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Hero glanced out of the window of the coach, but saw no sign of Oakfield Manor in the gathering gloom. The bad roads had caused delays; she had been confined in the conveyance for too long. Across from Hero, her companion stared ahead stoically, undisturbed by the stuffy, small space of the old-fashioned vehicle and the ruts that bounced Hero about. As usual, she couldn't help wondering whether Mrs Renshaw was with her strictly as a chaperone or as a spy, to make sure she concluded Raven's business satisfactorily.
Resentment flared before Hero tamped it down out of habit. She knew what was expected of her. No doubt Christopher Marchant would be old and shriveled and balding and smelly. And randy. And she would have to lean close, displaying her low-cut bodice. With a little cajoling, she usually escaped with the prize and her person intact, if not her self-respect. But she had learned long ago that such luxuries as pride were for the wealthy and secure, not for someone like her.
Any doubts that the world was a grim place could be easily vanquished by a glance at the windswept moors, the barren trees and darkening clouds outside. If Hero did not know better, she might think Raven had managed the weather, as well as everything else, and the idea unnerved her.
Another rut threw her against the worn and cracking leather interior, and she realized they had turned onto a sparsely graveled drive in little better condition than the road. She had only an instant to wonder whether they were at last approaching their destination when she was thrown again, harder, and grabbed uselessly for a hold. But it was the arrival of Renshaw in her lap that alerted Hero to the fact that something was amiss.
The imperturbable female uttered a surprised grunt, while her weight stole Hero's breath. When she was able to ease out from under her burden, Hero realized the coach had halted, tilting to one side. She cursed Raven and his ancient vehicle with its ancient fittings, for they likely had lost a wheel here in the middle of nowhere.
Scrambling to the door, Hero managed to jump out onto a thicket of grass, but there was little comfort to be found outside beyond escape from the stifling interior. Pulling up the hood of her cloak against the gusting winds, Hero took stock of their surroundings, and her heart sank. They were off the main road, black clouds chased across the sky, and a rumble of thunder in the distance presaged the coming storm.
Hero shook her head against the sense of doom that threatened and made her way gingerly to the rear of the vehicle where the coachman and footman were muttering amongst themselves. Even Hero could see the wheel was broken, and since both men were eyeing it stupidly, she could only fear the worst.
"If you can't fix it, one of you will have to go for help," Hero said, raising her voice against the wind.
They turned to her, their reluctance obvious. The village they had passed through was a long way back. "'Tweren't much traffic on that roadway, miss," the coachman said, scratching his head.
"There must be more there than here," Hero said with a glance at the overgrown drive. Were they even on the right path? Should she send one of the men ahead? If one went ahead and one behind, Hero would double the chances of their rescue. But that would leave her alone with Renshaw, two women in a broken vehicle on unfamiliar lands, not far from the infamous moors, with foul weather looming.
The thought gave even Hero pause.
Yet what could possibly threaten them in this barren landscape? Anyone with sense, including the residents, would be safely inside, prepared to ride out the tempest. Hero had a pistol in her reticule, and Renshaw had not been chosen for her feminine accomplishments. Wide of girth and taller than many men, she was armed with a cane she carried solely for protection.
Still, wariness was Hero's watchword, and so, in the end, she sent the footman forward, leaving the grizzled coachman to keep watch, while she climbed back inside the coach to wait as best she could. But the wind set up an awful moaning, and Hero wondered whether the vehicle would collapse entirely, falling upon its side and crushing its occupants.
Although Renshaw made no move to follow, Hero exited once more, and as she leaped down to view the scene around her, she considered the length of Raven's reach. Surely it did not stretch this far from his fortress, yet the situation smacked of his design. Was it a test? As she had so often in the past, Hero wondered if she would ever escape from the Gothic nightmare that she seemed so often to inhabit.
It was then that Hero heard something above the distant thunder and bluster. A glance toward the coach showed it swaying slightly, the coachman seeming to doze upon his crooked perch, but the horses had pricked up their ears. Whirling, Hero looked down the drive that disappeared into the growing gloom, but she could see nothing.
