September 2005
Dorchester Candlelight
ISBN: 0505526530

 

 

The coast of Cornwall, 1815

   

Chapter ONE

 

            “Please, sir, I beg you, have the driver slow the coach!”  Sara cried.  “We shall tip over at this pace.”  Clinging to the hand strap, she held the bonnet on her head as the carriage sped toward the summit with horses at full gallop in the darkness.  They’d been traveling at breakneck speed since they passed through the spiked iron gates at the bottom of the approach to Ravencliff, as though the hounds of hell were nipping at the horses’ hooves.

“We need to maintain such a pace on this steep incline,” the man replied.  “Take ease, my dear, the coachman knows what he’s about.”

Peering out of the window at the sheer-faced drop to the rocky shoreline below, Sara doubted that.  The road—if one could call it that—didn’t appear wide enough for another coach to pass.  There was no shoulder.  All that separated them from the edge of the bluff was the remains of a low, stacked stone fence on the seaside, while a high wall of granite looming over the road on the other seemed to nudge them toward impending calamity.

            The sound of loose pebbles and crumbling earth raining down over the rocks as they streaked along all but stopped her heart.  Below, towering, white-capped combers pounded the strand, the echo of their thunder amplified by a cottony fog ghosting in off the water with the turn of the tide.  Chased by the risen wind, it climbed the cliff and crept across the road obscuring Sara’s view through gaps in the broken fence.  She shuddered.  If she couldn’t see how could the coachman?  

The wheel struck a rut, and the coach listed, hesitating.  The road was pockmarked with them.  The crack of the driver’s whip, and guttural shouts to the horses soon set it in motion again, every spring and seam in the dilapidated equipage groaning under the strain.

Sara sank back against the cold leather squabs, and shut her eyes, certain that any moment the post chaise would topple over the edge—coachman, groom, horses, and all.  As if he’d read her thoughts her gentleman, traveling companion passed a guttural chuckle.

            “We are almost there, Baroness Walraven,” he said.  “But for the fog, you’d be able to see Ravencliff once we round the next bend.  Have no fear, I shall deliver you to your bridegroom all of a piece, you have my word.”

            Baroness Walraven.  Her heart leapt at the sound of it.  She must be mad.  Marrying a man she hadn’t even met.

            “You aren’t having second thoughts?” he said.  “It’s a bit too late for that now, my dear.”

            “I’ve been having ‘second thoughts’ since you came to me with this bizarre proposal, Mr. Mallory.”

            Again he chuckled.  “In that case, you should have voiced them before accompanying me all the way to Scotland to finalize it,” he said.  “There’s nothing to be done about it now.”

            “That is what puzzles me,” Sara returned.  “If the baron was so anxious to marry me, ‘to our mutual betterment’, I believe it was you said, how is it that he couldn’t come in person?  Why did he send you, his steward, as proxy?  That’s insulting.  Even under these peculiar circumstances.”

            “I’m crushed,” he said, feigning heartbreak, “And we made such a handsome couple, too.”

            “What if I don’t suit the baron?”  Sara said, ignoring his flirtations wink.  Wasn’t the man full of himself, though?  He was handsome, and he knew it, fair-haired and fashionable, impeccably dressed, and cultured, the second son of a baronet, to hear him tell it.  She wasn’t impressed.

            “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he replied, sliding familiar eyes then length of her.

They were the color of steel, and just as cold.  “But if, by some unlikely happenstance such should be the case,” he went on, “I’ll be only too happy to oblige you.  I thoroughly enjoyed our…nuptials.”

            Sara wasn’t about to distinguish that remark with an answer, but he was right.  What was done was done, and there was no doubt that he looked down upon her for consenting to such an arrangement.  Had the nodcock forgotten where he’d come to make the baron’s offer?  After six months in the Fleet Debtor’s Prison, she’d have considered a marriage proposal from the devil himself to buy herself free.  Would her bridegroom look down upon her for it, too?  She shuddered to wonder.

