Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical
Helen frowned, considering. How much was it safe to reveal? Then, unconsciously lifting her chin, she took the plunge. ‘I was at Chatham House, at a ball given for Lady Chatham’s birthday. A footman brought a note asking me to meet…a friend on the portico.’
In retrospect, she should have been more careful. ‘There were…circumstances that made that seem quite reasonable at the time,’ she explained. ‘But there was no one about—at least, that’s what I thought. I waited for a moment or two, then, just as I was about to go back inside,
someone—one of those two ruffians, I think—threw a coat over my head.’
Helen shivered slightly, whether from the cold or the memory of her sudden fright she was not sure. ‘They bundled me into a waiting carriage—it was still early and there were no other coaches in the drive.’ She drew a deep breath. ‘So that’s why no cloak.’
‘I see.’ Martin trapped the reins under his boot and reached behind the seat to drag his greatcoat from where it was neatly stowed. He shook it out and flung it about his companion’s distracting shoulders, then calmly picked up the reins. ‘What makes you think it was this Hedley Swayne behind your abduction?’
Helen frowned. In reality, now that she considered the matter more closely, there was no firm evidence to connect Hedley with the kidnap attempt.
Observing her pensive face, Martin’s brows rose. ‘No real reason—just a feeling?’
At the superior tone rippling beneath the raspy surface of his deep voice, Helen drew herself up. ‘If you knew how Hedley’s been behaving recently, you wouldn’t doubt it.’
Martin grinned at her prickly rejoinder and infused a degree of sympathy into his, ‘How has he been behaving?’
‘He’s forever at me to marry him—heaven only knows why.’
Pressing his lips together to suppress the spontaneous
retort that had leapt to his tongue, Martin waited until his voice was steady before asking, ‘Not the obvious?’
Absorbed in cogitations on the vagaries of Hedley Swayne, Helen shook her head. ‘Definitely not the obvious.’ Suddenly recalling to whom she was speaking, she blushed. Praying that the poor light would conceal the fact, she hurried on. ‘Hedley’s not the marrying kind, if you know what I mean.’
Martin’s lips twitched but he made no comment.
Helen considered the iniquitous Mr Swayne, a slight frown puckering her delicate brows. ‘Unfortunately, I’ve no idea why he wants to marry me. No idea at all.’
They proceeded in silence, Martin intent on the bad road, Helen lost in thought. The land about was open pastures, separated by occasional hedgerows, with not even a farmhouse to be seen. A stray thought took hold in Martin’s mind. ‘Did you say you were at a ball when they grabbed you? Have you been missing since last night?’
Helen nodded. ‘But I went in my own carriage—not many of my friends have returned to town yet.’
‘So your coachman would have raised the alarm?’
Slowly, Helen shook her head. ‘Not immediately. I might have gone home in some acquaintance’s carriage and my message to John got lost in the fuss. That’s happened before. My people wouldn’t have been certain I was truly missing until this morning.’ Her brows knit, she considered the possibilities. ‘I wonder what they’ll do?’
For his own reasons, Martin also wondered. The possibility of being mistaken for a kidnapper, and the consequent explanations, was not the sort of imbroglio he wished to be landed in just at present—not when he had barely set foot in England and had yet to establish his bona fides. ‘You’ll certainly cause a stir when you reappear.’
‘Mm.’ Helen’s mind had drifted from the shadowy possibilities of happenings in London, drawn to more immediate concerns by the presence beside her. Her rescuer had yet to ask her name, nor had he volunteered his. But her adventurous mood had her firmly in its grip; their state of being mutually incognito seemed perfectly appropriate. She felt comfortably secure; appellations, she was sure, were unnecessary.
Absorbed in the increasingly difficult task of managing his team over the severely rutted track, Martin racked his brains for some acceptable avenue to learn his companion’s name. Their situation was an odd one—not having been formally introduced, he did not expect her to volunteer the information. He balked at simply asking, not wanting her to feel impelled to reveal it out of gratitude for her rescue. Yet, without it, could he be sure of finding her in London? He ought, of course, to introduce himself, but, until he was more certain of her, was reluctant to do so.
Another drop of rain and a low mutter from the west jerked his mind back to practicalities. Skittish, the horses
tossed their heads. He settled them, carefully edging them about a sharp corner. The dark shape of a barn loomed on the left, set back in a field and screened on the west by a stand of chesnuts. The mutter turned into a growl; lightning split the sky.
