The Unflappable Miss Fairchild by Regina Scott | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
The Unflappable Miss Fairchild

The Unflappable Miss Fairchild

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by Regina Scott

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From pompous to vain, the most unsuitable suitors courted Anne Fairchild. Tolerant of all foibles, unschooled in flirtation, Anne was the despair of her family. Worst of all, only Chas Prestwick, the outrageous younger brother of an earl, could bring a blush to her cheek. He made Anne long to trade in a life of propriety--for one that promised a love filled with


From pompous to vain, the most unsuitable suitors courted Anne Fairchild. Tolerant of all foibles, unschooled in flirtation, Anne was the despair of her family. Worst of all, only Chas Prestwick, the outrageous younger brother of an earl, could bring a blush to her cheek. He made Anne long to trade in a life of propriety--for one that promised a love filled with unpredictable delight.

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The mother-of-pearl enameled clock on the mantle in the Cranfield library struck midnight with twelve rather dusty-sounding bings. Frowning, Chas Prestwick looked up from where he stood nearby, scanning the titles of the equally dusty books by firelight. Trust Liza to be late, even for an assignation she had wanted.

Confound the woman! What did she hope to gain by bringing it all up again? When he had told her they were through, the ensuing battle had broken every piece of statuary, pottery, and crystal the woman owned. She couldn't possibly want him back. Yet here she was, before two hundred of London's finest, trying to pretend that nothing had changed. Thank God he had been able to convince her to slip away unnoticed and join him in the library.

The door cracked open and Elizabeth Scanton slipped into the room. He leaned against the mantle and watched her as she draped herself artfully along the sofa opposite him.

He doubted that stuffy old Freddie Cranfield, who had only invited him to this tedious little ball because of a long-standing friendship with Chas's brother Malcolm, had ever dreamed the mahogany-paneled, seldom-used library would play host to such an assignation. Looking at Liza now, with her titian hair pomaded ala Greque and her amber gown damped to cling to her shapely breasts and ample hips, Chas knew exactly what had attracted him in the first place. She must have seen and recognized the appreciation in his eyes, for her smile turned lazy, and she ran a pert tongue along her reddened lips.

"Please, Chas," she said, voice like a purr, "can't we simply forget that awful fight? We really were made for each other."

Chas shook his head. "I meantwhat I said, Liza. This is all just a game to you, and I'm tired of playing."

She raised a carefully etched eyebrow. "What, can this be the Chas Prestwick who holds the record for best time by carriage to every location within a day's drive of London? The Chas Prestwick who bet Lord Leslie Petersborough, his well known shadow, that poor Leslie couldn't somersault from one end of Hyde Park to the other? The man who told Prinny to have the Lords pay him in rubies against his weight as that seemed to be the only thing about him that was increasing? Since when, sir, did you tire of games?"

Chas sighed. "Touché, my dear. Perhaps I'm maturing. I find those activities you just described a bit outrageous now." It dawned on him that perhaps that was the best tack to take with her. "I fear I've grown a bit stodgy. You'd best find yourself someone more outgoing."

"Humbug," she said, and he realized his hangdog look wasn't working. Liza knew him too well. She stretched a long leg across the white velvet. "You have years of fun left in you. Let me show you."

Best to simply end it now. "No, Liza," he said in his sternest voice. "We're through. You should have known better than to try to change my mind in a place like this."

She rose slowly from the sofa, dark eyes glinting in the firelight. "Because the Cranfields are one of the few families who still receive you? I could cause such a nasty scene, you know. Wouldn't it be a shame to see poor Chas Prestwick cast out of yet another home?" She smiled until her canines showed. Like the cat she was, Chas thought bitterly.

He let nothing of the anger and frustration he felt show on his face or in his movements. It would never do to let her see she was dangerously close to scoring. His reputation for wildness had scared off a good number of his brother's friends. Few mamas introduced him to their daughters anymore. More likely they quickly betrothed them to safer, if less-dashing gentlemen should he show interest. While he continued to spend most of his nights with Leslie Petersborough and the rest of the faster set, these balls and dinner parties were a welcome change, and one he didn't particularly want to forego. But Liza must never know that.

