The Runaway Fiancée
“You have always been an ungrateful wretch, Melina. After all the sacrifices I have made for you, the least you could do is cooperate with the fitting for the new gown you are to wear tomorrow night. Your fiancé will want to see a young lady of elegance, not a hoyden!”
“What should he care!” cried Melina. “He only wants my money to settle his debts and a brood mare to continue his name.”
“Outrageous! Don’t you dare speak in such a shameful way again – if Lord Pentrith should hear the like from you! The less he sees of you before the wedding the better. I’ll not have you scotch this betrothal as you did the last. This time I hope to be well rid of you.”
“And I you, Aunt Gertrude,” said Melina.
“Headstrong girl! You are just like your unfortunate father – and see where his wild ways got him!”
Melina’s cheeks suffused with red and her eyes flashed. “I would prefer one-thousand times to be like my father than to show any trace of taking after you!”
Mrs. Gertrude Marling thought it best to leave the room at that juncture. There was no reasoning with the girl when she was in such a state. It was like dealing with her own brother all over again. If she had had a son, Mrs. Marling would have never planned a match between him and her shrew of a niece, for all her fortune. There were some things she wasn’t willing to do for any amount of money and put up with Melina a moment longer than she had to was one of them. It was fortunate that Lord Pentrith had been willing to overlook the disgrace that Reginald had plunged the family into with his shocking death. The man’s pockets must be completely to let. Even so he was making a bad bargain, but she would be the last person to tell him. She wanted the girl gone.
Melina slammed her bedchamber door and threw herself upon her bed. The past three years living with the Marlings had been the worst of her life. And now, to be forced into marriage just to convenience her relatives was more than she could bear. It was possible that life as Lady Pentrith would be an improvement, but a loveless marriage was not what she wanted. She did not want marriage at all. She wanted to set up her own establishment, but her aunt and uncle were her guardians and they would under no condition even contemplate such a move. The family reputation had suffered enough at her father’s hands – they wanted no more scandals to impede the marriagability of their own four daughters.
Privately, Melina thought that even if she were to enter a nunnery and her father should be miraculously found to have been innocent of running off with Lord Charsford’s wife, killing him in a duel, and then dying at the hands of highwaymen as he attempted to leave the country, her cousins still would not stand a chance to marry well. They were all indescribably plain. And they had the same malicious nature as their mother. Not that Melina suffered any illusions about her beauty or character. It was clear when she looked in any mirror that her nose was too big and her mouth too small. And she knew that she rose much too quickly to anger, though a small voice inside of her told her that she had every reason to, given the treatment she had received since her father’s death.
She had not yet met her fiancé. Apparently his mother had been a close friend of her own. Upon Melina’s mother’s deathbed, Lady Pentrith had vowed that her son would marry the baby girl that squalled in the nurse’s arms. After all these years the long forgotten promise had been remembered. Greed was a well known memory restorative. Melina was just cynical enough to doubt whether such a pact had ever been made.
Now Lord Pentrith was honouring it. All the negotiations had been performed through the mail, as Lord Pentrith lived somewhere in the north of England and the Marlings in the south. He was to arrive the next day, when there was to be a celebratory banquet at which they would meet. The marriage was to take place the weekend following.
But Melina had planned for this eventuality. She had been secretly hording money from the allowance her uncle had been obliged to give her every quarter and now had the grand sum of fifty pounds. She also had a string of pearls and the Amburton emeralds in her possession – the latter had been got from the safe to wear at the banquet. She calculated that the emeralds would keep her well enough until she reached her majority. Her fortune was to be hers in three years, when she became twenty-five. She did not intend to share it with any man – no matter what her mother may have agreed to with her dying breath.
Melina endured the fitting of the dress she never intended to wear, but a smile did not ease the sternness of her expression. The milliner later confided to her assistant that her dreams of making a name for herself with the ladies of the Ton were all for naught – no one would look twice at anything such a sour-faced girl was wearing – so there was no need to take special pains with the finishing.
Dinner was an ordeal Melina had no wish to repeat. Her aunt Gertrude spoke with her own daughters as if she were not there, and her uncle silently applied himself to his food as was his custom.
“Henrietta you may join Honoria and Heloise at the dinner table tomorrow, but must go up to bed before the dancing as you are not yet out. Your cousin and Lord Pentrith will have to lead everyone to the floor so let us hope she has learned all the steps. I do not want any further embarrassment.”
“She dances like a stick of wood, Mama! It is so unfair that she should have precedence.” said Honoria, “I am the eldest!”
“Yes, but it is my first season – I should have the distinction!” Heloise pouted.
“Well, I for one do not see why I should not dance!” cried Henrietta. “I may only be sixteen but I am by far the tallest, and the prettiest. This is not London after all.”
“We must do everything within the strictest bounds of society,” said Mrs. Marling. “A family such as ours must pay the utmost attention to our reputation.”
Honoria glared at Melina. “It is all your doing – you and that father of yours. I shall be happy when you have married your fortune hunter.”
Heloise giggled. “He must be desperate indeed to want Melly!”
“I’ll wager he is a dotard,” smirked Henrietta. “I do hope you enjoy a felicitous union, Melly dearest.”
“I think it is all very stupid,” said Heliotrope, who at fourteen was deemed too young to attend the upcoming festivities. “When I marry, I shall have a grand party and not invite any of you.”
“Girls!” admonished Mrs. Marling, a fond smile on her face as she gazed at her daughters. “Remember that to have a lord in the family cannot but be considered a good thing. You shall all benefit from Melina’s marriage. And little though she knows it, she will too, if only that she learns obedience.”
Melina bit her lips to keep from retorting as her cousins sniggered into their napkins. She retired to her room when the meal was over, pleading a need to rest. She rang for her maid a soon as she closed her chamber door.
“Have you made the arrangements, Betty?” she asked, when the girl answered the call.
“Yes miss. Here is a ticket for the stage. It leaves the King’s Head at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
“So late? What about the mail?”
“Miss! All the seats were bespoken.”
“But how will I . . . ?”
“You can count on me, miss. I will tell them you have gone out to take the air, and then later that you are lying down, and later still that you are dressing.”
“And then, when I do not come down to dinner?”
“There is a carter I know. He has a delivery to Yorkshire and will take me up. I will be gone before anyone suspects you are missing.”
“You are a good girl Betty!”
Betty smiled at the praise. “I would do anything for you miss, you know that.”
“When I set up my house I shall send for you. Now, we can only pack a small bag – nothing too fine. And I must wear something very plain for travel if I am to pass myself off as a governess.”
Betty grinned and pulled a brown paper parcel from under the bed. “I slipped into the laundry and borrowed Miss Ellington’s brown crepe, and her second-best pelisse.”
“Oh! How she will scold the laundry maid!” cried Melina.
“That Ethel has it coming to her, miss, there’s no denying. And Miss Ellington too – the airs she gives herself, as if she were a real lady like you, for all she’s only a governess.”
Melina was in a quake all morning lest anything should happen to make her plan go awry. After luncheon she slipped up to her room and dressed in the governess’ clothing. Betty had already hidden the packed portmanteau in a bush by the cow byre of the home farm. The velvet bag with her jewellery she slipped around her neck and stuffed down the bodice of her gown. The dress was ugly and ill-fitting so the extra bulge did not matter in the least. She was more interested in looking dowdy and unmemorable than anything else, so she was quite pleased with the result.
She walked away from the main roads, on trails through the woods and came out behind the inn about a half hour before the stage was due to leave. She tidied herself and walked around to the front of the yard, hoping that there would be no one at the establishment who would recognise her. Dressed as she was, she thought it unlikely, if one of her neighbours should happen by, but her nerves were tightly strung as she opened the inn door and took a seat in the common room.
The stage entered the yard shortly after that and the passengers descended for refreshments. A stylish carriage arrived at the same time. She tried to stay unobtrusive in her seat by the door as a motley assortment of people filed into the room amid noise and bustle. She had only ever been in a private parlour before but these people were to be her fellow passengers, so she would have to get used to being jostled and stared at. Through all the commotion she heard a voice in the hallway saying, “Pentrith, going to your doom, I take it?” The response was muffled.
