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Диксон Хелен

A Vow For An Heiress

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Chapter Two

It seemed to Rosa that she was entering a new world as she rode through the wrought-iron gates. When the gatekeeper closed them behind her she continued along the winding drive. Riding slowly past the lake, she took a moment to pause beneath the leafy canopy of a great sycamore tree. A cascade of water tumbled down a hill into a deep pool on the other side of a gracious three-arched bridge which spanned the narrow head of the lake. The still surface of the water was broken by the occasional swallow diving for midges on the surface. A boathouse could be seen in a recess among the trees on the other side.

She breathed deeply, the summer smells wafting about her. A sudden glow warmed her heart. She decided there and then that whatever drawbacks the Earl of Ashurst might possess, she would be well compensated by the beauty of Ashurst Park.

Coming to a halt at the foot of a low flight of stone steps, she dismounted. As she looked about her, a young man she assumed must be a groom hurried towards her.

‘Is Lord Ashurst at home?’

‘Yes, miss. Would you like me to take your horse?’

‘Yes—thank you.’ She watched him walk away leading her horse before climbing the steps. When she stood facing the door, she experienced her first signs of genuine apprehension. As if on cue the door was opened by a middle-aged male servant attired in black jacket and knee breeches.

‘I am here to see Lord Ashurst.’

He nodded. ‘Who shall I say, Miss...?’

‘Ingram,’ Rosa provided.

Waiting for the servant to return and removing her bonnet, Rosa looked about the large panelled hall. It was sun filled, polished and scented. She stood in awe of her surroundings. Beautiful artefacts reposed on a gleaming table in the centre, and on the walls were paintings of long-dead family members in gilded frames. The house exuded an indefinable quality—a sense of order, centuries of happiness and disappointments, memories of men and women who had lived and breathed within these walls—all folded into the fabric. The house was living, breathing, but empty of life.

Her eyes shone and she felt a peculiar excitement. It was unlike anything she had felt before and she found herself ensnared, as if this wonderful house was trying to wrap itself around her. She wanted to claim it for herself—she felt it was part of her destiny.

An elaborately carved oak staircase rose on one side of the hall to the upper floors, forming a gallery. She was conscious of a small contingent of curious maids lurking there. Open to their searching scrutiny, she was aware they stole lingering looks down at her. She managed to direct a self-conscious smile at them, but her mind was braced on the meeting with the Earl of Ashurst.

The servant reappeared.

‘Lord Ashurst will see you now. Please come this way.’

Keeping her eyes straight ahead of her, Rosa followed in his wake along an assortment of corridors, taking note of everything she saw. The house was awe-inspiring and, despite the crippling debts that the Earl was desperately trying to meet, the atmosphere was of comfort and luxury, of elegance and a style of living she could never have imagined in her island home. The servant swept open a pair of carved oaken doors and stepped aside to admit her into the study, a comfortable, tastefully furnished room lined with books and discerningly furnished. Large French windows were open, the scent of freshly mown grass drifting in.

The servant closed the door behind him as the man she assumed to be the Earl got up from his desk with a welcoming smile on his face, clearly expecting to see Miss Clarissa Ingram. He halted in surprise, staring instead at a vaguely familiar, beautiful young woman wearing a stylish riding habit.

Rosa was equally surprised when she recognised him. In that moment she noticed the startling intensity of his light blue eyes and again she thought how extraordinarily attractive he was. His tall frame was clad in impeccably tailored dark blue trousers and coat and white shirt and neckcloth at the throat. He stood, his shadow stretching across the room. Then he was striding towards her. The room jumped to life about him as his presence filled it, infusing it with his own energy and vigour.

Her heart seemed to suddenly leap in her chest in a ridiculous way.

‘Oh! It’s you! You are the man I met at the inn the other day. Are you the Earl of Ashurst?’

Momentarily stunned, William continued to stare at her. His blood stirred as she came into the light thrown by the sun through the leaded windows. The young woman was a beauty, her hat dangling by its ribbons from her fingers, a riding crop in her other hand. The rich vibrancy of her chestnut curls framed a heart-shaped face and the green eyes beneath long dark lashes that had caught his attention previously held his gaze now. She had a healthy and unblemished beauty that radiated a striking personal confidence. There was about her a kind of warm sensuality, something instantly suggestive to him of pleasurable fulfilment. It was something she could not help, something that was an inherent part of her.