            How the mysterious baron had heard of her predicament puzzled her, although she’d been told that oftentimes benefactors would offer for the inmates of such places as the Fleet.  That hers was an offer of marriage, and not something more indelicate should have been a comfort, she supposed, but it wasn’t.  The plain fact was she had consented to wed a man she’d never even seen—by proxy out of the country, mind—and let a total stranger deliver her to him in this inhospitable place in exchange for payment of her debt.  The exact details of the arrangement were yet to be disclosed.  She knew nothing about the baron at all, except that their fathers had served together in India and that they were evidently close friends in those days.  He had stressed that point, she imagined, in order to put her at ease.  Somehow it hadn’t.  Aside from Mallory’s insistence that all proprieties would be strictly observed, and the baron’s well-written proposal that was too good to resist tucked away in her reticule, she had no idea what lay in store.  It couldn’t be worse than the hellish nightmare she’d just come from…could it?

“Will the baron be in residence to greet us, at least, Mr. Mallory?” she said.

“Why don’t you call me ‘Alex’, my dear,” he replied.  “We shall be seeing quite a bit of each other, you know.  I’m often at the manor.  I keep rooms there…for when I’m not abroad on estate business.”  He popped another chuckle.  “You’ll likely see more of me than you will of your husband, truth to tell.  He keeps to himself, does Nicholas—always has done.  You can take me at my word at that.  We go back a long way, Nicholas and I, since our school days actually.”

“Then, why—”

“You will have to take the whys and wherefores up with him, my dear,” he interrupted.  “I am not at liberty to disclose his objectives.”

“You haven’t answered my first question, Mr. Mallory,” she said, making sure he didn’t miss her rejection of his offer to put them on a first name basis.  “Is his lordship in residence now?”

He consulted his pocket watch.  “Oh, he’s in residence,” he replied.  “Whether he’s available or not, I really couldn’t say—” he tucked the watch away again inside his waistcoat “—but I shan’t be.  Once I’ve delivered you to the manor, I’m off to London for a sennight to collect his houseguest, and give you two some time to yourselves.”

Sara hadn’t missed the seductive implications in his tone, and said no more, the less discourse with this individual the better.  She’d seen too many like him in the Fleet.  She tugged her spencer into shape, and ordered her traveling dress of dove-gray twill.  It had gone limp in the bone-chilling dampness that had run her through like a javelin since they sighted the sea.  Though the coach windows were closed, she tasted the salt on her lips.  The fog still blocked her view, but that was no hardship.  It spared her the sight of the restless sea rolling up the coast below, creaming over the rocky shingle, and filling the tide pools that lived in the coves.  It would have been a breathtaking sight by day.  In the dark, it was a fearsome thing.

“Look,” Mallory said, pointing, as the chaise careened around yet another turn.  Ravencliff.  You see?  We have arrived.”

Sara’s breath caught.  The sight knit the bones rigid in her spine.  The house was in darkness, a huge, rambling, structure steeped in the fog to its turrets, looming three stories high above the courtyard.  It was crowned with a pair of carved stone ravens, set like gargoyles in the eves.  It looked deserted.  All at once, the dissipating mist drifted inland, as though the carriage had dispersed it tooling into the drive, and she gasped again.  Rising from the sheer-faced sea wall, Ravencliff Manor looked as though it had been hewn from the rockbound cliff it crouched upon.

The coachman reined the horses in, locked the brake, and climbed down to set the steps.  The mist had soaked him through from his wide-brimmed hat to the red traveling shawl he wore beneath his coat—the only splotch of color in the vicinity—glistening in the light of the coach lamps.  Meanwhile, the groom, likewise drenched, hopped off the dickey behind, and began unloading luggage from the boot.

“Not those,” Mallory spoke up, exiting the chaise, as the man began to un-strap the two portmanteaux on top.  “They are mine.  I’m not staying.”  He offered Sara his hand, and she stepped down into swirling mist that all but hid the Welsh blue stone crunching underfoot.  “Come along, my dear,” he said.  “Unless I miss my guess that’s a flaw brewing, and I want to be on level ground again before it hits.”

