|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.74(h) x 1.24(d)|
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The Silent Governess
By Julie Klassen
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2009 Julie Klassen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt is nought good a slepyng hound to wake. -Geoffrey ChauCer
Twelve years later November 1, 1815
Heart pounding with fear and regret, Olivia Keene ran as though hellhounds were on her heels. As though her very life depended upon her escape.
Fleeing the village, she ran across a meadow, bolted over the sheep gate, caught her skirt, and went sprawling in the mire. The bundle in her cape pocket jabbed against her hip bone. Ignoring it, she picked herself up and ran on, looking behind to make sure no one followed. Ahead lay Chedworth Wood.
The warnings of years echoed through her mind. "Don't stray into the wood at night." Wild dogs stalked that wood, and thieves and poachers camped there, with sharp knives and sharper eyes, looking for easy game. A woman of Olivia's four-and-twenty years knew better than to venture into the wood alone. But her mother's cries still pulsed in her ears, drowning out the old voice of caution. The danger behind her was more real than any imagined danger ahead.
Shivers of fear prickling over her skin, she hurled herself into the outstretched arms of the wood, already dim and shadowy on the chill autumn evening. Beneath her thin soles, dry leavescrackled. Branches grabbed at her like gnarled hands. She stumbled over fallen limbs and underbrush, every snapping twig reminding her that a pursuer might be just behind, just out of sight.
Olivia ran until her side ached. Breathing hard, she slowed her pace. She walked for what seemed like an hour or more and still hadn't reached the other side of the wood. Was she traveling in a circle? The thought of spending the night in the quickly darkening wood made her pick up her pace once more.
She tripped on a tangle of roots and again went sprawling. She heard the crisp rip of fabric. A burning scratch seared her cheek. For a moment she lay as she was, trying to catch her breath.
The pain of the fall broke through the dam of shock, and the hot tears she had been holding back poured forth. She struggled up and sat against a tree, sobbing.
Almighty God, what have I done?
A branch snapped and an owl screeched a warning to his mate. Fear instantly stifled her sobs. Hairs prickling at the back of her neck, Olivia searched the moonlit dimness with wide eyes.
Eyes stared back.
A dog, wiry and dark, stood not twenty feet away, teeth bared. In silent panic, Olivia scratched the ground around her, searching for something to use as a weapon. The undergrowth shook and the ground pulsed with a galloping tread. Two more dogs ran past, one clenching something round and white in its jaws. The head of a sheep?
The first dog turned and bounded after the other two, just as Olivia's fingers found a stout stick. She gripped it tightly, wishing for a moment that she still held the fire iron. Shivering in revulsion,
Olivia thrust aside the memory of its cold, hard weight. She listened for several tense seconds. Hearing nothing more, she rose, stick firmly in hand, and hurried through the wood, hoping the dogs wouldn't follow her trail.
* * *
The moon was high above the treetops when she saw it. The light of a fire ahead. Relief. Wild animals were afraid of fire, were they not? She tentatively moved nearer. She had no intention of joining whoever had camped there-perhaps a family of gypsies or a gentlemen's hunting party. Even if the rumors of thieves and poachers were stuff and nonsense, she would not risk making her presence known. But she longed for the safety the fire represented. She longed, too, for its warmth, for the November night air stole mercilessly through her cape and gown. Perhaps if another woman were present, Olivia might ask to warm herself. She dared move a little closer, stood behind a tree and peered around it. She saw a firelit clearing and four figures huddled around the flames in various postures of repose. The sound of men talking and jesting reached her.
"Squirrel again tonight, Garbie?" a gravelly voice demanded.
"Unless Croome comes back with more game."
"This time o' night? Not dashed likely."
"More likely he's lyin' foxed in the Brown Dog, restin' his head on Molly's soft pillows."
"Not Croome," another said. "Never knew such a monkish man."
Every instinct told Olivia to flee even as she froze where she stood. This was no family, nor any party of gentlemen. Fear slithering up her spine, she turned and stepped away from the tree.
A young man's loud whisper stopped Olivia's retreat. She stood still, afraid to make another sound.
"What's what? I don't hear nofin'."
"Maybe it is Croome."
Olivia took a tentative tiptoe step. Then another. A sticky web coated her face, startling her, and she stumbled over a log onto the ground.
Before she could right herself, the sound of footsteps surrounded her and harsh lamplight blinded her.
