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In one terrifying instant, Charlotte Tarant's safe, unpampered world is gone. But her timely rescue doesn't come without a price. Her mysterious savior vanishes, leaving Charlotte with a powerful sense of loss--until the day she meets an aristocrat named Sir Anthony Foxearth. Ads in Romantic Times. Original.
Cornwall, April 18, 1829
When the large traveling coach suddenly increased its speed on the narrow cliff road, the monkey was the first of its dozing passengers to waken. His bristly round head popped out of his small mistress's large fur muff. Round, inquisitive shoe-button eyes glinted alertly in light from the gibbous moon hovering over the British Channel and the perilous south coast of Cornwall. The monkey cocked its head, listening.
Lady Letitia Ophelia Deverill, a child with nine whole summers behind her, was the next to stir. Her eyes slitted, blinked sleepily, then opened wide. When the monkey began to chatter nervously, she held it closer, murmuring, "Hush, Jeremiah, it's all right." Looking out the nearby coach window, however, she gasped and added less confidently, "I think it's all right."
Beside her, twenty-four-year-old Miss Charlotte Tarrant shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, which was no easy task after days of lurching travel with three other persons and a monkey in the close, albeit luxurious, confines of the coach. Inadvertently, she stepped on her father's foot.
Charles Tarrant muttered, moved his foot, and opened one eye to glare at her.
The carriage rounded a slight bend, and moonlight streamed inside, so that when Charlotte opened her eyes, she saw his expression clearly. Smiling ruefully, she said, "Sorry, Papa. Letty," she added when Charles shut his eyes again, "Whatever is the matter with Jeremiah?"
"I-I don't know, Cousin Charley, but are we not going rather fast? I just looked out the window, and all I can see is the sea, very far down."
Charley leaned across the child to look out the window. She and Letty occupied the forward seat, facing Charley's parents. Her mother, Davina, wakened, frowning.
"Gracious me, Charles," she said, "this carriage is swaying like the Royal Mail! Do tell John Coachman to slow down before he has us over the cliff!"
As Charles reached forward to knock on the ceiling of the coach, a shot rang out, followed by others. The coach moved even faster.
"Highwaymen," Davina screamed. "Robbers! Oh, Charles, where is your pistol? Why did we not go through Launceston? Oh, why did we not hire a guard?"
Charles snapped, "We didn't go by way of Launceston, my dear, because you insisted that we take a look at the Plymouth house, that's why. And we did not stay the night in Looe, which would have been the sensible course, because you don't like to travel on Sunday and thought we could reach Tuscombe Park tonight. Why anyone of sense would want to drive the Polperro Road, ever, let alone in the dark of night—"
Searching through her satchel, Charley interjected calmly, "But we are here. Ah, here it is. I've got my pistol, Mama, and the big one is in the holster by Papa's door, where it is always kept. John Coachman must have seen them following us, which is why he increased his pace. But with only two horses, and on this of all roads, it is a stupid thing to do. Shout at him to pull up, Papa. We can deal with highwaymen, but if we should go off the road or lose a wheel—"
As if thought had given birth to reality, the coach bounced heavily over a rock, and with a screeching crack, the left hind wheel broke off its axle. Had it happened scant moments before, the carriage would have plunged a hundred feet to jagged, surf-frothed rocks below. But they had reached the rugged, unfriendly slope of Seacourt Head, a jutting triangular headland that formed the east boundary of St. Merryn's Bay.
When the wheel broke, the coachman did his best, but the coach was traveling too fast. Swerving, it lurched off the road, and he could not regain control. After a few awkward bumps, forward action ceased and the heavily laden coach began to roll ominously backward down the steep slope of the headland.
The horses strained, but the coach was too heavy. It dragged them backward, faster and faster, inexorably nearer the edge, until it caught on boulders and toppled over sideways, skidding briefly, then rolling. The horses screamed in panic.
In the tangle of bodies inside, Charley dropped the pistol she had snatched from her satchel and clung tightly to her small cousin. Windows broke, and dust and glass rained over them when first one side, then the other, hit the rocky ground. The nearside door flew open, and when the vehicle hit the ground again, Charley and Letty shot out.
Landing hard on her back against a steep slope of loose scree, with Letty on top of her, Charley felt herself sliding. She heard a sickening scrape of coach against rocks, her father's panicked shouts and her mother's screams, echoed by those of the horses. The sounds faded until she heard a distant, crunching thud, then, except for the sound of the surf far below, there was silence. Still sliding toward the brink over which the coach had plunged, she tried to dig her heels into the loose scree.
Letty struggled to free herself. Tightening her grip, Charley muttered, "Be still." She scrabbled wildly with her free hand, desperately seeking a handhold, anything to stop their fatal slide toward the precipice.
