Mary Drayton's improvident father had left her, on his death, in quite degrading circumstances. So when Justin, Lord Hawkridge, fell in love with her, and she with him, Mary was heartbroken but not surprised when he apparently came to his senses.
To find him again in Bath, years later, when she was on a mission of mercy, was a shock - more so when he clearly thought that she had abandoned him! But nothing had changed; she was still an unsuitable match for him ...
A couple of stable-lads looked at Mary curiously, but no one approached her. She paused in front of a stall where a handsome chestnut snorted, tossing his head and eyeing her warily. She spoke to him softly and eventually he deigned to let her pat him.
She heard footsteps behind her, but she didn't look round.
A quiet voice said, 'Careful ma'am, 'e don't always take to strangers. Mind you,' the groom added, ''e seems to 'ave taken to you.'
Mary glanced at the man and smiled. 'Is he a high-stickler, or just bad tempered?' she asked, stroking the chestnut's nose. He snorted and nudged her hand.
'Just bad tempered, I reckon,' the groom replied.
Mary laughed, and the horse tossed his head at the unexpected sound. 'I'll bear that in mind,' she said.
The groom looked perplexed, and then embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean you weren't ...'
'I know,' she reassured him.
He was about twenty, she guessed, though his thin face looked older. He was short and slightly built, with narrow, stooping shoulders. He had probably been underfed for most of his childhood, but his eyes lit up when he looked at the horse. He wore the costume of a tiger - a gentleman's personal groom.
'What's his name?' Mary asked, nodding towards the chestnut.
'Barabbas,' the groom replied.
'And that one?' Mary gestured to the next stall, where a perfectly matched chestnut mare stamped her forefoot in the straw.
'A name with many associations, said another, deeper voice behind her. 'So often it conjures up an image of saintliness - but it could just as easily describe a whore.'
Mary caught her breath. She hadn't heard Justin approach. She started to tremble, so she gripped the top of the wooden panel to hide it. Another hand appeared and lightly gripped the panel a few inches away from hers. He must be standing right behind her. She felt trapped.
'You startled me, sir,' she said, without turning round.
'My apologies.' But there was no apology in Lord Hawkridge's voice.
The tiger faded discreetly away and Mary was left alone with Justin. She knew she ought to turn and face him, but he was too close behind her - and she couldn't bear the possibility that he might still have that cold, hostile look in his eyes.
'Does this uncle treat you any better than the last one?' Justin asked mockingly in her ear.
'He's not ...' she began instinctively, then bit her lip as she realised what Justin would inevitably think if she denied any relationship with Mr Penrose.
'I didn't think he was,' Justin murmured provocatively. 'I am reasonably well-acquainted with your family tree sweetheart. Alf was your only surviving relative.'
She felt a light touch on her hair, then his fingers gently stroked the nape of her neck. She froze, startled by his caress. But as he continued to play with a tendril of her hair she was overwhelmed by a flood of sensations and remembered emotions. Her heart began to race and she was rooted to the spot, no longer capable of rational thought. He was very close behind her and she longed to turn towards him, to feel him take her in his arms, but she was afraid to move in case it broke the spell. Ths was only an interlude, it couldn't be real.
'I'll admit Penrose is wealthy,' said Justin softly, his breath ruffling Mary's hair, 'but couldn't you do better for yourself than a wizened old man? There are plenty of younger, more exciting lovers to choose from.'
'He is not my lover!' Mary swung round indignantly, heedless of the consequences, and found herself almost breast to breast with Justin.
'Not a very satisfactory one if my lightest touch can hold you so mazed!' Justin taunted her. His face was in shadow; she couldn't see his expression.
She heaved in a deep, outraged breath, but before she could say anything his arms locked about her and his mouth closed on hers. She struggled to free herself, bracing her hands against his shoulders and pushing him away, but he was far too strong.
She wasn't afraid, but she'd seen too much violence to find any pleasure in an embrace that was forced upon her. She was on the point of kicking him - which would have been painful, since she was wearing wooden pattens - when his hold on her relaxed and, instead of being demanding, his lips became coaxing on hers.
All she had to do now was step back and she would be free - but she couldn't do it. He knew her too well and he was taking advantage of his knowledge.
It was cold in the stables, but his body was warm against hers. She could feel the power in his large frame, and now that his strength was no longer being used against her it excited her. She didn't remember if he'd made her feel like this in St Giles, but a flood of unfamiliar, stimulating sensations were washing over her. He teased her lips gently, persuasively, until they parted to allow him to explore her mouth more fully.
Mary couldn't resist. She had needed him and wanted him for so long that now she felt like a starving woman who'd been offered food. She had to take it, even though she knew the bread was poisoned. There was no future in this. They would never meet again. And, like all his kind, Justin Hawkridge was taking what he wanted, when he wanted it .
His kiss became more urgent, stirring dormant passions within Mary. Hardly knowing what she was doing, she pressed herself against him more closely, her hands beginning to slide up around his neck ...
Then Barabbas snorted, his head only inches from theirs, and they were both startled. Mary suddenly realised what she was doing, and shoved Justin away from her, the violence of her reaction revealing how much his kiss had affected her.
'Dammit, Justin! You may be a lord but I'm not a common whore!' she insisted furiously, her churning emotions finding release in anger.
'There never was anything common about you,' he agreed sardonically. He was breathing rather rapidly, but otherwise he seemed completely in control of himself - and the situation. 'But I still say you could do better for yourself. Or is Penrose an indulgent companion? Does he allow you to see other men as well?'
Mary slapped Justin hard across the mouth. He seized her wrist and held it in a vice-like grip. For a moment he loomed over her, but she was too angry to be afraid.
'You harpy!' he snarled. ‘I ought to beat you for that!
'The mark of a true gentleman!' Mary mocked, wrenching her arm out of his grasp. ‘First you make unfounded, unspeakable accusations about me, then you have your revenge when I retaliate. You used to have more integrity.'
'Integrity ...!' Justin exclaimed.
'Mr Penrose is not my lover,' Mary said through clenched teeth.
'He's not your uncle either.
'He's my husband's uncle.'
They stared at each other in silence. A mail-coach pulled up in the courtyard outside, and the yard and stables were suddenly full of ostlers. Mary stepped aside to allow a string of glossy brown horses to be led past her, but apart from that neither she nor Justin paid any attention to the activity all around them.
Justin caught her left hand in his, looking down at the ring on her third finger. 'I see,' he said, his voice suddenly expressionless. 'Have you been married long?'
Four years.' Mary drew her hand away, hoping he couldn't hear the pounding of her heart. It was a lie, but it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was that she couldn't let Justin outface her.
'Then it seems I must offer my belated congratulations.' He bowed ironically. 'Does he know about your life in the Blue Boar?'
Mary lifted her head proudly. 'Do you think I would marry anyone who didn't?' she asked coldly. 'Good day, sir.'
From the book: An Unsuitable Match by Alice Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Legacy of Love™
Publication date: 1995. ISBN: 0-263-79291-9
Copyright © 1995 by Alice Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA