A Night to Surrender, p.1part #1 of Spindle Cove Series by Tessa Dare / Romance & Love
Bram stared into a pair of wide, dark eyes. Eyes that reflected a surprising glimmer of intelligence. This might be the rare female a man could reason with.
“Now, then,” he said. “We can do this the easy way, or we can make things difficult. ”
With a soft snort, she turned her head. It was as if he’d ceased to exist.
Bram shifted his weight to his good leg, feeling the stab to his pride. He was a lieutenant colonel in the British army, and at over six feet tall, he was said to cut an imposing figure. Typically, a pointed glance from his quarter would quell the slightest hint of disobedience. He was not accustomed to being ignored.
“Listen sharp, now. ” He gave her ear a rough tweak and sank his voice to a low threat. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say. ”
Though she spoke not a word, her reply was clear: You can kiss my great woolly arse.
“Ah, the English countryside. So charming. So . . . fragrant. ” Colin approached, stripped of his London-best topcoat, wading hip-deep through the river of wool. Blotting the sheen of perspiration from his brow with his sleeve, he asked, “I don’t suppose this means we can simply turn back?”
Ahead of them, a boy pushing a handcart had overturned his cargo, strewing corn all over the road. It was an open buffet, and every ram and ewe in Sussex appeared to have answered the invitation. A vast throng of sheep bustled and bleated around the unfortunate youth, gorging themselves on the spilled grain—and completely obstructing Bram’s wagons.
“Can we walk the teams in reverse?” Colin asked. “Perhaps we can go around, find another road. ”
Bram gestured at the surrounding landscape. “There is no other road. ”
They stood in the middle of the rutted dirt lane, which occupied a kind of narrow, winding valley. A steep bank of gorse rose up on one side, and on the other, some dozen yards of heath separated the road from dramatic bluffs. And below those—far below those—lay the sparkling turquoise sea. If the air was seasonably dry and clear, and Bram squinted hard at that thin indigo line of the horizon, he might even glimpse the northern coast of France.
So close. He’d get there. Not today, but soon. He had a task to accomplish here, and the sooner he completed it, the sooner he could rejoin his regiment. He wasn’t stopping for anything.
Except sheep. Blast it. It would seem they were stopping for sheep.
A rough voice said, “I’ll take care of them. ”
Thorne joined their group. Bram flicked his gaze to the side and spied his hulking mountain of a corporal shouldering a flintlock rifle.
“We can’t simply shoot them, Thorne. ”
Obedient as ever, Thorne lowered his gun. “Then I’ve a cutlass. Just sharpened the blade last night. ”
“We can’t butcher them, either. ”
Thorne shrugged. “I’m hungry. ”
Yes, that was Thorne—straightforward, practical. Ruthless.
“We’re all hungry. ” Bram’s stomach rumbled in support of the statement. “But clearing the way is our aim at the moment, and a dead sheep’s harder to move than a live one. We’ll just have to nudge them along. ”
Thorne lowered the hammer of his rifle, disarming it, then flipped the weapon with an agile motion and rammed the butt end against a woolly flank. “Move on, you bleeding beast. ”
The animal lumbered uphill a few steps, prodding its neighbors to scuttle along in turn. Downhill, the drivers urged the teams forward before resetting their brakes, unwilling to surrender even those hard-fought inches of progress.
The two wagons held a bounty of supplies to refit Bram’s regiment: muskets, shot, shells, wool and pipeclay for uniforms. He’d spared no expense, and he would see them up this hill. Even if it took all day, and red-hot pain screamed from his thigh to his shinbone with every pace. His superiors thought he wasn’t healed enough to resume field command? He would prove them wrong. One step at a time.
“This is absurd,” Colin grumbled. “At this rate, we’ll arrive next Tuesday. ”
“Stop talking. Start moving. ” Bram nudged a sheep with his boot, wincing as he did. With his leg already killing him, the last thing he needed was a pain in the arse, but that’s exactly what he’d inherited, along with all his father’s accounts and possessions: responsibility for his wastrel cousin, Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne.
He swatted at another sheep’s flank, earning himself an indignant bleat and a few inches more.
“I have an idea,” Colin said.
Bram grunted, unsurprised. As men, he and Colin were little more than strangers. But during the few years they’d overlapped at Eton, he recalled his younger cousin as being just full of ideas. Ideas that had landed him shin-deep in excrement. Literally, on at least one occasion.
Colin looked from Bram to Thorne and back again, eyes keen. “I ask you, gentlemen. Are we, or are we not, in possession of a great quantity of black powder?”
“Tranquillity is the soul of our community. ”
Not a quarter mile’s distance away, Susanna Finch sat in the lace-curtained parlor of the Queen’s Ruby, a rooming house for gently bred young ladies. With her were the rooming house’s newest prospective residents, a Mrs. Highwood and her three unmarried daughters.
“Here in Spindle Cove, young ladies enjoy a wholesome, improving atmosphere. ” Susanna indicated a knot of ladies clustered by the hearth, industriously engaged in needlework. “See? The picture of good health and genteel refinement. ”
In unison, the young ladies looked up from their work and smiled placid, demure smiles.
Excellent. She gave them an approving nod.
Ordinarily, the ladies of Spindle Cove would never waste such a beautiful afternoon stitching indoors. They would be rambling the countryside, or sea bathing in the cove, or climbing the bluffs. But on days like these, when new visitors came to the village, everyone understood some pretense at propriety was necessary. Susanna was not above a little harmless deceit when it came to saving a young woman’s life.
