A Fine Passion
The 4th Bastion Club Novel
First published 2005
The men of the Bastion Club are powerful, loyal, and not averse to overcoming danger if they must. Now, after years of loyal service to the Crown, they each-one by one-must face that greatest danger of all…love.
The last of his line, Jack, Baron Warnefleet, had fled London after nearly being compromised into marrying a dreadful female. Turning his back on the entire notion of marriage, he rides home to the estate he has not seen for years, determined to set in motion an alternative course of action.
But then in the lane before his gate, Jack rescues a startlingly beautiful lady from a menacing, unmanageable horse. However, while he begins by taking command, the lady continues by taking it back. Lady Clarice Altwood is no meek and mild miss. She is the very antithesis of the woolly-headed young ladies Jack has rejected as not for him. Clarice is delectably attractive, beyond eligible, undeniably capable, and completely unforgettable. Why on earth is she rusticating in the country?
That enigma is compounded by mystery, and it's quickly clear that Clarice is in danger. Jack must use every ounce of his cunning and wit to protect this highly independent and richly passionate woman…who has so quickly stolen his heart.
A New York Times, USA-Today, Publishers Weekly & Washington Post BESTSELLER!
A Waldenbooks # 1 Bestseller, Borders and Barnes & Noble Bestseller, and an e-reader.com #1 Bestseller
"5 ROSES - HIGHEST RATING!
Stephanie Laurens' readers know what to expect - a well-written historical romance with excellent character development and a fast-paced plot. Ballroom to bedroom, Ms Laurens crafts her novels with an exquisite attention to detail and a warmth that invites the reader behind closed doors. Her Cynster series is the gold standard of this genre, and she has reached the same heights with the Bastion Club. A Fine Passion...contains all of the aspects that we require in a top-notch historical romance - and then provides even more substance. The characters linger long after the final page is reached and may prove to be the epitome of hero and heroine in this genre." Paula, A Romance Review.
4½ STARS! A TOP PICK!!
"With each tale of this series, Laurens reaches higher, perfectly merging excitement, suspense and sizzling passion. She knows how to set fire to the pages with a nonstop romance, placing her at the top of many readers' lists." Kathe Robin, Romantic Times
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 in.
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 to him.
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 his heart.
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 released her.
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 understood.
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 her shoulder.
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 the ditch.
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 had passed.
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 tall.
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 obeyed.
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 time."
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 true color.
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 him out."
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, then followed.
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 man.
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. Boadicean.
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 hold him."
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 enough.
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 information.
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 drive.
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 curious.
"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 see."
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 on Boadicea.
"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 so old?
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 yourself."
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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