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Диксон Хелен

Lucy Lane and the Lieutenant

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With long, purposeful strides, Nathan drew level with Lucy as she left the house.

‘What do you want?’ she asked without looking at him.

‘To talk.’

‘We have. Now, go away. I have to look for work.’

‘Come now. Your earnings as an actress were not great.’

She felt insulted. ‘I may not earn as much as the leading actresses at Covent Garden or the Opera House, but I have so far managed to earn my way quite comfortably.’

‘So far.’

‘So far, and I will continue to do so—when I can find someone who will take me on. If not, I will find other kind of work until they do.’

‘You must be concerned about the bills that are accumulating.’

‘I’m concerned about everything just now.’ She glanced at him. ‘You sound as if you care.’

‘I do. I’m worried about you and your aunt. That is one of the reasons why I am offering to pay generously for your services. Your aunt is worried about you,’ Nathan rushed on to reason with her before she could express further indignation.

‘Aunt Dora worries about most things.’

‘Mostly about you. Which is why I’m willing to pay you five thousand pounds if you come with me to Portugal.’

Lucy halted and stared at him incredulously. ‘Five thousand pounds?’ Letting out a small sound of frustration, with a toss of her head, she stalked ahead, her hands clenched by her sides. ‘You jest, Nathan Rochefort,’ she hissed when he fell in beside her. ‘How dare you play with my mind—with my feelings in this way? You really are quite despicable.’

Taking her arm, he brought her to a standstill. ‘I’m being serious about this offer,’ he stated firmly. ‘I want you with me.’

She raised her head with an impassioned air. ‘Doesn’t it matter what I want?’

‘Of course it does.’ The intensity receding slightly from his stare, he smiled. ‘It matters to me a great deal what you want. Just don’t ask me to believe that you are indifferent to the money I am offering to pay you.’

He spoke the truth. Of course she was tempted by the amount. Who in their right mind would not be? Five thousand pounds would mean she never had to work again and enable her to get the best possible care for Aunt Dora. But could she tolerate being with Nathan day in and day out, feeling his presence, his gaze, for ever watchful, commanding her, when she had struggled so hard to put the past and him behind her?

‘But why me?’ she cried. ‘Why pay me all that money?’ Her eyes locked on to his face and her gaze did not waver.

Seeing that his offer of five thousand pounds had taken the wind out of her sails and that passers-by were beginning to stop and gape at them, taking her arm, he began to escort her along the street. ‘I would prefer to carry on this conversation in private—at your house.’

* * *

Neither of them broke the charged silence on the way home, but no sooner were they over the threshold and the parlour door had closed behind them than Lucy faced him.

‘I’m not at all cut out for what you are asking of me. I would probably turn and run at the first sound of gunfire.’

Nathan gentled his gaze when he saw her staring at him with a stricken look. ‘Lucy,’ he said quietly, ‘I will always keep you safe.’

She bristled as though he had given her some great insult. ‘No.’ She shook her head, glaring at him accusingly.

‘No one can promise that.’

‘I can be very determined,’ he answered, with a half smile, as he saw he should push her. It was obvious he’d already touched a nerve. ‘I am not perfect. Far from it, in fact. But if you come with me, I will do all in my power to see that you come to no harm.’

‘How?’ she demanded, her green eyes glittering with remembered pain. ‘How can you claim you will do that? And why is there no one else you can ask?’

‘Because I know you. You are exactly the person I am looking for. You speak French for a start. As I recall it is very good.’

‘Aunt Dora taught me. She spent many years in France as a child. She considered French an important part of my education. What else?’

‘You are an accomplished actress—the only actress I know. Your talents may be required of you to play a part. You are also witty and wise enough to know a fool when you see one.’ He moved to stand directly in front of her, encouraged that she did not step away from him. ‘You have confidence, too, as well as a sense of humour—although I have seen very little of that of late. And your compassion for others compels my admiration and respect.’

Lucy trembled, staring at him.

‘You are also brave,’ he continued as she turned away abruptly. ‘The fact that you have worked your way through adversity in your profession and the care you take of your aunt is commendable and bespeaks your courage and good sense. It makes me feel that I can trust you, trust in your integrity, which is a rarity for me. It is not often I come across a person I can trust.’

She looked at him, listening like a doe in the woods, but poised to flee from him. She was rendered helpless by his words. It was difficult to argue with a man who praised her not for superficial things, as Jack had done, but for the very qualities that she most valued in herself. It would seem he did understand her a little better than she had given him credit for.

