Read an Excerpt
'Gartside! Alight here for Gartside!'
The guard's voice roused Claire from her doze. Feeling startled and disorientated, she looked about her and realised that the coach had stopped. She had no recollection of the last ten miles of the journey to Yorkshire and had no idea what hour it might be. At a guess it was some time in the midafternoon. Her cramped limbs felt as though they had been travelling for ever, though in reality it was three days. For more reasons than one it would be a relief to escape from the lumbering vehicle. Further reflection was denied her as the door opened.
'This is where you get down, miss.'
She nodded and, under the curious eyes of the remaining passengers, retrieved her valise and descended onto the street in front of a small and lowly inn.
'Can you tell me how far it is to Helmshaw?' she asked. 'And in which direction it lies?'
The guard jerked his head toward the far end of the street. 'Five miles. That way.'
After a grunted acknowledgement he closed the door of the coach and climbed back onto the box. Then the driver cracked his whip and the coach moved forwards. Watching it depart, Claire swallowed hard, for with it went every connection with her past life. Involuntarily her hand tightened round the handle of her bag. The latter contained all her worldly possessions, or all she had been able to carry when she left, apart from the last few shillings in her reticule. The rest of her small stock of money had been spent on the coach fare and the necessary board and lodging on her journey. Her last meal had been a frugal breakfast at dawn and she was hungry now, but the inn looked dingy and unprepossessing and she felt loath to enter it. Instead she hefted the valise and set off along the street in the direction the guard had indicated earlier.
It soon became clear that Gartside was not much of a place, being essentially a long street with houses on either side, and a few small shops. As she walked she received curious stares from the passers-by but no one spoke. A few ragged children watched from an open doorway. A little way ahead a small group of men loitered outside a tavern. Uncomfortably aware of being a stranger Claire hurried on, wanting to be gone. She hoped that Helm-shaw would prove more congenial, but a five-mile walk lay between her and it. Massing clouds threatened rain. Would it hold off until she reached her destination? And when she got there, what would be her welcome? She hadn't set eyes on Ellen Greystoke in seven years, and nor had there been any correspondence between them apart from that one letter, written to her aunt's dictation, not long after Claire had removed there. Seven years. Would her old governess remember her? Would she still be at the same address? What if Miss Greystoke had moved on? Claire shivered, unwilling to contemplate the possibility. She had nowhere else to go, no money and no immediate prospect of earning any. Moreover, there was always the chance that her uncle would discover where she had gone.
For the past three days it had been her constant dread. Each time a faster vehicle had passed the public coach her heart lurched lest it should be he. Every feeling shrank from the scene that must surely follow, for he would not hesitate to compel her return. After that she would be lost. She had no illusions about her ability to resist her uncle's will: those had been beaten out of her long since. His maxim was: Spare the rod and spoil the child, a policy he had upheld with the utmost rigour. He would have her submission all right, and would use any means to get it.
At the thought of what that submission meant her stomach churned. Within the week she would become Lady Mortimer, married against her will to a man old enough to be her father, a portly, balding baronet with a lascivious gaze that made her flesh crawl. The memory of his proposal was still horribly vivid. She had been left alone with him, an occurrence that had set warning bells ringing immediately. Her aunt and uncle were usually sticklers for propriety. After a few minutes of stilted conversation Sir Charles had seized her hand, declaring his passion in the most ardent terms. Repelled by the words and the feel of his hot, damp palms she had tried to break free, only to find herself tipped backwards onto the sofa cushions. Claire swallowed hard. Almost she could still feel his paunch pressing her down, could smell the oily sweetness of hair pomade and fetid breath on her face as he tried to kiss her. Somehow she had got a hand free and struck him. Taken aback he had slackened his hold, allowing her to struggle free of that noxious embrace and run, knowing she'd rather be dead than married to such a man. How her refusal had been represented to her uncle afterwards she could only guess, but his anger was plain.
'You stupid, ungrateful girl! Who do you think you are to be refusing such an offer? Do you imagine you will ever get another as good?'
All her protestations had counted for nothing. She could see her uncle's cold and furious face.
'You have until tomorrow morning to change your mind or I'll know the reason why. By the time I've finished with you, my girl, you'll be only too glad to marry Sir Charles, believe me.'
She had believed him, knowing full well it was no idle threat, and so she had run away the same night.
'Now there's a fancy bit of muslin.'
'Aye, I wouldn't mind ten minutes behind the tavern with her.'
The voices jolted Claire from her thoughts and, as their lewd import dawned, she reddened, recognising the group of loafers she had seen before. From their dress they were of the labouring class, but dirtier and more unkempt than was usual. Uncomfortably aware of their close scrutiny Claire kept walking, determined to ignore them, but as she drew nigh the group one of them stepped in front of her blocking the way. When she tried to go round him he sidestepped too, blocking the path again. He looked to be in his early twenties. Taller than her by several inches and sturdily built, he was dressed like the others in a brown drab coat and breeches. A soiled green neckcloth was carelessly tied about his throat. Lank fair hair straggled beneath a greasy cap and framed a narrow unshaven face with a thin-lipped mouth and cold blue eyes. These were now appraising her, missing no detail of her appearance from her straw bonnet to the dark blue pelisse and sprigged muslin frock. Although she had dressed as plainly as she could to avoid attracting attention, there was no mistaking the fine quality and cut of her garments.
'Can you spare a coin, miss?'
'I'm sorry, no.'
'Just a shilling, miss.'
'I have none to spare.'
'I find that hard to believe, a fine young lady like yourself.'
'Believe what you like.'
She made to step round him again, but again he prevented it.
