Much Ado About A Widow–Chapter 1

Much Ado About A Widow

by Jenna Jaxon

Chapter 1

Late January, 1817

Staring out at the bleak winter landscape of frozen grass and lifeless trees, Lady Georgina Kirkpatrick decided that the infernal bumping of the carriage taking her back to her father’s estate in East Sussex had been substantially less annoying to her yesterday. Of course, then Georgie had not spent eight hours the previous day being bounced about, plagued by roads that seemed to conjure up every rock, good-sized boulder, and deep rut possible just to shatter her spine. Now, though she was determined to face the rest of the drive with the steely fortitude passed down by generations of her family’s ancestors, she couldn’t help but sigh over the fact that the arduous ride was rather symbolic of the onerous marriage she faced at journey’s end.

The carriage hit a particularly deep rut, tossing Georgie into the lap of her lady’s maid, Clara, and making Lulu, Georgie’s King Charles spaniel, yip vigorously.

“Goodness gracious.” Georgie picked herself up off of Clara’s ample lap and gathered the protesting Lulu into her arms. “There, there, my girl. Are you quite all right?”

Lulu yipped again and sneezed.

Inspecting the dog’s paws and legs, Georgie gave a nod and placed the little animal on the soft, black leather seat beside her once more. “Folger. Folger, I say.” She stood up, swaying with the rocking motion of the carriage, and rapped on the trap with her bare knuckles. A little too smartly from the sting of them.

The trap door opened, and one of her father’s coachmen peered down at her. “Something the matter, my lady?”

“Is it at all possible to avoid at least some of the ruts in the road, Folger?” She grabbed hold of the lip of the trap as the conveyance hit another bump. “I’m being tossed about like a leaf in a high wind.” If this ghastly motion continued she might even cast up her accounts, though that was something she could not tell her coachman. “Poor Lulu cannot stay on the seat.”

Folger sent a sharp look toward the spaniel, who bared her teeth at him in return. “I’ll do what I can, my lady. This road’s a bad ’un, especially this time of year. I’ll slow the team down a mite. That should help.”

“Thank you, Folger. You are a prince among coachmen.”

The elderly servant ducked his head, his cheeks turning even redder than the cold had already made them.

Georgie beamed at him and lowered the trap. “He’s one of Father’s more reasonable servants.” She sat down and pulled Lulu into her lap, completely disregarding possible damage to her new blue-striped pelisse. “I’m surprised he’s lasted this long in my father’s employ.”

“Why’s that, my lady?” Clara’s head tilted to the side like that of an inquisitive finch. She’d only been with Georgie for two months and still had a lot to learn about the household.

“Because my father prefers his servants to do exactly as they’re told, no questions and no deviations. Folger should have just told me that he had his orders to deliver me to Blackham Castle by sundown this evening, and that should have been that. No slowing down suggested at all.” Georgie grinned at her maid. “If it had been Dobson on the seat, he’d have sped the horses up.”

Clara chuckled, then remembered herself and cleared her throat.. “When you’re married you can hire a coachman who will take your orders and no others.”

As if Clara had waved a magic wand, Georgie’s good mood turned to dust, and she frowned, twisting around in her seat to stare out the window. “My husband will be the one to hire the coachmen, Clara. Hire all the outside servants.” She turned her gaze on her maid—her hard-won lady’s maid—and all the joy Georgie had known during the past weeks with her friends and brother at Hunter’s Cross attending Fanny’s wedding drained slowly out of her, leaving her as empty as a husk.

“I’m ever so sorry, my lady.” Clara eased back in her seat, trying to disappear it seemed. Glancing at Georgie and away, she picked at the hem of her handkerchief. “Perhaps Lord Travers will—”

“Never mind, Clara. From what I know of Lord Travers he is a man, much like my father, who will wish to bend all his servants to his will alone. Perhaps that is why Father agreed to his original suit and to its renewal since I became a widow. Like always fancies like from my experience.” Georgie wrinkled her nose. The idea of being married to a man like her father almost succeeded in swaying her from her resolve to marry Lord Travers.

