One Scandalous Night
by Robyn DeHart
Miss Winifred Wilmington pulled her green velvet cloak tighter around her. She exhaled and a puff of air was visible in her breath so cold was it inside the carriage.
“We are going to die in here,” her maid, Polly, wailed.
Winifred rolled her eyes heavenward. “I seriously doubt that,” she said. “It is rather cold, but I suspect someone will be along soon enough and rescue us.”
“I could remind you that it was my suggestion that we leave earlier in the day. Or yesterday.” Polly grumbled. “It is the eve of Christmas, who else is traveling?”
The thought had crossed Winifred’s mind as well, but she certainly wouldn’t put voice to it. There was no need to panic, that would solve nothing. Of course therein lay one of the significant differences between herself and her long-time maid, Winifred was nothing if not practical. It was a skill she had learned out of necessity. One didn’t get jilted at the altar and not make some significant changes in one’s life. In any case, she was somewhat concerned about being stranded in this frigid carriage all night, though she was hopeful that someone would come along to save them.
Clearly she had a highly active imagination as she could swear she heard carriage wheels off in the distance. Would that it was true.
Polly sat up. “Do you hear that?”
Polly was so apt at creating drama, no doubt the woman thought she heard wolves outside. “What?” Winifred asked.
“A carriage is coming,” Polly said.
Perhaps it hadn’t been her imagination after all. Winifred listened and the wheels did sound as if they were drawing nearer. Hope bloomed in her chest. The wheels rumbled and the horse hooves clattered louder and louder until they were upon the, and they rolled to a stop.
“As long as it’s not a highwayman, I suppose we can consider ourselves rescued,” Winifred said.
A male voice spoke to their driver, then there was a rap at door.
Winifred leaned forward and opened it.
A tall gentleman stood there in a great coat with a top hat perched upon his head. He held a cane in his hand. “Madams,” he said, the timbre in his voice deep and rich.
A chill skirted over Winifred’s arms despite the fact she was encased in her cloak. “Good evening, Sir,” she said. “I should thank you for stopping to assist us. Can our carriage be repaired?”
“I do not know, nor am I inclined to look,” he said. “I will offer you a ride.”
Winifred considered his words. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it would do. “Yes, my grandmother’s estate is not far from here. We would very much appreciate it.”
“No,” he said.
She frowned, shook her head. “I beg your pardon? What do you mean no, you just offered to give us a ride,” she said.
“A ride. To where I’m going.” He tapped his cane against his chest. “In the morning you may have the carriage take you to your destination,” he said. “But in this weather I am going nowhere else.”
“And where is it that you’re going?” Winifred asked.
“Coventry Hall,” he said.
Nerves prickled at her neck, standing the little hairs there on end. “You are?” Winifred asked.
“Alistair Devlin, Marquess of Coventry,” he said with only a shadow of a bow.
“Oh good heavens,” Polly said, finally breaking her silence. She shook her head violently. “Miss Wilmington, we mustn’t go with him.”
“Don’t be rude, Polly.”
“Yes, don’t be rude, Polly,” he repeated. “I don’t believe you’ll have any other options tonight.” His shoulders rose in a slight shrug. “Though you could certainly choose to stay here and freeze,” he said. “I have made the offer.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
“Miss Wilmington, you know what they say of him,” Polly said. “Mary who works for Lord Garrick says she knows the housekeeper that used to work at Coventry. He is a killer,” she whispered. “Murdered his own wife, tossed her right off a cliff, they say.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Polly.” But of course Winifred had also heard those rumors and plenty more when it came to the Marquess of Coventry. He had a most interesting reputation. But the man was right, the odds of someone else coming along to rescue them were very slim. “It is a good offer,” Winifred said. “Consider this, Polly, being tossed off a cliff should result in a rather quick death whereas freezing in this carriage would be slow and painful, I suspect.”
Polly did not look convinced.
“Pipkin, I should like to get down please,” Winifred called to the driver. He was there in a breath to assist her to the ground.
The frigid air swirled around her, snow fell, soft as a whisper, covering her face and sticking to her eyelashes. She put her hands in her muff and walked toward the other carriage.
