Authors: Gayle Buck
Copyright @ 1989 Gayle Buck
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of the author and is an infringement of the copyright law.
The well-sprung carriage rocked in a soothing rhythm. She was perfectly comfortable. She had a brick to her warm her feet and a heavy lap rug tucked snugly over her legs. In her hands, she held a favorite book. And she was returning home to Elmswood Hall for the remainder of the yuletide holidays. She should have been content.
But Miss Judith Grantham was restive. She finally admitted it to herself when her eyes drifted away from the page of her book for the hundredth time since starting on her journey. Not one to fling herself after a lost cause, Judith put aside the book and gave herself over to the changing landscape outside the glazed window.
Snowflakes flashed past the glass, winking in the late afternoon sunlight like so many bits of shiny tinsel. The white fields and hedgerows were marked by tall pristine drifts. It was an enchanting prospect, but Miss Grantham was not in the least appreciative.
She sighed, wondering what had gotten into her. She should be anticipating getting home to Elmswood, but instead her spirits sank ever lower as the carriage closed the distance to her destination.
She knew the reason, of course. It was the same at the end of every visit to her sister’s sprawling home, when she swore, amid the loud protests of her nieces and nephews, that she would be glad of the peace at Elmswood. But the truth was that she missed the companionship and confidences of her sister, her brother-in-law’s quiet wit, and the numerous progeny who dragged on her hands, demanding her attention, and who generally besieged one whom they called the best of aunts.
Judith knew herself to be fortunate. She enjoyed the adoration of her sister’s family and was a welcome and frequent visitor. She was the possessor of a fair estate, unentailed and bequeathed by her mother upon her birth, with the added benefit of an adequate income that had been settled on her through the terms of her father’s will.
Though she hardly gave a thought to it, she knew that she was considered to be a young woman of uncommon good looks. She was of a willowy height that lent grace and proportion of a deep bosom and curved hips. Her eyes were dark smoke gray that could lighten either with amusement or anger. Her hair was dark and curling, her winged brows well-marked, her nose straight, and her mouth delectably full. In fact, there was but one flaw attached to Miss Judith Grantham and that had to do with her past.
When Miss Grantham had been brought out for her first Season, she had become an instant success. The gentlemen raved in admiration of the “English Tea Rose,” as she was immediately dubbed, and though there were ladies who experienced twinges of envy, little was said against Miss Grantham because her kindness of manner quickly won over even some of the haughtiest of dames.
Miss Grantham had therefore enjoyed exceptional popularity. When her engagement to Sir Peregrine Ashford was announced, it was touted as a very satisfactory ending to a spectacular career, for Sir Peregrine was himself as popular with the gentlemen as he was with the ladies.
But that had been five years ago, before Judith had jilted Sir Peregrine, for reasons still unknown beyond the parties involved, and she had earned for herself a reputation. At four-and-twenty, Miss Grantham was still considered a beauty but quite beyond the marriageable age. She might still have been seriously courted if there had been a gentleman audacious enough to brave both Miss Grantham’s reputation and the aura of mystery that had clung to her. For there always seemed to lurk a faint hint of amusement in her eyes, as though she viewed the world from a vantage point not given to others. The distance in her gaze put off even the most obtuse of gentlemen, who uncomfortably suspected that they were the object of Miss Grantham’s amusement. So Miss Grantham was looked upon as an unattainable beauty; certainly worthy of admiration but never to be approached.
Judith was well aware of what was said of her and it amused her to encourage the speculation because for the most part the life she led perfectly suited her. It was only in rare moments such as this, when she had left the warmth and cheer of her sister’s home, that she was not quite content with her lot. After the bustle, Elmswood seemed particularly echoing during the remainder of the Christmas holidays, but Judith always made a point of returning to Elmswood so that she could uphold her role on Boxing Day, the first week-day after Christmas, when by tradition she handed out a Christmas gift box to each member of her household.
Of course, it was pleasant to be mistress of her own household and her staff did decorate Elsmwood in the traditional manner with holly and fir, and roaring fires provided welcoming heat in every room. But it was not as though she would be sharing the warmth with anyone else, she thought with a touch of melancholy.
Judith realized that she was fast sinking into a maudlin self-pity and she gave herself a thorough mental shaking. She detested self-pity in others and it appalled her that she could come close to indulging in it herself. “Enough of that, my girl,” she said firmly. She could have had that other well enough, but she had chosen against it. Actually, she had no true regrets for her decision. It had been the right one at the time. But once in a while the thought crept up on her to wonder what her life might have been if she had married.
For the briefest of moments her thoughts touched on Sir Peregrine Ashford. After she had jilted him, it had been a very long time before she had been able to think of him without feeling a constriction in her throat. But in five years Judith had learned that time had a way of softening certain memories and she no longer felt that flash of pain.
Sir Peregrine had been the most attractive gentleman she had ever known. As surrounded as she had been by gentlemen, she had still been attracted to Sir Peregrine upon first sighting his broad shoulders and the crisp curling hair that touched his collar. When he had turned his head and his incredible piercing blue eyes met hers, Judith had literally felt her heart take flight.
A reminiscent smile played about her mouth and her eyes held a certain light. She and Sir Peregrine had been quite a match, complimenting one another in every way. Except one, Judith remembered. Her smile faded a little as her thoughts carried her into the past. It had been an unfortunate happening, but certainly her eyes had been irrevocably opened to the truth. And she had never been one to shirk the truth once it was borne in upon her.
The carriage slowed, distracting Judith from her somber thoughts. She leaned closer to the window and realized that the vehicle was actually stopping. Judith unlatched the window and put out her head. “Edward, why have we stopped?” she called out. The cold frosted her breath.
