Authors: Amanda McCabe
“You look as if you could use a whiskey, lad,” the innkeeper called from the taproom.
Philip laughed. Whiskey had helped get him here in the first place. Maybe just a little more could help him see a way out again.
“Indeed I think I could,” he said, and made his way to sit down at the bar.
“I am terribly sorry, Captain Whitney, but I fear I do not know where my friend Miss Harding could have gone. Her uncle the admiral has said she returned to Bath, though I did think it most odd that she would leave without talking to me.”Mrs. Smythe held up her gilded teapot with a simpering smile. “More tea?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Smythe. You are very kind.” Captain Bartholomew Whitney smiled affably at the silly Mrs. Smythe, even though inside he could feel his temper kindling. He had come so far to find Melanie Harding, all the way to this dismal little village, only to find she had already flown away.
How could she have escaped him already? And just when he discovered she had an uncle who might be a wealthy admiral?
“I must say I am most disappointed to hear I cannot see dear Miss Harding,” he said. “We were such friends in Bath. Yet it seems even her uncle does not know what has really become of her.”
He took an obligatory sip of the insipid tea as Mrs. Smythe fluttered her handkerchief at him.
yes, that was one way to put it. When he had kissed Melanie behind a screen at the assembly rooms, he’d only been looking for a diversion during a dull time in the watering place before his regiment was posted elsewhere. She was pretty enough, and her smile flirtatious as they danced.
But that kiss—ah, it had been most surprising. The young Miss Harding had depths of passion and need in her that were most attractive indeed. Addictive, even. Captain Whitney was a man who liked to control his women, and a woman of spirit was the greatest challenge of all. Surely she was made for him, made to be tamed by him in bed. She seemed quite sure to soon be his mistress, to be
as she was meant to be. But then the silly girl, or rather her mother, had discovered his betrothal to Miss Banbury, and Melanie had pushed him away, sobbing and shouting. The next thing he knew she was gone from Bath.
What did she expect? That he would marry
Miss Banbury had twenty thousand pounds, and Miss Harding not a farthing. At least so he had thought until he discovered her connection to Admiral Harding. But that didn’t mean she could not be Captain Whitney’s mistress, in the bedchamber where she belonged.
He did not like to be thwarted. At all. Especially not by a chit like Melanie Harding. He was going to find her, and make her his. Make her sorry she’d left him. Then she would know her place.
He took another sip of tea and smiled at Mrs. Smythe. “I understand you are great friends with Miss Harding. Or so the lady working at the bookshop tells me.”
“We are such dear friends. It has been a long time since I had someone to talk to like that.” Mrs. Smythe sighed and laid her hand over the swell of her belly. Above their heads there was a crash as her two energetic sons dashed around the upstairs floor. She didn’t seem to notice. “I do hope she will come back one day soon.”
“She was not here very long.”
“No. Her uncle the admiral, while certainly a respectable man, was no fit home for a lively young lady, I fear. I knew she would not stay long.” Mrs. Smythe giggled. “I do wonder she didn’t go back to Bath, with such friends as you waiting for her there!”
Captain Whitney gave a regretful smile. “Alas, I fear I did not fully appreciate such a treasure as her friendship until it was gone. But I hope to remedy that now, if I can only find her. Are you quite certain, Mrs. Smythe, you have no idea at all of her whereabouts?”
Her smile faded. She put down her teacup and gave him an uncertain glance. He tried to encourage her with a smile tinged with just the right amount of romantic sadness.
“Well,” Mrs. Smythe said nervously. “She did have a new friend, Mr. Philip Carrington, who is also now gone from the village. He was very charming, a relative of my own sister-in-law. And quite well-off, I believe. He mostly lives on the Continent. He seemed to like Miss Harding a great deal indeed….”
Captain Whitney felt fury catch at his heart, white-hot, flaming beyond his control. Melanie had already found another admirer? How could she? The little whore.
But he had much experience hiding his true feelings. He pushed down his anger and smiled at Mrs. Smythe, carefully putting down his cup before it could snap in his hand. “And this Mr. Carrington disappeared at the same time as Miss Harding?”
Mrs. Smythe’s brow creased. “It was certainly most odd. She had said little to me about him, except that she found him handsome.”
