Wedding Wagers(3)

By: Donna Hatch

Meredith clamped her mouth shut to avoid voicing the first words that came into her mind about how taking chances is exactly what landed her into her current predicament.

“Look,” Annabel said. “Up there. That’s Tristan Barrett. Isn’t he so handsome?”

Meredith spotted a fashionable gentleman standing on the river’s edge, heedless of the churning water. “Oh, indeed.”

“His brother is the Earl of Averston—equally handsome, but not terribly social.” Annabel lowered her voice. “According to rumor, Mr. Barrett is a bit of a rake, but oh, what a beautiful face.” She sighed.

Rumor often bore little truth, as Meredith knew all too well. Still, she’d keep an eye on him if he came near her cousin. Her whole reason for agreeing to her aunt and uncle’s sponsorship of her first and only season was to enjoy time with Annabel and help her make a good match with an honorable gentleman who deserved her. At season’s end, she would return to her grandmother’s house. Perhaps she’d even marry the vicar who had proven himself honest and kind, if somewhat bland. That, at last, might please her parents.

Several more members of their group stepped into small boats and cast off, rocking in the choppy waves.

Annabel gestured. “In the far boat is Mr. Finley—he’s the grandson of a viscount—and behind him is Mr. Dixon, the third son of a marquis.”

Meredith shrank back. “I don’t belong with all these aristocratic people.”

“Nonsense.” Annabel squeezed her hand. “No one here has a title. As landed gentry, we’re all technically commoners.”

Meredith didn’t truly qualify as gentry, notwithstanding her aunt and uncle’s sponsorship or her mother’s birth.

Behind them, a gentleman laughed. “Nothing to worry about, my dear Miss Harris. Come see for yourself how easily they cross.”

Meredith glanced behind her. A pale-faced young woman wearing a purple bonnet stared at the river. Next to her stood a gentleman with a beaver hat and striped cravat. He tugged on the frightened lady’s arm to pull her closer to the riverbank.

A gust of wind rose up, tugging at Meredith’s bonnet and sending a chill through her. The purple bonnet sailed off the hapless lady’s head. The lady let out a cry and reached for her bonnet, but it tumbled in the air like a kite off its strings. Meredith made a grab for it as it swooped over her fingertips. The bonnet landed on the grass several feet behind her.

“My bonnet!” cried the lady, putting her hands on her head as if to protect it from some ill that only befell bareheaded people in public.

“Bad luck, that,” said her unhelpful companion.

Either he lacked devotion for the lady or he lacked gentlemanly valor. Meredith ran for the headwear, but the wind kicked it just out of reach. The wind pushed it again, and it bumped through the river park and into the street, where it finally rolled to a stop.

Dodging a carriage one moment and a rider the next, Meredith chased after the purple creation. As if to play with her, the wind pushed it ever farther until it landed against a storefront window displaying buns and bread.

Meredith pounced on the bonnet. “I have you now.”

She snatched it up and inspected it. Considering the amount of time it spent bumping on the ground, the ribbons and trimmings all seemed intact, and the brim, though a tad scuffed, retained its shape.

“Spare a coin, miss?” a small voice said. Hanging at the corner of the bakery and a narrow alley stood a ragged little girl. Limp strings of hair hung down her thin shoulders.

Meredith knew better than to go near an alley in this part of town. Meredith reached into her reticule and pulled out a twopence. “Here you are.”

“Tuppence,” the girl mouthed, as if offered a king’s ransom. The girl wavered, half in the alley and half on the street.

She took a timid step forward on bare feet. Poor thing probably lived in the rookeries. In a rush, the child darted forward, snatched the coin, and rushed around the corner. Meredith would have bought bread for the girl and watched to be sure the child ate. Too often, children handed their coins to their drunk of a father, who spent it on more drink. But a bareheaded lady awaited her bonnet, and no young lady—not even those in disgrace like Meredith—went about London alone, not even into a bakery.

With a firm grip on the wayward bonnet, Meredith returned to the group gathered at the edge of the riverbank.

“Gracious, Merry, you frightened me when you ran out into the street!” Annabel stared with wide eyes. “You might have been hit or trampled.”

Meredith smiled at her cousin. “Nothing so exciting.” She presented the hat to its owner. “I believe this is yours.”