And wearing the scarlet and gold coat of her husband’s regiment.
Of course Laura must take the man into her house and tend to his wounds. But when he leaves only a scribbled thank you on the corner of a five pound note, she thinks she’ll never see the unknown soldier again…
An Offer She Can’t Refuse is a Regency romance serial, told in four parts. Parts of this story were originally published on my long-defunct online writing journal. It’s been substantially edited, expanded and completed for publication. But since it was originally written and published in serial format, I’ve decided to keep that for this version.
Laura measured her husband’s absence in the swelling of her own body.
It was six months since Edward had kissed her and loved her and made her promise to keep safe. Six months since she’d clung to the scarlet wool of his officer’s uniform and whispered feverish declarations of love and longing. She’d endured six months of painful absence after just three precious weeks together.
It had only taken three weeks for the dashing young officer to sweep her off her feet and tumble her life into total confusion. Laura had hardly expected her employer’s nephew to notice the governess playing quiet games in the corner of the parlour with the children. She certainly hadn’t anticipated Captain Yates cheerfully getting down onto the floor to join in with them. But he’d only had to glance at her with that twinkle in his grey eyes once to set her heart racing. Apparently, amazingly, he’d felt the same.
It had taken Edward ten days to persuade her he intended more than flirtation. Marriage, he’d announced, with a grin and a flourish as he produced the special licence. As soon as you say the word, my dear, but better make it quick because I have orders for the end of next week. Back to Spain to send the old Frenchies to rout.
A tiny part of her held back. Marry in haste, repent at leisure, the little voice inside her kept nagging. But Edward only had to give her that look, or to press his hand against hers and all reason flew out of her head. How could she resist him? Who could refuse him anything, when he looked at her as though she were the only beautiful woman in the world? Which she knew very well she was not, especially in the drab grey dress that befitted her station in life.
So she agreed and the very next day, he whisked her off to the church and then to London, to a house he apparently owned. Tentatively, Laura had enquired whether he was very wealthy indeed. And Edward, being Edward, merely laughed and told her she was free to spend his money as she liked, but if she wanted his advice, she’d get herself some prettier dresses first thing.
For eight days, she had been blissfully happy. Edward took her about town, introducing her to his friends, most of whom were also soldiers with the same carefree attitude as him. Laura, growing up in a small village, as the only child of elderly parents, had never had friends like these. They teased each other all the time and, because she was part of the group now, they teased her too. She laughed and let them flirt with her just a little bit. But still, her favourite part of each day was the time when Edward closed the door to her bedchamber and it was just the two of them.
They hadn’t had long, but they’d made the most of it. She hadn’t denied him anything he’d wanted, and lying in his arms on the last night, she’d made a silent vow that whatever happened, she wouldn’t ever regret the choice she’d made.
She couldn’t regret it now. Not now she had Edward’s child growing within her. Even if the worst happened to him… She swallowed hard and squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that threatened. It wouldn’t do her any use lying in bed getting maudlin about it. She swept away the one tear that had escaped and flung back the bedclothes to get up.
She rubbed her arms and shivered at the unexpected coldness of the room. How strange that the maid had not been in to light her fire. Laura checked the pitcher but found it dry. She padded over to the window and drew back the heavy velvet curtains slightly to be certain that her clock was not deceiving her, but the brightness of the sunlight was unmistakable. Frowning as she tried to imagine what disaster could have befallen her servants, she picked up a warm woollen shawl to wrap around her shoulders and went to investigate.
As soon as she rounded the corner on the staircase, she saw them. Her quiet, elegant hallway was crowded with servants who ought all to be otherwise employed. The maids were giggling, her footmen were engaged in a noisy exchange with the butler and her groom. Mrs Betts, the formidable housekeeper, held court under the stairs, addressing those unfortunate servants she had compelled to listen.
Laura coughed gently and the room fell silent.
‘What on earth is going on?’ She spoke quietly but, she hoped, with some semblance of authority. She hadn’t been trained to run a household such as this and she knew perfectly well that her servants took advantage of her. She just didn’t know how to prevent them.
