Feb 14 2014 3:00pm
H&H Quickies #1: Manda Collins Presents “Miss Easterling’s Highland Fling”!
Today we bring you a very special, exclusive Valentine's Day treat! Earlier this month, we asked you to offer suggestions (“prompts”) for author Manda Collins to use as inspiration for an original scene. And now we're delighted to present her short story (!!!!), “Miss Easterling's Highland Fling”! Here are the prompts she chose (with thanks to all who commented!).
- A kiss in a curricle near Rotten Row
- A working (non-aristocratic) hero
- A horse named Crystal
- A plus sized heroine
- Long overdue declaration of love
“Miss Easterling's Highland Fling” by Manda Collins
Miss Eleanor Easterling straightened her hat as she stalked away from the line of open carriages and curricles snaking its way down Rotten Row.
“Miss Easterling,” cried the fashionable fribble whose phaeton she had just leapt down from, “I beg you, come back! Your Grandmama will never forgive me if I do not bring you home safely!”
But Eleanor ignored Reggie Hart's plaintive cries as he tried to keep his horse, laughably named Crystal, from bolting. She had agreed to accompany him on a drive in the park against her better judgment —the Harts were neighbors of the Easterlings back in Devon—but she had not spoken above five words with the young man before she realized his only purpose in inviting her was so that he could get his hands on her inheritance. Not only had he attempted to propose marriage on their way to the park, but once there, he'd tried to publicly compromise her in an attempt to override her refusal. At five and twenty, and more curvy than the fashion plates dictated, Eleanor knew her own worth, and it would take more than a spendthrift with more hair than wit to trick her into marriage. She might be a bookish spinster, but she had more sense than that. And she certainly wouldn't be giving her hand and fortune away anytime soon.
Unless a certain man with broad shoulders, a shrewd wit, and discerning blue eyes happened to do the impossible and fall head over ears in love with her. But at their last meeting, Alisdair Burns had shown a disappointing tendency toward obliviousness—to her charms and indeed her status as a woman at all. Though it was gratifying to know how much her editor at The Ladies' Companion appreciated her writing skills, just once she'd like for Alisdair to look at her with some of the longing she felt toward him.
There had been that moment a month or so ago when she thought he might be about to kiss her. But they'd been interrupted by a servant with an urgent message and the moment was lost. Now, Eleanor had only that brief memory as proof that they were anything other than friends.
Suddenly, his voice intruded into her consciousness, as if she'd conjured him from the air with the power of thought alone. “You'll find yourself starring in every gossip column in town tomorrow morning, if you're not careful,” he said in the tones still infused with a Scottish burr despite his having lived in London since boyhood. “Come, Miss Easterling,” he coaxed, “Allow me to take you up in my curricle before you do any more damage to your reputation.”
“I am surprised to hear you have any concern for my reputation at all, Mr. Burns,” she called over her shoulder as the gossips of the ton doubtless looked on in fascination. “You have shown little enough interest in my reputation in the past. Have you changed your mind merely because without it your magazine might not be quite so popular with the ladies of the ton?”
She continued walking which must have irritated him further because she heard him handing off the reins to his tiger, followed by the sound of him leaping to the ground.
“That is unfair to both of us, my dear,” he said as he stepped up next to her and smoothly maneuvered it so that her arm was tucked firmly into the crook of his. “Now, tell me what that young puppy did to overset you and I'll see to it that he can't eat solid food for a week.”
Though his intrusion into her solitary walk was annoying, Eleanor couldn't help but feel a frisson of excitement at the notion of Alisdair doing bodily harm to Reggie for his bad manners. “You wouldn't really hurt him,” she said wistfully. “You are too protective of your standing with polite society.”
That seemed to bring him up short. “Am I?” he asked with dangerous calm. “I think you misjudge me. If young Mr. Hart did more than try to steal a kiss from you on the Row, then I think you will be very surprised to see how little I care for my own reputation.”
Despite her desire for nothing more than a cup of tea and a hot bath, she allowed Alisdair to lead her along the path to the Serpentine. Having endured one embarrassment that morning, she was reluctant to engage in what would likely be a heated disagreement in public.
She had taken the position with The Ladies' Companion against her grandmother's wishes, true, but it was one thing to go against her wishes, and another altogether to purposely engage in behavior that would call attention to their family. Grandmamma was already likely to be upset over Reggie's actions. Eleanor did not wish to add to her distress by arguing publicly with Alisdair, whom her grandmother disapproved of on even his best day.
