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Диксон Хелен

Caught in Scandal's Storm

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‘Draw your claws in, lady.’

Alice shrank from him and a shudder of revulsion passed through her as his gaze went deliberately down her body, boldly, rudely evaluating every angle of her scantily covered assets.

‘Despite what you think I am not here to ravish you. As lovely as you are, you’re very tempting, but I have neither the time nor the inclination for such dalliance. I wish you no harm, believe me,’ he said. ‘If I release you, do you promise to be still?’

Alice saw no passion, no desire in his eyes, only his dark brows gathered together and the silver-grey eyes smouldering in well-kindled rage. After a moment of indecision, she nodded.

He looked at her hard for a moment before releasing her arm. Immediately Alice snatched her robe draped over a chair. Wrapping it around her as if it were a suit of armour, feeling less exposed, she lifted her chin and faced the intruder. She flung her long hair back from her face, sending it spilling down her back.

‘You’ve got some explaining to do—prowling about my room at this hour.’

His face was in shadow, but his silver-grey eyes gave his angular face with its high-planed cheekbones a harsh expression. She glared into his eyes. They were as cold as ice behind the black fringe of lashes. Slowly his gaze descended, sweeping boldly down the length of her, bringing a blush to her cheeks as his appraising eye paused momentarily upon her heaving bosom. When he looked into her face again, one corner of his lips quirked in obvious approval.

‘Who are you?’ the stranger asked.

‘Is that relevant?’

The man’s interest quickened. Her expression was wary. Most females were nervous in his presence, but there was a watchfulness in this woman’s eyes that suggested something more guarded.

‘Don’t be obstructive. I like to know who I’m speaking to.’

‘You were not invited into my bedchamber so I do not feel obliged to give you my name. Who are you?’

‘Ewen Tremain,’ he replied with an arrogantly raised brow.

The name struck Alice like a heavy blow. Why, it was Roberta’s betrothed come to terrifying, throbbing life. Dear Lord! What was he doing here? The band of light slanted across his hard, chiselled face. His eyes were pale and fierce, like a predator. Frightening, powerful and fatally attractive, he looked like a warrior about to go into battle.

The room dimmed as dizziness seized her. She almost sank down on to the bed, but then braced herself. She would show him no weakness and despite her state of undress she refused to be intimidated by him. She swept him with a look of haughty disdain. ‘So, the erstwhile Lord Tremain has at last deemed to grace Roberta with his presence. Tell me, Lord Tremain, do you make a habit of entering a lady’s bedchamber or have you lost your way?’


Ewen moved slowly towards her. He saw a young woman with a sculptured face of incredible beauty. She had high, delicately moulded cheekbones, a perfect nose, generous lips and a tiny, intriguing little cleft in the centre of her chin. Beneath her dark brows her eyes continued to blaze with defiance.

‘When you have finished scrutinising my face, sir,’ she clipped out suddenly with a fine, cultured accent like frosted glass, ‘I would appreciate it if you would explain what you are doing in my bedchamber.’

‘I recognised you as the woman I met in the park earlier when I saw you looking out of the window.’

‘You were in the garden?’

He nodded. ‘It was easy enough to hoist myself up to your balcony window. If you wish to discourage intruders, you should instruct your maid to close it when the room is unoccupied.’

‘Never mind that. What do you want?’

Ewen looked down at her face upturned to his, well aware that she was probably scared out of her wits behind her show of bravado. ‘What has the dress done to you to make you treat it so?’

Alice cast her torn gown a sidelong glance. ‘That is my concern, not yours.’

‘When I saw you in the park, you were weeping. Clearly you were upset about something.

‘I wasn’t crying. It was merely the melted snow on my face.’

He shook his head slowly. ‘Deny it all you like. I know what I saw.’

‘You have yet to tell me what you are doing here. Why now of all times?’ she asked him outright. ‘I know who you are and I sincerely hope you have not come to make trouble.’

‘I have not seen my betrothed for some time. I thought it was about time I did.’

‘In my bedchamber?’

He shrugged. ‘I did not want to alarm Roberta by showing myself too soon. I wish to know how the land lies before I present myself. I assume you are Roberta’s friend. Who better to ask?’

‘Haven’t you caused her enough sorrow and heartache?’ Alice accused irately. She was incensed that this man could come here at this time and work his mischief. ‘Must you mar the eve of Roberta’s betrothal with more pain?’

