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Диксон Хелен

Conspiracy Of Hearts

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«Conspiracy Of Hearts» - Хелен Диксон

Taming SerenaSerena Carberry first met Lord Christopher Brodie when he saved her from assault by the wretched Sir Thomas Blackwell–who vowed revenge on them both. Horrified to learn that Kit is to stay with her father at Carberry Hall, Serena is unable to forget that the dashingly handsome young man has witnessed her unwitting indiscretion. But when her father is implicated in a Catholic plot against the king, it is Kit who comes to Serena's rescue. Loving him could only be a mistake, when the turmoil surrounding them is bound to tear them apart. Should she dare to risk her heart?
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“Well?” Serena snapped irritably.

“Well?” Serena snapped irritably.

“What are you gawping and grinning at? Is it your intention to finish what Thomas Blackwell began?”

Unperturbed by her anger, Kit laughed. “If you believe that, I can only assume that the fiery color of your hair has baked your brain.”

“Do you think that because I was unwilling to succumb to his vile attentions I might be more amenable toward yourself? I have a care for my virtue and am particularly choosy who I surrender it to!”

Kit chuckled. “I don’t doubt it!”

Conspiracy of Hearts

Helen Dickson


was born and still lives in south Yorkshire with her husband on a busy arable farm where she combines writing with keeping a chaotic farmhouse. An incurable romantic, she writes for pleasure, owing much of her inspiration to the beauty of the surrounding countryside. She enjoys reading and music. History has always captivated her, and she likes travel and visiting ancient buildings.


Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen


Chapter One


Riding beside her brother Andrew—a Jesuit priest in his late twenties, who had been home to Dunedin Hall in Warwickshire for three weeks and was returning to his priestly duties at the Vatican in Rome—Serena Carberry sighed with deep regret at their parting. It had been so good having him home again.

Pride stirred her heart at the sight of him. Never had she seen a man who looked less like a priest. Officially all priests were classed as criminals by the Government, and so it was necessary for them to disguise themselves in order to avoid detection, which was why Andrew was garbed in the fine apparel of a gentleman, consisting of a deep purple velvet doublet, puffed trunk hose of the same hue, and a short matching cloak lavishly embroidered with gold thread around a high stiff collar.

His features were tanned by the hot Mediterranean sun, and his auburn hair fell to his shoulders from beneath a purple toque. With all this, together with his humorous mouth and laughing green eyes, he possessed all the charm and sophistication of a gallant one would expect to see at the court of King James.

Andrew looked at his sister with a deep and abiding affection. ‘I’m glad you accompanied me so far, Serena. I could not have wished for a prettier escort.’

‘I wish you didn’t have to go, Andrew, but I know you must. It’s far too dangerous for you to remain in England. But I miss you and James dreadfully,’ Serena said sadly.

James was their younger brother who was a pupil at the Jesuit school at St Omer, near Calais, a school which attracted the children of wealthy Catholic families in England. For a young Catholic man to be educated with the possibility of obtaining a university degree in England, it would compromise his faith, as it would involve taking the Oath of Supremacy—an oath acknowledging the supreme spiritual authority of the Crown instead of the Pope, one that no Catholic could swear, which was why any kind of education was sought abroad.

‘I’m glad you are to see him before going on to Rome,’ Serena went on. ‘You have my letter to him safe, don’t you?’

Andrew patted a pocket in his doublet. ‘I have it next to my heart. I intend spending several days with James before travelling on to Rome.’

Andrew studied his sister, struck by her beauty, by the vibrant colour of her auburn hair and the burning luminosity of her eyes. In the two years he had been in Rome, she had changed in a way that delighted him, and also filled him with misgivings, for she had bloomed into an extremely lovely and exotic creature who would be sure to draw the attention of every hot-blooded male.

At nineteen she was still headstrong, with an uncurbed wildness to her spirit. The bones of the adolescent girl had fleshed out, becoming rounded and supple. Her heart-shaped face, with its angular cheekbones, the dark wings of her eyebrows and twin orbs of her vivid green eyes were both captivating and bewitching. When she smiled her soft lips curved upwards, betraying the sensuality of the woman she had become.

