Master of Blackmoor by Julie Shelton

Master of Blackmoor by Julie Shelton

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Master of Blackmoor by Julie Shelton

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She soon discovers that the Master of Blackmoor is haunted by a dark and tragic past filled with lies, betrayal and death. Unfortunately, the past is not over. Evil stalks Blackmoor Hall. The danger is escalating and all the clues point to the Duke himself.

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Chapter One

DANIELLE AWOKE WITH a jolt so violent; it startled a shriek out of her before it sent her sprawling to the floor in a tangled heap. The carriage swayed sickeningly, then toppled over with a crash and shuddered to a halt.

Outside she could hear muffled shouts, the clank and jingle of harnesses and the high-pitched whinnies of panicked horses. She sat up with supreme caution, rubbing the back of her head where she’d struck it against the hard edge of the carriage seat. She shivered. It’s freezing in here!

Squinting her eyes, she tried to penetrate the darkness of her surroundings. Where on earth was she?

Then she remembered. The mail coach. The tedious, seemingly endless journey from London north to the moors. Her various companions along the way—Mr. and Mrs. Porter, the elderly couple on their way to their grand-daughter’s wedding in Ely. The vicar who had shared his bountiful basket lunch with her and insisted that she stuff some extra cinnamon buns into her reticule. Mr. Wallingford, whose florid complexion, ribald remarks and wandering hands had made her thankful that she’d not been alone in the coach with him.

But she was alone in the coach now. Had been since leaving York to venture out into the untamed wildness of the Northern Moors. And sometime during the afternoon, she had taken advantage of the extra space, drawn the leather window shades and stretched out along the thinly padded seat, where she’d promptly fallen asleep.

Hardly proper behavior for a young lady.

Danielle could practically hear her mother’s prim voice saying that in her ear. She had certainly said it many times during Danielle’s childhood and early adolescence—and never without cause. The memory brought a brief smile to her lips. If only her mother were here to say it now. She sighed and her smile faded.

“Miss! Miss! Art thee a’ right?” It was the anxious voice of the coachman.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, Mr.”—Dieu! What is the man’s name? He told me—ah, yes, Wilson— “Mr. Wilson! Where are we? What happened?”

She tried to stand up, but was hampered by her voluminous skirts and the crazy pitch of the carriage floor.

“We’re out on t’ moors, Miss. About twenty miles from St. Bodmin, near as I can reckon. We skidded off t’ road. I fear we’ve landed in a ditch.”

“Well, can’t you get us out?” Anxiety made her voice sharper than she intended. “I must reach St. Bodmin today. I’m to take up employment at Esterly House. It’s important that I be there on time.”

Important! She choked back the hysterical laugh threatening to bubble up in her throat. It was more than important. It was vital. If she didn’t arrive today, she would forfeit the position, the only one she’d been able to secure in over three months of searching. It was literally her last chance. She was out of time and nearly out of money.

“I’m afraid not, Miss. Even if I could get us out o’ t’ ditch, which I canna, a wheel’s gone. I fear we’re stuck ’ere until—”

Oh!”

The carriage gave a sudden lurch and Danielle grabbed a quick hold of the seat edges. “What was that? What’s happening?” Her heart was hammering in her throat. If this thing fell over, she could be injured, trapped—

“Mr. Wilson!” Panic edged her voice.

“Take ’t easy, Miss,” the coachman’s voice sounded much louder this time. “’T were just t’ coach settlin’ like. I’m coming to get thee.”

Slowly, carefully, Danielle pulled herself up into a squatting position, wedging her toes into the angle created by the floor and the door. She didn’t dare step back onto the door itself. It could give way beneath her and send her plummeting to the bottom of the ditch.

Slowly she straightened her knees and the coach gave another sliding shudder. She gasped and stood stock still, hardly daring to breathe, her fingertips resting against the seat cushions.

She lifted her eyes. She could touch the bottom of the door above her head, but she couldn’t reach the handle. “I-I can’t open the door,” she called out. “I can’t reach the handle.”

“I canna reach it either, Miss,” Mr. Wilson called. “T’ angle’s too steep.”

Danielle bit her lip, trying to think. “Can’t you stand on something?” she suggested. “How about my trunk?”

