Peregrine Lochley was stuck. The third son of Viscount Lochley, a celebrated dandy, and a man known about Town as Lochley the Last, Peregrine was not accustomed to these sorts of situations. He'd been a damn fool to have his curricle brought to the far reaches of hell—otherwise known as Hemshawe—and he'd been an even bigger fool to insist upon driving it about after the heavy rains of the night before.
He jumped down from the box and walked back to examine the wheel, rubbing one gloved knuckle over his chin. The lower half of the sphere had sunk deep into mud on the side of the so-called road. What the devil did Bertie see in Hellshawe? Why couldn't his friend have rented a house somewhere civilized, like York or Brighton, or—hell—what was the matter with London?
Lochley knew what the devil was the matter with London, and that was why he was in Hellshawe. He didn't have to like it. He peered at the wheel with some consternation. He had no footman with him. How was he to free the wheel from the mud? Perhaps his hack could manage it.
Lochley walked to the front of the conveyance, avoiding the puddles of muck as best he could. These boots were new, and he did not want to soil them. When he reached his hack, the mare eyed him dubiously.
"Now, my lovely, don't look at me like that. Just because you could not free us a moment ago does not mean you cannot manage it now." He took hold of her halter. "Come along." What was it his coachman always said? "Hup. Hup, now. Give it your best effort, darling."
The horse blew out a breath and shook her head. Lochley narrowed his eyes. Just like a woman to be stubborn. He certainly knew how to deal with stubborn women.
"An extra measure of oats for you if you manage it," he cooed. "Maybe I can even manage to slip you into that bay stallion's stall for an hour or so. I saw you eyeing him. You and he could become better acquainted."
He gave a light jerk on the halter, added a hup, and—wonder of wonders—the hack stepped forward. At least, she attempted to step forward. The curricle creaked and groaned and didn't move even an inch.
"Bloody hell!" Lochley swore under his breath so as not to alarm the horse. Out loud, he said, "One more time, my lovely. Those oats and that handsome stallion are waiting."
"Does she ever answer you?"
Lochley jumped and spun around at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. A woman stood on the side of the road with a basket on one arm and her other hand planted on her hip. She wore a simple day dress of an indiscriminate shade of brown with a similarly colored shawl about her shoulders. The fashion of her straw hat was little better, and though it protected her pale skin from the sun, her auburn hair had escaped most of its confines, and long wisps of it blew in the breeze around her face. She was of medium height, and even the shawl and modest neckline didn't hide the generous swells of her bosom.
Not that he was looking.
"She keeps her own countenance." Lochley gave the wench a charming smile that elicited sighs from most women of his acquaintance.
This wench did not even blink. "Are you stuck?"
"Eh?" He looked back at his curricle, having forgotten for a moment his predicament. "Oh, that. I don't think the wheel can be extricated. This horse either hasn't the will or the strength."
She stepped closer, cocking her head to peer at his horse. "And even the promise of sexual favors with a handsome stallion did not persuade her?"
"You heard that, did you?"
She made a noncommittal sound, reached out a hand to the mare, and stroked her nose.
The woman was almost beside him now, and Lochley watched as the auburn wisps of hair turned gold and then red in the sunlight. One brushed against her cheek, contrasting sharply with the pale skin. Unusual for a ginger to have such perfect, unfreckled skin.
"What is her name?"
He'd been admiring the curve of the wench's cheek and didn't hear her question until she looked directly at him with blue eyes so dark and large they might have been twin sapphires in the queen's crown.
"Who?" he asked.
"Your horse," she said slowly, as though he were an imbecile. Which he was. How else to account for the fact that he stood on a muddy road in the middle of the goddamn country ogling a country miss? He didn't like the country—not its roads, not its trees and sheep, not its ladies.
Lochley turned his attention to his horse. "I can't say I know her name."
"She's not yours?"
"She's mine. I suppose I never took the time to learn her name."
