Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (4 page)

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Rose nodded vigorously. ‘That's right. Well, his father bought him a commission because his son
to be an officer, but Seth hated all that sort of thing. But he managed to get transferred to the cavalry so that he could at least work with horses, which are his great love in life. And then his regiment went out to India and he were promoted to captain, and I'm sure 'twas all true because he told me so much about it. Details he wouldn't have known unless he'd actually been there. But in the end he resigned his commission without telling his family, came back to England and were just working his way about the countryside when all this happened. And there were so many other things about him. Do you remember me telling you, Florrie?' She shifted forward on the bed. ‘Just before that first accident at the mills, Molly and I were out walking and we saw Mr Cartwright about to be attacked by a convict and another chap stopped it? Well, that was Seth! I recognized him at once. He was really taking a chance, and I heard from Molly that later he
beaten up by some other prisoners because of it. But he scarcely mentioned it, when he could have used that to gain my sympathy. Oh, I could go on, Florrie, but I really believe 'tis all genuine.'

Florrie raised her greying eyebrows. ‘Well, from what you says . . .' She paused thoughtfully. ‘But the truth of the pudding, you knows—'

‘That's the whole problem!' Rose came back at once. ‘There can't
any eating. Once you're convicted, that's it, even if you can prove your innocence. The only way you can be released is through a royal pardon and they're as rare as . . . as pink elephants! Only someone with contacts in high places and money can ever achieve that. And so when Charles said he'd at least listen to Seth's story, I thought . . . But the bastard only said that so as he could trick me and lock me in here!'

‘Rose! You mustn't call your husband . . .'

‘Well, that's what he is as far as I'm concerned! And now I don't know how on earth I can help Seth, and 'tis so unfair and unjust! And now as soon as he's fit enough, he'll be flogged for trying to escape, and he doesn't deserve it and I just can't bear it!'

Her voice had risen to a hysterical squeal as all the horror and torment of it entangled her in a vicious, strangling web. She drew in a wheezing sob as she tried to force back the constriction in her throat, pressing her hands hard over her mouth, but she was powerless against it, and with Florrie there to lean on, she broke down in floods of wrenching tears. Florrie moved from the chair and sat beside her on the bed, rocking her in her plump arms and smoothing her hair.

‘There, there, my lamb, you have a good cry, and let's try to think what's to do. This lad's gotten to you, and no matter what he's done, I doesn't hold with flogging neither. But, well, Dr Power, he has to say if someone's fit for a flogging, don't he? He's a good man, is Dr Power. Look how good and kind he were with your dear father. Maybe if you was to write to him, he might be able to do summat.'

Rose snatched in her breath and her eyes flashed. ‘Do you think so, Florrie?'

‘Well, I doesn't know, but it must be worth a try. Now you're the one who's good with words, like.'

‘Oh, Florrie, what a good idea!' Rose gripped the older woman's arm. ‘What would I do without you? I'll write to Dr Power at once,' she said purposefully, her tears subsiding as she got to her feet. ‘Now you keep a look out at the door and tell me if anyone's coming. No one else must have a clue about this. If Charles found out, there'd be hell to pay.'

And the dogged determination that characterized Rose Maddiford was burning brightly inside her once more.


ell, at least I feel as if I'm
something now,' Rose sighed as she folded the note and sealed it into an envelope. ‘God knows if 'twill do any good, but at least I'll have tried. And maybe you could call in to see Mrs Cartwright, if you wouldn't mind,' she cajoled, ‘and ask if Mr Cartwright could put in a good word for Seth. After all, Seth did save him from that attack, and Mr Cartwright always said that he were a model prisoner. He always awarded him maximum points towards his ticket of leave, and he
a principal warder so his opinion might count for something.'

Florrie frowned as she slid the letter down inside her full bosom to join the key. ‘Like as not, your man'll lose all his points
have extra years added to his sentence. He were an utter fool to try and bolt.'

