Authors: Dangerous Games
Panic flared again. She swallowed, wondering if it would do any good to point out to him that Nature might make it necessary for them to stop longer than that at Galashiels. As if he read her thoughts again, he said gently, “If you require a private moment, we can arrange for one at the roadside where I can keep my eye on you.”
Heat flooded her cheeks. Hoping there would be no need for such a stop, she decided she would not eat or drink. Fortunately, at this time of year the Great North Road allowed for speed, so to reach the border would take only three or four hours unless the gathering fog slowed their pace. The farther they moved from the sea, she knew, the less likely that was to occur.
Silence reigned for several moments before she said quietly, “You said you require my assistance, sir. Will you tell me how you think I can help you?”
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “but make no mistake, Melissa. I will be most displeased if you create a scene at Galashiels when we change horses. Believe me when I say that you are legally bound to obey me, regardless of what anyone else may have told you. The fact that I chose to remove you abruptly rather than await the return of your mother and that fellow she lives with can have no legal bearing in this matter. They could not have prevented my reclaiming you.”
“You knew they were away?”
“Yes, I took the liberty of inquiring about them before we drove to the house, but as I said, their presence would have made no difference. He might have had the effrontery to insist upon a hearing before a magistrate, but although Scotland allows women to divorce their rightful husbands, it does not attempt to deny a father’s lawful authority over his own daughter. That scoundrel might have delayed matters, but he cannot stop me.”
“I hope you do, because if you embarrass me at Galashiels, I will make you very sorry. Even at this distance of time and place, I expect you can recall the folly of arousing my displeasure.”
Icy terror raced up her spine. Shivering, she said, “I-I won’t disobey you, sir.”
He reached over to pat her knee. “That’s my good girl. Now, address me as Papa, as you were used to do—not sir—and we shall get on very well.” Glancing out the window, he added in a more cheerful tone, “How very green these hills are.”
“Yes, w-we’ve had a lot of rain.”
“That’s the one thing I remember vividly from my last visit to this country,” he said, still looking out the window. “It seemed to rain the entire time I was here.”
“The last time—! W-were you in Scotland before, sir—Papa?”
Smiling at the hasty amendment, and relaxing again, he said “Does that surprise you? It should not, when you must know the greater part of the English gentry and nobility accompanied His Majesty on his historic visit two years ago. I saw you twice, in fact, once at Dalkeith and then at the King’s Drawing Room. I must tell you, I thought at first that they intended you to wed the young Duke of Buccleuch, but when you were not presented at the Drawing Room, I realized that could not be the case.”
“I was only sixteen,” she protested.
“Old enough to suit ambitious parents, and as I recall the matter, His Grace the duke is almost exactly your own age. I distinctly remember His Majesty refusing to allow him to drink the liqueur that was served after dinner at Dalkeith. Too strong it was, he said, for a lad so young.”
“I remember that dinner at Dalkeith Palace, of course,” she said, “and the Drawing Room, too, but I don’t recall seeing you.”
“Both events were dreadfully crowded, and I took care to keep out of your way,” he said, “especially since I doubted that I could meet that scoundrel your mother lives with without punching him in the nose. Hard enough to know I was in the same house with him, but I bore with it in order to catch a glimpse of my pretty daughter. It pleased me very much to see you dancing with the young duke.”
“Well, I like him well enough,” she said, “but not enough to want to marry him. In all fairness, I’ve never had the least hint that anyone expected me to do so.”
“That’s just as well. You won’t marry him.”
“Goodness, you sound very certain. Do you not approve of His Grace?”
“I scarcely know him, but you are going to marry someone else.”
“I daresay I shall, one day, but—” Breaking off, she regarded him with dawning apprehension. “What do you mean? Is that why you—? No, no, I am being foolish.”
“Not at all, my dear, if what you believe is that your father has arranged your marriage. I am sure that to do so is no more than my paternal duty demands.”
His tone was gentle, but the look in his eyes challenged her to deny his authority, and feeling panic stir again, she knew she lacked the courage to do so. Striving for calm, she said, “I daresay such arrangements are still made, though I do not know anyone whose father has arranged her marriage without so much as telling her that he intended to do so. Such customs have gone out of fashion here in Scotland.”
