A Suitable Match, Serial Story Section 2 and a Chance to Win

MatchCoverThis is from 2013: Catch this great serial story. To kick off our second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we are presenting the serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. For a chance to win, find the item mentioned in this section and leave a note in the comments. Details and a list of prizes can be found here. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1

On the road between Somerset and London
April 1818

Dropping his clenched fists to his breeches, Miles, Earl of Twiford allowed a portion of his anger to subside. The earl stood there half-blinking at the sea nymph emerging from the overturned carriage, her wild ringlets falling about her sleek neck and shoulders.

Twiford shook his head. “Miss Blackstone? Yes, it is you.” He could feel a smile tugging at his lips. More of his fury leeched away. To think he was in high-dudgeon over the near harm to his favourite Arabian team that he’d momentarily overlooked the fact that there might be passengers within the coach requiring assistance.

Yet, as he gazed upon her again something pricked his heart. Wasn’t it ironic to bemoan the loss of a perfectly matched pair: horses, people. He wiped the dust from his chocolate-kid gloves. “Are you injured?”

Her pert mouth clamped shut as if trying to contain one of her tart rebukes. She waved an overly perfumed hand his way.

Pushing aside his manservant, Twiford lifted the creature from the carriage, her slim waist fitting nicely within his grasp. He set her to her feet but not without another blast of violet scent taming the remaining heat of his nostrils.

“Knighting!” She pointed back to the carriage. “You must get my maid out of there.”

With a nod to Drake, his servant of ten years, Twiford set her request in motion. “Where are you headed in such haste? Your noddy driver recklessly cut in front of my party. I suppose he deserved to get the worst of it, but he could’ve gotten you killed.”

“My cou… my driver? Where is he?” She spun away. The hem of her muslin skirts lapped deeper in the river mud. As she marched toward the front of her vehicle, her heart-shaped face drained of all colour. Her gaze descended upon the cresting waters. “Is he…?”

Twiford strode near and almost put his hand on her shoulder. What was it about her that made him vacillate from wanting to throttle Miss Blackstone to tracing the high arch of her neck?

She turned to him with chestnut eyes flashing. “What has been done to him?” She released a shaky breath, then leveled her shoulders. “As you remember, I am not weak or helpless. Spare no truth from me.”

Twiford shifted his stance. How well he did remember. She was a lady with a character more worthy than many of his ilk. “Your driver is in my last carriage. There’s a large, well- deserved bump on his skull, but he’ll live.”

The lady swiveled and headed to his vehicle.

Before he cut in front of her or even opened the vehicle for her, Miss Blackstone thrust open the dusty door. She gasped at the miserable sight, her bloody coachman lying prostrate on the leather seat.

This time Twiford grasped her shoulders to steady her. “He just needs to be cleaned up a bit. The injury looks far worse than what it is. How a man could nod asleep on such treacherous roads is beyond my comprehension.”

Jerking away, she leaned inside and mopped the driver’s brow with a crumpled handkerchief she’d tugged from her pocket.

“Miss Blackstone, he’ll be seen to at our next stop. The George and Pelican is very near. I prom–”

A thin woman pushed past and fell at Miss Blackstone’s feet. “I’ve got your jewels, ma’am. Nothing will be missing from this part of your inheritance. But how will we make your London appointments now? We can’t miss–”

“Knighting.” With a stern look, Miss Blackstone silenced her maid. “I’ll find a way. Blackstones always find away.”

Inheritance? The miss was heading to London? A bad feeling drummed at the pit of Twiford’s stomach. He cleared his throat. “Ladies, let me be of assistance. I am stopping the night at the George and Pelican.”

Miss Blackstone squinted at him as if she looked into a mirror, then fingered her sun-kissed tresses. “Oh, my.”  Gripping bundles of her errant locks, she tamed the wild chignon. “Why are you being so helpful, my lord?”

“We can have your driver seen to at the inn to which I shall drive you,” he added.

With another quick jab of a heavy pearl pin, Miss Blackstone secured the last of her curls then stood tall. The misguided airs of a duchess cloaked about her, and the lass seemed to look through him.

“We have never been friends, my lord. Why start now?”

He toyed with the edges of his withered cravat. His sins toward her and her father mounted high. Maybe too high. Twiford swallowed his guilt and took a step toward her. Providence had a new claim to his heart. It was time to start acting upon His leading. “Miss Blackstone, it is my duty to escort you, since I’m a party to this accident, too. Perhaps the opulence of my barouche blinded your driver and caused him to lose control.”

She folded her arms. Her noble chin lifted as her countenance shifted to the maid gathering an errant garnet cloak. “Your wit is still with you, Lord Twiford.”

“Yes, as is my sense of duty.”

“Duty? Yes, you were always about duty, but I thought that was only in service to a friend.”

Perhaps frightened by Miss Blackstone’s searing tone, the Knighting woman slipped back toward the toppled vehicle with an armful of papers and muslin.

Well, he’d earned every accusatory note in the lady’s address, but this day would be different. A small token to salve the old wounds. “Madam, I must insist you allow me to escort you to the George and Pelican.”

“I suppose I do not wish to be benighted on the road. Get our things, Knighting.” Miss Blackstone marched back to her toppled gig and ran her hand along the broken ribs of the roofing. “Lord Twiford will see us to the next stop.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The maid headed to the brush scooping up unmentionables.

“My man will help. Drake, pack their things on the second carriage. Miss Knighting and Miss Blackstone will ride with me.”

“Yes, my lord.” Drake, his most loyal advocate, shook his head then followed the maid plucking possessions littering the road.

Alone with the feisty sea nymph, smelling of his favorite flower, Twiford extended his arm.

She pried away from the wreckage and put her fingers to his sleeve. Her hold was light as if it proved painful to touch him. “Escort us only to the nearest inn. I will not impose upon you any more than necessary.”

“Must you always be so willful? Can you not accept that years can change a person?”

“Forgive me.” She brushed at the specks of mud on her skirt. The scent of violets washed over him with each strike. “But I seem to remember a few choice lectures from you, my lord, about birthright, and station.”

“Well, fools know words, too.” He laid his palm atop hers. “Let me see you all the way to London. After witnessing how well your man drives, it will ease my mind to know you are safe and well in the city.”

***

This was too cruel. Cressida had hoped for a chance meeting with Lord Twiford in a fashionable drawing room at one of the Season’s soirées. As the tall, broad shouldered man handed her into his carriage, she resisted the urge to swat more mud from the skirt of her old, three-seasons-past gown. Where was a hole to hide in when one needed it?

“Miss Blackstone, are you well? You’ve a worried crease on your pretty forehead.” Lord Twiford plucked off his fine leather gloves as he reclined on the opposing bench.

“I am well.” An odd shiver coursed her spine. Twiford was as opposing and menacing as she remembered, a large raven-haired man with an assessing stare.

She licked her dry lips. “Please do not be overly concerned.” Her limbs ached. Her head pounded. Her pride surely was trampled on the floorboards. She slumped into the seat back.

Knighting leaned into her. “Such a fine carriage, Miss Blackstone. It will be a very comfortable ride.”

“Shh.” Cressida kept her voice low, but Twiford never missed anything. He was always in Chard’s confidence pointing out her flaws. She wrung her hands, then forced them to be stilled in her lap. Oh, why couldn’t he have happened upon her wearing one of Madame Touse’s new walking dresses or after Cressida’s change in circumstances had been circulated? Then maybe those wide sky-blue eyes wouldn’t be viewing her with such speculation.

She lowered her lashes, blurring Twiford’s image with the weave pattern in the Padua silk lining the walls. “My lord, thank you … for your assistance.” A yawn escaped of its own volition. “But I’m sure you’ll be glad to be rid of us.”

“On the contrary, it’s good to have company on these long treks from the country. No one usually wants to go set up the Grosvenor townhouse, just enjoy its offerings. Hopefully, my mother and sister will stay long enough to bring it around. They left ahead of me and are already at the townhouse.”

****

The carriage swayed to a stop. Cressida stretched her arms and gazed out at the well-lit inn. Pivoting to the smiling lord, she sat up straight.

Lord Twiford rolled his shoulders, then tugged on his felt top hat. His grin shone in the dim carriage light. He lifted his hand to her. “Come along. Once I’ve had an apothecary see to your coachman. I could expect you to have some charity and dine with me, along with your maid for chaperone, of course, my dear.”

* Section 2 was written by Vanessa Riley, www.christianregency.com *

Did you find the hidden item? Note it in the comments below for a chance to win. 

Don’t forget that the readers will ultimately choose who truly loves Cressida, and whom she loves in return. Already have a favorite? Go vote for him! Want everyone else to vote for him too? Grab a voting badge from the Suitable Match Extras page

What surprises do you think await Cressida at the inn? Read the next installment!

THE CONTEST AND POLL ARE NOW CLOSED. Feel free to continue to enjoy and share the story.

A Suitable Match, Serial Story Section 5

MatchCoverTo kick off the second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we presented a serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1 2 3 4

The George and Pelican Inn, somewhere between Somerset and London
April 1818

“Gone? She can’t be gone!” Chard glanced at Twiford who uttered the same words, the  panic and disbelief in his voice mirroring Chard’s.

“I’m sorry, my lord, but I checked her room myself. It’s empty.” The servant shuffled his feet, probably in anticipation of fleeing the company of two angry peers.

Lord Twiford stomped from the room with Chard on his heels. If she had left, she couldn’t have gone far.

***

Cressida pressed her ear to the doorjamb, careful not to scrape it against the rough wood. A little ache and discomfort was one thing. Some things had to be suffered through in order to achieve the desired result, after all. A mass of splinters in the side of her face was another thing entirely, and something to be avoided if at all possible.

Her nose flattened as she pressed into the door, peering through the knothole. If she angled her head just right, she could see the counter at the bottom of the stairs where the innkeeper did business.

Moments earlier the innkeeper had informed the servant that she had vacated her rooms, implying that she had departed from the inn entirely. The man had been hesitant to give her a new room late last night so she could fool the men into thinking she was gone, but an old silver locket had been enough to purchase the new room and his cooperation.

She hated to part with any of her inherited jewels, but this trinket was by far the least valuable. Besides, it was worth it if it allowed her to escape the company of the men from her past.

“What is the meaning of this nonsense?” Lord Twiford’s voice shot up the stairs followed by the reverberation of his pounding on the innkeeper’s counter.

It was too bad that such a contrary disposition wore such a pleasing appearance.

Lord Chard joined the party, adding his own demands that the innkeeper tell him how she had left the premises. Cressida’s heartbeat rushed a little louder through her abused ear. Recollections of stolen kisses and quiet talks flooded her mind. The years had not done enough to dampen the memories of her engagement. How could she possibly find another man to wed in London where frolicking dances and intimate rides in the park would forever make her think of him?

“This is just like her,” Twiford ranted. “Thoughtless. Frivolous.”

It appeared his opinion of her had not improved over the years. Spoiled, careless, and vain were going to be his next insults if memory served correctly.

“Cease, Twiford. She doesn’t deserve your disdain now any more than she did then.” Chard beat his hat against his leg, looking past the innkeeper into the common room beyond. Was he hoping she would be sitting amongst the locals enjoying a cup of tea?

