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The Kidnapped Bride
By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
The coach jolted wickedly from chuckhole to chuckhole across Finchley Common. The road wasn't much of a road, nor the coach much of a coach. For that matter, the horses were mere hired cattle, little deserving to be called a team, and the driver was not a coachman but a valet, inexperienced in the delicate art of tooling unmatched nags across rough ground.
The occupants of the coach did not complain, however. The gentleman was having all he could do to keep his seat; and the lady, bundled up as she was on the floor beneath his feet, with her hands tied and her mouth gagged, could not have complained whether she wished to do so or not.
Actually, there were a good many things the lady would have liked to say to the gentleman, but she was not even allowed the luxury of a glare, since he had dropped a heavy and very dusty blanket over her at the outset of their journey. She could only lie there helplessly while her body was bruised by the erratic bouncing of the coach.
He had spoken to her only once, as they approached a turnpike, lifting the blanket from her face to do so. The gesture had brought with it a rush of welcome fresh air, but the menace in his voice when he warned her to keep silent so astonished her that she nearly failed to take advantage of it. He did not bother to spell out the consequences should she dare to disobey him; his tone of voice had been enough. They had passed through the turnpike and two others like it without incident and, less than a quarter hour after passing the last one, had turned onto this track. The lady did not know where they were, but she did know that they had left the highroad, for although it had been by no means a perfectly smooth road, it had been smoother than this.
Until he had spoken to her so sharply, she had thought the whole thing to be nothing more than a rather stupid jest, and she still had no thought of being in any real danger. She was much more concerned about what sort of figure she would present when she should finally be released.
When she had left her uncle's large house in Berkeley Square that morning, her clothes had been immaculate and her hair its usual shining glory, for Lizzie, her maid, took particular pride in seeing to it that she was turned out in style. Was she not the elegant Miss Sarah Lennox-Matthews, popular belle of fashionable London and heiress to a vast fortune besides? Of course, Sarah thought now, if one had to be perfectly truthful, and thanks to Grandpapa's very peculiar Last Will and Testament, she was not an heiress at all in the ordinary sense of the word. But fashionable London was not the least bit interested in technical dithering, and a fortune the size of the Lennox-Matthews fortune was not to be sneezed at. Therefore, Miss Lennox-Matthews was labeled heiress by Society and accorded all the very flattering attention merited by such a label, despite the fact that she would very likely never possess one farthing of her grandfather's fortune—unless, of course, a small portion should be left her as a widow's jointure to see her through her old age. And that likelihood depended upon the generosity of her future husband as well as the necessity of his predeceasing her, since it was to that future husband that Sir Malcolm Lennox-Matthews had left his entire personal fortune.
With bitter hope that her grandfather's current host had to have his hats and trousers altered to accommodate horns and a tail, Sarah reflected ruefully that she was, thanks to his misogynous predilections, prodigiously uncomfortable and no longer immaculate, and—most galling thought of all—that she should have listened when her aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Hartley, warned her not to encourage the amiable attentions of Darcy Ashton, fourth Earl of Moreland.
The coach lurched into a pothole and out again, bringing Sarah's head into painful contact with the wooden coach door. Directing a mental curse at his lordship, she recalled uncomfortably that one of his own relatives had also warned her against flirting with him. Of course, Sir Nicholas Ashton, at the ripe age of eight and twenty, more than ten years older than Sarah herself, was quite arrogant—besides being ancient—and habitually offered one advice that one did not wish to hear, so nobody could wonder that she had not listened to him. Had he not, from their very first meeting at Lady Holland's ball, made a point of correcting or rebuking the slightest impropriety or impertinence? It was as though he meant to depress any pretensions caused by her London reception, to point out her every fault rather than to follow the fashion for praising the elegant Miss Lennox-Matthews to the skies. But Miss Lennox-Matthews had a good deal of spirit, and she was not in the habit of meekly allowing herself to be ordered about by anyone.
By nature, Sarah was a friendly, even-tempered young lady who had most fortunately been granted more than her share of beauty and charm. She was, as a result, blessed with a great many friends—indeed, as many amongst the Season's debutantes as amongst the swains rivaling for their favors. But she was intelligent enough to realize that a vast portion of the attention accorded her was due, not to any of the above-mentioned virtues, but rather to the spell cast by the Lennox-Matthews fortune. However, if such insight brought moments of cynical resentment, they were brief, for she possessed a quick wit that enabled her to laugh at herself as easily as she might laugh at the foibles of others, and a keen, if sometimes mischievous, sense of the ridiculous as well. If she incurred censure, it was due to the latter trait, which sometimes prompted her to cross the narrowly drawn lines of proper conduct just for the fun of seeing what would happen. It was perhaps a sad commentary on Society's principles that these escapades usually brought no more than indulgent smiles or, at most, a shaking of heads, but behavior that would have been swiftly condemned in most young girls was generally forgiven the rich Miss Lennox-Matthews. Her aunt might scold her privately, but it was only Sir Nicholas who did so publicly.