“Perhaps they have,” he agreed, adding in a harder tone, “but even in Scotland, I believe a daughter does not defy her father’s will.”
“N-no, sir.” Another shiver raced up her spine.
Silence fell again. She knew there was no hope that Penthorpe might be hard on their heels, for he and Susan had not intended to return for four more days. Nor would the servants act on their own to follow her, even if they could pick up her trail. The most she could hope was that someone would ride to the Highlands and urge her mother and stepfather to return at once. Even then, they could have no notion of what had become of her. She would remain wholly in Sir Geoffrey’s power unless and until she could manage to escape on her own.
Longingly, she wished she were more like her cousin Charley. Charley would know what to do. A year older than Melissa, Charley had always protected her from the consequences of their childhood mischief. Of course, Melissa reflected now, Charley had always been the one who led her into mischief in the first place. Still, her cousin had never let her suffer for their misdeeds. In those long-ago days, Melissa had followed Charley like a shadow and had benefited greatly from their friendship. That she was an expert horsewoman now was certainly due to Charley. Their Aunt Daintry—Susan’s younger sister and the present Lady Abreston—had taught both girls how to ride, but it was Charley who had helped Melissa overcome her initial terror of horses.
She was still thinking of her intrepid cousin when the coach rocked into an inn yard in Galashiels and she heard the coachman shout for a fresh team. Charley, she decided, would somehow manage to overcome both Sir Geoffrey and the coachman, and escape. She would never sit meekly, as Melissa was doing now. However, Charley had small acquaintance with Sir Geoffrey’s temper, while Melissa remembered too well the dreadful consequences of arousing it. Moreover, although Sir Geoffrey treated her with attentive consideration for the benefit of the bustling inn servants, even asking if she wanted a glass of lemonade brought out to the coach, he gave her no chance to escape. She declined the lemonade with quiet dignity, and glanced at the watch cunningly set into the gold bracelet she wore. It was four o’clock.
“That’s a pretty bauble,” Sir Geoffrey said.
“Aunt Daintry sent it to me from France on my eighteenth birthday,” she said. “She and Deverill ordered it made by the same jeweler who fashioned a much more expensive one years ago for the Empress Josephine.”
He showed no more interest in her watch, and silence fell until the coach was rattling along the road at speed again, when she summoned up a smile and said, “I wish you will tell me what lies ahead, sir—Papa. I cannot imagine that you’ve gone to all this trouble for the pleasure of my company.”
He shifted his weight, settled back comfortably against the squabs, and said matter-of-factly, “Since you seem willing to accept the situation with becoming serenity, I see no reason not to explain now. You will want time to become accustomed to the notion, after all.”
“What notion is that?” The words sounded calm enough, she thought, but her nerves were raw.
“Why, the notion of marriage, of course.”
“I hope you are jesting, but I own I do not find that very amusing.”
“I made no jest.” He regarded her speculatively for a long moment. Then he sighed and said, “Matters have come to such a pass that I have no choice about this decision, darling. You must just understand that and forgive your papa when he says that what must be must be.”
must be, then?”
“I suppose you know that you are a considerable heiress.”
Surprised by the apparent change of subject, she said, “Am I? I didn’t know.”
“Well, I have no son, so when I die, you will inherit Seacourt Head and everything else I own.”
“But you are not old, Papa. You will live for many years. I’d be a fool to depend upon such an expectation when you may well marry again and produce a son.”
“I cannot marry again,” he said.
“Good gracious, why not?”
“Because a man can have only one wife.”
“Do you mean to say you
marry again? When? Why did no one tell me?”
“Because I did no such thing, of course.”
“But then … Do you believe you are still married to my mother, sir? Because I must tell you that she did divorce you quite legally in a Scottish court.”
“I’m aware of that, but that relatively insignificant detail does not alter the fact that I have never divorced her in England.”
