Romance? Check. Mystery? Check. Utter historical hilarity? Check and check.
Dangerous Alliance by Jennieke Cohen is coming and we can’t wait for you to meet our girl Vicky (or Lady Victoria Aston, if you’re speaking to her Highly Proper™ mother.) Vicky is a book nerd after our own heart, completely obsessed with Jane Austen, and often finds herself wondering what her literary heroes would do in any given situation (and honestly, don’t we all?)
Dangerous Alliance opens with pure drama: Vicky is attacked by a stranger, is saved by her childhood-friend-who-betrayed-her-and-just-reappeared-after-five-years, and finds out a devastating secret about her sister’s marriage. Then? Vicky soon learns that she herself must marry… but what can she do about the mysterious accidents cropping up around her? Ones that could keep her from even making it to her wedding day?
CHAPTER THE FIRST
The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
—Jane Austen, Emma
Oakbridge Estate, Hampshire, England
The lichen-kissed stone dropped onto the rock pile with a hollow clack. Lady Victoria Aston rested her aching hands on the rough stone. She wiped her muddy palms down the front of her thighs, smearing muck onto her father’s old tan breeches. When attempting to save the lives of a particularly bothersome flock of sheep, one had to make sacrifices.
With two more sizable stones, she would close the gap in the wall. Then she could scour Oakbridge’s 6,562 acres for the estate shepherd. Vicky narrowed her eyes at a shaggy old ewe: one of many she’d found out-of-bounds in the neighboring pasture. They’d jumped over the crumbling gap and gobbled a patch of indigestible clover. Soon, their bellies would bloat, and without the shepherd’s aid, they would certainly perish.
Inhaling the clean morning air, redolent with the perfume of freshly drying grass, Vicky bent for another rock. This would never have happened to Emma Woodhouse. Or rather, Emma Woodhouse would never have let it happen to her.
Having just finished reading Emma for the third time since its publication, Vicky had lately found herself comparing her own country existence to the heroine of said novel. Not that Emma was her favorite heroine from the four novels written by the author known only to the public as “a lady” (but whom most of the local Hampshire society knew to be one Miss Jane Austen). No, Vicky reserved that honor for Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.
A clear picture of Elizabeth Bennet muddying her gown to fix a stone wall darted into Vicky’s mind—after all, Elizabeth had walked miles unaccompanied to see her sister, Jane, when she was ill and staying at Netherfield. Vicky’s lips curved into a smile at the idea that her favorite heroine would approve of her behavior.
As Vicky straightened, movement far in the distance caught her eye. She squinted. Amid the emerald-green fields on the other side of the wall, a rider in a russet coat and dark hat cantered adjacent to a short hedgerow. She couldn’t see his face, but his bearing looked familiar. She blinked.
Surely, it wasn’t the one person she had no wish to see on such a morning. Fate wouldn’t be so cruel.
She glanced down at her father’s muddy breeches. They didn’t exactly outline her legs, but they weren’t particularly loose either. They hugged her hips just tightly enough to allow her to tuck a muslin shirt into them and actually stay up without other assistance. She’d buttoned the top half of her olive-green riding habit almost up to her neck for a semblance of decency, but by any stranger’s standard, she was courting scandal.
She peered at the rider again. His attire proclaimed him a gentleman, and although she still couldn’t make out his features, he rode a peculiar chestnut of medium height that looked something like a working horse. She had never seen the breed before.
Well, if he—whoever he was—felt scandalized by her appearance, that was his affair. Breeches afforded more comfort on her post-dawn inspections across the estate and allowed her to ride astride. That meant she could be more efficient helping her father, especially when something went wrong, like today. Their management strategies shouldered the livelihoods of more than a hundred individuals; if her father or his steward couldn’t allocate funds or attention to one small piece of the puzzle making up the estate, someone less fortunate would suffer. Vicky helped wherever and whenever she could.
She hauled the stone up and set it on the pile with an involuntary squeak before glancing back at the rider.
He had jumped the hedgerow. Now he rode toward her, picking up speed. What was he—
Vicky’s stomach tensed as his face came into focus. It was just as she’d feared: the rider was Tom Sherborne. Blast! She looked at her breeches again and winced.
Still some fifty feet away, Tom raised his hand and something fluttered in her chest. But he wasn’t greeting her as she’d thought. With his whole arm, he pointed at something behind her.
She frowned. As she turned, something hard collided with the side of her head. White-hot pain burst through her skull. Her vision pitched sideways and her neck whipped to the right. As her knees smacked into the soggy turf, everything went black.
A rhythmic thudding invaded Vicky’s head. Was it her heart? The rumble grew louder with each thump. She inhaled, and the smell of wet grass, mud, and sheep droppings flooded her nostrils. She groaned and forced her eyes open.
Her head sat askew on the ground, though it seemed she’d fallen face-first. A tender spot on the side of her head made her wince. She traced it with careful fingers, but that only intensified the pounding in her ears.
What had struck her? Through the blades of grass, a blurred movement caught her eye. Each motion was an agony, but Vicky pushed herself off the soggy ground with both hands until she sat upright. Blinking to clear her vision, she concentrated on the moving shape coming toward her.
Her cheeks blanched. The horse and rider she’d seen earlier— correction, Tom Sherborne and his horse—effortlessly jumped the stone wall. Her stomach dropped.
She’d never seen Tom riding at such an early hour—not a single time since he’d returned to England. Although his own estate bordered Oakbridge, she’d only glimpsed him twice in the last year: once in the village from opposite ends of the high street where he’d promptly disappeared into a tavern, and once at the village fair where he’d bought a gingerbread square and promptly ridden away.
Anyone else might have considered these circumstances coincidental, but Vicky knew better. She knew Tom Sherborne was avoiding her. Unjustly in point of fact, and he had been doing so for the last five years. Yet there he sat, reining in his odd-looking chestnut a mere two and a half feet away.
“Are you all right?” he bellowed from the saddle.
Her head whirled as she stared up at the face she’d known so well as a child. His hair fell in the same mahogany-brown waves around his forehead and ears, contrasting slightly with his light brown eyes. He was clean-shaven just as he’d been at fourteen, but his jaw and cheeks now had the angular sharpness of a man. His nose and forehead could have been copied from a marble bust of some Roman emperor.
Her pulse thrummed in her ears, so she pulled in a breath. “Er . . .”
His lips compressed into a frown, and his dark brows knit together.
How she’d missed that serious countenance. Yet that boy she’d known had thrown away their friendship and never given her a reason.
“My head,” she muttered. She touched the lump materializing on her skull. “What happened?” She swallowed several times and wished for a glass of water.
“A man attacked you. I tried to warn you.”
