Authors: Margaret McPhee
Tags: #Romance - Historical, #Romance: Modern, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Historical, #Romance - General
Wolf saw the blush rise in her cheeks as she realized that he was staring at her. She got to her feet and stood somewhat awkwardly.
‘Thank you, Mr Wolversley, for the horse…for understanding.’ Her voice was quiet. She glanced up into his eyes, and he could see the sincerity in hers.
Wolf found he could not look away. She had nothing for which to thank him. He was taking her to Evedon. Forcing her on a hard journey the length of the country on horseback, when she was clearly terrified of horses. He had prevented her escape. Yet she thanked him. There was a tight ness in his chest. He felt a brute. And when he spoke, there was a hoarse ness to his words.
‘I thought it was what had happened with the mare the other day that made you afraid of the horse, but it was not, was it?’
She shook her head, and the dark curls danced against her breast. ‘It is from many years ago, when I was much younger.’
‘Whatever happened must have fright ened you very badly.’ He wanted her to tell him, wanted her to share what had happened, yet Wolf knew that he of all people had no right to ask.
‘Yes,’ she said so quietly that he had to strain to hear it. She looked away, to where the sky was red and streaked, and in a halting voice began to tell him. ‘I was riding out in the park one day with a friend. A carriage suddenly
appeared. We did not see him until it was too late. He drove too close, too fast. A young gentleman racing another. My friend’s horse took fright. It bolted. Elizabeth fell from the saddle, and her foot caught in the stirrup. I tried to stop her horse, as did those who came to help, but he galloped for more than a mile. It was too late by then. They said that she died quickly, but I know, Mr Wolversley, that she did not.’ She looked up into his eyes then. ‘I did not ride again after that day.’
Wolf felt her pain as clearly as if it was his own. He reached out to her without realizing that he did so, the touch of his hand to her arm offering some small measure of comfort.
She did not draw back, just looked at him, and her eyes were dark with the misery of the memory, and down her cheek he saw the glittering trail of a single tear. He stepped closer and wiped it away with his thumb.
She stared up at him as if mesmerized, and the same magnetic sensation that had flowed between them before was there again.
Slowly, he pulled her into his arms, holding her gently against him, his hand stroking her hair, so that the last of her pins were lost and it spilled long and curling down her back.
‘I’m sorry, lass,’ he whispered against the top of her head, and the faint scent of roses drifted up from her hair. ‘It was no sight for a girl to see.’
He felt her take a deep stuttering breath as if she suppressed a sob, and she pressed her face against his chest. And when after a few minutes, she tilted her face up to his and looked into his eyes, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to kiss her.
She tasted of all that was sweet and good and he kissed
her softly, tenderly as if he would salve the hurt she had been dealt all those years ago.
The stable door opened and the ostler returned. Wolf pulled back, realizing just what he was doing.
Miss Meadowfield turned quickly away, but not before he had seen the lost expression upon her face.
‘We must go inside,’ he said.
‘We must,’ she agreed, but her voice was breathless.
The last of the red orb disappeared beneath the horizon as he led her into the inn.
Only when Rosalind Meadowfield was safely locked in a bedchamber upstairs in the Angel Inn did Wolf return to Campbell and Kempster in the taproom.
‘You found her then?’ Campbell glanced up from the tankard of ale before him and met Wolf’s eye.
‘Did you doubt that I would?’ Wolf kept his face im partial, unwilling to reveal in any way what had just happened outside with the woman.
Campbell shook his head and laughed. ‘On the contrary, you just won me two shillings.’ He thrust an open hand to Kempster. ‘Pay up, laddie.’
Kempster grumbled and dropped two silver shillings into Campbell’s waiting palm.
‘Back before dinner with the lassie in hand,’ said Campbell with a smile. ‘Watch and learn, laddie, watch and learn.’
‘Where was she?’ asked Kempster.
‘That does not matter, now that she’s back where she should be, under lock and key.’ Wolf gestured a serving wench over and ordered some ale before sitting down. ‘I’ll speak to the landlord later, and see if we can arrange a post-chaise for our travel tomorrow.’
‘For Miss Meadowfield?’ Kempster looked surprised.
Even Campbell raised his brow.
‘We need a decent pace of travel to reach London in a reasonable time, and that’s not what we’re going to get with Miss Meadowfield on horseback.’
‘Giving in to the lady’s demands?’ asked Kempster wryly.