‘You will take care, won’t you, Andrew?’

‘I will. But Father worries me. He follows the dictates of his religion and his conscience too rigorously for my peace of mind. He’s never slow to voice his opinion—which may lead to trouble. In this time of renewed persecution against the Catholics in England—since King James has not the slightest intention of tolerating the old faith—he must be diligent.’

‘I know. But ever since the king ordered all priests to be put to death, and imposing severe fines for recusancy once more, there is little wonder Father is angry. Nowhere in England can the Mass be celebrated. If a priest is caught saying Mass, his punishment is death by the most gruesome means. Small wonder priests live under aliases, not only to protect themselves but also their families.’

‘Which is why I am returning to Rome. There are many priests in England being forced to live in a twilight world, but their presence does enable you to maintain those rituals which are important to the faith.’

‘With great danger to all involved,’ Serena replied. Like many other Catholics who attended Church of England services as required by the state, she secretly went to Mass in one or another of their recusant friends’ houses. ‘The mood of optimism that prevailed when King James came to the English throne is not what we hoped,’ she said bitterly. ‘Indeed, he is proving to be as harsh a monarch as Queen Elizabeth was before him.’

Coming to the fork in the road where her brother would leave her, Serena halted her mount and looked at him, her lovely eyes troubled. ‘But why speak of it now, Andrew?’

‘Because I’m going away and I worry about you both alone at Dunedin Hall.’

Serena cocked her head sideways, giving him a suspicious look. ‘And do you know something that gives you cause to worry?’

‘Nothing for certain, only rumours that have been bandied about in Rome. But ever since the king introduced the bill in April classing all Catholics as outlaws—and the signing of the Anglo-Spanish Treaty in August, dashing all hopes of Spanish intervention to aid the Catholic cause—it has caused a great deal of unrest.’

‘Are you saying there are those among us who would conspire against the king?’ Serena asked in a shocked voice.

‘If so, it will not be for the first time. I suspect that something ugly is about to manifest itself, but I must stress that that is all it is—suspicion. I will not reveal the source of my information. The less you know, the safer you will be.’

‘I respect your concern for my well-being, Andrew, but if something is afoot I’d rather know about it. I suspect your information comes from a reliable source, otherwise you would not have come all this way to warn Father. That is your reason for coming to England, isn’t it?’

Looking into her questioning eyes, Andrew began to regret speaking of so grave a matter which would only trouble her. ‘I came because I wanted to see you and Father. I miss you both greatly. The information I have is not all that reliable. Indeed, what is these days?’

‘But how did you learn that something is afoot in England when you live in Rome?’ Serena asked, determined to glean as much information from her brother as she could before he left her.

‘The king’s chief minister, the Earl of Salisbury, has an energetic network of spies everywhere—not only in Flanders and Spain but also in Italy—so we do hear of the occasional conspiracy being hatched in England. The treacherous intriguers abroad provide a rich source of information for Salisbury in exchange for pardons and their own advancements. There are Catholics in England who hold on to the hope of liberalisation in the wake of the treaty with Spain, but there are those who are impatient and will not be quiet and will do whatever they can to bring about change.’

‘And would you have them be quiet?’

‘Yes. England and Spain were at war for many years and now we have peace. The diplomatic solution must be allowed to prevail over the Catholic situation in England. I believe we should trust in God to bring about toleration in His own good time. Be vigilant, Serena. Should you hear of any conspiracies being hatched, I beg you to persuade father to distance himself. If not, then I fear that he and any conspirator will be crushed and not escape with their lives.’

After bidding him a fond farewell, Serena, deeply troubled, watched her brother go on his way. There had been a deep concern in his eyes, a warning when he had told her to be vigilant.

Eliza Nugent, the housekeeper at Dunedin Hall, which was a rambling rose-coloured brick house situated on the outskirts of the village of Ripley, between Stratford-on-Avon and Warwick, threw her arms up in despair when she caught Serena sneaking out of the house when it was almost time for Sir Henry’s guest to arrive.

