Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: Cornelia helps with final preparations for the Countess’ grand ball while worrying that Sir James will not return in time.
Sir James had met many black-hearted creatures in his days—poachers, pick-pockets, press gangs and others ripe for the gallows or a horse-whipping—but never before had he felt such keen desire to curse the existence of another human like he did the Countess Du’Breven tonight.
If not for her, he would be, at this moment, dry and clean in a ballroom with Cornelia—instead of which he was riding his poor horse through mud. Instead of holding his beloved in his arms and drowning his senses in her warmth and sweet perfume, he was pounding doors in a sleeping village, trying to rouse someone to help dislodge the carriage of an old man who reminded him forcibly of a badger.
Riding his horse up to the door of a small house with a thatched roof, Sir James kicked the door with his boot and waited. It opened a few minutes later.
“What do y’want?” a broad, beefy man said as he opened the door. “You had best have a good reason for wakin’ me.”
Feeling bad for pulling another creature into this quagmire, Sir James didn’t resent his curtness in the slightest. “A gentleman’s carriage has gone off the road and I need help pulling him out of the ditch.”
The man cast intelligent eyes over Sir James’ horse. “Don’t want to lame your bit of prime blood, do ye? Aye, well, I have just the beast for the job. Where’s the carriage?”
Sir James gave him directions and road back to tell Mr. Crusty-Badger that he would soon be rescued. But the old man was not so easily pacified.
“Afraid to get your boots muddy, are you? While an old man huddles in the rain and cold.”
Since the rain had already tapered off and since Sir James felt as if he were steaming in his wet clothes, he lowered his brows and wondered if he should bother to answer the man. “I’ll muddy my boots well enough before we get you out of here, never fear. As for my noble steed, yes, I refuse to risk him. Not only are he and I old friends, but I very much need him to reach my destination tonight.”
“And where might that be?”
“Truly? I am journeying there myself.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but the two of us will be late for the ball tonight. We’ll be lucky to make it in time to secure a partner for the final dance.”
“A ball? Bah!”
Sir James was on the point of asking the old man what his business was. It was clear from his dress and carriage that he was a man of wealth and breeding, so if he was not invited to the ball, why was he traveling to Somerstone on a night like this? But before he could question him further, the sound of hooves on the wet road caught his attention.
The rain clouds had drifted away to reveal the moon, casting light down on the dark fields around them and allowing James to see quite well. The rider was the man from the village on a horse that Sir James recognized as an impressive specimen of a Cleveland Bay. Sir James dismounted to help, and soon the villager and his farm horse had pulled the carriage out of the ditch. With hope flooding back, Sir James shook the man’s hand and assisted the old gentleman’s coachman and postilion to get the carriage horses back into their harnesses.
This done, Sir James bowed to the old gentlemen. “I expect you’ll be able to make the rest of your journey with no further accident. Your wheels and axels are all sound and your horses unhurt.”
“Thank you, good sir,” he said, perfectly polite though his voice was still gruff and booming. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Sir James Hawkston, at your service—complete with muddy boots. And may I have the privilege of knowing yours as well?”
“Ah, I have heard your name spoken often by my father before his passing. He had great respect for your business sense. Said you turned any enterprise you touched into a fortune.”
“Yes, yes, but it has never been said that I like standing about in the mud.”
Sir James laughed, all at once very interested in the old gentlemen. “My apologies. I’ll take my leave of you but hope to see you soon at Somerstone.”
Mr. Crandall turned about and allowed his servant to help him up into the carriage. Sir James waited no longer before mounting his horse and heading for Somerstone. It irked him to be unable to gallop now that he was so close and his horse rested from the pause in their journey, but the condition of the road would not allow it.
However, as he got closer to Somerstone, the ground was dry as if it had not rained here at all. The dry roads allowed him to gallop the final few miles and he rode up to Somerstone’s imposing edifice much sooner than he expected. The steps and front entry blazed with torches and a small army of footman still waited inside.
Trained well, the footmen did not so much as frown as he arrived very late, very wet, and even more muddy. For a moment, he felt bad marring the Countess’ famed Pillared Hall with his muddy boots, but the strains of music filled the house and reminded him that she was to blame for his current state. A muddy floor was the least she deserved.
