~ ~ Draft ~ ~
Copyright 2016 by Wendi Sotis
“You owe me,” Bertram Aldridge, the Earl of Westbury, slurred almost incoherently. “I saved your lives on the continent.”
Garret Sharrington exchanged a wary glance with Robert Colton. They heard these words often.
Westbury slouched far enough to rest his head on the seat-back and blinked as if attempting to focus on the gentlemen on the bench across from him. “You owe me,” he repeated.
“That we do, Westbury.” Sharrington knocked three times on the roof of Lord Westbury’s coach to signal their readiness to depart. He waited until the noise of the horses and wheels would drown out their conversation if the driver was listening. “What can we do for you this time?”
Colton’s eyes widened. “Pounds?”
“Not for my sake, but for my family’s.” Lord Westbury’s face crumpled with a pained expression. “I must pay the impost takers by the end of the month or it will be twelve.”
“We knew your gambling debts were serious, but…” Sharrington’s voice trailed off.
“I thought I could win back enough to pay my debts.” Westbury stated much more intelligibly.
The other gentlemen were not surprised at his miraculous recovery. When he was in trouble, pretending to be inebriated was common, but he could not keep it up for long.
“I’ve already mortgaged the house in Town.” Westbury rubbed his hand across his face.
“How could you?” Colton curled his upper lip in disgust. “What of the estate?”
“Burchard Park is entailed and cannot be mortgaged. Had I been able to do so, I would never have borrowed from the impost takers and risked their unreasonable premiums. I need funds, and I need them before the week is out. Westbury House has been in our line for generations. The mortgage is due…”
Sharrington caught Colton’s eye. Colton nodded, and turned to look out the window.
“We have two propositions for you, Westbury. I believe they will benefit us all.” Sharrington shifted in his seat. “As you may know, my daughter Victoria has a dowry of twenty-five thousand pounds. It seems Victoria has taken a fancy your son.” Sharrington raised his eyebrows.
Westbury sat up straighter. “Twenty-five thousand should be just the thing—for now.” He turned to Colton and rubbed his hands together. “And what of you, Colton? What will you do for me?”
Colton frowned. “I will not do anything for you directly, Westbury, for I know very well no matter what you might say, you will gamble it away and your family will be eventually left with nothing. However, I will take pity on your grandson, who will inherit the title after his father’s death. How old is he now?”
“Percival James is seventeen.”
Colton nodded. “My father left thirty thousand pounds for each of my daughters’ dowries. When you draft the marriage settlement between Lord Eagleton and Miss Sharrington, you and I will have a contract drawn up, as well. Victoria Sharrington is my wife’s cousin through her mother’s family, and she is quite close to my younger daughter, Celia. Celia will be presented at Court during the winter after her seventeenth birthday. The contract you and I will sign will state that five years from now, on Celia’s eighteenth birthday, Percival James will take possession of Celia’s thirty thousand pounds. Since it is not legal to arrange a marriage between them, it will be a gentlemen’s agreement between us that they will.”
Westbury was silent for several minutes, then nodded. “I agree. In return for your generosity, I will never gamble again.”
Colton’s nostrils flared. “We have heard that before.” He leaned forward slightly. “Once these contracts are legally endorsed, you will never make demands for payment of a life-debt again.”
The earl nodded. “Your debts to me will be paid, and I will not gamble again. You have my word on it.”
Westbury extended his hand first to Sharrington, who shook it readily.
When he turned to Colton, he searched Westbury’s eyes. His former commander might tell untruths in normal conversation, but when he gave his word, it was as good as any legal document. Colton reached across the aisle and took Westbury’s hand.
The pact was sealed.
~1814 – Four years later – Burchard Park
“Whoa.” Percival James Aldridge slowed his horse and glanced around. Responding to its owner’s anxiety and perhaps the same noise that had prompted James to stop, Horatio pranced, perked up his ears, and stepped backward in agitation. James leaned to pat the horse’s neck. “Easy, boy.”
Both man and beast turned towards a repetition of the sound. After dismounting, he paced softly towards the area where the noise originated. A squeak came from the bushes off to his right. James closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief. He addressed the grouping of shrubberies, “Is someone there?”
One bush in particular moved more than the others.
Horatio huffed and lowered his head to graze. Much as James had recognized the sound, the horse must have distinguished the scent of the lurker and knew there was nothing to fear.
“Miss Colton, is that you?”
Celia stood up but did not turn to face him. She spoke in an agitated tone, “Yes, Mr. Aldridge.”
