Molly stood on the road beside Harry and watched the vehicle carrying Cedric and his Aphrodite disappear around a bend in the road. Her ears began to buzz. In the distance, the chickens, the oak tree, the woman and child climbing into a wagon in the stableyard—all became wavy, like ribbons of taffy.
God, no. This couldn’t be happening to her. Everything, everything…was wrong, upside-down.
She blinked slowly, several times, to make the waves go away. When they did, she found her feet again, one of which she promptly stomped at Harry.
“Now see what you’ve done,” she said. “I’m stranded here because your fit of temper caused your lightskirt to throw herself into the arms of my intended!”
Harry brought his face a mere few inches from her own. “And your intended obviously had had enough of your bossiness. So much so that he took off with my lightskirt!”
“You shouldn’t have a lightskirt,” said Molly. “What would your mother say?”
“And you shouldn’t be running off to Gretna Green with a spineless fop.”
Molly refused to blink. “He wasn’t spineless. Simply…sensitive.”
Although she had no idea why she was defending Cedric. It was Harry’s fault, of course. He always brought out the irrational in her.
Harry scoffed. “Alliston sensitive? He was about as sensitive as a tree stump.”
She crossed her arms. “And your lightskirt was about as intelligent as…as an insect.”
Harry’s smile was wicked. “She doesn’t require intelligence for what I need her for.”
If he intended to make her blush, Molly wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She turned her back and put up her parasol.
Never in a million years would she ask Harry’s help.
But help was what she needed. She was stranded at a remote hostelry in the middle of England, unchaperoned and without even the excuse of going to Gretna Green with her intended to protect her reputation.
If anyone back home found out what was happening to her, she was a fallen woman.
Harry watched Molly march onto the dusty road, the silliest of striped parasols opened above her head. She stared down both ways with a wrinkle on her brow. He recalled that there were no farmhouses or places to stop for at least ten miles southward, but the north road led her even farther from home.
“Here now!” he called to her.
She turned around. “I’ve nothing to say to you.” She put her chin in the air and headed south.
Harry trotted after her, grabbed her elbow, and swung her around. “You’re not going to disappear and leave me in an awkward situation.”
Her cheeks were spotted pink. “Oh, and I’m not in one myself? Any gentleman would have noticed I am! But no, you’re no gentleman. The whole world knows that.”
She hit him on the chest with her reticule. It felt empty, except for maybe a coin.
He sighed. “That doesn’t help anything.”
She inhaled through her nose and let her breath out in a gusty sigh. “I’m sorry. A lady doesn’t hit people. Even though you deserve it, cavorting with a woman who’s no lady at all, running off with any man she sees!”
He scoffed. “Are you telling me you’re a lady? You put a thistle in my seat and a rock in my wine goblet last time I dined at Marble Hill.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“It was at Penelope and Roderick’s bon voyage celebration before they took the girls to Italy. Barely four months ago.”
“Yes, but how is that worse than pulling someone’s chair out a little too far? You did it the very evening after your dear Aunt Cora expired! I almost fell on my bottom at supper, in front of all your grieving family, thanks to you.”
“I did it for Aunt Cora,” he said. “She liked practical jokes.”
“A poor excuse,” Molly replied.
They glared at each other. Neither one spoke for a minute, and then she said, rather thickly, “We’re both in trouble.”
He hoped she wouldn’t become a watering pot. It was the last thing he needed, to be in the presence of a stubborn shrew who was also crying.
“Perhaps we should help each other out of it,” he said very reluctantly.
Oh, how it cost him!
“That’s what I was thinking,” she said, brightening a bit.
Thank God. Although seeing her brighten was something he usually wouldn’t encourage.
“Exactly what is your situation?” she asked him.
“I’m travelling to a house party, a rather lively one. I can take you with me.”
“Let’s just say it’s not the sort of house party you‘d typically attend. Or most members of the ton, for that matter. It’s…unique. This year I’ve been designated the host.”
She waved him off and kept walking.
“And I need a mistress to take with me!” he called after her, refusing to look or sound ashamed.
She wheeled around. “I should have known you’d propose something scandalous.” And then marched off again in an even greater huff.
“You’d be my false mistress, not a real one, you foolish chit!” As usual, she had his blood boiling.
She turned again, stopped, stuck an index finger on her chest. “Me? Foolish?”
