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Authors: True Colours

Nicola Cornick

BOOK: Nicola Cornick
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“LADY CARBERRY, THERE IS SOMETHING I MUST SAY TO YOU.

“Circumstanced as we are, madam, I feel obliged to ask you to do me the honor of becoming my wife.”

“How can you be so ridiculous, my lord, as to offer marriage to one you hold in such complete dislike?”

“You may reject my proposal with scorn, but have you really given any thought at all to our situation here and the gossip that will inevitably arise as a result? Think again before you condemn us both to yet another infamous scandal!”

Nicola Cornick
is passionate about many things: her country cottage and its garden, her two small cats, her husband and her writing, though not necessarily in that order! She has always been fascinated by history, both as her chosen subject at university and subsequently as an engrossing hobby. She works as a university administrator and finds writing the perfect antidote to the demands of life in a busy office.

TRUE COLOURS
NICOLA CORNICK

Prologue

H
ad matters fallen out differently they might never have met again. If his ship had not reached Plymouth early with a westerly wind behind it, or if she had not chosen that particular day for the journey into Somerset, or even if the hunt for Miss Frensham’s lost reticule had taken just five minutes longer, the accident would have been averted and they would have passed on the road none the wiser. And later during the London Season, in some hot, airless drawing-room, an inquisitive matron would have fixed her with a sharp, avid gaze and said eagerly, ‘I saw Lord Mullineaux driving in the Park today. Did you know that he was back in Town, Lady Carberry? You used to have some…small…acquaintance with him, I believe?’

And Alicia, Lady Carberry, would have put down her glass with a steady hand and responded in a colourless voice, ‘Lord Mullineaux? No, I was not aware that he was back in England. But then, our acquaintance was not such that I would be likely to have heard of his return.’

And Mullineaux, hearing in his club the name of Alicia Carberry toasted on all sides as an Incomparable, would have said nothing, but reflected that money could buy much, even respectability, in a society that delighted in scandal.

But that was not the way that it was to be, as fate, which had first brought them together only to tear them apart again, took another decisive hand.

Chapter One

T
he accident happened on a stretch of road the locals called Verney Drove, on a bend where the track—for it was little more—abandoned its straight course across the Somerset Levels and skirted a small hill. Both carriages had been going too fast and neither could see the other before it was almost too late. The curricle grazed past the travelling chaise with less than an inch to spare and such was the shock and noise of its sudden appearance that the carriage horses took fright, rearing and plunging violently, and the chaise almost overturned. It lurched off the road into the water-filled ditch and there was a loud crack as the front axle broke.

For a few moments, all was panic and confusion whilst the groom leapt down to try to reach and calm the terrified horses, and the coachman found both himself and the team dangerously entangled in the reins. The groom had reached the horses’ heads but was finding the frightened animals difficult to hold single-handed, and was shouting for assistance. The coachman cut the reins and tumbled down from his perch into the ditch.

Meanwhile, the driver of the curricle had pulled up his own team with an expertise that might have been admirable under other circumstances, and had passed the reins to his groom with instructions to drive on to the nearest village and warn them of the accident. He turned back and reached the scene at a run, just as the coachman, shaking the water off him like a dog and swearing horribly, joined the groom and grasped the reins.

The gentleman materialised beside the two of them as the horses were beginning to quieten and the groom cast a first dubious glance
towards the carriage, uncertain whether to stay or go to the rescue of its passengers. The February afternoon was unseasonably mild after a long, cold spell and already the first heavy drops of rain were starting to fall from a leaden sky, threatening to turn the track into a rutted quagmire. The gentleman summed up the scene in one swift glance and turned to the coachman.

‘Stay with the horses,’ he instructed tersely. ‘Keep them steady whilst I go to find your passengers. How many do you carry?’ The rain was already running in rivulets down his caped driving coat and he pushed the soaking dark hair back from his forehead. In the sudden darkness of the storm the groom and coachman could discern no more of his appearance than a dark countenance with lowering black brows, and neither of them had the courage to ask him who he was; they simply responded to the voice of authority.

‘There are two of them, sir,’ the coachman volunteered. ‘Two ladies.’

The gentleman swore briefly under his breath and turned his attention to the carriage. It was of the newest and most elegantly comfortable design, though it carried no crest. Leaning at a drunken angle, two wheels in the ditch and two on the road, it was immediately evident that it could not be moved without help. The horses were also of a high quality, though not so highly bred as his own team, and they were calm now and looking rather dejected in the rain. One, the left-wheeler, whickered softly and put its head down to pull at the sparse grass at the side of the track.

