Pride of Honor – Andrea K. Stein

MİSS SOPHİA BRANCELLİ fidgeted and shifted from one foot to the other. She was as fond of ribbons as the next young woman, but her friend, Lydia, was a slave to the silken trim. Other shoppers crowded around them in the tiny milliner’s shop on old Bond Street. “Why can your friend not choose?” one woman demanded with an angry hiss into her ear. Sophie ignored the complaint. This was their third trip to the milliner, and Lydia seemed no closer to a decision than on their first visit. A pale rainbow of rolls lined the wooden counter, their curled tails cascading over the edge. After sneaking a stealthy look at her friend, Sophie slipped a much-folded piece of foolscap from her reticule. She worried her bottom lip and wondered whether she should change cloudy to stormy. Just as Sophie pulled out a worn pencil stub, Lydia finally sighed and chose another shade of green. A green so similar to the one she’d chosen the day before, Sophie would be hard put to tell the difference unless both lengths were side by side. The cost of Lydia’s ribbons would pay the butcher for a month of the cheap cuts Sophie had made do with in her father’s topsy-turvy household. As soon as Lydia paid the shopkeeper, Sophie strode toward the doorway and sunlight outside. The minute her boots touched the pavement, she was lifted from her feet. For a moment, it seemed as if the world had inexplicably shifted on its axis.

Time slowed, and she viewed what was happening as if through a fog. A strange man grasped her arm in a grip so tight, she could almost feel the fatal squeeze of the coil of one of the jungle snakes in her grandmother’s novels. The smudged slip of paper and pencil slipped from her hands to the pavement. Abruptly, Sophie remembered the parasol Lydia’s grandmother had insisted she carry to shield her from the sun. She’d looped the handle’s ribbon onto her wrist while reworking her lines. She grabbed the parasol with her free arm and swung hard. A satisfying thump and scream sounded as the weapon connected with her attacker’s lower limbs. As quick as he loosened his grip, she pulled a hatpin from her bonnet and jabbed in the vicinity of his eyes. Another scream, but this time her aim landed far off the mark and only slashed his chin. With a bellow of pain, he pulled back a fist, rage darkening his face.

In spite of the threat, Sophie refused to back down. Lydia’s screams echoed down the quiet street. Just as the stranger’s knuckles neared her face, he and his accomplice dropped from her line of view. For one addled moment, she wondered if the ghost of her dead grandmother had risen to her defense. She thrust again hard with her hatpin toward where the attack had begun. Sophie lost her balance and sat down with a thump at the edge of the street. Shaking, she sank her elbows to her knees and rested her head in her hands. Her parasol had rolled to the edge of the walkway. At a sharp cramp in her hand, she realized she still clutched her trusty hatpin. After a restorative breath, she looked up into the deeply tanned face of a Royal Navy officer in full uniform.

He knelt in front of her, asking question after question. “Are you hurt? Who did this to you? Are you with a chaperone?” Blood dribbled from his wrist, staining his white glove. Zeus! The hatpin. She knew she should provide him with some answers, but couldn’t. She could barely breathe properly, so shaken was she by the encounter with the unknown men who’d tried to drag her toward a waiting hack carriage. He grasped her by the shoulders. The warmth of his touch seeped through the thin muslin of her dress, and his solid competence fortified her courage. The runaway terrors slowed, allowing her to breathe normally again. The first thought to pop into her head once she’d settled a bit was: Respectable women of the ton did not find themselves in situations like this. This was the sort of turmoil that might befall the actresses who had kept company with her late father.

“Are you hurt?” The naval officer shed his gloves and ran his hands down her arms as if seeking injuries. “Holy St. George! Is this your weapon?” The hatpin rolled into his hand from her slackened grasp, and he tucked it safely within a pocket. His frown softened a bit, he shook his head, and gave a low chuckle. He clasped her hands as if he feared she might break and smoothed his thumbs over the soft pads beneath her thumbs. If the stranger continued his exploration for injuries, Sophie feared she might expire from pleasure. If only he knew the ink-stained fingers her white gloves hid. Lydia for once had nothing to say, but watched over them, her eyes wide. Sophie thanked the gods Lydia’s lady’s maid had not been able to accompany them on the latest ribbon expedition. She would have been horrified and sent the gentleman packing.

The thought of the uncompromising older woman spurred her to action. Damn the pleasure. “No.” Sophie snatched back her hands. Only then did she notice his eyes. They were an extraordinary shade of blue, the sort of blue that didn’t belong in such a stern, dark face. That pleasant discovery, however, did not stop her shout of frustration. “Why did you help me? I was getting the better of those scoundrels when you showed up, and, and now—” She refused to cry, but moisture leaked from the corners of her eyes which she imagined were a reddened fright by now. “Not only is my sleeve torn, but my reputation is probably ruined as well, and I’ve lost the final lines of my—” She stopped short of finishing her wailed lament. Her predicament was none of this young officer’s fault.

