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"Where on earth are you, you wretched man?" Victoria muttered. She stamped her foot, shivering from the damp. It was to be so simple. A pause in Dover, pick up a packet at the castle from her contact, then on to London. She brushed back a wet tendril of chestnut hair that had somehow escaped from beneath her hood, then looked down, blue eyes ablaze with annoyance, at her faithful companion.
Rain dripped from the end of Victoria's nose, now pink with cold. She gave it an impatient wipe.
"I have stubbed toes on rocks, searched everywhere in these miserable ruins, and now I'm near frozen with this horrid June weather. June! More like March, I say. But I shan't give up just yet," she murmured to her friend. The wind tugged at the hood of her sturdy gray cloak, seeking entry beneath its protective folds. Cold mist tingled against her skin. The dim roar of an angry sea could barely be heard, but she knew the tide was wicked. Victoria shivered again. She stared across the bay that curved along the Dover coast. Where was he? Why was he late?
The snap of a branch caught her attention. Again she searched about her. "Not a soul around. Silly girl," she scolded herself. "'Twas the wind, most likely." Merely because the hour grew late and the light became dim because of this blasted drizzle was no reason to be missish. But her heart began to beat faster.
Another growl. She whirled about, staring into the gray mists in vain, her hand clutching at her cloak. Nothing, no one to be seen. The black dog at her side bristled, head lowered as though ready to charge at a foe.
"What is it, Sable?" she whispered, although there was not a soul to hear her. Or was there? The loweringgloom concealed others as well as herself. Her gloved hand steadied her against the cold stone wall as she willed her heart to cease its foolish pounding.
The shadows grew longer; pinpricks of light began to show in the town below. Across the bay, the undulating hills swept inland from the sea, a slash of black above the pale gray of the cliffs. Never had she felt so alone, so vulnerable as today, this moment. A few minutes more and she would leave, regardless.
Sable growled once again, and Victoria hastily dropped to her knees to reassure him, threading suddenly nervous fingers through his fur. As her hand touched the enormous black poodle, an object whistled past her shoulder, clattering against the stone wall behind her.
The dog tore off into the darkness like a shot. Snarls punctuated by muttered curses rooted Victoria to the spot. The sounds faded as her pet pursued whoever threatened his owner's life. It couldn't be her contact, because Sable knew him. But there were others, menacing unknowns who could wish her gone.
Her mouth grew dry as she stretched trembling fingers to pick up the object. A knife. The blade glittered in the dim light. It was a short, lethal-looking weapon. She could feel carving incised on the rough handle.
"Oh; Sable!" she whispered, quite relieved as he trotted up to her. He looked enormously pleased with himself. "Good dog," she whispered as she rose from where she crouched.
She silently darted from her waiting place, the knife still grasped in her left hand, cloak billowing about her, rapidly slipping down the steep hill through the trees and scrubby brush that covered the slope. Her pet kept pace with her, staying as close as possible, showing her the way when necessary. Shortly she was enveloped in the mists below the castle.
"You came at last," she softly exclaimed to the dark figure who emerged from the first alley to confront her. For a moment their figures blended, then parted. Victoria thrust the packet of papers inside her cloak as he melted into the shadows. She was alone again. At her side, Sable growled.
She glanced behind her, up the hill to where the castle sat obscured from view. Nothing could be seen moving but a solitary gull, who complained his state with a mournful cry as he wheeled about through what was now a steady rain. Nonetheless, she suspected there was someone out there, possibly watching her even now.
"Come, Sable. We must hurry. There is not a moment to lose." She gathered her cloak tightly about her while the pair slipped along the deserted cobbled streets. At first she ran, skirts lifted slightly, dashing from street to street, staying on the lea side for protection from the rain, her heart in her throat at every sound, every shadow. When they entered the more populated area, she slowed, fearing curious eyes at such unseemly haste.