The silver-grey eyes took on a steely hardness as they settled on her. ‘How can she possibly become betrothed to another while she is still betrothed to me? What would you have me do? Ignore the insult and leave without a fight?’ His low, sardonic laugh belied the possibility. ‘Watch me, lady, and see if I will.’

‘Why, what will you do? Go down to the ballroom and put an end to it? Make a show of Roberta and shame and humiliate her? If you have any heart at all, you will refrain from doing anything so cruel.’

‘Then be so good as to summon the Countess.’

‘I will do no such thing. I think you should leave this minute and come back tomorrow if you wish to speak to her—although she may not wish to speak to you. And please use the front door next time.’ She pointed across the room. ‘There is the window. Please—just go, will you?’ The furious look on the intruder’s face made Alice want to laugh so much that she forgot her fear for the moment. She could almost swear she heard him growl.

His eyes slashed hers like razors. Slowly he leaned forward, his hand reaching out and grasping her chin so that she was forced to look into the eyes that blazed white fire just inches from her own. ‘Lady, let me assure you that it is unwise to cross or disobey me,’ he declared through gritted teeth. ‘I am not here to play games. I’ve already played them all and you wouldn’t enjoy them even if you knew how to play. Now, if you will not go yourself then send one of the servants to summon her ladyship.’

‘You dare to order me about?’

‘I do dare.’ His eyes were two slits of hard, unyielding steel. Alice tried turning her head, but the strength in his fingers held her chin firm. ‘Do as I ask, otherwise the whole house will know you are entertaining a man in your room, which would prove highly embarrassing for you. So if you care for your reputation you will do as I say before I get tired of waiting and go myself.’

Insulted to the core of her being, Alice shot him an angry, indignant glare. She did care. She had no intention of causing another scandal for herself and running the risk of ruining her reputation even further. ‘You seem to forget that this is my bedroom and it was you who insinuated yourself into it.’

Releasing his hold on her chin, he stepped back. ‘Do it.’

Alice’s heart skipped a beat as she gazed up at the powerful, dynamic man looking down at her. Masculine pride and granite determination was sculpted into every angle and plane of his swarthy face and cynicism had etched lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth. Relenting, knowing she would get no peace unless she did, she turned to the door to do his bidding.

They awaited Lady Marchington’s arrival in silence. From beneath dark brows, Lord Tremain observed Alice with close attention, and with quiet patience he waited for Lady Margaret Hislop, like a cat before a mouse hole.

With arms folded, Alice slowly paced the carpet, aware that the brooding Lord Tremain’s gaze was fixed on her, holding her in its silvery depths. Suddenly she was the captive of those fathomless eyes, but she gave his attention the lack of regard it deserved. Yet she found it hard to be at ease with his gaze following her with an intensity and vibrancy to which she was not accustomed. And if his staring were not unsettling enough, he seemed to possess some mysterious power over her traitorous gaze, as now and then she could not prevent it straying in his direction. It was as if his keen appraisal were tangible—she could feel the heat and weight of it, as surely and distractingly as if he were trailing the tips of his fingers over her flesh.

Feeling a flush bloom in her cheeks, she looked away when the door opened and Lady Marchington walked into the room.

Lady Marchington’s eyes honed in on the man who stood by the fire. When he turned his head and she saw his familiar features her face blanched and her hand lifted to her throat. Her mouth tightened itself into a hard, unattractive line. Confusion, then belligerence, clouded her obdurate features and her narrow face became etched with bitter scorn.

The bow he gave her was sufficiently formal to send a chill through her, but at the same time acted as spur to her determination to keep him away from Roberta. Lady Marchington had recently learned of Lord Tremain’s past, a past he had tried to keep secret, of how he had been captured and held as a slave in North Africa. She had been totally ignorant of this dark past a year ago when she had agreed to a betrothal between him and Roberta. Had it been made known to her then, she would never have given her consent.

Since that day he had become a malignant presence in her mind—a man tainted by what had been done to him, frightful, barbarous things she could not begin to imagine and had no wish to, since to do so was utterly repellent to her. No man could emerge from eight years of slavery in North Africa and not be affected by it. From the moment she had learned of his past, even though it was not of his doing, she had decided that should he return and try to resume his betrothal to Roberta, she would not allow it. The thought of someone as naive and gentle as Roberta being joined in matrimony to such a man was inconceivable. Besides, his pedigree was way below that of Viscount Pemberton.

