It happened in the blink of an eye. One minute the post chaise was tooling over the moor through the pouring rain at Becca’s insistence, the coachman making a valiant attempt to escape the eminent pursuit of her father…or worse. The next, she lay dazed, upside down on top of her unconscious abigail crushed against what seconds before had been the roof of the upended equipage. The wheels were still spinning crazily, shooting out water like fountains as the rain sluiced down into them. The groaning sound they made mingled with the shrieks of the horses struck her with terror.
Lightning speared down now in rampant flashes snaking through the night sky. It was visible through one of the carriage windows. The other was blocked. By what, Becca couldn’t tell, though it had an earthy scent about it, detectable through a crack in the glass. She dared not try to right herself. The carriage wasn’t stable. Each time the horses’ shrill cries broke the awful silence it shuddered and slipped a bit more. Had it gone into a ditch? Where was the coachman?
Becca groaned. The slanted view of her predicament was still in motion from the vertigo. Everything around her seemed to undulate, like the pattern in her watered silk traveling costume fetched up in tangled disarray about her middle. She tried to free her hands to pull it down for the sake of modesty, but she had landed on one arm, and couldn’t reach the hem with the other.
“Do not move,” said a deep, authoritative voice from somewhere above, certainly not the coachman’s voice. This voice was cultured, with traces of an accent Becca couldn’t place.
She squinted toward the window, trying to make his image come clear. He seemed a phantom in that eerie setting. The carriage lanterns were extinguished in the crash, and storm clouds had swallowed the moon. Yet there was an eerie luminosity about him, like a fluid silver aura in the ghostly lightning flashes that lit his face so close to the rain-spattered glass.
“T-the coachman…?” she murmured.
He shook his head, spraying water from the brim of his beaver hat. “Dead,” he replied. “He has broken his neck in the fall.”
Becca uttered a strangled gasp.
“You must stay still,” he cautioned her. “Your carriage has overturned on the edge of a steep-sided gorge above the River Fowey. If you thrash about, it will go over, and you will surely perish. My man and I will free you, but you must remain calm, and do exactly as I say.”
He smiled, and uttered something in a foreign tongue. “Count Klaus Lindegren at your service, my lady,” he said, tipping his beaver.
He was gone in a flash, barking orders to another. Where had they come from? She hadn’t heard a carriage approach, and they certainly couldn’t have come on foot in such a storm, and in such a desolate place. Cold chills gripped her as she listened to his deep, mellow voice issuing commands. There was something comforting in the sound of it, like the music cool water makes rushing over pebbles in a stream. It was soothing…almost hypnotic. In any other circumstances it would have been a welcome sound.
“Set the right leader free!” he commanded. “Easy, Sven! Hold the ribbons! Cut the tack if needs must, else he drive the chaise over! See how the ground crumbles? Quickly, man!”
“I cannot hold him, your excellency!” cried the other.
“Cut him loose and let him go, then! We shall deal with him later.”
“What of the other?”
“I shall attend to the other. Quickly, I say! Can you not see? The coach is slipping!”
Becca scarcely breathed. Her heart was thudding against her ribs, and she had begun to tremble so she feared the vibration alone would cause the chaise to fall into the abyss. A shot rang out, and she screamed with a lurch in spite of herself. The cry had scarcely left her lips, when the count appeared at the window again, a smoking pistol in his gloved hand.
“All is well, my lady,” he said, in that captivating accent. It was like balm breaking over her frayed nerves. “It was necessary that I put one of the horses out of its misery. Its leg was broken, and its floundering was undermining the carriage. You are not alone in there?”
“My maid, your excellency.”
He raised his hand. “’My lord’ will suffice,” he said, nodding past her toward the inert servant. “Is she…?”
“I do not know. She is not conscious.”
“Look into my eyes, and listen carefully to what I am about to say,” he charged. It was like drowning in a silver sea. At least those piercing eyes looked silver in the lightning’s glare, but then, so did the rest of him. All at once she realized she must appear naked to him from the waist down, but for her thin summer hose, the way her frock was hiked up barely covering her personals. His gaze riveted to hers, he seemed not to notice. “Are you injured?”
