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A Country Miss

A Country Miss by Emily Hendrickson
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Charity Lonsbury was a poor country girl when she fell in love with the rich and sophisticated Marquess of Kenrick. With the help of her unconventional aunt, a rabbit named Roscoe and a hothouse of orchids could Charity managed to transform herself into the toast of the town—and win Lord Kenrick’s heart?

Regency Romance by Emily Hendrickson; originally published by Signet

Belgrave House; November 1988
184 pages; ISBN 9780451157768
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Title: A Country Miss
Author: Emily Hendrickson

A pale-gray pigeon fluttered from the peak of the hothouse, parting the delicately swirling mist in its agitation. It dropped on the ground with a ruffled flourish, strutting past a lop-eared rabbit who looked rather woebegone in the crystalline dampness. The rabbit twitched its nose and waited patiently by the wooden door of the hothouse.

The door opened and the rabbit left the mizzle for the fragrant warmth of the hothouse. Light filtered down through the whitewashed panes, bestowing a strange delicate green cast to the two people beneath the rows of exquisite orchids. The rabbit hopped across the worn slats of water-stained wood and settled at the feet of his mistress. Safely hidden beneath the old wooden potting bench, it seemed to listen, one ear carefully alert while the other hung crazily over his left eye.

Charity was grateful for the diversion. Roscoe was always to be depended upon when needed. While it might be unusual to have a pet rabbit, there was little conformity in Charity Lonsbury.

Although the eerie glow from the windows did not enhance her chestnut curls or her peach-tinted skin, it gave her steady gray eyes intriguing depths, hinted of secrets concealed beneath the demure exterior. Her slender figure was well-balanced, though her gardening apron hid the sweet curve of her bosom from the approaching squire’s gaze. Her chin tilted defiantly as she considered the words most likely to reach her ears.

She stiffened at the familiar and very irritating sound of Squire Hamilton Bigglesby clearing his throat. It was a raspy staccato, guaranteed to vex ears less sensitive than hers. She cautioned herself not to allow her mind to wander during his effusive prose. If she murmured agreement at the wrong moment, she would find herself betrothed to the wretched man. The mere thought of his cold, pudgy hands on her body was enough to make her toss her tea.

She thumped a small clay pot on the bench and began to fill it with her special blend of moss and shredded bark. This was for potting the last of four sections of a sympodial orchid that she had divided earlier. If she must hear the squire out, she could at least get something accomplished. He was too persistent to leave her in peace. As she gently transferred the plant, she nodded her head. "Proceed, Squire." What else could she say? He would speak regardless. His prose would spout like water from an ice-cold spring, sharp and unrelenting.

Squire Bigglesby was disconcerted by his intended’s lack of maidenly flutterings or suitably receptive posture. However, he wouldn’t allow this to deter him from making her his bride. After they were wed he would end this nonsense of orchids and rabbits.

"Ought to take that demmed rabbit and make a fine stew out of him instead of cosseting him like this," he muttered. Then, realizing these intentions were better silenced for the moment, he again cleared his throat, seemingly unaware of the resistance in the rigid figure near him. "My dear Miss Lonsbury .. ." He paused and drew nearer, taking care to keep a distance from the dirt-stained bench. "Charity, dear lady, for we are surely past all such formalities, are we not? You must know I am the most patient of men. ‘Tis clear I hold you in the highest esteem." He cleared his throat once again, unmindful of her wince, and continued. "I would that you allow me to announce the date of our marriage. Surely you will accept my offer. You will find none better . . or higher." His eyes narrowed, nearly disappearing into the folds of fat that rounded his face. The chit would accept him this time, he was certain. There was little income to sustain her, and she must long for the pretties his purse could buy.

"I can afford to keep you in a handsome manner," he reminded her in an unctuous voice. It put Charity in mind of the grease that dripped from a roasting pig: thick, oily and slightly malodorous when left to stand. Charity squared her shoulders and inhaled a precious breath of free air. If she agreed to marry the squire, it would be the last she took. "Sir, you do me great honor, I’m sure. I cannot agree to wed you, however."

He bristled with indignation. "You are over the year of mourning for your father. There is naught to stand in our way. You are twenty-one, are you not?"

