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Cambridgeshire, England, 1820
The narrow village streets were crammed solid. Various animals and every sort of conveyance competed for the limited space. Stallholders selling anything from fresh produce to bolts of material and edible delicacies had set themselves up wherever they could find the room. Females engaged in the oldest profession were openly plying their trade, oblivious to the noise and lack of privacy. Fleet-footed children readied themselves to relieve the unwary of their valuables.
Nicholas Buchanan was attempting to drive his carriage through the middle of this chaos. His progress was painfully slow, his patience severely tested by the delay. A band of urchins jostled alongside, attempting to clear a path for the fine gentleman, instead almost causing a collision with an overloaded handcart. Two women conducting a raucous dispute over a basket of apples were singularly unimpressed by the splendour of Nick's equipage. They suspended hostilities and shook their fists at him, shouting disparaging remarks when they were obliged to jump clear of his team.
"I told yer to take the other road through the big town." Gibson, Nick's right-hand man, valet, mentor and friend cast a knowing sideways glance at him. "That way there'd have been no holdups."
Nick grimaced, his concentration focused on his team. "What, you'd have me listen to your advice and miss all the diversity of market day?"
"Well, it never hurts to take...whoa, what the"
Several squealing pigs made a desperate bid for freedom. They dashed across the road directly in front of Nick's carriage, causing his highly strung thoroughbreds to prance skittishly sideways. A mangy dog sprang after them, its inept attempt to round the pigs up only adding to the mayhem.
"Bloody pigs," Gibson muttered. "Why ain't the swineherd attending to his duties?"
"Probably exercising his elbow." Nick nodded toward a nearby tavern that was doing a brisk trade. Well-to-do merchants and land agents could be seen rubbing shoulders with farmers, costermongers and a wretched-looking creature who was very likely the negligent swineherd.
Nick struggled to settle his team, indifferent to the curious glances cast in his direction. When they eventually left the final cluster of houses behind them, he expelled a heartfelt sigh of relief and gave his horses their heads. They extended their stride in smooth harmony, only to round the first curve in the narrow road and find their way barred.
Their disciplined formation disintegrated into total disarray. Nick reacted instinctively, resisting the urge to yank at their delicate mouths as he fought for control. He roundly cursed the idiot who'd carelessly abandoned a gig in the centre of the road, blocking their path. The carriage swerved, rocking violently on its springs. Somehow he managed to avoid landing them in the fast-flowing river to their left as he recalled his leader to his responsibilities with a firm tug of the ribbons.
"The devil take it, what the hell's going on here?"