"That's not surprising," she murmured.
Before he could ask what she meant by that, she walked right past him. He followed her around to the rear of the curricle.
"Oh, this is bad indeed. Whatever possessed you to go for a ride this morning? You should have waited until afternoon when the ground had dried."
"That's all very well to say now." Of course, Bertie and his sister had given him the same advice. Lochley hadn't listened to them, and he didn't have to listen to this wench either.
"Where are you staying?" she asked.
"At the Friar's House with the Gages. Do you know them?"
Her eyes skidded away. "Not very well. I know the house. Everyone knows the house. It's about a two-mile walk from here."
Lochley considered. He could walk the two miles, though he was no great walker. He could also unhitch the horse and ride her back. Either way, he'd be forced to eat crow when Gage learned his dire predictions about the conditions of the road had proved correct.
On the other hand, how was he to free the curricle wheel? "What I need is a man to push the wheel on this side while I prod the horse on the other."
"That might very well work," she agreed. "But you don't need a man." She set her basket on the road. "If you push the wheel, I will take charge of the horse."
Lochley was momentarily speechless. No woman he knew in Town would have ever suggested such a thing. No woman in Town so much as lifted a finger unless it was to signal for more champagne.
The wench didn't wait for his consent. She lifted her muddy skirts and trudged back through the mud to the horse. "I am ready when you are!" she called.
Lochley eyed the wheel then his riding gloves. They were pristine gloves made of soft kid leather that perfectly matched his buff riding breeches.
"One moment. I must remove my gloves." He pulled them off and stuffed them in his coat pocket. Perhaps he should remove his coat as well. Lochley did not want mud on the superfine, and the coat had been made by Weston himself. But if he removed the coat, his waistcoat and shirt would be vulnerable. The waistcoat was silk and the shirt fine linen.
"Damn it all to Hellshawe," he cursed, and reached for the wheel. At the last moment, he had another idea, and balancing on one leg, he used a booted foot to shove at the wheel.
"Are you pushing?" the wench asked.
"Yes!" he gritted out.
He could hear her encouraging the mare. The curricle creaked and groaned.
"It's not moving," she called back.
Lochley wiped his brow though it wasn't beaded with sweat. "The wheel is too deep in the mud. It will have to be dug out." He would not enjoy that helping of crow, but he had no other option but to return to the Friars House and ask to borrow one of Bertie's grooms and a shovel.
"Let me know when you are ready to try again," she said.
Lochley peered around the curricle. She still stood by the mare, patting the horse's nose. What was she about? Hadn't he just said the wheel would have to be dug out?
Her head came up, and her sapphire eyes landed on him. "You are not digging," she said.
"Digging?" He put a hand to his cravat. "Miss, this coat was made by Weston. I don't suppose you know who that is, but I will not ruin what is considered by many to be a national treasure by digging in the mud."
One of her auburn brows lifted. "I know Weston. He's an overpriced seamstress."
Lochley inhaled sharply.
Amusement lit her eyes. "Will you challenge me to a duel or do you worry a glove flicked at my face might become irreparably damaged?"
The wench was mocking him. A country miss with no sense of fashion, no style, and no connections was mocking him—Peregrine Lochley.
"I suppose if you are too delicate to dirty your hands, I shall have to do it." She rounded the curricle and brushed by him, her ugly skirts dancing across his boots. To his amazement, she knelt in the mud beside the wheel.
"What are you doing?"
She twisted her head to see him from under the brim of the bonnet. "Digging you out." And then she proceeded to stick her ungloved hands in the mud and muck and push it away from the wheel until he could see the rim. "Will you stand there and gawk, or do you think you might bestir yourself to walk the horse?"
Like a man coming out of a trance, Lochley marched to the hack, took the halter, and called, "Hup."
