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A Rebellious Lady

A Rebellious Lady by Gail Mallin
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En route to Madrid to visit her brother, a captain in Napoleon’s conquering army, Desiree Fontaine is deserted by her servants, who have heard rumours that a rebellion is being mounted by Spanish rebels. Rafael de Velasco steps in to help, but aristocratic Rafael is leading a double life. When tragedy strikes, Desiree has to decide whether she can trust her heart. Regency Romantic Adventure by Gail Mallin; originally published by Mills & Boon

Belgrave House; April 1998
ISBN 9781610847124
Read online, or download in secure EPUB or secure PDF format
Title: A Rebellious Lady
Author: Gail Mallin
 
Excerpt

1809

Midnight. A new year was born.

Rafael de Velasco left his desk and moved to the window of his study. He opened it and a draught of cold air blew in, bringing with it the sound of Riofrio’s church bell.

Rafael listened, his expression grim. What would 1809 bring for his troubled country?

Just as the last chime was fading away, a discreet knock at the door roused him from his reverie.

His steward entered a nervous expression on his lined face. ‘You have a visitor, Don Rafael’.

Almost before Luis had finished speaking he was swept aside by a stout, middle-aged man wearing the black soutane of a priest.

‘Come in, cousin. Mi casa es su casa. Rafael’s deep voice was fringed with sarcasm.

A frown marred Sancho Ortego y Castuero’s well-bred face for an instant at this mocking invitation to treat the house as his own and then his expression smoothed. ‘Let us not quarrel, Rafael. I did not come for that.’

Rafael motioned him to be seated by the fire. ‘Then what did you come for?’

‘Still the same, amigo mio. You are always blunt.’ Sancho laughed but his mirth had a forced ring to it.

Rafael shrugged.

‘Aren’t you at least going to offer me a glass of wine in honour of the season?’

A short laugh escaped between Rafael’s well-cut lips. ‘Dare I trust you?’ he asked with deceptive serenity. ‘The last time you were here you refused to drink with me when I poured wine for you.’

Sancho turned bright red. ‘I was angry,’ he muttered. ‘You know, I didn’t mean to call you a traitor.’

Rafael’s black eyebrows lifted.

‘All right! My behaviour was abominable. I’ve regretted it ever since.’ Sancho dropped his gaze to the diligently polished floorboards. ‘I apologise’.

Rafael was silent, remembering their furious meeting. He had known that Sancho had wanted to throw the glass of wine in his face, but at the last instant family feeling had restrained him.

Those same shared bonds going back to their childhood—when Sancho had often visited his younger cousins, Rafael and his little sister, Elena—had also prevented Rafael from issuing the challenge that had risen instinctively to his own lips.

Unnerved by Rafael’s silence, Sancho shifted his bulk unceasingly in his chair. ‘We both want what is best for Spain. Don’t let’s quarrel over the method of achieving it.’

Rafael nodded abruptly.

‘You are right,’ he said slowly, some of the tension seeping from his broad shoulders. ‘Half of our country’s troubles stem from the fact that no one can agree on a policy.’

‘Then—’

‘I too have regretted our quarrel,’ Rafael interrupted him. He smiled warmly. ‘Welcome back, cousin.’

His broad face flushing with delight, Sancho leapt up and enthusiastically pumped the hand Rafael extended to him.

He sat down again as Rafael moved to a small simple oak table which nestled against the whitewashed wall. The wood was age-blackened but so well polished it had a silken patina that gleamed in the candlelight. On its surface stood a silver tray bearing an open bottle of wine and two fine crystal glasses.

‘Were you expecting company?’ Sancho eyed the unused wine glasses, his brown eyes speculative.

‘I had hoped Elena would join me in toasting the New Year, but she was tired and went to bed early.’

Rafael poured out the wine and handed a glass to Sancho, who admired its deep ruby colour.

‘This is from Casa del Aguila’s own vines or I am no judge,’ he exclaimed, taking an appreciative sniff of the wine’s aromatic bouquet.

‘I see you haven’t lost your interest in the good things of life, cousin.’ Rafael hid a smile. ‘I thought priests were supposed to abjure all the pleasures of the flesh.’

‘I fasted throughout Advent!’ Sancho started to protest and then, realising that he was being teased, laughed instead and patted his round stomach. ‘Not that you would know it!’

Ignoring his usual chair behind the carved walnut desk, Rafael sat down opposite his cousin and, settling his tall frame, took a swallow of wine before setting it aside.

‘So, what else brings you here, Sancho?’