He waved a languid hand toward the house beyond the carved mahogany door. "Be my guest. The Cranfields mean next to nothing to me."

"Liar," she said softly. "All I have to do is open that door and scream. What little reputation you have would be in shreds."

Chas made a study of the toe of his evening shoe. "Wouldn't do much for your own reputation either, my dear. By all means, scream away. It would be more amusing than some of the things you've done."

Liza stiffened. "You go too far, Mr. Prestwick." She moved to the door and flung it open. And stared.

Chas' head had come up almost involuntarily as he prepared for the coming onslaught. Instead, he was surprised to see Liza nearly nose to nose with a young lady who was unknown to him. She stood with wide eyes, her hand arrested in mid air as if in the act of reaching for the doorknob. She obviously realized that she had interrupted an intimate affair and was even now coloring in a blush.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said quietly. "I was sent to find someone in the card room, and I seem to have found the library instead. Please excuse me." She started to back away.

Liza, never one to miss an opportunity, grabbed the young lady's arm. "Please, you mustn't go! You can't leave me alone, with him!" Tears appeared as if by magic in Liza's eyes. "He brought me here, alone, and now he'll have his way with me!"

Chas almost groaned aloud. The pathetic story would be unbelievable to anyone who knew Liza, but the wide-eyed innocent in the door would be sure to think it the truth.

But the young lady looked from the tears that were tracking through Liza's makeup to his face and back again, as if judging the story. In that one look was more wisdom than her youth bespoke. Chas stood a little straighter.

"Why, my dear, there's no need to cry," she said soothingly in her quiet voice. "You've only to walk out the door, and he'll be powerless to stop you."

Now it was Liza's turn to glance at Chas. She bit her lip in chagrin, obviously hoping that the young lady would have been an easier mark.

"But my reputation," she tried again. "He's ruined me. No other man will ever look at me again. I'll die a pitiful old maid!" This time even Chas could almost believe the sobs wrung from her as Liza cast herself back on the sofa and buried her face in her arms.

The young woman stood for a moment as if in indecision. Then she crossed to the sofa and knelt beside the prostrate Liza. "Please don't cry. I'm sure the gentleman meant no harm. A lady of your sophistication is likely used to the gentlemen loosing their heads."

Chas snorted, but the young lady gave him such a quelling look that he was forced to turn his eyes away for a moment, abashed.

Liza raised her head, sniffling. "It's a curse; you have no idea what I go through!"

The young lady patted her hand. "You bear it very bravely."

Liza sat up. "I try, but sometimes ... ".

"Yes, of course, sometimes these gentlemen would try the patience of a saint. If I had your charms, I simply don't know what I'd do."

Now Liza patted the other woman's hand. "There, there, my dear. Thank God there's only a few of us so cursed." She cast a venomous glance at Chas. "You, sir, may be thankful that this dear girl has reminded me of my inner strength."

"You would have regained it yourself, sooner or later," the young lady demurred, rising.

"Of course I would," Liza replied. She rose also and sailed to the door, where she paused to look back at Chas. "Remember this night, Chas Prestwick. This is the last you'll see of Elizabeth Scanton." She stood for one more moment, as if she hoped to give him something to regret, then melted into the darkness of the corridor.

Chas waited one more minute to be sure she was out of earshot, then gave a whoop of delight. He took the lady's hand and gave it a resounding kiss. "That, my dear, was pure genius. I've never seen Liza so well handled, and she never even saw it happening. Are you an angel or a sorceress?"

The lady gently pulled her hand from his grasp and turned toward the door. "Neither, sir. I merely offered help where I perceived it was needed. My family tells me I have a distressing tendency to see the best in everyone," she glanced back at him, "apparently even you. There is no need to thank me for something I habitually do. Now, if you'll excuse me."

"Wait," Chas ordered. He was surprised to find that he was loathe to let her go. But then, he had been surprised since the moment he had first laid eyes on her in the doorway.

