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Диксон Хелен

Conspiracy Of Hearts

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Chapter Two

Serena looked at her rescuer’s visage, seeing that this was no lust-crazed beast but a strikingly handsome man with aristocratic features, hair and eyes as black as jet and the lean, hungry look of a hawk. The elegance of his attire and accompanying servant told her he was a gentleman.

However, the brutish treatment she had just undergone ignited all the fires of rage which she unfairly directed at this stranger. He appeared to find the whole incident highly entertaining and to take an infuriating delight in her sorry plight yet, if Serena had paused to consider, he had just saved her from an ordeal so terrible she could never have imagined it.

The disquieting, contemplative smile gave her no assurance that her treatment at this stranger’s hands would be any better, and all she could think of at that moment was that he had borne witness to her humiliation. It was this that penetrated her paralysed thoughts and she hated him for it. It was to form a tempestuous foundation to their future acquaintance—one that might have been so very different had they met in more conventional circumstances.

Her pride seared, with elbows akimbo and her fingers drumming impatiently on her waist, Serena flung her hair back from her face, sending it spilling down her back, and glared into the black, humour-filled eyes sweeping over her with a rakish gleam.

‘Well?’ she snapped irritably, treating Kit as if he was somehow responsible for what had happened. ‘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 colour of your hair has baked your brain.’

‘I would have sent him on his way without your intervention—and you can expect much of the same if you dare come any closer. I have a care for my virtue and am particularly choosy who I surrender it to.’

Kit chuckled. The fire-spitting green eyes seared right through him as he raked her with a brazen gaze, amazed by her spirit. At first sight he had thought her too slender and fragile for such a furious onslaught but, after seeing her in action, it was clear there was nothing timid or docile about this young woman. Kit was convinced that she would have defended her virtue until her last breath was drawn.

‘I don’t doubt it, and you are right, you were doing splendidly without my intervention. Blackwell’s face will smart for a month and he will bear the marks of his encounter with you for a good deal longer.’

‘For ever, I hope,’ Serena said heatedly, dabbing at a nasty scratch on her wrist with a handkerchief.

Kit’s lips twitched with ill-suppressed amusement, his gaze lightly caressing her face. ‘The poor man must be in torment at being cheated out of what he intended. The glare you gave him would have shrivelled the pride and the passion of any man.’

‘And you would do well to remember it,’ she snapped, fired up with ire, her eyes flying to his brazen and overconfident smile.

‘You are much too fragile to get the better of a man of Blackwell’s size and strength,’ Kit chided. ‘I doubt you would have the stamina to oppose him for long. Had I not come along when I did, you would have been ravished most cruelly.’

Serena ignored the fact that his words held some element of truth. ‘Fragile! Sir, I am more resourceful than you give me credit for, not some meek, simpering milksop. What I lack in strength I make up for in agility—so, if you value your looks, I advise you to keep your distance.’

Kit could only marvel at her tenacity. His eyes glowed as he gave her a lazy smile, realising that both her dignity and pride had been mightily bruised. ‘You, dear lady, are a veritable tigress. But you have judged me before I can voice a plea—and unfairly, too. Rest assured that I am not in the habit of taking that which is not freely given,’ he said, his voice soft and deeply resonant, grinning leisurely as his perusal swept slowly over her delectable form, liking what he saw.

Her figure was slender, her features fine and soft, and yet he had borne witness to the fact that she wasn’t nearly as fragile and delicate as suggested. There was also a proud courage in the way she had leapt to defend her honour. She was a firebrand, and he could easily understand how she had captured the salacious attention of Thomas Blackwell, who had been left with more than a little wounded pride.

This young woman was in possession of a tempestuous will, and Kit could be forgiven for taking her for a gypsy wench—with her tumbling auburn hair and flashing eyes. Looking at her with heightened interest, he noted that her attire proclaimed her to be the daughter of a gentleman. If so, he was curious as to the circumstances that had brought her to this place alone to be set upon by Thomas Blackwell. Had she enticed him, and how well did she know her tormentor?