‘I came to ask you to change your mind.’ Sancho knew better than to try and pretend. Rafael was too shrewd!

Rafael stretched out his long legs. ‘I already have,’ he said quietly, his gaze fixed on his high leather boots.

‘You are no longer one of the afrancesados?’ Delight filled Sancho’s voice.

Rafael lifted his dark elegant head and nodded, but Sancho’s excitement faltered at his expression.

‘I welcomed the French as liberators who would rid us of Godoy and his corrupt regime.’ Rafael’s night-black eyes were bleak. ‘I was wrong.’

Knowing his cousin as he did, Sancho could guess how much that simple admission must have cost his fierce pride.

Under Godoy, lover of the queen and virtual dictator of Spain, the country had stagnated. Crippling taxes withered farmer and merchant alike. The navy had never recovered from its losses at Trafalgar and the army was in urgent need of reform, but King Carlos had done nothing to stop the rot.

Then Napoleon Bonaparte, Spain’s ally, sought to secure a passage for his troops through Spain into Portugal so that his blockade against England could be enforced. Godoy, knowing that actions against Portugal were always popular, had agreed. But Napoleon could not resist the temptation to add Spain to his conquests.

The King and his heir, Prince Ferdinand, were lured across the border to Bayonne and forced to resign their right to the throne. French popularity had instantly faded and a mob took to the streets of Madrid.

News of the massacre of the French garrison and Marshal Murat’s bloody reprisals spread swiftly all over the country. Torn by conflicting emotions, Rafael had tried desperately to reconcile this betrayal with all the things he had long admired about Napoleon.

Then, one hot summer afternoon, Sancho had arrived at Casa del Aguila to tell Rafael that he was going to become a military chaplain.

‘You are the best swordsman I know, Rafael. Join us. We shall push the hated invader back over the Pyrenees!’

‘Fine words, but eloquence will not win battles.’ Still suffering from the shock of disillusionment, Rafael had been curt. ‘We haven’t a single general worthy of the name.’

Sancho gasped. ‘We have men of true courage.’

‘Where are their arms? Their supplies? A ragged mob of peasants masquerading as a regiment will not stop the finest military genius since Julius Caesar!’

Their quarrel rapidly escalated and it had ended with Sancho storming out, vowing never to set foot on the finca again. A vow that he had kept until tonight.

‘Does your change of heart mean that you will now join me?’ Sancho asked eagerly.

To his disappointment Rafael shook his head. ‘I do not think that I have the right temperament to be a regular soldier,’ he said, a crooked grin twisting his elegant features.

Sancho gave a reluctant chuckle of understanding. ‘Too independent and stubborn you mean, amigo!’

‘Nor, in spite of what happened at Baylen, do I believe that we can win this war by trying to fight Napoleon on his own terms,’ Rafael continued, his expression sobering.

About to argue, Sancho paused. They had won a great victory at Baylen and the French had been forced to evacuate Madrid, but their very success had drawn Napoleon himself into the fray. As the turbulent year had drawn towards its close, the Emperor had smashed his way through Spain with his usual dramatic speed and flair, reversing his army’s defeats and forcing the British, Spain’s new ally, to withdraw.

‘We have to find another method. One that allows us to use the advantages we do have.’ Rafael’s dark eyes began to gleam.

‘You have a plan?’ Sancho caught his excitement.

‘A small band of men who know the terrain can move with speed and stealth. They can inflict demoralising losses and withdraw before the enemy has time to strike back.’

Guerrilleros!’ Sancho breathed the name. ‘You will use the war of the ambush and the knife against the French?’

Rafael nodded, his finely moulded lips curing into a smile that send an involuntary chill down Sancho’s spine.

‘I shall make them afraid of their own shadows.’

‘A toast.’ Recovering his nerve, Sancho jubilantly raised his glass. ‘Let us drink to a successful new year for your venture and for Spain!’

For an instant Rafael stared silently into the blood-red heart of his wineglass before raising it to his lips. ‘Death to the French!’

Then, in one swift movement he hurled the empty glass into the stone fireplace. It shattered noisily and the dregs of wine hissed into oblivion in the hot flames.

* * * *

Ma foi, mam’selle! What a disaster!’

Desiree Fontaine, ruefully surveying the broken axle of the chaise she had hired at such expense only three days ago in Bayonne, gave a short laugh.

‘I agree, Monsieur Beauchet,’ she said crisply to the plump little man who had undertaken the task of acting as her escort and guide on this journey across Spain. ‘None the less, I am determined to continue.’

