Love at first sight.
There was a small field down there, where the horses might be turned loose, while those who would choose to brave the cold to swim might either do that or picnic or engage in another, more personal kind of tryst. Henry unsaddled both horses and turned them loose in the field to eat while he made up the small fire, and then he and Georgiana might sit and talk as they sat in the sand with their backs against a large elm log. There was a good supply of small branches if it might turn chilly, though it did not seem as though it would, for it felt quite warm still.
She laughed. “I must smell like a brewery after having that beer spilled onto me.” She dabbed at her dress with the towel that she had absentmindedly removed from the inn, but could not reach her back, where most of it seemed to have landed.
“Please let me.” He took the towel from her and went off to dampen it in the small river and then sat behind her on the large log and wiped at the damp area that extended down toward her waist and even extended to the front of the dress around her side. “You should have taken Mr. Williamson up on his offer to let his wife see to this. I believe the helper spilled more beer on you than you realize.”
“Too late now, and if I had, we might have missed . . .” Her glance toward him as she turned said it all. They were rapidly losing all shyness with each other. “It does not seem uncomfortable, and it will soon dry, though I doubt the smell will go away quite as easily.”
“Please tell me of yourself, Miss Stavely, Georgiana—that is, if you feel that you can, though this may not be a suitable setting for you to relax and talk to a relative stranger.”
“I do not feel that we are strangers. I am also relaxing more with each passing minute, though I am still barely able to believe what has happened—what is happening. Henry did tell me of you from time to time, but it was all university related.” (Just as Oliver had told his sister of Henry also, though briefly, and never in detail.) “I am sure Henry may have told you some of the reason why he left the university so suddenly. Perhaps that was one of the subjects that he might have raised.”
“No, Georgiana, he did not. Not much anyway. I gathered that it was for reasons of family business. He seemed preoccupied and not sure what he might tell me. I suspect our meeting today, had he been able to make it, would have cleared that out of the way.”
“Yes. I can tell you a little. Our family is in the shipping business, trading in the East Indies and West Indies. We—our side of the family, Father and Henry—were not deeply involved in it at all until”—she hesitated to tell him too much detail—“there were some difficulties that my uncle brought down upon us, almost seven years ago, and our father felt honor-bound to step in and rescue the name from scandal. He was prepared to spend his personal fortune to do so, as our uncle quit these shores under a cloud of suspicion and left little behind. Henry became involved also, as our father is no longer as young as he was. Henry is more capable of dealing with any difficulties, of which I learned that there were many, as well as others I still know nothing about. Neither he nor our father dwells upon that, however, though I did hear that there was some violence before anything began to change. Our uncle did not make anything easy to recover from, and it took a while for the general animosity against our name to die down.
“No one knows where our uncle went off to, though it is generally believed that he went to the West Indies, or even further afield, to escape retribution and the law. Without Henry, our family might not have weathered that particular storm. It is difficult to speak about even the little I do know, though I know he does not tell me much for fear of causing me to worry. However, I do notice that he has recovered some of his former cheery nature, and so has Father. He was obliged to delay his return for some time, perhaps even a week or longer, so he asked me to see that that message got to you. I was traveling to Calderwold on another errand, so I decided that I would deliver it myself. He will be sorry to have had to put it all off, but I know Henry, and he will make up for it in some way.”
Oliver moved beside her, looked at her, and took her hand. She did not pull away. “I am not sorry to have missed him on this occasion. Not now that I have met you.” They sat that way for some moments, looking at each other. “However, I expect that I should reciprocate and tell you of me to start with.” He threw more branches upon the fire, and then took her hands as he sat down with her again.
She learned that he was the only son, but that he had five sisters, two of whom were at home, and the three others, older, married now, and living quite far away—two in Eastbourne, and the other in Lancaster.
“I think you must know my brother at least as well as I do, but in a different way. Not just a brother either, but a twin brother.” Oliver said nothing about it being as strange a coincident as with him and Charlotte, who were also twins. “He always watched over me as far as he could, until he went off to the university and then was sidetracked with this severe mark against our name.”
