Five-year-old Annabelle, who does not know who her parents are, arrives at boarding school fluent in French and English. Separated from her nurse, with few memories of her past, a shadow blights Annabelle’s life.
When high-spirited, eighteen-year old Annabelle, who is financially dependent on her unknown guardian, receives an order to marry a French baron more than twice her age, she refuses.
Her life in danger, Annabelle is saved by a heroic gentleman, who promises to help her discover her identity. Yet, from then on, nothing is as it seems. To protect her captivating champion, broken-hearted, she is forced to run away for the second time.
In spite of many false pretences, even more determined to discover her parents’ identity, Annabelle must find out who to trust. Her attempts to unravel the mystery of her birth, lead to further danger, despair, unbearable anguish and even more false pretences, until the only person, who has ever wanted to cherish her, reveals the startling truth, and all’s well that ends well.
“I have good news for you, Annabelle,” said Miss Chalfont, the well-educated head mistress and owner of The Beeches, an exclusive school for young ladies.
Seated on a straight-backed chair opposite Miss Chalfont’s walnut desk, Annabelle clasped her hands tightly on her lap. “Has my guardian told you who my parents are?” she asked in a voice quivering with excitement.
Regret flickered across Miss Chalfont’s face before she shook her head. “No, I am very sorry, he has not. For your sake, I wish he had. In fact, I do not know who he is. I receive instructions from a lawyer in Dover. To be honest, for no particular reason, I have always assumed your guardian’s identity is that of a man, but it could be that of a woman.”
Dover! Annabelle thought. The town where she had lived with her nurse before a nameless elegant lady, with a French accent, brought her to The Beeches. Time and time again, she had wondered if the lady was her guardian, or whether she was a stranger ordered to bring her here. She had no way of knowing, for the lady had not answered any of her questions.
Annabelle looked into Miss Chalfont’s eyes. “Who is the lawyer, ma’am?”
“I do not know, for he does not identify himself. He merely arranges for your…er…upkeep, and sends me your guardian’s instructions.”
No clue to the mystery of my own identity, Annabelle thought and gazed down to conceal her disappointment. “Has the lawyer given you permission to tell me who my guardian is?” she asked, despite her suspicion that he had not.
Miss Chalfont looked down at a letter. “No, your guardian, whom I have no doubt has your welfare at heart, still wishes to remain anonymous. However, my dear child, you are fortunate. Your guardian has arranged for you to marry Monsieur le Baron de Beauchamp.”
Annabelle looked up with a mixture of astonishment, disbelief, and intense indignation at the arrangement that took no heed of her wishes. “I am to marry a man I have never met?”
With restless fingers, Miss Chalfont adjusted her frilled mobcap. “Yes, your guardian has arranged for you to marry Monsieur le Baron tomorrow.”
Annabelle stared at her kind teacher as though she had turned into a monster. “Mon dieu!” she raged, reverting to the French she spoke when she was a small child. “My God! Tomorrow? My guardian expects me to marry a Frenchman tomorrow. “Miss Chalfont, surely you do not approve of such haste.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” Miss Chalfont tapped her fingers on her desk. “My approval or disapproval is of no consequence. Your guardian wishes you to marry immediately, so there is little more to be said. A special licence has been procured and the vicar has been informed.” Miss Chalfont smiled at her. “You have nothing to fear. This letter informs me that Monsieur speaks English and lives in this country.”
Annabelle scowled. Her hands trembled. For the first time, she defied her head mistress. “Nothing to fear? My life is to be put in the hands of a husband with the right to…beat me…or…starve me, and you say I have nothing to fear, Miss Chalfont? Please believe me when I say that nothing will persuade me to marry in such haste.”
Not the least display of emotion crossed the head teacher’s face. “You should not allow your imagination to agitate your sensibilities. For all you know, the monsieur is charming and will be a good, kind husband.”
“On the other hand, he might be a monster,” Annabelle said.
Miss Chalfont ignored the interruption and continued. “At eighteen, you are the oldest girl in the school. It is time for you to leave the nest and establish one of your own.”
“Twaddle,” Annabelle muttered. “My education is almost complete and I suspect you wish to be rid of me.”
Miss Chalfont smoothed the skirt of her steel-grey woollen gown and looked at Annabelle with a cold expression in her eyes. “I beg your pardon? Did I hear you say ‘twaddle’? As for wishing to be rid of you, child, that is not true. However, I will admit that in recent months I have worried about your guardian’s future plans for you. Nevertheless, I need not have worried. As a happy bride, I daresay you will go to London where those pretty blue eyes and long lashes of yours will be so much admired that Monsieur le Baron will be proud of you.”
At any other time Miss Chalfont’s rare compliment would have pleased her. On this occasion, it only served to increase the fury she tried to conceal. Losing her temper would be pointless. Before Annabelle spoke, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “It is unreasonable to order me to marry the man without allowing me time to become acquainted with him.”
“Do not refer to your bridegroom as ‘the man’. I have told you his name is de Beauchamp.”
Rebellion flamed in Annabelle’s stomach. “What do you know of my…er…bridegroom-to-be, ma’am?”
Miss Chalfont looked down at the letter. “He is described as a handsome gentleman of mature years.”
“One would think the description is of a piece of mature cheese or a bottle of vintage wine.”
Miss Chalfont frowned. “Do not be impertinent, Annabelle, you are not too old to be punished.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but please tell me how mature he is,” Annabelle said, her eyes wide open and her entire body taut with apprehension.
“Monsieur le Baron is some forty-years-old.”
“How mature?” Annabelle persisted with her usual bluntness.
“He is forty-two-years-old.”
Annabelle stood, bent forward, and drummed her fingers on the edge of the desk. “Please be kind enough to inform my guardian that I will not play Guinevere to an aging Arthur. I would prefer to build my nest with a young Lancelot.”
