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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 15 страничка


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But then something opened up anyway, something deep within, something soft, near painful, beyond words to describe, and he came in hard and deep and thrusting and she closed around him and spilled out all the inner wonder of that unknown place and whispered his name.

He came two, three, four more times into that soft, lovely place, thrusting his demand and then finding his own place. She felt heat, heard him sigh, felt him gradually relax, and went down into his waiting arms until she was lying along his body again, her legs straight beside his own. They were still joined.

Was it impotence he had feared? Perhaps she had feared it too—for his sake. She almost laughed with delight.

A few moments later she felt the bedcovers come up over her back and shoulders. His arms held them in place, and they lay still and relaxed in each other’s arms for several minutes.

“We forgot something,” he said at last, his voice soft against her ear.

“Mm?” She was more than half asleep.

“I spilled my seed in you,” he said.

“Mm.” She was awake now. The fingers of one of his hands were playing through her hair.

“We will have to make … arrangements before I leave,” he said.

She opened her eyes to stare at the lighter square of the window.

“I must see to it that you have somewhere to write,” he said, “if I need to come back.”

She had thought of it but had deliberately ignored the thought, which was extremely foolish and irresponsible of her.

“I did not conceive during my marriage,” she said.

“Which does not mean you are barren,” he told her.

Did this mean their affair was over? Almost before it had begun? Would they not risk it again?

“I would not trap you into marriage,” she told him.

“I do not doubt it,” he said. “Though trapped would not be a pleasant word to use if there really were a child, would it?”

She did not answer him. But she did move off him to lie beside him. He reached for her hand and they laced their fingers.

“Must it end, then?” she asked him.

He did not answer immediately.

“Would it be a terrible disaster to you,” he asked her, “to be with child? To have to marry me?”

“Not a disaster,” she said. For a long time, while she had been living at Leyland Abbey, she had thought her life might be bearable if only she had a baby, though after Matthew was injured and came home, she had been deeply thankful that there was none. “Would it be a disaster to you?”

“If there were a child,” he said, “I would not want to have to remember for the rest of my life that I had once called the possibility of his or her conception a disaster. Neither of us wants marriage, and the circumstances would make it difficult for us to marry even if we did want it. However, the needs of any child of mine will always come first in my life, and a child needs father and mother if it is humanly possible—married to each other and loving each other.”

He spoke in a soft voice, obviously choosing his words with care. Samantha felt a deep welling of … grief? No, it was not grief. But it was something that made her ache with a nameless longing and brought tears to her eyes and the soreness of unshed tears to her throat.

… married to each other and loving each other.

How wonderful it would be to be loved by Benedict Harper and to share a child with him. If only the circumstances were different …



She rested her temple against his shoulder. It was not supposed to be like this. They were supposed to be having a brief affair, entirely for pleasure.

“What are we going to do?” she asked him.

“We promised each other a week of lovemaking,” he said, “before we pick up the threads of our own separate lives. Shall we keep that promise and deal with any consequences that may arise if and when they do arise?”

She knew something then with a terrible clarity. She knew she was not made for casual affairs. She had thought after the first numbness of loss following Matthew’s death had passed that all she wanted was to be free, to live. But all she really wanted to do, all she had ever wanted to do, was to love. And, if possible, to be loved.

Instead, she had begun an affair, something that by its very nature was temporary. Something that was purely carnal. Something that would leave her more bereft than she had ever felt before.

Unless there was a child.

Yet she must hope that there would not be, for she would not wish to bind him to her on such terms.

He squeezed her hand.

“I do not doubt,” he said, “that there will be people to take note of the exact minute and hour at which I return to the inn. I would not be so late that it will be obvious I have done more here than dine with you and sit afterward over tea and conversation.”

He leaned closer and kissed her on the lips, and then she swung her legs over the far side of the bed, got to her feet, and found her nightgown and dressing gown.

“I shall see you downstairs,” she said and left him to get dressed.

