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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 Five

During the days that followed Kit’s arrival at Eden Park, Amanda scrupulously resolved that any future contact between them would be brief and impersonal. It was a decision made calmly and without emotion. But emotion set in whenever she set eyes on him. The effect he had on her, the emotional turmoil he evoked, was nothing short of frightening. In fact her thoughts were so preoccupied with him that she could not sleep.

Kit seemed to be everywhere and perfectly gauged, appearing when she least expected him, lolling on a tree or a fence somewhere, casually striding about the place as if he owned it in search of her father, not once stepping over the line, but for ever battering at her defences.

She was beginning to feel like a fox being run to earth by a pack of hounds, for she knew he was after total submission and Kit, in his supreme arrogance, knew he would succeed. She could see the sensuality behind every look and could no longer pretend that desire did not burn just beneath the surface in them both, waiting to flare into passion. There was nothing she could do to prevent it, to deny the hold he already had over her senses. Just when she had been enjoying her freedom he had arrived to disrupt her present contentment. Suddenly her future was precarious, her life beset with tension and apprehension, like a threatening storm on a hot and humid summer’s day.

And Nan didn’t make things any easier when she learned that Christopher Claybourne had returned from the dead. Shocked and shaken, Nan had no sympathy for her whatsoever, saying she had no one to blame for her predicament but herself, and that no good would come of it.

‘The point is, Nan, what am I going to do?’

‘As to that, no one can tell you. You will do what you want in the end.’

‘Father is not going to know, Nan—at least, not yet,’ Amanda said curtly. ‘Unless you tell him.’

‘I won’t say anything,’ Nan answered with an air of injured dignity. ‘I am just warning you to have a care. I know your father has always allowed you to do much as you please, but that doesn’t mean he’s soft.’

‘Neither am I,’ Amanda said grimly.

Nan didn’t reply, although she privately thought Amanda was storing up a world of trouble for herself.

Amanda was relieved that Nan promised not to tell a soul, and in particular Mr Quinn. Amanda sincerely hoped Mr Quinn had not met Kit in Charleston; if he had, he would recognise him immediately and her secret would be out.

Kit’s feelings where Amanda was concerned, now he had seen her again, made him more determined than ever to make her fulfil her side of the bargain. Beautiful, intelligent, with a natural-born wit and as elusive as a shadow, she was a prize, a prize to be won. He tried telling himself that his growing fascination with his wife—a fascination that was becoming an obsession—was merely the result of the lust she had stirred in him in Charleston Gaol, but he knew it was more than lust that held him enthralled.

As he considered Amanda indisputably his, the days spent watching her were the ultimate in frustration. His expectations grew more definite by the day, increasingly becoming more difficult to subdue. He wanted her to be his completely, recognised as his, to openly establish the link between them as an accepted fact, but he must be patient since, contrary to what Amanda might think, she was not the only reason that had brought him to Eden Park.

However, he could not ignore the irritation and abrasion at watching other men dance attendance on her—a primitive reaction against any man casting covetous eyes on her.

Kit didn’t dine at the house again. Amanda told herself that as an employee this was as it should be, but she was unable to quell her disappointment and he was conspicuous by his absence. She avoided him for days, although she could not stop thinking about him and allowed her imagination to torment her. Unbidden, his image would enter her mind—the hazel eyes flecked with gold, his rich dark brown hair and slanting grin. Her body responded to the image with a treacherous melting, while her emotions drifted through guilt and longing to self-exasperation.

Whenever she closed her eyes, flitting between conscious moments and her dreams, he haunted her. Maybe thoughts such as these were causing her irritating preoccupation with him. Perhaps if she could just see him she would be cured of it. And so, for the first time in a week, she went to the stables, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, intending to ride over the moors anyway.

With the addition of more and more horses, which meant employment of more grooms and stable lads to look after them, the stables were a constant hive of industry. Amanda’s gaze did a quick sweep of the yard and paddocks, hoping to see Kit’s tall figure, but he wasn’t there. When she casually enquired of a groom as to his whereabouts, he told her Mr Benedict had taken one of horses out on to the moors for some exercise. She was unprepared for the feeling of disappointment that swept through her.

In no time at all one of the lads had saddled her horse and she was cantering out of the yard. The landscape changed as she headed for the moors, scanning the unfolding hills for a horse and rider, but there was nothing, only sheep and the occasional farm with smoke curling from its chimney into a windless sky. She sighed, pointing her horse in the direction of the high peaks, still capped with winter snow. Kit could be miles away in any direction.

The sun had lifted and the day was crystal clear as Kit rode up the steep valley, the mount’s hooves striking sharp against the rocks, and crackling bracken. He felt completely at home riding among the craggy hills that lay all about him and almost touched the clouds which raced above. The Derbyshire peaks were high and cold and breathtakingly beautiful.

It was a wild, spacious terrain, with patches of woodland and open lakes. Here he felt completely at peace.

Why this should be so was no mystery to him since his incarceration. Crushed by the unsupportable distress his time in Charleston Gaol had caused him, he often came to the tranquil and everlasting peaceful valleys and hills to gain relief from the empty stillness, which was quite profound. The very power and strength of the rocky peaks, their durability, gave him hope for the future.

