At the Highwayman's Pleasure (6 page)

Without waiting for her reply, he turned away and picked up the blackjack sitting on the table. Charity heard the kettle singing merrily and was a little reassured by the familiar sound. She knew she should keep her eyes averted, but could not resist glancing up under her lashes as her host filled a mug with ale and drank deeply. She watched, fascinated, as he swallowed, watching the muscles of his throat working, noting the strong lines of his neck, the hard, straight jaw and lean cheek. There was power in every line of his body and it seemed to call to her, an attraction so strong she found it difficult to keep still.

As he lowered the mug and wiped his hand across his mouth he met her eyes, holding her gaze with his own near-black eyes. Charity’s heart began to pound and her hands gripped the arms of the chair. The space between them seemed charged, like the heavy air that preceded a thunderstorm. Surely he must hear the thud of her heart, or even see it, since it battered mercilessly against her ribs.

She should say something, but her breath caught in her throat. She was in thrall to that dark predatory gaze, unable to look away. Unwilling to look away. She had to acknowledge that the perilous attraction was all on her side, the man before had not moved or spoken, so how could she blame him for the danger she felt now?

Was it the rattle of the kettle lid and sudden hiss of steam that broke the spell? Or was it the fact that she was no longer subject to that dark stare? He turned to the fire and proceeded to make the tea. With a conscious effort Charity made herself release her grip on the chair arms. She watched as he lifted a rosewood tea caddy from the shelf and spooned leaves into a silver teapot before pouring in the boiling water. She was desperate to break the silence, but when she spoke she almost winced at the inanity of her words.

‘Tea making is more commonly a woman’s role, Mr Durden.’

‘Since my housekeeper is not here it falls to me,’ he said shortly. ‘I could ask you to do it, but I am not in the habit of making my guests work.’

Charity thought his manner suggested he was not in the habit of entertaining visitors at all, but she did not say so. Instead she watched him fetch out of the cupboard a beautiful teacup and saucer.

‘I do not have much call to use these,’ he remarked, as if reading her thoughts. ‘There is sugar, if you want it?’

‘Just a little milk, if you please.’

His strong hands were remarkably gentle with the fine porcelain.

As if he was caressing a beautiful woman.

A hot blush raced through Charity at the thought and she sat back in her chair, away from the direct heat of the fire. She took the cup from him with a murmur of thanks, but did not look up, conscious of an unfamiliar ache pooling deep inside her.

He refilled his tankard and drew up a stool for himself. It was a little lower than her chair, she noted, and thought she would be grateful that he was not towering over her, but when he sat down his face was level with her own, which was somehow even more disturbing. Desperate to avoid his gaze, she looked about the kitchen. The room was large and high ceilinged, big enough to accommodate a cook and at least half a dozen servants. She recalled Lady Beverley’s comment that Mr Durden had no money at all. However, even with a lack of staff, the long table was spotless and on the dresser the copper pans gleamed.

‘I beg your pardon, madam, for bringing you into the kitchen, but it is the only room in the house with a fire.’

‘Oh, no, no, I am very comfortable, I assure you.’ She smiled, forgetting her unease in her eagerness not to be thought critical of his hospitality. ‘I was merely thinking how much work there must be, maintaining a house like this.’

‘It would take an army of servants to do so,’ he replied frankly. ‘Most of it is closed up until I have the funds to restore it. I have an excellent housekeeper in Mrs Cummings, but she can only do so much. She insists on keeping one parlour tidy for me, and my study, but I spend very little time indoors so there is no point in having a fire anywhere but here during the day.’

‘Very sensible.’

Charity sipped her tea. It was good. However poor he might be, her host did not buy inferior bohea. Sitting by the fire, with a hot drink to revive her, she began to relax a little.

‘I enjoyed your performance in
The Rivals
.’

‘Thank you. It was very well received.’ She gently replaced her cup in its saucer and would have got up to put it on the table, but he forestalled her, reaching out to take the saucer, his fingers brushing hers as he did so.

It was as much as she could do not to snatch her hand away. She was so aware of him that her skin burned at his touch and little arrows of excitement skimmed through her blood. It was like the heady excitement of a first night, only worse, because she had no idea how to deal with this. Nervously she began to chatter.

