Happy Birthday, Regency Reflections! Enjoy these free short stories.

Regency Reflections is entering it’s fourth year! We’ve had such an incredible time blogging about history, new books, our favorite classics, and the blessings God has given us. We couldn’t be happier to have you along for the journey.

If you’re new to Regency Reflections (or just want to revisit some great reads) here are the links to some free short stories we’ve published in the last three years.

A Suitable Match – a serial story written by 7 Regency romance authors. The contests are no longer open, but the story is still great!

Saving Miss Caulfield by Kristi Ann Hunter

Love Everlasting by Laurie Alice Eakes

A Pressing Engagement by Vanessa Riley

A Proper Prodigal by Susan Karsten

Matchmaking Pudding by Laurie Alice Eakes

We hope you’re looking forward to another year of celebrating inspirational Regencies as much as we are!

Happy reading!

Matchmaking Pudding ~ A short story by Laurie Alice Eakes

Merry Christmas from Regency Reflections! Our gift to you is this charming short story written by Laurie Alice Eakes. This is a revised edition of a story previously published in an American Christian Romance Writers (Now American Christian Fiction Writers) newsletter. 

(Note: To the English, “pudding” is not the custard-like substance Americans call “pudding.” English pudding is more like a cake, though it Is boiled, not baked, and plum pudding does not necessarily contain plums.)

 

The Devere family entered the kitchen once a year. From Lord Devere, to his wife ; from Rebecca, the youngest of their nine children, to Sarah, the eldest , the family gathered around the worktable on Christmas Eve morning to take turns stirring the plum pudding. According to tradition begun a century earlier when the last Stewart, Queen Anne,  sat on the throne, each person prayed as he or she stirred—prayed for prosperity and joy, prayed for strength and future spouses.

“Let us say a special prayer for the new year,” suggested Belinda, the middle daughter.

Everyone agreed—except for Sarah. Christmas might now have more meaning to her heart , but to her, what went into and came out of the pudding needed a helping human hand, not divine intervention.

She intended to control the disbursement of the charms, those tiny trinkets that made each slice of the pudding an adventure. When the family gathered with friends and neighbors to partake of the pudding, Sarah would ensure that each person received the charm that she thought befitted their needs.

Belinda would receive the thimble, reminding her to be thrifty with her pin money. Rebecca would receive the wishbone because she, being so small, needed all the blessings she could get during the next year. Their father would find the anchor in his slice of pudding, for he was such a stronghold for all of them he needed a safe harbor himself. The crown would go to fifteen-year-old Geoffrey because he would enjoy directing the festivities as “king” and wouldn’t be mean about his revels. Finally, to Lance would go the ring. Although he was only four and twenty, he was the heir and should wed sweet-natured Eliza. They’d loved one another since infancy.

Sarah frowned as she stirred the pudding with one hand and fingered the trinkets in her pocket with the other. “And, Lord, don’t bring Alexander calling again.”

Eliza’s older brother Alexander Featherstone had begun to court her, Just because I’m the only female in ten counties who hasn’t thrown her cap over the windmill for him.

Not that she was impervious to his looks, charm and intellect. She could love him. . .if he came around too often. She feared she already did love him; thus, she wanted him to stay away from her rather than add her to his quiver of fawning females.

“Tharie.” Rebecca, tugged on the skirt of Sarah’s round gown, “you’re taking all the turnth.”

Sarah released the spoon and stooped to lift her baby sister high enough to grasp the wooden spoon. Once on the floor again, Rebecca looked up with a seraphic smile. “I athked Jethuth for a huthband for Tharie.”

Sarah grimaced. “You’re better off praying for a wife for Lance. That won’t take a miracle.”

Belinda giggled. “Oh, I don’t think it’ll take a miracle—for either of you.

Blushing himself, yet smiling, too, Lance grasped the spoon from Belinda. “I pray that Eliza accepts my offer.”

“We’d like excellent matches for both of you,” their father said. “Who has the charms?”

“I do.” Sarah gave the trinkets to the cook to drop into the batter as she poured it into the bag for boiling.

Except the cook wouldn’t drop them in. Sarah had persuaded her and the butler to press the charms into the pudding slices of the right people. The cook’s nod assured Sarah she would carry on the game, and Sarah followed the family upstairs to rest before church.

At the service, Alex and Eliza joined the Deveres at the church. Somehow, Alex ended up sitting beside Sarah in the box pew.

When they stood, he slipped his large, warm hand beneath her lace-clad elbow. When they prayed, he took her hand in his, and she couldn’t pull it away without drawing attention to them. When they departed, he draped her cloak over her shoulders and allowed his fingertips to brush the side of her neck. Those were courting gestures, and she didn’t know why he teased her so.

Nor why God had ignored her prayer to keep Alexander away.

Disturbed, she tried to climb into the carriage with her parents and younger siblings, but they declared the vehicle overcrowded and insisted she go with the Featherstones. But that carriage was also full, so Sarah and Alex strolled the half mile from village to the Devere estate over ground white and hard with frost, through air that turned white with each breath, beneath a sky that resembled candle flames frozen in black glass. Cold, Sarah didn’t object when Alex tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow, then covered her fingers with his.

