Authors: Sarah Mallory
He turned his mind to the much more pleasant thought of Mrs Charity Weston, and a reluctant grin tugged at his mouth. If he had talked to her much longer it was very likely she would have recognised him. Perhaps it was
she was an actress and used to playing parts herself that she noticed the similarities between the quiet, respectable gentleman farmer and the boisterous, lawless Dark Rider. Hell and confound it, he thought the way he disguised his voice and changed his whole manner would fool anyone, but apparently not. He had seen her fine brows draw together, noted the puzzled look in those large blue eyes—by God, but she was beautiful! Aye, that had almost been his undoing. Kissing her when he held up the Scarborough coach should have been enough for him. Why in heaven’s name had he gone to her house? Madness. He put up his hand to rub the white blaze that ran down the great horse’s face.
‘Well, Robin, no harm done this time, my old friend, but we will need to be more careful. We’d best give Mrs Weston a wide berth in future, I think.’
Ross rode back to the farm, the familiar cluster of stone buildings rearing up blackly against the night sky as he approached. A solitary lamp glowed in the yard and he found Jed dozing in a chair in the stables. Leaving the groom to take care of Robin, he went into the house.
Silence greeted him when he entered through the kitchen door, but a cold wet nose pressed against his hand.
‘Back in your box, Samson, good boy.’ He scratched at the dog’s head before the animal padded off into the shadows.
Mrs Cummings, his housekeeper, had gone to bed without leaving a light burning, but the sullen glow in the range showed him that she had banked up the fire against the winter chill. Lighting a lamp, he also noted with a burst of gratitude that she had left a jug of ale on the table and on a plate, under an upturned bowl, was a slice of meat pie.
The woman was a treasure. He must increase her wages—when he could afford it. He poured himself a mug of ale and threw himself down in the chair beside the fire. As he devoured the pie he thought about his situation. That it had come to this—a captain in his Majesty’s navy, decorated for bravery under fire, now struggling to pay his way. He picked up the poker and stirred the coals with rough, angry movements while a quiet, insidious voice murmured in his ear.
What about those coaches you hold up? You could take more than enough to live comfortably.
He shook his head to rid it of the tempting thought. He was no thief; he wanted justice and would take only what had been stolen from him. Why, even the mailbags he searched through were always left at the roadside, where they would be found intact the next day.
Then you’re a fool,
said that insistent voice.
If you’re caught, you’ll hang for highway robbery—no one will care about your justice.
‘I will,’ he said aloud to the empty room. ‘I’ll care.’
He drained his mug to wash down the last of the pie, then took up his bedroom candle to light his way up the stairs. The echo of his boots on the bare boards whispered around him.
* * *
Charity liked living in Allingford. Her fellow players were friendly, as were the townsfolk. Of the more noble families, only Sir Mark and Lady Beverley afforded her more than a distant nod if they saw her in the street, but she was accustomed to that. Actresses were not quite
. Her first appearance at the theatre was followed by equally successful performances in the tragedy
and another comedy,
The Busy Body
. Charity knew both plays very well and they did not overtax her at all, so when she was not rehearsing and the weather was clement she enjoyed hiring a gig and driving herself around the lanes. She had grown up not fifteen miles from here, in Saltby, and although she determined not to visit the village, nor to go anywhere within her father’s jurisdiction as magistrate, the countryside around Allingford was familiar and welcoming. Her maid did not approve of these solitary outings and tried to dissuade her, but Charity only laughed at her.
‘What harm can come to me if I stay close to Allingford?’
‘There’s highwaymen, for a start,’ retorted Betty. ‘They still haven’t caught the rogue who held us up on the Scarborough Road.’
‘The Dark Rider.’
The rogue who kissed me in this very house.
Charity had neither seen nor heard anything of him since. She had scoured the newspapers for reports of the mysterious highwayman and had spoken to her fellow players about him, but there was no information. However, she had no intention of explaining any of that to her maid.
‘Surely a highwayman will be patrolling the coaching road and I mean to explore the byways. I shall not see him again.’
