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Mrs Clare floated gently up into a delicious state of half sleep, half waking and hovered there for a few moments, comfortably aware that there was no light from the window on her closed lids and that therefore there was no need to wake and get up from the deep and enveloping feather mattress. She snuggled down warmly and drifted back into slumber, lulled by the reassuring sound of deep, regular, male breathing from the other side of the bed.
Perhaps an hour later the sounds of the household rising intruded into her dreams without waking her. Faint riddling noises signified that grates were being readied for the day’s fires, a cockerel crowed in the yard and a door downstairs banged. Mrs Clare frowned in her sleep, turned over and burrowed into the pillow. It seemed that the other sleeper had turned too, for her unconscious hand touched body-warmed linen and her body sank into the central dip of the bed, to touch his lightly.
Her dream turned from a pleasant scene in a draper’s shop where multicoloured piles of silks and taffetas heaped from floor to ceiling, every one of them so dagger-cheap that it would be a sin not to buy them all, to a confused image of herself, tangled both in the silks and in the arms of a man whose face she could not see. She struggled, but half-heartedly, for his hands were caressing her body and his mouth…
Amanda Clare moaned gently, wriggling closer to the long form beside her, then sighed as a strong arm gathered her close in a comforting, sleepy embrace. She began to wake again, to become conscious of his nearness and her own pleasurable anticipation. Her lids fluttered against the light and with wakefulness came an awareness of a number of disturbing facts.
She had a headache. Indeed as she turned her head on the pillow she found that it was very sore indeed. And this was not her bed, for her stretching feet encountered an unfamiliar solid bed board at the foot. Nor was it her bedroom, or even, she realised as she stiffened into full awareness, her eyes still tight shut in alarm, her house. The noises were all wrong, the light was coming from the wrong side of the window and the singing voice coming up faintly from the yard below belonged to none of her servants.
But most frightening of all was the indisputable fact that Mrs Clare was a widow and had been for two years. And in those two years she had lived a life of blameless respectability which did not involve the slightest intimacy with men.
Very cautiously Amanda opened her eyes and found herself looking into the sleepy green gaze of her bedmate. He was so close that their noses were almost touching. At that range it was difficult to tell much about him, but it was very obvious that he was a complete stranger. Amanda realised that she was holding her breath and that her heart was banging so hard against her ribs that they felt bruised.
The man’s eyes widened slightly, then crinkled into a smile as he leaned forward and kissed her firmly on the lips.
‘Aagh!’ Amanda shot backwards in a tangle of limbs and bedding and landed on her knees on the floor on the far side of the bed. ‘Ouch!’ She peered cautiously over the edge of the bed, easing her bruised knees and tugging at the sheet which was round her feet, ready to run for the door the moment the stranger made a move.
He made no threatening gestures however, merely easing himself upright against the pillows with a muffled oath. Her scramble for freedom had dragged all the bedding off, but he was quite decently clad in a somewhat voluminous linen nightshirt. She saw his right cheek was badly grazed and bruised and he was favouring his right arm. Dark brown, almost black hair, tumbled across his forehead and she was very aware that not only was he tall and long-limbed, but powerfully built.
‘Who are you and what are you doing in my bed?’ she demanded. She thought about getting to her feet, but the high side of the bed was a useful shield and although she was covered from head to foot in a nightgown, the amused green eyes were making her feel decidedly exposed.
‘I could ask the same thing,’ he remarked. Amanda registered a deep, cultured voice with a hint of mockery. ‘Are you sure it is your bed?’
‘No, I am not. In fact I am sure it is not,’ she replied honestly, cautiously getting to her feet and dragging the faded chintz bedcover around her shoulders. She lifted the rest of the bedding off the floor and tossed it towards him before making a strategic retreat to the far end of the room where a planked door stood under the eaves.
Her hurried steps were painfully jarring. ‘Oh my aching head! What on earth has happened, and where am I?’
‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ the man said unhelpfully. ‘But you have the most magnificent black eye, I appear to have dislocated my shoulder although it is back in place now, and my jaw….’ He broke off wincing as he explored it with careful fingers. ‘Do you think we have can have been throwing the furniture at each other?’
‘I very much doubt it,’ Amanda replied tartly, ‘although at this moment I am most tempted.’ She saw a mirror hanging over the washstand and inspected her face in it. ‘Oh my goodness! I look a complete fright!’
‘I think you look delightful,’ the man observed dispassionately, ‘Although I must say you do appear to have been dragged through a hedge backwards.’
‘Hedge…hedge backwards…It is coming back now!’ Amanda drew a deep breath of relief. ‘It was the stagecoach, a few miles after you got on at Felthorpe. It seemed to be going rather fast and then it lurched and I fell across the seat, and you…’ She broke off at the memory of him gathering her tightly in his arms as the coach tipped terrifyingly off the road and down the bank. ‘You caught hold of me and the stage crashed down the bank and into the hedge and someone was pulling me out – through the quickthorn - and that is the last thing I remember.’
‘Then it is no wonder the pair of us seem to be covered in bruises. We should count ourselves lucky nothing is broken. But that does not answer the question of why – although, believe me, I am not complaining – why we find ourselves in bed together.’
The stranger’s eyes were open again when she emerged, and his expression as he watched her was appreciative. Amanda braced herself for more teasing flattery, but when he spoke it was to observe, ‘The sooner we are away from here the better. Doubtless they can hire me a gig. Have you far to go?’
‘Once I reach Holt I am close to home.’ Amanda folded the borrowed nightgown.
‘Will you trust me with your true name and direction, Mrs Brownsmith?’ the man asked, the glint of amusement back in his eyes.
‘Mrs Charles Clare, of Kelling House – Amanda Clare,’ she replied, fighting the temptation to smile back. ‘And your name, sir?’
‘Now there, Mrs Clare, you have the advantage of me. I have not the slightest idea.’