“A flaw?” she questioned.

“That’s what the locals call the wicked storms that plague this coast, especially now, in spring.  You’ll not want to venture out in one.  The winds will blow you right over the cliff, a mere wisp of a girl like yourself.  You’d best keep away from the edge even in fair weather.”

They had reached the entrance, and Mallory banged the brass knocker.  After a moment the door opened and they were greeted by an aging butler and two wigged footmen dressed in blue and gold livery.  Mallory ushered her over the threshold, and raised her gloved hand to his lips.

“Forgive my want of conduct running off like this,” he said, returning her hand to her dutifully kissed, “but all good things must come to an end.  You’re quite safe in the custody of Smythe here, Baroness Walraven.  He will see to your every need.  It has indeed been my pleasure, but now I must away.”

Sketching a bow, he bounded down the steps and disappeared inside the coach, whose wheels were rolling over the blue stone drive before he’d settled back against the squabs.

 The footmen rushed past to fetch Sara’s luggage.  There wasn’t much, one portmanteau and a small valise containing necessities bought in London.  The rest was to be provided at Ravencliff.  Once they’d brought them inside, the butler shut the door, and slid the bolt.

“Take Baroness Walraven’s bags up to the tapestry suite,” he charged them.  He turned to Sara.  “If you will follow me, madam,” he said, “Baron Walraven awaits you in the study.”

So he was in residence.  She almost wished he wasn’t.  What would he think of her in her damp, clinging traveling costume?  She tried to tuck the wet tendrils plastered to her cheeks underneath her bonnet, but it was no use.  There were just too many.  To her surprise, since it had seemed so dark from outside, candles set in branches on marble tables, and in wall sconces lit the Great Hall, and the corridors they traveled.  They did little to chase the gloom.  There was a palpable presence of sorrow in the house, in the stale, musty air, and the melancholy echo of their footfalls on the terrazzo floors.

Just for a second, Sara thought she heard the patter of dog’s feet padding along behind.  She turned, but there was nothing there, and after a moment, she turned back to find the butler watching.

“Is something amiss, madam?” he queried.

“I thought I heard a dog,” she said, feeling foolish now that the corridor behind as far as she could see was vacant.

“The house groans with age now and again,” he said, resuming his pace.  “You’ll hear all sorts of peculiar noises, especially when the wind picks up.  It’s naught to worry over.”

When they reached the study door, Smythe knocked, but there was no response at first.  It wasn’t until he paused a moment and knocked a second time that the Baron bade them enter, and the butler ushered her into a large room, walled in books.  Dark draperies were drawn at the windows.  But for a branch of candles on a stand beside the wing chair Nicholas Walraven occupied, and a feeble fire burning in the hearth, the room was steeped in shadow.  Sara flinched as the door snapped shut behind her in the butler’s hand.  The baron set the tome he’d been perusing aside and surged to his feet, taking her measure.

Alexander Mallory had provided her with a description of her bridegroom, but he hadn’t prepared her for the reality of the man.  She assessed him to be in his mid-thirties, a striking figure, tall and slender, though well muscled.  The Egyptian cotton shirt he wore tucked into skin-tight black pantaloons was open at the neck, giving a glimpse of chest hair beneath.  It matched the hair—as black as his namesake, the raven—waving about his earlobes, and falling in a rakish manner across his broad brow.  The deep-set eyes beneath—dilated in the darkness— shone like obsidian.  They had the power to hypnotize.

“Please be seated,” he said, gesturing toward a Chippendale chair on the opposite side of the Aubusson carpet.  “This needn’t be awkward unless you make it so.”

“Forgive me for staring,” she said, sinking into the offered chair.  “I didn’t expect, I mean to say…Mr. Mallory didn’t exactly prepare me for…all this.”  What had really tied her tongue was why such a man as he needed to resort to these outrageous lengths to get a wife.

“Have you eaten?” he asked.  His deep voice resonated through her body, striking chords in places hitherto untouched in such a manner, and she shifted uneasily in the chair.

