The Duchess and the Highwayman
By Beverley Oakley
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~*~*~*~*~*~ Excerpt: This excerpt occurs after Phoebe has fled Blinley Manor in the carriage of villainous Wentworth before she’s held up by a highwayman who tells her he also is pursuing Wentworth. In this scene, Mr Hugh Redding, who has his own personal agenda for seeing Wentworth brought to justice, takes Phobe to the cottage he’s been renting from a miller and his wife. The young woman sent Hugh a narrow-eyed look. “I hope I will not have to impose upon you for too long, sir.” Hugh was about to say he hoped not too but he wanted to make up for his ungentlemanly manners of before so he remained silent. No doubt the girl had every intention of milking the situation to her advantage, he thought as he scratched her particulars onto the piece of paper that would form part of the inevitable investigation. He could see it in the worldly look in her eye for it was usual for a servant who knew her place to drop a demure gaze to the floor when a superior addressed her. What were the colour of her eyes? He glanced up again. A very pretty blue. Unwittingly, he found himself examining her lips. Even caked with mud he could see they were rose-bud shaped. Very kissable lips. Annoyed at the direction his thoughts were taking him he returned to writing up the location where he’d met Phoebe, and what she’d told him while he wondered to what extent the girl used her very kissable lips to her advantage. He’d have to be on his guard. “That really depends on what you can tell me about this villain Wentworth.” His tone was grim. He must make it clear he’d not be a soft touch. He put his pen down and tapped the paper in front of him. “Let me be plain. I want Wentworth’s head on a platter and I think you want that too. After all, he’s the reason you’re in this unsettling predicament. While the servants draw your bath, let’s make the most of what you remember while it’s fresh in your mind. What were Wentworth’s precise movements in the time leading up to this terrible event?” “His movements…sir?” “Yes, I believe he’s a common visitor to Blinley Manor.” Hugh cleared his throat. “Even though I’ve been in the area a short time, it wasn’t hard to learn the local gossip with regard to the peccadilloes your mistress enjoys with Mr Wentworth.” “How dare you!” Despite himself, Hugh laughed at her outrage. She’d been pacing in front of the fire place, stepping round the tub which had been pulled in front of the fire. Now she stopped and swung round to face him, her hands on her slender hips as she thrust out her bosom. She looked as if another slanderous word would unleash her little hand in a stinging slap across his cheek. Hugh was uncomfortably aware of a frisson of excitement at the thought. Instead he raised a supercilious eyebrow as he said, “If only we all had such loyal retainers, Phoebe. You do Lady Cavanaugh proud. Now where do you suppose your fine mistress has fled? Perhaps she and Mr Wentworth planned this vile murder together. It’s the kind of thing clandestine lovers are wont to do—especially if the husband gets wind of the fact he’s being cuckolded.” Her eyes blazed and she trembled with visible anger though seemed unable to offer a coherent reply. Hugh rose. “Into your bath, my girl. You are beyond filthy, I don’t need to tell you. It’s not necessary to fill it to the top, Withins. A couple of buckets are all that’s needed to get the dirt off.” When she began to protest he took pity on her. “All right, you can be like your lovely, sinless Lady Cavanaugh, just for tonight, and soak to your heart’s content. Withins!” He recalled his manservant. “More water, then. No, don’t look at me like that? I have to humour the lady if she’s to furnish me with the information I need on that rogue Wentworth.” He went to the door, opening it and bowing with a flourish. “And now, Phoebe, we will leave you to soak in private.” “Thank you, sir.” Her tight-lipped response followed him into the passage as Mrs Withins passed him from the opposite direction, carrying a bundle of white linen underthings and a full, bulky gown belonging to the venerable miller’s wife, a stocky creature who was about three times the girth of young Phoebe. It was an incongruous thought that Phoebe, whom Hugh had seen sheathed only in her chemise with her prettily turned ankles peeking out from just below, would soon be thoroughly covered up by the thick woollen garments that were all the miller’s wife seemed to have in her trunk. He’d been unwise to give in and allow her a full bath. Next, she’d be asking him to provide her with a new dress; though he shook his head as he wondered why he’d think such a thing. He’d only just met her and tomorrow or the next he’d be returning her to where she’d be looked after by relatives until she found a new situation. But there’d be a trial. There’d have to be if Phoebe was the witness she claimed and could testify against her former master. ~*~*~*~*~*~ Author Info: