About the Author
Patricia Veryan was born in England and moved to the United States following World War II. The author of several critically acclaimed Georgian and Regency series, including the Sanguinet Saga, she now lives in Kirkland, Washington.
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Had We Never Loved
By Patricia Veryan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Patricia Veryan
All rights reserved.
Short Shrift was bustling, its single street crowded, most people afoot, but a few horsemen venturing cautiously among the boisterous throng. No less boisterous was the breeze that ruffled the chestnut trees, sent the ladies' skirts billowing, made mischievous snatches at wigs and bonnets, and flapped the many tents and awnings that had transformed the three-acre patch of turf known as the Village Green into a maelstrom of activity.
To designate Short Shrift a village was a matter of pride with the inhabitants and a topic sure to inspire scornful derision among the inhabitants of surrounding villages. Located in the beautiful rolling country west of Basingstoke, Short Shrift could boast only a baker's dozen thatched and whitewashed cottages. In response to sneers that it didn't even have a proper street, the inhabitants would point out that the lane curved "right pretty like" and, before their discreditors could add more insults, would unfailingly declare that Short Shrift was destined to grow. Rapidly. How could it fail? Already it had an "inn," which was (occasionally) a stop for the Oxford to Southampton Portsmouth Machine, or, as silly foreigners from London now called it, a "stagecoach."
It was in the stableyard of the Spotted Cat on this sunny May afternoon that a horseman dismounted and glanced about for an ostler. On a normal day ostlers would have come running to take the splendid chestnut mare of this dashing young gentleman of Quality, but this was a far from normal day. The shabby old inn was crowded, and the host and his wife could scarcely run fast enough to accommodate the patrons who thronged the tap, pushed their way into the coffee room, and overflowed into the dusty corridor and dustier vestibule.
Therefore, the rider was neglected, and might with some justification have been annoyed. Horatio Clement Laindon, Viscount Glendenning, was an amiable young man, however, as the laugh lines at the corners of his green eyes attested. Of no more than average height, his lean figure and broad shoulders spoke of athletic pursuits, and although he fell short of being named handsome, his features were sufficiently good as to cause most female eyes to appraise him with interest.
There were female eyes upon him now. Brilliant eyes of dark brown set under slim brows. A purple scarf was tied about the night black hair of the young gypsy. The snowy low-cut blouse was amply filled and tucked into a long dark blue skirt. Sandals were tied about a pair of shapely ankles, and the little feet they protected were arched and slender.
Unaware of either the stare or the girl's attributes, Lord Horatio peered into the crowded stable. "Hey!" he called, without appreciable result.
"Look at him, Florian," murmured the gypsy girl, her red lips curling with scorn. "All beside of hisself 'cause six grooms and a ostler ain't come running to kneel at his feet. Proper helpless. Fair pathetic, ain't it?"
The gypsy lad beside her said softly, "The gentleman, perhaps. But the gry! Do you mark her? A rare prize, Amy."
His lordship was leading the mare into the stable. Watching the animal's silken movements, the girl whispered, "Aye. Oooh — aye!" She glanced up at her companion's finely boned young face and saw the glowing look in the beautiful eyes that were as dark as her own. "You think we could?" she hissed, tugging at his arm.
Suddenly appalled, he exclaimed, "Oh lor'! Never even dream of it!"
"But in a mob like this, 'twould be easy."
"Easy as death! You've maggots in your loft, girl!"
"I may be a girl, but I'd help, ye know that. Still ..." She frowned thoughtfully. "Likely you're right and we'd swing on Tyburn Tree, the pair of us. Oh, well. We can think about the gry later. Now, you'd best go and help the poor Quality cove. He'll likely pay handsome. A nice mouth he's got. He'll be generous, I'll wager, and maybe toss you the price of one strand of that there wig he's got stuck on his noble nob."
Florian glanced at her in surprise. The tone was full of cynicism, but the words were unusually complimentary. "Here he comes," she added impatiently. "Go on, lump! Give a hand to Milord Rosy-and-Rare!"
He grinned. "You and your rhyming cant. He doesn't look like a nose-in-the-air to me. In fact —" He paused, his eyes widening. "Aiee! It's Lord Glendenning!"
"Know him, does ye? He's a pigeon for plucking if ever I see one. Go on!"
"Not me," he said, backing away. "He's no pigeon, Amy. Besides, he's a friend of Mr. Cranford. I'll not lighten his pockets, and no more should you."
His lordship turned in their direction. Florian melted into the crowd, and Amy Consett slipped into the shadow of the open stable door.
It had occurred to Glendenning that there were some decidedly odd goings-on in Short Shrift. On the few occasions he'd stopped here before, to glimpse more than a dozen people would have been remarkable. This afternoon the place was fairly mobbed. And mobbed by a most unusual crowd. The countryman he'd addressed, very politely, had rounded on him before he could say more than "Will you please tell me —?" Flourishing a handful of what looked like sheep's wool, the man had interrupted eagerly, "'Ar — well 'ow long, master?" His astonished, "How the deuce do I know how long the stuff is?" had met with an indignant snort, and the obviously deranged individual had hurried off to wave his wool under the nostrils of a sturdy fellow in gaiters. Glendenning's second attempt had been even more peculiar. He'd readied his most beguiling smile to dazzle a pert young miss into chatting with him, and before he could say one word, she'd shaken a feather duster under his nose and asked in a shrill and alarmingly excitable manner what he would give for it. He had effected a hasty retreat, and now advised Flame, between sneezes, that if there was one article for which he had no use whatsoever it was a feather duster.