The tantalising channels in his cheeks deepened as he offered her a smile that seemed every bit as persuasive as it once had been. ‘Will you not relent, Lucy?’

She hesitated. All things considered, she could do worse. Feeling herself weakening, before she could do so completely, in a moment of desperation, she said, ‘I don’t know. And now I would like you to leave. I have much to think about.’

Shaking his head slowly, he moved to stand in front of her. Perhaps it was time to try another method of persuasion. ‘Not yet.’ His eyes delved into hers, seeking he knew not what. ‘I’d appreciate a few more moments of your time. We have much to reminisce over.’

His voice was low, incredibly warm, melting her. Lucy feared, from the inside out. She couldn’t believe what he was able to do with her emotions and with such little effort.

Sighing softly, he touched her cheek with the tip of his finger. ‘I remember our time together and our conversations and the first time I ever heard you laugh—the first time we kissed and the first time we made love,’ he said, his voice low and fierce and wrenching to hear. Suddenly he was catapulted backward through time while the image of the beauty before him abruptly blended into another image—that of an enchanting, curly-haired young girl who had once looked up at him with unconcealed love glowing in her eyes.

He could not prevent his thoughts from returning to what it had been like to be with her. The exquisite tease of her ankle caressing the back of his leg beneath a table, the feel of her arms coming up around his neck in a wave of delicate scent, the heat of her body. Most of all he remembered her face after they had made love, the genuine pleasure of her smile, pleasure that his kiss had given her, pleasure she had not been able to hide from him.

All that passion was within her still. It simmered just under the surface. He had been driven to unleash it and that was coming back to taunt him now, for he wanted to unleash it again. Within him, he felt a pang of nostalgia, mingled with a sharp sense of loss because the girl he had known was gone now.

‘I remember how it felt to hold you, how your skin felt to my touch. I remember how you looked in the moonlight with your face upturned to mine, wanting me to kiss you.’

‘Stop it.’ She felt her face grow hot beneath his eyes and turned from him, trying to still the trembling in her limbs.

Nathan moved to stand close behind her, bending his head so that his lips were close to her ear, his breath warming her neck. ‘I remember how you liked me to touch you, how you would say my name over and over again, of how you filled my senses until I could not think.’

Lucy placed the back of her hand over her mouth and caught back a sob of pain and fury. ‘You are cruel, so cruel,’ she told him in a fierce whisper. ‘You should not say these things to me when we both know it is only to get me to do what you want that impels you to say them.’

You accuse me of being cruel after what you did to me? You killed what we had without giving me an explanation. It is you who has been cruel, Lucy, to deny me that.’

‘Stop it,’ she cried, moving away from him. ‘I will not listen to this.’

‘Close your ears all you like, but I remember everything and I cannot believe you have forgotten. If you have, I will make you remember. I swear on my life I will.’

Turning round and staring into those translucent eyes that ensnared her own, Lucy felt as if she were being swept back in time. Drop by precious drop she felt her confidence along with her resistance draining away. How could she have deluded herself into believing she could sway him from his purpose? Not once since she’d met him had she ever emerged the victor in any conflict with him.

Drawing a ragged breath, she turned from him, passing cool fingertips across her burning eyelids. She was tired, so very tired of trying to find work, tired of being turned away from one theatre after another. She would miss her work and she worried so much about money and how she was going to pay her creditors. She couldn’t even pay her immediate bills. And how was she to care for her aunt?

But she could not do as he asked—could she?

Folding her arms across her chest, she turned and looked at Nathan.

Nathan saw her struggling with indecision. ‘Do say yes, Lucy,’ he said in a quiet voice.

Perhaps it was the use of her name. Perhaps it was the change in his tone. She thought for a moment, then said, ‘I can’t fight you any longer. You should congratulate yourself, Nathan. You have outmanoeuvred me. You have been very clever. It would seem you have left me with no alternative. Very well. I will work for you.’

He looked at her steadily, knowing just how difficult this was for her. ‘I cannot tell you how relieved I am to hear you say that.’

‘I am sure you are. However, there are conditions you must adhere to. Ground rules must be established between us.’

‘Which are?’

‘That whatever there was between us in the past is over and done with. What you have just said will not be repeated. We are two different people. If this new arrangement is to succeed, you will not try to initiate any kind of intimacy. We must be careful to keep the two strands of our lives from becoming tangled. You have to promise me this otherwise I will not go with you. If I do, I will do my best not to let you down. I will be singularly focused and our future relationship must be a working one if I am to succeed in the mission I am to be presented with.’