There were times when he was exercising one or another of the mounts on the moors when he would see Amanda riding out, supple and trim in her tweed habit, and he would pause out of sight and drink in the sight of her. As she galloped over the rocky terrain, she rode like the wind, with the blind bravado of a rider who has never fallen off—and if she ever had fallen, it had been into the straw. The clash of his emotions as he watched her would leave him irritated and he had to struggle to stop himself breaking cover and riding out to meet her.

He was trying to do the right and honourable thing by keeping his distance, to give her time to get used to having him around. A lifetime of obeying the strictures of society, an exacting schooling, authoritarian grandparents and his mother, who imposed an upbringing of firm discipline, all served him well now, but fate and the adorable creature he was married to were conspiring to tease him. How much longer could he play the role of a civilised male while she tweaked and teased his baser instincts at every turn? Now, seeing her riding along the high ridge, tired of keeping out of her way until she deigned to seek him out, he rode towards her.

Having slowed her horse to a walk, the reins held loosely in her gloved hands, allowing the animal to choose the route among the raised boulders, Amanda heard the jingle of bridle and the snort of a horse before she saw him. She stopped abruptly, completely still, like a young deer aware of danger, knowing instinctively that it was Kit. Turning, she saw she was not mistaken.

He was riding a big mean hunter, a chestnut, with a rippling black mane and tail. The horse’s sleek coat gleamed. She knew the animal because it was in the box next to the horse she always chose to ride. The chestnut was always much in evidence because it was highly strung. It was known as a notorious kicker and a bucker and the stable lads refused to ride it. Now, as she saw it striding along the ridge towards her, it was plain the man on its back today didn’t mind because he could certainly ride.

She saw how Kit looked at one with the environment, as if he had been born to this untamed savagery, the rugged wildness matching his own. Attired in beige kid breeches, polished knee-length boots of brown leather and a riding jacket of green-and-brown tweed, he looked lean and hard and utterly desirable, exuding virility and a casual, lazy confidence. Sunlight burnished his thick dark brown hair flecked with gold.

Meeting his calm gaze, she felt an unfamiliar twist of her heart, an addictive mix of pleasure and discomfort. His warm, dark eyes looked at her in undisguised admiration as he drew alongside, a smile curving on his firm lips. Thinking how nice it would be to run her fingers through his wind-tousled hair and to feel those lips cover her own, Amanda could feel the colour tinting her cheeks despite all her efforts to prevent it. She did not want to feel that way—not about him.

Unaware of the thoughts his companion harboured, Kit kept his wicked stallion away from Amanda’s more sedate mare.

‘Good heavens, Kit,’ she said, seeking refuge in anger to hide her discomfort, ‘how you do love to take a person by surprise. Are you stalking me, by any chance?’ The fact that he might be yielded a glare and a pert recommendation to mind his own business. He raised a dark brow and considered her flushed cheeks and soft, trembling mouth beneath the net of her black bowler. Damn the man, Amanda thought indignantly beneath his steady regard. She was certain he could read her mind.

‘Since your mare was in the stable when I left, I could say the same of you. We do seem to be destined to meet in the most unusual places, do we not? I apologise if I startled you.’

‘You are a long way from the gallops,’ she remarked. ‘Do you frequently ride so far from the stables?’

He nodded. ‘I bring the horses on to the moors for exercise—and today I have the added bonus of meeting you. It is a pleasure to see you, Amanda—and all the better since we are quite alone and miles from anywhere.’

His tone of voice made her look more closely at him, at his dark gaze that gleamed beneath the well-defined brows. He looked back at her, a smile beginning to curve his lips. There was a withheld power to command in him that was as impressive as it was irritating. What kind of man are you, Kit Claybourne? Amanda asked herself, and realised she had no idea at all.

‘Time has a habit of passing, Amanda,’ he said, thinking how lovely she looked dressed in sapphire blue—a jacket bodice, a neat white cravat and a full-length skirt. ‘We have been man and wife these seven months past. We have to talk, so stop being evasive. You cannot go on avoiding me or the issue. It will not go away, no matter how much you might wish it.’

Amanda’s eyes narrowed and little pinpoints of fire gathered in their pupils. ‘Not now,’ she said, haughtily turning her head away from him and looking into the distance.

‘You are ruining my ride and I would like to move on.’

Kit scowled darkly at her stubbornness. ‘Then far be it from me to detain you—although on that particular matter I feel I must give you some advice and urge you to be more careful,’ he admonished firmly, showing not the slightest inclination to move out or her way and let her ride on. ‘Do not ride with such speed—especially up here on the ridge. Should you go over, ‘tis a long way down. And nor should you ride alone. It’s foolish at the best of times for a young woman to be seen riding without a groom in attendance, but up here among the crags it is highly dangerous. I’m surprised your father hasn’t raised the matter. Should you take a tumble and injure yourself, there is no one to help. You could be up here for days before anyone found you—and even then it might be too late.’

Kit knew as he spoke that it would make no difference. What he had learned about his wife, having watched her and listened to Henry’s constant appraisals of his lovely, wild young daughter, was that she railed against restrictions, that she was not pliant or submissive and was unwilling to be moulded to the whims of others, and that her actions often went well beyond the bounds of propriety.

