Hero glanced out of the window of the coach, but saw no sign
of Oakfield Manor in the gathering gloom. The bad roads had
caused delays; she had been confined in the conveyance for
too long. Across from Hero, her companion stared ahead
stoically, undisturbed by the stuffy, small space of the
old-fashioned vehicle and the ruts that bounced Hero about.
As usual, she couldn't help wondering whether Mrs Renshaw
was with her strictly as a chaperone or as a spy, to make
sure she concluded Raven's business satisfactorily.
Resentment flared before Hero tamped it down out of habit.
She knew what was expected of her. No doubt Christopher
Marchant would be old and shriveled and balding and smelly.
And randy. And she would have to lean close, displaying her
low-cut bodice. With a little cajoling, she usually escaped
with the prize and her person intact, if not her
self-respect. But she had learned long ago that such
luxuries as pride were for the wealthy and secure, not for
someone like her.
Any doubts that the world was a grim place could be easily
vanquished by a glance at the windswept moors, the barren
trees and darkening clouds outside. If Hero did not know
better, she might think Raven had managed the weather, as
well as everything else, and the idea unnerved her.
Another rut threw her against the worn and cracking leather
interior, and she realized they had turned onto a sparsely
graveled drive in little better condition than the road. She
had only an instant to wonder whether they were at last
approaching their destination when she was thrown again,
harder, and grabbed uselessly for a hold. But it was the
arrival of Renshaw in her lap that alerted Hero to the fact
that something was amiss.
The imperturbable female uttered a surprised grunt, while
her weight stole Hero's breath. When she was able to ease
out from under her burden, Hero realized the coach had
halted, tilting to one side. She cursed Raven and his
ancient vehicle with its ancient fittings, for they likely
had lost a wheel here in the middle of nowhere.
Scrambling to the door, Hero managed to jump out onto a
thicket of grass, but there was little comfort to be found
outside beyond escape from the stifling interior. Pulling up
the hood of her cloak against the gusting winds, Hero took
stock of their surroundings, and her heart sank. They were
off the main road, black clouds chased across the sky, and a
rumble of thunder in the distance presaged the coming storm.
Hero shook her head against the sense of doom that
threatened and made her way gingerly to the rear of the
vehicle where the coachman and footman were muttering
amongst themselves. Even Hero could see the wheel was
broken, and since both men were eyeing it stupidly, she
could only fear the worst.
"If you can't fix it, one of you will have to go for
help," Hero said, raising her voice against the wind.
They turned to her, their reluctance obvious. The village
they had passed through was a long way back. "'Tweren't
much traffic on that roadway, miss," the coachman said,
scratching his head.
"There must be more there than here," Hero said with
a glance at the overgrown drive. Were they even on the right
path? Should she send one of the men ahead? If one went
ahead and one behind, Hero would double the chances of their
rescue. But that would leave her alone with Renshaw, two
women in a broken vehicle on unfamiliar lands, not far from
the infamous moors, with foul weather looming.
The thought gave even Hero pause.
Yet what could possibly threaten them in this barren
landscape? Anyone with sense, including the residents, would
be safely inside, prepared to ride out the tempest. Hero had
a pistol in her reticule, and Renshaw had not been chosen
for her feminine accomplishments. Wide of girth and taller
than many men, she was armed with a cane she carried solely
Still, wariness was Hero's watchword, and so, in the end,
she sent the footman forward, leaving the grizzled coachman
to keep watch, while she climbed back inside the coach to
wait as best she could. But the wind set up an awful
moaning, and Hero wondered whether the vehicle would
collapse entirely, falling upon its side and crushing its
Although Renshaw made no move to follow, Hero exited once
more, and as she leaped down to view the scene around her,
she considered the length of Raven's reach. Surely it did
not stretch this far from his fortress, yet the situation
smacked of his design. Was it a test? As she had so often in
the past, Hero wondered if she would ever escape from the
Gothic nightmare that she seemed so often to inhabit.
It was then that Hero heard something above the distant
thunder and bluster. A glance toward the coach showed it
swaying slightly, the coachman seeming to doze upon his
crooked perch, but the horses had pricked up their ears.
Whirling, Hero looked down the drive that disappeared into
the growing gloom, but she could see nothing.
