Miss Lucinda Faire was eloping with the man of her dreams. Captain Leon Anders was abducting one of Derby’s leading heiresses. Obviously, this was not a marriage of true minds.
Lucinda’s first inkling that her dreams were about to be shattered came when the handsome officer ignored her company in the hired coach in favor of the silver flask he pulled from his scarlet coat. Not only was Leon drinking in front of a lady, but he had not thought to provide his beloved with anything to ward off the morning chill in the damp, drafty carriage. Having crept from her house before first light, Lucinda naturally hadn’t broken her fast. She would not complain, though, lest dear Leon think her the peagoose she undoubtedly was for not even saving a roll from her dinner to carry along the way. Of course a kind word from dear Leon would have warmed her to the core, the way his sweet whispers always did in their stolen moments together. He must be too concerned with their flight to Gretna, she excused him, or perhaps all gentlemen were that cranky in the morning. Heaven knew her father was.
Lucinda settled back in her corner of the coach, a smile on her lips, prepared to enjoy every moment of the grandest adventure of her seventeen years. No, she amended, this was the only adventure in her seventeen constricted, confined, and uncompromisingly correct years. Her parents had seen to that, the same way they were seeing to her marriage to Lord Halbersham, an ancient, curmudgeonly neighbor who spouted piety while his servants went cold and hungry.
Which reminded Lucinda of her present discomfort. “Leon, do you think we might stop soon to refresh ourselves? Perhaps at the next change?”
“What, are your attics to let?” her beloved growled. “Do you want your father to find us before nightfall?”
Well, no, but she couldn’t help thinking that ten minutes spent sipping a cup of hot tea and ordering warm bricks for their feet would not make that much difference. Her father wouldn’t even think to look for Lucinda until she did not arrive promptly for the noon meal, so sure was he that she’d be at her chores or practicing the harp. She drew her serviceable gray wool cloak more snugly about herself and studied her adored Captain Anders.
For once the sight of her soon-to-be-spouse did not send chills down Lucinda’s spine. Perhaps that was because there were already so many chills down her spine and elsewhere, one more couldn’t be noticed. Or perhaps the dark stubble on his jaw and the bloodshot cast to his eyes lent him an unfamiliar, harsh look. Lucinda was only used to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Adonis who had stolen her heart that day at the haberdasher’s when he smiled just for her, plain little Lucinda Faire.
Leon was not smiling now, nor when they finally stopped to change the horses close to midday, and Lucinda made to follow him from the coach into the posting house.
“Get back in there, you nodcock,” he snapped, looking over his shoulder at the busy inn yard. “Do you want to chance being recognized this close to your home? One more red-coated soldier won’t draw anyone’s attention, but think of your father coming to ask after a blondish chit in a gray cloak, for pity’s sake.” Lucinda’s hazel eyes had grown wide in her face at his abrupt speech, so Captain Anders drew his gloved hand down the side of her cheek. “Hush now, sweetings. I’ll bring back a nuncheon fit for a princess. My own princess.” That won him back a weak smile, so he shut the door behind him, adding, “I am only thinking of your reputation.”
Then why hadn’t he pulled the window shades? Lucinda could not help wondering. And worrying about her reputation in the middle of a scandalous elopement seemed just a tad hypocritical. She tried her best to bury such disloyal thoughts. Dear Leon was simply as nervous and anxious as she was. This eloping business was not nearly as romantical as she’d imagined.
Captain Anders must have refilled his flask at the inn, for he kept sipping at it during the long afternoon, slouched in his corner across from her. As the bricks at her feet cooled off, Lucinda stared at the bleak, wintry countryside rather than at the reddening, scowling face of her beloved. Finally she fell asleep, huddled in her cape.
“Wake up, Lucinda.” Leon was shaking her shoulder none too gently. “We’re at the inn where we’ll spend the night.”
Lucinda shook her head to clear her mind, dislodging a pale curl or two. “But…but it’s still light out. We can travel for another hour at least and gain that many miles on my father’s pursuit.”
“These horses are tired and the driver says there is not another suitable inn for hours more. We’d be forced to put up at a hedgerow tavern or some such.”
“But that means we’ll be two nights on the road, not one, without even a maid to chaperone. You were so concerned about my reputation at luncheon, what—”
“I said this is where we’ll stay, dash it. Don’t argue, you plaguey chit. Now, get down, and fix your hair. You look like a schoolgirl.”
Stunned and still sleep-fuddled, Lucinda could only stumble after him. He took her arm as they passed the innkeeper, smiled as the man bowed, and hustled her up the stairs.
“There was only the one room, so I said we were man and wife. Less explaining that way, anywise.”
“But I cannot share the room with you!”
He ignored her squawked protest. “Less expense, too. I ain’t made of brass, you know. How much blunt did you bring along anyway?”
Lucinda reached into her reticule. “Just what’s left from my pocket money. You know Father does not give me an allowance or anything.” She held out a handful of coins. “Will it be enough for another room?”
He took the coins. “We’re on our way to Gretna, blast it, so stop being so deuced missish. I can’t abide a prosy female.”
“Leon, I…I think you may have had too much to drink.”
“And what would you know about it, Miss Prunes-and-Prisms? Oh, go take your cloak off and sit down. The innkeep promised dinner soon. Try to act like a starry-eyed bride and not some frightened fawn, or he’ll throw us out.” The captain shrugged out of his uniform coat without a by-your-leave and tossed it onto the bed before sprawling into the room’s only comfortable-looking chair.
Lucinda picked up the scarlet jacket and hung it in the clothespress with her cloak. At least the room appeared clean, boasting a linen-laid table, chairs, and even a vase of flowers on the stone mantelpiece. Best of all, there was a sofa near the fireplace. A sofa that looked too short for Leon’s tall frame, she noted with a twinge of satisfaction, thinking of the uncomfortable night he’d have in store.
Once again Lucinda’s and the captain’s thoughts were not marching in step.
“You’re going to sleep where?” she gasped after dinner when he’d made his plans evident. “Not on your life!”
“Come on now, sweetings. What can a night or two matter?” He was holding her in his arms, stroking her back, whispering in her ear.
Perhaps a night or two in anticipation of their vows was not such a big thing after all, Lucinda was starting to think, when the captain kissed her. His mouth was wet and cold, and smelled of wine and brandy. It mattered. A lot. He was holding her so tightly she felt suffocated. She pushed him away. “No,” she declared, shoving him away again when he dragged her back into his embrace and started drooling wet kisses on her neck. For a girl’s first experience at lovemaking, this left something to be desired. Not only did her hero seem to have feet of clay, but those feet were set in quicksand.