Avening village, Gloucestershire.
Apple blossoms in springtime.
Julius - Jack - Warnefleet, Baron Warnefleet of Minchinbury, reined in
on the rise above Avening valley and looked down on the pink and white
clouds surrounding Avening Manor. His first sight of his home in seven
years could, he felt, have been more apt.
Apple blossom always reminded him of brides.
Regarding the blossom with a jaundiced eye, he twitched his reins and
set his gray gelding, Challenger, ambling down the long hill. Everything,
it seemed, was conspiring to remind him of his failure, of the fact he
hadn't found a bride.
Avening Manor had been without a lady for most of his life. His mother
had died when he was six years old; his father had never remarried.
Jack had spent the last thirteen years fighting for King and country,
almost entirely behind enemy lines in France. His father's death seven
years ago had brought him briefly home, but only for two days, just long
enough for the funeral and to formally place the running of Avening into
the hands of old Griggs, his father's steward, before he'd had to slip
back over the Channel, back to the varied roles he'd played in disrupting
French shipping and commercial links, draining the life blood from the
French state, weakening it.
Not the sort of battles most people imagined a major in the Guards engaged
Along with an elite group of fellow officers, he'd been seconded to work
under a secretive individual known as Dalziel, who'd been responsible
for all covert English operations on foreign soil. Neither Jack nor any
of the six colleagues he'd met knew how many operatives Dalziel had commanded,
or how wide the arena of their activities had been. They did know those
activities had directly contributed, indeed been crucial, to the final
ultimate defeat of Napoleon.
But the wars were now over. Along with his collegues, Jack had retired
from the fray and turned his mind to picking up the reins of civilian
life. The previous October, he and his six colleagues, all gentlemen blessed
with title, wealth and the consequent responsibilities, and therefore
all sorely in need of wives, had banded together to form the Bastion Club
- their bulwark against the matchmakers of the ton, their castle from
which they would each sally forth, do battle with society's dragons, and
secure the fair maid they required.
That, at least, had been their plan. Matters, however, hadn't fallen out
quite as they'd supposed.
Tristan Wemyss had stumbled across his bride while overseeing the refurbishment
of the house that was now the Bastion Club. Shortly after, Tony Blake
had even more literally stumbled across his bride along with a dead body.
Charles St. Austell, fleeing the capital and his too-helpful female relatives,
had found his bride haunting his ancestral home. And now Jack was fleeing
the capital, too, but not because of female relatives.
The rattle of carriage wheels reached him. Through the screening drifts,
he glimpsed a black carriage bowling along the road from Cherington. The
carriage crossed the junction with the Tetbury lane down which Jack was
descending, and continued west toward Nailsworth.
Jack wondered who the carriage belonged to, but he'd been away so long
he had no idea who might be visiting whom these days.
On returning permanently to England, he'd had to decide which of his responsibilities
to attend to first. He was an only child; his father's death had set Avening
in his lap with no one else to watch over it, but he knew the estate from
the ground up-he'd been born and raised there, in this green valley on
the northwest slope of the Cotswolds. Avening had been in sound hands;
he trusted Griggs as his father had. Much more pressing had been the need
to come to grips with the varied investments and far-flung properties
he'd entirely unexpectedly inherited from his Great-Aunt Sophia.
His mother had been the daughter of an earl and his father the grandson
of a duke; an eccentric spinster, Great-Aunt Sophia had been a twig somewhere
on his paternal family tree. Her hobby had been amassing wealth; although
Jack could only recall meeting her briefly twice, on her death two years
ago, Great-Aunt Sophia had willed a sizeable portion of her amassed wealth
By the time he'd returned to England, various decisions associated with
that inheritance had grown urgent; learning about his new holdings and
investments had been imperative. He'd duly suppressed a deep-seated longing
to return to Avening - to reassure himself it was all as he remembered,
that after all his years away, after all he'd had to do, witness and endure,
his home was still there, as he remembered it - and instead had devoted
the last six months to coming to grips with his inheritance, welding the
whole into one workable estate.
