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An Unacceptable Demise
Patricia Harrison

An Unacceptable Demise Excerpt

Rain spattered against the carriage window at her side. A brief shower, Cilla hoped, but gradually the force increased until water poured down the glass in sheets. Insensible to Lady Dunley's chatter, Cilla pressed her face against the window and peered through the murk. Where was that inn? Why had Mr. Blackstone not sought shelter in the carriage? Or, she hoped, was he already at the inn, dry and warm before a roaring fire?

The carriage slowed, turned, and through the rain Cilla glimpsed whitewashed walls, lighted windows beckoning warmly, and an upper floor peering from under a sloping roof.

"The inn at last, my lady," she said fervently.

The carriage stopped, and as the groom leaped to let down the step, the portly innkeeper bustled out with an umbrella for the ladies. Lady Dunley trotted inside, bombarding the host with instructions for dinner, but Cilla, heedless of the downpour, stopped short, scarce believing her eyes. At the corner of the inn where the drive curved toward the stables, Mr. Blackstone sat slumped in the saddle of his great black horse, Raven. Hoskin was swiftly dismounting as an ostler hurried up, his shoulders hunched against the driving rain.

In a fine rage, Cilla lifted her skirts clear of the streaming cobblestones and ran toward the corner. As she approached, the valet plucked his master from the saddle and set him on his feet. Cilla heard his grumble of protest, and then she was face to face with him.

She glared, almost too furious for speech. He glowered back, leaning one shoulder against the inn wall, and she knew almost as if he ranted at her, how he hated to be seen in his weakness. He straightened with great effort, and turned to address the ostler.

"Grain them only a little," he ordered, "as they have not been pushed hard, but mind you groom them well."

Cilla had to wait until the powerful black and rangy chestnut, both splashed to above the knees with mud, were led away before he again faced her. Rain dripped from the curled brim of his black, low-crowned beaver tipped somewhat rakishly on his head. His overcoat of light drab was soaked through, and mud splattered his coat and top-boots. His eyes burned from dark hollows cut in tight-drawn features.

"Well, Miss Coulter, are you so eager to hold my hand and count my pulse that you risk a soaking?" His lips thinned into a sneer. "Demme, tongues will wag, speculating on the relations between us."

Hoskin looked from her angry face to his master's, and then quietly took himself off to fetch the baggage.

"I have no fear of such speculation," Cilla retorted, "as persons of my acquaintance will know I could have no possible romantic interest in a man too stupid to seek shelter from inclement weather."

The flush high on his cheeks spread over his whole countenance. "This bit of damp is nothing. In some campaigns I have encountered storms--"

"But not in your present condition." Cilla had seldom felt such anger or despair. She was scarce aware of her sodden cloak and bonnet, of the cold rain pelting her face or trickling down the back of her neck. "In breaking your word to me, you have undone any progress toward recovery. Have you no notion--"

"Broke my word to you?" he asked quietly, his eyes narrowing. "In what manner, pray?"

Cilla clearly heard the menace in his deceptively soft tone, but she had no fear of him. "Do not play the innocent with me, sir. Your recollection seems of the convenient sort, dismissing all things unpleasant to it. Did I not bid you ride in the carriage, and did you not ignore my order entirely? Where is your obedience to my care, sir; your concurrence to our agreement?"

His head jerked up. Consternation briefly shadowed his drawn features, as if he had not thought of their pact in that way. Cilla said nothing, but she knew this was the time to settle the matter once and for all. To delay, even to gain shelter from the wet, would lose the thrust of the moment. Mr., Daragh Blackstone must see reason, or she may as well abandon him to his fate, and return home.

"I will not be ranted at, Miss Coulter," he said through stiff, pale lips, "or ordered to heel like any hound."

"Nor will I act the headmistress," she flashed. "It is outside of enough that I must rout you like a negligent schoolboy."

He drew his breath in sharply. "God's beard! You would try any man's patience to the hilt! Well, then, nurse, you shall have at me. As to treatment tonight, will you come to my chamber, or shall I go to yours?"

Of a sudden, Cilla had the strongest urge to box his ears. She clenched her hands at her sides, striving for calm as hot words pressed at her lips. A dank wind swirled around the corner, chilling her feet, and winding her soaked cloak and skirts around her legs. For a moment she questioned her own sanity, standing wet and bedraggled in the rain, clashing wills with a man in even worse state than she.

"What, having second thoughts?" he mocked. "Then leave matters as they are until morning when we are both in better condition."

She shook her head, sending water drops flying from her bonnet's brim. "No, sir. I will attend you now in your room."

He straightened and half turned away with a gesture of disgust. "Demme, what in Hades drives you to pester me with your attentions? I warrant you yourself cannot tell the reason."

His words, driven with sarcastic condescension, struck deep into her heart. Her hard-held control snapped.

"You utter fool," she cried, almost sobbing, "I will save you! I could not save Malcolm, but I will save you !"


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