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By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
First Player Sets the Stakes
Thursday, 29 April 1824, Scotland
At the moment that Melissa Seacourt's life changed forever for the second time, she was watching a thick gray fog bank creep into the Firth of Forth from the North Sea. The distant clamor of Edinburgh's church bells ringing in celebration of the King's birthday muffled other, nearer sounds, and she paid no heed to the rattle of iron wheels on the gravel drive leading to Penthorpe House. Naturally shy of strangers, and expecting no visitors in the absence of her mother and stepfather, who were visiting friends in the Highlands, she had already dismissed the vague, familiar noise as most likely being a tradesman's cart.
Although the chilly breeze that stirred her fine, long flaxen hair lacked the power to penetrate her thick blue wool cloak, there was dampness in the air. She could smell the fog. When the bells fell suddenly silent, a pair of gulls overhead dove and screeched at each other in apparent fury. At the sound, memory transported her—as it had with diminishing frequency over the past nine years—to the many times she had stood in stolen solitude on a much higher bluff in Cornwall, overlooking the English Channel from Seacourt Head. How long ago those dim, dark days seemed now.
The wheels had fallen silent.
Dragging her thoughts from Cornwall back to Scotland, she fixed her memory on another darkening day only two years since. All Edinburgh had turned out then, crowding the hillsides to watch the royal yacht steam into the Firth through a downpour of rain, at the start of King George IV's historic visit to Scotland. It had been the first such visit by a sovereign in the hundred years since unification with England.
Her mind flashed Cornwall and Edinburgh into one disoriented, terrifying image when the masculine voice startled her. Turning, she caught no more than a brief glimpse of the tall, fair-haired man who approached so silently before she sensed another presence behind her and foggy daylight disappeared into silent blackness.
Melissa's first conscious awareness was unnamed fear accompanied by a throbbing ache at the back of her head. Her second was that she was in a coach that rocked and swayed in a manner suggesting that she ought not to open her eyes before her headache eased and her stomach settled. Confused and frightened, she kept still, trying to gather her wits before facing what lay ahead.
She was not alone. Her cheek rested against the rough cloth of someone's hard, muscular shoulder, and the scent of citrus mixed with snuff wafted to her nostrils above the lavender fragrance of her own clothing. Something about that scent was familiar, awakening those dark memories of Cornwall buried in the nethermost regions of her mind. Forgotten images stirred, then flared to life when she remembered the figure she had seen so briefly before everything went black. The unnamed fear exploded into terror. Her heart pounded, and her breath caught in her throat. Headache and unsettled stomach were forgotten.
"So, you are awake at last, are you?" Hearing his voice again, she thought she must have recognized it at once, although she had heard it pronounce only the three syllables of her name. When she still did not open her eyes, he added with sardonic amusement that raised the hairs on the back of her neck, "It is of no use to continue pretending to be out of your senses, you know. An unconscious person does not tighten her lips like that. That's better," he added when, fighting for calm, she opened her eyes at last and straightened in her seat.
Sliding away from him, she turned slightly in the hope he would believe that she had moved only so she could face him, and said quietly, "Hello, Papa."
"So you know me, do you? After so many years apart, I was afraid you might have forgotten." Sir Geoffrey Seacourt smiled, and she realized instantly that one thing she had forgotten about him was how charming his smile could be. His even white teeth glinted, and his eyes crinkled at the corners, lending his expression a deceptively engaging warmth.
Still terrified but exerting herself to keep her voice calm, she said, "No, sir, I-I hadn't forgotten you." She hoped her countenance did not betray her fear.
"Well, it would not surprise me if you had," he said. "I don't expect your mother encouraged you to remember, and certainly that scoundrel Penthorpe did not. I suppose they have both filled your head with nonsensical notions about me."
"I do not think they have done that, sir. Indeed, I cannot think when they last mentioned you at all."
Just as a long-dormant but rapidly awakening instinct warned her that he might take offense at such an unflattering choice of words, he chuckled and said, "Now that does not surprise me. I doubt very much that they ever told you the truth about what happened nine years ago. Perhaps they chose silence as their best recourse."
She thought she caught a speculative gleam in his eyes as he spoke, as if he wondered if she believed him, but the expression vanished so quickly that she could not be certain. The swaying of the coach made her headache worse. She reached to touch the lump on the back of her head, wincing when she did.
He said, "I'm sorry you were hurt, darling. I'd intended to visit you first and explain matters, but seeing you outside and alone like that made me realize how much I've missed you. I acted quite impulsively; however, my man ought not to have struck you so hard. I don't mind confessing, it frightened me witless to see you collapse at my feet. Is the pain very great?"