At least she said she didn’t object because of the cold. In truth, she felt warm all the way through, and that made her uncomfortable, unsure of herself.

Sarah hated being unsure of herself. She never was unsure of herself—except around Alex lately.

Lord, I don’t want to be another foolish female with a broken heart over him. But she feared she already was, for she’d seen him courting many girls in the decade she’d known him noticing females.

The Lord seemed to be ignoring her. Alex sat beside her at the table as the butler carried in the pudding and began to serve. Smiling, she watched everyone take their first bite of pudding, anticipating the moment when each found his charm.

But no one did.

Family member after guest savored the rich sweet until half of everyone’s slice vanished—except for Sarah’s, as she hadn’t taken so much as a nibble of hers. Everyone glanced around the table, curious,  puzzled.

“Who’th got a charm?” sleepy-eyed Rebecca asked. “I wanted the crown.”

Everyone shook their heads.

Lord Devere looked at Sarah. “You gave Cook the charms, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Father.” Sarah glanced at the butler, who gave her a twinkling glance, and her stomach knotted, her heart pounded.

Alex touched her arm. “You haven’t touched your pudding.”

Sarah read laughter in his gaze, and had to steel herself against running  from the table.

“Here, have a bite.” He seized her fork and cut off a generous mouthful of pudding, then held it up for her.

Face heating, Sarah sprang to her feet. “I don’t want pudding. I want to see everyone finding the charms I made certain they’d receive.”

Everyone looked shocked that anyone dared interfere with the discovery of plum pudding charms—everyone except for Alex and Geoffrey. They started laughing so hard the bite of pudding slid off the fork in Alex’s hand and plopped onto the white linen tablecloth. The pudding fell apart to reveal the tiny silver ring.

“Hurray!” Rebecca clapped her hands. “God anthwered my prayer. Tharie will get married this year.”

Alex turned serious. “I certainly hope so.”

“Oh, you!” Sarah spun on her heel and fled with a cacophony of laughter and exclamations running behind her.

She barely reached the nearest refuge, the winter parlor, before she heard footfalls behind her and felt a hand drop onto her shoulder, stopping her. “Wait,” Alex said.

She faced him, shaking. “Why? So you can make more of a fool of me?”

Alex met her glare with a challenging gaze. “More of a fool than what you’ve been making of me for the past three years?”

“What?”

“Sarah, everyone in the county knows I love you except for you.” He clasped her hands between his. “You treat me like I’m poison.”

“You are as dangerous as poison if anyone gets too close.” When he kept gazing at her in silence, she plunged. “You love every female so much you don’t love any of us. My Christmas prayer was for  God to keep you away tonight.”

“But God has other plans for us.” He took her hands in his. “What better time than Christmas to remember that He knows what we need more than we do?”

Sarah frowned. “And you claim God believes I need you?”

Alex grinned. “You wouldn’t care if I were here if you didn’t love me.”

“Oh—”

He kissed her before she could say more.

She still said nothing because he’d stolen her breath.

“And I went through a great deal of trouble to ensure you got the ring.” His eyes pleaded with her. “Doesn’t that count toward you believing I love you?”

“It’s cheating—”  Blushing, she began to laugh. “If I’m the only lady you’d do that for…”

“The only one. A match made in”—he kissed her again, his lips sweet from the confection he’d been eating at the table—”pudding.”

Love Everlasting, Part 2 ~ A Regency Short Story by Laurie Alice Eakes

Read Part 1 of Love Everlasting here. 

Watching pain, bitterness, and despair wash across Arabella’s beautiful face, Gareth thought the musket ball that had plowed into his left leg at Salamanca was no more than the prick of a pin in comparison with the blow of her words. Her father had gone to Newgate Prison. Gareth hadn’t known that until he returned from Spain. Lord Barr had been transported to New South Wales, a felon never to return to England, stripped of his title, for all practical purposes, stripped of his lands to pay back the Crown, and not one person had come to his innocent daughter’s aid, especially not the man who should have been there to pick up the pieces of her life and fit them together.

“Arabella.” His throat felt raw. He swallowed and took a deep breath before plunging on. “I can tell you what happened.”

“There are no excuses good enough to explain away your behavior.” She clutched the back of a chair, and for a moment, Gareth thought she might throw it at him. Instead, she swayed, her face whitening.

He rounded the table and caught hold of her shoulders. “You’re faint. You need to sit.”

“Perhaps she should lie down in the other room,” Mrs. Polglaze spoke from the corner.

“I’m all right.” Arabella’s voice, so strong in condemning him a moment earlier, had grown wispy. “I smelled bacon is all. And pastry. . . She bowed her head and a flush rose in her cheeks.

The fineness of the bones beneath his hands struck understanding into Gareth’s head. Delicate, bird-like bones with no flesh upon them. She was too thin. She was faint because she was hungry. She was hungry because she didn’t have employment and now her purse had been taken with likely the last of her worldly wealth.

“I’m a slow-top.” He released Arabella and strode to the door.

