Flirting with Ruin – Excerpt

Chapter One

Castonbury Village, September 1815

The Castonbury harvest celebrations were in full swing. The courtyard of the Rothermere Arms was lit by blazing braziers, the windows of the inn cast wide open to the mild night. High above, in the deep velvet of the starry sky, the Harvest Moon was at its fullest.

Yesterday, the villagers and farmers of Castonbury had flocked to the church to give thanks, but despite the plentiful harvest it had been a sombre occasion, the congregation acutely conscious of the grieving family in their covered pew at the front of the church. The Duke of Rothermere had lost not one but two sons in the wars with France. Lord James the heir, nine months hence under mysterious circumstances in Spain. And then at Waterloo just three months ago his youngest, Lord Edward. The Reverend Seagrove’s sermon had been subdued.

His Grace’s family, still deep in mourning, could not possibly host the harvest festival at Castonbury Park as usual. Were it left to the duke, stricken by grief, the whole affair would have been cancelled. His daughters, the Ladies Katherine and Phaedra, were however, far more sympathetic and determined to find a way to carry on with the tradition of rewarding their father’s tenants for their toil. So it was that the festival was hosted at the local tavern which bore the family coat of arms, paid for, but unattended by, His Grace or any of the Montague family.

Lady Rosalind Rhees hesitated at the gatepost of the inn, clutching her cloak around her. The feast was over. Merrymakers spilled out into the courtyard to catch their breaths from the dancing. Some drank hirstily from pewter pots of ale. Others smoked a clay pipe. A clutch of children linked hands to form a circle around the corn stack which guarded the entrance. On top was the corn dolly, made with the last sheaves of the harvest. Tomorrow, the dolly would be taken down and hung carefully in the barn of one of the largest of Castonbury’s tenant farms. Next year, she would be ploughed back into the fields. Rosalind knew this because her friend Lady Katherine, whose guest she was, had told her so.

It was a shame Kate couldn’t have accompanied her here tonight. Rosalind eyed the doorway of the inn with the usual fluttering of nerves which always besieged her at moments like this, when she was on the cusp of doing something she knew she ought not. Six years married to a puritanical man, seventeen before that raised by a puritanical father, made every scandal she created an effort. Not that this was much of a scandal compared to some she had raised in the last two years since she emerged from mourning. The Rothermere Arms was no den of iniquity. She would be rubbing shoulders with farmers and travelling harvesters, not rakes and courtesans and gamesters. This was just a country dance, she reminded herself. What did it matter that she had neither partner nor chaperone?

Throwing back her hood, Rosalind strode boldly towards the door. The Harvest Lord, complete with his straw crown, grabbed her by the waist and planted a hearty kiss on her cheek. The reaper’s breath stank of ale, but his eyes were merry rather than lustful. Laughing, Rosalind wriggled free from his grasp.

She abandoned her cloak on a convenient peg. Her day dress was a simple affair of pale green figured muslin, the sleeves puffed at the shoulders, tapering tightly down to her wrists. Sea-green ribbons decorated the modest décolleté. She wore no jewellery, and instead of dancing slippers, a pair of tan kid boots upon her feet, having walked through the woods to the village from Castonbury Park. She wore no evening gloves and most certainly dangled no dance card from her wrist. Smiling to herself, her heart beating with excitement, Rosalind made her way towards the scraping of fiddles coming from the tap room.

He had never really been one for dancing. Not that he had lacked opportunity, for the long, arduous campaigns which had taken him through Spain, Portugal and ultimately France, had been spiked with Embassy balls, diplomatic gatherings, and ad hoc parties in the officers’ mess. But though his hard-earned rank made him eligible, his reputation made him courted, and the very rough edges of his upbringing had long ago been smoothed over, Major Fraser Lennox was not a man  who enjoyed the pomp and ceremony which accompanied such affairs. He found the dancing insipid, the finer nuances of sophisticated flirting tedious, and he was not inclined to adultery, no matter how many excuses the gore and guts of war, the imminence of death which hung its pall over them all, gave the wives who offered themselves to him. It was that same pall of death which had kept him single. He would not take a wife when the odds were he would make her a widow before long.

