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Диксон Хелен

Rogue in the Regency Ballroom: Rogue's Widow, Gentleman's Wife / A Scoundrel of Consequence

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Chapter Two

Kit uncrossed his arms. ‘Good Lord!’ The words were exhaled slowly, but otherwise he simply stared at her, his eyebrows raised in disbelief, wondering if he had heard correctly. ‘You don’t mince your words.’

‘Before you say anything, I should tell you that my father, Henry O’Connell, is extremely rich and I have a fortune at my disposal.’

He gave a derisive laugh, his easy manner of a moment before forgotten. The absolute arrogance of the woman! ‘You are charming, of course, Miss O’Connell, and as a man I cannot help but admire you—want you—but not as a wife. Your oh so delectable backside might be sitting on a gold mine, but what possible good can it be to me in this hell hole?’

Amanda flinched. He was laughing at her, looking her up and down with those casual, derisive eyes. Giving him a speculative look, she was deeply conscious that his easy, mocking exterior hid the inner man. There was a withheld power to command in him that was as impressive as it was irritating, and despite her reason for being there, she was determined he would not get the better of her.

‘How dare you mock me?’

‘Mock you? Good God, woman, have you taken leave of your senses?’

At any other time Amanda would have snubbed the man for his impertinence, but she remained cautiously alert. ‘I understand what you might think, but I am neither dim-witted nor crazy.’

‘You do overwhelm a man, Miss O’Connell. Am I supposed to take your proposal seriously?’

Once again his gaze fell on her and narrowed, half-shaded by his lids as he coolly stared at her. Amanda was immediately angry with him. She straightened her back, her chin thrust forward a notch in an effort to break the spell he wove about her with his eyes. ‘I assure you, Mr Claybourne, that I am very serious.’

‘Tell me your reason for wanting to marry me.’

‘That’s easy. I need a husband—a temporary husband.’

‘Just what, exactly, makes you so desperate for a husband that any man will do?’

‘Desperation makes a person do queer things.’

‘Why me? The City Gaol is full of rogues. Surely any one of them would suit your purpose.’

‘I want your name,’ she said quite simply. ‘Claybourne—a name that is the same as the aristocratic Claybournes in England—a name that is not uncommon and a coincidence, I am sure—a name that will satisfy my father. I want a rogue I can guarantee won’t bother me once the knot has been tied.’ Her lips quirked. ‘In a manner of speaking, of course.’

He cocked a brow and nodded slightly as he began to understand. ‘Guarantee! Now there’s a controversial word if ever there was.’

‘Not the way I see it.’ His eyes never left her, glimmering and changing with his thoughts. Amanda thought, here is a man who reveals nothing of himself, and he rules himself like steel. And yet, she must win him over, she must make him do what she wanted. She must force him to marry her and give her his name.

‘And do you mind telling me what’s in it for me?’

‘I could offer you ease and comfort for the time you have left. I will ensure that, before they hang you, you will want for nothing.’

‘Only my freedom—and my new wife.’ He raised one thick, well-defined eyebrow, watching her for every shade of thought and emotion in her. ‘Would you be prepared to spend a night with me in my prison cell, Miss O’Connell, and perform the duties of a wife?’

Startlingly aware of the wifely duties to which he referred, Amanda stared at him aghast, unable to stem her expression of repugnance as she cast a swift glance at her surroundings and then at the man himself. ‘Of course not. I couldn’t possibly.’

Kit’s face was inscrutable as he watched her pert nose wrinkle as her gaze swept over his shabby garb. Briefly anger flickered behind his eyes, but then it was gone. ‘Then, under the circumstances, I must respectfully decline your offer.’

‘You cannot possibly ask that of me. You are, after all, a common criminal and far below my own social level,’ Amanda burst out before she could stop herself. Shaken to the core by the bewildering array of sensations racing through her body that his question had aroused, she tried to fight the power of his charm. For a second the intensity of his dark eyes seemed to explode and an expression she could not comprehend flashed through them, then it was gone. His eyes met hers in fearless, half-challenging amusement, saying things she dared not think about.

Kit smiled sardonically.

‘We are not all as fortunate as you, Miss O’Connell. However, it is not for the want of trying on my part.’ His deep voice was thickly edged with irony. ‘How pathetic I must seem to you if you could believe I would agree to your outrageous request. Marriage is the last thing I need right now.’

Automatically Amanda took a step closer to him. ‘Please—I ask you to reconsider.’

‘Give me one good reason why I should sacrifice myself on the altar of matrimony for your sake—a woman unknown to me until now?’

‘Have you no dependants I could take care of—?’

