Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
Ross looked up at the sky. He had become used to the longer days as he moved north, taking advantage of the extra hours of daylight to put the greatest possible distance between himself and the pain of London. Here in the Scottish border country, the light held till well-nigh midnight when the weather was fine, as it had been for most of his journey.
But now the weather was changing. And suddenly. On the western horizon, huge black clouds were rearing up like angry stallions, ready to attack with flailing iron-shod hooves. A mighty storm was coming. And there was precious little shelter available for a solitary traveller and his faithful mare.
Ross touched his heel to Hera’s chestnut flank. She needed little encouragement to quicken her pace. She had probably smelt the coming storm long before Ross had noticed anything amiss. He began to regret that he had decided to travel on to Annan instead of stopping on the English side of the border, where there were good beds to be had, and good food for man and beast. Here, so close to the Solway, there was no sign at all of any habitation as far as Ross could see. Probably the ground was too treacherous.
In the distance, he spied a small copse of trees. Dangerous, of course, if there was lightning. He looked up at the sky again. The black anvil clouds were swelling even before his eyes. And they were racing towards him. He had no choice.
He turned Hera towards the copse. He dared not go in. But, in the lee of the trees, they would find some shelter from the increasingly sharp wind, even if not from the wet. He pushed Hera on, urging her to a faster pace than was truly safe in the deepening gloom. ‘Not far now, my beauty,’ he murmured gently, laying a gloved hand on her neck. The mare’s ears twitched at the sound of his voice. She was unsettled by the coming storm. Even her master’s voice was not enough to calm her. ‘Not far now,’ Ross said again.
The mare slowed at the edge of the copse. Its old and misshapen trees had been bent almost double by the prevailing westerly winds. ‘Better than nothing, I fancy,’ Ross said half to himself, preparing to dismount.
An enormous flash of lightning split the sky, followed by seconds of eerie silence. Hera laid her ears back and rolled her eyes in fear. Then came the thunder, growling like a pack of ferocious wolves. Hera tried to rear up, but Ross held her steady, automatically reaching out his hand to calm her.
But he was not thinking about his mare at all. He was concentrating on the sound that he had picked up in that tiny silence. Galloping hooves. Someone else was out on this wild night. By the sound of it, his horse was bolting.
Ross peered into the night, trying to identify the sound against the keening wind. Yes, there! The horse was racing towards him. And its pace had not slackened one jot.
He turned Hera towards the sound, readying her to intercept the stranger. But he had reckoned without the storm. Just as the unknown galloped past him, there was another flash of lightning. Hera reared up again. This time she almost unseated Ross. He wasted precious seconds regaining control, and even more in persuading her to follow the bolting horse.
He had no choice. For in that flash of lightning, he had clearly seen a terrified bay horse and, on its back, an equally terrified girl dressed in what looked like a long white shift and with her dark hair streaming behind her. Heaven knew what she was about, fleeing alone into the night. She might be a thief. She might even be mad. But whatever she was, Ross could not leave her to the mercy of the Solway and the terrible storm.
He kicked Hera into a gallop and cursed loudly when she baulked. ‘Come on,’ he breathed, leaning over her neck. ‘Come on, Hera. Don’t let me down now.’
Obedient to his voice, the mare started bravely forward once more. Ross knew that his chances of catching the girl were slim — she was already well ahead of him and he did not dare to force Hera to match the pace of the bolting horse — but he still had to try. Somewhere in front of them lay the Solway with its quicksands and unpredictable tides. Unless the horse stopped of its own accord, it would probably kill itself and its rider. The odds were against him. But Ross knew he had to try.
Another huge lightning flash, followed immediately by thunder. This time, Hera’s only reaction was a nervous twitch of the ears. Ross was almost sure that he had seen the girl, a long way ahead. There was something white up there, certainly. He urged Hera to move faster.
Now they were in the eye of the storm. The thunder was almost constant. Lightning forked to the ground. The storm seemed all around them, and very dangerous. The sudden drenching rain of high summer had started, too. Ross could feel it soaking through his clothes and running down on to his saddle. He gripped the slippery reins more tightly. He was sure, now, that he was gaining on her. Her horse must be tiring. In that last glimpse, she had seemed much nearer than before.
There was another bright flash and a huge crack of thunder, directly overhead. Ross saw the girl about fifty yards ahead of him. Her horse reared in fright, unseating her. Then it started off again, pulling the white-clad figure behind it.
