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The three travelers momentarily forgot the beauty of the Sussex countryside in this summer of 1803 as they jounced over a particularly bad section of backcountry road, which had not been improved by a recent drenching.
"'Twas vastly unreasonable for us not to recall circumstances such as this," sprightly, white-haired Lady Phillippa, Dowager Marchioness of Bawden, noted as she righted herself, only to be thrown forward by another sudden lurch of the coach.
"I do think we may have gone too bloody far in deciding to use the same coach we did in 'fifty-nine," the Dowager Countess of Lackland, Lady Imogene, declared holding onto the strap beside her. Her buxom figure swayed violently at each jolt. "My Berlin is so much better sprung.
"Perhaps we should relent on having things exactly as they were. We could find a comfortable inn and send for it," she offered. Her pink cheeks dimpled hopefully as a gray curl tumbled free from its pin and dangled across her forehead.
Seconds later Lady Imogene gasped as the coach lurched to a halt amid the shouts and urgings of the coachman.
Seemingly unaffected by the constant jostling was the thin form of the Dowager Baroness of Mickle, Lady Brienne. She now waved a gloved hand nonchalantly. "My dears, all you have done since we began this journey is grieve at the alterations we have met. The disappearance of that little inn just beyond Dover. The absence of the Culvers from Ashford.
"I would think you would rejoice that at least one item remains unchanged--the roads are as ghastly as they were on our first journey." The stiff old woman sighed.
Why did I ever agree to come with them? she questioned.
Tears prickedher eyes. The baroness knew that she had consented in the hope of recapturing a gleam of the happiness she had shared with her husband, her dear Robert, dead these four years past. Anger welled as it always did when she thought of his loss. Her scowl deepened.
Lady Imogene and Lady Phillippa cast suspicious glances at their eldest sister. Over sixty years in her company had taught them to be wary of her haughtier moods.
A flush-faced coachman opened the door after a thumping knock. Sweat flowed freely from his brow and his too-tight jacket had lost three of its buttons in his exertions. "Miladies, 'tis nothing can be done. We must seek aid."
"What has happened?" Lady Phillippa demanded. She popped her head out the window to inspect the surroundings.
"Butterflies and blueberries!" she exclaimed. "We are adrift in a sea of mud."
"Adrift is not the word, milady. This coach will go no further this day." The coachman mopped his brow.
"Caine, that is impossible. Surely you can do something," the baroness said. She leaned forward stiffly to peer at the brown-pooled morass surrounding the coach.
"'Tis sadly true, milady," the coachman bobbed his head. "Not only do we suffer a surfeit of muck, but that last rut splintered the rear axle as well. The cattle cannot draw the coach forward."
"What is your intent?" Lady Brienne demanded with her head cocked challengingly.
"With your ladyships' permission, me and Ben will walk to the next village and return with a carriage for you. Methinks 'twill be a day, nay longer, to mend the damage done once we free the coach."
"And what will you have us do while you accomplish this?" the baroness demanded, her parasol indenting Caine's corpulent stomach.
"Why, milady, you--you do as you wish." Attempting to retreat from her jabbing, the unfortunate man lost his balance. Flailing his arms wildly, he went down heavily with a great splash of mud and water.
"Now look what you've done, Brienne," the countess admonished.
"Are you quite all right, Mr. Caine?"
"Yes, milady. 'Haps Ben and Josh should help you to the grass?" the coachman asked, looking gratefully at the concerned face peering down at him.
"Oh, there is some delightful shade just beyond the road," Marchioness Bawden piped. "I recommend you join me there, sisters dear."
"Phillippa," gasped Lady Brienne, a sound echoed faintly by Lady Imogene. "Four and forty years have not altered you one twit. Cover your ankles before you scandalize all."
Ignoring the scold, the marchioness cupped her shoes and hose in her uplifted skirts and moved to the coach's steps. "If you will assist me, Mr. Caine--with the cleaner hand," she cautioned as he struggled upright braced on one hand to raise his heavy frame from the muck.
"Milady," he bowed and offered the recommended hand.
