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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 Four

Autumn passed into winter and a jolly Christmas came and went. Henry liked things to run smoothly at Eden Park and kept a busy schedule. He always allowed himself enough time to indulge his passion for horses, travelling to horse sales near and far in his desire to buy only the finest horseflesh—hunters and Thoroughbreds alike. His search for a decent trainer wasn’t so simple. There were plenty of clever, knowledgeable men he could take on for the task, but he was determined to hold out for the best.

Amanda, an accomplished rider, shared her father’s love for the hunt, feeling there was no other thrill to compare with riding a courageous horse across fences and grass at speed, trying to keep up as close as possible to the pack of hounds hunting their fox. The challenge was manifest, the demands on her nerve clear, the test of her skill less easy to define, but the pleasure and thrill of the hunt were compounded of many other elements.

It was after one such day when they held the meet at Eden Park that Amanda went to her bed exhausted but content. A buffet had been provided for the hungry hunters of hot, spicy soup; roast beef; saddle of mutton, venison and pork and all the appropriate trimmings; cheese; jellies; tarts and pies for after. It had been a hectic day, with much hustle and bustle both above and below stairs as the servants worked feverishly to make sure everyone was replete with both food and drink.

The house was dark and totally silent when Amanda left her room. Surprised that she was unable to sleep following the day’s excitement, she padded down to the kitchens as the grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight, thinking a cup of hot milk might solve the problem. Sitting before the fire that Cook had banked down before going to bed, in an astonishingly tidy kitchen with no sign of the earlier chaos, she sipped her milk, feeling the hot liquid relaxing her. She took a quicker route back to her room, going quietly up the back stairs and along a narrow landing that passed through the servants’ quarters—not that many of the servants lived in at Eden Park. Most of them came from nearby Thurlow and went home after their day’s work.

Listening carefully for any small sound that might indicate that someone else was awake, she squinted in the darkness, having to be careful where she trod. She was just coming to the end of the landing when she heard a sudden cry coming from a room on her right. It was softly uttered, as if someone were in pain, but trying to stifle it. Greatly concerned, she moved towards the door, turning the knob and opening it to investigate.

She halted abruptly at the sight that confronted her. At first she could see little, the only light coming from the dying embers in the hearth and a single lamp at the side of the bed. But then she saw two figures so entwined they could easily have been one. Totally immersed in each other they were unaware of her presence. Her eyes saw the voluptuous nakedness of a young woman lying on the softness of the sheets. Her head was flung back, her eyes closed, her face contorted with pleasure as the man moved rhythmically between her legs.

‘My goodness, it’s Sadie Jenkins,’ Amanda gasped softly, unable to believe such wanton behaviour from a seventeen-year-old parlourmaid. The girl turned her head and half-opened her eyes. Amanda realised she must have heard her gasp. Sadie cried out in horror and began shoving at the man’s shoulders to try to push him away.

Her face flaming with embarrassment, Amanda was about to leave, but at that moment, recognising the man as none other than Mr Quinn, anger took hold of her and all she could do was stare. She knew she had no business being here, that what the servants got up to when they were off duty was their own affair, but the nausea welling inside her kept her rooted to the spot.

Only slowly did the naked man become aware that there was someone standing in the open doorway. Turning his head, he saw Amanda, his face registering neither surprise nor shame. As if he had all the time in the world he rolled away from the girl, leaving her shapely young body defenceless and exposed. Not in the least discomposed, he pulled on a long robe that fastened with a belt around the middle, covering his nakedness. Amanda could see the smugness in his eyes; he was full of conviction, not remorse, for his actions.

Wrapping a sheet around her to cover her own nakedness, Sadie slipped off the bed and stood looking at Amanda with a light of defiance gleaming in her large dark eyes.

‘Is this your room, Sadie?’ Amanda demanded, struggling to sound calm and in control.

Sadie shook her head. ‘No, mum. It’s farther down the landing.’

‘Then go to it. I will speak to Mr Quinn alone.’

Casting an indecisive glance at Mr Quinn, who indicated with a slight nod that she should do as Mrs Claybourne bade, Sadie crossed to the door, the sheet trailing behind her.

‘Just a minute, Sadie,’ Amanda said. Sadie turned and looked at her. ‘I thought you went home after work.’

‘I do as a rule, Mrs Claybourne, but today being so busy and with so much to do, I promised Cook I’d stay on and help. Besides, Ma doesn’t like me having to pass through the woods and by the lake, you see. She says there are too many scallywags roamin’ about for a decent girl to be walking home alone after dark. Why, she says anything might happen.

‘I see. You may go.’

‘How long have you been here?’ Mr Quinn asked calmly when Sadie had closed the door behind her. ‘And by what right do you spy on me in my private rooms?’

Undaunted, Amanda lifted her head with a small but stubborn toss. ‘I have been here long enough to see the shameful thing you have done. Sadie is young enough to be your daughter. What were you thinking?’