Serena smarted beneath the closely perusing eye of the stranger. His gaze seemed to touch her everywhere, stripping her body bare as he made no attempt to hide his interest. Becoming aware of the object of his gaze as it dipped, she followed it, realising the twin peaks of her breasts were taut and pointing high above the ripped fabric of her gown. Feeling her cheeks burn hot with embarrassment, she was immediately prompted to check her appearance and gather the torn bodice of her dress together, dropping her handkerchief into the road.

‘You, sir, are the most despicable man I have met in a long time.’

‘Come now. Not since half an hour ago at least,’ Kit laughed. ‘Do you mean to tell me you prefer Blackwell’s company to mine?’

‘I cannot say that because I do not know you. I can only hope you are enough of a gentleman not to gossip about what has just occurred.’

‘My lips are sealed.

’ Highly amused by her angry confusion, Kit swept an arm across his chest and bowed low in a courtly manner, the quirk in his lips deepening into an amused, lopsided grin. ‘I am happy to have been of service, and would wish to hear your gratitude rather than your anger. Your eyes are more lethal than a set of duelling pistols.’ Bending to retrieve her handkerchief, he made no move to return it.

Relaxing a little, Serena deliberately softened her manner, thinking that if she appeared to relent a little she could escape his odious presence and be on her way. ‘Very well. I suppose I must thank you for arriving when you did. Perhaps you did help save me from a terrible fate,’ she conceded reluctantly whilst remaining aloof. ‘I am indebted to you, sir.’

Kit’s look became serious suddenly. ‘Did Blackwell hurt you?’

‘I told you. I can fend for myself. Now, if you will allow me to go on my way, I will bid you goodnight.’ Unfortunately it was not as easy as she hoped to be rid of him, for he briskly ignored her request.

‘You may still have need of my services. I insist on offering my protection and escorting you to your home. Who knows—your tormentor may come back.’

‘I don’t think so. It’s my guess that he will have returned to the White Swan where he will consume more liquor before the night is out and he seeks his bed—or someone else’s.’

‘Nevertheless, I do insist.’

His insistence was beginning to stretch Serena’s nerves. ‘You are extremely gallant, sir, but that will not be necessary. I can see myself home. It is not far,’ she replied tersely.

‘And where is that?’

The softness of a moment before left Serena’s eyes, turning then to flint. Her mouth hardened to an unsmiling resentment as her temper rose once more. Feeling less than proud of herself for the way she had acted, the mere thought that this arrogant and impertinent man had heard and witnessed the scene between herself and Thomas Blackwell was too embarrassing to contemplate. ‘What has that to do with you?’

Kit suppressed a smile with amused patience as he sheathed his rapier. ‘Absolutely nothing. Tell me, do your parents often let you out alone like this—to make assignations with men of Blackwell’s ilk?’

Icy fire smouldered in Serena’s eyes as she faced him with chilled contempt. ‘My encounter with Thomas Blackwell was not an assignation—and, no, my father does not even know I have left the house. But I am a gentlewoman, if that is what you mean.’

Kit’s bold eyes sparkled with merriment in the face of her anger, and his strong, animal white teeth gleamed in the gathering gloom. ‘No gentlewoman remains a gentlewoman after doing and saying what I have just overheard,’ he answered airily.

‘Then I would be grateful if you would forget what you have overheard, sir, and forget your encounter with me. Good evening.’

Spinning on her heels, Serena stalked ahead with an indignant swing of her hips. Grinning broadly and, with a soft chuckle, grasping the reins of his horse, Kit tucked the young lady’s handkerchief into a pocket inside his doublet. Quickening his stride he followed, indicating for Robin to do likewise, who was watching his master with an amused expression on his boyish face.

‘Wait,’ Kit said, having no mind to let her go lightly.

Serena turned and waited for him to approach, taking stock of him for the first time. Attired in the manner of a wealthy lord, he was a magnificent man—as handsome in physique as he was of face. Her eyes wandered over his strong shoulders encased in a black velvet doublet, tapering to a narrow waist, and long, lean, muscular thighs—so unnervingly masculine.

