The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Others, Have Pleasant Consequences

Once Oliver had changed his clothing and left his gloves to be cleaned, he looked in upon his sister and saw that she seemed none the worse for her encounter except for her bright cheeks and sparkling eyes as she stabbed into the hem of her dress to which she was making some repairs. She had changed her clothing, though was fuming inwardly over what had happened, still feeling her scratches and minor injuries, but she would soon get over it. She would bathe once her brother had gone, and try to clear her mind of what had come too close to happening to her. Except for that blade in the sheath of her crop, that encounter may have gone badly against her. She did not like to feel that kind of vulnerability.

Oliver had divulged little of what he had done to Jasper, though it must have been obvious to her from the little blood splashing upon his shirt and trousers when he had returned to her, as well as the marks upon his boots. He went to change before his mother saw him. His sister did the same.

He regretted not having put a more permanent end to the matter, for he would soon have to return to London, leaving his sisters in the same potentially threatening predicament; though he felt sure that Enright would see the wisdom of not remaining in the area after what had happened to him, and after what Oliver had at first intended, before his gun misfired.

“I doubt he will pester you again, Shar. We reached an understanding at last, one he cannot misunderstand this time, though I thought we had done that some years ago too.” He looked at her. She did not display any signs of having been unduly put out or injured in any way. “But what made you go riding alone like that?”

“I didn’t. I had Anne with me as well as Angelica, but they both decided to stay in Brokeston for various reasons, so I had to make my own way home.”

“Better if you had taken the road then if you were alone.”

“You are beginning to sound like Mama, Oliver.” She frowned at him. He desisted from saying more. “But what of you? You are not supposed to be here, but in Cambridge still, or London.”

“I was in Cambridge. Did you not get my note?”

“Mama may have done. I remember now, she said something about my waiting for you.”

“Pity you didn’t. No, I have a meeting with an old university friend who lives close by, Henry Stavely. I told you of him. I haven’t seen him for almost two years, since he left suddenly to help with the family business. I’d forgotten about the festival, so we will be fighting through the crowds and will find no privacy to talk. I expect we can probably go and sit by the river. I doubt that I shall bring him back here, even if he had the time—the women seem to want to fawn all over him and make fools of themselves, but he seems able to ignore them all. I’d rather he didn’t meet either you or Anne.” He ignored his sister’s sudden glance as she wondered why he might say that. “It will be quiet down there. I left early for the meeting, hoping to see the smith about that carriage wheel and the iron work Mama wanted done, so I expect I can still make it in time.”

“You’d better go then, Oliver, or you will be later than you might like. I’m all right. Tell Mama nothing of this.” She looked up at him. “Perhaps I should plead to go with you and meet this friend of yours. There are so few men of any worth in this area, or are you deliberately keeping him away from your sisters after describing him in such an interesting way? We are capable of judging his merit for ourselves, you know. Is it him that you do not trust, or us? Invite him back for dinner.”

He smiled at her. “Some other time perhaps, and no, I was not deliberately hiding you from him, or him from you. He has too much on his plate at this time. However, you are not entirely wrong in what you said. I am not sure he is quite respectable enough to meet with my sisters.” His protective instincts were clearly in play. “I may learn more when I see him. The rumors of what he has been up to for the last two years are more than I am prepared to believe, but I’ll not pry. He’ll come about. He always did land on his feet and could handle just about anything that crossed his path.”

He leaned over and gave his sister a kiss on the cheek and then felt that he could leave, now that she was safely home. Enright would not be taking an interest in anything for at least two weeks and possibly longer—and almost certainly not in the local area ever again if he had any sense. But then, he didn’t have any sense, so a more final approach might still be called for.

If he left now, he should make it in time. They had planned on it for more than a month now. He had almost lost track of his friend when Henry had suddenly left the university some two years earlier to enter the family business and make a recovery from some difficult times and a sudden turn of the family fortunes for the worst, but it seemed that the last two years had allowed some measure of recovery. That much, at least, had been evident from Henry’s earlier brief letter.

Almost to the exact time agreed upon for their meeting, Oliver rode down the Calderwold main street, realizing that there was more going on, locally, than he had expected. He could see to his other obligations later. He recalled that the Calderwold festivities had rolled around once more and that the date had put him into the middle of a busy evening, as the festivities were to get under way at midnight on that very day. There would undoubtedly be a firework display and a bonfire to start everything off, as well as considerable revelry after that, once the beer had begun to flow in earnest, though it had likely never stopped since that morning.

