Vaguely through her daze, Kate heard pounding hooves thundering behind her. Bruised as she was after her fall, she didn’t realise the danger. Until the huge black thoroughbred rounded the curve in the woodland path and almost trampled her.
“Blasted knuckleheaded woman! Get out of the damned way!”
The man’s furious command sliced through the horse’s piercing whinny and her shocked gasp as she whirled around. While the rider fought desperately to bring the rearing animal under control, fear and not a little awe kept Kate glued in place.
Man and beast battled for dominion. The breath snagged in her tight throat at the raw power of the struggle.
That the man won was a tribute to the most magnificent horsemanship she’d ever seen.
Finally the horse surrendered and stood before her with heaving sides and lowered head, patches of sweat darkening its flanks. Kate looked up at the rider, impulsive words of admiration bubbling to her lips. She fell silent as glittering dark eyes under sensually heavy lids met hers.
The rider’s face was tanned and marked with unmistakable cynicism and experience. His full mouth twisted with an attractive mixture of irritation and wry humour. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen.
And, she knew immediately, an undoubted rake.
“What have we here?” he drawled. From the top of her head to her scuffed riding boots, his assessing gaze trawled over her, leaving tingling awareness in its wake.
Oh, most definitely a rake.
Kate straightened and sent him a quelling glare, forgetting she looked a fright in her torn habit and with her wild brown hair tumbling around her face. She was the toast of the London season, an heiress, grand-daughter to a duke. At twenty-four, she was no green girl to find a rogue’s fleeting attention flattering. He could keep his come-hither looks to himself, whoever he was.
“I have misplaced my mount, sir,” she said coldly.
His eyebrows arched and that mouth, which she reluctantly found fascinating, quirked slightly. Not a smile but a hint of one. “Misplaced? You’ve been thrown in a ditch, more like.”
That wasn’t far from the truth. When the pheasant had flown up, it had sent both her skittish gelding and her groom’s horse bolting in opposite directions. Her horse had run for what felt like miles before dislodging her into a patch of nettles.
The stranger abruptly frowned, the lazy charm disappearing. “Are you hurt?”
Not completely true. She was stiff and sore and she’d be a mass of bruises tomorrow. But this man with his superior manner made her bristle like a cat stroked the wrong direction. She was more used to commanding than being commanded. Something about this stranger indicated he had a similar urge to dominate.
Still, she was being ungracious. She forced out a reluctant, “Thank you.”
He bowed his head briefly. The dappled light gleamed on his thick black hair. In his fight with the horse, he’d lost his hat and it lay upturned beside the path.
She raised her chin to defy the assessing masculine curiosity in his regard. “Would you kindly point me in the direction of Holby Hall?”
A shadow crossed his face, so briefly she could have missed it. Then the corners of his mouth kicked up in a smile that was almost wolfish.” Ah. You’re Freddie’s heiress.”
She’d briefly forgotten how vulnerable she was, alone with a man she didn’t know. But that smile sent cold apprehension skittering along her spine. Before she could prevent herself, she took a step back.
Because she hated revealing her nervousness, her voice emerged more sharply than intended. “I am Lady Katherine Fortescue.”
The cynicism in his face became more pronounced. “Staying with Frederick, Lord Arbuthnot, and his family. The county breathlessly awaits the announcement of an engagement.”
“You are remarkably well informed, sir,” she said sourly. Then she realised what she should have guessed earlier. “Are you one of Lord Arbuthnot’s guests?” As far as she knew, they expected no additions to their party.
He gave a short unamused laugh. “Good God, no. Freddie wouldn’t allow me across his threshold. Do you really not know who I am?”
“I hate to puncture your conceit, sir, but I am at a loss. If Lord Arbuthnot holds you in such dislike, should you be on his property?”
His smile deepened. “At a loss and lost, Lady Katherine. You’ve crossed onto my land. You’re a very long way from Holby Hall.” And safety, his voice implied.
“Who are you?” Kate snapped, curling her gloved hands at her sides. She loathed feeling at a disadvantage but there were currents here she didn’t understand.
“Why, I’m the Devil incarnate, my lady. Beelzebub’s tutor. The Lord of scandal. A scoundrel of the first water.”