“Good idea, Miss. I’ll be right back.”

Danielle waited impatiently in the cold, tomblike darkness, her teeth chattering. Despite her heavy wool gown and thick woolen cloak, she was chilled to the bone.

The minutes seemed to drag interminably, accompanied by an assortment of thumps and thuds and muffled curses. Every time the carriage shook, she held her breath, praying that it wouldn’t slide deeper into the ditch. She shifted restlessly, trying to find a more comfortable way to place her feet. There was none.

She shivered again. Where was the man? What was taking him so long?

She was just about to call out again when she heard the metallic click of the latch above her head and the door creaked upward.

A shower of cold, wet snow fell in on her upturned face. She sputtered and ducked her head. “Mon Dieu!”

“Sorry, Miss, ’t is blowin’ a regular blizzard out here.” The coachman’s ruddy face loomed in the doorway like a pale round moon. “Can thee climb out, Miss?”

She looked up. “I believe so.” She smiled to herself in the darkness. Her tree-climbing skills—the despair of her gentle, well-bred mother—were about to pay off.

Tossing her reticule up and out through the opening, she grabbed the bottom of the door frame and hung in the air. Placing her feet on the edge of each seat, she crab-walked her way up the seats until she could hoist her upper body through the opening. For a moment, she hung there, half in, half out, uncertain what to do next.

Then Mr. Wilson put his hands under her arms and pulled her until she could bring her legs awkwardly beneath her to kneel on the bottom edge of the door opening. “Oh!” She cried as the coachman grabbed her shoulders to keep her from falling. She couldn’t straighten or help herself because she was kneeling on her skirts.

“Wait a moment, please, Mr. Wilson,” she said, panting from her exertions. “My skirts are in the way.”

Merde, she thought in exasperation. Why can’t women wear breeches, like men? It’s so much more practical!

Letting the coachman’s hands on her shoulders steady her and keep her from toppling head-first out of the coach, she lifted her knees one at a time and yanked the cloth out from under them. The edge of the doorsill bit into her tender skin.

The coachman’s hands moved to her waist. Placing her hands on his shoulders, she helped him pull her up far enough to swing her feet out over the sill and, finally, down to stand on top of her trunk. The coachman jumped to the snow-covered ground, then handed her down to stand in front of him.

She gasped and stammered. As cold as it had been inside the mail coach, it had been balmy compared to the conditions outside on the deserted road.

The wind struck her with numbing force, seeming to come from all directions at once, and her heavy cloak afforded her little protection against its deadly chill. Swirling snowflakes struck her exposed skin like icy needles. It was only mid-afternoon, yet it was nearly as dark as twilight.

She looked around. “Where’s the guard?”

“Injured, Miss. Broken leg, we think. ’E’s leaning up against t’ back o’ t’ coach.”

Merciful heavens, could this day possibly get any worse? Hastily, Danielle pulled the hood of her cloak up over her bonnet and held it closely around her face. “How far are we from Esterly House?” she asked.”

“Esterly House!” His exasperation was evident in his voice. “Oh, Miss, thee canna still be thinking o’ getting’ there today! That’s more’n twenty miles away. It’s not possible!”

Twenty miles! Danielle bit her lip. He was right; they were never going to make it. Already her hands and feet were beginning to go numb. The snow was falling so thickly, she could barely see the coach, and she was standing right beside it! A long trek through these freezing conditions, with virtually no gloves and only thin-soled shoes….

Well, she thought in resignation. Lady Esterly will simply have to understand, that’s all. Surely being stranded in a blizzard should be a compelling enough reason for not being able to meet the woman’s arbitrary deadline. It should be a compelling enough reason for not meeting anyone’s deadline.

“Very well,” she said with a resigned sigh. “Then we’ll head for the nearest shelter. How far away is that?”

“I don’t rightly know, Miss, and that’s a fact,” the coachman answered. He shaded his eyes with one gloved hand and peered out through the thick, wind-blown snow as if, by some miracle, he expected to see something. “If we’re where I think we are, there’s a Hall about a mile or so up the road. Blackmoor Hall. But I’m not so sure we should go there.” Uncertainty made his voice quaver.

