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Charles, Lord Wroxton, stood alone in the inn yard and looked about him in the vain hope that his private coach would appear.
A headache seemed poised just beyond the edge of his consciousness. He was tired of travelling, tired of staying at inns, and if the wheel to his carriage had not perversely broken in just this spot, he might at least have begged lodging for one night at the home of his colleague, Lord Northridge. It was with this objective in mind that he had chosen to take the western road back to London. Nothing else, he thought with a fleeting annoyance, could have persuaded him to pass through such a disreputable village as Gretna Green.
Only a few days remained before Christmas, but Charles, in his capacity as adviser to the prime minister, had been given a special dispatch to deliver to a Scottish government official, who had preceded him to Edinburgh. The Regent's fear of Napoleon's spies had led him to request that a gentleman of Charles's standing and unquestionable loyalty serve as messenger in this delicate matter.
Naturally, Charles had complied; but now he wished for nothing more than his own bed and hearth, a warm bowl of punch and a sound vehicle to take him away from the scene of so much foolishness.
While he had been standing in the yard, a series of equipages of all sorts and varieties had come and gone. One young couple had emerged from a post-chaise looking tired, rumpled and harried, but with an underlying sense of excitement. Another couple, married at great haste, had taken to their carriage just as a light snow had begun to fall. Their hired vehicle had sped off back towards the English border.
Watching them, Charles pressed hislips together in distaste. He devoutly hoped that no acquaintance of his would discover him in this Scottish town. Travellers to Gretna Green could only be here for one reason--to contract an ineligible marriage. If he recognized any of them, he would be obliged to try to dissuade them from carrying out such an ill-conceived start.
For the moment the yard was empty, and it seemed strangely forlorn. Charles had a sense, a flickering sense of being alone in a cold and bleak void.
A hissing noise came from somewhere behind him. Charles turned his gaze towards the source of the intrusive sibilant.
A post-chaise and four stood at the ready near the stable, but no other carriages were in sight. As Charles looked about him, he thought he spied a young lady waving to him from behind the chaise. But before he could respond to her improper behaviour, a gentleman came quickly round the corner of the smithy across the lane, and the young lady--if so it was--vanished behind the carriage.
Confused by these sudden comings and goings, and half-blinded by the snow, Charles began to wonder if the whisper had issued from someone else.
He searched again, but heard nothing. Out the corner of his eye, Charles saw the young gentleman approaching, an anxious frown marring his rather florid features. The man threw a quick, nervous glance about the inn yard, and with a muttered curse hastened back to the smithy as if he had misplaced something important.
The curious display drew a reluctant chuckle from Charles. Apparently the young man had been kept waiting at the altar. The blacksmith who owned that shop was famous for the weddings he performed over his anvil. The business he derived from just such persons as this gentleman had turned him from his rightful profession--so much so that he had had the infernal impudence to keep Charles cooling his heels while he performed one ceremony after another. As Charles's coachman had reported it, the smith had said that there was more money to be made in weddin's than in mendin' coaches, so his lordship'll just haf ta wait."
Only a few witnesses and a public declaration were needed for marriage to take place this side of the border--no announcements or banns and no parental consent to hamper the process. Consequently, many young couples who had been forbidden to wed flew to this village, the first one north of the River Sark, to plight their troth before their parents could be alerted to their disappearance and catch up with them. The blacksmith had found himself in a fine position to take advantage of such desperation. His fees were commensurate with the degree of haste required.
A gentleman who had been raised with the strictest of principles, as Charles had, could only be offended by such conduct. He stiffened as he watched the other man disappear behind the smithy. Charles had no intention of mixing with the sort of harum-scarum individuals so lost to propriety as to even contemplate a rash marriage. He glanced at his timepiece and wondered how much longer he would be made to wait while such goings-on took place.
"Pssst! Oh, sir! Pssst!"
The whisper again--and this time clearly from the young woman.
