The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (4 page)

“Mr. Quarles did abduct me, but he isn’t here now,” said Thea doggedly.

“Oh, and I suppose he apologized for his error and sim
ply waltzed out?” asked Mr. Stafford with heavy sarcasm.

“Of course not! Papa, if you would but listen!”

“Come, Thea! I know well your soft heart. You fear what I shall do to him, but you needn’t protect him, for all he is
betrothed to your sister,” said Mr. Stafford, more mildly.

“I am not protecting him, Papa!” exclaimed Thea, angry
color climbing into her face.

“Then why isn’t Quarles where he is supposed to be? It
makes no sense to me at all.”

“He isn’t here because Lord Cardiff hit him!” exclaimed
Thea.

“Oh, is that the way of it? Why didn’t you say so at
once?” said Mr. Stafford.

Thea threw up her hands, uttering an incomprehensible
exclamation.

Mr. Stafford frowned. “That sounded just like something
your maid Hitchins said, and I didn’t understand a word of
it then, either!”

Cardiff kept his countenance only with difficulty. “Perhaps I should explain the situation, sir.”

“I wish you would, my lord! I have the greatest difficulty
untangling what my daughter is saying,” said Mr. Stafford,
throwing a disapproving glance at her. “I do not understand
how you came to be entangled.”

With calm brevity, Cardiff outlined his involvement in
Miss Stafford’s affairs since the evening before. He con
cluded, “I delayed my journey this morning against the pos
sibility of Mr. Quarles’s return before your own arrival. That
is all, sir.”

Mr. Stafford nodded. “That makes it clear enough.”

With some severity, he looked at his daughter. “I don’t
understand why you could not have told me as plain a tale,
Thea. Women are the same, whatever their station in life. They talk all around a subject and end by saying very little
to the point. I had the devil’s own time making out what that
maid of yours was trying to tell me. I trust that you have learned something out of this, daughter?”

“Yes, Papa,” said Thea on a resigned sigh. “I will try to
do better in the future in communicating my thoughts to
you.”

“See that you do.” His parental scold apparently at an
end, Mr. Stafford turned once more to Lord Cardiff. He said gruffly, “It is obvious that I owe you many thanks, my lord.
You have saved my daughter from an out-and-out scoundrel.
I don’t hesitate to say it, betrothed though he may be to my older girl, Tabitha.”

“It is not necessary to thank me, sir. I was happy to be of
service,” said Cardiff politely. He was already wondering
how soon he could extricate himself from the happy family
reunion and show the Staffords out the door. It would not be
long before a servant would return to clear the breakfast
table.

His valet had gone downstairs earlier to settle the bill and
to make request for a sturdy waiter to carry down the baggage for whenever Lord Cardiff should wish to leave. The manservant would be returning soon and Cardiff felt an in
creasing impatience, now that Miss Stafford’s concerns
were over, to be off on his journey as soon as possible.

During the past discussion the two Stafford brothers had
preserved silence, listening with intent expressions to all
that was said. Now one of them—Cardiff thought it was
Philip—spoke up.

“This is all very well, Papa. But it doesn’t change the fact
that Thea has been away all night. Everyone knows it. Her
reputation is blasted.”

“There’s that, of course,” said Mr. Stafford slowly. He appeared to turn the problem over in his mind.

“All I wish for is to go home, Papa,” said Thea. She
might as well not have said anything, as much heed as was
paid her.

“Philip’s right, Papa. We’ve got to do something with Thea or the family will be utterly disgraced,” agreed the
other brother.

“Nonsense!” said Thea roundly, embarrassed. Acutely
aware of Lord Cardiff’s presence, she appealed to her father. “Papa, pray take me home now. Surely we can better discuss
this matter in the privacy of our own walls.”

“My thoughts precisely,” murmured Cardiff, taking his
pocket watch out and glancing at it. As he snapped the lid
closed, he met Miss Stafford’s gaze. Her face was slightly
flushed and she looked hurriedly away. It was obvious to the
meanest intelligence that she was humiliated, and he felt
sorry for her.

“We’ll have to marry her off,” said Mr. Stafford with sud
den decision.

“Papa!” exclaimed Thea, shocked as much by her fa
ther’s indelicacy as she was by his conclusion.

Mr. Stafford’s frowning gaze roved the parlor before his eyes fell on Lord Cardiff. He was pleased with the obvious
solution. “And you, sir, are just the man.”

