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With the sun shining out of a sky as blue as blue could be, a small, isolated knot of boisterous young people gathered to enjoy themselves at the horse racing at Happy Valley on the island of Hong Kong, which was a major trading post of the British empire. They were the sons and daughters of businessmen, merchants and bankers, all enjoying the freedom and entertainments to be had on this tiny island, the Sovereign British Territory off the Chinese coast populated by Westerners and Chinese immigrants.
'I honestly swear that if I have to sit and talk to those frumpish old tabbies I shall die of boredom,' Marietta declared sharply, observing the group of stiff-backed ladies all sporting a colourful array of flowered and feathered hats and bonnets on their coiffed heads seated on a veranda overlooking the racecourse. Young married women who no longer mixed with their unmarried friends, being excluded from the excitement and demure flirtation, were seated in chairs beneath the shade of the trees. 'Promise me, Oliver, that if such a thing should occur, you will have the goodness to rescue me.' Smoothing her skirts, she sighed in a way that displayed a very fetching dimple. 'I beg of you if you value our friendship.'
Glancing down into Marietta's wide olive-green eyes flecked with golden lights, Oliver Schofield would have forfeited both his feet to do her bidding. 'I give you my word,' he replied adoringly. 'You know perfectly well I would do anything you asked me to do, Marietta.'
Oliver Schofield was a good-looking young man, just one of several who hung around the group of pretty girls. They were like a cloud of bright butterflies beneath light and colourful parasols. Their fashionable wide skirts of palest pink, light-blue, lemon and creamy white, pleated and flounced in delicate tulle and chiffon and muslin, swung and swayed and dipped to reveal their shoes and the lower part of their white stockinged legs.
With a gay and uncritical nature, Marietta Westwood outshone all the other girls and was the most sought after among these bright young things. Having spent a great deal of her time with her father and allowed to do very much as she pleased, at seventeen she possessed an active mind, a lively wit and an amazing tendency to think for herself.
As a child, as soon as she had stepped off the ship she had been enchanted with the tiny island of Hong Kong. She loved life in the colonythe picnics, regattas and parties, where she waltzed and polkaed the night away. She was just one of a civilised society, if one could ignore the heat and humidity of the South China seas and the suffocating stuffiness of the Europeans. Sporting their beards and whiskers and top hats and waistcoats and woollen suits as if they were in London, they would never dream of succumbing to the natural elements of the colonyunlike her father, who favoured wide-brimmed hats and cool linen suits, which gave him a crumpled air.
Marietta moved towards Oliver with the lightness of step of a fawn. She was naturally cautious, like one who suspects there is a delightful danger ahead, but is prepared nevertheless to enjoy it. She smiled at him beautifully.
'I know I can rely on you, Oliveralways the gallant one and so sweet, that's what you are.' Taking his arm, she drew him to one side, leaning forwards so that only he could hear what she said. 'You haven't forgotten our outing tomorrow, have you? You said you would take me with you to the native quarter.'
His face fell. 'No, Marietta, I can't.'
'But you promised!'
'I've changed my mind.'
Her lips forming a petulant pout, Marietta gave an indignant toss of her head. 'Then I'll never speak to you again. I swear I won't.'
'It's not that I don't wish to take you with me,' Oliver said, goaded, 'but the native quarter is not a fit place for a young English girl to visit. It's not safe. Besides, your father would never consent to it.'
'He won't be here. He's leaving for Kowloon tonight and won't be back until the day after tomorrow. Besides, what possible harm can come to me in your company?' she added mischievously.
Oliver shrugged. 'I warn you, Marietta, it can be awfully dull. There can be little of interest for you there.'
Marietta lifted her chin. 'I will be the judge of that. But since you seem to be averse to my company, I shall not trouble you nor hold you to your promise. Perhaps some other gentleman will be more willing to accompany me instead.'
'Come, Marietta, you need not take that attitude with me,' Oliver said in a more conciliatory manner. 'The fact is you misunderstand my reluctance to take you with me.' He hesitated, then went on in a low voice, 'I would not wish it to reach your father's ears that I have taken his daughter to purchase opium supplieson behalf of a friend of mine, you understand, who is unable to go himself. I have the address of a merchant and I plan to visit him tomorrow.'
