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An Inconvenient Contract

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England, 1814. Richard and Isabella are childhood friends whose parents wish them to marry. This very naturally inclines them to rebel - by running off to Scotland together.

Humor / Romance
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An Inconvenient Contract

When Mr. Joseph Lyons saw the young couple walk into his inn that evening, his first thought was that they were in the process of clandestinely eloping with one another. His second thought upon observing the gentleman's thoroughly neat – if not quite exquisitely fashionable – appearance and the lady's obviously expensive velvet cloak and hood and unexceptionable – if not quite dazzling – gown of sprigged muslin was that they were Quality.

Considering that he scarcely ever received patrons of this caliber (though that was perhaps understandable), it was a rare opportunity; and even though the lady appeared to be travelling without a maid and with only a band-box for her luggage, her tasteful silver locket and earrings and the gold fob-watch and signet ring the gentleman wore were marks of their consequence, and he was not about to turn them away. He greeted them with more than ordinary civility and accorded them every attention from his porters taking their – albeit rather limited – luggage up to their rooms to his stable boys promptly leading their horses to rest for the night to his offering them the inn's only private parlour to partake of their supper.

He even bowed perfectly blandly and betrayed not a trace of scepticism when the gentleman pointedly introduced himself as Mr. Richard Morley (the landlord, who had been hoping for a 'Sir' or a 'Lord' was a little disappointed, but rallied himself with the thought that the young man was probably using a false name and was in reality a viscount at the least) who was travelling to Scotland with his sister Miss Isabella Morley in order to visit a friend of theirs who lived across the border.

Lyons did not mind these blatant falsehoods in the least; the young gentleman had paid for his night's stay and the hire of the stables, and besides, Quality flights to Gretna were generally even more profitable than Quality otherwise staying at the inn. The morrow would surely bring the lady's irate father or brother in hot pursuit of the young couple, and at worst he'd be offered generous bribes for information of the pair and at best the pursuant might be persuaded to stay the night at the inn as well.

It was with reasonable satisfaction therefore that he left the young couple to dine in the private parlour.

Although there was no familial resemblance between the gentleman and the lady (she was as fair as he was dark, with hazel eyes that were normally mischievous in contrast to his serious grey ones), anyone privy to their conversation might have thought them brother and sister simply from the way they squabbled.

'Honestly, I do not know what can have possessed you to settle for this place of all others to stay the night. I can't imagine that Mama would be at all pleased with my rubbing shoulders with such people as we have seen to be guests here,' Isabella said, her nose wrinkling in distaste.

Richard raised an eyebrow. 'Well, I daresay that since we are in a private parlour, Mama need not worry about your rubbing shoulders with anyone.'

This much Isabella had to grudgingly admit, if only to herself, to be true. Still she was not to be silenced. 'Heaven knows what sort of fare passes for supper here, and I shudder to think of what the sheets will be like.'

Richard, whose irritation seemed to indicate that he had endured many such complaints and gloomy predictions since the beginning of their journey, lost his patience. 'You know, Bella, if you can be so ungrateful I'm beginning to wish I had just left you to your fate,' he snapped.

The lady rolled her eyes. 'Please, Richard, you know that fate would have been just as much yours as mine.' Then she added with a flash of anger, 'And let me remind you, it is only because we find it equally distasteful that we are at this place now.'

If Richard were stung by her description of the narrowly avoided fate as "distasteful", he did not show it, merely attempting to explain with forced calm why they were staying at The Red Lyon (not a misspelling; simply the landlord's questionable use of pun). 'The horses are tired and night is falling. We neither of us know this country, and if we had pushed on, we risk not only being stranded by winded horses, but for all we know being held up by highwaymen.'

Isabella was not petulant as a rule, but Richard's lack of contradiction of her assertion that he'd find his fate distasteful must serve as her excuse. 'I wish we could have been held up by a handsome highwayman,' she said waspishly. 'Then he could marry me, and both our problems would be solved, for you could finally be rid of me.'