The comment touched a sore point in Wolf, yet he knew that he was un justified in feeling it. ‘Hardly.’ Wolf’s ale arrived and he took a long drink from it.
‘Post-chaise will cost a pretty penny,’ said Kempster.
They ordered food, including a tray for Miss Meadowfield. ‘Not taking any chances, Mr Wolversley?’ asked Kempster with a cheeky grin. ‘Scared you might lose her again if you loose her from that room?’
Wolf forced a smile at the lad’s teasing. ‘No fear of that.’
‘Take the tray up to her, shall I? And maybe apologize for what happened earlier with the horse. I didn’t realize the situation between her and horses.’
Wolf wanted to take the tray up to her, but he could not very well insist on doing so. It would look as if he had an interest in the woman, which he did not. He threw the key over to the footman. ‘Go on then, but be quick about it.’
Kempster nodded. ‘Of course. Don’t want my dinner gettin’ cold.’ And then with a smile, he rose from the table and left, following the serving maid who was carrying Miss Meadowfield’s tray across the room.
Wolf waited until they reached the stairs before he spoke. ‘There’s something not right about this, Struan.’
Campbell darted a surprised glance at him. ‘You think that the lassie’s innocent after all?’
‘She’s guilty of something, but whether it’s of what Evedon’s accuses her, I’m not sure.’ He thought of her kindness
to the little beggar lad. ‘She doesn’t fit the picture that Evedon painted of her.’
‘She’s no’ quite the pampered miss he said.’ Campbell looked serious. ‘So what’s Evedon up to?’
‘I don’t know, Struan, but I mean to find out. Kempster should be able to tell us about Evedon and Miss Meadowfield.’
Wolf waited until the dinner was eaten, the plates cleared and a few jugs of ale had been emptied, before starting to question the footman. ‘You’ve worked for Evedon for a fair time, have you not?’
Kempster smiled. ‘Nigh on three years. Don’t know why I’ve stayed so long when he’s such a stingy bugger. Pays pennies, he does.’
‘And you were there the night of the theft. You saw what happened.’
‘I did. Evedon had the whole house searched for the dowager’s missing jewels. As you already know, the diamonds turned up in Miss Meadowfield’s room. But as to the whereabouts of the emeralds…’ A sly expression came over his face. ‘You’ll have to ask Miss Meadowfield about that.’
‘So you think her guilty?’
Kempster laughed. ‘Course she’s bleedin’ guilty. The diamonds were hidden within her shift, weren’t they?’
‘It does not mean that she put them there,’ said Wolf.
Kempster looked at him strangely, then laughed again as if Wolf’s words were ridiculous. ‘You think someone else thieved the stones and hid them in Miss Meadowfield’s under wear?’ He shook his head. ‘Well, I’ve heard some ideas in my time, but that one takes the biscuit. She’s guilty as sin, Mr Wolversley.’
‘Tell me about Miss Meadowfield.’
Kempster smiled in a knowing way that Wolf did not care for. ‘She’s a looker all right. I’d give her one myself if you weren’t already in there.’ He nudged Wolf’s elbow and grinned.
Wolf’s expression hardened. ‘What the hell are you insinuating, Kempster?’
One look at Wolf, and Kempster tried to back track. ‘Just kidding, just a jest, Mr Wolversley.’
‘Do you see me laughing?’ snarled Wolf.
The footman glanced away awkwardly.
‘Why would she steal the old lady’s jewels when she’s the daughter of a rich gentleman? Does her father not send her an allowance?’
‘Her father’s dead.’
‘And the rest of her family?’
‘Never heard her speak of no family at all. What ever became of the rest of them I don’t know, save that they left her with no money to speak of.’
Wolf’s eyes narrowed. ‘You mean she’s penniless?’
Kempster nodded. ‘It’s Lady Evedon that clothes her and Lady Evedon that pays for all else. Miss Meadowfield herself ain’t got two farthings to rub together. Suppose that’s motive enough for her to steal from the old dame, ain’t it?’
Wolf looked thought fully towards the stairs that led to Miss Meadowfield’s room, aware that he had done the woman a greater dis service than he had realized.
‘What of Evedon and the woman? Was there anything between them?’
‘Was he doin’ her, you mean?’ Kempster smiled and raised an eyebrow. ‘I fancy he was. Maybe he was dumping her and she stole the stones to get back at him.’