‘I am Lord Ashurst, the Earl of Ashurst.’

On discovering the identity of her hoped-to-be husband and recalling their contentious previous encounter, she remembered that as she had walked away from him he had made a strong impression on her. And now here he was and the irony of it was that if her grandmother had her way then he was about to become betrothed to her sister.

Her momentary shock gave way to a cold anger. ‘Had I known who you are I would not have come here. You were very rude to me.’

His mouth curled into a thin smile. ‘After spending my entire adult life as a soldier, Miss Ingram, I’m afraid I shall have to relearn the art of gallantry. But as a matter of fact, I agree with you. My behaviour towards you was unmannerly. Believe me when I tell you that my conscience smote me and I wanted to do the right thing and apologise to you properly, but when I looked for you, you had left. Can I offer you refreshment?’

‘No, thank you. I have not come here to make polite conversation, but on a matter of the utmost importance. I realise you are a busy man so I will be brief and take up as little of your time as possible.’

He lifted an eyebrow. Tilting his head to one side, he gave her his whole attention. ‘What brings you here with such urgency?’

There was something in the depths of his eyes that Rosa could not fathom. Blue and narrowed by a knowing, intrusive smile, they seemed to look right past her face and into herself. For that split second she felt completely exposed and vulnerable—traits unfamiliar to her, traits she did not like. His direct, masculine assurance disconcerted her. She was vividly conscious that they were alone. She felt the mad, unfamiliar rush of blood singing through her veins, which she had never experienced before—not even with Simon. Instantly she felt resentful towards the Earl of Ashurst. He had made too much of an impact on her.

‘I am Rosalind Ingram—everyone calls me Rosa. I have come to speak to you about my sister, Clarissa. I don’t quite know how to begin. I have never done this sort of thing before, you see, and...my grandmother knows nothing of this visit. When she does I will feel the full force of her displeasure, but it will be worth it if you agree to what I propose. I have come to ask your help. I realise it is very presumptuous of me, and of course you are quite free to refuse, but the matter is urgent.’

‘Is there no one else who can help you?’

‘No—I’m afraid not. If I had...’

‘Because of what transpired between us on our first encounter you certainly would not have come to me.’

‘No, that’s not right. I’m afraid you are the only person I can ask to help.’

A muscle twitched in his cheek and his light blue eyes rested on her ironically.

‘My curiosity is aroused as to why you have come here without your grandmother’s knowledge to visit a man you don’t even know.’

Crossing to the fireplace, he draped his arm across the mantel and turned, regarding his visitor with a cool and speculative gaze. He could not help but admire the way she looked. Her overall appearance was flawless and he was quickly coming to the conclusion that she would set the standard by which all other women have to be judged, at least in his mind.

Her hair had been arranged artfully about her head and several feathery curls brushed her cheeks, lending a charming softness to her skin. The appeal in her large, silkily lashed green eyes was so strong that he had to mentally shake himself free of their spell. Something stirred within him that he was at a loss to identify.

‘I am intrigued. Please—sit down,’ he said, indicating a chair placed at an angle in front of the fireplace. ‘Now, tell me, what can I do for you?’

Now she knew the identity of the Earl of Ashurst, Rosa’s regret at coming to Ashurst Park increased a thousandfold as she perched stiffly on the edge of the comfortably upholstered chair. Never had she felt so unsure of herself.

‘So, Clarissa is your sister. I thought there must be some connection. She is well, I hope?’

‘She is perfectly well—only...’

He waited a moment, studying her with those strongly arched eyebrows slightly raised. When she wasn’t forthcoming he prompted, ‘Only? Only what?’

‘She—she does not want to marry you and I recognise that I must lend her all my support.’

‘I see. Do you mind telling me why?’

‘Because she’s in love with someone else.’ Apart from a tightening to his jaw, his expression remained unchanged.

‘Then that is as good a reason as any. Why was I not told this earlier—and why has your grandmother not thought to inform me?’

‘I’m sorry. She was following my father’s wishes in arranging Clarissa to marry a man with a title. Clarissa has never defied our father, sir. She loved him dearly and understands perfectly why it was so important to him that we both make suitable marriages.’