That he was one of the handsomest, most dashing of men himself only made matters worse. His strictures might make the sparks fly between them, but his eyes had a disarming tendency to twinkle when she least expected them to, and Sarah was honest enough to admit to herself that she was more taken by Sir Nicholas's charms than anyone hearing her frequent condemnations of his character might have believed. She was not in love with him. She had told herself so more than once, quite firmly. It was merely that she found his lack of romantic interest a challenge to her resources.
Having decided to teach Sir Nicholas a lesson, Sarah had chosen his own relative to help provide it, making what looked to everyone like a dead set at Lord Moreland. She had meant only to demonstrate that she preferred men who appreciated her charms and did not harp on her faults, but even Aunt Aurelia had said that his lordship would be the better catch. Of course, that was on account of the Title, and it was also before Lord Hartley discovered that Darcy had a reputation for deep play, the habits of a confirmed rake, estates that were mortgaged to the gateposts, and no known source of income. Once discovered, however, these defects were promptly pointed out, and Sarah was encouraged instead to cultivate Sir Nicholas who, as a war hero with reputedly well-lined pockets, was certainly un bon parti. And, truth to tell, by that time she had tired of Darcy's airs and affectations and would have preferred to cultivate Sir Nicholas, despite his annoying habits. But two days after the Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, had walked down the aisle to meet her Prince Leopold, Sir Nicholas had most inconveniently and unexpectedly left Town.
With no proper audience, her show of interest in Darcy Ashton would have died a natural death had it not suddenly occurred to Sarah that if she began to ignore Darcy and so much as smiled at anyone else, she would be thought fickle, and if she looked to be dancing from one partner to the next, Sir Nicholas would scarcely be taught anything useful. He would be more likely to condemn her flightiness or, worse, to laugh at her, and that would never do. Therefore, assuring herself that Sir Nicholas would soon return to Town, she had continued to display a friendly attachment to Darcy Ashton.
Her aunt discouraged the association, and having been well-taught from childhood to avoid Lady Hartley's displeasure, Sarah did not precisely flaunt her continuing flirtation, but the business began, for that same reason, to take on a rather secretive, romantic flavor. She imagined herself to be like the Princess Charlotte, who had proven at last, after her irascible father had tried to foist one after another distasteful match upon her, that she could manage her own affairs quite satisfactorily. Certainly, Sarah considered herself as capable in such matters as Charlotte! It never occurred to her that the game might prove a dangerous one.
Thus it was that she did not demur when Darcy suggested by means, of a thrilling billet doux, delivered surreptitiously into her hand while she promenaded one afternoon in Rotten Row, that she meet him the following morning outside her favorite Bond Street shop. To be sure, she was a little taken aback at sight of the shabby coach, but reassured by his charming smile, she quickly accepted the notion that she could not stand chatting from the flagway and agreed to get in for what he assured her would be a brief ride. To ride alone with a gentleman in a closed carriage was extremely improper, and Sarah knew better, but it felt deliciously daring to defy such a venerable precept. So, casting a quick glance up the street to assure herself that Lizzie was not already returning from the complicated errand upon which she had been sent and, incidentally, to ascertain that no one of her aunt's or her own acquaintance was nearby, Sarah had put her hand trustfully in his and allowed him to help her into the carriage.
Suspecting nothing until the coach had turned from Bond Street into Conduit Street and immediately again into George Street, Sarah had begun to realize then that they were rapidly moving away from the shop and not, as he had promised, simply making a quick circuit. But, by the time she managed to point out this fact to his lordship, they were in Hanover Square. He blandly suggested that she admire the view of St. George's.
"Don't be absurd, my lord!" she had retorted. "Lizzie must be wondering what has become of me!"
"Then she must continue to wonder." He lounged back against the squabs with a curious little smile of satisfaction.
"Darcy! That is ... my lord, you must be sensible. She will be frantic. My aunt will be furious. She and my uncle have already taken you into dislike, unfairly I agree, but there it is. And such a prank as this could ruin both our reputations." The coach turned into Oxford Street.
"No prank, m'dear," he said earnestly. "Sorry. Assure you. 'Fraid such a course is necessary, though. Your uncle refused my offer."
Sarah had stared at him in amazement. "Do you mean to tell me that you have offered for my hand?" she demanded.
