Dover, January 1801
“Sir, if you get any closer to the lady, you will be inside her gown, instead of merely slobbering over it. Might I suggest you move away?”
Helene’s gaze flew to the softly spoken gentleman who sat opposite her in the crowded coach. At least, she assumed he was a gentleman. His face was obscured by the brim of his tri-corn hat, but his drawling tone and elegant, though somewhat grubby attire proclaimed his high-ranking status in life.
The fat curate sitting next to her straightened abruptly and removed his hand from her thigh. His pudgy face turned puce as he struggled to sit forward.
“I am a servant of God, young man. How dare you imply I was doing anything untoward to the lady?”
“I’m not implying anything, sir. I’m stating a fact. Move away from her, or I’ll eject you from the nearest window.”
Helene shuddered as she contemplated the snow-covered landscape outside the coach. No one in their right mind would choose to be out today. The curate had better keep his groping hands to himself. She smiled. If the man hadn’t intervened, she’d planned on using the three-inch pin from her hat to pink the curate’s fleshy fingers. It was a surprisingly effective weapon.
She stole another glance at her unlikely savior, caught the suspicion of a smile, and nodded in return.
He touched the brim of his hat with one gloved finger. “You are welcome, ma’am.”
His English accent held a hint of foreign places, of secrets to be explored, of mystery. The other passengers on the dilapidated coach faded into the background as Helene focused on the man across from her. He sat at ease, one elbow braced against the side of the swaying coach, his other hand tucked into the pocket of his greatcoat.
Beside her, the curate harrumphed his displeasure, but his hands stayed in his lap, conspicuously folded around a worn prayer book. Helene closed her eyes as weariness overtook her. She’d been traveling for three days and had yet to reach her destination and the enticing prospect of a new future. She touched the tarnished silver locket at her throat. Images of her family, of Marguerite and of the past, threatened to overwhelm her. She had to succeed in London. It was the only way to make sense of her life.
The air inside the coach was stale and fetid, but no one complained. Outside, the wind howled across the barren fields. Rain lashed against the windows, occasionally rattling them as it turned to hail. Helene wiggled her cold feet and knocked against something hard. The gentleman opposite her had stretched out his legs until his boot tips were even with her toes. She studied the gleaming leather, wondered where his valet was, unable to believe that such an elegant man cleaned his own boots.
A muffled shout from the coachman and the blast of his horn made Helene sit up. Were they due to stop, or had the coachman decided not to go any farther in such awful conditions? She clenched her fists and felt the pull of the old kid leather against her knuckles. She wanted to put the past behind her and move on. Another delay suddenly seemed unbearable.
The coach slowed and then stopped. A door was yanked open, and a blast of freezing air sliced through the stale atmosphere. The coachman lowered the scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face. “All out, ladies and gents. We’ve got to change the horses again. You’ve time for a quick drink and a bite to eat before we go on-if we go on.”
Helene waited until the other five passengers disembarked before she slid along the seat and anchored herself against the door frame, ready to jump down. She almost squeaked when a hand cupped her elbow.
“Allow me, ma’am.”
She looked straight into the face of the young man who had sat opposite her. His eyes were a pale hazel brown that almost matched the tanned color of his skin. Was he indeed English or from a different land altogether?
“Thank you, sir.”
She ducked her head to avoid both a flurry of snow and the intensity of his gaze. Why was he being so helpful? What did he want? Helene chided herself for her instant distrust. Although she had reason to know that most men were bastards, she shouldn’t judge a stranger for simply wanting to help her.
He kept hold of her hand as they headed for the small picturesque inn, only releasing it when they stepped into the narrow hallway. Helene moved away to rearrange the hood of her cloak and bonnet and to pat down her hair, which was in complete disarray.
She became aware of her companion waiting behind her, seemingly oblivious of the chattering passengers who milled around them. With strange reluctance, she turned toward him. There was nowhere to go but back out the front door or past him into the noisy taproom beyond.
He bowed low, hat in hand. “May I be so bold as to introduce myself? I’m Philip Ross. Acknowledged black sheep and second son of a minor baronet, with slender but tantalizing hopes of a real title one day.”
He straightened, a smile on his lips, as if he wanted her to know he jested. She guessed he was about twenty, not much older than her. His dark brown hair was tied at the nape of his neck with a black bow. Under his heavy cloak, he wore a simple thick overcoat, black breeches, and a matching waistcoat.
Helene curtsied in return. “I’m Madame Helene Delornay.”
His gaze swept her conservative brown gown. “Delaney, eh? Is your husband Irish?”
“My husband is dead, monsieur, and, no, he wasn’t Irish. It’s Delornay. The name comes from the town of Lorme in the province of Livernoi.”
