The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (5 page)

Thea was grateful for Lord Cardiff’s generous words.
Apparently he was willing to overlook her outburst, and she was thus able to recover a measure of her countenance. Taking her lead from Lord Cardiff, Thea said, “I know that you are anxious over my plight. I do appreciate it, truly I do! But
can you not see? I’d much rather go to Aunt Theresa than
wed Lord Cardiff.”

“I say, Thea! That’s hardly complimentary to his lord
ship,” said Thomas with starting eyes. He addressed Lord Cardiff. “Aunt Theresa is a horrible old bag. She screeches at her servants and anyone else unfortunate enough to be
around and sets a table with boiled meat like shoe leather.”

“It is really too bad of you to prefer Aunt Theresa over
me,” drawled Cardiff, looking over at Miss Stafford. There
was a pronounced twinkle in his eyes.

Thea sent a look of burning reproach toward his lordship.
She could not imagine how he could make fun when their
futures hung in the balance.

Thomas nodded. He looked accusingly at his sister.
“You’ve done it now, Thea. You’ve gone and insulted his lordship.”

“Indeed. I am cut to the heart,” said Cardiff, laying his palm on his chest.

“You should beg his lordship’s pardon at once, Thea,”
said Thomas in stern accents.

Cardiff nodded with a mournful expression. “I
suspect I shall be quite cast down otherwise, Miss Stafford.”

“Oh, hush, hush! Between the two of you, you will make
me quite distracted with your nonsense,” begged Thea. She
looked pointedly at Lord Cardiff. “It is really too bad of you
to enlist Thomas to tease me.”

Cardiff laughed. “I have a peculiar taste for the outra
geous, Miss Stafford. And you must admit, this situation has
all the earmarks of the bizarre. It needs only one more element to make it a complete farce, and that would be a rare
dustup.”

Chapter Five

 

At that precise moment, Lord Cardiff’s valet leaped into the parlor through the open doorway. He had come up soft-footed some minutes before and had hovered outside,
pressed against the wall, long enough to acquire a fair grasp of the situation. When he overheard Lord Cardiff’s amused
comment, he interpreted it as a signal.

With a roar of righteous wrath, Potter sprang straight at
Philip Stafford with the intent of knocking the dangerous
firearm from the man’s grasp. The valet seized the younger
man’s gun arm and thrust it upwards. Philip Stafford instinctively resisted, and the two men swayed together, grappling
desperately for control.

The suddenness of the attack took everyone by surprise. Cardiff recovered swiftly. Trusting his valet to keep Philip well occupied, he sprang lithely at the other brother.

Thomas was still staring stupidly at the fight between his
brother and the valet when Cardiff delivered a smashing
blow to his face. The force of the blow jolted Cardiff clear to
the shoulder, and he grunted with the painful jarring.

Thomas’s head bobbed backwards, then straightened. He
shook his head as though to clear it, then turned his aston
ished gaze on Lord Cardiff. His heavy brows lowered. “You
ought not to have done that, my lord,” he commented,
stolidly moving in on the shorter man.

Cardiff’s eyes widened. The man was built like a bull, he
thought, marveling. Thomas Stafford had absorbed a blow
that might have floored another man and, indeed, had done
so not many hours before. He did not have time for further
reflection because he was suddenly very much involved in protecting himself.

There were a few desperate moments when the outcome
hung in the balance, but it all ended with a particularly telling
and well-placed hit against Cardiff’s weakened shoulder. He
reeled back with a strangled oath, clapping his left hand to
his shoulder. Hot needles shot up and down his numbed arm.

With a cry, Thea threw herself between Lord Cardiff and
her brother. She caught hold of Thomas’s corded forearm,
tugging down on it. “Stop it! Stop it, you brute! He’s home
on wounded leave,” she exclaimed.

Thomas gave way a step, sparing his sister an uncertain
downwards glance.

Thea turned at once to look anxiously at Lord Cardiff. There was a pallor about his lordship’s mouth that alarmed
her. She rushed forward, then abruptly stopped before she ac
tually reached him. “Are—are you hurt, my lord?”

“I think my pride suffers more than I do Miss Stafford,”
said Cardiff shortly, panting from exertion and pain. With the
back of his hand he brushed the sweat out of his eyes.

