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Woodstock, Oxford, January, 1646
Lady Phoebe Carlton lay very still listening to her bedmate's even breathing. Olivia was a very light sleeper and woke at the slightest sound. And tonight, Olivia mustn't know what Phoebe was about. They never had secrets from each other and were as close if not closer than sisters. But Phoebe couldn't afford for her dearest friend to know about her present enterprise.
Phoebe pushed aside the coverlet and slipped to the floor. Olivia stirred and turned over. Phoebe froze. The fire in the grate was almost out, and it was so cold in the chamber that her breath formed a pale fog in the dim light from the guttering candle on the mantel. Olivia was afraid of the dark and they always kept a candle burning until she was asleep.
Olivia's even breathing resumed and Phoebe tiptoed across the chamber to the armoire. She had left it partly open so it wouldn't squeak. She took out the bundle of clothes and the small cloakbag and crept on her freezing bare feet to the door. She lifted the latch and opened it just wide enough for her to slide sideways through and into the dark passage beyond.
Shivering, she scrambled into her clothes, pulling them on over her nightshift. There were no candles in the sconces in the passage and it was pitch dark, but Phoebe found the darkness comforting. If she could see no one, then no one could see her.
The house was silent but for the usual nighttime creaks of old wood settling. She dragged on her woolen stockings and, carrying her boots and the cloakbag, crept down the corridor towards the wide staircase leading down to the great hall.
The hall was in shadow, lit only by the still-glowing embers in the vast fireplace at the far end. The great roof beams were a dark and heavy presence above her head as she tiptoed in her stockinged feet down the stairs. It was a mad, crazy thing she was doing, but Phoebe could see no alternative. She would not be sold into marriage, sold like a prize pig at the fair, to a man who had no real interest in her, except as a breeding cow.
Phoebe grimaced at her mixed metaphors, but they both nevertheless struck her as accurate descriptions of her situation. She wasn't living in the Middle Ages. It should not be possible to compel someone into a distasteful marriage, and yet, if she didn't take drastic action, that was exactly what was going to happen. Her father refused to listen to reason; he saw only his own advantage and had every intention of disposing of his only remaining daughter to suit himself.
Phoebe muttered under her breath as she crossed the hall, the cold from the flagstones striking up through her stockings. Reminding herself of her father's intractable selfishness buoyed her up. She was terrified of what she was about to do. It was absolute madness to attempt such a flight, but she would not marry a man who barely noticed her existence.
The great oak door was bolted and barred. She set down her boots and cloakbag and lifted the iron bar. It was heavy but she managed to set it back into the brackets at the side of the door. She reached up and drew the first bolt, then bent to draw the second at the base of the door. She was breathing quickly and, despite the cold, beads of sweat gathered between her breasts. She was aware of nothing but the door, its massive solidity in front of her filling her vision, both interior and exterior.
Slowly she pulled the door open. A blast of frigid air struck her like a blow. She took a deep breath . . .
And then the door was suddenly banged closed again. An arm had reached over her shoulder; a flat hand rested against the doorjamb. Phoebe stared at the hand . . . at the arm . . . in total stupefaction. Where had it come from? She felt the warmth of the body at her back, a large presence that was blocking her retreat just as the now closed door prevented her advance.
She turned her head, raised her eyes, and met the puzzled and distinctly irritated gaze of her intended bridegroom.
Cato, Marquis of Granville, regarded her in silence for a minute. When he spoke, it was an almost shocking sound after the dark silence. "What in God's name are you doing, Phoebe?"
His voice, rich and tawny, as always these days sent a little shiver down her spine. For a moment she was at a loss for words and stood staring, slack-jawed and dumb as any village idiot.
"I was going for a walk, sir," she said faintly, absurd though it was.
Cato looked at her incredulously. "At three o'clock in the morning? Don't be ridiculous." His gaze sharpened, the brown eyes, so dark as to be almost black in the shadowy dimness of the hall, narrowed. He glanced down at the cloakbag and her boots, standing neatly side by side.