‘But how, mam’selle?’ Pierre, the coachman who made up the final number of their small party since Desiree’s maid had succumbed to home-sickness and refused to cross the border, spoke up. ‘That axle is a mess.’

‘If it cannot be easily repaired, we shall have to find another carriage.’ Ignoring her courier’s muttered grumbling, Desiree calmly proceeded to dust off her skirts.

A flicker of annoyance passed over her heart-shaped face as she noticed a tear in the hem of her fine cambric gown. She must have snagged it on one of the splintered panels when she climbed out of the drunkenly tilted chaise.

‘Monsieur Lamont isn’t going to like this!’ The young coachman was pale with anxiety beneath his outdoor tan.

‘Don’t worry,’ Desiree said kindly. ‘I shall write a letter of explanation for your master.’

Desiree felt sorry for him, but, as Pierre continued to lament, irritation finally overwhelmed her sympathy. Didn’t he realise that he was only making matters worse, standing there wringing his hands like a ninny!

‘Please see to the horses, Pierre. They must be unhitched in case they take fright and injure themselves.’

Oui, mam’selle. Blushing at his own folly, Pierre hurried to obey.

Desiree took a deep calming breath.

Her hope of gaining a short respite in which to collect her thoughts was crushed when Beauchet, who had been sitting slumped at the roadside refreshing himself from the silver hip-flask full of cognac which was always stored to hand, roused himself from his gloomy reverie.

‘We must return to France,’ he announced loudly.

‘What?’ Desiree was shocked. ‘But that is ridiculous!’

‘I insist on it, cherie. He struggled clumsily to his feet.

Worried that he might have been injured, she stifled her dislike of his familiar manner and moved swiftly to help him.

‘Are you hurt, monsieur?’

‘I ache all over.’

He had made the same complaint every few hours since they had left the château behind them, so Desiree felt quite justified in releasing her steadying hand.

‘A hot bath will help soothe any bruises,’ she said cheerfully.

He shot her a look of active dislike.

Desiree ignored it and continued in the same optimistic tone. ‘The inn in Vitoria which was recommended to me is said to keep a good table.’

‘I very much doubt it!’ he snapped back. ‘If fact, I have yet to eat a decent meal in this wretched country! Or obtain a proper night’s sleep! The bedbugs are intolerable!’

Desiree resisted the impulse to scream and silently counted to ten.

Oh, why on earth had she listened when Madame de Tolly had recommended him as just the man to see her safely to Burgos!

Her good neighbour had been persuasive.

‘I can understand your reasons for wishing to visit Etienne, ma petite. You are bored living here with only the Hortense for company. It is a great pity there are no suitable young people in the district for you to mix with. A girl of your age ought to be out enjoying parties.’

‘It is rather lonely at times,’ Desiree had admitted. ‘Particularly since Maman died.’

‘And you have always wanted to travel.’ Madame had nodded sagely. ‘But you cannot venture so far afield with only your maid for company. It is not comme il faut!’

Desiree had willingly agreed with this pronouncement, but when she suggested that Hortense, the elderly cousin who lived with her, could accompany her to Spain, Madame de Tolly had laughed merrily.

‘I know Hortense was your mother’s devoted companion and she has willingly acted as a kind of surrogate guardian to you since Corinne’s death, but she is much too old to undertake such a trip!’ Madame chuckled. ‘I suspect the very idea would horrify her!’

Desiree had been forced to concur.

‘No, Hortense will not do, ma petite. It is male protection that you require.’

A frown creased Madame’s brow. Desiree was an orphan. Etienne and Hortense were her only family, apart from the unspeakable English relatives from whom she was estranged.

Her discreetly painted face cleared as inspiration struck her. ‘Voilá. I believe that I know the right person!’

It was settled that Madame would write to Monsieur Beauchet, but when he had arrived a few weeks later at the small château near Orléans which was Desiree’s home, Desiree had been surprised.

Sixteen years had passed since Claude Beauchet had helped Madame de Tolly to escape from the Reign of Terror then afflicting Paris, and the intervening years had not treated him kindly. Almost sixty, his tongue remained plausible, but a fondness for cognac had clearly weakened his once-sharp wits as well as adding considerably to his girth.

Anxious to be on her way and thinking that he was at least honest and would not cheat her, Desiree had hired his services. Prior to the trip, she found him helpful enough but once the journey was actually underway she had discovered he disliked exerting himself and was inclined to fuss and fret, making a mountain out of every minor molehill.

Time, it seemed, had blunted his appetite for adventure!