‘And you have ridden all this way to tell me this?’

‘Yes. I—I thought you should know.’

‘Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. However, nothing has been signed so there is nothing to bind us.’

‘You—will not pursue her?’

‘No, Miss Ingram, I would not do that. To force the issue when she is in love with another man would make her loathe me.’

‘If you discerned anything in her manner when you met in London—which, she has told me, was brief—you would know that she does not loathe you. Clarissa is the most gentle person you could wish to meet.’

‘That is the impression she gave me,’ he said, remembering that when he had met Clarissa Ingram how he had admired her refinement of character, her charm and sensibility—in fact, there was nothing about her with which he could find fault and he could not deny that he had been tempted by her grandmother’s proposition that she become his wife. But that had been in London.

As a soldier, he listened to his head and not his heart in all things. Nothing in his life was accidental or unplanned and everything was carefully thought out.

He’d agreed to consider his lawyer’s suggestion that he marry a wealthy woman, which would enable him to retain Ashurst Park, but his abhorrence to doing such a thing was as strong as ever. Miss Rosa Ingram’s revelation had come as something of a surprise to him and also a relief that he would not have to do battle with his conscience.

‘However, it is clear to me that your grandmother made the proposal without a thought to her finer feelings. It changes things considerably and has helped me with my decision. I will go and see your grandmother and tell her that I have changed my mind about marrying Clarissa—which is the truth. I would not contemplate marrying a woman whose heart is elsewhere.’

‘Not even to save your estate?’

‘No. Not even to save Ashurst Park,’ he answered with icy calm. ‘Since I agreed to consider marriage to your sister I, too, have had a change of heart. So you see, Miss Ingram, I am not as mercenary as you think.’

Taken by surprise, Rosa stared at him. ‘I see. What did you intend doing about it?’

‘I was going to see your grandmother to explain.’

‘But—I have come here to offer a solution to your problems.’

‘And how did you intend doing that?’

‘I—have come to offer myself in Clarissa’s place. I wondered if you would consider marrying me instead.’

His eyes flashed unexpectedly. ‘Good Lord!’ The words were exhaled slowly, but otherwise, he simply stared at her. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’

She tossed her head, causing her hair to shimmer. ‘I assure you I am quite sane.’

‘Are you serious?’ he asked, raising an eyebrow.

‘I am perfectly serious,’ she replied, thinking everything about him bespoke power and control. He was much too in command of himself to toy with.

‘Yes, you are,’ he replied coldly, ‘and the answer is no.’ It was an instant response. Unconsidered. Automatic. Already William could feel his pride and self-respect being stripped away bit by agonising bit. Her proposal unsettled him. The feeling was something complex and disturbing. Instinct told him he’d be best served not to prolong Miss Ingram’s visit, for he was quite bewildered by his own interest in this young woman. Her manner was forthright, but there was a vulnerability about her. She had no flirtatious wiles and her candour threw him somewhat, so what was it about her that disturbed him—and how was it possible for her to have made such a strong impact on him on so short an acquaintance? Her eyes seemed to search his face as if she were looking into his soul.

Suddenly he found himself wondering what it would be like to have her as his wife. Would she light up his life with warmth and laughter? Would she banish the dark emptiness within him? He caught himself up short, dispelling any youthful dreams and unfulfilled yearnings he had consigned to the past. He had experienced them once before and realised his mistake in the most brutal manner. He scowled darkly as he realised Miss Ingram was suddenly bringing all those old foolish yearnings back to torment him. He would have none of that. After his turbulent relationship with Lydia he had reconciled himself to a life of transient affairs, which satisfied and relieved his body and left his emotions intact, but he suspected that if he were to take Rosa Ingram as his wife she would be a threat to everything he had determined never to feel again. His hurt went too deep. However difficult his life had been since Lydia’s betrayal, he had not deviated from his determination never to fall into the same trap again.

What might this woman do to him if he let her?

Disappointed by his response, forcing herself to ignore the fluttering in her stomach, Rosa ploughed on before her courage and confidence deserted her. ‘Please—hear me out. I have given the matter a great deal of thought and I have decided that it is a solution that would suit us both. I should mention that my father left both Clarissa and me a substantial inheritance.’

