Mine Till Midnight - Page 7

Easing away from his distracting touch, Amelia raised her hands to the dangling front locks of her hair, tucking them behind her ears. "Why are you shooting rockets? And more to the point, why are you shooting them at my property?"

The stranger nearby gave her a sharp, assessing glance. "Your property?"

Rohan interceded. "Lord Westcliff, this is Miss Amelia Hathaway. Lord Ramsay's sister."

Frowning, Westcliff executed a precise bow. "Miss Hathaway. I was not informed about your arrival. Had I been aware of your presence, I would have notified you about our rocketry experiments, as I have everyone else in the vicinity."

It was clear that Westcliff was a man who expected to be informed about everything. He looked annoyed that the new neighbors had dared to move into their own residence without telling him first.

"We arrived only yesterday, my lord," Amelia replied. "I had intended to call on you after we settled in." Under ordinary circumstances, she would have left it at that. But she was still off balance, and there was no stopping the flow of comments from her own mouth. "Well. I must say the guidebook didn't warn adequately about the occurrence of rocket fire amid the peaceful Hampshire scenery." She reached down and whacked at the dust and bits of leaf that clung to her skirts. "I'm sure you don't know the Hathaways well enough to shoot at us. Yet. When we become better acquainted, however, I have no doubt you'll find ample reason to bring out the artillery."

Over her head, she heard Rohan laugh. "Considering our issues with aim and accuracy, you have nothing to fear, Miss Hathaway."

The silver-haired gentleman spoke then. "Rohan, if you wouldn't mind finding out where that rocket landed?

"Of course." Rohan took off at an easy lope.

"Agile fellow," the older man said approvingly. "Fast as a leopard. Not to mention steady of hands and nerves. What a sapper he'd make."

Introducing himself as Captain Swansea, formerly of the Royal Engineers, the elderly gentleman explained to Amelia that he was a rocketry enthusiast who was continuing his scientific work in a civil capacity. As a friend of Lord Westcliff, who shared his interest in engineering science, Swansea had come to experiment with a new rocket design in the country, where there was sufficient land to do so. Lord Westcliff had enlisted Cam Rohan to help with the flight equations and other mathematical calculations necessary to evaluate the performances of the rockets. "Quite extraordinary, really, his facility with numbers," Swansea said. "You'd never expect it to look at him."

Amelia couldn't help but agree. In her experience scholarly men such as her father were pale from spending much of their time indoors, and they had paunches and spectacles and rumpled, tweedy appearances. They were hot exotic young men who looked like pagan princes and had gold rings and tattoos.

"Miss Hathaway," Lord Westcliff said, "to my knowledge, there hasn't been a Ramsay in residence in nearly a decade. I find it difficult to believe the house is habitable."

"Oh, it's in fine condition," Amelia lied brightly, her pride rising to the fore. "Of course, some dusting is needed—and a few minor repairs—but we are quite comfortable."

She thought she had spoken convincingly, but Westcliff looked skeptical. "We are having a large supper at Stony Cross Manor this evening," he said. "You will bring your family. It will be an excellent opportunity for you to meet some local residents, including the vicar."

A supper with Lord and Lady Westcliff. Heaven help her.

Had the Hathaway family been well-rested, had Leo been a bit further along on the path of sobriety, had they all possessed suitable formal attire, had they been given enough time to study etiquette... Amelia might have considered accepting the invitation. But as things were, it was impossible. "You are very kind, my lord, but I must decline. We've only just arrived in Hampshire, and most of our clothes are still packed away?

"The occasion is informal."

Amelia doubted his definition of "informal" matched hers. "It's not merely a matter of attire, my lord. One of my sisters is somewhat frail, and it would be too taxing for her. She needs a great deal of rest after the long journey from London."

"Tomorrow night, then. It will be a much smaller affair, and not at all taxing."

In light of his insistence, there was no way to refuse. Cursing herself for not staying at Ramsay House that morning, Amelia forced a smile to her lips. "Very well, my lord. Your hospitality is much appreciated."

Rohan returned, his breath quickened from exertion. A mist of sweat had accumulated on his skin until it gleamed like bronze. "Right on course," he said to Westcliff and Swansea. 'The stabilizing fins worked. It landed at a distance of approximately two thousand yards."