Certain now of the source of it, Charles decided to pretend he had not heard her. Since achieving his majority, he had often been accosted by women of dubious morals. A young man, regarded as handsome by most accepted standards could expect a certain amount of feminine attention. Even if his position were unknown, he knew that one sort of woman, at least, needed no more encouragement to approach him than the fact of his having a few shillings in his pocket. He would do better not to respond.
"Oh, sir, please!"
The clear tone of her voice made a different impression on him this time, and Charles wondered if he might not be mistaken in his first assessment. The unwelcome thought that he might actually know the lady crossed his mind.
It was just possible. Aristocratic girls were no more immune to foolishness than any other sort. Perhaps, having given way to the importunities of a fortune-hunter, this young woman now stood in need of temporary pecuniary assistance. If she had recognized him, naturally she would apply to him.
He decided to look behind him, all the while praying for this not to be the case, and cursing the wheel that had caused him to stop this side of the border.
A quick glance showed him that the confounded chit was waving at him again. But with a swell of relief, he saw that he did not know her. He did not know anyone, thank God, with such an alarming shade of hair.
He turned away again without so much as acknowledging that she had spoken. He judged he would do better to leave the yard, as unpleasant and exorbitant as the accommodations at the inn were likely to be, until such time as his carriage would be ready and he could escape.
But Charles had taken no more than two steps away from the girl, when he heard her say to his back "Oh, pooh! If you mean to be so disagreeable, I suppose I'll have to try someone else!"
Charles Beckworth, Marquess of Wroxton, 4th Earl of Sandbach, and 12th Baron Beckworth, had been accosted by bold women many times. In Bath, where he kept a house, and in London, the story was the same. Women, dressed as ladies and primed for their trade by stern madams, did their utmost to attract the attentions of wealthy customers.
But in all his encounters with such persons, not one of them had ever said "Pooh!" to him.
Charles turned again and saw that the young woman was regarding him with reproach. She clutched her reticule before her, and she held her chin high in the air.
"Run along," she said, tossing her red-gold curls as if the very sight of him offended her. "If you have no mind to assist a lady, then I do not want you about. Run along, then! Go!"
As a marquess, Charles was not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. And in peacetime, he had reflected more than once, he might seriously question orders from the Regent himself. Even so, only a few moments ago, he might have obeyed the young lady, and gladly. But by now he had taken the time to examine her more closely, and his temper had undergone a change.
She was clearly the daughter of a gentleman. Her gown, though rumpled by travel and plainly inadequate for the Scottish weather, was of the finest quality. She wore a blue silk spencer with a deep collar trimmed in fur and a pair of expensive kid gloves, both far beyond the purse of the sort of person he had nearly mistaken her for. Even her bright hair, which he had found so objectionable, was the result of nature, not alchemy. Its colour was a mixture of copper and gold--bold and to be regretted--but unavoidable.
A lady, then, and in distress if the quiver of her lips was anything to judge by. She was shivering from having stood in the snow in her slippers. Charles suppressed a sigh.
"My dear young lady, has no one told you that it is improper to wave and speak to strange gentlemen?"
She tossed her head again, and he caught the glimmer of a tear in her eye. "Of course I know that," she said. "But if you plan to lecture me, then please move along! I have enough troubles as it is. And I would prefer not to have anyone's attention called to me just at the moment, so I would be obliged if you would simply go away!"
"May I remind you that it was you who called me?" Charles said, justifiably annoyed.
She pouted. Her lips were full and pink, verging on purple from the cold. She was trying to still them, but by now even her teeth were chattering.
"I hailed you," she explained as if he were a slow-top "because I find myself in a predicament, and I had hoped you would be kind enough to assist me. But if you are of no mind to do so, then I shall simply ask someone else. Go on now! Go!"
Charles found himself caught between a smile and a frown. Her air of command amused him, but he could not approve of her behaviour. "Do you mean to say you plan to accost every gentleman who passes by until one helps you? Then you shall, at the very least, catch your death of cold, and most likely will find yourself the victim of unwelcome advances."
