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Диксон Хелен

The Bride Wore Scandal

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Chapter Two

Christina paused to speak to Sir John Cruckshank, a short, stout gentleman, always amiable and with a warm sense of humour. He was also the local magistrate.

‘I see you’ve met Lord Rockley, my dear,’ Sir John said, his face overly flushed beneath his elaborately curled black wig.

‘Yes,’ she replied flatly, having already met the man with the rapier gaze, who possessed the instincts of a magician, the intellect of a genius, and the persistence of a blood hound. She pinned a smile to her face, giving Sir John no indication that this illustrious gentleman he spoke of had not impressed her in the least. ‘He … is to be our guest for the night, his home being too far away for him to travel late at night. I understand he was a military man.’

Sir John nodded. ‘He has seen much service with Marlborough in the Netherlands. He is highly talented in his field and politically astute,’ he said, dabbing at the light perspiration on his forehead, the light powder of snuff stirring gently upon his person as he spoke.

And with arrogance by the bucket load, Christina thought unkindly, yet unable to quell the emotional detachment she felt for their unwelcome guest. ‘You know him well, Sir John?’

‘We are acquainted. Like his uncles and his grandfather, he made soldiering his career, but unlike your ordinary soldier he has plenty of money behind him. At thirty-one years old, he has an outstanding record and is highly thought of by Marlborough himself, who has expressed his regret at his leaving.’

‘I have heard that he’s acquired a fearful reputation—that there are those who liken him to the Devil himself.’

Sir John nodded. ‘That is true. But in battle it is no bad thing for his enemies to fear him. The man’s a legend.’


‘A lot of reasons—his courage and exploits, some of which no one knows—to do with espionage and being able to flush out the enemy.’

‘That’s informative,’ Christina said with a smile.

‘You would have to be in the military to understand. Everybody expected he’d be made colonel in time, but that’s not going to happen.’

‘Why? What happened?’

‘Nothing. Six months ago he decided to retire and live a life of ease.’

‘I would hardly call taking on an assignment to track down a gang of highway robbers a life of ease, Sir John.’

‘Of course, you are right. Let us hope he can sort out this unsavoury business with these damned highwaymen—and then we might all travel in safety. Rockley isn’t noted for his sweet nature, and I can’t think of anybody who would understand the assignment better.’

Christina studied the little magistrate curiously. ‘What is your assessment of Lord Rockley as a man, Sir John?’

‘Well, he’s a formidable opponent, for one thing, with a high-functioning intellect. If Rockley decides a man’s guilty, he’ll lock on to him and he will stay with him and nothing his prey can do will shake him off or sidetrack him. He will get him—and bring him down. And that,’ he finished with a chuckle, ‘is why he was given the assignment. Although he does have his own reasons for tracking down these criminals.’


‘About a year ago, the coach his brother and his wife were travelling in was apprehended by Bucklow—they had been visiting friends in Newbury and the hour was late. Their young daughter was with them. That was probably one of the worst crimes the highwaymen have committed. His niece and his brother were shot—the girl died outright, his brother was badly wounded.’ He shook his head. ‘Dreadful business.’

Christina stared at him in disbelief. It was such a tragic story. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Lord Rockley must have been badly affected by it.’ She could imagine his grief, followed by the anger he must have felt at this direct attack on his family, and could well understand his determination to track down his niece’s murderer.

‘Absolutely, my dear.’ Sir John looked towards the doors as people began drifting outside. ‘Ah, I see the firework display is about to begin. Excuse me, my dear. I must find my lady wife.

I promised to find her a prominent place where she can see them at their best.’

As Sir John bustled away, a beleaguered-looking William appeared by Christina’s side. He was trying to put on a brave face, but she knew he was as afraid inside himself as she was and trying hard not to let the presence of Lord Rockley get the better of him.

‘Go now, Christina. Go and see Mark. Tell him we have an unwelcome guest and to be careful. And don’t be long. Rockley’s eyes are all over the place. I doubt he will be enticed by the fireworks for long.’

