One Night for Love – Mary Balogh

Despite the early hour and the chilly weather, the yard of the White Horse Inn in Fetter Lane, London, was crowded and noisy. The stagecoach for the West Country was preparing to make its daily run. Few passengers had yet boarded; most were milling about anxiously to see that their luggage had been properly stowed. Hawkers attempted to sell their wares to passengers for whom the day would be long and tedious. Grooms bustled about their business. Ragged children, when they were not being shooed back into the street, darted about, feeding on the excitement. The guard blew his horn, a deafening warning that the coach would be departing within a few minutes and anyone with a ticket would be well advised to climb aboard. Captain Gordon Harris, looking smart in the green regimentals of the Ninety-ɹfth Rifles, and his young wife, who was warmly and modishly dressed, looked somewhat out of place in such inelegant surroundings. But they were not themselves passengers. They had accompanied a woman to the White Horse in order to see her on her way. Her appearance was in marked contrast to theirs. While she was clean and tidy, she was undeniably shabby. She wore a simple high-waisted cotton dress with a shawl for warmth. Both garments looked well worn and well washed. Her bonnet, which had perhaps once been pretty even if never quite modish, had clearly shielded its wearer from one too many rainstorms.

Its wide brim was limp and misshapen. She was a young woman—indeed, she was so small and so slight of frame that she might at ɹrst glance have been mistaken for a mere girl. But there was something about her that drew second, more lingering glances from several of the men who were busy about their various tasks. There were beauty and grace and some indeɹnable air of femininity about her to proclaim that she was indeed a woman. “I must be getting into the coach,” she said with a smile for the captain and his wife. “You need not stay here any longer. It is too cold to be standing about.” She held out both her slim hands to Mrs. Harris, though she looked alternately at both of them. “How will I ever be able to thank you sufficiently for all you have done for me?” Tears sprang to Mrs.

Harris’s eyes, and she enfolded the young woman tightly in her arms. “We have done nothing of any great signiɹcance,” she said. “And now we are abandoning you to travel on the stage, the very cheapest form of transportation, when you might have gone more respectably by post chaise or at the very worst by the mailcoach.” “I have borrowed enough from you,” the young woman said, “without indulging in needless extravagances.” “Borrowed” Mrs. Harris removed a lace-edged handkerchief from her reticule and dabbed at her eyes with it. “It is still not too late to alter your plans, you know.” Captain Harris took one of the young woman’s hands in both of his own. “Come back to our hotel with us for breakfast and I shall write that letter even before I eat, and send it on its way. I daresay there will be an answer within the week.

” “No, sir,” she told him quite firmly, though she smiled. “I cannot wait. I must go.” He did not argue further but sighed, patted her hand, and then impulsively pulled her into a hug as his wife had done. By that time she was in danger of losing the inside seat he had quite adamantly insisted upon. He had even slipped the coachman a tip to ensure her a window seat for the long journey to the village of Upper Newbury in Dorsetshire. But a large woman, who looked as if she might be ready to take on any coachman or any army captain who dared cross her, or indeed both at once, was already settling herself into the only window seat still available. The young woman had to squeeze herself into a middle seat. But she did not appear to share the captain’s wrath. She smiled and lifted a hand in farewell.

As she did so, the guard’s horn blew again as a warning to everyone nearby that the stage was about to begin its journey. Mrs. Harris’s gloved hand was still raised in an answering farewell wave after the stagecoach had rumbled out of the yard, turned onto the street, and disappeared from sight. “I have never in my life known anyone so stubborn,” she said, using her handkerchief again. “Or anyone so dear. What will become of her, Gordon?” The captain sighed once more. “I fear she is doing the wrong thing,” he said. “Almost a year and a half has passed, and what seemed like madness even at the time will doubtless be a total impossibility now. But she does not understand.” “Her sudden appearance is going to come as a dreadful shock,” Mrs.