Kit’s eyes turned positively glacial. ‘Now you really do insult me, Miss O’Connell,’ he retorted, his voice scoffingly incredulous. ‘What family members I have are not charity cases and are more than capable of taking care of themselves. As for myself, I have everything I need. Why should I want more? You could have saved yourself the embarrassment of this unnecessary visit—but, since you are here, perhaps you should tell me why you are so intent on marrying me, a murderer sentenced to hang any day.’

‘I came to America to find a husband, Mr Claybourne,’ she told him coolly, ‘a husband of my own choosing. My father gave me eighteen months to do so, informing me that if I didn’t find a man he would be proud to receive in the allotted time, a man worthy of his only child, he would find one for me. Since titles are paramount to my father, he will choose the man of the highest rank who offers for me—and he will have a choice to make,’ she said, unable to suppress the bitterness that crept into her voice, ‘since his bottomless income will be like a beacon to every impoverished aristocrat in England. Unfortunately, my aunt’s demise means that I have to return to England sooner than expected, and marry a man my father has chosen for me.’

‘And isn’t that how most marriages in upper-class families in England come about? Although I always did find it distasteful the way British aristocrats see marriage as a cold-blooded business arrangement.’

‘So do I. Such a marriage is not for me.’

‘So, you do not run with the pack, Miss O’Connell?’

‘I have a mind of my own, if that is what you mean,’ she replied.

‘So you have. And how will marrying me solve your dilemma, should I agree to your offer? As I see it, when you return to England you will still be minus a husband.’

‘If I return a widow, then Father must respect the customary year of mourning. By the end of it I shall be twenty-one and able to do as I please.’

Kit looked at her hard. Despite her delicate features and feminine beauty, Amanda O’Connell was apparently a woman made of steel, a woman who put her own interests first. If nothing else, Kit decided as he appraised her, they certainly had that in common. And he had to give her credit. At least she was honest about what mattered to her. In retrospect, he rather admired her courage, if not her standards.

‘And how would you explain the demise of your unfortunate husband to your father, Miss O’Connell?’

Amanda lowered her head, feeling that her courage and control were beginning to slip. ‘I would tell him that you became ill on the voyage and died. After all, it’s not uncommon for people to die of fevers and all manner of things on board ships.’

Kit contemplated her bowed head. ‘Look at me,’ he said. His voice was very quiet. Unwillingly she met his eyes. ‘You must want to marry extremely badly—have you not had the good fortune to entrap the wealthy bucks of South Carolina’s society? Wasn’t there one who could cause your maidenly heart to beat to the strains of love?’

Amanda’s green eyes snapped with disdain, and for one brief instant Kit glimpsed the proud, spirited young woman behind the carefully controlled façade. ‘Love—what has love got to do with anything? The answer to your question is no, I am desperate, Mr Claybourne—had I been given any other choice I would not be here.’

‘It is kind of you to consider me the lesser of two evils,’ Kit remarked with smiling sarcasm. ‘But my answer is no.’

A deadly calm came over Amanda, banishing everything but her regret that she had been foolish to come to the gaol and humiliate herself before this common horse breaker. She knew with rising dread that no one could push Mr Claybourne into any decision not of his own making. For the first time since she had devised this wild scheme, she knew the real meaning of failure. Her small chin lifted primly, her spine stiffened, and before his eyes Kit saw her put up a valiant struggle for control—a struggle she won.

‘It’s the best I can do at this time. However, since you refuse to marry me, then I shall have to reconsider my options. Good day to you, sir. I am sorry to have wasted your time.’

Kit watched her move towards the door with her head raised haughtily.

His stomach quivered and he felt the blood run warm in his veins as he observed her trim waist, the gentle sway of her hips and the train of her skirts stirring up the filth on the floor of the cell. He was a man well used to the charms of women—hadn’t he burned his fingers with Carmen? Preferring more honest, uncomplicated relationships, he regretted ever becoming entangled with her. He should have refused her request to break her horses, for hadn’t he been warned that Carmen Rider represented the worst kind of danger to a freedom-loving single male like himself?

Continuing to watch Miss O’Connell, he suspected her of being a quick-tempered, calculating vixen, but at that moment he perceived an air of seriousness about her. She must be pretty desperate for him to marry her to go to all this trouble, and somehow she had let herself hope that he would comply with her wishes. The thought that she wanted to marry him to secure her position and the use of his name was acutely distasteful to him. In truth he didn’t want to think of her, of her actions and desire, at all. She was not for him and never would be. He’d left her world long since. And yet she had created a situation that could prove useful to him.

‘Miss O’Connell, wait.’

