Chapter One ~ England, September, 1812
Caroline Fane hugged her trembling body against Kimball’s neck and hung on for all she was worth. Angry voices followed her through the trees, but were soon lost among pounding hooves, snapping branches, and whistling wind, as the courageous horse carried her to safety.
Terror filled her mind and adrenalin flooded her veins. All moisture left her mouth, leaving a metallic taste, which threatened to empty her stomach. She peered over her shoulder, looking for pursuers. She feared her heart would burst from her chest, its loud drumming mingling with the sound of hooves.
Kimball didn’t slow his pace as he raced for home. The horse knew exactly where he was going. Which was fortunate, Caroline thought. She was so frightened at the unexpected turn of tonight’s events, she wasn’t sure if she could find her own way home, or even if her fingers still clutched the leather sack that held her take.
The quarter moon disappeared behind a dark cloud, and she felt the first drop of rain on her cheek. They would be lucky if they reached the barn before the sky opened up and dumped a deluge of rain upon them.
“Almost home, boy,” she whispered to the black gelding.
Kimball tossed his head as if he understood, and surged forward through the trees with renewed vigor. Caroline prayed they made it before the occupants of the carriage she left on the road managed to repair the traces and hurry to the next tavern. If her luck held, she’d be snug in her bed at Whitehills before the hue and cry went out.
The muscular hunter slowed for a moment in preparation for jumping a normally shallow stream. After tonight’s rain, the stream would be swollen with rushing water in a few hours. Even Kimball would not be able to reach the other side without getting wet.
Caroline felt the animal’s muscles bunch just before horse and rider sailed through the air, landing firmly on the other side. Not so much as a tiny splash disturbed the water.
A pat on the neck and a quick word of praise sent the horse hurtling towards home. The thrill of the race and the freedom of rushing through the dark woods almost drowned the terror of being caught. Almost.
Her blood surged in rhythm with Kimball’s pounding hooves. If she were caught they’d hang her, and then who would take care of her little daughter, Sarah?
They topped a rise and by habit, the big horse reared to a stop. His sides heaved with the exertion of the race, and Caroline took the time to remove the black crepe mask from her face. Tucking it safely inside her dark cloak, she gazed across the fields and searched for the light, which would mean Henry had made it home safely.
Both she and the horse blew wisps of steam into the chilly night air. Her blood still pounded in her ears, and the pungent smell of recently tilled, damp earth came to her on the wind. The storm was picking up momentum and would be upon the valley in moments.
No light in the barn told her something was wrong. She worried that Henry had been caught because of her bungling. He should have reached the building before this. Rain dripped through the tree branches, and a flash of lightening lit the sky in the distance. Then the faint glow of a lantern illuminated the old barn window. With a sigh of relief, she urged her horse forward and took to the field in an all out, dead run.
This was the most dangerous part of the ride, through open fields, riding as if the hounds of hell were on her tail. There were no trees to cover her escape, and any eyes that happened to look towards Whitehills would see its mistress riding like the wind, dark skirts flapping, and her long, fair hair streaming behind. Her luck just had to hold or everything she had been fighting and working towards for the past two years would be lost. And all hope of keeping Sarah would be gone.
She thundered across the home field and into the barnyard.
Henry stood in the entrance of the building holding a shielded lantern high, waiting for Kimball to cross the threshold so he could secure the door.
Caroline ducked her head as Kimball cantered through the door and came to a skidding stop just inside the dark building. Henry pulled the barn doors closed and hurried to Caroline’s side as she slid from the horse’s steaming back.
She leaned against the side of the animal, waiting for her trembling legs to steady. She tried to slow her breathing, inhaling the strong, warm aroma of her beloved Kimball.
“Ain’t we getting’ too old for these tricks, Mrs.?” Henry’s voice held a touch of strain as he closed the door and walked to Kimball’s head. “I swear I lost ten years off my life when that swell pulled his gun and fired at you. You got to promise me this was the last time, Mrs. Fane. Your dear, old father must be turning in his grave, and me no better than I should be at keeping you from such tricks.”
