Sunday, December 28, 2008

Excerpt from "Laura."

Just before Christmas, our heroine, Laura, is caught in the snow.

Ross pulled his team to a stop and leaped down to the road. Laura had never been so glad to see anyone in her life. She went towards him, hands outstretched. "The back wheel is broken! There seemed to be nothing to do but wait. I'm so glad it's you!"

"You won't be when you hear what I have to say to you," he growled.

Laura stopped, and let her hands drop to her sides, schooling her expression to the polite impassivity she usually presented in public. Why had he come after her if he was angry with her? Merely to berate her? She had felt nothing but joy to see him, and his implicit rejection of her pleasure hurt. She rarely let anyone see anything of her behind the smooth façade she carefully maintained, but she'd let this man in. That might have been a mistake.

"Are you all right?" He snapped the words out, as though compelled to say them.

"Perfectly," she replied, trying to keep her voice cool, "except for one or two bruises."

"Then I take leave to tell you I didn't think you would be so foolish!"

His hard gaze swept over her form and a wave of heat passed over her, soon gone in the deadening chill of the snowstorm.

"What made you leave your tiger behind? Didn't you realise snow was on the way?"

"I never thought to check. I was so worried about Belinda."

He made a sound of disgust. "Belinda! Do you think of nothing else? Let her find her own way to perdition if she's that set on it! Why should she drag you into danger?" His voice rang loud, but was deadened by the thick blanket of snow.

Behind all the anger Laura detected real fear in his tone, breaking through in an uncertain end to his words. The thought warmed her, but so did her rising anger. The knowledge that she had behaved foolishly, combined with her relief at being rescued resulted in a surge of temper. "There was no danger when I set out. And if it wasn't for this damned snow I would have had her back by now and nobody any the wiser!" A flake settled on her nose, and she blew at it in irritation.

His boots crunching in the freshly fallen snow, Ross strode towards the wreck of her curricle and examined the wheel for himself. "That wheel is shattered," he said. "It needs to be replaced."

"I worked that out for myself," Laura did not appreciate being spoken to as though she was twelve years old. Now she was out of immediate danger, her frustration and anger came to the fore.

"We've come too far to go back to London tonight." He spun around on one heel to face her again, the ruined carriage behind him. "Dear God, woman, what did you think you were doing?"

"Saving my niece from something she is likely to regret for the rest of her life," Laura responded. "She's none of your concern, but believe me, she is mine!"

He grimaced, the corner of his mouth going up in a quirk of displeasure. "Well, she'll have to face it for herself now." He turned back to the curricle, bent and picked up Laura's portmanteau and the small case. Without looking back to see if she was following him he walked back to his own vehicle, throwing them the bags up behind. Unlike Laura he drove a low-bodied crane-neck phaeton, more stable on four wheels instead of her curricle's two.

One of Laura's chestnuts snorted. She agreed with him. "You haven't brought your tiger, either," she remarked with some satisfaction. She had caught him on his own criticism.

He darted a furious glance at her. "I had no time," he snarled.

Before he could do so, Laura moved over to the trees and untethered her team. He came over to help her, and took the leads from her. As he did so, his hard gaze travelled up to her face, where her polite façade had been replaced by simmering anger. "Where are your gloves? Do you want to get frostbite?"

Despite her desire to ignore his concern she explained, "They got wet. I took them off to dry." She fished the offending articles out from her pelisse pockets, but they were still hopelessly wet.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "You can keep your hands under your cloak. I'll be driving."

Since it was his carriage, she couldn't complain, but she felt like it. He was treating her like a child, and she had cut her eye-teeth years ago.

While Ross was busy fastening the reins of her horses to the back of his phaeton, Laura went back to the curricle and collected the spare blankets, together with any other bits and pieces she thought might come in useful. Taking one last wistful look at her ruined vehicle, which had been a fine little carriage, and fun to drive, before this stupid accident, she climbed up into the passenger seat, disdaining his proffered hand. Her efforts at rescue had ended in dismal failure and she felt foolish and humiliated.

