Lauren Alcott and her fiancé hadn’t been on the river long when their rowboat struck something along a bend in the river. She was forced to grab the sides with both hands to remain upright. “We’ve struck something,” she said. “Obviously.” Her fiance’s face reddened as he tried to free an oar to push them free of the obstruction only to find the oars were pinned in place by iron pegs on either side of the oarlock. Apparently, the rental agency was determined not to lose another oar. Lauren bit her lip and averted her gaze, tamping down her own irritation and pretending not to notice his. A woman’s voice—a cry—came from across the way and she turned to see what was happening. A boat had just overturned in the channel of the river, spilling its two female occupants into the spring-swollen current. She gasped as the women struggled to hold onto their overturned boat. She turned to her fiancé with fresh urgency. “We have to do something.” “I am doing something,” Rafe Townsend growled. “I’m getting us free so we can row over to them.” He pulled mightily on the oars, his straining muscles visible through his shirt.
She looked back at the women, whose skirts initially billowed around them, providing some buoyancy. Now one had lost her grip on the boat and her skirts would soon be waterlogged and dragging her down. Rowing closer to tow them to shore was clearly out of the question. She scoured the banks of the river for other assistance. There was no one else close enough to render aid in time. She stared at him in dismay. What was the matter with the man? How could he sit there, fiddling with the oars, and not jump in to save them? She had seen him only a few times since their engagement, but she would never have thought him so callous as to watch people drown without doing everything possible to save them. Tall, fair, and elegant . he had seemed most admirable husband material at the start. He was the scion of a wealthy family whose fortune began with the founding of a trading company nearly two hundred years ago.
The Townsends were never titled, but had a number of knighthoods in their lineage and were known as one of the first families of commerce. He had attended university and read widely—often in the original Latin, Greek, or French. He was all too aware of his superior pedigree and it was clear he only agreed to the betrothal because he considered her an “acceptable” match. But there were other qualities, Lauren was learning, that the handsome and superior Mr. Townsend lacked. The cries from the water became more desperate. She stood up in their boat, unbuttoned her blouse, and yanked the starched cotton from her shoulders. Her belt was next; it hit the gaping Oxford man, who was too stunned by what she was doing to duck. The commotion of the women flailing in the water fifty yards away drowned out most of his protest. “What the devil do you think you’re—you cannot possibly—” “The devil I can’t.
” She shoved her skirt down her hips in one fierce movement. Tamping it underfoot, she shot him a blistering look. “Someone has to.” “Hold on! I’m coming!” she called urgently to the women being carried downstream with their overturned boat. Her petticoat joined her skirt in the bottom of the boat. Thank heaven she’d left off her stays. “Miss Alcott! Really!” He yanked his gaze from her combinations and trained it on the forms flowing downstream. “Silly women have no business taking out a boat if they don’t know how to manage it properly!” “Silly women.” Words guaranteed to push her over the edge. Literally.
Her scantily clad form made a graceful arc in the sunlight before slicing into the cool, dark water. A second later she surfaced and began to swim. Her stroke was so sure and her form so clean that she barely churned a wake. Sputters and protests faded behind her as she focused on rescuing the women, calling to them to kick their feet and keep their faces above the surface. She reached them in time to ferry the girl back to the overturned boat and then snag the older lady just as the woman’s strength gave out. Warmth drained from her at an alarming rate. It took all her concentration and strength to swim for the closest bank while holding the waterlogged woman’s head above water. She felt like she was towing a leaky barge full of cotton bales! When they finally reached the opposite bank she dragged the woman out of the water and rolled her onto her side to cough up water. Satisfied that the woman was breathing, she dove back into the water to rescue the one hanging on to the receding boat. The chilled water took a toll on her reserves and the girl, while younger, was larger and seemed to weigh twice as much.
It was a desperate struggle to get her to the bank and haul her out of the water. As they collapsed together on the bank, it became clear why she’d had such difficulty getting the pair to shore—they were both wearing sizable bustles, a full complement of petticoats, and complete sets of stays. Whatever possessed them to go out on the river in such garments? The women struggled under the weight of their waterlogged clothes to reach each other and sat embracing, sobbing. It came out that they were mother and daughter and had tried to re-create one of their favorite times with their recently deceased husband and father. They had rented a boat to float down the river . too caught up in memory and emotion to recall that it was always Papa who had done the rowing and steering on their Sunday river outings. “You’ll be all right.” Lauren accepted a blanket from someone who had finally come running to render aid. She wrapped it around the women and rubbed their shoulders to warm them. “Anyone have a spot of brandy?” she called to those hurrying down the bank toward them.
One man halted in his tracks, nodded, and then went running back up the bank. “Thank you so much, young woman.” The anguished mother looked up as Lauren knelt beside them. “We never meant to—my arms got so tired and numb that I dropped the oar. When I tried to reach it . ” “It’s all right, really. You’re safe now, and there was no harm done.” Lauren gently stroked the woman’s icy cheek. Moments later she looked up to find the boat and the man she had abandoned inching through the nearby weeds at the edge of the bank. She turned to see him standing in the bow, scowling as he searched for a dry patch on which to set his elegant Italian shoes.