She pressed her face into the hot side of the horse, breathing in the musky odor of horse and sweat, mixed with the sweet smell of hay. The gelding stood solid as a post, allowing his mistress to lean her weight against him. She took courage and strength from his silent love.
“You know I would stop if it were possible, Henry. Edward will not let me, and as long as he is a threat to Sarah, I have to do as he says.”
“Seems to me,” the man said, sliding the saddle off and carrying it to the wooden stand next to Kimball’s stall, “some people be enjoying the adventure more than reasonable.”
Caroline looked up and watched the little man place the saddle in place, then wipe it down with a quick swipe of dirty linen. As he came back to the horse for the riding pad, she moved to the tack room for the bucket of warm, soapy water she knew would be there.
“If by ‘some people’ you mean me, you are sadly mistaken.” The shaking of her hand surprised her as she reached for the bucket. “These highway robberies we are forced to commit go against everything I hold decent. It breaks my heart to have to threaten innocent people and take their possessions. I refuse to think what the Major would have said about it.”
She placed the bucket in front of the tired horse and reached inside for the sponge to wash the cinders and lard from Kimball’s white stockings, effectively changing the whole look of the horse.
“I was so sorry for poor, old Lady Hastings when I frightened her nearly to death the last time.” She leaned her head against the horse again, too tired to do more than pick up the sponge. “If not for the fact that Sarah is in danger if I do not comply with that blackguard’s demands, I would have given every jewel back to her. As it was, I did not take her rings, and my brother-in-law was not pleased at all.” She couldn’t cover the tears that layered her voice with an aching vulnerability.
“Aye, Mrs. I heard that man of his dressing you down like you was a common servant.” Henry took the sponge from her hands and gave her the currycomb to brush the dust and sweat from the gelding’s coat. “Made my fingers itch to plant him a facer, it did.”
Caroline straightened and began to brush the hot animal down, the long strokes of the currycomb helping to soothe both of them. She remembered Edward’s man, Cormack. She wanted to punch him in the nose, too, but knew who would suffer if she ever gave in to the urge.
“You have to promise me, Henry, that you will stay away from Edward’s men. He only allows you to help me because I told him it would be impossible to accomplish his demands without you. My brother-in-law would jump at the chance to eliminate you from the venture.”
She stopped brushing Kimball and looked at the grizzled man on his haunches, scrubbing off the night’s disguise. He risked his neck every time he helped her cover the evidence of her crime. Caroline’s eyes stung with unshed tears at the thought of losing his wisdom and counsel.
Henry Lambert had been her father’s batman and valet throughout his military career. Caroline couldn’t remember a time in her life that Henry hadn’t been there, either helping her father, Major Brandon Twysden, with his regimental gear, or lifting her up on her first pony.
She and her mother had always traveled with her father wherever he happened to be posted. She had seen a good portion of the world by the time she was ten years old, when her mother, Marie, died. Henry was a part of her life – as dear and precious to her as the memories of her father and mother.
It was Henry who told her the Major had been killed during the battle of Vimeiro. It was his gentle hands that had held her, and his kind voice that had comforted the grief-stricken seventeen-year old girl. And it was Henry who had given her in marriage to Lt. John Fane five days later.
Because she had no family, and because her father had left no provision for her, the junior officers of his command decided one of them must take charge of Caroline and provide for her. John had drawn the short straw.
It was Henry who persuaded Caroline to do her duty and accept the young officer’s proposal, even though she had secretly hoped another officer with sapphire blue eyes would come forward to claim her. But David had been transferred to another unit just days before her father’s death, and she had married the young man who now lay buried in a lonely grave in Portugal.
As always, the very thought that her husband’s half brother, Edward, would kill Henry sent fear coursing through her veins. She loved him like an elderly uncle. He was the only ‘family’ she could rely on and trust.
“Promise me you will not do anything foolish, Henry,” she whispered into the hushed, dark barn. “I do not know what I would do without you.”
“I know how to take care of myself, I do, missy. Ain’t I been on this earth more years than a dog’s got fleas?”
