The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (6 page)

“Pray do not flagellate yourself, Miss Stafford. It is not
your fault,” said Cardiff in an expressionless voice. It would
not do to say so, of course, but he heartily regretted that he
had not set out early that morning before ever Miss Stafford’s
misguided parent and brothers arrived. This was what came of possessing an over-weaning sense of chivalry, he thought disgustedly, even though he knew well enough he could not
in all conscience have driven off without having first assured
himself of her safety.

A spark of perverse humor gave him a slight lift out of his black mood. It was a lesson to him, certainly. He should have taken a leaf from all the tales of yore, when the gallant knight
rode off into the sunset directly after saving the fair maiden. It obviously saved the knight a great deal of trouble.

When all was ready, Thomas took his sister’s reluctant
arm.

“No! I shan’t!” she exclaimed, at once pulling away.

Thomas sighed. “You don’t wish to make a scene, Thea.”

A martial light lit her eyes. “Perhaps that is just what I
do
wish to do.”

Thomas shrugged. “I shall throw you over my shoulder, then.” He advanced on her, purpose in his set expression.

Thea rapidly decided that she would far prefer walking to
enduring the humiliation of being slung like a bag of grain
over her brother’s shoulder. “Wait! I shan’t give you any
trouble, Thomas.”

Thomas’s face split in a wide grin. “I am glad of it, Thea.
I disliked the notion of carrying you.”

“Not half as much as I did!” retorted Thea.

Stiffly, she accepted her brother’s hand and Thomas es
corted her from the parlor, with the long-faced innkeeper walking before them. Lord Cardiff followed, with Philip Stafford bringing up the rear. The common taproom was
quickly traversed by the ill-assorted party, and this early in
the morning there were only a few locals to witness the odd
sight of a peer of the realm being herded out of the inn at pistol point.

Thea tried to hold back again when they reached Lord
Cardiff’s carriage, straining against Thomas’s hand. It was
useless, however. Her brother merely lifted her into his arms
and deposited her somewhat ungracefully inside the carriage.
Thea protested furiously at the callous treatment, but Thomas
ignored her and climbed in after her.

Cardiff did not waste his breath berating his captors,
deeming the case to be hopeless at that juncture. He paused
only long enough to give the unhappy innkeeper instructions
for the care of his valet, before allowing himself to be thrust after Miss Stafford into his own carriage under the outraged
and angry eyes of his coachman and groom.

Philip shouted out the destination to the coachman, then
leaped in after Lord Cardiff. He slammed shut the carriage
door and latched it.

It was crowded in the carriage when Philip got in and
seated himself beside his brother, opposite the two captives.
However, the brothers did not appear to mind that they were seated with their backs to the horses. Flushed with success as the carriage started forward with a jerk, the Stafford brothers
laughed uproariously together in almost a giddy fashion.

“We’re off to Gretna just like Papa wished!”

“We’ve done it, Thomas. We’ve actually done it!”

“You’ll be fortunate if you both don’t hang for this day’s
work,” interjected Cardiff baldly, looking across the short ex
panse separating him from the two young gentlemen with patent disgust.

They looked at Lord Cardiff, then again at each other, and
burst into renewed guffaws.

“I hope I die very, very soon,” said Thea decidedly. “I
have never been more mortified in my whole life!”

Chapter Six

 

The initial stages of the journey were accomplished with
the Stafford brothers’ continued self-congratulations on
accomplishing their sire’s wishes. Eventually, however,
some of their euphoria wore off and their talk became inter
mixed with ever-lengthening silences. Lord Cardiff and
Thea, long since fallen silent, offered no distraction.

The carriage swayed over the road, making good time. As
the miles passed under the wheels, the opportunity to contemplate their actions was having its inevitable effect on the Stafford brothers.

Characteristically it was Thomas who stated the obvious. “Er . . . perhaps we should have given more thought to it all,
Philip.”

“I am giving thought to it, Thomas,” snapped Philip. His
brow was furrowed by a worried frown. He still held the pis
tol leveled in Lord Cardiff’s direction and the firearm
swayed gently back and forth with the movement of the carriage.

Under his eyelids, Cardiff regarded the young man’s
grasp on the pistol. He wondered idly how long it would be
before Philip’s fingers cramped. It was something to think
about, for it could be advantageous to himself. It might be
possible to wrest the pistol away from Philip when his hold
became less certain.

There fell another silence while Thomas meditated some
more. “I tell you what, Philip, I don’t care for the notion at
all,” he said suddenly.

Philip was drawn out of his brown study by his brother’s
unusual solemnity. “What don’t you like?”

