This is the part three of my new Regency erotic short story, A Tale of Town and Country. I will be publishing it in short installments (serial format) on this blog over the coming weeks. If you would like to be notified when new chapters are released, please sign up for my mail list. Read part one and part two first!
As Avery took the reins from Jimmy, he flipped the lad a coin. He swung into the saddle with wholly new emotions roiling through his body and vivid images sifting through his brain: a Madonna’s beautiful breasts; fifteen-year-old Sarah – a child herself! – bearing a child forced upon her; an exotic feminine realm where men, their duty done, were thereafter irrelevant; Miss Castle’s unshakable self-possession. She had said many remarkable things, even shocking things, in the space of his morning visit. The one utterance he had felt like a bullet to the heart was:
“I’m in trade, Your Grace.”
He didn’t know which part of that utterance angered him more: her mention of trade, as if to suggest they could not pursue an acquaintance, or her use of his title as one more way to distance herself from him. He knew he wanted to see her again. He did not think she was adverse and so wondered why she could not have framed her station in life in another way. But how? And what could such a relationship between them be?
For the rest of the day, as he ground through his obligations, the matter of Miss Castle churned in the back of his brain. He returned again and again to his desire to see her again. He thought it best if they met away from the courtyard in Hartsfield. He needed to know if he would feel differently about her when he wasn’t aroused by so much womanly fecundity. He went to sleep imagining and rejecting various stratagems for where and how they would meet. He woke up with the perfect solution.
It was easy enough to plant into the heads of Mrs. Thomas, the wife of the mayor of the village of Brad’s Ford, and Mrs. Williams, the wife of the vicar of the selfsame village, the idea for an early autumn festival, which should take place the following week on the square in front of the church. Of course the ducal namesake of the village was prepared to stand all the expenses, and the ladies were not to scrimp. So preparations were made, announcements were posted in the village, and invitations were sent to notables in the surrounding area. Since the ducal staff was in charge of preparing and sending the invitations, it was easy enough for Avery to snag one of them, to scrawl across the fine vellum the words Miss Castle, Please come, B. and to send it on to Hartsfield.
Next Saturday arrived. The weather was perfect, with only the suggestion of a far-off nip in the air. Gay Chinese lanterns lit the square. Garlands of flowers festooned the tables groaning under platters of meats, cheeses, breadstuffs, mushroom pies, shepherd’s pies, steak and kidney pies, and all manner of savory pastries, creams, trifles, fruit compotes and nuts. Barrels of ale were tapped, wine was flowing, and the youngsters drank their fill of lemonade. Avery made sure the menfolk knew where the spirits were stashed. All manner of games involving hoops and balls and beanbags were set up around the perimeter, and hayrides pulled children singing songs and young couples hoping to snog. For miles around the general consensus was that this event was not to be missed. Accordingly the square was jammed with merry-makers, and the atmosphere was convivial.
When the sun was setting, turning the western sky a tropical shade of apricot marbled with clouds of autumn smoke, the local talent got out their fiddles and began scraping out tunes. Avery, knowing his duty, got the dancing going by bowing before Mrs. Thomas and asking in the grand manner for her hand in the first country set. She blushed and protested but finally yielded to his blandishments. When the set concluded he returned her to her seat and pressed what he called a restorative glass of wine into her hand. He kept an attentive eye on the glasses of the men and women he had identified as either the opinion leaders or the most accomplished gossips, and as the evening wore on he was satisfied that when Miss Castle came – if she was to come, and he was becoming worried – he would have no difficulty pulling her aside and having her to himself with none of the tabbies any the wiser.
The last glow of sunset sparked out below the horizon, and a velvety indigo sequined with stars spread across the sky. With the arrival of nighttime and the continuing absence of Miss Castle, he felt a pang of disappointment – no, it was sharper than mere disappointment, although miles away from the hollow despair that had gutted him in the past few months. This feeling was young and tender and more like the heart-heaviness of a boy who had done all his chores and then was denied a glorious day’s fishing because of torrential rain.
By the time he worked through his emotional state he caught sight of a wagon approaching from the direction of Hartsfield. Relieved, elated, he made his way through the throng, attempting to betray no haste, and was in time to greet Miss Castle and lift her down from her perch. When her feet touched the ground he did not let his hands linger at the curve of her waist. He wished she wasn’t wearing a bonnet. He had a desire to see more than a glimpse of her chestnut curls.
He offered her his arm, and she placed her gloved hand on it. Leading her around the edge of the crowd, skirting the pool of the lights, he said, “I feared you might not come.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it!” she said lightly. “We live retired in Hartsfield, as I’m sure you can imagine, but talk of an event this newsworthy penetrated even our bubble of isolation. Of course I received your kind invitation and would have come on the strength of that alone. But Cook heard about it from her relatives in Brad’s Ford, Mrs. Hutchins has ears everywhere, and even Jem the blacksmith wants the full report on what must be the festival of the decade.”