“I will never understand why you jump to her defense so quickly. Are you saying you approve of this reckless behavior?”

A smile crept across Cressida’s lips. Chard had defended her back then? She’d always wondered.

“Of course I don’t approve. It shows she’s never outgrown that blasted impulsiveness that had her breaking our engagement. She may be a bit self-absorbed but that’s no reason to malign her.”

Cressida’s smile fell into a frown. Breaking their engagement had not been a fit of selfish impulsiveness. How dare he discount her sacrifice on his behalf?

“I always thought her desertion of you was rather noble, myself.” Twiford strode out of her line of vision. “You needed money, she didn’t have any. She probably thought she was doing you a favor.”

She pressed a hand to her forehead and abandoned her knot hole to rest her head on the solidity of the wall, feeling dizzy despite her prone position stretched along the floor of her new room, just two doors down from her old one. Men! If they could just decide on whether or not they disliked her, they could go on to London and leave her to figure out her own transportation. The locket she’d given the innkeeper might be enough to rent her a post chaise to continue the journey.

“Pardon me, gentlemen, but could you direct me to Miss Cressida Blackstone?”

Cressida’s eyes flew open. She jammed her face against the door and felt a prick as a prong of wood stabbed her in the ear. Ross Ainsworth had recovered sufficiently from his head wound and decided to join the drama at the innkeeper’s desk.

“Who are you?” Chard demanded.

“Her driver,” Twiford mumbled at the same time that Ross declared, “Her cousin.”

“How distant?” The menace in Twiford’s voice crawled up the stairs and wrapped around her throat. She could feel his displeasure, it was so thick.

Ross’s eyebrows lowered. “Distant enough. Who are you?”

Chard jerked his gaze from one man to the other. “What is going on here?”

Twiford jutted his chin toward Ross. “He nearly killed Miss Blackstone with his reckless driving.”

“I was merely trying to get her to London as soon as possible.”

“You landed her in a river instead. I brought her here to recover.”

Ross took a slow step forward, his scraped hands balling into fists at his sides. “So help me, my lord, if you have dishonored her-“

“Me? I wasn’t the one traveling to London without a proper chaperone.”

Chard stepped between the two men before they could exchange blows. “Gentlemen, calm yourselves. We all know that Cressy – Miss Blackstone would never do anything untoward, despite how the situation might appear.”

An odd warmth filled Cressida’s midsection. It took a moment to recognize it as pleased surprise that he would defend her honor. But which “he” had caused the pleasure?

Twiford grunted. “We may not know Miss Cressida Blackstone as well as we thought. The woman has run off alone in the middle of the night after all.”

The three men leaned over the counter, addressing the nervous innkeeper. “How did she leave?” Chard asked.

“Er, well, I’m not certain, my lord. She mentioned taking a post chaise to London.”

“Then she hasn’t left,” Ross declared.

“Why not?” Twiford asked.

“I spent the night in the stable, as you so comfortably situated me. No conveyances have left the inn in the last several hours.”

“She might have walked.” Chard rubbed the back of his neck, shifting his weight back and forth as if he wanted to do something, anything, other than stand around discussing the situation.

“We could set out in different directions on horseback. It wouldn’t take long to catch up with her.” Ross grimaced, probably thinking of the agony putting his battered body on a galloping horse would cause.

“It certainly speaks ill of a man that he would allow a gentlewoman to stride into the night unescorted,” Twiford added

The men exchanged glances and then glared at the innkeeper. The man coughed and ran a finger between his neck and cravat.

A young servant girl slipped around them, carrying a loaded tray of tea, toast, and Cressida’s favorite orange marmalade.

Twiford held out a hand, stopping her progress. “If I may be so bold as to inquire, where are you taking that?”

“To the young lady upstairs, my lord. Her maid, Knighting, said to bring it up this morning, as her mistress would be indisposed and unable to come down.” The maid bit her lip as she looked from the three men to the innkeeper.

Cressida’s heart stopped. Her breath turned to stone in her lungs. This couldn’t be happening. She’d been so close.

“Where is this ‘indisposed’ young lady?” Chard asked.

Lie! she screamed in her head, willing the servant girl to tell them she was staying in a room at the back, or that she’d been wrong and it was actually an old woman, or, better yet, a child. Anything to buy her just a little more time, though Cressida had no idea what she would do with those precious seconds.

“In the room at the top of the stairs, my lord.”

So much for that wish.

The three men turned and looked up the stairs, right at her little knothole.

* Section 5 was written by Kristi Ann Hunter, blog.KristiAnnHunter.com *

Did you find the hidden item? Note it in the comments below for a chance to win. 

Don’t forget that the readers will ultimately choose who truly loves Cressida, and whom she loves in return. Already have a favorite? Go vote for him! Want everyone else to vote for him too? Grab a voting badge from the Suitable Match Extras page

What do you think the gentlemen are going to do next? Read the next installment!

Originally posted in 2013.

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 Proper Prodigal, Regency Short Story (Part 2) ~ by Susan Karsten

A Proper Prodigal (Part 2)

A Regency Short Story ~ by Susan Karsten

 Upon awakening the next morning Virginia lay back with her fingertips laced behind her head. She’d just woken up from a dream. One of those that replayed again and again. A good dream, though. In it, she danced the night away with a tall man. A man who looked like Quentin Ashleigh.

A tap on the door signaled the maid with a breakfast tray, she and her mother having decided in advance to breakfast in their own rooms. The kitchen maid placed the tray on the bedside table. Next, to her surprise, a housemaid entered with a large bouquet of flowers.

“Where would ye like this put, Miss?” The maid staggered under the ungainly weight of the large display.

“Over there.” Virginia pointed to a table near the window. “Please hand me the card, Ruthie.”

Savoring the moment, she waited to open it. When both maids left, she propped and fluffed her pillows, then smoothed her hair, before prying open the envelope’s seal.

 ‘As you have danced your way into my affections, I would like to see you today. A walk in the Primrose Hall gardens perhaps? I shall call at two. Fondly, Quentin Ashleigh, Esq.’

Virginia’s hands flew up to her warm cheeks. Oh my, a beau! Nothing I ever expected here in Beckston. I’d anticipated withering away on the shelf without a backward glance. No sooner do I submit my life completely to the Lord and he brings me a man. This time, maybe a good one. The one intended for me.

There was no doubt in her mind Quentin was interested. She’d been plagued by boys and men since she was thirteen. Her looks drew them like flies and made her a target. Oh, it was sometimes fun to get the attention, but mostly it was a bother, finding a way to let them down without bruising their amour proper.

It wasn’t until Randall came her way that she succumbed to any of them. Why did it have to be? Why couldn’t Randall have aimed his potent brand of seduction at another beautiful girl? Providence could be a hard pill to swallow, but the whole experience had brought her to a place where she threw herself on the Lord’s mercy. She’d truly put it behind her. Praise the Lord the world didn’t know of her fall.

 ***

  He spotted her. She was sitting on a garden bench under an arbor, a portrait of feminine loveliness. “The maid sent me around – told me you were out here.”

Quentin picked up her hand and kissed the air above it.  He held her hand longer than necessary, then caught himself and dropped it as if scalded. “Sorry, I lost track of my mind, I mean my thoughts. For a moment.”

What a buffoon I am. Seeing her in the light of day had thrown him. He knew she was a pretty girl, but daylight revealed her true exquisiteness. Never mind that her intelligent wit and charm drew him – she was also a diamond of the first water. He hoped she wasn’t above his touch.

“I thank you for the flowers. Roses are my favorite. How did you guess?” She tapped his arm with her fan. Thank you, Lord, she’s flirting like she likes me.

“They are my favorite as well, and our succession house had some beauties in bloom. I couldn’t think of a better place for them than to grace your vicinity.”

There. That should make up for my earlier cloddishness. The combination of her lithe yet lush figure, dark glossy long hair, classic features, and soft brown eyes caused him to go silent, wanting only to drink in the sight of her.

“Shall we walk the garden paths?” She began to rise from the bench, and he slipped his hand under her elbow to assist.

“I’d love to go down the garden path with you, Miss Mortimer.” This sally brought a delightful fluttering of her eyelashes, a delicate hand to her bosom, and a smile perking the corners of her mouth. Be still my heart. She likes me so far. Good, that’s a start.

She placed her hand on his proffered forearm, and they strolled off. Quentin noticed she was just the right height for him. Not too short or too tall. He liked that.

“This is the herb garden. Mother and I make medicines and so forth with some of these plants.” She broke off a stem of rosemary, rubbed it, and passed it close in front of his face.

“My yes, I can see, I mean smell, that would be quite medicinal, Miss Mortimer.”

“Let’s go to the fountain. It’s over there.” They moved off in another direction and were soon out of sight of the house. “We should stay closer to the house, but you must see the fountain first. I think you’ll like the inscription.”

“I love inscriptions.” Quentin wanted to say ‘I love you,’ but held his smitten tongue.

“Ah, here it is.” He struck an orator’s pose and read from the fountain’s rim, “The law of the wise is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death. A Proverb.”

“Apropos, don’t you think?” She looked up to him, as if he held the key to wisdom.

Dropping his self-mocking pose, he grasped for a response. “Apropos? The whole of Scripture is that, Miss Mortimer.”

“I have a request, sir.” She turned from perusing the fountain to face him.

Oh no. This sounds serious. Have I spoiled it?

“Since we are going to be friends, might you call me Virginia, and I call you Quentin?”

“Indeed. Yes, that would be fine.” He almost choked with relief. She’s going to be my friend? How sweet. He’d be her best friend if she’d let him.

They moved back onto the main path and toward the house. Her parents were standing on a terrace off one of the rooms on the west side of the house. Mr. Mortimer waved. Disappointed their idyll appeared to be at an end, Quentin comforted himself that he’d made wonderful progress, both in getting to know Virginia, and in gaining her favor.

“Hello, Mr. Ashleigh. Won’t you come inside before tea? I want to show you a folio I just added to my collection.” Mr. Mortimer hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets.

Mrs. Mortimer waved Quentin on. “That’s quite fine. We’ll see you back out here for tea in a trice, when Mr. Mortimer’s done showing you his new treasure.”

The two men looked over the folio, and Quentin was taken aback when Virginia’s father shoved it in a drawer, and said, “I wanted to speak with you.”

He mustered up his courage, and answered, “How amusing, I wanted to speak with you as well, sir.”

“You first, then, young man.”

“I, sir am a man of thirty years, of good fortune and good repute and I’d like permission to court Miss Mortimer. She’s a real treasure and I must make her my wife. Do I have your permission?”

“My, you’re a blunt one. Charging right to the point, no? I’ll consider it, but there’s something you must know. She’s more fragile than she looks. I mean her spirit. You must promise to value her, never hurt her, and be a valiant champion for her. You see, she needs that, after all.”

After all? What does he mean? “You have my word on that, sir.”

“Good. Since I have your word to prize her happiness, I shall let you proceed. We can discuss settlements another time, after you’ve secured her heart.”

***

Weeks of rides commenced, Virginia always chaperoned by Lizzy, who hovered in the background. A picnic with Annabelle in attendance, dinners and lunches at both Primrose Hall and Fairbrook took the couple to the point of knowing their minds.

