Wiltshire, England ~ 1814
Brandon sank onto the stagecoach seat with a sense of overwhelming relief. Their carriage had thrown a wheel more than an hour ago and he’d been afraid Imogene would work herself into hysterics at any moment. He had never been so happy to hear the muffled rumble of approaching hoof beats and the rattle of harness.
He’d been prepared to pay half his fortune to coax one of the inside passengers to surrender their seat to Imogene. The coach driver assured him that would not be necessary since the vehicle carried only a pair of ladies bound for Bath. There had been outside perches for Brandon’s coachman and footman as well as room in the boot for the few articles of luggage that had not been sent ahead to their destination. His horses could be unhitched and tethered to the stagecoach.
His party would take refuge at the next inn until the snow abated and someone could be sent to repair the carriage. Imogene would likely bemoan their delay in getting to Lady Norrington’s house party, but that could not be helped. At least they would be warm and fed.
He apologized to the other passengers as he and Imogene settled onto the seat opposite them. A bespectacled lady of middle age greeted his words with a welcoming smile, but the other occupant turned her face away. No doubt she resented the interruption of her journey and the necessity of sharing the coach box with two more people. He could not blame her, he supposed, though he hoped he would have shown greater charity if their situations had been reversed.
“My gardener tried to warn me there was snow coming.” Brandon strove to thaw the hostile chill he sensed from the lady. “I should have listened to him and postponed our journey, for he has an uncanny knack for predicting the weather.”
“If we’d only set off yesterday as I wanted to,” Imogene grumbled “we could have been snug and safe at Everleigh already.”
Brandon was tired of being reminded. If only she had risen earlier that morning, they might have left at the same time as her maid, his valet and the bulk of their luggage, which had probably reached the Norrington’s country house hours ago. But he knew recriminations would not improve the situation. “Never fear, we will reach Everleigh yet. If we are a trifle late, I reckon the other guests will be too.”
He offered the lady with the spectacles a wry grin. But his next words were aimed at her frosty companion. “We hope not to impose our company upon you for very long. As I recall, there is a coaching inn at Cherhill, which cannot be more than five miles from here. We shall take refuge there until the weather has improved and our carriage can be repaired. May I inquire if you have far to travel?”
The lady gave an anxious nod. “I’m afraid we do. We are bound for Noughtly Hall near Bath, home of the Viscountess of Moresby.”
There could be no mistaking the ring of pride in her voice, but her unsociable companion seemed to stiffen even more. Perhaps she was offended by so personal an inquiry. In Brandon’s opinion, the unusual circumstances that had thrown them together must permit some relaxation of propriety.
“Are you going to a house party as well?” piped up Imogene, clearly impressed by the other woman’s reference to a person of title. Her tone also betrayed a hint of disbelief. Guests invited to such events did not tend to dress so modestly or travel by public stagecoach.
“House party?” The spectacled lady gave a rueful chuckle. “No indeed, we are—”
“We are going for a visit.” Her companion turned to fix Brandon with a direct stare that left him gaping and short of breath. “The viscountess is my great-aunt.”
“M-miss Cassandra?” It had been four long years since he’d gazed into those compelling dark eyes with their lively flashes of green. Brandon was not prepared for the effect they had upon him. “Or is it Lady Cassandra now?”
Perhaps she was known by a different title altogether — one conferred by marriage. Not that it mattered to him in the least.
Her well-shaped chin tilted upward ever so slightly. “I am Lady Cassandra. My father survived his father long enough to confer that distinction upon my sisters and me.”
“Forgive me.” Brandon felt himself growing more rattled by the minute, which vexed him. “I have been abroad … with General Wellington’s army. I had not heard of your father’s death.”
During their exchange, Imogene looked from Brandon to Cassandra and back again. The moment their conversation paused, she broke in. “The two of you are acquainted, then? What a small world it is that you should meet again under these circumstances.”
A small world? So it was — far too small for Brandon’s comfort.
He cursed his ill fortune. Since coming home from his three years of fighting on the Peninsula, he had avoided anywhere he might meet up with Cassandra Whitney. He should have been safe on a country road in winter.
“Lady Cassandra and I were quite well acquainted at one time.” As he answered Imogene’s question, Brandon endeavored to smooth the bitter edge of his tone.
Four years ago, he had hoped to be even more closely acquainted with the lady. At the time, he had been certain she would welcome such a development. But when he’d summoned the nerve to offer his heart in exchange for her hand, he had discovered she’d only been toying with his affections. How could he have been such a blind fool?
Seeing her again so unexpectedly provoked the surge of painful resentment he’d expected. But he was not prepared for the intense flare of attraction that revived within him as well. If he had any sense, he ought to jump out of the coach and take his chances with the blizzard.