Mr Quinn threw up his hands. ‘Amazing! A proper little prude! And you a married woman,’ he mocked. ‘Sadie is seventeen going on thirty. Did she look ashamed to you?’

Recalling the way Sadie had thrown back her shoulders and lifted her head, her action had told Amanda quite clearly that she was neither ashamed nor regretful.

Mr Quinn smiled, a smug, self-satisfied smile that infuriated Amanda. ‘She wanted it as much as I did. It was not the first time and it will not be the last. But if you must prowl around after dark, to save any embarrassment on your part, I would advise you to confine yourself to your own part of the house—unless, of course, you were looking for something that might be of more interest to your habits.’

Amanda seethed. How dare the man take the offensive by accusing her of creeping about the house and spying on the servants? ‘You forget yourself, Mr Quinn. My father will have harsh words to say to you about this.’

‘Really?’ He lowered his head, becoming thoughtful. Henry O’Connell was the only man Quinn had any regard for, and he had never told anyone the role that his employer had played in his life, or the gratitude Quinn felt for him. However, over the years since he had begun working for Henry, he had acquired a good, strong foothold both in the business and with Henry. Yes, it was a good, strong foothold and it was not a position he was prepared to relinquish because this girl could not keep her mouth shut.

‘Now listen to me,’ he said, moving closer until he towered over her. ‘Your father must never hear of this. You must never tell him what you have seen.’

‘But I have a duty to tell him what goes on beneath his roof, especially something as sordid as this. He does not condone this kind of behaviour among the servants and you, more than anyone, should know that. You hold a position of trust in this house, and you have just breached it.’

‘Have I? We shall see. Who do you think will benefit from the confession? Certainly not Sadie or her poor, misbegotten family that depends on what she earns here. If she is thrown out, there’ll be no work for her in any other house. Would you want that on your conscience—to see her family go to the workhouse? Think what it will mean. The story will become common gossip. Oh, no, Amanda, for her sake—and your own—you must say nothing.’

Amanda looked at him steadily. His words sounded like a threat. ‘What do you mean—for my sake?’

He gave a small, corrosive laugh. ‘I mean, I wonder how your father will react when he learns of your own guilty little secret—you know … about what you got up to in Charleston.’ Watching her face with idle malice, he saw it change, grow pale, then freeze.

‘You would not tell him about that?’

‘Not if you keep your mouth shut about Sadie and me. You have much to be grateful to me for on that matter; when Henry questioned me, I told him Mr Claybourne was an English gentleman, well connected, and with sufficient means to keep his daughter in the manner in which she had been raised. Since he has done nothing about that, I can only assume he has decided to let the matter of your marriage rest. So, you see, you owe me. For your silence we both stand to gain something, and you will have nothing to fear from me.’

Amanda saw a viciousness in Mr Quinn’s expression she had never seen before. She had known this man nearly all her life. She couldn’t credit what he was saying and the coldness in his eyes. She knew she was trapped. Caution alone trimmed her anger. If this was to be the price of her silence, then so be it.

Mr Quinn read her thoughts correctly.

‘I see we understand each other.’

‘Oh, yes. I understand perfectly, Mr Quinn,’ she replied tersely.

‘Good. Then if you don’t mind, my time has been disturbed quite enough for one night. But one thing before you go. I need no instructions from you on how to conduct myself in public or in private. Remember that.’

‘Oh, I will. I can see you are quite besotted with Sadie, but you’re a little long in the tooth, don’t you think, to turn lovesick over a seventeen-year-old girl with a well-rounded bosom.’

‘I assure you I am not in my dotage yet. Sadie will attest to that.’

‘I’m sure she can, but I have no intention of asking her. Goodnight.’

With an artificially subservient sweep of his arm as she left, Mr Quinn bade her goodnight.

Making her way through the house to her room, Amanda now realised that she had never given much thought to Mr Quinn as being anything other than her father’s most trusted employee who always kept himself aloof and apart from the lowlier servants, but beneath his austere mien he was nothing but a brute.

By the time she reached her room she had come to accept that the bringing of the incident to her father’s attention would do her no good. What mattered was that her marriage to Kit must not be brought into the open. She realised that she must never divulge what she had seen and must subdue her own feeling of outrage, wiping the sordid incident from her mind; but she would never forget and never, ever, forgive Mr Quinn for daring to think he could threaten her with exposure to cover his own sordid misdeed.

On a cold day in February, tired of being cooped up in the house, buttoning herself into a warm coat and heading for the stables, Amanda went in search of her father. There had been a rainstorm earlier, but now the land glinted and shone beneath the sun’s glow. Yesterday two horses he had bought at the Don-caster horse sales had arrived, and along with the animals a man to look after them. A man, her father had proclaimed excitedly, who knew more about training horses than anybody he knew.

Standing beneath the foggy green shadow of massive ancient oaks, she paused, her eyes drawn to her father. Wearing a chequered cape and hat, he was leaning on his walking stick, looking over the fence into the paddock. Amanda shifted her gaze to see what held his attention.

