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The Escape is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or 10 страничка


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It occurred to her that she liked Ben Harper, even if he did make her bristle with indignation on occasion—and turn hot with longing at other times. It occurred to her that she would miss him when he had gone.

“He had a mistress,” she said abruptly, and then she gazed at him in some surprise. What on earth had prompted her to say that? She set down her knife and fork, rested her forearms on the table, and leaned toward him. “They already had one child when he met and married me. Another was conceived during the first months of our marriage. I took that to mean that he did not care much for me at all and that I was not much good in the marriage bed.”

She gazed at him, appalled. And she looked around furtively to make sure they were not within earshot of any other diners.

He looked from his knife to his fork and back again before setting them down across his plate and copying her posture. Their faces were not very far apart.

“I suppose,” he said, “you have spent longer than six years imagining that you are sexually inadequate.”

She half expected to see flames flaring up from her cheeks.

“No,” she said. “Why should I allow my spirit to be crushed by someone I did not respect? I lost respect for my husband four months into our marriage. That is a terrible admission to make, is it not, to a virtual stranger?”

“I am hardly a stranger,” he said. “And I am about to become even less of one. We are to spend the night teetering off the opposite edges of the same bed, are we not?”

“Have you ever had a mistress?” she asked him.

“Of long standing?” he said. “No. And never any children. And even if I had a mistress, I would dismiss her before marrying someone else. And no one would replace her. Ever.”

“Was the colonel’s niece very beautiful?” she asked.

He considered. “She was pretty. She was small and dainty, all smiles and dimples and blond curls and ringlets and big blue eyes.”

“Such a woman would surely have been unwilling to follow the drum with you.”

“But she was already doing so with her uncle,” he told her. “She looked like a porcelain doll. In reality she was as tough as nails.”

“Did you mourn her loss?”

“I cannot say I spared her more than a passing thought for at least two years,” he said. “By then I was very thankful we had not married.”

“I daresay she has grown plump,” she said. “Small, pretty blonds often do.”

His eyes laughed at her, and he reached across the table and took one of her hands in both of his.

“I believe, Sammy,” he said, “you are jealous.”

“Jealous?” She tried to withdraw her hand, but he tightened his hold on it. “How perfectly ridiculous. And how dare you call me that name when I have specifically asked you not to?”

“I think you want me,” he said.


His eyes were laughing, but her stomach was clenched into knots. It was not true. Oh, of course it was true. He did not believe what he was saying, though. He was just teasing her. He was deliberately trying to make her cross—and was succeeding.

“I believe,” he said, “you want to prove that you are good in bed after all.”

“Oh!” She gaped inelegantly and jerked her hand from between his as she got abruptly to her feet. “How dare you. Oh, Ben, how dare you?”

Somehow she remembered to keep her voice down.

“You may have lost respect for your late husband,” he said, “and you may have refused to allow his infidelity to break your spirit, but he hurt you more than you realize, Samantha. He was a fool. And one day you will be given proof of your desirability. But not tonight. You are quite safe from me, I promise, despite the situation in which we find ourselves. I will not take advantage of you.”

She was almost disappointed.

“Go on up to our room now,” he said, “since you appear to have finished eating. I will stay down here for a while.”

She went without a word of protest, even though it could be said that he had issued a command.

He was a fool.

You will be given proof of your desirability.

I believe you want to prove that you are good in bed after all.

I think you want me.

And they were to spend the night together.

Not only ought he to have written to Hugo, Ben thought as he drank his port, but he ought also to have written to Calvin at Kenelston. And probably to Beatrice. No doubt she would soon learn that Samantha had disappeared from Bramble Hall and that he had left Robland very early on the same day. He wondered if she would make the connection. But if she did, he did not believe she would share her suspicions with anyone.

Would anyone else make the connection? He doubted it, since he had taken care not to be seen with Samantha. No one would know that he had had more than a passing acquaintance with her, and it was known that he was about to leave Robland anyway.