Oliver smiled at her. “Our family is the same. In truth, I suppose all families have their own difficulties to contend with. We all need to weather some upset or other. We all have them. About every generation or so, along comes some shambling skambleshanks to put the family back up, and drag our name through the mud for a while until it all quietens down again when some other scandal breaks out that is more juicy than ours. My own father was caught up in some difficulty for a while that took him away from home, though I don’t think it was financial. It quite strained the family ties there for a while, but that was when we were all younger; too young to understand any of it, many years ago now. We never did learn what it was about. I suspect we never learn the whole of anything, and any embarrassing secrets tend to get buried with our parents. Just as well, I suppose.”
She suddenly raised her head. “Was that an owl? I had completely lost track of time.” She looked about herself. “It is almost dark. I did not realize that it was so late.”
“Nor I. Yes, the time has indeed flown by! Do not worry, I shall see you safely home. Would you like to leave now? We could arrange to meet tomorrow if you wish, for I do not think that such a private rendezvous as this, and meeting with me, might meet with the approval of either your brother or your parents, nor anyone else who might have your best interests at heart.”
“No, sir. I am enjoying the warmth here, and the company, and I had intended to stay some lengthy time this evening for the festival anyway, so I will not be missed. There is a family not so far from here that I can stay with this evening, except . . . except I cannot just ride up there unaccompanied after dark. Not as I am, and in this mess, and reeking of beer. But what of you? Henry said you were from further afield, a place called Fallowfield. I also recall that you had tried to speak for a room as I came into the taproom.”
“It is no matter. I would be quite happy to spend the entire evening here if I must, and just talk. The company is good, and it is warmer than I expected, and we can even see the fireworks and hear some of the noise from the festival. The only thing we lack is a chaperone—I don’t think that owl will count”—she laughed, and quite took his breath away at how it made him feel—“and good food and drink.”
“I did not come unprepared, Sir. I have food with me. I have a saddle bag with some few things in it, for I knew I would be late, and we can drink Adam’s ale if the river water is not too muddy.”
Oliver retrieved the bag from her saddle and returned to the fire with it as she spread out the towel by the fire. “The water is clean enough, for it is fresh out of the hills yonder”—he pointed out into the darkness—“and the bed is more gravel and sand than mud.”
“Then we can have our own picnic and eat these ham sandwiches and the preserves too, for I always ask the cook to put enough food together for two or three. One never knows whom one will meet, and I knew I would encounter one friend or another this evening and that I might be late getting to the Stewarts, though not in this condition. I am sure I will think more clearly after I have eaten. Mama did not like to see me going off and being alone in the village.” Their mother began to sound like his own. “We can share the napkin and the fork if you wish, though I see that it is mostly sandwiches. I am sure that the cook put up enough for a party of four. I knew the inn would not be able to cater to everyone who might be there this evening, so I came prepared.”
“A picnic. And a rare one at that. Good food, good company, gentle conversation, and a warm evening. What more might anyone wish for? After that, I will escort you home. With so many strangers at the festival, it is none too safe for a young woman to be unaccompanied.”
They sat and conversed as they ate, and before either of them was aware of it, they had finished off the sandwiches and were staring into the red embers of the fire with darkness surrounding them.
Without giving any conscious thought as to how any of it happened, for it seemed natural to do so, Georgiana found that she was now sitting back against Oliver, between his legs, as he leaned against the log, while his arms were around her to keep her warm as she sat with her legs extended toward the fire, in hopes of getting the dampness out of her dress. It all seemed so natural and entirely reasonable that they might sit that way as though they had known each other for years. His head was resting on her shoulder, and he kissed her on the neck. She did not seem to mind but nestled back even closer into him and turned her face up so that he might kiss her lips, which he then did.
“Oh dear.” She was the first to speak. “I am dying of thirst. I do hope there will not be any fish to startle me, but I must have a drink of that water. The ham was too salty.”
“Yes, it was. I shall make the fire up first or you may not find your way back.” He broke other dead branches by hitting them across the log and tossed them onto the fire as she moved off toward the flowing water. No more than a minute later, he heard a gentle cry followed by a splash. He was on his feet in an instant and heading down the bank at a run.
