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BOOK: Amanda Scott
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“And how much had he lost?” Vexford asked.

“Twenty guineas,” the vicar said with an enigmatic smile.

“By Jupiter, Dory,” Thomas exclaimed, “the poor fellow must be all about in his head! You didn’t leave him out there all alone, did you?”

“Patience, Thomas, I have not yet come to the end of my tale. When I asked how he would manage to pay what he owed, he said the poor were his treasurers. He said his opponent always sends some worthy person to receive the money lost, ‘And,’ says he to me, ‘you are at present His purse-bearer, sir.’”

Thomas stared. “You’re hoaxing us, Dory, admit it! Dash it, it ain’t the thing for a man of the cloth to be telling such Banbury tales.”

In response, the vicar reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew a handful of guineas. “See for yourself. I would offer to pay for our supper, but I am honor-bound to contribute it to the poor box. I just wanted to share my tale with someone else before I did so. Passing strange, is it not?”

Thomas gaped at the golden coins in his brother’s hand, then looked at Vexford.

Though Nick might have suspected another man of lying, not for a moment did he think the vicar had done so. And although he knew that innocents were frequently duped by sharps of one sort or another, who allowed them to win money at a gaming table in order to draw them back again to play for higher stakes at a later date, this was clearly not such a case. Such dupes were, in his experience, more greedy and less honorable than the worthy vicar. And no matter what devious thoughts might have been in the strange chess player’s mind, the fellow could have nothing to gain by giving the vicar money for the poor box.

The servant soon placed their supper before them, and conversation became desultory until they had finished eating. Then, when a second bottle of wine had been placed on the table, the vicar asked casually, “How does young Oliver fare at our alma mater, Nicholas?”

Nick shrugged and said with a hint of amusement, “Haven’t heard of any earthquakes or fires in Oxford of late, Vicar, so my guess is that he’s been locked up or dug six feet under and they just haven’t got round yet to telling the family.”

The vicar chuckled, but Lord Thomas said with a grimace, “That brother of yours is a damned menace, if you ask me. I still remember that awful fortnight I spent with you at Owlcastle during a long vacation, when that brat put honey in my shoes and then made me pay him to guard my door against some villain or other who supposedly enjoyed putting tacks on the door sill each morning. Dashed if I didn’t catch that scalawag, Oliver, with tacks in hand the very next day!”

“That was years ago, Tommy,” Nick said, grinning at him, “and you asked for it by treating him with all the disdain of your superior years and education, you know.”

“Well, you didn’t treat him so well yourself, as I recall,” Lord Thomas retorted. “When he snipped the seams of your leather breeches to make them fall apart when you mounted your horse, you pinned his ears back good and proper.”

“Yes, that was to teach him respect for his elders. You might have done the same with my goodwill.”

“Well, I might if I’d been a Goliath like you, but even then young Oliver was near as tall as I am. Moreover, though I might have had your goodwill, I’d not have had Ulcombe’s.” Lord Thomas gave an exaggerated shiver. “Your father’s not a man to cross, and he fair dotes on that scapegrace brother of yours.”

“He might have doted on Oliver then, Tommy, but the lad is fast losing his charm, I’m afraid. You may not credit the news, but my father complained recently that Oliver’s been wasting the ready at an unbelievable pace and said he means to put an end to it. If I’m not mistaken, the long vacation began nearly a sennight ago, so I won’t be surprised if the lad’s crest isn’t soon lowered a bit.”

The vicar said tolerantly, “As I remember that boy, he was always full of juice and ginger.”

“He’s spoilt rotten,” Lord Thomas said, not mincing matters. “Oh, he don’t trouble you any, Nick, but you mind my words. If they’ve let him out of Oxford, London’s where he’ll be, and you’ll have your hands full. Just you see if you don’t.”

“Oliver doesn’t trouble me,” Nick said amiably, “because I don’t allow anyone to do so. I go my own road, Tommy, and let others go theirs. You said a while back that my father is not a man one chooses to annoy. Would you say perhaps that I am the more easily crossed, old friend?”