Christina’s heart sank when she looked at William, for his flushed face and the brightness of his eyes were evidence that already he was showing signs of intoxication. It was as if he could forget his fears and repression when under the influence of liquor.

‘Does he suspect anything, do you think, William?’

‘I don’t know, so best be careful and keep our heads. Act guilty and we’ll all be caught. I saw you talking to him. Keep your wits about you and say nothing to incriminate any one of us,’ he warned. ‘Rockley’s a wily fellow—and clever. If he does suspect anything, he’ll be like a dog with a bone until he gets to the bottom of it and has us all arrested. Now go, and hurry back.’

‘I will try—and, William, please don’t drink so much. I hate it when you do.’

She missed the glower he threw her when she turned to acknowledge a close neighbour, a young man who came to speak to them. Smiling and excusing herself, with no time to lose and with gathering apprehension, she slipped away, unaware as she did so of the man in the shadows, watching.

Simon had observed Miss Atherton’s altercation with her brother in perplexed fascination. She looked agitated and her expression was, strangely, one of intense fear. She stopped speaking when a young blood on his way to the firework display approached to pay his respects. All signs of Miss Atherton’s distress had vanished behind a flawless smile. Why, she was a consummate actress, he thought. Either that or she was a desperately frightened young woman.

His instinct told him that she knew something, something she was desperately trying to keep hidden. There was a certain naivety about her that he couldn’t quite reconcile to her being a conspirator in all of this. He could be wrong, but, having learnt to be an excellent judge of character through his work, he didn’t think so.

Having heard of the magnificence of Oakbridge Hall and its fine estate, on his arrival he had been surprised by its run-down state. Either William Atherton had not been gifted with the same talent for management or astuteness as his father and his grandfather before him, or something had happened.

He frowned, unable to stem the feeling that there was something dangerous simmering in this house. It was tangible. He could feel it. While unable to say quite why he was troubled, the very quietness of the place now everyone had left to watch the firework display made him feel that an ill-defined something might happen.

Seeing Henry, his valet, hovering at the bottom of the stairs, Simon’s eyes locked on to his, before quickly flitting to Miss Atherton, who was walking in the direction of the domestic quarters. Expressionless, again he looked at his valet. It was as if a silent language passed between them, for seeming to understand fully what his master asked of him, Henry nodded his head slightly and followed in Miss Atherton’s wake.

Christina made her way to the domestic quarters where the entrance to the cellars was located. Servants hurrying about their duties found nothing unusual on seeing the mistress in the kitchens, although they might have raised a curious brow on seeing her don a shawl and slip through the door to the cellars. Here, casks and racks of wine were stored. Candles flared in lanterns fastened to the walls, should more wine be needed for the festivities. Lifting her skirts, she hurried on her way, wishing she didn’t have to face Mark.

Few people ventured beyond the wine cellars, where a small, narrow door was located in the roughly hewn wall, unnoticeable to the eye unless it was known to be there. With every nerve in her body vibrating, Christina raised the iron catch and it opened without a sound on its well-oiled hinges. The ancient tunnels, unused for many years, were narrow, dark and dank. They had a tomblike atmosphere and a deathly chill, as if a frigid breath of winter moved like an invisible spirit along the passageways. Having set a flame to the wick of a lantern, she held it high to light her way, the tiny flame dipping and dancing in its glass chamber against the draught that flowed towards her.

She drew the shawl up close about her neck as her gaze tried to penetrate the total blackness beyond the meagre glow of the lantern.

Her nerves were stretched taut as she hurried along the twisting tunnel, stumbling frequently on the uneven ground. She hated being so confined, feeling as if the walls were closing in on her. She was relieved when she saw a vague, dim illumination some distance away and the muffled sound of men’s voices. The chill of a draught invaded her clothing, the airy rush touching her limbs beneath her skirts, but she was scarcely aware of it as the light ahead of her became bigger and brighter.

Shaking with cold and her own apprehensions, she eventually stepped into the light, then halted, holding her breath. The tunnel opened into a large room with a vaulted ceiling. It was accessed on a low hillside in a thickly wooded area away from the house. It was secluded, the trees providing cover for horses and men. The room was stacked with boxes and chests of every description, full of coins, jewels and household treasures—for Mark did not confine his thievery to robbing vulnerable travellers, and house-breaking was a lucrative occupation.

