Authors: Dorothy Elbury
At her unexpected words, Wyvern's heart hammered almost to a stop, causing him to miss his step and necessitating the nearest couple to swing hurriedly out of harm's way.
Stifling his exasperation, the earl corrected his error and guided Jessica to a less populated area of the floor, whilst racking his brains to conjure up some non-committal remark.
“I had not noticed that you were suffering from a dearth of dancing partners, Miss Beresford,” he managed eventually.
“I cannot imagine how you would know that!” she flung back at him. “You only turn up when it suits you to do so!”
When he did not immediately respond, Jessica's indignation increased. “Do you dislike me so much that you cannot even bring yourself to converse with me, sir?” she challenged him.
“I do not dislike you, Miss Beresford,” he replied heavily as, doing his utmost to ignore the tantalizing feel of her soft, warm body beneath his fingers, he strove desperately to focus his attention on the maneuvers of the dance.
An Unconventional Miss
lives in a quiet Lincolnshire village, an ideal atmosphere for writing her historical novels. She has been married to her husband (it was love at first sight, of course!) for forty-five years, and they have three children and four grandchildren. Her hobbies include visiting museums and historic houses, and handicrafts of various kinds.
TORONTO â¢ NEW YORK â¢ LONDON
AMSTERDAM â¢ PARIS â¢ SYDNEY â¢ HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM â¢ ATHENS â¢ TOKYO â¢ MILAN â¢ MADRID
PRAGUE â¢ WARSAW â¢ BUDAPEST â¢ AUCKLAND
A Hasty Betrothal
The Viscount's Secret
The Officer and the Lady
#899 THE LAST RAKE IN LONDONâNicola Cornick
Dangerous Jack Kestrel was the most sinfully sensual rogue she'd ever met, and the wicked glint in his eyes promised he'd take care of satisfying Sally's
Watch as the last rake in London meets his match!
#900 AN IMPETUOUS ABDUCTIONâPatricia Frances Rowell
Persephone had stumbled into danger and the only way to protect her was to abduct her! But what would Leo's beautiful prisoner do when he revealed his true identity?
Don't miss Patricia Frances Rowell's unique blend of passion spiced with danger!
#901 KIDNAPPED BY THE COWBOYâPam Crooks
TJ Grier was determined to clear his name, even if his actions might cost him the woman he loved!
Fall in love with Pam Crooks's honorable cowboy!
#902 INNOCENCE UNVEILEDâBlythe Gifford
With her flaming red hair, Katrine knew no man would be tempted by her. But Renard, a man of secrets, intended to break through her defensesâ¦
Innocence and passion are an intoxicating mix in this emotional Medieval tale.
#238 LORD HAWKRIDGE'S SECRETâAnne Ashley
Lord Sebastian Hawkridge proposed to Emily nearly five years ago, but she broke their engagement. Now he is intent on making her his bride.
Intrigue and splendour in London high society.
For John, in gratitude for his wholehearted
support and continuing encouragement.
o luck, I'm afraid, Jess!'
His face a picture of utter dejection, Nicholas Beresford hurried into the tiny parlour of the wayside inn where, for the past half-hour, his sister had been anxiously awaiting his return.
âThe pole is totally shattered,' he went on, flinging his slight form into the seat beside her. âAnd it seems that they can't get a replacement until tomorrow. Added to which, it would appear that there's not a single decent carriage for hire in the whole blessed place!'
Casting yet another uneasy glance at the clock on the mantelshelf, Jessica's wide green eyes clouded in despair. âBut what on earth are we to do, Nicky?' she queried. âIt is almost five o'clock and Harry promised Imo that we would be back well before six. Matt will just about crucify me if she starts to worry.'
Leaping to his feet, her young brother began to pace the floor. âNot you, Jess,' he groaned. âIt was my fault that we left Hampton Court so lateâif only I hadn't wasted all that time in the mazeâ¦!'
âIf only you had listened to Harry's instructions, you mean,' began Jessica crossly, but then, seeing her brother's disconsolate expression, she sighed and, for the umpteenth time that afternoon, reminded him that it was hardly his fault that the carriage pole had snapped. In any event, surely they should just be thankful that none of them had been more seriously injured.
âThe doctor told Harry that a good night's sleep will soon put Olivia back to rights,' she then informed him. âAnd, thank heavens, Cartwright's wrists are not broken after allâmerely badly strained.'
âWell, that's something, I suppose,' replied her brother, nervously polishing his spectacles. âI imagine Harry is still with his sister? Has he managed to sort out rooms for us all, do you know?'
âI told him not to book for us,' said Jessica, getting to her feet. âWe simply have to find a way to get home, Nicky. Are you sure that you asked everyone? There has to be some sort of conveyance somewhere in the village, surely?'
Nicholas shook his head. âOnly one small, rather disreputable-looking gig out in the yard here,' he replied. âBarely big enough for the two of us, let alone Cartwright. Besides which, how on earth do you expect him to drive with his wrists strapped up?'
