Authors: Sarah Mallory
‘If you are ready, Mrs Weston, I will show you to your room.’
She approached cautiously and maintained as much distance as possible between them as they made their way up the stairs. He threw open the door to a small bedroom on the first floor. A full hod of coal rested on the hearth, but no fire burned there and the room was only marginally warmer than the carriage.
‘So this is to be my prison.’
‘Hopefully not for very long.’ He used his candle to light several more around the room. ‘I will have Jed come up and light the fire as soon as he has stabled the horses, and I am sure we can even find a warming pan for the bed.’
She dropped a mock curtsy.
‘La, I thank you, sir.’
He showed his teeth at that.
‘Just remember, I could have put you in the cellar.’
He went out, locking the door behind him, and she was alone.
* * *
Charity paced the little chamber, keeping her travelling cloak pulled firmly about her. The room was sparsely furnished with a large chest of drawers and a small cupboard beside the heavy, old-fashioned bed that had its full complement of pillows and blankets, but lacked curtains. There was a carpet on the floor and a washstand in the corner, although the jug was empty. She went to the door. It was a solid structure fitted with a heavy lock. She gave the handle a cursory tug, but it did not budge. She sat on the edge of the bed to consider her situation. It must be midnight, or even later, but she had left Betty sleeping in her bed and had told Thomas not to wait up. It was unlikely anyone would miss her until the morning.
She was surprisingly calm and wondered how this could be. She was locked in a room, miles from Allingford, the prisoner of a man who purported to be a gentleman, but whom she knew as a highwayman.
A man who had the power of life or death over her.
She should be shaking with fear, but perhaps, after more than a decade in the theatre, she was accustomed to crises and drama. Besides, the memory of those stolen kisses would not go away and she just could not make herself believe that the man who had delivered them could be all bad. But it made no sense: reason told her Ross Durden was dangerous and she should be terrified.
She heard the key grate in the lock and Jed appeared, his arms full of wood. She jumped off the bed, wondering if she might make a dash for the stairs, but even as the thought crossed her mind Ross Durden came in and closed the door behind him.
‘I thought I should come, too, in case you tried to escape while Jed was lighting the fire for you.’
He spoke pleasantly, but his eyes were black and hard as jet. There was no mistaking the implacable look in them. He was not a man to be persuaded by tears or tantrums. With a scorching glance Charity hunched her shoulders and walked across to the window, where she stood staring out into the night. There was little enough to see save the feathery flakes that were being blown almost horizontal by the howling wind.
‘Would you like some supper?’
She wanted to swear at him and tell him she would have none of his food, but that would be foolish. She must not anger him unduly. He continued.
‘There is ham, or a game pie, or you may have a hot meal, although that will take a little longer, possibly up to an hour.’
She took a final look out of the window before turning to face him.
‘I can wait. It is such a cold night—I would like something hot.’
‘Very well.’ He glanced at Jed, who was dusting his hands off as he watched the flames lick around the kindling and small logs he had piled into the hearth. ‘Put a little coal on top of that, Jed, and you can come back later to build it up.’
‘There is no need,’ Charity said quickly. ‘I am perfectly capable of looking after a fire.’
He met her defiant look with one of mild amusement.
‘I am sure you are, Mrs Weston. Very well, Jed, come along. We shall leave the lady to her own devices for a while.’
‘Supper will be an hour, you said?’ She shrugged when her question caused him to stop and turn at the door. ‘I only ask so that I know how long I must amuse myself.’
Oh, good heavens, why had she said that? She had left herself open for him to make the most audacious reply. As an actress she was used to it and could turn aside impudent comments with a smile and a light word. But that was in the theatre. Here she was a prisoner and at the mercy of her captor. But who was the real Ross Durden, the wicked highwayman or the sober gentleman farmer? She waited uneasily for his reply.
* * *
Ross gazed at the woman across the room. Her head was up and she was giving him back look for look. She had courage, he had to admit that, but he saw the wariness behind her bold stare. She must be frightened, to be alone and helpless. Again he had to stifle the urge to comfort her.
