dimanche 30 novembre 2008

Regency nonsense

The gentleman in the dashing coat and shining Hessian boots drew the curricle to a halt and descended in one swift move. The stable boys stared at the beautifully-matched pair of bays and glared at the tiger with a pang of envy as his master handed him the reins.

“Walk them, I shall not be long.”

He strode into the inn. Everything in his demeanour, from the straightness of his outfits to the strong and shapely figure he cut proclaimed his sportsmanship. There was Quality. The landlord offered him some refreshment, excusing himself that the private parlour had already been bespoken.

“Oh, it is, is it?”

One of the perfectly arched eyebrows went up and the landlord reddened under the scrutiny.

“Maybe the young lady won’t mind…”

The landlord found himself quite at a loss to finish his sentence. Under the gentleman’s heavy eyelids anger had flashed in the dark gray eyes.

“Thank you, I will ask the… young lady myself, if you please.”

The landlord bit back an unwise answer and ushered the Corinthian in the private parlour, reflecting that he should have sensed that mischief was brewing when he had seen the young couple arrive. The man was by no means the young lady’s brother, but he was no mere lordling that could be denied entrance. The innkeeper sighed heavily and closed the door behind the dark gentleman.

As soon as the parlour’s door was opened, the Viscount’s quick eyes found the young lady seated by the window. She was gazing at the London road absently. Something in her attitude betrayed her wariness, but somehow her soft brown eyes looked as lively as ever and her complexion was none the worse for the journey. Her little chin lifted up in her proud way. He had to admit, she looked very becoming. Though she could not pretend to be a dashing beauty, for dark looks had gone quite out of fashion, she was striking in her own way, with a vivid personality and unaffected manners. Against all odds, she had taken the town by storm and the way her delicate face came to life when she talked or grew angry had put the loveliest damsels into shade. Even the fact that she was an heiress had not marred her promising debut. The Viscount clenched his fist at the thought, and walked slowly into the room. The smile on his face was cool and contemptuous.

As soon as she heard the footsteps, she turned her head and for a short moment something very much like relief shone in her eyes. But this was immediately replaced by coldness as understanding dawned on her. Disgust spread on his face as he looked at her shameless attitude. He had no wish to hide his feelings. After everything his parents had done for her, accepting the guardianship imposed on them by a long-forgotten friend, and introducing her to the very best society in London, she had still felt no shame in eloping with his rake of a cousin.

“My Lord Wentworth. You are here.”

“I am here, My Lady, though I have no wish to be, believe me.”

“I am sorry that you should have had to make such a distasteful journey,” she replied in a low trembling voice he recognized.

She gazed coolly at him, infuriating him further. His snubs had never failed to put any impertinent damsel into a blush, but from the very beginning she had shone no sign of wanting to comply with him and his sense of propriety. As the eldest son of her guardian, he had done his best to tolerate the spitfire girl, and had even disregarded her outrageous flirtations with his fortune-hunting cousin, thinking she was neither green nor so lost to propriety as to contemplate such a misalliance. It seemed he had been mistake. It took him all his will not to walk to her and shake some sense in her lovely, childish brown head.

“How could you be so shameless as to elope,” He asked, not sparing her blushes any longer.

“Maybe, she spoke with treacherous smoothness, anything is better than to be constantly in your cold and contemptuous company, My Lord.”

Miss Shaw turned her blazing eyes towards his Lordship, feeling her blood boil. He was just as bad as she had guessed he would be when she had caught the expression on his face. He thought her vulgar, capable of any improper acts. Anger blurred her vision, and for a few seconds she had to fight back tears. How she wished she could call him out for his contemptuous words!

“I am very sorry to see that you have come to such a dislike of my character,” he answered just as silkily as she had, but his gaze was lit up by a disturbing flame she had never seen before. “I shall nonetheless take my leave to inform you that you will not be married to Clifford before you come of age.”

Fury rose so violently in her belly she would have slapped him had she not been convinced he would add that to her many faults. Instead, hearing Clifford coming, she gave him a curt smile and steadied herself. For the whole journey she had wanted to run Clifford through for what he had dared put her through, and her only hope had been in the certainty that the Viscount would take them over before noon. But now she did not know which of the two was the wickedest, the vilest. They would both see if she could not fence for herself!

