Lawman Samuel Thatcher arrives just in time to save Abigail Gilbert from highwaymen. Against his better judgment, he agrees to escort her to her fiancé in northern England. Each will be indelibly changed if they don’t kill one another. . .or fall in love.
About the Author
Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. She is the Christy Award-winning author of historical romances: A Tale of Two Hearts, The Captured Bride, The Innkeeper’s Daughter, 12 Days at Bleakly Manor, The Captive Heart, Brentwood’s Ward, A Heart Deceived, and Gallimore, but also leaped the historical fence into the realm of contemporary with the zany romantic mystery Out of the Frying Pan. If you’d like to keep up with her escapades, find her at www.michellegriep.com or stalk her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. And guess what? She loves to hear from readers! Feel free to drop her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
Southampton, England, 1815
Was it wicked to say goodbye with a smile? Wrong to feel happy about leaving one's family behind? Surely only a sinner's heart would harbour such uncharitable emotions ... wouldn't it?
Stepping into the corridor, Abigail Gilbert closed her chamber door, shutting off such reproachful thoughts. This was a day of celebration, not bleak ponderings. Not anymore.
Hand yet on the knob, she hesitated a moment and angled her head. The usual morning sounds — servants bustling, trays rattling, feet padding to and fro — were absent. She'd heard them earlier while she'd sat at her dressing table. Why not now?
But no time to ponder such oddities. She scurried along the corridor to her stepsister's room, tightening her bonnet ribbons as she went. Her other half sister, Jane, would be down to breakfast already, but not Mary. Never Mary. The girl was a perpetual slugabed.
"Mary?" Abby tapped the bedroom door and listened.
"Sister?" She rapped again, louder this time. "Are you still abed?"
Pressing her ear to the wood, she strained to hear some kind of complaint, or at least a pillow thwacking against the other side.
And ... nothing.
Turning the knob, Abby shoved open the door, expecting a darkened room. Instead, brilliant sunbeams landed on a very empty bed. The light needled her eyes, and she blinked. Odd. Mary up so soon? How unlike her, unless —
Abby's breath caught in her throat. Perhaps she'd been wrong, and Mary truly did care she was leaving. Even now her youngest sister might be waiting along with Jane in the breakfast room, teary-eyed and saddened to say farewell. La! Abby gave herself a silent scolding. She was a bad sister to assume the worst.
Lighter of step and of heart, she darted back into the corridor and sped down the grand stairway — despite years of reprimands for such hasty movements. Even now her stepmother's voice scolded inside her head.
"Fast feet fly toward folly."
She frowned. Surely that was not what she was doing. Any woman would hurry to be with the man who loved her. Still, she hesitated at the bottom of the staircase and smoothed her skirts before proceeding in a more ladylike manner.
She glided into the morning room, all grace and smiles, a pleasant adieu ready to launch from her lips. But her smile froze. She stopped.
Not even any breakfast dishes upon the sideboard. Would there be no one to wish her well on her journey?
Her throat tightened. But perhaps her sisters were already waiting outside by the coach, desiring a last embrace and wave of the hand as she disappeared into the land of matrimony. Everyone knew sisters should part in the best of ways, even Mary and Jane. Abby pivoted, intent on sharing a merry goodbye outdoors with them.
But first she must find Father and give him a final embrace. Besides her stepsisters, he was the last person to bid farewell, for she'd taken leave of her stepmother and stepbrother the night before.
Across from the sitting room, the study door was closed. One more curiosity on this momentous day. Pipe smoke ought to be curling into the hall by now, the scent of cherry tobacco sweetening the morning. Once again, Abby knocked on wood.
Without waiting for a response, she entered.
"What are you doing here?" Her stepmother frowned up at her from where she arranged lilies in a vase on Father's desk. It was a frivolous task, for Father cared not a whit about such trivialities, yet her stepmother insisted the touch added a certain richesse — as she put it — to the home ... though Abby suspected it was more to remind her father what a doting woman he'd married so he wouldn't be tempted to look elsewhere for companionship.