“Really, Miss Alcott!” He rushed up the soggy bank holding out his silk-lined coat in front of him. “Have you no modesty?” She followed his gaze to the cause of his outrage. The lawn of her combinations was wet and clinging to her, revealing as much of her anatomy as they concealed. She looked up to find him staring at her, red-faced with indignation. Never mind that she had just hazarded her own life and limb to save two lives. Clearly, he found the exposure of her body more disturbing than the thought of two women drowning! The lives belonged to “silly women,” after all. She pushed aside the coat he tried to fling around her and stalked down the bank to the boat and the clothes she had discarded earlier. “I’ve never witnessed such a spectacle in my life,” he declared, stalking after her. “Unthinkable.” Wordless with anger, she grabbed her clothes out of the boat and carried them back up the bank, where she dumped most of them into a pile and began to dry herself with her petticoat.
She paused, clutching the lace-rimmed cotton to her, and met his censuring gaze. “I’ll tell you what is unthinkable, Mr. Townsend.” Each step she advanced sent him back an equal distance. “It is you sitting on your pampered arse in a boat watching two women die because you refuse to get your precious trousers wet. That is what is ‘unthinkable.’” “You honestly expected me to abandon a perfectly good boat to—? I–I had tried all reasonable options. I had you to think about, Miss Alcott.” He pulled down his vest and raised his chin. “A man has priorities.
” She stiffened. “How dare you use me as an excuse for your cowardice!” “Cowardice?” His gaze flicked to the people collecting on the bank nearby, and he lowered his voice to a growl. “Really, Miss Alcott, you go too far.” “Too far?” Her eyes narrowed as she realized they had reached the edge of the water, and she glanced down to find him teetering on his toes to keep from getting his precious shoes wet. “Not by half.” She gave him a shove that set him flailing. After a brief but wickedly entertaining imitation of a windmill, he went over . flat on his back. The splash caused cries of dismay and hoots of laughter from the people gawking at them. He managed to sit up, gasping.
She took the diamond-and-ruby ring from her hand and tossed it onto the wet linen on his lap. “We’re through, Mr. Townsend.” Her eyes narrowed and her chin rose. “After today I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth.” * * * One of the massive front doors of Alcott House swung open to admit her, and Lauren stormed inside with her petticoat balled up under one arm and a sizable wicker hamper in the other hand. The hamper hit the polished checkerboard marble of the entry hall with an unmistakable shatter and tinkle that caused the butler to halt in his tracks. He looked in dismay from the hamper to her wet hair and damp, disheveled garments. “Miss?” “Where are they, Weathersby?” she demanded, tossing the bundled petticoat onto the floor beside the hamper. He didn’t have to ask to whom she referred.
“Your father and aunt are in the salon, Miss.” She sailed into the grand salon to find her father, Lawrence Alcott, and his plump, rosy-cheeked sister, Amanda Perrix, absorbed in their usual Sunday afternoon pursuits . reading and needlework, respectively. She had to deliver the news before she had time to think better of it. Rafe Townsend was the heir and rising star of Townsend Imports. News of her decision to disrupt the impending union of two empires of commerce was potentially cataclysmic. “Just so you know—it’s off,” she declared. “What’s off, dear?” her aunt said without looking up. “The engagement. With that Townsend man.
It’s off.” “What?” Her father looked up from his book, blinked, then scowled. “Oh, dear.” Her aunt lowered her embroidery hoop. She stared at the pair as the news penetrated their Sunday lethargy. A moment later her father was on his feet, his book tossed aside. “What happened to you?” He looked her over, horror dawning as he took in her wet hair, wilted blouse, and damp skirt. Clearly she had to explain. “I have learned that Mr. Townsend, in addition to thinking himself vastly superior to myself and the rest of humanity, has even worse qualities.
Arrogance, lack of charity, and a shocking excess of selfinterest . just a few among them. I cannot imagine marriage to him without suffocating from dread.” “What has he done?” Her father crossed the salon in a few long strides and seized her cold hands. “What’s happened between you?” “I have always had reservations about him. His demeanor is so cold and superior. His every pronouncement is a judgment on someone or something—always expressing displeasure or outright contempt.” “This is Rafe Townsend you’re talking about? I know him to be an educated, well-mannered fellow. A bit ambitious, like his father, but young Townsend is widely reputed to be of upstanding character. His reputation for honesty and integrity in business is unparalleled.