“Why not?” Danielle stamped her feet and blew on her gloved fingers in a wasted effort to stir up a little circulation. “We cannot stay here, for heaven’s sake. We’re freezing! This is hardly a time to be choosy about our accommodations!”

“It’s just that—” Mr. Wilson’s voice was troubled, as was the expression on his face. “They—they dinna take kindly to strangers, Miss. Like as not, they’ll turn us away.”

“Well, is there anything closer, then? Perhaps a farmhouse back the way we just came?”

“Nay, Miss.” He shook his grizzled head. “We be out on t’ moors. Not a fit place for inhabitin’.”

He looked as miserable as she felt. His top hat was covered with so much snow it was almost white in the rapidly fading daylight.

“Then we’ll simply have to take the chance on Blackmoor Hall,” she said, hunching her cloak more closely around her shoulders, once again blowing on her frozen fingers. “We have no choice, Mr. Wilson,” she pointed out when the coachman didn’t respond. “Your guard needs treatment for his leg. The horses need food and shelter. We must hurry. If we don’t get there by nightfall, we’ll all freeze to death.”

Still the man hesitated. “It—’t is a bad place, Miss. An evil place.”

Suddenly, Danielle felt a chill that had nothing to do with the snow storm raging around them. “What do you mean, evil?”

“Bad things ’ave ’appened there.”

“What sorts of things?”

“Bad things, Miss.” Mr. Wilson’s pale blue eyes were wide with superstitious fear. “No decent folk would be caught dead goin’ anywhere near t’ place.” He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “There’s talk o’ Satan worship, Miss, and orgies! And some people say that t’ Master is t’ Devil ’isself.”

“Nonsense,” Danielle replied sharply, though she couldn’t suppress a shudder.

“Oh, no, Miss,” Mr. Wilson shook his head. “The Black Markham, ’e’s called, because of ’is black looks and black temper. I seen ’im meself, Miss. ’E looks like the Devil ’e does, tall and sharp—with eyes that can burn ’oles right through thee.” He shuddered in remembrance. “It’s a known fact ’e’s a murderer—twice over. First ’is wife, then ’is brother.”

Danielle had reached the end of her patience. “Mr. Wilson, I’ve heard quite enough of these old wives’ tales, thank you. In case you haven’t noticed, while you’ve been standing here nattering on about murders and Satan worship, the storm has gotten worse. If you are too frightened to seek shelter at this Blackmoor House, then you may stay here and pray for the unlikely possibility that someone will come along and rescue you. I, on the other hand, have no intention of freezing to death out here in the middle of nowhere. Devil or no devil, I’m going to Blackmoor Hall.” And with that, she turned. Hunching her shoulders and pulling her cloak more closely around her, she started off down the road.

“Wait, Miss!” Mr. Wilson cried in a panic-stricken voice. “Thee canna just wander off by thyself! I’m coming wi’ thee. Just let me get t’ horses and see to Simmons….” His voice faded as he disappeared into the gloom.

Several minutes later, he re-emerged, leading two of the enormous Belgian draft horses that pulled the mail coach so effortlessly. He handed the leads to Danielle. She stood there holding them, eyeing the huge beasts apprehensively as they nervously pawed the ground and blew great clouds of steam out of their ice-caked nostrils.

She was an excellent horsewoman, but these brutes were gigantic, bred for sheer strength and heavy hauling. One misstep and they could easily knock her down and trample her to death beneath their iron-shod hooves.

“Miss! I need ’elp wi’ Simmons ’ere,” Mr. Wilson called from the rear of the mail coach. “’Is leg truly is broken. The only way ’e can come wi’ us is to ride one o’ t’ horses. It’ll take t’ two o’ us to get ’im up there.”

Danielle walked toward the rear of the coach where the guard was sitting on the snow-covered ground, hunched into his scarlet and gold greatcoat, leaning back against the side of the overturned coach, sheltered as much as possible from the wind-driven snow. His face was ashen and contorted with pain. His breathing was shallow and rapid. He was very close to going into shock.

“Mr. Simmons?” Danielle touched his snow-encrusted shoulder gently.

He jumped and his eyes flew open. Then he moaned and squeezed them shut again.

“Mr. Simmons, we’re heading for shelter. I’m afraid you’re going to be very uncomfortable for a while.” She shook her head. Now, there was an understatement. “We need to get you up on one of these horses.”

