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Authors: Holly Newman

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Leona didn't see Deveraux until the afternoon of the next day and had no opportunity to relay the information as to the identity of the last evening's would-be horse thief. Lady Nevin and Maria clucked and fussed over the gash in her arm. It was long and cut into the muscle, but it was not serious—though they warned it would hurt for some time. Together they cleaned the wound and bandaged her arm. Over Leona's protests, they ordered Leona carried to her room. Once washed, her hair brushed, and her nightgown on, Lady Nevin insisted Leona drink laudanum to help her sleep. Laughing weakly, Leona said she now knew where Deveraux inherited his stubbornness. Lady Nevin smiled thinly and calmly agreed before insisting again that she drink the sedative. Leona gave up and did as she requested.

Soon, she was deeply asleep. She slept heavily until noon the next day. She neither heard nor saw the door to her bedchamber open and a tall, broad-shouldered figure glide silently over to the bed to gaze down on her as she slept, an expression of hunger, pain, and worry in his clear blue eyes.

The next day Leona's arm was sore and stiff, but thankfully free of infection. Satisfied that her guest would not suffer lasting injury, Lady Nevin allowed Leona to get dressed and come downstairs—so long as she promised to keep her arm in a sling to hold it immobile and prevent reopening of the wound.

The maid Betsy, who had been seeing after Leona since she came to Castle Marin, was so mindful of Lady Nevin's strictures when helping Leona get dressed that Leona was ready to scream with frustration. She kept her temper and suffered Betsy's slow ministrations in silence. She was tempted to point out to the maid that it was her arm that was injured and not her head, for she'd never had a slower hairstylist in her life, but she refrained. Finally she was deemed ready to go downstairs, and this time, after quite firmly refusing to be carried anywhere, she joined the family in the parlor.

The gentlemen rose instantly to their feet and were at her side inquiring after her health. She assured them, struggling against laughter, that she was fine.

"Though I'm beginning to believe that is not the answer anyone wants to hear!"

"Nonsense,
ma pauvre
," said Lady Nevin. "But it is thanks once again that has us so attentive."

Leona laughed as she sat down in a chair before the fireplace. "Thanks for what? I'm afraid I bungled my gallant deeds."

"Bungled? Not at all! You are again our heroine. First you warn us of fire, then you prevent Nigel's prize stallion from being stolen!"

"Oh, then he didn't get Nuit? I wasn't certain. . . ."

"Nuit obligingly jumped the fence into the paddock. When we found him, he was placidly eating grass as if nothing happened," explained Deveraux. "But why did you do it?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why did you risk your life to rescue a horse?"

She looked at him queerly. "I did not stop to think. It simply seemed the right thing to do at the time."

"Miss Leonard, you really have to curb this instinct of yours to leap willy-nilly into every fray. If Wellington had done that, Napoleon would no doubt have won by attrition alone!"

"What would you have had me do?" she inquired acidly. "Hide in the shadows wringing my hands?"

"Yes! A woman does not belong on the battlefield. That is a man's duty. A woman's is to home and hearth."

"I say, old man, that is doing it a bit brown," protested Fitzhugh.

Deveraux glared at him. He knew he was irrational; however, the memory of Leona streaked with blood and dirt would not leave his mind. The woman was headstrong and impetuous. She needed to be saved from herself or surely she would come to harm.

"Why, you conceited, pompous ass! Do you men hold the sole prerogative to action? No! A person's duty, any person's, is to family and fellow man!"

"Typical of a woman not to mention a person's country, as well."

"All right! We'll say to one's country, too! The point, you idiot, is that no one should sit and observe someone or someone else's property being harmed! We have a responsibility, a duty, to treat our fellow man as we wish ourselves to be treated, and quite frankly, I would wish someone to prevent my horse from being stolen or to rescue my niece if he had the opportunity."

"Why?" he asked with unruffled calm, his arms crossed over his chest as he stood towering over her.

"Nigel! Nigel! For shame!" scolded his mother.

He turned toward his mother. "I should like to know why she has so little regard for her own life."

"Oh, is that what you have, little regard for your own life?" Leona asked waspishly. "I know what your problem is, Mr. Deveraux. Jealousy."

"I beg your pardon." His voice was suddenly deadly cold, his stance rigid.

Dark waves of anger emanated from him, buffeting Leona. She threw her head up, her chin thrusting forward. "You heard me. I say you are eaten up with jealousy because you did not get an opportunity to thrash Howard North yourself."

"Howard North!" exclaimed several at once. Shock and incredulity mingled in their voices.

