had first danced with Bradley in London, he had been a gentle and devoted swain. She had heard tales of his past bouts of temper that would challenge even her grandfather's and stories of his pleasure in spending hours with a bottle at the table of green cloth. He had denied none of them, but had promised her that he would change when he could hold her in his arms for the rest of his life. Eloping should have been the answer to a dream.

Yet she wanted a grand wedding like the one that Lady Philomena Boumphrey had had. The young widow, who lived in a house neighboring the duke's town house in Grosvenor Square, had been married only a year ago. When she recalled her neighbor's glorious clothes and the splendor of Philomena's nuptials and the parties which had accompanied it, Romayne envisioned the same for herself and Bradley.

“Let me try to speak to Grandfather,” she said softly. “I am certain I can persuade him to receive you.”

“No!”

“Bradley!” she gasped, amazed at his forceful answer. “I know you and grandfather will never be tie-mates, but I love him dearly. You cannot expect me not to try to persuade him to see our side on this important matter before we do something so untoward as fleeing in the night. You shall see. I shall convince him to see sense.”

When she noted how Bradley's thin hands pinched the reins so tightly that his bony knuckles pressed against his leather gloves, Romayne was astounded. Bradley might be high and mighty with some of his commands to her, but he never had been this unreasonable. Wishing that Thatcher did not ride behind them, she restrained her fingers, which longed to stroke his while she attempted to convince him to listen to reason.

Finally he grumbled, “If you wish to be so jobbernowl as to waste your breath arguing with that old—with your grandfather, I cannot halt you. I do request that you tell him nothing of this conversation, for I fear he will think that you have been unduly influenced by me.”

“Of course I have been influenced by you,” she said, smiling at him. She hoped he would grin back at her, but his face stayed in its rigid lines. “Can love be anything but an influence? I shall speak to Grandfather this very afternoon. As soon as I return to the Hall, I shall seek him out and urge him to listen. Then everything will be as it should be.”

“And if he refuses to listen to you?”

Romayne did not answer as she looked at the fields surrounding the road. Although the rolling hills still slept in their wintry gray, she knew that within weeks the fields would be bursting with life. She had enjoyed watching the turning of the seasons at Westhampton Hall all her life, for she had been born behind its massive walls. When her parents had died in a carriage accident before her first birthday, she had been brought from their town house back to Westhampton Hall to be raised by her cantankerous grandfather. Now she faced leaving him and the house—possibly forever—to be Bradley's wife.

Her smile returned as she said, “Bradley, I wish to marry you more than anything else in the world. If Grandfather will listen—and I pray that he will—I shall send you a message that you must come and discuss the wedding with him on the morrow.”

“And otherwise?”

She did not hesitate, although her answer was certain to alter the rest of her life. “I shall meet you at the gate as you wish. We shall go to Scotland and be wed. Then Grandfather will have to accept our marriage.”

With a grin, he squeezed her hand in its white kid glove between his. “If he does not, then you will know that you have made the best decision, for we shall be together until death does us part, as we will promise each other when we stand before the minister.”

“Yes, until death does us part.” When she looked from Bradley's scintillating smile to the distant shadows of Westhampton Hall's towers, Romayne wondered for the first time why that frightened her.

Clayson greeted Romayne when she entered the grand entry hall, as he did each time she returned to the house. When she asked the lanky butler where her grandfather might be, she pretended not to see the uneasiness in his dark eyes. She guessed that Clayson had been present when Bradley asked to be received. Tempted to ask him of the details, she resisted. Clayson had been with her grandfather since before her birth. His loyalty to the duke was unquestionable.

“You shall find your grandfather in his study, Lady Romayne,” he answered with perfect serenity. The idea of Clayson losing his composure was something she could not conceive of, for he had met every challenge in the Hall—and there had been many with her volatile grandfather—with aplomb and placidity.

“Alone?” she asked. Bunching the full skirts of her blue riding habit in her hand, she glanced toward the closed door of her grandfather's book room at the top of the stairs, which curved up from the middle of the black-and-white marble floor. She had no interest in having to speak prettily to Colonel Newman this afternoon.

“He has no callers … now.”

Her eyebrows arched at the almost imperceivable hesitation in his answer. He added nothing else, but she was sure she had heard the slight pause. Her grandfather's retort to Bradley must have been even more inflammatory than Bradley had suggested. Then she recalled her betrothed urging her to reconsider approaching the duke to discuss their betrothal. She should heed that warning, but she could not elope and chance breaking her beloved grandfather's heart, without one last attempt to explain to him that she truly wished to marry Bradley.

Clayson led her up the stairs as if she was an honored guest. She never had been sure if the butler or the duke insisted on such pomposity in their home, but she suspected Clayson enjoyed every moment of it. Running her hand along the oak bannister that had been smoothed by the touch of generations of Smithfield hands, she loosened the navy blue ribbons of her bonnet and took it off. Her fingers played nervously with the ruched silk.

The butler held out his hand for her bonnet as they walked along the upper gallery. She paused, forcing him to do the same.

“Clayson, I understand Mr. Montcrief called this afternoon.”

“You know the duke keeps no at-home hours here in grassville,” he returned stiffly. “Miss Grange asked that you let her know when you have returned. Do you wish me to send your abigail a message that she can expect you when you have finished speaking with His Grace?”

Romayne had heard the determined tone in the butler's voice too often to think she might get him to reveal anything else. He guarded her grandfather's counsels with the tenacity of the Regent's ministers. Although she considered asking him another question, she decided to save her arguments for her grandfather.

At a door set between portraits of the duke's grandsire and grandmother, Clayson rapped lightly. Romayne did not hear the command to enter, but the butler must have, because he opened the door and murmured, “Lady Romayne, Your Grace.”

Romayne affixed a smile on her stiff lips as she entered the room that was only slightly smaller than the entry. On the winter day, little sunshine reached into the room, which was lined with leatherbound books. The thick stone walls used deeply set windows as a bulwark against the sunlight. With the upper panes of the quartet of windows colored with the family's traditional crest, any glow which oozed through the glass was tinted gold and bloody red to splash against the thick rafters crisscrossing the high ceiling.

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