Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
At length, the carriage turned into a posting inn for a change of horses. The grooms were quickly about their business, unhitching the team and assessing the quality of the replacements. Nobody was paying any attention to Jamie. She sat immobile, too cold to move a muscle.
Lord Hardinge lowered the glass on his side of the carriage and poked his head out. 'Jamie! Down from there! Go and fetch me a tankard of ale. Look sharp now!'
Jamie hurried to climb down. She made a pretty poor showing, for her fingers were so cold she could barely grip the handholds. Seeing a waiter coming towards the carriage with a tray of tankards, she rushed to grab one and immediately dropped it. The ale splashed all over the waiter's boots.
'Why, you young--' began the waiter, incensed, raising his free hand to strike Jamie.
'That will do!' commanded Lord Hardinge, flinging open the door and jumping down. 'If my servants are to be chastised, I shall do it.'
The waiter began to stammer an apology, but his lordship simply took a full tankard from the tray, threw down some coppers and turned away.
'Come here, Jamie.'
Jamie's first reaction was to run, but her frozen limbs would never have moved fast enough. Keeping her eyes lowered, she approached her intimidating benefactor. He sounded much less angry now than when he had shouted at the waiter, but still...
'Show me your hands.'
Jamie did so. They were thin and blue. The filthy fingernails stood out starkly.
'Have you no gloves?'
Jamie shook her head, still gazing at the ground.
His lordship put a hand on her frozen cheek. Suddenly it seemed as if all the blood in Jamie's body had rushed to that spot. She felt sure that the outline of his fingers was impressed in brightest scarlet on her burning skin. And that same quivering of all her body had returned.
'Why, you're frozen to the marrow, lad. No wonder you dropped that tankard. I should have known. You're much too thin--and as for these clothes... Well, you'd better come inside with your sister, before I have your death on my conscience.'
Jamie did not move. She was still trying to come to terms with the strange effects this man had on her.
'Don't just stand there, boy.' It sounded as if the Earl was beginning to regret his generosity. 'Come, jump in.' He gave Jamie a hearty push towards the carriage.
As Jamie climbed in, she registered the shock on the abigail's face. No wonder. Spending hours under the eagle eye of Lord Hardinge might well lead to discovery. Jamie dared not utter a sound. Annie busied herself with chafing Jamie's hands and clucking over her like an anxious mother hen.
'Enough, Smithers, enough!' snapped Lord Hardinge. 'I have no objection to your helping your brother to get warm but, for heaven's sake, do it without all this gabblemongering!'
Looking chastened, Smithers lapsed into silence. Eventually, she drifted off to sleep again.
Jamie soon found herself the only one awake. Cautiously, she sat up in her corner, pushing her hat back from her eyes and flexing her fingers, which tingled painfully as the sensation returned. She felt in her pocket for a handkerchief to deal with the drip on her nose. She did not have one, which reminded her that boys like simple Jamie never used them, so she experimented with wiping her nose on her sleeve instead. Ugh!
But what did that matter? She had escaped! She might never again live the life of a gentlewoman, but her future was now her own to decide. She paused to savour the luxury of the carriage, its deeply cushioned seats and the pervasive smell of rich leather. Nothing at Calderwood was half so splendid. And if Lady Calderwood had owned such an equipage, she would never have allowed her hated stepdaughter to set foot in it. Jamie sank back in her seat, longing to shout with exultant laughter.
Opposite her, Lord Hardinge moved in his sleep. He had removed his hat, presumably so that he might doze more comfortably. Jamie found herself gazing at him. It was such a handsome face in repose--thick, arched black brows, a finely chiselled nose, perhaps a little long, a generous mouth made for smiling, and a strong chin, slightly cleft. His thick dark hair became him, even in disarray. Jamie found herself wondering about the colour of his eyes. Dark, she supposed, like the rest of him, unconsciously raising her eyes to look again at his face.