Her anger began to drain from her and a small frown of perplexity creased her brow when he came close and stood looking down at her. His mere presence touched her senses with an acute sensual awareness that left her weak. She flushed, angered by her wayward thoughts. No proper lady would think such things and allow such imaginings to take root in her mind—but then, no proper lady would have done what she had done and gone searching for a man she had foolishly become infatuated with.

‘Well?’ she said, her tone brittle.

‘Since we seem to be going in the same direction, perhaps we might walk a little way together? Being a stranger to these parts, I would be glad of the company.’

Serena stared into his eyes, which still sparkled with unbridled humour.

After a lengthy pause she slowly released her breath, relenting a little, if reluctantly; the sooner she was rid of this disconcerting man, the better she would feel. They were going in the same direction and she would only have to suffer his company for a little while.

‘Very well,’ she conceded, beginning to walk on. ‘My home is not far. Are you just passing through Ripley, or visiting friends?’

‘I am here on business—although Sir Henry Carberry, who I am visiting, is also my friend.’

Thunderstruck, Serena froze, and with an expression of stunned horror she stopped dead in her tracks and looked up into his dark eyes, realising who he was. ‘You are visiting Dunedin Hall?’

‘I am. Do you know it?’

‘Yes—I—I should,’ she stammered hesitantly, suddenly wishing the ground would open and mercifully swallow her up. For the first time since meeting him she was almost at a loss for words. ‘I—I am Serena Carberry. Sir Henry is my father.’

Seeing the horror and dismay on her face, Kit smiled slowly, his gaze sparkling and taunting. Cocking a handsome eyebrow, he gave her a lengthy inspection, his teeth gleaming behind a lopsided grin. ‘Well, well,’ he murmured, letting his breath out slowly. ‘I see.’

Serena was unable to prevent the onslaught of shame that engulfed her. Of all the people in the world to visit her father, it had to be this terrible person who had witnessed that awful scene between herself and Thomas Blackwell that would haunt her for ever.

‘You—you must be the marquess of Thurlow?’

‘Yes—and I can quite understand why you would rather I weren’t.’ Kit chuckled, seeming to enjoy her discomfiture. ‘I realise how uncomfortable it will be for you having me under your father’s roof for a whole night—knowing what I do,’ he said quietly, meaningfully. Looking up at him, Serena saw something in his look that challenged her spirit and brought back her strength and a surge of dislike.

‘I would appreciate it if you did not mention any of this to my father. He would be extremely angry, you understand.’

‘I consider he would be better off knowing in order to deal with his wayward daughter so she does not repeat her misdemeanour.’

‘I will remind you, sir, that this is none of your affair. You are here to see my father’s horses and to ride to Woodfield Grange tomorrow for the hunt. I am reluctant to lend myself to my father’s anger should my encounter with Thomas Blackwell become known, and I would be more than grateful if you did not tell him. If he should hear of it, his tirade will challenge the loudest broadside and my reputation will be in ruins.’

Kit gave her a wolfish grin. ‘Then let me set your mind at rest. You can rest assured, dear lady, that your guilty secret is quite safe with me.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said as graciously as she was able under the circumstances, walking briskly on her way.

Kit fell into step beside her. ‘I am Lord Brodie by the way—Christopher Brodie—Kit to my friends.’

‘Because I do not know you, sir,’ Serena replied testily without looking at him, her nose in the air, ‘I shall address you as Lord Brodie. To be more familiar would be inappropriate.’

Kit grinned. ‘As you wish.’

With Robin following at a discreet distance, they walked side by side. Serena felt herself enveloped in Kit’s perusal which brought a flush to her cheeks; if she had turned and glanced at him and noted the attention he was paying to her gently swaying body—his gaze passing with leisured interest over her hair and slender hips swinging provocatively in unison—her flush would have deepened to poppy red.