"A walk, eh?" he queried with undisguised sarcasm. "In your stockinged feet, no less." He put his hands on her shoulders and moved her aside, then shot the bolts on the door again and dropped the bar back in place. It fell with a heavy clang that sounded to Phoebe in her present melodramatic mood like a veritable death knell.
He bent to pick up the cloakbag and, with a curt "Come," moved away towards the door at the rear of the hall that opened onto his study.
Phoebe glanced at her boots, then shrugged with dull resignation and left them where they were. She followed the marquis's broad back, noticing despite herself how the rich velvet of his nightrobe caressed his wide, powerful shoulders and fell to his booted ankles in elegant black folds. Had he been about to go up to bed? How could she possibly have been so stupid as not to have noticed the yellow line of candlelight beneath his door? But it hadn't occurred to her that anyone would still be up and about at this ungodly hour.
Cato stalked into his study and dropped the cloakbag on the table with a gesture that struck Phoebe as contemptuous. Then he turned back to her, the fur-trimmed robe swinging around his ankles. "Close the door. There's no reason why anyone else should be forced into this vigil."
Phoebe closed the door and stood with her back against it. Cato's study was warm, the fire well built and blazing, but there was little warmth in the marquis's gaze as he regarded her in frowning silence. Then he turned back to the bag on the table.
"So," he began in a conversational tone, "you were going for a walk, were you?" He unclasped the bag and drew out Phoebe's best cloak. He laid it over a chair and continued to remove the contents of the bag one by one. His eyes beneath sardonically raised brows never left her face as he shook out her clean linen, her shifts and stockings and chemises, laying them with exaggerated care over the chair. Lastly he placed her hairbrushes on the table, together with the little packet of hairpins and ribbons.
"Strange baggage to accompany a walk," he observed. "But then, anyone choosing to go for a walk at three in the morn-ing in the middle of January is probably capable of any oddity, wouldn't you think?"
Phoebe wanted to throw something at him. Instead she went over to the table and began stolidly to replace the pathetic assortment of her worldly goods in the bag. "I'll go back to bed now," she said colorlessly.
"Not quite yet." Cato put a hand on her arm. "I'm afraid you owe me an explanation. For the last two years you've been living, I assume contentedly, under my roof. And now it appears you're intending to flit away by moonlight without a word to anyone. . . . Or is Olivia a part of this?" His voice had sharpened.
"Olivia doesn't know anything, my lord," Phoebe stated. "This is not her fault."
Olivia's father merely nodded. "So, an explanation, if you please."
How could he not know? How could she possibly be so drawn to this man . . . find him so impossibly attractive . . . when as far as he was concerned she was of no more importance than an ant . . . merely a convenient means to an end. He hadn't looked at her properly once in the two years she'd been living under his roof. She was certain the idea for this marriage had come from her father, and Cato had simply seen the advantages.
His wife, Diana, Phoebe's sister, had died eight months earlier. It was common practice for a widower to marry his sister-in-law. It kept dowries in the family and maintained the original alliance between the two families. Of course it was to Cato's advantage. Of course he'd agreed.
No one had consulted Phoebe. They hadn't thought it necessary. There had not been even the semblance of courtship. . . .
Cato continued to frown at her. Absently he noticed that the buttons of her jacket were done up wrongly, as if she'd dressed in haste and in the dark. Her thick, light brown hair, incompetently dragged into a knot on top of her head, was flying loose in every direction. The clasp of her cloak was hanging by a thread. She was very untidy, he caught himself thinking. He realized that he'd noticed it often before. He remembered now that Diana had complained about it constantly.
"Phoebe . . ." he prompted with an edge of impatience.
Phoebe took a deep breath and said in a rush, "I do not wish to be married, sir. I've never wished to be married. I won't be married."