Anna Black gave a silent cheer as the carriage she was riding in lurched and came to an abrupt stop at an angle that suggested they’d hit a deep ditch.
Perhaps, she thought hopefully from the edge of her seat, where she’d been tossed, they’d be stuck on the road for hours, which would delay their arrival at the estate of Viscount Grandville. She had reason to be worried about what might happen at Lord Grandville’s estate, and she dreaded reaching it.
It was also possible she was being pursued.
Perhaps nothing would happen at all. But the whole situation was nerve-wracking enough that she had more than once considered simply running off to live in the woods and survive on berries. However, several considerations discouraged her from this course:
1. She had exactly three shillings to her name. Though admittedly money would be of no use in the woods, she would at some point need more than berries.
2. She had agreed to escort her traveling companion, Miss Elizabeth Tarryton, to the home of Viscount Grandville, who was the girl’s guardian.
3. If Anna abandoned her duty, along with being a wicked person, she wouldn’t be able to return to the Rosewood School for Young Ladies of Quality, her employer.
Anna was nothing if not practical, and she was highly skeptical of the success of the life-in-the-woods plan, but the dramatic occurrences in her life of late were starting to lend it appeal.
“Hell!” said the lovely Miss Elizabeth Tarryton from her sprawled position on the opposite coach seat. Her apricot silk bonnet had fallen across her face during the coach-lurching, and she pushed it aside. “What’s happened?”
“We’re in a ditch, evidently,” Anna replied. Their situation was obvious, but Miss Tarryton had not so far proven herself to be particularly sensible for her sixteen years. She was also apparently not averse to cursing.
Surrendering to the inevitable, Anna said, “I’ll go see how things look.”
She had to push upward to open the door to the tilted coach, and before stepping down, she paused to tug her faded blue bonnet over her black curls, a reflex of concealment that had become second nature in the last month. The rain that had followed them since they left the school that morning had stopped, but the dark sky promised more.
The coachman was already seeing to the horses. “Had to go off the road to avoid a vast puddle, and now we’re in a ditch,” he called. “’Tis fortunate that we’re but half a mile from his lordship’s estate.”
So they would soon be at Stillwell, Viscount Grandville’s estate. Damn, Anna thought, taking a page from Miss Tarryton’s book. Would he be a threat to her?
After a month in a state of nearly constant anxiety, of waiting to be exposed, she sometimes felt mutinously that she didn’t care anymore. She’d done nothing of which she ought to be ashamed—yet it would never appear that way. And so she felt like a victim, and hated feeling that way, and hated the accursed book that had given two wicked men such power over her.
She gathered up the limp skirts of her faded old blue frock and jumped off the last step, intending to see how badly they were stuck.The coachman was seeing to the horses, and as she moved to inspect the back of the carriage, she became aware of hoofbeats and turned to see a rider cantering toward them. A farmer, she thought, taking in his dusty, floppy hat and dull coat and breeches.
He drew even.
“You are trespassing,” he said from atop his horse, his tone as blunt as his words. The sagging brim of his hat hid the upper part of his face, but from the hard set of his jaw, she could guess it did not bear a warm expression. His shadowed gaze passed over her, not lingering for more time than it might have taken to observe a pile of dirty breakfast dishes.
“We had no intention of doing so, I assure you,” she began, wondering that the stranger hadn’t even offered a greeting. “The road was impassible and our coachman tried to go around, but now we are stuck. Perhaps, though, if you might—”
“You cannot tarry here,” he said, ignoring her attempt to ask for help. “A storm is coming. Your coach will be stranded if you don’t make haste.”
His speech was clipped, but it sounded surprisingly refined. Ha. That was surely the only refined thing about him. Aside from his lack of manners and the shabbiness of his clothes, there was an L-shaped rip in his breeches that gave a window onto pale skin and thigh muscles pressed taut, and underneath his coat, his shirt hung loose at the neck. She supposed it was his broad shoulders that made him seem especially imposing atop his dark horse.
A stormy surge of wind blew his hat brim off his face, and she realized that severe though his expression might be, he was very handsome. The lines of his cheekbones and hard jaw ran in perfect complement to each other. His well-formed brows arched in graceful if harsh angles over dark eyes surrounded by crowded black lashes.
But those eyes. They were as devoid of life as one of her father’s near-death patients.
Several fat raindrops pelted her bonnet. “We shall be away momentarily,” she said briskly, turning away from him to consider the plight of the coach and assuming he would leave now that he’d delivered his warning.