Miss Chalfont’s shoulders heaved as though she was trying not to laugh. “Regardless of your preference, you must marry according to your guardian’s wish.”
“Dear ma’am, you and your mother have always been kind to me. I cannot believe you approve of—”
“As I have already said, my approval or disapproval is of no importance. Your duty is to obey.”
Annabelle’s anger boiled and she felt sick in the stomach. Now that she was old enough to leave the seminary, it seemed that unless she refused to co-operate, she really would be disposed of without the slightest consideration for her personal wishes. Simultaneously afraid to obey her guardian and furious because not even Miss Chalfont seemed to care about her dilemma, Annabelle straightened up. She looked around the cosy parlour, with its thick oriental rugs, pretty figurines on the mantelpiece, and a number of gilt-framed pictures on the wall, one of which she had painted. “I will consider the marriage.” Annabelle looked down again, in case rebellion revealed itself on her face. However, she had not lied. She would consider the marriage proposal, but not in the manner Miss Chalfont expected, for she would find a way to reject the elderly baron.
Miss Chalfont stood, walked round her desk, and patted Annabelle’s shoulder before resting her hand on it. “My dear child, there is little for you to consider. I dread to think of the consequences if you disobey your guardian. You could be cast penniless from here with only the clothes on your back. After all, your guardian does have complete power over you.”
Annabelle wanted to jerk away from her uncaring teacher’s hand but forced herself to remain passive. She did not want the woman to suspect the nature of her rebellious thoughts and have her closely watched. Inwardly, she seethed and decided that whatever the cost, she would escape the fate in store for her. An image of her former nurse, with whom she corresponded, flashed through her mind. With it came a sense of security and purpose.
Still outraged about the marriage that had been arranged for her with such high-handedness, Annabelle joined her bosom friend, Viscount Hampton’s stepsister, Fanny Greenwood.
“What did Chally want?” Fanny demanded, using their soubriquet for Miss Chalfont.
Annabelle groaned and flung herself onto the well-padded sofa. “To tell me my guardian has arranged my marriage.”
Fanny perched on the edge of the sofa without pausing to smooth her white muslin gown to prevent it from creasing. The omission indicated intense excitement, since Fanny never neglected her appearance. “Wonderful,” Fanny breathed.
“Don’t be such a goose. If your brother ordered you to marry a man you had never met, would you obey him?”
As theatrical as ever, Fanny clasped her hands against her bosom. “No, I don’t think so, but I would give almost anything to escape from this dungeon.”
“A remarkably comfortable dungeon,” Annabelle murmured, her sense of humour coming to the fore.
“Why are you laughing, and who is your prospective bridegroom?”
“I am laughing because you are so dramatic, and to answer your other question, Monsieur le Baron de Beauchamp, is a Frenchman, many years my senior,” she explained, indignation in every syllable.
“Not de Beauchamp?” Fanny gasped. “I cannot believe anyone in their right mind would expect you to marry that rakehell.”
Although Annabelle was not sure of the exact meaning of the word, she knew it was a term for a dishonourable man. Rakehell! She was expected to marry a baron with a shocking reputation. Her cheeks burned with indignation.
Fanny twirled one of her fat, flaxen ringlets round the forefinger of her right hand. “It is said Monsieur le Baron kisses the maids and ogles all the unmarried girls.” Fanny pressed her hands to her cheeks and looked into the shadows as though someone, who would overhear her, might be lurking there. “It is even said that he is the father of more than one unfortunate babe born out of wedlock.”
Annabelle quivered with wrath from head to toe at the thought of being expected to marry a man with such wicked ways. The voice of reason sounded in her brain. Surely her guardian would not have decided on her marriage to such a man. “Fanny, are you sure about this?”
Fanny nodded vehemently. “Everyone knows it.”
As usual, Annabelle refused such vagueness. “How do they know?”
“Do you never listen to the other boarders gossiping when they return from vacation?” Fanny sighed dramatically. “No, I suppose you don’t. You spend most of your leisure either reading or sketching.”
“Fanny do you think—?” Annabelle began, her heart beating faster than normal.
“What?” Fanny looked at her curiously.
“Why should de Beauchamp agree to marry me? Do you think he knows who I am?” She looked down, yearning as ever to know who her parents and guardian were.
“I should think so. I mean, de Beauchamp would not marry you if— Well, you know what I mean,” Fanny said, her embarrassment obvious, her nervous fingers toying with her handkerchief.
Yes, Annabelle did know what Fanny meant. Her friend thought she might be base born, but was too polite to say so. When they were children, they made up many stories about her unknown father and mother. They had imagined she was either a foreign princess or an orphan whose guardian stole her fortune. Perhaps, they had speculated, she was kidnapped, and one day, her parents would receive a demand for ransom, which they would willingly pay to have their beloved daughter returned. However, she and Fanny were no longer children and she must face the possibility of an unwelcome truth.
Annabelle sighed more deeply than before. Perhaps there would never be a happy outcome. Maybe, as the vulgar saying went, ‘she was born on the wrong side of the blanket’.
Oh, the humiliation and misery she had suffered. Most of the well-born pupils were proud of their noble birth. They would not speak to her because she did not know anything about her family and was probably a commoner. She smiled and glanced at her friend. Dear Fanny had never ostracised her or voiced an unkind word on the subject. Not only that, Fanny always defended her from any malicious comments or unkind taunts.
Her friend patted her hand. “Perhaps there is a simple explanation to the mystery which surrounds you.”
Annabelle sniffed and shrugged.
“If we are to be parted by your marriage,” Fanny began, “I hope you will have happy memories of our schooldays. After all, your guardian is very generous. Your gowns rival those of any other pupil, your shoes and gloves are of the finest quality, and no other girl in the school has such generous pin money as you do. If you were not my dearest friend, I would envy you. Indeed, I am jealous of you for having your own horse and extra riding lessons as well as extra drawing and painting lessons.”