Abby pulled her spine straight, a habit she'd developed as a young girl whenever in her stepmother's presence. "I came to say —"
"You should be gone by now!" Her stepmother crossed to the front of the desk and narrowed her eyes.
"I — I ..." Her words unwound like a ball of yarn fallen to the floor, rolling off to the corner of the room. Not surprising, really. Her stepmother always effected such a response.
"I asked you a question, girl. Why are you not on your way to Penrith?"
Abby's gaze shot to the mantel clock. In four minutes, the hour hand would strike eight, her planned departure time. Was her stepmother confused — or was she? But no. Father's instructions had been abundantly clear.
Even so, she hesitated before answering. "I am certain that I am not to leave for Brakewell Hall until eight o'clock."
"Do not contradict me." Her stepmother clipped her words and her steps as she drew up nose to nose with Abigail. "Seven, you stupid girl. You were to depart at seven."
Abby bit her lip. Was she wrong? Had she misunderstood? Twenty years of doubting herself was a hard habit to break. Yet if she closed her eyes, she could still hear old Parker, her father's manservant, saying, "Coach leaves at eight bells, miss. Young Mr. Boone will be your driver until you swap out at Tavistock. Charlie's to be your manservant."
She stared at her stepmother. This close up, it was hard not to. A tic twitched the corner of the woman's left eye, but even so, Abby did not look away. To do otherwise would earn her a slap.
"I am sure of the time, Mother, yet I wonder why you thought otherwise. I am surprised you are not yet taking breakfast in bed. Where is Fath —"
A slap cut through the air. Abby's face jerked, and her cheek stung. She retreated, pressing her fingertips to the violated skin.
"Do not shame me. Curiosity is a vice of the ill-bred. Of all your faults, you cannot claim a mean upbringing, for you have been more than blessed."
The heat radiating on her cheek belied her stepmother's logic. She was blessed to have lived beneath this woman's iron hand for two decades? Abby drew in a shaky breath yet remained silent.
A smile spread like a stain on her stepmother's face, her teeth yellowed by age and far too much tea. "I suppose I might as well tell you, though it's really none of your affair. Your father is taking your sisters and me abroad to see off your brother on his grand tour. They are all out even now, the first to look through a recently arrived shipment of silks and woolens. I expect each of them shall make fortuitous matches as we summer amongst the elite in Italy, surpassing even the arrangement your father made for you."
Abby pressed a hand to her stomach. Gone? All of them? When they knew she was leaving?
Her stepmother clicked her tongue. "What's this? You didn't actually expect anyone to see you off, did you?"
For a moment, her heart constricted. Of course she'd known. She was an outsider. A stranger. She knew that as intimately as the skin on her face or the rift in her heart. A loving family was nothing more than a concept, an idea — one she'd have to learn, for she had no experience of it. Her lower lip quivered.
But she lifted her chin before the trap of self-pity snapped shut. "Of course not." She flashed as brilliant a smile as she could summon. "I merely wanted to thank Father one last time for arranging my marriage to Sir Jonathan, but you can tell him for me. I am grieved you shall all miss the ceremony."
Brittle laughter assaulted the June morning. "Oh Abigail, don't be ridiculous. We have other things to do. Now that we have your association with a baronet, the chances of my daughters marrying better than you are within reach. There is no time to waste."
The words poked holes into her heart. Why had she been so foolish to expect anything different? Abby whirled and ran from the house, praying it was no folly to escape such a hateful woman.
Outside, Mr. Boone stood at the carriage door, ready to assist her, but he was the only one in sight. Her maid, Fanny, was likely already seated inside, and old Charlie, who was to accompany her for the entire trip, was nowhere to be seen.
Mr. Boone held out his hand, but she hesitated to take it. "Are we to wait for Charlie?"