Afraid of what she might see, yet knowing she must look, she risked a glance behind her. A tall lean man, his battered hat tilted forward, paused beside a tavern. No one else was fool enough to be out and about this rainy night. The man seemed not the least interested in her, so she ran on her way, her delay having been but seconds.
At last she and Sable reached the small neat house where she rented a room. She had been warned to leave, and leave she must. At once.
Across the street from the house, a tall lean man blended into the shadows, patiently waiting, biding his time. When he saw the girl leave, he followed her to the mews where her coach was kept. Not close enough to overhear her instructions, he surmised her destination. He knew her well.
Leaving the mews, he returned to the neat house where the girl had stayed. It was a simple matter to rent the same room. Once he closed the door behind him, he searched every corner, hoping for a snippet, a clue.
"Damn and blast," he grumbled, as not one shred could be found. She had picked the room clean.
"Bless you, Sam," Victoria said in a low voice as she clambered into the traveling coach, nudging Sable before her. "London, with all possible speed," she commanded before he closed the door.
"Aye, Miss Dancy, I suspected as much," the portly man replied as he climbed to his perch with an agility that belied his years.
In short order the coach was headed north and west on the Dover Road, the driver skillfully making his way along the darkening path. The lamps were lit, the horses prime goers, but Sam had made it evident he didn't relish the journey. Those snapping eyes had told her all. Her pity for Sam warred with the need to reach London as soon as possible.
Victoria peered out of the window, then turned to her pet. "The rain is growing worse. 'Tis not the best of times to be making a dash for the city." Then she reflected a few moments. "I wonder who it was that found me out. Where did I make a slip? Worse yet, what does he do next ... and why? Have we a traitor in our midst, as they fear?"
The dog whined in seeming sympathy, rubbing his head against her sleeve as though to comfort her.
"Aye, Sable, what's to be done?" Her fingers smoothed the packet resting in her lap. One never knew what might happen, and she could take no chances. Her own life aside, it was important to the security of England that these papers not fall into the wrong hands. The portmanteau she always carried with her sat on the opposite seat and she reached for it.
In moments she removed the carefully wrapped head, then dumped the chisels and sculpturing tools in a tumble on the opposite seat. She secured the packet in the false bottom of the case before restoring it to its previous untidy state.
Smiling at the dog, she said, "I doubt if anyone will be interested in that clutter, eh, Sable?"
The dog gave a friendly growl, if one could say there was such a thing, then placed his head on her lap, seeming happy to have the matter bothering his mistress settled.
Victoria sensed the storm was worsening, with rain pelting the coach in ever-increasing strength. When the coach slithered violently about on the road, she rolled down her window to peer into the gloom. Nasty. She drew her head back inside, shaking the water from her hood with annoyance. Lurching to her feet, she thumped hard on the roof. Shortly Sam picked up the trap to peer down at her.
"Sam," she called out as loudly as she might, "best stop at the next inn, wherever it might be. No sense in killing ourselves." There was a wave of a gloved hand, then the trap fell closed once again.
"At least," she murmured to the dog while sinking down to the seat, "there is no one else fool enough to be on the road."
Sir Edward Hawkswood swore fiercely while he attempted to retain control of his bays as his traveling chaise tore south along the Dover Road. "Bad going," he shouted to his groom.
Higgens, a spare little man with a long, thin nose, shouted back, "Aye, sir," his eyes alight with admiration for the skill of his master's driving.
"This road is abominable, the weather worse. Why did I think I had to reach Dover as soon as possible?" Rain streamed down Edward's face and soaked his many-caped greatcoat. "Should have stayed at the inn in Canterbury."
As it was now, he wondered if he might survive the trip. His leg ached horribly, the pain piercing, eating at him with relentless intensity.
"Pity we had to be pressing on." Higgens glanced at his master as though to see if he might divulge the point of this harebrained trip.
Edward grimly thought of the information he'd received. Spies, traitors--fantastic stuff indeed. He couldn't rest until he'd investigated the matter. The tip he'd received had offered information. Now, if he'd but get there in time.