She froze in her seat, her knuckles white on the handle of her bag.
“Blast, where is that infernal landlord?” A gentleman strode into the room. He was fashionably dressed, heavyset and slightly balding, and had a look of dissipation about him. “Here, you, boy! Where is your master? What is he doing attending to this rabble when I am here?”
Melina didn’t wait to hear more. She hefted her bag to her shoulder and ran from the room, knocking against a young gentleman as she dodged through the door. With a mumbled apology she hurried into the yard and handed her ticket to the driver of the stage. She allowed him to stow her bag on the back of the coach and took a seat inside. It was only when she was sitting still again that she discovered just how much she was shaking. She relaxed into the seat and expelled her breath. Thank goodness she had been prepared. Lord Pentrith was worse than she could have possibly imagined. She steadied her pumping heart with deep, even breaths, congratulating herself on her lucky escape.
When the stagecoach arrived at the London inn, all Melina cared for was to be out of the crowded carriage. Besides stopping every ten miles to change hoses, there had been only one stop for a meal, and that one of the worst Melina had ever sat down to in her life. The stop was barely more than twenty minutes, yet it had taken above ten for the food to be served. The roast was overdone and cold, the potatoes swimming in water, and the wine sour. That there had not been time to eat much did not matter – she scarcely managed to swallow the few tasteless bites she had taken. At least the inn she was to spend the night in appeared accustomed to serving the gentry – the landlady spoke loudly of well-aired sheets.
“Supper in the private parlour for the lady?” The landlady gazed at Melina expectantly.
Melina hesitated. To eat away from the rabble of the common room was appealing but she was loath to part with too much of her money. The decision, however, was taken out of her hands.
“Yes,” spoke a voice from behind. “See that she is taken there at once.” A gentleman came forward and placed a coin in the landlady’s hand, and then he turned to Melina and bowed. “Enjoy your meal.”
“But you cannot pay my way,” she sputtered.
“As you see I already have,” he said gently, and followed the rest of the passengers into the noisy dining room.
“This way, miss,” said the landlady with an interested look on her face. As Melina showed no sign of moving she added, “You’d best do as the young man says.”
“But you must allow me to pay you instead.”
“When someone has done you a kindness, you ought accept it in good grace,” the landlady said, adopting a motherly tone.
“But surely to accept a . . . gift . . . from an unknown gentleman is unseemly!”
“If it disturbs you, you must take it up with the gentleman himself,” said the landlady. “But for a young lady such as yourself, travelling alone as you are, it would be better dealt with in the morning.”
Melina looked about and noticed the stares of a few people upon her. One man leered when he caught her eye and another waggled his head. She hurried to follow the landlady. “I am only a governess, ma’am. I am sure I can travel unaccompanied in all propriety.”
“That may well be,” said the landlady. “But if you think you can convince me you are accustomed to travel in anything other than your family’s own post chaise, you are very much mistaken. I will send my Mary up to keep you company.”
She showed Melina into a small but comfortable room and closed the door behind her. Melina was only too pleased to sink into a comfortable chair before the fire and relish the relative quiet. She thought back to the gentleman. He was dressed in a most nondescript manner and his clothes were dusty from travel. She did not think she had seen him before, yet there was something familiar about him that she could not place. She wondered what had induced him to step forward like that. An act of kindness, the landlady had said. Melina hoped it were true, but regardless of his motives she would have to reimburse him.
A young girl entered with a tray of food which she set upon the table before retiring to one corner of the room.
It wasn’t till she sat to eat that Melina discovered how truly hungry she was. It was plain fare, but good and she made a hearty meal of it. Afterwards Mary showed her to her bedchamber.
“I am to stay with you,” said the girl. “Mama has set up a truckle bed for me.”
Melina was too tired to feel affronted that the landlady had taken such a decision upon herself. In fact it was a comfort to know that she would not be alone on this first night of her adventure. It was only the memory of Lord Pentrith barking orders at the first inn that stopped her from thinking her decision to run away a foolhardy one.
The stage to York was to leave the coaching inn at eight in the morning. Melina entered the courtyard in good time, keeping a close lookout for the young man. The guard had urged her to take her seat and the horses were setting to when she saw him come running out of the inn and climb aboard the moving coach.
“Ah the young rascal,” said the overly friendly woman on Melina’s right. “He must have made a night of it. And now, I suppose, when we are on the open road, he will convince the coachman to let him take the reins and put us all into a ditch. These young whipsters fancy their abilities but handling a team and a great rumbling coach such as this takes more skill than most have got.”
“Like as not drinking blue ruin up there!” grunted a bent man in a greasy greatcoat, sitting across from Melina. “With the state of the roads travel is unsafe as it is, without these young hooligans putting our lives in jeopardy.”
Melina closed her eyes as the two launched into an involved discourse upon the subject. Drunken coachmen, runaway horses and highwaymen figured just as highly as the young bucks out to satisfy a wager or two. If any of it were to be believed, their lives were doomed from the moment of buying their tickets. As it was, they travelled uneventfully till late afternoon, the most exciting incident being a young lad of four pinching his fingers in the coach door and crying boisterously no matter how many sweets his mother produced.
Most of the occupants of the coach were asleep when disaster finally struck. There was a burst of speed that shook Melina awake as the coach began to sway precariously. She could hear angry cries from above, the rush of another vehicle from beside them, and then the splintering of wood accompanied by a jolting crash that hurtled the occupants of the carriage onto the floor. When all movement stopped the coach was listing to one side, and Melina found herself trapped between the door of the coach and the stout woman who had been seated beside her. The young boy’s cries split the air.
“Damned fool hooligans!” yelled the man in the greasy greatcoat.
The opposite door opened and the white faced coachman peered in. “We’ve lost the rear wheel. You’ll have to climb out this way.”
“Climb?” sputtered the woman. “’Tis a wonder we’ve not broken all our bones, thanks to you!”
The coachman ignored her as he helped the little boy and young mother out. The man was next, and then the stout woman was extricated with help from the coachman and the guard.
“How about you, miss?”
“I can manage on my own!” said Melina as she clambered up between the seats and jumped through the doorway of the tilted carriage. She straightened her gown and pelisse. “Nothing more than a few bruises.”
“This is an outrage!” cried the woman. “It was one of those young sprigs of fashion driving, I’ll warrant! It’s a wonder I was not taken off in a fit of seizures!”
“I’ll report this to the authorities! I’ll have your licence!” cried the man.
Melina walked away from the argument and surveyed the scene. A farmer’s cart was pushed up against the hedgerow, one wheel at an unusual slant. The farmer was occupied with disengaging his horse from the tangled harnesses. The shattered wheel of the coach was lying in the middle of the road behind it. A deep gash ran along the road for a few yards where the axel had gouged it. A young man in yellow breeches and a blue coat was sitting at the side of the road, holding his head.
“Farmer’s cart veered out at the last moment, I’ll swear,” he repeated, over and over.
The farmer responded in language Melina was unaccustomed to hearing. It was obvious he disagreed as to the cause of the collision.
Beyond the coach, Melina saw someone standing at the horses’ heads, trying to calm them. It was the gentleman who had paid for her dinner. She went forward to discover from him how the accident had occurred, but stopped short at the sight of him.
“You are hurt!” she cried. There was a trickle of blood and an ugly bruise on his forehead. One arm held the leather strappings of the harness, the other hung limp at his side.
“It is of no moment,” he said, but as the horses shuffled testily he reached out with his dangling arm and winced, dropping it back down.
“I believe you have broken your arm!”
He grinned through the pain. “That is entirely possible.”
A gentleman driving a Tilbury came around the corner just then, and slowed down to manoeuvre through the wreckage.
“Can you have them send someone from the inn?” the coachman called out to him.
He nodded and would have gone on, but Melina ran up to him. “This gentleman is injured,” she cried. “He needs to be taken to a doctor.”
