A Christmas Present for my readers.
All joy of the season,
Jo

The Christmas Wedding Gambit

Copyright. Jo Beverley 2005
Gambit: in chess, an opening move in which something is sacrificed in order to achieve a better position.

    "What the hell are you doing here?"
    Viscount Greystoke didn't normally swear at ladies, but if any man had excuse, that day he did. He'd just returned from a neighbour's house where he'd been accused of fathering a child on one of the daughters and been given the choice of wedding the liar or dueling her brother.
    And now the lying shrew's fat sister was sitting on the sofa in his bedroom like an ominous gray mound.
    "Get out."
    Red flags flew in a white, round face, but she said, "Not until you have heard what I have come to say, my lord."
    "Unless you are the unlikely courier of an apology, I have no interest in anything you have to say, and I certainly do not need more complications with your family. Please leave."
    Then he realized it was hours after dark. How had she come here, and how was she to get home? Was her brother waiting to pounce, and... And do what? Challenge him to a second duel?
    Frances. The name popped into his mind. Frances Guysley. Miss Guysley, in fact, for she was the older sister, though kept well in the background.
     "I will apologize,” she said. “Celia is behaving atrociously."
    Greystoke eyed her with new interest. "You know she's lying?"
    "I assume she is."
    "Why?"
    "Who knows her better?"
    "Will you swear to it?"
    "To what?" she asked with irritation. "You were foolish enough to linger in a cottage with her, my lord. I can't swear as to what happened there."
    "I..." But he would not explain herself to her. "If you cannot prove her a liar, Miss Guysley, then what use are you to me?"
    She flushed again, and her lips might have wobbled.
    He sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm sure you mean well, but you must see how disastrous your being here could be."
    "You could hardly be forced to marry both of us, my lord."
    He stared at her. She thought this a time for jokes?
    "And if I announce that you had already asked to marry me...."
    "What?"
    "Only consider, my lord. My parents will not require you to jilt me in order to marry Celia."
    Greystoke's head was spinning. "They won't?"
    "Of course not. If Celia had claimed to be with child by the head groom, they wouldn't demand marriage with him. They want a connection to Greystoke, and I'm sure they would prefer a harmonious one."
    "Harmonious!" He laughed -- the laugh of a lunatic.
    She carried on, unblinking. "As they fear I will never make a worthy marriage, they will be pleased for two reasons rather than one."
    He backed away from the demented female. She couldn't be more than twenty, yet she was making these outrageous statements with hardly a tremor.
    Ah. Fury came to a boil again. "So that's it. This is all a convoluted plot to foist you off on me. I'll see you and your family in hell, first!"
    Colour flared again, but her lips tightened rather than trembling. "You'd rather die?"
    "I'm a good shot."
    "You'd rather kill? Even if you would, my brother would not. Peter is broken over the thought."
    "Perhaps I'll choose the marriage instead."
    "I wouldn't if I were you." She looked down very briefly and then met his eyes again. "I hoped marrying me would be the lesser of some very evil evils, my lord, that is all."
    "I could call your family's bluff."
    She shook her head. "It's not bluff. They believe Celia. You have a reputation, after all, and you were in that cottage with her."
    Greystoke paced the room wishing he could get drunk, but he needed his wits about him now more than ever. He'd never touched Celia Guysley in an improper way. Unfortunately he had spent about a quarter of an hour in that ramshackle cottage with her last Michaelmas.
    He always did a thorough riding inspection of his property on Quarter Days, and when passing near the deserted cottage he'd heard weeping. Of course, he'd investigated and found a disheveled Celia Guysley in a riding habit, with a story of being thrown from her horse, becoming lost, and being terrified of bears.
    Bears!
    What sort of ninny could think there were bears in Cumberland? In any part of Britain, in fact?
    Even if she was a twit, she'd been a young lady in distress, so he'd done the honorable thing and calmed her before returning her to her home. That had been close to three months ago and now she claimed to be with child. If she was, it was nothing to do with him, but how did a man prove such a thing? Especially when, as Miss Guysley pointed out, he had a somewhat rakish reputation.
    He could leave the area and wait it out. Time would prove him honest -- unless she claimed to miscarry, leaving his reputation sullied. If the lying harpy truly was with child he certainly couldn't marry her, not even to save his or Peter Guysley's life. He'd shoot himself before he'd accept her bastard as his child, perhaps even his heir.
    He hadn't even had the satisfaction of making her lie to his face. She was, her weeping mother had said, too distraught.
    Now he faced this new twist. Had the Celia business been a ruse to force him to take the unmarriageable sister? He didn't know the Guysleys well -- they'd only leased Green Brow House two years ago -- but he wouldn't have thought them capable of that degree of cunning.
    He remembered his mother's warning, however. During her visit last Christmas, she'd pointed out that the Guysleys were trying to capture him by means of their pretty daughter. He'd noticed Celia’s blatant flirting, but been confident of dealing with her.
    Folly. His mother was a wise woman.
    The ugly daughter was looking at the chessboard set before the fire, perhaps deliberately giving him opportunity to think. Unfair to call her ugly, he supposed. Beneath the padding of round cheeks and double chin, her features were as regular as her sister's. She had a firmer set to her lips, but that could come from this situation. Those lips were as nicely curved and her complexion was excellent.
    What's more, there might be cock-eyed merit to her plan. It wasn't a marriage he'd choose, but it would thwart Celia and avoid the duel.
    He knew little of this woman's character and her sister's didn't augur well. Frances Guysley had displayed calm, control, and logical thought tonight, however, which counted in her favor, as did her ability to sit still now and wait. He considered the chessboard of his life and made a move.
    "Miss Guysley."
    She started as if she, too, had been lost in thought, but then she turned apparently calm eyes toward him. Blue eyes. Ordinary, but as eyes went, acceptable.
    "Yes, my lord?"
    "You say you have slipped away without your family being aware of it. How?"
    "We are hardly prisoners at Green Brow, my lord. I retired to bed, then dressed again and left the house."