She assessed this new situation and chose her strategy on the instant. This dramatic and what could have been a very public invasion of the evening’s event displayed that supreme arrogance only achieved through the acquisition of power. Her instincts warned her that she was under threat, but she could not, must not, allow herself to be disadvantaged on her own territory and within sight and hearing of her guests. At all costs her machinations to remove Roberta from her association with Ewen Tremain must be prevented from raising its dangerous head before so many witnesses waiting to receive the latest society scandal.

When she had ended her visit to Paris with Roberta and returned to promenade her in London society in search of a worthier suitor, she had avoided any association with the lower-ranked gentlemen as one might avoid physical contact with the plague. It was fortunate that as soon as he laid eyes on Roberta, Viscount Pemberton was completely enamoured—a sure sign that Providence was supporting her ambition for her niece. Indeed, Lady Marchington was prepared to concede that Fate’s method of bringing Roberta within proposing distance of the Viscount was more ingenious than anything she might have engineered. And now here was Lord Tremain, in London from wherever he had spent the last twelve months since he had left, ready to take up where he had left off.

Her face was hostile, her heart cold as she faced Ewen Tremain. ‘Surely, sir, you are a little late in the day showing your face?’

‘You are perfectly correct, Countess.’ Lord Tremain’s voice was clipped. ‘I was obliged to delay my return for family reasons. I must ask you to excuse me, but you must remember, at the same time, that it does not interfere with my betrothal to your niece.’

‘You are mistaken. There was nothing in writing. You have no claim on my niece—no claim at all. How dare you force your way into my home! And why are you here—in Miss Frobisher’s bedchamber? It is most inappropriate.’

Lord Tremain glanced at the young woman clutching her robe about her person. Frobisher! The name seemed familiar, but he could not place it just then. ‘I apologise for any embarrassment I may have caused. It was not my intention. I imagine Miss Frobisher will explain how I come to be here later. I wrote informing you I would be back next month. However, as things turned out, I found I was able to return sooner—and just in time, it would seem. I believe the festivities taking place as we speak are to celebrate the betrothal of Roberta to Viscount Pemberton.’

‘Roberta is no longer betrothed to you, Lord Tremain. You are correct. Tonight she has become betrothed to Viscount Pemberton, the Earl of Winterworth’s eldest son.’

Ewen’s lips formed a grim smile. ‘I see you have been busy in my absence, Lady Marchington. I expected to be treated with all the welcome of a rabid dog. You do not disappoint me.’

‘Then I have achieved something after all. I did not expect you to come here.’

His mildly amused smile did not waver as his gaze settled on the face of the woman whom he considered had tricked him. ‘And why is that? You must have known I would not stay away forever.’

‘The longer you stayed away, the more I hoped you would. My trust in you was misplaced.’

Alice stepped into the shadows to observe the bitter altercation between these two, her eyes drawn more and more to Lord Tremain. The candlelight touched on his face and for a split second she was halted by the cold, stark features. He was Satan to her. Handsome. Ruthless. Evil? She had no way of knowing, but at that moment she had an overwhelming desire to flee the room and leave them alone.

His long, finely boned hands testified that he was indeed a gentleman, except that some of his fingers bore faint scars—almost as if he’d once been forced to perform heavy labour. His prominent cheekbones slanted attractively and there were tiny lines at the corners of his eyes, fine lines as if he had spent too much time squinting into the sun. His mouth with its attractive straight lips hinted of disapproval and she felt laughing, much like smiling, was alien to him. She was intrigued, for she felt that he had not always been so, that he had once been a merrier soul, but that something had driven the joy from his life.

When Lord Tremain caught her looking at him, Alice dropped her eyes. Gazing at her directly, he glimpsed a soft, slightly parted mouth and eyes so deep a shade of blue they stirred his imagination no small amount.

He didn’t raise his voice, but when he responded to Lady Marchington’s remark, the authority in it was clear all the same. ‘As far as I am concerned the promises I made to Roberta before I went away are binding. I always carry out what I promise. When both you and Roberta failed to reply to my letters, you forced my hand, which is why I am here now.’

Alice stared at Lady Marchington, whose expression had not changed. She was suddenly confused, which deepened as she uttered an enquiry. ‘But, Lady Marchington, I was led to understand there had been no word of Lord Tremain since he left Roberta in Paris.’

Lady Marchington glanced at Alice, feeling a stab of unreasonable irritation against the girl. Making no comment, she faced Lord Tremain. She had been caught out in her deception, but it did not concern her. So great had been her determination to keep him away from Roberta, that she had kept his letters from her and burned all his correspondence without a qualm. Yet she felt the crawling prickle upon her nape as the full weight of Lord Tremain’s accusing gaze fell on her.