She walked out to the barn with him fifteen minutes or so later in her slippers and dressing gown while Tramp galloped about the garden, delighted to have an outing he had not been expecting. She waited while Ben hitched up the horse to the gig.

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He spread one arm to her before climbing in, and she stepped close to him and hugged him. He kissed her and smiled down at her in the moonlight.

“Thank you,” he said.

“For?”

“For making me feel like a man again,” he said.

“You always seem very much like one to me,” she said, and she saw the flash of his smile in the darkness.

“Thank you,” he said again, and he climbed slowly into the gig, settled his canes, gathered the ribbons in his hands, glanced at her once more, and gave the horse the signal to start.

“Good night, Samantha,” he said.

“Good night, Ben.”

She did shed tears after he had gone and after she could neither see nor hear the gig any longer. She could not help but think of the fact that in a week’s time it would be goodbye, not just good night.

What had she done?


19

The weather conspired in their favor. The sun shone from a cloudless sky for the next four days, and the air was unseasonably warm.

Samantha walked into the village one morning, and they borrowed the gig from the inn and drove across the bridge and along the narrow lane above the beach, stopping several times to look at the boats and breathe in the sea air. Ben chatted with a small group of fishermen while Samantha got out to take the dog for a short walk. They had luncheon together at the inn, Mrs. Price having been warned that her mistress would not be back at the cottage.

On the following morning an old friend of Miss Bevan’s called at the cottage with her daughter to make Samantha’s acquaintance. Ben heard all about the visit when he drove over later in the gig.

“They want me to go for tea one afternoon,” she told him. “And you too, Ben, if you are still here. They were very kind. Mrs. Tudor told me so many stories about my great-aunt that I feel I almost knew her myself.”

“You will go?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said. “I will go as soon as—Well, as soon as I have a free afternoon.”

As soon as he had gone, she had been about to say. But he was pleased for her. A few people in the village had nodded amiably to her and obviously knew who she was. The vicar and his wife had introduced themselves to her. Now an old friend of her great-aunt’s and the woman’s daughter had come calling and had invited her to return the visit. Yet she had been here only a few days. Soon enough she would belong here, as he gathered she had never had a chance to belong when she lived at Bramble Hall.

She would surely be happy here—though she had not yet met her grandfather, of course.

They swam each afternoon. It was almost like a drug to Ben. He was going to have to spend the rest of the summer after he left here close to the sea—perhaps at Brighton, though that was rather too fashionable a resort for his tastes. When he was swimming he could almost forget that his legs were half crippled.

In the water, he could even frolic to a certain degree. Sometimes they would race, and when he won—which was not every time—he would wait for her and then sweep her up into his arms and twirl with her, demanding kisses for a prize. Sometimes he would chase her and dive and come up beneath her and tumble her in the water until they both came up gasping and shaking water from their eyes and laughing.

He felt as if years had tumbled off him to be washed away by the tide. He felt almost like a normal man. He felt exuberant and full of energy. He felt alive. And he lived for the moment. There was no point in anticipating his departure at the end of the week. He would deal with it when the time came.

And there was no point in worrying every time they made love about impregnating her. Either they were going to have an affair or they were not—and since they were, then they might as well simply enjoy it. If he left her with child, she would write and tell him so—she had promised that—and he would return and marry her. It was not what either of them wanted. At least … No, it was not what either of them wanted, but somehow they would work it out for the sake of the child.

It was perhaps a careless, irresponsible attitude to take, but Ben did not care. Sometimes one needed simply to surrender to happiness. Life offered little enough of it.

He was happy. He stayed at the cottage each day for dinner, which they always followed with tea and a leisurely conversation in the parlor. It somehow heightened the pleasure of their lovemaking, the fact that they did not tumble into bed at the earliest opportunity but first spent time enjoying each other’s company.

They made love in darkness. He knew it disappointed her when he extinguished the lamp, but he really could not bear to have her see him as he was.