“What do you mean, ‘attacked’? Who would possibly attack me?” She touched her head again.
Tom caught her eye for a brief moment before looking off into the distance behind her. “Whoever he was, he had a horse tethered at the edge of the trees.”
Vicky shook her head. “But why—I don’t understand—”
“I can still catch him,” Tom interrupted. “Are you well enough to stay here?”
She inhaled and tilted her head gingerly. The pain had dulled a bit. “I think so.” She looked up at him. “What do you mean stay—”
“Stay here,” he repeated, kicking his boots into his horse’s flanks. Clods of grass and mud flew into the air as they raced away.
“Wait!” But his horse had already carried him out of earshot.
Vicky clenched her jaw as she watched horse and rider disappear into a nearby copse of trees. How dare Tom hurry off and leave her sitting in a field? Especially if someone had attacked her! Well, if he thought she’d allow him to fight her battles for her, he was very much mistaken. She bent her knees and pushed herself off the ground. Stars reeled before her eyes. She swallowed an unladylike curse as she drew in a deep breath. Then she glanced in the direction Tom had disappeared.
If Tom had ridden that way, her attacker must have fled toward the road to London. If that were his goal, then the fastest way to head him off would be to ride across the field around the trees and intercept him. Tom should know as well as she did that he would never overtake the man by following him through the dense forest.
But she still could. Moreover, she was not about to sit here like an invalid just because her head hurt. Who did Tom think he was, trying to act the hero now? He’d been the one playing the coward these last five years.
Vicky stumbled to the tree where she’d tied her horse, Jilly. She unwound the reins, led her to an undamaged stretch of wall, and used it to jump into the saddle. A wave of dizziness washed through her head down into her stomach. She stilled and breathed, fully aware she was losing time.
Just get moving. Vicky gritted her teeth, pulled the reins to the right, kicked Jilly’s flanks, and urged her to gallop across the field toward the attacker.
Jilly’s ears pricked up, almost as though she sensed the urgency of the situation. They crossed the field in record time. The wind whipped Vicky’s loose hair back as she steered Jilly around the edge of the trees. Her heart hammered in her chest. Would she catch the villain before he reached the road to London?
Vicky scanned ahead, her gaze narrowing in on the country lane that fed into the London post road. She glanced to the left, where Tom and the attacker should emerge. She couldn’t see them yet, but they would soon arrive.
The thundering of hooves reached her ears.
With a satisfied breath, Vicky urged Jilly forward until they reached the edge of the road. But what could she do now that she had positioned herself in front of the chase? She looked around for something to give her an advantage. Just a smattering of broken twigs and dead leaves lay scattered on the road; she couldn’t see one fallen branch or throwable rock—nothing she could use to slow the assailant.
Several yards farther down, trees lined her side of the road. Opposite those trees, a tall, overgrown hedgerow began. If she could maneuver Jilly to stand across the road in that narrow space, the man would have to stop. She guided her horse to the spot and made her stand so her head was near the hedgerow. The gap wasn’t as narrow as it had looked. Just enough space for the man to maneuver around them remained, although there certainly wasn’t enough width for a horse galloping at full speed.
Pummeling horse hooves resounded up through the earth as a man with a handkerchief tied around his nose and mouth charged down the road toward her, his black greatcoat flapping in the wind like the cape of a demonic villain straight from the pages of one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s preposterous romances. Vicky’s stomach quavered. It was too late to question her plan. Tom and his stocky horse followed close at the man’s back.
Vicky swallowed hard. The man wasn’t slowing.
She tightened her grip on the reins, causing Jilly to totter beneath her. She pressed her knees into Jilly’s flanks, trying to steady her, but Jilly only jittered more. The horse sensed her fear.
Vicky closed her eyes and breathed. “Stand, Jilly. Stand and stay.” Beneath her, the horse stilled. Vicky’s eyes flew open in triumph, but as she looked to the side, the man still barreled down the road.
Only a few yards separated them now; they were so close she could see white foam outlining the horse’s mouth. The man’s eyes narrowed. He was not going to stop.
“Move,” Tom shouted. “Move!”
In that moment, time slowed to a crawl. She wanted to listen, but she could no longer feel her legs. All she felt was her pounding heart and the leather of the reins cutting into her palms. The man would hit her!
Vicky closed her eyes, waiting for the impact. Then Jilly reared up on her hind legs, and the back of her head slammed into Vicky’s face. Sparks clouded her vision as the weightlessness disappeared and a wave of dizziness took its place. A rush of air blew past her as the assailant and his horse careened in front of them. Then she was falling, falling until she landed with a bone-jarring thud onto a muddy patch of ground.
Vicky blinked. Once. Twice.
She vaguely knew Jilly hadn’t yet trampled her, and through the pain and nausea, she forced herself to look to ensure she was in no more danger.
To her left, Tom pulled back hard on his reins to keep from colliding with Jilly. For a terrifying moment, Vicky thought he wouldn’t be able to stop his horse. The muscles in the horse’s legs bulged and its shoulders strained until it skidded to a halt merely feet away.
Vicky slumped back onto the ground in relief, not remembering the road’s damp condition until her hair squished in the mud. Ugh.
Of the countless embarrassing moments in all her seventeen years, this one secured the prize for most ghastly.
Tom’s mount pawed the ground with its front hooves. The horse’s hind legs clenched in anticipation, intent on continuing the chase. Evidently considering it, Tom pulled the reins sideways to make his horse go around her.
Hope surged through her. Falling off her horse in such a useless fashion had dealt her dignity a serious blow, but if he continued on, at least she’d be spared the humiliation of conversing with him while caked in mud. To encourage him to leave, she pushed herself to sit upright, but an involuntary hiss of pain escaped her.
Tom cursed and jumped to the ground. “I cannot believe your recklessness! Are you incapable of doing as you’re told?”
Anger bloomed in her cheeks as she gaped up at him. He hadn’t said one word to her in five years, and now he was berating her?
She squelched back the urge to lie down and cry. This wasn’t supposed to happen. During the last fourteen months since Tom had returned to England and settled in at Halworth Hall, Vicky had prepared herself for their first meeting. She’d known it would happen eventually, with him living only miles away, and the prospect of speaking with him again had actually kept her in alternating states of excitement and nervous anticipation for weeks. Yet despite her nerves she had wisely planned for their meeting. As her sister, Althea, often said: planning was the mark of an evolved individual.
So Vicky had intended to be perfectly composed when she met Tom again—absolutely radiant in her favorite pale pink, satin ball gown—and graciously allow him to take her hand as he bowed in greeting. He would see she was no longer the improper little girl he’d deemed unworthy to be his friend.
