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Диксон Хелен

The Bride Wore Scandal

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Chapter One

It was 1708 in the reign of Queen Anne. Plots and rumours kept up the intensity of political strife. There was activity in all the underworld of Jacobite agents, who were working against the vested interests of the nation to remove the Queen and place the Catholic King James III on the throne. An association was formed. They collected arms and enrolled troops, and money had to be raised to pay for it. Some Catholics in England were generous and sent money to France, to the young James Edward Stuart; others, the not-so-principled and scrupulous Catholics, used more devious and often murderous means, and thought nothing of turning to crime to fund the Jacobite cause.

To Christina Atherton, who had planned the evening’s gathering and entertainment with cards, supper and dancing and a stand of fireworks in the extensive grounds of Oakbridge Hall, thoughts of Jacobites and rebellion could not be further from her mind. The guests were due to arrive in half an hour, and she was checking the preparations when a man’s voice echoed round the hall. She turned from the huge urn of fresh flowers she had been rearranging to face her brother.

‘Christina! Where the devil are you?’

‘I am here, William, ready to receive our guests.’

The young man looked and saw her standing before the urn of flowers. Her heart-shaped face surrounded by a halo of golden curls seemed to have a delicate, ethereal quality, and her light blue gown gave her a look of fragility.

‘Dear Lord, Christina, you are never there when I want you,’ he complained irritably, fumbling with his cravat.

‘I am never far away, as well you know. Is there something wrong?’

He stared at her, as if her words surprised him, then he answered crossly. ‘Of course there is. Everything is wrong.’

Christina knew by the tone of his voice that something was amiss. The deep frown that creased his brow attested to this. She sighed, walking towards him, then calmly straightened his cravat for him. ‘What can be wrong? Everything is prepared. The musicians have arrived, the food tables set up, the fireworks—’

‘Damn the fireworks!’ he exclaimed fiercely. ‘That wasn’t what I meant.’

‘Then what has happened?’ she asked, alarmed, for she realised by the very intensity of his tone that he was upset.

Ashamed of his irritation, he said, ‘Forgive me, Christina. I’m in one hell of a tangle and I’m damned if I know what to do about it.’

‘You haven’t been gambling again, have you—and lost? Oh, William, I hope not.’

‘No, of course I haven’t. It’s worse than that.’

‘Tell me.’

‘We have an extra guest tonight—Lord Rockley. What is more, he is to stay the night.’

‘Lord Rockley? I don’t believe I’ve heard of him. Who is he?’

‘Trouble, Christina. The worst. Hell and damnation!’ William exclaimed angrily, pushing his fair hair from his forehead in frustration. ‘Why does he have to come tonight—just when things are going well?’

‘Then why did you invite him?’

William looked at her as if she’d taken leave of her senses. ‘Invite him?’ he burst out. ‘I didn’t invite him. Rockley invited himself. I was at Middleton Lodge to take a look at Sir Gilbert Rosing’s recently acquired stallion when he just turned up. When Gilbert mentioned that he was coming here tonight, in a calm and disarming way Rockley told me he was new to the district, and that because of the increasing assaults on travellers, which is causing the Lord Lieutenant a great deal of concern, he has been appointed to the area to curb the illegal activities of the highway robbers who persist in evading the law. What better place to start, he said, than by getting to know the local gentry at a gathering here at Oakbridge—if I didn’t mind him trespassing on my hospitality.’

Christina was shocked. ‘Oh! What did you say?’

‘What could I say other than that I would be honoured to have him as a guest and to stay the night, since he is residing with his brother five miles away—too far from him to travel back late at night.’

Despite the fear beginning to quake through her, Christina managed to sound calm. ‘But—this is terrible news. Do you think he suspects what goes on here at Oakbridge?’

‘I don’t think so—at least, I hope not. I have no idea what is in his head—what he expects to find.’ He shook his head in exasperation. ‘I’m no good at all this subterfuge, Christina, no good at all.

‘I’m glad you’re not.’

‘I’m sure I must have guilt written all over me.’

‘No, you have not and you must try to stay calm,’ Christina said soothingly. ‘What is he like—this Lord Rockley?’

‘A cool one, I can tell you—a retired military man—with a reputation to instil fear into the stoutest heart.’

‘Even Mark Bucklow’s?’ she asked quietly, hoping and wishing this would be so.

‘As to that, we shall have to wait and see. To his enemies, Rockley is the most hated and feared of all Marlborough’s commanders. They believe he is a monster, a barbarian, more evil than the Devil himself—and more dangerous, for whereas the Devil is a spirit, Rockley is flesh and blood.’

