"The duchess is so very... very... well, really, most charming.
So...." With an angelic smile, Mr. Postlethwaite, the vicar of Somersham,
gestured airily. "Continental, if you take my meaning."
Standing by the vicarage gate while she waited for the gig to be brought
around, Honoria Wetherby only wished she could.Wringing information from
the local vicar was always one of her first actions on taking up a new
position; unfortunately, while her need for information was more acute
than usual, Mr. Postlethwaite's comments were unhelpfully vague. She nodded
encouragingly--and pounced on the one point which might conceivably mean
something. "Is the duchess foreign-born?"
"Dowager duchess." Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. "She
likes to be called that now. But foreign?" Head to one side, he considered
the point. "I suppose some might call her so--she was French-born
and -bred. But she's been amongst us so long, she seems a part of our
landscape. Indeed-" his eyes brightened, "she's something of
a feature on our limited horizon."
That much, Honoria had gleaned. It was one reason she needed to know more.
"Does the dowager join the congregration here? I didn't see any ducal
arms about." Glancing at the neat stone church beyond the vicarage,
she recalled numerous commemorative inscriptions honoring the deceased
from various lordly houses, including scions of the Claypoles, the family
whose household she'd joined last Sunday. But no ducal plaques, helpfully
inscribed with name and title, had she discovered anywhere.
"On occasion," Mr. Postlethwaite replied. "But there's
a private church at the Place, quite beautifully appointed. Mr.
Merryweather is chaplain there. The duchess is always reliable in her
devotions." He shook his head sadly. "Not, I'm afraid, a general
characteristic of that family."
Honoria resisted a strong urge to grind her teeth. Which family?
She'd been chasing that information for the past three days. Given that
her new employer, Lady Claypole, seemed convinced that her daughter Melissa,
now Honoria's charge, was destined to be the next duchess, it seemed the
course of wisdom to learn what she could of the duke and his family. The
family name would help.
By choice, she had spent little time amongst the haut ton but,
thanks to her brother Michael's long letters, she was reliably informed
of the current status of the families who made up that gilded circle--the
circle into which she'd been born. If she learned the name, or even the
major title, she would know a great deal more.
However, despite spending an hour on Sunday explaining in excruciating
detail just why Melissa was destined to be a duchess, Lady Claypole had
not used the lucky duke's title. Assuming she would learn it easily enough,
Honoria had not specifically questioned her ladyship. She'd only just
met the woman; advertising her ignorance had seemed unnecessary. After
taking stock of Melissa and her younger sister Annabel, she'd vetoed any
idea of asking them; showing ignorance to such was inviting trouble. The
same reason had kept her from inquiring of the Claypole Hall staff. Sure
that she would learn all she wished while being welcomed to the local
Ladies Auxiliary, she'd arranged for her afternoon off to coincide with
that most useful of village gatherings.
She'd forgotten that, within the local area, the duke and dowager duchess
would always be referred to in purely generic terms. Their neighbors all
knew to whom they referred--she still did not. Unfortunately, the patent
scorn with which the other ladies viewed Lady Claypole's ducal aspirations
had made asking a simple question altogether too awkward. Undaunted, Honoria
had endured a lengthy meeting over raising sufficient funds to replace
the church's ancient roof, then scoured the church, reading every plaque
she could find. All to no avail.
Drawing a deep breath, she prepared to admit to ignorance. "To which-"
"There you are, Ralph!" Mrs. Postlethwaite came bustling down
the path. "I'm so sorry to interrupt, my dear." She smiled at
Honoria, then looked at her spouse. "There's a boy come from old
Mrs. Mickleham--she's asking for you urgently."
"Here you are, miss."
Honoria whirled--and saw the vicar's gardener leading the bad-tempered
grey the Claypole Hall groom had harnessed to the gig. Shutting her lips,
she nodded graciously to Mrs. Postlethwaite, then sailed through the gate
the vicar held wide. Taking the reins with a tight smile, she allowed
the gardener to assist her to the seat.
Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. "I'll look to see you on Sunday, Miss Wetherby."
Honoria nodded regally. "Nothing, Mr. Postlethwaite, could keep me
away." And, she thought, as she set the grey in motion, if
I haven't found out by then who this blessed duke is, I won't let go of
you until I have!