“Why did you not answer the first time?”
Not yet seventeen years old, she still wore her hair loose about her shoulders. As she shook her head, her long curls bobbed across her back, tumbling down to brush her slim waist. She turned slightly, stepping into a ray of sunshine that filtered through the tree branches and illuminated her. Angelic was the only term he could think of to describe her. The light exposed strands of rich strawberry in her golden hair which were unnoticeable in the shade. He swallowed hard and fisted his fingers, which lately always itched to touch her whenever she was near.
Celia’s voice distracted him from his thoughts. “I – I hoped if I did not answer, you would go away.”
She turned to face him as he approached. Trails of tears streaked the dust covering her face. The pristine white gown he noticed earlier in the day was now muddy and torn. A bandage of sorts, crimson with blood, was tied around a sleeveless arm. Fear and concern flooded through him. “What happened, Miss Colton? Did someone harm you?”
Her right hand moved to rub her upper arm. “I tripped and fell.”
James moved closer and reached out to her, but remembering himself, he froze. “May I examine your injury?”
As he unwrapped the bandage, he bit back a gasp. The wound was deep. “This needs to be cleaned, or infection might set in. Come.” He took her other elbow, led her to Horatio, and pulled two flasks from his saddlebag.
She held her arm straight and looked at the gash. “It was bleeding much worse earlier, before I cleaned it with water from the stream. I placed crushed yarrow over the gash. I believe it slowed the bleeding. After chewing on some willow bark, it doesn’t hurt as much as it did before.”
He stood blinking at her a moment. “Still, I would like to clean it. I am sorry, but this will sting.”
She nodded. “Do what you must, sir.”
To distract her from his ministrations, he asked, “How did you learn about yarrow and willow?”
“My nanny was from Scotland. She took me for walks in my father’s woods and taught me which plants could be used to heal, which could be eaten, and which were poisonous.”
“Good to know.”
“But she also said that moss grows on the north side of the tree. It does not seem to grow on the north surface here for some odd reason, or I would have been able to find my way to the manor house before now. Deeper in the woods, some trees had moss growing on all sides.”
“Moss will grow on any surface in shady areas.” He poured water then brandy over the wound. Though she flinched and hissed, she did not cry out. He wrapped a clean handkerchief around the gash. As he secured it, he asked, “May I ask why you did not wish to be found?”
Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she looked away from him. “I – I did not want to face Lord Westbury. I was afraid…” Her voice trailed off as a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek, making a new path through the dust.
James raised his eyebrows. “Afraid of my grandfather? But why?”
She sniffed and turned her head further from him while shaking it slightly.
“Celia?” He took her chin between his fingers and tilted her head up to face him. She kept her gaze directed downward, her long, thick lashes shielding her eyes from his view. “Are you and I not friends?”
She nodded slightly.
“Please… what has my grandfather done to frighten you enough to keep you from returning to Burchard Park for so many hours?”
Celia whispered, “Lord Westbury did nothing. It was my own clumsiness. I went out walking only so I could think clearly. I had to find a way to tell him… to explain. He is so ill. I did not wish for the shock of what I did to cause his condition to worsen.”
He pulled out a second handkerchief from his saddlebag and moistened it with water from his flask, then handed it to her. “For your face.”
She blushed and wiped at her cheeks. When she looked at the cloth, she raised her eyebrows. “I did not realize I was so dirty.
He held out his hand for the handkerchief. “May I?”
Celia nodded and directed her gaze at his neck cloth as he wiped at an area she missed on her chin.
“Believe me, Miss Colton, my grandfather has lived a life fuller than most. Nothing you could do could possibly shock him.”
She looked up, and his heart stopped—as it always did whenever her intense emerald eyes held his gaze captive. Celia might be young, but even covered in dirt, she was still the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Heaven help him, if she were older, he would…
It was not until she turned away that he realized he had begun to lean towards her. To cover his act, he plucked a small twig from her hair and took two steps backwards.
He cleared his throat. “I have no sidesaddle, but I once saw Victoria make do with my father’s when her horse was injured and the beast would not allow us to remove her saddle. Although Horatio is not used to a lady riding him, he is so well-trained, I think he would be fine with your sitting unevenly on his back. I shall lead him.”
“If there were a second horse for you to ride, I would be happy to ride Horatio, as he and I are good friends. I daresay, I will hold you to that offer someday, sir.” She smiled and raised her chin slightly. “However, today, I am quite well enough to walk.”