Two splendid horses caught her eye, one a rich chestnut and the other a glistening black stallion with a man astride its back. It was a fine, spirited beast, tossing its noble head and twitching its tail. Fighting the bit, the animal bucked and pranced sideways and then reared up. Amanda was spellbound as she watched the rider, with spontaneous talent, master that huge, half-wild horse with superb skill. Riding with the easy grace of a man in perfect harmony with his own body, he was obviously a genius. Eventually he brought the animal under control so that it became almost docile. Sliding off, he dug into his pocket and produced a tasty titbit. The horse looked at him suspiciously before curling his top lip and eating it.

When the man strode over to her father, Amanda was about to turn away, not wishing to interrupt, when something about the man, something familiar, caught her attention, causing her eyes to open wide in overwhelming disbelief.

Immobilised in the cataclysmic silence that seemed to descend on her world, her right hand pressed to her throat, she was rendered incapable of thought, speech or action. As her mind raced in wild circles, her thoughts tumbling over themselves, she thought she must be seeing things, that she must be suffering from some kind of delusion. But that rich dark brown hair, rough and tousled, his harshly angular face, the hardness that was an integral part of him, the arrogant way he held his head—surely there could be no other man like that anywhere. Suddenly and quite inexplicably, Amanda’s heart gave a joyful leap, but as quickly as a cry sprang to her lips, so it was silenced. Shock waves tingled up and down her spine and she wondered at this cruel trick of fate.

Christopher Claybourne—Kit, her husband—was alive and well. But how could this be? The shock that he was made her forgetful of the soft meanderings of her mind whenever she thought of him. Now his very name scalded her being with hot indignation, and she wanted to scream in utter rage. Of all the people her father could have hired to train his horses, why did it have to be him? She looked this way and that for a means of escape, but her father had seen her and was beckoning.

Reluctantly, her tension mounting, she walked towards them. Christopher climbed over the fence and stood beside her father, watching her approach, so sleek, so confident, so devilishly attractive in his riding jacket and breeches and tan leather boots. In fact, with his wicked smile and hair tumbling darkly about his face, all he needed was a ring in his ear to make him a handsome buccaneer. The man she had seen in prison in his shabby garb was gone for ever—metamorphosed into this taut and fine-drawn man of steel and iron.

Please, God, Amanda thought with a feeling of terror of what his appearance could mean for her, don’t let him have told Father who he is. What did he want? What was he doing here—with her father?

Wide awake to the implications of his reappearance into her life, she stopped in front of them. Her heart set up a wild beating as she looked up into her husband’s face. Something in his bold look challenged her spirit and increased her ire.

Taking her arm, her father drew her closer. ‘Amanda, it pleases me greatly to introduce to you Kit Benedict. He’s the man I told you about who’s to train my horses. Many of them are novices and need bringing on, so he’s going to have his work cut out.’

Yes, Amanda thought, he had told her how he had met someone at the sales who was more than willing to work for him, but she had only listened with half an ear. Now she looked at Kit directly, into his dark eyes set beneath sweeping brows. His look was in no way threatening, yet there was a sense of force distilled and harnessed in his stance. His lips curved as he bowed his head, his eyes never leaving hers.

To Kit at that moment, this woman, his wife, was the most ravishing beauty he had ever seen, and despite her delicate features and soft olive green eyes and the rosy softness of her full lips, there was a boldness and confidence about her look he well remembered from his prison cell. Her long hair hanging down her back was as straight as a horse’s tail and quite astonishing—a hundred different shades and dazzling lights, ever changing in the sun’s glow. He could not decide if it was wine red, claret or the deepest colour of burgundy.

‘I am honoured to meet you, Miss O’Connell.’

There was no denying the reality of that familiar deep voice. Her face expressionless, Amanda merely inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment.

‘Nay, not O’Connell, Kit. My daughter’s Mrs Claybourne—sadly a widow, but ‘tis not a permanent state, is it, daughter? Though you seem to be in no hurry to be acquiring another husband.’

Amanda looked at her father and her eyes flared. ‘It will be as permanent as I want it to be, Father. It is not that I oppose the institution, but I am in no hurry to relinquish my single state just yet.’

‘Aye, well—’ Henry chuckled in good humour, his nose red from the cold as he winked at Kit ‘—it becomes apparent to me that you’ve an error in your way of thinking. What say you, Kit?’

Kit seemed to digest his words with a certain amount of knowing amusement. The quirk in his lips deepened as he peered at Amanda enquiringly. ‘Perhaps your daughter’s experience of marriage was not to her liking and she is reluctant to repeat it.’

Amanda responded with a feigned smile. ‘My marriage did not last long enough for me to form an opinion of it one way or another, Mr—Benedict.’

Consulting the huge turnip-size watch he carried in his waistcoat, Henry frowned. ‘I must be getting back to the house. I’ve my lawyer coming from Manchester to talk over some affairs. He should be here any time so I’ll be off.’ He glanced at the two of them. ‘Stay and let Kit show you my latest acquisitions, Amanda,’ he said, beginning to walk off, ‘and you can give me your verdict over dinner.’