Charity was not sure she really believed that and even less sure that she wanted it to be true. Betty tried again.
‘You might meet your father.’
That thought was much more alarming. Charity wondered if she had been wise to confide so much about her past to Betty, but the maid had proven herself a good friend over the years. However, Charity would not be dissuaded.
‘I doubt it. And as long as I stay this side of the county line he cannot hurt me.’
Betty frowned, her usually dour countenance becoming positively forbidding.
‘He must know by now that you are in Allingford. Someone will have told him that Charity Weston is appearing at the theatre.’
‘Mayhap he will think it a mere coincidence that an actress has the same name as his daughter.’
‘And mayhap he is planning some mischief.’
‘Nonsense, Betty. It is more than a dozen years since I left Saltby. Phineas has probably forgotten all about me.’
‘Not he, mistress. From all you have told me of the man, he will not rest while you are in Allingford. Your success will be like a thorn in his flesh.’
‘Well, that is a pain he will have to bear,’ said Charity stoutly, ‘because I am not going away.’
Nevertheless, she made sure that when she travelled north or east she kept within the bounds of Allingford, although she felt confident enough to venture farther afield on the other side of the town, and one sunny March day she set out to explore the land to the west. The air was bracing and a covering of snow on the distant hills told her that winter had not yet gone for good, but the blue sky lifted the spirits and Charity was glad to be out of the town. At a crossroads she stopped, debating whether to explore further or to go back to Allingford. After all, it was the first night of a new play tonight and she would need to prepare.
While she was making up her mind, a pedlar came round the corner, leading his donkey laden with leather packs. The gig’s pony snorted and shifted nervously. Charity quieted the animal and pulled a little to the side to allow the pedlar to pass.
He tipped his hat, his bright, beady eyes alight with curiosity.
‘Good day, missus. Hast thou lost tha’ way?’
‘No,’ she replied cheerfully. ‘I am exploring and cannot decide which route to take.’
‘Ah, well, then. I tek it tha’s just come from Allingford.’ He stopped and pushed up his hat to scratch his head. ‘If tha’ teks that road to yer right, you’ll reach Kirby Misperton. The way to the left leads to Great Habton. And that track there—’ he pointed to a wide lane bounded on either side by ditches ‘—it looks best o’ the lot, but leads to nobbut Wheelston Hall.’
‘Thank you, that is most enlightening.’
With a toothless grin the pedlar touched his hat again and went on his way. Charity looked at the three lanes before her. She had an hour yet before she needed to turn back. Kirby Misperton, Great Habton—the names were intriguing, but Wheelston.... She frowned slightly, wondering where she had heard the name before.
Then she remembered the quiet stranger who had attended the opening night reception only to leave after the briefest of words with her. Ross Durden. He had said he lived at Wheelston. Of the three lanes before her, the track to the hall was by far the widest and had been well made, but showed signs of neglect with the ditches overgrown and hedges straggling untidily on either side. A prosperous property, perhaps fallen on hard times? She remembered Lady Beverley’s words. There was clearly some sort of mystery about Mr Durden. She set off again.
You cannot drive slap up to someone’s house just because you are curious!
Charity ignored the shocked voice of her conscience and turned the pony. She had set out to explore, so why should she not go this way? The crossroads had no signposts, so it was not unreasonable for her to take the most interesting route.
After what felt like a good half mile she was beginning to wish she had listened to her conscience. An accumulation of cloud had covered the sun, making the air very chill, and a sneaking wind cut through her fur-lined pelisse. The unkempt hedges hid her view and had overgrown the road so much that it was too narrow for her to turn the gig.
‘I shall turn round in the next gateway,’ she said aloud, causing the pony’s ears to prick. ‘Yes, I know,’ she addressed the animal. ‘You want to go back to your warm stable. And I confess that I, too, am beginning to think longingly of my fireside and a hot drink.’
No convenient gateway presented itself and she was obliged to drive on around the bend, only to find herself at the entrance to a substantial property: Wheelston Hall.
