From Ruin to Riches(5)


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 She could not tell him the truth, Julia knew that, although the temptation to simply burst into tears, throw herself into the arms of this elderly man and pour out her story was shockingly strong. He was probably a magistrate and, even if he was not, he would be duty-bound to hand her over to the law. But she had been tramping across country, hiding in barns, spending a few coppers here and there on bread and cheese and thin ale, and she was exhausted, lost and desperate. Something of the truth would have to suffice and she must take the risk that she would prove to be a good liar.

 ‘I will be frank with you, sir,’ Julia said, grateful for the protection of the shadows. She wished she could see his eyes. ‘I ran away from home. Several days ago.’

 ‘May I ask why?’ His voice, strangely young for one advanced in years, was as studiously non-judgemental as his haggard face.

 ‘My cousin, on whom I am totally dependent, schemed to give me to a man who wanted only my...undoing. Running seemed the only way out, although I am just as effectively ruined as a result, I realise that now. I am sure you would not wish to entertain me under the circumstances. Your wife—’

 ‘I do not have one,’ he said, his voice cool. ‘And I have no objection, only a regret on your behalf, ma’am, that you find yourself in such a predicament.’

 He should not be talking. Julia had no doubt that he meant exactly what he said about his health: the man was desperately ill. His body when she had supported it had felt like bones and sinew contained in skin and expensive superfine. He was tall, over six foot, and in his youth must have been well muscled and powerful. Now his breathing was ragged and his forehead under her palm had been damp with fever.

 He had come to her aid when he thought she was going to cast herself into the lake and he had not insulted her when she told him a little of her disastrous misjudgement. Now the very least she could do was to assist him home and risk the slight chance that the description of a wanted murderess had reached them here. Surely she was safe for a night? The authorities could not know her name and Jonathan’s card case was with his pocketbook in her reticule—the local constable would have a nameless body to deal with, as well as a nameless fugitive.

 This was no time to be scrupulous about accepting help. ‘Come, sir. If you will not allow me to go for assistance, at least take my arm. I am certain you should not be out here tiring yourself.’

 ‘You sound remarkably like Jervis, my valet,’ the man said with an edge of asperity. For a moment she thought stubborn pride would win out over common sense, but then he let her put her forearm under his and take a little of his weight.

 ‘This way, I think you said, sir?’ She made her sore feet move, trying not to limp in case he noticed and refused her help.

 ‘My name is William Hadfield,’ he said after a few steps. ‘Just so you know whom you are rescuing. Baron Dereham.’

 She did not know the name, but then she was adrift more than a hundred miles from home and her family, although gentry, did not mix with titled society. ‘My name is—’

 ‘There is no need to tell me.’ He was breathing hard. Julia slowed her pace a little, glad of the excuse to do so. She was tired and sore and almost more exhausted by fear than from physical exertion.

 ‘It is no matter, my lord. I am Julia Prior. Miss,’ she added bleakly. Live or die, she was never going to be anything else now. And then she realised that she had given her real name. Foolish, she chided herself. But it was too late now and it was common enough.

 ‘Left here, Miss Prior.’ Obedient, she took the path he indicated. To her consternation the ground began to slope upwards. How was Lord Dereham going to manage this with only her feeble help? As if he read her mind he said, ‘Here is the cavalry, you need not carry me any further.’

 Julia opened her mouth to protest that she was merely steadying him, then shut it again. There was enough edge in his voice for her to know the baron was not resigned to his condition and would bitterly resent any attempt to jolly him along. He must have been arrogant and self-assured in his prime, she concluded, to resent his decline so fiercely now.

 ‘My lord!’ Two men hurried down the slope from where a gig stood waiting. One, when he got closer, could have been identified as a valet at a glance: neat, dapper and immaculate, he was making clucking sounds under his breath. The other, in boots and frieze coat, was just as obviously a groom.

 ‘Jervis, help this lady into the gig.’ Her arm was released and Julia found herself being ushered into the humble vehicle as if she was a duchess and it a state coach. Behind, she could hear a low-voiced exchange that ended abruptly with a snapped command from the baron as he took the seat opposite her.

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