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The Notorious Bridegroom
By Kit Donner
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Kit Stanford Donner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWinchelsea Southeast England Spring 1803
Patience Mandeley considered the wisdom of her plan, and determined that either she was very courageous, believed in guardian angels, or was quite tetched in the head. At the moment, she leaned toward the latter. But what else could she do? She could think of no other way to save her younger brother Rupert from treason charges.
"Miss Patience, quit woolgathering, and let us be off to the fair," her companion of two days, Colette, told her, smiling. "Time enough to worry about your new position later."
Patience started, suddenly awakened from her reverie. She slowly rose, gathered her bonnet and matching shawl, and followed her friend out the door of the inn. Her plan had to work. There wasn't much time to help Rupert before the magistrate found him.
Against her better judgment, Colette had convinced her to enjoy Winchelsea's Mop Fair before they began their work in the morning. Colette, attired in a black walking dress with light gray mantle, and Patience in deep blue with a light blue cashmere shawl, strolled down the main street joining the other fairgoers.
Patience kept watch for her brother, who might be lurking in the shadows of the lively crowd. She had to get word to him abouther plan that would save him.
The twilight hours of the fair cast a dusky rose on the street choked full of locals, travelers, merchants, and farmers. Most of the noisy rumble headed toward the market square, where a bonfire blazed merrily near rows of oxen on spits wafting a delicious aroma to the hungry crowd.
The women made their way to the merchants' tents, hearing the vendors shouting over each other to entice their customers with exotic perfume from the Far East, bright-colored linen, or a sweet orange. The Annual Mop Fair brought a variety of folk from several miles around who looked forward to this spring event. Crowded streets slowed the ladies' walk as Patience searched and worried about her younger brother and his troubles.
Examining the softest of silks and delicious gingerbread occupied the ladies for a time until they heard a loud voice halloing the multitude to the Wild Beast show. The crowd surged forward, pulling Colette in its wake. Patience started after her friend but stopped suddenly.
Someone tugged on her skirts. "Lady, can ye help me find Bella?" a pitiful little voice asked.
Startled, Patience glanced down to find a forlorn small child with tear-stained cheeks, clutching a wooden doll. Four or five at the most, the girl peered at Patience from beneath her tattered gray day cap. She looked to be a sweet tyke, dressed in a faded blue frock, well-worn shoes, with long, disheveled gold curls bobbing down her back. Patience was always lost when it came to children and animals, and the little girl caught at her heart.
"Hello, little one. What's your name?" Patience inquired, removing a handkerchief from her reticule. She knelt down, and after wetting a corner of the lacy white square, she rubbed at the child's dirty face and wiped away her tears.
"Me name's Sally, and I need to find me Aunt Bella. Do ye think she's lost too?" the girl sniffled.
Patience smiled. "No, your aunt must be very worried and looking everywhere for you." Confident they would find the child's relative somewhere nearby, she tucked the handkerchief in her sleeve and held out her hand. "Come, let us see if we can find her," she told the small girl as they walked together toward the bonfire.
"What's yer name?" the little girl asked, her head cocked to look up at Patience.
Patience hesitated before revealing the name she had chosen for this masquerade. It simply wouldn't do for anyone to learn Patience's true identity. Looking down at the small child, she told her, "Patience Grundy." She noticed Sally clutched something to her chest. "Is that your doll?"
Sally's eyes opened wide and an innocent smile hinted at missing teeth. "Me baby is Jane. See here, Miss Grundy," she said as she held her unclothed wooden doll for Patience to get a closer look at four sticks and a wooden ball for a head.
Patience's eyes widened in consternation. "Does your doll have any clothes?"
"I couldn't find any." Sally shrugged her thin shoulders. "Someday, I'll ha' a baby with lots of clothes and hair. But me aunt says I ha' to be a good girl. But I'm always a good girl." She frowned, obviously confused by adult logic.
They reached the boisterous crowd in the square who were enjoying the fiddle music, shared ale, and succulent dripping roast pig and oxen meat. But though Patience examined the merrymakers intently, no one appeared to be looking for lost kin. The tiny little hand in hers firmed her determination.
She was about to ask Sally to describe her aunt, when they reached the fiery pier surrounded by those seeking warmth on this damp spring night. Just as Patience released the little girl's hand briefly to adjust her bonnet, a foxed young man pushed past them and knocked Sally toward the flames.
Patience uttered a shriek and lunged for Sally but a gentleman nearby proved faster. He grabbed the child before she could feel the heat's sting. As the stranger lifted the child up and away from the blaze, Sally squealed in delight.
Breathless with relief, Patience watched the gentleman set the child down safely and told her, "You must be more careful, little one."
His concerned voice invoked a warm smile of gratitude from Patience. Before she could express her appreciation, a young man interrupted them, handing a black cane with a gold tip to Sally's rescuer.