Watching her father’s retreating figure, Amanda was alone with her husband for the first time in seven months, alarmingly, nerve-rackingly alone. ‘Please tell me I’m not dreaming. I truly thought I would never see you again,’ she said, determined to speak to him with a calm maturity and not to let her anger and confused emotions get the better of her. It was important that she made it absolutely clear to him that she wanted no part of him, that she was not his responsibility. ‘I thought you were dead.’

‘As you see, my dear wife, I am very much alive.’ He cocked a handsome brow as he gave her a lengthy inspection, his teeth gleaming behind a lopsided grin. ‘Even the best-laid plans go astray. My reprieve came when Judd Freeman sailed into Charleston Harbour.’ His expression became serious. ‘I want to thank you for taking care of Sky. You did an excellent job and she speaks of you with affection.’

Mention of the little girl Amanda had missed after their parting caused her heart to stir. ‘I’m surprised she remembers me after all these months. How is she? Better now she has her father, I know.’

‘She is well—and happy with Victoria. Sky is a resilient child; apart from missing me, the removal from everything and everyone familiar to her has left her with no apparent ill effects.’

‘I’m happy to hear that. So what now? What are your plans?’

‘I’ve returned to England to reclaim the life I was raised to live—and to become reacquainted with my wife. I do not expect you to fling yourself into my arms and weep tears of joy on my return, but to hear you say that you are pleased to see me would have a nice ring to it.’

Amanda stiffened. ‘You speak as if you have already decided the course of our future.’

Christopher passed his hazel, dancing eyes over her face, heedful of the wrath gathering pace in her expression. ‘I have. You are my wife, after all.’ His voice was soft, though knowingly chiding.

As dearly as Amanda wished to fling an angry denial in his face, she could not. The truth of it stung, but she was determined she would have it otherwise. ‘In name only. You did me a great service in exchanging marriage vows and so making it possible for me to escape an intolerable situation at the time. I am grateful to you for that, but that is where it must end. I did as you asked and brought your child safely to England. Be content with that and let us put an end to the charade—the pretence that there can ever be anything between us.’

Kit’s hazel eyes were suddenly cold under the dark flare of his brows. ‘Believe me, Amanda, it is no pretence. We made a pact. Part of our bargain was that our marriage would be legal and binding for the time I have left to live—and I fully intend to be around until I’m ninety. On my reprieve I hoped I wasn’t mistaken in you, and that you were the type who would keep a bargain, who wouldn’t forget important promises, whose word when given meant something, which to me was as binding as the marriage vow itself. When I came back to England and thought of you and Sky waiting, I thought I had something to come home to. You promised me that if I succeeded in securing my freedom, you would acknowledge me as your husband and become my wife in truth. All this was in return for my name—my family name, a name I honour.’

‘Then do you set so little worth on your family’s honour that you will hold me to an arrangement made in desperation?’

‘My family’s honour!’ He gave a humourless laugh. ‘If you knew anything about my family’s honour, you would close your mouth rather than ask such a damning question.’

Amanda was momentarily taken aback by the ferocity of his statement. She was curious as to where the remark had come from, but quickly thrust it from her mind. ‘I know nothing of your family and care not at all. I am only interested in putting an end to the arrangement we made.’

‘So you do not deny that we made a pact?’

‘No, that I cannot do,’ she lashed out in anger, with a thrust to her chin that told him she was ready to fight. ‘I know I am bound by my word, but it is hard for me.’

‘You belong to me, Amanda.’

‘That is a matter of opinion. Yes, we had an arrangement, an arrangement that profited us both. I cannot yield to a man who, at best, is a stranger to me.’

Christopher peered at her closely and took note of her sudden uneasiness. ‘I will not always be a stranger. I delivered on our bargain, only to find you reneging on your vow. Do not imagine that you can rescript the rules to suit yourself. How do you feel now you find I am alive?’

‘Cheated,’ she spat. ‘Cheated—and I want no part of you.’

‘Come now, Amanda, why so hostile? We have a lot to discuss, you and I.’

Mutinously she glared at him. ‘I have nothing to discuss with you. Nothing at all. You were supposed to hang, leaving me a widow. This was not part of my plan. I did not want this.’

The hazel eyes sparked. ‘You mean you want me dead?’

‘Yes—I mean, no— Oh, I am so confused I don’t know what I mean. I just want you to go away—to leave me alone. I don’t want a husband.’

‘Be that as it may, Amanda,’ he said lazily, ‘but you have a husband—and he is not going to go away.’

‘He will if I have my way. I don’t want you. You will not have me. What are you doing here anyway? How have you managed to wheedle your way into my father’s favour?’

‘Our mutual interest in horses.’

‘I advise you to have a care. Father will treat you with the same courtesy he shows to anyone in his employ—as long as he has no inkling that there is anything except casual friendship between the two of us. If he so much as suspects there is anything between us, he will treat you with freezing contempt.’