On a warm afternoon, Quentin found Virginia alone in the garden when he came to call. “Hallo! The maid told me where you were.”

She watched his approach, drinking in the good looks of this man who’d become so dear. Finding true love came as such a surprise, but her secret made her sad. The time had come to tell Quentin the truth about her. She couldn’t let him propose, which she sensed imminent, without knowing all about her.

“Virginia, you must know that I have something I must ask you.”

He looked down at the ground, and suddenly she knew the time had come. He was going to drop to one knee. Forestalling him, she held up a hand face out. “Before you do, I have something I must tell you.”

A shadow passed across his face. The poor man, he probably thought she was about to let him down easy. The silly man, she’d go to the ends of the earth with him, if she could. “Sit here.” She patted the bench.

Hating what she had to say, she forced out the words. “I must inform you that I was taken from here by a cad, and cruelly mislead. The good Lord saw fit to restore me to my home without anyone else finding out about my shame. Before you say anything more, I need you to decide whether you can see past this blot on my maidenly escutcheon.”

“Say no more. This must be heartbreaking for you and your parents. But I see no stain on you, my lovely. God doesn’t either, since you’ve certainly repented, correct?” He put his arm around Virginia’s shoulders and lifted her chin with his other hand.

“Of course I have, but this society of ours – so harsh on a woman who errs, and giving a blind eye to the sin of the males. Never have thought that fair.” She shuddered and Quentin gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze.

A tear rolled down her cheek and she let it fall, not caring a whit about hiding her sorrow. “Don’t rush into this. Take the night to think it over. Make sure you can forget.”

“Darling, now I must tell you a secret. The reason my sister and I moved to the country, is that she was seduced and abandoned. Removing from society seemed best at the time. The fact that I fought a duel over her lent urgency to our departure. And I’m glad we did, because that led me to you, darling Virginia.”

In one smooth move, he went down, not on one knee, but on two. Before Virginia could get out a word of protest, he asked her to be his wife.

“My dear. I would be highly honored if you would grace my life with your presence all my days. Nothing would make me happier than to settle down with you and enjoy our life together, come what may. Say you’ll be mine?”

She couldn’t resist his dark blue eyes beseeching up at her. “I will. And I will never disappoint you. I’ll always be your proper prodigal.”

The End.

Dear readers, nay, I shall call you friends…I’d love to hear your comments! Thank you for reading this, my first Regency short story. Susan Karsten

A Proper Prodigal, Regency Short Story (part 1) ~ by Susan Karsten

 

 “Miss Virginia!” The dubious butler called – nay bellowed – her name.

Virginia Mortimer jumped at the stentorian tones. She’d asked for the summons, but it hadn’t been necessary. It seemed she’d hardly slept at all. She’d been up and dressed for the last hour.

She took a last glance around the plush bedroom. How elegant it had seemed the night she arrived. In the light of what had transpired over the last few weeks, it looked tawdry now – faded and dusty in the dawn light now shafting through the windows.

The hackney must be here to take her to the posting inn. To ride a public stagecoach home to Primrose Hall would serve as only the latest indignity of her headlong fall from grace

On the floor, half under the bedside table, the corner of a book caught her eye. She reached for it, not wanting to leave a trace of herself behind. It was a slim leather-bound book, given to her by her parents. Stamped in gold letters on the front was the word ‘Psalter’. She jammed it into her capacious reticule.

Only then did she turn to the door, square her shoulders and respond to the odious butler. “I’m coming!”

The cad who’d brought her to this nadir was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t care to say ‘good bye’ and her departure wouldn’t matter to him when he stumbled in from another night of carousing.

The butler eyed her valise, but made no move to assist, but simply opened the door. No pretense of respect, he closed the door as she humped her own valise down the scrubbed white steps. She rummaged in her reticule, and handed a note to the driver before hiking her skirts and launching herself awkwardly into the hackney. The hackney gave a lurch, and she was on her way home. Back to the small village of Beckston to face her parents’ recriminations and her future as a ruined maiden.

Though the day was sunny, a high wind blew swirls of gray smoke down into the dusty inn yard where she waited, clutching her cloak about her and hoping her large bonnet hid her face. She wondered what the chances were that someone of her village would be making this same journey.

When the coach arrived, she was the first passenger to board. One by one, others entered the coach. She held her breath as each passenger mounted, letting it out when she recognized no familiar face. What would the grim-faced soldier, the plain lady in the depressing bonnet, or the elderly clergyman think of her if they knew what she really was, and that she was slinking home in shame?

Only two months ago, when she slipped out during the night, she’d left her childhood behind, naively thinking she knew better than her parents. She’d believed Lord Beckwith’s son Randall loved her and would do right by her, no matter what her mother and father said to the contrary.

Virginia had noticed Randall for the first time at the Beckwith’s annual picnic at their country estate outside Beckston.  He must have been down from Cambridge. The local gentry were invited for the day, which began with competitive games on the lawn for entire community, followed by a picnic. The gentry then joined houseguests and the noble lords of the manor for an evening dinner and ball inside, while the common folk reveled on outdoors.

Invited with her family to the dinner and ball, she enjoyed the lavish surroundings, and never expected to draw Randall’s attention. From the moment he’d lofted a crumpled note at her she’d been hooked. A note which landed down the front of her bodice. She fished it out, read the words ‘You’re beautiful’ and looked up in surprise to lock eyes with the impossibly handsome young man.

His wavy blond hair, chiseled straight nose, teal-blue eyes and muscular physique caught all the young girls’ fancy, and when he kept paying her, a mere barrister’s daughter,  particular attention, she was sunk.

As the coach rumbled out of the London inn yard, Virginia’s mind shied away from continuing this inward litany of her fall, and instead thought ahead to her arrival home. Her parents’ quick response of ‘yes’ to her note requesting them to allow her to come home came as a relief since she had only a few coins and nowhere else to go. Beyond that, she didn’t know what to expect of her homecoming.

***

Hours later, her mother sailed toward her with open arms. “Darling, you’re home!” Hugs, pats on the back, and murmurs of welcome caused the tears to flow. Virginia vowed right then and there never to disregard her parents’ wishes again. They had tried to tell her what was best, but she had defied them for Randall and his false promises.

She drew away from her mother’s embrace and girded herself to look her parents in the eye. “Mother – Father, how can I thank you? I am so sorry. How could I have been so blind, so foolish?” Fresh gales of tears followed.

“We forgive you, Virginia.”  Her father’s gentle tone only served to make her feel more quilty. “Here, you must be chilled to the bone. Put this on.” Her father moved around behind her and laid a fur-lined robe across her shoulders. “A little homecoming gift.”

How forgiving they were. In fact, they acted as if nothing had changed and Virginia’s flight of passion hadn’t ever occurred.  Mother led her to her old room upstairs, and Father trailed behind with her valise.

A dreamlike state swept over Virginia – how unreal to be back in her frilly, maidenly girlhood bedroom with its narrow bed, after the shameful deeds she’d done. Defying, sneaking away, rebelling outright and allowing herself to be deceived by a seducer.

“Put your things away, dear, and then come down for supper. We have a surprise for you.”

Virginia used the pretty china pitcher and bowl on the washstand to freshen up after the dusty travel. She’d left in London the lavish wardrobe Randall gave her. But here were all the dresses she left behind, hanging in the white-painted wooden wardrobe. How soft, simple, and demure the pale-colored muslin dresses appeared. Do I even have the right to dress as a maiden?

She had no one to hold responsible but herself. Taught from childhood to be pure, Virginia threw that teaching to the wind on the basis of a few kisses and compelling whispered words, and then allowed young love’s passion to take control. Yes, Randall was the instigator, but she alone chose sin, her own conscience told her that.

She picked a pink and white dress with a silk ribbon sash, and shimmied it over her head. Her parents must have dismissed her maid when she left, and she had to shift for herself, for now at least. She stood in front of the mirror, tying the sash into a bow, then turning it to the back. The high-waisted dress was almost too flattering to her young figure. She didn’t deserve to look so young and pretty anymore.

She sat down at the dressing table and picked up her silver-backed brush, scraping her long, glossy brown hair back into a tight chignon, wishing she could bind her sinful past as easily. But the relentless door to the future stood open, and she had to walk through.

***

“You look charming, my dear girl.” Virginia’s father pulled a chair out for her to sit at the intimate family table.

“Yes, not a day older than when you left.” Mrs. Mortimer beamed upon her daughter.

“Dear, don’t talk about that yet, let Virgie have her favorite dinner first.” He lifted the cover off a roast of beef, surrounded by potatoes and vegetables and a ring of parsley clusters.

“You’re too good to me. I don’t deserve this.” Virginia lifted her index finger to wipe away a tear.

“Remember, God’s love never fails. And we want to be like Him. Love covers a multitude of sins. His love and ours.” Mr. Mortimer laid his hand on her shoulder.

“Now let’s pray.” He bowed his head. “Dear Father in Heaven, thank you for bringing our daughter home. Thank you for this food, In Jesus Name, Amen. There, now we can eat.”

***

“But Father, we can’t have a party. A celebration for my return? How will I face the neighborhood?” They’d moved across the hall after dinner to the drawing room, where a fire crackled in the hearth.

“As far as anyone here knows, you’ve been visiting an elderly relative in the north. I felt the Lord would forgive a bit of dissembling to protect your name, unsullied, as it were.”

“Yes, we are just so grateful you are back, and none’s the wiser. We’ll just go on as before.” Mrs. Mortimer’s smile became tremulous.

“And, before you ask, we heard Beckwith’s son was given an ultimatum to join the army, else be shipped off to the West Indies to manage a plantation. He got into a duel in London and won’t be back here.  He’s probably landed on the continent by now. As a younger son, he won’t be needed, either. The eldest two all have well-established nurseries. But enough about that family.”

“Now let’s have a song, Virgie.”

She took her Psalter over to the piano and started riffling through the pages. Settling on one, she began to sing and accompany herself to Psalm 68. “This one reminds me of me.”

“God frees the captive and He sends

The blessedness of home and friends,

And only those in darkness stay

Who will not trust Him and obey.”

She hung her head a moment, then straightened her spine, and turned toward her parents. “Mother, Father, I want to make very clear that I am repentant and have submitted my life to Christ now. I know it’s belated, and you always wanted me to have the Faith. Now I do. It took my fall into the miry pit to bring me to my senses and to throw myself on God’s mercy.”

“We forgive you, don’t we Tansy?” Overjoyed, with tears spilling, Mr. Mortimer looked to his wife.

Mrs. Mortimer’s face lit up, wet with tears of joy, and she responded likewise. “Yes, Harold, we both forgive. Now let it go, dear Virginia. God forgives you too, and you need to move on with your life.”

“I was such a fool to believe Randall. He told me we’d be married, so it didn’t matter because we were in love, and that God knew we were sincere. He never intended to wed me. In fact, he ended laughing in my face, and told me to find my own way home.”

“Such a base seducer will always say anything to achieve his wicked will. Most rakes at least keep hands off well-born maidens. So sorry you had to learn such a hard lesson.” Mrs. Mortimer rose and put her arm around Virginia’s shoulders. “Now come over to the sofa, and let’s plan the party. All our friends will want to celebrate your homecoming with us.