He shook his head. “Nay, Miss, I canna leave the mail. ’T is against the rule. I could be sacked if I do.”

“Damn the rule,” was her brisk reply. “You’ll die if you stay here. Bring the mail with you if you have to, but we’re not leaving you here to freeze to death. Do you think you can stand up if we help you?”

Amid much moaning and groaning, grunting and panting, Danielle and the elderly Mr. Wilson managed to assist the injured man up onto his uninjured leg. But it soon became obvious that they’d never be able to get him up on one of the huge, broad-backed horses. Even if they could somehow manage to hoist him high enough, he’d never to be able to swing his broken right leg over the horse’s back.

Gnawing her lip, Danielle tried frantically to think. They had to get out of here before they all succumbed to the numbing cold.

“Wait! I’ve got it! Mr. Wilson, can you lead one of the horses down there where the ditch gets shallower? If we get the horse to where its back is at the same level as the top of the ditch, Mr. Simmons can just slide on.”

The elderly coachman gave her a strange look, but didn’t question her instructions. Disappearing into the increasing storm, he led the horse back down the road. Then, clucking his tongue and talking in soothing tones, he managed to coax the skittish beast down into the ditch, leading him back the way they had come until the top of the horse’s back was even with the top of the ditch at the edge of the road. The huge animal minced and capered about, nervous at being confined within such a deep, narrow space.

But, ultimately Mr. Wilson calmed him and he stood quietly as Simmons scooted on his bottom across the snow-covered grass to the edge of the ditch. Swinging his good left leg over the animal’s broad back, he maneuvered himself into place, until he was lying along the horse’s neck, his fingers tangled in its thick mane. Mr. Wilson persuaded the reluctant animal to back up and walk the considerable distance back down the road until the ditch was shallow enough for him to climb out.

He quickly rejoined Danielle. Mr. Simmons remained conscious just long enough to watch the coachman tie a strap around the box of mail and hang it on the horse’s harness. He gave a low moan and promptly lost consciousness. Mr. Wilson and Danielle each took the leads of two of the horses and set off down the road without further word.

The wind picked up, becoming a howling demon snatching at their snow-encrusted clothes, tearing their frosted breath away, flinging fistfuls of snow at their unprotected faces.

Danielle’s thin-soled shoes and unlined kid-leather gloves were the last of the “good” things in her wardrobe and, as such, were no match for the frigid conditions. The numbness in her hands and feet eventually spread to her entire body.

The journey was endless, a journey through frozen Hell. A thousand times she found herself on the verge of asking the coachman to stop, just for a short rest. All she wanted to do was shut her eyes and sink down into the soft snow and sleep. But that would be suicide, she knew. So, she forced herself to place one frozen foot in front of the other. Left, right, left, right, left, right. She was so busy concentrating on her feet, she never noticed that a six-foot-high stone wall now paralleled the road.

More than once she thought they were never going to make it. And just as she was about to give up, a set of huge stone gateposts with ornate wrought iron gates loomed up out of the swirling storm and Danielle felt a leap of exultation.

“Mr. Wilson! Look! We’re here! We’ve made it!”

And praise the Lord, the gates were open!

They turned into the barely perceptible driveway, excitement pumping renewed strength and purpose into Danielle’s frozen and exhausted limbs. Her pace quickened. Almost there. Just hang on a little longer. Left, right, left, right, one more time, left, right.

It soon became apparent, however, that the house itself was nowhere near its gates, and once more despair settled over the two companions like a shroud as they struggled up the hilly driveway, around curves and bends designed to give visitors to the estate a scenic drive before arriving at the house. It was not designed for maneuvering on foot through a howling blizzard. We could still die out here in this freakish storm, Danielle thought. Her strength was ebbing. Each step she took was a torment of exhaustion. Her lungs burned, her muscles ached and throbbed. Still, she kept going, mindlessly placing one foot in front of the other. Head bent against the wind, eyes shut, teeth clamped together, she willed herself forward just one more step—

She ran full-tilt into the coachman’s broad back, so hard she nearly fell over. One foot slipped out from under her and she would have fallen in an ungainly heap if Mr. Wilson hadn’t caught her arm and held her upright until she regained her balance.