Once they'd gotten beyond the crowds, she thought Alisdair would relax a bit, but to her surprise, the farther they walked the more she could feel him stiffen beside her. “Whatever is the matter with you?” she asked without heat, most of her anger having dissipated in a tide of overwhelming disappointment. “One would think you'd just discovered your wife in an embrace with another man.”
“And interesting choice of words,” he said, disentangling his arm from hers and stalking forward to stand staring into the lake.
As she watched, he leaned down and scooped up a handful of stones and began skipping them across the smooth surface of the water. His dark hair, which he usually kept short because it had a tendency to curl, was just a bit longer than usual and the breeze coming off the water ruffled it, giving him a boyish look. Eleanor's stomach flipped at the sight, which in addition to his words sent a thread of hope arcing through her. Surely she was reading too much into his words.
“What did you mean by that?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he didn't respond, she touched him lightly on the arm, making him look at her. His expression was shuttered, as if he had locked down every possible clue to his real thoughts, leaving only an unemotional mask. “What did you mean, Alisdair?”
He stared down at her, his gaze intent. She'd always appreciated the fact that even as a tall woman she had to crane her neck to look at his face, but now, she had to bite back an order for him to stoop so that she could see his eyes properly. Suddenly it was very important that she had every possible gauge of his emotion at her disposal.
“Why did you agree to go out driving with Reggie Hart?” he asked, answering her question with a question. “What did you hope to accomplish?”
She shifted under his gaze. She wasn't sure why she felt defensive. It was hardly as if there was anything between them. “I only agreed to it because his family grew up next to mine in Devon. We've never been particular friends, but he called to ask if I would go for a ride in the park with him and because of the family connection I accepted. ”
“So, you had no notion that his plan was to ask you to marry him, and barring that to make an attempt to compromise you?” His beautifully sculpted lips were tight with unhappiness.
“Certainly not!” Eleanor felt her own temper rising at his implication. “I have only met the man once or twice before this morning. One hardly expects every ride in the park to turn into an attempt on one's virtue. If I had known his intentions I would never have gone. No matter how my grandmother insisted.”
At the mention of Mrs. Easterling, Alisdair's eyes sharpened. “Your grandmother encouraged you to go with Hart?” Before her eyes his demeanor changed completely. Whereas before he'd seemed overset, now she saw a gleam of humor creep into his eyes.
“Yes,” Eleanor said wishing he would simply tell her what he was thinking. “I don't understand why you were so annoyed about it. It's not as if you have some claim upon me. We are friends and that is all.”
Even as the words left her mouth, she knew they were untrue—at least not on her side. He could hardly expect her to make social decisions based upon his own claims to her, since he had none.“I didn't think the old girl had it in her,” Alisdair said, his mouth widening into a grin. “She is clearly more shrewd than I gave her credit for.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Eleanor demanded as he took her into his arms. Her eyes widened. “Alisdair, are you mad?”
“Aye, my dear Miss Easterling—Eleanor—mad with love for you.”
Then, to her astonishment, Mr. Alisdair Burns, the man whom she'd despaired of ever calling her own, kissed her.
Alisdair could hardly believe he was at last holding his dear Eleanor in his arms. Even if it was in Hyde Park, where anyone might stumble upon them at any moment.
When he'd received Mrs. Easterling's summons that morning, he'd supposed the old woman wanted to warn him away from Eleanor.
Ever since the pretty heiress had taken a position writing for his ladies magazine, her family had gnashed their teeth over the supposed social ruin her association with him would bring her. But, Alisdair hadn't gotten to the top of a publishing empire by wilting under the empty threats of aristocrats. Indeed, Mrs. Easterling's threat hadn't even been the most dire he'd received that week. So, it hadn't taken long for Eleanor's family to realize that there was little they could do to convince him to give his best writer the sack.
Indeed, for the past few months, he and Eleanor had been working so well together that Alisdair had begun to think of her as more than a mere employee, but as a friend. A very beautiful friend who understood just the sort of social niceties that a man born in a crofter's cottage in the Scottish Highlands needed to make his way in the ballrooms of the ton.
But he would have fallen in love with her even if she'd come from the slums of Whitechapel. Though he appreciated her beauty, it was her spirit that endeared Eleanor to him. And when he'd arrived at the Easterling townhouse that morning only to be told that she was even at that moment accepting the marriage proposal of young Reggie Hart, Alisdair had made haste to Rotten Row, his heart in his throat.
