Proud and penniless, the raven-haired Sophia knows only two things about the wildly dashing and mysterious Philip Rich: that he’s the poor and disgraced relative of the Earl of Rame; and that he awakens in her a craving that her betrothed, Sir John Bladen, can never satisfy. Unfortunately for Sophia, pledging herself to the wealthy Sir John is the only way to save her beloved Tarrant Hall.
When Sophia makes the crushing choice to scorn Philip in favor of her future, she realizes just how much of a mystery Philip has been. He is, in fact, the famous Earl himself. Whatever the reasons for the Royal Pretender’s ruse, Sophia fears his next move: avenging his honor with a stunning reprisal.
The Earl’s vow to humble the woman he loved will draw them both into the treacherous plots and intrigue at the luxurious court of George II. While danger lies ahead for Philip and Sophia, so does a resilient desire that could prove to be as passionate as it is dangerous.
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The Tarrant Rose
By Veronica Heley
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 1981 Victoria Thorne
All rights reserved.
The traveling coach rumbled steadily along the bottom of the valley, drawn by six matched bays. The crest of the gilded Swan on the door panels, and the green and gold liveries of the coachmen, guards and outriders identified the owner of this magnificence as the Earl of Rame. It had been dry of late, and the ruts in the road, although several inches deep, had been hardened by frost, so that they made good progress. Leafless trees climbed the slopes of the hills on either side of them, up to the darkening sky. The Earl and his entourage had set out from London the previous morning, stayed overnight with a relative of his, and expected to reach the Earl's manor of Hamberley before another night fell. Dusk was beginning to deepen the shadows in the valley, but the coachman did not stop to light the lanterns. He did not know this road, but the postboy had assured him that Hamberley lay round the nearside hill. The bitter winds of March and the fatigue of the long journey kept both coachman and outriders silent. Their thoughts were on the log fires, hot punch and roast meats that awaited them at their journey's end.
The occupants of the coach were also silent. Chivers, the valet, sat with his feet neatly together in a corner, holding his master's jewel-case on his knees. Mr. Denbigh, who had once been tutor to the Earl and now fulfilled that office to the Earl's son and heir, sat opposite his master, and tried not to fidget. He was not an old man, having entered the service of the Earls of Rame when he graduated from Cambridge, but his muscles were protesting at his having sat still for so long. Also, he fretted about Thomas. It was all very well for the Earl to say that doctor and nurse would be perfectly capable of looking after the boy for a few days, but Thomas had not been well for months. Mr. Denbigh, like most overconscientious people, was sure that his charge would take a turn for the worse as soon as his back was turned. Had it really been necessary for him to accompany the Earl to Hamberley? Could not the Earl have decided for himself whether or not the place was suitable to house Thomas for a few months? Normally, the boy would have spent the summer at the Earl's great house in Rame, but an outbreak of smallpox there had rendered that scheme impossible. But Bath would surely have been a more suitable place to send the boy than this desolate valley?
Yet when the Earl had requested Mr. Denbigh's presence on this trip, the tutor had not seen fit to demur. Philip Gervase St. John Rich, fourth Earl of Rame, never found it necessary to raise his voice in order to have his orders obeyed. Tall and slim, the Earl's figure was set off to perfection by the brocaded coats, ruffled shirts and massive periwigs that were de rigueur at Court. He was wearing Court dress today because the relative with whom he had spent the previous night had held a position at George I's court years ago, and still believed that a man was in a state of undress unless he were painted, patched, bewigged and clad in the latest fashion.
Mr. Denbigh thought it was typical of Philip to have donned Court dress in order to please his host, when everyone knew that the Earl found such fripperies a nuisance, and that he would far have preferred to dress plainly and fore-swear powder and paint. Once Mr. Denbigh had worried about this tendency of Philip's to defer to the wishes of others at the expense of his own inclinations, but he did so no longer. Philip had been born with a sense of duty, and his parents had reinforced this trait. It had been impressed on him also that to be an Earl of Rame was to be the equal of any man alive, and only slightly inferior to the King. It was almost entirely due to Mr. Denbigh's humane influence on a reserved and lonely boy that the Earl's chief characteristic nowadays was a sense of duty, rather than pride in his position.
Philip had been obedient to his parents' wishes during their lifetime; going on an extended Grand Tour of Europe with Mr. Denbigh, and then marrying the heiress selected for him. Pretty but captious, his wife had found little to interest her in her handsome, silent husband, but had presented him with four children before death removed her and her last, stillborn child from the fashionable world which she had loved so much.
Freed of constraint by his parents' death in an epidemic shortly after, the new Earl had at long last decided to follow his own inclinations. Despite objections from family and friends, he had left London to fight in Flanders with the British Army. Mr. Denbigh had been recalled from a tedious position in Cornwall to take charge of the nursery at Rame, in which were lodged the motherless children. None of them had ever been strong, and in spite of Mr. Denbigh's anxious care, there was only one ailing boy left by the time that Philip was invalided home from Flanders.