“Your father is not like you at all, is he?”

“Hardly.” Georgie sniffed. To think she bore any resemblance to her father made her cringe. “If Father had tried to find a suitor who would be more offensive to me, I don’t think he would have succeeded.” She shivered. “Lord Travers managed to make my second Season sheer torture with his excessive attentions to me. I could not attend any party, rout, ball, soiree, or entertainment without seeing him leering in my face, fawning over me, and constantly asking me to dance.”

“Did you have to accept every one of his requests? Could you not turn him down a time or two?”

“Only if I didn’t want to dance very much that night.” As though she’d bitten into a sour lemon, Georgie puckered her mouth at the memory. “He always managed to be the first gentleman to ask me to stand up with him at the ball. Unless some other gentleman had asked for a dance beforehand, if I refused Travers, I could not have danced with anyone else who asked me for that dance. It would probably have been remarked upon, too—to my detriment instead of his, of course.” She sighed heavily. That second Season had been trying to say the least. “So inevitably I’d accept him, and he would smirk and saunter off, very proud of himself, and wait for our dance.” Recalling the naked hunger in his black-eyed gaze, she shivered. Even when dancing with other gentlemen she’d been uncomfortably aware of him watching her—like a thousand dirty fingers poking her bare flesh.

“He sounds like a very undesirable gentleman to be sure.”

“Undesired by me, certainly. Other ladies, apparently, were not so discerning. There was much gossip about him and Lady Osbourne that Season, and one of my cousins who had come out that same year as well said her mama had stricken his name from her list of eligible suitors for just such behavior.” If only Georgie’s own mother had been alive then, perhaps she could have made a stand against Father.

Instead, Georgie’s father’s sister, Aunt Augusta, had brought Georgie out, but under strict instructions about chaperonage from her father and the decree that she would not marry during her first Season so that he could turn to arranging the marriage himself. At that time he’d been busy with arranging marriages for her older twin sisters, Emma and Mary. That distraction had lasted two years and had been a godsend for Georgie because it had allowed her to circulate throughout the ton, making the acquaintance of many gentlemen without fear of making an alliance with any of them. Which was just as well. She’d not been out a month before she’d known without a doubt she could never marry anyone other than Mr. Isaac Kirkpatrick, their parish vicar’s son.

“Lord Travers must have behaved scandalously for a mother to have stricken an earl from her list.” The horror in Clara’s voice brought Georgie back to the swaying carriage.

“My cousin didn’t know all the particulars at the time—her mother would not tell her everything and for good reason. Such things are not spoken of to virginal young ladies. But after I married Mr. Kirkpatrick, I was able to find out more about Lord Travers’s escapades.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice, even though no one else was there to hear. “He had ruined at least one girl on one of his outlying estates, leaving her with a child to raise. And he dallied with a young lady of good family.”

Clara’s eyes widened. “They didn’t force him to marry her?”

Shaking her head, Georgie sat back. “The young lady was too distraught to tell anyone when she discovered her predicament. Then when she had to admit their transgression, Travers denied it had been him.” Poor wretched thing. “She was sent into the country as they scrambled to find a decent man who would wed her. I believe they found one in time, but of course everyone knew about it. She hasn’t been seen in Society since. She may never be again.”

And the rake who had ruined her reputation was the gentleman Georgie was supposed to marry.

“I had not realized Lord Travers was such a . . . a disreputable man.” Clara bowed her head. “I wonder that you have decided to go through with the marriage, my lady.”

Georgie peered at her maid, her spirits plummeting. “Are you beginning to think differently about accompanying me to his household when I marry him, Clara? I would not think less of you if you did. Living with him will be quite a change in circumstances.” For both of them.

“Oh, no, my lady.” Clara straightened and looked Georgie in the eyes defiantly. “I could never abandon you to go to him alone. Not and call myself a Christian woman.” A grim smile crossed her face. “I’ll be right there by your side when you go to his household. I suspect you’ll have need for a loyal servant then.” The maid bit her lips. “No, my lady, I simply wondered why you decided to marry him if he has such a scandalous reputation.”