“No, I am fine. Take the girl to the inn,” said the young gentleman, but he reeled unsteadily as he attempted to hold the horses in check.
“Where is the guard?” shouted Melina. “Here, man, go to your horses! Can you not see this young man is about to faint?”
As the guard started forward, the man in the greasy greatcoat pointed with eyes narrowed. “He’s the one who brought us to this pass! Look at him. Drunk as a lord! If you take anybody up it should be me – I’ve had the fright of my life, I have. Take me to the magistrate!”
The gentleman in the Tilbury looked from the group huddled by the coach to the farmer, to the young man sitting holding his head at the side of the road, and then to Melina and the gentleman beyond her who had given the harnesses up to the guard and looked as though he was about to crumple to the ground.
“Can you mind my horse while I help the injured man up?” he asked her as he jumped down from his carriage.
“Hi there!” cried the old man when he saw what they were about. “What’s this?”
“Not me, her!” The injured gentleman struggled as the man from the Tilbury hoisted him up.
“Stop fussing about. I’m taking the both of you!”
Melina squeezed into the Tilbury beside the young gentleman, taking care not to bump his injured arm. She stared at the gash in his hairline where blood was oozing sluggishly.
“Oh hurry, please! I am afraid he will die.”
“Do not worry. Minor head wounds bleed prodigiously. Your brother?”
Melina’s eyes darted wide. “Yes,” she lied.
“Good.” The man smiled. “It will be best to tell them so at the inn too, while I go for the doctor.”
Melina smiled and thanked him, and they drove the next two miles in silence till they came to the inn.
It was a small establishment, but a private parlour was to be had. The man from the Tilbury carried the other up and deposited him upon a rather dingy settee. He turned to Melina. “Will you be all right alone with him while I go for the doctor, or shall I have the landlord send up a maid?’
“I am a governess so I am quite used to such things,” said Melina. “Besides, he is my brother.” This last was said with a hint of bravado.
The man smiled and left, and Melina found herself alone in a private parlour with an injured stranger. She wondered if this was really a situation common to a travelling governess.
She sat on the floor beside his head and wiped his brow with a wet cloth the landlord had provided. “Please do not die before the doctor gets here,” she whispered
He stirred and she started backwards. “I promise to . . . wait till . . . after he has come.”
“Oh! Do not speak! And if you do, please do not waste your strength on nonsense. You know very well that is not what I meant. I do not want you to die at all.”
He smiled weakly.
“What is your name? I must know it, for you see I have told them that you are my brother.”
“Peter. And you, sister?”
She was about to tell him that her name was Melina Amburton, but she remembered in time that she was posing as a governess. “Miss Ellington.”
“I would not . . . call my sister . . . Miss Ellington.”
Melina thought hard to remember Miss Ellington’s given name, but could not. Instead she produced the most forbidding name she could think of – that of her detested aunt. “Gertrude.”
“No!” Peter said with such force Melina was afraid he would do himself harm. “You are . . . gammoning me.”
“That is my name,” she said primly, getting up from the floor and drawing a chair close to the settee. “It hardly matters whether you like it or not.”
“Decidedly not. Nor can I call you . . . Gertie.” He lay still, breathing with his eyes closed for so long she thought he had fallen out of consciousness again. “I have it,” he said at last. “Trudy.”
“If you will,” she said. “But it does not at all sound like a name for a governess.”
“And you, Trudy,” he said, “are unlike . . . any governess . . . my sisters ever had.”
At that point, much to Melina’s relief, the doctor arrived. She was flustered again, though, on having to tell him that his patient was named Peter Ellington, especially as the gentleman from the Tilbury had accompanied the doctor to the room and had her all the time in his direct gaze.
“I will help the doctor set your brother’s arm, Miss Ellington,” he said. “I think it best you wait outside.”
Melina thought it best too.
Ten minutes later she was called back to the room. Peter looked very white, but he was lying more comfortably than before. His face had been cleaned of blood and his forehead bandaged. His eyes, only half opened, flickered to her face.
“Trudy,” he whispered.
“I have given him laudanum so he will sleep,” said the doctor. “His head injury is clean and does not appear serious. His arm should heal well now that it is set, but he may develop a fever during the night. If he does you must apply cold compresses to his forehead. I will leave another dose of laudanum if you need it. Do you feel competent to manage that?”
Melina did not feel at all competent, but she had no intention of allowing either gentleman to see it. “I am a governess, doctor, and have nursed sick children on countless occasions, I assure you.”
“I will come by in the morning to see how my patient does,” said the doctor.
Melina thanked him.
“I too would like to call on you both, also,” said the gentleman of the Tilbury.
“You have been more than helpful,” said Melina. “I appreciate all you have done for my . . . brother and I. We turned your plans for the day around. There is no need for your activities for tomorrow to be disarranged as well, especially as we are complete strangers. Why, I don’t even know your name.”
“My apologies. My name is Sir Edward Fanshawe, and after all we have gone through today I feel we are far from strangers.”
Melina thanked him again as she walked him to the door, and gave him permission to call on the morrow. “I think the afternoon would be best.”
“Indeed,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “I hope your brother does not disturb your night.”
Melina closed the door on him and leaned against it. What a jam she was in now, forced to put her trust in people she knew nothing about. She could see that running away had been a rash act, but surely anything was better than marriage to Lord Pentrith. It was fortunate that Sir Edward had mistaken Peter and her for brother and sister. Now, at least, no one would know of the impropriety of her current position but herself and her patient. She would do as the doctor advised and watch over him this night. She hoped fervently that Peter would be better in the morning and they could both go their separate ways.
Melina sat in the chair near the settee and watched her patient who was now sleeping soundly. In repose he looked younger than his years but she supposed him to be four or five and twenty. His hair was light brown and fine, his face well shaped. She knew his eyes to be brown also, but they were closed now, the lashes long and curling. It was interesting – she had never examined a gentleman’s face so closely in her life.
There was a knock at the door and the landlord entered on her call, standing deferentially beside the open door.
“Your bags have arrived from the stage, miss,” he said. “They are all at sixes and sevens, those people. They seemed not to know that you and the unfortunate young gentleman were travelling together, let alone that you were brother and sister.”
Melina stood up straight as she could and said in a very level voice, “I am of the opinion that the coachman and his guard were drinking spirits the entire day. It is a wonder they even know their own names. My brother has been severely injured because of their lack of discretion in allowing an untrained would-be Corinthian to take the reins. One of my fellow passengers is intent on reporting them.”
“Quite so miss,” he said. “Shall I prepare rooms for yourself and your brother?”
Rooms. Melina had no idea how much putting up in the inn would cost. There was also the matter of the private parlour and meals, and, she suddenly realised, the doctor’s fees. Peter did not look as though he was in funds. His clothes were well tailored but not new. And he had been travelling on the roof, where the seats were much cheaper. She felt a twinge of guilt that she hadn’t repaid him for the dinner and private parlour the night before. Well this was her opportunity to make it up to him, certainly. The doctor expected her to nurse him through the night. To be in a bedchamber alone with him seemed to be exponentially more scandalous than a private parlour.
“The doctor has ordered that my brother not be moved and I must stay up and nurse him. I would like to keep this parlour for the night if you would be so kind as to have some blankets brought in.”
“Would you like a cot set up for you, miss, and a maid to tend to him while you get some sleep?”
Melina imagined there would be an extra fee for this service, besides she did not want another set of ears listening in case Peter, in a feverish state, were to forget she was passing them off as brother and sister. “No thank you, but a light meal would be appreciated if that sort of thing is available.”
The landlord said he would see what he could find and bowed himself out of the room.
A young girl soon brought up two thin blankets, and a boy deposited their bags inside the door. Melina carefully tucked the blankets around the sleeping man. He stirred slightly, muttering something inaudible, but did not wake. A meal soon followed, which Melina ate without even tasting. She asked for a fresh facecloth and a bowl of cold water to be brought up, then rummaged in her bag for a shawl to drape over herself as she tried to get some sleep in an armchair.
