Ah, well! At least nothing else can go wrong today, thought Miss Rebecca Fossington as she made her way up the stairs of the coaching inn, a lighted candle in her hand. And thank goodness for that!
The freezing cold day in the January of 1814 had been full of trials and tribulations. In the morning Rebecca's companion, Miss Biddulph, had been taken ill and Rebecca, whose journey was urgent, had had to leave her in the care of a local apothecary. Then Rebecca's coach had become stuck in a snow drift, delaying her so badly that she had been forced to seek a room at an inn, instead of traveling on to her aunt and uncle's house in London. She had taken the last room, and as it was very cold she had told her maid to leave the unpacking until a fire had been lit and the room had warmed through. Then she had retired to the parlour for something to eat, and now she was looking forward to returning to a cheery glow and settling down for the night.
She reached the top of the stairs and turned along the corridor, glad of the flickering candle which lit her way. She reached her room and opened the door, and then stood stock still. For there, standing not six feet away from her, was a strange gentleman — in the act of undressing!
Her first thought, as she took in the unexpected apparition, was that she must have returned to the wrong room, but a glance around the apartment told her otherwise. It was the same small chamber she had taken earlier that evening, with its dark red paper on the walls and its thick rug covering the floor. The only difference was that the fire was now aglow.
Her second thought was that, if she had not mistaken the room, then the gentleman must have done so. She was about to point this out to him when he turned around and her courage faltered, for she became uncomfortably aware that he looked very like a lion. He had glowing eyes, strongly contoured features and a thick mane of tawny hair. His lithe and muscular body, clad in breeches and a half-buttoned shirt, continued the impression of a jungle animal.
Realising she must speak before her courage failed her, she said, “I do not know what you are doing here but I would be obliged, sir, if you would immediately leave the room.”
“Now why would I do that?” he asked, looking at her as though she were his next meal.
“Because you have no right to be here. This is my room,” she said.
“It doesn't seem that way to me,” he returned.
Thinking that he had arrived to find the inn was full, but that he had somehow stumbled into an empty room and decided to keep it, she said, “I took it earlier this evening, the room is mine, and as I am not about to give it up, I would be obliged if you would be on your way.”
He looked at her levelly.
“Would you indeed? I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have no intention of leaving.”
“Neither have I,” returned Rebecca, stepping firmly inside the door.
“No?” His eyes took on a predatory look and his mouth curved as he removed his cravat and threw it on the bed. “I am very pleased to hear it. Then by all means, stay!”
She was about to take him at his word and sit on the bed when she had the alarming feeling that he would regard it as in invitation! There was something very particular about the way his eyes were travelling across her ebony locks, her porcelain-white skin and her naturally red lips, before drifting down over her delightful body. It made her feel very week in the knees. Knowing that she must bring the matter to a hasty conclusion, she said, “I only left the room to take supper downstairs, I cannot think how you came to be here, but I must ask you to go.”
“A good try,” he said. His mouth curved sardonically in evident disbelief, and as if to stake his claim, he continued, provocatively, to undress.
Rebecca swallowed and was momentarily nonplussed, but she had no fancy to spend the night sharing a bed with her maid. Reminding herself that she came from a long line of determined people who had risen from poverty to prosperity by persevering against the odds, she said, “If you do not believe me you may ask the innkeeper.”
But he casually swept her challenge aside.
“I haven't the slightest interest in asking the innkeeper,” he returned. “The room is mine and I intend to use it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you have paid for it?”
“I have indeed, and paid handsomely, this being the last room at the inn.”
“Then it seems there has been some double dealing,” said Rebecca, realising that the innkeeper, seeking to make as much money as possible out of the calamitous weather conditions, had double let the room. “In a situation such as this a gentleman would customarily defer to a lady...”
“Would he? You have been in a similar situation before, then?” he asked.
“No, not precisely, but —”
Her mouth dried as he pulled his shirt out of his breeches and her next words refused to come out. He had undone all the buttons, which ran from neck to chest, and he was lifting his arms as if he was going to remove it altogether. She had a sudden urge to flee — until she realized that that must be his intention, and so she stiffened her resolve and continued.