"That is true, sir." She raised her eyes to look at the figure awaiting her answer with such overweening confidence. Such a figure he thought he cut. His cravat was an economy of linen and the bottle-green coat hung neatly over his wide shoulders. If his primrose pantaloons strained against the bulk of his thighs and his puce waistcoat threatened to burst its buttons, it was a compliment to his cook, her roast beef and trifle. The coarse redness of his nose attested to his fondness for port, and his rough skin reflected his love for a bruising ride to the hounds, none of which was reprehensible... to most. Charity reflected that if his face was a road map of his life’s journey, the trip had indeed been a rough one.

For a moment Charity’s thoughts skimmed to another man, one tall and slim, dark-haired, with eyes of the most intense blue she’d ever seen. She had often watched as he called on her father, the late reverend. She would linger near the top of the stairs or hover in the garden to catch a glimpse of him, then listen for the deep richness of his voice. A sigh escaped from her lips as she contemplated the impossible, her preux chevalier, the knight in shining armor who would never come to her rescue. The Marquess of Kenrick was far beyond her in every way, and she was well aware of the complete futility of her dreams. She was destined to love him without any hope, for she had no dowry, no chance to meet him face to face. Still, that did not make acceptance of the tedious Squire Bigglesby inevitable.  She would fight against that horror in every way she could.

"Nevertheless, I must decline your most gracious offer." That ought to mollify the pompous prig, she decided. His conceit was just short of second to none.

He drew up in offended dignity and deepening anger. "I have been patient beyond all reckoning. I have made my decision! I think your father would be most gratified to know his daughter is married to a man of my stature. We will marry, my dear. If you do not choose the date, I will set it for us." His eyes gleamed with the knowledge Charity would be forced to agree with his logic.

"That cannot be. You cannot force me against my will, and I will not marry you. There is no one to ask for my hand, for there is no one I am answerable to in this world. My word and mine alone is what counts here. And I say no." The time for ladylike politeness fled. She must stand her ground against his man. Marriage to him was unthinkable! It was a blessing he was not privy to Mrs. Woods’ repeated urgings to seek help from the Earl of Nevile, Charity’s uncle. Charity had no doubt the squire would attempt to seek a means of demanding that gentleman compel Charity to accept the squire as a worthy husband.

Bigglesby paced the narrow wooden slats of the hothouse floor in pensive, ponderous steps. One plump hand stroked his chin while he mulled over the problem he faced. He no doubt deemed her a recalcitrant miss. Her refusal angered him greatly, she could see that. Then he stopped short, as if an idea had struck him all a heap.

Charity stared at the figure who stood so completely out of place among the orchids. Delicate blooms of lavender and green, pink and white, cascaded over narrow ribbons of leaves all about him, their beauty totally ignored. She doubted very much that his nose was sensitive enough to catch their elusive scent.

The clearing of his throat drew the expected wince as well as a tremor of fear. There really was no reason for the latter, as the squire had always deported himself in a seemly fashion. Yet he was known to get his way in all things, and she was sadly lacking in support to withstand any threat. Alone at the cottage with only Mrs. Woods, the former housekeeper at the rectory, she had little protection. Josiah Bent would defend her, but what could an old man like him do, other than wield his gardening hoe? She met the pale-blue eyes, now beaming with satisfaction, with rising trepidation.

"I am going up to the great house to pay my respects to Lord Kenrick. You knew he had arrived? Perhaps I will mention the use of the hothouse to him. Yes." The squire looked about with a smug air of victory. "I’m certain he would wish to be appraised of the way you use, or should I say abuse, his gracious generosity to your esteemed father, our late Reverend Lonsbury. Your cottage is part of his lordship’s domain as well, isn’t it? You rent from him? Quite dependent upon his generosity, I daresay. I wonder how he will view all you have done, Miss Lonsbury." With a jab at her composure more perceptive than he realized, he added, "I sense more goes on here than he knows." He made a futile attempt to draw in his girth before making a sketchy bow to a worried Charity. Turning to exit the hothouse, he stumbled over the soft furry body in his path. Though Charity couldn’t understand his muttered words, she guessed their meaning from his angry tone.

She scooped up Roscoe and scolded him with a hint of frantic laughter in her voice. Burying her face against his plushlike fur, she gently berated him. "Oh, that was naughty, dear Roscoe. He’ll hate you even more, and the danger of your ending up in his stew pot will be all the greater."

Roscoe wrinkled his nose and settled in her arms.

