"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 gray 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 gray 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 gray 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 gray 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 to impress.
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 gray 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 gray paced on.
Honoria checked for the curve, noting that their upward climb had ended. As the weight of his load lessened, the gray 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 gray shied. Honoria shrieked and yanked hard, for once uncaring of the horse's mouth. Her heart racing, she forced the gray 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 gray 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 gray 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 eyes.
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 gray 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 remained unconscious.
"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 lane.
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 again.
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, horsy sigh.
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.