Briefly a cloud passed over the sun and he really did look demonic. The horse curvetted restlessly but he easily brought it under control. His skilful handling of the beast seemed supernatural.
Kate berated herself for letting her imagination run away with her. Even as her belly churned with nerves, she stared him down. “That’s quite a mouthful. Do you have a pet name?”
He looked surprised. Then he laughed softly and his eyes lit with appreciation. As the bitter mockery left his face, she realised with shock that he was only a few years older than she. “Fido?”
His humour charmed and she resented the fact. “Your name, sir?”
He swept her a mocking bow. “I am Chardin.”
Viscount Chardin was a byword for vice and decadence. His wild exploits since he’d inherited the title as an unruly sixteen-year-old were legend. She truly was in danger. Rumour had it no woman under the age of eighty was safe with him.
The wry smile flickered again. “Have I rendered you speechless? Surely not.”
“I didn’t know your land bordered Lord Arbuthnot’s, my lord,” she said sombrely.
“Will that terrible knowledge stop you marrying Freddie?”
“I’m not going to marry Freddie,” she said, then felt hot colour flood her face.
It was the first time she’d admitted that to anyone, even herself. Her mother was in favour of the match. Lord Arbuthnot himself was pathetically eager. He’d taken her acceptance of his invitation to visit as tacit sign of an engagement in the offing.
But this last week, she’d realised Freddie, as Lord Chardin dismissively termed him, just wouldn’t do.
Yet again, society would rate Kate a jilt and a flirt and too headstrong for her own good. But she’d survived criticism from the high sticklers before. Far better to weather some gossip than make an unhappy marriage such as her parents had endured.
Chardin inclined his head in strangely respectful acknowledgment. “Good.” She braced for sarcasm or questions but he merely sent her an unsmiling look that seemed to penetrate to her soul.
She shifted uncomfortably under that searching gaze. Although she should be terrified out of her wits to be alone with such a notorious rake, every second made her feel safer. Odd indeed when this week with Freddie had made her increasingly uneasy. And Lord Arbuthnot’s reputation was lily white compared with Lord Chardin’s.
“I’ll take you back to Holby Hall.”
“My lord.” Whatever her instincts insisted about him, she still had no wish to create a scandal. If people saw them together, tongues would wag.
He frowned quickly. “It’s too far on foot. I’ll let you down out of sight of the house.”
What choice did she have? “Thank you.”
She moved forward, bending awkwardly towards his high-topped hat on the grass. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t stop herself limping. She’d taken a bad tumble and as time went on, her aches worsened.
“What a fool I am! You are hurt.”
Kate’s head jerked up at his exclamation. He leaped from the saddle and strode across to her. In one powerful movement, he swept her into his arms.
“Lord Chardin, put me down!”
She struggled. How stupid to trust him. She should have taken to her heels the moment she saw him, no matter how sore she was.
His hands tightened, restricting movement. “Confound you, woman. Stop wriggling.”
She fought the urge to surrender. He was warm and he smelt wonderful, clean male and horse and fresh air. She raised her eyes to a jaw hard with determination and a mouth flat with annoyance.
“I can walk.” She cursed her breathlessness.
“No, you can’t.” He flung her up into the saddle and she blindly fumbled after the horse’s mane for balance. He mounted behind her. Once more, his radiating warmth surrounded her.
“What about your hat?” she asked dazedly as his arms closed around her with emphatic strength. He wasn’t going to let her slide free, and weakly, she had no real desire to escape. Her mother was right. Kate was a hopeless hoyden and would come to grief before she was finished.
“I’ll get it later. First I need to get you to Holby Hall.”
He urged the horse along the path and Kate automatically adjusted to the movement. She was heart-stoppingly conscious of the powerful chest behind her.
“You’re very kind.” She could no longer mistake his genuine concern for her welfare.
He made a scornful sound deep in his throat. “Idiotic would be more accurate. I can’t believe I’m taking a woman like you back to that nodcock Freddie.” His arms tightened and he urged the horse into a rolling canter.
* * *
In stiff silence, Kate danced with Lord Arbuthnot. Freddie-she couldn’t help mentally referring to him with that dismissive diminutive since meeting Chardin three days ago-sulked. He’d sulked from the moment she’d told him she wouldn’t marry him. If he thought his childish behaviour would change her mind, he was woefully misguided.
