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"What do you mean you have nothing available?" demanded Mr. Eliot Crenshaw. The cold anger in his eyes made the small innkeeper quail.
"I swear it's true, sir. My missus has took the gig, being as my youngest daughter is about to be brought to bed in Hemsley, the next village but one, you know. She won't be home for a sennight. There's the old cob left in the stables, but he won't draw a carriage, and with this snow now..." He looked out the window of the taproom at the driving blizzard. "Well I can't see as how any animal could." He paused apologetically, conscious of the gentleman's impatience.
"Damn the snow," said Mr. Crenshaw, but he too looked out the window. It was obvious that the weather was worsening rapidly, and having already endured one accident on the road, he had no wish to risk another. But his situation was awkward. "Your wife is away, you say? Who else is here?"
Mr. Jenkins showed signs of wringing his hands. "There's just me tonight, sir, begging your pardon. Betty, the girl as comes from the village to help out, went home early on account of the storm. And my stable boy broke his fool leg last week, climbing trees he was, the witless chawbacon, at his age! I don't see how I'll serve a proper supper. And the lady!" This last remark ended with something like a groan, and the man shook his head. "This ain't a great establishment, you see, sir, off the main road like we are and keeping no post horses. We ain't used to housing quality, and that's the truth. I don't know what I'm to do."
Mr. Crenshaw eyed the distraught host with some contempt. His mood had been decidedly soured by recent events. In the course of a relatively short daylight drive, his fine traveling carriage had been severely damaged by a reckless youngster in a ridiculous high-perch phaeton. His horses had been brought up lame and their high-spirited tempers roused, and though he knew he was fortunate to have escaped without serious injury, the problems which now faced him as a result of the accident did not make him thankful.
He had been escorting a young visitor of his mother's to the home of her aunts. Only his parent's most earnest entreaties had persuaded him to do so, and he was now cursing himself roundly for giving in, for Miss Lindley's maid had been badly hurt in the accident, forcing them to leave her at a cottage on the scene and walk alone to this inn. Here he found there were no females to chaperone the girl; the blizzard was steadily increasing in intensity, and there was no conveyance of any kind available, even had it been possible to go on. Eliot Crenshaw was not accustomed to finding himself at a stand, but now he passed a hand wearily across his forehead, sat down at a taproom table, and stared fiercely at the swirling snow outside. He clenched a fist on the table top. "Bring me a pint," he said resignedly.
In the little inn's one private parlor, the Right Honorable Miss Laura Lindley, oldest daughter of the late Earl of Stoke-Mannering, sat miserably holding her hands out to the crackling fire. She was chilled to the bone, her bonnet was wrecked, her cloak torn and muddy, and her green cambric traveling dress was as disheveled as her black curls. There was a nasty scratch on her left cheek and a bruise above her eye. But these minor discomforts worried her less than the rising storm and the smashed chaise they had left leaning drunkenly by the roadside. What was she to do? Her aunts had expected her a full three hours ago, and these two elderly ladies, by whom she had been brought up, were notoriously high sticklers. The smallest deviation from the rules of propriety was enough to overset them completely. What then could they feel when they knew that their cherished niece was stranded alone at a country inn with a man she scarcely knew?
Laura caught her breath on a sob. She had only just persuaded her aunts to allow her to spend a season in London. Though her twentieth birthday was past, she had never been to the metropolis, and it had required all of her argumentative skills and the help of some of her aunts' old friends, Mrs. Crenshaw among them, to get the necessary permission. She was to have gone to town next month, but now... Laura sighed tremulously. Now, it appeared that she would never have a London season. She had waited two years after her friends' debuts and argued her case with the utmost care, only to see it all come to naught because of this stupid accident. She grimaced. That was always the way of it-the things one wanted most were snatched away just when they seemed certain at last. She took several deep breaths, telling herself sternly to stop this maundering. Perhaps Mr. Crenshaw would find some way out of this dilemma. He seemed a most capable man.
