"What?" Molly sputtered. "What did you say?"
"I said I need to know your name before the parson shows up."
"You've imbibed too much in the way of spirits," she hissed and pulled away from his embrace.
"Not at all," Josiah said agreeably. "I've never been more sober and I see marriage as a solution to our mutual problems."
"I don't have any problems that require marriage," Molly said, her voice rising and then she blushed realizing how those words could be interpreted.
"Ahh ... you *are* a lady after all. Perfect! That will cut the wagging tongues to a degree. Tell me," he continued while the fireball of a woman standing there glared at him as if he were demented. "Do you have family in town?"
"Of course I do and they will worry when I don't return home."
"And do they know you left your home without a chaperone?"
"I ... I ..."
"I realize it's the 19th century and we are a country with modern ways but even so, we still expect our unwed ladies to be chaperoned. You are a lady, are you not?"
"What does that have to do with anything and why do you think my lack of a chaperone would sway me to marry you? I don't even know you, sir."
"That makes it all the more convenient, don't you think?" Josiah smiled, not waiting for a reply. "Countless couples are wed without knowing each other long before the ceremony. In some countries, they meet *at* the ceremony. At least, here, you and I have already spent some intense few minutes together. I'd say we'll do very well together. Now, tell me your name."
Molly stared. He's gone over. He's daft. He's ...
"I'm quite wealthy," Josiah added. "Does that help?"
Molly continued to stare. He's rich ... he's an eccentric, a rich eccentric. He thinks his money is all it takes to ...
"Sir!" She exclaimed. "I have no need of money or marriage. I demand you take me home this instant."
"If you insist," Josiah said agreeably. "Of course we'll stop at the local constable's office on the way. I'm sure they'll be interested in how clever you are with cards, how good fortune smiled on you while you allegedly learned a game of chance and showed extraordinary skill. And naturally, how you fleeced very good card players out of a great sum of money and on your first attempt at the game. Was it beginner's luck?"
Molly blinked. Then she blushed. The evening bag dangling at her wrist suddenly seemed heavy.
"Imagine how many good citizens would fill the court arena to watch you squirm on the stand. Should be a brilliant show - and in the papers for weeks I'd guess. And in the end," he drawled as he walked toward her, placing his hands on her shoulders - shoulders that trembled. "In the end, what did you gain? Nothing," he murmured as he cupped her chin and tilted it upward. "Nothing but grief and aggravation and if not held prisoner ..." he let the words dangle above her like an empty but eager noose waiting for her neck ... "Then surely you'd be run out of town in a most ignominious way. Now, we can't have that, can we?"
Startling her, he placed his lips on hers and kissed one Molly Doyle as if she were the most desirable woman in the entire western world.
Jarvis knocked before entering the room to let his master know he was there. The "brief" repast was a sumptuous affair rolled in on an elegant serving cart. A sterling silver platter was filled with slices of roast beef, a variety of cheeses, warmed bread and a decanter of wine, sherry for the lady. A bowl of fresh fruit and a smaller platter of sliced pastries and cakes were tucked into all the corners.
Josiah nudged Molly into a comfortable chair by the blazing fire. As soon as she sat, the very efficient houseman placed a heavy linen napkin on her lap. In a matter of seconds, there was food on a plate and that plate was in her hands.
"Eat, my love," Josiah teased when Molly seemed frozen in space. "You'll need your strength from this moment on."
"Sir! I ... I ..."
"Eat," he commanded a little more strongly. "It's a long night you have ahead and more food will be equally long in coming."
"What?" Molly exclaimed.
"Eat!" Josiah repeated, his tone brooked no argument, his dark handsome looks making his countenance appear a little frightening.
Molly was used to having her own way but the man in front of her seemed to be a more dominant and less courteous male than she was used to managing. Oh bother! she thought and since it had been a long evening without supper, she dug into the food.
Josiah left her to the food and to her thoughts, turning to Jarvis to whisper instructions about the evening's events. The houseman nodded his head, no questions asked as to why his master was suddenly interested in matrimony - immediate matrimony - and to a stranger. True, the woman was comely with her chestnut locks and deep gray eyes, but still a stranger. If he wondered the how's and why's of the matter - who the woman was, her family, background, breeding, connections and other matters that were generally important to the upper classes, he didn't ask.
From the way in which Molly was eating - mannerly but a bit rapidly - Josiah wondered when she last ate a complete meal. Later, he decided, not wanting to stifle her appetite. They actually had a long night in front of them and by the time she was truly tied to him and unable to have the marriage annulled ... well ... I always did love a challenge and she's a beautiful one, he smiled, content to sip his wine while watching her eat.
"Your name?" he asked as he took a chair opposite her and picked up a napkin to wipe a crumb from her chin.
