Flame Of Fury

Chapter One

England, 1751

Rianne Lockwood heard the conversational noise in the salon when she was still ten feet from the room, and shook her head. Her stepfather's guests were wide awake and gossiping even at this early hour, as though afraid they'd miss some choice bit of news. They'd been at it since they'd arrived the day before, and didn't seem to subscribe to the belief that Saturday mornings were best greeted with peace and quiet.

"But what else would you expect from friends of his?" she asked herself in a mutter, the only proper answer clear in the question. Not all of them were really close friends of her stepfather's, but they were all the sort of people he most approved of. Even those who came to see her, and maybe especially them. Wealthy young men with marriage in mind, not to mention visions of the inheritance that came with her, as well as an acceptance in her stepfather's social circles. Some few already had that acceptance, but the rest, despite their wealth, would be admitted only through her…

"And they really think they have a chance of that," she murmured with a hidden smile, pausing in the hall to brush at the day gown she wore. "They're fools to keep coming back every time, but their eyesight must be sharper than their reason."

Rianne's smile widened just a little at the thought, her amusement deep and real. She'd once been laughed at by the daughter of one of her stepfather's friends, a small, dark-haired girl who knew just how appealing her own petite loveliness was. She'd ridiculed Rianne, saying that she was much too tall to attract any man, and had declared that Rianne would end up a spinster if her father didn't force some man to marry her. Rianne had "accidentally" stepped on the small girl's petite foot to get even for the remarks, but the idea had still bothered her.

At least until her first formal ball, that is. It was certainly true that Rianne was much taller than the other young ladies at the ball, but it was also true that the young gentlemen found the difference to be largesse rather than excess. Few of the young men topped her by more than a finger joint and most were her height or smaller, but fascination with her golden-red hair, her beautiful face and changeable green eyes, her large breasts and comparatively small waist drew them to her side and kept them there. She was delightfully more than a simple handful, she'd once heard one of them comment to another…

"Ah, there you are, dear lady," a voice said, and Rianne looked up to see Jonathan Coleridge grinning at her from the doorway. "We were becoming certain you meant to sleep away all of this glorious morning."

"With so many fascinating people in the house, Mr. Coleridge?" Rianne asked with a smile as she resumed walking. "Certainly not."

The man's dark gaze moved over her as she approached, and he offered his arm with a small bow. He was new to the circles constantly hovering around Rianne, and seemed convinced that his dark-haired handsomeness would impress her more than the less-classical looks of his fellow suitors. He also clearly enjoyed the fact that he was at least a full finger taller than she, something none of the others were. Rianne, unimpressed with anything about him, treated him with the same friendly distance she did the others.

"Do allow me to help you choose your breakfast, dear lady," he urged, the smooth attempt to take command adding to Rianne's earlier amusement. "Since I've already sampled the dishes, my advice should prove invaluable."

"Mr. Coleridge, I live in this house," she pointed out as he led her toward the buffet. "This is hardly the first breakfast I've had here, so what good would your advice-"

"Now, now, a lady such as yourself should never be burdened with the need to make decisions," he interrupted, ignoring the other young men who had begun walking toward them through the large salon. "It's a man's place to see to such tiresome activities, and the pleasure of doing so will be mine."

"I suggest, Mr. Coleridge, that you look for your pleasures elsewhere," Rianne told him, her friendly, confident smile making him pause. "Despite the dangers and unreasonable rigors, I'll choose my own breakfast."

She patted his arm before leaving him in the middle of the floor and continued to the buffet alone, hearing the chuckling of those men who had been close enough to be aware of what she'd said. At one time or another they'd all tried proving how masterful they were, but it hadn't worked any better for them than it had for Jonathan Coleridge. Rianne was young, but she never had trouble handling men. She had a mind of her own, and never hesitated to let them know it.

The servant filled her plate with what she pointed to, then followed her to the chair she chose to sit on. After she'd relieved him of her plate, Rianne asked him to bring her a cup of tea and sat back with a sigh. She hated large buffet breakfasts, hated the way the men closing in on her would try to get her attention, but there was no helping it. She still needed to be where she was, for at least a short while longer. After that she would be free, but until then she had to put up with being bothered.

And bothered she was. Jonathan Coleridge led the pack, but others weren't about to give up without a fight. They took turns talking at her, coming up with what they considered charming conversation, but she did have the excuse of food on her plate to explain her lack of response. She pretended to be listening closely as she chewed, but in fact she was remembering the conversation her stepfather had initiated a few weeks earlier.

