The overnight storm had given way to a fresh summer day,
with a rapidly rising temperature. But it had left the roads
Lord Francis Fanshawe was hot, sticky, and decidedly out of
temper. He unbent his body from useless contemplation of the
axletree, in the vain hope that Ryde was mistaken in saying
it was broken. He shifted to flex the ache in his back from
bending too long and regarded the muddy road with acute
disfavour. The coach wheels were stuck fast, and his boots
were caked. They were probably ruined forever—or would
be, once he put them in the hands of the boots at a wayside
inn. Why in Hades had he come away without his valet?
As if in sympathy, his stomach growled, protesting the hours
since breakfast. Francis glanced over to where the three
remaining horses, released from their traces and temporarily
tethered to a nearby tree, were grazing, ready to eat
themselves into a stupor while Francis starved.
At that instant, his gaze fell upon his bride, and his
vexation intensified. Tillie was palpably to blame for these
evils, but instead of decently railing at an unhappy fate,
she could think of nothing better to do than to wander along
the roadside admiring wildflowers and humming.
His wife of a few short weeks merely turned her head and
waved before continuing on her way. Francis cursed and
strode in her direction.
"For pity's sake, come and wait in the coach," he called.
"You will exhaust yourself wandering about in this heat."
Tillie checked and turned her clear gaze upon him, raising
"I am more like to faint from being shut up in that stuffy
coach, do you not think?"
"No, I do not. It may be hours before Ryde or Williams gets
His groom, despatched to locate the nearest smithy, had gone
off in one direction across country, while the coachman,
riding the post-horse, had gone back along the main road
towards Atherstone, through which they had passed a little
before the breakdown, in a bid to locate a decent hostelry
where some form of transport might be hired to enable the
stranded travellers to seek shelter.
"Surely not," objected Tillie. "That kindly yokel spoke of a
village a mere half mile or so from here."
Francis all but snorted. "Do you know no better than to take
a country fellow's estimate for gospel? I daresay it is five
miles or more to this Witherley place, if we only knew."
For a moment, he received no reply other than his wife's
measured regard. Francis knew that look.
"If you are about to try your cajolery on me, Tillie, let me
warn you I am not in the mood."
Tillie's characteristic laugh escaped her lips, and his ill
temper lightened briefly. "I can see that, my dearest."
She stepped gently off the grass verge and picked a path
across the muddy road, holding up her skirts. Having wisely
left her travelling greatcoat in the coach, she was clad
only in a gown of soft green muslin that emphasised her
curves, a mere wisp of lace tucker covering the swell of her
bosom. Below her chip straw bonnet, tendrils of her banded
hair escaped confinement under a cap and her high-boned
cheeks seemed unaffected by the heat that was adding to
Francis's frustrations. For an instant he softened,
reflecting on the pleasure the mere sight of her gave him,
transformed—thanks to his mother's insistence and his
own open purse—from the dowdy companion he had first
encountered. Then his eye caught on the clutch of coloured
stems tucked in her fingers, and his irritation flared anew.
"You are the most maddening female, Tillie," he told her as
she came up.
She looked rueful. "Dear me. Am I still in disgrace?"
Francis almost relented, but for the lurking twinkle in his
wife's eye. "You know very well we should not have been in
this mess had you not insisted on leaving your godmother's
this morning. Anyone with a modicum of common sense must
have known what the outcome would be after such a storm as
we had last night."
To his intense satisfaction, his wife's patience cracked.
"For heaven's sake, Fan, don't start again! All well for
you, able to leave the room the moment you could no longer
endure it, but I was obliged to answer again and again to
the same set of questions and comment. I tell you, if we had
not escaped, I would have been ready to stab her with the
"Thus ensuring you don't receive a farthing when she is
finally gathered to her forefathers."
"Just so," Ottilia said, disregarding his sarcasm. "Far
safer to leave at once."
The duty visit to Lady Edingale had indeed been trying, as
Francis was obliged to concede. Tillie's ancient benefactor,
a schoolfriend of her deceased grandmother, was both deaf
and forgetful. She had signally failed to grasp the fact of
Ottilia's marriage, despite endless repetitions by both
parties and the old lady's long-suffering companion. Or if
she had grasped it, she had forgotten it within minutes,
enlivening every attempt at conversation with a refrain that
at last alienated even his wife's wide tolerance.
"You should think of getting married again, Ottilia. You
cannot be mourning your lost love forever."
In vain had his poor Tillie, virtually shouting into the old
lady's ear trumpet, protested her new state. It proved of no
avail to point Francis out as her husband, for whenever he
walked into a room where she was, Lady Edingale invariably
took immediate exception to his presence.