A few hours later she awoke. The candles had gutted, but the fire gave the room some light. Peter was thrashing about in his bed. She hurried over to him and felt his brow. It was burning up, and his skin was dry. She wrung the facecloth out and wiped his face with it, speaking to him in the soothing tones she remembered her own nurse using when she had been ill.
“Mother!” he called out, struggling to throw off his blankets. “I am sorry. I failed you!”
“Please, be calm Peter,” she said. “Your mother is not here, only me.”
“Trudy?” he asked with sudden lucidity.
“Yes, Peter. Relax and let me wipe your forehead. You have a fever.”
“But I . . . you cannot . . . not right.”
“I know. Be still – I have never nursed anyone before. I am doing the best I can.”
“That is not . . . what I meant.” He reached for her hand and pressed her fingers. “So gentle.” He relapsed into sleep, but still twisted on the settee and pulled at his blankets with his good hand.
Melina tried to swallow her embarrassment and keep his forehead cool to the best of her ability. But here was a man who she was leaning close over, touching his head, holding his shoulders down, staying his hand with her own. The doctor had stripped him down to his lawn shirt – there was no neck cloth to cover his throat. She could see a pulse beating in his neck, the line of his collar bone under his skin, and she knew she ought not let it affect her. What should be important was to ensure that his fever broke. She took a deep breath, wet the cloth once more, and wiped his brow with forced diligence.
He mumbled more words but no longer spoke as distinctly. She heard mother, my sisters, failed and sorry, again and again. She tried not to dwell on the nature of the troubles that were haunting his feverish dreams. Fearing that his wild movements would hurt his arm, she tucked the blankets tighter around him and administered the dose of laudanum. In another ten minutes his fever broke and he settled into a deep sleep. She watched him for a while longer, dreading that he should begin to rave again, but he slept on undisturbed. She returned to her armchair and once more wrapped herself in the shawl.
“What are you doing here?”
Melina woke up with a start. Peter was struggling to sit up on the settee, tangled in the blankets she had tucked firmly about him when he had finally gone to sleep.
“Be still, Peter!”
“But . . . you are the girl from the coach.”
She was at his side holding him down. “Yes, hush! I am your sister – don’t you remember?” She felt his forehead, but it was no longer hot, so at least he wasn’t suffering from some feverish delirium. “Your arm is broken. You’ve been ill.”
He relaxed back against the cushions then and closed his eyes. “You nursed me? All night? Alone?”
“But . . . your reputation! How could I have allowed this?”
“My reputation is intact. Everyone believes that we are Peter and Gertrude Ellington – brother and sister.”
“Trudy – I remember now. I thought it was a dream.”
“I hope you are feeling better this morning.”
“I am right as rain and hungrier than a bear. I hope they can provide us a good breakfast – don’t think I’ve eaten since yesterday morning in London.” He attempted to sit up again but fell back down. “Lord but I’m dizzy.”
“You had quite a knock on the head. Please stay still until the doctor comes, then we can order a meal, if it is not too dear. I am afraid I have no idea how much this private parlour costs, and what little I have must last me for a while.”
“You cannot pay the blunt – this is my business.”
“I already owe you for the parlour and dinner from the other night!”
“Don’t mention it – ‘twas my pleasure.”
The argument that ensued was interrupted by a rapping on the door that announced the doctor. After a brief examination he pronounced his patient well on the mend, but told him he should rest for a few more days before continuing on to Yorkshire.
“Try and convince your brother to get an inside ticket,” he said to Melina. “I do not recommend travelling on the roof of the stage with his arm in a sling, especially after that nasty bump to his head.”
She thanked him and then brought up the embarrassing subject of payment, upon which Peter expostulated that he was fully capable of paying the doctor.
“There is no need,” said the doctor. “Your friend, Sir Edward, has taken care of everything. Good day to you both.”
He bowed and left the room as Peter stared dumbfounded after him.
“Who in the blazes is our friend Sir Edward?”
“The gentleman from the Tilbury who so kindly brought us here and fetched the doctor.”
“He seems a very managing fellow! I must find his direction from the landlord so that I can repay him.”
“He asked if he could call on us in the afternoon, so you shall have the opportunity then. Now, if you will excuse me I must find the landlord and order our breakfast.”
While Melina was out of the room, Peter did his best to make himself presentable, but it was no easy task with one functioning arm and the other in a bulky splint and sling. He had to forego his coat but he managed to fasten the top button of his shirt and wrap a neck cloth around his collar in a haphazard manner. When she returned he was sitting up with his legs stretched out in a nonchalant fashion.
Melina almost burst out laughing at the odd appearance he presented but instead managed to say, “You look more the thing!”
“Thank you, Trudy. I will have you know that this method of tying one’s cravat is the latest London craze. Brummell himself has adopted it.”
She couldn’t withhold a giggle at that. “I am sure I look no better. I slept in this gown!”
“You look lovely, despite your ill-fitting governess’ garb. Why is it that ladies of your profession feel the need to wear such drab fashions?”
Melina thought back to her experience of governesses whilst living at the Marling’s. “I imagine it is because our mistresses would not like us to forget our position in the households we work at. We are servants, after all.”
“You don’t give the impression of ever having been a servant in your life. And you are very young for a governess. The ones my sisters had were old crows.”
“I am full two and twenty, and besides I have only recently entered the profession. The employment I am leaving was my first.”
“So, when I saw you at The King’s Head, you had just been dismissed? Is that why you were in such a rush and had such a livid expression?”
“You saw me at The King’s Head?”
“You almost knocked me over in the passageway!”
“That was not because of being dismissed! I didn’t want Lord Pentrith to see me.”
“Lord Pentrith?” Peter gave her a long stare. “Are you acquainted with the gentleman?”
“Yes . . . I mean no . . . but a lady in the household I worked at was – is – engaged to him.”
“You know Miss Amburton?”
“Indeed, I have never met her, but I know of her. An heiress, I believe.”
“Yes! And that odious Lord Pentrith is marrying her for her money!”
“Odious? I had heard he was a respectable man.”
“Well, that’s as may be. In London even rakes are accepted at all the finest homes. People turn a blind eye to fortune hunters when they are members of the peerage, but it doesn’t make them any less despicable. And Lord Penrtith is one of the worst. He acts as if no one is of any consequence but himself!”
“You seem to know a great deal about the gentleman. Did you come by your information from Miss Amburton? From what I have been told she has a willful temperament and a shrewish tongue.”
“Who said such spiteful things about m-Miss Amburton? I wouldn’t put it past that cow Honoria, or Heloise, or even A . . . Mrs. Marling. But as for Lord Pentrith, my judgement of him is valid for I saw him acting all high and mighty at the inn. Forty if he is a day – stout and balding too – and expecting Miss Amburton to be ecstatic to throw away her youth and beauty and fortune upon him, just because he is a lord!”
Peter watched her in amazement and then laughed. “Trudy! You certainly are Miss Amburton’s champion. One hopes that something happened to prevent her marrying such an oaf.”
Melina blushed. “Of all the people in the Marling household, she was the nicest to me. I was governess to the youngest Miss Marling – Heliotrope.”
“If she was nice to you, then my information regarding her character must have been faulty.” He sunk into thought for a moment and then shook his head. “It is of no moment – I am in complete concord with you about fortune hunters. From now on it shall be agreed between us that Lord Pentrith is loathsome and Miss Amburton a saint.”
“Though I have a certain amount of affection for Miss Amburton,” said Melina, “I would be the first to admit that she falls somewhat short of sainthood. But I do hope you would like her if you should ever meet her.”
“I do not think there is any likelihood of our paths ever crossing.”
“You do not travel in the same circles?”
“I? Trudy, my dear, I travel on the common stage. She has her own post chaise. Besides, I am more than happy travelling in the same circle as a governess such as you. Tell me about Heliotrope – was she a handful?”
“Indeed, but she was the best of the lot. Henrietta was a horror, Heloise a harpy, and Honoria a harradin!”
“So you are well quit of the lot.”
Melina smiled and stretched luxuriously in her chair. “That I am!”