‘I had Roberta’s best interest at heart. Yes, I kept the letters from her, Lord Tremain. I admit it and have no conscience for having done so. I know what happened to you before I became acquainted with you in Paris. How could you possibly expect me to consider you a fit suitor for my niece after hearing that?’

Lord Tremain’s expression froze. Apart from his close family and his fellow sailors who had shared his incarceration, the world at large knew nothing of the years he had spent in captivity—although it came as no surprise that the truth had surfaced now. ‘And that would have made a difference?’

‘Of course it would. You were less than honest with me. My main concern was how Roberta would react to such knowledge. I wanted to protect her.’ A sudden flame leapt in Lord Tremain’s eyes and she sensed the murderous anger behind his stare. ‘Indeed, what happened to you left me wondering if your experiences at the hands of your captors had affected you in ways I could not begin to imagine. Roberta is of a gentle nature. By agreeing to her becoming the wife of a man with such a dark and troubled past was a risk I was not prepared to take.’

Ewen’s eyes narrowed into glittering slits and he stared back at her as if she had struck him a physical blow. A thousand memories of his suffering rushed through his mind and coursed like poison through his veins, when the shadow of death had darkened the days that slipped by and fear had tortured his soul.

He leaned forward slightly, his eyes intense. ‘Madam, your words are of the vilest nature! You may hide behind your title and your wealth, but beneath all your fine airs and graces you have the manners of a shrew. Were you a man I’d demand satisfaction for what you have just said.’

Lady Marchington’s expression was one of scorn and contempt. ‘I do not doubt it. I expect you learned that kind of brutality at the hands of your captors.’

The words Ewen would have uttered turned to ashes in his throat. His pride refused to let him divulge the torment that still bled in the core of his heart after all this time.

Watching him closely, Alice saw Lord Tremain was wearing the same grim expression she had seen when she had become aware of him in her room. He looked strained with the intensity of his emotions, but slowly, little by little, he was getting a grip on himself. His shoulders were squared, his jaw set and rigid with implacable determination, and even in this pensive pose he seemed to emanate restrained power and unyielding authority.

‘I hope I have made my feelings clear.’

‘As crystal, Countess, so that even a misfit like myself can understand.’ Her cold, insulting slight had brought him rudely to his senses, a cutting reminder of the impossibility of any further association between Roberta and himself.

‘Roberta is to wed Viscount Pemberton. No woman in her right mind would give up the like of his title and wealth for a man who has lived as you have lived.’

‘As a slave,’ Ewen stated with sharp icy clarity, ‘and not of my choosing, I assure you. I did not go to the villains of my own free will.’

‘I do not imagine you did. But you cannot escape the fact that the taint of slavery still hangs over you. You shall probably never shake free of its degrading grip. I feel I should also remind you that you are also a Roman Catholic and a defender of the Jacobites.’

‘I do not need reminding of my faith. I am a defender of my family.’

‘With a brother who was involved in plans to bring James Stuart back to the throne—a brother who fought at Culloden—and afterwards his whole family were held to be traitors.’

‘It is my brother Simon you speak of,’ Lord Tremain replied, his voice thick with unsuppressed wrath. ‘Whatever he has done in the past, he has suffered at the hands of those people who wish harm to the Catholic church.’

‘If he were my brother, I should have become a Protestant long ago. All your troubles might then have been avoided.’

‘I do not think my brother ought to be censured for doing what he believed was right. Had I been of an age, he would have had my full and active support.’

Ewen felt a perverse pleasure in seeing the Countess’s face blanch at his carefully flung remark. He was surprised also by how angry her attack had made him. He had certainly never considered himself a defender of the Jacobites, not even of his own religion, but the Countess had forced from him a loyalty that he had not known before. After all, Simon had been stripped of his right to property and position. It was easy enough to forget now that twenty years had elapsed since the battle that had blighted his family and the Scots loyal to King James.

‘Nevertheless, it is one of the reasons why I cannot countenance a marriage between you and my niece.’ A mild-mannered woman might have quaked beneath the murderous contempt Lord Tremain directed at her, but Lady Marchington had never known anything but wealth and power. Her imperious disposition had been carefully nurtured by a demanding father, who had instilled in her the importance of aristocratic breeding and the family’s pre-eminent ranking above worthier nobles than Lord Tremain. ‘It is done.’