“What the deuce?” Freddie hissed above her head with more animation than he’d shown all evening.
In confusion, Kate looked up into Freddie’s face. She’d always thought him handsome with his white skin and gold hair and blue eyes. She wished her mind didn’t keep replacing his features with a face altogether darker, stronger and more dangerous. A face she was most unlikely to see again. Which for the sake of her reputation was a good thing.
“What did you say, my lord?” Then she became aware of the shocked hush descending on Holby Hall’s crowded ballroom.
“How does that blackguard have the nerve to show his face?” The venomous dislike in Freddie’s voice startled her. Fleetingly he didn’t look handsome at all, but mean and malevolent.
Kate glanced towards the door and wondered if her mind played tricks. Lord Chardin had loomed large in her thoughts recently, much to her chagrin.
But no, her unlikely rescuer was indeed here.
He stood in the entrance. Tall. Powerful. Wearing stark black evening dress that only emphasised his saturnine distinction.
Freddie’s fingers crushed hers. He’d also stopped moving in the pattern of the dance. So had every other couple. An air of feral expectation descended on the milling crowd. It was as though the Devil appeared at Sunday service.
Kate knew it was wrong. But she placed herself immediately in the Devil’s camp.
“My lord, you’re hurting my hand,” she protested.
Freddie looked at her as if he didn’t recognize her. Then he flushed and released her. “Your pardon,” he muttered.
Kate caught Lord Chardin’s gaze upon her. Surely he was too far away for her to read a possessive glint in those dark eyes. But nonetheless, her skin tightened with primitive awareness. The ballroom around them was abuzz with whispers and curiosity. Lord Arbuthnot’s mother gestured for the musicians to strike up again and Kate forced herself to finish the quadrille. But her shoulder blades itched as though someone watched her incessantly.
Freddie bowed as the dance ended and led her across to his mother. His jaw worked as he noticed Chardin beside Lady Arbuthnot. “Blighter knows we can’t throw him out without causing an almighty scandal. I’d like to knock his block off.”
Kate ignored Freddie’s grumpy bluster. If it came to fisticuffs between the two men, she knew who she’d back. In comparison to Freddie’s impotent fuming, Lord Chardin looked at ease, in control, far too handsome for his own good.
Lady Arbuthnot turned to Kate. “Lady Katherine, Lord Chardin has requested an introduction.” Her voice vibrated with outrage but like Freddie, she was caught fast in the jaws of social convention. Throwing a peer of the realm out on his ear would cause a scandal she’d never live down.
Kate extended her hand in its long white satin glove. At least this time when she met him, she knew she looked her best. She cringed to remember her unkempt state when he’d found her wandering his property like a grubby wood nymph. “My lord.”
He bowed over her hand. His fingers were warm and firm, just as his arms had been warm and firm when he held her secure on his horse. “Lady Katherine.”
His voice was steady, polite, all that was correct. But she caught the familiar devilish light in his eyes as he raised them to meet hers. “I’d hoped to claim this waltz.”
Freddie would never forgive her if she danced with Lord Chardin. Nor would his overbearing mother who glared at her over her twitching fan.
“That would be my pleasure,” she said and for the first time in three long, stultifying days, her lips curved in a genuine smile.
She ignored Freddie’s spluttering anger and his mother’s stiff horror. Instead, she let Lord Chardin whirl her onto the dancefloor.
“You said they’d throw you out,” she said, once she’d caught her breath.
He looked down at her with a slight smile. It might be a rake’s trick, but she couldn’t help feeling the two of them shared a joke that the rest of the world just didn’t get.
“I thought the risk was worth it.”
She wasn’t by nature a coy woman. “You came to see me?”
“You knew I would.”
Did she? In a secret corner of her heart, she’d certainly hoped. “Oh.”
He laughed softly. “Have you told Freddie you won’t have him?”
“That explains why he looks like he went fishing for a halibut and caught a barnacle.”
She glanced across to where her rejected suitor watched in fulminating silence from the edge of the room. Lord Chardin’s description of his expression was sadly apt. “He didn’t take it in good heart.”
Another dizzying turn left her head spinning. “He doesn’t deal well with setbacks. If you’ve refused him, why are you still here?”