” “There is more to a man than his business acumen and—though it pains me to say it—than even his education. There are finer sensibilities to be considered; personal qualities of compassion and caring for others, a willingness to act to ensure the welfare of others.” She decided to come right out with it. “The man lacks both courage and the most basic urge to assist others in distress.” “He failed to—” He gasped. “Your boat overturned!” “Not ours.” She straightened under her father’s penetrating glare and pulled her hands from his. “Our river outing came to an end when we came upon two women whose boat had overturned. They were in desperate straits and when I suggested he help, he behaved as if I had asked him to harness the moon. He just sat there, appalled by the thought of putting himself at risk to save two women’s lives.
” “And how did that make you wet, dear?” Aunt Amanda asked. “I took it upon myself to help them to shore. They were close to succumbing to the water’s current and chill.” “You jumped into the river to save them?” Her father looked astounded, then horrified. “I did.” “You risked life and limb to help complete strangers?” His horror deepened. “I did. They were both saved. After I towed them to shore all he could do was express outrage that I had shed a few garments in order to help them.” She pulled out the sides of her gored skirt, which had absorbed water from her drenched underclothes.
“He was more embarrassed by my lack of skirts than grateful that the women were alive. I cannot look at him with respect after such a selfish display.” She backed away a step, then another. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to have a warm bath and change into dry clothes. I am chilled to the bone.” She turned on her heel and headed quickly for the stairs, leaving her father in turmoil and her aunt grappling for a response. She ran the last few yards to her room and quickly closed the door behind her and turned the key in the lock. She swallowed hard, remembering the anger rising in her father’s face. He was going to be flaming furious. Normally he was a steady and even-tempered sort, but when pushed he could rattle the windows with his roars.
And there it came. The knob rattled furiously, then his fist banged against the door. “Lauren Elena Alcott, open this door! You will answer for this headstrong behavior, young lady, right now!” More pounding. He was really angry. “Bathing, Papa—ch-ch-chilled through and through. I’ll be d-down when I’m done, I promise!” She rushed into her newly installed bathing room and lit the gas heater for her bathwater. She hadn’t lied—she was cold and shivering. Her mouth dried as she was beginning to feel the full impact of what she had done. In one tempestuous moment she had wiped blank the slate of her future and upended a long-awaited merger of her father’s East Anglia Trading and Horace Townsend’s import company. She knew her father had crafted this tricky bit of commerce like a royal diplomat.
Every term of the contracts was polished to perfection. She stripped off her damp clothes, wrapped herself in toweling from the cupboard, and perched on the edge of the claw-footed tub, waiting for the water to heat. The sight of Rafe Townsend’s outrage came back to her. He’d just sat there watching two women flounder and succumb to the water. What happened to chivalry, nobility? Christian charity toward others? Why couldn’t he have done something more to help them? She was right to jump in and help them. Wasn’t she? * * * “I feared all that time swimming at the country house and on those seashore holidays would bring her to no good,” Lawrence Alcott said, tromping back and forth in the salon. His face was like red granite. “Her swimming saved two lives today, Lawrence. If anything has brought her to no good it was having no say in her engagement,” Amanda said calmly. “Young women these days don’t generally care to be bartered and traded like commodities.
I did say that, you know.” “I’ve been negotiating this merger for two years. She knew about it early on and never objected.” “If she had, would you have listened?” Alcott paced before the long, sunlit windows with his hands clamped firmly behind his back. Clearly he wasn’t listening now. “And those books,” he continued. “She’s always reading something. Not good for a young girl’s eyes, posture, or mental stability. Puts all sorts of notions into their heads.” He paused and looked to his sister.
“What is that wretched tome she’s always going on about?” “Ivanhoe. Sir Walter Scott,” Amanda provided with a small smile that contained just enough sympathy to cover her pleasure at being proved right. If there was anything she loved, it was saying I told you so. Especially to her older brother Lawrence. “Reading did not bring her to this, Brother. It was your ignorance of your daughter’s heart and your incessant maneuvering to get the best of Horace Townsend.” She took a deep breath. “That, and the younger Townsend’s regrettable deficits. I must say, I would find it intolerable to be yoked to a man with no chivalry or charity in him.” She shivered noticeably.
“My husbands were all men rich in spirit and sensitivity.” “That was all they were rich in,” Lawrence grumbled. “True.” She sighed quietly. “They were not adept in finance and worldly matters, but we bumped along quite nicely together. Each was happy to breathe their last in my arms.” “No doubt,” Lawrence said tartly. His opinion of his sister’s marriages was well-known. “I have to set her straight and then send a message to Townsend. We shall have to meet.
” He groaned. “No doubt he’ll want concessions—if not reparations for this attempted default. Pray to God the marriage and the merger can both be salvaged.” Amanda rolled her eyes, thinking surely God had better things to do than to rescue Lawrence Alcott from a mess of his own making. In her experience the Almighty made it a policy to leave headstrong fools to the results of their own follies. She removed her spectacles and set her needlework aside. “I’ll see if she’s all right.” When Lawrence spun on his heel to glare at her, she added, “And I’ll see she comes straight down as soon as she is presentable.”