    "You walked here?"
    "It's only two miles, and there is a moon."
    "Weren't you afraid of bears?"
    She blinked at him. "Bears, my lord?"
    "They have been spoken of hereabouts," he said, tempted to smile as if they shared a joke. She was going to think him mad. "You will not be missed?"
    "No one intrudes on me after I have retired."
    "You don't sleep with your sister?"
    A wry smile twitched her lips. "Neither of us would like that."
    He went over it again, looking for danger. "You weren't afraid? I might easily be inclined to throttle you."
    "You wish to add murder to your crimes?"
    The irony caught him unawares, but he liked her for it.
    "Why are you willing to do this, Miss Guysley?"
    Her brows rose. "Why am I willing to marry a handsome, wealthy viscount? To leave the house where I am plagued by a selfish, tempestuous sister and neglectful parents, and an existence where I am considered beyond hope? I am taking ruthless advantage of the situation, Lord Greystoke, with the happy satisfaction of averting tragedy at the same time."
    Her precise and accurate assessment startled him, but almost made him smile. He disciplined his mind back to analysis. "If this is an elaborate deception, someone from your family has to have escorted you here and must be outside in case you need help."
    "It's not," she protested.
    "I must guard against it. If your father or brother is out there, after a time, they must come in to try to find out what has happened to you. Therefore, you will stay here until first light. Don't worry -- I have no designs on your virtue. If no one attempts to find out what has become of you, I will accept your story."
    "You talk nonsense. If this is a plot, they'd be happy to have you compromise me."
    "That's been tried already."
    She frowned at him, but he saw impatience rather than fear or guilt. "And when nothing happens, you will accept my plan?"
    He wished the entire Guysley family to hell and beyond. He was strongly tempted to throw the grey mound out and let the devil do his worst, but it was a damnable fix, and there were other complications. It was almost Christmas and his mother, his younger brother, and his sister and her husband would arrive in a few days. They'd expect a merry Christmas. Would they find him dead, or a murderer fled to the Continent?
    An unexpected betrothal would definitely the lesser of the very evil evils, as she’d put it. She had a way of putting things. He realized that he'd far rather present this woman to his family as his Christmas surprise than Celia Guysley, pretty though she was.
    "You will stay here," he decided, "and I will think more on this. If we're not interrupted, at first light we'll return you to your home, either to sneak you back into the house or to announce our happy news."
    "If I stay and we are not interrupted, my lord, you will accept that I'm telling the truth and we will announce our betrothal. But not like that. I will return to the house undetected and then later, I will inform papa."
    Impudent jade! "Who will ask why you didn't mention this detail today."
    "I was shocked," she said calmly. "I didn't know what to do for the best."
    "Are you ever shocked, Miss Guysley?"
    "Of course, my lord."
    He wasn't sure he believed her.
    "Why did I not speak to him?" he asked. "I'm sure you have an answer for that, too."
    "I asked you to delay because Celia would be upset to think that you wished to marry me, not her." She glanced upward for a moment in thought. "In fact, I told her, which led to her producing this lie."
    He realized he was gaping and closed his mouth hard. "You are devious beyond belief!"
    "A valuable talent in this situation, wouldn't you say? I have been completely honest with you, my lord. Do we have a bargain?"
    Fleeing the area and the lot of them was tempting, but dammit, this was his home, his family's home for three centuries, and his family was en route for he traditional celebrations. His servants had doubtless baked cakes, boiled puddings, stirred mincemeat, and chosen the finest turkey, goose, and ham.
    "Take off that dreadful cloak."
    The first hint of alarm showed. "Why?"
    "Because I don't know why you're hiding beneath it."
    She flushed again, but rose, undid the strings at the neck, and took it off.
    It made little difference.
    Beneath, she wore a dull blue dress. The colour was dull, though it probably had a fancy name like "evening sky", but so was the design. It fit up to her neck and down to her wrists and was merely gathered beneath her ample bosom. The gown lacked all ornament except for some pin-tucks in the center of the bodice and a bit of braid around the hem.
    It settled his mind because he realized that she'd been hiding in her cloak. Hiding because she knew she was unattractive. It was not the act of a cunning schemer, even if she was a pawn of a cunning family.
    He didn't see Frances Guysley as anyone's pawn.
    There comes a time when thinking over a move served no further purpose. "Very well," he said, "we have a bargain." He held out his hand.
    She blinked and something, a tremor perhaps, betrayed emotion. She shook his hand firmly, however. "Good. Then where shall I sleep?"
    "Take the bed. I'll use the chaise."
    She gave him a wary glance, but then drew the curtains all around the bed and disappeared inside. She became silent so quickly that he doubted she tried to undress, though she'd have to take off the small, tight bonnet. What color was her hair? Some shade of brown.
    He finally allowed himself a glass of brandy and sat by the fire looking at the chess board. It was set for a puzzle sent him by a friend and he’d been in contented consideration of it when the message from Green Brow had arrived. Now he had a more complex puzzle in hand. Who was winning?
    Probably Frances Guysley. He smiled over her precise enumeration of the advantages to her. The advantages to himself were all negative, but substantial. No marriage to a liar. No duel. No outrageous scandal. His family and friends would wonder at the sudden betrothal, and at his choice, but that would pass. He'd have to make sure the Guysleys kept Celia in control. Better if she could be sent away.
    He rested his head back, planning the next moves. A Christmas wedding, he supposed, while his family were here. A honeymoon? Where? What the hell did he do with a wife? He was expected in Melton in late January.
    Gads.
     He must sleep, for tomorrow would be little better than today. There was a bedroom next door and more down the corridor, but all the rooms would be icy and the beds damp. He raised the curtains so first light would wake him. Then he built up the fire, took a pillow, blanket, and quilt from the chest, stripped off some clothing, and settled as best he could on the chaise.
    The lesser of the very evil evils. Given those evils, he had to hope they passed an undisturbed night.
    