He ran an effective intelligence system, and the time spent watching and listening in parlours and wayside inns and employing reliable spies was the best way to acquire information about which travellers to target and which to leave alone. All the spoils were to be taken to London and sold.

The son of a lawyer, it was Mark who had found out about the tunnels in some old deeds of Oakbridge kept in his father’s office in Reading. Knowing they were the perfect place for him to expand his illegal operation and hide his ill-gotten gains, he had targeted the vulnerable and gullible young owner of Oakbridge, bringing about his downfall and honing in for the kill when he was ruined with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Christina focused her eyes on the scene before her, barely conscious of the flickering light of the lanterns or the pervasive chill of the tunnel. The air was thick with the fug of tobacco smoke and the unpleasant stench of unwashed bodies. About a dozen of Mark’s loyal vassals were present, accomplished thieves each and every one. All except the leader were black-clad and each equipped with a brace of pistols. Some were seated on upturned barrels and boxes, while others squatted on the floor, idling the time away with a throw of dice.

Her sudden appearance surprised them and had them springing to their feet, their hands automatically going to their pistols. Their leader turned and looked directly at her and said with a note of mockery in his harsh, baritone voice, ‘Easy, men. Calm yourselves. ‘Tis Miss Atherton herself come to call. Although as to the reason … I can only surmise it is my own charming self she has come to see.’

Her look was one of intense dislike, but Mark Bucklow appeared not to notice. There was something about him that physically revolted her. She hated it every time she had to speak to him, to see the lust in his eyes and to hear the lechery in his sneer when he addressed her. As he threw off his cloak and swaggered towards where she stood with her legs trembling, she clamped her jaw, shrinking inside, realising it would gratify him too much if she showed her fear. Better to hold her ground, unpleasant as the next few minutes would be. He seemed to have the power to get right under her skin, and she hated herself for letting him.

A man who enjoyed the robust, earthy pleasures of life, he liked to cut a dash, did Mark Bucklow, and dressed in outrageously extroverted fashion. Tonight he was flamboyantly dressed in scarlet velvet and gold braid to draw attention to himself, a froth of lace at his throat and wrists. Two pistols were thrust into a gold sash about his thickening waist, and a dagger showed above the deep cuff of his boot. He was tall and stout with long and curling sandy hair. Some would call him quite handsome—not in a gentlemanly way, with fine chiselled features, but with broad, strong cheekbones and a wide mouth. Grinning his wolfish smile, he was the very picture of what her mother had taught her to fear.

Taking the lantern from her, he set it down, placing his hand on her elbow and drawing her away from the others, who had resumed their seats and once again began to throw the dice.

‘I am indeed honoured that the mistress of the house should seek me out, Christina,’ Mark drawled mockingly, ‘and looking as pretty as a picture, too. I’d like to think it was for my benefit.’

‘We are entertaining—on your say so for what can be gained from it. It cannot have slipped your mind,’ she uttered with cold sarcasm, her eyes flashing irately.

Reaching out, he ran one of his heavily jewelled fingers down the curve of her cheek, laughing softly when she cringed and drew back. ‘Ah, you show your claws, Christina,’ he murmured. ‘I like that. You are so adorable when you are angry. But enough of this,’ he said on a sharper note, knowing it would have to be a matter of considerable importance for her to brave the tunnel. ‘The evening is going well, I trust?’

‘Yes, perfectly well—only …’

He cocked a brow, his dark eyes assessing and gleaming sharply. ‘What? Do I detect a problem? Is something amiss, Christina?’

‘William sent me to tell you—to warn you—that we have an unexpected and uninvited guest by the name of Lord Rockley. He has been appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to investigate the increase in robberies in the area.’

