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The Ravencliff Bride
By Dawn Thompson
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe coast of Cornwall, 1815
"Please, sir, I beg you, have the driver slow the coach!" Sara cried. "We shall tip over at this pace." Clinging to the hand strap, she held the bonnet on her head as the carriage sped toward the summit with horses at full gallop in the darkness. They'd been traveling at breakneck speed since they passed through the spiked iron gates at the bottom of the approach to Ravencliff, as though the hounds of hell were nipping at the horses' hooves.
"We need to maintain such a pace on this steep incline," the man replied. "Take ease, my dear, the coachman knows what he's about."
Peering out of the window at the sheer-faced drop to the rocky shoreline below, Sara doubted that. The road-if one could call it that-didn't appear wide enough for another coach to pass. There was no shoulder. All that separated them from the edge of the bluff was the remains of a low, stacked stone fence on the sea side, while a high wall of granite looming over the road on the other seemed to nudge them toward impending calamity.
The sound of loose pebbles and crumbling earth raining down over the rocks as they streaked along all but stopped her heart. Below, towering, white-capped combers pounded the strand, the echo of their thunder amplified by a cottony fog ghosting in off the water with the turn of the tide. Chased by the risen wind, it climbed the cliff and crept across the road obscuring Sara's view through gaps in the broken fence. She shuddered. If she couldn't see how could the coachman?
The wheel struck a rut, and the coach listed, hesitating. The road was pockmarked with them. The crack of the driver's whip, and guttural shouts to the horses soon set it in motion again, every spring and seam in the dilapidated equipage groaning under the strain.
Sara sank back against the cold leather squabs and shut her eyes, certain that any moment the post chaise would topple over the edge-coachman, groom, horses, and all. As if he'd read her thoughts, her gentleman traveling companion chuckled.
"We are almost there, Baroness Walraven," he said. "But for the fog, you'd be able to see Ravencliff once we round the next bend. Have no fear, I shall deliver you to your bridegroom all of a piece, you have my word."
Baroness Walraven. Her heart leapt at the sound of it. She must be mad. Marrying a man she hadn't even met.
"You aren't having second thoughts?" he said. "It's a bit too late for that now, my dear."
"I've been having 'second thoughts' since you came to me with this bizarre proposal, Mr. Mallory."
Again he chuckled. "In that case, you should have voiced them before accompanying me all the way to Scotland to finalize it," he said. "There's nothing to be done about it now."
"That is what puzzles me," Sara returned. "If the baron was so anxious to marry me, how is it that he couldn't come in person? Why did he send you, his steward, as proxy? That's insulting. Even under these peculiar circumstances."
"I'm crushed," he said, feigning heartbreak, "And we made such a handsome couple, too."
"What if I don't suit the baron?" Sara said, ignoring his flirtations wink. Wasn't the man full of himself, though? He was handsome, and he knew it, fair-haired and fashionable, impeccably dressed, and cultured, the second son of a baronet, to hear him tell it. She wasn't impressed.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," he replied, sliding familiar eyes the length of her.
They were the color of steel, and just as cold. "But if, by some unlikely happenstance such should be the case," he went on, "I'll be only too happy to oblige you. I thoroughly enjoyed our ... nuptials."
Sara wasn't about to distinguish that remark with an answer, but he was right. What was done was done, and there was no doubt that he looked down upon her for consenting to such an arrangement. Had the nodcock forgotten where he'd come to make the baron's offer? After six months in the Fleet Debtor's Prison, she'd have considered a marriage proposal from the devil himself to buy herself free. Would her bridegroom look down upon her for it, too? She shuddered to wonder.
How the mysterious baron had heard of her predicament puzzled her, although she'd been told that oftentimes benefactors would offer for the inmates of such places as the Fleet. That hers was an offer of marriage, and not something more indelicate should have been a comfort, she supposed, but it wasn't. The plain fact was she had consented to wed a man she'd never even seen-by proxy out of the country, mind-and let a total stranger deliver her to him in this inhospitable place in exchange for payment of her debt. The exact details of the arrangement were yet to be disclosed. She knew nothing about the baron at all, except that their fathers had served together in India and that they were evidently close friends in those days. He had stressed that point, she imagined, in order to put her at ease. Somehow it hadn't. Aside from Mallory's insistence that all proprieties would be strictly observed, and the baron's well-written proposal that was too good to resist tucked away in her reticule, she had no idea what lay in store. It couldn't be worse than the hellish nightmare she'd just come from ... could it?
"Will the baron be in residence to greet us, at least, Mr. Mallory?" she said.
"Why don't you call me 'Alex', my dear," he replied. "We shall be seeing quite a bit of each other, you know. I'm often at the manor. I keep rooms there ... for when I'm not abroad on estate business." He popped another chuckle. "You'll likely see more of me than you will of your husband, truth to tell. He keeps to himself, does Nicholas-always has done. You can take me at my word at that. We go back a long way, Nicholas and I, since our school days actually."
"You will have to take the whys and wherefores up with him, my dear," he interrupted. "I am not at liberty to disclose his objectives."
