The Escape

Sir Benedict Harper, who is staying with his sister in the north of England, is out riding, and for the first time since being severely wounded as a cavalry officer during the Peninsular Wars, he challenges himself to jump a hedge. Samantha McKay has been cooped up inside her home for four months since the death of her husband. She has done it in deference to her sister-in-law, who has strict ideas on how a widow should conduct herself during her year of mourning. But finally Samantha can stay indoors no longer, and, while her sister-in-law is lying down in her own room, she goes out for a walk with her dog.

Ten minutes later they were striding along the path at the west side of the house toward the garden gate, which they passed through to the lane and meadows beyond. At least, Samantha strode in quite unladylike but equally unrepentant fashion while Tramp loped along at her side and occasionally dashed off in pursuit of any squirrel or small rodent incautious enough to rear its head. Though perhaps it was not lack of caution but merely contempt on their part, for Tramp never came close to running his prey to earth.

Ah, it felt so very good to breathe in fresh air at last, Samantha thought, even if it must be filtered through the heavy black veil that hung from the brim of her black bonnet. And it was glorious to see nothing but open space about her, first on the laneway, and then on the daisy-and-buttercup-strewn grass of a meadow onto which they turned. It was sheer heaven to allow her stride to lengthen and to know that at least for a while the horizon was the only boundary that confined her.

There was no one to witness her grand indiscretion, no one to gasp in horror at the sight of her.

She stopped occasionally and gathered buttercups, while Tramp frolicked about her. And then, her little posy complete, she strode along again, a thick hedge to one side, all the fresh beauties of nature spread out on the other, the sky stretching overhead with its high layer of clouds through which she could see the bright, fuzzy disk of the sun. There was a brisk, slightly chilly breeze fluttering her veil about her face, but she did not feel the discomfort of the cold. Indeed, she relished it. She felt happier than she had felt for months, even perhaps for years. Oh, definitely for years.

She was not going to feel guilty about taking this hour for herself. No one could say she had not given her husband all the attention she could possibly have given while he lived. And no one could say she had not mourned him properly since his death. No one could even say she had been glad of his death. She had never ever wished him dead, even at those times when she had wondered if she had any reserves of energy left with which to tend him and be patient with his endless peevishness. She had been genuinely saddened by the death of the man she had married just seven years before with such high hopes for a happily-ever-after.

No, she was not going to feel guilty. She needed this—this pleasure, this peace, this quiet restoration of her spirits.

It was precisely as she was thinking these tranquil thoughts that her peace was shattered in a sudden and most alarming manner.

Tramp had just returned with the stick she had thrown for him, and she was bending to retrieve it with one hand while she held her posy in the other, when it seemed that a thunderbolt came crashing down upon them from the heavens above, only narrowly missing them. Samantha shrieked with terror, while the dog went into a frenzy of hysterical barking and leaped aimlessly in every direction, bowling Samantha right off her feet as he did so. Her buttercups went flying about in a hail of yellow, and she landed with a painful thud on her bottom.

She gaped in mingled pain and terror and discovered that the thunderbolt was in fact a large black horse, which had just leapt over the hedge very close to where she had been standing. It might have kept on going since it appeared to have landed safely enough, but Tramp's barking and leaping and perhaps her own scream had sent it into a frenzy of its own. It whinnied and reared, its eyes rolling wildly and fearfully, as the rider on its back fought for his seat and brought it under control with considerable skill and a whole arsenal of curse words most foul.

"Are you out of your mind? Are you quite insane?"

"Bring that blasted animal under control, woman, damn it."

Samantha shouted her rhetorical questions and the man bellowed his imperious command simultaneously.

Tramp was standing his ground and barking ferociously alternately with baring his teeth and growling in a fearsome manner. The horse was still prancing nervously though it was no longer rearing.

Woman?

Blasted animal?

Damn it?

And why was the man not leaping from the saddle to help her to her feet and assure himself that he had not done her any fatal injury, as any true gentleman would?

"Tramp," she said firmly, though certainly not in obedience to the rider's command. "That is quite enough!"

A rabbit chose that moment to pop up on the horizon, ears pointed at the heavens, and Tramp dashed off in joyful pursuit, still barking and still convinced he could win the race.

"You might have killed me with your irresponsible stunt," Samantha shouted above the din. "Are you quite mad?"