Cobalt blue eyes bored into hers! Lord Hardinge had been watching her, just when she thought she was safe. And his eyes seemed to be able to see into the depths of her being! She shuddered visibly.
Glancing at the still-sleeping abigail, the Earl frowned across at Jamie, his face very stern. 'Satisfied, are you, lad?' he asked in a menacing whisper.
Jamie shuddered again.
Lord Hardinge's expression softened slightly. 'Don't worry, Jamie. I am not angry.' His voice seemed less hostile now. 'But you really must not stare at your betters in that insolent way. It could earn you a beating in some houses.'
Jamie began to stammer an incoherent apology.
'Forget it,' interrupted his lordship sharply, closing his eyes once more.
Jamie held her breath for a long time, trying to control her racing pulse and fearing another onslaught from the powerful man sitting opposite her.
The carriage remained silent. It seemed that Lord Hardinge had had enough of the boy Jamie, at least for the present.
Jamie looked enviously at the abigail, sleeping peacefully alongside her. If only she dared to close her eyes too. She was so tired--and the growing warmth inside the carriage was making her eyelids droop. But it was too great a risk. She dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand. She must not sleep where he might watch her. She must not.
At the next change, the Earl allowed them both a bite to eat and a mug of ale. It tasted foul, and much too strong, but Jamie could find no reason to refuse it. Ten minutes after they had moved off, she began to succumb to the effects of the alcohol and her sleepless night. Her eyes closed, but still she struggled to stay alert.
'I am glad your brother is asleep, Smithers, for I want to talk to you about him.'
'Yes, my lord?'
'From what you have told me, he would make a pretty poor bootboy. Much better to place him as apprentice gardener on a large estate.'
'Yes, my lord. I intend to do so, if such a situation can be found. But--'
'It can be. I need just such a boy on my own estate. I shall take him.'
'I thank you for your offer, but we can't accept it. You see...' The abigail's voice trailed off. She seemed to be fast running out of excuses.
'Why don't you tell me the truth, Smithers?'
His slightly raised voice penetrated Jamie's half-slumber. At the sound of the word 'truth', her eyes snapped open.
'I don't understand…' began Smithers.
'Gammon. You know very well. No woman of your station carries all her worldly goods with her on a three-day trip to Bath. You have been dismissed from your post, I collect, and are hoping to find another in Bath. Well?'
'It is true, my lord,' agreed Smithers in a whisper. 'Lady Calderwood would not keep me at the Hall after your visit. She decided…she believed...' Her voice tailed off miserably.
'Indeed? And so both of you are turned out into the world again? I must say it makes me wonder why you will not accept my offer for Jamie.' There was an edge of irritation in his deep voice as he stared suspiciously at the abigail. The handsomeness of his face in repose had been replaced by a frown which drew his black brows together in a hard line.
Smithers began to stammer a little. 'I...I was hoping to find a situation where we could be together, so that I could look after him. You know what I mean, I think.'
'Yes, I do know. There is no need to elaborate. I assure you, he will come to no harm under my roof.' He paused to look directly at Jamie, who shrank a little under his stern gaze. 'Very well, Smithers. If I can persuade my mother to re-engage you as her abigail, will you then agree to my proposal for Jamie?'
'I don't know.' She turned to consult Jamie who nodded quickly, taking no notice of the silent warning in the older woman's eyes. 'Since Jamie seems willing--then, yes, if we can stay together, we accept.'
'Good,' said the Earl crisply, settling back in his seat. 'I have no doubt Lady Hardinge will be delighted to have you back in her service. We should be at Harding in about an hour.' He closed his eyes once more.
Jamie looked anxiously at the abigail, who shrugged impotently. It was now clear to Jamie that his lordship never had intended to take them to Bath, but straight to Harding, his own estate. Jamie felt a prickle of alarm. What did he have in mind for them now?