She looked back. His tall, broad-shouldered figure seemed to fill the whole cell. Despite his shabby garb, never had any man looked so attractive or so distant, and never had her heart called out so strongly to anyone. His eyes were unfathomable, and at once she knew she must fight her attraction for him. Christopher Claybourne was out of her class, a social inferior. His standards were not hers, and the smell of scandal clung strongly about him.

Slowly she came back to him. Her senses felt dazed, snared by dark eyes that roamed leisurely over her features, pausing at length on her lips and then moving back to capture her gaze. They glowed with a warmth that brought colour to her cheeks, making her want to forget what his crime might be. Compared to the numerous suitors who had come her way, despite his deprivations, Christopher Claybourne was as near to perfect as she had ever met.

Mentally chiding herself for lacking the poise and behaviour of the lady she had been brought up to be, she reminded herself harshly that he was a condemned murderer and stepped back a pace, preferring to keep a secure distance between them.

‘Maybe I have been a trifle hasty in dismissing your offer,’ he said. ‘It could work out to be beneficial for us both. However, I do believe this to be the most outrageous proposal of marriage I have ever heard of. You really are the most unprincipled young woman, Amanda O’Connell, and you do seem to be in something of a fix,’ he said with a wayward smile.

‘Which you obviously find amusing.’

‘You have to admit it’s a little unusual.’

‘At the very least,’ she agreed.

‘Do you not think that by solving one problem you might be creating another?’

‘I hope not, but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take. The truth is that I don’t want to marry anyone, Mr Claybourne, just yet. I value my freedom and independence too much to let it go.’

‘So, your goal in life is self-indulgence—to fill your head with nothing except gowns, parties and beaux, to break gentlemen’s hearts, gentlemen who will swear their undying love for you and promise you the earth and jewels and the like.’

‘If you want to think so.’

‘Well, Miss O’Connell, I’m afraid that at this time I’m unable to profess my undying love for you and I appear to be fresh out of expensive jewels right now.’

‘That’s not what I want from you. Your name will suffice.’

‘Then you can have it—but not for prison comforts or fine clothes in which to meet my maker.’

‘Then what do you want?’

Taking a step back, he gave her a hard look, his jaw tightening as he stared into her bewitching eyes. She might look fragile, but he was beginning to suspect she was as strong as steel inside, and that he could trust her with the one thing that mattered to him most in life. She was also so stunningly beautiful he could feel himself responding to her with a fierceness that took his breath away. And she was offering herself to him, knowing, if he married her, that he could never take her as a husband should.

With eyes intense with purpose, he moved closer to her. ‘If your cause is really so desperate, then a bargain we will make. You could be useful to me after all.’

Amanda stared at him, already feeling the trap that was closing about her. Had her cause been less dire, she would have turned away in disgust at the thought of bargaining with the likes of a criminal, but there was too much at stake and so no limit to her patience. She tilted her head to one side and looked at him quizzically. ‘A bargain? I hardly think you are in a position to make bargains, Mr Claybourne.’

‘I’m not dead yet.’

‘You very soon will be.’

He stared at her, the lean, hard planes of his cheeks looking forbidding in the dull light. ‘A bargain we will have or there will be no marriage. However, it will be a bargain that will have a high price for you.’

‘I am listening. What is it you want?’

‘The first part of our bargain is that our marriage will be legal and binding for the time I have left to live, with papers to prove you are my lawful wife. If I manage to secure my freedom, you will acknowledge me as your husband and become my wife in truth.’

Alarm sprang to her eyes. ‘Why, is there some doubt that you will hang? Is there any chance of a reprieve?’

‘Don’t look so worried, my dear,’ he drawled. ‘Already I feel my neck straining at the noose. The second part of our bargain is another matter entirely. There is something you can do for me in return for my name—something that will make my mind easier when they hang me.’

Amanda wouldn’t like what he was going to say, she could see it on his face. ‘What is it?’ she asked quietly.

He turned from her, raking a hand through his hair in agitation, and when he turned back she had difficulty reading his expression, but she could see his features were taut with some kind of emotional struggle.

‘If it’s so bad, perhaps you should tell me outright,’ she said.

‘I was not being truthful when I said that what relatives I have are capable of taking care of themselves. There is one member of my family who is too young and vulnerable to care for herself.’

Somehow Amanda knew from the look of pain and despair that slashed across his taut features that the person he spoke of meant a great deal to him. ‘Who is it?’ she asked softly. The pain vanished and his features were already perfectly composed when he looked at her and quietly answered.

‘I have a child, Miss O’Connell, a three-year-old daughter. Will you take her with you to England, when you go?’

Amanda stared at him, feeling as if the breath had been knocked out of her. A child! Mrs Hewitt had said nothing about a child—and if there was a child, then surely there must be a mother. A wife? Suddenly she was confronted by a stumbling block the size of an unconquerable mountain.