But in the taproom, at that moment finishing his pint of ale, Mr. Crenshaw did not feel particularly capable. He had badly wrenched his shoulder falling from the carriage; his exquisitely cut coat, from the hands of Weston himself, was torn in several places and indisputably ruined, as was much of the rest of his extremely fashionable attire. In fact any member of the ton would have been appalled to see this absolute nonesuch in his present state. This was not the top-of-the-trees Corinthian they knew, and though he would not have admitted it, the elegant Mr. Crenshaw was just now at his wit's end.
With a sigh he rose and walked stiffly to a small mirror which hung over the bar. He made some effort to straighten his twisted cravat and brush back his hair. The face in the mirror was rather too austere to be called handsome. Mr. Crenshaw's high cheekbones and aquiline nose gave his dark face a hawk-like look, and this was intensified by black hair and piercing gray eyes. The overall effect was of strength but little warmth; very few men would wish to cross this tall, slender gentleman, and fewer still would succeed in beating him. Pulling at his now disreputable coat and brushing the drying mud from his once immaculate pantaloons and tall Hessian boots, Mr. Crenshaw turned from the mirror with a grimace and walked across the corridor to the private parlor.
Miss Lindley rose at his entrance. "Did you find...?" she began, but the realities of the situation made it seem foolish to ask if he had gotten another carriage, and she fell silent.
Mr. Crenshaw bowed his head courteously. "Please sit down, Miss Lindley. I fear I have bad news." And he explained what the innkeeper had told him.
Laura put a hand to the side of her neck. "Oh dear, how unfortunate that his wife should be away just at this time." She tried to speak lightly, but a sinking feeling grew in her stomach. Her aunts would never forgive her, even though this predicament was certainly not of her own making.
"An understatement," replied Mr. Crenshaw drily, "because I fear we must spend the night at this inn. It will be impossible to go on in the snow, whatever vehicle we may be able to discover." A particularly loud gust of wind howled outside as if to emphasize his point. "I would willingly ride the cob back to the village and try to persuade some woman to return and stay with you," he went on. "But I do not think any would consent to come, and frankly I am not certain I could find the village in this infernal storm."
Laura nodded disconsolately. "Of course you must not go out in such weather." She clenched her hands together and fought back tears once more.
Mr. Crenshaw looked at her. "I say again how sorry I am, Miss Lindley."
"Oh, it is not your fault. I know that. You saved us all from being killed! If only Ruth had not been hurt or if I had stayed with her at the cottage. But when that young man was taken in there as well and the woman was so eager that I should not stay... and I was certain we would find another carriage. I did not realize that the snow..." Her disjointed speech trailed off as she watched the storm uneasily.
"Nor did I," replied Mr. Crenshaw. "Weather like this should not come at this time of year. However, it remains that it has. We must make the best of it."
"Yes. I suppose there is no way to send a message to my aunts? No, of course there is not."
He shook his head. "I fear not. But surely they will realize that you have been delayed by the weather. I wager they will be glad you are not traveling today."
Laura smiled weakly. "I see you are not acquainted with my aunts," she said. She looked down at her clasped hands and swallowed nervously. She had suddenly become conscious that she was completely alone with a man and a stranger, a thing her aunts had never permitted in the whole course of her life.
Mr. Crenshaw frowned. "I am not. They are very strict with you, I take it."
She nodded. "They are... older, you see, and..." she faltered.
"I am beginning to," he responded grimly. "What an infernal coil! Why did I allow Mother to bully me into escorting you?"
Laura's eyes widened. "I am sorry," she said miserably. She had a somewhat clearer idea of Mrs. Crenshaw's motives than her son had. That lady had told her that the carriage ride would be a perfect opportunity for Laura to try out her social skills. No one knew better than Mrs. Crenshaw the restrictions her aunts had put on Laura, and no one felt for her more keenly. She had added jokingly that Laura must do her best to captivate her son, for she had been trying to get him safely married these past five years. The girl stole a glance at the tall figure standing beside the sofa. There could be little question of that, she thought to herself. Mr. Crenshaw appeared to take no interest in her whatsoever; indeed she found him very stiff and cold.