She bit her lip until it throbbed. At the moment, she certainly wasn’t doing a brilliant job of showing him how grown-up she was. The backs of her eyes started to prickle. No. She absolutely would not cry.
She lifted her chin and tried to look regal despite her pathetic, muddied position. “I do not take orders, Lord Halworth. Despite what you may recall, I am not a child.”
“And I suppose many ladies lie down in puddles and dart about the countryside after they’ve been attacked by a madman.”
She looked around her as though she’d only now realized where she sat. “Oh! Well, I may spend every pleasant spring day in mud puddles from now on! Doing so might be good for one’s constitution, I daresay.”
He blinked in surprise or annoyance, she couldn’t decide which. Then his frown deepened. “How can you be so indifferent? You were knocked unconscious, fell off your bloody horse, were nearly trampled by mine—”
“There’s no need to rehash it.” She straightened to her full height, or as full as she could manage while seated. “My memory was not damaged in the fall.”
He scowled. Then he looked away and looped his horse’s reins through a branch in the hedgerow.
She sighed. He was right, after all. She’d been foolish. “I thought I could head the ruffian off. Which I succeeded in, by the way! I didn’t bargain on him refusing to stop.”
“How likely was it he’d stop to avoid harming you when that was clearly his original purpose?”
She exhaled. Blast him for his indisputable logic! She’d acted rashly and now fate was punishing her with this humiliating confrontation. If experience had taught her anything, it was that an apology went a long way. Nevertheless, her eyes narrowed when her mind tried to formulate the words.
“I am just as capable a rider as you are. As I recall, I bested you many times in the past and—”
“You. Fell. Off,” he interrupted, “not I.”
She wrinkled her nose but held his gaze. He was so insufferably . . . correct. Yet she absolutely refused to be cowed by his reasoning. If he thought she was about to apologize for something so inconsequential as this when he hadn’t apologized for the past, he was sorely mistaken. She raised her chin even higher.
“I should go. I must tell my father about the brute who assaulted me. Not to mention tell our shepherd the sheep have gotten into the clover in your field and inform the steward about the wall.” She slowly put one foot on the ground to stand up. “So, if you and my friend the puddle will excuse me . . .”
He seized her arms and leaned back until she stood. But when she was steady, he didn’t release her. She couldn’t bring herself to look into his eyes again, but as she stood there, the heat of his hands seeped through the leather of his riding gloves into her forearms. Warmth spread across her neck despite the chill leaching into her legs and shoulders from the mud. She stared into his white cravat, which was nothing more than the simplest knot, and realized he stood half a head taller than she remembered.
He pulled at her left arm, and her body pivoted to the side. The scent of toast, newspaper ink, and something else—cinnamon?—wafted toward her as he stepped closer. She craned her neck up in confusion and realized he’d turned her to inspect her from behind. His eyes traveled down her mud-caked, respectably clad back to her mud-coated breeches now adhering to her thighs. Blood rushed to her cheeks.
“What are you—”
“You need a physician. Where do you hurt the most?” he asked, turning her forward to catch her attention.
She cleared her throat. He’d been inspecting her for injuries. What else would he be doing, you ninny?
His brows were pinched in the middle, his brown eyes serious. She could almost swear he looked concerned. For her.
Then his gaze shot away, and she remembered he’d been the one to toss her aside as though nearly thirteen years of friendship had meant nothing.
She tugged her arms away from him, but his grip did not loosen. “I am quite well. You needn’t trouble yourself.”
His eyes bored into hers. “If you think I’ll let you gallop all over creation alone after you . . .” He looked away and released her. Her arms fell to her sides. “After you made me lose that criminal, then you are mistaken.”
She felt her ears burning now. He may be right about her getting in his way, but it wasn’t very gentlemanly of him to keep reiterating it. “You wouldn’t have caught him anyway. He was lengths ahead.”
He glared at her again, his eyes hard. “I was close enough to almost run you over. I would have caught him, Victoria.” His cold stare made her want to squirm.
“We could debate this matter for the rest of the day, to be sure. If you wish to inform the magistrate of this incident, please do so. I shall tell my father, but I must go now and attend to my responsibilities. Kindly step aside,” she stated with a scowl she knew barely rivaled his for intensity.
Tom’s jaw hardened. “Whether you care for my company or not, I will accompany you home.”
She bit her lip. “That is . . . kind of you.”
“As a gentleman I can do no less.”
She bristled and turned away with an irritated huff. Of course. No real gentleman would leave an injured lady on a muddied stretch of road without ensuring her safety. But the way he’d phrased it implied she was no more than some stranger he’d encountered whom he felt duty-bound to assist.
In some ways, she supposed she was.
Ever since Tom had stopped responding to her letters in what would otherwise have been a lovely summer in the year ’12, Vicky had wondered what she could have done to drive him away. She’d moped around the house for weeks and neither her parents nor her sister had been able to cheer her. Then Tom’s father had banished him to the Continent. Vicky had no way to contact him, no way to fix things.
She’d gone about her life at Oakbridge and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to forget him. But when his father died last year and Tom returned home as the new Earl of Halworth, he’d taken every possible measure to avoid her—no small feat since their estates shared a mile-long border.
Fine. It was all perfectly agreeable to her. He’d cut her off, after all. If he didn’t care for her company, then so be it.
She pressed her lips together. Who needed him anyway?
She moved toward Jilly and took her reins in hand. As she searched for a stump or rock to use as a mounting block, Tom walked behind her and offered his hands as a step. She sighed. She couldn’t see another way to mount the horse. With a reluctant murmur of thanks, she jumped into the saddle, wincing at the pain in her backside.
Too mortified to do anything but look at the reins in her hands, she slumped in relief as he turned away.
She could pout at the unfairness of it all. She’d missed him so much during those years he’d been away; she’d missed their talks, their ill-advised adventures, and even their arguments. And now he was here, escorting her home—indeed, offering to help her—and all she wanted was for him to leave her alone.
She tried to imagine what her sister, who always knew just how to behave, would do in such a situation as this. Then she realized Althea would never find herself in such a situation. Vicky bit her lip, wondering what Elizabeth Bennet might do. But not one incident in Pride and Prejudice coincided to any degree with being knocked over the head by a masked man in a black greatcoat.
Vicky forced her spine straight. Surely any lady of society would be cordial and gracious if she found herself being escorted home by a gentleman who had tried to capture such a ruffian. So despite looking very little like a lady at the moment, and despite their past history, Vicky would act the same as any other lady. She absolutely would not broach the subject of him apologizing for forsaking her all those years ago. No, indeed. No matter how much she wanted to. No mature, evolved lady would do that.
Vicky raised her chin. In fact, she’d sooner ride her father’s ox backward through the village on market day.
Peeking at Tom through her lashes, she noted the firm set of his jaw as he strode to his horse.