"Especially one that is blasted full of ... dust!" he gasped, wiping tearful eyes after yet another sneeze.
As if endorsing his remarks, Flame whinnied and danced to the side. A shriek caused Glendenning to lower the handkerchief. He was aghast to see a gypsy girl sprawled on the ground practically under Flame's hooves. "Oh, Egad!" He fell to one knee and propped the girl, who appeared to be in a fainting condition. "I do beg pardon ... miss ..." His horrified utterance ceased. Her head had rolled back against his shoulder. The purple scarf had come loose, releasing a cloud of raven hair that rippled to her waist. He looked into an oval face blessed by high cheekbones, a delicately chiselled nose with the slightest uptilt at the end, a vivid, full-lipped mouth, and a firm little chin. Thick curling black lashes fluttered, and the bewildered eyes that blinked up at him were long and very dark. The swooping neck of her blouse had slid a little way over one white shoulder, leaving no doubt but that she possessed a remarkably handsome bosom. Somewhat dazed, his lordship had the fleeting thought that even Katrina Falcon would not outshine this beauty.
"You ... hurt me ...," said she, in a husky, faltering voice.
Some sympathetic and indignant comments arose. Glendenning tore his gaze from the vision in his arms. A small crowd had gathered, and he was being regarded disapprovingly. "No, but — I — er — That is to say — was it my horse, mistress?" he stammered.
The dusky head nodded. The lustrous eyes closed. She sighed, and lay back again.
"Most improper!" remarked a stern-faced housewife, clad in a plain grey gown and gripping a white parasol as though it were a bayonetted musket.
"It's these 'ere Quality coves, ma'am," whined a threadbare and cadaverous individual. "Much they care if their nags trample simple folk."
"You should be more careful, young fella," roared a large gentleman from beneath an awesome French wig. "Cannot go about trampling young females, y'know."
Red to the roots of his hair, Glendenning groaned and enquired if the "young female" could get up, or should he summon an apothecary.
Those great eyes were looking at him piteously again. "I'll ... try," she said in a faint voice.
He practically had to lift her, and she clung to him weakly. There was a fragrance about her. A sweet, clean, natural fragrance.
A jeering shout broke through Glendenning's pleasant musing. "'Ware the gypsies, me fine cove! Keep yer peepers on yer valleybles!" His lordship snapped back to reality, and his eyes darted instinctively in search of Flame. Unperturbed by the several admiring children who were stroking her, the mare waited patiently, in the act of accepting the bullseye a small girl offered.
A loud and officious voice rang out. "Move aside, there! In the name of the law!" The crowd eddied and split. A man wearing a dark habit, a black tricorne set on his scratch wig, and with a sombre expression on his narrow face, pushed his way through.
Glendenning felt the yielding figure he held become tense. With a lithe twist the gypsy girl was out of his arms.
Springing forward, the constable seized her wrist. "Ho, no you don't!"
"Let me go, you nasty old cove!" Amy appealed to his lordship. "I ain't done nothing, has I, sir? Tell him I ain't done nothing, yer highness!"
"Indeed she has not," said Glendenning. "The shoe's on the other foot in point of fact. I —"
"I don't know nothing 'bout your shoes, sir," said the constable resonantly. "But there's been charges brought 'gainst this young woman." He added, over his shoulder, "Is this her, mate?"
A burly, red-faced young man, with a too-tight coat and a wig that made his lordship shrink, loomed up behind the minion of the law, and nodded. "That's 'er," he confirmed. "Stole me watch, she done!"
"Ooh! I never!" declared Amy, outraged. "Didn't yer ma never teach ye not to tell fibs, young man?"
"I, for one, am not in the least surprised," proclaimed the grey lady.
The large gentleman who had scolded Glendenning for not being careful now roared that it was only to be expected. "She's a gypsy, after all," he pointed out.
"I see you hanging on to this here gent," said the constable, tightening his grip on Amy's wrist. "You best check your pockets, sir. You'll be lucky if you still got your purse!"
"Ooh! What a wicked mind you got," said Amy, bursting into tears. "I never did nothing! You can search me from head to toe, you can, and you won't find that skinflint's cheap watch, nor the gent's purse, neither."
"Here! I ain't a skinflint," protested the red-faced young man.
"Yes, ye is," said Amy, scattering tears. "You promised me yer watch if I'd give you a kiss, and then you never give it me."
Ignoring the grey lady's shriek, and the outburst of laughter, the young man's face became redder than ever as he said indignantly that he couldn't give away what had already been stole. "Besides," he appended, "you never did give me the kiss!"