He looked up from the scrubbing of Kimball’s left hock. She tried to hold her trembling chin still, but he must have caught the slight movement in the rays of the lantern. She watched his warm brown eyes soften with affection.
“Aye, missy. I promise,” he said as if she were ten years old again. “Now, you get yourself into the house and out of that getup. I can finish washing down Kimball here. I’ll have his three white socks as clean as Mrs. Brittle’s Monday wash before your head hits the pillow.”
She hesitated for only a moment. It felt as if every bone in her body ached, and the damp clothes set a chill in her blood.
“Thank you, Henry. I will see you in the morning.”
“Off with you now,” he answered and then returned to his chore.
Caroline slipped out of the barn and entered the old farmhouse through the kitchen back door. She was bone tired and the thought of her bed almost made her mouth water.
But first, she had to check in on Sarah.
“And it is terrible what decent folk have to put up with these days just to travel from Bath to Bristol. Do you not agree, Mrs. Fane?”
Caroline’s head pounded from an afternoon spent trying to teach spoiled children of the local gentry the rudiments of music in general, and the pianoforte to be exact. Alice Thurston was the last pupil for the day, and while the lesson had ended some twenty minutes ago, Lady Thurston seemed to think it her own personal mission in life to inform Caroline of the exciting goings on in the neighborhood of late. Specifically, the robbing of Lady Hastings last week, and Mr. Darby just last evening by that poor excuse of womanhood, Lady Midnight.
“The soubriquet of ‘Lady’ is a gross exaggeration, in my opinion,” the matron droned on, not allowing Caroline the chance to reply even if she had wished to. “The female obviously comes from the lower orders, for no woman of quality would dream of disgracing herself in such a manner. Would you not agree, Mrs. Fane?”
“Indeed,” Caroline murmured, rubbing her temples and trying to rack her brain for an excuse to get rid of the woman. It was bad enough she was forced to commit the crimes. She certainly did not want to sit through an embellished recital of those same activities. Her conscience plagued her enough without adding more guilt upon her head.
“And I was just saying to Thurston this morning at breakfast that it was about time the Marques finally took an interest in Havencroft, even if it is not the family estate of Stropford Heath. The manor house has been standing empty, except for the retainers of course, for far too long. It will be exciting to have such a notable peer in the neighborhood, do you not think, Mrs. Fane?”
At the mention of Havencroft, Caroline perked up her ears and tried to concentrate on Lady Thurston’s monotone. Havencroft marched beside her own Whitehills. She had often wondered about the absent owner and why such a lovely old Tudor home would be neglected. She had wished on more than one occasion that she lived there instead of being dependant upon in-laws who despised her for her home.
“When does the Marques arrive?”
“Why, Mrs. Fane. I do believe you have not heard a word I have said. Lord Dunstable arrived last night and sent the entire staff, what there was of a staff, into a great tizzy.”
Caroline nearly choked on a breath. “Lord Dunstable? The Marques’ name is Lord Dunstable?” She had trouble breathing.
“Of course. The Most Honorable David Everett Allen Dunstable, the Marques of Stropford.” Her guest looked at her in an odd manner.
“The reason I know all about it is that my dresser’s aunt is the housekeeper at the Manor, and she told Susan – that is my dresser – that the Marques will be hiring an entire staff. It appears as if he will be staying for some time.”
“Really?” Caroline’s head was spinning, and her pulse quickened.
The matron leaned a bit closer, as if preparing to disclose a great secret. “They say he broke off his engagement to Lady Charlotte Evans. Imagine! But, it is said he returned to England a changed man. Perhaps he has more scars than just those on his face.”
Caroline’s mind whirled with questions, as she watched Lady Thurston’s watery blue eyes dance with excitement.
“We will invite him to Wolverton, of course, as soon as he is settled in. Thurston plans to ride over for a visit tomorrow. Just to be neighborly.”
“Of course,” Caroline agreed. She knew Lady Thurston’s thirst for local gossip would require at least one trip to Havencroft Manor to pay a neighborly call, and to be the first to learn as much as she could about the new neighborhood object of interest.
“Mama,” Alice broke in before her dear mama could launch another salvo of local gossip. “I am promised to Louisa Marcott this afternoon for tea. May we go now?”
