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To Be Seduced
By Ann Stephens
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Ann Pullum
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJanuary 1661
He had picked a prodigious cold day to abduct someone. Shivering in his full-length cloak, Richard, Baron Harcourt, hunched into the worn seat of the hired coach and cursed. No one heard him; he was quite alone, waiting for his accomplice to return with their prey. Much as he disliked depending on others, his face could be recognized in Stanworth, and that would ruin his plan to flee before any villagers raised a hue and cry. His long fingers lifted the leather window covering an inch to the side and he peered out. Only a few pockets of snow were visible on the rutted road. Winter-browned fields lay abandoned just beyond it. A bitter wind robbed the day of any pretense of pleasantness even though the sun shone. One chill gust buffeted his face as he let down the window and called up to the coachman, "Walk the horses, Jem. They've stood long enough."
"Aye, sir." He heard the slap of the reins and braced himself as the ungainly vehicle lurched into motion. Raising the glass pane into place in a vain attempt to keep draughts out, Harcourt swore again. The only thing worse than sitting in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter in this miserable equipage was sitting in it as it jolted over a frozen road. He availed himself of a lap robe while he plotted his next move. The ancient coachand sturdy horses had taken nearly every farthing. This was his last throw. If he lost, it would cost him everything.
Despite his grumbling, Lord Harcourt was not in the middle of nowhere. Clearly visible from the coach, an iron gate opened onto the small estate of Abberley. From the entrance, a gravel drive curved around a copse of trees toward a red brick manor house built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Only mullioned windows and a pillastered doorway embellished the plain facade.
The oak door opened into the great hall, a room of dark wood panels and velvet hangings. Although richly appointed, it possessed a stern quality that discouraged lingering. A door to the right permitted escape to the dining room and kitchen and one opposite led into the library.
This afternoon, the library door stood ajar just enough to allow the conversation within to be overheard in the hall if one listened carefully.
Flattened against the wall, Bethany Dallison knew that if caught eavesdropping, she would doubtless spend the next several days locked in her room. Custom forbade young ladies to know the terms of their marriage settlements. Hardly breathing, she braced her stockinged feet to run at the first sign of being overheard.
"I believe these terms will prove satisfactory to you, madam, while meeting my expectations of the portion due an affectionate husband." Her suitor, Mr. Daniel Ilkston, had ostensibly earned her mother's approval because of his sense of responsibility and excellent morals. Bethany knew the true source of her approbation was his own fortune and large property.
She herself found neither his person nor his manner pleasing. He persisted in wearing his thinning dark hair in the chin-length Roundhead style, and even on festive occasions, he clothed his plump form in somber black. His appearance combined with his habit of looking at her as if she were a particularly tasty morsel for him to snap up reminded her of a greedy hen. Mother insisted Bethany would grow to appreciate him, but she doubted that.
He treated her with cool condescension. They shared no interests, for she loved to read and socialize, while he made clear that his wife should occupy herself with supervising his household. And raising children. She shuddered. The thought of conjugal relations with Mr. Ilkston disheartened her greatly.
Her mother's voice, sharp with disapproval, floated out the door. "This clause has not been changed, sir. I believe I mentioned that providing a suitable upbringing for dear Bethany caused a great expenditure from my own income. I do feel that as her only parent for these many years, it is only proper that I should be reimbursed those costs, particularly since I shall lose my only child upon your marriage." Bethany could imagine the scowl on her narrow face. Despite her generous jointure, Mistress Dallison intended to wring as much gold as she could from her future son-in-law.
"Dear lady, I agree in principle that you should not suffer because of the loss of your daughter, but I must protest! This amount seems excessive for the care and feeding of one girl, no matter how excellently trained." In his turn, Mr. Ilkston sounded downright petulant. Bethany heard the slap of papers on the massive wooden table that dominated the library as the argument continued.
She clenched her fists in her woolen skirt. They sounded like two old dames in the market haggling over the price of a prime piglet. Except the piglet was her. Or to be exact, her money. Her father's will settled a fine fortune on her, and with no other males in the family, she would also inherit the estate upon her mother's death. She looked down, fighting tears. The banns were not up yet, but if they signed the settlement today, the knot was as good as tied. The contract bound her to Mr. Ilkston as surely as if the wedding had already taken place.
Her mouth twisted bitterly. She had no living relatives. If she cast herself onto any of the families in the neighborhood, they would scold her as an undutiful child and pack her right back home. She could not even use her own money to flee. Her father's London banker kept it in trust, except for a paltry amount designated for her personal use each quarter. The trust would be dissolved only upon her marriage, giving her husband control of her inheritance.
At length, her mother and Mr. Ilkston agreed to have the documents redrawn, and to sign them next week. Bethany had gained a reprieve.