Suddenly the atmosphere was filled with gruesome predictions of violence and death; Christina stared at her brother in mute horror, for surely no man could be as bad as that, and hoped that what William said was pure hysteria passed on by word of mouth from Lord Rockley’s enemies. But despite her doubts, at that moment a bank of cloud passed over the house and darkened the room. A cold shiver ran down her spine, as if nature herself brooded at the mention of such evil.

‘Dear me, this Lord Rockley sounds quite fearsome. And this is the man who is to stay at Oakbridge?’

William nodded. ‘He looked me straight in the eye as he spoke—it was a challenge almost, as if testing my reaction. Such men are better dealt with in calm deliberation, not youthful bravado, so naturally I had to agree that it was high time someone brought these fellows preying on innocent travellers to justice and left it at that.’

‘But—tonight of all nights. What shall we do? Mark has it all planned. Lord Rockley could ruin everything.’

‘No, he won’t,’ William countered fiercely, pacing the small area of floor between the flower-filled urn and Christina. ‘We must see to it that he doesn’t suspect a thing.’

‘Oh, how I wish we could cancel the party—to send word to everyone not to come.’

‘It’s too late for that. Besides, Mark wouldn’t allow it. You know the rules,’ William uttered with bitter irony, having come to rue the day he’d met Mark Bucklow and fallen into his clutches. ‘Tonight the gentry are coming to Oakbridge to make merry. The windows will be blazing with light and the drink flowing—enough to sodden their wits for their journey home. Do as he says, keep him happy and we’ll be all right. But, by God, if you open your mouth and squeal, Christina, he’ll break us both.’

Christina faced her brother, holding her hands in front of her so they wouldn’t tremble. ‘I understand, William, and I’ve never gossiped in my life. It doesn’t matter to me what Mark Bucklow does or what company he keeps, I’ll do what he asks and he’ll have no cause to grumble. But if he hurts you in any way, I’ll go and find a magistrate and bring him here. I’ll have the law on him. Then let him try and break me.’

Her show of spirit brought a grim smile to William’s lips. ‘That’s a pretty speech, Christina. Scratch you and you show your claws, but Mark has more sense and cunning than the law and we both know it. The constables are too scared to shove their noses into what he does.’

What he said was true. All her life Christina had felt content in the quiet, comfortable, well-to-do existence into which she had been born. And yet, it had only taken William’s meeting with Mark Bucklow to set the wheels of fate in motion, precipitating her from the tranquil monotony of her familiar world into the future, whose far-reaching horizons were hazy and unknowable and often frightening.

Mark Bucklow was one of the most dangerous and feared men Christina had ever met or heard about. There were many in the fraternity who were in awe of him and feared him. Mark’s rule over his gang of thieves was supreme. The fraternity’s meetings took place at Oakbridge, in a labyrinth of ancient tunnels running beneath the house. The chamber he used was at the exit of the tunnels, the perfect hideaway, so well situated for his organisation that he and his associates could come and go as they pleased with comparative ease.

Oakbridge was in the heart of Mark’s domain, where constables were reluctant to venture. Mark knew every highway and byway, every house and hiding place and escape route, every type of thief and scoundrel who worked for him and owed him a cut of their earnings, and if any dared take their plunder elsewhere, he’d be floating in the river before the day’s end. Only the most hard-bitten thieves and cut-throats defied Mark Bucklow, and brave though he tried be, William wasn’t one of them. Mark had threatened to kill him if he didn’t comply with his wishes.

It was no idle threat. William knew this and he was right to be afraid—not only for his own life, but for Christina’s also.

Christina had no illusions about her brother and she had to stop herself from conjuring up all the gruesome outcomes of his involvement with Mark Bucklow of which her imagination was capable, lest she frighten herself into an early grave. She loved William dearly, but she could not ignore the fact that he was inclined to laziness.

Their father had dispatched him to Balliol College at Oxford University to read law. Their father had died while William was at university, leaving him a wealthy young man. Elevated to a position of importance, he had left his studies for the seedy delights on offer in London. Here he had taken up with a wild, rakish set of young men. Awestruck, his new cronies introduced him to the private clubs of the elite and to the high-stake games of chance that flourished within these establishments. It had been a heady temptation that he could not resist. Lacking any kind of guidance, he had recklessly gone his own way, and within two years his wealth was exhausted.

It was at this desperate time that William became associated with Mark Bucklow. Seduced by Bucklow’s talk of riches beyond belief, William had taken the money Mark offered to pay off some of his most pressing creditors, with the promise of paying it back when his circumstances improved. Truly believing he was on his way to Eldorado, he had fallen for every word that dripped from the villain’s silken tongue. It certainly meant a new and profitable beginning for him, and further confirmed the steadfast belief that he was in full control of his own destiny and would now have whatever he desired. How wrong he had been.