“Yes, you. Walking into certain danger on that road.” He felt his nostrils flare like a bull’s. There was not a person in the world who could rile him the way Molly Fairbanks did.
“Dangerous?” She put a fist on her hip. “How is walking on a road more dangerous than attending a gathering with you, where there’ll be sure to be drunken louts falling everywhere and lightskirts gadding about half-clothed? And why would anyone need a false mistress anyway? It’s a ludicrous concept.”
Harry crossed his arms and prayed for patience. “First of all, we shan’t be drunk all the time.”
Molly rolled her eyes.
“There is some strategy involved.”
“If I show up with no mistress at all,” he explained, “I’ll lose the wager immediately. So I must bring someone. Your presence will at least keep me in the game.”
She opened her mouth to rip into him–he saw the flare of battle in her eyes–but he put his index finger in the air. “I’m willing to make you a mistress in name only to protect your virtue.” She should be pleased. “Although no one else shall know of our arrangement, of course.”
He’d be the only man at the house party with a false mistress. Did she not appreciate his sacrifice?
She lowered her brows. “I knew it was something like that. What exactly do you mean by ‘game?'”
“We compete. Whoever brings the finest mistress wins.”
“Ugh.” She rolled her eyes. “Do go on.”
“Each woman shall be judged on her beauty–extra points for beauty, actually, especially if we can see much of it.”
Molly’s brow wrinkled. “‘See much of it?'”
“Yes. ” He bit his lip, not caring to explain. “And then, of course, she shall be judged on her conversation. And her wit.” He snapped his fingers. “If she’s skilled at gambling with ha’pennies, laughs frequently at men’s jokes, and notices when their brandy snifters need replenishing, so much the better.”
Harry shrugged. “Not at all. To sum up, she’ll be judged on almost all the things that make a female, shall we say, mesmerizing to a man.”
Molly sighed and tapped her foot. “What do you win if you bring the, erm, finest of the mistresses?”
“She gets the glory of winning the title–‘The Most Delectable Companion,'” he said as if he were announcing the tightrope walker at the travelling circus. “And a crown of paste,” he remembered to add.
She twisted her face up. “That’s all? She receives no tangible reward beyond a worthless title and tiara?”
He shifted, suddenly feeling doubtful. Molly had a way of making him feel like a…a dunderhead. He hadn’t felt that way since–
Since he’d last seen her!
“You should at least give the Most Delectable Companion loads of money,” she said, her chin back in the air. “God knows she’ll deserve it. Any lightskirt of yours would require the patience of a saint!” She paused only long enough to get her breath. “What does her consort win?”
“Another year of freedom from parson’s noose,” he said with relish, because he knew she would hate to hear him say it. “And every matchmaking mama, all the dragon ladies who rule Almack’s, and every bettor at every club in London will know he’s off the market. Thanks to a royal decree put forth by Prinny himself.”
“Prinny?” Her lip curled. “You mean, the Prince Regent will give you permission to enjoy shirking your duty by your family.”
“What duty?” Harry said coolly. “Roderick shall be the next Duke of Mallan, and Penelope will be sure to produce a son soon. He’ll already have four big sisters to boss him about. The line is thriving, I assure you.”
“But you must marry as well.” She sounded exactly like his mother. And his sister-in-law. And his father and brother.
“I am the spare,” he ground out. “I can stay a bachelor as long as I’d like. They merely need me if Roderick sticks his spoon in the wall before his son is born, and my brother is a hale, hearty fellow who shall be around for another seventy years at least.”
“But your mama will want more grandchildren,” Molly persisted, twirling her parasol as if they were conversing about the weather.
She must quite enjoy bickering, Harry thought. Perhaps it was her favorite pastime.
He felt his mouth become a grim line. “I’d rather not discuss it. It is, quite frankly, none of your business, Molly Fairbanks.”
“Ohhhh,” she growled, and lowered her parasol to glare at him. As if he couldn’t see the intensity of that fierce look unless the sun were full upon her face.
They were getting nowhere. Fast. And she was working herself up to hitting him again with that blasted reticule.
“Let’s get back to business, shall we?” he said. “The men whose mistresses don’t win the contest must pull straws to see who must get legshackled to the woman handpicked for him by the board of their club. So we have an obvious winner and an obvious loser.”
Molly brightened. “If you lose this year, you’d have to marry Anne Riordan.”
“How did you know?”