Charity leaned against the potting bench, ignoring the possibility of dirt smudges on her soft gray cambric work gown or the wrinkled apron Mrs. Woods insisted she wear. Brows furrowed in anxious apprehension, she considered the problem.

Would the squire actually inform on her? What would he say? That she was growing the orchids in the hothouse? The same as her father had done? The squire couldn’t possibly know Charity was actually selling the plants. At times she sold the blooms as well for special occasions, during those seasons when the market supply was short. It wasn’t seemly for her to be in trade! Selling plants? And flowers! It was a good thing he knew nothing of her impulsive entry in the Horticultural Society contest to find an orchid worthy of presentation to the Prince Regent!

Charity shrugged and wondered how she was to cope without her earnings from the orchids. She had no desire to yield to the blandishments of the tediously worthy squire. The sum left to her after her father’s death was sufficient to rent the cottage from Lord Kenrick’s estate manager, and provide a scant amount for food and other essentials. Only the careful management of Mrs. Woods kept them from deep straits. She refused to join her sister Hope and her young captain in America, nor would she intrude on her sister Faith and her vicar on that chilly island off Scotland’s west coast. Her father’s sister, Lady Tavington, was somewhere off in Asia. A letter might reach her if one knew where to write, which Charity did not. Truth was, Charity stubbornly clung to her independence and her beloved orchids. She would not leave them nor part with her freedom willingly.

Over the past months since her fathers death Mrs. Woods had pleaded with Charity to abandon her obstinate refusal to contact the Earl of Nevile, elder brother of her father. "Ye can’t eat your pride, miss," Mary Woods would storm. "It won’t put meat on your bones.

Charity’s heated reply gave Mrs. Woods no ease. "Do they even know we exist? Or care that my dear papa died? Nary a word have I heard this past year or more, other than that stiff letter of condolence. I won’t cast myself at their feet for a scrap of pity. Food, neither. We’ll make out with the chickens and the rabbits."

Mrs. Woods would sniff, then mutter. "Never heard the like of it. Raising rabbits when the world knows you let them run free. And what would his lordship say to ye capturing a few of his rabbits to breed for food? Borders on poaching, that’s what!"

Charity shrugged. "He never comes here anymore. His mother does on rare occasions, and she would not bother with our cottage. What they don’t know cannot hurt them or us."

"Oh? And what about the orchids, miss? What’s to become of ye if his lordship discovers ye have been using his hothouse to raise orchids to sell? Answer that, if ye can!"

"I have presumed on my father’s arrangements." It was a good things Mrs. Woods didn’t know Charity used his lordship’s initials when she wrote to the gentlemen orchid fanciers her father had corresponded with these past years. She reasoned that since she was using the Kenrick hothouses for her operation, what better thing than to adopt his initials? It was undoubtedly the closest she would get to his cherished presence. She had achieved a modest success with her work, and she wasn’t about to allow the squire to bring ruin down upon her head.

Then the full meaning of his words penetrated. His lordship, the Marquess of Kenrick, was here! At Greenoaks! Her heart began a fluttery beat beneath the firm rounded bosom. Her preux chevalier! Rather than save her he was likely to toss her out on her ear if he came down here and discovered what she was about. She sent a fervent prayer soaring heavenward that his lordship would be otherwise occupied for the duration of his stay. There was no reason why he should inspect the hothouses. It wasn’t customary. She made no demands that would reach the ears of his bailiff, and she tried not to interfere with the duties of the head gardener, Josiah Bent. She helped him as often as he helped her, in fact of the matter.

"There is no manner in which Lord Kenrick can discover I’ve used his initials, Roscoe," she assured the pink inner ear of the rabbit. The dark eyes blinked with a knowing glint, as though reminding her there were other things his lordship might find objectionable.

"Though, if I am discovered, it will be my undoing. I’ll be disgraced, my reputation in tatters. I must not allow that to happen, Roscoe." All of a sudden it became vital to save her good name. But what could she do about it? If Lord Kenrick chose to visit his own hothouse, there was naught she could do to prevent it.

Absently she stroked the silken fur, deep in convoluted plans. She would bar the door. No, that would make it difficult to work. She could post Roscoe by the door to warn her, but all he could do was sniff. "Why don’t you meow, Roscoe? Then you could help. Though you did try with the squire, didn’t you? I don’t think you ought to trip Lord Kenrick though, Roscoe. He might get hurt."

