Judith Law, on her way to a dreary life of drudgery with her aunt after her father becomes impoverished, is daydreaming about rescue by a dashing highwayman as she travels on the stagecoach. But the coach is overturned on a muddy stretch of road, and her condition appears to be even more wretched as rain threatens. And then along comes a stranger on horseback and offers to take one passenger up with him as he rides ahead to the nearest town for help. It is Judith to whom he points.
He was nothing like the highwayman of her daydream. He was neither lithe nor dark nor handsome nor masked, and though he smiled, there was something mocking rather than carefree in the expression.
This man was solid. Not fat by any means, but...solid. His hair beneath his hat was fair. It looked wavy and it was certainly over-long for fashion. His face was dark-complexioned, dark-browed, and big-nosed. His eyes were blue. He was not at all handsome. But there was something about him. Something compelling. Something undeniably attractive--though that did not seem quite a powerful enough word.
Something slightly wicked.
Those were the first thoughts that flashed through Judith's head when she looked up at him. And of course he was no highwayman but merely a fellow traveler offering to ride on for assistance and to take someone with him.
Her second thought was one of shock, indignation, outrage. How dared he! Who did he think she was that he expected she would agree to mount a horse with a stranger and ride off alone with him? She was the daughter of the Reverend Jeremiah Law, whose expectations of strict propriety and morality from his flock were exceeded only by what he expected of his own daughters--especially her.
Her third thought was that within a very short distance--the coachman had said three miles--there was the town and the comfort of an inn, and that perhaps both could be reached before the rain came tumbling down. If she availed herself of the stranger's offer, that was.
And then she remembered her daydream again, the foolish, lovely fantasy of a dashing highwayman who had been about to carry her off on some unknown, glorious adventure, freeing her of all obligation to her family and her past, freeing her from Aunt Effingham and the dreary life of drudgery awaiting her at Harewood. A dream that had been shattered when the coach overturned.
She had a chance now to experience a real adventure, even if it was just a tiny little one. For three miles and perhaps as long as an hour she could ride up before this attractive stranger. She could do something as scandalously improper as leaving the safety and propriety of numbers to be alone with a gentleman. Her papa would shut her into her room with bread and water and her Bible for a week if he ever heard of it, and Aunt Effingham might well decide that even a month was not long enough. But who would ever know? What harm could possibly come to her?
And then the bony man called her a strumpet.
Strangely she did not feel indignant. The accusation was so absurd that she almost laughed. Yet it acted like a challenge to her. And the plump woman was encouraging her. Could she be such a sorry creature that she would turn down this small chance of a lifetime?
She smiled. "It would be my pleasure, sir," she said, hearing with some surprise that she was not speaking with her own voice but with that of a fantasy woman who would dare do such a thing.
He rode closer to her, holding her eyes with his own as he came, and leaned down from the saddle.
"Take my hand and set your foot on my boot, then," he instructed her.
She did both and suddenly it was too late to change her mind. With a seemingly effortless strength that left her breathless rather than alarmed, he lifted her and turned her so that almost before she knew she had left the ground she was sitting sideways before him, his arms bracketing her and giving her the illusion of safety. There was noise all about them. Some people were laughing and encouraging her while others complained about being left behind and begged the stranger to hurry and send back help before the rain came down.
"Is one of those portmanteaux yours, ma'am?" the stranger asked.
"That one." She pointed. "Oh, and the reticule beside it." Although it contained only the very small amount of money Papa had been able to spare her for tea and perhaps some bread and butter during her one-day journey, she was horrified at her carelessness in almost leaving it behind.
"Toss it up here, man," the horseman instructed the coachman. "The lady's portmanteau can be fetched with the others later."
He touched his whip to the brim of his hat after she had her reticule and nudged his horse into motion. Judith laughed. Her great, pathetically small adventure of a lifetime had begun. She willed the three miles to stretch to infinity.
For a few moments she was preoccupied with the fact that she was far from the ground on horseback--she had never been much of a horsewoman--and that the ground itself was a sea of oozing mud. But it did not take her long to become more aware of the startling intimacy of her position. She could feel the warmth of the stranger's body all down her left side. His legs--they looked very powerful encased in tight breeches and supple top boots--were on either side of her. Her knees touched one of them. She could feel the other brushing her buttocks. She could smell horse and leather and male cologne. The dangers of travel paled beside these other wholly unfamiliar sensations.