Breakfast was brought in at that juncture and they both did hearty justice to the simple meal. Afterwards Melina went below stairs to discover what was to be done about the stage coach. She met the coachman in the hall and he reported that the wheel would not be repaired till the following day. Some seats were to be had on that day’s stage and if she were quick about it he would ensure that she and her brother were attended to first.
“The doctor has said my brother is by no means fit to travel,” said Melina, suddenly realising that her duplicity in their pretended relationship was now going to be the means of keeping her from carrying on to Thirsk. At least there was no one anticipating her arrival. Her old nanny would be surprised enough when she eventually landed upon her doorstep. “We shall not look to continue our journey for a few days yet.”
The coachman nodded and said that he would leave word that their tickets be honoured whatever day they were ready to travel. Melina returned to the private parlour to convey this piece of news to Peter.
“But this is preposterous! You cannot stay here and attend to my every need. You must go on – will not your new employer be wondering what has become of you?”
“I am not going to another position. I am returning home.”
“Your home is in Yorkshire?” Peter asked, his interest diverted.
“Yes, in Thirsk.”
“I live in Northallerton, not nine miles away. May I call on you once we are settled back in our homes?”
“No I . . . I do not think that would be wise, sir.”
“I do not see the lack of wisdom in continuing our friendship,” he returned, “and I much prefer it when you call me Peter.”
Melina blushed hotly. “These are most unusual circumstances, as you must well agree. I am at present constrained to call you by your given name, as you are me. We have been thrown together by misadventure but when this is over we must forget that we ever performed this little charade and go our separate ways.”
“It is not something I will easily forget,” said Peter. “I understand your reticence, however. Your family would look askance at a chance met acquaintance calling upon you, but could we not meet at a neighbourhood assembly? There would be nothing improper in that.”
“I do not know,” Melina faltered. “I am but a governess and must soon find new employment. I have no time for frivolity or friendships.”
“No time for frivolity? What a sad life you must lead. I will stay laid up in this inn for weeks that you may enjoy some fun, Trudy.”
“Fun? Locked up here in this miserable inn with you?”
“Tell me you have not been enjoying yourself.”
“You have strange ideas of what I must find diverting. Worrying myself sick that you will die under my care? Sleeping all night in a most uncomfortable chair? Unable to go further than the front door lest somebody recognise either of us and ruin my character completely?”
Peter laughed. “You must admit that it is quite an adventure; however I do think that you ought take the stage today and return to your family. As much as I like to be in your company, I cannot ask you to compromise your position any more than you have done already.”
“But I cannot leave you in this state. What an unnatural sister I would appear.”
“We could invent a story to explain your going ahead. Why should you care what those people think anyway?”
“I care what I think,” said Melina with finality. “I am staying.”
As no argument Peter put forward would move Melina’s resolve, he soon had to relent. “We must bespeak chambers for tonight, for I will not have you spend another night in a chair at my bedside. There is no fear of my becoming feverish again.”
Melina was about to summon the landlord and request the rooms when he knocked upon their door and announced Sir Edward.
Sir Edward greeted Melina, walked over to the patient and asked after his health very solicitously, and then seated himself upon a chair midway between the two of them.
“As I understand it, you cannot make your way on to Yorkshire just yet,” he commented as he stretched out leisurely, looking completely unconcerned.
“Indeed,” said Melina. “My brother cannot safely travel for a few more days.”
“And you have stayed behind with him.” This was accompanied with a smirk.
“He is, after all, my brother. Would you have me leave him alone, to care for himself in this shoddy place?”
Sir Edward cocked his head. “You have turned out to be a protective sister.”
“I have spent the greater part of an hour arguing the point with her, Sir,” said Peter. “I would say she is dashed overprotective. Nothing would induce her to take a seat on today’s stage.”
“Very commendable, dear boy,” Sir Edward murmured. “So what is to be done?”
“You must allow me to repay you for the doctor!”
Sir Edward waved this off. “It was my privilege to play the Good Samaritan. Think nothing of it.”
“I cannot help but think something of it,” said Peter, bristling. “I am not in need of charity.”
“Don’t come the young hothead on me. It was an act of kindness which ought be accepted graciously.”
“We are most indebted to you,” said Melina hurriedly. She gave Peter a quelling look, “My brother is not himself today. His head, you know, took a terrible knock, and I fear his arm pains him much more than he is willing to let on. I was about to go below stairs and arrange for rooms with the landlord. I would be ever so grateful if you would entertain him till I return.” She made to get up.
“Stay,” said Sir Edward. “I have a better idea. This inn is, as you say, shoddy. I should not like to think of the two of you staying in such a wretched place another day. I am certain the sheets must be damp.”
“Be that as it may, Sir, we have no choice. This is where you brought us and this is where the stage stops.”
“My home is but three miles distant, and my Tilbury is well-sprung. I would like to have you as my guests.”
“Your guests? Oh no!” said Melina. “This inn is more than suitable. You may have mistaken us for quality, but you must remember that I am but a governess.”
“I do not think I am mistaken in anything,” said Sir Edward gently. “Besides, if I do not bring the two of you home with me directly, my mother will be most put out. When she heard of your plight she roundly chastised me for not bringing you both to Redlands in the first place. She insists that you come, and I dare not disoblige her.”
“Your mother!” Melina relaxed visibly. “Well, I suppose it would be impolite to disappoint her.”
“Indeed,” said Sir Edward, then he turned to Peter who was lying back on the settee with his eyes half closed. “Mr. Ellington, do you feel up to a short journey?”
“Thank you,” Peter said stiffly. “Your mother was most kind to invite us. I believe I can manage if you will help me with my coat.”
After the struggle with his coat, Peter had to lean heavily upon Sir Edward’s arm as he guided him down the stairs. A boy was sent up for their bags as Peter settled the shot with the landlord.
“Put your purse away, Trudy,” he said a she fumbled with her reticule.
“But you musn’t pay for me!”
“I have the money for this trip – we have no need to touch your wages,” he said shortly, with a meaningful look towards Sir Edward.
“Oh, very well!” she said, but her expression showed that she was far from pleased with the situation.
Sir Edward watched them both with great interest, a twinkle growing in his eyes.
Redlands was a modest country house built of brick, with a wide stair leading to the main portico. Luxuriant green lawns stretched down to a slow moving river, where a crescent shaped folly touched the water. Meadowland dotted with oak and sheep backed the building, and further in the distance became dense woods.
“It is beautiful!” said Melina, upon first seeing it. Although it was true that the Marlings’ home was twice as grand, and Amburton House was built on a larger scale, Redlands exuded the bucolic warmth of a country cottage without giving up all the comfort and convenience of a fine estate. “I have never seen the like.”
“Surely your home is just as appealing.”
“The parsonage?” asked Melina. “It is only grey stone, and we have but an orchard between us and the church.”
“Ah – a parsonage, to be sure. And where is this cosy place?” Sir Edward directed his question to Peter.
“Thirsk,” said Peter, undaunted.
“And do you plan to follow in your father’s footsteps?”
“No – I . . .”
“Quite!” Sir Edward laughed as he pulled up before the entrance. “We shall continue this interesting discussion some other time. Let me help you both down and bring you in to meet my mother.”
“I need no help,” said Melina. “But Peter is looking very peaked.” She reached out and touched his forehead, looking searchingly into his face. “I fear you are feverish again.”
He managed a grin. “It is the effect of the sun and the wind on my brow, nothing more.” He didn’t add ‘And you so close by my side and gazing at me with such concern.’ Sir Edward’s presence prevented it.
Peter’s head reeled and he stumbled a bit upon standing, but Sir Edward had him firmly in his grasp and Melina, who had quickly scrambled from the carriage unaided, was at his other side, holding his good arm tightly.
“You are not well at all!” she cried.
“I must admit to having felt better, but I am not such a weakling to be done in by a mere three mile carriage ride. Once I am seated in the parlour I shall be myself again.”
Sir Edward nodded in agreement. “I should think a fortifying drink would do the trick – a glass of wine perhaps?”
“Tea,” said Melina. “Strong and black.” She feared that spirits would go quickly to Peter’s weakened head, and she wanted no chance of their secret getting out.
