FORTUNE'S BRIDEby Roberta Gellis
Cerridwen Press June 9, '09
ISBN (E Format) 9781419921209
ISBN (Trade Paper) 9781419959448
Esmeralda Talbot, born and raised in India by a money-grubbing father, was accompanying him to England for his health when the luck that had made him rich finally failed. Not only were Esmeralda and her father shipwrecked in Portugal but they were stranded in the midst of the French invasion of that country. Then Merry’s father died and because she was British she was the enemy to the invading French.
War was Robert Moreton’s passion and he had found a position as aide de camp to Sir Arthur Wellesley, who headed the British force assigned to drive the French out of Portugal. War requires beasts of burden. Robert was sent to collect horses, mules, and oxen. He was horrified to discover instead of mules in a seaside village a British maiden in distress.
That was the luckiest find of his life, but then control of the war was wrested from Sir Arthur’s hands. Stalemate under incompetent leaders was followed by a retreat that nearly cost the life Robert had saved and made wonderful.
EXTRACT: FORTUNE’S BRIDE
Trouble came soon enough without being sought. Having established Esmeralda in the best hotel in Oporto and arranged for a dressmaker to visit her at once so that she would be able to appear in public, Robert began to investigate means of getting her back to England or if that failed of providing her with sufficient money to live decently until passage could be arranged. Both avenues were blocked. There was, at present, no ship leaving for England nor any expectation that one would be leaving in the near future. And as for money, Robert found to his horror that he could not obtain personal credit, not even from the Bishop of Oporto. The refusal was couched in diplomatic terms, but it was definite.
Moreover, though Robert had brought with him a substantial sum, knowing from previous periods of service in war zones that at best his pay would be irregular and might under certain conditions become nonexistent, his personal funds were now rendered almost useless. Robert would have been perfectly willing to expend every penny to get Esmeralda safely off his hands, but he had naturally carried pound notes rather than gold, and no one in Oporto was willing to exchange more than one or two pounds for Portuguese money.
Robert was certain that Portugal would be cleared of the French, normal trade with England would resume, and British pounds would retain their value. Portuguese bankers and merchants, however, did not share his confidence. If the British were driven out instead of the French, pound notes would be little more than worthless paper. They were willing to change relatively small sums to pacify and please their allies, but nothing near the amount Robert felt to be necessary could be obtained.
Of course, there was the money that Sir Arthur had left with him to pay for the transport animals and their keep. The two hundred escudos Robert had given old Pedro had, in fact, come from this purse, but Robert had intended from the beginning to make up the sum from his private resources. However sympathetic Sir Arthur might be to the need to rescue Miss Talbot, Robert knew the government would take a dim view of such an expenditure. And even if the payment were condoned owing to the emergency, further expenditures for clothing and accommodations were not likely to be acceptable, particularly if that meant there would be fewer mules and oxen to carry supplies.
Remembering that he had set no limit on Esmeralda’s orders to the dressmaker, Robert hurried back to the hotel, wondering how he was going to explain these unpalatable facts to her. Thus, he was considerably relieved when, as soon as he entered the sitting room the hotel had provided, she said calmly, “I see that something has gone wrong, Captain Moreton. Please sit down and explain to me what has happened.”“I am afraid,” Robert began, “that I was too sanguine when I spoke of arranging your passage to England. It seems that no ships are going there, at least not from Oporto.” >
To his surprise, instead of crying out, What am I to do? Esmeralda smiled faintly.
“I know you will think I am quite mad,” she said, “but I must admit your news is the greatest relief to me.”
“Relief?” Robert echoed. “What the devil— Oh, I beg your pardon. What do you mean?”
“You need not bother to beg my pardon for a most natural expression of irritation,” Esmeralda remarked. “Papa used the most unsuitable language before me. I am quite unshockable. But I am sure you are more interested in why I do not wish to go to England.” She paused and sighed. “I know I am a most unwelcome burden, Captain Moreton, and I had resolved not to add my troubles to the ones you already have, but…but really I am in the most dreadful situation.”
Robert’s lips tightened. He remembered Henry Talbot’s seedy appearance, and he thought he knew what was coming. Probably Talbot had been carrying with him whatever small fortune he had realized when he had sold his house and whatever other holdings he had in India and that had gone down with the ship. His daughter was thus penniless. Well, Robert told himself angrily, it was no business of his. He would not, of course, expect her to return the money he had paid old Pedro or the dressmaker’s fees, but he was damned if he would get in any deeper.
“I assure you,” he said, “that there is no need to repay—”
“Oh, no!” Esmeralda interrupted. “My problem is not any lack of money.” She blushed painfully and then continued with obvious discomfort. “We were not…not so badly off as Papa liked to pretend. That was just…just his way. I can well afford… That is, I will have a…a comfortable competence if…if… My problem, Captain Moreton, will be in proving who I am.”