Her lips thinned to a tight line. She’d gotten along without him for years and would doubtless continue to do so for years to come. Which was just as well; she suspected she’d be hopping onto that ox long before Tom apologized for anything.
Tom inhaled slowly as he walked to his horse, attempting to calm the thundering in his chest. He cursed under his breath and jumped astride Horatio.
The image of that masked man bludgeoning Vicky with a tree branch replayed in his mind, doing little to slow his pulse. The villain would have done it a second time if Tom hadn’t yelled across the field and kicked his horse into action. The second blow surely would have done permanent harm.
No matter his intentions, the stranger had felt no compunction hurting Vicky to achieve them; a fact he’d doubly proven when he’d ridden straight toward her and not toward the gap between her horse and the trees. What the devil could it mean?
Tom ran his hand through his hair. He nudged Horatio forward and looked back. Vicky and her horse moved up beside him. Her hazel eyes focused straight ahead, refusing to meet his gaze. He
assessed her horse. It walked along without any ill effects. Well . . . at least none that were visible. Unlike Vicky. She was almost certainly concussed after the blow to the head and the fall from her horse. By tomorrow she would likely be bruised all over.
He huffed out a breath and faced forward. He’d been a bloody idiot to imagine she’d stay where he’d told her. Maybe some part of him thought she would have grown up in the last five years—that she’d be able to listen to reason—but it seemed she’d changed little.
He glanced at her again. The cupid’s bow of her lips was pursed, accentuating the chin that formed the point of her heart-shaped face. His eyes traveled to her chestnut-and-copper-brown hair. The waves that had escaped her pins fell to the middle of her back, but the majority of them were caked in mud, punctuated by the occasional leaf. Her clothes had fared no better. She’d often worn boys’ clothing as a child when they went fishing or tree climbing, so he wouldn’t have given her attire a second thought if not for the fact that in his absence she had gained curves in certain . . . areas. And the spencer and breeches, currently earthen brown from all that mud, hugged those areas in such a way that any fellow in possession of his faculties could not ignore.
He forced his gaze away from her legs and back up to her face. Despite her efforts to remain expressionless, she couldn’t hide the occasional crinkling around her lips and at the bridge of her nose. Her attempt to mask her aches and pains didn’t really surprise him. She was as headstrong as ever.
Those first years of his exile, thoughts of Vicky, his mother, and his brother had caused him nothing but pain. So he’d learned to lock all those memories away and had rarely given himself the liberty of using the key. He’d long since stopped imagining what Vicky had been doing back home. Her carefree smile and fits of giggles had been the final pieces he’d banished to oblivion.
Without warning, she raised her head and caught him staring. He looked away.
“You needn’t gawk. I feel ridiculous enough as it is.” She sounded angry, but her words said otherwise.
“I was contemplating why that man wished to harm you.” Not an utter lie.
She frowned. Whether it was because she regretted her comment or because she wondered the same, he could not tell. “He must have been some sort of thief,” she pronounced.
“Why was he out on the edge of the estate where there’s nothing of value but sheep?”
“A sheep thief, then. Or maybe he was taking a circuitous route to the house?” Even she didn’t seem to believe that conclusion.
“He would have hit you again if I hadn’t alerted him to my presence.”
Her brows knit. “It makes no sense for this to have happened here—we’ve never had any crimes of violence in the area.” She shook her head as though it were too strange to contemplate.
How little she knew. Tom swallowed.
“Did you see where he came from?” she asked. “He wasn’t there when I arrived.”
“I saw you down in that valley. Then I looked away, and when I looked back, that man stood a few feet from you with a branch. He must have been hiding on my side of the wall, but I didn’t see him until that moment.”
“Perhaps he’d been where the wall curves.”
That would explain why Tom hadn’t seen him. Still, if the sight of her hadn’t surprised him, he might have noticed the fellow—in what should have been a conspicuous black greatcoat—crouching behind the wall.
Tom had failed to protect her. Just as he’d almost failed on that appalling day five years ago.
He shook his head. To be fair, he was almost certain Vicky hadn’t understood all she’d witnessed then. Yet she’d suspected enough to
ask for answers Tom couldn’t give. So he’d driven her away. Then his
father had banished him from the house.
“For that matter, what were you doing out there?” she asked, turning her face his way.
“I have a perfect right to inspect my land.”
She made a frustrated noise. “I meant, what were you doing out so early? In the whole year you’ve been home, not once have I so much as glimpsed you at such an hour.”
She was right. He generally avoided venturing too close to Oakbridge in the early morning. Whether he did so because his mother had mentioned Vicky’s habit of riding early, or because he
preferred to tackle other business at that hour, he could not say. Since his return, he’d attempted to repair his relationships with his mother and brother—to fix his fractured family—but he still found himself turning the other way when he saw Victoria.
In addition to depriving him of his home and his family, Tom’s father had cost him his closest friendship. Now the old man was gone, and Tom should be happy. He could regain what he’d lost. Tell Vicky the truth about the past. But as he looked out over the green fields and hills of the country they’d ridden roughshod over as children, he felt nothing.
He didn’t realize he’d been clenching his fists until the reins bit through his gloves into the flesh of his palms. Vicky murmured something, but he couldn’t make it out.
She’d ridden closer so only a foot stood between them. In his peripheral vision, he saw her peering at him with concern.
“What’s the matter?”
He shook his head and relaxed his grip on the reins. “Nothing at all.” Then he said the first evasion that came to mind. “I have matters at home to attend to.”
Her jaw tensed. “I told you you needn’t accompany me. Especially if you have such pressing matters desirous of your attention.”
He’d wounded her pride. “My affairs can wait. I said I would see you home and I shall. I must speak with your father.”
“There is no need to speak with Papa,” she said with a petulant shake of her head.
“We must both tell him what we saw so he may take appropriate precautions for your safety.”
She huffed as they reached the ancient oak bridge from which the estate derived its name.
They had ridden around the west side of the property through the fields, and now Tom saw the cream-colored stone manor for the first time in five years. Oakbridge House’s two-story Palladian facade of impeccably white Ionic columns and high-arched windows stood like a sentinel in the countryside. Sculpted gardens and an expanse of lawn framed the mansion on either side. Mature trees peered down at the house and gardens from atop a gentle hill. It all looked just as he remembered.
At least something did. His family home had not fared so well. Though in his opinion, Halworth Hall had never looked attractive when compared to Oakbridge. Sixty years ago, his grandfather had used his wife’s dowry to convert the house’s outdated Tudor architecture into an imposing and formidable gray monstrosity that was now in need of repairs.