Amanda’s eyes flared angrily at his audacity, that he thought he had the right to chastise her. ‘I find your concern rather touching, but I can do well without your advice. I am perfectly able to ride a few miles without mishap and without a man to protect me’—especially you, her expression seemed to say. It dared him to attempt to take control.

‘I’m sure you can. Indeed, I would say you are of the nature to go looking for danger among the peaks, that you thrive on the danger that exists up here. But I still say you should not be roaming about up here alone.’

‘Kit,’ she exclaimed indignantly, ignoring the judicious set of his jaw, ‘I would be obliged if you would mind your own business and stick to training my father’s horses.’

‘But you are my business, Amanda. As my wife, what you do concerns me, and when I see you doing things that are reckless and foolhardy I have every right and a responsibility to speak out. Come, I’ll ride with you back to the house.’

‘I’d rather you didn’t. I came here to seek solitude, and if you were any sort of a gentleman you would leave me in peace. Besides, I’m not ready to go back yet.’

‘Very well, but I insist on accompanying you—and I suggest we go to lower ground.’ He looked sideways at her. ‘You don’t mind, I trust?’

She shrugged, urging her mount on. ‘It would seem I have little choice.’

‘No, you haven’t.’

They followed a path that meandered down into a valley through which a river tumbled over its rocky bed. Kit paused to let his horse take a drink of the icy water. Amanda’s horse did likewise. Kit swung lightly down from the saddle and left his mount to quench his thirst.

‘What a lovely place this is,’ he said, going to Amanda and holding up his arms to help her dismount. ‘Come, let’s walk a while.’

‘Only if you are prepared to be civil and not chastise me.’

‘I shall endeavour to be as charming as my nature will allow.’

Amanda looked at him with doubt. She slid from her horse into his arms and quickly sidestepped out of them. Removing her hat and hooking it over the pommel on the saddle, she walked towards the river and sat on an accommodating boulder, gazing out across the hills surrounding the valley. The view was beautiful, wild and verdant, and the only sound to disturb the peace was the sound of the river as it hurried on its way. Kit stood with one shoulder negligently propped against a tree, close to her rock, his arms folded across his chest, watching her, wanting more than anything to go to her and snatch her into his arms and kiss her senseless.

‘Are you still angry with me for trying to assert my authority over you up on the ridge?’ he asked.

There was a moment of silence. Amanda gazed at him. His voice was deep, throaty and seductive, a voice that made you think of dark, cosy places and highly improper things, and Amanda knew there weren’t many women who could resist a voice like that, and not if the man speaking looked like Kit Benedict. Not if he had warm hazel eyes flecked with green, not if he was over six feet tall and built like a Greek athlete of old. He was dazzling, and Amanda knew she was not as immune to that potent masculine allure as she would like to believe.

‘I am,’ she replied in answer to his question, her animosity fading as warmth seeped through her system. ‘But I realise you only said what you did out of concern. Tell me, do you like working for my father?’

‘Of course. Henry is a fine man, easy to get on with, and he has a love of horses to equal my own.’

‘Chosen by you, mostly. You have a way with them, I am told. Father says you can have the most spirited mount eating out of your hand in no time at all.’

‘How I wish it was as easy to gentle my wife,’ he murmured. ‘I think you have the loveliest eyes I have ever seen and I like the way they sparkle when you laugh, and darken with desire—as they did on the day we were wed and we were close. I remember an unbelievable softness when I kissed your lips, and a warmth the likes of which set my heart afire.’

A wicked grin highlighted his lips as he glanced at her. ‘I also like the way you look in your riding habit, and if you do not stop looking at me as you are doing at this moment, I am going to come and sit with you on that rock. Since meeting you again, I frequently see your eyes flashing with defiance and anger—now they are dark with some emotion I know I have caused.’

Amanda felt the soft caress of his gaze. Visions of him coming to sit beside her rose to alarming prominence in her mind. Hoping that by speaking in a calm, reasonable voice, rather than crossly protesting his statement, she could take the heat, the seduction out of his words, she said, ‘You are very eloquent, Kit, but please don’t go on.’

His voice took on a lighter note and his eyes twinkled with golden flecks of mischief. ‘I am a wilful, determined man, Amanda—you should know that by now. We will take our relationship a step at a time, but my feelings will neither yield nor change.’ Before she could voice another objection, he quickly switched tactics.

‘I enjoy my work with the horses. They have always been a part of my life—often a necessary part. Henry spends a good deal of time at the stables, watching them exercise and often riding out himself. I can only assume he has an understanding wife.’

‘She is—very understanding. In fact, she encourages him. Caroline doesn’t share his love of horses and doesn’t care to ride.’

‘Nevertheless, they seem happy—although most newly-weds usually are.’

Glancing at him, Amanda noted his narrowed, reproachful gaze fixed on her face and detected the underlying meaning of his words. He was silently saying something to her, in the curl of his lips and the lounging insolence of his long body. After all, they were newlyweds themselves, but their relationship was far removed from that of her father’s and Caroline’s. ‘I wouldn’t know,’ she murmured, averting her gaze, determined not to be drawn into a discussion on their marriage.