Although he now owned numerous elegant country houses, to him, Avening
was still the centerpiece, the place that was home, the place that held
That was why he was there, slowly ambling down the lane, letting his jaded
senses absorb the achingly familiar sights and sounds, letting them soothe
his abraded temper, his less than contented mood, and the dull but persistent
ache in his head.
Temper and mood were due to his failure to find a suitable bride. He'd
accepted he should and had bitten the bullet; while in London organizing
his inheritance, he'd applied himself to looking over the field. Once
the Season had commenced, he'd assumed suitable ladies would be thick
on the ground; wasn't that what the marriage mart was all about? Instead,
he'd discovered that while sweet and not so sweet young ladies littered
the pavements, parks and ballrooms, the sort of lady he could imagine
marrying had been nowhere to be found.
He would have said he was too old, and too finicky, yet he was only thirty-four,
prime matrimonial age for a gentleman, and he had no physical preference
in women. Short, tall, blond or brunette were all the same to him; it
was being female that counted - soft perfumed skin, feminine curves and,
once they were beneath him, those breathy little gasps falling from luscious,
parted lips. He should have been easy to please.
Instead, he'd discovered he couldn't bear the company of young ladies
for longer than five minutes; beyond that, he grew so bored he had difficulty
remembering their names. For reasons he didn't comprehend, they possessed
no power whatever to focus, let alone fix his attention. Inevitably within
minutes of being introduced, he'd be looking for an avenue to escape.
He was good at escaping. Or so he'd thought, until he'd met Miss Lydia
Cowley and her gorgon of an aunt.
Miss Cowley was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, her aunt distantly
connected to some Midlands' peer. Jack had found little in Miss Cowley
to interest him. He, however, had been of great interest to Miss Cowley
and her aunt.
They'd tried to entrap him. His mind elsewhere, he hadn't seen the danger
until it had been upon him. But the instant he had, his well-honed instincts
had sprung to life, the same instincts that had kept him alive and undetected
through thirteen years of living with the enemy. They'd thought they'd
cornered him alone with Miss Cowley in a first floor parlor, yet when
her aunt had swept in, with Lady Carmichael in the role of unwitting witness
by her side, the parlor had been empty, devoid of life.
Put out, confused, the aunt had retreated, leaving to look elsewhere for
her errant niece.
She hadn't looked out on the narrow ledge outside the parlor window, hadn't
seen Jack holding Miss Cowley locked against him, her eyes starting above
the hand he'd clapped over her lips.
He'd held her there, silent and deadly, precariously balanced two floors
above the basement area, until the parlor door had closed and the retreating
footsteps died, then he'd eased the window open, swung her inside, and
One wide-eyed look into his face and she hadn't been able to get out of
the parlor fast enough. He hadn't tried to hide his understanding of what
had happened, or his reaction to that, and her. She'd stumbled through
a garbled excuse and fled.
He'd cancelled all further social engagements and retreated to the club
to brood over his situation. But then Dalziel had sent word that Charles
had needed assistance in Cornwall. The information had seemed godsent;
he'd finished dealing with his inheritance, and, he'd decided, he was
also finished with searching for a wife. In company with Gervase Tregarth,
another club member, he'd ridden away from London, back to a world he
While the action in Cornwall had ultimately ended in success, he'd suffered
a crack on the head that had been worse than any he'd received before.
Once the villain had been dispatched and Charles back in his own fort,
he'd returned to London, head still aching, for Pringle to check him over.
An experienced battlefield surgeon the members of the club routinely consulted,
Pringle had informed him that had his skull not been so thick, he wouldn't
have survived the blow. That said, there was nothing seriously amiss,
no damage a few weeks of quiet rest wouldn't repair.
He'd stayed at the club for a few more days, finalizing business, then
he'd headed down to Cornwall for Charles's wedding.
That had been two days ago. Leaving the wedding breakfast, he'd ridden
across Dartmoor to Exeter, then the next day had taken the road to Bristol,
where he'd rested last night. Early this morning, he'd set out along the
country lanes on the last leg of his journey home.