That had been the question Georgie had been asked constantly for the past two weeks at Hunter’s Cross. “Because my father has commanded it, and if I do not accede to his wishes he will disown me once more, and forever, he assures me.” As untenable a position as a ship sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. “As I have no means to support myself if he does, I will be truly destitute. Neither is my late husband’s family able to support me at this time.” Inquiries to her father-in-law had yielded this information shortly after her father had informed her of his choice for her second marriage. “And although my brother and his wife would surely welcome me, they are currently dependent on our father’s good will as well.”

Her other friends had offered her assistance, but she could not countenance being the burden on them she must be for the six years before she received her mother’s inheritance. Georgie straightened her shoulders and raised her chin. “So I am resolved to marry Lord Travers and try to make the best life possible with him.” She smiled at her maid, whose eyes glistened with tears. “So thank you very much for coming with me, Clara. I value your loyalty to me above all. You and Lulu will be the only friendly faces I will have. At least until I get my bearings and begin to know my neighbors.” Surely the people in Essex wouldn’t be very different from those she knew already. “And as I will be scarcely half a day’s ride from Lord and Lady Wrotham, perhaps they will visit me once their baby arrives.”

“Your brother too, my lady. He and his wife won’t abandon you, I’m certain.”

“Of course.” Georgie smiled at the prospect of Jemmy and Elizabeth settled in London with her family until their child would be born. They would be close enough for her to visit. If Travers allowed it. “I shall not be completely bereft of company. Indeed, I shall get along quite well in my new life.”

If only she believed it.

The pitching of the carriage lessened as the team veered into the yard of a coaching inn called The Running Horse. Glancing out the window, Georgie discovered a bustling scene with grooms hustling to and fro leading horses here and there, all types of people disembarking from a mail coach, children crying, hostlers shouting, bridles clinking. The panorama teeming with life chased away her somber mood.

“Let us stretch our legs, Clara, and get something hot to drink. Come, Lulu.” Georgie held the lead in one hand and gathered the little dog under her other arm.

Lulu yipped and struggled to get down.

“You know you cannot leap down from the carriage, so I do not know why you put up such a fuss each time I carry you.” Sighing, she took the coachman’s hand. “Thank you, Folger. We will require hot tea and a moment’s rest.”

“Very good, my lady.” He turned to a groom who was already unharnessing the team.

Putting Lulu on the ground, Georgie gave her a pat and tried to untangle the leash. Lulu shook herself, sniffed the air, growled, then bolted toward the center of the inn yard.

“Lulu!” The leather lead slipped through her fingers and Georgie stopped, paralyzed. A party of riders thundered into the yard, their horses’ hooves slashing the frozen mud mere feet away from the little dog. Lulu backed up, barking as though she would attack the giants.

Heart beating almost out of her chest, Georgie raced forward and grabbed the lead. She pulled with all her might, and Lulu slid back toward her, out of danger. Gathering the dog into her arms and thanking heaven for her salvation, Georgie glanced up at the riders who had just missed her pet. The party of four rather rugged-looking men was dismounting. Grooms bespeaking lodging for their master, perhaps, for she could see their mounts were costly. One fellow with a round, jowly face and a flattened nose glanced at her and nodded.

Too distraught to even acknowledge him, she turned away, holding Lulu tight against her chest.

“My lady, are you all right?” Face pale as snow, Clara ran up to her.

“Perfectly fine.” Georgie’s shaken voice belied her words, but she couldn’t help it. Trying to breathe normally, she headed for the inn, relieved the incident had ended with no harm to her save some mud on the hem of her pelisse. Once they were free of the inn yard, she put Lulu down again, and the dog trotted happily in front of her, tail waving like a fringed white flag.

