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Suffolk, England, November 1808
Nothing ever happens here
Lucinda Melville sighed and put down her pen. The casement window of her bedroom was open, allowing crisp winter air to flood in. It brought with it the scent of cold sea mixed with the fragrance of pine, and carried the distant sound of breakers on the shore and the hoot of owls down in the forest. A full moon shone bright in the black sky. It was a night made for romance, but Mrs Melville had no time for that sort of thing.
She picked up her pen again.
Nothing ever happens here But pray do not think that I am complaining, dear Rebecca. I am more than grateful to you for finding me this position with Mrs Saltire. Indeed, I think that when Eustacia marries, as she is set to do in the New Year (to the dull but worthy Mr Leytonstone, just as I predicted), I will seek another governess's post in this locality. Wood-bridge is a charming town. We take tea at the assembly rooms and visit the theatre, provided that the entertainment is not had happened she had no more to tell her childhood friend, Kestrel. Besides, Rebecca and her husband, Lucas, were to their party in a couple of months' time, for Christmas at Kestrel so she would save the rest of her news, such as it was, until then. Lucinda went across to the window and leaned her arms on the resting her chin on her hand as she stared out into the dark. When had first heard from Mrs Saltire that they were to spend autumn the Midwinter villages she had been quite concerned, for everyone that there had been the most scandalously diverting occur-at Midwinter a mere five years before, when the members of dangerous spy ring had been captured. It was not at all the type of that Lucinda thought appropriate for her young charge.
Eustacia Saltire was a sweet girl, but she was deplorably in her inclinations, and Lucinda was very concerned that would become quite over-excited by her proximity to people Lucinda sighed again. It would soon be time for her to start applying for a new post, for Stacey was now betrothed to the worthy but dull Samuel Leytonstone, who had a solid fortune and a manner to match. Secretly Lucinda thought that Stacey could aim higher than a young man who behaved as though he were already in flannel vests, but she kept the unworthy thought to herself. Mr Leytonstone was steady and rich and reliable, and one had to count such matters above trifling things such as passion and gallantry. Lucinda knew all about the dangers of rash youthful passion, and if a tiny part of her still craved excitement she usually managed to ignore it.
Lucinda knew all about Making Do too. In her youth her looks had been no more than tolerabledark blonde hair and cool blue eyes had been unfashionable at the timeand her parents, an indigent vicar and his social climbing wife, had been delighted when she had become engaged straight from the schoolroom. But then the plan had gone awry.
She had been betrothed for four years to her childhood sweet-hearta man who, humiliatingly, appeared to have forgotten her existence as soon as she was out of his sight, a man with dash and brilliance and the prospect of a glittering naval career. Eventually the most appalling of news had filtered its way back to her, conveyed by the gossips and scandalmongers who made it their business to upset as many people as possible. Her betrothed was a criminal. He had abandoned his promising naval career and had taken up instead aswhisper ita pirate.
That was the moment Lucinda's heart had broken. So she had married the first man who asked, had been widowed two years later, and now here she was, at nine and twenty, earning her own living and putting youthful folly firmly where it belongedin the past.
Lucinda spotted a moth that was coming dangerously close to the candle flame. She trapped it gently in her cupped palms and released it out of the window, worrying as soon as it was gone that the night would be too cold for it and it would perish.
As she turned to close the casement a flicker of movement caught her eye, away on the edge of the woods that bordered the garden at Kestrel Court. She stopped, staring into the shadows. The leaves rustled in the slight breeze and the scent of pine mingled with the fresher, salty smell of the sea and the crispness of the frosty night. Lucinda paused, her hand on the window latch. There was no one there. The skipping shadows and her imagination were playing tricks.
At least she hoped so.
But a nasty suspicion had lodged in her mind and would not be shifted. What if it was Stacey, making an assignation with a young man? What ifperish the thoughtStacey was planning an elopement?
