A Lady’s Past – A. S. Fenichel

Wet roads, a carriage that needed new springs, a relentless drizzle, and still Jacques Laurent had enjoyed one of the best days he’d had in a long time. Seeing his parents safe in England, after worrying about their fate in France all these years, was a relief beyond measure. If not for an important meeting in London the following morning, he would have stayed a few more days in the country. Now that he had their well-being to worry about too, he could ill afford to miss an opportunity to increase his accounts. His small covered carriage did little to protect him from the drizzle, and even less as it turned to a light snow. One never could predict November. He pulled the collar of his coat tighter. Something large and gray darted into the trees on the side of the road. Pulling back on the reins, Jacques squinted into the dense woods. “I saw you, so if you have plans to attack me, you may as well show yourself. I am well armed and not the least bit worried about dispatching a villain tonight, though it would ruin a perfectly good day.” The leaves rustled, and someone cleared her throat. Jacques’s curiosity was piqued. He’d never met a female highwayman. Would they be called a highwaywoman? He would give it thought, but later. Her gun barrel preceded her out of the shadows into the dusk of evening. Hair the color of the richest coffee tumbled around her shoulders as her cape caught on a low branch. “I am also not afraid to shoot. Are you a spy?” Her question was not unusual. His French accent had provoked the notion more than once. It was the times, and nothing could be done about it until the unrest passed. “Certainly not. Spies do not dress well, and they keep terrible hours. The question is, why would a lady such as yourself be traveling alone at night and on foot? More importantly and far more interestingly, why do you concern yourself with spies rather than highwaymen and murderers?” She raised the barrel of her shotgun and looked at him through the threads. “I’m not in a position to answer any of those questions.

You should be on your way.” She motioned down the road with the weapon while keeping her cheek against the butt and her finger on the trigger. Chest tight, he sighed. “I’m afraid I cannot leave you here, madam.” “Why on earth not?” Her nose scrunched up in the most adorable way. Wishing he could discern the color of her eyes, he squinted to try to make them out. Blue, perhaps, but the light was dim with the late hour and persistent snow. “I am a gentleman.” “And that means you can’t leave a total stranger to her own devices?” A hint of amusement filtered into her voice. There was something compelling about the low, raspy tone. “Were you running into o r out of town?” She huffed. “I’m not running.” “I suspect this is a falsehood, but it is none of my business.” “That much is true.” She pressed the gun’s butt tighter to the crease of her shoulder. Laughing, he said, “If you are willing to stop pointing the dangerous end of that weapon at me, I would be happy to convey you into London and drop you wherever you wish.” She lowered the gun, her bravado faltering. Her eyes cast down, she pursed her lips. “I will bash you on the head with this if you so much as look like you will attack me.” “Noted.” He took both reins in one hand and offered her the other to climb up. Once she was seated, he clucked to Midas and the horse trotted on. “You may leave me at Parliament or Piccadilly, whichever is more convenient to you.” Weapon across her lap and no luggage, now her bravado failed, and she might have been a lost puppy rather than the bold woman of a moment before. It tugged at something inside Jacques that a woman with an education, from the sound of her voice, had come to be alone on the road several hours outside of London with nothing but a shotgun.

He had a suspicion. “If you have no place to stay tonight, I can offer you my townhouse or perhaps take you to the home of one of my married friends. The Duke and Duchess of Middleton would be happy to take care of you this evening.” Shoulders back, she stared straight ahead. “That is very kind, but unnecessary. I will be fine.” The snow came down harder. “I am sure that is true. What is your name?” The silence stretched out until he was sure she would refuse to answer. Then, her voice barely a whisper on the wind, she said, “Diana.” Why her name should make him grin, he had no idea. “Yet there is no moon.” “I beg your pardon?” He kept his attention on the road but felt her looking at him. “Your name. Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon.” “Yes, well, my father was fond of mythology.” A tiny noose tightened around his heart. It was absurd. “And your father is no longer with you?” It was a straight bit of road, and he turned his head in time to see her frown and the tightening of her full lips. She reached up and pulled her hair back, twisting it into a knot at her nape. “My father died a year ago.” “I’m very sorry. I am Jacques Laurent. Have you any family to whom I might deliver you this evening?” Already sensing the answer, he wanted her to say something positive and comforting. The idea of her being alone in the world gnawed at him.