The gentleman on the horse's back glared coldly at her.

"If you are unable to control that pathetic excuse for a dog," he said, "you really ought not to bring him out where he can upset horses and livestock and endanger human life."

"Livestock?" She looked pointedly to left and right to indicate that there was nary a cow or bull in sight. "He endangered human life? Your own, I suppose you mean, since mine clearly means nothing to you. Allow me to pose a question. Was it you, sir, or was it Tramp who chose with reckless unconcern to jump a hedge without first ascertaining that it was safe to do so? And was it you or he who then hurled the blame upon the innocent person who was almost killed? And upon a dog which was happily at play until he had the life virtually scared out of him."

She got to her feet without taking her eyes off him—and without wincing over what felt like a bruised tailbone. Perhaps it was a good thing he had not dismounted to help her up, she thought as wrath took the place of terror. She might have smacked his face, and that must certainly be against the rules of propriety for a lady, not to mention a widow in deep mourning.

His nostrils flared as he listened to her, and his lips compressed into a thin line as he looked down at her as though she were a nasty worm it might have been better that his horse had trodden upon.

"I trust," he said with stiff formality, "you have not come to any great harm, ma'am? I assume not, though, since you are quite capable of speech."

She narrowed her eyes and bent upon him her most cold and haughty stare, though she was aware that the thickness of her veil probably marred its full effect.

Tramp came dashing back without the rabbit. He had stopped barking. She rested a hand on his head as he sat, panting, beside her, eyeing horse and rider eagerly as though he thought they might be new friends.

Samantha and the rider regarded each other for a few silent moments, which nevertheless bristled with mutual hostility. Then he abruptly touched his whip to the brim of his tall hat, turned his horse, and rode away at a canter without another word, leaving her the clear victor of the field.

Well.

Well!

Her bosom still heaved with ire. Woman, indeed. And blasted animal. And damn it.

He was a stranger—at least she thought he was since she had certainly never set eyes upon him before. A thoroughly disagreeable stranger. She fervently hoped he would keep on riding until he was far, far away and never return. He was no gentleman despite his looks, which suggested the contrary. He had done something unpardonably reckless, with results that might have been fatal had she been standing six feet east of where she had been standing. Yet she and Tramp were to blame. And though he had asked or rather trusted that she had taken no harm, he had not got down from his saddle to find out at closer quarters. And then he had had the effrontery to assume that she must be unharmed since she could still talk. As if she were some kind of shrew.

It really was a shame that good looks and elegance and an overall appearance of masculine virility were wasted on such a nasty, cold, arrogant villainous sort of man. He was good-looking, she admitted when she thought about him, even if his face was a trifle too lean and angular for true handsomeness. And he was youngish. She guessed he was not much above thirty if he was even that old.

He had an impressive vocabulary, almost none of which she would have understood if she had not spent a year with Matthew's regiment before they were sent off to the Peninsula. And he had used it in a lady's hearing—without apologizing as the officers of the regiment had always done quite effusively when they realized they had cursed within half a mile of a lady's ears.

She sincerely hoped she would never encounter him again. She might be tempted to give him the full length of her tongue if she did.

"Well, pathetic-excuse-for-a-dog," she said, looking down at Tramp, "our one foray into the peace and freedom of the outdoors almost ended in disaster. Behold my posy scattered to the four winds. Father-in-law would lecture me for a fortnight if he were to hear about this adventure, especially if he knew I had scolded a gentleman instead of hanging my head meekly and allowing him to scold me. Do not, I pray you, breathe a word of this to Matilda. She would have a sick and a migraine headache combined—after berating me, that is, and writing a long letter home. You do not suppose they can be right, do you, Tramp? That I am not a proper lady, I mean? I suppose my origins are against me, as the Earl of Heathmoor was pleased to inform me with tedious regularity once upon a time, but really... Woman and damn it. And you a blasted animal. I have been severely provoked. We have been."

Tramp, apparently more forgiving than she, fell into step beside her and refrained from offering an opinion.

* * * * *

Guilt and shame quickly hurled cold water on the embers of Ben's fury.

The humiliating truth, he admitted to himself, was that he had frightened himself more than half to death when he jumped that damned hedge. He had been back to riding for some time, having discovered that he could both mount and dismount with the aid of a special riding block. He had learned to ride with some skill and confidence despite the fact that he did not have as much power in his thighs as he had used to have. But today was the first time since his cavalry days that he had challenged himself to jump a fence or hedge.