A Penniless Prospect by Joanna Maitland
Emma raced across the lawn, berating herself at every step. How could she have failed to recognise Hugo Stratton, the man whose wickedly smiling face had haunted her girlish dreams for months on end? The identity of the stranger had burst upon Emma like an exploding star the moment Jamie had mentioned his name...
The little group was still sitting under the oak tree. Emma smiled to herself, deliberately slowing her pace to a more ladylike walk. How apt that they should meet again under an oak, even if not the same one. Emma had climbed Richard's oak, too, many and many a time when they were children. She knew it almost as well as she knew her own.
And much better than she knew Hugo Stratton.
What on earth was she going to say to him?
Emma gulped. Would he recognise her? She was a fine lady now, nothing like the grubby little brat he had generously allowed to tease him. She had been a mere child when Hugo left to join the army. To be honest, there was absolutely no reason why he should remember her at all, especially after all he had been through. And yet...
As Emma neared the little group, she saw that Dickon was now sound asleep in his father's arms. Richard looked proud and happy--and just a mite self-satisfied, too. Hugo was talking quietly to Richard, his back towards Emma. It seemed that neither was aware of her approach.
She hesitated. Then, noticing the enquiring look thrown at her by the nursemaid, she lifted her head a notch and marched across the lawn, arms swinging, skirts trailing unheeded on the warm grass.
'Why, Richard...' she began.
Richard, Earl Hardinge rose to his feet in a single athletic movement, the child in his arms cradled snugly all the while. He smiled broadly, nodding sideways towards the nursemaid to come and relieve him of his son. He did not speak until he had carefully transferred his burden to her waiting arms. Even then, he still whispered.
'Emma. How wonderful to see you so soon. I had planned to call tomorrow...'
Richard's words were cut off as Emma threw her arms round his neck and kissed him heartily on the cheek. 'I could not wait to see you both… no, all three of you.' As Emma spoke, she became conscious that she had not included Hugo in that number--and that Hugo had not risen to meet her. Intrigued, she turned around.
Hugo was struggling to stand up, pushing an ebony cane into the soft turf in an effort to gain a purchase for his weak legs. His head was still bent, but Emma could see from the heightened colour on his neck how much the effort was costing him. How awful for him. He had been gravely wounded, clearly--Richard had thought him dead--and he was still not fully recovered. The explanation was simple enough--and obvious now she stopped to think about it. Probably it would be best to pretend that nothing was amiss.
Emma fixed her friendliest smile on her lips and waited for Hugo to regain his balance. When, at last, he seemed to have overcome his weakness, she began, cheerily, 'You may not remember me, Hugo, but I certainly remember the last time we met. I owe you a debt of gratitude for not betraying my presence to a certain mutual friend of ours--' she turned back to grin conspiratorially at Richard '--a friend who fails to understand the significance of apple cores.'
'I remember you very well indeed, Miss Fitzwilliam, and I was happy to be of service.'
His tone was flat and formal. And his use of her full name struck Emma almost like a blow. She whirled back round to look at this man who was so quick to reject the easy friendship she was offering.
Emma could not suppress an audible gasp. If only she had been prepared...
Hugo Stratton was nothing like the memory she had treasured. Gone was the handsome, eager young man who had smiled up into her favourite oak tree. Under his obviously new civilian clothes, this Hugo Stratton was thin and pinched, so weak that he could not stand upright without the help of a stick. The profile she had seen earlier was lined, right enough--but the lines were clearly lines of pain, not of joy or laughter. And, on the left profile that had been hidden from her, a thin purple scar ran from forehead to chin, bisecting his eyebrow and his cheek and continuing down below his collar. Heaven alone knew what damage lay below.
He stared her out. And he did not smile.
Emma swallowed hard and bowed her head politely, desperately trying to disguise the horror she instinctively felt. It was a full thirty seconds before she felt able to say, 'How do you do, Mr Stratton?'
Marrying the Major by Joanna Maitland
Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
This page was last updated on 25 June, 2008