But Jessica was already making for the door. âGood grief, Nicky! Surely it is not beyond your capabilities to handle the thing!' she flung at the dismayed young man and, ignoring his protests, quickly exited the room, adding, âGo and tell them to harness one of our leaders to it, right away! I'm off to find Harryâwe will need to sort out some arrangements for CartwrightâMatt will probably want to send someone to fetch him home.'
Lieutenant Harry Stevenage was not at all happy when Jessica informed him of her intention to return to Dover Street with only her seventeen-year-old brother as escort. What had started out as a jolly day's outing to Richmond Park and thence to Hampton Court had, as far as he was concerned, turned into something of a nightmare.
Due to his refusal to take advantage of Stevenage's whispered instructions, Nicholas had set off into the Court's maze of hornbeam hedges on his own and had then proceeded to lose himself completely! Since both young ladies had elected to accompany Stevenageâwho had mastered the puzzle some years earlierâthe three of them had made their way to the centre and back out again in little over half an hour. After a further half an hour had passed without any sight of Nicholas, Stevenage had deemed it necessary to ask the guide to mount his platform and direct the crestfallen Nicholas back to the exit.
Thus, having promised to have the Beresford carriage, along with Jessica and her brother, back at their Dover Street residence no later than six o'clock, this unlooked-for delay had then obliged Stevenage to instruct Cartwright, the Beresfords' coachman, to whip up the horses. Which command had been followed by constant urges to the distracted driver to make even greater haste.
Not, perhaps, the smartest decision he had ever made, Stevenage now admitted to himself. Taking that corner at such a speed was almost bound to have had disastrous consequences. Hence their present predicament. The pole had fractured, the driver had been wrenched from his box and Olivia, Stevenage's young sister, had been catapulted across to the opposite side of the carriage, hitting her head on the door frame. He could only thank his lucky stars that none of Matt Beresford's matched bays had suffered any damage!
âI do wish you would reconsider, Jess!' pleaded. âA fine fellow your brother will think me for allowing the pair of you to go off on your own like this!'
âYou do talk absolute nonsense, Harry!' she replied, laughing at his injured expression. âNicky and I are perfectly capable of seeing ourselves homeâit is barely six miles from here and we could practically walk it! Besides which, you must know that Matt would expect you to stay with your sister. Now help me up, there's a dear boyâand do tell Nicky to make haste!'
Lieutenant Harry Stevenage's acquaintanceship with Jessica, though relatively short, had been of sufficient duration for him to have learned that any attempt to dissuade her from a course upon which she had set her heart was likely to be met with dogged resistance. Ever since he had first laid eyes upon her at his godfather's Lincolnshire seat, some seven months previously, he had counted himself amongst her most devoted admirers, regardless of the fact that Sir Frederick had earnestly cautioned his godson not to allow himself to become too attached to the capricious Miss Beresford. He had taken pains to warn the lieutenant that Jessica's father, the late Sir Matthew Beresford, had been in the habit of indulging his daughter to such a degree that rumour had it that she was never truly happy unless she was getting her own way. And only since the recent arrival of her half-brother, Matt Beresford, who had been obliged to give up a lucrative lifestyle in India to take up his estranged father's reins, had there been any noticeable improvement in her conduct.
Yet, despite Jessica's somewhat unpredictable behaviour, Stevenage doubted that there was a man alive who could resist such damnably appealing loveliness. Such kissable lipsâwould that he were given the opportunity!âthe dearest little nose and those incredible green eyes set in the creamiest of complexions, the sum total of which was entrancingly framed in a dazzling halo of silvery blonde ringlets. And, as if all of that were not far more than any fellow could reasonably ask for, the saints above had also endowed the little beauty with the most curvaceous figure that young Stevenage had ever come across in the whole of his twenty-two years! His considered opinion had been that the occasional fractious outburst was a small price to pay for the privilege of being included amongst her favoured few.
Nevertheless, as he watched the shabby little gig bowl out of the stable yard, a pensive frown marred his handsome features and, in reply to Jessica's enthusiastic wave of farewell, the best he could manage was a half-hearted lift of his hand. He stood lost in thought for some minutes then, conscious that his duty to his injured sibling ought to be uppermost in his mind, he gave an impatient shrug of his shoulders and turned and retraced his steps into the inn.
âThere now, Nicky,' declared Jessica warmly. âI was quite right. You are managing the reins quite beautifully.'
Nicholas snorted. âIt was not my driving ability that I doubted, Jess!' he retorted. âMatt has made sure that I can handle pretty well any carriage you might care to name. It's this mad idea of yours that I'm not keen on. I still don't see why we couldn't have stayed overnight with the others. We could have sent a messengerâ'
âOh, yes?' interrupted Jessica, with a withering glance. âAnd had Imogen up half the night worrying herself to death about us, I shouldn't wonder. At least this way, she will be able to see for herself that we really are unhurt. And, what with Matt doing his level best to wrap her in cotton wool now that she is increasing, it simply will not do to have him flying off the handle!'
