Authors: Miranda Jarrett
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
COLUMBINE by Miranda Jarrett
“I’m likely more different than any man you’ve ever known”
His arrogance infuriated Dianna, all the more since he was right.
“Do you think I would have willingly come abroad if I had known you were here, too?”
“Perhaps leg shackles and a Bridewell guard colored your choice. Either one of us is lying, or we’ve both been played for fools”
“You lied readily under oath!”
“I don’t lie, my girl, not under oath, and not for the likes of you” Kit wanted to grab her by the shoulders, to shake some sense into her foolish over bred head.
“I told the court exactly what you told me, that you had killed your uncle..:
Miranda Jarrett was an award-winning designer and art director before turning to writing full-time, and considers herself sublimely fortunate to have a career that combines history and happy endings, even if it’s one that’s also made her family regular patrons of the local pizzeria. A descendant of early settlers in New England, she feels a special kinship with her popular fictional family, the Sparhawks of Rhode Island. Miranda and her husband, a musician and songwriter, live near Philadelphia with their two young children and two old cats. During what passes for spare time, she paints water colour landscapes, bakes French chocolate cakes and whips up the occasional last-minute Hallowe’en costume.
For Kempy, who gave me nightmares long ago with tales of
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All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all the incidents are pure invention.
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First published in Great Britain 1998
Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited,
Eton House, 18-24 Paradise Road, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1SR
Susan Holloway Scott 1992
ISBN 0 263 81426 2
Set in Times Roman 10 on 12pt.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Caledonian International Book Manufacturing Ltd, Glasgow
Twenty paces to the end of the red Turkey carpet, twelve more across its width, then twenty paces back to the fireplace …. Over and over Kit Sparhawk counted his steps as he tried to control his impatience. It was nearly nine o’clock now, the pale winter moon framed high in the arched windows of Sir Henry Ashe’s drawing room. Only Kit’s promise to Jonathan kept him there, and his jaw tightened at the last memory of his brother, delirious with pain and fever. In Jonathan’s place, he had travelled eight weeks and six thousand miles. Another four hours in a baronet’s mansion should make little difference. He owed Jonathan that much. Yet it still rankled Kit to wait at all for Sir Henry. Gentry or not, the man was a rogue, fat and florid and too cunning by half for a partner in trade.
A sly, cheating son of a-Eighteen, nineteen, twenty steps, turn… Once
again Kit forced himself to swallow his Irritation, counting the footprints his boots left in the deep plush. The bank drafts were there on the desk, waiting for the signature that Sir Henry never quite found time to give. Tonight Kit wouldn’t leave until he did. He’d had enough of the baronet’s excuses to last a lifetime. He struck one fist into the palm of his other hand, remembering how Sir Henry had tried every trick he could to avoid paying what he owed.
God knew the colonies weren’t free of scoundrels—Kit’s own past was hardly spotless—but in the three months he had been in London, Kit had not met one man he’d trust beyond an empty handshake.
He dropped into one of the silk-covered armchairs and stared moodily into the fire. Praise Heaven he would be sailing again in less than a fortnight, and leaving London well behind. His thoughts rolled ahead, as they always did, to home—to his sisters and Jonathan and Plumstead.
A woman’s scream, high and shrill with fear, pierced the house’s silence. Without thinking Kit was on his feet and through the door. All was still in the front hall, the flame in the blue night lantern casting eerie shadows across the portraits that ringed the walls. Kit hesitated by the staircase, listening. He had no idea from where the scream had come or where to turn next, and he cursed the vastness of the mansion.
Suddenly one of the panelled doors opposite flew open and a small figure in white hurtled through it and into Kit. Automatically he caught the woman and steadied her. In that split second his senses registered the slipperiness of silk over soft flesh, round breasts crushed against his chest, a tangled cloud of dark hair redolent of lavender.
“Stay now, lass, and let me help,” he said gently.
Her face was white with the terror that filled her eyes, and her breath came in ragged shudders. Her feet bare, wearing only a night shift, she scarcely came to his shoulder.
“I’ve killed him,” she whispered hoarsely.
“I left him there, still as death itself. Oh, Mother of God, what will become of me now?”
“Hush, sweet, there’s not enough of you to kill a butterfly, let alone a man,” said Kit as he stroked the hair back from her forehead. Despite the fear that marked her face, he saw she was very pretty and young, perhaps twenty. Who could she be, he wondered.
Sir Henry had no daughters, and this was decidedly not Lady Frances. Nor could she be a servant:
there was a delicacy to her that spoke of ease and wealth, and her speech was that of a lady.
“But I swear by all that’s holy that he is dead, and by my hand!” With a little sob she buried her face in Kit’s shirt, and protectively he slipped his arms around her shaking shoulders. He knew he should go find the man she claimed to have killed, but he was reluctant to leave her just yet. She seemed so small and vulnerable in his arms, as fragile as a wounded sparrow.
Suddenly the girl broke free and stared up at him with wild eyes.
“Who are you?”
“Christopher Sparhawk, lass, though most call me Kit.” In the uneven light, he now saw how her shift was torn, the costly lace at the neckline ripped across:
the twin curves of her breasts. She was aware of his scrutiny and, shamed, she tried to clutch the torn edges together. Red marks that would darken to bruises stained her throat and shoulders, and Kit felt a surge of anger at the man who had done this to her. Some cut-throat intruder, a thief perhaps, that she’d unwittingly surprised: who else would treat a lady so? Instinctively Kit felt beneath his coat for the long knife he always carried, even now in London.
Slowly, so as not to startle her further, he extended his other hand to her. There was no mistaking the desperation in her eyes, and he felt sure she wanted to trust him.
“Please, let me help you. Tell me what has happened, and then we’ll go to Sir Henry.”
“You’re one of his friends, aren’t you?” She backed further from him, her chin tucked low with wariness like a hunted animal.
“No, stay where you are! I should have known he’d not come alone. I’ve heard what’s said about him, how he likes to watch others before he can take his own pleasure. A guinea he gave to a footman last month, as if he could buy that silly knave’s silence for what had passed on Lady Frances’s dining table! Perhaps he’s paid you, too, then, to be a party to his debauchery?”
Her gaze swept over him, noting the expensive cut of Kit’s calamanco coat and the linen ruffles at his throat.
“But, no, you’re a gentleman. You came for the sport alone, didn’t you?”
“Nay, I came to talk matters of trade, nothing more,” said Kit uneasily. God, she meant Sir Henry.
It couldn’t be anyone else.
Her laughter was choked with bitterness, and tears glistened in her lashes.
“Trade, was it? Where did he promise you could have me, then? At his counting house, on his desk, with all the clerks to gawk and cheer at my shame?”
The tears spilled over, streaming freely down her cheeks.
“Oh, how I wish I were the one who was dead!”
“Nay, lass, never wish that,” said Kit as he stepped toward her again. But before he reached her, his eye caught a movement in the shadows. Quickly he wheeled around, and the girl followed.
“Sparhawk! By all that’s holy, I’m glad you’re here!” exclaimed Sir Henry Ashe, leaning heavily against the doorframe for support.
“Mark all that you see, man, and be ready to swear to it!”
The girl’s hand fluttered to her mouth.
“You’re–yofi’re not dead!”
“Aye, and no thanks to you, you murdering slut!”
growled the baronet. His wig was gone and across his shaven head was a gash that bled profusely across his face, and his shirt and coat were soaked red.
“Strike me with a candlestick and leave me to die like a dog!”
“You frightened me. You would not listen—” “Ungrateful baggage, after all I’ve done for you!”
“Oh, such fine things you’ve done for me, Sir Henry!” the girl cried bitterly.
“You took my trust and respect and my innocence, too, and treated them as if they were worth no more than a handful of dust!”
“Enough of your lies, you little chit!” His mouth twisted with rage, Sir Henry raised his blood-streaked fist to strike her. The girl squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the blow.
But the blow never fell, Instead Kit grabbed Sir Henry’s wrist, holding it so tightly over the man’s head that the baronet yelped with pain and frustration.
“The devil take you, Sparhawk, let me go! How dare you interfere in my personal affairs!”
Disgusted, Kit released Sir Henry and watched him retreat, rubbing his wrist. Kit could feel the girl hovering close behind him, her hands resting lightly on the back of his coat. She needed him to protect her, and he would not let her down.
“If you call beating this young lady part of your personal all fairs—” “Lady!” Sir Henry spat out the word contemptuously.
“This jade’s no more a lady than II She’s a wicked, cunning little creature, and don’t let her tell you otherwise.”
“Hold your tongue, Ashe.” Kit struggled hard to control his anger. He was a large man and a strong one, and Sir Henry was neither. If he gave in to the impulse to strike the baronet’s fat, choleric face, he’d likely finish the task the girl had begun with a single blow.
“From what I can see, you’ve precious little right to call yourself a gentleman.”
“Take care what you say, sir, or I’ll demand my satisfaction!”
“Don’t tempt me, Sir Henry,” snapped Kit.
“Pistols or swords make no difference to me.”
Furiously Sir Henry blotted at the cut with his folded handkerchief, peering up at Kit with his other eye.
“You would defend her, Sparhawk? Be her gallant?
God’s blood, are you her lover, too?”
“No, blast you! I don’t even know her name!”
“Then permit me to introduce you to the little strumpet you’ve staked your honor on.” Slowly he circled around Kit until he faced the girl. To Kit’s surprise, she did not flinch when Sir Henry took her hand and drew her forward.
“Lady Dianna Grey, meet Christopher Sparhawk. He’s from the American colonies, and more accustomed to red savages than London ladies like yourself, sweetheart. He can’t see beyond your pretty face to the black, rotten heart you keep inside.”
The girl twisted back to look beseechingly over her shoulder at Kit.
“Go now, Master Sparhawk,” she said hurriedly.
“You need hear none of this. Sir Henry was right. This is not your affair. Aye, you’ve been kind, but there is no place for kindness here.
Go, please; I beg you!”
Before Kit could answer, Sir Henry jerked her sharply by the arm.
“Oh, he’s not going yet, Dianna.
I’ll wager he won’t leave you. What did you say to make him your champion? Did you tell him I’d seduced you? Did you play the poor, piteous orphan, the wounded dove?”
Bewildered, Kit watched the emotion drain from the girl’s face until her expression was wooden as a doll’s. He told himself he should take her in his arms and away from this house at once, but her reaction made him pause, uncertain, as Sir Henry continued.