“I have, sir,” she replied, “at the coaching station inn on Bodmin Moor.”

“Would you like a glass of sherry, or perhaps something…stronger, to warm you?”

“No, thank you,” she said.  “I do not take strong spirits.”

Walraven did not resume his seat.  Instead, he strolled to the desk, and leaned against it half-sitting on the edge with one well-turned thigh draped over the side in a casual pose.  His polished Hessians gleamed in the candle glow, and the flickering firelight cast shadows that played about the deep cleft in his chin.  No.  Alexander Mallory did not do the man justice at all.

“Naturally, you have questions,” he said in that throaty baritone voice that had such a shocking effect upon her.  “To save time, how much has Alex told you?”

“Only that your offer was an honorable one; that all proprieties would be strictly observed; that the arrangement was to our…mutual betterment, and that you would provide the details once I arrived.”

“Did he give you my missive?”

“Yes,” she said, studying the folded hands in her lap.  Her heart skipped its rhythm.  His eyes had picked up red glints from the fire.  They were burning toward her like live coals.  She couldn’t meet them.  “A most gracious invitation, Baron Walraven,” she murmured.

“That won’t do,” he said.  “You shall call me Nicholas, and I shall call you Sara—when we are alone, commencing now.  You shall need to get used to doing so.  You are Sara Ponsonby no longer.  We are husband and wife, and you must present that image.  The private familiarity will help you adjust to that.  On State occasions, you are Baroness Walraven, of course, more informally, Sara Walraven, which is how you will sign your documents.  Is this clear to you?”

“Y-yes, Bar—Nicholas.”  His name did not roll off her tongue.  It was all too new.

“Very well,” he said.  “Would you remove your bonnet, please?”

 Sara was hoping he wouldn’t ask her to do that, not until she’d had time to order herself.  Hot blood rushed to her temples.  Blushing was her most grievous fault, the curse of her fair-skinned heritage.  She didn’t need a mirror to tell her she was blushing now.  Her cheeks were on fire.  The heat rising from them narrowed her eyes.

“Please,” he repeated, prompting her with a hand gesture.  Sara removed the bonnet, and he arched his brow.  “I see you are no slave to fashion,” he observed.”

“Sir?”

“Your hair,” he said.  “You haven’t cropped it after the current craze.”

“With so much upon me of late, I’ve hardly had time to think of fashion,” she returned.  Was her reply too snappish?  She feared so, but it was too late now.

“I shall be brief,” he said, shifting position, and the conversation along with it.  “I am in need of a companion—only that—someone to preside over my gatherings, and appear with me in public…on occasion, in order to deter predatory females, and keep the ton from continually trying to snare me into the marriage mart.  If I have a wife…well, I think you get the point.”

“Is that why you don’t come to Town for the Seasons?” she couldn’t help inquiring.  It didn’t ring true.  If all he wanted was a hostess, he could have taken a mistress.

He hesitated.  “That is…one of the reasons,” he said.  “My motives need not concern you—only my needs.  Suffice it to say that I couldn’t hire someone for the position, and have her reside here under the same roof with me without a breech of propriety.  Since the woman of my choice would have to live here, she would have to become my wife.  She had to be attractive, cultured, and above reproach.  You possess all of those qualities.  She also had to agree to the arrangement, as you have done on the strength of my missive alone, without full knowledge of the…conditions.  That was paramount.  It proves trust, and trust is vital.  When I was made aware of your…situation, it seemed to me that we might strike a mutually beneficial bargain.  I am glad that you have chosen to accept it.  You will want for nothing.  There are a few simple house rules that I must ask you to follow, but I shall come back to that.”

Sara stared into those all-seeing obsidian eyes that seemed to penetrate her soul.  The firelight still shone red in them.  It was an odd business, and though he’d answered many of her questions, there was still one that needed to be addressed, and she didn’t know how to ask it.