***

Long, quiet days of healing commenced. Virginia helped around the house, doing little chores like peeling apples, mending linens, knitting socks, and helping plan the party her parents insisted on.

Dread flickered in her mid-section every time she thought ahead to the celebration, but she steeled her nerves, not wishing to disappoint her parents. They seemed so hopeful everything could return to how it had been before her disgrace.

Even though her parents thought nobody knew of her shameful fall from grace, Virginia braced herself each time someone came to the house or she ran into someone in the village. What if . . . someone knew something, and spread gossip? She’d hate that, but worse, hate the taint that would fall on her family.

The day of the party arrived. She could put off her preparations no longer. Up she went, to her boudoir, where her maid fussed around, waiting to work her magic.

“Lizzy, I’m so glad you were able to come back to work. I wasn’t gone long, but you could have easily been hired on somewhere else.”

“Miss, glad I am to be back here,” her young tidy maid said with a grin. “The only job on offer whilst ye were gone was at the fishmongers, cleaning fish.”

“Well then, let’s do my hair, and get me dressed. I’ve picked out that ivory taffeta, trimmed in coral.”

Lizzy’s deft hands created a stylish psyche knot.  Virginia approved, tilting her head this way, and that. “I love this style. I should have tried it sooner.” Maybe this party wouldn’t be a disaster. Her heart began to hope.

She stepped into the dress, and the maid fastened it. High waisted, it flattered her figure and whispered when she walked. A filmy fichu of ivory silk filled in the too-low neckline. Styles of the day tended toward the immodest, but Virginia was done with that. The coral cameo necklace her mother brought in earlier that evening complemented her coloring.

 *

“There you are!” Her mother scurried over and grasped Virginia’s elbow as she entered the drawing room where the guests had begun to gather. “You must meet the Ashleighs, from rural Beckston. They are twins, just your age.” Mrs. Mortimer towed her across the room.

Dread of facing the guests took the form of a rock in Virginia’s stomach. But she had no choice, the party had commenced whether she was ready or not.

“Mr. Quentin Ashleigh, Miss Annabelle Ashleigh, this is my daughter Virginia. She has just returned from a lengthy trip visiting relatives.” Mrs. Mortimer performed the introductions then turned and flitted off to greet more new arrivals. Virginia caught a glimpse of her mother’s crossed fingers.

Virginia made small talk with the Ashleigh twins. He had intelligent brown eyes and curly russet hair, and his sister though not identical, had similar coloring. Virginia relaxed and the rock of dread melted away under the bright beam of the twins’ sparkling personalities.

“Miss Mortimer, your mother is a darling, she invited us for tonight when she heard we were newly settled in Beckston.” Annabelle’s curls jiggled along with her words.

“She is a sweet lady, if a daughter’s opinion counts.” Virginia replied, smiling. “Where in rural Beckston do you reside?”

“We just moved to Fairbrook Manor – just a mile or so east of here – my family’s owned it for decades. My sister and I had our fill of London for the time.”

“Yes, I’m somewhat familiar with Fairbrook. One mile out isn’t too inconvenient. For shopping and church and so forth.”

“Not inconvenient at all. I hear there’s to be dancing later, Miss Mortimer, may I have the first dance? Nothing like being first in line.” Quentin’s twinkly dark-blue eyes danced between teasing and sincere, producing a pleasing swirl of enticement affecting Virginia’s equanimity. Was he flirting?

“Certainly. By all means, let me find my dance card. I wasn’t prepared.”

As she walked off to locate the card, Virginia wanted to kick herself for sounding like such a dull pattern card of propriety. She needed balance. Balance between being a frivolous fool and a staunch starchbucket.

She didn’t get back to Quentin with her dance card prior to the time dinner was announced, because she was greeted by old friends every step of the way. For the promenade of precedence into the dining room, she was paired with her elderly vicar Mr. Cranston, a widower in his seventies. As they proceeded, he said, “So glad you’re back from your sojourn. A short visit away can do wonders for the appreciation of home, no?”

Caught by the vicar’s words, she was busy deciphering them, searching for hidden meaning, and didn’t realize until the last moment that she’d been seated next to Quentin. She quashed the spurt of interest that rose up in her, and applied her attention to the vicar on her left. Why then, did her right side feel so aware, so alive?

“Miss Mortimer?” A voice intruded on the one-sided conversation she was having, rather listening to, with the vicar. Mr. Cranston’s avocation involved everything to do with bees, and it appeared he planned to tell her all he knew – tonight, at the table.

So it was with relief that she excused herself from the apiarist, and turned toward Quentin Ashleigh. “If you’d like to ask me anything about bees, I can now answer.”

He chuckled, and laid his index finger against his temple. “Nothing at the moment, but I shall remember to ask, should I need your new-gained knowledge.”

Virginia enjoyed the low-key facetious humor with which he answered, and felt quite amicable toward the young man.

“I wonder, did you bring your dance card to the dining room? You never brought it back for me to sign. Am I too late for the first dance?”

“Oh, no. I promised it. I have the card right here.” She lifted the evening reticule, a small bead-embellished pouch that hung on her wrist. She extracted the card and handed it with its attached pencil, to Quentin.

He took it from her, stroked his chin, and said, “Perhaps you’ll allow me two dances? If that’s not too greedy?” The candlelight gleamed off his hair.

Boggled at the pleasant sensations flooding her at the fellow’s kind, friendly, flirtatiousness, she answered without overthinking. “Yes, and no.”

Confusion played across his face before it gave way to wry humor.

He gave a bark of laughter. “You are quite concise, Miss Mortimer. I like that.”

And she liked him. More and more the weeks in London felt like nothing but a bad dream. Back in the loving climate of Mortimer House, the broken spirit she’d brought home had been replaced by a new heart, ready to live again.

No one had even hinted at a breath of scandal about her. She’d dodged the broad-reaching brush of the gossips and society was none the wiser regarding her fall from moral purity. She let out a grateful relieved breath upon this thought, only to have her attentive tablemate inquire as to her state of mind.

“That was a prodigious breath – almost a sigh. Do tell.”

“Nothing, just breathing, if that’s quite all right.” She quirked a smile his way to soften the string of her abrupt rejoinder.

The lengthy meal ended, and the women departed for the drawing room, the men remaining in the dining room for brandy. When the time came for dancing, Quentin bowed in front of her and they sailed off to join a set of country dances The figures of the dances took them apart, and only allowed moments to converse.

“You are a lovely dancer, Miss Mortimer.” Spoken before he sailed down the line, away from her.

The next time their orbits collided, she answered. “And you are a fine dancer, as well, Mr. Ashleigh.”  They both chuckled at the gap between their brief interchanges, before being swept apart again.

***

 Greetings, dear readers! Any guesses on the outcome here? Will he turn out to be a cad, as well? Leave a comment, please 🙂 Susan Karsten

A Suitable Match Epilogue and Prize Package Winner!

Thank you for joining us as we celebrate our first year. We had a lot of fun writing A Suitable Match and we hope you enjoyed reading it.

The winner of our fabulous prize package is…

Anne Payne

Congratulations, Anne! We’ll be sending you an email to get your mailing address. We hope you enjoy all your goodies!

Did your favorite man lose the poll? Don’t despair. For those of you who loved Twiford and Ross, we wanted to let you know what happened to them. 

London, England
July 1818

Twiford smiled as he read the letter from his good friend, Chard. It was short, a mere four lines scrawled across the paper to say that Chard had caught up with Cressida at the George and Pelican and they were getting married.

It had nearly killed Chard to wait until after the deadline to pursue Cressida. After burying his uncle, he’d shown up on Twiford’s doorstep, begging his old friend to keep him away from his love until the money was no longer an issue. It had been no easy request. Twiford nearly had to lock Chard in a room to keep him here, but the renewal of their old friendship had been worth two days of playing jailer.

As he refolded the note, running his fingers along the edges to sharpen the creases, Twiford examined his heart for the pain he had though this news would bring.

Much to his relief, there was none. He was truly free of the specter that was his affection for Cressida Blackstone.

When had it faded? Three months ago, pleading his case in a rocking chaise on the road to London, he vowed his love was a bright, burning fire that had withstood three years absence and the devastation of a close friend. Could love that strong die so quickly? Or had he been in error that he loved her at all?

He tossed the letter on the desk and strode from the room. Before the letter arrived, he’d asked to have his curricle readied and brought round. It should be out front by now.

As he shrugged into his greatcoat and donned his hat, it occurred to him that the situation was not as cut and dried as he was trying to make it. His love had been very real, but over the last three months he had gotten to know Cressida – the real Cressida – and discovered that the woman he loved, or thought he loved, wasn’t real. She had changed as much as he had with the passing of years. Over time he’d built her up, given her characteristics and ideologies that weren’t truly a part of her.

The real Cressida was a fine woman and he was glad to consider her a friend. But he didn’t love her. Though he had felt crushed when she rejected him three months earlier, he now felt freed by her honesty and strength. He was glad to know her, but glad not to be bound to her.

The sun glinted off the trim on his curricle as the jangle of harness filled his ears. He settled into the seat with anticipation swirling in his belly. Part of him had wondered, worried, that he still held feelings for Cressida. When Chard’s letter brought nothing but happiness, Twiford knew his heart was free.

He snapped the reins to send his curricle rolling down the street. Now that he knew without a doubt his heart was entirely his own, he knew exactly who he wanted to give it away to.

An overturned flower wagon caused him to pull to a stop. The mess was nearly cleaned up, so he decided to wait. Casting his eyes heavenward, he marveled at how life at come together in a few short months. “Thank you, Lord, for having a better plan than my own.”

The flower seller bemoaned the loss of his merchandise, drawing Twiford’s attention to the last of the flowers strewn across the road. He could probably buy the entire wagonload for a mere pittance. They may be too bruised and broken to sell as bouquets, but they would be quite lovely carpeting the front steps of a London townhome. Calling to the seller, he decided to put his fledgling idea into motion.

There was a young lady a few streets over that loved flowers, sunshine, and curricle rides. As Twiford moved on, a now beaming flower seller following, he prayed the young lady also loved him.

 ***

Ross Ainsworth walked into the solicitor’s office, unsure of what the man would tell him. He wasn’t even sure what he wanted to hear. Had Cressy managed to get married? He’d been by Lady Dove’s house a few days ago and nearly tripped over all the gentlemen vying for her attention. Maybe she’d married one out of desperation. Or maybe she’d traded in on her friendship with Twiford and decided to marry him after all. She certainly hadn’t come knocking on his door.

He wouldn’t blame her either way. Ross knew what it was to be destitute. To wonder where the next meal would come from, if he’d be able to afford shelter for the next week, let alone the next month. Lack of money made people do much stupider things than marry someone they didn’t love. He ran a finger along his scar. Sometimes it made you ruin your life.

Whatever news the solicitor had, it wouldn’t affect Ross overmuch. He and Cressy were family. Marriage wouldn’t change that. The money would be nice, the property even nicer, but he was well enough off now to not be in dire need of either.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Ainsworth. It appears that Miss Blackstone did not meet the requirements of the will. The jewels, property, and money now belong to you.”

