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Marriage Made in Hope

By:Sophia James

Marriage Made in Hope - Sophia James

Chapter One

London—1815

Lady Sephora Connaught knew that she was going to die. Right then and there as the big black horse bucked on the bridge and simply threw her over the balustrade and down into the fast-running river.

Her sister screamed and so did others, the sounds blocked out by the water as she hit it, fright taking breath and leaving terror. She exhaled from pure instinct, but still the river came in, filling her mouth and throat and lungs as the cloth of her heavy skirt drew her under to the darkness and the gloom. She could not fight it, could not gain purchase or traction or leverage.

Ripping at her riding jacket, she tried to loosen the fastenings, but it was hopeless. There were too many buttons and beneath that too many stays, too much boning and layers and tightness, all clinging and covering and constricting.

This was it.

The moment of her end; already the numbness was coming, the pain in her leg from hitting the balustrade receding into acceptance, the light from above fading as she sank amongst the fish and the mud and the empty blackness. It was over. Her life. Her time. Gone before she had even lived it. Her hands closed over her mouth and nose so that she would not breathe in, but her lungs were screaming for air and she couldn’t deny them further.

A movement above had her tipping her head, the disturbance of the water felt more than seen as a dark shape came towards her. A man fully dressed, his hand reaching out even as he kicked. She simply watched, trying to determine if he could be real, here in the depths of the Thames, here where the light was failing and all warmth was gone.

* * *

God, the girl had simply given up, floating there like a giant jellyfish, skirts billowing, hair streaming upwards, skin pale as moonlight and eyes wide.

Why did the gentlemen of the ton not teach their daughters to swim, for heaven’s sake? If they had, she might have made a fist of her own salvation and tried to strike out for the surface. Anything but this dreadful final acceptance and lack of fight. His mouth came tight across her own as he gave her breath, there in the dark and cold, the last of his air before he kicked upwards, fingers anchored around her arm. At least she did not struggle, but came with him like a sodden dead weight, the emerald hue of a riding jacket the only vivid thing about her.

And then they were up into the sun and the wind and the living, bouncing like corks in the quick-cut current of the river, her legs wound about his like a vice, one hand scratching down the side of his face and drawing blood as she tried to grab him further.

‘Damn it. Keep still.’ His words were rasped out through shattered breath and lost in open space.

But she would not calm, the flailing panic pulling him under, her eyes wide with terror. Swearing again, he jammed her hard in against him and made for the bank whilst keeping with the current, glad when he saw others running down the pathways to reach them in the mire of sludge and slurry.

The mud from Hutton’s Landing came back in memory, falling across him, pulling him down, thick as molasses, heavy as oil, and he began to shiver. Violently. It was everywhere here, too, around his legs, across the stockings on his feet, staining the full skirts of the girl, her body pinned to his own like a well-fitting glove and taking any last remaining warmth.

He needed to be gone, to be home, away from the prying eyes of others and the pity he so definitely did not want. She was retching now violently, water streaming from her mouth as oxygen took the place of the putrid contents of the Thames. She was shaking, too. Shock, he supposed, feeling his own gathering panic. He was glad when a stranger reached out to lift her from him as Gabriel Hughes and Lucien Howard joined him on the bank.

Others were there also, an older woman screaming and a younger girl telling her to be quiet. Men as well, their eyes sharply observing him as he lumbered out, the old scar no doubt in full blaze across his face.

He could not hide anything. The shaking. The anger. The hatred. He was caught only in limbo, in memory and in mud.

‘Come, Francis. We will take you home.’

Gabriel’s voice came through the fury, his hand slipping around the sodden sleeve of his friend’s coat as he led him off. The girl was crying now, but Francis did not look back. Not even once.

* * *

She couldn’t stop the sobbing or quell her fear, even as those around her shouted out orders to fetch a carriage, to find some blankets, to get a doctor and to staunch the flow of blood on her right shin.

She was alive and breathing. She was sitting on the solidness of soil and earth, perched in the thin sun of a late spring afternoon on a pathway near the Thames with all the life she thought she had lost now back in front of her.

