A Rogue’s Autumn Bride by Lana Williams

Chapter One

 

London, England, August 1818

 

Sarah Ramsey eyed the crowd milling about The Swan Inn with no small measure of trepidation. Crowds made her anxious. But this mail coach stop in Lad Lane near Cheapside, where she’d come to meet an acquaintance, made her even more so. This was where her path to disaster had begun.

Perhaps that wasn’t quite true. That particular path had started long before she’d left her small village for London nearly two years ago. Her impetuous behavior had landed her in one predicament after another, all rather minor compared to the traumatic events soon after she arrived in the city.

A shiver ran along her skin despite the warm weather as she looked about, wishing she could advise her younger self. If the headstrong, naive young woman had realized what was to come...

No. Sarah refused to dwell on the past. Regret served no purpose. In truth, she was very lucky to have been rescued before she lost everything rather than only her reputation and hope for a bright future.

She whispered a prayer of thanks then patted her modest straw chip bonnet that concealed a tight chignon before adjusting the spectacles she now wore. Her simple grey muslin gown and matching shawl made her easy to overlook.

At least, that was her hope.

Her appearance was a reminder that she had changed, inside and out. She was no longer the bold girl anxious to gain attention. As the only child of parents who’d had her late in life and never seemed to know quite what to do with her, she’d wanted more.

Now she was a cautious woman focused on her position as a companion to the Marchioness of Whirlenhall. Nothing more.

“Hopefully the coach is on time,” Sarah murmured to Millie, the maid who’d accompanied her.

“They usually are, miss,” Millie advised.

There was no reason to be nervous since it was the middle of the afternoon and numerous people were about. Besides, she was wiser now and better understood the dangers the bustling city held.

With a lift of her chin and a reminder of her purpose, Sarah read the route name painted on the boot of the black and red coach nearby then moved to the next to continue her search. She’d come to meet a young lady from her village and make certain that what had happened to Sarah wouldn’t happen to her.

Each conveyance had a driver, a guard, four passengers who travelled inside, and two who rode outside. Numerous family members or acquaintances were there to see them off or greet them, depending on the situation, resulting in a rather large throng roaming near the inn.

Sarah didn’t know Anne Hunter well, but they’d both grown up in Bromyard in Herefordshire. Anne, two years younger than Sarah’s two and twenty, had written to Sarah, advising that she intended to seek employment in the city, and asked if Sarah could offer any recommendations.

Did Anne know the truth? Had Sarah’s mother shared how her arrival in London had resulted in disaster, just as the dour woman had predicted? Perhaps she shouldn’t have written to her mother to share the details of what had happened. It seemed as if she would never forgive Sarah no matter that the circumstances hadn’t been her fault.

Sarah bit her lip. That wasn’t completely true. If she hadn’t been so impetuous and headstrong, she would’ve heeded the advice of Beatrice, a friend, when she’d told her not to use a certain servant registry office. But Sarah had been sure her experience would be different than her friend’s. That she was different.

She gave herself a mental shake and paused to focus on her surroundings. Now wasn’t the time to think of the past. It wouldn’t do to become distracted and allow something untoward to occur. Again.

The weather was fine with as blue a sky as was possible for London. The summer had been unseasonably dry and warm, something Sarah appreciated.

As a companion for the Marchioness of Whirlenhall, Sarah spent most of her days indoors, assisting with correspondence, organizing engagements, and other tasks. She enjoyed the occasional outing with Lady Whirlenhall and counted herself lucky to have the position. If a longing for more filled her, she need only remind herself of the near-miss she’d had and how terrible her life might’ve been if she hadn’t escaped that path.

A bump on her shoulder caused her to stiffen. She’d allowed herself to become distracted once again. Would she never learn?

“Excuse me, miss.” A rough male voice apologized, though Sarah realized she’d unwittingly stepped into the middle-aged man’s way.

“Pardon me.” She shifted closer to the row of coaches and watched him pass, giving her nerves a moment to settle.

A glance at Millie suggested the maid hadn’t found anything over which to be concerned which further reassured her. Sarah continued forward until she reached a coach that noted the Oxford and Worcester route on the boot.

Her timing was perfect as the passengers in the mail coach were just alighting. First came a heavyset woman with a young child to whom she held tight as if worried the little boy might escape. Then a man, who appeared to be a merchant of some sort based on his modest brown suit, emerged. At last, Anne exited, clutching a reticule and looking about in wonder at the bustling activity of the area.

Sarah well remembered her own awe upon her arrival. Everyone had been in a hurry, just as they were today. Carts piled high with goods rumbled past. Carriages painted in glossy black with fine horses maneuvered down the street along with hackneys and single riders, all seemingly anxious to reach their destination. The energy of London was undeniable, if overwhelming, to those accustomed to the quiet life of a small village.

