Order

Patricia Frances Rowell

AN IMPETUOUS ABDUCTION

PROLOGUE

 1796, Derbyshire, England

The little girl plastered herself against the wall, her gaze held fast by the long streamer of ribbon she twisted around her finger.

“Come now, Phona dearest.” Mama smiled and placed an encouraging arm across her shoulders. “You want to play the game with the other children, don’t you?”

A cold paralysis enfolded the child. Everyone was looking.

At her.

She pushed harder against the wall. Her mother pried the ribbon loose from her clenched hand. “Now, Phona, my love, you don’t want to rumple your new frock. You must be perfect for your party.”

Phona clutched her pristine white skirt with both hands and transferred her gaze to the tips of her white kid slippers. The immobilizing chill seemed to be taking even her breath.

She could not. She could not. She just could not.

“Phona.” Her mother’s smile faded as she jerked the fabric away from the small hands and tried to smooth it. “This is the outside of enough. Come and join the game. The party is for you.”

The little girl began to chew on her knuckle. Tears pushed their way out from behind her eyelids. She didn’t know these children. She didn’t know the other ladies. They were all looking.

At her.

Someone tittered. Mama seized her arm and pulled her away from the wall, yanking her fingers out of her mouth. “That looks very disagreeable.” She was not smiling at all now. “Do not be such a baby, Phona. You are a great girl of five years. Big girls do not cry at parties.”

A sob burst out of her constricted throat, but not a word could she utter. Someone else laughed.

Now Mama looked angry. “I went to a great deal of bother for this, and now you will not even play.”

Had a pride of lions descended on her, Phona could not have, at that moment, moved. Could not have run away.

Her mother had on her scary face now. She gave the girl a hard shake and leaned the scary face close to hers.

“Persephone Proserpina! You are embarrassing me!”

She was dragged from the room in disgrace.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

1811, Derbyshire, England

There he was again.

The stranger on the hill.

Phona reined her gentle bay mare to a halt in the lee of a small copse and patted her on the neck. “What do you think he is doing, Firefly? He has been there on that tall, awkward-looking horse four times this week. And many times in the last several months.” She shaded her eyes with her hand. “I can’t see his face under that brimmed hat.”

The mare twitched her ears.

“No, he never makes a sound. I look up, and there he is, like an apparition in a penny dreadful. And like most apparitions, I suppose, he doesn’t seem to see me. Do you think he is a shade, Firefly?” The mare shook her head, rattling her harness. “No, I’m sure you are right. He must be flesh and blood.”

Between one breath and the next, the man disappeared again, leaving Phona to wonder if she and Firefly were wrong about his substantiality. “Did you see that? What can he be doing?”

The particular hill on which the non-apparition had appeared lay beyond her family’s land, so heeding all the usual cautions and admonitions, Phona never rode that far.

Today, however, she would make an exception. “Come, let us go and see if we can discover what is so interesting about that specific hill—other than the rider who so often appears atop it.”

Firefly sidled a bit. “Oh, stop that. I know that approaching him is completely improper. Today I have no patience with proper, nor with cautions and admonitions. None at all.”

Whoever the man was, speaking with him would be better than talking to her horse. Which was far better than the conversation of Old Ned, her presently evaded groom. Which was infinitely better than going to the little party of young ladies and their mothers to which she and Mama had not been invited.

Mama would have the vapors. Again.

Except that Mama was already having the vapors over the crushing snub dealt her by Mrs. Rowsley. Phona sighed. “I love Mama, Firefly. You know I do. But sometimes I become very out of patience with her.” And with cautions and admonitions.

Turning Firefly toward the distant hill, Phona gave her a tap of the crop and cantered across the rolling green landscape, enjoying the warm sunshine on her face and the crisp spring breeze streaming through her hair. She skirted scattered clumps of vegetation, drawing in the fragrance of early flowers emanating from them, and guided her mount around the numerous rocky outcrops. They jumped the dry-stone wall separating the Hathersage property from its neighbor and pulled up.