And then he caught sight of a post chaise coming toward him. At first he thought it to be a phantom, a figment of his imagination rising from the gray mists.
"Who in their right mind would leave Dover on a day such as this?" he wondered to Higgens.
The groom, looking worried at the sight of another coach on the appalling road, exhaled, "Aye."
Edward fought to guide his team on the slippery highway. He had a chance, though a near one, that he might safely skim by the other vehicle. The other man looked to be a skilled driver, for he held his team well.
Then a clap of thunder rolled across the sky and a crack of lightning flashed. The horses took violent exception to this terror, plunging wildly, and were nigh impossible to control.
"Good God!" Edward exclaimed. There seemed no way he could prevent a collision.
The sound of dreadful smashing of wood and grinding of metal, horses in distress, and the cries of men reverberated across the valley, and in concert with this, another rumble of thunder.
The other driver jumped to escape the brunt of the crash, landing on the back of the near wheeler. The front-right corner of Edward's chaise had come off the worse in the encounter between the two carriages. The other chaise had been snapped off its springs, and now tilted crazily, with its occupants surely in a heap.
"Best see what we can do," Edward observed as he clambered down, ignoring the pain in his leg. Obviously the last thing the other man wanted was to have the horses panic and bolt, thus dragging the damaged traveling coach through the mire.
Hawkswood handed the reins to his groom, knowing the man would have the team under control in a trice. He limped over to the other driver, wondering how anyone in the other coach had managed in the crash.
"Here, let me lend a hand," he offered.
"Best see to Miss Dancy, what's inside," replied the other man as he tended the horses.
Ignoring his painful leg, Edward made his way about the vehicle, and, seeing that the coachman had now attained control of his animals, he wrenched open the coach door.
About at his knee level lay the figure of a woman garbed in a plain gray cloak, strands of dark chestnut hair trailing down from beneath her hood. She was ably guarded by a black poodle of formidable size. Its intelligent eyes studied Hawkswood with disconcerting thoroughness.
"Easy now, fellow, be a good dog and let me have look at your mistress. She's in a bad way, make no mistake about it."
Hawkswood knelt, ignoring what the mud would do to his fine coat and breeches. A cursory examination of the woman revealed that she was likely concussed, with a possible bruise where the case had struck her. A small lump had formed on her brow. Even in the dim light he could make out her lovely features, delicately shaped face. They both needed a warm, dry spot in which to recover from their collision, but where?
Glancing about, he could see no sign of any houses, and knew it had been some time since he had passed one. No farm buildings were near, with the exception of a windmill off to one side, up the hill. He couldn't recall an inn on the remainder of the Dover Road either. There'd most likely be no doctor to be found, worse luck.
Blast it! He needed to get to Dover and quickly. Even now, it might be too late. Yet he was in no condition to drape her across a horse for a ride to town. He suspected she'd not thank him for such a jolting ride, either. When concussed, the patient needed quiet and rest. Rain swirled about him into the coach, turning her cloak dark with wetness.
Reaching a swift decision, he approached the coachman.
"I'd best get her to a dry haven. Sooner the better," he said tersely, not wanting speech in the rain. "Hawkswood's the name."
"Aye ... Sir Edward," the coachman said slowly, "I've heard tell of you."
"I'll take care of her," Edward assured him. He was relieved at the man's acceptance of him.
"We can each ride a leader, taking the others in tow, to Canterbury and find help there," offered Higgens to the coachman.
"Me name's Sam, and that's the best to be done, I reckon." The coachman looked over Edward's groom, nodding his concurrence.
The two men began a crisp discussion of who would go first and what to do with the coaches. Neither seemed worried about the possibility of another vehicle on the highway.
Edward knew he could endure little more of the cold and wet, and doubted his companion could either. He scooped up the young woman in his arms and staggered across the field until he found a stone path to the front of the mill. Her cloak fell open and her gown rapidly became soaked in the downpour as he struggled up the path. He leaned against the building until he managed to open the door, then stumbled inside, the black dog trotting at his side, whining from time to time.