Mark stared. For a practised scoundrel who was never at a loss for a quip, he suddenly found himself with nothing to say. He kept his face expressionless through sheer strength of will-power. He didn’t need to hear anything about Rockley. Mark had heard of him, though he’d never seen him in the flesh. Rockley was a powerful, ruthless man, whose exploits were talked about throughout Europe. Mark did not fear him—indeed, Mark feared no man—but he was fully aware of Rockley’s strength. To take on such an assignment, Rockley had set himself against him as his full-blown enemy. Undaunted, Mark was ready for the challenge. He would crush Rockley as easily as he would an insect.

Mark shrugged unconcernedly. ‘The infamous Lord Rockley. What do I care? He isn’t the first to come after us, and he won’t be the last. If he interferes in what I do, he’ll find himself food for carrion before the dawn. He will be dealt the same treatment as any man who tries to get the better of me—friend or foe.’

‘Even those who work for you?’

‘Especially those who work for me and attempt to double-cross me or shirk a hold-up—as I’ve made clear to your brother. Their weakness would render them an encumbrance—an encumbrance to be rid of.’ He sneered as his eyes did a sweep of the men sitting around. ‘You know the expression, I am sure—there is no honour among thieves. It must also apply to thief-catchers.’

With a complete contempt for authority, and pouring scorn on the law and its representatives, Mark wouldn’t be unduly worried by the appearance of this particular thief-catcher, but after meeting Lord Rockley, Christina thought that perhaps in this instance he should be.

‘Now that I have delivered my message, I must go back. How is Toby, by the way? I hope he was returned to you and is recovering from the injuries incurred yesterday.’

Mark nodded towards a corner where the little dog was sleeping soundly on a heap of sacking. ‘Toby’s like me. It will take more than a bramble bush to defeat him.’

‘Yes—I’m sure,’ Christina remarked tartly. ‘I must go. Soon the guests will be coming in from the firework display and I must be there to receive them.’

‘What? You will leave me so soon?’

‘Yes, I must.’

He growled in exasperation. ‘Such cruelty, Christina, when all I want is to take care of you. Of all the women in the world that I could have, doesn’t it mean anything to you that you’re the one I want?’

‘No, Mark, it doesn’t.’

‘Come away with me and you can have me and my money.’

‘I don’t want you or your money. I want you to move away from Oakbridge—to leave us alone.’

‘And be reduced to poverty and penny pinching,’ Mark sneered. ‘I don’t think so, Christina. That would never do for your precious William. He always did like the good things in life, which was what I noticed about him from the start. We have an arrangement. Oakbridge serves my purpose.’

‘Only until the authorities catch up with you—as they will one day.’

‘Me and your brother. If they catch me, I’ll take him with me.’ His eyes narrowed and gleamed. ‘You can count on that, Christina. You won’t come out of it unscathed either, I promise you.’

‘And that doesn’t bother you, I suppose,’ she said scathingly.

Mark shrugged. ‘Not in the slightest. I’m not moving from here. As I said, it suits my purpose.’

‘And if we want to contact you for any reason, where can we find you?’ William had told her he often used the Black Swan Inn at Wakeham for his meetings, but where he actually lived was a mystery to her.

He leaned forwards, saying for her ears alone, ‘If I thought you might find your way to my lair to help me while away the daylight hours, I would tell you, but since you aren’t too friendly and might take it into that pretty head of yours to turn me in, you’re better off not knowing. Let’s just say it’s an out-of-the-way place where a man can come and go without any questions being asked of him.’ He raised a speculative brow. ‘Do you think you might come looking for me, Christina?

‘Never. I know too well what you are, and I want none of it.’

A gleam of anger flashed in Mark’s eyes. ‘It’s too late for that. You’re part of it whether you want to be or not, and should you take it into that pretty head of yours to hand me in, I swear you will pipe a different tune. But I am not the devil that you should show such hostility, Christina. You’d be better employed in being more like your brother and joining forces with us.’

‘William wants no part of this business any more than I do, and you know it.’

‘You’re right. You’re a proud one,’ Mark said, with a quick, dangerous sneer, but he schooled it to a taut smile. ‘Very well, Christina, elude me if you will, but you will submit to me. Not now. Not tomorrow. But you will, and you will no longer speak to me with such haughty disfavour.’