She looked offended, so he softened his tone. "Why don't you return to your guardian like a good girl and stop this imprudent behaviour?"
A look of hope flashed in her eyes. "That is precisely what I need to do, sir. Will you help me?"
Taken aback, Charles hesitated. He had no intention of embroiling himself in this girl's problems, but he could not very well leave someone who was clearly a lady to the mercy of unscrupulous men. Perhaps she had come to Gretna Green unexpectedly or on the wrong day. That would account for her carriage not having been met. Even though he found the notion unpleasant, he acknowledged that a few miles out of his way would not inconvenience him overmuch. His journey had already been delayed, and he had little hope of making it home before Christmas.
"I suppose I could escort you," he said, trying not to sound too put out "if your destination is not far. But my carriage is being mended just at the moment. You will have to wait."
A look of desperation crossed her features. "Shall it be many minutes?" She was turning blue now about the lips, and he wondered just how long she had been standing there.
"It could be any time. But here, why don't you step inside the inn until it's ready?"
"Oh, no," she said in a near whisper. Her eyes filled with dread. "I cannot do that!" She took a step closer and leaned toward him in confidence. "Geoffrey might see me!"
Suspicion, like a slow leak, seeped into Charles's mind. "Who is Geoffrey?" he asked warily.
She answered with a look of surprise "The gentleman I eloped with, of course." Then, at the sight of his horrified expression, she added "On the way here, I discovered that we would not suit, but he refused to turn back! Can you believe that, sir? He would force me to marry him against my will!" A flash of indignation crossed her face. "I have never been so deceived in anyone's character! "
"Good God!" Charles said. He drew one fine hand across his forehead. The incipient headache threatened him again. This was precisely the sort of mischief he had dreaded in stopping here--not that he had ever expected such an impossible situation as this!
Flabbergasted beyond response, he glanced at the girl again. Her lips were still trembling, but Charles could not know for certain whether this was inspired by the cold or by the onset of tears. He was in a quandary. If he left the girl, God only knew what fate might befall her. On the other hand"
Just then, Charles heard the sound of a coach approaching, and the girl retreated quickly to her hiding-place. He turned in time to see his own vehicle sweep through the gate to the inn yard, repaired much sooner than he had been led to expect. Charles was relieved to see it and eager to be gone from this nest of lunatics. But the girl's dilemma remained to be solved.
When his horses pulled to a stop with a brusque order from his coachman, Charles called up "Good work, Timothy. How did you persuade the villain to mend it so soon?"
"Wasn't any of my doin's, yer lordship," his servant answered, climbing down. "The couple as 'e'd been waitin' to marry never showed itself. Seems like the girl's up and runned off."
Charles smiled grimly. He thought he knew just where she had gone, too. He turned back with the intention of a questioning the young lady further, but she must have heard him talking to Timothy, for she reappeared round the back of the coach.
"Is this your carriage?" she said, beaming at the stately coach with his crest upon the door. "Then we can be off before he finds me! "
She flashed him a brilliant smile and held her hand out to Charles, as if she expected him to help her up with no more ado. In doing so, she completely missed the startled expression that had come over Timothy's face. Charles found himself growing warm under the surprised glance of his coachman.
Charles had always conducted himself with the greatest propriety. And his servants knew it. Everyone knew it. That was why the prime minister called on him when no one else could be trusted, least of all the Regent's friends. Charles's reputation as an upright fellow had earned him early respect. A successful political career was thought to be a certainty.
He remembered now that he had agreed to escort the girl to her guardian. However, that was before she had told him of her elopement, and now he was hopeful that some more proper solution could be found. He decided he must first try to persuade her to reconsider.
"My dear young lady," he said again, this time as much for Timothy's ears as for his own "you must think about the consequences of such an act. If you travel even for a short distance in a closed carriage with a gentleman, your reputation could easily be damaged."
She turned round eyes upon him--her eyes were remarkably blue, the same shade as her spencer-and laughed with an incredulous twinkle. "I should think that has already been done, shouldn't you?"