He couldn’t expect her to listen to him on an empty stomach. Jesus had fed the multitudes before he preached to them. Gareth should have taken that as a model of behavior and offered Arabella food first. He should have taken the Lord as his model for all behavior a long time ago and spared Arabella and himself a great deal of pain and suffering.

Along the gallery outside the private rooms he had taken for the day, he found a maid and gave her orders. Then he returned to the private parlor. “Viands will arrive as soon as possible.”

Arabella had seated herself at the table. She didn’t so much as glance at him. Curls loosened from her chignon spilled around her face, masking her expression. Only the whiteness of her knuckles on fingers gripping the edge of the table betrayed her emotion—betrayed her humiliation, if he knew his Arabella.

Not his Arabella. He had lost her years ago because of his own stupidity and pride. All he wanted now was for her to let him help her.

No, that wasn’t all he wanted; it was all he hoped to receive to ease his guilt. More no man could expect with the past that lay between them.

Arabella said nothing. Mrs. Polglaze took knitting out of an embroidered bag and began to click away at a stocking. Arabella’s hands slipped from the table edge to her lap, one coming up every few moments to brush curls from her cheeks only to have them tumble back again.

Gareth paced between window overlooking the stable yard below, to the door. Outside both, noise rose and fell like waves upon the rocky shores of Cornwall—waves during a storm. Men shouted. Doors banged. Carriage wheels rumbled over cobblestones. And, at last, the knock sounded on the parlor’s portal, soon followed by the arrival of two inn servants carrying trays of coffee, cream, and sugar, a pitcher of lemonade, and platters of bread, meats, cheeses, and apples. In her corner, Mrs. Polglaze shot to her feet and bustled forward to serve the meal. She, too, must have noticed Arabella’s hungry look, for the kindly housekeeper piled Arabella’s plate high and ladled a quantity of thick soup into a bowl.

“Eat slowly,” Mrs. Polglaze cautioned.

“Yes, ma’am.” Arabella began with the white soup, sipping from her spoon with her eyes closed, as though she analyzed the contents of the food. “Beef for the broth, not veal, as it should be. Cheese-paring ways.” She spoke in a murmur, addressing no one in particular.

Still, Gareth seized the opportunity to begin a conversation. He drew out the chair across from her and poured himself a cup of coffee. “You were looking for work as a cook?”

“I was too young for anyone to hire me as a housekeeper and not respectable enough to be a companion or governess.” The tip of her tongue darted out to taste another spoonful of soup. “But I learned to cook from Father’s chef on all those days I was alone in the house save for the servants.”

She once confided in him that her father left her with servants while he took long journeys—out of the country—smuggling trips they all discovered too late to avert disaster.

She said no more as she finished half the soup, then pushed the bowl aside, poured herself coffee, and fixed Gareth with her big, dark eyes. “So tell me why you just ruined my chances of gaining employment today.”

The chill of her voice belied the warmth of the late spring day, sending a shiver up his spine and freezing his tongue. His carefully planned speech fled from his head, and all he could think to say was, I never ceased loving you. But he couldn’t say that. She wouldn’t believe that when he told her of the past three years. She certainly wouldn’t believe it now.

“I want to offer you a home.” The end of his prepared speech came out first.

The words were the wrong ones. For a moment, as she stilled in the act of raising her cup to her lips, Gareth feared she would toss the contents across the table and into his face such an expression of outrage twisted her features.

He flung up his hands to stop her. “Wait, wait. Hear me out before you fly into the boughs.”

“I am waiting.” Her voice was low, rasping.

“Thank you.” Gareth took a deep breath. “When I returned from Spain, I heard what had happened to you—or rather that you had vanished—and I went looking for you. I hired a Bow Street Runner to hunt for you. But you seem to have changed your name and. . .vanished and I didn’t even gain a clue until a party at the Featherstone’s last month.”

“How magnanimous of you.” Sarcasm dripped from her tone. “Why were you looking for me? To pledge your everlasting love?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”

“Not unless you left for Spain with your regiment by force instead of attending your own wedding.”

Gareth dropped his gaze to the scarred surface of the table. “I left with my regiment quite voluntarily.”

“I thought as much.” Her voice sounded scratchy, as though she had been talking for hours. She blinked several times in rapid succession, took a long breath, then rose and pushed in her chair.

Gareth shot to his feet, knocking his chair over. “You can’t leave.”

“Can I not?” She glided to the door. Despite her shabby gown and cloak, her stride held both vigor and grace.

Gareth reached the door ahead of her and rested one hand on the latch. “You haven’t eaten enough. Mrs. Polglaze, do pack up the rest of this in-in”—He darted his glance around the room. “Something.”

“Of course, Sir.” She proceeded to empty the contents of her knitting bag and began to wrap the meats and cheese in serviettes.

Arabella waved her hand. “I can’t take that with me. It will spoil before I can eat a tenth of it.”

“Then what will you do? Where will you go?” Gareth’s hand shook on the handle.

Arabella shrugged. “Someone will hire me.”

“I will.” Gareth knew he sounded desperate, but he didn’t care. “I inherited my uncle’s estate and am in a position to hire staff. A secretary. A steward.”

“Anything but housekeeper?” She shot Mrs. Polglaze a smile.