“Perhaps you could tell me more about Miss Harding’s stay here, Mrs. Smythe. Everything you know.”
“Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll get to Scotland afore ye! But me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond…”
Melanie laughed and took another drink of ale as she listened to the song. It was a rough, strong brew, much like the crowd at the inn’s taproom. As evening gathered over the village, darkness closed in at the windows. The only light now was from smoking, guttering candles set on the rickety tables and the long, sticky stone bar.
It seemed like the whole neighborhood was gathered there after their work was done for the day, and when Melanie ventured down in search of Philip and some dinner, they’d welcomed her as if she were their long-lost sister.
At first she felt strangely shy, but the music and fun of the evening quickly overcame that, and she became engrossed in learning their Scottish songs, joining in their laughter.
The sound grew louder and louder, wrapping around her, rising to the smoke-encrusted beams of the low, whitewashed ceiling. The musicians in the corner, a small collection of drums, fiddles and pipes, played wherever the crowd led. A few couples even danced, twirling between the tables.
Melanie couldn’t remember when she had last had such fun. Not in her uncle’s house, certainly. Not even in Bath, where there were assemblies and card parties. There was much dancing in Bath, of course, but of the carefully chaperoned, precisely regimented sort.
This made her want to laugh and twirl, to revel in the feeling of being free at last! When she danced she had no worries that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t deserve fine things in life. When she danced, nothing else mattered.
She only wished Philip would join in the fun with her. Then it would all be perfect.
She studied him over the edge of her tankard. He stood by the bar, where he had gone to order her some supper and watched the crowded room with lazy, unreadable eyes, lightly tapping his fingertips on the stone.
He’d been polite when she appeared; he found her a seat, made sure she had ale. Yet he was so…distant. She started to think she had only imagined that fiery kiss in the carriage.
Then he turned and caught her staring. He smiled, a knowing, sensual grin that told her he
what she was thinking. That he remembered, too. It made her face turn hot, made her want to grab him and pull him close to her so he could kiss her again.
She quickly turned away and took a deep gulp of ale. It was not at all like the watered wine she was used to; it made her head swim.
“Having a good time, Mel?” Philip said, sliding onto the bench next to her. She could feel the warmth of his body reaching out as if to caress her, and she had to force herself not to move away.
“I like it here very much. It’s so—so full of life,” she said, trying to get back the feeling of being swept away on the tide of music and laughter. But now all she could see, all she knew, was him. “It’s been too long since I heard such music.”
Philip reached over and took her hand. He turned it over on his palm, studying the curve of her wrist, her fingers. She stared, fascinated and speechless, as he raised it to his lips for a warm, soft kiss. It was a swift, fleeting caress, but it suddenly made the evening even lighter. Even more exciting.
“An adventure, eh?” he said. He gave her another lazy smile, and she wished she knew what he was thinking. What he saw when he looked at her.
“Perhaps not much of one to you, but I have been trapped in respectable quiet for much too long,” she said. She ran her fingertips lightly over his wrist, feeling the heat of his skin under her touch. “I do like it here. I’m glad you brought me on this adventure, Philip.”
She only hoped
was not sorry.
“Will you think that later, pretty Melanie?” he said, a stark hint of bitterness in his voice.
Before Melanie could answer, he suddenly wrapped his fingers around the nape of her neck, dislodging some of the pins in her hair. He drew her closer to him and kissed her. Despite the quickness of his movement, the sudden hunger of it, his lips were gentle on hers, as if he gave her time to push him away.
But she couldn’t leave. She only wanted him to be closer, to forget everything in the delight that overcame her with his touch.
She leaned toward him, opening her mouth under his.
He groaned. His fingers tightened in her hair, and his kiss turned hotter, hungrier. He tipped her head back, and she reached up to hold his face between her hands, half-afraid he would slip away from her and she would lose the way he made her feel.
Suddenly, there was the clattering noise of a plate landing on the table, and Melanie sprang back from Philip. Her face flamed even hotter as she remembered where they were, the crowded room, the music. Philip Carrington truly did make her forget everything else.
She peeked up to find the innkeeper’s wife smiling at her.
