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Munnoch Moor, Scotland
The night was dark and a chill wind howled through the forest. A solitary figure stood in silence, his presence concealed by the trees, watching the yard of the coaching inn. His focus never wavered from the mail coach that had stopped there, just stayed trained on the door while it opened and the steps were kicked into place. His pale silver gaze sharpened, like a hunter that sights its prey. As the lone woman alighted from the coach, Wolf smiled and knew that he had found his quarry.
The coach rumbled away into the night leaving Rosalind standing in the yard of the Blairadie coaching inn. No other passengers had disembarked; she was alone, save for the man who soon disappeared within the inn hauling the sack of letters that the coach had delivered. The lanterns swayed in the wind, creaking and sending their light dancing against the grey walls that encompassed the yard and the stonework of the stables. The hour was so late that there was no hum of voices from the inn, no blaze of lights or welcoming glow of fires. No chinks of light peeped through the curtains drawn across the windows. In the distance, a church clock struck twelve.
Rosalind glanced around the empty yard nervously, eyes searching through the dim lantern light to find the man her new employer had sent to collect her. She was unsure of what to do, whether to wait here outside alone, or follow the other man into the inn. A voice sounded, male, not Scottish like those she had grown accustomed to hearing for the past days in Edinburgh, but rather with an accent that had a strong Yorkshire vein.
She started, and glanced round.
A tall man wearing a long dark riding coat stood by the yard's entrance. The brim of his hat kept his face shadowed and invisible. There was something about the figure, so dark and dangerous and predatory, that her heart seemed to cease beating and the breath caught in her throat. She thought in that moment that, despite all that she had done to escape him, Evedon had found her. And then, sense and reasoning kicked in and she told herself that, of course, he was Hunter's man sent to fetch her.
'You are from Mr Stewart of Benmore House?' she asked tentatively.
The man gave a nod. 'Come to collect the new housekeeper, ma'am.'
She smiled her relief and walked across the yard towards him. 'That is welcome news indeed, sir.' She was here at last. Only a few miles now lay between Rosalind and the start of her new life running the household of Mr Stewart at Benmore House on Munnoch Moorfar, far away from London and Lord Evedon.
He took the travelling bag from her hand. 'Allow me, ma'am.'
He turned and began to walk out of the inn's yard. 'We had best get a move on.'
'Of course.' She followed after him.
Outside the yard, the moonlight revealed the presence of a cart with a single horse parked at the road's side, a small inconsequential vehicle almost unnoticed against the dark edge of the trees. She wondered why he had travelled in a cart rather than a gig.
The man was tall, with long legs and a big stride. Rosalind quickened her pace to stay with him.
He dumped her bag in the back of the cart and climbed up to the seat at the front, before turning and reaching a hand down towards Rosalind.
The moon was behind him, rendering his face shadowed and the features invisible. Rosalind hesitated, an inexplicable shiver running down her spine. Overhead, the night sky hung like a canopy of rich black velvet studded with the brilliance of diamond stars. The moon was half full, a white opalescent semicircle that shone with an ethereal brilliance to light the road behind Mr Stewart's servant.
'Miss Meadowfield,' he urged in a tone that was hard and clipped.
And just for a moment she had the urge to turn where she was and run. She quelled the thought, telling herself not to be foolish, that what had happened at Evedon House was making her too fearful, too suspicious. London and Lord Evedon were close to five hundred miles away. She was safe here. She looked at the strong, long, blunt-tipped fingers extended towards her and, without further hesitation, reached her own hand to his.
His grasp was warm even through the fine leather of her glove, and strong. Again she was aware of that frisson of sensation that tingled through her. But she could think no more on it, for he was pulling her up to sit on the small wooden bench beside him.
He twitched the reins within his fingers and the cart began to roll forward, making Rosalind grab for the edge of the seat.
