Excerpt: The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton

Take off your clothes.”

Celia’s mouth fell open. “Why?” she managed to articulate. Stupid question perhaps, but nothing had indicated lascivious intentions during the two or three hours since her kidnapper had picked her up in the lane, tied her up, and driven her off to this obscure moorland cottage. He’d handled her with insulting indifference.

“I most certainly will not,” she said, gathering courage.

She backed away from him, rubbing her wrists, still sore from the bonds he’d removed. Her head hit the sloping roof. “Ow!”

“Do it or I’ll have to do it for you.” The man sounded more bored than threatening. He reached under his laborer’s smock and metal glinted in the dim light. “And I’ll shoot you first.” The words lacked any trace of the rustic burr which, along with the smock, had fooled her into believing him a local farmer when he offered her a lift in his cart. “Get on with it. I don’t have all day.”

Definitely not from Yorkshire. His accents carried a hint of something far more exotic that matched his olive complexion and suggested an origin or sojourn in foreign parts. Coming from foreign parts herself, Celia would normally have been interested in conversing with him. But she hesitated to bandy words with an armed man, especially one whose pistol aimed straight at her heart. In the tiny attic, she couldn’t believe he’d miss. Raising trembling hands to the buttons of her pelisse, she summoned her most ferocious scowl, with the hope of making herself repulsive.

At first it seemed her grimace had the opposite of the desired effect. His eyes held a hungry gleam as they fixed on her bosom.

“Give me that.” He held out his free hand. With relief and reluctance she offered him the cloth reticule that hung from her left wrist. “That’s right. Now the coat.” The serviceable gray garment slid from her shoulders. “Lay it on the floor there. Do you need help with the buttons of your gown?”

Celia shook her head. A governess dismissed for moral turpitude does not merit the attentions of a maid. She’d dressed herself that morning, in undergarments and a dress that could be fastened without assistance.

She kept a wary eye on the kidnapper, though she couldn’t imagine the act of rape would be conducted in such a nonchalant atmosphere. Robbery seemed more likely his motive, not that her clothes were worth much. Keeping the barrel of the gun trained on her, he loosened the laces of the reticule and shook its contents onto the rough floor: the miscellaneous clutter of a traveling lady and the princely sum of fourteen pounds, thirteen shillings and fourpence. Princely to her, anyway. It represented her entire worldly worth.

Princely enough for her abductor too. He gave a little grunt of satisfaction as he squatted to gather up the notes and coins, stuffed them into a pocket of his breeches, and the other things back in the reticule.

By now she’d unbuttoned her dress but couldn’t bring herself to remove it. “Off with it,” he said. “And the rest. Shoes, stockings and whatever’s underneath.”

“Why?”

“I have to leave you for a while and I don’t want you escaping. You should be safe up here, but if you managed to get out I reckon you’ll think twice about wandering off over the moors naked.”

Reassured that violation was not to be her immediate fate—for once she could be glad she wasn’t the kind of woman who drove men to madness—she did as bidden until she reached the last layer. Saving on cloth, she made her shifts short. Showing her knees to this man was bad enough. Celia couldn’t bring herself to expose her breasts and other private parts.

“Please” she said, hating to have to beg. “Let me keep this on.”

He looked her up and down with, she feared, a grain more interest than he’d previously displayed.

“Please.” She crossed one arm over her chest, the other lower, in a vain effort to protect her modesty. “Please don’t make me take this off. I’d never go outside dressed in so little.”

Whether from pity, or conviction that the cheap linen had little value, he agreed. He made her gather up the rest of her clothing and lay it over his free arm.

“I’ll be back later,” he said from the ladder as he climbed down into the cottage below. He paused before he disappeared from sight, looked her up and down. She hugged herself closer and pressed her thighs together. “You know, you’re not so bad after all. Maybe we’ll have time for a little fun before.” She could guess what kind of fun he meant, but before what?

The swinging hatch closed and she heard the wooden bolt driven home. Celia Seaton was alone. She no longer had employment, a future, a reputation, or a penny to call her own. All that remained was a too-short shift and a healthy indignation.

She heard him banging around below as she took stock of her surroundings. There wasn’t much to see. Sunlight leached in through a spot in the roof where a tile had broken. Lucky it wasn’t raining, or perhaps not. She was thirsty and her stomach rumbled. And very hot, even in her scanty garment. She knelt and lowered her ear to the floor, the better to discover if her captor had left.

Instead she detected the approach of hoof beats outside, followed shortly by a knock at the door below, an unintelligible exchange of male voices. Then a thud and more sounds she couldn’t interpret. No more voices. A few minutes later horses—more than one—leaving.