Kit’s thoughts turned to his sweet-natured betrothed, Dorothea Carberry—this young lady’s cousin—with relief. His betrothal to Dorothea was recent, and he would call on her and Lord Carberry after the hunting at Woodfield Grange. The gentle nature of Dorothea was far more favourable than the fiery nature of her cousin. Any man finding himself attached to this particular firebrand would know no peace. Kit felt heartily sorry for anyone this wench unleashed her tongue on. And yet, he was beginning to understand how a man could so easily succumb to a woman’s charms that he would forget the troth so soon made to another.

Serena slipped into the house ahead of Lord Brodie. Not until she reached her chamber did she allow her mind to conjure up an image of Thomas Blackwell’s face—the man she had foolishly allowed to dominate her every waking hour since she had last laid eyes on him. The image she had of him now was distorted and ugly beyond recognition.

Unbidden, the humour-filled black eyes of her rescuer took its place, and she realised he posed as much a danger and threat to her emotions and senses as Thomas Blackwell had before. Collecting her scattered wits, she formed a firm resolve not to let the marquess of Thurlow intimidate her. Earlier he had stung her pride by playing humorously on her own confusion, and she was determined that tonight she would be more in control of her emotions and herself and set the marquess of Thurlow agog.

She chose to wear an extremely fetching ruby-coloured velvet gown, one Andrew had brought as a present for her from Italy. The full skirt draped luxuriantly over hoops, and the sleeves were puffed, the ruche-edged stomacher emphasising the slimness of her waist. The collar, elevated at the back, framed her delicate, heart-shaped face.

After her maid had quickly and deftly arranged her hair in soft, high curls and Serena felt confident that she looked her best, she went downstairs to the great hall with its vaulted, rib-caged roof, unable to think of a plausible excuse to remain in her room. A murmur of voices came from one of the chambers leading off from the hall. Serena advanced towards it, her footsteps on the tiles heralding her arrival. Her father and Lord Brodie were standing before the giant hearth where a fire burned bright, the lively flames sending dancing shadows over the richly tapestried walls.

At fifty-five, Sir Henry should have been a rich man. The fact that he was a relatively poor man was largely due to his own recklessness throughout his life—the large recusant fines, the funding of the Catholic cause and the amount of money he spent on his beloved horses. He was still a handsome man, jovial and of average height, with twinkling blue eyes and thinning dark hair liberally sprinkled with grey. Like that of King James, a small square-cut beard covered his chin.

Conversation between the two men ceased when Serena made her entrance. When she stepped into the range of Kit’s vision, he could not believe the beautiful and well-groomed lady—who seemed the very spirit of virtue and moved with all the poise, grace and cool dignity of a queen—was the same bedraggled shrew he had encountered earlier.

Serena’s gaze flicked over Lord Brodie before coming to rest on her father, sensing his displeasure that she had absented herself from his side on his guest’s arrival.

‘Ah, Serena! You have finally deigned to grace us with your presence,’ Sir Henry rebuked. ‘Kit, may I present my daughter, Serena, and apologise most profusely for her absence on your arrival. I would like to say she is not usually so absent-minded or so ill-mannered, but I am sorry to confess that when other matters of interest crop up to occupy her mind she is forgetful of all else.’

At nineteen, the frequent flashes of childlike ardour and deep affection in Serena’s eyes whenever they settled on her father blinded him to her wilfulness and often reprehensible behaviour. Despite his gentle reproach there was a warm admiration in his eyes when they rested on her. It was no secret that he doted on his daughter unashamedly, and was in no hurry to marry her off. She was just one more reason why he had not yet succumbed to the quiet charms of Mrs Davis.

Kit watched Serena approach with interest. She came to stand close, tilting her head as she gazed into his handsome visage from beneath eyebrows delicately sweeping like a winged bird’s. A bloom of rosy pink heightened her high cheekbones, and her eyes—emerald green orbs flecked with brown—were thickly fringed with silken black lashes tipped with gold. The firelight gave her hair a rich warm hue the colour of rosewood, and the heady fragrance of rosewater on her skin was intoxicating.