Jenkins stepped forward. ‘Well, ma’am, what happened was… That is to say…’
She had never seen her grey-haired, smooth-tongued butler at a loss for words.
‘Well, ma’am.’ He wiped his forehead with a large white handkerchief and began again. ‘You see, Barker here…’ The groom flushed bright red and nodded towards her. ‘He was just passing along of your doorstep, ma’am, on his way to the mews, you understand.’
Oh, she understood. Barker had taken the shortcut through the front entrance, rather than the longer path that led behind the house which the servants were supposed to use.
‘Yes, very well. But see to it that you don’t make a habit of it, Barker.’
Barker mumbled an apology and slunk back into his corner.
Jenkins looked a little calmer too. ‘Well, that was how he happened upon the gentleman, ma’am.’
‘The gentleman?’ She couldn’t imagine what Jenkins was talking about. ‘What gentleman?’
‘A military gentleman. On the doorstep. Asleep, as it might be, ma’am.’
A military gentleman. Her heart paused for an instant. One hand was at her throat and the other clutched at the banister for support. ‘Not…?’
‘No, ma’am,’ Jenkins hastened to reassure her. ‘Not Captain Yates.’
She breathed again. Deep and slow. ‘Very well. And perhaps you will explain to me why that event requires my entire staff to be congregated in the hall? I am sure there is some very good reason why you are all neglecting your duties.’
‘It’s just that Barker and Henry between them haven’t been able to wake the gentleman to remove him, ma’am.’
Ah. Everyone wanted to make their own suggestions for the best way to accomplish this task, she surmised. Except the maids, who had merely followed along to gawp and gossip.
‘I take it that he remains on my doorstep?’
Jenkins nodded shamefacedly.
‘Very well. Henry!’ The footman stepped forward. ‘Bring him into the parlour. Barker, you may assist him. I shall require tea, toast, and I daresay a bowl of hot water and a flannel.’
The servants disappeared to their duties and she turned a curious eye towards the gentleman being carried into her parlour. Not Edward. Despite Jenkins’ reassurance, she had needed to see for herself. But this fellow was half a head taller than Edward, she guessed, and broader across the shoulder too. His hair was a darker blonde than her husband’s, though she was intrigued to see that it had the same slight curl over his collar. He wore the same scarlet and gold of the 32nd Foot. One of Edward’s men. Perhaps they were friends. Perhaps he had been sent here by Edward.
Laura ran her hand over the fine wool cloth, remembering its rough warmth well. She’d teased Edward about his uniform a little bit, accusing him of being a dandy for the way he was so particular about keeping it neat and clean. Secretly, she’d thought no man could look as handsome as he did in the bright red jacket, with its polished buttons and his dark belt.
Barker and Henry laid the soldier on the chaise longue and Laura knelt awkwardly beside him. He was breathing harshly and somewhat irregularly so she swiftly undid the heavy gilt buttons on his coat and as the scarlet fell to the side, an ugly crimson stain was revealed. Unhesitatingly, Laura ripped the thin cotton of his shirt to expose the wound.
Sword, not bullet, but deep enough, for all that, and still bleeding sluggishly when she had washed away the dried blood from his chest. She folded a pad of linen as thick and tight as she could manage and, with Henry’s help to lift the man, bound it over his wound. Henry laid the man back down and Laura sat back, suddenly realising that she was trembling.
‘Ma’am?’ Henry was holding out his hand to her. ‘May I help you?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’ She put her hand on his arm and let him support her over to the sofa.
‘You’ll feel better when you’ve eaten something, ma’am.’
She nodded shakily. ‘Yes, I… yes. I… no. Pass me a bowl!’
He was quick enough, handing her the delicate porcelain bowl that normally resided on the mantelpiece. When she was done, he took the bowl from her and gave her a cool, damp cloth.
‘Should I help you upstairs, ma’am?’
She looked up at his concerned face and laughed. ‘No, Henry. It’s quite normal. I shall do very well once I have had a slice of toast. Was that the Sèvres bowl?’
‘Yes, ma’am. Your need seemed to be most pressing.’
She felt a wide smile spreading across her face. She had never been sick in such style before.
45,000 novel, published in four parts.