‘One only has to look at them when they are together to see that.’

‘I suppose so.’ Amanda looked at him and he smiled then. It was such a wonderful smile that curled beautifully on those chiselled lips, the kind of smile that would melt any woman’s heart if she didn’t know him for the arrogant, superior being he was. Suddenly she was very much aware that they were alone and far from other civilised beings. She felt nervous, exactly like a goat must feel, tethered to a stake to lure hungry wolves. Unfortunately she couldn’t run away, so, while he continued to gaze at her with that wonderful half smile curling on his lips, she must stay where she was and keep all her wits about her.

‘Father has always immersed himself in his work,’ she said, glad that she was able to speak without her voice shaking. ‘I never thought he would marry again, after Mother, but they seem well matched. Caroline is good for him.’

‘What happened to your mother?’

‘She died when I was a child.’

‘I’m sorry. That must have been hard for you.’

‘Yes, it was—and for my father,’ she admitted, unsure whether she wanted his sympathy, but comforted by it nevertheless.

‘Your father has only recently purchased Eden Park, I believe.’

‘Yes, while I was in America.’

‘And do you like living here?’

‘It’s an improvement on the last house we lived in—although living in the country, after living in Rochdale in a large house with extensive grounds, takes some getting used to.’

‘Yes, I can imagine it would. It must be a change for your father, too.’

‘Caroline is determined to make him take it easy and enjoy himself, but I can assure you that he still has his finger firmly on the pulse.’ Amanda looked at him, suddenly curious about his own background. ‘What about you? Is your mother still alive, Kit?’

He turned to look at her. ‘No. She died when I was a youth. It was a riding accident—nasty business.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, glad that the handsome, enigmatic man she had married was beginning to open up to her at last.

‘No need to be. You know what it’s like growing up without a mother.’

‘Nevertheless, it must have been hard for you and your father.’

He nodded, his features becoming tense. ‘He took it badly—never really got over it. I was not enough to ease his pain.’

His tone held a hint of bitterness that did not go unnoticed by Amanda, and she wondered at its cause. ‘Do you have any siblings?’


‘And your father? Is he still alive?’

Kit’s eyes darkened with remembrance. ‘No.’

His reply was brusque, warning Amanda to pry no further, but she pressed on. ‘Will you not tell me about him, Kit?’

‘If you don’t mind, Amanda, I do not wish to discuss it. Ever.’

‘But why?’ Recalling the bitterness she had evoked when she had touched on his family’s honour on the day he had arrived at Eden Park, she was curious to know more.

‘I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow description of what my life was like before I went to America. It was my hatred of gossip and my need for privacy that drove me there. I told you. I will not discuss it.’ Striding to the water’s edge, he stood looking down, as if trying to rid himself of unpleasant thoughts. After a moment he came back to her, the harshness of a moment earlier having gone from his expression.

Amanda gazed at him. ‘It makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Talking about your family, I mean—especially your father.’

‘Nothing makes me uncomfortable,’ he murmured. ‘I’m sorry, Amanda. Your questions were perfectly natural, only I would appreciate it if you would not mention my father again.’

‘I won’t,’ she replied quietly. ‘Not if you don’t want me to. It’s your own affair after all.’ She wondered what could have happened between Kit and his father that had made him go all the way to America in search of peace. Kit clearly prided himself on his control of his emotions. A man’s grief and pain should be a private matter, but if, as Kit insisted, they were to have any sort of life together, she would have to know some time.

Resuming his lounging stance with his shoulder propped against the tree and looking down at her, he said, ‘Tell me about Mr Quinn. How do you get on with him?’

Amanda looked at him, surprised by his question that seemed to come out of nowhere, and having a rather peculiar suspicion that this was what the conversation had been working up to. His features were closed, giving nothing away. ‘Mr Quinn? What makes you ask about him?’

‘Because he was with you in America.’

‘Yes, that’s right, he was. Why?’

‘What do you know of him?’

‘Not very much, really. He’s been with us for years, but I have no idea what he did before that.’ She looked at Kit sharply. ‘Why do you ask?’

He shrugged nonchalantly. ‘No particular reason. I am merely curious. Do you like him?’

‘No, not really. He’s a man of cold pride and duty—a quiet man, hard to get along with, although Father seems to manage well enough—and he likes to keep himself to himself. Father sets him various tasks, mainly in Manchester; sometimes he sends him to London. You must have come into contact with him?’

‘No. He’s been away from Eden Park on your father’s business, I believe, and since he doesn’t appear to have any interest in horses and my work is away from the house, it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t met.’

‘Well, I am surprised. No doubt Father will introduce the two of you eventually.’

‘Yes, no doubt.’

Feeling strangely uncomfortable about Kit’s interest in Mr Quinn and not wishing to discuss him—in fact, she’d prefer to forget all about him since that sordid incident between him and Sadie—Amanda stood and smoothed down her riding skirt. ‘I think I’d better be getting back. I’ve promised Caroline to help her write invitation cards for some of her forthcoming entertainments. She’ll think I’ve forgotten.’

Kit relinquished his stance against the tree and followed her to her horse, reluctant to end their time together in this secluded place and wanting to savour the delight of her company a little longer. He could not let her go. Not yet.

