Cornwall, 1861. Beth Jago is an independent seamstress living in her own remote cottage in Cornwall’s River Valley. She has what appears to be an idyllic life—but appearances can be deceiving. Lately, Beth has been receiving mysterious threats from an unknown outsider. So when she finds a strange man in her home, she acts swiftly to protect herself. One frying pan to the head knocks the intruder out cold—and nearly kills him. Worst of all, the blow seems to have robbed the handsome stranger of his memory.
Afraid he might die, Beth reluctantly nurses him back to health. Yet can she trust the man with no name who has entered her life? Or is he as dangerous as his nightmares suggest? As they grow closer, the threats become more severe. Perhaps they are somehow linked to the man with no past. Or perhaps the real danger is still outside waiting . . . and watching them both.
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Summer 1861, Cornwall, England
A muscle moved in the man's jaw. He had been watching the cottage for some time. Despite its isolation and ramshackle appearance, laundry on a washing line and wood stacked by the door were clear signs it was inhabited. Yet he had seen no one. His eyes narrowed in the fading light, as gulls screeched in the distance and the cool Atlantic breeze chilled his skin. Finally, a young woman emerged from the cottage to peg a garment on the washing line. Her long black hair and skirts lifted and tossed in the breeze as she did so, before she disappeared again behind the old cottage door. The man's jaw tightened at the sight of her. He had seen enough.
Without taking his eyes off the cottage, he gradually made his way down to the wooded embankment. The earthy track he followed, although narrow and ancient, held firm beneath him and he did not fear falling. The cottage was nestled amongst the trees of the beautiful River Valley, which had been carved by the Trevillet River. The river entered it by way of a waterfall, before making its way towards the jagged coastline, made of slate, and the deep blue sea beyond. As he neared his destination the joyful gurgling of the river welcomed his arrival but he found no pleasure in it or the beauty of his surroundings. It was the lone woman he wanted to see. She would not put up too much of a fight. The door of the cottage was closed, but he did not care. It gave way easily to his pressure and he entered with no announcement or cursory greeting. Within seconds a cloak of painful blackness engulfed him and the ground he stood upon came up to meet his face. As he fell unconscious to the floor, the reason for his arrival, his plans, his past, indeed even his own name, was wiped from his memory.
Beth Jago's body shook as a mixture of fear and exhilaration coursed through her veins. She had experienced the intangible feeling of being watched for several days, and her sixth sense had now been proved right. The man lying on her slate floor was all the proof she needed. Unfortunately, his still body suggested she had injured him badly. Even so, her grip remained tight on the frying pan in her hand, ready to use it as a weapon again should she need to.
Fearing the unconscious stranger would suddenly reach for her, she took a step backwards on stiff, jerky legs. Her hands began to tremble violently and she found she could bear the weight of the heavy pan no longer. She slowly lowered it and made a concerted effort to calm her rapid breathing. She had sensed the man's arrival before she had seen him open her door. Acting on impulse she had reached for a weapon and swung it at the intruder. She had done such a good job defending her home that the man now appeared dead at her feet.
With some relief she saw his chest rise and fall. She relaxed a little and allowed herself the luxury of looking at him more closely. He was probably about thirty years of age, with the darkest brown hair, verging on black, cut short, neat and slightly longer on top, causing it to fall slightly tousled to one side as if he had not long run his hand through it. He was clean-shaven, with neat, well-shaped sideburns that did not distract from his handsome features. He was healthy looking, with broad shoulders and muscular thighs. However, his face carried the signs of solemnity in the form of two deep furrows between his brows and faint shadows below his eyes. His clothes, though hardy and splattered with mud, were well made and did not hint at his profession. His boots were made of expensive leather and, thought Beth, probably stolen. Who was this man and what did he want from her?
Lost in thought, she did not notice the slight flicker in his eyes. When she finally retraced his body and looked upon his face she realised, with a start, that a pair of hazel eyes were looking at her. She lifted the pan in readiness but his expression did not change. He continued to stare, his eyes narrowing as if he struggled to focus upon her. He attempted to lift his head, but the effort was too much. He groaned and his head fell back. Slowly he lifted his gaze to look at her again but, as if he could not bear the sight of her, he slowly closed his eyes and turned his head away to shut her out.
Beth let out the breath she had been holding and lowered the pan once more. The intruder was too ill to be a threat at the moment, she realised, but at some point he would recover and then what was he capable of doing? Beth gnawed at her bottom lip as she considered her next move. She wanted him out of her home and the only way to do that was to remove him before he regained full consciousness. From the length of him he looked to be six feet tall when standing, but he was not overweight. She mentally measured the distance to the door. If she managed to drag him to the other side of the threshold she could lock him outside before he recovered. He was a man, so hunger and a need for a drink would soon send him on his way – at least she hoped they would.