In the faint light of the windmill interior, Hawkswood made out a crude bed, and he carefully deposited his burden on it, first pulling her gray cloak aside, then off. His chilled fingers fumbled with the barrel-snap fastenings, yet she didn't stir.
With the large black dog beside him, he made a hasty perusal of the miller's room with the help of a candle and tinder he discovered on a ledge. A fire was the first order of business, and he blessed the unknown miller who had left a pile of kindling and wood in a rough box to one side of the hearth. Within moments the warmth of the fire began seeping through the room. A chill would do neither of them any good.
The shape of the room was peculiar to a windmill, with its circular outer wall of brick and the staircase winding upward in the center of the structure. Not all windmills had living quarters for the miller, and Edward was most thankful this one did. This place had not been vacant for long; there were signs of habitation. Edward was grateful he need answer no questions, not that their identity would be known by another, at least for the present.
A rapid search resulted in the find of a cache of food--slightly stale bread, dry sausage, and a half-keg of ale. They could be warm and dry, and not want for sustenance. Now, if the lady could be persuaded to revive...
Shedding his greatcoat when the warmth of the fire seeped through, he turned his full attention to the woman on the bed. She hadn't stirred since he had placed her there. God willing, her injury would not be overly serious. She was soaked, though. He'd done his best, but when the cloak had fallen open her gown had absorbed water like a sponge. There was naught to do but peel the damp clothing from her body, get her dry, so as to fend off an inflammation of the lungs, or worse.
What a coil to be in, trapped for the night with an unconscious but beautiful and very shapely miss. He had noted the supple grace of her form when he carried her. The damp gown clung to her body, revealing a great deal to his appreciative eyes. Was there someone who would step forth to demand he do the honorable thing after compromising her by his actions? He'd meant to save the chit, and hadn't thought about the ramifications of his deed. She looked innocent, vulnerable. He glanced at the dratted dog, who looked for all the world as though he laughed.
"Aye, laugh you might, I'm the one to pay the price, my fellow.'' The thought did not cheer, in spite of her beauty.
He wasn't experienced in this sort of thing. Not being in the petticoat line, he limited his knowledge of the fair sex to conversation at dinner, casual chat at a party, and silent communication at the gaming table. A twinge of his leg was a grim reminder of just why he maintained the discreet distance. His first experience with rejection from a lady, when the extent of his injuries was revealed, had prompted a reluctance for repetition of the same. The other sort of woman never revealed her reaction.
He proceeded to strip the spice-brown gown from her, trying not to tear the opening at the neck. Buttons and tapes were alien to him, and more than a bit daunting at this moment. At long last he had removed all but her shift and stays, and left them on, even if faintly damp, for what he was certain would be her modesty. She looked to be the virginal sort.
About to cover her with the faded wool blanket that had been folded at the foot of the narrow bed, he paused. She had shifted slightly, an encouraging sign for all that she had been as limp as a dead frog while he removed those damp garments, and something caught his eye. The woman wore a necklace, not an unusual thing as a rule. However, her movement revealed the design of an iris on the locket at the end of the chain, a blue iris done in lapis lazuli in an instantly recognized style. He knew it well.
Intrigued, he bent closer. Could it be possible she was associated with that group? A dangerous association, if so, and he examined her face again.
In the language of flowers the iris meant "I have a message for you." It had been adopted by a ring of spies as their secret identification, a fact few people, other than members, and a number in the government, knew.
How could any woman who looked as innocent and angelic as this one be a part of such a group? His instincts told him she was what she first seemed to be, innocent and respectable. But appearances could be deceptive. She might be selected for her part for that very reason. He touched the edge of the locket, and the top sprang open, revealing two miniatures, a man and a woman. Parents? There was a resemblance.
He tucked the blanket around her, then stood thinking. Rather than attempt to revive her again, he examined her garments. They might be plain, but they were of the highest quality. Delicate embroidery decorated her petticoat. Her footwear bespoke a fine boot maker, and the unusual gold ring on her finger, while oddly shaped, was exquisite.
