June 22, 1814
“What is happening? Dear Lord, we are all going to die!”
The coach swerved ominously like a snake’s tail behind the frightened team of horses. With terrifying violence, Rose was tossed out of her seat and thrown against the side door.
“We are not going to die!” she shouted to the dowager Duchess of Pembroke. It seemed a rather silly assertion, however, spoken from the floor of the coach when she was blind as a bat because her bonnet had fallen forward over her face.
She tugged it back and groped at the seat cushions to remove herself from the floor, when suddenly the coach veered sharply again in the opposite direction. She shot across the interior like a cannonball and slammed into the window.
“Oh, my word!” the duchess cried. “Are you hurt?”
The coach was still careening left and right. Rose scrambled to her knees and reached for something—anything—to hold on to for she had no wish to go flying through the air a third time.
“I am well enough,” she replied, though she’d landed hard on her wrist and it was throbbing painfully. “And you, Your Grace? Are you hurt?”
A cacophony of shouts and hollers began outside the coach as the team was brought under control and the coach at last drew to a halt. Everything went suddenly still and blessedly quiet.
“What happened?” the dowager asked in a daze.
Rose struggled to her feet and tasted blood on her lower lip. It was already beginning to swell.
“I am not certain,” she replied, “but we at least seem to be out of harm’s way.”
She was just climbing onto the seat when the coach door flew open. “Everything all right in here?” the driver asked with wide eyes. The dowager’s footman appeared in the open doorway beside him.
“Yes, I believe so,” Rose replied, though she was aching all over and the dowager was white as a sheet.
“My apologies,” he said. “We hit a slippery patch and one of the horses kicked another before they all went stark raving mad. We’re lucky we didn’t flip over and roll down the hillside.”
“Lucky indeed,” the dowager replied with notable sarcasm.
Rose leaned her head back against the seat and shut her eyes. Thank God we are all safe.
Quickly recovering her senses, she sat forward. “What about you, Samson? And Charles? Unscathed, I hope?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Samson replied. “Just a little shook up, is all. It was quite a ride. I thought we were done for.”
Perhaps it was the fragile state of her nerves, or a sudden burst of euphoria at having cheated death, but Rose found herself laughing.
“I believe we are in agreement there, Mr. Samson. If only you could have seen me! I’ve never been airborne before today, and I am quite certain I do not wish to repeat the experience.”
Samson’s shoulders relaxed and he bent forward with relief. “Indeed, madam. I saw my life pass before my eyes. It made me realize I didn’t eat nearly enough cakes and pies.”
She laughed uproariously, despite the fact that her lip was throbbing and she was having some trouble moving her wrist without considerable pain.
The dowager shook her head at them. “You young people are half mad! We all nearly met our maker just now, and you are laughing!” Then she, too, joined them with a smile. “But I daresay there are times one must appreciate being spared from near-fatal disaster. We are still breathing, and that is what matters.”
A short while later, they were all standing outside the coach staring at the rear wheel that was up to its axle in a puddle of sticky muck, while the wind gusted across the rolling green hills and whipped at the ladies’ skirts.
Samson had tried with considerable effort to motivate the horses to pull, but the coach simply would not budge.
“Whatever shall we do?” the dowager asked. “It will soon be dark. We cannot remain here all night.”
“Have no fear, Your Grace,” Samson replied. “We will unhitch one of the horses and send Charles to fetch help. He’ll be back before we know it.”
The men set to work to prepare a horse to ride, while the ladies returned to the coach. An hour later, it was pitch-dark outside, and they were still waiting.
“How much longer do you think it will be?” the dowager asked as a few raindrops went plop on the roof.
Seconds later, a thunderous downpour began.
Rose looked up. “Oh dear. Poor Samson. He’ll drown out there. I must invite him to wait inside with us.”
She opened the door and poked her head out into the driving rain. “Mr. Samson! Please come inside! I insist!”
“Thank you kindly, madam, but I am fine here at my post. Must keep an eye out for help when it arrives.”
