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'No luck, I'm afraid, Jess!'
His face a picture of utter dejection, Nicholas Beresford hurried into the tiny parlour of the wayside inn where, for the past half-hour, his sister had been anxiously awaiting his return.
'The pole is totally shattered,' he went on, flinging his slight form into the seat beside her. 'And it seems that they can't get a replacement until tomorrow. Added to which, it would appear that there's not a single decent carriage for hire in the whole blessed place!'
Casting yet another uneasy glance at the clock on the mantelshelf, Jessica's wide green eyes clouded in despair. 'But what on earth are we to do, Nicky?' she queried. 'It is almost five o'clock and Harry promised Imo that we would be back well before six. Matt will just about crucify me if she starts to worry.'
Leaping to his feet, her young brother began to pace the floor. 'Not you, Jess,' he groaned. 'It was my fault that we left Hampton Court so lateif only I hadn't wasted all that time in the maze !'
'If only you had listened to Harry's instructions, you mean,' began Jessica crossly, but then, seeing her brother's disconsolate expression, she sighed and, for the umpteenth time that afternoon, reminded him that it was hardly his fault that the carriage pole had snapped. In any event, surely they should just be thankful that none of them had been more seriously injured.
'The doctor told Harry that a good night's sleep will soon put Olivia back to rights,'she then informed him. 'And, thank heavens, Cartwright's wrists are not broken after allmerely badly strained.'
'Well, that's something, I suppose,' replied her brother, nervously polishing his spectacles. 'I imagine Harry is still with his sister? Has he managed to sort out rooms for us all, do you know?'
'I told him not to book for us,' said Jessica, getting to her feet. 'We simply have to find a way to get home, Nicky. Are you sure that you asked everyone? There has to be some sort of conveyance somewhere in the village, surely?'
Nicholas shook his head. 'Only one small, rather disrepu-table-looking gig out in the yard here,'he replied. 'Barely big enough for the two of us, let alone Cartwright. Besides which, how on earth do you expect him to drive with his wrists strapped up?'
But Jessica was already making for the door. 'Good grief, Nicky! Surely it is not beyond your capabilities to handle the thing!' she flung at the dismayed young man and, ignoring his protests, quickly exited the room, adding, 'Go and tell them to harness one of our leaders to it, right away! I'm off to find Harrywe will need to sort out some arrangements for CartwrightMatt will probably want to send someone to fetch him home.'
Lieutenant Harry Stevenage was not at all happy when Jessica informed him of her intention to return to Dover Street with only her seventeen-year-old brother as escort. What had started out as a jolly day's outing to Richmond Park and thence to Hampton Court had, as far as he was concerned, turned into something of a nightmare.
Due to his refusal to take advantage of Stevenage's whispered instructions, Nicholas had set off into the Court's maze of hornbeam hedges on his own and had then proceeded to lose himself completely! Since both young ladies had elected to accompany Stevenagewho had mastered the puzzle some years earlierthe three of them had made their way to the centre and back out again in little over half an hour. After a further half an hour had passed without any sight of Nicholas, Stevenage had deemed it necessary to ask the guide to mount his platform and direct the crestfallen Nicholas back to the exit.
Thus, having promised to have the Beresford carriage, along with Jessica and her brother, back at their Dover Street residence no later than six o'clock, this unlooked-for delay had then obliged Stevenage to instruct Cartwright, the Beresfords'coachman, to whip up the horses. Which command had been followed by constant urges to the distracted driver to make even greater haste.
Not, perhaps, the smartest decision he had ever made, Stevenage now admitted to himself. Taking that corner at such a speed was almost bound to have had disastrous consequences. Hence their present predicament. The pole had fractured, the driver had been wrenched from his box and Olivia, Stevenage's young sister, had been catapulted across to the opposite side of the carriage, hitting her head on the door frame. He could only thank his lucky stars that none of Matt Beresford's matched bays had suffered any damage!
'I do wish you would reconsider, Jess!'he pleaded. 'A fine fellow your brother will think me for allowing the pair of you to go off on your own like this!'