‘My lawyer has made me aware of that. Whatever you have heard about me and expected to find when you came here, I am not a charity case, nor am I a beggar who is so impoverished that I will grab the offer of a proposal of marriage from a woman I do not know and sink to my knees with gratitude.’

‘Not for one moment would I expect you to do that. It would be ridiculous.’ Seeing how one well-defined dark eyebrow shot up in annoyance, she plunged bravely on. ‘I would like to point out that marrying me instead of Clarissa would make no difference to the money. A large dowry I am sure would make marriage to me palatable...’ She fell silent when he held up a hand and halted her.

‘Miss Ingram, let me assure myself that I understand you,’ he said, recovering from the shock her proposal had caused. ‘You are asking me to throw over your sister for you? Is that right?’


‘You must excuse me,’ he said, controlling his ire with difficulty. ‘I have never before been engaged in such a conversation, and to be frank I do not know the rules of the game.’

‘Neither do I,’ she admitted. ‘But let me assure you that it is not a game, Lord Ashurst.’ Rosa flushed violently and stiffened with indignation. She refused to retreat now she had come so far. ‘I know it may sound mad to you, but it is not like that at all. You are not the first Englishman who finds himself down on his luck and required to marry a wealthy woman as an answer to his financial difficulties. I am not ignorant of the fact that in the upper classes large sums of money and extensive estates are involved in such marriages.’

With surprise, she was conscious that he was studying her with a different interest. She sat and returned his look. His expression did not alter, yet she felt the air between them charged with emotion. He cocked an eyebrow at her and for a moment it seemed as if he would agree, then he looked away.

‘You are very sure of yourself, Miss Ingram.’

‘I have always been sure of myself, Lord Ashurst. It is other people that often puzzle me.’ When he looked at her once more, his eyes hard and direct, she sighed. ‘You don’t want to marry me, is that it?’

‘Miss Ingram, I don’t want to marry anyone,’ he said, going to sit in a large winged chair opposite her, propping his right ankle on his left knee and steepling his fingers in front of him. ‘I find the manner of your offer a cold-blooded business arrangement—in fact, some might call it vulgar for a lady to discuss money matters and propose marriage to a complete stranger.’

Mentally chiding herself for lacking the poise and behaviour of the lady she had been brought up to be, Rosa lifted her chin, undaunted. ‘Yes, I suppose they would, but I have no time for such niceties. I came here to make you an offer since I have no one else to speak for me.’

‘You do have your grandmother.’

‘She does not always see things my way and I know she was hoping you would marry Clarissa.’

He was silent for a full ten seconds and then he gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. ‘How old are you, Miss Ingram?’

‘I shall soon be twenty.’

‘I see. Why are you so intent on marrying me?’

Uncomfortable with both his question and the penetrating look in his eyes, Rosa tried to smile and make light of his question.

‘One of the reasons is that I have fallen in love with your house. One cannot fail to be impressed by it. Ashurst Park is beautiful.’

‘I cannot disagree with that. The fabric of the house is as it was when I was here as a youth. My inheritance is both ancient and beautiful, and I consider it a privilege to call it my home. Although,’ he said, his mood somewhat despondent and thoughtful, ‘in this present financial climate one cannot fail to observe unavoidable signs of wear and tear here and there. Countless tasks await me to be done in order to restore the estate to its former glory. I have not yet had time to discover the full extent of the neglect. The lawyer has kept on a skeleton staff even though there was no family member living here. According to my lawyer, a great deal of money is needed to put things right.’

‘Have you considered selling the estate and returning to India?’

‘I confess that it did cross my mind—but I considered it no further. I am bound by the ties of present and future relationships to the house of Barrington. I had a vision of my grandfather and his proud and noble bearing and of the long line of my forebears who suffered to preserve intact the honour and noble name of Barrington, who subdued their own lives and fought their own individual battles for that same sense of honour—some making the ultimate sacrifice in one battle or another. I owe it to them to see that Ashurst Park is made secure for future generations.’

‘Finding yourself in such dire straits, I am sure they would understand if you were to sell.’

He shook his head. ‘If I were to do that, then the Barrington ghosts would be justified in rising up in anger at my dishonourable deed.’

‘That is where I come in. You want a rich wife. I am available.’

