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Miss Emily Stapleton cast a glance at her silent companion, seated beside her in the curricle, before fixing what one languishing dolt in Brighton the previous summer had been overheard to describe as deep pools of sheer enchantment on the road ahead.
Tooling herself about the countryside had swiftly become one of her favourite pastimes, especially since the long and dreary winter months had given way to what was betraying every sign of becoming a very fine spring. All in all, she decided, experiencing a feeling of smug satisfaction, life at the moment was exceedingly pleasant, free from cares.
Her decision to remove to Dorsetshire and live with her paternal grandfather had undoubtedly been a heart-rending one to make, and one, moreover, of which her beloved late mother would have staunchly disapproved, but even so Emily had never regretted the choice she had made. After all, the alternative had been unthinkable, and a subject upon which, even after almost half a decade, she still found it distressing to dwell.
By dint of long practice, she once again succeeded in thrusting the painful memory to the back of her mind as she cast a further glance, brimful of mischief this time, at her companion. "You're very quiet, Sarah. Not nervous, I trust, at being driven about by a female? Even my watchdog,' she added, deliberately raising her voice for the benefit of the small, stocky individual perched on the back, "is secretly impressed with my ability, although he stubbornly refuses to admit to it of course.'
Jonas Finn's deep grunt in response made Sarah chuckle, something which she tended to do far more frequently whenever in the company of her closest friend. "I'm not in the least nervous,' she assured her, "and I'm enjoying the experience very much. I would have come out with you long before now if I hadn't been so busy with all the arrangements for the party next week.'
Exercising masterly self-control, Emily managed to refrain from comment, even though there was much she would dearly have liked to say, and possibly would if there wasn't a noticeable improvement in her companion's day-to-day existence in the very near future.
One of the things that had very much increased her enjoyment of residing in Dorsetshire during the past years had been the swift friendship which had sprung up between her and Sarah Nichols, who had been invited by her godmother, Lady Deverel, to make her home at Deverel Hall a matter of a few months before Emily herself had come to live with her grandfather.
Undoubtedly their orphaned status was the common bond from which a solid friendship and a deep, almost sisterly affection had rapidly emerged. Many in the locale had expressed genuine sympathy for them both. Which, Emily considered, in her case at least was totally unmerited. The Honourable Mr John Stapleton might not have been the ideal person to take charge of his orphaned granddaughter. Undeniably he was selfishly set in his ways, and considerably vague on occasions, but for all his woolliness of mind, which Emily privately thought was a sham for the most part, they rubbed along together remarkably well.
He had from the first made her very welcome, and had permitted her to do more or less as she pleased; whereas poor Sarah had been invited to live in a household where its occupants were not above taking full advantage of her presence to such an extent that her status was little above that of a housekeeper-cum-companion. And an unpaid one at that! It made Emily fume to think that her sweet-natured friend was so put upon by those who were happy enough to call her Cousin, even though the connection was remote. To be fair, though, Emily was forced to own that Sarah herself was much to blame for her present lifestyle.
"And I suppose you have seen to all the arrangements in your usual efficient way.'
Grey eyes were swiftly lowered. "II haven't been responsible for them all. Godmama has been of immeasurable help.'
"A likely story!' Emily scoffed. "Your godmother couldn't organise the lighting of candles in a front parlour! And as for that pampered daughter of hers I do not doubt that you will be so much at Drusilla's beck and call from now until her birthday party takes place, ensuring everything is perfect, that you'll be given precious little time to organise your own toilette.' Once again she risked taking her eyes off the road ahead to cast her friend a suspicious glance. "I'll wager you've not even begun to make up that length of pink silk you purchased the other week.'
The sheepish expression was answer enough. "No, I thought not,' Emily muttered. "If you give it to me I'll make a start on the gown. I might not be your equal with a needle, but at least I can cut it out for you.'
Sarah betrayed her mortification in a very becoming blush. "Oh, no! I wouldn't dream of taking advantage of our friendship by asking such a thing.'