'You do talk absolute nonsense, Harry!' she replied, laughing at his injured expression. 'Nicky and I are perfectly capable of seeing ourselves homeit is barely six miles from here and we could practically walk it! Besides which, you must know that Matt would expect you to stay with your sister. Now help me up, there's a dear boyand do tell Nicky to make haste!'
Lieutenant Harry Stevenage's acquaintanceship with Jessica, though relatively short, had been of sufficient duration for him to have learned that any attempt to dissuade her from a course upon which she had set her heart was likely to be met with dogged resistance. Ever since he had first laid eyes upon her at his godfather's Lincolnshire seat, some seven months previously, he had counted himself amongst her most devoted admirers, regardless of the fact that Sir Frederick had earnestly cautioned his godson not to allow himself to become too attached to the capricious Miss Beresford. He had taken pains to warn the lieutenant that Jessica's father, the late Sir Matthew Beresford, had been in the habit of indulging his daughter to such a degree that rumour had it that she was never truly happy unless she was getting her own way. And only since the recent arrival of her half-brother, Matt Beresford, who had been obliged to give up a lucrative lifestyle in India to take up his estranged father's reins, had there been any noticeable improvement in her conduct.
Yet, despite Jessica's somewhat unpredictable behaviour, Stevenage doubted that there was a man alive who could resist such damnably appealing loveliness. Such kissable lipswould that he were given the opportunity!the dearest little nose and those incredible green eyes set in the creamiest of complexions, the sum total of which was entrancingly framed in a dazzling halo of silvery blonde ringlets. And, as if all of that were not far more than any fellow could reasonably ask for, the saints above had also endowed the little beauty with the most curvaceous figure that young Stevenage had ever come across in the whole of his twenty-two years! His considered opinion had been that the occasional fractious outburst was a small price to pay for the privilege of being included amongst her favoured few.
Nevertheless, as he watched the shabby little gig bowl out of the stable yard, a pensive frown marred his handsome features and, in reply to Jessica's enthusiastic wave of farewell, the best he could manage was a half-hearted lift of his hand. He stood lost in thought for some minutes then, conscious that his duty to his injured sibling ought to be uppermost in his mind, he gave an impatient shrug of his shoulders and turned and retraced his steps into the inn.
'There now, Nicky,' declared Jessica warmly. 'I was quite right. You are managing the reins quite beautifully.'
Nicholas snorted. 'It was not my driving ability that I doubted, Jess!' he retorted. 'Matt has made sure that I can handle pretty well any carriage you might care to name. It's this mad idea of yours that I'm not keen on. I still don't see why we couldn't have stayed overnight with the others. We could have sent a messenger'
'Oh, yes?' interrupted Jessica, with a withering glance. 'And had Imogen up half the night worrying herself to death about us, I shouldn't wonder. At least this way, she will be able to see for herself that we really are unhurt. And, what with Matt doing his level best to wrap her in cotton wool now that she is increasing, it simply will not do to have him flying off the handle!'
'Anyone would think that she was the first woman ever to bear a child!' muttered her brother.
'Now, be fair, Nicky,' returned Jessica complacently. 'You can't have forgotten that Matt's own mother died in childbirth!'
'Oh, lord! It had slipped my memory! How stupid of me. Sorry!' Glancing sideways, he gave her a rueful smile. 'I sometimes get the impression that you are starting to become almost human!'
Jessica laughed and a faint blush crept across her cheeks. 'I do try, you know,'she said quietly. 'Ever since that dreadful business with Wentworth, I have tried really hard to be more like Cousin Imo and behave as she and Matt would have me behave 'Her voice trailed away and her bright eyes clouded over as she cast her mind back to the previous September when Philip Wentworth, the estate gamekeeper, had all but succeeded in his attempt to abduct and seduce her. Had it not been for the timely actions of her newly acquired half-brother ! A cold shiver ran down her back as the never-tobe forgotten events of that dreadful day replayed themselves in her mind.
Mindful of his sister's discomfort, Nicholas reached across and took hold of his sister's hand.
'Well, I think that you've done amazingly well,' he sought to assure her. 'I scarcely recognised you when I came back from school at Christmas. Believe me, Matt would never have agreed to give you this Season if he hadn't thought that you had earned it.'