‘Mark cannot go on doing what he does for ever,’ Christina said. ‘He likes the idea of easy money and associating with wealthy people. Little good it will do him when he is caught.’

‘I don’t think it’s like that. In fact, it’s rather difficult to decide what he does with the money he gets from the robberies—none of it has come my way, that’s for sure,’ William complained bitterly. ‘In fact, Christina, I don’t know anything about Mark at all. When he’s not in London, his business dealing seems to radiate from a room in an inn somewhere.’

‘How do you know this?’

‘I keep my ears open. He meets with other men there—at the Black Swan Inn over at Wakeham. It’s all very secretive. The lot of them usually scatter after the meetings, going in different directions.’

Christina frowned, curious as to what else other than highway robbery Mark was mixed up in. ‘Whatever else he’s involved in, I hope you keep out of it. You’re in deep enough as it is. How I wish you’d never met him, but we both know why he approached you. Mark is clever, scheming and cunning—and he has murdered more people than I care to know about. He had his eyes set on Oakbridge—a house in a splendid isolated location and full of secret places. What better place for him to operate his network from—and you, with your pocket to let, provided him with the perfect opportunity.’

Embarrassment tinted William’s handsome face with a ruddy hue. ‘I know and I’m fed up with saying I’m sorry.’

‘And I’m sorry. So very sorry.’ Christina’s heart went out to him. He was not bad, she thought, merely weak. ‘But it is better to live in poverty than this.’

‘What can I do? I am involved up to my neck—even though I haven’t received a penny piece from him in all these months.’

‘I’m glad, because that would make you as big a criminal as he is. It has all worked out to his advantage—just as he planned it. It pains me to think I have to take part in it. I hate it, William. I hate what we do—the anxieties and the misery of it all. And tonight, being forced to hold this party, I shall die a thousand deaths should the crimes he and his cohorts carry out on the guests returning to their homes be traced back here.’

‘As long as we keep our mouths shut we’ll be all right. At Oakbridge we have comfort. Would you prefer the squalor of prison while you await the hangman’s pleasure or transportation?’

The cruelty of his words lashed into her, and with tears burning the backs of her eyes, she turned her head away. ‘Please don’t say that. I am frightened. I hate the hold Mark has over us and I fear greatly what will become of us. If you should put one foot wrong, William—or me—he will not hesitate to kill us.’

Aware of the intensity of her feelings and her fear, William softened. ‘I know, which is why we must do as he says. Here you are safe, Christina.’

‘What I want is peace of mind and security, and a life without Mark Bucklow. When you took up with him, I recall warning you to be careful what you wished for—that you may get it, but at a cost. And your association with him may cost us dear.’ She gave him a meaningful look. ‘I don’t think Squire Kershaw would be quite so eager to allow your marriage to Miranda to go ahead should he find out about your association with Mark.’

William blanched visibly. Becoming betrothed to Miranda was the one good thing that had happened to him in recent months, and he dearly wanted to make her his wife. She was sweet and gentle and he loved her dearly. Her father was in favour of a match between them, but William knew Squire Kershaw would pull back if it became known that thieves were using Oakbridge as their base with his permission. He had taken Miranda to London to visit relatives. They were expected to leave for their home in Cirencester very soon, and were to call at Oakbridge on the way.

‘I know the situation, Christina,’ William replied crossly, her persistence to continue harping on about it hardening his mood. ‘Must you turn everything into a high tragedy? I can only hope to God Squire Kershaw doesn’t find out about what goes on here.’

‘For your sake, so do I. If Mark chooses to make his living from outwitting the gullible, then that is his affair. But if things go wrong, then it will be you who will pay the price, not Mark. They say the devil looks after his own, and they don’t come much uglier than Mark Bucklow. I know him well enough to despise him—as much as I do this Lord Rockley for inviting himself to Oakbridge and making me afraid and uncertain,’ she uttered crossly and meant every word.

She imagined him to have an ugly face with a bent nose, close-set eyes and yellow teeth, a man who would hardly care about the havoc he had brought upon his enemies and her nerves. How dare he have the effrontery to invite himself to Oakbridge? She would dearly like to shatter his composure to her satisfaction and give him a tongue-lashing that would lay him low for a week and make him think twice before coming again.

‘Whatever happens, we must be clever and see that he has not the least suspicion about what goes on here at Oakbridge. I doubt Mark will forgo the opportunity of obtaining thousands of pounds’ worth of goods, but we must make him aware of the danger. When the guests have arrived, you must slip away and warn him. You’ll find him in the usual place, organising the night’s work. After that it’s up to him.’

