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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 Three

Mr Quinn’s chilling expression was bad enough, but the worst part of it all was that Charlotte was disappointed in her and shaken and stricken by her deceit. Her painful attempt to reprimand her formed more of a punishment than any violent demonstration of anger, and in an agony of mortification Amanda begged her forgiveness. On this edifying note of repentance she hoped the conversation would be concluded, but Charlotte had to have her say.

‘When Mr Quinn told me what you had done I could not believe it of you, Amanda. What can I say? I knew how much you wanted to avoid an arranged marriage, but—well, I never thought you would go to such lengths—and to go inside that dreadful place … Oh, I shudder when I think about it. Still, it is done now, so it’s no use getting all emotional about it and indulging in petty displays of hysterics. But I have to say that I’m disappointed in you, and what your father will have to say I dread to think.’

Amanda could see the expression of shock on Charlotte’s face, and yet she was confident that soon she would understand the desperation that had made her do it. ‘Charlotte, I am so sorry if I’ve upset you.’

Charlotte looked at her sharply. ‘But you’re not sorry you married Mr Claybourne, are you?’


‘At least it will stop your father marrying you off in a hurry.’

Amanda brightened. ‘Yes, it will all be changed—especially now he is to wed himself—and a lady, too. So at least there is one good result from today’s events.’

‘I’m glad you think so,’ Charlotte said drily. ‘Well, in no time at all you’ll be a widow. No doubt your father will hold me responsible for all this. What you do in England is, of course, entirely your own concern, Amanda, but here Mother had her standards—and so have I, and I wish you had observed the proprieties.’ Since her mother had died, Charlotte felt responsible—certainly morally accountable—for Amanda’s brazen behaviour and her restless, dissatisfied state. ‘I suppose I had better write to your father and explain everything.’

‘Please don’t,’ Amanda said quickly. ‘I’ll tell him, Charlotte, I promise I will.’

‘He has a right to know. You cannot conceal the fact that you married a convicted murderer.’

‘He is innocent, Charlotte, I know it.’

‘The judge who sentenced him does not think so.’

‘There are many who do not believe it and never will accept his guilt.’

‘And if he is innocent, will you devote your life to saving him from the undeserved penalty awaiting him? Because, if so, imagine what it will mean to you.’ She put her hands to her flushed cheeks. ‘Oh my goodness, what a muddle all this is. I’ll talk it over with Mr Quinn. Perhaps by now he will have calmed down and will be in a more logical frame of mind.’

‘There—there is more, Charlotte.’ Charlotte looked at her, waiting for her to continue with absolute dread as to what might be coming next. ‘Mr Claybourne has a child. I have promised him I will take her to England—to her cousin.’

Shaken by this latest piece of news, Charlotte listened in an appalled silence as Amanda told her of the promise she had made to Kit. ‘I am his wife, even if only in name. I promised I would take care of his child, and I will honour that promise.’

Charlotte took a moment to assess the situation. At length she sighed with resignation and said, ‘Very well. You and I will see to it in the morning. I can only hope that none of this gets out. A scandal is the last thing we want. Perhaps it’s a good thing you’re to return to England.’

The scene was one of tranquillity and sparkling water snaking inland. The surface of the river tumbled and tossed its white foam on either side of the river steamer as it ploughed its way through. Gulls screeched overhead and an assortment of waterfowl swam in the shaded reaches. They passed several plantation houses, some lived in, some still nothing but empty shells—the scars of the Civil War. It was a beautiful day.

Nature was at its grandest, with the landscape wrapped in a warm, golden haze as Amanda and Charlotte sat in the boat beneath their parasols.

When the steamer neared a small landing the whistle bellowed. A flock of alarmed egrets exploded into flight, their plumage snowy white against the black water and sombre trees. The boatman pointed to them the house where Samuel Blake lived. Tall shrubs allowed only a glimpse of the roof of the timber-framed house, and several others. Walking up a dusty lane, they stopped outside the house as a motherly woman, robust and with a kindly face, came out, wiping her flour-coated hands on her wide pinafore. There was a warm light in her eyes as she introduced herself as Agatha Blake. A small child of three came up behind her, peering round her skirts at them curiously.

‘I do hope we are not putting you to too much trouble, Mrs Blake, descending on you at such short notice. I am Amanda O’Connell,’ she said, having decided not to tell anyone about her marriage to Christopher Claybourne, ‘and this is my cousin Charlotte. It was Mr Claybourne who told us where you lived. We—we’ve come to see you about the child—Sky. He gave me a letter for you.’