She felt, rather than saw, the way his head turned to look at her hands clutched so tightly and the uneasy way she sat forward, staring with trepidation at the horse before her. She could see the smoky condensation of the horse's breath against the darkness of the night, could hear its soft breathing and smell its strong scent. She inhaled deeply and slowly, releasing the breath even more slowly and loosening the tight grip of her fingers to something more reasonable.
He made no comment, yet even so, Rosalind felt the flush of warmth in her cheeks. Embarrassment made her seek somethinganythingto say, desperately searching for a diversion from her awkwardness.
'It is a cold night for the time of year.' She looked round at him, and attempted to sit back more comfortably on the seat.
The man gave no response, just manipulated the reins, and made soft clicking noises to steer them round so that the horse and cart were ready to trot down a smaller road to the side. As they changed direction, the moon lit his face so that Rosalind saw him for the first time. He was not as old as she had expected; indeed, she estimated that he could not be so very much older than her own twenty-five years.
His were strong features, harsh and lean and handsome. High cheekbones and a chiselled jawline, a straight manly nose and a hard uncompromising mouth that did not smile. A small pale scar slashed across the skin of his cheek beneath his right eye. And his face held a slightly mocking expression. But it was none of these things that caused the breath to catch in Rosalind's throat. Within the cool moonlight, the man's eyes seemed almost silver, and he was looking at her with an expression so cold as to freeze her.
The shock of it made her rapidly avert her gaze, and when she glanced again, his face was looking forward and in shadow once more. She wondered if she had been mistaken. And the thought occurred to her that perhaps he knew that she was lying to Mr Stewart and that she had come from Evedon House. Perhaps he even knew her real identity. It was impossible, of course. They had hanged her father twenty years ago. And as for the restEvedon and his accusationsshe had been careful: writing her application from Louisa's in Edinburgh, lying about what she had been doing for the last years, erasing any hint of a connection with the dowager Lady Evedon.
The man was probably just irritated at being dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to fetch her. She was safe. She was going to Benmore House and everything would be fine. She took a deep breath and tried to convince herself of that.
'You have the advantage of me, sir. I do not know your name.' Small talk, something plucked from the air to break the uneasy silence that lay between them.
Within the quiet of the night, the horse's iron-shod hooves were loud against the compacted surface of the road. Rosalind deliberately kept her gaze averted from the horse, glancing round at Hunter's man instead. There was only the noise of the horse's hooves, and she thought that he would not answer her, but eventually he spoke.
'Wolversley, but they call me Wolf.' The silver eyes flicked down to meet hers once more.
Wolf. The skin on the nape of Rosalind's neck prickled, and not just at the name. There was an intensity in that single silver glance that shook her.
The reins twitched beneath his fingers and the horse began to pick up its pace. She could not help but grip again at the seat.
'Is the pace too fast for you, ma'am?' She thought she heard an edge of mockery in his words, but whether it was there in truth or was just a product of her own guilty imagination, she did not know.
'No, sir. The pace is perfectly fine.' Rosalind had no intention of admitting her fear to anyone at the Hunter residence. One more secret to be kept amidst many. 'Perhaps you could tell me something of Benmore House.'
'Best just to wait and see for yourself,' he replied. A moment's pause before he added, 'But happen you could tell me of Benmore's new housekeeper. We have been curious as to Miss Meadowfield.'
Not a question that Rosalind wished to answer, yet she knew that she would have to do so time and again within her new position, and she supposed that now was as good a time as any to start. 'There is little to tell, Mr Wolversley.'
'Wolf,' he corrected.
And again that strange sensation whispered down her spine. 'Where did you work prior to taking up this position? Mr Stewart said it was Edinburgh.'
'I did indeed work for a household in Edinburgh.'
'Anyone we would have heard of?'
'No one you would have heard of,' she replied quickly, not wishing to drag her old school friend and her family into this any more than was necessary. It had been good of Louisa to take her in after her flight from London, especially given that she knew the truth of Rosalind's father. It had also been Louisa's idea to say that Rosalind had spent the last years as her housekeeper and to write her a glowing character in response to the advertisement that she had taken from Lady Evedon's chamber that terrible night. Even so, she had not told Louisa the truth of that night, just that there had been a disagreement and she wished to find paid employment.