"You haven't answered my first question, Mr. Mallory," she said, making sure he didn't miss her rejection of his offer to put them on a first name basis. "Is his lordship in residence now?"
He consulted his pocket watch. "Oh, he's in residence," he replied. "Whether he's available or not, I really couldn't say-" he tucked the watch away again inside his waistcoat "-but I shan't be. Once I've delivered you to the manor, I'm off to London for a sennight to collect his houseguest, and give you two some time to yourselves."
Sara hadn't missed the seductive implications in his tone, and said no more, the less discourse with this individual the better. She'd seen too many like him in the Fleet. She tugged her spencer into shape, and ordered her traveling dress of dove-gray twill. It had gone limp in the bone-chilling dampness that had run her through like a javelin since they sighted the sea. Though the coach windows were closed, she tasted the salt on her lips. The fog still blocked her view, but that was no hardship. It spared her the sight of the restless sea rolling up the coast below, creaming over the rocky shingle, and filling the tide pools that lived in the coves. It would have been a breathtaking sight by day. In the dark, it was a fearsome thing.
"Look," Mallory said, pointing, as the chaise careened around yet another turn. "Ravencliff. You see? We have arrived."
Sara's breath caught. The sight knit the bones rigid in her spine. The house was in darkness, a huge, rambling structure steeped in the fog to its turrets, looming three stories high above the courtyard. It was crowned with a pair of carved stone ravens, set like gargoyles in the eves. It looked deserted. All at once, the dissipating mist drifted inland, as though the carriage had dispersed it, and she gasped again. Rising from the sheer-faced sea wall, Ravencliff Manor looked as though it had been hewn from the rockbound cliff it crouched upon.
The coachman reined the horses in, locked the brake, and climbed down to set the steps. The mist had soaked him through from his wide-brimmed hat to the red traveling shawl he wore beneath his coat-the only splotch of color in the vicinity-glistening in the light of the coach lamps. Meanwhile, the groom, likewise drenched, hopped off the dickey behind, and began unloading luggage from the boot.
"Not those," Mallory spoke up, exiting the chaise, as the man began to un-strap the two portmanteaux on top. "They are mine. I'm not staying." He offered Sara his hand, and she stepped down into swirling mist that all but hid the Welsh blue stone crunching underfoot. "Come along, my dear," he said. "Unless I miss my guess, that's a flaw brewing, and I want to be on level ground again before it hits."
"A flaw?" she questioned.
"That's what the locals call the wicked storms that plague this coast, especially now, in spring. You'll not want to venture out in one. The winds will blow you right over the cliff, a mere wisp of a girl like yourself. You'd best keep away from the edge even in fair weather."
They had reached the entrance, and Mallory banged the brass knocker. After a moment, the door opened and they were greeted by an aging butler and two wigged footmen dressed in blue and gold livery. Mallory ushered her over the threshold, and raised her gloved hand to his lips.
"Forgive my want of conduct running off like this," he said, returning her hand to her dutifully kissed, "but all good things must come to an end. You're quite safe in the custody of Smythe here, Baroness Walraven. He will see to your every need. It has been my pleasure, but now I must away."
Sketching a bow, he bounded down the steps and disappeared inside the coach, whose wheels were rolling over the blue stone drive before he'd settled back against the squabs.
The footmen rushed past to fetch Sara's luggage. There wasn't much, one portmanteau and a small valise containing necessities bought in London. The rest was to be provided at Ravencliff. Once they'd brought them inside, the butler shut the door and slid the bolt.
"Take Baroness Walraven's bags up to the tapestry suite," he charged them. He turned to Sara. "If you will follow me, madam," he said, "Baron Walraven awaits you in the study."
So he was in residence. She almost wished he wasn't. What would he think of her in her damp, clinging traveling costume? She tried to tuck the wet tendrils plastered to her cheeks underneath her bonnet, but it was no use. There were just too many. To her surprise, since it had seemed so dark from outside, candles sat in branches on marble tables, and in wall sconces lit the Great Hall, and the corridors they traveled. They did little to chase the gloom. There was a palpable presence of sorrow in the house, in the stale, musty air, and the melancholy echo of their footfalls on the terrazzo floors.
Just for a second, Sara thought she heard the patter of dog's feet padding along behind. She turned, but there was nothing there, and after a moment, she turned back to find the butler watching.
"Is something amiss, madam?" he queried.
"I thought I heard a dog," she said, feeling foolish now that the corridor behind as far as she could see was vacant.
"The house groans with age now and again," he said, resuming his pace. "You'll hear all sorts of peculiar noises, especially when the wind picks up. It's naught to worry over."
When they reached the study door, Smythe knocked, but there was no response at first. It wasn't until he paused a moment and knocked a second time that the Baron bade them enter, and the butler ushered her into a large room, walled in books. Dark draperies were drawn at the windows. But for a branch of candles on a stand beside the wing chair Nicholas Walraven occupied, and a feeble fire burning in the hearth, the room was steeped in shadow. Sara flinched as the door snapped shut behind her in the butler's hand. The baron set the tome he'd been perusing aside and surged to his feet, taking her measure
Excerpted from The Ravencliff Bride by Dawn Thompson Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing. Excerpted by permission.
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