Chapter One

 

April 1811

    Eyes streaming, coughing and choking, she tugged at the window, but it refused to budge. The floorboards scorched her feet and she could hear the ominous roar of the fire below. Dragging the pungent air deep into her lungs, she screamed.
‘Ellie. Ellie. Wake up!’
‘What?’
Eleanor, Baroness Ashby, roused to the gently rocking rhythm of her carriage. She stared groggily into the anxious eyes of Lucy, Dowager Marchioness of Rothley. Eleanor levered herself upright on the squabs, her nightmare still vividly real.
‘You screamed. Was it the nightmare again?’
Eleanor drew in a deep breath—fresh, clean, untainted. ‘Yes. I’m sorry if I frightened you, Aunt.’ Her heart slowed from a gallop to a fast trot. ‘Everything seems so real in the dream. And I can never get out.’
‘Well, we must be thankful you escaped the real fire, my pet. It doesn’t bear thinking about, what might have happened.’
‘Milady?’ Lucy’s maid, sitting on the backward-facing seat, opposite Eleanor, leant forward.
‘Yes, Matilda?’
‘Is it true someone set fire to the library deliberately?’
‘Yes.’
Eleanor did not elaborate. Someone had broken into Ashby Manor—her beloved home—at the dead of night, piled books into the middle of the library floor and set fire to them. The whole east wing had been destroyed. All those beautiful books!
‘I told you.’ Lizzie, Eleanor’s maid, also travelling in the carriage to London, nudged Matilda. ‘If milady had not woken up when she did, she’d be—’
‘Lizzie!’
Lizzie cast an apologetic glance at Eleanor as she subsided into silence. Eleanor needed no reminding of what would have happened had she not woken when she did, two weeks before. She shuddered, recalling that terrifying moment when, climbing from her bedchamber window, her searching toes met empty space where the top rung of the ladder had, only moments before, been placed against the wall by her head groom, Fretwell. If Lizzie had not come looking for her when she did… Fear coiled in Eleanor’s belly. Lizzie had arrived just in time to see a shadowy figure knock Fretwell out cold before flinging the ladder to the ground.
Who was he? Was he really trying to kill me?
They had been unable to find any trace of the culprit. Fretwell had not seen him, and Lizzie’s description was so vague it was no help at all, but there had been no further incidents and no one could recall seeing any strangers in the vicinity.
‘I hope Aunt Phyllis will be comfortable staying with Reverend Harris,’ Eleanor said to Aunt Lucy, keen to distract them all from the events of that night. Aunt Phyllis—Eleanor’s paternal aunt—had lived at Ashby Manor all her life and had helped raise Eleanor after her mother left when Eleanor was just eleven. She had also been Eleanor’s chaperon since her father’s death three years before.
‘Oh, I make no doubt she will thoroughly enjoy her captive audience,’ Aunt Lucy said. There was no love lost between Lucy—the older sister of Eleanor’s mother—and Aunt Phyllis. ‘It’s the Reverend and his wife I feel pity for. Still, it is to my benefit that she refused to accompany you to London, my pet. I shall enjoy the opportunity to get you settled at long last.’
Eleanor shook her head, laughing. ‘You know very well the only reason I am going to London is to escape the building work at home. I have no wish to find a husband.’
Unless I fall in love with someone and he with me. And that is unlikely in the extreme.
‘You will feel differently if you meet someone who sets your heart a-flutter,’ Aunt Lucy replied, her dark eyes twinkling.
‘You take a different view of matrimony to Aunt Phyllis,’ Eleanor replied. ‘Her only concern is that any suitor should have the correct breeding and be wealthy enough to add to the estates.’
‘Ah, but she does not have to live with your choice. You do. Believe me, you do not want to be trapped in a marriage with a man you cannot respect. Or one who is unkind.’
Aunt Lucy fell silent and Eleanor guessed she was thinking back to her own unhappy marriage. The late Lord Rothley had been a violent and unpredictable man.
‘No, indeed,’ Eleanor said, heartened by the realisation that her aunt would not spend the Season trying to pressure her into a match she did not want.
‘Where did James say our house is?’ Aunt Lucy asked.
Eleanor fished Cousin James’s letter from her reticule and smoothed it, scanning the lines until she came to the relevant section.
‘Upper Brook Street,’ she said. ‘I hope it will prove suitable.’
James, upon being told of the fire, and Eleanor’s desire to visit London for the Season, had taken it upon himself to lease a house on her behalf. Thereby making certain I do not land on his doorstep, Eleanor had sniffed to herself upon receipt of his letter. Ruth, his wife, had clearly not mellowed towards her yet.
Relations between Eleanor and Ruth had been strained ever since Ruth had discovered that Eleanor, and not James, would inherit Ashby Manor and the title, becoming Baroness Ashby in her own right after her father’s death. The barony was an ancient title—one of the oldest in England, created by King William I—and, as was often the case with such ancient baronies, the title devolved upon the ‘heirs general’ rather than the nearest male relative.
Marry in haste… Eleanor allowed herself a quiet smile. In her opinion, Ruth only had herself to blame for trapping James into marriage before she had ascertained the truth of his prospects. Eleanor was just relieved she had seen through Ruth’s brother, Donald, on the eve of their betrothal, although the scandal when she rejected him had revived the old stories about her mother’s disgrace.
Blood will out, Aunt Phyllis’s voice echoed—the same refrain having been drummed into Eleanor ever since her mother created a scandal by running off with a rich merchant fourteen years ago. Eleanor was determined never to give the ton any cause for such salacious gossip about her. She forced her attention back to Aunt Lucy’s contented chatter.
