The road that wound from the heart of Essex into London was generously warmed by the bright spring sun. Near the edge of the road two aged grooms slowly repaired a loose wagon wheel on a fashionable carriage, pausing now and then to wipe the sweat from their brows. The occupants of the carriage--a vivacious young woman of nineteen, a quiet, slightly older one, and a silent maidservant--had apparently found the heat of the carriage intolerable and had spread a mantle in the shade of a tree some distance away. From this position they watched the grooms at work.
"They are so terribly slow," cried the younger woman, her hands adjusting the bonnet that topped her blond curls. "I want to get to London today. I've so much to do before the Victory Celebration."
"Emily, my dear," said the older one. "Bond Street will not vanish overnight. Surely you can do your shopping another day."
"Yes, yes, Sarah. I know that. But I've waited so long. I yearn for the city."
Sarah Parker shook her head and sighed. Young Emily Penthorne was a good girl, but a little high-spirited. Being her companion was a somewhat difficult task.
Emily smiled the sweet smile of a girl who has always had her way. "Dear Sarah, you are so patient with me. I am most fortunate to have you for a cousin. I know I am impatient. It's just..."
Sarah smiled fondly. Emily was a lovable girl. After all, who could blame her for being a little wild when she had lost her mother so young?
"It's just that we've been in Essex so long," continued Emily, "that I can't wait to get back to the city. I had so much fun during my first season." She did not let her face reflect that other reason that she had carried secretly in her heart since last year. It would not do for Sarah to know that.
"You must not expect the young men to be quite so attentive this year," cautioned Sarah. "There will be other girls just come out."
Emily smiled the mischievous smile of a child.
"But I am very pretty, am I not, Sarah? Surely some young man will want to marry me." She made herself say the words, but she knew in her heart that she would never marry. Not unless she could find the dark stranger that she had seen at Lady Cholmondoley's that night. She had noticed him regarding her with dark piercing eyes and she had colored and lowered her gaze. Then, when she looked again, he was gone, vanished. She had not seen him again, though she had looked and looked.
A flicker of pain crossed Sarah's face as Emily spoke of marriage, but her charge was too lost in her own thoughts to notice it. "I'm sure there will be men eager to offer for you," Sarah replied. "But you must be careful. Everyone knows the extent of your inheritance. You must not be surprised to find that it is your portion rather than your person that excites a man's interest."
Emily wrinkled her small nose. "Oh, don't be such a serious puss, Sarah. I just want to have some fun." That was to be her excuse for not accepting any offers of marriage if they were made her. It seemed rather shallow, but how could she say that she had formed a partiality for a stranger she had only glimpsed once? And a strong partiality it was, too.
Sarah smiled. "Fun is fine in its place--if you remember that marriage is a lifetime concern, not to be taken lightly."
Emily smiled ruefully. "Dear Sarah, I know. But it has been deadly dull in Essex." She shook her head. "I wonder that I could have stood it for so long."
Sarah patted her charge's small gloved hand. "It is only since your season that you have found the country dull. Before that you much enjoyed life in Essex."
Emily's blue eyes danced. "I was a child then, enjoying childish things. Now I am a woman."
Sarah merely nodded. It was not her place to tell her charge that she had a great deal more growing to do before she reached womanhood.
Suddenly Emily got to her feet, her hands automatically smoothing down her gown of pale blue muslin and its matching pelisse. "Oh, Sarah, it was so grand last year. My coming out and all the balls. The theater and Vauxhall. I simply cannot wait."
"Emily, you must be patient, dear. You have given no thought to your Uncle Cyril. He is getting along in years. Perhaps he will prefer to lead a quiet life."
Emily turned a woeful face to her cousin. "Oh dear, Sarah, please don't say so!" Then her expression cleared. "Besides, Uncle Cyril is such a dear, I'm sure he will listen to me." She must be out in society, she thought, or she would never find him, that dark stranger from the ball.