She stared at him, emotionless and defiant. ‘Threaten me all you like, Mark, but you will never have me.’

He laughed, a horrible, brittle sound that bounced off the rocky walls and caused the rest of the thieves to glance his way. ‘Sweet, foolish Miss Christina Atherton.’ His lips angled upwards in a confident leer as his eyes moved possessively over her body. She was, after all, such a tempting young thing. It would be a shame not to taste her. ‘You claim to know my nature. Don’t you see that the more you run away from me, the more lusty I grow for the chase?’

Picking up the lantern, she took a backward step, gripping the shawl at her throat with her free hand. ‘Stop it. I don’t want to hear it. I’ve said what I had to say and now I must go back before I’m missed. We don’t want Lord Rockley becoming suspicious by my behaviour.’

‘Oh, yes, the man whose exploits are talked of from here to China. He’s earned himself an admirable reputation in his field—espionage, if I’m not mistaken. How convenient that he happens to be a personal friend of the Lord Lieutenant and that the work is within his professional competence. He is probably the best qualified man in England to attempt to track me down.’

‘He may very well succeed.’

‘Not if I can help it. Describe him to me so I shall know him when we meet—perhaps when I waylay his coach when he takes his leave. Where does he live so I know the road he will take? I shall take care of him myself.’

Christina paled, thinking it incredible that Mark would go so far as to try to rob the very man who was looking to arrest him. ‘Lord Rockley’s home is too far away for him to travel back tonight. He is to stay at Oakbridge overnight.’

Mark looked surprised and most displeased by her revelation. ‘Is he, now? Well, if he becomes inquisitive and comes looking, there will be nothing to find. I’ll make sure of that. In the meantime it is up to you to keep him amused so we can go about our business without interruption.’ His eyes were appreciative as they caressed her face. ‘Looking as you do, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Tell me, is he young, this Lord Rockley?’ She nodded. ‘How young?’

‘A-about thirty or a little older, I believe.’

Mark’s eyes narrowed. The mockery had gone and his voice was purposeful, a man whose mind was already telling him that this Lord Rockley might pose a threat in more ways than his investigations into his criminal activities. ‘And is he handsome?’

Christina knew her face had pinked when she recollected Lord Rockley’s handsome looks, but she was unable to do anything about it. She stiffened, looking utterly wary. ‘I—I suppose he is—passable.’

Mark’s eyes were full of feverish suspicion. ‘Passable? My instinct and the flush on your cheeks tell me his lordship is more than passable.’ He grasped her wrist, his fingers closing like a vice. ‘Have a care what you do, Christina—what you say. Informers can expect harsh treatment from me.’ He released her wrist as quickly as he had grasped it. ‘And don’t forget your own interests are at stake.’

She tossed her head and glared at him in defiance. ‘If it was up to me, I would have you gone from here and never see you again.’

Suddenly Mark’s hand shot out and he caught her roughly by the chin, cupping and squeezing her soft flesh and thrusting his face close to hers. ‘Do not defy me, Christina. You would only regret doing so. A face such as yours does not bear well under a fist. It is too fine and fragile.’

‘Your threats do not frighten me,’ she hissed bravely.

‘No? They should. I have ways to convince you,’ he sneered, releasing his grip and thrusting her away. ‘Now go. You can tell your precious William that I shall heed his warning and I thank him for letting me know, but nothing is changed. We have a busy night ahead, and make sure you get rid of Rockley in the morning.’

About to turn away, she hesitated, her chin still throbbing from his grip. ‘There is one thing I must ask you. Will—will you promise me that there will be no bloodshed? Some of the guests are elderly and I hope very much that they will go unmolested.’

‘I can’t promise that. I’m not in this business to pick and choose who I will and will not waylay. If they become difficult, it’s often necessary to—frighten them a little. Sometimes it’s the only way to get them to part with their valuables.’

‘I beg you not to,’ she said, before turning and hurrying away. Knowing Mark was watching her and afraid that he would come after her and waylay her in the tunnel, with the sure-footed speed of a hunted animal she moved swiftly on, not stopping until that awful tunnel was behind her and she was back in the wine cellar, where she could hear the servants in the upper part of the house going about their business.