Red crept up the young man's neck, matching the hue of his wine-coloured riding coat. "Pardon, miss, but he will not be attending. It was decided he was more needed here."
Here? When the whole family would be absent for months? Anger churned her empty belly. This smacked of one last insult from her stepmother. If Jane or Mary were traveling cross-country, besides a maid and manservant, the woman would have sent a footman, a coachman, and a hired guard for good measure. Abby frowned. Should she wait for Father to return? He might rectify the situation, provided her stepmother didn't make a fuss. Or should she forge ahead?
She glanced back at the house, only to see her stepmother glowering out the window.
Abby turned to Mr. Boone and forced a small smile. "Well then, let us begin our journey, shall we?"
She grabbed the servant's hand and allowed him to assist her into the coach, then settled on the seat next to her maid. With Fanny and a driver, it wasn't as if she were traveling alone.
"Ready for an adventure, miss?" Fanny nudged her with her elbow. "Soon be queen of your own castle, eh?"
"Yes, Fanny." Cheek still stinging from her stepmother's slap, she turned her face away from the only home she'd ever known. "I should like to be a queen."
* * *
Hounslow Heath, just outside London
Gone. For now. Like a demon disappeared into the abyss. Samuel Thatcher shaded his eyes and squinted across the rugged heath kissed brilliant by the risen sun. Shankhart Robbins was out there, all right. Somewhere. And worse — he'd be back. Evil always had a way of returning bigger and blacker than before, singeing any soul it touched. After ten years on the force, with five in the Nineteenth Dragoons before that, Samuel Thatcher's soul was more than singed. It was seared to a crisp.
Behind him, Officer Bexley reined in his horse. "We lost Shankhart's trail nigh an hour ago. What do we do now, Captain?"
Aye. That was the question of the hour. Shoving his boot into the stirrup, he swung up onto his mount and turned Pilgrim about. "Go back."
"You're giving up?"
"Didn't say that." He rocked forward in the saddle. Without a word, his horse set off into a working trot, though she had to be as bone weary as he. Tired from a sleepless night. Tired from humanity. Tired of life.
An hour later, he pulled on the reins, halting in front of a gruesome sight. Draped over the hindquarters of his men's horses were the bodies of two women and two men, covered haphazardly with black riding cloaks. The other two horses, taken down by the highwaymen's shots, lay beneath a gathering swarm of blackflies. Who in their right mind would allow women to travel across this stretch of scrubby land accompanied by only a postilion? And by the looks of the overturned carriage, an inexperienced one at that.
Colbert and Higgins, the officers Samuel had left behind, rose from near the felled chaise, their red waistcoats stark as blood in the morning light.
Colbert turned aside and spit. "No luck, eh?"
Next to Samuel, Bexley dismounted, working out a kink in his lower back the second his feet hit the ground. "It'll take more'n luck to bring down that lot."
The men recounted once again how the attack must have played out, shuttlecocking ideas back and forth. For the most part, their conjectures were plausible. Even so, Samuel gritted his teeth, suddenly on edge. But why? The sky was clear. The weather temperate. And Shankhart was gone for now, so there was no imminent danger to them or any other passing coaches.
All the same, he stiffened in the saddle and cocked his head.
And ... there. He angled Pilgrim toward a tiny mewl, not unlike the cry of a rabbit kit caught in a snare. Bypassing the ruined chaise and giving wide berth to the downed horses, he followed a small path of disturbed bracken, barely bent. Easy to miss in last night's gloaming, when they'd happened upon the scene. Yet clearly something had traveled this way.
He lowered to the ground, following the delicate trail on foot. The cry grew louder the farther he tracked. So did the alarm squeezing his chest. Oh God ... if this is a baby ... Upping his pace, he closed in on a small rise of bracken and rock. Tucked into a crevice, a child, two years old or possibly three, whimpered for his mam — a mother who would never again wipe the tears from the lad's smudged cheeks.
