Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical
Joshua sniffed. ‘What about the horses?’
Martin’s lips twitched but he suppressed the urge to smile, assuming instead a repressively haughty attitude. His brows rose to chilling heights. ‘You aren’t about to suggest I don’t know how to take care of my cattle, are you?’
Muttering, Joshua threw him a darkling glance.
‘Get off to bed, you old curmudgeon. When you’re well enough to ride, you may take a horse from the stables and come on to London. It’ll have to be that hack of George’s; it’s the only animal remaining with sufficient resemblance to the equine species to meet your high standards.’
Not at all mollified, Joshua humphed. But he knew better than to argue. Contenting himself with a last warning— ‘There’s rain on the way, so’s you’d best take heed’—he stumped down the hall towards the faded baize-covered door at its rear.
Smiling, Martin returned to his curricle. Dismissing the wide-eyed lads, he climbed to the box seat and clicked the reins. The carriage swept down the weed-choked drive. Martin did not glance back.
As he passed through the gateposts marking the main entry, through the heavy iron gates, half off their hinges, Martin heaved a heartfelt sigh. For thirteen years, his home had glowed in his memory, a place of charm and grace, an Elysian paradise he had longed to regain. Fate had granted him his wish but, as fickle as ever, had denied him his dream. The charm and grace had vanished, victim to the neglect of the years since his father had had it in his care.
He would restore it—bring back the gracious beauty, the calming sense of peace. On that he was determined. Martin’s jaw set, his eyes glinted, grey steel in the afternoon
sun. In truth, he was glad to leave behind the travesty of his dream. He would remain in London until the work was done. When next he saw his home, it would once again be the place he had carried in his heart through all the years of his roaming. His particular paradise.
The road to Taunton loomed ahead. Checking his team for the turn, Martin cast a quick glance to the west. Joshua had been right—there was rain on the way. Pursing his lips, Martin considered his options. If he stopped at Taunton, London the next day would be a tough order. He would make for Ilchester—he and Joshua had passed the previous night at the Fox in tolerable comfort. Decision made, Martin dropped his hands, letting the horses stretch their legs. From memory, there was a short cut, just south of Taunton, which would see him in Ilchester before the coming storm.
Two hours later, the curricle swayed perilously as the wheels hit yet another rut. Martin swore roundly. He reined in his team to peer ahead into the gathering gloom. The short cut, dimly remembered as a fair road, had not lived up to expectations. A low mutter came from the west. Martin scanned the horizons, barely visible beneath the low-lying cloud. He doubted he could even make the London road before the storm struck.
He was gently urging the horses over the rutted stretch, dredging his memory in an effort to recall any nearby shelter, when a scream rent the air. The horses plunged.
Rapidly bringing them under control, Martin leapt from his perch and ran to their heads. He caught hold of their bits just in time to prevent them rearing as a second scream sliced through the night. No doubt about it, a woman’s scream, coming from the woods just ahead. Swiftly, Martin tied the team securely to a nearby gate and, grabbing the pair of loaded pistols from beneath the seat, made for the trees. Once in their shadow, he took care to move silently, thanking the years of his misspent youth, when he had often gone poaching on his father’s preserves with young Johnny Hobbs from the village.
Some distance into the wood, he froze. Before him lay a small clearing, a track leading into it from the opposite direction. Sounds of a struggle came from an ill-assorted trio, waltzing in the shadows in the centre.
‘Keep still, you little…!’
! Gawd! She bit my finger, the doxy!’
As one man pulled away, the group resolved into two burly men dressed in unkempt frieze and a lady, unquestionably a lady, in a silk gown which shimmered in the twilight. The larger of the men succeeded in grabbing the woman from behind, trapping her arms by her sides. Despite her efforts to kick him, he managed to hold her.
‘Listen, missus. The master said to hold you ’ere and not to harm a single hair of your head. Now how’s we to do that if’n you don’t stop still?’
The exasperation in the man’s voice brought a sympathetic smile to Martin’s face. The clearing was too large to allow him to creep up on them. Quietly, he worked his way around so that the man holding the woman would have his back to him.
‘You fools!’ The woman and her captor teetered perilously. ‘Don’t you know the price for kidnapping? If you let me go, I’ll pay you double what your master will!’
Martin’s brows rose. The woman’s voice was unexpectedly mature. Clearly, she had not lost her head.
‘Maybe so, lady,’ growled the man nursing his finger. ‘But the master’s gentry and they’re mean when crossed. No—I don’t rightly see as how we can oblige.’
Holding both pistols fully cocked, Martin stepped from the trees. ‘Dear me. Haven’t you been taught to always oblige a lady?’