‘And maybe she did not steal the stones at all.’ Wolf rose
from the table and held out his expectant palm to Kempster. ‘The key for her room.’
Kempster glanced up in surprise, the smile falling from his face. ‘I’ll fetch her empty tray if you like.’
‘I’m not collecting her bloody tray.’ Wolf’s face was hard and determined.
The footman fumbled in his pocket before dropping the key on to Wolf’s hand. ‘What are you goin’ to do?’
Wolf’s eyes met the footman’s. ‘Discover the truth about Miss Meadowfield.’ His fingers closed around the key to her room and he was gone.
‘But we already know the truth.’ Kempster wiped a hand across his mouth as he watched Wolf making his way across the taproom to the stairs.
‘Do we?’ said Campbell softly, his eyes, too, trained on the retreating back of his friend. ‘By the time he comes down, we will.’
osalind was standing by the window looking out at the yard and the landscape beyond, trying to make sense of her reaction to Wolf. He had kissed her, and she had kissed him back. Logic told her that she should hate him, but her heart was saying something quite different. When he touched her, when he looked at her with that smoulder in his eyes, all rational thought seemed to flee and she wanted him to hold her in his arms, to take her mouth with his. Her heart skipped faster just at the thought, and there was the same whir of excitement within her stomach that she always felt in response to him.
He was taking her to Evedon, she reminded herself, and that fact made her response to him even more of a madness. He was taking her to Evedon and she revelled in his kiss. Rosalind had never felt this way before. She shook her head, not understanding what was happening to her, and the thick fur-lined cloak hanging around her shoulders swayed gently with the motion.
The candle on the small bedstand had expired leaving only the moon as her light, and the fireplace was empty of coal and logs. From the taproom below came the sound of men’s voices, their laughter and shouts. She pulled the cloak more tightly around her to ward off the night’s chill.
She started when she heard the lock tumble, then chastised herself, for it would only be Kempster come back to collect her dinner tray. She moved to face him. It was not Kempster that stepped into the room but Wolf. She caught her breath, backed away, recoiling at the shock of finding him there, and to her great shame, all she could think of was how he had kissed her and the warmth of his lips upon hers.
‘Miss Meadowfield,’ he closed the door quietly behind him.
She saw the way he locked it before turning to her. Her heart began to beat too fast…and not from fear. The strange tension flowed strong between them. She shivered with an unbidden anticipation.
His eyes flitted from the heavy cloak around her shoulders to the empty fireplace and back to her face. ‘I’ll have the landlord send someone to make up a fire, but first there are matters of which we must speak.’
‘Which matters?’ she asked slowly. She knew that she must make it clear to him that her outrageous behaviour had been an aberration and that it most definitely would not happen again. She knew that she had represented herself very badly. Rosalind Meadowfield did not kiss men. And she certainly did not allow them to touch her bare legs. She was gently and properly raised. Her mama had taught her right from wrong. And yet all her resolve, all her best intentions, fell away with him standing there before her with his hard, handsome face and his hidden darkness that seemed to call out to her.
‘I want you to tell me the truth, Miss Meadowfield.’
He was here to talk about the theft, nothing more. She allowed herself to relax a little, feeling both relief and disappointment. She blushed at the realization and was angry with herself. Anger was good; it made her strong. She faced him with a measure of confidence. ‘I’ve already done so on more than one occasion. You did not believe me then, why would you do so now?’
‘Tell me of matters between you and Lord Evedon.’
She felt her stomach flip over. What did he know? ‘What bearing can such a thing have on the crime of which I stand accused?’
‘Let me be the judge of that.’
She gave a hiccup of a laugh. ‘I did not steal the jewels. Is that not enough?’
‘Nowhere near enough,’ he replied. His eyes were silver in the moonlight as he stood and watched her. ‘The diamonds were found hidden wrapped in your shift.’
‘Then someone else placed them there.’
‘And why would anyone have done that?’
‘I do not know.’ She shook her head. ‘Perhaps they sought a place to hide them that they thought would not be searched.’
‘Or to frame you for a theft you did not commit?’
‘Perhaps,’ she agreed, wondering what had brought on this sudden questioning and whether he was beginning to believe her. ‘Although I do not know who would wish to do such a thing.’
‘Who are your enemies, Miss Meadowfield?’
‘I have none,’ she answered, and her eyes were without a trace of guile.
Had it ever been so for himself, he thought, and knew the answer to that. There had never been a time he had not known there were people who would hurt him.