Ross shook his head and smiled. Well done, Cressy. He’d prayed she would hold out for love. One thing Ross had learned when he abandoned family and country was that life without love was dismal. The road back and been long and hard, and he was no longer the carefree youth that had thumbed his nose at his grandmother’s concerns. He wished she had been able to see the man he had become.

Business at the solicitor wrapped up quickly and he left a richer man than he’d walked in. What was he going to do now? The truth was he could do anything. He had property and money. He could be a gentleman of leisure. Maybe toss his lot in with the other third tier bachelors in London and try to find himself a wife. With no title and a questionable past he wasn’t as desirable a catch as Twiford or Chard, but he had money and good looks. For some, that would be enough.

But the Season was winding down and the balls and routs held little appeal. He’d suffered the social scene for three months to be near Cressida in case she had a change of heart. He’d been hurt when she didn’t choose him, but God knew what was best. After visiting a few young ladies in Town, he knew that he would be finding his wife elsewhere.

The fact was he was tired of London. He returned to his rooms and began packing. There was somewhere for him to go now. A place he could call home. Being a country gentleman seemed a nice change of pace.

He made the trip in two days, hearing about Chard’s dramatic proposal to Cressida when he stopped to spend the night at The George and Pelican. Settling in was easier than he anticipated, the familiarity of childhood returning to make him feel at home.

Several neighboring gentlemen called to acquaint themselves with the new owner. Some he’d known as a child, but most were new to him. The quieter life away from London suited him immensely. He’d seen too much of the world to be satisfied with the glossy facade of the capitol, though nearby Bath wasn’t much better. The small area where he now lived, though, seemed real, honest. It was a place a man could raise a family to love the Lord and country.

He was walking down the street a few days after returning home, not really looking where he was going, thinking about what God might have in store for him now. His musings were cut short as he accidentally bumped into a group of women leaving the milliner’s shop.

“I beg your pardon!” Ross stooped to collect the fallen packages. When he stood again, he found himself looking into the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. They were framed by twin sets of golden ringlets and sprinkling of freckles. There was a seriousness in her eyes that was at odds with the impish smile on her lips.

For the first time in a long while, Ross wanted to buck the strictures of polite society. He wanted to meet this girl, find out how someone could be happy and sad at the same time. But they hadn’t been introduced, and he knew none of the other women in the party.

“Mother,” the girl called, while still looking Ross in the eye. “Are my new gloves damaged? I want to wear them to the dance at the Assembly Rooms tonight.”

Ross raised his eyebrows and fought to keep the grin from his lips.

The young woman’s lips twitched, as if she too were fighting to urge to grin. “Perhaps that young gentleman Father met will be there. A Mr. Ainsworth I believe he said.” She tilted her head in inquiry.

Ross nodded slightly and gave way to the smile he’d been holding back.

The young woman’s mother huffed over and linked arms with her daughter. “You would know more about your gloves than I do, considering the package is in your own hands.” She cast a dark glance a Ross, before shaking her head and giving him a small smile. “And I daresay your father, who went to visit that young man this morning, will be happy to introduce you should he show up at the Assembly Rooms just around the corner with the white brick front.”

Ross nodded at the mother. He watched them walk away before turning and making his own way home, a bit more spring in his step. Yes, indeed, he thought he would like living life in the country.

Thanks for joining us. Did you enjoy A Suitable Match? We’d love to hear your thoughts and invite you to stick around as we go back to our regular blog schedule with history, book highlights, and more fun discussions. Leave us a comment letting us know what you’d like to see this year on Regency Reflections. 

A Suitable Match, Section 9, And the Readers’ Choice is…

MatchCoverTo kick off our second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we are presenting the serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. There are no hidden items in this section, but you can still enter by finding the items in the previous sections. Details and a list of prizes can be found here. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

 London, England

April 1818

The Grosvenor Square townhouse wasn’t much larger than Cressida’s cottage outside Bath—except it went up instead of out. If Cressida worried about not getting enough exercise with no more need to walk to and from the village for food or ink or church, now that she would live in London with servants, at least for three months, those fears fled with each flight of steps she climbed to her bedchamber. It perched atop the chamber of the peer’s widow, who would act as her chaperone and means of introduction into the ton. That good lady’s chamber sat atop a sitting room atop the dining room.

“I think,” Cressida told Knighting, as she closed the door behind the footmen with their luggage, “you won’t want to be hiking up those steps too many times a day.”

“It’s no trouble, Miss.” Knighting dabbed at her runny nose. “Or won’t be soon enough.”

“Why do you not go to your chamber and lie down. Travel was difficult.”

More difficult than it should have been.

Cressida cast her own bed a longing look. It could have been a pallet on the floor with a single blanket and appealed to her at that moment. Instead, it crowed of its luxurious softness and comfort with each plumped pillow edged in lace, and white satin counterpane embroidered with pink roses. A half hour’s rest was all she needed to set her mind at ease, surely. Thirty minutes alone to think without concerns about being disturbed.

Except she must use those 30 minutes to wash off the dust of travel, change out of her crumpled gown, and pin up her hair before meeting Lady Penelope Dove.

“I suppose I need your help with the hooks on my gown.” Cressida suppressed a yawn. “Do you think any of my gowns are acceptable?”

“I don’t think any of your gowns are acceptable. They are all so out of fashion.”

“That cannot be helped.“ Cressida crossed the room with its step-silencing Persian carpet, and opened the nearest trunk. “Somewhere must be one that isn’t hopelessly crumpled. I don’t wish for you to have to go all the way downstairs to fetch an iron. Perhaps I could—“

“Never.” Horror colored Knighting’s voice and widened her eyes. “I’ll do it. Take that blue sarsnet and find your blue paisley shawl. Perhaps a fichu in the event her ladyship is a high stickler for modesty.”

Cressida was a high stickler for modesty—now. Too many of her gowns from her disastrous Season proclaimed what a flirt she had been then, so desperate to please Father and find a titled gentleman to raise herself up from a cit to, at the least, a gentlewoman, she applied every feminine wile she possessed and had practiced on Ross Ainsworth scarcely old enough to know the meaning of the word “flirt”, then she learned a few more techniques in the art of coquetry from her competitors on the marriage market. She had caught herself the second most desirable bachelor that year.

Miles, Lord Twiford, came first in prospects. He was not merely handsome and titled. He brought a sizable fortune with him. Tristan, Lord Chard, merely possessed the looks and title. Ross Ainsworth offered only his looks and a potential fortune. In the end, she obtained none of them. Now, she could attain any of them with a wave of her fan.

Now that she thought about it, where were her fans? One had gotten so soaked in violet scent when the carriage crashed she left it behind in the inn. That left her with two, as she had sold the rest of the dozens on which she once squandered money, to pay for her silent escape from London. She had been playing with the pink one in the carriage while the gentleman all laid their claims out before her, and must have left it behind when she bolted for the house.

She thought she had left behind the old Cressida that day she knelt in the church with no one around, and asked the Lord to take her heart, her life.

Apparently the prospect of a fortune again and having gentlemen vie for her hand in marriage, had prompted her to take back her life and go her own way with no regard for what she did with her heart. She must spend considerable time in prayer that night—and many days afterward—asking the Lord for guidance. Guidance and a lot of forgiveness.

“Kissing Ross indeed.” She scrubbed at her lips with the back of her hand.

What had intrigued her then repelled her now. The former, flirtatious Cressida would have suggested she kiss all three of the gentlemen to see who intrigued and repelled her.

She shook her head and shoved thoughts of males out of her mind. She must hasten with her toilette before descending to the parlor to meet her dragon for the husband hunting season.

“Surely she isn’t a dragon with a name like Lady Penelope Dove,” Cressida mused aloud.

Cressida expected a delicate little woman in gray satin and gray curls.

What met her in the parlor was a robust woman in purple velvet with a matching turban wound around her dyed red hair. Without offering a word of greeting, she waved a feathered fan large enough to have taken an entire peacock’s tail, to beckon Cressida to stand in front of her, then proceeded to stare at her charge from other side of a truly Roman nose.

“So your great-aunt wasn’t exaggerating when she called you a beauty,” her ladyship declared in a voice like a gong. “that will make up for your lack of fashion sense.”

Cressida opened her mouth to remind the woman she had scarcely had the time or money to refurbish her wardrobe, then closed it again. The problem of her dress would be solved shortly.

And so it was. Before the dragon lady would allow Cressida to set foot in a drawing room, including her own if anyone else was present, she dragged her charge from Grafton House for fabric, to the modiste for the creation, from shoemakers, to glove makers, and half a dozen other businesses in-between.

Each day, when she returned exhausted, Cressida found tributes to her from the three contenders for her hand—hothouse roses from Twiford, wildflowers from Ainsworth, and boxes of bonbons from Chard. Cressida sent notes of thanks to all of them and, even without the dragon lady’s strictures, refused to see any of them.

“I can’t think when any of them are around,” she confided in Knighting amidst a sea of new gowns one day. “When I’m with Twiford, he seems so strong and yet charming, I think he would make a fine husband. When I’m with Ainsworth, I remember what a grand time we had together as children and what friends we were then, and having a husband who is also a friend would be rather nice. And when I’m with Chard. . .”

Those feelings she could not discuss with anyone since she knew no words to sum up a blend of regret, hurt, and fear.

She discussed them a great deal with the Lord, especially the day the dragon decided she was ready for public viewing and escorted her to a rout. “For maximum exposure.”

Although the event occurred on the other side of the square, they took the carriage and sat in a line of vehicles for a full half hour and more awaiting their turn to alight and join the throng streaming into the house, while attempting not to bump into the river of people exiting the house. Cressida proved adept at avoiding collisions until she reached the upper floor, stepped into a parlor, and came face-to-face with Miles, Lord Twiford.

It was more like her face to his coat buttons. She jumped.

His hands closed over her shoulders. “My dear lady, may I say you look stunning this evening?”

She glanced up at his handsome face and believed him. He looked stunned, bowled over, adoring. And all she felt was. . .nothing. She wasn’t embarrassed. She wasn’t giddy, and she wasn’t moved to say anything more than, “I forgive you for how you treated me three years ago, Lord Twiford. Let us place everything there in the past and forget.” With a smile intended to appear artificial, she dropped into a curtsy, then swept around him.

From the corner of her eyes, she saw him heave a sigh deep enough to expand his already broad chest and threaten to pop the seams of his fitted coat. He had gotten the message—he would not be her choice.

A fog surrounded the rest of the twenty minutes necessary to make her way back outside with Lady Dove.

“That went well,” her ladyship said.

It had. Cressida looked at Twiford and knew she had never felt more for him than sadness that they couldn’t have been friends. Perhaps if they had, she could have talked to him about Chard’s need for her fortune and how he would manage once she lost it. Although she believed Twiford’s feelings for her ran as deep as he said, she now realized the only reason why she considered him a possible suitor for her hand was that she would never need to worry that he wanted her fortune—and he was rather fine to look at.

With one suitor dismissed, she prepared herself for encounters with the other two.

Although she attended many social occasions over the next week—balls, breakfasts, and several soirées—she saw neither Ainsworth nor Chard. Chard, she learned quite by accident on the fourth day, had been called away from town on some family emergency. Truth? Or was it a fiction to take himself out of the running?

