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Seven o'clock on a fine spring morning was the best time in all the world to be out riding, Charlotte decided, as Bonny Boy took her over the park surrounding Man-deville and into the woods above it, where the soft ground deadened the sound of his galloping hooves. It was good to be home again after the uncomfortable heat of Jamaica and the unpleasantly rough voyage, though, thank goodness, she had not succumbed to seasickness. She had missed the worst of the long hard winter, although the Atlantic had given her a taste of it as they buffeted their way homewards in the Fair Charlie.
On one side of her, the wooded slopes, a mixture of dark green conifers and deciduous trees just beginning to show their pale green hid Mandeville from view. On the other, the heather-covered hills separated Mandeville from Amerleigh. The heather was not yet in bloom, but the gorse brightened the terrain with its butter-coloured blooms. Mandeville was hers, and had been ever since her father's death two years before, along with the cotton mill at Scofield, five miles distant; the Jamaican plantation; the Fair Charlie—a slaver that, since the abolition of the abominable trade, had become an ordinary trading schooner—together with the lead mine under the ground over which she was riding, though that had become so deep and so frequently flooded it was hardly profitable. Did having all that make the sacrifices worthwhile?
What had she sacrificed? Her girlhood, perhaps. Her chance of marriage and children because she was well aware that her mode of living would put all but the most desperate and greedy off courting her. And the desperate and greedy she was easily able to rebuff. She did not want to marry; marriage meant handing everything she owned over to her husband and becoming his property, just as the plantation slaves had been her property, to do with as she pleased. She had been aware of the injustice of that long before her father died, but he always said he could not afford to give them their freedom; he needed their labour to produce the sugar on which a large proportion of his wealth was founded. 'Besides,' he had said, 'free men can be dismissed if they do not work hard enough and that means they also lose their homes. They know they are better off as they are.' Being a child at the time, a child brought up to believe her papa was never wrong, she had accepted his argument. A year after his funeral she had taken the long voyage to the West Indies to see things for herself.
The conditions in which the slaves lived and their treatment by the overseers had appalled her. She had offered them freedom, but as they had nowhere else to go, she had given them a weekly wage to remain in her employ. Daniel Mortlock, her plantation manager, had told her that acting arbitrarily would make the slaves on neighbouring plantations discontented and ready to cause trouble, but she had simply said what her neighbours did was no concern of hers, but if they had an ounce of humanity they would follow her example. She was adamant no human being ought to own another and he had been obliged to back down.
If she had a husband, everything would be in his hands and she was not prepared to forgo her independence. Not for anyone. Her biggest regret was that she would have no children. She told herself she would have to make do with other people's children and that included the villagers and those who worked in her mill, but it could never be the same as having a child of her own, someone she could love, as only a mother can love a child.
If her mama had not died giving birth to her, things might have been different. She might have had brothers and sisters and her mama would have guided her, taught her how to behave, brought her up to be a lady, seen her safely married, and her brothers would have taken over from her father. Instead, her father had treated her as the son he never had, making no allowances for her femininity. He had called her Charlie, which she had accepted as his playfulness, but she knew now it was more than that. It was a refusal to see her as a daughter, when all he wanted was a boy in his own image.
She supposed he had loved her in his way, but he had never told her so, never by so much as a kiss on the cheek let it show. Sometimes, when she was small, she had lavished her affection on her governesses, but they had been chosen by her father for their strictness and practicality and she had been rebuffed. She had soon learned not to show her feelings. But the gentler side of her nature could not quite be stifled and she could, and did, show compassion to those less fortunate and could never be cruel to any living thing, human or beast.
She had become a fearless rider, fished the swirling rivers and hunted over the hills and dales. She was a good shot with both pistol and shotgun, and was not above acting as midwife to horses, sheep and dogs. Encouraged by her father, she had developed a good business head and was perfectly conversant with bookkeeping and accounts, a fact that sometimes flummoxed Jacob Edwards, her legal adviser, and William Brock, the mill manager, and had certainly shocked the manager of her plantation when she visited Jamaica. Oh, it was good to be home again!
She was so deep in thought she did not hear other thundering hooves until a rider suddenly appeared out of the trees to the side of the path she was using and caused Bonny Boy to rear. It took all her strength and skill to keep her seat and bring him under control, while the other rider had his work cut out to pull his own mount to a halt.
'You confounded idiot!' he exclaimed, still wrestling with the reins and not looking at her. 'What, in heaven's name, were you thinking of, racing about like a madman? You could have killed me.'
'And you me.'
The sound of a female voice made him turn and look at her. What he saw caused him to stare in amazement. The figure riding astride the big horse was a woman, there was no doubt of it, but what a woman! Dressed in a man's riding coat, her only concession to womanhood an open riding skirt, which revealed tan leather breeches and brown riding boots. In spite of his annoyance he could not help admiring her long shapely leg. Neither did she seem to subscribe to the feminine insistence of shielding her face from the sun because she was hatless and her skin was tanned and glowing. Her abundance of chestnut-coloured hair, streaked with the red of sunrise, had escaped from its pins and drifted across her face in wild curls. Her eyes were neither brown nor green, but a mixture of both, and they were regarding him angrily.
