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'The terms are very favourable, Mr Havenham. Messrs Powell & Son say their client is willing to pay the full asking price for Morwood and is ready to settle immediately.'
Annabelle looked hopefully towards her father to see how he would take this news.
'And what is this client's name, Mr Telford?' she asked. 'Do we know him?'
The lawyer adjusted his spectacles and studied the paper in his hand. 'A Mr Monserrat. Not a local man, I think.'
Mr Havenham sighed, the gold tassel on his cap dancing merrily as he shook his head.
'No one in Stanton has any money to spare. What with the war, and then last year's poor crops, it is a bad time for everyone.'
'Waterloo was more than a year ago, Papa,' said Annabelle. 'And I know last summer was particularly bad, but the worst of the winter weather is over now and that always makes me feel hopeful. With a little economy, and the new mortgage Mr Telford raised for us on Oakenroyd, we shall come about.'
'Exactly,' agreed the lawyer. 'And the money from the sale of Morwood will pay off most of your creditors.'
'But not the gambling debts,' said Samuel. 'I should never have gone to Harrogate.' The regret in her father's voice made her heart ache, but Annabelle said nothing. Her father had gone to the spa town to take the waters, leaving her to run Oakenroyd, and he had returned with his health no better and his purse several thousand pounds lighter after being persuaded to enter the card room of the Dragon Hotel for several nights running.
Mr Telford shifted uncomfortably and sifted through the papers in his hand.
'No, not those. But I have had some correspondence with your, er, creditor at Harrogate. He is willing for you to pay off that loan in instalments.'
'But that is very good,' declared Annabelle. 'Once Burnt AcresI mean Morwoodis sold and we have settled the other debts then we shall be able to pay him off, too. It will mean careful management for a few years, but nothing we cannot cope with.'
'I agree, Miss Havenham.' The lawyer nodded. 'That is the reason I think you should consider this offer very seriously, sir. If we act now then the sale of Morwood can go through before Lady Day.'
'But to sell Burnt Acres,' sighed Samuel. 'After all this time.'
Annabelle turned to him, taking his hands.
'Papa,' she said gently, 'We both love Morwood, with its trees and the ruins of the old Manor, but you know we have never made use of it as we should. Indeed, it is because it is so wild and neglected that I love it, but Morwood is the least profitable of your lands, and we must sell something.'
'We were very fortunate to find a buyer so quickly,' added the lawyer. 'And one who is willing to pay the full price.'
'Then I suppose it must be.'
'Indeed it must, Papa,' said Annabelle. 'We have no choice if we are to continue living here at Oakenroyd in the style we have come to enjoy.'
Mr Havenham straightened his shoulders.
'Very well, Mr Telford. Draw up the contracts. We will sell Morwood.'
The tree began to fall and Lucas stepped back, listening to the satisfying crack as the remaining section of trunk broke away. There was the swish of the branches sweeping down to the ground, the flutter of startled birds, then silence as everything settled once more. He lowered his long-handled axe and was contemplating his handiwork when the thud of hooves made him look round.
A rider was cantering towards him through the trees, a woman in a nut-brown riding habit mounted on a powerful grey horse that sidled and snorted as she drew rein. He guessed who she was, of course. No one else would be riding in this place save the daughter of its owner. The man he had vowed to ruin. Lucas had removed his jacket and waistcoat while he worked and he glanced at them now, knowing it was impolite for any gentleman to greet a lady in just his shirt. But she was the daughter of his enemy and he would not show her any courtesy. He watched her approach, acknowledging with reluctant appreciation the expert way she brought the powerful animal to a stand just feet from him.
'What are you doing?'
Her voice was low and musical, the tone not unfriendly, but Lucas was not minded to reply in kind.
'I should have thought that was obvious.'
Her brows went up. She said with a touch of hauteur, 'Have you asked permission to cut down trees on this land?'
He regarded her in silence, knowing his cool stare was an insult. She frowned and it was with no little satisfaction he noted the spark of anger in her grey eyes. 'Well?'
He rested the axe against the newly felled tree trunk. 'As a matter of fact I haven't spoken to anyone about it.'
'Then I think you should cease work here until you have done so.'
