The Silk Merchant’s Convenient Wife – a meeting along the Bollin

 

Jonathan has succeeded in getting an appointment with Aurelia’s father to broach the subject of a land sale. After a meet-not-so-cute, I thought Jonathan and Aurelia deserved a second chance at getting to know each other. Originally the name of Aurelia’s dog was Farquar- suggested by a friend. I was going to try make a joke about a naughty Farquar but decided to be sensible and Caesar fits in with the classical names for the Upfords  Besides, I got sick of the spellcheck flagging it up.

By the time the day of Jonathan’s appointment came around he was determined to succeed, whatever the cost. The sky was cloudless and the morning mist had cleared, leaving a warm autumn day of the kind Jonathan particularly liked. Rather than going along the road through the town and round the long way, he walked down the narrow lane behind the factory to the river. He broke of a tall stem of grass and used it as a switch to knock the tops off other grasses, sending the tufts flying. By the time he reached the river bank his trouser hems were damp and he was regretting his decision.

He looked at the Bollin, which was the natural boundary between his property and Sir Robert’s land. The river was narrow here and meandered gently through the flat countryside. That idleness of the flow was half the source of Jonathan’s problem. There was nothing but fields at the edge of the parkland on Sir Robert’s side and most of them were not even being used for grazing at the moment. Surely Sir Robert would be happy to sell off the parcel that Edward and Jonathan needed.

He was so absorbed in his speculation that he did not notice he was no longer alone until a colossal splashing broke his contemplation.

‘Caesar! Get out of there, you beast!’

He looked around to see the hind legs and feathery tail of a dog plunging into the river and paddling away, then he was hailed by a female voice. The middle Upford daughter, Miss Aurelia, was striding towards the opposite bank from across the field. She was carrying a dog’s leash looped around one black-gloved hand.

‘Oh, Mr Harcourt, I did not expect to encounter you again so soon,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Is it deep?’ She gestured to the water and pulled her mouth to one side.

‘In places, but it would only come to my thighs here,’ Jonathan answered. Miss Upford stared intently at the part of his anatomy he had named and he felt a slight awkwardness at being examined.

‘That’s a relief. Mother would be devastated if Caesar came to harm.’

They both looked towards the dog—a King Charles Spaniel—which was swimming in joyous circles and looking far from in peril.

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‘Good morning, Miss Upford,’ Jonathan said, finally recalling his manners and tipping his hat.

She dipped a curtsy and they stood looking at each other across the water. Her manner was not unfriendly but she did not seem particularly pleased to have met him.

‘I could say the same,’ he replied. ‘This is a lonely place to be walking.’

‘I like solitude,’ she said crisply. ‘Contrary to what society would have you believe, not all young ladies crave attention and company.’

She was wearing a walking dress the colour of ripe damsons. A matching capelet nipped in at her waist, emphasising the narrowness in contrast to her wide skirts. Her outfit was completed by a straw hat with a veil pulled over the top half of her face. She was currently peering at him from beneath with her chin tilted up. The effect was alluring, though she could only have dressed for herself if her walk was taking her to the boundary of her father’s estate and she had thought not to encounter anyone.

‘Then I should apologise for disturbing your peace,’ Jonathan said. ‘It gives me the opportunity to make another apology, however. I must crave your pardon for the dreadful mistake I made when I first encountered you. Will you forgive me?’

‘It was understandable given the circumstances.’ Miss Upford acknowledged his apology with a graceful tilt of her head. ‘Now, we know why I am walking through a field of wet grass,’ she said, gesturing at the spaniel who scrabbled out on to the bank beside her. ‘But why are you here?’

He indicated the mill buildings which could just be seen over the treetops. ‘This land belongs to the mill. I’m speculating how best to develop it.’

Miss Upford seized the dog deftly by the collar, doing her best to avoid the shower that erupted as he shook himself. ‘Heel, you silly boy! Mother refuses to let him go out with Father’s dogs.’

She fixed the leash to Caesar’s collar, then lifted her veil and gave Jonathan an interested look. ‘Oh, how do you plan to use the land?’

‘That very much depends on your father,’ Jonathan said. He drew out his watch and opened the cover. ‘In fact, I am due for an appointment with him at ten. Would you permit me to accompany you back to the house?’

She looked at him through narrowed eyes before answering.

‘Yes, you may.’ She hardly seemed overjoyed at the prospect, but then added, ‘If you walk a short way down to where the river turns, it becomes narrow. You could probably step over easily.’

He could undoubtedly, but something rose inside Jonathan. Pride, or a need to impress Miss Upford. Perhaps simply a wish to change her steely expression to something less severe. He took a few steps backwards, then took a running jump and landed on the opposite bank gracefully beside Miss Upford. Immediately Caesar began snarling and straining at the leash towards Jonathan, trying to leap at him. Jonathan stepped back, one boot sinking into a patch of mud.

‘Oh, do behave, you wretch!’ Miss Upford snapped, pulling vigorously until the dog subsided. It took Jonathan a moment to realise she wasn’t commanding him and he was in the process of standing up straighter. Their eyes met and she gave Jonathan an apologetic look with eyes the colour of coffee. They were fascinatingly dark, rimmed with short, thick lashes beneath straight brows and Jonathan could have spent the morning counting the individual flecks of caramel that speckled them.