In the five years since her mother’s death, Serena had changed in a way that worried Eliza. Her wilfulness would lead her into trouble one day if Sir Henry didn’t set about finding her a husband soon. Perhaps if he’d spent as much time guiding her along the path of goodness and beating the waywardness out of her, as he did on religious matters and travelling across to Flanders to see young James, then perhaps she would have turned out as her dear departed mother would have wished.

‘Upon my soul,’ Eliza scolded, ‘where do you think you’re off to? Your father wants you here when the marquess of Thurlow arrives.’

Serena threw Eliza a cross look, which relaxed into a sweet, disarming smile as she set about trying to placate her. Eliza would be outraged if she knew the reason that drew her towards the village. The ageing housekeeper would go directly to her father with the information, who would be equally outraged and order Serena to her room immediately.

‘Don’t fret so, Eliza—and please don’t lecture me,’ Serena complained with a toss of her lovely head. ‘The marquess should have arrived hours ago and I will not sit about waiting for him any longer. I won’t be gone very long, I promise.’

‘But it’s almost dark.’

‘I’m going to the stables. I want John to saddle Polly first thing in the morning. It’s hoped that the marquess will buy two of our horses, and I suspect that he and Father will be in the saddle early to try them out before leaving for Woodfield Grange. Lord Payne has invited them to take part in the hunt, and it’s expected that a large party from nearby Coughton Court—which Sir Everard Digby has rented for a few weeks—will attend.’

Horses, after his religion, were her father’s abiding passion. Possessing some prime horseflesh, he was immensely proud of his large stable, which was envied and praised by many in the surrounding counties. He was also an expert horseman, who adored his gun dogs and his falcons.

Sir Henry was also a devout Catholic who had led an eventful and troubled life, having frequently wielded his sword during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the hope of improving the Catholic lot. This and being a leading recusant—a man among many others of his faith who refused to submit to the authority of, or comply with, the Protestant religion—had resulted in hefty fines and frequent spells of imprisonment; on one occasion when he was confined in the Tower, torture was applied.

However, his spirit remained undimmed, and his crusade for toleration and liberty for Catholics to be allowed to practice their religion openly in England went on. Serena wished he would take Andrew’s advice and be more acquiescing, trusting in God to bring about the conversion in His own good time.

An additional worry was the apprehension she felt each time he went to Flanders. Ostensibly he went to visit James and some of his friends, who chose to live there in order to practice their religion freely, but Serena was uncomfortably aware of his close association with a widow, a Mrs Davis, whose husband had left her a wealthy woman with two children.

According to Andrew, who had met Mrs Davis on the occasions he had passed through Flanders, she was hankering after a proposal of marriage from their father. But he was as reluctant to leave England and his horses as Mrs Davis was to leave Flanders and her freedom to practise her Catholic religion unhindered. Unless a compromise was reached, this was how things would remain between them; secretly Serena, not wanting to see another woman take her mother’s place, hoped it would stay that way.

After leaving John, foolishly and heedless of any dangers, Serena took the darkening lane to the village, all thoughts of her father’s guest, the marquess of Thurlow, banished from her mind. The man was a stranger to her, definable only by his name; the only interest he aroused in her was because he might want to buy two of her father’s magnificent horses.

The name of the man Serena wanted so much to set eyes on blazed through her like a comet. Her mind had been in a whirl ever since Eliza had let slip earlier that Thomas Blackwell had returned from fighting in the Low Countries. Prolonged and boisterous celebrations to welcome his return were taking place in the White Swan in the village, and would no doubt go on well into the night.

Thomas Blackwell lived at Ashcombe Manor on the outskirts of Ripley. It had been a year since Serena had last seen him, when she and her father had been invited to his home and she had looked into his eyes. They hadn’t exchanged more than a few words in all the years of their living in close proximity to each other, and yet that one look, that stirring of pleasure, had spoken volumes. From that moment her life had changed. She had become aware of her womanhood for the first time.