“Or cook,” that venerable lady affirmed. “We have a fine and loyal cook.”

Arabella turned back to Gareth, the moment of lightness shoved behind a mask of contempt. “Do not think you may assuage your conscience by offering me work. Now, please step aside so I may leave.”

Gareth opened the door and stepped aside. Once she passed through the opening, he closed it behind them both and fell into step beside her. “Will you please hear me out?”

“And have people think you have hired me for something disrespectable?”

“No one will if we leave the fair.”

“And then how do I get employment?”

“The less you argue with me and give me a quarter hour of your time, the sooner you can get back to your—“ Gareth paused at the top of the steps and looked down at her. “How will you get employment without references or the tools of your trade?”

She looked away from him, her posture stiff. “Scullions need no references.”

He gazed at her small but long-fingered hands in gloves so darned they barely showed the original fabric. The idea of her working with soda and lye soap all day appalled him. “You would be a scullion before you accepted my assistance?”

“A scullion still has pride.” She gripped the banister and charged down the steps and out the door of the inn.

He had always loved her fierce pride, her determination to get her own way. But a lady of good birth, wealth, and fine looks could afford her pride. All Arabella still possessed was her fine looks and a desire to keep her dignity and her pride in tact. Even eating a bowl of soup he provided had humiliated her. Under her current circumstances, her pride was likely to kill her.

“Arabella,” he called over the heads of the throng between him and his former fianceée, “pride lost me the only lady I ever loved.”

She flinched, but kept walking.

To words of encouragement and wishes for good fortune on his endeavor, Gareth wound his way around those blocking his way until he reached the inn yard, where Arabella was about to step into the area set aside for those seeking work. When she turned, she caught sight of him and swerved to duck behind the stables. Gareth caught up with her on a lane leading to the harbor, where white-capped swells told of a storm out to sea despite the clarity of the sky over the land.

They had always enjoyed walking together, strolling along the ramparts at Lyme Regis, along the Stene in Brighton, daringly along the dark walks of Vauxhall Gardens in London. For a few minutes, this walk felt like those other times—calm, contented, companionable. Then she stopped as though she had run into a wall and demanded, “All right. Give me your excuses for your terrible behavior and then let me go.”

Gareth blew out a sigh of relief. “Agreed.” He offered her his arm out of habit, and she took it, perhaps out of habit. “As soon as I heard your father had been taken up for treason, I went to talk with my commanding officer. He was agreeable about my marriage and not returning to the continent with my regiment for a few months, but once the scandal broke, I new he deserved to know of the fate of the future father-in-law of one of his officers.”

Her fingers flexed on his arm. “And your career would have been ruined.”

“It would have been.” He sighed. “It nearly was. The colonel didn’t want me associating with a lady part of such a scandal, even if it wasn’t of her—your—making. But I thought I could persuade you to come with me until the scandal died down.” He stared at the rough cobbles beneath his feet so he didn’t accidentally look at her and meet her eyes with all his shame. “And when the colonel said I must choose between you and keeping my commission. . .”

“You chose your commission.” The words spilled from her lips like the cry of a wounded gull, like a sword through his heart.

He had to clear his throat twice before he managed to affirm, “I did.” He inhaled the sharp tang of sea air and added, “I can make the excuse that I had no other way to support a wife. My father would have pulled my allowance and my colonel intended to find a way to cashier me rather than have one of his officers married to the daughter of-of—“

“A felon, a common criminal. I suppose I can’t blame him.” Suddenly she stopped and used his arm to spin him to face her, where she jabbed his chest with a forefinger. “You could have sent me a message. Instead, you just ran away.”

“I did write to you.” He captured the poking finger in his fist. “I wrote you before I left the country.”

“I never received it.”

“I know. I waited to long to send you word of my whereabouts.”

“You mean to tell me you chose your career over me?”

“I—yes. I convinced myself you would be all right. When my colonel saw that you had nothing to do with your father’s activities, he would come around and you could join me. . .”

“You were wrong. No one wanted me near them.” Her eyes grew luminous with tears.

He brushed a stray drop off her cheek with the pad of his thumb. “I was wrong. But I found out too late to change my own actions. By the time I wrote you, you had already fled London without giving anyone your direction.”

“I had no direction. I had no home. You abandoning me like that robbed me of the last of my friends in town.”

“Oh, Bella.” He closed his eyes. They felt wet. “I was such a coward. Nothing I faced in battle frightened me so much as when I received my letters to you back.”

“You received them back?” She sounded surprised.

“That first message, all my letters to you, ended up at my father’s house in Sussex. He forwarded them to me in Spain.”

“I dared not leave any forwarding address with the Crown taking everything we owned. I thought they might commandeer the few things that were mine by my mother’s will and leave me with even less until I found work.” She removed her hand from his arm, tucked her hands inside the folds of her cloak, and recommenced walking toward the sea, her head bowed.

Gareth strode beside her, one hand tucked beneath her elbow. “I was wounded at Salamanca. Little more than a flesh wound, but it laid me up for a while. Then the war was truly turning in our favor and by the time I returned to England, all trace of you seemed to have vanished. I resigned my commission and began to hunt for you.”

