At the Highwayman's Pleasure (9 page)

Sir Mark and Lady Beverley lived in a fine new town house overlooking the market square. It was only five minutes’ walk away, but Charity was thankful to reach her destination. A thin covering of snow glittered in the light from the streetlamps and an icy wind was blowing, so cold it burned her cheeks. A glance in a mirror in the hall of Beverley House relieved her mind of its biggest fear, that her nose might be glowing to rival the stones of her parure.

She was glad she had come. The welcome was warm and she found herself in good company—her hostess had invited those friends from the theatre who had remained in Allingford, as well as a number of local writers and artists. If Charity noticed that a certain dark, taciturn gentleman was not present, she gave no sign and managed to look unconcerned when someone mentioned his name to their hostess.

‘Mr Durden? No, he is not here tonight.’ Lady Beverley gave a little laugh and her twinkling eyes rested upon Charity. ‘It seems that even the company of our celebrated actress could not persuade him out of his reclusive ways, for I made a particular point of telling him that you would be here, my dear.’

Charity smiled, murmured something appropriate and moved away to join her colleagues from the theatre. She was soon caught up in a lively discussion about plays, and their actor/manager’s plans for the remainder of the season. All too soon the clock was chiming eleven, the hour she had set herself for going home.

‘Will you not stay longer?’ Lady Beverley urged her. ‘I have had so little chance to talk to you. If you are worried about walking home alone, I can always send for the carriage.’

‘Thank you, ma’am, I would not dream of troubling you to fetch out your carriage for such a short journey. It is but a step and I am perfectly content to walk. And at this hour there will be plenty of people on the streets.’

‘But it would be no trouble and the night is yet young. Do stay, Mrs Weston. I am sure one of our friends here would escort you back to your house—’

Charity was touched by her hostess’s concern, but she was adamant.

‘You are very kind, but my maid is ill and I do not want to leave her alone for too long.’

Seeing she could not be persuaded to stay, Lady Beverley waited for her to collect her cloak and accompanied her to the door, sending her off with the promise that she and Sir Mark would attend the first night of the new play.

Warmed by such an abundance of goodwill, Charity put up her hood and set off for North Street. It was snowing and she walked briskly, keeping her cloak pulled close about her. The streets were quieter than she had expected, but she guessed very few people would linger out of doors on such a chilly night. She turned the corner into North Street and into the biting wind, so she lowered her head and pulled her hood farther over her face to keep the icy flakes from her face. She had glimpsed a travelling coach standing at the roadside a little way ahead of her and she felt sorry for the coachman huddled in his greatcoat, and for the horses as the heavy flakes began to settle over the equipage. They would all be glad to get home tonight.

As she walked past the carriage she heard the creak of the door opening but took no notice until a pair of strong arms seized her and a gloved hand covered her mouth. She was lifted off her feet and bundled unceremoniously into the carriage.

 

Chapter Five

C
harity struggled hard against her captor. With the door closed and the blinds drawn it was black as pitch inside the carriage, and she felt an uncontrollable panic rising within her as it jolted into motion. Her first thought was that she had been abducted by her father, until she heard herself addressed by a cheerful and decidedly Irish voice.

‘Whist now, me pretty wildcat, just stop yer spittin’ and scratchin’ and I’ll let you go.’

She was unaccountably relieved—her situation might be dire, but nothing outweighed the terror that her father instilled in her, despite her years away from him. She stopped struggling and felt those strong arms release their iron grip. There was a deep chuckle and the suffocating hand was removed from her face.

‘There now, that’s—’ The words ended in a smothered exclamation as she threw herself in the direction of the door and began to scrabble at the panelling, trying to find the handle. ‘Hell and confound it, woman,
will
you be still!’

She was hauled back onto the seat and a vice-like grip clamped her against a large solid body. She could see nothing in the darkness, but she forced herself to be calm and use her other senses to get her bearings. The man holding her must be big, because she was considered tall, yet her cheek was pressed against his shoulder. The scratch of the material against her face and the smell of the damp wool suggested he was wearing a heavy greatcoat. There was something else, a faint trace of the clean, spicy scent that reminded her of a stolen kiss. Just the thought of it sent a hot blush through her whole body and added a very different alarm to her fears. The blackness was unnerving, so she forced out an angry question.

‘Are you kidnapping me?’

‘Faith, what else would I be doing with such a termagant?’

She tried unsuccessfully to shrug off his restraining arm, saying irritably, ‘The darkness is making me feel sick. Can you not put up the blinds?’

‘Aye, if we are clear of Allingford.’

Still holding her to him, he reached across to the windows and released the blinds. It was snowing harder and the flakes were sticking to the glass, but at least the darkness was relieved a little.

‘Where are you taking me?’

‘Faith, now, you don’t think I’d be telling ye that!’ Again that deep throaty chuckle. She turned her head to peer up at the man, but it was impossible to see anything other than a black shape against the grey of the window. A black shape defined by wide shoulders and the points of a tricorn hat.