Slipping past the wine racks, she suddenly noticed the large, swarthy-skinned man who had just stepped out from the shadows. He was well within her sights and, judging by his stillness, he’d clearly been taking full advantage of that fact. She didn’t recognise him and wondered who he could be. She approached him, determined to find out.

‘I did not see you there. Are you lost? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’m Miss Atherton, Lord Atherton’s sister.’

‘And I’m Henry, Lord Rockley’s valet, Miss Atherton, at your service. I’ve just been to the kitchen for my supper.’

‘I see.’ She noted that he was well turned out, despite having the appearance of a large hound, and had his deceptively sleepy eyes fixed on her—she suspected he was far from being the idle man he looked. ‘I hope you were accommodated.’

‘Very well, thank you.’

‘This, as you see, is the wine cellar and some distance from the kitchens.’

‘I know. I couldn’t help myself. This is a fine house. I was just taking a look around.’ He stepped back. ‘Excuse me. I’ll find my way back.’

Christina watched him go, wondering what he had really been doing in the wine cellar. How much had he seen? Never had she seen a valet who looked less like a valet. Servant he might be, but there was a single-minded determination in his face and in the set of his thick jaw that reminded her of his master. Most certainly he was just as arrogant, because he had not troubled to lower his eyes when he had spoken to her.

When she reached the hall, she was relieved that everyone was still outside watching the firework display, which was lighting up the night sky in a fantastic array of colour. Feeling the need to compose herself, she took refuge in her own cosy sitting room, closing the door behind her. The only light was from the fire, which she had insisted on being lit despite the warmth of the summer night. Drawing out this moment of quiet solitude, she sank into her favourite chair next to the hearth.

The fear her meeting with Mark had left in her heart was more than she could bear. She closed her eyes and his face appeared with such terrifying clarity she found herself trembling. The picture was so clear that she opened her eyes to make it go away, but they were misted with tears and she seemed to see him in the shimmering firelight, and even thought she heard him laugh.

Sensing she was not alone, she turned her head and looked in the direction of the door. The figure of a man was just visible outside the circle of light cast by the fire’s glow. She saw a flash of shiny buttons on a coat front, and the hint of white neck linen, and he was tall. Her hands gripped the arms of her chair.

‘Why do you cry?’ a cool, drawling voice spoke suddenly. ‘Are you hurt?’

It came to Christina that the face she had glimpsed in her mind’s eye and taken for Mark was quite real. Alarmed, she brushed the tears quickly from her eyes to see the speaker more clearly. ‘Who are you?’ she demanded, surprise lending more strength to her voice than she felt. ‘I am perfectly all right. What do you want?’

He moved further into the light and she recognised Lord Rockley. She rose, realising she would be at a disadvantage if she remained seated. Caution also dictated that she leave his presence immediately, but something else, something far less familiar, kept her rooted to the spot. It was as if the damp of the tunnel had seeped into her brain, making her forget everything save this man who was once again regarding her with bold, unguarded interest.

‘Lord Rockley! You find me taking a moment’s respite.’

‘I can fully understand that.’

‘You can?’

‘You’re a young woman with a large house to run, with many decisions to make. I imagine the responsibilities are vast.’

‘Truth to tell, Lord Rockley,’ she quipped, slightly irritated because he had intruded on her solitude, ‘only one person dares to threaten me at this moment.’ Christina had said it pointedly, leaving him in no doubt to whom she referred.

‘Since I have never threatened a woman in my life, I can only think it is your peace of mind I threaten.’

‘Maybe intimidation is a more appropriate word. Do you seek to intimidate me, Lord Rockley?’

‘So you feel intimidated, do you, Miss Atherton?’

‘No, I do not feel in the least intimidated by you,’ she lied.

His smile was quick and disarming. ‘If I ever do make you feel intimidated or threatened in any way, you can be assured you are misunderstanding my concern for your welfare.’

‘Really, Lord Rockley! You do not know me, so how you can feel concerned is quite beyond me.’

‘Why are you sitting with only the fire for light?’