Agatha looked at them both, assessing them carefully, and then a large smile broadened her lips as she took the letter. ‘Of course you are no trouble. Come inside and have some tea. It’s rare enough I have visitors—and please call me Agatha. A friend of Kit’s is a friend of ours. You are fortunate to find Sky and me the only ones at home just now. I have a large brood and usually there are children all over the place, but my husband has taken them fishing to give me some peace.’

Amanda smiled at the little girl, realising for the first time that this child was her stepdaughter. She was a startlingly attractive child, her Cherokee ancestry evident in her features. Her mane of jet black hair was loosely caught by a thin ribbon so that its length hung down between her shoulder blades. What entrapped Amanda was the compelling blackness of her eyes. They were large and widely spaced, set above prominent cheekbones and heavily fringed by glossy lashes. The incredible black eyes regarded her with interest.

Having heard her father’s name mentioned, she tugged on Agatha’s skirts to gain her attention and said, ‘Is Papa coming home, Agi?’

‘No, child, but he has sent these ladies with a message.’

Charlotte held back when Agatha turned to go inside. Holding out her hand to the child, she smiled. ‘Would you like to come with me and show me the pretty flowers in the garden, Sky? I’d love to see them.’ Sky nodded and took her hand trustingly.

Amanda looked at her cousin gratefully. It would be easier talking to Agatha without the child. She watched the two of them go into the small garden, feeling her throat tighten. Poor little mite, she thought. Wasn’t it bad enough being without her father, without being taken away from those she loved by strangers? She followed Agatha inside the house. It smelled lovely—of baking and polish and all the other smells that mingle together to smell of comfort and home.

‘Have you known Mr Claybourne long?’ Amanda asked as Agatha busied herself making tea.

‘Sam and me have known Kit for five years. I know all about what they say he’s done, but don’t you believe it. He’s a good man. We like him—and I would trust him with my life if I had to—and our five children adore him. Kit never killed that woman. I’d swear it on my life.’

‘And what of Sky? What shall I tell her?’

Agatha glanced at her sharply, alert. ‘Tell her? What do you mean?’

‘Mr Claybourne has asked me to take her back to England with me—to be looked after by his cousin. She will be well looked after, you can depend on that. Read the letter, Agatha,’ she said, handing it over. ‘He explains everything in that.’

Agatha read what Christopher had to say, then she nodded, her eyes moist and her face set in sombre lines.

‘It will sadden my heart to part with her, but I can see it’s for the best that she goes. She’s a bright child who learns quickly. When she begins to hear the rumours about her pa, she’s bound to find out what happened. It cannot be kept from her and the stigma will always be with her. When do you go to England?’

‘The day after tomorrow.’

Pain slashed across Agatha’s features. ‘So soon. And you want to take her with you today?’

‘Yes,’ Amanda said softly.

Agatha nodded, resigned to letting Sky go. ‘I’ll get her things together. She never knew her mother—a lovely little thing she was, Cherokee. Sky has come to accept me in that role and we all love her dearly. But I always knew the day would come when she would have to go, that Kit would take her to his own people in England. How is he?’

‘Bearing up, I’d say.’

‘And will they really hang him?’

‘I don’t see how it can be avoided. He continues to reiterate his denials of guilt—even though there does not seem to be anyone else who could have done it.’

‘What kind of justice is it that will hang a man like him?’ There was anger in Agatha’s voice as she wiped away a tear with the corner of her apron.

‘What kind of man is he?’ Amanda asked gently.

‘Kit? Why, he’s a man of the open, an active man, and I know how much he must hate being confined. He’s his own man is Kit. Often he would disappear into the woods following trails made by the Indians with nothing but his rifle. He would be gone for days and return to lead Sam back to a freshly killed and skinned deer. The mountains became his mentor. He learned to read the signs of the sky and forest like an Indian. He became a hunter and a trapper—shooting a deer or trapping possum.’

Amanda could imagine Kit, striding towering and unafraid through the Smoky Mountains, as controlled and silent as a great cat. ‘Then I can imagine how difficult his imprisonment must be for him.’

‘I will never believe he’s guilty. The attorney who conducted the legal proceedings against Kit was a friend of the Riders. The jury listened to him and Kit didn’t stand a chance. He swayed them with his clever talk and worked on them with his sympathies, portraying Mrs Rider as some kind of poor, defenceless widow, when in truth she was anything but. The jury was out less than ten minutes when they filed back with the verdict of guilty.’