On reaching the village green Serena paused, hoping Thomas would still be at the White Swan. Sounds of laughter coming from the inn across the green beckoned her and she ran towards it, cautiously entering a passageway at the side of the building from where she would be able to observe the occupants in the rooms without being observed herself. The stale odour of ale pervaded every corner of the crowded inn, and light from a guttering lamp inside the taproom was dim as Serena took her place in the shadows out of sight. The air was hot and fetid and she scanned the faces of the men inside the room, recognising some, others strangers to her.

But she only had eyes for one man, whose mere presence commanded the attention of all present. Charismatic Thomas Blackwell exercised an extraordinary influence on his contemporaries. He possessed the kind of qualities that captured the hearts of men and women alike. Almost six foot tall and well proportioned, his deep brown eyes and persuasiveness and charm drew the eyes of the village girls and set their hearts aflame. But he was also wild and hotheaded, swaggering and boorish in his arrogance and opinionated ways, and Serena, dazzled by his masculinity, could not imagine the ferocity of his violence if provoked.

Having looked her fill and eager to return home before her father discovered she was missing, Serena slipped out into the darkening light. The opening and closing of the door caused a draught and the lamp inside the taproom to flicker. Several in the room glanced absently towards the door, and Thomas was just in time to see a woman’s skirts disappear round the jamb.

Having drunk heavily with his friends and in dire need of another kind of entertainment, suspecting the woman who had been looking in to be one of the village wenches and arrogantly aware of the fever his presence never failed to arouse in them, he followed, just in time to see Serena disappearing along the lane in the direction of Dunedin Hall. Through the liquor fumes that fogged his mind, Thomas recognised her. More important, he recalled that her brother was a Jesuit priest—no doubt hiding at this very minute in a dank and miserable hole behind a chimney in one of the many spacious recusant houses that were thick across the Midlands, offering sanctuary to these criminals.

Thomas was implacable and inordinately cruel in his hatred of Catholics, which went way beyond the call of duty. He had killed many in the battles in the Low Countries; now that he was home and the estate his to administer as he wished since his father was dead, he would be ardent in the pursuit of priests and recusants.

He recalled the last time he had seen Serena, when she had accompanied Sir Henry to dine at Ashcombe Manor. Thomas’s father had offered to buy a large chunk of Sir Henry’s neglected land, which he had coveted for years, but Sir Henry had surprised and angered his father by firmly declining the offer.

A grim, calculating smile spread across his full lips. His eyes narrowed with mingled lust and menace when he pondered on the fun to be had with this deluded Papist wench. Clearly she wanted to see him so much that she had come looking for him. It would be a mortal sin to disappoint her now, he thought, and deny himself the pleasure of enjoying her delectable anatomy.

Darkness shrouded the countryside as Serena hurried along the narrow lane. Having left Ripley behind, she did not look back, and yet every nerve tingled when she sensed she was being followed. Breathlessly she paused and turned to find that Thomas was right behind her.

‘Oh!’ she gasped, amazed and overjoyed that he must have seen her at the inn and followed her. Her heart began to beat unevenly in her chest and an embarrassed flush rose to her cheeks at being caught out.

With a smouldering light in his eyes and a smile beginning at the corners of his mouth, spreading slowly into a grin of pure lechery, Thomas’s gaze moved hungrily over her delicate features, pausing at length on her softly parted lips. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t follow you when I saw you flee from the inn?’ he whispered huskily. ‘How could I possibly resist such a blatant invitation? It was me you came to see, wasn’t it?’

Serena stared at him in confusion. Thomas laughed softly. His strong fingers closed around her wrist and he drew her, unprotesting, away from the lane into the shelter of some bushes, his touch almost destroying her will power. ‘Come now,’ he murmured, pulling her into his arms, clumsily and without tenderness, ‘don’t deny what is in your heart, my sweet. You want me—admit it. Let’s enjoy a kiss before we get down to more serious matters, shall we?’

