Two cloaked figures furtively tiptoed down the stairs and through the hall. The back door opened with a slight squeak as they slipped outside. The two figures hurried toward the waiting carriage, which lost no time in speeding through the sleeping London city as the rosy fingers of dawn trailed its painted veil across the horizon.
Miss Fiona Cavendish let out the breath she had been holding in a long-drawn-out sigh as she pulled her cape closer in the dark carriage. She turned her bright eyes and wide smile to the other occupant of the carriage.
“We’ve done it, Marcie. Soon we will be in Scotland at my Uncle Henry’s house, and there we will stay until Ted returns from the war.”
Her maid and abigail, Marcie Hinckley, slumped and yawned. “Miss, what if your cousin finds out and tries to bring you back?”
“She has no way of knowing where we are bound, so she cannot very well find us, can she?”
“What about Mr. Harry? Won’t he be angry?”
“I don’t care much about Cousin Harry’s anger. He is the reason I have had to flee my home.”
“But miss, what if Master Ted were to come back . . . wouldn’t he be worried?”
“Marcie, when my brother returns, then all my worries are over, and I will be the happiest girl in England. So, stop worrying and get some rest.”
Marcie looked dubious. Smoothing the folds of her fur-lined pelisse, Fiona sighed and gazed out of the window as they left London behind on their way north. Her thoughts wandered to her brother. He was not dead, she knew that in her heart, but he must be hurt or taken prisoner, for otherwise, he would have written her. Oh Lord, please let him come back to me, she said the oft-repeated prayer in her mind. After having lost her parents at the tender age of fourteen, she couldn’t bear to lose her only surviving family member.
Tears pricked her eyes as she remembered the happy times when her parents had still been alive. After their death, Cousin Sadie, Mama’s cousin, had come to live with them with her son, Harry. The death of his parents had affected Ted deeply, and he had returned from university a changed man. He had taken residence at Red Oaks, his country estate. Cousin Sadie had seen fit to send Fiona to a finishing school for ladies, and she had only seen Ted during the holidays. By the time she had returned home for her debut into polite society, he had left to join the war effort. Despite seeing so little of him the last few years, the bond between brother and sister had only grown stronger, and they had corresponded with regularity until a few months ago when Ted’s letters had abruptly ceased to arrive. It was true that the post was unpredictable and that it took months to reach her, but he had corresponded most regularly until then. Worse, none of the officers returning from the war could tell her any news about him. He was reported missing in action, but Fiona had not given up hope. I would know if he were dead. If only he would come back, she would not have to flee her own home. Sighing, Fiona closed her eyes wearily. The motion of the carriage made her drowsy, and she fell asleep.
She woke up with a start when the carriage stopped some hours later. Looking out the window, she saw a small hostelry, with a sign outside proclaiming it to be the Wandering Goose Inn. The hostlers were milling about, taking care of the horses. The sun was shining brightly overhead. A rumble in her stomach reminded her that they hadn’t breakfasted. After rousing the sleeping Marcie, she made her way into the inn.
Soon they were ensconced in a private parlor and enjoying a simple lunch of bread and cheeses and piping hot tea. The food revived them and even set Marcie to start smiling. But their lunch was interrupted when a flurry of activity indicated that another carriage had pulled up behind her own.
Through her parlor window, Fiona watched with interest as a dark-haired man alighted and, after a word to one of the hostlers, made his way into the inn. His broad shoulders and height proclaimed him a Corinthian. His attire, which was of the best quality and rather somber, made him out to be a gentleman. As if aware of her appraisal, he turned and looked back at her. Dark eyes pierced her own, under an eyebrow that was raised in question. His mouth quirked in a cynical smile. He was not at all handsome but rather grim looking, she decided. Under the sharp onslaught of his eyes, her own wavered and dropped as heat painted her cheeks a vivid crimson. Her confusion was fortunately not noticed by Marcie, who had gone to tidy herself up. When she returned, the two ladies boarded their carriage and resumed their journey north.
“What is your plan, miss?” Marcie asked her mistress.