‘But he was
, Florrie!' Rose cried, moisture glistening in her lavender-blue eyes. ‘Can you imagine being imprisoned for something you didn't do? Seth's twenty-nine now, so he'll be nearly forty before he's released. The best years of his life gone.
he survives that long. And if 'tweren't for Ned, he'd have been away to freedom in another week from now. Away to America to make a new life for himself, just as he'd planned in the first place. Only once he got to Plymouth, he decided he wanted to visit Dartmoor before he left. Well, he's seen Dartmoor all right!'

The words had been tumbling from her mouth in an angry stream and she pulled herself up short, breathless as the bitterness stung her tongue. Her body was rigid with outrage, and Florrie patted her hand to calm her, for she was secretly concerned for the baby.

‘Well, you'll have done all you can. Now, if you've been cooped up here all week, you could probably do with some fresh air and exercise. So why doesn't you go down and see that there nag o' yourn? I expect he'll have been missing you.'

‘Oh, yes, what a good idea!' Rose's face brightened but then instantly contracted into a scowl. ‘As long as I don't see Ned again. Oh, I'd cheerfully murder him. And I hope he's enjoying his wretched five pounds reward. Still,' she grimaced malevolently, ‘the other day, I could hear Gospel playing him up something rotten. Serves him damned well right. I hope Gospel bit him where it really hurts!'

‘That's my girl,' Florrie chuckled. ‘I never liked that boy neither. But you watch your step, Rose. You know what they says. Discretion is the better part of valour. And you'm treading a pretty fine line just now.'

‘Oh, I'll be careful, all right. I can't help Seth if I don't have my own freedom. Not that I've really a cat in hell's chance of helping him,' she muttered under her breath as she made for the door.

Her heart sang to be outside again. It was nearing the end of May, a kind, spring day when the warm sunshine lifted the scent of peat from the damp earth and into the air. Rose breathed it in deeply, pausing on the terrace for a moment to sweep her eyes over the familiar landscape of the open moor. Fencott Place was a grand house for its isolated location, built by one of the rich, so-called ‘improvers' whose schemes to bring the wild moorland under cultivation had failed spectacularly at the end of the previous century. But it had been to Rose's advantage, for when she had married Charles Chadwick from London and had wanted to remain living on the moor, the house had satisfied his high demands. Huh! Everything had to be just right for him to impress his superiority upon the locals, didn't it?

She went through the gate in the high wall at the side of the house and into the stable yard, wincing at the vile memory of what had happened last time she had been there. Seth, collapsed on his knees. Oh, she must try not to think about it, but it was there, etched on her soul for ever. She shook her head, marching along the row of loose boxes. They were all empty. Doubtless the horses were out in the fields and it was far too early for Ned to bring them in for the night.

The lower half of the last stable door – the largest box with the dog leg where she had hidden Seth – was still shut, and Rose peered over the top, her pulse suddenly racing. Surely Charles wouldn't have . . . But there was Amber, Rose's beautiful golden dog, nursing the odd assortment of her litter sired by the comical stray mongrel, Scraggles, who had limped into the yard from God knew where and become part of the household. The five pups had grown in the last week, no longer stumbling about with half-blind eyes, but finding their way confidently around the confines of the loose box. Rose slipped inside for a few minutes, Scraggles bounding joyfully around her while Amber wagged her tail contentedly as she watched her beloved mistress pick up and cuddle each little bundle of fluff in turn. When Rose held the tiny runt of the litter to her chest, two trusting, blue-hued eyes gazed up at her from the endearing little face, and Rose bit her lip. If it hadn't been for Seth, the creature would have died at birth.

‘I'll call you Lucky,' Rose whispered into its fur. ‘And you're the one I'm going to keep.'

She held it for a while longer, stroking its head, its round, soft body warm in her hand, before she replaced it next to its mother. It filled her with pleasure to see the happy canine family again, but the anticipation of being reunited with Gospel made her heart accelerate with joy. He was her soulmate. He shared her passion for excitement, for the freedom of the open moor, and to feel his power and strength beneath her was pure exhilaration. She couldn't wait for the child to be born so that she could ride him again.