The innkeeper was a pleasant red-faced man who took them to a private parlor where they enjoyed hot tea and biscuits, while Lulu relished a bowl of chopped chicken. When they were through, Georgie handed the leash to Clara. “Will you take Lulu into the yard? I must use the necessary, and then I’ll join you in the carriage.”

Some little time later, Georgie emerged from the inn then stood in the doorway, looking for Clara and Lulu. The yard hummed with activity, but her maid was nowhere to be seen. A glance told her they were not in the carriage. Had Clara gone around to the stable to let Lulu relieve herself? Surely any patch of ground would do. She started toward the stable when, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the man with the jowly face who had almost trampled Lulu; he was watching as she strode across the yard. Normally, she would have paid him no mind, but something about his intent gaze, turning his head to follow her as she crossed the yard, made the hair on the nape of her neck prickle. What had sparked such interest in her? The fellow had almost killed Lulu, so she certainly wanted nothing else to do with him.

Suddenly Clara appeared, Lulu at her heels, tail still proudly wagging.

Thank goodness. Georgie hurried toward her maid, who smiled and handed over the leash.

“Here you go, my lady.” She nodded toward Lulu. “She needed a bit of encouragement as she couldn’t decide just where she wanted to squat.” Clara stopped and frowned. “What’s wrong? Your face is all in a knot.”

“It’s nothing, I suppose. That man over there—” Georgie pointed surreptitiously toward the place where the man was sitting. Had been sitting, for now he had vanished. “He’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?” Face puckered, Clara looked around the inn yard.

“The man who almost rode over Lulu.” Georgie shook her head. Had she imagined the man’s interest? “I could swear he was watching me when I was searching for you.”

“I’m sure most gentlemen do.”

Heat rose in Georgie’s cheeks. “He wasn’t a gentleman. I think he’s a groom. And it wasn’t that kind of watching.” Although perhaps that’s all it was. An insolent servant ogling a lady and nothing more. She shrugged it off and put Lulu in the carriage then clambered in after her. Clara followed, and a groom shut the door. The carriage started with a jerk, and they were off on the next part of the journey. In several hours they would stop at Horley for luncheon.

Georgie settled herself in the forward-facing seat, drew Lulu across her lap, and stroked the long silky fur. That always had a calming effect on both her and her pet. The soothing motion together with the slight swaying of the carriage relaxed her until she fell into a doze, not quite sleeping, not quite awake. Just peaceful and warm.

A low whimpering slowly brought Georgie back to the edge of consciousness. Blinking, she gazed about the carriage. Clara had fallen asleep as well, but Lulu had her ears raised. Growling softly, the spaniel padded across the tufted leather seat and raised her paws to rest on the edge of the window. Her growls changed to barking, and Georgie yawned, then slid over to her.

“What is all this fuss about, Lulu? You can’t need to go out again so soon.” Peering over the dog’s head, Georgie looked at her father’s outrider cantering beside the carriage.

“Goodness.” The maid stretched and stifled a yawn. “I must have fallen asleep.”

“That’s quite all right.” Georgie’s attention was fixed on the rider. “Look at the man riding alongside us, Clara.”

The maid glanced out the window and shrugged. “What about him?”

“He’s not one of my father’s outriders.” Frowning as she pressed her face against the cold window pane, Georgie moved her head this way and that, seeking a better look.

“He’s not?” Clara slid over to gaze out the window as well. “Then who is he?”

“He’s the man I told you about, the one with the flattened nose who was watching me in the inn yard.” Georgie bounced over to the other side of the carriage, panic rising at the sight of another unfamiliar outrider. “This one too. Folger!” She leaped to her feet and banged on the trap. “Folger! Who are these men? What is going on?”

The chilling silence that ensued was punctuated by the high crack of a whip. The carriage shot forward, throwing Georgie back into her seat, where she narrowly missed Lulu, who was barking wildly.

“What’s happening, my lady?” Eyes wide and wild, Clara clutched her arm.

Georgie’s composure slipped, and dread threatened to engulf her, but she took a deep breath to steady herself and announced, “I am very much afraid we are being kidnapped.”