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16th June, 1814Queen's Head Inn, Oxfordshire
He was all power and masculine arrogance with the candlelight dancing on those long, naked limbs as he stood and poured ruby-red wine into the glass and tossed it back in one long swallow.
To be in his arms, in this unfamiliar bed, had not been what she had imagined it would be. Less tender than she had hoped, more painful than she had expected. But then, she had been very ignorant and she would be more realistic next time. Julia snuggled back into the warm hollow his body had made.
'Jonathan?' He would come back now, hold her in his arms, kiss her, talk more of their plans and all the uncertainties would vanish. On that headlong drive from Wiltshire he had ridden beside the chaise almost all the way and dinner in the public room below had not been the place to discuss their new life together.
'Julia?' He sounded abstracted. 'You can wash there.' He jerked his head towards the screen in the corner and poured himself another glass, his back still to her.
Unease trickled through the warmth. Was Jonathan disappointed in her? Perhaps he was simply tired, she certainly was. Julia slid from the tangled sheets, pulled one of them around her and padded over to the screen that concealed the washstand.
Making love was an embarrassingly sticky process, another small shock in an evening of revelations. That would teach her to think like a lovesick girl. It was about time she went back to being an adult woman making a rational decision to take control of her own life, she thought with a wry smile for her own romantic daydreams. This was real life and she was with the man she loved, the man who loved her enough to brave scandal and snatch her away from her relatives.
The screen overlapped one edge of the window and she reached to twitch the curtain completely over the panes of exposed glass before she dropped the sheet.
'London Flier!' There was the blare of a horn below, too dramatic to ignore. Julia looked through the gap as, wheels rumbling, the stagecoach pulled out of the arch from the stable yard and turned right. In a second it was gone. Strange. Now why do I think that strange?
She was too tired to puzzle over odd fancies. Julia washed, draped the sheet more becomingly and came out from behind the screen, unexpected butterflies dancing in her stomach. Jonathan was half-dressed now, seated staring into the empty grate, the stem of his wine glass twisting between his fingers. His shirt lay open, revealing the muscular flat planes of his chest, the dark arrow of hair that disappeared into his breeches Her eyes followed it and she felt herself blush.
How cold it was away from the heat of his body. Julia poured wine and curled into the battered old armchair opposite his. Jonathan must be thinking of the next morning, of the long road north to the Scottish border and their marriage. Perhaps he feared pursuit, but she doubted Cousin Arthur would trouble himself with her whereabouts. Cousin Jane would screech and flap about and moan about the scandal, but she would be more concerned about the loss of her drudge than anything else.
The wine was poor stuff, tart and thin, but it helped bring things into focus of a kind. It was as though her brain had taken a holiday these past days and she had become nothing but an air-headed girl in love instead of the practical woman she really was.
You are in love. And you've thrown your cap over the windmill with a vengeance, the inner voice that was presumably her conscience informed her. Yes, but that does not mean I have to be a useless ninny, she argued back. I must think how to be of help.
The jolting, high-speed ride across country had been straightforward enough once Jonathan had explained why they were not going directly north to Gloucester and the road to the Border. Cutting northeast to Oxford and then going north would confuse pursuit and the road, once they got there, was better. They had turned on to the Maidenhead-Oxford turnpike about ten miles back, but apparently Oxford inns were wildly expensive, so this one, out of town, was the prudent option for their first night.
She would look after the money now, budget carefully, save Jonathan the worry of sorting out the bills, at least. North to the border. To Gretna. How romantic.
The north. That was what was wrong. The wine slopped from her glass staining the sheet like blood. The stage was going to London and it had turned right, the direction they had been heading when they arrived here.
'Yes?' He looked up. Those long-lashed blue eyes that always made her heart flutter were as unreadable as ever.
'Why were we driving south for ten miles before we got here?'
His expression hardened. 'Because that's the way to London.' He put down the glass and stood up. 'Come back to bed.'
'But we are not going to London. We are going to Gretna, to be married.' She drew two painful breaths as he did not reply and the truth dawned. 'We were never going to Scotland, were we?'
Jonathan shrugged, but did not trouble himself with denials. 'You wouldn't have come if you'd known otherwise, would you?'
How could the world change in one beat of the heart? She thought she had been chilled before, but it was nothing to this. It was impossible to misunderstand him. 'You do not love me and you do not intend to marry me.' There was nothing wrong with her thought processes now.