Her face averted from his, she asked, “Why?”

“Because I never stopped loving you. I was young and prideful and ambitious.’”

“You put your regiment before me.”

“Guilty. I can spend the rest of my life making that up to you.” He tightened his hold to guide her over broken pavement. “And I doubt it’s enough without the grace of God to help you forgive me. In the meantime, let me offer you work. Respectable work. If it wouldn’t ruin your reputation, I would simply set you up with an independence so you can take your place in society again.”

“I have no place in society. I will always be Jerald Barr’s daughter, forever tainted.”

“Unless you wed.”

She snorted. “As though anyone would ever wed me.”

They had reached the top of a flight of boat steps and stopped with the green harbor water sloshing just below their feet. Gareth rested his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. “I promised you love everlasting, and I broke that promise. I put you second when you needed me first. You have no reason to believe that I love you, but I do. I’ve spent months seeking you out to tell you this, to ask you to forgive me, to let us begin a future. . . Now I’ve said my piece. The rest is up to you. If you simply need work, come find me in the inn. Or return to the fair and keep your pride in tact, and I will never come near you again.” He kissed her brow, then walked away from her.

Feeling as though an anchor chain were trying to drag him back to her with every step, he didn’t look back. He had to let her go with a choice this time. If she vanished from his life again, he would move on, run is estate and leave it to his older brother’s younger son so he wouldn’t have to choose between his military career and his heart.

Every step of the way, he ached to hear the sound of running feet behind him, the sound of her calling his name. But nothing happened. The crowds thickened. The hiring fair and inn hove into view. Like an old man with rheumatism, he climbed the steps to his private rooms, nodded to Mrs. Polglaze knitting in the corner, then stood at the window to watch. After a quarter hour, he saw her climbing from the harbor and entering the fair. An hour after that, she left with a woman in housekeeper black and a gaggle of other young women. Someone had hired her. She would have shelter and food at the least.

With a burdened heart, he turned from the window “We can leave now. I’ve done all I can.”

“Yes, sir.” Mrs. Polglaze packed up her knitting in the bag from which she had removed the food no one wanted.

A word to an inn servant had his gig brought around to the front, and they headed back to the small but prosperous estate his uncle had left to him. The sun hadn’t yet set as they pulled into the stable yard at Polhenny. Sunlight turned the ornamental lake to molten bronze, and a peacock added it’s color to the shore and green lawn. Arabella would love this land, the beauty, the peace, the house large enough for a family, but not big enough to be ostentatious. She would have scandalized the servants by demanding she cook meals from time to time, but won them over with her appreciation of their skills. . .

An ache in his heart he had bourne for three years and doubted he would ever be rid of, Gareth headed for the house.

At first, he thought he imagined the woman perched on the top step of the portico. Then she rose so she stood eye to eye with him from her elevated position.

He halted and stared at her. “I thought you took a position.”

“I did. A decent one as a kitchen maid.” She worried the edge of her cloak. “But I forgot to ask you a question.”

“So you gave up your position to come ask it?”

She looked him in the eye. “It’s an important question.”

He waited, heart pounding so loudly he wasn’t certain he would hear it when she asked.

She drew in a deep breath. “When did you resign your commission? Before or after you inherited this estate?”

He arched his brows. “Before.”

“Before or after Napoleon escaped from Elba?”

“After.”

“Why aren’t you with your regiment in Belgium right now?”

He smiled. “That’s three questions.”

She scowled.

He grinned more broadly. “Because I hadn’t found you yet.”

“Oh, Gareth.” Her lower lip quivered.

He took a step toward her. “I put my career before you in the past and hurt you badly. How could I convince you I love you if I were still in the cavalry and could place that before you again?”

“But you didn’t know you’d find me.”

“You are worth the risk I took. It was the least I could do—ooph.”

She launched herself off the step and into his arms. With her hands clasped behind his neck, she buried her face in his shoulder. “I never stopped loving you either. And I forgive you because I must.” She tilted her head back. “But if you ever leave me again, I will—“

He kissed her before she formed a threat, for she had no need to worry he would ever let her go.

Love Everlasting, Part 1 ~ A Regency Short Story by Laurie Alice Eakes

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Ephesians 4:31–32, kjv

The last place Arabella Barr expected to encounter Major Gareth Reynard was at a Falmouth hiring fair. Three years ago, she would have rejoiced to see his tall, lithe figure striding toward her through a throng, but not there. Not while carrying the tools of her trade along with dozens of other hopeful men and women in need of work, parading past what were mostly the butlers and housekeepers of ladies and gentlemen in need of servants. Yet there she stood, a wooden spoon and a copper pot gleaming in her hand, a mere shade or two brighter than her own ruddy locks. And there he strolled, a glass of lemonade in his hand, and a stout, middle-aged woman in black gown and frilled white cap at his side.

Arabella saw him too late to escape, even if eluding his notice were an option. She could not get hired if she ducked behind the copper pan, or the woman beside her, who was twice her width and half a head taller. And she needed someone to hire her. She had spent nearly every farthing she possessed to remove herself to this remote corner of England in an effort to avoid persons who once called her friend or, at the least, social equal. No employment by the end of the fair meant no roof over her head that night and precious little to eat. So why, oh, why, was he in Cornwall instead of with his regiment in Belgium with half the ton? Why oh why had she not fled somewhere like the Hebrides to find work away from the peers who now shunned her as though she would contaminate them with a mere glimpse of her?

