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Authors: Anne O'Brien

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

The Runaway Heiress

BOOK: The Runaway Heiress
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The Runaway Heiress
Anne O'Brien
Harlequin (2012)
Rating:
*****
Tags:
Fiction, Romance, Historical, General
Fictionttt Romancettt Historicalttt Generalttt

A daring night-time escape…inside the Marquis of Aldeborough's carriage

Mistaking Miss Frances Hanwell for a runaway kitchen servant, Hugh only realizes his grave error the next day. With scandal imminent, a reluctant marriage seems the only course of action.

Reluctance turns to respect when Hugh uncovers the brutal marks of the unhappy life she's been leading. Suddenly, he will do all in his power to protect her…especially now, as an unexpected inheritance threatens to take Frances from him….

The Runaway
Heiress

Anne
O’Brien

Prologue

'M
iss Hanwell,
my lord.'

Akrill
bowed stiffly and stood aside to allow the young woman to enter the room. She
hesitated momentarily, aware of being the focus of attention from those
awaiting her. In spite of her fiercely beating heart, she walked forward and
willed herself to appear calm. From experience, she was too well aware of the
many opportunities for humiliation in her uncle's house; she could not believe
that she would escape unscathed from this situation, whatever the cause of the
peremptory summons.

'Akrill
said that you wished to see me, Uncle.' She kept her voice low and
expressionless, proud of her skill in hiding the fear that had already begun to
sink its sharp claws into her flesh.

'Come
here, girl.' Viscount Torrington gestured impatiently. 'Come and stand here.'
He pointed to the space before his desk.

She
stood tall and straight before him, defiantly meeting his hard stare. She was
unaccustomed to seeing him seated at his desk—he had neither liking nor
aptitude for matters of business—and he appeared ill at ease as he shuffled the
spread of papers before him. Aunt Cordelia sat in a straight
-
backed chair by the fireplace, her
face stony, unsmiling, but with a glint in her eye of—what? Greed? Anticipated
fulfilment? Frances could not tell. By the window, his back to her, stood
Charles, her cousin. His rigid stance and deliberate distance from the
proceedings promised her no comfort.

'You took your time,
girl.'

'I came as soon as your
message was delivered, my lord.'

Then you should know,'
Torrington continued without preamble, 'that it is all arranged.' He cast a
quick glance towards his wife, who chose to remain aloof. 'In two days' time
you will marry my son.'

To Frances the words
seemed to reach her from a great distance. They made no sense at all. Her lips
were dry and she found it difficult to form any words in reply.

'Marry Charles?' she
managed eventually.

'It is a sensible and
desirable family arrangement with financial advantages on both sides.' The
Viscount frowned at the litter of bills and receipts. 'There will be no fuss.
No guests. It will not be necessary. All the legal ends will be tied up within
the week.'

'Charles?' Frances turned
her eyes to her cousin in sheer disbelief. 'Do you want this?'

'Of course.' He turned
from his contemplation of the bleak, unkempt gardens. His face was bland, his
voice pleasing and unruffled. He allowed himself to meet her eyes fleetingly.
'It is a good settlement for all parties, you must realise. You must have
expected it, Frances.' There was a hint of impatience as he registered the
shock on her face.

'No. No, I did not... How
could I?' A cold hand closed its fingers inexorably around her heart. 'I had
thought that...' She clenched her fists in the folds of her skirts to prevent
her hands trembling. 'When I reach my majority next month I will come into my
inheritance—I can be independent. My mother's gift will allow me to—'

'Your inheritance is owed
to your family,' the Viscount interrupted with an abrupt gesture towards one of
the more official documents before him. 'Your marriage to Charles will benefit
all of us.'

'No! I will not.'

Viscountess Torrington
rose to her feet and approached her niece with pitiless eyes. 'You should be on
your knees in gratitude to us, Frances. We have given you a roof over your
head, food, clothing for the whole of your life—and with no recompense. Your
mother's high-and-mighty family wanted nothing to do with you.' She almost spat
the words as she walked to stand behind her husband, in unity against Frances.
'You owe us everything. What right have you to refuse your uncle's bidding? Now
it is time for you to repay us for our care.'

Care? Frances would have
laughed aloud if the horror had not begun to creep through her bones, her
sinews, to paralyse every reaction. All her hopes, all the plans that had
helped to sustain her, had been destroyed by her uncle's words.

'But I shall be tied here
for ever,' she whispered. 'I cannot bear it.'

'Nonsense, girl,'
Torrington blustered and swept the papers together to signal the end of the
discussion. 'The matter is now settled. You will not, of course, make any more
ill-considered attempts to leave the Hall.' His fierce glance pierced Frances.
'You are well aware of the penalties for such disobedience.'

She closed her eyes
briefly to shut out the brutal memories and her uncle's implacable face. 'Yes.
I am aware.'

'Then get back to your
work. Akrill will give you your tasks. We have guests tonight.'

Frances turned away, the
nausea of panic lodged securely in her throat. In two days she would be trapped
forever in this living hell.

