The Captain and His Innocent(7)

By: Lucy Ashford



 ‘Did you realise,’ he said, ‘that Lord Franklin was a relative of yours before you met him, I wonder?’

 She was momentarily overwhelmed by the hard, purposeful set of his face. By the brightness and intensity of those blue eyes. No. No, she didn’t.

 Memories whirled around her. Memories of a badly furnished attic room above a bread shop in Brussels. Memories of her father lying on a narrow mattress while she bathed his forehead, desperate to cool his fever. The bread-shop owner, the Widow Gavroche, hurrying upstairs to her. ‘Mam’selle, mam’selle—there is an English gentleman here to see you! His name is Lord Franklin Grayfield and he is very fine!’

 Ellie had been alone, with no friends and no money. In danger there. She had thought that she’d left danger behind her now that she was in England—but this tall man who’d come prowling out of the mist reminded her otherwise.

 She had to get away. But that little box...

 Letting her eyes sweep downwards, she spotted it suddenly in the undergrowth. She made a swift move towards it, but he was quicker, and before she could stop him, he had stooped to pick up her small leather box for himself.

 Ellie felt the blood leave her face. ‘That is mine. Give it back to me!’

 He gave her a curious half-smile—and ignored her. Her heart was hammering so hard against her ribs that it hurt. He’d picked up the box with his left hand, she noticed—held it there in his palm, while with his right hand he was turning it slowly.

 He wore a black glove on his right hand. And there was, she realised, something odd about it. Something wrong with it. The first two of his fingers were missing. But he had no trouble opening the box. And Ellie felt slightly sick, as the brass casing of her father’s compass gleamed in the half-light.

 ‘A pretty trinket,’ he was saying approvingly as he gazed down at it. ‘It must be worth something.’

 ‘Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t.’ Ellie was sliding her hand into the folds of her cloak. ‘But, monsieur, if you’ve any sense at all, you will return it to me—immédiatement—or I swear you will regret it.’

 His eyes gleamed. ‘You’re going to make me?’

 For answer she lifted the small pistol she had in her hand and released the safety catch. She was pointing it straight at his heart.

 His body tensed very slightly, but his eyes still glinted with mockery. ‘Mam’selle,’ he reproved. ‘Really. To go to such extremes... I take it you know how to use that thing?’

 His voice. The rich, velvety timbre of it. Every word he spoke made something shiver down her spine in warning. Made her grip the pistol even tighter. ‘Do you want to find out?’ She forced her voice into absolute calmness. ‘Give me the compass back. Or I shoot.’

 He watched her, his eyes assessing her. Then suddenly he laughed and held the compass out with a small nod. Ellie grabbed at it, her pulse pounding.

 ‘An unusual object,’ he said calmly. ‘A valuable object, I would venture to say.’ He swept her a mockery of a bow. ‘Our meeting has been interesting—but I’ll make no further effort to detain you. And I hope your stay at Bircham Hall is a pleasant one. Your servant, mademoiselle.’

 And he was gone. Into the mist and woodland. As suddenly, and as silently, as he’d appeared.

 She found she was gasping for breath, as if the air had been kicked out of her lungs. She remembered the gleam in his blue eyes as he gazed at the compass. Dieu. Had he had time to look at it? To really look at it?

 With an enormous effort at self-control, she secured the safety catch on her pistol, then slipped it and the compass back into the pocket inside her cloak.

 She hurried towards the carriage, willing her heart to stop thudding. Please God, the compass had only attracted his attention because he thought it was something he could sell. But surely he was no ordinary roadside thief. Who was he? And how did he already know so much about her?

 She drew a deep, despairing breath. The answer to that was easy. Bircham Hall, Miss Pringle had frequently pointed out, was the largest and most prestigious house in this part of Kent. The staff would all have been warned of Ellie’s arrival and they would doubtless have spread the news around the neighbourhood.

 That was how he knew. And he’d been watching for the coach, guessing it would have to stop there; hoping for a chance perhaps to rob its occupants. She’d provided him with the perfect opportunity, by wandering away down the road.

 A common thief. That was the obvious answer. And yet she had a feeling that his intentions were somehow far, far more dangerous than that.

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