The Fleeing Heiress: A funny flight into love. (7 page)

“Quite well said, Mr. Stafford,” said Cardiff affably. He
stretched out his bound wrists suggestively. “Now, if you will be so kind?”

Thomas started to reach forward to oblige Lord Cardiff,
but Philip stopped him by grabbing at his shoulder and ex
claiming, “No!”

Thomas swiveled his head and stared round at his
brother. “What’s toward, Philip?”

“Don’t untie his lordship.”

Cardiff stiffened slightly, every fiber of his being alert.
An ominous interpretation of Philip Stafford’s words at once
resonated through his consciousness. He straightened on the
seat, gathering his limbs in taut readiness.

“Don’t untie his lordship?” repeated Thomas with a
heavy, puzzled frown.

“That is what I said,” said Philip, nodding resolutely.

“But you said you are going to let Lord Cardiff go,” said
Thea quickly.

Thomas nodded. “That’s what it sounded like to me,
Philip.”

“But that isn’t what I meant at all,” said Philip, his testy tone underscored by his scowling expression.

“Then what did you mean, sir? I just inquire, you under
stand, because it does have some bearing on my future,”
said Cardiff quietly.

“There’s no need for sarcasm, my lord,” said Philip with
what dignity he could muster.

“His lordship has the right of it, Philip. He should know
what you do mean so he can know what to expect,” said
Thomas reprovingly. “And so should I, for how am I to un
derstand what we should do otherwise?”

“Well, I shall explain it to you,” said Philip. “I have
thought it all out.”

Cardiff made a show of settling himself back against the squabs with a sigh. His body, however, was actually tensed
for action. “Pray continue, sir. It will pass the time, in any event.”

Stung by Lord Cardiff’s casual attitude, Philip Stafford
flushed. He started to say something sharp, but with diffi
culty caught it back. Ignoring Lord Cardiff, he addressed his
brother. “If we let Lord Cardiff go and throw ourselves on his mercy, once safely away his lordship could still lay information against us. We could still be hanged.”

Thomas looked much struck. Frowning, he said, “That is true.”

“My word of honor on it. I shall not lay information
against you if you will loose me,” said Cardiff swiftly.

“There you are, Philip,” said Thea. She had been nar
rowly eyeing her brother. There was a peculiar light in his
eyes that she could not read. The uncertainty and panic that had characterized him earlier had disappeared, leaving in its wake a determined cast to his features that made her feel un
easy. “Lord Cardiff has given his word. You are perfectly safe if you will only put an end to all of this.”

Thomas looked relieved. “Thea is right, Philip. We shan’t
hang after all since his lordship has pledged his word.”

“But Lord Cardiff has pledged himself under duress,”
said Philip. He looked from his uncomprehending brother to
his sister. “Do you not see? I am holding Lord Cardiff at pis
tol point. He is not obliged to abide by anything he says
under such circumstances.”

Thea shook her head in denial. Everything inside her was
certain that she could place all of her trust in Lord Cardiff.
“No, I will not believe that Lord Cardiff would serve us such
a trick.”

Thomas began to frown again, his thick brows drawing
together over his misshapen nose as his slow thought
processes began to turn.

“I am not in the habit of breaking my word regardless of
the circumstances,” said Cardiff in a hard voice, directing a
cold look at Philip.

Philip smiled faintly and gave a little shrug that had a
hopelessness to its lift. “I am sorry, my lord. I do not intend
to insult you. But we do not know you very well, after all, and there have been gentlemen enough who have pledged their honor and consequently betrayed their word.”

Cardiff stared at the young man, a white line forming
about his firmly compressed mouth. He had the most dis
concerting feeling that the ground was shifting from under
him and he wondered dispassionately if he would survive
his dealings with the Staffords.

“Philip!” exclaimed Thea, shocked. “How can you act
so? Why, Lord Cardiff has been all that is gentlemanly.”

Thomas was shaking his head. It was he who replied to
her. “Our brother is quite right, Thea. You have forgotten the
baron,” he said heavily.

“The baron?” Thea looked at each of her brothers in turn. “You cannot compare the two cases. Why, Lord Cardiff is a
true
gentleman. He rescued me from Mr. Quarles’s foul
scheme, or have you forgotten? Surely that must prove he is
not of the same stripe as the baron.”