‘I’m sorry you are not enjoying this journey, monsieur, Desiree said, abandoning her futile attempt to raise his spirits. ‘However, since none of us was injured, I see no reason to cancel my plans.’

‘You are being wilfully blind, mam’selle!’

Realising that he was about to resume his protests, Desiree shook her head at him quickly and turned away.

She could hear him muttering indignantly as she walked towards the coach, but she was tired of trying to remain courteous in the face of his constant complaints.

Forcing herself to dismiss the courier from her thoughts, she examined the chaise and quickly came to the conclusion that they would have to abandon it.

‘The horses are none the worse for what happened, mam’selle. Pierre came up to give her his report.

‘Good. Could you fashion some kind of reins?’

He shrugged doubtfully. ‘They ain’t riding animals. You’d not stay on, mam’selle.

It was on the tip of Desiree’s tongue to refute his statement. Her strict English grandfather had seen to it that she was a very competent horsewoman, but then she realised that Pierre’s expression was utterly miserable.

‘I promise I won’t let Monsieur Lamont blame you,’ she reassured him.

‘It ain’t just the accident what’s bothering me, Mam’selle Fontaine. It’s them rumours. About them guerrillas, I mean.’

Desiree’s big blue eyes widened. ‘Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense, do you?’

‘It ain’t nonsense, mam’selle. Don’t forget, I come from Bayonne. We’re much closer to Spain than you northerners. If I had a sou for every story I’ve heard about them devils, I’d be a rich man. Everyone knows they torture any poor Frenchman they get their evil hands on.’

Desiree didn’t believe a word of it.

‘My brother is close to King Joseph and in a position to know the truth,’ she said firmly. ‘He would never have mentioned the idea of my joining him in Madrid if he thought it was unsafe.’

Pierre nodded acknowledgement, but the nervous way in which he twisted his hands together warned Desiree he persisted in believing the ridiculous notion that their journey was dangerous.

Controlling her impatience, Desiree gave him her most charming smile. ‘The Emperor himself has said that the problems we experienced here last year are finished. The Spanish armies have been routed.’

‘Aye, but do the Spanish people know they are beaten, mam’selle?’ Pierre’s face wore a gloomy frown. ‘The Emperor might have made his brother king, but what’s the good of that if most Spaniards hate us? There’s bound to be trouble.’

Desiree fell silent for a moment. Pierre was young and nervous, but he wasn’t stupid. Was it possible that her own keen desire to join Etienne was preventing her from recognising the truth?

Until they reached the border area, she had never heard a word about these partisans. Everyone at home had assumed the Spanish were beaten. Certainly, Napoleon, who ought to know more than a mere coachman, had proclaimed that the French were the masters of Spain. Indeed, he frequently claimed that a large proportion of the Spanish population actively supported his rule.

It was a complicated situation, Desiree knew. Old King Carlos had been deeply unpopular with most of his subjects. He was little better than an imbecile and his queen, Maria-Luisa, was a shameless trollop! Unfortunately, Napoleon’s swift installation of his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne had outraged national pride.

But the French were in control. They had chased the British to Corunna, forcing them to withdraw from Spain. Before long they would secure Portugal—Marshal Soult was already in Oporto—then the whole peninsular would be in French hands.

No, logic dictated that Pierre’s rumours must be wrong and, having come so far already, it would be silly to turn back without having much stronger evidence of any danger.

Dismissing her doubts, Desiree shrugged lightly.

‘I think these tales of guerrilla atrocities have been greatly exaggerated,’ she said with a return of the confidence which had borne her through all the difficulties so far.

Beauchet, who had been listening to their conversation, suddenly chimed in. ‘That is all very well, cherie, but just how do you propose we get to Vitoria?’

Stung by the sarcasm in his high-pitched voice, Desiree glared at him.

‘Another vehicle is bound to come along soon. After all, this is the Royal Road to Madrid. I’m sure we shall obtain a ride.’

‘Bah! We might wait for hours!’

‘Then we must walk.’

Her announcement seemed to strike both her listeners dumb.

‘We are only a league or two from Victoria,’ she continued in a more moderate tone. ‘We could reach the inn in a couple of hours or less if we walk briskly.’

‘Walk!’ Beauchet whipped out a large spotted silk handkerchief and mopped his brow. He was already sweating profusely, although the sunshine on this new May morning was no more than pleasantly warm.

‘You have another suggestion?’ Desiree enquired sweetly.

‘Yes! Abandon this crazy enterprise.’