Leona flushed, her head sinking. Guilt softened her expression. "Yes. I meant to tell you last night, but.. ." Deveraux slowly lowered his arms and turned to pace the room. He ran his fingers through his thick pelt of hair, disheveling it. "So I was correct. These Norths are motivated by more than greed," he said heavily.

"What is there besides greed?" asked Lucy.

"Vengeance?" suggested Leona softly.

Deveraux nodded grimly. "A possibility. But vengeance for what? Mother, Lucy—do either of you know anything that Brandon ever did that might cause someone to swear vengeance?"

Lady Nevin laughed hollowly. "
Ne rien
. You know that."

"What about Jonathan Tregate?" Deveraux asked. "He was pretty well cut up over his father's death. Didn't he blame Brandon?"

"For a time only. He soon realized Brandon had nothing to do with his father's death. It was just an accident. The real problem was that Tregate had no heart for farming— particularly the home farm. He wanted to emigrate. Brandon arranged for him to emigrate to Canada fifteen months ago.... Brandon was
tres gentil
always.
Alors
, even when that tiresome Miss Northythe, the surveyor's daughter, fell in love with him when he was confined to a bed in their home after breaking his leg while riding, it tortured him to take his leave of her. He thought perhaps he had in some way led her on, but her father convinced him it was missish nonsense. She was dreaming above herself. The fault of
beaucoup
novels. So, I ask, can a man who would care for a country girl's feelings be a man to cause vengeance in the breast of others?
Non et non et non.
"

Leona sighed. "Whatever the reason, I am cognizant of the fact that I owe you an apology, Mr. Deveraux."

He turned his head, to look over his shoulder at her.

She smiled ruefully. "I never believed they would actually do anything more. Even when I received that button, I thought it merely a bit of childish spite to try to scare me."

"What button?" asked Lucy.

Leona flushed, realizing too late that Lucy was never apprised of her real reason for coming to Castle Marin.

"Two days before I came here, I received a box with a button from the suit I wore when I rescued Chrissy. It was accompanied by a threatening note warning of reprisals for my actions that night. When your brother learned of the note and button, he sent a coach to fetch Maria and me. In truth, I did not believe it necessary and I'll grant I came with ill grace."

"So that is what all the antipathy has been between you! I did wonder, you know, for you are both so much alike."

Two heads spun around to stare open-mouthed at Lucy. She grinned briefly, then her eyes narrowed, and her mouth twisted into a grim line. "What I do not understand is why I was not told of this!" she said archly, tapping one tiny foot impatiently against the Axminster carpet.

Fitzhugh laughed and came up to drape an arm around her shoulder. "I'm afraid, my dear, you shall ever be the baby to your mother and brother."

"But what of you?" she asked, twisting free from him.

He spread his hands deprecatingly. "He was a higher rank than I in the army. The habit of service, I suppose."

Lucy made a disgusted noise deep in her throat.

"Then, too, Lucy, you do not have the constitution for keeping secrets," said her mother dryly.

Lucy opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. "You're wrong. You're all wrong, though I know no amount of argument on my part will convince you otherwise. I make this promise to you. I shall not let anyone else know of this, of that you may be assured. Then you will see that I can keep a secret! By the way, why must the revenge—if that is what it is—be targeted against Brandon? Maybe they're against the Earl of Nevin in general, without caring who is currently Earl. Like that Hinkley fellow Father had deported seven years ago for horse theft. Now if you all will excuse me, I have to see Miss Yardmouth for another fitting." Her skirts swirled angrily about her legs as she turned to go, her face set in a grim line.

"Oh dear," murmured Maria Sprockets feeling for the proud young woman.

Lady Nevin waved her hand airily. "
Oui
, but do not be overly concerned. My daughter, she is made of sterner stuff. Still, perhaps Maria, if you would be so good as to bear her company this afternoon—"

Maria brightened. "Until she calms? Yes, of course. I should be delighted. Besides," she said rising to her feet and walking toward the door, "I have yet to see her wedding dress, or talk to Miss Yardmouth on my own for a ballgown. Though it does seem rather silly, a woman of my age and station attending a ball," she tentatively suggested.

Leona hid a smile. The prospect of attending a ball wrought unbelievable changes in the retiring Miss Sprockett. Before Leona's eyes years were falling away from her former governess. It was amazing to her to consider how little she knew her friend. She would never have thought Maria harbored yearnings for society—though, when one considered the carefully preserved wedding chest in Maria's bedroom at Rose Cottage, it should not have been a surprise.

"Nonsense, Maria. We insist. It is settled. No more talk,
s'il vous plait
."

"Oh, yes, of course," Maria said, happily flustered and pink-cheeked as she left the room.