"Come, Brienne. Imogene. The mire is quite cooling," Lady Phillippa called as she stepped lightly to the edge of the quagmire.
"You wouldn't," Lady Brienne censored the countess, as her sister undid the lacing of her shoes.
"Oh, come, Brienne. What else are we to do?"
"Recall your age for one matter, and your station in life for another," she admonished.
"Neither my age nor my station advocate an afternoon in a stuffy, overly warm, highly uncomfortable coach," Lady Imogene returned, her shoes now off. "I haven't felt the squish of mud through my toes since I was--well, younger."
"At four and sixty she speaks of 'younger.'" The baroness shook her head.
"What has been troubling you, Brienne? One would think you were six and ten years older than I instead of a mere five.
"You know you want to come with us," she cajoled gently. "No one will see you. Why, we haven't met but one carriage all day."
"Davey Caine has been with the family for seven and forty years and is well accustomed to your unusual ways. We've known his sons, Ben and Josh, since their births. Servants?
"Folderol, my lady. Swelter if you must. Yon tree's gentle shade is too inviting for me to resist," the countess returned a rare challenge.
Coachman Caine had returned to the coach's door and took Lady Imogene's plump arm as she stepped down.
"Imogene, come along," Lady Phillippa called. "There is a stream here where you can wash your feet and refresh yourself."
The baroness watched her sister's ample figure; skirts hoisted clear of the mire, waddled to the edge of the morass. A beseeching backward glance did not soften her resolve.
"Milady?" Caine asked when he returned to the coach.
"I shall remain here," Lady Brienne told him curtly.
"Me and Ben will hurry, milady."
"Then be off instead of babbling about it," she scolded, sitting rigidly. The stiffness left as she sank against the cushions when the coachman turned away. Now why did you do that, she reprimanded herself. You are becoming a snapping, old-- Her thoughts drifted into melancholy.
Phillippa's bright laughter, undimmed even at one and sixty, belled clearly, followed by Imogene's deeper peal, as full of life as her ample form.
"Bedlamites. Foolish old women. Why do they refuse to act their age?" the baroness snapped angrily. She closed her eyes, listening to Caine and his sons unhook the teams and lead them clear of the mud.
There was a further jangle of harness as one pair was freed for the ride to the next village. When all became still, Lady Brienne peered out the window. "Josh," she called, "Josh, where are you?"
"Here, milady." The awkward lad left the remaining team's side and trudged to the coach.
"Tether the cattle so they will remain in the shade as the day passes. Then walk a furlong down the road and keep watch for brigands. I do not wish to be taken unawares."
"But what if they come from before us, milady? Wouldn't it be best if I stay close?" Josh rubbed a hand through his hair.
"Do as I command at once."
"Yes, milady," he bowed, still hesitant.
The baroness glared until he turned away, then leaned back, regretting her harshness. Josh had not even been born when we first made this journey, she thought. That was long ago and yet so like yesterday. A smile softened the baroness's features as memories surged.
Little had they realized what it would mean for them on that fated day four and forty years past, when a letter had arrived telling of their uncle's death and his bequest of a sum of money for an "educational tour of England" for his brother's daughters. Their father had reluctantly consented to his three eldest making use of the bequest and carefully plotted a course, which included all major and many minor historical sites, and a fair sampling of every variety of English countryside. Little did he guess that before their journey ended each of his daughters would be engaged or wed to a titled lord.
A chuckle escaped Lady Brienne as she thought of the madcap adventures they had shared ... and of Robert, her dear love. Shaking herself, she looked out the window at the verdant scene.
Their father had valued it as an example of England's southeastern beauty, and, reluctantly, she admitted, the years had not altered it. With a shrug Lady Brienne deftly untied her shoelaces, removed her shoes, and plucked off her hose. Warily she arose and checked both fore and aft of the coach before she stepped into the mire.
Her sisters' voices a guide, the baroness strode through the morass as if walking down St. James'. She did not halt until she reached the stream where they sat.
"How glad I am you relented," Lady Phillippa greeted her eagerly. "Oh, do loosen your stays, Brenny."