“Is something unclear?” he said, as though he’d read her thoughts.  “Oh, yes, of course,” he hastened to add convincing her that he did indeed possess such powers.  “Your duties do not include sharing my bed.  I have no desire to perpetuate my line.  I hope that shan’t be…a problem?  I thought, under the circumstances, it might be somewhat of a relief.”

“N-no, not a problem,” she said.  She hadn’t considered the possibility of children, or the lack of them.  His bluntness shocked her, and she avoided the issue.  “There is one other thing that has puzzled me from the start, though” she said, with as much aplomb as she could muster.  “Why did you send Mr. Mallory to London to fetch me, and why a proxy wedding, when such things aren’t even possible in England?  Why didn’t you come yourself?  I should think that would have been simpler than having me trek all the way to Scotland with a total stranger to have it done.”

“That is not ‘one thing’, Sara, it is three things,” he said, “and all three encroach upon motive.  However, I will allow it this once.  Let us just say that…pre-existing situations here on the coast prevented me from leaving it—even to marry.”  Striding to the bell pull, he yanked it, and turned back to her.  “I’ve rung for Mrs. Bromley, my housekeeper.  She will show you to your rooms, and introduce you to Nell, your abigail.  Her quarters adjoin your suite.”

“Thank you, Nicholas,” she murmured.

“You will join me for meals,” he continued.  “Breakfast and nuncheon are served in the breakfast room.  The evening meal is served in the dining hall.  The servants will direct you.”

“You said something earlier about…house rules,” Sara reminded him.

“Yes” he said, “I was just coming to that.  You will be given a complete tour of Ravencliff tomorrow.  Please do not go off exploring on your own.  The house is very old.  Much of it is in disrepair, and you could do yourself a mischief.  Please do not go out to the sea wall unescorted.  The Cornish winds are notorious.  They have been known to blow strapping men off cliffs, and gales come up suddenly.  We are on the verge of one right now.  Though there are stairs hewn in the rock, do not go down to the strand.  They were carved there centuries ago.  Smugglers used them.  This coast is rife with cairns and caves and passageways.  None are safe.  Riptides are common here, and you could be cut off in seconds.  Finally, what occurs within these walls stays within these walls.  I expect you to be discrete.  Do not carry tales.  If you have a question, or a concern, do not burden the servants, or Alex.  Come directly to me.  Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, Nicholas,” Sara replied, rising as he came closer.

“Good,” he said.  “I want this to be a pleasant association…for the both of us.”

How he towered over her.  Those riveting eyes, wreathed with dark lashes any woman would envy, were even more alarming in close proximity.  They were hooded now, devouring her in the candlelight, making her heart race.  He smelled clean, of the sea, with traces of tobacco, and brandy drunk recently.  Combined with his own—almost feral—essence, the effect was intoxicating.  She drank him in deeply, extending her hand.

He took a step back from her, breaking the spell.  “Forgive me,” he murmured, “I do not like to be touched.”

A light knock at the study door made an end to the awkward situation, but not to her embarrassment, and she dropped the hand to her side.

“Come!” he called.

The door came open, and a plump, rosy-cheeked, woman entered wearing crisp black twill, and a starched lawn cap and apron.

“Please see Baroness Walraven to her apartments, Mrs. Bromley,” he said, “and have Nell attend her.  See that all her needs are met.” 

“Yes, sir,” the housekeeper responded, sketching a curtsy. 

He turned to Sara.  “It’s late,” he said.  “You must be exhausted.  I will expect you at breakfast.  If you have further questions, I will address them then.  Goodnight, Sara.”

He dismissed her with a cursory bow, turned, and strolled to the hearth, his obsidian gaze fixed on the sparks shooting up from a fallen log in the grate.  She had questions—so many questions, but there would be no answers then.  The strange interview was over, and she followed the housekeeper into the corridor.