‘Is it?’ With those two words hanging in the air he turned away. Halfway across the room he turned and looked back. ‘Have a care, Countess,’ he warned. ‘Have a care, for I would not hesitate to expose your most intimate family linen to the scrutiny of the illustrious company partaking of your hospitality below.’

Lady Marchington paled. ‘You wouldn’t dare.’

‘Oh, no? Try me,’ he challenged. ‘We both know there is one member of your own family whose connections to the Jacobites could not withstand the most scrupulous examination. I believe you know what I am talking about.’

He had hit a nerve. His words made Lady Marchington recoil. Her voice was barely audible. ‘How dare you?’

‘But I do dare. Where is he now, Countess? Or perhaps you have no idea since you quietly disowned him after he, too, fought at Culloden. You may not wish to know, but I will tell you anyway. He is in Italy, and on occasion in France, with Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince. Although after all the years the Prince has spent in idleness and good living, he is not quite so bonnie these days.’

Lady Marchington stared at him in horrified silence as she weighed up his words. Should it come out that her only brother was a Jacobite who had once taken up arms against the King, it would be the society scandal of the year. There were many who would like to see the proud and mighty Countess of Marchington brought low. She would not allow that to happen.

‘Whatever else you claim to be, sir, you are not a gentleman.’

His lips curled scornfully. ‘Did you expect to find one from the slave pens of Morocco?’

‘What are you trying to do? Destroy Roberta?’

‘Destroy Roberta?’ Lord Tremain echoed with a twisted smile on his firm lips. ‘Oh, no. I am not here to harm Roberta. I intend to marry her. As God is my witness, Countess,’ he grated out, ‘I shall see our bargain carried through.’

Lady Marchington must have been aware of Lord Tremain’s anger, for whatever she saw in his eyes made her let the matter rest without further discussion.

The moment caused a peculiar unease and Alice felt a little chilled when she looked at Lady Marchington and saw her staring at Lord Tremain. She could not begin to recognise the depth of Lady Marchington’s fury, but she saw the taut rage emanating from every line of her body. There was a look of such cold calculation in her eyes as they rested on Lord Tremain that Alice felt the cold hand of fear race up her own spine.

Lord Tremain turned sharply on his heel and headed for the door.

Alice took a step forward, wondering if he would acknowledge her, but he was encased in his anger and resentment and either did not or would not see her. She watched him go with a feeling that Lord Tremain was a man with no room for forgiveness or emotion. Dismissing her without a glance, he strode to the door and went out, letting it swing shut behind him with a bang that echoed in the very depths of her heart.

Bringing herself erect, Lady Marchington cast a steely eye on Alice. ‘What you have heard in this room tonight you will never speak of. Do you understand me, Alice? Roberta must not know of this.’

‘Yes—yes, of course,’ she murmured.

Without another word Lady Marchington walked out of the room.

* * *

A while later, lying in bed with her eyes wide open, Alice reflected on the strange occurrence that had taken place in her chamber and the man who had disrupted the events of the evening. What had happened to him to make him so objectionable? She suspected there was more to it than his broken engagement to Roberta. What Lady Marchington had disclosed about his past disturbed her. He had been a slave, she had said. How could that be? Alice wondered. There was something indestructible about Lord Tremain, something fear-provoking that made her shiver.

* * *

Ewen left the house with a firestorm of humiliated fury erupting from his heart, burning its way through every nerve, every vein and every artery. His pulse pounded out a primal drumbeat as he strode through the snow to where Amir was waiting with a horse.

With Roberta Hislop by his side, he had been looking forward to beginning a life as near normal as was possible for him. So he had been taken aback to find Lady Marchington had betrothed her to someone else—a Viscount, no less. He clenched his mouth in a grim line in roiling anger and persistent shame of himself, of the monster he had become.

The pain was back again. Not the crippling pain he had felt from the wounds inflicted on him by the whip, but the other, the bad, the unthinkable hurt that was inside him. It had no definite location, but filled the whole of him. It was inside and out, expanding until it tore through his veins.

During his years in captivity, where torture, deprivation and helplessness—compounded by Etta’s treachery—had driven him to the brink of madness, he had struggled to retain his grip on sanity. He had sustained himself by focusing his mind on escaping his torturers and returning to the world as he had known it to pursue a normal life.

In his mood of dismal self-loathing, his eyes were often fierce. They were wild sometimes—with pain, with passion. Sometimes when he was alone, they were deep and dark and brooding—haunted, as he had been when he’d gone to live with his brother in Bordeaux after his captivity. His family had worried about him. They could not conceal it. He could not wipe out what had been done to him.