The gentleman had reached the carriage door when he was forestalled by it being scrambled open from within. The figure of a little old lady appeared in the aperture, raising her voice above the wind in querulous protest. Her actual words were lost but their meaning was plain—she was unable to get down, for the carriage was tilted at such an acute angle that the steps could not reach the ground, and she was diminutive of stature and far too elderly and proper to even think of jumping down.

‘Oh, I am shaken all to pieces!’ As he drew closer he could hear the quaver in her voice that denoted the beginnings of hysteria. ‘This is quite intolerable! Jack Coachman, where are you? Help me down at once before I swoon!’ Her gaze fell suddenly and suspiciously on the stranger—little more than a tall shadow in the darkness as he stood beside the carriage—and he could tell she did not know whether to faint with fright or appeal for help. In the event, common sense won.

‘You, sir, whoever you are, help me down at once!’ Her words came out imperiously but with an edge of fear, and she looked about her a
little wildly. ‘Oh, this is not to be endured! The steps will not reach to the ground!’

Sensing the real panic behind the lady’s words, the gentleman stepped forward to the rescue. Without further ado she was picked up in a pair of strong arms and swung down onto the road in a flurry of petticoats and outrage.

‘Sir, you are importunate!’

She made a desperate grab for her bonnet as the wind caught the brim, dropped her gloves in a puddle, and looked round forlornly for her reticule. She was shaking with both fear and reaction, and the stranger felt an immediate pang of compunction at having caused the accident in the first place and given anxiety to one so frail.

‘I ask your pardon, ma’am.’ He sketched an elegant bow which was incongruous in such inclement conditions. ‘Pray accept my apologies both for the accident and for any further distress I may have caused you. You must allow me to make amends by helping you.’

His voice was low and attractive, and Miss Frensham’s ruffled sensibilities began to feel a little soothed. Though at heart a timid woman, the necessity of earning her own living had trained her to be practical. She was still very shocked at the accident but decided that little would be achieved by succumbing to a fit of the vapours. She even allowed the gentleman to take her arm gently and draw her against the side of the carriage, which afforded a little shelter from the wind and rain. His attentions were all that was proper, she assured herself; he was clearly both reliable and, more importantly, well-bred.

‘Allow me to present myself and my apologies to you at the same time, madam,’ the gentleman continued. ‘I am James Mullineaux, entirely at your service. We must see you conveyed to shelter, but first—am I mistaken in thinking that there was another lady with you in the carriage?’

There was no trace of urgency or alarm in his voice, but Miss Frensham froze and clapped her hand to her mouth with a squeak of horror.

‘Alicia! Oh, how could I be so thoughtless?’ She grasped James Mullineaux’s arm in urgent entreaty. ‘Oh, please, sir, could you see what has become of her? We were both knocked to the floor when the coach overturned and I could not rouse her! How could I forget so? I am the veriest monster!’

Her words dissolved into a wail of misery and once more she looked round hopelessly for a handkerchief.

‘Do not distress yourself, madam.’ Mullineaux pressed his own large
handkerchief comfortingly into her hand. ‘You have sustained a great shock, you know, and could not be expected to think of everything. Wait here—I will find your friend.’

‘She is my charge,’ Miss Frensham sniffed, inconsolable, ‘and I should have taken greater care of her! Oh, whatever will Lady Stansfield say? I shall never be able to face her again—never!’

Her words had an extraordinary effect on the gentleman, although Miss Frensham was too distraught to notice it. There was a moment of absolute stillness, then he asked expressionlessly, ‘Lady Stansfield, ma’am? Would that be the Dowager Countess of Stansfield?’

Miss Frensham sniffed assent, dabbing her eyes with the handkerchief, which was already soaked with rain. She was still too upset and preoccupied to realise that a digression onto rank and title was rather odd in the circumstances.

‘Her ladyship is Alicia’s grandmother, and much attached to her,’ she confirmed. ‘I promised to take care of her!’

‘Lady Carberry is hardly an infant in arms,’ James Mullineaux commented dryly, with more truth than tact. ‘Surely she can be expected to take care of herself? She has always managed to do so extremely well in the past!’

This time there was no mistaking the sarcastic edge to his voice. Miss Frensham looked up, startled out of her preoccupation, but it was too dark to see his face.

‘Are you acquainted with Lady Carberry, sir?’

Mullineaux returned no reply, and for a moment Miss Frensham had the oddest feeling that he was about to turn on his heel and walk away. The impression lasted only a moment, then he spoke brusquely. ‘I knew Lady Carberry before her marriage.’