Desiree’s intensely blue eyes flashed with scorn. ‘You were quick enough to accept the task only a few weeks ago, monsieur.

He shrugged, his expression as sulky as a thwarted baby’s. ‘The situation appeared different in Orléans,’ he muttered. ‘But now I have had the opportunity to gather new information and assess the true facts. Without a proper armed escort, I do not feel that I can continue with this journey, mam’selle.

You were paid to escort me to Burgos where my brother is to meet me,’ Desiree said tightly, striving to hang on to her temper.

What was the fellow up to? Surely he had more sense than to believe in unlikely rumours?

Desiree eyed him suspiciously. The man was bone idle and had made it plain that he had no taste for the journey. He wanted to go home, but he needn’t think he could scare her into giving up her plans.

‘What you ask is impossible, monsieur. Do you expect me to conjure up an armed guard out of thin air? Let us forget this nonsense and continue at once if you please.’

‘We must turn back,’ Beauchet repeated stubbornly, ignoring her acid comments. ‘You can always write to your brother and ask him to meet you at the border.’

Desiree bit back a very unladylike English oath.

Taking a calming breath, she said firmly, ‘I haven’t undertaken this trip to enjoy a brief holiday. It is my hope that my brother will let me stay and make my home with him so you see I cannot just abandon my plans.’

Ma foi! You will be murdered in your bed.’

‘Do not be ridiculous, monsieur!’

Beauchet drew himself up haughtily. ‘If you will not listen, then I am afraid I must resign my service and take leave of you.’

‘You refuse to fulfil your obligations?’ Desiree was shocked. Beauchet might be lazy and half-addled by drink, but she had assumed that he was a gentleman.

‘You paid only half my fee in advance,’ he reminded her. ‘We have already travelled several hundred miles from Orléans. I consider that I have amply fulfilled my duty.’

‘You are a despicable rogue!’

Beauchet’s fat jowls quivered with indignation. ‘Your words are insulting, mam’selle, but, honour aside, I think I should prefer to be a rogue than a dead fool!’

Desiree would have found his pose of affronted dignity quite laughable in other circumstances. Unfortunately, to be stranded alone in a strange land was not an amusing prospect!

Overcoming a pang of dismay which had momentarily sent an icy shiver down her spine, Desiree gracefully inclined her fair head.

‘As you wish, monsieur, I have no doubt I shall do better without a drunkard for company.’

Ignoring the gobbles of outrage which greeted her remark, Desiree pointedly turned her back on him and asked Pierre to extract her baggage from the chaise.

The light blue carriage-dress she was wearing had fashionably narrow skirts. She ought to change into something more practical.

In spite of Pierre’s objections, Desiree still thought it might be possible to ride the carriage horses. She had a riding-habit with her and it was worth a try.

Pondering the difficulties, Desiree suddenly realised that Beauchet was conferring with the coachman in agitated whispers.

‘What is going on?’ Alarm flashed through Desiree’s slender frame.

‘I told you, I’m leaving.’ Beauchet snatched up his own valise and thrust it at Pierre. ‘Here, find some way to secure this,’ he ordered.

‘Leave those animals alone!’

Desiree ran forward, but the courier thrust out an arm to prevent her.

‘You have no right to take them.’ Desiree’s high-boned cheeks were scarlet with fury.

He sniggered. ‘I’ll admit it was your money that paid for their hire, cherie, but since they can’t take us to Vitoria, I reckon that contract is void.’

Desiree threw him a look of disgust. ‘You are little better than a thief!’ she exclaimed.

An indignant expression crossed his plump face. ‘I don’t intend to keep them. I shall return them to their own stables on our way home,’ he asserted loftily. ‘I’ll even call in on Lamont when we get to Bayonne. It’ll save you the trouble of writing to the fellow.’

‘Oh, I suppose that makes everything all right! Perhaps you expect me to thank you?’

‘There is no need to take that tone,’ he retorted huffily. ‘I have every right to terminate my services since you have not paid me in full.’

Sickened by his deviousness, Desiree clamped her lips shut before temper led her into saying more. It was obvious that he had lost all sense of honour, she would not humiliate herself by entering into further discussion with him.

Returning to her valises, she stooped to feel their combined weight and knew that they were too heavy for her to carry any distance.

‘Do you think you could take one of these for me, Pierre?’ she asked, still contemplating her bags. ‘I won’t be able to manage both of them.’

‘He can’t do that.’ There was a note of triumphant spite in Beauchet’s high voice.

