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Authors: At the Earls Command

Sally James

BOOK: Sally James
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Sally James


Chapter One


Kate glowered at the coach, teetering crazily against the elm tree. It was bad enough being summoned so suddenly to London and having to travel in a dirty, smelly stage, without having the wretched coach lose a wheel and deposit them in an uninhabited wilderness miles from comfort or help.

She glanced round and amended her thought. There were a couple of cottages visible across the fields, and the roofs of a village peeped above the trees on the far side of the small valley where they had come to rest. She had no idea where they were, or whether help to repair the broken wheel could be found. Kate sighed. It would be typical of this journey if they had to sleep in a ditch. She glanced behind her into the muddy water and shivered, drawing her skirts closer to prevent them from getting wet. Even the weather was perverse, and a sudden storm in the middle of a hot, sunny September had made the roads muddy and the grass of the bank where they sat unpleasantly wet.

'Confounded idiot, trying to race a curricle down a steep hill!' a man sitting on the bank beside Kate muttered, and she glared at him. He'd been complaining about the accident and threatening dire punishments for the driver even before they’d struggled from the disabled vehicle.

'Never 'ee mind, me pretty duck, we'm none of us 'urt bad,' a woman on Kate's other side said. 'Do 'ee 'ave a bit of my pasty. Best veal, it be, an' they do say I make the best pasties between Oxford and Wycombe.'

Kate shuddered. The woman had been quite unconcerned about the accident, and once settled on a rug on the bank had proceeded to unpack a bulky hamper and spread the contents out around her.

She looked at the unappetising lump of pastry being offered and swallowed hard. 'Thank you, but I'm not hungry,' she managed in a low, strained voice, and smiled faintly before turning away to gaze once more across the fields.

The buxom farmer's wife was undeterred. ' 'Ee look as if 'ee could do wi' fattenin' up a mite,' she commented, beginning to eat with a voracious appetite.

Kate tugged off her bonnet and ruffled her fair, feathery curls, taking a deep breath and pressing her lips firmly together.

'Kate, take care. The sun will ruin your complexion,' an older but still pretty women who was pacing anxiously up and down the rutted lane cautioned.

Kate snorted. 'Why does my complexion matter so much now? It never has before.'

'Your grandfather - '

'Even if he cares, which I doubt, he’ll scarcely notice if he's dying!' Kate retorted spiritedly, oblivious of the disapproving glance thrown towards her by the tall, thin man with the pinched face who was still muttering to himself about incompetent stagecoach drivers.

Kate plucked at the frill of her bonnet, and frowned as a few of the stitches came undone. 'In any case, if he cares a jot he'll be far more concerned about these dreadful clothes we have to wear!'

'It be a pretty colour, that pale blue, suit 'ee a treat, it do. My Bessie'd be grateful for such fine muslin,' the farmer's wife put in, her tone bracing, crumbs of pastry spattering all round her. 'Sure 'ee won't try some o' my apple turnover? Cheer 'ee up, it will. Apples from me own orchard, they be, the very first to ripen.'

'Fruit is deleterious to the health,' the thin man said with a sneer. 'Its acidity damages the lining of one's stomach.'

Kate glared impartially at their persistent fellow travellers and her despised dress, which to an unbiased observer did give the impression of having been cobbled together with little attention either to fit or to current fashion. As she ostentatiously brushed away crumbs of pastry, a thoughtful look came into her eyes. She glanced speculatively at the man. He would make an interesting character in her novel. She suddenly smiled, her expression remarkably innocent, and turned towards the farmer's wife, but before she could speak she found her arm grasped firmly and was dragged ruthlessly to her feet.

'Come, child, let us walk a little way, you'll be better than sitting on that wet grass,' Miss Sophie Byford said firmly, and continued to hold Kate's arm and chatter inconsequentially until they were out of earshot. Then she let out an indignant sigh. 'I don’t know what you were about to say, and I don't want to hear, but you mustn't take out your displeasure on the poor woman.' She had a tolerably accurate notion of what the farmer's wife was thinking, but unlike her, she had had the doubtful pleasure of rearing Kate for the past seventeen years, since the death of her father hardly a year after she was born. After his death Kate's mother had lingered, without taking more than a cursory interest in her baby daughter, and had declined until she'd followed her husband into the grave a few years later.

Kate might appear frail, with her tall slender form, fair skin and blonde hair, her limpid blue eyes adding to this impression, but she had never had a day's illness, and could ride Thomas's pony or walk all day without the slightest hint of fatigue. The air of Dresden doll fragility attracted would-be protectors, both male and female, young and old, with unfailing regularity, and when she was in the appropriate mood Kate had no hesitation in taking advantage of them.

At the moment she clearly had no desire to benefit from the solicitude of their rustic travelling companion, and if pushed too far by her persistence might say so with her often devastating candour. She was not, as the woman seemed to assume, in need of bracing encouragement. Miss Byford knew from bitter experience that the crease between her eyes denoted not dejection but a suppressed, intense fury, and the silence, plus the ostentatious preoccupation with the countryside through which they had been travelling meant that Kate was mentally rehearsing her complaints and arguments for a time when they would be alone and she could express them more forcefully than their present situation allowed. It might be better to grant her that opportunity before Kate's patience and sense of decorum both deserted her completely.

'I don't see why we have to leave everything at a moment's notice and rush to London just because he is dying,' Kate muttered rebelliously as they walked along the winding lane which led, according to the fingerpost they passed, to West Wycombe, where they had been due to halt for refreshments at the George and Dragon, and thence to London. 'I was more than half way through my novel.'

'You can continue it in London. Only last week you were bemoaning your lack of knowledge of London,' Miss Byford pointed out. 'You said you couldn't depend on Diana for all the details you wanted, especially in her present situation.'