A twinge sharper than disappointment pinched at Cressida’s heart. Annoyance that he hadn’t sent around a message telling her he was leaving London, or regret she might not see him?

Who she saw while shopping on Bond Street with the dragon, was Ross Ainsworth.

She should have known better than to meet him in public. The sight of him looking rather dashing in a fine coat and pantaloons, made her mouth go dry. Remembering him kissing her made her cheeks grow hot. Remembering how she had kissed him back made her entire body blush. A good thing the dragon was distracted by a shop window.

“Cousin.” He greeted her with a bow.

She curtsied in return. “You look well, Cousin.” She smiled sweetly. “Prosperous. Trading on prospects you may not have?”

His gaze dropped to her lips. “Do I not? I have, you know, done quite well for myself while in my self-imposed exile. Or did you think I was merely after your fortune?”

“I. . . Well, I. . .” She swallowed. She blushed some more. She turned to the dragon. “Allow me to present you to Lady Dove.”

“We are acquainted,” Ross said. “Your servant, my lady.”

“Ross, you scamp.” Lady Dove embraced him like a long-lost son.

The two of them set to talking. Her ladyship tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, and they strolled down the street, leaving Cressida with Miss Knighting and the package-bearing footman.

Cressida watched Ross’s retreating back, and a smile curved her lips as a weight lifted from her shoulders. She liked knowing Ross was doing well and not merely after her fortune. She was happy he had turned his life over to the Lord. She didn’t in the least mind seeing him walk away from her because she didn’t love him for more than the cousinly affection and antagonism they had enjoyed all their lives.

But did she love Chard still? Perhaps she never had.

Over the next three months, she wavered between longing to see him again, to wanting to give him the cut direct the instant he bothered to show his face in the ton again. Twiford called on her and danced with her often. They developed a lighthearted friendship. Ross called on Lady Dove, and he and Cressida fell into their old camaraderie and affection from before he left England. But Chard merely sent the occasional note wishing her well accompanied by another box of sweets.

And the deadline for when she must wed or lose her chance at a fortune drew nearer and nearer. It grew so near she would have proposed to Twiford or Ross to avoid more crushing poverty for the rest of her life. But Twiford and Ross had both begun to court charming young ladies, a fact Cressida didn’t mind. She was courted by so many gentlemen she wanted to flee back to the country.

In the end, she began to pack two days before her deadline, soaking her beautiful new clothes with her tears. She wished she knew if she wept for the fortune lost or Chard’s unexplained absence.

The day of her deadline, she and Knighting boarded Lady Dove’s traveling coach and headed west on the Bristol Road. That night they took a room at the George and Pelican. She half expected to find all three gentleman awaiting her in the private parlor. She found none and went to bed without any supper, wondering how much money she would get for her gowns in Bath shops. The jewels she had left behind with the solicitors. They would no longer be hers as of midnight.

Midnight came and went with Cressida restless and aching in heart. “Why, Lord, why can I not have had this? I could do much more good with money than without.”

Yet what had she done for the past three months but treat each gentleman as a means to an end instead of appreciating him for the person he was? She had treated Chard that way—interested in his title to elevate herself. If she had accepted his offer in these past three months, she would have, in a sense, married him for money, not the love he wanted. She might never have been certain she loved him or not. Now, knowing she had lost him, she knew she loved him.

Heavy-eyed and heavier hearted, she descended the steps the following morning.

Chard stood in the doorway mud-spattered and stern-faced. “Running away again, Cressy?”

She gripped the banister. “Still chasing a fortune, Chard? You’re too late if you are. It’s no longer mine as of last night.”

Inn servants and guests stopped walking and talking to stare.

Heedless of the audience, Chard paced to the foot of the steps. “No matter what I said to you before, you never believed I wanted more than your fortune. That’s why you ran away.”

“And you didn’t come after me once I was poor. Well, I’m poor again, so you’re wasting your time.” She turned and started up the stairs.

He covered the distance two treads at a time, caught her on the landing and blocked her retreat. “When are you going to stop running away from me?” His face and voice softened. “Running away from us?”

“Who’s running away? You spent the past three months in parts unknown.”

“I’ve been at the bedside of an uncle who deserved my devotion in his last days, considering he paid my father’s debts three years ago.” He raised his hand, lowered it again, lifted it to brush his thumb across her lower lip. “I buried him three days ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. Besides helping me get my estate paying again, he told me that if you didn’t love me enough to be honest with me about your fortune, I should let you go and wait for the Lord to provide a bride without money being a part of the equation.” He smiled. “That’s why I waited for today—so your money would no longer be part of the equation.” He curved his hands around her face. “Tell me, Cressida, do you have the answer to the rest of the sum? Do you love me?”

“I just gave up a fortune because I love you too much to give in to the temptation of the other half dozen proposals I received. The money wasn’t worth it.” She peeked at him through her lashes. “Though Twiford is rather dashing in evening dress, and Ross kisses rather—“

He stopped her claim with his lips on hers, firm yet smooth, warm and tasting of rain, sweeter than all the bonbons he had sent her over the past three months.

“Not nearly as well as you,” she finished her previous declaration about kissing ability, without moving her mouth from Chard’s. “But perhaps I need to know for cer—“

He kissed her again, and she was most certain of many things—she did love him, he was a better kisser than Ross, and she had most definitely stopped running away.

In the entryway below, guests and servants applauded.

Did your favorite man win? If he didn’t, be sure to come back Wednesday for a special surprise. 

Remember there is no prize hidden in today’s section. You can enter in the previous sections until 5:00PM Eastern on Tuesday, February 26. The winner will be announced in Wednesday’s post. 

A Suitable Match, Serial Story Section 8 and a Chance to Win

MatchCoverTo kick off our second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we are presenting the serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. For a chance to win, find the item mentioned in this section and leave a note in the comments. Details and a list of prizes can be found here. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

On the road somewhere between Somerset and London
April 1818

Pain laced through Chard’s insides like acid. He’d come from the woods, his anger cooled, ready to continue his conversation with Cressida. She’d admitted she’d loved him. Now, he dared allow himself to believe that love might be rekindled.

Only to find her in the arms of another man—that swarthy looking knave with a scar like Blackbeard’s, kissing him with all the signs of a woman wholly abandoned to her passion.

The next instant Chard’s hurt transformed once more to anger—blood red rage.

With a bellow he charged at Ainsworth.

Clutching him by the lapels, Chard threw Ainsworth to the ground and proceeded to smash his face with his fist.

“Chard—no!”  Cressida’s scream barely penetrated his hearing but her lunge for his arm stopped his fist from connecting with Ainsworth’s jaw.

He tried to shake his arm free but she held on with both her hands gripped so tightly they threatened to cut off his circulation.

“Leave me, Cressida, to finish this blackguard, this ill-begotten son—”

Twiford shook him by the shoulders. “Enough, Chard! Wrestling her coachman will solve nothing.”

With the two of them tugging at Chard, Ainsworth managed to twist away from him.

Still seething, Chard finally allowed himself to be pulled away by his friend and slowly stood to his feet, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

Cressida stepped back a few paces, keeping her eyes fixed on him as if not trusting him to stay calm.

“I will not hurt your lover,” he spat out, turning away from her in mingled disgust and anguish.

“He is not—” Cressida began shouting then stopped.

The thud on the ground was so unexpected, Chard swiveled back.

Stomping her foot, her hands fisted on her hips, her amber eyes spitting sparks, she glared at them. “I’ve had just about enough from all of you.” She focused on each in turn. “From the moment I set foot outside of my cottage yesterday morning, I have been accosted, browbeaten, threatened, accused by men—” she spat out the term as if it were the lowest form of existence, “who claim to be my friends or…f—family.” She stumbled on that last word but as if ashamed of  weakening, she took a deep breath. “I have only one thing to say to all of you. Leave me alone!

“I am going to London to get married!”

Chard stiffened. Was she betrothed? His heart contracted with absolute misery and hopelessness.

“And I do not need the help of any of you to accomplish my goal. I shall be one-and-twenty in a month, and I do not plan to remain on the shelf.” Her glance fell on Ainsworth. “Thanks to your grandmother, Ross, I shall be independent. She has left me a sponsor and I intend to enjoy my next season.” Her withering glance landed on Chard. “Unlike my last one. Within three months, I will be married, and free of all of you!”

With those words, she whirled around, kicking up the dust under her feet and stalked back to the carriage.

A groom hurried to open the door for her and let down the step. She clambered within and swung the door shut herself.

In the reverberating sound of its slam, Chard looked at Ainsworth and Twiford, both appearing as astounded and abashed as he.

Chard cleared his throat but didn’t know what to say.

Ainsworth dusted off the back of his coat.

Twiford was the first to speak. “I believe the lady has made her sentiments abundantly clear. She wants none of us.”

Chard narrowed his eyes at his closest friend. “Why do you include yourself in that pronouncement?”

Twiford had the grace to look abashed. He kicked at a dusty tuft of grass growing on the edge of the road. “Ahem. I feel I did Miss Blackstone a disservice when you were courting her three years ago.” He raised his chin, fixing his eyes on Chard. “I doubted her when I should not have. Time has proved her a woman of more noble heart than any lady of the ton. I would have you know that I wish to pursue her myself.”

Chard growled low in his throat. His best friend, most trusted confidant, had betrayed him.

As if reading his thoughts Twiford raised a hand. “I have never made my feelings known to Miss Blackstone. But I would like to do so now.” Before Chard could say anything, he glanced at Ainsworth then back to Chard. “I would like to propose something to both of you.”

They waited, the air charged with suspicion. “Since Miss Blackstone has made it clear she intends to be married in the next three months, why shouldn’t we have an equal chance as any young buck in London?”

“I don’t see what her blasted hurry is,” Chard said. “She mentioned an inheritance. Why should she rush into some fortune hunter’s hands?”

“Because she cannot inherit unless she is married.”

Twiford and Chard stared at Ainsworth who had said nothing until then.

The man with the look of a pirate nodded. “My grandmother, God rest her soul, disinherited me, her only direct descendant, and left everything to her great-niece, Miss Cressida Blackstone.”

Only the rustle of the breeze in the trees and the call of a bird interrupted the silence.

“So, Miss Blackstone is now an heiress,” Twiford mused, rubbing his chin. “I thought as much.” His blue eyes twinkled. “But I had no idea her gain was your complete loss.”

The realization sank in and Chard began to chuckle, which turned into a full-bellied laugh.

Ainsworth grew red in his swarthy face, his fist clenching and unclenching at his sides. But as the other two roared with laughter, a smile tugged at the edges of his lips.

“Confound you all!” he finally said, his mouth splitting in a grin, which quickly turned to a grimace, his cuts and scrapes from the coaching accident still smarting him.

When their laughter had settled, Twiford spoke up. “As I said, I wish to propose something to you gentlemen.”

Chard cocked an eyebrow at his best friend, Ainsworth merely stared.

“I propose that we each have an opportunity to make our case to the fair damsel. She must sit for a few more hours still within the confines of the coach. You, my friend,” he said to Chard, “have already had some time alone with her in the coach. I say allow her cousin here and me a chance to press our suit. If there is time before we arrive in London, then have another go, Chard. It will give your temper a chance to cool.”