"Every one of them is considered a catch, Rianne," he'd said, referring to the bevy of gentlemen who so often followed her around. "Which of them do you intend settling on?"

"Why, I hadn't thought about it, Father," she'd answered, giving him an open, innocent stare. He'd always insisted that she call him father, despite the bad taste the name for him put in her mouth. At one time she'd thought about refusing to do it any longer, but then she'd changed her mind. She continued to call him by a name he didn't deserve, but hopefully would not have to do so for much longer.

"It's more than time you did think about it," he'd replied, stepping closer to the chair she sat in. "I'm not getting any younger, and I'd like to see you with a family of your own before my hair turns completely white. Which of them do you like best?"

"I think it would be most accurate to say that I like them all just about equally," she allowed, betraying her real meaning only by the glint of laughter in her eyes. Although knowing her stepfather's plans for her tended to overshadow all humor…

Robert Harding was a fairly tall man with black hair and eyes and a still-handsome face, but he was a terrible actor. He'd been trying to show fatherly concern for his young daughter's welfare, but Rianne had able to see the heavy impatience he forcefully held down. Until she married, the estates and very large income left to her by her grandmother and father were out of the reach of both of them, and her stepfather didn't care for that state of affairs.

"You like them all equally," he'd echoed flatly, staring down at her with frank disapproval. "What about young Rochard?"

"Jean is very sweet, but possibly a little too sweet," she'd answered, making sure her expression didn't change. Robert Harding had introduced her to Jean Rochard, obviously hoping she would accept the man's almost immediate proposal. Jean was a nice young man and really very handsome, but was so obviously under Robert's thumb that her inheritance would be her stepfather's to manage the very day that any marriage ceremony took place - which, Rianne knew, was exactly what Robert Harding planned. What her stepfather had done to Rianne's mother apparently hadn't been enough for him. Now he was after his dead wife's daughter's possessions, but Rianne wasn't anything like her poor mother.

"So Jean is too sweet, and you like the others all equally well," he'd summed up, annoyance clear even in his stance. "What you like most, I think, is all the attention being paid you, but the time for that is over. Choose one, else I'll do it for you."

"Now, Father, you know that would never do," Rianne had replied with a smile, making no attempt to avoid his commanding gaze. "Every one of those young men knows I would never allow myself to be forced into marriage, so what would be the use in your choosing one? They would look foolish when I refused the vows in front of everyone, and that would be all they got out of the effort. If you feel I'm threatening rather than promising, do feel free to make the attempt."

"You, young lady, should be ashamed of yourself!" he'd stormed, obviously stung by her smile and the truth she'd spoken. "You took too the love you were shown while growing up, and turned it into license to do just as you please! You are wild and spoiled, but that will change when a strong husband takes you firmly in hand. I look forward to the day."

He'd bowed stiffly and then had stalked out of her sitting room, obviously furious over the way he was being balked. He, 1ike other men, much preferred sweet, obedient women to order about. Rianne knew how he felt at a loss when he had to deal with one who knew her own mind. She also knew just how far she was able to go. Rianne had had love while she was growing up, her mother's love, and it had made her stronger than the gentle woman had ever dreamed was possible.

"… what a truly beautiful day this is," Jonathan Coleridge was saying as Rianne returned from her thoughts. "I do believe a ride around the estate is just what the two of us could use."

"I think not, Mr. Coleridge," Rianne answered, smiling again as she put her empty plate aside. "I much prefer the thought of a stroll, and afterward a game of some sort. I've always been rather fond of games."

"That, dear lady, is easily seen," he countered, his dark eyes showing only a hint of disapproval. "Most ladies of your position would refrain from gaming in the knowledge that it was far too unladylike, but you indulge in that as often as you attempt domination. A pity your suitors until now have allowed you to believe such domination of men would be possible. It's the man who dominates, dear girl, a fact I would like to teach you."

"Would you really," Rianne said in the softest of voices, a reaction that caused some of the men around her to draw back. At one time she'd tried showing fits of temper in hopes of driving away the boring hordes, but as long as her tantrum wasn't aimed at them, most of them came right back. Under normal circumstances Rianne preferred laughing to screaming and throwing things, but circumstances hadn't been normal in quite some time.