The man holding the woman let her go and swung to face Martin. In the same moment, Martin saw the second man draw a knife. He had a clear shot and took it, the ball passing into the man’s elbow. The man dropped the knife and howled. His comrade turned to the source of the sound and so missed the pretty sight of ex-Major Martin Willesden, soldier of fortune and experienced man at arms, being laid low by a right to the jaw, delivered by a very small fist. Martin, his attention on the man he had shot, did not see the blow coming. His head jerked back from the contact and
struck a low branch. Stunned, he crumpled slowly to the ground.
Helen Walford stared at the long form stretched somnolent at her feet. God in heaven! It wasn’t Hedley Swayne after all! The discharged pistol, still smoking, was clutched in the man’s left hand. His right hand held a second pistol, cocked and ready. She darted forward and grabbed it. Catching her skirts in one hand, she leapt over the sprawled form and swung to train the pistol on her captor, hampered in his efforts to reach her by the body between. ‘Keep your distance!’ she warned. ‘I know how to use this.’
Noting the steadiness of the pistol pointed at his chest, the man who had held her decided to accept her word. He glanced back at his accomplice, now on his knees, moaning in pain. He threw Helen a malevolent glance. ‘Blast!’
He eyed her menacingly, then turned and stumped over to his mate. Helping him up, he growled, ‘Let’s get out of this. The master’s bound to be along shortly. To my mind, he can sort this lot out hisself.’
His words carried to Helen. Her eyes widened in shock. ‘You mean this man isn’t your master?’ She spared a glance for the still form at her feet. Heavens! What had she done?
The men looked at the crumpled figure. ‘That swell? Never set eyes on him afore, missus.’
‘Whoever he be, he’s goin’ to be none too pleased with you when he wakes up,’ added the second man with relish.
Helen swallowed and gestured with the gun. Grumbling, the two rogues made their way to the edge of the clearing where stood a disreputable gig pulled by a single broken-down nag. They clambered aboard and, whistling up the horse, departed down the rough track.
Left alone in the gloom with her unconscious rescuer, Helen stood and stared at the recumbent form. ‘Oh, lord!’
Thus far, her day had been a resounding disaster. Kidnapped in the small hours, bundled up in a distinctly odoriferous blanket, bustled from one carriage to another until the sounds of London had been left far behind, she had spent the day being battered and jostled, tied and gagged, trussed and trapped in a worn-out chaise. Her head was still pounding. And now she had been rescued, only to lay her rescuer low.
With a groan, Helen pressed a hand to her temple.
Fate was having a field day.
he back of his head hurt. Martin’s first thought on regaining consciousness convinced him he was still alive. But, when his lids fluttered open, he realised his error. He had to be dead. There was an angel hanging over him, her golden hair lit by an unearthly radiance. A sudden twinge forced his eyes shut.
He could not be dead. His head hurt too much, even though it was cradled in the softest lap imaginable. A delicate hand brushed his brow. He trapped it in one of his. No spectre, his angel, but flesh and blood.
‘What happened?’ He winced, pain stabbing behind his eyes.
Helen, bending over him, winced in sympathy. ‘I’m dreadfully afraid that I hit you. On the jaw. You stumbled back and hit a branch.’
When a spasm of pain—or was it irritation?—passed over her rescuer’s strong features, Helen’s guilt increased. As soon as the rattle of the gig had receded, she had fallen on her knees beside her victim. Quelling all maidenly hesitation— she was hardly a maiden, after all—she had bent her mind to ministering to the injuries she had caused. His shoulders were abominably heavy, but, eventually, she had managed to lift his head on to her lap, gently stroking back the raven locks that had fallen across his brow.
Martin held on to her hand, reluctant to let his anchor to reality slip. It was a small hand, the bones delicate between his fingers. Gradually, the pounding in his head subsided, leaving a dull ache. He put up his free hand to feel the bruise on his chin. Just in time, he remembered not to try and feel the bump on his head. It was, after all, resting on her lap and she sounded like a lady.
‘Do you always attack your rescuers?’ Martin struggled to sit up.
Helen helped him, then sat back on her heels to look at him, open concern in her eyes. ‘I really must apologise. I thought you were Hedley Swayne.’
Gingerly, Martin examined the lump rising on the back of his skull. Her voice, if nothing else, confirmed his angel’s station. The soft, rounded tones slid into his consciousness like warmed honey. He frowned. ‘Who’s Hedley Swayne? The master who arranged your abduction?’
Helen nodded. ‘So I believe.’ She should have guessed this man wasn’t Hedley—his voice was far too deep, far too gravelly. Feeling at a distinct disadvantage due to the unfortunate circumstance of their meeting, she studied her hands, clasped in her lap, and wondered what her rescuer was thinking. She had had ample opportunity to admire his length as he had lain stretched out beside her. A most impressive length. The single comprehensive glance she had had, before his head had hit the branch, had left a highly favourable impression. Despite her predicament, Helen’s lips twitched. She could not recall being quite so impressed in years. Reality intruded. She had hit him and knocked him out.