Not a muscle flickered on William’s face. He was silent, looking at her hard, incredulously, as though she had suddenly changed before his eyes. His face instantly became shuttered and aloof. He looked her over carefully, as if to judge her for her worth, and appeared dubious as his brows snapped together and a feral gleam appeared in his narrowed eyes with angry disgust.

‘Contrary to what you might think, Miss Ingram, I cannot be bought. I am a man of honour and honour cannot be bought or measured in wealth. No matter how much money you may bring with you to shore up the walls of Ashurst Park, what makes you think you are worth it?’

Rosa stiffened her spine. ‘Now you insult me,’ she declared, a surge of anger rising up inside her like flames licking around a dry log, furious with herself to think she had been so stupid as to think he would accept her offer.

‘It is not my intention to give offence. Forgive me if I appear surprised, but I fail to understand why you would wish to marry a complete stranger. And why would you think I would agree to marry you? Since your sister is no longer available to me, there is nothing to stop me looking elsewhere for another heiress to marry if I so wished.’

‘Surely one wife is much like another if she comes to you with a fortune.’

‘I disagree,’ he replied, thinking that Miss Rosa Ingram would prove to be more trouble to his carefully held sensibilities than she was worth. ‘Although there must be hundreds of ambitious parents who would be only too ready to offer their daughters for an increase in position—a generous dowry in exchange for the grand title of Countess of Ashurst.’

Rosa looked at him directly. ‘I am sure you are right—which is exactly what my father was thinking. The choice is yours, of course. But, unlike Clarissa, I am not in love with another—so it is not as difficult for me to accept.’

‘Accept?’ His face might have been carved out of stone when he fastened his hard gaze on hers and there was a saturnine twist to his mouth. ‘I do not recall proposing marriage to you, Miss Ingram—or your sister, come to that.’

Lord Ashurst’s taunting remark flicked over Rosa like a whiplash. The hot colour in her cheeks deepened and her soft lips tightened as she exerted every ounce of her control to keep her temper and her emotions in check. ‘No, of course you haven’t. How could you? Where Clarissa is concerned I thought there was an understanding.’

‘No. Our meeting was brief. Nothing was decided.’

‘You must bear with me, sir. I have only recently come to England myself and I have much to learn. I frown upon marriages arranged without reference to the feelings of the bride—with sole regard to titles and the increase of family fortunes. When Grandmother has seen Clarissa settled in a marriage of her choosing, it will be my turn. An arranged marriage is what she intends for me.’

‘And your father, by all accounts. It is not my intention to be disrespectful towards your family, Miss Ingram, but from the little I know of him he set more importance to his daughters marrying a title than he did their happiness. Finding yourself in the same situation as your sister, how will you react if you do not approve of your grandmother’s choice of husband?’

Rosa’s face had taken on a youthful dignity as she looked at his directly. Her age and inexperience were evident, yet she was prepared to stand her ground to defend her father’s good name if required. ‘My father was a private man, Lord Ashurst, and benevolent, with a rational and cultivated mind. There was no one better.’

‘Yes—I am sure you are right and your loyalty towards him is to be commended.’

‘I have never defied either him or my grandmother. I loved my father and I love my grandmother dearly and understand perfectly why it is so important to them both that Clarissa and I make suitable marriages. But I will find it difficult to meekly submit to my grandmother’s rules as a matter of course, which is why I have decided to be my own advocate and make my own case. If I fail in this I will be completely helpless and defenceless before my grandmother’s determination to find me a husband of the nobility.’

‘No helpless female would dare to come all the way here—alone, I might add—and propose marriage to a complete stranger. A woman who can do what you are doing, Miss Ingram, is not helpless—or defenceless. Reckless, yes, but certainly not helpless.’

Rosa looked into his eyes, trying to read his expression. There was a moment’s silence and William watched her face with a slightly cynical lift to his eyebrows.

‘I salute your courage and your boldness. I feel this is your style—setting out on some impulsive adventure, with little thought of the consequences. I cannot for one moment believe you have thought it out properly. You are being a little selfish in throwing yourself at me, a stranger, daring me to take advantage of your offer. But have you not for one moment thought that you might be playing with fire? I will not satisfy your scheme.’