Without ceremony Thomas’s mouth clamped down on to Serena’s and she quivered, the heat of his lips searing her own. Fighting to retain her sanity, to quell the emotions that threatened to overwhelm her, with chilling reason and her body rigid, Serena told herself this was wrong. Thomas should not be doing this to her. Hovering above her face, his eyes were heavy with desire, his mouth slack and insistent. His breathing became ragged as his embrace tightened around her, his breath fanning foul liquor fumes over her face. Suddenly it was an ugly face she saw, one that disgusted her.

Sensing her withdrawal, Thomas raised his bewildered gaze. ‘Don’t tease, Serena—don’t be coy,’ he said with mounting impatience when he sensed her lack of response. ‘There’s nothing to fear, my pretty. No one will see. You’re quite safe.’ Once again his mouth clamped over her moist lips, his hands moving greedily over her body, and Serena was shocked to feel them fumbling at the intimate parts no other hands had touched but her own.

Although she was inexperienced, she could tell Thomas’s words were glibly spoken, coming from the lips of a practised seducer. Immediately she pulled back, her sanity, which had momentarily left her in the heat and excitement of the moment, returning, triggering her anger. Pushing against his chest when his fingers boldly began to fumble with the laces of her dress, cupping and squeezing her breasts, she stepped back as though he had struck her.

‘Stop it. Let me go.’

Thomas’s face twisted angrily, the handsome mouth which Serena had so recently yearned to feel on hers becoming a savage leer of pure evil. ‘Damn you for being a temptress. You want me, I know it, and I shall have you.’

‘No,’ she cried but, as his mouth ground down on to hers once more, her cries of outrage were smothered. His strength overpowered her. Feeling his arousal pressed hard against her thigh, she was overwhelmed with horror and disgust at the violation he intended, without decency or tenderness. She retaliated by jerking away from him and swinging her arm with a cry of unleashed fury.

Thomas lifted his head at the same moment that she hurled her clenched fist into his belly, finding it hard to believe such a hard punch could have been thrown by such a winsome and fragile young woman.

‘How dare you?’ Serena shrieked accusingly. ‘If you think I’m game for a quick tumble in the grass, then you’ve lost your wits, Thomas Blackwell.’

Intent on having his pleasure and determined not to be cheated out of it, Thomas grabbed her wrist and pulled her against him once more.

‘So you want to play it rough, do you?’ he hissed, his features contorted with cruelty. ‘I can be as rough as you want me to be, you little hellcat,’ and he lunged for her again, his face ugly now and twisted with lust, filling Serena’s vision so that she could see nothing else.

Dreadful visions of what her possible fate might be flew through her mind. What a fool she’d been. How could she have imagined for one minute that she was in love with this crazed beast, intent only on his own pleasure? The passion, which had been so intense that she had been unable to think of little else, withered and died. Her year-long infatuation with Thomas Blackwell was over. Now she felt only loathing and disgust—and anger directed against herself for foolishly wasting her time dreaming of him.

Undaunted and determined to free herself, driven by self-preservation, she reacted violently, struggling and twisting in a frenzied effort to escape as her rage peaked. Hearing the rending of the silk ruching that trimmed the neck of her bodice, she felt the cold air on her exposed body. One glimpse of the creamy flesh that swelled out of her bodice seemed to incite Thomas even more. Driven by some kind of demon inside her Serena lashed out, kicking his shins like a wild thing, clawing and raking her fingernails down his cheek which drew streaks of blood.

With cold sweat drenching her body, Serena managed to thrust herself away from him as, with a grunt of pain, Thomas raised a hand to his injured cheek. Unable to conceal her loathing, Serena glared at him with a challenging gaze, daring him to attack her again, her fists clenched and ready to strike if he made a move towards her.

‘Don’t you dare touch me again, you vile wretch,’ she fumed with unladylike vehemence, in the grip of an ice-cold, venomous rage, unable to still the shaking in her limbs. ‘Find someone more pliant to lust after. You disgust me, you clumsy oaf, with your clawing hands and foul breath.’