‘I’ll risk it.’ Beneath a raised quizzical brow his gaze travelled over her beautifully cut coat of dark blue-coloured tweed that flared out from the waist over her high-necked grey dress. ‘I was under the impression that a period of one year’s mourning is customary after the death of one’s immediate family,’ he remarked with underlying sarcasm.

‘I am in half-mourning. I do try to observe the rules even though I can see no point in doing so. After all, I am no grieving widow. How dare you come here? You cannot stay. You must leave at once.’

‘Your father has hired me to train his horses. I aim to do just that.’

Amanda didn’t believe him. His meeting with her father had been by design rather than chance, this she was sure of—so what did he want? Could he be bribed to go away?

His face hardened, as if he had read her thoughts. ‘Do not think you can buy me off, Amanda. No amount of money you offer will tempt me to disappear now that I have found you.’

‘Why not? Your promise to stay out of my life in exchange for a few thousand pounds seems fair enough trade to me.’

‘I am not going to go away, so you’d save yourself a great deal of trouble and heartache if you got used to having me around. I will make it impossible for you to ignore me. Everywhere you go you will be aware of me, of my presence, watching you.’

‘Like a rat nibbling away at a floorboard, you mean.’

He laughed softly. ‘Aye—with flawless success.’

The olive green eyes narrowed in a glare. ‘You’re pigheaded, arrogant and impossibly conceited, Kit Benedict. I will not be your wife.’

‘There I must contradict you. Pigheaded I may be, but you are my wife.’

‘And you seem to take a special delight in reminding me,’ she remarked drily. ‘I am your wife in name only.’

‘Which I intend to rectify as soon as can be.’ His lips curled into a rakish smile as his eyes captured hers. ‘I’m already looking forward to it. I find the mere thought of marriage to you most entertaining. I think we shall do very well together. You’re looking beautiful, Amanda. Just as I remembered.’

‘And you’re looking disgustingly smug and self-righteous.’

Leaning back against the fence, he folded his arms across his broad chest, grinning leisurely as his perusal swept her. ‘I have plenty to be smug about. I am a man, Amanda,’ he assured her softly, the laughter gone from his voice, ‘with all the desires, all the needs of a man. When you came to my prison cell, when I first saw you, you were so beautiful it tortured me. You captured my thoughts, my dreams, my fancy, and when you left me I became hopelessly entangled in my desires for you. You made me want, made me yearn for things I could not have. Now I can. I want you.’

Amanda was taken aback by his blunt honesty. ‘I am surprised. I never imagined I had made so deep an impression.’

‘The very knowledge that you are here with me now makes me even more determined to find a way of breaching that barrier of thorns you have wound about yourself.’ As her husband, he could insist she kept her side of the bargain, but some inbuilt sense of chivalry prevented him from doing so, dictating that if she came to him under duress it would only increase her resentment. ‘Yet I must accept the fact that your shock of finding me alive has been great and that you are confused. I have no wish to cause you any embarrassment. I even gave your father an assumed name.’

‘How thoughtful of you, but it isn’t assumed, is it? You’ve merely omitted your surname.’

‘Which I share with you.’

‘I have no wish for my father to find out who you are. He has no idea. It would distress him terribly.’

Kit’s eyes grew warm as he gave her a lazy smile. ‘I am no black-hearted villain, and I accept there are times when it is expedient to hold back the truth—for the present. However, you, my dear Amanda—’

Her expression was mutinous. ‘I am not your dear anything.’

‘As I was saying, you, my dear Amanda, seem to have a penchant for self-destruction. Better to have told your father the truth in the first place. He will find out one day, that I promise you. We are man and wife and must live as man and wife.’ He shrugged. ‘That equation seems perfectly logical to me, though not apparently to you. You are going to be difficult?’

‘I am going to be impossible.’

He smiled at that, not in the least discouraged. ‘Then it should be interesting getting to know one another. In time I shall insist on you becoming my wife in truth.’

‘And if I don’t comply?’

‘If you don’t, then I will confront your father.’

There was a wealth of warning in the words the deep voice uttered and no drawl to soften them. Swirling round in a flurry of skirts, Amanda tossed him a cool glance askance. ‘Then for the time being don’t get any high-minded ideas that you’re any better than any other hired help.’ She was about to walk away, but whirled round when Kit’s hand suddenly shot out and gripped her arm like a vice.

‘I am trying to be patient with you, Amanda,’ he said quietly, ‘but you’re trying me sorely. Now listen to me and don’t anger me. For the present I am happy to work for your father. I shall train his horses and train them well, but I will not be treated like an underling. Rest assured that, despite my time spent in the Smoky Mountains with the Cherokee, I am quite civilised. I will not be dictated to by anybody—especially not by my own wife, whose schooling in manners appears to be somewhat lacking. I trust I’ve made myself abundantly clear?’

Amanda yanked her arm from his grasp, her eyes spitting fire. ‘Perfectly. Good day to you, Mr Benedict.’