, doubtless, was not impressed at all.
Surreptitiously observing his damsel in distress as she knelt beside him in the shadowy twilight, Martin could understand his earlier conviction that she was an angel. Thick golden curls rioted around her head, spilling in chaotic confusion on to her shoulders. Very nicely turned shoulders, too. A silk evening gown which he thought would be apricot under normal light clung to her shapely curves. He could not guess how tall she was but all the rest of her was constructed on generous lines. He glanced at her face. In the poor light, her features were indistinct. An unexpectedly strong desire to see more, in better light, possessed him. ‘I take it this same Hedley Swayne is expected here at any moment?’
‘That’s what the two men said.’ Helen spoke dismissively. In truth, she could summon little interest in her abductor; her rescuer was far more fascinating.
Slowly, Martin got to his feet, grateful for his angel’s steadying hand. His faculties were a trifle unsettled, his senses distracted by her nearness. ‘Why did they leave?’ She was quite tall; her curls would tickle his nose if she were closer, her forehead level with his lips. Just the right height for a tall man. Her legs, glorious legs, were deliciously long. He resisted the urge to examine them more closely.
‘I held the second pistol on them.’ Sensing his distraction and worried that she might have caused him serious injury, Helen frowned, trying to study his expression through the gloom. Reminded of his pistols, she bent to retrieve them, her silk skirts clinging to her shapely derrière.
Martin looked away, shaking his head to dislodge the fantasies crowding in. Damn it! The situation was potentially dangerous! Definitely not the time for idle dalliance. He cleared his throat. ‘In my present condition, I feel it might be wise to leave before Mr Swayne arrives. Unless you think it preferable to stay and face him?’
Helen shook her head. ‘Heavens, no! He’ll have a coach and men with him. He never travels without outriders.’ Her contempt for her abductor rang in her tone. A sudden thought struck her. ‘Where are we?’
‘South of Taunton.’
‘Taunton?’ Helen stood, the pistols hanging from her hands, and frowned. ‘Hedley mentioned estates somewhere in Cornwall. I suppose he was going to take me there.’
Martin nodded; the explanation was likely, given their present location. He glanced around to reorientate himself, then reached for his pistols. ‘If he’s likely to come with friends, I suggest we depart forthwith. My curricle’s in a lane beyond the wood. I was passing when I heard your screams.’
‘Thank heaven you did.’ Belatedly, Helen shook out her skirts. ‘I held very little hope we would be near any main road.’
She glanced up at her rescuer, to find he was studying her, the shadows concealing his expression.
Martin smiled, a little wryly. His angel was not out of the woods yet. ‘I hesitate to disabuse you of such a comforting thought, but we’re some way from any main road. I was taking a short cut through the lanes in the hope of reaching the London road before the storm.’
‘You’re going to London?’
‘Eventually,’ Martin conceded. The branches above obscured too much of the sky to let him judge the approach of the rainclouds. ‘But first we’ll have to find shelter for the night.’
With a last glance about, Martin offered her his arm.
Quelling a rush of uncharacteristic nervousness, Helen placed her hand on his sleeve. She had no choice but to trust him, yet her trust in gentlemen was not presently high.
‘Was it from London you were taken?’
‘Yes,’ Helen felt no constraint in revealing that much but the question reminded her to be wary until she knew more of her rescuer, fascinating though he might be.
Absorbed in negotiating the numerous hurdles in the congested path through the trees without further damaging her gown, Helen felt the calm certainty with which she normally faced her world return. Her rescuer’s strong arm assisted her over the blockages. The subtle deference in his attitude effectively dispelled her fears, settling a cloak of protectiveness about her. Relieved to find his behaviour as gentlemanly as his elegance, she relaxed.
Martin waited until they were some distance from the clearing before appeasing his burgeoning curiosity. The question burning his tongue was who she was. But that, doubtless, would be best left for later. He contented himself with, ‘Who is Hedley Swayne?’
‘A fop,’ came the uncompromising reply.
?’ Despite the potential seriousness of their plight, Martin’s latent tendencies were too strong to repress. When she turned her head his way, eyes wide, her lips parted in confusion, his eyes wickedly quizzed her.
Helen caught her breath. For an instant, her eyes locked with her rescuer’s. Three heartbeats passed before, with a desperate effort, she wrenched her gaze free and snatched back her wandering wits. ‘I didn’t see you, remember.’
At the sound of her soft and slightly husky disclaimer, Martin chuckled. ‘Ah, yes!’
A fallen tree blocked their path. He released her to step over it, then turned and held out his hands. From beneath her lashes, Helen glanced up at his face. A strong, intriguing face, rather more tanned and harsh-featured than one was wont to see. She wondered what colour his eyes were. With a calm she was not entirely sure she possessed, she put her hands into his. His strong fingers closed over hers; a peculiar constriction tightened about her chest. Helen glanced down, ostensibly to negotiate the fallen tree, in reality to hide her sudden frown at the ridiculous skitterishness that had attacked her. Surely she was too old for such girlish reactions?
