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The last of the Merry Widows …
Wilhelmina, Dowager Duchess of Hertford, had once been a high-level courtesan, and though she is now a reasonably respectable widow, she has never been able to entirely escape her notorious past. Her scandalous career had torn her from her first love, Sam Pellow, and still looms large between them when they happen to meet for the first time in many years. Now a captain in the Royal Navy, Sam is ready to forgive and forget the past. But can Wilhelmina forgive herself for breaking Sam’s heart?
This idea for anthology was developed when three of the four participating authors were seated near each other on a long bus ride. Read more about how the concept was born, and how Candice was able to give another Merry Widow a happy ending.
Follow the links in brackets to learn more about these real Regency references in Candice's book.
All text links go to entries in the Illustrated Regency Glossary.
The crunch of wheels on gravel and the clip-clop of a slowing team heralded the arrival of yet another coach. Captain Samuel Pellow, late of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, nursed a tankard of ale in the public room of the Blue Boar, and watched from the little windowed alcove overlooking the inn yard as the new carriage pulled to a stop. The innkeeper rushed out to welcome yet another unexpected party compelled to halt their journey due to the downpour.
Sam had pulled into the yard driving his own curricle not half an hour earlier. After so many years at sea he didn’t mind getting wet, but he was much more comfortable on a rolling quarterdeck in a high storm than he was navigating sloggy, uncertain roads with an irritable team. He’d decided to ride out the squall in a dry taproom with twenty or thirty like-minded travelers.
Grissom, the innkeeper, was quite obviously delighted to have so many customers, as the village of Upper Hampden was between regular stops on the coach road, and Sam guessed the Blue Boar did not often have such a full house. It was an old inn, had probably been built over two hundred years ago: black and white timbered, steep-pitched gables, with projecting stories leaning drunkenly over the inn yard. Even so, it was a surprisingly well-appointed and comfortable inn for such a small village. The stables, though, were already overcrowded with carriages and carts and gigs, and more horses than they were built to handle. The situation did not dim the innkeeper’s mercenary smile as he stood holding a large umbrella, ready to escort the new arrivals inside.
Through the rain-streaked mullioned window, Sam could see that there were actually two carriages in the yard, each of them large and elegantly appointed, with a crest on the doors. He couldn’t make out the crest — not that it would make any difference if he could; one coat of arms looked much the same as the next to him — but it was clear from his deferential attitude that Grissom was aware he had a member of the aristocracy in his inn yard.
A liveried footman, soaked to the skin, jumped from his perch on the back of the first carriage, pulled down a portable set of steps, and opened the door. Shielded by the innkeeper’s huge umbrella, a lady stepped down and was rushed inside the inn. Another woman followed, obviously a maid as she didn’t warrant the courtesy of an umbrella. Pulling a cloak over her head, she made her way indoors, carrying a leather box tight against her chest. A bull of a man stepped from the second carriage, conferred with the other footmen and the ostlers who were seeing to the horses, then rushed inside.
Sam settled back in his chair and proceeded to enjoy his ale in peace while the entry hall became a frenzy of activity. He could hear Mrs. Grissom, somewhat less delighted with today’s parade of customers than her husband, shouting out orders to her small staff. Her voice rang out with an authority that made Sam smile, thinking she might have done quite well as a gunnery officer during a close action.
Amid the bustle and shouting he caught the words “best room” and “Your Grace.” So, the newcomer was a duchess. The tiniest twinge of anxiety gripped the muscles of his abdomen. He had met a few duchesses in his day, but there was one who still held a tiny corner of his heart, though he had not laid eyes on her in ten years. And that last meeting had not been one of his better moments. He was foolish to hope that this particular duchess was his duchess. She was a creature of London, which was one reason he’d avoided going up to Town whenever he was in England. He hadn’t wanted to meet her again. Their last encounter had been too awkward. He never quite knew what he felt for her, and that uncertainty always tied him into knots. No, this far from London, it would be some other duchess. England was crawling with duchesses.