It had been seven long years since he'd set eyes on the limestone façade
of the manor and watched the westering sun paint it a honey-gold. He knew
just where to look to glimpse the manor's gables through the trees lining
the lane and the intervening orchards. The scent of apple blossom wreathed
about him; for all it meant bride, it also meant home. His heart lifted;
his lips lifted, too, as he reached the junction of the Tetbury lane and
the Nailsworth-Cherington road.
To his left lay the village proper. He turned Challenger to the right;
head rising, he touched his heels to the big horse's flanks and cantered
down the road.
He rounded the bend, heart lifting with anticipation.
A little way ahead, a phaeton lay overturned by the side of the road.
The horse trapped in the traces, panicked and ungovernable, attempted
to rear, paying no attention to the lady clinging to its bridle, trying
to calm it.
Jack took in the scene in one glance. Face hardening, he dug his heels
in, urging Challenger into a gallop.
Any second the trapped horse would lash out-at the lady.
She heard the thunder of approaching hooves and glanced fleetingly over
Eyes glued to the trapped horse, Jack came out of his saddle at a run.
With hip and shoulder, he shoved the lady aside and lunged for the reins
- just as the horse lashed out.
"Oh!" The lady flew sideways, landing in the lush grass beyond
Jack ducked, but the iron-shod hoof grazed his head - in exactly the same
spot he'd been coshed.
He swore, then bit his lip, hard. Blinking against the pain, weaving to
avoid being butted, he grabbed the horse's bridle above the bit, exerted
enough strength to let the animal know he was in the hands of someone
who knew, and started talking. Crooning, assuring the horse that all danger
The young bay stamped its hooves, shook its head; Jack hung on and kept
talking. Gradually, the horse quieted.
Jack shot a glance at the lady. Riding up, all he'd seen was her back-that
she had a wealth of dark mahogany hair worn in an elegantly plaited and
coiled chignon, was wearing a plum-colored walking dress, and was uncommonly
Sprawled on her back on the bank beyond the ditch, she struggled onto
her elbows. Across the ditch, their gazes locked.
Her face was classically beautiful.
Her dark gaze was a fulminating glare.
Jack blinked. She looked like she wanted to rend him limb from limb, metaphorically
at least, and had every intention of doing so - soon. He would have looked
again, more closely, but the horse shied, still skittish; he refocused
his attention and crooned some more.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of petticoats and slim ankles
as the lady got to her feet. He glanced at her again, but she didn't look
his way; instead, she nimbly leapt the ditch and went quickly to the side
of the overturned carriage.
Jack realized the driver was nowhere to be seen. "Is he conscious?"
After an instant, the lady replied, "No." The carriage rocked
as she tried unsuccessfully to lift the side. "He's trapped. His
leg's broken, and possibly one arm. Once the horse is calm enough, you'll
have to help me get him out."
To Jack's relief, her voice showed no hint of agitation much less hysteria.
Her words were brisk, her tone commanding, as if she was used to being
He looked at the horse. "I can't let the horse go - he's too nervous
- but he's calm enough for you to hold. Come and take the reins, and I'll
get the driver out."
The lady straightened; hands on hips, she rounded the wrecked phaeton
and stopped five feet away, regarding him through dark, narrowed eyes,
her ruby lips a thin line, her sculpted jaw set.
He'd been right; she was tall. Only a few inches shorter than he.
"Don't be asinine." Her glance was measuring - measuring and
dismissive. "You can't lift the carriage and get him out at the same
Jack narrowed his eyes back; pained stabbed through his skull. His tone
verging on lordly arrogance, he retorted, "Just take the reins and
leave getting him out to me."
He offered the reins he'd gathered to her.
She made no move to take them. Instead, she caught his eye. "Unharness
the horse." Her words were a clipped order. "If he panicks again,
I won't be able to hold him, and if he drags the carriage, he'll harm
the driver more." She turned back to the side of the phaeton. "Or
worse, you'll drop the carriage after you've lifted it."