Resuming his place by her side, Martin glanced down at her bent head, perfectly sure, now, that the tremor he had felt in her fingers had not been a figment of his over-active imagination. Highly experienced in the subtleties of this particular form of play, he sought for some topic to get her mind off him. ‘I trust you’ve suffered no harm from your ordeal with those ruffians?’
Determined not to let her ridiculous nervousness show,
Helen shook her head. ‘No—none at all. But they were under orders to take care of me.’
‘So I heard. Nevertheless, I dare say you’ve had your wits quite addled by fright.’
Despite an unnerving awareness of the presence by her side, Helen laughed. ‘Oh, no! I assure you I’m not such a poor creature as all that.’ She risked a glance upwards and saw her rescuer’s dark brows rise. The look he bent on her was patently disbelieving. Her smile grew. ‘Very well,’ she conceded, ‘I’ll admit to a qualm or two, but when they were plainly being as gentle as they knew how I could hardly quake for fear of my life.’
‘I’ve rescued an Amazon.’
The bland statement floated above her curls. Helen chuckled and shook her head, but refused to be further drawn.
As the trees thinned, she resolutely turned her mind to her present predicament. With the uncertainty of her abduction receding, she was conscious of an oddly light-hearted response to this new set of circumstances. Twilight was drawing in; she was walking through woods, very much alone, with an unknown gentleman. While she was quite convinced of his quality, she was not nearly so sure it was safe to approve of his style, much less his propensities. Nevertheless, trepidation was not what she felt. Unbidden, a smile curved her lips. Not since childhood had such a
whimsical, adventurous mood claimed her; the same buoyant exuberance had whirled her through her most outrageous childhood exploits. Why on earth it should surface now, in response, she was sure, to the stranger by her side, she had no idea. But the thrill of exhilaration tripping along her nerves was too marked to ignore. In truth, she had no wish to ignore it—life had been too serious, too mundane, for too long. A little adventure would lighten the dim prospect of her lonely future.
They emerged from the trees. In the narrow lane, a fashionable curricle was outlined against the gathering gloom, a pair of high-stepping bays restlessly shifting between the shafts. Impulsively, Helen gasped, ‘What beauties!’
The lines of both equipage and horses spoke volumes. Clearly, her rescuer was a man of means. Smiling, he released her beside the carriage, going to the horses’ heads to run a soothing hand over their noses.
Helen eyed the curricle, wondering if, in her slim evening gown, it was possible to gain the box seat perched high above the axle with reasonable decorum. She was about to attempt the difficult climb when a pair of strong hands fastened about her waist and she was lifted, effortlessly, upwards.
‘Oh!’ Her eyes widened; she bit back a most unladylike squeal. Deposited gently on the seat, she blushed rosy red. ‘Er…thank you.’ The smile on her rescuer’s face was decidedly
wicked. Abruptly, Helen busied herself with settling her skirts, while, under her lashes, she watched him untie the reins.
It wasn’t just the fact that she knew she was no lightweight, nor that no man before had ever lifted her like that, making her feel ridiculously delicate. It wasn’t even the impression of remarkable strength that lingered with the memory of his hands gripping her waist. No. It was her quite shocking response to that perfectly mundane little intimacy that was tying her nerves in knots. Never in her life had she felt so odd, so thoroughly witless. What on earth was the matter with her?
Her rescuer swung up beside her. He moved with the ease of a born athlete, compounding the impression of leashed power created by the combination of understated elegance and sheer size. A deliciously fascinating impression, Helen was only too willing to admit. Then he glanced at her.
She nodded, the simple question dispelling any lingering fears. In her estimation, no blackguard would ask if his victim was comfortable. Her rescuer might make her nervous; he did not frighten her.
A drop of rain fell on Martin’s hand as he clicked the reins. The sensation drew his mind from contemplation of the woman beside him and focused it on more practical matters. Night was closing in and, with it, the weather.
He levelled a measuring glance at his companion. When he had lifted her to the box seat, getting a good glimpse of a pair of shapely ankles in the process, he had confirmed the fact that her dress was indeed silk, fine and delicate. Furthermore, his experienced assessment told him her fashionable standing extended to wearing no more than a fine silk chemise beneath. In the wood, the warmth of the afternoon had been trapped beneath the trees but now they were in the open and the temperature was dropping. The neckline of her gown was cut remarkably low, a fact which met with his unqualified approval; the tiny puffed sleeves, badly crushed, were set off her shoulders. Even in the poor light, her skin glowed translucently pale. She was not yet shivering, but it could only be a question of time. ‘If you’ll forgive my impertinence, why are you gallivanting about without even a cloak?’