‘You are turning back?’ Desiree’s gaze jerked up and she stared at Pierre with dismay.

Hanging his head, the coachman avoided her eyes and nodded silently.

Desiree moistened her suddenly dry lips with the tip of her tongue. ‘See me safely to Burgos and you shall receive a generous reward,’ she said, swallowing her pride.

‘I’m sorry, mam’selle, truly I am.’ Pierre shuffled his feet in sheepish embarrassment. ‘I’d like to help you, but Monsieur Lamont is going to have my hide over this accident as it is. I might lose my job if I don’t report to him as soon as possible.’

‘I’ll explain to him—’

Hastily, Pierre shook his head. ‘My wife is expecting our first child. She’s bound to hear what’s happened and if I don’t go back, she’ll worry herself sick. You see, she didn’t want me to cross over the border in the first place.’

‘Come on, we’re wasting time.’ Beauchet cut across the servant’s red-faced apologies and ordered Pierre to give him a leg up to mount the horse he had selected. Without saddle or stirrups it was a tricky business, but the roan was a placid beast and stood still while the courier settled himself on its broad back.

Desiree hoped he was as uncomfortable as he looked!

Pierre moved to the second mount and then hesitated. ‘Come with us, mam’selle.

Desiree shook her head, outrage stiffening her spine.

‘I want the money you were holding for me, Beauchet,’ she said, her anger at the courier’s underhand behaviour hardening into a stubborn resolve to manage on her own.

A look of shifty disappointment flashed over the courier’s face at her blunt demand, deepening Desiree’s suspicion that he had been planning to cheat her.

‘And all my official papers, if you please,’ she added grimly.

‘Aye, hand everything over,’ Pierre echoed, his expression stern.

Eying the young groom’s big fists, Beauchet sighed and reluctantly complied.

‘Thank you,’ Desiree stood back with a look of scorn.

Hortense had insisted she sew pockets into each chemise. She would take care to bestow her valuables safely as soon as the two men departed.

‘Sure you won’t change your mind, cherie?’ A faint note of shame underlay Beauchet’s farewell.

Hearing it, Desiree smiled coldly. Had he just realised what an awkward time he was going to have of it, trying to excuse the despicable way he had abandoned her?

‘Go and be damned to you,’ she said sweetly and, turning her back on him, began to calmly repack her belongings to fit the most important items into the smaller valise.

* * * *

The slim golden spires of Vitoria seemed to waver before Desiree’s eyes and with a little groan she set down her bag and, removing her gloves, flexed her cramped fingers. The sun, which earlier had seemed so pleasant, was now blazing at its zenith and she felt as if she might melt.

Wiping the back of her sleeve across her damp forehead, Desiree surveyed the small plain of Vitoria, which lay aslant like a diamond among the surrounding hills. The town itself stood on an eminence, with the Royal Road sweeping in from Madrid in the south-west and out to Bayonne in the north-east. It was just her luck that no vehicle had appeared!

Not that she looked very respectable to ask for a ride. She cast a rueful glance over her dust-streaked skirts. And her hair tumbled had down under her bonnet, which she had reluctantly kept on for fear of sunburn.

Maman had always insisted that neatness was one of the true marks of a lady. Desiree grinned to herself. She had never shown proper attention to her mother’s scolds, preferring to scramble after Etienne no matter how she ripped her clothes.

With a sign, she thrust her gloves into her valise and picked it up. It wasn’t far now and standing here feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to do any good!

Her mouth twisted wryly. How often her grandfather had used that phrase to her! Whenever she had fallen off her pony or failed in any of the other tasks he had set for her, Sir William had insisted that she try again u until she achieved success. No matter how bruised or humiliated she might have been, she had always been forced to obey.

‘You may be the daughter of a penniless émigré but you also have Cavendish blood in your veins. Oblige me by showing some courage, Anne!’

Her grandparents had always refused to call her Desiree. They insisted on using her second name, Anne, ignoring Corinne Fontaine’s protests. As a little girl, Desiree had accepted their dictates without thinking; the ways of grown-ups were often mystifying. It was only when she was older that she had realised it was one of the many methods by which they had sought to destroy her mother’s influence.

Entering the town, Desiree firmly dismissed the past and its disturbing memories. She needed to keep her wits about her. The inn she wanted, the White Virgin, lay just off the main square. It was apparently named after the famous white jasper statue which stood enshrined in a niche over the door of the old church of San Miguel.

‘Look for la Virgen Blanca at the top of the square,’ her informant had said. ‘Behind the church turn right and you will find the inn.’