Before either man had a chance to agree or argue, Twiford slipped a coin from his pocked. “Heads or tails?”

Ainsworth quickly called “heads.”

Twiford tossed the tuppence in the air. It landed on the back of his hand, which he covered with his other hand. Approaching Ainsworth he displayed it.

“Tails, I have the first go. Cheer up, men, you’ll have more time to plan your campaign.”

With those words, Twiford approached the coach and opened the door.

 ***

His heart thrumming in his chest, belying his suave words to the men behind him, Twiford climbed into the coach.

“What are you doing in here?” Miss Blackstone demanded, her eyes narrowed, her nostrils flared. “I thought I made myself clear.”

With a bow of apology to Miss Knighting, Twiford took the seat in front, facing the two women, then thumped the roof of the coach to signal the coachman to continue the journey.

“I am sorry if my presence here discomposes you, Miss Blackstone,” he began, wiping his palms against his thighs, unsure how to begin. His bravado was fading as quickly as a doused candle flame.

Miss Blackstone crossed her arms in front of her and stared out her window. “I have nothing to say to you.”

Wishing the maid were not sitting there, pretending not to hear a thing, Twiford plunged on. This would be the only opportunity he would ever have of confessing the truth to Miss Blackstone. “Three years ago I wronged you and for that I am very sorry.”

He saw her stiffen at the words. Knowing he had her undivided attention, he continued. “I did not think you were the right woman for my closest friend, Tristram, but I had no right to malign your character.” He kneaded his fist in his hand, wishing he didn’t have to confess the ugliness of his sins, but knowing there was no future if he didn’t come clean. “It was not only for the sake of my friend that I treated you so harshly.”

Her gaze had gone from the window to him and her stare was unwavering now.

“In the face of your courage in braving those society matrons, in confronting a world which thinks it has the right to look down its nose on someone because of her birth, I grew to admire you.” He swallowed and pressed on. “I didn’t want to admire you. But worse, I didn’t want to fall in love with you.”

The words were barely discernible above the rocking and creaking of the barouche but she heard them. The slight gasp of her mouth and her averted gaze told him so. Her clasped hands clenched more tightly.

“If I behaved rude and distant, I ask your forgiveness. You were my best friend’s beloved and I could not betray him. I am sorry for all the hurt I caused you. I hope that you may find it in your heart to forgive me and give me a chance to make up all the harm I caused you.”

 

Ross’s agitation had grown with each mile along the Bath road to London, wondering what that fellow Twiford was telling Cressida. Now at last they reached the first posting house and he could take the man’s place in the coach alongside Cressida.

It was all he could do not to take her in his arms again, but one look at the forbidding face of her maid, made him take his place on the seat opposite the ladies.

Cressida after one hurried glance, looked away from him, but her heightened color betrayed her awareness of him.

“Hello, Cressida,” he said softly once the coach was on its way again.

Her hands fiddled with a closed fan in her lap. “Please, Ross, please forget what…what happened back there. It was an aberration.”

“Was it?” He kept his look steady on her until she was forced to look at him once more. What he saw was pain and confusion in those chestnut depths. It was the last thing he wanted to cause her, but he had too much at stake to back down. “I meant what I said. I love you and have loved you since we were children. That is why I forced myself to distance myself when we grew older. My parents were against the match.”

“Why?” The one word sounded as if it had escaped from her lips.

“Because your mother had married beneath her in marrying your father.”

She looked away as if in disappointment or disgust.

“My parents threatened to disown me if I went after you.” He emitted a harsh laugh. “After they passed away, and I began my life of debauchery, my grandmother also threatened to disown me. But since the only thing I ever cared about had been taken away from me, I did as I pleased with no thought for anything or anyone.”

He looked down at his hands, wishing he could undo the past. “When I made such a mess of things in Paris, shaming my uniform, my name, I knew I had nowhere else to turn. My family had washed their hands of me. I had…had dishonored a young woman, abandoning her, to die in childbirth…” His voice broke on the last. “Her brother fought me.” He made a gesture to the scar on his jaw, “leaving me with this permanent reminder of my sin. I was left for dead, bleeding in a foul Parisian alley. I knew there would be no reprieve this time and would soon face eternity.”

He drew in a shuddering breath, sensing rather than seeing both women’s eyes riveted on him. “It was then I called out to God, whether conscious or already on my way to Hell, I do not know. I asked for His mercy, knowing I deserved none.”

He paused, struggling for composure. “When I awoke, I was lying in a bed, bandaged and cleaned up, weak as a kitten but alive. I knew God had given me my life back and that I could never—would never go back to that reprobate I had once been.” He gave a glimmer of a smile. “I may look like a blackguard now, but I am a new person within.” He sighed, drawing a hand across his eyes. “Unfortunately, Grandmother never knew of my conversion. She changed her will, disinheriting me of everything before I had a chance to prove myself a different man.”

 

Chard had fretted and fumed upon his horse as the journey continued to London. He could tell nothing from Twiford’s set look when he had descended at the next posting inn. His friend had remained silent as they continued their journey and Ainsworth took his place in the coach. At last it was his turn. Chard had had ample time to reflect on things as the miles had thundered under his horse’s hooves.

Now, tired and dusty, he settled into the coach after the final posting stop before reaching London.

Cressida merely glanced at him, fanning herself with a pink fan, and said nothing as he sat back. By now, she had heard the other two men, so she must surmise what his mission was.

As the coach resumed its journey, the sun waning on the horizon, Chard drew in a breath.

“So, you are once more a rich lady.”

Cressida’s eyelashes fluttered toward him above the fan but she didn’t meet his gaze. “I suppose Ross told you.”

“Yes. You must wed within six months or lose your newfound inheritance.” Despite his intention to proceed gently, he couldn’t help the tinge of mockery in his tone.

“Three.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Three?”

“Months. There remain but three more months for me to choose a husband or I forfeit my inheritance.”

“When you left me your note and ran away, I sought you everywhere.”

Her eyelids fluttered upward and this time her gaze remained fixed on his, the fan fallen still upon her lap.

“I even hired Bow Street Runners but you had disappeared off the face of the earth.” He gave a bitter smile. “You hid your tracks well. Knowing I was almost destitute, I couldn’t do much. I was angry, hurt and bitter for many months. When I finally had to give up the search—or go hungry—I left England.”

“Wh—where did you go?” she asked in so low a tone, he had to lean forward to hear her above the noise of the coach.

“Jamaica.”

Her mouth formed an O on an indrawn breath.

“I toiled more than any gentleman is accustomed to, as much as any plantation slave.” He gazed down at his palms. “The blisters hardened into calluses and I learned that my body would survive much more than I had ever credited it with.”

His lips stretched in a humorless smile. “You think I agreed to marry you for your father’s wealth. Perhaps my father pressured me to do so, but as soon as I met you, it no longer was about the money. You bewitched me as no woman has since then. When your father lost his money, I didn’t care—about him, yes, but not about our love. I knew our love was strong enough to weather any storm.

“But you had no faith in us, did you?”

She was shaking her head. “It wasn’t that. I…I didn’t want you to suffer.”

“So now you will marry any man just to get your money.” The ire, which was simmering just below the surface of his disarmingly gentle tone, rose again as he leaned across the coach and grasped her wrist. “You will sell your body and soul for some filthy lucre.”

He flung her wrist away. “I have enough money to buy and sell your great-aunt’s estate many times over, I’ll warrant. If you think I care about your money, think again. Give it back to that worthless cousin of yours and prove my words!

* This section contributed by Ruth Axtell, www.RuthAxtell.com *

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The question remaining is… who loves Cressida? Who does Cressida love? Which man do you want to see win her heart, her hand, and her money? 

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Voting closes at noon eastern on Saturday, February 23. Find out who wins in Monday’s final installment. 

THE CONTEST AND POLL ARE NOW CLOSED. Feel free to continue to enjoy and share the story.

A Suitable Match, Serial Story Section 7 and a Chance to Win

MatchCoverTo kick off our second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we are presenting the serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. For a chance to win, find the item mentioned in this section and leave a note in the comments. Details and a list of prizes can be found here. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1 2 3 4 5 6

On the road somewhere between Somerset and London
April 1818

“No. Yes. I mean . . .I . . .” She clamped her lips together before they could get her into anymore trouble. But the silence filling the space between them didn’t stop her heart’s  rhythm from rivaling the quick clomp of the horses’ hooves against the road.

Of course she wasn’t reapplying for the position as his wife. That would be ludicrous.

Insane.

Absurd.

Chard stared at her from where he sat across the carriage, those somber gray eyes waiting patiently for an answer.

“I’m sorry. I was only trying to protect you. I didn’t mean to hurt you when I left.”

“Not mean to hurt me?” he thundered, his eyes turning from patient to murderous faster than she could blink. “You left in the dead of night, and gave me naught more than a note. What was I supposed to do? Whistle as I headed to the vicar’s to tell him the wedding had been cried off? Shrug and say, ‘No bother, I shall simply find another wife at the musicale tonight?’”

Her hands fisted on the edge of the seat.  “My father had lost his fortune, and you needed money.’Twas why we were betrothed in the first place.”

“Money.” The word, drenched with bitterness, shot from his mouth. “If you think money my only motive for marrying you, then perhaps it was best you left as you did.”

Cressida swallowed and glanced at her maid. Knighting’s face had grown paler with every mile they travelled. Then she looked out past the road and into the green fields and leafy woods, idyllic as a painting. Finding a husband wasn’t supposed to be so difficult. She’d intended to swoop into London, attend a handful of balls, and make her choice. Or rather, let the man think he was making the choice. Then they would marry and move to Bath, occupy separate wings of the house and be apart more than they were together. That’s how these types of marriages were supposed to work.

But now she sat across from the man she’d once loved, the space around her shrinking with each second she was near him. “You were supposed to marry me for money. Money for you and a title for me. Love should not have been a factor. Just convenience.”

“A convenience.” The muscles in his jaw worked back and forth. “Was that all I was to you?”

Her throat was suddenly too thick to speak, not that she knew how to answer him. She could tell the truth, that she’d once loved him, that it had broken her heart to leave. That she’d had to leave so as not to bind him to her once she’d lost her money. But they were three years removed from those days. He should have married someone else the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year.

She’d told herself she didn’t care when or whom he married.

But he hadn’t married at all, and now she was confined to the same conveyance as he, frustration radiating from his taut body and his gray eyes churning as he awaited her answer.

Perchance she should lie to him. It would be the easiest path, and he’d leave her alone if she told him she’d never loved him.

But then she’d break his heart yet again.

“No.” She whispered into the tense air between them. “You were more than a convenience. I had feelings for you. I loved you.”

“Loved.” He annunciated the d at the end of the word. “As in, something that happened once. Something that’s over and done. You no longer love me.”

She shifted uncomfortably in the seat. Did she love him? She didn’t know. Hadn’t let herself consider the possibility. She’d locked that part of her heart away, squirreled those memories into a place so dank and gloomy she’d not visited them in three years. And if she were to go back and open the door to that forgotten part of her life, would she find her feelings unchanged? Did she want to find out?  “I don’t know.”

