Penelope Standish had loved Christopher Ackhurst ever since her brother, down from Eton for the summer, had brought his friend home with him. As she was only six years old at the time, it might have been expected that her apparent hero worship would quietly die as she matured.
A quiet child of indifferent parents, Penny had kept hidden her feelings; feelings that only deepened as the years went on and she grew up. Both young men had joined the army at eighteen, but the visits to Standish Court had abruptly stopped upon her brother's death at Vimeiro when Penny was seventeen. A stilted note expressing the deep regret felt by the Ackhurst family had been the last the Standishes had heard from the young man.
Penny, however, had continued to anxiously scan the columns in the Morning Post, searching for any mention of Kit Ackhurst. He had risen from Lieutenant to Major by the end of the Peninsular war apparently unscathed, but was invalided home after Quatre Bras, just before Waterloo.
That had been four months ago and Penny had endured changes of her own during that time. Her mother, prostrated after losing her beloved son, the apple of her eye, had put up no resistance to the scarlet fever epidemic that devastated the nearby village. Her father, an inveterate gambler very soon lay beside her in the family tomb after suffering an apoplexy. Penny was left destitute, stricken with a mixture of grief and guilt that she had not loved her parents more and all alone in the world.
The vicar, obviously thinking that he was performing an act of great charity, informed her of his acquaintance with a Mrs. Cammett. She was a widow, living in Bath and in need of a companion. Numbed by her rapid losses and with no resources, Penny had naively agreed and swiftly found herself installed in a gloomy little room at the back of a tall, narrow house just off Laura Place.
Penny's days became a round of visits to the pump room, card parties and frequent games of backgammon, which game she came to loathe. It was only in the mornings, since Mrs. Cammett disdained to leave her chamber before noon, that Penny could indulge in the pastime that swiftly became her comfort: reading.
Every morning she would make her way to Duffield's Library on Milsom Street and browse the shelves. She discovered in herself a love of history, travel, poetry and a devotion to novels. And if, as she made her way home she indulged in wistful dreams of being rescued from her life by a gentleman (he need not be rich or handsome, only madly in love with her), a brief hour in Mrs. Cammett's company soon brought her feet back down to earth. She was twenty-five, held no pretensions to beauty and, as Mrs. Cammett had pointed out to her, delighted with her wit, she was penniless.
October had, so far, been consistently wet and miserable and today was no different. Penny took a firmer hold of her umbrella and began to make her way towards Milsom Street. She had reluctantly cancelled her excursion for the past four days, but had now finished all the books she had borrowed and wanted more. Wet though it was, Penny welcomed the change from days spent indoors and the feeling of fresh air on her face.
Only peripherally aware of an altercation in the street, her entire attention focused on not treading in the puddles, Penny was given no opportunity to avoid the encounter. The pavement at that point was narrow and she was knocked heavily back against the railings of a nearby dwelling, forcing her breath from her lungs with a painful jolt. Strong hands gripped at her upper arms, too late to save her from the impact, but soon enough to prevent her from slumping to the ground.
Her books flew from her grasp, the frayed ribbon she had used to tie them together snapping and scattering them across the pavement. Penny watched in dismay, her umbrella dropping from suddenly nerveless fingers. Such was her distress that she barely heard the apologies of the gentleman supporting her.
"My books," she whispered, aghast. Mrs. Cammett barely gave her enough money to clothe herself with and pay the precious subscription to the Library. Certainly she would never be able to afford to replace ruined books.
"Are you all right?" The gentleman's voice finally cut through her horror propelling her into action and she shook him off, scurrying to gather up the books, her eyes filling with tears as she saw the damage wrought upon them by the fall and the wet.
"Miss?" She looked up then, clutching the books to her body with both arms and another shock, more emotional than the physical impact against the railings, but just as painful, paralyzed her for a moment.
"K-Kit?" She inquired, disbelieving. His recognition of her came slower and with a frown that drew his brows together.
"Penny? Miss Standish?" They stood for a moment in silence until he seemed to recall their surroundings and the weather. Stooping, he retrieved her umbrella that had, unlike the books and herself, survived the collision unscathed, and held it over her.
"Are you hurt? I'm afraid that I wasn't at all looking where I was going. I dashed in front of a cart..." he trailed off, as if realizing that all was not well.
"Miss Standish? Are you well?" Penny gingerly shifted the books and then winced as she found a sore spot. He reached out and took two in one large hand, enabling her to sort out the other three she still held.
"I... I have to return these," she said softly.
"Here, take the umbrella." She obeyed and he relieved her of the rest of the books. "Now," he continued, "are you hurt?" Penny, her attention still on how she was going to pay for the books, shook her head,
"Nothing serious, sir." He gave a sigh, as if of relief and Penny looked up into his eyes. She felt her legs tremble at the intensity of expression she saw there and his hand quickly moved to support her, gripping her elbow firmly.