'Suppose I take a look for myself.'
Before she could anticipate it he grabbed her reticule. Claire tried to snatch it back, but he held on. His four companions gathered round, grinning. Seeing herself surrounded she fought panic, knowing instinctively it would be a mistake to show fear. He shook the reticule and heard the chink of coins. Her last few shillings!
'Sounds like money to me,' he remarked with a wink to the general audience.
'Give that back.'
He grinned. 'What if I don't, eh?'
Claire glared at her tormentor. She had not risked so much and come all this way merely to fall victim to another bully. Resentment welled up, fuelling her anger, and without warning she lashed out, dealing him a ringing crack across the cheek.
'Give it back, you oaf!'
In sheer surprise he let go of the reticule while his companions drew audible breaths and looked on in delighted anticipation. Claire lifted her chin. 'Get out of my way!'
She would have pushed past, but he recovered and seized her arm in a painful grip.
'You'll pay for that, you little bitch.'
Glaring up at him, she forced herself to meet the cold blue eyes.
'High and mighty, aren't we? But I'll take you down a peg or two.'
'Aye, that's it, Jed,' said a voice from the group. 'Show her.'
A chorus of agreement followed and with pounding heart Claire saw them move in closer. Jed smiled, revealing stained and decaying teeth.
'Since you won't give a coin I'll take payment in kind. Perhaps we all will, eh, lads?'
A murmur of agreement followed. Her captor glanced toward the alley that ran alongside the tavern. Claire, following that look, felt her stomach lurch.
'Let go of me.'
She tried to twist free, but his grip only tightened. In desperation she kicked out. The blow connected and she heard him swear, but it was a temporary victory. Moments later she was dragged into the alley and shoved up against the outer wall of the inn. Then his arm was round her waist and his free hand exploring her breast. She could feel his hot breath on her neck. Claire struggled harder.
'Aye, go on, fight me. I like it better that way.'
'Let me go!'
'Not before I've given you what you need, lass.' 'Save some for us, Jed,' said a voice from behind him.
He grinned appreciatively. 'I reckon there's enough here to go round. You'll get your turns when I'm done.'
More laughter greeted this. Claire screamed as Jed's hands fumbled with her skirt.
'Let her go!'
Hearing that hard, cold command, the group fell silent, turning to look at the newcomer who had approached unnoticed. Claire swallowed hard, her heart pounding even as her gaze drank in every detail of her rescuer's appearance. An arresting figure, he was a head taller than any present. His dress proclaimed the working man, but there the similarity ended: if anything his upright bearing smacked more of a military background. The brown serge coat had seen better days but it was clean and neat and covered powerful shoulders; waistcoat, breeches and boots adorned a lean, athletic figure that had not an ounce of fat on it. Dark hair was visible from beneath a low-crowned felt hat. However, it was the face that really held attention, with its strong bone structure and slightly aquiline nose, the chiselled, clean-shaven lines accentuated by a narrow scar that ran down the left side from cheek to jaw. The sculpted mouth was set in a hard, uncompromising line, as uncompromising as the expression in the grey eyes.
For a moment or two there was silence, but the hold on Claire's arm slackened. With pounding heart she glanced up at the newcomer, but he wasn't looking at her. The hawk-like gaze was fixed on her persecutor. The latter sneered.
'This is none of your business, Eden.'
'Then I'll make it my business, Stone.' The quiet voice had the same Yorkshire burr as the others, but it also held an inflexion of steel.
'We were just having a little fun, that's all.'
'The lady doesn't seem to share your idea of amusement.'
'What's it to you?'
The reply was a large clenched fist that connected with Stone's jaw. The force of the blow pitched him backwards and sent him sprawling, stunned, in the mud of the alley. Before he could stir, one of his companions threw a punch at Eden. He blocked it and brought his knee up hard into his attacker's groin. The man doubled over in agony. As he staggered away a third stepped in. Eden ducked under the swinging fist and landed his opponent a savage upper cut that lifted him off his feet and flung him backwards to lie in the mud with Stone. Seeing the fate of their fellows, the remaining two men hesitated, then backed away. Eden threw them one contemptuous glance and then looked at Claire.
'Are you hurt, miss?'
'No. I I'm all right,' she replied, hoping her voice wouldn't shake.
'Good. Then I'll set you on your way.'
He looked round at the others as though daring them to challenge the words, but no one did. Instead they avoided his eye and moved aside. Seeing her bag lying nearby, Eden picked it up. As he did so, Stone came to, propping himself groggily on one elbow, his other hand massaging the lump on his jaw. Blood trickled from a split lip.
'You'll get yours, Eden, I swear it!'
If the other was in any way perturbed by the threat he gave no sign of it save that the glint in the grey eyes grew a shade harder.
'I'll look forward to that, Stone.'
Then, placing a firm but gentle hand under her elbow, he led Claire away from the scene.
For a few moments they walked in silence and she was grateful for the respite because it allowed her time to regain her self-control. She was trembling now with reaction and the knowledge of how narrow her escape had been. Moreover she was ashamed to the depths of her soul to have been seen in such a situation. Respectable young women did not travel unaccompanied and would never place themselves in circumstances where they might attract the attentions of such brutes as those. Her face reddened. What must he think?
She stole a glance at her protector, but the handsome face gave nothing away. Nor did he venture a comment of any kind. Instead they walked on in silence until they were well clear of the tavern, she all the while aware of the warmth of his hand beneath her elbow. It was a gesture that was both comforting and disturbing at once. Yet the nearness of this man was not threatening as those others had been. How much she owed him. She stole another look at his face.