“As I have said, I just want to get to my uncle’s estate in Scotland, Marcie,” Fiona responded mechanically, her thoughts still on the stranger she had spied at the inn.
“How long should we stay there, miss?” Marcie persisted.
“Until I marry or Ted returns, whichever comes first.”
“Miss, you have had eight offers so far. Did none of them suit?”
“Marcie, I will only marry a man whom I love and who loves me for my mind, not just my face and my wealth. And to date, my suitors have been either gold diggers, ancient, widowers, insipid bores, chauvinistic pigs, or, of course, Harry Albrighton!” Fiona said this last name with so much aspersion that Marcie burst into giggles.
“Master Harry was persistent, wasn’t he, miss?”
“He was a pest! It’s because of him and his mother, Cousin Sadie, that I have had to leave my own home. They have had the audacity not only to make themselves my guardians in Ted’s absence but also to push Harry’s interests on me! Now that is truly intolerable.”
“But miss, what if Master Ted does not come before your birthday?”
“He will, Marcie, he must!” Fiona cried out loudly as if her voice could ensure her dear brother’s return. If Ted were not to return by the time her birthday rolled around in a month, Fiona faced an impossible choice. Her maternal grandmother had left her a fortune that would allow her to be independent of Harry and Cousin Sadie, but the fortune was hers only if she married before her twenty-first birthday. If not, it reverted to Ted, and hence to Harry as Ted’s heir. She would be penniless and at the mercy of Harry Albrighton. If Ted did not return before her birthday, then Fiona would have to choose a husband and enter a loveless marriage. Her emotional response silenced Marcie, and Fiona settled back on the cushions and fell into a reverie. Her mind replayed the unpleasant scene with Harry that had prompted her impulsive departure from her beloved home.
“Fiona, you must see the benefits that an alliance with me offers. I am Ted’s heir, and as my wife, you can continue to live in your family home. We know each other well and so will suit just fine,” Harry had wheedled until she had lost her temper.
“I cannot possibly marry you.” Fiona’s voice rose in frustration as she repeated the words for the fourth time. “I am determined that I will only marry for love or not at all.”
The oily smile on Harry Albrighton’s face diminished but did not disappear. “Fiona, my dear, I do love you, and you will come to love me if you would only give me the chance to prove to you that I am worthy of you.”
“Do stand up, Harry. No matter! I will not marry until Ted returns.”
Harry Albrighton did as she asked and moved to perch on the sofa next to her. “Fiona, I know this is difficult for you, but we must accept that Ted may never return.”
His words induced unbidden tears in Fiona’s eyes, and she cast them down. She saw that he planned to draw her into his arms so she may weep on his shoulder. She thwarted him by instead standing and moving to the window of the luxurious parlor. “Ted will return, and I will not hear otherwise.”
“Fiona, if you will not see reason, as your guardian and the head of this household, I must act on your behalf. My dear cousin, you are now twenty and are of marriageable age, yet have turned down no fewer than eight offers, not including my own.”
As if on cue, her cousin Sadie entered the parlor just then. Fiona suspected that she may have been listening at the door. She shook her head, trying to dismiss the uncharitable thought. However, she had cause to be upset with Cousin Sadie and Harry. It wasn’t that Cousin Sadie was unkind, but she expected Fiona to fit the mold of the debutante: pretty, girly, and with the sole aim in life of marrying the highest-ranking suitor.
Cousin Sadie was Papa’s distant relative who had moved in to take care of Fiona and her brother, Ted, after their parents’ demise. She and her son, Harry, had made their permanent home with them. Harry was a year younger than Ted and immensely admired him. The two of them had attended first Eton and then Cambridge together. Fiona’s parents had died a few years ago in a carriage accident and left Fiona and Ted orphaned.
Though Harry had grown up with Ted and Fiona, they were so different that they never bonded. Harry had many annoying qualities that did not endear him to his cousins. They especially abhorred his whiny ways and the way he twisted the truth just to make himself look better to his mother. The orphaned siblings merely tolerated Harry for the sake of Cousin Sadie and usually gave him a wide berth. When Ted left on his war effort, Harry had inserted himself into Fiona’s life and tried to control her activities. And he had recently been pressuring her to get married and coaxing his mother to aid him in this endeavor. Between the dour looks and barbed references to ungrateful chits from Cousin Sadie and the incessant pressure from Harry, life at home had become a nightmare.
