The Earl’s Erstwhile Bride – Fenella J. Miller

Captain Alexander Prescott, although only a distant cousin of the present Earl of Prescott, was in direct line to inherit the title should the young man die without issue. He was paying a courtesy visit before leaving to take up his promotion to captain with the army in Portugal. ‘My dear boy,’ the countess said, ‘how kind of you to visit. Thomas will be pleased to see you but I’ve no idea where he is at present.’ ‘He’ll be going to Oxford in the autumn and I wanted to wish him well. I also wish to apologise to both of you for putting my life at risk when I’m his heir. However, as he is a healthy young man of sixteen, I think the likelihood of him predeceasing me is remote.’ ‘Although I say so myself, my son is handsome and no doubt will turn the heads of many a young lady before he settles on a wife. Pray excuse me for a moment, I’ll go in search of Thomas as I know that you haven’t much time to spare.’ She hurried out leaving him to wander to the drawing room window and gaze out across the grounds. A flash of colour on the far side caught his eye. He had his telescope in its case secured to his belt and he quickly removed it. His lips curved as he watched the antics of a young lady scrambling up a large oak tree. No – she was a girl – her hair, a glorious russet, was loose and her skirts were midcalf. What the devil was she doing? What maggot had got into her pretty head to cause her to climb so high? She vanished amidst the leaves but he could follow her movements ever upwards.

He moved the telescope to the top of the tree and saw at once why she was ascending so rapidly. There was a cat, not much more than a kitten really, clinging to an uppermost branch and it looked in danger of plummeting to its death at any moment. He held his breath as the girl’s hand reached out and successfully collected the feline. He slammed the telescope closed, flung open the window and vaulted over the sill. He ran at the double towards the tree praying he’d get there before either the cat or the girl tumbled to the ground. He skidded to a halt a few minutes later and could hear a piteous meowing some distance above him. After quickly removing his scarlet jacket, his belt and its accoutrements plus his sword, he reached out and grasped the lower branch and began to climb. ‘Stay where you are, miss, I’ll assist you down.’ The branches parted and the girl peered through. She didn’t seem particularly pleased to see him.

‘I’m quite capable of getting down without assistance, thank you, sir. I’ve climbed this tree a dozen times and came to no harm.’ All might have been well if at that very moment the kitten hadn’t wriggled from her grip and landed on his upturned face. Fortunately, being a military man, he didn’t entirely lose his grip but was left dangling from one hand with the cat clinging on by means of claws attached to his face. There was a slithering above him and two trim ankles in sturdy boots thumped onto the branch to which he was clinging. ‘Stupid cat, after all I’ve done to rescue you.’ The girl reached out and carefully removed the kitten and then dropped it to the ground. The distance was no more than fifteen feet but he was still startled by her actions. ‘Give me your hand, sir, and I’ll pull you up.’ Before he could prevent it, she was leaning in a precarious fashion and grabbed his hand.

If he’d been surprised before, now he was quite astonished at the strength she exhibited. She heaved and he put his feet against the trunk and within seconds he was sitting beside her. ‘Here, you’d better try and stem the blood from the scratches with this.’ There was the sound of ripping and then a large piece of her petticoat was pushed into his hand. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of it or take her to task for risking her own safety. He did neither but took the proffered cloth and mopped away the worst of the gore from his cheeks. ‘In case you’re wondering, the cat’s perfectly fine and has already run off – ungrateful beast.’ ‘It would have been ironic if the pair of us had perished and the cat survived. I should introduce myself, I’m Captain Alexander Prescott.’ ‘I guessed who you were as soon as I saw your uniform.

Thomas has told me about you. I’m Miss Harriet Cunningham, I live with my uncle, Sir Roland Cunningham and Thomas and I are best friends.’ The girl was quite enchanting. She must be of Irish descent as her eyes were green and a perfect complement to her tresses. She was not a child as she already had feminine curves beneath her pinafore – but she certainly wasn’t an adult. He wasn’t sure that her being on such close terms with Thomas was entirely suitable. ‘Forgive me for asking, Miss Cunningham, but how old are you?’ ‘I’m thirteen years of age but will be fourteen next month – I know what you’re thinking – that I shouldn’t be gallivanting about the countryside with Thomas.’ ‘I was thinking exactly that.’ To be sitting in a tree having such a discussion was beyond ridiculous but for some reason he was reluctant to end the conversation. ‘Then you have no need to be concerned for my reputation, or his.

Lady Mary and my uncle have already agreed that we shall be married so we’re pledged to each other. This means there can be no objection to us spending time in each other’s company.’ ‘I see. And when are your nuptials to take place, Miss Cunningham?’ She tilted her head and her eyes sparkled with amusement. ‘Thomas and I have agreed we shall be married when he returns from Oxford – I’ll be seventeen then and quite old enough to become his wife.’ ‘I think it far too young for the two of you to be married. Thomas will be underage, and as his legal guardian he has to have my permission.’ ‘Fiddlesticks to that! You’ll be somewhere fighting the French so whatever your opinion on the subject it will be irrelevant. When you return from your soldiering, Captain Prescott, I shall be the Countess of Prescott and hopefully within a year will produce an heir and there will no longer be the necessity for you to be involved with this family.’ Before he could respond, give her the sharp set down she deserved, she turned, swung from her hands for a moment and then dropped to the ground.