Concentrating hard, Desiree was scarcely aware of the curious glances she received.

To her surprise, many of the houses were made of grey stone and some had bay windows. Allied to the green, hilly scenery, it wasn’t at all how she had pictured a Spanish town. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the heat, Desiree could have almost imagined herself back in England.

There! That little street was the one she was looking for.

Desiree hastened forward just as two men came out of one of the buildings. They stopped with their backs to her and stood talking, blocking the entrance to the narrow calle.

Desiree came to a halt. She had no intention of being forced to squeeze past them.

‘Excuse me, gentlemen.’ The Castilian phrase had slipped her memory—she knew only a little of the language which was used in this part of Spain—but made subconsciously wary by Pierre’s mutterings, she instinctively spoke in English, not French.

The taller man turned round and Desiree found herself looking into a hard austere face, deeply tanned by the sun. From beneath the thin black brows, equally dark eyes surveyed her. The glance lasted only a second or two, but Desiree could have sworn that he had taken in every detail of her appearance, from her tangled blonde ringlets to her dusty leather shoes.

Then, with a curt nod, he stood back, allowing her to pass.

Desiree could feel his eyes boring into her back all the way up the street!

To her relief, she found the inn easily. A pair of big wooden doors stood open, revealing a shady courtyard and Desiree quickly stepped inside, glad for some reason that she could not name to escape the tall, dark-haired man’s gaze.

A stout woman dressed in black appeared. She looked amazed to see Desiree standing alone in her courtyard.

Acutely conscious of her lack of a suitable escort, Desiree attempted to explain that she required a room.

A flood of rapid Castilian answered her.

‘I’m sorry, No le entiendo. I don’t understand.’ Longing to sit down and desperate for something to cool her dry throat, Desiree cudgelled her brains for some way to convince the frowning landlady that she was respectable.

‘May I be of assistance?’

The voice was ice wrapped in sable velvet.

Desiree swung round. The tall Spaniard she had encountered earlier had materialised at her side, although she had heard no sound to indicate his arrival.

‘Forgive me, but you do want a room?’

Desiree nodded, tongue-tied by surprise. His English, although marked by a strong accent, was excellent!

A quick-fire exchange followed. The woman was clearly reluctant, but Desiree’s unexpected champion was obviously a man accustomed to obedience.

‘I have made arrangements for you to have a room at the rear. It will be quieter.’

‘Thank you.’ Desiree had recovered her composure. ‘You are very kind….’ Her voice trailed off slowly.

‘Permit me to introduce myself.’ His expression did not change as he responded to her hint, but Desiree was sure that she saw a brief flicker of amusement in his dark eyes. ‘Rafael de Velasco.’ He executed an elegant bow. ‘And you, señorita?’

So he had noticed that she wore no wedding-ring.

‘My name is Anne Cavendish.’ Desiree smiled at him innocently, the same instinctive sense of caution which had operated earlier prompting her to conceal the whole truth.

At the moment, Spain and England were allies. It might be safer to claim her father’s nationality, although on his last leave home Etienne had complained that Spaniards were notoriously insular in their outlook and generally hostile to all foreigners.

Rafael de Velasco appeared to be an exception to this rule, but, helpful though he had been, he was still an unknown quantity.

He was also undeniably attractive. Under that rather shabby coat his shoulders were broad, but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his long lean body. In fact, he looked to be in peak physical condition, an impression heightened by the lithe grace with which he moved.

Desiree wasn’t sure how old he was. Thirty, perhaps? His thick, somewhat unruly hair was free of any kind of grey and his olive skin was smooth, but there was a cynically weary twist to his mouth. It was a beautifully cut mouth with a sensually full lower lip in contrast to the hard angles of his determined chin, thin high-bridged note and elegant cheekbones.

Patrician features, but the plainest of clothes. He looked like a pirate with that mop of black curling hair and those dark mysterious eyes, but he had a gentleman’s manners.

Desiree wasn’t sure what to make of him, but she would have wagered her best earrings that he would make an excellent dancer…or duellist!

The stout woman re-appeared, interrupting Desiree’s thoughts. She was carrying a tall jug and two earthenware beakers. Beads of moisture clung to the jug and Desiree licked her lips thirstily as she watched the woman set it down on a small table in a corner of the courtyard before departing again.

‘I told Consuelo to bring you some food. It will be ready soon. In the meantime….’ Rafael de Velasco indicated a pair of rickety-looking chairs pulled up to the table. ‘shall we sit down?’

Desiree hesitated.