He allowed himself a smile and took a step closer. 'Oh? And are you going to make me stop?'
'I shall report you to the steward.'
'I don't think so.' He reached out and caught the reins. The grey's ears came forwards and the animal snorted nervously.
'How dare you. Let go immediately.'
She kicked her heel against the grey's flank, but Lucas kept a tight grip on the reins and the animal merely sidled.
'You will learn I don't take orders from anyone,' he growled.
'Release my horse. You cannot keep me here.'
'I think you will find I can do whatever I want.'
Alarm flashed across her face, but it was quickly masked. She said haughtily, 'Release the reins. I will not ask you again.'
He bared his teeth, his next words a deliberate, taunting challenge. 'Perhaps you should try begging me.'
Those grey eyes positively flamed now and she raised her riding crop. She brought her arm swinging down, but he was ready for her. He reached up with his free hand and caught her wrist. The horse, unsettled, reared and plunged, unseating the rider. Instantly Lucas released the reins and caught the lady as she fell.
He had braced himself for her weight and was surprised at how light she was in his arms. Her face was only inches from his own and he could see the tiny flecks of green in her eyes. For a few moments she was still, shocked, then she began to struggle, pushing against him.
'Let me go, you brute.'
'Brute, is it?' With a laugh he put her down, but kept hold of her arms, for although she no longer had her riding crop she tried to beat him with her fists. His hands slid to her wrists and he forced them behind her, pinning her to him. 'Now, madam, do you still call me a brute?'
He could feel her pressing against him as her breast heaved with indignation. The top of her head only came up to his chin. She was so delicate he thought he might crush her with one hand. She threw back her head and glared at him with an angry, fearless gaze.
'Monster,' she threw at him. 'Beast . Certainly not a gentleman!'
He hardly heard her. His eyes were fixed upon her lips. They were red and full and without thinking he lowered his head and kissed her. She froze. Then, surprisingly, she yielded, becoming soft and pliant in his arms. But only for a moment. The next she was struggling to free herself. He raised his head, shaken by his actions. He had intended to antagonise her, but had been unable to resist the invitation of that extremely kissable mouth. Desire had leapt up immediately, fuelled by that one brief instant when she had leaned into him. He had sensed then a kindred spirit, a passionate nature to match his own. But even as his body hardened and the heated blood pounded through his veins he had known an overwhelming impulse to protect, to cherish the delicate creature imprisoned in his arms.
It would not do, he had no use for sentiment and must remember that she might well be a weapon he could use against his enemy. Better to befriend her, if he could.
'Ooh, that is, is infamous,' she declared, struggling to free herself. 'To steal a kiss when I am quite helpless to resist you. I shall add thief to the epithets I heap upon your head. Let me go this instant!'
He laughed, but self-preservation made him hold on to her.
'Very well. Only stop spitting like a wildcat and I will release you. Stop it, I say.'
She ceased her struggles and stared up at him, her eyes wary. He released her and stepped back.
'There. You are free to go, Miss Havenham.'
'You know my name?'
'Of course. Perhaps I should introduce myself.'
She tossed her head and turned away from him, saying over her shoulder, 'Pray do not. I have no wish to know you.'
She began to walk to where the big grey was quietly cropping the grass.
'Oh, but I think you should, since we are to be neighbours.'
That stopped her in her tracks. He felt a grim sense of satisfaction as she turned slowly back to face him. 'You are the new owner? Mr Monser ' 'Monserrat. Yes.'
'I did not think the contract was agreed yet.'
'I signed the papers yesterday. I have builders coming here next week, but in the meantime I thought I might remove a few of the trees that have sprung up on the drive.'
She went to collect her horse. Once she had picked up the reins she looked past him to the blackened shell of the old house.
'The house burned down over twenty years ago. No one has been here since then.'
'I do not know why your father bought it, if he did not plan to do anything with it.'
'I think at one time he was going to rebuild the house. Now he says it would cost a small fortune to put it right.' She scooped up her crop and as she straightened she looked across at him. 'Is that what you plan to do?'
'Yes. I plan to put things right.'
