The Return of Lord Conistone

BOOK: The Return of Lord Conistone
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Praise for
Lucy Ashford
writing as Elizabeth Redfern

THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

‘Unputdownable…[a] remarkable debut…
a glittering tale of London in 1795,
full of science, intrigue, war, revolution,
and obsessive passion’.
—Guardian

‘An engrossing read and a rich,
pungent evocation of the period’.
—Observer

‘…brilliantly handled to keep the reader guessing
right to the end’.
—Charles Palliser

‘Striking and original…a star is born’.
—Literary Review

‘Quite wonderful… It is Redfern’s ability to bring
each scene, each character alive that makes this
such toothsome reading’.
—USA TODAY

AURIEL RISING

‘Intelligent’.
—New York Times

‘Richly atmospheric…Redfern’s strength is in
re-creating a morally corrupt world…’
—Publishers Weekly

‘Will you keep your trust in me, whatever you hear? Will you remember we are friends?’

 

Friends. Verena’s heart plummeted, but she managed to say lightly, ‘Good friends, indeed’.

 

Lucas nodded almost curtly, then took her hand and pressed his lips to it. She wanted to fling herself in his arms and cling to him and never let him go.

 

As he walked towards his waiting horse he turned to her one last time, as if he was about to say something else. But then he mounted up, gave a half-salute, and was gone.

 

She’d thought—
everybody
had thought—that he’d gone back to the battlefields of the Peninsula. But news came a few weeks later that he’d resigned from the army and was instead living the high life in London, with the Prince’s set. After that came whispers, too, of secret
affaires
with beautiful society women. And each piece of news about Lord Lucas Conistone stabbed Verena to the heart.

About the Author

LUCY ASHFORD
, an English Studies lecturer, has always loved literature and history, and from childhood one of her favourite occupations has been to immerse herself in historical romances. She studied English with history at Nottingham University, and the Regency is her favourite period.

 

Lucy has written several historical novels, but this is only her second for Harlequin®. She lives with her husband in an old stone cottage in the Peak District, near to beautiful Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, all of which give her a taste of the magic of life in a bygone age. Her garden enjoys spectacular views over the Derbyshire hills, where she loves to roam and let her imagination go to work on her latest story.

 

A previous novel from Lucy Ashford:

THE MAJOR AND THE PICKPOCKET

AUTHOR NOTE

I remember a fantastic history teacher at school, who held us spellbound with her tales of the Napoleonic wars. I’ve often wondered since if the tremendous appeal of the Regency lies in the contrast between the sparkle and glamour of upper-class life in London and the incredible danger faced by so many brave men during that long, long campaign against the French.

 

One of the most fascinating battles, for me, was Busaco, in Portugal, where in 1810 Wellington’s soldiers fought for their very survival. Wellington won, thanks largely to his courageous intelligence officers. And all this—you’ve guessed it—gave me the inspiration for my second historical for Harlequin, in which my hero, Lord Lucas Conistone, has apparently abandoned his army career to live the life of a rake with the Prince’s set.

 

Along the way he has broken Verena Sheldon’s heart. But is Lucas really what he seems? Why is he so interested in the journeys Verena’s explorer father made in Spain and Portugal? Gradually, amidst much heartache, Verena realises how Lucas, in the cruellest possible way, has been forced into an almost impossible choice—between his duty to his country and his abiding love for her.

 

I do hope you enjoy their story!

THE RETURN OF
LORD CONISTONE

Lucy Ashford

For my alpha-male, AJR—
who not only helped with the research,
but also provided endless cups of tea.

Prologue

May 1810—Portugal

H
is four men huddled round a meagre fire and played cards for
escudos
. But Lucas Conistone stood apart, his hooded grey eyes scanning the peaks like a hawk’s as the fiery sun set over the mountains, the iron wind tugging at his tousled black hair and his travel-worn clothes.

Here
, he’d been told. Here was the meeting place. If it was a trap, he was ready. His hand went to the pistol in his pocket and softly caressed the cold metal.

And then he turned round quickly, and his men also were on their feet, because someone was hurrying along the rocky path to this isolated mountain pass, a silhouette against the blood-red sun.

Lucas gestured to his men to sit again as he recognised the small, sinewy figure coming straight for him. ‘
Como vai
, Miguel?’ he said softly in fluent Portuguese. ‘I hear you have news’.

The man called Miguel grasped his hand, his dark head barely up to Lucas’s powerful shoulder, and said in the
accent of the Portuguese mountain people, ‘News, yes,
meu amigo
. The body of the Englishman has been found at last’.