"Your words seem to indicate an interest in challenging my intention," Coleridge said, mockery in the smile he showed as he leaned back unconcernedly in his chair. "Challenge me as you like, dear girl, I shan't mind in the least. I do mean to tame you, quenching the raging flame of your willfulness. After that, I will make you mine."

"The raging flame of my willfulness," Rianne repeated flatly, beginning to believe that this man was as much a creature of her stepfather's as Jean was. Harding must have decided it was arrogance she was looking for, and had provided it in the form of Jonathan Coleridge. "You turn a neat phrase, Mr. Coleridge, but I find more interest in another word you used. Quenching. Yes, I do like that word."

With that Rianne raised the cup of hot tea the servant had brought, and threw it straight into Coleridge's face. It had been too hot even to sip, but it served its secondary purpose beautifully. Coleridge howled and jumped to his feet, both hands going to his face, and stumbled back after knocking his chair to one side. Rianne rose to her own feet.

"And now that you have the tea, you should also have the cup," she growled, then threw it at him with all her strength. Rianne had always made a habit of hitting what she aimed at, and the fragile china cup shattered against the man's head. He howled a second time and retreated even farther, then cleared his sight in time to see her now reaching for the plate she'd emptied. That the plate would follow the cup was in no doubt at all; seeing that, Jonathan Coleridge chose the better part of valor and made a hasty, uneven escape from the room.

"Bravo, my dear Rianne, bravo," Jean applauded with a 1augh from the midst of the laughter of the others. "The boor deserved all you did to him and more besides. A gentleman would never speak to a lady as he did - proving, of course, that he's no gentleman. You are truly magnificent in your justifiable anger, and I mean to tell you so as we stroll about the garden."

"Perhaps later, Jean," Rianne denied immediately, holding up one hand to keep the entire pack at bay. "The fool has put me in such a monstrous mood, I'm not fit company for anyone. I'll take a short stroll alone, and rejoin you gentlemen later."

Having been given no choice at all the young men bowed, allowing Rianne her own escape from the room. The guests who hadn't been in the immediate vicinity of the disagreement stared at her with raised brows as she swept past them, and the women immediately began chattering among themselves. Rianne Lockwood's temper was quickly becoming legendary, which meant it was a choice topic for gossip - just as she was.

The object of discussion took herself directly outside, delighted that things had worked out so well. Not only was she rid of that Coleridge boor, she would even have some time to herself. It was a really, lovely summer day, warm and sweet with the quiet of the country. Some of their guests complained that it was too quiet, that compared to London it was dull and uninteresting, but the rest disagreed. Out here they could breathe freely, they said, and enjoy the sight of open grounds and thick woods just by looking out their windows.

Rianne herself was undecided. She did love the country and its beauty, but she also yearned to visit and learn the streets of London. So far, she'd never had the chance, and now she probably never would. She'd gotten the impression from overheard comments that it was a place where marvelous things were done everywhere and at all hours, as though the city were magical and all those living in it were enchanted. Peace and quiet were all well and good, but after a lifetime of it she longed for a taste of enchantment.

Like the sort mentioned in all those wonderful books she read. Handsome men suddenly appearing in times of trouble to rescue beautiful ladies, with whom they of course fell in love. He would immediately profess his love, speaking the lady's name softly and caressingly. She, being much too shy to say anything so forward, would show her love and devotion in other ways. And he would know how she felt, without the words, and would cherish her for all time.

Cherish her. Rianne paused on the walk for a moment to sigh, wondering what it would feel like to be cherished. It had been so long since she had experienced the feeling, all the way back to the time before her father had died. If only she could believe something like that was ahead of her. It was a silly dream, she knew, but still…

With another sigh she continued along the stone walk which led around the gardens. In the process the walk passed in front of the guest stables; as luck would have it Cameron Campbell was just coming out, and that gave Rianne another idea.

"You, boy," she called, gesturing imperiously and showing the frown she'd been wearing indoors. "You'll walk with me until I decide I want refreshment and then you'll run and fetch it for me. Come along."

"Yes, m'lady," Cameron answered, showing a nervous expression as he hurried over to her. "As ye say, m'lady."

Rianne sailed along with the stable-boy hurrying in her wake, and in another moment moved between the start of the hedges. No one was in sight up the long path between the hedges, and the majestic green wall kept them from being seen by anyone in the house.