He could still write the letters, of course. He could call for paper and pen and ink and write them now before he went upstairs. But he was reluctant to do so. There was something rather seductive about the idea of simply disappearing without a trace for as long as he chose. He could go where he wanted and do what he wanted without having to account to anyone. That was always the case, of course, but … Well, he wanted to be quite free to allow this adventure to develop as it would. He did not want friends and relatives murmuring in the background with either encouragement or disapproval.


Samantha was still up when he returned to their room, though he had lingered in the dining room long enough to give her the chance to be under the bedcovers and at least pretending to be asleep if she so chose. He had been hoping she would take that option.

She was sitting on the bed in her nightgown, her legs tucked to one side, only her bare feet visible beneath its hem, her arms raised to remove the pins from her hair. It was not a deliberately seductive pose. Nevertheless it did something uncomfortable to his breathing.

“I thought you would be asleep,” he told her.

“Or feigning sleep, I suppose,” she said, “curled up in a ball, breathing deeply and evenly, so that you could crawl by me and ease yourself in on the other side and do likewise?”

He shut and locked the door.

“I did consider it,” she confessed, “but you would have known I was not really asleep, and then I would have known that you were not and we would have lain awake all night, each of us hoping that we were doing a better job of faking it than the other.”

He laughed.

“Let me help you do that,” he said, moving closer and propping his canes against the foot of the bed before sitting beside her. “I might say you are making a bird’s nest of your hair, but I believe that would be insulting to the bird in question.”

“Well,” she said, lowering her arms, “you make me nervous, Ben, and I cannot for the life of me disentangle the last few pins. I believe they are lost in there forever.”

He found and removed them, and her hair fell about her shoulders and down her back, heavy, shining, almost black Gypsy hair.

“I intended,” she said, “to have it neatly braided before you came up. Could you not have stayed to drink the inn dry of brandy or port or whatever it is you drink after dinner?”

“Port,” he said. “Brush?” He held out one hand, and she took a brush off the small chest beside the bed and handed it to him. He made a swirling motion with one finger. “Turn.”

Her hair reached to her waist and almost touched the bed behind her. It smelled faintly of gardenia. Her nightgown was of white cotton and covered her as decently as her dresses did during the day. Except that it was a nightgown and she was obviously wearing no stays beneath it—or anything else, at a guess. And her feet were bare. And she was sitting on a bed.

He drew the brush through her hair. It slid downward from the roots to the tips.

“Two hundred strokes,” she said.

He felt an immediate tightening at his groin. Two hundred?

“Every night,” she added.

“Do you count them?”

“Yes. It was one way my mother taught me numbers.”

She had been quite unaware of the double meaning of her words.

He counted silently.

“I was eighteen,” she said when he was at thirty-nine strokes. “Barely. I had just had my birthday. I had been married a little less than four months.”

He did not prompt her. If she needed to tell the story she had begun downstairs, then he would listen. He had all night, after all, and he knew from his experiences at Penderris that it was important that people be allowed to tell their stories.

Forty-five. Forty-six.

“I was so deeply in love,” she said, “that I did not think the world was large enough to contain it all. Youth is a dangerous time of life.”

Yes, it could be.

Fifty-one. Fifty-two. Fifty-three.

“I thought his love for me was just as all-consuming,” she said. “I thought we were living happily ever after. How foolish young people can be. Shall I tell you why he married me?”

“If you wish.” Fifty-nine. Sixty.

“He had always been the family rebel,” she said. “He hated them all, particularly his father. But his father could never leave him alone. He had been at him to marry someone suitable—suitable in the eyes of the earl, that was. He had even named a few possible candidates. Matthew was eleven years older than I, you know. He met me at an assembly, found me pretty and eager—and, oh, how right he was about the latter! I was pathetically eager. I wore my heart not just on my sleeve, but on my nose and my forehead and my cheeks and my bosom and … Well. Suffice it to say that I made no secret of my adoration. I was pathetic.”