She shrugged. She knew every eye in the room was fixed upon her and Lord Chardin, and that most of those eyes were sharp with disapproval. She didn’t care. She felt alive, daring, brave. Perhaps it was the way Chardin looked at her, as if he thought she could conquer the world with the merest snap of her fingers.
She tried to calm the wild race of her heart. “He’d arranged this ball in my honor. He begged me to stay for the sake of his standing in the neighbourhood.”
“You’re not here alone, are you? You have some female relative or friend with you?”
How bizarre to discuss the finer points of decorum with an infamous rogue. “No, my mother left to visit my brother at his college. He isn’t well. My reputation is safe. The house is full of people.
“None to see to your interests.” Lord Chardin looked as serious as Kate had ever seen him. “Come home with me tonight.”
She stumbled. “What did you say?”
His hands tightened with urgency and he twirled her toward the French doors, open to the terrace on this sultry night. “I’ve known Freddie since we were boys. He’s unpredictable when crossed. He hides a temper under those sickly smiles. Come home with me.”
“You must be mad.” Kate freed herself, but his powerful body loomed before her, blocking any escape. “I can’t run off with you like some milkmaid eloping with the bootboy.”
He cornered her against the stone balustrade. “Of course you can.”
“Lady Katherine? Is all well?”
“It’s Lady Arbuthnot,” she hissed.
“Come with me.” He took her hand.
“I can’t.” Was the man in his cups? What he suggested was impossible, indiscreet, ruinous. But nothing could quiet the wild thunder of her heart or the excitement bubbling through her veins like champagne. She sucked in a deep breath and strove for common sense.
Lady Arbuthnot stepped forward onto the terrace, slapping her fan against her palm with relentless force. “Lady Katherine, your hem is torn. Let me take you upstairs to repair it.”
“No.” She ripped away from him and stepped into the light to face Freddie’s angry mother. “I’m sorry, Lady Arbuthnot. I felt faint and Lord Chardin thought I needed air.”
A lie and both of them knew it. Lady Arbuthnot grabbed her arm in an unforgiving grasp and drew her towards a side door. “How dare you carry on so with that villain?” she snarled under her breath. “If I didn’t have most of the county here, I’d order the servants to fling him out.”
Overriding any attempts to interrupt, the woman continued the chastisement as she almost dragged Kate up a narrow side staircase to a bedroom she hadn’t seen before. It was small, shabby, musty with disuse. Even the candles were cheap tallow instead of the more expensive beeswax. Lady Arbuthnot almost flung her inside.
Kate stumbled, not understanding what happened apart from the fact that she’d irretrievably offended her hostess. “Lady Arbuthnot, what are you doing?”
“Don’t bother calling for help. Nobody uses this wing of the house.” Lady Arbuthnot moved with remarkable speed for such a heavy woman and slammed the door behind her as she left. Shock receded, replaced by icy fear, as Kate heard the key turn implacably in the lock.
Lord Chardin’s words rang in her ears. Freddie didn’t like to be thwarted. Freddie had a temper. She was alone and had nobody to take her side.
She guessed the details of the plot immediately. So when seconds later, she heard the key turn before Freddie himself appeared in the doorway, she wasn’t surprised.
“Lord Arbuthnot, I assume this is some joke,” she said coldly, although she knew he was deadly serious about this foul scheme. Bravado had helped her out of so many situations. It was her only weapon now.
Freddie smiled with the charm she’d once found so beguiling. Hard to imagine he’d gulled her into considering him as husband. She’d rather spend her life on her knees in a nunnery.
“You’re too clever to believe that, Katherine.” No polite title. No deference in his manner. Oh, yes, she knew what he was about. Pray heaven she had wit to bring herself out of this without coming to disaster. She clenched her hands at her sides and fought rising panic.
“You mean to compromise me and force me into marriage,” she said in an arctic voice.
He still smiled. “You wouldn’t have me when I asked you like an honorable man.”
“So you think I’ll have you when you resort to dishonourable means? You don’t know me very well, my lord.”
“I know the world we live in. If that world believes you ruined, you’ll be a pariah.”
“And I’m guessing your mother is about to burst in upon us with witnesses to spread the word.”
“I did say you were clever.” His voice softened and he stretched out a hand as if taming a growling dog. “It doesn’t have to be this way, Katherine. Just say you’ll marry me and you’ll leave this room without a whisper of scandal attached to your name.”