"Lord Londringham, you dropped your cane, over there." The pale, pleasant-featured man gestured over his shoulder to the firepit.
"Thank you, I had forgotten it."
Patience dropped her jaw.
It was he, Lord Londringham, her new employer-and her enemy. What was he doing at the fair? Patience had assumed that nobility would have no interest in local events. She was obviously proved wrong.
Once in his household as the new still-room maid, she would need to try to be inconspicuous if she was to complete her mission. Given her purpose, she wanted to spend as little time as possible with him this night.
The earl, dressed in black, returned his attention to Patience with a quick nod. "If you'll forgive these circumstances, I am Lord Londringham. Madam, you should watch your daughter more closely. She could have been seriously injured." Censure was implicit in his tone and manner.
Still shaken by his presence, Patience could only manage to sputter indignantly, "I ... I assure you, sir, I am in the habit of taking care of those in my custody, but a man-"
"Where's Jane?" Sally cried, effectively suspending Patience's defense.
Lord Londringham looked inquiringly at Patience.
"Her doll," she responded flatly as the child tugged on Patience's skirts.
With a quick look around, the earl spotted the ravaged wood figure by the fire. He picked it up and showed it to the child.
"Was this your doll?" he asked. At Sally's sad nod and trembling lower lip, the earl told her gently, "She could not be rescued, but might your mama allow me to purchase you a new doll?" He raised his eyebrows at Patience, his gaze inscrutable.
Patience stared in amazement, her lips dry at his intense stare. The man was a chameleon, either gentle and soft-spoken or an arrogant toad. He really should tread the boards with his talent, she thought. He was certainly handsome enough, with dark brown hair, penetrating blue eyes, a lean face, and square jaw. Oh, but she was becoming distracted. She must keep her mind on her plan. Nothing else mattered.
"Madam, do I have your permission?" He threw the charred remnants of the doll back into the fire and turned to Patience for acquiescence.
His dark face impassive, she knew why he made such a good spy. She blinked in confusion. What had he just said? Something about her daughter? "Oh, but-" belatedly she began to explain.
"Of course ye may, right Mama?" Sally smiled innocently up at Patience, who raised her eyebrows and dropped her jaw. The little minx wanted to pass off Patience as her mama in order to get a new doll.
She hesitated to admonish the child, then well aware the earl stood nearby quietly watching, told the little girl sweetly, "Sally, I told you I would buy you a doll. And we really must not detain this kind gentleman any further. Remember, we must search for Aunt Bella."
His smooth voice disrupted her thoughts, startling her. "Perhaps I could assist you in purchasing a doll for the child and your search for Aunt Bella."
Patience put a hand to her head. How ever was she to endure his company, even for one moment? He was not truly considering joining them. Did he not have any spy work to do?
She hid her trembling hands in her skirts' pockets. Being so close to the one who was possibly guilty of causing harm to her brother, she had to bite her lip to stop from pronouncing him the rogue she knew him to be. Before Patience could reply negatively, Sally answered for her, running to his side.
"Oh, please, me lord. I would really love a new doll. E'en though I'll miss Jane. And ye can help us find Aunt Bella too." Her sweet supplication would have felled Goliath faster than David's stone.
Patience watched in surprise as he bent down toward Sally.
"Then we are agreed." When the earl smiled at Sally, Patience saw the child's face light up.
"Oh, yes, please, sir," Sally whispered, then turned to Patience with a smug look. "Coming, Mama?"
Patience uttered, "Of course, sweetheart" through gritted teeth while following the little lamb leading the big bad wolf off to find a doll. Patience was beginning to believe Sally didn't even have an aunt.
Surely this evening was getting a bit out of hand. Resolved to once more control the events, Patience hurried after Sally and the earl, noting they had already exchanged names. She had to admire the undivided attention the earl showed the child. But she was not fooled. She knew the man would have helped sell Joseph to the merchants. Her brother James's sermons not forgotten.
After the little girl had tried repeatedly to pronounce his last name without success, she announced decidedly, "I'll call ye 'Mr. Long.'"
The earl threw Patience in a panic when he turned his dark blue study in her direction. "Might I know your name, madam? Surely I cannot call you 'Mama.'"
She knew his smile was deceptively pleasant for Sally.
Sally cut in. "Me mama's name is Miss Grundy."
Trying to remember her "new" last name and hearing the word "mama" in the same sentence disconcerted Patience but not as much as the earl's thorough scrutiny of her before inquiring, "Should that not be Mrs. Grundy?" in a low voice that sent warm sparks to her cheeks.
Mortified, her mouth dropped open before she quickly recovered. "Of course. My husband died, soon after we married." She wet her lips in despair. That didn't sound right. "Sally is really my stepdaughter." Yes, much better, she thought. She really needed to be rid of his presence and to regain her composure.