“What’s the matter? Why did you stop?” She could hardly move her lips, so stiff were they with cold.

Mr. Wilson stepped aside for her to see where his finger was pointing. A huge gray mass filled the early evening gloom directly in front of them. A house! A house at last! Oh, thank God!

Danielle’s heart skipped a beat then raced with wild excitement. The coachman shouted something to her above the shriek of the wind, but she paid no heed. Breaking into a stumbling run, she staggered across the driveway and up the six broad steps into the semi-shelter of the colonnaded front portico.

In the center of each of the massive front double doors was a knocker consisting of a heavy brass ring mounted through the nose of a snarling lion’s head. Grabbing one of the rings, she slammed it against the strike plate. Tall bay windows flanked the doors. Danielle pressed her nose to a snow-frosted pane and tried to see inside, but the interior of the house was pitch dark. There were no lights to be seen anywhere and a sudden fear squeezed Danielle’s heart.

The place looked deserted. What if nobody was home? What if they had come all this way for nothing? Were they going to die out here after all?

Fighting panic, her lungs heaving with the effort it took to breathe, Danielle lifted the heavy brass ring and rammed it against the strike plate again and again, with all the force she could muster.

“All right, all right! ’Old yer ’orses!” came an irritated female voice from inside, muffled by the thickness of the oak doors. “I’m comin’. I’m comin’! Stop that infernal racket!”

“Open the door!” Danielle shouted as loudly as she could, banging the knocker two more times.

“’Oo are ye?” the voice demanded, a deep voice, most likely that of an older woman, with a heavy North Country accent. “What d’ye want? State yer business and be quick about it.”

“What do I want?” Danielle echoed, staring at the door in utter disbelief. “I want to come in! For the love of God, there’s a blizzard out here! I’m freezing!”

“Not until ye tell me ’oo ye are,” came the surly reply, “and maybe not even then.”

Danielle blinked, dumbfounded, then the words came spilling out of her. “My name is Danielle Dulac. I was a passenger on the mail coach from York to St. Bodmin. We went into a ditch about two miles down the road. We walked here—the coachman and I—the guard is injured. We’re cold and tired and we desperately need food and shelter…”

Her voice trailed off, but there was no reply.

“Hello?” Danielle bit her lip. “Are you still there? Hello?” She put her ear to the door, straining to hear. Oh, God, had the woman left?

“Hello!” She banged frantically on the door with both fists. “Please don’t leave us out here. We’ll freeze to death!”

“Oh, all right,” came the grudging response. “Ye can stay in t’ stable.”

“What?” Danielle stared at the door as if it had suddenly done something doors don’t normally do. Surely, she’d misunderstood. Surely, the woman hadn’t just said—

“Ye can sleep in one o’ t’ empty stalls. Take it or leave it.”

“We’ll take it!” Danielle cried quickly before the woman could change her mind. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Without waiting for a response, she whirled around and plunged back out into the storm to find the coachman and the horses. Together they stumbled up the rest of the driveway, through a massive brick entryway, and onto the snow-covered cobblestones of the stable yard.

To Danielle’s utter relief, there was a faint spill of light from a small window at the near end of the long, two-story building that loomed on their right. Still leading the horses, she and Mr. Wilson headed for that tiny scrap of comfort as if it were a lighthouse beacon guiding them safely to port.

Banging on the rough door, Danielle could tell that her knuckles were bruised inside her leather gloves, but at this point she was beyond caring. “Hello!” they shouted. “Hello!”

Suddenly the door jerked open and Danielle literally fell into a dingy, cluttered, stale-smelling room. She caught a brief glimpse of a startled male face before stumbling over the threshold and bursting into tears of relief.

A cozy fire burned in the fireplace at one end of the room and she scrabbled across the floor toward it, like a small wild animal, heedless of everything save the all-consuming need to get warm. She was shivering, her teeth chattering so hard she feared they would crack. Her fingers and toes were numb and her face was so burned by the wind and driving snow, it felt like it was on fire. As she sat in a heap before the fire, unable to stop sobbing out her relief, she was vaguely aware of the low murmur of male voices behind her, and after a moment the man who had opened the door strode toward her. A rough hand came into Danielle’s field of vision; thick fingers closing around a wrought-iron poker. The man stirred up the embers and added more peat to the grate to increase the heat the fire gave off.