    
###
    
    By dawn's grey light, Frances Guysley looked down at Lord Greystoke wondering how she'd had the nerve to come here and whether she should creep away while she had the chance. She'd known he was dashing and handsome, but until she'd confronted him last night, she'd not known how vibrant he was, nor how physically attractive. He'd sizzled with energy, shaking her nerve. At least he was tranquil now.
    He must have taken off his coat and waistcoat, for above the blanket she saw only his shirt, sans cravat, collar open to reveal a strong neck. His lashes lay dark on his lean cheeks and his dark hair was disheveled. That and a firm mouth relaxed in sleep stirred a foolish tenderness.
    He could feel none for her; not after Celia's wickedness. Her best hope was for benign neglect, and the ultimate treasure -- a home of her own.
    And children. But last night, when she'd settled into his bed, she'd realized what that required. How would that be with a resentful husband? Through the night, she'd honestly sought escape. There simply wasn't one. Even this one was chancy. If Celia threw enough of a fuss papa might insist Greystoke marry her anyway. Frances had no idea how to fight that.
    Unless it was a fait accompli....
    She continued to stare at the man, breathing rather deeply at her outrageous thoughts. He stirred and his eyes opened. Instinctively she stepped back, as if guilty of something.
    She saw puzzlement, then recall, then understanding.
    There had been no interruptions in the night.
    "Good morning, my future wife," he said wryly.
    She felt her cheeks heat and wished such things were under her control
    "Second thoughts?" he asked.
    "Many, but I won't back out if you don't. Do you want to?"
    She saw him think, but he sat up, blanket falling to his waist. "No."
    He was still decently covered, but the breadth of his shoulders was suddenly apparent. She turned away and went to see if there was a glimmer of life in the fire. There wasn't, and the room was cold. She put on her cloak and gloves, and armoured, turned to speak her plan. "I think we should elope."
    "What?" He was standing now, in shirt, breeches, and stockinged feet, staring at her.
    She swallowed. "We can't be entirely sure that my parents won't persist in trying to force you to marry Celia." She halted, then asked. "Will you assure me again that you haven't fathered a child on her? If you have...."
    "Then I should marry her," he agreed. "I promise on my honor that it is completely impossible."
    Frances felt at least one burden slide away. "Thank you. But my family do believe her, I think, and Celia is Celia. It could be very unpleasant. But if we present ourselves married...."
    She met his eyes and saw the keen intelligence there. She'd wondered if that chess set was for show, but now she didn't think so. She hadn't expected him to be clever, too.
    "There could be no argument," he completed for her, picking up his blanket and wrapping himself in it. "Devious again, Miss Guysley, but I see merit in the plan, though a Gretna wedding doesn't appeal."
    "Nor to me, my lord. But there are other advantages. I confess, I don't relish the thought of living under the same roof as Celia during the normal delay before a wedding."
    "Daunts even you, does it?"
    "It shrivels me entirely."
    He laughed briefly. "But what will your family think when they find you gone this morning?"
    Good riddance? Frances thought. But that was unfair. Her parents would be concerned, and Peter would stir a fuss. Having arrived at this plan, Frances would not give it up. She paced the room, trying to stimulate thought and keep herself warm.
    "I'll send a note to say I've fled the unpleasantness to stay with our old governess in Maryport. It's flimsy, but it will do. By the time they discover I'm not there, we'll be back. It will take only a day to reach thet border, and a day back."
    She could see him thinking devious again, but he nodded and sat to pull on his boots. "I'll order the coach prepared and sneak you into it. In the meantime, sit in the next room, please." He unlocked an adjoining door. "It's an unused bedroom, so there's no reason for any servant to go in there and I'll have to summon my valet, for a shave if nothing else."
    And I need a chamberpot, she thought, but could not bring herself to say it. There were other practical requirements. "Do you have a comb I can borrow, my lord?"
    He found one and gave it to her. "As we're to wed, why not call me Will?"
    She smiled, but against all logic felt it was beyond her.
    There was a chamberpot beneath the unused bed. Frances pissed into it, then opened the window, looked around carefully, and threw out the contents. That done, she turned to the mirror and found herself to be a mess. Her hair had half escaped its pins and her clothes were hopelessly creased.
    The comb ordered the hair, but the clothes couldn't be helped. What did it matter? Even tidy, she was fat and ugly. This elopement truly was the lesser of so many evils, but oh, poor Greystoke. She fretted away another half hour seeking alternatives, but then they were on the road to Scotland, thirty-four miles away, all bridges burnt.
    At least she was comfortable. Greystoke had provided bread, cheese and pickles for breakfast, and a jug of small beer. Hot bricks wrapped in flannel warmed the carriage, especially her feet. Dreading a day confined with him, she'd asked him to provide some books and they sat on the opposite seat.
    When they'd finished the simple meal, she discovered they consisted of a volume of sermons and three volumes of a gothic novel called Midnight Nuptials.
    Was that what he thought of her? Some strange blend of pious and silly? In the end she read some of the sermons for lack of anything better to do. He was absorbed in a slim book of his own and the winter scenery did not enthrall. The occasional stops to change horses provided only brief variety. All in all, she would have expected an elopement to be more exciting.