Rosa’s heart fell at his unexpected cynicism. She had agonised over the steps she had taken. Did he understand nothing of what she had said at all? ‘Whatever you think of me, my offer was well meant. If you think my coming here is nothing but a silly, reckless adventure on my part, then there is nothing more I can say to convince you that it is otherwise.’

William studied her gravely for a moment. ‘Perhaps you do have it all worked out. You are undeniably brave—and beautiful—and impetuous, with very little thought of the consequences of your actions. What you are doing for your sister is highly unusual, Miss Ingram—and commendable, though it leads me to question your motives.’

Rosa’s green eyes snapped with disdain and for a brief instant William glimpsed the proud, spirited young woman behind the carefully controlled façade. ‘I told you. Clarissa is in love with someone else. It would break her heart if she didn’t marry him.’

‘Then why put yourself forward? You didn’t have to. Your sister is twenty-one, old enough to make her own decisions. She could just walk away.’

‘Not Clarissa. Our father wanted the very best for her: marriage, title, everything he aspired to be himself—he always did have aspirations of grandeur—which was why, ill as he was and knowing he would not be around to see his wishes for both of us come to fruition, he placed us in Grandmother’s hands with the stipulation that she finds us noble husbands. Clarissa loved and respected him too much to go against his wishes.’

‘Your grandmother is a formidable lady.’

‘Yes, she is.’

‘So why me? If it is a husband you require, then surely London is full of gentlemen who would prove to be far less trouble than me—although in exchange for your wealth you would obtain a title if I agree to the marriage.’

‘Titles are meaningless to me. Besides, I know it is my father’s money that attracts them to me and nothing else. It would act like a beacon to every impoverished nobleman in England.’

‘Then I am no different from them—an impoverished lord who would be marrying you for your money.’

‘There is a difference. I chose you, Lord Ashurst. I see marriage to you and being able to reside at Ashurst Park a good way of investing in my own future.’

‘I see,’ William replied caustically, getting to his feet and turning from her. In silence he took a thoughtful turn about the room. He was feeling more humiliated and degraded than he cared to admit.

His immense fears as his lawyer had told him the extent of the estate’s insurmountable debts was deep-rooted, and the shadow of Lydia continued to haunt him, making it impossible for him to get on with his life with ease. She had been a bright and beautiful beacon in his world and he had found an untold happiness when he was with her. She had used all her witchery to captivate him, making him her willing, pliant slave. He had later come to deplore the fact that he had kept such a large streak of naivete in his make-up and had found it hard to grasp the guile behind the soft smiles and fond words. He had believed she loved him. How soft and persuasive her voice could be. He could not have guessed for a moment what weight of treachery it concealed.

It was strange that Miss Ingram’s presence and her proposal had brought what had happened with Lydia—that ultimate betrayal when she had thrown him over for someone else—back to him with each sordid detail. He stopped in front of her, knowing he was right to turn her down. ‘I am sorry, Miss Ingram. I cannot help you. I cannot make rash promises I may not keep.’

Rosa stared at his rigid stance. ‘I do understand how difficult this is for you, Lord Ashurst.’

Struggling to keep the irritation out of his voice, he said, ‘Believe me, Miss Ingram, no part of this dilemma is remotely easy for me. You have so much money that what you do should not be a problem. You’ve had life handed to you on a silver platter. Wealth gives you an advantage over me I don’t like.’

Rosa stared at him. A great wave of crushing disappointment filled her heart, banishing everything but her regret that she had been foolish to come to Ashurst Park and humiliate herself before this stranger. She averted her eyes. She had at least done what she could. But it was small comfort. She knew with rising dread that no one could push the Earl of Ashurst into any decision not of his own making. She realised how misguided she had been. For the first time since she had devised this wild scheme, she knew the real meaning of failure.

Her small chin lifted primly and her spine stiffened, and before his eyes William saw her valiant struggle for control—a struggle she won.

‘Then I suppose there is nothing more to be said,’ she murmured in a colourless voice.

William hadn’t missed the flare of temper in her eyes. ‘I’m afraid not.’

‘And you will visit my grandmother to explain about Clarissa?’

‘Of course. Thankfully nothing was signed so your grandmother can hardly sue me for breach of promise.’

Rosa cocked her head to one side, trying to see beyond his cool façade. ‘Is there something you do not like about my family—something you object to?’ Frowning thoughtfully, she said, ‘I wonder... You must know how my father became rich—the source of his wealth.’