The mare pulled, the curricle squeaked, and the wheels moved. He suppressed the impulse to exclaim in surprise and instead directed the horse to the center of the road, where the mud had dried into firm earth. A few feet back, the wench struggled to her feet, brushing her dress off with little improvement.
What kind of gentleman was he to allow a woman to dirty her hands and clothing in an effort to free his curricle? The answer was clear: no gentleman at all. He should have done it himself.
No, that notion was ridiculous. He should have prevented her from stooping to such a task. But he'd just been so completely taken by surprise.
"I don't know how to thank you," he said. Should he even thank her? He was at a loss for the proper etiquette in a situation like this.
"There's no thanks necessary. In Hemshawe we help each other when we can."
So he'd heard. Bertie and his sister couldn't say enough about the generosity of the people in the village.
"Thank you anyway, Miss—?"
"Martin," she supplied. "I live just about a mile from here. Edward Martin is my father."
Lochley bowed, although it seemed unnecessary at this point. "Peregrine Lochley. I haven't yet had the pleasure to meet your father. I just arrived."
"Obviously," she said with a ghost of a smile. "Good day to you." She bent and hoisted her basket on her arm again, then lifted her skirts and began to walk away.
Lochley watched her, feeling as though he had not done nearly enough to atone for his wretched behavior. He should do something more. He should do something gentlemanly.
"May I drive you home, Miss Martin?" The thought of the mud on her dress sullying his seats made him slightly ill, but sacrifices were called for.
"No, thank you. I prefer to walk, and it's not far. In any case, the road only deteriorates the farther you travel from Tunbridge Wells. I think you chance another mishap if you drive this way."
He wanted to object, but she'd said no, and he was not in the habit of forcing ladies who did not want to drive with him into his curricle. Especially ladies with mud on their skirts and hands and... well, everywhere.
But he could not simply allow her to walk away.
"May I invite you to dinner, Miss Martin?"
She slowed and faced him. Her expression was one of amusement and disbelief.
"You and your family," he amended, lest she think he meant anything improper by the invitation. These country people could be sticklers about propriety.
"Dinner at the Friar's House?" she asked.
"Are you certain your hosts will approve?"
He hadn't thought of that, but why would Bertie or Miss Gage object to having their neighbors for dinner? Certainly they'd dined together before. Miss Gage was quite a social creature, not to mention a bit of a matchmaker. She seemed to know everyone in Hemshawe and constantly dragged her poor companion to call on someone or other.
"I can assure you my hosts will approve," he said confidently. "Say, the day after tomorrow?"
She gave him a curtsey, a rather elegant one too, and continued on her way.
Lochley climbed into the curricle and lifted the reins. His horse snorted, stating her eagerness to return and claim those oats and the conjugal visit. Lochley was eager to return as well.
But he couldn't stop himself from looking over his shoulder at the retreating form of Miss Martin one last time.
"Fanny, is that you?" her mother called when the kitchen door opened. Fanny was their servant, and her mother's assumption it was she entering through the kitchen was a logical one as Caroline would be expected to enter through the front door.
"No, it's me, Mother," Caro said. "I'm quite covered in mud and didn't want to dirty the entryway."
Mrs. Martin, who had been seated at the table peeling potatoes, turned sharply then jumped to her feet. "Caro! What happened? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine." She set the basket with the fabric her mother had asked her to fetch from Tunbridge Wells on the table. "Nothing happened."
But her mother, always so overprotective these days, grasped her by the arms and looked her over carefully for signs of injury. "Did you fall?"
"No. I assure you. I am quite well."
Her mother released her, seeming satisfied enough that her daughter was indeed whole and unharmed. She nodded toward the door to the house. "You had better go and change before your father sees this."
"Sees what?" her father asked, opening the door from the house and entering the kitchen. Her father was a gentleman, although he did not look the part at the moment. He took an active interest in his farm and his livestock, and at the moment he was dressed in the garb of a working man. He'd probably been up with the sun and overseen countless tasks, but he still looked a good deal better than she.