He would not mind. He hoped he might be able to find some accommodation at the inn for this evening anyway, but there might be little chance of that, and it was doubtful that he would make it back to Fallowfield that evening.

The landlord was full of bad news. He had no rooms vacant for either that evening or for any of the coming fourteen nights of the festival either, nor for a week after that, for they had all been booked well in advance.

’You could try to find accommodation further out, sir. I did hear that Hungerford Inn still might have a room or two, but everything within a five-mile radius is spoken for, for the entire festival.”

He heard a voice near his elbow as an older man tried to dissuade a young woman from entering the taproom. “Oh, Miss. You shouldn’t go in there. Too much of a crush for a lady, and the language may not be what you might be used to. There is a more respectable parlor for women at the back.”

Oliver hesitated as he heard her voice. “Thank you for being concerned, sir, but I shall not be long. I merely have a message to give to the landlord, and then I shall be on my way.” She moved up to the counter as others fell aside for her, for she was clearly a lady, although not so old.

“Mr. Williamson?”

“Yes, Miss, that’s me!” His concerned glance flickered across to a group of individuals being too loud and outspoken for the presence of a lady and was happy to see them go quiet. He was anxious to see to her, and also anxious to see her gone.

“My brother asked me to put this into your hands and to see that you held it for Mr. Oliver Morton—” Oliver was suddenly attentive to his name being used “—who should already be here somewhere and will undoubtedly make himself known to you, if he has not done so already.”

“No, Miss. No one here of that name that I know of. Not yet. No one asked about any messages.”

“Then he will come by later. I shall leave it with you.”

“Yes, Miss.” His voice rose a little. “Here, Jem! Watch what you’re doin’ there! Now look at what you did, spilling good beer on this young lady’s dress like that, and down her, and we has little enough of it as it is.” He seemed more concerned, at first, with his loss of beer than of damage to the young lady’s clothing. He turned to her and offered her a clean towel to deal with it. “Oh, Miss, I’m sorry. Some of the help is new and not used to waiting on folk, and they are clumsy enough at the best of times—tripping over themselves. Get on with you, Jem, and be more careful!” He turned back to her. “My other guests have not arrived yet, Miss. If you want to step into the private parlor, I’ll get my missus to see to that for you!”

“No, no need, Mr. Williamson. I do not have the time. It is minor damage, and it will not be visible anyway.”

“Miss Stavely?” Oliver raised his hat as she turned to see who it was addressing her. They looked at each other for what seemed like an interminable span of time that occupied all of about ten seconds without another word being spoken, though their expressions and looks spoke volumes to each other as she colored noticeably. He was the first to recover his senses and turned quickly to the landlord as he took the message from his fingers before he might put it away and took the young lady’s arm, hoping she would not object to his familiarity, and steered her out of the door as she carried the landlord’s towel with her. She did not object or resist. They neither of them spoke immediately. “Do you have a carriage or a horse, Miss Stavely?”

She found her voice, but it did not sound like her own, and she felt flushed and suddenly confused. “A horse, sir. Yes, there!” She pointed to the lad holding her horse. The same lad was also holding his, for they neither of them had planned on being there long.

“I am Oliver Morton.” He raised her hand to his lips as he looked at her but did not immediately let it go. “The message you delivered was for me. I take it that your brother, Henry, is not able to come.” His use of her brother’s name might give her some reassurance of his identity. She seemed to be still confused for some reason but did not object to him having addressed her. “I assume that Henry is your brother and that he is unable to be here. He said nothing of having a sister!” Her eyes flashed to his face, but there was nothing to see there that might cause her concern, or that he might be endeavoring to distract her with a deeper intent, as some men did, for he looked serious enough as he looked down at her with a gentle smile on his face. His eyes were honest. “We should ride out of this crush, perhaps to the Chestnut tree on the green where we might talk. It will be public. You need not fear for your safety with me there.”

She recovered quickly and smiled at him. She did not seem to fear him at all, despite him being a complete stranger. “I do not fear for my safety anyway, sir.” He helped her mount her horse and, after passing a coin to the boy who scurried off with his unexpectedly generous treasure, mounted his own, and rode with her as they left the main bustle and noise around the inn and headed for the smaller village green at the other end of the village.

