The Gingerbread Bride

Here’s a sneak preview of my Christmas novella, to be published in a Bluestocking Belle box set. Usual disclaimers apply: I’m still writing the first draft, so later ideas might mean rewriting this bit, and it needs editing and proofreading. But I’m loving Mary, and Rick is another nice guy. I do enjoy writing nice guys.

renoirIt was Richard Redepenning. What on earth was he doing in a field in Surrey? It was as if her running away conjured him up! She almost smiled as she thought of the number of times he had appeared out of nowhere to rescue her when she was young, and then frowned when she remembered finding out that he had been in London for two months, and hadn’t called on her once.

Today, she was rescuing herself, thank you very much.

Good manners, however, prompted her to say, “I was sorry to hear about your wound. I trust you are recovering?”

He was dismounting, and she could see for herself that the wound had left him lame. His boot hit the ground and he lurched, catching his balance against the saddle. She almost dropped her bags and put out a hand to help him, but she could hear her father’s voice saying ‘let the man keep his pride, child’.

Instead, she put the bags down gently, and surreptitiously eased her shoulders. The bags had not felt nearly as heavy when she strode away from the others at the coach, after a short argument with the coachman about the merits of following the road versus trusting her navigation skills.

The coachman insisted that sticking to the road was a much better idea, since who knew what barriers might appear on the path she could see cutting down the hill. “I know what I’m doing, miss,” he insisted. If he thought that she was going to trust a coachman who had finally ditched them after multiple near misses, he was soon disabused of the notion.

As soon as she struck out on her own, she questioned whether it had been wise. Even the silly coachman would have been protection from the three men who had been leering at her for most of the afternoon. She was, of course, duly grateful to Lieutenant Redepenning for happening along before they caught up with her. But she had a pistol. She would have managed perfectly well had he not happened along.

“I have some rope here,” Lieutenant Redepenning was saying, as he looked through his saddle bags. “Ah. Here it is. Pass me the carpet bag, Miss Pritchard, and we’ll let the horse carry it the rest of the way to the village.”

She rather thought he needed the horse more than the carpet bag did. But arguing with Richard Redepenning had always been an exercise in futility. He was the only person she knew who could outstubborn her. Though that was at least in part because of the pointless tendre she had held for him since the first time he had rescued her.

She had argued with her nurse; the Spanish nurse, or maybe the French one. There had been three in quick succession the year she was nine. She didn’t even remember what the argument was about, but she did remember deciding there was no point in taking an appeal to Papa. Papa would not countenance insubordination within his family any more than within his crew.

Mary, convinced she was right, had taken it into her head to go looking for something. That’s right, apples. They’d fought about apples. She had passed an apple seller in the market earlier in the day, and had asked for an apple for tea. The nurse had told her the country grew no apples, so she had waited till the silly woman went to sleep, then crept out of her cabin and set off to find the market.

Which was not at all where she expected it to be. She soon became lost in a maze of little streets, and her red hair and fair skins attracted a forest of locals, looming over her and making incomprehensible sounds, while she stood at bay against a wall and prepared to fight for her life.

Then the crowd melted and Midshipman Redepenning was there, smiling at her and holding out a hand, while all the time talking to the village people in their own language. At 14, he had been a beautiful boy, tall and slender, with a crop of golden blond hair and intensely blue eyes.

He didn’t growl, or complain about nuisance girl children. He didn’t offer to suggest that her father beat her (not that Papa ever did). He escorted her home to the ship, and helped her sneak back into her cabin. He even took a detour through the market and bought her an apple.

Mary had fallen in love that day, and stayed in love as the boy grew to the handsomest, kindest man she knew. No other man had ever measured up. Not that Lieutenant Redepenning cared. As far as she could see, he still thought of her as the child he kept having to rescue.

“Miss Pritchard?” There was she lost in memories of some far off sunny shore, while Lieutenant Redepenning stood in front of her with his piece of rope at the ready.

“Thank you,” she said, and she hoisted the bag up and balanced it on the saddle while he tied it, with quick efficient sailors’ knots. The band box went up next, tied in front of the bag.

“If you would see to the gate, Miss Pritchard,” he suggested. “I can walk well enough, but I’m not as spry as usual.”

They slowly sauntered down the hill path, Mary holding the proffered arm but attempting to put no weight on it.

Mary’s anxiety made her cross. He really shouldn’t be walking. Idiot man. He should have stuck to riding, and the road. If he was sore tonight, it would be his own fault, not hers. She didn’t ask him to come after her.

They came to another gate, and on the other side a seat that looked over the village, now almost close enough to touch. They were level with the church roof and the top floor of the inn, and looking down on the cottages.

The last stretch of path, though short, was going to a problem. It was steep and narrow. How was Mary going to get the lieutenant down it without injury?

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