‘A—a child? But—I know nothing about looking after children.’

He grinned. ‘Take it from me, it’s easy. There’s nothing to it—and you have a maid to help, don’t you? You seem to be a sensible young woman. Look after her. Take her to my cousin in London. Is that too much to ask?’

He was looking at her hard, studying her features for her reaction. ‘But—what would happen to her if I didn’t? Where is she now? What about her mother? Who is caring for her?’

‘Her mother—my wife, who was a Cherokee—is dead. She died in childbirth. My daughter is called Sky and she is being cared for by a good family. The mother, Agatha, has a loving heart, but life is a struggle, with five children of her own to raise and precious little money.’

‘But I could give her money,’ Amanda was quick to offer, anything to avoid admitting a strange child into her life, a child she would have difficulty explaining.

‘No,’ he said sharply. ‘That—is not what I want.’ His voice became strangely hesitant and Amanda thought he wouldn’t go on, and when he did it was almost as if he was testing his ability to talk about it. ‘I have nightmares when I think what might happen to Sky when I am no longer here to take care of her. And now you appear as an answer to my prayers. Can I give my daughter into your keeping, for you to take her to my cousin?’

Amanda heard the appeal behind his words, sensed the desperation he must feel for his daughter’s well-being, and how much he must miss not being with her. ‘H-h-have you not seen her since you were arrested?’ she asked, not yet ready to give him her answer.

He shook his head. Even now he marvelled at how profoundly he could be affected by one dimpled smile from a raven-haired child, how it felt to hold her, feeling the bond between them growing stronger and deeper than anything he had ever known. ‘I love her, and she knows it. She is the child of my heart, and I would not have her see me like this.’

All the sympathy Amanda felt was mirrored in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, feeling a lump of constricting sorrow in her chest. ‘I realise how hard this must be for you.’

‘Best that she remembers me when we were together—happier times. I wish there had been some way to spare her this. What happens to me cannot be kept from her. She will not always be a child, and will hear the rumours sooner or later. So—what do you say? Do we have a bargain—or does marriage to me not seem such a good idea after all?’

‘A bargain is a bargain, I suppose.’

‘And do you pledge yourself to honour this one? Do you promise to look after my daughter until you have placed her in my cousin’s care?’

Amanda hesitated as she thought of the enormity of what she was committing herself to. Dazed by confusing messages racing through her brain, driven by the need to help his child and by something less sensible and completely inexplicable, she conceded. Whether he agreed to marry her or not, this request was made from the heart and she could not—would not—refuse him.

‘I will make your daughter my responsibility and I will not fail you.’

‘Thank you. It means a great deal to me. You have no idea just how much.’

Amanda would have to deal with the consequences. And yet what did it matter? she thought. Mr Claybourne’s crime was proved and he would hang for sure. This time next week she would be on the ship homeward bound, and her husband nothing to her but a name. And yet there would be his child to remind her.

‘When the ceremony has been performed, you can tell me where I can find her. Do you wish to see her before …?’

‘No.’ His word was final.

‘Very well. I will leave you now. Mr Hennesey will let you know about the arrangements. Are you a Catholic, by the way?’


‘It could complicate matters.’

He grinned. ‘With a good Irish name as you have, Miss O’Connell, are you not of that persuasion?’

‘No. My father was an Ulsterman.’

‘And I adhere to any form of Protestant denomination, so that should not be a problem.’

Amanda turned to go. At the door she paused and looked back at him. ‘There is one thing I will ask you before I go—and I would appreciate the truth.’

‘And that is?’

‘Did you really murder Mrs Rider?’ With a mixture of dread and helpless anticipation, Amanda met his steady, dark gaze.

‘No, I did not. I’d like you at least to believe there is a possibility I’m telling you the truth.’

‘Then if you are indeed innocent, surely there are ways to help you—someone with influence and means.’

‘If you are suggesting there is someone out there to redress the wrongs done to me, then sadly the source is exhausted. However, your concern touches me deeply, Miss O’Connell.’

His voice was casual and his face was serious, but Amanda distrusted the gleaming, mocking humour lurking in his gaze. He did not believe for one minute that she or anyone else cared one iota what happened to those in his position.

‘Then if you did not kill her—where were you?’


Amanda stared at him and then slowly her lips curved in a smile. ‘You were fishing? Oh, I see. Well, good day, Mr Claybourne.’

Kit watched her go. For the time they had been together her beauty had fed his gaze, creating inside him an ache that could neither be set aside nor sated. When the door had shut, at that moment the prison walls closed round him with a ferocious pressure. His filthy and torn clothing, the roughness of his unwashed skin, the stink of himself, his absolute hopelessness, stirred a rage in him that was almost overpowering.

