Sinclair Stratton, Fifth Viscount Reath, knocked on the parlor door. He desperately needed to get out of Portsmouth and on his way. It had taken him ten years to own his youthful indiscretion and do something about it. Now that he’d finally made the move, he wanted it done with—quickly.
A middle-aged maid in a white mob cap peeked around the door. “Yes?”
“I am Viscount Reath,” he informed the woman. “I need to speak with your mistress.”
She disappeared back into the room, mostly closing the door behind her. He could hear her whispering frantically to someone inside. The door swung open again. This time by a young lady in a unfortunate plain, brown round gown—dressed for travel. Considering how much she had paid for the conveyance Reath was after, she could not be in difficult circumstances despite her ugly, well-worn clothing. What struck Reath, however, was not so much her dress as her lovely face.
Brilliant blue eyes shone intelligently from behind incredibly long, dark lashes. The slight curve to her full, yet determined lips. A quirk of an eyebrow. She most definitely looked like someone used to being in charge despite her obvious youth. “Yes?”
“Good morning, Miss,” Reath said, bowing. “I was wondering if I might have a word.”
Her second eyebrow rose to meet the height of the first, but she took a step back and allowed him to enter the cramped room.
She did not seem like one who needed to be fawned over and flattered, so he got straight to the point. “It is my understanding that you have secured the very last carriage in all of this unfortunate city. I would like to rent it from you.”
“Really,” she said, crossing her arms across her slender body.
“Yes. I have a matter of some urgency to which I must attend. Unfortunately, my letter to my man of affairs did not reach here before I did, so I am without my own transportation. You understand, I’m sure.”
The girl said nothing.
“I will not disturb you with the particulars, but please be assured that I will see to your comfort for your stay here until tomorrow when you will be able to procure another conveyance.” He gave her an encouraging smile.
Still she said nothing, but he detected a slight twitch of her lips. Was she laughing at him?
“As I said, I have an urgent meeting…” he paused and then decided to try another tack. “Perhaps you didn’t catch my name. I am Viscount Reath.”
She tilted her head, waiting for him to continue.
He straightened his back, squared his shoulders and took a small step toward the girl. “I have urgent matters of state to which I must attend.” All right, a slight fib… more like matters of estate than state, but the girl would never know the difference.
“That is three times now that you’ve mentioned ‘urgent matters’,” she pointed out, now openly smiling at him. Laughing at him. Reath couldn’t quite decide which. One thing was certain, though, she was not at all intimidated by him—it was the strangest thing. Never had anyone dared such a thing—only his closest friends and this young woman was far from that.
He wasn’t sure why, but couldn’t help but return her smile. “Indeed. I beg your pardon. I’m afraid it is my desperation which has robbed my speech of its usual…” he floundered for a word.
“Eloquence?” she offered.
He gave a little laugh. “Yes.”
“Thank you. Your understanding is greatly appreciated. If you would just tell me your name, I will make arrangements for you to stay the night in the best room this fine establishment can offer.”
She dropped her hands to her sides. “Oh! I was not agreeing to your preposterous idea. I was simply stating that I understood your predicament. How very vexing to have somewhere you must get to and no conveyance to get you there.”
“Yes. It is quite frustrating—. However…”
“Unfortunately, I too have somewhere I must get to and so, I’m afraid, I cannot give up my post chaise to you. I am very sorry. Perhaps you can find someone else.” She started moving toward the door in obvious dismissal.
“There is no one else!” he said. “You are the only person who has rented a carriage who is still here,” he said, with an edge of frustration in his voice. He cleared his throat. It would not do to appear desperate. He was a Reath. He was never desperate.
“Well, that is truly unfortunate. In that case, you might not want to delay in engaging that room—for yourself.” She opened the door and stood next to it, clearly waiting for him to leave.
Reath did not give up so easily, no matter how beautiful or well-spoken his opponent was. “I’m afraid I must not have explained myself well enough. You are American, are you not?”
The young woman crossed her arms again, this time narrowing her eyes slightly as well. She gave a slight nod of her head.