It was a lonely life, but it was the only one he knew, and now it was over he had no idea what to do with himself. Rootless and restless, Fraser did not miss the act of war, but he missed the cut and thrust of campaigning, the constant testing of his nerve and stretching of his intellect. He missed the edge it gave to life. At heart, he was a bold and reckless man, it was what had made him such a successful soldier. He feared how he would fare, leading a life which required none of those qualities.

Which was not to say he was incapable of enjoying this gathering of honest working folk celebrating an arduous year’s work. It was a pleasant enough interlude before the main event which had brought him here to Derbyshire. He had danced, enjoying the carefree gusto which the Castonbury villagers threw into the rollicking reels and jigs. He had danced with the prettiest girls and the oldest women. He had danced with the Queen of the Harvest and with Mrs Moffat, the landlady. It had been fun. It had been a very pleasant distraction from the very unpleasant task which lay ahead tomorrow. But Fraser was tired now, contemplating a walk to clear his head before retiring, when he saw her framed by the doorway and immediately changed his mind.

It was her hair he noticed first, a flaming Titian red, piled carelessly up on top of her head. She was not stick thin but nicely curved. What’s more, she didn’t have that pale, about-to-faint look about her that seemed to pass for beauty these days and which he could not abide, having seen too much real hunger and want in his travels. This woman exuded health. Energy vibrated from her, from the deep, vibrant red of her curls, which seemed to have a life of her own, to the crimson of her lips, the glow on her cheeks. And those eyes. Big blue eyes. Fraser had always loved big blue eyes.

Who the devil was she? Not a villager, that was for sure. One of the Castonbury servants? A ladies’ maid, unable to keep to the family mourning? Abandoning his position by the window embrasure, Fraser decided to find out for himself.

He was a moment too late. Before he could reach her one of the villagers beat him to it, putting an arm around her waist and pulling her, unresisting, into the crowd. The tables had been drawn back against the wall to form a dance floor on the flag stones. Three fiddlers played a raucous tune. Fraser watched as she danced, swaying gracefully, smiling up at her partner as he steered her clear of an over-exuberant couple just in time. She was lovely. Not beautiful, but lush. Not as young as he’d first thought. Not a girl, but a woman. Built like a woman too. Hips. He liked a woman to have hips, though perversely, he didn’t like the way her partner obviously liked her hips too. The man’s hand was on her bottom. She wriggled free, placed his hand back on her waist still laughing, so that the farmer took no offence. A light touch, she had, though she was obviously no light touch.

When the music ceased, she was immediately claimed by another. And then another. Fraser watched, content to watch, content to bide his time.

Rosalind was aware of him watching as she was whirled and spun around the confined space. Out of place among the villagers, he was tall, and had about him an air of authority. He was well-built too. While neither wiry nor  brawny, there could be no doubting the muscle under that coat. A rather well-cut coat it was too. He had a rugged face, tanned, with a vicious scar the shape of a crescent moon curving across his cheek. The skin was new there, pulled-tight and painful looking. He had dark hair, slightly longer than was the fashion. Meeting his gaze, she encountered a pair of grey eyes. Lines crinkled at their corners. Too much sun, or too much something. She flushed and looked away, concentrated on not tripping, on keeping up, but every time she snatched another glance their eyes met.

As she changed partners again, Rosalind wondered why he did not ask her to dance. She could ask him, she told herself. She had done so, audaciously, before. A wager, that had been, at some high society ball. She couldn’t remember the man in question. This man would not be so easy to forget. It was that which stopped her from asking. She sneaked another look at him as she passed, and he smiled at her. Sort of smiled, anyway. Though she hadn’t meant to, she found herself meeting his gaze yet again. He was – compelling. Perspiration prickled the small of her back. Why didn’t he just ask her to dance?

Then the music paused, and he stepped forward at last. ‘My turn, I think,’ he said, and caught her in his arms as the fiddlers started up again, surprising them both at how quickly he moved them out of reach of her astonished partner. Perversely, she was irritated at not having refused him. ‘You were rather rude to that young man,’ Rosalind said breathlessly. ‘We were not finished our dance.’

‘Then he should have put up more of a fight.’