“My Lord, as you see your cousin has caught up with us and he says he will not let us marry.”

“Oh, will he not?”

The dandy levelled his quizzing-glass and stared at his cousin, a faint smile brushing his lips. Though she did not really care for Clifford’s quizzing-glass, the sick look on the Viscount almost redeemed her abductor.

“I think you shall have to fight if we are to resume our journey to the border,” she suggested with only a faint trace of hope in her voice.

His lordship laughed heartily.

“I find you blood-craved, Child. What has he done to infuriate you? You did not seem so eager to proceed a few moments ago.”

Her eyes blazed as harshly at the dandy as they had at the Viscount, but she knew by his lordship’s expression that Clifford’s words had not been wasted on him. His gaze flew to Sara’s face, and she blushed under the sudden intensity of his deep gray eyes.

For a short moment, the look reminded Sara of the happy weeks they had spent at Sherrington with his parents and his younger brother. She had almost begun to think him a friend, as he had taken her to ride everyday and had even helped her practice the waltz. But then, back in London, he had been as cold and as contemptuous as ever, and she had bitterly understood where she stood in the world. With his handsome dark looks, his title and his fortune, he was one of the most eligible of bachelors. She was only a country girl, tolerated because she was an heiress, but nonetheless looked upon with pity. She smiled bitterly at the word. An heiress. Suddenly she was tired and, even though she would have quite enjoyed seeing the gentlemen duel for the sake of her fortune, it was high time to end this nonsensical masquerade. Clifford had gone too far.

“My Lords, will you please listen to me before you set forth killing each other.”

She managed to smile, but kept her gaze focused on the window.

“There is no reason for you to fight, for I am not the heiress everyone supposed me to be.”

“What are you talking about, child,” Clifford asked with a dubious lift of one eyebrow.

The Viscount stood silent, staring intensely at Sara, not betraying any emotions. She shuddered, for she knew how he would welcome the news of the hoax. Though she was not responsible for it, he would still blame her.

“To speak the truth, my father left me without a penny. It was my Lord Sherrington’s notion not to utter a word on my circumstances to the world, and since he is my guardian I merely complied with his advice, though I now see I have acted very unwisely.”

Lord Clifford stared blankly at her, and she smiled her laughing smile at him. She could see on his face his mixed feelings: incredulity, annoyance at the pointlessness of his journey and good-natured amusement. Finally he bowed to Sara, smiling back into her eyes with a twinkle in his own.

“Miss Shaw, I shall go back to London this very moment, and leave you in the care of your guardian’s son.”

Then he added in a low voice, in response to her blazing eyes.

“Oh, Sara, it is just what you deserve for leading me on this dance! I hope you will enjoy the journey back. Wentworth, I'll meet you at Watier’s.”

On this light note, he left the inn. Only minutes later a curricle was seen taking the London road. The room remained silent. Sara did not trust herself to speak to his lordship. She was still in such a rage. Maybe, she thought, she should have waited for blood to be shed before unveiling the truth.

“As soon as I am of age, I will seek a post in a respectable house. I won’t trespass very much longer on your parent’s kindness,” she said stiffly. “So, will you be so kinds, My Lord, as to not remind me in the meantime of this awful masquerade.”

She did not lift her chin, but heard his lordship cross the short distance between them in a few strides.

“I won’t,” he said softly. “But you will not become a governess.”

She stared harshly into his dark eyes, wrath growing in her bosom once more.

“Oh, what will you have me be, My Lord, a milliner perhaps?”

His lordship's coldness and contempt had vanished, leaving place for warm amusement. As he looked at her, his little spitfire, she looked so much like a vengeful Greek deity he could not help but laugh.

“Since you are no longer a great heiress, I thought you might like to take care of my house,” he offered with a laugh spreading to his usually cold eyes.

He took her hand gently in his. Fury consumed her. How could he? How dared he?

“Oh, you’ll have me be a housekeeper?”

At this, his lordship burst out laughing, before giving her a look that drew an even deeper blush from her already reddened complexion. Suddenly she was at a loss. His grey eyes had been, from the very beginning, what she had been unable to handle.

“Oh, you little nonsensical spitfire! Do you think I could decently marry the heiress under my father’s guardianship?”

He kissed her roughly, and for the first time she realised that his harsh treatment of her might just be what would suit her character .

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