    Silence was broken when Greystoke checked his pocket watch. "We're about half way. We'll stop for food at the next change."
    Frances put away her book, but a pious ramble about the duties of marriage had raised a problem in her mind. "Did you bring a ring, my lord?"
    She almost heard the sub voce, Damnation. "We should be able to get one in Carlisle, or even in Gretna. They probably provide such things." He looked at her ruefully. "This is doubtless not the wedding you dreamed of."
    It clearly wasn't the wedding he dreamed of, if men ever dreamed of weddings at all.
    "It will serve our purpose. If we are to pause for the ring, perhaps we could buy some other items? A toothbrush. A change of linen. A nightgown..." Foolish to feel self-conscious about that. "We will have to spend a night somewhere."
    "I'm a dunderhead. I had Ireby pack my valise, but never thought..."
    "He could hardly pack something for me."
    "There might have been something. Mother's, Marian's...."
    She looked away. He'd broken off because he'd realized that nothing of his mother's or sister's would fit her. She'd seen both ladies last Christmas. Lady Beavers, as his sister was now, was slender. Lady Greystoke was more stocky, but not large.
    She wished she could promise to reduce her size for him, but if it were possible she would surely have done it already. She'd tried vinegar and potatoes, a diet almost entirely of meat, and a daily draft of such violent effect it had almost killed her. Some people apparently shrank through unhappiness, but even that hadn't worked for her. The only pleasant recommendation she'd received was to take long walks. She enjoyed that, but it had failed to make her any smaller.
    They ate an indifferent meal at the Trout Inn. Frances felt she had to prove that she wasn't a glutton and the dull food made that easy. They attempted conversation twice, but if fell flat. When they resumed their journey Frances read a sermon on acceptance of fate that seemed in keeping with her situation. As they passed the first houses of Carlisle, Greystoke leaned out to call to the postilions to halt.
    He'd changed his mind?
    "I'm known in Carlisle," he said. "A little subterfuge is necessary."
    Frances realized for the first time that she was engaged in a scandal. She didn't know if that excited or terrified her, but she was aware of a strange pleasure in simply doing something unusual for once.
     They descended and he told the postillions to go on to the King’s Head and await him there. Then they walked along the street, seeking the less fashionable establishments. They found a small jeweler's and were able to purchase a simple band, though Frances longed for slender fingers. They asked about a place where personal linens could be bought and were directed to a Mrs. Otterburn's. When they arrived at the address, it looked like a modest house, but the window contained a small sign: Mrs. Otterburn, Haberdasher.
    "I’ll wait outside," he said, "but you’ll need some money." He gave her some banknotes. "No need to blush over it. I will soon endow you with all my worldly goods."
    Flustered, feeling like a brass-faced fortune hunter, Frances hurried into the shop, a bell tinkling to announce her. The door opened directly into the front room, which was laid out like a shop. A young woman came smiling from the back of the house. "Good afternoon, ma'am. How may I help you?"
    She was a girl, really; probably only fourteen or so, but confident and surprisingly well-spoken for her situation. It struck Frances that her simple blue dress was not unlike the one she wore, but what a difference in effect. The girl's showed off a budding figure, a glowing complexion, big blue eyes, and warm golden hair, simply tied back. Greystoke would be more enthusiastic about having to marry someone like this.
    Concern sobered the girl's smile. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
    Frances pulled herself together. "Yes, thank you. Just a little tired. And distressed." She was cobbling together a story as she spoke. "I'm traveling north, you see. To Glasgow. But my valise has been lost. I wondered if you had some personal items for sale ready made."
    Not possibly in her size, she thought with despair.
    The girl said, "I'll ask mama," and disappeared into the back of the house. Probably to laugh.
    She returned shortly with a rather severe-looking woman in widow's black. Presumably Mrs. Otterburn.
    "We only keep a few garments ready made, ma'am," she said in more of a Cumberland accent than her daughter. "But we do have some used clothing, if you would consider that. It is all clean and in good repair."
    Frances had never worn a second-hand garment in her life, but this place had such an aura of cleanliness and godliness that she believed the description. "I would like to see it. A nightgown. A shift. Perhaps some drawers. I'm sure my bag will be found soon."
    Both lady and girl disappeared and soon returned to spread reassuringly white garments on the table. Just possibly they would fit.
    "How do you come to have these?" Frances asked, fingering the fine cloth of a shift and considering pretty embroidery and lace.
    "A lady of our acquaintance died," Mrs. Otterburn said, "and her husband didn't know what to do with her garments. He was distressed to destroy them, but couldn't bear them to go to just anyone. He would definitely not wish to see some other woman in her dresses. You are not from this area, I think, ma'am?"
    Another girl carried in two gowns - a russet brown and a bright red. She had the same coloring as her sister and was of an age, so they might be twins, though not identical. This one was more slender and perhaps more serious, though her eyes sparkled with curiosity.
    "I've been considering cutting up these gowns to make other garments," the woman went on. "We've done that with the more worn, but these two are almost new."
    Frances felt irritated. She had not asked for dresses and did not need any. "I don't wear those colors," she dismissed.
