The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (2 page)

As for what he would do once his duty had been dis
charged, Lord Cardiff felt himself to be somewhat at a loss. His relations, especially his father, his grace the Duke of Armouth
, would naturally be glad to see him again during the
remainder of his wounded leave. However, Lord Cardiff
was of strong opinion that he would be heartily bored before
the time had passed, and his relations, who were nearly all elderly, would be both mystified and exhausted by his nat
ural inability to remain idle or sit still.

“I would drive them all to Bedlam before the month was
out,” he said aloud on a chuckle.

The more he thought about it, the more Lord Cardiff
leaned to the opinion that it would be best to make only an abbreviated visit before cutting short the remainder of his
leave and returning to duty in Spain. His shoulder was
nearly sound again, and if it had not been for that desperate
fight in the dark at Chester when the spy’s accomplice had
thrown him hard against the wall, he felt it would have been
even further along. The shoulder had been soundly
wrenched on that occasion, but Cardiff was optimistic that
with luck and no further such awkward tumbles, he would
be pronounced fit for duty once he got back to Spain and the
army’s winter bivouac.

Lost in his thoughts, Lord Cardiff did not immediately
become aware that he heard raised voices. When he did take
notice, and the meaning of the argument became clear, he
cocked his head to listen more intently.

At a particularly telling statement made by one of the
parties, he stared with narrowed eyes at the parlor door. The door, closed so softly by his valet, had failed to catch prop
erly so that it was a poor barrier to the neighboring dis
agreement.

The woman’s voice was young and trembled slightly, but
it was devastatingly clear. “I tell you, I will not! You would
do far better to return me to my home than to persist in this folly!”

“You’ve no choice, my dear. You’ll wed me without any more screeching, I’ll warrant, once morning’s light breaks.”

There was the distinct sound of a scuffle, a hard blow,
and an angry bellow of pain. Lord Cardiff shoved back his
chair, tumbling it loudly to the floor. Unheeding, he swiftly crossed to the parlor door.

“Touch me again and I’ll scream!”

There came a man’s derisive laughter. “Go ahead, by all means, Miss High-and-Mighty! No one will care, I assure
you! No one will come!”

Lord Cardiff yanked open the parlor door and with two
long strides had crossed the darkened hall. A strange light
danced in his eyes as he thrust open the plank door opposite
his own parlor. “On the contrary, sir! I have come!”

Chapter Two

 

The two occupants of the room were stunned by the un
expected intrusion. The lady stared past her unwelcome
companion, meeting Lord Cardiff’s gaze. Her large eyes
were dark and fearful. As she met his lordship’s steady eyes,
hope shot into her expression. Her lips parted as though she were about to speak.

The man gaped stupidly at Lord Cardiff over his heavy
shoulder. Suddenly his expression set. He wheeled swiftly to
come completely about, an oath exploding from his lips. His
heavy hands bunched into fists at his sides.

Cardiff shook his head, saying reprovingly, “That is not
fit language for a lady’s presence, sir.”

“Be hanged to you! What business is it of yours?” ex
claimed the man wrathfully, his florid face flushed with
anger.

Cardiff advanced a couple of steps into the room. He
gave a swift glance around, marking the location of the furniture in his memory. Coolly, he said, “Gallantry impels me
to disagree, sir.”

“This is a private parlor! Get out!”

Cardiff ignored the man’s blustering command. He di
rected his gaze to the lady once more. “Ma’am, I could not
but overhear a little. Are you being abducted against your will?”

“Yes, I am!” exclaimed the lady, her large eyes flashing.
She eased herself around her companion. “For reasons I find quite despicable, Mr. Quarles has spirited me away from my
home and taken flight with me to Gretna Green.”

Mr. Quarles cast the young lady a look of dislike and
snarled, “Be quiet, if you know what is good for you, Thea!
As for you, whoever you are, get out! This matter does not concern you!”

“On the contrary. I have made it my concern,” said Lord
Cardiff suavely. The trace of a smile touched his lips as he regarded the antagonistic gentleman. He was tautly coiled, adrenaline racing through him with a heightened heartbeat.
It was the familiar feeling he had always had before a battle.

Still belligerent, Mr. Quarles nevertheless regarded the
intruder uncertainly. There was something about the shorter man that made him hesitate to bully forward as he was in
clined to do.