Annabelle gazed absent-mindedly at Fanny. When she arrived at school at the age of five, Miss Chalfont had said, “My dear child, please think of The Beeches as your home. Instead of sleeping in a dormitory, you shall share a bedroom with another little girl. The two of you will also share a parlour, because the greater part of your vacations will be spent at school.”
Wondering about the identity of the elegantly dressed lady who brought her here and refused to answer questions; missing her nurse, who had taken care of her single-handedly for so long; and bewildered by the change in her circumstances, Annabelle had stared at Miss Chalfont.
“Now, now, I hope you will not cry, child,” Miss Chalfont had said. “You will be happy with us. You shall have your own pony and enjoy many of the pretty rides near here. Moreover, you will learn to read, write, and figure, besides many other things.’’
Her eyes full of what were presumably sympathetic tears, Fanny leaned forward and patted Annabelle’s hand again. “Don’t look so sad, dearest. Miss Chalfont treats you like a favourite niece, and I know that you are not entirely unhappy here. And…and I was wrong to call our school a dungeon. I only meant that I want to see more of the world.”
Yes, Annabelle mused, she was well provided for, and Miss Chalfont had been all that was kind, but she would gladly exchange all her privileges for an affectionate family.
“I wish Hampton would provide as well for me as your guardian provides for you, Annabelle.” Like an actress, Fanny clasped her hands together. “Oh, it is tragic to be an orphan at the mercy of an ogre such as my stepbrother. Even if you find out that you are also an orphan, Annabelle, your lot could not be unhappier than mine.”
“Yes, it could. Your position in society is assured and mine is uncertain.”
Fanny blushed and looked away from her with palpable embarrassment. “I meant that now I am seventeen-years-old, it is outrageous of Hampton to leave me to languish here instead of arranging for me to have a London Season.”
Annabelle genuinely sympathised with Fanny’s impatience to take her place among the ton. “Don’t fret. Now that your stepbrother has returned to England, I daresay he will visit you and make suitable arrangements for your future. Compared to my situation, you fare better than you think. For what am I to do? I will not marry a forty-two year old man, even if he is a nobleman. These are not the days when knights were bold and cruel parents or guardians could force unfortunate maidens into marriage. Rather than marry the baron, I shall run away.”
Fanny’s eyes became rounder. “Of course you won’t run away. Please do not speak so wildly. As you said, Hampton is sure to visit me soon. Since his return, he has been busy….” Fanny hesitated and pulled a loose thread from the lace edging her handkerchief. “Perhaps Hampton would help you.”
Annabelle took the ruined handkerchief from Fanny and ruthlessly crumpled it in her hand. “Why should your stepbrother assist me? You have always said he is heartless.”
Fanny rolled her eyes and babbled her excuses for Hampton. “I have said many foolish things about him. When all is said and done, it is not Hampton’s fault that his father died when Hampton was only twelve-years-old. And he is not to blame for our mamma marrying again, and then becoming my guardian after she and my papa died while Hampton served under Wellington, both in the Peninsula and at Waterloo.”
Very generous of Fanny, Annabelle thought wryly, already conversant with Fanny’s family history.
“But I do wish Hampton had allowed me to stay at home instead of arranging for me to be educated here,” Fanny continued. “Oh, I should not complain. After all, this school is not so very bad. You know it is not, Annabelle.”
How dramatic Fanny was. Only a few moments ago she referred to The Beeches as a dungeon.
“Fanny, whatever the circumstances after we leave here, I doubt your brother will allow you to remain friends with a girl of unknown parentage. Anyway, I would not wish to be beholden to him.”
“Beholden! What strange words you use,” Fanny teased.
A teacher entered the parlour. “Young ladies, you should be ready for bed by now.”
Annabelle glanced out of the window at the night sky.
The teacher drew the curtains, shutting away the absolute darkness caused by dense clouds veiling the quarter moon. “I will return soon to ensure you are in bed.”
“You can’t be serious about running away,” Fanny said, when they were again alone together. “Where could you go? What would you do?” she asked, as they took off their short woollen jackets, muslin gowns, and cambric petticoats worn over warm, red flannel ones. Annabelle shrugged.
“I shall pray for you,” said Fanny, who always said her prayers.
“Thank you,” murmured Annabelle, with the guilty knowledge that she often neglected hers. She did not see why she should recite them because she neither believed God had any more time to care about her than anyone else, nor did she wish to trouble Him.
A little later, her devotions completed, Fanny clambered into bed. “Goodnight, Annabelle, sleep well.”
“Good night and God bless you, dear, dear Fanny,” Annabelle replied, with such heartfelt emotion that Fanny looked puzzled.
Annabelle hesitated for a second and wondered if she and Fanny would ever see each other again.
Annabelle’s mind teemed with doubts, questions, and uncertainties. Why had her guardian’s identity never been revealed? She frowned. Her nostrils flared. Why should a French baron, who had never met her, agree to marry her?
Under no circumstances would she wed a man of Baron de Beauchamp’s years. For the last thirteen years, she had only left The Beeches when she attended church with her teachers and the rest of the schoolgirls, or when she rode in the company of others. Before she married, she needed to spread her wings beyond the confines of her school. She longed to know what the world beyond the high brick walls around The Beeches was like, to meet people outside those walls and see different places.
She sighed, bewildered and confused by the proposed change from schoolgirl to married lady. It seemed her guardian was not short of funds. Instead of the high-handed order for her to marry, a London Season could have been arranged. She caught her lower lip between her teeth and winced. Did her birth preclude her from being introduced to the ton? She must face facts. Perhaps she was a commoner whose birth would never permit her to enter polite society unless she married into it and, even if she did, there would be those who looked askance at her. Whatever her true circumstances, she shared Fanny’s wish to discover what life was like outside Miss Chalfont’s establishment. Her hands trembled. What did she really want? She knew the answer to her question. More than anything else, she wanted to discover the truth about her past and find out who her parents were. She needed to know and understand her place in the world.
