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Secrets of the Highwayman
By Sara Mackenzie
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Sara Mackenzie
All right reserved.
Melanie slowed the Aston Martin, creeping along the narrow lane. The vehicle almost brushed the hedges growing on either side, reducing her vision to the depth of the headlights forward or the taillights backward. She felt like she was in a tunnel, with only a strip of dark, star-strewn sky above. Was she even going the right way? The last sign was miles back.
She had never felt so completely alone.
Maybe she should turn back. There'd been a pub at the crossroads, and the thought had crossed her mind to stop and stay there for the night, but then she'd decided it would be best to just get to her destination. She could wake up tomorrow morning at Ravenswood, ready to begin work.
Now she regretted that she had been so dedicated.
She longed for her neat, familiar office with an actual physical ache. Melanie Jones, twenty-nine, solicitor with the firm of Foyle, Haddock and Williams, had a reputation for getting things done in an orderly fashion. Everything in its place, no surprises, everything . . . comfortable.
People said that about her. You knew where you were with Melanie Jones. Others, less kind, called her a control freak. Melanie preferred to think that she lived her life just as she wanted it, the rough edges smoothed off, every possibledeviation noted and sidelined. Her childhood had been a nightmare of doubts and uncertainties and, when she left home, she had promised herself she would never have to worry about the inconsistencies of life again.
And now here she was, deep in Cornwall, driving a car she loathed because her Ford Escort was being repaired and her boss had insisted she take his car, an Aston Martin. Sensible Melanie, driving a car made famous by James Bond, into the dark depths of Cornwall.
The car crept forward and abruptly the hedges gave way to a grey stone wall on one side and a dense wood on the other. She hit a pothole, and as her headlights tilted, there was a brief view over the wall and across a field, and then the road widened a little, enough to make her feel less claustrophobic.
Maybe it would be all right after all. She'd keep going until she found a signpost, then she'd decide whether to continue or turn back to the pub. Maybe there'd be another pub close by. With luck, the worst was behind her, and Ravenswood was just around the next bend.
Melanie sped up a little in anticipation, just as something big and black ran out in front of her car.
She slammed on the brakes and was jolted violently forward, bruising herself against the seat belt. The car engine stalled and for a moment Melanie sat, stunned, wondering what had run out in front of her and whether she had hit it. She blinked to clear her vision, and peered through the windscreen.
A dog. A hound. Bigger by far than a Great Dane, and coal black. It sat on its haunches in the middle of the lane, facing the car, ears pricked, perfectly still. It was looking right back at her, the gleam of the headlights reflecting in its oily dark eyes.
Melanie couldn't move.
There was something strange about the hound, something frightening. Its size was intimidating, but there was a stillness to it. And the way it stared straight back into her eyes, as if it was aware of her as a person. Melanie became conscious of the utter silence all around them.
Maybe I'm imagining it.
She blinked again, but the hound was still there.
The thought popped into her head. It did look as if it was waiting for something. She cast a nervous glance sideways at the woods. The trees were close together, twisted, bending, like old widows gossiping, they formed a wall of blackness. Anything could be in there, watching her, preparing to pounce.
One thing was for certain--she needed to get out of here.
Melanie gave the car horn a long blast. In the eerie silence the sound was very loud, but the black hound didn't even flinch. Her heart thumping, her hands shaking, she sounded it again. Still the thing wouldn't move.
"All right then, if that's the way you want it." She fumbled with the ignition key. The powerful motor started. The black hound didn't take its eyes off her as she began to inch forward toward it. The car moved closer, and the animal still didn't move. The big black head was higher than the hood of the car, high enough that the gleaming eyes were on the same level as her own.
This was worse than before, when at least there had been some distance between her and the hound. Now it loomed over her.
"Good God, what now?"
The car bumper must be almost knocking against the animal's body. She braked with a gasp.
"Will you please go away!"
A whistle came from the woods.
The black hound's head snapped around, and then it was on its feet. With one gigantic leap, it cleared the lane and vanished into the thick wall of trees. And just like that it was gone.
Melanie ran a shaking hand through her short blond hair.
So it must have been a real dog, she told herself with relief. Only a real dog responds to a whistle . . . doesn't it? For a moment there she had been wondering if the hound was something else. Something like Conan Doyle's creation. Hadn't she read somewhere that he'd taken the "Hound of the Baskervilles" from west country folklore? The ghostly, demonic black hound that ran across the moors in the night, seeking . . .
"Seeking what?" Melanie muttered. "London solicitors traveling in Aston Martins on business to out-of-the-way places? It's probably someone's pet."
With her hands still shaking, she drove forward again, this time picking up speed. There was a sense of relief when the woods tapered off . . . .
Excerpted from Secrets of the Highwayman by Sara Mackenzie Copyright © 2006 by Sara Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission.
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