He looked at her long and hard for a moment, then he said, ‘The past is a part of everyone, Lucy, and I know I will never be entirely free of my own. But you have my word. A working relationship it will be.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Now you have agreed to co-operate we have much to discuss.’

‘I expect we have. How long do I have before we go to Portugal?’

‘Two weeks at the most.’

Her heart flipped over. She had hoped for more time. ‘As little as that?’

‘I’m afraid so. You can ride?’

‘I can, but I haven’t for a while.’

‘Have you ever fired a pistol?’

She shook her head. ‘Will I have to?’

‘Maybe. I will try to teach you the basics before we leave.’

‘And Aunt Dora? She will be against my going. Provision must be made in—in case something happens to me.’

‘I promise that will all be taken care of before we leave.’

‘I would appreciate that. I’ve already decided to give up this house. Polly can go and live with Aunt Dora. One consolation is that Sarah looks after her as attentively as if she were her own mother. I’m sure she will appreciate another pair of hands to help her care for my aunt.’ She looked at Nathan as a more pressing issue occurred to her. ‘Another thing I feel I must mention is the outstanding bills. I would appreciate it if, perhaps, you could see your way to settling that particular problem.’

‘Leave it with me.’ Now he’d accomplished what he’d set out to achieve there was no time to lose. ‘I’ll leave you now,’ he said, striding to the door. ‘I’ll be back in the morning at eight o’clock. Your training will begin immediately. Get a good night’s sleep. You’re going to need it.’

* * *

As it got closer to the time when Nathan was to arrive, Lucy found she was becoming more and more nervous, which was ridiculous, considering she had been running her own affairs for over four years and making her own decisions. What was happening to her life? It seemed to be spiralling out of control. Everything was happening too fast.

More immediate was the problem of what she was going to wear. She rushed upstairs and surveyed her wardrobe. When she was ready she went down to the parlour and sat at her desk to wait, making a list of all the things she had to take care of before she left for Portugal.

Eventually her mind began to wander and she began thinking about Nathan. She knew he had been in Spain and that he had been wounded. There was so much more she would like to know. Was he married? Had he married Katherine? It seemed likely since she, too, had gone to Spain. But Lucy would not ask. The reason she was doing this was because, for some peculiar reason, only she could help him in his mission to do whatever it was—and because he had left her with no choice. But most of all she was doing it for the money.

But, she asked herself, finding it difficult to be honest with herself, to examine her feelings where Nathan was concerned. Was it solely for the money that she had agreed to go to Portugal with him, or was the temptation to be close to him once more just too hard for her to resist?

For so long she had tried not to think about him, burying her head in the pillows at night to muffle her sobs at the memory of those last loving times she’d had with him before he’d become distant, as if he had other, more important things on his mind. Of late these recollections were so real, so vivid. Like a storm they would not be halted, the crucifying memories crept inexorably back, back to that time when they had first met.

It had been a summer’s evening at a party given by a mutual friend. They’d met often after that and courted openly. She remembered the first time they had made love. Having walked into the countryside, they had lingered in a barn full of sweet-smelling hay and it had been so wonderful when he had kissed her, when he had held her in his arms, desiring her as much as she desired him. All their hitherto cautions and restrained behaviour had been swept away in a tide of wanting and she lost her virginity eagerly.

Hearing a knock on the outside door, giving herself a mental shake she set the pen aside and stood up. Adjusting the elbow-length sleeves and smoothing her skirt with the palms of her hands, she smiled. It was a pretty dress, pink and white sprigged with pretty flounces around the hem and with a modestly low bodice. She felt a nervous anticipation as she waited for Polly to show Nathan in.

He strode into the room, carrying a parcel beneath his arm. He was wearing a tan jacket and white-silk neckcloth, buckskin riding breeches and gleaming brown-leather boots. His dark hair was ruffled and fell over the top of the scar that ran beside his left eye to his cheek. It gave him a sardonic, mocking look when his face was in repose. Only laughter or a smile softened the rigour of the scar.

Despite this he was devilishly attractive to look at. Lucy’s pulse raced. She was unsure as to the cause—her handsome riding instructor or her fear of what was in store. He stopped a couple of yards in front of her, gazing at her with a half smile curling on his lips.

‘Are you ready to begin your training?’

‘As ready as I’ll ever be.’