With a grimace, Martin checked the horses for the turn into the rough cart track leading to the barn. He glanced at his companion, still lost in thought. ‘I’m afraid, my dear, that before you you see our abode for the night. We’re miles from the nearest shelter and the horses won’t stand a thunderstorm.’
Startled from her reverie, Helen peered ahead. Seeing the dark structure before her, she considered the proposition of spending the night in a barn with her rescuer and found it strangely attractive. ‘Don’t mind me,’ she replied airily. ‘If I’m to have an adventure then it might as well be complete with a night in a disused barn. Is it disused, do you think?’
‘In this area? Unlikely. Hopefully there’ll be a loft full of fresh straw.’
There was. Martin unharnessed the horses and rubbed them down, then made them as secure as possible in the rude stalls. By now very grateful for the warmth of his thick greatcoat, Helen clutched it about her. She wandered around the outside of the barn and discovered a well, clearly in use, by one side. Before the rain set in, she hurried to draw water, filling all the pails she could find. After supplying
the horses, she splashed water over her face, washing away the dust of the day. Refreshed, she belatedly remembered she had no towel. Eyes closed, she all but jumped when a deep chuckle came from behind her, reverberating through her bones, sending peculiar shivers flickering over her skin. Strong fingers caught her hand; a linen square was pushed into it. Hurriedly, Helen mopped her face and turned.
He stood a yard or so behind her, a subtle smile twisting his firm lips. He had found a lantern and hung it from the loft steps. The soft light fell on his black hair, glossing the curls where they formed over his ears and by the side of his neck. Hooded grey eyes—she was sure they were grey— lazily regarded her. Helen’s diaphragm seized; her eyes widened. He was handsome. Disgustingly handsome. Even more handsome than Hazelmere. She felt her throat constrict. Damn it! No man had the right to be so handsome. With an effort, she masked her reactions and swept him an elegant curtsy. ‘Thank you most kindly, sir—for your handkerchief and for rescuing me.’
The subtle smile deepened, infusing the harshly handsome face with a wholly sensual promise. ‘My pleasure, fair Juno.’
This time, his voice sent tingling quivers down her spine. Fair Juno? Shaken, Helen held out the handkerchief, hoping the action would cover her momentary fluster.
Taking back the linen square, Martin let his eyes roam, then abruptly hauled back on the reins. Dammit—he was supposed to be a gentleman and she was very clearly a lady. But if she kept looking at him like that he was apt to forget such niceties.
Smoothly, he turned to a rough bin against one wall. ‘There’s corn here. If we grind some up, we’ll be able to have pancakes for supper.’
Helen eyed the blue-suited back a touch nervously, then turned her gaze, even more dubiously, on the corn bin. Were pancakes made of corn? ‘I’m afraid…’ she began, forced to admit to ignorance.
Her rescuer threw her a dazzling smile. ‘Don’t worry. I know how. Come and help.’
Thus adjured, Helen willingly went forward to render what assistance she could. They hunted about and found two suitable rocks, a large flat one for the grinding base and a smaller, round one to crush the corn. After a demonstration of the accepted technique, Helen settled to the task of producing the cornmeal, while her mentor started a small fire, just outside the barn door, where the lee of the barn gave protection from the steady rain.
Every now and then, a crack of lightning presaged a heavy roll of thunder. The horses shifted restively, but they settled. Inside the barn, all was snug and dry.
‘That should be sufficient.’
Seated on a pile of straw, Helen looked up to find her mentor towering beside her, a pail of water in one hand.
‘Now we add water to make a paste.’
Struggling to keep his eyes on his task, Martin knelt opposite his assistant and, dipping his fingers in the water, sprinkled the pile of meal. Helen caught the idea. Soon, a satisfyingly large mound of soft dough had been formed. Helen carried the dough to the fire in her hands, while Martin brought up the heavy rock.
She had seen him wash an old piece of iron and scrub it down with straw. He had placed it across the fire. She watched as he brought up the water pail and let a drop fall to the heated surface. Critically, he watched it sizzle into steam.
Martin smiled. ‘Just right. The trick is not to let it get too hot.’