“Miss Hunter,” Sarah called before curiosity took the young lady too far away.

“Oh, Miss Ramsey.” Anne’s warm smile held a hint of relief. “I’m so pleased to see you.”

“How was your journey?” Sarah asked though she could see the poor dear looked exhausted.

Shadows marked her blue eyes and a few strands of pale hair had come loose from under her bonnet to hang in her face. Her striped muslin was dusty and wrinkled as was to be expected. The benches in the mail coach were small and, depending on the size and shape of one’s fellow passengers, often made for an uncomfortable trip. The stops along the route were brief, only long enough for the horses to be changed, which took little over a quarter of an hour, hardly enough time to stretch one’s legs.

“Long. Tiring.” Yet her smile broadened. “Until we reached the city, that is. Then I could hardly contain myself with all there was—is—to see.” She glanced about as she spoke as if intent on soaking in everything at once.

Sarah wasn’t so jaded that she didn’t appreciate Anne’s enthusiasm. There was much to admire about London, but an equal amount of which to be wary.

“Perhaps we should get your bag.” Sarah decided against mentioning that it was important to do so before someone helped themselves to it.

“Of course.” Anne moved to where the coachman was unloading luggage and hefted a rather large portmanteau in both hands before returning to Sarah’s side. “I’m pleased I won’t have to carry this too far. Or will I?” Her brow wrinkled as she looked at Sarah then at Millie.

“A hackney is waiting for us just around the corner.” Sarah gestured to where she’d asked the driver to wait.

Lady Whirlenhall had been gracious enough to allow Sarah time off to meet Miss Hunter. The lady was more than generous to Sarah both in her schedule and her wages.

“A hackney?” Anne’s widened with excitement. “I’ve never ridden in one.”

Though it was on the tip of Sarah’s tongue to remind the young woman that she was there to seek employment, not for adventure, she held back. That would’ve been something her mother would say. Sarah refused to turn into her mother.

“Perhaps we can take a more circuitous route to the lodging house and registry office so you might see a few sites,” Sarah offered as she moved in the direction of the hackney.

“That would be wonderful.” Anne beamed. “Whatever would I have done without you to meet me? I don’t know how you managed all this on your own. Why, I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for a place to stay or a position if it weren’t for your guidance.”

“I’m happy to help.” Sarah’s heart warmed at the idea of setting Anne on the proper path.

“Well, look here.” A tall man with a charming grin and a cocky demeanor clutching a stack of papers stepped into their path, forcing them to halt. He wore a plain dark coat frayed at the edges and a dusty hat, which he tipped jauntily in their direction. “It’s not every day that one sees three beautiful ladies at the coach stop.”

“Thank you.” Anne smiled and fluttered her lashes at the man even as Sarah’s stomach knotted with unease.

Sarah wanted to nudge Anne to make it clear she shouldn’t encourage him. Yet what little bravery she possessed seemed to shrivel under the man’s close regard. Luckily, Millie appeared unimpressed by the man’s blatant flattery based on her frown.

“Are ye new to the city?” he asked. “I’m happy to point ye in the proper direction. Where is it ye’re wantin’ to go?” Without giving them a chance to answer, he stuffed a paper into Sarah’s hand then one in Anne’s as well. “I happen to know of a place offerin’ training if ye’re in need of employment. I can even assist ye with lodgin’ for the night.”

Sarah glanced at the familiar advert. She’d been handed a similar one when she’d last been at the mail coach stop. Its bold print offered maid training services. But Sarah knew from personal experience the offer was most likely false.

“In fact, I would be happy to offer ye a ride to the place, free of charge.” He glanced about as if to see if anyone watched, and something about his profile with its distinctive hooked nose tickled a faint memory in the back of Sarah’s mind.

“No, thank you,” Sarah said only to have Anne bump her.

“There’s no need to be hasty, is there?” Anne sent her a pointed look before smiling broadly at the man.

“Actually, there is.” Sarah welcomed the anger that swept over her. It felt much better than the whisper of fear that crawled along her skin and had yet to subside.

“On a fine day like this?” The man glanced up at the sky as if to prove his point. “Ain’t no one should be in a rush. ‘Twould be a shame to waste the sunshine.” Then he leaned close to Sarah, a crooked grin on his face as if he realized she was the one he needed to convince. “Ain’t that right, miss?”

A clear and distinct memory stole her breath and chased away her anger—that same face leaning over her, telling her she had nothing of which to be afraid.

That had been a terrible lie.

Everything he’d told her that day had been terrifying. Those first few moments when she’d woken in the brothel, and he’d explained what was expected of her—what her future was to be—had been the most frightening of her life.

Fear weakened her knees, stealing her thoughts and her voice. A glance about reassured her that this was a different time and place. She was different.