“I see,” he said gravely, “and so Miss Castle chose to arrive fashionably late.”
She rolled her eyes and met his gaze. “If you must know, I was attending Dorrie’s delivery. She gave birth less than an hour ago. Mrs. Hutchins is excellent, but the girls feel an extra measure of calm when I’m there as well, although I do nothing but soothe their foreheads with cold cloths.”
He should have been shocked, once again, by mention of such an intimate subject never discussed between men and women, especially unrelated men and women. However Miss Castle’s matter-of-fact tones defied him to demur from pursuing the subject.
“Dorrie,” he repeated. “Would I have seen her last week?”
“Let me see,” she replied, apparently giving the matter some thought. “I think her chore that day was to water the vegetable garden, so you likely saw her at times hovering around the well.”
He nodded. A distant figure with an enormous ball under her shift came to mind. “And the infant, a boy or a girl?”
“A lusty boy,” she said with a good deal of satisfaction, “with a pair of lungs announcing his destiny as town crier.”
“I’m glad to hear he’s healthy,” he said, imagining some such was appropriate.
When he put them on the path leading behind the tiny Norman church, Miss Castle pulled back. “Shouldn’t I pay my compliments to the organizers?”
“Ah,” he said, urging her along the path he had chosen, “here’s an advantage of arriving late. Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Williams, along with their good spouses, are, as the saying goes, a trifle above par. They would not notice your arrival one way or the other.”
As if to underscore the truth of that statement, a crackle of raucous laughter split the air, and Avery wagged his eyebrows. Miss Castle chuckled the low, sultry chuckle that made him think she was a born temptress – and yet, for all her talk of unmarried pregnant women and her experiences with them giving birth, she seemed chaste. Or was he simply deluding himself, wanting her to be something she was not?
Behind the church he found them a bench off to one side of the cemetery that was the size of a handkerchief. Older children had already found the spot and were playing their games, chasing one another around the headstones. It was not a spooky place, perhaps because of its diminutive size, the freshness of the pines and the autumn flowers in bloom on so many gravesites. The festival organizers, anticipating the attractions of the location, had thoughtfully strung a few Chinese lanterns among the trees.
He disposed her on the bench, solicitously arranged her woolen shawl around her shoulders and, before seating himself, inquired whether she wished him to fetch her dinner and a drink.
She shook her head. “When Dorrie went into labor early this afternoon, Cook fixed me dinner. As far as something to drink, I would only take something if you wished for something for yourself.”
“I’ve had my pint,” he said, sitting down next to her, “and that’s all I need for the moment.” He paused then said, “Tell me, if you would, please, Miss Castle, how it comes about that such a young woman is involved in what seems to be an older matron’s business.”
He’s engaging me on my terms, she thought. And how charming! Especially since this past week she’d been considering him not as a suitor but as a potential lover, her first.
She had been flattered to receive the invitation with his personal message, but she had not flattered herself so far to imagine he would keep an eye out for her at the festival and be on hand for her arrival. As he had whisked her away to the relative privacy of the cozy cemetery, she realized he had not yet abandoned thinking of her as a respectable woman, one he could court. She needed to disabuse him of that notion, but she would have to wait until they were in the City – that is, if she didn’t lose her nerve to introduce him to the dark, glittering world of pleasure that had bathed her uncle in an endless river of gold. She had a wicked thought the new duke might get caught in its undertow.
She said, “I was raised by my uncle, my mother’s brother. He had no children but had the means to care for me when my parents died and I was hardly two years old. He was an excellent businessman, and he taught me everything I know. He also had a close relationship with a number of doctors, and through them I learned the plight of certain serving girls in London.”
He nodded. “I see. Harley Street.”
She looked down at her hands and suppressed a smile. Harley Street, Marylebone – this address was just becoming known for surgeries to the wealthy, since a fashionable countess had begun touting the wonders of a doctor who practiced on this street. Beatrice was dealing with less tonish medical men than those found in this exclusive part of town. However, this time, at least, his grace’s assumption was not misguided. He might easily imagine a successful tradesman such as her uncle would brush shoulders with the professional class of doctors and solicitors.
“Yes, well,” she continued, “When I saw the urgent need to help ill-used serving girls, I drew up a plan, put the numbers together and saw that I could well afford what I wanted to do, especially if I started small, which I’ve done.”
He took a moment to absorb this information. Then, “And your uncle? You speak of him in the past tense.”
She sighed and confirmed inelegantly (for she intuited that her frank commentary about delicate and indelicate subjects fascinated him), “He dropped dead.” Which was the truth, but at this distance she no longer experienced his sudden passing as a tragedy. “He never met a bottle of whisky or a thick custard he didn’t like. He was” – she looked him in the eye – “a libertine who never denied himself a pleasure. I think he ate and drank himself to death, knowing full well what he was doing.” She paused. “Dr. Stevens said so, and I think it was true.”
“Are condolences in order?”
