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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical

Fair Juno (6 page)

BOOK: Fair Juno
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They journeyed on in silence. Martin pondered how to broach the subject of her name; Helen pondered him. He was, without doubt, the most attractive man she had ever met. It was not just his physical attributes, though there was no fault to be found with those. Neither could his manners, polished and assured though they were, account for the effect. It was, she decided, something far more fundamental, like the raspy growl of his deep voice and the fire banked like coals in the smoky grey eyes.

‘Do you spend much of your year in the country, fair maid?’

The question jolted Helen back to reality. ‘I often visit at—’ She broke off, then continued smoothly, ‘At friends’ houses.’

‘Ah.’

The quality of the glance that rested fleetingly upon her face confirmed her suspicion. He was trying to learn more of her.

‘So you spend most of your year in London?’

‘Other than my visits.’

Conversation rapidly degenerated to a game of quiz and
answer, he trying to glean snippets of information, she trying to avoid revealing any identifying fact while politely answering all his queries.

‘Do you attend the opera?’

‘During the season.’

‘In friends’ boxes?’

Helen threw him a haughty look. ‘I have my own box.’

‘Then no doubt I’ll see you there.’ Martin smiled, pleased to have scored a hit.

Realising her slip, Helen had no choice but to be gracious. She inclined her head. ‘Countess Lieven often joins me. I’m sure she’ll be only too pleased to meet you.’

‘Oh.’ Stymied by the mention of the most censorious of the patronesses of Almack’s, Martin looked suitably chagrined. Then his brow cleared. ‘A capital notion. I can sue for permission to waltz in Almack’s. With you.’

At the thought, Helen had to laugh. The vision of Martin Willesden stalking the hallowed boards, an eagle among the lambs, setting all the mother ewes in a flap, was intensely appealing.

It was Martin’s turn to look haughty. ‘Do you think I won’t?’

Abruptly, Helen found herself drowning in smouldering grey, warmed and shaken to the core. Dragging her eyes from his, she looked ahead. ‘I…hadn’t imagined you would be attracted to the mild entertainments of the Marriage Mart.’

‘I’m not. Only the promise of all manner of earthly pleasures could get me over its threshold.’

Helen was not game to try to cap that. She rapidly became absorbed in the scenery.

A slow smile curved Martin’s lips before he gave his attention to his horses. He could not recall ever enjoying thirty minutes of conversation with a female half as much. In fact, he could not recall any other woman he had ever favoured with half an hour of verbal discourse. Fair Juno was a novelty, her mind quick and adroit. Innocent though the information he had gained was, it confirmed his suspicion that she had attained a position in the
ton
normally reserved for older matrons. Or widows.

At the thought, he let his eyes roam in leisurely appraisal over the curvaceous form beside him. She felt his gaze and glanced up, a slightly nervous smile hovering on her rosy lips.

Helen saw the predatory gleam in the grey eyes and accurately read their message. Dragging her dignity about her, the only protection she possessed, she arched one brow in spirited defence, perfectly ready to continue their banter. But the reprobate by her side merely smiled in a thoroughly seductive way and gave his attention to his horses. Helen transferred her gaze to the scenery, her lips irrepressively curving in appreciation. Conversing with a rake while free of the normal strictures, protected from any physical consequences
by the fact he had both hands full of high-tempered horseflesh, was every bit as scandalously exciting as she had ever, as a green girl, imagined it would be. It was all deliciously dangerous but, in this case, completely safe. She had realised as much some miles back. It was a game that, in this particular instance, she could play with impunity. She was in his care and, instinctively, she knew he would honour that charge. While she remained under his protection, she was safe from him.

Heaven help her later.

But, of course, there would be no later. Helen stifled a sigh as reality intruded, impossible to deny. The future, for them both, was fixed. When he reached London, he would be the focus of the matchmaking mamas—with good reason. He was titled, wealthy and hideously handsome to boot. Their darling daughters would make cakes of themselves trying to catch his grey eyes. And, inevitably, he would choose one of them as his wife. Some well-dowered, biddable miss with an immaculate reputation. A widow, with no pretensions to property, with a murky marriage to a social outcast behind her and nothing more than her connections to recommend her, was a poor bargain.

