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Still smiling at some absurdity, Miss Caterina Chester and her sister rode into the stable yard behind Number 18 Paradise Road, patting the damp glossy necks before them and fully expecting the usual smiles of welcome from the grooms eager to help them dismount. This sunny morning, with steam rising from the tiled rooftops, the stable yard was busy with lads sluicing mud off the wheels of a coffee-and-cream-coloured crane-neck phaeton while another groom in an unfamiliar green livery held the bridle of a large grey hunter in the shade of the covered walkway. No one came running to meet them.
"Father has a visitor," said Sara. "That's Aunt Amelie's phaeton," said Caterina, coming to a halt. "Why is it covered in mud? Joseph," she called, "what's all this?"
Joseph lowered his dripping broom and turned, shading his eyes. "Sorry, Miss Chester. I didn't hear you coming," he said, wiping his hands down his apron.
He came forward to take the bridles, but Caterina threw one leg over the pommel and slid to the ground before he could reach her. "Help Miss Sara," she told him. "I can manage. Who's been out in the phaeton?"
"Master Harry," said Joseph, leading Sara's horse. "He borrowed it last evening and"
"Borrowed it? Without asking?" Angrily, she looked up at her sister. "Did you know of this, Sara?"
"Certainly not. Aunt Amelie lent it to you, not to Harry."
"So why didn't you mention this to me when you brought the horses round this morning, Joseph?"
The groom stared apologetically at the grimy phaeton, blinking in surprise at the sudden deep waters. "Well, because I thought you knew, Miss Chester.Master Harry told me he'd had permission to use it, and to be quick and get it ready."
"Ready for what?" "He didn't say for what, miss. But whatever it was, I don't think Lady Elyot would've liked it much. Just look at it, caked with mud and splashed all over. We're having to scrub every last inch of it." He scowled at the shining areas of panelling just showing through runnels of water. "It only came back a half hour ago."
Pretty Sara did not intend to dismount by herself as long as there was an attractive groom to help. Bouncing lightly onto the cobbles, she removed her hands from Joseph's shoulders but, even then, was not able to get her question in before her sister's. "Back from where?"
The stable yard grew quiet at Caterina's razorsharp tone.
Joseph let out a breath. "It's been over at Mortlake all night, Miss Chester. In Sir Chase Boston's stables. That's Sir Chase's groom over there. They brought it back this morning. Shall I ask him ?" "No, I'll find out the rest for myself." The hem of Caterina's dove-grey riding habit skimmed over the wet cobbles as she strode away to the steps that led up to the house, her slender back curved like a bow, both hands raised to unpin her veiled hat. Before her sister had reached her level, a mass of dark copper curls came loose with the net, tumbling onto her shoulders like a fox-fur cape, glinting with red highlights in the sun. Her slender figure appeared to pour through the door with a fluidity that typified all her movements.
"So that's her," said Sir Chase Boston's groom, smirking.
"Aye, that's her," said Joseph, leading the two horses away. "Now for some fireworks."
The man grinned. "Should be interesting, then." Joseph glanced at the big grey. "I shouldn't bother unsaddling him. Your master'll be out in five minutes with his ears afire."
"Want a bet?" the man said, settling himself onto the mounting-block.
In the elegant white-and-gold hallway, Caterina paused only long enough to glance at the table where a beaver hat, a pair of pale leather gloves and a silverbanded riding whip lay where the butler had placed them. A row of calling-cards marked the exact centre of the silver tray, and the reflection in the ormolu mirror above received not even a cursory acknowledgement in passing. From the upper landing came the slam of doors, a woman's faintly commanding voice, the siren-wail of infants, nurses cooing and strains of a distant lullaby. Wincing at the cacophany, Caterina just failed to hide the grimace before she opened the study door.
Not usually minding her interruptions, her father stopped his conversation abruptly, sensing the arrival of a minor whirlwind. "Ah, there you are," he said, turning to face her. "You received my message?" Middle-aged and lean with the look of a harassed greyhound, Stephen Chester did his best to smile, though it did not come naturally to him.
"No, Father. There appears to be a breakdown in the system somewhere. I received no message about the phaeton, either."
"So you've seen it. Well, Sir Chase has ridden over from Mortlake to explain the situation. I don't believe you've met. Sir Chase Boston. My eldest daughter, sir."
There was a movement behind her and, to her discomfort, Caterina realised that her father's guest had been lurking behind the door, watching her without being noticed. Well, perhaps not exactly lurking, but one could not help thinking that he had positioned himself there on purpose.