“I beg your pardon?” said Cardiff, disconcerted. He
raised his brows in mild surprise, wondering if the old
gentleman was speaking in all earnestness or was merely in
dulging in a heavy-handed joke.

Thea had no such uncertainty. She flushed scarlet.
Appalled, she exclaimed, “Oh, no! Papa, you cannot be se
rious!”

“Be silent, girl! I am still in charge here,” said Mr.
Stafford irritably.

Cardiff looked from one to the other of the three gentle
men. All wore identical expressions of satisfaction. A small
smile of disbelief played over his mouth as a feeling of un
reality washed over him. “You surely jest, Mr. Stafford. I have no wish to wed your daughter.”

“Aye, you’ve manners enough. You’ll make my daughter
a fine husband,” said Mr. Stafford approvingly. He surveyed Lord Cardiff’s trim, well-dressed figure. “And from the look
of you, you’ve a deep enough purse that she won’t be
clothed in rags.”

“Papa, stop it!” Even to Thea’s own ears, her voice
sounded oddly strangled. Humiliation threatened to over
come her, and she pressed her hands against her hot face.

Cardiff had stiffened. He looked coldly at Mr. Stafford.
There was steel in his tone. “My apologies to the lady, but I
repeat I’ve no wish to wed your daughter, sir.”

“It makes no difference to me, my lord. You’ll be wed
and that’s my last word on it,” said Mr. Stafford brusquely.
“Philip, Thomas, you escort the gentleman and Thea on to Gretna Green and see that the knot is properly tied.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“But what are you going to do, sir?”

Mr. Stafford’s eyes glittered suddenly as renewed rage flared up. “I am going after Quarles, and when I catch him,
I shall teach him to dishonor my family. He’ll learn what it
means to slight poor Tabitha and abduct my Thea!”

The two brothers nodded unquestioning approval of their
sire’s intentions.
Cardiff felt matters were swiftly getting out of hand. “I
repeat yet again, Mr. Stafford! I am unwilling to wed your daughter. Short of bodily harm, I fail to see how you intend
to carry out your ludicrous scheme.”

He had stepped back so that he was at angles with the
three men. His hands hung easily at his sides, but he was
tensed for action. The slightest smile touched his lips, but it did not warm his icy eyes. “I assure you, gentlemen, I shall
defend myself.”

“You’re quite right, my lord. I should have thought of
that possibility myself.” Mr. Stafford took a pistol out of his
capacious coat pocket and leveled it at Lord Cardiff.

In the sudden still silence, Thea’s appalled gasp sounded unnaturally loud.

Chapter Four

 

Lord Cardiff stared at the huge pistol, then lifted his nar
rowed eyes to Mr. Stafford’s satisfied face. He looked
contemptuously at the gentleman. His mouth tightening to a
white line, he grated, “You overreach yourself, sir.”

“You’ve little enough to say now, I see,” said Mr.
Stafford, almost jovial. He handed the pistol over to one of
his sons. “See that you keep him in your sights, Philip.
Shoot him if he attempts to escape.”

Thea made a strangled sound of protest.

“Is it loaded?” asked Philip Stafford, looking down at the
firearm he doubtfully clasped.

Mr. Stafford irritably cuffed him. “Of course it is, dolt!”

“Then I beg you will not distract your son’ s attention,
sir,” snapped Lord Cardiff, misliking how the pistol dipped
and wavered again while the black muzzle was trained in his
general direction.

Mr. Stafford gave a short laugh. “Your point is well
taken, sir! We mustn’t spoil that fine coat before you and
Thea are properly wedded. Now I shall be off.” He stumped
towards the open parlor door.

Her father’s impending exit galvanized Thea to protest. “Papa, you cannot do this!” she exclaimed, moving swiftly
to bar her sire’s path. With both hands she grabbed her fa
ther’s arm and looked up at him pleadingly. “Lord Cardiff
was kind enough to save me from Mr. Quarles. And this is
how you would reward him, Papa?”

“You’re talking all around it again, Thea,” said Mr.
Stafford, shaking his head in disapproval.

“Then let me make my meaning perfectly plain! Papa,
you cannot abuse Lord Cardiff’s good nature this way and
threaten to coerce him into marrying me! You must see how
wrong this is, Papa!” said Thea, desperate to make her father understand.

“I would have saved you soon enough, so his lordship’s good offices were superfluous, at best,” said Mr. Stafford,
waving aside such trivialities. He eyed his daughter with
some affront. “As for the rest, I am providing a handsome,
chivalrous gentleman to be your husband. What more could
you wish for?”