The very idea of the elegant lord tumbling amid the dirty environs of the hothouse set her to sweeping up the wooden strips that composed the floor. Usually she was too occupied to tidy the place, only forcing herself once a week to clean and straighten the interior of the hothouse. The possibility he might see it as it was now was unthinkable. Roscoe observed her unusual activity with placid eyes from his perch atop the potting bench.

Charity scurried out for a pail of water and the stump of a mop she used to finish her cleanup. It was a comedown for the cherished daughter of the Reverend Lonsbury to be on her own and working in the dirt, she supposed. But she loved her freedom, and the dirt didn’t bother her in the least . . . usually.

"Ye will never get those hands soft and lovely if ye persist in keeping them in the dirt, Miss Charity," Mrs. Woods would moan at the sight of Charity scrubbing her hands at the end of the day.

"It’s more to the point that we eat, Mrs. Woods. I refuse to starve with satin hands in my lap." Charity’s voice was gentle, but there was no doubting her firm resolve.

She rose early each morning to put in an hour on their neat little kitchen garden. She adored her flowers, the orchids in particular, but you couldn’t eat them. Fortunately her gift with plants extended to vegetables. It gave her great pleasure to see the abundance she produced from their tiny plot of ground.

Mrs. Woods had a way with a pot and the hearth that the squire would fancy, had he occasion to sample her cooking. What she did with herbs and fresh vegetables in a good rabbits stew made one long for supper. Being of practical mind, it didn’t bother Charity to serve up the small gray rabbits from the little hutch where she raised them. They were a world apart from dear Roscoe.

Charity put away the mop and surveyed the greenhouse, wondering how she was to manage to avoid the one man in the world she longed to see. "He won’t be coming here, silly. We have nothing to fear." Somehow her words rang hollowly in her ears. Roscoe wasn’t reassuring either.

By now the squire was likely on his way back here. His threat hovered in her mind. He insisted she was to give him an answer, the answer he desired and none other. She couldn’t. She would run away before doing that. She’d even go to the despised Earl of Nevile before she would marry the squire.

She knew better than to hide. The squire would seek her out wherever she might be, and she didn’t especially relish Mrs. Woods being privy to either the proposal or the threats that might issue from the squire. It would put her in a rare taking, and Charity had enough to cope with at the moment. She fingered an empty clay pot of moderate size, moving to stack it with the others. What could be her defense for not formally requesting permission from his lordship to remain on the premises, caring for the orchids? She received no payments from him for her work, for the orchids were her own. The permission her father had obtained from Lord Kenrick did not extend to her, however. She was, in fact, trespassing. Even though she rented the cottage, it did not give her leave to make free with the hothouses. What was she to do?

Her fingers rubbed the smooth, hard surface of the pot as she mulled over her predicament. She held the pot in her hand, hefting it as her thoughts chased one another in furious circles. How she would love to toss this pot at the head of the idiotic squire, if only to discover whether there be anything within! He was pompous, true, but today she perceived a thing she had heretofore not seen: he could be dangerous when thwarted.

He had threatened her! He intended to inform the marquess of her activities. And he didn’t know the half of what went on here.

Perhaps the marquess would simply ignore the ramblings of the squire. When that stout gentleman talked with his betters, he waxed even more prosy than usual. The poor marquess was to be pitied, to be forced to bend his ear to the squire. No doubt his bailiff would be instructed to see to the matter., and Charity felt certain she could handle that particular man.

Her newly discovered confidence sagged as she heard steps on the slate outside the hothouse. Behind her the door creaked open, wheezing with age.

Charity’s eyes remained fastened on the clay pot she held firmly in her trembling hand. What would the squire report of his visit with his lordship? She could envision the conversation that must have occurred in the cream-and-gold room she once glimpsed while on an errand to the great house for her father. Or would they have met in the bookroom, where the housekeeper said his lordship went over the accounts with his bailiff on the rare occasions he visited Greenoaks? Wherever it took place, she longed yet feared to know the words exchanged.

Anger boiled within her slender form. It was the outside of enough that she must contend with the squire’s unwanted, persistent attentions. A red haze of fury suddenly blinded her, fogging her thinking process. If she displayed a temper, it might give the squire a strong distaste of her. All to the better!