The surf rolled out again, providing a few seconds of near silence. From his lookout position, crouched in a cluster of boulders just above the tidemark on the beach they called Devil's Sand, Antony heard a coach above him on the cliff road, then gunshots. Raising his eyes heavenward, he blessed the cliff overhang—the same steep overhang he had cursed an hour earlier when he feared he had misjudged the tide and might be trapped by the unpredictable waves. Several times he had reminded himself that the caves just up the beach were dry enough to store smuggled goods. But as the water inched nearer, and the moon finally slipped behind clouds that his comrades had expected to hide it much earlier, darkness and the noise of the surf stirred a primordial fear that had taken much of his overtaxed resolution to defeat. Now, with the moon's reappearance, he had new worries. Smugglers did not welcome moonlight.
At the same time that he blessed the overhang that would protect him if the fast-moving coach plunged off the road, he spared a thought for the passengers and horses. He had not spent so much time alone that he did not still think of others, although he doubted he would ever again feel the same magnitude of caring and compassion he had felt for family and friends in long-ago days, before his emotions withered and died. When they cast him off for disgracing them with his "unsportsmanlike activities" during the unpleasantness with Bonaparte, the break had devastated him. He grieved for them then as if they all had died. Memory of the expression on Harry Livingston's face three weeks before, when Harry rebuked him for missing his father's funeral, brought only a sigh of depression now. He had felt nothing at learning of his father's death, all bereavement spent long before, after his father gave him the cut direct in front of everyone at Brooks's Club in London. The wrenching pain of that moment stirred again, then vanished instantly amid panicked screams of horses and humans. The noise of the surf had muffled sound from above, but he heard the screech of coachwork on rocks somewhere near the headland at the west end of Devil's Sand. Then more horrible screams, a muffled crash on the beach, and silence.
Charley's skirt and cloak were caught up around her, pinning her legs together, making it nearly impossible to dig the heels of her half boots into the unstable mass beneath her. When she banged the back of her hand against a boulder, she managed to catch hold of the rock, breaking fingernails and crying out at the pain when one ripped below the quick. Feeling the wriggling body atop hers lurch awkwardly forward, almost making her lose her tenuous hold, she nearly snapped at the child to be still before she realized they had stopped sliding.
"I haven't got a good hold," Letty said matter-of-factly, "but I think it would be wise to wait till the moon comes out again before I try to gain better purchase."
Aware that her own grip on the rough boulder was not reliable, Charley realized that until that moment she had not missed the moonlight. It was much darker than it had been before. She wondered if that was why she had not actually seen the coach topple over the edge, or if she had simply been too concerned about herself and Letty to notice. Knowing the two of them were far from being safe, she thrust aside all thought of the horror that had overtaken them. Whatever had happened below, she could do nothing about it now. She was not even certain she would be able to do much about her own predicament, but at least she and Letty were still alive. If they slid over the edge, their chances of remaining in that condition were small. The worst of it was that she did not know how near they were to the precipice.
Letty stirred uncomfortably. "Cousin Charley—"
"Hush," Charley said, for another sound had reached her sharp ears from above. She nearly called out before she realized that the most likely persons to be at the cliff's edge were the highwaymen. Giving thanks for the clouds that hid the moon, she wondered how long they would do so. Already, she could see silver ribbons of moonlight edging them. The cloak she wore was her favorite dark sapphire blue, to match her eyes, and she knew that the nearby rocks and slope were dark in more places than they were light, so she had reason to hope the men would not see them.
Close to her ear, Letty murmured, "Won't they help us?"
Deciding that if the child had not given way to hysterics yet, she would not do so, Charley did not mince words. "No, darling, they won't. They caused the accident, and we could speak against them to the authorities, so they dare not let us see their faces. We must keep very still and hope they don't see us."
"My cloak is gray," Letty whispered, "but they might see my hair when the moon peeks out again."
"Pull your cloak up," Charley whispered back, realizing that the child's bright carrot-colored mop of curls might well gleam like a beacon. "Move slowly, and don't let go of that boulder if you can help it. I think if I don't move, we won't slide any more, but it's best to be careful until we can be certain. Curl up so your cloak covers all of you. And keep very still."
"I don't think they can hear us," Letty muttered. "I can barely hear their voices, or their horses."
"No, but sound travels up better than down, I think, and the more quiet we are the less likely we are to draw their notice."
Letty was silent. Moving slowly and cautiously, she curled into a ball with her cloak covering her. Just before she grew still again and silver moonlight touched the rocks around them, a piece of wool flopped over Charley's face.
