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Only a few more yards, Lily Bainbridge told herself. Only a little while longer and I will be safe. I will be free.
An icy wave struck her dead in the face. Gasping for breath, she pushed on, arm over arm, as she fought the unrelenting drag of the rough, rolling sea. Above her, lightning flashed against a viscous gray sky, slashes of rain hurtling downward to sting her skin like a barrage of tiny needles.
Arms quivering from the strain, she put the discomfort out of her mind and kept swimming, knowing it was either that or drown. And despite the suicide note she’d left back in her bedroom at the house, she had no intention of dying, certainly not today.
Many would call her insane to plunge into the sea during a storm, but regardless of the danger, she’d known she had to act without fear or hesitation. Delay would mean marriage to Squire Edgar Faylor, and as she’d told her stepfather, she would rather be dead than bound for life to such a loathsome brute. But her stepfather cared naught for her wishes, since marriage to Faylor would mean a profitable business deal for him.
Slowing, she scanned the jagged shoreline, and the waves that crashed in thunderous percussion against the rocks and shoals. Although she’d swum these waters for nearly the whole of her twenty years, she’d never done so during such a seething tempest. Alarmingly, nothing looked quite the same, familiar vantage points distorted by the dim light and the churning spray of the surf.
Treading fast, she fought the clinging weight of her gown, the sodden muslin coiling around her legs like iron shackles. Doubtless she would have been better off stripping down to her shift before taking to the sea, but her “death” had to look convincing, enough so that her stepfather would not suspect the truth. If she lived through this and he discovered she was still alive, he would hunt her down without an ounce of mercy.
With her heart drumming in her chest, she swam harder, knowing she dare not let herself drift and be swept out to sea. A knot formed in the base of her throat at the disquieting thought, a shiver rippling through her tired limbs. What if I’ve miscalculated? she worried. What if the storm has already carried me out too far?
Her apprehensions evaporated when a familiar sight came into view: a narrow fissure, black as coal, that cut its way into the towering cliffs that lined the shore. To the casual eye, the opening appeared no different from any of the other sea caves in the area, but Lily knew otherwise. For beyond its foreboding exterior lay protection and escape.
Giving an exuberant pair of kicks, she continued forward, crossing at an angle through the waves. With the tide now at her back, the surf pushed her fast. For a moment, she feared she might be dashed to pieces against the rocks, but at the last second the current shifted and washed her inside with a gentle, guiding hand.
Darkness engulfed her. Tamping down a momentary sense of disorientation, she swam ahead, knowing better than to be afraid. The cave was an old smuggler’s pass that had fallen into disuse, a secret retreat that had once provided a perfect hideaway for inquisitive children, and now for a truant would-be bride.
With seawater eddying around her at a placid lap, she glided forward until she brushed up against the cave’s perimeter wall. A small search soon revealed a ledge that told her she was in the right place. Dripping and shivering, she hoisted herself up onto its surface, then paused for a moment to gain her breath before rising to her feet. Careful of each step, she followed the cave’s gentle bell shape until the interior gradually widened to provide a pocket of natural warmth and dryness. When her foot struck a large, solid object, she knew she had arrived at her ultimate destination.
Teeth chattering, she leaned over and felt for a wooden lid, opening the trunk. Her fingers trembled as they curved around the lantern she knew lay inside and the metal matchbox set carefully to one side. With the strike of a match, light filled the space, flickering eerily off the rough walls and low stone ceiling. Stiff with chill, she stripped off her clothes, then reached again into the trunk for a large woolen blanket, wrapping herself inside it.
Thank heavens she’d had the foresight to secret away these supplies! After her mother’s death six months ago, she’d known she would eventually have to flee, aware that as soon as the mourning period ended, her stepfather, Gordon Chaulk, would likely decide “to do something about her,” as he’d been threatening to for years.
And so, while out on her regular daily walk, she had slowly filled the smuggler’s chest with necessities, including money, food, and a set of men’s clothes she’d altered from old ones of her father’s. As for boots, she’d had no choice but to steal a pair from one of the smaller stable boys. Not wanting the lad to suffer for his loss, she’d anonymously left him enough coin to purchase new ones. He’d grinned about the odd theft and his propitious windfall for weeks.