“You see,” she went on hurriedly, “Papa quarreled with his family and with Mama’s also. He was not of a forgiving disposition, and he forbade all communications.” She hesitated again and blinked back tears. “He even forbade Mama to speak of his family or hers and…and she was afraid to disobey him. I do not know exactly where my relatives live, other than that Papa and Mama originally came from Ireland and that Papa was very distantly related to the Earl of Shrewsbury. He spoke of that because it was useful to him, but obviously I cannot presume on such a relationship, and I have no idea whether any of my grandparents or aunts or uncles, if I have any, are alive. Nor do they know that I am alive. What is worse, all Papa’s papers went down with the ship, and no one in England has ever seen me.”
“Good God.” At the moment, Robert could think of nothing more useful to say.
“It is not quite hopeless,” Esmeralda began again. “I wrote most of Papa’s letters to his bankers. Do you think they would recognize my handwriting and accept that as an identification? Or perhaps,” her voice was growing unsteady because she was more and more frightened by Robert’s frozen expression, but she continued valiantly, “I could write to India. Many people know me there. If someone who knew me in India was now in England, one of my friends could tell me and that person could identify me, or…or…” She fumbled at her neck and drew out the locket. “I have this,” she said desperately. “It has Mama’s picture…”
“But you don’t know anyone in England who would recognize the picture, and it would take months for a letter to get to India,” Robert said somewhat absently.
He had been growing more and more appalled as he listened, wondering if he had been trapped in some elaborate coney-catching scheme, but the locket Esmeralda held had finally jogged his memory. He remembered seeing it, the one pretty item in a rather drab costume that had endured a few too many wearings. It was the locket that had attracted Robert and decided him to ask Miss Talbot to dance first. He breathed a sigh of relief. Of course her manner was different now. Three years ago she had been barely out of the schoolroom, too shy to speak up, but he remembered her eyes, too, even though she had only raised them once or twice.
“Yes, I know,” Esmeralda breathed, clasping her hands and fighting helplessly against the tears that were now coursing down her cheeks. “And how am I to live until then? And where? Oh, do forgive me, Captain Moreton. This is not your problem. You have already done more—”
“I know you,” Robert said.
His voice was strong and so redolent of relief and satisfaction that Esmeralda’s tears checked. She stared at him for a moment and then started to laugh, hiccupping between sobs and giggles.
Poor Robert thought she was hysterical and rose to his feet making inarticulate noises he thought were soothing and looking anxiously at the door. Should he try to find the landlord’s wife or some other woman to help? But how could he ever explain what had driven her into this state? God knew what would be thought. The idea of trying to express what was necessary to be said in Portuguese was far more frightening to Robert than riding through an artillery barrage.
However, such desperate measures were not needed. Before Robert could force himself to the door, Esmeralda had caught her breath and gasped. “You are the kindest person! You did not really recognize me, did you?” As she spoke she sniffed and wiped the tears from her face with the heel of her hand. Delicate cambric handkerchiefs were no part of Portuguese peasant costume.
Robert gravely presented his own handkerchief, and Esmeralda used it. “I did and I didn’t,” he confessed. “That is, I knew I’d seen you before, but couldn’t remember where or when.” He did not mention his brief and passing suspicion that she had been setting him up for a skinning. He felt very guilty about that. “But I know you now,” he went on heartily. “Remember your locket and remember signing your card, thinking what a pretty name Esmeralda was.”
Robert stopped abruptly again. He had almost added that he had also thought it was a pity the girl wasn’t as pretty as the name. Happy in his escape from one faux pas, he did not realize that what he had said was almost as cruel as what he had not. Internally Esmeralda winced, but she took no offense at the implication that her face was not memorable! The hurt only drew a few more tears, which she wiped away surreptitiously. She knew Robert had never had any special interest in her and the strong attraction she felt for him had been most unintentionally engendered.
“Ghastly hot it was at that ball,” he went on reminiscently as he sat down again, hoping that recalling a pleasant occasion would cheer her up.
“Yes, indeed it was,” Esmeralda replied, smiling. She understood Robert’s intention and responded gallantly, knowing that he meant well and was doing his best in an impossible situation. “But Governor Duncan’s balls always are. After all, one cannot refuse the governor’s invitation, so his balls are always the greatest crush.”
“Were you ever tempted to refuse?” Robert asked curiously. He had often wondered whether plain girls who knew they would not receive the same attention as the pretty ones, exposed themselves voluntarily or were forced by their parents to do so.
“No, certainly not,” Esmeralda said. “I love to dance, and in India where there were so few English girls, I was assured of a partner. I am not so sure I would be equally eager in England where I might be… Well, but we are talking great nonsense. We are not likely to be troubled by balls here, and there are worse problems than those of finding a partner for me.”