She put out her hand again. Stunned by such improper sentiments, Charles supported it quite unconsciously while she climbed into his carriage. He had never been quite so taken aback by anyone before.
Standing as if frozen, he suddenly became aware that Timothy was still gaping at him. Charles frowned until his worthy servant closed his mouth and offered him a hand into his carriage.
Angry, embarrassed and feeling generally ill-used, Charles ignored Timothy's hand and his inquisitive stare. He resented being made to look so foolish in front of his coachman and wondered just what Timothy would say to his fellow servants about this escapade. At the same time, Charles realized suddenly, the girl had made him feel unreasonably prudish for being so cautious.
Charles pulled himself into the coach and seated himself with his back to the box. Owing to the season and the haste of his journey, he had travelled without his valet, so he had ample opportunity to examine his young passenger.
She had placed herself in the forward-facing seat and now looked at him with chagrin. After a slight hesitation, she reached out and patted the bench beside her.
"Wouldn't you rather face forward?" she said. "I should not at all mind being crowded, and I would hate for my presence to render you uncomfortable in your own carriage."
Her heedless invitation astonished him. "My dear young lady," he said "you must take more care with what you say. After all, you don't even know me. To be quite frank, you can have no certain notion of my intentions! "
She opened her eyes wide, as if he had startled her. He was glad to see that his words had made some impression on her at last.
"Oh, dear!--she said, sighing. "Do you have any dishonourable intentions? I had somehow imagined you quite indifferent to me. Well, then?" She picked up her reticule, wrapped her arms tightly about her and prepared to step down.
"No, wait." She turned. "You misunderstand me," Charles said. Exasperation was now added to his list of reeling emotions. "My dear Miss--Confound it! What is your name, anyway?"
She arched her brows. "I am not certain, sir, that I should give you my name. You seem to be under the impression that I am not a proper person to know."
Charles swallowed his irritation. The truth was that he was abominably worn out, but that was no excuse for abusing this young lady in need of his help. He took a deep breath to calm himself.
He said "Please. You must pardon me and make yourself comfortable." He gestured towards the bench. "Please."
After hesitating a few moments, she seated herself again, and Charles reached for a lap rug to make her warm. She snuggled under it with a grateful sigh and thanked him, so he spread another over her for good measure.
"Now, then," he said kindly "you have no reason to fear my intentions. I shall be happy to return you to your guardian unharmed, if you will only tell me who you are, Miss--?"
"Louisa. My name is Louisa Davenport," she said, smiling again. "And I am truly grateful, my lord. At least ... I assume you are a lord from the crest on your carriage, but if you would prefer not to give me your real name, I shall understand perfectly."
A brief twinge of shame stung him. He had just been thinking that perhaps he should give her a false name in the event she did prove to be a fortune-hunter. But her astute perception, coupled with his realization that no one could have expected to waylay him or any other wealthy noble in such a spot, made him answer honestly "Not at all. I am Charles Beckworth, Lord Wroxton, at your service."
His kindness made her blush when his arrogance had not.
"You must not think," she said warmly "that I do not know how shocking my behaviour must seem to you. And I am painfully aware of the inconvenience I have caused. I can only blame myself for my folly. If you return me to my guardian, I shall promise to be as little burden to you as possible."
The tears he had seen before twinkled on her eyelashes before splashing onto the silk of her spencer. With an impatient gesture, she wiped them away and sat facing him, the healthy colour returning to her cheeks.
Charles bent forward, his resentment momentarily replaced by sympathy. He patted the hands folded in her lap.
"There, there," he said, feeling chastened for his earlier ill feelings. "We shall have you home in a trice."
He lowered the window of the coach, just far enough to call to Timothy. "If I may just have your direction, Miss Davenport, I shall give it to my servant and we can be on our way."