"I shall walk you home," he said firmly, "where are you staying?"
"Johnstone Street." He looked blank for a moment, but just as Penny was about to give directions he said,
"Forgive me, but I thought that you had been used to stay in the Circus when you come to Bath. Have your mother's preferences changed?" Penny felt her face pale miserably and ducked her head in the hope that her bonnet might shield her from his gaze a little.
"My mother... passed away seven years ago." He looked grim,
"I see. I am sorry, I was not aware."
"And your father?"
"He... the same, not long after."
"Indeed," his voice was softer now than she had ever heard it, "then I am very sorry. I did not mean to distress you, Miss Standish." Penny said nothing, flinching inwardly a little at the stiffness of his address and waiting for the inevitable question that would follow.
"Are you staying with... but no, you have no other family, do you?"
"I am employed as a companion."
"Companion." The word was not quite derogatory, but the overtones were there and Penny stood motionless, ashamed that he should find her so impoverished and angry that he should make her feel so when the situation was none of her making.
"Come," he said quietly, "you have endured an unpleasant experience at my hands and my questions can hardly be less so. Allow me, if you please, to walk you home." Penny placed her hand on his offered arm and then halted once more, the books recalled to her notice.
"Oh, my books!"
"I shall return them for you." Penny bit her lip, tempted, but couldn't let him take responsibility so easily.
"But they are ruined. I... I will have to make remuneration."
"Do not worry. It is my fault that they have been damaged, I will pay for them." Her conscience relieved of its burden, Penny smiled weakly,
He left her on the steps of her home with a slight bow another murmured apology and then was gone. Penny stared after him, close to tears at his abrupt formality and given no hope of seeing him again. Then she shook herself, winced as the bruises on her ribs made themselves felt and told herself sternly not to be a widgeon. Undoubtedly she would see him at the pump room, or if not then, at one of the assemblies.
Feeling suddenly light of heart and looking forward to the days ahead for the first time in months, she entered the house.
Kit saw her the moment she walked into the pump room. At her side, a woman clothed in a red quite unsuited for her complexion was gesturing autocratically. Miss Standish nodded, saw the widow safely seated and began to make her way across the room.
He noted that she was very pale, her eyes clouded with what could only be pain, her movements cautious as she attempted to avoid the little groups of people that sometime broke apart with no thought for anyone walking behind. He frowned guiltily, wondering why she hadn't remained at home if she was suffering and made his way towards her.
"Miss Standish." She looked up, a startled expression on her face.
"Mr. Ackhurst... or is it Major?" A tremulous smile hovered on her lips for a moment before fading.
"No, I have sold out," he replied, "Miss Standish..."
"I would like to thank you for returning the books for me," she interrupted, as if guessing his next question and attempting to turn the subject.
"You are welcome. Miss Standish..."
"I hope you will not be offended, Mr. Ackhurst," she broke in once more, "but I must bring Mrs. Cammett her water before it cools." He looked down at her and, noting the plea in her eyes, nodded.
"Of course." He retreated to his previous position, ignoring the matrons and damsels who tried to catch his eye. Penny had always been a sensible girl, surely she wouldn't have come to the pump room by choice when suffering so. He flinched slightly under a twinge of guilt as he remembered the reason for that distress.
A few minutes of observation confirmed to him his first impression that the widow was of a dictatorial nature who seemed to delight in her power over her dependent companion.
"This will never do," he murmured to himself. He must find a way to speak to Penny. With no family to care for her, the responsibility devolved onto him as a friend of long standing. That the friendship had been with her brother apparently made no impression on his reasoning.
He made his way purposefully across to where the widow was now carrying on a ponderous flirtation with an aged gentleman clad in the style of the previous century.
"Miss Standish," he bowed politely, knowing that the widow would rapidly turn her attention on him. "It has been a long time, I am glad to see you again."
"Miss Standish? You know this gentleman." Caught between the two, Penny was forced to introduce him.
"Might I introduce Mr. Ackhurst to you, Mrs. Cammett. He is an old friend of the family, recently returned from the Peninsula. Mr. Ackhurst, Mrs. Cammett."
"Madam." Kit bowed and then brought into play several years of military discipline when the woman fluttered her eyelashes at him,
"La, sir, I am sure I am pleased to make the acquaintance of anyone new to Bath. A soldier, you say?"
"Not anymore, ma'am. I sold out a short time since."
"A hero!" Good grief, the woman was actually simpering!
