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The drawing room of Knightscote Lodge was considered by many to be the ideal room for a cold winter's night, the beamed ceiling and polished oak panelling being declared perfect by the romantically minded. Certainly with a cheerful blaze in the huge fireplace and the golden glow of the candles, the room looked warm and welcoming. However, its present occupant was sunk low in his armchair, his booted feet resting on the hearth as he stared moodily into the fire, a half-filled wineglass held casually between the long, lean fingers of one hand.
It had started to snow earlier in the day and now it was swirling against the tiny diamond panes of the windows, driven by the howling wind. Sir Lawrence Daunton raised his head as a particularly fierce gust rattled the casements. It occurred to him that if the blizzard continued no one would be able to get along the lane for days.
'Good,' he muttered the word aloud as he drained his glass.
It was Christmas Eve. When he had ridden down to his hunting lodge on the edge of Exmoor a few days earlier he'd had two objects in mind. The first was to avoid all company during the festive season; the other was to get very, very drunk. With the second of these worthy aims in mind, he reached for the bottle standing on the table at his elbow. It was empty and he was making his way to the servants' quarters in search of another when he heard a loud hammering at the door. Lawrence stopped.
'Who the hell can that be?'
With great deliberation he put down the empty bottle and picked up a lantern. His footsteps rang on the flagstones as he walked to the door. It took him a moment to wrestle with the locks and the catch, but at last he flung the door open.
A blast of icy air took his breath away.
As did the vision standing in the shelter of the porch.
Before him was a young woman enveloped in a powder-blue-velvet travelling cloak. The hood was edged in white fur that framed a pale, delicate face with a straight nose, generous mouth and a pair of blue-grey eyes fringed with dark lashes.
All this Lawrence took in immediately, but even as he blinked to see if the vision would disappear, she stepped quickly into the hall, saying, 'Do not keep me standing in the snow! Pray tell your mistress that Mrs Westerhill would like to see her. Immediately.' This last word she added a little sharply, for Lawrence was still staring at her. She continued, 'And my groom is outside with the horses. Perhaps before you shut the door you could direct him to the stables.'
Lawrence blinked. A gust of wind sent another flurry of snow into the hall where it fell gently onto the dark flags and dissolved.
'Yes. Excuse me.' Quickly he stepped outside, pulling the door closed behind him, and ran across to where the hapless groom was holding the reins of two horses. A few words of instruction and Lawrence hurried back into the house. The hall was empty, but a trail of wet footprints led off towards the drawing room, where he found the lady warming her hands by the fire. She had discarded her cloak to reveal a high-necked gown of deep-blue wool, unrelieved by any ornament save a small edging of white lace at her throat and wrists. The severity of the gown was alleviated by her abundant honey-brown hair, which fell in soft ringlets to her shoulders.
'Well? Have you told Mrs Anstey that I am here?'
She straightened, fixing him with a frowning look. 'This is Knightshill Hall?'
'Alas, no,' he replied. 'This is Knightscote Lodge. Knightshill is on the Stoke Pero road.'
'Oh, heavens. Then this is not Mrs Anstey's house.'
'No. You must have missed the turning.'
Lawrence watched as her small white teeth momentarily gripped a bottom lip that was as full and red as a ripe cherry. Her eyes travelled about the room and for the first time she seemed aware of its untidy state.
''Is there a mistress in this house?'
Lawrence's eyes danced. 'Not at the moment.'
'Then perhaps you would inform your master ' She trailed off as she looked up and read the merriment in his face. 'Oh, heavens.' Her hands came up to her mouth, and her eyes with those ridiculously long lashes stared at him in horror. 'Oh, pray do not tell me you are master here.'
'Very well,' he said promptly, 'I won't.'
Her eyes twinkled, but she said severely, 'Pray do not be absurd. If you are the master, then tell me your name.'
'You do not know?'
She shook her head.
'I must appear dreadfully ignorant, sir, but I do not venture abroad often; we keep very much to ourselves.'
'I am Daunton,' he announced, watching her closely. 'Lawrence Daunton.'
Immediately the humour left her face and she retreated a step.
He grinned, saying with some satisfaction, 'So you do know me.'
'I know of your reputation,' she retorted. 'When I said we keep to ourselves I did not mean we do not know what is going on in the world. I have an aunt in town who writes regularly and the society pages of the London newspapers provide a rich source of entertainment. Your name is never out of them!'
'All gossip and innuendo, I assure you.'
'Oh, heavens!' She put her hands to her cheeks. 'This is so dreadful!'
He folded his arms. 'More dreadful than it was five minutes ago? I thought we were getting along famously.'
Her eyes flashed.
'Not only am I stranded miles from my home, but my companion is one of the country's most notorious rakes.'
Lawrence spread his hands.
'I pray you will acquit me of planning this!' Some spirit of mischief made him add, 'I have never yet had to employ such base tactics with any woman.'
She did not appear to believe him and looked about her anxiously.
'Are there any other females here?'
'Oh, good gracious!' She snatched up her gloves. 'Then I must go immediately.'
'To Knightshill Hall. Coming here was a dreadful mistake. The snow was covering the sign at the gateway and only the first few letters were visible. I was sure this must be it.' She straightened her shoulders, put up her head and announced formally, 'I will take my leave now; I beg your pardon for disturbing you.'
She walked to the door, but Lawrence made no effort to open it for her.
'Oh, but I cannot let you go.' Her eyes widened with sudden alarm and he added, 'You cannot cut across the moor in this snow, and it is too far to travel by road; it is a good mile back to the crossroads and another few miles from there to Knightshill Hall.'
'Oh. Well, there must be another family close by who will give me shelter.'