Kit felt his pulses leap and the blood go searing through his veins at her nearness and the coyness of her little smile as she demurely lowered her eyes. Drawing his dark eyebrows together in a frown he became cautious, strongly suspecting he was being beguiled and led into a trap. Serena lifted her gaze, the eyes beneath the thick fringe of lashes steady and disconcerting, shining with an intelligent brightness which proclaimed an agility of wit and a craving to taste all that life had to offer.

Her beauty fed Kit’s gaze, rekindling the ache he had felt earlier. Never had he met a woman who intrigued him more, but because he had given his troth to another, the tantalising Mistress Serena Carberry was forbidden fruit—and he was beginning to thank God for it. She would bring him nothing but trouble.

‘Mistress Carberry, I am honoured to meet you.’ Kit’s eyes met hers with amusement as he bowed with a grand, sweeping gesture.

‘Lord Brodie,’ she acknowledged.

‘Don’t be disheartened,’ he murmured, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. His dark eyes, holding hers, sparkled with humour when he felt her fingers tremble involuntarily on coming into contact with his lips—which told him she was not altogether as in control of her senses as she would like him to think. ‘You are forgiven.’

Snatching her fingers from his strong hold, Serena favoured him with a sweet smile and feigned a slight curtsy. ‘Thank you, sir. I apologise for keeping you waiting.’

‘You are forgiven,’ Kit replied, his voice deeply resonant, his eyes, openly unabashed, displaying their appraisal of her attire as they travelled the full length of her body. ‘The wait was well worth it,’ he murmured.

Kit’s perusing eye left no curve untouched, no article of clothing intact, until Serena felt completely naked. She felt a sudden impulse to retreat before his smouldering gaze, but held her ground admirably.

‘We are waiting to eat, Serena,’ said her father with impatience, unaware of the secret play that was taking place between the other two as he led the way into the dining room. ‘The meal is getting cold.’

With reluctance Serena placed her slender fingers on Lord Brodie’s gallantly proferred arm to be escorted into the dining room. Feeling his gaze on her face, she looked up at him inquiringly. ‘Is something troubling you, my lord?’

‘Forgive me. I do not mean to stare, but you seem familiar. I have a rather peculiar feeling that we have met somewhere before. But then, I ask myself, how can that be? I am not one to forget a face—especially not when one is as unforgettable as yours.’

Kit spoke casually, his words faintly teasing and meaningful. In alarm Serena’s fingers tightened on his arm and she threw him a savage look, appalled that he might be about to betray her misdemeanour to her father when she had begged him not to. Earlier, her qualms had been eased by his promise not to speak of the incident, and she was incensed that he should continue to find so much humour in what, to her, had been the most brutal and embarrassing experience of her entire life.

‘I can assure you we have not met before,’ she answered firmly.

Kit smiled calmly into her glare, a corner of his lips lifting roguishly. ‘No? Then I must take your word for it.’

‘Perhaps it’s the likeness my daughter bears to Dorothea,’ said Sir Henry, with a low chuckle. ‘They are very much alike.’

Bemused, Serena glanced from one to the other. ‘Dorothea? Do you know my cousin, Lord Brodie?’

‘Kit has recently become betrothed to Dorothea, Serena,’ her father explained. ‘No doubt she will tell you all about it when you visit Carberry Hall in a day or so.’

Serena stared at Kit in astonishment, and so amazed was she at this announcement that she almost overstepped the bounds of decorum and laughed out loud. It was impossible to believe that this overbearing man was to marry her gentle cousin. Her eyes were bright with humour as they met his with disbelief. ‘You? You are to marry Dorothea?’

Kit’s black eyebrows lowered in a frown. ‘You find it amusing that I am to marry your cousin?’

‘I find it strange and intriguing that someone as fainthearted as Dorothea would agree to wed someone so—so—’

Kit raised a questioning eyebrow, watching her closely. ‘So what?’

‘So very different from the type of man I expected her to settle for.’

‘And do you find it so incredible that she has settled for me?’

‘Yes. I can only think that my cousin must have taken leave of her senses.’

A smile touched Kit’s lips. ‘I can assure you she has not.’

‘Nevertheless, you cannot know each other well, otherwise she would have mentioned you to me.’

