Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (2 page)

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The
bastard
!

May God forgive her, but at that moment, the hatred spewed into her gullet. Damn Charles! Damn and blast him to hell! It had been a trick, a total lie, his promises to help Seth. She should have guessed that he had just been trying to pacify her, in the hope that she would forget all about the felon and return to the law-abiding, respectable reputation of which Charles was so proud. But he had seemed so genuinely shocked by what had happened that she had believed his promises, had
wanted
to believe in him, just as she had always wanted to love him. But overnight he must have reconsidered, and returned to the bigoted, implacable brute he really was. She should have known that a leopard couldn't change its spots! Not for the first time in their married life, she felt as if Charles had presented her with a bunch of beautiful roses that had quickly withered into a bouquet of thorns to scratch her and make her bleed. But if Charles thought he could treat her like that, he would have to think again. For Rose Maddiford was afraid of no man, and she wouldn't give in without a fight. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and, raising her fists, she began to pummel relentlessly on the door.

It was a full five minutes before she heard him on the other side, and the string of profanities that tumbled from her mouth shocked even herself, but she didn't care. The instant Charles opened the door, she made to dive past him, but it was impossible. He grasped her by the shoulders and forced her back into the room, using his foot to slam the door closed behind him. Mad with fury, she managed to break free from his hold and stood back, breathing heavily, her fingers ready to claw at his face.

‘Shut your mouth, for God's sake, Rose!' Charles bawled at her. ‘You sound like a fish wife!'

‘And can you wonder at it, you treacherous sod! You—'

‘Treacherous! My God,
you're
the one guilty of treachery, my girl, not me! Aiding and abetting an escaped convict, no less . . .'

‘One who with half a chance can prove his innocence, and yesterday you promised to help him! You tricked me, you despicable, bloody liar!'

‘Rose, how
dare
you!' The shock on Charles's face was so appalling that Rose recoiled. ‘And you don't seriously think I was considering helping him, do you? A dangerous criminal who for God knows how long had been tricking my wife –
my
wife! – into concealing him—'

‘Seth's no more dangerous than you are!' Rose retorted, recovering from her momentary fear. ‘Less so, in fact! He risked discovery to save the life of one of the puppies when for two pins
you
would have drowned the lot of them!'

‘Seth now, is it? Well, I can see, madam, that he really had you wrapped round his little finger!'

‘Actions speak louder than words, Charles! And
your
actions – locking me in here – prove that your words are nothing but lies. Why did you promise to help Seth when you had no intention of doing so? You know,' she sneered sarcastically, ‘I really thought for once that you were a man of principle, but how wrong I was!'

She shuddered as Charles stepped towards her, poking his nose into her face and baring his teeth as he spoke. ‘I'll tell you why!' he snarled. ‘Yes, I was appalled by the way that sergeant treated your convict, but I was mainly worried by the effect it was all clearly having on
you
! And God knows the effect it may have had on our son! I needed to calm you down, and that seemed to be the only way to do so! Now, I've already had a summons from the prison governor, you know. And I'll probably have to do some pretty clever talking to get you and that stupid old doctor out of trouble! I'll have to blame it all on your condition and your frail nerves, though God knows, if the governor could see you now . . . I'll have to lie through my back teeth to save your hide! And if you think for one moment I believe your story about stealing the plaster of Paris from the doctor's bag, well, I hope for the old fool's sake I can manage to convince the governor of it!'

He clamped his jaw shut, his cheeks flushed puce and his bulging eyes boring into her. She opened and closed her mouth twice, burning to make some scathing retort. But though she was poised to fly at him, she managed to restrain herself. What she really needed was to
manoeuvre
him. Besides, she recognized that she had put him in a difficult position, and she supposed she was sorry for that. And when she thought about how she had persuaded dear old Dr Seaton from Tavistock to treat Seth secretly in the stable, setting his leg and providing antiseptic for the wounds on his shoulder, Rose felt horribly guilty. She must do everything in her power to keep the elderly physician out of trouble. It had been ironic that Charles had refused to allow the prison medical officer, Dr Power, to take care of her during her pregnancy, as he would have had no option but to take the escaped convict back into custody. Rose could taste the same bitterness in her mouth as when she had argued with Charles at the time. He had considered Dr Power good enough to tend her father, but not to oversee the birth of
his son
! Well, just now she would perhaps take some vengeful satisfaction by outwitting him with a little play-acting.