“Damn!” There were sounds of someone threshing about in the water.
“Do you need my help? Where are you?” He felt a great stab of fear and ran into the water himself, searching for her in the dark. He could hear her spluttering close by. He remembered that it was not deep enough to drown in, and that it barely came above one’s knees until one was further out into the main channel, which hugged the far bank. A voice came from by his elbow, and he felt her take hold of his arm. “Well, I would say that I certainly had my fill of water now, and at least I will get rid of the smell of beer from my dress.” She swished her dress about in the water to accomplish just that. “I stood on a log to get out, and it turned under me. I doubt I will get any wetter than I am at this moment. I hope this water is clean and that the fish will not mind, or I fear that I shall make things worse. But, Oliver, why are you in here too and soaked as I am?” He was holding her arm, fearful of letting her go in the dark. “How impetuous of you! I was in no danger. It is very shallow.”
“I could not see you, my dear. You did not answer me immediately, and I was afraid about what was happening to you. I thought you might not realize how shallow it was and drown yourself in just two feet of water. I would not like to meet you one moment and then lose you in that way after just a few hours together. I thought you might need to be rescued!”
She liked to hear his concern for her and his gentle words of endearment. He felt her grasp his arm more securely, as he grasped hers; and they both of them returned to the bank, carrying a small wall of water ahead of them. He was surprised to find that she was laughing despite the embarrassment of their predicament. It would take more that just a soaking in the river to discomfort this assured young lady. “I did not need to be rescued, but thank you anyway. That was gallant. We are both as wet as we might be if the sound of water running from us is any indication, and as the weight of my dress now tells me. Oh what a predicament! I certainly cannot appear at my friend’s home at this hour and as bedraggled as this, or they will wonder about my sanity or what disaster I had been up to and show me the door. Nonetheless, what an interesting day this has turned out to be! I had no idea this morning that I would find myself sitting far from home with a man, known to me for only a few hours, having a picnic, learning about each other”—she stumbled with her words for a moment until she recovered her thoughts—“and I doubt I could be any wetter than I am, but I find that I do not have a care in the world other than that I am now feeling the chill of being wet, and you are just as wet. What are we to do with ourselves?”
“Well, we cannot stand about and get cold, that is sure.” He made up the fire with more wood, hoping that no one else would be tempted to come down to see what the light was down by the river, and watched with some slight alarm as she began to unfasten her dress and then to remove it, along with even more of her clothing. She noticed his concern.
“I have no intention of freezing to death! You are wet too, and in just as much danger of catching a chill as I am.” She began to help him with his own clothing. He could not believe what was happening to him but needed little encouragement. She was right. “There will be no one else come down here at this time of night in this blackness, and I have no intention of staying wet all night.” Neither had he but had been unsure of how to go forward until now.
“I can stick branches into the sand, and our clothing can dry out near the fire. We still have our saddle blankets, and we are well out of sight over the bank.” She seemed relieved that he was not about to rebel at what was happening, or to criticize her.
Oliver soon changed his plans about returning to London. On his ride home at first light, after seeing Georgiana safely on to her own property and close to the house so that she could enter it relatively unseen, he made sure that he also approached Fallowfield without drawing attention to himself. He scarcely dared believe what had happened to him—what had happened to them. Fortunately, no one had been tempted to check upon the fire glow from the riverbank, with all of the opening festivities, or they would have seen two individuals sitting close into the fire, holding each other close, as their clothing dried. They seemed entirely at ease with each other and with nothing more than a horse blanket around them, as they sat upon another. They had not slept but had talked almost the entire night through. It had seemed so natural, considering the euphoric mood that had settled over them, and their sudden emotional closeness with each other, that they might also make love.
Later that morning, after their clothing had mostly dried out, though leaving everything smelling of smoke, he had helped her dress, getting rid of sand out of their clothing as they laughed at the embarrassing spectacle they both surely presented to the world and to each other, though with neither of them caring about that. There was no one to see them. They were comfortable with each other, even without clothing, as though they were but young children brought up together from birth.