‘Amanda, wait. We must meet again. There are things that must be said—soon. On your ride tomorrow I shall accompany you. We will talk then.’

She turned away. ‘I do not think that would be appropriate. I would rather not—not yet.’

He moved closer, temptation getting the better of him, and the last thing he wanted was resistance. He knew he needed to entice her if he was to make her face up to the reality of their marriage. Reaching out, he gripped her upper arm and drew her back against him.

Amanda moved as if to push his hand away, but it stilled in the air, hesitant. The unbelievable pleasure of his touch took her by surprise. The intimacy of his grip on her arm reached out to some unknown part of her, which she had not been aware she possessed. It touched and lightened some dark place she had not before now been aware of, but it was elusive and was soon gone when he removed his hand. But she did not move away from him or turn round.

Kit stood quite still, his body only inches from hers, studying the exposed flesh at the back of her neck and watching the dappled sunlight that filtered between the bare branches of a large beech tree bring out a multitude of glorious lights in her hair. Fashioned in intricate twists and curls, it was held in place by tiny, decorative tortoiseshell combs. He wanted to remove them so that her hair could fall free, so that he could run his fingers through the heavy mass. Placing his hands on both her arms, he pulled her against him.

To Amanda they were like tender manacles, drawing her back so that she could feel his body, his thighs, rock hard against her spine. His warm breath caressed the back of her neck, and then his lips trailed over her sensitive flesh to her ear, while she turned liquid inside.

‘Don’t,’ she breathed, shakily. ‘Kit, please don’t do this.’

Sliding his arms around her waist, he held her tighter, glad it was just her voice that resisted and not her body. ‘Are you certain you want me to stop?’ he murmured, blowing warm breath into her ear and flicking his tongue against her lobe.

Her body came alive with pleasure, unfolding like the petals of an exotic flower. Never in her imagination had she experienced anything so erotic as this. All her senses became heightened and focused on him and what he was doing until nothing else mattered. But she dare not turn round in his embrace—she dare not, otherwise, feeling as she did at that moment, she would submit to anything. She half-turned her face to his and he placed his lips on her cheek.

‘Yes, I want you to stop—please, you must not go on,’ she gasped, shaking her head lamely in a denial, wanting him to stop before she was consumed.

‘There will be many times in the future when I shall hold you this close—and for longer; each time you will welcome me, my sweet, I promise you.’ He smiled, content in his belief that he had measured the weakness of her character in the strength of her awakened passion.

With a soft chuckle he released her, and Amanda’s mind went spinning as he stepped back. Shaken to the core of her being, she could not turn round and meet his eyes. This sensual web he wove was insubstantial yet unbreakable. He moved to stand in front of her, his eyes roaming over her exquisite features and provocative figure, a mocking, knowing gleam in their dark depths. She could only stare at him, helplessly caught up in the web of her own desires. Nothing she could say could erase the look of wonder from her face, nor still the chaotic pounding of her heart.

Reaching out, he cupped her chin, tilting her head back to look deep into her eyes. ‘Be satisfied with your self-imposed chastity, Amanda, if you can. Or face the truth of what you really want. You will never be fulfilled, not until you become mine completely. You belong to me. From the first you have been mine. I shall try to restrain myself until you come to me of your own free will—and you will come. That I promise you also.’

Confused by her own emotions and feeling a terrible ache of vulnerability that was something quite new to her, Amanda, almost in a daze, watched him as he turned and strode towards the horses. She stared at his back, still feeling the tingle of his fingers on her chin. Slowly she followed him. After securing her hat, she placed her foot into his cupped hands and he raised her into the saddle. Arranging her skirts, she looked down at him. It was impossible not to respond to Kit as his masculine magnetism seemed to take precedence over the rugged landscape and dominate everything around him. The attraction between them was almost palpable. He stood watching her, his eyes alert, holding a challenging gleam, above the faintly smiling mouth.

‘You really are quite impossible, aren’t you, Kit? Conceited, too.’

‘Indeed I am, and you’ll see just how impossible I can be if you continue evading the issue that is important to us both.’

Uncomfortably aware of the man riding alongside her, Amanda kept her eyes directly in front of her, sitting stiff and erect. The memory of what had just happened between them made her plight more unbearable and she couldn’t wait to be rid of him. When she was with him she didn’t know herself. Dear Lord, what kind of sorcery did the man employ so that he could have this effect on her—on her of all people, who had always prided herself on being in control? She would like to believe she had not enjoyed what he had done to her, but that was not the case, and she feared that she was destined to remember his ardent embrace and would want for more.

Henry, in fine fettle as usual, beamed when the two of them rode into the stableyard together. ‘I see you’ve been taking care of my daughter, Kit.’

‘Merely looking after her welfare, Henry,’ Kit replied, swinging down from his horse and going to assist Amanda, who gracelessly shoved away his hand and slid off herself, which brought an exasperated frown to his handsome face. ‘She should not be riding about the moors alone. There are dangers aplenty, without going looking for it. Should she take a tumble, she could come to grief.’

