England, Fall, 1790
The groan echoed through the small house, every note of it filled with pain and helpless fury. Catryn tossed her cloak on the hook near the front door and rushed toward the room she was certain the sound was coming from. Her heart pounded with fear for her family as she cursed herself for leaving them alone. She never should have given in to her friend Anne’s pleas to join her at the morning salon on the servants’ day off. She certainly should never have lingered there as long as she had.
She found her father on his knees in the library, one hand on the settee as he struggled to get to his feet. Catryn ran to his side to help him stand and then urged him to sit down on the settee. Blood stained his pale cheek as it seeped from the side of his head, the red of it stark against the white of his hair. The knuckles on his right hand were scraped and his left eye was already swelling. A quick look around the room revealed a knocked-over table and a smashed vase. Who would attack her father? The man was just a quiet, somewhat reclusive scholar.
A demand to know what had happened burned her tongue with the need to be uttered, but she bit it back. Her father needed tending to first, the dazed look in his gray eyes telling her that he was not ready to answer all her questions, not even the one now screaming in her mind.
Where is my son?
Catryn quickly dampened her handkerchief with a little of the spring water her father always brought to the city from their country home and kept in a decanter on his desk. Her heart still twisted with fear, she gently bathed the blood from his face. By the time she was finished, his wound did not look quite as bad as she had thought it was, and his eyes had cleared. The first words he spoke chilled her to the bone.
“He took Alwyn.”
“Who took him, Papa?” she asked, although she already had a very good idea of who would commit such a crime against her.
“Morris.” He took the damp handkerchief from her hand and held it against the small wound on the side of his head. “He and some hired brute came into this house, marched right into this room whilst I was reading a story to Alwyn, and demanded that I give him the lad. Told the man he was a daft fool and to get out. Then we had us a tussle and I lost.”
She could see how that shamed him and patted his knee. “It was two men against one, Papa. I know, with all my heart, that you did all you could do to stop him. Now I will do what I can.”
Lewys Gryffin looked at his daughter, his only child, and wished he had shot Sir Morris de Warrenne a long time ago. Since her husband, Henry, had died nearly two years ago, life had become one vicious, unending battle with the man’s younger brother over who should have control over the heir, her son, and all the riches the little boy now had claim to. The months of strife had left them all weary and angry. It was clear to see that the fight over Alwyn had now turned truly dangerous and it hurt him to be of so little help to her when she needed him so badly.
“I should be the one to fight this,” he muttered.
“’Tis my place as the man in this family, as the head of this house.”
“Ah, Papa,” she said as she sat down next to him and kissed him on the cheek. “You
been fighting and doing a fine job of it. Fighting since the moment Henry took his last breath. And as soon as I get Alwyn back home with us where he belongs, you will be fighting again. Now it is my turn to take up the fight. I will go after Morris and retrieve my child.”
“It will not be easy. Do not forget how they took him from us. This was an attack. He demanded, and when I said no, he attacked. He came prepared to fight us for the boy. I think Morris has lost his mind, most probably when he lost the last court battle to be named Alwyn’s guardian. I ne’er considered Morris a very clever fellow, but I did not think he could ever be as lack-witted as this.”
“Neither did I. I had no warning at all, no sense that this could happen. This tastes of pure desperation, Papa.”
“It does. I thought the same when he showed up with the obvious intent of taking the boy no matter what or who stood in his way. I have heard that he is having some financial difficulties, but this was still a very drastic action to take.”
“That would depend on how deep his financial troubles run.” She resisted the urge to tell him all she had discovered about the dire condition of Morris’s finances, for the man needed no more weight added to his worry about Alwyn. “All this trouble with the courts and lawyers cannot have been cheap for him. It certainly pinched our purse hard. The why does not matter,” she said as she stood up. “He had no right.”
“No, he did not, but now he does have the boy and he may well think that is enough to help him win his case.”
“Then he will be wrong. All he will get from this is a prison cell.”