"It will ease." More dark memories stirred with his apology, but she could not grasp them. She knew only that his remorse did nothing to ease her fear.
The carriage lurched in and out of a pothole, and as she grabbed the strap to steady herself, she realized from passing scenery that they were heading south. "Where are you taking me?" Despite another surge of panic, she strove to speak quietly.
His expression changed to boyish ruefulness. He said, "The fact of the matter is that I'm in the devil of a hobble, darling, and I need your help to extricate myself."
"I-I will do what I can," she said, "but surely it would be better to return to the house to discuss the matter. My disappearance must have distressed the servants, and the children. That is," she added, watching him carefully, "it did unless you explained who you are, and reassured the household of my safety."
"I must say, you have grown into a lovely young lady, my dear," he said glibly. "Even more beautiful, I think, than your mother was in her prime. Your eyes are a clearer blue and your features far more delicate than hers. But you were such a silent, reserved child that I feared you might have grown into an insipid woman. I am pleased to see that you have not."
"Thank you. You have not answered my question, however."
"What question is that?"
"I have asked two. Where are you taking me, and did you tell anyone at home that I am with you?"
"At home, you say." He frowned. "Your home ought to have been with your father, not with that scoundrel who snatched you and your mother away from me."
"Penthorpe has been very kind to me," Melissa said. "I am sorry if you were made unhappy by our leaving, but Mama did tell me that when you agreed to let her take me with her, you promised never to demand my return."
"They took advantage of my good nature," he murmured. Once again she noted the speculative look, but again it was fleeting. The muscles in his jaw tightened. He said, "You'll never know how difficult it was to let you go, you and your mother both."
"Papa, you still have not answered my questions," she said, trying to gather her dignity. "I really must insist—"
"Don't be impertinent, Melissa." His tone had changed, and remembering the new one all too well, she felt herself go still, just as she had in the old days. He added flatly, "I'll explain everything when I believe it is appropriate for you to know my plans. For now, you must be content knowing only that we are heading for the border."
"But you can't—"
"I can do as I want where you are concerned," he retorted. "I'm your father."
"But Mama divorced you," Melissa said. "The Commissary Court in Edinburgh granted her a divorce, and she is married to Penthorpe now. He is—"
"He is a bounder and a scoundrel, and I do not want to hear his name on your lips again." There was no mistaking the menace in his voice now.
Fighting returning terror, reminding herself that she was no longer a child but a woman grown, she nonetheless bowed her head, looked at him through her lashes in the old way, and said, "I-I'm sorry, Papa. Perhaps I do not properly understand. After all, I was a child when it all happened, but I did think that Pen—that is, that he had become my legal guardian when he married Mama."
"Well, he did not. Even in Scotland, with its very peculiar laws, they could not alter the fact that you are my daughter, subject to my will and my will alone."
"Then why—" Recognizing that her temper, nurtured by nine years of freedom to speak her own mind, had betrayed her again into speaking forcefully, she broke off to say in a more docile tone, "I am no doubt being very stupid, sir, but I don't understand why you did not simply explain your wishes to me. If you mean to take me across the border, you should at least have given me time to pack clothes for the journey, and to reassure our people at home ... that is, at Pen—" Again she broke off. Biting her lower lip, she hoped she looked only confused and had not betrayed the increasing exasperation that threatened to overcome her better judgment.
To her relief he smiled again and said, "I have made things difficult for you. I can see that, but you must understand my feelings too, darling. Once I had seen you, it was as if all the frustration and anxiety I've experienced these past years just overwhelmed me. I acted without thought. You are right to chide me for carrying you off in such a mad way, but please remember that I lost you in much the same fashion."
She wondered if perhaps he was taking her so swiftly south because Scottish law would prevent his taking her at all if he did not seize his opportunity. She said casually, "I hope when we stop to change horses, you will allow me time to tidy myself, sir. I must look as if I've been dragged through a hedge. I'll be grateful for a restorative drink by then, too."
Her real hope must have betrayed itself in her expression, however, because when he smiled again, the expression not only lacked its usual charm but chilled her to the marrow. "This team is good for two stages," he said in clipped tones. "We won't stop before Galashiels, and then only for the change. There is a passable inn just south of the Carter Fell turnpike where we can pass the night. Your appearance need not concern you before then."
Panic flared again. She swallowed, wondering if it would do any good to point out to him that Nature might make it necessary for them to stop longer than that at Galashiels. As if he read her thoughts again, he said gently, "If you require a private moment, we can arrange for one at the roadside where I can keep my eye on you."