"Come on, Ree, slow down!" Cameron hissed from behind her, his stable-boy accent now discarded. "I've been up and running since before dawn, so please take it a little easier."

"Sorry, Cam," she apologized with a smile, glancing at the young man as she immediately slowed. "I'm supposed to be in a temper, and galloping along is part of it. Will you and Angus be ready to ride out with me this afternoon?"

"Just try to keep us away," he returned with a snort, then grinned. "So you're supposed to be in a temper again. Who did you bash over the head this time?"

"Jonathan Coleridge," Rianne told him with a soft laugh. He decided to be masterful with me, but it didn't work out too well. And I didn't 'bash' him. I threw hot tea in his face, then broke a cup over his head."

"He's lucky your sword is hidden with Angus's and mine," Cameron said with a matching laugh. "Any man who tried being masterful with you when you were armed would probably find himself run though. Are there many more guests arriving this afternoon?"

"Hopefully enough to add a lot of gold to what we already have," Rianne replied, her amusement fading. "I don't know how much longer I can stand it, Cam, not without going crazy. We have to get out of here and start building our new lives, we simply have to."

"We will, Ree, and it won't be that much longer," the young man reassured her looking as though he wanted to pat her shoulder comfortingly. "Angus is ready and so am I, and as soon as we have enough we'll go."

Rianne looked at the young man who was her friend, and smiled faintly in thanks for his support. He and his older brother Angus were both fairly tall, with sandy hair and bright blue eyes. Angus was Rianne's age with Cam a year behind them, and the three had been friends since they were very young. It might not have happened if Robert Harding hadn't told his little stepdaughter to stay away from the low-class gutter rats. The order made her that much more determined to befriend them, and for that Rianne was grateful to him. It wouldn't have been possible to find more loyal friends, even if she'd looked forever.

If Cameron Campbell had been asked, he would have said the same thing. He could still remember the day the gangly little brat had first come to insist she be allowed to play with him and his older brother, and that in spite of the fact that she'd had to sneak out to join them. Angus hadn't trusted her and had tried to chase her away, but the skinny little girl had put her hands up like a boy and had dared him to do his worst. Angus had accepted her challenge and the two of them had fought, but he hadn't been able to make his opponent cry defeat. Or cry at all, for that matter. The girl had given as good as she got, and when the two of them had stepped back the seeds of friendship had already been sown.

The three had grown up together almost like brothers and sister, but Rianne had been a sister like few others. Cam smiled as he watched her move to a stone bench and sit with all the grace of a great lady, remembering when she hadn't been graceful at all. She'd been resisting her lessons in ladylike comportment with all of her usual stubbornness, but Angus knew that her gawkiness upset her deeply. So he'd casually mentioned the new gardener who had once been a fencing instructor. The man was down on his luck and had taken the job as gardener to keep his family fed, and could certainly be trusted to keep silent if Rianne paid him to teach her to fence.

Angus had wanted Rianne to learn a womanly grace the easy way, and so she had. What he hadn't counted on was her paying for lessons for himself and Cam as well, lessons the brothers would have done anything for. All three of them learned to use a sword, and after the instructor left to open a school again they also practiced together. But only with wooden swords. Angus and Rianne were both too good, and it took awhile before Cam began to catch up.

"He's talking again about cutting my allowance," Rianne said suddenly, drawing Cam's attention back. "He claims that having too much money to spend ruins a young girl, so he's threatening to cut the allowance down to a mere pittance. If the trustees let him do it - and they just might - I won't be able to keep adding to our fund."

"Why would he do that?" Cam demanded with a frown. "And how can he do it? Isn't the money yours from your father's estate?"

"With Mother dead it is mine, but as my stepfather his word carries a lot of weight with the trustees of the estate," Rianne explained. "They don't know him the way I do, and they also don't know that he's trying to force me into marrying. Not that they would think that was all so terrible. They'd do same thing themselves to see their daughters married."

Cam watched her make a face at the idea, just the way she always did. Rianne had grown into the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, with golden red hair and green-blue eyes that were enough to stop a man's heart, matched to a face and body guaranteed to start it up again. She was breathtaking, maddening - but wanted nothing to do with being married. What she wanted was to be free and on her own, and was even willing to turn her back on all the money and property waiting for her in order to do it.