He stared at the old house. It was a stone-built building, two storeys high with a central porch and a wide, gabled wing jutting from each end. The sturdy walls were mostly intact, but the roof was missing and greenery had forced its way between the remaining blackened timbers. Ivy curled around the chimneys. The stone-mullioned windows had lost all their glass and stared like blind eyes across what had been the south lawn. It was now dotted with small trees, like the drive. It had been a fine property once, and he would rebuild it. But whether he could bring himself to live there again
A slight sound brought his attention back to Miss Havenham. She was leading the horse away.
'Are you not going to ride him?'
The look she gave him was positively arctic. 'I cannot mount without a block. I shall walk home.'
'Let me throw you up.' He could see the indecision in her face and added, 'Come, Miss Havenham. Let me atone for my previous bad manners.'
'I don't think anything can do that.'
He grinned. 'At least let me try.'
She did not walk away and he took that for an assent. He approached and she waited warily, murmuring to the grey as she gathered up the reins.
'Steady, Apollo. Easy, boy.'
The horse seemed to know what was expected of him and stood patiently. Lucas ran a hand down the animal's muzzle.
'Apollo. A good name for him. He is a handsome creature.'
She did not reply, but placed the toe of her riding boot in his cupped hands. He threw her easily up into the saddle and she made herself comfortable, at the same time controlling Apollo with no more than a quiet word. Lucas made no attempt to help her, merely watching as she slipped her boot into the stirrup and arranged her skirts to cover an extremely dainty ankle. He stepped back.
'I shall be calling upon your father very soon, Miss Havenham. I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again.'
'I shall tell Papa to expect you. I will also make it clear to our people that the manor is sold and is now out of bounds.'
'Please, feel free to ride here whenever you wish.'
She shook her head. 'I do not intend ever to come here again.' She looked around, as if committing the place to memory, then turned her horse and cantered away.
Lucas watched her go, a slight smile playing around his mouth. Perhaps he should have treated her more gently, but she had spirit, and he had enjoyed rousing her temper. He had enjoyed kissing her, too, although that had never been part of his plan, but she had looked so damned alluring there in his arms, how could he help himself? She was no beauty, the curls that peeped beneath her riding hat were a nondescript brown, but her features were regular and he had already discovered that her generous mouth was perfectly formed for kissing. She had a good figure, toohe recalled how well it felt, pressed against his. Smiling, he picked up his axe. How much greater would be Havenham's ruin if he lost his daughter as well as his fortune?
Nerves jangling, Annabelle struggled to keep Apollo at a steady canter. She did not intend to slow down until the chimneys of Oakenroyd were in sight. She was shaken by her encounter with the new owner of Morwood, but not overly frightened and that surprised her. To be accosted by a strange man, one so dark and foreign-looking, too, to be pulled from her horsehere she stopped herself. She must be honest. She had fallen from her horse and could have been badly injured if he had not caught her. And he had held her so easily, as if she had weighed nothing. The experience had been quite exhilarating.
That did not excuse his behaviour afterwards, of course, when he had kissed her. She let herself go over that moment again. She could still recall the feel of his mouth on hers, and the moment when she had felt something in her leap to respond.
From all she had been told, all she had read, she knew she should have been terrified at being imprisoned in those strong arms. She should have fainted quite away. Annabelle gave a little huff of impatience. She had never thought much of those heroines who burst into tears at the slightest thing and swooned as soon as a man touched them. Why, that would leave the man free to behave in whatever way he wished. Surely it was better to fight and struggle, as she had done?
And in the end he had let her go. Well, there was little else he could do. A poor start to his ownership if he was to ravish his neighbour's daughter at the outset. She wondered if he planned to settle at Morwood Manor. As its name suggested, it had once been the major property in the area. Her father had a watercolour of the house as it had been before the fire, a substantial stone building dating back to the time of the Tudors. The wealth of its owners had declined since then, and the last owner, Jonas Blackstone, was said to have been a poor landlord. That was well before Annabelle had been born, however. Her father had bought the manor lands soon after the fire, but although he had looked after the tenant farmers, he had never done anything with the house and grounds. Morwood had remained unused and untended, and Annabelle had grown up roaming freely through the woods and the ruins. They had been her playground, but that of course was ended now. She would avoid the manor and its odious owner in future.