Strangers at DawnBy: Elizabeth Thornton
Sara looked up with an arrested expression on her face. She visibly shuddered. “I don’t know which frightens me more, the thought of the Courier’s special correspondent hounding me from pillar to post or the prospect of William turning up. Now do you see why I’m determined to break the trust? I want to get back my life and start over somewhere else. We’ve been wavering long enough, Bea. As soon as it can be arranged, we set off for Bath.”
“Bath,” repeated Miss Beattie.
This was something else Sara had carefully explained to her. In the summer months, the smart set followed the Prince of Wales to Brighton. There was little chance that Sara would be recognized in Bath. And if there were no likely candidates for the position of husband-in-name-only in Bath, they’d move on to Cheltenham.
An hour later, as Miss Beattie composed herself for sleep, she tried to comfort herself with the thought that it wasn’t all black. This trip to Bath could well be a step in the right direction. For the first time since the trial, Sara would be open to meeting new people. As a devoutly religious person, Miss Beattie did not see why her Maker could not turn Sara’sharebrained scheme around and make things come out right. A little nudge was all it would take and that husband-in-name-only could well turn out to be the champion Sara sorely needed and so richly deserved.
As she dwelt on that happy thought, she had a picture of Sara as she would like her to be. Her dreary wardrobe would be donated to the parish poorhouse, to be replaced by a new wardrobe of elegant silks and muslins in jewellike colors to set off Sara’s dramatic good looks. There would be parties and balls, and jaunts to the theater and pleasure gardens. Sara would smile a lot.
And there would be no more Scarlatti. Definitely, no more Scarlatti.
And no more lace caps.
A champion for Sara, she decided, would figure prominently in her prayers from now on, just as she’d pray for confusion on all Sara’s enemies, particularly on that no-good, low-down, despicable special correspondent who wrote for the Courier. Not that she wanted anything catastrophic to happen to him. She just wished someone would beat him to a pulp.
THEY WERE TAKING HIM TO A BAWDY HOUSE.
This was to be his reward, Max supposed, for taking the beating of his life. It was a generous gesture, considering his friends had lost a packet when they’d bet heavily on him against Mighty Jack Cleaver, the prize pugilist of five counties around. They should have known better. And so should he.
He must have been out of his mind to let his friends talk him into it. Who in Hades did he think he was? He wasn’t a professional fighter. He was an amateur. So, he trained with Gentleman Jackson when he was in town, but that was only as a form of exercise. From now on, he would stick to cricket.
He groaned when the coach hit a pothole. It didn’t surprise him now that no one had ever claimed the thousand pounds’ reward Mighty Jack Cleaver offered to anyone who could knock him down. The man was built like a mountain. Cleaver by name and Cleaver by nature.
He shouldn’t be complaining. He should be thanking his lucky stars that he was still breathing. He hadn’t broken any ribs or his nose this time around. He just felt as though a carriage had run over him.
“Ah, Reading,” intoned a voice from one corner of the carriage.
Max opened his bleary eyes and looked out the window. There wasn’t much to see at this time of night. The only light came from lanterns that were hanging outside every other building. It seemed that the good citizens of Reading were snug in their beds, and in his condition, that’s exactly where he wanted to be.
There was no way he was going to a bawdy house tonight, or any night in the foreseeable future. In any event, his mistress would be waiting for him at the Black Swan, and Deirdre had a temper. If he didn’t turn up, there would be hell to pay. He might even lose her, and that would be a pity, because Deirdre was definitely his kind of woman. Ripe and always ready for the plucking, with a wild mane of wavy dark hair and eyes as black as sin. Sinful eyes, sinful hands, and a sinfully ripe mouth. The thought made Max attempt a grin in spite of his sore jaw.
“A toast to Max,” John Mitford cried out, and a chorus of masculine voices bellowed their approval. John’s voice turned maudlin. “To a gallant sport; to the best friend a man ever had; to a champion fighter, even though he lost tonight; to the finest Corinthian of them all!”
“To Max,” the highly inebriated voices bellowed, “the finest Corinthian of them all,” and the open bottles of brandy were passed around yet again.
Corinthian. At twenty-one, he’d taken pride in his membership in that select group. All his friends had been Corinthians. They considered themselves gentlemen athletes, jockeys, pugilists, sportsmen.
But that was years ago. These days, they shook off their cares and responsibilities once a year, donned the fashionable garments they’d sported as youngsters, and tried to convince themselves they were still Corinthians. That’s why he’d accepted Jack Cleaver’s challenge tonight. More fool he.
His friends were as aware as he that things were changing. They were drifting apart as their interests diversified. And they simply did not have the time to keep up with each other. In an effort to stem the tide, they’d hit upon the idea of spending part of every July in Brighton. “The Bachelors’ Last Stand,” they called it. They’d been firm friends since their undergraduate days at Oxford and nothing, they vowed, would ever come between them.