'Correct.' He smiled, his lovely slow, sleepy smile. 'You were such a nuisance to your relatives, clinging on, insisting on staying.'
'But the Grange is my home!'
'^as your home,' he corrected. 'Since your father died it belongs to your cousin. You're an expense and no one's fool enough to marry a managing, gawky, bluestocking female like you with no dowry. So.'
'So Arthur thought a scandalous elopement with Jane's black sheep of a third cousin would take me off his hands for good.' Yes, it was very clear now. And I have slept with you.
'Exactly. I always thought you intelligent, Julia. You were just a trifle slow on the uptake this time.'
How could he look the same, sound the same, and yet be so utterly different from the man she had thought she loved? 'And they made you seem a misunderstood outcast so that I felt nothing but sympathy for you.' The scheme was as plain as if it was plotted out on paper in front of her. 'I would never have credited Arthur with so much cunning.' The chill congealed into ice, deep in her stomach. 'And just what do you intend to do now?'
'With you, my love?' Yes, there it was, now she knew to look for it: just a glimpse of the wolf looking out from those blue eyes. Cruel, amused. 'You can come with me, I've no objection. You're not much good in bed, but I suppose I could teach you some tricks.'
'Become your mistress?' Over my dead body.
'For a month or two if you're good. We're going to Londonyou'll soon find something, or someone, there. Now come back to bed and show me you're worth keeping.' Jonathan stood up, reached for her hand and pulled her to her feet.
'No!' Julia dragged back. His fingers cut into her wrist, she could feel the thin bones bending.
'You're a slut now,' he said, 'so stop protesting. Come and make the best of it. You never know, you might learn to enjoy it.'
'I said no.' He was a liar, a deceiver, but surely he would not be violent?
It seemed she was wrong about that, too. 'You do what I say.' The pain in her wrist was sickening as she resisted.
Her feet skidded on the old polished boards, the hearth rug rucked up and she stumbled, off balance. There was an agonising jolt in her arm as she fell, then Jonathan's grip opened and she was free. Sobbing with pain and fear and anger Julia landed with a crash in the grate. The fire irons clattered around her, striking elbow and hand in a landslide of hard little blows.
'Get up, you clumsy bitch.' Jonathan reached out to seize her, caught her hair, twisted and pulled. It was impossible to roll away. Julia hit out wildly to slap at him and connected with a blow that jarred her arm back. With a gasp Jonathan released her. Get up, run She rolled free, hit the foot of the bed, dragged herself up on to shaking legs.
Silence. Jonathan sprawled across the hearth, his head in a crimson pool. Her hand was wet. Julia looked down at her fingers, rigid around the poker. Blood stained her hand, dripped from the iron.
Blood. So much blood. She dropped the poker and it rolled to come to rest against his bare foot. Not my dead bodyhis. Oh, God, what have I done?
Midsummer's Eve, 1814 King's Acre Estate, Oxfordshire
The nightingale stopped her. How long had she been running? Four days five? She had lost count Her feet took her up the curve of the ornamental bridge, beyond pain now, the blisters just part of the general misery, and, as she reached the top the liquid beauty poured itself into the moonlight.
Peace. No people, no noise, no fear of pursuit. Simply the moon on the still water of the lake, the dark masses of woodland, the little brown bird creating magic on the warm night air.
Julia pulled off her bonnet and turned slowly around. Where was she now? How far had she come? Too late now to regret not staying to face the music, to try to explain that it had been an accident, self-defence.
How had she escaped? She still wasn't sure. She remembered screaming, screaming as she backed away from the horror at her feet. When people burst into the room she'd retreated behind the screen to hide her near-nudity, hide from the blood. They didn't seem to notice her as they gathered round the body.
And there behind the screen were her clothes and water. She had washed her hands and dressed so that when she stepped out to face them she would be decent. Somehow, that had seemed important. She'd had no idea of trying to run away from what she had done so unwittingly.
Jonathan's pocketbook lay on top of his coat. It must have been blind instinct that made her stuff it into her reticule. Then, when she had made herself come out and face the inevitable, the room was packed and people were jostling in the doorway trying to see inside.
