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The Folly, Fortune Hall, YorkshireJune 1810 A little before midnight
It was a beautiful night for an abduction.
The moon sailed high and bright in a starlit sky. The warm breeze sighed in the treetops, stirring the scents of pine and hot grass. Deep in the heart of the wood an owl called, a long, throaty hoot that hung on the night air.
Lady Elizabeth Scarlet sat by the window, watching for the shadow, waiting to hear the step on the path outside. She knew Nat Waterhouse would come. He always came when she called. He would be annoyed of coursewhat man would not be irritated to be called away from his carousing on the night before his weddingbut he would still be there. He was so responsible; he would not ignore her cry for help. She knew exactly how he would respond. She knew him so well.
Her fingertips beat an impatient tattoo on the stone window ledge. She checked the watch she had purloined earlier from her brother. It felt as though she had been waiting for hours but she was surprised to see that it was only eight minutes since she had last looked. She felt nervous, which surprised her. She knew Nat would be angry but she was acting for his own good. The wedding had to be stopped. He would thank her for it one day.
From across the fields came the faint chime of the church bell. Midnight. There was the crunch of footsteps on the path. He was precisely on time. Of course he would be.
She sat still as a mouse as he opened the door of the folly. She had left the hallway in darkness but there was a candle burning in the room above. If she had calculated correctly he would go up the spiral stair and into the chamber, giving her time to lock the outer door behind him and hide the key. There was no other way out. Her half brother, Sir Montague Fortune, had had the folly built to the design of a miniature fort with arrow slits and windows too small to allow a man to pass. He had thought it a great joke to build a folly in a village called Fortune's Folly. That, Lizzie thought, was Monty's idea of amusement, that and dreaming up new taxes with which to torment the populace.
She jumped. Nat was right outside the door of the guardroom. He sounded impatient. She held her breath.
"Lizzie? Where are you?"
He took the spiral stair two steps at a time and she slid like a wraith out of the tiny guardroom to turn the key in the heavy oaken door. Her fingers were shaking and slipped on the cold iron. She knew what her friend Alice Vickery would say if she were here now:
"Not another of your harebrained schemes, Lizzie! Stop now, before it is too late!"
But it was already too late. She could not allow herself time to think about this or she would lose her nerve. She ran back into the guardroom and stole a hand through one of the arrow slits. There was a nail on the wall outside. The key clinked softly against the stone. There. Nat could not escape until she willed it. She smiled to herself, well pleased. She had known there was no need to involve anyone else in the plan. She could handle an abduction unaided. It was easy.
She went out into the hall. Nat was standing at the top of the stairs, the candle in his hand. The flickering light threw a tall shadow. He looked huge, menacing and angry.
Actually, Lizzie thought, he was huge, menacing and angry, but he would never hurt her. Nat would never, ever hurt her. She knew exactly how he would behave. She knew him like a brother.
"Lizzie? What the hell's going on?"
He was drunk as well, Lizzie thought. Not drunk enough to be even remotely incapacitated but enough to swear in front of a lady, which was something that Nat would normally never do. But then, if she were marrying Miss Flora Minchin the next morning, she would be swearing, too. And she would have drunk herself into a stupor. Which brought her back to the point. For Nat would not be marrying Miss Minchin. Not in the morning. Not ever. She was here to make sure of it. She was here to save him.
"Good evening, Nat," Lizzie said brightly, and saw him scowl. "I trust you have had an enjoyable time on your last night of freedom?"
"Cut the pleasantries, Lizzie," Nat said. "I'm not in the mood." He held the candle a little higher so that the light fell on her face. His eyes were black, narrowed and hard. "What could possibly be so urgent that you had to talk to me in secret on the night before my wedding?"
Lizzie did not answer immediately. She caught the hem of her gown up in one hand and made her careful way up the stone stair. She felt Nat's gaze on her face every moment even though she did not look at him. He stood aside to allow her to enter the chamber at the top. It was tiny, furnished only with a table, a chair and a couch. Monty Fortune, having created his miniature fort, had not really known what to do with it.
When she was standing on the rug in the center of the little round turret room Lizzie turned to face Nat. Now that she could see him properly she could see that his black hair was tousled and his elegant clothes looked slightly less than pristine. His jacket hung open and his cravat was undone. Stubble darkened his lean cheek and the hard line of his jaw. There was a smoky air of the alehouse about him. His eyes glittered with impatience and irritation.
"I'm waiting," he said.
Lizzie spread her hands wide in an innocent gesture. "I asked you here to try to persuade you not to go through with the wedding," she said. She looked at him in appeal. "You know she will bore you within five minutes, Nat. No," she corrected herself. "You are already bored with her, aren't you, and you are not even wed yet. And you don't give a rush for her, either. You are making a terrible mistake."
Nat's mouth set in a thin line. He raked a hand through his hair. "Lizzie, we've spoken about this"
"I know," Lizzie said. Her heart hammered in her throat. "Which is why I had to do this, Nat. It's for your own good."
Fury was fast replacing the irritation in his eyes. "Do what?" he said. Then, as she did not reply: "Do what, Lizzie?"
"I've locked you in," Lizzie said rapidly. "I promise that I will release you tomorrowwhen the hour of the wedding is past. I doubt that Flora or her parents will forgive you the slight of standing her up at the altar."
She had never previously thought the Earl of Wa-terhouse a man who made a display of his emotions. She had always thought he had a good face for games of chance, showing no feeling, giving nothing away. Now, though, it was all too easy to read him. His first reaction was stupefaction. His second was grim certainty. He did not even stop to question the truth of what she had said. If she knew him well, then the reverse was also the case.