She suddenly realized that she would have to join them before their guest departed and that her shoes were across the hall. She skittered along the floor, nearly losing her footing on the polished planks. Hastily slipping her shoes on, she plopped down on a high-backed chair next to a square table, folded her hands in her lap, and gazed serenely out the window, heart pounding. Thankfully, Mother noticed nothing amiss when she appeared and ordered Bethany into the library.
She entered the room. Three pewter goblets stood on the great rectangular table, along with a matching plate holding some small cakes. A pitcher of mulled cider warmed on the hearth before the crackling fire.
Mr. Ilkston attempted a weak gallantry. "Mistress Bethany, you look bright as a silver penny this afternoon. I trust you are well?"
She murmured a polite answer. Her plain bodice and skirt of agate gray wool denoted no special occasion. Nor did the white cotton whisk modestly hiding her shoulders or the muslin cap covering her hair.
Her mother forced a cheery smile onto a mouth tight with irritation. "We agree 'twould be most suitable for the wedding to be privately done here, dearest. Mr. Hay shall come from Highbury to perform the ceremony." She gestured for Bethany to offer their guest the plate of cakes. "Do have some Shrewsbury cakes, sir-made with my daughter's very hands."
Carefully selecting one of the sugar-dusted confections, Mr. Ilkston bit into it. Bethany watched his reaction with anticipation. She did enjoy cookery and was thought to have a fine hand with baked goods. He pursed his lips, taking on the appearance of an officious flounder. "Naturally, I do not partake of sweets often," he said. "One should avoid frivolity in diet as in other aspects of one's life."
Only her betrothed would consider his immortal soul endangered by a few cakes, although she noticed he helped himself to one more. She decided to change the subject.
"Must we send for Mr. Hay? The Reverend Mr. James could marry us at Saint Matthew's." Choosing a cake for herself, she nibbled it, enjoying the horrified expressions of the other two.
"Bethany! You cannot mean that, you wicked girl! Mr. James was assigned to Stanworth because he has embraced the popery imported from France." Mistress Dallison looked ready to collapse with an apoplexy. "Whatever will Mr. Ilkston think?"
With any luck, Bethany thought, Mr. Ilkston would withdraw his suit from so depraved a creature as herself.
"Mistress Bethany does not grasp the implications of her words," he stated. "It is not unusual for persons with red hair to lack a sense of proper behavior." His chill gaze swept over her. "However, I trust that I am capable of enforcing godly conduct within my own home."
Gray eyes narrowed and lips thinned, she bit back a retort. Setting his back up further would serve no purpose. To compose herself, she turned her gaze through one of the diamond-paned windows overlooking the front drive. Movement flashed beyond the copse and a moment later Mistress Gloriana Harcourt appeared from behind it. Bethany often found their neighbors' niece a silly chit, but just now she provided an excuse to abandon Mother and Mr. Ilkston, at least for a short time.
"Of course you are correct, sir." She forced a note of contrition into her voice. "I shall amend my actions in the future, and I beg you to forgive my flippancy. Perhaps you would accept fresh cakes as a peace offering?" Without waiting for a reply, she picked up the plate and left the library, pulling the door shut behind her.
In the hall, she hurried over to a window. Gloriana had just set foot on the doorstep and looked over at once when she heard tapping on the glass. Bethany pointed to the side of the house, relieved when the other girl immediately turned toward the rear door of the house.
She scurried to the kitchen to meet her. Mistress Magwort, the sour old soul who cooked for them, stood spitting a roast for supper. Bethany set the cake plate down on the scrubbed worktable. "Mistress Harcourt has come from the Rothleys. I am sure only grave necessity would send her out on such a cold day, so I shall go see what help I may provide." The old woman grunted without looking up.
As Bethany bundled up in the worn brown wool cloak and matching hood kept on a peg by the rear door, she assured herself that she had not lied to the cook, only speculated. It wouldn't get her out of trouble with her mother, but her own conscience might let it go.
Slipping out to the walled garden, she nearly ran into Gloriana, walking head down and clutching the hood of her black cloak to keep the wind out of her face. She reached out to steady the smaller girl. "Thank goodness you've come! I have no idea why you're here, but 'tis marvelous indeed." Bethany had to raise her voice to be heard above a strong blast of cold air.
In turn, Gloriana greeted her eagerly. "Aunt Rothley has been making me daft today! I told her I would take a jar of broth to old Mr. Lawton just to get out of the house." She brushed aside a strand of fair hair as she looked up. As usual, Bethany felt like a giant next to her petite blondeness.
"She must have been most demanding if you abandoned a warm fire on a day like this." Bethany eyed the girl curiously, for she knew well Glory's indolent nature.