"I wouldn't worry too much about his threats," Cam told her, trying to bring her smile back. "Since Angus and I already have what clothes and accessories we'll need, we won't need to spend on that. We also have the passage money, so all that's left is the amount of our stake. If we have to go with a smaller stake, well, we'll still make it."

"Oh, Cam, I can always count on you to make me feel better," she said with the smile; he'd been looking for. "And you're right, of course. If it gets to the point where I can't stand 1t any longer, we'll simply pick up and go. If our stake is small, it won't matter in the least. We're going to make our fortunes in America, and no one will be able to stop us."

With the way her beautiful face glowed as she said that, Cam didn't doubt it for a minute. She'd lived with the dream for years, and had made it the dream of Angus and himself as well. All the time she'd taken to teach them to speak the way men of property would, the gold she'd given them to buy the clothes of gentlemen. Rather than face their new lives with hat in hand, they would stand with heads held high and demand a place rather than beg for it. He and Angus would have gone with her even as servants; it had been her choice that they pose as her brothers instead.

"And we may have to go sooner than we thought," Cam put in, wondering how she would take the news. "Angus says the victims of those three desperate highwaymen who have been robbing coaches in this area are wild over having lost their gold. They're screaming to the authorities that something be done to the miscreants and everyone is starting to run in all directions. As soon as they start setting traps, the game is over."

"I'm surprised they haven't yet noticed that only certain people are being stopped and robbed," Rianne said with such a devilish grin that Cam blinked. "All of them being cronies of my stepfather. Did I mention that some of them demanded he reimburse them? They claim they wouldn't have been robbed if they hadn't accepted his invitation to visit, and they have no idea how right they are."

"Ree, I was trying to tell you that we cant keep pushing this," Cam said, attempting to put the sound of authority in his voice. "We've only been at it for a short while,and already everyone is shouting for our blood. No matter how much you're enjoying yourself, you have to remember that hanged people don't do well with starting new lives."

"Then we'll have to be sure we stay unhanged," she answered with a laugh, the glow in her eyes teasing him for his caution. "Although If I had to choose between hanging and going back to the attentions of those … gentlemen, the sight of the rope would begin to be a lot more appealing. But I suppose I do have to go back, at least for a little while. And if we do well enough this afternoon, we may even be able to leave after tomorrow, when all the guests head home."

The idea excited Rianne so much that she got immediately to her feet, kissed Cam's cheek, then headed back toward the house. She would meet the brothers later in the usual place, and after she changed her clothes they would play highwaymen again. Cam shook his head with a sigh as he watched her go, then took himself off to find Angus. Leaving in a day or two might be the best idea after all, and he wanted to talk to his brother about it. Rianne was enjoying herself too much with the very dangerous game they were playing, and if they didn't get her away soon they might find that time had run out faster than they were expecting…

Rianne headed back toward the house, but rather than go all the way around the yards she took a narrow side path through the hedge. She felt wonderfully better after talking to Cam, and didn't care to spoil the mood by returning to the vicinity of her suitors. There wasn't one among them who would have understood what she planned to do and why, let alone join her even half as enthusiastically Angus and Cam had.

The side path led to a pretty little bower, a single stone bench surrounded by vines and flowers and, a bit farther back, yew trees. As she sat on the bench she remembered all the marvelous afternoons she'd spent there, reading books and dreaming. The idea of becoming highwaymen had come from one of those books, the notion of running of running away to the colonies from another. Of course in the books it was men who had done those things, but by including Cam and Angus she was simply stretching the point.

And it's not as if I'll find the life I want by doing nothing more than sitting here, she thought. All those heroes did go to where the ladies were, but she'd been waiting for what felt like forever and no one even remotely resembling a hero had appeared. Which wasn't surprising, when every suitor coming after her had to be approved of by Robert Harding. He didn't want her to have a hero, just a pawn who would obey him the way Rianne never had.

Well, traveling to the colonies would change that. Rianne closed her eyes and raised her smiling face to the warmth of the sun, letting herself slide down into her favorite daydream. She would reach the colonies with her adopted brothers, make her mark as an individual in her own right, and then her hero would appear. He would be so impressed with what she'd done that he would fall immediately in love with her, telling her so almost as soon as they met. And she, knowing his love was real, would not be too shy to say the same, and they would be happy for the rest of their days.

A gentle breeze tickled through Rianne's hair, but she was much too busy enjoying her dream to notice.