She lowered her eyes and allowed the tears of anguish that were indeed blurring her vision again to meander down her cheeks. She sank down awkwardly on the edge of the bed, her head bowed over her jutting stomach, and wrung her hands.

‘It really was true,' she moaned, ‘even if you don't believe me. I
did
steal from Dr Seaton. He wasn't involved at all.
I
put the plaster on Seth's ankle. I don't suppose I made a very good job of it, but I didn't know what else to do. I was so confused . . . But, Charles,
please
. I really do believe Seth's story. Surely if it can actually be
proved
that he's innocent . . .'

Her shoulders sagged as she allowed the weary torrent to wash over her strained senses, and her hair fell forward in a widow's veil about her taut face. For a moment she looked so vulnerable, her tear-ravaged beauty so touching, that Charles's heart softened. Just as she knew it would if Charles felt he was in control of the situation.

‘I'm sorry, Rose,' he said stiffly, and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. ‘I'm prepared to believe that he convinced you. Some of these devils can spin a pretty good yarn, you know. Confidence tricksters. And that in your highly strung state, you were taken in by him. But I cannot forgive you for breaking the law. For your own reputation, I will support you, and even that old duffer of a physician, as I don't believe a word of your story about the plaster. But I really don't trust you, Rose. I'm sure that when the child is born, you will come to your senses and have other new priorities to govern your life. But until then, I will ensure you will keep to this room. And you had better behave yourself, for I will not be prepared to protect you from any other act of perjury.'

Keep to the bedroom!
Rose's mind rose up in protest. She felt like a little child being reprimanded at school – or at least she imagined that was how it would feel, for she had never been to school, her dear father having taught her everything he himself had learnt at grammar school. Her heart cried out to retaliate, but she checked herself at once. She would play Charles's game, but be as devious as hell. Though at present, she had no idea in what way.

‘Yes, Charles,' she sighed ponderously. ‘I suppose you're right. I was a fool to believe him. 'Twill be such a relief not to see him again.'

‘Well, you can forget all about him, now. He'll be rightly punished for what he did. He didn't actually
hurt
you in any way, did he?'

Her eyes sparked with indignation, and she looked up sharply. ‘No! Not a bit of it.'

‘Just as well,' Charles snorted, ‘or I'd have made sure he paid for it! But don't you think you can get round me. I'll send Patsy up with a breakfast tray, and in the meantime you can contemplate your crime alone.'

He went out, shutting the door quietly behind him and turning the key. Rose's chin quivered and she fell forward on to the bed, burying her face in the covers as she wept freely with tears of exasperation and defeat. But her self-pity didn't last for long. The image of Seth on his knees as he coughed blood on to the cobbles slashed into her mind. And there would be worse to come. Unless she did something about it.

The thoughts began to chase each other round inside her head. The baby was due in a little over six weeks, and Florrie had promised to be back in time for the birth. Dear Florrie Bennett, the loyal servant who had been employed to help when Rose herself had been born, but who had stayed on when Alice Maddiford had died in childbirth, and had been a surrogate mother to Rose. Of a like age, she had been devoted to Henry, but only as Henry lay on his deathbed had Rose realized the depth of feeling between them. After the funeral, Florrie had been so distraught that she had taken herself to stay with her widowed sister just over the Cornish border to recover from her grief. Rose had missed her dreadfully and was counting the days until her return. But she couldn't wait that long. She needed her now. Six weeks would be too late.

