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'You will have to marry Granby now,' Lady Winforde observed with undisguised satisfaction.
'I'd sooner wed the boot boy!'
'Your low tastes are irrelevant.' Lady Winforde contemplated the bedraggled figure in front of her with distaste, and Thea forced herself to meet those cold, colourless eyes as if it cost her no effort at all. 'It's not as if you have any claim to breeding, and my son will be taking a step down by marrying the granddaughter of a foundling.'
'Your son is a gambler and a drunkard. No female with any regard for her comfort or sanity would willingly marry him, whatever her birth.'
'Ah, but such a lady would not be shut in a gentleman's bedchamber all night in the first place. How on earth you expect me to believe a door could stick at night and open freely in the morning I shall never know, but you have no choice but to accept my son's offer. The poor boy thinks himself very hard done by I fear, having been trapped in such a distasteful fashion by a designing female with no pretensions to rank.' wife so conve-
than to scour the was hardly to be wondered at that a man of the cloth should rush to my side to offer support and succour at such a time.'
'And his wife's curiosity was the icing on the cake I suppose?'
'What strange turns of phrase you possess, a legacy of your peculiar upbringing one can only suppose.'
'There was nothing wrong with my upbringing,'Thea was goaded into protesting and one of Lady Winforde's plucked eyebrows rose incredulously as she let a smile fleetingly touch her thin lips.
Drat, she had let the scheming witch win another bout, and once upon a time she had thought herself so very clever.
'Perhaps not for the granddaughter of a cit, but you are ill prepared to follow in my footsteps,'her ladyship informed Thea haughtily. 'Still, we must make the best of the inevitable. You will return to your room and compose yourself for your wedding to my son. A bride must prepare for such a solemn occasion.'
Thea was marched back to captivity by one of the thuggish servants the Winfordes had brought in when Grandfather was hardly cold in his grave. Somehow she must lull them into thinking her defeated; in the hope they would relax and give her a chance to escape.
Not that she feared another visit from Granby; even last night he did no more than half-heartedly molest her, until her virulent, and fluently expressed, disgust sent him back to his beloved brandy bottle. What an idiot she had been not to take the unscrupulous rogues seriously from the outset, when she might have stood a better chance of confounding them.
Thea plumped down on the narrow bed that was the only furniture in her dreary attic, apart from a broken joint stool. Tempting though it was to fall into a despairing stupor after such a night, she refused to give in. Somehow she would find a way out of this trap, even if it killed her. At least that would frustrate the conniving rogues after her fortune! *** 'Confound it, Nick, I should have left you in Southampton,' Major Marcus Ashfield, the new Lord Strensham, announced as he regarded his gaunt companion through narrowed eyes.
Even in the fading light of a March afternoon, he could see the stark pallor of his cousin's thin face, and bitterly reproached himself for listening to the idiot's demands to get him away from the sawbones.
'Damn it, man, I should have let them take your arm off after all.'
'Not losing my arm,' his cousin mumbled, 'nothing wrong with it.'
'Only a festering slash from a French sabre to add to the bullet wound in your shoulder, and when did you study medicine?'
'Know more about it than that bumbling fool,' Captain the Honourable Nicholas Prestbury muttered darkly.
Marcus heard the slurring in his voice and noted his pig-headed relative's feeble attempts to pretend he wasn't about to fall out of his saddle. Evidently they could go no further today, but in the midst of this wilderness, where on earth could they safely stop?
'Luckily even I know enough to tell you can go no further.'
'Ride all night if I have tonever gave in when we marched over the Pyrenees.'
'Maybe not, but you lacked two wounds and a fever to slow you down then.'
'Won't slow me down now.'
'Stow it, you ass, of course they will.'
'Hyde Park Soldier!'
'Always were an idiot,' Nick muttered and finally lost the battle with his reeling senses.
Marcus was only just in time to steady his cousin's slumped body and calm his spooked horse.
'Thank heaven you have some manners, Hercules, old fellow,' he murmured as his own horse stilled, obedient to the pressure of his rider's legs, which was all Marcus could currently spare to control him.
The spirited bay snorted his disapproval of all that was going on around him, but fortunately made no attempt to gallop off when Marcus slid out of his saddle, while at the same time somehow keeping Nick in his until he could secure him.
'We're in the devil of a fix, old man,' he informed himself as much as his long-time mount.
He finally managed to calm both horses to the extent where Nick's precious black stallion was as quiet as he could ever be accused of being. Hercules nuzzled his owner's shoulder as if to remind him there were more important things to think about than wayward cavalry officers and their restless mounts, such as oats and water, probably in that order.