As Amanda followed Mr Hennesey, a treacherous seed of doubt about Mr Claybourne’s guilt planted itself in her mind, and before she had left the prison that seed was taking root, nourished by her horror at the possibility that an innocent man would hang. Her mind argued that she was being a fool to think like this, but every instinct she possessed shouted that he was innocent. She knew it. She could feel it. And if he was, then she could hardly bear the thought of what he was to go through.

Of course the worst thing that could happen for her would be for Mr Claybourne to be released; yet, though she bore no feelings for him one way or the other, she could only admire his courage as he faced imminent death. He had impressed her, and the idea of such a fine-looking man, in his prime and full of life, dying in such a cruel manner, depriving a child of its father, was repugnant to her. Surprised to find her eyes were wet with tears, she raised her hand and wiped them away.

‘Mr Hennesey, if you please, may I have a quiet word?’

Hennesey stopped and turned to look at her. His pace had quickened and he was studying her with a keen eye. ‘Aye, a quiet word is it? And would I be right in thinkin’ it concerns Claybourne?’

His tone gave Amanda confidence—although she did wonder if he had had his ear to the door of the cell. In a low voice, not wishing what she had to say to be overheard, she said, ‘Yes, it does. Mr Claybourne and I wish to be married—before …’

‘He hangs.’


Hennesey gave a low whistle. ‘That’s a serious matter.’

‘I agree, but it is what we want—and I would like it carried out with the utmost secrecy. Time is of the essence. Can you help me?’

Hennesey rubbed his chin as he thought about her request. ‘Well, now—the governor has to know about such things happenin’ in his prison.’

‘Is that necessary, Mr Hennesey? Can’t we keep this between ourselves?’ Amanda knew that if she confronted the governor of the prison all kinds of embarrassing questions would be asked—and he might even be acquainted with Charlotte and inform her, which would dash all her hopes.

Mr Hennesey rubbed his stubbled chin thoughtfully. ‘Well, now, we could—but it will cost you.’

‘Money is not a problem, Mr Hennesey.’ Amanda’s relief was so great she almost sank to her knees. ‘Do you know of a minister who will agree to perform the ceremony?’

‘There is one I know of, although the gaol has its own chaplain, and ministers come and go all the time to visit prisoners, especially the condemned—hoping to save their souls,’ he said scathingly.

A sudden instinctive caution made Amanda add, ‘I will give you half the money before and half afterwards. I ask for the utmost secrecy for the present. No one must get wind of it—no one. Do you understand me, Mr Hennesey? And we must act quickly. I will leave you to make the arrangements—to appoint the time. Oh, and one more thing. See to it that Mr Claybourne is made decent—a wash and a change of clothes wouldn’t go amiss.’

On reaching the carriage, she lost no time in telling a shocked Nan of what she intended and that she would appreciate it if she agreed to be one of the witnesses at her marriage, along with Amos. Nan was so appalled she was momentarily rendered speechless, but when she recovered herself she lost no time in telling Amanda what she thought of the whole dreadful affair. As usual, however, the words of reproach went in one ear and out the other.

‘It’s unfair of you to make me a part of this,’ Nan persisted, ‘to ask this of me. What you’re doing is wrong and your father will probably disown you.’ But Nan could see from the stubborn set of Amanda’s jaw and the determined gleam in her eyes that nothing would change her mind. No one could stop Amanda O’Connell doing what she wanted once she’d got the bit between her teeth—and she’d had the bit between her teeth from the moment her father had summoned her back to England to marry the man he had chosen for her.

And so, when the prison governor was away from the prison and there was no danger of him walking in on them, with Nan and Amos standing like statues behind her to bear witness to her bizarre wedding, Amanda moved to stand beside Kit, impatient for the affair to be done.

She had told herself that when they next met he would seem less attractive, and that the image she held of him would vanish, but it was scored into her mind and there it would remain. And as she waited for the moment when she would become his wife, she felt the delight of secrecy and a dizzying madness at what she was about to do.

She was relieved to see Mr Hennesey had done what she had paid him to do and found Kit some decent clothes—a white shirt and dark blue trousers—and that he was clean. And now, as she stood beside him, he was more attractive than ever, more desirable. He turned to look at her, and she saw his deep, black eyes, and the long, silken lashes and well-defined brows. She felt an urgency to reach out and touch him, to be even closer to him, and suddenly, standing there beside him, she felt that when she walked out of that prison cell there would be an emptiness in her life that she didn’t want to admit to, a solace that would not be appeased no matter where she was, and her arms would be achingly empty.

