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'Miss Salforde, I prostrate myself at your feet. I am your slave!'
Elyse looked down at the portly gentleman kneeling before her, his badly powdered bagwig failing to cover completely his straggly blond hair.
'Well, you need not, Mr Scorton. I cannot give you any hope because I am promised to another, as you are very well aware.'
She tried and failed to stop the smile that was bubbling inside her. The gentleman, looking up at that moment, saw her lips twitch and struggled to his feet, saying in an injured tone, 'You are very cruel, fair beauty. If you will not countenance my suit, why did you agree to come outside with me?'
Yes, why had she?
Elyse pondered the matter. She could not deny that the drawing room was very hot and crowded, but there had been no shortage of gentlemen offering to escort her out on to the terrace. So why had she favoured Mr Scorton?
Because he was the least likely of her many admirers and tonight she had decided to take pity on him. Elyse did not consider herself vain, but she was often called beautiful, so she supposed it must be true. Her figure was good, and there was something about her dark curls, brown eyes and heart-shaped face that seemed to draw gentlemen to her. All sorts of men, married or single, young or old, they crowded around her. They paid her compliments, teased her, flirted with her. She was happy enough to respond to them all, knowing herself safe from any serious courtship because she was in love with the Honourable Mr William Reverson, younger son of Viscount Whittlewood, and she was going to marry him. And her admirers, too, knew of her engagement and were content to enjoy a mild flirtation, a little amusing badinage with a pretty young lady. All quite harmless.
However, it seemed that Mr Scorton, with his pompous manners and badly fitting wig, was so smitten with her that he was not content to kiss her hand and whisper ridiculous compliments into her ear, he had actually had the temerity to propose!
It was a salutary lesson, and one that she knew regretfully she should have learned before this, but what was one to do when men were silly enough to shower her with praise and adulation? However, she had no wish to cause distress to anyone, and she realised she must be more circumspect in future. With a rueful smile she held out her hand to Mr Scorton.
'Why, sir, I came out with you for a little air, nothing more, but if I have raised false hopes in you then I am very sorry for it. Pray cry friends with me, sir.'
He clasped her fingers in his pudgy hands.
'Ah, so kind, so generous. I cannot let you go without trying to persuade you to think seriously of my offer.'
Before she knew what he was about he had pulled her into his arms.
'Really, Mr Scor'
Her words were smothered as he covered her face with hot, ardent kisses.
He might only be the same height as Elyse, and as broad as he was wide, but Mr Scorton in the throes of passion proved himself immensely strong. She could not break out of his hold and was crushed against him, unable even to deliver a well-aimed kick to his shins because the thick folds of her black petticoats were in the way.
She twisted her head away, shuddering as his wet lips slithered over her cheek.
'How dare you, sir, I am in mourning!'
'And your sorrow makes you even more irresistible.'
'Enough sir, let me go!'
She did not expect him to obey, so she was more than a little surprised to find herself suddenly released.
Elyse staggered back and steadied herself against the balustrade that edged the terrace. As soon as she had regained her balance she raised her head, intending to deliver a blistering reproof, but the words died on her lips when she realised that they were no longer alone on the terrace.
A dark stranger was standing between her and Mr Scorton, who was clutching at his throat.
'For Gad, sir,' Scorton gasped, 'you have well-nigh strangled me.'
'I had to find some way of pulling you off the lady and my fingers in the back of your neck cloth proved most effective.'
This cool rejoinder brought a choleric flush to Mr Scorton's cheeks.
'Then by heavens you shall answer for it. Name your friends, sir.'
Mr Scorton placed his hand upon the hilt of his sword and drew himself up to his full if diminutive height, which Elyse could not fail to notice left him several inches shorter than the tall stranger.
'Don't be such a damned fool,' came the crushing retort. 'I am the girl's guardian.'
The effect of this statement silenced Mr Scorton, but it caused Elyse to give a little shriek. Both men looked towards her but it was the stranger who spoke, addressing Mr Scorton in a tone of weary boredom.