Then it seemed as though the sound was coming from ahead, and Hero turned around. Surely, the wind was playing tricks upon her, for now all was quiet behind, while she could hear a horse approaching from the other direction. Walking past the coach and the horses that tramped uneasily, she peered into the dimness. For someone weaned on tales of haunts and odd happenings, Hero felt an uncharacteristic trepidation.
And then she saw him.
Drawing in a sharp breath, Hero wondered whether her dormant imagination had conjured the sight, for he seemed to come straight from one of Raven's Gothic novels. A dark figure atop a black horse, cape billowing behind him, he rode as if born of the storm itself, fast and hard and directly toward her.
Hero was so transfixed that she did not even move and might have been trampled had the horse not stopped neatly. The figure dropped just as neatly to the ground, and only then did she feel he might be real, not a product of some unwitting fantasy, for he stepped toward her with a murmur of concern.
For once, Hero could not answer, having been struck dumb by his appearance. Tall and wide shouldered, his dark hair whipping about a face so handsome that Hero had never seen the like, he seemed the very embodiment of every young girl's dream of rescue.
But Hero was no longer a girl, and she knew that no one could help her, unless it was only to give her shelter from the approaching storm. Indeed, he was shouting something to that effect, and before Hero realized what he was about, he had taken her arm. Mounting easily, he reached down to lift her up in front of him.
Hero could only gasp in startlement as she felt her carefully constructed world spinning out of control. Before she could speak, he tucked her side against his hard chest, drew one strong arm around her and kicked the horse into movement.
Hero opened her mouth to protest this stranger's complete usurpation of her authority. Such nearness made her uncomfortable, and the warmth of his touch had an unwelcome effect upon her senses. But then he flashed Hero a grin, and she was struck speechless once more.
As Hero gaped, witless, at the face only a few inches from her own, she realized she had never been this close to anyone in her life. It was unnerving, and yet she had to resist an urge to touch the lock of dark hair that blew across his forehead, matching eyes the color of chocolate.
They held her own for a moment, then glanced upward, and Hero followed his gaze to where thick drops began hailing down upon them. Despite his efforts to hurry her to shelter, the storm had come, yet it was nothing compared to Hero's personal tumult as he pulled her close.
Heart pounding, dizzy and disoriented, Hero had the strange sensation that she could deny this man nothing. And that wild thought was more frightening to her than any Gothic horror.
Once deposited into the hands of Mrs Osgood, a cheery, apple-cheeked housekeeper, Hero felt more like herself. Obviously, the situation outside had worked upon her nerves until she was overwrought, imagining her rescuer to be some kind of superior being with an unexplainable effect upon her. Although Hero was not the overwrought kind, the only other possibility was too terrible to consider.
It was with some relief that she realized, through Mrs Osgood's chatter, that she had reached her destination and that she had only to meet with Mr Marchant in order to conclude her business. Who her rescuer might be, Hero refused to wonder or care. Yet, at the claim, her body shivered as if in denial.
She tried not to remember the feel of his hard form, wet garments slick against her own, as he helped her from the horse and into the house. A small Gothic, complete with battlements, its dark facade so evoked Raven that Hero again wondered what he had wrought, only to dismiss her suspicions.
Augutus Raven might have access to an astonishing variety of resources, but he could not control the elements. And Hero could hardly be surprised by the style of the building, considering Raven's penchant for such facades. Many of his fellow antiquaries shared his delight in the old and cold and moldy, probably because they were old and cold and moldy.
Not that Oakfield was moldy, but it looked sadly in need of improvement. Still, the fire was warm, and Hero was glad to be given her own room, with Renshaw nearby. As she bathed, dressed in dry clothes and brushed her hair by the fire, the incredible encounter with the handsome stranger gradually faded away. And by the time Hero went to join Renshaw downstairs, she was firmly focused on the task ahead.
That focus was only sharpened by her surroundings, for the housekeeper showed her into a rather threadbare library. Ignoring the gloom of the poorly lit room, Hero eyed the mostly empty shelves and the packing crates that were scattered about. Was Mr Marchant selling all of his books?