“Am I not to be enlightened as to what rule I am being
measured against?” asked Cardiff. “It is difficult to mount a
defense when one does not know the charges!”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Thea looked away,
not wanting to meet Lord Cardiff’s hard gaze. Finally, Philip said, “It is too long and painful a tale to relate, my lord. Suf
fice it to say, our family has had dealings with a gentleman
who dishonored his pledged word to us. We have small rea
son to place faith in another such.”

Thomas nodded again, his expression set and closed. He
met Lord Cardiff’s gaze with a hard light in his eyes.

When Cardiff glanced at Miss Stafford, she was looking steadfastly down at her hands clasped in her lap. He recog
nized that his advocate had at last been silenced. He directed
his reply more to her than to her brothers. “I see. There is
nothing more I can say except to repeat what I have already
stated. I abide by my word of honor. Surely your dealings
with me thus far prove as much or, at least, give you reason
enough to place some trust in me.”

At that, Miss Stafford raised her eyes quickly. She had a
questioning look in them when she met his glance. Lord Cardiff held her gaze with his own, willing her to believe
him, and at last a small smile touched her face. She gave a
barely perceptible nod.

Straightening her shoulders, Thea once more tried her
persuasive powers on her brothers. “We shouldn’t allow a
painful experience of the past to rob us of all trust in our fellow man. Surely you
must
see by now, Philip, that our only
real recourse is to put an end to this by letting Lord Cardiff
go. I, for one, am quite prepared to trust him.”

Once more thrown into doubt, Thomas looked uncer
tainly from Thea to his brother. “Philip?”

Philip shook his head stubbornly. “There is another alter
native, one which will ensure that Lord Cardiff will never
say anything against us.” He glanced at Lord Cardiff and his
mouth tightened purposefully. The pistol was held quite
steady in his hand.

Thea’s eyes dropped from her brother’s determined face
to the firearm he held in his hand. A horrible thought, one so
repugnant that it almost nauseated her by its unwelcome
presence, darted into her mind. “Philip! You are never think
ing of—of—” She wet her lips, unable to say the words
aloud.

For once, Thomas Stafford’s mind grasped instantly the
implication that had been left unsaid. Comprehension min
gled with horror dawned on his face. “I say, Philip! Murder?
Have you run mad?”

Chapter Seven

 

“Murder!” Horror shone out of Philip Stafford’s eyes. His expression twisted, and he exclaimed angrily,
“Of course not! What do you think I am?”

Thea was awash with relief. Her voice shaking, she
asked, “Then what?”

“I apprehend that your brother is referring to family loyalties, Miss Stafford. He believes that, as his brother-in-law,
I will not lay information against him or his brother, else by
doing so I besmirch my own name,” said Cardiff matter-of-
factly. His own heart still beat more rapidly, for just seconds
previously he had been rigid with tension. He, too, had interpreted Philip Stafford’s foreboding statement in the worst
possible light. Good odds or not, he had been on the point of launching himself at Philip to wrestle him for the pistol, de
spite the probable repercussions. He would have preferred
being shot while trying to escape, even chancing a stray bullet striking Miss Stafford, than to tamely submit to being ex
ecuted.

Fortunately, Philip’s violent revulsion had made clear the
true state of the man’s mind. The only other reasonable al
ternative had thus come quickly to Cardiff, and he thought it
only pointed out the enormity of Philip Stafford’s idiocy. With that mercifully quick plunge into melodrama, Cardiff
was no longer inclined to regard his bizarre situation with
any degree of amused detachment. The thing had palled on
him, completely and utterly.

At the first opportunity offered which would not unduly
jeopardize either Miss Stafford or himself, Cardiff was de
termined to break free.

“Is that indeed what you meant, Philip?” asked Thea, still
relieved but feeling a gathering dismay as well.

Philip nodded, but replied to Lord Cardiff. “Quite correct, my lord.”

Thomas said nothing, but merely looked thoughtful.

“Oh, no! No, Philip! You don’t understand. I won’t marry
Lord Cardiff! I won’t!” exclaimed Thea. She pressed her
fingers to her brows, trying to counteract the dull headache that was forming behind her eyes. Since her abduction the afternoon before, she had been in an almost continual state
of stress. It was an awful nightmare and just seemed to go
on and on. For a few moments, for just a few wonderful mo
ments, she had thought she had finally persuaded her broth
ers to reason. But apparently it was not to be.

“It’s either wed his lordship or see your brothers hang on
the gallows, Thea,” said Philip with finality. “I do not believe you will want our deaths on your conscience.”