Harris said. “Oh, foolish girl to have refused to delay even a few days while you wrote a letter. How will she manage, Gordon? She is so small and so frail and so—so innocent. I fear for her.” “For as long as I have known Lily,” Captain Harris replied, “she has looked much the same, though admittedly she is thinner than she used to be. The appearance of fragility and innocence are largely illusory, though. We know that she has been through a great deal that would severely test the roughest and toughest of my men. But she must have experienced worse things that we can only imagine.” “I prefer not even to try,” his wife said fervently. “She has survived, Maisie,” he reminded her, “with her pride and her courage intact.

And her sweetness too—she seems not to have been embittered. Despite everything there still appears to be more than a touch of innocence about her.” “What will he do when she arrives?” she asked as they began to walk back to their hotel for breakfast. “Oh dear, he really ought to have been warned.” Newbury Abbey, the country seat and principal estate of the Earl of Kilbourne in Dorsetshire, was an imposing mansion in a large, carefully tended park that included a secluded, fern-laden valley and a private golden beach. Beyond the gates of the park, Upper Newbury was a picturesque village of thatched, whitewashed houses clustered about a green with the tall-spired Church of All Souls and an inn with its taproom belowstairs and its assembly room and guest rooms abovestairs. The village of Lower Newbury, a ɹshing community built about the sheltered cove on which ɹshing boats bobbed at rest when not in use, was connected to the upper village by a steep lane, lined with houses and a few shops. The inhabitants of both villages and the surrounding countryside were, on the whole, content with the quiet obscurity of their lives. But, when all was said and done, they were only human. They liked a spot of excitement as well as the next man or woman.

Newbury Abbey supplied it on occasion. The last grand spectacle had been the funeral of the old earl more than a year before. The new earl, his son, had been in Portugal at the time with Lord Wellington’s armies and had been unable to return in time for the somber event. He had sold his commission and come home later to take up his responsibilities. And now—in early May of 1813—the people of the Newburys were about to experience something far more joyful, far more splendid than a funeral. Neville Wyatt, the new Earl of Kilbourne, a young man of seven-and-twenty years, was to be married to his cousin by marriage, who had been brought up at the abbey with him and his sister, Lady Gwendoline. His father, the late earl, and Baron Galton, the bride’s maternal grandfather, had planned the match many years before. It was a popular match. There could be no more handsome couple, the villagers were generally agreed, than the Earl of Kilbourne and Miss Lauren Edgeworth. His lordship had gone away to the wars—much against his father’s wishes, it had been rumored—as a tall, slender, blond, and handsome boy.

He had returned six years later improved almost beyond recognition. He was broad where a man should be broad, slim where a man should be slim, and ɹt and strong and rugged. Even the scar of an old saber wound that slashed his face from right temple to chin, only narrowly missing both his eye and the corner of his mouth, seemed somehow to enhance rather than mar his good looks. As for Miss Edgeworth, she was tall and slim and elegant and as pretty as any picture with her dark shiny curls and eyes that some described as smoky and others as violet, though all were agreed that they were uncommonly lovely. And she had waited patiently for her earl to an almost dangerously advanced age—she was all of four-and-twenty. It was all very proper and very romantic, everyone agreed. For two days a steady stream of grand carriages had passed through the village and been duly gawked at by the more vulgar and peered at from behind parlor curtains by the more genteel. Half the quality of England was coming for the occasion, it was said, and more titled persons than some of them had known existed in all of England, Scotland, and Wales combined. Rumor had it—though it was surely more fact than rumor since it had come directly from the ɹrst cousin of the brother-in-law of the aunt of one of the kitchen maids at Newbury—that there was not a bedchamber at the abbey that was not to be filled with guests. And that was a prodigious number of rooms.