Richard's long-suffering sigh and lack of contradiction of even this last statement which just begged for it, was a fatal error. For the rest of the evening the lady preserved a manner of unprecedented coldness towards him, eating in silence, returning monosyllabic replies and those only to direct questions, and excusing herself for bed immediately after the repast – which had, despite her apprehensions, been perfectly tolerable – leaving him alone by the dying embers of the fire.

As soon as she was gone, he let his head drop into his hands. He didn't know what he had been expecting when he had proposed this plan to her, but it certainly hadn't been this.

The "distasteful fate" alluded to by Isabella (whose real last name, incidentally, was Ashbourne) could be laid entirely at the doors of her own father Sir Terrence Ashbourne and Richard's, Lord Delford.

Neighbours and schoolfellows from Eton who had later studied together at Oxford, they were the best of friends, and when five years after Delford's son Richard had been born, Lady Ashbourne had had a daughter, the men had promised to seal their friendship through the marriage of their offspring ('What I can't understand,' Isabella had said crossly to him, 'is why they couldn't just have drunk a bottle of burgundy together, or gone hunting. If they're so set on sealing their friendship through marriage, they should just marry each other.' Richard, whose normally grave eyes had been lit with amusement by this tirade, had restrained himself to simply smile and murmur agreement).

At first there had seemed to be no impediments to their parents' plan. Richard and Isabella, who had grown up knowing each other all their lives, were – when not arguing – the best of friends.

It was soon after Isabella's eighteenth birthday that any contention had arisen. Lady Ashbourne, who had strict notions of propriety and even stricter notions of economy, did not see the need for giving her daughter a ridiculously expensive London season when she was going to marry young Richard anyway. In fact, her making the acquaintance of so many eligible bachelors might ruin everything, for her daughter, possessing in adequate amounts both beauty and fortune, could not fail to be much sought after. Though in truth she endorsed this omission of a season for its thrift, Lady Ashbourne was careful to emphasise the latter reason when broaching the matter with her husband. In this way she had brought Sir Terrence – who was fond of his only child and unwilling to begrudge her anything she had set her heart on – around to her point of view.

To tell the truth, Isabella had not taken her father's and Lord Delford's plans for herself and Richard entirely seriously until she saw what lengths they would go to in order to prevent its derailment, however accidental. To a young girl who had been looking forward to 'coming out' and all the excitements of London in its balls, parties, theatres, Almack's and the endless opportunities for shopping, this denial was tyranny indeed.

She had poured her grievances over this loss into Richard's ear, expecting sympathy and understanding, but his only response had been to say seriously, 'Knowing your feelings, I too have tried to reason with my father, but he is so set on it that I suppose we shall have to go through with it in the end. I am sorry, Bella.'

He was sorry that he would be obliged to marry her; that had stung, more than she had cared to admit, even to herself. She had wanted him, out of consideration for her feelings, to angrily tell his father that he would not force her into marriage; or alternatively, she thought with the most profound chagrin, she had wanted him to court her properly rather than just gloomily giving in to their parents' schemes. Disappointment and embarrassment had made her furious. Tears running down her face, angry sobs choking her voice, she had called him every name she could think of, and had roundly abused him for his cowardice in being unable to stand up to his father.

Isabella had not spoken to him for a week when one night, she had been awoken by the sounds of gravel being thrown at her window. Cautiously peering out, she had discerned Richard's familiar tall figure, clad in his caped driving coat, whip still in hand.

'I thought for a long while about how I could help you,' he had said, trying to keep his voice low and audible at the same time. 'I've got a post-chaise for us to meet at The White Hart, and we can head for Scotland tonight, where your parents can't compel you to do anything.' He had paused, and then added with a sudden grin, 'Only if you're game, of course.'

Thrilling all over at the unfamiliar gleam of recklessness in his eyes, Isabella had simply nodded, not trusting her voice. Quickly dressing and packing what she thought necessary into a band-box, she hurried as quietly as she could downstairs and out the door to meet him.

