Pale wraiths of mist waltzed across the dew-drenched lawn as Rebecca slipped out through the side door of the manor. She set down her portmanteaux and turned to close the door behind her. Despite her care the click of the latch sounded loud in the dawn stillness.
She held her breath and listened. A rook cawed in a distant elm but there was no sound from the sleeping house.
To renew her courage she touched the letter in her pocket. Lady Parr was in need of a companion and would be happy to offer her young cousin a home in London. All the contrivances to keep the correspondence secret from her uncle were worthwhile since they had brought that response.
Rebecca pulled her hood close about her ears, picked up the bags and flitted across the wet grass to the shelter of the woods. Her grey cloak merged with the grey beech trunks, veiled by the mist. She did not look back.
New-fallen leaves crunched crisply beneath her half-boots. She trudged down the path, her luggage growing heavier at every step but her heart buoyed by the hope of freedom. When she reached the lane, Geoff Carter was waiting as he promised, with his wagonload of beechwood chairs for the fine furniture stores of London.
Geoff's son had been transported for poaching. He had no love for the squire and would never give her away.
"Marnin", Mistress Beckie." He stowed her bags among the chairs and helped her up onto the bench. With instinctive courtesy he kept his gaze from the bruise on her left cheek.
"Good morning, Geoff, and bless you."
The taciturn countryman nodded. He clucked at his team and the patient horses plodded on.
It would take fourteen hours to reach the city, but if Squire Exbridge searched at all he would check the stagecoach from Aylesbury. Nor would he start the search soon, for he always slept late after one of his violent drinking bouts while Rebecca and her aunt huddled in their rooms, away from the curious, commiserating eyes of the servants. She would not be missed for hours.
She touched her sore cheek and reminded herself that her uncle was no longer her legal guardian. Yesterday she had turned twenty-one. Though he controlled her fortune until her twenty-fifth birthday, he had no other power over her.
Never again would she allow any man power over her.
Lord John Danville screwed up his aching eyes against the glare of the rising sun. The headband of his beaver was pressing unbearably on his forehead, so he took it off and let the light breeze ruffle his dark hair. He groaned. "Why did this seem like such a good notion last night, Bev?" he enquired in a failing voice.
"There was no bearing old Worthington's sneers about the effete younger generation." His friend was a literal-minded gentleman. "When Rawley boasted about seeing Minette on the sly while she's under your protection, the only thing to do was to challenge him."
John groaned again.
"You're by far the better shot," Mr. Bevan hastened to assure him.
"I've no intention of shooting a man over the honour of a ladybird!"
He stepped down from the carriage, moving cautiously so as not to awaken the drummer in his head. The hoar-frosted grass of Paddington Green crackled beneath his Hessians. Bev, who had drunk at least as much of the Royal Saloon's brandy last night, jumped down after him with infuriating alacrity and walked over to talk to Rawley's seconds. He returned moments later, grinning, to offer his principal a choice of pistols.
"Rawley don't mean to aim for the heart either," he reported "but we're agreed you'll have to go through the motions to show old Worthington."
John chose a gun at random and waited while the seconds measured out the distance. Reluctantly, he took his place. There was a crow perched on the branch of an oak not six feet beyond his opponent and slightly to one side. He would aim at that.
The handkerchief dropped. Raising the pistol, John turned towards the bird. As he squeezed the trigger, his foot slid on the slippery turf.
The two reports sounded almost simultaneously, ringing in the frosty air. The crow flapped away, croaking its disgust.
The Honourable Augustus Rawley slumped to the ground. ~ ~ ~
"He is not dead, thank God. I swear to you, sir, it was an accident."
"I believe it." Despite his words, the Duke of Stafford's sternness was unabated. "Whatever your faults, you are no liar, nor, I trust, so stupid as to fight over the favours of a Paphian. The fact remains, I have had enough of your irresponsibility. Your present way of life can lead only to disaster. You need an occupation."
"I begged to join the army ten years ago." John tried not to sound resentful.
"Perhaps I was wrong to let your mother persuade me not to allow it. It is too late now. My intention is to find you a post abroad."
"I had rather go into Parliament, sir."