    The girl who'd brought the dresses said, "The red would suit you wonderfully, ma'am."
    "It would," Mrs. Otterburn agreed. "Let me hold it in front of you, ma'am."
    Frances was chivvied in front of a mirror and the gown was suspended in front of her. She blinked. It did look well.
    "I'm too large to wear red." She hated the words as soon as they escaped, but they were true.
    The first girl spoke, bright with enthusiasm. "The lady who owned this dress was considered very pretty, ma'am. Size really has nothing to do with it."
    What nonsense. But Frances found herself saying, "I suppose you want a great deal for them." She hadn't meant it to be an accusation, but she heard how it sounded and in the mirror she saw Mrs. Otterburn's lips tighten.
    "The money will go to the husband, ma'am, who has three young children to care for. I can't deprive him of a fair price, but I know he'd be happy for you to have them. Perhaps ten guineas for everything?"
    Frances coloured with shame. She'd paid that for the one dull gown she was wearing and more for some of her others. And this could be considered a charitable purchase. "How can I be sure they will fit?"
    "You must try one on, ma'am."
    Frances glanced to where she could see Greystoke through lace curtains. "My... my escort."
    "Perhaps he could wait at an inn?" Mrs. Otterburn said. "Jane and Nan can escort you there when you're ready."
    Frances felt rushed and pushed, but having seen that red dress against herself, she must buy it. She might never wear it, but she must have it.
    She went out to speak to him. "I want to make a number of purchases. An opportunity. A charity!" She cut off her babble. "May I have eight more pounds?"
    When his brows rose, she said, "I can repay you. I'm not penniless."
    "Except by my impetuous plan. Of course." He gave her the notes.
    "And perhaps you can wait at the inn? It's cold out here. The women in the shop say they'll see me safely there."
    He studied her, and she recognized that he now felt responsible for her safety.
    "Tell them instead to send for me," he said. "And don't dally, Frances. We still have aways to go."
    He now had the right to give her orders, too, she supposed. How peculiar this was.
    When she returned, the women took her into a back bechamber and helped her out of her gown. Then they put her in the red. It was a little long, but could be hemmed. It was a little large, which absurdly pleased her. She covered her chest with her hand. "The neckline is too low."
    "But pretty with a full bosom, ma'am," Mrs. Otterburn said. "For warmth, you could wear a fichu. Nan, dear, find one."
    The first girl went into the shop and returned to put a triangle of white cotton around Frances's shoulders and tuck it in down the front.
    "You see, ma'am," she said. "The dress does fit, and it does suit. The gentleman will be pleased."
    "Nan," her mother admonished, but indulgently.
    In the mirror, Frances saw herself blush, and in the red it did not look so awkward, but rather, slightly pretty. And the purchase would be an act of charity.
    "I assume there is a nightdress?"
    "Oh, yes," the other girl - Jane - said, extracting a white garment. When she shook it out, Frances saw that though it was sensibly high-necked and long-sleeved, it was embroidered and ruffled, and lace-trimmed in a way none of hers had ever been. If she had to endure a wedding night….
    "Very well," she said, feeling rather as if she'd been swept along by a flood, "I'll take it all. But I'll need a valise for it. Where do I purchase one?"
    Mrs. Otterburn gave orders. "Nan, go for the gentleman. His name, ma'am?"
    Why hadn't she thought about that? Frances had no option other than to say, "Greystoke." She didn't sense recognition. Perhaps Greystoke Hall was far enough away that his title didn't spring to mind.
    "Stop at Mr. Satler's on the way, dear, and ask for a cloth portmanteau or something similar."
    The girl grabbed a shawl and ran off.
    "Jane, fold up the garments again."
    "Please help me out of the dress first," Frances said.
    "You don't want to wear it, ma'am?" Mrs. Otterburn asked, surprised.
    The idea terrified Frances. People would laugh to see her dressed so. "It's too long."
    "Only an inch or so."
    "But it would trail and be soiled."
    The woman accepted that and helped Frances change. The bell jingled, but it wasn't Greystoke, it was a young man with a sturdy cloth valise. "Ten shillings to you, love," he said, winking at Jane.
    Frances wondered what it was like to live among such casual cheer. "Love" meant nothing among the common people -- it was simply a cheery greeting -- but it was such a sweet one. And perhaps one day this young man would actually court quiet Jane or lively Nan. Frances paid him, promising Mrs. Otterburn that Greystoke would pay the extra when he arrived.
    When he'd left, Mrs. Otterburn and her daughter packed Frances's new clothing.
    "A shame to have lost yours, ma'am," Mrs. Otterburn said. "I hope it's found and sent on after you."
    Truth escaped. "I haven't lost my valise. I'm eloping."
    Mother and daughter looked up, the girl's eyes bright, but the mother's frowning. "Are you sure that's wise, dear?"
    Frances shrugged. "Wise is hard to pin down. It's the right thing to do, I'm sure. The only thing to do."
    The woman nodded, perhaps reading more into Frances’s words than she'd meant. They closed the bag and Jane went into the back of the house. Frances was tempted to try to explain to the woman, to assure her that she wasn't with child, but the truth was as wild.
    When Greystoke came in, Frances saw Mrs. Otterburn assess him with disapproving eyes.
    "You're ready?" he said.
    "Yes, but I owe another ten shillings for the bag."
    As he paid, the girl Jane returned and put something into the bag behind her mother's back. Frances wondered, but it could hardly be dangerous so she said nothing. They hurried back to the inn, only stopping for a toothbrush and powder, and were soon on their way to Gretna.
    
