Melissa Southwood goes along with her ambitious father’s matchmaking schemes until one event throws all into question. Amidst balls, carriage rides, dinner parties, and danger, Melissa must navigate an arranged courtship, as well as the attentions of another nobleman.
Which aristocratic suitor will win her heart?
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Stomping her feet on the hard-packed road didn’t relieve her frustration. Aggravation fueled her pace, destroying the usual peace found on her morning walks down country roads. Melissa clenched her hand around the letter ordering her return to London. Father and his plans took precedence over her wishes.
She stopped, unfurled the letter, and read the offending passage one more time.
You shall cut short your visit to the country. I have plans for you, plans that will be of much interest to you.
So like Papa to assume she’d fall in line with his schemes. She crumpled the letter and strode on, staring straight ahead. Visiting the vicarage to which her former governess, Miss Cleaver retired, helped restore Melissa’s equanimity. The hovering cloud of melancholy brought on by her mother’s death lessened each day. Returning to her home in the city did not sit well, as she disliked London with its smoke and the lonely life she lived there. But Papa’s command and mention of his plans brought further dread.
Regret about ending her visit lowered her mood, but Melissa took deep breaths and resisted thoughts of departure by concentrating on the cool, fresh, moist air entering her lungs. Spring mud invaded southern England, but the road was good, and Melissa loved her morning walks too much to let a little mire stop her.
She took in her surroundings again, glancing from the light green forest views on either side of the road and the lane ahead. Avoiding mud became a game of distraction—until an indistinct brown lump came in sight on the edge of the road. Puddles forgotten, she hurried forward to discover a monogrammed leather saddlebag. Ignoring the dirt-spattered bag’s condition, she lifted it and peered inside. Empty. She dropped it to the ground.
Scattered nearby, she spied a London Times half in a puddle, and an ivory comb in a muddy rut. Chills ran up her arms and tingled down her spine at the evidence of a traveler’s misfortune. Surveying the scene, she cast a glance down the banked slope. Her breath caught even as her heart raced.
About twenty feet away in the lowest part of the ditch, she spied a man prone, half-hidden by brush, only inches from a trickle of dirty water from the last of the spring thaw.
Melissa shoved aside the momentary numbness brought on by the dreadful sight. She took a deep breath, hitched her skirts, and clambered down into the ditch. Disregarding the mud, she knelt and stretched out her hand. Her fingers found a pulse on the cool skin of the man’s wrist.
She peered at his chest with her face only inches from his body. She detected a slight rise and fall. Thank the Lord the water level had receded. The stranger could have drowned.
The young man’s eyes fluttered open. “Where am I?” He groaned, his voice barely a whisper. He passed a hand over his face before letting his arm fall to the ground.
She reared back and staggered to her feet. A shiver of pity ran through her—helplessness did not fit this strapping male. Fear compressed her heart upon viewing the evidence of violence.
“You are in a ditch, outside Russelton. By the look of the grass, someone dragged you here.” She pointed to some lines in the wet grass.
“Beautiful,” he gasped.
“I beg your pardon?”
A slight smile graced his bruised face. “You. Beautiful.”
“Sir, it appears you’ve been beaten, robbed, and left for dead.” She squared her shoulders in wounded propriety. “This is not the time for Spanish coin.”
Her heart skipped a beat. Even muddy and injured, he exuded raw masculinity. Lack of a proper introduction didn’t stop the immediate attraction that drew her to him.
She was about to say more, but his eyes closed, and he groaned and fell unconscious. What to do? It was impossible to carry the man, but he required medical attention. A flutter of fear roosted in her chest, but she fought it down.
Her long habit of self-control came to the fore, and her chin rose in resolve. Melissa gathered the skirt of her brown walking dress, clutched it in one hand, and bunched it well above the ankles and the top of her half boots. Unmaidenly, yes, but with no one present to cause a scandal it mattered not. With the other arm extended for balance, she scrambled up the steep bank and ran to the vicarage for aid.
Nearing the village outskirts, she summoned up energy from her reserves and sprinted the remaining distance.
“Mr. Cleaver!” She gasped as she threw open the front door of the vicarage. “There’s been an accident! Mr. Cleaver!”
“Whatever is it, Melissa?” He emerged from a door down the hall, wrinkles etched in his forehead.