But the thoughts running through her companion's mind would have surprised her. He was observing that the Lindley girl was very well to pass, even in her current state of disarray. In other circumstances, at Almack's for example, he might have asked her to dance without any fear that she would disgrace him. A tall, willowy girl, Laura Lindley was a striking brunette, with a thick mass of black curls and eyes so dark as to be almost black as well. Her skin was ivory pale, particularly now after this strenuous adventure. The customary deep rose of her cheeks and lips, an enchanting color Mr. Crenshaw had noted earlier, had drained away and she looked very tired and disheartened.
Resolutely Mr. Crenshaw redirected his thoughts. This was an utterly improper time to be thinking of the girl's looks. He and the lady were in a damnable situation. The lines around his mouth deepened as he reconsidered the problem.
Watching him, Laura shivered a little. He looked so grim and angry.
"Are you cold?" he asked quickly. "Draw nearer to the fire. I have not even asked if you would care for something. Some tea, perhaps?"
Laura allowed that some tea would be most welcome, and Mr. Crenshaw went out to find the landlord.
Two hours later they sat down to dinner in somewhat better frame. Though they had not changed their attire-Laura's luggage remained with the wrecked chaise and Mr. Crenshaw had none-Laura had tidied her hair and dress and washed, as had her companion. The scratch on her face was shown to be minor when the dirt and dried blood were sponged away, and though the bruise had turned a sullen purple, it too was clearly not serious. Both felt much better as they started on the oddly assorted dishes the innkeeper had assembled. There was bread and butter and cheese, a roast chicken, some boiled potatoes, and a large pot of jam. Mr. Crenshaw eyed the repast ruefully and made Laura laugh as he, with a cocked eyebrow, helped her to chicken.
As they ate, he began to talk lightly of London. He had heard from his mother that Laura would be making her come-out, and he told her of the places she would see and the things she might do.
"There is Almack's, of course," he said. "I have no doubt that you will spend many evenings dancing there. And there will be routs, Venetian breakfasts, musical evenings, and the like. You can have no idea how busy your life will become."
At this catalog of delights, Laura could not keep a tremor from her voice when she agreed, and her expression was so woebegone that her companion said, "What is wrong? Have I said something?"
She shook her head. "No, no, it is just that... well I shall not go to London now, I daresay, and I was feeling sorry for myself." She looked wistfully down at her plate.
He was frowning. "What do you mean you will not go?"
"Oh my aunts will never let me leave after this, this... that is..." She stammered to a halt, not wishing to burden him with the certain consequences of their misadventure. There was nothing he could do, after all, and the incident was no more his fault than hers.
"Nonsense," he replied. "Why should they not? You have simply an unfortunate accident on the road."
"Yes I know, but you do not reason as my aunts do, of course. They worry so, and they do not understand modern manners. At least that is what they say. When the curate wished to visit my sister... to pay attentions, you know, they forbade him to enter the house ever again." She smiled slightly at the memory. "It was very awkward, because they are the heads of the relief committee, and the curate was in charge of that. The vicar was nearly driven distracted." Raising her eyes; Laura saw that Mr. Crenshaw had returned her smile, and hers broadened, showing two dimples.
"Was your sister heartbroken?"
"Clarissa?" Laura gave an involuntary gurgle of laughter. "Oh she did not care. She wishes to marry a duke."
He was taken aback. "A duke? Which duke?"
Laura looked mischievous. "It doesn't matter; she is determined to make a grand marriage." Her smile faded. "That will be impossible now, of course. I mean, she will never be married after this. My aunts will keep us so close, I suppose we shall not be allowed even to go to the country assemblies." Her momentary high spirits dissolved in melancholy reflection.
Mr. Crenshaw frowned once more. "You must be mistaken. They cannot be so gothic."