Jack bit his tongue, and manfully swallowed his less than civilized response.
It was, he told himself, only because his head was throbbing that he hadn't
thought of unharnessing the horse himself.
Talking nonsense to the horse, he played out enough rein to reach the
harness buckles along one side. The lady returned and without so much
as a glance his way went to work on the buckles opposite. Tugging the
leather straps free, he studied her face, alabaster ivory, exquisitely
molded features set in aloof dispassion. Arched brows and lush dark lashes
framed large dark eyes; he hadn't yet got close enough to be sure of their
Then they had the harness loose. The horse edged forward; the poles threatened
to fall to the ground.
Jack grabbed one. "Here - take the reins and walk him forward. I'll
hold the poles steady." If they fell, the driver's trapped limbs
might be crushed even more.
Grasping the reins, the lady went to the horse's head, caught its attention,
then, talking soothingly, slowly urged the bay forward step by step. Jack
took the weight of the poles as the harness loops slid off.
With the horse free, the lady looked around. Jack glanced over his shoulder.
Challenger had returned and stood cropping grass on the other side of
the road. "Tie him to the hedge near my horse."
She did, although she cast him another of her irritated looks on the way.
By the time she returned, he'd found the height at which the poles were
balanced; he held them resting on his palms. "Stand here, and support
these until I tip the carriage. Once I do, you can let go, and come and
help drag the driver free."
Her gaze raked his face, then she looked at the poles, quite clearly evaluating
his plan. Then she nodded, stepped up beside him and grasped the poles.
Jack bit his tongue. Again. She was the most aggravating female, and she
didn't even need to speak.
He rounded the side of the carriage, and saw the driver. A young gentleman,
he'd obviously done everything he could to save horse and carriage, and
had stayed on the box too long. The carriage had rolled onto its side,
then further, pinning and crushing one leg. Luckily, the slope of the
ditch wasn't that steep; the carriage hadn't continued rolling onto its
hood, but had rocked back to settle on its side.
Hunkering down, Jack checked the man's pulse. Strong enough, steady enough.
At least one leg was broken; a quick survey revealed one shoulder was
dislocated, a collarbone broken, and an arm as well. On top of what must
have been a hellish knock on the head. Jack winced, then rose and studied
the wreck. The fine wood of the ornamented sides was splintered, but the
carriage was well-made; the skeleton remained intact.
It took a minute to identify the best points on the frame to grasp to
lift. Positioning himself with his back to the carriage, half-crouched,
the edge of the lower side resting on his hands, Jack glanced at the lady.
She was watching him in surprising silence, and with grudging approval.
"When I lift, let the poles rise as they will. When we're sure the
carriage is going to hold together and not break apart, come around and
help haul him out."
He straightened, lifting the side up to waist height, then he braced,
bent, heaved the carriage higher, and ducked his shoulders beneath the
bones of the side. Bits of panel fell away; wood creaked, groaned, but
the frame held.
Without waiting for any word, the lady rushed up. Bending, she grasped
the man's shoulders.
"No! One's dislocated. Hook your hands under his armpits and drag
She stiffened at his tone, but did as he said.
Although he couldn't see her face, Jack could imagine her expression.
Shifting, he tried to ease the weight of the carriage onto one shoulder,
so he could reach down and help-
"Don't move, you idiot! I can manage."
Jack stiffened as if she'd slapped him.
She shot him a mutinous, distinctly black glare, then shuffled back, tugging
the man out from the carriage's shadow.
His hearing was acute; he heard her muttering beneath her breath, "I'm
hardly a weak, fainting female, you dolt."
Entirely unexpectedly, his lips kicked up at the ends.
"You can let it down now."
She'd pulled the man onto the grass. Jack let the carriage slowly down,
Frowning at the man's face, she dropped to her knees beside him.
"Do you know him?" Jack knelt on the man's other side.
She shook her head. "He's not from around here."
Which meant she was, and that surprised him. She certainly hadn't been
living in the vicinity seven years ago. Funeral or not, he would have
noticed her, and remembered.