Then it seemed as though the sound was coming from ahead,
and Hero turned around. Surely, the wind was playing tricks
upon her, for now all was quiet behind, while she could hear
a horse approaching from the other direction. Walking past
the coach and the horses that tramped uneasily, she peered
into the dimness. For someone weaned on tales of haunts and
odd happenings, Hero felt an uncharacteristic trepidation.
And then she saw him.
Drawing in a sharp breath, Hero wondered whether her dormant
imagination had conjured the sight, for he seemed to come
straight from one of Raven's Gothic novels. A dark figure
atop a black horse, cape billowing behind him, he rode as if
born of the storm itself, fast and hard and directly toward her.
Hero was so transfixed that she did not even move and might
have been trampled had the horse not stopped neatly. The
figure dropped just as neatly to the ground, and only then
did she feel he might be real, not a product of some
unwitting fantasy, for he stepped toward her with a murmur
For once, Hero could not answer, having been struck dumb by
his appearance. Tall and wide shouldered, his dark hair
whipping about a face so handsome that Hero had never seen
the like, he seemed the very embodiment of every young
girl's dream of rescue.
But Hero was no longer a girl, and she knew that no one
could help her, unless it was only to give her shelter from
the approaching storm. Indeed, he was shouting something to
that effect, and before Hero realized what he was about, he
had taken her arm. Mounting easily, he reached down to lift
her up in front of him.
Hero could only gasp in startlement as she felt her
carefully constructed world spinning out of control. Before
she could speak, he tucked her side against his hard chest,
drew one strong arm around her and kicked the horse into
Hero opened her mouth to protest this stranger's complete
usurpation of her authority. Such nearness made her
uncomfortable, and the warmth of his touch had an unwelcome
effect upon her senses. But then he flashed Hero a grin, and
she was struck speechless once more.
As Hero gaped, witless, at the face only a few inches from
her own, she realized she had never been this close to
anyone in her life. It was unnerving, and yet she had to
resist an urge to touch the lock of dark hair that blew
across his forehead, matching eyes the color of chocolate.
They held her own for a moment, then glanced upward, and
Hero followed his gaze to where thick drops began hailing
down upon them. Despite his efforts to hurry her to shelter,
the storm had come, yet it was nothing compared to Hero's
personal tumult as he pulled her close.
Heart pounding, dizzy and disoriented, Hero had the strange
sensation that she could deny this man nothing. And that
wild thought was more frightening to her than any Gothic horror.
Once deposited into the hands of Mrs Osgood, a cheery,
apple-cheeked housekeeper, Hero felt more like herself.
Obviously, the situation outside had worked upon her nerves
until she was overwrought, imagining her rescuer to be some
kind of superior being with an unexplainable effect upon
her. Although Hero was not the overwrought kind, the only
other possibility was too terrible to consider.
It was with some relief that she realized, through Mrs
Osgood's chatter, that she had reached her destination and
that she had only to meet with Mr Marchant in order to
conclude her business. Who her rescuer might be, Hero
refused to wonder or care. Yet, at the claim, her body
shivered as if in denial.
She tried not to remember the feel of his hard form, wet
garments slick against her own, as he helped her from the
horse and into the house. A small Gothic, complete with
battlements, its dark facade so evoked Raven that Hero again
wondered what he had wrought, only to dismiss her suspicions.
Augutus Raven might have access to an astonishing variety of
resources, but he could not control the elements. And Hero
could hardly be surprised by the style of the building,
considering Raven's penchant for such facades. Many of his
fellow antiquaries shared his delight in the old and cold
and moldy, probably because they were old and cold and moldy.
Not that Oakfield was moldy, but it looked sadly in need of
improvement. Still, the fire was warm, and Hero was glad to
be given her own room, with Renshaw nearby. As she bathed,
dressed in dry clothes and brushed her hair by the fire, the
incredible encounter with the handsome stranger gradually
faded away. And by the time Hero went to join Renshaw
downstairs, she was firmly focused on the task ahead.
That focus was only sharpened by her surroundings, for the
housekeeper showed her into a rather threadbare library.