He looked at her more closely. Not his usual style to be sure. This one had a quiet beauty. In fact, if it hadn't been for a pair of rather speaking large, thick-lashed, grey eyes, like a storm above his own Mendip Hills in Somerset, she would have been almost plain. Nice hair--thick, black, lustrous, although he would have preferred another arrangement rather than the bun at the back of her neck. Rather thinner than he usually liked as well: she almost looked as if she hadn't had a good mutton dinner in some time. And her clothes seemed a bit behind the style. Still, the way she had handled Liza, and was handling him for that matter, was nothing short of brilliant. He tried again. "May I not at least know the name of my rescuer?"

The lady looked back at him again, and he could see that she was blushing once more. "That would not be proper, sir. I think it would be best if we both pretended we'd never met." She continued toward the door.

Chas felt a prick of annoyance. The chit was dismissing him! Well, he was rather infamous for coming up with creative ways to solve difficulties. He moved to cut off her retreat and gave her his most dazzling smile, turning his head just enough that the firelight would reflect in his emerald eyes and show his blond hair to advantage. "I see, a very proper young lady. Don't talk to strange men in quiet libraries and all that. I could ask someone to introduce us."

The lady gave him one last look, her smile decidedly saucy, before purposefully ducking around him and starting down the corridor. "I doubt we know any of the same people." She evidently found the door she had been originally looking for and disappeared.

This is simply not my night, Chas thought ruefully, but he had a feeling that that smile would stay with him for a very long time.

* * * *
Chapter One

"Anne Fairchild!" Lady Agatha Crawford snapped, raising her pince-nez to glare at her niece down the breakfast table. "Do not make me repeat myself."

Anne had jumped at the sound of her own name. Now she set her tea cup carefully down in its saucer before she could spill the hot liquid on the linen tablecloth. "I'm sorry, Aunt," she said, smiling in apology. "I'm not quite myself this morning."

"You have been a bit dreamy-eyed since the Cranfield ball last week," her Aunt Millicent put in gently, squinting in the sunlight that streamed through the dining room windows behind Anne. "Dare I hope you met a special young man?"

"Of course she didn't," Agatha said with a sniff. Anne ignored her aunt's disparaging tone, relieved to have been spared an answer. "She danced with each of those two idiot suitors of hers once," Agatha continued, "and Mr. Hilcroft twice. Thank goodness my headache gave us all an excuse to leave early."

"Although I was having a lovely game of silver loo when you sent Anne to find me." Millicent sighed, herself looking dreamy.

"The game does not signify," Agatha asserted with an impatient wave of her hand. "What is important is that the only potential suitor of any merit that Anne has managed to attract is Julian Hilcroft. Which is why I asked when he is scheduled to call again."

Anne realized she would have to answer this time. "Mr. Hilcroft asked to take me driving today, if the weather holds." She kept her voice noncommittal and busied herself spreading honey on her biscuit.

"Did he indeed?" Agatha looked thoughtful. "I've a good mind to send you alone this time. Perhaps that will inspire him to make an offer."

Anne focused on setting the knife aside and taking a deep breath to still her rising temper. "What makes you think Mr. Hilcroft intends to make me an offer?" She was pleased by how calm she sounded.

Agatha put her own tea cup firmly in its saucer, threatening to give the worn Dresden china another chip. "He had better intend to offer, my girl. Why else have I been treating him to tea at least three days out of five these last few months? I am not running a posting house."

"Of course he'll offer," Millicent assured Anne with a pat on the hand. "He's quite fond of you, I can tell."

Anne managed a smile, feeling a little guilty for hoping Millicent was wrong.

"Fond or not," Agatha snapped, rising, "while he monopolizes your time, other more suitable candidates cannot approach. If he is not sincere, you will tell him to stop calling."

Anne took a bite of her biscuit. Swallowing was somehow more difficult. "I think you are making too much of Mr. Hilcroft's visits, Aunt Agatha. He seems to be only interested in a friendship. If other gentlemen are so timid as to be deterred by a friendship, I cannot consider them such suitable candidates."

Agatha shook a bony finger in Anne's face. Anne refused to flinch. "Fine words, my girl," her aunt declared. "How will you feel about this friendship when you're a wizened old maid?"

Millicent fluttered to her feet before Anne could reply. "Now, Agatha, you know that's not likely. Anne's such a dear girl. I know some fine gentleman will offer very soon."