Though he was tired to his core, Sir James ran up the stairs and all the way to his chamber. He burst through the door and looked around anxiously for his valet. When he saw his servant had everything ready for him, he nearly embraced the man. “Let us be quick,” he said, casting off his driving cloak.
It took too long to bathe and dress, but his hurried efforts kept him from feeling any anxiety about the task before him. No, that didn’t concern him until the moment he stepped into the ballroom and met her eyes across the room. But then it staggered him, freezing him in the doorway. Her eyes had shot straight to him as if she had been watching for him all night, but her brows were puckered and her mouth turned down in a frown.
Gathering all his courage, Sir James made his way to her. The other guests stepped back to make way for him and he heard the wake of murmurs he left behind him. But his only concern was for Cornelia.
Standing in front of her at last, he took a moment to study her beautiful gown and the roses that graced the dark curls piled on top of her head. She bit her lip for just a moment, a sign that she felt as nervous as he did. And she had no idea what lay in store for her.
“You came,” she said.
“Did I not say I intended to? I was delayed on the road, but nothing would have kept me from this moment. May I have this dance?”
Cornelia laughed and glanced out at the couples swirling around to the strains of a lively waltz. “But it is almost over.”
“Yes, but I cannot wait another instant to have you in my arms.”
And so, not giving her the chance to deny him, he took her hand and tucked it into his arm, then led her out to the edge of the dance floor. It took some deft timing and footwork, but he managed to twirl her into the throng of dancers without incident. And then there was nothing else in the world but the curve of her waist beneath his hand, the soft blush on her delicate features, and the look in her gleaming eyes—the first stars he had seen tonight.
They had only a few minutes before the end of the dance. She sighed as he led her off the floor. “Now it feels unwise to have wasted a dance on one that was almost over.”
Sir James smiled and tried to reassure her. “Do not worry, my darling. You will not want for opportunities to be in my arms tonight.”
She looked up at him with an expression so full of surprise and confusion that he laughed. They stood in front of the Countess then, so he bowed to her while keeping Cornelia’s hand pressed to his forearm.
“Took you long enough, didn’t it?” Her brows were drawn together in slight annoyance.”
“Yes, my lady. You forgot to arrange for good weather this evening.”
The Countess narrowed her eyes. “Nonsense. There was no rain here. If you were rained on, it was your own fault for not arriving here soon enough. Now, shall we get things moving along? I have other concerns this evening as well.”
“Get what moving along?” Cornelia asked.
But Sir James didn’t answer. A crowded ballroom was not the place for this discussion. He led her in the Countess’s wake out of the ballroom and down the hall to a small sitting room. The candles were already lit and Sir James smiled as he thought of the Countess’ forethought.
“I’ll return soon,” the Countess said, smiling as Sir James led Cornelia inside. She closed the door softly behind her, making Cornelia’s eyes shoot to his face.
“What is happening?”
Sir James smiled and put his arms around her. “My darling girl, I hope that a miracle is happening.”
“A miracle? What do you mean?”
“I mean, Cornelia, that after the way I caused you so much pain and muddled my first proposal, it will be a miracle if you accept this one. But I pray you will because there is only one way I will ever find happiness in this life and that is if you consent to be my wife. Will you marry me, my adorable hoyden?”
Her face was so still that for a stabbing, gut-wrenching moment, he thought she was going to refuse him. But then her eyes filled with tears and a tremulous smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Yes, James, I will.”
Suffused with joy, he tugged her to his chest and kissed her glorious lips which were lifted to his. She’d accepted him. She was to be his at last, and his only thought beyond how to thoroughly convince her of his devotion was impatience to tell her about the piece of paper in his pocket. In fact, it was the only reason he was able to break the kiss and put a few inches between his lips and hers.
“My darling, I must ask you one thing further. Will you marry me tonight?”
“Tonight? But how? It is impossible.”
“No, darling.” He pulled the license from his pocket. “My business in London was to procure a special license so that I might marry you here and carry you home as my bride.”