"Well, kiss my bonnie luck star," a young man breathed.
Olivia struggled to her feet and pushed down her skirts. She brushed her fallen hair from her face and tried to remain calm.
"Croome's got a mite prettier since we saw 'im last," said a second young man.
Beside him, a bearded hulk glowered down at her. In the harsh, gravelly voice she had first heard, he demanded, "What are ya doin' here?"
Panic shot through her veins. "Na-nothing! I saw your fire and I-"
"Looking for some company, were ya?" The big man's leer chilled her to the marrow. "Well, ya come to the right place- hasn't she, lads?"
"Aye," another agreed.
The big man reached for her, but Olivia recoiled. "No, you misunderstand me," she said. "I simply lost my way. I don't want-"
"Oh, but we do want." His gleaming eyes were very like those of the wild dog.
The stout stick she had been carrying was on the ground, where it had landed when she fell. She lunged for it, but the man grabbed her from behind. "Where d'ya think yer going? Nowhere soon, I'd wager."
Olivia cried out, but did manage to get her hand around the stick as he hauled her up.
"Let go of me!"
The burly man laughed. Olivia spun in his arms and swung the stick like a club. With a thwack, it caught the side of his head. He yelled and covered the wound with his hands.
Olivia scrambled away, but two other men grabbed her arms and legs, wrestled the stick from her, and bore her back to the fire.
"You all right, Borcher?" the youngest man asked, voice high.
"I will be. Which is more'n I can say for her."
"Please!" Olivia implored the men who held her. "Release me, I beg of you. I am a decent girl from Withington." My brother lives near there," the youngest man offered.
"Shut up, Garbie," Borcher ordered.
"Perhaps I have met your brother," she said desperately. "What is his na-?"
"Shut yer trap!" Borcher charged forward, hand raised.
"Borcher, don't," young Garbie urged. "Let her go."
"After the hoyden hit me? Not likely." Borcher grabbed her roughly, pinning both arms to her sides with one long, heavy arm and pressing her back against a tree.
She tried in vain to stomp on his foot, but her kid slippers were futile against his boots. "No!" she shouted. "Someone help me. Please!"
His free hand flashed up and clasped her jaw, steely fingers clamping her cheeks in a vise that stilled her shouts. She wrenched her head to the side and bit down on his thumb as hard as she could.
Borcher yelled, yanked his hand away, and raised it in a menacing fist.
Olivia winced her eyes shut, bracing herself for the inevitable blow.
Fwwt. Smack. Something whizzed by her captor's ear and shuddered into the tree above her. She opened her eyes as Borcher whirled his head around. Across the clearing, at the edge of the firelight, a man stood atop a tree stump, bow and arrow poised.
"Let her go, Phineas," the man drawled in an irritated voice.
"Mind yer own affairs, Croome." Borcher raised his fist again.
Another arrow whooshed by, slicing into the tree bark with a crack.
"Croome!" Borcher swore.
"Next time, I shall aim," the man called Croome said dryly. Though he appeared a slight, older man, cool authority steeled his words
Borcher released Olivia with a hard shove. The back of her head hit the tree, where long arrows still quivered above her. Even the jarring pain in her skull did not diminish the relief washing over her. In the flickering firelight, she looked again at her rescuer, still perched on the stump. He was a gaunt man of some sixty years in a worn hat and hunting coat. Ash grey hair hung down to his shoulders. A game bag was slung over one of them. The bow he held seemed a natural extension of his arm.
"Thank you, sir," she said.
Glimpsing the stout stick by the light of the forgotten lamp, Olivia bent to retrieve it. Then turned to make her escape.
"Wait." Croome's voice was rough but not threatening. He stepped down from the stump, and she waited as he approached. His height-tall for a man of his years-and limping gait surprised her. "Take the provisions I brought for these undeserving curs."
She accepted a quarter loaf of bread and a sack of apples. Her stomach rumbled on cue. But when he extended a limp hare from his game bag, she shook her head.
"Thank you, no. This is more than enough."
One wiry eyebrow rose. "To make up for what they did to you-and would have done?"
Olivia stiffened. She shook her head and said with quiet dignity, "No, sir. I am afraid not." She handed back the bread and apples, turned, and strode smartly from the clearing.
His raspy chuckle followed her. "Fool ..."
And she was not certain if he spoke of her or of himself.
Excerpted from The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen Copyright © 2009 by Julie Klassen. Excerpted by permission.
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