Wedding Wagers(5)

By: Donna Hatch

Meredith watched the gentleman with renewed suspicion. Was he really trying to help her or lure her to a place where he could carry out his own agenda? If the lady was in some danger from the man, Meredith would rise up and champion her.

Miss Harris chewed her lower lip as if she feared some great ghost ship would appear and destroy them.

The gentleman spoke softly to Miss Harris, and Meredith strained to hear his words. “If you are truly afraid, we don’t have to do this. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do something against your wishes.”

Meredith let out her breath. Perhaps he was a true gentleman, after all. Still, Meredith would remain close enough to keep an eye on him to be sure that this leopard didn’t change his spots the moment he had the lady alone.

“I do want to see the gardens,” Miss Harris said. “I’ve heard so much about them. Only, I’m so afraid of the river.”

Poor thing. Meredith had no great desire to get near the polluted river either. Still, she could help assuage the lady’s fears. Doing so might also help her manage her own reluctance. When she had become frightened as a child, her governess used to tell her silly stories to distract her, a technique that often worked on adults as well.

Meredith called to the lady. “Have you heard the tale of the foolish woodman and his three wishes?”

The lady turned her attention from the water to Meredith. She hesitated before speaking to her, eyeing her a moment before replying, “Why, no, I don’t believe I have.”

Too late, Meredith realized she’d just addressed a lady to whom she had not been properly introduced. Add that to her long list of social faux pas. Perhaps she should have stayed with Grandmother in Sussex where her parents had banished her. Still, she began her story. “Once upon a time, a woodman went to the forest to fell some timber. As he applied his axe to the trunk of a huge old oak, out jumped a fairy.”

Miss Harris let out a gasp, but her color returned to a healthier shade as she focused on Meredith’s words.

“The fairy begged him to spare her tree,” Meredith continued. “Out of astonishment more so than kindness, the woodman consented.”

So distracted by Meredith’s story, the now calmer lady hardly noticed when Mr. Barrett and her companion helped her into the boat. She sat and fixed wide eyes on Meredith.

Their ferryman put some distance between them, so Meredith raised her voice. “As a reward, the fairy promised him the fulfilment of three wishes.”

Mr. Partridge, the handsome gentleman who had been staring at Meredith, stepped into a boat with a lean, blond gentleman. She spared the stunning dark-haired man only the briefest glance and only the briefest sigh at his beautiful face and how well his shoulders filled out his tailcoat.

“What did he wish for?” the lady with the purple bonnet called.

Meredith smiled. “Whether from natural forgetfulness or fairy illusion, we do not know, but the woodman quite forgot his encounter with the fey world. That night as he and his wife dozed before a fire, the old fellow waxed hungry. Out loud, he said, ‘I wish I had a few links of hog’s pudding.’ No sooner had the words escaped his lips than several links of the wished-for sausage appeared at the feet of the astounded woodman.”

“Mercy me,” Miss Harris said.

One of the boats, the one carrying the handsome overdressed gentleman, Mr. Partridge—not that Meredith was keeping track of his whereabouts—and his fair-haired friend bobbed nearby.

“A bit closer, if you please,” Mr. Partridge said in a sweet, smooth baritone.

Meredith never trusted a man with a smooth voice. She cleared her throat. “This reminded the woodman of his strange encounter, which he related to his wife. ‘You are a fool,’ said she, angered at her husband’s carelessness in neglecting to make the best of his good luck. Then the wife unthinkingly added, ‘I wish they were on the end of your foolish nose!’”

Everyone within earshot chuckled in anticipation of the outcome.

“Come now, get closer.” Mr. Partridge whisked an oar out of the ferryman’s grasp.

“Oi! Gimme back m’oar!” his ferryman shouted.

With a few powerful strokes, Mr. Partridge brought the little watercraft so close that Meredith feared they would collide.

“Look out!” Meredith pressed her hands to her cheeks.

A large wave rocked the watercrafts, and the bow of the other boat hit the bow of Meredith and Annabel’s. Painfully slow, they listed to one side. Meredith made a wild grab for something to hold onto, but as the boat tipped, she plunged into the river.

Cold hit her like a blast of winter air. With wildly flailing hands, she grabbed onto the side of the boat before her head went under. She kicked against her skirts. Back home, she’d gone swimming wearing a chemise, not all the layers she presently wore, and barefoot, rather than clad in half boots.

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