Strangers at the Altar – Excerpt
Dear Madame Hera,
The other day, while taking a walk in the Cowgate district of Edinburgh, I was approached by a young man who gave me some assistance with my umbrella. Since he was very well-dressed, seemed most polite, and the rain was coming down in torrents, it seemed churlish of me not to offer to share my shelter. He accepted with some alacrity, but the small circumference of my umbrella forced us into a somewhat compromising intimacy, of which the gentleman was not slow to take advantage. He stole a kiss from me, and I permitted him to take several more while we found respite from the downpour in the close of a nearby tenement. By the time the rain stopped, we were rather better acquainted than we ought to have been.
We parted without exchanging details. Alack, when he left me, the young man took not only my virtue but my umbrella. It was a gift from another gentleman, who is bound to question me most closely when he discovers its loss. I fear he will not understand the peculiar effect the combination of rain, a good-looking young man and a very small umbrella can have on a woman’s willpower. What should I do?
Edinburgh, June 1840
‘I am very sorry, Mrs McBrayne, but there is nothing to be done. Both your father’s will and the law are perfectly clear upon the matter. Could not be clearer, in actual fact, though if you insist upon a second opinion, I believe my partner is now free.’
‘You, Mr Thomson, are my second opinion,’ the woman said scornfully. ‘I have no intentions of spending more money I don’t have, thanks to that spendthrift husband of mine and that trust of my father’s, simply to hear what you have already made perfectly plain. The law is written by men for men and administered by men too. Be damned to the law, Mr Thomson, for it seems to be forcing me to earn my living in a profession even older than your own, down in the Cowgate. I bid you good day.’
‘Mrs McBrayne! Madame, I must beg you…’
The Fury merely tossed her head at the lawyer’s outraged countenance and swept across the narrow reception hall of the office, heading for the door. Innes Drummond, who had just completed a similarly entirely unsatisfactory interview with Thomson’s partner, watched her dramatic exit admiringly. The door slammed behind her with enough force to rattle the pane of glass on which the names Thomson & Ballard were etched. Innes could hear her footsteps descending the rackety stairs which led out into Parliament Square. She was as anxious to quit the place as he was himself. It struck him, as he flung the door behind him with equal and satisfying force, how ironic it was, that they both, he and the incandescent Mrs McBrayne, seemed to be victims of very similar circumstances.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and heaved open the heavy wooden door, only to collide with the person standing on the step. ‘I am terribly sorry,’ Innes said.
‘No, it was my fault.’
She stood aside, and as she did so, he saw tears glistening on her lashes. Mortified, she saw him noticing, and scrubbed at her eyes with her glove, averting her face as she pushed past him.
‘Wait!’ Instinctively knowing she would not, Innes caught her arm. ‘Madam, you are upset.’
She glared at him, shaking herself free of his reflexive grip. ‘I am not upset. Not that it’s any of your business, but I am very far beyond upset. I am…’
‘Furious,’ Innes finished for her with a wry smile. ‘I know how you feel.’
‘I doubt it.’
Her eyes were hazel, wide-spaced and fringed with very long lashes. She was not pretty, definitely not one of those soft, pliant females with rosebud mouths and doe-like gazes, but he was nonetheless drawn to her. She eyed him sceptically, a frown pulling her rather fierce brows together. She was not young either, perhaps in her late twenties, and there was intelligence as well as cynicism in her face. Then there was her mouth. No, not a rosebud, but soft all the same when it ought to be austere, with a hint of humour and more than a hint of sensuality. He noticed that, and with some surprised, noticed that he’d noticed, that his eyes had wandered down, over the slim figure in the drab grey coat, taking a rapid inventory of the limited view and wanting to see more, and that surprised him too.
‘Innes Drummond.’ He introduced himself because he could think of nothing else to say, and because he didn’t want her to go. Her brows lifted haughtily in response. For some reason, it made her look younger. ‘A fellow victim of the law, of his father and of a trust,’ he added. ‘though I’m not encumbered with a wife, spendthrift or otherwise.’
‘You were listening in to a private conversation between myself and Mr Thomson.’
‘Ought I to have pretended not to hear? The tone of your voice made that rather difficult.’
She gave a dry little laugh. ‘A tone I feel sure Mr Thomson found most objectionable. Bloody lawyers. Damned law. You see, I can swear as well as shout, though I assure you, I am not usually the type who does either.’
Innes laughed, the same dry kind of sound she’d made herself. ‘I really do know how you feel, you know.’
She smiled tightly. ‘You are a man, Mr Drummond. It is simply not possible. Now, if you will excuse me…’
‘Where are you going?’ Once again, he had spoken without thinking, wanting only to detain her. Once again her brows rose, more sharply this time. ‘I only meant, that if you had no urgent business – but I spoke out of turn. Perhaps your husband is expecting you?’
‘My husband is dead, Mr Drummond, and though his dying has left me quite without resources, still I cannot be sorry for it.’
‘You don’t mince your words, do you Mrs McBrayne?’
Though he was rather shocked at this callous remark, Innes spoke flippantly. She did not smile, however, nor take umbrage, but instead paled slightly. ‘I speak my mind. My opinions may be unpalatable, but at least in expressing them, there can be no pretending that I have none.’
Nor, Innes thought, could there be any denying that a wealth of bitter experience lay behind her words. He was intrigued. ‘If you are in no rush, I’d very much like it if you would take a glass of something with me. I promise I don’t mean anything in the least improper,’ he added hurriedly, ‘I merely thought it would be pleasant – cathartic – I don’t know, to let off steam with a kindred spirit.’ Her astonished expression forced him to break off. ‘Forget it. It’s been a bloody awful day, a bloody awful few weeks, but I shouldn’t have asked.’
He made to tip his hat, but once again she surprised him, this time with a faint smile. ‘Never mind weeks, I’ve had a bloody awful few months. No, make that years. The only reason I’ve not taken to drink already is that I suspect I’d take to it rather too well.’
‘I suspect that you do anything well that you set your mind to, Mrs McBrayne. You strike me as a most determined female.’
‘Do I? I am now, though it is by far too late, for no matter how determined I am to get myself out of this mess, in truth I can see no solution.’
‘Save to sell yourself down the Cowgate? I hope it doesn’t come to that.’
She gave him what could only be described as a challenging look. ‘Why, are you afraid I will not make sufficient to earn my keep?’
‘What on earth do you know of such things?’ Innes asked, torn between shock and laughter.
‘Oh, I have my sources. And I have an umbrella,’ she added confusingly.
She spoke primly, but there was devilment in her eyes, and the smile she was biting back was doing strange things to his guts. ‘You are outrageous, Mrs McBrayne,’ Innes said.
‘Don’t you believe me?’
‘I have no idea what to make of you, and right at this moment, I don’t really care. You made me laugh, and honestly, after what that lawyer told me, I didn’t think that was possible.’
Her smile softened sympathetically. ‘It sounds like I am not the only one in need of a dram,’ she said. ‘Why not! I’ve nothing at home waiting for me except final demands and most likely a few bailiffs. Buy me a drink Mr Drummond, and we can compare our woes, though I warn you now that mine will far outweigh yours.’