"You are very kind to my companion," Leona said.

"But, of course! And why not? Though I should warn you, I am fast becoming quite attached to Maria myself."

Leona laughed. "Thinking to hire her away from me?"

Lady Nevin shrugged. "Not so long as you have need of her, but that may be not be forever,
hein
?"

Leona blushed. "I do not intend to get married."

"Why is that, Miss Leonard?" Deveraux asked, coming to sit in the chair vacated by Maria.

"Because my brother needs me, and I have a duty to him," she said simply, as if it were obvious.

Deveraux and Fitzhugh exchanged glances. How well they remembered Captain Leonard's deprecating comments about his little sister. Then, too, there was the news in Keirsmyth's letter.

"But what if your brother were to marry?" Deveraux asked neutrally while seemingly absorbed in removing a piece of lint from his coat sleeve.

Leona laughed. "To marry, my brother needs to wed an heiress and has often stated that to be his object. But I put it to you, what heiress would wish to marry a mere country gentleman when there are impoverished peers on the hook for a wife? My brother, though I love him dearly, is not often clear-thinking. No. My position in my brother's life is secure."

He tilted his head. "I bow to your superior knowledge."

"Piffle. You are merely for the moment at point-non-plus. You, Deveraux, would never bow to me in any way!"

He relaxed then and grinned a slashing, feral grin. "At least we understand each other, Miss Leonard."

"Indeed we do, indeed we do," she said comfortably as she settled back in her chair, satisfied with achieving a win over Nigel Deveraux.

Leona's fragile feelings of good-will toward Deveraux saw no obstruction during the next few days. This was from a two-fold cause.

First, she rationalized, a man given to army life—which Deveraux had lived for four years—would naturally come to view action as a uniquely male province. This was an unfortunate occurrence; however, given time and distance from a military life, she was certain such an outlook would fade in his perspective. The truth was that the women of England had become more independent and cognizant of their unique capabilities. Coupled with this circumstance came the expedience for action, particularly in the last generation or two as the sons of the English aristocracy and the landed country gentry became involved in war in far distant locales, thereby insuring long absences from the mother country. Thus, when these men returned home to pick up their long discarded reins, they discovered women handling situations that were normally men's alone. This was unsettling to the men. On the one hand, they grudgingly admitted praise should be offered, but on the other hand was that niggling notion that they—men—were becoming virtually superfluous. Add to this the rise of the industrial and mercantile ranks to the status of wealth, and the propertied men—from whence for centuries wealth was measured—felt pressured that their old social order was changing. Quite simply they did not know how to handle the changes—particularly as the specter of the French Revolution continued in memory.

Secondly, Nigel Deveraux was acting under a particularly noisome handicap. He was responsible for the well-being of his family at a time when, for unknown reasons, some people were determined to do the family and estate harm.

It was not, Leona ruefully admitted to herself, the best of circumstances in which to see either the contributions made by women or to recognize their capabilities.

With these realizations, and with the acknowledgment of a continuing danger, Leona felt it wise to rethink her position in the Deveraux household and show grace under pressure. Instead of feeling useless, as she had when she first arrived, it became Leona's objective to lighten Deveraux's load by not showing the independence of spirit that was her wont. Furthermore, she determined to show him a friendly countenance and thereby perhaps lead him to rethink his position regarding women. The poor man currently had enough troubles without her adding to them with pressure that he acknowledge women and their new status in society. What was that old adage? You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink? Thus it was with Deveraux. She could only continue to lead him to water and hope that he would one day decide to drink from the waters of her experience and the experiences of other women.

The truth was—although Leona only peripherally appreciated it—she enjoyed the easy camaraderie and teasing she and Deveraux were capable of achieving. He possessed a ready wit which delighted Leona, for it was something she'd never been able to share with her own brothers.

She discovered much to her surprise that she could be happy at Castle Marin. In truth, she realized she'd been happy even while vexed with inactivity and boredom. It was puzzling. At first the days lagged. Not so as of late, yet she was beyond understanding the difference.

She was happy, that is, until the third morning after the fire and aborted horse theft, when an unusually sullen Betsy waited upon her.

"Gracious, Betsy, gently," Leona admonished when for the fourth time the maid pulled her hair while brushing it.

"Sorry," mumbled Betsy. She gave it another vicious yank.

"Betsy!" Leona pulled out of her reach and turned on the low stool to face her. "Whatever is the matter with you, my girl?"

Betsy threw the brush on the dressing table. "I don't hold with traitors."

"What?"

She stomped over to the cupboard. The door opened with a bang. "Be this dress to your ladyship's likin'?" she asked, drawing out the word ladyship as if it bore a particularly foul stench.

