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After two days of torrential rains, the clouds had parted at last, allowing sunshine to splash the Weald of Kent with color once again. The spectators crowding around and upon the numerous carriages that surrounded the twenty-four-foot, roped ring at the foot of a low hill near the village of Gill's Green might have appreciated the sun's warmth had they chanced to give it a thought. However, their attention being firmly riveted upon the action within the ring, it is doubtful whether many of them noticed the sun's appearance at all.
The odds were four to one on Alf Porter's Black, a bruising pugilist with a reputation sound enough to bring the commander-in-chief, Gentleman Jackson himself, all the way from London to referee his match against a promising comer known to all and sundry as the Irish Dancer. By the tenth round, despite the odds, the mill had arrived at that doubtful state where things seemed not to be going so easily as anticipated, and many of those among the teeming crowd were nervously expressing uncertainty as to how they ought best to proceed with their wagers. The Black's opponent had shown himself off in fine style. After having been knocked down in the third, fifth, and eighth rounds, the Irishman had rallied in prime twig, and notwithstanding many severe hits in the ninth and the terrible punishment he had received throughout, still he stood up for the tenth undismayed, proving either that he was a glutton or that he possessed courage and skill of no ordinary nature.
The Black stood game, and midway through the round, he sliced in a severe body blow; but the Irishman treated it with indifference, and in return not only milled the Black's head but, in closing, threw him. Many of those who had not seen Alf Porter's Black fight before groaned loudly and began to hedge their bets. As the round ended, the Black fell again, heavily.
"Two to one in cartwheels Alf Porter throws in the towel before the end of the fifteenth!" shouted an enthusiastic young spectator to two sprigs of fashion mounted on prime cattle beside his green-and-yellow high-perch phaeton.
"Done!" responded the larger of the two with commendable promptitude.
In tones not meant to carry beyond his ears, his companion tersely demanded to know where his wits had gone begging. "Anyone can see the Black is as sick as a horse now, Ramsay. He'll never fib his way through four more rounds."
"Merely feeble, Mo ... my friend," retorted Lord Ramsay Colporter, correcting his slip smoothly. "And for the love of heaven, keep silent. I'd no notion we'd see so many of the Fancy here today. 'Tis on account of Jackson condescending to judge the match, of course, but all the same, after all this rain, the road from London must be knee-deep in places."
"Much that would signify," his companion observed, chuckling. "I'll warrant they made their way as cheerfully as if they'd been trotting along a bowling green."
"Well, there are too dashed many of 'em," Lord Ramsay muttered, eyeing the crowd warily. "Tilt your hat lower."
"I can scarcely see as it is." But the curly beaver hat was tipped obediently to a more concealing, not to mention more rakish, angle.
"All we need is for someone to recognize me and come trotting over, demanding to know when Hawk means to come home. Not that I can tell them," Lord Ramsay added with a sigh. "Do you see anyone you know?"
Under the brim of the beaver hat, crystal-clear green eyes, rimmed by thick, dark lashes, scanned the crowd with good-humored intent. "A few. I know old Queensbury, of course, and Lord Yarmouth. And I have met Mr. Craven and Major Mellish. There are some others, too, but no one who will pay the slightest heed to a couple of lads down from Oxford to watch a mill."
Lord Ramsay appeared to be unconvinced, but at that moment a tumultuous cheer erupting from the crowd drew his attention once more to the ring, where the Black, sweat streaming in rivers down his sleekly muscled body, seemed to be in trouble. Defending, and retreating from his opponent's blows, though still valiantly attempting to put in a flush hit, the Black was now against the ropes. Quickly the Irishman caught hold of the upper of the three of them in such a singular way that his opponent could neither get in a hit nor fall down.
The crowd was in an uproar, and the seconds began shouting to separate the two fighters. Their calls were soon taken up by the spectators, but Jackson, shaking his head, insisted that by rule he could not separate them until one of the men had fallen. Word of the decision spread rapidly through the crowd, whereupon some two hundred persons surged forward to achieve the separation themselves. Despite the jostling, the two young fashionables kept their seats and seemed only to enjoy the ensuing melee. It took some time to sort things out, but the interval seemed to have done the two combatants good, for when the twelfth round began, both rallied forth with excellent spirit.
It was now that the Black began to justify his reputation. The Irishman fought furiously, but his blows appeared to have less effect than before, while the Black showed up in fine style, flooring him twice before the end of the round. In the thirteenth the Irishman rallied desperately, but his blows now fell short more often than not, and midway through the fourteenth round a tremendous left-hand blow from the Black felled him like a stone to the ground, where he lay motionless.
"By Jove!" Lord Ramsay exclaimed. "I do believe the Irishman's done for."
"He looks well nigh dead to me," replied his companion, the green eyes narrowing slightly. "Do you truly enjoy this sport, Ramsay?"
