Authors: Amanda Grange
Which way do I go?
Miss Hilary Wentworth, diminutive in her poke bonnet and dark grey pelisse, peered through the steadily falling rain. The road forked ahead of her but neither direction looked inviting. To her left, the road wound up the side of a hill, and to her right it disappeared into a dense wood.
She needed to examine the letter, but if she took it out of her pocket where she stood the wind would whip it out of her hand. She glanced towards the trees. Once beneath their thickly-needled branches she would have some shelter from the elements. Gripping her portmanteau tightly in one hand and holding on to her bonnet with the other she hurried towards them. Not much further ... Soon the first trees closed around her and the wind was held at bay. It still moaned through the trees, but the further she went, the less powerful it became.
She set down her portmanteau and drew a crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket.
3 November 1810
Dear Mr Wentworth
, she read.
She felt a twinge of guilt as she read the name but she hurriedly went on, her eyes travelling down the page.
... I am prepared to offer you the position ... the starting salary will be ...
She skimmed on, until she reached the relevant passage at the bottom.
... take the stagecoach ... then a short walk ...
Short walk, she thought with a shake of her head, as she felt the blisters rising on her heels.
... turn left at the milestone ...
Ah! Now she was coming to it.
... and then take the road that leads ...
The trees stirred overhead ... and a large splat of rain fell onto the paper, smudging the writing. She scrubbed desperately at the page, but it was too late, the water had dissolved the ink and she let out a cry of exasperation. Now how was she to find her way to the abbey?
Having given vent to her feelings she folded the letter and tucked it back in her pocket. She looked both forward and back. Ahead of her, the road passed through the trees and then emerged into the gloomy daylight, where it appeared to be straight and flat. Behind her, after leaving the trees, it wound up the hill. In the absence of any certain knowledge she decided to take the easier route. Encouraging herself with thoughts of sitting in front of a roaring fire when she finally reached the abbey, she picked up her portmanteau and continued on her way.
The storm intensified, and thunder rumbled overhead. She looked up apprehensively. The trees, which had seemed sheltering, now seemed menacing. If the storm broke she would be trapped beneath them. She quickened her pace. Another rumble of thunder reverberated around her as she left the shelter of the wood, and she was hit by the full force of the storm. She clutched at her bonnet and then leant forward to fight the wind.
A minute later there was a tremendous crack! and a brilliant flash lit the sky, followed by an ominous creaking. Looking back, she saw that one of the trees had been struck by lightning ... and it was falling towards her.
She began to run, but not fast enough. With a loud splintering noise the tree toppled to the ground. It caught her a glancing blow as it fell, and she was knocked from her feet, her portmanteau flying out of her hand. She lay where she fell, too dazed to move. Then, bit by bit, she began to recover from the shock and she tried to get up. But as soon as she moved she was hit by a wave of pain, and realized that the tree had landed across her ankle.
She sank back. But not for long. She knew she must make another effort, for if she stayed where she was she would catch her death of cold. She tried to sit up again, this time more cautiously. She was able, at last, to accomplish it, but she could see no way to free her foot.
She examined the tree. It was only the feathery branches at the top that were pinning her ankle, and she thought she might be able to lift them clear. She reached out and tried to pull them aside, but with little success. She was at an awkward angle, and could not use any leverage. She allowed herself a short rest, then tried again. She was just about to grasp one of the branches for another effort when a dark shadow fell across her. Looking up, she gasped. A large, bulky shape was standing there. It was huge and shaggy, some kind of wild animal ... a bear, rearing up on its hind legs! Shocked, she tried to struggle free. Until another flash of lightning lit the scene, and she saw that the dark shape was not a bear at all, but a man.
Of course! There were no bears in England, she chided herself. But she could be forgiven for her mistake. He was tall and broad, and with his grizzled hair he looked wild and savage.
‘Hell’s teeth!’ he ground out. ‘What are you doing in the wood?’
His ungracious words dispelled the last traces of her fear and stung her to make a sharp retort. ‘That is none of your business.’
‘Oh, isn’t it?’ he growled.
‘No, it is not.’ Focusing on her anger, which helped her to take her mind from the pain, she went on. ‘So if you would just help me to free my foot —’
is my business,’ he returned churlishly.
‘You are right, it isn’t,’ she said, biting her lip. ‘Very well, then, if you are not going to make yourself useful, you had better be on your way.’
The sound came out gruffly, but another flash of lightning tore open the sky, and to Hilary’s surprise she saw that there was a glint of respect in his eye. Her spirited retort had done her no harm with him, it seemed, and she was grateful. She had spoken without thinking, and it would have been disastrous if he had taken her at her word.
He turned his attention away from her and fixed it on the tree. After examining it for a few minutes he bent down and took hold of the crown. Then, flexing his huge shoulders, he lifted it from the ground.
Hilary seized the moment and pulled her foot free. She ought to thank him, but he had helped her with such a bad grace that she was reluctant to do so. Good breeding got the better of her baser instincts, however, and she muttered an unwilling, ‘Thank you.’
‘Don’t mention it.’