'I suggest you go away, sir, before I give you a bloody nose to go with your sore throat.'
With only the slightest hesitation Mr Scorton hurried away and the stranger turned towards Elyse. Her instinct was to step back, but her thick skirts were already pressing against the balustrade and she was trapped.
'Keep away from me,' she said, putting out her hand.
He had his back to the light that spilled out of the drawing room windows, so Elyse could not see his face and she was aware of an unaccountable stirring of alarm. His large frame stood menacingly between her and the safety of the house. She felt a stab of annoyance that her erstwhile suitor had gone off so readily and left her to face this man alone.
He made no move to approach, but his silence was equally unnerving and she said sharply, 'I have no idea who you are.'
'Drew Bastion.' He spoke curtly without even a bow or an 'at your service'. 'I wrote to you from France, to inform you of your father's death and the fact that he had appointed me your guardian.'
'I do not need a guardian.'
'From what I have just seen I think you do,' he retorted. 'I was surprised to arrive and find the house so full of company.'
'My aunt arranged this party weeks ago and decided we should not cancel. Once we heard the news about Papa we made it clear there could be no music or dancing.'
'You should also have made it clear there would be no flirting.' 'I was not'
'From the moment I walked in I have observed you,' he interrupted. 'You have been constantly surrounded by gentlemen and your manner, the way you ply your fan, is most unseemly for one in deep mourning for her father.'
Drew paused, reining in his anger. Harry's loss was still raw and this lack of respect was an outrage. Yet it was hardly Miss Salforde's fault if men were falling over themselves to win her favour. Her dark beauty was everything that Harry had described to him. Luminescent was the word that came to his mind, despite her bereaved state. She was as covered up as a Jesuit in a bombazine manteau, but its dull black petticoats only enhanced the porcelain delicacy of her fine skin, which was innocent of paint or powder.
She had caught his eye as soon as he walked into the room. In any other circumstances he would have made his way to her and engaged her interest, for there was no denying the sharp tug of attraction he had felt as he took in her excellent figure and those luxuriant curls, the colour of polished ebony. But he had recognised her immediately as Harry's daughter, and honour would not allow him to trifle with a lady who had been placed under his protection. However, it was clear that the other gentlemen present were equally entranced and they had no such restraint upon them.
No, he could not blame her for attracting any man's attention, but he could blame her for responding in such a flirtatious manner. And what was Mrs Matthews thinking of, to allow the party to go ahead barely three months after her brother's death? Of course, this was the thriving spa town of Scarborough and not Paris, but surely the rules of polite society in England had not changed quite so radically while he had been away? As if reading his mind the girl put up her head, a challenge in her dark eyes.
'We are holding a quiet soirée, sir, as befits a house in mourning. The guests here came only to offer their condolences.'
His lip curled.
'That may well have been the intention, but the gentlemen crowding around you were certainly doing more than offering their condolences and you were doing nothing to discourage them.'
'That is outrageous. You have no right to say such things to me!'
He ignored her outburst.
'Then I come out here to find you flirting so disgracefully in the darkness. By heaven you are as bad as your father.'
'How dare you malign my sainted papa!'
Her dark eyes sparkled with wrath but he found his own anger diffused by a sudden flash of humour.
He said drily, 'Your father was many things, including a good friend to me, Miss Salforde, but he was no saint.'
He thought she would fly at him for that, but although her eyes widened and the angry flush on her cheeks deepened, she bit her lip and regarded him in silence. He observed her resentful look, the shadow of doubt in her eyes. So she knew something of her father's life then. But he was not here to argue with her. He tried to modify his tone when he spoke again.
'Enough of this, Miss Salforde. Shall we go in and find your aunt?'