After nearly a year and a half of searching
. ‘Where?’

‘He must have been swept downstream by the flood waters of the River Vouga. His body was trapped under rocks, and rotted in the water as the months went by—a suitable end,
nao?
And—this was found on him’. Miguel handed Lucas a small package; something saved, miraculously, from the water by the oilskin in which it was tightly wrapped.

Swiftly Lucas tore the package open.

A compact, leather-bound journal. And the first entry was dated—September 1808.

No
. He wanted to shout his protest across the mountains. No. Where was the old one, the previous one?

He flicked through it—two, three pages only, of hurried notes. The rest was blank. A blow indeed.

Wild Jack, I have followed you to hell and back for this
.

Curtly he held out silver coins to the man Miguel. ‘Where is the body now?’

‘We buried what was left of it,
Inglês
. For the spies of Napoleon Bonaparte are on the trail’. He looked up at Lucas slyly. ‘And they offer our people rewards also’.

Lucas clenched his teeth. ‘And what exactly have your people told them, Miguel?’

The man gave a crooked smile. ‘Why, we babbled of treasure. The old, old legend of gold buried somewhere in the steep hills high above Coimbra. Isn’t that, after all, what the English traveller you call Wild Jack died for?’

Let the French believe that
, thought Lucas swiftly.
Let the Portuguese, like Miguel, believe it
. He was scanning the diary’s sparse contents: ramblings of a sea voyage from
England, of a swift ascent into the mountains. The writings of a man knowing he was being pursued, and that the end was near.…

Already he was turning to his waiting men. ‘Get your things together. We’re heading homewards’. They moved instantly to roll up their thin blankets and tie them to their packs.

But the man Miguel pointed suddenly at the blood that stained Lucas’s shirt, all too visible where his long coat had fallen open. ‘You have been wounded,
Inglês
. Stay with us in the mountains for one night at least! We have food we can share’. Miguel’s black eyes gleamed mischievously. ‘And our girls—pretty girls, eh?—will be only too happy to make a man as handsome as you forget the perils of war!’

‘Obrigado, meu amigo
, but it’s nothing’. Grimly Lucas pulled at his coat to hide the bloodstain.

‘An ambush?’

‘Of sorts. We had a run in with some French outriders on our way up here’.

‘Did they live to tell the tale?’

Lucas was already turning to go, but he swung round one last time. ‘What do you think?’

Miguel grinned. ‘They did not. You’ll be back soon with the key to the treasure,
Inglês?’

‘I hope so,’ Lucas breathed. ‘For if others get it first, we are lost indeed’.

* * *

So Lucas Conistone and his companions set off down the barren slope, each of them as lithe and hard-muscled as any of the Portuguese who herded goats on the sparse spring grass of these high mountains. Lucas’s men were intent on their route, sometimes cursing softly under their breath at the difficulty of the terrain.

But their leader was thinking of another time. Another place.

Of the Hampshire countryside in early autumn. Of the English sun, warming a flower-scented garden whose acres of lawns swept down to the cliff’s edge, where the azure sea gleamed far below. Of a time when he’d thought he’d found love, and a purpose to his life.

But then the vision was gone, the dream over. And he was back in this foreign land, clambering down a treacherous path in the knife-sharp night air, with an almost impossible task facing him.

He was remembering, too, the last words spoken by a man about to die.
Look after her for me, will you, Lucas? Tell her I did it for Wycherley. For all of them.… For God’s sake, look after Verena
.

Chapter One

Early July 1810—Wycherley, Hampshire

‘T
hey are ruined, you know,’ whispered the malicious female voice, ‘quite ruined! But, my dears, what can you expect, with four daughters and a father who was hardly ever here?’

Verena Sheldon froze, hidden from the three gossiping old busybodies by an ornate lacquered screen to which she was tying a label.
‘Three guineas,’
the label read.
‘Or nearest offer’.

Like everything else in Wycherley’s great hall, it was for sale. Like everything else—herself and her family included, it seemed—it was up for inspection, assessment and—condemnation.

During all this hot July day, neighbours, dealers from Chichester, and local businessmen with their wives and families had rolled up Wycherley’s long drive in carriages or on horseback. Some had also brought servants with open drays ready to cart their purchases away. Every hour Verena
had seen the precious memories of her past and all her hopes for the future slipping away.

BOOK: The Return of Lord Conistone
6.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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