Finding herself at the foot of a steep incline dotted with large boulders, Phona slowed her mount to a walk as they began the ascent. As she neared the top of the hill, strange sounds began to drift to her on the wind.

Clanks and thumps. The jingle of harness and the creak of cart wheels. Coarse voices calling to one another. What in the world? There should be nothing here but open countryside.

Phona reined in. What must she do about this unexpected development? She certainly could not risk encountering a group of rough men by herself. She should turn back. But what were they doing on the far side of that hill? Perhaps she could find a spot to peek over the ridge without being seen. Of course, if she did, they might—

How long her prudent self might have debated with her more adventurous one, Phona never learned. Suddenly the sound of hoof beats erupted just above her. She looked up to see the stranger on the tall, rawboned black burst over the crest, galloping straight at her, wild hair flying from under the hat. A glimpse of a scowling, dark-bearded visage ended the argument in a heartbeat.

“Run, Firefly!” Phona tugged her mare’s head around and kicked her sharply into motion. The steep slope forbid the pell-mell gallop her pounding heart demanded. A misstep on the rough terrain would likely result in a broken leg for her mount or a broken neck for herself.

And certain capture.

Steady, steady. Every sense clamoring for precipitous flight, Phona forced herself to control her horse.

Oh, God. The noise of the chase was growing louder.

And closer.

He would be on her in seconds. She must find a way...

A copse of trees rose in front of her. If she could cut through them, perhaps she would gain some time, and even possibly lose her pursuer. Her little mare dived into the shelter as if she, too, feared for her life. They leaped over small bushes and fallen branches and careened between the trees.

Branches clawed at her face and raked her hat off her head, the scarf all but strangling her before giving way. Seeking protection from nature’s assault, she leaned closer to the mare’s neck, keeping her body as low as possible. The sound of the following hooves faded a bit.

Could it be that the man hesitated to squeeze his big, ugly horse through the narrow spaces? Fortune was favoring her at last. Phona angled away from where she had entered the grove. If she could make her way back to her own land, the ground was easier, and she had known it for a lifetime. She could not imagine that he would hound her all the way to her home.

Phona and the mare emerged from the trees. She glanced to the right, and despair welled up in her. Whatever its deficiencies of appearance, the stranger’s black must be a powerful beast. It had circled the grove in the time it took for her to go through it.

The next few minutes would be a head-to-head race. One which her small mare could hardly hope to win. Doubts notwithstanding, Phona turned down the hill and gave the horse her head.

The contest ended in moments. Thundering hooves pounded up alongside her, and a hard arm circled her waist. Phona fought to keep her seat, but found herself dragged, kicking and trying to scratch, onto the saddle in front of the stranger. His other arm wrapped around her, capturing her arms and clamping her tightly against him. A hand closed over her mouth.

An angry whisper sounded in her ear. “Listen to me and listen well. As you value your life, do exactly as I tell you.”

Phona turned to look over her shoulder at the menacing face. All dark. Not only did a thick brown beard cover the lower portion, but a black patch hid one eye. She stifled a gasp.

A rough hand grasped her chin. “When I drop you, lie as you fall. Lie as if you were dead. Do not move! Do not even breathe until I return.”

In the distance Phona heard another set of hoof beats closing on them. Oh, Lord! What now?

Her captor let out a roar and pulled her head sideways, his calloused fingers sliding across her skin. And dropped her. As she hit the stony ground, Phona heard another voice shouting, “Is she dead?”

“Aye, ‘ardesty, she’ll talk to none.” The dark stranger turned his horse back the way he had come, putting it between her and the other speaker.

Dear heaven! He had feigned breaking her neck! Who were these people? Phona took the hidden moment to shift her head to an awkward angle, then lay motionless.

Her attacker spoke again, in cockney accents. “Ye best get that load ‘andled and get the ‘ell out of ‘ere before they come lookin’ fer ‘er. When the mount comes to port without the chit aboard—”

The second man uttered a word Phona had never heard before and added, “These bloody hills will be swarming with searchers. Come, man. Move your arse!”