‘Because I like sitting in the dark. What are you doing here? Have you lost your way?’

‘Forgive me for intruding. I have seen all I wish to see of the fireworks and sought a place where I could sit a while. I saw you enter this room and followed you. You weren’t among those watching the display. I did wonder why you deserted your guests.’

His high-handed manner had an unexpected effect on Christina—her shock gave way to anger rather than fear. What did this man mean by telling her what to do in her own home? The fact that he should seek her out, knowing she would be alone, suggested that he had something more to say that would not be to her liking. ‘I merely took the opportunity to make sure everything was going according to plan.’

‘Then I hope everything was to your satisfaction.’

The tone was natural, but its very ordinariness struck terror into Christina, who thought she read into it the most dire threats. ‘Yes, it was. Now please excuse me,’ she said quickly. ‘There are things I have to do. I have neglected our guests too long.’

‘You are of a hasty nature, Miss Atherton. You make a custom of taking your leave unexpectedly.’

‘Not really. As I said, I have duties to attend to.’ She turned away but he was beside her. She could feel his warm breath on her neck.

‘One thing I have observed about you, Miss Atherton—you have confidence in the way you do things.’

‘As in most things.’

‘And you are most gracious.’

She turned to find his gaze levelled on hers. ‘I hope I am never ungracious.’

‘No,’ he murmured. ‘I don’t think you would know how to be, even though my arrival was both unexpected and, I suspect, unwelcome, because of who I am and the reason for my being here. Should any of your guests have connection to those I seek, my presence will be unnerving for them.’

‘I can speak for most of the people here tonight, and I know they would not involve themselves in criminal activities.’

He nodded imperceptibly, his inscrutable gaze unwavering. ‘Since you are a respected lady of the community I believe you, for I do not believe you would include disreputable villains among your guests knowingly. But it is the remainder of those present who concern me. Thieves are suspicious men. Is there no one you can think of who fits the description?’ he pressed.

‘No—but—one hears things—rumours—of robberies on the highways and house breaking,’ she replied hesitantly. ‘It is inevitable, you will agree, for it goes on all the time and not just in this area.’

‘And you will agree that the villains need to be caught. Imagine how you would feel if they were to break in here and steal items you hold dear, family heirlooms that cannot be replaced. The stolen property will be sold and the more unusual the items, the more easily they are traced. If recovered, the property will provide valuable evidence against the thieves, who will otherwise be hard to identify. They may even be local men, but building a case against them … well—that is quite another matter. It is firm evidence I need.’ He moved closer so that they stood just inches apart. ‘Mark Bucklow, Miss Atherton. That is the name of the man I would very much like to find. I am sure you know who I mean.’

Christina’s heart gave a lurch and alarm flared in her eyes. Her throat tightened so much she was afraid it would strangle her. He turned from her and moved away slightly, giving her a moment to digest the name he had unexpectedly thrown at her. Unable to think of an answer, she tried to spare herself embarrassment by pretending confusion. ‘M-Mark Bucklow?’ she whispered. ‘I—I don’t understand,’ she said.

His deep voice was quiet, but his reply forbade further pretence from her. ‘I think you do.’

Christina stared at him. In response he lifted his brows, waiting for her to reply. ‘No, I’m not sure—’

He didn’t like her continued attempt to evade the issue, and he made it clear by saying, ‘You do know him, do you not? Or you will have heard of him. Are you saying you have not?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

He smiled at her continued evasiveness, a slow, strangely secretive smile that made his eyes gleam beneath their heavy lids. Christina was clever and sharp and noticed the nuances of that smile and she instantly sensed peril lurking behind it. It was the dangerously beguiling smile of a ruthless predator who wanted her to sense his power. She straightened her back, lifting her chin with a show of bravado. She had never allowed Mark Bucklow and the men who worked for him to see her fear—perhaps that was why they respected her more than her brother—and nor would she show this stranger that weakness.

‘I am sure there isn’t a person hereabouts who hasn’t heard of him, since his felonious activities have given him a certain notoriety. I dare say you might tell me he is as civil a gentleman as one could hope to meet, but somehow I don’t think so.’


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