“You were very young,” he said. Good Lord, she was only twenty-four now. “You were being courted by a handsome military officer.”

“Where was I?” she asked. He did not know where he was. He had lost count. Sixty-nine? Seventy? “He fancied himself in love with me, of course, or I daresay he would not have done what he did. But it also occurred to him that it would be a splendid joke on his father if he married me. I was the daughter of a gentleman of no particular distinction. That would have been bad enough in his father’s eyes. He knew too, though, that I was the daughter of an actress and the granddaughter of some unknown Welshman and a Gypsy. And so he married me. He kept a decent silence about that part of his motive until I discovered the existence of his mistress, and then he told me about it—out of spite, I suppose, though he laughed as he told the tale and invited me to share the joke with him. It was funny, for it achieved everything he had hoped for. The Earl of Heathmoor was irate. When I refused to allow Matthew to touch me after I made my discovery and then he refused to take me to the Peninsula with his regiment and sent me to Leyland Abbey instead, again out of spite, I was made to feel that I was lower on the scale of significance than the lowliest servant. But because I was a daughter-in-law of the house, I must be subjected to a strict regimen of reeducation. I was not quite nineteen when I went there.”

He lowered the brush to the bed.

“I am not pleading for your pity,” she said. “Heaven forbid. My life is as it is. There are worse lives. I have never been hungry or literally homeless. No one has ever used physical violence on me worse than the occasional rap over the knuckles or smack on the bottom when I was a child. And now I have been offered the gift of freedom and a hovel of a cottage and a small competence with which to enjoy it. Do you understand what a wonderful thing that is for a woman, Ben? I can be a new person.”

She turned to face him on the bed and tucked her feet right out of sight.

“Then why the mournful look?” he asked.

“Do I look mournful?”

“I suppose,” he said, “it is because you have been forced to bring the old person with you.”

She grimaced. “Why is that? It is such a nuisance.”

“But how could you ever feel joy,” he asked her, “if you had not also known dreariness and suffering?”

“Is there ever joy?” Her dark eyes searched his face as though the answer was written there.

He opened his mouth to assure her that of course there was. But was there? When had he last felt it? When he arrived at Penderris Hall a few months ago for his annual stay there with his friends? That had been a happy moment, but had it been joy? He wished he had not used the word with her. It was a disturbing word.

And was that what his problem was? That wherever he went, he had to take himself with him? Was it in denial of that fact that he had decided to travel? The eternal quest to escape from himself, from the body that slowed him down, made him grotesque and ungainly, and stopped him from living the life he wanted to live?

“We have to believe there is joy,” he said. “In the meantime, we have to believe that our lives are worth living.”

She lifted one hand and set it against his cheek, her fingers pushing into his hair. Her hand was smooth and cool.

“It is ungrateful of me,” she said, “to have been given freedom and a new life and yet to feel a little depressed. You will find a meaning for your life.”

“I am going to be a world-famous travel writer.” He smiled.

“You will find what you are searching for, Ben,” she said. “You are a kind man.”

“And the good and kind are rewarded with fulfillment and happiness?”

He was surprised to see tears brighten her eyes, though they did not spill over onto her cheeks.

“They should be,” she said. “Life should work that way, though we know it does not always do so.”

He released his hold on the brush, caught her by the waist, drew her against him, and kissed her. She wrapped her arms about him and kissed him back.

Their lips clung. Their breath mingled. She was warm, soft, fragrant, very feminine. He was aware, even with his eyes closed, of her nightgown and bare feet, of her hair loose down her back, of the bed beneath them. There was an increase of heat, a tightening in his groin again.

She slid her feet free of her nightgown and he somehow got his legs right up on the bed, and his hands were on her breasts, heavy and firm beneath the cotton of her nightgown, and her hands were under his coat, inside his waistcoat, warm against the back of his shirt.