“Oh, yes,” Lady Thurston said, gathering her reticule and gloves. “I had almost forgotten, Alice.”
As the ladies rose to bid each other goodbye, Lady Thurston instructed her daughter, “Make your curtsy to Mrs. Fane, like a good girl. We will see you again next week, will we not, Mrs. Fane?”
“Yes, my lady. Same time. Alice, please do not forget to practice that little piece by Mr. Mozart. I expect you to be note perfect next time.”
When they finally left, Caroline climbed the stairs to her bedroom and soaked a hanky in lavender water. She wasn’t the type to lie in a darkened room with her temples bathed in scent, but she had found that a cool compress on her forehead for a moment or two did wonders for her occasional migraine. Especially if she followed up the treatment with an invigorating run on Kimball’s back.
Without the help of a maid, she quickly changed into her old cornflower blue riding habit. A quick check on her daughter in the nursery, and she soon hurried down the stairs to the stables.
Henry was nowhere to be seen, so she greeted Kimball, offered him an apple and patted his neck affectionately. He devoured the fruit in two bites, and then nudged her shoulder, looking for more.
“That is all you get, you glutton!” She scratched his forehead and pulled on his ear. “All rested from last night’s excitement, boy? How about a nice gallop to sweep the cobwebs from our brain?”
As the Major and Henry had taught her, she checked Kimball’s legs and hooves for any damage, although she knew Henry had already performed that task. It pleased her greatly to work with her horse. He had belonged to the Major, and never failed to bring his image to her mind. Next to Sarah and Henry, the horse was the most precious thing in her life.
Using the mounting block, she seated herself in the sidesaddle she despised. It irked her that during the day she had to ride in such a hampered way, when she’d much rather be astride and feeling as if she were one with the horse, much as she had last night.
Her stomach gave a nervous little jolt, thinking about the ride home last night. It was a pure miracle that she had not been shot when Mr. Darby fired at her. Her stomach did another flip and she thanked God that he had been too nervous to take proper aim.
It really hadn’t been Henry’s fault, even though he had taken the blame. He had disarmed the coachman and Mr. Darby before gathering the take. Or so they thought.
Everything had gone according to plan. Caroline held her pistols on the victims as Henry quickly collected the valuables the Captain had told her he wanted. After his initial shock at seeing her mask, Darby had handed over his fobs, rings and cash with a flourish and some remark to ‘Lady Midnight.’ Who could have guessed he had a small pistol hidden up his sleeve?
Last night was the first time they had been forced to use violence, and it did not sit well with her. Henry hit Mr. Darby with the butt of his pistol, and Caroline was shocked to see him crumble to the ground like a sack of wheat. Henry wouldn’t let her check to see if he was alive.
“He’ll likely have a head like a sore bull for a day or two, but other than that he’ll be right fine.” Then he slapped Kimball on the rump and sent her racing off towards home.
It was a relief when Lady Thurston had told her Mr. Darby was no worse for wear, except for a lump the size of an apple on the side of his head. How the gossip knew the size of Mr. Darby’s wound was a mystery, but Caroline was so relieved to learn he was not dead, she didn’t push the issue. It was a great load off her mind.
But another worry plagued her and her head ached from the tension and strain. The Captain hadn’t sent his man to collect the take yet. Usually, the man was waiting at the prearranged spot at dawn. This morning there had been no one. She had waited a good hour, but the man still hadn’t shown.
Caroline’s duties prevented her from waiting longer, and she sent Henry to watch for the man. The rest of the household believed he had gone to Bath on an errand for her. She didn’t know what was keeping the Captain’s man from the pick up, but the longer the pouch of valuables remained at Whitehills, the greater the risk of Lady Midnight being caught. She wished Henry would get back and tell her everything was fine.
After an initial run across the home meadow, she pointed Kimball in the direction of Havencroft. It was her favorite ride and she was curious about the newly returned Marques. Her heart fluttered and her lips quirked in a tiny smile. She was old enough to indulge herself in a bit of harmless curiosity, she thought. So long as she did not get caught!