If she had expected him to pull her into his arms and kiss her, she was disappointed; but the reflection that there was time for all that later, and that it must strike him as much as her that it would be well for them to meet their vehicle and make a start as soon as possible mollified her.

However, it was not so easy to maintain her equanimity when she found out from a chance comment that he had dropped, that they were not, in fact, eloping to Gretna Green at all.

'I have written to Teddy to expect us,' he had said, and then seeing her widened eyes, added reassuringly, 'Although he hasn't had time to reply, I know I can depend on him. I am sure he will house us for as long as it takes for our parents to realise you do not wish to marry me.'

Teddy. Her heart had sunk like a stone, and for a moment she had cursed her vanity and blindness. Richard had written to another childhood friend, Captain Theodore Standen, a soldier who had settled in Scotland after marrying a lady from that country, to request shelter until their respective parents gave up the notion of their marriage. He was not, after all, eloping with her so that they could marry on their own terms; he had instead hatched a plan to free himself of her once and for all.

She wished – oh how she wished – she could be alone to give relief to her feelings in the tears which only pride currently held back. She could not bear to look at him, let alone speak to him at the moment, and so she only nodded in reply to his words and soon afterwards pretended to fall asleep.

'What I don't understand,' sniffled Lady Ashbourne into her lace handkerchief, 'is why the silly children took it into their heads to run for the border when they knew we were perfectly happy for them to marry.'

Lady Delford, who was just as shaken (though she had rather more self-control), had to agree. 'It makes no sense. Richard has far too much integrity to stoop to anything so clandestine and tawdry as an elopement.'

Lady Ashbourne bristled at this. 'I assure you, my dear Mary,' she said tremulously, 'that I have brought up poor Isabella with the most proper ideas. I am sure such a scandalous thought would never have entered her head.'

Sir Terrence broke in before each woman's defence of her own offspring resulted in a row. 'Be that as it may,' he said hurriedly, 'the fact of the matter is that they have run off together, and now we must think what to do about it.'

Lord Delford, who had been looking thoughtful, spoke now. 'For my part,' he admitted, 'I am sceptical to credit an elopement at all. I agree with Mary and Eliza that there is no reason for them to elope when we have all been open in our approval of the match. And when I take into account how earnestly Richard tried to dissuade me from it only a fortnight ago, I don't see how such a turnabout could occur.'

'Isabella never wanted to marry Richard either,' piped up Lady Ashbourne, rather offended at this representation of the young man's seeming distaste for her daughter.

'If the children had truly been unable to abide one another,' said Sir Terrence, 'if they had not gotten along as well as they do, we none of us would have pushed for the match.'

Lord Delford nodded. 'That is what I told Richard. I asked him to tell me at once if he had formed an attachment elsewhere, or had any reason to cavil at marrying our Isabella, but he had nothing concrete to say against it.'

'Are we sure that it is Gretna they are making their way to?' asked his lady.

Sir Terrence answered. 'We know from the stable boys at The White Hart that they are heading northward in a post-chaise and four – which seems to indicate that they wish to reach their destination, whatever it may be, with all possible speed.'

The weight of this fact was felt by the four of them.

'They must be stopped,' said Lady Delford, voicing the thought in everyone's mind.

While their parents were forming this resolution, Richard and Isabella were spending a rather miserable morning following their sleepless night.

Isabella's disappointment manifested itself in thinly-veiled resentment and complaints over trifles which she would not even have noticed had she really been eloping with him.

For his part, Richard was baffled and annoyed at the change in her demeanour, especially when he had done all this with the hope of restoring his bright-eyed Bella with her ready laughter and sunny smile. It was only to make her happy, to free her from the coercion of their parents, to release her from the tacit engagement between them which was obviously so distasteful to her. He was too much her friend, he loved her too well to see her so unhappy about being forced to marry him – so he had resolved to do this for her, cost him what it would.

At first he thought he had succeeded – the glow of happiness in her eyes when she had gathered her things and they had begun to undertake their journey had warmed his heart (though he had tried not to dwell on the reason why she was so happy), but it had been replaced by her current state of discontent and irritability.