‘So it is you again,’ she declared. ‘The one they call the Dark Rider.’

He grinned, his teeth gleaming white in the gloom.

‘Aye, that I am.’

Charity wondered if he would kiss her. She was a little alarmed to realise that part of her wanted him to do so. Quickly she looked away. He could not see her face in the dim light so it was nonsense to believe he might read her thoughts, but she would take no chances. She summoned up her most haughty, scathing tone.

‘Are you such a hopeless highway robber that you have turned to abduction now?’

‘Not at all, ’tis another means to the same end.’

There was something in his voice that stirred a thought, a memory, but it was too fleeting to hold.

‘You will catch cold this time,’ she told him. ‘I have no rich friends—not even a wealthy lover to pay a ransom.’

The iron arm around her tightened a little.

‘Ah, your lover is a poor man, then, Mrs Weston?’

There was a warm, teasing note in his voice, but it only made her shiver—would it be better or worse for her if he knew she had never had a lover, that despite her appellation and her profession she had never given herself to any man? She had heard that some rogues could not resist a virgin. She would prevaricate.

She responded coldly, ‘I do not have a lover at the moment.’

‘Surely you don’t expect me to believe that—or d’you mean there’s not one special man?’

‘Dear heaven,’ she cried indignantly, remembering her father’s scathing words, ‘why must all men assume that because I am an actress I am profligate—?’

She broke off, choked by rage and frustration.

His hold on her relaxed and after a pause he said gently, ‘Then I’ll be beggin’ your pardon, Mrs Weston, I did not mean to insult you. I perceive I was in error.’

‘A common mistake,’ she retorted bitterly, ‘and one made by better men than you!’

They travelled in silence for a while, but when the carriage slowed he tightened his grip on her arm as he pulled the muffler from his neck.

‘We’ll be reaching our destination soon, I’m thinking, so if you’ll forgive me, Mrs Weston—’

She held him off, saying in some alarm, ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Blindfold you. ’Tis best if you don’t know where you are.’

The Irish brogue had lessened and something in his tone again touched a chord in her memory. If only she could remember! He pushed back her hood, then gripped her shoulders and turned her away. The next moment the woollen muffler covered her eyes. She flinched as she was once more plunged into blind darkness and had to fight down a whimper, determined not to show fear before this horrid creature.

‘Is this really necessary?’ It took all her training to keep a quiver of uncertainty from her voice. ‘Just how far do you expect me to travel like this?’

‘To be sure, ’tis not far, but I can’t take a chance on you seeing where you are, in case you try to cut and run.’

Cut and run.
An Irish seaman, perhaps? It was a nautical expression and one she had heard recently, in Allingford...

‘I know you!’ She reached up to snatch the blindfold from her face. ‘You are Ross Durden!’

She ended on a gasp, wondering belatedly if she had been wise to speak out. The silence within the rocking, jolting carriage seemed to stretch on for ever, but at last he laughed.

‘I knew I should have stayed away from you. I have held up dozens of local people and none has yet made the connection. What gave me away?’

The lilting brogue was gone, but his tone remained relaxed, easy, as if they were enjoying an everyday conversation. She did her best to reply in kind.

‘That term, cut and run. But I was already suspicious because of your voice, the timbre of it and a certain inflection that I had heard before when I visited you at Wheelston.’

‘I see. Well, then, there is no point in blindfolding you.’

She looked towards the window.

‘Your precautions would have been quite unnecessary,’ she told him. ‘I cannot see a thing through this snow-covered glass.’

‘I didn’t know it was going to snow so hard,’ he said reasonably. ‘And there is some good news for you. Now I need not put you in the cellar.’

‘Cellar?’

‘Why, yes. I couldn’t risk you looking out of the window and recognising Wheelston, so I had decided you must be kept below ground.’

The very thought of it made her shudder, but she refused to show fear.

‘And where did you acquire this equipage—is that stolen, too?’

‘As a matter of fact, the carriage has been languishing in a corner of the Wheelston stables for years. You may have noticed the horses are not the fine, high-stepping cattle one sees on gentlemen’s carriages. These two are more used to pulling a farm cart.’

The carriage slowed and turned, and when it bumped and swayed she guessed they were on the neglected drive leading to Wheelston. At last they came to a halt and the coachman climbed down to open the door. She assumed from his small stature that the figure huddled beneath the hat and snow-covered greatcoat was Jed, the stable hand she had seen on her previous visit. Her mind was racing. If there were only two of them, perhaps she might have a chance of escape. She put up her hood as her companion jumped out, but when he turned and held his hand to her she said icily, ‘Thank you, I am quite capable of alighting on my own.’

Charity stepped down. The snow was already ankle deep and beginning to drift. Soon the roads would be impassable.

‘Oh.’ She turned back to peer into the dark interior of the carriage. ‘My reticule, I must have dropped it. Can you see it, Mr Durden?’

As soon as he leaned into the carriage she took to her heels. Jed’s shout of alarm spurred her on and she had almost reached the open gates before Ross Durden caught up with her and grasped her shoulder.