 

Chapter
One

Aldeborough
lounged at his indolent ease in the corner of his travelling coach, braced
effectively against the violent lurching with one foot on the opposite cushion,
as he covered the short distance to Aldeborough Priory. He closed his eyes
against the lurking headache.

A
dense shadow, darker than its surroundings, stirred on the floor in the far
corner of the coach. The moon fleetingly illuminated a flash of pale skin.

Was
he asleep? Frances was pinning all her hopes on it. In spite of her impulsive
flight from the Hall, without possessions except for the clothes she stood up
in, and certainly without any forethought, she had chosen the coach with care.
It had just been possible for her to make
out
the shield on the door panel in the
glimmer from the flickering lamps—to distinguish a black falcon rising, wings
outspread in flight, a glitter of golden eyes and talons on a
vibrant
azure
field. It had to be Aldeborough—and he would
be
the means of her escape from
Torrington Hall for ever. She shifted slightly to ease her cramped limbs,
trying to breathe shallowly, to still the loud thudding of her heart that
seemed
to echo
in her ears. If only she could remain undiscovered
until
they arrived at the Priory, she
would have a chance
to
make her escape. And no one would be the wiser.
No one
would follow her and force her...

The Marquis moved
restlessly. Frances shrank back into her corner, tensed, rigid, until his
breathing relaxed again. She wriggled her spine against the edge of the hard
cushion. It promised to be a long journey. She closed her eyes in the dark.

Suddenly a hand shot out
with astonishing speed to grasp the folds of her cloak and pull her violently
from floor to seat where the grip transferred itself like a band of steel to
her arm. She gasped at the pain from that pressure on her previous injuries
and failed to suppress a squeak of shock and outrage at such manhandling.

'What the hell...?'
Aldeborough drew in his breath sharply, reining in his impulse to strike out at
the intruder with vicious blows to head and body as he realised his initial
mistake, and he tucked a pistol back into its pocket behind the cushions. He
laughed softly. 'Well, now. Not an opportunist footpad after all. A lady, no
less. I knew my luck was still in. What are you doing in my carriage at this
time of night—or morning, as I suppose it now is?'

'Running away, sir.' It
would be safer, Frances decided, to stick to the truth as much as she was able.
Her voice held a touch of exhaustion, which she could not disguise, strained
with other tensions that he could only guess at.

'Ah. From Torrington Hall,
I presume. Do you work there?'

'Yes, sir. In the
kitchens.'

'And do you suggest that I
should turn the coach around and return you to your employers? Would they
welcome such an open-handed gesture from me? I doubt it.' He mused on his
reluctance to return to Torrington Hall, to put himself out for an errant
kitchen wench.

'No, sir.' She tried to
keep the fear that he would do exactly that from her voice. 'I doubt it would
be worth your while. I...I am only a servant and will not be missed.'

'If not, why did you find
it necessary to hide in my coach? There appears to be some logic here that
escapes me. Do you suppose it is the brandy that is impairing my thought processes?'
he enquired conversationally.

'Undoubtedly, sir.'

'So what do I do with you
now?'

'You could take me to the
Priory, sir.' She sank her teeth into her bottom lip as she awaited his answer.

'I could. That would be
the easiest course of action. I could hand you over to Mrs— Devil take it! I
have forgotten her name—my housekeeper. It would be far better to work for me
at the Priory than for Torrington, I would wager.'

'It could not be worse,
sir.' Her agreement was low, little more than a whisper. He almost missed her
words.

There was silence for a
short time as Aldeborough contemplated his unexpected travelling companion.

'Come and sit beside me.'

'I would rather remain
here, sir.' I must remain calm, she told herself as panic began to build inside
her. 'We seem to be travelling at great speed.' She was wedged into the opposite
corner, hanging on to the straps and as far away from him as possible.

Without more ado and once
more taking her completely by surprise, Aldeborough leaned forward, grasped her
wrist and pulled her ungently on to the seat next to him. She pushed herself back
against the cushions only just preventing herself from falling against him or
on to the floor as the onside wheel of the coach fell into a pothole. A full
moon illuminated the carriage interior, but it was sufficiently erratic to
allow the lady to hide with some relief her flushed cheeks and lack of
composure. And, even more importantly, her identity.

'So, we have established,
to some extent at least, why you are here...so now—' his gaze fixed on her
unwaveringly like that of a hunting falcon '—tell me your name.'

'Molly Bates, sir,' she
replied instantly in flat tones, thinking furiously and casting truth to the
winds, intensely aware that he still had possession of her wrist and his grasp
was burning a bracelet into her flesh.

'Well, Molly Bates, I am
afraid that I am drunk.'

'Yes, my lord.' Although
there was no indication other than the reckless fire in his eyes and a slight
slurring of his words. 'I believe you will have a fierce headache tomorrow.'
She felt a certain malicious satisfaction in her prediction of his forthcoming
discomfort.

'I wouldn't take your
bet.' He grinned, showing a flash of white teeth. 'Let me look at you.'