He turned again to study her face. Long dark lashes fanned over porcelain cheeks. He wondered if that straight little nose was the inquisitive sort, and bet that it was. Was she perhaps the one he sought? No one in her right mind would have set out on such a day ... unless she had very pressing business. And what might be hers?
He raised a skeptical brow and limped over to the fireplace. He added wood to the fire, then turned to contemplate his companion and her guardian. Odd, how the dog had permitted her garments to be removed, not objected to his presence in the least. What did that say for his mistress? "Here, old fellow," Edward said, snapping his fingers.
The dog obeyed. It rubbed a curly head against Edward's good leg, establishing a friendship of sorts, and the two settled down to hold watch on the young woman.
"Elizabeth? Julia?" Victoria murmured, turning her head from side to side. "My head hurts." Then her eyelids fluttered before she opened them wide and stared, utterly dismayed, at the stranger. He was a handsome man, one with a fascinating face. Tall, perhaps? But who? She knew she had not seen him before.
"How do you feel? A cup of tea, perhaps?" His gentle offer revealed a cultured background, proper upbringing.
"Sam and the horses? Are they all right? I should have stopped before..." She went still, suddenly aware of something most significant. She moved slightly, then stiffened as the enormity of her predicament reached her befogged mind.
"You..." she sputtered, unable to do more than glare at him, for she felt as weak as a new chick. He might look like a gentleman, but surely no true gentleman would undress a helpless female! She transferred her gaze to the dog. "How could you, Sable? I thought you would defend me."
She closed her eyes. This man had stripped her of most of her clothes, wooed her dog away from her, and now had her in his complete power. No man should have her in such a position. Yet here she was. Helpless. She fingered the ring she always wore and amended that thought to: almost helpless.
"Your coachman took the horses to Canterbury, as did my groom. The vehicles will be tended to as soon as possible, I have no doubt. The weather is so nasty I question whether anyone will attempt to use the Dover Road tonight, so there is little worry for the coaches. I fear we are stuck in this windmill, but it could be worse." He gestured to the fireplace. "We have a rousing fire, there is bread and ale, and possibly tea. I thought you'd not take kindly to a trip through the rain back to Dover. Was your trip so pressing?" he probed.
She evaded his gaze, taking refuge in peeking at the fire, then looking about the room revealed in the dim light. "I need to get to London as soon as possible."
"You spoke with Sam." She digested the curious fact that Sam had spoken with this man and entrusted her to him. "And you are..."
"Hawkswood," he replied, looking as though he might swoop down upon her. His dark eyes crinkled slightly as though to smile, and beneath an aristocratic nose, a sensual mouth twitched faintly.
"I'll fetch you a bit of sausage and bread. Unless I can locate that tea, I fear your beverage will have to be ale." He rose and went across the room.
Victoria took note of his faint limp and wondered how he had managed to carry her. She was not a featherweight, as tall as she was.
"Where are my clothes?" she demanded, then winced at the sound of her own voice in her aching head.
He bestowed a glance on her from the pantry door. "Drying. Your gown is over the chair--the one upon which I sat, so as not to crowd your narrow bed. The rest are draped here and there near the fire. I have no designs on your virtue.''
Not in the least amused by his words, nor completely reassured, for that matter, she stretched out a hand toward her dog and was rewarded with his eager nudge. He would remain close by her, of that she was determined. A chestnut curl fell across her shoulder as she shifted beneath her blanket. Oh, she was totally undone.
He returned with a plate and mug in hand, pausing before offering them to her. "By the bye, Hawkswood is preceded by Sir Edward. We ought not dispense with the formalities." His eyes glittered, but with what, she couldn't say. They were a deep brown, and did not reveal his thoughts in the least.
"Indeed." She had heard his name, but couldn't remember where. Stretching out one hand, while managing to retain a hold on the blanket that kept her modestly covered, she accepted the fare.