“That’s true enough. Isn’t it, Thea?” asked Thomas hope
fully.

Thea threw up her head, dropping her hands. “Of course
I do not wish your deaths on my conscience! What a mon
ster I would be to hope otherwise! But I cannot countenance
this course, Philip.”

“I do believe Philip has the right of it, Thea,” said
Thomas with a persuasive note in his voice.

“And so we are brought back full circle,” murmured Lord
Cardiff on a bored sigh.

Thea heard him and it seemed to snap something inside
her. Almost in tears, she cried, “Simply let Lord Cardiff go,
you stupid pigheaded imbeciles!”

“Thea, you mustn’t take it so hard,” said Thomas, lean
ing forward to pat her knee in a comforting fashion. “Per
haps Lord Cardiff isn’t whom you would prefer, but he isn’t
a bad bargain. He likes you well enough, I’ll wager, and it
isn’t as though you have a number of suitors. Lord, won’t
Tabitha be put in a pretty taking when she learns you have
wed before her! That ought to make you feel better.”

There was enough revealed in Thomas’s observations to
make Thea’s face burn with hot color. “Hush, Thomas!” she
begged. She did not dare to glance in Lord Cardiff’s direction to gauge his reaction to her brother’s indiscreet speech.

“I hesitate to interrupt such powerful arguments, but I be
lieve the carriage is slowing to a stop,” drawled Cardiff.

“What!” At once Philip became thoroughly alarmed.
“Why are we stopping? I forbid them to stop. Put down the
window, Thomas! Tell them that—that Lord Cardiff will suffer if they do not keep going!”

Thomas looked out the window as he moved forward to
obey. “Oh, I say! We are coming into a village.”

Thea also craned forward to look through the window.
She saw a narrow street with passing traffic in carts and the
fronts of several shops.

“I suspected that we were. Thomas, it won’t do any good
to threaten my servants,” said Cardiff quietly. “It’s plain enough what is happening. Though I have extremely good
horses, they are simply horses and cannot be expected to go on forever.”

Thomas sat back against the squabs, his task left unac
complished. He exchanged a glance of dismay with Philip. “His lordship is right, Philip. We’ve been driving for hours
already. We’ll need a fresh team harnessed.” He glanced
back out of the window. “We are turning into an inn yard.
What are we to do?”

“We must—we must—” Realizing that he was stammer
ing, Philip stopped speaking. He appeared to be at a loss.

Cardiff smiled, quite at his ease. “Give it up, Philip. It is all over, you know.”

“No!” Philip drew in his breath. His brain seemed to
clear of its panic. “Thomas, you will step down. Put your hand in your pocket. The coachman and groom will think you have a pistol in it. Tell them not to say a word to any
one, or Lord Cardiff will be the sorrier for it. Tell them to
have a new team hitched at once and then to drive on.”

“It’s you who have the head on you, Philip,” said Thomas
admiringly.

Before the carriage was completely stopped, he opened
the door and leaped down, calling out to the coachman as he did so.

Philip warily eyed Lord Cardiff. The pistol was held perfectly steady. “Pray do not be foolish, my lord. I do not wish
to shoot you.”

Cardiff had already measured the distance to the door through which Thomas had exited. He would have to lunge past Miss Stafford to reach it, while avoiding whatever retaliatory action Philip would employ. Cardiff wasn’t at all certain that he would be able to successfully accomplish an escape. The obvious alternative was to try to disarm his op
ponent, but again Philip’s attention was trained too thoroughly on him and it would be awkward, at best, with his
own hands still tied.

Deliberately, Cardiff forced himself to relax. There was
nothing in his expression to reflect his swift thoughts and his
feeling of acute frustration. “I thought you had decided
against murder, sir,” he drawled, nodding at the poised pis
tol.

“I have! I mean to say, it never occurred to me in the first
place. But we are in desperate straits, my lord, and I fear
things have gone too far to back out of it now,” said Philip
with a regretful shake of the head. His chest rose quickly on a gulp of air. “So you see, my lord, I
must
shoot you if you attempt to escape.”

“Since I do not wish to be shot, I shall endeavor to make
myself an agreeable companion,” said Cardiff. If he could
disembark from the carriage, it might be possible to excite
aid from the inn’s employees or patrons. “Er—do you think your magnanimity might extend to a tankard of ale and a sandwich?”