His father raised his eyebrows. "Indeed? Prove yourself in the diplomatic service and I shall speak to Liverpool about finding you a government post."
"I'm afraid I'd prefer to sit on the opposition benches, sir. I've a mind to join the fight against slavery." John's voice grew enthusiastic. "I have thought of it on and off since Teresa told us about rescuing those slaves in the Indies, and the other day I was talking to Iverbrook... I beg your pardon, sir. I do not expect you to help me join the Whigs."
"I daresay you think my influence does not run so far. You are mistaken. However, that is beside the point at present. You must leave the country until this scandal blows over."
"Like Cousin Teresa's father. But he killed a marquis, did he not? And I have merely wounded the heir to a barony."
"There is no comparison with my brother Edward. Your grandfather exiled him for life. You will be taking a position in one of our embassies, and I sincerely hope you will exert yourself to be useful. Until I can make arrangements, you are to go down to Lincolnshire."
Though John grimaced, he knew better than to argue. His brother Tom was starchy and Muriel, Lady Danville, was a bore, but in truth it would not be so bad to leave town for a while. There might be some good hunting with the Fitzwilliam, and he could ride over for a day or two to join the Belvoir or the Cottesmore. Somewhat to his own surprise, he also found himself looking forward to seeing his nephew again--a game little fellow, young Ned.
As for the embassy post, even if he was set to scribing reports, there would be a foreign land to explore at leisure and he was not be exiled forever.
He tactfully withheld a jaunty whistle until the duke's study door closed behind him.
After a fortnight as a guest in his house, Rebecca still found Lord Danville intimidating. She had never seen him lose his temper, and he was kind to her in his somewhat pompous way, but he was a man, and men were by definition unpredictable and threatening.
In her nervousness at finding herself alone at the breakfast table with him, she spilled her tea. Without a pause in his disquisition on the state of the fields after last night's storm, his lordship raised a finger. The butler swiftly and silently removed the offending cup and saucer, laid a clean napkin over the spreading stain, and presented a fresh cup.
"Do you mean to walk this morning?" Lord Danville enquired. "There was great deal of rain in the night, but if the past week's north winds have not deterred you I daresay you will think nothing of a little mud."
"No, sir... I mean, yes, I shall go out."
"I don't blame you a bit." His tone was conspiratorial. His relationship with Lady Parr, his mother-in-law, was far from cordial. "Lucky thing the old dragon rises late. Muriel asked that you pop in for a moment before you go. I'm afraid she doesn't feel at all the thing. It always takes her this way, you know. Have another muffin, do."
Rebecca obediently took the toasted muffin the butler offered her and spread it with butter and jam, but she could not eat more than a few bites. Though Lady Parr was constantly admonishing her for being skinny, mealtimes were inextricably connected in her mind with her uncle's unavoidable presence. The very act of sitting down at table made her lose her appetite.
Lord Danville finished his methodical demolition of a plateful of devilled kidneys, washed it down with a glass of ale and took his leave. Rebecca thankfully abandoned her muffin and hurried above-stairs.
Muriel was in bed, a lacy nightcap crowning the golden curls above a pallid face. As Rebecca entered her chamber she put down the dry toast she was nibbling distastefully and waved to her maid to take the tray away.
"This wretched morning sickness," she wailed. "I always feel like death until noon for the first three months. Poor Tom is so patient with me."
Rebecca thought that it was entirely Tom's fault that his wife was increasing again, but she made soothing noises and patted Muriel's hand. "Lord Danville--Cousin Tom--said that you wanted to see me?"
"Oh Beckie, I'm so sorry about Mama scolding you last night in front of the servants. I ought to have remonstrated with her, but I am so used to obeying her that even now I am married I cannot bring myself to confront her."
"It was nothing. I promise you it takes more than a reproof or two to overset me, and I had indeed forgotten to fetch her shawl. Pray do not worry about me, Muriel, for I am content with my position. I have been with Cousin Adelaide for nearly half a year and she has never raised a hand to me."
Muriel looked at her in astonishment. "Mama beat you? Oh no, she would never do that, however sharp her tongue. Why, I don't believe she has ever so much has cuffed her abigail, and you are a relative."
Embarrassed, Rebecca changed the subject. "A very distant relative. It is kind in Lord Danville to insist that I call him cousin."