“...but...” she said, stopping again in mid-sentence as he pulled his shirt over his head, his muscles rippling as he did so. She swallowed. “In that case,” she said again, trying not to look at his tanned and muscular chest, “I am sure you would not want to deprive me of somewhere to sleep tonight.”
“No. You're right. I wouldn't.”
She breathed a sigh of relief as she realised he was going to give way after all. And not a moment too soon, for she was not sure how much longer she could have persevered. She had a strong character, but she was beginning to discover that the gentleman in front of her had one that was as at least as strong as her own.
Her relief was short lived, however, for his eyes caressed her again, more intimately than before. Then he threw his shirt on the bed and said outrageously, “You're welcome to share.”
To her annoyance she felt herself blush, but she was determined to have one last try.
“Am I to understand that you refuse to leave the room?” she enquired.
“Yes, you are,” he said with a mocking smile.
She was not a woman who liked to admit defeat, but she knew when she was beaten. The only course left to her was to retreat with as much dignity as possible.
Saying haughtily, “Then it seems that I must be the one to leave,” she turned and walked out of the room.
Once in the corridor she berated the innkeeper soundly under her breath and then retired to her maid's room.
“Oh, Miss, I was just coming,” said the girl.
She lifted a pile of nightclothes out of the trunk that was open by the bed and headed for the door.
“I am afraid there has been a muddle, Susan,” said Rebecca. “My room has been given to someone else. We will have to share.”
She sank onto the bed, annoyed, for she did not like to be bested. Her one consolation was that she would be leaving the inn first thing in the morning and so she would never have to see the leonine man again.
Her thoughts were not shared by the man in question, who would have been very happy to see her again. He had met many spirited wenches in his time, and many meek young ladies, but her combination of spirit and gentility was new to him, and that blend of dark hair, ruby red lips and porcelain skin was very attractive. He should have been annoyed with her for trying to steal his room, for he was convinced that, having found the inn full, she had pretended that it belonged to her in an effort to win it by fair means or foul. But instead he admired her for it. He had always been a man to take what he wanted, and it was not often he met with a kindred spirit. What a pity she had not accepted his offer to share his bed!
He indulged himself with memories of her delicate face and curvaceous figure, before he suddenly frowned. It was strange, but somehow she reminded him of someone. He thought of her ebony locks, her white skin and her ruby lips, and his mind lingered for a moment on the memory. But then he shook his head. No. She could not remind him of anyone. He knew no one with such striking colouring. And yet there had been something. Something about her determined manner and the shape of her chin...
No. It was gone. He could not catch it.
Oh, well, she had provided him with an interesting interlude in his journey down to London, but it was probably a good thing she had not accepted his offer of sharing his bed, because it was serious business that had brought him back to England, and he had no time for distractions.
However charming those distractions might be.
Thank goodness! thought Rebecca as her coach rolled out of the inn yard the following morning. Her journey so far had been fraught with difficulties and she was relieved to be on her way. Her coach joined the London road and she turned her attention to the beautiful scene outside the window. Although the weather was icy the sky was a brilliant blue, and the snow was a lovely sight.
She snuggled down beneath her travelling rug, settled her booted feet more comfortably on her stone hot water bottle and gave herself up to an enjoyment of the view.
Towns and villages passed by, until at last, just before lunch, she entered the capital, and from there it was but a short journey to her aunt and uncle's house in Sloane Street.
As the coach finally rolled to a halt she gave a smile as she saw how pretty the house looked under its winter coating. The small-paned windows were covered in frost, the window sills were piled high with snow, and icicles hung from the portico.
Shaking out her travelling cloak she climbed out of the carriage and stretched her stiff legs before going up the stone steps to the front door.
“Welcome back, Miss Fossington,” said Canning, the butler, as he opened the door.
“Thank you, Canning.” She smiled, pleased to see his familiar face.
At that moment her aunt, having heard the coach, hurried into the hall to greet her.
Mrs Hetty Marsden was an elegant woman of some five-and-thirty years of age. She was dressed in a fashionable high-waisted gown of dark green silk, with a Cashmere shawl thrown over her shoulders to keep out the winter chill. She greeted Rebecca warmly, taking her hands and then embracing her.