Brooding darkly, she drove through the village; only as the last of the
cottages fell behind did she become aware of the heaviness in the air.
Glancing up, she saw thunderclouds sweeping in from the west.
Tension gripped her, locking her breath in her chest. Abruptly looking
forward, Honoria focused on the intersection immediately ahead. The road
to Chatteris led straight on, then curved north, into the path of the
storm; the long lane to Claypole Hall gave off it three miles on.
A gust of wind plucked at her, whistling mockingly. Honoria started; the
grey jibbed. Forcing the horse to a halt, Honoria berated herself for
remaining out so long. A ducal name was hardly of earth-shattering importance.
The approaching storm was.
Her gaze fell on the lane joining the road at the signpost. It wended
away through stubbled fields, then entered a dense wood covering a low
rise. She'd been told the lane was a shortcut, ultimately joining the
Claypole Hall lane mere yards from the Hall gates. It seemed her only
chance of reaching the Hall before the storm broke.
One glance at the roiling clouds growing like a celestial tidal wave to
her right made up her mind. Stiffening her spine, Honoria clicked the
reins and directed the grey left. The beast stepped out eagerly, carrying
her past the golden fields, darkening as the clouds thickened.
A dull crack! cut through the heavy stillness. Honoria looked ahead,
scanning the trees swiftly drawing nearer. Poachers? Would they be out
in such weather, when the game was in deep cover, sheltering from a storm?
She was still puzzling over the odd sound when the wood rose before her.
The grey trotted on; the trees engulfed them.
Determined to ignore the storm, and the unease it raised within her, Honoria
turned to contemplation of her latest employers, and the niggle of doubt
she felt over their worth as recipients of her talents. Beggars couldn't
be choosers, which was what any other governess would say. Fortunately,
she wasn't just any governess. She was wealthy enough to live idly; it
was by her own eccentric will that she eschewed a life of quiet ease for
one which allowed her to use her skills. Which meant she could
choose her employers, and usually did so most reliably. This time, however,
fate had intervened and sent her to the Claypoles. The Claypoles had failed
The wind rose in a bansheelike screech, then died to a sobbing moan. Branches
shifted and swayed; boughs rubbed and groaned.
Honoria wriggled her shoulders. And refocused her thoughts on the Claypoles--on
Melissa, their eldest daughter, the prospective duchess. Honoria grimaced.
Melissa was slight and underdeveloped, fair, not to say faded. In terms
of animation, she had taken the "to be seen and not heard" maxim
to heart--she never had two words to say for herself. The only grace Honoria
had yet dicovered in her was her carriage, which was unconsciously elegant--on
all the rest she'd have to work hard to bring Melissa up to scratch. To
a duke's scratch at that.
Taking comfort from her irritation--it distracted her from the thought
of what she could not see through the thick canopy overhead--Honoria set
aside the vexing question of the duke's identity to reflect on the qualities
Lady Claypole had ascribed to the phantom.
He was thoughtful, an excellent landowner, mature but not old, ready,
so her ladyship had assured her, to settle down and begin filling his
nursery. This paragon had no faults to which any might take exception.
The picture her ladyship had painted was of a sober, serious, retiring
individual, almost a recluse. That last was Honoria's addition; she couldn't
imagine any duke other than a reclusive one being willing, as Lady Claypole
had declared this one was, to apply for Melissa's hand.
The grey tugged. Honoria kept the ribbons taut. They'd passed the entrance
to two bridle paths, both winding away into trees so dense it was impossible
to glimpse anything beyond a few yards. Ahead, the lane swung left, around
a virtually blind curve. Tossing his head, the grey paced on.
Honoria checked for the curve, noting that their upward climb had ended.
As the weight of his load lessened, the grey surged. Honoria's grip slipped--the
reins slithered through her fingers. Cursing, she grabbed and caught the
ribbons firmly; leaning back, she wrestled with the beast.
The grey shied. Honoria shrieked and yanked hard, for once uncaring of
the horse's mouth. Her heart racing, she forced the grey to a halt. Abruptly,
the horse stood stock-still, quivering, coat aflicker. Honoria frowned.