She was stupid to make him angry. He could hurt her. He probably meant to. But she raised her chin and glared at him with all her Fortescue pride. “I’d rather die.”
Freddie’s smarmy smile turned poisonous. Calmly, as if he undressed before bedtime, he untied his neckcloth. “I mean you to live, dear lady. You and your lovely fortune.”
Dignity be hanged. She opened her mouth and screamed, long and loud. Freddie looked bored which convinced her more than anything that his mother spoke the truth about how isolated this room was.
Ignoring the shrieking termagant before him, he pulled his coat off. Her slimy suitor didn’t look nearly as overwhelming out of his expensive tailoring.
She paused for breath. In the sudden quiet, did she hear a man shout her name? With renewed vigour, she screamed once more.
“Close that damned caterwauling!” Freddie growled, lurching forward and snatching her arm. “A fellow can’t hear himself think.”
When she didn’t obey, he gave her a sharp shake. She struggled but his hold was unbreakable. “Let me go, you toad,” she spat.
“I’ll teach you to speak to me like that!” He raised his hand. She braced for the thud of his fist.
“Kate! Kate, are you in there?” A furious pounding at the door.
“Chardin!” she cried. “Help me.”
She heard Chardin curse then the door shuddered as he flung his weight against it. Freddie paled and released her, backing towards the bed behind him. Chardin threw himself against the door again and it crashed open. He burst in, dark eyes ablaze in a face incandescent with anger.
He cast her a quick, probing glance. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she managed to whisper.
“You’ll never lay another hand on her, you swine.” Chardin strode towards a cowering Freddie.
“My good man, no need for-” The rest of the sentence strangled in his throat as Chardin’s blow connected with his jaw. Freddie collapsed against the bed with a groan and didn’t get up again.
“I’ll call you out over this.”
Kate had had enough. She stepped forward and briefly touched his arm. “He’s not worth it. Take me away. Please.”
He looked down at her, the wild fury draining from his face. “Come on. Before this farrago goes any further.”
He caught her hand and tugged her at a run downstairs to the terrace. Thankfully, the ballroom was empty as the guests had gone into supper.
Kate had reached a point where she couldn’t give a fig for her reputation. Once the world knew she’d fled with Chardin, she’d be ruined anyway. She wondered why she wasn’t more upset. She was certainly livid with Freddie and his witch of a mother. And grateful to her rescuer.
More than grateful.
He signalled to a coach on the edge of the turning circle. When the vehicle drew up, he bundled her inside and threw himself on the seat beside her. He tapped sharply on the roof. The carriage rolled away at a sharp clip.
After a few silent minutes, he took her hand. “You’re very quiet. You’re sure Freddie didn’t hurt you?”
She shook her head. “No. It’s just I’ve never been ruined before.”
He frowned through the gloom. “I got there in time, didn’t I?”
“I mean now. Here. You. Me.”
He laughed softly. The sound curled around her heart and made her feel warm and safe. Which was ridiculous, given the circumstances.
“Do you imagine you’ve jumped out of the frying pan into the fire?”
If he was the fire, he was a wonderful, welcoming blaze and she looked forward to warming herself in his glow. “You’re taking me to your house.”
“Yes, I am.” He paused and his fingers played sweetly with hers. “Where my mother and two sisters live. You’ll stay the night there quite safely, Kate.”
Shocked, she tried to pull away but he didn’t let her go. After a token struggle, she gave in. “Really?”
He smiled at her. “Really. Then tomorrow I’ll take you back to your father. With, confound it, one of my sisters in tow to preserve appearances.”
“You don’t have to go to Leicestershire. My mother’s in Oxford.”
The hold on her hand firmed. “Your mother can’t give me permission to court you.”
“C-court me?” Curse her stammer. She never stammered.
“Of course. If I can keep you out of scrapes for five minutes in a row, we may even manage to get married.”
“You’re taking a lot for granted.”
Ah, at last she sounded like herself. Although Lady Katherine Fortescue would never sit quietly while a man tilted her chin up towards him with unmistakable intent.
“Perhaps not,” she murmured, closing her eyes and lifting her face with most uncharacteristic cooperation.
This story first appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly in April 2008