He held his breath but she was on her feet and running away laughing, completely unhurt. He followed suit and plunged after her. She was an extraordinary girl and he could see why Thomas was besotted with her. He gathered up his dropped articles, slung his jacket over one shoulder and carried his sword and belt in the other hand. Before he left, he needed to speak to Lady Mary and to Thomas. Even if they were betrothed the two of them shouldn’t be allowed to spend time alone together. The countess had been less than honest with him earlier. * Harry, she hated to be called Harriet, wasn’t sure what to make of Captain Prescott. She was already considered too tall to be fashionable and yet he was a head taller than her which must make him more than two yards high. He had dark hair, almost black, and the most piercing blue eyes she’d ever seen.

He looked every inch an aristocrat and yet wasn’t really one although heir to the title that Thomas held. He was descended through another line of the family, a direct line, but a distant one. He might be considered a handsome man, certainly a formidable one, and possibly a kind one as well as he’d come to rescue her. However, he wasn’t to her taste and she much preferred Thomas. He was only a couple of inches bigger than herself had fair hair and brown eyes. His shoulders weren’t broad, he was a slender young man and the dearest, sweetest person one could ever hope to meet. When she’d arrived to live with her uncle two years ago her beloved had made life bearable and, despite the fact that he went away to school for weeks on end, they spent every moment of his holidays raking about the place together. His mama, Lady Mary, had encouraged the friendship and by the time her curmudgeonly bachelor uncle had come around to the fact that he was saddled permanently with a young lady he was too late to stop herself and Thomas being friends. She had ridden over on her mare, Goldie, called thus because she was a palomino, and it took only moments to saddle the horse for herself. She hated to be waited on which was fortunate as that rarely happened when she was at home.

Her uncle kept only one groom to take care of the two horses he kept to pull his carriage and the barest minimum of inside staff. ‘Harry, just look at the state of you,’ Thomas said as he appeared from the nearby barn. ‘What on earth have you been doing today? Can’t I leave you for a moment without you getting into mischief?’ She grinned and pushed her hair out of her eyes. ‘The ginger kitten you’re so fond of got stuck up the tree again and I had no option but to go and fetch it. I met Captain Prescott – I believe he’s waiting to speak to you.’ ‘I was on my way in. Did you introduce yourself?’ ‘I didn’t like him one bit – patronising and arrogant. I told him that we’re promised to each other and he wasn’t delighted to hear that news.’ Thomas laughed. ‘I don’t suppose he was but it’s nothing to do with him.

I’ll marry no other and if you were only three years older then I’d marry you today. I love you, Harry, and I promise I’ll make you happy.’ He made no attempt to even hold her hand – this was one of the many things that she loved about him. Occasionally he’d pushed a strand of hair from her face, or put his arm around her shoulders but never did anything to alarm her. He’d told her that there was time enough for intimacies when they were married. She was far too young at the moment. ‘I warn you that he’s been scratched by the kitten and doesn’t look his best. I’m going home now as I promised to play chess with my uncle. I’ll see you at church tomorrow.’ He pulled a face and nodded.

‘I fell asleep last Sunday and intend to do so again if the wretched vicar drones on for over an hour as he did last time.’ She was still smiling as she cantered across the fields. The Cunningham land bordered that of the Prescott’s and although more than two miles if you travelled along the lanes it was only a fraction of that distance across country. She took care of her horse and then dashed inside. Uncle Roland was used to her hoydenish ways but she wouldn’t dream of appearing in her dirt. There was no personal maid to take care of her needs but this didn’t bother her one jot. She washed quickly in cold water and within a quarter of an hour was in clean clothes, her hair neatly brushed and tied back with a ribbon, and on her way downstairs to join her uncle in the drawing room. ‘There you are, child, what mischief have you been up to this morning?’ ‘I climbed a tree to rescue a kitten and was at daggers drawn with Captain Prescott. Apart from that, it was an uneventful morning as Thomas was busy elsewhere.’ ‘Sit down, Harriet, I need to talk to you.

’ Her uncle, as always, was wrapped in a rug and the fire was burning fiercely despite the fact that it was only the end of August and the weather clement. She took the tattered armchair opposite his and curled her feet under her bottom. ‘Is something wrong, Uncle Roland? Are you unwell?’ ‘No, my dear, I’m fit as a flea. I received a letter from a neighbour this morning. It would appear that people have seen you in the company of the young earl and think it inappropriate. I don’t wish to damage your reputation in case you change your mind about marrying him. In future, child, I wish you only to see him when either myself or Lady Mary are present.’ ‘If that’s what you want. He’ll be going away next week and I won’t see him again until Christmas at the earliest.’ ‘Set the chess pieces out, my dear, I’ve been looking forward to playing you all morning.


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