‘Ewen,’ his brother had said, ‘you will either be destroyed by it—or you will change it. There won’t be any compromises.’

His brother had been right. He would not let what had happened to him destroy him. But he was a changed man, no longer the light-hearted youth who had loved life and lived it to the full.

That honest part of his mind, that he had no control over, whispered, You would give your soul to be like him again, wouldn’t you, Ewen? To laugh as he had once laughed, to be witty and gay, to dance and whisper words like pearls into a woman’s ear.

On meeting Roberta—sweet, innocent Roberta—he’d believed he had been given a second chance at an untainted life. He would not allow Lady Marchington to rob him of that. He was Lord Ewen Tremain, master of Barradine, a man of honour. Having lost his dignity and self-respect for eight years of his life, it was important for him to assert his place in the world and fulfil past obligations.

A voice inside his head told him he should forget Roberta. To hell with her and her sweet and gentle face, her refined manners and her fine friends and her brilliant Viscount. He didn’t need her. He didn’t need anyone, but he could not, would not, leave Lady Marchington with the upper hand. She did not deserve to get off the hook so easily. It was intolerable to his pride and he would not let it rest.

He almost had the old woman, but not quite. He had to play his last card.

Taking a sealed letter from his pocket and a small purse of coin, he handed them to Amir. ‘Take these, Amir. Find one of the servants who will deliver the letter to Miss Hislop. Bribe them if you must, but instruct them to be discreet.’

* * *

After Ewen returned to his lodgings, his mind remained occupied with the evening’s events and the indomitable Countess of Marchington. But the last thing he thought of before he went to sleep was the young woman whose teeth had punctured his flesh when she had fought to defend herself from him, of the gentle fragrance of her perfume and the warmth and feel of her body when he had held her close.

Their meeting had affected him. As they had waited for Lady Marchington, he recalled how intrigued he had been at the way her hair had seemed to twine of its own free will about her shoulders. As his eyes had passed over her face, he was rather amazed to find the shape and delicate structure appealed to his senses. Her slender nose had the sauciest tilt, her eyelids the longest, darkest lashes, her brows were wide-sweeping above eyes that had seemed the bluest blue he had ever seen.

* * *

The following morning while the house was being set to rights following the ball, with Roberta and Lady Marchington still abed, Alice ordered the carriage and left the house to obtain sufficient funds with which to pay Duncan Forbes for information about her father. She hated having to sell some of her jewellery, but William had made her Lady Marchington’s ward until she either reached twenty-one or married, and she did not have direct access to the money William had placed at her disposal.

A pawnbroker in Drury Lane bought her jewels for a fraction of their value, but it was enough to pay Mr Forbes when she kept their appointment later in the afternoon.

* * *

When Alice returned to the house, Roberta followed her into her room. There was a wild, almost desperate look about her. Alice looked at her with concern.

‘Why, Roberta, what on earth is the matter? What has happened to make you look so anxious?’

‘Alice, I am beset by a grave problem,’ she murmured dismally. ‘Something quite dreadful has occurred and I need your help desperately. There is no one else I can ask.’

Alice stared at her, wondering what on earth could have happened. ‘I cannot help until I know the nature of the problem. What troubles you, Roberta? Why do you say such a thing?’

‘A letter has been delivered to me from Lord Tremain. It was given to my maid. It would appear he is in London. Oh, Alice, what am I to do?’

Alice looked at her sharply. ‘Lord Tremain? But—what did the letter say and why did he not come to the house?’

‘He did. This morning. But according to my maid, Aunt Margaret told Simpson to say she wasn’t at home to him. He wants to meet me. But how can I? After all this time? Where has he been since he pledged his troth to me?’

‘When does he suggest you meet? Where?’

‘This afternoon at four o’clock—in the park. But of course I couldn’t possibly. Aunt Margaret would have a seizure. It’s quite out of the question.’

‘Yes—yes, of course it is.’ Alice’s brow puckered in a thoughtful frown. It was clear to her that Lady Marchington had said nothing to her niece about Lord Tremain’s visit the night before and did not intend to. Alice would not betray her confidence, even though she felt like a traitor for not doing so.

‘I do not want my association with Lord Tremain to jeopardise my betrothal to Hugh.’ Tears welled up in her eyes. ‘Oh, Alice, I couldn’t bear it. Will you help me? Will you go to Lord Tremain and explain why I cannot see him, that under the circumstances it would not be appropriate?’

