According to his father’s terms, Michael Roseyear’s duty is to be ignored—until such time as he is useful. Now that the earldom is in need of funds, Michael is to be sold off in marriage to the daughter of a crass but wealthy merchant willing to pay for any connection to nobility—even one from the wrong side of the blanket . . .
En route to his fate in London, Michael does not plan to board an extra passenger. Yet there is something in the young miss’s desperate plea that tugs at his conscience—though he is certain her story is a fabrication . . .
Juliana Crawford has fled her father’s cruel home. Using a false name to evade pursuit, she must find a private traveler with whom to complete her escape. Chance matches her with a dark and wounded young lord who guards his own secrets just as carefully. The unlikely pair embark on a journey filled with revelations and unexpected adventure—one that may lead them to question whether to part at their destination—or change course entirely. . .
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The ache was setting in again. Michael Rosevear had been on the road less than two hours and already, his leg was troubling him. The night had not been restful enough to erase the stiffness of the previous day's torturous travel. It seemed a clear message that no part of him, not even his damned leg, desired to go to London.
He shifted his weight. The adjustment did not bring relief. Even the velvet cushions in his father's wheeled palace of a traveling coach could not make him comfortable. Yet here he was, the dutiful son, making his miserable way to town in response to his father's summons.
He glanced out the window. The sky was foul as well. There was no end to unmistakable signals that he belonged, not rattling along the London Road, but back home at Rose Hall, overseeing the next day's brew or tangled up with Delia or some other warm and willing woman. Instead, he was trapped inside this cushioned prison with no one to provide company or comfort, save Gelert.
Michael looked at the hound. Sensing he was the subject of his master's unspoken thoughts, Gelert lifted his head and regarded Michael with only modest interest.
"You're no better, you mongrel. You're shamefully obedient, coming when you are called, no matter how miserably I treat you." Michael reached out as he spoke and teased his fingers in the wiry brown and black fur between Gelert's ears. The dog pushed his head upward into the scratch.
Michael pulled his hand away and Gelert sighed, lowering his head to rest once more atop his front paws. He stared at Michael still.
"Don't call me a liar," he grumbled at the animal. "I don't coddle you. And don't become accustomed to these plush cushions either."
The dog released another huff of air as though to confirm he had, in fact, already become accustomed.
The carriage rattled into a particularly rough patch of road and one wheel caught a rut that jarred the conveyance and its occupants all the way to Michael's teeth. He winced as the pain along the back of his leg intensified.
The dog lifted his head, questioning.
Michael pressed his fingers into the underside of his leg and kneaded the muscle, as firmly as he could bear, until the ache dulled to a tolerable level. He had only just stretched the leg onto the cushioned seat when the carriage dipped again, this time into a rut on the other side. The jarring motion clenched the muscle all over again and sent a sharp spike of pain shooting from his knee to his backside.
Gelert released a plaintive whine.
Damn. Not even two hours. It was unmanning. Michael gritted his teeth and lifted one fist to rap loudly on the roof of the carriage. The vehicle slowed in response.
Once they had stopped completely, the coachman appeared at the window. He opened the door.
"Stop at the next town, Albert," Michael said. "I need to stretch my leg a bit."
To Albert's credit, he did not question the decision to break so early in their journey. He should have. Any man of sense would. If they halted every pair of hours to stretch his infernal leg, this day's travel would be even slower than yesterday's. Their arrival would be considerably delayed.
Yet another reason I should turn around and never see London again.
Michael looked at the dog. "I don't know what you're so happy about. London will be no fun for you either."
* * *
Juliana tucked herself deeper into the shadow under the jutting second story of the Bear & Boar coaching inn and watched the road. With each moment that passed, regret grew for the poorly considered decision to allow the mail coach to depart without her.
She had been so certain of her plan. She had only paid the fare from Beadwell to Peckingham, as she couldn't spare the coins to go the rest of the way to London on the mail coach. More importantly, she would be easily intercepted on the mail coach, if her father decided to come after her. In what had seemed a clever plan at the time, she had determined that she would approach a traveler in Peckingham and request aid in the form of a ride. She was clean and unthreatening in appearance. Surely, someone would be charitable and invite her into their coach for the remainder of the journey to London. She knew the distance was less than a day from here.
Less than a day, that is, provided she departed soon. She had been waiting for more than three hours and had not yet approached anyone to pose her request. Traffic had been lighter than expected. Travelers had come through, but none had been of a sort to draw Juliana from her hiding spot under the jetty and behind a bush. There had been two lone riders on horseback, who were, of course, no use to her at all. There had also been two loud young men out for a joyride in an open curricle. They had been followed by a demanding matron traveling with a beleaguered younger gentleman who Juliana guessed to be her son. The latest arrival was a large family who seemed to possess a secret compartment in their traveling coach, for far too many occupants emerged from the carriage as should have fit inside. They had not yet departed, but she had already dismissed the family as a possibility. There could not conceivably be room to include her in their crowded vehicle, and besides, the children — all daughters — had bickered incessantly from the moment they'd arrived.
She pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Even sheltered from the wind, the day was unseasonably dark and cool. When she had decided upon her present course, she had not counted on inclement weather. She had envisioned a sunny day and a kind, older woman in a comfortable carriage, traveling with a quiet maid and perhaps a floppy-eared lap dog. She had thought to appeal to the woman's pity and her desire for company on the balance of her journey.
She could now admit it was a wholly unrealistic vision. Aside from the uncooperative weather and decided lack of pleasant older gentlewomen, Juliana knew herself to be horrid company. She never knew what to say to anyone, primarily from lack of practice. Making conversation for hours with a kind but talkative stranger was nearly as distasteful a thought as enduring hours listening to the family of sniping sisters. The comparison was of no consequence, however, as the kindly old woman of her imaginings never appeared. The unhappy family, however, was still inside.
Juliana looked to the sky, growing darker despite the midday hour, and wondered if she shouldn't reconsider and at least inquire. Perhaps, despite their disagreements with each other, they would be charitable enough to share their limited space. And if they were willing to endure the discomfort of an extra person, surely she should be willing to endure the bickering. It was, after all, better than returning to Beadwell.
Just as she released a breath meant to bolster her commitment and courage, she heard the sounds of another carriage. She craned her neck to study it as it came into view. It was a large traveling coach of glossy black with a blue and gold coat of arms painted on the door. It was the richest looking coach she had ever seen. She watched as it slowed and the coachman guided it to a halt in front of the Bear & Boar.
Breathless to see who might emerge, Juliana waited as the coachman lowered himself from the box. He stopped and looked up to assess the sky, but she could not see well enough in the shadow of the darkening clouds to make out his expression. Then he moved to open the carriage door and her attention was fixed upon another profile.
Despite the fervency of her prayers, it was not a kindly old woman who descended with the aid of both coachman and cane. The fabric billowing around the occupant of the vehicle was not a woman's skirt, but a man's greatcoat, dark and voluminous.
The lord of the crest-emblazoned coach did not pause to evaluate the skies, as his coachman had done, but walked purposefully, relying on the support of his cane, toward the inn. As he drew nearer to the door, and thus to her, her view of him was obstructed by the shrub. She wanted to see him more closely but dared not rustle the branches for fear of being discovered when she had not yet decided whether to emerge.
Fortune was not smiling upon her today. If the threatening clouds brought rain, she would be left, cold and wet, waiting outside the Bear & Boar with nowhere to go and no funds to spare for a room. Once the rain stopped, she would be wet and bedraggled, thus even less likely to convince a traveler to take her in. On the other hand, she mused, if her intent was to inspire charity, she would certainly appear more pitiful. More than appearing so, she would actually be more pitiful. She sighed and the door of the inn opened again, sending the unhappy family spilling out into the yard.
"Why do I have to sit next to Mariah?" a plaintive voice asked from within a cluster of pastel-clad females. "She can't be still and keeps poking me with her elbow."
"I do no such thing," came another voice from group. "And how would you even notice? You'll have your nose buried in your novel the entire time."
"It's not my fault reading in a moving carriage makes you ill. Why shouldn't I read if I am perfectly well?"
"I don't know how Beth can read anything when Emily snores so loudly," another of the girls observed.
"It's quite simple," the reader responded. "If she starts snoring, I just pinch her. She always stops snoring then."
"How dare you pinch me!" the snorer squeaked.
"Well, of course she'll stop snoring if you wake her, but then she'll start right up again once she falls asleep."
"Just pinch her again."
The speaker must have chosen to demonstrate, for her statement was followed by a sharp shriek. Or perhaps, Juliana mused, the snorer had retaliated. She rather hoped that was the case.
Either way, she couldn't fathom there was space for her inside that coach.
Which left only the cane-carrying lord of the fancy carriage. Indecision gripped her. Was she bold enough to importune a gentleman for an unchaperoned ride to London — even a lame, older gentleman? She glanced at the door to the inn and again at the family, who were settling themselves back into their carriage. She heard a high-pitched squeal from inside.
Juliana knew two things in that moment: The first was that she absolutely would not fit in that carriage. The second was that courage grew from desperation. One thing she had never been in her life was bold, and she did not feel particularly bold just now. But neither was she willing to face defeat and return to her father's house in Beadwell. She had come this far. If she failed, she would not let it be for lack of courage.
