Tarnished, Tempted And TamedBy:
‘So, you are happy to be travelling all alone, then, Miss Chapman?’
‘I am, ma’am,’ the young lady answered through lightly gritted teeth. She had been asked the same question, in the same scandalised tone, about five minutes previously. Even before then two other women, and a gentleman, had made similar enquiries, couched in a slightly different way. Each interrogator had in turn professed a concern for her welfare rather than an interest in her business. In the close confines of the mail coach Fiona Chapman could not escape the ladies’ judgemental eyes or the fact that they were whispering about her behind their gloved fingers. Only the middle-aged farmer had not returned to the subject of her lack of a companion after his initial remark.
A triumphant blast of the driver’s horn proclaimed the rattling contraption to be approaching a watering hole. Miss Chapman’s fellow passengers stirred excitedly at the prospect of stretching their legs and having some refreshment. A few minutes later, from under the brim of her chip-straw bonnet, she watched them all alighting. The farmer, who had introduced himself and his wife as the Jacksons, had sat opposite Fiona, accidentally banging his tweedy knees against hers every time the coach leapt a rut. Now he kindly held out a hand, helping her to alight onto the cobbles of the Fallow Buck public house. Fiona gave him a rather wistful smile because he reminded her of her late papa with his wispy salt-and-pepper hair and rotund girth straining his waistcoat buttons. But Anthony Chapman had been older, Fiona guessed, than this fellow. Her father had died of a heart attack a few years ago at the age of fifty-two and the sad occasion had been the catalyst to Fiona making this journey.
‘Don’t be paying heed to my wife, miss.’ Mr Jackson patted Fiona’s hand before letting it go. ‘She’s a worrier and not only on her own account. We’ve two daughters, you see, so know a bit about what girls get up to.’ He slid Fiona a startled look. ‘Not that I think you’re up to anything, my dear Miss Chapman,’ he burst out. ‘Oh, no... I wasn’t suggesting...or prying...’
‘I understand.’ Fiona gave him a kind smile, taking pity on his blushing confusion. Of course he thought she was up to something...just as the ladies did. And they were right to be suspicious; well-bred young ladies did not as a rule travel unaccompanied on public transport.
‘Our two girls have settled down with their husbands. Good fellows, both of them, and Dora and Louise have each got a brood round their ankles.’ He gave Fiona an expectant smile, perhaps hoping to hear that such a blissful ending might be on the cards for her before it was too late.
Fiona knew that it was clear to all but a blind man that she was not in the first flush of youth and remaining on the shelf was thus a possibility. She’d no claim to beauty, either, and looked what she was: a spinster in her mid-twenties, with a pleasant rather than a pretty face and hair a disappointing shade of muddy blonde. She spoke in an educated way and that together with her neat attire proclaimed her to be not poor, but not rich, either, holding a status somewhere in between the two.
Mr Jackson poked an elbow in Fiona’s direction, offering to escort her into the tavern. While they had been conversing his wife and the Beresford sisters had gone ahead and disappeared inside the open doorway. ‘Mrs Jackson is alarmed in case any harm is done you, you see. And I have to admit I share my good lady’s worries.’
‘I’m sure I shall arrive in Dartmouth in one piece,’ Fiona returned with a smile that concealed the fact she wasn’t as confident as she sounded. She had left London in good spirits despite her mother begging her not to act so rashly. But the further west she journeyed the stronger grew her doubts over the wisdom of her impetuous decision to take up gainful employment in a strange and remote place.
She’d read about Devon and Cornwall in books and studied pictures of wild seas crashing against rugged coastlines. She’d seen images of country folk dressed in plain coarse clothes and shod in clogs. It was all a far cry from the sophistication of the capital city in which she’d been reared. But then Fiona had never really been part of that life, either, preferring to read or paint than attend society parties with her mother and sister. She’d been sure she was ready for a change, even before change had been forced upon her by her papa’s demise and Cecil Ratcliff’s arrival.
‘You’re an innocent, my dear, not used to country ways, I’ll warrant,’ Peter Jackson broke in on Fiona’s deep thoughts. ‘There are nasty individuals about these parts who’d rob blind a lady...or worse...’ he mumbled. ‘So you be on your guard every minute. Before we go our separate ways we’ll give you our direction just in case you might be in need of assistance. If your business doesn’t go the way you want you might need a friend...’