Glendenning, who had encountered a few gypsies during his eventful life, had been groping about in the deep pockets of his riding coat, just in case. He had not lost his purse, although it was now in the wrong pocket. He had, however, gained something. Keeping his features commendably bland, he informed the gathering with perfect honesty that nothing of his had been stolen.
"Ar, well it wasn't for want of trying, I'll wager," snorted the constable, and gave Amy's arm a tug. "You come along o' me, young woman, and —"
"No!" she wailed, casting an imploring glance at his lordship. "Oh, sir! Don't let him take me off and ruinate me. I ain't done nothing!"
"'Pon my soul!" gasped the large gentleman. "He's not going to ruinate — I mean, he's an officer of the law, girl! Where ever did you come by such notions?"
"With a face like hers, you should know where she come by 'em," said the grey lady, all righteous accusation. "Men, is where! Men!" She waved her parasol about for emphasis as she expounded, and several of the onlookers were obliged to duck. "A pretty face, and they forget every moral value their poor mothers ever tried to inculcate into their lascivious minds! Men! Animals, more like. The lot of 'em!"
There was a brief awed silence, nobody venturing to contradict so fierce a crusader until someone braver than the rest (and well hidden) uttered a loud "Heehaw!"
The large gentleman gave a shout of laughter. The grey lady turned on him in a passion. The crowd entered into the spirit of the argument, and his lordship, who rarely puffed off his consequence, drew the constable aside.
With cool authority, he said, "I am Lord Glendenning, officer. And I think you must know that you cannot arrest this lady without proof of an offense."
"Lady!" snorted the red-faced young man. "She ain't no more a lady than —"
His lordship snapped, "Careful, fellow. You speak slander!"
The alleged victim blinked at him. "What's that mean?"
"It means as she's gotta be searched," said the constable, adding a respectful, "ain't that it, your lordship?"
"Not by you, you dirty old —" began Amy.
Glendenning intervened hurriedly, "We shall find a respectable lady, Miss, er ...?"
"Lewis," lied Amy, smiling at him. "Alice Lewis, yer worship."
A timid little woman who had been selling nosegays was pressed into service. She took "Miss Alice Lewis" into a nearby tent and emerged some moments later to impart shyly that the young lady was "innocent as the day she was born."
The constable grumbled himself away.
The red-faced young man said sullenly that his lordship probably had his reasons for taking up for the thieving gypsy.
"And that will be enough from you," said the viscount. "I wouldn't doubt but that your watch is still lying where you dropped it when you were trying to take advantage of this lady. But if you can't find it," he clapped the victim on the shoulder, "buy yourself another. Go along now, and search for it, there's a good fellow."
The young man brightened when a gold sovereign was pressed into his palm, and with a leering grin departed.
Amy gave the viscount a limpid look, and edged closer.
Lord Horatio smiled into her dusky eyes, then exchanged a shilling for a nosegay, and offered it to her.
"You paid six times too much," she advised, smelling the violets.
"Yes, but the lady did us a favour." He slipped another shilling onto the little flower seller's tray and, brushing aside her transports of delight, led Amy from the continuing dispute between the grey lady and the large gentleman.
"You're very easy with yer better-or-worse, milor'," said Amy.
Her nose was still buried in the violets, and over the flowers her great eyes twinkled roguishly at him. She should, he thought, be taken at once to that fellow who had married Margaret Burr. What was his name? Oh yes, Gainsborough. He was quite clever with paints. Probably be very glad of a model like this enchantingly lovely gypsy lass. Something poked at his ribs, and Flame snorted uneasily. Looking up, Lord Horatio's dreaming gaze encountered a furled but aggressive parasol, and he retreated before two hard grey eyes under an austere grey bonnet.
"Shameful!" snorted the grey lady as she marched past. And drifting behind her came the all-embracing denunciation "Men!"
Recalled to a sense of his obligations, Glendenning coughed and said, "Never mind about how easy I am with my purse, Miss Lewis. You did steal that poor fellow's watch, because it's in my pocket!"
She smiled at the violets. "Is it, sir? And where did a great nobleman like yerself learn that better-or-worse means purse?" He thought of Enoch Tummet, and grinned. "I've come up against rhyming cant before. Matter of fact, the valet of a friend of mine —" He paused.
"Why d'ye frown, yer highness? Ain't he a friend? Or ain't the valet a valet?" Amy gave a ripple of laughter. "Straight, I never heard of no-one so grand as a valet what knew rhyming cant. That's what simple folk talk. Like me."
The viscount guided her to one side, avoiding a brawny labourer with a scythe slung over one shoulder. "The valet is a valet, I promise you," he explained. "And he is a simple — Er, I mean, he hasn't been a valet for long."
"What was he before, then?" Amy looked longingly at a stand where rows of toffee apples shone stickily in the sunlight. "A bishop, p'raps?"
Glendenning chuckled. "He was a guard. A — a sort of bailiff, actually."
Excerpted from Had We Never Loved by Patricia Veryan. Copyright © 1992 Patricia Veryan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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