"Not soon enough for me. Ungrateful child! Who was it took you in?" Agatha's hands shook as she leaned on her cane. "Come, Millicent. Leave the girl alone with her high ideals. Just see that you wear your grey pelisse when Mr. Hilcroft calls, missy. If I'm going to pay a pretty penny to deck you out, you will do me the courtesy of wearing the clothes I pick for you. And you will tell Mr. Hilcroft that I cannot spare Bess today. I rely on him to be your escort and behave in a gentlemanly fashion. I will expect a full report when you return from your outing."

Millicent cast Anne a supportive glance as she helped her sister-in-law from the room.

Anne sighed, pushing the food away, her breakfast quite spoiled. Why was it that she had never been able to find a way to please Lady Crawford in all the five years since she and her widowed Aunt Millicent had come to live in Crawford House? She truly did appreciate all the effort Agatha had gone to on her account--the dancing master, piano teacher, even that dreadful woman who had tried to teach her water color painting, not to mention the clothes Agatha had recut to fit Anne. If only her aunt hadn't been such a prickly thing, flaring up at the least sign of any disagreement. Lord knew, she tried as hard as she could to find ways to agree with Agatha.

For example, she found herself in agreement with her aunt that she did seem to attract the unlikeliest of suitors, although she refused to see them as the idiots her aunt named them. Mortimer Dent was a dear, but his intention of becoming a poet to rival Lord Byron was doomed to failure, she feared, for he didn't seem to have an original thought in his head, and he had an abysmal sense of rhyme and rhythm. Godbert Gresham had been a devoted friend since childhood, but he was so afraid of being taken for a bluestocking that he affected the very worst dandyism. That purple plaid waistcoat with the green piping he had worn the last time he was in town had been atrocious.

Yes, Julian Hilcroft was the best of the lot: intelligent, respected, and well to pass, but she was always aware that there was something else lurking behind his calm blue eyes.

If only Agatha had some of Millicent's qualities, Anne thought, not for the first time. Millicent was all that was warm and generous. From her wren's brown hair and broad face to her more-than-ample girth, she seemed motherhood personified. She was always ready with a smile or a shoulder to cry on, and, more often then not, she'd cry right along with you. Of course, she couldn't match Agatha's quick wit or her ability to instantly assess a situation.

Agatha Fairchild Crawford, on the other hand, was thin as a rail, with iron grey, wispy hair; grey eyes; and a positively black disposition. Where Millicent smiled, Agatha's lips were perpetually curled in a thin line of distaste. Her blue-veined hands clutching her ebony cane, she walked with the dignity of a reigning monarch. Millicent wanted Anne to marry someone who would take care of her. Agatha wanted her to marry for money and position. Anne had always dreamed of marrying for love. And at the moment, all she could think about was Chas Prestwick.

She climbed the stairway to the second floor of the Crawford town house and walked down the narrow corridor to her small bedchamber, wrapping her worn flannel robe more tightly around herself as she entered. Aunt Agatha was economizing again--only enough coal for a small fire once a day in the bedchambers. As Anne preferred hers right before bed, she frequently awoke to a room from which the warmth had long since evaporated. Not so her memory of him.

It was silly, really. She wasn't likely to even see him again. In the first place, she did not move in fashionable enough circles to have easy connections with a nonpareil like Chas Prestwick. Even if she did, Agatha would never approve.

Besides, it was probably just the novelty of the experience that made the memory so vivid. Lady Agatha Crawford's niece, rescuing what was surely the most handsome rakehell in London from the clutches of an equally wicked woman! It was simply too delightful to contemplate. Agatha would have had apoplexy had she known. It was one of the few memories all Anne's own; most likely that was another reason she kept reliving it.

She'd been so surprised when that woman had snatched open the door. Her first glimpse of him over the woman's shoulder had been of a tall man, strength clothed in grace. His thick, tawny hair was worn longer than the current close-cropped style, tied back from his face in a queue at the nap of his neck. That, his green eyes, and the graceful way he moved reminded her of a lion she had seen on display once for the Royal Family.