She came on top of him again on the second night. But after they had slept a short while, he turned with her and lay on her as he took her again. It was a little uncomfortable at first, and he did not know if it would be possible to continue without changing position, but passion overcame pain, and he held her arms above her head, their fingers tightly laced, and loved her with slow thoroughness until they both shuddered into release. And his legs, aching and cramped as they were afterward, survived the ordeal.

She was beautiful and voluptuous, smooth-skinned and silky-haired and fragrant with that faint scent of gardenia always clinging about her. She was warm and passionate and uninhibited in her pleasure. And he marveled over the fact that he could make love, and that he could give pleasure as well as receive it. He had been unnecessarily afraid that he could cause nothing but revulsion in any woman with whom he attempted intimacies. It had been foolish of him.

Except that she had not seen him.

He was always careful to return to the village and the inn well before midnight. He supposed there was some talk and speculation anyway. It must be common knowledge, after all, that neither of her two servants lived in, that she had no lady companion, that she was alone from early evening to sometime before breakfast. But he did not want that talk to turn into open scandal.

Soon he would be gone and all talk would cease.

But he would not think of that yet. He had promised a week. He had promised it to both her and himself.

On the fifth day the sun still shone, though puffs of white cloud dotting the blue of the sky caused the occasional patch of shade and accompanying coolness. Ben went to the cottage with the gig as usual after luncheon, a towel and a dry pair of pantaloons in their bag beside him on the seat. When he drove past the house, however, there was no sign of Samantha in the garden as there usually was. Even the dog was nowhere in sight. She had still not come outside after he had unhitched the horse and walked back to the house.

She was in the sitting room, dressed smartly in a striped blue and cream muslin dress. She usually wore her oldest dresses to go swimming. And her hair had been styled in a high knot with curled tendrils at her temples and along her neck. She looked as pale as a ghost, or as pale as someone of her complexion who had spent much of the past week out in the sun could look. There was no smile on her face when she greeted him.

“Samantha?” he said, moving into the room and stopping to pat the tail-wagging dog on the head.

“I was foolish,” she said. “I ought to have said no. I did say no but not firmly enough. I want to go swimming with you. It is a nice day, and we have so little time left.”

He stood still in the middle of the room, leaning on his canes.

“What has happened?” he asked.

“I am expecting a visitor,” she said with some venom.

“Oh?” But he could somehow guess.

“He sent his secretary,” she said, “to discover if I am who I say I am, I suppose, though he said he had come to see if I would be at home for a visit from his employer this afternoon.”

“Your grandfather?”

“Mr. Bevan,” she said. “Did he think to impress me by sending his secretary?”

He sat down and propped his canes beside his chair. “Perhaps,” he said, “he wished to give you some choice about whether you see him or not, Samantha. If he had come this morning instead of his secretary, you would have had no choice. Perhaps he does not wish to force himself upon you.”

“Well,” she said, “I know he does not wish to do that. He never has.”

“But he is coming,” he said.

“So it would seem.”

She stared stormily at him, but he did not think she was really seeing him.

“I informed his secretary,” she said, “that I did not want to talk with him or know him or even see him. He told me that if I intended to continue living here it was almost inevitable that I see his employer from time to time unless I meant to be a hermit. He asked me if I intend going to church here.”

“Bevan goes?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And so I said I would receive him. I will tell him what I think and send him on his way and then the matter is dealt with and done with. Whenever chance brings us within sight of each other after today, we will be able to nod politely and continue with our own lives, undisturbed by our connection.”

She did not sound at all convinced.

“Shall I leave?” he asked her.

“No!” Her hands gripped the arms of her chair. “No, please. It is horribly cowardly of me not to want to face him alone. Perhaps I ought. And I daresay you are itching to get away before he puts in an appearance. Are you?”