Annabelle snuffed out the candles and lay still. In deep thought, she reviewed her plans to run away before the kitchen maid came downstairs to the kitchen to rake out the ashes and light the fire for the cook.
Certain that she had enough money to carry out her plan, Annabelle considered every detail. She should be able to complete her journey in a little over twenty-four hours. It was a simple matter to ride to the post house, arrange for her horse to be returned to The Beeches, and to purchase a ticket on the stage. Surely, she would not come to harm. There must be other young girls who travelled alone and reached their destinations without mishap. Of course, most girls were protected by a companion, but protected from what? From rakehells such as the baron? But surely, she would be unlikely to encounter one of his ilk. Annabelle wished she was not so ignorant about life outside school, but if she was cautious and did not engage in conversation with strangers, she doubted anything bad would happen to her.
Of course, if she was honest, the thought of leaving the school, which had been her home for thirteen years, was daunting; but who knew what her guardian might do if she refused to marry the baron. As Miss Chalfont had said, he might turn her out into the world with no more than the clothes she wore.
Annabelle tried to remain calm and weigh the odds. Even if other travellers met adversity, why should she? After all, if she did not run away she might suffer worse misfortune. She might fall down the stairs and break a limb or be thrown off her horse and be severely injured.
As soon as Fanny fell asleep, Annabelle crept out of bed and chose a change of clothes that would fit into a saddlebag. Having completed her preparations, she dressed in her new, forest green riding habit. In the parlour she shared with Fanny, she set out her riding hat, trimmed with a jaunty cream plume. She laid her leather gloves beside it and together with money saved from her allowance, put her gold chain, cross, and earrings, as well as a cameo brooch, into her reticule, which she then placed in the pocket of her voluminous cloak.
She feared she would fall asleep if she lay down and sank into the comfort of her goose feather mattress, so she sat on a wing chair and watched the clock tick the minutes away while planning her journey.
If only she possessed a pistol, but even if she did, she would not know how to fire it.
During the vacations, when all the other pupils returned to their homes, Miss Chalfont had been eccentric enough to allow her to fish and swim in the lake, but not eccentric enough to allow her to learn to handle a firearm. As for her secret desire to learn the art of fencing, she had not so much as hinted at it, for she knew Miss Chalfont would throw up her hands in horror at the idea of any of her pupils learning so masculine a skill. She smiled optimistically. Who knew what her future held? Perhaps there would be an opportunity to learn to shoot and fence, as well as other more feminine accomplishments such as her love of drawing and painting.
She should not let her mind wander. How long would it take to reach her destination? The main road was good. Should she use it? No, for the first part of her journey, it would be prudent to take the less frequented track across the downs. The main road was the obvious route, but the most dangerous one, on which she had heard highwaymen and footpads, posed a threat. Besides, a young lady travelling alone on horseback along a main highway would arouse other travellers’ curiosity, something she must avoid as much as possible so that she would not be traced.
In spite of her good intentions, Annabelle yawned, her eyelids drooped, and she dozed.
When she woke, she shivered with cold after sitting for so long in front of the dying fire. She panicked and jumped up. Was it too late to leave undetected? Her limbs stiff, she staggered.
Annabelle lit a candle and peered at the clock on the mantelpiece. What was the time? A half hour after four. Time to leave. Should she leave a note? No, later on, she would write to Miss Chalfont and Fanny to set their minds at rest about her welfare.
Annabelle opened the bedroom door to make sure her friend slept. “Fanny, dearest,” she whispered, her eyes moist, “I hope we will meet again in happy circumstances. I also hope Hampton will arrange your London Season before much longer. If he does, I am sure you will be the toast of the town and break all the handsome young bachelors’ hearts. I pray you will marry someone splendid who deserves you.”
Fanny stirred. Annabelle closed the door without making any noise and put on her hat, gloves, and cloak. She picked up the bundle containing her spare clothes, went out into the dark, silent corridor and crept along it.
After each squeak of a floorboard, she paused in the expectation of waking even one of the fifty boarders or one of the dozen teachers who slept in the east wing of the refurbished Elizabethan manor house. She tiptoed down two flights of stairs and across the uneven, red-tiled hall to a side door.
Annabelle tugged back the bolts. Fortunately, they were too well oiled to squeak. She lifted the latch, pushed open the heavy oak door, and stepped out into the chilly but invigorating night air, which drove away all traces of sleepiness. Mercifully, the clouds had sailed past the sickle moon that now shed enough light for her to see her way. She kept to the shadows of the shrubs, which edged one side of the path, and skirted a pair of well-manicured lawns until she reached tall wrought iron, double gates. Annabelle held her breath and looked back at the front of the manor.
Not a thread of light shone from the west wing where Chally and her mother lived. With the hope that no sleepless person observed her from the dark bulk of the central wing, which contained classrooms, a dining parlour, and a communal parlour, she opened one of the gates and stepped into the cobbled stable yard.
She must be very quiet to avoid waking up either the grooms, who slept above the stables, or the head groom, whose single storey, thatched roofed cottage faced them.
Annabelle opened the upper and lower sections of a loosebox door and went through them. Her mare, Empress, opened dark eyes and whickered.
“Shush,” Annabelle soothed, patting Empress on the neck before she went toward a door on the other side of the loosebox. Beyond it, a narrow corridor led to the large tack room.
“Who’s there?” demanded a sleepy voice when she opened the door to the tack room.
“Annabelle Allan. Who are you?” she replied, startled.
“The boy they say is too forward. What are you doing here? Why are you not in your bed?”
“I could ask the same of you, miss.”
