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Glory Sutton slipped into the Pump Room, blinking in the dimness. She should have brought a lantern, for the curtains that were drawn to foil gawpers also kept out the light of the fading day. But she hadn't realised how late it was when she'd remembered that she had left her reticule here.
The workmen had gone, but the smell of fresh paint lingered, making it easy to envision the final touches that would enable the spa to re-open. Queen's Well had been in her family for centuries, and Glory took pride in her efforts to preserve that heritage.
But a low noise made her glance warily about. It was just the creaking of the old wood, Glory told herself, yet she renewed her hunt for her reticule. Although she had never been the type to start at sounds, since arriving in the village a month ago, she'd been aware of the mixed feelings of the residents.
That alone wouldn't unnerve her; what did was the sensation she often had that someone was watching her. She didn't mention it, for her brother Thad would say her feelings were proof of the enmity of the locals. And Aunt Phillida would only worryor faint dead away. Neither of them shared Glory's hopes for the spa and would seize upon any excuse to abandon the once-thriving well she was trying to revive.
Although Glory kept her concerns to herself, she had slipped a small pistol into her reticule. The precaution would have horrified her aunt and her brother, but Glory's father had instilled in her the good sense to watch out for herselfeven in such a seemingly benign locale as the village of Philtwell.
However, a pistol would do no good, if she did not have it at hand, Glory realised as she turned to scan the deserted room. The shrouded furniture made the place look ghostly, as well as shielding her view, and she had to swallow a cry of surprise as a stray draught caught at a sheet. Finally, she spied a dark object lying on one of the benches that lined the walls. Had she put it down when inspecting the refurbished pieces? She couldn't recall. Perhaps one of the workmen had moved it there.
Hurrying into the shadows, Glory reached for the item, relieved to feel the soft material of her bag and the heft of the weapon inside it. But then she heard a noise again and spun round in alarm, for it sounded like the creak of a door.
Had someone followed her inside? Glory was tempted to call out the question, but held her tongue. Who would be entering a darkened building that had been closed for decades? It might just be a curious villager or one of the workers returning, but something made Glory shrink into the shadows.
A glance towards the main entrance showed that it remained firmly shut. However, she had come through the rear of the building, using her key. Had she left the door open? She had so much on her mind, so many details to tend to before the re-opening, that she might have been careless. The wind was sometimes fierce in Philtwill and could be to blame, Glory told herself. Still, she slipped the pistol from her reticule and inched behind the sheeted tables, keeping to the edge of the space.
But the rooms at the rear of the Pump Room were even darker, and Glory cursed her own foolishness as she shied away from the shadows. Finally, she saw the door standing open ahead and moved towards it, eager to leave the eerie atmosphere of the building. Hurrying over the threshold, Glory released a sigh of relief, only to catch her breath again as a shape loomed up in front of her.
Jerking backwards in alarm, Glory lifted her weapon with a shaking hand and called out in an even shakier voice, 'Stop, or I'll shoot.'
The low drawl wasn't what Glory had expected, but she was not about to lower her guard. 'Stand right there. Don't move,' she said, inching away from the presence. Although it was lighter outside, tall sycamores shrouded the Pump Room's exterior, and she could see little except a dark form, tall and menacing.
'Do you know who I am?' it asked.
Although definitely male, the figure was too large to be Dr Tibold, who had made himself a nuisance with his insistence that the well waters be given freely to allso that he could more easily line his own pockets.
'No,' Glory said, even as she wondered whether the physician had hired some thug to ensure her submission. Her heart thundered and her grip on the pistol faltered. This fellow seemed too smooth, his speech too refined, to be a ruffian, and yet all her instincts told Glory that, whoever he was, the man was dangerous.
'Should I?' she asked, with more bravado than she felt.
'I assume that's why you're robbing me.'
Glory blinked in surprise. 'I'm not robbing you,' she protested. But in that unguarded instant he made his move, knocking the pistol aside and pulling her to him.
The weapon fell to the ground and Glory found her back up against the man's body, while his arm closed tight across her chest, holding her fast. Gasping at the startling intimacy, Glory felt her wits desert her. Although rarely at a loss, she was bombarded by unfamiliar sensations: the man's obvious strength, the hard form pressed to hers and the heat that enveloped her.