“Samantha,” he said, “he is not my grandfather. And I daresay he is not a monster. If he is, I will be able to pose as your knight protector and fight him off with one of my canes. Either way, I will be happy to stay. I have a curiosity to see him.”

And to witness their first meeting.

She tilted her head to the side suddenly, and the dog scrambled to his feet and barked once. Through the open window came the unmistakable sounds of an approaching carriage.

She wished she had gone to Leyland Abbey. Better the devil you know … But, no, nothing could be worse than life lived under the unyielding gaze of the Earl of Heathmoor.

Besides, this was her cottage. She had the power to admit or exclude whomever she wished. She had chosen to allow her grandfather to call on her—for this occasion only. Soon he would be gone again and she would be free.

But that did not seem to help much at this precise moment. She stayed where she was and Ben stayed where he was as the carriage drew up outside the garden gate and the sound of voices came through the window. The only one who did not stay where he was was Tramp. He stood at the sitting room door, his nose almost pressed against its outer edge, eagerness in every line of his ungainly body, his tail waving like a flag in a breeze.

There was a knock on the outer door, and it opened almost immediately—Mrs. Price had obviously heard the arrival of the carriage too. There were a few moments of almost unbearable tension, and then there was a tap on the sitting room door. Mrs. Price opened it, and Tramp backed up a foot.

“Mr. Bevan, ma’am,” Mrs. Price said, saucer-eyed, though she had known he was coming.

He was not a very tall man, but he was solid-looking and had presence. He carried himself with confidence. He was silver-haired, though there was still some darkness mixed with the silver. He had a pleasant, good-humored face. He must have been a handsome man in his younger years. Indeed, he still was distinguished looking. He was expensively, fashionably dressed.

Samantha was on her feet without having been aware of rising.

He looked at her and then down at Tramp, who was barking and prancing and generally behaving in an undisciplined manner.

“A gentleman does not make himself deliberately conspicuous in company,” Mr. Bevan said with a lovely soft Welsh accent. “Sit.”

And Tramp, the traitor, sat and gazed up at his new friend with intelligent eyes and lolling tongue and lightly thumping tail.

“Mrs. McKay?” Mr. Bevan said. “Samantha?”

He fixed his eyes upon her and advanced across the room with confident strides, his right hand extended. He was almost of a height with her, she realized.

She had no choice, short of being deliberately ill-mannered, but to set her hand in his. He held it in a warm clasp and set his other hand on top of it, all the while gazing at her face.

“You are not very like your mother,” he said, “except in coloring. But, oh, girl, you do look like your grandmother.”

He raised her hand to his lips before relinquishing it.

“Mr. Bevan,” she said. “May I present Major Sir Benedict Harper?”

Ben had also got to his feet.

“Sir.” He inclined his head. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Mr. Bevan’s eyes swept over him. “Wounded in the wars, were you, Major?” he asked.

“Yes,” Ben said.

“And a friend of the late Captain McKay’s, I have heard,” Mr. Bevan said. “There is not much local news and gossip that does not reach my ears at Cartref, you know. I could muzzle my servants, I suppose, but why should I? I like a bit of gossip.”

He was looking keenly at Ben as he said it, and Samantha felt anger well inside her. To what gossip in particular was he referring? And what business was it of his?

“I never had the privilege of knowing Captain McKay,” Ben said, and Samantha’s eyes flew to his. “My acquaintance with his widow began after his death. When she decided to come here, goaded to it by circumstances she found intolerable, she had no one to accompany her. I offered my services. It was a less than satisfactory arrangement, sir, but it was the best that could be done.”

Was he apologizing to her grandfather? Samantha raised her chin and glared at them both.

“I did not need the protection of any man,” she said, “but Sir Benedict insisted.”

They both looked at her, Ben a little sheepishly, her grandfather with a smile that revealed a fan of attractive lines at the outer corners of both eyes. He must smile frequently.

“That is my girl,” he said, further incensing her.