‘An hour,’ he affirmed. ‘The fire in the kitchen has only just been rekindled. It will take some time to prepare a meal for you, but I will do my best to make it sooner.’
‘I would prefer you to make sure it is properly cooked!’
‘P’raps the leddy ’ud like some ale while she’s waiting,’ suggested Jed from the doorway.
‘I want nothing but my food,’ she snapped with an imperious toss of her head. ‘In an hour.’
With a shrug Ross went out and locked the door. He found himself smiling as he went back to the kitchen. He had expected questions, tears and even hysterics. He had been prepared to spend some time explaining that he merely needed to keep her here for a while. But his
showed no sign of wanting his reassurance. Perhaps it was no bad thing that she had discovered his identity. She would know he meant her no harm. He shrugged off his coat and hung it up on one of the hooks by the kitchen door. Time for explanations later. First he must prepare a meal, and one that would satisfy the lady.
* * *
It was just under an hour later when Ross carried a heavy tray up the stairs. It was laden with hot dishes, and Jed was following with a similar tray bearing a glass of wine and a selection of sweetmeats from Mrs Cummings’s jealously guarded store cupboard. When he reached the locked room, Ross put the tray down upon a side table and drew the key from his pocket. Before he opened the door he knocked softly.
There was no reply, but that did not surprise him. The lady was most likely still in high dudgeon. He turned the handle, but the door opened no more than an inch before stopping. Ross cast a quizzical, laughing glance back at Jed.
‘Damn, she’s set up a barricade.’
He put his shoulder to the door and pushed, hard. Whatever she had put against the door was heavy and protested with a low rumble like thunder as it was forced back across the floorboards. As soon as the opening was wide enough Ross slipped through, tensed and ready to fend off any attack.
None came. The chest of drawers had been pushed against the door and the room was empty and cold—the small hod of coal still stood beside the hearth, Jed’s fire had burnt itself out and the window was wide-open.
* * *
The drifts in the fields were deeper than Charity had anticipated and progress was slow. The snow had stopped and the sky was clearing. If she had known that would happen she would have waited to run away until later, when her captor and his servant were asleep, but her only thought had been to get away and quickly, before the snow became so thick that she would not be able to walk through it.
She had left the road at the very first gate into a field, hoping that her tracks would soon be obliterated as the wind whipped up the lying snow into fresh drifts. At least the rising moon provided her with sufficient light to see her way. The wind snatched at her cloak and hurled icy flakes into her face. When she had driven out this way in the gig she had passed several hamlets and hoped that she would find shelter at one of these before too long, although the lie of the land meant she could see nothing but a hedge some way ahead of her.
A white blanket disguised the uneven ground and she struggled to keep her balance as she sank into snow up to her knees. She was holding her hood closely about her face with one hand, the other trying to keep up her skirts, but it was impossible, and the edge of her travelling cloak was already caked and heavy with snow. Her feet were achingly cold and she felt every uneven bump in the ground through the thin kidskin soles of her slippers. She was not a great lover of breeches parts, where the role dictated she should dress up as a man, but now she thought fondly of the top boots and buckskins folded away in one of her trunks at the theatre. She also wished for her thick leather gloves—the silk ones she was wearing were soaked through and chilling her hands. A treacherous memory returned of Ross Durden covering one gloved hand with his own as he had escorted her to the Assembly Rooms. How long ago that seemed, and how naive she had been to think it a gesture of gallantry.
Tears started to her eyes, brought on by the fierce biting wind, she told herself as she prayed she might reach a dwelling, and soon, before she succumbed to the cold.
I could die out here.
The thought made her press on even harder. She had known the risks when she had climbed out of the window. She had decided then that the chances of surviving were greater out here than if she remained at Wheelston. The thought of Ross’s sizzling kiss haunted her, but she was not such a fool as to think it meant anything to her captor. She might offer herself to him—that might buy her a little time—but the outcome would be the same. He could not risk her denouncing him as a highwayman. And since highway robbery was a hanging offence, what had he to lose by killing her?
