The Tantalizing Miss Coale

By: Sarah Mallory

She recognised him as soon as she walked into the inn. There could be no mistaking those piercing blue eyes and thick brown hair, or the strong lines of his cheeks and jaw, even when masked by several days’ growth of beard. Memories swamped her and her step faltered. Once again she was in his arms, revelling in the passion of his kiss, loving him and knowing she was loved in return.

Before she had made him hate her.

He was seated on the far side of the coffee room and looked up as she passed the open door. His expression did not change and she hoped—prayed—he had not recognised her. She was wrapped in her cloak with the hood pulled up against the rain. Surely she was safe?

‘Serena my dear, please do not tarry here where everyone can see you!’

She forced herself back to the present, fighting down the irritation at being addressed by her real name. No one called her Serena now, save her father when he was angry with her. She had been known as Sally since she was a child, when her brothers had decided that she was misnamed—no one was less serene than little Serena Coale, whose high spirits were always getting her in trouble.

Schooling her face into a smile she turned to her companion.

‘I beg your pardon, Henry.’

He placed his hand on her back, moving her past the open doorway of the coffee room and toward the stairs.

‘Please, keep your hood up,’ he hissed as she put her hands to her head. ‘I do not want to risk anyone recognising you, when I have been at pains to conceal our true identities.’

Obediently she bowed her head as they followed the landlord up to the first floor and into a small, panelled room.

‘This is your sitting room, sir. And these doors lead to the bedchambers for yourself and your lady.’ He indicated two doors on opposite sides of the room.

As far from each other as possible, she thought with a tiny ripple of relief.

‘Yes, yes, we will find our way around, thank you.’ Sir Henry waved him away. ‘Have a truckle bed made up in my wife’s room for one of your chambermaids. Mrs. Woods’ dresser broke her leg just before we left London and she will require—’

‘No,’ Sally interrupted him. ‘No, that will not be necessary.’ She treated Sir Henry to a blinding smile. ‘My love, you know that I am quite capable of managing for myself while we are travelling.’

Sir Henry waved the landlord away, saying as the door closed behind him, ‘Really, Serena, I am trying to protect your reputation!’

‘It was your idea that we should travel as man and wife,’ she replied, removing her cloak. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Woods. I suppose it is more imaginative than Smith.’

‘It would not have been necessary if you had brought your entourage. We could have said I was escorting you to visit family....’

‘And you know full well that all the servants at Markham are so fearful of Papa that we would never have escaped if I had taken any one of them into my confidence!’

‘Hmph. We could have hired a maid.’

‘Truly, Henry, it is of no consequence.’

‘But your reputation—’

She gave a crooked little smile.

‘I fear my reputation will be ruined anyway, once word gets out.’

Henry reached out for her hand.

‘My dear—’

‘I am very hungry,’ she said quickly. ‘Perhaps you could order dinner for us as soon as may be.’

‘Of course. I shall do so now, my dear, and have it brought up immediately.’

She watched him hurry away and gave a sigh. Dear Henry. So kind, so compliant. So...boring. She rubbed her arms. Could she go through with this? Marriage to a man she did not love? It was better than the alternative.

Shaking off her melancholy she picked up her bandbox and portmanteau, and carried them across to one of the bedchambers. She dropped her bags just inside the door and backed out again.

‘So, it is you.’

The deep male voice made her jump round with a little scream.

A tall, great-coated figure filled the doorway. He looked more alarming now than when she had first seen him in the crowded coffee room. His dark hair fell long and loose over his collar and a dark growth of beard covered the lower part of his face. There was no hint of warmth in his intensely blue eyes. Her anxiety was increased by the fact that he was leaning against the doorframe, his arms folded across his broad chest in a manner at once insolent and intimidating.

She lifted her chin.

‘Ben Hensley.’ She cast a slow, appraising glance over him. ‘You seem to have come down in the world, sir.’

He pushed himself away from the door and came toward her. She resisted the urge to retreat.

I have been travelling,’ he replied, adding, with the quirk of one dark eyebrow, ‘You, however, seem to have sunk even lower, Mrs. Woods.’

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