He had assumed command of the household, controlling Ted’s estate and, by extension, Fiona’s freedom. Fiona would not come into her full inheritance unless she married by the age of twenty-one. Until then, or if she failed to marry by then, she would receive only an allowance at the discretion of her trustee, Ted. In Ted’s absence, Harry had judgment over her allowance, and he threatened to cut her off completely if she failed to get married.
Fiona, who prided herself on being an independent young lady with a mind of her own, found the situation unbearable. She had long since decided she would marry only for love. Having reached the advanced age of twenty without being wed, she had disappointed Cousin Sadie, who considered it her own personal failure for not succeeding in launching her. Fiona had refused a formal coming out in her brother’s absence, but even so, there wasn’t a lack of offers for her hand. It was well known that she was an heiress in her own right, standing to inherit considerable wealth from her maternal grandmother. Fiona had turned down no fewer than eight offers. To add fuel to the already stressful situation, Harry had started wooing her as well. Fiona had indicated to her cousin that she would only wed when Ted returned. With no news from Ted in months, Harry’s offers had become more and more insistent. As Ted never married, Harry was the next in line to inherit his title when Ted died.
“Did I hear mention of an offer?” Cousin Sadie asked as she seated her purple-clad, massive self on the most comfortable chair in the room. She reached for a box of bonbons that rested on an occasional table nearby. “Are congratulations in order?”
“Not quite yet, Mama.” Harry smiled at his parent indulgently. “Fiona has only agreed to give some thought to my offer. Isn’t that right, Fiona?” Fiona had no chance to object to this before Cousin Sadie started listing all her son’s sterling characteristics. It was a list she had heard many times before and could probably recite by heart.
Harry was not a bad-looking man. He was of average height with a slight build and a weak chin. He had light-brown hair that molded his scalp and pale-blue eyes that Fiona always thought looked fishlike. His clothes were always from the best tailors. In addition to both sporting a slight mustache and affecting a monocle, he had taken to wearing many fobs and chains on his person. Therefore, she could be forgiven for thinking him a dandy. She had no intention of ever marrying him; even the thought of it made her sick.
“I am not feeling too well, I think I will go lie down,” she said, interrupting Cousin Sadie’s monologue, and before her cousin could object, she left the room, closing the door with a decided bang. Making her way upstairs to her room, she closed that door with a louder bang that made Marcie, who was ironing one of her gowns, start and look up in alarm.
“Whatever is the matter, miss?”
“I can’t bear it anymore, Marcie.” Fiona threw herself into a chair, sighing in frustration. “Cousin Sadie is insufferable and Harry . . .” She paused, looking for an adjective that would best describe her cousin, and not finding one, settled on “slimy.”
Marcie stared at her; anxiety written all over her plump face. Fiona, knowing that she had alarmed her maid who was known to have fits of vapors, took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down.
“We are leaving, Marcie. Tomorrow.” Fiona sat down at her escritoire and penned a short note in her graceful hand. She folded the note and handed it to Marcie. “Take this to Jim Coachman. Then come back to me posthaste. We have packing to do.”
Marcie gaped at her open-mouthed as if two horns had sprouted on her head.
Fiona snapped a finger at her maid. “Off you go. I will explain everything when you return,” she said, knowing her maid well enough to know that her curiosity would prevent her from dawdling.
As soon as the door closed behind Marcie, Fiona opened her armoire and started pulling out dresses and hats and laid them on the bed. She would need to prepare for the unpredictable weather.