“Don’t be impertinent,” she said in imitation of Miss Chalfont at her haughtiest.
“I be here because t’other lads tease me till me flesh and blood can’t put up with it. The horses be better company than them.”
The victim of more than her fair share of teasing from many of the boarders and a few of the day pupils, she pitied the boy who could be no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. “Ignore them,” she advised.
“That’s what me ma says. Now, tell me, miss, what be you doing here?”
“I am going for a ride.” She hoped he would not try to prevent her.
“At this time in the morning?”
“Yes, it is refreshing to ride at dawn.”
“But it ain’t dawn yet.”
“Yes…. Well, since you are here, you might as well make yourself useful. Please saddle Empress and do not forget to fetch a saddle bag.”
Dan lit a pair of lanterns and hung them up. “No, miss, I won’t forget. That is, I wouldn’t forget if I saddled up for you. Orders are for none of the young ladies to take a horse without Miss Chalfont or the head groom’s say so.”
She glared at the lad, and then her lips twitched, but she repressed her laughter at his ill-fitting buff breeches and the ludicrous blue coat that hung loose to his knees.
“I will pay you.”
Dan ignored her offer while he buttoned his canary yellow waistcoat, worn over a clean but faded shirt, washed until the material wore thin.
“Will you not answer me, boy?”
He bent to adjust his wrinkled stockings before he spoke. “I’ll not deny that money’s always useful, miss. I’ll saddle up Empress and another horse for me. ’Tisn’t right for you to ride alone.”
Surprised by the suggestion, she stared at him. Miss Chalfont would say she should not ride alone, but the sight of a well-dressed young lady and a scruffy attendant might arouse curiosity. Nevertheless, in case she was thrown—although that was unlikely because she had never been thrown from a horse before—or Empress cast a shoe or some other mishap occurred, it would be good to have a companion, even if it was only this boy. “Very well, you may accompany me, but you might lose your position here for doing so.”
“Doesn’t matter, miss. I love the horses but am unhappy here. I want to find work in another stable.”
Dan fetched a saddlebag—which she filled quickly while he collected the tack—and entered Empress’s stall where he worked fast and skilfully, making little noise.
After he saddled both horses, he bent and picked up one of Empress’s feet.
She tried to conceal her impatience. “What are you doing?”
“I be tying cloths round their feet so they’ll not clatter on the cobbles and wake anyone.” He peered out into the yard. “Come on, miss. I’ll lead the horses till we reach the drive.”
Birdsong filled the air, silver streaks on the horizon heralded dawn’s arrival, and a gleam of golden light shone in the head groom’s cottage
“Old man gets up early. Hurry up. He’ll thrash me if he catches us.”
* * *
Annabelle did not need Dan to urge her on. Apprehension about her guardian’s reaction to her flight bolstered her resolve, and it diminished her regret over being forced out of the school where she had been happy. She tilted her chin. Even if Fanny’s brother agreed to help her, she did not want to be under an obligation to a stranger.
They reached the drive and Dan removed the cloths from the horses’ hooves.
“Mount up, miss.” He bent, cupped her foot in his hands, and helped her up onto her sidesaddle.
She held out a coin taken from her reticule. “Take this if you have changed your mind about leaving here. It is unnecessary for you to accompany me.”
“No, miss, I be running away with you. I reckons we can look after each other. For now, you can pay me way and I’ll protect you.”
So, Dan possessed more intelligence than he appeared to. “It seems I have no choice other than to take you with me,” she said.
He nodded. “My mother will understand why I’m leaving here. Which road be we taking?”
“The one leading away from The Beeches to the junction, where, instead of turning onto the new highway, we will cut across the downs along the old road.”
“Walk on,” Dan ordered the sturdy gelding.
At the beginning of the old road, which led through folds of downs cropped by sheep and dotted with gorse bushes, Dan reined in his horse. “Where be we going when we reach the end of the road?”
Annabelle sighed. After they left this road, she knew she should not ride on a public highway. Her reputation would be ruined if they encountered anyone from the school or church who might recognise her and gossip.
Annabelle looked up and down the winding road. “We are going to Dover.”
Dan held the reins with one hand and combed his spiky, sandy hair with the other. He wrinkled his snub nose. “Horses won’t make it.”
“I know. They will be returned to The Beeches and we will travel on the Mail.” She patted Empress’s glossy neck, sad at the thought of parting with her. Maybe, she would be able to send for her in the future.
Dan’s forehead creased. “Will you send a message telling them where you’re going, miss? They’ll be worried about you.”
Presumably, he meant Miss Chalfont and the other teachers. “Not now, but one day I will let Miss Chalfont know we are safe and well.”
“What be you going to do in Dover?”
“You will see when we arrive.”
Dan heaved a sigh. “Be you hungry, miss.”
“Is it time to breakfast?”
Dan looked at the sun still low in a dawn sky streaked with red, salmon pink and gold. “No, but I reckons it will soon be time to eat. Anyways, me stomach’s growling.”
“So is mine, the fresh air has given me an appetite,” she admitted. “Dan, I think it will be a nice day. Something tells me that spring is in the air.”
“Maybe, but you knows the old saying. ‘Red sky at morn, shepherds warn.’ I reckons it’ll rain later. Best be on our way.”
“Yes, of course, you are right.” She looked up at the fiery streaks across the sky with trepidation. It was becoming sultry and she feared a thunderstorm. With no wish to be drenched by rain, she straightened her back and patted Empress’s neck again. She gathered the reins. “Walk on.”
Dan’s horse trotted alongside Empress. “I knows this road. If I’m not wrong, we’re a half-mile or so from an inn where the gentry changed their horses before the new road was laid. We could have our breakfast there. Happen they’ll serve steak and eggs and mugs of beer.”
“Happen they will and you’ll be having some,” she teased.
