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Felicity was angry, blazingly angry. All her terror and anxiety at being alone and penniless in a strange country was forgotten, superseded by rage that the portmanteau packed with her last remaining possessions had been snatched away from her. Without a second thought she gave chase, following the ragged Spaniard in his leather waistcoat away from the Plaza and into a maze of narrow alleys that crowded about the harbour at Corunna. She did not stop; even when a sudden gust of wind caught her bonnet and tore it off her head she ran on, determined to regain her property. Only when they neared the harbour and she found herself in an unfamiliar square bounded by warehouses did she realise the danger.
She saw her bag handed to a young boy who ran off with it while the thief turned to face her, an evil grin splitting his face. Felicity stopped. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed two more menacing figures blocking her escape. Felicity summoned up every ounce of authority to say haughtily, 'That is my bag. Give it back to me now and we shall say no more about this.'
The response was a rough hand on her back, pushing her forward. She stumbled and fell to her knees. Quickly she scrambled up, twisting away as one of the men reached out to grab her. There was only the one man in front of her, if she could get past him—with a guttural laugh he caught her by her hair and yanked her back, throwing her into the arms of his two accomplices. Felicity fought wildly, but it was impossible to shake off their iron grip. They held her fast as the little man with his yellow teeth and stinking breath came close, leering at her as he ripped open her pelisse.
She closed her eyes, trying to blot out their cruel laughter and ugly jests. Then she heard another voice—slow, deep and distinctly British.
'Move away from the lady, my good fellows.'
Felicity's eyes flew open. Beyond the thief stood a tall British officer, resplendent in his scarlet tunic. He looked completely at his ease, regarding the scene with a slightly detached air, but when her tormentor pulled a wicked-looking knife from his belt the officer grinned.
'I asked you politely,' he said, drawing his sword. 'But now I really must insist.'
With a roar the two men holding Felicity released her and rushed forward to join their comrade. She backed against the wall and watched the red-coated officer swiftly despatch her attackers. He moved with surprising speed and agility. A flick of his sword cut across the first man's wrist and the knife fell from his useless fingers. A second man screamed as that wicked blade slashed his arm and when the officer turned his attention to the third, the man took to his heels and fled, swiftly followed by his companions.
The officer wiped his blade and put it away. Sunlight sliced through a narrow gap between the houses and caught the soldier in a sudden shaft of light. His hair gleamed like polished mahogany in the sunshine and he was grinning down at her, amusement shining in his deep brown eyes as if the last few minutes had been some entertaining sport rather than a desperate fight. He was, she realised in a flash, the embodiment of the hero she had always dreamed of.
'Are you hurt, madam?'
His voice was deep and warm, wrapping around her like velvet. She shook her head.
'I—do not think so. Who are you?'
'Major Nathan Carraway, at your service.'
'Then I thank you for your timely assistance, Major.'
'Come along.' He held out his arm to her. 'We should get out of here in case they decide to come back with their friends.'
'But my portmanteau—'
'I think you should resign yourself to its loss, madam. Was it very valuable?'
'Priceless.' She swallowed. 'It contains everything I own in the whole world.' Suddenly she felt quite sick as she realised the enormity of her situation. 'What am I going to do now? I have nothing, no one…'
Instinctively she turned to the man at her side. Looking into his eyes she was conscious of a tug of attraction, a sudden conviction that in this man she had found a friend. Her fear and anger faded away. He gave her a slow smile.
'You have me,' he said.
'Good morning, miss. I've brought your hot chocolate.'
Felicity stirred, reluctant to leave her dream, but when the maid threw back the shutters her room was flooded with sunlight, banishing any hope of going back to sleep.
'What time is it, Betsy?'
'Eight o'clock, miss. With Master John and Master Simon gone off to school you said not to wake you too early this morning.'
Felicity sat up. She hadn't bargained for the extra hour's sleep being haunted by her dreams!
