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 2 3 4 5 6 7
On the road somewhere between Somerset and London
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.
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.
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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