She placed her pan on the table and walked around his inert body, careful not to disturb him. He was all muscle and sinew, but each limb was well shaped and strong, perfect for dragging him across the room with. Beth decided to grab hold of one of his legs as it was booted and clothed and she would not have to touch the man himself.
Beth watched his face for signs of waking as she crouched down and carefully lifted his right foot. The polished leather was soft and smooth to the touch, but the leg felt far heavier than she had expected. Fearing the boot would come off in her hands when she pulled, Beth cradled it under her arm and held on to his knee. She paused for a moment, reflecting on the ridiculousness of the situation. This morning, when she woke to birdsong and the sun streaming through her bedroom window, she had not expected that only a few hours later she would be holding the leg of a man in her arms. Beth braced herself and gradually pulled. The task was more cumbersome than she had anticipated and despite using all her strength, the intruder moved very little. She attempted to pick up both his legs with the vain hope it would make the task easier, but holding two at the same time was unwieldy and it was difficult to obtain a secure grip. She lowered each leg in turn and decided to try his arms instead.
Beth briskly circled the man again, crouched on her haunches and selected a wrist. It was warm and well-shaped, with a fine scattering of dark hairs disappearing under the sleeve of his jacket and white cotton shirt. This intimate discovery caught her off guard and set off a train of thought as to whether his arms and chest were similarly covered. Beth gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to concentrate on obtaining a secure grip. She turned his hand over to reveal the smooth, fragile underside of his wrist. Protected from the sun, his skin was paler here and threaded with blue-corded veins. Mesmerised by the delicate pattern they made, she stroked a finger across them. She felt his heart pulsate beneath her touch and realised it matched the wild throbbing of her own.
His soft moan startled her and she immediately dropped his hand. She glanced at his face and was relieved to find that he remained unconscious and unaware of her. Beth stood up and placed her hands on her hips as she wondered what to do. Her plan to move him was proving more difficult than she had anticipated and to make matters worse he was oblivious to the trouble he was causing. Frustrated, and more than a little resentful, she realised she would have to wait until he woke and was able to stand. Only then could she force him to leave on his own two feet. She looked around for an appropriate weapon and selected a broom. The length of it would enable her to beat him from a distance if he gave her cause. She had done it before when a drunk from the village had wandered into the valley, so she felt confident that she could do it again if needed. Next time the intruder stirred he wouldn't find her feeling his heartbeat as it throbbed through his body. Next time, Beth Jago would be waiting for him with the sharp edge of her broom.
The blackness was thick and heavy, weighing him down so he could not move. His limbs felt numb and useless, yet his head throbbed with pulsating fire. Was this what it was like to be dead? Alone, helpless and in pain for all eternity? Without warning, the pain intensified to one small area, as if a rat had found a favourite spot and was gnawing at his brain. He wanted to brush it away, but the task seemed too complicated and insurmountable for his muddled thoughts. A rhythmic prodding of his body, from a world beyond the darkness, offered him a lifeline and something to focus on. With all his concentration, he slowly opened his eyes. A woman, with long raven hair, stood above him, prodding the side of his body with the head of a broom in an attempt to brush him up as if he was a pile of rubbish. He frowned. Her behaviour made no sense. The woman stopped, but continued to glare at him.
With difficulty, he eased himself to a sitting position against the stony wall of what appeared to be someone's home. He searched with shaking hands for the source of the pain and winced when he found a large bump on his head. If he was hoping the woman would offer him sympathy, he was wrong.
'It's time for you to leave,' she said calmly as she raised her broom. He looked about him and realised he did not recognise the granite walls and inglenook fireplace; furthermore, they began to sway alarmingly before his eyes. His confusion must have been clearly etched on his face, but the woman chose to ignore it. She prodded him with the broom again. 'Stand up. I want you gone.'
He returned his foggy mind to the woman. She was a little blurred, but he could tell she was angry with him, which confused him too, as he was the one lying hurt on the floor, not her. However, he would curb his tongue and remain civil as he had the uncomfortable feeling he was at her mercy. He searched for the bump on his head again. He winced. It still hurt.
He shook his head slowly and the pain intensified, whilst his stomach churned at the thought of standing up.
'My head hurts. I don't think I can stand up.'
The broom withdrew a little. 'You have not tried. This is my home and I don't want you in it.'
He tried to gather his thoughts, retracing his steps on how he came to be here. He frowned as he realised nothing came to mind. Another irritating prod of her broom jolted him back to the present. This time he attempted to swipe it away. It was a feeble challenge, no stronger than a babe in arms, and it embarrassed him. He dared to look up to see if the woman had noticed. She had finally stopped brandishing her broom, which told him that she probably had.
'I feel too sick to stand. I think I need to rest awhile.'
The woman arched an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed by his excuse. 'You must think me a fool.'