‘He told me he was fishing at the time Mrs Rider was killed.’

Agatha nodded. ‘And so he was—with Judd Freeman. They often went off for days and weeks at a time. Kit would always leave Sky with me. On that last trip, as soon as they reached Charleston Judd went off again and he’s not been back since. He could be anywhere between here and Boston. He won’t know anything about this, otherwise he’d be back to save his friend.’

‘Hasn’t anyone tried to contact him?’

‘Sam has—and others—but no one’s seen hide nor hair of him. The trouble is that he lives on his boat. Our only hope is that he puts into port somewhere and hears about it.’

At that moment Charlotte appeared with Sky. The child was clutching a little bunch of flowers in her hands, which she handed to Agatha.

‘What does Papa say, Agi?’

Placing the flowers on the table, Agatha gently touched her dark head. ‘I know this is a big surprise for you, sweetheart, but your papa wants you to be very brave and grown up. He says you are to go with this lady on a journey across the sea.’

The look of happiness on Sky’s face fled and a kind of bewildered worry took its place. ‘Are you coming, too, Agi?’

Tears sparkled in Agatha’s eyes. ‘No, love. I have to stay and look after Sam and the children. You know what they’re like. Just think what they might get up to if I wasn’t here to keep them straight.’ Agatha saw Sky’s constricted throat swallow with difficulty.

‘I don’t want to be sent away,’ she whispered.

‘No one is sending you away. It’s just that your papa has to go away for a while—and thinks it best that you go to England.’

‘Will Papa find me there? He will, won’t he, Agi?’ she said, her face full of hope.

Dragging their eyes away from the forlorn little face, wet with silent tears, Agatha and Amanda looked at each other, each knowing what the other was thinking. How hard it would be when the time came telling this three-year-old child that her papa was in heaven.

Knowing how much Sky was going to need her in the weeks ahead, for her sake as well as her own, Amanda had to be strong and clear-headed. But how small she was. It seemed ridiculous to be sending such a tiny thing away to the remote unknown. On impulse she knelt beside her and took her hand.

‘I know this will be hard for you to get used to, Sky, but your papa really has asked me to take care of you. He told me he loves you very much, and that you are to remember him in your prayers every night.’

‘I’ll always pray for Papa.’

‘We’ll have lots of time to get to know each other and perhaps I can show you Charleston and the shops before we leave on the enormous ship. Is there anything you would like to take with you?’

‘Only Papa, but I know he can’t be with me just now,’ she said in a quaintly philosophical way for one so young. ‘I like ponies, too—like Papa. He said he would get me a fine pony of my very own when he got back.’

‘When we get to England—which is where I am taking you—lots of young ladies have ponies of their own, and so will you. But since we can’t very well take a pony on the ship, is there anything else you would like?’

Suddenly her eyes brightened. ‘I would like a doll of my very own, one I can dress in nice clothes.’

‘Then I shall see to it that you have the prettiest doll in the whole of Charleston,’ Amanda told her soothingly, relieved to see the stiffness ease from Sky’s small body. ‘Now that is settled, would you like to help Agatha put your things together? My name is Amanda, and I am sure we are going to be good friends, Sky.’

‘You have a way with children,’ Agatha said as she straightened up.

‘I haven’t had any experience, so I have a lot to learn.’

This was true. Many times over the next two days Amanda had to fight back an impulse to take her back to Agatha. Sky cried all the way back to Charleston. Her parting from Agatha and all that was familiar upset her, but, arriving at Magnolia Grove and with all the attention showered on her, and doting on the doll and other toys Amanda bought for her, she soon brightened up. It was when she went to bed that she suffered moments of homesickness and cried for Agatha and her papa. Finding herself drawn to the child in a way that surprised her, Amanda would hold her tenderly and soothe her with words of comfort until she fell to sleep.

The ship bound for England via New York sailed out of Charleston’s harbour with playful dolphins swimming alongside. At the same time a small fishing boat, with its sun-bleached sail bellied out and curls of white foam on each side of the bow, sailed in, with Judd Freeman at the tiller. It was after he’d put into Wilmington to take on fresh water that he had heard what Kit had been accused of and that he was to pay the ultimate penalty for his crime. Immediately he had set sail for Charleston, praying he would not be too late to save his friend.

Back in England, as the train sped northwards, carrying Amanda to her new home, she had time to dwell on her parting from Sky. It had been difficult to say goodbye, more difficult than she had imagined. During the two weeks’ voyage from America she had become extremely fond of the child and found pleasure in her company. When the ship had docked at Southampton, they had taken the train for London. Victoria Hardy lived in Chelsea with her husband and two children. Leaving Mr Quinn and Nan at the hotel—where they were to spend the night before taking the train north the following morning—Amanda went to see her with Sky.