“N-no…just shaken about.”
“Good!” he said. “I shall open the door. When I reach inside, grab fast to my hand, and let me pull you clear.”
“Only one of my hands is free,” she cried.
“As I raise you off the other, grab fast with both, but do not move otherwise. Let me do the work. I will not deceive you. The carriage is unstable. With the horses removed, it has stopped pitching, but their floundering has loosened the earth beneath you, and if you rock it…”
“What of Maud?”
“I beg your Pardon?”
“My abigail! What of my abigail?”
He was silent apace. “First things first,” he said. “Let me free you, my lady, and then I shall see to your maid.”
With no more said, he thrust his pistol and gloves toward a shadowy form at his side that Becca hadn’t noticed until that moment, and eased the staved-in carriage door open. It was sprung in the crash, and the dreadful sound it made ran Becca through like a javelin. His hand appeared, the arm behind it sheathed in soggy black superfine. She gripped it, and it was as though she had suffered a lightning strike. His strength was unexpected, and her breath caught in her throat as he lifted her through the gaping door with ease, and set her on her feet.
Becca’s knees gave way, and she sagged against him. Her frock had fallen back about her ankles as was proper, thank the stars and gravity, but not before he’d glimpsed what lay beneath, she was certain. He smelled clean, of the rain, of sweet cress, wild herbs, and the ghost of recently drunk wine. The whole was threaded through with his own distinct male essence, mysterious and evocative. It was a pleasant scent. She drank him in deeply.
“Thank you, my lord,” she murmured against his saturated lapel. The weather was warm, and he wore no topcoat or mantle over his frock coat. It was heavy with the weight of the rain slamming them in horizontal sheets. She gasped. “You are soaked through, sir!”
He popped a dry grunt. “I have no fear of water, my lady,” he said. Was there a hidden meaning there…some private irony? His mildly sarcastic tone suggested such. It gave her pause for thought, but not for long. Catching a glimpse of the chaise, and the dead horse unhitched beside it, she gasped again. “I have weathered many storms,” he went on, leading her away from the edge, “but you shall catch your death in such a…thin costume. Step inside my carriage. There is a warm robe in the boot.” He snapped his fingers. “Sven!” he said. “Fetch the fur robe for the lady.” The coachman scrambled toward the count’s carriage, but Becca dug in her heels.
“What of Maud?”
“I shall fetch your maid,” he said, handing her into a well-appointed brougham. Snatching the carriage robe from Sven’s outstretched hand, he tucked it around her. “Forgive the familiarity, my lady,” he said. “Extreme circumstances call for bold measures if I am to see to your comfort. I shall be back directly.”
“What are you going to do?” Becca called after him.
“I am going to climb inside and fetch your abigail,” he said, “before the chaise goes over the edge and takes her with it. Forgive me, but we have no time to spare.”
“You cannot climb into that carriage!” Becca shrilled. He was tall and slender, a fine figure of a man, but far too muscular to attempt such a fete. “You will both be killed!”
“And if I do not, who then?” he returned, standing arms-akimbo in the teeming rain. He didn’t even seem to notice it. At least he made no sign that he did. “She cannot climb out on her own, and Sven here is far too portly. I do not see any other about, do you?”
Just then, the chaise shifted on the spongy ground, and Becca cried out again.
“Fear not, my lady,” he replied to the sound. “All will be well.” Then with a nod toward Sven, he sketched a bow in her direction, clicked the heels of his mud-spattered Hessians, and strode off toward the teetering chaise, with his man in tow.
Becca watched with breath suspended, as the count thrust his beaver hat toward his driver, and disappeared inside the gaping mouth of the carriage, poised like a wounded beast ready to gobble him whole. Lightning speared down all around them and streaked across the moor. The storm was stalled overhead, and in the glare of white light flashes, she saw what must have caused the chaise to go over—a large blackened tree limb evidently sheared off by lightning was blocking the road. It must have spooked the horses. She gave it only passing notice. It didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that did was that her strange, hypnotic savior was risking his life for a total stranger. Her father and the whole debacle she had left behind were forgotten then, as she sat wrapped in the sumptuous fur robe, pleading with the darkness inside the chaise teetering on the brink to give birth to the count’s handsome head emerging.