Dan grinned and blushed and then they rode on in silence, their horses trotting abreast until the road narrowed and fringes of native woodland replaced the rolling downs.
Annabelle looked up at the branches, which formed a canopy hazed with green leaves. She was about to say it was very quiet when a masked man burst out of the shadows. His bedraggled appearance offered no threat but the pair of pistols he brandished did. “Stand and deliver,” he shouted.
Empress whinnied a startled protest. Annabelle screamed before she looked up and down the road in search of assistance.
“Damnation!” Dan swore.
“Dismount,” the footpad ordered.
Terrified, Annabelle recoiled when the man thrust the muzzle of a pistol in her face. Outrage replaced fear. She scowled and opened her mouth to protest.
“For Gawd’s sake, do as he says, miss.” His face pale with palpable apprehension, Dan slid down from his saddle, held onto the reins of his horse, and caught hold of Empress’s bridle.
“Let go, I can control her,” Annabelle snapped.
“If you don’t do as you’re told, it’ll be the worse for you. I’ll shoot,” the masked man threatened.
Her heart pumped wildly and her hands grew damp but she straightened her back, and tried not to reveal her increasing fear, coupled with indignation. “It will be the worse for you if you harm us,” she said, annoyed by the wobble in her voice.
“I’ll harm you if you don’t dismount now,” the footpad snarled.
Knees shaking, she obeyed and stared at the man’s round-toed, scuffed shoes, wrinkled grey stockings, and stained brown breeches.
While watching Dan, the footpad grabbed her shoulder and held a pistol to the side of her head before he turned his attention from Dan to her.
Appalled by her situation, and at that moment regretting her precipitous flight from safety at The Beeches, she stared at him and gagged at the stench of his unwashed body, and at the blood dripping from the pocket of his threadbare olive green coat where a hare’s hind feet protruded.
“Didn’t yer ma tell you it’s rude to stare?” the horrible man asked.
She shook her head in spite of the pistol.
“Well, you’ll be dead to yer ma if that lad doesn’t throw that saddlebag to the ground.”
“I have no mother. I am an orphan.” She hoped her words would incline him to mercy.
“Now, missy, give me your pretties.”
She did not doubt that he would shoot her if she did not obey. Seething with indignation, tinged with escalating fear, Annabelle realized she had no choice in the matter. She prayed he would not ask for her cloak with the purse of gold coins in the pocket. If he did, she would be destitute and forced to return to The Beeches. With reluctance, she removed her coral and gold earrings and her gold ring. “Why don’t you seek employment instead of robbing innocent travellers?”
“I’m jobless ’cause I was turned off without a reference, and nobody will take a fellow on without one.” He glared at Dan. “You there, take missy’s pretties and put them in the saddle bag.”
Although Dan’s hands trembled and his knees shook, he obeyed.
“Take your cloak off, missy, and—” he broke off. “What’s that noise?”
Like a trio of wary birds, they tilted their heads and listened to the sound of a fast approaching vehicle.
“M….more than likely someone’s on the way to The Beeches,” Dan stammered.
The footpad pushed Annabelle to the ground and hit Dan so hard with the pistol butt that he rendered him unconscious.
“Scoundrel!” Annabelle exclaimed. She raised her face from the dirt with no thought for her safety.
The thief struck the gelding, which reared, whinnied, turned, and galloped down the road toward The Beeches. He then mounted Empress and rode away.
A chaise thundered toward Annabelle. Her heart pounding, she scrambled to her feet and tried to pull Dan out of its path. In spite of his small stature, he was muscular and too heavy for her to drag off the road.
The chaise came to a halt no more than two yards from Annabelle and Dan.
Annabelle swallowed the bitter bile, which rushed into her throat in response to her brush with near death from horse’s hooves and deadly wheels, and all her limbs trembled.
A groom alighted from the back of the chaise and opened the door nearest to her.
“Why the devil have we stopped?” a crisp male voice demanded.
The groom scrambled down from his seat next to the coachman, lowered the steps, and mumbled something before a tall gentleman descended.
Annabelle glanced at the coat of arms on the chaise and assumed they must be those of her would-be-bridegroom, for who else would travel along this shortcut to The Beeches so early in the morning? Besides, her mind was too preoccupied with Dan to consider other alternatives. “Monsieur le Baron de Beauchamp, I presume. Your arrival is more than welcome, monsieur.” She pointed at Dan, who lay limp on the road. “We need help. A footpad held us up. You cannot imagine a dirtier, scruffier, more impertinent person…”
“Indeed,” the gentleman murmured, his eyebrows lowered.
She stared up at Monsieur le Baron. Some six feet tall, dressed in a beautifully cut dark green coat, cream-coloured unmentionables almost moulded to his powerful legs, a dark grey coat with as many as twelve capes and a snow white, intricately tied cravat at his throat, her artist’s eyes approved of him. Her eyes also approved of his short black hair, which curled at the ends, a pair of large brown eyes with golden depths, and a well-shaped, clearly defined mouth that had deep, endearing dimples on either side of it, softening the effect of his square jaw and cleft chin.
The baron picked up her hat, dusted it with gloved fingers, and inclined his head. “I regret I have no comb in hand for you to tidy your curls.”
She sighed, well able to imagine the small, unruly curls that often escaped and clustered round her face, despite her best efforts to subdue them.
“You are trembling. Allow me to help you to stand and I shall return your hat to you,” he said, his eyes troubled and his expression thoughtful.
She stood without his help and he handed the hat to her. “Thank you.” Made ill at ease by his scrutiny, she tried to smooth those annoying little curls before she replaced her hat. “Monsieur, a footpad took my saddlebags, knocked Dan down, and stole my mare.”
“Good God! Did he harm you?” The gentleman stepped forward to clasp her hands.