Ross breathed a curse. She must be caught in the stirrups! The animal must slow now, surely, with such a weight dragging behind it? But the girl… How would she survive such an ordeal?
It seemed to take an age before Ross caught up with them. He reached out to grab the horse’s bridle and force it to a steaming halt. Only then was he able to do anything about the fallen rider.
He threw himself out of the saddle and knelt by the sodden body on the ground. The girl was not moving. Perhaps she was dead? He put a hand under her shoulders to raise her inert form.
‘I can shift for myself, thank you, sir,’ said a sharp voice from underneath the mass of wet hair.
Ross sprang back as if stung.
The girl sat up and tried to push the hair from her face. Then she thrust an arm up in triumph. ‘He thought he had the better of me,’ she cried. ‘Ha! As if I would ever let go.’
In her right hand, twisted round her palm, were the horse’s reins.
‘You could have been killed,’ he said, aghast. ‘Why did you not let him go?’
‘Because I need him,’ she said simply, looking up at Ross through her unkempt mane of hair. ‘Without him, I could never escape.’
Ross shook his head. Perhaps she was mad, even though she did not sound it. ‘Hold my horse,’ he said sharply, thrusting Hera’s reins into the girl’s free hand. ‘Now…’ He jumped to his feet, hauling the girl up after him. Then he took off his coat and placed it round her. She was shivering with cold. And she was soaked.
‘You must not, sir,’ she said crossly, trying to push the coat off her shoulders. ‘I am perfectly well as I am. I was only —’
‘Nonsense,’ he snapped. ‘You will get the ague if we do not get you warm. Now…I presume you are from these parts? Is there any shelter to be had hereabouts?’
‘Well…there is old Shona’s cottage, I suppose. I was going there when Lucifer bolted.’
Ross laughed shortly. ‘He is well named. What on earth made you try to ride such an animal? And dressed as you are, too?’
‘You sound like the dominie. Why is it that every man I meet wants to tell me what to do? I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions.’
Ross quirked an eyebrow. She was clearly a lady but she looked anything but capable. Besides, she was probably no older than fifteen or sixteen. She was soaking, and her garb was barely decent. And she was riding an ungovernable horse. She clearly needed someone to take charge of her.
‘I am not a schoolmaster, ma’am, even if I sound like one to you. My name is Ross Graham, and I am a stranger in these parts. If you will permit —’ he sketched a hasty and inelegant bow in her direction which provoked a hint of a smile ‘— I will escort you to safety. Perhaps you would…er…point me in the right direction?’
The girl shook her head at him. ‘Any man who can remember the courtesies of the drawing room in the middle of a raging thunderstorm must be addled in the brain.’
Ross put a hand firmly on her shoulder and squeezed. He had had enough of courtesies. They were getting wetter by the second. ‘Which way, ma’am?’ he demanded sharply.
‘Oh, very well. Help me to mount, and I will show you.’
‘You don’t mean to ride that animal again, do you?’
‘Of course I do! It will be much quicker than walking, you know. And I shan’t let him get away from me again, you may be sure of that. Besides, the storm is passing over. He will be calmer now.’
‘Good grief!’ said Ross to himself, but he threw her up into her saddle, none the less.
The girl set off at much too fast a pace. Unless she knew every inch of this ground, she risked her horse at every step.
‘Have a care!’ Ross cried to her retreating back. ‘You will kill your horse at such a pace in the dark!’
‘Not I!’ she retorted over her shoulder. ‘Follow me if you dare!’
For ten minutes, he did, wondering all the while whether he was right to risk his mare in such conditions. She had carried him through the final two years of the Peninsular Wars. It was no fair recompense to risk her on the links of the Solway.
‘There!’ cried the girl, pointing to a tiny building, almost hidden against a slight rise in the ground. It looked to be little more than a ruined wall from this distance. ‘Come on!’ She set her heels to Lucifer and pushed him to even greater speed.
Watching her, Ross realised that it was no longer quite so dark. The storm was indeed passing. The rain had almost stopped. He could see the girl quite clearly ahead of him. Her white skirt hung down below the borrowed coat, gleaming against her horse’s dark flanks in spite of the many mud stains upon it. And her legs and feet were bare.
Reaching the tiny cottage, she threw herself from the saddle and began to pound on the door. It opened just as Ross climbed down from Hera’s back.
From the doorway stepped a tall, black-browed man, grinning fiercely down at the girl. ‘I thought so,’ he said shortly, seizing her by the arms and pushing her roughly towards one of the three men who had followed him from the hut. Ross’s coat fell from her shoulders to the ground. The speaker took no notice. ‘Take care of her while I deal with this blackguard.’
