Although Lady Isabelle Borland’s carriage climbed toward the northernmost peak of England, she did not gaze out of the window in her usual dreamy way at the picturesque snow-blanketed landscape shimmering in all directions.
Instead, all of Belle’s worried focus centered on the lady’s maid seated opposite her.
Ursula’s perpetually cheery freckled face was white as plaster of Paris, and drawn into a pained grimace that worsened every time one of their wheels ran over a rock or slid on a patch of ice. Her painstakingly styled russet hair clung to her face and neck in damp hunks, partially obscuring the rivulets of sweat dripping from her temples. Her shaking limbs hid beneath every single blanket in the carriage, save for a pale, trembling hand that clutched a sturdy sack that had once contained periodicals for the journey, and now contained…
Ah, there she went again. It had been ages since Ursula last attempted to eat, yet her stomach continued to rebel with alarming regularity.
“How much longer?” Belle shouted to their driver, John.
A lady did not shout, particularly not if she were the infallibly respectable daughter of a duke, but if Ursula did not get out of this carriage and into a warm bed posthaste—
“Two hours,” John called back.
Two hours? Ursula would not last two more hours. The putrid sack swinging ominously from her fingers would withstand even less. And if Belle was sitting in the enclosed carriage when the contents of that sack escaped, John would deal with not one but two violently ill passengers.
“You have half an hour,” Belle shouted back. “Maybe less.”
“Lady Isabelle, I’m afraid horses cannot fly. Cressmouth is at the top of this mountain, and we must wind our way up the path like we do every year. With the way this snow is coming down—”
“Forget Cressmouth,” Belle snapped. “I don’t care about my holiday. Ursula needs a bed and a doctor.”
John gestured at the endless horizon of rolling, snow-dusted pines and muttered what sounded suspiciously like, “Let me know when you see one.”
She curled her fingers into fists. John couldn’t make horses fly, and Belle couldn’t conjure a doctor out of thin air. But she had to do something.
Think, she begged herself in desperation.
Females don’t have to think, Papa liked to say, with an indulgent wink. That’s what husbands and fathers are for. Just be pretty.
And Belle would grit her teeth behind a tight-lipped smile to keep the frustration from boiling over as her mother’s face fell with disappointment. Lady Isabelle, were you thinking again? How will you ever find a match that way? There are rules to follow, darling. You know them by heart. All you need to do is follow them.
Father was gone now, but the rules had not changed. All of Society followed them. What to say, what to do, what to eat, what to wear. What was allowed to interest you, who you could and could not befriend.
Like Ursula, for instance. Belle had been scolded time and again that Ursula was a servant, not a playmate. After more than a decade of each other’s company, Ursula was no longer Belle’s secret friend, but more like a sister.
And that sister was turning inside out in misery before Belle’s eyes.
“Houville,” she blurted.
John glanced back at her. “What?”
“Houville,” she repeated in triumph. “It’s the last little village before the long stretch to Cressmouth, and I don’t recall having passed it.”
John brightened. “You’re right. I don’t know if there’ll be a doctor, but I believe there’s a posting house. Can you last half an hour?”
Ursula gave Belle a weak nod before returning her face to her sack.
Twenty minutes will be too long, Belle wanted to respond, but did not. With all this ice and snow, a carriage accident would make things immeasurably worse.
“Thank you, John,” she called back, and straightened the blankets about Ursula’s shoulders.
Her brother, the Duke of Nottingvale, held a Yuletide party at his winter residence in Cressmouth every winter. Belle had thought it would be lovely to head up early and spend a week or two with her friend Angelica. She’d thought Ursula would enjoy the trip as well. She’d thought it might be a welcome holiday for them both.
And now this.
This was what she got for thinking.
She diverted her gaze out of the window to the passing evergreens. Each tree brought them closer to Houville. Everything would be fine. They would rent the finest suite of rooms in the posting house, Ursula would improve quickly, and they’d be back on the road to Cressmouth as if nothing had happened.
There wouldn’t even be a need to mention this small detour to anyone. Especially not to her mother or to her brother, the duke.
It was all under control.
Or would be, as soon as they arrived at the posting house.
The moment evergreens turned into cottages with snow-covered roofs and busy brick chimneys, Belle tied her bonnet beneath her chin and set about helping Ursula prepare to leave the coach.
Snowflakes whirled in with the sharp wind as John swung open the carriage door.
She hurried down the step and onto the frozen street. “Don’t worry about the trunks. We need to get Ursula inside. If you can take her, I’ll run ahead and arrange the rooms.”
“As you wish.” John disappeared into the carriage.
Belle squinted up at the illustrated owl on the sign above the posting house door. The Hoot & Holly. At least it was open.
The interior teemed with people and warmth. Glasses and cutlery clanged in a crowded dining area that seemed to take up the front half of the building. At the rear was a long bar, behind which stood an older woman in an apron and a mob cap.
A lady did not rush, but time was of the essence. Belle hastened through the dining area, dodging wooden chairs and a harried serving girl.
When she reached the bar, the older woman flung a damp towel over her shoulder. “How can I help you, love?”
“I need three rooms for the night. And a doctor, if you’ve got one.”
“I haven’t.” The woman passed a speculative glance over Belle’s luxurious but hopelessly wrinkled traveling costume. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Not me,” Belle explained. “It’s my maid. She’s feverish, and cannot keep anything in her stomach. I’ll take the finest suite you have, with separate bedrooms of course, and another room for our driver. We’ll be on our way to Cressmouth as soon as—”
“Haven’t got three rooms.” The older woman pointed out of the window to the falling snow. “Suddenly everyone wants to stop here on their way to the castle. Too bad no one’s a carpenter to add on another floor.”
“What do you have?” Belle asked desperately. “I’ll pay double.”