When Patsy came in with the tray, Rose was ready. Charles waited outside to unlock and then lock the door again, and Patsy, already too traumatized by the events of the previous day, and too young and timid to do anything beyond obeying the master in silence, simply gazed at her lovely mistress and blinked in awe as a letter was slipped surreptitiously into the pocket of her apron. The poor girl didn't have the wit to make some tiny gesture of understanding, but merely bobbed a shaky curtsy before she fled the room, and Rose was left alone once more.

Her tears were all spent now, and in their place, a squall of rage choked her rebellious heart. Rage at Charles, yes, but more so at the circumstances that had placed Seth in the position he was now. But was the sergeant right? Had Seth told her a pack of lies to gain her sympathy? No! She was convinced of his innocence, and nothing would shake her faith in him.

Her mind wandered back over the time they had spent together during the weeks she had managed to conceal him around the corner in the dog leg of Gospel's loose box. For those few moments when she had first discovered him, she had been terrified, but the instant she had seen how helpless he was, her fear had fled. He had been polite, courteous, more worried for her than for himself, and that was before they had recognized each other.

What was it, eighteen months or more ago, when she had first seen him? Back in the time when her life had been perfect, and she and her father, along with Florrie and Amber, the dog, had lived so peacefully at the manager's house at the powder mills, with Joe living over the stables. Rose's existence had consisted of running the house – with Florrie's indispensable assistance, of course – and galloping wildly all over the moor on her beloved horse, Gospel, a temperamental animal of part thoroughbred stock. Several years before, Rose had rescued him from an owner who couldn't cope with his untamed spirit, and so had employed a martingale, a harsh bit and a whip. With loving kindness, Rose had won the creature's devotion, and now they were as one with a passion Rose had never experienced in any other way. And so they spent hours together out on the moor where their hearts would run free, so that everyone for miles around knew them. And if they rightly distrusted the tall, powerful horse, they loved and respected the beautiful girl who would help anyone in distress and brighten everyone's day.

She had been out walking with her friend Molly when they had come across the work party returning from the day's gruelling labour at the prison quarry. One of the convicts had been about to attack Molly's father, who was one of the wardens on duty, and the fellow inmate who Rose knew now as Seth Warrington had intervened and saved him from severe injury. Perhaps had even saved his life. And then two Civil Guards who hadn't witnessed the event had mistakenly thought Seth to be the guilty party and had beaten him to the ground until Rose had charged in to stop them. And when the hapless felon had looked up at her, unspoken gratitude on his anguished face, his soft hazel eyes had filled her with a strange confusion.

It wasn't the only thing that had made Rose believe in him. There was something so kind and understanding in Seth's manner, so sensitive to Rose's own distress when she had tried to keep it concealed. He was educated, said he had been a captain in the hussars – and from his obvious knowledge both of injury care and of army weaponry, that was no lie. And then there were the animals.

Gospel had retained an innate distrust of all human beings except those who emitted a deep compassion, and instead of kicking down the stable when the stranger had slipped inside, he had accepted his presence without any protest whatsoever. Even the dogs had made not a sound – not even Scraggles, who usually barked his welcome to anyone and everyone with joyful abandon. Seth had somehow calmed them all instantly, gaining their trust as he stroked them and crooned to them in a way Rose had witnessed since. And when Amber had whelped, Seth
had
risked discovery to save the poorly runt of the litter. He had a way with animals, and he shared other things with Rose besides. Nearly a month she had succeeded in keeping him hidden, and in that time she had developed a deep affinity with him, an intimacy that surpassed anything she had ever felt for Charles, even in the good days before their marriage. And now . . .

Rose thumped her fist hard into the pillow, grinding her teeth and literally tearing at her wild, raven hair as she exploded in an agony of red anger. Tearing into her heart was the thought that while Seth was locked in a punishment cell, or in the prison hospital if he was lucky, she was locked in her room in supreme comfort. Guilt and frustration crucified her, for what in God's name could she do to help him while Charles had her imprisoned? And as for Ned Cornish, well, she would kill the bastard for what he had done!

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