Putting in long hours each day since Miss Caldwell disappeared, Kip woke past his usual rising. He rushed to dress, had a quick shave, and buffed his boots. He paced the team at a good jaunt down the thoroughfare towards Parliament. Again, many shouts were calling him, but Miss Squeaks was calling to his heart.
Pulling in, he was not surprised that she was completely inundated with male admirers, and Kip was unable to park by her side.
He strolled over as if he were one of the group and tipped his hat. The smile that she greeted him with weakened his knees. The sincerity in it was unexpected. She looked lost.
Squeaks moved through the men and stood next to Kip. He folded his arms and looked over the horde of men who were there while he leaned sideways to talk with her.
“I am sorry I was behind time. I had a late night.”
“I understand. Right now, you are my champion.”
“There are many combatants for your favor, today. Has anyone been rude to you?”
“I don’t like the way they crowd me and brush me.”
“I can’t say I haven’t thought to do that myself.” His smile was short-lived, though. “Where has Boots been all this time?”
“I think he’s afraid of them. There are so many.”
“Perhaps two footmen tomorrow?”
“No. I will not ask His Lordship for more staff. I knew what I was getting into, and I insisted. It is right to stand my ground, but I have decided to carry my whip when on the ground,” she laughed. “As I get to know them, it shouldn’t seem that all of them are strangers.”
“Excellent idea about carrying your whip, milady. They shall fear that. I apologize again for being late.”
“Are you teasing me about them fearing my whip?”
“If you must know; yes. I am having a bit of sport with you.”
“Were you out late with a lady?”
“Why do you ask that?” he smiled at her nearly jealous question.
“I was just inquisitive. You never talk about people. I would not care to ride with you if you have a steady lady in your life.” Squeaks said in all innocence.
Kip saw a pout beginning to form, causing him to cough and cover his grin. He took her elbow and guided her towards the rear of her coach, then he walked her towards his, across the back. “Perhaps if those gentleman drivers think you are spoken for; they will not be buzzing about you so thickly.”
“Spoken for? Do you mean by you?” Her face lit up.
“I do, or any member of the male population that you choose.”
“I believe you did not answer my question.”
“Are you asking me if I was out with a lady last night, or do you mean to know if I have a steady lady in my life? My answer would be – soon, I hope. However, you didn’t answer mine, either.”
“About making these drivers believe you are forming a relationship, not attachment, with your choice of males,” Kip said, puffing out his chest, conscientiously.
“I am comfortable in your presence and feel safe, too. I cannot ask you to give up your fares any longer. If I chose you, would it be depriving you of your wage.? I don’t think you can keep away from me, anyway. And you see where I’m standing. The next few days may be hard, but I have to get through them. If not, twenty years have been wasted.”
“You do not believe I can keep away from you? Is that not being a bit presumptuous on your part?”
“You mean; you can?” she asked, sporting a crushed look.
He smiled until he thought a tear would be shed if he didn’t hurry away from this lovely torment. “Do know that a driver will never climb to your bench without asking to come up. It is like asking the captain to come aboard a ship. So, you have a relatively safe place to be when you are alone.”
“Well, can you? Am I not your priority that you mentioned the other day? Father thinks I might be.”
“Do you want to be a priority in my life?”
“Is that a question you can ask a woman?”
I’m being lovingly ambushed by a wee woman. How can one so naive and so small have such great thoughts?
“Can you please answer my question?”
“Yes? What? Yes, you want to be a priority in my life or, yes, you will answer my question.”
“That is good to know about safety on the bench. I am sure there are many practices that father never thought to explain because none ever occurred. If I entered the coach and closed the shades, would anyone open the door?” Squeaks elected not to give him the satisfaction of an answer.
“No, they will not. They may knock and wait for an answer, knowing your master is not in there, but if the shades are drawn a coachman respects the privacy expected inside. Why would you … oh … forget what I was going to ask? I will be glad for you to meet my group of friends. I know and trust them, well enough. I think you will like them, too, and they will take you to heart and protect you, as I want to do.”
“How can I meet them if they’re never here? Do any of them want to form a relationship with me, not an attachment, so I’m told?”
“Soon, I am going to paddle your backside. You know I mean me! So, do you have an answer?”
“Do you mean like very good friends?” She started to cry. “I don’t know what a real relationship means.”
“You trust me, am I correct?”
“I will tell you when we are entering into a relationship. Then you will know. And always remember that most associations pretty much mean the identical thing. So, if we begin to become more than friends, and you are uncomfortable, you can find the same closeness with another man. Now, onto a different subject. As for my friends, I imagine they will all have fares for this Saturday night event. If Stokes is going, you will meet them.”
“Oh, he is going. He asked if I could drive in the dark. I told him I could. I was driving at dusk last night. I found it hard to tell if the coach ahead of me was moving or stopped.”
“Your team will sense that and slow down or stop. Unless you are fast-pacing them, which we do not do in the night, you could injure one or both. You should not have any problems.”
“Why do you not pace them fast?”
“If we step them into a hole or on a bolder they need time to recover themselves. I believe the other horse senses a change in stride with his partner and adjusts quickly.”
“So, you are telling me to take my time and watch for the side of the road. The horses will do the rest.”
“That’s a quick lesson, but it is a place to start. They can see only slightly better than we can if their eyes are given a chance to adjust. They don’t do well leaving bright sunlight and led into a dark stable.”
“Have you heard anything about Miss Caldwell, Kip?”