Then why couldn’t she move or protest? Where was her courage when she needed it?

“Surely we can use this kind man’s conveyance rather than the one you hired, can’t we?” Anne asked. “Think of the money it would save.”

Sarah drew one shaky breath, followed by another, well aware of Anne’s curious gaze on her as well as Millie’s. Did her panic show?

“No,” she managed. “No, we cannot.” There. That refusal had been stronger.

“Nonsense.” He dismissed her words with a swat of his hand in the air as if shooing away a fly. “Allow me.”

“I said no.” Sarah realized how loud her voice had become as passersby paused to stare, but she didn’t care. She was refusing far more than his offer of a ride.

“I’m not takin’ no for an answer.” The man grabbed Anne’s bag, his smile still in place even if his lips had thinned with determination. Then he had the audacity to take Sarah’s arm and pull her forward.

“Leave me be.” She wrenched free and reached for the bag, trying desperately to tug it from his clutches all while Anne stared at her as if she were a loon.

“Leave us alone,” Millie added, albeit rather weakly.

Sarah pulled with all her might, fighting for more than the bag. She refused to allow this man to ruin her life a second time.

 

~*~

 

Captain Harry Clarke, formerly of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, strode toward the altercation as best he could, his cane in hand, having witnessed the entire affair from where he waited for an arriving coach.

What were the streets of London coming to when young ladies couldn’t move about without being accosted? And why did no one come to their aid? Instead, several onlookers watched the unfolding scene as if pleased to enjoy the free entertainment.

He’d observed the lady with the spectacles dressed in grey from head to toe since her arrival at the coach stop. Her slim figure lent her a delicate look. The stops and starts of her movements as she walked reminded him of a butterfly in a garden, too cautious to land on a flower even though longing to do so.

She had an attractive face with arched brows and wide brown eyes that suggested an innocence that was unexpected and appealing. Perhaps because of his own jaded outlook.

Though he’d have preferred not to become involved, as the fourth son of an earl, he had been raised to be a gentleman. The situation was intolerable and, apparently, it was up to him to end it.

“The lady said no.” Harry stepped deliberately into the man’s way, realizing too late the stranger was nearly half a foot taller, a stone heavier, and undoubtedly possessed the full use of all four limbs, whereas Harry did not.

But ordering men about during his eight years in the military had become second nature for Harry. His tone held an authority that gave the man pause as did Harry’s glare.

“Who are ye?” the man asked, clearly disgruntled by the interference in whatever nefarious plan he intended.

“No one.” How true those words were. Never as true as they were of late. A fourth son, unnecessary and unwanted. Ever forgotten and easily set aside by his family. And now that he’d lost his only purpose in life as a cavalry officer because of the loss of his leg, he truly was no one.

His mother, upon seeing his injury, had shaken her head in dismay and muttered, “Oh, Harry,” as if he had chosen to come home less than whole. How often had she expressed her disappointment in him since his youth with that same phrase?

“Then move out of my way, no one.” The man took a step closer, but Harry didn’t budge.

Heaven forbid if his opponent shoved him. His balance was something with which he continued to struggle even with his cane.

The loose pant leg of his trousers hid his disability along with the boot fitted to the foot of the wooden appendage that served as his replacement leg. Harry had practiced walking for hours upon hours to hide his limp with the false leg. That had been months after he’d recovered from the cannon blast that had stolen the limb below his knee. He was one of the lucky ones as he still had his knee and therefore more mobility. Numerous adjustments to the wooden post with its cords and connected foot had been necessary to make his gait relatively smooth given that his ankle bent very little.

The last thing he wanted from others was pity. Announcing his injury to the world by limping felt as if he held out his hand, waiting for assistance. He didn’t need anything from anyone, and he preferred his life that way.

“The ladies stated that they do not want your company.” Harry kept his tone pleasant if firm, preferring to defuse the situation if possible. “Isn’t that right?” He glanced at the lady in grey for confirmation as she seemed to be the leader of the trio.

Those wide eyes behind the spectacles held on him as if she were unable to decide if he was friend or foe. After a moment’s pause, she apparently made up her mind and nodded. “Yes, that’s correct.”

One of her companions appeared to be of a different mind based on the flirtatious looks she sent the man who held her bag. She also appeared to be fresh from the country and therefore unaware of the trouble in which she could land. The other woman remained behind them as if hoping the ground would swallow her whole.

“Thank you, sir.” The lady in grey gave Harry a nod before casting a glare at their opponent. “Kindly return the bag, and we will be on our way.”

Harry was pleased she’d found her backbone, much preferring the bright spots of color in her cheeks to the paleness earlier. Now that he was nearer, he could see her eyes were a dark chocolate brown and held a gleam of anger. He held back the urge to encourage her newfound pluck. That would never do.