“See how Trudy molly-coddles me?”
“You are a lucky young man to have such a sister,” said Sir Edward. “And now, let us go in. My mother is all anticipation.”
Lady Fanshawe was disposed upon a divan in a cosy salon. She smiled as they came in and excused herself from getting up.
“I am a sad invalid. I hope you will pardon my staying seated. But I delight in visitors and am happy to make your acquaintance. Eddie has told me all about your dangerous escapades. I believe he is something of a hero!”
Sir Edward disclaimed, but Melina and Peter were quick to admit that without Sir Edward’s help they would have been done for. The grinning looks they cast Sir Edward while doing so he ignored as best he could.
“Eddie, see to it that poor Mr. Ellington is seated on the best chair and procure him some ratafia – it is so fortifying. Or perhaps you would prefer vinegar? Lord Byron swears by it and I have a glass nightly, before I go to bed. Miss Ellington, pull up that little stool by my side so we can have a comfortable coze. I hear you are a governess!”
“And she grew up in a parsonage,” threw in Sir Edward as he directed Peter to a well-stuffed chair. “So which will it be, the ratafia or the vinegar?”
“I think a nice cup of tea should do him more good than anything,” said Melina stoutly as she seated herself on the stool by Lady Fanshawe.
“Trudy, do you think me incapable of making such a decision for myself?”
“I think your sister’s concern for you is laudable,” said Sir Edward.
“A parsonage!” cried Lady Fanshawe. “How I should have loved that! All snug and cosy, strung with climbing roses and ivy, and bursting at the seams with children. Do you come from a large family? You must have, to become a governess at such a young age. You were quite an asset to your mother, I am sure. Alas, I always wanted a large family but my constitution did not permit it. After Eddie was born the doctor said another child could be the death of me. I was devastated and would have chanced it but Ambrose, my dear departed husband, wouldn’t hear of endangering my delicate health. ‘You have given me a wonderful son – what more can a man ask for?’ he said. And Eddie is such a blessing, indeed.” She cast her eyes lovingly in her son’s direction.
He must have felt her gaze for he looked up from his conversation with Peter and said, “I have ordered the tea, Mama.”
“You always anticipate me,” she said, having been oblivious to the earlier discussion, then she turned back to Melina. “You have brothers and sisters?”
“Two,” said Melina. “Sisters that is. And of course Peter. No other brothers.”
“No other sons to follow their father’s footsteps?” said Sir Edward. “It is surprising you will not take orders. What, then, is your occupation?”
“I have none,” said Peter.
“What? You are a man of leisure and yet your younger sister must go out and work as a governess?”
“That was by my choice,” said Melina hurriedly, “and not at his instigation. This has been quite a bone of contention between us.”
“I would be happy if she never takes on another position,” said Peter. “And I am not quite a man of leisure – I manage my father’s business.”
“He is a man of private means as well?” Sir Edward seemed to be taking inordinate pleasure in the conversation.
“Our sisters are still full young.” Melina directed her comment toward Lady Fanshawe.
Peter added, “Well not so very young. You have been away from home these two years, Trudy. Violet is now fourteen and Lavender is almost seventeen. She would be coming out this season if it were not for . . .”
“Mama’s health. That is why I gave up my job at the Marlings and Peter is taking me home.”
“Your mother is ill!” cried Lady Fanshawe. “And now your journey is delayed. How very distressing for her. I do hope you have sent word home. Though how will she take the news of your injuries, dear boy?” She fanned herself and reached for a bottle of salts, which she inhaled deeply.
“I wrote Mama a letter this morning,” said Melina. “But of course I did not tell her how badly Peter was injured. I blamed the delay mostly on the damaged coach.”
“My injuries are slight,” said Peter. “I shall be able to travel in a day or two.”
“So soon?” asked Mrs. Fanshawe. “I had hoped to have you both for at least a week!”
At that point the tea was brought in. Luckily Mrs. Fanshawe was distracted by a discourse on the restorative features of the beverage and the conversation stayed away from the tricky subject of the Elington’s background. After half an hour they were shown to their rooms to rest and refresh themselves. Dinner was to be served at six – country hours, which they both insisted they were accustomed to.
Melina was glad to have water sent up to her and a young maid to help her bathe and dress. She had worn the real Miss Ellington’s dress for three days now, and slept in it one night, and she was glad to be rid of the thing. The bag with her jewellery she hid in the very bottom of her portmanteau as she looked through it to see what Betty had packed. She thought the gowns all too fine for a parson’s daughter who had felt the need to work as a governess but she had no choice but to wear one of them. She chose a pale green muslin of such deceptively simple styling that she hoped no one would notice it had been sewn by a fashionable modiste and not a simple girl from a parsonage. She allowed the maid to pin up her hair and then wrapped herself in a merino shawl of a darker shade of green and slipped from her room. She tiptoed down the hallway until she came to the door of Peter’s room. She gave it a soft rap, and without waiting for an answer, entered.
Peter was lying on his bed, fully dressed in a clean change of clothes. He sat up with a start.
“You should not be here! This is my bedchamber.”
“Pish-posh! I am your sister.”
“Trudy, you know the truth of it.”
“They think me your sister, so there is nothing wrong with me coming here.”
“But the fact remains that I am not any relation of yours. I do not think I can keep up this pretence. Somehow I have become the undutiful son of a parson who will see his sister in service before he takes a profession. And now our mother is ill into the bargain – the ailment still unspecified. I quake to think what you will come up with next.”
“That is why I am here – so that we can agree upon a story.”
“I am not comfortable with deceit.”
“You invented two sisters quite merrily!”
“I simply told the truth!”
“And you said you manage our father’s affairs,”
“That is also true, only my real father has been dead these three years.”
Melina smiled. “The best lies are based on truth.”
“You know a lot about lies for a humble governess raised in a parsonage.”
Melina sat down upon the bed and impulsively took his hand. “Peter, I am quite as much a novice at lying as you are, but Heliotrope was a dab hand at it. We must agree on our mother’s illness for Lady Fanshawe is sure to bring the subject up sooner than later.”
“And we must explain the business affairs I handle for our father. Sir Edward is too canny by half. I am certain he suspects us. His questions all seem aimed at catching us out.”
“Then we shall not let him!” cried Melina. “Will it do if our father has a small estate which you have the running of and will one day inherit?”
“Then why did you become a governess?”
“Because I refuse to be beholden upon anybody!”
“That will not wash, and you know it. I still appear a cad.”
“Then you will have to remain a cad – but a loveable one.”
“Trudy . . .”
Melina realised she was still holding Peter’s hand and let it go. “I am speaking as a sister,” she said, flustered.
“Of course.” He paused for a moment to collect himself and then continued. “And what ails our mother? It cannot be something critical like a putrid fever nor something longstanding, or you would never have gone into service. Some newly contracted wasting illness?”
“Yes and she has recently taken to her bed and needs me.”
Peter sat back against his pillows, resting his splinted arm upon a bolster. “But still, there is one thing that makes no sense.”
“What would that be?”
“Why you became a governess at the young age of twenty when by all rights a girl as lovely as you should not have lacked offers of marriage.”
Melina blushed. “A dowerless girl of no great beauty? None that I cared to accept.”
“Is a dowry that important? Anyone who had come to know you should not . . .”
“A dowry is everything. A lady of fortune is sought for her money alone, a penniless girl ignored. Marriage is not all that it is made out to be.”
He looked at her searchingly. “What has given you so jaded an outlook at such an early age?”
She laughed evasively and got up from the bed. “We must not be late for dinner,” was all she said, and she walked to the door.
“Trudy,” he called after her in a voice little louder than a whisper.
She turned her head.
“Do not discount your beauty.”
Sir Edward had just closed his door as Melina came from Peter’s bedchamber. He raised an eyebrow.
“I was only seeing how my brother did.” She was still flustered by Peter’s parting words but she held Sir Edward’s eyes in challenge. “He is feeling up to coming down to dinner. I believe the rest did him some good.”