"Oh, aye, 'tis beyond anything great! Why, men will be talking about this match for months. Look there, the Irishman's seconds are just now throwing in the towel. They cannot bring him up to scratch. He showed game, right enough, though."
The applause and shouting made further conversation impossible for some moments, and when it began to fade, Lord Ramsay realized he was being hailed by the young man in the yellow-and-green phaeton.
"You stay here," he ordered, "so that fella don't expect a proper introduction. And mind you don't fall into conversation with anyone." A grin being the only response he received, he turned his attention to his horse, doing his best to angle near enough to the phaeton to exchange calling cards with the young gentleman. A few moments later he was back.
"I daresay we'd best get out of this before someone does collar me," he said then. "I don't know many of the members of the beau monde as yet, but that's not to say there aren't one or two of Hawk's friends here who would recognize me."
Obediently, the other horse was turned to follow in his wake, and they made their way carefully through the excited crowd to the roadway. Once there, Lord Ramsay gave spur to his mount, leaving his companion little choice other than to follow suit. The road heading north along the Kent-East Sussex border toward Hurst Green was well-drained, so they were able to maintain a brisk canter, slowing only while they passed through Hurst Green itself and briefly into East Sussex to follow the London-Hastings highroad. But silence reigned between them until they had passed back into Kent over the stone, arched bridge spanning the River Bourne some miles above the point where she raced into the Rother. The Bourne's waters were running higher and more swiftly than was their wont, because of the recent rains, and the noise of the rushing water made conversation impossible. But then, as they turned up the Bourne Valley road, instead of breaking once more into a canter, Lord Ramsay seemed content to keep to a slower pace. His companion put a hand up to straighten the beaver.
"Don't you dare to take off that hat," Lord Ramsay warned.
"Some of my hair got twisted. It is hurting me."
"You have my sympathy," he replied, grinning, "but if you take that hat off, we shall both end in the briars. I shudder to think what Hawk would have to say to me, should wind of this newest escapade reach his ears."
"It would take a stiff wind, would it not, to carry the word all the way to Spain?"
"He's bound to return one day, however, and if it is all the same to you, I'd as lief my first interview with him be a pleasant one."
"Mine will not be, I daresay. Your busier relatives will have informed him of the many lapses in my good behavior over the past four years."
Lord Ramsay chuckled. "I wonder if he's heard about Margate or your visit to the Bartholomew Fair. You have not precisely exerted yourself to play the dutiful wife, Mollie."
She glanced at him saucily. "And I suppose you think your brother has been an excellent husband to me?"
Colporter laughed. "I think he has never even known you. How could he when he left to join Wellington not two weeks after your wedding?"
"Well, he had been courting me for two years, after all," Mollie replied. "Not that that counts for much, I suppose. He never had time to visit Rutledge Park. There's not much by way of sport there, of course, and in winter we were nearly always cut off by the weather. He and I saw each other only at very proper affairs during the Season, where I behaved myself like a very proper little lady."
"And where you were constantly surrounded by other contenders for your lovely hand, if the tales I've heard are true."
"They are." She gave a little toss of her head. "I was enormously successful, you know. All the crack, in fact. I had my choice of them all."
"Yet you chose Hawk." Lord Ramsay's gray eyes narrowed under the thick, straight brows that reminded Mollie so forcibly of her husband's. Ramsay was younger than Hawk, of course, nearly ten years younger. And his features were softer than she remembered Hawk's being. She wondered now how well she actually remembered Hawk. Four years was a long time.
"I chose Hawk because I thought he seemed the most likely of the lot to add some adventure to my life," she said now. She didn't choose to describe the way a mere look from that tall, tawny-haired man or the mere sound of his low-pitched voice, for that matter, had sent the blood racing hotly through her body. "He was forever talking about hunting and cockfighting and curricle-racing."
"He was a noted Corinthian, was he not?" Ramsay put in with unmistakable brotherly pride. "They still speak of the time he raced against Sir James Smithers from Westminster to York in October. What an event that must have been!" He glanced more sharply at Mollie. "Surely you didn't expect him to take you along on such expeditions!"
She shrugged, and the green eyes glinted beneath the dark lashes. "I should have known he'd be like any other man, thinking only of his own pleasures, expecting his wife to remain complacently at home while he goes off adventuring. Life is most unfair to females, Ramsay."
He appeared to give the matter some thought. It was one of the things she liked best about her young brother-in-law. He never gave one an automatic, learned response. Her opinions carried weight with him.
The road had begun to narrow now, and the lush green forest seemed to creep right to its very edges, but neither Lord Ramsay nor his companion felt the slightest tremor of unease. Times had been peaceful lately, hereabouts, and they were now on Colporter land. Nearly the entire Bourne Valley belonged to the Marquess of Hawkstone.