Their horses’ shoes clacked on the wood of the bridge as they crossed. Tom glanced beyond the house and caught sight of the colossal oak tree still standing patiently up beyond the water garden. A small part of him itched to ride there now. To climb those sturdy branches with Vicky at his heels. But he was no longer a child. He steered Horatio toward the stables.
Vicky pulled her horse to a halt as a groom emerged. At least the fellow had the good grace not to make a face at Vicky’s disheveled appearance.
Tom dismounted and gave Horatio’s reins to the man. Without waiting for anyone’s assistance, Vicky hopped to the ground with a grunt.
Tom winced. “Your pride is one thing, Victoria, but when you give it more weight than your health, you do yourself no favors.” He reached her side and offered his arm for her to lean on.
She turned on her heel and marched toward the house. He watched her take two purposeful strides, which then transformed into a series of limps.
He ran his hand through his hair and let out a breath. He caught up to her and grasped her upper arm. “I beg your pardon.”
She half turned. “Do you mind—”
“Not at all.” He bent, put one arm under her legs, his other around her waist, and lifted her. She was remarkably light in his arms.
“Wh-what are you doing?” she sputtered.
“If you won’t have a care for your person, you leave me no choice but to carry you to the house.” He strode forward.
“I am perfectly capable of walking. Put me down this instant!”
He glanced down at her but continued on. Her hazel eyes met his with defiance as she raised her chin.
“Will you take more care?” he asked.
She looked away. “I’m under no obligation to answer to you.”
He frowned at the words, but he knew she was correct. He caught her gaze once more, inclined his head, and gingerly lowered her feet to the ground. Pieces of dried mud flaked off onto the sleeves of his coat. He exhaled. It was one of his few newer coats, but the damage was done. He had only himself to blame.
Vicky cast her head about, and Tom realized how scandalous this might appear to an onlooker. Victoria was a beautiful young lady in breeches. Whom he’d been cradling in his arms. An unscrupulous fellow wouldn’t have hesitated to use such a situation to his advantage. But he was a gentleman. And she was . . . well, Vicky.
Still, as she was injured, he had done no wrong.
Vicky started toward the path that led to the main door of the house without sparing Tom a glance. He followed a short length behind her. Despite her protestations, he did think she walked with slightly more attention than before.
She was limping again when they reached the massive iron door. It was nearly as tall as a man standing on another’s shoulders and just as thick. Tom remembered it well.
Vicky faced him with a glare. “You needn’t feel obligated to help me just because you happened to be there.”
Her eyes were hard, but something in the tremor of her voice blew a pin-sized hole through the cold fog surrounding him. The old Tom—the Tom he’d been before his exile—would have told her he would always come to her aid if she needed him. But the words stuck fast in his throat. Instead, he said, “Anyone would have done the same.”
She pivoted away and opened the door.
As he followed her into the marble-floored grand entryway, he knew he couldn’t fault her.
CHAPTER THE SECOND
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
As Vicky trudged through the front door of Oakbridge House in her mud-caked hair and clothes, clumps of dirt fell from her boots, besmirching the gleaming ivory marble entryway. Her whole head pounded and her left hip throbbed with every step she took. She winced as her mother turned the corner into the foyer.
Her mother always dressed impeccably, as befitted her status as the Countess of Oakbridge, and today, as usual, she had not a pin out of place. Her indigo-blue morning dress fell in perfectly straight lines down her perfectly svelte hips; her coffee-brown curls sat in an elegant coif on the crown of her head. Vicky grimaced as her mother’s green eyes narrowed on her disheveled state, flitted over to Tom, and settled back on Vicky with dissatisfaction.
She graced Tom with a quick and rather cold greeting before asking, “Will one of you please tell me why my daughter appears to have emerged from a pond?”
Vicky inhaled. She related the events of the morning, ending miserably with the information that Tom wanted to speak with her father about the incident.
Any traces of disapproval in her mother’s eyes disappeared as she embraced Vicky. “Oh, my poor, dear girl! How could this have happened? I must tell your father at once. How dreadful for this to occur on the same day . . .” Instead of finishing the thought, she held Vicky at arm’s length to inspect her from head to toe. Her light brown brows wove together.
Vicky frowned. “The same day as what, Mama?”
Her mother’s green eyes darted to Tom. “This is no small matter.”
Vicky bit her lip. Her mama was always so composed, always ready to handle any family crisis or household trifle. Perhaps she was just concerned, but her distraction seemed to point to some other emotion. Could it be fear? “Do not worry, Mama. The man must be halfway to London by now. A day of rest and I’ll be back to rights.”
Her mother didn’t smile. “Go and change, dear. I’ll ring for your maid to draw you a bath. Come to your father’s study as soon as you’re ready. We have much to discuss. I will take Tom there presently.”
Vicky couldn’t shake the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. Something her mother couldn’t speak of with Tom in attendance. The tiny hairs on the back of Vicky’s neck stood on end.
Her mother looked at Tom, and her face became impassive. “Just hurry, my dear.”
“Forgive me, Lady Oakbridge, but I’d hoped Victoria could tell the earl her version of events,” Tom interjected.
Her mother nodded. “She shall, of course, but all that can wait until she’s more comfortable.” She looked at Vicky and lifted her chin toward the stairs.
Vicky took the hint and moved away, but again Tom spoke.
“Surely it would be easier for the earl to act quickly with all information at his disposal. We must at least inform the magistrate of this outrage. There is a bandit at large, Lady Oakbridge—”
“And from what Victoria says, he will be miles away by now,” her mother interrupted, giving Tom a quelling look.
“Perhaps, but for Vicky’s safety, I believe—”
“If you imagine I would put anything above my daughter’s safety, Lord Halworth, you are very much mistaken. Now, if you wish to speak with Lord Oakbridge, I suggest you follow me and allow Lady Victoria her privacy.”
Vicky felt her ears burning. Why was her mother acting so rudely? Her emphasis on Tom’s lack of formality was surely unwarranted. Yes, Tom had embarrassed her and frustrated her and acted
infuriatingly high-handed, but they’d known each other their whole lives. And he had tried to help today.
Tom frowned. He glanced her way, but Vicky couldn’t meet his gaze. “As you wish, Lady Oakbridge,” he said to her mother. He bowed in Vicky’s direction. “Good day, Lady Victoria.”
Vicky curtsied, which felt silly when wearing breeches, and forced herself to look into his eyes. “Good morning, Tom. Thank you.” There. She refused to be browbeaten by either one of them. Elizabeth Bennet would have said what she deemed correct in such a situation—and so had Vicky.
Half an hour later, clean but still sore, Vicky knocked on the door to her father’s study. As Vicky had changed, her maid had shocked her with the news that her sister, Althea, had arrived without notice. Althea should be at her London town house preparing for the start of the social season with her husband, so this unexpected visit was more than a little strange.
