Nora Ryder was expecting the village of Wimbury to be busy, small though it was. This was the first day of May, after all, and Cowper, Mrs. Witherspoon's hanydman, had warned her that the maypole had been set up on the village green and that there was to be a fair about its perimeter. Everyone from miles around would be there, he had told her.
Except Mrs. Witherspoon herself, of course. She never went anywhere.
And except him and the other servants, Cowper had added somewhat wistfully.
Mrs. Witherspoon never celebrated any event--not even Christmas or birthdays or the first snowdrop that poked through the grass to bloom in the springtime. Working as her companion for the past six months had not been a joyful experience--and that was grossly to understate the case.
It might have been better to choose another day than May Day for going into Wimbury, Nora realized, but really she had little choice in the matter. It was true that she had resigned from her position and might conceivably have stayed one more day if it had been an amicable ending to her employment. It had not, though. In fact, she had resigned scarcely one whole minute before Mrs. Witherspoon sacked her.
Mrs. Witherspoon had told her she was to leave immediately, and Nora had replied that that was not nearly soon enough. They had settled on the following day.
She had not been paid--not once in six months. There had been various excuses for five of those months. Once it had been the apparently reasonable argument that since Mrs. Witherspoon never ventured beyond her own home and garden, then neither did her companion, and so there was nothing upon which to spend money. But now, after six months, Mrs. Witherspoon had informed Nora that her annual wage had been agreed upon at the start of the employment--and that meant it was to be paid annually. Since Nora had seen fit to abandon her post after only six months, she was not entitled to be paid. Was it not enough that she had been fed and housed in the lap of luxury all this time?
It would not have been nearly enough even if there had been luxury, which there most certainly had not. But Nora, recognizing a hopeless case when she saw one, chose not to argue the point beyond giving herself the satisfaction of informing her erstwhile employer just before she left exactly--exactly!--what she thought of her.
Eloquence could be marvelously satisfying to one's bruised sensibilities, but did nothing to fill one's purse.
Yesterday Cowper, who had been running an errand for the old lady, had bought a stagecoach ticket to London for Nora--not out of the said lady's bounty, it might be added, but out of the last of the meager supply of money Nora had brought with her to Dorset six months ago.
The journey itself might prove to be a hungry one, she realized, since she had enough left in her purse to buy perhaps half a cup of tea if it was being sold cheaply, and Mrs. Witherspoon's cook could not be expected to risk her employer's wrath by packing up some choice morsels of food for her to take with her. But at least she would be free again and sane again. And woefully penniless--again. Jeremy, her brother, would sigh and favor her with one of his long-suffering looks when he discovered her on his doorstep--again!
She was going to have to search for some new employment, something more permanent this time, it was to be hoped.
She had been saved from having to walk the five miles to the village with her heavy valise by the fact that Mr. Crowe, a neighboring farmer, had decided to take advantage of the holiday in order to visit his daughter ten miles away--and, happily for Nora, his journey was to take him through Wimbury. His aged gig had wooden seats that threatened the legs and derriere of the unwary with a thousand splinters and squeaky wheels that set one's teeth on edge with every turning, and it smelled strongly of manure even when empty of that commodity, as it was today. However, squeezing herself up beside Mr. Crowe's rotund frame was preferable to walking, and Nora had accepted his offer of a ride with heartfelt gratitude.
She was expecting to find the village crowded, then, even though it was still morning when they arrived there. What she was not expecting was the frenzied press of activity about the Crook and Staff Inn, the very place where she was headed. There were those, of course, who would have taken their places early in the taproom, intent upon imbibing as much good cheer as they could before the day's festivities began in earnest. But they ought to be quietly and respectably ensconced inside.
These people were all outside.
So was the stagecoach, which Nora could see above their heads. It was in early. She felt an uncomfortable lurching of the stomach as she sat forward in her seat. What if it went rumbling off in the direction of London before she could weave her way through the crowd and board it? What would she do then? She would have to wait a whole day for the next one--assuming, that was, there would be room for her on tomorrow's coach. Whatever would she do in the meanwhile? She could not go back to Mrs. Witherspoon's. She had certainly burned a few bridges there. Not that she regretted a single one of them.
It quickly became apparent to her, however, that she was not in imminent danger of losing her ride. The stagecoach was listing at far too sharp a sideways angle to be occasioned by an obese passenger or a particularly heavy piece of luggage stowed too far to one side.
"That thar coach must ha' met with an accident," Mr. Crowe remarked sagely, breaking a conversational lull of ten minutes or longer. And he drew his gig to a halt some distance away, lifted Nora's valise out of the back, held out a massive hand to help her alight, nodded and grunted when she thanked him, and climbed in and drove off just as if he did not possess an inquisitive bone in his body.
Nora picked up her bag and hurried forward into the noisy fray. Crowds of people, doubtless a mingling of the stagecoach passengers and curious villagers, were clustered about the gateway to the innyard and the coach itself, most of them talking excitedly, several of them doing so at great volume and with wild, even menacing gestures.
"What happened?" she asked the people closest to her.
They all spoke more or less together though none of them turned their heads to look at her.
