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It Happened One Night
It was a dark, stormy, and utterly miserable night. Rain fell from the sky in unrelenting sheets; whenever Robert "Rogue" Gerrard, fifth Viscount Gerrard, managed to squint through long lashes weighed down by icy droplets all he saw was more rain.
Hunched in his greatcoat on the box of his traveling carriage, he held the reins loosely in one long-fingered hand; he'd stripped off his sodden gloves miles ago. There was no risk of the horses bolting.
"Just a little further," he crooned, urging them on. He doubted they could hear over the drumming downpour, but the coaxing croon was ingrained habit. If one wanted females or animals to do what one wanted, one crooned; in Ro's experience, it usually worked.
The powerful pair, normally arrogantly high-stepping, were disdainfully lifting first one hoof, then the other, free of sucking mud. Their pace was down to a crawl.
Inwardly cursing, Ro peered through the water coursing down his face, trying through the darkness to make outsome...any...landmark. It was February. His mother always maintained one should never travel in February; as with many things, she was proving to be correct. But business had called, so Ro had dutifully left the luxurious warmth of the hearth at his principal estate, Gerrard Park, near Waltham on the Wolds, summoned his trusty coachman, Willis, and set out that afternoon for town.
He'd imagined putting up for the night along the way, possibly at the Kings Bells in St. Neots.
As usual, they'd joined the Great North Road near Colsterworth. It was only after they'd swept past Stamford that Willis, glancing idly back, had seen the massive storm clouds rushing down on them from the north. The turnoff to Peterborough had already been behind them; when applied to for orders, Ro had decreed they'd press on with all speed, hoping to reach Brampton. They'd just raced through the hamlet of Norman Cross when the heavens had opened with a ferocity that had instantly made traveling, even on England's most major highway, a nightmare.
They'd limped toward Sawtry, but with the smaller, slighter Willis all but drowned on the box, having increasing difficulty managing the reins, Ro had insisted on trading places. His drenched coachman was now a shivering lump inside the coach, while Ro, also drenched to the skin, but courtesy of his size and constitution better able to withstand the apocalyptic downpour, squinted through the torrent.
They'd reached Sawtry over an hour ago, only to find every possible habitation packed to the rafters with travelers seeking shelter. The Great North Road was the country's busiest highway; mail coaches, post coaches, and private coaches, let alone wagons and carts, had been stranded and deserted all around Sawtry.
No shelter of any sort was to be had, but the deluge had shown no signs of abating; if anything, as the hours dragged on, the downpour had only increased.
That was when Ro had remembered the small but tidy inn in Coppingford. The lane along which it lay met the highway about a mile south of Sawtry. With no real option, Ro had accepted the risk, not just of that extra mile on the highway, but of what he'd estimated as two miles of country lane.
Now, with the night an icy, wet, close to impenetrable shroud around him, with the horses slowing even more with every step, with the deluge rapidly converting the lane into a quagmire, he was seriously wondering if he'd judged aright. Yet quite aside from its seclusion tucked away through woods two miles from the highway, given the sudden onset of the storm and its dramatic impact, he doubted the Coppingford Arms would be full.
Gaining shelter for him, Willis, and his horses was currently his only objective, and both instinct and intellect told him shelter awaited at the Coppingford Arms.
He was debating whether to get down and lead the horses when he caught a glimmer through the dripping trees. Leaden branches drooped and bobbed in the downpour; he blinked, shook his head, sending droplets flying in a vain attempt to clear his eyes, and stared again. A small, weak lamp glowed through the curtain of rain.
It grew larger, its light stronger, as the horses inched along. Through the drowned night the outline of a low, solid,two- story building in gray stone took shape. As well as the single lamp by the main door, flickering light at one window bore testimony to a fire within. The sight made Ro realize just how chilled he was; he quelled a shiver.
A stone archway beside the inn gave access to the stable yard. He turned the flagging horses under it. "Willis! Wake up, man...we're here."
"I'm awake." Willis was out of the carriage before it had rocked to a halt. "Ostler! Get yourself out here! His lordship's horses need tending before they get washed away."
Swinging down from the box seat, Ro saw an ostler come rushing from the stable.
Wide-eyed, he grabbed hold of the leader's bridle. "We can walk them into the stable and unharness there. No need to get washed away ourselves."
Ro nodded to Willis when Willis looked back at him. "Go on. I'll get my bag and bespeak rooms...come in when you're done."
Willis saluted and rushed to help the ostler manage the heavy, drooping horses. Ro stepped to the back of the carriage, opened the boot, and hauled his portmanteau up and out just as the carriage started moving, then strode up the steps to the inn's side door.
He opened it and squelched inside. The sound made him wince; Hobywouldn't be impressed. "Innkeep!"
"Right here, sir."
Ro looked up. The innkeeper...the same mild-mannered man Ro remembered from years ago...was standing behind a short counter by the stairs, watching the puddle forming about Ro's large booted feet with resignation.
The man sighed, then ran his gaze up Ro's long frame, animation increasing as he took in the quality of the greatcoat hanging from Ro's shoulders and the elegant coat and waistcoat beneath, equally sodden. "A dreadful night, sir. You'll be wanting a nice dry room, I've no doubt." It Happened One Night. Copyright © by Stephanie Laurens. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.