As Vicky stepped inside the study, the usual scent of leather and paper surrounded her. Her father, the Earl of Oakbridge, sat in a leather chair behind his medieval oak desk where countless generations of Astons had conducted estate business. His fastidious valet had pressed his brown coat and green embroidered waistcoat without fault and tied his cravat to sit crisply at the precise folds. His freshly combed hair was still in perfect order, which struck her as out of place. Here in the country, her father was far less careful with his appearance, and by this time of the morning, his brown waves—just a shade lighter than hers and touched by gray—were usually mussed enough to vex his valet. But not today.
He gestured for her to come in, but his jaw remained stiff and his thick brows furrowed. It was a look she remembered well from childhood—one he usually reserved for a lecture about the danger of jumping in the river from the top of a tree or what a serious infraction it was to ride a cow.
Vicky’s mother sat perched upon a wing chair opposite the desk. Next to her, in a matching chair, sat Althea. Her sister turned her head toward the doorway, and Vicky crossed the room to embrace her.
“Thea! It’s so good to see you.” With arms outstretched, Vicky stopped beside her chair. Her sister did not rise. Vicky frowned.
“Althea?” she asked, bewildered. She touched her sister’s arm. Her skin felt cold and slightly rough from gooseflesh, despite the fir roaring in the corner. Then Althea looked into her eyes.
Vicky’s throat tightened. Althea’s big, brown eyes stared back, hollow and haunted. Her previously lustrous chocolate-brown hair, which usually framed her face in effortless tendrils, now hung in limp, dull strands. Her formerly slender figure now looked painfully thin, and the delicate oval of her face was paler than Vicky had ever seen it.
Though Vicky’s head had still ached when she’d entered the study, the pounding had decreased. Now the hammering returned as Vicky’s mouth went dry. “What’s wrong?”
For a moment, the look of despair in Althea’s eyes disappeared, replaced by a diamond-hard edge Vicky had never seen before. A second later, Althea concealed it with a blank expression. Her back stiffened to a straight line, and she clasped her hands in her lap. It was the manner she put on for society, minus a smile: the demeanor proclaiming her the perfect, dutiful daughter of the Earl and Countess of Oakbridge and the perfect, dutiful wife of the Viscount Dain. Vicky had always admired Althea’s ability to present herself so well, and even more so since Vicky’s first season last year, when she realized that society’s prying eyes constantly gave her the sensation a hare must feel when evading a hawk.
Her shoulders tensed. Yes, she knew that look well, but Thea hadn’t used it with her for many years—not since Tom had left and Vicky had started confiding in her sister. She would wager ten guineas it meant Althea didn’t want Vicky to know what she was thinking.
Vicky looked to her parents. Her mother also sat with her hands folded in her lap, by all appearances her usual, calm self. Yet Vicky saw the lines between her eyebrows that only appeared when she was troubled. Vicky’s father made no such attempt to hide his frown. His right thumb rubbed the pad of his forefinger in agitation. The back of Vicky’s neck tingled again, and her concern for Althea transformed into dreadful apprehension. Her sister’s head turned toward their father, still showing no inclination to speak.
Vicky’s question hung in the air.
Finally, their father broke the silence. “Althea has fled her London house. She left late last night on horseback and then caught the mail coach, which dropped her at the village.”
Vicky’s terrible sense of foreboding compounded. Something truly frightful must have occurred for Althea to do such a thing. Again she noted her sister’s haggard appearance.
Althea still said nothing. This time she didn’t even acknowledge Vicky’s question with a glance.
“Papa?” Vicky pressed.
Her father motioned for her to sit and cleared his throat. His thumbnail continued to slide under his index finger. “It appears Lord Dain has been mistreating your sister.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Violently.”
Vicky collapsed into her seat, forgetting until too late what the force would do to her aches and pains. She flinched, but turned so she could see Althea’s face.
“Oh, Thea.” Despite her sister’s bent head, Vicky saw her large brown eyes swimming with tears. Althea raised her head, and the blood rushed from Vicky’s cheeks at the bleakness of her stare. Her sister opened her mouth as if to speak, but in the next moment, she clamped her jaw shut.
Vicky shook her head. Althea and Dain had seemed so in love. Althea had always been the ideal older sister: patient, kind, an excellent judge of character, and understanding of Vicky’s flaws. If she had any fault, it was perhaps that she was too kind on occasion, very much like Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Jane.
Viscount Dain had set eyes on Althea three years ago in London, two years before Vicky’s own society debut. After a month of courting, he’d proposed, and Althea had accepted. Dain’s charm easily won over her parents, and he’d always acted very courteously to Vicky. She’d imagined that, like Jane Bennet, Althea had found her own Mr. Bingley, and that Althea and Dain were living ever so happily in London.
The couple spent Christmases with Vicky and her parents at Oakbridge, and they’d all seen each other often at events during last year’s season in London, but those were the extent of Vicky’s dealings with her brother-in-law. She’d never seen him act oddly.
But then, she’d never felt completely at ease with the man either. She hadn’t known why, so she’d never said anything. On no occasion had Althea hinted her marriage suffered any problems, and Vicky had thought she didn’t know Dain as her sister did.
Perhaps none of them had known him.
Vicky clenched her fist. “What did he do to you?”
Instead of answering, Althea squeezed her eyes shut and lifted a hand to her forehead, as though she could keep the memories at bay through sheer force of will. Althea’s hand shifted the hair framing her face, and for the first time, Vicky saw the puffy red-and-blue bruise the strands had so cleverly hidden. The bruise started at her sister’s left temple and disappeared beneath her hairline. A shallow cut also marked the skin above it.
The angry pounding trebled in Vicky’s head. Her hands gripped the wooden armrests. Shock and disgust coursed through her, settling in the pit of her stomach. What kind of fiend would do such a thing?
“I can scarce believe it, but for . . .” Vicky gestured at her own forehead and sprang to her feet. “That abominable louse! I’d like to throw him to a dozen mad dogs! Papa, what is to be done?” she demanded.
“Victoria.” Her mother’s voice was reproving.
Vicky turned to her. “Look at her face! How does he dare? We cannot let this go unanswered.” Her father’s social standing equaled Dain’s—surpassed his, even, for his title was older and ranked higher than Dain’s viscountcy. Vicky leaned over her father’s desk. “Papa, you should accuse him in the House of Lords!”
“Victoria, calm yourself,” her mother snapped.
Stunned by her mother’s tone, Vicky looked back and forth between her parents. In her eyes, they were ever the embodiment of the perfect earl and countess, but the situation had clearly shaken them. Her father’s mouth set into a grim line as he watched her mother observe Althea with glassy eyes.