Before Philip had been back in England a month, Society was pairing him off with this heiress or that beauty. Everyone was agreed that he must marry again, yet he seemed in no hurry to do so. His broken arm had healed well enough, yet the amusements of the Town failed to divert him. His sojourn abroad, far from doing him a disservice in the eyes of the King, had brought him to the notice of His Majesty. George II was a straightforward person with three great passions in life—for his dead Queen, for the genealogies of the crowned heads of Europe, and for his Army. It was his greatest triumph that he had led his troops into battle at Dettingen, and his greatest sorrow that his ministers would not let him repeat this action. He welcomed Philip back to Court and appointed him Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
It surprised most people in the fashionable world that Philip should accept such a position, which was supposed to be beneath the dignity of an Earl. However, the pundits said that there was more to the appointment than met the eye. Had not the King also appointed Lord Lincoln a Gentleman of the Bedchamber? Lord Lincoln was one of Philip's closest friends, but his chief claim to fame was that he was nephew to the all-powerful Secretary of State, the Duke of Newcastle, who now headed the Government. George II detested Newcastle, although he liked young Lincoln, and forgave him for being related to the Duke. Newcastle represented a new trend in politics which took no account of the King's love of Hanover, the land which had given him birth, and which he always regarded as his real home. The King would have preferred to continue seeking counsel from his ex-minister, Lord Carteret, who shared his views on European politics. Although Carteret had officially fallen from power, he was often to be found at the King's elbow and, this was the significant point, Philip was Lord Carteret's nephew.
It looked as though the King was seeking to counterbalance Newcastle's influence at Court by making Philip Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
Mr. Denbigh had often discussed politics with Philip, but he did not know his erstwhile pupil's mind on this matter. Philip had not chosen to confide in him of late. It had crossed Mr. Denbigh's mind that his master had commanded the tutor's presence on this journey to unburden himself of whatever it was that troubled him; for it was clear to Mr. Denbigh that the Earl was worried about something. It might, of course, be the affair of his projected marriage to Lady Millicent.... Mr. Denbigh feared the lady was as shallow as the Earl's first wife had been.
He sighed. The Earl lowered his gaze from the silk-lined roof of his carriage and smiled at Mr. Denbigh.
"Are you very tired?" he asked. "We must nearly be there." He took a gold watch from his pocket, opened the case and flicked a knob. The watch chimed the hour, and then the quarter.
"I confess I shall be glad to arrive," said Mr. Denbigh. "It looks like snow."
"You are cold?" Chivers had laid a fur over the Earl's knees, not because his master felt the cold, but because Chivers deemed it proper that the Earl be smothered in furs when he traveled. Mr. Denbigh was about to admit that he did feel a trifle chilled when the sound of a shot rang along the valley. "What was that? Highwaymen, do you think?" He peered out of the window.
"We have two armed men with us," said the Earl soothingly. "No one would dare to attack us." Nevertheless the thought was present in both men's minds that it was some time since they had passed any signs of human habitation. The Earl's dress sword hung in a loop from the upholstery beside him. The hilt was adorned with gems which glittered as the coach swayed. They were not riding as smoothly as they had been before the shot had been fired. No doubt the horses had been startled by the sound. The Earl caressed the hilt of his sword and then let go of it, as if he had thought better of an impulse to arm himself.
Chivers cleared his throat. "Begging your pardon, my lord, but that shot sounded as if it came from somewhere on the road ahead of us."
The Earl's hand dropped onto the small pistol which traveled in a concealed pocket beside him. Without hurrying, he checked that the pistol was primed. He smiled apologetically at his companions. "A sportsman in the woods, probably. Perhaps a poacher? I daresay we shan't see or hear anything more of him. Do you know, I haven't had a gun in my hand since I left the Army?" His grin was boyish. Mr. Denbigh and Chivers relaxed, as he had intended that they should.
There was a change in the rhythm of the horse's hooves. The coachman's whip cracked overhead, and he shouted something in a hoarse, surprised voice. Another shot rang out, this time nearer to them. The coach jerked, as the coachman's whip cracked above the horses. Above them, someone screamed. Chivers put his master's jewel-case on the floor between his feet.
"Put it under my rug," said the Earl. With his left hand he threw the rug away from him, onto the seat at his side. His brocaded coat shimmered in the dusk, and the lace at his throat and wrists gleamed as white as the paint on his face. He kicked his feet free of the fur, and the diamonds on his buckled shoes flashed fire.
A shot rang out close to them. Someone above them was shouting for them to stop, for God's sake! The coach swayed, bucking as it was driven over rough ground. The trees were close to them on their left. They were being driven to the side of the road.
"Was that our guard who fired?" Mr. Denbigh's hand sought his neatly starched cravat. Another shot resounded through the valley, this time from above. They could hear the coachman cursing, and another man babbling that he was hurt. Another shot ... a cry ... a heavy object fell past the window of the coach and disappeared.
"He's dropped his gun!" Mr. Denbigh half rose in his seat.
"Sit down, and keep still," said the Earl. He cocked his pistol.
One of the horses whinnied with fear. The coach shuddered to a halt. The silhouette of a man in a tricorne hat appeared at the window next the Earl. The newcomer's gloved hand held a blunderbuss, and his face was masked with a triangle of dark material.