‘Except perhaps…’ She hesitated and glanced nervously away, so that he knew what she would have said.
‘Evedon,’ he finished for her.
There was a short pause before he asked, ‘Are you Evedon’s mistress, Miss Meadowfield?’
Her eyes widened with indignation. ‘No! Most certainly not.’
‘Usually in my employment, I am paid not only to retrieve the guilty party but any items stolen. Yet in your case, Evedon was most adamant that I do not search you or your baggage. I am permitted only to question you lightly to discover what you might have done with them. Indeed, he seemed more interested in retrieving you than his mother’s emeralds. I wonder why that might be.’
‘I do not know the workings of Lord Evedon’s mind.’
‘Yet you seem to be very sure that he will see you hanged. What is there between the two of you?’
She did not answer him, just stood there in silence.
‘Perhaps he has made inappropriate advances? Perhaps he wishes to—’
‘No!’ She prevented what he would have said. ‘Nothing of that nature.’
‘He says that you are a thief, Miss Meadowfield. Are you?’
She felt the traitorous heat rise in her cheeks. She should have been shouting her denial, but the words dried upon her tongue. For all that she knew she should, she could not lie to him. The seconds ticked by. ‘No denials?’
‘I did not steal the jewels,’ she said hurriedly.
‘Then what did you steal?’ he asked softly.
She felt her eyes widen at his words, felt the breath catch
in her throat. She shook her head. ‘Nothing,’ but the word was cracked and hollow.
‘I know that you are lying,’ he said. ‘Admit it is so.’
‘I have stolen nothing,’ she said; this time her voice was stronger and she was glad of it.
The silver gaze seemed to pinion her. ‘I do not believe you.’
She held her courage in both hands, knowing she could not afford to betray the existence of the letter. ‘Then it seems that we are at an impasse, Mr Wolversley,’ she said coolly.
The angles in his face seemed to harden at that. ‘Believe me, Miss Meadowfield, this is no impasse.’ And he began to walk across the room towards her.
She felt her heart give a flutter and her stomach suddenly tighten. She backed away from him.
But Wolf was not to be thwarted. He closed the distance between them.
She tried to step back farther but she felt the heavy material of the curtains framing the edge of the window and the firmness of the wall behind her.
His fingers closed around her left wrist, effectively binding her to him. ‘Tell me of your parents, your background.’
She caught her breath at his question coming so unexpectedly. Her heart was hammering within her chest and her blood rushing in her ears. ‘Of what interest can that be to you, sir?’
‘Of extreme interest, I assure you.’ The moonlight flooding the window lit his face well, showing every aspect of the features she had come to know, and revealing the scar that sat across the top of his cheek in clear detail. His jawline was square, hard and determined below a mouth that was sculpted and kissable. She remembered the feel
of it pressed against her own. She swallowed hard at the sudden heat that shot low in her belly. Quickly her gaze moved on, taking in his straight manly nose, his nostrils slightly flared with the dark anger that simmered always so close beneath his surface. High angular cheekbones and those silver eyes whose gaze seemed to rake Rosalind’s soul.
For a moment she was lost in his eyes, entranced so that she could not think straight, and then in the corner of her mind she remembered all she had to lose, and she gathered every last bit of her resolve and managed to break his gaze. And when she looked at him again she was stronger to resist.
‘There is nothing to say.’ She looked at him steadily, knowing that she needed every last ounce of determination to keep her nerve.
‘Why will you not tell me?’ he said softly.
She swallowed and her throat was so dry that the sides of it seemed to stick together. ‘I have already told you the truth.’
She glanced away, scared that he would see what she was trying to hide.
He pulled her marginally closer, staring down at her with eyes that seemed to see her very core. ‘Kempster says that your father is dead. Is it true?’
She jumped at his words, afraid that he was touching too close to her secret. Please make him stop questioning her. She did not want him to know of her real identity and of her father. ‘My family is none of your concern, sir.’
‘Have we not already been through the matter of what is my concern when it comes to you?’ His voice was soft as a caress, the words delivered as from one lover to another.
Her eyes shut tered momentarily. He was standing so
close that she could feel the warmth of his breath upon her forehead. She felt herself weakening.
‘Miss Meadowfield,’ he said gently and she opened her eyes to find the silver gaze fixed on hers. He released her wrist and moved to hold her hand. His fingers were warm as they encompassed hers, and she felt her skin tingle beneath his touch. ‘Will you not trust me?’