Then her mother inhaled. “You are upsetting your sister.”
Vicky turned. Tears spilled down Althea’s cheeks.
Vicky’s chest shrank. How could she be so thoughtless? “I’m sorry, Mama.” She moved to Althea’s chair and bent over. She pulled her into a hug, no longer caring if her sister resisted. “I’m so sorry, Thea.” Althea sniffled and tears leaked onto Vicky’s shoulder. Vicky held her sister tighter. When Althea sat back in her chair, Vicky relaxed her hold. But as her gaze focused on the swollen, red skin on Althea’s forehead, a dark fury pooled within her. That loathsome, horrible whoreson of a—
“My dear,” her father said, interrupting her thoughts, “you cannot fault Vicky for saying what we all feel. We shall ask her to conduct herself with decorum on a more ordinary day.” He turned to Vicky. “As to your question, that would be impractical. If I accused him in the Lords, the scandal would be inescapable. He is not friendless, and his supporters in the House could contend I was trying to tarnish his reputation out of malice. We’d grace the pages of every newspaper and gossip rag from London to York.”
Vicky winced. Althea blanched.
Their father shook his head. “No, I dare not attempt it, lest I cause more harm than good.”
Vicky angled her body to face him, but kept one hand on Althea’s arm. “Then what can we do?” she asked, although she was already devising foul punishments in her head, the majority of which she’d read about in a long, didactic volume on English history she’d once found in their library. The first that came to mind was something barbaric they’d done to a medieval monarch with a red-hot poker.
“Clearly, Thea must stay with us, but will Dain allow it?” Vicky knew little of the law, but she knew a man’s wife was essentially his property. She couldn’t count the number of novels she’d read where an injured lady had no recourse against her faithless husband.
“I will ride to London without delay and confront Dain,” her father stated.
He continued, “I must hear his side of the story”—he gestured for silence as Vicky opened her mouth to protest and Althea’s head jerked upward—“to determine what we must face. I suspect he shall deny everything, but perhaps I can persuade him to consent to a separation. For this cannot and shall not continue.” He looked over them all with a decisive air.
Vicky nodded her assent, and her mother did the same. She ventured a glance at her sister. Althea’s face remained blank. Vicky rubbed her sister’s arm gently. It felt like an empty gesture, but she didn’t know what else to do. She wished she knew how to help.
“Very well,” their father said. “I will leave this morning, and send for you all after I have met with him.”
“What about the man who attacked Vicky?” Althea said.
Vicky blinked. It was the first sentence her sister had uttered. Her voice sounded reed-like, thin, and terribly quiet. Vicky had completely forgotten about her own unpleasant incident. “Were you
here when Tom spoke to Papa?”
“I spoke to Halworth alone,” her father answered, calling Tom by his new title. It seemed neither of her parents had forgiven Tom for hurting her all those years ago. Or at the very least, they wished to maintain a formal distance with him. “Your sister was in no state to see anyone.”
“No, of course not,” Vicky murmured.
Her father continued, “Halworth volunteered to find our shepherd and direct him to the affected sheep. I trust they will soon have the situation well in hand. And, as Halworth was in possession of all the particulars, I also asked him to notify the local magistrate of the incident. Though I doubt Sir Aylward will do more than take down Halworth’s account.”
“Should we not take precautions in case he returns?” Althea asked.
“Precautions from Tom?” Vicky asked, incredulous.
“From the bandit, Victoria,” her mother said.
Vicky felt her cheeks redden. “Oh.”
Her father nodded. “I will send for men from the village to watch the house and grounds. I would take you all with me to London, but you girls both need at least one night’s rest after today.”
Althea looked at Vicky. “You weren’t injured?”
Vicky tried to smile and squeezed her sister’s arm. “My head hurts and I’ll be achy for a few days, but ’tis nothing serious.” Nothing compared to what her sister must have gone through.
“‘Nothing serious’ means you likely need a doctor’s care,” her mother interjected. “I have already sent for him.”
“Yes, I want you both examined,” their father said in a tone that brooked no argument. He stood and started for the door. As he skirted the desk, Vicky’s mother rose as well. She intercepted him before he reached the door handle and took his arm. “Promise you will not challenge him, James,” she said in a firm tone. “No matter what happens.”
Vicky’s eyes widened. It hadn’t yet occurred to her that gentlemen often did duel over such matters.
Her father smiled and took her mother’s hand. “Nothing could induce me to do so.”
Despite his words, her mother stared at him with pursed lips.
“Perhaps I might have in my youth, Felicia, but I am too old to point a pistol. Besides,” he continued with another smile in Vicky and Althea’s direction, “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you all just yet.”
Vicky’s mother dropped his hand. “I will tell Baden to pack what you’ll need.” She left the room, calling for the earl’s valet.
Vicky’s father sighed and moved to follow her. “My dear, I didn’t mean to be flippant . . .” His voice trailed off as he stepped out of earshot.
Vicky exhaled. Her poor mother must be worried to react so to her father’s attempt to lighten the mood. She only hoped her father’s powers of diplomacy would prove more successful with Lord Dain than they had with her mother. Vicky looked at Althea.
“Thea, may we speak? We could go to your bedchamber or take a walk in the gardens if you like.”
Althea refused to meet her gaze. “I’ve rather had my fill of talking.”
Vicky wanted to kick herself. Of course she couldn’t expect her sister to be anything but exhausted after her ordeal.
“I’m sorry. You need your rest. Shall I help you upstairs?”
Her sister shook her head and rose from her chair. “You needn’t bother.”
“It’s no bother. I know this must be dreadful for you, but at least you’re home now. Papa will take care of everything.”
Althea glared at her with cold eyes. “Are you truly so naive? Sooner or later, you must discover there are some nightmares that do not disappear on waking.”
Vicky grimaced. “I’m sorry, but I cannot believe that. I know everything will turn out for the best. We will make it so.” She took Althea’s hand, but her sister snatched it away and hurried out of the study, leaving Vicky wide-eyed and worried.
Later that day, after Vicky’s father had left for London, she ventured into the garden. She had made sure to tell him her version of what had occurred on the estate grounds early that morning. He had said little, other than echoing her own thoughts that Tom’s arrival had been fortuitous. Thankfully, he’d spared her a lecture on the stupidity of chasing after masked men, but she supposed that due more to distraction on his part than oversight. Or perhaps he’d thought she’d endured enough for one day.
Vicky’s father had ridden off on his gray Thoroughbred with determination etched on his brow. Things looked bleak now, but Vicky knew they had nothing to worry about. Her papa could fix almost every problem—it was a trait on which he took great pride.
The village doctor had come and gone, proclaiming Vicky well enough for a slow walk if she wished, but had cautioned her against riding or other exertion for at least a week.