As they galloped away, Phona opened her eyes just enough to confirm something that she could hardly credit. The arm which had removed her from her mount so efficiently ended not in a hand, but in a sharp, black iron hook.

#

As he watched the departing convoy disappear into the next dale, Leo kept a wary watch. He could not quite see the girl where she lay on the far side of the trees, and he knew his confederates would leave a lookout in their wake to watch their back trail. He prayed he had frightened her sufficiently to keep her still. If she tried to run, the sentry might very well see her, and if he did, she would die.

Or the sentry would.

Or Leo would.

After an agonizing wait, he finally saw the scout ride away after his party. He eased his mount down the side of the hill and around the grove. The girl still lay where she had been dropped, ringlets of auburn hair flung out around her, her head turned at a very strange angle. Ye gods! Surely he had not actually killed her!

Leo spurred to her and leapt out of his saddle. Going to one knee, he gently shook her shoulder. “Miss Hathersage?” She did not respond. Perhaps she had fainted from fright. He shook her bit harder. “Miss! Can you hear me?”

Still no response. Just as panic was about to descend on him in full force, he noticed the infinitesimal movement of her breast, rising and falling as she breathed. Thank God! Sliding his left arm under her shoulders, he lifted her to a seated position, careful not to touch her with the hook. Her head lolled like a rag doll. He used his good hand to feel the bones of her neck. They seemed sound enough—

At a rattle of stones below him on the hill Leo sprung to his feet and yanked the pistol from his belt, dropping the girl to earth once again. This time he heard a distinct, “Ow!” and glanced down in time to see her roll to her feet and bolt down the slope, making for the sound he had heard.

“Damn clever females!” Leo jammed the pistol back into his belt and gave chase. Now he could see that her mount, rather than racing off to her stable, had wandered quietly back to her mistress. Had it not kicked a stone in its path, he might never have known it was there. The aggravating wench had simply waited her chance to make a run for it.

And she was fast. For a girl. But there was nothing wrong with Leo’s legs, and a girl in a riding habit was at a serious disadvantage. She had pulled the skirt up to her white thighs, but the train caught on every rock and bit of vegetation. Still, he barely caught her just as she seized the reins of the mare and was trying in vain to reach the stirrup of the side saddle.

She turned and struck at him, but he had expected no less and was ready for her. In a heartbeat he had locked his muscular arms around her from behind and lifted her off her feet. Her heels kicking against his shins made little impression on his booted legs. Fortunately, she was a tiny thing, and the back of her head slammed into his chest rather than his chin. A very game quarry!

“Miss Hathersage! Miss!” He leaned away from another crack of her head against his collar bone. “Ow! Damnation, woman, will you be still for a moment?”

Evidently not. She started squirming, grimly trying to wriggle out of his hold. Very well. If he could not subdue her with reassurance, he could resort to threats. He shifted his hook until the point of it just barely pricked her side. She stilled as if frozen in place.

Leo lowered his voice. “Be still or you will skewer yourself.”

“You bloody bastard!” She gasped for breath.

“No, although you are not the first to make that charge.” Her defiance made him grin. “But, tsk-tsk. Such unsuitable words from such pure lips.”

“Cad! Blackguard!”

“Those allegations are closer to the mark. However, we have little time for character assassination.” He cautiously allowed her feet to settle to the ground, carefully ignoring the sensation of her warm, firm body sliding down his.

And feeling the softness of her breasts against his arm. Leo forced the excitement of the chase and its incipient arousal back. He could not afford distractions of that sort. Not now.

Not ever.

She did not renew the struggle, so apparently, the hook had done its work. It usually did. The mere sight of it terrified brawny men, let alone a girl barely out of the schoolroom. Perhaps he was a cad.

Her chest rose and fell in panicked breaths. Suddenly she took a longer breath and a ear-assaulting scream clove the quiet of the hillside. Leo jerked his head—and his ears—away from her.