‘We open in a new play tonight,
The Provok’d Husband
. Do you know it? I am very much looking forward to it, because I play Lady Townly. Hywel—Mr Jenkin—is to play my long-suffering husband. We have played it together before, but not for many a year. Perhaps you will come and see it.’

‘No, I won’t.’

His response was so blunt she blinked at him, but it also made her laugh.

‘Fie upon you, Mr Durden, I did not expect quite such a strong rebuttal.’

‘I beg your pardon. What I meant was that I rarely go into Allingford, save when there is business to attend to.’

‘Of course, and pray do not think that I shall be offended if you do not come. I am not so conceited as to think people cannot go on quite well without attending my performances.’ Smiling, she rose to her feet. ‘I have taken quite enough of your time and must be getting back. Thank you, Mr Durden, for your hospitality.’

He grimaced. ‘Such as it was.’

Sympathy clenched at her heart. She did not think him embarrassed by his straitened circumstances, but he was most clearly aware of how it might look to others. Impulsively she put her hand on his arm.

‘A warm fire and a warming dish of bohea—I would ask for nothing finer, sir.’

He was staring at her fingers as they rested upon his bare forearm and Charity wondered if he, too, felt the shock of attraction. She could almost see it, a dangerous current rippling around them. Carefully, she removed her hand and began to pull on her gloves. The dog had left his box and was looking up at them, ears pricked expectantly. Glad of the distraction, Charity smiled down at him.

‘Goodbye, Samson.’

Embarrassed by the nervousness that had her addressing a mere animal, she hurried to the door, biting down on her lip as Mr Durden reached past her to open it. He was so close that if she leaned towards him, just a little, their bodies would meet. Stifling the thought and the heady excitement that came with it, she swept past him along the corridor and opened the outer door herself.

Charity was almost surprised to step out into the cobbled yard. Some part of her—the part that remembered her upbringing, she thought bitterly—had almost expected to find the door opened directly into the fiery jaws of hell. She welcomed the chill air; it gave her something to think of other than the presence of the man beside her. She buttoned her pelisse and smoothed her gloves over her hands while he called for Jed to bring out the gig. Anything to fill the awkward silence. Her eyes fell upon the basket and the large pile of unsplit logs by the chopping block.

‘I interrupted your work, sir, I—’

‘It is no matter, the break was very welcome.’ The words were polite, his tone less so. He handed her into the waiting gig and shook out the rug before placing it over her knees. She held her breath, not moving lest he think she objected to his ministrations when in fact it was quite the opposite. A strange, unfamiliar awareness tingled through her body as he tucked the rug about her. She did not want him to stop.

‘It looks like rain.’ He glanced up at the sky before fixing her with his dark, sober gaze. ‘Go directly to Allingford, Mrs Weston. No more exploring today!’

She tried to smile, but her mouth would not quite obey her, not while he was subjecting her to such an intense stare. With a slight nod and a deft flick of the reins she set off out of the yard. The track was straight and the pony needed little guidance. She could easily look back, to see if he was watching her.... No! She sank her teeth into her lip again and concentrated on the road ahead. It was a chance encounter, nothing more. To turn and look back would give Mr Durden completely the wrong idea.

But her spine tingled all the way to the gate of Wheelston Hall and she longed to know if he had watched her drive away.

* * *

Ross stared at the distant entrance long after the little gig had disappeared. He heard Jed come up beside him and give a cough.

‘Who were that lass, Cap’n? I’ve not seen her hereabouts.’

Ross kept his eyes on the gates.

‘That,’ he said, a smile tugging at his mouth, ‘was the celebrated actress Mrs Charity Weston.’

‘Actress, is she?’ Jed hawked and spat on the ground. ‘And were she really explorin’, think ’ee?’

Ross turned and walked back towards the woodpile.

‘She said it was so.’

‘And you invited ’er indoors.’ Ross looked up to find Jed regarding him with a rheumy eye. ‘Never known you to do that afore, Cap’n. Never known you to show any kindness to a woman, not since—’

‘Enough, Jed.’ He beat his arms across his chest, suddenly aware of the cold. ‘If you’ve nothing to do, you can carry that basket of logs indoors and bring me an empty one.’

‘Oh, I’ve plenty to do, master, don’t you fret.’