After the briefest hesitation Elyse laid her fingers on his proffered arm. Andrew Bastion. She recalled, now, that her aunt had mentioned his name when she had read out his letter, but Elyse had taken little note of it at the time, nor the fact that he had been appointed her guardian. She had been too shocked by the news of her father's sudden demise. Since her mother's death twelve years ago she had only seen Papa occasionally and for very brief periods. He would arrive, boisterous, laughing and bringing with him extravagant presents for them both, then he would disappear again for months, even years. He had become a distant figure, larger than life yet not quite real. That is why it felt so uncomfortable to be in deep mourning for a father she barely knew.
But that did not mean she would forgive this man for upbraiding her in such a brutish manner. A tiny prickle of conscience whispered that she might have deserved his reprimand but she was not accustomed to criticism. Mama had always spoiled her, and Aunt Matthews was of such a complaisant nature that she never made any effort to check her. It was the same with the gentlemen of her acquaintance. As soon as she had left the schoolroom she had been aware of their admiration. Why, even her aunt's elderly gentlemen friends gazed upon her with approval.
Elyse glanced up at her escort as they stepped back into the light of the drawing room. As a friend of Papa's she had assumed he would be of a similar age and she was surprised to discover that he was much youngersome years less than thirty, she guessed. As if aware of her scrutiny Bastion glanced down at her and she discovered he was also extremely handsome. Something, a flash, a bolt of attraction shot between them and she quickly averted her gaze, frightened by the sudden inexplicable feeling that came over her, as if she had always known this man. It could not be. She had never seen him before, although now his image was burned into her memory.
His face was lean, with straight dark brows above a pair of searching blue eyes. A coat of dark blue velvet embroidered with silver was moulded to his large frame and threw into sharp relief the snowy lace ruffles at his throat and wrists. His clothes were undoubtedly fashionable and had a distinctly French air. Despite the fact that he wore his own light brown hair unpowdered and caught back with a simple black ribbon she thought him very elegant, much more stylish than any other gentlemen present tonight.
Indignation welled up within Elyse. It would not do to let him know what she thought of him, especially when he so patently disapproved of her. But surely his disapproval would not last for long? He would come round when he knew her better. After all, she had not yet met a man who was impervious to her charms. She took another glance at the unyielding figure of her escort and a tiny doubt shook her. It was true she had never been short of admirers, but she had never before set out to attract a man. She shook her head at her foolishness. She was not trying to attract him, merely to make him like her. She buried her indignation and tried for a friendly tone.
'Are you truly my guardian, Mr Bastion?'
'I am. Your father left you to my charge. I have the papers with me, proving my identity, if you would like to see them.'
'I beg your pardon, I did not mean to question you, but when we read your letterI expected someone older.' She flashed him a smile. 'Why, you cannot be much older than I am.'
'I am six-and-twenty, and old enough not to be bamboozled by your tricks and stratagems, madam.'
The glint in his blue eyes made the blush deepen in her cheeks. Had he guessed her thoughts? She was tempted to protest, but in truth she had been trying to charm him and decided it would be wiser to remain silent until she had the measure of Mr Andrew Bastion.
He took her back to her aunt, who greeted them with unruffled cheerfulness.
'So you found her, Mr Bastion. Was she on the terrace, as we thought?'
'I was, Aunt Matthews.' Elyse answered quickly, to prevent her companion from doing so. 'I had stepped out for a breath of air and Mr Scorton was so ungentle-manly as to forget himself.' She could not resist a flicker of a glance at the man beside her. He should not be allowed to think she had been indulging in a light flirtation. 'He made me an offer of marriage.'
'Did he my dear? How tiresome for you.'
Knowing her aunt's complaisant nature, Elyse was in no way disconcerted by her lack of concern, but Mr Bastion was much less sanguine.
'You appear singularly unsurprised, madam.'
Mrs Matthews opened her eyes at him.
'You are wrong, sir. I am very surprised, for everyone here knows Elyse is promised to Viscount Whittle-wood's son. However, I must take you to task, Elyse. It is all very well for you to be friendly with the gentlemen here. After all, you have known them for years, but as for going out on to the terrace alone with one of them, that was not at all wise, my love.'