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Harry Pendleton saw the girl run across the narrow country road seconds before he pulled on the reins, bringing his horses to an abrupt halt. Jangling harness, the sound of snorting horses and the curses of his groom took Harry's attention for a moment as he fought to control the startled beasts. They were not used to being so roughly used! Harry cursed loudly. Another second and he would have knocked the girl down! His heart had been in his mouth for an instantand it had done his horses little good to have their mouths sawed at in that way!
'What on earth do you think you were doing?' he thundered, tossing the reins to his groom and jumping down to confront her. He hardly noticed her pale face or trembling hands. 'That was a damned stupid thing to do! I could have killed you!'
'Had you not been driving so carelessly, it would not have happened,' the girl retorted, eyes flashing. She tossed her long hair, giving him a look filled with contempt. 'These country roads are not made for such haste, sir. I had no idea that you would suddenly come round that corner like a bat driven out of hell
'You must have heard the sound of my wheels,' Harry retorted, though he knew that she had some right on her side. 'What on earth possessed you to dash across the road in that way?'
'I saw some primroses I wanted,' the girl replied. 'This is a quiet road, sir. No one ever drives the way you were driving.'
'Possibly because they are none of them able,' Harry retorted. Even as he spoke he realised that he sounded petulant and arrogant, which was far from his nature. 'You should be more careful when crossing the road near bends in the road, miss
.' Harry belatedly became aware that she was rather lovely. Her hair had been tossed by the wind and looked like spun gold, and her eyes were so clear that a man might drown in them. He found himself staring like an idiot. 'Forgive me, I do not know your name.'
'Nor shall you,' the girl replied, giving him a haughty stare. 'Sir, I find you arrogant and rude and I shall say good day to you.'
Stunned, Harry watched as she ran from him, scrambled over a stile at the side of the road and set off swiftly across the fields. He came to himself in that instant, realising that he had handled the situation badly.
'I am sorry
.' he called after her. 'I was anxious because I might have killed you. I did not mean to be so harsh.'
The girl did not falter or look back. Harry continued to watch her for a few moments, then he shook his head and climbed back to the driving box. His damnable temper had let him down. It was not often he lost it, but for some reason he had done so this morning. Instead of shouting at her, he should have made sure that she was none the worse for her fright. For a moment he was tempted to go after her, but he was in a hurry; he had promised to meet his friends at a mill held locally at a certain time and was already late. He frowned as he began to drive at a slightly more sedate pace. It was obvious the girl was unharmed, but he had not made the proper enquiries. He ought at least to have asked if she needed his assistance, though it was self-evident that she did not.
A little smile touched his mouth. She had answered him with spirit. Clearly she had not suffered an irritation of the nerves, as most of the young ladies in town might have, had they been subject to such a display of bad manners from a man who was generally considered to be one of the politest men in society. However, from the look of her clothes and the way she had been roaming the countryside without a hat or a companion, she was just a country girlpossibly the daughter of the local vicar. It was unlikely he would ever see her again, and, while he felt a certain regret, the incident was soon pushed to a distant corner of his mind.
Susannah stopped running when she was out of breath. What a bad-tempered man the driver of that phaeton had been! Had he been a little more considerate, a little caring in his manner, she would have apologised, for she knew herself to be partly at fault. However, he had come round the bend at such a pace that it was a wonder he had managed to stop at all. She was fortunate that she had not been trampled beneath his horses' hooves. If she had not felt so startled, she might have admired the way he handled his horses, which were clearly high spirited. However, the way he had shouted at her had put all thought of apology from her mind.
Frowning, Susannah sat down on a fallen log to recover her composure before going home. As her nerves ceased tingling, she suddenly saw the amusing side of the affair and laughed. It had been quite an adventure, and she had often longed for something of the sort. However, in her dreams the gentleman would smile and speak softly, making her heart beat faster. Her heart had indeed slammed against her chest, but from fright rather than pleasure. Now that she had begun to feel calmer, she remembered that he had been rather handsomeif you liked arrogant, rude men! She tossed her head and put the incident from her mind as she approached the cottage they had taken after poor Papa died. She must hurry; she had been out a long time and her mama would be looking for her.
Susannah walked into the cottage, carrying a basket of herbs and wildflowers she had picked in the hedgerow. Her fine gold hair had blown all over the place and her cheeks were pink from the fresh air. She looked beautiful, if untidy, and not quite the proper young lady. Her looks were misleadingshe had been taught her manners and was in truth a well-behaved girl, though spirited and inclined to be reckless at times. She took her precious finds into the large kitchen, setting them down on the scrubbed pine table. The smell of baking was everywhere, tantalising and tempting. She felt hungry, her mouth watering at the thought of such a treat. Her hand was reaching towards a plate of cakes that were still cooling when Maisie walked in. Maisie had once been her nurse, and now she kept house for Mrs Hampton, turning her hand to anything that needed doing, because they could no longer afford the luxury of servants.
'Now then, Miss Susannah,' the woman grumbled. 'You leave them cakes alone. Your mama has the Vicar and some friends coming for tea this afternoon, and I've used the last of the butter. At least there's none to spare for more baking.'
'Can't I have just one?' Susannah pleaded, her stomach rumbling with hunger. 'I haven't eaten since first thing this morning.'
'You should have been here for your luncheon instead of wandering about the countryside like a hoyden.' Maisie looked at her with disapproval, which masked the deep affection between them. 'Go and change your gown before anyone sees you. It will be time for tea in an hour or so. You can wait until then.'
'I'm hungry now,' Susannah said and snatched a warm and chewy oat biscuit, fleeing from the kitchen with Maisie's scolding ringing in her ears.
