Tangled Hearts by Rosemary Morris
Chesney stepped from Lady Ware’s spacious house into King Street and walked towards Whitehall. Although the proposal to marry Mistress Shaw took him by surprise, he gave further thought to accepting it. Yet he would not wait for Mistress Shaw to come to town and parade in the latest fashions, powder and patch. Where did she live? He searched his memory.
Ah, now he remembered. She lived at Bellemont. Lady Ware had mentioned the estate lay close by his newly purchased property. Why not hazard a journey there and cast an eye over both domains?
His stride quickened to keep pace with his racing mind. Was Mistress Shaw tall or short, plain or pretty, blonde or brunette? Was she meek or shrewish, illiterate or well educated?
Cocksure, Chesney took Mistress Shaw’s acceptance of his proposal for granted. For, when all else was said and done, he was a viscount, well educated and not ill-favoured.
If the lady proved suitable he would wed her partly for her inheritance and partly because it was time to settle down and have a family. For his part, he would try not to give her cause for complaint and to ensure she lacked naught. They would refurbish Field House, improve the estate and purchase a town house.
His inner voice nagged him. What of love?
For most people of his rank, sentiment had little to do with marriage. In fact, some said no lady concerned herself with the vulgarity of love and passion. A wife should derive happiness and satisfaction through ensuring her husband’s comfort, good works, plying her needle and raising children.
He sighed. A man in his position must marry if only to father heirs.
‘Who is that Adonis?’ A high-pitched female voice interrupted his thoughts.
Chesney looked round and saw a powdered and patched lady with rouged cheeks staring at him.
‘I don’t know, I think he’s a newcomer to town,’ her companion, a younger lady said in an equally strident tone.
Unaffected by their comments he laughed. Since his youth women commented on his height and his perfect proportions. He did not consider himself vain, but unlike some members of his gentlemen’s club, who took little exercise and over ate, he fenced, hunted and rode to keep his body fit.
The older lady inclined her head, the younger one winked before they went about their business.
Chesney whistled low and wondered what Mistress Shaw would think of him? He contemplated the future with pleasure. With a smile, he thought of the entertainment London offered: coffeehouses, theatres, parks, concerts and pleasure gardens.
Mistress Shaw’s inheritance, added to his more modest one, would ensure they could command the elegancies of life.
When he reached his lodgings, he summoned Roberts. ‘Pack, we leave for Field House tomorrow. Send a message to the stables. I require the coach at eight in the morning. Is there anything to eat?’
Roberts shook his head.
‘Order some mutton pies from the tavern. Do you want me to die of hunger? Hurry, man, what do you tarry for?’
Roberts bowed low, straightened and regarded him, his face creased in familiar lines of despair.
‘What?’ Chesney asked. Why did he always feel dishevelled in the presence of a manservant only six years his senior?
He could not remember a day when Roberts did not wear an immaculate black cloth suit, a neat black waistcoat and unwrinkled stockings.
‘Firstly, my lord, the sooner you purchase a London House and employ a cook the better it will be. Secondly, with all due respect, my lord, your appearance grieves me.’
Chesney looked contritely at his black, buckled shoes and his white silk stockings splashed with muck from London’s filthy streets. He knew Roberts aspired to take the credit for him always being dressed to perfection and teased. ‘Do not despair, you shall have the pleasure of dressing me in fine clothes on my wedding day.’
* * *
Mid-March was mild. After an early thaw the roads dried sufficiently for the coach to travel faster than usual. Protected by armed outriders and postilions, Chesney did not fear highwaymen. Besides, armed with his sword and firearm he trusted his ability to deal with any miscreant.
They reached St Albans before dark and proceeded to Bellemont Village where they put up for the night at The King’s Head.
In the morning, Chesney delighted his manservant by being more particular than usual about his appearance.
With deep satisfaction, Roberts drew up Chesney’s black silk stockings embroidered with gold before he adjusted the black velvet garters.
Chesney stood and twitched the lace frothing at his wrists into place. ‘My waistcoat.’
He took the cream satin waistcoat embroidered with gold Celtic knots from Roberts.
‘Allow me to help you, my lord.’
‘I am not a complete milksop.’ Chesney put his waistcoat on before allowing Roberts to ease him into a black velvet coat trimmed with parallel rows of gold buttons and buttonholes bound with gold thread.
‘My lord, if only you dressed so fine every day.’ Roberts removed the periwig as black as Chesney’s natural hair from a stand and put it on his master’s head.
Ready to depart, Chesney held a black hat trimmed with gold lace and a curled plume in one hand and in the other hand a cane ornamented with a knot of black and gold ribbons.
Now, Chesney thought, his curiosity intense, to seek out Mistress Shaw. He went down a flight of narrow stairs and passed the innkeeper, who bowed so low his nose nearly touched his knees. Outside, he picked his way across slippery cobbles dampened by a recent shower. A muffled figure approached him.
‘Lord Greaves, please accept this petition,’ a low voice said.
Chesney looked round the yard with the expectation of seeing Lord Greaves, the corrupt, greedy tax collector for the area. He frowned. ‘I fear you mistake…’
‘My lord, read the petition.’ The female concealed by a voluminous cloak and hood drew closer. She held out a scroll sealed with red wax and stamped with the mark of a pomegranate.