He looked over to see how his valet had fared and was im
mediately filled with concern when he saw that the man was
lying motionless on the floor. “Potter!” In two strides he
closed the distance and went down on one knee beside his
supine valet. He swiftly examined him. When he touched the
valet’s head, a smear of dark blood came away on his fingers.

“He nearly had me, but I knocked him senseless with the
pistol,” said Philip hoarsely. Sweat beaded his brow and he leaned heavily against the table.

“You’re a madman! And so are your father and your
brother. You should all be locked up,” said Cardiff roundly.
Anger roughened his voice and made twin points of ice of his
blue eyes.

Thea approached tentatively. “Is there aught that I can do,
my lord?” she asked. She had not missed how he had turned away from her, and she thought she would understand if he
rejected her offer out of hand, for it was her fault that he
found himself in such straits.

Cardiff examined his valet’s head more carefully before he replied. He was relieved that the wound was not as deep
or as serious as he had initially feared. He glanced across at
Miss Stafford, who had knelt across from the valet’s body,
and shook his head. “I fear there is nothing to be done but see
that his head is bound up and that he is put to bed. I suspect
he has suffered a concussion. I shall want a physician to see
him as quickly as possible, however.”

“Of course,” agreed Thea, looking compassionately down
at the manservant. She felt strong guilt and regret, for the in
jury to Potter was also her fault.

“My nose is bleeding,” said Thomas in surprise, all of a sudden making the unwelcome discovery.

“Good!” snapped Thea, rounding on him and glaring up at
her brother from her kneeling position. “It is certainly much
less than what you so richly deserve!”

“Aw, Thea!” Thomas mumbled something else through
the folds of the handkerchief that he had pulled out of his
coat pocket and pressed against his nose. Whatever it was
sounded defensive in tone.

The commotion had inevitably been heard belowstairs,
and several personages rushed to the open parlor door, the
innkeeper in the forefront. “Here, what’s this? My lord! What
is toward?”

“You would do best to ask those two idiots,” said Cardiff
angrily, waving at the Stafford brothers. “My valet and I have
been attacked. I want a physician sent to see to my man.”

“Aye, m’lord! I shall see to it at once!” The innkeeper ordered an ogling waiter to be off on the urgent errand. When
he returned his attention to the tableau, he eyed the Staffords
with extreme disfavor. They shifted uncomfortably under his
hard stare. “Such goings-on in a respectable house! Will you
be wanting a constable as well, m’lord?”

Without waiting for Lord Cardiff’s assent, the innkeeper
dispatched another waiter. It was the innkeeper’s opinion that his lordship was the best patron the house had seen in an age and everything must be done that could conceivably mollify
him. It but followed that the law was wanted to take charge of the two ruffians who had attacked his lordship.

At mention of the constable, Thomas made several dis
tressed noises, but no one paid him any heed since he could
not be understood in any event.

Philip said not a word. He stood as still as a statue, white-
faced. Only his eyes looked alive, burning bright in his face.

“Innkeeper, oblige me by taking my man’s feet. I want to
lay him in my own bed,” said Cardiff, carefully lifting the
valet’s shoulders. The man’s head lolled alarmingly and
Cardiff silently cursed his inability to do better.

The innkeeper hurried forward and positioned himself.
“Aye, m’lord. The poor fellow looks quite knocked up.”

Thea hurried to throw open the door to the adjoining bed
room and stood aside for them to enter with their burden. As
they slowly approached the door, the innkeeper remarked, “I
am supposing you’ll not wish for your carriage to be brought
round after all, m’lord. At least not until the physician has
come.”

“You have read my thoughts precisely, sir,” said Cardiff,
frowning with concern down at his still-unconscious valet.
“You may send word down to my coachman and groom that
we will not be traveling today after all.”

The innkeeper bawled at the housemaid who still stood
watching in fascination on the threshold of the parlor. “You
heard his lordship, girl! Be off with you!”

“Wait!” Philip stepped forward quickly, bringing forward the pistol which he had hastily thrust out of sight behind him upon the arrival of an audience. Made nervous by talk of the
constable, he acted without thought of the consequences. The
gun shook visibly in his tense hand.