Thankfully, he chose not to pursue further inquiry. "Mrs. Grundy, what does Aunt Bella look like?"
"Look like?" Patience asked distractedly, trying to think of an answer.
He chuckled softly, causing her to stare at the softening of his features. "Yes, Aunt Bella. Surely you know what the woman looks like?"
Shoulders back, she bluffed her way into a response. "She's rather difficult to describe, rather ordinary."
Desperate, Patience searched the crowd looking for anyone who could pass as Sally's aunt. She determined to carry Sally if necessary into the crowd, hoping to lose the earl and his interest in them behind.
She spotted a middle-aged woman in black and pointed to her. "Sally, I think I see Aunt Bella over there. Come along, dear."
But the child frowned in confusion. "But, Mama, that's not Aunt Bella." Suddenly, the sound of the merry-go-round caught Sally's attention, and immediately dolls and aunts became yesterday's candy. She pulled at the earl's arm. "Can we go on the merry? Oh, please! Please, Mr. Long?" Sally pleaded.
"I don't see why not, as long as your mama approves," he told her, looking back at Patience a few steps behind them.
She stared at him in bewilderment and found herself nodding. She should have been content to have the opportunity to study her enemy this closely, but could not quite reconcile this man with the image of the purveyor of evil. But what did she really know of him? Unnerved, she could not suppress a shiver.
Unfortunately, the earl must have seen her tremble, for he immediately removed his coat and placed it around her shoulders. "It is certainly a chilly night after the recent rainfall. Let us take the little one on a ride. Then we will look for Aunt Bella."
Sally and the earl walked over to the ride, while Patience followed slowly, enveloped in a musky cocoon of warmth in his greatcoat. His strong, clean scent disturbed her, and she knew not why. It worried her. The sooner she discovered proof of the earl's guilt, Rupert could be free of the treason charges, and they would see the last of this devious man.
At the merry-go-round, Lord Londringham handed coins to the proprietor and lifted Sally onto the wooden platform, already crowded with other children arguing over who would have the best chargers. Sally eagerly climbed onto a small brown pony and turned to look at the earl with a smile.
As Patience dug deep into her pocket for her lucky onyx stone, she watched the child, aware that her ordeal of pretense had only just begun. When she turned to look for Colette, she suddenly felt strong hands at her waist easily lifting her onto the brightly painted horse beside Sally.
She heard him whisper in her ear, "Thought you might also enjoy a ride."
It all happened so quickly, his touch, his whisper, then he was gone. On her gray-and-yellow wooden charger, Patience sputtered like a candle at the end of its wick, for she had no notion of taking a ride. But before she could climb down, the carousel jerked into motion. With a firm hold on her horse's pole, she shook her head at the man's audacity. Next time, she would certainly be ready for him. She hoped.
Her contemplation was cut short when she heard Sally's peals of glee as they spun around and around. Thankfully, Patience's charger was wooden, given her fear of horses. But after a few more revolutions, she was ready to exchange her seat for solid ground, while Sally protested her ride had ended much too soon.
The earl stood ready to help them down from the platform, a package tucked under his arm. He plucked Sally down first, then reached for Patience, who tensed, feeling his sinewy hands about her waist. The heat of his touch ignited a strange warmth in her belly and a flush across her cheeks. She did not have to look up to know he watched her as she clung to his hard forearms in an effort to regain her balance.
Finally, when able to stand without his assistance-he seemed oddly reluctant to let her go-she told him succinctly, "Sir, the next time, I will advise you if I wish to take a ride." She must remember to keep her wits about her, and her feet firmly planted on the ground when dealing with the man.
"Mrs. Grundy, I sincerely hope you do," he returned pleasantly.
The gleam in his eyes confused her, and she quickly looked away, finding her bonnet needed adjustment again.
"Oh, that was fun! Shall we try again?" Sally cried, as she spun in circles, her arms flung out as if to fly.
"No, little lady, we shall find your aunt," Patience stated firmly.
Her authoritative tone brought the child to a slow halt. A grin suddenly lit Sally's face as she spied another amusement. "A puppet show! Let's see the puppets!" She grabbed the earl's hand and began to pull him in the direction of the little curtained box where a group of children were laughing at the antics of Simple and Master Simon, a comedy about a hopeless servant and his hard-to-please master.
Patience sighed and reluctantly followed her companions, suddenly suspicious that both Sally and the earl enjoyed themselves at her expense. She saw the earl purchase the child an orange from a merchant, but declined when one was offered to her.
"Really, Mrs. Grundy, that disapproving look on your face surprises me. Do you not like to see your daughter, your stepdaughter enjoy herself?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Notorious Bridegroom by Kit Donner Copyright © 2009 by Kit Stanford Donner. Excerpted by permission.
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