He could not help she had been born a bastard, and he had nothing to do with the ton’s attitude toward a young woman who’d spent time in a gypsy-like home with her profligate poet father. Bereft of its handy hatpin, Sophie’s tippy, over-embellished bonnet leaned precariously to the side before toppling to the pavement. Her long, dark curls tumbled free. “What have you lost?” the stranger asked and pulled her to her feet, guiding her toward a nearby tea room. Lydia scooped up Sophie’s lost bonnet and followed. “My last two lines,” Sophie said, and batted at his hands. “Please, leave us.” “You’ve no reason to fear me,” he insisted. “I’m Captain Arnaud Bellingham. My mother lives near here, on Hanover Square.

Now please tell me where your carriage waits.” Lydia moved closer. “Thomas said they would keep rounding the park until we were finished. The carriage is all black, with a team of grays.” She leaned even closer. “I fear this is not completely proper, but under the circumstances you should at least know our names. I’m Lady Lydia Howick, and this is my friend, Miss Sophia Brancelli.” Captain Bellingham made a small nod of acknowledgement. “I regret the circumstances, but I am pleased to make your acquaintances, and to be of service.” Although Lydia gave him a silly, flirtatious smile, Sophie could not meet his gaze.

She knew she should show her appreciation for his brave intervention, but all she could do was pretend to study her boots. She’d been unsettled at his unexpected kindness and valor. Sophie was not used to being the center of attention. She’d learned to take care of herself out of necessity and was uncomfortable with the acceptance of assistance of any sort. The owner of the millinery shop, roused from the commotion at her front door, hurried to Captain Bellingham’s side. “What has happened?” “The ladies were accosted outside your shop by ruffians who tried to spirit Miss Brancelli away in a hired carriage.” “Please let me help,” the small woman pleaded. She shook her head so hard, her tight curls bounced. “I have never had anything so terrible occur at my doorstep. I will arrange for a tea tray at my neighbor’s shop.

” Once Lydia and the captain helped her to a chair in the small shop, Sophie began to shake and was grateful to be able to sit in a comfortable, cushioned chair and have others cosset her with a steaming cup of tea and sweet tart provided by the milliner who had returned to her shop. Thankfully, there were only one or two customers at a table near the front of the shop. Captain Bellingham bent low over their table and spoke to Lydia. “She appears to be in shock. Wait here. I will find your carriage and have your man, Thomas, come for you.” He headed toward the door, but turned at the last minute. “What did she lose? What does it look like? I’ll try to find her lost ‘lines’ if I can.” “Her poetry,” Lydia said. “She’s been trying to finish her latest poem.

It was on a worn piece of foolscap she must have been holding when they tried to grab her.” He nodded thanks to Lydia before heading out into the street. Captain Arnaud Bellingham returned to his friend, Dr. Cullen MacCloud, who still paced up and down Bond Street outside the tea shop, making sure the men who tried to abduct Miss Brancelli did not return. “Thank God we happened by when we did,” Arnaud said, and let out a whoosh of breath. “Those footpads meant that poor woman harm.” “Harm?” Cullen said with a sputter. “They wanted more than just her reticule. Those bullies meant to rip her from the very street.” Arnaud shook his head.

He’d acted out of instinct and could only imagine how terrified Miss Brancelli had been. Hell, he was still shaking and almost light-headed at the memory of the terror in her dark eyes. He checked himself at the forbidden line his mind had taken. He was back in London for only a month or so until his ship was refurbished for his next assignment off the coast of Africa, his first posting under his own command. He could not afford an entanglement with a young woman like Miss Brancelli. He’d already made up his mind on his life’s path. As if reading his thoughts, his ship’s surgeon added, “And such a fine lass. I can tell she turned your head.” “No,” Arnaud said with emphasis. “This is not what you think.

She’s an innocent. I did what you or any of us would have done.” He did a quick, surreptitious look at the walkers along the street to make sure no one could overhear their conversation. “Yes, of course,” Cullen said, with a quirk of a smile. “Was she injured?” he asked, his teasing tone gone. “Should I see to her?” “No,” Arnaud said, his voice hard. “She’s just badly shaken. Could you walk to my mother’s townhouse and get that beast, Achamé, out of the mews? Since the young woman seems uncomfortable in my presence, I’ll ride behind the carriage to see them safely home.” “Of course, I’ll fetch him,” Cullen said, and headed out at a trot, northeast toward Hanover Square. After Cullen disappeared, Arnaud thought over the fast-moving series of events as if looking through the wrong end of a spy glass.

