Read The Perfect Stranger Online

Authors: Anne Gracie

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

The Perfect Stranger (10 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
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“Well done, miss!” Stevens said when they returned to the camp and announced Faith’s decision. “It’s the right thing to do. You’ll not regret it, I know. You can put the past behind you now.”

Faith smiled at him tremulously. Yes, it was the right thing to do. The moment she’d held his hand and agreed to marry him, she’d known it. It was as if a load had been lifted from her shoulders. And Stevens was right; she could put the past behind her. She had a new future now, one worth fighting for.

Nick watched the small exchange. So Stevens approved, too. He was surprised by the intense feeling of satisfaction he himself felt, now that she’d agreed to marry him. “We shall be married in the morning at nine o’clock. I hope that isn’t too early for you, but the mayor—”

“It isn’t too early.”

“Good. You will sleep the night at an inn in the town. I have arranged it all. Stevens will accompany you for protec—”

“Oh, but I am quite happy to stay here.”

Nick recalled the way he’d woken that morning, the feeling of her soft curves cuddled up to him. His body leaped at the memory. He’d promised her a chaste marriage. He’d sleep better if she was locked well away from him, out of temptation’s way.

“Nonsense! Stevens will be very glad to have a bed, for he is getting on in years and dislikes sleeping on the ground. And would you not prefer a bed and a bath and a civilized meal at a table?”

“A bath! Oh, what I would give for a lovely hot bath…” She sighed, and he had a sudden vision of her in a bath, naked, pink, and glowing. He clamped down on it.

She continued, “That and a warm, dry bed with real sheets would be most welcome, I admit, but I would like to dine here, with you—if you don’t mind. I have never before eaten fish that I have also caught.”

“You were fishing, too? I thought you were just keeping Stevens company.”

She laughed at his surprise. “Stevens taught me. I must say I thought it was rather a dull occupation until I caught my first one! After that it was very exciting. I caught seven fish, you know.” He caught a tiny crow of pride in her voice.

“Seven? Excellent. In that case, of course, you must dine here in rustic style. I well remember my own first fish. It was small and rather bony, and we cooked it over an open fire—or should I say we burned it—but you know, I never tasted a better fish.”

“I am looking forward to my first fish, too—only not burned, I hope. Or bony. I’m not fond of fish bones.” There was a small pause, then she said, “You said ‘we.’ Who was your companion in this great historical event?”

The moment of gentle reminiscence vanished with a rush. It all came crowding back on him. He dropped her hand, vaguely surprised that he’d held it all that time, and turned away. “I…I must speak to Stevens about the arrangements.”

“Oh, but—”

He walked away toward the smell of the fire.

She called after him, “But what about these bags? Shall I put them somewhere for you?”

“The contents are yours,” he said brusquely. “You deal with them.”

Faith watched him leave, dismayed. What had she said? One minute he was almost smiling at her tales of fishing. The grim lines about his mouth and eyes had softened, and his whole face had lightened. And then she’d asked about his fishing companion, and it was as if he’d slammed a door in her face.

She recalled what Stevens had told her, and abruptly she knew. His youthful companion was Algy, Stevens’s dead son.

She turned to the string bags. They were stuffed with brown paper parcels. For her, he’d said. He was such an odd man—arrogant, abrupt, kind. He’d roused her to such anger when he’d burned her boots and then brought her almost to tears with their unexpectedly beautiful replacement. She sat in the sand and began to open the parcels.

The first parcel was small and squashy; it contained stockings, fine silk ones, like the ones she’d ruined. The next contained underclothing: chemises, pantaloons, and a petticoat in soft cotton, all prettily trimmed with eyelet lace. She blushed to think of Mr. Blacklock and Mr. McTavish choosing such intimate items for her. But she was enormously grateful. Tonight she’d have a proper bath and be able to put on these pretty, clean new things. She hadn’t realized how difficult it was to keep clean. Washing in seawater might be good for scratches, but it left an uncomfortable film of salt behind.

She opened the next parcel. Soap! She smelled it rapturously. It was plain and unscented, but she didn’t care, she’d be clean! There was a brush and comb and several handkerchiefs.

He’d bought her another pair of shoes: dainty kid slippers in a pale fawn color. And two dresses, one periwinkle blue and the other a deep carnation pink, both loosely and plainly cut. Made of soft cotton, they buttoned high to the neck and down to the wrists. She shook the dresses out and held them against her. They looked a bit large. She could take them in if she could get hold of a needle and thread. Grandpapa had made all the Merridew girls sew all their garments, and Faith was a competent needlewoman. She’d done most of the sewing for herself and her twin. Poor darling Hope loathed sewing.

Faith sighed. She couldn’t wait to see her sister again.

She searched through the parcels and found a needle and thread and a packet of pins. They’d thought of everything! Perhaps they hoped she’d do some mending for them. She would do it, too, happily.

She smoothed the crisp fabric of her new dresses. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the clothes that Felix had bought for her. Felix had insisted all her dresses were silk or some other glamorous fabric, and he favored her in low-cut necklines and close-fitting, revealing gowns. She’d never felt comfortable in them.

These were probably all they could buy in a hurry, she decided. She didn’t mind at all. She liked pretty dresses, but just now she’d feel happier wearing these plainly cut, high-buttoned dresses than any of Felix’s glamorous choices. They positively shrieked respectability, and Faith had been so short of that in recent days that she was grateful to have them. People were judged by their clothing. In any case, she might be able to find some pretty buttons or ribbon perhaps to brighten them up.

These plain dresses might even, in an odd way, help her to discover her new self, the one she was determined to become.