"Not at all," Kit replied shortly. "If you would permit, I would beg a few moments to speak with your companion. To catch up on family news, you understand." There was a pregnant pause as the widow threw an assessing glance at Penny, her colour now slightly heightened and the handsome man standing before her. Beside her, the gentleman harrumphed,
"Excellent idea, m'dear. Give us a chance to get to know each other better." Kit, swift to take advantage of this unexpected aide, held out his hand to Penny and helped her to rise.
"Come, Miss Standish, take a turn about the room with me." Once at a safe distance he enquired softly, "are you in a great deal of discomfort. Should I find us a seat?" She looked up and for a moment he thought he saw tears glimmer before she looked hastily away. Kit became aware of a feeling of discomfort. Was her life so miserable? He would have to do something.
"No," she murmured so softly that he had to strain to hear her reply, "no, I think it would be best if we were to continue to walk."
"Have I made things difficult? It was not my intention. I wanted only to speak with you."
"No. No." Unconvinced, he nevertheless abandoned the subject in favour of what he wanted to ask.
"Penny, why are you working for that woman?" Her eyes flew to his once more and then away again. He began to be aware of a great deal of frustration at her inability to meet his gaze. How was he supposed to know what she was feeling if she didn't look at him?
"I... There is very little else for a woman of my... station."
"Your station? Penny, you are so far above that... that..." Abruptly he realised that a youth spent in the army had left his education gaping in certain areas and swallowed his description back. "She is below you," he finished a little lamely.
"Perhaps, but there was little choice. When my father died, there were so many debts..." she paused a moment before continuing, "the vicar knew of this position and I had no alternative but to accept."
"Your father gambled away all his money?" Penny nodded.
"I see. Your brother mentioned his predilection for the cards and horses, but I never realised it had become that bad."
"It became worse after Gerald's death. He was their golden boy."
"Yes." Realising how close her emotions were to the surface, Kit managed not to make mention of how they had ignored their daughter. "It must be intolerable to you, living with that woman." She sighed, removed her hand from his arm and turned to face him,
"Really, Kit, you must not say such things. She... she is not perhaps as refined as one might wish, but in the situation that I found myself... I must be grateful for her offering the position." He barely suppressed his contempt at her defense, easily seeing past it to the unhappiness that her words attempted to hide.
"I can think of an alternative," he offered and was gratified to see the hope flash in her face, even though it was quickly replaced by a wary expression. Drawing her arm back through his, he led her over to a quiet corner where they could be private. A quick glance confirmed that the gentleman, for all his age, was managing to engage the widow's complete attention.
"An alternative?" For a brief moment Kit thought that he saw more than a cautious desire flicker in Penny's hazel eyes; something that glowed deep down. Not much given to fancy, he pushed the notion aside.
"Yes. I am not wealthy, but I have a sufficient means. A house that I am sure you would be able to make comfortable. You would want for nothing, I assure you and.... you would not find me demanding." It was an awkward offer and perhaps he had not chosen the best location to make it, but her reaction was a little puzzling. For long, wrenching moments she just stared at him.
"In fact, you are offering me a carte-blanche," she said carefully after a long silence.
"I..." Kit broke off, shocked into speechlessness by the meaning she had attached to his proposal.
"I'm sorry," her voice shook, but the words were perfectly comprehensible, "but that won't be possible." A sharp pain stabbed in Kit's stomach,
"Miss Standish, if you please," she returned frigidly.
"Pen... Miss... Devil it! That isn't what I..."
"I may have no prospects and my life may not be as I wish it to be, but I still have some pride and dignity!" Her voice rose as she spoke and she turned away at the end of the speech. He made an effort to redeem the situation that was fast assuming nightmarish proportions,
"Pen... Miss Standish, I didn't.... " She interrupted him ruthlessly,
"Mrs. Cammett has many faults, sir, but at least she is honest and holds me in some respect!" She pushed away from him, colour burning in her cheeks and retreated rapidly back to the widow's side.
Kit stared after her, unable to force his frozen limbs into action and could only watch, stricken, as the widow rose to her feet at her companion's return and swept from the pump room.
Penny was given no opportunity to weep over the shards of her broken heart.
Upon her return, Mrs. Cammett demanded a detailed account of what had been said, and for once Penny ignored the truth in favour of some dull falsehoods. Aware that the widow, moved by some kind of jealousy, to a sharp-eyed perception of her companion, Penny heroically maintained a bland countenance and a steady, if low, voice.
She had never been so grateful to return to the gloomy little house and, complaining of the headache, escaped to her room to sob into her pillow.
Had she been a spectator in a private parlour that afternoon at York House, her heart might have received some small consolation.
Kit allowed his man to relieve him of his coat.