But he could not tear his eyes from the doorway that opened into the entry hall. Several figures were crowded into that tiny space. It was easy enough to identify the duchess. She was the center of attention. The innkeeper’s wife was bobbing up and down like an anchor buoy in front of the lady, when she wasn’t shooing a maid in one direction or another to prepare for their grand guest. And the bullish fellow from the second coach was hovering close and keeping the riffraff at bay.
The lady herself seemed unperturbed by the fuss and bother. Her back was to Sam, but there was that indescribable something about her bearing that marked her as Quality. She wore a full-length pelisse of deep blue velvet with several short capes at the back, in imitation of a man’s greatcoat, and a matching bonnet. Sam knew next to nothing about ladies’ fashion, but even he could see that this was a very stylish ensemble, and no doubt very expensive.
She nodded to the innkeeper, then turned to speak to the bullish man. In doing so, her face came partially into view, and Sam sucked in a sharp breath. Dear God, it was his duchess. Or rather, the Duke of Hertford’s duchess. Sam had no claim to her at all. Except that they had once loved each other, a very long time ago. Almost twenty-five years ago. Gulfs of time and experience separated them, and yet she still had the ability to set his heart beating to quarters.
Almost without thinking, he rose from the bench, stepped down from the raised alcove, and walked toward her. Toward Wilhelmina, Duchess of Hertford.
* * *
Blast the rain! Wilhelmina had hoped to make it home tonight. But there was nothing more dismal and uncomfortable than traveling in a rainstorm. It was only just past noon and the storm might pass in an hour or so, but the delay would mean an even later arrival in London. Instead, she preferred to take advantage of whatever accommodations could be had in this quaint little village and settle here for the night. They could start out for London in the morning when the weather would hopefully be more cooperative.
She was giving Smeaton, her long-suffering factotum, instructions to arrange rooms for her small entourage of servants when, out of the corner of her eye, Wilhelmina saw a movement in the adjacent public room. Something, some inexplicable pull, compelled her to turn and look. A man was walking toward her. He was silhouetted in shadows against the bright blaze from the large open-hearth fire behind him, and she could not make out his features. But in less than an instant, she assessed what she could see of him with a practiced eye.
He was tall with broad shoulders and a trim waistline, his straight-backed posture lent him a military air. His purposeful stride in her direction made Wilhelmina think she must know him.
Who was he? If he was one of her former paramours, she might find some pleasure in this pokey old inn by reminiscing with a friend. She hoped to God that it wasn’t some fellow she’d once rejected — and they were legion — who would make the day even more miserable than it already was.
As he came nearer, a jolt of familiarity shot through her insides. By the time his face came into the light, knocking the breath clean out of her, she had already guessed who he was.
He smiled, that crooked smile she had once known so well, and said, “Willie.”
She was no longer a young girl who swooned with emotion, but Sam Pellow always managed to make her feel unsteady on her pins. He was still good-looking. In fact, he seemed to have grown handsomer over time, or maybe it was her own notion of handsome that had changed. A man of years and experience, with wisdom and character in his face — that was what Wilhelmina now found attractive. It was a mark of her own years, she supposed, that fresh-faced, untried young men no longer held much appeal for her.
Sam’s hair was still thick and dark, though cut short, which was a surprise. He’d worn it long, tied in a queue the last time she’d seen him. The hint of silver at his temples had not been there before, either, and somehow made him even more attractive. And there was a small scar she did not remember that cut through one eyebrow.
His eyes had always been a changeable sort of brown, sometimes dark as coffee, sometimes sherry-colored. But now they seemed more golden than she remembered, as if they’d been bleached and polished by the same sun that had darkened his skin.
That face, so familiar and yet so changed, still had the power to make her weak in the knees, and to set off an explosion of emotions she’d thought long buried.
Composing herself, she reached out a hand to him. “Sam. How good to see you again.”