‘Doubtless you think I am impertinent to approach you. But the landlord expected you to pass the night here and I seized my chance to speak to you.’
One of his outriders dismounted and seized the woman’s arm. ‘Off with you.’
‘Release her and remount,’ Chesney ordered. His interest aroused, he hesitated by his coach. ‘Who are you?’
‘I serve Mistress Shaw of Bellemont and promise you that my mistress intends no mischief.’
By her accent, he judged she was not a servant. ‘You may enter my coach and discuss the petition,’ he drawled with feigned indifference.
She scrambled up the steps. A fold of her cloak slipped away from her hand in which she clutched a pistol.
He sat and did not betray his fear that she might be a dangerous lunatic. ‘How sad to see on someone of your tender years brandishing a firearm.’
‘I am not brandishing it,’ she protested. ‘My mistress’ friend, Master Wynwood, told her I must arm myself.’ She lowered the pistol. ‘You did not answer Mistress Shaw’s letters. This is the only way for her to present her case.’
What to do or say? He doubted the baggage knew about the vindictive nature of the licentious tax collector or the cruel bullies he engaged.
‘My lord, my mistress wrote to you and explained Lady Shaw, God rest her soul, supported the Established Church and attended its services twice on Sundays. My mistress is not a Catholic. I implore you to reduce the illegal taxes on Bellemont. That will ensure she has sufficient wherewithal to excavate a short canal to float oak logs to the river to supply the navy. I beg you to oblige me. If you do not …’
‘If I do not?’ Chesney kept an eye on the firearm clutched in both her hands.
‘Mistress Shaw will not be able to support herself. Oh, you cannot imagine how hard Lady Shaw found it to maintain herself while Lord Shaw lived in France.’
She hesitated for no more than a moment. ‘Like many other gentlemen his only fault, if you deem it a fault, lay in keeping his oath of allegiance to King James.’
About to reveal his identity, he raised his eyebrows. ‘I regret I cannot help Mistress Shaw and…’
The pistol wobbled. ‘Cannot help her!’ she interrupted. ‘That is not true. You can help her, even if she won’t sell Bellemont to you.’
Chesney eyed the girl from head to toe. Her full cloak revealed little of her person. ‘Has Mistress Shaw no relatives to save her from … er … want?’
‘Her mother’s family ignore my mistress and her closest relative, Lady Ware, her father’s sister ignores her. And her ladyship has enough money to…’
‘Did neither Lady Shaw nor Mistress Shaw apply to her?’
‘No my lord, Lady Shaw wanted nothing that was not freely offered.’
‘But you say your mistress does?’
‘She wants justice. The taxes are unjust.’
The coach bumped violently over a deep rut. The hood slipped from the girl’s head. Chesney braced his feet. A jolt threw her across the coach. Breast to breast with her, Chesney seized her upper arms to prevent her tumbling onto the floor of the coach. For the first time he saw her face, one of such classical beauty it was likely to haunt his dreams. Enchanted, he inhaled the fragrance of the girl’s skin, redolent of fresh air, and appreciated its delightful contrast to Lady Ware’s cloying scent and Maddy’s spicy perfume.
‘Release me, my lord.’
Chesney shuddered. The pistol pointed towards his genitals. He quailed for a split second before he grasped her slender wrist hard enough to release the weapon. It slipped from her grasp. He put his foot on it and looked into her defiant sapphire blue eyes.
‘W-will you help my mistress, Lord Greaves?’
He would pity any lady whose situation drove her to such desperate measures. ‘If I can help, I will.’
Chesney released her and rapped twice on the roof to indicate he wanted the coach to halt.
‘Are you fobbing me off or are you promising to help me?’
‘Odds fish, you are a minx. Be grateful to me for not summoning the constable,’ he teased.
The coach drew to a halt. Chesney flicked open his gold snuffbox and feigned interest in its contents. ‘Perchance we will meet at Bellemont,’ he said in a smooth voice.
‘Bellemont! Why are you going to Bellemont?’
Apprehension lurked in her eyes and her lips, which he still wanted to kiss, tightened.
He snapped shut his snuffbox. ‘I am not obliged to explain my reason to you but I assure you it is a good one. Words fail you. I am not surprised.’ He smiled. ‘Forgive me, although I am sorry to witness your distress, I must to take my leave.’
An outrider let the steps down for his bold but delectable companion.
‘You forgot something.’
‘What?’ she asked her voice sharp as the silken hiss of sword blade against sword blade.
‘Your pistol.’ With an exaggerated flourish, he handed it to her. ‘If you wish to vent your spleen, shoot me, but I fear such an extreme measure will not help your mistress.’
‘Will you help her?’
‘Alas! I am unable to reduce her taxes for I am not Lord Greaves.’
‘Why did you not confess earlier?’ Her eyes darkened like the sky before a storm. ‘You are not a gentleman,’
‘Oh, I am a gentleman but I am certain you are not a servant.’
‘If you are not Lord Greaves, who are you?’
Chesney chuckled and did not reply.