"There has been a terrible crash. I swear my heart stopped for a whole minute when I heard it. I expected to see at least a dozen dead bodies."
"That coachman did not blow his yard of tin before turning into the innyard, and he was going too fast anyway. He collided with a perfectly innocent gentleman's vehicle that was on its way out."
"He did blow his horn. Are you stone deaf? It came near to deafening me. The gentleman was not paying proper attention, that was all."
"Thought he had the right of way just because he had a natty new curricle and pockets stuffed full with half a fortune."
"Three-quarters full, I would wager. Did you catch a look at his boots? He didn't get them for ten quid or even twenty."
"The coachman was not looking where he was going, and see what happened as a result. It is good for him no one was killed. He would be swinging for it before the week was out. It was his fault right enough."
"He had his eyes peeled. It was the gentleman who was looking over his shoulder--probably at one of the chambermaids."
"A public vehicle has the right of way."
"No it don't. Where did you get that daft idea? The carriage that is leaving gets to go first."
"The coachman was swearing the air blue just a minute or two ago. You should have heard him. He told that gentleman a thing or two, I am here to tell you."
"That's as much as you know of the English language. The gentleman swore rings around him."
"The coach has lost a wheel and its axle has been badly damaged. It may not even be possible to repair it."
"The gentleman's curricle has been smashed to smithereens."
"No, it hasn't. It merely has a split axle. I don't think it's even in as bad a way as the coach."
"And who do they think is going to mend two broken axles and a broken wheel today of all days when everyone is on holiday? They'll expect it, though, mark my words."
Beyond the group closest to her, Nora could hear the stagecoach passengers, their voices raised in appeal and outrage. What were they supposed to do until tomorrow? And what if they could not wait until tomorrow to get where they were going? How could they be sure anyway that the coach would be ready to resume its journey even then? Someone was going to hear about this. Someone was going to answer for it. Someone was going to pay.
Nora felt slightly weak at the knees even though it did not appear that anyone had sustained any physical injury.
What was she going to do?
Within a few minutes everyone was beginning to drift away in the direction of the inn itself, and Nora was able to elbow her way forward until she stood before the man who must be the stagecoach driver.
"When do you expect to be on the way again?" she asked, realizing the foolishness of her question even as she spoke. She could see the carriage more fully now.
"Tomorrow, if I have anything to say about it, ma'am," he said none too graciously, not even looking at her. "If you have a ticket, you are just going to have to come back tomorrow."
"But what am I to do today?" she asked him.
He shrugged and scratched his head, his eyes on the damage to his vehicle. "Take a room at the inn like everyone else, I suppose," he said. "You had better hurry, though. There aren't going to be any left pretty soon."
It would not matter if there were a hundred rooms left. Nora's mind was humming with the realization that she was well and truly stranded. With nowhere to go and without a feather to fly with.
"Perhaps," she said, "I can have back the price of my ticket."
Though that was no real solution to anything, was it? If she spent that money, then she was going to be stranded here forever and a day.
"It's not possible, I'm afraid, ma'am," he said with surly impatience, bending to peer under the vehicle. "No refunds are allowed."
And so that was that. Somehow she was going to have to hang around here for a whole day--and a whole night--before she could even hope to begin the long journey to London.
She did not know anyone here. Even though Wimbury was only five miles from Mrs. Witherspoon's, she had not once left the house and garden until today, and there had never been visitors.
It was going to be a long, hungry day. Nora glanced up at the sky as she wandered aimlessly toward the inn entrance, where everyone else had disappeared. She stood just inside the taproom door for several minutes, undecided about what to do or where to go. Other people milled about her. All seemed to have somewhere to go and someone else to talk to.
She felt suddenly and horribly lonely and isolated and--stranded.
A lanky young man wearing a soiled apron and carrying a tray of empty glasses stopped close to her. He was looking slightly harried.
"If you are another of the stranded passengers, ma'am," he said, "you are going to have to make other arrangements for tonight. We are full, what with the May Day fair and the coach crash."
Nora was never afterward sure what she was about to say. Someone else spoke first. It was a man's voice, soft and cultured and clearly accustomed to commanding and being obeyed.
"The lady already has a room," he said. "She is with me."
Nora, startled, looked to see to whom and about whom the gentleman was speaking. But clearly he was speaking to the waiter--and he was looking directly at her with lazy blue eyes, above which his dark eyebrows arched.
She had a fleeting impression of tallness and broad shoulders and slender hips and well-muscled thighs, all clad in fashionable, expertly tailored clothing that looked as if it had been molded to his handsome frame. But then other thoughts intruded.
It could not be.
The light inside the taproom was dim, the windows being small and half covered with heavy curtains. It was impossible to see with any clarity after just stepping inside out of the sunlight.
It could not possibly be, though.
But it was.
Or rather, he was.
He was Richard.
But she had missed something. He had said something else during the second or two of numb shock she had felt as she recognized him. The words were only now imprinting themselves on her hearing, like an after-echo.
"She is my wife," he had just said.
"Ah, that is all right then, sir," the waiter said as he turned away about his business.
© Mary Balogh