The old man shuffled away, muttering under his breath. Ross returned to the woodpile and began to split more logs, soon getting into the rhythm of placing a log on the chopping block and swinging the axe. He tried not to think of the woman who had interrupted his work, but she kept creeping into his mind. He found himself recalling the dainty way she held her teacup, the soft, low resonance of her voice, the bolt of attraction that had shot through him when she met his eyes. He had felt himself drowning in those blue, blue eyes.... Ross tore his thoughts away from her only to find himself thinking that the gleaming white-gold centres of the freshly split ash boughs were the exact colour of her hair.

‘Oh, for pity’s sake, get over her!’

‘Did ye call, Cap’n?’ Jed poked his head out of the stable again. ‘Did ye want me to get Robin ready for ye tonight? There’s a moon and a clear sky, which’ll suit ye well...’

‘No. That is—’ Ross hesitated ‘—you may saddle Robin up for me this evening, Jed, but no blacking. I’m going to Allingford!’

 

Chapter Three

B
y the time Charity arrived back in Allingford, her disordered emotions had settled into a state of pleasurable exhilaration—very much as they had done after she and some of the other players in Scarborough had made an excursion out of the town and walked on the cliffs overlooking the sea. It had been dangerous, especially for the ladies, because the blustery wind had snatched at their skirts, threatening to drag them off the cliff and dash them into the angry seas below, but the excitement was to see the danger and know that it was just a step away. That same thrill pulsed through her now. It puzzled her and she wondered just what it was about Ross Durden that set her so on edge. He was not conventionally handsome—and she had had experience enough of handsome men in the theatre. He had said nothing that could be construed as improper, yet his very proximity had set the alarm bells ringing in her head.

She was still pondering this conundrum as she left the gig at the stables, and was so lost in thought that she did not notice the Beverleys’ carriage standing outside the gun shop, nor hear Lady Beverley calling to her until she was almost at the carriage door. Charity begged pardon, but Lady Beverley waved away her excuses.

‘No matter, my dear, you are the very person I need.’ She alighted from her carriage. ‘Do you have ten minutes to spare? Sir Mark is inside inspecting a pair of pistols he is minded to buy. He will doubtless be an age yet and I have seen the most ravishing bonnet in the milliners, but I am not at all sure the colour would suit. Would you be an angel and come along to Forde’s with me now and give me your opinion?’

‘Why, yes, if you wish....’

‘Excellent.’ She turned to her footman. ‘Wait here with the carriage for Sir Mark and then tell him to pick me up from the milliner’s on High Street.’ She tucked her arm through Charity’s, saying with a smile, ‘There, that is all settled. Come along, my dear, it is but a step. You shall give me your arm and tell me what it is that has you in such a brown study.’

‘If you must know,’ Charity began as they set off, ‘I was thinking about Mr Durden.’

Lady Beverley stopped to stare at her.

‘Heavens, what on earth has brought this on?’

Charity felt the colour flooding her cheek and gently urged her companion to walk on.

‘I was exploring today and came across the lane leading to Wheelston.’ No need to say she had actually driven to the Hall. ‘It looked so run down and forlorn....’

‘Yes, well, the whole estate is in dire need of repair.’

‘I remember seeing Mr Durden at the reception for my first appearance at the theatre. You said then something had happened to him....’ Charity let the words hang.

Lady Beverley did not disappoint her. She leaned a little closer, saying confidentially, ‘It was such a prosperous estate in old Mr Durden’s time, but after he died the son continued in the navy and left his poor mama to run the place. She was very sickly, you see, and died in... Now, when was it? Two years ago, almost to the day. Young Mr Durden came home to find the place nearly derelict. But then, what did he expect, leaving an ailing woman to look after his inheritance? Quite shameful of him. A dutiful son would have sold out when his mother became so ill. Of course, that is easy for us all to say after the event, and Mr Durden was a very good sailor, I believe. Certainly, he reached the rank of captain and was commended for bravery on more than one occasion, that much I know is true, for it was reported in the newspapers.’

They continued in silence for a few moments and Charity tried to reconcile this picture of Ross Durden with the man she had seen an hour or so earlier.

‘I cannot believe— That is,’ she continued cautiously, ‘he did not look like a man to neglect his duty.’

‘No, well, I believe he was truly grieved when he came back and discovered just how bad things were at Wheelston. But then, if he had shown a little more interest in the place when his mother was alive...’ Lady Beverley stopped. ‘Ah, here we are, my dear, Forde’s, and there is the bonnet I like so much in the window. The green ruched silk, do you see it? Let us step inside and I shall try it on.’