“Don’t be so sure of a lack of balls. Wherever Sir Arthur sets up headquarters, there are bound to be…”
Robert’s voice drifted into silence. His mention of Sir Arthur had reminded him that it would be necessary for him to leave Oporto in a day or two at most. The two satisfactory parts of his interview with the bishop’s secretary had been the report that a surprisingly large number of animals had come in already and that more were on the way. The combination of French atrocities and the offer of coined silver had worked a miracle and produced a good crop of oxen, mules, and horses from a seemingly barren countryside.
Had he been able to obtain sufficient funds to rent a house for Esmeralda, provide her with servants, and leave her money enough to live on for a month or two, he would have done so and dismissed her from his mind, except for reporting her presence to the proper authorities. Since this was impossible, he had to make other arrangements. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and explained this to Esmeralda.
“I would not have wished to remain in Oporto anyway,” she said quietly, “unless there were some English family with whom I could stay…”
The indefinite ending and lift of her voice made the statement into a question. Robert shook his head. “I am very much afraid,” he said slowly, “that you will have to come south with me. Unfortunately, I can get no information about the roads except that they are dreadfully bad. I am not sure a carriage could get over them, even if I could convince someone to sell me one for pounds. I am very sorry, Miss Talbot, but—”
“Good heavens,” Esmeralda exclaimed, her smile lighting her face, and her eyes shining with joy. “Please do not apologize. That is just what I would have wanted, but I did not dare ask. You have already done so much, I could not think of imposing myself on you still longer. But if you are willing to take me—oh, I will be so grateful to you.”
“Yes, but you know it is a good distance, over one hundred miles, and the weather…”
Esmeralda laughed like a bird singing. “But my dear Captain Moreton, I am quite accustomed to a hot climate, and I am equally accustomed to riding. Oh dear, I never thought I would be grateful to Papa for his meanness, but I am. He would never buy a carriage, and quite often we had to ride from Bombay to Goa.”
She thought she would burst with joy. That invitation to ride south was her salvation. Once Robert had brought her to a place where there were other British people and introduced her as Esmeralda Talbot, her identity would be established. Very likely Sir Arthur would send her back to England on one of the ships that carried dispatches. Esmeralda was almost certain that if Robert and Sir Arthur requested him to do so, the commander of the ship would be willing to escort her to her father’s bankers and confirm her explanation of the shipwreck, her father’s death, and the loss of all his documents. Then her handwriting and her knowledge of her father’s affairs should settle the matter.
All that was an enormous relief, but the real source of Esmeralda’s well of joy was the knowledge that she would have several days more of Robert’s company. It was no use telling herself that such thoughts were futile and unhealthy. She knew perfectly well that she was nothing but a duty—and a worrisome duty at that—to Robert. But just to look at him was a precious delight to her. And with the thought she hastily lowered her eyes, fearing that there had been an adoration in them that had made him uneasy, for he was frowning.
But Robert’s frown had nothing whatsoever to do with Esmeralda’s expression. Although he was looking at her, he had noticed nothing beyond her obvious relief at the proposal he had made and the confidence with which she had assured him that she would not mind the hardships of travel. Fortunately he had the evidence of her behavior on the ride from the village to Oporto to support her statement, and he could believe her. What was more, he was sure that he would be able to obtain a proper saddle and a mare or gelding with a less jarring gait so that, although the distance would be greater, the discomfort would be less.
What had brought the creases to Robert’s fair brow was a very delicate matter. He and Miss Talbot would be four or five days on the road, and their only company would be a few dozen Portuguese muleteers and ox drivers, scarcely acceptable chaperones for a young lady of breeding. It was all very well to say that they were in Portugal and it was an emergency. The whole thing was still highly improper, and Robert was afraid that there would be no way to keep it a secret.
His fellow aides-de-camp were from the best families. Burghersh was the Earl of Westmoreland’s heir, and Lord Fitzroy Somerset was the youngest son of the Duke of Beaufort. They were the best of fellows, but it would be too much to expect them to keep so good a story to themselves. Robert could just hear them, It’s just like Moreton’s luck, they would say. You’d think it was enough that he has the prettiest face in the whole army, but he goes out to pick up asses and oxen and instead finds a shipwrecked damsel in distress. Of course, they would mean no harm. They would tell the story in the strictest confidence, only intending to poke fun at him, not to make difficulties for Miss Talbot, but it was sure to get out.
Unfortunately, too, Miss Talbot had no friends or family who would support her. With a story like that going around, she would not have a chance to establish herself. Under other circumstances she doubtless could have obtained introductions to the families of people she knew in India and formed a pleasant circle of acquaintances, but with a scandal broth brewing… There was only one way out. Robert sighed.
“Indeed, I promise I will not make any difficulties,” Esmeralda said earnestly, hoping her general statement would be understood in the emotional sense as well as referring to the journey south. She imagined that Robert was plagued with women worshiping him.
“You won’t, but others will,” Robert said with a tinge of bitterness and heaved another sigh. “There’s nothing for it,” he added, wearing an expression of extreme dejection. “We’ll have to get married.”