Everything seemed off, small and faraway instead of up close and precise. He and his ship’s surgeon had walked to Bond Street from the Admiralty where they’d received orders for their next ship. They’d planned on being fitted for new shirts at a tailor’s shop before they parted ways, Arnaud to his mother’s townhouse, and Cullen to his father’s house on Savile Street. From the time the two villains had jumped out of a hack and grabbed the young woman, to when he and his friend had rushed across the street, he hadn’t paid much attention to what she looked like. She had a bit of an unusual accent, perhaps French or Italian. Arnaud cursed the direction of his thoughts. All he wanted was to see her safely home. After that, he would forget the depths of her dark brown eyes, move on with the refit of his ship, and return to his squadron. After her attackers escaped, she’d turned on him, probably assuming he was one of them. His hand still ached, and blood dribbled from the stab of her hatpin.

She’d put up a hell of a fight. He smiled at the memory of her wild pummeling of her attackers, and him. Two street urchins approached with brooms and one asked, “Save your boots, sir? Let us sweep a path across for you.” Arnaud knelt down to their level. “I have a better idea,” he said, and spun a coin between his fingers. “Were you two here when those fellows tried to grab the young lady?” The small boys gave each other a look and then seemed to come to a decision. One reached for the coin and said, “Mebbe.” “There’s another one in it for you if you can describe them and say which way they went. If you lie, I’ll know, and we’ll be back,” Arnaud added, rising to his full height. “Cor,” one of the boys finally mumbled.

“There be three of them. The one, short and dark, waited at the hack. ‘Ad a mustache, ‘e did. ‘E stayed with the carriage while the other two coves ‘ad a go at the ladies. Oh, and one of them limped, like ‘e was in the wars, or summat.” Arnaud flipped them an extra coin. “If you see that lot again, get word to Captain Bellingham at Number Nine Hanover Square.” As an afterthought, Arnaud turned back toward the boys and balanced a third coin between his left thumb and forefinger. “One of the ladies lost an important bit of foolscap with some poetry. There’s another reward if you can find it.

” He turned away and headed toward a lone horseman trotting from the direction of Hanover Square. Lydia stirred another lump of sugar into her tea. “What do you suppose Captain Bellingham does in the Royal Navy? There was a great deal of braid and polished medals and buttons on his jacket. Perhaps he’s a hero, or something.” Sophie pressed her fingers against her throbbing head. If only Lydia would stop asking so many questions. The ornate tea room table where they sat seemed to shimmer as if about to spin, and she couldn’t stop her mind from re-playing the horrible events outside the milliner’s shop. Sophie placed her hand over Lydia’s. “Please, your imagination is making my head and stomach do strange turns. In any event, it barely matters.

We shall never see him again.” “Oooh,” Lydia babbled on. “Of course we will. Did he not say he was off in search of our carriage? Did you not notice how beautiful he is? All that dark, curly hair, and fine eyes? I’m sure he’ll attend some of the better balls, or maybe even the theater, if he’s in town for long.” Lydia finally sucked in a breath. “Or maybe we could ask Teddy if he knows him.” “Leave Teddy out of this,” Sophie said. “You don’t even know the man’s name. And besides, he’s probably forgotten us already.” “He did tell us his name.

Don’t you remember?” Lydia said. “He’s Captain Arnaud Bellingham. His mother has a townhouse on Hanover Square. Honestly, Sophie. Did you hit your head when they grabbed you?” No more had she spoken than the dark stranger re-appeared inside the tea shop. Sophie stared a few seconds too long, and their eyes met. He walked straightaway to their table and said, “Your carriage is outside. Your coachman and footman have been warned of the danger and will see you home. I’ll ride along behind to assure you’re not harmed.” “We live near St.

James Park,” Lydia blurted out. “Sir, I am sorry,” Sophie interrupted, “but we do not know you that well.” She moved her hand toward her friend’s mouth to forestall any further outbursts. He gave her a strained smile. “Captain Bellingham, at your service.” He gestured to his friend, also in uniform, who had followed him through the door. “This officer, my ship’s surgeon, Dr. Cullen MacCloud, will vouch for me and my family.” “Ladies,” Dr. MacCloud said, “I promise no harm will come to you from association with this man.

I would trust him with my life.” Then the surgeon gifted them with a smile so warm, even the dark corners of the tea shop seemed to glow. “He has in fact had my life in his hands many times,” he added. “Now your carriage awaits. Let me see you safely home.” Captain Bellingham ushered them out to their waiting footman. Sophie leaned back into the comfortable squabs of Lady Howick’s carriage and stared forward, past Lydia’s concerned face. She picked at one of the buttery tearoom biscuits stashed in her reticule just before the strange captain hurried them out the door. When she tried to swallow, a small piece caught in her throat, bringing on a coughing fit. “Here,” Lydia said.