Like her father, Caterina was tall and there were relatively few men who came near to dwarfing her so that she had to lift her chin to see their faces. This man was not only tall, but broad and deep-chested, too, which she did not think was due to padding. She had heard of him; everyone in society had heard of Sir Chase Boston's on-off affaires, his nonsensical wagers, which he always seemed to win, his amazing exploits in the hunting field and his phenomenal driving skills. There was little, apparently, that this man had not attempted at some time. Except marriage.
She had expected to put a more ravaged face to a man with such an intemperate reputationdeep creases, muddy complexion, that kind of thing. What she saw instead was a pair of very intense hazel eyes that held hers with an alarming frankness, a well-groomed craggy face with a firm dimpled chin, and thick black hair raked back untidily off a broad forehead and curling down the front of his ears.
Yes, she thought, even his looks were excessive, though his dress was correct in every detail, spotless and well fitting. Looking down at the toes of his shining black-and-tan top-boots, she felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl, having seen in his eyes something more than mere politeness. The bow of her head was accompanied by the tiniest curtsy. "Sir Chase," she said, "may I ask how you come to be returning my aunt's phaeton in such a condition?" Her eyes, golden-brown and very angry, were not having the effect upon him that she had intended.
"I won it," he said. "The horses, too. From your brother." His voice was deep, as one might have expected from such a well-built man.
"My aunt's dapple-greys? Harry took those?" "A good colour. Goes well with the brown."
She suspected he was not talking about the phaeton and pair. "Father," she said, stripping off her gloves, "will you tell me what's going on, please? Aunt Amelie lent them to me, you know, and"
"Yes," said Mr Chester, "and young Harry's returned to Liverpool on the early mail this morning without saying a word about this ridiculous wager. It appears that Sir Chase and he had a race round Richmond Park last night and Harry lost. Hadn't you better sit down, my dear?"
"Harry lost with property that was not his to lose. I see," snapped Caterina. "No, I don't see. Sir Chase, if you knew it was not my brother's, why did you?"
"I didn't," interrupted their guest, pushing himself off the wall and going to stand by his host's side from where he could see her better. "He led me to believe it was his when he made the bet. And I won. He was obliged to leave the phaeton at Mortlake. When I looked, I found this tucked into a corner of the seat." His hand delved into his waistcoat pocket as he spoke, then pulled out a very delicate lace-edged handkerchief, which he handed to Caterina. "The initials A.C. in the corner suggested the young man's aunt, the former Lady Amelie Chester, now Lady Elyot. And in case she particularly wants the phaeton back, I have offered your father the chance to redeem it. I dare say it's worth about two hundred or so. One of the great Felton's, I believe. Five years old, one owner, patent cylinder axletrees, and the horses well they're worth"
"And my brother walked back from Mortlake, did he? Or did you offer him a lift?"
His eyes sparked with scorn. "Your brother owes me money, Miss Chester. I don't offer lifts to people in my debt. Do you?"
"The point is, my dear," said Caterina's troubled father, "that Sir Chase has every right to expect his winnings to be paid promptly. It's extraordinarily decent of him to return the phaeton and horses, but a wager is a wager, and"
"And it would be even more extraordinarily decent if Sir Chase were to draw a line under this silly nonsense and write his loss down to experience, wouldn't it, Father? After all, I don't suppose Sir Chase is lacking horses, or phaetons, is he? Harry is twenty, not yet earning, and tends to be a little irresponsible at times." Her heart beat a rhythm into her throat, and she could not quite define the singular hostility she felt towards this man. Was it simply his claims? His uncompromising directness? Was it his attitude towards her father? Or to her? Was it that she had heard of his many and varied love affairs? "Your brother's lack of funds, Miss Chester, is his own problem, not mine," Sir Chase said. "If he makes a wager, he should have the resources to back it without embarrassing anyone else. His irresponsibility is farcical, but when I win a wager I tend not to draw lines under the debt until it's paid. Nor do I pretend that I've lost. I'm not a charitable institution, and it's time young Mr Chester learned a thing or two about honour."
"I would have thought, sir," said Caterina, "that in a case of this kind, a phaeton and pair, for heaven's sake, you might have waived the inattention to honour. I realise that my brother is at fault for gambling with something he doesn't own, but surely" She stopped, suddenly aware that there was something yet to be spoken of.
Stephen Chester had never been good at concealing his thoughts, and now his long face registered real alarm, with a hasty doleful glance at Sir Chase that spoke volumes and a twist of his mouth before he spoke. "Er ahem! It's not oh, my goodness!" He sighed, casting a longing glance at the two glasses of brandy, just poured.
"Father, what is it? There's something else, isn't there?"