###


    Greystoke found his Gretna wedding about as dismal as he'd expected. It was dark when they arrived, with even a few flakes of snow whipping in a wind. The postilions had claimed to know the best inn and though they would probably receive a cut from the innkeeper, he let them take him there.
    It turned out to be tolerable, and the warmth was welcome.
    He hadn't been sure whether Scottish law like English required weddings to take place only within certain hours, but it turned out not to be so. They made their vows before witnesses, who all happily signed for a shilling each, and then they were ushered up to a bedroom, man and wife.
    Frances stood in the room, still in her cloak and bonnet. "How extraordinary."
    "Yes." He prayed she wasn't going to burst into tears.
    "It makes me wonder why people usually make such a fuss about it."
    He laughed in surprise. "I suppose they enjoy it."
    "I would hope so." Her eyes flickered to the bed for a moment, but settled on the newly-built fire.
    "Let me take your cloak."
    "It's too cold yet.
    She held out her hands to the flames, the left now wearing the gold band. He saw her look at it, frowning.
    "What we need is a good dinner," he said, hearing the forced heartiness of his tone, and rang the bell.
    The meal came blessedly soon, served in the adjoining parlor, out of sight of the bed. They sat down in an awkward silence, but then tucked in heartily. It had been a long and arduous day.
    Eventually, Greystoke decided he had to make conversation. "Your family came from Manchester, I believe."
    "Yes."
    "Did you like the move?"
    She looked up from roast pork. "Not particularly. There's more to do in a city."
    "You don't like the country?" Fine time to find that out.
    "At times. Don't worry, my lord. I will be content enough at Greystoke if I am busy."
    "Good. And please do try to call me Will, in private at least."
    "I'll try." She put down her knife and fork and drank some wine, clearly bracing to support him in conversation. "Do you like the country, Will? You're often away."
    "I'm often in other parts of the country. The Shires in hunting season. Shooting country. Angling parties. Country house parties. But I enjoy London in small doses."
    "I've never been to London."
    He should say she would come with him, and was ashamed of his reluctance. Damn it all, he could hardly park a wife in the country and ignore her nine-tenths of the year. But this marriage business was going to be a nuisance. He must remember this was her sister's fault, not hers.
    "Would you like to go?" he asked. "In the spring, for the season?"
    That would mean renting a house, probably holding soirees and such. Endless bother.
    "Balls and such don't interest me, but the theater, lectures and such might."
    A bluestocking, eh? Not surprising, but better. "You must do just as you wish, my dear."
    "I may hold you to that."
    He searched the words for mischief, but of course there was none. She resumed steady consumption of her dinner.
     A little later she asked, "Do you often speak in Parliament?"
    "Never."
    "Never?" That was definitely disapproval.
    "I attend to vote when it's important, especially on northern issues."
    "If I had the right to speak in Parliament, I would use it."
    They finished the meal in silence, but that wasn't entirely a bad sign. He'd known some women who thought any chatter was better than silence.
    Eventually she put down her dessert spoon and then drained her wine glass. She looked at him with obviously serious intent. "Midnight nuptials," she said, "isn't to my taste."
    He smiled vaguely as he tried to figure out what in Hades that meant. Was it a complaint about their marriage service? The elopement had been her idea, and their wedding, as best he remembered, had taken place sometime between six and seven.
    Oh Lord. It must be her way of referring to the marital bed! She was bashfully indicating that she didn't want him in her bed tonight.
    "Oh, quite," he said cheerily. "Don't worry about that." But then he thought of a problem. "We do need to sleep together, however. There's only one bed, you see, and I think us being together for the night is part of the marriage proof here."
    Her brow wrinkled as if she didn't understand. Perhaps she didn't. Perhaps she thought merely being in the same bed did the deed.
    "That's all it need be, my dear," he added. "Sleep."
    "I'm sure we both need our sleep," she said and then rose and went into the next room. When he ventured in after a suitably long time, her clothing was neatly folded on a chair and the curtains were drawn around the bed. He undressed, washed, put on his nightshirt, and then slipped in carefully beside her, thankful that she was asleep or pretending to be.
    His wife. He was married.
    He was taken unawares by a wave of regret, of grief for the grand love and the beautiful, adored wife he might have known one day. It wasn't Frances's fault, he reminded himself. She was a sacrifice as much as he was.