Lewys cursed when she hurried out of the room. He placed the damp handkerchief she had left behind over his throbbing eye. He should be at her side in this fight, but he knew he would be useless, his sight still affected by the blow to his eyes, and the blow to his head made it throb so hard and constantly that it scattered his thoughts. Good sense did not stop him from being infuriated that his barely five-feet-tall, not quite eight-stone daughter was about to confront a man who had just revealed how violent he could become when he did not get his way.
Catryn was unfastening her gown even as she strode into her bedchamber. She hastily changed into something far more serviceable and then began to stuff two more sturdy gowns into her saddlebags. It took her only minutes to pack a few other things she considered necessities and then she hurried down to the kitchen to gather some food. There was a good chance she could confront Morris right in his town house in the city, but she had been taught to always prepare for the worst. There was a chance she might have to chase him down.
They had been prepared for Morris to try and take Alwyn almost from the moment her husband died, for they had known he would heartily dislike the fact that her father had been named Alwyn’s guardian and, along with a few trustees, given control over Alwyn’s inheritance. Yet, as the months dragged on and all Morris had done was drag them through probate and the courts time and time again, they had lost that cold fear. They had been foolish to drop their guard.
Racing toward the front of the house, she paused when her father yelled out, “Take your pistol!”
Peering into the library, she was relieved to see that his color was better than it had been. “I have it with me, Papa. I will be very careful. Do not worry. And have Eccles look at those wounds when he returns. I will return when I have Alwyn and not before,” she vowed as she hurried away, confident that their clever butler would care well for her father.
Lewys wanted to argue that but heard the front door slam. He made an attempt to stand up but swayed with the dizziness that assaulted him and quickly sat down again. As he took several breaths to recover from nearly swooning and sprawling in an undignified heap upon the carpet, he thought about Catryn going after Morris, armed for battle with no strong man to protect or aid her. She was a true redhead in all the ways people thought of the breed, although her temper rarely showed itself. She was also a mother about to fight for her child. Morris had no idea what he had just unleashed.
Catryn checked her saddle and saddle pack to make certain both were secure before swinging up onto the back of her mare. She had packed enough to sustain her if she had to chase Morris down to the de Warrenne country house, but sincerely hoped she did not have to. Although she was a good rider, she had not ridden any great distances for a long time.
Fury warmed her blood as she rode through the cool, misty streets of London toward Morris’s town house. The man had been a thorn in her side from the moment her useless husband had breathed his last, but this act went far beyond being a nuisance. For a moment she considered setting the authorities on his trail, but she was not sure who to go to or if she could even afford such help. Legal help of any kind did not come cheaply and, after so many court battles with her brother-in-law, both her and her father’s purses were painfully light.
Just as she rode within sight of Morris’s town house she saw him shoving a thrashing, screaming Alwyn into his carriage. Shouting at him to halt gained her only a hard glare before he joined her son in the carriage, which began to move. The heavy traffic upon the road made a swift escape impossible, but it also slowed down all her attempts to catch up with him.
Cursing softly, she did her best to gain enough speed to overtake Morris’s carriage, but the only thing she was able to do was to keep him in sight. Catryn knew he would soon reach a road that led out of the city. If she could not catch him before then she would quickly lose sight of him. Her mare was a fast, sturdy creature, but the animal could not outrun a carriage pulled by four strong horses.
“Never expected him to actually leave the city, Sorley,” she muttered to her horse. “Am certainly readied for a journey but truly did not expect, or wish, to make one.”
Ignoring the curse shouted at her by the man she splattered with muck as she wove her way through the crowded streets, she struggled not to lose sight of Morris’s carriage. It troubled her when she realized they would soon leave the part of the city she knew well, might even pass through the more dangerous streets. Even as a child she had been sternly warned about the dark, filthy, and dangerous streets where the desperate poor and the criminals lived. Catryn prayed that Morris’s carriage would soon turn away from that rapidly approaching peril.