She wasn’t made to suffer long. Minutes passed that seemed like hours before movement stirred the blackness that had swallowed him. But it was not his strong silhouette, but Maud’s that cleared the door as he eased her into Sven’s arms. The count had no sooner gotten clear himself when the chaise, groaning like a living thing, slipped and pitched and tumbled over the edge into the ravine in the midst of a mud slide of loose earth raining down. Then came the thunder of impact, as it bounced off the rocky wall—once, twice—and the thud and splash of displaced water, as it crashed into the river below. The rumble echoed after it, and Becca buried her face in the fur robe and shuddered, realizing how close she had come to death on that lonely stretch of land on Bodmin Moor.
Sven laid the unconscious maid on the seat, and the count climbed in beside Becca across the way. He wasn’t even winded for the exertion, and she marveled at his stamina, getting a good look at him for the first time without the hat casting shadows that not even the lightning could chase. He seemed a man in his mid to late thirties. The wavy hair plastered wet to his forehead was chestnut in color, except for a broad streak in front that appeared to have been bleached nearly white by the sun. His eyes, deep-set, and mesmerizing, were not silver as she’d first thought, but a steely shimmering blue, the color of clear seawater, tucked beneath sun-bleached brows. All else paled before those dazzling eyes. They seemed to see into her soul.
“My cottage lies there—” he gestured “—at the edge of the wood.” How odd. The chaise had passed right by that stretch before the accident, and she hadn’t noticed a cottage…but there was one now. She saw it clearly in the lightning’s glare. Cottage, indeed! It was a rambling, three-story Tudor at the edge of the grove. How could she have missed such a structure? “I shall conduct you there safely,” he went on, “and then, while we see to your maid, my man shall return to deal with your coachman and the poor horse I have shot, and retrieve the other that we have set free.” It wasn’t until then, that Becca noticed the bulk of a corpse beneath a tarpaulin by the side of the road. She shuddered again, and he wrapped his arm around her. “You are cold…more due to shock than the climate, yes? Hmmm.” He took up his walking stick from the floor—something else she hadn’t noticed—and thumped the brougham roof. “Home, Sven!” he called.
“Hyaahh!” Sven shouted, and the restless horses pranced off with a clatter of jingling tack, and hooves clopping in mud.
“My lord, I cannot allow—”
“Nonsense!” he interrupted. “How can you not? This woman here needs tending, and I have a fine staff at your disposal, at least until you are both fit to travel. Now, then! You have me at a disadvantage, my lady. Who, may I ask is it that I have just had the pleasure of rescuing upon my fortuitous journey…home?”
“Becca…Lady Rebecca Gildersleeve, my lord,” she said low-voiced, “—and my abigail Maud Ammen.”
He gave a satisfied nod. “Well, Lady Rebecca Gildersleeve, you will be happy to know that my man was able to retrieve one of your portmanteaux earlier, whilst distributing the weight on the chaise. The night is young. We shall deliver your maid into the capable hands of my housekeeper, Anne-Lise, the next best thing to a surgeon in these parts, by the way, and I shall have one of my maids help you change into something dryer. Then we shall talk, umm?”
Becca nodded. There was no use to protest. Where else was she to go? Besides, her father would never find her tucked away in the wilds of the Cornish moors. She suffered a bittersweet pang thinking of her father then. But no, she wouldn’t dwell upon all that now. She’d made the only decision she could have made if she were to escape his plans for her future. There was no turning back. She was safe enough…for now, and she couldn’t very well leave Maud.
Leaning back against the plush squabs, she shut her eyes to the vertigo that hadn’t left her, and pulled the carriage robe closer. It held his scent as well—clean and fresh with the fragrance of herbs and sea grass. She inhaled, and a soft moan escaped her throat. When she first set eyes upon her strange host through the chaise window, she’d feared, in her semi-conscious haze, that he was the specter, Death, come to collect her. It was good to be alive.