Philip hesitated, but his hand was forced by his sister.

Thea instantly took up the cudgels. “For goodness sake,
Philip! We have been driving and driving. It is barbaric to
treat Lord Cardiff thus. I, too, would like refreshment. I
should like a cup of hot tea and some luncheon.” She stared angrily at her brother. “And I should also like a few minutes
in private, if you please!”

Philip took Thea’s meaning well enough and he flushed.
“Of course, Thea. I did not think.”

Thea curled her lip as she set her hand to the door beside her. “No, you did not. Why does that not surprise me?
That
has been patently obvious from the very first!”

With that parting shot, she pushed open the door of the
carriage and stepped down from it into the damp inn yard.
She shivered against the rawness of the cold day. A chill wind gusted round her ankles, and she was acutely aware
that her walking dress was completely inadequate. She
pulled her cloak more firmly about her, her reticule bump
ing against her side from where it dangled from her wrist.

A large hand wrapped round her arm. “Here! What are
you doing, Thea?”

Thea turned on her brother Thomas, pulling free of his
slack hold. She looked daggers at him. “I shall be quite
plain, Thomas! I am going to the privy. Perhaps you wish to
accompany me?”

Thomas’s ears turned red as he hastily declined.

Thea’s sense of the ridiculous was struck by his acute
embarrassment. It was the one good moment for several
hours. Relenting from her hostility, she smiled up at him. “Philip is going to let us all have some refreshment. I am
going to order a cup of tea. Shall I have a sandwich sent out
to you and perhaps some hot cider?”

Thomas responded with a wide grin. “That would be fine,
Thea. It is cold enough to freeze a man’s blood in his veins
today.”

Thea nodded and hurried across the yard into the inn.
Once out of the wind and cold, she walked across the front
parlor of inn to the fire and held out her chilled hands to the
crackling flames. It had been growing steadily colder in the
carriage through the long drive, but it was only now that
Thea actually realized it. Her emotions and thoughts had
been so taken up with her own and Lord Cardiff’s plight that
she had scarcely noticed anything else.

Staring into the yellow flames, Thea wondered if it really
had been only yesterday afternoon that she had been ab
ducted by her sister’s betrothed. Odd, how the course of
one’s life could hinge on a simple event like an unexpected
bequest. If her godmother had not left her a small fortune,
Mr. Quarles would not have spared a thought to her and she
would not be circumstanced in this intolerable situation.

Poor Lord Cardiff! Thea was utterly convinced that his
lordship had long since come to bitterly regret his chivalrous
actions. That was a most lowering reflection, for she would be a strange female indeed if she had not found Lord Cardiff
very attractive. Thea wished that she had met his lordship
under much different circumstances.

“Miss, may I help you?”

Thea turned, drawn out of her brown study. She discovered that the innkeeper was regarding her expectantly. Qui
etly she made known her own needs and requested
refreshments for the party.

The innkeeper’s smile faded. “You will not be requiring
a private parlor, miss?” His inflection was surprised because
in general travelers sought the warmth and congeniality of
the inn on such a freezing day.

Thea shook her head, feeling color stealing into her face, for she was aware how strange it was that she was the only
one of the party to come into the inn. “My—my brothers are
anxious to resume our journey as soon as possible.”

“Of course, miss.” the innkeeper conveyed his disap
pointment and astonishment with the short syllables. He di
rected a chambermaid to show the lady to the privy and
engaged himself to see that the sandwiches and drinks
would be prepared.

When Thea returned to the parlor, much refreshed, she
felt measurably better. The world did not look so black when
one had had the opportunity to relieve oneself and wash
one’s face and hands. Once she had drunk a cup of tea and
finished a small sandwich of roast beef slivers, she was able
to contemplate her situation with a more detached rationality and a good deal more cheerfulness. She felt she had ex
hausted whatever persuasions might have been thought to
hold sway with her brothers, but there had to be something
she had overlooked.

There were others beside herself in the parlor, but no one
had bothered her. Thea paid little attention to anything
around her as she wracked her brain for a solution to her dilemma.

Other books

Fire Bound by Sherrilyn Kenyon
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Back to the Future by George Gipe
Philip Larkin by James Booth
Andre by V. Vaughn
That Summer by Sarah Dessen
The Goodbye Body by Joan Hess
Wheels of Steel Book 4 by Pace, Pepper
Ash by Shani Petroff
Beyond Pain by Kit Rocha