Laura remained unconvinced, but she did not argue further, not wishing to tease him with her problems. Silently the two finished their repast.
After a time Laura rose. "I shall go to bed, I think. I am tired out."
Mr. Crenshaw also stood. "Of course. The landlord has left your candle." He fetched it and lit it at the fire. "There is no one to take you up. Yours is the room at the head of the stairs."
"Thank you." She took the candle and started out of the room. As she was about to enter the hall, he spoke again.
"I shall spend the night in the innkeeper's chamber. It is the best I can do."
Laura's mouth jerked. "Haven't you a sword?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Mr. Crenshaw looked blank. The girl must be on the edge of exhaustion, he thought to himself. He fervently hoped he would not be called upon to deal with an attack of the vapors.
Laura shrugged. "Never mind. I didn't mean anything. My aunts call levity my besetting sin."
The man looked at her.
"Good night," she said.
"Good night," said Eliot, much relieved.
Lying in bed some minutes later, enveloped in one of the landlady's voluminous nightgowns, Laura listened to the howling wind outside and the scratching of the snow on the windowpanes. She could not help shedding a few tears now that she was alone again. It all seemed so unfair, and she felt so helpless. Various schemes for resuming their journey occurred to her and were rejected. They were trapped for as long as the blizzard raged. If only Mr. Crenshaw were not so angry with her. That, on top of everything else, depressed her immeasurably. She was still thinking of him when the fatigue of the day caught up with her, and she slept.
The next day dawned clear and cold. Almost two feet of snow lay on the ground. Looking at it from her window when she woke, Laura thought that in any other circumstances she would have found it beautiful. Such a heavy fall was indeed rare in this part of the country. But today she wished the snow gone to Scotland, for the roads looked quite impassable. No one was out.
When she had put on her rumpled green cambric once again and descended the stairs, she found Mr. Crenshaw wrapping himself in the innkeeper's greatcoat.
"Good morning," he said. "I am going to take the cob into the village and see about hiring a vehicle. My driving coat is ruined, but Mr. Jenkins has kindly lent me his."
The innkeeper, hovering in the background, made an inarticulate noise. The seams of his dun coat were strained to the point of splitting, as Mr. Crenshaw was much the larger man.
"Do you think we shall be able to travel?" asked the girl. "The snow looks so deep."
"We shall see," was the only reply.
Mr. Crenshaw started out, the old horse clearly reluctant to make his way through the snow. Laura watched anxiously through the parlor window as he moved slowly along the nearly invisible road. Then a slight noise behind her made her turn to the landlord in the doorway.
"You'll be wanting some breakfast, miss," he said. "I haven't got no chocolate nor any fancy vittles. I ain't much accustomed to cooking, I have to say. The missus sees to that, would she was here." He looked acutely uncomfortable.
Laura smiled a little. "Some tea will do nicely... and some bread and butter, perhaps. I do not take a large meal in the morning. How far is it to the village?"
Heartened by her friendly tone, the little man came into the room. "It's all of three miles, miss. I only hope that old horse of mine makes it. This weather is a marvel, ain't it? Two feet of snow in March. Why, it's rare we get so much all winter."
Mr. Crenshaw did not return for hours. The morning passed, and midday. Laura ate a light luncheon of cold chicken, sat by the window awhile longer, paced about the room, and finally asked the landlord for something to read. An extensive search unearthed only an ancient Bible and three dog-eared back numbers of The Spectator, all of which Laura had already read. With a sigh she returned to the parlor and resigned herself to boredom, but a few moments later Mr. Jenkins triumphantly produced a greasy pack of cards. She set out a game of Patience, thinking it was better than nothing, and managed to become a little interested, though she continued to listen for the sound of a horse outside.
Late in the afternoon, after three games and several cups of tea, the sound came at last. Laura ran to the window eagerly. Mr. Crenshaw was indeed returning, but he rode slowly, head bent, and alone. The only visible change from the morning was the case he carried behind him. He looked wet, cold, and annoyed.