Ignoring the gloom of the poorly lit room, Hero eyed the
mostly empty shelves and the packing crates that were
scattered about. Was Mr Marchant selling all of his
If so, Raven might be interested in a bulk purchase. You
never knew what nuggets were hidden away, undiscovered and
undervalued by their owner. Hero moved toward one open box
and glanced inside. Some Latin and Greek volumes were piled
in no particular order, and she was leaning down to read the
titles when she heard footsteps.
Plastering a smile on her face, Hero turned in greeting,
only to stare in astonishment at the man who stood in the
doorway. Without his cloak and gloves he looked even more
beautiful than she remembered, and Hero blinked in dismay.
Surely this was not her host?
"W-where is Mr Marchant?" she asked, cursing her
"I'm Christopher Marchant, at your service," he
said, bowing slightly. Then he flashed her that winning
grin, and Hero felt unsteady upon her feet.
She knew better than to dismiss all antiquaries as the
grasping old fools they were often portrayed. Still, she
rarely dealt with elegant, free-spending sorts like the Duke
of Devonshire. And she certainly had never met any like this
Too late, Hero realized she was gaping, and she hurried to
recover herself. Panic threatened—how was she to
proceed when her heart was hammering and her wits scattered?
But she could do nothing else.
"Thank you," she said, with a nod of her head.
"I am Miss Hero Ingram, and this is my companion, Mrs
Renshaw. I have brought a letter from my uncle, Mr Augustus
Raven. I believe he corresponded with your father in the
Hero stepped forward to present the missive, while giving
the man an opportunity to ogle her bodice. But unlike her
usual hosts, Christopher Marchant was not ancient or
shriveled or randy. And Hero doubted that anyone who looked
like he did would be impressed with her small bosom, no
matter how low cut her gown.
"I beg your pardon for barging in upon you like
this," Hero said, reciting her usual patter. The lonely
old men she most often dealt with were so flattered by her
attention that they did not object to her doing business on
behalf of her uncle, if they would even call it that. Most
would label the transaction an arrangement between friends
or acquaintances, among fellow collectors.
However, Mr Marchant was… different, and Hero
wondered whether he would look askance at her sudden
appearance at his remote residence. "I was in the area
and thought to make a stop for my own convenience. You will
forgive me?" she asked, her standard simpering sticking
in her throat.
"Of course, please sit down," he said, with an easy
gesture. His open and engaging manner further confused her,
for the men she was accustomed to dealing with were often as
secretive as Raven, hiding their thoughts behind pinched faces.
"I'm afraid the house is still at sixes and sevens,"
Mr Marchant muttered, his smile faltering. For a moment Hero
thought he would say more, but he simply glanced around the
room as though just realizing its disarray.
He did not appear to notice that Renshaw was seated in the
most shadowed corner, which was just as well, for Hero could
not depend upon her usual tactics. Thinking frantically, she
decided to take a direct approach. "Are you selling some
of your collection?"
Mr. Marchant looked at her rather blankly before glancing
about. "Oh, you mean the books? No, we recently moved
in, my sister and I, and have not yet arranged everything."
"Well, if you should wish to save yourself some of the
trouble, I know someone who might well take these out of
your way," Hero said, gesturing toward the crates.
Mr Marchant nodded, though he showed no interest, which was
puzzling. Here, inside Oakfield, he seemed distracted, and
Hero noticed shadows under his eyes. Was he ill? He
certainly looked robust and not much older than she, but
perhaps a long night of carousing had left him the worse for
wear. Isn't that what handsome young men did, gamble, drink
and seduce women? Hero could only guess, for her dealings
with such were few and far between.
"If that's why you've come, I'm afraid I can't offer you
any hope on that score," Mr Marchant said. "They
were my father's, you see." Sadness flashed briefly
across his features, and Hero cursed Raven's greed. How many
times had he swooped down upon a grieving relative to break
up and sell the precious volumes the deceased had spent a
lifetime lovingly acquiring?
"I'm sorry," Hero said, and she meant it. But when
his dark gaze met her own, she felt as though he were
looking right into her, and she glanced away, unwilling to
let anyone, especially this man, see her. Suddenly, she
wondered whether he could tell how he affected her, and she
straightened, determined to reveal nothing of herself.