 He’d made it clear that their marriage would be in name only.  He’d addressed that head on, and she’d received it with mixed emotions.  While she had been worried about sharing a bed for the first time with a virtual stranger, she was more disappointed than relieved that this wasn’t to be part of the arrangement.  Why would the man not want an heir?  Come to that, why didn’t he even want to be touched?  Alexander Mallory had seized her hand earlier, and pressed it to his lips before it was offered.  Albeit technically, Nicholas was her husband, he’d stressed that she was to present a wifely image, yet he’d refused such an innocent gesture of good will as taking a lady’s hand to seal their bargain. 

  Perhaps she’d been too hasty.  Nicholas Walraven was a mystery, but there was nothing hidden in her situation.  It was common knowledge that her father, wounded in battle, and knighted for valor after serving under Wellington on the Peninsular, had died heavily in debt leaving her encumbered.  Nicholas had paid a staggering sum to free her—far more than he would have had to settle on the daughter of one of his peers.  Why, with so many well to pass prospects to choose from, he had made her the subject of his quest escaped her.  It couldn’t just be because their fathers once served together on foreign soil.  He wasn’t even born then.  There had to be more to it than that, but what could it be?

She didn’t believe his feeble explanation for marriage, either.  He did infer that there was more to that.  Why didn’t he explain?  Why did it have to be a proxy wedding?  Why didn’t he choose to get to know her before making his offer?  What had seemed an answer to her prayers in the beginning was now taking on darker dimensions.  The worst of it was the way this strange, enigmatic man had impacted her in the physical sense.  That was most frightening of all.

“The tapestry suite, my lady,” Mrs. Bromley said, jarring her back to the moment. 

The windows rattled in their lead casings when the housekeeper threw the door open, and she waddled through the foyer that separated the rooms to draw the bedchamber draperies.  Still, drafts snaked their way over the floor ruffling the hem of Sara’s damp traveling costume.  Outside, the flaw was in full swing.  Rain pelted the panes, driven by gusts that moaned like human voices, and the roar of the sea rolling up the cliff chilled her to the marrow.  She had scarcely crossed the threshold, when another sound bled into the rest and gave her heart a tumble, a plaintive, wolf-like howl echoing along the corridor.  It rooted her to the spot.

“I knew there was a dog!” she cried.

“The wind, my lady, only the wind,” said the housekeeper, shutting the door behind her.  “It howls through these old halls in a flaw somethin’ terrible.”

“That was no wind,” Sara insisted.  “I ought to know a dog’s howl when I hear one.  We had kennels once, fine hunting hounds…and horses.”  She spoke haltingly, remembering.  She’d had to sell them all, and still it wasn’t enough to satisfy the debt.  Mist blurred her vision.  She blinked it back.  How she missed her beloved hounds.  Losing them had wounded her heart.  She would never forget the confused look of betrayal in their eyes, their whines, and whimpers as their new master took them away.  A cruel master compared to the cosseting they were accustomed to at her hands.  She couldn’t think about that now else she dissolve in the threatening tears.

A maid burst through the door of the adjoining sitting room, her face as white milk.

“Ah!  There ya’ are,” Mrs. Bromley said.  “Have ya’ readied my lady’s hip bath?”

“Y-yes, mum,” the girl replied, sketching a curtsy.

A stern look from the housekeeper softened the maid’s expression, and she offered a feeble smile in Sara’s direction, though her owlish eyes were still riveted to the door as though she expected someone to come crashing through it.

“Good,” said the housekeeper, turning to Sara.  “This is Nell, my lady, your abigail.  She’s feared o’ storms, but she serves this house well, and she’ll serve you likewise.”  She glanced at the maid.  “Well?  Set out madam’s nightdress then help her ta bathe and make ready for bed.  It’s nearly half-past eleven, and mornin’ comes quick in this house.”

“Y-yes, mum,” the girl mewed.

“The clothes the master ordered sent are all hung in the armoire,” the housekeeper explained, “your unmentionables are in the chiffonier.  Whatever’s lackin’ will be brought from Truro, you’ve only ta make a list so’s I can go myself, or send one o’ the maids.”