He nodded, abjectly. "Harry owes money, too," he whispered. "Sir Chase was just about to tell me as you came in, but I really don't think you should be hearing this, my dear. I didn't know all this when I sent a message for you to come. Perhaps you should"
"How much?"Caterina said, flatly. "Come, Father. Sit down here and tell me about it. You cannot keep this to yourself."
"I don't know how much," he said, weakly. "Sir Chase?" "He owes me twenty thousand, sir."
Mr Chester's head sunk slowly into his hands, but Caterina stared with her lips parted. She thought she saw stars until she blinked them away. "Twenty thousand?' she whispered. "Pounds?"
She gasped. "And how in heaven's name did he oh Good grief! And he's left you to repay a debt like that? How could he how could he do that, Father?"
Sir Chase seemed remarkably composed, as if they were talking of pennies rather than guineas. "I have your brother's IOU for that amount, for which I gave him twenty-four hours'grace. He assured me he would bring the money to me yesterday morning, but when he arrived at my house in London, he proposed that we should race a team round Richmond Park, the debt to be written off if he won. I would not normally accept such a wager, but he begged me for one more chance and I could see he was in Queer Street. Even so, I saw no reason why I should entirely forfeit the blunt for his sake. As I said"
"Yes, we heard what you said, Sir Chase. Did my brother say how he would get the money? Money-lenders?"
"It's not my business to ask, Miss Chester, but I don't think he'd found a way of raising the wind, otherwise I would not be telling your father about it."
"So you came here this morning expecting to find him?" "As you say. And to return Lady Elyot's phaeton." Mr Chester's hand groped blindly across the table for his glass of brandy, and Caterina pushed it towards him, then went round to support it as he sipped and sighed noisily, her anger at her brother's lack of principles combining with sympathy at the shock of such a crippling debt.
Her father had done nothing to deserve this. Twenty thousand guineas was a vast sum of money for which he would almost certainly have to sell this house here in Richmond as well as the one he owned in Buxton, for the income from his late brother's estate which he had inherited was already being stretched to its limits, and he was not allowed to raise capital by selling anything that had been entailed on him. That would all go to Harry, eventually.
Her father's second and much younger wife, Hannah, had presented him with two pairs of twins in six years, and now their handsome house on Paradise Road, which had once been Lady Elyot's, was bursting at the seams. For the sake of comfort, Harry's month-long holiday had been spent mostly in London, about two hours' drive away. And Sir Chase had clearly come here for full recompense, not to negotiate.
Hoping to put him out of countenance, Caterina went in with both barrels blazing. "Do you then live off your earnings, Sir Chase?" she asked.
"Caterina!" he father spluttered. "My dear, you may not ask a man questions of that nature. Please, it's time you went. Sir Chase and I will discuss this and find a way, somehow. The debt will be paid.You had better go and see how Hannah does. She's been asking for you."
Sir Chase reached the door ahead of her and, with one hand on the brass knob, would have opened it but for Caterina's hand placed firmly over the join. "One moment, if you please," she said, tilting her head to look scathingly into his eyes. "I understand the meaning of honour as well as any man, Sir Chase, but if I may not ask you about your winnings, then perhaps I may ask if you truly believed it was honourable to challenge my brother to a race you must have known he could not win when he already owed you money he could not pay? What exactly was your purpose in encouraging him into such folly that could only end in my father's embarrassment?"
Her heart-shaped face was held up to the light, showing him the full opulence of her loveliness, the luxuriant waving chestnut hair touching the silken-sheened skin, amazing golden-brown eyes framed by sweeping lashes, a straight nose and wide lips full of sensuous beauty. Her eyes blazed with the kind of passion that would respond instantly and without inhibition to any situation, and Sir Chase doubted very much that she would have obeyed her father if she had not already decided to do so. Perhaps she wanted him to see her as submissive, but he could see in her eyes, in her very bearing, that it was not so. This one would do as she pleased.
Mischievously, he incensed her further by allowing his eyes to roam briefly inside the frilled collar of her habit-shirt and then over her firm high breasts. "But I have already told you, Miss Chester," he said, unsmiling, "it was your brother who challenged me, not the other way round. So if you understand honour as well as you say you do, you'll not need any further explanation, will you?"
Though she sensed there was more to be said on the subject, there was a limit to the time she wished to spend in the company of this arrogant man, so she took her hand away from the door and waited for him to turn the knob. When he did not, she looked up to find him regarding her from between half-closed eyes that were difficult to read, and it was being made to wait until he was ready that made her realise he was telling her something about her manner. When he did open it, very very slowly, she was not allowed to whirl out as she had whirled in.