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The stagecoach clattered to a halt in the inn yard in the market town of Malton in the North Riding of Yorkshire, some twenty miles equidistant from both York and Scarborough. The first of the passengers to alight, Victoria looked around for a post boy to assist her with her baggage. She would have liked to go inside the inn to partake of some refreshment, but she had another journey ahead of her and was impatient to be on her way before nightfall.
Attired in a cinnamon dress and a matching bonnet, the crisp wind flirted with the cluster of soft ringlets cascading over Victoria's shoulders and played with the hem of her skirts, while it brought a fresh flush to her cheeks. Trim and bandbox polished, she was a most fetching sight for any man, many of whom paused after passing and openly glanced back for a second taste of her beauty.
The inn was thronged with an assortment of people going about their business and travellers, some sitting about waiting for stagecoaches to take them to their destinations. She was glad it wasn't Saturday, which was market day, being largely attended by families and farmers from the surrounding countryside, causing congestion both inside the town and the nearby roads. She managed to secure the attention of a young post boy who was hauling luggage from the back of the coach.
'Excuse me,' she said as he placed her trunks on the ground, 'I want to get to Ashcomb tonight. Is there anything going that way?'
He shook his head. 'Not today, miss. You'll have to go tomorrowunless,' he said, glancing over his shoulder to where a horse and piled-up cart stood beneath a dusty old clock, 'you don't mind going by carrier. Tom Smith goes that way three times a week. He's to set off for Cranbeck within the next half-hour. He might give you a lift.'
'I would be most grateful. Would you see that my trunks are transferred?' she said, slipping him a coin and almost jumping out of her skin when a tinny horn blew, announcing the arrival of another stagecoach.
The lad grinned at her, slipping the coin into his pocket. 'Glad to, miss. I'll go and have a word with old Tom first.'
She was about to follow him when the arriving stagecoach was drawn to a halt. Suddenly, the door was flung open. Too late to take evasive action, it hit her and knocked her back. Stunned by the force of the blow, it was only by some miracle that she managed to remain upright. A slender young man smartly dressed in whipcord breeches and jacket accompanied by a woman stepped down. The man, fair-haired and with a lean, sunburnt face that spoke of warmer climes, clearly agitated, glanced round the door and glowered crossly at her.
'Good Lord, young lady! Have you no more sense than to walk in the path of the stage!'
'II realise that, but it was not all my fault,' Victoria protested, setting her bonnet straight with trembling hands.
'It most certainly was not,' the elegant young lady attired in silver grey said, coming to Victoria's aid, a deeply concerned look on her lovely face. 'Are you hurt? Can I be of assistance?'
'Thank you, but I am not hurt. The gentleman'
'Yeshe was quite right. I should not have been walking so close to the coach. But as you see the inn yard is a throng. I have just arrived in Malton myself.'
'Well, you do not appear to be hurt,' the young man said, clamping his tall hat on his head. Somewhat agitated and clearly wanting to be on his way, he peered at her intently. 'You are all right?' he asked impatiently.
Despite the sharp pain in her arm, which she realised she must have hurt when she had bumped into the side of the coach, and not wishing to make a fuss, she replied that she was.
'That's all right then.' He gave Victoria one final brief glance before turning his attention to his wife. 'Come along, Diana. We must get on. I see Bartlet is here with the carriage.'
'Yes, I can see he is, but you go on, I'll be along in a moment.'
Unconcerned, he strode off and did not turn to look at Victoria again.
'I'm so very sorry. Are you quite sure you are all right?' the woman called Diana asked, distraught on behalf of her husband's rudeness. 'We've been abroad and my husband is eager to get home. Hehe '
'Please, do not concern yourself,' Victoria was quick to assure her. 'I really am quite all rightalbeit a little winded.'
The lady looked anxiously at her husband's retreating figure.
Victoria smiled at her. 'You'd better go. Your husband is leaving you behind.'
'If you're surebut can I not assist you in any way?'
Victoria saw in her eyes nothing but kindness and concern. She shook her head. 'You are very kind, but I am not hurt.'
'Well, if you're sure.'
'Perfectly, and thank you for your concern.'
Victoria watched her run across the yard in the wake of her husband. Still feeling a little shaken despite what she had told the lady, and her arm now beginning to throb, she made her way to the carrier cart, which was about to set off for the coastal town of Cranbeck.
