The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (8 page)

An overheard comment about the stagecoach made her
look up quickly at the speaker, whom she discovered to be a
spare, clerkish-looking man in a long coat. Inspiration
struck her like a bolt of lightning.

A few hurried words with the waiter elicited the informa
tion that the stagecoach had come in a quarter hour before and was preparing to depart again.

Thea leaped to her feet, her heart pounding. If she was to act, it had to be at once. Her brothers would expect her to re
turn to the carriage very soon. Likely Thomas would come
in search for her when she did not reappear in a very few minutes.

Thea did not know how long it would take for a new team
to be put to Lord Cardiff’s carriage, nor how long hot cider and sandwiches would hold her brothers’ attention. But al
ready most of that time must be lost to her, she thought anx
iously.

Thea found the driver of the stagecoach and spoke to him
earnestly for several seconds. At first he was reluctant to
take her up since she was not on the waybill of passengers, but she was finally able to persuade him to give her a place inside the stagecoach. Thea hurriedly counted out her fare
from the meager resources in her possession and followed
the driver outside.

She kept the big man between herself and Lord Cardiff’s
carriage, hoping that the driver’s bulk would hide her from
her brothers’ eyes. Her heart was in her throat, for at any
second she expected to hear Thomas’s exclamation of sur
prise and feel his hand come down upon her shoulder.

“Baggage, miss?”

Thea shook her head, with difficulty schooling her fea
tures from showing her apprehension. Would her lack of
substance cause the driver to change his mind about giving
her a place?

However, the driver merely shook his head and saw her
up into the stagecoach. Closing the door, he crunched round
to the front and hefted himself onto the stagecoach seat. Picking up his heavy whip and the leather reins, he started
the team. With a jerk, the stagecoach lumbered forward out of the inn yard.

Squeezed between a stocky farmer and a stout matron, Thea was able to catch only a glimpse of the activity in the receding inn yard.

A new team had been harnessed to Lord Cardiff’s car
riage, and her brother Thomas was standing outside the un
moving vehicle, staring towards the inn with an uneasy expression on his face.

The stagecoach swept around the corner and Thea could see nothing else. She drew in a careful breath, thinking it all
out. Her brothers would waste time in conference, of course,
before it was decided that one of them must go into the inn
after her. It would take time, too, for it to be established she
had slipped away from the inn. She had spoken only to the
waiter about the stagecoach, and with any luck at all it
would not immediately occur to her brothers to question any
of the inn’s servants about her whereabouts. After all, there was a certain embarrassment that must be attached to such
queries. So several precious minutes would be gained before
her brothers even discovered what she had done. They
would then have to decide whether or not to chase the stage
coach, and Thea rather hoped that they would be too
daunted to take on the task of waylaying a public vehicle.

Thea leaned back against the seat with a sigh. She closed
her eyes as a small smile played across her lips. Even her brothers must recognize that, without her, there was simply
no point in continuing forward with their ridiculous plan. They would have no choice left open to them except to free Lord
Cardiff.

The humiliating episode was over at last, thought Thea,
allowing herself to relax. She only hoped that Lord Cardiff’s
patience and good nature had not been so worn down that he would seek revenge upon her father and her brothers. How
ever, she felt quite strongly that the gentleman who had
saved her from an unpleasant contretemps would also show mercy in connection with her idiotic male relations. At least,
she hoped it was so.

Thea sighed again and exhaustion began to claim her.
The deep sway of the stagecoach was having a soporific ef
fect on nerves that had been too long stretched with tension. The stray thought drifted through her mind that she must always regret the manner of her meeting with Lord Cardiff. If
only ... but she was asleep.

Chapter Eight

 

Thea never knew how long she slept, but when she awak
ened the sunlight outside had shifted and was slanting from over the dense passing hedgerows, casting long shad
ows across the rutted road. She discovered that she had got
ten stiff and attempted to discreetly stretch her cramped
limbs.

Despite feeling as though her body had been bruised
from head to toe by the jolting of the stagecoach over the
rough road, Thea felt surprisingly refreshed. The dull
headache that had plagued her was gone. She knew the
feeling of well-being and the lifting of her mood was natu
rally due to the cessation of hours of emotional distress. She
felt quite like her old self, at once cheerful and content.

If her situation at present was not all it should be, that
would be remedied as soon as she disembarked from the stagecoach. She had had enough in her reticule to pay for her way to the quiet village where her great-aunt resided.
She was confident, once she had identified herself as Mrs.
Partridge’s niece, that she could borrow a gig at the inn to drive herself the rest of the way to her great-aunt’s home.