* * *
Unwilling to make a show of stretching his uncooperative limbs in front of an audience, Michael made do with pacing along the property behind the inn for several minutes after letting himself out the back with the excuse of using the necessary.
What he needed was a full day outside the confines of the blasted carriage. When he could walk or ride, his leg remained loose and ailed him very little. But he could not walk all the way from Yorkshire to London. He paced a few minutes longer then looked at the sky. For the very little relief his paces were achieving, the effort was likely costing him dearly in rapidly dwindling hours of travel-worthy weather.
Leaning slightly less heavily on the cane for the time he had invested, Michael went back through the rear door of the inn to collect Albert.
The coachman considered him with an openly assessing eye. "Are you sure you're ready to continue?"
"I am sure delays help very little. There is no way around this journey but through it. We can be in London before the day is out of the weather is merciful. Let's be on our way."
Albert nodded and preceded him to the front door, holding it open as Michael passed with his cane. He hated the blasted thing, but so many days shut up in a box left him more crippled by his injury than usual. As he limped across the yard toward his father's coach, he vowed this would be the last summons from his father that would see him traveling the full length of England. He would marry this woman his father had found for him and he would give her the choice to either return to Yorkshire with him, or stay in London. He would be returning to Yorkshire and remaining there the balance of his days, father be damned.
And he would watch the blasted cane burn in the fire.
"Don't coddle my leg with your speed, either, Albert," he added. "I am impatient to be done with this journey and slowing its pace is not a kindness."
Michael walked to the rear of the coach as Albert walked to the front. As his coachman saw to the horses and readied them for departure, Michael made himself useful, inspecting the luggage. He tested the ropes securing the trunks and cases, ensuring they were still secure.
"I beg your pardon, my lord."
The feminine voice halted Michael in his task and he turned to find its owner was a young woman standing a few paces away, eyes lowered, gloved hand clutching her shawl tightly at her front. The shawl was thin and worn and his first thought upon seeing her was that there was not enough weight to her to combat the unseasonably cool wind, despite being covered from boot to bonnet. She must be freezing.
She didn't have the look of the women who hovered around coaching inns, making their living either begging from or offering themselves to the men who stopped. If she had, he would have turned her away immediately. Aside from the threadbare shawl, she seemed tidy and respectable. He couldn't see the face underneath the brim of her bonnet, as she'd chosen to address his boots for some reason, rather than his eyes.
"Yes?" Michael asked.
"I ... I wonder if I might prevail upon you for your aid, my lord. I ..."
She paused and he had the sense she was summoning the courage to continue.
"I must find my way to London, my lord, and I have ... I have missed the mail coach. It will not come again until Friday, and I cannot wait."
Practiced beggar or no, when she had begun by soliciting his 'aid', he had expected her to ask for coins. He would not have predicted she request an invitation into his coach to accompany him on his travels. Perhaps she was a whore after all? He peered more closely at her. There was nothing in her look or manner that suggested it. Did she understand what she was asking?
"You want to know if I will take you to London? Alone? In my carriage?" She was daft. If she had any reputation at all, it would be ruined by what she asked. Not to mention the tangle for him if anyone knew. He was not going to be compromising any young misses this day.
"Yes, my lord, I ..." She lifted her head. Deep green eyes went round as they met his, and pale cheeks flushed pink. "Oh," she breathed.
She stared at him, lips parted in hesitation and he had the distinct sense that he was not what she had expected, which made no sense at all because she had approached him.
His surprise, however, was quite reasonable. She was young, but not a girl, and she was striking in an unearthly sort of way. Her features were an odd collection of contradictions. Watchful green eyes fringed with long, dark lashes, and delicately pale skin, clear of any freckle or blemish, framed with wisps of auburn that swept beneath the coverage of her bonnet.
"I ... I'm sorry, my lord," she stammered. "I thought ... that is ... I didn't consider ..." Her words trailed off and her eyes drifted to the cane in his right hand.
He understood then. She had seen him from behind. With his high-collared greatcoat and hat, she had only the cane for a clue and she had erroneously surmised he was a much older man, as opposed to simply a lame one.
His mouth tightened. "It appears you have made an error in judgment, miss. I bid you good day." He turned from her, bent on continuing his task, but stopped when a small, gloved hand rested tentatively upon his forearm.
"Please, my lord."
He faced her. She was very near now, gazing directly up at him. "It is imperative that I depart for London today. I shall be no trouble at all and I promise that you shall never hear from me again once we reach town." She made her plea then stared up awaiting his response, eyes wide with entreaty, jaw squared in determination.
He looked down to where her hand still lay on his coat sleeve.
She followed his gaze there and slowly withdrew her hand. "I beg you, sir."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Chase"
Copyright © 2017 Sara Portman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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