“I’m sure everything is more than acceptable,” Sara responded.  Compared to the state Mallory had found her in at the Fleet, anything would be an improvement.  Glancing around at the tapestries hung on the walls, it was easy to see how the suite got its name.  She wasn’t doing them justice.  She was straining her ears in anticipation of another howl from the dog no one seemed to want to acknowledge.  There was no sound now but the legitimate wind driving the rain, slamming against the mullioned panes, and moaning about the pilasters.

Sara shuddered, moving on toward the dressing room, where her bath awaited.  Having set an ecru gown and wrapper on the bed, Nell turned to follow, when Mrs. Bromley caught her arm, drew her aside, and whispered something to her.  It was obvious that whatever was being said was not for Sara’s ears, and she left them to it, anxious to take advantage of the bath before it grew cold in the drafts.

The water was strewn with crushed rosemary and mint, and Sara let it envelop her, while Nell sprinkled a few drops of rose oil into the mix.  The effect was rapturous, and she groaned as the mingled scents threaded through her nostrils, and the precious oil silkened her skin.

“We’ll have real rose petals soon now,” the maid said.  “They’re late this year, too many flaws.  You’ll know when they’re bloomin’.  The wind spreads the scent all through the house.”

“That wasn’t the wind before was it, Nell?”  Sara said.  “It was a dog wasn’t it, and you heard it too, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know what ya’ mean, my lady,” she said.  “All I heard was the wind.  I’m scared o’ it—ever since it took the north turret roof clean off, and blew it over that cliff out there.  The master had it fixed, but that don’t matter.  It’ll only go again.  You’re fortunate he didn’t put you in one o’ the turret suites.  You’d be wakin’ up in the ocean.”

Sara would have no answers from the mousy little maid, and she was too tired to argue.  The heavenly bath had relaxed her enough to sleep, and she let Nell help her into the gown, and brush out her hair.

“Such a fine color, my lady,” the girl observed.  “It shines like spun gold in the candlelight.  Most o’ the ladies are cuttin’ their hair off these days.”

“Do you think I should?”  Sara queried, recalling Nicholas’s remark earlier.  She still wasn’t sure if he’d meant it as a compliment or a criticism.

“Oh, I wouldn’t venture ta say, my lady,” she returned.  “That’ll be up ta you.”

That decision would have to wait.  The turned down four-poster looked inviting, and she dismissed Nell, snuffed out the candles, and climbed beneath the counterpane and crisp linen sheets.  The chamber faced the sea, and the westerly wind blowing off the water slammed full bent against that section of the house.  The draperies—heavy though they were—trembled against the panes and drafts teased the fire in the hearth, throwing tall auburn shadows against the tapestries on the wall.  Sara shut her eyes.  Lulled by the rhythm of the breakers rolling up the coast, she’d just begun to doze, when a strange noise rose above the voice of the storm, a scratching sound at the door.

She swung her feet over the side of the bed, but hesitated before she stepped down.  Rats!  Of course there would be rats this close to the sea.  She shuddered.  There were rats in the Fleet—big, ugly, hairy black creatures, with long, skinny tails.  More times than she cared to recall, she’d awakened to one crawling over her legs in the night…in the dark.  Gooseflesh puckered her scalp, and she sucked in her breath, remembering.

The noise came again, and a crippling chill gripped her spine.  It wasn’t coming from inside the chamber.  Something was scratching at the door, and she tiptoed closer, listening.  She held her breath.  This was no rat scratching at the paneling.  It was something…larger.

For a moment there was silence.  “Who’s there?” she said, waiting.  There was no reply, but then she didn’t expect there to be.  This was not a human sound.  It came again.  This time there was a whimper, and her clenched posture relaxed.  The dog.  Of course!

Sliding the bolt, she eased the door open, and froze on the threshold.  She gasped again, come face to face with what looked like a large black wolf.  Surely not!  It was a dog that looked like a wolf.  It had to be.  There were no more wolves in England.

For a moment, the creature stood gazing at her, its eyes glowing blood red in the firelight, before it turned and padded away, disappearing in the shadows that collected about the second floor landing.

 

 

 

© Dawn Thompson
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