"Brandy, Billings and I don't want to be disturbed for the rest of the day." His ex-batman and now valet raised his eyebrows, but thought better of speech as he caught sight of his master's expression.
"Of course, sir," he replied woodenly and exited the room.
Kit paced restlessly between the fireplace and the window, but by the time Billings had returned with the requested brandy, he was seated before the fire, his chin sunk onto his chest, his eyes staring unseeing at the flames. Billings set the tray on a table at his elbow and quietly departed.
There was silence for some minutes and then Kit groaned softly to himself.
What had happened?
How had a proposal of marriage gone so drastically wrong? To be sure, the time and place had been ill chosen, but to think that he wanted to make her his mistress! How could she think that of him?
He didn't want a mistress; he wanted a wife. A wife and children, a home...
He had never forgotten about Penny Standish. It was her laughing hazel eyes, her smile that had gotten him through some of the worst fighting; the memory of her feminine softness that had helped him fight off the fever and recover from his wound. But it hadn't been until seeing her that morning, her curvaceous figure clad in an ugly dress, her hair frizzing from under an unfashionable bonnet that he had realised how fiercely he had missed her. That he loved her.
"Fiend seize it!" He exploded and launched to his feet to stride once more. He paused on the return to knock back a finger of brandy and choked as the fiery liquid burned a path to his stomach.
Sinking back into his chair, Kit ran his fingers through his hair and sighed heavily. He would have to try and speak to her tomorrow, this time choosing a setting a little more conducive to private speech.
Penny spent a miserable, sleepless night; her mind running over the scenes of the previous day and her body aching from the collision with the railings.
She sighed over her foolish defense of Mrs. Cammett, for though the widow might be honest, she certainly held no respect for her companion. Penny was a convenient menial who need not even be treated with the courtesy one might accord a maid.
It alarmed her to discover that, as dawn's light crept through the gap in her bed hangings, she was actually considering Kit's offer. At least she would be with him, though it would be agony to have to hide her love.
Giving up on the idea of sleep and desperate for a distraction from her thoughts, she decided to complete her unfinished errand of the day before and walk to Duffield's Library.
Her stomach churned nervously almost every step of the way there, her eyes scanning the people in the street around her, searching to avoid Kit Ackhurst. She made it safely to the library though, made her selection almost at random and then began to hurry home.
"Miss Standish?" The familiar voice arrested her just as she approached the gardens in the centre of Laura Place. She refused to turn around.
"Please, Mr. Ackhurst," she pleaded, "leave me alone."
"Miss Standish, I beg of you, let me explain." She almost relented at the pain she heard in his voice, but after a moment said,
"There is nothing to say, sir. Now, if you will excuse me..." His hand closed over her upper arm,
"Penny, please," he whispered, anguish colouring his voice, "I want to apologise. There is something I must explain to you. Please."
"It is near noon. Mrs. Cammett..."
"Penny, I love you." She froze and a moment later, when he gently turned her around to face him, she couldn't resist. His face was a picture of grief,
"I am well aware that I have ruined it all, but I wanted to tell you that... that I love you," he repeated, "and yesterday, though I bungled it horribly, I was offering marriage, not to make you my mistress." Penny knew she was staring at him, her mouth inelegantly agape, but she couldn't seem to find anything to say.
"When I saw how unhappy you were, so worried about such a simple thing as replacing those books... and then how that wo..." he corrected himself with an effort, "... how Mrs. Cammett ordered you about as if you were the merest lackey, I couldn't stand it. I acted without thinking. Those words..." a shiver seemed to run through him, "I can never regret them enough, if only I had chosen more wisely. Given you time instead of speaking so precipitously. I have ruined it all." His shoulders sagged.
"No," Penny said slowly. Something strange was happening inside her. Something she was almost afraid to investigate after her bitter disappointment of the day before.
"You... you said that you loved me." He groaned,
"Yes, oh yes, Penny. I know my actions didn't reveal it, but I do. I do."
"And if I were to say that I loved you also?" When he said nothing, Penny took her future into her own hands for the first time in her life. "I have loved you since I first saw you." He breathed in sharply and then tugged her into the gardens, out of sight of curious eyes, heedless of the books that spilled once more onto the pavement,
"Precious, precious girl," he said fiercely, "I love you with all my heart and I shall spend the rest of my life making up for that infamous proposal."
"Kit! Someone will come into the gardens!"
"It does not matter. I am going to proclaim my good fortune from the rooftops very shortly."
"Right after this." He bent his head once again and Penny, never a fool, quickly realised the impossibility of preventing him and so acquiesced to his embrace, reasoning that the longer he was thus occupied the less likely he was to carry out his threat.
Her enthusiasm for the task naturally need not be remarked upon.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.