If so, Raven might be interested in a bulk purchase. You never knew what nuggets were hidden away, undiscovered and undervalued by their owner. Hero moved toward one open box and glanced inside. Some Latin and Greek volumes were piled in no particular order, and she was leaning down to read the titles when she heard footsteps.
Plastering a smile on her face, Hero turned in greeting, only to stare in astonishment at the man who stood in the doorway. Without his cloak and gloves he looked even more beautiful than she remembered, and Hero blinked in dismay. Surely this was not her host?
"W-where is Mr Marchant?" she asked, cursing her faltering tongue.
"I'm Christopher Marchant, at your service," he said, bowing slightly. Then he flashed her that winning grin, and Hero felt unsteady upon her feet.
She knew better than to dismiss all antiquaries as the grasping old fools they were often portrayed. Still, she rarely dealt with elegant, free-spending sorts like the Duke of Devonshire. And she certainly had never met any like this man.
Too late, Hero realized she was gaping, and she hurried to recover herself. Panic threatened—how was she to proceed when her heart was hammering and her wits scattered? But she could do nothing else.
"Thank you," she said, with a nod of her head. "I am Miss Hero Ingram, and this is my companion, Mrs Renshaw. I have brought a letter from my uncle, Mr Augustus Raven. I believe he corresponded with your father in the past."
Hero stepped forward to present the missive, while giving the man an opportunity to ogle her bodice. But unlike her usual hosts, Christopher Marchant was not ancient or shriveled or randy. And Hero doubted that anyone who looked like he did would be impressed with her small bosom, no matter how low cut her gown.
"I beg your pardon for barging in upon you like this," Hero said, reciting her usual patter. The lonely old men she most often dealt with were so flattered by her attention that they did not object to her doing business on behalf of her uncle, if they would even call it that. Most would label the transaction an arrangement between friends or acquaintances, among fellow collectors.
However, Mr Marchant was… different, and Hero wondered whether he would look askance at her sudden appearance at his remote residence. "I was in the area and thought to make a stop for my own convenience. You will forgive me?" she asked, her standard simpering sticking in her throat.
"Of course, please sit down," he said, with an easy gesture. His open and engaging manner further confused her, for the men she was accustomed to dealing with were often as secretive as Raven, hiding their thoughts behind pinched faces.
"I'm afraid the house is still at sixes and sevens," Mr Marchant muttered, his smile faltering. For a moment Hero thought he would say more, but he simply glanced around the room as though just realizing its disarray.
He did not appear to notice that Renshaw was seated in the most shadowed corner, which was just as well, for Hero could not depend upon her usual tactics. Thinking frantically, she decided to take a direct approach. "Are you selling some of your collection?"
Mr. Marchant looked at her rather blankly before glancing about. "Oh, you mean the books? No, we recently moved in, my sister and I, and have not yet arranged everything."
"Well, if you should wish to save yourself some of the trouble, I know someone who might well take these out of your way," Hero said, gesturing toward the crates.
Mr Marchant nodded, though he showed no interest, which was puzzling. Here, inside Oakfield, he seemed distracted, and Hero noticed shadows under his eyes. Was he ill? He certainly looked robust and not much older than she, but perhaps a long night of carousing had left him the worse for wear. Isn't that what handsome young men did, gamble, drink and seduce women? Hero could only guess, for her dealings with such were few and far between.
"If that's why you've come, I'm afraid I can't offer you any hope on that score," Mr Marchant said. "They were my father's, you see." Sadness flashed briefly across his features, and Hero cursed Raven's greed. How many times had he swooped down upon a grieving relative to break up and sell the precious volumes the deceased had spent a lifetime lovingly acquiring?
"I'm sorry," Hero said, and she meant it. But when his dark gaze met her own, she felt as though he were looking right into her, and she glanced away, unwilling to let anyone, especially this man, see her. Suddenly, she wondered whether he could tell how he affected her, and she straightened, determined to reveal nothing of herself.