“I’ll manage.” Breckenridge swung up to the phaeton’s high box seat. He needed speed, and the combination of phaeton and high-bred horses promised that. Taking the reins, he tensioned them, tested the horses’ mouths, then nodded to the ostlers. “Let ’em go.”

The ostlers did, leaping back as the horses surged.

Breckenridge reined the pair in only enough to take the turn out of the yard, then he let them have their heads up Barnet Hill and on along the Great North Road.

For a while, managing the horses absorbed all of his attention, but once they’d settled and were bowling along, the steady rhythm of their hooves eating the miles with little other traffic to get in their way, he could spare sufficient attention to think.

To give thanks the night wasn’t freezing given he was still in his evening clothes.

To grapple with the realization that if he hadn’t insisted Heather leave Lady Herford’s villa — hadn’t allowed her to walk the twenty-cum-fifty yards along the pavement to her carriage alone — she wouldn’t have been in the hands of unknown assailants, wouldn’t have been subjected to whatever indignities they’d already visited on her.

They would pay, of course; he’d ensure that. But that in no way mitigated the sense of horror and overwhelming guilt that it was due to his actions that she was now in danger.

He’d intended to protect her. Instead. .

Jaw clenched, teeth gritted, he kept his eyes on the road and raced on.

Her captors left Heather trussed and gagged until they were some way out of Barnet and bowling along an empty stretch of road.

The instant they’d bundled her into the carriage outside Lady Herford’s, they’d wrapped a strip of linen about her face, efficiently gagging her, and had swiftly tied her hands, then her feet when she’d tried to kick them.

There hadn’t been just the two men. A woman, large and strong, had been waiting in the carriage with the gag held ready. Once Heather had been silenced and her limbs secured, they’d sat her on the forward-facing seat, next to the woman, and both men had sat opposite. One had told her to calm herself and just wait quietly, and all would soon be revealed.

That promise, and the fact they’d made no attempt whatever to harm her — indeed, they hadn’t even threatened her in any way — had given her pause. Enough to realize that she had no real choice, so she might as well do as they’d asked.

That hadn’t stopped her thinking. Or imagining. But neither activity had got her very far. She knew so little. Nothing beyond that there were three of them plus the coachman on the box, and they were taking her north out of London. She had glimpsed enough landmarks along the way, recognized enough to be sure they were heading north.

They were on the Great North Road when the thinner of the men, at the taller end of medium height and decidedly wiry, with curly, mousy-brown hair and a sharp-featured face, said, “If you’re willing to be reasonable and behave, we’ll untie you. We’re on a long, lonely stretch and won’t be slowing for a good long while — no one about to hear you if you yell and scream, and if you manage to get out of the door, at this speed you’ll likely break a leg, if not your neck. So if you’re willing to be quiet and just sit and listen, we can untie you and explain what’s going on — how things are and how things are going to be. So.” He raised his brows at her. “What’s it to be?”

In the dimness within the carriage, she couldn’t truly see his eyes, but she looked in that direction and nodded.

“Smart girl,” the wiry one said. The comment held no sarcasm. “He did say you’d be clever.”

He, who? She watched as the wiry man, seated opposite, bent, reaching for her feet, then stopped.

He flicked a glance at the woman beside her. “Best you untie her feet.” Straightening, he reached for the cords binding Heather’s wrists.

Puzzled, she glanced at the woman, who huffed, then lumbered off the seat and crouched between the benches. She reached beneath Heather’s silk skirts to the linen strip wound about her ankles.

While they worked to loosen the bonds, Heather realized they’d been mindful of her modesty — as mindful as she’d allowed them to be. She hadn’t imagined kidnappers would be so. . gentlemanly.

Once her feet were free, the woman settled back beside her. “The gag, too?” the woman asked the wiry one.

His gaze on Heather, he nodded. “We’re to allow her as much comfort as possible, so unless she’s sillier than we all think, no need to keep it on.”

Heather turned her head, allowing the woman access to the knot at the back of her skull. When the linen fell from her face, she moistened her lips, worked her jaw, and felt a great deal better.

She looked at the wiry one. “Who are you, and who sent you?”

He grinned — a flash of white teeth in the shadows. “Ah, now, you’re getting a trifle ahead of us there, miss. I think perhaps I’d better first explain that we were sent to fetch one of the Cynster sisters — you or one of the others. We’ve been watching you all for more than a week, but none of you go anywhere without others about. Not until tonight, that is.” Wiry — Heather decided to call him that — half bowed. “We’re obliged to you for that. We’d started thinking we’d have to arrange something drastic to get one of you on your lonesome. Howsoever, now we have you, it’s best you realize that no attempt to escape us is likely to succeed — no one will help you, because we’ve a story that accounts for us taking you, and whatever you do or say, whatever protests you make, are only going to make our story seem more real and truthful to others.”

“What’s this story?” she asked. Wiry had an air of quiet competence about him; he didn’t seem the sort to make foolish declarations.

Just her luck to be abducted by kidnappers who could think.

As if to confirm her suspicion, Wiry smiled. His satisfaction resonated in his voice. “It’s a simple enough tale. We’ve been sent by your guardian to fetch you back to him. Ran away to wicked London, you did, escaped from his strict household. So he’s sent us to find you and take you back, and”—pausing dramatically, Wiry drew a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and waved it—“this is his authority for us to do whatever we need to do to hold you and transport you back to him.”

She frowned at the paper. “My father’s my guardian and he gave you no such permission.”

“Ah, but you’re not Miss Cynster, are you? You’re Miss Wallace, and your guardian, Sir Humphrey, is most anxious to get you back home where you belong.”

“Where’s my home?” She hoped he might say where they were taking her, but Wiry only smiled.

“You know it well, of course — no need for us to tell you.”

She fell silent, mentally reviewing their plan, seeking any possible way she might scupper it, but she carried nothing that would prove who she was. Her only hope — one she wasn’t about to voice — was a chance meeting with someone who knew her by sight. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening in the country in late March, with the Season just starting in London, wasn’t all that high.

She glanced at the woman beside her.

As if sensing the question in her mind, Wiry explained, “Martha here”—with his head he indicated the woman—“is, of course, the maid Sir Humphrey sent to lend you countenance on the journey.” Wiry’s lips curved. “Martha will remain with you at all times. Especially all the times it would be inappropriate for one of us — me or Cobbins here — to be by your side.”

Deciding that at the moment it behooved her to, as Wiry had put it, behave, Heather inclined her head, first to the woman alongside her, “ Martha,” then to the barrel-chested man, shorter than Wiry but of heavier build, who’d remained quietly seated in the far corner of the coach. “Cobbins.”

She turned her gaze on Wiry. “And you are?”

He smiled. “You may call me Fletcher, Miss Wallace.”

Heather thought of a few other epithets she might call him, but she merely inclined her head. Settling on the seat, she leaned her head back against the squabs and ventured nothing more. She sensed that Fletcher expected her to protest, perhaps beg for mercy, or try to subvert him and the others from their goal, but she saw no point in lowering herself to that.

No point at all.

The more she thought of all Fletcher had let fall, the more she felt certain of that. This had to be the strangest abduction she’d ever heard of. . well, she hadn’t heard the details of any abduction attempts, but it

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату