Five – An Unexpected Hitch
After luncheon, Beth prepared for the children’s riding lessons by providing them with clothes suitable for the activity. She planned to take them to Granny Bradley on horseback, thus providing them with an occasion to test their skills. Michael, the youngest groom, helped Lily onto Pearl, the pony he had chosen for her, while Thompson, the head groom, assisted Oliver onto his gelding Rainstorm. Beth mounted on her own; she was very fond of her placid mare Sparkle. That was a badly chosen name, for there was not a quieter animal in the Brixton Stables. Thompson had chosen well for her.
They were just getting ready to leave when the master’s deep baritone sounded through the stable yard.
“Just a minute, lads! Michael, go saddle Parsifal. I am accompanying Mademoiselle and the children.”
Beth felt the colour drain from her face when Fenton addressed her.
“I want to see the children’s progress first, mademoiselle. Perhaps you had better dismount until I deem it appropriate for us to leave?”
So she watched from a bench in the yard while Fenton judged Lily and Oliver’s riding in the paddock. The children looked nervous but they nevertheless seemed to manage quite well. Their father was satisfied and gave his praise whereupon the small group departed for the village.
She rode extremely well, Stephen Fenton admitted to himself. He had not even known Beth could ride at all. Ten years ago, she blundered about the country side on that ridiculous pony of hers, and had not had the slightest notion how to handle the beast but now … now she was an excellent horsewoman, her seat easy and graceful.
The first sight of her on horseback had him baffled and shocked at the same time. Dressed in a peculiar sort of riding habit, the colour of green olives, Beth rode astride instead of sideways. The full skirt of her habit was divided and the legs of the trouser-like garment were broad and flowing, allowing her to ride without violating the rules of propriety. They were also shorter than a normal skirt would have been, showing her lower legs in their long chestnut boots. It was so attractive Fenton felt his groin tightening in a rush of pure, unmitigated lust. Sweet Lucifer! He needed to keep a tight rein on his rampaging emotions, now and without delay.
It was not the first time he had lusted after Beth Williams, he remembered. Years ago, even before his affair with Molly Bradley, Fenton had been visiting Vicar Williams with some errand on his father’s behalf when Beth returned from a ride after a sudden rainstorm. The sight of her young, slender body in the soaked clothes, the budding breasts peaking through the clinging fabric of her dress, had fired him up so violently he had needed to retreat in haste before the vicar – or Beth herself – would witness his embarrassment. For a few days, he had toyed with the thought of accosting her and try kissing her, but some strange feeling of reserve had held him back. In a sudden surge of conscience, he had shied away from defiling her, somehow. He had not had the same reservations with her friend Molly, though, with the well-known consequences.
While the two children rode ahead, holding a race between them, Fenton kept his black stallion apace with Sparkle.
“What a strange cut your riding habit has, Mademoiselle Guillaume! Is this the latest Parisian fashion for ladies, fond of riding?” he attempted to start a conversation.
“No, my lord, not at all,” Beth chuckled. “I got this as a present from some American relatives who claim it is rapidly becoming fashion in the United States. When a woman is forced to cover the vast distances over there on horseback, she needs something much more comfortable than a side saddle and, accordingly, must adjust her clothing.”
Fenton caught her gaze in his and smiled languidly into her brown eyes.
“It is unusual,” he drawled, “but very attractive. It emphasizes a lady’s … lower limbs to perfection.”
The sudden glow of Beth’s cheeks gave him a wicked satisfaction. He loved to get her fired up, had always loved to! God! She was irresistibly beautiful! When her mare took an unexpected side step, Fenton’s hand reached for the bridle but instead, caught Beth’s hand. Even through the leather of their gloves, he could feel the heat of their skins. Panic darkened her eyes, and he instantly released her.
“I am sorry, mademoiselle, but for a moment, I feared Sparkle would stumble.”
She nodded, and they continued in silence.
Inwardly Beth blazed with suppressed fury! Damn him! It was so typical of Fenton to turn on the charm on a woman he had only just gotten acquainted with and one who was in his employ and all! She was raking her brain for some retaliation when she heard his alarmed cry.
“By Jove! There must be a fire!”
He dug his heels in Parsifal’s flanks and galloped toward the village. He was right! A black plume of smoke rose from between the thatched roofs of the village and a crowd of people was gathering and running toward it.
Beth suddenly saw Lily and Oliver go after Fenton and she spurred on Sparkle to follow them. When she drew nearer, for a split second she thought it was Granny Bradley’s cottage that was on fire! Panicking, she hurried on, just in time to see Fenton jump off his horse and toss the reins into some farmer boy’s hands.
“Lily! Oliver! Take care!” she shouted, suddenly afraid they would fall off their mounts. Then she reached the children, hastily got off Sparkle and helped first Oliver, then Lily down.
“Stay here!” she ordered. “Do not go near the cottage.”
“But it is Ruby’s house!” Lily screamed.
“Yes, I can see that but look, there is Ruby and Ben, her husband!”
Ruby, however, stood wringing her hands in despair and panic.
“Oh, my lord, help us! My little Johnny is still inside!”
The baby! Beth ran toward Ruby and took her hands in hers.
“Ruby, where is he? In which room?”
“The ground floor room, at the back! Oh God! Oh dear Lord!”
People were running to and fro with buckets of water, throwing it into the fire without result until Fenton quickly organized them into a line, so that the buckets could be passed on in a chain. He then tore off his riding jacket and emptied one of the buckets over his head. Dripping with water, his shirt clinging to his chest, he shook himself vigorously. Beth found herself staring at the outlines of that broad torso, the long muscles rippling. Her mouth went dry and breathing became difficult. Fenton snatched a shawl from the shoulders of one of the women, dipped it in water and threw it over his head.
Before Beth’ horrified eyes, he then disappeared into the burning cottage. Beth’s heart stopped beating that same moment, as she realised he was putting his life at risk to rescue Ruby’s baby. Ruby, who was hysteric with fear … Beth went to put her arms around the slim figure of the young women.
Ben, Ruby’s husband, had put himself at the head of the chain and was desperately throwing water onto the flames.
Interminable seconds lengthened into minutes, slowly killing Beth with every beat of her terrified heart. Stephen – for the love of God, Stephen was in that hell fire! Pacing up and down in front of the cottage, now roaring with huge flames, she bit her knuckles in sheer agony! When would he come out? Soon – it would have to be soon! This was not happening, she could not lose Stephen!
Abruptly she stopped and realised what she had just been experiencing – a huge, heart-wrenching feeling of panic, because Stephen Fenton could actually be in mortal danger and perish. Stephen Fenton, the murderer of her family – the man who destroyed her life. Yet, she was so anxious about him, about facing a life without him, that her heart was aching with a tremendous pain, right then and there.
To calm herself and get out of her strange mood, she went back to Lily and Oliver and was relieved to see that their grandmother had joined them.
“I never thought to see the day when a Fenton would risk his life to save someone else’s,” Granny Bradley said in surprise.
“No, me neither,” Beth murmured in return.
A cry from the crowd drew her gaze back to the burning cottage. Covered with soot, Stephen Fenton came staggering out, a small bundle clutched against his bare chest. He seemed to have wrapped the baby in his own shirt. Hands reached out for little Johnny but his mother was first and took him from the baron.
Beth gave a sudden cry of alarm when she saw Fenton collapse onto his knees, blood running down his face and torso.