Why did he make her feel so unsure of herself? She was self-reliant by nature, and, at twenty-one, had grown accustomed to acting independently, for Hortense had left all the decisions to her after Maman had died. That was almost two years ago and she had learnt to run the household and act as hostess to Etienne’s brother-officers and friends.

Desiree, who was bored by the unchanging, dull routine of her everyday existence, had loved it when Etienne came home on leave. In fact, Hortense had accused her of flirting at the parties he gave. She had objected, defending herself by saying that she preferred to discuss horses with the men than the latest fashions with the women, but all the same she knew that her elderly chaperon had a point.

Among Etienne’s friends she came alive, just as the château itself did when they arrived. She didn’t deliberately set out to flirt, but she never felt self-conscious or awkward with them. Perhaps her lack of shyness was a legacy of her strange upbringing. Her grandfather had treated her like a boy, even to teaching her how to shoot and fish.

Whatever the reason, she enjoyed male company, but attractive though she found him, Desiree knew she ought not to encourage Rafael de Velasco’s attentions.

It wasn’t just that he was a stranger. Dieu, it wasn’t even because he was a Spaniard and therefore a potential enemy of her country! No, her unease went deeper. It was an instinctive response to the incredibly strong magnetism of the man. He radiated an aura of intense virility. Allied to his natural air of command and stunning good looks, it was having a devastating effect on her senses!

She might not be able to stop wondering what it would feel like to be kissed by that intriguingly sensual mouth, but at least she ought not to sit drinking with him!

On the other hand, however, that table was shaded by a horse-chestnut tree, she was dying of thirst and her feet were sore from all that walking!

‘You don’t wish to rest, señorita?’ A tiny lift of enquiry quirked his thin black brows. ‘Or is it that you don’t trust me?’

‘Is there any reason why I shouldn’t, sir?’ Desiree’s chin came up.

Amusement gleamed in the jet-black eyes. ‘Do you think I would admit it if there was?’

She couldn’t help laughing at his impudence, but as she allowed him to pull out a chair for her, she found herself resenting both his charm and his high-handed tactics. He seemed altogether too sure of himself!

Watching him pour out the contents of the jug with a deft grace, it also occurred to her that he must have had plenty of success with women. Unexpectedly, Desiree found herself wishing that she didn’t look so dishevelled.

Imbecile! What did it matter what he thought of her! In a few minutes he would be gone and she would never see him again.

Somehow, it was a rather depressing thought.

Trying to hide her oddly mixed feelings, Desiree took the beaker he handed her and sipped the cool milky-looking beverage. It was sweet but refreshing, with a hint of cinnamon and lemon underlying a taste she did not recognise.

‘This is delicious. What is it called?’ she asked appreciatively.

Horchata. It is made from almonds. One of the specialities of the house.’

Glad to slake her thirst, Desiree finished her drink. Here in the quiet shade, the temperature was pleasant and she could feel herself beginning to relax. She hadn’t realised until now how the events of the morning had drained her.

‘May I ask why you are here in Vitoria, Miss Cavendish?’

His abrupt question made Desiree jump. Hastily, she gathered her wits and sought for an answer. She was pleased that he had made the assumption she had hoped for and concluded she was English, but she didn’t want to encourage further curiosity.

‘I don’t think my reasons can be of any interest to you, sir.’ A distinct hauteur infused her tone.

His swift frown told her that he did not care to be spoken to in such a manner, but his voice remained perfectly courteous when he answered her.

‘Your business is your own, of course, but surely you realise that it is unwise to travel alone? Leaving aside the fact that you do not speak the language well, a beautiful woman without a protector is always at risk.’

Did he think she was beautiful? To her annoyance, Desiree blushed.

‘Someone is to meet me,’ she said curtly.

‘Today?’

His persistence alarmed her. What business was it of his?

‘Tomorrow’, she lied, adding firmly, ‘Thank you for your help, but I believe that I can manage now.’ She rose abruptly to her feet. ‘Do not let me detain you any longer, señor.

He stood up, his face darkening at her dismissive tone.

Adios, señorita.

With a curt bow he turned on his heel but at the exit to the courtyard he paused and glanced back.

‘Should you discover that you require further assistance after all, my room is opposite yours.’

Desiree’s blue eyes widened. He was staying here at the inn!

She stared after his departing figure, feeling oddly disturbed.

Rafael de Velasco might be a man of breeding, but all her instincts told her that he was dangerous and she didn’t want anything more to do with him!

ISBNs
1610847121
9781610847124