“I don’t like the notion of hanging.” Thomas put a hand
up to his throat and ran one wide finger under the edge of his
linen cravat as though it had become tight. “It isn’t a comforting thought.”

“Shut up!” said Philip. He glared at his brother.

“Well, it will only be what you both deserve,” said Thea
waspishly, entering the fray. “How could you do such an
outrageous thing? Kidnapping! Of all the harebrained, idi
otic starts!” Her voice momentarily deserted her and she
could only shake her head at the thought of her brother’s stu
pidity.

Philip’s mouth compressed to a thin line. His expression
was furious as he shot a look of dislike at his sister.

Thea stared back defiantly. “You may look as black as
you wish, Philip. I shan’t regard it, I assure you!”

Philip jerked a shoulder and turned his head, pointedly
ignoring her.

“Do you truly believe we shall hang, my lord?” asked Thomas anxiously, appealing to Lord Cardiff.

Cardiff did not have the chance to reply before Thea once
more interjected. “Lord Cardiff is a peer of the realm.
Doubtless he has scores of influential relations in high
places, all of whom will clamor for your heads. You will be
fortunate if you are not drawn and quartered,” said Thea
roundly.

Thomas looked a bit green, and even Philip appeared to
lose a little of his former assurance. Their obvious dismay served to rouse Cardiff’s unfortunate sense of humor.

“Actually, I have only one truly influential relation,” he
said suavely. “My father is a duke and is known to have a bit
of influence at Whitehall.”

All three of the Staffords stared at him with varying de
grees of alarm and consternation. He controlled the smile that almost quivered to life on his lips, saying apologetically, “I just thought I should mention it.”

“There you are! You are patently doomed,” declared
Thea. She was immensely satisfied that she had been proven
right. She had known all along that Lord Cardiff was a personage of importance.

“It does look black for us, Philip,” said Thomas gloomily.

“I must think,” said Philip, gnawing at his underlip in a
nervous fashion.

“Whatever is there to think about?” exclaimed Thea. She
could not believe how dense they still were. “You must let
Cardiff free at once and beg for his lordship’s mercy.”

“That is sound advice, gentlemen,” drawled Cardiff. He
shifted, making himself more comfortable against the seat
squabs, and stretched out his long legs.

The situation was peculiar, to say the least, and there was a danger that his two kidnappers were too stupid to realize
fully the extent of their folly. However, he was inclined to
view matters with equanimity rather than otherwise. Miss Stafford seemed an able enough advocate in the sowing of doubt into her brothers’ minds as to the wisdom of their ill-
conceived actions. A few more minutes of her withering
tongue and he rather thought the matter would be resolved.

Lord, but she was spirited, he thought with admiration,
glancing in Miss Stafford’s direction. Despite the hurly-
burly fashion in which she had been thrust into the carriage and her obvious distress over the situation, the scorn in her
eyes and her bolt-upright posture showed her to have a
backbone of steel. He recalled that he had believed Miss
Cummings, the hostess of the houseparty he had recently
quitted, to be the most self-possessed and bravest lady of his
acquaintance; but now, he thought that Miss Stafford had completely eclipsed that lady in spirit. Lord Cardiff would back such a woman against any number of scoundrels and
fools.

Cardiff did not believe that the Staffords were evil men. They were merely misguided and blindly loyal to their sire. He fully expected to be freed within a very short time, once
the Stafford brothers got it through their thick heads that
nothing but grief could come out of the kidnapping of a peer
of the realm. And if not—

Cardiff gave a slight shrug. Already he had nearly
worked loose of his bonds and he was confident enough of his own ability to create just the sort of diversion that his
servants were probably straining their ears to hear. His
coachman and groom were quick of understanding and
would certainly act. Then, he thought with the touch of a
grim smile, the tables would at last be turned. He would
have the upper hand and would be able to put an end to the farce. It would give him great satisfaction to be able to bid
adieu to poor Miss Stafford and her crazed family members.

Something of Lord Cardiff’s intentions must have been
evident in his expression, for Philip suddenly exclaimed and
steadied the pistol, centering it on Lord Cardiff’s waistcoat.
“Thomas, examine his lordship’s wrists. And for God’s sake,
don’t come between his lordship and the pistol.”

Thomas gave a bark of a laugh as though his brother had
said something exquisitely funny. “Don’t be anxious on that
count. I’ve no wish to have my head blown off my shoulders!”

Philip flushed, not liking his brother’s good-natured
ridicule. “Just see to it!” he snapped irritably.