‘Oh, no, you don’t!’

Charity tried to fight but her tormentor put an end to her struggles by sweeping her up into his arms and marching back to the house.

‘Put me down, you monster!’ She had only one arm free, but she brought up her hand to slap him hard across the face. His step did not falter and he did not loosen his grip. With his hat shadowing his face she could not even tell if he had flinched under her assault. The carriage moved off towards the stables, so she knew she had only Ross Durden to deal with, but his size and weight made him a formidable opponent and the ease with which he was carrying her told Charity that he was no weakling. As he pushed open the door she reached up beneath her hood and pulled the jewelled pin from her hair. It was nowhere near as long as a hatpin, but it was the only weapon she had and she would use it.

She was unprepared for the sudden way he dropped her onto her feet, but as soon as she regained her balance she flew at him, aiming the sharp point of the pin directly at his face. His hands shot up and grasped her wrists, twisting her arms behind her back. The jewelled pin fell from her fingers and clattered onto the floor.

‘Enough, madam, or I shall forget I am a gentleman!’

She was pinioned against him, every ragged breath forcing her against his chest, which was surely heaving more violently than his recent exertions warranted. An inner voice urged caution, but Charity was in no mood to heed it. She stared up boldly into his shadowed face.

‘Gentleman? Ha! You are a rogue, an abductor, a—a thief!’ When he did not reply, she drew in another breath and added at her most scathing, ‘An unconscionable wretch!’

He did not move, his hold on her did not slacken and his very silence began to unnerve her. She strained to pierce the gloom that hid his countenance, but with only one lamp burning in the hall the shadow cast by his hat was too deep. The darkness was drawing her in. She found herself leaning against Ross, raising her face, running the tip of her tongue over her parted lips.

Stop it—you are inviting him to kiss you!

This was not her, it was some wild, abandoned creature he had roused, something inside her that she had not even realised existed until she had met the Dark Rider. There was a tug of attraction in her bones so strong she could not control it and she knew, she just
knew
he could feel it, too. The thought both thrilled and frightened her. It was in the very stillness that surrounded them; the air crackled with it. She watched, transfixed, as his head slowly dipped closer. He would kiss her; she knew it. There was an inevitability about it that defied reason. He still held her captive with her wrists behind her back, pressing her against him, and despite the layers of clothing between them she could feel his body, hard and tense. Like a predator, ready to pounce.

A sudden gust of wind blew in, enveloping them with an icy blast, and the open door creaked on its hinges. The effect upon Ross was like a douche of cold water. He jerked his head up and tore his eyes away from that tantalising, upturned face, so pale in the lamplight. By God, did she not know how bewitching she was?

Cautiously he freed one of her wrists and stepped away from her to close the door. He half expected her to attack him again, yet when he turned back she had not moved, but stood as if rooted to the spot. The angry challenging look had gone and she now looked dazed and forlorn. He quelled the sympathy that began to unfurl inside him. He scooped the hairpin from the floor and put it in his pocket before releasing her other wrist.

‘Despite what you think of me, I was born a gentleman,’ he said curtly. ‘You can remove your pattens now, madam. You will not need them in the house.’

She did not move. He gestured towards a bench, and like one in a dream she sat down and began to take off her outer shoes. By heaven, she had taken the wind out of his sails, first by seeing through his disguise and then by simply standing before him looking so damned alluring! His body had reacted violently to having her stand so close, but it was not just the physical arousal, the longing to possess her body. He had felt her heart beating against his chest, as if it was some small, wild bird fighting for its freedom, and it had awoken in him a fierce desire to cherish and protect her, to lay his life at her feet.

Great heavens, he was no Sir Galahad, and she was no gentle damsel in distress. She was a weapon he needed to use against his enemy. He must never forget that. Ross picked up a bedroom candle from the hall table and lit it from the lamp. He would not abandon his plan, but he knew he would have to work damned hard to keep it on course.

* * *

Charity took her time to remove her pattens, thankful for a few moments to make sense of all that was happening to her. Ross Durden was a very dangerous man, not only because he was holding her captive, but because of the way he made her feel. She had never experienced such a strong attraction to anyone before. Her body ached for him, all the more so, she thought, because she had never wanted any man before.

Very much the attraction of a moth for a flame
.

Whatever it was, it could be her undoing if she stayed here. She straightened, casting a surreptitious glance towards her captor. He was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, the lit candle in his hand illuminating his lean face, showing her the dark, brooding eyes, the hawk-like nose and the grim set of his mouth. She had never seen a more stern and unyielding countenance, but it did not deter her. Nor did it lessen her desire one jot. She closed her eyes for a moment as the irony of the situation struck her, that at seven-and-twenty she should be so unaccountably attracted to the most unsuitable man she had ever met.

What was she thinking of; what did her attraction matter? She was already doomed, for she knew his identity. He could never set her free now. She must stay alert and look for an opportunity to escape.

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