She fixed her hopeful gaze upon him and for a moment Lawrence was almost sorry to disappoint her. Almost.
'I'm afraid not. This is a hunting lodge, you see. Designed to be away from all other habitation. We are in the middle of nowhere.'
She took the news very well, her dismay only showing in her eyes, which darkened a shade to slate grey.
'Well,' she said at length, 'then we must try to get home. If you will show me the way to the stables, I will talk to my groom.'
Lawrence shook his head.
'He has probably just finished settling the horses.'
'Then he must unsettle them,' she retorted. 'We must be on our way again, and as quickly as possible.'
Lawrence walked over to the window.
'Of course, but I do not think that will be tonight.' He held out his hand, inviting her to join him. 'Come here and look.'
She approached, but was careful not to stand too close to him as she peered out. It was still snowing heavily, the wind driving the flakes almost horizontally across the window.
'But we might get through it, at least back to Exford.'
'Out of the question.' He drew the curtains together, belatedly shutting out the night. 'There is no house or shelter within miles of here, and in this blizzard it would be madness to attempt it.'
'Then what am I going to do?'
For the first time Lawrence heard a note of uncertainty creep into her voice. He put his hand under her elbow and guided her back to the fire, gently pushing her down onto a chair.
'I am going to fetch a bottle and you are going to drink a glass of wine with me.'
As soon as she was alone, Rose jumped to her feet again. She walked back to the window and peeped out through the curtains. Perhaps she had been mistaken; perhaps it was not as bad as she had first thought.
If anything it was worse. The snow continued to fall in thick white flakes, tossed about by the wind that gusted and howled around the old house. Restlessly she picked up her cloak and spread it over a chair to dry, then she returned to her seat by the fire to consider her predicament. She was alone in this house with a libertine. No, not quite aloneEvans, her groom, was with her, although she had no idea exactly where he might be. Perhaps Sir Lawrence had overpowered him. Poor Evans might even now be languishing in a cellar! Quickly Rose dismissed such thoughts, scolding herself for being fanciful. So far Sir Lawrence had behaved with perfect decorum. True, he was dressed very informally, but then he had not been expecting visitors. A fierce gust of wind rattled the window and whined down the chimney, reminding her of the tempest raging outside. She had not taken much notice of the house as they rode up, too thankful to see the welcome light shining from the window. It was similar to other old manor houses in the area, a low, rambling building with a gabled roof. Inside, it was furnished for comfort rather than fashion: heavy dark furniture and panelling was alleviated by richly coloured cushions and wall hangings as well as quantities of gleaming brass and copper. She looked about her. The room was clean enough but it had an air of untidiness, cushions disturbed, empty glasses on the mantelpiece, as if there was no one to clear up after the master. The master.
Rose found her thoughts turning to that disturbing individual. Really, it was no wonder that she had thought him a servant, appearing in topboots and breeches, with his waistcoat undone and his shirt open at the neck to display a very improper view of his chest with its smattering of crisp, black hair. And that dark shadow on his jaw, too, signalling the fact he had not shaved today. When he'd opened the door to her she'd had the impression of a giant, his black hair brushing the lintel and his wide shoulders filling the doorway. Standing together in the narrow hallway, she had found him quite overpowering. That was why she had made her way to this room, preferring to have a little more space between them. Of course, now she knew just who he was, she realised she was right to feel nervous.
She jumped as the door opened and her host came in carrying a bottle. He went to a sideboard and proceeded to fill two glasses. His hand was steady enough, but it occurred to her that he might be drunkthat would account for the glitter she had noticed in his blue eyes. It was more of a glint, really, a twinkle, inviting her to share his amusement. She found it both alarming and attractive, which was extremely worrying. She would need to keep her wits about her and resolved to take no more than one glass of wine with him.
'Where is my groom?' she asked as he handed her the wine.
'In the kitchen. I told him to make himself comfortable there. And if he keeps the fire going it is one less task for me.'
'You have no servants here?'
'No. I sent them away to enjoy Christmas with their families.'
He shook his head, lowering himself into a chair on the opposite side of the hearth.
'I have answered enough questions. I think you should tell me what you are doing abroad on such a wild night.'
Was there anything she could say that would not add to her vulnerability? Playing for time, Rose took a sip of the wine. It was rich and fruity and surprisingly comforting.
'I have been taking flowers to my husband,' she said at last. 'I am a widow, you see. My husband died on this day four years ago, and since that time I have visited Exford twice a year: on his birthday, and every Christmas Eve, to place flowers on his grave.'
'But that is not where you live now?'
'No. I live at Mersecombe.'
'Mersecombe! It must be all of ten miles from there to Exford.'
'No more than eight, surely. And it was not snowing when I left home.'
'And of course one expects perfectly sunny weather in December.'
'I have made the journey quite safely for the past three years!'
'Only a ninnyhammer would set out on such a journey at this time of the year.'
'Then I am a ninnyhammer,' she said, sitting up very straight.
For a moment he stared at her and she tensed herself, expecting another sharp response. Instead he said quietly, 'I beg your pardon. To make the journey to Exford in the middle of winterI admire your devotion.'
Almost without realising it Rose fluttered her hand, dismissing his comment. It wasn't devotion that had drawn her away from Mersecombe that morning. A touch of guilt, perhaps, that her husband was so rarely in her thoughts these days, combined with a restlessness that was increasingly hard to bear. Riding to Exford with just her groom for company gave her a temporary freedom from the ties of duty and responsibility. Not that she resented those ties, they were forged out of love, but when she had left home that morning she had been aware of a longing to be free to do just as she wished, even for a short while.