The housemaid gasped in fright and slid ungracefully into
a full swoon. She was not the only one profoundly affected.

The innkeeper started and nearly dropped the valet’s legs.
Lord Cardiff brought him sharply to order and he apologized
disjointedly. It was apparent from his starting eyes that he
was petrified.

“What is it now, Stafford?” asked Cardiff in a clipped,
cold voice.

Emboldened by the innkeeper’s obvious fear, Philip
cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. In a voice he meant to sound commanding but which sounded merely
hoarse with tension, he said loudly, “Rather, call someone to
carry word to his lordship’s men to bring round the carriage at once. We are going to leave! Now!”

“M’lord?” The innkeeper directed a helpless look at Lord
Cardiff.

However, Cardiff was not looking at the innkeeper. His
brows had snapped together as he stared across the expanse of the parlor at Philip Stafford.

It was Thea, however, who voiced the question that Lord Cardiff had not yet asked. “Have you gone completely stark-
raving mad?”

Philip’s mouth tightened mulishly. “I am going to do what
Papa said to do. Lord Cardiff and you and Thomas and I are
leaving now, in his lordship’s carriage.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Cardiff was out of all patience. His
voice cracked like a whip. “Do not interfere with me,
Stafford, I warn you. Come, my good man, let us put my
valet to bed.”

The innkeeper threw a hapless glance backwards but
obeyed. As Lord Cardiff and the innkeeper disappeared into
the bedroom, a spirited argument broke out in the parlor be
tween Thea and her brothers.

When Cardiff returned to the parlor, followed by the
innkeeper, it became clear at once that nothing had been re
solved. Miss Stafford’s color was high and her eyes blazed dangerously, but she was holding her underlip tightly be
tween her teeth.

Philip became aware of the hovering innkeeper. He
sharply commanded the man to pull the bell rope and told
him to relay the order that Lord Cardiff’s carriage be brought
around to the door immediately. When the innkeeper glanced
again in Lord Cardiff’s direction, Philip flushed. “You! Do as
you’re told! Or—or I’ll shoot his lordship!”

Above Thea’s exclamation of horror and the cringing innkeeper’s gobbled reassurances, Cardiff’s voice rang out.
“You’ll do no such thing and you know it! Innkeeper, ignore
anything he might say. We will wait for the constable’s ar
rival to settle this matter.”

“I dare not refuse
to do as he says, m’lord,” said the
innkeeper, appealing for his lordship’s understanding of his
position. He pulled hard several times on the bell rope. “If he
did shoot you because I denied him, it would be as much as
my head is worth.”

“I see.” Cardiff did indeed understand. He looked across
the room at the purposeful Stafford brothers and silently
cursed. Miss Stafford had spoken truly enough about her
brothers. They were obstinate and thick-headed and foolish
beyond belief.

Set on a course of action at last, Philip Stafford could not
be moved from it. He was ably seconded by his brother, who
enthusiastically repeated his admiration for Philip’s inspired
notion to make use of Lord Cardiff’s own carriage.

“For there’s no denying that his lordship’s carriage and
cattle are better than we could afford,” concluded Thomas complacently. His voice sounded peculiarly stuffy since his nose had swelled to twice its normal size. His injured appendage had stopped bleeding, but it was turning a distinct shade of purple.

It was Thomas’s idea to tie Lord Cardiff’s wrists together
with a piece of cord taken from the drapes. He apologized for
the necessity but excused it on account of his respect for
Lord Cardiff’s pugilistic ability. “I shan’t hide from you, my
lord, that I’ve rarely been hit so hard,” he said in congratulatory accents.

Lord Cardiff did not respond, but suffered the indignity with cold disdain. The expression in his eyes, however, left
not a doubt in anyone’s mind of his temper. Philip was there
fore cautious to never let his attention wander from his lord
ship, nor to allow the pistol to waver.

Thea protested furiously against this latest example of her
brothers’ iniquity, but to no avail. It seemed nothing she said
could sway her brothers from their stated course. She sub
sided in her arguments when she realized at last how useless her words had been. “I am very sorry, my lord,” she said in a
low voice.

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