'How can I go into society dressed like this?' Kate demanded.

'The Earl is your grandfather, and he is over eighty, and seriously ill,' Miss Byford said with a sigh.

'It's the first time he has even acknowledged my existence!' Kate retorted spiritedly. 'However old and ill he is it scarcely justifies this summons, without so much as a by your leave.'

'Perhaps he is sorry for his behaviour, and wishes to put matters right before he dies,' Miss Byford suggested, but without much hope of being believed. They had been conducting variations on this conversation ever since the previous morning, when a groom in the employ of the Earl of Malvern had arrived at their cottage with a curt missive bidding her to bring her niece without delay to Grosvenor Square.

Kate uttered an inelegant snort. 'I don't believe in deathbed repentances.'

'Kate, you are behaving impossibly! At least wait and see why he sent for us before you decide he is to be treated to your tantrums.'

'I'll walk into the village,' Kate declared, 'I can't bear the thought of sitting around with that dreadful woman and that even more obnoxious complaining man.'

'In your present state of mind I think that might be a good notion!' Miss Byford snapped and turned back towards the stranded party.

Kate, left alone with her thoughts, strolled on. Round the next bend of the lane she came upon a small thatched cottage, and her mood lifted as she admired the roses climbing right into the thatch, and the profusion of flowers in the small front garden, enclosed with a sturdy fence. It was like their cottage at home, the same tumbling mixture of sweet-smelling flowers, colours vibrant in the hot sunshine, perfume enhanced after the rain. Alongside was another gate which led into a small orchard, where the apple and pear trees were bowed down with ripening fruit.

As she drew nearer a small boy raced across the orchard, slipping apples into his pockets. He flung open the gate and ran off towards the village. In hot pursuit a herd of tiny piglets scuttled after him, followed by a thin, worried-looking woman whose hair was escaping from an untidy knot.

'Drat the boy!' she muttered, and tried to shoo the nearest piglets, who had abandoned the chase in favour of rooting round in the ditch, back into the orchard.

'I'll help,' Kate offered. Even this was preferable to waiting for the coach to be mended.

Between them she and the woman rounded up most of the piglets and were shepherding them towards the gate when a goat appeared, a rope trailing behind him. With excited squeals the piglets scattered, and most of them charged along the lane, this time in the opposite direction.

Kate grabbed the rope as the goat trotted past her, but the animal was strong and she could barely hold him. At the back of her mind she was aware of various noises, the squealing of the piglets, a clucking of fowl, the shouts of the woman, and the clop-clop of an approaching horse. Then the noises merged into a confused medley from which the sudden whinny of a horse and a loud oath were the only distinguishable sounds.

She looked up to see an elegantly dressed man sliding helplessly from the back of a frantically rearing horse, piglets milling round beneath flailing hooves. As the unfortunate rider landed on his back in a deep puddle Kate laughed, and clung helplessly to the goat as he tugged her relentlessly across to investigate this new attraction.

The terrified horse bolted towards the village; the woman, after a harassed glance at the man in the puddle, decided her piglets were more important and went after them; and Kate, helpless with laughter at the sight of the mud-covered figure struggling to his feet, let go of the goat.

As the rider, tall and broad-shouldered, struggled to keep his balance in the slippery mud, the goat bleated triumphantly and advanced on neat, nimble hooves. He tried just one inquisitive butt and the rider, clutching his stomach, collapsed once more, this time not into the puddle, but into a cluster of squishy cow pats.

Satisfied, the goat suddenly twisted away and galloped after the piglets, and Kate held her sides and laughed helplessly.

'Very funny!' a deep, furious voice commented. 'You let that damned goat go deliberately!'

Kate glanced up at him. Even with mud plastered over his face and in his dishevelled dark hair he was incredibly handsome. His eyes were dark, narrowed in anger, and his mouth was grim, but his features were strong and well-formed. His clothes fitted him to perfection, and were of the finest material. They revealed a slim but muscular body, and long muscular legs clad in tight buckskins, ending in highly polished boots.

'Well, haven't you anything to say for yourself, wench?' he demanded angrily. 'What were those confounded animals of yours doing all over the road?'

Kate's eyes glittered. So he took her for a cottage girl, did he, a swineherd, perhaps? 'Oh, surr, they be pigs, they be, not animals!' she said. 'But it did look funny, when 'ee fell off into mud! 'Tis a pity 'ee can't ride proper, an' now ye'll spoil them pretty boots, walkin' on ground like ord'nary folks 'as to.'

Furious, he took a couple of rapid strides towards her, and before she could move had grasped her shoulders with strong, relentless hands. 'I know they're pigs,' he said slowly, shaking her between each word. Unable to move, helpless to resist, Kate stared up into dark, glinting eyes. 'And you're incompetent, letting go that damned goat deliberately.' He paused, looked consideringly at her, and then with a grin added, 'But you're a very fetching goat-girl.'

Kate gasped with indignation but then her mouth was covered with his, and she was unable to speak. As he crushed her body to his and his hands, sliding down her back, kept her imprisoned, her senses whirled. Never before had she been kissed by any man, apart from a fatherly smack on the cheek from some of her aunt's elderly friends, and a shy peck under the kissing bough last Christmas from Thomas. They had been nothing like this, with firm, demanding lips plundering her own, dragging from her a bewildering response that was partly terror and partly a desire to drown in the sweet unknown that beckoned so imperatively.

At last he released her and thrust her aside. He was breathing heavily, and for a moment both of them struggled to catch their breaths. Then Kate realised that much of the mud from his clothes had transferred itself to her gown.

'Look what you've done! My gown's ruined, and it's one of my newest!' she exclaimed.

BOOK: Sally James
4.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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