“No, I haven’t. I did not stop by yesterday. However, I wish there would be an attempt to inform me. I am no one to the Blevins, who I drove that night. I should think I have been forgotten by now.”
“Do you think she’s alive?” Squeaks asked.
“I wish I could say yes, but I have my doubts now.”
Squeaks sat on the back step of Kip’s coach. Kip looked around for anyone watching them. He saw no one, so he sat down next to her, their bodies touching.
“Father and His Lordship found your sketch of me fascinating. I think they were both surprised with your ability to see me the way they do.”
“I have always drawn for my own pleasure. It has never been a work I show others. I am a bit embarrassed to know that others have offered an opinion. My friends know I fool around with it, but they never ask to see what I’ve done.”
Kip turned his head towards Squeaks, looking down at her.
She sensed that and faced him, catching only his eyes. He looked at her inviting lips, in a way no one had ever looked at her before. It was a moment that seemed to stand still.
Kip removed his hat as he began to lean in the direction of her mouth until a voice interrupted them.
Squeaks experienced disappointment when Kip pulled back. She heard him sigh. She looked away from Kip, and the other driver as regret had to be on her face.
“I wondered where you two got to. Sneaking off, were you?” the driver laughed.
“Kip was explaining how to drive after dark. I will take His Lordship out in the evening soon. I don’t have the strength in my legs to stand all day, as you gents, so I came back here to sit. Someday, I suppose they will grow strong.”
Squeaks continued to speak covering up any wayward thoughts by the other driver. Kip knew she was talking too much as if guilty of something. Although frustrated himself, Squeaks was amusing in her childish attempt to begin a new subject. Yet, he was buoyed by the fact that she was trying to hide her discontent.
There was the woman, recognizing the situation and the child searching for explanations to satisfy the onlooker.
“Is there a way to light the lamps? I had to have someone lift me last evening.”
Kip and the other driver looked to each other and laughed.
“Miss Squeaks,” offered the other gent, “you do not try to light them from standing on the ground unless you have Kip’s height,” he smiled.
“I shall try climbing the next time,” she said, rising and walking around to see Kip’s lanterns.
The other driver waited for her to be out of sight from the rear of the coach. “Do you fancy this Squeaks woman?” Kip was asked.
“I am sorry, but I insist that is my concern and not yours.”
“She’s Stokes’s driver, you know.”
“Yes, I do know. Since when have we started comparing our ladies against each other? A gentleman never does that.”
“Yes, you are right there. What I mean is, we all know Stokes’s attachment to her, like she was his daughter. Anyone who she takes a fancy to will have to pass muster with Stokes.”
“Sir, I will worry about my own regard if that day ever comes. Excuse me.” Kip headed in Squeaks direction. He had never thought to pass muster with Stokes, but he would not let that worry him. She was of age. His intentions were honorable. Had they not just been interrupted, she might have allowed him to kiss her. He felt her pulling him near, and he wanted to go there, too.
Jesting to Squeaks, Kip said, “I have an elegant fare tonight, would you like to ride footman?” That just seemed to slip out, wanting to lift the disappointment a moment ago.
“I think you tease me,” replied Squeaks.
“Yes, it has to be a tease, because I am sure you would not be permitted to leave the estate.”
“Oh, yes, I can. I’m old enough. Is it a long ride?”
“No, it’s here in the city. Quite close. It is at Cranford House.”
“How long would it last, do you know?”
“It is not a ball. Perhaps it is a dinner, in which case it would last about three hours, approximately. I pick up my clients at 8:00 p.m. You are not seriously considering this, are you? I should say, I would love to have you with me … this isn’t coming out the way I mean to say it. I would enjoy the company. It would add a bit of flair for my riders, and I could pay you, too.”
“Could I have some tips on driving in the dark until you pick them up?”
“By all means,” Kip broke out in a smile as if she was devilishly finding a way to make it happen. “You could not wear the Stokes livery, though.”
“Yes,” she said with disappointment. “I still might have a way.”
“Are you sure you want to attempt permission for this?”
“I do not need permission, remember?”
“Squeaks, this is a big step you are taking. Think it over.”
“I will. The livery is a challenge, though. Do you wear all black?”
“I do. I wear my tails tonight.”
“Oh, yes. I would love to see how you do business.”
“Squeaks. Perhaps another time.”
“Would you have time to come by the Stokes stable to see if I can go with you and have time to pick up your riders?”
“I will find the time if you really feel inspired.”
“I do want to try this. I am quite keen on the idea.”
“And the livery?”
“I think I have an idea.”
“If you wish it, I will come to the Stokes stables at quarter past seven.”
“Truly? You honestly mean it?”
“Well . . . yes, I honestly mean it, but I doubt you do.”
“Am I very far out of the way to stop and see if I mean it?”
“Not very. Perhaps, ten minutes more.”
“Then you will do it?”
“Yes, of course, I will try anything to … yes, I will do it.”
“You may go now. I have a lot of planning to do.”
“I may go now? Thank you. That is kind of you to dismiss me, milady. Suppose I want a few more minutes with you.”
She was an impetuous imp.
Kip could see she was already scheming. There were times when he could see the beautiful young woman, and at others, there was the child at play. In between the two was a woman of great courage to brave a trade that existed only in a man’s world. She was resolute in her chosen profession, and once over the awkwardness of proving herself, she would reach heights never accomplished by a woman. Even though of legal age with many her age married, she was all innocence. He would come to the Stokes stable tonight but in truth, would not expect her.