‘Let her go!’ Ross cried. The girl’s captor simply grinned and put a filthy hand across her mouth, muffling her scream of outrage. Ross reached automatically for his weapon. He had none. He had not worn a sword since he had put off his regimentals, and his pistols were snugly holstered by his saddle. He had nothing but his fists. He squared his shoulders. Even one against four, he would show them what a man could do.
The dark man must have sensed something. From nowhere, he produced a pistol and casually pointed it at Ross’s heart. ‘So you’re the lover, are ye? Y’are good for nothing but poetry, it seems. Well, we shall see how many lines you can compose among the rats. Take him and bind him, lads.’
The other two men grabbed Ross by the arms and, in spite of all he did to resist, Ross soon found his hands tightly bound behind his back with rough hempen rope, and a dirty piece of sacking tied around his mouth for a gag.
‘Put him on his horse and bring him,’ ordered their leader. ‘Ned, fetch the horses.’
Perhaps, in the dark, they had not noticed the pistols by Hera’s saddle? If only Ross could free his hands, he might be able to —
‘There are pistols here, maister,’ cried one of the ruffians, pulling one from its place and brandishing it in the air.
‘Give them to me. And those bags of his as well. I’ll look through them when we have more light. His coat, too.’
Ross’s captor pushed him on to Hera’s back. With his hands tied behind his back, it would be a dangerous ride.
‘An’ the leddy, maister?’ The ruffian nodded in the direction of the girl, whose thin gown was now sticking to her limbs, making her look almost naked. She seemed oblivious to that, however, for all her efforts were bent on freeing herself from the man who held her fast.
‘You and Tam, take her back to the house and lock her up,’ cried the master. ‘And make sure she does not escape from you this time, Tam, or it will be the worse for you.’
At that moment, the man Tam cried out in pain and pulled his hand from her mouth. ‘The wench bit me!’
The girl paid not the least attention to Tam. She was glowering at the dark man. ‘Curse you, Jamie Elliott,’ she screamed, with loathing in her voice. ‘May you rot in hell!’
‘I may well, my dear,’ Elliott replied coolly, mounting his horse, ‘but not at your bidding. I will see to you later. For the present, I have more important work to do, in dealing with your lover.’ Leaning forward, he took hold of Hera’s rein and kicked his own mount into a fast trot, pulling Ross’s unwilling mare after him. They were twenty yards away before Ned, standing open-mouthed, hauled himself into the saddle of the second horse and galloped after his master.
Behind them, the girl shouted something, but her words were carried off by the wind. Ross and his captors were alone.
Bride of the Solway by Joanna Maitland
Available from Amazon.co.uk
Boulogne, June 1814
It was the smell that woke him.
For fully three seconds, Dominic lay quite still in the Lion d’Or’s best bed, trying to make sense of the strange messages tumbling into his brain. Dark. Silence. Smoke? Fire!
He flung himself out of bed. Light! He needed light! And where the devil were his breeches?
A terrified neighing ripped through the pre-dawn silence. Then a whoosh, as if a giant were sucking in a monstrous breath. Followed by red, hellish light.
The smoke had turned to flames. The Lion d’Or’s stables must be on fire!
Dominic threw wide the half-open window, stuck his head out and yelled at the top of his voice, ‘Au feu! Au feu!’ It was surely loud enough to wake even drunken grooms.
He dragged on his breeches and crammed his feet into boots. A voice rang out below. At last! Then more voices. A woman’s despairing wail. And the ominous crackle of the fire taking hold in dry straw and ancient timbers.
Dominic took the stairs three at a time. In the yard, the silence was turning into utter chaos. Yelling, cursing men milling around in the eerie light. No one fetching water. No one saving the horses.
He grabbed the nearest groom by the shoulder. ‘Get to the pump,’ he ordered in crisp French. ‘Start filling buckets. And you—’ he seized another by his flapping shirt ‘—rouse all the men from the house. Get them into a line to pass the buckets. You two. Don’t stand there gawping. Start getting the horses out.’
In the space of half a minute, Dominic had turned the commotion into the beginnings of order. The terrified horses were being led to safety. Water was being brought. But the flames had a head start. And they were winning.
The front part of the stables and one side of the doorway were ablaze. One panicked horse was refusing to be led through. It was fighting against the halter, rearing, eyes rolling, hooves flailing. With a cry of pain, the groom dropped to the ground. The horse fled back into the stables.