"You won't be, because I offered,' Emily pointed out, determined to have her way in this.
A flicker of gratitude sprang into Sarah's eyes. "Well, if you're certain you don't mind, I would be most grateful. I did wonder when I'd find time to make a start on the dress. I understand that Cousin Charles has invited several of his friends to the party whilst he has been staying away in London. In fact, there will be so many guests putting up at the house that I've offered to give up my room so that we can accommodate all Drusilla's friends too.'
This intelligence induced Emily to take her eyes off the road once more in order to subject her friend to a prolonged, considering stare. "And where do you propose to sleep? In one of the attic rooms, I suppose, with the rest of the servants?' She had meant it in jest, but it swiftly became clear, when Sarah appeared reluctant to meet her gaze, that she had hit upon the truth. "You don't mean to tell me that that is where the Deverels are expecting you to sleep?'
"Well, yes. Butbut I did suggest it in the first place And it's only for a few days.'
"I don't believe I'm hearing this!' Emily announced, hard put to conceal her disgust. She had never been afraid to speak her mind, most especially when in the company of people with whom she was well acquainted, and so did not think twice about adding, "Well, you're not! You can stay with Grandpapa and me. And I won't take no for an answer!'
The invitation, though forcefully delivered, was kindly meant, and Sarah, gazing ahead at the stretch of road which traversed Kempton Wood, was very tempted to accept. "Well, if you're certain your grandfather wouldn't object to having a Look out!'
Sarah's unexpected warning coincided with a considerably gruffer one delivered from the rear of the carriage. With lightning reflexes, Emily quickly had her horses veering to the left in an attempt to avoid a collision with the staggering figure that had unexpectedly emerged from the edge of the wood.
Hurriedly bringing her team to a halt, Emily glanced back over her shoulder to discover to her intense dismay the man now lying sprawled on the ground. "Oh, dear Lord!' she cried. "I must have hit him, after all!'
Without a second thought she tossed the reins to Sarah, before jumping down from the curricle and racing back along the road, her faithful and ever vigilant groom at her heels.
"Be careful, miss,' Jonas warned, drawing out the pistol which he invariably carried whenever accompanying his young mistress about the countryside. "It might be a trap. There could be others lurking. I don't reckon you did run him down.'
Although occasionally described as stubborn and headstrong, Emily was not so wilful as to ignore sound advice. "No, I didn't think I had,' she agreed, approaching the recumbent figure with caution and swiftly detecting the dark stain seeping through a charred portion of his coat. "No, it isn't a trap, Finn. He's hurt. He's been shot!'
Dropping to her knees, Emily carefully turned the man over on to his back before gently resting his head in her lap. He wasn't very old, no more than twenty-five or six, she judged, but she very much feared from the position of the wound in his chest that he was destined not to celebrate a further birthday.
Lids, badly swollen, flickered as she brushed the blond hair back from his grazed forehead, and a moment later she was subjected to a puzzled, faraway look from eyes of a similar hue to her own.
"Lie still,' she urged gently, as he made a feeble attempt to raise an arm. "We'll get help to you soon.' She glanced up at her groom, who remained avidly scanning the wood, and was about to instruct him to go back to the house to get help when the stranger began to speak, thereby instantly regaining her attention.
"No time.' His voice was so faint that Emily only just managed to catch the words. "Must must get word to The Kestrel to be inin Raven m-midnight six six-teenth.'
"What's that he said, miss?'
"I'm not certain, Jonas. Sounded utter gibberish to me,' she admitted.
"He's probably lost his wits, miss.'
"No, Jonas. I'm afraid he's just lost his life,' she enlightened him, as the stranger's head lolled to one side, and his last breath passed between the cut and swollen lips.