Lord Thomas choked on his wine, and the vicar pounded him on the back, saying sternly to Vexford as he did so, “I have never thought you a heedless man, Nicholas, so I shall not pretend to believe you spoke as you did just now without thinking. Nor do I hesitate to tell you to your head that it don’t become you to speak like that to Thomas.”

“I’ll speak as I choose when he plays the fool.”

“No one expects you to cherish fools, but neither would anyone who knows you believe you could harm a friend. Indeed, I believe I know you as well as anyone does, so I shall go further and dare to say that no one who knows you would expect you to ignore any fellow human being who appealed to you for help.”

“I’ll take issue with that, Vicar, for it would depend upon the particular human being in question. In my experience, most petitioners want only to have their paths smoothed for them without having to exert themselves in any way. In the idealistic days of my youth, I lent money to friends and put myself out in other ways to help those I thought deserving. In most cases, not only was the money not repaid, but my so-called friends never expressed any gratitude, and made it clear that they expected to be able to put a hand in my pocket whenever the fancy struck them. I soon learned to be more wary, I promise you, and in the end decided it was best to be and let be.”

“But surely you would not refuse a friend in need,” the vicar protested, looking at him with a worried frown.

“Perhaps not, if he were really my friend and really in need,” Nick said with a sardonic smile. He stood up, adding, “It is nearly eight, I believe, and my man will have returned to the inn from the racing stables by now. Since I’ve got horses running tomorrow and Friday that are both favored to win, I ought to have a word with him before he goes to bed.”

Lord Thomas looked surprised. “Do you mean to say you don’t intend to go back to the tables? But, Nick, your luck is well and truly in vein tonight!”

Vexford smiled. “One reason my luck does not desert me, Tommy, is that I don’t push it when it’s been strained. Considering what I’ve won the past two nights, I’d doubtless be wise to take to my bed now and get some sleep. However, you needn’t fret, for I don’t intend to be wise, only to meet with my trainer. I shall return after I’ve spoken with him.”

The vicar rose and shook his hand. “I daresay you are staying at the Rutland Arms, Nicholas. I shall have taken to my bed before you return, but I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I shall put my money on your horses to win, too,” he added with a smile. “Then, perhaps, next time I’ll also be able to afford the Rutland Arms.”

Melissa’s room at the Rutland Arms Inn was small but well appointed and tidy. However, although she recognized the inn as a first-class hostelry, she was anything but comfortable. The past three days had been one long exercise in self-discipline, and she was exhausted from what seemed to be an unceasing need to gauge Sir Geoffrey’s unpredictable and often dangerous moods, and to adjust her demeanor accordingly.

Mag had provided some relief, but not as much as might have been expected, for she had not the least notion of the true situation, and her hearty cheerfulness and frequently expressed delight in things she saw along the road irritated Sir Geoffrey. At one point, he had demanded that she ride up front with the driver, leaving Melissa alone to try to assuage his bad humor.

Even now, Melissa found his outrageous plan nearly unbelievable. However, when she had dared suggest that he had no right to marry her off to a stranger merely to repay his gaming debts, he had slapped her, a reaction that had reminded her instantly of how dangerous it was to cross him. After that, she had not even dared to ask for more information about Lord Yarborne, nor had she met with the least opportunity for escape. And although she had considered enlisting Mag’s assistance, she soon realized that the girl was neither clever enough nor discreet enough to trust with such a confidence. Moreover, Mag was utterly in awe of Sir Geoffrey, and Melissa did not think she would entertain for a moment the notion of defying his orders.

Not until now, in fact, had Melissa managed to have more than a brief few moments of solitude, for Mag had slept in the same bedchamber with her at each inn, and Sir Geoffrey had scarcely let the pair of them out of his sight at any other time. But shortly after sunset, he had set out in search of Yarborne, ordering Melissa to remain in her room until his return. An hour later, when Mag had suggested ordering supper served to them there, Melissa quickly pleaded a headache and begged her to take her meal below in the coffee room. Mag, as anxious for freedom as Melissa herself, had made no objection, and so it was that Melissa had found herself alone at last.