'One does not expect to come across a lady jockey on one's own land,' he said, affecting annoyance, though he felt bound to acknowledge her skill in controlling her mount. 'Especially one set on winning a race…'
'I was galloping, not racing,' she snapped. 'If you had been looking where you were going instead of jumping out on me like some highwayman—' She stopped suddenly to look more closely at him. He was a large man on a very big horse and towered over her. He was wearing a dark green uniform, its jacket decorated with black leather frogging and fastened with silver buttons. His breeches were also dark green and tucked into black riding boots. A dusty riding cloak was carelessly flung over one shoulder. On his head he wore a black shako beneath which his handsomely rugged features were set in a fierce line of disapproval, but even so she thought she detected a hint of humour in his dark eyes. 'Did you say your land?'
'Yes,' he said. 'You are trespassing on the estate of the Earl of Amerleigh.'
'Oh.' Her heart gave a sudden lurch as her defiant gaze met his. She could not look away, it was as if some alchemy, some chemistry in their make-up, had fused and produced a new element, something akin to fire, which threatened to consume them both in its heat. For a moment she simply stared at him. This was the man who had humiliated her so profoundly she had never quite forgotten it, had not been allowed to forget because her father had conducted a determined vendetta on the old Earl ever since. But the Earl had died six weeks before and here was his successor, larger than life.
'So you are the Earl's cub,' she said, using the name her father had given him. 'Then you ought to know the extent of the Amerleigh domain, and this stretch of land does not belong to it.'
He did not like being called a cub, but let it pass. 'Of course it does. I used to roam here as a boy. I know every inch of it.'
'But you are no longer a boy, are you, my lord?' It was said with a false sweetness that disguised the bitter memories which the sight of him had invoked. And to rub salt into the wound, he did not remember her. 'Things have changed since you went away. I advise you to speak to your lawyer before you accuse anyone of trespassing in future.' She paused suddenly. 'You do know…'
'That my father died. Yes, Miss Cartwright, I do know.'
'My condolences. You mother will be glad to have you home again.'
'No doubt,' he said, wondering how well she knew his mother or whether she was simply making small talk. She did not strike him as someone who went in for that sort of thing.
'Now, you must excuse me, my lord, for I have work to do, even if you do not.' She turned her horse to leave him, but he leaned forward and seized her reins.
'Not so fast, madam…' He did not know why he wanted to detain her, nor what he meant to say to her, but he was given no opportunity to find out because she slapped the back of his gloved hand with her crop, making him release the reins. He looked startled for a moment, then threw his head back and gave a hoot of laughter, which infuriated her.
'If you think manhandling a lady is a subject for humour, then you are more uncouth than even I expected,' she said, digging in her heels and galloping away, leaving him staring after her.
What had been going on in his absence? Six years he had been away, serving with the army in Portugal and Spain, six long years, during which the fortunes of war had ebbed and flowed, and the army had marched the length of the Portugal and back more than once. Now Viscount Wellington was on the offensive and preparing to rid the world of the upstart Napoleon for good. He was on French soil and marching towards Bayonne. If it had not been for the illness and death of his father, Roland would have stayed to the end, would have exalted with the rest of the troops in the hard-won victory.
He had written to his father once or twice in the early days of his service, but receiving no answer, had given up. If his father wished to forget him, then he would forget his father. Even his letters to his mother had been ignored, though he was sure that was because she had been forbidden to communicate with him. But three months before, she had written to tell him the Earl was gravely ill. 'Come home, if you can,' she had written. 'We have removed to the dower house. It is more convenient.' He wondered what could be more convenient about it. Compared to the rambling old hall where he had grown up, it was a doll's house. He could not imagine his autocratic father living there.
The letter had been addressed to his headquarters, but at the time it arrived he had been behind the enemy lines, surveying the land and producing maps. It was weeks before the letter was put into his hands and by then a second one had followed it, informing him his father had died and he was now the Earl of Amerleigh.
He had obtained leave of absence and, with his personal servant, Corporal Travers, had returned to Lisbon and embarked on a transport ship. They had landed at Portsmouth and travelled by stage to Shrewsbury, where they had purchased mounts to take them the rest of the way to Amerleigh, taking a bridle path over the hills and ignoring the road. He had not expected to find a wild woman in men's clothes galloping across the estate.
He turned as Travers caught up with him. 'You have just missed the most extraordinary creature,' he said.
'I saw her.' Ben grinned. 'I could see you were enjoying your conversation with her, so I held back. Who is she?'
'I have no idea.' He stopped suddenly and laughed. 'Oh, it couldn't be, could it? Oh, my, I do believe it was. What a homecoming!'
'You know who she is?'
'I think so. No, I am sure of it. Her name is, or was, Charlotte Cartwright and I have a feeling I shall be crossing swords with her again.'
The new Earl had matured into a handsome man, Charlotte admitted to herself as she rode away, remembering the slight figure he had been at twenty-one, good-looking, yes, with his curly brown hair and classical features, but proud and disdainful, disdainful enough to humiliate her beyond endurance. But she had been proud too and that meant not showing her hurt. Nor would she remind him of it now. If he had forgotten her, so much the better. But they were sworn enemies and would remain so.
She slowed to a walk, ruminating on what had happened six years before and all her anger bubbled up again. It had been her father's wish to be accepted by society, and to that end he had entertained and had brought in teachers to show Charlotte the accomplishments a lady should have, including sewing, drawing and dancing, none of which she had particularly enjoyed. Besides, it was too late by then, her unconventional character had already been formed and she found it impossible to change, but to a certain extent he had achieved his aim simply because he was the richest man for miles around and could make or break any man he chose, and that included the Earl of Amerleigh. But not his cub.