Before the dull but rich Mr Leytonstone had proposed, a certain Mr Owen Chance, the Riding Officer stationed in Woodbridge to catch smugglers, had asked Mrs Saltire's permission to pay his addresses to Stacey. Mrs Saltire had refused graciously, politely, but very finally. She had pointed out elegantly that Mr Chance had good birth but no money, and precious little prospect of making any in a backwater like Midwinter. But Owen Chance was a good-looking man, with a charm to match, and, being fair, Lucinda could see that he quite eclipsed poor Mr Leytonstone. One could not imagine Mr Chance in a flannel vest. In fact Lucinda could tell that Stacey had imagined Mr Chance more as a knight on a white charger, and her mother's refusal to countenance his suit made him all the more attractive.
There had been tears when Mrs Saltire had pointed out the financial realities of their situation to her daughter, and then Mr Leytonstone had proposed and been accepted. Stacey had gone very quiet and suspiciously biddable, but Lucinda was not convinced
If Stacey was regretting her betrothal and making midnight assignations with the dashing Mr Chance Well Lucinda shook her head. It would be very foolish because, apart from any issues of propriety, she would catch her death of cold out on a night like this.
It was past twelve and time for bed. Lucinda heard the clock at the bottom of the stairs chime the quarter-hour. Mrs Saltire would be asleep by now, tucked up with her laudanum, and Stacey, whom Lucinda had caught reading Ivanhoe earlier in the day, was probably dreaming of romantic heroes, not creeping out into the grounds of Kestrel Court to meet one.
Nothing ever happens here
Lucinda put up a hand to pull the curtains shut, then paused as the flicker of movement caught her eye again. A man on horseback was riding very slowly down the track that bordered the gardens of Kestrel Court. Lucinda could see his outline in the moonlight. It looked disturbingly like Mr Chance, on the raking bay mare upon which he had caught Stacey's eye in the first place.
A floorboard creaked on the landing, and then there was the sound of a step on the stair. With a sharp sigh Lucinda snatched her cloak from the chairback where she had left it earlier, and flung it about her shoulders. She grabbed the candle from beside her bed, and hurried out into the corridor. It was not the first time that her role as governess had involved her in counselling against an im-provident love affair. She did not want Stacey to ruin herself in a foolish elopement and then rue it for the rest of her days when the love was gone and there was no money on which to live.
The house was silent. A lamp burned in the porch, but the night porter was not at his post, though the front door was unlocked. Deploring such laxity on the part of the servants, Lucinda turned the handle and went outside, down the steps and onto the gravel sweep. Her candle flickered and went out, doused by the sharp sea breeze. For a moment she blinked in the sudden darkness, but then her eyes adjusted to the moonlight and she could see a figure slipping between the trees in the lee of the park wall. At the same time she heard the sound of hooves on the frosty ground. Could that be Mr Chance, coming to carry off his bride? Lucinda screwed up her face as she imagined Mrs Saltire's hysterics when she discovered that her little ewe lamb had thrown herself away on a pauper.
She hastened after the fleeing figure, but Staceyif it were shehad already lost herself amongst the trees that bordered the park. The night was quiet now. Suspiciously so. Lucinda held her breath, straining to hear any sound that might give her quarry away, but there was nothing except the wind in the top of the pines and the distant beat of the waves on the shore.
Perhaps she had been mistaken. Perhaps Stacey really was tucked up in bed. It was a servant she had heard on the stair and she was out here chasing shadows. The cold was eating deep into her bones now. It was no night for an elopement. Feeling foolish, Lucinda turned to go back to the house.
The moon went behind a cloud, but in the moment before it disappeared Lucinda clearly saw a man crouching in the lee of the park gatesand in the same instant she saw what he could not: the menacing shadow of the Riding Officer moving silently along the wall, coming closer all the time. She caught her breath on a gasp, and the hidden man turned his head at the sound. With a shock of recognition Lucinda knew him.
Terror and amazement jolted through her. Past and present collided violently. Lucinda started to tremble. She could see that the man had spotted her and was about to speak; she saw too that Owen Chance was urging his horse forward silently, every sense alert for the slightest sound.
Lucinda acted on instinct. She raised a finger to her lips in a beseeching gesture and saw the fugitive pause, and then she was beside him in one silent move, clapping her hand over his mouth. She pulled him deeper into the shadow of the gate and leaned forward to whisper in his ear.