“My darling girl,” he whispered against her lips, “do not ever frighten me like that again. I thought I would be too late. Even before I'd had a chance to declare my love for you I nearly lost you.”
“I cannot believe it,” Eleanor murmured, breathless from his kiss. “I thought all the love was on my side.” She pulled back from him a little, her brown eyes wide with wonder. “You didn't think I'd accept Reggie, did you? He's just a boy.”
“A boy with an empty purse is capable of doing anything,” Alisdair said fiercely. “When your grandmother told me he'd taken you to the park I knew at once what his game was. And she suspected as much as well, which is why she sent me after you.”
Eleanor shook her head. “I can hardly believe it. Grandmamma loathes the time I spend working at the magazine. Indeed, she is the one who insisted I come with Reggie to the park. What can have changed her mind, I wonder?”
“All I can think is that she considered me the lesser of two evils,” Alisdair said with a shrug. “For all that I'm engaged in trade I am at the very least a gentleman. I would never stoop to trapping a woman into marriage with me. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that your grandmother has taken a shine to me.”
“Do you know, I think you might be right?” Eleanor said, her eyes narrow as she thought about the matter. “She has been much less insistent upon me leaving my position with the Companion of late. I thought she was simply getting tired of arguing about it. But if she deliberately sent me to the park with Reggie and then sent you to follow, then perhaps Grandmama is trying her hand at a bit of matchmaking. I can hardly believe it of her!”
“No more can I,” Alisdair said taking her hand in his.
Hand in hand they walked to a pretty spot where a bench was tucked into a small copse of trees. Once they were settled, Eleanor pulled him to her for another kiss. Her mouth was pliant beneath his as Alisdair stroked his tongue over the seam of her lips, then when she gasped at the touch he stroked inside. With an inward smile, he felt her hands thread into his hair even as his own hands slipped down her back and over the curve of her bottom. They lost themselves in one another as instinct and passion took them both by storm.
A cry from a child on the other side of the lake broke into his fevered thoughts, and reluctantly Alisdair pulled back. They had all the time in the world, he reminded himself, still not quite believing that he was on the verge of having everything he'd ever wanted. But first, there was something he had to do. Pulling back, he looked down at her kiss reddened mouth and her sparkling eyes. Unable to resist, he kissed the tip of her nose, then her eyelids, then her cheeks, then at last her mouth.
“I'm not the sort of man a lady like you should marry, Eleanor,” he said, leaning his forehead against hers. “I am a crofter's son who managed to build a business empire through sheer force of will. I imagine a number of doors will close to you as soon as our engagement is announced. And I'm not even sure your own family won't cut up rough when you tell them no matter how much we think your grandmother favors my suit.” His voice roughened with emotion as he continued. “But I will promise you that there's not a man alive who could ever love you as dearly as I love you.”
He paused, and when she raised her hands to caress his face, he turned to kiss her palm. “Eleanor, please, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
“Of course I will,” she said through tears, and threw herself into his arms. “I've been in love with you nearly since we met. I was beginning to despair of you.”
Alisdair's breath hitched. “You have? Why didn't you say something?” If only he'd known he might have saved them both a great deal of heartache.
“Because it is highly improper for a lady to declare herself to a gentleman,” she said with loving exasperation. “Besides, I didn't know how you felt about me. I didn't want to ruin things.”
Unable to hold back any longer, he kissed her again. A few minutes later when they were both breathless, he pulled back. “Is this what you mean by ruining things?” he asked with a smile.
Her gurgle of laughter made his heart soar. “This isn't ruining things,” she said with a saucy grin, “this is 'a consummation devoutly to be wished'.”
He grasped his chest with a gasp. “Do not tempt me with that particular Shakespearean wordplay, lady. I will be on tenterhooks as it is until we are wed.” He drew a finger over her lips. “On that subject, I would like to be married as soon as I can obtain a special license. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
“I concur,” Eleanor said with a happy smile. “Though it would likely be better for your reception into the ton if we were to have a huge wedding with all the attendant publicity. I will do whichever you choose, though like you I would rather wed soon. After all, when a lady realizes that the man she adores loves her in return, she wants to wed him at once.”
“A woman after my own heart,” he growled and scooped her up onto his lap. “Now, where were we?”
Her answer was silent, but effective.
Copyright © 2014 by Manda Collins
Enjoyed the scene? You can learn more about or order Manda's latest full-length novel, Why Earls Fall in Love, here:
Manda Collins spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. When she’s not writing, she’s helping other people use books, as an academic librarian.