###


    They set off early the next day and thus reached their home area before dark. Frances had found it a most peculiar day, but that was hardly surprising.
    Last night, exhaustion had tossed her rapidly into sleep, so she hadn't been aware of him in the bed with her until she awoke. She'd stayed still, absorbing the sensation of a man in her bed -- his warmth, a slight pressure of some part of him against her hip, his particular smell. Longings had stirred and she'd gingerly rolled to look at him, finding him relaxed again in sleep. She'd wanted to reach out and touch him. Brush hair from his brow, perhaps, but touch him lower -- his arm, even his leg.
    It still frightened her, the thought of being intimate in the extraordinary way necessary for children, but it would happen, and parts of her wanted it.
    She'd slipped out of the curtained bed and rung for hot water, then told the maid to return soon to help her dress. She'd done her hair in its simple knot, wondering if the maid could arrange it in some other way. She hadn't asked. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and she knew she'd only look foolish to try.
    They had talked a little more on the journey home than they had on the way to Gretna, for they'd had practicalities to discuss. They would go first to Greystoke, where he would inform his household of the wedding. Frances hadn't thought of a simple thing like that and shriveled at the thought. What would they think?
    When they had tidied themselves, they would drive over to Green Brow to make the announcement. They would leave as soon as possible and return home, the worst over.
    That sounded well, but it was going to be awful.
    The coach drew up in front of his handsome, stone house. Hers, too, now, she supposed. She remembered creeping in the night before last. She'd had to open and shut about ten doors before finding his room. Where had she found the courage, never mind the brass-faced effrontery? She wished she had more of it now.
    The well-trained footman showed only a twitch at sight of his master entering with a woman, never mind an unattractive one. He summoned the staff as ordered, and the announcement was made.
    Frances saw flat astonishment on the faces of many and wanted to run. She started when Greystoke took her hand and almost tried to pull free when he raised it to his lips. Gazing into her eyes, he kissed it and said, "Welcome to your new home, my love."
    At the words "my love" all kinds of places tremored, and she dearly wished he meant it. It was almost enough that he cared enough to make it appear that theirs was a love match.
    "Thank you, Will," she whispered in return.
    He tucked her hand into his arm and led her upstairs, along a corridor, and into his bedroom.
    "We can have the adjoining one ready for you shortly," he said, separating. "I'll give the orders but you must ask for anything you wish. This is your home now."
    He left. Her home. Hers to run and command. When exactly did a wife take over the running of a house?
    The room was warm so she shed her cloak, then wandered restlessly, at loose ends, but wound tight at thought of the confrontation to come. It was going to be dreadful, but couldn't be avoided.
    He returned. "It will take a little while to warm. I've ordered tea and refreshments in here."
    He was followed almost immediately by a maid bearing the tray. Taking some control, Frances directed her to put it on a table and indicated that she'd take care of it. The tea had been made in the pot. She supposed she'd soon need to take charge of the keys and supplies. So many things to do. So many challenges. She poured and Greystoke came to sit across from her, drink three cups and eat a great deal of cake.
    Did he feel no anxiety?
    Then he said, "It might be wiser if I go to Green Brow alone."
    "Why?"
    "It's bound to be unpleasant, my dear, but there's little they can do to me."
    Shockingly, tears threatened. "Oh, thank you. I know I should, shouldn't, but Celia..."
    "With any luck she'll still be prostrate in her room."
    Not if she hears what's happened, she thought. Should she warn him?
    "I'll instruct that your possessions be brought here, and I'll exert my husbandly authority to forbid you to visit your parents' house until peace is restored."
    "You are very kind."
    "Then use my name again."
    She smiled. "Will."
    "Good." He rose and went into the adjoining room then came back to say. "It's ready for you."
    Dismissed, Frances went into her own quarters, and the door shut between them. He was going to be kind, courteous, and pleasant at all times. She thought it might break her heart.
    She had liked the idea of becoming mistress of her own home, but here she felt as excluded and unwanted as she had at Green Brow. Everyone here must know how peculiar it all was. She couldn't even bring herself to ring for a maid, but unpacked for herself, placing the second-hand clothing carefully in drawers. What had possessed her to buy these unsuitable gown, even at a bargain price?
    A piece of paper rustled and she pulled it out. It must be the one the girl had slipped in. An advertisement for the shop?
    No. A drawing.
    Frances stared at it. It was a mere sketch, but it was herself, clearly recognizable. And yet not. This smiling, bashful woman was not her. Not with that lush shape and almost pretty face. Yet it was. She vaguely recognized the drawing as the image of herself in the mirror when wearing the red dress. Then, however, she'd had her hand raised to cover her chest, but here she did not. A hint of the cleft between her breasts showed. And it was... appealing, she supposed.
    In a few clever lines the girl had capture the image of an appealing young woman in a pretty dress. The picture formed a message. Did she have the courage to respond?
    She put the picture away in the desk and then rang the bell. When a maid arrived, Frances asked if there was a seamstress in the house.
    "I can do plain sewing, milady."
    Milady. She was Lady Greystoke. That bolstered Frances's courage. "Excellent, for I need two dresses hemmed."