The proprietress tilted her head and gave her a speculative look. “I’ve only one room left.”
“Perfect.” Belle sagged with relief. “I’ll take it.”
“It has but one bed,” the proprietress warned. “A narrow one.”
“My maid can have it,” Belle said quickly. “I’ll sleep on a chair.”
Or on the floor. She’d brought enough gowns to improvise a cushion fit for a princess, if need be. But what was she to do with John?
Movement rustled behind her as her driver staggered forth with Ursula in his arms, the sack dangling from one pale hand.
The proprietress’s eyes filled with compassion. “Caught the influenza that’s going around, did she?”
John and Belle exchanged startled looks.
“Going around?” he croaked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Belle said firmly. “I’ll mind her in my room.” She turned to the proprietress. “Have you anywhere my driver could sleep?”
“I suppose you don’t mind servants’ quarters?”
John shook his head. “Not at all, madam.”
“Then there’s a bed for you.” She narrowed her eyes at Ursula. “And for this one, as well. None of this ‘sleeping on the floor’ in my inn, when I’ve already a sickroom in the back for two maids who have come down with the same thing. It’ll be easier on everyone to keep all the invalids in one place.”
“Thank you.” Belle pressed her hands to her heart. “You’ve no idea how much I appreciate your kindness.”
“You may change your mind. The room I mentioned is the smallest one in the posting house. We try to keep men and women on separate floors, but with this weather, we’re all having to make do. I suppose you have a companion?”
Belle’s companion was barely conscious, and about to be carried off to the servants’ quarters by her driver. Her skin went clammy. The daughter of a duke could not possibly spend a single moment by herself on a mixed-sex wing of bedchambers, much less pass an entire night in such company and expect to keep her reputation intact.
But what choice did she have? Dragging Ursula back out into the snow at twilight would be asinine and dangerous.
“It’s fine,” she said firmly. She would have a sturdy footman guide her to her room and stay locked in there until morning, when she could ring for a maid to accompany her back down. “Just me, no companions.”
The proprietress slid a guestbook across the counter. “Then sign here, Miss…?”
“La—” Belle’s voice cut off. She could not sign “Lady Isabelle” in the registry. The scandalous news would arrive back in London before she did.
She needed a pseudonym. One that apparently began with “Lay,” now that she’d begun.
“Lépine,” she blurted. It had been the name of her childhood pet. It would have to do. “Mrs. Lépine. I’m… a widow. Traveling from… Epping.”
Now she was babbling and giving far too much unnecessary information. She clamped her teeth shut before she invented three children and a chalet in France to match her fake French surname. If challenged, at least Belle could speak French. Those endless tutoring sessions had not been for nothing.
John, for his part, did not blink at the false name.
Nor did the proprietress, who tapped the pencil laying in the fold of the registry. “How do you do, Mrs. Lépine? I’m Mrs. Price. Sign, and I’ll give you a key.”
Belle grabbed the pencil and dashed an illegible scrawl on the next line. “Ursula and John are to have anything they wish. I will cover all costs. And if there’s a doctor—”
“He’ll be passing through tomorrow morning. I’ll have him look at your girl when he attends the others. Now, shall we get the invalid out of our dining room?” Mrs. Price waved down an adolescent boy, and gave him instructions for both Ursula and John. Then she plucked a brass key from behind the counter and pressed it into Belle’s hand. “There you are, love. Room eighteen. Third floor, second-to-last room on the left.”
“Er…” Belle’s fingers closed about the heavy key. “Is there someone who can carry up my trunks, and show John what to do with the carriage?”
Mrs. Price glanced about the busy dining room. “Not at the moment, but I’ll see to it you’re next. Why don’t you have something to eat while you wait?”
“I’m not—” A rumble in her stomach made a lie of her protestation.
She was hungry, Belle realized. It had been hours since Ursula last ate, and the same amount of time for her. Belle had concentrated so hard on trying to arrive at Cressmouth before nightfall, for Ursula’s sake, that she’d forgot all about stopping for food.
“I will,” she told Mrs. Price. “Thank you. Please see that my driver eats well.”
Now that she’d woken her stomach, Belle realized she was famished. She turned in search of an empty table.
There was none.
“Always crowded this time of year.” Mrs. Price beamed with pride. “We’re the last posting house before Christmas.”
Literally and figuratively. Cressmouth was best known as Christmas, and Britons flocked from far and wide to spend the festive season in a village renowned for its perennial Yuletide. Most revelers spent their holiday in beautiful Marlowe Castle, in one of hundreds of guest rooms with a spectacular view.
None of which was helping Belle find an empty table. Perhaps over there… No. Or perhaps over… Taken, as well. Or perhaps—
A pair of glittering brown eyes met hers and Belle’s breath caught in her suddenly dry throat.
The gentleman gazing back at her looked as though he had just stepped out of a fashionable gentleman’s club such as White’s or Brooks’s. Gleaming black Hessians on his feet, flawless buckskins molded to his legs, an exquisitely tailored greatcoat over an understated waistcoat. Dark hair, darker gaze. Neckcloth so bright it dazzled the eyes. Every stitch was perfect, every hair in place. He was like a portrait entitled Dangerous Rake: Virtuous Ladies Should Not Dare Come Near.
And he was beckoning her closer. No, not merely closer. He was gesturing to the empty seat on the other side of his private table. He was inviting her to join him.
Her heart clattered. She shouldn’t. She wouldn’t. It was improper in every way… for Lady Isabelle. Who she definitely was not. She was Mrs. Lépine, a matronly widow who could do as she pleased. Couldn’t she? Just this once. Belle tried to steady her fluttering pulse. This was the tamest of adventures. She and Sir Renaissance Painting Come to Life were strangers who need never cross paths again.
What harm could come from enjoying a moment or two of his company?