“Oh, do have a seat,” she said ungraciously. “Both of you.”

But of course, they both waited for her to be seated first. They were being perfect gentlemen.

“I have neglected you for the last six or seven years, Samantha,” Mr. Bevan said. He was smoothing one hand over Tramp’s head while the dog’s eyes closed in ecstasy.

“For the last six or seven years?” She raised her eyebrows.

“After your father wrote to say you were married,” he said, “I decided to stop writing to you. Captain McKay was the son of an earl, wasn’t he? Very high class. I did not want you embarrassed by a family member who had made his fortune in coal and iron. I knew your husband had been wounded and that you were living in the north of England. I have kept myself informed, you see, even if only from a distance. I had not heard of his passing, though. I am sorry about that. And I am deeply sorry for you, girl.”

He had decided to stop writing? He had kept himself informed? He had known all about her? All her life? Samantha gazed at the hands she had clasped in her lap. She could see the whites of her knuckles.

“Thank you,” she murmured just for something to say into the silence.

“I have been in Swansea for a week,” he said. “When I got back yesterday and heard you were here, I thought you must be annoyed with me since you had not let me know you were coming. I sent Evans over this morning to test the waters, so to speak, and he reported back that you were indeed annoyed. Sometimes we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, if you will pardon my language, which is probably not the finest for the daughter-in-law of an earl. But would you not agree, Major? If I had kept writing, that might have been the trouble. I stopped, and it looks as if that was the wrong thing. Though you never wrote back, Samantha, except for the messages you sometimes sent.”

Messages? Samantha looked up at him. A suspicion was beginning to form in her mind. More than a suspicion. Her father had written to him at least once. How much had her father kept from her?

“You abandoned my mother,” she said, “when she was little more than an infant. You had nothing to do with her while she lived here with your sister. When she ran away to London, you did not follow. When she married and had me, you did not come. When she died, you did not come. There was never anything. There was nothing.”

She wanted to be right. She did not want her world turned suddenly upside down again.

His face had turned pale. His hand was motionless on Tramp’s head.

“What did they tell you, girl?” he asked her. “What did they tell you about me?”

“Nothing,” she said, “except that early abandonment of my mother after her mother had gone back to her Gypsy people. Nothing at all. You disappeared from her life.”

“Ah.” His hand slid away from Tramp’s head to rest on the arm of his chair. “It was not just that you were ashamed of me for my very middle-class wealth, then?”

“I did not know about your wealth,” she cried. “I did not know anything. I assumed you were a laborer or a wanderer who had made a foolish marriage and was left with the encumbrance of a daughter, whom you then foisted upon your sister. I did not know anything about her, except that she had owned this cottage, which my mother described as a hovel. I assumed it was a hovel. I only hoped it would be somehow habitable while I made a new life for myself. I did not even know you were alive.”

Ben got to his feet again, crossed to her chair, set a large handkerchief in her hand, and then made his slow way over to the window. Samantha swiped at her eyes. She had not even realized she was crying.

“Ah, my dear girl,” her grandfather said.

But he had no chance to say any more for a while. The door opened and Mrs. Price came in with a large tray, her face wreathed in smiles. Samantha hastily pushed the handkerchief down the side of her chair.

“Ah, Mrs. Price,” Mr. Bevan said. “Trying to fatten people up as always, are you?”

“Just a few pieces of cake to go with your tea,” she said, placing the tray on the table beside Samantha and proceeding to pour the tea herself. “What else am I to do with my time but cook? Mrs. McKay is a very tidy lady and she has Gladys Jones to look after her personal needs.”

“And how is your son, the blacksmith?” he asked her. “His hand has healed, has it? Hammers are always better used on anvils than on the backs of fingers. In my opinion, anyway.”

“They were swollen to three times their size,” she told him, “and black and painful too, though he would never admit it. He is better now, though, Mr. Bevan, and thanks for asking. I’ll tell him you did. And thank you for sending—”

But she broke off at a slight motion of his hand.