Kit’s cousin was a tall, attractive, dark-haired woman who welcomed Amanda warmly. The minute she laid eyes on Sky she knew who she was. The moment was an emotional one for her; scooping the wide-eyed child up into her arms, she hugged her tightly. ‘So you are Kit’s little girl,’ she said when she had composed herself, setting Sky on her feet once more and tracing her cheek with her finger. ‘I have waited a long time to meet you. I have heard all about you in the letters your dear papa sent to me from America.’

Sky’s dark eyes did not flinch from the older woman’s touch. She was gazing up at her with interest, for, like Amanda, she, too, noted the similarities in Victoria’s features that likened her to her dear papa. Becoming distracted when a fair-haired little girl entered the room, no bigger than herself, she went to her to introduce her to her doll, the one Amanda had bought for her in Charleston and from which she refused to be parted.

‘She’s a delightful child—quite adorable,’ Victoria said. ‘So like Kit in her mannerisms, but her Indian ancestry is evident in her features.’

‘She’s been so good and brave, poor lamb. Everything has been so confusing for her of late.’ Taking Kit’s letter from her reticule, she handed it to Victoria. Amanda had no knowledge of what the letter contained, but she knew it would bring Victoria pain. ‘Kit asked me to give you this. He explains everything. Although—I must tell you that the news will be upsetting for you.’

Victoria looked hard at this lovely, rather solemn young woman she didn’t know, and then turned and moved away to read her cousin’s letter. Amanda went to the nurse who had accompanied the little girl into the room. Telling her that Mrs Hardy had just received some distressing news, she asked her to take the children to play in the nursery for a while.

After Victoria had read the letter, wiping the tears of grief from her eyes, she slowly folded it and turned to Amanda, shaking her head in disbelief. ‘How could this happen? Kit never hurt anyone in his life—and to accuse him of murder … I will never believe it.’ Her voice was raw with pain. Suddenly a thought occurred to her. ‘Does Sky know that her papa will not be coming back?’

‘No. When we left Charleston the—the execution had not been carried out, and I have heard nothing since. I—asked some friends of his—Agatha and her husband—to write to you, to let you know when …’

Victoria swallowed hard, trying to contain her grief. ‘Thank you. Do—do you think he did it?’

‘No, I don’t—and I’m not alone in that. Unfortunately, proving his innocence is another matter. There isn’t a whisper of proof to support his side of things. The one man able to bear him witness has disappeared.’

‘How can I tell Sky that she’ll never see her papa again, that he’s dead? I won’t say anything to her—until I know more. Poor Kit. He didn’t deserve this. If he is dead, then may he rest in peace, and, wherever he is, let him be assured that I shall do my best in raising his daughter, that she will be like one of my own.’

Amanda hadn’t stayed long after that. She had been deeply anxious about her meeting with Victoria Hardy and how Sky would react when the time came for them to part, but now she had met Kit’s cousin she realised that there had been no need. Sky had taken to her at once, and the fact that her new cousin had two children would help her settle in. In fact, when Amanda had left, the two little girls had been playing happily together in the nursery.

And now, on the train heading north, thinking of Kit—about how angry and unhappy he must have been, worrying about how his daughter would be taken care of—she asked herself if there was anything more she could have done, and finally decided that there was not. She had done everything he had asked of her and now she must put it behind her. It was over and she must look to the future. A year of widowhood would soon pass and then she could do exactly as she pleased. She looked out of the window, watching the landscape fly past, and wondered why her heart felt so heavy and why she should feel so despondent when she had finally got what she wanted.

It was because now she could see that what she had done had been no more than a spoiled desire to thwart and outwit her father. What a fool I’ve been, she thought bitterly. And now I’ve got to pay for it. She’d wanted a temporary husband; now that he was dead, she was filled with remorse over the manner of it, and to add to that she missed Sky more than she could have imagined.

She looked at Nan dozing across from her. She, too, was sad to be parted from Sky. The little girl’s constant chatter and laughter had lightened the voyage. As for Mr Quinn, who also had his eyes closed, he had hardly uttered a word since leaving London, and no amount of casual banter seemed to be able to break his grim mood, so Amanda had given up.