She almost skipped out of the yard to the drove between the enclosed fields that belonged to the house. She expected at any moment to hear Gospel thundering across to her when he sensed her presence and thrust his gleaming ebony head over the high stone wall. She came to the gate into the first field and scanned it expectantly. Tansy and Merlin were cropping the fresh, spring grass, but there was no sign of Gospel. Ned must have put him in one of the other fields, perhaps to punish him for biting. Well, she wasn't having that, and she vowed soon to have them back together again. She went on. Gospel must be in the far field, she thought, and as Rose hurried to the gate, she called out jubilantly to him.

The field was green, peaceful.
. Rose's heart began to drum nervously as dread began to slither into her soul like some evil serpent. Gospel was nowhere to be seen.

She must have missed him. But . . . She ran back along the drove, calling frantically, climbing the gates, shouting, waving. Tansy lifted her head and started to amble forward. But where in God's name was Gospel?

Rose stumbled back into the yard, her pulse crashing at her temples as tentacles of ice closed around her soul, squeezing her ever more tightly. And there was Ned, sauntering across the cobbles, whistling tunelessly.
With Gospel's halter swinging from his shoulder

‘Where's Gospel?' she demanded, but only a small, strangled sound came from her lips.

Ned shrugged disinterestedly. ‘Gone,' was all he said.

‘W . . . what do you mean?'

‘Master sold 'en. And good riddance, I says.'

The world stood still. Horror and disbelief slashed at her, and her life shattered into tortured splinters like a breaking mirror.

She staggered, her mind grasping at emptiness. No. It couldn't be. This couldn't be for real. She was dreaming it, caught in some horrific nightmare. Oh, no.
Let me out of here!

She blundered back into the house, groping her way as if she were blind, the floor seeming to sway beneath her feet and the familiar walls dancing a macabre, mocking waltz around her. She knew Charles would be in his study and she crashed through the door without bothering to knock. Just as she had expected, Charles was sitting at the desk, reading some company report or other, puffing nonchalantly on a cigar. Smoke floated in the room in misty ribbons, stinging Rose's eyes and catching at the back of her throat.

Charles glanced up, surprised more than anything at the intrusion. Then his brown eyes narrowed critically at the unkempt state of his wife, her thick, dark curls coming down from their pins in her headlong haste. It was all very well in the bedroom when her long, cascading tresses excited him deliciously, but it was another thing to have her running about the house like a gipsy, especially with her swollen belly. It was grotesque. He couldn't wait for the birth of his healthy, handsome son, of course. But neither could he wait to get between his wife's beautiful, slender legs again. Just the thought of it made his trousers strain, and his forehead swooped in a resentful frown as if it were Rose's fault that he was temporarily unable to satisfy his lust.

‘Yes?' he barked implacably.

Rose glared at him for several seconds, hatred choking her as she tried to scrape enough air from her lungs to speak. ‘What . . . have you done . . . with Gospel?' she finally managed to grate through clenched teeth.

Charles considered her for some agonizing moments, drawing languidly on his cigar and then tapping the stub into the ashtray before releasing the smoke in a slow stream. ‘That wild beast was doing you no good,' he replied lazily with a shrug of his eyebrows. ‘I have been most lenient with you, knowing the freedom your father always allowed you, and your understandable grief over his death. But now you must think of our son and his position in society. It's time for you to become a respectable young woman, and that does not include gallivanting across the moor and making such a spectacle of yourself on that creature's back. I will buy you a more sedate mount for our rides together, something more like Tansy. I'll feel much happier with you riding a safer animal, and it will be far more appropriate for you as my wife.'

Rose didn't move. In her breast a painful shard of glass stabbed into what might once have been her heart, and she wondered if the time when she had been truly happy had ever existed. It couldn't have done, for all that remained in her soul was a tearing, eternal agony.

She stared at the man who was her husband, unblinking, her eyes refusing to believe that what they saw could possibly be real. A demented, swirling fury was piling up inside her in a foaming tide and suddenly it exploded in a violent rage.

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