He grimaced. “Of course, you are French. I’ve been away from England for so long that my ear for accents has obviously disappeared.”
“It is of no matter, monsieur.” She smiled at him. She’d practiced the lies so often that they came easily to her lips. To her surprise, he frowned.
“I can only apologize for your loss, too, ma’am, and express regret for being insensitive enough to remind you of it.”
She shrugged as he gestured toward the crowded taproom and offered her his arm.
“He died over a year ago. I am used to being alone.”
He paused to look down at her. “If I might be so bold, you seem a little young to have been both married and widowed.”
Helene dabbed daintily at her nose with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. “I am eighteen. My husband was much older than me. We were married for less than two years.”
“Still, you must have been but a child.”
Helene raised her eyebrows. “I was old enough, monsieur, to know exactly what I was doing.”
“Really.” He held her gaze, a skeptical challenge in his hazel eyes. “I’m sure you are right, ma’am.”
He drew out a chair for her and then sat opposite, his hands folded on the scarred table in front of him, his dark head bent toward her. Despite the hubbub around them, she could hear every word he said with perfect ease.
“Thank you for aiding me in the coach.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the fat curate, who sat by himself drinking a mug of ale in the corner.
“That man should be ashamed of himself.”
“Because he took advantage of you!”
She glanced at his flushed face. “He simply acted like most men do when they see a woman traveling alone.”
“Are you suggesting this has happened to you before?”
Helene stifled a bitter laugh. He was obviously an innocent who still believed in honor and the code of a gentleman. Why did she have to be the one to disabuse him of his idealistic notions?
“Women traveling alone, especially widows, are seen as fair game.”
He frowned. “Because they are vulnerable without a man?”
She held his gaze, too tired to humor his ignorance any longer. “Because they’ve had a man before and must want another in their bed.”
He blinked. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Helene sipped at the tepid coffee a harried serving maid placed in front of her.
“Isn’t that why you decided to champion my cause in the coach? Aren’t you expecting to benefit from my undying gratitude?”
His expression changed, became as arctic as the weather outside. Beneath his charm, she glimpsed the iron will of the man he would become. “You believe I would take advantage of you like that?”
Helene raised her eyebrows. “Why not?”
He stood up and bowed. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. I’ll remove myself from your presence just in case I forget myself and force you to bed me before we get back on the coach.”
His stiff outrage might have been amusing if Helene hadn’t been so tired or so certain that he meant every word. She took a slow breath.
He’d already turned away from her and didn’t stop moving even after her soft apology. She finished her coffee, winced at the awful taste, and resolutely set her thoughts on London.
Helene hesitated long enough at the entrance of the coach for the slammed door to catch her rear and propel her forward. Her lone traveling companion made no attempt to help her regain her balance as the coach lurched on its way. She settled herself and her belongings on the seat opposite Philip Ross.
Where was everyone? Had they all decided it was too dangerous to continue on the way to London and stayed at the inn?
She attempted a smile at her silent companion. “It seems we are the only two people desperate enough to travel in a snowstorm to reach our destination.”
He stared at her, all the good humor gone from his face. “Am I supposed to reply to you?”
Helene frowned. “If you wish.”
He glanced around. “But we are alone. Aren’t you afraid I’ll try and force you or something?”
Helene sat up straight. “Mr. Ross, I apologized for my remarks. I was tired and perhaps a little overcautious.”
She held his gaze. “Perhaps I have good reason to be wary, monsieur, but I should have given you the benefit of the doubt.”
He shrugged, the motion fluid. “Perhaps you are right. I have been away from England for five years. I’ve forgotten some of the more peculiarly quaint notions about women traveling alone.”
His world-weary airs, despite his obvious youth, made Helene want to laugh. She felt herself relax.
“I have no knowledge of this country either, monsieur. This is my first visit.”
He grinned, his teeth white against his tanned skin. “Then perhaps we should forgive each other and start afresh?”
She smiled back at him, grateful for the reprieve, glad to have found someone she might gain useful knowledge from.
“I would like that.”
His smile died and he leaned forward, his expression intent. “And what if I told you, in the spirit of honesty and friendship, that you were right to be wary of me?”
“That like most men, I do desire you and that I would be delighted if your gratitude extended to a night in my bed.”
Despite her extensive experience with men, Helene simply stared at him. She licked her lips. “I would thank you for your honesty and politely decline.”
He leaned back, and the meager lamplight illuminated the perfect angles of his face. “You don’t feel it, then? This attraction between us?”
“Not really. Lust is usually a male problem, I believe.”