“Good Lord, girl! Do not do that again. You will deafen us both.” He jiggled the point of the hook ever so slightly to enforce this message. “No one is near enough to hear you, in any event. Save your breath and pay attention.” He paused for a heartbeat to gather his thoughts before continuing.

“Your curiosity has come very close to killing the kitten, Miss Hathersage. I cannot allow you to recount today’s experience to anyone—no one at all. But neither do I wish to kill you to prevent it. In that I differ from the others in this venture. My associates would have done it in the blink of an eye.”

The quietness that settled over her told him that she understood that assertion and the implied threat. She was giving him her full regard, trembling a little in his arms.

“Hence, I must constrain you to come with me for a time. What I am to do with you, I have no notion, but we will contrive something. Please believe that I intend you no harm.”

She cried out and started to twist toward him, felt the prick of the hook, and checked. Leo sighed. “And I can see that you will not come compliantly. Therefore, as much as I regret it...” Leo pulled a leather thong from his pocket.

“No!” Suddenly she was struggling again, forgetting the hook in her panic.

“Damn it, woman! You’ll hurt yourself. Don’t you know when you are out-gunned? Be still!” Leo looped one of her arms with the hook and forced her slender wrists together until he could tightly grasp both of them in his powerful right hand.

In spite of her frantic attempts to pull away, he looped the cord around her wrists and tied it with the agility of much practice, using the hook as a second hand.

Leo caught the reins of the mare and guided it close. Thanks be to his lucky stars that the bay was more docile than the lady! Since the hook prevented his lifting her by the waist, he grasped one of the girl’s arms under the shoulder with his good hand and, slipping his other arm under her knees, attempted to wrestle her onto the sidesaddle. She refused to help him at all.

Her privilege, under the circumstances, but he was losing precious time—as well as his patience. He must be away before her household missed her. “Miss Hathersage, please put your knee over the horn.”

Her mouth firmed into hard line and her chin went up. “I’ll be damned!”

In spite of his frustration, a chuckle escaped Leo. “If you do not, I shall be forced to tie you face down across the saddle.”

He allowed her to contemplate traveling in that position for a moment. He was fast becoming exasperated enough to do it.

At last, she sighed, and he detected a defeated whisper, “Very well.”

Yes, he definitely was a cad.

Fearing that she would try to slide off the horse, even with her hands tied, he used a second lash to secure her neat ankle and nicely rounded knee to the stirrup straps. That should make her fast.

He guided the mare back to his own mount and climbed into the saddle. Leading the bay and her passenger, he turned and started back up the hill.

“Do you have a name?”

The question, coming from behind him, startled him. “Why, yes, Miss Hathersage, I do. However, I fear I cannot share it with you at this time.”

“You have the advantage of me, sir. What should I call you—other than those very appropriate sobriquets?”

He turned and gazed at her for a moment, then in spite of the troublesome situation, burst into laughter. “I believe, Miss Hathersage, that under these circumstances you should call me Hades.”

#

Lord Hathersage was at his wits ends. His adored wife had been having one fit of hysterics after the other for the last two hours. Nothing he said comforted her. He groped for words that might not set off another outburst, but was quickly disappointed. She spun away from the window out of which she had been staring and flung herself onto a settee.

“How could she do this to me?” His lady dabbed at her eyes and took the tiniest whiff of her salts. “She knows I worry about her—riding off who knows where by herself. Not even a groom in attendance. What people say of her I shudder to think.” Suiting the action to the word, her ladyship shivered delicately, the creamy skin of her shoulders shimmering under her gossamer shawl.

Ignoring this distraction with the ease of long practice, his lordship chanced a cautious intervention. “Now, Demetra, my dearest...”

His dearest Demetra rolled on without pause. “But will she stay home just because I ask her?” She jumped to her feet and stamped her shapely foot. “Nooo! She will ride in the sun and get those horrible freckles. If she had any consideration for me, she would at least wear a large hat! How I am ever to interest a husband in her I have not the slightest notion. She comes in with her hair looking like a birch broom in a fright! And in the eyes of all, I have failed.”