The driver was climbing down from the box, having snubbed his reins. “A mail coach has overturned and the road is blocked, miss. It looks to be a bad accident.”
Judith snapped shut the window. She did not wait for the carriage door to be opened, but unlatched it herself and stepped down. Snow crunched under her boots. She felt the immediate impact of the icy air against her face, but fortunately she was attired in a warm pelisse and a heavy traveling dress and the cold did not penetrate to any great degree.
“Miss, ye’ll catch your death,” objected Edward.
“Nonsense, I shall do no such thing,” said Judith firmly. Nevertheless, she was glad of her muff and thrust her hands deeper into its warmth. “I wish to see for myself the damage and whether anyone has been hurt.” The coachman was long inured to his mistress’s firmness of purpose and without further protest he helpfully placed a hand under her elbow when it appeared that she might slip on a particularly bad patch of ice as they walked around to the front of the team of horses.
Judith was appalled at the sight that met her eyes. The mail coach was on its side in a drift, baggage had been flung in every direction, and the frightened horses were tangled in the traces. The passengers were seated on whatever was at hand, or standing in the snow, depending upon their inclinations. Most appeared simply bruised and shaken, but here and there was the unmistakable show of blood. “My word,” said Judith inadequately.
“I’ll just go help the coachman untangle his cattle, miss.”
“Of course, Edward, pray do whatever you can,” said Judith. She looked about again at the passengers, some of whom appeared to be haranguing a lanky young gentleman who was sunk down on a portmanteau and holding his head in his heads. It was clear from the shrill accusations that the young gentleman had been the one at fault for the accident, having taken over the driver’s whip and setting the mail coach at a dangerous pace over the frozen road.
Dismissing those vigorously scolding individuals as probably undesirous of her help, Judith approached a woeful-looking gentleman who held a handkerchief to his brow. “Sir, I see that you are injured. Is there something that I might do?” she asked.
The gentleman grimaced as he glanced up at her. “A bit of flying glass, it was. I thank you kindly, my lady, but it is naught more than a scratch. Perhaps you might see to the young lady there, who I suspicion was quite shook up. She ended on the bottom when we was all thrown about.”
Judith looked around, surprised. She had not before noticed the young woman who stood somewhat separated from the others, perhaps because a light flurry of snow had blurred the outline of her pale gray pelisse. But now that Judith’s attention had been drawn to her, she could discern the weary droop in the slight figure.
Judith went over immediately. “My dear ma’am, may I be of assistance? Have you been hurt?”
The young woman lifted her head and Judith was struck at once by the budding loveliness of her heart-shaped countenance. Judith’s compassion was fully aroused by the paper white of the girl’s face and the pathetic look in her black-fringed china-blue eyes. The schoolgirl – for of such an age she judged her to be – had wrapped her arms about herself and it was plain that she was freezing cold.
Judith held out her gloved hand. “Come with me at once. You must not stay out in this weather. You are not dressed for it.”
The girl automatically took Judith’s hand but she held back, objecting faintly. “My-my portmanteau and-and bandbox. What shall I do?”
“I shall have my coachman gather them up for you. Are these the ones?” asked Judith, pointing at the meager baggage at the girl’s feet. At her nod, Judith called out to her servant, who was returning from helping the mail coach’s driver. “Edward, pray put these up. I shall be taking this young lady to the next posting house.”
“Aye, miss. And I have promised to take word of the accident, so it would be best if we was to get on, Miss Judith.”
Judith nodded. “Very well. Come, child, let us climb up into the carriage. You shall be warmer in a trice, I promise you.” With that, she led her unexpected guest to her carriage and opened the door for her. The girl climbed in somewhat stiffly and Judith followed, closing the door behind her. She sat down and turned her head to smile at the girl, who had sunk down on the seat with almost an air of dejection.
Judith took note of the girl’s expression but did not comment on it. Instead, she said bracingly, “I was just wishing for company. We shall share the lap rug. There you are, tucked in as snug as you please. You must take my muff, for I at least have gloves. And there is a brick to our feet. What more could one wish for?”
The girl burst into tears.
Judith was taken aback. “My dear! What have I said? I certainly never meant to offend you.”
“No, no! You have been so kind – so good!” stammered the girl, tears slipping swiftly down her cheeks. She opened her reticule and frantically searched in it, at last bringing out a small handkerchief. She made an obvious effort to choke back her tears. She blew her nose, which Judith noticed with a touch of envy was not pinkened in the slightest by the violent exercise.
Judith reached out and captured one of the girl’s agitated hands. Even through her glove she could feel that the slender fingers were chilled. “Child, you are safe with me. I am Miss Judith Grantham of Elmswood Hall. It is easily seen that you are out of water. Whatever possessed you to travel by mail coach? I am persuaded that your family never countenanced it,” she said gently.
The girl threw a scared glance at her. “I do not know what you mean. I frequently travel by mail coach. It-it is perfectly comfortable for one of my station.”
Judith put up her brows. There was the veriest hint of a smile in her eyes. “And what is your station, miss?”
The girl threw up her chin and challenged the older woman with a bold stare. “Why, I am a lady’s maid, to be sure.”
Judith could not help but laugh. She pressed the girl’s fingers before releasing her hand. “Dear girl, a lady’s maid is never so young, nor so pretty, as you are. Nor would one be attired in such an elegantly cut pelisse. And pray do not tell me it is your mistress’s cast-off, for I shall not believe you. Your manner and your attire both proclaim you to be gently born, so you must not attempt to pull the wool over my eyes, if you please.”