A daring night-time escape inside the Marquis of Aldeborough's carriage
Mistaking Miss Frances Hanwell for a runaway kitchen servant, Hugh only realizes his grave error the next day. With scandal imminent, a reluctant marriage seems the only course of action.
Reluctance turns to respect when Hugh uncovers the brutal marks of the unhappy life she's been leading. Suddenly, he will do all in his power to protect her especially now, as an unexpected inheritance threatens to take Frances from him .
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Aldeborough lounged at his indolent ease in the corner of his travelling coach, braced effectively against the violent lurching with one foot on the opposite cushion, as he covered the short distance to Aldeborough Priory. He closed his eyes against the lurking headache.
A dense shadow, darker than its surroundings, stirred on the floor in the far corner of the coach. The moon fleetingly illuminated a flash of pale skin.
Was he asleep? Frances was pinning all her hopes on it. In spite of her impulsive flight from the Hall, without possessions except for the clothes she stood up in, and certainly without any forethought, she had chosen the coach with care. It had just been possible for her to make out the shield on the door panel in the glimmer from the flickering lamps — to distinguish a black falcon rising, wings outspread in flight, a glitter of golden eyes and talons on a vibrant azure field. It had to be Aldeborough — and he would be the means of her escape from Torrington Hall for ever. She shifted slightly to ease her cramped limbs, trying to breathe shallowly, to still the loud thudding of her heart that seemed to echo in her ears. If only she could remain undiscovered until they arrived at the Priory, she would have a chance to make her escape. And no one would be the wiser. No one would follow her and force her...
The Marquis moved restlessly. Frances shrank back into her corner, tensed, rigid, until his breathing relaxed again. She wriggled her spine against the edge of the hard cushion. It promised to be a long journey. She closed her eyes in the dark.
Suddenly a hand shot out with astonishing speed to grasp the folds of her cloak and pull her violently from floor to seat where the grip transferred itself like a band of steel to her arm. She gasped at the pain from that pressure on her previous injuries and failed to suppress a squeak of shock and outrage at such manhandling.
"What the hell...?" Aldeborough drew in his breath sharply, reining in his impulse to strike out at the intruder with vicious blows to head and body as he realised his initial mistake, and he tucked a pistol back into its pocket behind the cushions. He laughed softly. "Well, now. Not an opportunist footpad after all. A lady, no less. I knew my luck was still in. What are you doing in my carriage at this time of night — or morning, as I suppose it now is?"
"Running away, sir." It would be safer, Frances decided, to stick to the truth as much as she was able. Her voice held a touch of exhaustion, which she could not disguise, strained with other tensions that he could only guess at.
"Ah. From Torrington Hall, I presume. Do you work there?"
"Yes, sir. In the kitchens." 'And do you suggest that I should turn the coach around and return you to your employers? Would they welcome such an open-handed gesture from me? I doubt it." He mused on his reluctance to return to Torrington Hall, to put himself out for an errant kitchen wench.
"No, sir." She tried to keep the fear that he would do exactly that from her voice. "I doubt it would be worth your while. I...I am only a servant and will not be missed."
"If not, why did you find it necessary to hide in my coach? There appears to be some logic here that escapes me. Do you suppose it is the brandy that is impairing my thought processes?" he enquired conversationally. "Undoubtedly, sir." 'So what do I do with you now?" 'You could take me to the Priory, sir." She sank her teeth into her bottom lip as she awaited his answer.
"I could. That would be the easiest course of action. I could hand you over to Mrs — Devil take it! I have forgotten her name — my housekeeper. It would be far better to work for me at the Priory than for Torrington, I would wager."
"It could not be worse, sir." Her agreement was low, little more than a whisper. He almost missed her words.
There was silence for a short time as Aldeborough contemplated his unexpected travelling companion.
"Come and sit beside me." 'I would rather remain here, sir." I must remain calm, she told herself as panic began to build inside her. "We seem to be travelling at great speed." She was wedged into the opposite corner, hanging on to the straps and as far away from him as possible.
Without more ado and once more taking her completely by surprise, Aldeborough leaned forward, grasped her wrist and pulled her ungently on to the seat next to him. She pushed herself back against the cushions only just preventing herself from falling against him or on to the floor as the onside wheel of the coach fell into a pothole. A full moon illuminated the carriage interior, but it was sufficiently erratic to allow the lady to hide with some relief her flushed cheeks and lack of composure. And, even more importantly, her identity.