A tall, lean gentleman halted inside the ancient wood door that had allowed entry to the hothouse since his great-grandfather’s day. So the squire spoke the truth. The young woman he mentioned in his vague ramblings was indeed here in the midst of the orchids. Orchids not mentioned in any report!

The marquess was curious and thought to select a bloom for the lady he had decided would make an excellent choice for the next marchioness, Lady Sylvia Wilde. When she arrived, the most perfect of flowers could be delivered to her room and, it was hoped, would make a suitable impression on that most lovely of creatures. The pristine beauty of an orchid would match the cool elegance of that worthy lady How pleased his mother would be that at long last he was going to marry, set up a nursery as he had promised her.

The clouds that had glowered all day parted to allow a shaft of sunlight to pierce the panes of glass. It came to rest on the bent head, illuminating the chestnut curls so they seemed threaded with fire. He couldn’t refrain from an intake of breath at the charming sight.

Charity, hearing the slight sound behind her, could wait no longer. Nerves strung as taut as the line from a fishing pole that had hooked its prey, she reacted with uncommon violence. Her simmering anger bursting forth, she raised the clay pot in her hand and whirled to let it fly across the hothouse toward its victim.

As it sailed through the humid, fragrant air, she saw that it was not the stolid figure of the squire who would receive the blow, but the figure of her preux chevalier, the marquess. She screamed a warning too late.

She watched in horror as the pot sailed through the air in seeming snaillike pace and hit its target with deadly accuracy. The astounded figure of the marquess crumpled to the slatted wood floor amid the pots of young orchids and ferns.

Roscoe peered over the edge of the potting bench to observe this most unusual occurrence as Charity rushed to the side of the fallen man, moaning as she ran.

"Dear merciful heavens, what have I done? Speak to me, my lord. Please, speak to me. Say something! Anything! Toss me out on my ear if you must, but speak." She knelt to examine his wound. Blood was oozing from his temple just below his hairline where the thick, dark hair was wont to flop over his noble brow. The blue eyes were closed and Charity felt as though her heart would pound itself right from her bosom, so hard did it beat.

The bleeding was increasing. Charity pulled her skirt up and ripped a strip from her petticoat, checking to make certain it was not soiled before she folded the worn linen into a pad to press against the wound.

He was so still. If only he would move, even a finger.

"Roscoe, what am I to do?" She heard a sound outside and called. "Josiah! Josiah! Come!"

The shock on the old gardener’s face might have been comical at any other moment. Charity didn’t notice. "Get someone to help. His lordship, er, had an accident. Quickly, please!"

The door wheezed partly shut and she wasn’t aware it remained that way so engrossed she was with her victim. The implications of her act were swept to another part of her brain to be dealt with later. For now all she could do was try to revive the poor man.

"Your lordship, Lord Kenrick." She didn’t know his given name; it was never used by anyone at the great house. "My lord, please wake up! Please!"

An anxious tear slid down one pale cheek, followed by another. Her arms crept about him, fearing the damp might penetrate his fine jacket. Anyone knew the damp was bad for one. His face was ashen, his lips nearly devoid of any color.

Her eyes remained on his lips, willing them to open, murmur a word. Even if he heaped scorn on her poor head, it would be welcome. A guilty flush stained her cheeks as she thought of what she had done, her deception. Now he had double reason to desire her gone.

No! She couldn’t bear to leave here. She stared at his mouth. It was so close to her. She could see every vein, the smooth texture of his skin, the faint shadow of his beard. Timidly she raised one trembling finger to touch the rasp of it, then smoothed her finger across his brow.

Never had she expected to be so close to him in all her life. It certainly would not happen again. Her heart urged her to dare. Could she? Who would ever know?

Slowly, making sure the pad was firmly in place on his brow, she bent and placed her lips against his. A sweetness flowed through her she had never known before. If this was half of what a kiss might be, she was glad she had waited. It stirred a strange emotion deep within her, somewhere below her heart. She had not known that sort of thing before either and found it strangely exciting. She was loathe to end the kiss, however innocent.

A swirl of damp air touched her cheek and she lifted her head, staring down at the beloved face with desperate pleading. "Oh, please wake up, my chevalier," she whispered.

The slim, white-haired, travel-weary figure at the door started at the sight that met her eyes. There on the floor was Charity with a man in her arms, the marquess, if what she had heard was correct. And they had been kissing!

Charity heard a distinct gasp and her head shot around. It couldn’t be, could it? "Aunt Tavington?"