Yet the woods were thick on either side of the track and it was at least a couple of miles since they had passed a rundown wayside tavern Marcus suspected must be the haunt of thieves, mainly because no one else would bother to go there. Maybe he should have insisted they stay for the night nevertheless, but he doubted his ability to guard his cousin and their horses so they could leave it again come morning. All he could do now was tie Nick to his saddleas they sometimes had the lesser wounded on the marchand hope to find some sort of makeshift shelter for the coming night.
It was darker here than it would be in the open, and from the look of the overcast sky there would be no kindly moon to mark their path later. Marcus was contemplating making camp on the edge of the road when at last he caught a slight whiff of woodsmoke on the chill air. Used to moving in hostile territory, he was still too cautious to rush toward its source. This might not be Spain or France where hostile armies sometimes camped within yards of one another, but he wasn't fool enough to think everyone in England a bluff John Bull, waiting to welcome the Marquis of Druro's officers with unalloyed delight.
Cursing their vulnerability, he kept the horses as quiet as he could and listened intently. Nothing but the normal sounds of nature, which did little to help or hinder his attempts to plumb the darkness. Deciding all he could do was proceed with caution, he led the horses forward as quietly as possible. Of course it could be charcoal burners, but he was unsure they would be any better off with them than the rum company he might have found at the wayside inn. At last the scent led him down a ride and deeper into the forest, and he had no choice now but to follow it, for Nick was beginning to groan in his uneasy stupor and Marcus was desperate.
'Idiot,' he murmured, wishing now he had never listened to his cousin's pleas not to be left behind in France for the surgeons to practise on when Marcus was forced to sell out and come home himself.
He was so busy wondering if there was a way to safeguard Nick's limb from the knife that he almost missed the hut. Even in the twilight he could see how humble it was, but beggars couldn't be choosers, so he rapped on the warped door. After a couple of very long minutes he grew impatient with waiting and called out.
'We are benighted travellers and mean you no harm.' His voice sounded unnaturally loud in the still clearing, but he was certain someone was inside pretending not to be and felt so thoroughly exasperated he didn't much care if he frightened them. 'Confound it, we need help!'
The householder seemed to consider his less than humble demands for shelter. 'We ain't got nothin', go away!' an anxious voice finally quavered, as if its owner was on the edge of panic.
'Just open the door, child,' he ordered more softly and waited with what little patience he could now summon.
Still the door stayed stubbornly closed and he finally had enough of standing outside like some frustrated lover pleading for admittance to his lady's bower. Another groan from the direction of the now-tethered horses made him barge the warped barrier out of his way and force himself on the squatters, who must be the only ones desperate enough to want such a tumbledown shack in the first place.
'I did say we needed succour,' he said sharply as he stood on the threshold and surveyed the mean space within.
'An' I told yer we 'ad nowt,' a surly voice mumbled in the darkness.
Instinct warned him to expect an attack of some sort, and he hastily raised his arm to take the blow from a bolt of wood instead of letting it hammer down on his head. Marcus shot out his hand to pin a slim wrist with merciless fingers until the improvised club fell to the floor and he forced his attacker's arm up his back.
'Ouch! You brute!' the supposed child squeaked and he nearly let the girl go as he finally realised he had a slender and decidedly feminine body clamped against his own and not that of a scrubby youth after all.
'Fortunately for you, ma'am, you are quite out in that assumption. Now shall we begin again?'
'That fib would be a sight more convincing if you was to let me go.'
'I may not be the villain you were anticipating, but neither am I a complete flat, my girl. So, do you promise to behave?'
'Mumchance when you'm twice as big as me, your lordship.'
'Never mind obfuscation, wench, promise not to attack again and I'll let you go.'
'I promise,' she spat and the fury in her voice reassured him she meant to honour her word, as she was so furious about giving it.
Cautiously they stood like disengaged duellists, trying to assess their new positions in virtual darkness.
'This is ridiculous, you must have the means to produce a light of some sort to have lit a fire in the first place.'
'And wasn't that a big mistake?'the girl mumbled irritably as she fumbled about in the darkness to find the dark lantern that should have made him even more suspicious of her.
While it would have been a gross exaggeration to say the hut was flooded with light, the glow of a single tallow candle revealed the grim details.
'There's nothing here,' Marcus exclaimed in disappointment, visions of getting Nick settled comfortably out of the cold and damp of an English spring vanishing like his breath on the chill air.
'Told yer,' the girl told him gleefully, arms folded across her skinny body as she nodded her triumph.
'Which means you have naught either,'he pointed out with excusable exasperation.
'True,' she acknowledged cheerfully enough and nodded in the direction from which he had come. 'Road's that way.'
'I have no intention of dragging a wounded man any further along it tonight, so either you tolerate us for the night or leave yourself.'
'I was here first,' she said sulkily, the wind apparently taken out of her sails by the thought of a night in the open.
'And ordinarily I should gallantly leave you to your solitude. However I have more important things to worry about tonight than a sullen runaway maid without a feather to fly with.'