A Westward LoveBy: V. J. Banis
The window of the carriage crashed open.
“Why are we stopping here?” the woman inside demanded. “I gave express orders—”
“The horses, milady,” the driver mumbled apologetically, “they must rest. There’s water here.”
“Oh, the horses! The poor horses, I hadn’t thought—” Claire Hayes sighed and, opening the carriage door, stepped down by herself, to the dismay of the footman hurrying to help her.
It was just past dawn, the rising light turning the sky to stained glass. The driver hastily unhitched the horses and led them to a little stream that ran alongside the road. Claire could hear them drinking greedily while she paced to and fro behind the carriage.
The cool damp air smelled of the crabapples that bordered the route, and the freshly turned soil of the farmland beyond. By mid-morning they would be in London, with all its stink and smoke, and there she would....
She paused, watching a nervous redwing lift from its perch in a bullace tree. What would she do once they had reached London? Continue a stupid quarrel with Richard, who was, so far as she knew, fifty miles behind at Everly Hall?
It had seemed the only thing to do last night. With tempers flaring and angry words falling like shards of glass between them, she’d leapt into her carriage and set out pell-mell for London. Of course, Richard had been expected to follow her. It was doubly infuriating that he had robbed her of the roadside reconciliation she had envisioned. After all, she had hardly intended to end up in London alone, while practically everyone who was anyone was at Everly.
On the other hand, she couldn’t turn back now, she told herself, furious with Richard for his obstinacy. I would be a laughing stock.
“Aren’t those horses ready yet?” she demanded, coming around the carriage.
“We’re just feeding them, milady,” the driver said. “Soon’s they get their wind....”
One of the horses whinnied, pricking up his ears. In a moment Claire heard it as well—the distant rattle of hooves on the hard ground. Someone was approaching, riding swiftly.
Claire smiled to herself and walked into the roadway, watching back the way they had come.
So she was to have her way after all. It was a triumph of sorts, though a hollow one, for she felt at the same time a disconcerting sense of disappointment; this would have been the first time that Richard actually stood up to her. She made an unconscious gesture, as if dismissing that idea out of hand.
The horseman rounded a bend into sight, slowing his mount as he caught sight of them along the road. He had reined to a stop and was leaping down before she saw in the pale light that it was not Richard, but his brother Peter.
“Claire, I’ve been worrying myself sick over your traveling alone.”
“In the company of my servants.” She corrected him. “Really, Peter.”
“Yes, well, I’ve been praying every mile, just the same.”
She smiled grimly. “I rather fear prayers concerning me are rejected automatically on arrival.”
“You mustn’t talk like that,” he whispered, glancing at the servants.
“At any rate,” she added, ignoring the objection, “as you can see for yourself, I’m quite all right—or will be, as soon as I’m on the road again. Aren’t those blasted horses rested yet?” she demanded over her shoulder.
“I’ll hitch ’em up now, milady,” the answer came back.
“And Richard?” she asked, turning back to Peter.
“You haven’t seen him then?” Peter looked surprised. “He left the same time I did, only he rode cross country. He said he could make better time that way. Not knowing the way, I thought I’d be better off following the road. My guess is, if you just sit tight here for half an hour....”
“Twiddling my thumbs?” she snapped. “Thank you, no. It looks as if we’re ready to go at last.”
She started for the carriage. Peter, pausing to glance back the way he had come, followed her. “If you don’t mind, then, I’ll ride inside with you.”
She shrugged and allowed him to hand her inside. “As you wish,” she said, sinking wearily back into the leather seat. She did not say so, but she would welcome the company; her own had proved a trifle unsatisfactory.
He called for a servant to tend to his horse, and then climbed inside. The driver larruped the horses, and the carriage jolted forward.
Peter had taken the seat opposite her. “I’ll have you know you set the entire party on its ears,” he chuckled. “They would talk of nothing else. Why did you decide to leave?”
Claire frowned, realizing that for the moment she could not recall precisely what it was she and Richard had quarreled about this time.
“Because I chose to,” she snapped. “If you’re going to ride with me, Peter, for God’s sake—”
“Oh, I am sorry,” she said, exasperated. “Though I don’t know why you don’t just take the vows if you’re going to be all that dreary about a simple oath.”
“My religion means a great deal to me,” he said soberly, his eyes meeting hers. “And I think you know why I haven’t taken vows.”