If you read A Duel for Christmas (Pevensey Mysteries #3), you’ll know that we left Geoffrey’s sister Helena in a bit of a predicament. The good news is that I’ve commenced work on Pevensey #4, and Helena gets a chance for her own happily ever after. There’s still a lot more writing to be done, but here’s the opening chapter of the book. Enjoy!
Ralph had considered obtaining a special license—considered it and dismissed it seconds later. As a humble solicitor, he had no connections with the Archbishop of Canterbury and, although he had no doubt that Helena’s brother would supply the requisite funds, Ralph had no idea whose palms would need to be greased before that connection with the archbishop could be established.
Equally out of the question was abiding by the normal process. If he submitted their names to the banns and waited for the announcement to be read for three consecutive Sundays, another month would fly by. Time was of the essence if rumors were to be stifled and scandal was to be quashed.
No, the only course of action open to him was the one that required no paperwork whatsoever. He must abandon his predilection for law and order and head for England’s lawless neighbor to the north. Mr. Ralph Aldine must take Lady Helena Angiers by coach straightway to be wed across the border in Scotland.
Helena fought back a rising wave of nausea. The hired coach that Mr. Aldine had procured for the journey had far poorer springs than she was accustomed to, and every divot in the highway sent her heart into her throat. Finch, her lady’s maid, offered a convenient elbow for Helena to cling to, but the bony servant was scant support after the pavement of London streets disappeared into a mess of hollows and ruts.
Across from her sat Mr. Aldine, still fingering the brim of his hat although he had taken it off more than an hour ago. And beside him was the Marquis de Montesquerrat, a friend of her brother’s whom he had sent along as a chaperon.
“Are you quite all right, Lady Helena?” asked Mr. Aldine for the third time, staring at her intently.
Helena put a hand to her cheek. Apparently, her countenance was as sickly as the contents of her stomach. “I am well enough, Mr. Aldine,” she said simply. She looked out the window at the gray winterscape of London’s suburbs. The January rain trickled down the glass in straight, tidy streams. If only her own life was as tidy and well-ordered.
Two weeks ago she had been celebrating the gaiety of Christmas with a beloved fiancé, an engagement ball, and the prospect of a winter wedding. Now she was being whisked away to a place she’d never been, by a man she hardly knew, in a manner fraught with secrecy and shame.
If she were honest, Helena must admit begrudgingly that she’d had a choice in the matter. But, God knows, the choice her brother Geoffrey had given her was a limited one—deliver the baby in an anonymous corner of the country and give it up to be raised by another, or marry the husband he’d found for her and raise the child as her own. She had chosen the child…and the husband that came with it.
It could have been worse. At least Mr. Aldine was a respectable man. No, it was worse. He knew the full history of her past indiscretion since the father of the child was none other than his late half-brother.
“Please,” said Helena, clutching the dark fabric of her dress with both hands and willing herself not to be sick, “I must stop for the necessary as soon as we can.”
She saw the gentlemen exchange glances, no doubt irritated at having to stop after only two hours on the road. She gripped Finch’s arm all the tighter.
“Of course,” said Mr. Aldine with a sympathetic smile, right as the marquis said “Bien sûr , madame,” with an equally sympathetic look. She supposed that she ought to be grateful that her brother—incapacitated as he was from a recent duel—had sent someone else along so that she need not be alone with her intended until the vows were solemnized. But somehow it made the entire experience more galling, to have the marquis whom she had dined with at supper balls and played with at card parties witnessing her shame. Finch would have been enough. The marquis was entirely superfluous.
Mr. Aldine opened the window, admitting a blast of frigid air as he craned his neck out the opening to make his instructions understood by the driver.
It was another ten minutes before the wheels slowed to a stop at a wayside inn. Mr. Aldine was the closest to the door, and he pushed it open immediately, stepping down and offering Helena his arm. “Your veil,” he murmured in her ear as she took a shaky step toward the ground.
“Oh,” said Helena, feeling stupid as well as faint. She pulled the black lace over her face so that no one she knew might recognize her. “I’m sorry to slow you down,” she whispered.
“Not at all, my dear,” said Mr. Aldine. She flinched at the endearment and hoped that he could not see the outlines of her face beneath the veil.
“The horses must be changed,” he continued, “so we would have stopped anyway.” And indeed the marquis was already negotiating the exchange of money for fresh horseflesh.
Finch stepped down from the carriage, and Mr. Aldine surrendered Helena’s arm to her maid. She felt a faint squeeze on her fingertips as he pulled his hand away, and the look in his brown eyes seemed to whisper, “Courage!”
“Come now, miss,” said Finch, her angular frame supporting Helena’s wilting form.