"I wear no such garment," the other returned caustically.
"We know that. Philly meant you are taking this 'dignity of age' too bloody serious," Lady Imogene tossed in irreverently.
"We shall be ever youthful," the marchioness laughed, and splashed spiritedly into the water. "Join us, Brienne. The water is so cool. But do watch for the sharp stones."
The baroness frowned and stepped gingerly forward.
Josh, asleep in a soft bed of honey clover, awoke to a sweet, lilting voice. A bothersome lump beneath his back erased the thought that he had left this world. Raising his head slowly, he saw a waif-sized maid sauntering down the road lost in song and thought.
With a mighty shrug, he heaved his large form up from the clover with a suddenness that stilled the words upon her lips, halted her steps, and blanched the healthy glow from her cheeks.
"Do not fear, miss," Josh stammered, realizing his abrupt appearance had frightened her.
"You are a stranger. What is your purpose?" she demanded but the maid's brave voice trembled.
"My name be Josh Caine and miladies' coach has met with a mishap. You can see it--there, yon." He drew himself up proudly as he pointed.
"I will do no harm to your mistresses." Her colour slowly returned. "Is it not an odd road for you to travel? Do you go to visit Lord Pergrine?"
"Oh, no, miss. Their ladyships are remaking a journey they took many years past. I do not think they know of a Lord Per--"
"Pergrine," she ended for him with a kind smile. "Have you been here long?"
"Since late morn." Josh rubbed his stomach and looking to the west. "I wonder what is keeping me dad. He's the driver," he explained.
"And the ladies. I had best see how they fare." He turned to go to the coach.
"Have none of you eaten since this morn?"
"No, miss. But I'll wager their ladyships have something tasty in the baskets we stowed earlier." His eyes brightened at the thought. "Lady Imogene does wonders with the plainest picnique fare."
"Lady Imogene. Your mistress is titled?" the petite miss asked as he tried to match her steps to Josh's strides.
"Why, yes, miss. They are all titled, and the best of mistresses. They be fair'n just'n generous--a baroness, a countess, and a marchioness. Most folks call them the dowagers," he added, encouraged by his companion's respectful awe. The young lad explained how the widowed sisters had visited together oft after their husbands' deaths, and how they were now travelling on the same route they had taken when they were scarcely out of their teens.
"When was the original journey made?" she asked, her curiosity tweaked by his descriptions of the three and his apparent familiarity with them.
"Far back--in seventeen fifty-nine. I know 'cause they've been speakin' so much about it with all the plannin'." Josh's voice trailed off as he halted near the coach.
"Where could they have gone? And me dad, he be uncommon late. Would you be knowin' how far the next village is, miss?"
"Miss Durham," she said firmly. "What was his direction?" She frowned when Josh pointed up the road. "Along that way it would be over a half day's ride. I fear your father will not return until late." Concern creased her brow.
"I best find their ladyships. Me dad says you never know what they might take in mind to do."
"But how did they manage the mud? 'Tis ghastly thick and deep," Miss Durham noted, studying the coach's position.
"Lady Phillippa, that's the Marchioness of Bawden, she--well." He blushed, thinking of what he had heard the baroness say. Not wishing to embarrass his mistresses, he shrugged, his eyes on the ground at his feet.
"Josh, there you are. We were about to search for you." Lady Imogene halted and took in the petite miss beside the footman. "We heard no other coach," she began.
"I am Sarita Durham, daughter of Reverend Durham of Braitlathe," the young woman offered and stepped forward.
"Miss says me dad won't be comin' back till late, milady," Josh interposed.
"Oh, dear. How dreadful." The countess's fullcheeked face sagged into a frown. "Brienne will be--but how did you come here, Miss Durham?" she asked, realizing that neither cart, carriage, nor pony was to be seen.
"I called upon the Culvers and Laithes today, and this is my usual way home," Sarita responded matter-of-factly.
"Walking alone? My, such a little thing as you alone," Lady Imogene clucked.
"My sister usually accompanies me, but Mother had need of her. There is none to harm me."