‘We will get you home, Sephora, right now. Richard has gone to find a carriage and a runner has been sent to make certain your father is informed of what has happened here.’

Her mother’s voice sounded odd, strained by worry, probably, and abject fright.

Sephora closed her eyes and tried to push things back and away. She could barely contemplate what had happened and she felt removed somehow, from the people, from the river bank, even from the earth upon which she sat.

Shock, perhaps? Or some other malady that came from swallowing too much water? The horror of it all swirled in, taking away the colour of the day, and her skin felt clammy and odd. Then all she knew was darkness.

* * *

She woke during the night in the Aldford town house on Portman Square, the candle next to her bed throwing shadows across the ceiling and a fire blazing in the hearth.

Maria, her sister, sat close on a chair, eyes closed and a shawl pushed away from her nightgown because of the warmth. Asleep. Sephora smiled and stretched. She felt better, more herself. She felt warm and safe and whole. There was a bandage around the bottom of her right leg and it hurt to push against it, but apart from that... She did a quick inventory of her body and found everything else in good working order and painless.

The memory of a mouth across hers in the water came back like a punch to the stomach. Her saviour had given her air when she was without it, ten feet under in the dark, the last of his own store and precious. Her heart began to race violently and she turned, her sister coming awake at the small movement, eyes focusing as she leaned forward.

‘You look better, Sephora.’

‘How did I look before?’ Her voice was raspy and stretched. A surprising sound, that, and she coughed.

‘Half-dead.’

‘The horse...?’

‘He bolted on the bridge and bucked you off. A bee sting, the groom said afterwards, and a bad one. Father has sworn he’ll sell the stallion for much less than he paid for it, too, as he wants nothing more to do with it.’

Privately Sephora was glad that she would never need to see the steed again.

‘Do you remember anything of what happened?’ Her sister’s tone had a new note now, one of interest and speculation.

‘I remember someone saved me?’

‘Not just any someone either. It was the Earl of Douglas, Francis St Cartmail, the black sheep of the ton. It’s been the talk of the town.’

‘Where was Richard?’

‘Right behind where you were on the bridge, frozen solid in fright. I don’t think he can swim. Certainly he did not tear off his boots as the earl did and simply dive in.’

‘St Cartmail did that?’

‘With barely a backward glance. The water was fast flowing there and the bridge is high, but he most assuredly did not look in any way concerned as he vaulted on to the narrow balustrade.’

‘And dived in?’

‘Like a pirate.’ Her sister began to smile. ‘Like a pirate with his face slashed by a scar and his long dark hair loose and flowing down his back.’

Sephora remembered nothing of his countenance, only the touch of warm lips against her own, intimate and forbidden under the murky waters of the Thames.

‘Was he hurt?’

‘He was when he got out of the river because you had scratched his face. There were three vivid lines down his other cheek and they were running with blood.’

‘But someone helped him?’

‘Lords Wesley and Ross. They did not stay around, though, for by the time he had got to the pathway the Earl of Douglas looked even sicker than you did.’

Francis St Cartmail, the fifth Earl of Douglas. Sephora turned the name over in her mind. So many swirling rumours about him in the ton, a lord who lived on the seedier side of rightness and amongst an underworld of danger.

She had only ever seen him once and at a distance in the garden of the Creightons’ ball two months prior. There he had been entwined in the arms of a woman who was known for her questionable morals and loose ways, rouged lips turned to his in supplication. Miss Amelia Bourne, standing with Sephora, had been quick to relay the gossip that surrounded the earl, her eyes full of infatuation and interest.

‘Douglas is beautiful, is he not, even with that scar and though he is seen less and less frequently in social company these days, when he does appear there is always gossip. I, for one, should not listen to any such slander if a man could kiss me like that...?’ Amelia let the rest slide into query as she laughed.

Sephora had returned home after that particular ball and dreamed of what it must feel like to be kissed with such complete abandon, wild beauty and open lustfulness.

Well, now she almost knew in a way.

Shaking away that heated thought, she sat up. ‘Is there something to drink?’

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