###

    Greystoke rode to Green Brow, thinking he'd never taken such a reluctant journey in his life. Early winter night was falling, sending a clammy chill down to his bones, but his coming meeting with the Guysleys was his deeper concern. Would they believe the story? Would they pretend to? Would Peter Guysley call him out anyway?
    He knocked and was given instant admission. A fire burned in the hall, giving a bit of relief.
    Guysley, thin but pot-bellied and with unhealthily high color, came into the hall. "You have come with good news, I hope, Greystoke."
    "I hope so, sir."
    The man's frown eased and Greystoke was ushered into the manly study where the previous interview had taken place. Before he could speak, however, the rest of the family piled in -- Peter, Mrs. Guysley, and a bright-eyed, triumphant Celia.
    He realized that she wasn't the slightest bit pretty because there was nothing pretty inside her.
    "I would prefer to speak to you alone, Guysley," he said.
    "Nonsense, my boy. It's all family business."
    Greystoke moved toward the fire, largely because it distanced him from Celia. "Very well, sir. I bring you happy news. Frances and I are married."
    He was surrounded by gaping silence.
    "Frances?" queried Guysley.
    "Frances?" echoed his wife.
    "That's not possible," said Peter Guysley.
     "Frances?" Celia Guysley's voice was intense but quiet. "You're teasing, my lord."
    "Not at all." Despite everything, he couldn't help enjoying her narrow-eyed expression. "We had formed an attachment. In view of the situation, we decided the simplest act would be to settle things. We regret a Gretna marriage, but...."
     "Frances?" Celia's voice mounted in pitch and volume. "Fat Frances? You can't. She can't! Mamaaaaaaaaaa!"
    Greystoke wouldn't have believed the human voice could achieve quite that ear-splitting note.
    Mrs. Guysley pulled her into her arms. Perhaps tried to smother her against her bosom. "There, there, dear...."
    Celia ripped free again. "Don't there-there me!" she shrieked at the same volume. "It isn't true. It can't be true. Papaaaaaaaa!"
    Mr. Guysley shrank back in his chair.
    Celia whirled to face Greystoke, truly ugly now with her vicious emotions. "It - is - not - true." She spat each word, approaching, her hands forming claws.
    Imitating her tone, he replied, "I - do - not - lie."
    She leaped for him, claws out, but he was ready and caught her wrists. It was like having a wildcat on his hands, however. He dragged her over to her brother and hurled her at him. "You control her."
    Peter cinched his arms around her, but said, "How?"
    Sure enough, she tore free. She grabbed a vase and hurled it at Greystoke, then a book, then an inkpot, screaming, "No! No! No!" in a high-pitched banshee wail all the time.
    Greystoke dodged the ink and tried to make it to the door, but demented Celia and her grabbing brother and mother were in the way. Then Peter got her around the waist and towed her toward the door, which their mother hurried to open for him.
    He was a big man, but he was sweating and Celia was kicking and screaming all the way. She grabbed for a wrought iron lumiere and clung so fiercely that it came down with a crash. Then she gripped the edge of a bookcase, but was dragged from the room, still howling at full volume.
    Greystoke observed the disaster around him, and then looked at the man behind the desk.
    "Frances, eh?" Guysley said. "Sensible man, sensible man."
    Greystoke didn't wait for his wife's belongings, but merely ordered them brought to Greystoke as soon as possible. He left, still able to hear shrieking from the distant upstairs and the occasional crash.
    He rode home as quickly as possible and went to knock on his wife's parlor door. She was there, on a sofa near the fire, reading a book.
    In red. That must be one of the dresses she'd purchased in Carlisle, and it suited her. By gad, it did. Firelight played on the generous upper swell of her breasts and the gown suggested rather than hiding the inviting curves of her body. Her hair was more loosely dressed, and glossy. She looked up and smiled, though her eyes asked an anxious question. How blessedly calm she was. He went to her, pleasantly aware of falling into at least fondness and possibly more.
    He sat beside her. "What are you reading?"
    "I raided your shelves. I hope you don't mind."
    He turned the book so he could read the gilded letters on the front. "You've decided to learn chess?"
    "I play chess quite well, though I'm out of practice."
    "No one to play with at Green Brow?"
    "No, but I did puzzles from books. I found the one in your room in this book, and I think I have a solution."
    Greystoke knelt, took a plump hand in his and kissed it.
    "Thank you, Frances. Thank you for saving me, for saving us all." He turned her hand and pressed a kiss into her palm. "And thank you," he added, smiling, "for buying that magnificent red dress."
    Alert for alarm or fear, he sat beside his wife again and drew her into his arms for a gentle kiss, then a less gentle one. What curves, what breasts, what creamy skin…. What enthusiastic response.
    Against those breasts, now more exposed to his eyes and lips, he murmured, "Is it possible that you’re not completely averse to midnight nuptials, my bride?"
    Frances, Lady Greystoke, swirling in delights she’d never imagined, tried to make sense of his words. Then she laughed. “Not the act, Will. The book!" Blushing, she stroked his hair. "I don’t think I’m averse to that sort of nuptial at all. Need we wait until midnight?"

The End.

I hope you enjoyed this little Christmas story. I truly meant this to be a simple gift, but it turned out to have a connection to a Rogues book, The Rogue's Return . You see, I had a logistical problem of the days on the road for them to get to Gretna, but then I realized -- duh! -- that they didn't have to set out in the south.

When I looked at places within a day's drive of the border, however, I landed in the area where the heroine of The Rogue's Return grew up. Then I realized that Frances would need to make some purchases at a habershery in Carlisle, and said heroine spent some years in such a shop. It didn't seem reasonable not to have Frances go to Mrs. Otterburn's. It's just a little touch, however, rather than a teaser.


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