Helena felt herself being propelled across the muddy inn yard and through the door of the inn. Once inside, the smell of stale ale, old smoke, and dank wood made Helena retch involuntarily. She clapped a hand over her mouth while Finch grabbed a dirty stew bowl off the counter for her ladyship to cast up her accounts. The travelers from a second coach sat frozen on rough-hewn benches, too shocked to continue their greasy breakfast of sausage and eggs. Helena did not know what was worse—the act of being violently sick or the dozen eyes staring in her direction. Mortified, she wished the floor would swallow her up whole, and it took all of Finch’s expertise to navigate her ladyship to the back of the inn and out to the latrine.
It was all over in a matter of minutes. Exhausted by the retching, Helena stood outside for a few moments, staring blindly at the gray landscape and letting the cold wind pinch her tired face. A soft touch to her shoulder warned her that it was time to resume travel. “Ready?” asked Mr. Aldine with an encouraging smile. Had Helena realized that she would see the front and back of fifteen more inns before their three-day journey to the Scottish border was completed, she might not have had the fortitude to climb back into the coach.
Ralph shifted eagerly in his seat, flexing his narrow shoulders and making the vain attempt to smooth out his crumpled cravat. The fourteen-hour days in the confined coach had taken their toll on his wardrobe but not on his spirits. Beside him the marquis’ somnolent face was covered with a dream-induced smile, and on the facing bench, Lady Helena’s golden hair curled angelically as she rested against her maid’s shoulder. The roads were unfamiliar—Ralph had never traveled this far north before—but the ostler at the last inn had assured him they were only twenty miles from the border of Northumberland and the wild lands to the north.
It had already been well past nightfall at their last stop. “Let’s lodge here,” the marquis had suggested, amenable to extending their three-day journey into four days.
“No,” Ralph had said firmly. “Only one more leg to the journey—we can complete it tonight.”
Lady Helena had made no argument one way or the other. The trip had been the source of extreme discomfort for her, and Ralph felt that the best way to alleviate this was to press on so that she did not have to travel any more miles on the next day.
And so they had girded their loins and passed on to Coldstream, crossing the Tweed in the dark of midnight and waking the toll master with the clip-clop of their horses’ hooves. The moon gleamed above the red-brown stone of the toll master’s house. Yawning, the man came out from his quarters to greet the coach and take their fare. He opened the carriage door and peeked inside, his lantern casting a yellow light over the faces of all the passengers. “Too many of ye to be looking for an anvil parson, ah reckon?”
The marquis, startling awake, looked at Ralph with a bewildered face—for a Frenchman, his English was good enough, but Scots was another matter.
“On the contrary,” said Ralph. “An anvil parson would be right welcome.” Helena shifted sleepily and let out a faint sigh. Finch, her back as straight as a ramrod, stared out the window with unsleeping eyes.
The toll master looked back into the blackness of the bridge they had just crossed. “An’ is anyone chasin’ ye?”
“No,” said Ralph, “but all the same, the sooner the better.”
Helena stirred at this and lifted her head off of Finch’s shoulder, her golden hair delightfully mussed and her blue eyes blinking.
“Ah can do it mahself,” said the toll master, his sturdy arms making triangles at his side. “There ha’ been many a wedding in mah parlor.” He introduced himself as Alasdair Graham and said that the goodwife was inside, happy to help the young lady make ready. The coachman pulled the carriage into the small yard by the toll house and the passengers began to disembark.
“But there is no anvil, n’est-ce pas?” asked the marquis as he followed Ralph out of the carriage. He peered about the dark yard as if he expected to find a forge right in front of him.
“A figure ah speech,” said Mr. Graham with a twinkle in his eyes, “fur it’s th’ blacksmith that marries ye if ye cross at Gretna Green. Here it be th’ toll master. It may be different athwart th’ border, but up here all we need is mahself an’ two witnesses”—he surveyed the four London folk stepping out of the carriage at his doorstep—“which ye seem to have brought wi’ ye.”
They went into the parlor of the toll house where Mrs. Graham, having hurriedly pulled on her cap, was lighting candles and arranging greenery as if this midnight invasion were a common occurrence.
“An’ now,” said Mr. Graham, “which is th’ gentleman?”
Lady Helena, finally having awakened enough to understand what was intended, opened her eyes as large as the dangling moon. “Pardon?” she breathed. “It’s to happen tonight?”
Ralph felt a little pang as he saw her look towards the marquis for protection. The Frenchman was the duke’s friend and of noble birth—of course, she would prefer him to a man of Ralph’s poor parentage. The only marvel was that Helena’s brother had not entreated the marquis to wed his sister. It certainly would have been a match more accepted by the ton. But what was done was done, and not for a minute did Ralph regret the bargain he had struck.