Finally, clearing his throat and choosing his words carefully, Lord Ramsay said, "You could scarcely expect Hawk to take you with him to the Peninsula, Moll."
"Well, no, but he needn't have dumped me at Hawkstone Towers with your charming parent, either!" Mollie snapped.
Lord Ramsay chuckled. "That was a rum go, and no mistake. Papa was a cursed old marplot, to wrap the matter in as clean linen as possible. Lucky for all of us that Aunt Biddy was here as well."
"Indeed." Mollie's expression softened at the thought of Lady Bridget Colporter, who had shown her nothing but kindness over the past four, sometimes unutterably difficult years. "I think it is a great pity she was never allowed to marry."
"What? And leave poor Papa to fend for himself! Lord knows Mama, what with one miscarriage after another, was unsuited to the task. I daresay she went to her reward with nothing but relief after Harry was born. Aunt Biddy had all the care of Papa, the four of us, and Hawkstone Towers in her dish. How can you be so unfeeling as to think Papa ought to have shared some of that burden?" The gray eyes twinkled merrily, but Mollie glared at him.
"That was so like him. First to send your mother to an early grave with all his demands upon her for sons and more sons, and then to make poor Biddy into a near prisoner to cater to his needs. Your father, Ramsay, was naught but a selfish, contumacious old bastard!"
"Tut, tut," scolded his lordship. "Such language from a gently nurtured female."
Mollie chuckled, the grim lines in her face smoothing at once. "As if you've never heard me call him a bastard before."
"Not bastard. Contumacious. Where do you come by such delightful words, m'dear?"
Laughter gurgled up. "And you with an Oxford education!"
"A near education. Not done yet, remember? One more term. But now that we're done mourning dearest Papa, I mean to enjoy the Season and then follow Prinny to Brighton with the rest of the swells before I bury myself in books again. A man about town, that's me, as of next week."
Mollie became serious again. "Do you think Hawk will approve of your remaining out of school till Michaelmas term, Ramsay?"
"Much good it will do him to disapprove," responded that young gentleman recklessly. "He can scarcely stop me."
They rode in silence for some moments. Despite the sun's rays filtering through the thick, overhanging trees, little warmth penetrated to the roadway, and Mollie began to feel chilled. Reaching back to unknot the leather thongs that held her heavy duffle coat in a roll tied to her saddle, she deftly shook out the coat and began to slip her arms into the sleeves. Her horse was well-trained, but it was an awkward business nonetheless, so she smiled gratefully when Lord Ramsay reached out to assist her.
"What did you think of your first mill?" he asked.
"I enjoyed the crowd's enthusiasm," Mollie replied frankly as she shrugged into the coat, "but the action itself was too brutal for my taste. Why, if the two men had not been of different colors, there would have been no way to determine one from the other by the tenth round, so bloodied were their features."
"But consider the skill, Mollie! The sheer manliness of the sport! To see two pugilists, full of gaiety and confidence, nobly opposing one another, to prove which is the better man. Why, 'tis a sport enjoyed as much by the ragtag and bobtail as by the flowers of society, something all men can enjoy together without thought for class or standing. 'Tis a most democratic entertainment, m'dear."
Mollie grinned at his enthusiasm. "If it is merely an entertainment, Ramsay, then why do they not take steps to protect the combatants? Their skill, gaiety, and confidence could be as easily displayed if their knuckles were padded, and their heads and bodies protected from serious injury. A fencing match, after all, may be just as thoroughly enjoyed by the spectators when the foils are buttoned as when they are not. More so, in fact, for one may concentrate the more fully upon the skill of the fencers when one need not fear to see one or the other spitted before one's very eyes. Why, until the Irishman began to sit up and rub his head, I feared the Black had truly killed him. And in another match, someone may well do so."
Lord Ramsay was staring at her in astonishment. "You would put padded gloves on such men and rig them out in armor? For the love of heaven, show some sense. Where would the sport be in that? How could the Black win any sort of decisive victory if he could not even knock his opponent down? Cover his hands! My God, Mollie, do not let any other fancier of the sport hear you suggest such a ridiculous course."
Abashed, Mollie begged his pardon for her foolishness, and they rode on together in perfect harmony. But it was not long before she found her thoughts returning to her husband. She wondered, as she often did, just when he would see his way clear to coming home again to take his rightful place as master of Hawkstone Towers.
Four years before, not two weeks after their wedding, the news had reached London that General Arthur Wellesley, who had already begun to acquire the charisma that attends extraordinary leadership, had replaced Sir John Moore as Commander of the British Army in Portugal. Men insisted it was the beginning of what would undoubtedly be one of the most brilliant campaigns in military history, and Hawk had immediately announced his intention to be part of it.
Excerpted from Lady Hawk's Folly by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1984 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 3, 2013
This contains great driscription, good historical background. Keeps you involved and is a decently done romance with a delightful bit of fun.
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