‘And good day to you, my loving wife. A pleasure meeting you again.’ He chuckled aloud as he watched and admired the indignant sway of her hips as she left him, which, to his sceptical mind, was the most piquant of provocations. It was clear that a submissive, compliant wife Amanda was not. She was like a vixen, fierce and ready to fight, and he thanked God for it; he wanted her to match him strength for strength, as an equal, and in that, he was not going to be disappointed. But first he must show her that no matter how hard and furiously she fought against him, she was his wife.

He grinned broadly, totally assured in his arrogant masculinity that he would have his way, no matter what.

Kit’s low, mocking laughter followed Amanda all the way back to the house and for a long time after. Cursing beneath her breath, she fed her wrath as she stalked homeward with her fists clenched by her sides. Be damned if she’d discuss their marriage any further, not until she’d had time to face the rest of her emotions and consider the best way forward. The matter was complicated, but it must be resolved somehow.

The trouble was that since her marriage, which had brought her independence, she had become herself again and valued her freedom, and she was regretful and resentful that she would now have to set it all aside. She realised she wasn’t being fair to Kit—but then life wasn’t always fair, and her father had been right when he had said that to succeed in life you had to be ruthless. He might have been referring to the world of business, but Amanda would apply it to her personal life.

Still fuming silently to herself and a mass of conflicting emotions, she found her father in the hall still waiting for his lawyer to arrive. Amanda appeared before him looking for all the world like she’d like to commit murder and proceeded to speak without thinking, to act without considering the consequences.

‘I’m sorry, Father,’ she flared when he enquired why she was looking as cross as a bucket full of crabs, ‘but I think Mr Benedict is overbearing. He is also insufferably arrogant and I cannot see why you like him. You must dismiss him at once and find someone else.’

Henry looked at her as though she’d taken leave of her senses. His daughter seemed to be in the grip of a fury and to have lost all reasonableness. Her anger was out of all proportion to what appeared to be a perfectly normal and innocent situation.

‘Don’t be absurd, Amanda. Kit hasn’t been on the place two minutes and already you find fault with the man. What the devil has happened between the two of you? Has he offended you—made untoward suggestions?’

Amanda could feel the pull of her explosive fury dragging her into further turmoil, but somehow she must control it and be careful. ‘No, no, nothing like that,’ she hastened to assure him, softening her tone, not wishing to give away anything about her relationship with Kit and hoping she sounded convincing. ‘In fact, his manners are in order. But surely you don’t need him. You know enough about horses to train them yourself. You were doing splendidly before he arrived.’

‘Nay, lass,’ he said, his tone reproachful. ‘Kit is a man of good and able character. He also has a good mind and a deeper understanding of horses than I ever will. He’ll prove his worth to me in no time—even suggested we get one of them trained up in time for next year’s Gold Cup at Ascot,’ he said, rubbing his hands and puffing his chest out with glee at the mere thought. ‘Think about it, Amanda—me—with a runner in the Gold Cup. Aye, it’ll be a proud moment—so it will.’

‘I agree, Father, but—where is Mr Benedict to live?’

‘I’ve thought of that. I’ve put at his disposal a nice little furnished cottage in the park—close to the stables. He’ll be comfortable enough there.’

Yes, Amanda thought crossly, he would be—right on her doorstep. ‘I still think you could manage to get your horses to the standard required without Mr Benedict’s help.’

Henry looked at his daughter for a moment, his eyes piercing her through. ‘Impossible. Kit is an expert in buying, selling and management and has all the expertise to be a racehorse trainer in his own right. I want only top-class horses in my stable and to do that I need him. He also has a young daughter who is being taken care of by a cousin of his—his wife died some time ago, so he’s going to need time off occasionally to see her. Have you such a strong aversion to the man?’

Simmering in her breast, tightening with pressure, was the urge to blurt out the truth into his innocent face, that he was being deceived, but she bit her tongue and damned the truth inside her. ‘Well—no—not really, only—’

‘Then he stays—and as my daughter you will be as gracious towards him as you are to any other guest I invite to the house. Which reminds me—he will be dining with us tonight, so ask Caroline to have an extra place set at the table. It seems senseless for him to dine alone when we have food going spare.’

Having delivered that diatribe, he went to the door to greet his lawyer, who was just arriving.

Amanda received the news that Kit was to dine with them with less enthusiasm than she would a public flogging. Seeking some outlet for her indignation, she headed towards Caroline and her father’s suite of rooms, and found Caroline in her sitting room of gold leaf and pink-and-white furnishings, décor that suited her stepmother’s lavishly feminine temperament exactly. Sifting through some correspondence, she looked up and smiled, but the smile faded when she saw Amanda looking down in the mouth and her dark eyes sparking with ire.

Having become well used to and tolerant of father and daughter’s altercations, which always ended up in laughter, she said, ‘Oh, dear. What’s Henry done to upset you this time?’