It took Emily a moment or two to recover from the very unpleasant experience of having someone die virtually in her arms, then, with the admirable self-control which she always displayed in times of stress, she rose to her feet, mistress of herself once again. "There's nothing more we can do for the poor fellow now, except drag him off the road. We'll go directly back to the house. You and the stable-lad can come back here to collect the body in the cart, and then go straight over to see Sir George Maynard and apprise him of what's happened, whilst I, in the meantime, see Miss Nichols safely returned to Deverel Hall.
"Now, for the love of heaven don't argue, Finn!' she ordered, when he was about to do just that. "I'm quite capable of driving the two miles to the Hall without your escort.'
A little over an hour later Emily was back in the pleasant house which had been her home for the past few years, and was endeavouring, without much success, to explain to her somewhat eccentric grandsire precisely what had taken place during the eventful journey back from the local town.
Appearing faintly bewildered, he regarded her in silence for a moment over the rim of his half-moon spectacles. "Shot?'
"Yes, Grandfather, shot.'
"But I thought you just said that you'd run him down.'
"No, I didn't say that,' she corrected, striving to be patient with the old gentleman, who could be something of a trial on occasions. "Do try to pay attention, sir. I said I thought I must have run him down, but I hadn't. He'd been shot.'
He bent a look of mild reproach upon her. "But you cannot go about the county shooting people, my dear. I dare swear a great many folk deserve it. But it simply won't do. Will not do at all! Besides, Sir George won't be best pleased when he hears about it.'
"Oh, for heaven's sake!' Emily exclaimed, just as the door opened and her grandfather's housekeeper showed none other than the local magistrate himself into the parlour.
Sir George Maynard, a large, grey-haired gentleman with a big barrel chest, which his waistcoats strained to cover, and deceptively merry blue eyes, which little escaped, was a much respected figure in the community. He was an old acquaintance of John Stapleton's, and had a fondness for his friend's granddaughter, which he betrayed now by casting her a sympathetic smile, whilst giving her slender hands a brief, reassuring squeeze.
"A very distressing experience for you, my dear. Wouldn't have had it happen for the world.'
"Glad to hear you've taken it in such good part, George!' Mr Stapleton announced, instantly gaining his friend's attention. "Least said soonest mended, eh? I've already given her a scold, so it's best we forget about the whole business.' He glanced about in a vague manner. "Now, what brought me in here in the first place, Emily?'
"Your book, Grandfather. It's here on the table.' She picked it up and handed it to him. "Why don't you return to your library, and leave me to talk to Sir George. I'm certain he'll be happy to join you for a glass of port later.'
Never needing much encouragement to repair to the room where he spent much of his time, Mr Stapleton was happy to leave, and Emily was even happier to close the door behind him, before turning to her visitor whose round face was wreathed in an understanding smile.
"A bit vague this morning, eh?'
Emily raised one fine brow in a sceptical arch. "He's only vague, as I suspect you must realise, Sir George, when he doesn't choose to be troubled by something.'
She invited her visitor to take a seat and then, without asking, as he had never been known to refuse, automatically poured him a glass of wine. "You've spoken to Jonas Finn, I do not doubt, and have seen the body?'
"Yes, m'dear,' he acknowledged, after sampling the contents of his glass and watching her gracefully lowering her slender frame, which was a delight for a man of even his advanced years to behold, into the chair opposite. "I don't suppose for a moment there's much more you can add, so I've no intention of plaguing you with a barrage of questions. I've arranged for the body to be removed to the undertaker's in Kempton.' The Baronet regarded her in silence for a moment. "You didn't recognise the fellow, I suppose?'
"No, sir. Never set eyes on him before today.'
"Er Finn did just happen to mention the man said something to you before he died.'
Emily nodded. "But nothing that made any sense. He spoke so faintly I could hardly catch what he was saying.'
"Pity. It might have given us a clue as to his identity.' The local Justice of the Peace paused to sample a drop more of the excellent claret whilst all the time studying his compan-ion's delicate features above the rim of his glass. "Whater did he say precisely, m'dear?'