"Where are we?" she managed.

He waited until he'd steered his team past her stricken vehicle before he replied. "I'm not quite sure. Somewhere near Berkhamsted I think. I suggest we stop at the first place we find and make inquiries. I'd better call you my sister or my wife and I won't give them my real name unless anyone recognises me."

Laura had stopped thinking about propriety a long time ago, but she supposed he must be right. Now her own reputation was at stake as well as her niece's. If the spiteful old biddies in town ever got wind of this she would be ruined. She hated society for its narrow-minded censure of any woman who stepped even slightly out of line, and she hated Lord Harris for instigating this farce in the first place. Most of all she hated herself. "Why did you come after me?"

Ross kept his concentrated gaze on the road ahead. In the dark, it would have been easy to let his vehicle wander off the camber of the road straight into one of the ditches that bordered it. "Because, unlike you I took some notice of the weather conditions. The weather grew slightly warmer this morning, a sure sign of snow on the way. I came to see you earlier, and I found your sister in great distress."

Laura's heart sank. "I told her to calm down and behave as normal."

His mouth thinned to a straight line. "I told her to go to bed and let any visitor who called know she was indisposed. She's completely unable to hide her upset." He paused, negotiating a sharp bend in the road, and then, safely around it, continued, "She can't hide her feelings for her daughter, even when it's in her interest to do so. She won't rest until she hears from us. And that," he added, glancing up at the sky, "might not be for a long time."

The snow still fell thick and fast, dropping a dead pall over everything, muffling feeling, muffling colour. Laura felt a strange sense of isolation, as though they would never reach anywhere, as though every landscape was the same as the one they were passing through now. Her eyes drooped, and she felt herself slipping into sleep.

He jerked her awake with a sharp command. "Wake up! Don't go to sleep until we've reached somewhere safe."

Startled, she lifted her head. Ross was watching the road carefully, guiding his horses through the blanketed road, her own team following behind, their hoofbeats muffled by carpet of snow. The pace was slow but steady.

"Thank God!" he muttered.

Looking ahead, Laura thought she saw the outline of a building.

As they got closer they saw lights streaming out from the windows onto the whiteness outside. Closer still, they could discern sounds, noises and then it became possible to see what the building was. An inn, or a large farmhouse. Refuge.

Ross drove up to the building. Snow covered the sign that swung on a stand outside, and a wide arch led to a yard, where coaches would customarily go. Ross drove through the archway into a small inn-yard, most of its space already taken up by a large vehicle.

The bustle inside confused Laura, who had begun to drift again. Ostlers ran about, attending to the horses from the coach. Shouts and curses rang around the enclosed yard as they worked.

The stagecoach! The large vehicle was the stage she'd been hoping to catch!

Laura stared around with dawning hope. This was not a large coaching inn, one of the recognised stages on the route, but a much smaller establishment; probably more used to catering to local trade. The yard was smaller than one accustomed to handling the coach trade and the Quality; there was only one barn to the side of it, not the neat row of stabling she was used to seeing in such establishments. The bottom of the yard boasted a collection of snow-clad outhouses, and the left hand side was taken up by the inn.

Ross thrust the reins into her hands and leaped down. "Ho! Assistance here!" he called, but he might as well have been speaking to himself. It wasn't until he walked up to a heavily muffled young man, busy unloading boxes and trunks from the back of the stagecoach that anyone paid attention to him. He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, and forcibly turned him around. The young man started, and then waited to hear what Ross had to say.

Laura couldn't hear what he said, but it had the desired result. The attendant looked at the phaeton and the thoroughbred horses attached to it more closely. He swallowed. Ross said something sharp to him and he hurried off, returning in very little time with an older man, who similarly looked at the horses and then shook his head.