Sarah nodded. They had not been long in London for Emily's first season when it had become abundantly clear that the girl could wrap her old uncle around her little finger. Fortunately Sarah had been able to exercise some subtle control so Emily had not run amuck. But this year Sarah was not so sure she could manage. Emily was older now and more headstrong. Probably the adulation of the beaus had given her a sense of power.
"I must walk about a little, Sarah. Just a little. You sit still now."
Sarah nodded. In the country there was no harm in Emily's walking about alone.
As she walked slowly toward the carriage, Emily paused now and then to observe a bright wildflower or a newly budding leaf. She did love the country. There was no doubt about that. Surely this spring had been as beautiful as any. But somehow all the old things--the blooming hedgerows, the fields of daffodils, the bright blue sky, the green grass--none of these were sufficient anymore. Something was missing.
There was inside her a deep and undefinable yearning--a yearning for something nameless. When she had tried to talk to Sarah about it, her cousin had merely smiled and said, "You are growing up. This yearning is for a partner with whom to share your life."
And Emily had said no more. She was quite determined she would share her life with no man but that dark stranger.
Sometimes it had frightened her to think of entrusting her life to a stranger. How could she live with someone she knew nothing of? Leg-shackled, Cousin Percy called it. But now she saw. If the man were that stranger, why, she would be willing. At least she had one advantage in her search for him, she thought as she stooped to admire a violet. Uncle Cyril was an old dear. He would never insist that she marry any particular man.
The sound of hooves caused her to raise her head. Another carriage was approaching. She paused beside a tree, the violet in her hand, half-conscious that she made a pretty picture there in the sunlight.
The carriage passed by at a comfortable clip. Emily's hand went to her mouth in surprise. The man whose face was framed by the carriage window, the man whose dark eyes met and held hers, was the stranger of the ball! She knew it was ill-conceived to stare at a man like that. She was not at all in the habit of quizzing strangers. But to have him appear like--that--just when she was thinking of him--had taken her by surprise.
As his carriage rattled on, Emily sank to the grass. How well she remembered him--the darkly handsome face, the unruly black hair, and the black, piercing eyes that seemed able to probe her very soul. Color flooded her cheeks at the thought of his eyes meeting hers. Had he remembered her? she wondered. And did he think she made a pretty picture standing there? She hoped so. Suddenly her need to reach London was even stronger. He was going to be there!
She moved on toward the carriage. "How soon?" she asked the grooms, her voice clearly indicating her anxiety to be on her way.
"'Tis sorry I am, miss, but such things takes time."
"I know, Hodges." Emily's voice was contrite. "It's just that I'm so anxious."
"I know, miss. We'll be having this done soon now. Don't you be worrying none."
Emily nodded at this and turned back toward her cousin. She would talk to Sarah, perhaps that way she could still the beating of her heart. Strange that just seeing the man should affect her so.
She made bright conversation with Sarah, but the picture of the stranger persisted in her mind. She must find him. She must go everywhere until he appeared.
Eventually the mended carriage moved on toward the city and Emily's excitement grew. "Oh, Sarah," she cried as they entered London. "I do love the city. There's so much happening. Time passes so quickly here."
"I much prefer the peace of the country myself," Sarah replied calmly. "But I believe I can understand your feeling."
"It's a whole different world," said Emily. "Not like Essex at all. Look, Sarah. There's the same little old lady that sold tea and hot buns last year."
"Yes, I see her."
"And there goes a butcher's boy with a great side of beef. See how the shopgirls eye him. Ugh. That beef doesn't look very tasty."
Sarah smiled. "Of course it doesn't. But I'm sure Cook could make a good meal of it."
"Cook can do wonders," agreed Emily. "But I like best her apple tarts." She clapped her gloved hands together merrily. "Look, there's a girl selling posies. How pretty they are."
"Bakin' or boilin' apples," came the cry from a buxom woman whose red cheeks shone from the heat of the charcoal stove beside her barrow. As Emily watched, a dapper gentleman stepped up and purchased two apples, then returned to a nearby carriage where he handed one to a lady who smiled at him sweetly.