‘Disgust! Ha!’ Thomas roared with a savage snarl, his face having turned a mottled red. Tiny droplets of blood gleamed and trickled down his lacerated cheek to the small white ruff circling his neck. ‘It wasn’t disgust that brought you to the village in search of me like a bitch on heat, was it? Your behaviour is hardly in keeping with the pious little virgin you profess to be.’

‘Better to remain a virgin and die an old spinster than to acquaint myself with the likes of you,’ Serena flared in outrage.

Seeing red, Thomas advanced menacingly towards her once more. ‘Shut your mouth, you hellcat—you dirty little high-minded Papist bitch,’ he snarled in a flying rage, raising his hand to cuff her.

Surprised by what he was witnessing, Kit, the marquess of Thurlow, Lord Christopher Brodie—just two of his many titles—who was on his way to Dunedin Hall accompanied by his servant Robin, quickly dismounted. Having seen a flurry of hair, petticoats and creamy flesh, and heard much of what was taking place between these two, he had formed his own conclusion as to what was happening.

Kit had not intervened sooner because he thought the young lady seemed well able to take care of herself, but when he saw the man raise his fist to strike her he was impelled to act. If there was one thing he had been taught from an early age it was to respect the opposite gender, and this show of brutality against such a dainty wench was too much to ignore. Drawing his sword, he was diverted when his eyes settled momentarily on the face of the woman—a face of unforgettable beauty.

It was white, as white as alabaster in the gathering gloom, with eyes glittering like darting chips of ice, and her utter contempt for the man who intended to violate her was manifest in their translucent depths. Her lips were clamped together in a savage line, her small chin set in forceful determination, and the assertive and compelling steeliness in her expression told Kit that had she been in possession of a dagger, she would have had no qualms about thrusting it into the pulsating centre of her aggressor’s heart.

‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ Kit said, his tone deadly calm. ‘It would be a pity to mar a face of such exquisite beauty—and if you do, it will cost you your life.’

Unprepared for the interruption, Thomas gave an enraged curse and spun around in his fury, but then he felt the cold and hungry tongue of a rapier pressed threateningly against the soft flesh of his neck. He stared askance at the black garbed figure at the other end of the steel blade, seeing the wicked pale blue light that danced along its length, and he felt his skin prickle and the hairs at the back of his neck stand up on recognition of the intruder, who commanded both his own and Serena’s attention with his awesome presence.

‘So, you remember me, Blackwell—even though we are a long way from the Netherlands?’ The tone was sardonic, the faint smile sneering.

Beginning to sweat profusely, his face darkening to an apoplectic crimson, Thomas continued to gape as his sluggish mind fought to grasp more clearly what was happening. Respectful of the threatening blade, he felt its point already penetrating his flesh and a slow trickle of warm blood begin to run down his neck and mingle with that from his torn cheek. He stood stock-still, eyeing warily the man who was taller than himself, whose eyes bore into his like dagger thrusts.

‘You seem surprised,’ Kit remarked, speaking lightly, but his mildly amused smile and cold dark stare did not waver from the face of the man opposite, who was eyeing him with a profound hatred. ‘What’s the matter? Have I sprouted horns? I’ve never seen you sweat so much, Blackwell. It does not surprise me to find you up to your old tricks. Violating maids appears to be your favourite pastime—but it seems to me that you annoy this particular lady…that your attentions are unwelcome.’

‘And your interference in a matter that is none of your concern I find most unwelcome. Although it’s hardly surprising you come to the maid’s defence, considering the comradeship that exists between yourself and certain members of the Catholic hierarchy,’ Thomas sneered with derision, angered at finding himself at a disadvantage, and knowing he faced an experienced soldier who did not flinch under adversity.

To begin with, Brodie set Thomas on edge. He was taller than Thomas, with shoulders as broad. The man was also extremely wealthy and a smooth sort, being close to the king and his courtiers, although the fact that he could count many Catholic noblemen as his close friends—among them Sir Everard Digby and that other Catholic magnate, Sir Thomas Tresham—suggested to Thomas that Kit had Catholic sympathies himself.