He had looked perfectly capable of taking care of himself. So why had she rushed to his rescue as if he were as feckless as dear Mortimer? Had her attempts to remain calm and unruffled before Agatha driven her to the point at which she had to behave outrageously? Perhaps Aunt Agatha was right--she saw the best in everyone, could see every side of any argument. Somehow, she just couldn't see that as the critical flaw Agatha did.

Shivering, she hurried to the wardrobe to pick her gown for the day. What would look good under the grey pelisse? For a moment, she toyed with the idea of wearing her old serviceable brown cloak instead, just to spite her aunt, then sighed, realizing it wasn't worth another scene. In the end, she chose a plum-colored gown of wool kerseymere with full long sleeves tucked at the wrists and a high neck trimmed with lace and slipped it on, managing the fastenings up the back from long practice.

No, Agatha would never have approved of Chas Prestwick. Even though they moved in different circles, her aunt would have heard the stories about him. His escapades were often the talk of the ton. She remembered the favored on dit last Season was how he and Colonel Dan McKinnon had entertained the theatre-goers at Covent Garden by running along the ledges of the boxes. He was said to have refused membership in the Four-in-Hand Club because he could already beat every member in a carriage race. She'd even heard that he'd turned down an appointment to the military with the comment that wars were too damned predictable.

Even if Agatha could be made to overlook his unconventional ways, she would never have forgiven his background. Everyone knew his mother had been a governess, the Earl of Prestwick's second wife, who had married the Earl only six months before Chas was born.

"So, there's no hope for it," she told herself firmly in the mirror as she sat at her dressing table and pulled the brush through her long hair. She made a sour face and mimicked her Aunt Agatha. "You, my girl, are not to be squandered on an impecunious second son of questionable family, no matter how handsome and charming." She twisted her hair into a neat bun and fastened it in place. It's a shame Aunt Agatha isn't as sensible about my marriage as she is about managing money, she thought, looking at herself in the mirror appraisingly. I simply haven't the face or figure to capture that big a prize on the marriage mart.

She'd pointed that out to her aunt once.

"You know nothing of the desires of the aristocracy," Agatha had sniffed, glaring at her through the lenses of her pince-nez. "Lords may take their pleasures where they may, but when they marry, they choose a proper girl of good family. We must simply wait for the right time."

So far, in the three years since she had come out, the right time had never arrived. Anne was beginning to hope it never would. She'd seen many of her sister debutantes, all proper girls, marry titled gentlemen who kept lines of less proper but much more interesting girls on the side. That was not what she wanted for herself. She smiled, thinking how Millicent would sigh and Agatha would sniff if they knew how she dreamed of romance.

And that thought brought her mind back to the scene in the Cranfield's library.

She closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers against her temples hoping to somehow blot out the memory of that sophisticated woman, golden in the firelight, weeping because he would have no more of her. Elizabeth Scanton was obviously not a proper lady. Far from it. She was a wanton, a woman who gave her body away to any man she fancied. With her beauty, Anne supposed, she didn't need a reputation for propriety. Perhaps if I were less proper, I could do better than Julian Hilcroft.

Anne snapped her eyes open and jumped to her feet. That was quite enough. She was who she was; no good would come of thinking otherwise. She simply wasn't cut out to be a wicked woman, much as it seemed to attract the gentlemen. Romance, even if it was embodied in the handsome Chas Prestwick, was likely not part of her future. She must try to be more practical. She straightened her gown purposefully and marched herself downstairs to occupy her time before Julian was due.

She was waiting, in her grey pelisse, when Julian arrived promptly at one. She had always found him handsome, in a quiet kind of way. She caught herself comparing him to Chas Prestwick and chided herself for being unkind. Any man would come off second best, she was sure, when compared to Chas Prestwick.

Julian Hilcroft was of medium height, with medium blond hair and blue eyes. He had a square face; a long, aristocratic nose; and a rather thin lips. He could look as stern as Agatha, but his smile tended to light up his otherwise dour demeanor. However, she had noticed that his smile seldom reached his eyes. Perhaps that was why she found it hard to be completely open with him. Still, he was usually intelligent, pleasant company, and she saw no reason to lose his friendship, despite Agatha's protests.