The answer to her decision was simple—a Scots household that could afford a cook would not hire an English one. The reason for Major Reynard’s presence at the Falmouth hiring fair baffled Arabella into immobility of body and thought, as he drew close enough to speak to her.

“Arabella—Miss Barr.” He was not inflicted with immobility. His blue eyes sparkled as though sunshine blessed the warm summer day. His lips, the lower one enticing with its cleft in the middle, curved into a smile. “Here you are at last.”

Apparently paralyzed from the ability to emit speech, Arabella’s mouth remained closed. Not a word formed in her head to move to her tongue, even if those words could force their way past her lips.

“I never thought I’d find you.” Major Reynard was speaking again, though her ears seemed to have lost their ability to understand English, for his syllables made not sense to her. “But now that I have—“

“Sir,” The housekeeper-looking woman beside him interrupted, “begging your pardon, and I don’t recommend you hire this one. She’s too young and too pretty.”

“I’m not interested in hiring her.” Major Reynard reached a hand toward Arabella. “Please, my dear—“

Like a shock from one of those electrifying machines, the words “my dear” shot through Arabella and spurred her into action. She flung up her pot like a shield and fixed him with a glare. “If you have no intention of hiring me, then step aside so someone else can.”

“Arabella, my dear—“

“I am not your dear, or have you forgotten that you jilted me three years ago?” She spun on her broken-down heel and stalked through the crowd to another corner of the grounds.

From the corner of her eye, she watched him bend his head toward the housekeeper as though speaking earnestly, confidentially. Arabella could only guess at the words, as she could see neither Major Reynard’s nor the housekeeper’s faces, nor hear their voices above the tumult of cries of, “Will you pay for this,” from maids wielding dust mops,  and “Hot pies. Get your hot pies here,” from piemen carrying their trays above their heads.

“She nearly ruined my career three years ago, Mrs. Housekeeper.” The major would be saying. Or if he was in a humor to be kind, “Or rather, her father did. I’ve been looking for her to—“

Why he had found her “at last” Arabella couldn’t imagine. He had left the country with his regiment the first week the banns for their nuptials had been called instead of staying in England for the wedding. And Arabella had fled London with little more than the clothes on her back and ring—

A-ha! The ring. He wanted the ring back. No doubt he had found another heiress to bestow the betrothal band upon and couldn’t afford to buy another such bauble on a major’s pay.

Arabella raised her left hand to examine the bare finger. She had sold the ring to hold body and soul together until she convinced someone to hire a cook barely into her twenties.

She lowered her hand to see another housekeeper was bearing down upon her like a hawk on a mouse. “References?” The word was a fox’s yip.

“Yes, ma’am.” Tucking the pot and spoon under one arm, Arabella drew two folded papers from her reticule. “I’ve been creating pastries since I was ten years of age and advanced to sauces and roasting meats when I was fifteen.”

Because she begged the cook in her father’s house to teach her on lonely days when she couldn’t spend her lonely hours riding..

“As you see—“

“Why did you leave your previous employer?” the housekeeper interrupted her.

“Their London chef decided he wanted a spell in their country house.”

And she had seen Major Reynard’s name on the guest list for an upcoming houseparty. The Featherstones had been kind to her. She didn’t wish to embarrass them with her true identity emerging while guests from the haut-ton filled their house.

“As you see from my references, my work was more than satisfactory. I, um—“ She forgot what she intended to say, for she spied the major striding toward her through the crowd without his housekeeper this time. I’m good.” She finished with a lameness that would convince no one to hire her.

But the housekeeper was reading her references with care.

“She might have written those herself.” Major Reynard’s rich timbre rolled over her ears like a drayman’s wagon now, though once upon a time, it had sent shivers of delight racing through her. “She has a fine hand.”

“I don’t. I mean, I didn’t. That is to say. . .” Arabella’s voice trailed off as the potential employer thrust the letters back.

“You look too young.” She trundled off to  a stout woman with a dented tin pot.

“How could you?” Tears stung Arabella’s eyes. She blinked them back and thrust the handle of her wooden spoon into Major Reynard’s neatly tied cravat. “She was giving me serious consideration and now-now you’ve ruined it. But what should I expect from you other than to to ruin my life?”

“You don’t need to be working like a common servant now that I have finally located you.” He reached for her arm.

She jerked away. “You are giving all the potential employers a wrong impression of me.”

“Miss Barr, I am trying to talk to you.”

“And what you are doing is creating a scene.”

A circle of silent onlookers surrounded them.

“We can’t talk here, Ara—Miss Barr.” The major took her elbow. “I have a private parlor in the inn and my housekeeper will chaperone.”

She tucked pot, spoon, and the bag with her measly belongings behind her back. “The time for talking to me was three years ago. But, you couldn’t flee fast enough from so much as a fare-the-well.” Tears stung her eyes, clogged her throat, and she stepped backward before he noticed.