Listening to the sense of what Kit was saying, Henry gave his daughter a reproachful glance. All her life she had been given free rein to do as she pleased, but there were times when she went too far and in this instance Kit was right. ‘I confess I haven’t given much thought to it, but I have to agree with Kit. See you take a groom with you next time—unless Kit’s exercising one of the mounts, then you can go with him.’

Amanda merely looked from one to the other, her eyes hurling daggers at Kit, the determined gleam in their olive-green depths telling him she would as soon ride with the devil as repeat today’s episode. Bidding him a haughty but polite good day, she turned on her heel.

A half smile quirked Kit’s mouth as he watched the tantalising twitch of her skirts as she stalked off. There was something so richly provocatively pagan about her—her vivid colouring, and the swift animal grace with which she tossed her head. ‘And a good day to you too, Mrs Claybourne.’ He chuckled softly. ‘You’ve bred a firebrand there, Henry. Lord, what a handful.’

Henry gave him a long-suffering look. ‘More than a handful. You’ll have to excuse my daughter, Kit. Volatile and high spirited, she has an aversion to being told what to do. Excuse me. I’ll walk with her back to the house. Maybe a few well-chosen words of tact will placate her.’

‘So, Amanda, it’s happy I am to see the two of you getting on,’ Henry said when he caught up with his daughter. ‘I knew you’d get to liking Kit when you became better acquainted.’

‘We met on the moor, Father, and he rode back with me, that’s all. It doesn’t mean to say I’ve changed my opinion of Mr Benedict in the slightest.’

‘Ah, but you will. Mark my words, you will. He’s an excellent man,’ he said, casting his daughter a twinkling look, ‘good looking, too—and don’t be telling me you haven’t noticed.’

‘It’s only because he has a knack with horses that you are biased in his favour,’ she retorted sourly.

Henry glanced at her sharply. ‘You’ve not been having a difference of opinion with him now, have you?’

‘No, of course not. What makes you say that?’

‘It was just a thought. I sense an unease whenever you are together—a constraint, as if you had quarrelled.’

‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I do admire his skill with horses, but you are right. There is some constraint between us which I can only put down to our being too much alike. We grind together like a couple of rusty old cogs.’

‘Aye, well, there’s no denying that he’s a catch all right and any young woman would be proud to be seen walking out with Kit Benedict. Mark my words, Amanda, he’ll not be a widower ere the year is out.’ He levelled a meaningful gaze at his offspring, reminding her of her single state, seeming to have forgotten her widowhood.

‘Don’t despair, Father. You will see me wed again, I promise you—though whether you will consider it a suitable match remains to be seen. But for the time being I shall strive to behave as a widow should—properly.’ She glanced at him as he strode beside her. His shifts of opinions were so unpredictable that Amanda had wearied of ever trying to understand him. ‘Tell me, Father, are you saying that you have changed your mind and would approve of me marrying someone of Mr Benedict’s station in life, after all your blusterings about suitability, titles and how important it is for the man to have the right connections?’

‘Aye, lass, I am that—though ‘tis not easy for a man like me to make a climb down. These past months married to Caroline have taught me what marriage is all about, and it’s about being happy with the right one. You are my darling girl and I want only the best for you, you know that. When you meet the right man you will know it, and, no matter what his station in life, accept him as a man, if not your peer.’

Amanda’s heart warmed to him and with a laugh and a lightening of her spirits, she linked her arm through his and hugged it close. ‘Now why would I be wanting a husband when I have you, Father? Have I not told you time and time again that you are the only man in my life and I want no other—besides, there is no other who could measure up to you.’

With an acute sense of pride, Henry beamed at her and patted her hand. She was the light of his life—a bonny lass, wonderful to listen to, wonderful in her laughter that made people want to look at her and to smile and want to know her better. She was alive with hope and a fervent belief that life was for living, for love, marriage and children. One day he knew all that would be hers.

Amanda kept out of Kit’s way as best she could after that incident on the moors, but, try as she might, she could not get him out of her mind. She wanted him more than she had ever wanted a man before, a feeling so unexpected given the way she strove to avoid all contact between them.

At a weekend house party in March, when Amanda joined her father and Caroline and the thirty assembled guests in the long library for drinks before dinner, where a string quartet was playing Bach, she was surprised to find another visitor, one who immediately set her emotions tumbling.

When she first saw Kit standing alone by the hearth, looking at the gathering with amused indolence—tall, slender hipped and broad shouldered and so sickeningly attractive and sure of himself, he looked so much a part of some of the landed gentry present that he could be mistaken for one of them.

His manner bore an odd sense of boldness. He appeared to set himself apart from everyone in the room, and yet by his mere presence dominated the scene around him. Anger and resentment welled inside her at his audacity to appear among her father’s friends. Even though she knew her father would have invited him, he could have refused.

In an attempt to regain some of her composure that had dropped a notch on seeing Kit, exhaling a slow, steadying breath and taking a glass of wine from a salver being carried by a servant, she moved farther into the room, greeting people on her way. Resplendent in a beaded deep-rose satin gown and every inch the competent hostess, Caroline found her way to her side. Her eyes were alight with pleasure at the way the party was progressing.

‘Everything seems to be going well, don’t you think?’ she remarked quietly.

‘You’ve surpassed yourself, Caroline.’

‘With your help.’