‘My lawyer did make me aware of the facts.’

‘And that his plantation was worked with slave labour?’

He nodded. ‘I don’t imagine there is a plantation in the Caribbean worked any other way.’

‘And that concerns you?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact it does but it has nothing to do with my decision. Slavery is not something people in England are accustomed to. It is a shocking practice. To take a man by force from his native country, to be chained and taken across the Atlantic to be sold in the markets that deal in human flesh, to work the plantations without the right to call themselves men, is unacceptable.’

‘It may surprise you when I tell you that I agree with you completely. I have despised the practice ever since I was old enough to understand it. It is as much an abomination to me as it clearly is to you. I make no excuses for my father but I ask you not to judge him too harshly. It is a subject I argued constantly with him about. Had I the power and the means, I would have changed everything. However, that is clearly not an issue since you rejected my proposal.’

‘I am glad to know you share my views, Miss Ingram, but that was not the reason why I refused to marry you.’

Rosa’s sense of defeat was augmented by the knowledge, which had grown on her since their first encounter, that she had made a fool of herself in attempting to appeal to such a man as Lord Ashurst. He was hard and unfeeling, and all that was left for her was to retreat with what dignity she could muster. She was too proud to let him see that she was confused and disappointed by his rejection.

‘Then I will keep you no longer. Thank you for taking the time to see me.’

‘It was my pleasure.’

To know that she shared his views on the abomination of trade in human beings touched him deeply, almost weakening his resolve not to become involved with her in the way he had been with Lydia. But he would not allow it. Rosa Ingram posed a threat, a danger to his peace of mind, and he could so easily become enamoured of her—and become completely undone into the bargain. He had been there once and had no mind to travel down the same road twice. However, he could not fail to notice the pain and discomfort she was feeling and admired the dignity with which she had received his pronouncement.

‘One moment, Miss Ingram,’ he said. She had turned from him but paused at his request and turned and looked at him. He looked down at her with gravity in his eyes, but a half-smile on his lips. ‘I have my own reasons for refusing you which you can know nothing about. As yet I have not become fully acquainted with the estate and the tenant farmers. I still have much to consider and discuss with my bailiff and lawyer—but no matter. I have enjoyed meeting you and I wish you well. You are a woman of spirit, even if a little too impetuous.’

‘I feel that I must agree with you.’

‘You should not have come here today,’ he went on. ‘Not that I do not appreciate your visit—quite the contrary. But this is a bachelor establishment, something which perhaps did not cross your mind—perhaps you also did not realise that since I live here and I am a newcomer to the area and few people know anything about me, it is a very dubious bachelor establishment.’

‘Please do not concern yourself,’ she replied stiffly. ‘My action was entirely innocent and I am persuaded than my reputation cannot suffer, as a consequence, in the eyes of those people who know me, and those who don’t will never know.’

‘A woman of spirit indeed! I would not like to see you cowed by gossip.’

‘Lord Ashurst, I know well enough what my impetuosity and my meddling has cost me today and I would thank you not to rub it in.’

Her words brought a broad smile to his lips and, in spite of her anger Rosa caught herself wondering why a man with such an unpleasant character should be gifted with such a lovely smile.

‘Excuse me. I will leave you now,’ she said, making for the door.

‘I will call on your grandmother shortly.’

Neither of them spoke as they left the room and crossed the hall. Rosa looked squarely at the Earl as he held the door open for her to pass through, and as she met his gaze her small chin lifted and her spine stiffened. William saw her put up a valiant fight for control, a fight she won. She looked as regally erect as a proud young queen as she went down the short flight of steps and took possession of her horse the stable boy was holding. The boy held his hands for her booted foot, hoisting her atop her horse. Riding astride as he had seen no lady do since coming to England—normally they rode side-saddle—that was the moment William saw she was wearing skintight buff-coloured breeches beneath her skirt.

Rosa sat on her horse unmoving, as if she were some stone goddess, insensate but powerful. She gripped the reins in her slender fingers and stared back to where he stood in the open doorway.

‘I realise how concerned you must be about the state of the finances. My offer was sincere. I would like to help—if you would let me,’ she offered.