“What of me? Do I not have anything to say about your
choice and, indeed, your methods?” asked Thea heatedly.

Mr. Stafford patted her shoulder and gently removed her
restraining fingers from his sleeve. “You’re naught but a
silly female. You’ll do best to be guided by me,” he said in
dulgently.

Firmly, he set her aside so that he could exit. “Now stand
aside, that’s a good girl. I’ve another bridegroom to snare
before nightfall.”

“Papa! Surely you’ll not countenance a union between
Tabitha and Mr. Quarles now?” exclaimed Thea, amazement
momentarily suspending her concern over her own situa
tion.

Mr. Stafford looked down at his daughter, his brows knit
in frowning puzzlement. “I don’t know what you mean,
Thea.”

Exasperated, Thea said, “Papa, Mr. Quarles ran away
with me for my fortune! You cannot wish for such a dis
graceful connection! What must be Tabitha’s feelings?”

“Quite!” For once, a shaft of reason penetrated her fa
ther’s thick head and Thea marveled at it. She drew breath
to renew her own argument while the rare understanding
still existed. However, Mr. Stafford appeared only momen
tarily at a loss. Then his expression cleared, and with re
newed determination lighting his gray eyes, he said, “Quar
les will be made to withdraw his suit. Aye, that’s what I’ll make him do. Tabitha shan’t be made to wed a penniless
scoundrel.”

“Tabitha is to have a choice, but I am not?” Thea shook
her head. “Papa, that is scarcely fair!”

Mr. Stafford uttered an impatient exclamation. “Thea,
you’d do well to accept your good fortune with a good
grace. His lordship will appreciate a dutiful wife, I’ll be
bound. Your shabby manners do no credit to your upbring
ing and must give a very poor notion of you to Lord
Cardiff.”

Thea gasped, struck speechless by her sire’s skewed
point of view. Mr. Stafford misconstrued her silence as
proper abashment at his stricture. He kissed her on the fore
head, and with a last fatherly pat, he left the parlor.

Thea rushed after him out of the door and into the hall. “I
will not marry Lord Cardiff!” she shouted after her father’s
retreating back. If Mr. Stafford heard her, he gave no sign of
it but rounded the corner out of sight.

Thea stamped her foot and turned back into the parlor.
Her eyes flashed at her brothers, and in particular at sight of
the pistol. “Pray put that stupid thing away, Philip! I am not
going to wed Lord Cardiff, not even though you drag us
both all the way to Scotland!”

“Now, Thea, be reasonable. You must wed someone and
his lordship is the best we’ve got,” said Thomas, gesturing in Lord Cardiff’s direction.

“Your brother has a valid point, Miss Stafford,” drawled
Cardiff. He leaned negligently against the table, his weight
braced on one hand flattened on the top.

At Miss Stafford’s bewildered stare, he pointed out, “I
am
the best they have.”

“Are you never serious?” asked Thea with pardonable exasperation.

“Never more so in my life,” said Cardiff, at once straight
ening away from the table and becoming somber in expres
sion.

The Stafford brothers had drawn a little apart to confer in
low voices with one another, every now and again glancing
in Lord Cardiff’s and their sister’s direction.

Cardiff pointed towards them with a jerk of his chin.
“Are your brothers such fools as to believe that I will submit tamely to this preposterous scheme?”

“Oh, yes,” said Thea bitterly. “Philip and Thomas will do
precisely as Papa has bid them. If they can manage it, they will carry us off, willy-nilly, to Gretna Green and expect us
to wed over the anvil!”

“But how utterly charming,” said Cardiff softly. He saw Miss Stafford wince and was instantly ashamed of his sar
casm. He reached out for her stiff hand and drew it up to his
lips. In a quiet voice, he said, “Forgive me, Miss Stafford. I
did not intend to insult you. One cannot be held accountable
for one’s relations, after all.”

Thea attempted to smile. She withdrew her hand at once
from his clasp. Her voice tightly controlled, she said, “It is
quite all right, Lord Cardiff. I am inured to embarrassment.
You see how I am afflicted with relations.”

“I thought you spoke in jest earlier when you said it
would be better if I did not meet any members of your fam
ily,” said Cardiff lightly.

“I did,” muttered Thea, her brows contracting in a dire
frown.

“I was attempting to leaven the moment, Miss Stafford,”
said Cardiff chidingly.

“Perhaps my sense of the ridiculous has been murdered,
my lord, for I find nothing the least amusing in this.”