“No. I have no family. You may drop me at one of my previously stated locations.” Her back was straight as an oak, and she stared ahead into the waning gray day. Snow speckled her dark hair. Pulling her hood up, she hid her beauty. It wouldn’t do to pull the hood back and demand she let him see her. He sighed. The places she’d requested to be left were both heavily frequented. She chose spots where she would not be alone. Obviously, she needed the crowd for protection. But who was she afraid of? None of his business was the mantra he repeated in his head. He would drop her in the city, go to bed, attend his meeting in the morning and then head back to the country with his friends. The Duke and Duchess of Middleton were anxious to visit with his parents. Preston had been his friend since birth, as their fathers had attended school together. They would collect the dowager duchess and head back to Crestwood, the small estate he’d purchased for his parents. He’d left them with a competent staff, but he hated the notion of them being alone after their long journey. His friends had recently married after meeting when Millie was hired through the Everton Domestic Society to be Preston’s matchmaker. It was no time at all before the matchmaker became matched. Jacques liked Millie; she was smart and funny and the perfect wife for the serious Duke of Middleton. It was an early first snow. The wind picked up and the chill seeped through his coat. He imagined Diana was freezing in that light cape. She pulled the edges closer around her neck, and her teeth chattered together in cadence with the rumble of the wheels. The snow was making it harder and harder to see, and the horse misstepped, pulling the carriage sideways.

Diana gave a short yelp and grabbed the seat. Jacques couldn’t blame her. They had come inches from running off the road. “I think there is a small inn or a farmhouse up ahead. I assume you will not be keen on the idea, but we have to stop for the night and hope the weather clears by morning.” Her shoulders lifted then sank with a long sigh, and she gave him a nod. The inn was indeed small, and a bit worse for wear. Jacques immediately doubted the wisdom of stopping at such a place with a lady, but they had little choice. Neither he nor Midas could continue. As soon as they stopped, a round-bellied man in a robe and nightcap rushed into the yard. “Lord, what a night. I expect you two got caught up. Come in. Leave the horse. I’ll have young Robbie take the beast for feed and shelter. He’ll give him a good rubdown as well. Come in, come in out of the cold. Mrs. Tinker has water boiling for tea.” Jacques secured the reins and turned to Diana. “It seems we are welcome for a bit of an adventure.” The smile she graced him with nearly toppled him from the seat. “It would seem so.” He was going to have to get himself under control. This woman was nothing to him, and he would do well to remember that.

Offering his hand, he helped her down from the carriage. He leaned close to her ear. “I shall have to give him a false name and tell him we’re married. I assume you have a reputation to protect regardless of your current situation, and you would not wish to be forced to marry me.” “Heavens, no.” Wide-eyed, she truly looked horrified. “You wound me with the quickness of your reply.” He joked, but her decisive rejection gnawed at him. Cocking her head, she studied him, then turned and followed the waving innkeeper into the building. “Thank you for allowing us to bother you so late on such a night.” The innkeeper bowed. “Benjamin Tinker at your service, madam. We have only one guest tonight, so you and your husband are a welcome addition. I’m relieved you found your way in the storm.” “I’ll take you up directly and Mrs. Tinker will bring you your tea. You must be in need of a rest. When we heard the carriage, I took the liberty of having Robbie start a fire in one of our guest rooms. Anyone out tonight will be chilled to the bone.” He nodded to Jacques and ambled up the steep stairs. The inn was small and worn, but clean. Two tables and a small bar made up the common area. A door that probably led to the family quarters was at the far end, and a smell that reminded him of his cook’s stew filtered out. At the top of the stairs, a short hall revealed three doors. Tinker took them to the last one and the hinges squealed as he opened it.