He pulled her closer, then
released her wrist to push her chin up with his free hand and smooth the dark
curls that, with unconfined waywardness, tended to hide her features. She was
unable to meet his eyes, which searched her face, but sat stiffly, willing
herself not to pull away from him. It might be wise, she told herself, if she
did nothing to provoke him. He was clearly capable of reckless and
unpredictable behaviour. She could expect no pity here if he were to discover
the truth. She trembled beneath his fingers.

'How old are you, Molly?'
he asked abruptly.

'Almost one and twenty, my
lord.'

With his thumb he traced her
fine cheekbones and then along the line of her jaw. Instinctively, she pulled
back with an intake of breath in protest.

'I won't hurt you, you
know.' His voice was as smooth and rich as velvet. 'Not if you are obedient, of
course. You must understand that there is a price to pay if a pretty girl takes
refuge uninvited in the coach of a gentleman to whom she has not been
introduced.'

She swallowed
convulsively—she could not mistake his meaning. 'Yes, my lord.' In spite of her
intentions to do nothing to antagonise him, she made no attempt to hide the
wealth of bitterness and disgust in her reply.

Aldeborough laughed
softly; it made Frances's blood run cold.

Suddenly his hand
tightened in her hair and he drew her inexorably closer. 'You have spirit,
Molly. I like that.'

Before she could respond
he bent his head and crushed her mouth with his own. She struggled, her hands
braced with all her strength against his chest, but to no avail against the
power of his well-muscled body. His arm encircled her shoulders with
uncompromising strength, his lips merciless, assaulting her senses, demanding
a response. She was determined to make none, but the play of his tongue along
her bottom lip sent a shiver through her body. When he deepened the kiss she
fought to prevent her mouth from opening treacherously under his. She had
never been kissed before and was horrified at the turmoil of emotions that
surged within her.

Then he released her as
suddenly as he had pounced.

'How dare you!' Anger won
when she had recovered enough breath to speak, and decided, however waywardly,
that she did not care to be kissed in that manner.

'Dare?' He laughed. 'Since
you were unwise enough to accompany me, to throw yourself on my mercy, then I
call the tune. And you, darling Molly, must dance to it. You will very soon
discover that I
have
no mercy. Besides, why
the outrage? I am sure that you have been kissed before, as pretty as you are.
Surely you have a greasy-handed sweetheart in the kitchens of Torrington Hall?'

'No. I do not. And I gave
you no leave to call me by my name.' As she could think of no other response,
she took refuge in formal dignity, however much it might sit at odds with her
role of the hapless Molly. 'You are no gentleman, my lord!'

Again Aldeborough laughed,
but with an edge of cynicism. 'Perhaps not, my dear, but I vow I shall be a
good lover.' As Frances gasped in renewed outrage, he tightened his hold and
his mouth claimed hers once more.

This time the movement of
the carriage came to Frances's rescue. As the violent lurching flung them apart
Frances took the opportunity to throw herself into the opposite corner again,
where he viewed her with some amusement.

'Perhaps this is not the
most comfortable situation for a seduction scene.' His mouth smiled, but she
knew that she could look for no sympathy from this man. 'We can wait until we
reach the Priory. Don't look so apprehensive, Mistress Molly. I will not touch
you. Not until we get home, anyway.'

He wedged himself into the
corner of the coach again, leaned his head back on the cushions and closed his
eyes. Within a few minutes his breathing had deepened and he appeared to be
asleep, leaving Frances the opportunity to review the traumatic events of the
past hour. Her uncle's callous indifference. The decanter of port as spoilt
and fractured as her dreams of love and happiness. She closed her fingers
around the stained napkin on her wrist and fought back the tears that
threatened to engulf her. You are just tired, she told herself. Tomorrow you
will be free of all this. She turned her head and studied her heedless rescuer
in the fitful moonlight. It was a handsome face, not classically fair like her
cousin, hut a face which compelled her attention. His skin was tanned from time
spent outdoors in all weathers. He had a straight, masterful nose, a firm chin
and hooded eyes, hidden now in sleep, but as uncompromisingly grey as a
northern winter sea. Lines of cynicism were engraved between nose and mouth—
that mouth, unsmiling now but with such beautifully sculpted lips. His hair was
thick and dark with a tendency to wave, his brows equally dark and well marked.
It was a face of flat planes, and strong angles, a face used to authority and
command and to keeping its own secrets. It betrayed no softness—indeed, in
repose his face was stern and austere. He would be a dangerous man to cross in
spite of the indolent manner she had witnessed tonight.

Her eyes dropped to his
hands and she shivered at the memory of his touch. She had never been touched
like that by any man. They were elegantly long fingered, but they had left her
in no doubt as to their strength. She shivered again and clasped her arms
around her for comfort as her spine was touched by an icy finger of fear. What
had she got herself in to? She had left without considering the wisdom of her
actions—anything to escape from Torrington Hall, a callously contrived
marriage and the never-ending authority of her uncle. A means of escape had
been offered and she had leapt to grasp it with both hands. But at what cost? Frances
found that her tired brain could come to no conclusion at all. She touched her
cold fingers to her mouth, which still burned from a stranger's unwanted
kisses.

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