"Lizzie," he said, "you little hellcat."
He turned and crashed angrily down the spiral stair, taking the candle, leaving her in darkness but for the faint moonlight that slid through the arrow slits in the wall. Lizzie let her breath out in a long, shaky sigh. She had only a moment to compose herself, for once he realized that there really was no escape he would be back. And this time he would be beyond mere fury.
She heard him try the thick oak doorand swear when it would not even give an inch. She saw the candle flame dance across the walls as he checked the guardroom and the passageway for potential exits. The swearing became more colorful as he acknowledged what she already knewthere was no way out. The tiny water closet opened onto the equally miniature moat and was far too small for a six foot man to squeeze through. The room in which she stood had a trapdoor that led up to the pretend battlements but she had locked it earlier and hidden the key in a hollow tree outside. She had wanted to make no mistakes.
He was back and she had been correcthe looked enraged. A muscle pulsed in his lean cheek. Every line of his body was rigid with fury.
When he spoke, however, his voice was deceptively gentle. Lizzie found it more disconcerting than if he had shouted at her.
"Why are you doing this, Lizzie?" he said.
Lizzie wiped the palms of her hands surreptitiously down the side of her gown. She wished she could stop shaking. She knew she was doing the right thing. She simply had not anticipated that it would be quite so frightening.
"I told you," she said, tilting her chin up defiantly. "I'm saving you from yourself."
Nat gave a harsh laugh. "No. You are denying me the chance to gain the fifty thousand pounds I so desperately need. You know how important this is to me, Lizzie."
"It isn't worth it for a lifetime of boredom."
"That is my choice."
"You've made the wrong choice. I'm here to save you from it." Lizzie kept her voice absolutely level despite the pounding of her blood. "You have always cared for me and tried to protect me. Now it is my turn. I'm doing this because you are my friend and I care for you."
She saw the contemptuous flicker in his eyes that said he did not believe her. Lizzie's temper smoldered. She had always been hot-blooded, or perhaps just plain belligerent depending upon whose opinion one sought. It seemed damnably unfair of Nat to judge her when she had his best interests at heart. He should be thanking her for saving him from this ghastly match.
Nat put the candle down on the little wooden table beside the door and took a very deliberate step toward her. He was tallover six-footbroad and muscular. Lizzie tried not to feel intimidated and failed.
"Give me the key, Lizzie," he said gently.
"No." Lizzie swallowed hard. He was very close now, his physical presence powerful, threatening, in direct contradiction to the softness of his tone. But she was not afraid of Nat. In the nine years of their acquaintance he had never given her any reason to fear him.
"Where is it?"
"Hidden somewhere you won't find it."
Nat gave an exasperated sigh. He flung out an arm. "This isn't a game, Lizzie," he said. She could tell he was trying to suppress his anger, trying to be reasonable. Nat Waterhouse was, above all, a reasonable man, a rational man, and a responsible man. And she supposed it was unreasonable of her to expect him to see the situation from her point of view. She was in the right, of course. She knew that. And in time she was sure he would acknowledge it, too. But at the moment he was annoyed. Disappointed. Yes, of course. He would be angry and frustrated to lose Flora's fortune. He had cultivated the heiress, courted her and flirted with her, which must have been a dreadfully tedious business. He had invested time and effort in landing his prize. And now she was queering his pitch. So yes, she could see that he would be cross with her.
"What you are doing is dangerous," Nat said. He still sounded in control. "You have locked yourself in with me. Is this some ridiculous attempt to compromise me so that I am obliged to marry you instead of Flora?"
Lizzie's temper tightened another notch. She was starting to feel genuinely angry now in addition to feeling afraid. She was infuriated by his presumption in thinking she wanted him for herself. "Of course not," she said. "How conceited you are! I don't want to wed you! I'd rather pull my own ears off!"
Nat's smile was not pleasant. "I don't believe you. You have deliberately compromised yourself by locking us in together."
"Rubbish!" Lizzie said. "I don't intend to tell anyone. I only want to keep you here until it's too late for the marriage to take place, and then I will let you go."
"Handsome of you," Nat said. "You wreck my future and then you let me go to face the ruins."
"Oh, do not be so melodramatic!" Lizzie snapped. "You should not have become a fortune hunter in the first place. It does not become you!"
"There speaks a woman with fifty thousand pounds and a judgmental attitude," Nat said. "You know nothing."
"I know everything about you!" Lizzie flashed. "I have known you for over nine years and I care about you"
"You aren't doing this out of disinterested friendship, Lizzie," Nat interrupted her scathingly. "You are doing this because you are selfish and spoiled and immature, and you do not wish another woman to have a greater claim on me. You want to keep me for yourself."
Lizzie gaped. "You are an arrogant pig!"
"And you are a pampered brat. You need to grow up. I have thought so for a long time."
They stood glaring at one another whilst the tension in the room simmered and the candle flame flickered as though responding to something dangerous in the air.
Somewhere inside, Lizzie was hurting, but she cut the pain off, cauterized it with the heat of her anger.
"When have I been spoiled and immature?" she demanded. She had not wanted to ask, to twist the knife in her own wounds, but she found she was unable to keep the words inside.
Nat laughed, a harsh sound that ripped at her soul. "Where shall I start? You have no interest in anyone or anything beyond your own concerns and opinions. You flaunted yourself brazenly at the assembly on the very day that my engagement to Flora was announced, and that could only have been to take attention away from her.