It was a rambling, many-gabled house built of grey stone, with a simple portico over the wide door. A curving drive swept around the front of the building, but it was heavily rutted and covered in weeds. Without waiting for Charity to guide him, the pony turned onto a narrower path leading around the side of the house. It was in much better condition and Charity made no effort to restrain the animal as it trotted towards the numerous outbuildings.
Charity found herself in a large cobbled yard; in the far corner someone was chopping wood, but he had his back to her and was unaware of her presence. She guessed from the man’s size and the curling black hair that it was Ross Durden. Despite the icy wind, he wore only his shirt, buckskins and boots, the shirtsleeves rolled up high to display his muscled arms.
He picked up a large log and placed it on the chopping block, then raised the long-handled axe and brought it down on the log in one smooth, powerful arc. She was struck by the fluid grace of the movement, the slight shift of legs and hips, the flutter of his billowing white shirt as his arms circled, the flash of the blade as it cleaved through the air and the satisfying crack as the wood was split asunder and the pieces fell onto the cobbles. One of the logs had rolled behind him, and as he reached around to pick it up, he spotted the gig. He straightened slowly and turned. Tossing the wood into the basket, he began to walk towards her.
For a brief moment Charity wanted to flee, but she fought down her panic. Not only would that be very cowardly behaviour, she doubted she could turn the gig and whip the little pony to a canter in time to get away. The man looked so much larger, so much less civilised than he had done at the theatre. Untamed and rakish was her impression of the man, but that was curiously at odds with his appearance in the green room.
Another memory nagged at her brain, but it was elusive; she could not quite catch it. She forced herself to sit still and watch as this large gentleman with his wild hair and dark, dangerous eyes approached the gig.
The words, uttered deep and slow, sent a quiver running down her spine. There was neither welcome nor enquiry in his tone. It was a mere statement of fact that she was here.
‘Mr Durden. I, um...I was exploring and took this lane quite by chance.’ She gave him a bright smile, but nothing in that harsh, dark face changed.
Foolish girl. You should have stayed away.
She gathered up the reins. ‘I am very sorry. I did not mean to intrude—’
He put out his hand and gripped the pony’s head collar.
‘It is no intrusion, but you are a long way from Allingford.’
Again the quiver ran down her spine. He was pointing out to her how vulnerable she was.
‘You are cold,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you would like to come in and warm yourself by the fire?’
No! It was not to be thought of. May as well enter a tiger’s cage.
He turned and called to someone in the stable, his voice echoing around the yard, then he stepped up beside the gig and held out his hand.
‘Jed will take care of the pony until you are ready to leave. He will lead it into one of the empty barns, where it may wait for you out of the cold.’
Her conscience clamoured with warnings, but they went unheeded. With his eyes upon her and his hand held out so imperiously, she felt obliged to let him help her down and escort her into the house. The old wooden door opened onto a short corridor and from there into a large kitchen, at one end of which a fire slumbered in the range. A large shaggy dog jumped up and came to greet them, wagging its tail and sniffing at Charity’s skirts.
‘Easy, Samson, don’t frighten our guest.’
Charity leaned down to scratch the animal behind its ears.
‘I am not frightened. Is he a gun dog?’
‘Gun dog, sheepdog, companion. Whatever is needed.’
He snapped his fingers and sent the dog back to its box in the corner.
‘How useful,’ murmured Charity, stripping off her gloves. After the chilly air outside, the kitchen was blessedly warm. He waved towards an armchair beside the fire.
‘Sit there while I make you tea.’ He stirred up the coals and swung the trivet holding a large kettle over the fire. ‘I presume you would prefer tea to ale? I’m afraid there is nothing else here suitable for a lady.’
His voice was perfectly serious, but she noticed the disturbing glint in his dark eyes when he looked at her. Again she had a flash of memory, but he was expecting an answer and she must concentrate on that—and the fact that she was alone with him.
‘Yes, tea, if you please. I confess I am a little cold now.’
‘I, on the other hand, am quite warm from my exertions. I hope you won’t object if I take a mug of ale?’