Someone to Care (Westcott #4)(8)

“What is amiss?” she had asked the coachman when he opened the door and set down the steps. The carriage had hovered over them at an alarming angle.

“Axle about to bust, missus,” he had said.

“Oh.” She had accepted his hand and climbed down to the cobbles of the yard. “Can it be mended quickly?”

“Not likely, missus,” he had said. “She’s going to need to be replaced, she is.”

“How long?” she had asked.

He had lifted his hat to scratch his head as he went down on his haunches to assess the damage. An ostler belonging to the inn had come ambling up to stand at his shoulder and purse his lips and shake his head. “You was lucky,” he had said, “not to be tipped on the open road miles from anywhere for highwaymen and wolves to find you. You might have got yourselves killed if you’d been springing ’em. That there axle ain’t going to be held together with no piece of string tied around it, I’m here to tell you. It’s got to go and a new one put in its place.”

“Which is exactly what I can see for myself,” the coachman had said testily.

“How long will that take?” Viola had asked again, realizing anew how foolish she had been to go against all advice by venturing on her journey without even a maid to lend her countenance. Oh, she deserved this.

The coachman had shaken his head. “I dunno, missus. All the rest of today, anyway,” he had said. “We won’t get back on the road till tomorrow morning at the earliest, and a blessed unlucky thing it is for me. I was to go straight back to Bath tonight, I was. I have another customer booked for tomorrow, and a right classy gent he is too, a regular. Always pays a lot more than the fare if I gets him where he’s going with time to spare. Now someone else will get to take him and he may never ask for me again.”

“Tomorrow?” Viola had said in dismay. “But I need to be home today.”

“Well, so do I, missus,” the coachman had said. “But neither one of us gets to have our wish, do we? You had better speak to the innkeeper here for a room for yourself before they all gets taken, though I doubt that happens too often in this place.” He had looked up at the inn with some contempt.

A smart traveling carriage had been standing to one side of the inn door. It must not be an entirely decrepit place, then. The thought of entering it unaccompanied, however, had caused Viola to quail inside. Whatever would they think of her lone state? But she had caught herself in the thought. Good heavens, she was thinking like the Countess of Riverdale, for whom all had had to be rigid respectability. What did it matter what anyone thought of plain Viola Kingsley? She had reached into the carriage to pull out the bag she had kept inside with her and made her way toward the inn, leaving her trunk to be fetched later.

Noise had greeted her as she opened the door, as well as the odors of ale and cooking. The double doors into the taproom to her left had been wide open, and she had seen that the room, dark and shabby though it appeared, was filled with people, all of whom had seemed to be in high spirits—perhaps in more ways than one. It was surprising for so early in the day. But all had been clarified when the innkeeper came to tend to her and explained that if she had to be stranded by a near-bust axle, for which he expressed his sincere sympathies, at least she was fortunate that it was here and today that it had happened. The village was about to celebrate the end of the harvest, though they did not do it every year. But the church roof was leaking something bad whenever it rained, and that always seemed to happen on a Sunday morning when people were sitting in their pews, trying to listen to the vicar’s sermon. Someone had had the idea of organizing an after-the-harvest event to raise money. What better way was there to gather funds than to give people a rollicking good time in exchange for their good, hard-earned cash?

Viola had been able to offer no better suggestion, and the innkeeper had nodded at her with pleased satisfaction when she had said so. She had paid for one night’s stay and signed the register before taking a large key from his hand. She had assured him that she did not need any help with her bag but would be obliged if someone would bring up her trunk, and she climbed the stairs to her room, feeling sick at heart.

Whatever was she going to do here for a whole afternoon and evening? Go to watch these village celebrations and make her contribution to the repair of the church roof? It was a far from appealing prospect, but it would be better, perhaps, than remaining in her room until tomorrow morning. There was nothing in here except a bed, a large old dresser, and a washstand and commode behind a faded curtain. There was no chair, no table. But first things first. She was growing hungry and would go back down to see if there was anything decent to eat. Something certainly smelled good. She only hoped she would not have to step inside that taproom to get it. The noise was deafening even up here in her room.

Fortunately the inn also sported a dining room, which she had been relieved to discover was empty, though not quiet. It adjoined the taproom, and the door between the two rooms stood open. The innkeeper had not offered to shut it after seating her. What he had offered was a meat pasty, but though he had spent some time extolling its virtues and those of his good wife, she had settled for a cold beef sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Goodness, the people in the taproom were loud. But it was a happy, good-natured loudness and did not sound in any way drunken. There was a great deal of bellowing laughter. She had wondered what could be so funny. It must feel good to have not a care in the world. Though perhaps everyone did have cares. It was surely self-indulgent to imagine that only she did. And what really were her cares? She had a home and an income. She had children and grandchildren who loved her and whom she loved. She had family and friends.

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