She stared at him. It all seemed so terribly exciting. 'Are you afraid you can't trust me? Is that why you won't take me? I promise I will be all discretion if that's what worries you.'
Oliver shrugged. 'I see I am outwitted and shall have to give in to your wishes. But you must promise not to tell anyone, Marietta.'
With a sense of adventure and eager to explore Hong Kong's China Town, Marietta's eagerness increased. 'Of course you may trust me,' she exclaimed. 'Though you really need not fear my father's disapproval, for he has told me himself that he has the greatest faith in opium as a medicinal cure for everything from the most serious illness to toothache. I do know some people abuse it, but one has to be sensible about these things. I am already a convert to it since it was opium that Yang Ling gave me in the posset to cure a fever I had last month.'
Privately Oliver doubted if Marietta's father would approve of the use he planned to make for the drug, but he wouldn't express his doubts to Marietta. He wished he'd been firmer with his refusal to take her, but when Marietta turned her big, dark green eyes on him, resolutions were apt to vanish. He was happy enough to have her smiling at him again and told her he hadn't doubted her for a moment. Some people had prejudices and misconceptions about opium smoking, but since she wasn't one of these killjoys, he would be happy to take her to the native quarter.
Thanking him prettily and arranging to meet him the following morning, Marietta turned her attention to Julian Fielding, who was holding the reins of Oliver's horse and seated atop his own. Suddenly she had what she considered to be a brilliant idea to spark up the afternoon. Spinning on her heel, she sprinted towards Oliver's horse and with a fluency that caught the eye, she hoisted herself up into the saddle, her legs astride the huge gelding.
Emma, a petite brunette and Marietta's best friend, in a flurry of pink taffeta and bouncing ringlets, moved to stand beside Oliver. 'Oh dear! Whatever do you think Marietta is planning to do now?' she enquired, knowing that whatever it was, her friend was about to make a freak of herself cavorting on the back of Oliver's horse.
Oliver sighed, resigned as always to Marietta's reckless escapades. 'She will do whatever she wants to dowhich is what she always does, Emma.'
'Come along, Julian,' Marietta urged with a shout of laughter, hearing the smattering of giggles as the group looked on and encouraged by it. 'Let's you and me have a little race of our own. To that post at the end of the green and backand I bet I win.'
With a gentle kick at the horse's flanks with her heels and firing an amused glance over her shoulder at her friends, while feeling the force of the ancient ladies' unwavering scandalised cold stares, their faces taut with disapproval on the veranda, with her skirts ballooning behind her she was off, with Julian, always game for anything, tearing after her.
Their horses' hooves thundered over the hard green turf. All the way to the post they were neck and neck, and not until they turned for home did Marietta pull ahead, finishing a length ahead of Julian. Unfortunately her horse was going so fast she had to pull up sharply, causing the animal to stumble on a raised hillock and tossing her over its head. After flying through the air, in a tangle of flounces and frills and furbelows as her skirts were upflung, she landed on the ground. Unhurt and laughing happily despite the loss of her dignityfor she was the victor after allshe scrambled to her feet.
'Dear God in heaven,' she heard someone exclaim in a furious voice, his temper roused, not at all pleased at being almost knocked off his feet. 'Why don't you look where you're going, you stupid girl? You might have caused a serious accident.'
Marietta hadn't seen him at first. She was too busy trying to regain her balance, but she did feel a crackle in the air and perceived the unnatural silence when it fell among her chirruping friends. As she stood, with her nerves jangling like wind chimes in a typhoon, her heart began to beat unaccountably faster when she found herself confronted by the formidable Lord Trevellyan and his beautiful wife, Nadine, who had been forced to halt when she tumbled right in front of them.
Marietta was for once speechless. He was surely the finest man that ever was. Meeting his silver-grey eyes, she felt herself instantly redden with pleasure.
'What the hell do you think you are doing?' Lord Trevellyan demanded, his voice about as friendly as cold steel, not quite done with chastising her.