Heat flooded her cheeks. Hoping there would be no need for such a stop, she decided she would not eat or drink. Fortunately, at this time of year the Great North Road allowed for speed, so to reach the border would take only three or four hours unless the gathering fog slowed their pace. The farther they moved from the sea, she knew, the less likely that was to occur.
Silence reigned for several moments before she said quietly, "You said you require my assistance, sir. Will you tell me how you think I can help you?"
"I'll tell you later," he said, "but make no mistake, Melissa. I will be most displeased if you create a scene at Galashiels when we change horses. Believe me when I say that you are legally bound to obey me, regardless of what anyone else may have told you. The fact that I chose to remove you abruptly rather than await the return of your mother and that fellow she lives with can have no legal bearing in this matter. They could not have prevented my reclaiming you."
"You knew they were away?"
"Yes, I took the liberty of inquiring about them before we drove to the house, but as I said, their presence would have made no difference. He might have had the effrontery to insist upon a hearing before a magistrate, but although Scotland allows women to divorce their rightful husbands, it does not attempt to deny a father's lawful authority over his own daughter. That scoundrel might have delayed matters, but he cannot stop me."
"I hope you do, because if you embarrass me at Galashiels, I will make you very sorry. Even at this distance of time and place, I expect you can recall the folly of arousing my displeasure."
Icy terror raced up her spine. Shivering, she said, "I-I won't disobey you, sir."
He reached over to pat her knee. "That's my good girl. Now, address me as Papa, as you were used to do—not sir—and we shall get on very well." Glancing out the window, he added in a more cheerful tone, "How very green these hills are."
"Yes, w-we've had a lot of rain."
"That's the one thing I remember vividly from my last visit to this country," he said, still looking out the window. "It seemed to rain the entire time I was here."
"The last time—! W-were you in Scotland before, sir—Papa?"
Smiling at the hasty amendment, and relaxing again, he said "Does that surprise you? It should not, when you must know the greater part of the English gentry and nobility accompanied His Majesty on his historic visit two years ago. I saw you twice, in fact, once at Dalkeith and then at the King's Drawing Room. I must tell you, I thought at first that they intended you to wed the young Duke of Buccleuch, but when you were not presented at the Drawing Room, I realized that could not be the case."
"I was only sixteen," she protested.
"Old enough to suit ambitious parents, and as I recall the matter, His Grace the duke is almost exactly your own age. I distinctly remember His Majesty refusing to allow him to drink the liqueur that was served after dinner at Dalkeith. Too strong it was, he said, for a lad so young."
"I remember that dinner at Dalkeith Palace, of course," she said, "and the Drawing Room, too, but I don't recall seeing you."
"Both events were dreadfully crowded, and I took care to keep out of your way," he said, "especially since I doubted that I could meet that scoundrel your mother lives with without punching him in the nose. Hard enough to know I was in the same house with him, but I bore with it in order to catch a glimpse of my pretty daughter. It pleased me very much to see you dancing with the young duke."
"Well, I like him well enough," she said, "but not enough to want to marry him. In all fairness, I've never had the least hint that anyone expected me to do so."
"That's just as well. You won't marry him."
"Goodness, you sound very certain. Do you not approve of His Grace?"
"I scarcely know him, but you are going to marry someone else."
"I daresay I shall, one day, but—" Breaking off, she regarded him with dawning apprehension. "What do you mean? Is that why you—? No, no, I am being foolish."
"Not at all, my dear, if what you believe is that your father has arranged your marriage. I am sure that to do so is no more than my paternal duty demands."
His tone was gentle, but the look in his eyes challenged her to deny his authority, and feeling panic stir again, she knew she lacked the courage to do so. Striving for calm, she said, "I daresay such arrangements are still made, though I do not know anyone whose father has arranged her marriage without so much as telling her that he intended to do so. Such customs have gone out of fashion here in Scotland."
"Perhaps they have," he agreed, adding in a harder tone, "but even in Scotland, I believe a daughter does not defy her father's will."
"N-no, sir." Another shiver raced up her spine.
Silence fell again. She knew there was no hope that Penthorpe might be hard on their heels, for he and Susan had not intended to return for four more days. Nor would the servants act on their own to follow her, even if they could pick up her trail. The most she could hope was that someone would ride to the Highlands and urge her mother and stepfather to return at once. Even then, they could have no notion of what had become of her. She would remain wholly in Sir Geoffrey's power unless and until she could manage to escape on her own.
Excerpted from Dangerous Games by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1996 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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