As soon as he saw her, his tanned face twisted with anger. "What happened?"
"I am fine," she said. "Truly."
"The roads are not that muddy. How did you come to look as though you were tumbled in a copse?"
"Edward!" her mother said with a gasp.
Caro's cheeks flamed hot. She deserved such assumptions, but that did not mean she was not hurt by them.
"The roads are muddy," she said, knowing she had no choice but to explain now. She would have done so anyway because she had to mention the dinner invitation, but she would have waited until after dinner, when her father was relaxed by the fire with a book or his ledgers.
"Just past Mr. Jacobs's fields I came across a gentleman whose curricle wheel was stuck in the mud. I offered to help him extricate it."
Her father's eyes closed as though he was in pain. "Not this again."
Her temper flared at his words, but she reined it in. "That is the whole of the story. He is a guest of Mr. Gage's at the Friar's House, a ridiculous dandy from London who didn't know any better than to go out driving when the mud is as deep as your knees. I helped him free the conveyance and went my own way as he went his."
The last thing she needed was for her father to confine her to the house again. She'd barely earned his trust enough to be able to go into Tunbridge Wells on her own.
"There now." Her mother gave them both a shaky smile. "That seems innocent enough."
Her father made a noncommittal sound.
"Now, go and change and wash, Caroline."
She nodded and started for the door.
"Is that the whole story?" her father asked.
She paused. If she omitted the dinner invitation now, it would be lying. With a sigh, she shook her head. "He invited us to dine with him and the Gages at the Friar's House the day after tomorrow. I believe it was a gesture of thanks."
"You declined, of course."
"No, Papa. I neither declined nor accepted. It was a thoughtful gesture"—if such a vain, conceited man was capable of such—"but as I said, he just arrived. I will allow the Gages to enlighten him. Then, I am sure, we will receive a note telling us they are already engaged that evening and to forgive the impetuousness of their guest."
They had received notes like that before—many, many notes like that when she first returned home three years ago. She'd thought she was immune to the pain of such rejections, but apparently she still had the ability to feel hurt and disappointment.
The rebuff would hurt all the more because even though Peregrine Lochley was a dandy and an idiot, he was a handsome idiot. He was tall and well proportioned with dark hair and an unshaven jaw that made him look slightly dangerous. His eyes were an unusual color of hazel, almost golden, and his features undeniably aristocratic. She might think Weston a ridiculously expensive tailor, but the coat, and his other clothing, had fit him perfectly.
And this was not to mention that Caro would have liked to meet Miss Gage. The young lady seemed very sweet and friendly, but thus far her companion had kept Caro at a distance. She supposed it didn't matter, as in a few months the Gages' lease would be up, and they would be returning to London. Caro's life would go on as it had been, and she'd feel lonely when the Gages returned only if she managed to make a friend of Miss Gage.
"Excuse me," she said, and left her parents in the kitchen. She intended to go to her room, change clothing, and wash the mud off her hands and arms. Her mother's voice stopped her.
"It's too bad. I would have liked to dine at the Friar's House."
"Another time," her father said, his voice softer and kinder when he spoke to his wife. He used to speak to Caro like that.
"When?" Mrs. Martin asked. "Shall we never recover? We aren't invited anywhere and go nowhere, save the public assemblies. I fear Matthew will never marry. How can he find a proper wife when we aren't received anywhere?"
"Matthew is fine. No one holds him responsible. If anyone is to blame, it's me."
"You mustn't hold yourself accountable," her mother chided. "We have been through this before."
And because Caro had heard it all before, she walked away. How she wished she could undo the past, but she'd made a mistake, and now she must live with it. Her entire family must live with it. Thankfully, her older sister, Elizabeth, had already married before the shame befell their family, or her parents would have to worry over both Lizzy and Matthew. As it was, no one worried about her chances for marriage.
No one would ever want her.
© Shana Galen