She had lain down across the bed, and he had followed her, his hand beneath the hem of her nightgown, smoothing its way up the heat of her inner thigh. His tongue simulated in her mouth what he would like to be doing with her body. His weight was pressing against her breasts.

He had made her a promise downstairs just an hour or two ago.

But not tonight. You are quite safe from me, I promise, despite the situation in which we find ourselves. I will not take advantage of you.

He tried to ignore the voice in his head—his own voice. It could not be done, however.

He lifted his head and gazed down into her passion-heavy eyes.

“We cannot do this,” he said.

She said nothing.

“We would regret it,” he told her. “It would have been provoked entirely by this room. We would regret it.”

Idiot, he thought. Fool.

“Would we?” She sighed, but he could see that she was returning to her senses.

“You know we would.” He sat up, lowering the hem of her nightgown as he did so, and pushed himself to his feet without using his canes. High mattresses were always a blessing to him.

“And yet,” she said, “it is quite acceptable for a widow to have an affair, provided she is discreet about it. I learned that when I was with Matthew’s regiment. I think it would be a grand use of freedom—to have an affair.”

“With me?” He did not turn to look at her.

“With a man who wanted one with me as much as I wanted one with him,” she said. “Perhaps with you, Ben. One of these days. But not tonight. You are right about that. It would seem slightly sordid.”

He drew a few slow breaths. “Now,” he said, “if you would get beneath the covers and pretend to fall into an instant sleep to spare my modesty, I will slip out of a few of my clothes and climb in on the other side. And tomorrow and for every other night of our journey, we will continue on our way, even if the distance is a hundred miles, until we find an inn that can properly and separately accommodate us.”

She got down from the bed, climbed beneath the covers so far to her side that it was a miracle she did not fall off, pulled the covers up over her head, and snored softly.

He smiled and made his way around to the other side.

“The only trouble is,” she said when he was slipping out of his waistcoat, “that by the time one of these days comes along, you will be long gone from my life.”

“Hush,” he said, and she started snoring again.

He blew out the candle and climbed into bed, as far to his side as was possible.

He would be laughed out of any officers’ mess tent, he thought, if he was ever unwise enough to give an account of this night’s doings—or absence of doings.

Not that he would ever again be in any mess tent.

He stared at the pale outline of the bay window.

He would never again be in any mess tent.

The army did not take cripples.


Samantha’s first impression when she awoke was of warmth and comfort. She had surely just enjoyed her best night’s sleep in a long time. And then, as she woke further, other impressions intruded. Her nose was virtually pressed against a naked chest that rose and fell to the steady rhythm of its owner’s breathing. His body heat enveloped her and made her want to move her whole body closer though she was alarmingly close as it was. One of his arms was about her beneath the covers.

So much for a sleepless night as they each clung virtuously to their respective edges of the bed.

Samantha had never before slept with a man. Slept, that was, as opposed to having marital relations with. For close to four months after their marriage, Matthew had come to her bed almost nightly, but he had always returned to his own afterward. Somehow, this seemed almost as intimate as those brief sessions had been, perhaps because they were so long ago that she had forgotten just what real intimacy felt like.

They had come close to making love last night—until conscience had smitten him. She was not sure if she was glad or sorry.

He was sleeping. She could tell that from the deepness of his breathing and the warm relaxation of his body. She was tempted to fall back to sleep herself. But good sense prevailed. What she really needed to do was remove herself from the bed, or at least from this particular part of it, before he too woke up. He might believe she had done this deliberately.

She considered her strategy. His arm was heavy across her. One of her legs was trapped beneath one of his. One of her hands was splayed across his chest. The other was resting on the side of his waist—she had only just realized that. It was full daylight. Goodness only knew what time it was. It might be dawn or it might be noon. She really had slept deeply.