From Welwyn to Baldock to Stamford and everywhere in between, she had been driving him mad with complaints, criticisms and long-suffering sighs. And once or twice, in moments when she thought herself unobserved, he was almost startled by the expression of abject misery in her normally smiling eyes.

When they had finally put up for the night at The Red Lyon, his thoughts were spiralling around his tired brain. What had he done between leaving home and now to put that heart-rending look of anguish in her eyes? And how on earth was he to dispel it?

It was the whole motley band of Delfords and Ashbournes who set out in pursuit of their wayward offspring, the gentlemen as a matter of course and the ladies (even Lady Ashbourne, who might rather have been expected to succumb to a fit of the vapours and take to her bed) in their determination to be the first to give their children a scold the likes of which they'd never forget.

'We must, of course, make them marry at once when we have caught up with them,' Lady Ashbourne said to Lady Delford some time after their journey was underway.

Lady Delford shook her head, knowing that her husband, who was riding alongside the chaise with Sir Terrence, would have agreed with her could he have heard their conversation. 'I hardly think they should receive exactly what they want as a reward for being so feather-headed. In light of their behaviour it is my opinion that neither Richard nor Isabella are ready for marriage just yet.'

'But – Mary – Isabella's reputation!'

'Isabella's reputation will not suffer because our two families decided to go on a northern holiday together,' said Lady Delford calmly. 'Delford and Sir Terrence have made sure that any alternative sequence of events will not get out.'

Lady Ashbourne, who had always rather liked the idea of the Delford and Ashbourne estates (which sat so conveniently adjacent to one another) being united through their childrens' marriage, did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed by this. 'Oh, very well,' she said finally, with the air of one trying to make the best of a bad situation. 'I daresay Isabella would not have had him in any case.'

Lady Delford merely raised her eyebrows. 'You astonish me, Eliza,' she said coolly. 'You believe they are on their way to Gretna, and yet you believe that Isabella would not marry Richard if her reputation depended on it. I suppose my son has abducted her, then?'

Lady Ashbourne reddened. It was ludicrous even to her, that serious, sensible Richard would do such a thing. 'No, of course not,' she said hastily. 'I am very fond of Richard, but as far as I know, until now neither of them has shown the least inclination to marry one another. I just wish I knew what they had been thinking.'

Lady Delford's face softened. 'I know, Eliza. So do I.'

It was only after Isabella had made her icily grand exit from the private parlour that she realised she had left her reticule, and after a moment's consideration, she decided that it was necessary to swallow her pride and return to fetch it before retiring. Trying her hardest not to look sheepish, she retraced her steps and was about to push open the door when she heard sounds of a scuffle from inside.

Through the crack she spied Richard grappling with a burly man in a mask who, she saw with a flood of cold fear, held a knife which flashed silver in the candlelight. Richard, though tall, was slim-waisted and still boyishly lean, and she thought with horror, perhaps not a match for the unknown assailant even had that man not been armed. She knew he occasionally went in for a bout or two at Jackson's when he was in London, but he was by no means an expert boxer.

Wasting no time, Isabella divested of its lights a weighty brass candelabra from a side table in the wide corridor, holding it so that the heavy base could serve as a weapon, and without hesitation darted into the room.

Thanks to her soft-toed slippers, the assailant, whose back was to the door, had not noticed her entrance, though Richard, uttering a curse that fairly burned her ears, obviously had.

Before the masked man could turn around to see what had elicited such profanity from his victim, Isabella brought the candelabra down as hard as she could upon the back of his head.

Swaying on his feet for an instant, the man collapsed forward, knife still in his hand, on top of Richard. Isabella's cry of terror stuck in her throat as she fell to her knees, using all her strength to push the unconscious attacker off Richard, who seemed winded by the fall.

The knife had not, as she had, with a sickening swoop in her stomach, at first imagined, run through him as the man had fallen on top of him. Instead, miraculously, it had wedged itself in the floor in the tiny space between his chest and his arm.