Shuddering at the thought of what her father would do if he caught her, she waited only moments after the sound of Mag’s footsteps faded away to silence before she snatched up her cloak and threw it round her shoulders. Then, drawing on her gloves, she hurried down to the torchlit inn yard, taking care to avoid the coffee room.

Pausing on his way back through the gaming room to exchange a few brief words and another drink with friends, Nick made his way to the exit at last, stepped outside into Kingston Passage, and shouted for his horse.

Though darkness had fallen, a half moon perched high above, making it unnecessary for him to request a boy to light his way. The Rutland Arms, located on Newmarket High Street halfway between the town center and the Heath, was a popular inn for the racing set. Since Nick had stayed there from the time of his first visit to Newmarket, he thought that even on a darker night, his horse would know the way, and that was just as well, for the fresh air made it clear that he had taken more wine than he usually did. A steady stream of traffic crowded the road, but the cool night breezes soon cleared his head, and he enjoyed the ride. By the time he reached the arched gateway approaching the two-story inn, he felt refreshed and decided he might linger in the taproom a while if he found any acquaintance there after he had spoken with his man. First, however, he had to see his horse safely into its stall.

Though the stable area appeared to be temporarily deserted, he knew well that he had only to shout for a stableboy and one would appear without delay. But though he did not make a habit of looking after his own animals, he did not mind doing so. Thus it was that he rode straight into the dimly lighted stable.

He was conscious of movement near the back of the building, and heard unmistakable sounds of horses that had been disturbed. Dismounting, he peered into the dimly lit interior. “Who goes there?” he called, stepping ahead of his horse.

Silence greeted him. As he moved farther into the stable, he saw that one of his horses had been saddled, but there appeared to be no one near it. Then suddenly, a hooded figure enveloped in a long cloak threw itself into the saddle, leaned forward, and kicked the horse, which immediately sprang forward toward the open stable doors.

Although Nick stood directly in its path, he did not jump out of the way but only stepped a little to one side. Just as the horse would have shot past him, he reached out, grabbed the bridle, and held on until the animal plunged to a halt beside him.

An infuriated shriek was the rider’s sole response.

“One ought not to ride full tilt out of a stable,” Nick said calmly. “Such lack of consideration for others might well result in an innocent person’s being run down.”

“Let go!” The angry, frightened voice came from low in the rider’s throat.

In the dim light Nick could not see a face, but the emotion in the voice intrigued him. “I think you had better get down,” he said, “and explain yourself to me.”

Instead, the rider wrenched at the reins and kicked the horse, trying by brute force to yank the bridle from his hand.

Shaking his head, Nick reached for the figure and unceremoniously lifted it from the saddle. The lightness of the body in his arms surprised him, but not nearly so much as did its soft, slender shape as it squirmed frantically to escape his grasp. The hood fell back, and even in the gloom he saw at once that his captive was female and a very pretty female at that, with long flaxen hair.

“What the devil!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, please, sir, let me go! You must.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” Nick said, grinning at her. “I think I’ve just taken the biggest prize of the night, my pretty little horse thief, and I’ve never been a man to throw away good winnings.”

Three
Vexford Rejects Chance

M
ELISSA STARED AT HER CAPTOR
in dismay. She had worried that Mag might catch sight of her as she crept past the coffee room, or that she might meet Sir Geoffrey in the inn yard. She had even worried about what she would say to a groom or stableboy with effrontery enough to try to prevent her from leaving. But it had not once occurred to her that her escape could be thwarted by a total stranger who believed she was a thief. Certainly, she had never expected to meet one large enough and strong enough to hold her straight out in front of him with her legs dangling, in order to examine her as if she were no more than an irksome child.

He was not only powerful, but dressed as he was, in a close-fitting dark riding coat and buckskin breeches, he looked both muscular and athletic. He had a rugged, handsome face with deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose. Despite the dim light, she noted a hint of a dimple near the left corner of his mouth, and she could see that his eyes were dark blue.

He set her down but took the precaution of retaining his hold on one arm, and though his grip was light, she could tell that his intention was to keep her there.

Gathering her dignity, she said with forced calm, “Release me, please. You have no right to interfere with me.”

BOOK: Amanda Scott
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