Even as she drew in a sharp breath, Glory was assailed anew by the scent of warm male tinged with a subtle cologne. Her heart thundered, her pulse pounded and then there was a brush of warm breath on her hair as though of a whisper
'What the devil?' Thad's shout rang out, cutting off whatever words Glory imagined she might hear. And she blinked as her brother appeared on the path, silhouetted against the setting sun. 'Unhand my sister!'
'Work in tandem, do you?' The deep drawl close to her ear sent shivers up Glory's spine. She told herself it was because the villain didn't seem the least bit wary of Thad charging to her rescue. The voice itself, rife with confidence, had nothing to do with the peculiar quickening of her body, a loss of control that alarmed her more than anything else.
But perhaps that's what fear did to a person, Glory thought, although the man had not hurt her, simply disarmed her. In fact, she appeared to be in more jeopardy from Thad, who suddenly launched himself towards the stranger, despite the fact that Glory was standing in front of the man, unable to move. Her assailant, a bit more aware, quickly set her behind him.
'Don't make me regret this,' he said, as he released her, and Glory wondered at the kind of thug who would set her free. Perhaps one who thought far too highly of himself, she mused as he faced Thad.
But the man's confidence was not misplaced. Even in the dim light, Glory could see that Thad's efforts were clumsy and erratic, while his opponent's were perfectly controlled, as practised as a boxer's. Although that was not unusual, for even Thad wanted to take up the gentleman's sport, this fellow had the skills of a professional. He could easily have been one of the bruisers who were paid to bloody each other in a milling-match, and Glory feared for her brother's life.
Indeed, Thad was soon knocked to the ground, and Glory cried out in protest. Automatically stepping towards him, she nearly tripped on the forgotten pistol. Relief swamped her as she leaned down to retrieve it.
'Stop right there!' Glory shouted, and this time her hand was steadier as she pointed the weapon at Thad's assailant.
But neither male paid any attention to her threat. Thad sat up, rubbed his jaw and eyed his silent foe with what might have been admiration. 'Where did you learn to fight like that?'
'No! Really?' Thad said, his voice rising with excitement. 'I'd love to learn from the master, but my sister doesn't approve. Instead, she dragged me here to the ends of the earth, where there's nothing for a game fellow to do.'
As Glory watched dumbfounded, Thad's opponent stretched out a hand to help him to his feet. 'So you've taken up thievery?'
'What? No! I'm no thief, but what.what are you?' Thad asked, apparently coming to his senses. His tone changed to a challenge as he straightened. 'What were you doing with my sister?'
'I was wondering why the door to the supposedly closed Pump Room was standing open when your sister threatened to put a bullet in me,' the man said.
They both turned towards Glory, who got her first good look at her assailant as the setting sun struck him. Tall, dark and good looking, he was dressed immaculately and reeked of power, wealth and arrogance. Or was it simply confidence? Shaken, Glory drew in a sharp breath.
'Who are you?' she asked.
'Since circumstances have conspired against a formal introduction, you may call me Westfield,' he said, with a slight nod.
'You're the Duke of Westfield?' Thad's voice held both awe and horror, and Glory might have swayed upon her feet, had not the nobleman reached out a steadying handto turn away the pistol she was pointing at him.
Oberon Makepeace, fourth Duke of Westfield, shot his cuffs, straightened his neckcloth and headed up the slope to Sutton House, none the worse for the attempted assault. He tucked the small pistol he had collected into the pocket of his coat, the better to avoid any further unpleasantness. Neither the young man nor woman had put up much argument at that point, and Oberon had made good his escape without the fear of a bullet in his back.
He had not been expecting such an encounter, here on the outskirts of nowhere, and he wasn't sure what to make of it. Although the effort had been clumsy and easily foiled, Oberon could not discount the possibility that there was more to what had transpired than met the eye. And it was that prospect, among other reasons, that kept him from tossing his young perpetrators in gaol.
