Flirting with Ruin

By: Marguerite Kaye

Chapter One

Castonbury Village, September 1815

The Castonbury harvest celebrations were in full swing. The courtyard of the Rothermere Arms was lit by blazing braziers, the windows of the inn cast wide open to the mild night. High above, in the deep velvet of the starry sky, the harvest moon was at its fullest.

Yesterday, the villagers and farmers of Castonbury had flocked to the church to give thanks, but despite the plentiful harvest it had been a sombre occasion, the congregation acutely conscious of the grieving family in their covered pew at the front of the church. The Duke of Rothermere had lost not one but two sons in the wars with France. Lord James, the heir, nine months hence under mysterious circumstances in Spain. And then at Waterloo just three months ago his youngest, Lord Edward. The Reverend Seagrove’s sermon had been subdued.

His Grace’s family, still deep in mourning, could not possibly host the harvest festival at Castonbury Park as usual. Were it left to the duke, stricken by grief, the whole affair would have been cancelled. His daughters, the Ladies Katherine and Phaedra, were, however, far more sympathetic and determined to find a way to carry on with the tradition of rewarding their father’s tenants for their toil. So it was that the festival was hosted at the local tavern, which bore the family coat of arms, paid for, but unattended by, His Grace or any of the Montague family.

Lady Rosalind Rhees hesitated at the gatepost of the inn, clutching her cloak around her. The feast was over. Merrymakers spilled out into the courtyard to catch their breaths from the dancing. Some drank thirstily from pewter pots of ale. Others smoked clay pipes. A clutch of children linked hands to form a circle around the corn stack that guarded the entrance. On top was the corn dolly, made with the last sheaves of the harvest. Tomorrow, the dolly would be taken down and hung carefully in the barn of one of the largest of Castonbury’s tenant farms. Next year, she would be ploughed back into the fields. Rosalind knew this because her friend Lady Katherine, whose guest she was, had told her so.

It was a shame Kate couldn’t have accompanied her here tonight. Rosalind eyed the doorway of the inn with the usual fluttering of nerves that always besieged her at moments like this, when she was on the cusp of doing something she knew she ought not. Six years married to a puritanical man, seventeen before that raised by a puritanical father, made every scandal she created an effort. Not that this was much of a scandal compared to some she had raised in the last two years since she’d emerged from mourning. The Rothermere Arms was no den of iniquity. She would be rubbing shoulders with farmers and travelling harvesters, not rakes and courtesans and gamesters. This was just a country dance, she reminded herself. What did it matter that she had neither partner nor chaperone?

Throwing back her hood, Rosalind strode boldly towards the door. The Harvest Lord, complete with straw crown, grabbed her by the waist and planted a hearty kiss on her cheek. The reaper’s breath stank of ale, but his eyes were merry rather than lustful. Laughing, Rosalind wriggled free from his grasp.

She abandoned her cloak on a convenient peg. Her day dress was a simple affair of pale green figured muslin, the sleeves puffed at the shoulders, tapering tightly down to her wrists. Sea-green ribbons decorated the modest décolleté. She wore no jewellery, and instead of dancing slippers, a pair of tan kid boots upon her feet, having walked through the woods to the village from Castonbury Park. She wore no evening gloves and most certainly dangled no dance card from her wrist. Smiling to herself, her heart beating with excitement, Rosalind made her way towards the scraping of fiddles coming from the taproom.

* * *

He had never really been one for dancing. Not that he had lacked opportunity, for the long, arduous campaigns that had taken him through Spain, Portugal and ultimately France had been spiked with embassy balls, diplomatic gatherings and ad hoc parties in the officers’ mess. But though his hard-earned rank made him eligible, his reputation made him courted, and the very rough edges of his upbringing had long ago been smoothed over, Major Fraser Lennox was not a man who enjoyed the pomp and ceremony that accompanied such affairs. He found the dancing insipid, the finer nuances of sophisticated flirting tedious, and he was not inclined to adultery, no matter how many excuses the gore and guts of war, the imminence of death that hung its pall over them all gave the wives who offered themselves to him. It was that same pall of death that had kept him single. He would not take a wife when the odds were he would make her a widow before long.

It was a lonely life, but it was the only one he knew, and now it was over he had no idea what to do with himself. Rootless and restless, Fraser did not miss the act of war, but he missed the cut and thrust of campaigning, the constant testing of his nerve and stretching of his intellect. He missed the edge it gave to life. At heart, he was a bold and reckless man; it was what had made him such a successful soldier. He feared how he would fare, leading a life that required none of those qualities.

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