“Easy. Your papa’s on your club board. And he’s told everyone he believes she’ll have a calming influence on you.” She inclined her head and smiled. “I will quite enjoy that, seeing you and Anne married.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You always were cruel.”
She laughed. “Tell me, Harry, what would I get out of being your–ahem–false mistress?”
He crossed his arms. “Safe, anonymous travel back to Marble Hill. I assume your father is traipsing about Europe somewhere and that you somehow pulled the wool over his cousin Augusta’s eyes?”
“How did you know?”
“Easy. You’re extremely predictable.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like how you said that.”
He shrugged. “Take it as you wish.”
She bit her thumbnail. “But the gentlemen at the house party. What if they recognize me in Town? Now that I’m not marrying Cedric, I shall have to have a Season.”
“You’ll wear loads of face powder and rouge.”
“They’ll itch.” She knew from experimenting with Cousin Augusta’s.
“And you must use a false name.”
“I’ll forget it. I know it.”
He sighed. “You can’t afford to forget it.”
“Then it must be Delilah,” she said. “It’s the only name I’ll be able to remember.”
“I don’t know. But I already know I won’t forget it.”
Harry shook his head. He would never quite understand women and the way their minds worked, especially Molly’s–thank God.
“You needn’t be overly worried about being found out,” he said. “The gentlemen will be mildly pickled half the time–when we’re out shooting–and severely so the other half. Plus, they’ll be looking down almost always.” He cocked one brow.
Her face grew red. “Do you mean–?” She glanced down at her own bodice.
She shuddered. “This house party sounds awful.”
“It will be.” He grinned. “Positively dreadful.”
She narrowed her eyes, kicked a stone in the road, and then whirled back to face him. “Why me?” she demanded. “Why not ask that buxom barmaid back at the inn to be your real mistress? She’s a willing handful, isn’t she?”
He resented having to venture into truth territory, where vague notions about saving damsels in distress claimed priority over his own more immediate needs and wants.
“Believe me,” he said. “I thought about asking her, even if she is a bit rustic. But I can’t allow a gently bred lady to be thrust out into the world unprotected. Even if that so-called lady“–he put as much sarcasm in the word as possible–“is you.”
“Oh.” She drew back.
“Oh,” she said again, softer this time, and bit her lip.
He’d gone too far. And yes, he felt guilty. Roderick would have his hide if he’d heard Harry address his sister-in-law so.
But Molly was so…provoking. Always had been. From the time she’d discovered, at age four, a sack of acorns he’d spent two weeks gathering for a game of war with Roderick and redistributed them to the squirrels at Marble Hill.
She shook her head. “I won’t go with you. But thank you for asking.” Her voice was small. She lowered her parasol and took off down the road again, this time looking not so much like Napoleon. Her arms were wrapped around her middle, not swinging boldly. Her stride had shortened as well.
She stumbled over a rock.
“Wait!” he called to her.
She recovered and kept walking.
He strode after her. “Will you stop?”
She quickened her pace.
He caught up to her, and she began to run.
Dash it all, he would have to run, too!
In one fell swoop, he lifted her over his shoulder and turned back to the inn. She screamed and kicked and beat him with her parasol, but he paid no heed to her pathetic attempts to make him submit to her shrill threats and simply kept walking.
“Thrash and scream to your heart’s content,” he said, ignoring the ringing in his ears. “Perhaps it will tire you out.”
A remark which his captive took to heart.
Seemingly by the grace of God alone, Harry made it to the stableyard without too much bodily damage.
“Ready?” he called to his coachman, who’d been ready this age, and was agog at the sight of his master toting a screaming virago who was, at the same time, obviously a well-bred young lady, over his shoulder. Harry opened the door to the carriage, stuffed Molly in, and jumped in himself, pulling the door quickly behind him and holding it shut. He put his hand on the other door as well to keep it sealed.
The carriage rocked forward and began a brisk roll out of the stableyard. They were on the road north again.
Molly clenched the seat cushion and drew in huge lungfuls of air. “I told you I hated you, Harry,” she said between breaths. “But the truth is I hate you with a capital H. That’s even more than I hated you before.”
He would allow her that diatribe. As penance for his “you’re-no-lady” dig.
“Nevertheless,” he replied coolly. “We’re stuck together. For one week.”
Inwardly, he sighed. Then reassured himself–if he could handle Waterloo, he could most certainly deal with Molly Fairbanks.
All content © Kieran Kramer