Now he was closer to her he saw the rims were a little red and came to the conclusion she had been crying at some point. He remembered how downcast she had looked when she had taken his coat and hat in the hallway and how he had thought she was becoming ill. He had a terrible recollection of his mother, red eyed and weeping before she left Jonathan’s father. A stab of pity went through him and he wondered what could have made her so sad she chose to come to such a solitary place with the unruly Caesar. He almost had the urge to take her hand and squeeze it in an attempt to offer comfort.

The idea took him by surprise. Perhaps Edward was right and he had spent too long avoiding the company of women if something so simple could draw such an odd impulsive sympathy from him. He gestured in the direction of the path back towards the house, but Miss Upford shook her head.

‘I wanted to walk along the river. Do you mind?’

Jonathan shook his head and they walked side by side along the bank, doing their best to avoid the longest of the grass. Jonathan considered offering her an arm, but she seemed perfectly happy walking independently and pulling the dog on the leash to stop him diving in. Her manner was remarkably efficient and a far cry from the other young ladies Jonathan had encountered.

‘Why were you carrying a bucket and wearing an apron?’ he asked.

‘The task needed to be done. As Mother explained, we aren’t a complete household yet. I see no point in expecting someone else to take a task on if I can do it without much inconvenience to myself.’

‘I commend your approach to life,’ Jonathan said, tipping the brim of his hat and finding he truly meant it. As they reached the bend in the river he slowed down.

‘This is the reason I am coming to speak to your father,’ he said. He gestured to the bend in the Bollin which narrowed as it flowed in a narrow horseshoe through the mill grounds. ‘You see, everything on this side of the river belongs to your father and I would like to purchase the land where the loop of the river goes into mine.’

Miss Upford looked at him inquisitively. ‘What would you possibly do with one more field?’ she asked in wonderment.

‘My mill is powered by water,’ Jonathan explained. ‘A single wheel drives the shaft that powers the looms. Over time the river has silted up and narrowed, meaning the wheel turns slowly.’

‘So it is the river you need, not the land,’ Miss Upford said. ‘You could divert the flow into a straighter line and the water will flow faster.’

‘Well done, that’s absolutely right.’ Jonathan smiled approvingly and Miss Upford’s elegant brows came together.

‘It’s a very simple concept to grasp, Mr Harcourt. Even a woman is able to understand such a thing.’

Jonathan floundered. ‘I wasn’t implying you couldn’t, I hope.’

She gave him another frosty smile, but there had been a flicker of surprise in her intelligent brown eyes that Jonathan had liked.

‘It’s both the river and the land I want,’ he said, hoping to break the atmosphere that had suddenly descended. ‘I don’t have the space to expand at the moment as I’d like to. I have plans, you see.’

He left the idea dangling, but she didn’t ask him to elaborate so he walked on in silence and soon they reached the bridge across the Bollin and the road that led either back to Macclesfield or to Sir Robert’s house. Miss Upford drew the leash tighter and drew her veil down, but not before Jonathan saw that her eyes were a little less red than when they had met.

‘Perhaps you should make your own way to the house,’ she suggested, glancing towards the double gates of the house. ‘I’ll walk on a little further towards the town before I turn back.’

So she did not want to be seen with him, Jonathan thought. Would her father disapprove of her walking out with a man without a chaperon? He bowed, trying not to mind that their conversation was at an end. As she walked away he called after her.

‘Miss Upford?’

She looked back over her shoulder, giving Jonathan an excellent view of her slender neck, straight back and narrow waist.

‘Why does your mother refuse to let Caesar walk with the other dogs?’ he asked.

She gave a full smile; the first he had seen. It lit her face and her eyes glowed with mischief that was apparent even beneath her veil.

‘He has ambitions above his station. He tries either to fight or to mount them, depending on their sex.’

Jonathan concealed a grin at the image of the boisterous King Charles trying to reach the relevant part of the towering Setters.

‘It’s good to have ambitions,’ he remarked, which received an even more brilliant smile that vanished almost immediately. Either she thought such humour was too ribald a subject or she was deliberately trying to maintain a frosty demeanour, but as she walked swiftly away he was sure he saw her shoulders shaking with laughter.

 

Buy link The Silk Merchant’s Convenient Wife

Published by elisabethhobbes

Elisabeth’s writing career began when she entered her first novel into Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest in 2013 and finished in third place. She was offered a two-book contract and hasn’t looked back. Since then she has published six Medieval romances with Harlequin Mills & Boon and doesn’t have any plans to stop! Elisabeth works as a Primary teacher but she’d rather be writing full time because unlike five year olds, her characters generally do what she tells them. When she isn’t writing, she spends most of her spare time reading and is a pro at cooking one-handed while holding a book. She loves historical fiction and has a fondness for dark haired, bearded heroes. Elisabeth enjoys skiing, singing, and exploring tourist attractions with her family. Her children are resigned to spending their weekends visiting the past. She loves hot and sour soup and ginger mojitos - but not at the same time! She lives in Cheshire with her husband, two children and two cats with ridiculous names because the car broke down there in 1999 and she never left. You can find Elisabeth on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ElisabethHobbes?ref=hl and Twitter https://twitter.com/ElisabethHobbes

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