‘He’s invited his new horse trainer to dinner tonight, Caroline, and has asked me to tell you to have another place set at the table. Doesn’t he realise that it’s highly irregular for an employee to join the gentleman of the house and his family for meals?’

The vehemence in Amanda’s tone quite startled Caroline. ‘Why, Amanda, you sound quite heated. I had no idea you would mind so much. I suppose it is rather unconventional; nevertheless, Henry has a high opinion of Mr Benedict, so you must be prepared to endure him without complaint as best you can—for your father’s sake.’

Seeing she wasn’t going to acquire an ally in Caroline, Amanda sighed. ‘I suppose I must, but I do hope he isn’t going to make a habit of inviting the servants to dine with us,’ she retorted ungraciously.

When Amanda entered the drawing room at seven o’clock she was disappointed to find Kit alone and was immediately put out, although she could feel his presence in her home with every fibre of her being. It was difficult to believe that this extremely handsome, fashionably dressed man was the convict Christopher Claybourne.

The rustle of her taffeta gown caught Kit’s attention. Glancing up he immediately put his drink down, for the apparition in the doorway in an amethyst gown, cut low to reveal her white shoulders, was like a jewel set against a background of unashamed opulence, wiping his mind clear of anything but sheer appreciation. His lips curving in a slow, appreciative smile, he came across to meet her while his eyes plumbed the depths of her beauty, touching her all over, giving her the sensation of being naked.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Amanda. The servant who let me in informed me that your father and his wife have been detained by a domestic matter and will join us presently. May I say how lovely you look.’

Amanda gritted her teeth and forced a smile to her lips. Never had a man looked so attractive and never had her heart called out so strongly to anyone. As she looked into his eyes, all at once she knew she must fight her attraction for him.

‘You can say what you like just so long as you stop ogling me like that.’

‘I’d be a fool to ignore the way you look,’ he answered smoothly, his grin mockingly congenial as he affectionately reached out and chucked her under the chin, which made Amanda step back, torn between giving him a kick in the shin or slapping his face.

‘You really are the most unmannerly of men,’ she hissed, thankful that her father and Caroline were not present. ‘Kindly keep your hands to yourself. Did you have to accept my father’s invitation to dine?’

‘My dear wife,’ Kit murmured. ‘It is not for inferiors like me to refuse the powers that be. That is not a right expected of underlings such as myself.’

His voice was soft, casual, but his face was serious, and Amanda mistrusted the gleam of mocking humour lurking in his gaze. ‘I’m sure you could have found an excuse if you’d wanted to. I have no doubt that you accepted just to annoy me.’

‘Not at all. I was delighted to join such gracious and delightful company.’

‘Do you have to look so pleased with yourself?’ she snapped irately. ‘You must forgive me, Mr Benedict. I don’t often find myself entertaining my father’s employees.’

‘I will not argue the point, but I scarcely suspect that my mere presence at your dinner table can disrupt the smooth running of things, however much you may wish to claim it will. But worry not, my pet. I shall not expose your most intimate secrets to the scrutiny of your father just yet. You have my word that I shall comport myself with such dignity and propriety that you need have no fear that I shall make a fool of either of us.’

‘As long as you realise this is just dinner and certainly no high affair—and as long as you don’t smell of the barn, I suppose I can tolerate you. I find it difficult coming to terms with your presence at Eden Park—or the fact that they didn’t hang you,’ she uttered scathingly. ‘Your guardian angel has a lot to answer for.’

‘She did work overtime to get me acquitted,’ Kit replied in undaunted spirits, his eyes gleaming devilishly. ‘Come, my love, stop scowling at me and try smiling. Your father will arrive at any minute and he has sharp eyes.’

Amanda obliged—albeit reluctantly. ‘I suppose there is nothing like a bright smile to confuse an adversary.’

‘Or charm a friend,’ he countered.

‘You are not my friend.’

‘No, I am much more than that, so don’t fight me, Amanda,’ he said softly, his voice a caress.

‘But I will,’ she said vehemently. ‘I will fight you with every ounce I possess.’

He smiled. ‘Then do so, my love. Torment me all you like—I may even come to enjoy it—but in the end you will be mine. It is your destiny.’

His statement was said with such certainty that Amanda chose to let him have the last word on the subject—for now. This was neither the time nor the place to become embroiled in an argument about their marriage. ‘I trust you find your accommodation to your liking. You are comfortable in your cottage?’

The sweetness of her tone did not conceal the sneer she intended. Kit smiled in the face of it. ‘Perfectly, thank you. I’m looking forward to showing you around.’

Amanda met his eyes unwillingly and saw they were as teasing as a small boy’s. ‘I don’t think so. You really are conceited, Mr Benedict. I cannot think of anyone who has gained my father’s interest as you have done.’

‘Amanda!’ Overhearing his daughter’s remark as he came in with Caroline on his arm, Henry was reproachful. ‘You will watch your tongue and be gracious to Mr Benedict. Employee he might be, but he is also my guest.’