He had found no vehicle for hire in the village. None of the villagers had been willing to brave the snow for any sum of money, and no woman would consent to ride behind him to the inn. His tedious, uncomfortable ride had not improved their circumstances, except that he had been able to pick up Laura's dressing case from the chaise and have the vehicle hauled into a barn out of the weather. When Laura thanked him for this thoughtful action, his expression remained set. His disgust and ill temper were obvious, and though he could not and did not blame Laura, neither was he feeling in charity with her. However fair he endeavored to be, he could not stifle the thought that if it weren't for her, he would not have been placed in such an awkward position.
In the end they spent three days at the inn. The roads remained impassable until warmer weather returned and the unseasonal snow began to melt. At that point Mr. Crenshaw was able to find a farmer willing to hire out his dilapidated gig, and they resumed their journey through mud and streaming rivulets of slush.
Both were silent as they drove. The time at the inn had not been particularly pleasant. Though he was always polite, Mr. Crenshaw had carefully avoided Laura, making two unnecessary trips into the village and leaving her alone much of the rest of the time. The girl had retreated into brooding on her own concerns, and she felt a vast relief when they were on the road again at last.
Only about ten miles of their journey remained, and they covered it quickly, even in the gig. They drew up before Eversly, Laura's home, at midday. Almost before the vehicle had stopped, the front door was flung open and several women hurried out. With a sinking heart Laura saw her two aunts, her younger sister, and their old nurse.
A frantic babble arose around her as she climbed down from the gig. Her Aunt Eleanor gripped her hand hysterically. "Oh my dear, we feared you were killed or set upon by highwaymen or kidnapped! We have been beside ourselves with worry. And this storm, the way it seemed to strike out of nowhere. We couldn't think what to do. We sent two of the footmen out to search for you, but they were forced back by the snow. Are you all right, are you hurt, what happened?"
But Laura could not reply, for on her other side; her Aunt Celia was saying, "Thank God you are home safe. What can Anne Crenshaw have been thinking of, sending you out in this weather? You ought to have waited. When we received your note saying that you were starting, the snow had just begun. Where did you put up?"
Laura's sister, a confident young maiden of eighteen, added her own bit in calmer accents. "You've hurt yourself." Clarissa reached to touch the scratch on Laura's cheek. "Whatever have you been doing, Laura? Have you had a great adventure without me? I shall never forgive you."
Suddenly complete silence fell. Looking up, Laura saw that Mr. Crenshaw had climbed down from the gig and walked around to them. Her aunts were staring at him, openmouthed, and Clarissa was grinning wickedly. Laura flushed. "This is Mr. Eliot Crenshaw," she said, "Mrs. Crenshaw's son. He was kind enough to escort me home." She swallowed nervously.
"How do you do," said Mr. Crenshaw.
"Laura," said her Aunt Celia in an ominous tone, "where is your maid?" She ignored the man completely.
"Ruth was hurt in the accident," replied Laura. "We must send someone to her immediately. I hope..."
"Accident!" shrieked Aunt Eleanor. She leaned heavily on Clarissa. "Oh where are my drops? I feel a spasm coming on."
Mr. Crenshaw's expression was stiffly polite. "We had some trouble on the road. Perhaps we should go into the house where we can sit down, and I shall tell you about it."
Aunt Celia eyed him with suspicious hostility. "Indeed we should," she said, and turning, she led them all up the steps and through the front door.
When they reached the drawing room, Laura was ordered upstairs with her sister. She protested, but Mr. Crenshaw agreed with her aunts, and she gave in. She had no wish to endure the inevitable scene in any case.
Clarissa took Laura's arm as they went up to their bedchamber. "What has been happening?" she asked in thrilled accents. "You must tell me everything."
Laura gave her a quick account of the events of the previous days, and Clarissa sighed ecstatically. "Why am I never so lucky? Nothing exciting ever happens to me. How I envy you, Laura."