“But I don’t understand. Her marriage to Pen—Her marriage is quite legal. Why, I have a brother and a sister now, sir—twins—and they are certainly—”
“Call me Papa,” he snapped, adding in the same abrupt tone, “It is only by the idiotic laws of Scotland that your mother’s true marriage was dissolved. In England, I am still her lawful husband. I could have applied for a Parliamentary divorce when she ran off, of course, but the procedure is lengthy and expensive, so I never bothered with it. I still love your mother,” he added softly, “and in England, she is still my wife.”
“I-I see,” she said, suppressing another shiver. “Still, what has my being your heir, or your being still married to my mother in England, to do with anything else?”
“You are not just
heir, you see, but also heiress to a significant portion of Lady Ophelia Balterley’s vast fortune.”
“Great-Aunt Ophelia?” She remembered that outspoken lady with fondness, though she had not laid eyes on her in a number of years. Lady Ophelia was quite elderly and did not enjoy traveling. “I know she means to leave her fortune divided among the females in her family because she has a poor opinion of men, but I do not know the exact amount of her fortune or how, precisely, it is to be divided. As I understood the matter, Mama and Aunt Daintry stand to inherit most of her money.”
“You need not mention that fact to anyone else, however,” he said, glaring at her. “Look here, Melissa, I’m going to be frank with you. I owe a great deal of money to a man who is not willing to wait until my finances are in better trim to collect his due. When I told him that you are a considerable heiress, he agreed to accept you as his bride in place of the money I owe him.”
Oddly, she was tempted to ask how much he owed the man. Just what was she worth as a bride? However, aware that such impertinence would infuriate him, she said only, “Who is this man, sir?”
“Yarborne,” he replied. “Lord Yarborne. He’s no more than a baron, I’m afraid, and I know little about his antecedents, for he popped onto the London scene only a year or so ago. Small pickings for a girl who has danced with a duke, I grant you, but Yarborne is very wealthy, which ought to make up for that small defect. He is a perfectly suitable match for you.”
“What is he like?” She felt suddenly as if they discussed something of no more moment than the weather.
Will it rain tomorrow, Papa?
If her calm surprised him, he did not show it. He said, “He is not quite as tall as I am. I suppose he must be two or three years older, for he has a son a couple of years older than you are—at Oxford, I believe. But Yarborne is widowed, of course.”
She gazed at him for a long moment before she said, “I am persuaded that you must be teasing, sir. You cannot expect me to believe you really want me to marry a man old enough to be my father merely to repay him for lending you money.”
“He did not lend me money. It is a debt of honor.”
She had heard the term before. “In fact, you lost the money to him, gambling.”
“How I came to owe the money is not your concern,” he said curtly. “I do not propose to explain my actions. I expect your obedience, Melissa, and I will have it.”
Though her terrors had eased somewhat, she did not argue. Instead, as the miles passed, carrying her farther and farther from home, she tried to think how she could escape. If he was taking her to London, as she assumed he must be, they had five days or more of travel ahead. Even if she found herself unable to devise a plan in that time, it was now the end of April. Not only would Lady Ophelia be in town but Charley as well. Surely, they would help her avoid the horrid fate Sir Geoffrey intended for her.
Conversation in the coach grew desultory after that. They changed horses again at Jedburgh at dusk, crossed the border an hour later, and shortly after nightfall reached the inn Sir Geoffrey had mentioned. As he handed her down from the carriage, Melissa looked around curiously, assessing her chances for making an escape that very night.
The inn was small, its yard lighted by torches. It was by no means as busy as inns she had seen at Galashiels and Jedburgh, but laughter rang from its taproom, and ostlers scurried to and fro. When Sir Geoffrey ushered her inside, she had a sudden fear that to prevent her escape he would insist that she share his room, even if to do so he had to declare her his wife. To preclude that horrifying prospect, she said clearly as the landlord hurried to greet them, “What a cozy inn this is, Papa, to be sure.”
When Sir Geoffrey gave orders for two bedchambers and a private parlor for their dinner, she took hope. With a room of her own, she would surely find opportunity for escape, and as a first step, she said, “I’d like to tidy myself before we dine, Papa.”