Miss Frensham stared in puzzled incomprehension, but Mullineaux said nothing more, merely turning back to the carriage and leaving her standing a little despondently in the road. A moment later, she saw him swing himself up easily into the darkened interior and disappear from her view.

Inside the coach the floor sloped sharply forwards and into the ditch. It was slippery with rain and there was almost no light at all. Nor was there any sound. Mullineaux steadied himself with one hand on the door jamb and paused for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Alicia Carberry was lying tumbled in the far corner. A faint glimmer of light touched the pallor of her face and he edged his way cautiously down the sloping floor towards her, bracing himself against one of the
thick velvet seats. The creaking of the coach as it settled more deeply in the ditch was hardly reassuring. The rain drummed constantly on the roof.

After making cautious progress for a few moments, Mullineaux was able to kneel down beside Alicia Carberry’s recumbent figure and reflect on what he should do next. She was unconscious but still breathing normally and he doubted that she was seriously hurt. However, it would be impossible to check her injuries until he had managed to get her out of the carriage. It seemed a little undignified to drag her across the floor, but he could not safely pick her up inside the carriage in case it toppled over completely. Anyway, in her current state she would scarcely be in a position to notice and he was disinclined to treat her with any particular care or consideration.

Mullineaux managed to get a grip on the material of Lady Carberry’s travelling dress and manoeuvre her body back up the sloping floor to the doorway. Once there, it was a simple matter to jump down onto the road and scoop her up into his arms. She did not stir at all, which was probably just as well since it made his job easier and spared her the distress and confusion that would have inevitably followed had she regained consciousness.

She was surprisingly light, and Mullineaux found himself thinking with a certain grim humour that her years as a wealthy widow had evidently not taken their toll in rich living. He could not see her face clearly in the darkness. No matter—he knew exactly what she looked like. More disconcertingly he also recognised the feel of her in his arms, even after the passing of seven years.

‘I knew Lady Carberry before her marriage…’

It was a ridiculous understatement from the man to whom she had once been engaged and from whom she had parted in such extraordinary and scandalous circumstances, when she had jilted him for a rich man old enough to be her father. Mullineaux, who had been out of the country since that time, reflected dispassionately on the ironic quirk of fate which had decreed that almost the first person he should meet on his return to England was the woman he wanted at all costs to avoid.

He had known that he would probably have to meet Alicia Carberry again some day. He had every intention of taking up once again his place in society, and he was well aware that Lady Carberry was one of its greatest ornaments and had been so for many years. However, he had anticipated that it would be easy to avoid her and to treat her with
cold civility if their paths did cross. The past, after all, was dead, and with it any warmer feelings that he might have held for her.

Now, holding her reluctantly in his arms, he was conscious of an immense irritation at the situation in which he had been placed. But that was not all. Treacherously, dangerously, he became slowly aware of the scent of her skin, the brush of her hair against his cheek, the way her head rested so confidingly in the curve of his shoulder. It was intolerable to still feel an attraction towards her, particularly when his rational mind was telling him how much he disliked her. With a very forcible effort he blanked out the past and shut the door very firmly on his emotions.

As he stepped away from the wreck of the carriage Miss Frensham emerged from the shadows and hurried forward. She had retrieved her reticule, which had gone a long way towards restoring her composure, but she had started to shiver with cold and reaction and looked woefully frail.

‘You have found her! God be praised! But—’ she peered closer through the rain, pushing Alicia’s wet hair off her face ‘—is she badly hurt, sir?’

‘I have no doubt that she will survive,’ Mullineaux stated coldly. ‘Lady Carberry appears to have sustained a blow to the head, but I think it will not prove too serious, and I doubt that she has broken any bones. You may rest assured that she is strong enough to cope with worse than this.’ He gave Miss Frensham a comprehensive look and his tone softened.

‘But you are soaked to the skin, ma’am, and no doubt badly chilled, too. This benighted village must surely have an inn of sorts. Let us repair there and see what can be done. If you are able to walk a little way, ma’am, I shall carry Lady Carberry—’ was there the slightest of hesitations on the word ‘Lady’? ‘—and we may call a doctor once we are there.’

Miss Frensham did not dissent from this plan. The village of Ottery was a mere five hundred yards distant, and, though it was little more than a hamlet, there should surely be shelter there. James Mullineaux carried his fair burden along the muddy road with a cautiousness born of distaste, not care, while Miss Frensham trotted along by his side. She shivered as the wind hurled flurries of rain in her face and every so often cast anxious glances at Alicia’s unconscious form.

BOOK: Nicola Cornick
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