‘Upper Brook Street is more than acceptable,’ she was saying. ‘I’ve always loved the Season—nothing can quite compare. Let us hope you have a happier time of it than during your come-out. I told your papa and that sourpuss Phyllis you weren’t ready for society. You were too young, too shy. And that was hardly surprising, given your poor mama… Well! I shall say no more on the subject. Oh, I can’t tell you, my pet, how delighted I am. Between you and me, this is just the remedy I need. I was bored to death at Rothley. I’ve come to the conclusion I’m far too young to retire to the dower house, despite what that reprehensible son of mine says.’
* * *
It was early afternoon on their first day of travel when a deafening crack jolted Eleanor from her daydreams. The carriage lurched violently sideways, slammed to a stop and then, very slowly, tilted until it fell on to its side with a crash. Eleanor flung her arms around Lucy to cushion her as they tumbled over to land on the side of the carriage. Lizzie and Matilda landed beside them in a tangle of arms and legs, shrieking hysterically.
Hip throbbing from the impact, Eleanor pushed herself up, still clutching Lucy.
‘Oh, my life! Oh, my head… We’re trapped! Milady, milady…oh, how shall we ever get out?’
‘Gunshot! Highwaymen! Highwaymen! We’ll be robbed and murdered, and no one to save us. Oh, dear Lord…’
‘Lizzie! Matilda!’ Eleanor raised her voice to be heard over the wailing of the two servants, who were still huddled together, eyes tight shut. ‘Do please stop that infernal noise. Is either of you hurt?’
‘My head…oh, milady—blood! I shall bleed to death.’
Eleanor twisted to look at Lizzie, who was clutching her head, a look of horror on her face. There was a minor cut on her scalp, which, like all scalp wounds, bled freely.
‘Nonsense, Lizzie. Do please calm down. Here, take my handkerchief and press it to your scalp—it’s only a tiny cut.’
Aunt Lucy had wriggled free from Eleanor’s grasp and was talking to Matilda.
‘Aunt? Are you all right?’
‘Shaken up, my pet, as are we all. But not hurt, thanks to you. You provided a soft landing, for which I am vastly grateful. And Matilda seems uninjured, just shocked.’ She grimaced at Eleanor as, at the sound of her name, Matilda burst into fresh sobs. ‘And you, Ellie? Are you hurt?’
‘I banged my side, but nothing broken, thankfully.’
‘What on earth do you imagine has happened? Oh, do hush, Matilda. Really, there is no lasting harm done. We are all still alive.’
‘I cannot imagine, although Lizzie is right—it did sound like a gunshot.’ Eleanor strove to speak calmly, to conceal her fear and the panic lurking below the surface. Were they being held up?
She looked up at the window above their heads. The carriage, despite being on its side, was still jerking and she could hear the men outside trying to calm the horses. She manoeuvred herself upright, her legs still shaky from the shock of the accident, and braced one foot on each side of the door frame that now formed the floor. There were some advantages in being tall, she thought wryly, as she shoved at the door above their heads. It crashed open, provoking another series of jerks from the horses, accompanied by a frenzied whinnying. She stuck her head through the opening, but was unable to see much. She shouted and the grizzled head of Joey, Eleanor’s coachman, appeared over the side of the upturned carriage.
‘Joey, thank goodness. What happened? Help me out, will you?’
Eleanor reached up and grasped Joey’s hands and, with much heaving and kicking, she was hauled out of the carriage and helped down to the ground. She took in the scene, gasping at the mayhem.
The lead pair plunged and scrabbled to regain their footing against the weight of the wheelers, both of which were off their feet. The offside of the wheelers was lying prone, blood pumping from its side, and the nearside of the pair, lying half beneath its teammate, eyes rolling wildly, was making intermittent half-hearted attempts to struggle free. Fretwell was trying desperately to free the lead horses, sawing at the leather harness with his knife, whilst the footman, Timothy, who had also accompanied them on their journey, was at the leaders’ heads, trying, not very successfully, to keep them calm, whilst dodging their flailing hooves.
Eleanor was about to go to his aid when Joey clutched her arm.
‘We just come round a sharp bend, milady. Get back there, lass, make sure nowt’s coming. Last thing we need—another pile up.’ Stress made the old coachman revert to speaking to her as the child he once knew.
Eleanor looked back, past the carriage, and only then did she appreciate the peril they were in. They had come around a sharp bend just before the carriage had overturned and the vehicle now blocked most of the road, which was enclosed by dense woodland. She shuddered at the thought of what that woodland might conceal, but there was no time to worry about that now. Surely any vehicle coming around that blind bend at even a modest speed would be upon them before they knew it. Picking up her skirts, Eleanor sprinted back along the road, suddenly aware of the approaching thunder of horses’ hooves.
Her heart leapt with fear. The horses sounded almost upon her, but were not yet in sight. Pain stabbed in her side. She could run no faster. The driver was unlikely to see her in time to react, he was travelling so fast. She did the only thing she could to avert disaster. She ran into the middle of the road, arms waving, just as a curricle drawn by two black horses raced into view.
Curses filled the air as the driver hauled desperately at the reins, slewing the curricle across the road as they came to a plunging stop, missing Eleanor by mere inches. Lungs burning, legs trembling, she could only watch, mute, as a groom jumped from his perch and raced to the horses’ heads. The driver speared her with one fulminating glare, then tied off the reins and leapt to the ground. Eleanor hauled in a shaky breath, flinching at his livid expression as he strode towards her

 

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