To make matters worse, Brodie’s equestrian skills had attracted the eye of many a commander in the Low Countries, and he had proved his military prowess in combat many times. His reputation with both sword and pistol was an enviable and well-known fact, and Thomas had neither the means nor the clarity of mind to test it just then. But most chilling of all was the fact that Kit Brodie was also the man responsible for having Thomas and his regiment recalled from the Netherlands in disgrace—which was a score he had yet to settle.

‘And you believe that because the lady does not share your faith that it gives you the right to violate her?’ Kit’s lips curled with contempt. ‘I think it must have slipped your mind that you are no longer fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands,’ he said with heavy sarcasm. ‘The lady is right, Blackwell. You are even more of a lecherous swine than I took you for. It is my opinion that you should have been hanged for your violation and massacre of those unfortunate women at the convent near Ghent.’

‘You remember too much, Brodie,’ growled Thomas.

‘Some things are unable to be forgotten, Blackwell. That is one of them. However,’ Kit said with a savage taunt and a look to indicate the still bleeding scratches on his face, ‘I think enough bloodletting has been done for one day, so you have a reprieve. At least the lady has left you a momento to remember her by—which is more than can be said of the unfortunate women you so brutally murdered.’

Kit moved back and held his weapon aloft as Thomas tried to shake the cobwebs from his brain. Feeling the blade relinquish its position on his flesh, Thomas took a desperate, threatening step forward, at which Kit quickly wielded his sword once more, the dark wings of his eyebrows snapping together, the hard gleam in his eyes becoming brittle and his mouth tightening into a line of aggravation.

‘Have a care, Blackwell. Do not force my hand.’ Kit’s voice was like steel, his expression the same, and Thomas checked himself, knowing that Brodie was a man who brooked no argument from anyone.

‘You find me at a disadvantage, Brodie,’ growled Thomas, breathing heavily and holding his arms out from his sides to indicate he did not carry a sword. ‘As you see, I am without my weapon so I cannot defend myself. But the next time we meet you will not be so fortunate. You will discover I am as skilled with the sword as you purportedly are.’

Kit’s cold gaze travelled over Thomas with contempt before settling on the side of his face that was dark with blood. ‘I shall look forward to it. Now—be on your way and have your face tended before you bleed to death before my eyes.’

Thomas’s face was set in lines of violent, menacing rage, his gaze going beyond Kit to Serena, whose eyes were smouldering with unsuppressed hostility. With her colouring and snapping eyes she resembled a wild vixen, and did nothing to conceal her newfound hatred and revulsion for him. Drawing his upper lip into a snarl, his eyes settled on her pale features with cruel contempt.

‘I’ll make the Papist bitch sorry she ever drew breath. I swear I’ll find her.’

‘Then take care, Blackwell, lest she finds you first,’ scoffed Kit, his chiding laughter mocking the other. ‘After what my eyes have just witnessed between the two of you, you may not fare so well the next time either. The lady has clearly taken her measure of you and appears to have quite a temper.’

‘I’ll not give the spitting she-cat another chance to sink her claws into me.’ Thomas’s eyes settled once more on Kit, the cords of his neck standing out quivering and tense. ‘I have a score to settle with you both. I shall have my revenge for what you have done to me this day—and before that, Brodie. Our paths are destined to cross again, so prepare yourself for when they do. I will give you no quarter.’

As he strode away, hatred nestled like a tiger in Thomas Blackwell’s heart. Time would tell if Brodie was all his compatriots extolled him to be, when he had reaped his revenge and crushed Kit beneath his heel.

Thomas was determined to prove ruthless in his ambition to destroy both Lord Brodie and Serena Carberry, and to gain that end he would slander and scheme without the least regard for the truth. Unbeknown to him just then, an event was about to occur that would rock England with its infamy and would assist him greatly in his efforts. His grievance against them would not be assuaged until they were dead.


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