As the ceremony was conducted, Amanda replied to the droning questions the minister presented to her, and Kit’s voice rang out in the stillness of the cell as he, too, gave his troth towards the marriage, looking deep into her eyes as he promised to love and cherish her. The minister presented a ring, a ring Amanda had bought and given to him when she had arrived. Taking her hand in his own, a hand that was warm and alive, Kit placed it on her finger.

In that brief time Amanda had become the wife of Christopher Claybourne.

The day was hot and sunny, but in the prison it was cool, and when, still holding her hand, Kit bent his head and gently kissed her mouth, his lips warmly touched hers. A part of Amanda’s mind warned that to return his kiss was insane. It would complicate everything, and she didn’t need any more complications, but the need to taste his lips was too strong for her to resist.

The moment she yielded her lips to his, Kit sensed her capitulation. Unaware of the others present or Nan’s gasp of shocked disgust, Amanda let him part her lips and of their own volition her fingers curled around his. She felt his swift, indrawn breath when she tentatively returned his kiss, and suddenly everything began to change when his kiss deepened.

Somewhere in the back of her mind Amanda knew this was only a formality, she knew that as clearly as she knew she had no choice but to participate, but if this was true, then why did her heart beat faster, and why couldn’t she open her eyes?

Kit’s head lifted just enough to break contact with her mouth, and when he spoke his voice was husky and soft. ‘You will belong to me until I die, but for now I guess I’ll have to be content with that.’

It took an unnatural effort for Amanda to move, but she pulled her hand from his grip. Panicked by her inexplicable lethargy she stepped back.

Stunned by the hint of tears in her eyes, Kit stared down at her creamy skin and soft mouth with a hunger that he was finding almost impossible to control. The exquisite sweetness of her lips, the way it felt to have her close, to feel the gentleness of her fingers holding his, almost made the notion of making love to her in his prison cell seem plausible—a notion she demolished when he automatically reached out to take her hand once more and she snatched it back.

‘Don’t think you can repeat kissing me just because of our altered circumstances,’ she warned him indignantly, angry with herself for having actually enjoyed his kiss. No matter how hard he protested his innocence, he was still a convicted murderer and she must not, dared not, ever forget that.

Kit was too preoccupied with the results of their kiss to rise to her anger—anger she had bidden to conceal her sudden vulnerability. Her cheeks were tinted an adorable pink, and her dark-lashed eyes were lustrous.

The documents that made their union legal were signed and handed to her, and the minister, being unable to wish the couple a long and happy life as was usually the case, quickly departed.

The closing of the door reverberated around the cell.

‘For goodness’ sake, hurry up and say your goodbyes,’ Nan whispered, shrinking towards Amos and the door. ‘I hate this place and want to be out of it. No good will come of this. What will Mr Quinn say—and your cousin Charlotte?’

Taking her arm, Kit drew Amanda aside. Rousing to awareness, she looked at her husband. Despite her angry words of a moment before, she felt an aching dread as to his fate. Her despair must have shown, for he said, ‘Take heart. In no time at all you will leave Charleston and you can put all this behind you. You will be a free woman, Amanda, and able to do what you want with your life.’

Amanda struggled impotently for the last vestiges of control, feeling it beginning to crack under the strain as his eyes looked down into hers. She had a strange sensation of falling. ‘I don’t think I shall ever be able to do that,’ she whispered, swallowing down the hard lump that had risen in her throat.

Seeing the distress in her eyes, Kit placed his fingers beneath her chin and tilted her face to his. ‘Do not look so sorrowful, Amanda. Congratulate yourself. Your plans have gone according to your wishes. When you return to Magnolia Grove you must raise a toast to your success.’

‘When I think of what is to happen to you I can summon no feelings of satisfaction.’

‘Nothing can be done to save me now. All I ask is that you take care of my daughter.’

From his pocket Kit withdrew two sealed envelopes. Amanda watched him, noting the authority, the strength held in check as he handed them to her. So many conflicting emotions swirled inside her, fighting for ascendancy.

‘When you reach England go to my cousin in London and give her this letter,’ Kit said, indicating the letter addressed to Mrs Victoria Hardy with her address in Chelsea written on the envelope. ‘I have explained everything. Victoria has children of her own and will take good care of Sky.’

‘Where is your daughter? Where can I find her?’

‘Take a boat up river—the steamer, if you prefer. Tell the boatman who you want—Samuel Blake, and his wife is called Agatha. Sam is a fisherman and well known on the river. Their home is close to the water—the boatman will point it out. Give this letter to Agatha and you’ll have no problem obtaining custody of Sky.’

‘Have you no message for your daughter?’ Amanda asked, wondering how the child would feel, dispossessed of her father’s love and protection, and cast adrift in an alien world.