Charity spent the next half hour with Lady Beverley in the milliner’s, and by the time the lady had made her purchase, Sir Mark was at the door with the carriage. Charity realised there would be no more confidences today. She took her leave of her friends and made her way back to North Street, ostensibly to rest and prepare for her performance, although it took all her willpower to force her mind to the play and away from the enigmatic owner of Wheelston.

* * *

The ride into Allingford restored some sense into Ross’s overheated brain. What was he thinking of, paying his hard-earned money for a theatre ticket? He should have been on the road tonight; who knew what luck he might have had? At least there was a chance that fortune might have favoured him, whereas this way he knew that his pocket would be several shillings lighter by the time he went home.

It was madness, he knew that, but having come all the way into Allingford it would be even more foolish to turn round and ride all the way back again without doing something. The thought of risking his money in a gambling den or drinking himself senseless at the George held even less appeal for him.

‘Damnation, I have come this far, I might as well watch the play.’ Savagely he kicked his feet free of the stirrups and slid to the ground. The stable lad at the livery took charge of Robin, and Ross made his way to the theatre. He was early, so he went into a nearby tavern, called for a mug of ale and took a seat by the window, where he had a good view of the theatre’s entrance.

It appeared this comedy was very popular, for a large crowd was gathering. A number of carriages drew up on the street and disgorged the wealthier country gentlemen in smart wool coats and embroidered waistcoats and their fashionable ladies wearing a startling array of headwear, some with so many ostrich feathers that Ross felt a twinge of sympathy for anyone unlucky enough to be sitting behind them that evening. He continued to watch, deriving no little amusement from the scene, then, suddenly, all his senses were on the alert.

A smart travelling carriage had pulled up outside the theatre. Very few people in the area owned such an equipage and he knew of only one who affected a hammer cloth on the box seat. It was pretentious in anyone other than the nobility, but the gentleman Ross had in mind was all pretension. The footman opened the door and Ross’s lip curled as he watched a young woman alight, the flambeaux on the street sparkling off the gold thread in the skirts that peeped from beneath her short, fur-lined cloak. Even at this distance he could see that she was strikingly pretty, with large dark eyes and dark curls that were piled high and adorned with gold ostrich feathers.

Ross felt a surge of loss and regret, but it was quickly succeeded by bitter anger. How could he feel anything more than contempt for the woman after what she had done to him? He stared more closely at her, observed that despite her rosy cheeks and creamy skin, there was a frown between her brows and her mouth was pursed into a look of discontent. She glanced around her with disdain and held up a nosegay as if to protect herself from the offensive smell of the crowd.

Ross turned his attention to the man who followed her out of the coach. He was some years older than the woman, a tall, portly man in a wine-coloured coat with stand-up collar, beneath which his starched neckcloth was so wide it seemed to be holding his head up by the ears, while the ears themselves appeared to be supporting his powdered wig.

A gold waistcoat strained across his bulging stomach and white satin knee breeches were stretched over his thighs, the breeches tied at the knee with gold ribbons that dangled against his embroidered stockings. Everything about the man screamed opulence, but not elegance. He walked with an air of self-importance that would have been amusing in anyone else, but Phineas Weston was a magistrate, and as such he wielded terrifying power over the common people.

Weston! Ross struck his palm against his forehead. When Charity had told him she was an actress and had no business in Beringham, he had immediately assumed Weston was not her real name and had dismissed all thoughts of a connection. But to see the Beringham magistrate and his wife here in Allingford—surely that was more than a coincidence. Especially when it was well known that Phineas considered theatres dens of iniquity and would not license any such entertainment in Beringham. Ross downed his drink and went out to join the crowds making their way into the theatre. He could see the gold ostrich feathers dancing some way in front of him, but he kept well back—he had no wish for them to remark his presence just yet.

He bought his ticket and made his way to the pit, but did not sit down immediately. He waited for the ostentatious couple to appear in one of the boxes, then chose for himself a seat on the far side of the pit, where he could keep them in view. It was providential, he told himself, that he should see them here. It made the journey worthwhile. Certainly it eased his conscience in coming to Allingford. However, once the play began he forgot all about gold waistcoats and nodding ostrich feathers, for Charity Weston was on stage and he found it impossible to think of anything else. Her last performance had been as a young heiress; this time she was equally convincing as a rich man’s wife with a penchant for gambling.