âAnyone would think that she was the first woman ever to bear a child!' muttered her brother.
âNow, be fair, Nicky,' returned Jessica complacently. âYou can't have forgotten that Matt's own mother died in childbirth!'
âOh, lord! It had slipped my memory! How stupid of me. Sorry!' Glancing sideways, he gave her a rueful smile. âI sometimes get the impression that you are starting to become almost human!'
Jessica laughed and a faint blush crept across her cheeks. âI
try, you know,' she said quietly. âEver since that dreadful business with Wentworth, I have tried really hard to be more like Cousin Imo and behave as she and Matt would have me behaveâ¦'Her voice trailed away and her bright eyes clouded over as she cast her mind back to the previous September when Philip Wentworth, the estate gamekeeper, had all but succeeded in his attempt to abduct and seduce her. Had it not been for the timely actions of her newly acquired half-brotherâ¦! A cold shiver ran down her back as the never-to-be forgotten events of that dreadful day replayed themselves in her mind.
Mindful of his sister's discomfort, Nicholas reached across and took hold of his sister's hand.
âWell, I think that you've done amazingly well,' he sought to assure her. âI scarcely recognised you when I came back from school at Christmas. Believe me, Matt would never have agreed to give you this Season if he hadn't thought that you had earned it.'
âHe has been enormously good to us, hasn't he?' Jessica smiled and blinked away the tears that threatened. âWhen he first turned up, I was really hateful to him, but after everything he's done for us allâworking so hard to bring Thornfield back to scratch and then going to all that trouble to get Mama settled in BathâI've grown enormously fond of him. It's not difficult to see why Imogen fell in love with him.' She gave a tremulous smile. âAs it happens, it has often crossed my mind that he is just the sort of man that I would choose to marry, some day!'
âI take leave to doubt that there are many like him,' chuckled her brother, returning his attention to his driving. âBesides which, I rather had the impression that you had set your sights on a certain lieutenant.'
âHarry Stevenage!' Jessica let out a peal of laughter. âGood heavens, no! He isn't nearly rich enough for my taste!' She shot a mischievous glance at her brother. âYou must know that I am on the lookout for a dukeâor, at the very least, a belted earl!'
Having expected an immediate riposte for coming out with the sort of remark that might well have been expected from the Jessica of old, she was surprised to discover that her brother seemed not to be listening to her. In fact, his attention seemed to be keenly focussed on the hedgerow just ahead of them. Looking about her, she was suddenly conscious of the fact that the narrow lane along which they were travelling was devoid of any other traffic.
Clutching at his arm, she whispered, âWhat is it, Nicky? What's wrong?'
He shook his head. âI'm not sure. I thought I sawâ!'
The rest of his words were cut off as two villainous-lookiindividuals, each brandishing a stout stick, leapt out from behind a clump of bushes. Grabbing hold of the harness, the first man dragged the horse to a standstill, while his accomplice darted towards Jessica and threatened her with his cudgel.
âYer purse, little missy, if ye please!' he growled, his free hand reaching out to clutch hold of her booted ankle.
At once, Nicholas was on his feet, beside himself with rage. âTake your filthy hands off my sister!' he cried and, pulling the driving whip from its socket, he proceeded to lash out at the man on the gig's offside.
It did not take Jessica long to realise that, with this futile action, highly commendable though it might have been, her brother had put both their lives in considerable danger. Having quickly taken in the men's shabby attire, along with the fact that they carried makeshift weapons, it had occurred to her that, in all probability, the men's intent was merely to relieve their intended victims of any valuables they might be carrying and then to make themselves scarce. And, since she was more than willing to part with every single penny in her possessionâas well as any other item of value that the men might have demandedâshe would have been prepared to gamble that the easy acquisition of such an unexpectedly fulsome haul would have seen the two footpads very quickly on their way.
Tugging at Nicholas's coat-tails, she flung her bulging reticule at her tormentor, at the same time urging her brother to sit down and be quiet. But it was too late.
As the metal tip of the whip's leather thong struck him painfully on the cheekbone, the man who was at the horse's head uttered an angry snarl and, letting go of the harness, raised his stick and flew at Nicholas in a rage. His initial burst of confidence instantly collapsing, the boy recoiled in dread, lost his balance on the gig's narrow step and tumbled backwards into the roadway where he lay sprawled at the man's feet, entirely at his mercy.
Seconds ticked past as the thug stood glaring down at Jessica's now panic-stricken young brother and then, with a malicious grin on his face, he slowly raised his weapon in both hands, clearly intent upon inflicting some terrible punishment on the youth. Jessica's hands went to her mouth in horror but, unable to prevent the frightened whimper that escaped her lips, she closed her eyes, threw up a fervent prayer and prepared herself for the worst.