A strange twinge occurred inside Emily's breast. Would she smile thus someday at the man who was to be her husband? Would she even find the stranger?
Down one side of the street came a peddler. Loaded with brooms, brushes, sieves, bowls, and other items, he was a curious sight. But his face, as he proclaimed his wares, wore a happy smile.
"Lavender. Buy my lavender," cried a child nearby. Emily turned to look. The girl could not have been more than twelve.
"Sarah, couldn't we buy a bunch? Just one?"
"I'm sure your uncle will have made adequate provision for the linen presses in St. James's Square," said Sarah with a smile. "But if you want some for yourself, I see no harm in it."
The driver of the carriage was soon directed to follow the child and Emily made her purchase, feeling as much joy at the smile on the child's face as at the sweet scent of the lavender in her hands.
As the carriage moved on again Emily noticed a man carrying a pole across his shoulders from which were suspended several dead rabbits. "Look, Sarah," she cried. "There goes a higgler. How furious Uncle Cyril would be to see him. He must have gotten those rabbits from poachers."
Sarah sighed. "I wonder at the risks men take. The penalty for poaching is quite severe. I believe it may mean transportation."
Emily shivered. "How dreadful! But, oh, look! There are several fashionable ladies."
Sarah, looking in the indicated direction, frowned. "Emily, my dear, pray do me a favor and do not speak of such ladies."
"Whyever not?" asked her charge, who was eagerly cataloging every item of the ladies' apparel.
"Because they are not ladies," said Sarah.
"But they are dressed so fine!"
"They are incognitas," replied Sarah with a deeper frown. "Women who make their fortunes by selling themselves."
"They look very happy," observed Emily.
She turned bright blue eyes on her cousin. "What is it, Sarah?"
"You must not say such outlandish things." Sarah plucked nervously at her gloves. "I know that you mean nothing by it, but others would not. The ladies of the ton would be deeply shocked."
Emily frowned. "I only stated what I observed. They do look happy."
"Looks can be deceiving."
Emily's eyes sparkled with sudden merriment. "Dear Sarah, do not grow so serious. I am not contemplating such a course of life."
"I should hope not!"
Emily patted her cousin's hand. "Sarah, dear, you still can't tell when I'm funning you."
Sarah smiled rather weakly. "Emily, Emily. The ton does not appreciate this kind of funning. When you are in society, you must be more careful!"
"Yes, Sarah, I shall." Emily made the promise, but she thought privately that dear as she was, Cousin Sarah was a little stick-in-the-muddish. However, Emily added to herself quite truthfully, a girl couldn't ask for a nicer companion than Sarah. It was a terrible shame that she had been left penniless as she had when her parents died.
It had been fortunate for Sarah that Emily needed a companion at the time; but it had been equally fortunate for Emily to get Sarah. On occasion her high spirits had been dampened by Sarah's cautions. But last year, during her first season when they had come to the city, Emily had fully realized what a gem she had in Sarah. A diamond of the first water, as Cousin Percy would say, though he used the phrase in reference to the physical rather than spiritual beauty that Sarah possessed.
By now the character of the passersby had changed. As they approached St. James's Square the streets grew less crowded with tradespeople. Emily began to wiggle around on the seat like an eager child, until, feeling Sarah's gentle eyes upon her, she managed to compose herself.
There was something about the city that she found most exciting. It was so lively and interesting--with so much going on. She could hardly wait to be part of it again. And now she had a chance to find him!
The coach moved into St. James's Square and Emily craned her neck to look out the window at the familiar houses. "I shall be so glad to see Uncle," she said. "It seems just ages."
Sarah nodded. "I hope you find your uncle in good health."
"I'm sure he will be," returned Emily eagerly. "Oh, I am so excited."
As the carriage drew up to the door, she could contain herself no longer and burst from it. Half-running, half-walking, she hurried to the door. Behind her in the carriage Sarah heaved a sigh. This season would be much more difficult than the last. She felt it in her bones.