Thea grimaced at her wrinkled walking dress, aware that
its hem was streaked with dirt. Her half-boots were also
soiled. It was difficult to believe that two days ago she had
been respectably turned out. She had never been in such a shocking state of dishevelment. Her great-aunt would be
disconcerted to receive her in such odd straits, but even
more astounding would be the explanation Thea felt herself
bound to give to Mrs. Partridge.

Thea felt tears burning her throat and behind her lids. It
was quite, quite unfair. In truth, she would be the talk of her father’s household and, indeed, of the entire county. She had
been gone a night and a day from her home without expla
nation except that which gossip might supply,

Thea knew her family well enough to be able to envision
the highly charged emotional scene that had taken place
when her maid Hitchins had returned to the house with her
tale of foul abduction. Her father was not a quiet man or given over to discreet reflection. Everyone within hearing distance would have heard what had happened. The tale
would have spread rampant through the household, from
kitchen to stable to garden, and beyond. By this date, the entire neighborhood would have heard the gossip and the vil
lage would be rife with speculation regarding Thea
Stafford’s fate.

Thea twisted her hands together inside the folds of her cloak.

If she returned home now, unchaperoned and without the
protection of father and brothers, it would hideously fuel the
horrid gossip. Thea drew in a long, shaking breath as she
imagined what it would be like. The sly looks, the whispers
behind raised hands.

It would be utterly insupportable.

What Mr. Quarles had conceived and set in motion, her
own father and brothers had placed the final crowning touch
to through their bungling and lack of discretion.

She could not bear the inevitable disgrace and shame.
She would be shunned and insulted at every turn by anyone of the least respectability. If any of her friends even deigned
to recognize her, it would be only through pity. Everyone
would believe what Mr. Quarles had intended them to think, and worse, for she would not even have the redeeming value
of Quarles’s wedding ring on her finger. For someone of her
quality and background, a good reputation was everything,
and as things stood, hers was irretrievable.

Thea felt her only recourse was self-exile. That much
had become clear in her reflections at the inn. When she had
heard mention of the stagecoach, how it could be done had exploded upon her.

Driven by desperation, she had acted. But now, contem
plating the consequences, her spirits were weighed down.
The thought of remaining a draw on her great-aunt’s charity was unpalatable. However, Thea could not see that she had
any other choice, unless she went into service of some kind.
The bequest from her godmother was useless to her since it would only come into her hands upon the occasion of her
marriage or upon her twenty-fifth birthday. It was ironic that
the very reason for her present trouble could not be used to
help her.

Of a sudden the stagecoach began to slow and lurch to a
stop. The stout farmer was roused from his nap and posed a querulous question, but none of the other passengers could provide an answer. Curiosity and speculation at the unscheduled stop was batted round, ranging from the opinion
that one of the team had gone lame to a cracked axle. Some
one lowered the window and put out his head, remarking
when he reentered that there was a carriage pulled across the
road in front of the stagecoach.

Thea was so sunk in her slough of depression that she
paid no attention.

However, she protested instinctively, just as everyone
else did, at the blast of arctic air when the door was opened.
All of the passengers complained loudly of their displeasure.
The momentary lowering of the window had been nothing compared to it.

Thea was completely dismayed when her brother Philip
stepped up to the opening. She shrank back against the seat,
her one thought to seek escape. But there was none, of
course.

Philip ignored the passengers’ questions. His eyes roved quickly over the faces turned towards him. “There you are,
Thea.” There was a distinct note of relief in his voice. “We
were concerned about you.”

“No, you were not!” exclaimed Thea. Quite forgetting
where she was, she sat bolt upright. “You do not care at all,
Philip! No, nor Thomas, either! Neither of you cares that
you’ve ruined my life!”

All of the passengers were staring with various expres
sions of shock. Acutely aware of an audience, Philip
Stafford gave an embarrassed cough. “My sister. She has run
away,” he explained shortly, without directly addressing
anyone. “Thea, pray come down. We had to spring his lord
ship’s horses to catch the stagecoach and stop it. The driver
is none too pleased with us.”

The passengers at once voiced their opinions and dis
pleasure at the unexpected delay. Since it was obvious that
the young lady and young gentleman were known to one an
other, several recommended that Thea get out.

“You oughtn’t run off from your family, miss,” said the spare, clerkish man disapprovingly.

“We’re late enough as it is, miss,” said the farmer apolo
getically, offering a callused hand to help her out. He
avoided her tragic-appearing eyes with some discomfiture.

“Thomas and—and our friend are waiting in the car
riage,” said Philip, clearing his throat again. He added per
suasively, “Do come along, Thea.”

