Home > Her First Desire(6)

Her First Desire(6)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

Worse, the word had begun spreading through the parish. Clarissa had wasted no time in telling everyone the date. When he walked into The Garland, the lads there jeered him in the way men do.

“We will be needing a new chairman,” cried one of the Dawson lads. “You are leaving the Society, Doctor. Once married, a man is no longer one of us.”

“We are disappointed,” claimed his brother. “Makes me want to drink.”

The group laughed at that quip.

And then, a voice that Ned recognized and was surprised was with the company said, “I didn’t think you would be fool enough to walk into the parson’s trap.”

The Duke of Winderton, confident with the arrogance of youth, leaned against the bar. He was all of one and twenty, dark haired, square jawed, and with the beginning of a bit of paunch around his belly. That hadn’t been there when he’d left Maidenshop for the world a few months ago.

Then again, Ned knew he had always been a man whose mother had spoiled him to the point he didn’t listen to good sense. Balfour was Winderton’s uncle and had served as his guardian, a task that he’d not enjoyed.

Ned removed his hat, hanging it on a peg on the wall with the others. “Your Grace, you’ve returned from London.”

“I’ve had enough of it.”

That seemed an odd thing to say. When the duke left Maidenshop it had been with some ill will. He’d declared the village could no longer contain him. Apparently, London couldn’t, either.

“I just saw your uncle. He didn’t mention you had returned.”

“He isn’t my guardian anymore. I’ve reached my majority, so I no longer have a keeper.”

Privately, Ned thought Winderton should still have one—to teach him humility if nothing else.

“You look as if you need a drink,” the duke said.

All reservations about Winderton vanished. “I do.”

In short order a tankard of ale was pressed into Ned’s hand and he forgot about the duke. Winderton was not his worry. He had troubles enough of his own, and the ale tasted good.

Besides the duke and the Dawson brothers, the others included Shielding the lawyer, Michaels, whom Ned never grasped what it was exactly he did, Squire Leonard, Jonathon Fitzsimmons, Nathanial Crisp, and a host of others that Ned didn’t really know. The young, new members had brought them in.

Were they drinking too much as the matrons complained? Probably. But tonight Ned felt it justified. Damn the matrons. Damn their manipulating ways that had made him feel he must step forward and see to Miss Taylor’s future.

He’d done the gentlemanly thing by offering marriage, and now he had to go through with it. He felt as if he’d put a noose around his neck . . . and it was tightening.

Ned reached for another drink.



Chapter Three


Gemma hadn’t realized there was a four-mile walk from the Newmarket Road Posting Inn to Maidenshop, a challenging task after a night of travel.

When she’d traveled in the past, it had been by private chaise. Of course, that had been when she’d expected her husband to pick up her expenses.

Four miles was a long way to tramp after the journey she had just taken.

She had assumed that since her post traveled at night there would not be that many passengers. She had been wrong. The coach had been packed and she’d found herself sitting on a narrow bench on top of the vehicle, her valise in her lap and her bonnet in danger of being blown off her head.

The driver had to have been drinking. Their way down the road could be described as erratic and fast. He only stopped to change horses and drop off the heavy mailbags. At each coaching house, passengers scrambled off the coach for food or a moment of privacy. They were warned that if they weren’t back on the stage when the driver was ready, they’d be left behind.

Gemma had readily jumped off with the others until, on the road again, she had witnessed a woman sitting on the bench’s end seat almost tumble off the swiftly moving coach. The woman had nodded off and the driver had swerved.

Fortunately, the quick-witted passenger behind her caught her arm and saved her. Otherwise, the poor woman would have been left behind in the night. From that moment on, Gemma was determined to hold her seat in the center of the bench.

While Gemma had found it impossible to sleep, the large man to her right curled over until he was practically slumped into her lap, snoring heavily. He also smelled. The smaller man on her left kept jabbing her with his elbow until Gemma had decided to jab back.

Now, after twelve exhausting hours, she faced the walk to Maidenshop. Lifting her heavy valise over one shoulder like a sailor carrying his seabag, Gemma considered herself blessed it wasn’t raining. This trip was hard enough.

On the Mail, she’d whiled away the time dreaming about what she might do with The Garland. Now it took all her energy to keep moving forward.

Then, just when she thought she couldn’t take a step more, she reached the outskirts of the village. There was the spire of the church and down the road she could see the whitewashed walls of The Garland. Her step quickened. She’d made it.

The tavern was a rabbit warren of rooms under a thatched roof. It was a masculine establishment. There were no embellishments such as a welcoming garden by the door. There was a sign, made of aging, splintered wood with the outline of a garland on it. The appearance of the building was spartan and the message clear: people came here to drink.

Gemma started to turn the handle of the heavy wood front door, but then stopped. She needed to be grateful. She closed her eyes. “Thank you, Andrew. May you give your blessing to me as I build a new life.”

On that earnest prayer, she opened the door and stepped out of the late-morning light into the darkness of a closed tavern.

When last she’d been here, Andrew had been busy baking rook pies and preparing for a lecture the Logical Men’s Society, a local club of gentlemen, was holding.

Apparently, the village doctor organized it. “He is excited for the lecture. He’s one of those men who likes to think. However, most of the lads will be here for the ale and my rook pies,” Andrew had bragged to her.

“Well, perhaps they will learn something,” she had replied.

“You have to be sober to learn,” had been Andrew’s response.

She remembered that so clearly, just as she could recall the smell of the baking pies, the late-afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows, the neat tidiness of the tavern’s main room, and a sense of peace. The peace was what she’d been moving toward, she realized. She was searching for a haven.

That was not what she walked into.

It was as if she had inhabited a storm in London only to be blown into this place eerie in its silence—and destruction. A pack of wolves could not have caused so much damage.

The rooms of the tavern ran into each other under the low ceiling. There was the main room with a bar, tables and chairs, a taproom, and the kitchen. When she’d visited last spring, the place had the same spare furnishings and decoration but had reflected Andrew’s pride of ownership.

Now the seating was jumbled and out of order as if chairs had been tossed around by a giant hand. The tables appeared sticky with spilled drink, and the hearth smelled as if it had not been cleaned since Andrew had died. The ash was at least six inches deep. An effort had been made to shift down the pile for making a new fire only to spread cold ashes out on the floor. Footsteps had walked through it and could be traced around the room.

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