‘And you see your cousin often, do you, Mistress Carberry?’

Serena had not seen Dorothea for several weeks. Dorothea’s father, William Carberry, and Serena’s own father were half-brothers, their father having married twice. William, the elder of the two, like his mother was staunchly Protestant and had a strong dislike for the Catholic religion. Over the years this had been the cause of much contention between the two brothers and was deeply felt by Serena, who resented her uncle’s lack of tolerance. Serena and Dorothea were close, but of late, because of the volatile situation that existed between Uncle William and her father, and knowing that whenever she went to Carberry Hall her uncle tolerated her presence only out of family duty, Serena had not visited her cousin.

‘Of late I have not seen Dorothea,’ she replied quietly, on a more serious note. ‘I wish you both every imaginable happiness. You are indeed fortunate in your choice of bride, sir.’

Kit looked at her thoughtfully, curious as to the sudden change in her. ‘I couldn’t agree with you more. In the short time I have known Dorothea, I find her to be an exceptional woman.’

‘I know she is,’ Serena agreed.

Kit held the heavy, high-backed chair as she slipped into it. As the meal progressed and Sir Henry conversed about political matters, Serena was aware of his guest’s unrelenting stare. Meeting his gaze, she found in his black eyes a glowing intensity and a slow, brazen perusal that brought the colour mounting to her cheeks and ire to burn through her.

Having him so close was agonisingly distasteful to her. Bestowing on him a cool stare, she tried her best to ignore him, but it was difficult when he sat directly in her sights. The man bedevilled her. He was insufferable and doing his best to antagonise her. Clenching her teeth in irritation, she tried concentrating on her food until she was drawn into the conversation by her father.

‘You know Kit is here to look over our horses, don’t you, Serena?’

‘Yes.’ She smiled, glancing at her father at the end of the table.

‘It’s my intention to purchase three or four of your finest mares available to replenish my stable at Thurlow—if they are as magnificent as they are reputed to be,’ Kit said.

‘I don’t think you will be disappointed,’ Serena told him, ‘although, had you come two weeks ago you would have had more to choose from.’

Kit glanced at her sharply. ‘Oh?’

‘Yes. Several are promised to Mr Grant and Sir Robert Catesby—isn’t that so, Father?’

Sir Henry suddenly looked discomfited and coughed nervously, causing Kit’s brow to become furrowed with a deep frown as he contemplated his host. No comment was made, but Serena had a peculiar feeling that her father would rather she had kept quiet about the matter. She also sensed that Lord Brodie had taken particular note of what had been said and that he would not forget it.

At the time she had been curious when Sir Robert and Mr Grant from Norbrook—Mr Grant’s home at nearby Snitterfield—had come to look over the horses, purchasing twenty of a strong and heavy breed. When she had inquired of her father afterwards the reason for the purchase, he had told her that Catesby was to form a troop of horse to enter the service of the archdukes in the Spanish Netherlands.

Knowing this was legal since the peace with Spain the previous year, Serena’s curiosity had been appeased. But, as she recalled Andrew’s words of warning, a feeling of disquiet settled on her. She prayed her father had not become involved in something she knew nothing about.

‘Are you acquainted with Robert Catesby?’ Serena asked in an attempt to cover the awkward moment.

‘I am. As your father may have told you, I have only recently come into my inheritance at Thurlow on the death of my cousin. It was necessary for me to spend some time in London to attend Parliament until it was prorogued until November. The lodgings I took in the Strand were adjacent to Catesby’s.’

‘And what was your opinion of him?’

Kit smiled and his eyes twinkled at Serena. ‘He is certainly a popular gentleman.’

‘And handsome, too,’ chuckled Sir Henry. ‘At least my daughter thought so when last she saw him.’

‘Father!’ gasped Serena, hot colour flooding her cheeks. Wasn’t it enough Lord Brodie knowing she was involved with Thomas Blackwell without adding another to the list?

Kit laughed good-humouredly. ‘I’m not surprised. Robert—or Robin as he is called among his friends—in spite of his rather headstrong disposition is an irresistible charmer and very much admired. He left London for Stratford with some associates at the same time as myself.’