"I'm glad to see you dressed for driving," he murmured, bending to kiss her hand. "The weather continues unseasonably warm for January. I thought we might go out to Kew Gardens."

"What a lovely idea," Anne replied approvingly. Then she remembered about Bess and cleared her throat. "That is, it would be a lovely drive, but I may have to forego the pleasure today. My maid is unavailable." She glanced up at him to see how he might be taking it.

As usual, his face was impassive. "Regrettable. However, I had thought to ask Lady Crawford for permission to take you out alone anyway. I wanted you to see my new curricle."

"How lovely," Anne murmured, still watching him. If he looked the least bit calculating she vowed not to take a single step out the door. "My Aunt Agatha did suggest that she felt comfortable with you as my escort."

He frowned. "I'm surprised your aunt thinks so highly of me. I was under the impression ... but never mind. I hate to keep my horses standing. Perhaps a short drive out Kensington."

Practical as always, Anne thought as he led her out to his waiting curricle. His team of matched greys ranked above her reputation. Anne shook her head to clear her dark thoughts and politely praised his new carriage with its black-lacquered sides and silver-rimmed wheels.

She wasn't sure whether to be pleased or annoyed that Julian did not seem to notice any difference in her. Neither did their being alone inspire him to be more romantic as Agatha had hoped. He chatted about commonplace things--his horses, her aunt's health, concern for the continuance of the monarchy now that Princess Charlotte had died. She replied pleasantly, but her preoccupied mood refused to leave, and she felt guilty that she wasn't better company. She tried to focus on the scenery as they headed west out of London on Kensington Road, but, even with the sunlight, things looked dull and lifeless.

They had gone perhaps a half hour past the city and were tooling along an open stretch of countryside when Julian spotted another curricle ahead. "Looks like someone's lost a wheel," he commented. Anne saw a jaunty vehicle with emerald green enamel and gold-rimmed wheels, listing rather badly at the side of the road. A dark-haired young man in a many-caped greatcoat was attempting to uncouple a team of spirited bays from the traces. As they drew nearer, another man moved into view around the side of the vehicle, and Anne gasped as she recognized Chas Prestwick.

Julian had been slowing his horses as if he were considering helping. Now he looked at Anne in obvious surprise. "I say, do you know these people?"

"Well, I..." Anne began, not sure how to explain the unorthodox meeting to the ever-proper Julian. They were drawing alongside, and Chas Prestwick was signaling them. Julian pulled his greys to a stop.

"Thanks for stopping, old fellow," Chas greeted Julian at the carriage's side, the sun glinting on his golden hair. He was also wearing a many-caped greatcoat, in an olive and tan tweed, and the red in his cheeks attested to the fact that he had been out in the weather for some time. Anne was amazed how quickly her heart started beating just at the sight of him. She wasn't sure which she feared more, that he should recognize her, or that he might not.

"We seem to have run into a spot of trouble," he was continuing, "and we were hoping..." he trailed off as his gaze swept over Anne, and his handsome face broke into a dazzling smile. "Why, if it isn't my angel! I should have known you'd turn up to rescue me."

Anne's surge of pleasure at his words quickly faded as Julian swiveled to look at her, face stern. "Do you know this person, Miss Fairchild?"

Anne decided that the least said the better at the moment. "Yes, I do. Mr. Julian Hilcroft, may I present Mr. Charles Prestwick." She prayed Charles was his formal name; she couldn't think what else Chas would stand for.

While Julian managed a nod, Chas bowed. "Your servant, sir. May I compliment you on your carriage? A very nice piece of work."

Julian thawed slightly, to Anne's relief. "Thank you. A recent purchase. It seemed a suitable conveyance."

Chas patted the wheel beside him. "Yes, indeed, quite suitable. I'm afraid your horses, however, just won't do."

"I beg your pardon?" Julian sputtered.

Anne shook her head at Chas behind Julian's back, trying to warn him that he was taking the wrong approach if he wanted any help. But Chas was motioning to his companion and moving to uncouple Julian's horses from harness.

"I say, what do you think you are doing?" Julian demanded. When Chas paid him no heed, he turned to Anne. "What is he doing with my horses?"