'Be silent! There is an excise man on the other side of the wall.' Touching him as she was, she could feel the tension that ripped through his body at her words. Every muscle he possessed was taut and ready for flightor fight. He moved slightly, silently, to grasp the pistol in his belt.
Lucinda eased her hand from his mouth and rested it warningly on his shoulder. They were both utterly still. She could not even hear his breathing. But she was more aware of him than she had ever been of any other person in her life. She was pressed against the unyielding lines of his back. She could feel the warmth of his skin and she could smell him, a scent of fresh air and salt and leather that went straight to her head and made her senses spin, and also made her wonder, quite outrageously, if he tasted of the sea as well.
The tension spun tight as a web and seemed to last for ever, and then there was a chink of harness. She heard Owen Chance swear softly, and the horse snorted as he pulled on the rein. The shadows shifted and the horse and rider turned towards the Woodbridge road to be were swallowed up in the darkness. The frost glittered on the road behind them. Lucinda released the man and stood up slowly, every muscle in her body protesting at being clenched so tight.
The man got to his feet and they stood looking at each other in the moonlight. Lucinda felt breathlessa natural enough condition, she assured herself, since she had forgotten to breathe during the entire encounter. Twelve long years slipped away as though they had never been, and she was a young girl again, fathoms deep in her first love. She had thought never to see this man again
'So ' he said. His voice was smooth. 'I must thank you for saving my skin. I had no notion that he was there.'He shook his head ruefully. 'Muffling the horse's hooves is an old trick. I cannot believe it almost caught me.'
'You should be more careful,' Lucinda said. She was glad that her voice sounded so calm when inside she was trembling. Did he not recognise her? Had she changed so much? It seemed impossible that he would not know her when she had known him instantly. A spasm of bitterness twisted within her. Perhaps it was not so surprising. He had, after all, forgotten her as soon as he had walked out of her life. Why would he remember her now?
She saw his teeth flash white as he smiled. 'I will take your advice in future. But you, mistress What made you decide to help me when ninety-nine of one hundred females would have screamed loud enough to bring every last Riding Officer in the vicinity down on me?'
Lucinda regarded him steadily. She was not entirely sure why she had helped him when she had reason enough to wish him dead. But instinct, as old and deep as time, had made her save him rather than condemn him, and she did not want to question why.
'I did it for the sake of your sister, Daniel de Lancey,' she said, reaching for an acceptable half-truth. 'Rebecca would not wish me to condemn you to hang if I could save your neck.'
He went very still. 'Do I know you?'
'You did once,' Lucinda said.
He took her chin in his hand and turned her face up to the moonlight, and Lucinda took the opportunity to study him as candidly as he was scrutinising her. He had not changed so much from the young man she had last seen twelve years before. He still had intensely dark hair, untouched with grey, and dark eyes that had once bewitched every young lady in the countyeyes so black she had once imagined fancifully that they were darker than midnight. Differences were there, though. His face was leaner than she remembered, hardened, perhaps, by experience and adversitythe line of the jaw harsh, the mouth firm. And he was no longer the lanky youth he had once been, but had filled out with hard muscle beneath his coat, so that his shoulders were broad and he seemed taller, tougher, altogether more dangerous.
Her skin prickled with awareness beneath his fingers. Emotions stirred. Old memories She had been so young, only seventeen, but there had been nothing childish about her feelings for Daniel de Lancey. He had been her first loveher only love, if she were honest. And she had never forgotten him, not even when humiliation and pride had flayed her alive, and common sense and practicality and every sound, rational reason she could ever come up with had prompted her to let his memory go.
He pursed his lips into a soundless whistle. 'Lucy Spring By all that's miraculous ' There was something in his eyes, something of nostalgia laced with a wickedness that made her heart turn over. But she was a sensible widow now, not a lovestruck young girl who would fall for his shallow charm a second time.
'Lucinda Melville,' she corrected primly.
His hand fell. 'Of course. I heard that you had wed. You did not wait for me as you promised.'