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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

The Smithfield Bargain (9 page)

BOOK: The Smithfield Bargain
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With the change in the weather, she could learn finally if Bradley still was alive. She feared hope would die with the truth.

“Didn't you hear Dora calling you to nuncheon? I daresay you did not expect your meal to be brought to you here.”

She whirled to see James standing on the far side of the hearth. In her reverie, she had not heard him enter. When he closed the distance between them, she discovered that even on the rushes his steps were as silent as if he was walking through the muffling snow.

“Good day to you, sir,” she returned with cool hauteur. “It is a pleasure to see you looking so well today.” She lowered her eyes so he could not see that she was startled that the sarcastic words were the truth, for the gray tint had vanished from beneath his healthy tan.

“You look much the better also for a few good nights's sleep.” He plucked at the sleeve of the dress she had borrowed from Ellen. “Mayhap this is not
à la mode
, but your appearance without your tatters is much improved as well.”

“I was not aware that you took note of the state of my clothing.”

His eyes twinkled as his fingers boldly swept along her shoulder. “My dear Romayne, did you think I was indifferent to anything about you?”

“Other than my feelings?” she snapped, stepping away from him before his teasing touch could lure her into doing something caper-witted like believing he had thoughts of her other than being rid of her.

“I see your temper has not improved. I have tidings that may help. Cameron went out and about this morning. He reports the roads should be passable soon.”

“I suspect you find that pleasing news,” she said, turning back to the window.

“Lovanenty!”

In spite of her determination to end the conversation, she looked at him as she asked, “Lovanenty? What does that mean?”

“It is nothing.” He rubbed the bandaging on his right arm absently as he frowned. “Just an expression of astonishment at your conspicuous disinterest in returning home to England.”

Romayne smiled sadly as she sat on the settee. “I probably would be more excited if I was certain that I had a home to go back to. Grange spends half her time, as you recall, bemoaning the fact that she fears despair for me may have brought the end of my grandfather's life.”

“He is quite definitely alive.”

Sitting straighter, she gasped, “How do you know? Have you heard from him?”

“How would your esteemed grandfather know to write to me?”

“Then how—?”

“Mr. Bain received this yesterday.” He drew a slip of tattered paper from beneath his brown coat.

“Mr. Bain?”

“The shopkeeper in town.”

As she took the paper and spread it in her lap, she realized it was a broadsheet. Her eyes widened as she read:

INFORMATION SOUGHT

ON

PRESENT WHEREABOUTS OF LADY

ROMAYNE SMITHFIELD

LAST SEEN

COLDSTREAM, SCOTLAND

The page went on with a description of her and what she had been wearing the night she had eloped with Bradley. Small print at the bottom offered a generous reward for any valid facts brought to Lawson Smithfield, Duke of Westhampton, Westhampton Hall, Yorkshire.

Her fingers brushed the letters of her grandfather's name. Pain lashed her. How Grandfather must be worrying! This was the result of her headstrong disobedience. Tears burned in her eyes as she whispered, “Why did you wait until now to show me this if it arrived yesterday?”

“It arrived at the store yesterday, not here. Mr. Bain's delivery lad brought it this morning with the chickens that Dora had ordered.” He arched a reddish brow at her as she looked up at him.

Folding the paper carefully, she started to store it beneath her bodice. Her fingers froze as his heated gaze penetrated them with its fierce heat. As it roamed along her before settling on her hand that was inches from her heart, she slowly placed the page on the table beside her. She would not have to worry about forgetting it, for it was the first sign that her grandfather had forgiven her.

“Speaking of the chickens, go and get something to eat before you fade away.”

James's quiet command infuriated her, because it warned her that he did not intend to break his habit of ordering her about as if she was one of his recruits. In the same icy voice, she said, “I find your sudden interest in my well-being startling, Major.”

She had thought he would entreat her not to use his title, but he only smiled as he said, “You should not, my lady. Not under these circumstances.”

“Circumstances? Pray, what circumstances do you refer to?”

“The fact that we are getting married.”

“Married?”

“Must you parrot everything I say?”

“Only because I am wondering if you are as insane as everyone else.” She brushed her hands on her skirt to hide their quivering. “Why do you think I would wish to marry you when I am in love with another man?”

“Who may be dead.”

Romayne wondered how he could be so cruel. His unfeeling words ripped through her as if he was slashing a hot poker into her stomach. “That does not change my heart.”

“Nor would I expect it to, but you must own that it changes your life. If he is dead, you cannot marry—What was his name?”

“Bradley Montcrief,” she whispered.

“Romayne, as much as you, I wish you and Montcrief had reached Coldstream without incident. Duffie's attack on you has ruined your plans and mine, but it is no reason to think that it should ruin our lives, which apparently we shall be spending together from this point forward. If you stop ignoring the fact that, according to Grange—who has set herself as the sole arbiter of the canons of propriety—you cannot return to England unmarried, you might find it easier to accept the inevitable.”

“Marrying you is not the inevitable.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that I am no more pleased with this match than you.”

“You are beastly!” Romayne stood and fisted her hands at her sides.

“Would you as lief that I knelt and professed a hypocritical desire for you to share my life?”

“I wish you were as dead as your horse!” All color vanished from her face, and she gasped at her own appalling words. “Just take your mad ideas and begone from my life!”

When she would have stamped past him, he caught her arm. A tug warned her that, despite his injured arm, he could subdue her with a single hand. Pulling her closer, he said nothing. Her heart thundered against her ribs as she stared up into the mysterious eyes in his sternly sculptured face. He was a man as untamed as the hills surrounding the isolated hamlet, and he was proving as dangerous to her as the highwaymen.