Christina paled. ‘But—you know how much I hate that tunnel, William. I cannot …’

‘Yes, you can,’ William said roughly. ‘You must. If you leave during the firework display, your absence will be least noticed.’

Christina hesitated for a moment, then, determination in the set of her small jaw, the expression in her eyes almost truculent, she said, ‘Very well, but you know how I feel about facing Mark and his band of ruffians.’

‘You’d best have a room made ready for our unwelcome guest—and his valet, I suppose—the blue room in the West Wing, which is far enough away from the entrance Mark will use, should he have need to come back here later. With any luck, Rockley will leave after breakfast without suspecting a thing. If he is suspicious, we must make sure he knows nothing definite. Hopefully he will go away and we’ll see neither hide nor hair of him again.’

When William had left her, Christina thought of the evening that stretched before her, shrouded with gloom and foreboding. She tried to prepare herself for her meeting with Lord Rockley, her stomach twisting into sick knots of fear. William had told her he was clever. How clever? she wondered. Under close inspection she studied her image in her dressing-table mirror, considering her features only for what hazard they might pose. Was there something in her eyes and her expression that might prove to be a liability, something that would betray them all?

The face that stared back at her was an attractive face, the features soft, the eyes appealing. She quickly pulled herself up sharp. This was a time for survival, not for girlish fancies and longings. With a hardness of purpose born of necessity, Christina gave her mind over to how best she might carry out her deception, entertaining no concept of a day when these self-same features might cause a man to forget what other goals he had in mind.

One after another, the carriages came slowly up the short avenue of poplars leading to the entrance to Oakbridge, lit up from the basement to the roof for the occasion by lights flaring cheerfully in the darkness. Built in Tudor times of warm red brick, it was large and rambling. Sadly, its tasteful furnishings and exquisite decorations were showing signs of neglect. Fabrics had become faded and frayed, carpets worn, and there were pale rectangles on the walls where paintings used to hang; although it was months since they had been taken down and sold, their absence never failed to remind Christina of William’s debt to Mark Bucklow, or the vicious threat he posed to their lives.

Only the most eminent of the local gentry had been invited to tonight’s party, so that the guests felt themselves highly privileged persons. It was clear, early as it was, that the event would be a success. In the days of Christina’s grandfather, whose wealth had surpassed most of his contemporaries and the estate had exuded good, well-funded stewardship, from its carefully landscaped grounds to the house itself, grand, memorable events had been held at Oakbridge, balls and parties that were still talked about today. Her father had carried on the tradition and it had been expected that William, now Lord Atherton, would do the same. The tradition was about to be continued, but sadly, it was not William who called the tune or funded the entertainment, but Mark Bucklow.

Christina was breathtakingly beautiful, standing beside William to receive their guests in the doorway of the large drawing-room on the first floor, from which one of several doors led into the long gallery where the dancing was to be held. The ice blue of her dress blended perfectly with her eyes of a slightly darker shade, as did the setting of the diamonds and sapphires that adorned her throat. They had belonged to Christina’s mother, and Christina had steadfastly refused to part with them to pay off William’s debts. The diamonds flashed in the bright light, rousing an answering flash of envy in the eyes of every woman present, and of their male escorts, although their desires were attracted more to the wearer than the jewels.

Christina could see and feel the admiration directed at her, but how they would sneer, she thought bitterly, if they knew how miserable she was, how heavy her heart, which lay in her breast like a stone. She could not understand how she managed to function at these events. She hated them, but she managed to collect her thoughts sufficiently to respond with grace to the comments of their guests. Her smile was charming, but like the sun, it was more brilliant than warm.

A man, a stranger to those present, entered and detached himself from the receiving line. His figure was distinctive, his shoulders broad and his walk combined gracefulness with strength. He coolly and carefully examined the faces that made up the assembly, of ladies in ball gowns and men in elaborate wigs and evening dress moving about to the strains of violins.

Then he turned his eyes on his host. The same procedure was repeated. William Atherton was a slender, fair-haired young man with an open, boyish face. His gaze moved on to the lady by his side. From his enquiries he knew Atherton to be unwed, so he surmised the lady to be his sister Christina. Much had been talked about her beauty, but, not given to listening to idle gossip, he had thought little of it. Now, as he inspected her with the interested look of an entomologist discovering some rare insect, he was all attention.

Tall and lithe and looking like some fantastic Grecian statue, Christina Atherton was exquisitely lovely, ruling her domain like a young queen. She wore her golden tresses piled and curled in glorious chaos atop her head, with tendrils wafting against the curve of her neck. But he could be forgiven for thinking that he preferred her as he had last seen her the day before, with her hair in a delightful disarray of golden lights, her feet bare and splashing in the brook.