“I am not at all surprised,” said Cardiff. “I myself am finding it quite hard to accept.”

Thea sighed, frankly meeting his sympathetic gaze so
that he saw the distress in her eyes. She managed with diffi
culty to say, “Unfortunately, I spoke more truly than even I
knew. I am very sorry for the trouble I have brought upon
you, my lord. I—I almost wish you had not overheard Mr.
Quarles and myself yesterday evening.”

“I do not agree, Miss Stafford.” Lord Cardiff smiled at
her in reassurance. “Pray do not look so tragic. We are not
turned up yet, you know.”

He lifted his voice to address the Stafford brothers.
“Gentlemen, you have had enough time to come to the real
ization that what has been proposed by Mr. Stafford is utter nonsense.”

“We must do as Papa bids us,” said Philip, eyeing Lord
Cardiff mistrustfully. He still held the pistol awkwardly
pointed in his lordship’s direction.

“Quite so,” said Thomas, nodding in agreement.

“Allow me to suggest an alternative solution.”

The Stafford brothers exchanged a glance, then looked
warily at Lord Cardiff. “My lord?”

“Rather than force your sister to marriage with a stranger,
why do you not carry her away to some respectable female
relation or family friend? Indeed, one who can provide a
cover of all the respectability required should be easily
enough thought of,” said Cardiff reasonably.

Thea instantly seized on his lordship’s suggestion with
relief. “Yes! What could be better? It can be put about that I
was sent for to tend someone who was very ill and remained
the night.”

“I don’t know, Thea. You heard what Papa said for us to
do,” said Philip dubiously. However, he appeared to be turn
ing the matter over in his mind.

“But who is ill?” asked Thomas, his thick brows puckering in puzzlement.

Thea sighed impatiently. “No one is really sick, Thomas.
That’s just what we’ll say. Perhaps our Great-Aunt
Theresa!”

“I wouldn’t want to do that, Thea,” said Thomas, shaking
his head. “Our great-aunt would not thank us to start gossip
about her. She would turn mighty unpleasant over such a thing.”

“Whatever does it matter, if we can simply use our great-
aunt’s name to our purposes?” asked Thea, an edge beginning to sound in her voice.

“Thomas is right. Aunt Theresa is a regular old tartar.
She’d have our heads for starting such talk about her,” said
Philip.

Thomas addressed Lord Cardiff, earnestly desiring him
to understand the type of personage they were discussing.
“Our great-aunt is a harridan, my lord. She lives all alone in that barrack of a house, she and those awful cats of hers. All
of those unblinking eyes, pinned to one’s every move! It
gives me the shivers even now to recall it. Why, a fellow ex
pects to be attacked at any moment.”

“Most unnerving,” drawled Cardiff.

“That’s just what I think,” agreed Thomas.

Thea stamped her foot. “Oh! Can you not stop to think for one moment? We are talking about my future and you
are going on about Aunt Theresa’s horrid old cats! I don’t
care how many stray creatures she has got. I would gladly
go to her in order to salvage my reputation.”

“But Papa said -”

“If Papa had had the sense to reflect for just a few mo
ments before he hared off, he would approve of me going to
Aunt Theresa,” snapped Thea.

“Bravo, Miss Stafford,” murmured Cardiff.

Thea scarcely heard the interjection. Her blazing eyes
were riveted on her brothers. “But as usual, neither Papa nor
either of you have given enough thought to the conse
quences of what you do! Quite apart from my ignoble situ
ation, what of my feelings, pray? I don’t wish to be married!
And certainly not in such a scrambling fashion at this!”

As usual, Thomas grasped the salient point. Very matter-of-factly, he said, “Of course you wish to be married, Thea.
All females do.”

Angered beyond discretion, Thea made a singularly rude
declaration about the lack of intelligence to be found in her
father and her brothers. Almost at once, she realized how
she had betrayed herself before company and flushed scarlet, not daring to meet Lord Cardiff’s gaze. She pressed her
hands against her hot cheeks in self-mortification. She did
not wish to ever know what his lordship must be thinking about her unmannerly conduct.

“You oughtn’t to take that high tone with us, Thea. We’re
concerned for your reputation, just as much as Papa is,” said
Philip in an injured voice.

Thomas agreed, also wearing a hurt expression. “Exactly so!”

“I am certain that your sister realizes the truth of that,” in
terposed Cardiff calmly. “Even as I do. However, the purity of your motives does not alter the fact that there is a much
better way to a happy conclusion than a forced flight to
Gretna Green.”

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