The carriage wheels jolted over a rut in the road, rousing Fiona from her reverie. Is it fair to involve Marcie and Jim Coachman in this madcap enterprise? The question popped into her head as she quelled the increasing anxiety brought on by the impulsive act of running away from her home. What choice did she have? Harry as Ted’s heir controlled the purse strings in Ted’s absence. In addition, after having had to turn down so many suitors, she had plunged into a self-imposed solitude, as it didn’t seem right to enjoy the gaiety of the ton parties when Ted could be dying or worse in some foreign land. She had borne it as long as she could, but Harry's last proposal had been the final straw. Then and there she had decided to run away to Scotland to her maternal uncle’s house and remain there until Ted’s return. If all went well, she would be in Scotland by the end of the week, safe with her uncle and free of pests such as Harry. If only I can get there without Harry stopping me, I will be safe. Ted will return soon! I know it!
The pitter-patter of raindrops interrupted her contemplation. She saw with alarm that the sun, which had heralded their progress until then, had disappeared behind a thick veil of clouds. Hoping it was just a passing storm, she continued to look through the windows at the scenery that turned drab and grey in the dimming light. Her hopes were soon dashed as it turned into a deluge. Winds rocked their little carriage as the weather continued to deteriorate.
Jim Coachman stuck his head in. “Should we stop at the next hostelry and wait it out, miss?”
“No, Jim Coachman. Let’s get as far as we can before it gets dark. If the storm continues, we can stop and spend the night at an inn and continue in the morning.” She prayed that the storm would soon blow over. If they stopped now, Harry’s men might catch up with them and force her to return to London. I will not go back!
The carriage traveled on in the rutted, muddy roads, braving the storm. The storm grew in force, and it started to hail. The vehicle was buffeted and shook with the impact of the hailstones. The carriage, which had been going at a reasonable speed, began to slow down. Looking out, Fiona saw that the road was barely visible under the puddles and mud. As she watched, the storm picked up in strength, and the two girls clung to the seats. Thunder cracked around them, and lightning flashed at intervals. Marcie huddled in a corner of the coach with tightly closed eyes, her lips moving as she whispered the same plea over and over: “Oh Lord!”
There was a bright flash followed by a crack like a loud whip and then a resounding crash. Marcie jumped and cowered, quaking like a leaf. Fiona leaned outside in apprehension in time to see the terrified horses rear up, making the carriage lurch. Fiona was hurled across the seat to the other side as the carriage teetered. She felt the vehicle jostle and shudder. The team has run off the road! she thought just as her head made contact with the side of the carriage, and she sank into blissful oblivion.
Fiona awoke to a feeling of disembodiment. Rain was falling over her, and she was lying on wet grass. A man, whose hat was dripping water over her face, leaned over her. He was saying something she couldn’t quite make out. She tried to raise herself up but sank back when her head swam.
“Stay still, ma’am. You don’t appear visibly hurt, but I cannot be sure.” The voice sounded authoritative.
Obeying the command, Fiona sank back on the wet ground. She drifted in and out of consciousness. At one point, she was aware of being lifted by strong arms that carried her to a waiting carriage and deposited her on the luxurious seat. Drenched to her skin, Fiona shivered and hugged herself, thankful to be out of the rain. Her head hurt when she tried to recollect what had happened. The carriage door opened, and her rescuer returned, carrying an unconscious Marcie and depositing her gently next to her mistress. The door closed with a snap before she could voice her questions. Fiona peered anxiously at her maid but couldn’t see in the dim light if she had been badly hurt. A few minutes later, the carriage door opened yet again, and this time Jim Coachman appeared at the opening, supported by two men. The men helped the battered coachman to a seat and lifted his left leg onto the bench in front of him. In a flash of lightning, Fiona saw the bleeding gash on the elderly retainer’s forehead. The coachman moaned softly as he was settled in. After a few more minutes of delay, they were off. Fiona was too tired to question anything, but she noted with gratitude that her rescuer had chosen to ride on the box with his coachman to give them more room inside.
She must have drifted off again, because when she next opened her eyes, the coach had stopped, and there were sounds of activity all around. The carriage door jerked open, and two men appeared in the opening. Without a word to her, they placed supportive arms around a moaning Jim Coachman and helped him down from the carriage. Fiona tried to see where they were taking him, but all she could see was the outline of a distant house in the unrelenting rain. Marcie appeared to be still unconscious. Fiona sat up as another man entered the carriage and prepared to carry Marcie. “Where is this place?” she asked him.