The passengers renewed their own convictions that Thea
should disembark. The driver had by now climbed down and
come round to stand behind Philip’s shoulder. He, too, de
manded that Thea leave the stagecoach. “I can’t let me
horses stand long in this cold, miss.”

Recognizing that she had very little choice in the matter,
Thea climbed out of the stagecoach, accepting the farmer’s
help over that of her brother. Philip tentatively took her arm
and escorted her down the road to Lord Cardiff’s carriage,
which had already been drawn over to the side so that it was
no longer blocking the stagecoach’s passage.

The stage driver climbed up on his box, indifferent to anything but his own responsibility, and the coach started
away with a heavy clatter of hooves. Thea watched it sway
ponderously out of sight, ignoring Philip’s urging to get up
into the carriage out of the cold. She saw an arm wave from
out of the stagecoach window and believed that it was the
farmer who had showed that small gesture of friendship.

Without a word, then, she stepped up into Lord Cardiff’s
carriage and sat down in her former place beside his lord
ship. Philip reentered the carriage after her, letting his breath
out on a great sigh as he shut the door and banged on the
roof to signal the coachman. The carriage started forward.

Thomas, who was holding the pistol cocked at Lord
Cardiff, greeted his sister’s appearance with an expression
of relief and a reproachful remonstrance. “You ought not to have run away, Thea. We might not have realized you had
slipped away on the stagecoach. Anything could have hap
pened to you.”

Thea was roused from her posture of apathy. Her eyes blazed as she rounded on both of her brothers. “You mean
that I might have been abducted? Or perhaps been ravished
and left abandoned against the hedgerows?”

“Thea!”

She ignored the shocked interjection. “What worse could
happen that has not already befallen me?” The dam of her
self-control broke. Tears slipped unheeded down her cheeks
as she stared at them.

“Why, Thea, I’ve never known you to cry,” exclaimed
Philip, looking at her with concern. He reached out towards
her, meaning to comfort her with a brotherly hug.

“Don’t touch me!” exclaimed Thea with loathing.

Philip reared back, astounded.

Thea dropped her face into her hands and cried harder.

Lord Cardiff’s voice was calm. “You are overwrought,
Miss Stafford. It is little wonder.” He gently took hold of her
wrist and drew her towards him.

Thea at once hid her face against his lordship’s shoulder,
reaching up with one hand to clutch his wide lapel. Her
voice was muffled and broken by pathetic sobs. “They are
horrible! Philip and—and Thomas and P-Papa!”

“Yes, they are. Utterly horrible. I’ve thought so now for several hours,” said Cardiff soothingly.

“I
detest
them!” Renewed loathing made Thea’s voice vi
brate.

“Of course you detest them. It is quite understandable,” said Cardiff in a calm tone, nodding above her bowed head.

As one, Philip and Thomas Stafford glared at Lord
Cardiff. It was patent that the sight of their sister being com
forted by his lordship was not one that they found particularly edifying.

“Sir! My lord!” spluttered Philip. “It is quite unseemly for you to put your arm around our sister!”

Thomas growled assent, his face set in frowning lines.
“Most unseemly!”

Thea reared up, her face tear-streaked but her eyes blaz
ing from between clumped lashes. “Unseemly! Oh, isn’t that
rich!
You
object! Now that I am a fallen woman, I suppose
any number of gentlemen may expect to put their arms
about me!”

“Thea Emily Stafford!” gasped Philip, thoroughly
shocked.

“It’s true!” she declared. “I’m ruined, and it’s all your f-
fault! And yours, Thomas! I realized it on the stagecoach. I
can’t ever, ever go home again!”

Thea ended on a wail and buried her face in Lord
Cardiff’s shoulder again. For several minutes there was
nothing but the sound of Thea’s weeping. Her brothers
shifted uncomfortably, exchanging worried glances.

Cardiff suffered the storm patiently. When the sobs less
ened to hiccoughs, he reached into his greatcoat pocket and drew out a large linen handkerchief. A delicate monogram decorated one comer of the square. “Miss Stafford, pray dry
your eyes.”

Thea straightened up, not glancing at either Lord Cardiff or her brothers. She took the handkerchief and mopped her
eyes and blew her nose. She felt better, though utterly
ashamed of her torrent of emotion. Eyes still downcast, she stuffed the handkerchief into her reticule. Her voice still thickened, she murmured, “I shall wash and iron it for you,
my lord.”

“Thank you, Miss Stafford,” said Cardiff at his most po
lite.

Thea cast a swift glance up into his face, then away. “I
am very sorry, my lord. I have wet your coat.”

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