“Stop your petulant posturing,” he ordered in a taut voice. “Throwing a temper tantrum will change nothing. Perhaps you can get your way by acting like a spoiled brat in your grandfather's house, but you shall not here. Show a bit of savvy, and realize that you have no choice in this matter any longer, if you wish to leave Scotland with your abigail and man.”

“Grange would not force me to marry you.”

“No? I believe she is quite sincere when she asserts that we must wed. She was most resolute on that matter when she came upon you sleeping in my arms.”

“If you told her you refused to be a party to this insanity, Grange would realize her plan is cockle-brained.”

He sat on the arm of the settee and smiled up at her. “But, my dear Romayne, I have decided that it might be in my best interests to marry you.”

“Why? So you can collect the reward Grandfather offered? I can assure you that he will be as good as his word. You need not be my husband to lay claim to it.”

“Did you pause to think that the reward is not the only thing I wish to lay claim to? I saved your life, Romayne. Now you owe me a duty.”

Romayne drew away from him, shocked by his words. When he released her, she struggled to keep her lips from quivering with the sobs pounding on them. He was correct. She knew that, but she rebelled against following any of his edicts. Grandfather issued his orders, expecting her to follow them without quibbling, but she loved him! She wanted to make Grandfather happy. She did not love this overbearing, selfcentered Scotsman.

James would be a constant reminder of the
tendre
she had felt for Bradley, an affection she feared would haunt the rest of her days. Each time she looked at James, she would see Bradley's face in the moments before they were forced from the carriage.

“You need not take a pipe,” James said softly when she did not reply.

“Excuse me?” Her pain became fury. “Why can't you speak the King's good English? I tire of your silly words. Do you think to undo me by speaking nonsense in your heathen tongue?”

“I only offered you solace, Romayne. You need not cry.”

“Mayhap my tears will convince you of the insanity of leg-shackling yourself to me.”

“I am afraid that nothing will alter my feelings on this matter.” He sighed and walked to the hearth. Putting another log onto the fire, he stood.

Silhouetted against the winter whiteness beyond the panes, he showed no reaction when she said, “No matter what you say, you cannot hide that you wish to marry me no more than I wish to marry you. Why are you letting Grange coerce you into this? You do not seem the kind of man to cater to an old woman's decrees.”

“I have not been coerced into anything. I simply see the wisdom of a match with you.”

“Why?”

Facing her, he had no expression on his features or in his voice. “Because I sent Cameron out to reconnoiter this morning.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“More than you obviously have guessed.” He smiled coldly. “Cameron reports that the turncoat we are trying to capture has hied back to England and is reported to be heading south.”

“A turncoat?”

“A man who is ready to trade England's future for a purse of French gold.”

Icy horror enveloped her. “Is this why you were out in the blizzard?”

“Do not ask too many questions, Romayne, for I cannot answer them.”

Ignoring his warning, she asked, “You know who is he?”

“Not for sure, but certain clues point in the direction of England.” Raising his hand, he halted her next question. “Ask no more. Too much knowledge of this traitorous sport could put you in danger. Mayhap your late betrothed felt that way, too.”

Romayne laughed. “Bradley mixed up in double-dealing? I have never heard anything so absurd.”

“Was it your idea to elope?”

“No.”

“Why didn't he take you to Gretna Green? That is where most English couples go when they elope.”

She tried to shrug, but her shoulders were so strained that they balked. An ache raced along her back. “Coldstream is much closer to Westhampton Hall. Why cross the country?”

“He suggested nothing else?”

“James, I can assure you that Bradley has no interest in politics. His life revolves around his club-mates and the hunt.”

His lips twisted. “I can see why your grandfather was so pleased with your plans to marry a man who is as useless as monkey grease.”

“And you think he will be more pleased if I marry
you
?”

“Will you leave off on this pose of wounded dignity?” He took a step toward her. When she would have backed away, he grasped her hand. “Listen to me, Romayne. What I have been telling you is of the utmost importance to our government, and it must remain secret. The man Cameron and I seek is traveling south. We must follow, but he is sure to suspect we are on his trail if Cameron and I suddenly ride into England. However, no one would suspect anything was amiss if the granddaughter of the Duke of Westhampton brings her husband to meet His Grace.”

“You are truly knocked in the cradle if you think I would do that,” Romayne countered.

He sat on the settee and drew her down beside him. All humor disappeared from his eyes. “Romayne, I have given great thought to this. It would not be a legal marriage.”

“In what way?”

He laughed, the low sound rumbling through her. “With my connections here in the Lowlands, I should be able to obtain us a false marriage license. It shan't be valid, but it will be enough to bamboozle everyone.”

“Even Grange?”

Lacing his fingers through her hair, he tilted her face toward him. She was mesmerized by the motion of his lips as he whispered, “You must use every wile you possess—and I fancy you possess many—to convince Grange and even your grandfather that you are my legal wife.”

“I cannot injure Grandfather more with lies, James.”

“You have told me he's a war hero. He gladly risked his life for England. Would he wish you to do less when our country is in such peril? I ask you to sacrifice only a few weeks. Before summer, I shall have caught this traitor. Then when your part in uncovering his plot is discovered, you will be lauded as the savior of England.”

She pulled away from him. “But my reputation will be ruined! What life will I have after that?”

“No one will gainsay your assertion that you and Montcrief arranged to come to Scotland to assist me.”

“That's a lie.”

His hand inched along her cheek, burnishing her skin with its warmth. “Is one banger too much a sin for you to swallow so your late betrothed will be hailed as a hero of the realm?”

With a sob, Romayne jumped to her feet. She did not want to own that Bradley was dead. In a ragged voice, she whispered, “And if Bradley is still alive? You said you would make inquiries once the storm cleared.”

“I have Cameron doing that.”

“Thank you.” She rubbed her arms. Although the room was warm, the cold inside her threatened to freeze every breath.

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