'I'll be glad of the company,' Tom Smith the carrier said, hoisting a sack into the back. 'Mind you, I won't have time to take you all the way to Ashcomb. I have to be in Cranbeck at my sister's place by dark and not up on the moor. All kinds of miscreants travel the coast road at night. I can drop your trunks off in the morning on my way back.'
'You're quite right, Mr Smith, and I agree. It's a brave man who ventures across the moor after dark. You can drop me off at Ashcomb lane end. I can perfectly well walk to the village.'
'That's settled then,' he said handing her up onto the cart without more ado.
The arable farmland which was a feature of the Yorkshire lowland slowly gave way to moorland as the carrier's cart climbed higher. They passed through sun-filtered woods, up grassy banks and down sheltered valleys, until they reached a narrow lane that veered off to the left and the small village of Ashcomb.
'Will you be all right, miss?' Tom asked as Victoria jumped down from his cart.
Adjusting her bonnet, she smiled up at him. 'Of course I will and thank you for bringing me this far. You will bring my baggage to the cottage tomorrow on your way back, won't you, Mr Smith?'
'Aye, I'll see to it. I'd take you all the way, but I'll have to get a move on as it is.'
'I understand. I shall enjoy the walk.'
Tom tipped his cap and urged his horse on. 'Have a care how you go now.'
When he'd driven off Victoria stood for a moment to take in the view. The charm and tranquillity of the sweep of moorland, with rolling hills, folded valleys and the muted greens and browns of scrub and earth, wrapped itself around her in an endless vista and seeped into her bones. She breathed deep of the fresh tang of the sea beyond the moors. Combined with the warmth of late spring and the first petals of the season, it made a heady fragrance. Soon the heather would spring to life and, come July, these hills would be cloaked in glorious pinks and purple.
Two miles in the distance and nestling in the shelter of the surrounding hills was the sprawling village of Ashcomb. It was a quiet village in an obscure setting of moorland and fast-flowing streams, uneven red-roofed cottages and smoking chimney pots. Victoria was alive with that tingling thrill that surged through her whenever she came home. She drew in a deep breath, her heart soaring at the welcome sight, and the more she gazed, the more she wanted to avail herself of such joyous abandon and run. There was no disguising her love of this wild open land. The kind of satisfaction it gave her was not given by another but achieved from within, and with the fresh breeze on her face, she moved forwards, savouring every moment.
Ashcomb was home and she'd been away far too long. Her life at the Academy in York and the minor society events she'd attended with her friend Amelia and Mrs Fenwick, Amelia's mother, had been exciting and fun, but Ashcomb and her mother remained the loves of her life, the fiery beacon on a faraway hill that beckoned her home. Here she would settle back into the leisurely rhythm of country life.
A flash of scarlet caught her eye. Pausing a moment, she focused on it. A woman was galloping along the side of the beck that ran along the valley bottom. A gentleman mounted on a chestnut horse was way behind her, and the way he was riding he was clearly in hot pursuit. The clothes they were wearing and their splendid horses told her they were gentrythey also rode the moors with the God-given right of those whose family owned them, and rode the lower slopes with authority and arrogance.
Eager to see her mother, whose health was giving her cause for concern, with a spring in her step and carrying a small satchel, Victoria started on her way, smiling happily at the sheep that nipped the short moorland grass on the side of the road. A narrow ditch ran alongside and, nearing a part of the road where it narrowed and turned sharply, she was snatched from her preoccupation on seeing a horse and rider in scarlet habit hurtling towards her. Too late the horse was almost on top of her when with a cry and a diving action she went headlong into the ditch.
There had been rain the previous day and the silt and grass at the bottom had become soggy. Oh, no, she thought in perfect horror. Momentarily paralysed and stunned, she lay there gasping. She knew she wasn't hurtalthough her arm had taken another knockbut she also knew she was angry. In fact, she was furious.
Retrieving her satchel and clawing her way out of the ditch, with her bonnet hanging down her back by its ribbons, her hair in disarray and her skirts muddied, she stood at the side of the road and stared open-mouthed at the woman who had pulled her horse to a standstill. The woman gave Victoria an imperious look down her long nose and when she spoke her voice was high pitched and haughty.
'Why didn't you look where you were going?' And then on a more concerned note, she asked, 'Are you all right?'
Victoria Lewisthe product of eighteen years of careful upbringing and the product of five years at Miss Carver's Academy for young ladies in York which had, until now, produced a charming and dignified young ladylooked up at the stranger and regarded her with scathing animosity. The woman's tonecondescending, authoritative and at the same time lightly contemptuousmade Victoria's hackles rise.