Something, a sound, a vibration through the ground, caught her attention and she looked around to see a huge dark shape approaching. She knew it must be a horse and rider, but fright magnified the shape into a monster rearing up behind her, hunting her down. In a panic she began to run, but the flat expanse of snow ahead covered deep ruts and she quickly lost her footing. She fell headlong into the snow with a cry of frustration. Something cold and wet pushed into her face. The hot breath of a dog blasted against her frozen cheek.
Strong hands grabbed her shoulders and Ross hauled her none too gently to her feet.
‘Let me go!’
‘Don’t be a fool.’
‘I’ll not go back with you. You cannot make me!’
‘Oh, can’t I?’ The grip on her shoulders tightened. ‘If you don’t cease struggling, I’ll knock you unconscious and put you over my saddle.’
Charity felt the tears welling up.
‘You are a monster!’
‘You have already told me that, but I am trying to save your life. Come along now, let’s get back to the house. Once we are indoors you can vilify me as much as you wish.’
As he turned her she caught the icy blast of the wind in her face and reeled away. Ross pulled her against him. He gave a low whistle and the horse came closer.
‘If I throw you up into the saddle, can you hold on?’
Charity forced her mind to work. ‘N-no. I cannot bend my fingers.’
‘We must keep you moving. Robin shall walk alongside and protect us from the worst of the wind.’
Charity allowed herself to lean against Ross and tried to match her steps to his as they trudged back through the snow. The dog, Samson, trotted ahead of them and seemed to have an instinct for finding the easiest path. With a strong arm helping her along and the great horse sheltering them, the going was definitely easier, but every step was painful. It seemed such a long way. Had she really come so far? As if answering her unspoken question her companion muttered, ‘We are nearly there.’
Then the house was in sight, a dense black square against the night. The front door opened as they approached, spilling golden lamplight onto the snow-covered drive, and a figure appeared.
‘I built up the fire in the bedchamber, like you said, Cap’n.’
‘Thank you, Jed. Stable Robin, if you please, then make two hot drinks, as I instructed—only no grog for the lady!’
Ross helped Charity across the threshold. He kicked the door closed behind him and with a curt command to Samson to go to his box, he swept Charity into his arms.
Ross climbed the stairs, taking care not to get his feet caught in the trailing skirts of her voluminous cloak. She lay passively against him, her head resting on his chest, golden curls tickling his chin. He tried not to think about that, nor the fragrance of her perfume, a light but heady mix of flowers and citrus that assailed his senses. It had been a long time since he had held a woman in his arms and he could not recall ever carrying one up to a bedroom before. In other circumstances he might have dropped a kiss upon that smooth brow or moved his hand to cover her breast that swelled just beyond his fingers. He dragged his mind away from the pleasant thought—the lady would not appreciate such gestures and right now his concern must be to make sure she did not suffer any ill effects from her imprudent escapade.
The door of the bedchamber was closed and he was obliged to set her upon her feet before he could open it. Gently he drew her inside. Jed had done a good job. A hearty fire now blazed in the hearth and the heavy curtains had been pulled across the windows, shutting out the night and adding considerably to the comfort of the little room. There was even a warming pan standing in one corner, ready to fill with coals later to warm the sheets before gently laying this beautiful creature in the bed. Once she had been undressed, of course. Most likely she was soaked through to her soft, ivory skin.... Ross felt himself growing hard at the thought of it.
He uttered up a silent prayer. This might be the place, but it was certainly
the time for such thoughts. He summoned up all the years of naval discipline to his aid.
‘Well, now,’ he said crisply, ‘you must get out of those wet clothes.’
* * *
Dazed and exhausted, Charity pulled at the strings of her cloak and allowed it to slip unheeded to the floor. She was aware of Ross scooping it up and throwing it over a chair, together with his own greatcoat. Slowly she peeled off her long silk gloves. They were wet from the snow and she thought in a detached way that they were quite ruined.