There was such anguish in her eyes that Alice was deeply moved by it. She was sensitive to Roberta’s uncertainty and understood only too well the troubling disquiet Lord Tremain could rouse in a newly betrothed’s breast. ‘I’ll do what I can,’ she promised. ‘Where can I find him?’

‘He said he would be looking out for me. Please don’t tell Aunt Margaret, Alice. When you explain to Lord Tremain that I am betrothed to someone else, I am certain he will understand and not trouble us again.’

* * *

Extremely uneasy about her meeting with Lord Tremain, Alice waited until she had to leave in a state of nervous tension. She had arranged to meet Mr Forbes half an hour after her rendezvous with Lord Tremain. When it was time, she left the house by a back entrance.

Slipping into the park, she covered her head with the hood of her warm cloak. Low leaden clouds dulled the light and deepened the gloom beneath the trees. Spitting snow stung her face and the wind wailed a mournful lament as it swept over the park. Thankfully the awful weather had kept most people indoors so it was relatively quiet, but there was a group of people hurrying by that she recognised, neighbours and acquaintances of Lady Marchington. They passed her, but by their curious looks Alice was certain they had recognised her.

Looking to her right, she could see a coach drawn by two horses with a lighted lantern waiting a little off. A driver sat huddled in a greatcoat holding the reins, his breath steaming before him in the cold air. It looked empty and the air was so bitterly cold that she shivered and hurried on. A sudden eerie feeling slithered down her spine and compelled her to turn her head and look back. There against the snow she saw her silhouette cast, but creeping stealthily towards her shadow from either side were a pair of other shapes, large and threatening shapes of men dressed in full capes and broad-brimmed hats.

‘That’s her! It must be,’ a muffled voice said. ‘Stop, miss,’ the voice shouted. ‘We would have a word with you if you don’t mind.’

Alice breathed deeply in an attempt to quell the trembling that had suddenly taken hold of her. The park, which suddenly seemed quite unrecognisable, seemed to be full of phantoms. They moved without a sound and this silence only added to the nightmare situation of the scene.

‘Damn it!’ one of the men uttered. ‘This is not the kind of night to be hangin’ about. She’s gettin’ away. Get somethin’ to tether her with, Taff. You saw how eager ’e was to ’ave her. Our lives won’t be worth tuppence if we go back empty-handed.’

Sprightly and spirited, Alice did not hesitate another moment. She dashed in the direction of the place where she had arranged to meet Duncan Forbes, her feet, though hampered by the snow, racing in time to her swiftly beating heart.

Before she had covered half the distance, the two men had quickly overtaken her. A long arm stretched out and closed tightly about her waist, snatching her from her feet and pulling her back against a solid and unyielding unknown chest. Appalled at this rude handling of her person, Alice struggled and kicked her heels against the man’s shins. Only the sound of heavy breathing told her she had not been spirited away by ghosts.

‘Get your hands off me, you—you swine.’

‘Not a chance, love. You’re comin’ with us. Docile as a lamb, he said,’ one of the voices grumbled. ‘More like a she-cat if you ask me.’

Alice opened her mouth to scream, but the sound died away on her lips, stifled, not by that strange paralysis which follows a particularly terrifying dream, but by a large and unmistakably solid hand which had been clapped over her mouth. Now she was being wrapped in a large sheet of some kind, one end of which was flung over her head.

‘Make it a little quicker, Hicks,’ a muffled voice said.

‘I’m doing me best.’

Terrified, Alice found herself in total suffocating darkness as ropes were wrapped round to secure her. She fought desperately against imminent suffocation and driving panic.

‘Be still, lady,’ one of the men ordered. ‘We don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.’

‘You brutes!’ Alice cried. ‘How dare you do this?’

Hicks could not find words to soothe the girl’s ire. She had much cause to feel offended and he could not blame her for resenting them. Perhaps all would be well when she saw the master.

‘We’ve been charged with your safety. We have to get you to the master in one piece.’

Alice stilled. The master! Who was the master? Who were these men and what did they want? She heard hushed voices, voices she did not recognise, and then felt herself being carried along. She couldn’t scream because her mouth was muffled by the heavy sheet. After a short time she was put down—not roughly, but with some care, which she thought odd. It was as though they did not wish to hurt her. She must be on the floor of a coach because the driver of the conveyance—probably the coach she had seen loitering on entering the park—urged the horses on almost at once. The pace was slow, almost deliberate, and Alice’s spirits plummeted as she found little hope of rescue.