She shook her head. “He left this world seven years ago already. At first it was a shock, as you can imagine, but since he must have known what he was doing to himself, he had me surrounded by an army of accountants and advisors to cushion the effect of his passing, and none of his business interests suffered.”
He asked tentatively, “You took them over?”
“Little by little,” she said, “you see I was very young at the time.”
“Miss Castle,” he rallied her, “you are still very young!”
“But old in experience, which is why I have made Hartsfield a colony for ill-used young women and make so bold to walk abroad there alone.”
He paused, as if considering which end of this meaty youth-versus-experience stick he would grasp then said, almost as if he could not help himself, “Would that I could return many of the experiences I have had!”
She thought she saw the trend and hummed a companionable understanding. She saw that, to him, she represented an oasis of relief, perhaps from what he had lately experienced on the Continent, perhaps from the weight of his new position, and very likely both. He became at every moment an ever more suitable target for her first adventure. Yes, he was the one, she decided, it was time, and next week it would be. For the moment she sat in strategic silence, absorbing his grief in what she hoped was the comfort of her presence. She guessed his need for a woman who put no demands on him, one who would take the burden of conversation upon herself and carry it into topics far away from endless flattery and ingratiation. She also guessed his need to speak of his own burdens, if he was moved to do so.
She was rewarded for her tact when he said next, “We’re not so very different, you see, Miss Castle. You have unusual experience for your age, and I at nine-and-twenty have already had more than a lifetime.”
He was gazing down at her with a rather sweet light in his eyes. He was trying to elevate her, to equalize their positions. That would never do, since she wanted to bring him down to her level, at least for the length of their affair. She changed the nature of her regard from honest exchange to something warmer – and suddenly there it was: an arc of desire quivering between them, with their faces only inches apart. The shift in his expression was swift and complex. She made a shrewd guess he did not yet fully know his own mind with respect to his feelings for her.
She knew hers. She smiled, as if disappointed. “And now I have to exercise the mature wisdom of my youthful years and suggest we join the others.” She stood up, and he necessarily joined her, bowing to her with respect. She made no display of maidenly modesty, although he might have interpreted her resistance to kissing him as such. She was satisfied she had him on her hook, and she wanted to reel him in, slowly and even kindly.
He offered his arm. She placed her hand on it as they made their way back around the church, saying, “I have to remember every place isn’t Hartsfield, where I can run free in the lanes. Day after tomorrow, I return to London and must begin to put myself in a more sober frame of mind.”
“You travel very properly with a duenna in the streets of London?”
“With Hugo, at any rate,” she said with an impish smile, picturing her gentle giant as a prim chaperone. “He was my uncle’s right hand man and has become mine as well.”
“So no women in Miss Castle’s London establishment?”
If he only knew! But this disclosure would be for later. Of course there were women in her employ in her London townhouse, however no women counseled her in her business life. She replied lightly, “London is a man’s town. There’s power in the air. And speaking of which,” she continued smoothly, “I hardly need ask how things are going Up On The Hill, as the locals refer to Bradford Manor. I receive nearly daily reports about you through our very efficient grapevine.”
He pulled a face and said on a sigh, “There’s no getting around it, I suppose.”
“None whatsoever,” she affirmed cheerfully, “but the gossip is harmless and even in your favor. You’re reported to be a good listener and to be fair, and you seem to want to do right in the position. Higher praise for a new landowner cannot be said!”
She was laughing when she looked up at him. His blue eyes glinted and she caught her breath. The devastating smile he bestowed on her caused her heart to flutter. And those dimples! “You are cruel, Miss Castle, positively cruel, in your kindness to suggest at every turn how well suited to the position I am.”
She recovered and laughed again, patting his arm before turning away from him. She wondered, suddenly eager: Could I engineer our first encounter before next week?
She could not pursue the thought because they were back at the edge of the festivities, and Beatrice needed to distance herself from the new duke. Given the nature of her relationship to Society and her activity in Hartsfield, she was at all times self-effacing in the neighborhood and never put herself forward. She had established an amiable if occasional relationship with the vicar’s wife who must necessarily support, at least, the spirit of her work. So it was toward this paragon of village virtue she headed.
“Your address in town,” he said, quiet and quick, with an edge of desperation.
“Mayfair,” she said over her shoulder with a smile. “Curzon Street.”
He nodded, and she made her way into the crowd.
Two days later she arrived on Curzon Street with a lift to her heart to be back in the swirl of the City. Hugo was on hand to help her down from her carriage and accompanied her up the steps to her elegant townhouse with its dark green door and black shutters. For the first two hours she sat in the morning room and received a flow of information from any and all of her household who had saved up in her absence the topics they needed to discuss with her.
When she had a moment to herself she went straight to the library and opened the cabinet with her uncle’s meticulous records, which she always assiduously updated. She found the pertinent ledger, flipped through the pages and found what she was looking for. After that it was only a question of a few shillings to activate the network of information about the illustrious inhabitants of the grand houses their servants retailed.
Her seduction was planned and now would be set in motion.