Authors: Karen Cogan
AN ARTFUL DECEPTION
Lady Katharine held her slender shoulders rigid. Her feet pressed into the floor of the coach as though she could stop it by the sheer effort of her will. She would stop it if she could and escape into the forest that lined the road. She would not mind the danger of being alone and unarmed. For fate had dealt her a cruel blow in forcing a decision between a man she had rejected, and one to whom she had not wished to be sent.
She glanced at her traveling companions and frowned. One was a silly young maid who was to remain as her companion. The other was a stogy, sour-faced, older woman who would return with Tom Coachman. They slept contentedly against the
comfortablecorner squabs. She was convinced that her uncle had chosen them because he knew she would find them disagreeable.
She blinked back tears that had been her constant companion during her moments alone. If Papá were still alive, Katherine would not be making this journey. Papá would not have forced her. But Papá was three weeks in the grave and her uncle, the Lord of Graynor had wasted no time reminding Katharine of the agreement made in her infancy that she should wed Lord Charlesworth when they came of age.
That day had come, and now, she was being sent for his approval. And Lord Graynor made it clear that if she either refused to go or returned home unwed, she would be forced in marriage to her cousin, Lord Graynor’s only son, Cedric, who had always been gaunt-faced and pale and had a penchant toward whining. He had been indulged by his father, with the result of his becoming the most loathsomely self-centered creature Katharine had ever met. His eyes were blue and cold and reminded her of the goldfish that swam in her father’s pond.
On the morning she had left, her uncle had said, “If Charlesworth does not find a girl with bright copper hair and eyes the green of a cat’s to be to his taste, you can return to us. I am sure Cedric would find you tolerable.”
He turned to his son, who gave her a leering smile that showed his two front teeth, stained and crooked, to ill advantage. He reached to run a clammy finger down her cheek and Katharine had jerked away, shivering as she turned her back to him. She had heard the giggle of her dissolute maid, Ginny, and her dislike for the young woman had solidified.
Now, as the coach jolted and the young maid stirred, Katharine stared at the girl and felt a resurgence of revulsion. Lord Graynor had begun pursuing the young maids as soon as he took residence when her father became ill. This empty-headed young woman had been particularly agreeable to his gifts and charm. And now, she had been sent along as a keeper and spy to make sure Katharine reached her destination.
The girl opened wide blue eyes and looked around. She pulled her shawl close around her, covering her thick blond hair and said, “My but it is cold today. I shall be ever so glad when we arrive.”
Katharine shot her a dour look that did not stem her chatter.
I know you do not think you shall like Lord Charlesworth, miss. But I bet he shall prove to be a charming young man. When did you say you last saw one another?”
We were children. Perhaps nine or ten years old. He was pudgy and rude and ill-tempered. He delighted in encouraging his dog to chase after a scrawny stable cat. I doubt that time has improved either his appearance or character.”
The girl sighed. “Even if that is so, I hear that he possesses an admirable estate. I am glad that I shall stay there with you. But I feel sorry for poor Lord Graynor. He did so wish for you to marry his son. I think he is lonely and wishes for a family.”
Katharine bit back an uncharitable reply regarding her maid’s relationship with Lord Graynor. She laid her head back and ignored the girl. Perhaps if she pretended to be asleep, she could avoid further conversation.
The coach gave a jolt along the rutted road causing Katharine to bump her head against the squab. Were it not for the lush padding, the headache she already possessed would have set up a worse pounding in her temples. The rains of yesterday had not only made travel uncomfortably warm but had washed cavernous channels in the roads.
Yet, in spite of the jouncing, fatigue overwhelmed her and her pretense of sleep drifted into deep dreamless slumber that was disturbed when the coach jolted to a stop. Her first thought was one of dismay that they had arrived at Fernridge Manor, home of her husband –to-be, should he approve of her. However, a glance out the coach window assured her that it was not yet dusk, only mid-day, and too early to have reached the manor. She realized it was merely a road-side stop for their noon meal at a small tavern in the local village which marked the midway point of their journey.
She felt her pulse slow with relief. The coachman assisted her down the step. She smoothed her skirt and surveyed the small inn. It was a quaint stone structure, ancient, with ivy covering all but the heavy oak door. The smell of ale, grease and spicy sausage drifted out of the open windows.
She preceded her dour traveling companion into the establishment. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the interior, she noticed the various social levels milling about. Well-attired travelers such as herself were interspersed amid the common villagers.
She and Mrs. Davis were escorted to a table near the window of the front parlor. For that, she was grateful. The soft breeze helped dispel the smell of unwashed bodies and the scent of onion and garlic that hung upon the stale air. She stared out the window to see Tom Coachman and the young maid round the building to seek their meal in the kitchen.