The younger girl's cheeks reddened with more than the cold, but she nodded vigorously. "Indeed she has! That's why I came to visit you before going back."
"Do you think your aunt might be in a better humor by now? I hoped to return with you-Mr. Ilkston is here, and he and Mother are waiting for me to return to them."
She tried not to let her desperation show, but Gloriana's blue eyes gleamed with laughter. "What? The proper Mistress Bethany deserting her betrothed? I vow 'twill be the subject of gossip for the next month."
"He's not my betrothed yet. No announcement has been made," she snapped. Really, the girl possessed an impudent tongue for a mere sixteen-year-old. She relented an instant later. "Oh, Glory, do help me. I'll have to spend more than enough time with Ilkston after we're married."
The other girl grinned and peeped up at her speculatively. "How are we going to get to the road without being seen?"
"The road? You're right next to us! We'll take the bridle path to your uncle's land."
"No, we should take the road," Gloriana insisted. "Perhaps you'd like to go to the village and-and buy some hair ribbons." Taking her hand, she tugged Bethany toward the drive.
"On a day like this? Be sensible, you goose!" Still nervous at the thought of her mother discovering them, she chewed her lip. "If we stay close to the garden wall, I think we can run before they catch sight of us. Once we're past the copse, we might be safe."
The two girls hugged the brick wall of the kitchen garden, then sprinted along the drive, skirts lifted and feet flying across the brown grass. They stopped to gasp for breath once they were out of sight of the house, leaning on one another.
"We can't stop here. Mother has surely missed me by now. How I wish I'd thought to grab my gloves." Bethany looked back over her shoulder. She believed they were invisible from the library windows, but feared they might yet be observed.
"You could share my muff," puffed Gloriana. She paused as if reluctant to go on. "Don't you need to catch your breath?"
"No, I shall already be punished for leaving. I may as well take what pleasure I can before Mother catches me." Bethany straightened and walked toward the gate. Turning, she saw Gloriana standing in place, irresolute. "Do hurry!"
The younger girl caught up with her, grumbling under her breath about winter weather and doing favors for others. "Don't be so uncharitable," Bethany chided gently. "I'm sure Mr. Lawson was most thankful for some broth on such a day. Here, scandalize me with the latest gossip you've ferreted out. You always enjoy that."
Instead, silence fell between them as they trudged along. A few of last autumn's leaves whispered across their path, and the afternoon sun cast their shadows ahead of them. Bethany wondered if Gloriana regretted their rash behavior just as the other girl spoke.
"My brother is visiting for a short while." Her voice squeaked with excitement. Glory hero-worshiped the dissolute young man twelve years her senior.
Having made his acquaintance the summer previous, Bethany understood her companion's feelings. Even she had found it difficult to resist his charming smile and manners, despite observing his shameless flirtations. To her mortification, she recalled wishing that he might indulge in the same disreputable behavior with her.
"What a pleasant diversion for you. Lady Rothley had not said that he planned to visit," she said in a tone of polite indifference.
"Oh, she wouldn't have," Gloriana replied airily. "We did not know exactly when he'd be here, as he is kept immensely busy in London."
"I can imagine," Bethany said dryly. According to her mother's acquaintances, since the ascension of the second King Charles, the city had plunged itself into a plethora of lascivious behavior, drunkenness, and public disorder. A man of Lord Harcourt's lax ways would find much to occupy himself, most of it immoral.
The road appeared before them through the manor's open gate. She hurried between the massive brick and iron posts and turned to wait for the smaller girl to catch up.
At her side, Gloriana smiled brightly and pointed past Bethany's shoulder. "Look! I believe that is my brother's coach down the road."
Bethany shook her head at the chit's transparent attempt at surprise. "For pity's sake, Glory, why did you not simply tell me your brother awaited you? 'Tis quite unmannerly of you, although I am surprised he did not escort you to the door."
Her companion looked sheepish. "I wasn't sure your mother would admit him after the escapade with your maidservant last summer. I am very fond of Richard and did not wish to subject him to embarrassment. Faith, he swore nothing more happened than a few kisses, and that the girl was willing."
Bethany snorted. "Knowing Joan, she proposed the meetings! But it's true, Mother would scarcely welcome him had he come with you." She smiled mischievously. "Although it might have been amusing to watch him puncture Mr. Ilkston's self-importance." While she could not approve of loose behavior, she appreciated Lord Harcourt's piercing wit.
She watched the shabby coach make its way along the rutted road for a moment before adding, "I think we had better go meet him. That contraption looks like it won't last all the way to the gate."
Excerpted from To Be Seduced by Ann Stephens Copyright © 2010 by Ann Pullum. Excerpted by permission.
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