At last they reached their destination—Sheffield. Amanda saw that her father had sent his coach to meet them. She climbed in with Nan while Mr Quinn and the driver saw to the luggage. It was a brilliant summer’s day, when the hedgerows were full. Travelling the six miles to Eden Park, after leaving the industrial city behind, Amanda watched the countryside unfold in a rich patchwork of field and meadow and undulating moor land.

Her thoughts turned to her father, to how much she had missed him and how impatient she was to be reunited. Henry O’Connell was the son of an Irish navvy who had come from Ireland to work on the Liverpool and Manchester railway. When Henry had been old enough to join him, he had soon seen that navvying wasn’t for him and he’d struck out on his own, starting at the bottom. After that all directions led upwards. Driven to succeed, money became everything to him—it made everything possible and his driving energies and ambitions had made him one of the richest men in England.

Amanda was proud of all he had achieved. They had always been close, and the only stumbling block in their relationship was the issue of her marriage. He had planned great things for his only child. Wealth, power and social prestige would be hers. But, as he had soon discovered, it took more than money to gain entry to the exclusive inner world of Victorian respectability. He was not a boastful man and rarely offended anybody, but the fact remained that he was a parvenu. In his early days he had not been accepted in established society, but his burgeoning wealth gradually became so prodigious that it overwhelmed class.

After leaving the village of Thurlow behind and skirting the edge of a lake, the coach approached a long drive of limes. Eden Park loomed ever closer. Seeing the house, Amanda blinked her eyes, staring. On that first encounter she was touched by the opulent splendour.

Eden Park was an architectural gem on the edge of the Derbyshire moors. It stood in four hundred acres, thirty of which were given over to gently undulating parkland and beautiful terraced gardens—with short, velvety green lawns, clipped yew hedges, statues and fountains—the rest to the home farm. To the west the land rose steeply to the Derbyshire peaks, and eastward was Sherwood Forest and all its legendary tales of Robin Hood. Over the Derbyshire hills lay the sprawling metropolis of Manchester, which was where Amanda had lived all her life.

Her father must have been watching out for her because, the moment the carriage came to a halt, he came hurrying down the steps with a restless vitality, beaming broadly and as fast as his short, barrel-chested frame allowed. Despite having a brilliant head for business there was something coarse and earthy about Henry O’Connell that most people found appealing, especially Amanda—although she did not realise that this was because she possessed some of those same qualities, despite twenty years of effort on the part of her nanny and governess to eradicate them.

With a happy smile and carrying her veiled black bonnet, Amanda hurried to meet him, throwing her arms about his neck and hugging him, the smell of brandy and cigars on his warm breath fanning her cheeks.

‘Here, now, let me look at you,’ he said, holding her at arm’s length and examining her face with his piercing grey eyes. ‘Aye, you’ve grown lovelier than ever. You get more like your mother every day. You’ve enjoyed your year in Charleston—Quinn kept me informed. Though you made a spectacle of yourself on occasion, you’ve done nothing to bring shame on us. But why did you go all the way to Southampton? Why not Liverpool?’

Amanda laughed awkwardly, unable to look him in the eyes as she avoided mentioning the real reason that had taken her to London. ‘I—I wanted to spend a few days in London, do some quality shopping—you know how it is with us females, Father.’

‘Aye, I do that. Spent more of my money, I don’t doubt,’ he said, tweaking her cheek with mock reproach, ‘but to my mind there’s nothing wrong with the shops in Manchester.’

Amanda laughed lightly. ‘Since you know absolutely nothing about ladies’ fashions, Father, that is exactly the sort of remark I would expect from you.’

‘And where were all the letters you promised to write? No doubt your head was too full of nonsensical matters and you were too occupied to read letters from your old da that you considered to be monstrously dull, eh?’ he reproached her good humouredly, his eyes all of a twinkle.

Amanda laughed, looking fondly at his round face with its ruddy features and his mutton-chop whiskers, which, like his hair, were vividly white. ‘You’re not old and I did read them—I just never got round to writing back as often as I should, that’s all.’

‘’Tis sorry I am to hear about Lucy, and ’tis sad I am that I never got to see her before she died,’ he said on a more sombre note, the brogue of his native Ireland still heavy on his tongue despite his thirty years in England. ‘But what’s this?’ Detecting an air of dejection about his daughter, he tipped her chin and peered sharply into her face. ‘Where’s the sparkle I remember in those bonny green eyes, eh—and when did you take to wearing black?’ he remarked, eyeing her sombre garb with distaste.