She wriggled her leg free. She lifted her hand from his waist and removed her nose from his chest and then her other hand. She inched backward under his arm. She did it all in no more than five or ten minutes. He inhaled deeply, exhaled audibly, and fell silent. She edged back a little farther. If she turned now, she could swing her legs over the edge of the bed and sit up and then stand and be safe even if he then awoke and saw her in her rumpled nightgown, her unbraided hair in loose tangles about her head and shoulders and along her back. He would not know …

“I suppose,” he said just as she sat up, in a perfectly normal, everyday conversational voice, “you did not sleep a wink all night.”

“I slept a little,” she admitted in a tone to match his own. She did not turn her head to look at him.

“Did I leave you enough room?” he asked. “I did not inadvertently touch you?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “There was plenty of room.”

“Samantha McKay,” he said, “you will surely burn in hell one of these eternities. You are lying through your teeth.”

She let out an enraged shriek and whisked her head around to glare at him. She grabbed her pillow and hurled it at him.

“You, sir,” she said, “are no gentleman. You might at least pretend to believe that we kept to our own edges of the bed.”

He clasped the pillow to his chest. “I woke up at some time in the night,” he said, “to find that I had rolled to the center of the bed and that you had done likewise. To be fair, I do not believe either of us was the aggressor. You grumbled some nonsense and grabbed me when I would have beaten a strategic retreat back to my edge, and, being the gentleman I am, contrary to your unjust accusation, I remained where I was and allowed you to burrow against me.”

She shrieked again and grabbed for her pillow so that she could fling it at his head once more.

“And you,” she said, “are going to fry. I did not. And if you had been the gentleman you profess to be, you would have moved, not just to the edge of the bed, but right off it onto the floor with your pillow.”

“You were lying half on it,” he said. “And being a gentleman …” He completed the sentence with a grin.

She stared down at him. He was enjoying himself, she thought, and so, strangely, was she. What had seemed horribly awkward and embarrassing just a minute or so ago had been turned into … fun. But oh, dear, he looked tousled and almost boyish. And attractive. It really would be wonderful to make love with him.

“What?” he said. “You have no answer?”

“You might have taken my pillow, then,” she said.

“But you were lying half on that too.”

“Poor thing,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “And so you were doomed to spend the rest of the night in the middle of the bed with only half a pillow for your comfort.”

“I am not complaining,” he told her. He laced his hands behind his head and looked complacent. “Pillows are not the only source of comfort.”

“Hmm.” She got to her feet. “Turn your back and pull the covers over your head. I am going to get dressed. I do not suppose anyone has fed and watered Tramp this morning or let him loose in the stable yard.”

He did as he was told with great ostentation, and Samantha dressed quickly, a smile on her face, and dragged her brush through her hair before twisting and knotting it at her neck.

“I shall see you at breakfast in half an hour or so,” she said as she let herself out of the room.

He snored softly beneath the bedcovers as she had done last night. She was laughing as she shut the door. How her life had changed in the span of a week. She scarcely recognized herself despite what had been said last night about having to take herself with her wherever she went. She could not remember a time when she had simply enjoyed someone else’s company, when she had laughed and joked with that person and talked nonsense. And hurled pillows.

And shared a bed.

And felt a knee-weakening desire.

She was going to miss him dreadfully when they had arrived at her cottage and he had resumed his travels. But she would think of that when the time came.

Tramp greeted her as if he had been shut up all alone for at least a week in his perfectly comfortable stall.

They talked about the weather and the scenery. They talked about books—she had read a good many during the five years of her husband’s illness, and he had read a fair number during the years of his convalescence and since. They talked more about their families and the homes where they had grown up, about their growing years, the friends they had had, the games they had played, the dreams they had dreamed. They talked about music, though neither claimed any proficiency on a musical instrument.

They carefully avoided any situation or topic that might ignite the attraction they undoubtedly felt for each other.

Sometimes they talked nonsense and laughed like silly children. It felt ridiculously good. Sometimes they bickered, though even those flare-ups usually ended in nonsense and laughter.