After several minutes the carriage picked up pace. In her suffocating confinement she did not know that it was leaving Piccadilly behind and was now rattling along the road to the north. Her blood congealed with terror. This hideous adventure was like a nightmare from which there would be no awakening. She was like a trapped bird flinging herself against the bars of her cage, but only succeeding in hurting herself.

The cord-bound sheet restricted her movements and held her arms pinned to her sides. As the horses’ hooves threw up splatterings of muddied snow with each step, Alice wriggled in her dark retreat, trying to loosen the choking folds of cloth, but there was no room to move. Her mind ranged far and wide, conjuring up a thousand evil deeds which might be done to her. She realised then that she was being kidnapped. But by whom? And why would anyone want to? For what reason? What was their intent? These terrible apprehensions dragging out the unknown played on her nerves so that the rattling of the wheels over the rutted road was as nothing compared to the wild beating of her heart.

Neither of her companions had spoken for some time. She might have panicked and struggled and kicked against her bonds, but aware of the presence of her abductors and not knowing who they were or what they were capable of, realising that all resistance would be useless, she was persuaded to hold herself still and hope she would soon be released of her bonds.

Yet she did wonder if these men had captured her for their pleasure? A cold, agonising dread congealed within her, but she finally and firmly settled the matter in her mind that if this was indeed so, then she would at least give them a fight worthy of her strength. She had been well tutored by Philippe, and though she had the body of a feeble woman, she had the temperament and determination of a brawler.

‘Bit still, don’t you think?’ a man’s voice said.

‘I think she’s fainted,’ his companion answered.

‘Better for us if she has.’

The journey dragged on and the longer she was confined, the more her discomfort increased. She grimaced as the carriage lurched around a bend. The bumps and jolts were making themselves painfully felt along every inch of her body. With her back and hips pressed to the floor, with no padding to cushion her, she began to suffer aches and pains in areas of her body she didn’t know existed and, as illogical as the idea seemed, she began to wonder if she would emerge from her torture alive. Unable to guess how long the journey would take, gradually she grew more weary and numb and her mind, seeking relief from her distress, began to wander. In the stuffy confines her eyes closed and she drifted into some semblance of sleep.

* * *

The coach had passed through heavy iron gates and along a tree-lined avenue leading up to a house. The gravel sweep and smooth lawns were hidden beneath deep drifts of snow.

Suddenly the carriage came to a halt, bringing Alice immediately alert. A cold, agonising dread congealed within her and left her heart thudding heavily in her breast. One of the men spoke in muted tones and there was the sound of the door opening. Then she was being hauled out of the coach. The cloth became loose about her head and a gap appeared close to her mouth. Swaying and breathing in the cold night air, she felt life begin to flow back into her body. A helpless, plaintive cry escaped her lips before a hand was clamped over her mouth and she was lifted off her feet. Against her struggles to escape, she was carried up some steps.

Her tormentor cursed suddenly and snatched his hand away from the sharp teeth that tested the flesh of his palm. He set the slender form on her feet and then jerked back abruptly as her small foot came free of the cloth and kicked out with vicious intent, hitting her target and eliciting a satisfying yelp. She was pushed on to a sofa where she sprawled in a heap.

Struggling to toss back the restricting cloth and glancing up, she saw two men bending over her, looking stupidly down at her, one of them rubbing his sore hand. Focusing her eyes, to her surprise she saw these men didn’t appear to be unduly awful and dangerous. The man she would come to know as Hicks was quite tall and of strong build with light brown hair and kindly brown eyes. The other man, Taff, was short and stout with unruly dark hair and twinkling pale blue eyes. Neither looked capable of doing the evil deed they had been charged with.

But this was ridiculous. How could she feel this softening towards them after suffering their rough treatment? Anger was now beginning to overcome her fear, reviving her instinct for self-preservation.

‘You—you idiots!’ she cried, still struggling with the cloth. ‘Halfwits! Why have you done this? Why have you brought me here? Who ordered you to abduct me?’

A masterful voice rang out. ‘What the hell have we here? Remove the cover and hurry up about it.’

The two men jumped in sudden alarm when they turned and saw a tall, cloaked figure sweep into the hall as if blown in by the blizzard raging outside. White flurries whirled about him in a frenzy. Slamming the door shut on the howling curtain of snow that was threatening to invade the hall, he strode towards them, removing his heavy cloak and tossing it over a chair.

The fretting Hicks was the first to relent. ‘’Tis the young mistress, m’lord,’ he said, sounding as if he had a blockage in his throat. Then he cleared it and said, ‘We’ve brought her as you instructed.’


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