Faith had never given a thought to the way she’d looked until she and her sisters had come to London. They’d grown up in a house where vanity was not simply a sin, it was a punishable crime! There were no looking glasses at the Court, the grim old house in Norfolk where she’d spent most of her youth. It had been a shock to come to London to find that she and her sisters—except for Prudence—were regarded as beauties.

Her twin sister, Hope, quite enjoyed the attention it brought them and cared not a snap of her fingers for people’s expectations. Even the shyest of her sisters, gentle Charity, hadn’t minded men flocking around her, as long as her Edward was one of them, but Faith had always felt a little uncomfortable at the way people stared. She would tell herself that half the interest was because she and Hope were mirror images of each other, and that golden hair and blue eyes were all the rage in the ton at the moment, but still, it was most unsettling. Being the cynosure of all eyes did not come at all naturally to a girl whose childhood sense of safety had come from striving to be invisible.

Felix had enjoyed the attention her looks received and after their elopement had dressed her in clothes that drew attention to her even more. She’d forced herself to wear them for him, because she loved him…thought she loved him.

No, her looks had brought her only trouble, and not just from Felix. The English ladies she’d approached at Calais Port had taken one look at her bright gold hair and oddly assorted clothing and decided she was a tart, ignoring what she told them and that her English was spoken with their own cultivated accent. The men in the town had noted her bright looks and the low-cut, ragged emerald silk dress and drawn the same conclusion.

But in these plain, respectable dresses, nobody could imagine she was out to entrance them. She wouldn’t be on show anymore. She could go back to being invisible again if she wanted. She thought about it a moment. No, she didn’t want to pretend to be invisible again. She didn’t want to pretend to be anything.

Two years ago, she’d escaped the yoke of Grandpapa’s fearsome rule. Now she could escape the pressure of being one of the Merridew beauties, pretending to a sophistication she’d never had. And best of all, she would be safely married, so she could never again be swept away by mad, blind, love. It was such a relief.

In these clothes, away from all she had known before, and married to a man who wanted nothing from her, Faith could simply be herself—whoever that might be.

“Was that not the inn I am to sleep in?” Faith glanced back, puzzled, as Stevens, carrying her belongings, peeled off to the left. Mr. Blacklock escorted her past the inn without pausing. Mac and his dog were back in camp clearing up after their delicious dinner of crispy, golden fish.

“Yes, it is the one.” Mr. Blacklock did not so much as break stride. He had her arm clamped in his. Faith had to skip to keep up. She was wearing her new fawn kid slippers.

“Then where are we going?”

“Monsieur le Curé asked to meet you this evening.”

Faith stopped dead. “The priest wants to meet me? Why? You said the mayor was going to marry us.”

“Yes, but Monsieur le Curé assisted me in expediting the matter. And he insists on meeting the bride tonight. I could hardly refuse.”

“But I’m not dressed to visit a priest!” Faith’s hands crept to her bosom, still partly exposed by her low, ripped neckline. She hadn’t wanted to wear any of her new clothes until she’d bathed. She’d had to wear her new slippers, but her feet and legs were bare under her dress.

“He won’t care. I told him a little about your situation.”

“You told him about me?” Faith pulled the edges of the cloak together. “He will imagine the worst.”

“Probably, which is why I offered to bring you to meet him. It will set his mind at rest.”

“You offered to bring me to meet him? For heaven’s sake, why? And why did you not warn me?” Faith turned and headed determinedly back toward the inn.

He took two steps and grabbed her around the waist. “Where are you going?”

“To the inn.”

“You don’t have time to bathe and change and be back in time. Besides, he won’t care what you look like. He’s a priest.”

She glared at him over her shoulder. “I wasn’t planning to be back in time. I’m not going to meet him at all. I refuse to have some—some priest condemn me! I’ve had quite enough of that over the past few days! Oh, will you let me go?” She struggled angrily against the iron band that imprisoned her.

“He’s expecting us. He promised us tea.”

“I don’t care! I’m not going!”

Nicholas Blacklock turned her in his arms, still keeping a firm grip on her. “Stop making a fuss! You are coming with me, and that’s final.” Before she had time to argue any further, he said, “If he is the slightest bit rude to you, I will have you out of there in a jiffy. He won’t be. He is a gentle, kindly old man, and I promised him I would bring you. Now come on!” He headed toward the church, propelling her ruthlessly on.

Faith dragged her heels rebelliously, but he simply hitched her off the ground and kept walking.

It was a small stone house next to a large bluestone church. Faith felt trapped, anxious, and furious with the big blockhead beside her. As Nicholas knocked on the door, Faith felt her fury drain away. Dread took its place.

A thin, elderly woman dressed in severe dusty black opened the door. The priest’s housekeeper, smelling of lavender with a hint of camphor, nodded briefly to Mr. Blacklock.

She looked Faith up and down with a sour expression on her face. Obviously, she knew their story, too. Her long-nosed stare took in Faith’s bright gold hair, the bruised cheek, the tattered emerald silk dress with the low neckline. She sniffed. It was as good as a slap in the face.

Faith swallowed and stiffened her backbone. She knew exactly what the woman was thinking, what the priest would think, too. Faith was a harlot, escaping from the wages of sin by deceiving a poor fool. It was a look she would have to get used to.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,
she repeated over and over in her mind. Grandpapa had used his stick. She’d survived him by hiding from his anger. She was not going to be a coward anymore. She would not hide. She would not let anyone make her ashamed of something she could not help. She could survive any amount of scorn and contempt.

She hoped.

She squared her shoulders and stepped into the priest’s house.

Chapter Five

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the fault I see,
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.
BOOK: The Perfect Stranger
10.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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