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Erienne was somewhat dazzled by the warmth in his voice and failed to devote due attention to the stairs. Her slippered foot partially missed the first step, causing her to stumble and teeter precariously on the brink of a precipitous descent. Her breath froze in her throat, but before she could react, a long arm encircled her waist and yanked her back to safety. Caught against his broad, hard chest, she gasped in breathless relief. Finally, tremblingly, she raised her gaze to the face above her own. Filled with concern, his eyes searched hers until gradually the worry left them, to be replaced by a deeper, smoldering light.
"Miss Fleming . . ."
"Erienne, please." Her whisper was subdued and distant.
Neither of them heard the front door being opened or the mingled masculine voices drifting up from below. They were caught in their own private universe and might have remained there undisturbed for several more moments had not an enraged bellow roused them to abrupt awareness.
"Here now! What's the meanin' o' this?"
Still much in a daze, Erienne pulled away and glanced down to the hall below, where her father and another man stared back in equal amazement. The rapidly darkening, wide-eyed face of Avery Fleming was enough to unsettle her composure, but the thing that really roused doubt about the rightness of her world was the coarse featured visage of the thin, bony stranger who stood beside her parent. He matched her vision of Christopher Seton exactly. All he needed was a large wart on his chin to be her foe incarnate.
Avery Fleming's righteous display of anger fairly shook the house. "I asked ye what's the meanin' o' this!" He gave her no moment to answer before he rantedon. "I leave ye for no more 'an a moment or two an' come back to find ye flauntin' a man in me own . . . You!" Avery threw his hat to the floor, and his sparse hair stood on end. "Be damned! Betrayed in me own house! By me own kin!"
Red-faced with embarrassment, Erienne quickly descended the stairs as she tried to shush her kin. "Please, Father, let me explain . . ."
"Ahhh, ye needn't!" he snarled in derision. "I can see it all with me own eyes! Betrayed, it is! An' by me own daughter!'' He flung up a hand contemptuously toward the man who came down the stairs behind her and sneered, "With this bloody bastard!"
'Father!'' Erienne was shocked at his choice of titles. "This . . ." She also indicated the one descending down the steps. "This is the man you sent. Silas Chambers, I believe."
The raw-faced stranger stepped forward, bobbing his head in a confused, birdlike manner. He jabbed his hat out in front of him to gain their notice and began to stutter, "I . . . I a-a-am, I-I m mean, h-he . . . he's n-not . . . ooof!''
The last was an abrupt exhalation caused by Avery when he stepped forward and flung his arms wide in a gesture of complete disgust. The gaunt man was brushed aside as the father's discomfiture burst in broad display.
"Ye mindless little twit! Have ye lost yer wits? He's not Silas Chambers!'' He thrust a thumb over his shoulder at the bony one. "This one's yer man! Right 'ere!" Then he struck a portly, bowlegged pose and stabbed a stubby finger at the man on the stairs. "'At one! 'At fatherless swine . . ."
Erienne leaned against the wall and shut her eyes tightly. She already knew what her father would say.
". . . 'E's the one what blasted poor Farrell's arm! 'E's yer Mr. Seton! Christopher Seton, it is!"
"Christopher Seton?'' Erienne's lips formed the words, but no sound issued forth. She opened her eyes and searched her father's face as if fervently seeking a denial of what she had heard. Her gaze went to the gawky stranger, and the truth was only too clear. He was no different from the rest of the suitors her father had brought for her consideration.
"You foolish ninny!" Avery continued to berate her. "This is Silas Chambers! Not that conceited scoundrel ye was wrapped up with!"
An expression of stunned horror on her face, Erienne stared up into the green eyes.
Christopher smiled sympathetically. "My apologies, Erienne, but I thought you knew. If you'll remember, I questioned you about it."
The dismay on her face yielded beneath the onslaught of pure rage. She had been duped! And her pride ached for revenge. Hauling back a hand, she let fly a stinging slap to his bronze cheek. " 'Tis Miss Fleming to you!"
Rubbing the side of his face, Christopher Seton laughed softly, his eyes still warm and sparkling. Erienne could not bear his taunting gaze and presented her back to him. He admired it briefly before he lent his attention to her father. "I came to inquire about a debt you promised to make good, sir. I'm wondering when I might expect such an event to take place."
Avery's head lowered sheepishly between his shoulders while his face glowed a bright red. Avoiding Silas's inquisitive stare, he mum bled something about paying the debt as soon as he could.
Christopher stepped into the parlor to retrieve his coat and came back shrugging it into place. "I was hoping you could be a bit more specific than that, Mayor. I don't like to intrude on your hospitality too often, and you did promise to pay me within a month's time. As you must be aware, the month has come and gone."
Avery clenched his hands into tight fists but dared not bring them up from his sides lest the movement be taken as a challenge. "You'd best keep yer moldy presence away from here, Mr. Seton. I won't have the likes o' ye servicin' me daughter. She'll be gettin' married, and I'll not see ye hinderin' the nuptials."
"Ah, yes, I did hear some rumors about that," Christopher replied with a sarcastic smile. "After meeting her, I'm somewhat amazed that you haven't been more successful, though it seems rather unjust that she must pay the rest of her life for a debt you made."
"Me daughter's none o' yer concern!"
Though Silas Chambers had jumped as each word was being shouted, Christopher had held a bland smile on his face. He appeared undaunted as he replied, "I hate to think that she'll be forced into a marriage because of a debt owed to me."
Avery gaped at him in surprise. "Aye? Ye wouldn't be thinkin' o' forgettin' 'bout the debt, now would ye?"
Christopher's laughter dispelled the notion. "Hardly! But I'm not without eyes in my head, and I realize your daughter would be a most charming companion. I'd be willing to wait a bit longer for what is due me if you would allow me to court her." He shrugged casually. "Who knows what might come of it."
Avery nearly strangled over the suggestion. "Blackmail and debauchery! I'd sooner see her dead than taken up with the likes o' ye!"
Christopher considered Silas, who nervously crushed his tricorn against his chest. When he returned his gaze to the mayor, his mockery was subtle yet direct. "Aye, I imagine you would."
Avery blustered under the jibe. He was aware that Silas was not much to look at, but the man had a modest fortune. Besides, his daughter was better off avoiding marriage to a handsome rake who would get her with a brood of brats. Silas would be suitable enough for her needs. But then, after seeing her with this Seton devil, Silas might be hesitant about offering marriage for fear he might be getting tainted goods.
"There be plenty o' suitors willing to pay the bride price," Avery insisted, just in case Silas had any doubts. "Men what are wise enough to see what treasures she'll bring 'em, and not one of 'em abused her kin."
Facing Erienne, Christopher favored her with a lopsided grin. "I suppose this means I won't be welcomed here again?"
"Get out! And don't ever darken this door again!" she cried, fighting tears of anger and humiliation. Her lips curling with contempt, she gave him a scathing perusal. "Were a twisted, scar-faced, hunch backed cripple the only other man on earth, I would surely choose him over you!"
Christopher let his gaze glide down her. "As for me, Erienne, were you cast down before me, I would not be wont to cross over you to get to some broad bovine." He smiled in wry humor as his eyes met hers again. "Twould be pure foolishness to spite myself for the sake of pride."
"Out!" The word was spat from her lips with vengeance as her arm thrust out in the direction of the door.
Christopher gave a curt, mocking bow of compliance and approached the peg which bore his redingote while Avery seized his daughter's arm and jerked her into the parlor.