A moment later Morris’s carriage took a left turn and she breathed a silent sigh of relief. She quickly moved to follow him, only to see several small boys rush into the street to pick up the coins Morris had tossed out of the carriage. In her frantic attempts to avoid trampling the children, Sorley reared and then stumbled as its hooves hit the cobblestones again. Once she was safely through the crowd, Catryn realized that the hasty prayer she had uttered that they would all survive the brief confrontation unharmed had not been answered. Sorley’s gait was no longer smooth.
Moving to the far edge of the street, Catryn dismounted and began to walk her horse, closely studying the way the animal moved. The injury was not a bad one, just soreness in the muscle or hoof, but there would be no chasing Morris on horseback now. Not only would continuing to ride Sorley worsen the mare’s injury, but she would have no chance of catching the man while riding an injured horse. She would have to come up with another way to chase after the man. Fighting the strong urge to weep or scream, Catryn walked along trying to think of what she could do.
Then she saw it. It was like a miraculous answer to her prayers. The carriage stood in front of a pleasant town house, ready to be driven away. It was being idly polished by a liveried servant as the man waited for the passenger to arrive. Catryn’s heart pounded with excitement and terror as a desperate plan formed in her mind. Stealing a carriage was a hanging offense, she reminded herself as she approached the vehicle and the servant, but she might find some mercy for her actions since she was attempting to rescue her kidnapped son.
“Can I be of help, ma’am?” asked the servant when she halted in front of him, and yanked her saddlebags off of her horse.
“Why, yes, I believe you can.” She pulled her pistol from a hidden pocket in her skirts and aimed it at the man. “I have need of this carriage.”
The man took a step back and blinked. “Ma’am?”
“It is of the greatest urgency that I have this carriage. I must chase down a man. As you can see, my mount is no longer able to serve me in that endeavor. Her name is Sorley. She is a very good mare. I will leave her with you in trade for the carriage.”
“But, ma’am . . .”
“I am very sorry,” she said and moved toward the front of the carriage, keeping her pistol aimed steadily at the man. “Truly, truly sorry, but I really must do this. I will return the carriage, but if something goes awry and I cannot, you may keep the mare as payment.” She tossed her bags up on the seat and scrambled up after them. “If it is not enough to cover the cost then go to Lord Lewys Gryffin, Baron of Gryffin Manor in Chester. He is residing now at Gryffin House here in London. Tell him Lady Catryn Gryffin de Warrenne sent you to get recompense for the loss of the carriage.”
She snapped the reins just as he lunged toward her. Catryn nearly screamed when the horses darted forward. The pull on her arms was far greater than she had anticipated. It hurt, a lot, and she had to brace herself just to stay on the seat. A quick look back showed her that the man was not chasing her, however, so she turned her full attention to making her way through the busy, narrow streets. A few shouted queries to people she passed were enough to keep her on Morris’s trail, for the man’s fancy blue-and-gold carriage caught the eye of nearly everyone it passed by.
When she was finally free of the crowded streets of the city, Catryn breathed a hearty sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived, however, as she realized that Morris was headed southeast. If he was taking Alwyn to the coast, he could be planning to take her child out of England. It would make it all that much harder for her to find her son.
A rush of fear left a sour taste in her mouth before she could push it back. Morris could just as easily be taking her son to his country home in Easebourne. Catlyn scolded herself, determined not to keep falling into a deep mire of panic. Such fear clouded the mind and she needed hers to be clear and sharp. Her thoughts needed to be fixed upon one thing only: getting Alwyn back, no matter where Morris went or what obstacles were put in her path.
Catryn’s arms ached and her back wept with pain, but she kept the carriage moving along the road at as fast a speed as she dared. She was not surprised by the occasional look of shock she saw on the faces of the people she passed. Driving a carriage was not something women were supposed to do. She had only learned the skill because she had had to. Everyone at Gryffin Manor had had to work hard in the two years before she had married Henry, learning as many skills as they could to try and save the estate after a hard loss in an investment scheme her grandfather had foolishly made. They had succeeded, but during those hard times she had lost both her grandfather and her mother. Grief had stolen her father from her in many ways, too, leaving her carrying far more weight than a girl her age ever should have had to.