A Valentine's Day Taster
Yesterday, as we all know, was Valentine's Day. It was also the publication date of the RNA's 50th Anniversary Anthology of short stories, Loves Me, Loves Me Not. Actually, it was already in the shops. I saw it there last week and was delighted to see how stunning that cover looked.
My story in the anthology is called The Trophy Hunter's Prize. Like my novel, His Cavalry Lady, this story is set in London in the summer of 1814 when the capital was full of visiting royals, celebrating their final victory over Napoleon (they thought!). The Russian Tsar, Alexander I, got most of the attention, since he was young and virile and attractive. He could dance all night, and frequently did. But, as well as the Tsar, there was the King of Prussia, and various other princes, dukes and generals. Londoners, high and low, went wild with celebrity spotting. The crowds around their hotels and carriages were vast, as people vied with each other to catch a glimpse.
My hero, Andrew, has just returned from India. He's made his fortune and is looking for a wife in what he expects to be the ordered, London scene. What he finds is rather different, as you'll see from the start of my story...
After the searing brilliance of India, London seemed subdued, like a water-colour by a novice artist who had mixed his paints too thin. Andrew Mortimer shivered a little, in spite of the summer sunshine.
He straightened his elegant new coat and continued to stride down Piccadilly towards the park, where there should be open space, and fresher air to breathe. Before long, however, the dense crowds slowed him almost to a standstill. Yet they seemed good-humoured. With a nod here and a word of excuse there, he might make his way through.
‘’Ere! Wot d’you think y’re doing?’ cried a large florid woman when he tried to edge past her. She looked him up and down, noting the expensive clothes and the unusually brown skin. ‘Furriners,’ she muttered darkly. ‘Never did ’ave no manners.’
Still, she had made a little space for him to pass. Andrew managed to reach up to touch his hat and said, in his most affected English drawl, ‘Why, thank you, ma’am. Most kind.’ The woman’s jaw dropped. Very satisfying.
He had gone only a few yards further when he was forced to stop altogether. The huge crowd seemed to draw breath, as one, then it let out an ear-splitting roar and surged forward towards the Pulteney Hotel, carrying Andrew with it. He had to put all his efforts into keeping his balance. When he was at last able to look about him, he saw that the Tsar of Russia had appeared on the hotel balcony above them, which was clearly the reason for the lusty cheering. And, not three yards from where Andrew stood, a small figure in a pale dress was being trampled in the crush.
He yelled a warning. No one seemed to hear. If she was to be rescued, he would have to do it himself. He flung himself at the men who barred his path. He shouted at them. No reaction. There was just too much noise. As he pushed and pushed, his mouth came close enough to yell into one man’s ear. The man moved a fraction.
Andrew forced his body through the tiny gap. He could almost touch her now. Just a yard or so more. Her muslin skirt was spread across the filthy roadway. How was it that these men did not realise the harm they were doing?
They were all gazing up at the Tsar, their arms raised, their mouths open to bellow their delighted approval of the hero who had defeated the tyrant Bonaparte. The London mob had made its choice of the young and virile Emperor of Russia over their own fat, frivolous Regent.
Andrew was close enough now to see her. She was dirty, young, and frightened. She seemed to be screaming for help. But he could hear nothing. With a huge effort, Andrew shouldered aside two men who were in danger of treading on the girl. He reached down, grabbed the little figure by the arms, and heaved.
Nothing. He redoubled his efforts and heaved again.
It was like pulling a difficult cork. One moment her body was stuck fast. The next it had popped out and Andrew was toppling backwards with her. But he did not fall. The wall of people held him upright.
In his arms, the girl was still screaming and now, with her head against his shoulder, he could hear it very well. It hurt. He used his chin to nudge aside her broken straw bonnet and put his lips against her ear. ‘Pray hush. You are safe now, I promise you.’
She uttered one final, piercing scream. Then putting her mouth against his ear, she cried, ‘Safe? You are like to ruin me, you numbskull. Look at my gown.’
He looked down. Her skirt still lay spread on the ground in a drift of filthy muslin pinioned by enormous boots. Like pressed flower petals edged with footprints. The lady in his arms was dressed in little more than a shift, and torn stockings.
Of course, if you want to know what happened next, you'll have to get hold of a copy of the anthology. I promise you the collection is worth it. There is something there for every kind of reader -- contemporaries, historicals, even a vampire story!
I hope you all had a wonderfully romantic Valentine's Day. I did! But I'm not saying a word about what went on....