“Then perhaps you haven’t quite understood. I am a viscount. A nobleman. A lord. I need to get to an extremely…”
“Urgent meeting. That is the fourth time you’ve said so,” she said, interrupting him. “I may be American, sir, but I am not an idiot. I know very well what a viscount is. Lesser than a duke, marquis or earl, higher in rank than baron. No, I’m afraid you are the one who is unable to understand. I couldn’t care less if you were a count or a cobbler. If you were the prince, or even that lunatic you call king, I would see no reason why your business is any more important than mine. And if you continue to argue with me, sir, I may simply consign you to the fiery depths of—”
“That is enough, Miss Sara. I’m certain the gentleman understands your meaning,” her maid interrupted.
The rebuke didn’t seem to faze the young woman at all. She didn’t even turn to look at the maid—or perhaps companion? Governess? Instead she raised her eyebrows silently asking whether he did, in fact, understand.
It was a good thing that he was a gentleman. It was the only thing keeping him from acting on the fury now burning in the pit of his stomach at this chit’s extraordinarily rude behavior. Americans!
“I do, indeed, understand. Quite clearly.” He forced his lips to curve upward. “I understand that not only do they not teach people to treat their betters with respect in America, but they also clearly don’t teach young ladies to speak appropriately.”
“Betters?” Anger flared from her eyes and, a flush crept up her lovely face. She took a step closer, and Reath, to his surprise, found himself retreating. “There is nothing ‘better’ about you. You are no better than any ordinary ruffian off the street trying to bully me into giving up what is mine to you. Waltzing into a room, expecting everyone to bow down to give you anything you want just because flash them your perfect smile does not make you ‘better’. The fact that you feel you can use your good looks and inherited title—neither of which you have done anything to deserve—certainly does not make you “better”. No, sir, what would make you better is if you took a page from your American cousins and learned that you must either earn what you want, or accept the fate that life hands you, just like everyone else. Now, I suggest that you make haste to the innkeeper to secure that room before you find that gone as well.”
She strode to the other end of the room where a tea tray was set out and began to pour herself a cup, clearly dismissing him.
He had been dismissed! The great diplomat Sinclair Stratton, Fourth Viscount Reath, had been dismissed by a little strip of a girl. He looked at the maid, but she was no help, for she was standing there with an expression of helpless disbelief on her face. It was precisely how he felt himself, but, thank God, at least he had the grace not to show it.
He turned on his heel and left the room, closing the door behind him. He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. This girl clearly had no idea who she was dealing with. No concept of what a viscount was, despite her protestations otherwise. He felt the urge to turn right back around and tell that little chit that she would do better to respect her betters and turn over her post chaise to him.
But he did not.
As he neared the common room, his footsteps slowed. A smile was twitching at his lips and before he knew it, his shoulders were shaking with quiet laughter.
He had certainly been put in his place, hadn’t he? And by a tiny little nobody! Well, that little nobody certainly had nerve, he had to say that for her. He shook his head and continued on down the hall, his anger dissipating with every step he took.
How was it that he had been able to convince rajas and nabobs to turn over their kingdoms to the British Empire, convince women to give him exactly what he wanted with just a flash of a smile, but could not convince this one girl to turn over her post chaise to him? He almost laughed out loud at that thought, and had to put his hand over his mouth to contain his laughter.
A woman immune to his charm! Ha! But she had not been completely immune—hadn’t she just said that he couldn’t get everything he wanted just because he was handsome?
On the other hand, she had been quite magnificent. He couldn’t help but laugh. She couldn’t care if he were ‘a count or a cobbler or the king’. Clever. She was clearly very clever. And what fire; her eyes had sparked with it.
Absolutely lovely. And by gad, what a strong woman! This was a woman, whatever her birth and breeding, who was deserving of his respect. It was almost a shame he would never meet her again. For a woman like that, with a tongue like a whip, would certainly make a stir among the ton.
He laughed his way into the common room, shaking his head at the idea of that little firebrand taking the beau monde by storm.
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