“You have been walking a good part of the day, Miss Colton, and you are injured. I would be shirking my duty as a gentleman if I should allow you to walk to the manor house from here.”
“If I tire, I will let you know.”
The stubborn set of her jaw was familiar enough to know she would not submit. Hoping she would agree to ride soon, he conceded to her request.
Taking Horatio’s reins, he held out his arm to her. “Let us begin. My father’s wife was quite worried for you when I left the manor house.” He looked at his watch. “I have been gone for more than two hours. I imagine she is in need of smelling salts by now. Grandfather sent every available man to search for you.”
Celia took his arm and they began walking.
Remorse was plain in her voice. “I did not mean to worry Lord Westbury, my cousin, or anyone else. I had no thought of staying away so long, sir. When I fell down the embankment, I became disoriented and must have walked in the wrong direction. Whenever we have ridden out this far, I have simply followed Cousin Victoria, Lord Eagleton, or yourself.”
“You do realize if I did not stop when I did, you might have been out here all night.”
She shook her head. “A little while ago, I sighted the Ridge and knew which way to go from there.”
James did not answer. It was a miracle she was not injured more seriously in her fall. What would have happened if an unsavoury character had come across her before he had?
After a few minutes passed, he said, “I know Grandfather gave you permission to walk out alone, but perhaps it was with the unspoken understanding you would remain within sight of the house. I do hope you will do so from now on.” He raised both eyebrows. “And do not think you are fooling me with all this misdirection. You still did not answer my question. What made you leave the house in the first place?”
Her voice was full of agitation as she answered. “Clumsiness, pure and simple. I spread Lord Westbury’s map on my writing table without moving the inkwell to another table first. The ink spilled across the top quarter of the map. Lord Westbury may never find it now.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Of what map do you speak? What will Grandfather never find?”
She covered her mouth with her hand and furrowed her brow. “I let slip too much already, sir. Your grandfather swore me to secrecy on the matter. I believe it is meant to be a surprise for your father, you, and your brother.”
Understanding dawned. “I give you my word, I will not reveal what you tell me.”
Finally, she answered. “Lord Westbury gave me the map the first summer I came to visit with Cousin Victoria. Across the top are verses… no, more like riddles that must be solved. Each one leads to another portion of the journey.” She blushed. “Lord Westbury asked for my help in unravelling the riddles so he could find… something that was buried somewhere at Burchard Park long ago.”
James nodded. “May I ask whether this treasure was buried by the second Earl of Westbury?”
Celia opened her eyes so wide, he was afraid they might pop from her head. “Yes! How did you know?”
He avoided her question. “You have worked on these riddles for years?”
Celia nodded. “Only during the summers. I was not comfortable taking the map with me from Burchard Park, though I did copy down all the verses so I could work on them whilst away from here. Once I found the answer to a riddle, I needed the map in order to find something pictured on the map that corresponded with that word. Some of the puzzles had more than one answer. It is not as easy as one would think.”
James smiled. “Your perseverance is to be commended, Miss Colton. You have shown more patience than any Aldridge ever has.” He gestured toward two riders in the distance. “Will you excuse me, please?” He took several steps away from her and whistled several short spurts, then waved his arms. The two men changed direction and began riding towards them. James led Celia to a tree stump. “Have a seat and rest while I ride to meet these men. I should like to give them the news that you have been found relatively unharmed so they can return to the manor and inform my step-mother. Do you still feel up to walking or shall I ask them to return with a cart? It is at least another hour’s walk from here.”
Celia sat and slumped slightly, then straightened her back. Never having seen her display anything but the perfect posture, that slip confirmed his suspicion of her complete exhaustion.
“I am willing to walk.” She paused. “However, if one of the men would be so kind as to meet us on the return path with a horse equipped with a sidesaddle, I will ride the rest of the way from wherever he finds us.”
He turned away from her, for he knew he could not hide the triumph he felt in this small victory. “I shall return shortly.” He bowed slightly and mounted Horatio.
Celia watched her companion ride towards the others, whom, even at this distance, she recognized as two of Lord Westbury’s stablemen.
Goodness! Although she was happy to spend so much time alone with James, as she called him in her thoughts—for he despised being addressed as Percival, his true Christian name—she had no idea that being away from the house for a few hours would have caused such a fuss. Granted, she had been lost and injured during her adventure, but she would have found her way without assistance… eventually. Perhaps if Victoria had not been suffering from heightened emotions during her delicate condition, her cousin would have had more faith in Celia’s abilities.