“Oh, but James, what will people think?” She stepped away from him, pressing her gloved hands to her cheeks, which were suffused with color. “Already they consider me to be a desperate, grasping female. No doubt they will think the worst if we married in such a way with none of my family here to support me.”
Sir James couldn’t help but acknowledge the force of her argument. He didn’t want to do anything she did not wish. “It is no matter. You can return with me to Buxton and I will marry you there. The license may be used for some time yet.”
“I cannot travel with you unless we are married—and the journey takes three days. No, I will travel home on the stage and meet you there.”
“The stage? You will do no such thing.”
Their argument might have waged for some time if the door had not opened, admitting the Countess and the reverend from her parish. She came forward and asked, “Are you ready for the ceremony?”
Cornelia looked at him with wide, startled eyes, so he answered for them. “Upon consideration, we have decided to be married in Buxton. We have only to decide how best to convey her there.”
“What is the impediment to tying the knot now?” the Countess asked her question a demand.
“I have no family here to make the marriage more respectable,” Cornelia said softly.
“I provide all the respectability you need, but it just so happens that there has been a fortunate turn of events. Any moment, I believe…” The countess turned and looked to the door. Within a few seconds, Mr. Crandall, the old badger from the stuck carriage, entered the room.
To Sir James’ infinite surprise, Cornelia gasped and exclaimed, “Grandfather.” Rushing over to the old gentleman, she fell into his open arms and hugged him. After a long embrace, she stood back. “But why are you here?”
“I learned a week ago of the most astounding circumstance. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that my granddaughter had gone into service as a paid companion. Well, I came to shake some sense into you and take you home again. So tell me, if you please, what nonsense brought you here?”
Cornelia looked at Sir James, clearly hesitant to pour out their whole history to her grandfather. He took her hand and said, “Sir, suffice it to say that it was due to my stupidity some months back and that I too refuse to let her continue her employment any longer. Indeed, I hope you might help us with that.”
The old gentleman lowered his brows, looking more like a badger than ever. “And how can I do that?”
“By either taking her home or giving her away in marriage to me this very moment. I confess, I would much rather it was the latter. I have the license, the minister, and witnesses. I need only Cornelia’s willingness. And for that, she needs you.”
Mr. Crandall turned to Cornelia. “Here is a good man wanting to give you a happy life. Knowing what I know now, I must tell you that I am impressed with his character for he stopped to aid a stranger even when he must have been anxious to be at your side. What are your concerns, child?”
She smiled and Sir James knew he would never forget the radiance of her expression in that moment. She hugged her grandfather then and said, “Nothing at all, if you’ll give me away.”
And so, Sir James had the very great pleasure of being married to his love in the presence of her grandfather and the benefactress who had made it all possible. When their vows were read, the minister left after reminding them to come and sign the register at the church in the morning.
Sir James shook Mr. Crandall’s hand and turned to the Countess. “Thank you, my lady. I admit I was not thinking such kind thoughts of you earlier tonight, but I find now that I owe you a debt I cannot repay.”
“Your happiness together is all I require,” she said, smiling in a very satisfied way. “Now get your bride safe into your room before this ball ends and you are subjected to the attention of dozens of well-wishers.”
Sir James grinned and turned to receive Cornelia from her grandfather. “Shall we, my darling wife?”
“Oh but I hadn’t thought… I never expected…”
“I know you did not,” Sir James, said as he led her from the room, “But remember how I assured you that you would not want for opportunities to be in my arms tonight? Well, I don’t intend to begin our marriage by breaking a promise to you.”
As he led her away, the hum of music and conversation followed them. As they turned onto another corridor, it faded away, leaving them alone in their own private world. Unable to keep himself from it, Sir James stopped and kissed her, devouring her until they were both breathless. And then she broke away with a laugh and stood a few paces away. Her hair had begun to slip from its pins as she stood pulling off her gloves. Then, with an impish grin, she threw them at him.
He caught them and raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing, Lady Hawkston?”
She didn’t answer, just laughed and took off running down the hall. He grinned in sheer, heady amusement at the minx he had married, then ran after her. If there was anything he was good at, it was pursuing this lovely, bewitching hoyden. And this time, he knew, she wanted to be caught.