“Rebecca! We thought you would never arrive! But let's not stand here talking in the hall. You must be frozen. Come in!”
Rebecca returned her aunt's affectionate hug, then accompanied her into the drawing-room. She looked round the familiar room with affection. It was elegantly proportioned, and was furnished with taste and style. Hepplewhite chairs and damasked sofas were arranged in satisfying groups; small tables inlaid with rosewood and satinwood were dotted conveniently about; and a collection of paintings depicting classical scenes adorned the walls. A large marble fireplace dominated the far end of the room, and a welcome fire burned in the grate.
With stiff fingers Rebecca removed her bonnet and cloak as her aunt rang for tea.
“You look tired,” said Hetty, having ordered some refreshment. She took in Rebecca with an affectionate eye.
“I am,” Rebecca admitted. “The journey was long and difficult. I am pleased to be finally here.”
“When you did not arrive last night I couldn't help being worried,” said Hetty. She sat down beside Rebecca on the gold-damasked sofa. “But your Uncle Charles was far more sensible. He said you must have been delayed by of the weather.”
“The weather was dreadful,” agreed Rebecca. “The roads were slippery and in several places the coachmen had to dig a way through the snow. But the worst part was when Biddy was taken ill. In the end, she was too poorly to continue. I had to leave her behind, in the care of a local apothecary.”
“Oh, poor Miss Biddulph. Still, you did the right thing. The journey would only have made her worse. A draughty coach is no place for someone who is ill. She is to join us here when she is better, I hope?”
“Yes. She will travel on by the mail.”
“Quite right,” said Hetty approvingly. “It is the quickest way of travelling, and if she is recovering from an ague she will not want to be too long on the road.”
The door opened and tea was brought in. Revived by a hot drink and a piece of seed cake, Rebecca told her aunt about the rest of her journey.
“Where did you stay last night?” asked Hetty, pouring Rebecca a second cup of tea. “It was a good hostelry, I hope? The food tolerable, and the sheets properly aired?”
“I stayed at The Nag's Head,” said Rebecca, sipping her tea.
“The Nag's Head?” Her aunt frowned. “I don't know it. How was your room?”
A sudden memory of her room, complete with partially-dressed gentleman, flashed into Rebecca's mind. She almost choked on her tea. Quickly she put down the cup. “Unfortunately the inn was so full I had to spend the night in the attic with Susan.”
She mentioned nothing of her encounter with the leonine gentleman. She was uncomfortably aware that she had not behaved in the most ladylike of fashions. She should have roused Susan and then, accompanied by her maid, demanded to see the landlord, leaving him to sort out the problem of the disputed room. Instead of which she had, unchaperoned, bandied words with a partially-clad gentleman! Behaviour which, whilst being unexceptionable in terms of courage, would be likely to draw her aunt's disapproval down on her head.
“How awful!' said Hetty, knowing nothing of what was going through her mind. “Well, never mind, you are here now, and that is what matters. And you have still managed to arrive in time for the reading of your grandfather's will.”
The two ladies both thought of the reading of Jebadiah's will, which was the reason for Rebecca's journey to London. It was to take place that afternoon.
“That is why I pressed on with the journey, instead of staying with Biddy,” said Rebecca. “I knew it would be both difficult and frustrating for Charles to have to rearrange the reading, and besides, I'm sure you both must be wanting to know how things have been left.”
“It will certainly make life easier,” remarked Hetty. “Particularly as the will was missing for so long. It was only by the greatest good fortune it was ever found.”
“It was typical of Grandfather to keep it himself, instead of entrusting it to his lawyers,” said Rebecca. “ "They're rogues, Becky," he used to say to me,” she remembered with a smile. “ "Lawyers... bankers... they're all the same. Rogues and rascals, Becky — every man.”
“Typical indeed!” agreed Hetty. “And it was just as typical of him not tell anyone where he had put it. He always liked to keep his own counsel where business matters were concerned.”
Jebadiah Marsden — Rebecca's grandfather and her uncle Charles's father — had died some time before, but his will had only recently been found, tucked away in a copy of Shakespeare's plays.