His eyes passed over her. He shook his head. ‘That won’t do. Here,’ he said, handing her the parcel.

Lucy took it and set it down on the table in front of the sofa. ‘What is it?’

‘Open it.’

Totally bewildered, she did as he asked. Dumbfounded, she stared at the contents, holding them up.

‘You would deck me out in these? But—I can’t possibly. Why, they’re indecent and inappropriate.’

He laughed. ‘You don’t know the difficulty I had getting these made for you. Every tailor thought me mad when I described what I wanted and no one believed that I desired to put them on a woman. I had to pay a goodly sum to have them made.’

Lucy continued to stare at them. ‘But—they’re men’s breeches. I am expected to wear these?’

He nodded, amused at her dismay. ‘Unless you prefer to be constantly tangled up in skirts. You must have worn breeches in some of your roles on stage.’

‘I have—but that was different. I was playing a part.’ Frowning, she continued to inspect the breeches. ‘I doubt they’re my size.’

‘I have a good memory, Lucy.’

She flushed, lowering her gaze so she didn’t have to see the knowing look in his eyes. ‘Four years is a long time. I’ve put on weight.’

‘In all the right places if my eyesight is to be believed. I assure you I had these made with all good intentions in mind. Do not fear that I’m making sport of you. You will find it easier and more comfortable to ride a horse wearing breeches. It’s more practical. As a woman you will attract attention—some of it unwelcome. For your own safety, it will be better if those we meet think you are a male to begin with.’

‘You’ll be telling me to cut off my hair next.’ When he didn’t say anything she glanced at him sharply. ‘You want me to cut my hair?’

He grinned. ‘You have beautiful hair, but you will not be as conspicuous with short hair. It’s—practical. It will soon grow.’

Lucy didn’t relish the idea of cropping her most prized asset, but perhaps he was right. She would attract less attention and it would be less trouble. ‘Very well. I’ll have Polly cut it before we leave.’ Shaking her head, she glanced dubiously at the breeches once more. ‘I’m becoming more confused by the hour. These breeches look awfully tight. I really don’t think they’re my size.’

‘They’ll do for the time being. Go and put them on. We’re wasting time. I want to assess your horsemanship and you cannot sit astride a horse in that dress—pretty though it is.’

Without further argument, Lucy left with the offending garments.

Feeling terribly self-conscious, she reappeared ten minutes later. The breeches, which disappeared into riding boots, were skin tight, showing off her long and perfectly shaped legs, the short jacket cut so high to reveal her attractive round derrière. Nathan admired the sight with glowing eyes, before cocking an eyebrow and ushering her outside.

* * *

The coach carried them north out of town and approached a pair of tall iron gates. A gatekeeper stepped out of the keeper’s cottage and after Nathan had spoken to the man they were permitted to pass. They swept along a curving drive with extensive lawns to the right and left of them. Lucy’s eyes became fixed on a large imposing house that appeared against a backdrop of sweeping parkland, rising to a height of three storeys. Evidently it was the property of a man of some consequence.

‘What a beautiful house,’ she murmured, unable to tear her eyes away from the twinkling expanse of mullioned windows. ‘Who does it belong to?’

‘A relative of mine. My uncle. He’s away in foreign parts at present.’

‘Is he a spy, as well?’

‘No,’ Nathan replied, helping her out of the coach. ‘He’s a gentleman. Come along. I’ll introduce you to your mount. We’ll ride out so you can get used to being back in the saddle. Tomorrow you will receive instruction on how to use a firearm—something small that is adaptable to a woman’s hand. You will have to learn how to use a dagger. I pray you never have to use either weapon, but it’s as well to be prepared for every eventuality.’

The stables were at the back of the house, a dozen stalls set around the stable yard. Most of them were occupied. Grooms and stable boys were going about their daily chores. Nathan was familiar to them and they greeted him in a friendly enough fashion. One of the grooms approached them, leading a chestnut mare.

‘Come and make friends. Her name is Jess and she’s as docile as the proverbial lamb.’

Lucy loved her. It was good to be back on a horse, to ride across the vast green acres of parkland. However, not having had the opportunity to ride for a long time, she was soon stiff. Nathan informed her she sat like a sack of potatoes and held the reins all wrong. She told him to take a flying leap and said she was going home. He told her she’d leave over his dead body. She said it was not a bad idea.

A look of sorely strained patience crossed his face as he caught her by the waist and lifted her down from the saddle after one particularly gruelling session. ‘God help me if I ever injure my back,’ he quipped.


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