Confidently, he set two pieces of dough on to the metal surface and quickly flattened them with his palm.
Helen pulled an old crate closer to the fire. ‘How do you know all this?’
A slow grin twisted Martin’s lips. ‘Among my many and varied past lives, I was a soldier.’
‘In the Peninsula?’
Martin nodded. While they cooked and ate their pancakes, he entertained her with a colourful if censored account of his campaigning days. These had necessarily
culminated with Waterloo. ‘After that, I returned to…my business affairs.’
He rose and stretched. The night was deepest black about them. It was as if they were the only souls for miles. His lips twisted in a wry grin. Stranded in a barn with fair Juno—what an opportunity for one of his propensities. Unfortunately, fair Juno was unquestionably gently bred and was under his protection. His grin turned to a grimace, then was wiped from his face before she could see it. He held out a hand to help her to her feet.
‘Time for bed.’ Resolutely, he quelled his fantasies, insistently knocking on the door of his consciousness. He inclined his head towards the ladder. ‘There are piles of fresh straw up there. We should be snug enough for the night.’
Helen went with him readily, any fears she had possessed entirely allayed by the past hours. She felt perfectly safe with him, perfectly confident of his behaving as he ought. They were friends of sorts, engaged in an adventure.
Her transparent confidence was not lost on Martin. He found her trust oddly touching, not something he was usually gifted with, not something he had any wish to damage. Reaching the foot of the ladder, he unhooked the lantern. ‘I’ll go up first.’ He smiled. ‘Can you climb the ladder alone?’
The idea of being carried up the ladder, thrown over his
shoulder like a sack of potatoes, was not to be borne. Helen considered the ascent, then shrugged out of his greatcoat. ‘If you’ll take that up, I think I can manage.’
Briskly, Martin went up, taking the coat and the lantern with him. Then he held the lantern out to light her way. Helen twisted her skirts to one side and, guarding against any mis-step, carefully negotiated the climb.
Above her, Martin swallowed his curses. He had thought coming up first was the right thing to do, relieving her of the potential embarrassment of accidentally exposing her calves and ankles to his view. But the view he now had— of a remarkable expanse of creamy breasts, barely concealed by the low neckline of her gown—was equally scandalous. And equally tempting. And he was going to have to spend a whole night with her within reach?
He gritted his teeth and forced his features to behave.
After drawing her to safety, he crossed to the hay door and propped it ajar, admitting the cool night air and fitful streaks of moonlight, shafting through breaks in the storm clouds. He extinguished the lantern and placed it safely on a beam. Earlier in the evening, he had brought up the carriage blanket from the curricle. Spreading his greatcoat in the straw, he picked up the blanket and handed it to her. ‘You can sleep there. Wrap yourself up well or you’ll be cold.’
The air in the loft was warmer than below but the night
boded ill for anyone dressed only in two layers of silk. Gratefully, Helen took the blanket and shook it out, then realised there was only one. ‘But what about you? Won’t you be cold, too?’
In the safety of the dark, Martin grimaced. He was hoping the night air would cool his imagination, already feverish. Only too aware of the direction of his thoughts, and their likely effect on his tone, he forced his voice to a lighter pitch. ‘Sleeping in a dry loft full of straw is nothing to the rigours of campaigning.’ So saying, he threw himself down, full-length in the straw, a good three yards from his coat.
In the dim light, Helen saw him grin at her. She smiled, then wrapped the blanket around her before snuggling down into his still warm coat. ‘Goodnight.’
For ten full minutes, silence reigned. Martin, far from sleep, watched the clouds cross the moon. Then the thunder returned in full measure. The horses whinnied but settled again. He heard his companion shift restlessly. ‘What’s the matter? Afraid of mice?’
?’ On the rising note, Helen sat bolt upright.
Silently, Martin cursed his loose tongue. ‘Don’t worry about them.’
…! You must be joking!’
Helen shivered, an action Martin saw clearly as a shaft
of moonlight glanced through the hay door and fell full on her. God, she was an armful!
Hugging the greatcoat about her, Helen struggled to subdue her burgeoning panic. She sat still, breathing deeply, until another crack of thunder rent the night. ‘If you must know, I’m frightened of storms.’ The admission, forced through her chattering teeth, came out at least an octave too high. ‘And I’m cold.’