Read Nicola Cornick Online

Authors: True Colours

Nicola Cornick (3 page)

The hood of Alicia’s bronze-coloured cloak had fallen back and her mass of dark auburn hair had escaped its pins and tumbled in glorious profusion about her shoulders. She had inherited the distinctive heart-shaped face that was a feature of her grandmother’s family and with it the high cheekbones and determined chin which gave fair warning of her temperament. But it was her eyes that compelled attention, for they were a vivid emerald-green, brilliant and direct, framed by thick black lashes. Not even the unfashionable sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her small nose could mar Alicia Carberry’s looks, for they merely made her seem more endearing, less remotely beautiful.

The faint colour was returning to her face now, and to James Mullineaux she looked at once the same and poignantly different from the nineteen-year-old debutante he had known. Her looks had, if anything, improved with age. There was a sophistication and air of aloofness about her which had replaced the innocence of the country girl fresh to London. Temperamentally too, he sensed that she was far more complicated and interesting.

Alicia raised her head and their eyes met and held for a long moment.

‘I thought that it was you,’ Alicia said slowly, ‘but then I thought I must have imagined it.’

Mullineaux’s expression was as blank and unwelcoming as a stone wall and as he seemed disinclined to say anything appropriately gallant or charming in reply to this Miss Frensham rushed into the breach.

‘The Marquis was good enough to stop and help us after the carriage accident, my love, and has conveyed us to this inn, where we hope to find refuge!’ She looked a little forlorn on this point, since the landlord had not yet reappeared to light the fire and the room was as bleak and unwelcoming as when they had entered it.

Alicia sat up a little straighter, unwrapping her sodden cloak with distaste. She tried to rise, but winced and fell back, closing her eyes for a moment and resting her head against the back of the chair. Miss Frensham made a sound of distress at Alicia’s evident discomfort and hurried back to her side, but Mullineaux did not move at all. A minute later, Alicia opened her eyes again and her gaze swept comprehensively from the anxious face of her companion to the Marquis’s blank one.

‘His lordship stopped to help us, indeed!’ she marvelled sweetly. ‘How very chivalrous of him! I remember little about it, of course, but was not he the cause of the accident in the first place? I am sure that I recall something of the sort—assuming that he was the driver of that curricle which flashed past us with such wicked speed!’

This outrageous statement threw down the gauntlet with a vengeance, and the direct challenge in Alicia’s eyes only served to underline it.

She had been aware of Mullineaux’s antipathy from the moment that she regained consciousness; the air positively crackled with it. The suddenness of the encounter had left her with no time to examine her own feelings but she responded instinctively to his animosity. So he held her in contempt, did he? She had no very high opinion of him, if it came to that! Here was a man whose protestations of love had meant so little that when her father had forced her into marriage with another he had stood by and said not one word against the match. Worse, he had damaged her reputation irrevocably with his denouncement of her as a fortune-hunter.

Pride had always been the besetting sin of the Mullineaux family, Alicia thought resentfully. James Mullineaux had been unable to bear the whispers and gossip of the
; he had moved to disassociate himself from her immediately it appeared he would be tainted with scandal. Her disillusion had been intense; helplessly in love, hopelessly inexperi
enced, she had waited stubbornly like the heroine of a romance for James to arrive and rescue her. Even after her father had forced her to send the letter breaking the engagement, she had confidently believed that she and James Mullineaux were so close, so attuned, that he would instantly know it for the fraud it was.

It had not been so. As the days had stretched to a week, Alicia had begun to realise that something was wrong. Finally her father had triumphantly shown her a copy of a scandal sheet in which her own identity was very thinly veiled indeed in a cruel story relating how the lovely, duplicitous Miss B had been scorned as an adventuress by the handsome Marquis who had previously been at her feet.

Alicia determinedly pushed her memories back into the past where they belonged, and met Mullineaux’s contemptuous look with an equally acerbic one of her own.

‘Your own carriage, madam, was travelling at a pace hardly considerate to other road users,’ Mullineaux said coolly. ‘I had no time to react to your sudden appearance other than in the way I did. I am, however, relieved to discover that a knock on the head has in no way impaired your faculties. You appear to be remarkably resilient, but then I already knew that to be so!’