Oberon had learned long ago that people were not always what they seemed, and while the young woman looked like any other empty-headed daughter of the local gentry, genteel ladies did not point pistols at strangers. She might be passing as one of her betters, so that she and her so-called brother could run some kind of swindle, and, if so, they might have stumbled upon Oberon by chance. After all, he had arrived only an hour ago.
However, chance was something Oberon viewed with scepticism, and he tried to remember who knew he was travelling to the village of Philtwell. He hadn't told many of his plans, just put it about that he had a family engagement. But his mother might have spread the word. She was responsible for the outing, having insisted that he accompany her to visit an ailing relation. Although Oberon had suggested others in his stead, including the family physician, the dowager was adamant. Nor had she accepted what she termed his 'social commitments' as a viable excuse.
Acceding to her wishes, Oberon had endured a lengthy journey on barely passable roads to reach Philt-well, a rustic backwater far from civilisation. The village boasted little more than a rutted main street lined with dilapidated buildings, including the remnants of Queen's Well, a spa once favoured by Queen Elizabeth. Never a particularly fashionable watering hole, it had not enjoyed the success of Bath or Tunbridge Wells, and its heyday had long passed, its waters closed.
And yet, someone had been skulking about the Pump Room, and not just anyone At his first glimpse of the shadowy form, Oberon had reacted more strongly than was his wont. Perhaps it was the threat she had presented, but the ennui he had felt since leaving London disappeared, replaced by a surge of excitement, sharp and unfamiliar. He told himself it was only the sudden appearance of a new challenge, a puzzle, here, of all places.
And if the enigma came in a slender body that fit perfectly against his? Oberon frowned. Obviously, it had been too long since he parted with his last mistress or he would never have been so affected by a slip of a female. Far more important than her appeal was the fact that she carried a pistol and had threatened him with it. That made her both foolhardy and dangerousand worth further inspection, along with the village itself.
Philtwell's remoteness would be an advantage to those who would meet away from prying eyes, and in the past, many had gathered at spas to hatch their plots. But today? Oberon shook his head dubiously. He was probably clutching at straws in order to occupy himself. Yet, as he left the outskirts of Philtwell to turn into drive of Sutton House, he watched the shadows for any signs of movement.
Nothing loomed ahead except Randolph Pettit's residence, a sturdy brick building that was small by ducal standards, but would serve well enough for a short stay. Although a couple of centuries old, it had a clean look, thanks to some additions and improvements over the years. More were needed, especially inside, and Oberon wondered just how well his mother's cousin was situated.
He slipped in a side entrance to avoid any scrutiny and to determine whether he showed any signs of his recent adventure. A quick assessment in his bedroom revealed nothing except a dusty coat, which could be easily remedied by his valet. Reaching into his pocket, Oberon removed the small pistol and deposited it in a bureau drawer.
Looking down at the weapon for a long moment, Oberon wondered whether he should have questioned the young woman more closely. But too much interest on his part would be remarked, and he could not afford to show his hand even in such a distant locale as Philtwell. However, he had no intention of dismissing the incident, and he was already thinking ahead as he called for his valet.
Country hours were kept at Sutton House, which meant an early supper and a long evening of boredom to follow. But now Oberon's senses were alert, and the upcoming meal became like so many others, an opportunity to listen and learn and ferret out the information he sought.
However, when he made his way to the dining hall, Oberon found it deserted. Obviously a part of the original structure, the room remained much as it must have looked when built. Although most of the house had been refurbished, here the dim lighting cast only a faint glow that did not reach the corners. The furniture, too, was heavy and dark, Oberon noted, as he walked slowly around the perimeter. He was approaching one wall where the paint appeared to be mottled with age when he heard footsteps.
Turning, he saw only his mother on the threshold. 'Your cousin is unable to join us?' he asked, masking his disappointment. It appeared he would learn little about the locals tonight.
'Not yet,' she said. 'But he does seem to be improving.'
Oberon wouldn't know, having been shooed away from the sickroom of a man he could not recall. And he wondered, again, why his mother insisted that he accompany her when she would have been better served by a physician, companion or man of business who could put her cousin's affairs in order, if necessary.