She did not linger in her bed but dressed quickly and made her way down to the schoolroom. It was eerily quiet: after four years of looking after two energetic youngsters and watching them grow into schoolboys it was not surprising that she now missed their presence. As their governess she had grown very fond of them, and they had provided her with an excellent distraction from her constant, aching sadness.
'Fee, Fee, where are you?'
Felicity heard Lady Souden's soft calls and hurried across the room to open the door.
'Do you need me? I was just tidying up.'
Lady Souden entered the sunny schoolroom and looked around, sighing.
'It does seem so quiet with the boys away at school, does it not? But you are no longer the governess here, Felicity.' She rested her hands upon her stomach. 'At least not until this little one is of an age to need you.'
'And that will not be for some years yet,' observed Felicity, smiling.
'I know, but oh, Fee, is it not exciting? The boys are darlings, and I adore being their stepmama, but I cannot wait to have a baby of my own.' Lydia shook her head, setting her guinea-gold curls dancing. After five years I thought it would never happen! But that is not what I wanted to say to you. Come away now; you do not need to be toiling up here.'
Felicity scooped up another handful of books from the table.
'This isn't toiling, Lydia, I enjoy being useful. Besides, the boys will still use this room when they come home, so it is only fitting that it should be as they left it.'
'If it is to be as they left it you had best spread their toys over the floor and pull all the books from the shelves! Oh, Fee, do leave that now and come into the garden with me. It is such a lovely morning and I want to talk to you.'
'Oh, but another five minutes—'
'No, now. It is a command!'
As Felicity accompanied Lady Souden down the stairs she reflected that few people could have such an undemanding mistress. They had been firm friends at school, and when Felicity had come to her, penniless and desperate to find work, Lydia had cajoled her doting new husband into employing her as a governess to his two young sons—Lydia's stepchildren. Felicity knew she was very fortunate. Sir James was a considerate employer and she was thankful that her excellent education allowed her to fulfil her duties as governess to his satisfaction. So pleased had he been with her performance that when the boys finally went away to school he raised no objections to Lydia's suggestion that Felicity should stay on at Souden Hall as her companion. The arrangement worked extremely well, for Sir James was often away from home and said it was a comfort to him to know that his wife was not alone. Felicity's only complaint was that she had so little to do, but when she taxed Lydia with this, Lady Souden merely laughed and told her to enjoy herself.
Now, walking in the shrubbery arm in arm with Lydia, Felicity gave a little sigh of contentment.
'Happy?' asked Lydia.
Felicity hesitated. She was content: there was a world of difference between that and true happiness, but very few people could aspire to such a luxury. She said, 'Who could not be in such lovely surroundings? The gardens here at Souden are so beautiful in the spring. Are you still planning to lay out a knot-garden? I have been studying the pattern books in the library and would dearly like to help you draw it up.'
'Oh, yes, if you please, but I am afraid that will have to wait. James has written to say he wants me to join him in London next month. For the Peace Celebrations.'
'Oh. Oh, well, while you are away I could—'
'You are to come with me, Fee.'
'Oh no, surely that is not necessary.'
'Very necessary,' said Lydia, taking her hands. 'With the boys at school there is no reason for you to hide yourself away here. Besides, you have read the news sheets, you know as well as I that any number of important personages will be in London for these celebrations: the Emperor of Russia and his sister the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg, the young Prussian princes and—oh, too many to name them all now! And James has already been informed that he will be expected to entertain them all. Just think of it, Fee, dinners, soirées and parties—dear James has also said he wants us to hold a ball! So I shall need you to help me with all the arrangements. I could not possibly cope with it all.'
'Should you be coping with any of it when you are with child?'
'Oh, Fee, I am not ill! I am more likely to die of boredom if I stay here with nothing to do. Besides, the baby is not due until the autumn and the celebrations will be over by then. Do not look so horrified, Fee, look upon this as a rare treat.'
A treat! Lydia, you know I am…not good in company. I fear I should let you down.'
'Nonsense. You have very good manners, it is merely that you are out of practice—and that is because your horrid uncle dragged you away from the Academy to make you his drudge!'
'Lydia! Uncle Philip was not horrid, he was…devout.'