He gave a thud on the top of the chaise, and the conveyance slowed to a stop.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need some air. And it looks as though your maid is in need of a stop as well.” Chard hopped down from the chaise and headed into a quiet patch of woods, no offer to escort her down, no backward glance over his shoulder, just the sharp, jagged movements of an angry man.

And he had every right to be angry

Cressida ushered Knighting from the carriage, and by the time her feet finally touched the road, Twiford and Ross had appeared.

“What is the meaning of this?” Twiford barked. “There’s a coaching inn a quarter hour down the road. Why stop now?”

“Ask your friend.” Cressida jutted her chin toward the brush Chard had trampled as he entered the woods. “Now if you’ll excuse us.”

She helped Knighting into the woods. “Perhaps you’ll feel better after you stretch your legs a bit.”

Or so she hoped, though if her maid’s slow movements and deathly pallor was any indication, nothing but a bed would help her.

Knighting shuffled through the brush beside her. “I’m sorry, Miss Cressida. I’m of no use to you this sick.”

Cressida rubbed her back with soothing, circular motions. “Don’t worry yourself. We’ll reach London tonight and you can get the rest you need. There will be others to attend me.”

Knighting nodded, and the simple movement made her face tint slightly green. “I best return to the carriage. I’m not much for walking at the moment.”

“Let me help you.” Cressida assisted Knighting back, then stood outside the conveyance and tilted her head up, letting the sun touch her skin. Though the air about her was cool, the soft rays felt light, relaxing. She glanced back at the woods, in the direction Chard and the others had headed.

“I don’t like you riding with Chard.”

She whirled around. Evidently Ross hadn’t followed Chard and Twiford into the woods. “Why not?”

“You’ve not a proper chaperone for one, and—”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. We’re hardly doing anything inappropriate.”

A shadow crossed Ross’s face. “He was your betrothed, Cressida. And he’s never married. That must still mean something.”

Ross had kept track of her former fiancé? She stared up at his dark, penetrating eyes, his wide shoulders, and the scar that marred his otherwise handsome face. Ross hadn’t even been in England three years ago. Yet he somehow knew of her broken betrothal. Was his objection to her spending time with Chard now because of it?

She swallowed. “I don’t see why it should matter.”

“Because . . .” He looked helplessly down at her, as though he had words to say, thousands and thousands of them. His hands thrummed at his sides, and he shifted from one foot to the other. “Oh, blast it, Cressida.”

Then those big hands came up to her shoulders, and he kissed her. It was everything a kiss should be, not soft, not hard, but that perfect melding of somewhere in between. His lips tasted of warmth and honey, tenderness and caring. Her mind emptied as she shifted closer to him, then filled with memories.

She broke the kiss and pulled back. The memories churned through his eyes as well. The childhood fishing trips and races through the fields. The time they’d pulled their stockings off and waded into the pond, only to fall and return to the house soaked.

The time they’d said goodbye. He’d been twenty-one and certain to find adventure on the seas . . . Except he ended up in Paris making a mockery of his godly upbringing. That had been the true end of their friendship. She’d not seen him again until her great aunt’s funeral. The funeral that had given her access to an inheritance at his expense because his grandmother held a grudge to the end.

She shifted away from him. “Ross, I can’t . . . that is . . . you shouldn’t . . . I mean, we—”

“I love you, Cressida. I always have, ever since we were little.” He reached out and drew a hand softly down her cheek. “I thought you knew.”

“No,” she whispered, the word barely more than a breath.

Then he leaned forward and kissed her again. And fool that she was, she sank into the warmth, the feel of his mouth on hers and constant thud of his beating heart, the strong arms that wrapped around her and familiarity of—

“What is the meaning of this?”

Cressida jerked away from Ross and turned to face Twiford, his eyes burning with rage and his fists clenched into hard balls at his side.

But it wasn’t Twiford that made her heart stumble and stop beating. It wasn’t Twiford who caused the moisture to leech from her mouth and heat to sear her cheeks.

Lord Chard stood beside his friend, eyes dark with hurt. “Cressy?” his voice broke on her name. Then he shut his eyes and turned away.

* This section contributed by Naomi Rawlings, www.NaomiRawlings.com *

Did you find the hidden item? It’s a tricky one today! Note it in the comments below for a chance to win. 

Don’t forget that the readers will ultimately choose who truly loves Cressida, and whom she loves in return. Already have a favorite? Go vote for him! Want everyone else to vote for him too? Grab a voting badge from the Suitable Match Extras page

There’s no denying that these three men are playing to win. But who just wants the money? What should Cressy do next? Read the next installment!

THE CONTEST AND POLL ARE NOW CLOSED. Feel free to continue to enjoy and share the story.

A Suitable Match, Serial Story Section 6 and a Chance to Win

MatchCoverTo kick off our second year of celebrating Inspirational Regency fiction, we are presenting the serial story, A Suitable Match. At the end of the month we’ll be giving away a fabulous prize package filled with items tied to the story. For a chance to win, find the item mentioned in this section and leave a note in the comments. Details and a list of prizes can be found here. 

Missed an earlier section? Read it here: 1 2 3 4 5

The George and Pelican Inn, somewhere between Somerset and London
April 1818

“I should have known.” Twiford rolled his eyes heavenward but hesitated to move, seemingly content to stand for a moment and marvel at Miss Blackstone’s usual craftiness.

Chard on the other hand, had no intention of allowing her the formality of wheedling her way out of the slight. Why, she’d fairly convinced the group of them that she’d taken it upon herself to travel to London on foot, and in the dead of night no less. That took some doing. Yes, and it also took about ten years off of his life when he thought of her traipsing around a toll road at night, with a sick maid and not enough sense to have known better.

He turned and stared up at the door, feeling that his eyes narrowed unconsciously. Cressy had better be in there, he thought. Now that he knew she was safe, he’d kill her.

Appearing all too jovial at the prospect of catching her in the makeshift lie, Twiford reached out and took the befuddled servant girl’s tray in hand.

“Allow me.”  He cut over to the stairs. And though Ross was quick to take two steps up the stairs behind Twiford, Chard immediately side-stepped them both and bounded up to the second floor without looking back.

Muffled voices and creaking floorboards shifting behind the door signaled she must have known what – or who was coming.

Chard pounded on the door without any sense of decorum. “Open, Cressy. Now.”

Silence.

The three men stood outside the door, Twiford doing his best to balance the tray in his hands and Ross, with his usual glower, staring back at the men as if extremely bothered by the very air they breathed. Chard matched him scowl for authoritative scowl and stood tall despite the bristling.

“I am her cousin.”

“Driver.” Twiford corrected immediately.

“I have just as much right to be here as either of you,” Ross protested as if he actually believed what he said. “And you will not enter that room.”

“You lost the right to voice any concern when you up-turned her chaise in a bog.” Chard’s retort was hardly a whisper and he didn’t care. She was what mattered, the bull-headed beauty behind the door that he’d have to convince to go along with them. That thought was uppermost in his mind.

He tapped his foot impatiently and stared back at the door, willing it to open.

“Open up Cressida, or I am coming in after you.”

“I’d listen to him, Miss Blackstone,” Twiford urged, his tone sarcastic to a fault. “The Viscount Chard seems a mite put out at present.”

That threat seemed to hold some weight, as it was but a moment more of the muffled noises before rusty hinges began their telltale squeaking. The door finally opened wide and there she stood, the most maddening beauty in the world, with her hands clasped demurely and a quite angelic look painted upon her face.

“Good morning, my lord.”

“Here,” Twiford said, offering the tray to her. “We thought you might fancy the orange marmalade.”

Chard didn’t hesitate. He didn’t even take the time to wave the tray off. Instead, he stormed into the room and slammed the door back in his friend’s face.

“Must you always pick up and leave in the dead of night?”

To the rather direct comment, Cressida took several steps backwards and sent a woefully helpless glance over at Knighting. The maid shrugged from the corner. She did not appear ready to contradict his authority.

Good, he thought. She’ll have no choice but to face me. “Yes, Miss Blackstone. I am speaking to you.”

“I didn’t leave in the dead of night.”

“Could have fooled me,” he muttered under his breath, both of them knowing full well that he referred to the last time she’d packed up her belongings and slipped out of his life. He didn’t intend to give her a second chance to attempt the same.

He crossed the room and in a veiled fury, began tossing things into her bags. A hair comb. A small, leather-bound Bible. Were those stockings? It wasn’t until he began wadding up dresses that Knighting lurched forward in response, the strict dictations of propriety too much to allow him to be up to his elbows in a lady’s linens. She took up the duty of properly folding her lady’s wares instead, freeing him to turn and face his problem once again.

“Can you give me one good reason why you shouldn’t be accompanied on the road to London? And before you try to pass another sweet-smiled lie on us poor, unsuspecting men, I’d caution you to think twice.” He stood before her with his legs braced apart and arms folded across his chest. When she didn’t answer but twisted her hands and furrowed her brow rather nervously, his anger began to dissipate.

“This is not the time or place to discuss it, Chard.”

Her whispered declaration cut to the heart immediately.

Though he’d been furious at the thought of her venturing out on her own, he had to swallow a bit of guilt at his attempt to reproach her for it. But how could he tell her? How would he find the words to explain that while Twiford and Ross had been arguing over who was at fault for their current predicament, his heart had climbed clear up to his throat and set to beating rather wildly.

He stood then, staring into those eyes he’d once known so well, and caved under her spell again. You fool, he thought. She’ll only hurt you again.

“I’ll be waiting downstairs. Be packed and ready to depart in ten minutes.”

***

Cressida didn’t much take to being hoisted into a traveling coach and plopped down on the seat like an errant toddler, but that’s exactly what had happened. After barging into her room, her former fiancé had insisted that not only was he accompanying her on the trip to London, but that she and Knighting would be riding in his coach for what remained of the journey.

Chard now sat across from her and peered out the window, his head bobbing as the vehicle sailed over the bumps and numerous ruts of the road.

Cressida watched him in silence, noting that he seemed quite austere and …older somehow. As if the past years had treated him coolly. As if he’d changed beneath the familiar façade that was taking such care to ignore her completely. It was off-putting that they had an opportunity to talk and yet he now seemed to earnestly avoid it.

Was he still so very angry with her? Could she believe that anything mattered to him once? That perhaps… she may have mattered to him more than a cache of money to line his pockets?

Cressida broke the silence before she could talk herself out of it. “Is there is no Viscountess Chard?” Her voice cracked slightly, causing her cheeks to warm with a blush.

He turned and stared back at her, the pointed gaze making her feel like melting down into her boots.

“No. There is not, Cressida. Were you planning on reapplying for the position?”

* This section contributed by Kristy L. Cambron, paris-mom.blogspot.com. *

Did you find the hidden item? Note it in the comments below for a chance to win. 

Don’t forget that the readers will ultimately choose who truly loves Cressida, and whom she loves in return. Already have a favorite? Go vote for him! Want everyone else to vote for him too? Grab a voting badge from the Suitable Match Extras page

How do you think Cressida should respond? What do you think the other gentlemen think of Chard’s monopolizing Cressy’s attentions? Read the next installment!

THE CONTEST AND POLL ARE NOW CLOSED. Feel free to continue to enjoy and share the story.