The man stank of manure and ale and sour sweat and Danielle had to turn her head to keep from gagging.

“Miss, be ye all right?” The man’s voice was rough and guttural in her ear.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, thank you.” Danielle drew a deep, steadying breath, wiping her tears on the back of her glove. “I’m sorry to come bursting in here like this, but—”

“No need to ’pologize.”

“That—that—woman wouldn’t let us in the house!” she exclaimed, as rigid with indignation as her shivering body would allow her to get. She turned her head and looked up as the man straightened, still holding the poker loosely by his side.

He was a short, barrel-chested man with a thatch of unruly hair the color and texture of straw. His features were coarse and altogether unpleasant, pale blue eyes, thick lips and a nose which, judging by its complete lack of symmetry, had been broken many times. Probably in taproom brawls, was Danielle’s uncharitable thought.

A scar slashed upward from his left eyebrow, causing the lid to droop, half-covering his eye on that side. His teeth, those few he had left, were stained and decayed and seemed to sprout at random from his gums, with no regard for order or direction.

“Aye, that be Mrs. Penworthy,” the man nodded, a hideous grin on his face. “You be lucky, Miss, ’at she didn’t put you in t’ cellars or turn you away completely.”

“She nearly did,” Danielle’s indignant reply was testament to her opinion of the woman’s lack of hospitality. “I have never been so ill-treated in all my life. Your master shall hear of this, I assure you,” she finished with more bravado than she was feeling.

“Master be away,” the man said matter-of-factly.

“Then I shall tell him when he returns. In the meantime, if you would be so good as to show me where I might get some sleep.”

“Just wait ’ere a bit,” he said in that rough voice she found so unpleasant. “First, we must bed t’ ’orses down for t’ night.” He bent over her, the sour stench that emanated from him filling her nostrils and making her want to vomit. “Then, when I come back,” he whispered in her ear, “we’ll see about beddin’ you down for t’ night.”

He grabbed her hand and jerked her to her feet so swiftly that she overbalanced and fell against his thick, solid chest.

Mortified, she pushed against him, but he held her easily with one arm around her waist, while his other hand slid upward to paw roughly at her breasts.

“Let go of me, you filthy oaf!” she demanded in a low, shaky voice. Using all her strength, she shuddered and wrenched away from him. “You have no right to touch me!”

His mouth just split into a grin of pure lust. “You’d best be nice to me, Missy,” he warned, his voice filled with menace. “Or you might still wind up out in t’ cold. We wouldn’t want that, now, would we?”

The groom chuckled, a low, unpleasant sound and left the room, motioning for the coachman, who was hovering in the doorway, to follow him.

Nearly fainting with horror, Danielle sank down onto a rough chair. Then, suddenly she jumped back up again, and ran after the two men. She didn’t know why she did it. She only knew that she was suddenly extremely reluctant to let Mr. Wilson out of her sight.

The groom’s strength was prodigious. With that broad chest and those thickly muscled arms and shoulders, he could easily disable—or even kill—the unsuspecting coachman. Then he would be free to come back and molest her at his leisure.

She stumbled out into the low-ceilinged stable. In the late-afternoon gloom, she could just barely make out the two men moving around about halfway down the length of the long room. Having just brought the horses in out of the storm, they were struggling to slide the double doors shut. Arctic air blasted through the opening.

“Con! Martin!” the groom shouted, picking up the poker he’d leaned casually against the wall. “We got trouble! Get your arses down ’ere!”

Danielle cast her eyes about, looking for something—anything—that she could use to defend herself with. One wall was lined with stalls. The other was hung with plows, harrows, all manner of heavy farm implements and equipment, but nothing she could lift. No hoes, no axes—wait! There it was, over in a corner, thrust carelessly into a pile of hay. A pitchfork!

She ran over to it and pulled it out of the straw, hefting it experimentally for the most effective way of holding it. Then, with a little smile of satisfaction, she started off across the straw-strewn cobbled floor.

