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In My Wildest Fantasies
By Julianne MacLean
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Julianne MacLean
All right reserved.
A thick, gray mist moved through the darkening forest, creeping low along the ground like a twisting, rolling phantom. Rebecca Newland, dressed in black and seated beside her sleeping father in the dark confines of his carriage, was in a place somewhere between dreams and reality, her head tipped back upon the deeply buttoned leather upholstery, her eyelids falling closed briefly, then fluttering open again as the coach rumbled and bumped along the narrow, winding road.
They were on their way home from her uncle's funeral in London. Regrettably, he was an uncle she had never met before, but that was the story of her quiet life, she supposed. She knew very few people, cloistered away as she was in her father's secluded country house, built of old stone and cloaked in thick, leafy ivy, which hindered even the company of the sunlight.
The only thing that kept her from going completely mad in her isolation was the fact that she was seventeen now, and her first London Season was drawing near—next year perhaps? If she closed her eyes she could see the glitter and the gowns she read about in books, the sparkling jewels and hair combs; she could anticipate the balls and stimulatingconversations. She longed for it, all of it, everything she had been missing in her father's somber home for as long as she could remember.
Oh, she prayed he would let her go next year. Surely he would say yes. It was not as if he relished her presence at home. They were hardly close. And her aunt had offered at least a dozen times to be the one to introduce her to society. . .
She was just beginning to imagine herself curtseying to a handsome duke, when suddenly, the coach swerved, and her belly lurched with panic. She sat forward, gripping the windowsill, then heard a heavy thump.
"Father, wake up," she said, sweeping her idle daydreams aside.
He stirred groggily, sat up and looked around, as if he weren't quite sure where he was. "What is it?"
"Did you hear that noise?" she asked. "The coach swerved, and there was a thump."
They were rolling along quite smoothly now, however, and her father sat back, unalarmed but annoyed with the interruption. "For pity's sake, Rebecca. One of the bags probably tipped over on the roof." He folded his arms and closed his eyes again.
She touched her forehead to the cool windowpane and tried to peer down at the ground passing beneath them, wondering if one of the bags might have fallen off when they'd swerved. Then slowly, the coach began to decrease speed, slower and slower until they were traveling at a snail's pace, then they stopped, and the horses whinnied and jangled the harness.
Her father opened his eyes and sat forward again. "Have we arrived?"
Rebecca was still peering out the window. "No, Father. We're surrounded by sycamores."
He frowned and leaned closer to the window on his own side. "Why the blazes are we stopped here? We're in the middle of nowhere."
"I think you were right. We might have lost a bag."
Growing impatient, he reached for his walking stick and folded his gnarled, rheumatic fingers over the ivory knob, waiting for the driver to appear at the door and inform them of the problem. But there was not even the sound of movement from outside the coach.
"Maybe he's already gone back along the road to retrieve it," Rebecca said.
"Well, he could have told us, instead of leaving us sitting here like a couple of ducks, wondering what the devil is going on."
Rebecca peered out the window again, glanced up at the sky under the mist-shrouded canopy of leaves, and took note of the fading light. "I hope he is quick about it," she said, "or he won't be able to find it—or us—in the dark."
They continued to sit and wait in silence for something to happen, but nothing did. Rebecca watched the mist blow past the window, and felt rather uneasy. "May I get out to see what's going on?" she asked.
Her father grunted his displeasure and reached for the door handle on his own side, while she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and did the same. The step had not been lowered, so she hopped the distance to the ground. She landed with a thud and turned to lower the step.
As she did so, a chill enveloped her and seeped like icy water through the sleeves of her black serge gown. She looked around. The forest was as silent and still as the grave, except for the mist drifting between the trees. She could smell dampness and moss and tree bark, but heard nothing. No wind, no birds, nothing.
She shivered, then one of the horses whinnied and shook the harness again. Turning and gathering her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, she looked up. The coachman's seat was empty. It was as if he had simply vanished.
Was this a haunted forest? she wondered ridiculously. Was there a troll who plucked coachmen from their seats and feasted on their tasty bones?
Her father came around the back of the coach and stopped to stare down the road they'd already traveled. "I'll have his hide."
Rebecca sighed, wishing her father's nap had not been interrupted. Now he would be irritable the rest of the day, and she would be the one to bear the brunt of it inside the coach.
"Smith!" he shouted, his voice swallowed instantly by the thick chill in the forest. "Did we lose something?"
No reply. Not even an echo.
Rebecca moved closer to him. "Should we go and look for him?"
Her father leaned his frail form upon his cane, but before he could answer, a noise from somewhere ahead caused them both to turn. It was the heavy, thunderous rumble of hoofbeats.
Rebecca's heart began to tremble. Someone was coming.
Excerpted from In My Wildest Fantasies by Julianne MacLean Copyright © 2007 by Julianne MacLean. Excerpted by permission.
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