Perhaps it had been reaction to that admission he had made to the Survivors at Penderris that he had taken his recovery as far as it could go. Perhaps he had needed to push himself to one more level of achievement just to prove to himself that he had not simply given up. The open meadows bordered by hedges in which he had been riding had tempted him. The hedges were high enough to be a challenge but not high enough to make the attempt to jump one of them entirely reckless. And so he had chosen his particular hedge, set his horse directly at it, and soared over with at least a foot to spare.

The rush of exhilarated triumph that had accompanied the jump had quickly converted to sheer, blind terror, however, and his mind had been catapulted back to that most hellish of black moments in the tumult of battle when he had been shot and his horse had been shot under him at the same time and had fallen on him before he could draw his foot free of the stirrup, and then another horse and rider had come crashing down on top of them both.

He had thought it was happening all over again. There had been that sense of falling, of losing control, of staring death in the eyeballs. Pure instinct had kept him in the saddle and set him to bringing his horse under control, and he had soon realized that the source of the whole near-catastrophe was a damned maniacal hound, which was still leaping about, barking ferociously, long after all danger was over. And there was a woman, an ugly old crone, dressed from head to toe in hideous black, seated at her ease on the grass below the hedge, surrounded by wild flowers and not doing a blessed thing to control the beast.

Had he been at liberty to stop and consider, of course, he would have realized a number of other things, as he did now while he rode away from the scene of his guilt. She would not have been sitting on the ground gathering flowers just for the sheer pleasure of it. It was a chilly, blustery day. She must, then, have fallen or been knocked down. Her dog would not have behaved as it had if he had not come flying over the hedge without any warning. And he might easily have killed the woman if he had taken the hedge just right of where he had. The fault for the whole debacle had been, in fact, entirely his.

As she had not been shy about pointing out.

Something else had quickly become clear to him—two things, actually. She was not an old crone. She was in fact a youngish female though he had not been able to see her face through the hideous, funereal veil that covered it. And she was a lady. Her voice and her demeanor had both given evidence of that fact.

Not that his guilt would have been lessened even if she had been a crone. Or a beggar woman. Or both. He had yelled at her, and he could not be sure he had not used some inappropriate language while doing so. He certainly had when fighting for control of his mount. He had not gone to her rescue. Not that he could have done so literally, of course, but he might have shown considerably more concern, perhaps even explained why he could not get down off his horse.

In short, he had behaved badly. Quite abominably, in fact.

He briefly considered turning back and begging her pardon, but he doubted she would be delighted to see him again. Besides, he was still feeling too irritated to make a sincere enough apology.

Pray God he never saw the woman again. Though he supposed it altogether probable that she lived in the neighborhood since she was out on foot with her dog—unescorted. And she was obviously in deep mourning for someone.

Good Lord, he had been terrified. How must she have felt when horse and rider erupted over the hedge a mere whisker from where she stood? Yet he had ripped up at her for walking and exercising her dog in a public meadow.

After he had ridden into the stables at Robland Park and dismounted, he was still feeling considerably out of sorts. He made his slow way to the house.

"Ah, you are back safe, are you?" Beatrice said, looking up from her knotting as he lowered himself to a chair in the drawing room. "It concerns me that you insist upon riding alone, Ben, instead of taking a groom with you as any sensible man in your circumstances would. Oh, I know, I know. You do not have to say it, and I can see your brows knitting together in vexation. I am acting like a mother hen. But with Hector gone to London already and the boys back at school, I have no one to fuss over but you. And I cannot ride with you as I am still under physician's orders to coddle myself after that chill. Did you have a pleasant ride?"

"Very," he said.

She rested her work on her lap. "What has ruffled your feathers, then? Apart from my fussing, that is."

"Nothing."

She raised her eyebrows and resumed her work.

"The tea tray will be here in a moment," she told him. "I daresay you are a bit chilled."

"It is not a cold day."

She laughed without looking up. "If you are determined to be disagreeable, I shall make a companion of my knots."