"It is rather chilly for a summer day," the horseman said, and he wrapped one arm about her and drew her sideways until her shoulder and arm were leaning firmly against his chest and she had no choice but to let her head fall against his shoulder. It was shocking indeed--and undeniably thrilling. It also made her suddenly remember that she was not wearing her bonnet. Not only that--with a quick sideways swivel of her eyes she noticed that at least some of her hair was loose and untidy about her shoulders.
What must she look like? What must he think of her?
"Ralf Bed---ard at your service, ma'am," he said.
How could she announce herself as Judith Law? She was not behaving at all true to her upbringing. Perhaps she should pretend to be someone else entirely--a fantasy self.
"Claire Campbell," she said, slapping together the first names that came into her head. "How do you do, Mr. Bedard?"
"Extremely well at the moment," he said huskily and they both laughed.
He was flirting with her, she thought. How scandalous! Papa would depress his impertinence with a few withering words--and then doubtless punish her for flaunting herself. And this time he would be justified. But she was not going to spoil her precious adventure by thinking of Papa.
"Where are you bound?" Mr. Bedard asked. "Pray do not tell me there is a husband somewhere to lift you down from the coach. Or a sweetheart."
"Neither," she told him, laughing again for no particular reason except that she felt lighthearted. She was going to enjoy her brief adventure to the very last moment. She was not going to waste time, energy, or opportunity in being shocked. "I am single and unattached--the way I like it." Liar. Oh, liar.
"You have restored my soul," he assured her. "Who, then, is awaiting you at the end of your journey? Your family?"
Inwardly she grimaced. She did not want to think about the end of her journey. But the good thing about adventures was that they were neither real nor lasting. For the remainder of this strange, brief one she could say and do--and be--whatever took her fancy. It was like having a dream and some reality all at the same time.
"I have no family," she told him. "None that would own me, anyway. I am an actress. I am on my way to York to play a new part. A leading role."
Poor Papa. He would have an apoplexy. And yet it had always been her wildest, most enduring dream.
"An actress?" he said, his voice low and husky against her ear. "I might have known it as soon as I set eyes on you. Such vivid beauty as yours would shine brightly on any stage. Why have I never seen you in London? Can it be because I rarely attend the theater? I must certainly mend my ways."
"Oh, London," she said with careless scorn. "I like to act, Mr. Bedard, not just be ogled. I like to choose the parts I wish to play. I prefer provincial theaters. I am well enough known in them, I believe."
She was, she realized, still talking in that voice she had used at the roadside. And, incredibly, he believed her story. It was evident in his words and in the look in his eyes--amused, appreciative, knowing. Branwell, after he had first gone away to university and into the great wide world, had once told his sisters--in the absence of Papa--that London actresses almost always supplemented their income by being mistresses to the rich and titled. She was wading in dangerous waters, Judith thought. But it was for only three miles, for only an hour.
"I wish I could see you onstage," Mr. Bedard said, and his arm tightened about her while she backs of his leather-gloved fingers raised her chin.
He kissed her. On the mouth.
It did not last long. He was, after all, riding a horse over treacherous roads with a passenger hampering both his own movements and those of his horse. He could ill afford the distraction of a lengthy embrace.
But it lasted long enough. Quite long enough for a woman who had never been kissed before. His lips were parted, and Judith felt the moist heat of his mouth against her own. Seconds, or perhaps only a fraction of one second, before her brain could register either shock or outrage, every part of her body reacted. Her lips sizzled with a sensation that spread beyond them, through her mouth, into her throat, and up behind her nostrils. There was a tightening in her breasts, and a powerful ache down through her stomach and her womb and along the insides of her thighs.
"Oh," she said when it was over. But before she could express her indignation over such an insolent liberty, she remembered that she was Claire Campbell, famous provincial actress, and that actresses, even if not the mistresses of the rich and titled, were expected to know a thing or two about life. She looked into his eyes and smiled dreamily.
Why not? she thought recklessly. Why not live out her fantasy for this short little spell to discover where it might lead? This first kiss, after all, would probably also be her last.
Mr. Bedard smiled back at her with lazy, mocking eyes.
"Oh, indeed," he said.
© Mary Balogh