"Who is this? What's that? Francis, you say? Know him? Of
course I don't know him. Never seen the fellow before in my
Nevertheless, it had been foolhardy to set out in these
conditions, despite the early promise of the sun. Annoyed
with himself for giving in to Tillie's insistence against
his better judgement, Francis was aware of being driven to
vent his spleen unfairly. He moderated his tone.
"Tillie, I'm hungry and hot and frustrated."
A faint smile flickered on her lips. "And sadly out of
temper." She lifted the gloved hand in which her collection
of wildflowers was still clutched and rested it lightly
against his chest. "Could you truly have endured another
such night of creeping about in the dark?"
Francis felt his irritation melting away. Lady Edingale's
steadfast refusal to acknowledge their marriage had resulted
in furtive assignations in either one of their allotted
separate bedchambers. His fingers came up to grasp her hand
as he lifted a teasing eyebrow.
"To tell you the truth, I was rather enjoying the romance of
He was rewarded with the gurgle that never failed to affect him.
"You should have mentioned that at the outset," said Tillie.
"Such an argument might well have persuaded me to remain."
"What, and miss this adventure?"
"How well you know me!"
He had to laugh. "Wretch!"
Tillie leaned up, and Francis obligingly kissed her on the lips.
"Am I forgiven?"
He gave an elaborate sigh. "I suppose I must be magnanimous."
"Especially considering I am the newest of brides and
entitled to a deal more latitude than might normally be the
"Latitude? I am more like to end by locking you up and
forbidding you to leave the house under any circumstances."
"I should call on your friend George to throw a rope ladder
up to my window," returned his wife with scarcely a tremor
in her voice. But the mischief in her eyes drove away the
last of his irritation.
"Is that the best you can do?" he scoffed. "For shame,
Tillie. And here I thought I would provide you with puzzle
enough to tax your ingenuity to the utmost."
Before she could retaliate, a hail from behind drew
Francis's attention. Releasing his wife, he turned to see
his groom reentering the main road from the little lane into
which Ryde's steps had been directed by the local whom
Francis had earlier accosted.
"Ah, there you are at last."
As Ryde crossed the road towards them, Ottilia noted a look
of perturbation in the man's face.
"All is not well, I think," she murmured.
Her husband cast her a frowning look but made no comment,
instead turning his attention back to the groom. "Had you no
success? Don't say there is no blacksmith at this village
A faint smile twisted Ryde's lips as he came up. It struck
Ottilia as grim. A dour fellow at the best of times, the
groom was nevertheless, so Francis assured her, one of his
household's greatest assets. He had served his master from
Lord Francis Fanshawe's earliest years and, like his valet
Diplock, had followed him through his soldiering adventures.
Ottilia had learned already to trust the man's judgement.
"There's a blacksmith, all right, m'lord," he responded,
removing his hat and wiping his hand across his grizzled and
sweaty head. "Only he's dead."
Ottilia saw renewed vexation leap quickly into Francis's
eyes, and she made an immediate effort to deflect his
attention. "Recently, Ryde?"
"Last night, m'lady."
"Last night?" Francis echoed. "If that isn't the devil's own
"For Duggleby, m'lord, as I hear is the man's name."
From no other servant would her husband have accepted the
implied rebuke, Ottilia knew. She intervened swiftly,
knowing his temper to be exacerbated already.
"What happened to him, Ryde?"
"Seems the roof caved in on him, m'lady."
"Good God," uttered Francis, startled. "Then the poor fellow
was crushed to death?"
"Was it the storm, Ryde?"
A faint twitch attacked the groom's mouth, and his eye
gleamed. Noting these rare signs of amusement, Ottilia
waited with burgeoning interest.
"The storm, m'lady, or a witch's curse, if the villagers are
to be believed."
A spurt of laughter was surprised out of Francis, but
Ottilia was intrigued.
"How could that be?"
Ryde shrugged. "I couldn't make much sense of it, m'lady.
Seems this witch claims she saw the roof come down in a vision."
"Wise after the event, eh?"
"Before, m'lord. By all accounts, this Mrs. Dale gave
warning to this Duggleby a couple of days back."
"And it happened as she said? Sheer luck, no doubt."
Ottilia put up a finger. "Don't dismiss it so lightly,
Francis. Perhaps the woman has second sight."
The groom was nodding. "That's what they say, m'lady. It
ain't the first time as she's been right."
"And I daresay the villagers don't like it?"
"No, m'lady. They say she caused the roof to fall in."
"Yes," Ottilia mused, "people are apt to attack what they
fear or do not understand."
"That's why you spoke of a witch's curse, Ryde?"