“Will you take more tea?” she asked, accepting a fresh pot from Mrs. Nichols, the inn’s aging proprietress. If Mrs. Highwood examined the young ladies too closely, she might notice that mild Gaelic obscenities occupied the center of Kate Taylor’s sampler. Or that Violet Winterbottom’s needle didn’t even have thread.
Mrs. Highwood sniffed. Although the day was mild, she fanned herself with vigor. “Well, Miss Finch, perhaps this place can do my Diana some good. ” She looked to her eldest daughter. “We’ve seen all the best doctors, tried ever so many treatments. I even took her to Bath for the cure. ”
Susanna gave a sympathetic nod. From what she could gather, Diana Highwood had suffered bouts of mild asthma from a young age. With flaxen hair and a shy, rosy curve of a smile, the eldest Miss Highwood was a true beauty. Her fragile health had delayed what most certainly would be a stunning ton debut. However, Susanna strongly suspected the many doctors and treatments were what kept the young lady feeling ill.
She offered Diana a friendly smile. “I’m certain a stay in Spindle Cove will be of great benefit to Miss Highwood’s health. Of great benefit to you all, for that matter. ”
In recent years, Spindle Cove had become the seaside destination of choice for a certain type of well-bred young lady: the sort no one knew what to do with. They included the sickly, the scandalous, and the painfully shy; young wives disenchanted with matrimony, and young girls too enchanted with the wrong men . . . All of them delivered here by the guardians to whom they presented problems, in hopes that the sea air would cure them of their ills.
As the only daughter of the only local gentleman, Susanna was the village hostess by default. These awkward young ladies no one knew what to do with . . . she knew what to do with them. Or rather, she knew what not to do with them. No “cures” were necessary. They didn’t need doctors pressing lancets to their veins, or finishing school matrons harping on their diction. They just needed a place to be themselves.
Spindle Cove was that place.
Mrs. Highwood worked her fan. “I’m a widow with no sons, Miss Finch. One of my daughters must marry well, and soon. I’ve had such hopes for Diana, lovely as she is. But if she’s not stronger by next season . . . ” She made a dismissive wave toward her middle daughter, who sat in dark, bespectacled contrast to her fair-haired sisters. “I shall have no choice but to bring out Minerva instead. ”
“But Minerva doesn’t care about men,” young Charlotte said helpfully. “She prefers dirt and rocks. ”
“It’s called geology,” Minerva said. “It’s a science. ”
“It’s certain spinsterhood, is what it is! Unnatural girl. Do sit straight in your chair, at least. ” Mrs. Highwood sighed and fanned harder. To Susanna, she said, “I despair of her, truly. This is why Diana must get well, you see. Can you imagine Minerva in Society?”
Susanna bit back a smile, all too easily imagining the scene. It would probably resemble her own debut. Like Minerva, she had been absorbed in unladylike pursuits, and the object of her female relations’ oft-voiced despair. At balls, she’d been that freckled Amazon in the corner, who would have been all too happy to blend into the wallpaper, if only her hair color would have allowed it.
As for the gentlemen she’d met . . . not a one of them had managed to sweep her off her feet. To be fair, none of them had tried very hard.
She shrugged off the awkward memories. That time was behind her now.
Mrs. Highwood’s gaze fell on a book at the corner of the table. “I am gratified to see you keep Mrs. Worthington close at hand. ”
“Oh yes,” Susanna replied, reaching for the blue, leather-bound tome. “You’ll find copies of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom scattered everywhere throughout the village. We find it a very useful book. ”
“Hear that, Minerva? You would do well to learn it by heart. ” When Minerva rolled her eyes, Mrs. Highwood said, “Charlotte, open it now. Read aloud the beginning of Chapter Twelve. ”
Charlotte reached for the book and opened it, then cleared her throat and read aloud in a dramatic voice. “ ‘Chapter Twelve. The perils of excessive education. A young lady’s intellect should be in all ways like her undergarments. Present, pristine, and imperceptible to the casual observer. ’ ”
Mrs. Highwood harrumphed. “Yes. Just so. Hear and believe it, Minerva. Hear and believe every word. As Miss Finch says, you will find that book very useful. ”
Susanna took a leisurely sip of tea, swallowing with it a bitter lump of indignation. She wasn’t an angry or resentful person, as a matter of course. But once provoked, her passions required formidable effort to conceal.
That book provoked her, no end.
Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom for Young Ladies was the bane of sensible girls the world over, crammed with insipid, damaging advice on every page. Susanna could have gleefully crushed its pages to powder with a mortar and pestle, labeled the vial with a skull and crossbones, and placed it on the highest shelf in her stillroom, right beside the dried foxglove leaves and deadly nightshade berries.
Instead, she’d made it her mission to remove as many copies as possible from circulation. A sort of quarantine. Former residents of the Queen’s Ruby sent the books from all corners of England. One couldn’t enter a room in Spindle Cove without finding a copy or three of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom. And just as Susanna had told Mrs. Highwood, they found the book very useful indeed. It was the perfect size for propping a window open. It also made an excellent doorstop or paperweight. Susanna used her personal copies for pressing herbs. Or occasionally, for target practice.
She motioned to Charlotte. “May I?” Taking the volume from the girl’s grip, she raised the book high. Then, with a brisk thwack, she used it to crush a bothersome gnat.