“Well, it was greatly appreciated,” she said. “He couldn’t work much for a week.”

She handed around the tea and left the room.

“I have been justly punished, it seems,” he said with a sigh. “And poor Mrs. Price. The last thing I feel like doing is eating a piece of her cake, delicious as I am sure it is. I suppose you feel off your food too, Samantha. Perhaps we had better force some down anyway, had we? She will be hurt if we do not. Major, come and help us, if you will.”

Ben looked over his shoulder and then came back to his chair.

“I will tell you my story, Samantha, if you will listen,” Mr. Bevan continued. “But not now, perhaps. And I want to hear your story. I want to know why you would come here, expecting only a hovel of a cottage, when presumably you have a noble family to look after you as well as your father’s family. But perhaps not now for that either. Major Harper, how long is it since you were wounded?”

He was a man used to command, Samantha realized, and used to doing it without bombast. Here he was in her sitting room, directing the conversation, taking from it the heat of emotion that had been here just a few minutes ago. And he was feeding cake to Tramp, who was quite willing to make it seem to Mrs. Price that they had all eaten her tea with hearty appetites.

Ben told him where and when he had been wounded and how, though he did not go into great detail. He told him about the years of his healing and convalescence at Penderris Hall, and about leaving there three years ago.

“You are never going to be able to walk without your canes, then?” her grandfather asked.

“No,” Ben said.

“And what do you do to keep busy? Do you have a home of your own?”

Ben told him about Kenelston, and, when asked, about his brother and wife and children and his own reluctance to remove them from his home and the charge his brother had of the running of his estate.

“You are in a bit of an awkward position, then,” her grandfather said.

“Yes,” Ben agreed. “But I will work something out, sir. I was not made for idleness.”

“You were a military officer by choice, then?” her grandfather asked. “Not just because your father had that career picked out for you as soon as you were born? I understand many noble families do that—one son to inherit, another to go into the church, another into the military.”

“It was my own choice,” Ben said. “I never wanted anything else.”

“You like an active life, then. You like being in charge of men. And of events.”

“I will never be an officer again,” Ben said tersely.

Looking at him, Samantha realized fully just how that fact hurt him. Perhaps it even explained why he had not taken a firmer stand with his younger brother over his home. Running Kenelston would not be a big enough challenge for him. Perhaps nothing would ever again.

“No,” her grandfather agreed, “I can see that, lad.”

He talked a bit about the coal mines—he owned two of them in the Rhondda Valley—and about the ironworks in the Swansea Valley, where he had just spent a week. Ben asked a number of questions, which he answered with enthusiasm. And then he rose to take his leave.

“How long do you plan to stay, Major?” he asked.

Ben looked at Samantha. “Another two or three days,” he said.

“Then maybe you will come with my granddaughter to dine with me at Cartref tomorrow,” her grandfather said. He turned to look at her, a smile on his face but some uncertainty in his eyes. “Will you come, Samantha? I have a cook as good as Mrs. Price. And I would like to hear your story and to tell you mine. After that you can live here in peace from me if you choose. Though I will hope you do not so choose. You are all I have, girl.”

She looked at him in some indignation until she remembered what he had said earlier. He had written to her before her marriage and she had sent messages. What had her father done? And after her marriage he had stopped writing for fear that she would be embarrassed by his humble origins and by the way his fortune had been made. She at least owed him one evening in which to plead his case.

But he had still abandoned his own infant daughter. There could be no excuse for that.

“Yes,” she said, “I will come.”

“And I would be delighted, sir,” Ben said.

The older man came toward Samantha, his hand extended again. But when she set her own in it, he smiled at her, that look of uncertainty still in his eyes.

“Allow me?” he said and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. “She was very, very beautiful, you know. I had her for four years and have loved her forever.”

She did not follow him from the room.

He had been talking about her grandmother. Yet he had been married to someone else after her.


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