Leona rose and walked toward her. "I remind you I do not have a title nor do I anticipate gaining one. Now I ask you, who is a traitor?"

Betsy rummaged about for a clean chemise, petticoat, and stockings. She tossed the lot on the bed. "I be thinkin' it be right odd that ye were the one to rescue Lady Chrissy from yer own house." She faced Leona with arms akimbo, hands on her hips, and the light of anger's fire in her eyes. "Then, too, it be peaceful enough for weeks till ye come here."

Leona leaned back against the dressing table and stared at Betsy in wide-eyed astonishment. "Are you daring to accuse me of having a hand in Lady Christiana's kidnapping?"

Betsy lowered her arms and shuffled her feet. "That's wot they're all beginnin' to say."

"Who's beginning to say?"

"Everyone!"

"Everyone in the servant's hall you mean? To what purpose?" she asked when she saw Betsy mulishly lower her head.

"I-I don't know. That's wot no one has figured yet."

Leona sighed heavily. "I swear to you, Betsy, I had nothing to do with that. I never heard of the Deverauxs or Castle Marin until I met Lady Chrissy."

"Ha! I'll not swallow that bouncer. The Earl of Nevin, he be known all over England! He's rich and-and he's important, too!"

Leona looked up at the ceiling, praying for salvation from the provincial mentality. She looked back at Betsy. "Do you think Mr. Deveraux or Lady Nevin would have me here if they thought I were a threat?"

"I'll grant ye be mighty innocent actin'. Ye fooled the family but ye ain't fooled the staff, so count yerself warned!"

"Betsy!" Leona cried, exasperated. "Oh, never mind. If that is to be your attitude, then I suggest you leave. I've done well enough for myself for years. It shall not harm me to do so again." She turned her back on her and returned to the dressing table to pick up the discarded brush and pull it through her long, thick hair. She brushed it vigorously with long, rhythmic, angry strokes.

Betsy watched her uncertainly. "Yer not going t'order me to serve ye?"

"No."

Betsy wrung her hands on her apron. "Yer not going to complain to the master?"

"And say what? ‘Oh, you know that maid you gave me? Well, she is just not going to work out. She thinks me capable of doing harm to that delightful little niece of yours.'" Leona said with treacle sweetness. "She also thinks I tried to steal your horse and set fire to the dovecote and who knows what else. No, she just is not working out—' There, is that what you would have me say?"

"N-no."

She threw up her hands. "Well, maybe I should. Maybe then he would let me leave and go back home!"

"Ye want to go home?"

"I never wanted to come here! But the great Nigel Deveraux decreed that I come to Castle Marin for my own safety. Ha! What a laugh. I am sick with the humor of it!" Leona raged. "Sick—sick—sick!"

"Wot do ye mean, fer yer safety?"

"Two days before I came here I received a threatening letter vowing revenge for my saving Lady Chrissy. Not that I expect you or your fellows to believe me, for you have me tried and sentenced! But it does not seem as if I am in the most enviable position, does it? Oh, forget it.... What am I talking to you for?" She wound her coronet of hair high on her head. With jerky, angry movements she stuck the pins in to hold it up, scraping her scalp.

Leona stood up to throw off her dressing gown. She looked up to see Betsy still standing by the bed.

"What? Are you here still? Why don't you run along back to your servants' hall and make up more tales to paint me blacker still!" She put on her chemise, petticoat, and stockings, ignoring the maid. When she moved to toss her dress over her head, Betsy reached out a hand to help her.

"Don't touch me!" Leona shrilled. The eyes she turned toward Betsy glittered with unshed tears, though twin flags of red anger flew high on her cheeks.

"I-I'm sorry, miss." She licked her lips. "Mayhap we were a mite hasty—"

"Hasty! Hasty, you call it!" Leona's chest heaved. "I have never suffered the service of those who would not give it willingly. I do not intend to start. You may leave. Now!"

"Oh, m-miss," the little maid sobbed. She turned and ran from the room.

Leona slowly sank down onto the rumbled bed. She grabbed one of the pillows, cradling it to her chest as the tears began to flow in earnest. Could they actually believe her guilty? Yes. And if they did, how far might their tales travel? Dismally she remembered Deveraux's tale of her heroism among the country people. What were they now saying?

Suddenly she was frightened, more frightened than she'd ever been in her entire life. What was she going to do?

It took more than an hour for Leona to compose herself enough to venture out of her room. She knew that she was helpless against scurrilous rumors. People believed what they wanted to believe and, sad to say, they always tended to believe the worst!