The estate shepherd had reported that six sheep had died before he could reverse the bloat. At least they’d saved most of the flock. The shepherd said they would have lost far more if not for her efforts to rebuild the wall, but Vicky couldn’t celebrate. The events of the day and the idea of those dead sheep offset whatever sense of accomplishment she usually felt after doing good for the estate.
Usually Vicky collected her thoughts while strolling the boxwood-lined, pebbled paths of the kitchen garden, but today she paced without seeing any of it. She collapsed onto an iron bench and rubbed at her eyes. But they flew open as her mind flashed to the image of Althea’s face crumpling when she’d broken into tears this morning.
Althea had retired to her bedroom after the meeting in the study, and thus far, she had seen no one besides their mother and the doctor. Vicky’s maid had told her Althea had taken breakfast, and later some broth, alone in her room. Vicky hadn’t spoken to her since their earlier exchange.
Vicky’s gaze focused out into the distance, beyond the edge of the gardens, to the stream and the old wooden bridge that gave the estate its name. It was an eccentric family tradition that every Aston bride travel underneath the bridge in a flower-filled boat punted by her bridegroom. Only two years ago, Dain had punted Althea down the river with a self-satisfied smile. Vicky, her parents, and a gaggle of Aston relations who’d traveled from every corner of England to witness the event had stood on the bridge waving as Althea and Dain floated beneath them amid bunches of fragrant wildflowers.
Akin to a princess in a fairy tale, Althea had glowed with contentment that day, the light strands in her brown hair glinting in the sun beneath a crown of purple and white flowers. Vicky’s chest had ached as she’d realized her sister was leaving their home for good—that their lives would never be the same—but she’d found comfort in the idea that her sister was happy. For how could Althea do anything but live happily ever after now that she’d found her own amiable prince?
But she hadn’t. Althea had been close-lipped about her marriage from the beginning. When Vicky asked her questions, either in person, or by post, Althea always spoke in generalities, leaving the specifics of her day-to-day life to Vicky’s imagination. Had Althea glossed over the subject of her marriage because she was hiding the truth?
Vicky closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh scent of the hedges drying after months of rain. She had to discover exactly what had occurred between Althea and Dain.
She rose from the bench and strode back toward the house, clenching her fists at her sides at the memory of Dain whipping his horses when he’d brought them to Oakbridge. She knew that was a
flaw many men shared, but perhaps it also explained why Vicky had never truly trusted him. She’d even mentioned it to Althea once, but her sister had shrugged it off.
Vicky swallowed hard, trying to ignore the churning in her stomach. She racked her brain for other instances of Dain displaying strange behavior, but very little came to mind.
After speaking to two footmen and an undergardener, Vicky found her sister wandering through the glass conservatory amidst the small selection of tropical flowers. Althea wore a walking dress Vicky remembered from before her marriage: a pale yellow, longsleeved muslin printed with tiny pink flowers. In days gone by, the material had emphasized the roses in her cheeks and the burnished highlights in her hair, but today, the print could not conceal Althea’s pallor. The dress hung loosely on her shoulders. Vicky called her name from the doorway.
Althea flinched, a look of panic crossing her face. As she recognized Vicky, the fear melted from her expression. Yet her awkward stance called to mind the image of a doe about to bolt. Whether
Althea was angry or simply uncomfortable, Vicky couldn’t guess.
Vicky took a deep breath to shore up her courage. The air within the glass walls of the conservatory always stayed humid, but today it felt oppressively so. She glanced up at the sun shining through the ceiling. She stepped down the path until she hovered a few feet from her sister and motioned to the flowers basking in the humidity.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked. Perhaps idle chitchat would restore a measure of normalcy to the day.
“These ones are from seeds Papa bought years ago from that trader who had just returned from the West Indies. It took the gardener all this time to get them to bloom,” she said, bending down to touch the silky petals of a bright red saucer-shaped flower with a yellow stamen. “They’re so—so un-English, I suppose,” she said with a laugh. She looked up at Althea with a smile as the flower’s tropical perfume filled her nostrils.
Althea turned from the blossoms and looked outside.
Vicky rose, feeling like a little girl again. One trying to play with an older sister who claimed to be thoroughly grown-up. Evidently, polite conversation had been the wrong tack to take. Very well, how would Elizabeth Bennet handle this? She’d speak her mind to her sister Jane.
“Thea, if I’ve angered you, I’m very sorry.” She paused. “The last thing I wish to do is quarrel.”
Althea turned her head and gave a small nod. Vicky supposed that meant she’d accepted her apology.
“How are you feeling? What did the doctor say?” Vicky asked.
“That I am well enough.”
Vicky furrowed her brow. “And your head?” she asked, sidestepping so she was facing her.
“’Tis nothing,” Althea said, avoiding Vicky’s gaze. “He left a salve.”
“How can it be nothing?” Vicky reached up to move her sister’s hair away from where it shielded the bruise.
Althea twisted away and started down the path toward the small group of orange trees that provided the luxury of fruit during the winter months.
Vicky swallowed down the lump in her throat. She wanted to let the matter lie—to leave her sister to the privacy she so clearly craved, but Vicky needed to know more.
“Did it only begin recently? When you married him, and even at Christmas, you seemed happy. When did he change?”
Althea didn’t acknowledge her. She stared through the glass walls of the conservatory at some fixed point in the garden.
“Thea, please. I only want to help. But how can I if you won’t speak to me?” She stepped forward and rested her hand on her sister’s shoulder.
Althea spun, and the force knocked Vicky’s hand away.
Althea faced her with resentment in her eyes. In a stony voice she whispered, “Do not ask me to explain what you cannot understand. How could you possibly help?”
Vicky’s mouth opened and closed. Then she shook her head. “I don’t know. But if you do, you have only to ask and I’ll do it.”
“There is nothing. Even Papa will not be able to help me.”
Vicky frowned at her sister’s lack of faith in their father. “He will, Thea. And if for some unforeseeable reason he cannot, then I will.”
Althea glared at her.
Vicky stepped forward. “I promise I will do anything I can to keep you safe.”
Her sister looked down. “You know nothing of suffering—or of sacrifice. I am sick to my very soul of empty promises.”
Vicky’s chest constricted. She’d never once made her sister a false promise. But she knew who must have done. Althea may have escaped her husband, but Dain’s actions haunted her.
In that moment, Vicky swore she would not rest until Althea’s future was secure. She took her sister’s cold hand in hers and gripped it. “Thea, I give my word. I will not fail you.”
Althea caught her gaze.
Vicky stared back, unblinking. Then, for the smallest instant, Vicky thought she saw a glimmer of hope in her sister’s eyes.