Two young men came clattering down a ladder from a loft at the far end of the barn, each one holding a lantern. One had carrot-red hair, freckles, and ears like jug handles. He flashed Danielle a mischievous smile and for some strange reason she found herself thinking suddenly of frogs, slingshots, mumbledy-peg and hanging upside down by the knees from tree limbs.

The other young man, the older of the two, was dark and good-looking and when he saw Danielle standing there, he swept off his flat cap in a gesture of respect. “Evenin’, Miss,” he said in a polite voice.

“Good evening,” she replied pleasantly.

The groom whirled in surprise at the sound of her voice, and the look of sullen, narrow-eyed anger on his face when he saw the pitchfork in her hands told Danielle that she had been right in her suspicions. This was a move he clearly had not anticipated and he seemed at a loss as to what to do about it.

Danielle had the upper hand and she intended to keep it.

“Oh, Miss, thee shouldn’t be out ’ere in t’ cold.” Despite his concern, Mr. Wilson seemed oblivious to the by-play going on around him. “The four o’ us can ’andle this just fine.”

“I’m staying,” Danielle said, her lips thinning. She thought briefly, longingly of the fire in the next room, and then dismissed it from her mind. She would simply have to get warm some other way. “I might be able to assist with Mr. Simmons.”

The groom took a menacing step toward her and she raised the pitchfork slightly. He fell back and Danielle felt a brief flare of triumph. Her assessment of his character had been correct—he was a coward. All bullies were cowards at heart.

“What’s the trouble you mentioned, Jamie?” the dark-haired newcomer asked.

“Broken leg,” Jamie indicated Mr. Simmons who was still lying on the broad back of the snow-blasted draft horse. “See to it.”

While Mr. Wilson and Jamie began brushing the crusted snow off one of the cold, wet animals, the two younger men lifted the injured guard down. The man groaned and stirred as they carried him into an empty stall and laid him gently on a pile of fresh hay. Mr. Wilson deposited the mail sack on the straw beside him.

“Con, run and fetch some blankets from the tack room,” the dark-haired Martin ordered, kneeling beside the injured man and touching his leg with gentle fingers.

The red-head took off at a run, the light from his lantern revealing stalls that were occupied by a variety of horses.

“And bring me them boards I used on Sophie’s leg!” Martin shouted after him. “And some cloth strips!”

As Con disappeared into the gloom, Martin placed the lantern on the stone floor. With sure fingers, he probed Mr. Simmons’s wounded leg, eliciting groans and sharp, hissing intakes of breath in response. “This boot must come off,” he murmured in sympathy. “I fear ’t will hurt.”

“Can I do anything to help?” Danielle asked, stepping forward.

“No, thank you, Miss,” Martin looked up at her. “You should go back to the fire and stay there until you get warm.”

“I’m fine, thank you. I’m perfectly warm.”

“Oh, aye, I can see that,” Martin said with a wry quirk of his lips. “I always shiver uncontrollably when I’m warm, too.”

“I’m staying,” she said firmly.

Martin bit his lip, darting a glance at Jamie, then back to her.

She held her breath and gave a faint nod.

“I sleep very lightly,” was all he said before lowering his gaze to Mr. Simmons’s broken leg.

Relief sent her breath shuddering from her lungs.

Con came running back with the requested supplies, and the two stable hands covered the injured man with three blankets before handing two more to Danielle. Then Martin swiftly, gently and expertly pulled off Mr. Simmons’s high, polished leather boot, making the poor man scream in pain. The stable lad dug a knife out of his pocket and slit up the right leg of the guard’s black breeches. Quickly immobilizing the broken lower limb between the two narrow boards, he had Con hold them in place while he immobilized them with strips of linen cloth.

“Reckon that’ll have to do until we can get you to t’ doctor,” Martin said finally, leaning back on his haunches and thumbing back his cap. “’Ow d’you feel?”

Simmons’s attempt at a smile was a miserable failure. “How do I look?”

“That bad, eh?” Martin commiserated. He spread the three blankets over the injured man and rose to his feet. “I fear it will feel a lot worse by morning.” Turning to Danielle, he touched his cap deferentially. “There’s fresh hay in the next stall, Miss. If you turn it, I’m sure you’ll be quite comfortable in there. Good-night,” He walked past her to help Con, Jamie and Mr. Wilson stable the coach horses and give them some fresh oats to munch. Then Con and Martin disappeared back up the ladder. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to Danielle to ask one of them to leave his lantern until they had gone, taking their lights with them.