Dominic lunged forward, hefted the unconscious groom over his shoulder and raced across the yard to the inn. By the door, a maidservant stood motionless, wide-eyed with fear. ‘You, girl.’ He laid the boy ungently at her feet. ‘Make yourself useful. Look to his hurts.’ He did not wait to see whether she obeyed. He had to help save the horses. Only one other man left to do that. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
The smoke was now so thick that it was difficult to see. And to breathe. Dominic looked around for something to use as a mask over his face. If only he had thrown on a shirt. But he had nothing. He would have to continue as he was. Taking a deep breath of the cooler air in the yard, he plunged into the hell of the burning stables.
Still at least half a dozen terrified horses to save. Possibly more. He could barely make out the back of the stable. It was full of smoke, though not yet ablaze. But he could hear the sounds of hooves thundering against stall boards. At least some of the horses must still be tethered. He raced to the back of the building, keeping as low as he could, to avoid the choking smoke. Let the groom deal with the horses nearer the door.
Like a ghostly apparition, a slim shape in grubby white emerged from the swirling smoke, leading a horse. No more than a boy, from the little Dominic could see, and dressed only in a bedgown and boots. But a boy who knew horses, for he had covered the animal’s eyes to quiet it. ‘Well done, lad,’ Dominic gasped as they passed. No reply. The boy had his mind on his task. Just as Dominic must.
It was taking too many precious minutes to rescue the horses. All the time, the fire was engulfing more of the building. Yet the boy in the bedgown was fearless, always going back into the most dangerous area of the stable. He had a way with the terrified beasts, too. More than once, Dominic fancied he heard the lad’s voice, murmuring strong and low, urging the animal towards the flaming doorway. He had even started to cover the horses’ nostrils against the acrid smoke. Part of Dominic’s brain registered that he would find the lad after this was all over, and reward him for his bravery. He would have been proud to have such a boy in his own service.
Out in the yard again, Dominic caught a dripping cloth tossed to him by one of the inn servants. Gratefully, he covered his head, hoping that the boy had done the same. With this, there ought to be a chance of rescuing the remaining animals. Only a few more to bring out now. He ran back into the thickening smoke.
He found himself struggling with the tether of one of the last horses. The straining beast had pulled it tight in the iron ring. Its thrashing hooves were threatening to crack Dominic’s head open. If only he had a knife. Damnation! The rope refused come free. At this rate, they would both burn!
A strong, lean hand appeared out of the smoke holding a knife. Bless the boy! A single slash cut the rope. Then the hand disappeared again. No time to say a word of thanks. The horse, suddenly freed, reared up to its full height with a loud and terrified whinny. Dominic ducked under the deadly hooves and grabbed the trailing rope, forcing the animal down. He had to get this horse out. The fire was really taking hold now. Soon the stable roof would be aflame. There would be no more rescues then.
At last, Dominic managed to coax the horse through the stable doorway. Someone had taken an axe to the blazing wood so that the gap was wider and the flames were less fierce. The broken, smouldering timbers lay on the ground. Dominic thrust the rope into a waiting hand and raced back inside, ignoring the prick of sparks on the bare skin of his back and chest. He had tiny burns all over his body now. No doubt he would look as though he had a dose of smallpox when this was over. But he had to be sure that there were no more horses hidden by the smoke.
It seemed the lad in the bedgown had had the same thought. His eerie figure was just visible through the swirling darkness, searching among the stalls. Dominic ran towards the boy. ‘Is that all of them?’ he yelled, trying to make himself heard above the noise of the fire.
Before the boy could say a word, there was an ominous crack above their heads. Dominic caught a glimpse of a huge, flaming beam dropping towards them. Towards the boy! Dominic bridged the space between them with a single stride, grabbed the boy and thrust him aside. The beam hit the stable floor just inches from where they stood, showering them both with sparks. In seconds, the boy’s bedgown had caught alight.
Dominic made to tear it off him.
‘Non!’ It was a scream of anguish.
The boy must be a idiot. Surely he knew that it was better to be naked than to burn?
‘Non!’ the boy cried again, ripping the tail of his bedgown out of Dominic’s hands.
There was no time to argue. And only one solution. Dominic pushed the boy to the ground and covered him with his own body, rolling them both in the dirt to stop the sparks from taking hold.
And then he understood.
This was no boy. The lithe body straining against his own belonged to a fearless, and extraordinary, girl!