Her best defense—nay, her only defense—lay in not granting importance to the accusations. She was innocent and she numbered one of the victims. To hide in her room or to leave Castle Marin—with or without Deveraux's blessing—would be tantamount to admitting guilt. That she would never do. Though she detested scenes with servants, she was not a quitter.

Before finishing her toilette, she splashed water on her face to ease her puffy eyes and blotchy complexion. She took her time in dressing, giving her face the opportunity to erase the signs of bitter weeping.

When she went downstairs to breakfast, she was gratified to find she was the last to arrive. To her relief Deveraux and Fitzhugh had breakfasted earlier and were out on the estate. Lady Nevin and Maria sat with their heads close together, a sheaf of closely written paper before them as they discussed preparations for the upcoming ball. Lucy was the only one to notice her entrance.

"La, how late you are, Leona. I shall tease you dreadfully for this, you know. I've heard how you often get up with the dawn at Rose Cottage. You're fast becoming a slug-a-bed!" Her eyes sparkled merrily as she spread jam on a last bit of muffin.

Leona smiled wanly and agreed. She reached for the chocolate pot, but a footman was before her. He grabbed it and offered to refill Lucy's cup. She waved him away. He moved around the table to Lady Nevin and Maria to refill their cups, then he carried the pot out of the room. No one else seemed to notice his gross act of insolence. Leona bit her lower lip, wondering if she dare ask him to bring it back. She decided she was not ready for another scene. She went to the sideboard to get the coffee pot instead. The footman returned while she was pouring herself a cup. He glowered, and Leona repressed a smile. In reprisal, he began to gather all the food from the sideboard to return to the kitchen. Boldly Leona grabbed the muffin platter out of his hand, daring him with a blank look to fight her for it. He sniffed haughtily and grabbed the jam pot from the table. That last finally caught Lady Nevin's attention.

"Jason, whatever are you about? Leona has just come down to breakfast. Leave those things. You can collect them later," she said off-handedly before returning her attention to Maria and their lists.

With ill grace the footman abandoned the tray he'd loaded with food and stalked out of the room.

"I'd wager he's made an assignation with one of the maids that he's anxious to make," giggled Lucy.

Leona choked on a muffin crumb. "N-no doubt," she managed.

"Leona, do you feel quite the thing? Your eyes look funny."

"Do they? I didn't sleep well last night. Perhaps that's why," she lied weakly.

"Oh, dear, and here I was teasing you dreadfully about being late. I'm sorry."

Leona shook her head and waved her apology aside. "You couldn't know."

"Well, you must see that you get some rest today. Though most of the people who will stay here for the ball will not be arriving until tomorrow, Nigel says we are to receive some special guests late this afternoon. He won't say who they are. He's being terribly secretive about it."

Leona mumbled some response, but Lucy did not pay attention. She was already thinking of other issues. "Mrs. Hatcher has written to say that a gouty foot must keep her from my betrothal dinner and ball. But she shall be sure to come to the wedding even if it must be in a sedan chair. She is the dearest soul. But the upshot is that we shall have an empty place at the table, so Mother has decided to let Chrissy come to the dinner. Isn't that wonderful! I can't wait to tell her. She shall wear the beautiful little dress we had made up for her last Christmas. It will be perfect, but I think we will probably need to change the ribbons. What do you say we steal her away from that dragon governess of hers and take her into the village to buy ribbons and perhaps new stockings and gloves as well?"

"That will be delightful," Leona said softly.

"Good, then while you finish, I shall tell her."

Leona watched her leave, then sighed, wondering how she was going to get through the day. She turned back toward her plate to discover Maria watching her.

"Are you taking sick again, Leona?"

"No! No! Not at all. I'm just tired."

"
Humph
. So I heard you tell Lady Lucy, but I've been around you longer than she has, and I know something is the matter."

"It is nothing, really."

"Leona Clymene Leonard, you never could lie worth a ha'penny."

"Especially not to you," Leona countered with a smile, hoping to divert her friend.

She failed.

"Just so, now what is it?"

"
Oui, ma pauvre
. What has you so pinched looking?"

Lady Nevin came around the table to feel Leona's brow with a cool, delicate touch. "It may be more than thirty years since I was a physician's wife, but there are things one does not forget or stop." With gentle fingers she tilted Leona's head up and looked into her face. "Oh, what is this? You are not sick. You have been crying. Why is this? You are unhappy?"

"Yes—No! It is nothing. Missish nonsense," Leona assured her, summoning up her best smile.

Lady Nevin eyed her shrewdly. "Me, I do not think you have ever been missish, eh, Maria?"

BOOK: A Heart in Jeopardy
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