“Well, I reckon we’re through, then,” the coachman sighed wearily. “I’m going to turn in. Thee run along now, Miss. Jamie ’ere’ll show thee where thou’lt sleep.”

“I’m sleeping right here,” Danielle said in a voice that brooked no argument. “In this stall” —indicating with a thrust of her chin— “right next door to Mr. Simmons. Just as soon as Jamie turns the hay in there.”

She realized her mistake as soon as she saw Jamie’s sly grin. His sausage-like fingers flexed on the handle of the fireplace poker. “Well, then, Miss, I’ll need t’ pitchfork, now, won’t I?” he said, an evil glint in his eye.

“Never mind. I’ll do it.” Danielle wasn’t relinquishing her hold on the pitchfork for anything. “You may retire, Jamie. Thank you for your assistance. I’ve no wish to trouble you any further.”

She stood staring at him with as much hauteur as she could muster. It was dismissal, plain and simple. At first it appeared as if Jamie were going to object. He gripped the poker so tightly, his knuckles were white. But he just gave her a sullen look, muttering something beneath his breath, and then reached up to unhook the lantern from the beam joist. Now that night had fallen outside, it was the only light in the room.

“Leave the lantern,” Danielle ordered quickly in a voice made haughty to hide her sudden panic at the thought of being left alone out here in the dark. “You know your way well enough to get back to your quarters without it.”

The burly man glared at her, placing the lantern on the floor between them.

She could feel his thwarted anger and had no illusions as to his treatment of her if she should happen to lose the upper hand. She followed him with her eyes as he stalked away up half the length of the barn, finally disappearing through the door at the end. Its loud squeak as he closed it was reassuring. At least he wouldn’t be able to sneak up on her during the night.

Only after he was gone did Danielle realize she was shivering, and this time not from the cold.

“Really, Miss, ’e’s been very ’elpful,” came Mr. Wilson’s reproachful voice from behind her. “There was no call to be so unfriendly.”

Danielle didn’t even look at him. She just shook her head. “Mr. Wilson, that man had every intention of forcing himself upon me tonight.”

“What?”

“And to do that in comparative safety and leisure, he would first have had to do something about you.” Slowly she turned and slid her gaze up to his. “Did it not occur to you to wonder why he was carrying a fireplace poker?” She gestured with one hand. “Do you see any fireplaces out here?”

As she watched, his grizzled face grew pale as the full meaning of her words sank in.

“And now, if you will excuse me, Mr. Wilson, I am very tired. I hope you have a restful sleep. Good night.”

“G-good night, then, Miss. I—I’ll be right down ’ere a ways if thou need me for anything.”

“Thank you, Mister Wilson.” She gave him a weary smile and held out her hand. “It comforts me to know that you’re near.”

He took her hand awkwardly, giving it a fatherly pat and said, “Well good night then, Miss. Sleep well.”

She watched him as he entered the one adjacent to the injured guard, who was already snoring loudly.

Lifting the lantern from the floor, Danielle went into the nearest stall and looked it over. It seemed clean enough. The straw was pale yellow and smelled fresh. Hanging the lantern on a nail, she lowered the wick. She removed her bonnet, securing the pins in the brim, and hung it on another nail. Removing her cloak, she went back out into the barn and shook the last of the crusted, melting snow off it before draping it over the stall door. Hopefully it would dry out at least a little before morning.

Her stomach rumbled and she longed for something to eat.

No use thinking about what you can’t have. Her mother again. But she was too cold and miserable to glean any comfort from thoughts of her mother.

Wrapping the two coarse, scratchy blankets around her, she sank gratefully into a pile of sweet-smelling straw. As exhausted as she was, her rumbling stomach could not be ignored. Famished, she suddenly remembered the cinnamon buns in her reticule. Silently thanking the vicar for his insistence that she take them, she ate them both, licking her fingers when she was done. Then, curling up inside the blankets, she lay down in the scratchy straw. She was asleep almost immediately.

Master of Blackmoor by Julie Shelton
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