The rain began to fall faster, soaking through the thin fabric of her worn-out frock. She called out to the coachman, who was doing something with the harness straps. “Better take off the young lady’s trunk before you try to advance.”
“No. That’s a waste of time,” said the stranger from atop his horse behind her.
She turned around, deeply annoyed. “Your opinion is not wanted.”
The ill-mannered man watched her, a muscle ticking in his stubbled jaw. A cold rivulet trickled through her bonnet to her scalp and continued down her neck, and his empty gaze seemed to follow the little stream’s journey to the collar of her dampening frock. His eyes flicked lower, and she thought they lingered at her breasts.
She crossed her arms in front of her and tipped her chin higher. Not for nothing had she sparred with her older brother all those years in a home that had been more than anything else a man’s domain. Her father had been a doctor and had valued reason and scientific process and frowned on softness, and she’d been raised to speak her mind. Life as a servant at Rosewood School was already testing her ability to hold her tongue, but this man deserved no such consideration.
“Is not your presence required elsewhere?”
“Where are you going?” he demanded, ignoring her.
“I couldn’t be more delighted that such things do not concern you.”
The stranger’s lips thinned. “Who comes to this neighborhood concerns me.”
“If you would move along,” she said exasperatedly, blinking droplets from her lashes, “we might focus on freeing the coach.”
His gaze flicked away from her. “Drive on,” he called to the coachman.
John, apparently responding to the note of command in the stranger’s voice, disregarded Anna’s sound of outrage and addressed himself to the horses. With a creaking of harness straps, they struggled forward. The wheels squelched as they found purchase amid the mud, and the carriage miraculously righted itself.
She sucked her teeth in irritation.
“See that you do not linger here,” the man said.
“We are on our way to Stillwell Hall,” she replied, thinking to make him regret his poor conduct. He might even work for the viscount.
He looked down at her, his face shadowed so that his rain-beaded whiskers and hard mouth were all she could see. “That’s not possible. No one is welcomed there.”
From inside the carriage, Miss Tarryton called, “Can we not proceed, Miss Whatever?”
Anna ignored her. “It certainly is possible.”
“The viscount might not be in residence.”
His words would have given her pause, except that when Miss Brickle had sent Anna off with her charge and a note for the viscount, she’d said that he was certain to be at Stillwell, because according to gossip among the mothers of Rosewood’s students, he’d been in residence there constantly over the last year. Though why this man should be so set on discouraging them from seeing the viscount, she couldn’t imagine.
“I have it on good authority that he is. Evidently, sir,” she said, “you have been raised by wild animals and so one must overlook your lack of interest in people, but I assure you Lord Grandville will wish to welcome us.”
Something flickered in his eyes for the barest moment at her tart words, but his hard expression didn’t change. “No,” he rasped. “He won’t. Do not go there.”
He turned his horse away and spurred it into a gallop across the field next to the road.
Anna found herself staring as the stranger rode off. And really, he was strange, because though he appeared to be a laborer, his speech was educated and his manner commandingly haughty. He might almost have been a gentleman, but he was too rough for that to be possible.
As the coachman climbed onto his perch, he gave a snort and called back to her, “’E’s a friendly one.”
“He probably keeps badgers as pets,” she said, and mounted the coach steps amid the coachman’s laughter.
Miss Elizabeth Tarryton, sitting composedly inside and looking as dry and untroubled as any princess accustomed to having things arranged for her, remarked, “Headmistress says ladies are above noticing the behavior of rough men. Not that you would know about proper behavior. Really, Miss Brickle ought never to have chosen a seamstress as a companion for the niece of a viscount. You—”
The girl hesitated, perhaps realizing how ridiculous additional comments would sound coming from someone who’d been discovered the night before kissing a lieutenant from the local militia in the school garden. When discovered by the headmistress, MissTarryton had almost proudly revealed that she’d reached the garden by climbing out a second-floor window. Miss Brickle had wanted the girl gone as soon as possible, before her scandalous behavior could taint the reputation of Rosewood School.
As the only other person privy to this escapade—she’d been up late doing the mending, needing extra time for the work since she wasn’t actually very good at sewing—Anna had been assigned to escort Miss Tarryton to her guardian.
“Yes?” Anna prompted, surprised to find herself being addressed at all. The elegant Miss Tarryton, who looked like angelic perfection with her red-gold curls and her gown of pale apricot silk, had spent their journey gazing mutely out the window on her side.
The girl closed her mouth and returned to looking out the window, where the rain was now coming down heavily as the late afternoon edged toward evening. Anna would have felt sorry for Miss Tarryton, since she’d been hustled away from Rosewood so ignominiously, except nothing in her demeanor suggested she was dismayed about leaving. If anything, she seemed impatient to arrive at their destination.