With the greatest care Thomas reached over to test Lord Cardiff’s bonds. “Why, you’ve nearly worked free! We can’t
have that, my lord,” he said in a chiding voice. He pro
ceeded to retie the cord, tighter than before. “There, that
ought to do the trick.”

Cardiff did not move while his wrists were retied, but anger coursed through him. His instinct had prompted him
to strike out at Thomas Stafford, but his good sense asserted
itself in time. With Philip looking tensely at him from over the pistol, he felt that the least alarm would cause the man,
already nervous, to unthinkingly pull the trigger. In such
close quarters, and without the advantage of being able to
catch Philip by surprise and thus knock aside the pistol, any action on his part would be disastrous. Cardiff knew himself
able to act with bravery when circumstances demanded it of
him, but he was not suicidal.

Thea had been holding her breath, perhaps even more certain than her brother Philip that Lord Cardiff was poised
to take some action. She didn’t know what Lord Cardiff
would do, but naturally it would be something spectacular,
something breathtakingly heroic.

When Thomas sat back into his place, unmolested and
his handiwork accomplished without incident, Thea felt an
acute disappointment. She had hoped Lord Cardiff would at the very least have thrust Thomas aside and wrested the pis
tol from Philip, thus putting an end to the humiliating
episode. She could not help sending a glance of reproach to
wards Lord Cardiff.

His lordship’s countenance was grim, but upon meeting
her gaze his expression lightened. Apparently he found
something humorous in her disillusionment in him, for his mobile mouth curved in the faintest of smiles.

“A thousand pardons, ma’am. I had no wish to be shot,” he murmured.

“Of course you did not, especially since you are still re
covering from a wound,” said Thea at once in staunch sup
port. She did not want Lord Cardiff to believe that she
blamed him for lack of initiative, even though she rather
wished that he had done something, and she wanted to reas
sure him that she still had faith in him.

“Exactly so. You understand me perfectly, Miss
Stafford,” said Cardiff, a more pronounced glint of amuse
ment in his eyes.

Thea wasn’t certain if she did so or not, but it gratified
her that Lord Cardiff seemed to think so highly of her.

“Wound? Of course, I recall now! Thea said that you
were on wounded leave!” Thomas regarded Lord Cardiff with sharpening interest. A fanatical light brightened his
eyes. “Are you in the army, then?”

“Indeed; I am an aide-de-camp to Wellington,” said
Cardiff, nodding.

Thomas appeared awed. “Oh, I say! Do you hear that,
Philip? What I wouldn’t give to go into the army.” There
was envy and respect in Thomas’s voice, while Philip acknowledged the revelation with only a grunt.

“Why don’t you, then?” asked Cardiff politely. He was not really interested, but it occurred to him that it would
serve him best not to antagonize his captors. If he drew them
out to talk about themselves, there might come a moment when both were lulled to inattention and he could take the chance of wresting the pistol away.

“Papa will not hear of our enlisting. We are his heirs,”
said Thomas gloomily.

His brother’s expression lengthened, reflecting an equal
melancholy. However, Philip did not lose sight of who their
audience was. “Do keep quiet, Thomas. His lordship cannot
possibly care one way or the other.”

A particle of interest stirring, Cardiff looked from one
sturdily built young man to the other. “Both of you are your
father’s heirs? I don’t see how—”

“Twins,” said Thomas succinctly on a deep sigh. “Philip
is actually the eldest by five minutes. He won’t sign up on
account of being Papa’s firstborn, and I won’t go if he
doesn’t. So here we are.”

“Yes; here we are,” agreed Cardiff, a peculiar smile flick
ering across his face.

“It would be far better for you both to be shot by the
French than to be hung as common criminals,” said Thea tartly. She couldn’t recall ever being so put out with her brothers and it seemed appropriate to point out the differ
ence between the heroic action that she knew they longed
for and the ignoble fate they flirted with.

“Yes,” agreed Thomas morosely. “But we’ll not get near
the French armies, so I expect that we’ll hang.”

“No, we shan’t,” said Philip forcibly.

At once Thea leaped to a happy assumption. She turned shining eyes on her brother. “Oh, I knew I could not be al
together mistake in you! Do you mean that you will let Lord
Cardiff go?” A dazzling smile lit her face. “Oh, Philip, I am
so glad! And I am persuaded that his lordship will not press
charges against either of you, will you, my lord?”

“Wait!” said Philip, but he went unheeded by any of the
others.

Thus appealed to by Miss Stafford to spare her brothers,
Lord Cardiff agreed that he would not have them arrested,

“Why, that is handsome of you, my lord,” said Thomas
gratefully. “In that case, I don’t mind apologizing to you for
any inconvenience suffered, I assure you.”

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