What had James meant when he said that she had possessed more patience than any Aldridge? Should she inquire when he returned, or should she wait to speak to the earl? The older gentleman had made the map sound like a secret. When she had mentioned the map, she had no idea James would know of what she was speaking. But James’s comment made it seem as if he knew all about it. Curious…
Confidences she understood, for James and her friend, Miss Regina Buchannan, had shared many with her, but she, herself, was unused to this sort of intrigue.
If she told Regina about any of this, her friend would laugh. Regina always teased her, observing that what should have been inconsequential happenings, and were for others, always became complicated for Celia. Meanwhile, Regina had strolled through her seventeen years without conflict or impediments.
Part of the reason could be attributed to the differences in their mothers’ dispositions. Mrs. Buchannan was an easy-going, amiable lady who made certain her offspring had every advantage in life. As long as her children were happy, Mrs. Buchannan was completely content.
On the other hand, her own mother was continuously demanding of her daughters. Yes, they had been provided with the best of everything, but also, she had insisted they have the most rigorous masters in every subject available to ladies, and even a few areas of study that were unusual for ladies to explore.
When alone, her mother had often mentioned she was grooming each of her daughters to be worthy of marriage to a peer.
To her mother’s delight, her plan worked wonders for Celia’s sister Penelope, who had inherited their mother’s ambitions.
Celia had hoped her mother’s desires would have been quenched by Penelope’s marriage to a baron, for although Celia put everything she had into her lessons, her own wish was for something more than her mother could possibly imagine.
However, this event seemed to re-energize the social climbing yearnings of her mother, who then doubled her efforts with her younger daughter. Even though Celia would not be presented at Court until this coming Season, once a week for the past two years, her mother had insisted she devote hours preparing for her royal presentation—practicing to walk, curtsy, and back away from the Queen, all the while dressed in her sister’s formal court gown, complete with hoops, train, and ostrich feathers in her headdress.
And now! Now, Mother was determined that her younger daughter should aim higher than her sister… in fact, quite frequently in the weeks leading up to Celia’s leaving home for her annual summer visit at Burchard Park, her mother had hinted at her hopes for Celia’s marrying James, who, upon his grandfather’s death, would become a viscount, and along with his father’s passing, an earl. She hoped that, God willing, both would be far in the future.
While it was true that her desires matched her mother’s in the object of her future marriage, Celia wished to marry only for love. And James did not love her… at least, not in the way she wished.
She wondered whether her mother would cease making these remarks if she knew the pain she inflicted every time she brought it up, or if knowing Celia’s secret would only cause her to become more forceful and determined. She suspected the latter.
Celia sighed deeply as she looked across the meadow at James as he spoke to the stablemen. From the moment she had first seen him at Victoria’s wedding breakfast, James had held a special place in her heart, and her fondness had only grown in strength ever since.
Realistically, she knew her dream of someday marrying him would never come to pass—so hopeless was it that she had not even told Regina of her feelings for him. At first, James had looked at her as if she were almost a sister, then later, a friend. She knew she would never be anything more than that in his eyes.
She often had to bite back jealousy as he told her about the ladies he had admired at soirées in Town or at house parties in the country. If he knew of her feelings for him—of how these conversations pinched her heart—he would think of her affection as a silly childhood infatuation, and he would cease to confide in her altogether. And she could not bear seeing pity in his expression, of that she was certain. No, she would have him feel comfortable conversing with her on almost any subject, no matter what she had to endure in the process.
James remounted Horatio and began his return. The stablemen rode off in the direction of the house.
James sat a horse better than any gentleman she had ever seen, but then again, he excelled at everything. Depending on what the situation demanded, he was stronger, faster, kinder, or more pleasant than any other man, and he was certainly more gentlemanly at all times.
Celia sighed and shook her head to clear her mind. It would not do to be thinking of this subject when James approached!
“What shall I do about the map?” she thought aloud and worried her bottom lip.
It would not be a betrayal of Lord Westbury’s trust should she listen to James if he chose to bring it up again, and so she resolved to offer no additional information, though it would be better if James did not speak of it at all.
James approached and dismounted. “Did you have enough of a rest, or would you like to wait here for the stableman to return with Buttercup?”
Celia smiled as she always did when she heard the name of the horse that was hers to ride whenever she visited. The name made it sound as if the horse was a placid old mare, but in fact, she was quite spirited. “We shall walk. I do not wish to delay our return and cause Cousin Victoria additional worry.”
~ ~ ~ ~ Copyright 2016 Wendi Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
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Expected publication date – Winter 2016/Spring 2017