Already recovered from her moment of sadness, she beamed at him again and said "To be certain, I was fortunate you came along. In such a well made carriage, I am sure we shall get there in no time. Tell your coachman, if you please, that my aunt and uncle Davenport reside at number 57 Half-Moon Street, Mayfair."
Charles turned back to the window before the meaning of her words fully struck him. When they did, he gasped and had to swallow several times before he found his tongue.
"Mayfair!" he said, whirling to face her. "Dear God! Do you mean to say you came all the way from London at this time of year?"
Louisa's eyes, round with surprise, looked fearfully back at him.
"Why, of course, dear sir ... didn't you?"
Charles blustered "Yes--that is to say I am returning to London from Edinburgh, but?"
She sighed with relief. "Then, isn't it fortunate! For a moment, I thought you were about to say that London would be out of your way."
Charles opened his mouth and then closed it. He collected himself and started again. "My dear young?" He tried again. "Miss Davenport! It would be highly improper for a gentleman, such as myself, and a lady of your tender years to spend all of four days enclosed together in a carriage! "
She spoke as to a child. "Yes, you have already told me so and I agreed, but I thought we were also agreed that my reputation had suffered already?"
"But the implication? The rumours that are sure to result?"
She laughed. "I am in no position to reflect on that now. But I daresay," she added comfortably "that they will all blow over. I am not so green that I do not know that heiresses are forgiven much."
This information caught him off guard. "Are you an heiress?"
She nodded. "A considerable one." Then she added regretfully "I greatly fear that my fortune might have been Geoffrey's object in eloping with me. But perhaps, in my present circumstances, a large fortune might not be such a bad thing to have."
Charles reflected that at least he, as a marquess, would not be accused of trying to steal her fortune. But as he looked at her--her dazzling curls clustered about her pretty face, her attractive figure--he realized that other motives might quite likely be attributed to him.
He swallowed again. "Miss Davenport, I'm afraid that your innocence keeps you from recognizing your full peril. Why... my own purposes might even be called into question! Improper notions are certain to be roused."
"Lord Wroxton!? She fixed him with a look of assumed shock. "Do you mean to tell me you are getting improper notions?"
"No! Not at all! It is just that?"
She chuckled. "I thought not." She shook her head, and her curls bounced with the motion. "If neither you nor I have an improper idea in our heads, my lord, then I do not see what there is to be concerned about."
Thinking of his own reputation, and his honour, which might be compromised by such an interlude, he stammered "But Miss Davenport, how shall we explain such a compromising situation?"
The imperturbable Miss Davenport smiled carelessly at him. "I shall be happy to leave that up to you, Lord Wroxton. For myself, I shall just tell the truth--that you found me in great distress and saved me from my folly."
Then, as if the discussion were over, she settled back on her seat, raising the lap rugs to cover her shoulders.
"Hadn't we better get under way?" she suggested. "My aunt and uncle will gladly reimburse you for whatever expenses you incur on my behalf, so you need not worry on that score."
Her mention of this put Charles forcibly in mind of the accommodations they would need to seek on the road. The day was already quite advanced. Charles could not possibly make it to Lord Northridge's estate, nor would he dare show up on his lordship's doorstep with an unknown lady on his arm. Such conduct would surely ruin him. He would never have the government's confidence again.
But the journey to London was far too long to make without breaking, and if they did not hurry, they might find themselves without suitable lodging for the night.
Still suffering from the jolt Miss Davenport had dealt him, Charles did the only thing he could think to do at the moment. He called up to Timothy to make haste and not to spare the horses.
Timothy called down "Where to, my lord?"
Charles gritted his teeth. "To London, you dolt!" he said unreasonably.
He slammed the window shut and felt his anger gradually fading. He was not accustomed to abusing his servants and already regretted his harsh tone. But, by Jove, this Miss Davenport had a talent for making him do things he had never done before. He glanced at her balefully, but discovered that she had already tucked her feet up under the rugs and had closed her eyes to rest.
The coach gave a lurch and a bump. Putting a hand over his brow, Charles gave in at last to the headache that had been dogging him.