‘Tell her—tell her that I’m thinking of her,’ he said tremulously, a great and tender pain bursting within his heart when he thought of his beautiful daughter, ‘that I love her, and to remember me in her prayers. After that go home and have a good life, Amanda Claybourne, and I thank you for this.’

Amanda walked towards the door, feeling the words of farewell sticking in her throat. The remorse that gripped her was powerful and sudden, the injustice of Kit’s fate filled her. On the threshold she turned back. She saw his eyes fixed upon her with an expression of such sadness in them that it wrenched her heart.

‘Farewell, Kit,’ she whispered, with tears in her eyes.

‘Farewell, Amanda.’

As she followed Nan and Amos out of the gaol, a gust of chill air broke into her solitary world, bringing cold reality with it. She was appalled to think Kit’s end was so close, that he was going to be hanged by the neck until he was dead. It all seemed so monstrously unjust. She genuinely forgot that only a short while before she had given no thought to his fate, only what he could do for her.

Dashing away a tear, she quickened her pace. The sooner she was gone from this place, the better she would feel. She tried telling herself that Christopher Claybourne’s misfortune was of his own making, but there was a voice in her head telling her that none of this was right and that they would hang an innocent man.

Never again, she vowed as she emerged into the light of day and felt the sun on her face, would she put herself in such a fraught situation. She had succeeded in her plan, but she had the suspicion that she was only storing up trouble for later.

As the carriage carried her back to Magnolia Grove, she rested her head against the soft upholstery, closed her eyes and allowed the memory of the kiss to invade her mind—the kiss, vibrant and alive, soft, insistent and sensual—the kiss she’d been forced to participate in. When Kit had bowed his head to place his lips on hers, she’d understood instinctively that it was a common practice between a newly wedded couple, but her reaction to it terrified her. She’d wanted more—much more. She’d wanted it to go on and on and to kiss him back with soul-destroying passion, to feel his hands on her bare flesh and his body driving into hers.

Dear, sweet Lord! How could she have felt like that? she thought with bitter self-revulsion. Was it not bad enough that she had allowed him to kiss her—and, worse, to revel in it? The truth was that she’d believed Kit’s assertions because she’d wanted to, and because the nauseating reality was that she was disgustingly attracted to Christopher Claybourne, who’d fascinated her from the moment she had seen him in the street.

Amanda realised that any attempt to keep what she had done secret was useless. She was in deep trouble and knew it. First she sought out Mr Quinn. He was in the study, pacing the floor as he read through some correspondence from her father that had just arrived.

Mr Quinn was a quiet, private man—secretive, even. Where he went and what he did Amanda had no idea and nor did she care, providing he left her alone to do as she pleased. As her father’s employee of two decades or more—more than she could remember—she had respect for the man, but she could not like him. His past was a mystery to Amanda, and she had not enquired into it. He had served her father well, which was why he had entrusted the care of his daughter to him for the time she was in Charleston.

Now his features were set in a stern, unsmiling expression. With the width of the desk between them, Amanda raised her chin with a touch of defiance, steeling herself for Mr Quinn’s wrath that would descend on her like an axe when she told what she had done.

As quickly as she could, she told him everything there was to tell about her marriage to Mr Claybourne. All the while her eyes never left his furious face. Such a transformation came over him as he listened to what she had to say that she recoiled before the change. All that had been calm and controlled had given way to fury and positive revulsion. They stood facing each other, but before Amanda could utter one more word, Mr Quinn erupted with fury.

‘By all the saints, have you taken leave of your senses? You foolish, stupid, reckless girl. You have brought shame on your good name and will break your father’s heart because of it.’

Amanda stood her ground, her face as stubborn and angry as his. ‘Do calm yourself, Mr Quinn. I know how greatly disappointed you must be—’

‘And what did you expect? For me to raise a toast and congratulate you and that—that horse breaker—that murderer—on your new-found happiness? I can only think your youth and thoughtlessness prompted such irresponsible conduct. And what of your cousin? Was Charlotte in on this—this escapade?’


‘I thought not. She has more sense. And this is how you repay her kindness—and your Aunt Lucy’s.’ He gave her a withering look. ‘Your father placed you in my care. What do you think he will say when he hears of this—this farce of a marriage? This is one time you won’t be able to wheedle and sweet-talk him. His punishment will be severe—on both of us. One thing is certain—my dismissal from his service will be immediate. He does not deserve to be deceived, and there will be hell to pay when he finds out.’

Amanda flinched at the harsh words. She had no doubt that the shock on his face was genuine, and yet she sensed another emotion there too, as if a distant fear that had nothing to do with her father’s finding out were suddenly shimmering in the older man’s eyes. There was a fierce, almost frightening anger about him, but there was not a thing Mr Quinn could do about her marriage now. She was Mrs Christopher Claybourne and she had the papers to prove it.