‘I made a few suggestions, that is all.’ Amanda smiled. ‘And you look lovely, Caroline—the perfect hostess. Father must be feeling immensely proud of you tonight.’

Caroline returned her smile fondly. ‘Thank you, dear, and I must compliment you on your gown. That colour is so becoming on you,’ she said, looking with admiration at her stepdaughter’s cream watered-silk gown, its sheath-like style so in vogue. The front fitted perfectly into the waist and over the bodice, the back drawn back over a crinolette in a series of short flounces cascading down to the hem. The gown shimmered in the light and brought out the rich, deep tones in Amanda’s hair.

‘I am so glad you’ve decided to come out of mourning at last—and I know Henry is relieved. You’re far too young to be wearing such drab colours. Now come and circulate.’ Caroline took Amanda by the arm as her eyes did a quick scan of the room, coming to rest on Kit. ‘Although I think Kit could do with some company. He isn’t acquainted with many of the guests. Why don’t you go and have a word with him?’

Amanda held back, regarding Kit with a sceptical frown. ‘Must I? I really don’t know why he was invited.’

‘Why on earth shouldn’t he be? Everyone is intrigued by Henry’s new horse trainer, so your father thought it only right that he attend tonight. He is much talked about in the area—far more than anyone else. The way he keeps himself to himself, never joining the hunt or partaking of any of the social events in the neighbourhood. Yes, he is a man of great mystery is our Mr Benedict.’

‘Considering he spends all his waking hours training Father’s horses, I don’t suppose he has time for anything else. I still say he should not have been invited.’

Wide eyed, Caroline looked at her for a moment. What on earth could have prompted Amanda to speak in such a fashion? It was most unlike her. Kit had truly gotten under her skin and she wondered how this unexpected animosity had come about. Amanda had developed an unfair impression. It puzzled Caroline and one way or another she was determined to get to the bottom of it. Where she was concerned she could see nothing wrong with him. When Henry had first introduced them, she had been immediately struck by his immense personal attraction. There was a warmth about him and humour in his smile, and yet his mouth was hard and firm with a twist to his lips that said he was not a man to be trifled with.

‘Kit comports himself with as much dignity and propriety as anyone present.’ Caroline placed her head close to Amanda, speaking softly. ‘I must say that he cuts a dashing figure and is by far the most handsome man here. There is more than one unattached young lady just dying to make his acquaintance.’

‘Then perhaps you should introduce them and spare me the trouble of having to converse with him,’ Amanda suggested ungraciously, looking around and seeing the reaction of several young girls practically melting into the floor as they gazed at him. No doubt he was accustomed to this kind of feminine reaction, she thought crossly.

Caroline glanced at Amanda, puzzled as to her apparent dislike of Kit when Henry thought the sun rose and set with him, and she was utterly charmed by him. ‘I know you don’t have a very high opinion of Kit, Amanda—and heaven knows why—but I do wish you would try to get on with him—for Henry’s sake, if nothing else.’

‘I have no opinion of him one way or another, Caroline. It’s just that I hardly know him and he failed to make a favourable impression on me when we first met.’ When Caroline shot her a pleading look, she smiled and nodded in acquiescence. ‘Oh, very well. To please you I’ll go and talk to him.’

Kit was eyeing the company with a great deal of disdain. It was peculiar indeed that here, after all these years of being apart from it, surrounded by the society into which he had been born, the society he now eschewed, it was one of the few places he least wanted to be.

He had seen Amanda the instant she entered the room. Sparkling and gleaming beneath the crystal chandelier, she looked like a shimmering butterfly, bright and beguiling, the exposed flesh of her arms and shoulders soft and inviting. The effect of seeing her, the visceral tug and the sense of possessiveness surprised him. He watched her pause in the doorway, her large green eyes scanning the room before moving farther in, dispensing smiles and laughter upon the guests, her laughter reaching him with a sweet seduction. After conversing with Caroline, when she looked his way and began walking towards him, his cynically amused mask was in place.

‘Thank you for taking pity on me,’ he said when she stood in front of him.

‘Caroline told me to. I could hardly refuse now, could I? What are you doing here?’

He grinned infuriatingly. ‘Trying damned hard to seduce my wife.’ Laughing softly when she shot him a look of ire, he said, ‘Set aside your fears, my love. I would not be here if it were not to please your father and to see you. I would rather not attend these occasions, but seeing you amid so many people is better than not seeing you at all.’

‘Why? So you can remind me of our bargain?’ she snapped.

‘There is that—and stop glowering, my dear wife. Your stepmother is watching us.’

Immediately Amanda pinned a smile on her face while her eyes glared at him. ‘I am not your dear wife,’ she whispered. ‘And please keep your voice down. Someone might hear. Had I known Father had invited you, I would have pleaded a headache and stayed in my room.’

‘You mean you haven’t fallen madly in love with me yet?’ he asked with a broad grin.

‘You conceited ass. I will never do that. We are incompatible. In fact, I think you exist only to antagonise me. Why don’t you go away?’ Her rebuke only seemed to amuse him further, for his grin deepened, making her doubt if she would ever be effective in making him disappear.

‘What, and leave you to the wolves I see devouring you at every turn?’ he retorted, his eyes doing a quick sweep of the unattached males hovering on the sidelines like the aforesaid animals ready to pounce the instant they parted.