Kit had spent many long hours in the company of Robert Catesby, an ardent Catholic, whilst in London. He was a likeable man with a dominant personality, and deeply involved with religious malcontents. Kit had been present at several of their gatherings when they had met at the Mermaid or the Mitre Inn on Bread Street. A silent, curious observer, he had supped with them whilst thinking it prudent not to become too involved. Their conversations had been discreet, but he sensed a strong agitation manifesting itself, and felt that something might occur during the next session of Parliament.

‘You are to visit Dorothea, I understand,’ Kit remarked to Serena. Turning the conversation to more pleasurable topics, he thrust unpleasant thoughts of conspiracies, which were forever being hatched against the king, from his mind.

‘She is expecting me tomorrow afternoon. I am to stay at Carberry Hall for a few days. In the light of your betrothal we shall have lots to catch up on.’

‘Then you will still be there when I call on Dorothea and Sir William before I have to return to Thurlow,’ Kit said, a smile touching his lips and his eyes taking on a new gleam as her bewitching beauty fed his gaze. The light of the tapers illuminated her to advantage, and he found himself dwelling with a good deal of pleasure on the tantalising vision she presented across the table.

Having hoped that when he left for Woodfield Grange she would not have to see him again, Serena was disappointed and extremely vexed that she might. ‘Perhaps.’ She met his dark eyes with resentment, thinking furiously that even though he was aware of her dislike he was amused by it. Shoving her chair back, she intended leaving the gentlemen to drink their port in peace, but her father halted her.

‘Eliza informs me you that you intend riding early in the morning, Serena?’

Serena had decided to forgo her ride and have one of the servants go to the stables to tell John not to bother saddling her horse after all. Not even an early morning ride over her beloved heath could tempt her to ride in the company of Lord Brodie.

‘That—that was my intention,’ she said hesitantly, ‘but I—’

‘Then you can accompany Kit,’ her father said quickly before she could finish what she was about to say. ‘Forgive me if I don’t accompany you,’ he apologised to his guest, ‘but you will find that not only is my daughter an excellent horsewoman, but she also knows as much about the horses as I do myself. John will also be on hand to assist you and tell you anything you wish to know.’

Serena looked at her father in alarm. Usually he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to show off his horses. ‘What is it, Father? You’re not ill?’

‘Nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure.’ Sir Henry laughed lightly in an attempt to allay his daughter’s concern—but the truth of the matter was that his joints pained him a great deal—especially now the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, his sufferings were a lasting legacy of the year he had spent in the Tower at Queen Elizabeth’s pleasure.

‘I fear that an early ride will put me out of sorts for the hunt later—and I have no wish to disappoint Lord Payne by not turning up. If you find a horse to your liking, Kit, try him out at the hunt—or you are more than welcome to take mine. He’s a strong, spirited brute, but I’m sure the two of you will get along.’

‘That’s generous of you, Sir Henry,’ Kit said, easing back in his chair, his heavy-lidded gaze speculative as his dark eyes leisurely watched the tension and emotion play across Serena’s expressive face, sensing she had been about to cancel riding out early to avoid his company.

He reserved little hope of establishing any kind of peace between them, for she glared at him as if it would be pistols at dawn and she contemplated a duel to the death, instead of a gallop upon the heath. A mocking smile curved his lips and he found himself looking forward to his ride with this intriguing young woman, although he told himself there was a dire need for caution.

‘I am honoured to have Mistress Carberry accompany me,’ he murmured. ‘It will be a privilege.’

The subtle way Lord Brodie’s smile changed was not to Serena’s liking. Irate sparks flared in her bright green eyes as she thought how easily she had been snared, and she lowered her eyes to hide her annoyance, standing up.

‘Very well. I will see you in the morning, Lord Brodie.’

Beset by emotions quite new to her, Serena went to her room. She was seized by a biting, raging fear at the knowledge that the marquess of Thurlow, having been privy to her degradation earlier, was enjoying every moment of her misery and was determined to play it out to the bitter end.


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