Polly raced up to meet her. “Miss Wilmington, think of your reputation.”
Winifred shook her head. “Don’t be silly. I am a spinster who was jilted; no one cares a whit about my reputation. Furthermore, my reputation certainly won’t matter if I freeze to death now will it? Are you coming?”
“I shall not ride with that man,” Polly said with a firm shake of her head.
“Suit yourself. Do try to stay warm,” Winifred said.
“If you go with him, I shall resign,” Polly warned.
“Don’t bother, I shall simply dismiss you,” Winifred said.
Polly made a growling noise, yet still followed behind. “I shall come with you to keep you safe, but I refuse to ride inside with him.”
“Do whatever you wish, Polly, I am riding inside where it promises to be nice and warm.” And with that a gloved hand reached out of the carriage. She took a deep breath and placed her hand in his and climbed into the carriage. A lantern hung from a hook on the other side of the carriage illuminating the interior. She took a seat on the plush bench across from where the marquess sat. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Your maid, she is going to ride outside?” he asked.
“She’s a stubborn lot,” Winifred said.
“You sacked her,” he said.
“Third time this week.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Polly and I have plenty of disagreements.”
He nodded, then picked up the book that had been sitting on the seat next to him. The carriage lurched forward.
She eyed her unlikely travel companion. He was tall and lean and formidable, but younger than she had expected. She’d heard of the Marquess of Coventry, but had never before seen him. He couldn’t be more than five and thirty. His cane leaned against the bench next to him and his gloved hand held onto the gold knob on top. She looked up at his face. An ugly scar slashed across his left cheek leading to his eye. He looked up from his reading as if he sensed her perusal. His eyes were a startling shade of green, like the first bloom of spring after a blistering winter.
“My name is Winifred Wilmington,” she said dumbly.
“I know who you are,” he said, then went back to his reading.
She frowned. How had he known who she was? Perhaps he’d merely inquired from her driver when he’d first stopped. “What are you reading?” she asked.
“Shakespeare. ‘As You Like it,’” he said.
She was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d read that particular play. It seemed she must have, but at the moment she couldn’t recall a single thing about it. “You know I am not afraid of you,” she said. “I don’t think it’s very intelligent to believe everything you hear about a person.”
“Indeed,” he said, not bothering to look up from his book.
“Oh yes, people are quite hateful with the rumors they spread.” She forced herself to stop talking then as she was about to tell him about a particularly nasty rumor, but then that would be gossiping. She knew she became chatty when she was nervous and she certainly did not need to say something she would later regret.
“What is it that people say about me?” he asked, again not looking up from his book.
She eyed him for a moment, trying to gage if he was toying with her. He must know what people said. Even the servants gossiped about him.
He looked up at her and once again she was caught in those unusual green eyes. His right brow rose expectedly.
She swallowed. “That you murdered your wife.” Her voice came out weak.
“But you do not believe that,” he said.
“No, I do not.” She shook her head. “You are obviously a responsible and kind gentleman.”
“You do not know me,” he said. He set his book aside. His glove gripped the gold knob on his cane.
“No, but you stopped to assist a stranded lady, that says volumes about your character, my lord,” she said, quite pleased with her logic.
He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “How do you know I’m not taking you to my castle to ravish you?”
She sucked in her breath. “Are you?”
He crooked his finger at her, beckoning her forward.
She leaned toward him.
He grabbed her by the chin and pulled her closer, then caught her mouth in a kiss. So shocked by the touch, her lips parted, giving him a brazen invitation to deepen the kiss. His lips were soft and unfamiliar, yet seductive, intoxicating. Her eyes fluttered closed and her hands gripped the fabric of his great coat around his shoulders. And then the kiss was over, ending as quickly and abruptly as it had begun. He leaned back in his seat and she was left in the middle of the carriage with her eyes closed, no doubt looking very much the goose.
“You should not be so trusting,” he said.
“You never answered my question,” she shot back once she’d regained her senses.
“If you were intending to ravish me once we arrived at your castle?”
His lips quirked up in a half smile. “I suppose you’ll have to wait and see.”