He took hold of her hand and squeezed it hard. “Lust is perhaps too harsh a word. I’d rather call it an instant attraction, a desire to know you better, a-”
“An opportunity to bed me.”
She was deliberately blunt, curious to see how he would react to her coarse use of language. Would he retreat? To her surprise, part of her hoped he wouldn’t.
He studied her, his thumb massaging the palm of her hand through her worn glove. “You are very direct.”
“I’ve had to be.”
She tried to pull back her hand, but he held on.
“Then perhaps I can be equally frank. I want you. I want to run my hands through your glorious blond hair and hear you cry out with pleasure while I come deep inside you.” He paused to bring her hand to his lips and kiss her fingers. “Am I being too honest for you now?”
Helene realized she was shaking her head. Her body stirred at his words, the images implanted in her mind with the clarity of cut glass. How long was it since she’d felt the skin of a young man against her own, a healthy man, a man who desired her?
“I value honesty,” she whispered.
He tugged on her wrist, drew her across the narrow gap to sit beside him.
“So do I.”
He unbuttoned her glove and kissed the soft skin on the underside of her wrist. She shivered as his tongue flicked over her vein. She’d never felt like this with a man before, this sense of illicit heat and excitement, the thought that she could choose to have him if she wanted, rather than simply be taken or sold or forced.
He pulled off her glove, kissed his way around her fingers, and drew her thumb into his mouth before releasing it with a soft pop.
“I want you, but I would never take what wasn’t freely offered.”
“I understand.” Mon Dieu, was that her breathy voice? She cleared her throat. “It is unfortunate, then, that we are both in such a hurry to get to Town.”
He sighed, his expression suddenly remote. “Ah, yes, London and my future. I’d almost forgotten.”
“You do not wish to go to London?”
“I have no choice. My duty to my family demands it.” He shrugged, the gesture as eloquent as any Frenchman. “I’ve been brought all the way back from India to save the family name.”
“I have no family.”
He grunted. “Lucky you.”
She folded her hands in her lap. “Believe me, it is not easy being alone in the world. You should be grateful that your family cares about you and wants you back.”
“They don’t care about me. I’m the official black sheep, the one shipped off overseas to make something of himself when all else failed.” He glanced up, must have seen her puzzled expression, and laughed. “It’s a tradition in England among the upper classes.”
“To force their children to do their duty?”
“To force their children to obey them and sacrifice everything for the glory of the family name.”
His bitterness surprised her, and she touched his sleeve, anxious to change the subject.
“I’m going to London to start a new life.”
“And I’m going to London to live my brother’s.”
“I do not understand.”
He retreated, one arm along the back of the seat. “My eldest brother died, and I have to marry in his place.”
“Marry a woman you haven’t even seen before?”
“Oh no, I’ve seen her. She grew up with our family.” His smile was unpleasant. “My father is her guardian. Anne has a tidy little fortune, you see, and the vague hopes of a title. My father is reluctant to lose her wealth, seeing as he’s been living off the income from her estates for years.”
“The poor girl.”
Philip stiffened. “What about poor me?”
Helene studied his indignant face. “In truth, I feel sorry for both of you, but you could still cry off. She has no such choice.”
He sighed. “I suppose you’re right. I’ve been so busy feeling sorry for myself that I’ve forgotten how wretched she must be.”
“Did she love your brother?”
“William? I doubt it.” His smile reappeared. “If she showed a preference for either of us, it was probably me.”
Helene patted his hand. “Then you have the ability to make her content and make your marriage a happy one.”
His face fell. “But I don’t want to be content and marry someone I already know. I want so much more.” He held her gaze. “I want to meet someone at a ball, instantly fall in love, and be horribly rejected so that I must take to wandering Europe in search of a new love.”
“Whilst sampling a succession of willing ladies along the way, I presume?”
Philip smiled. “Perhaps that would be part of my recovery.”
Helene laughed and he reluctantly joined in. She couldn’t quite believe she was jesting with him, flirting even. Within the tight confines of the coach, she felt freer than she ever had before. What would it have been like to grow up with such confidence in the future? To dream of such things as true love or happiness?
His smile dimmed. “But I will have none of those things. My destiny is set in stone, and I cannot escape it.”
Helene let out her breath. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one whose life wouldn’t follow a path to happiness. At least her future was finally in her own hands, her destiny hers to make.
“I’m sorry, monsieur.”
He squeezed her hand. “Not as sorry as I am, believe me.” He cleared his throat. “And what of you? Why are you traveling to London?”
Helene considered him. How much should she reveal? He obviously considered her a lady, and she was enjoying the experience too much to shatter his illusions.
“I am meeting with my trustees to consider my future.”