“Crossfields is the home of Lord Sheffield,” came the muffled reply as the man and Marcie disappeared from sight.
Fiona sat frozen in shock. Not Sheffield! The carriage door opened, and in the dim light, she recognized the man from the Wandering Goose Inn.
“Care to alight, ma'am?” He extended his hand.
She stared at him in consternation. This was quite the pickle to be in. After running away from home to avoid the advances of one rake, she had ended up in the hands of the most notorious rake of all! The man was known to her by reputation only, though at one time he had been a close friend of dear Ted. However, their relationship had suffered, and to make matters worse, Lord Sheffield had wounded Ted in a duel! She quailed at the thought of accepting aid from one such as him.
His smile faltered. “Well, ma’am? I don’t have all night.”
“Lord Sheffield? I cannot possibly come to your house,” she blurted.
“Not overwhelmed by gratitude, I see,” he drawled. His sardonic expression told her that he had correctly interpreted her reaction to his identity. “I am not in the mood to ravage muddy, soaked maidens today, so you may be at ease that your virtue is safe with me, ma’am.”
Her face reddened further at his crude remarks. “No, you don’t understand, sir! I am Fiona Cavendish. Edward Cavendish is my brother.”
The man stared at her in disbelief. “Oh! Good God! What a damned mess!” She heard him swear under his breath. Her head hurt, and the shock of the accident made it impossible for her to think straight. She stared at him wordlessly, trying to find a way out of the unbearable situation. He appeared to come to a decision. “There is nothing for it but that you must take shelter at my house tonight.”
Fiona shook her head. “No! I will not! My brother will be most distressed. Please take me and my people to the nearest posting house, I beg you.”
“Your brother is not here, and you must be addle-witted to suppose that I will allow my coachman or cattle to drive anywhere in this weather. You may have no concern for the well-being of your staff, as is evident in the fact that you chose to be out on the road on a night like this, but I value the lives of my people. I will be damned if I am going to stand in the rain and argue with you. Please alight and let me show you into the house.”
Fiona shook her head stubbornly. “I will not set foot in your house willingly, my lord.”
“Very well then, let it be noted that you came into my house most unwillingly.” Without preamble, he picked her up as if she were a child and carried her from the carriage. A footman hovered beside them, protecting them with an umbrella as his lordship strode purposefully into the house.
Fiona was too surprised to protest until she saw that he was not setting her down in the hall as she expected and instead was carrying her up the stairs. She then struggled furiously against him. “Put me down at once. Where are you taking me?” Her voice sounded querulous to her own ears.
“Why, to bed of course,” he replied, innuendo dripping in his cynical voice, and he leered at her dramatically, all the while ignoring her protests and struggles. He strode on up the stairs, not pausing until he reached a door that a footman threw open. He then strode into a bedchamber and deposited her on the bed. With a mocking salute, he turned and left, leaving her to stare openmouthed at the closed door.
Fiona was too stunned to move for some moments. A drop of water dripped from her hair onto her nose and reminded her that she was soaked. Scrambling off the bed, she moved close to the fire that was burning in the hearth. She wasn’t sure if it was the cold and wet clothes that made her shiver or the reaction to the day’s events.
A little later, a maid appeared with hot water and a very welcome tea tray. “My name’s Elsie,” she said shyly. “If it pleases you, miss, I can help you out of those wet things, and then you can have this nice tea that Mrs. Pork has sent up just for you.”
Elsie matched word to the action, and in no time, Fiona had washed up and was clad in a robe. Elsie then insisted that she get into bed. After the covers were arranged to Elsie’s approval, the tea tray was set on the bed with instructions for Fiona to ring if she needed anything, and the maid left Fiona to her tea and thoughts.
After two cups of hot tea, Fiona felt much restored. Too tired to think, she set aside the tea tray, and pulling up the blankets, she nestled into the bed. I’ll deal with his lordship on the morrow. He can’t keep me here against my will! she told herself before she fell asleep.