Authors: The Imprudent Wager
THE IMPRUDENT WAGER
Anne Southwell observed the fat snowflakes swirling lazily past the carriage window with a speculative gleam in her green eyes. It was not a particularly heavy snowfall, but it had been increasing steadily since the first flakes had fallen some two hours before.
“How much would you wager we will be unable to make it to the next inn before nightfall?” she asked, turning to her travelling companions. “Give me the chance to win back the shilling I lost to you when it started to snow.”
“Oh, Anne, do you really think the roads will become impassable?” asked the worried younger of her two companions, burying her arms deeper in her black fur muff. Her small frame shivered beneath her Witzchoura mantle, and she pulled the fur-edged hood closer about her short black curls. “What will happen to us if we are stranded? I knew we shouldn’t travel to London in January. We shall freeze to death or starve.”
“Don’t be idiotish, Melissa,” Anne replied somewhat brusquely. “It is unlikely we’ll do either, since the snow is barely covering the ground and the carriage has not even slowed.”
“Then you shouldn’t be frightening your cousin offering foolish wagers,” admonished the third occupant of the carriage, a spare grey-haired woman in her early fifties. Her habitually grim expression became even grimmer as she added, “It’s not fitting, the way you make wagers on everything. Such betting is for gentlemen, not ladies. Ladies only bet on cards.”
“No doubt you are right, Sanders,” Anne agreed good-humouredly, smiling at the maid’s outspokenness. Sanders was fiercely protective of Melissa, seeming to consider herself a combination lady’s maid, governess and dragon aunt. During the year that Melissa and her maid had lived with Anne, Anne had sometimes felt Sanders did not approve of her, but this was the first time she had criticised her so openly. Appreciating the affection for Melissa that prompted the maid’s scolding, Anne did not become irritated but made an attempt to explain herself.
“It’s a lamentable habit I got into with my brother, Charlie. There didn’t seem to be any harm in it between the two of us.”
“Between the two of you, perhaps not.” The elder woman’s visage softened slightly at the mention of Anne’s brother, killed in Egypt during an early engagement with the French. “But living by yourself in Medford so long you have become unaccustomed to the ways of Society. If you are to chaperone Melissa through a Season in London you must behave circumspectly or you will cause damage to both your reputations.”
“Very well, Sanders, I shall only make wagers with myself,” Anne promised placatingly. She smiled at Melissa, who returned the smile with an almost imperceptible shrug, indicating her inability to do anything about her maid’s forwardness. Not that she would if she could. Melissa was very fond of her “Sandy,” as she called her maid affectionately. Sanders, observing the interchange, sniffed audibly and proceeded to ignore them both.
Anne returned her gaze to the snow continuing to fall outside the carriage window. Her smile faded and a pensive look appeared on her attractive face. The mention of Charlie had brought back memories that seven years of quiet village life had not served to dim. Anne’s mother had died of a putrid sore throat when Anne was still a young child, and her father and older brother, Charlie, had raised her in a well-meaning if unorthodox fashion. She had enjoyed more freedom than was seemly, perhaps, and the company of other officers and their families was all she had known. It might not have been a proper upbringing, but she had revelled in it. The day the news of the death of her father and brother in an engagement with the French came, an emptiness had filled her heart. Devastated by the double loss, she had sold their house in Brighton and removed herself to the small village of Medford. She had planned at first to stay only until she overcame the worst of her grief, but time had slipped by and she found herself content to remain in village society.
She had until the past year, that was, when she had unexpectedly found herself the guardian of her seventeen-year-old cousin, Melissa. Her mother and Melissa’s mother had been sisters who both married army officers. Anne had met her aunt once when she was a small child, but after the death of her mother the families had not stayed in close contact. Her father told her when her uncle sold out of the army upon succeeding to the baronetcy, and later they received notice of the birth of a child, but they had heard little else. It was something of a shock, then, when a solicitor had informed her of the death of her aunt and uncle in a curricle accident, and told her she was the guardian of a cousin she had never met.
Anne had instructed Melissa to come live with her in Medford, planning to take her to Bath or Brighton for a modest come-out when the year of mourning was up. Her first view of Melissa had destroyed such plans, however. Her cousin proved to be an enchantingly lovely young woman, and Anne knew she would not be doing her justice to present her anywhere but London. She must be given the chance to make the good match to which her beauty and sweet nature entitled her. Accordingly, Anne made plans to take her to London for the Season. The local squire’s wife, a close friend of Anne’s, had been most helpful, even loaning her carriage and coachman for the journey. Anne knew that it would not be easy to launch Melissa in London Society, even with her beauty. Hence the journey to London in January so they could have time to become established before the Season began in April.
Anne glanced at her cousin, who had fallen asleep against the worn green velvet upholstery of the carriage, marvelling anew at her beauty. Glossy black curls peeped from under the fur trim of Melissa’s hood, framing a perfectly oval face with finely moulded features. Long black lashes fanned over her rosy cheeks, concealing a pair of forget-me-not blue eyes. So different from her own average blonde prettiness, Anne thought wistfully. She sighed softly and, turning once again to the carriage window, began to amuse herself by belting which snowflakes would melt and trickle to the base of the window first. She was down about two guineas when she was forced to halt her betting as the snow became so thick and heavy it was impossible to distinguish individual snowflakes upon the window. She noted that the carriage had begun to slow and was not surprised when, in a short time, it ground completely to a halt.
“What is it?” Melissa cried in surprise, waking, “The carriage appears to be stuck. Perhaps I’ll win my wager after all,” Anne replied, ignoring Sanders’s disapproving look. It was to be her last wager, after all.
