Is one day in the heat and dust of Calcutta enough for a second chance at love?
It is 1807 and Lady Joanna Holt sails into Calcutta escaping scandal and heartbreak. But Joanna is not like the other young ladies in the ‘fishing fleet’ – she doesn’t want a husband, only to turn round as fast as possible and return home. But her cousin and hostess is having a baby and so Joanna spends the day in the city with her reluctant escort, Sir Alexander Darvell. Is a day too short to find love? And what if both of you have very good reasons for not wanting to risk your hearts? But Joanna finds the words – can Alex find the courage to take a chance on love?
This short story was originally published in the RNA’s anthology, Truly, Madly, Deeply.
‘Lady Joanna Holt?’
At last. Restrain your impatience, turn from the ship’s rail and the green-brown waters of the Hooghly River and raise one eyebrow. Just so. ‘Sir?’
‘I am Sir Alexander Darvell and I have come to collect you and to convey Mrs Atherton’s apologies.’ Not some callow youth full of excuses but a man – and one it would be no hardship to find was her dinner-table partner.
Impassive, impressive and not at all apologetic for leaving her on board ship when all the other passengers had been conveyed to shore at first light two hours ago. True, his broad-brimmed hat was respectfully in his hand but his half smile was rueful more than conciliatory. ‘Actually, the apologies come from Mr Atherton. Your cousin is otherwise engaged.’
‘I would not wish to inconvenience Mrs Atherton.’ What she did wish, fervently, was to get off this smelly, cramped ship that had lost any charms of novelty it might have had long weeks ago, and to draw breath again before beginning the whole tiresome, uncomfortable process of convincing her hostess that she wanted to go back to England at the earliest possible moment. At least it was quiet now that the consignment of husband-hunting girls had disembarked.
The breeze, scented with spice and river, ruffled carelessly cut brown hair and his hazel eyes crinkled into something very like amusement. ‘Mrs Atherton is currently being inconvenienced by the arrival of her first infant.’
A lady does not allow her jaw to drop. ‘I was not aware that my cousin was with child.’ But by the time letters had gone back and forth half way across the globe it was all too possible that Cousin Maria had not known when she issued the invitation. Or that Mama, snatching at the chance to remove her stubborn daughter from the midst of a scandal, had not noticed any delicate hints.
‘Is she well? Do things go as they should?’
Sir Alexander’s expression was shaded as he clapped his hat back on his head. ‘So far as I can tell. I have ordered your luggage unloaded. Where is your maid?’
Joanna gestured to the girl waiting in the shade of a furled sail. ‘Madge, my cousin is in childbed. This gentleman will take us to her.’
‘No, ma’am. Mr Atherton suggests I should take you to a lady of our acquaintance until this evening. The house is in some turmoil.’ He was already pacing towards the gangway, impatience tempered to her shorter steps.
‘You are in haste, Sir Alexander.’
‘I am Mr Atherton’s business partner. His distraction means I must look to an important matter on his behalf today.’
Trade. But it did not do to be snobbish about it. After all, betrothal to the bluest of blue blood had not saved her from humiliating scandal. Joanna glanced up to a sky already milky in the glare of the sun.
‘I prefer to come with you, Sir Alexander, rather than to be deposited with a stranger. I have been at sea for a long time and would welcome the opportunity to see something of this city.’
That stopped him in his tracks. It was always gratifying to surprise a man. Joanna waited for her smile and his good manners to make the decision for him. His expression was impossible to read, a card-player’s face, strong-jawed, heavy-lidded.
‘There is no room in my gig for your maid. I will have her conveyed to the Athertons’ house. Do you have a veil?’ So, a man of decision. She liked that even though she strongly suspected the feeling was not reciprocated.