There was a fragile, waif-like quality about her that appealed to him, a naïve freshness in her eyes that stemmed from innocence. It was a trait absent in the women of his acquaintance, but beneath it all, Christina Atherton reminded him of a fine silver rapier blade, made of steel. He could not keep his eyes off her as she spoke to the guests, her gloved hand resting lightly on her brother’s arm. Her gems caught his eye. They were beautiful and fine cut and matched the deep, uncommon colouring of her eyes, eyes lit by no inner warmth.

Any woman would have worn such exquisite gems with pride, but Christina Atherton wore them with an indifference that was almost melancholy. People spoke to her, but it was as if she neither saw nor heard. Her smile was pinned to her face like a mask. He would not have dared give open expression to the feelings she aroused and this was because of something at once remote and detached in the attitude and icy façade of the dazzling beauty.

Lord Rockley was intrigued.

As the festivities got under way and proceeded in grand style, sensing she was being watched, Christina turned her head slightly, her eyes lighting on a man who had made no effort to present himself. He stood several yards away from her by one of the windows. With hands clasped behind his back, legs a little apart, he seemed to carry about him a kind of lethal charge—the air immediately about him held an indefinably vibrant quality that kept one at bay—like the bars around a panther’s cage. The comparison was apt, for there was something very panther-like about him.

He had an air of careless unconcern as he studied her with unswerving regard. It was as if he had just landed there by chance. With his skin bronzed from seeing active service in foreign parts, he looked completely at odds when compared with the pink-faced, well-fed local gentry.

He was a man with thick, dark brown hair, which he wore drawn back, and was very tall with a lean, rangy look that gave an impression of dangerous vitality. He had the bold profile of a predatory hawk in the midst of a gathering of tame peacocks, which gave him a somewhat proud and insolent appearance. Even the slender brown hands emerging from the broad, embroidered cuffs of his frock-coat recalled the talons of the bird of prey, while the look in his silver-grey eyes was unnervingly intent.

He smiled a thin, crooked smile, revealing a lightning glimpse of very white teeth when he found her watching him warily, from her great, luminous, shadowed eyes. His own, boldly mocking and amused, did not waver. She gave him stare for stare, with a coquettishly raised brow of question.

Christina felt a vague sense of recognition and finally realised it was the same man she had met yesterday in the woods, the man who had called himself Simon. Her face turned crimson with remembrance and shock—and more than a little embarrassment when she recalled their kiss and the intimate content of their conversation—bringing a smile to his lips, which closed like a fist about her heart and a leap of gladness almost bowled her over. Voices around her drifted away into the depths of her mind, hidden where no sound could reach it, muffled noises and feelings that drove all feelings from her.

This man was a guest at Oakbridge and, despite his attraction, she had to mentally revile the air of authority he conveyed, which no doubt stemmed from a haughty attitude or perhaps a military rank. His imposing presence seemed highly inappropriate here at this time. She actually shivered as she saw him abandon his idle stance and come towards her.

Much as she wanted to take to her heels and run, good manners and the need to look into his eyes once more obliged her not to turn away. With sudden realisation, she knew this must be Lord Rockley, and as she watched him come closer she knew by his look that he was thinking of their encounter in the woods. What had he been doing there? she wondered. He had told her he was a stranger to these parts and finding his way about. How long had he been there, how much did he know?

Fear was heavy in her breast. Of what was he thinking when he looked at her? What was there in his eyes that made her feel afraid? His slow, appreciative smile made her feel somehow ashamed and alarmed, as though he were able to pierce through the bones of her skull and ferret out the secrets of her mind. She was uneasy—but why should she be? To his enemies … he is … more evil than the Devil himself … Her brother’s words came back to her and her legs trembled. Outwardly everything appeared normal. There was no reason for him to suspect anything untoward. He wasn’t remotely what she had expected. This man who had come here to seek out the highwaymen and destroy them was younger than she had thought, and unexpectedly handsome.

‘So, Miss Atherton—for it is Miss Christina Atherton, is it not? We meet again—under different circumstances,’ he said when he stood in front of her, politely inclining his head slightly without taking his eyes off hers. ‘I hardly hoped you would recall me.’

At the sound of his deep, soft and mellifluous voice, Christina was transported and, for a moment, completely speechless. Try as she might, she could find no flaw in those wide shoulders, lean waist and long limbs. The impeccably tailored clothes were to be admired as much as the man who wore them. Yet on someone of less impressive stature, the froth of lace at throat and wrists, the waistcoat of ivory hue that matched his breeches beneath a midnight-blue coat might have lost much of their flair.