The carriage door opened, letting in a swirl of snowflakes, and the cold-reddened face of the coachman appeared.
“It’s no good, miss. Carriage is stuck fast in a snowdrift.”
“How far do you think we are from the next inn?” Anne queried.
“Six miles, or thereabouts. Too far to walk, miss. But we passed a road to what appeared to be an estate a short while back. I could go there and ask for shelter.”
“Do you have any idea whose estate it is?”
“It doesn’t appear we have any other choice. We’ll wait here until you return. I doubt there will be any other vehicles on the road.”
“I’ll leave Jem groom with you and be back as soon as I can, miss.”
The coachman closed the carriage door, shutting in the cold air. Anne addressed Melissa, who was now shivering in earnest.
“The estate owner may not be in residence, but there should at least be caretakers who will give us shelter. What odds...” Anne trailed off. She
have to guard her tongue. She had been about to bet whether the owner was in residence and what his rank might be.
“I just hope the coachman returns quickly,” Melissa said. “It’s getting so cold.”
Anne observed Melissa’s white face and chattering teeth with concern. Sanders, her expression grim as usual, tucked the plaid carriage blanket closely about Melissa, tugging it clear up to her chin. Melissa hugged herself beneath it, trying to get warm, and the three waited in silence for the coachman’s return as the storm worsened. Anne pulled her plain brown travelling cloak more tightly about her, and thought of Jem waiting outside. She hoped he was warmly dressed.
Although it seemed longer, less than an hour had passed before the carriage door swung open and the coachman appeared once again.
“We’re in luck, miss. The owner’s in residence and I’ve brought help,” he said briefly.
He slammed the door shut and the three passengers had a glimpse of four strong-looking bays being led past the carriage. The carriage rocked uncomfortably as their exhausted horses were unharnessed and the bays hitched to it. Then, with a sudden lurch, the fresh horses pulled them free from the drift. The coachman expertly turned the carriage around, and they headed back in the direction from which they had come.
In a short time they turned off the main road, and Anne had a glimpse of two large gate piers, indicating the presence of an estate. As they passed through the gates and down the drive, Anne tried to see the estate grounds, but the snow was falling so heavily that she could not make out anything beyond the edge of the road. She wondered who the owner was. Melissa remained silent, too cold to be interested in the estate or to speculate on its owner.
Anne had little time for conjecture herself. The fresh horses pulled the carriage through the snow easily, and it wasn’t long before they hailed before a large dwelling. A snow-covered Jem opened the carriage door and let down the steps while the three passengers prepared to get out. After Jem assisted her from the carriage, Anne stood a moment looking at the house while she waited for Melissa and Sanders. The outlines of the building were obscured by gusting snow, but she was able to determine that it was a very large severe structure of grey stone. As soon as she alighted from the carriage, Melissa hurried up the short flight of steps to the entrance with Sanders. Anne followed more slowly.
The doors swung open at their approach, and the three stepped into the welcome dryness and warmth of a great entrance hall. Their wraps were taken by a footman, and Anne had a confused impression of an interior opulence at odds with the severe exterior of the house before her attention was commanded by a dignified man of middle years.
“Welcome to Longworth, Miss Amberly, Miss Southwell,” he said, evidently having been informed of their identity. “I am Upton, Lord Stanton’s butler, and this is Mrs. Tompkins, the housekeeper,” he added, indicating a matronly woman beside him.
Mrs. Tompkins took one look at Melissa, still shivering, and exclaimed, “The young lady looks frozen to death! We must get her into a warm bath at once.”
She took charge of Melissa and Sanders, disappearing down the black-and-white marble hall with them, leaving Anne alone with Upton.
“This way, miss,” Upton said to Anne, unsure whether the woman he was left with was Miss Amberly or Miss Southwell. “If you will wait in the Red Drawing Room, his lordship will join you shortly.”
Anne mused as the butler ushered her into a large drawing room on the ground floor and left her alone. Where had she heard those names before? They were vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place them. He was obviously very wealthy, she decided as she looked about the room, noting the richness of the furnishings. Heavy velvet draperies dimmed the light from the windows, and ornately carved and gilded chairs and sofas upholstered in red velvet ranged around a textured Savonnerie carpet of red and black. The walls and ceilings were heavily ornamented with sculpted gilt decorations, and several large paintings in elaborate frames hung on the walls. It was very different from the lighter style now in favour, but Anne decided she liked it. Despite its opulence, the room was somehow inviting.
She was drawn to the fire blazing in a white marble fireplace across the room and went to bend over it, holding her icy hands close to the roaring flames. Her hands warmed quickly, and as she straightened, her attention was caught by the painting above the fireplace. It was certainly an odd choice for its central position in a formal reception room, she thought. While it was an undeniably beautiful painting, conveying light and motion, it was also undeniably erotic. The graceful nude female forms tumbling over one another in the brightly coloured sylvan setting seemed to invite onlookers to join them. Anne wondered who the artist was, deciding to put her money on Rubens. As she searched for a signature to verify her guess, a voice came from the doorway behind her, seeming to answer her unspoken question. “I see you are admiring my Fragonard.”
“Truthfully, I was just betting with myself that it was a Rubens,” Anne replied, turning around. “I see I would have lost my guinea.”
Her tongue stilled as she saw the incredibly handsome man standing in the doorway. He looked to be just under six feet tall, and his slender yet athletic physique showed his close-fitting blue superfine coat and pantaloons of ribbed kerseymere off to advantage. The soft frills of his shirt fell above a buff waistcoat, and a pristinely white neckcloth contrasted sharply with his dark complexion and black hair. He smiled at Anne and walked leisurely towards her.