With frequent pauses to kiss and caress as they had embraced excitedly, they had helped each other become more presentable, until the warmth of their own suddenly discovered feelings for each other had overcome them both once more.
After seeing the horses saddled and no trace left behind of what had happened that previous evening between them—though they carried enough evidence of it along with them in their appearance and behavior toward each other—Oliver had escorted Miss Stavely back to her own property. They had made their plans to meet that same evening before they parted with words of love freely exchanged between them. They had even exchanged rings and, as unusual as it might seem, they had even entered into a simple spoken contract—quite informal—of understanding between them after the natural marriage contract that they had entered into, and that each felt to be as binding as any social marriage.
They were loath to be parted from each other for any reason, though it was clear that both needed to make repairs to their wardrobes before they might meet again, or even might be seen by anyone who knew them. They rode slowly around the village, now slumbering after an exciting evening, though with stragglers, adjusting their clothing after leaving two of the tents set aside from the others, unsteadily making their way home and whatever welcome awaited them there. The still-smoldering bonfires cast a pall of smoke over the quiet village from which few signs of life were evident. One young lad watched them go by, before he continued his careful searching, as he quickly scoured the area, looking for anything of any value that may have been dropped into the grass and lost in the dark of the previous evening as people jostled each other, or clothing was adjusted in some way in the darker regions away from the revealing light of the bonfires. He paused often, and retrieved some trinket or coin before he warily continued with his search, keeping away from others as he did so. What was easily found could be just as easily taken away.
Once clear of the village, they rode side by side as they talked, holding hands where the going permitted, until they were well onto the Stavely estate. She dissuaded him from accompanying her up to the house on this occasion, as he was quite prepared to do. She knew that she could not possibly introduce a new friend, a man—an unknown man—so soon in the day without easy explanation of both of their rumpled and unkempt appearances and what they were doing in each other’s company, without there having been a formal introduction between them. It would be an explanation that would undoubtedly be entirely unsatisfactory to all who might hear it, considering what they had already done with each other, and that could not be denied, from the open expressions on their faces as they looked at each other.
With a little thought, and more time, she would be able to tell a suitable tale that might be believed concerning her appearance, if there were no conflicting indications to the contrary, but there would be no easy explanation if he accompanied her. Anyone with a lick of common sense would be able to read the open book that they both were, as they looked at each other with love shining forth from their eyes, and reluctant to let each other go.
The way she felt—the jubilation; her appearance; her clothing, in need of being laundered; her feelings—told her resoundingly that she had not dreamed any of it, but the fewer who knew of what had happened over the course of the previous evening, the better. Each rode away reluctantly from the other, with lingering touches and frequent glances back, but with their hearts singing with a full understanding of what had happened between them, and that would soon happen again.
Oliver rode away after seeing her give up her horse to an alert stable hand, even at that early hour, and enter the house after looking one last time to see that he was still where he had waited as he saw her looked after. The lad may also have seen Oliver at a distance, but Georgiana would swear him to secrecy. No doubt her appearance would elicit some questions if she were intercepted by any of her family before she got back to her own room to change. She hoped no one had seen her return as she had, or had taken note of her appearance. They would, hopefully, assume she must have returned later that previous evening. She would bathe first and get her clothing into the laundry.
The laundry maid would be sworn to secrecy too, concerning the smell of beer and of sand still caught up in the folds of her dress and shoes, but there was an encyclopedia of intrigue and secrecy to be read in Miss Georgiana’s face as well as in the state of her clothing. It was still damp, in places, but not where it might be expected. There were damp stains caught in one place—a suspicious place on the inner lining near where a woman sat a saddle, and that had not had time to dry. The maid was curious. She sniffed at them suspiciously, discovering a faint but characteristic odor that she was familiar with, though would have denied it had anyone asked her. She was shocked but would say nothing. Miss Georgiana had been with a man! And intimately so! She made a mental note of the date—August 3. A lot of young women, and some not so young, would be caught out that way in that August festival, but she hoped that Miss Georgiana would not be one of them.
During the ride back to Fallowfield, Oliver had reorganized his entire life and future with but one thing and one person in his mind, but he desperately needed to change before he was seen.