His mind told him it was impossible. But his body knew better. It was threatening to go up in flames to match the blaze around them. Dear God, why this woman? Why now? Had he no self-control at all?
A loud groan brought him back to stark reality. His weight must be crushing her delicate form. And there was no time now to wonder what was happening between them. He had to get her out of this hell hole. The rest of the roof would fall at any second.
He leapt to his feet, dragging the girl up by the arm. ‘Venez,’ he rasped from his parched throat. He started for the door. But the girl was trying to free herself from his grasp. What on earth was she about? This was no time for modesty. Yet still she fought him.
With a curse of exasperation, he grabbed her slight form around the waist and slung her over his shoulder. Her small fists started to pummel his bare back, but he ignored that. He simply held her even more tightly against his body. No time to try to reassure her. In any case, the scorching smoke was burning his throat so much that he was almost sure he could not speak. He must get her out! Ducking low, he staggered towards the stable door and out into the yard. It was full of smoke still, but no flames. The men seemed to be bringing the fire under control at last.
With a groan of relief, Dominic set the girl on her feet, supporting her shoulders until he was sure she was strong enough to stand. He needed to commend her for her amazing courage. And to apologise for manhandling her. ‘Mademoiselle, vous—’ It was barely a croak, but he was not allowed to finish. Her eyes had widened at his words. It could not be fear, surely? Not with this amazing girl. With a strangled cry, she wrenched herself away from him and fled in the direction of the inn door. He was left with a fleeting image, barely discernable through the hanging smoke, of huge eyes in a pale face, cropped hair, and a wet, filthy bedgown clinging to her slim form.
He started to follow. She must not be allowed to vanish, like a ghost. He must find out who she was. She—
‘Monsieur! Attention!’ One of the men grabbed his arm and pointed. With an enormous crash, the roof of the stables collapsed inwards. Sparks were flying everywhere. The fire was out of control again. If the men did not act immediately, the inn itself would catch fire.
Dominic grabbed a bucket and began to douse the inn wall, calling to the other men to help him. Provided they all stayed at their task, the inn should be safe. God willing.
By the time the fire was finally under control, all the men were exhausted. But they were triumphant. The yard was a sea of grinning teeth in blackened faces. Dominic knew he must look just as filthy as the rest of them.
For the first time in what seemed like hours, he relaxed his shoulders. His back was aching. And all those minute burns on his skin were beginning to hurt like hell.
The inn servants were working as an efficient team now. They no longer needed Dominic to direct them. So, with a sigh of relief, he made for the inn door and the staircase to his bedchamber. His room was deserted. His valet, Cooper, must still be down below, helping to fight the remnants of the fire, and unrecognisable under the dirt and sweat. No matter. Dominic had no need of him.
The reflection in the pier glass pulled him up short. It wasn’t only his face that was filthy. His whole body was grimed with smoke. He grinned at himself. No wonder the girl had fled from him. He looked like a black demon. Even his own mother would not recognise him like this. He would have to bathe, but that would be impossible until the fire was out and the inn kitchen was working normally once more. Hot water would be the last thing on their minds at present. He would have to wait.
Sighing with exhaustion, Dominic sank on to the bed and pulled off one ruined boot. Even Cooper would be unable to save this pair. He grinned again, imagining the valet’s consternation when he saw the state of them, and of his master. With luck, Cooper would have a pot of skin salve somewhere in his baggage. But, for the moment, Dominic did not care. What he wanted was to close his eyes, just for a few minutes.
He dropped the second ruined boot and lay back on the bed, allowing his head to sink into the feather pillows. Bliss. A few moments rest. Only a few.
He was just beginning to drift into sleep when her blurry image came back to him. That girl. What courage she had. Who was she? He must speak to her again and thank her. But only later, once he was clean again, and presentable. And once he was fully in control of his body’s responses, too. He needed to show her that he was a gentleman, not a ravening demon. He found he could not quite remember her face, or the colour of her hair. It had all been too indistinct in the smoke. And later her head had been covered by a wet cloth, just as his own had been. But her hair had definitely been cropped, like a boy’s. Very strange. Perhaps she had recently recovered from a fever or some such? Yes, that must be it. Still, it should be easy enough to discover her. There would not be many girls with cropped hair at the foremost inn of Boulogne. He would find her, and thank her. He’d give her a purse of guineas, too, if she would take them. She had certainly earned them.
So much courage. He must find her again. He must.
His Cavalry Lady by Joanna Maitland
Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
This page was last updated on 3 March, 2009