"Excellent!" Swansea exclaimed. "But where is the rocket?"

Rohan's white teeth flashed in a grin. "Buried in a deep, smoking hole. I'll go back to dig it up later."

"Yes, we'll want to see the condition of the casing and the inner core." Swansea was red-faced with satisfaction. He used a handkerchief to blot his steaming, wrinkled countenance. "It's been an exciting morning, eh?"

"Perhaps it's time to return to the manor, Captain," Westcliff suggested.

"Yes, quite." Swansea bowed to Amelia. "A pleasure, Miss Hathaway. And may I say, you took it rather well, being the target of a surprise attack."

'The next time I visit, Captain," she said, "I'll remember to bring my white flag."

He chuckled and bid her farewell.

Before turning to join the captain, Lord Westcliff glanced at Cam Rohan. "I'll take Swansea back to the manor, if you'll see to it that Miss Hathaway is delivered home safely."

"Of course," came the unhesitating reply.

"Thank you," Amelia said, "but there's no need. I know the way, and it isn't far."

Her protest was ignored. She was left to stare uneasily at Cam Rohan, while the other two men departed.

"I'm hardly some helpless female," she said. "I don't need to be delivered anywhere. Besides, in light of your past behavior, I'd be safer going alone."

A brief silence. Rohan tilted his head and regarded her curiously. "Past behavior?"

"You know what I? She broke off, flushing at the memory of the kiss in the darkness. "I'm referring to what happened in London."

He gave her a look of polite perplexity. "I'm afraid I don't follow."

"You're not going to pretend you don't remember," she exclaimed. Perhaps he had, kissed so many legions of women, he couldn't possibly recollect them all. "Are you also going to deny that you stole one of my bonnet ribbons?"

"You have a vivid imagination, Miss Hathaway." His tone was bland. But there was a flare of provoking laughter in his eyes.

"I have no such thing. The rest of my family is steeped in imagination—I'm the one who clings desperately to reality." She turned and began to walk at a brisk pace. "I'm going home. There's no need for you to accompany me."

Ignoring her statement, Rohan fell easily into step beside her, his relaxed stride accounting for every two of hers. He let her set their pace. In the openness of their surroundings, he seemed even larger than she had remembered. "When you saw my arm," he murmured, "the tattoo ... how did you know it was a pooka?"

Amelia took her time about replying. As they walked, the shadows of nearby branches crossed their faces. A red-tailed hawk glided across the sky and disappeared into the heavy wood. "I've read some Irish folklore," she finally said. "A wicked, dangerous creature, the pooka. Invented to give people nightmares. Why would you adorn yourself with such a design?"

"It was given to me as a child. I don't remember when it was done."

"For what purpose? What significance does it have?"

"My family would never explain." Rohan shrugged. "Perhaps they might now. But it's been years since I've seen them."

"Could you ever find them again, if you wished?"

"Given enough time." Casually he fastened his waistcoat and rolled down his sleeves, concealing the heathen symbol. "I remember my grandmother telling me about the pooka. She encouraged me to believe it was real—I think she half believed it herself. She practiced the old magic."

"What is that? Do you mean fortune-telling?"

Rohan shook his head and slid his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "No," he said, looking amused, "although she did tell fortunes to gadjos at times. The old magic is a belief that all of nature is connected and equal. Everything is alive. Even the trees have souls."

Amelia was fascinated. It had always been impossible to coax Merripen to say anything about his past or his Romany beliefs, and here was a man who seemed willing to discuss anything. "Do you believe in the old magic?"

"No. But I like the idea of it." Rohan reached for her elbow to guide her around a rough patch of ground. Before she could object to the gentle touch, it was gone. "The pooka isn't always wicked," he said. "Sometimes it acts out of mischief. Playfulness."

She gave him a skeptical glance. "You call it playful for a creature to toss you on its back, fly up to the sky, and drop you into a ditch or bog?"

"That's one of the stories," Rohan admitted with a grin. "But in other accounts, the pooka only wants to take you on an adventure... fly you to places you can only see in dreams. And then he returns you home."