‘You, on the other hand, are no more gallant, sir!’

Such an inimical look immediately flashed between the pair of them that Miss Frensham once more attempted to be conciliatory.

‘It’s true, you know, my dear, we were travelling very fast! We were late leaving Glastonbury, if you recall, and you did tell Jack to spring the horses!’

‘So I did.’ There was a glint of amusement in Alicia’s look which did nothing to calm her companion’s fears. For a moment Miss Frensham indulged in the uncharitable wish that Alicia had been completely incapacitated by her injury. This miraculous recovery of hers was proving to be most uncomfortable. Miss Frensham knew Alicia very well and had already divined that her ladyship intended to be very difficult indeed. As for Mullineaux, he was looking so forbidding that Miss Frensham doubted she would get any help there.

She pursed her lips. She had been Alicia’s governess until her charge had been sent to Miss Hannah More’s school in Bath, and had later assumed the role of companion upon Alicia’s widowhood. In the intervening years had occurred Alicia’s London Season, under the aegis of her grandmother, Lady Stansfield—and the ill-fated betrothal to the Marquis of Mullineaux. Alicia had never spoken to Miss Frensham of
her broken engagement and subsequent hasty marriage, and Miss Frensham had been far too well-bred to pry, but she could tell that some very painful memories still troubled Lady Carberry. As for the Marquis of Mullineaux, he had gone abroad immediately after Alicia had jilted him and tales of his exploits on the Continent and in Ireland had filtered back to Society over the years. As far as Miss Frensham knew, this was the first time he had returned to England since then.

‘What a very great surprise to meet with you here, Lord Mullineaux,’ Alicia was saying with a syrupy sweetness which somehow managed to convey that meeting him was the least pleasant aspect of their current situation. ‘I am sure everyone had thought you settled abroad this past age…Italy, was it, or perhaps France? What can have brought you back to England? Your grandfather, perhaps…He is quite well?’

Her words were courteous but Mullineaux chose to read into them an implication which was in all probability there. Despite his lengthy sojourn abroad he was still heir to his grandfather, the Duke of Cardace, whose health had taken a decided turn for the worse recently. The Duke was one of the premier landowners in Britain. Mullineaux flushed at the suspected insinuation, but managed a tolerably polite reply.

‘His Grace is well, I thank you, ma’am.’ His tone showed how plain was his dislike of having to converse with her. ‘I am, in fact, on my way from Cardace Hall now. I landed at Plymouth but two weeks ago, and made my grandfather my first call.’

‘Such devotion,’ marvelled Alicia in dulcet tones. ‘I do not wonder at it. Your grandfather is very rich, is he not?’

Now the implication could not be missed, and Miss Frensham drew her breath in sharply at such pointed bad manners. She hurried in with a question of her own. ‘And do you intend to settle back in England now, my lord?’

Mullineaux’s face immediately lightened as he turned to her. ‘I hope to do so, ma’am. Now, by your leave, I will go and rout out the landlord. You need some light, a fire and a warm drink, not to mention rooms for the night. Then I shall go to the stables and see how matters progress there.’

Miss Frensham opened her mouth to thank him but was forestalled.

‘So eager to escape us, Lord Mullineaux?’ Alicia asked, mockingly, from her armchair. ‘No time for pleasantries, and such indecent haste!’

This time she had the satisfaction of seeing James Mullineaux provoked into anger. His dark eyes narrowed in a way Miss Frensham could only describe as murderous. ‘I would not choose to stay here a
moment longer than I must,’ he ground out and, turning on his heel, stalked from the room.

‘There now,’ Miss Frensham said exasperatedly into the sudden silence, ‘look what you’ve done! Was there any need for that, Miss Alicia? I didn’t know you had it in you to be so ill-bred!’

Alicia had the grace to look a little ashamed. Such strictures were very uncommon from her normally timid companion, but she knew she had behaved extremely badly. She leant against the chair-back for a moment and closed her eyes. Her head was aching and she felt very close to tears. She had dreamed plenty of times about meeting James Mullineaux again. Why did it have to be like this? She turned her head to look at Miss Frensham, who was fussing with the ribbons of her cloak and laying it out to dry over a chest in the corner of the room.