“Come with me right away. I found a man unconscious in a ditch. About a half mile away.” She bent over, hands on knees, to catch her breath.
“What? Say that again? Calm down, Melissa.”
“There’s no time to waste. Hurry.” She turned and raced out the door. “Come on.”
“I’ll get the wagon. Bert and Toby went to town for supplies, but I can manage. Please go to the parlor and summon Priscilla.” He put on his hat and dashed past Melissa toward the small stable behind the house.
She pivoted and hurried down the hall. “Miss Cleaver!”
The auburn-haired, kindly woman emerged from the kitchen. “What is the commotion, dear?”
“I found a man unconscious by the road. Your brother’s getting a wagon. We must hurry.”
The older woman snatched up her shawl and bonnet on her way past the hall tree and emerged to wait on the steps. Mere moments passed before the horse and wagon appeared. It stopped only long enough to allow the women to clamber up next to Mr. Jeremiah Cleaver onto the seat.
Melissa motioned with her hand. “That way.”
The wagon jolted violently against the ruts, and the women hung on with two hands. Melissa’s bonnet fell back, held on only with the ties. Her hair slipped from its pins and annoying strands blew across her face.
Nothing mattered but getting back to the man.
Melissa directed him to stop. “There,” she pointed, “there he is.”
The minister jumped from the wagon. He raised his hands to assist Melissa and his sister to the ground. Mr. Cleaver yanked off his black tailed coat, threw it onto the wagon’s bench and rolled up his shirtsleeves. With long, leaping steps, he descended into the ditch.
Melissa eased her way down for a second time and stooped to check the man’s pulse again.
She got another clear view of him. Blood matted his hair on one side. Though he was muddy, bruised, and bloody, his firm jaw, chiseled nose, and thick eyelashes aroused Melissa’s interest. Who could he be?
Miss Cleaver called from the edge of the ditch. “I’ll gather his things.”
“Nothing appears to be broken. No limbs awry or askew.”
Mr. Cleaver breathed heavily as he half-lifted, half-dragged the large, listless burden up the bank. He reached the roadside, gently laying down the still-insensible victim. He removed the side boards from two slots in the wagon bed before issuing the next instructions. “You two ladies, help me lift him on the count of three. He’s a big fellow.” Mr. Cleaver positioned one hand under each arm. “One, two, three!”
Melissa picked up his feet, ignoring the boots pressing into her midsection. Miss Cleaver lifted at the waist. The ill-treated man did not make a sound during the transfer, nor did he wake.
Melissa climbed into the wagon bed and settled next to him. She covered him with a blanket taken from a trunk under the seat. An unfamiliar knot of responsibility sat in her stomach like a worrisome weight. Her breath caught with worry, and a well of deep sympathy bubbled inside. As she gazed at him, she made mental notes as to how she would take care of the victim.
“So you’ll ride back there, with him?” Mr. Cleaver’s voice carried concern.
“Yes. I’ll be fine.” Melissa kept a hand on the blanket-covered mound as if to provide a steadying comfort. Cold, shaky, and a bit queasy, she only wanted to get back to the vicarage. The possibility the attackers might still be around traveled across her mind like clouds passing the sun. She constantly scanned the woods along the road. The belated thought of potential danger caused her heartbeat to quicken.
“Jeremiah?” Miss Cleaver’s voice rose above the clip-clop of the horse's hooves as she spoke to her brother. “What do you think happened? I’m guessing robbers or highwaymen left him for dead. Nothing much to identify him among the items I gathered. Only this monogrammed bag. The letter ‘M’ with a superimposed ‘R’. Who has those initials?”
The deep rumble of Mr. Cleaver’s words came next. “I hate to speculate, sister. Whoever he may be, we must take him in and provide for his needs. Acts of mercy are always to be done whenever opportunities arise. Examine the things in his traveling bag again. Perhaps there’s another clue.”
“Yes, indeed, that’s the thing to do.” Priscilla went through the bag again. “Paltry leavings, with no further information to glean. The monogram on the bag is the sole clue.” Finished perusing the contents, she let it drop to the wagon seat.
Melissa kept up a stream of inward petitions that he’d live. She studied his pale, handsome face. Her fingers took on a life of their own—stroking to smooth a strand of hair off his forehead. With the Lord’s help, she’d be a part of his care. When he recovered, she’d like to meet this man.