A sharp jab in the ribs from Imogene made Brandon realize all three women were staring at him expectantly.
“I…suppose under the circumstances, introductions are in order.” He strove to sound calm and controlled. “Imogene, may I present Lady Cassandra Whitney. Lady Cassandra, Imogene Calvert.”
As the two women exchanged subdued greetings, Brandon sensed the avid curiosity radiating from Imogene. It was much more difficult to tell how Cassandra might feel. Clearly his skill at guessing the state of her emotions had not improved with time. At least now there was no danger of mistakenly assuming she entertained any affection for him.
Her tone was cool and correct as she returned the introduction. “Allow me to present my travelling companion. Mrs. Davis, Sir Brandon and Lady Calvert.”
“Lady Calvert?” Imogene burst into tinkling laughter that reminded Brandon of wind rustling through ice-laden tree branches. “No, no, I am not Brandon’s wife, only his cousin!”
“Cousin?” At last Cassandra’s cool poise appeared shaken. “Forgive me. I assumed…”
“No need to apologize.” Imogene was prepared to be gracious now that she realized Cassandra’s connections were more elevated than they appeared. “My dear cousin is certainly in need of a wife as I have often reminded him.”
“That’s quite enough, Imogene!” Brandon chided her, though he was not certain why it flustered him to have his cousin raise the subject of marriage.
“I was only teasing.” His cousin shot him a sulky frown. “I’m sure the ladies can see you are quite capable of attracting a wife.”
This was getting worse and worse. Brandon wondered how soon they would reach the inn. What must Lady Cassandra think of him, knowing he had remained unwed in the years since his disastrous proposal to her?
With forced heartiness, he sought to steer the conversation in a different direction. “So…you are going to visit the viscountess? Do you often spend the winter with her?”
Lady Cassandra shook her head. He could not tell whether she welcomed his change of subject or not. “This is my first visit in many years. I am looking forward to it.”
She seemed to throw down those words as a challenge, daring Brandon to doubt her.
“Everleigh is not far from Bath,” Imogene chirped. “Perhaps we shall see you there if our party ventures into town to attend a concert or an assembly.”
“Perhaps.” Lady Cassandra did not sound anxious to meet up with them again.
Brandon heartily concurred with that sentiment. It was deucedly awkward being forced into her company again after so many years. And yet…he felt as if this encounter had jolted him fully awake from a long half-sleep.
“Heaven knows when we shall ever reach Bath at this rate.” Lady Cassandra cleared away a patch of frost from the window and peered out into the thick-swirling snow. “I believe we could walk faster than the horses are moving.”
As if in response to her pronouncement, the plodding stagecoach lurched to a dead halt.
“What now?” Imogene wailed.
“Do not fret.” Brandon turned up the collar of his greatcoat and prepared to jam on his hat. “I shall find out what is going on.”
He welcomed any diversion from the brittle tension inside the stagecoach.
As he climbed out, his feet sank into snow well past the tops of his riding boots. When the coachman scrambled down from his perch, Brandon gave a violent start. The man was so thickly coated in snow, he scarcely looked human.
“Why have we stopped?” Brandon demanded.
“Do you have to ask?” The driver shot back with a broad sweep of his arm that was almost lost in the impenetrable whiteness around them. “The horses cannot go another step in this or they’ll fall dead in their traces, poor beasts.”
The alarm that had eased when the stagecoach stopped to pick up him and his cousin returned with a vengeance. Brandon peered around in every direction, but found it almost impossible to distinguish the sky from the ground. The only thing he could tell with any certainty was that daylight was beginning to fade.
“Could you switch in my carriage horses and let them pull for a bit?”
The coachman shook his head, sending a shower of snow tumbling from his tricorne hat. “They’re fine horses, sir, but they haven’t the size and strength to pull this great contraption under the best of conditions. I doubt they could budge it a foot in snow this deep. Even if they could, by the time we unharnessed these and put yours in their place, it would be dark.”
“What are we to do, then?” Brandon wracked his brain for ideas. “We cannot stay here all night. We would perish!”
His anxiety increased tenfold now that he felt responsible for the safety of three women. Hard as he tried to persuade himself that Lady Cassandra Whitney was not his responsibility, his heart refused to heed.
“We could ride my carriage horses,” he suggested, “and take shelter at the first house we come to.”
The coachman considered Brandon’s idea for a long moment before he finally replied. “I reckon it’s worth a try, but this is a lonely stretch of road.”
He sounded doubtful they would succeed in finding shelter.
Brandon wasn’t certain how the venture might turn out either, but he could not sit by and do nothing. Being trapped in close quarters with the woman who had broken his heart while they slowly froze to death was one of the worst endings to his life that he could imagine.
Book Video for Snowbound with the Baronet
From the novel Snowbound with the Baronet
Publication Date: February 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Hale