"I suspect you are concerned over our, er, involvement ... that is, the forced intimacy of the situation," he said, then appeared annoyed when she frowned at him. "You have, I repeat, no need to mistrust me, young woman."
"Well," she said with asperity, "you are not in your dotage, and there is no one else with us. What the polite world might make of our predicament, I dread to consider."
"You would be compromised, I suspect."
"In truth? Or malicious conjecture? One is as damning as the other." She sighed before nibbling at her bread.
"Your family will be worried about you when you are late in arriving." He dropped down on the chair, then sampled his food.
"True," she replied after taking another bite. "But you know how it is with traveling, one is forever running into unexpected obstacles. And this was one of the more unexpected ones." In a burst of honesty she added, "The road was terrible. I fancy neither my coachman nor your groom could help the crash."
"I was driving, not my groom," he replied tersely, then countered, "Why are you alone? No maid, no outriders. 'Tis not proper."
"With Sable I have always been safe." She glared at the dog, who looked innocently from the man to his mistress.
Sir Edward picked up her stockings and petticoat. "These have dried out now. I shall absent myself so you may be a bit more comfortable."
He was as good as his word, walking off with that faint but distinct limp. Victoria quickly pulled on her stockings, shaking her head to clear its fuzziness. Then she slipped on her petticoat and absurdly felt better.
"You may come back. I daresay it's chilly in there."
He returned carrying the sausage in one hand. "More sustenance."
She watched as he prepared bread, then sliced off a few pieces of sausage for her. "Hungry?"
Victoria held out a hand. She ought not have been so starved. The girls in the Minerva novels always managed to survive without food--fainting frequently, sighing sadly, and being bird-witted in general. She was more earthy, needing her primitive comforts of food and shelter.
"Your belongings are still in the carriage, my dear." He studied her with a disconcerting gaze and she shifted uncomfortably under his look. She doubted he had been out to investigate the contents of her portmanteau, but that look of his made her wonder what was in his mind.
"I suppose we had best get some sleep and hope that morning brings better weather," was her slurred comment, evidence that she was still not quite herself. The dreadful ache in her head refused to subside.
"Aye," he said, sounding dubious about the possibility.
At last she drifted off into an uneasy slumber, wondering how this ticklish situation could be resolved.
The following morning brought no relief from the storm. Rain still pelted the windmill. Victoria listened, curled beneath the blanket, wondering at the silence. "There is not the sound from a windmill."
"The sweeps have been disconnected, I would wager," Hawkswood offered.
"Oh." She continued, "My head does not ache quite so much this morning, although the lump on my forehead is most tender." She peered warily at him as he sat by the hearth. In spite of what must have been a tempting circumstance, he had remained the gentleman, and she should be grateful. He intrigued her not a little; she longed to ask questions. A frown furrowed her brow, and she winced. He caught her curious look at his leg stretched out before him toward the fire.
"Stupid accident," was his terse comment.
She gave him a startled glance.
"No, you did not need to ask me. I expect whenever anyone sees someone with a limp, interest is aroused. I fancy the fellows who come home from the Peninsula experience it frequently."
"My brother is over there fighting."
"Who is he? I may have encountered him." Sir Edward spoke with an absent manner, as though more interested in building up the fire than her answer.
In the quiet intimacy fostered by the flickering of the flames and the pattering of the rain, she replied to his question in the same vein. "Geoffrey Dancy."
He flicked her a surprised glance, then returned his attention to the fire. "Lord Dancy? I met him several times while in Portugal. Fine man. Elizabeth and Julia are your sisters?"
"How did you know? Did my brother mention his family?" She tried to conceal her alarm at his question.
"You spoke their names yesterday. Although you did not call for your parents." There was a question in his voice.
"My parents were murdered by the French while on an innocent visit, one with written permission from Napoleon himself. They were scholars," she added at his look.
He paused a time, then cleared his throat. "You know that we have a bit of a dilemma here. I have the ideal solution. We shall marry."