He watched her for a short while. She wore a lacy cap on her fair hair. It offended him somewhat though it was a pretty confection. She was only thirty-four, for God's sake, five years his senior. She behaved like a matron—which was exactly what she was, he supposed. It was longer than six years since he had been wounded, and sometimes it seemed that time had stood still since then. Except that it had not. Everything and everyone had moved on. And that was, of course, part of his recently-acknowledged problem, for he had not. He had been too absorbed in trying to put himself back together so that he could pick up the threads of his life exactly where he had left them off.

The tea tray was brought in, and Beatrice set aside her work to pour them both a cup of tea and to carry him his together with a plate of cakes.

"Thank you," he said. "I must smell of horse."

"It is not an unpleasant smell," she told him without denying it. "I shall be back to riding myself soon. The doctor will be calling here tomorrow, for the final time, it is to be hoped. I feel perfectly restored to health. Relax there for a while before you go to change your clothes."

"Is there a widow living in these parts?" he asked her abruptly. "A lady? Still in deep mourning?"

"Mrs. McKay, do you mean?" She lifted her cup to her lips. "Captain McKay's widow? He was the Earl of Heathmoor's second son and died three or four months ago. She lives at Bramble Hall on the far side of the village."

"She has a big, unruly dog?" Ben asked.

"A big, friendly dog," she said. "I did not find him unruly when I paid a call upon Mrs. McKay after the funeral, though he did insist in quite unmannerly fashion upon being petted. He came to lay his head on my lap and looked up at me with soulful eyes. I suppose he ought to have been trained not to do such things, but dogs always know who likes them."

"She had him in a meadow not very far from here," he said. "I almost bowled them both over when I jumped a hedge."

"Oh, goodness gracious," she said. "Was anyone hurt? But—you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered—I do not possess any, not being the vaporish sort, though you could easily make a convert of me."

"What the devil was she doing out unchaperoned?" he asked.

She clicked her tongue. "Ben, dear, your language! I am surprised to know she was. I have never seen her outside her own house except at church on Sundays. Captain McKay was very badly wounded in the Peninsula and never recovered his health enough to leave his bed. Mrs. McKay nursed him almost single-handedly and with great devotion, from what I can gather."

"Well, she was out alone today," he said. "At least, I assume it was the lady you named."

"I am surprised," she said again. "Her sister-in-law has been staying with her for some time. I have very little acquaintance with her, and it seems unfair to judge a near-stranger, but I would guess she is as much a stickler for propriety taken to an extreme as the earl, her father, is. He is not my favorite person, or anyone else's that I know. Had he lived a couple of centuries ago, he would have joined forces with Oliver Cromwell and those horrid Puritans and sapped all the humor and enjoyment from everyone else's life. I am surprised Lady Matilda did not insist that Mrs. McKay remain at home behind closed doors and curtains."

"You sound indignant," he said.

"Well." She set down her cup and saucer. "When one arranges a quiet dinner with the soberest of one's neighbors, including the vicar and his wife, with the intention of extending the hand of sympathy and friendship to two ladies who have recently lost a husband and brother, and have been turned down and made to feel that one's very existence is frivolous and contaminating, then one can surely be excused for being slightly ruffled when one is reminded of it."

He grinned at her until she caught his eye and laughed.

"The answer to my invitation was written by Lady Matilda McKay," she said. "I like to believe that Mrs. McKay would have declined it in a far more gracious manner, if she had declined it at all."

The grin faded from Ben's face. "I owe her an apology."

"Do you?" she asked. "Did you not apologize when it happened? She was not hurt, I hope?"

"I do not believe so," he said, though he remembered that she had been sitting on the ground when he first became aware of her. "But I ripped up at her, Bea, and blamed her for the near-catastrophe—and her dog, which is an ugly brute if ever I saw one. I owe her an apology."

Perhaps we will see her at church on Sunday," she said. "I would not go riding up to the doors of Bramble Hall, if I were you. For one thing, you have not been introduced and it would be vastly improper. For another, I do believe the sister-in-law might well have an apoplexy if she discovered a single gentleman on the doorstep. Either that, or she would attack you with the nearest umbrella or knitting needle."

He could just forget about the whole episode, Ben supposed a few minutes later as he made his slow way upstairs to change out of his riding clothes. But he hated to recall that he had behaved in a manner unbecoming a gentleman—and that was a bit of an understatement.

He definitely owed her an apology.

© Mary Balogh