Though relief coursed through him that the victim was not a babe, his lips flattened. One more piece of his charred heart crumbled loose, leaving his faith more jagged than before. It wasn't fair, such suffering for a little one — and he knew that better than most.
Reaching into the cleft, he pulled the child out. Teeth sank into his forearm. Nails surprisingly sharp ripped some of the skin off the back of one of his hands, and kicks jabbed his stomach. Despite it all, Samuel straightened and soothed, "Shh. You're safe now."
The lie burned in his throat. No one was safe, not on this side of heaven. He closed his eyes while the child squirmed.
Lord, grant mercy.
Lately, that prayer was as regular as his breath.
He retraced his route and hefted the child up into the saddle with him. He held the lad tight against him with his left arm, and gripped the reins with his injured right hand, blood dripping freely from it.
By the time he returned to the men, they were mounted as well. Bexley's brows lifted. The other two officers clamped their jaws and averted their gazes. To say anything would only magnify their failure to discover the lad sooner.
Samuel scowled, as much at his own deficiencies as theirs. If no family could be found, the child would end up in an orphanage. Even so, God knew it could be worse — he knew it could be worse.
Bexley edged his horse closer and lowered his voice for him alone. "Don't go too hard on the men, Captain. It were an easy oversight on such a long night."
He'd have to mete out some kind of censure. Good Lord, if he hadn't discovered the child and they'd left the youngling behind — but no. Better not to think it. He shifted the child on his lap, digging out an elbow shoved into his belly, then wiped the blood from his hand on his trousers. He'd come up with a discipline for Colbert and Higgins later, when his bones didn't feel every one of his thirty-one years and his soul wasn't raging at the injustice of the world.
"Move out." He twitched the reins, and Pilgrim lifted her nose toward London.
Bexley fell in beside him. "You've got that look about you."
He slid a sideways glance at the man but said nothing.
"You're not long for the force, are you?"
He did look then, full-on, studying every nuance of the stubbled face staring back at him. "What makes you say that?"
Bexley shrugged. "It's no secret your contract is up in a month."
So everyone knew. But did everyone also know he didn't have enough money yet to purchase the land he wanted? He turned his gaze back to the road.
"Why, Captain?" Bexley gnawed at the subject like a hound with a bone. "You're the best officer we got. You know this road will be more dangerous without you."
He grunted. With or without him, danger would prevail.
"Where will you go?" Bexley asked.
"What will you do?"
"You? A farmer?" Bexley's laughter rumbled loud and long.
"No. You'll miss this. The action. The adventure. Farming's too dull and lonely a life for you."
"Exactly." He pushed air through his teeth in a sharp whistle, and Pilgrim broke into a canter, leaving Bexley behind.
That was exactly what he wished — to be left alone.CHAPTER 2
Abby's eyelids grew heavy as the chaise rumbled along. After only two days of travel, the tedium of the journey wore on both her and Fanny. Even now her maid's head drooped sideways onto Abby's shoulder, the woman's breathing thick and even. Abby shifted slightly, easing into a more comfortable position. It wouldn't hurt to close her own eyes. They still had Hounslow Heath to cross before stopping for the night. There'd be nothing to see but rain-dampened flatlands anyway.
Her chin dropped to her chest, and she gave in to the jiggle and sway of the carriage. For the first time since her father had remarried, she could finally fully relax. No more cutting remarks from her stepmother. No cross looks from her sisters. It was a welcome feeling, this freedom. Decadent and heady.
And horribly shame inducing. She ought to be missing her family, not reveling in their absence. She ought to be praying for them each night as her head hit the pillow, not dreaming of her new life with Sir Jonathan Aberley. As she bobbed along with the rhythm of the rolling wheels, she vowed to be more diligent in prayer for them. Starting tonight.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Noble Guardian"
Copyright © 2019 Michelle Griep.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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