A number of local families had received invitations—to the wedding itself and the breakfast that would follow it at the abbey, and to the grand ball that was to take place on the evening prior to the wedding. Indeed, no one could remember more elaborate plans. Even the humbler folk were not doomed to being mere spectators. While the wedding guests were partaking of their breakfast, the villagers would be enjoying a sumptuous repast of their own, to be served inside the inn at the earl’s behest and expense. There was to be dancing afterward about the maypole on the green. The wedding eve was a time of heightened activity in the village. Tantalizing aromas of cooking wafted from the inn all day long in promise of the next day’s feast. Some of the women set the tables in the assembly room while their men hung colored streamers from the maypole and children tried them out and were scolded for tangling them and getting under everyone’s feet. Miss Taylor, spinster daughter of a former vicar, and her younger sister, Miss Amelia, helped the vicar’s wife decorate the church with white bows and spring ɻowers while the vicar set new candles in the holders and dreamed of the glory the morrow would bring him. The next morning would see the convergence of all the illustrious guests and their carriages on the upper village.

And there would be the earl to admire in his wedding finery, and the bride in hers. And—bliss of all blisses—there would be the newly married couple to cheer as they emerged from the church doors with the church bells pealing out the glad tidings that there was a new young countess for the abbey. And then the feasting and frolicking would begin. Everyone kept a wary eye on the western horizon, from which direction most weather approached. But there was nothing ominous to see. Today was a clear, sunny, really quite warm day. There was no sign of clouds building in the west. Tomorrow looked to be a fair day—as was only right and proper. Nothing was to be allowed to spoil the day. No one thought to look east.

The stagecoach from London set Lily down outside the inn in the village of Upper Newbury. It was certainly a pretty place, she thought, breathing in the cool, slightly salty evening air and feeling somewhat restored despite her weariness and the stiʃness of her limbs. It all looked very English to her—very pretty and very peaceful and rather alien. But the dusk of evening was falling already and she still might have a way to go on foot. She had neither the time nor the energy to explore. Besides, her heart had begun thumping in her chest, making her slightly breathless. She had realized that she was very close now—at last. But the closer she came, the more uncertain she was of her welcome and of the wisdom of having made this journey at all—except that there had seemed to be no real alternative. Lily turned and walked into the inn. “Is Newbury Abbey far?” she asked the innkeeper, ignoring the near silence that fell over the taproom as she entered it.

The room was full to overɻowing with men, who all appeared to be in a festive mood, but Lily was not unaccustomed to such situations. Large numbers of men did not embarrass or frighten her. “Two miles if it is anything to you,” the innkeeper said, leaning massive elbows on the counter and looking her up and down with open curiosity. “In which direction?” she asked. “Past the church and through the gates,” he said, pointing, “and follow the driveway.” “Thank you,” Lily said politely, and turned away. “If I was you, my pretty wench,” a man seated at one of the tables called to her, not unkindly, “I would knock on the vicarage door. Next to the church this side. They will give you a crust and a mug of water.” “If you cares to sit down between me and Mitch ’ere,” someone else called with rough jocularity, “I’ll see that you ’as your crust and a mug of cider to go with it, my lovely.

” A hearty guʃaw of laughter greeted his words as well as a few whistles and the sound of tables being pounded with the flat of the hand. Lily smiled, unoʃended. She was accustomed to rough men and rough ways. They rarely meant any harm or even any great disrespect. “Thank you,” she said, “but not tonight.” She stepped outside. Two miles. And it was very nearly dark. But she could not wait until morning. Where would she stay? She had enough money to buy herself a glass of lemonade and perhaps a small loaf of bread, but not enough to buy lodging for the night.

Besides, she was very close. Only two miles. The ballroom at Newbury Abbey, magniɹcent even when empty, was laden with yellow, orange, and white ɻowers from the gardens and hothouses and decked with white satin ribbons and bows. It was ablaze with the lights of hundreds of candles set into the crystal chandeliers overhead and by their myriad reɻections in the long mirrors that covered two facing walls. It was crowded with the cream of the ton as well as with members of the local gentry, all dressed in their ɹnest for the wedding eve ball. Satins and silks shimmered and lace and white linen glowed. Costly gems glittered. The most expensive of perfumes vied with the scents of a thousand ɻowers. Voices were raised in an eʃort to be heard above others and above the strains of the music, provided by an entire orchestra. Beyond the ballroom, guests strolled on the wide landing and ascended or descended the twin curved staircases to the domed and pillared great hall below.