"Yes, m'lord. Only it's worse than that. Seems the place was
set afire. And rumour has it the doctor weren't satisfied as
it was the cave-in as killed the blacksmith. They're saying
he had his head bashed in."
"But his head must have been damaged by the falling
masonry," objected Francis.
Ottilia's mind was buzzing. "Do you say someone administered
a blow to the man's head before the roof fell in on him?"
Ryde grimaced. "It's what the tapster in the tavern told me.
Only the constable can't go arresting the witch because
she's took sanctuary in the vicar's house."
A ripple of unholy delight ran through Ottilia. "It sounds
the most glorious muddle."
But her husband's attention had reverted to their own
difficulties. "What the devil are we to do now?"
"Nothing for it but to wait for Williams, m'lord."
Ottilia ignored her husband's fluent curses and once more
claimed the groom's attention. "Is there a decent hostelry
in this village, Ryde?"
"In Witherley, m'lady? But there ain't no point in going there."
"Is it a pretty place?" pursued Ottilia, wholly ignoring
"Tillie, what are you about?"
She heard the suspicious note in Francis's voice, but she
did not answer, merely putting out a hand to enjoin his silence.
The groom looked both puzzled and suspicious, and his answer
was brief. "It's well enough, m'lady."
"And does it have a decent hostelry?"
The repetition made Ryde frown and cast a glance at his
master. Ottilia turned to smile blindingly at her husband.
His gaze narrowed a little, but he did not fail her.
Ryde's patent disapproval increased, but he did as he was
bid. "I did see a likely place across the green from the
Cock and Bottle."
"Excellent," said Ottilia. "Francis, why should we not rest
there for a while? You may satisfy your hunger, and I
"Ryde, go and check on the horses," said Francis, cutting in
Ottilia gathered her forces while Francis waited until the
groom was out of earshot. The moment he turned on her, she
caught his hand.
"I know what you are going to say, Fan, but—"
"—it will be only for an hour or two, and I am
"An hour or two? I know you better than that, my love. And
pray don't give me any fiddle-faddle about thirst and hunger."
Ottilia released his hand. "Well, but you said you were
starving, and I could kill for a cup of coffee."
"And there you have uttered the operative word. Tillie, I
will not have you embroil yourself in this business."
Ottilia could not suppress a giggle. "Well, I will admit to
being intrigued, but I promise you I only mean to satisfy my
"Promise forsooth! Do you take me for a flat? If I allow you
to set foot in the place, as sure as check you will be
hobnobbing with all and sundry and hunting down this witch."
"Not necessarily," objected Ottilia without thinking.
"Merely because the villagers are silly enough to fall for a
lot of superstitious nonsense does not make the woman guilty."
Francis threw up his hands. "I knew it! You are going
nowhere near the place. Besides, how will you get there?"
"On foot, of course."
"You'll walk half a mile or more?"
"I am not made of china, Fan. I was bred in the country, you
"That is all very well, but we are due at Polbrook in a
matter of days."
"Who said anything about days?" said Ottilia mildly. "I was
only thinking of remaining there until Williams has found
somewhere more suitable."
"Yes, and when Williams arrives to fetch us, I suppose you
will meekly get into the carriage and allow yourself to be
driven away just when you have uncovered half a dozen clues
to set you on the trail of the murderer? No, Tillie. I know
you too well."
Ottilia smiled at him. "But are you not the teeniest bit
Her husband's eyes narrowed, the beloved features growing
ever more suspicious. "Don't waste your cajolery, Tillie,
for I am adamant."
Ottilia blinked rapidly and fetched an elaborate sigh. "I
did promise obedience."
Francis was almost betrayed into a laugh, but he managed to
suppress it. "You did. And if I remember rightly, you
declared after the business with my family last year that
one murder was quite enough for you."
Mischief flitted across her face, and he could feel his
"Astonishing, is it not, how one can be mistaken? But
although it was all perfectly horrid in the end, you must
recall that at the outset I was highly entertained."
Which was perfectly true, Francis was bound to admit. At the
time, his world turned upside down by the discovery of his
sister-in-law's death and his brother's subsequent
disappearance, he had been too upset to think beyond the
immediate necessity to handle the aftermath. That very day
he had met his future wife, and been grateful thereafter for
her calm good sense as she set about uncovering the culprit,
and indeed for the playful manner that had done much to
lighten those dark days. His heart softened despite himself.
Abruptly, he turned to call to his groom. "Ryde, exactly how
far is this Witherley?"
A hand stole into his and squeezed. "An hour or two, no more."
Francis looked down at his wife. He knew that smile. He
groaned inwardly. Let Tillie but get her teeth into this and
nothing would serve to bring her away until it was all over.
All he could hope was that it would prove but a storm in a