With the slightest of smiles, Lord Cardiff held out his
hand towards the lady. “If you wish, ma’am, I shall consti
tute myself your protector and endeavor to restore you
safely to your family.”

“With my good will, sir,” said the lady promptly, step
ping swiftly to his side. Her hand found his and Lord Cardiff
warmly clasped her gloved fingers in reassurance. He was still smiling down at her when Mr. Quarles bellowed and
charged.

Dropping the lady’s hand, Lord Cardiff swiftly pivoted,
blocking the man’s wild blow with his forearm, and
smashed a hard fist into his opponent’s flaccid midsection.
Mr. Quarles staggered, the wind rushing out of him. A
sickly, shocked expression came to his face. Lord Cardiff
followed up quickly with a bruising uppercut to the angle of
the jaw. Mr. Quarles’s eyes rolled back in his head as he
stood up on his toes, before he dropped heavily to the floor.
He lay sprawled in an awkward heap.

“Oh, well done, sir! I have wanted to do that for hours!”
exclaimed the lady. The dark clouds had disappeared from
her eyes, leaving them shining with admiration.

Lord Cardiff gave a laugh, his breath coming slightly
faster from the few seconds of exertion. Unobtrusively he
rotated his right shoulder. The blows he had thrown had
been hard ones and inevitably he had felt it. Without show
ing any sign of the dull ache settled into his shoulder, Lord
Cardiff twitched his coat sleeve cuffs into place. “Perhaps it would be wise to collect whatever belongings you have with
you and remove to my private parlor across the hall. I shall
call for the innkeeper and see that this gentleman is taken
care of properly.” He moved to the bell rope and gave the cord a vigorous tug.

The lady readily agreed and quickly picked up a cloak
and beaded reticule from a wing chair. The cloak folded
over her arm and the reticule dangling from her wrist, she turned. “I am ready, sir.”

Lord Cardiff raised a brow, showing his surprise. “Is that
all you have, ma’am? Have you not a portmanteau or trunk
or a bandbox, at least?”

The lady shook her head. “It is as I told you, sir. I was ab
ducted—and straight off the village street, at that! I haven’t
even a hairbrush with me.” She seemed to find the lack of such a mundane article to be particularly repugnant.

“It would seem Mr. Quarles was a very poor planner,”
said Lord Cardiff with a glint of humor.

The lady looked at him quickly, and the barest quiver of
a smile touched her lips. “Yes, I fear that he was,” she
agreed.

The innkeeper himself answered the vigorous summons,
not best pleased to receive such from this particular parlor.
He had drawn his own conclusions about the party that had
taken it. The innkeeper’s eyes widened with dismay at the
sight of the large gentleman sprawled senseless on the plank
floor. He looked swiftly to Lord Cardiff for an explanation.
“M’lord! What is this?”

At Lord Cardiff’s brief explanation, the innkeeper shook his head. “Terrible doings, m’lord! A scandal is what it is. I
suspicioned something of the like when I was told of the
gentleman’s insistence that his horses be readied at break of
day and how he spurned the offer of breakfast. The lack of
proper baggage set me to wondering, too.”

“You are to be commended for your sagacity, mine host.
I would take it most kindly if you would refuse to house the
gentleman tonight. And for your generosity in agreeing to
my wishes, I shall myself pay for this parlor and its adjoining bedchamber in addition to my own accommodations,”
said Lord Cardiff, bringing his purse out of his capacious
coat pocket.

The innkeeper accepted a few coins. “It shall be just as
your lordship wishes,” he said, bowing. “I’ll send my wait
ers and the ostler up to escort the gentleman out to his car
riage.” He stepped into the hallway and sent up a shout for his employees.

“It seems that our Mr. Quarles is stirring,” said Lord
Cardiff, observing the man’s twitching, moaning form with
an experienced glance. “It would be best, I think, if he does
not see either of us when he opens his eyes.”

With a hand under the lady’s elbow, he politely steered her
from the room and across the hall into his own parlor. Just be
fore he closed the door, Lord Cardiff called to the innkeeper.
“When you have satisfactorily concluded the gentleman’s
business, pray send up a supper tray for the lady.”

“Aye, m’lord.” The innkeeper was now reinforced by his retainers, and the four men purposefully went into the room that Cardiff and the lady had just vacated. Mr. Quarles had
groggily gotten to his knees and was attempting to drag him
self up onto his feet, using the comer of the table for sup
port.