They strolled outdoors—on the balcony beyond the ballroom, on the terrace before the house, about the stone fountain below the terrace, along the graveled walks of the rock and ɻower garden to the east of the house. Colored lanterns had been strung about the fountain and hung from trees though the moonlight would have oʃered illumination even without them. It was a perfect May evening. One could only hope, as several of the guests did aloud to Lauren and Neville as they passed along the receiving line, that tomorrow would be half as lovely a day. “Tomorrow will be twice as lovely,” Neville replied each time, smiling warmly at his betrothed, “even if the wind howls and the rain pours and the thunder rolls.” Lauren’s smile was unmistakably radiant. It seemed strange to Neville as he led her eventually into the ɹrst set of country dances that he had ever hesitated about making her his bride, that he had kept her waiting for six years while he worked oʃ the restless rebellion of youth as an oɽcer with the Ninety-ɹfth Riɻes. He had advised her not to wait, of course—he had been far too fond of her to keep her dangling when he had been quite uncertain of his intentions toward her. But she had waited. He was glad of it now, humbled by her patience and ɹdelity.

There was a lightness about their impending marriage. And his aʃection for her had not dimmed. It had grown along with his admiration for her character and his appreciation of her beauty. “And so it begins,” he murmured to her as the orchestra began to play. “Our nuptials, Lauren. Are you happy?” “Yes.” But even the single word was unnecessary. She glowed with happiness. She looked like the quintessential bride. She was his bride.

It felt right. Neville danced ɹrst with Lauren, then with his sister. Then he danced with a series of young ladies who looked as if they expected to be wallɻowers while Lauren danced with a succession of different partners. After taking a turn upon the balcony with one of his partners, Neville entered the ballroom through the French doors and joined a group of young gentlemen who, as always at balls, seemed to need one another’s collective company in order to summon the courage to ask a young lady to dance. He had the misfortune to remark on the fact that none of them appeared to be dancing. “Well, you have done the pretty every set, Nev,” his cousin Ralph Milne, Viscount Sterne, said, “though only once with your betrothed. Hard luck, old chap, but I suppose you are not allowed to dance with her more than once, are you?” “Alas, no,” Neville agreed, gazing across the ballroom to where Lauren was standing with his mother, his paternal aunt, Lady Elizabeth Wyatt, and his maternal uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Anburey. Sir Paul Longford, a childhood neighbor and friend, could not resist such a perfect opportunity for bawdiness. “Well, you know, Sterne,” he said with his best drawl, “it is only for tonight, old chap. Nev is to dance alone with his bride all night tomorrow, though not necessarily on a dance floor.

I have it on the best authority.” The whole group exploded with raucous male laughter, drawing considerable attention their way. “A hit, Nev, you must confess,” said his cousin and tomorrow’s best man, the Marquess of Attingsborough. Neville grinned after pursing his lips and handling the ribbon of his quizzing glass. “Let those words fall on any female ears, Paul,” he said, “and I might feel obliged to call you out. Enjoy yourselves, gentlemen, but do not neglect the ladies, if you please.” He strolled oʃ in the direction of his betrothed. She was wearing a high-waisted gown of blond net over daʃodil-yellow sarcenet and looked as fresh and lovely as the springtime. It really was too bad that he was not to dance with her again for the rest of the evening. But then it would be strange indeed if he could not maneuver matters more to his liking.

It was not immediately possible. There was the necessity of conversing politely with Mr. Calvin Dorsey, a middle-aged, mild-mannered acquaintance of Lauren’s grandfather, who had come to solicit Lauren’s hand for the dance after supper and who stayed for a few minutes to make himself agreeable. And then the Duke of Portfrey arrived on Dorsey’s heels to lead Elizabeth away for the next set. He was her longtime friend and beau. But finally Neville saw his chance. “It is more like summer than spring outside,” he remarked to no one in particular. “The rock garden must look quite enchanting in the lantern light.” He smiled with deliberate wistfulness at Lauren. “Mmm,” she said.

“And the fountain too.”

.

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