To her knowledge, no one but a few old-time smugglers knew about this hideout, despite the thriving business of sneaking contraband tea and French brandy past the noses of the local excise men. Certainly her stepfather wasn’t aware of the caves. To most Cornishmen, he was still considered an outsider, despite having lived here for five years—ever since marrying her mother and taking up residence at Bainbridge Manor.
Five years, Lily sighed. Five years to wear the life out of a good woman who’d deserved far, far better than she’d received.
A familiar lump swelled in her throat, a single tear sliding down her cheek. Ruthlessly, she dashed it away, telling herself that now was not the time to dwell upon her mother’s untimely demise. If only she’d been able to convince Mama to leave years ago. If only she’d been able to keep her from falling prey to the blandishments of a handsome charmer, who’d turned out to have the heart of a poisonous viper. But having been a child at the time, her opinion had not been sought, nor would it have been heeded.
Toweling dry the worst drips from her hair, Lily crossed to a pile of kindling stacked against the far wall. Using some of the wood, she built a small fire. Blessed heat soon warmed the space, calming the worst of the shivers that continued to rack her body. Returning to the trunk, she dressed in a shirt, trousers, and coat, the masculine attire feeling strange against her skin. At least the clothing is warm, and—even better—dry, she mused. And until I reach London, I had best get used to being dressed like a boy.
She wasn’t so foolish as to imagine she could journey to London on her own, at least not dressed as a woman. A female traveling without escort would invite comment, but worse, she would be subject to all manner of predators wishing to make her their prey—out to steal her reticule or, shudder the thought, her virtue. And in addition to providing her some measure of safety, the ruse would allow her to leave the area without detection. Rather than accept help of any kind, she planned to make the long walk to the coaching inn at Penzance. That way, should her stepfather question anyone later, they would have no cause to remember a redheaded girl matching her description.
Nerves made her wish she could leave now, but until the worst of the storm subsided, she knew she would be better off staying here inside the cave. Pulling on a pair of long woolen socks that eased the cold from her toes, she reached once more into the trunk for a cloth-covered wedge of cheese. Belly growling, she broke off a chunk and ate, enjoying the sharp, satisfying flavor.
Minutes later, her meal finished, she prepared to complete one last task—an act she had been dreading. Just the thought of proceeding made her cringe. But the deed must be done.
Locating her ivory comb, she drew the teeth through her damp, waist-length hair, careful to remove every last tangle before tying it back with a thin, black silk ribbon. Drawing a deep, fortifying breath, she lifted a pair of scissors and began to cut.
Three days later, Ethan Andarton, Fifth Marquis of Vessey, swallowed a last bite of shepherd’s pie, then set his knife and fork at an angle on his plate and pushed it away. Reaching for the wine bottle, he refilled his glass with a dry red of questionable vintage—apparently the best The Ox and Owl in Hungerford could provide.
Crowded full of men come to town for a nearby boxing mill, the public room hummed with noise and the occasional raucous burst of laughter. Drifting in spirals near the ceiling lay an acrid blue cloud of pipe smoke, combined with the yeasty scent of ale and the heavy aroma of fried meat. With the inn’s only private parlor already occupied, Ethan had decided to sit among the locals, tucking himself into a surprisingly comfortable corner table. From his vantage point, he could see all the boisterous goings-ons. But such matters were not on his mind as he quaffed another mouthful of wine.
It will be good to get back to London, he mused. Good to return to my usual amusements and haunts now that I’ve taken the necessary first steps to see my future arranged.
Not that he was eager to have his future arranged, but a long span of serious reflection on the matter had convinced him he could no longer afford to put off his duty. At thirty-five, he knew he must wed. He had a responsibility to his lineage, an obligation to sire sons who would carry on the family name and title. And in order to do so he must have a bride—whether he truly desired one or not.
Of course, were his older brothers, Arthur and Frederick, alive, he wouldn’t be facing this particular dilemma. Arthur would be marquis now, no doubt long since married with children of his own. But by some cruel twist of fate, both of his brothers had lost their lives during an attempt to save a tenant’s child from drowning in a storm-swollen river. Frederick had dived in first; then, when his brother failed to emerge, Arthur had followed. In the end, all three had perished, both men and the child.