‘I know it was very bad of me, Emmy, but he evidently despises me and I cannot abide being treated in such a way!’ Alicia’s face took on a mutinous look. ‘I will
allow Mullineaux to judge me, not when he was as much at fault as I! If he had ever cared a jot for me he would have known that the breaking of our engagement was none of my doing!’

She warmed to her theme, her eyes flashing. ‘But he chose to believe the worst of me—and did not scruple to tell everyone else so! Oh!’ It came out with a vehemence she could not hide. ‘Of all the pieces of bad luck—to be obliged to spend some time in enforced contact with Mullineaux!’

This somewhat jumbled speech led Miss Frensham to conclude that Alicia was genuinely upset and she relented a little. Lady Carberry was normally the most serene of characters, at least superficially. But then, Miss Frensham thought a little sadly, she had never seen anyone move Alicia beyond the superficial. No man had had the power to affect her in all the years Miss Frensham had acted as her companion—until now. The Marquis of Mullineaux had achieved in five minutes an impact no one else had even approached in five years.

‘Well, to be sure it was very bad of him to behave so, but that is all in the past now!’ Miss Frensham observed, in an attempt to console. ‘Can you not at least
to be civil to him? After all, he has done us a considerable service in rescuing us both! I had not the least idea he was back in this country,’ she added reflectively, ‘but if the two of you are to meet at all in future, my love, you will need to preserve at least a semblance of politeness!’

‘I see no reason to speak with him at all,’ Alicia returned, sulkily,
but there was the glint of tears in her eyes and Miss Frensham sensibly chose to let the matter drop. It was very unusual to see Alicia put so out of countenance. Although she was renowned for possessing the fabled temper of the Stansfields, this loss of control was quite another matter. No doubt she had been more shaken by the accident than she would care to admit.

‘Let me have that sodden cloak, my dear,’ she urged, changing the subject and coming across to help Alicia to her feet. ‘Indeed, I am sure I do not know how long it will be before we get a fire in here! This really is too bad! No fire, no bedchambers, and no doubt no one to go for a doctor!’

‘I do not need a doctor,’ Alicia repeated fretfully. ‘Truly, Emmy, I shall be very well with a little rest.’ She let Miss Frensham take the cloak from her and place it across the back of the chair, shivering slightly in the damp air. The matching bronze travelling dress beneath was not damp, for Alicia had not been out in the rain for as long as Miss Frensham, but her right wrist was starting to ache badly. She was determined not to mention it and add to her companion’s anxieties.

Shaking out her skirts, Alicia cast her first critical glance around the room and gave a silent sigh. Not only mental turmoil to contend with, but physical discomfort as well! Her gaze moved thoughtfully on to Miss Frensham and she was concerned by what she saw. There was a hectic flush in that lady’s cheek and a glitter in her eyes which Alicia did not like the look of at all.

‘It looks as though you are the one in need of a doctor’s attentions, Emmy,’ she observed judiciously. ‘You must have taken a chill. Since Lord Mullineax has evidently failed to raise the landlord, I shall do so myself. We must see you to a bed immediately!’

Miss Frensham gave a muffled groan. She had suddenly started to feel very unwell with the combined effects of the soaking and the worry of it all, but it made her feel even worse to contemplate Alicia wandering the corridors of an alehouse alone. Not that Lady Carberry, being a widow, required chaperonage in the sense an unmarried girl would, but Miss Frensham was a dragon for preserving the proprieties—it was one of the reasons that Alicia had employed her. She sat down rather suddenly in the chair Alicia had recently vacated.

‘Oh, no, my love, you cannot go looking for the landlord! I feel sure that he will be here directly, and only imagine if you should meet anyone; we should be quite undone!’

‘Nonsense, Emmy,’ Alicia said robustly. She was already halfway to
the door. ‘This is no time to be worrying about the conventions! I am well able to take care of myself, and besides, there is nobody else here!’

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