Lord Dashwood Missed Out (Spindle Cove #4.5)


by Tessa Dare

CHAPTER ONE

By the age of three-­and-­twenty, Miss Elinora Browning had given up on wedding vows—­instead, she made herself a promise. Never again would she place her happiness in the hands of an unfeeling, disinterested man.

Unfortunately, that did not prevent unfeeling, disinterested men from wreaking havoc with her schedule.

“What do you mean, the stagecoach is already gone?”

“Well, miss. It’s like this.” The coaching inn proprietor scratched behind his ear. His fingernails were cracked and yellowed. “The coach you were meant to travel by, it was here. And it done left. An hour ago.”

“But why?”

“The weather looks to be taking a nasty turn. All the other passengers were assembled, so the driver decided to get ahead of the storm. You can take the next one.”

“When’s the next one?”

“Tuesday.”

“Tuesday?” Nora’s heart sank. “Sir, I must be in Spindle Cove by tomorrow. I have an engagement.”

The man chuckled. “If you’re engaged, why would you be headin’ for Spinster Cove?”

“It’s not a marital sort of engagement. I’ve a speaking engagement at a subscription library there. I’m an author.”

He blinked at her, uncomprehending. As if she’d said, I’m a hedgehog.

Nora didn’t have time to explain. “Is there no way I can arrange alternate transport tonight?”

“By private post chaise, if you’ve the coin.”

She clutched her purse. Hiring a private coach from Canterbury to Spindle Cove would cost a small fortune. She didn’t carry that much money on her person. It wouldn’t be safe for a woman traveling alone.

“Please, isn’t there anything else traveling in a westerly direction? Even to another location.”

He eyed the chalk-­dusted slate hanging on the wall. “You may be in luck, miss. There’s a gentleman keen to travel to Portsmouth tonight. The coach weren’t full yet, but he offered to buy out the empty space. He’s leavin’ any moment.”

“Portsmouth will do, thank you very much. If I can join him so far as Hastings, I can hire a post chaise from there.”

The man took her trunk. Nora hurried behind him, dodging puddles as he led the way to a dark, creaking coach hitched to a team of four rather haggard-­looking bays. Not precisely a crest-­emblazoned, well-­sprung barouche.

But when the door swung open, Nora climbed in without thinking twice. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

There was only one other figure in the coach. A man, sitting on the far end of the rear-­facing seat, reading a newspaper. Nora positioned herself on the front-­facing side, leaving plenty of room for any other passengers who might be joining them.

No sooner had she arranged her skirts, however, than the coach rolled into motion.

As the carriage trundled out onto the highway, she heard the snap of folding newspaper. For the first time, she ventured a glance in her solitary companion’s direction. The afternoon’s gloom made it impossible for her to make out details.

But Nora didn’t need details.

Apparently, she needed a miracle.

She dropped her gaze to her lap and prayed, wide-­eyed.

Oh, Lord. Please. Don’t let it be him.

But it was. She didn’t need to look twice to confirm it.

The other occupant of the coach was none other than George Travers, Lord Dashwood. Nora had suspected it the instant she glimpsed his silhouette.

She’d known it from the way her heart raced in response.

She’d always been affected by the sheer size of him. He was hewn from trunks and planks, where other men were carved from branches.

His broad table of shoulders, massive hands . . . They made her feel delicate, the way no one else had ever done. Few would look at sturdily built, fiery-­haired Nora Browning and think “delicate.” But she was, deep down. There were parts of her spun from floss and held together with hope—­and those bits were fragile indeed.

Here was the man who’d destroyed them.

Oh, Lord. Please. Don’t let him recognize me.

To be sure, they’d been neighbors in their youths. But he’d been at sea for years, and in the meantime Nora had changed. Hadn’t she? There were fewer freckles on her cheeks. She’d swelled and rounded in the usual feminine places. And despite the years she’d wasted fixating on his capable hands or wavy dark hair, Dash was unlikely to have memorized her features.

He’d never taken much notice of her at all.

“Nora?” His familiar baritone shook her to the core. “Miss Nora Browning, is that you?”

She steeled herself to face him. “Why, Lord Dashwood. What a surprise.”

And thus they began a brief, polite exchange that in no way indicated the years she’d spent pining for him, nor the way he’d departed so callously, much less the manner in which he’d once, on a long ago afternoon, reached for her hand beneath a table and twined his fingers with hers.

“I didn’t realize you were back in England,” she said.

“I’ve been in Town since late October. I hope your parents are well.”

“They are both in good health, thank you.”

She couldn’t say the same for herself. After all this time, his face was still distressingly handsome. Her stomach wanted to squeeze through the window and escape.

The lengthening silence chastened her. It was Nora’s turn to ask a polite question, but she couldn’t inquire after his family. Dash had been orphaned as a young boy. He’d inherited his barony while she was still playing with dolls.

Instead she asked, “You’re bound for Portsmouth?”

“Yes. Looking in on a new ship under construction. Sir Bertram has charged me with leading the next West Indian survey. And you?”

“I plan to change at Hastings. I’m traveling to Spindle Cove. It’s a seaside resort. Popular with a certain set of young ladies.”

“Ah.”

She turned to the window and peered desperately into the rainy afternoon. There. They’d conversed. Etiquette was satisfied, and now she might travel in peace.

What more was there to say? He’d doubtless left any thoughts of her behind when he left England, and now she was nothing more to him than that Browning girl from down the lane. Andrew’s bothersome little sister. The one with the carroty hair and hoydenish ways.

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