'Where exactly did you work, ma'am, if you do not mind me asking?'
Rosalind's heart skipped a beat. 'Oh.' She forced a smile and tried to sound as if everything was perfectly normal. 'Ainslie Place. A fairly small household.'
'Ainslie Place?' Wolf turned his face to hers and she was struck anew at its strength and harsh handsomeness, and the cold cynical light in his eyes that he made no pretence of disguising. 'Interesting.'
And the thought that pulsed in her brain was that this Wolf might prove to be a very dangerous man to her, although in quite what way she did not know. 'I am glad that you think so,' she said with careful politeness and glanced away, desperate to think of some way of steering him on to a safer topic.
'What made you wish to leave?'
'I read Mr Stewart's advertisement in The Times and thought the position exactly suited to my purposes.' That much, at least, was true.
'You were not happy where you were?'
'I was very happy, but I am a little tired of the city. Benmore House's rural location attracted me greatly.' Indeed, it was Benmore's isolated location and distance from London as well as Mr Stewart's self-confessed hermit tendencies that had made it the perfect place for Rosalind. She could remain hidden in the safety of such obscurity and earn a living.
'What of you, sir?' she said, determined to draw him away from pursuing the matter any further. 'Yours does not sound to be a local accent.'
'I am a Yorkshire man.' There was a ruggedness to his voice.
'And have you worked at Benmore House for long?'
'Long enough,' he said and glanced round at her with that harsh unsmiling demeanour, and again she felt the faint shimmer of something ripple down her spine, something that she could not quite place. A warningor excitement. More like foolishness and fatigue, she told herself firmly.
'Come straight over from Edinburgh have you?'
She gave a small nod of her head.
The man Wolf gave no comment, and Rosalind made no further attempt at conversation with a man who was more interested in asking his own questions rather than answering hers. Better an awkward silence than another awkward question, she thought. Perhaps this was going to be harder than she had anticipated. Perhaps her own lies would trip herself up in the first week. She closed her eyes against the thought. It was late and she was tired. Everything would be better once she reached Benmore House.
The horse's hooves clattered against the road's surface, the cart wheels rumbled as they turned, and all around was the whisper of the cool night breeze through the leaves of hedges and trees. They turned off the main road, taking first one country track before criss-crossing to another and another, until Rosalind lost all sense of direction. On and on, for what seemed like miles; Rosalind thought they would never reach their destination. Mr Stewart's advertisement had described Benmore House as a country house with a staff of twenty servants situated on the moorland some few miles from the Blairadie inn. To Rosalind, who was both nervous and weary, a few miles had never seemed so long.
Eventually he guided the horse and cart off the track, to follow a narrow path into some woodland. Through the trees to where they were heading, Rosalind saw a spiral of smoke curling pale against the darkness of the night sky. Benmore House, she thought, and a spurt of both relief and excitement surged through her. Soon she would be safe from Evedon. Soon she would start her new life. The horse rounded a corner, and she saw from where the smoke was coming.
A tiny woodsman's cottage stood in a clearing; two horses were tethered in its small lean-to stable.
Rosalind stared as the man brought the cart to a stop before it. She turned to him in confusion and looked up into his face.
'But this is not Benmore House.'
'No, it is not,' he said.
'I do not understand.'
'You will soon enough.' His lips curved ever so slightly emphasizing the mockery in his face.
Realization hit her hard, landing like a punch in her stomach. She reacted quickly, springing to her feet, ready to leap the distance to the ground, but a strong arm hooked around her, pulling her back against him.
'Oh, no, you do not,' he growled. He held her firm. 'Do not think to try to escape me, Miss Rosalind Meadowfield. I would fetch you back in the blink of an eye, and tan your backside, lady or not. Do I make myself clear?'