Her confidence was slowly returning. Something in his look challenged her spirit and brought her strength back in a surge of excitement. Far from being overawed by this man’s presence and by the danger that lay in wait for her each moment, Christina was aware of release and a relaxation of tension in finding herself at last face to face with him. But she must not forget herself. She must be politeness personified with this particular gentleman.

Finding her voice, she said, ‘I am Christina Atherton and I do remember you. How could I not? Our encounter was—momentous to say the least. How do you do?’

His dark brows lifted a fraction and he smiled suddenly, a slow, startlingly glamorous white smile. The electric touch of his strong, bare fingers grasped hers warmly and for just a moment too long before raising them to his lips and releasing them.

‘Very well, Miss Atherton. It is a relief to know your name—although I did suspect who you were when I saw you receiving your guests. I am Lord Rockley—Simon Rockley.’

‘Yes, I thought you might be,’ she replied, ‘since you’re the only guest here I am not acquainted with—or should I say to whom I have not been properly introduced.’

‘I hope you don’t mind and that I will be forgiven if I have put you to any inconvenience.’

Christina felt as if she were being manoeuvred into a series of uncomfortable corners. She would have to be careful what she said to him. ‘No, of course not. You are very welcome.’

‘I was watching you a few minutes ago. I saw your expression when you recognised me as being the man you met in the woods yesterday.’ Humour glinted in his eyes. ‘I’m happy to know you did not forget me.’

Despite his open attitude, he was a guest in her home, and Christina was a little mortified that she’d let her feelings about him show so openly. Relying on the old adage that the best defence is a good offence, and determined to keep tight rein on controlling her attraction to this beautiful man, she said very firmly and politely, ‘I never forget a face, Lord Rockley.’

‘Neither do I—and not when a face is as lovely as yours. When I saw you, I was completely captivated by you.’

‘Really?’ she quipped. ‘I don’t see why. You are a guest in my home, Lord Rockley. If I have any kind of feelings about any guest, including you, you would never know it because I would never let them show.’

‘That’s very reassuring,’ he said softly. ‘But I wonder how long you could keep up the pretence.’

‘As to that, we will never know.’ In an attempt to still her rioting nerves, she smiled brightly. ‘You are most welcome at Oakbridge, Lord Rockley. We are honoured to have you as our guest. I hope you will be comfortable. You must forgive me if I seem surprised.’

‘I must?’ His face was no longer grave, but open and almost beguiling.

‘When my brother told me you were to stay the night with us, I must confess to thinking you would be quite different.’

‘But why should you have expected me to be anything but what I am?’

‘William told me you were a military man, so I imagined you to be much older.’

His eyes sparked with amusement. ‘I assure you I am quite old—thirty-one, to be exact—which is a great age to a young woman of such tender years and must make me a veritable antique.’

His words brought a reluctant smile to Christina’s lips. ‘No, indeed. My father always used to say that one is as old as one feels. You certainly don’t look like an antique—and I’m sure you don’t feel one.’ She glanced at him obliquely. ‘Your reputation precedes you, sir.’

He arched a quizzical brow. ‘You have heard of me?’

‘Who has not? You are the terrifying spectre that people use to terrify their offspring from disobeying their elders,’ she said, a teasing gleam in her eyes.

‘The bogey man?’

She laughed lightly. ‘Something like that—more myth than man.’

His eyes narrowed on hers. ‘Let me assure you, Miss Atherton, that I am all man.’

A crimson flush coloured her cheeks. ‘I will take your word for that, Lord Rockley. My brother and I are honoured that you chose to stay at Oakbridge, when there are so many other noble houses in the district at your disposal.’

‘It really doesn’t matter where I stay. From what I’ve seen, Oakbridge is a splendid house.’

‘I think so, and I know my brother does. I took over the running of it for my father when my mother died four years ago. Sadly, my father died a few short months after her. I am under no illusion that when William marries I shall have to move over for his wife.’

‘You’ll probably be married yourself by then.’

‘I doubt it since William is to marry very soon.’

‘I have noted that Oakbridge is somewhat isolated—though perfectly situated.’

Christina met his eyes. They were intent on her face and missed nothing. The warning there seemed to pierce her like a dagger’s thrust. He seemed to be consciously searching for an answer in her face, as if she held the key to what he wanted to know. She knew there was an unusual colour in her cheeks—she couldn’t help it, and she hoped she did not show how agitated she was. She tried to calm herself. Was she being unduly sensitive, or did his words hold a double meaning? Did he know? At that moment Lord Rockley’s mere presence reminded her of the dangers in which they all lay.

‘I—I think I should find my brother and ask him to introduce you to our guests. It’s most unseemly of him not to have done so.’