His touch sent fire up her arms. She pulled herself free from him, and then tried to shake the dirt from her skirts. “I am uninjured but, as you see, poor Dan is unconscious.” She knelt next to the stable boy. “He is so pale.”
“So would you be if you had been knocked senseless. Do stand up again. Rest assured that I will not leave the lad here. My groom shall put him on the floor of the chaise. That will not leave much room for our feet but we shall contrive until we reach the next village.”
Annabelle hesitated. She was not ignorant of the ways of the world, and knew she should not travel in his chaise without a chaperone, but realised she had no choice. It would be folly to reject his offer and either wait for help or walk to the inn, prey to any other footpad lurking in the woods. She stood and pointed in the opposite direction to the one from which the chaise had approached. “Dan said there is an inn not far from here.”
The baron beckoned to his groom. “Put the lad in the chaise,” he ordered.
When the muscular groom picked Dan up without the slightest difficulty, Dan did not stir.
“Gently,” the baron ordered and watched his groom settle the young man inside the chaise. The baron nodded at his coachman. “Turn the chaise round.” He turned to Annabelle and offered her his arm. Without pause for prudent hesitation, she put her hand on his smooth broadcloth sleeve, surprised by the sudden tingling in her fingertips.
Annabelle permitted him to lead her far enough down the road to make way for the chaise to turn.
“Good, you have stopped trembling.” The baron smiled. His dimples deepened. Her heart lurched and continued to when the baron scrutinised her face as they waited to get into the chaise. “May I ask how you know my name, Miss—?”
She removed her hand from his arm and looked down at the tips of her dusty riding boots. “I am Miss Allan. We were expecting you. That is, Miss Chalfont told me, oh dear, this is so awkward, monsieur. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I must be honest. Nothing would persuade me to marry you, for although your eyes do not bulge like a frog’s and you are handsome, you are too old for me.” Nervous, she moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue.
“Thank you for your compliment, I am relieved to hear my looks do not displease you,” the gentleman said dryly.
“Don’t try to persuade me to change my mind.” Her cheeks burned. She should not have been outspoken and rude. Yet she ran away because she did not want to marry at her guardian’s command, and she still believed she had no other choice despite Monsieur le Baron’s handsome appearance and charm. She peered up at him before resuming her contemplation of the tips of her boots.
Le monsieur’s mouth twitched. His eyes laughed at her. “Please be good enough to tell me why you are here with an unconscious ragamuffin.”
“I like to ride early in the morning.”
“Ah.” His eyes still laughed at her, their golden flecks deepening. “As soon as we reach the inn, I will send someone to notify the authorities of the crime.”
“Do you think my mare will be recovered?” She looked up at the seemingly harmless man whom Fanny had described as one overly fond of women. Thank God, he was not ogling her. Even Miss Chalfont could not have objected to his manners. She looked away from his expressive eyes, fringed with sooty black lashes, long enough to make any young lady envious.
Oh, she understood his success with the fair sex. Not only did he possess an attractive personality but he had broad shoulders and a slim waist, and those muscular thighs beneath the tight fitting unmentionables she had already noticed.
“Do you like what you see?”
She focused on the verge, sprinkled with clumps of bright green dandelion leaves. His question was outrageous. Her cheeks felt so hot that a wave of colour must have spread to the roots of her hair. She glanced up at him, embarrassed as always, by her uncontrollable blushes. With a wave of her hand, she indicated the woodland beyond the verge. “Some people think this part of the country is not without charm.”
His beautifully moulded lips parted in a smile, and he stared into the depths of her eyes. “Those who live here are not without beauty and charm, Miss Allan, I have rarely seen eyes as blue as yours.”
How many people did he know here in Surrey? How many maids had he ogled and kissed? She shuddered, tried to quell her imagination, and failed. What would his kiss be like? How would the touch of his lips feel on hers?
“Come, the chaise awaits us,” the baron said.
Inside the chaise, she took off her cloak, rolled it up, and put it under Dan’s head. “Should we lift him onto the seat? I can sit on the floor.”
“He is better off where he is,” the gentleman replied after a moment or two, during which time he seemed to be deep in thought.
Annabelle sat down. “Why?”
“He might roll off the seat and sustain another injury.” He raised a hand. “If you are about to argue, please refrain. Arguments weary me. Now, Miss Allan, please be honest. Enlighten me, where were you going when you were held up?”
“Going?” she squeaked. “Nowhere in particular, as I told you, I like to ride early in the day.”
A mischievous gleam appeared in his eyes. “How fortunate,” he said, in an affected drawl.
“What do you mean?”
He chuckled. “I also like to ride early. We have something common. However, I take my fences, I do not run away.”
She pressed her gloved hands to her hot cheeks.
“Were you running away because you do not want to get married?”
The baron gazed at her intently. Transfixed, she could not look away. Annabelle clasped her hands so tightly that her nails dug into her gloves. She forced her eyes to look away from his compelling stare. “You will not take me back to The Beeches, will you?”
“The Beeches!” the rascal exclaimed, as though he had never heard of it. “I cannot abandon you in your present circumstances, but I do think it would be best if you returned.”
She glared at him. “Indeed, Monsieur, you are mistaken if you think I will remain there and be coerced into marriage. I would run away again before allowing it.”
“How dramatic you are. Am I to understand you fear being dragged to the altar and whipped until you make your matrimonial vows?”
Indignant, she glared at him. How dare he mock her when he was the cause of her dilemma?
He chuckled once more and touched a spotless handkerchief to his lips. “I believe you would run away again, but I should take you back and, by the way, you deserve to be locked in your room and fed on bread and water.
espectable young ladies do not run away from their academies.”
Unable to conceal her curiosity, she eyed him. Miss Chalfont said the baron was forty-two-years-old. He looked much younger. But what did she know of men other than the vicar at the church she attended, the gentlemen she saw there, and the elderly teachers who taught art, dance, music, and riding at The Beeches?