Concern for his own health finally caused him to snap. 'I have no opinion of you, madam, to think you a fool or otherwise!' His rebuke startled her and he immediately felt guilty for frightening her. 'I am sorry. I did not mean to shout. Please ... just tell me what has happened?' The woman tilted her head to look at him, but did not answer. 'Did I fall?'
The woman frowned. 'You don't remember?'
He shook his head slowly. The movement hurt forcing him to shut his eyes briefly until the pain eased. When he opened them again the woman was still looking at him.
'You broke into my home so I hit you on the head with a pan to defend myself.' The woman picked up a frying pan and held it aloft. 'And I will use it again if you do not get up and leave.'
Her explanation both horrified and confused him, but he could not help feeling there must be a grain of truth in it. After all, he did not recognise his surroundings so it could not be his house and therefore she had every right to ask him to leave. He slowly made an effort to stand. As he did so the room began to spin and the headache of pulsating fire returned with a vengeance. He reached for the wall and used it to slowly ease himself down on the floor again. The woman watched him struggle but remained where she was. Did she fear him that much that she felt a need to keep her distance?
'I can't leave ... not yet. The room is spinning and my head hurts like the devil has it in its grip.'
The woman took a step forward. She was a little clearer now, with a curious look upon her face as if he was a freak in a sideshow for her to view. He grew wary.
'Who are you?' she asked.
It was a simple question and one, he realised with horror, he could not answer. 'I don't know.'
'You don't remember who you are?' She took another step closer. 'Why did you break into my house?'
'I only have your word that I did.' He glanced at the open door. 'The door is open. It hardly presents as a break in.' The effort to come to that conclusion drained him of any strength he had. His head began to throb again and he could only cradle it in his hands hoping the pain would pass. The woman waited silently for him to recover. As suddenly as the pain arrived, it began to ease away. In its place was the realisation of the difficulty he was in. Dear Lord, he really didn't know his own name! He lifted his gaze to the woman standing no more than an arm's reach away.
'You did this to me. If I should die you will be culpable.'
The woman set her broom aside. 'You are not going to die.'
He rubbed the back of his neck to check for further injuries. 'I might.'
The woman placed her hands on her hips. 'I will not be made to feel it was wrong to have defended myself in my own home. Get up.'
'By your own words you attacked me,' he said as he attempted to stand again. His legs felt weak and trembled beneath him, but at least he was up. 'What if my reason for being here was an innocent one?' She refused to look at him. 'I should report you to the constable.'
His last remark goaded her into action, but it was not what he was hoping for. Unsympathetically, she opened the door wider, marched over to him and grabbed his arm. With an almighty pull she succeeded in dragging him to the door and, following a giant push, out of the house. The woman was stronger than she looked.
'I don't care if you do die. You are a crook and a thug and I want you gone. Stay away, do you hear?' she shouted before unceremoniously slamming the door in his face.
He stared at the wood panelled door as he listened to her drawing several bolts across to lock him out. He took a moment to steady himself before he turned around. He found himself in a deep recessed valley that stretched out towards a blue sea in the distance. Trees, of various shades of green, lined the slate scarred banks and waved their leaves at him, whilst down below was a silver tipped river gurgling in the sunshine. He recognised none of it and realised he should have considered the consequences of goading the only person who could help him.CHAPTER 2
Beth stood at her window and watched the man. He sat on one of the boulders of slate scattered on the valley bank, his figure clearly silhouetted against the red sky as the sun prepared to set on the horizon of the sea. She glanced at the bolts on her door. She had felt for some time that she was being watched and had had them fitted only the week before, but despite her need for them, it was impossible to have her door bolted every minute of the day.
She returned her attention to the man outside. Despite her limited view of him, she could see that he remained unwell. He sat with his head cradled in his hands and his elbows balanced on his knees. He had attempted to stand twice but had become unsteady and was forced to sit down again. She bit her lip, his words echoing in her mind that should he die she would be culpable. She did not want a man's death on her conscience and although an hour had passed since she had evicted him from her home, he was no nearer to leaving the valley than when he had arrived. Suddenly she saw him retch. The stark contrast between the beautiful tranquil sunset and the ugliness and noise of retching finally forced her to act. She could no longer stand by and do nothing. Besides, it was difficult to enjoy the beauty of nature with his body blotting the view.
The man did not hear her approach and only realised she was there when she calmly offered him the tankard of water she had brought him. He lifted his head, nodded his thanks and silently took it. His trembling fingers grazed hers as he did so. Unknown to him, thought Beth, it was the second time their hands had touched that day, but a fragile truce had been formed – at least for now. The tankard shook in his grasp and Beth fought the urge to help guide it to his lips. He arched his neck and drank deeply, but his coordination remained poor and water trickled down his chin. He glanced up at her, embarrassed, and hastily wiped it away. Despite his strength and earlier dubious intentions, Beth was sure that this man was no threat to her now.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Daughter of River Valley"
Copyright © 2018 Victoria Cornwall.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
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