And stepped on someone’s foot.

“Yow, ye broke me toe.” The cry sounded more like the yowl of a cat defending its territory than a young woman.

The blow she dealt Arabella on the side of her head with the handle of a broom felt more like a truncheon. She gasped and staggered. Her pot flew in one direction, her spoon in another. The pot knocked the brushes from the hand of a chimney sweep, and a stray dog snatched up the spoon and darted through the crowd as though he had captured a meaty bone.

Major Reynard captured Arabella by her arms. “Are you all right? Shall I catch that woman and lay an information against her for assaulting her?”

“My spoon. My pot.” Arabella shrieked her dismay. “I need them. I—“ She yanked free and darted after the sweep with her pot. She couldn’t afford a new one. She wouldn’t have that one if she hadn’t slipped it out of the house ahead of the bailiffs come to collect all the Barrs’ worldly possessions.

But the sweep was small as his kind was wont to be, and the fair crowded. He vanished from her sight before she ran a dozen yards.

And she had just lost her reticule. One cord of her bag still dangled over her sleeve from where a cutpurse had taken advantage of the chaos and run off with the last of her worldly wealth—two shillings and a happens.

She stared at the frayed string and wished the maid had wielded the broom a little harder. If she had been knocked unconscious, she could wake up to discover this was all a nightmare. But she was already awake and this was not a nightmare. Stark reality told her she was now bereft of the tools of her trade, her references, and a paltry sum of money, but enough for a pie.

How she would adore a pie. Though the crust would likely be tough and greasy, not her own flaky pastry light enough to blow away with a puff of air, sustenance of any kind would help ease the gnawing emptiness inside her, an emptiness caused by a lack of nourishment for the past two days, and a hollow place in her chest once filled by her love for a dashing cavalry officer.

That cavalry officer reached her side and simply held out his elbow for her to take as though they promenaded through a garden party at a country house and not through a malodorous throng. He wore the buckskin breeches and top boots of the country gentleman rather than his uniform, and yet he was no less dashing. Chiseled features, broad shoulders, and narrow hips did that for a man when he was also confident to the point of arrogance, expecting all to move from his path and do his bidding despite his position of the third son of a modestly prosperous baronet.

Resigned to the notion that she should at least get a meal from his wish to speak to her, Arabella was no different than those around him. She took his elbow and allowed him to lead her through a throng that parted like a joint beneath a cleaver

Half way across the green, he stopped and held out his hand. “I will carry your bag.”

She gave it to him. That was easier than arguing. He took it with the tensed muscles of someone who expected a heavy burden. At the lightness of the bag, little more than a drawstring sack like an over-sized reticule, he took half a minute to gaze down at her, his dark blue eyes registering an expression she chose to believe was pity.

“I expected more,” he said.

“What more could I have after three years on the run?”

“But why—“ He shook his head and resumed walking, his stride long, his footfalls striking the ground hard enough for her to feel them through his arm.

“That damage your conscience?” she taunted. “If you have one.”

“Arabella, please don’t.” He didn’t say what he didn’t want from her—as if he hadn’t said that loudly and clearly three years earlier—for the reached the inn.

The tap and coffeerooms bulged with sweating, shouting humanity on either side of the entryway. The Major shouldered his way through the swarm and up a flight of steps to a room at the top of the steps. He knocked and the housekeeper opened the portal to show a plainly furnished room with a table and chairs, a sideboard and desk, an oasis in the desert.

“Mrs. Polglaze,” Reynard said, “did you order some dinner?”

“I did, sir, and there’s warm water in the next room if Miss Barr wishes to freshen herself up a mite.” She bestowed a kindly look upon Arabella. “Shall I show you the way?”

She showed Arabella to an adjoining room. Warm water and soap, though harsh, restored some of her dignity. A comb for her tumbled hair helped even more. The smell of meat pies and other savory dishes brought into the parlor by an inn servant nearly restored her to a shred of the confidence that had gotten her out of London and into a paying position before she starved to death.

Then she strolled into the parlor and faced Major Gareth Reynard in enough quiet and privacy for them to speak for the first time since he slipped out of her life. The fragrance of the meal gagged her. Her knees grew so weak she clutched the back of a chair to stop herself from dropping to her knees on the floorboards. Only her pride gave her the strength to look the major in the eyes.

“What do you want?” she demanded.

“Your forgiveness.” He gripped the back of his own chair. He had removed his gloves prior to eating, and his knuckles shone as white as hers. “And to tell you why I did what I did. To explain. . . Explain. . .”

Arabella made herself laugh. “You think you can explain away leaving me at the altar or as near as it doesn’t matter?”

“Not explain away, but—“

“Thank you, sirrah, and your actions gave me all the explanation I have needed for the past three years and continue to need. You promised me everlasting love, but vanished into the arms of the war the day after the constable hauled my father off to Newgate Prison.”

Part 2 of Love Everlasting can be read here

So what do you think? Is any excuse good enough to explain the major jilting his fiancee practically at the altar? Regardless, how can Arabella forgive him? Could you forgive a man who left you at the altar in an hour of desperate need or any other time?