He helped her dismount, tied the horses to a rail, and escorted her to sit on the bench that surrounded the trunk of the old tree. He swept leaves and a few twigs from the seat and checked that there were no boys up in the tree hunting out chestnuts. They sat for some moments in silence, neither of them quite sure where to begin. He had not been able to let go of her hand even after they had sat down, but she did not try to reclaim it.

He laughed and endeavored to encourage her from being tongue-tied, although he felt strange himself . . . “I am Oliver Morton, but you already know that. Perhaps I may know your name?” Formality, and proper social protocol, would have to be dispensed with at this moment.

“And I am Georgiana Stavely.” Their eyes met again. She was still flushed. He had to smile at her charming confusion over it all but felt breathless himself at what he could see in her expression.

“Now why did Henry—of whom I thought I knew so much, but seemingly do not really know at all—not tell me he had a sister? And a beautiful one too. Probably for the same reason I did not tell him of mine, and undoubtedly for the same reason. A protective instinct, guarding our sisters from our friends.” She was still flushed. “You look startled. I don’t normally have that effect on a young lady, but then they don’t usually have this effect on me either, for you startled me too.” He corrected himself. “You did more than startle me, and I am still not sure if I am where I think I am.” He looked into her face. “I am not usually so empty-headed as this, as I fear I must sound, I do assure you of that. Do stop me if I seem to be rambling, or am being particularly stupid or too forward, but I am not sure . . . no, I must correct myself, I am sure about what I felt happen between us back there. At least I know what happened to me. I do hope the same thing happened to you, or I shall be downcast. Was I mistaken? Am I reading too much into this?” She could see that his eyes were pleading with her to confirm that what he had felt happen at that moment had been shared. Her eyes fell from his. She did not try to retrieve her hand. He did not hear her reply at first.

“I am sorry . . . I did not hear!”

She whispered again but could not meet his eyes for fear of being burned by their intensity.

“You were not mistaken, sir.” She suddenly looked up at him. Oliver had to close his eyes in disbelief, at first, at what he saw blazing from hers. All thought of her absent brother, Henry; their missed appointment; his own lateness; that unfortunate event of the afternoon involving his sister that had threatened to nag at him for a week; and other things he had to do while in the village, were all forgotten at that moment. Only two people existed in the village, indeed in the entire world, and they were in each other’s company at that moment.

“We must talk, Georgiana. At length! Is anyone waiting upon you? Do you have an appointment elsewhere? Is anyone expecting you? May I call you Georgiana?”

“Yes, sir—Oliver! No one expects me or is waiting for me—no appointment. Yes, we need to talk!” Her eyes took in the gradually increasing numbers of those approaching this central meeting place. “But I doubt there will be a square inch of the village that will be suitably quiet or private to discuss anything, shortly, and there are others finding this to be a suitable resting and meeting place too.” They both took note of the slowly increasing throng. “I am sure we do not need to be overheard as we talk and learn more of each other. There must be somewhere else more out of the way of the crowds that will soon be gathering throughout the entire village. I am sure Henry must have given no thought to this festival when he arranged to meet you here.”

“No more than I did. But there is somewhere more out of the way, if I dare suggest it! If you dare to trust me!” She would trust him. He could see that about her. “It should still be quiet, for they will be involved with the festivities here for tonight and into the early morning. There is a swimming place down by the river. Henry and I would probably have gone down there too. I noticed that the children had lit a fire there to get warm and dry after their swim. I saw the smoke as I rode by earlier, but they will not stay there once the opening ceremonies begin and will soon quit the place if they have not done so already. We can go down there and sit around that same fire while we talk, if we can. I doubt that there will be anyone else there.” He realized the impropriety of what he was suggesting. “That is, we can do that, if it meets with your approval, for I know that it is somewhat irregular and would certainly be frowned upon with you having no guardian or escort, and we are likely not to have company!” She nodded in approval. She felt no threat from this man.

They got to their feet and, after riding off toward the river, soon being met by a throng of noisy youngsters returning from their cold swim, intent on not missing that first evening’s delights of fireworks and sherbet and perhaps even eating roasted chestnuts and pelting at coconuts. After that, they would be expected to return home to their sleepless beds in anticipation of the wrestling or the jousting on the next day—if they might be allowed to attend it. There was to be at least one bout each day of the festival, and at the end of it, there would be a beauty pageant for those women who rejoiced in such questionable activities, as they revealed their charms in public. One or two of those more enterprising and forward young hopefuls were quite prepared to reveal more of themselves in private to try and influence the outcome with the judges.

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