They set off at a careful pace on the muddy road. Anna dried herself as best she could with a clean serviette from the now sadly empty lunch hamper. She didn’t dwell on why the stranger had said what he had about Stillwell. Even if it were true, it merely suggested that Lord Grandville was a hermit, which could only be good news.
She would simply deliver his ward and then be on her way back to the school. It had been a month since she’d had to leave home so abruptly, and now,just when she’d been starting to relax her guard at Rosewood, she’d been sent on this unwanted journey.
A shudder rippled along her shoulders as a memory of curving pencil marks flashed through her mind, the lines of her own naked body caught in various positions on page after page of that appalling sketchbook. Images made without her knowledge. And three words written in garish red wax on the book’s cover: The Beautiful One. Such an innocuous title for a thing that put her in danger of becoming the kind of womanno decent person could acknowledge.
She couldn’t know for certain whether the Marquess of Henshaw was actually looking for her or how many people had seen that book.
A weak, vulnerable feeling threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced it down. She hated weakness. And she refused to let what those two men had done dominate her thoughts.
Sometime later the carriage slowed down and John called out to them. “That will be the manor, misses, on the left side.”
At his words, Miss Tarryton surged toward the opposite window and looked out. Before she could catch herself, she uttered a startled sound. She clamped her lips shut, sat back against the seat, and composed her features, as if the home of her guardian—and now herself—were just as she’d imagined.
Anna leaned forward to peer out the window. She almost gasped herself. They had paused on a road that passed perhaps half a mile from the front of the manor, but the distance in no way diminished its enormity. The rain had abated for the moment, leaving a clear view of Stillwell Hall in the gray early-evening light, and it was breathtaking, grander than anything she’d ever seen.
Set behind a large and tranquilly shining pond, the hall was a majestic arrangement of squares and rectangles that formed a large central building with two substantial wings, all of it on a scale that made her family home look like a hut. The hall’s stone was a soft cream color, and the numerous chimneys on its gently angled roof gave it a cheery look.
She smiled a little, realizing that the stranger’s words about Stillwell had caused her to imagine a vast, dark dungeon awaiting them. The manor was certainly vast, but it was also beautiful and balanced harmoniously among its endless grounds. Surely no one who made his home here could be as forbidding as the stranger had suggested.
She let the curtain fall back into place with a shaking hand. The viscount had a minor estate near her childhood home, a place called Littlebury Lodge, where his family sometimes summered. Though she’d never met the viscount, her father had, and he’d occasionally been called out to the lodge to treat members of the viscount’s family. Over a weeks-long period, her father had treated the viscount’s much-younger brother for a prolonged fever, and brought Anna along to cheer the youth. But that had been six years ago, and surely, if the viscount’s brother were at Stillwell, he wouldn’t recognize Anna.
Recent events had taught her that hope was very, very important for getting through the day. She stirred it up now. But hopeful though Anna might strive to be, she was also unfailingly honest with herself. Viscount Grandville was important and powerful, and should it come to it, ruining her life would be as nothing to him.
“The estate is spectacular,” Miss Tarryton said, her customary tone of boredom replaced with awe.
Anna forced herself to sound natural. “Yes, it is.”
Miss Tarryton’s brow lowered, so that she suddenly looked not like a spoiled, privileged young woman but a scared girl. Something occurred to Anna then. “Have you ever met your uncle?”
“Yes. I used to see him sometimes when I was a girl because he was a close friend of my father’s. But we moved to Malta when I was six.”
“And have you seen him since you came to England from Malta?”
“No, but that’s of no consequence.”
Anna wasn’t so certain. “Do you remember what he was like?”
“Only that he had dark hair and he was tall and kind. He’s a very important man, so it’s not surprising if he’s been too busy for visiting.”
The girl lifted her hand and nibbled at a fingernail for a moment before she realized what she was doing and dropped her hand. She might be impatient to arrive at the home of her uncle, but she was just as nervous as Anna, if for different reasons.
“Do you think Lord Grandville…” Miss Tarryton began, then closed her mouth. Her face smoothed into the look of angelic boredom she’d worn for much of the journey, and she turned a placid gaze on the floor.The knuckles of her clasped fingers, though, soon turned even whiter than the rest of her pale, soft hands.
As close as they now were to the viscount’s home, Anna knew she must finally face one of the possibilities that had concerned her during their journey: that Lord Grandville was acquainted with the Marquess of Henshaw.
That he might have seen The Beautiful One.