Instead, he raised a brow as he waited for the man to do as she asked, his body tensed in preparation for a fight. He might not have good balance, but his fist worked as well as it ever had, thanks to the boxing he still practiced.

“Are ye sure ye wouldn’t like a ride?” The stranger studied the new arrival. “I could show ye the sites if ye’re new to the city.”

She glanced at her friend and found the good sense to shake her head. “No, thank you. Please return my bag.”

“Yer loss.” The man dropped the bag, his expression one of disgruntlement. “I was tryin’ to be helpful.”

The lady in grey’s lips tightened, suggesting she was tempted to argue. Harry rather hoped her courage didn’t extend that far, lest he be forced to engage in fisticuffs after all.

“Are all of you unhurt?” Harry asked once the man had strode away through the crowd.

The lady glanced at her companions who both nodded before looking back at him. “We are. Thank you for your assistance.”

“I’m pleased to have been of help.” He touched the brim of his hat then took a step only to stumble, blast his leg. Or rather, the lack thereof.

“Sir?” The lady reached out to steady him, her dark eyes holding on his and full of questions.

He pulled away, teeth clenched with embarrassment and the anger he had difficulty suppressing, unable to bear the help. Not when he didn’t need it. If only his body would listen. “I’m fine,” he bit out.

“May I ask your name so we might know who assisted us?” She did an admirable job of hiding how rude she thought him.

“No one,” he repeated. Then he walked away with careful strides, determined not to misstep again. The lady didn’t realize he’d done her a favor by leaving. His foul mood meant he wasn’t good company for anyone, let alone the fairer sex.

Yet guilt plagued him as he returned to where a coach was unloading. He shouldn’t have been so discourteous. She’d already had a fright and didn’t need him to add to it. He couldn’t pick and choose what parts of gentlemanly behavior suited him. Either he played the role in full or he didn’t do it at all.

It didn’t matter, he told himself. The likelihood of him seeing her again was nil.

“Sergeant Johnson,” he called as a man from his squadron stepped down awkwardly from the upper seat of the coach that had just arrived.

“Captain.” Johnson smiled with a nod as he adjusted his crutch. “Good of you to meet me, sir.”

“My pleasure.” Harry was careful not to look at the folded pant leg where the soldier’s leg used to be.

Based on his weary look and thin frame, the sergeant was struggling with the loss of his limb and the return to a normal life. That struggle would soon be eased, assuming the man was willing to make a few changes and accept assistance.

When Viscount Redmond had first approached Harry to ask that he become involved in the charity for wounded soldiers, Harry was certain it was the last thing he wanted to do. He’d only agreed when Redmond pressed him. After all, he had no desire to be reminded of all that he and many of his men had lost in the war.

But the past few months of work had proven how great the need was for the former soldiers to realize they could still serve a purpose and earn a decent living, thereby helping their families. Redmond insisted Harry was an example of what was possible despite a permanent, life-changing injury.

The memory nearly had Harry shaking his head. Harry Clarke, the fourth son of the Earl of Stanwick, serving as an inspiration to anyone? His father would chuckle while his mother would merely frown in disbelief.

His task was to assist—convince, harangue or coerce, at times—former soldiers who’d been wounded in battle to be trained for new work given their injuries.

Much to his surprise, Harry found that the work suited him. He’d started as a volunteer for the organization but now received a stipend for his time. He was lucky in that he had enough funds from selling his commission as well as from his penchant for winning at cards to live comfortably.

He’d met Redmond at Madame Gaston’s gaming hell. In all honesty, watching Redmond change over the past year from a brooding man to a happy one had been interesting. Harry hadn’t thought it possible. When Redmond had shared that a woman was behind the shift, Harry had nearly laughed, certain he was jesting.

Now the viscount was happily married and on another trip with his wife. Harry was helping more in his absence, hence his presence at the mail coach this afternoon.

“Which bag is yours?” Harry asked as he gestured toward the ones being unloaded.

“Here it is.” Johnson reached for a small bag and stood, leaning on his cane.

“Allow me.” Harry didn’t want to offend the man, but he looked as if he could barely stand without the bag, let alone with it.

“I’ve got it, sir.” The flash of anger in the man’s eyes was something Harry recognized, for he saw it often in his own reflection.

Life wasn’t fair. Then again, Harry had realized that years ago, well before he’d joined the army. There was no point in dwelling on such truths as it didn’t change them.

“I have a hackney waiting across the street.” Harry led the way toward it, unable to resist glancing about to see if the lady in grey was still in sight. To his disappointment, there was no sign of her.

For the best, he told himself. His curiosity about her couldn’t lead anywhere. He was unfit in numerous ways for a lady.