He lit a lantern on the table and adjusted the flame. “I’m afraid this is the best we have. We don’t usually get such a fine clientele. I hope it will be all right.” He set about feeding the fire in the small hearth. Sparsely furnished, the room had a bed, a chair and a table. A small trunk sat at the end of the bed. The window out to the yard was freshly cleaned and revealed a young lad cooing to Midas and leading him off toward a barn with the door half off the hinges. Jacques had stayed in far worse places in his lifetime. He handed a shilling to their host. “This is perfect, Mr. Tinker. I cannot thank you enough.” Elated with the early payment, Mr. Tinker beamed. “If you need anything at all, we live off the kitchen downstairs. We’re happy to help.” “Thank you.” Jacques walked him to the door and closed it behind him. “This is cozy.” “I will sleep on the floor, Mr. Laurent.” She’d leaned the shotgun against the wall and removed her hood, then stood with her cape tightly wrapped around her as if it would shield her from him. The lamplight revealed crystal-blue eyes pale against her warm, creamy skin and mahogany hair. “The hell you will.

I might not be English, but I’ll not sleep in the bed while you lie on the cold floor. You may have the bed, and I will manage with the chair.” Those full, rosy lips opened as if to protest when someone scratched on the door. Jacques opened it to a lady in a voluminous robe and cap. Her mousy brown hair poked out from under the threadbare cap, but her faded blue eyes were filled with joy. “I’ve got tea and stew. I thought you might be hungry after traveling through the weather. You both look wet through. There are extra blankets in that trunk, and I brought you warm water for washing.” “Thank you, Mrs. Tinker. You are most kind.” “Anything you need, you just ask.” She blushed and rushed out. Diana opened the trunk and removed a quilt made with scraps of dozens of materials. The most charming blush lit her cheeks. “I would be grateful if you would hold this while I take off this wet dress.” Suddenly the idea of a naked goddess Diana, complete with bow and arrows, forced its way into his ungentlemanly head. Forcing down his baser thoughts, he bolted the door and accepted the quilt. “Of course.” “This is most awkward.” He held the blanket up high enough that he couldn’t see through it. Cloth rustled on the other side. “It is better than freezing to death on the road tonight.” Taking the quilt from him, she wrapped it around herself.

Eyes like starlight filled with worry. “I’m not ungrateful, Mr. Laurent. Your timing in picking me up could not have been better. I had planned to search for a hunter’s shack or some shelter for the night. This is far better. I only meant that taking one’s clothes off while a total stranger held a quilt up was quite awkward.” “I knew what you meant. This has been quite an evening.” His laugh rolled out without warning. His stomach growled. She laughed too. “What do you do, sir?” “Since I don’t know your last name, you should call me Jacques. I invest in inventions and import goods.” He spooned some stew and reveled in the rich flavors and unexpected spice. English food was generally bland to his taste. “This is good.” Crossing with one hand clutching the blanket, she sat and ate the stew as if it had been days since she’d eaten. Nothing about this woman added up. “What do you do, Diana?” “Why would you assume I do anything? Ladies don’t have occupations.” He slid the bowl with his remaining stew across to her. After a brief hesitation, she devoured that as well before picking up her tea and sipping. “I do not think you are like other ladies. I suspect you have a past that would be most interesting to hear about. Perhaps one day you will tell me what sent you out into the cold with nothing but a cloak and a shotgun.

” Sipping his tea, he watched her expressionless face. She’d been scared when they were in the carriage, and she’d let her fear show. Now, in the warm inn with a full belly, she wore a mask of indifference that seemed well practiced. “My circumstances are hardly your concern.” She put down the tea and slipped into the bed. Watching him with wide eyes that betrayed her mistrust, her mask slipped, and she looked like a lost child. He wanted to give her comfort, but of course, she was right. “No. If you would turn your head, I would like to get out of these wet clothes and put on something dry. I would have offered you a shirt, but you seem content with that mummification you created.” She did as he wished, a dark blush creeping into her cheek. Once he was in a dry pair of trousers and a blouse, he hung their clothes over the chair and the two hooks in the wall near the fire, so they would perhaps dry by morning. Stoking the fire, he watched her and tried to decide if she would rob him in his sleep or slit his throat. With a sigh, he doused the lamp and pulled two blankets from the trunk. He made a pallet on the floor near the hearth, lay down, and put his hands behind his head. If she was a murderess and thief, so be it. He was too tired to worry. “Jacques?


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