The icy tone of his voice checked any wayward thoughts Marietta might have concerning Lord Trev-ellyan. Having halted in a small puddle left over from the previous day's rain, she saw that Oliver's horse had splashed mud on to Lord Trevellyan's shiny black shoes.
'Oh dear!' she put in hastily. Able to see the funny side of the incident, she tried to stifle her mirth, but on seeing the look of unconcealed displeasure on Lord Trevellyan's face as he looked down at his shoes, her mirth threatened to erupt into hilarity. 'It really was an accident,' she began defensively, 'but I fear I've made rather a mess of your shoes '
Lord Trevellyan's voice stopped her in mid-sentence. 'Never mind my shoes. My advice to you, Miss West-wood, is that you learn to ride a horse of that size before getting on to its back.'
Lord Trevellyan was at his most forbidding following yet another bitter altercation with his beautiful wife. The mocking smile on his lips did nothing to make Marietta feel better, although, had she but known, it was himself he was mocking, for Miss Westwood was renowned for her outrageous antics and having witnessed her unblushing display of riding a horse that would have horrified every strait-laced lady who'd borne witness, he grudgingly conceded that she was a refreshing sight in the circumstances.
From a distance he had watched her galloping at breakneck pace with the daredevil recklessness of youth. With her face pressed close to the horse's mane, a jubilation, there was a simplicity in the way she rode, as if she were one with her mount, confident, trusting and elated. At a glance she was one of the most fearless, skilled riders he'd ever seen mountedman or womanand he would love to see her over jumps. Her legs had been displayed to almost immoral advantage by the lifting of her skirts as she had ridden the gelding, golden ribbons around her slender waist that would require no subterfuge to make it appear smaller, flying jauntily behind her. Not until she was almost on top of him had she hauled the horse to a smart stop, and at the same time the horse had tossed her over his head.
Marietta looked at him with eyes that seemed to change through all the shades of green beneath the fringe of long, sooty lashes. Her hairpiles of shining rich mahogany-brown hairhad come loose of its pins during her reckless ride to beat her opponent. Drawing herself up, she set her bonnet at a ridiculous angle atop curls as undisciplined as she was, the ribbon streamers dancing this way and that. Immediately she launched into an apology.
Unimpressed, Max listened to her. The fact that this dratted girl had disrupted his day annoyed him intensely. It was not the first time they had met. He had noticed her vaguely at several events. All the other girls of her age were demure and for the most part kept their eyes cast down, whereas Miss Westwood always stared directly at those she was speaking to, looking about her with a keen and lively interest, her eyes bright with expectancy.
She showed none of the restraint impressed into young girls of good family. It would seem that when Miss Westwood conjured up some new escapade, she set about it with the determination and tactical brilliance of a female Napoleon Bonaparte. The ladies of the island heaped the blame for her undisciplined behaviour on Monty Westwood, of course, for allowing his daughter too much freedom to do as she liked. Max was apt to agree with them.
Based on that sweet pleading look she was giving him, she was apparently hoping he'd be as stupidly susceptible to her appeal as everyone else. Instead, Lord Trevellyan raked her with an insultingly condescending glance from the top of her gloriously tousled hair to the tips of her feet.
'Of all the brazen, outrageous stunts I have ever seen, yours, Miss Westwood, beats the lot. Didn't anyone ever teach you how to behave?' he asked contemptuously. He saw her flinch, but he went on, his voice penetrating. 'I believe you have been in the colony long enough to know its protocol and that young ladies do not go around flaunting themselves as you have just done. Have you lost all sense of propriety?'
Marietta hesitated. Thinking he would accept her explanation ceased to be tenable. She knew that Lord Trevellyan was a man who was used to giving orders, but she too had learned something, which was not to look abashed when she felt it. Her mirth having disappeared, she threw back her shoulders, lifted her head and met his eyes with a fiercely direct stare, unafraid and absolutely uncowed, the action telling him quite clearly that she was neither sorry nor ashamed of her behaviour.
'I was not flaunting myself, Lord Trevellyan. I was doing no wrong. I took a tumble, that is all.'
'And almost knocked my wife and myself to the ground in the process.'