He stared boldly at her. “I hope you like what you see.”
Before she could respond with appropriate indignation, the chaise turned into a stable yard. The groom lowered the steps. With utmost gentleness, she removed her cloak from beneath Dan’s head. Thank God, the footpad had not stolen it together with the money and jewellery in the placket pocket. She stood and wrapped herself in the cloak’s warm folds.
De Beauchamp stepped out onto the cobbled stable yard and turned to offer her his hand.
The innkeeper and his wife bustled out to greet them and shook their heads when they saw Dan and Annabelle’s untidy state.
“Have you a room for the lad?” the baron asked.
“Yes, my lord,” they chorused.
“Good, my groom will see to him.”
Annabelle’s anxiety increased when she looked at Dan’s unnaturally pale face. “Please send for a doctor.”
“Very good, miss,” the obliging couple replied.
“A private parlour for us,” the baron ordered.
Their host bowed low. “Yes sir.”
With the baron at her side, Annabelle followed the innkeeper into the clean, low-ceilinged building. It smelled of fragrant beeswax, which did not eradicate all the odours of the cooked food, dogs, the taproom, and tobacco.
“Ale for me, coffee for the lady, and breakfast as soon as you can serve it,” Monsieur le Baron ordered.
“Yes sir.” The innkeeper withdrew.
Annabelle took off her hat and gloves and sat on the window seat with her wrinkled cloak swirled round her.
The baron flicked the lid of his green enamelled snuffbox open. “You are very pale, Miss Allan.”
“Yes, you do not look ‘the thing.’”
“You would be dishevelled and furious if you had been held up by a smelly ruffian, pushed to the ground, and seen your companion knocked unconscious. Moreover, you would not look ‘the thing’ if you had been forced to run away because a lecher like yourself wants to marry you.” Oh no, yet again she had spoken before she thought, one of her greatest faults for which Miss Chalfont had scolded her times without number.
The gentleman’s shoulders shook. He spread his arms wide. “Do I look like a lecher?” He seemed amused.
With great dignity, she looked at him reproachfully. ‘‘It is not funny. And as for your question, I do not know whether or not you look like one, for this is the first time I have met a wicked man.”
He gesticulated with a long-fingered, slightly tanned hand, indicating he sometimes failed to wear gloves when outdoors. It was something else she seemed to like about him as it proved he might be a nonpareil, not a dandy, even if his morals were appalling.
“My dear child, I am only interested in your accusation of lechery. Do you accuse me of being—?”
“Yes,” she interrupted, nodding, “Fanny told me—”she broke off and caught her lower lip between her teeth. No well-brought-up young lady should speak thus to a gentleman, even if he was a reprobate. She must stop being so free with her words.
“Yes, my lord, Fanny is my best friend. Poor creature, she is shockingly neglected by her half-brother, Viscount Hampton.”
“Neglected,” he inquired—his eyes alert—in a silky tone, with no trace of his affected drawl. She nodded once more, this time to emphasise her statement. “Fanny has not seen the wretch for years. Would you believe he is home from war and has neither removed her from school nor arranged for her to be presented at court?”
“I believe you, but do you not think the viscount may have his reasons for acting as he has? Perchance he thinks his sister—”
He laughed. “I beg your pardon. Perchance he thinks of his half-sister as a child.”
“Why are you laughing at me?” The gentleman’s amusement made her cross, very cross indeed.
“Because, my dear Miss Allan, you are adorable and brave.”
His compliment shocked and unnerved her. “If you try to seduce me, I shall scream.”
“Upon my word, what a thing to accuse a gentleman of, and what, do I dare to ask, does a schoolroom miss know about seduction?”
“More than you might think for—” she broke off, hot flushes flooding her cheeks.
“No, do not tell me, I can guess. Fanny told you.”
“Yes, she did. What is more, she warned me that you ogle all the unmarried girls and kiss the maids.”
He stretched his hands out toward her. “Miss Allan, I must protest.”
The plump innkeeper’s wife, all smiles and curtsies, bustled in with a neatly dressed maidservant. De Beauchamp turned aside to look out of the window and Annabelle hid her cheeks with her hands to conceal more burning blushes.
Within a few minutes, the maidservant had laid the table and the host had brought a platter of steak.
“Oh!” Annabelle exclaimed and pressed her hands to her mouth.
“What is it, miss?” the woman asked.
“N–nothing, forgive me, I am sure everything is delicious, but I feel sick.”
The baron cupped her elbow with a firm hand. “Sit down. Strong, hot coffee will set you to rights.”
“No, I could not drink it,” she protested, and for the first time in her life wished she had some smelling salts.
The landlady bustled to the door. “Sir, miss, I shall fetch the coffee.”
“My poor child,” de Beauchamp began, with sufficient concern in his voice for her to widen her eyes as she peered up at him. “I am not surprised by your feeling unwell. You have suffered a dreadful ordeal. Most ladies of my acquaintance would have succumbed to a hysterical fit. You are to be congratulated for not doing so. Have no fears. I am not a rake and I promise you are safe with me.”
She looked into the depth of his eyes; the golden flecks seemed subdued. “I am?”
Annabelle wanted to believe him. She smiled. Her stomach settled. In spite of Fanny’s warning, she trusted him and relaxed.
“The coffee,” he said unnecessarily, as the landlady returned to the room. “Thank you Mrs…?”
“Thank you, Mrs Fuller. The young lady needs to rest for an hour or more, can you provide a bedchamber for her?”
“Good, now please tell me how the lad is.”
“He’s woken up. Doctor’s looking at him now, sir.”
Annabelle sipped some coffee. “No, I cannot drink any more and I do not want anything to eat.”
“Come with me, miss, you’ll feel better after a nap,” Mrs Fuller said with motherly concern.