There'd been no thunderclaps yet. She glanced along the lane. And saw
the body slumped beside the verge.
Time stood still--even the wind froze.
Honoria stared. "Dear God."
At her whisper, the leaves sighed; the metallic taint of fresh blood wafted
along the lane. The grey sidled; Honoria steadied him, using the moment
to swallow the knot of shock in her throat. She didn't need to look again
to see the dark, glistening pool growing beside the body. The man had
been shot recently--he might still be alive.
Honoria eased from the gig. The grey stood quietly, head drooping; edging
to the verge, Honoria looped the reins about a branch and pulled the knot
tight. Stripping off her gloves, she stuffed them in her pocket. Then
she turned and, taking a deep breath, walked down the lane.
The man was still alive--she knew that the instant she knelt on the grass
beside him; his breathing was rattly and harsh. He was lying on his side,
slumped forward; grasping his right shoulder, she rolled him onto his
back. His breathing eased--Honoria barely noticed, her gaze transfixed
by the jagged hole marring the left side of his coat. With every ragged
breath the man drew, blood welled from the wound.
She had to staunch the flow. Honoria looked down; her handkerchief was
already in her hand. Another glance at the wound confirmed its inadequacy.
Hurrying, she stripped off the topaz-silk scarf she wore over her dun-colored
gown and wadded it into a pad. Lifting the sodden coat, she left the man's
ruined shirt undisturbed and pressed her improvised dressing over the
gaping hole. Only then did she glance at his face.
He was young--surely too young to die? His face was pale, his features
regular, handsome, still holding traces of youthful softness. Thick brown
hair lay disheveled across a wide brow; brown brows arched over his closed
Sticky dampness rose beneath Honoria's fingers, her kerchief and scarf
no match for the relentless flow. Her gaze fell on the youth's cravat.
Unhooking the pin securing the linen folds, she unwound the cravat, folded
it, then positioned the thick wad and carefully pressed down. She was
bent over her patient when the thunder struck.
A deep resounding boom, it rent the air. The grey screamed, then
shot down the lane, a sharp crack accompanying the thud of hooves. Heart
pounding, Honoria watched in helpless dismay as the gig rushed past, the
branch with the reins still wrapped about it bumping wildly in its wake.
Then lightning cracked. The flash was hidden by the canopy yet still lit
the lane in garish white. Honoria shut her eyes, blocking her memories
by sheer force of will.
A low moan reached her. Opening her eyes, she looked down, but her charge
"Wonderful." She glanced around; the truth was impossible to
avoid. She was alone in a wood, under trees, miles from shelter, without
means of transport, in a countryside she'd first seen four days ago, with
a storm lashing the leaves from the trees--and beside her lay a badly
wounded man. How on earth could she help him?
Her mind was a comfortless blank. Into the void came the sound of hoofbeats.
At first, she thought she was dreaming, but the sound grew steadily louder,
nearer. Giddy with relief, Honoria rose. She stood in the lane, fingertips
on the pad, listening as the hoofbeats drew rapidly nearer. At the last
minute, she stood upright, turning and stepping boldly to the center of
The ground shook; thunder engulfed her. Looking up, she beheld Death.
A massive black stallion screamed and reared over her, iron-tipped hooves
flailing within inches of her head. On the beast's back sat a man to match
the horse, black-clad shoulders blocking out the twilight, dark mane wild,
features harsh -- satanic.
The stallion's hooves thudded to the ground, missing her by a bare foot.
Furious, snorting, eyes showing white, the beast hauled at the reins.
It tried to swing its huge head toward her; denied, it attempted to rear
Muscles bunched in the rider's arms, in the long thighs pressed to the
stallion's flanks. For one eternal minute, man and beast did battle. Then
all went still, the stallion acknowledging defeat in a long, shuddering,
Her heart in her throat, Honoria lifted her gaze to the rider's face--and
met his eyes. Even in the dimness, she was sure of their color. Pale,
lucent green, they seemed ancient, all-seeing. Large, set deep under strongly
arched brows, they were the dominant feature in an impressively strong
face. Their glance was penetrating, mesmerizing -- unearthly. In that
instant, Honoria was sure that the devil had come to claim one of his
own. And her, too.
Then the air about her turned blue.
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