The proprietor appeared at their table. It appeared that he gave personal service to his better attired customers. He pushed back a lock of thinning dark hair from his moist forehead and grinned. The fact that he was missing his front teeth did not seem to discomfit him.
When he had taken their order, he scurried to the kitchen. With all his flutter of activity, Katharine could see why he looked to need one of his own sturdy meals.
He came back bearing pork pies and strong black tea. Katharine would have preferred a less heavy fare had it been available. Yet, she had no intention of arriving at the manor famished and weak. She would need all of her wit and strength if she were to outwit her loathsome fate. So determined, she dug into the pie.
The widow sipped her tea and made a face. She turned to the proprietor and snapped, “This is not fit for drinking. It’s thick as mud. Pour it out and bring me a decent cup of tea. And bring one for the lady, also. Would you be serving the future mistress of Fernridge manor tea unfit for a goat?”
The poor man paled and studied Katharine. “You are the miss who is to marry Lord Charlesworth? I had no idea. I am sorry about the tea.”
He wiped his hands on the front of his soiled apron. “I would never want to offend Lord Charlesworth’sfuture bride. I shall make fresh tea and bring it right away.”
He scooped up their cups. Katharine watched his short form disappear into the kitchen before she turned to her companion. “I wish you would not so readily announce my identity.”
And why is that, my lady? Your uncle instructed me to personally see you promptly wed. Why should the peasants not know of such settled plans?”
Katharine frowned, desiring with all of her heart to escape these settled plans. “Did you not notice that poor man’s fear at offending Lord Charlesworth’sbride? Surely the lord must be a most unpleasant man to inspire such trepidation.”
Nonsense. I am sure the man meant only to express his admiration. Either way, it matters little what the peasant thought.”
Katharine looked her companion squarely in the eye. “Indeed madam, I must disagree. It is the servants who are the best judge of the civility and character of those they serve.”
The widow did not reply as she dug into her pork pie. A flush of red crept up her neck, betraying her irk at being rebuked by the younger woman whose superior station kept the widow from delivering a caustic rebuttal.
They passed the meal in uncomfortable silence. When they rejoined the rest of their party, their reward for a miserable hour together was the resumption of their journey in a chilly coach. Since conversing with either woman in her party did nothing to raise Katharine’s spirits, she laid her head back and fell into an uneasy sleep that at least gave her respite from the knowledge that every mile brought her closer to her unwelcome fate.
The coach gave a jolt that roused Katharine from her sleep. The horses whinnied in panic and fought against their traces, causing the coach to bounce and jerk. Then, as though chased by demons, they abandoned the peaceful pace that had marked the trip thus far. They began to race wildly along the road, hooves pounding and flanks glistening with sweat. Driven by the terror that had begun their flight, they pulled the frightened occupants of the coach faster and faster.
Katharine glanced at the pale faces of her companions.
Ginny clutched at the widow Davis. Her eyes were wide with fright. “Why are we going so fast?”
The widow did not reply. Her lips were pressed into a thin pale line.
Katharine glanced out the window to see the ground speeding by at a dizzying pace. Though she had come fully awake, she felt as though she must still be dreaming. She clutched at her seat and tried to quell the nausea arising from the wild ride.
Ginny began to blubber, forming an answer to her own question. “It is highwaymen. I know it. We shall never outrun them. They will rob us and we will all be killed.”
The widow Davis’ pounded upon the roof and demanded that the coach be slowed. The only reply was the continued pounding of hooves upon the road.
Katharine could stand the suspense no longer. She leaned forward and grasped the door handle. She balanced herself as best she could, stood up and opened the door.
Mrs. Davies shrieked and grabbed at her legs. “Are you mad? Come back inside.”
Katharine peered over the door to look behind them. She found no one in pursuit. She was contemplating what to do next, when the coach veered wildly around a curve.
The force wrenched her hands off the door. She felt herself become airborne, ejected from the coach like a rag doll from its carriage. Ahead of her, the coach rolled off the road. The terrified screams of the women mixed with those of the horses as the wooden traces cracked and the coach tumbled down the gentle hill.
Katharine landed with a thud and rolled across the grass. Darkness claimed her before she could wonder what had become of her companions.
She had no idea how long she lay in the grass. She heard a man’s voice and squinted up as rough hands turned her over.
Miss, are you alright?”
A man’s face came into blurry view. She tried to think what had happened and why he was leaning over her. The sun was nearly set and she felt chilled by her cold, damp bed.
She tried to sit up and was instantly made sorry by a piercing pain in her left temple. She slumped back onto the grass. “What happened?”
Your coach turned over. Looks like you spilled out.”
Katharine tried to think back. She had a vague memory of women screaming. She closed her eyes. The effort of thinking made her head hurt worse.
I do not remember much,” she admitted.