"Molly," Molly replied without thinking.
"Molly ..." Josiah mused. "Lovely name. Reminds me of ... hmmm ... what does it remind me of?"
"Reminds me of Bessie the cow," Molly retorted. "Bessie and Molly were two milk cows on my grandfather's farm. My grandfather loved both but loved Molly best. I'm named after a cow."
"Are you now?" Josiah grinned. "I'm named after a curmudgeon, my great grandfather, to be specific. If there ever was a bigger bastard who lived on the good Lord's green earth, I've yet to meet him. Hated the old sod; everyone who knew him hated him, too. At least you were named after a creature that was loved."
"His wife must have loved him. How else would she be able to stand being married to him?" Molly asked around a mouth filled with pastry, her hand reaching for Josiah's wineglass.
"No choice, I'm afraid," he answered, capturing his wineglass before she snatched it from him. "Her father married her off to the bastard and that was that."
"She was forced?" Molly's eyes narrowed slightly at the man who had brought her - unwillingly - to his house and had insisted they were going to be wed. 'Course he's rich. The rich are eccentric. She shook her head in mild disgust.
"Your last name, Molly?"
Oh bother! The Devil take him and be done with it! "Doyle. It's Molly Doyle and your name?"
"Josiah Stephens at your service," he replied formally, standing and bowing before his future bride. "Finish your meal, Molly. We have to be on our way. The parson waits."
"Good God! You're serious!"
"As serious as I've been about anything in my life. We're going to stand before the parson and you will take my name. Marriage is forever," he added and then laughed aloud when Molly pushed her glass of sherry to the side, picked up the decanter of wine and drank several swallows straight up.
Molly was too bemused to consider the consequences of an immediate marriage. Josiah Stephens was insistent that they wed and truth be told, a marriage would solve all of her current problems. She would have a lovely home instead of a single room in a rooming house on the edge of town. She'd eat well every day, certainly that was a plus. She'd sleep on clean sheets. She almost swooned at the thought ... And then there was this Josiah Stephens saying that marriage was forever. In her humble opinion, the man was a loon. Granted, he was a handsome one and a rich one, but a loon nonetheless.
It was too late to do anything about the nuptials. She had been hustled into a carriage, her husband-to-be sharing the bench seat, the man's houseman seated across from her accompanying them to bear witness to the vows. Sighing, she continued to count off the pros and cons of becoming Mrs. Josiah Stephens.
No more money problems. No more cheating at cards. Hmmm ... scratch that. I like to play cards. No more wondering about my rent. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. She didn't know the man but that was an insignificant matter. Most brides had their husbands picked by their father. This wasn't that different. And he *is* rich.
Molly settled back into the comfortable upholstery and sighed audibly catching the attention of both men in the carriage.
"It won't be so bad," Josiah murmured, placing an arm around her shoulder. "You'll have full run of the house, tell cook what you like to eat, and Jarvis here will do your bidding."
"Indeed, sir, that I will," Jarvis nodded, his eyes hooded as he took stock of the woman seated across from him, wondering how his new mistress would treat the staff.
"You'll have a generous allowance as well," Josiah continued. "Just behave like a good little wife and your days will be gentle ones."
"What about my nights? Will they be gentle as well?" Molly asked without thinking then gasped as she realized what she had said. Her face turned a deep shade of red and in the dim light of evening, both men could clearly see her embarrassment. Josiah laughed; Jarvis, ever polite, covered his own laughter with a harsh bout of coughing.
Before Josiah could reply, the carriage stopped in front of a small inn several miles from his home.
In no time, the particulars were recorded and Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Stephens were on their way back to Josiah's home. When the parson asked the "Do You's," Josiah's "I Do's" were firmly spoken, Molly's more subdued.
No sooner had they arrived back home when Josiah poured the wine and toasted his bride. Molly drank the half-glass down in one long swallow and thrust it forward, asking for a refill. Josiah obliged ... and again ... and once again. In a matter of minutes his bride was out like a light and with a smile on his face, he lifted her into his arms and took her to the master suite.
Not wanting to appear boorish, Josiah removed her outer clothing leaving Molly's shift and pantalets and covered her with the counterpane. Morning would come soon enough and he could wait until then to consummate their married life. He removed his own clothing and settled on the other side of the bed, his gaze wandering over Molly's form and as he looked at her, he had no regrets. The marriage would settle a great deal of his problems.
No more simpering ladies begging for attention. No more pushy mothers foisting their daughters on me. No more secret liaisons with someone's adulterous wife. Hmmm ...
"We'll do well together, Molly Doyle Stephens," he whispered to his sleeping bride. "Mark my word; we'll do well together."