Inwardly, Helen shook herself. Reality began in London. There was no need to cloud her day of adventure with such dismal forebodings. She tried to force the image of Martin Willesden paying court to a sweet young thing from her
mind. In truth, the tableau was somewhat hazy. It was hard to believe that a man of his tastes, as demonstrated by their dalliance of the past half-hour, would settle to marriage with a sweet young thing. Doubtless, he would be the sort who kept a mistress or two on the side. Well, who was she to complain? Her husband had done the same, with her blessing. Not that her blessing would have been forthcoming had Martin Willesden been her husband.

With a determined effort, Helen redirected her thoughts. He wanted to know her name. She could tell him, but her anonymity was a comforting sop to her conscience. Besides which, when he reached London and learned who she was, he would realise such a connection was unsuitable, for no one would ever believe it innocent. If she refused to tell him her name, he would not feel obliged to acknowledge her when he met her again. Then, too, many men felt widows were fair game and she would hate him to consider her a potential candidate for his extramarital vacancy. All in all, she decided, he did not need to know her name.

Martin wondered what thoughts held his goddess so silent. But the peace of the morning was soothing about them and he made no move to interrupt her reverie. Despite not knowing her name, he felt confident of finding her in the capital. London might be the teeming hub of the nation, but its hallowed halls were trod by few. A gold and ivory goddess would be easy to trace.

The road widened then dipped. A ford lay ahead. Engrossed in contemplation of the predictable delights of waltzing with fair Juno, Martin automatically checked his pair, then sent them into the shallow water at a smart trot.

The horses’ hooves clopped on the gravelly surface of the opposite bank; they slowed, then leaned into the traces and strained. The carriage wheels stuck fast, rocking the occupants of the box seat to full awareness of their predicament.

Helen clutched the side of the seat, then turned a wide-eyed look on her rescuer as a muttered expletive was belatedly smothered.

Martin shut his eyes in frustration. He had forgotten that minor fords were often not paved. The heavy rain had washed silt into the ford; his wheels felt as if they were six inches deep.

With a heavy sigh, he opened his eyes. ‘We’re stuck.’

Helen glanced around at the swiftly moving stream. ‘So we are,’ she agreed helpfully.

Martin cast her a warning look. She met it with unlikely innocence. Grimacing, he lifted his gaze to scan their surroundings. About them, the silence of woods and fields lay unbroken by human discord. No smoke rose above the trees to give hint of a nearby cottage. Memory suggested they were still some miles from the London road.

With a groan, Martin shortened the reins. ‘I’ll have to get down and find some stones. Can you hold them, do you think?’

A mischievous grin lit Helen’s face. ‘I was under the impression that no out-and-outer would ever entrust his cattle to a mere woman.’

Martin grimaced. ‘
Touché
. I wouldn’t—except that I wouldn’t give a farthing for their behaviour if I simply tied the reins to the rail. The devils would sense the absence of a master and they’d be off as soon as the stones were in place.’ He glanced down into the large green eyes. ‘All they need is a light touch on the reins for reassurance—and you seem to know your way about horses.’

Helen reached for the reins. ‘I do. But if you spook them by throwing stones, I’ll drive off and leave you to your fate. So be warned!’

Martin laughed at her melodramatic tone and relinquished the reins. He stood carefully and removed his coat, placing it over the seat before jumping down from the carriage. The water covered his ankles. With an inward sigh for his gleaming Hessians, he splashed to the bank and cast about for stones to place beneath and before the wheels.

Helen watched, the reins held gently in both hands. Every now and then, she felt a tug as the horses lived up to their owner’s expectations and tested their freedom. They were clearly unhappy to be standing stock-still, half in and half out of the stream, rather than stretching their legs along the highway. As the minutes ticked by, Helen became infected with their impatience. Martin had to go further and further
afield to find stones to lay in the mud before the wheels. She had no idea of the time, but thought it close to noon. How far were they from London?

Then her reckless self emerged and shouldered aside her worries. This was adventure and in adventure important things took care of themselves. Things would turn out all right; she need not concern herself—fate was in charge.