 

A Pressing Engagement: Part 2

If you missed part 1, click here.

Insufferable man. Already planning her future. All of Mama’s wonderful training about reserve fled Sara Hargrove and a groan welled inside. “I’d don’t think I’ll be able to finish this painting. I’m too flustered.”

He took the paintbrush from her tight fingers and slipped it onto the easel’s ledge. “Miss Hargrove, your prospects are endless. Both of the earl’s sons are smitten.”

“The obsessive heir or the humorous flirt, for me?” She shook her head. Maybe Jeremiah Wilton didn’t know her soul. How could the man suggest such poor matches? Providence surely misled her. Her heart sunk even lower.

“I see how they’ve taken notice of you.” His sea blue eyes swept over her as if he hunted for agreement. “My dull nature will stifle you. You must concur.”

Dull? She counted upon his steadfast manner, so like, Papa. For a brilliant man, Jeremiah could be dense. “This must be a courtroom, barrister. You’ve declared your judgment. My feelings are not material.”

He hovered so close she could feel his soft breath on her crown. Pushing away from him, she knocked her easel. Jeremiah thrust his arms about her catching the canvas, but imprisoned her within his embrace. The warm smell of his sandalwood surrounded her, shrouding her in hopeless dreams.

Unwanted tears pregnant in her lashes fell. “Have you come to torture me?”

He eased the canvas back upon the easel, but kept his arms about her. “I didn’t know the strength of your feelings, not until this moment. You do love me?”

“You came to gloat?” She balled her fist and punched at his gut. Her knuckles stung against the iron muscles of his stomach as if she’d hit a metal washbasin. Undaunted, she struck him again.

He grunted and released her.

“Good day.” She picked up her paints and headed toward the house.

“Miss Hargrove. Please don’t go.” The hitch in his voice stopped her.

She wiped her face, then glanced over her shoulder.

Jeremiah, so tall and handsome in his crimson tailcoat and cream breeches, wrenched his arms behind his back. “Miss Hargrove, lovely Sara, I love you. With all my heart, but I cannot hold you to a long engagement. I don’t know how long the war will burn.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh air. The sweet scent of apple wood met her. His confession didn’t salve her heart. Maybe, if she ran to thickest part of the orchards, her composure would return among the hearty trees, her safe haven.

Something yanked on her hem.

Jeremiah’s head covered in thick ebony hair hung near her hip. On bended knee, he gripped the muslin fabric of her paint smock. The proud giant humbled himself at her feet.

“I’m desperate for you. This is against my reason. I shouldn’t propose, but I can’t find a way not to. Accept me?”

“Get up, Mr. Wilton.” With another quick tug on her skirts, she’d be free.

Jeremiah held fast. “I’ll give you the power to dictate our course, but for your sake say no to my proposal.”

“This is a proposal?”

“It is Miss Hargrove, but it’s not rational. It’s inappropriate to obligate you. Say no.”

Did he think mere words could free them from this bond? She licked her lips. “No.”

He swallowed hard then stood to his full height. Head drooping, he kicked a rock with his boot. “Tell…. Tell your father and mother I called.”

Her heart beat hard at his stutter. He’d gotten his way, but maybe his spirit, his proud spirit, was breaking too.

He soldiered away, his shoulders hunched as he marched to his dapple-grey mount.

Could she let him go, forget him? No, he was for her. Since the day she climbed Papa’s tree and witnessed Jeremiah besting the town beaus to save his friend, Jeremiah Wilton owned her heart. “Is this how you wish to leave things, sir?”

“No.” He scooped up his gloves, but hadn’t turned.

“What type of husband will you make, if you can’t admit to be being wrong? And what would it say about me, if I waited for such a man?”

“Perhaps, you’re just as foolish as I?” He trudged back to her, took her hand, and placed it over his heart. “I need to trust that our thoughts are the same, shared of one spirit. I’ll not doubt us again. But, if you find you can’t withstand a long engagement—”

Putting a shaking palm to his mouth, she stopped the voicing of his misgivings. Her gaze lowered from his searching eyes to the gold braiding of his epaulet. Only time would prove her commitment.

Yet, how could he be so uncertain of her character? Perhaps each passing day would lessen the sting.

He moved her fingers, bent his head, and slowly covered her lips. His arms tightened about her as she let his affection deepen. In spite of his words, Jeremiah’s actions seemed clear. He had to love her as much as she loved him.

Tossing her paints, she wrapped her arms about his neck and reveled in his possessive grip of her waist, the heavy coursing of his pulse.

He tugged her closer, snuggling her against the smooth floss of his waist sash. “Come, we must go convince Mr. Hargrove. I know Mrs. Hargrove won’t be happy. They may not give their permission.”

“Mama, may be more difficult to persuade, but who can withstand my Mr. Wilton.” The clouds in Sara’s spirit receded as she slipped her palm into his. They soon trudged the path to the great portico of the main house. “If the war can end by spring, we should take our wedding breakfast on the lawn or even set a table on the entry.”

Jeremiah looked off into the distance. An unreadable expression set upon his thinned lips. “If we can convince your parent, then I’ll make this war as short as possible, even capture Napoleon to return to you.”