For once his lordship’s patience with his adorable wife cracked just a hair. His lady tended to forget that Persephone was his daughter, as well as hers. He had been astride a horse for many hours of the late afternoon, searching unsuccessfully for his lost child.

They had found not a trace of her, save the prints in the rocky ground where her horse had jumped the wall. Even now his men rode the hills with torches while he did his best to console her mother.

“Come now, Demetra. How can you concern yourself with that inconsequential drivel now? Phona might be lying somewhere—hurt or...”

“Ooooooh!” His wife threw herself face down on the settee. “How can you be so cruel? You know I cannot bear to think of anything so terrible.”

Lord Hathersage beat an immediate strategic retreat. He sat beside her and gathered her into his arms. She sobbed against his cravat.

Tears coursing down her cheeks, she choked out, “Oh, George, I couldn’t bear losing her.”

His lordship swallowed a sob of his own. “We will find her soon.”

His lordship wished that he felt as sure as he sounded. Reason counseled that, had she been injured, they would have found her by now.

In spite of a tendency to indulge both his wife and his daughter, he was not an unworldly man—and certainly not a poor one. He recognized full-well that everyone knew Phona stood to inherit his quite astonishing fortune.

And he knew what that meant.

How could he tell his poor, distraught wife that her daughter had been abducted?

#

The Hades reference could hardly be missed by anyone who had coped with the name Persephone Proserpina Hathersage for twenty years. And it told her a great deal about her escort. In spite of the fact that he looked like every child’s image of a wicked pirate, the man must be well educated.

How else would he know that in the Greek tale, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, figured as the abductor of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter?

Which also meant that, in addition to knowing that she was the daughter of the Hathersage house, he knew her full name. Which, in turn, must surely mean something. But what? Phona had certainly never met him before. She could hardly have forgotten a man who looked like that.

A chill ran over her.

Could she possibly escape him? At the moment Phona could not see how. She was rapidly becoming more and more disoriented. Dusk had begun to fall, gathering in the crooks and shadows of boulders, trees, and crevices. Nothing looked familiar. Soon it would be dark, and she would never be able to find her way back.

Hades, on the other hand, clearly knew exactly where he was going. They had been riding steadily for hours, winding through the protection of small gorges and woodlands, never in sight of a trail, let alone a road. Obviously he had the way firmly in mind.

Phona cleared her throat. “Lord Hades? Where are we going?”

He twisted his broad shoulders toward her. “My apologies, Miss Hathersage. I fear I cannot tell you that.”

What else did she expect? “Is it much farther?”

“Yes. I am afraid so. Are you tired?”

“A bit.”

“You certainly should be, after that engagement. We will rest presently.”

Phona made another try. “Where are we now?”

“In Derbyshire.”

An irritated and decidedly unladylike snort escaped her. “I knew that much!”

“I was certain that you did.”

The wretch! She could hear the smirk in his voice as he turned back to watch his path. She’d be damned if she spoke to him again!

The intensity attendant on running and fighting with her intimidating adversary faded, giving way to an discouraged weariness. Phona had been able neither to outrun nor outsmart him. She had been overpowered and dumped unceremoniously on the rocky ground twice each. Her neck ached from lying as if broken.

She could not slide off her mount and try to run without being dragged by the leg, and as he had so annoyingly pointed out, no one would hear her if she shrieked like a banshee.

As the warmth of the sun faded, she began to feel cold. Sweat from the chase had dampened her clothes and now sucked the heat out of her battered body. Dear heaven, she hurt all over.

Try as she might to suppress it, Phona shook with fright, fatigue, and cold. How could she not be afraid? She could not get away from him, had no idea where he was taking her.

And what did he intend to do with her?

A knot began to tighten in her stomach. Surely, had he planned to kill her, he would not have taken the trouble to subdue her. But she could hardly afford to underestimate a man who called himself Hades.

Her captor had not yet deliberately hurt her, no, but he might prove more cruel than he now seemed. Phona knew a man might mistreat a woman in any number of ways.

Perhaps that was why he had taken her.