"But the legends say that after the horse takes you on his midnight travels, you're never the same."

"No," he said softly. "How could you be?"

Without realizing it, Amelia had slowed their pace to a relaxed amble. It seemed impossible to walk with brisk efficiency on a day like this, with so much sun and soft air. And with this unusual man beside her, dark and dangerous and charming.

"Of all the places to see you again," she said, "I would never have expected Lord Westcliff 's estate. How did you come to be acquainted? He's a member of the gaming club, I suppose."

"Yes. And friends with the owner."

"Are Lord Westcliff's other guests accepting of your presence at Stony Cross Manor?"

"You mean because I'm a Roma?" A sly smile touched his lips. "I'm afraid they have no choice but to be polite. First, out of respect for the earl. And then there's the fact that most of them are obliged to come to me for credit at the club—which means I have access to their private financial information."

"Not to mention private scandals," Amelia said, remembering the alley fight.

His smile lingered. "A few of those, too."

"Nevertheless, you must feel like an outsider at times.

"Always," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'm an outsider to my people, as well. You see, I'm a half-breed?poshram, they call it—born of a Gypsy mother and an Irish gadjo father. And since the family's lineage goes through the father, I'm not even considered Roma. It's the worst violation of the code for one of our women to marry a gadjo."

"Is that why you don't live with your tribe?"

"One of the reasons."

Amelia wondered what it must be like for him, caught between two cultures, belonging to neither. No hope of ever being fully accepted. And yet there was no trace of self-pity in his tone.

"The Hathaways are outsiders, as well," she said. "It's obvious we're not suited to a position in polite society. None of us have the education or breeding to carry it off. Supper at Stony Cross Manor should be a spectacle—I'm sure it will end with us being tossed out on our ears."

"You may be surprised. Lord and Lady Westcliff don't usually stand on formality. And their table includes a great variety of guests."

Amelia was not reassured. To her, upper society resembled the ornamental tanks used for exotic fish-keeping in fashionable parlors, filled with glittering creatures who darted and circled in patterns she had no hope of understanding. The Hathaways might as well attempt to live underwater as to belong in such elevated company. And yet they had no choice but to try.

Spying a heavy growth of watercress on the bank of a wet meadow, Amelia went to examine it. Grasping a bunch, she pulled until the delicate stems snapped. "Watercress is plentiful here, isn't it? I've heard it can be made into a fine salad or sauce."

"It's also a medicinal herb. The Rom call it panishok. My grandmother used to put it in poultices for sprains or injuries. And it's a powerful love tonic. For women, especially."

"A what?" The delicate greenery fell from her nerveless fingers.

"If a man wishes to reawaken his lover's interest, he feeds her watercress. It's a stimulant of the?

"Don't tell me! Don't!"

Rohan laughed, a mocking gleam in his eyes.

Giving him a warning glance, Amelia brushed a few stray watercress leaves from her palms and continued on her way.

Her companion followed readily. "Tell me about your family," he coaxed. "How many of you are there?"

"Five in all. Leo—that is, Lord Ramsay—is the oldest, and I am the next, followed by Winnifred, Poppy, and Beatrix."

"Which sister is the frail one?"


"Has she always been that way?"

"No, Win was quite healthy until a year ago, when she nearly died from scarlet fever." A long hesitation, while her throat tightened a little. "She survived, thank God, but her lungs are weak. She has little strength, and she tires easily. The doctor says Win may never improve, and in all likelihood she won't be able to marry or have children." Amelia's jaw hardened. "We will prove him wrong, of course. Win will be completely well again."

"God help anyone who stands in your way. You do like to manage other people's lives, don't you?"

"Only when it's obvious I can do a better job of it than they can. What are you smiling at?"

Rohan stopped, obliging her to turn to face him. "You. You make me want to? He stopped as if thinking better of what he'd been about to say. But the trace of amusement lingered on his lips.

She didn't like the way he looked at her, the way he made her feel hot and nervous and giddy. All her senses informed her that he was a thoroughly untrustworthy man. One who abided by no one's rules but his own.

Discover This Games

Discover This Apps

Related Novels

Follow Me