‘Do not put yourself out, Miss Atherton. I have already spoken to your brother and he has introduced me to several guests.’

‘Then you will have seen for yourself that they are all amenable and friendly enough.’ Lord Rockley’s face was inscrutable, but something flickered in those piercing, silver-grey eyes that seemed never to rest. Christina thought that even when his back was turned, one dared not slacken one’s effort, for, like the panther, he could turn and pounce in the blink of an eye.

‘Whatever people appear to be in public, their private lives are often very different.’

‘Yes—I—I suppose that is true.’

‘An event such as this is the best way for me to become acquainted with those who live in the neighbourhood. I am grateful for the opportunity.’

‘I suppose it is.’ Knowing of Lord Rockley’s reasons for wanting to familiarise himself with the local folk and reluctant to speak of it, Christina cast a sweeping glance over the chattering, happy throng. ‘You will see it is not a formal party and that comfort and pleasure are our guiding principles. You have taken a glass of wine, I hope, and eaten from the buffet table. I can recommend the strawberries—they are quite delicious, freshly picked from our own gardens this afternoon …’ She flushed, unable to still her tongue in her nervousness, but she could not seem to help it.

This was not lost on Simon and he smiled. ‘I have had some wine, but I have not yet eaten. Perhaps later—and when I do I shall be sure to have a dish of strawberries.’

‘H-Have you come alone, Lord Rockley?’ she asked hesitantly, sensing from the way he was looking at her that he was aware of the awkwardness in her manner and amused by it.

‘No. My valet is with me. One of the servants has taken him to the rooms you have so graciously prepared.’

‘I’m glad you are being looked after. I hope your stay at Oakbridge will be an enjoyable one.’

Looking at her lovely face and form, Simon could be forgiven any impure thoughts that crossed his mind. She really did have the deepest, loveliest blue eyes he had ever seen, and her lashes were long and dark and swept her cheeks when she lowered her eyes with a fresh naïvety, which he assumed stemmed from innocence. The bodice of her gown was scooped low—the white flesh lay like pearl against the ice blue of her dress. She looked away to acknowledge an elegantly attired woman, and his eye was drawn to the faint shadow beneath her jaw line, and the tendril of silken hair in her nape. He imagined that tiny curl around his finger, his hands at the back of her neck, just where the heavy mass of her hair lay above the lace of her gown.

Having to move to one side to allow a lady to pass, she brushed his arm. The action freed a delicate perfume, and Simon’s attention was immediately riveted upon her tip-tilted eyes, and the full pink lips. She touched the corner of her mouth with the point of her tongue, which was pink and moist, wetting her bottom lip, and she smiled a little, as if at some secret thought. Sharply, he recollected himself.

‘Unfortunately I am not here to enjoy myself, Miss Atherton,’ he said in answer to her remark.

‘No, of course you’re not. I—I understand you are not from these parts.’

‘No. My home is in Hertfordshire, so I imagine that I shall be regarded as a foreigner hereabouts, and be the object of suspicion.’

‘Suspicion of what?’

The question and the forthright way in which Christina expressed it caused Simon to raise his brows. ‘Of strange conduct—while I go about my business.’

‘My brother told me you are here to investigate the increase in highway robbery in these parts,’ she remarked, knowing the subject of his being in the area could no longer be avoided, no matter how she had tried to dance around it. She lifted one delicate brow and her lips curved in a smile, showing milk-white teeth, her eyes looking innocently into his. ‘A military man turned thief-taker. It is an interesting occupation.’

‘Not so interesting as necessary.’

‘Then I wish you good fortune, sir. It is a great undertaking you have been set.’

‘So it is, but it will have its rewards in the end. I am confident of that. Five years ago two highwaymen operating in this area were hanged at the Assizes. For a while there was relative peace on the roads.’ He smiled wryly. ‘There is nothing like a hanging to put the fear of God into folk and to make them take stock of things, but then it started up again. Perhaps you can be of help.’

Christina stepped back and looked at him. His heavy-lidded gaze was speculative. She had expected arrogant self-assurance from a man with such handsome looks and military bearing. Instead, what she saw was wariness and an icy control. ‘I’m afraid not, Lord Rockley. You see, I make a point of never travelling anywhere after dark.’

‘No traveller is safe anywhere or at any time. It is as dangerous in busy towns as on deserted country roads, and noblemen or women with an escort are as susceptible to attack and robbery as a person journeying alone. But certain areas attract special reputation, and because robbers are on the lookout for wealthy men and members of the court driving down to Bath and to Bristol, this happens to be one of them.’

‘Then I can see that when I visit my friends I shall have to go well guarded,’ she uttered on a light note.