‘Then all the more reason not to tell him. We can spare him the details. It can be our secret.’

He stared at her in appalled amazement. ‘You are asking me to become your co-conspirator? You were not brought up to be devious,’ he snapped.

‘It’s too late for recriminations, Mr Quinn. It’s done. I am Mrs Claybourne now. There is no need for my father to know my husband was a murderer hanged for his crime. He will be told Mr Claybourne died on board ship.’

‘I do not like conspiracies.’

‘To bring this matter to his ears will hurt him, Mr Quinn, you must see that, and nothing will induce me to wound him.’

‘It’s a little late for that. My congratulations on your deceit. Your visits to the shops had me completely fooled. You must be the cleverest young woman this side of the Atlantic. I demand to know why you did not see fit to tell me.’

‘You know why. You would have prevented me.’

‘Damn right I would.’ His expression was set and hard. ‘To plan this—to enter the City Gaol and to tie yourself to a murderer—is nothing less than outrageous … scandalous. And to try to use his name … Has it not entered your head that your father will question you about the family you have married into, that he will want to know to which branch of Claybournes your husband belonged to, and that he may well communicate with them to offer his condolences for their relative’s loss?’ When Amanda blanched, a coldness closed on his face. ‘No, I thought not.’

‘I confess that I haven’t given it a deal of thought and I shall face it if it happens. However, because I shall be a widow, Father will have to respect one year of mourning, by which time I shall be independent of his authority and able to choose myself a husband in my own good time. At this particular moment I am impatient to leave for England. I have no wish to be in Charleston when they hang Mr Claybourne.’

Cursing Amanda to hell and back, Mr Quinn seethed as he paced the carpet. He had reasons of his own to quit Charleston at the earliest opportunity, and when Henry O’Connell had ordered their return he had looked on it as a Godsend. However, if he valued his position, he had no choice but to take part in Amanda’s subterfuge.

‘Mark my words, this spells trouble. If it is ever known what you have done, it will bring disrepute on your family—and all because of a moment of intense madness. May God help you—and me—should your father ever find out the truth. It was badly done, Amanda—badly done indeed.’

Amanda looked at the letter he was holding. ‘Is there a message for me in Father’s letter?’

‘Only that he’s arranged what he considers to be a suitable match for you—but I suppose he will have to explain to the gentleman that you are no longer available.’

‘What gentleman?’

‘It is Lord Prendergast he has in mind.’

Amanda’s mouth dropped open and her face lost all vestige of colour. ‘Lord Prendergast!’ she gasped. ‘That man is nothing but an old bag of bones. To marry him would be a fate worse than death.’

‘You might wish you had when your father gets wind of what you’ve done. You haven’t a care in the world beyond getting whatever you want out of life, have you?’

‘Which certainly isn’t Lord Prendergast.’

Faced with Mr Quinn’s wrath, for once Amanda felt afraid. She did not feel reckless or defiant now. She felt young and guilty and conscious of the seriousness of what she had done—and fear, should her father ever learn of his daughter’s deceit and scandalous marriage. But she took heart that England was an ocean away and he would never find out the true nature of her husband. Because Mr Quinn would face instant dismissal, he wouldn’t tell. Besides, it would put him in such a bad light as a chaperon.

‘There’s—something else you should know,’ he said hesitantly, ‘something that will affect you. You father’s getting married—to a Lady Caroline Brocket. She comes from a Coventry family who were loosely connected to the aristocracy. She married a baronet who died after fifteen years of marriage. There was no issue.’

Amanda froze and stared at him. ‘Married? I don’t believe it.’ She had never entertained the idea that her father would marry again, and she’d never even heard of Lady Caroline Brocket.

‘It’s true. He is also selling the house in Rochdale and moving to the country, where he has purchased a large property—Eden Park. He fancies his hand at breeding horses. Lady Brocket is in favour of this and has given him a good deal of encouragement. By the time we arrive in England the move will be complete.’ Meeting her eyes, which were dark with worry, he frowned. ‘Your reaction tells me that you disapprove of your father’s actions.’

‘That I am surprised is putting it mildly. Business has always come first with Father. He’s never listened to me when I’ve told him he works too hard. This—Lady Brocket must be quite exceptional to have succeeded in finding the chink in his armour when everyone else has failed,’ Amanda said, feeling a stab of resentment towards this unknown woman. ‘While he plays the country squire, who will be running his business empire?’

‘He is employing others to do it for him.’

‘I suppose it will take some getting used to.’

‘Change always does. Be happy for him—and perhaps then, if he discovers the disgraceful facts of your own marriage, he will not be so hard on you.’


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