"So, we have established, to some extent at least, why you are here...so now — " his gaze fixed on her unwaveringly like that of a hunting falcon ' — tell me your name."
"Molly Bates, sir," she replied instantly in flat tones, thinking furiously and casting truth to the winds, intensely aware that he still had possession of her wrist and his grasp was burning a bracelet into her flesh.
"Well, Molly Bates, I am afraid that I am drunk." 'Yes, my lord." Although there was no indication other than the reckless fire in his eyes and a slight slurring of his words. "I believe you will have a fierce headache tomorrow." She felt a certain malicious satisfaction in her prediction of his forthcoming discomfort.
"I wouldn't take your bet." He grinned, showing a flash of white teeth. "Let me look at you."
He pulled her closer, then released her wrist to push her chin up with his free hand and smooth the dark curls that, with unconfined waywardness, tended to hide her features. She was unable to meet his eyes, which searched her face, but sat stiffly, willing herself not to pull away from him. It might be wise, she told herself, if she did nothing to provoke him. He was clearly capable of reckless and unpredictable behaviour. She could expect no pity here if he were to discover the truth. She trembled beneath his fingers.
"How old are you, Molly?" he asked abruptly. "Almost one and twenty, my lord." With his thumb he traced her fine cheekbones and then along the line of her jaw. Instinctively, she pulled back with an intake of breath in protest.
"I won't hurt you, you know." His voice was as smooth and rich as velvet. "Not if you are obedient, of course. You must understand that there is a price to pay if a pretty girl takes refuge uninvited in the coach of a gentleman to whom she has not been introduced."
She swallowed convulsively — she could not mistake his meaning. "Yes, my lord." In spite of her intentions to do nothing to antagonise him, she made no attempt to hide the wealth of bitterness and disgust in her reply.
Aldeborough laughed softly; it made Frances's blood run cold.
Suddenly his hand tightened in her hair and he drew her inexorably closer. "You have spirit, Molly. I like that."
Before she could respond he bent his head and crushed her mouth with his own. She struggled, her hands braced with all her strength against his chest, but to no avail against the power of his well-muscled body. His arm encircled her shoulders with uncompromising strength, his lips merciless, assaulting her senses, demanding a response. She was determined to make none, but the play of his tongue along her bottom lip sent a shiver through her body. When he deepened the kiss she fought to prevent her mouth from opening treacherously under his. She had never been kissed before and was horrified at the turmoil of emotions that surged within her.
Then he released her as suddenly as he had pounced. "How dare you!" Anger won when she had recovered enough breath to speak, and decided, however waywardly, that she did not care to be kissed in that manner.
"Dare?" He laughed. "Since you were unwise enough to accompany me, to throw yourself on my mercy, then I call the tune. And you, darling Molly, must dance to it. You will very soon discover that I have no mercy. Besides, why the outrage? I am sure that you have been kissed before, as pretty as you are. Surely you have a greasy-handed sweetheart in the kitchens of Torrington Hall?"
"No. I do not. And I gave you no leave to call me by my name." As she could think of no other response, she took refuge in formal dignity, however much it might sit at odds with her role of the hapless Molly. "You are no gentleman, my lord!"
Again Aldeborough laughed, but with an edge of cynicism. "Perhaps not, my dear, but I vow I shall be a good lover." As Frances gasped in renewed outrage, he tightened his hold and his mouth claimed hers once more.
This time the movement of the carriage came to Frances's rescue. As the violent lurching flung them apart Frances took the opportunity to throw herself into the opposite corner again, where he viewed her with some amusement.
"Perhaps this is not the most comfortable situation for a seduction scene." His mouth smiled, but she knew that she could look for no sympathy from this man. "We can wait until we reach the Priory. Don't look so apprehensive, Mistress Molly. I will not touch you. Not until we get home, anyway."