When she saw that although his coat was torn, his skin was not even scratched, she did not even attempt to prevent the sobs of relief which shook her frame. So absorbed was she in this occupation that she did not notice that Richard had recovered his breath until he spoke. 'It seems you were right after all, Bella,' he said, a gleam of rueful amusement in his eyes. 'Your Mama would not be pleased to know you have been rubbing shoulders with such people as this inn holds.'

He was astonished, but really rather pleased when her only response was to fling herself on the floor with him and throw her arms around his neck. He laughed a little, and patted her on the back (which unromantic gesture she would have normally rolled her eyes over, had she been in the mood). 'I'm fine, Bella. Really.'

Then, sitting up and gently disengaging himself from her embrace, he said, 'I feel like we should do something about that fellow over there. Wouldn't want him to wake up before we're ready for him.'

This was practical, and little as she was at first inclined to, Isabella had to reluctantly agree, and helped him lift the masked man onto a chair, where they bound his hands with Richard's linen neckcloth and his feet with the cord from Isabella's cloak.

This done, more important matters could be attended to. Isabella took two quick steps over to Richard and resumed their embrace.

'Bella!' he said, colouring in a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure. 'I'm perfectly all right, you know.'

'I know,' she said into his neck. 'But just let me get used to it. When I thought you might be hurt…' She shuddered.

He laughed. 'And what do you think I felt when I saw you burst into the room, ready to throw yourself into harm's way?'

She hit his arm, still not letting go of him. 'I was in no danger – I hit him before he even saw me. And in any case, had I not, he would not be tied up in that chair right now.'

When he spoke she could hear the smile in his voice. 'That is true enough. Oh, my love, there really is nobody like you.'

She froze. Still in his arms, slowly moving away from him so that she could look up into his face, hardly daring to believe her ears, she whispered, 'Your what?'

He blanched and then almost immediately flushed, saying nothing.

She looked up at him, shivering slightly. 'Did you mean that?' she asked quietly.

For a long moment he was silent. Then he briefly closed his eyes and opened them again before sighing, 'Yes.'

She was happy, so happy – and also so angry she couldn't see straight. 'Then why did you never say anything? Why on earth did you go to all this trouble to avoid marrying me?'

He shrugged helplessly. 'You were so unhappy about it – as your friend I couldn't sit by and perpetuate that by following our parents' wish, and Heaven knows there could scarcely have been a worse time to tell you about my feelings.'

Her eyes blazed. 'How can you be so bacon-brained? When I confided in you, I told you I was unhappy about not being allowed to go to London for a season!'

He felt the need to defend himself. 'I distinctly remember you saying that your parents wouldn't let you go to London because they wanted you to marry me.'

She rolled her eyes impatiently. 'Yes, but I was unhappy about the London part – if I was unhappy about the marrying you part, it was only because you seemed so gloomy about it.'

He looked stunned. 'Then – you mean… you are not wholly averse to – it would not repulse you to…' he trailed off hopefully.

She looked up at him, her expression suddenly vulnerable. 'Richard, when we began our flight, I – I thought you intended for us to elope to Gretna – and I came willingly,' she confessed haltingly.

His eyes widened, and he managed one ragged, 'Bella!' before pulling her roughly to him and kissing her soundly. Her surprised 'Oh!' was muffled against his lips and she melted against him, returning his embrace with enthusiasm.

Objectively speaking, they were not engaged in this occupation for long before the sound of hurried footsteps were to be heard on the stairs, and the door burst open. Looking reluctantly towards the source of the noise, they were astonished to see their parents.

The older Ashbournes and Delfords had arrived on the threshold in time to witness their childrens' embrace, but even had they not, it would have been plain enough what had been transpiring.

Lady Ashbourne lifted a hand to her forehead. 'I knew they were eloping,' she said faintly, and tottered over to sink into the nearest chair, which happened to be the one containing the masked man. Correcting herself just in time with a little shriek, she let her knees give her a little extra time to find an alternative seat before they gave out.