“No, you most certainly are not fine out there, and you have done your duty a dozen times over. Come down here at once, or I will drag you out of that seat myself.”
The wind shook the coach while raindrops, hard as pellets, pummelled the rooftop. At last, Mr. Samson surrendered and joined them inside. He was soaking wet and shivering as he took a seat across from Rose and the duchess.
“How much longer do you suspect it will be before help arrives?” the dowager asked. “I am beginning to believe we may be stranded here all night. What a shame. Don’t you have tickets for the play at Covent Garden tomorrow evening?”
“Wait a moment…” Rose cupped a hand to her ear. “Listen. Do you hear that? A vehicle is approaching.”
Samson peered out the dark window. “It is too soon for Charles to return. It must be someone else.”
“Oh dear Lord, save us,” the duchess said. “What misfortune will befall us next?”
“What do you mean?” Rose asked.
The duchess sighed heavily. “What sort of bad character travels anywhere on a night like this? A highwayman, no doubt. I suspect we are about to be robbed.”
Rose scoffed. “I am sure that is not the case.”
Though her skin was prickling. She had witnessed far too much violence in her life not to feel some unease in a situation such as this, for she was a princess from a country that was still raw from the wounds of a revolution that deposed the former king and put her own father—a military general—on the throne in his place.
Though it happened twenty years ago when she was barely old enough to toddle, she would never forget the night an assassin sneaked into her father’s bedchamber while she was sitting on his lap in front of the fire. The man had brandished a knife that gleamed dangerously in the firelight. Absolutely terrorized, Rose had watched her father strangle the villain to his death.
She felt that same paralyzing fear now and tried to tell herself it was not rational. This was not Petersbourg where her father’s enemies still gathered secretly to plot an overthrow of the New Regime. She and her brothers were in England on a diplomatic visit.
There were no enemy Royalists here. She was quite safe, except for the wind and the rain, of course, but surely the passengers in the approaching vehicle would offer assistance and everything would be fine. In an hour or two, she and the duchess would be enjoying a hot meal while sipping tea in a cozy inn.
As the vehicle rumbled to a halt behind them and the horses shook noisily in the harness, Rose clasped her hands together on her lap to hide the fact that they were trembling.
Samson opened the door and got out. A strong gust of wind blew into the coach and the door slammed shut behind him.
Voices shouted over the roar of the storm. Good Lord, what was happening? Was Samson all right?
Rose slid across the seat to look out the window and nearly swallowed her tongue when the door flew open again and she found herself staring up at a tall man in a top hat and black overcoat, holding himself steady against the wind. It was too dark to make out his face, and the terror she experienced in that moment was more piercing than the panic she’d felt when the coach nearly flipped over and toppled down the hillside.
“Your Royal Highness!” the man shouted, and she was taken aback by the familiarity in his tone. “May I join you inside?”
Before waiting for an answer, the stranger swung his large frame into the vehicle, removed his hat, and sat down on the facing seat.
As the golden lamplight reached his face, Rose sucked in a breath of surprise.
“Lord Cavanaugh? Good heavens, what are you doing here?”
“I am here to rescue you, of course,” he replied with a magnificent smile that melted all her fears about highwaymen, but reminded her that she and Lord Cavanaugh had once flirted shamelessly in Petersbourg. Although as soon as her heart had become involved, he had rejected her. Quite cruelly in fact.
Her pride was still bruised by those events, but she would die a thousand deaths before she’d let him see it.
“My word,” she replied, sounding completely cool and collected, not the least bit unruffled. “How is this possible? Did you somehow learn we were stranded? I was not even aware you were in England.”
Removing his black leather gloves, he shook his head elegantly, and as usual her heart stumbled backward into that old infatuation that simply would not die, no matter how many times she tried to beat it into submission.
But how could she, when Leopold Hunt was the most darkly sensual and seductive man in the world? She’d been enamored of him since she was a young girl.