‘Of course. I apologise if I seemed rude, Mr Benedict. I did not mean to cause offence.’

As before, the sweetness of her tone did not conceal the sneer she intended. Kit smiled again. ‘None taken, Mrs Claybourne.’

Dinner was announced and they proceeded to the dining room, Caroline escorted by Kit and Amanda by her father. Once seated, Amanda demurely arranged her skirts, and when she looked up she met Kit’s amused regard across the table as he took his seat. Henry was seated at one end of the dining table and Caroline at the other, from where she nodded at the servants to pour the wine and begin serving.

Content to let Caroline carry on an animated conversation, playing the perfect hostess with a natural flare and elegance she admired, Amanda treated Kit with polite reserve. For most of the time she was distant and ignored him as best she could, but it was no easy matter, for he sat with the infuriatingly natural relaxed elegance of a gentleman born and bred.

As he conversed with her father, somewhere in the past he had obviously acquired a social polish and smooth urbanity that amazed her. He was perfectly able to converse on everything as well as equestrian matters. In fact, he was the perfect guest, with a natural manner that Amanda reluctantly admired.

‘You are certainly well informed on most subjects, Mr Benedict,’ she couldn’t help commenting when he had just finished discussing the present government and what he thought about the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone’s, second ministry.

Kit smiled at her with bland amusement. ‘I know how to read as well as the next man—and educated woman,’ he added as an afterthought. ‘However, the fact remains that no matter how well educated a woman is she will some day have to submit to the authority of her husband.’

Amanda’s face snapped into a familiar expression of rebelliousness—familiar to her father at least. ‘Some may well do that, but I never will,’ she quipped haughtily.

‘Really?’ Kit mocked, meeting her gaze as he spooned the last of his soup into his mouth, his eyes holding a subtle challenge. ‘You may find that your husband has something to say about that.’

‘Amanda means it,’ Henry chuckled. ‘Self-willed, she is, and defiant and argumentative. Goes her own way, she does, and the devil take the rest. There are times when I wonder how I bred such a daughter. I sent her to Charleston to stay with her aunt, hoping she would meet some personable young man, marry him and settle down and present me with grandchildren. She completed the first part, but unfortunately the young man expired shortly after the wedding without my meeting him—which I regret.’

Amanda toyed with her food, not looking at the man opposite, who was watching her like a cat watching a mouse. How she wished he was back in Charleston Gaol where he belonged.

‘Your husband has been dead long, Mrs Claybourne?’ Kit enquired, placing his spoon down and lounging back in his chair.

‘Seven months,’ she answered tightly, without looking at him.

‘A tragedy it was,’ Henry remarked. ‘She’s far too young to be a widow.’

‘I’m sure Mr Benedict doesn’t want to hear about that, Father. Besides, I still find any discussion concerning my dear departed husband quite upsetting.’ Consciously feigning a sigh, smiling wistfully and dropping her eyes, she said, ‘I’m sure you understand, don’t you, Mr Benedict?’

Kit’s eyes waited on her words, cynical amusement in them, and when she fell silent he said, ‘Oh, absolutely, Mrs Claybourne. Absolutely. It is no easy matter losing someone you care for—and of course you must have loved your husband dearly,’ he said with elaborate gravity.

Seeing his mouth pulled down in mock-sympathy, Amanda felt a furious surge of indignation that he should think her such a fool as to have fallen in love with him. ‘What my feelings were for my husband are my own affair, Mr Benedict. But it would be disrespectful of me to say I wasn’t.’

Having been manoeuvred away from this particular discussion by a meaningful look from Caroline, Henry immediately launched into the subject closest to his heart and talked animatedly about his horses, so Amanda kept herself excluded, despite Kit’s frequent attempts to draw her into the conversation. Her father didn’t appear to notice how quiet she was, and if he did he would probably take it for ladylike reserve.

The meal was delicious and would have done credit to the finest chefs in the land—it must seem like a veritable feast, Amanda thought crossly, to the likes of Kit Benedict. As soon as she had spooned her last mouthful of raspberry meringue into her mouth she broke her self-imposed silence and stood up. Calmly excusing herself, she said she had letters to write that couldn’t wait.

The moment she rose, her gaze met Kit’s own—and Caroline almost saw the lightning flash that passed between them, causing a tension that held and held, teetering on the brink of—what? Catastrophe, or gathering strength for an assault on their emotions, their baser instincts?

Amanda spent the night tossing and turning in her bed, finding it impossible to dispel thoughts of Kit from her mind and unable to understand the turbulent, consuming emotions he was able to arouse in her. Just when everything was running smoothly, this arrogant man with mocking dark eyes and breezy, determined manner—and far too handsome for his own good—had forced his way back into her life.

She recalled the moment when she had risen from the table, the moment her frigid gaze had settled on his features. He had leaned back in his chair, fingering his wine glass. His gaze had raked over her with the leisure of a well-fed wolf, with an irritating smile flirting on his lips. The assured gleam in his eyes had told her he was not going to go away.


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