“Ever the conscientious governess!”
Melina smiled and walked past him towards the stairs.
“Shall I see if Mr. Ellington requires any help?”
“I do not know that he will thank you for it,” said Melina, “but I should be grateful if you did.”
He gave her a mock bow and then rapped on Peter’s door as Melina continued on to the stairs.
When Melina entered the drawing room, Lady Fanshawe greeted her warmly. There was an interesting wheeled contraption drawn up beside the lady’s divan, and two manservants were assisting her from one to the other.
“Eddie invented this chair for me – isn’t he clever? This way I can be wheeled to the dining room, or out to the garden on fine days. My bedchamber is on the ground floor so I am taken back and forth from there in my wheeled chair as well. My boy is so good to me. I must be such a trial for him with my invalidish ways but none of my freakish whims upset him in the slightest.”
“You are very lucky to have such a son,” said Melina.
“I take every opportunity to urge him to marry. I do not want him wasting his youth catering to me, but he refuses to go to London for the season. How on earth is he to meet a young lady worthy of him in this confined and unvarying neighbourhood? But, to be fair, we do have many friends come to stay with us on prolonged visits, so neither of us are lacking in society. And it is so lovely to have you and your brother with us, dear.”
“It was good of you to invite us,” said Melina.
The gentlemen joined them at that juncture. Dinner was announced shortly afterward and they made their way to the dining room, Sir Edward pushing his mother’s chair and Melina upon Peter’s arm. Just as Melina had predicted, Lady Fanshawe was eager to hear about their mother’s illness. The prearranged story was brought out and embellished and even appeared to satisfy the inscrutable Sir Edward. Afterward Lady Fanshawe wanted to hear all about Melina’s experiences as a governess and she willingly obliged.
“I think you are well away from these Marlings,” said Lady Fanshawe. “From what you have told us, their daughters are self-centred ninny-hammers. I would have no patience with them. How did you ever manage it?”
“Our Miss Ellington is a prize, Mama,” said Sir Edward.
“Indeed, I am not.”
“What good fortune you had Miss Amburton to condole with,” he murmured.
“The poor young lady, to be treated so unfairly by her aunt and uncle and then forced to marry a fortune hunter.” Lady Fanshawe dabbed at her eyes with a lace edged hanky. “I believe in marrying for love. Mine was a love match – my dearest Ambrose was head over heels for me, and I him. And I want the same for my Eddie, and for you too Miss Ellington, and your brother. I hope you all find the perfect partners with which to blissfully spend your lives, and if there should be money on either side, enjoy it!”
Melina and Peter both had heightened colour and neither seemed to know which way to look. Lady Fanshawe’s suggestion that it was time to repair to the drawing room was met with relief. Sir Edward just smiled indulgently at his mother and got up to wheel her out.
They spent the evening quietly. Melina played the pianoforte and then Sir Edward read from his mother’s favourite book of poems. Upon closing the book he stood and addressed everybody.
“I regret to say that I must go away on business for a few days.”
“But Eddie, we have house guests!”
“I am sorry Mama, but a case of some urgency has come up that I must attend to.” He looked from Melina to Peter. “Miss Ellington, Mr. Ellington, I would be indebted if you could keep my mother company until my return. I will be no more than three or four days.”
As Melina nodded her agreement, she wondered if finding companions for his mother had been Sir Edward’s plan in inviting them to stay the whole time, and wished he had been more open with them. Even so, staying at Redlands was heaven compared to the inn.
Lady Fanshawe proved to be a generous and entertaining hostess for all that she spent her days on her couch. She appeared to have energy to spare and Melina wondered if she were a true invalid or if she had simply become habituated to that way of life and the attention it brought her. Melina could not fault her for this indulgence, however, because of her sincere kindness and also the unchaperoned freedom she and Peter had exploring the gardens and woodland paths of the estate.
Each morning they spent in the drawing room with Lady Fanshawe, weaving stories of their childhood at the parsonage while they sorted her embroidery silks. After nuncheon she would always insist that they go outside for fresh air and exercise, and upon their return to dress for supper she would always remark on how Mr. Ellington was recovering his stamina and Miss Ellington was acquiring a lovely bloom upon her cheeks.
On their outings, Peter spoke much about his sisters and mother, and the difficult burden his father’s early death had placed upon his shoulders at a young age. Melina spoke of her happy childhood and how everything had changed for her, too, upon her father’s death. But neither went into any specifics that revealed more than they were yet willing to share. They talked of books, plays and music; discovered that they both preferred country living to the bustle of the city. Melina shared her knowledge about birds and flowers. Peter took her to the river and pointed out the best spots to fish, showed her badger holes in the hedgerows, and deer trails in the woods. And besides all that they simply talked and laughed and enjoyed the freedom they’d been given by providence.
The third day after Sir Edward had left, Melina and Peter were sitting by the lily pond, reluctant to go in and change for supper though they knew it was full time. Peter sighed and stood, then held his hand out to Melina.
“In we must go, Trudy. Our idyll is at an end”
“But I don’t want it to end,” she said as he pulled her up. She found herself much closer to him than she had expected.
“Nor do I,” he whispered, not letting go of her hand. He paused and then continued on, hesitantly. “You must know by now how I feel about you. Playing the part of your brother has become irksome. Could you . . . would you . . .”
“Please,” said Melina, turning her face away from his, “do not spoil this. Say no more.”
“But I must. I love you, Trudy.”
“But we hardly know anything of each other.”
“I know that you are the sweetest girl imaginable and the only one for me. I want you for my wife. I do not have much to offer you . . . and we may have to wait . . . but – do you think you can wait for me, Trudy, until I have settled my father’s debts and done my duty to my sisters? Or is that too much to ask?”
“I cannot. Oh! I cannot!” cried Melina, pulling her hand from his hold and walking quickly towards the house.
“Trudy!” he called out as he ran after her.
“You think me a sweet girl, but you do not know who I really am. I have been deceiving you all this time. I am not even a governess and never have been, and if I were to try to become one, no one would want me in their house.”
“I can readily believe you were never a governess. It is of no import.”
“And my family . . . is not what you think. I was not raised in a parsonage.”
“I always knew that was only a ruse for Sir Edward.”
They had reached the windows that led into the drawing room. Melina stopped before opening them and raised pleading eyes to Peter’s face. “My father caused a scandal and died in a very shocking manner.”
“I am not asking to marry your father, Trudy. I want to marry you.”
Melina put her hand on his sleeve and took a deep breath. “Peter, I . . .”
She never finished what she was about to say because the windows burst open and Sir Edward strode out onto the grass beside them looking very pleased with himself.
“Miss Amburton, Lord Pentrith!” he cried. “I have squared everything up with the Marlings. You can be married as soon as I transport you back to the south!”
Melina looked from Sir Edward to Peter. “Lord Pentrith,” she gasped. Her face suffused with colour and she turned back to Sir Edward. “You have ruined everything!” she cried and ran back into the garden from which they had come.
“Well, what are you waiting for man?” asked Sir Edward. “Go after her and straighten things out!”
“You made this mess,” said Peter stonily. “You fix it.” And he strode through the windows and into the house.
Sir Edward was left standing at the edge of the garden looking quite puzzled, then he shrugged his shoulders and headed off in the direction Melina had taken. He found her sitting by the lily pond, staring into the water most disconsolately.
“Whatever have I done to incur such anger from the two of you?”
“You interrupted a proposal.”
“He chose just this moment to propose? What a slow top! I’d have expected better of him than letting it slide for three days.”
Melina glared at him. “You knew Peter was going ask me to marry him? But . . . you thought us brother and sister.”
“Not for one second. If you will recall it was I who put that idea into your head. Quite smoothly done on my part, I must add.”
“Do stop feeling so proud of yourself. This time you have made a rare mull of things.”
“You must explain to me in what way I have ruined everything.”
“Because I was just about to tell him myself – who I am, I mean. But I had no idea he was Lord Pentrith. Now he will not want to marry me at all.”
“And why not? He went there on just that mission when you took it into your silly head to run away.”