It was hard to believe the assured woman on the stage was the shy, nervous creature he had entertained at Wheelston that afternoon, but perhaps that had been an act, too. He was suspicious of her beauty. The luxuriant blonde hair and deep blue eyes belonged to a fantasy, far too good to be true. He had been caught before by a pretty face only to find a grasping nature and a heart of flint beneath. He glanced up at the box where Phineas and his wife were sitting. Mrs Weston—Hannah—was laughing and applauding the comedy, until her husband admonished her and she subsided into stern-faced silence.

It must have cost Phineas a great deal of soul-searching to come to the theatre, and he certainly could not be seen to approve of the entertainment. Ross had no such qualms, but he was on his guard. He would enjoy the performance but not—most definitely he would not—allow himself to be captivated by the actress.

* * *

The play ended to enthusiastic cheers and applause from the audience. It was clear that Mrs Charity Weston was hugely popular. A number of nosegays were hurled onto the stage and she gathered them up, lifted the flowers to her face as if to inhale their delicate perfume then smiled her thanks towards the audience. One had to admire her technique. Ross glanced up at the boxes again. Phineas and Hannah Weston were the only ones not applauding.

There was a short interval before the next part of the programme, which according to the handbill promised amusing songs and recitations. Ross noted that the Westons were leaving their box and he joined the throng heading for the foyer. Few people paid him any heed; those that did recognise him gave him no more than a disapproving stare before moving away. He took no notice, for he had spotted those golden ostrich feathers a little way ahead of him. The wearer was standing alone and Ross was at her side before she had even seen him.

‘Good evening, Hannah.’

‘Ross.’ Alarm flashed across her face, but she quickly concealed it. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’

‘Nor I you. I thought your husband considered entertainments like this an affront to the Lord.’

He noted the wary look in her eyes, but before she could reply he heard an angry voice behind him.

‘Durden. I might have known we should find you in such a place as this. Get away from my wife, damn you!’

A hush fell over those nearest them and people edged away. Ross turned slowly to find Phineas Weston at his shoulder. His lip curled.

‘You should try for a little civility, Weston. You are not in Beringham now.’

The older man’s eyes narrowed and his face turned a dark angry red, almost the same colour as his coat.

‘The law is the law, whichever side of the county border you may be.’

‘And is there a law now about speaking to an old friend?’ drawled Ross. His tone was deliberately taunting and he saw the flush deepen on Hannah’s already rosy cheeks.

He allowed himself a contemptuous smile as Weston struggled with his temper. A bell rang out, summoning everyone back to the auditorium. Phineas took his wife’s arm.

‘Come, my dear, this way. I have fixed it....’

Ross watched them go, then with a shrug he made his way back to his seat.

* * *

‘Another successful first night, Miss Charity.’

Charity cleaned the paint and powder from her face while Betty eased the heavy wig from her head.

‘It isn’t over yet. We have still to play the farce.’ Charity met her maid’s eyes in the mirror and smiled. ‘But we have made a good start. Can you work your magic on the wig again for tomorrow night’s performance? The
papillotte
curls looked very well, I think.’

There was a knock at the door and the stage doorman looked in, his old eyes twinkling.

‘Mrs Weston, I have a lady and gentleman here who are very desirous to meet you and don’t wish to wait until tonight’s reception.’

Charity glanced at the little clock on her dressing table. Smudgeon must consider these patrons important—and very rich!—if he was prepared to allow them backstage between performances.

‘Of course, Mr Smudgeon. I have a few minutes to spare before I need to change my gown for the farce.’ She sent Betty away and rose to greet her visitors.

Her smile froze when the couple walked in. She gave no more than a cursory glance to the woman in her glittering, overdecorated gown and gilded feathers before fixing her eyes upon the man at her side.

For the first time in thirteen years she was face-to-face with her father.

* * *

It took Ross a few minutes to realise that the Westons had not returned to their box. He recalled the magistrate’s words as he led his wife away.
I have fixed it....
Mayhap there was some advantage to be gained here. Quickly he slipped out again and made his way to the stage door. He bribed the boy standing guard to let him in and depleted his meagre purse even further to be directed to Mrs Weston’s dressing room.

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