Despite the early hour and the chilly weather, the yard of the White Horse Inn in Fetter Lane, London, was crowded and noisy. The stagecoach for the West Country was preparing to make its daily run. Few passengers had yet boarded; most were milling about anxiously to see that their luggage had been properly stowed. Hawkers attempted to sell their wares to passengers for whom the day would be long and tedious. Grooms bustled about their business. Ragged children, when they were not being shooed back into the street, darted about, feeding on the excitement.
The guard blew his horn, a deafening warning that the coach would be departing within a few minutes and anyone with a ticket would be well advised to climb aboard.
Captain Gordon Harris, looking smart in the green regimentals of the Ninety-fifth Rifles, and his young wife, who was warmly and modishly dressed, looked somewhat out of place in such inelegant surroundings. But they were not themselves passengers. They had accompanied a woman to the White Horse in order to see her on her way.
Her appearance was in marked contrast to theirs. While she was clean and tidy, she was undeniably shabby. She wore a simple high-waisted cotton dress with a shawl for warmth. Both garments looked well worn and well washed. Her bonnet, which had perhaps once been pretty even if never quite modish, had clearly shielded its wearer from one too many rainstorms. Its wide brim was limp and misshapen. She was a young woman--indeed, she was so small and so slight of frame that she might at first glance have been mistaken for a mere girl. But there was something about her that drew second, more lingering glances from several of the men who were busy about their various tasks. There were beauty and grace and some indefinable air of femininity about her to proclaim that she was indeed a woman.
"I must be getting into the coach," she said with a smile for the captain and his wife. "You need not stay here any longer. It is too cold to be standing about." She held out both her slim hands to Mrs. Harris, though she looked alternately at both of them. "How will I ever be able to thank you sufficiently for all you have done for me?"
Tears sprang to Mrs. Harris's eyes, and she enfolded the young woman tightly in her arms. "We have done nothing of any great significance," she said. "And now we are abandoning you to travel on the stage, the very cheapest form of transportation, when you might have gone more respectably by post chaise or at the very worst by the mailcoach."
"I have borrowed enough from you," the young woman said, "without indulging in needless extravagances."
"Borrowed." Mrs. Harris removed a lace-edged handkerchief from her reticule and dabbed at her eyes with it.
"It is still not too late to alter your plans, you know." Captain Harris took one of the young woman's hands in both of his own. "Come back to our hotel with us for breakfast and I shall write that letter even before I eat, and send it on its way. I daresay there will be an answer within the week."
"No, sir," she told him quite firmly, though she smiled. "I cannot wait. I must go."
He did not argue further but sighed, patted her hand, and then impulsively pulled her into a hug as his wife had done. By that time she was in danger of losing the inside seat he had quite adamantly insisted upon. He had even slipped the coachman a tip to ensure her a window seat for the long journey to the village of Upper Newbury in Dorsetshire. But a large woman, who looked as if she might be ready to take on any coachman or any army captain who dared cross her, or indeed both at once, was already settling herself into the only window seat still available.
The young woman had to squeeze herself into a middle seat. But she did not appear to share the captain's wrath. She smiled and lifted a hand in farewell. As she did so, the guard's horn blew again as a warning to everyone nearby that the stage was about to begin its journey.
Mrs. Harris's gloved hand was still raised in an answering farewell wave after the stagecoach had rumbled out of the yard, turned onto the street, and disappeared from sight.
"I have never in my life known anyone so stubborn," she said, using her handkerchief again. "Or anyone so dear. What will become of her, Gordon?"
The captain sighed once more. "I fear she is doing the wrong thing," he said. "Almost a year and a half has passed, and what seemed like madness even at the time will doubtless be a total impossibility now. But she does not understand."
"Her sudden appearance is going to come as a dreadful shock," Mrs. Harris said. "Oh, foolish girl to have refused to delay even a few days while you wrote a letter. How will she manage, Gordon? She is so small and so frail and so--so innocent. I fear for her."
"For as long as I have known Lily," Captain Harris replied, "she has looked much the same, though admittedly she is thinner than she used to be. The appearance of fragility and innocence are largely illusory, though. We know that she has been through a great deal that would severely test the roughest and toughest of my men. But she must have experienced worse things that we can only imagine."
"I prefer not even to try," his wife said fervently.
"She has survived, Maisie," he reminded her, "with her pride and her courage intact. And her sweetness too--she seems not to have been embittered. Despite everything there still appears to be more than a touch of innocence about her."
"What will he do when she arrives?" she asked as they began to walk back to their hotel for breakfast. "Oh dear, he really ought to have been warned."
Excerpted from One Night for Love by Mary Balogh. Copyright © 1999 by Mary Balogh. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.