Melina stood up and faced Sir Edward, her eyes flashing. “What do you know of my running away? Have you been a spy for my aunt and uncle all this time? I . . . we trusted you and is this how our trust is to be repaid?”
“Your aunt warned me that you were a feisty one!” he laughed. “Come now, don’t take on so. I knew nothing of who either of you were when I met you upon the road. I was definitely intrigued, though. After I had gleaned enough information from you I decided to visit the horrible Marlings, in whose employ you had supposedly been, and discover the truth for myself. So do not talk to me of trust when you have been deceiving me from almost the first moment.”
“In my situation do you really think it would have been wise to tell anyone the truth about myself?”
“You were indeed foolish to run away but at least you had the foresight to go in disguise, I will grant you that.”
“So you think I should have stayed to marry a man I had never met who only wanted me for my fortune?”
“I think the groom would have turned out to your liking.”
“But I had no such notion! And if you had seen the obnoxious man I took for Lord Pentrith at the King’s Head, I am bound you would have aided me.”
“I would have advised you to return home and reason with your relatives.”
“You have met my aunt and uncle and still you can say that?”
“They are not the pleasantest people. I did find, however, that once we came to an understanding about your identity and I managed to convince them that there was a gentleman who desired to marry you, they were much more amenable. When, upon further questioning, it was established that my Mr. Ellington and their Lord Pentrith were one and the same, they readily agreed to reschedule the wedding which they had postponed with the excuse of illness on your part. They were quite relieved not to have to face the scandal associated with a runaway niece and a fiancé who did not show up to his own engagement ball.”
“But there is to be no wedding.”
“No? And why is that. You have just informed me that I interrupted a proposal.”
“Which I did not accept. And I do not expect it to be renewed. I am the last person Peter would want to marry.”
“I did not think his affections quite so fleeting.”
“He will quickly overcome what affections he thinks he has for me. He has no good opinion of Miss Amburton. Why, he once described the young lady to me as having a willful temper and a shrewish tongue. And he detests the idea of marrying for money. Don’t you see? He did not go to the engagement ball! He was accosted at the inn by that oaf I mistook for him, and he turned around and took the next stage to London. When he was delirious with fever he mumbled about how he had failed his mother and sisters. It was only because of them that he had considered such a step, but even for those he loved the most he could not go through with it.”
“Miss Amburton, you are forgetting one thing. He met you and fell in love with you. Your fortune is irrelevant in this case and so is any presupposed notion he had of your character. After all, you had presuppositions about Lord Pentrith too. Are you going to tell me that you no longer love Peter now that you know his true identity?”
Melina looked down and shook her head.
“Good. Now let us return to the house and find His Lordship so that he can complete the proposals that I so tactlessly interrupted.”
When they returned to the drawing room, Lady Fanshawe put down the bottle of salts she had been sniffing and waved frantically. “Eddie! You must do something. Young Mr. Ellington has taken one of your horses and gone home. He left a note for each of you, but I do not like this at all! Soon it will grow dark and how is he to ride all the way to the parsonage in Thirsk with only one hand to hold the reins?”
Sir Edward grabbed up the notes from his mother’s lap and handed Melina the one addressed to her. He opened his. It said, simply:
Thank you for all your kindnesses to me. I know your interference was well-meant; however I have no choice but to leave. I am certain when Miss Amburton gives you all the particulars you will understand. I find it necessary to borrow a horse. He will be returned as soon as may be.
Melina’s note was also short, but much more deliberation had been put into the writing of it.
I can see now that I asked too much of you today when I applied for your hand. I did not mean to deceive you as to my identity – I thought when you discovered I was the infamous Lord Pentrith you might overlook it as I was not portly, balding, and forty. But that was when I thought you a young lady from my own sphere and not someone I have no right to look to. Please believe me when I tell you that my proposal was not the act of a fortune hunter and that you, dearest Trudy, will always own my heart.
Melina read the note twice and then thrust it into the pocket of her gown. “We must stop him!”
“I will have my Tilbury brought ‘round this instant. Sit with my mother and I will be back with the young nodcock as soon as may be.”
“I am coming with you!”
“Miss Amburton, there is hardly any need for you to . . .”
Melina looked up at him. A single tear rolled down her cheek.
“Did you know your nose turns red when you begin to cry?”
“I do not care. If you do not take me up with you I shall borrow a horse from your stables myself.”
“I see. I ought to have heeded your aunt’s warnings about your irascible nature after all. Very well. If you are on the sweep in a warm pelisse in five minutes, you may come with me. I will not wait, mind.”
Sir Edward decided upon sticking to the narrow lanes instead of the turnpike road. “He may expect to be followed, so I have taken precautions.” He also sent out a groom to go cross country and his stable lad to the main road as far as the inn to see if Peter had been sighted.
Melina sat beside him unable to relax. “Can you not go any faster?”
“And overturn us?”
“Oh! Why did you have to burst out with my name like that?”
“Perhaps your outburst had something to do with his leaving,” said Sir Edward shortly. “I am really tired of shouldering all the blame.”
Melina was silent after that, staring into the growing darkness hoping for the sight of a lone horse and rider. After an hour there was still no sign.
“You have taken the wrong road,” muttered Melina.
“In all probability, but it is also true that your Romeo has stolen my fastest horse. We will have to turn around if we do not catch him up soon.”
“But . . .”
“Tomorrow I can take you to him; I owe you at least that. Where exactly does Pentrith live?”
“He said Northallerton.”
“Anyone there should be able to direct us to his estate.”
However, the trip to Northallerton was not to be. Ten minutes later they heard hoof beats coming from the woods to their left and Sir Edward slowed his pair just as his groom burst through the trees.
“I have found him, Sir!” cried the groom. “He was thrown from the horse not five minutes from here. Marvel is standing eating the underbrush as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but the young master doesn’t look too good.”
“Peter!” cried Melina, scrambling down from the Tilbury. “Take me to him!”
The groom looked to Sir Edward who nodded. “I’ll see to the horses. Drop her with the boy and bring Marvel here to me.”
Melina got up in front of the groom and soon they were away. In a few minutes she was able to see Peter’s prostrate form in the gloom. He was not moving at all.
“Oh no” she gasped. “He’s not . . .”
“He lives, Miss, never fear.”
She was down by his side in a moment, holding his hand and feeling for his pulse. Melina paid no attention to the groom who collected the reins of the other horse and led him off. She lifted his head upon her lap and stroked Peter’s hair away from his face. It looked white and strained but his breathing was regular. “Peter.” She whispered, “Peter, don’t leave me. I couldn’t bear it.”
He stirred and his eyelids flickered. “Trudy?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“I was . . . where’s the horse? Is Sir Edward’s horse all right?”
“The horse is fine.”
“I think it was a rabbit hole. I was afraid that I had lamed him.”
“Ssh! Stop talking of horses. Sir Edward will never forgive you if you do not propose to me again before he arrives.”
“I cannot – you ran away rather than marry me.”
“I did not know you then. And you ran away too.”
He smiled weakly. “I guess you could say that.” He closed his eyes for a moment and relaxed under the continued motion of her hand through his hair. “But – you refused me earlier today”
“I did not refuse you – I could not accept you until I had told you the truth about myself.”
He smiled again, caught up her hand in his good one and kissed her fingers. “So, will you wait for me?”
She laughed. “You must have hit your head again, Peter. There is no need to wait. The church is all arranged, my aunt and uncle expecting us.”
“But . . . but I do not want your fortune. Only you.”
“Unfortunately you can’t have me without the money. You will simply have to learn to live with it.”
Peter struggled to get up.
“Are you not comfortable lying like this?” Melina asked.
“It is heavenly,” he managed to gasp out as she helped him to sit, “but not an ideal position to kiss you from.”
When Sir Edward happened upon the scene he was glad to see that Lord Pentrith appeared almost fully recovered. But what pleased him more than that was the obvious fact that the proposal had been rendered and accepted.
He cleared his throat. “I think we ought to be heading back now. Mother has a tendency to worry.”
©2007 Copyright held by the author.