Before she could make any queries about the unconscious stranger who appeared to be tied to the chair, however, Richard spoke, attempting to correct their mistaken impression. 'We weren't eloping,' he protested.

Lady Ashbourne, moaning, had to take a deep sniff from her vinaigrette at that, and even Lady Delford looked shocked.

'Richard Morley,' said his father sternly, 'do you mean to say that after clandestinely running off with Isabella, and compromising her reputation as, I might add, we saw you doing, you do not mean to marry her?'

Richard looked exasperated. 'Of course I mean to marry her; only we ran away so that we wouldn't have to marry, you see.'

This didn't seem to make matters any clearer, and the giggles Isabella couldn't prevent at the stunned expressions on their parents' faces didn't help. 'Richard, stop,' she finally gasped. 'You're making it sound so much worse.'

Before any explanation could be tendered, however, the groans of the finally awakening masked man were heard. For the first time Sir Terrence and Lord Delford registered his presence.

'Who the devil is that fellow?' Lord Delford wanted to know.

'I don't know,' Richard said, suddenly realising this. He and Isabella had been so caught up in one another that it had never occurred to them to unmask their attacker.

Sir Terrence looked as if he were developing a headache. 'I daresay it's all of a piece with this inn, Delford. Dashed irregular, I must say. What with no landlord to see to us, and stable boys, cooks, porters and all manner of ruffians trying to prevent us from entering for all the world as if they did not want paying guests, I own I'm not too surprised to see that the private parlour decorations include some deuced masked fellow tied to a chair.'

At the end of this exchange Richard looked at Isabella, his eyes brimful of laughter, and she choked before saying unsteadily, 'Oh, don't, I can't breathe!' before collapsing into a renewed fit of giggles which were so infectious that he couldn't help laughing too.

Sir Terrence and Lord Delford exchanged a look which plainly communicated that they thought both their children had gone mad, and then Lord Delford stepped forward to remove the man's mask.

Pure surprise killed Richard and Isabella's laughter. 'That's the landlord!' she cried. It was indeed Mr. Lyons.

Sir Terrence scratched his head. 'Well, what the deuce is he doing here instead of staying downstairs to welcome his guests?'

'Oh, well, I hit him with the candelabra, you see, and then Richard and I tied him to the chair,' she explained.

Lady Delford, who had been listening to this exchange with not a little amusement, said dryly, 'Ah, well, that would account for it, of course.'

Richard grinned, and elaborated. 'He attacked me, presumably to subdue me and then rob me of my valuables. Fortunately, Bella was able to finish him off before it came to that.'

Lady Delford raised her eyebrows in surprise. 'Was she, indeed? Well done!' She favoured Isabella with one of her rare smiles.

Lord Delford attempted to return to their original topic. 'Indeed, and we can send a message to the local magistrate to deal with all this, but what I am truly curious to know is why the two of you set off in secret on the Great North Road if you weren't eloping to Gretna.'

Richard cast an involuntary glance at Isabella who was blushing painfully, and quickly said, 'We had no such intention. We were setting off to Glasgow to stay with Teddy Standen until you had given up the notion of Isabella and I marrying.'

Lord Delford looked taken aback. 'If you are so set against it, certainly we will not press for it,' he said.

Lady Ashbourne's handkerchief came out again. 'I am sure,' she sniffled, not without some asperity, 'that after all this abominable secrecy and such disregard for Isabella's reputation, I would not like to see the two of you married after all. In fact, I would not countenance such a match!'

Richard's lips twitched. 'That is a great pity, because I find that there is nothing I would like better than to be married to Isabella – if she will have me, that is.' He brought Isabella's hand to his lips, looking earnestly at her.

Eyes brimful of tears, smiling, she said in a tone of deliberation, 'Well… if you insist.'

Lady Ashbourne was in raptures. 'Oh Richard! My dear boy – just what we have always – dear Isabella! So well-matched – I knew all along how it would be!'

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