‘Thank you. That is extremely generous of you. I appreciate your offer but I cannot accept it.’

‘Not now, perhaps, but think about it.’ About to ride off, she paused when she remembered something. ‘Oh—there is something I forgot to mention which you may like to know.’

‘Which is?’

‘At the inn—when I was leaving—I saw the man who I am certain pushed the boy. He was mingling with the other passengers and looked extremely angry.’

William froze and then he was striding down the steps to where she was trying to settle her restless mount. ‘Are you certain?’

‘As certain as I can be.’

‘What did he look like? Can you describe him?’

‘He was of medium height, gaunt looking, with short, straight black hair and dark skin. The look he gave me made me thankful I was not his enemy.’

‘Was he alone? Was anyone else with him?’

‘I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone else—but then, there were so many people.’ She jerked her horse round. ‘I must go. Good day, sir.’

Leaving the Earl staring after her as she rode away, she couldn’t help thinking that she had made things a whole lot worse. As she put a distance between her and Ashurst Park, something inside her, some hopeful light that had shone bright on her journey to meet with Lord Ashurst, faded and winked out of existence. But out of sheer pride she held herself tightly together against the disappointment and humiliation. She was sorry he had turned her down, but having such strong principles concerning slavery, she really could not blame him.

As soon as her grandmother had married Clarissa off she would be thrown onto the marriage market and she would be expected to go trustingly and placidly into the unknown. The man chosen for her might be old or ugly or both. The thought was intolerable. At least Lord Ashurst was a young man and handsome.

As it was there was nothing for it but to tell her grandmother everything. Her heart was filled with dread in anticipation of the condemnation she would ultimately receive. There would be no redemption, she knew that.

As Rosa rode away from the house, William let his eyes sweep over the wide parkland, narrowing them against the glare of the sun. Filled with deep concern for the boy, he prayed God that soon Tipu would have this matter with Dhanu resolved and he could return to India. He was inclined to believe what Miss Ingram had told him and he would ensure that every precaution to safeguard his well-being would be taken. The idea that someone was stalking him with every intent of permanently removing Dhanu awakened in him a dangerous, quiet anger.

He continued to watch Miss Ingram ride away, her hat tied loosely round her neck and bouncing madly against her back, only the ragged pulse that had leapt to life in his throat attesting to his own disquiet as he stared after her with mingled feelings of regret and concern.

As he turned and went back into the house he refused to be moved by her offer. Until his cousin’s death, he had been a man who had made his own choices and, as much as he would like to appease his manly appetites with the lovely Rosa Ingram, he would not be so easily manipulated. How could he like some lapdog blindly accept what she was offering without yielding his mind and his principles?

But she was far too beautiful for any man to turn his back on. It would be no easy matter banishing her from his mind. She was physically appealing, with a face and body he found attractive, but she was also appealing in other ways, with an intelligent sharpness of mind. He suspected on knowing her better she would possess a clever wit that he would admire, making her pleasant company and interesting to be with. However distasteful the prospect was, perhaps he should consider her proposal. After all, heiresses were few and far between.

As an only child, the times he had spent with Charles had been precious to him and his untimely death had upset him profoundly. He had loved his cousin like a brother and deeply regretted that he had been unable to help him when he had fallen into financial difficulties, which had driven him to take his own life. William felt honour-bound to make the estate prosper as it had in the past. It would be a massive undertaking but he would do it—not only for himself but for Charles. Perhaps if he agreed to marry Miss Rosa Ingram he wouldn’t come out of it too badly. It could be the answer to a problem he could see no other way of solving at this present time.

The noble certainty that she had been doing the right thing when she had set out for Ashurst Park had disappeared as Rosa rode back to Fountains Lodge. She felt abased in her own eyes. What she had done had been foolish in the extreme. She had acted impetuously, rashly and unthinkingly and most importantly without common sense in Lord Ashurst’s eyes, earning his derision and her profound dislike. He had been hard, cold and cynical and had done nothing to put her at her ease.

Thinking of all the things she didn’t like about Lord Ashurst was a barrier against recalling her own shortcomings, so by the time she reached Fountains Lodge she had worked herself up into a temper and a very thorough dislike of the man. She hoped she would not have the misfortune to meet him again in the future, but somehow she felt that she would.


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