‘You did not give him much of a chance, and I wouldn’t care to bet against you if he did.’ She’d been right about the muscles. There was no reason for that to excite her, but it did. She wondered what they would feel like flexing beneath his bare skin, and was astonished to find herself wondering, horrified to feel herself flushing. ‘What are you doing here? You are not one of the villagers, that is for certain.’

‘I could say the same of you.’

He held her lightly but firmly. Close enough for their legs to brush, for her to feel the heat of his body. Not too close, but enough for her to wish it was, which was most unlike her. ‘Do I detect a northern accent?’ she asked.

‘Aye, I’m from Scotland, though I’ve not been back for a long time. I didn’t think it was noticeable.’

‘I like it. You’ve been in the army.’ It was a statement rather than a question. With that scar, that authoritative bearing, those eyes which saw everything, had seen everything, there could be no other explanation.

He nodded.

‘You are on your way home then?’ Rosalind probed.

He did not contradict her. ‘And you?’

‘I am visiting friends.’

‘Who did not see fit to accompany you tonight?’

‘No.’ Rosalind’s hackles rose at the implied criticism. ‘I am six-and-twenty years old, and perfectly capable of taking care of myself.’

‘In other words, I am to mind my own business.’

She smiled. ‘I came here to escape.’

She half expected him to ask why. She was half relieved, half disappointed when he did not. Not that she could have answered. Or wished to. ‘That makes two of us,’ he said instead, surprising her.

She had to work very hard not to ask what he was escaping from. The music came to a stop. She did not want it to stop. She did not want to dance with anyone else. She didn’t want his hand to let go of her waist.

‘Come on, let’s get out of here before I have to fight for you,’ he said, ushering her through the door of the tap room, as if he had read her mind. ‘It’s Fraser, incidentally. In case you wanted to know.’

His smile was like his eyes. Warm, and yet reserved. A hard kind of smile. He had a tiny dimple on his chin. She shrugged, trying for nonchalant, though she suspected she failed. Her heart was beating too fast. From the dancing, that would be. ‘It’s Rosalind,’ she replied, ‘in case you were interested.’

‘Oh, I am,’ he said softly, ‘I’d have thought that was perfectly obvious. Just Rosalind?’

‘Just Fraser?’ she countered.

‘Just so,’ he replied, with another of those hard smiles. He pulled her through the doorway of the inn, snatching her cloak from the peg as they passed, leading her out into the night. The children were huddled asleep like a litter of puppies against the hayrick. The braziers were starting to die down. The village street was deserted.

What happened now, Rosalind wondered, but did not ask, for she did not really want to have to deal with the answer nor, more particularly, to make any decisions to counter whatever he had in mind. So she allowed herself to be led further into the night, away from the main street of the village towards the path she had walked earlier. ‘It is so dark here in the country compared to the city,’ she said, gazing up at the sky, ‘but it is a – a softer dark, don’t you think?’

‘Comforting rather than threatening,’ Fraser replied. His smile was fleeting but complicit too. ‘No-one can see us, you mean. And no-one will know.’

It was exactly what she’d meant. It was exactly how she felt, as if her actions, whatever her actions turned out to be, were not her own. In the city, the dark was always edged with danger. In the city, such a dark was threatening. In the city, her own lust for excitement, her desire to push at boundaries, was always laced with caution coupled with a reserve she feared she would never overcome. Her inheritance, she thought of it. Here in the country, the night was like a comforting blanket.

As they reached the edge of the Castonbury woods and stood in the shelter of a huge tree, Rosalind felt none of the trepidation which had kept her teetering on the brink of the indiscretions for which she was unfairly reputed. ‘No-one will know,’ she agreed softly, as she allowed the angled trunk of the tree to support her. ‘In this night, on this night, we could be anyone.’

Fraser leaned in closer. ‘Anyone? Oh no, I don’t think so. I don’t want anyone here but you.’

The bark of the tree was knobbly against her back. Her hair caught in it. Her heart was pounding erratically. The only thing she was afraid of was that he would not kiss her. And he was hesitating.

Seeking reassurance, she realised. So different from all those others. ‘Not anyone,’ she whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him against her. ‘Only you. Just you.’

She was rewarded with the heat of his body against hers, his breath on her cheek, then his mouth on hers as he repeated her words. ‘Only you. Just you.’ And finally, he kissed her.

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