‘When Aunt Lucy died,’ Amanda replied, feeling that now was not the time to tell him of her widowed state. Uncomfortable under his scrutiny, she smiled to reassure him. ‘Don’t worry, Father, I’m perfectly fine. It’s been a long journey and I swear I can still feel the wretched motion of the ship. I never was a good sailor. There—is something I have to tell you, but it can wait until later.’

‘So it will—and cheer up. What with all the parties and such we’ve got planned to be having here at the house, you’ll be forgetting all about Charleston in a month.’

Amanda looked up at the towering edifice. Built in golden yellow stone enriched by splendid carving, with its long front and central Ionic portico, and three storeys high, Eden Park was quite remarkable. ‘You’ve been busy while I’ve been away. I never dreamed you’d be so extravagant as to buy a house of such grand proportions. I swear there must be enough rooms to house an army.’

‘So there is—so there is,’ he agreed, puffing out his chest and looking at his new domain with pride. ‘I told Quinn what you could expect. Did I exaggerate?’

‘Not at all. I am impressed, although I can’t help feeling a certain sadness at not returning to Rochdale. It has always been my home.’

‘Aye, lass, I know, but you’ll find this place is like a tonic. You’ll soon forget about Rochdale and agree that Eden Park is a desirable retreat from the engine and factory fumes and noise of Manchester.’

Amanda’s brows lifted over knowing green eyes. ‘Maybe so, but not too far away so you can’t keep your finger on the pulse, eh, Father?’

Henry’s lips quirked and, reaching out, he brushed his fingers against her cheek. ‘You know me too well.’

‘Will you be able to stand being a gentleman of leisure, Father?’

‘The company is as vigorous and healthy as it always has been so I’ve no worries there.’

Amanda smiled at him. ‘Which is a striking endorsement to your skill in selecting the people who work for you.’

‘Aye, well, I pay them well enough for it. I only wish I’d bought something like this years back. You wait until you see the stables. Splendid, they are, splendid, and I intend filling every box with only the finest horseflesh. I’ll have the best in the district, you see if I don’t. What I need is someone who knows a good horse when he sees one. But come and meet your new stepmother—and don’t be saying anything untoward now,’ he warned, seeing her eyes cloud over, ‘because it’s been a long time since your mother died and you won’t be with me for ever.’

‘So you thought it was time to consolidate your gains and get married,’ Amanda remarked, unable to hide the anxiety this had caused her.

‘Caroline married me for myself, not my money, if that’s what you are thinking—she has plenty of her own without mine. She’s good for me—a true lady she is, too—none finer.’

Amanda stiffened when a woman came to stand by his side and linked an arm through his. It was a casual gesture, as if it were the most natural thing to do. Her father beamed down at her, patting her hand.

‘This is Caroline. Caroline, my dear, this is my daughter, Amanda.’

‘I know.’ She laughed. ‘Your father has told me so much about you that I feel I already know you. Welcome home, Amanda—to your new home, that is. I’m so pleased to meet you at last. I do so hope you will be happy living at Eden Park.’

There was such an air of kindliness about her that Amanda felt herself begin to relax. ‘Well, it’s certainly a change from where we lived before.’

‘I’ve been urging your father for months to move to the country. To get him away from the office,’ she said, looking meaningfully at her husband.

Henry patted her hand affectionately. ‘Aye—you’ll find Caroline gets her own way in most things.’

‘I am also selfish, self-centred and inclined to say and do things without thinking and Henry gets furious with me, but it does no good,’ she told Amanda with a twinkle in her eye for her husband. ‘But come, let’s go inside. I’ll show you around later. I’m sure you’re in need of refreshment after your long journey. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve arranged what rooms you shall have. I’ll take you there now and we can have a quiet gossip as we go.’

Warming to the older woman, Amanda decided there and then that Caroline would be good for her father. In her late forties, she was still attractive. Independent and tough-minded, too, Amanda supposed. Undoubtedly someone who could persuade her father to pay less attention to his work that had been his life, and move away from Manchester, which had been the hub of his empire, had to have those qualities to be successful. It was not going to be as hard accepting her as she had thought.

Upon entering the house, Amanda looked dazedly about her, wondering if she had come to a royal palace by mistake. Everything about this eighteenth-century house was light, graceful and elegant. It was filled with paintings, delicate, gilded scrollwork and thick carpets, softer than the smoothest lawns. Her own rooms were furnished with an eye to luxurious comfort and fashionable elegance. The ivory and white, pale green and gold theme was reflected in the heavy curtains screening long windows, and the bed and its hangings. Clearly Caroline had excellent taste and her father had spared no expense.

It was after dinner that same evening when Henry brought Lord Prendergast into the conversation. He was seated in the elegant drawing room beside his wife, swirling his brandy around the bowl of his glass and smiling a trifle fatuously upon his only child, glad to have her home again. However, there was an air of certainty about him that Amanda found disquieting and reminded her that now was the time to tell him about her marriage and put that particular subject to rest once and for all. Taking a deep breath, she plunged in.

‘Mr Quinn told me you have aspirations for me to marry that gentleman, Father. Unfortunately, it’s quite out of the question. Besides, he’s an old fool and a dead bore. I cannot believe you could imagine him to be an eligible suitor for anyone, let alone your only daughter. I have something to tell you that may come as something of a shock. If so, I apologise, but it is done and there is no going back.’

‘And what is that, may I ask?’ Henry’s face lost its relaxed amiability and became cold, hard and wary; he sensed she was about to divulge something that would not be to his liking.

Amanda’s eyes met his, suddenly sharp, questioning, and she quailed inside as she began to explain calmly and reasonably about her marriage to Christopher Claybourne. ‘Before I left Charleston, I—I met someone and married him.’

Henry’s face took on the look of a bright red apple and his eyes almost protruded from their sockets. ‘Married! Did I hear you aright? Like hell you did. What is the meaning of this?’ he bellowed, a vast disapproval in his tone, which asked what the devil she had been playing at.

‘The meaning? Why—I got married, that is all,’ Amanda said in defiance of his thunderous glower, his quick-to-anger attitude reminding her of why she had taken the reckless step of marrying Christopher Claybourne. ‘You agreed that I could do so—should the right man come along,’ she reminded him pointedly.

‘Aye, I did that, but I also remember insisting that I must be informed before you entered into any marriage contract. Married? And you did not consider it important enough to inform me—your father—first?’

Sensing that her husband’s temper was straining at the leash and knowing she was the only one who could soothe it to manageable proportions, Caroline put a soothing hand on his arm, taking his glass and placing it on a side table. ‘Listen to what Amanda has to say, Henry,’ she voiced mildly, for there was something about her stepdaughter’s manner that alerted her to a state of affairs unknown to either of them. She smiled reassuringly at the young woman opposite, who returned her smile, grateful for her support.

‘Who is he?’ Henry demanded, hoisting himself to his feet and glaring at his daughter.

‘Christopher Claybourne.’

‘Do I know him?’

‘No, you couldn’t possibly.’

‘What sort of man is he—a gold-digger?’ he bellowed, holding on to his anger until he knew what the devil was going on. Amanda’s impulsiveness was not something he cared for.

Amanda sprang to her feet, anger flashing from her eyes, her voice harsh with tension. ‘No—far from it. That is a vile, horrible accusation and you have no right to speak that way of a man you have never met. Christopher has no use for your money, Father, and if you are to be offensive before you’ve listened to what I have to say, then there is no more to be said.’

Amanda looked ready to stride from the room, but Henry put a restraining hand on her arm, giving her a narrow, quizzical look. ‘Did you plan to outwit me by marrying this man? Is that it?’

The two faced each other in timeless attitudes of belligerence until Amanda capitulated and lowered her gaze. ‘Yes,’ she replied truthfully, knowing her father would be sure to detect a lie, ‘but I never meant to hurt you and I’m sorry if I’ve made you unhappy, but had you ever listened to me you would know that when it came to choosing a husband I would do it. When I went to Charleston, you hoped I would find a man to marry—a man you would consider suitable to be your son-in-law. Christopher was eminently suitable. Our marriage was sudden—just before I left Charleston. There was no time to write and let you know.’

She went on to explain her marriage to Christopher as best she could—the crime he had been accused of, and the sentence duly passed, she omitted. Her father looked at her, listening to what she had to say incredulously, reluctant to let go of his anger. ‘Christopher was a fine man, Father—handsome, too. You would have liked him. He also had an active interest in horses—he was a wonder with them—broke them in and trained them himself in a way you would have envied.’

Caroline stood up and went to her husband. His face was still angry. He wanted to curse, to explode with resentment, but, because he knew his wife in her own quiet way wanted him to listen to Amanda, he clamped his mouth shut.

In the space of seconds Caroline considered Amanda’s shuttered face and correctly assumed it was a façade to conceal some sort of deep hurt. ‘You speak of your husband in the past tense, Amanda,’ she remarked softly. ‘What did you mean when you said your father would have liked him? And why did he not come with you to England?’