'I've almost been run over by your horse,' she fumed, quite beside herself. 'Of course I'm not all right. It is you who should have looked where you were going. You might have killed me.'
The girl's boldness and forceful attack infuriated the woman on the horse. Her initial concern that she might be hurt vanished. 'How dare you speak to me so!' The words were shrill, like those that might have come from a shrew.
'I dare and I do. And look at your poor horse.' Victoria pointed to the restless mount which was all a-lather. 'And look at me.' She held out her soiled skirts.
'It's your own fault. If you hadn't been wandering in the middle of the road, you wouldn't have fallen into the ditch.'
Victoria stared up into the beautiful, arrogant face above her, seeing angry grey eyes blazing in a soft-skinned face, topped by a feather-adorned high scarlet hat to match the velvet habit that had a white ruffle at the neck. The snug waist and fitted bodice enhanced the woman's voluptuous body and the abundance of her light brown hair was secured in a net at her nape. Clearly she was a woman of note, but after Victoria's run-in with the gentleman at the station and now this, she was in no mood to be browbeaten by anyone.
'Me? If you hadn't been racing your horse to death, I should not have fallen!' she retorted before she could stop herself. 'You shouldn't be allowed on the road. Do you always ride like a lunatic?'
Her face a mask of blazing indignation, the woman could scarcely believe what she was hearing. 'What? What did you say? Why, you impertinent little baggage! You will do well to watch your tongue. I swear you will pay for this insolence.' Like a flash the woman's arm went up, the riding whip with it, as she cried indignantly, 'You dare to say such things to meto me!'
At this point another horse and rider appeared on the scene, a gentleman, and he couldn't believe his eyes at what followed, for he saw the girl standing in the road reach up, grab Clara's arm and wrench the whip from her grasp. Then in one swift movement she snapped it in two and flung it into the ditch.
'There, that's where it belongs. How dare you raise your hand to me! Do you make a habit of going around beating people?'
'What's going on here?' a deep, throaty voice broke in. 'Clara? What's all this about? It looks like a minor riot to me.'
The moment was brought to a halt by his mount. Restless at being pulled up when it had been in full stride, it tried to move on. Before the horse was brought under control it had made a full turn and moved closer to Victoria, who, always nervous around horses, eyed the beast warily and stepped out of the way of its hooves.
Distracted by the arrival of her companion, when Clara turned her head towards him a flush rose to her cheeks. Victoria saw her expression soften visibly and her eyes light up. Why, she thought, it was as if the gentleman had lit a candle inside her. The woman's affection for her companion was more than obvious.
'Thisthis girl was in the middle of the road and when I came round the corner she lost her balance and fell into the ditch,' Clara explained on a gentler note than the one she had used on Victoria, her gaze reluctant to leave her companion.
'Must you and your animal claim the whole road while lesser mortals take to the grass?' Victoria retorted, feeling that she had to remind the woman of her presence.
Clara looked at her, but addressed her companion. 'Never have I been so insulted! When I asked if she was all right the insolent girl accused me of being an idiot and a lunatic. Really! The audacity!'
'Which you are,' Victoria flared. 'I'm not sorry for calling you those things. I could have been trampled to death, or terribly crippled.'
'I don't know who you are, but you should mind your manners, girl, if you know what's good for you. And who might you be? Well?' Clara demanded, her voice unnecessarily loud in the quiet of the countryside. 'Where do you live?'
'In Ashcomb,' Victoria replied, lifting her chin proudly and looking directly into the narrowed grey eyes. 'And there is no need to shout since my hearing is perfectly sound.'
Fixing the gentleman with her gaze, her eyes restless and pensivethe very essence of tempestuous youthshe was rendered momentarily speechless by the appearance of this scowling, masculine presence. An indescribable aweor fascinationcame over her as she stared at him. She had made a study of animals in her lessons to be able to pick out in an instant the dominant male and there was no question whatsoever that he was it.
He sat tall and lean in the saddle with strong shoulders straining at the seams of his well-cut olive-green jacket. Snuff-coloured breeches were fitted snugly about his muscular legs, which gripped the horse. His boots were brown and highly polished, and he wore no hat. There was a certain insolence in the lift of his head and in the casual way his body lounged upon his horse. Even his shadow, which stretched along the ground and almost touched her feet, seemed solid.