He wedged himself into the corner of the coach again, leaned his head back on the cushions and closed his eyes. Within a few minutes his breathing had deepened and he appeared to be asleep, leaving Frances the opportunity to review the traumatic events of the past hour. Her uncle's callous indifference. The decanter of port as spoilt and fractured as her dreams of love and happiness. She closed her fingers around the stained napkin on her wrist and fought back the tears that threatened to engulf her. You are just tired, she told herself. Tomorrow you will be free of all this. She turned her head and studied her heedless rescuer in the fitful moonlight. It was a handsome face, not classically fair like her cousin, but a face which compelled her attention. His skin was tanned from time spent outdoors in all weathers. He had a straight, masterful nose, a firm chin and hooded eyes, hidden now in sleep, but as uncompromisingly grey as a northern winter sea. Lines of cynicism were engraved between nose and mouth — that mouth, unsmiling now but with such beautifully sculpted lips. His hair was thick and dark with a tendency to wave, his brows equally dark and well marked. It was a face of flat planes, and strong angles, a face used to authority and command and to keeping its own secrets. It betrayed no soft-ness — indeed, in repose his face was stern and austere. He would be a dangerous man to cross in spite of the indolent manner she had witnessed tonight.
Her eyes dropped to his hands and she shivered at the memory of his touch. She had never been touched like that by any man. They were elegantly long fingered, but they had left her in no doubt as to their strength. She shivered again and clasped her arms around her for comfort as her spine was touched by an icy finger of fear. What had she got herself in to? She had left without considering the wisdom of her actions — anything to escape from Torrington Hall, a callously contrived marriage and the never-ending authority of her uncle. A means of escape had been offered and she had leapt to grasp it with both hands. But at what cost? Frances found that her tired brain could come to no conclusion at all. She touched her cold fingers to her mouth, which still burned from a stranger's unwanted kisses.
Aldeborough was woken by Webster, his valet, drawing back the heavy brocade curtains of his bedroom. The sun streamed in, indicating the hour to be well advanced, but the Marquis, in exquisite suffering, merely groaned and pulled the sheet over his head.
"It is almost noon, my lord. I have brought your hot water." Webster ignored a second groan and set about collecting his lordship's clothes from where he had carelessly discarded them on the floor.
Aldeborough struggled back on to the pillows, clasping his hands to his skull. "Oh, God! What time did I arrive home last night?"
"I couldn't say, my lord. Your instructions were, if you recall, that I should not wait up for you. I presume that Benson put you to bed, my lord."
Aldeborough grimaced. "Yes. I remember." He winced at the memory of his coachman's less than gentle ministrations as he had manhandled him through the door and up the main staircase. He sat up, gasping at the instant throb of pain behind his eyes. "What a terrible evening. What possessed me to spend it with Torrington's set? If it hadn't been for Ambrose's powers of persuasion, I would not have gone back there."
"No, my lord. Very wise, if I might say so. Which clothes shall I lay out for you today, my lord?" Webster had served Aldeborough for many years, since before his recent inheritance of the title when, as Captain Lord Hugh Lafford, he had fought with some distinction in the Peninsular Campaign, and thus his valet knew better than to indulge in trivial conversation after a night of hard drinking. Not that the Marquis had drunk quite so much or as often then, he mused. But things had changed, particularly since Lord Richard had died.
The Marquis took a cup of coffee from Webster and sipped cautiously as his brain began to function again amidst the lingering effects of brandy. "I have appointments on the estate today with Kington. Buckskins, top boots and the dark blue coat, I think."
"Yes, my lord." Webster coughed discreetly. The Marquis, well used to his valet's mannerisms, raised an eyebrow enquiringly, wincing at the effort.
"Mrs Scott has instructed me to tell you that the young lady has breakfasted and is now waiting your lordship's convenience in the library."
Webster enjoyed the resulting silence. "Who?" Aldeborough's voice was ominously calm. "The young lady, my lord. Who accompanied you home last night." Webster carefully avoided looking in Aldeborough's direction.
"My God! I had forgotten. The kitchen wench. I remember remarkably little about the whole of last night!" he admitted ruefully, running his fingers through his dishevelled hair. But enough of his memory returned like the kick of a stallion to fill his mind with horror. "Is she still here?"
"Yes and no, my lord, in a manner of speaking." Webster kept the smile from his face.
Aldeborough frowned and then lifted a dark eloquent eyebrow.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Everyone has those they stay up all night to finish, well this was that one for me! Suspenseful and passionate and emotional, the writing and characters just clicked. I loved it!
I have read alot of romance novels and this one was really worth the money. You couldn't help but like both the leading characters as they both where good people with good hearts. I hope to see more from this new author soon.... Maybe a book about Matthew or Julia?