He nodded, smiling as though he expected her to approve. "Hartley said I'm irresponsible and entirely unsuitable. Must agree with him. But you are most suitable for me, m'dear. Didn't think you'd be displeased."
"Oh dear." Sarah felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her, for she had never expected her schemes to lead to such an end. But she composed herself quickly in an attempt to bring him to understand his error. "I must apologize, my lord, if ever I led you to believe that I should anticipate with pleasure such an offer from yourself. You do me great honor, of course, but to tell the truth, I never even suspected that you were particularly interested in forming such a connection."
"Saw that I'm not much in the petticoat line, eh?"
"Well, yes. Indeed." It was true and one of the reasons that flirting with him had seemed so safe. Though he had always responded easily to her overtures, his attentions had seemed entirely dispassionate, sometimes even half-hearted. If she had had any complaint to make, it would be that he had not seemed ardent enough for Sir Nicholas to take him seriously as a rival. She smiled at the irony of that thought and turned the conversation back to the matter at hand. "We cannot continue this conversation now, my lord. You must take me back to Lizzie at once! I am sure she may be relied upon to say nothing of this if only we may get back to her in time. But if my aunt and uncle get wind of the fact that we have met this morning, that I have been with you in a closed carriage, there will be the devil to pay for both of us."
"But I wish them to know of it, eventually," he replied. "Thought you would be pleased. You certainly encouraged me to believe that you held at least a tendre for my unworthy self, and you've not seemed too terribly taken up by conventions and rules. Thought an elopement would appeal to you, would make the matter dashed romantic."
He sounded truly disappointed in her reaction, and quick words of angry denial were stifled at birth, for Sarah could certainly understand how he had come to believe such things of her. How to explain to him that she had merely reacted quite idiotically to Society's lionization of her grandfather's fortune! That she had only been playing games in a silly effort to discover just how far an accredited heiress could flout the conventions and rules he spoke of without incurring censure. She simply couldn't do it! Her pride shrank from such a confession, and nothing on earth would make her admit her foolish attempts to stir Sir Nicholas Ashton's romantic interest. But she did not want to hurt Darcy's pride either, so she attempted to reason with him.
"I can quite see, my lord," she said at last, "how my behavior might have led you to believe such things, but I must tell you that the conventions do mean something to me. I should not be happy to flout them so outrageously as you suggest now. Would it not be better for all concerned simply to let this matter rest where it lies? It is, after all, my uncle who has refused your very kind offer, not I. Perhaps, if you are still of the same mind when I come of age...."
"'Fraid I can't wait four years," he said apologetically.
She smiled at him. "Well, no, of course not, sir, but you cannot wish to force me into a marriage that I do not desire. You must take me back. This will not do!"
"On the contrary," he replied, sitting up a little straighter in his seat, the corners of his mouth creasing mulishly. "It will answer very well."
"You must be out of your senses!" she exclaimed, her displeasure now overcoming any resolution to remain tactful. "I cannot allow you to do this!"
"How can you stop me?" he inquired with simple curiosity. "Can't just leap out of a moving carriage in the middle of Oxford Street ... ah, no," he corrected himself after a glance into the street, "... Portland Street. Point remains, nonetheless."
"Of course I shall do no such silly thing," Sarah retorted, finding his attitude infuriating now. "But the coachman ... I have only to—"
"My man, I'm afraid."
"I see." She looked at him straightly. "In that case, sir, I shall put my head out and scream until someone comes to my assistance. I should not like to do that, but if you force me to, I must."
"Oh dear," he said ruefully. "Believe you would. But success of the venture depends upon no one's discovering your whereabouts for at least twenty-four hours. Uh ... you did follow my instructions, did you not? Said nothing about meeting me to your maid or to anyone else?" She shook her head, gritting her teeth in exasperation. "Good girl. Could have ruined everything. I'm supposed to be in Brighton, you see." He smiled at her, but without his usual bland insouciance. In fact, it made her a bit uncomfortable. "Sorry you won't cooperate. Came prepared though. Daresay you won't like it, but can't be helped."
He had reached for her then, and she had not been able to elude him in the close confines of the coach. He had seemed in the past to be mild-mannered, even effeminate, and his contrived, sometimes mincing, attitudes had not prepared her for such strength as he then displayed. Stifling her outraged cries by muffling her head in the heavy blanket while he bound her wrists behind her, he had fastened the cloth gag, pushed her down onto the floor, and then draped the blanket over her. It was a matter of but a few minutes' work, and by the time the coach turned from Portland Street into the New Road, he was resting one booted foot upon the curve of her backside as negligently as though he rested it upon a bundle of laundry.
Excerpted from The Kidnapped Bride by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1983 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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