"Have you not heard of Napoleon's plan to attack us?"
"Imogene--? Whom do we have here?" the baroness asked, seeing Miss Durham with her sister.
"Reverend Durham's daughter," the countess replied as if a long acquaintance existed. "Miss Durham, my sister, Lady Brienne, Baroness Mickle," she offered by way of introduction.
"The dowager baroness," Lady Brienne corrected. "Why do you refuse to be correct, Imogene? After all, you are the Dowager Countess of Lackland."
Lady Imogene's face wrinkled in irritation, which changed to distress as she recalled Sarita's words. She hurried to impart them to Brienne.
Watching the two women, a smile played upon the rector's daughter's face. The sisters were as unalike as strangers. The thin, stern form of the one formed a counterpart to the full, buxom figure of the other.
"Now, why are you standing about?" Lady Phillippa's challenged as she joined her sisters.
"Why, what a lovely young girl you are, my dear," she noted, seeing Miss Durham.
All three inspected the diminutive figure of the young miss with her slender form and pert face. Her bright, dark eyes returned gaze for gaze.
What an odd assortment, Miss Durham thought, taking in the dowagers' old-fashioned, once-elegant travelling gowns. For all their titles, she thought, their husbands must have left them with depleted funds for them to band together and travel in such an ancient coach.
The openness of Miss Durham's face and the pride apparent in her stance met with the dowagers' approval. After a brief, whispered conference, Lady Brienne turned to Sarita.
"Being of the area, could you direct us to a nearby inn where we can take lodgings until our coach is repaired?"
Dismay touched the spritely miss's features. "There is none, not unless you go back to Runnet or ahead to Pordean. Both are much too far for you to attempt to walk."
"Surely a village is close by. Your home?" Lady Imogene asked.
Sarita laughed lightly. "There is no village, only Father's church and the rectory. But there is.... She took in the ladies, weighed the reception Lord Pergrine would give them in such worn garments, and tossed the idea aside.
"You are welcome to come to the rectory," Miss Durham ended, her fingers crossed in the folds of her skirt. "It is not too distant," she added, "and would be far more comfortable for you than remaining here."
"Oh, yes, Brienne. Let us go," urged the countess.
"It would be most interesting," added Lady Phillippa, seeing, as always, an adventure before them.
"I assure you that the rectory is neither small nor overrun with children," Sarita told Lady Brienne after a guess at her thoughts. "It is unusually large, in fact, singular as a rectory." Her mind flew over the possibilities of the garden.
"And there may be enough ripe strawberries for tarts."
"Oh, we must go," said Lady Imogene. "Lead the way, Miss Durham.
"Josh, you fetch the horses along," she ordered.
"You do have space for them?" Lady Phillippa questioned.
"Something will be managed, my lady," Sarita told her with a smile. "Shouldn't you leave a message for your coachman?"
"Caine knows us too well to worry. We shall send Josh back later with a note. For now, let us go," Lady Brienne told her.
"Josh, you get the baskets from the coach and bring them along," she ordered. If Miss Durham can extend her hospitality, we can contribute our own resources, she thought with begrudged approval of Imogene's impetuous acceptance of the young woman's invitation. From the worn gown she wears, our breads, cheeses, wines, and fruits will be a welcome addition to their larder, she decided.
"You must tell us about your family, Miss Durham," Lady Phillippa said eagerly. "Have you other than a sister? Surely there are some families living nearby? Why would your father have a church if there were not?"
As their questions continued, the marchioness took Miss Durham's arm and beckoned her to lead on.
Lady Imogene followed closely, with Josh coming after them leading the team, the heavy baskets tied to their harness. Only the baroness hesitated. Pressing her lips into a tight frown, she belatedly strode after them.
The marchioness motioned Lady Imogene to Miss Durham's side and joined Lady Brienne. "Isn't Miss Durham a lovely, tiny thing?" she whispered. "I wonder if she is betrothed?"
Lady Brienne threw a cautioning, warning glance at her sister.
"I was only wondering. After all, what would our trip be if we did not assist at least one romance after encountering our own on this same journey so many years ago?"