She heard the men's voices again. Her hearing was acute, but she could not make out their words, nor did she think she would know the voices if she heard them again. The light faded, but Charley and Letty kept perfectly still.
Charley was astonished by her small cousin's presence of mind. She did not know Letty well, for the child had spent her entire life on the Continent. Though only nine, she was an expert horsewoman and more accustomed than most children her age to conversing with adults. Her parents, unlike most, had not relegated their children to the care of nurses and governesses, but spent a good deal of time with them, and enjoyed their company. Lord Abreston, heir to the Marquessate of Jervaulx, having served with distinction as a brigade major in Wellington's Army, presently held a diplomatic position with the British Embassy in Paris, a fact that both amused and astonished those well acquainted with Daintry, his outspoken wife. The couple had retained close ties to their home, however, and their two sons—both younger than Letty—would soon return to England for school. Letty herself was in England now to begin a six-months' visit to her mama's family at Tuscombe Park, but this, Charley told herself grimly, was not the introduction to Cornwall that her Aunt Daintry had intended the child to enjoy.
Antony hesitated only long enough after hearing the crash to peer through the darkness toward the sea. Still no signal, but he dared not leave lantern or tinderbox behind. Snatching them both up, he raced along the shingle to the broken carriage. Both horses were clearly dead, which was just as well, he thought. He could not bear to see animals suffer, but he could not have risked a gunshot down here and the mere thought of using his knife to put them out of their misery made him feel ill.
A moan from the carriage snapped his head around. He had not thought anyone could live through such an accident. The moon peeked out again, and he went still, knowing he might be seen from above. Slowly he tilted his head up, keeping one gloved hand over his face so the moon could not reveal it. Whoever had fired the shots he had heard earlier might well be peering down at him.
He realized quickly that even if they were up there, they would not see him unless they climbed out onto the headland, and the portion that overlooked his position was exceedingly treacherous. On the far side, facing St. Merryn's Bay, the slope was less precipitous. There was even a road leading to the point, where a lovely big house perched, enjoying a broad, sweeping view of St. Merryn's Bay and the Channel.
Even as these thoughts flew through his mind he stooped over the wreckage, trying to see past broken bits of coach to what lay within. He dared not risk a light, and the fickle moon had slipped behind another cloud. The moan came again, faintly. He moved a piece of the wreckage and found a man's crushed and broken body. The moans were not coming from him.
Moving with more care than ever, Antony shifted another piece of the carriage, and pale silvery light revealed a woman. She was badly injured, and he saw at once that there was nothing he could do to help her. She opened her eyes.
"Charley?" The word was clear but faint. When she tried to speak again, she could not.
Antony took her hand, wanting only to give her comfort. "I'm here," he said gently. "I won't leave you."
"Thank you." Her eyes closed. A moment later, the hand in his went limp. She was gone.
A hail of pebbles from above startled him and reminded him that men had been chasing the coach. He did not think they had started the pebbles falling, however. Far more likely, the careening coach had dislodged them and perhaps had loosened much bigger rocks. If he were wise, he would move before one of those fell on him. He would do the Duke no good if he were found smashed flat on a Cornish beach.
Briefly he wondered if the men would try to ride down to the beach. Having thought the coach worth robbing in the first place, they might believe it worth searching now. A path of sorts wound down the cliffside, one that a good horse could follow in daylight, but he had not attempted to bring Annabelle down it in the dark, and she was as surefooted as an army mule. He did not think anyone would come.
He had been keeping an eye on the sea and at last he saw what he had been waiting for. Light flashed from a covered lantern. Two more flashes followed. Swiftly, he opened his tinderbox and lit a sulfur match. Seconds later his lantern was lit. As he moved away from the wreckage, he saw yet another flash of light at the eastern end of the beach. So Michael had not trusted him to meet the Frenchmen alone. Not surprising. Since the man had known him less than a fortnight, he had been more surprised at being ordered to go without a second. A test, no doubt. He wondered if the other watcher had seen the coach plunge over the cliff. He did not remember seeing carriage lanterns. No doubt they had been broken and their lights extinguished soon after the coach left the road. It had probably rolled several times. He would have to consider carefully what he was going to do about it.
"Cousin Charley, I think they've gone."
"Keep still a few minutes longer, Letty." But Charley, too, had heard sounds of departing horses above them. She could feel the chill of the rock beneath her, and she could feel the child trembling.
"I-I lost my muff," Letty said in a small voice.
Charley knew she was concerned about much more than a fur muff, and she thought a moment before she said, "We cannot think just now about what we have lost, Letty. We must think about getting ourselves out of this predicament. That is the only thing, right now, that we can do anything about."
"It ... it is very far down to the beach, is it not?"
Excerpted from Dangerous Angels by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1997 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 11, 2014