Lord help her, but she wanted to. She wanted to tell him and for him to take her in his arms and hold her, just hold her. She wanted so much to be free of the burden she had carried for so long. Her steadfastness wavered.
‘Wolf,’ she whispered, and gently rubbed her thumb against his, where their hands embraced. ‘I…’
And then the hint of smoke reached her nose, and instinctively she turned her face to the window and the cold moonlit yard.
They both saw it, just as the hammering started at the bedchamber door, with Campbell’s voice yelling loud, and from below they could hear other shouts and the scrape and bang of chairs and stools against the wooden floor. Down in the inn’s stables was the flicker of flames.
By the time Wolf reached the yard, the smoke was billowing thick and the flames had spread. From within the stables came the scream of panicked horses. Men were already leading some of the terrified animals out, taking them on to the road beyond, struggling to control their frantic responses. Women were screaming, men were shouting, running, drawing water from the pump, carrying buckets from which more water spilled than remained to be poured upon the flames.
‘Hell,’ Wolf swore softly beneath his breath, not wanting to be involved in any of this, but knowing he was all the same. He organized the rabble of men into a chain along
which the buckets of water could be passed, minimizing spillage, allaying confusion, dowsing the fire. Wolf knew it was too late to save the stables, but there was still a chance to prevent the flames from reaching the inn building. There was chaos all around. The fire roared louder than the men’s shouts. Wolf ran into the stable to save the last of the horses.
The heat and the smoke within the yard were bad enough; inside the stable, they were almost unbearable. He moved quickly, knowing that they did not have much time left before the whole place would be engulfed. He found the last remaining occupied stall, slipped the bolt on its door, and, grabbing the terrified gelding by the mane, led him towards the stable’s big open doors, towards fresh air and freedom. Campbell was running at the other side of the horse, coaxing the beast on, reassuring him with quiet words. They were nearly there when they passed Rosalind Meadowfield, still wearing her great long cloak, running the opposite way.
Wolf’s gaze spun round after, unable to believe what he thought he was seeing, but then Campbell was shouting her name, and he knew that he had not been mistaken.
‘Get yourself and the horse out,’ he yelled at Campbell ‘I’ll fetch her.’
‘Be quick, Wolf, or the whole damn place will be down on both your heads.’
But Wolf was already running, clutching his hand kerchief to his mouth and nose, trying to stave off the worst of the thick acrid smoke.
She was running towards the ladder that led up to the hayloft, and he sprinted across to head her off. He grabbed her round the waist just as she set foot on the bottom rung, hauled her off and began to carry her towards the door.
But she fought him, just as strongly as she had done in the woods earlier that day.
‘No!’ she screamed and struggled all the more to get back to the ladder.
‘What the hell are you doing? We’ll both die in here if you do not move!’ He lifted her body and moved to swing her over his shoulder.
‘The boy,’ she yelled. ‘The little beggar boy is in here. I saw him come in earlier this evening.’
‘He’ll be gone.’
‘No!’ she wriggled so hard that he almost dropped her, and had to clasp her firm in place as he began to stride away.
‘Please, Wolf! Do not leave him to burn!’ She was still struggling against him, and then he heard the weak cry from above and, glanced back to see the small terrified face staring down from the hayloft.
‘Mister!’ the boy shouted; his voice was wavering with fear.
Wolf set Miss Meadowfield down on her feet. ‘Get out of here fast,’ he instructed. ‘I’ll fetch the lad.’ He gave her a push towards the door, and turned back towards the ladder. The heat was unbearable as he climbed its rungs as fast as he could, the wood sliding beneath the sweat where his fingers gripped. He grabbed the boy just as part of the hayloft collapsed and the flames began to lick around the ladder. He looked over the edge, gauging the distance to the ground, and unbelievably, saw Miss Meadowfield standing there, staring right back up at him.
‘You will have to drop him over. I will try to catch him,’ she shouted up at him.
She was right, he realized. There was not time for anything else. He shouted a warning and then dropped the boy towards her. He saw her reach for the small body, and
catch him, the impact sending her sprawling on to her back. But Wolf had already jumped and was lifting the boy and dragging Miss Meadowfield up. With the boy in his arms and Miss Meadowfield by his side, he ran for the door, as behind him the last of the hayloft disintegrated and the fire roared with a raging intensity at being deprived of its victims.