He’d faced the sizeable dilemma of a wife for some years, but never found what he was looking for. His stoutly, opinionated mother, on one of her recent, unannounced, military-style assaults, had reminded him of two important facts. First, he needn’t expect to be happy in marriage. Second, a Craven heir to the Penhale estate could only be made with the help of a legitimate wife, however tiresome he might think the whole ordeal.
Finally, to end her nagging, he promised to bring home a wife by Christmas. He’d set about the process at once, but, like most things, it was not going as smoothly as he’d hoped. Tonight, when his fellow Elysium Club members were scornful of his likely success in this endeavor, William went a step further, under the influence of several very good brandies, declaring he would, in fact, wed his bride by noon on Friday. The wager, written in ink, was now irreversible. It wasn’t the money that troubled him, but the loss of pride should he fail. William Craven had never lost a wager in his life. Therefore, he could no longer procrastinate.
Previous engagements had come about purely by mistake, or accident, and lasted no more than a few days. They also usually resulted in some bodily injury to himself, which, while taking him by surprise at the time, seemed inevitable upon further reflection. Might even be part of a pattern. The Duke’s long-suffering valet, Gudgeon, had suggested that his master honed a talent for sabotaging his own engagements. William insisted he was cursed.
Sadly, he met very few women deemed suitable bride material. The good, harmless sort wisely steered clear of William Craven, while there was always a distressing surfeit of hazardous females in his vicinity. He recently lamented this fact to Gudgeon, who calmly suggested his master might want to go outside during the daylight hours and visit a few places previously unexplored, such as a park or a church. It was advice William heard, even recalled from time to time, but it was damned hard to break with routine.
And there was always a certain stubborn idea in his mind. A small, angry face that peered at him through a mist, refusing to let him seriously consider any other woman.
Falling into his carriage somewhere around the region of five in the morning, he sprawled against the button-tufted leather seat and was just closing his eyes for a nap when it happened.
It was the red he saw first. Like a spark of flame in a dry, dead forest, her crimson scarf caught his attention through the moon-licked, rain-washed carriage window, bringing an abrupt end to his sleepy contemplation of the street. Otherwise, it might have been just another dreary homecoming from a night on the town, familiar in its predictable routine, even if it had little else to recommend it. But that warm shot of color amid the dawn slurry disrupted everything and woke him from a torpid stupor as effectively as an alarm bell.
William tapped his knuckles on the carriage roof and the horses jibbed to a shuddering, snorting halt. Briefly, he considered the mistake he was about to make by involving himself in a matter that was not really his fault, but something very unusual and particularly bothersome forced him to stop the carriage. Much to his amazement, he conceded it must be his conscience, an item previously notable for its absence, wheezing to life.
He lowered the sash window and rain spat in his weary face. Better take the umbrella, he thought, fumbling for it in the shadowy carriage interior. It seemed the careless woman didn’t have the foresight to bring one out with her, nor wear a hat.
Lurching out of his carriage, he looked for the woman in the red scarf. She was exactly where he last saw her, at the edge of the pavement, under a gas lamp, only slightly more attractive than a drowned rat. The front of her coat was splattered with wet mud and slush, which had also splashed her face and darkened the loose ends of her brown hair. As he approached, William anticipated the first strike of her tongue. He’d had plenty of practice bracing for the wrath of a vengeful woman. No one’s feet were stomped upon by angry little heels quite so many times as his, no one’s face slapped so often. And upon whom else’s head should china ornaments be broken, if not the Duke of Penhale’s? He was usually the most convenient enemy.
But then she said, “Forgive me,” tearing his expectations asunder.
So, she hadn’t yet identified him as a rogue of the first order who could ruin her reputation just by looking at her and probably ought to have his face slapped before he got any ideas.
She was breathing too hard, her skin pale as the departing moon, her eyes very large. “I wasn’t looking,” she added. “It was my fault.”
An interesting development. Cautiously, his insides uncurled, but only a little. She could, of course, be up to something. Women generally were. He held the umbrella over them both, although in her case it was too late for that. The creature couldn’t get much wetter if she fell off
“Your coat.” he muttered. “You must allow me to have it cleaned, madam.” She was probably in shock now, but would send him a bill later with a solicitor’s letter. Once she knew who he was, she would certainly expect monetary compensation for her coat.
“That really isn’t necessary, sir. Excuse me.” Her voice was polite, well-modulated, but quite insistent, rather like a very proper, faintly impatient schoolmistress.
“Perhaps you would rather I buy you a new coat. That one is rather unflattering, ill-made, and distinctly shabby.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“And it looks as if you outgrew it some years ago.”
Her lips flapped. Finally, she sputtered, “Excuse me. I’ll just take my ugly, cheap coat and be on my way.”
When he didn’t move out of her path, she swept him with a wintry glare, cold and brisk. Her lashes were lengthy as the legs of a wily spider, plentiful as those of a centipede. Oh yes, there would definitely be a solicitor’s letter tomorrow. Perhaps she was already calculating an outrageous claim for the cost of her clothing, her shoes, her non-existent hat. For some spurious injury too, thrown in for good measure. Once she realized who he was, his reputation would inspire all manner of accusations.
Nudging him aside with her pointy elbow, she would have run off, had he not captured her wet sleeve in his fingers, tugging her back.
“Please accept the services of my carriage, madam. I can deliver you safely to your destination at a much greater speed. And in the dry.”
There! He wouldn’t give her the slightest chance to complain later that the Duke of Penhale treated her in any way other than gentlemanly. His mother, not to mention his solicitor, would be proud of him for thinking of the consequences for once. If that was, in fact, what he was concerned about, rather than getting this bedraggled waif into the private quarters of his carriage.
“I don’t generally accept rides from strangers.”
“Nor do I offer them to strangers. It seems we must both be on our guard.”
She looked down the street. “It’s not that far.”
“It’s a very unsafe hour for you to be out alone, madam.” Before she could pull her sleeve away, he tightened his grip. “And it’s raining.”
“A little rain never hurt anybody.”
“On the contrary. The obituaries are full of stubborn women who probably said the very same thing before influenza sent them to an early grave. Not to mention the scores of tragically trampled females caught airily daydreaming in front of fast horses. The Times has an entire section for them.”
She looked up, only as far as his lips, then immediately back down to his waistcoat. “You might be a kidnapper, an abductor and molester of innocent women.”
“You might be a highway robber, or a woman of ill-repute. Or an infamous body-snatcher. Now that I think of it, you could be all three. You have the face for it.”
“Face for it!” she exclaimed.
“Plain and unremarkable. Nondescript in a crowd and just innocent enough to fool justice.”
Her lips fell apart and he watched a little cloud of breath disperse around her mouth.
“As long as you don’t try to pick my pockets, I’ll resist my rapacious urges, madam,” he added dryly.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Snatching her arm away from his grip, she marched forward, leaving him to follow with the umbrella, like a servant.
He ran around her to hold the carriage door open, noting a very shapely ankle as she stepped inside; then he followed, closing the umbrella and shaking it, before he pulled the door shut.
(copyright Jayne Fresina 2016)