The older girl looked at her in amazement. "How can you say so? This is disastrous. Our aunts will never let us out of the house again."
A hint of something like shrewdness glinted in Clarissa's eyes. "Perhaps," she replied. "One never knows."
Laura stared at her "I do not understand you, Clarissa. You know how they feel about scandal of any kind. They will never forgive me."
Clarissa shrugged and turned away toward the window. "All the same, it is very romantic. A storm, a lonely inn. Is Mr. Crenshaw very charming?"
Laura shook her head. "No, he is not," she answered shortly. "He can be polite enough, but I doubt that he likes me. He showed no signs of it. In fact he seemed angry with me the whole time."
"What is the matter with you, Clarissa?"
The younger girl's eyes brimmed with mischief for a moment, then she shook her head. "You are too nice, Laura. You have listened too well to our aunts."
Laura put her hands on her hips and frowned. "What are you up to? Tell me this instant. What have you done?"
Clarissa was the picture of injured innocence. "I? I have not been traveling about the countryside with a man."
Her sister was about to give her a sharp setdown when a maid knocked and entered with a summons to the drawing room. Laura's face fell. "Yes, I will be there directly," she said. She looked to Clarissa for sympathy. "It is time for my scold." But Clarissa only grinned mysteriously and raised her eyebrows, and Laura strode out of the room in annoyance.
Once in the corridor, she paused a moment to think and marshal her arguments. Laura had been dealing with her aunts' vagaries for most of her life, and she had become expert at compromise. It seemed to her highly unlikely that she would still be permitted to go to London, but she knew that calm rationality was vital in the coming encounter. The events of the past few days had shaken her customary even temperament, but now she made an effort to regain her composure and capacity for tact.
When Laura entered the drawing room, she was surprised to find only Mr. Crenshaw. "Where are my aunts?" she asked.
"They have left us to discuss a matter of some importance," he answered.
Laura was astonished. Her aunts had never done such a thing before. She looked up at Mr. Crenshaw, wide-eyed.
He smiled. "You have no idea what I am going to say?"
Laura started to shake her head, then stopped as a terrible suspicion crossed her mind. "Oh no, you are not..."
"Yes, Miss Lindley. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?" He looked at her quizzically.
"Oh no," said Laura again. She put a hand to her forehead and sank down onto the sofa in front of the fireplace. "You cannot... they cannot force you to do this. I had no notion. It did not occur to me that they would be so utterly gothic as to... Oh but this is outrageous."
Mr. Crenshaw laughed. "It is that. But do not waste your pity on me. I began to expect something of this sort when you told me about your aunts. I was fully prepared, and I am not easily overborne, even by the vapors." His lips turned down. "Particularly by the vapors. There is no question of force. I am ready to be married, and I do not doubt but what we shall suit very well when we get to know each other better. So?"
Laura looked at him. "But you cannot wish to marry me? You have only just met me. I am not... You do not. Oh this is ridiculous."
Mr. Crenshaw smiled again. "It is certainly unconventional," he agreed, "but your aunts think it necessary. I find it acceptable, as I have no doubt you will too, when you have had time to consider properly."
"But I have not even had a London season," wailed Laura irrationally.
"You may burst upon the ton in full glory as a married woman, however," laughed Eliot. "A tremendous advantage, though you do not know it yet. And I fear you were right when you said that your aunts would not allow you to go to London. They are set on this marriage."
"I cannot understand you. How can you be so calm and matter-of-fact?"
He shrugged. "I have never been romantic about marriage. I have seen my friends marry for money, for love, to please their families, and for other less sensible reasons. It is always the love matches that come to grief." He paused as if suddenly struck by a new thought. "Perhaps there is someone you are attached to and wish to marry? That would alter the case completely."
Laura shook her head; she was feeling rather stunned.
"Well then, by birth, fortune, and education, we are well matched. I should do my best to make you happy. What do you say?"
She stared at him blankly. "I... I have to think. I am not certain. Can one marry in such a way?"