Damn him, and damn her stubborn attraction to him. She hated that he made her feel flustered. She thought she was over that by now. It had been two years, for pity’s sake, and she had done very well since then, behaving with complete indifference toward him as if none of it mattered at all.
“If I had known,” he said, “I assure you I would have come much sooner, so I must confess the truth. This is an utterly odd coincidence that causes me to wonder if there are higher forces at play. Of course I knew you and your brothers were visiting London, but what in the world are you doing here, Rose, on this remote country road?” His stunning blue eyes turned to the duchess, as if he realized only then that they were not completely alone. “My apologies for the intrusion, madam,” he said with a frown. “We have not yet been introduced.”
“I do beg your pardon,” Rose quickly interjected.
What was wrong with her? Oh, but she knew the answer to that question. As soon as she recognized the impossibly gorgeous and charming Lord Cavanaugh, the rest of the world had simply disappeared. She had become distracted and forgotten about the duchess entirely.
In fact, she had forgotten about everything. The fierce gales. The stinging rain.
Most important, her recent engagement, which had not yet been announced.
“Your Grace,” she said, “may I present Leopold Hunt, the Marquess of Cavanaugh and a great hero in the war against Napoleon. Lord Cavanaugh is an old friend of my brother’s. They went to school together in Petersbourg.” She gestured with a hand. “Lord Cavanaugh … the dowager Duchess of Pembroke.”
“I am delighted, Your Grace,” he replied. “What brings you both out on a night like this?”
How perfectly agreeably he behaved, as if the awkward, humiliating end to their affair had never occurred.
The coach shuddered in the wind, and another blast of rain struck the windowpanes.
Rose gave the duchess a sidelong glance. “We attended a charitable event in Bath but were late leaving town. We didn’t expect to encounter such treacherous roads.”
“Welcome to springtime in England,” the duchess said with a chuckle.
Lord Cavanaugh raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. Well, then. I have already spoken to your driver, and I insist that you both join me in my coach. I, too, am on my way to London, but I’ve made arrangements to stay at the Crimson Flower Inn for the night. I can deliver you both there safely, and your good man Samson is transferring your bags to my vehicle as we speak. He promises to meet you in the morning to continue on your way, providing there is no damage to your vehicle, of course, in which case you shall ride the rest of the way with me.”
Rose’s pride reared up, and she wished she could reject Lord Cavanaugh’s assistance, but the fact remained—they were stranded and in desperate need of help.
“We most gratefully accept,” the duchess replied. “How fortunate for us that you came along when you did, Lord Cavanaugh. You are the hero of the day!”
He turned his arresting blue eyes to Rose. “Shall we?”
She managed a polite smile.
The next thing she knew, he was handing her up into his own well-appointed vehicle with warm bricks on the floor, lush velvet seats, and luxurious cushions with gold tassels thrown freely about. The light from a small carriage lamp filled the space with a warm glow, and it smelled cozy and inviting—like apples and cinnamon.
Cavanaugh climbed in and sat down across from her. Though he wore a heavy greatcoat, she could still make out the muscular contours of his body beneath it. Or perhaps she simply remembered all too well those particular details of his appearance—along with the rich chestnut color of his hair and the unruly manner in which it fell forward around his temples.
It was difficult not to stare at those long black lashes, which framed an intense pair of blue eyes—a rare and striking feature on a man. And that mouth … so full of confident sexuality.
He was a devastatingly handsome man by all accounts and she wondered if he had any notion of the power he possessed. Did he know that he could make a woman swoon and ruin her for life with a mere glance in her direction?
As Rose sat back in the seat and settled in, she wondered if his chance arrival and heroic chivalry was an event too good to be true, or if it was the worst possible thing that could ever happen—for she certainly did not wish to be tempted away from her fiancé. Not only was Archduke Joseph the future emperor of Austria, he was, by all accounts, utterly besotted with her and would never in a thousand years break her heart.
If only she could be more indifferent toward Lord Cavanaugh and his extraordinary charisma.
She feared this was going to be a bumpy ride.
Copyright © 2012 by Julianne MacLean