No one paid any regard to the young woman in the plain grey cloak and straw bonnet. Had anyone even glimpsed her when they burst in? Perhaps she had reached the screen before the door opened. Now she must have appeared to be just another onlooker, a guest attracted by the noise, white-faced and trembling because of what she had seen.
The instinct to flee, the cunning of the hunted animal, sent her down the back stairs, into the yard to hide amidst the sacks loaded on a farm cart. As dawn broke she had slipped unseen from the back of it into the midst of utterly unfamiliar countryside. And it felt as though she had been walking and hiding and stealing rides ever since.
If she could just sit for a while and absorb this peace, this blissful lack of people to lie to, to hide from. If she could just forget the fear for a few moments until she found a little strength to carry on.
The tall column of grey shimmered, moon-lit, in the centre of the narrow stone bridge. Long dark hair lifted and stirred in the night breeze: a woman. Impossible. Now he was seeing things.
Will strained every sense. Silence. And then the night was pierced again by the three long-held notes that signalled the start of the nightingale's torrent of languid music, so beautiful, so painful, that he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again he expected to find himself alone. But the figure was still there. A very persistent hallucination then. As he watched, it turned, its face a pale oval. A ghost? Ridiculous to feel that superstitious shudder when he was edging so close to the spirit world himself. I do not believe in ghosts. I refuse to. Things were bad enough without fearing that he would come back to haunt this place himself, forced to watch its disintegration in Henry's careless, spendthrift hands.
No, it was a real woman of course, a flesh-and-blood woman, the paleness of her face thrown into strong relief by the dark hair that crowned her uncovered head. Will moved into the deeper shadows that bordered the Lake Walk and eased closer. What was she doing, this trespasser far into the parkland that surrounded King's Acre? She must be almost a mile from the back road that led to the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury.
Her long grey cloak swung back from her shoulders and he saw that she was tall. She leaned over the parapet of the bridge, staring down as though the dark waters beneath held some secret. Everything in the way she moved spoke of weariness, he thought, then stiffened as she shifted to hitch one hip on to the edge of the stonework.
'No!' Cursing his uncooperative, traitorous body, Will forced his legs to move, stumbled to the foot of the bridge and clutched the finial at the end of the balustrade. 'No don't jump! Don't give up whatever it is ' His legs gave way and he fell to his knees, coughing.
For a moment he thought he had so startled her that she would jump, then the ghost-woman slid down from the parapet and ran to kneel at his side.
'Sir, you are hurt!'
Her arm went around his shoulders and she caught him against herself in a firm embrace. Will closed his eyes for a moment. The temptation to surrender to the simple comfort of a human touch was almost too much.
'Not hurt. Sick. Not contagious,' he added as she gave a little gasp. 'Don't worry.'
'I am not worried for myself,' she said with a briskness that bordered on impatience. She shifted her position so he fell back on her shoulder and then laid a cool palm on his forehead. Will bit back a sigh of pure pleasure. 'You have a fever.'
'Always do, this time of night.' He fought to control his breathing. 'I feared you were about to jump.'
'Oh, no.' He felt the vehement shake of her head. 'I cannot imagine ever being desperate enough to do that. Drowning must be such a terror. Besides, there is always some hope. Always.' Her voice was low and slightly husky, as if she had perhaps been weeping recently, but he sensed that it would always be mellow, despite its certainty. 'I was resting, looking at the moonlight on the water. It is beautiful and calm and the nightingale was singing so exquisitely. I felt some need for calm and beauty,' she added, with a brave attempt at a rueful laugh that cracked badly.
Something was wrong. He could feel the tension and the exhaustion coming off her in waves. If he was not careful, she would bolt. Or perhaps not, she seemed determined to look after him. As if he was dealing with a wounded animal he made himself relax and follow her lead. 'That is why I come down here when the moon is full,' he confessed. 'And Midsummer's Eve adds a certain enchantment. You could believe almost anything in the moonlight.' Believe that I am whole again 'I thought you a ghost at first sight.'
'Oh, no,' she repeated, this time with a faint edge of genuine amusement that appeared to surprise her. 'I am far too solid for a ghost.'
Every fibre in his body, a body that he believed had given up its interest in the opposite sex long months ago, stirred in protest. She felt wonderful: soft and curved and yet firm where she still held him cradled against her shoulder. He managed not to grumble in protest as she released him and got to her feet.