And why was he so bad-tempered? she wondered, hearing his gruff tone. It wasn’t as though
had spent the last hour tramping through the rain, trying to find an elusive abbey, and had then been knocked down by a tree!
But whatever the reason, it was not her concern. She had other things to worry about.
She turned her attention back to her foot. It was difficult to see how badly it had been injured. The lightning had retreated and the stormy day was once more dark, but her ankle was sore and it was starting to throb.
The bear-like man crouched down in front of her. Before she could stop him, he lifted her foot onto his knee. She winced, expecting him to hurt her, but his touch was strangely gentle. Though his hands were large they possessed a delicacy she had not expected. His fingers were long and broad, she noticed, and they were weather beaten, showing the brown hue of a man who spent much of his life out of doors. As he ran his hands over her kid boot, searching it deftly for a sign of any broken bones, to her surprise she felt her foot began to tingle. It was an unusual sensation, and yet pleasant. Better still, it seemed to blot out the pain.
She raised her eyes, and in the stormy gloom she took in his face. It was strongly moulded, with powerful features. It was not handsome. Despite the charcoal eyes that pooled beneath lowering brows, it could almost have been called ugly. His nose was crooked, his jaw large, and there were two scars above his left eye.
Her gaze passed on to his hair. Its grizzled hue intrigued her. Though he was not an old man, in fact she would not have thought him above thirty, it was flecked with silver at the temples. What kind of anguish could have caused his hair to grey so young? she wondered. But then chided herself a moment later for reading too much into it. Grey hair was probably no more than a family trait.
She dropped her gaze to his hands ... and saw that they were unlacing her boot!
She was suddenly aware that she was alone in the woods with an unknown gentleman, and that she should not be allowing him to take such a liberty. She tried to reclaim her foot, but he held on to it firmly and began to slip off her boot.
‘You’ve taken a nasty knock,’ he said with a darkling look. ‘Your ankle could be sprained.’
‘It isn’t,’ she said quickly, snatching it back with a shiver. ‘It’s nothing, I assure you. It is only bruised.’ She re-tied her laces with small, deft fingers and then said hurriedly, ‘If you will just help me up I will be on my way.’
As soon as she had finished, she was uncomfortably aware that her brusqueness had been rude, particularly as he was trying to help her. But his presence unsettled her. The way he had made her foot feel when he had taken it in his hands had been deeply disturbing.
She was just about to apologise for her churlishness, when he swept her off her feet and held her firmly against his massive chest!
‘What are you doing?’ she gasped in horror.
Cradled in his arms, she was experiencing the strangest sensations. She felt a peculiar light-headedness and her heart began to beat more quickly.
‘Exactly what you asked me to do,’ he returned. ‘Helping you up.’
‘I didn’t mean you to sweep me off my feet! Put me down at once!’
He shrugged, then dropped her unceremoniously to the ground, retaining just enough control to make sure that she did not land on her injured foot.
She straightened her bonnet, then winced as she put her damaged foot to the ground.
‘Aha! As I thought,’ he growled. ‘It’s sprained. You can’t walk like that. I suppose I will have to carry you.’
‘You will have to do no such thing.’
He had taken hold of her arm, but she stepped back, shaking him off. The thought of him sweeping her from her feet and holding her against his broad chest again was far too perturbing.
‘I am quite alright,’ she went on hastily, not wanting him to know how he had made her feel. ‘It was a momentary twinge, nothing more.’
Having caught a glimmer of light through the trees, she was able to make little of her injury. She had almost reached her destination, and she would be able to continue alone.
Catching the direction of her glance, he agreed with her unspoken comment. ‘The rectory’s only a few minutes away. You can manage it without getting into any more trouble.’
‘I am not ... ’ she said, turning to glance at the beckoning light, but when she looked back she found he had melted away into the trees as suddenly as he had appeared.
‘Well I never!’ she exclaimed.
How had he managed it? She wouldn’t have believed that a man of such bulk could disappear so quickly. But he must be a forester, she reasoned, thinking of his weather beaten face and hands, and if so he would be used to moving swiftly and noiselessly out of doors.
She gave herself a moment to recover from the strange encounter then she bent down and picked up her portmanteau. Limping, she set off towards the light. It was slow going, and painful, but she knew that once she reached the rectory she would be able to ask for directions to the abbey. Perhaps the rector, if he were a true Christian, would offer her the use of his horse.
She bent her head against the driving rain and followed the road. Soon she came to a pleasant stone building with a small garden in front of it and a neatly-painted gate. The sight reassured her. After her adventure in the woods it was good to see something so solid and normal. She hesitated for a moment before opening the gate, but the rain drove her on and before another minute had passed she was knocking on the door.
There was the sound of exclamations from inside, and hurried footsteps, then the door opened and a woman’s face peered out. It was surrounded by a mob cap, from which fluffy fair hair protruded.
‘Mercy me, it’s a young girl!’ exclaimed the woman. She opened the door wide and pulled Hilary in. ‘Come in, dear,’ she said as she did so. ‘Don’t stand out there in the rain, or you’ll be soaked.’
A loud sneeze came from the room to the left of the hall, followed by a cry of, ‘Who is it ... a-choo!... Martha?’