“Suck on this lozenge and calm yourself, or I’ll have to knock for Thomas to stop and find you something to drink.” Sophie popped the peppermint into her mouth and her throat soothed immediately. If only she could calm her heart as easily. The poor thing pounded as if in time to a military tattoo. She couldn’t decide which unsettled her more, the surly men who’d tried to snatch her off the street, or the naval captain and his friend who’d come to her rescue. Much worse, however, was the black terror of waiting for the next disaster to fall. What if a highly placed gossip had seen her struggle with the kidnappers? The rumors might make it impossible to fulfill the terms of her grandmother’s will. The will stipulated her marriage to a gentleman of the ton, but her heart rebelled. Why could Grandmama not have trusted Sophie to live life on her own terms, with her books and her poetry? Unfortunately, she knew the answer: her irresponsible father. Sophie had no choice but to live with him after her grandmother’s death two years earlier.

The duchess had feared his influence would corrupt Sophie and send her into an unsuitable alliance when she came into her inheritance. Sophie had never considered what an “unsuitable alliance” would entail, but she suspected the wickedly handsome captain trotting behind the carriage might be what her grandmother had feared. Both her mother and her grandmother had lived unconventional lives. Her mother had abandoned the protected life of a duke’s daughter to run off with Sophie’s Venetian poet father. Her grandmother had written romantic novels, successful across the continent, under an assumed name. But then she had been a duchess. Lydia interrupted Sophie’s tortured thoughts. “Why are you frowning and still sucking on that peppermint? You’ve been sitting like that for so long, you’re going to give yourself permanent wrinkles.” Sophie flashed her friend a sudden smile and giggled at the thought of wrinkles. If only minor facial imperfections were the worst of her worries.

Arnaud rode Achamé` behind the ladies’ carriage and worried. When two workmen stepped into the street, he gave an involuntary jerk on the horse’s reins. Would there be another attempt to seize Miss Brancelli? He relaxed when the men darted behind the carriage to the other side of the thoroughfare. They passed a small park where two boys rolled hoops along a path before disappearing among the trees. The sun peeked cautiously through a hole in the clouds, making him feel foolish for his dark thoughts. He worried about the consequences of the dark-eyed beauty’s misadventures. He worried about the hazards of interjecting himself into her life. He couldn’t intercede on her behalf without making her situation worse. Even more, he worried about himself. The memory of her lilting voice prowled his thoughts.

Tonight, he vowed, he would tell his mother about his plans to marry the widow. But surely it wouldn’t hurt to ask his mother to call on the young ladies’ guardian in the morning. She could express his concern for their well-being and find out if Miss Brancelli had recovered from the incident. He was merely concerned, nothing more. Honore Bellingham sanded off the last note and added it to the pile of thank-you’s for patrons of her school for orphans of merchant sailors. She stretched her arms above her head and turned at a sound from one of the carved, wooden doors on the bookcase behind her. One side creaked and opened slightly outward. She stood and crept toward the opening. This time she had him. She jerked open the door and pounced on the culprit.

“I have you now, you old runabout,” she said, and wheeled back from the dark opening, clasping the guilty party by the nape of the neck. “Bad boy,” she mouthed, and lugged the struggling cat across her comfortable morning room to a miniature, overstuffed couch piled with plump pillows. Honore knelt in front of the huge tom now ensconced on his throne and waggled a finger in his direction, taking care to avoid his waving, clawed paws. “Where have you been?” He answered with a long, bored yowl. “I’ll have to turn you over to Cook,” she threatened and rose to pull the bell for the footman. When the young man arrived, he gave a disparaging look at the unrepentant cat, now lying flat on his back on the cushions, all four six-toed paws splayed in feline insouciance. “He’s back,” Honore said, with a weary sigh. “The usual, madame?” “Yes, of course. Supper by the fire…and perhaps take a cloth to those paws. God knows where he’s been.

” The tall footman nodded, walked to the couch, and slung the cat beneath one of his arms. Young Charles was the only one in the household who could manage the bully. She suspected the two might be kindred spirits. Vagabond did not complain but instead rumbled with purrs while they headed back into the corridor and down the winding steps toward the kitchen. Cook would scold the creature, followed by an inordinate amount of cosseting, including hand-fed bits of the day’s find from the fish market. The difficult cat was the latest generation descended from her original, beloved Epi. Also six-toed, Epi had been the gift of a sea captain friend of Honore’s father when she was a child.

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