They talked with fellow travelers at inns where they stayed and at places of interest they visited. Ben began to think that perhaps he would enjoy traveling after all. He was sure he would have lingered in southeast Wales longer if he had been alone. He was fascinated by the new industries that were springing up—coal mines and associated shipping concerns and metalworks. He would have loved to make a few detours—into the Rhondda and Swansea Valleys, for example, to see the industries at work. Perhaps he would come back one day and add chapters to his book that were not concerned purely with pictorial beauty. But not yet. After he had seen Samantha settled, he would want to put as much distance as possible between himself and her.

“I have been thinking,” he said the morning they left Swansea behind and proceeded toward West Wales, “that after you have taken up residence in your cottage I will take the route up the west coast of Wales rather than return the way we have come. I will see Aberystwyth and Harlech and Mount Snowdon, and then travel along the north coast.”

Her dark eyes—those lovely, expressive eyes, which seemed to have come more fully alive since they left County Durham—looked steadily back into his own. She was wearing pale spring green today and looked young and wholesome and pretty. And desirable, though he tried to ignore that thought.

He was very glad they had not become lovers that night. It was going to be a lonely enough feeling, driving off on his own, without the added complication of having indulged in an affair with her.

Or would he regret not having reached for pleasure when it had surely been offered?

“There is sure to be some lovely scenery on that route,” she said, half averting her face to gaze out of the window. “There already has been, has there not? Being in sight of the sea so much of the time smites me here.” She tapped the outer edge of one curled fist against her stomach. “Or perhaps it is Wales itself that is affecting me. It really does feel like a different country even though most people speak English. But, oh, the accent, Ben. It is like music.”

“Penderris is by the sea,” he said. “Did I tell you that? It is at the top of a high cliff in Cornwall.”

“With yellow sands, as there are everywhere here?” she asked.

“Yes. Sands far below the towering cliffs. I can only look down on the beach when I am there. But it is a beautiful sight.”

“You do not swim, then?”

“I did once upon a time,” he told her. “Like a fish. Or an eel. Especially in forbidden waters. The deep side of the lake at Kenelston was always infinitely more inviting than the river side, where the water was no deeper than waist high even to a boy. How could one even pretend to be a self-respecting fish there? But I have digressed.”

She turned her face toward him while the dog snuffled in his sleep on the seat opposite and moved his chin to a more comfortable position. He saw in her face an awareness of the fact that their journey together was coming to an end.

“When we arrive in Tenby,” he said, “there are going to have to be a few changes.”

Mr. Rhys, the solicitor who was looking after her cottage, had his chambers there. Since she did not have the key to the house or even know exactly where it was, they were going to have to find him. And then everything would change. Either the cottage could be lived in or it could not. They must discover the answer to that question first and proceed from there. But there was no point yet in wondering what their next step would be if it turned out that it could not.

She raised her eyebrows. “You sound like an officer about to issue orders to your men. What are they, sir?”

“When we arrive there,” he said, “you are going to have to revert to being the widowed Mrs. McKay, and I am going to have to be Major Sir Benedict Harper, friend of the late Captain Matthew McKay, escorting you as a result of that deathbed promise I made him. But you must have a maid, you know, to add some semblance of propriety to our having traveled so far together.”

Her eyebrows stayed elevated while he frowned in thought. “She accompanied you as far as Tenby,” he said, “but flatly refused to go one step farther from England or even to stay there. You will have been forced to send her on her way back to England by stage the very day we call upon your solicitor. You will need an instant replacement, of course, even before you move into your cottage. And you are going to need one or two other servants, I daresay—a housekeeper, a cook, or perhaps someone who can serve in both capacities, especially if the cottage is small. Perhaps a handyman. A companion.”

“You do not need to concern yourself with those details, Major Harper,” she said, her back to the window now as she gazed steadily at him. “I shall manage. And I daresay Mr. Rhys will be willing to advise me.”

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