The Reluctant Bride

Page 3

She took them with one graceful hand. The other fingered the brooch fastened to the collar of her high-necked gown. Angus was surprised by its modesty. Jack Noble’s taste in women ran to the ostentatious, though perhaps it was not surprising he would choose a wife as different as possible from his doxies.
‘Bear your sorrow with dignity, Emily.’ The old woman spoke in French. ‘You come from noble Normandy stock.’
Angus studied Miss Micklen’s shapely back as she gazed silently at the letters before raising her head to stare into the gathering darkness. The calm before the storm? His mother’s propensity for the vapours had taught him that females were wont to give vent to their wounded passions with no thought to present company.
Miss Micklen was stronger than that.
She turned. ‘What was Jack was doing with you, Major McCartney, in Chester,’ she challenged, ‘when he told me he was traveling directly to the Continent?’
Angus wished he’d thought of some other excuse that did not involve himself in order to preserve the gilded image she held of her false fiancé. ‘A confusion of dates, I’m sure, Miss Micklen. Captain Noble was with his regiment, in Chester.’ At least that part was true.
Her lip trembled and she lowered her voice, suddenly contrite. ‘I’m sorry, Major McCartney. Jack was your colleague. No doubt your friend, too.’
He felt his own heart respond and flower. She was no longer the careless beauty whose gaze had failed to register him during the spate of balls they’d both attended that memorable season. In her most painful hour she was capable of compassion.
She extended her hand. ‘It’s a painful cross you bear, Major McCartney. Jack was denied the glory of giving his life in battle for his country, but you saw your comrade struck down’—her voice broke—‘to save your life.’
She pulled on the bell rope then turned to the thin, weary-looking parlour maid who appeared. ‘Show Major McCartney out, please, Lucy.’
‘If there is any assistance you require …’
‘No, but thank you, sir’—she sounded as if she might break down at any moment—‘for giving me the comfort of knowing Jack died a hero.’
With a heavy heart, he bowed himself out. The comfort of lies. They sat ill with him.
But then, lying was the least of his sins. He’d lost his soul the day he laid eyes on Jessamine.
Gathering her cloak and bonnet the moment the dust had settled upon the major’s departure, Emily slipped out of the kitchen door and fled across the meadow. There’d been no hint that Major McCartney recognised her as the lass on the road, preoccupied as he clearly was by his impending mission. Not that it would have mattered if he’d unwittingly
implicated Emily in this afternoon’s truancy. Her father had looked as if he were about to punish Emily, regardless, the way the tendons of his neck had swollen about his bitter face, red with suffused anger, when he’d heard the news.
As if Emily were to blame for Jack’s death.
At the top of the hill she glanced down at the church in which she and Jack would have married the following week. She didn’t stop. Only when she reached the old, disused woodcutter’s cottage, deep amongst the elms, did she feel safe. Throwing open the door, she hurled herself onto the pile of hessian sacks in the corner, the setting for the delights she’d shared so recently with Jack.
Her heart had been ripped in two. Without Jack she had no buffer against the harshness of her world.
When her passion subsided, Emily dragged herself into a sitting position and rested her head on her updrawn knees.
Jack, the man who had wooed her with such tenacity despite her initial reluctance, the man who had breached her defences with his teasing humour and whose twinkling eyes and boyish grin never failed to make her pulse beat faster, was gone.
Wiping away her tears, she bent to pick up a half-smoked cheroot lying nearly obscured beneath an old log. Jack had smoked it just over a week ago. Clenching it in her fist, she closed her eyes and pictured the scene: Jack’s smooth, muscled chest upon which she’d rested her head. With loving reassurances he had coaxed her out of her fear. Tenderly he had massaged her temples with his long, sensitive fingers; fingers which had taught her that not only lips could show what joy and delight there was in loving. Her body burned at the memory, but not with shame, for she was proud to have loved a hero.
An image of grim-faced Major McCartney intruded, pushing aside her recollections of smiling, tousle-haired Jack. The scar puckering the soldier’s cheek and his stiff, military bearing only reinforced her aversion to men with no sense of humour. Men who did not know how to wring the joy from life. Unlike Jack. But Jack was dead and her world had fallen apart. There would be no more joy for her now.
Wind rattled the shutters. Distracted, Emily noticed the rain had begun to breach the meagre defences of the crudely constructed hut. She exhaled on another sob. She didn’t care if the water rushed under the door and drowned her.
After a few minutes, rational thought returned. How could Jack have been in Chester when he had intended crossing the channel on another secret assignment the day after his visit to Emily?
If only she’d quizzed the Major more thoroughly. He’d said he was putting up at The Four Swans and to call on him if he could be of assistance.
Emily shuddered. She never again wanted to lay eyes on the tense, awkward soldier whose life had been saved through Jack’s sacrifice.