Amanda turned her gaze on her stepmother, her eyes having taken on a pained, haunted look. ‘Christopher—he—he died.’ Her voice was soft and sad, no more than a whisper, and Caroline felt her heart go out to her.

‘Oh, my dear—I see. I’m so sorry. So your mourning is not only for your Aunt Lucy.’


Henry shook his head slowly as he tried to come to terms with his daughter’s situation and her loss. As suddenly as it had come, the dreadful fury vanished. ‘So—no sooner do you find a husband than he makes a widow of you. I’m sorry, lass.’ He became thoughtful. ‘He was a Claybourne, you say? One of the southern Claybournes? Not that I’m familiar with any of them.’

‘I—I believe so—although the family is large and I am uncertain as to which branch he belonged.’

‘Aye, well, he had the right pedigree and that’s what’s important. And he died, you say.’

She nodded. ‘A week after we left Charleston,’ she said, wording it to imply that Christopher had died on board ship while not actually telling an untruth. She imagined telling him the truth, and immediately cancelled the vision. Generous and loving he might be, but understanding he was not.

‘And has he left you well taken care of—financially?’

Amanda sighed. Trust her father to think of the money aspect. He might bluster his way through his social life, but when it came to business he was deadly earnest. ‘We—we were married for such a short time. Now he is dead I want to put it behind me. I don’t expect or want anything from his family.’

Henry frowned, thinking this highly irregular, but, seeing how despondent she seemed and not wishing to distress her unduly, he decided to let the matter rest for the time being. No doubt Quinn would provide him with the details.

‘Aye, well, I am sorry for your loss.’

Amanda nodded slightly, as if accepting his comfort. Inside she was full of self-disgust at deceiving her father.

‘So, you are a Claybourne now. I suppose it will take some getting used to. You’re also a widow and will be of age soon. You’re your own mistress and I can’t stop you doing what you will.’

Amanda put her arms about his rotund middle and placed her head on his shoulder. ‘I won’t disappoint you, Father, I promise.’

Peering down at her, suddenly anxious, he said, ‘It would be well for you to consider marrying again—and soon. I’m not getting any younger and I want to see you taken care of.’

‘Never fear.’ She laughed. ‘You’ll outlive us all—long enough to bounce your grandchildren on your knee.’

And so began a time of frenetic activity. Little was said of Amanda’s marriage and her dead husband—the subject was for the curious to speculate about and for her to try to forget. Casting off her mourning clothes in favour of grey and any dark colour other than black—following the precedent set by Queen Victoria after the death of her beloved Albert—Amanda relaxed and prepared to enjoy herself, trying steadfastly to keep her thoughts from wandering back to Christopher Claybourne.

She wasn’t always successful, for there were times when she recalled how his unfathomable eyes had locked on to hers as they had spoken their marriage vows, how, when he bent to kiss her lips, her own had parted and he stole her breath, taking it and more from her. She had never met anyone like him. There had been something in his eyes of another world to the one she knew—and she longed passionately to see it again, if only for a brief while.

Kit was the reason why she felt so restless and dissatisfied. All the young men she knew now seemed to her intolerably dull, contemptible, even, beside him.

Every time she found herself dwelling on Christopher Claybourne, in some peculiar way it felt as if he were trying to seduce her from beyond the grave. Angry with herself, at her own weakness, she would try to close her mind to him. It was incredibly stupid to think of her dead husband in this way, stupid and dangerous, too, for it only brought her torment and heartache.

Life was never dull at Eden Park. The house was used for entertaining on a vast scale, and whole sections had been set aside to accommodate staff, including the servants of weekend guests. Caroline had an enormous circle of friends and Amanda soon discovered that her stepmother’s energy was boundless as she concentrated on providing entertainment guaranteed to attract both friends and neighbours.

Weather permitting, there were luncheons served at a long table under the trees on the lawn and picnics on the moors, with hampers filled with every kind of delicacy to tempt the appetite, from pâté and lobster to the finest claret. There was croquet on the smooth grass, the increasingly popular game of lawn tennis, swimming for the men in the lake; then there were village fêtes to attend, and, in the evenings, dinner parties, with a string quartet playing lilting music in the background.

Amanda embraced the countryside and the countryside embraced her. Heads turned wherever she went and she was creditably besieged by young men who flocked to her side. Courted and sought after, she enjoyed herself to such an extent that her life began to resemble an obstacle course, but she allowed none of the pressing young men to come too close. Her father was right. She was her own mistress and could do as she liked. She was in no hurry to wed again.


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