"Dear Tom has a very strong sense of family. Which reminds me, Nurse says little Mary was fretful in the night. Will you go and see her when you come in from your walk? She and Edward do love you so."
"I'll go up at once."
"No, take your walk first, before Mama rises. You remind me of Teresa, the way you walk in all weathers. We should never have been abducted if she had not insisted on tramping through the mud, and then I should have been married to Andrew instead of Tom and we'd all have been miserable forever."
Rebecca laughed. "I do not expected to be abducted, nor to find a husband! Shall I take Buttercup? She will get muddy."
"One of the stable boys can clean her before she comes in. She has been much better behaved in the house since you have been exercising her regularly. How glad I am that Mama brought you to visit! You are by far the nicest companion she has had."
As Rebecca left the house, with the little spaniel frisking ahead, she reflected on her predecessors in the post of companion to Lady Parr. In the four years since Muriel's marriage to the heir to the Duke of Stafford, her ladyship had gone through a round dozen. Most of them, according to Muriel, had left in tears or in a huff.
Rebecca saw no cause for either. A scolding unaccompanied by a blow was nothing. Muriel had been shocked at her comment, but experience had taught Rebecca to expect violence from those in authority. She knew Cousin Tom never raised a finger to Muriel, but then Muriel never crossed him, being a placid, obliging creature. She never crossed her mother either.
Though Lady Parr was easily irked, Rebecca did not fear her and she enjoyed being useful. She had time to herself, to walk and read, and since coming to Lincolnshire she had found in Muriel her first friend since childhood.
She enjoyed Muriel's little daughter and son. It was a pity that one could not have a family without first taking a husband. That precondition put it beyond her reach, but perhaps one day she might find employment caring for children.
Passing the row of tall, narrow poplars that sheltered the house and gardens, Rebecca and Buttercup left the gravel path and set out across the meadows. Only yesterday the flat green fields had been frozen hard; after the rain they were as muddy as Lord Danville had warned. Undeterred, Rebecca walked on, watching the last storm-clouds drifting eastward. They crossed several wooden bridges over the frequent drainage dykes, and she saw that the water level had risen. Buttercup stayed close to her heels as they passed through a herd of Lincoln red cattle, staring incuriously, then they reached the river embankment and the little dog dashed ahead again.
Rebecca followed, up the steep, slippery grass slope. From this slight eminence she could see for miles across the levels. The church tower rose above the trees around the village, and she turned in that direction. The usually placid river was in full spate. Grey-brown water swirled almost to the raised banks, tugging at the skirts of the willows.
Rebecca picked her way carefully along the path towards the bridge that led to the village.
The spaniel rounded a twisted hawthorn and started to bark, her high yips sounding above the river's roar. Rebecca could see nothing but a stumpy tail, wagging madly. She hurried past the tree. A small boy, perhaps eight or nine, was perched on the edge of the bank, fishing in the turbulent stream with a stick and a bit of string.
"Hush, Buttercup! Come here."
"Thet's all roight, miss, Oi don't moind 'im." The child flashed an engaging gap-toothed grin, then turned back to the serious business of baiting the bent pin on the end of his line. Reaching for it, he lost his balance and slid feet first into the river.
Rebecca dropped to her knees and grabbed at his flailing hand. Her fingers closed over him as the current took him with a jerk. Feeling herself falling, she caught at a tuft of grass. It came loose in her fist and she gasped as the icy water closed over her.
Somehow she kept her grip on his hand. They were swept downstream, tossed and tumbled, to fetch up with a thud against one of the timber supports of the bridge. Clinging instinctively to the post and to each other, they gulped air into their starved lungs.
Buttercup was yelping from the bank. She ran onto the bridge and stopped above them, her black-and-tan rump in the air as she peered anxiously over the side.
Her worried eyes looked very far away. Rebecca cautiously freed one arm and stretched upward. Her fingertips curled over a cross-brace. Her feet were touching the riverbed, she realized. If she managed to wriggle out of her heavy, sodden cloak she might just be able to pull herself up. But the boy could not reach, nor could she lift him. If she deserted him he would be torn away by the raging torrent.
Helpless, they hugged the post with numbing arms.