Determinedly light-hearted, she started to hum, then, as Martin had disappeared upstream, lifted her voice in the refrain from an old country air.

Martin heard the lilting melody as he returned with yet more rocks. He paused for a moment, out of sight, and let her gentle contralto wash over him, waves of song lapping his consciousness. The sound was close to a caress. With a chuckle, Martin moved forward. A siren’s song, no less.

She checked when she saw him, but when he raised one brow in question she raised one back and, tilting her chin, resumed her song.

With a broad smile, Martin settled the stones he carried to best effect and headed back for more. In truth, he found fair Juno’s fortitude somewhat remarkable, he who would have sworn he knew all there was to know of women. But this woman had not whined at the delay, nor raised peevish quibbles about the consequences. Consequences neither he nor she could do anything to avoid. Had she realised yet?

An interesting question. Yet, he reflected, fair Juno was no one’s fool.

Three more trips and there were enough rocks to attempt to break free of the cloying mud. Hands on hips, Martin stood by the side of the carriage and looked up at his assistant. ‘I’ll have to push the carriage from behind. Do you think you can hold them, once they gain the bank?’

A look of supercilious condescension was bestowed upon him. ‘Of course,’ Helen said, then deserted the high ground to ask, ‘Do you think they’ll bolt?’

With a half-smile, Martin shook his head. ‘Not if you keep the reins short.’ He moved to the back of the curricle, praying that that was so. ‘When I say so, give ’em the office.’

On her mettle, Helen obediently waited for his call before clicking the reins. The horses heaved, the curricle slowly edged forward. Then the wheels gained firm purchase and the carriage abruptly left the water. The horses pulled hard. Suppressing her sudden fear, stirred to life by the strength of the great beasts sensed through the reins, she determinedly hauled back, struggling to hold them. She applied the brake to lock the wheels, and the carriage skidded slightly.

Then Martin was beside her, taking the reins from her suddenly weak fingers.

‘Good girl!’

The approval in his voice warmed her; the glow in his
eyes raised her temperature even more. To her annoyance, Helen felt herself blushing. An odd sensation of weakness, not quite faintness but surely an allied affliction, bloomed within. She shifted along the seat, making room for him, supremely conscious of the large body when it settled once more by her side.

To her relief, Martin seemed content to resume their journey without further delay, leaving her to the task of shackling her wayward thoughts. Never before had they been so astray. And, if she was any judge at all of the matter, Martin Willesden was the type of man who could sense a wayward feminine thought at ten paces. Her present safety might be ensured, but she did not need to lay snares for her future.

Having learned his lesson somewhat belatedly, Martin devoted as much of his attention as he could summon to driving. The London road was gained without further mishap. Soon, they were bowling along at a spanking pace. Even so, it was past two o’clock when, accepting the inevitable, Martin checked and turned into the yard of the Frog and Duck at Wincanton.

He turned to smile into Juno’s questioning eyes. ‘Lunch. I’m famished, even if, being a fashionable woman, you are not.’

Helen’s eyes widened slightly. ‘I’m not that fashionable.’

Martin laughed and jumped down. He reached up to lift
fair Juno to the ground, noting her slight hesitation before, without fuss, she drew nearer and let him grasp her waist.

Flustered again but determined not to show it, Helen accepted Martin’s proffered arm. He led her up the steps to the inn door, then stood aside to allow her to enter. As she did so, the head groom, having laid eyes on the horses his ostlers had taken in charge, came hurrying to ask Martin’s orders.

Alone, Helen crossed the threshold, thankful for the cool dimness within. She was feeling unduly warm. The door gave directly on to the taproom, a large chamber, low-ceilinged and cosy with a huge fireplace at one end. Alerted by the noise outside, the landlord was coming forward from his domain on the other side of the room. Seeing her, he stopped. And stared. Helen became aware that all the other occupants of the tap, six in all and all male, were likewise transfixed. Then, to her discomfort, a leering grin suffused the landlord’s face. Faint echoes appeared on his patrons’ faces, too.

Simultaneously realising what a sight she must present, and the likely conclusion the landlord had drawn, Helen drew herself up, ready to defend her status.

BOOK: Fair Juno
5.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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