Anne was just as bewildered. She knew she ought to be as incensed as Julian, but somehow it all seemed rather funny. She fought back a laugh and merely shook her head at his question.

With a snort, Julian clambered down from his seat and went to confront the two men. His tensed, slender frame stood in sharp contrast with Chas' muscular grace. By the time Julian could do more than sputter, Chas and his companion had unhitched his horses and put in the bays.

"Stop this instant!" Julian fumed. "I demand that you replace my horses!"

"We just did, old fellow," Chas replied calmly, cinching the last strap in place and checking his work. "Nice horses, your greys, but not quite what it takes to beat the record for curricle and pair to Kew Gardens."

Julian drew himself up in high dudgeon. "Certainly not! I never race my horses."

"Wise decision," Chas agreed, moving back to the curricle. To Anne's surprise and Julian's fury, he jumped up into the driver's seat. "I'm sure you can understand why I can't let you handle the reins for this race, then. No one drives my horses but me. Hang on, Angel."

Anne stared at him, suddenly realizing that he meant to make off with the carriage, with her in it. Before she could protest, he raised his voice to call to his companion, who stood at the head of the prancing bays. "Spring 'em, Les!"

As Julian cried out to stop him, his companion let loose of the bays. Anne had one glimpse of Julian's face, chalk white in fear or anger, she didn't know which. Then the bays leaped forward, and they were off.

She'd heard that some members of the ton raced their carriages for sport, but she'd had no idea that a carriage could go so fast! Trees, houses, other carriages whizzed past so quickly that she barely had time to register them. There was no chance of escape--to jump would have killed her at this speed. Her heart was pounding as loudly as the thundering hooves of the bays. The wind whipped her face, snapping the ribbons of her bonnet against her cheeks. When she put up a hand to catch them, her bonnet flipped off the back of her head. In minutes, her hair was free of its bun and streaming out behind her.

They careened around a turn, and the curricle tipped onto its right wheel. Anne watched terrified as the ground seemed to hurtle toward her. With a deft flick of the reins, Chas turned the horses and brought the curricle with a thud onto two wheels again. Anne swallowed her fear and clutched the curricle's sideboard so hard her knuckles stood out of her grey kid leather gloves.

"Just a little farther, Angel," he called over the roar of the wind. He winked at Anne, then frowned as if noticing her for the first time. "Don't get sick on me, now. I thought you were made of stronger stuff. Relax and enjoy the ride."

Anne stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. Relax! They whipped past a drayman's wagon with inches to spare, the neighs of his frightened horses echoing behind them. Yet as they continued to fly down the road, she began to feel less afraid and more excited. The exhilaration of traveling as fast as the wind was rather heady, and she began to understand why gentlemen raced.

"What record are we trying to beat?" she ventured over the roar of the wind and the thunder of flying hooves.

"Curricle and pair to Kew Gardens," he shouted back. "Leslie Petersborough and I set the record last Season, fifty-five minutes from Knightsbridge, specifically to the Hose and Garter Inn. We were well nigh onto breaking it when the wheel came off."

"Where do we stand now," she began, but the curricle hit a rut and she bounced in the seat so hard that her hands broke free of the sideboard. She slid across the leather seat, right up against Chas Prestwick. Face burning, she scrambled away from him to the other side of the curricle.

"Miss Fairchild," he grinned wickedly, whipping the reins again, "if you persist in throwing yourself at me, I will begin to think you have designs on my virtue."

"Nonsense," she managed to reply. "I believe the ton would agree that you have no virtue left on which to stake a claim." The tension must be getting to me, she thought as she removed a strand of hair blown into her mouth. I would never have been so bold with my other suitors. Why is it that when I'm with him, I feel so free?

Chas only laughed at the comment and urged the horses on.

She was almost sorry when, moments later, the curricle hurtled into the yard of a coaching inn, and Chas heaved back on the reins to slow his horses to a stop. The world spun back into place. The curricle stilled. Anne swallowed and managed to unclench her hands from the wood. Chas sat beside her, grinning. She returned his smile.

"Welcome to Kew Gardens, Angel," he chuckled. "I hope you enjoyed the ride."

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