She turned her attention to the floor of crude beams with a plastered ceiling below. She could probably break through the plaster, but the beams were spaced too closely for her to slide through them. During her investigation her fingers encountered a familiar object that had fallen from her reticule and escaped the thief’s notice.

It was made of silver and worth something, probably a pound or two. More importantly, the baby’s rattle had been her mother’s before it was hers and was dear to Celia’s heart. Grasping its handle she brought it to her ear and shook it. It didn’t sound quite right, making a dull clunk instead of a lively clatter. She found a new dent in the always battered old toy. The lack of noise together with dark tarnish accounted for the thief’s failure to notice it.

Since it was the only thing she possessed that belonged to either of her parents, the serendipitous discovery gave her heart and strengthened her determination not to wait around to be raped, and whatever unknown horror came afterward.

There must be a way out of the attic.

*****

The wooden hatch refused to budge, but a rough door in the gable at one end of the attic looked more promising, if only the aperture wasn’t nailed shut or bolted from without. After a hard shove with all her weight the door fell open, and she almost fell out. It was some six or seven feet to the ground below but Celia could swing herself down. As she calculated the best method of descent she made a vow.

Since the day she’d awaited her father in Madras and instead received the news of his death, she’d done her best to please people and live according to the rules of English society. And at every point, through no fault of her own, she’d failed. By coincidence her twenty-first birthday was just two days past. Not that it meant much, since there was no one to whom she belonged or owed obedience. But she embraced the symbolism of her majority. From now on Celia Seaton was going to exist on her terms without bending to the whims and rules of others.

And the first person she’d foil would be her kidnapper, who thought she’d never dare escape clad so scantily. Had he left her naked, he might have been correct. But in her new mood of defiance she wasn’t going to worry about showing her legs. She got down on her hands and knees, took a deep breath, and prayed.

She made it down with nothing more than a scratch or two and a small rip near the hem of her garment. It was as well no one could see, because in the process of escape she had bared just about all of her rear. With luck she’d find something to cover her inside the cottage.

The door to the humble structure was blocked, by a body. The body of a man lying unconscious, wearing nothing but breeches and a pair of riding boots. It had been some years since Celia had seen the bare torso of a grown man, and never a white man. He was pale, as befit a man who was always dressed up to his neck, but the smattering of dark hair, covering the chest and descending in a vee over his flat stomach, didn’t disguise the fact that the skin covered well-formed muscles. This interesting masculine form distracted her only a few seconds from the astonishing fact that she knew him.

And although he was one of several men who had bedeviled her life, she did not actually wish him dead.

Kneeling on the ground she set her fingers to his temple and found a pulse. “Mr. Compton,” she said. “Mr. Compton, wake up. Are you well?”

Nothing. She rested her head on his chest. Judging by the strength of his heartbeat, Mr. Tarquin Compton would live to cause further distress to awkward arrivals on the London marriage mart. She supposed she’d better try to revive him. And much as she detested the creature, she was curious to discover why the ton’s most fashionable gentleman lay half-naked next to a deserted Yorkshire cottage.

She couldn’t think of a less probable milieu for a man adored and feared by London’s ladies for his exquisite taste and poisonous tongue. She’d been the victim of the latter.

Like every other girl, she’d yearned for a word of approval from a man who could make or break a reputation. She’d admired the supreme elegance of his figure, his clever hawkish face that made softer and fairer men seem clumsy and commonplace. And as a nervous aspirant to the beau monde, from her stance on the fringes of the ballrooms she’d envied the way he seemed not to give a damn for the opinions of others.

That was at first. Later her pride rebelled against his determined ignorance of the very fact of her existence. Nevertheless she’d been pleased when his aunt, the Duchess of Amesbury introduced them, again. But then his careless insult had destroyed her slender standing and ruined her hopes of making a suitable marriage. The fury and humiliation of that moment burned as though it were yesterday.

The most influential gentleman in London, a nonpareil adored by all, had compared her to a cauliflower. Only concern for her unshod foot restrained the urge to kick the man while he was down.

Balked of revenge, she considered her next move as a reluctant Good Samaritan. Water. Cold water on his forehead ought to revive him. Since she couldn’t get into the cottage while his body blocked the door, she went around to check for an alternative entrance. While contemplating the possibilities of the single window, a groan summoned her back. Mr. Compton had woken on his own and risen to his knees. He looked up at her approach, stared at her for a few seconds, shook his head as if to clear it. Then he tried to stand and swayed, extending an arm to the ground to retain his balance.