Amanda stared at him, searching his handsome visage, taken aback by his nerve. ‘What are you now? My protector—as you tried to be out on the moor?’

‘No. Your husband. You belong to me and I choose to safeguard against those who try to get too close to you.’

Irate sparks flashed in her eyes. ‘Your persistence astounds me.’

‘I simply know what I want. You are a married woman. Please behave as such.’

‘How dare you?’ she gritted.

‘And such a proud one,’ he chuckled. ‘A lovely one at that. I am happy to see you out of those dreadful mourning clothes. They were most unbecoming on you, my love.’

‘Please be quiet.’

‘I will be happy to—for the price of a kiss from your soft lips, my sweet.’

‘Never,’ she retorted. ‘I would rather kiss a rattlesnake.’

‘Guard yourself well, for no amount of armour will protect you from me—and I know just how vulnerable you can be, don’t forget.’ He raised a dark brow and considered her soft features. His gaze moved even lower to her swelling breasts and then back to her eyes, a light gleaming in his own. ‘I will have a full marriage and nothing less. You have my name and all you desired. Your part of the agreement has yet to be fulfilled. It is not going to go away—no matter how much you want it to. Don’t forget that you were the one who sought me out in my prison cell and the situation we now find ourselves in was of your making—and in part mine for agreeing to your request. You will have to face the reality of it some time.’

Amanda glanced uncertainly at him. He was watching her intently. Suddenly she felt foolish and bad tempered. What he said was perfectly true. A rueful smile lit her eyes and she regarded him with a new respect. ‘You are right. I have felt guilt about what I did, and I hoped that a moment like this would never come about. However, I accept that I must deal with it—but—I don’t know how to, and that’s the crux of the matter. I apologise for the way I’ve behaved towards you—and apologies don’t come easy for me—but—I’ve been so confused of late.’

Kit’s eyes smiled his approval at her sudden and welcome change of attitude. He perceived her disappointments and was fully aware of the reasons behind them. ‘It’s understandable. It’s not often a woman has her husband return from the dead. Do you resent me for that?’

‘I do resent you, but not for the reason you state.’

‘Then I assume your resentment stems from the disruption I have brought to your well-ordered life. You are making this very difficult for us, Amanda.’

‘Am I?’

‘You know you are.’ His gaze caressed her upturned face, and then his eyes caught and held her own. ‘I am single-minded in my pursuits—you may have noticed. I have played out my hand with patience, and I will not be satisfied until I have you.’ Raising his hand, he boldly touched her cheek, caressing it with the backs of his fingers. ‘All of you.’

The warmth of his tone caused Amanda’s heart to do strange things, and his touch brought a pink hue creeping over her face. On the edge of the crowded room, she was overwhelmingly conscious of the man facing her. Everyone else seemed to fade away. However, she was irritated by the way in which he always managed to skilfully cut through her superior attitude, and she knew she asked for it, but the magnetic attraction still remained beneath the surface.

Recollecting herself, she took a step back, glancing about her to see if anyone had noticed his caress. ‘Kit, will you mind your manners and please behave yourself.’

A low chuckle preceded his reply. ‘Behave? How would you have me behave, my love—as a gentleman? And how can I do that when I am only a hired hand unschooled in the postures of a gentleman?’

‘If you would cease currying favour with my father and stick to the stables and your cottage, it would ease matters.’

His eyes seemed to glow from deep within. ‘Ah—my cottage. Perhaps you would care to drop in some time. I will show you around if you like. The bed I can recommend—all feathers and down and large enough for two.’

Amanda flushed scarlet at what he was implying. ‘I am not the sort who goes easily, without thought or affection, to a man’s bed,’ she hissed.

‘Come now, can I not persuade you to risk your heart’s defences in one night of love? Perhaps you will find it agreeable and want more.’

‘How conceited of you to think you can make me want you. Do you really believe you can do that?’

His smile was feral as he moved closer. ‘Judge for yourself. You will come to me. I have no doubt about that.’ The light in his eyes, the subtle undertone in his voice, was a challenge—a warning.

‘And what do you think people would make of it if they saw me entering your home?’

‘It is no crime, Amanda.’

‘No—but it would be dangerous.’

‘A little danger adds spice to the excitement.’

‘I have enough excitement in my life without indulging in an illicit interlude with my father’s horse trainer.’ As Amanda was about to turn and walk away, his hand shot out and gripped her wrist.

‘‘Tis not an interlude I seek with you, my love. I want something deeper, more profound, more lasting than that. We have to talk, but not here. You will find me at home later. Will you come?’

Amanda took another step away from him, suddenly afraid of being alone with him in his cottage and what he could do if he set his mind to it. But they must talk if they were to resolve matters between them and in doing so move on with their lives. She nodded. ‘If I can.’

Amanda moved away from him at the same moment as Mr Quinn made his appearance. Pausing in the doorway, he looked at the chattering throng with little interest.

If Amanda had turned to look at Kit, she would have noted a hardness that infused his face as his eyes settled on her father’s most trusted employee, and would have detected a grimness in his dark eyes that boded ill for Mr Quinn.


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