“I am that gentleman,” said Ralph, stepping to Helena’s side and taking possession of her limp arm with alacrity. Inwardly, he questioned the truth of that nomenclature as soon as the word left his lips. He was well-mannered enough to deserve the title “gentleman”, but unlike the rest of the gentlemanly class, he worked for his daily bread. He had never ceased striving to be a gentleman at heart, but he was certainly not one in the eyes of the world.
The enthusiastic Mr. Graham offered Ralph a set of rings (no doubt hoping to charge him dearly for them later), but Ralph waved them off and reached for the slender gold bands in his own pocket. It was in his nature to plan ahead, and he had come prepared for the ceremony.
“Th’ lassie looks a wee reluctant,” whispered Mrs. Graham to her husband, loud enough for them all to hear. “’An ’er frock is none so gay.”
“Dinna fash yerself,” replied her husband, eagerly accepting a large purse handed him by the marquis. Ralph conjectured there must be fifty guineas or more in there. He hoped the money was coming from Helena’s brother and not the marquis’ own pocket. “Many a lassie has fears ah th’ weddin’ nicht.”
At those words Ralph saw Helena turn as pale as a specter.
The next ten minutes were a somber affair. Ralph’s voice did not falter as he spoke the vows: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” Helena’s voice, on the other hand, was nearly inaudible even in the small parlor of the toll house. The stark pallor of her cheeks was made whiter by the ebony of her dress, a token of her recent bereavement. Facing her, Ralph gripped her hands as tightly as he dared, afraid that she would faint before the mock-minister had finished the service. In normal circumstances, she was only an inch or two shorter than him, but her sylph-like figure seemed to shrink by the minute as the toll master read on.
“Ye are husband an’ wife now,” concluded Mr. Graham, once Finch and the marquis had signed their names to the certificate as witnesses. There was some doubt as to the date for the register, and he consulted the clock above the fireplace mantel to determine that midnight had already struck; the marriage had concluded on the morn of the new day. “There’s an inn jist up th’ road where ye can spend th’ nicht,” continued the toll keeper, eager to hurry them along now that he had received his commission.
The party of Londoners stepped back out into the blackness where the coachman had kept the horses harnessed and waiting. Ralph handed Helena into the carriage and then climbed in himself. After a moment’s hesitation, he took the seat beside her, the one Finch had occupied formerly, and arranged the lap rug over them both for warmth. It was too dark to see from Helena’s face whether she approved of this new gesture of familiarity, but the shrinking of her slim body against the opposite wall of the coach was not a cheerful sign. The marquis handed Finch inside and took the opposite bench without comment.
As the toll master had predicted, they were but a few minutes on the road before they spotted the lights of the inn. Ralph reckoned that if English coaching inns had been rustic affairs, then Scottish ones would certainly be much worse. He directed the coachman to see to the horses and then they entered the building, blinking like moles from the brightness of the tavern room.
Unlike the toll keeper’s wife, the goodwife who kept the inn had not yet gone to bed. She stood drying tankards with her stained apron while they approached the counter. Greasy hair fell in strings from either side of her face. “How many rooms do ye need?”
The marquis looked from Ralph to Helena and then back again. “Eh bien, we shall share a bed again tonight, Monsieur Aldine?” It was more of a declaration than a question.
“Yes,” said Ralph, a slight pinkness creeping out from the edges of his sideburns.
The obvious relief in Helena’s face was a blow to his pride. For the last three days, Ralph, in the manner of the Old Testament patriarchs, had scrupulously introduced Helena as his sister at each stopping place. Now, even after the events at the toll house, it seemed he must wait a little longer to claim her as his wife.
As the marquis went outside to give instructions about their trunks, the innkeeper showed the remaining travelers down a narrow corridor with two neighboring rooms, indicating that the ladies might want the larger one. Finch stepped inside immediately to shake out the coverlet and examine the mattress for bugs while Ralph tarried in the corridor with Helena.
It was not often that he was at a loss for words. Indeed, he earned his bread by penning well-reasoned documents and treating carefully on difficult subjects. But what were the words for such a circumstance? What did a man say to his newly married bride who would far rather have exchanged rings with someone else?
Helena, it seemed, felt the awkwardness of the situation just as keenly and was determined to end the conference before it had begun. “Good night, Mr. Aldine.” Her voice shook.
Taking her hand, Ralph pressed it to his lips. “Good night, Helena,” he said softly, and then turned to enter the adjacent room.
END OF CHAPTER ONE