He set about methodically checking the man for injury, straightening limbs,
noting the breaks.
Still frowning, she watched his hands. "Do you know what you're doing?"
Her lips tightened, but she accepted the assurance.
His assessment of the man's injuries had been largely correct. With one
quick, expert jerk, he reset the shoulder, then using sections of beading
broken off the carriage, he used his and the man's cravats to splint the
broken arm and bind it and the shoulder. That done, he turned to the leg,
broken in two places. He had plenty of wood for splints.
He glanced at the lady. "I don't suppose you'd consider sacrificing
the flounce from your petticoat?"
She looked up, met his gaze; faint color bloomed in her pale cheeks. "Of
course I will."
Her tone belied her blush; no missish sentiment permitted or acknowledged.
She swung around so her back was to him, and sat. An instant later, he
heard cloth rip.
Rising, he went to the carriage to hunt for longer splints. By the time
he returned, a long strip of fine lawn lay waiting by the unconscious
He bent to the task. She helped, working under his direction, in silence.
In Jack's experience, females were rarely silent.
Her hands, gripping where he directed, holding the splints in place, were
as fine as her features, long fingered and elegant, palms slender, skin
fine-grained and white.
Distinctly aristocratic hands.
He glanced briefly at her face, closer now they were both leaning over
the man. Distinctly aristocratic face, too. As for the rest...
Looking down, he forced his mind back to the man and his broken limb.
Not easy; the distractions were manifold.
She had the sort of figure commonly described as an armful.
Words like voluptuous sprang to his mind. Phrases like well-endowed.
Then he remembered her earlier scorching gaze, and found the perfect adjective.
Very English. Very female. Very fierce.
He finished tying off their improvised bandage. The injured man was as
comfortable as they could make him.
Boadicea sat back with a small sigh.
Jack rocked back on his heels, and rose. He dusted off his hands, then
held one out to her.
She was staring past him, down the road. Without looking at him - apparently
without thought - she laid her hand in his and allowed him to pull her
to her feet.
Retrieving her hand, she looked down, surveying their patient. "The
Manor's the nearest house. How are we going to get him there?"
She'd surprised him again. Not only had she volunteered his house, her
question was rhetorical.
Although tempted to see how she would solve the problem, he took pity
on the unconscious unfortunate. "There's probably some part of the
carriage we can use to lie him on."
He went to look. One side door was smashed beyond use; the other was intact,
but by itself too small. The board beneath the seat was splintered.
"Will this do?"
Jack turned to see Boadicea pointing at the rear of the phaeton. Joining
her, he examined the long, slightly curved backing board jarred loose
at one end but otherwise intact. "Stand back."
Of course, she didn't move; arms crossed, she watched while he got a firm
grip, yanked the board loose, then pried it free.
He resisted the urge to see if her toe was tapping.
He carried the board to the unconscious man; she followed at his heels.
Together, with no need for instructions, they lifted the man onto the
board. Boadicea set down the man's legs, turned and disappeared behind
the phaeton. A second later she reappeared lugging a traveling bag.
She dropped it beside the man, and bent to open it. "He's sure to
have more cravats. We can tie him to the board with them."
Without bothering to nod - she wasn't looking at him - Jack left her and
went to fetch the bay. When he returned, she was securing their patient
to the improvised stretcher with a pair of cravats. "That should
Jack checked her knots; they were perfectly serviceable. Bending, he looped
the long reins around and over their patient, and under the cravats.
She watched his every move; when he tied off the last rein, she nodded
in regal approval. "Good." She dusted off her skirts, placed
the man's bag on the board at his feet, then waved down the road. "The
Manor's less than a quarter of a mile."
About a quarter of a mile, most of it the long drive. Fetching Challenger,
Jack hoped Griggs and his butler Howlett had kept the drive in good repair.
Leading Challenger, he fell in beside Boadicea, who was coaxing the bay
forward in an even, steady walk. The reins pulled taut; their stretcher
eased into the lane, riding the dry, reasonably even surface smoothly
Satisfied they'd done all they could for the injured man, Jack turned
his attention to his companion. No hat, no gloves. She had to live close.