“Ah, young love,” she said, reaching out to give Melanie’s cheek an understanding pat. “We see it all the time here, don’t we lads?”
Philip sat back on the bench, but he didn’t leave her entirely. His arm lay lightly around her shoulders. “Forgive us for forgetting ourselves.”
“Never you mind that,” the landlady said. “We know why you’re here, to be sure.”
Melanie’s thoughts raced. Why
she there? She could hardly remember. Maybe she had never known, but now that kiss had driven all other thoughts out of her head. “Why is that?”
The woman laughed, her plump cheeks glowing pink. “Why else does anyone come over the border so quick-like? To marry, of course! Maybe you have a disapproving guardian chasing you?”
“The blacksmith’s shop is open all night,” the innkeeper called from behind the bar. “Why don’t we take you there after you have your supper? ’Tis been too long since I got to give away a bride!”
Melanie’s heart pounded like a drumbeat in her ears. But wasn’t that what she wanted? What she had secretly wished for, deep down inside, when they came to Scotland together?
She was so confused. Yes, she did want Philip. But only if he wanted her, too. She had made so many mistakes in the past, and this was surely her greatest one. But would marrying make it better—or worse?
She glanced toward Philip, hoping to see some magical answer in his eyes. Some clue as to what she should do next. But his glorious blue eyes were just as unreadable as ever. He gave her one of his lazy smiles, his chin propped on his palm as he studied her.
“Why not?” he said. “We’ve come this far, after all. What do you think, Mel? Care to get married over the anvil?”
It was hardly the most romantic proposal a girl could ever dream of, with moonlight and flowers and jeweled rings. But to her, those words sounded so sweet. Especially after Captain Whitney’s contemptuous laughter, his derisive words about how she wasn’t a worthy wife…
Melanie pushed away the old hurt of disillusionment, and drank down the last of her ale. Captain Whitney was in the past. Philip Carrington, a better man in every way, was here now. Perhaps he was not the ideal husband, but he was handsome, fun and willing to wed her right now. She knew she had to take what she could get. Philip was right—they had come too far to turn back.
“I say I am assuredly in the mood for a wedding,” she said, and the room around her erupted in cheers.
Philip’s smile widened, and he leaned over to kiss her again. The touch of his warm lips reassured her. Surely this was fate, this whole strange scene. Surely this was meant to be….
“…and do you take this man as your wedded husband? Will you….”
Philip studied the woman who stood beside him at the makeshift altar. Melanie’s golden head was bent, and he had only a glimpse of her expression. Usually, he only saw her laughing, her passionate curiosity for life lighting up her delicate features, making her eyes glow. Now she looked most solemn as she listened to the Gretna officiant. Solemn, and—startled?
Surely she was just as amazed as he was to find themselves there. Her hand shook in his. Would she flee and break this strange dream-trance?
Philip closed his eyes for a second to see a vision of Melanie doing just that. Melanie running out the door into the night, the pale skirts of her gown vanishing into the darkness.
Surely he should feel relieved if she
flee. He’d always been so sure he would never find himself in the parson’s mousetrap. Instead, he found his hand tightening on hers, as if he would hold her with him.
Very strange indeed.
Melanie glanced up at him, and at last she smiled. “I will,” she said, softly but firmly.
Philip remembered why he had brought her here, so impulsively. Why he had decided to marry her.
When they kissed over the supper table at the inn, their need for each other so strong they didn’t care where they were or who might see, he’d realized that here at last was someone who could understand him.
After his father’s death, his mother’s sending him away and then his cousin Henry’s false friendship, after all the glittering falseness he’d found on his travels, Melanie seemed
She shared his impulsive nature, his wanderlust, his carelessness. Perhaps they could explore life together.
Perhaps, just perhaps, neither of them had to be alone now. Philip dared to do something he had never done before. Hope.
“Ach, lad, do ye or do ye not?” someone cried.
Melanie’s smile dimmed a bit, and Philip realized he had just been asked a very important question.
He smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “I will.”
Melanie laughed, making him laugh, too. He only ever wanted her to laugh from now on. The crowd around them cheered.
Philip slipped a newly purchased gold band on Melanie’s finger, and it was done. She was his wife—for better or worse.