Ross came back to Laura and held out his hand to help her down. "They're not used to this level of traffic and they weren't sure they had room for the horses, but I persuaded them. This place is packed, but it's obvious we can't go any further tonight. We'll have to take what they can offer us until the morning, at least."

Silently, Laura took his hand and descended to the cobbled yard. She bit her lip. "What a coil!" she muttered.

Overhearing her remark he said tartly, "You might have thought of that earlier."

Laura couldn't understand why he was so unfair, but she was in no case to argue. She followed him into the main room of the inn, where chaos reigned.

A cacophony met her confused ears, human shouting mixing with the metallic clang of tankards and cutlery. Laura caught sight of a harassed woman carrying a tray full of pewter mugs elbowing her way through the crowd. She hoped there was something left for Ross and herself.

What looked at first like smoke turned out to be steam, rising from soaked greatcoats and travelling cloaks drying in the heat blazing from the large fireplace and the warmth of human bodies. People of all sorts jostled each other, from schoolboys to more disreputable looking characters. All were agitated, all demanded attention.

Confused, jostled, Laura was glad to feel Ross Stansfield's hand on her elbow. He moved just a little in front of her, steering a path through the crowd.

He headed straight for the fire and attracted the attention of a passing potboy by the simple expedient of placing one strong hand on his shoulder and preventing him from going any further. "Brandy," he said. "And dinner." He then increased the loyalty of the youth by pressing a gold coin into his hand. "The other half when we're comfortably settled."

Ross was gazing around the room. "Most of the stage passengers must be in here. I wonder why they stopped, instead of going on to Berkhamsted?" He was forced to shout, such was the unabated noise.

"Because," said a nearby young gentlemen, "one of the horses cast a shoe. There's a smithy not two miles from here, or so the coachman says." He raised his voice even more as the noise around them increased. Laura hadn't thought it possible before. "It looks as though we're for the night, so God knows where we're all going to sleep." He stared curiously at Laura, recognizing a lady it seemed, from his next remark. "If you want a bedroom, you'll have to make haste."

Ross bit his lip, and his expression turned grimmer. "Will you be all right here? I'll go and see what I can do."

Laura nodded meekly and Stansfield pushed his way through the crowd in search of the landlady.

He was back in a few minutes. "No rooms, not at any price," he informed her. "Not tonight at any rate. There are only three bedrooms and they're all taken. One I would not take in any case, as the occupant is sick and old. The other contains a couple who have already retired to bed and a third has been commandeered for the women and children of the coach. I can find a place for you in there, if you would like it." He paused. "It might be best, but you might not like some of the people who are due to sleep there."

"Where will you sleep?" Laura asked.

He shrugged. "There's a barn. The horses will be at one end of it, but it will be quite warm and probably more comfortable than this room, which is the only other one on offer."

Laura could see no trace of the anger he'd displayed on the road, only a warmth and deep concern.

He spoke very softly. "I'd rather not spend the night away from you, and not because of any other reason than a desire to look after you."

Laura felt the hot blood rush into her face. She saw the old-fashioned settles and hard tables. There would not be many spare blankets. Then she thought of spending a night in a small room with complete strangers, and bawling infants.

She made up her mind. "May I stay with you in the barn?" Even Ross in a temper would make her feel more safe, less unsettled than she did now. The anxiety at the back of his eyes just now called to something inside her.

Ross obviously discerned her meaning, and responded as she wished him to. "Yes of course. But the barn is likely to be colder than the room set aside for the women."

Laura felt warmth tingling back through her feet and hands, and she instinctively clenched them to restore the circulation. Their brandy arrived and that helped too. Ross took one of her hands and chafed it between his own. Considering her previous request to remain with him, Laura was in no case to argue, and the rubbing restored the warmth to her hands effectively. The trouble was, he kept one of her hands in his afterwards and she felt she could not withdraw it. Even worse, she liked it. His touch made her feel wanted, comfortable and secure. All things she hadn't felt in a long time.

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