She sighed as she went upstairs to change out of the old gown she had worn for her walk. She had managed to get grass stains on the hem again, and there was a small rent where she had caught it on some briars, so it was a good thing she had chosen this gown. It was important to conserve her best things for special occasions these days. They had just enough money to live on and pay Maisie her meagre wage, but Susannah had no idea what they would do when they needed new clothes.
Everything had changed after her father died, for he had lost his estate by making unwise investments and at the gaming tables. Mama had a little money of her own, which she had inherited from her father, but the income was scarcely enough to keep them.
'I do not know what to do, Susannah,' her mother had told her when they moved from their comfortable house to this modest cottage. It had seemed bare and poor compared to the comfortable house they had been forced to leave, but somehow they had managed to turn it into a home. 'If I release what little capital I have, we could afford a Season in town for you, but then we should have nothing left.'
'And if I did not take, you would have given up your living for nothing,' Susannah said. She was a good-natured girl and had accepted their downfall into poverty with good grace. 'No, Mama. We shall manage as best we can. Perhaps I shall meet someonea prince!who will love me for myself and carry me off to his castle. I shall have jewels and beautiful clothes, and you will never have to worry again.' Her smile was unconsciously wistful.
Mrs Hampton shook her head sadly at her daughter's flight of fancy. 'You are very pretty, my darling, but things do not often happen that way. I dare say someone will offer for you, but he may not be to your liking.'
'You are thinking of Squire Horton, I suppose.' Susannah pulled a face, for the Squire was past forty, a generous kind gentleman, who had buried two wives and had a brood of boisterous children. She appreciated his qualities, but found him rather large and a little too dull for her quick mind.
She flicked her long, honey-coloured hair back out of her eyes. It was always escaping from its ribbons and curling in tendrils about her face. She presented a charming picture, for she was truly beautiful, but she seldom considered her looks, though she knew she was pretty because everyone told her so. However, it had not turned her head, and she was generally popular with both the gentlemen and the ladies she met. Unfortunately, situated as they were, she met very few gentlemen that either she or her mama considered a suitable match. 'Well, if nothing else turns up, I may be forced to such a marriage, Mamabut it is not yet too late for something exciting to happen.'
Susannah lived in the expectation of something exciting happening. She would meet a handsome man, not necessarily a prince, of course, but rich enough to keep both her and Mama in comfort. He would sweep her up on his horse and ride off with her to Gretna Green, where they would be married and live happily ever after, preferably in an ancient castle. Failing that, perhaps a relative they had never heard of would leave them a fortune. Mama said they had no rich relatives, but perhaps there was someone somewhere who might be kind to them.
Her biscuit finished, Susannah applied her mind to the little tea party her mother had planned for friends. She changed her old gown for a favourite primrose-silk afternoon dress and brushed her hair into order, tying it back with white ribbons. A white stole draped over her arms and she was instantly transformed from the hoyden, who had been traipsing the fields to find herbs her mama might use to make lotions and seasonings, into a young lady of some considerable style and beauty.
Susannah had an English rose complexion and sea-green eyes, her mouth soft and attractive. It was the kind of mouth gentlemen found irresistible and wanted to kiss, but she had not yet been brought out into society and could not guess at what might happen if she were. She sighed as she looked at her reflection in the dressing mirror. It was true that she was not ill favoured. If only they could afford a Season in town without ruining Mama! Surely then she could make a good marriage and rescue her beloved mother from the genteel poverty in which they now lived. Susannah did not care so very much for herself that they lived in a tiny cottage, but Mama had found it hard.
With an effort she banished her dreams of romantic love and handsome gentlemen who would beg for her favours. Mama was right: these things did not often happen. She might have to marry one of the gentlemen who called on Mama with gifts of fruit and vegetables from their gardens and looked at Susannah slyly whenever they got the chance, but she would not if she could help it!
She was about to go downstairs to the parlour when her bedroom door opened abruptly and her mother swept in. Wearing a gown of grey silk, Mrs Hampton was still an attractive woman, her colouring much as her daughter's, but she often had an air of sadness, which, her daughter noticed, seemed to have vanished for the moment. Susannah had not seen her mother this animated since Papa fell into a decline after losing all his money and died of a putrid infection some nine months earlier.
'Mama! What has happened?' Susannah's heart raced with anticipation, for she sensed her mother's excitement. 'You have news.'
Mrs Hampton waved a sheet of quality vellum at her. 'I have had a letter from Amelia Royston. You must remember that we met her once in Bath? She was visiting with her sister-in-law, Lady Royston. I felt so sorry for her having to live with that harpy. Her brother is a gentleman, of course, but I am not sure that I like him
.' Mrs Hampton looked pensive, for her friend had not said much about her circumstances, but she had sensed her deep unhappiness at the time. 'Well, as you may recall, I asked her to a party and took her to a dance at the Assembly Rooms. She fell into a habit of visiting us every day, and we have kept in touch ever since through letters. I remember she was so grateful for my kindness
it was before Papa' She broke off with a little choke, the sadness back in her eyes. 'Anyway, she went to live with an elderly aunt soon after that and everything has turned out most fortunately for her.'
'Yes, I remember Miss Royston,' Susannah said. 'What does she say in her letter, Mama?'
'It is like a miracle,' Mrs Hampton said and the light came back to her face. 'Amelia's auntLady Agatha Sawle, I met her once, but you did not know herwell, she has died and left Amelia a fortune. She did not expect it. Indeed, she had no idea that her aunt was so wealthy. She knew she was to have something, but she says she had no expectation of being left more than an independence.'