"Do you live hereabouts?"
She waved to the left. "At the rectory."
Jack frowned. "James Altwood used to be rector there."
"He still is."
Jack remembered her hands. No ring, no hint she'd ever worn one. He waited
for her to elaborate. She didn't.
After a few moments, he asked, "How did you come to be in the road?"
She glanced at him; her eyes were very dark brown, even darker than her
hair. "I was in the field mushrooming." Again she waved to the
left. "There's an old oak on a knoll - there's always mushrooms there."
Jack knew of it.
"I heard the accident, dropped my basket and came racing down."
She reached a hand to her hair, grimaced. "My hat fell off somewhere."
She didn't seem overly perturbed.
A second later, she slanted him a glance. "Where are you headed?"
He looked ahead, and said nothing more. He felt her gaze, felt it sharpen,
but, hiding a grim grin, refused to meet it. Two could play at withholding
They walked on through the glorious morning in silence. A strange silence
- contained, controlled, assured. She, it seemed, was no more susceptible
than he to the intimidation many felt when subjected to silence.
He should, of course, introduce himself, but she'd volunteered his house;
telling her who he was might embarrass her, although somehow he doubted
it would. He wasn't playing by the social rules because...she was different.
And he wanted to knock her off her regal perch.
The wrought-iron gates of the Manor appeared on their right, flanked by
oaks that had been ancient when Jack was born. As usual, the gates were
propped wide. Together, he and Boadicea guided the bay in a wide arc,
towing the stretcher smoothly through the turn and onto the long, rising
Jack looked around as they walked on. Most of the fields within a mile
were his, but these acres, the stretch between the drive and the rushing
stream, a tributary of the Frome, and the gardens around the house, played
host to most of his childhood memories.
They crested a rise and the house came into view. Lifting his head, he
scanned the façade; everything was in excellent repair, yet it
was the simple solidity of the house and its welcoming ambiance that reached
out, and closed about his heart.
He was aware Boadicea was watching him; he could feel her gaze, uninhibitedly
"Are you expected?" she asked.
From the corner of his eye, he caught her narrow-eyed glance, then she
looked ahead and lengthened her stride, leaving him leading both horses.
He let her go ahead; striding up to the portico she tugged the bell. Halting
the horses in the forecourt, he waited.
Howlett opened the door. He immediately bowed. "Lady Clarice."
Then Howlett saw him. The smile that broke across his butler's face was
a welcome all on its own. "My lord! Welcome home!"
Boadicea stepped back, slowly turning to face him.
Howlett rushed out, then realized and turned back to call to the footman,
Adam, who'd poked his head around the door. "Go and tell Griggs and
Mrs. Connimore! His lordship's back!"
Jack smiled at Adam, who grinned and bobbed his head before racing back
into the house. Howlett bowed, beaming, before him; Jack thumped him on
the shoulder and asked if all was well. Howlett assured him all was. Then
gravel crunching beneath a lumbering gait heralded the arrival of Crabthorpe,
the head stableman, known to all as Crawler. Rounding the house, he saw
Jack, and his face split.
"Thought as it must be you - too much carry-on to be anyone else."
Then Crawler saw Howlett examining the makeshift stretcher. "What
have we here?"
"His phaeton overturned in the ditch."
Crawler ambled across and bent over the injured man. "Another young
larrikin with more hair than wit, no doubt." After a cursory examination,
he straightened. "I'll send one of my lads for Doctor Willis."
Stepping back from the stretcher, Howlett remembered Boadicea. "Lady
Clarice!" Howlett rushed back to her. "I do apologize, my lady.
But, well, his lordship's come home at last, as you can see."
A smile softened Bodicea's face as she met Howlett's eyes. "Yes,
indeed." She looked at Jack; her gaze sharped to flint. "I do
His slow, easy smile had charmed women from one end of England to the
other, and through at least half of France. It had no discernible effect
"My lord! You're back!" Mrs. Connimore rushed out, followed
more slowly by his steward, Griggs, leaning heavily on his cane.