‘Very wise, Miss Atherton.’

‘Although some say that highwaymen, at least those of the gentlemanly sort, are popularly regarded as heroes.’

Simon’s eyes hardened. ‘That does not lessen their crimes, and I find it hard to grasp why they seem to have endeared themselves in that way. They are still criminals and must be caught. In reality, most highway robbers are unlikeable characters, violent, brutal bandits and sometimes murderers, all out for quick gain. Their purpose in life is to acquire enough money to enjoy the good life, and to do so at the expense of others who may have worked hard for what little they have.’

Apart from a slight fading of the flush from her cheeks, Christina’s expression did not alter. Of course she had heard of people who had been harmed by robbers when they refused to hand over valuables, though these were only stories, but she had heard them and her heart beat faster as she remembered them now.

‘Is there not forty pounds’ blood-money paid for the capture and successful prosecution of a highway robber? Which must surely mean that the highwayman’s greatest danger lay with bounty hunters and informers.’

‘It is true that highwaymen are more at risk from betrayal by an accomplice or someone after the reward money than from retaliation by one of their victims. You are well informed, Miss Atherton.’

‘Only in so far as what I hear, sir.’

‘Forgive me if you think me impertinent, but I would be interested to hear more. Your co-operation would be appreciated.’ He began to smile. His mouth curled at each corner and his charm, that which he used to capture the pretty ladies with whom he sometimes dallied, was brought into full play. ‘You would not go unrewarded.’

The lovely sparkle in Christina’s eyes was gone, leaving only frosted blue. ‘I don’t think so, Lord Rockley. If I knew anything at all that might help you with your enquiries, I would be reluctant to divulge it, for if the highwaymen you speak of are as dangerous as you say, then they would not take kindly to my turning informer. Are—are you looking for anyone in particular?’ she ventured to ask.

‘Oh, yes, Miss Atherton. I am looking for the leader of a gang who has so far managed to evade the authorities, a man who has acquired a well-deserved reputation for exceptional viciousness. His robberies are carried out with a stamp of professionalism, I will grant him that, but he will not evade the law for ever. I have a way of discovering what I want to know. I have my instincts and they work well for me.’

‘And the name of this individual, sir?’

‘I prefer to keep that piece of information to myself for the present.’

‘Then I wish you every success in your search for this man, Lord Rockley. The sooner he is apprehended and under lock and key, the more easily we shall all sleep in our beds.’

‘I know what I’m up against. This particular band of thieves are no amateurs at the game—a highly lucrative game, I might add.’

‘Yes, I imagine it must be,’ Christina said.

‘So long as it lasts,’ Simon replied.

Christina felt that Lord Rockley was conveying a warning to her in what he said. She averted her face to where William was helping himself to a glass of wine. What could she do? she thought desperately. How she would like to tell this man everything, to have him go down the tunnel and arrest Mark Bucklow so they could be free of his terrifying intimidation, but she dare not. He would find some way of carrying out his threat.

Like the tolling of the funeral bell, she heard Lord Rockley say, ‘It will not be long. Sooner or later even the most cunning, clever criminal makes a mistake.’

‘Yes, I am sure you are right—and I wish you every success. Now, please excuse me. Duty dictates that I have to speak to our other guests.’ She smiled. ‘You are welcome here, Lord Rockley,’ she said graciously. ‘My brother is honoured by your attendance. But as to your purpose here, I am afraid he cannot be of help. Please enjoy the festivities and help yourself to refreshments. We have an exceptional cook, so the food promises to be simply delectable. There is also to be a firework display shortly, which promises to be quite spectacular. I hope you enjoy it.’

He inclined his head. ‘Thank you for making a complete stranger feel at home, Miss Atherton,’ Simon replied. ‘You are very kind.’

‘It is my pleasure to be of service.’

Quite unexpectedly, he laughed. ‘As it was mine yesterday,’ he said quietly.

She flushed hotly on being reminded of the kiss they had shared. ‘Please forget what happened, sir, I beg you,’ she implored. ‘You made me lose my head …’

His laughter stopped as suddenly as it had begun, as he stared at Christina with a gravity in which there was a challenging note. ‘Forget that I kissed you? Forget that I looked into your eyes and saw them change colour? Forget the sweet taste of your lips? That is asking too much of me.’

Torn between a desire to hear more and fear of the feelings he would invoke, with her thoughts in turmoil she left him, not wanting one more word from him or glimpse of his handsome face or his overwhelming male presence to complicate her already muddled feelings. She realised she was trembling. She must not forget that Lord Rockley was their enemy and all the more dangerous because he was handsome and charming and because she felt that it was going to be impossible to hate him as she had been able to before she had known who he was.


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