Lord Cardiff quietly closed the door, shutting out most of the ensuing noise of bawled protests and the banging sounds
of determined ejection. With a soft chuckle, he turned to
wards his chance-met companion.

The lady had crossed the room to the fireplace. She stood
looking across at him, with one gloved hand laid on the cor
ner of the mantel as though for support. There was an ex
pression of mingled dismay and speculation in her
exceptionally dark blue eyes.

Lord Cardiff returned her stare with a sudden glint of a
smile. “What now, fair lady? Have I trespassed in some way? Was I perhaps too forward in ordering supper for
you?”

“Of course not. I am exceedingly hungry. It is just that I
do not know you and you have been so kind and now I dis
cover you are someone of importance,” said the lady, in a
somewhat tangled explanation of her thoughts.

Lord Cardiff burst out laughing. “I am not so very important as you seem to think. My name is David Cardiff and
I am a soldier, home in England on wounded leave.” He pulled out a chair from the table and gestured invitingly.
“Pray, won’t you be seated, ma’am? And whom do I have
the honor of rescuing this evening?”

The lady flushed. “I am Miss Thea Stafford. My family
resides in the next county outside a small village whose
name you probably would not know even if I told it to you.”

She had come forward to the table as she spoke and
thanked Lord Cardiff when he politely seated her.

Miss Stafford watched the handsome gentleman curi
ously as he poured out two glasses of wine. He appeared to
have some difficulty in decanting the bottle, so she thought it must have been stoppered too tightly. “I haven’t thanked
you properly, my lord. Your intervention was truly a God-
sent miracle. I do not know exactly what I would have done
if you had not come into the room just then.”

“I am happy to have been of service,” said Cardiff with
easy aplomb. He handed one of the glasses of wine to her
and then sat down at the table with his own. He smiled at her
reassuringly. “It is not a lady’s bouquet, I fear, but you have
sustained a shock and it might help to fortify you.”

“You said that you were on wounded leave, my lord?” asked Thea politely, taking a careful sip of the wine. His
lordship had spoken truly. It was a heavier bouquet than she was used to and she suspected that she could become light
headed very easily if she were to imbibe too much on an
empty stomach. However, the wine did leave a warm feel
ing as it went down her throat.

“Yes, I was hit with a piece of shrapnel. It was nothing
too serious, but enough for me to be sent home. I have been
visiting friends in the country and am now returning to Lon
don to finish a bit of business, before I return to my regiment
in Spain,” said Cardiff. He offered the explanation in a
friendly manner, but he had no intention of making more of it than he already had.

Thea would have liked to inquire more fully into his lord
ship’s experiences, for she had a lively interest in the course
of the war that was raging on the continent. Her brothers
were army-mad and their interest had piqued her own. How
ever, it was obvious to her in Lord Cardiff’s brief answer that he preferred not to elaborate on himself. “I see,” she
said.

“And what of you, Miss Stafford? How is it possible that
you could have been abducted in the middle of the village street?” asked Cardiff, probing gently for her story. “Surely
someone took notice and set up a hue and cry?”

“You would think so, indeed, my lord, except that Mr. Quarles and I are known to be well acquainted,” said Thea,
replying to the last point. She saw by Lord Cardiff’s well-
bred expression of surprise that she had startled him. A faint
color rose in her cheeks. “I shall have to explain it to you. Mr. Quarles is betrothed to my elder sister.”

As Thea recalled her experience, her eyes flashed again
with renewed outrage and darkened in shade almost to
black. “It was the most outrageous thing imaginable. I had
been visiting with my old governess, who resides now in the village with another family. When I had taken leave of her,
Mr. Quarles happened to come by in his carriage—or so he
said! In any event, he offered me and my maid a lift home
and like a dolt, I accepted. I had no inkling what he
planned.”

“I suppose since the gentleman is betrothed to your sister that you would naturally trust him,” remarked Cardiff,
watching her expressive face.

“Yes, I was never so taken in my life,” said Thea. “I
am glad that you hit him, for it is just what I wished to do.”

“I believe you mentioned that you had your maid with
you when Mr. Quarles sprang his dastardly trap. What hap
pened to her?” asked Cardiff, curious about this missing de
tail from her story.

“Mr. Quarles forced her to disembark from the carriage just as we reached the outskirts of the village,” said Thea matter-of-factly. She glanced at Lord Cardiff. “He did not
wish to have her along.”

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