'He has been enormously good to us, hasn't he?' Jessica smiled and blinked away the tears that threatened. 'When he first turned up, I was really hateful to him, but after everything he's done for us allworking so hard to bring Thorn-field back to scratch and then going to all that trouble to get Mama settled in BathI've grown enormously fond of him. It's not difficult to see why Imogen fell in love with him.'She gave a tremulous smile. 'As it happens, it has often crossed my mind that he is just the sort of man that I would choose to marry, some day!'
'I take leave to doubt that there are many like him,' chuckled her brother, returning his attention to his driving. 'Besides which, I rather had the impression that you had set your sights on a certain lieutenant.'
'Harry Stevenage!' Jessica let out a peal of laughter. 'Good heavens, no! He isn't nearly rich enough for my taste!' She shot a mischievous glance at her brother. 'You must know that I am on the lookout for a dukeor, at the very least, a belted earl!'
Having expected an immediate riposte for coming out with the sort of remark that might well have been expected from the Jessica of old, she was surprised to discover that her brother seemed not to be listening to her. In fact, his attention seemed to be keenly focussed on the hedgerow just ahead of them. Looking about her, she was suddenly conscious of the fact that the narrow lane along which they were travelling was devoid of any other traffic.
Clutching at his arm, she whispered, 'What is it, Nicky? What's wrong?'
He shook his head. 'I'm not sure. I thought I saw!' The rest of his words were cut off as two villainous-lookiindividuals, each brandishing a stout stick, leapt out from behind a clump of bushes. Grabbing hold of the harness, the first man dragged the horse to a standstill, while his accomplice darted towards Jessica and threatened her with his cudgel.
'Yer purse, little missy, if ye please!' he growled, his free hand reaching out to clutch hold of her booted ankle.
At once, Nicholas was on his feet, beside himself with rage. 'Take your filthy hands off my sister!' he cried and, pulling the driving whip from its socket, he proceeded to lash out at the man on the gig's offside.
It did not take Jessica long to realise that, with this futile action, highly commendable though it might have been, her brother had put both their lives in considerable danger. Having quickly taken in the men's shabby attire, along with the fact that they carried makeshift weapons, it had occurred to her that, in all probability, the men's intent was merely to relieve their intended victims of any valuables they might be carrying and then to make themselves scarce. And, since she was more than willing to part with every single penny in her possession&&151;as well as any other item of value that the men might have demanded&151;she would have been prepared to gamble that the easy acquisition of such an unexpectedly fulsome haul would have seen the two footpads very quickly on their way.
Tugging at Nicholas's coat-tails, she flung her bulging reticule at her tormentor, at the same time urging her brother to sit down and be quiet. But it was too late.
As the metal tip of the whip's leather thong struck him painfully on the cheekbone, the man who was at the horse's head uttered an angry snarl and, letting go of the harness, raised his stick and flew at Nicholas in a rage. His initial burst of confidence instantly collapsing, the boy recoiled in dread, lost his balance on the gig's narrow step and tumbled backwards into the roadway where he lay sprawled at the man's feet, entirely at his mercy.
Seconds ticked past as the thug stood glaring down at Jessica's now panic-stricken young brother and then, with a malicious grin on his face, he slowly raised his weapon in both hands, clearly intent upon inflicting some terrible punishment on the youth. Jessica's hands went to her mouth in horror but, unable to prevent the frightened whimper that escaped her lips, she closed her eyes, threw up a fervent prayer and prepared herself for the worst.
All of a sudden, a single shot rang out in the silence. The stick fell from the ruffian's hand as, letting out a howl of pain, he clutched at his bloodstained forearm. Then, without a backward glance, and followed closely by his equally terrified accomplice, he fled back in the direction from whence they had first appeared.
The sound of the two men crashing their way through the undergrowth was very quickly drowned out by the noise of fast-approaching hooves. Jessica, having almost fallen out of the carriage in her haste to reach her brother, sank to her knees at his side, begging him to speak to her. She barely registered the arrival of the mount's rider who, having leapt from his steed, was now lifting her, none too gently, to her feet and thrusting her to one side.
'Better let me see to him,' he advised curtly. 'He might have broken something.'