'He was a tyrant,' returned Lydia with uncharacteristic severity. 'He tried to beat all the joy out of you.'
'It is true my uncle considered all forms of pleasure a sin,' she conceded, 'but that was only because he was deeply religious.'
'Then he should have hired a deeply religious servant to take with him rather than dragging you off to deepest Africa!'
Felicity laughed at that.
'But he didn't! We only got as far as northern Spain! Poor Uncle Philip, he convinced himself that the Spanish Catholics were as much in need of saving as any African tribe, but I have always suspected the truth was he could not face another sea journey.'
'Well, it was very wrong of him to take you away instead of giving you the opportunity to marry and have children—'
Felicity put up her hand in a little gesture of defence; she did not want to contemplate what might have been.
'What's done is done,' she said quietly. 'I am very happy here at Souden, and I would much rather stay here while you go to London.'
'But I shall need you!'
Lydia's plaintive tone carried Felicity back to their schooldays, when her friend had often begged her for company. Poor Lydia could never bear to be alone. Now, as then, Felicity found it impossible to resist her. Sensing her weakening, Lydia pressed her hand.
'Do say you will come, Fee—you are so good at organising parties.'
'But you will not expect me to attend any of these parties.'
'Not unless you want to, my dear.'
'You know there is nothing I would want less!'
'Then you may remain behind the scenes, invisible.'
Felicity laughed at her.
'But I cannot possibly be your paid companion if I never leave my room. Sir James will not countenance such a thing!'
'I shall tell him that you have a morbid fear of strangers,' said Lydia. 'He will understand that, for he has a cousin who is very much the same, only because he is a man, and rich, it is quite acceptable for him to be a recluse. And James knows how much I rely upon you, especially now that I am increasing.'
'Perhaps you should not go at all,' said Felicity, clutching at straws.
Lydia gave a little gurgle of laughter.
'But of course I should! I have never felt better, and the doctor says I must not pamper myself but carry on very much as normal. Oh, do say you will come with me, Felicity: you are very necessary to my comfort, you know.'
Felicity could not resist Lydia's beseeching look.
'You have been so kind to me that I cannot refuse you.'
'So you promise you will come to town with me?'
'Yes, I give you my word.'
Lydia gave a huge sigh.
'I am so relieved!' She linked arms with Felicity again and gave a little tug. 'Come along, now: we must keep moving or we shall grow too chilled. It is only April, after all.'
They walked on in amicable silence for a few more minutes.
'Is that what you wished to say to me,' asked Felicity, 'that we are to go to town?'
'Well, yes, but there is a little more than that, my dear.'
'Now, Lydia, what mischief are you planning?'
'None, I promise you, but there is something you should know.' Lady Souden gave her arm a little shake. 'Remember, Fee, you have given me your word!'
'Very well. Tell me.'
'The Earl of Rosthorne will be in town.'
Felicity's heart lurched. The Earl of Rosthorne—Nathan Carraway, her handsome hero. The man who still haunted her dreams, but had proved to be a master of seduction. She swallowed nervously, trying to remain calm.
'How do you know that?'
'James wrote to me—'
'Lydia, you haven't told him—!'
'Of course not, I promised I would not give you away. No, his letter was full of the plans for the celebrations. He said that Carraway had been ordered to London, not only because he is now Earl of Rosthorne, but because he is—or was—a military man and Prinny is quite desperate to impress. The royal parks are to be opened, there will be displays, and fireworks, and—oh, Felicity, it will be so exciting—are you not the teeniest bit curious to see it all?'
'Not if there is the teeniest risk of meeting Lord Rosthorne!'
Lydia turned her wide, blue-eyed gaze upon her.
'I know he treated you badly, my dear, but are you not curious to see him again?'
Felicity hesitated. Nathan had rescued her, given up his lodging for her, bought her new clothes. He had taught her to love him and then broken her heart.
'No. I have no desire to see him again.'
'Felicity, you are blushing. You still care for him.'
'I do not! It was five years ago, Lydia. I am over him.'