“Do you think you ought to stand?” she asked.

If he noticed the grudge in her tone he gave no sign of it. “I’m not doing any good down here.” He felt the back of his head. “It appears someone hit me.”

“You’re bleeding.”

He examined the red stain on his fingers. “So I am. No wonder it hurts. I would be in your debt, madam, if you would lend me your arm. Without it I fear I may ignominiously fall back into the dirt.” The words might entreat but the tone reeked of arrogance. As he regained strength he sounded like the Mr. Compton she knew and loathed.

“Here,” she said. “And try not to get blood on my shift. It’s all I have.”

With fastidious care he wiped his fingers on the grass. Then, with the commanding grace that befitted the lion of the London drawing rooms, he placed the clean hand on her arm and rose to his feet.

She’d forgotten how tall he was, one the few gentlemen she’d met who towered over her. He looked down at her and she blushed. She was, she recalled, decidedly underdressed for the encounter. He was, too, but still managed to look disgustingly elegant naked from the waist up. His breeches and boots, though dusty, fit perfectly while her shift was shabby and torn. At least it was made of solid cloth. For once her slender means turned to her advantage. Finer, dearer linen would reveal far more.

Whether from good manners, genuine indifference, or a derangement of judgment caused by injury, Mr. Compton showed no discernable emotion as he took in her appearance. Instead he managed a creditable bow.

“Madam,” he said. “Thank you for your assistance. We are not, I believe, acquainted. Perhaps introductions are in order.”

Any impulse to forgive his past transgressions dissolved. Six times in London Celia had been presented to Tarquin Compton. Six times he had expressed his obviously insincere pleasure at making her acquaintance. He never remembered her. Even after they’d danced and he’d spoiled her prospects he couldn’t identify her. It was particularly insulting that he could so heedlessly destroy someone’s future without even knowing her name. She refused to humiliate herself by reminding him of their previous meetings.

She tilted her nose a few degrees higher, engaged his haughty eye, and prepared to deny any prior acquaintance when he spoke again. “I am…” He stopped. For the first time in the strange encounter he seemed unsure of himself. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I don’t remember who I am. I don’t remember anything.”

“You don’t know your own name?” she asked.

He shook his head, wincing with pain at the motion.

Celia had heard of such effects of a blow to the head but could scarcely believe it. That this should happen to Mr. High-and-Mighty Compton, that the man had no idea he was an arbiter of fashion, the darling of the ton, the terror of the unmarried maidens, was too bizarre. About to inform him of both their names she caught herself and stopped to give some thought to her predicament.

It was too perfect.

She was stranded in the wilderness, she knew not where, with no money, no friends, and no clothes. Aside from one offer of assistance, which might not still be open to her, she was alone in the world, in dire need of help and protection. Nothing she knew of the odious Mr. Compton suggested that, were he in his right mind, he’d give the time of day to a penniless governess with a soiled reputation. But he didn’t know he was Mr. Compton, had no idea of his paramount position in London society. He could be persuaded to be of use.

 “My dearest,” she said, letting her voice break on a dry and entirely spurious sob. “Surely you know me!”

“Er. No. Have we met before?”

“Alas! You have forgotten.” She flung her arms about his neck and inhaled the merest hint of his scent, a subtle, complicated essence lingering beneath the musky, and by no means disagreeable, overlay of sweat and horse. In the instant before he drew back she learned his chest was hard and the light mat of hair covering it almost silky.

“What have I forgotten? Who are you?”

“You don’t know me?”

He narrowed his eyes and scanned her face carefully. “You do seem familiar.”

“Thank God! The evil thief has not robbed you of all your wits. It must be beyond the power of any villain to make you forget what we are to each other.”

“Perhaps you could give me a little hint.”

“You will recall as soon I remind you. You must recall.”

“What must I recall?” Testiness blended with confusion.

“That I am Celia! Your betrothed wife!”

He didn’t believe her, that was clear. “We are engaged? To be married? Are you quite sure?”

“Of course I am sure. Can you have forgotten the sweet moment when I promised to be yours?”

“Apparently, yes.” His eyes seemed more black than brown as they met hers in the gaze that had reduced a hundred debutantes and a thousand parvenus to sniveling idiots. “I can’t remember anything else, either. Why don’t you remind me? And you can start by telling me my own name.”

Celia stiffened her spine and refused to be intimidated. She needed help and Mr. Tarquin Compton owed her recompense. She might as well enjoy herself a little. She shrugged off any slight qualm about her next lie.

“Your name, my dearest, is Terence Fish.”

 

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