"Stand and deliver!" The dreaded words lifted Mr. Denbigh's hands above his head. Chivers looked at his master for instructions. The Earl's face showed neither surprise nor fear.
"Open the door. Get out!" ordered the highwayman. He seemed impatient, glancing from the occupants of the carriage to the road ahead of them. The Earl nodded at Mr. Denbigh, who lowered his hands and felt for the handle of the door. The highwayman pulled his horse back, so that the door could swing open and allow the occupants of the coach to descend.
The highwayman's head and shoulders made a good target against the skyline. The Earl put out one hand to prevent Mr. Denbigh from leaving the coach, and raised the other, with the pistol in it. He shot the highwayman through the head. The man threw his arms wide, his horse reared, and slipped the man off the saddle and down onto the road. Before the highwayman's body had settled into its last position, the Earl had leaped from the coach, without waiting for the steps to be lowered. He stooped over the robber, in order to collect the man's weapon, which luckily had not been discharged in the fall. The horse, riderless, reared again, and then galloped off down the road, stirrups and reins flying loose.
The Earl ran forward, towards the horses' heads. A warning shout from the coachman, and he whirled, brocaded skirts swinging. The coachman was still in his box, supporting one of the guards ... there was blood on both men's faces ... the second guard was furiously trying to reload his weapon ... the grooms and the postboy were struggling with the horses, which were plunging and rearing in fright ... the off-leader entangled in the traces....
A second highwayman, dressed like the first, edged his horse round the back of the carriage, blunderbuss levelled.
"Halt, or I fire!" cried the Earl, raising his newly-acquired weapon.
"Fool!" said the second highwayman. He swivelled his gun from the Earl to the coachman and back. "Drop your weapons, I say!"
The Earl pulled the trigger. Almost at the same instant, the highwayman fired, and the ball parted the curls of the Earl's peruke. The highwayman was not so fortunate. He was hit in the right arm. With an oath he dragged his horse's head round and set spurs to its flanks. Horse and rider thundered off up the hillside between the trees and were soon lost to sight.
"The Lord be praised!" exclaimed Mr. Denbigh. "You are not hurt, Philip?" In moments of stress, Mr. Denbigh was still inclined to address the Earl by his Christian name.
"My lord!" The coachman pointed to the road ahead.
The Earl turned to see what was the matter. Two men were struggling in the middle of the road. A fine black stallion, which showed signs of having been ridden hard, lay at the side of the road, kicking feebly. Nearby stood another horse, shifting nervously this way and that. As the Earl began to run towards the struggling couple, there was a muffled shot, and the strength seemed to go out of one of the men. He slithered to the ground, clutching his breast. The victor straightened himself, a smoking pistol in his hand. Hearing the pad of the Earl's feet, he glanced over his shoulder. His hat had fallen off, and his mask been torn from his face, but the dusk was kind to him, so that the Earl only caught a glimpse of a pleasant, plump face under a neat tie-wig. The murderer's head turned further, assessing how much assistance the Earl could muster. The servants, released from fear now that two of the highwaymen had been put out of commission and the third had discharged his pistol, were leaving the coach and advancing along the road.
"You are under arrest!" cried the Earl, while still some way from the scene of the crime. The murderer looked around him, as if wondering what had become of his accomplices. A shrill whistle sounded from the hillside above them. A signal? The murderer stooped over his victim, and made a grab into the pockets of his greatcoat. Then, as the Earl was almost within reach, the murderer ran for his horse, leaped on its back, and was off and away into the woods, whistling shrilly as he did so.
The Earl halted, scanning the dark woods above him. Those trees could be hiding a hundred dark-clad figures. There was a crashing sound, and a riderless horse galloped down the hillside and bolted past them, wild with fear. One moment he was there, and the next he was gone. What had frightened him?
The Earl hesitated. He was now unarmed, and he did not know how many more men the highwaymen could muster. If they chose to return now, in force, the occupants of the coach would be at their mercy.
"Au secours!" The faint cry came from the wounded man. He was not dead, but failing fast. Blood welled from a wound in his chest. His greatcoat and clothing beneath were blackened with powderburns, and his gloved hands were soaked with blood. A diamond clasp glinted among the laces at his throat, and the head of his riding crop nearby was of chased gold. Undoubtedly he had been worth robbing.
Mr. Denbigh caught up with the Earl, bringing his master his dress sword.
"My lord, return to the carriage, I beg. Who knows what will happen next?"
The coachman, too, came panting up to make his report. The off-leader had been cut free; but could not be ridden. The postboy swore this valley had never before been frequented by highwaymen, but he was probably lying; or maybe in league with the thieves ... the one guard had a bad head-wound, which was being bound up by Mr. Chivers ... the second guard—a useless fellow, begging your pardon, my lord, but why you ever took him on is a mystery to me!—he was blaming everyone but himself, because it appeared that his powder was damp and therefore they could not reload any of their guns.
Excerpted from The Tarrant Rose by Veronica Heley. Copyright © 1981 Victoria Thorne. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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