In the ensuing melee, Jack lost sight of his recent companion; he surrendered
to Mrs. Connimore's wild hug and nonstop exclamations. He was instantly
aware of, and seriously alarmed by, Griggs's frailty. When had he grown
Perturbed, distracted, he deflected their solicitiousness onto the unknown,
still unconscious man. Mrs. Connimore and Howlett rose to the occasion
and quickly organized to spirit the poor soul indoors and into a bed.
Crawler took charge of both horses and assured Jack he'd send his lads
to clear the wreckage from the road.
Jack directed Adam to the traveling bag. As the crowd cleared, he was
almost surprised to see Boadicea still standing by the front portico,
still watching-he suspected still waiting to exact retribution. "I'll
be in shortly, Griggs." Jack smiled and took Griggs's arm to help
him back to the house. "Everything seems in excellent order - I know
I have you to thank."
"Oh, no-well, everyone here quite understood...I daresay your new
responsibilities are quite onerous...but we're so glad you've come home."
"I couldn't stay away." Jack smiled as he said it, not his polished
smile but one of real feeling.
He stopped before the portico and urged Griggs to go in. "I must
speak with Lady Clarice."
"Oh, yes." Reminded of her presence, Griggs halted and bowed
low. "Please do excuse us, my lady."
She smiled, warm and reassuring. "Of course, Griggs. Don't concern
Her eyes lifted to meet Jack's. The look in them stated very clearly that
she had no intention of forgiving him so easily.
He waited until Griggs had gone in and the footman had shut the door before
strolling the last few feet to her.
She met his gaze directly, her dark eyes accusatory. "You're Warnefleet."
Not a question. Jack acknowledged the comment with an inclination of his
head, but was at a loss to account for the condemnatory nuances clear
in both her inflection and stance. "And you're Lady Clarice...?"
She held his gaze for a definite moment, then said, "Altwood."
Before he could ask, she added, "James is a cousin. I've been living
at the rectory for nearly seven years."
Unmarried. Living buried in the country. Lady Clarice Altwood. Who...?
She seemed to have no difficulty following his train of thought. Her lips
thinned. "My father was the Marquess of Melton."
The information only intrigued him all the more, but he could hardly ask
why she wasn't married and managing some ducal estate. Then he refocused
on her eyes, and knew the answer; this lady was no sweet young thing,
and never had been. "Thank you for your assistance with the gentleman
- my people will handle things from here. I'll send word to the rectory
when we know more."
She held his gaze, brows lightly arching. She considered him for a totally
unruffled moment, then said, "I vaguely recall hearing...if you're
Warnefleet, then you're also the local magistrate. Is that correct?"
He frowned. "Yes."
"In that case..." She drew a deep breath, and for the first
time Jack glimpsed a hint of vulnerability - perhaps a touch of fright
- in the dark depths of her eyes. "You need to understand that what
happened to the young man was no accident. He didn't overturn his phaeton.
He was deliberately run off the road by another carriage."
The image of a black carriage rattling off to Nailsworth flashed through
Jack's mind. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." Clarice Adele Altwood folded her arms and sternly suppressed
a shiver. Displaying weakness had never been her style, and she'd be damned
if she let Warnefleet, the too-charming prodigal, see how unsettled she
was. "I didn't see the overturning itself - the noise of it was what
brought me running - but when I reached the road, the other carriage had
stopped, and the man driving had got down. He was approaching the phaeton,
was about to go around it to the driver, but then he heard my footsteps
and stopped. He looked up and saw me. He stared at me for a moment, then
he swung around, walked back to his carriage, climbed in, whipped up his
horses and drove away."
She could still see the scene, frozen in her mind. Could still feel the
menace exuding from that large, heavy male figure, feel the weight of
his consideration while he'd debated
. She blinked, and refocused
on the man before her, on his green and gold eyes. "I'd take an oath
the man in the carriage meant to murder - to finish off - the gentleman
in the phaeton."
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